Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thoughts About the PBS Documentary “Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation”

Last night, PBS aired “Greenwich Village: the Music that Defined A Generation,” a 2012 documentary about the synergy of the cultural milieu of mid-century Greenwich Village and the ascension of the singer-songwriter aesthetic that flourished there during that period. As one who grew up on Bleecker & Thompson Streets during those years, I am still pissed off at its assumptions and omissions. Not that it isn’t well done, nice footage, good interviews — very professional. But it has to be said that it’s a one-sided, smug, whitewashed, monochromatic interpretation of the subject. I missed the first 15 minutes and didn’t watch the last 15, so perhaps I missed something, but the hour that I viewed made no mention of jazz, and barely any of the blues except as practiced by white acolytes. Where’s Nina Simone, who was on the singer-songwriter track well before any of the people mentioned? Where’s Miriam Makeba? Indeed, except for light doses of Buffy St. Marie, Odetta and Richie Havens — and smidgens of Len Chandler, and Bill Cosby — I saw scant mention of any African-American musicians,whose presence seems proportionate to the ways in which they influenced the white folkies and rockers whose story the documentary chronicles.

If the subtitle had read “The Folk Music That Influenced A Generation” or “The Singer-Songwriters Who Influenced A Generation,” you might excuse the absence from the narrative, however ill-advised, of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Ahmad Jamal, and Bill Evans. All were leading bands in the Village during the documentary’s timeframe, making music that it’s no stretch to describe as generation-defining and world-changing. For sure, none of their music sounds dated, or targeted at post-adolescents. That’s not the case for 80%-90% of the sounds that “The Music That Defined A Generation” uses to represent its thesis. That the title is what it is speaks volumes about the director’s self-referential hubris — and that of the lovefesting musician interviewees bloviating on the glory of their times.

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For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007

Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years. In 2012, Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro; two years ago, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for the 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.

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Billy Hart Blindfold Test:

1.  Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For  me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the  piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.

2.  Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)

Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.

3.   Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)

[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.

4.  Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)

The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe?  Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!

5.   Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)

Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.

6.   Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play.  I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski.  I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums.  I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.

7.  Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)

My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey.  4½ stars.    [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.

8.  Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)

Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes.  But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.

9.  Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.

10.  Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)

Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.

11.   Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)

This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant?  The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course.

12.  Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)

All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.

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Filed under Billy Hart, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazz Times

R.I.P. Chico Hamilton (September 20, 1921-November 25, 2013). Two WKCR Interviews and a DownBeat Blindfold Test

Word comes through Facebook that drummer-composer Chico Hamilton, a master drummer and bandleader, and fresh thinker through more than 75 years as a professional musician, passed away last night at the age of 92. His immense c.v. and accomplishments will be abundantly available for your perusal on the web. During the ’90s I had the privilege of doing two comprehensive shows with Chico, one a Musician’s Show in 1994, the other a five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profiles” show in 1996. Later, I had an opportunity to conduct a Blindfold Test with Chico at his East Side Manhattan apartment. I’ve appended the full transcripts below.

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Chico Hamilton Musician Show, WKCR, July 20, 1994:

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton, “Around The Corner” (1992)]

TP:    We’ll be creating sort of an oral autobiography.  Chico is surrounded by records, of which we won’t get to a fifth.  It covers the Los Angeles scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a variety of people.  The first selection cued up is “Tickletoe,” by the Count Basie, featuring the man who drummed like the wind, Papa Jo Jones, who seems to have been the person who influenced your approach more than anyone else.

CH:    That’s absolutely correct, Ted.  As a matter of fact, Jo… Actually, the first drummer I ever saw was Sonny Greer, and I was very impressed with him.  I was a youngster, about 8 or 9 years old.  But when I started playing, which was I guess 9 or 10 or something like that, and when I was in junior high school, all of a sudden Count Basie’s orchestra came on the scene, at least on the West Coast.  We began to get his records.  Then when I heard Jo Jones… Because Jo completely turned the rhythm aspect of drumming completely around, you know, with the sock cymbal.  As a matter of fact, that last composition that you opened up with, “Around the Corner,” was sort of dedicated to Jo Jones and the Count Basie era because of the sock cymbal, you know.

TP:    Let me turn the conversation to a few things you touched on in those few sentences.  You came up in the Los Angeles area, and when you were ten years old it would have been around…

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you.  It was two weeks before baseball.  How does that grab you?

TP:    Do you care to elaborate on that one?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Well, I started playing in the late Thirties and early Forties, more or less the early Forties.  I guess when I was around 13-14 years old, we had a band, a big 15-piece band.  It was under the leadership of a guy by the name of Al Adams, and the only reason why he was the leader is because he was the oldest.  I think he was about 19 at the time.

TP:    What was the age range?

CH:    The age range was from 14 to about 19.

TP:    From all over Los Angeles or from the neighborhood?

CH:    From the neighborhood and from all over.  We had guys like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Charlie Mingus, myself, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette…

TP:    Now, for those who aren’t familiar with the West Coast, tell us about the neighborhood, as specifically or as generally as you want to, and the circumstances by which you met, some of the factors in your musical education and so forth.

CH:    Well, I don’t know how it was throughout the rest of the country, but in L.A., in the school system, you were required to take music, either Music Appreciation or an instrument or something.  It was in the curriculum.  You had to be involved with music.  Regardless of whether it was junior high school or high school, you had to become involved in music.  And at that time, L.A. wasn’t a very large place.  As a matter of fact, everybody just about knew everybody.  Young guys, young musicians will always be able to get together or find one another, just as they do today.  That’s how it really came about.  Also, we came out of Jefferson High School, which most of us attended.  Buddy and Mingus, of course, were from the Watts area.  But the school actually was the common denominator.

TP:    There was a very prominent teacher at Jefferson High School, I recollect.

CH:    Yes, his name was Samuel Browne, the music teacher there, who virtually, in a sense, encouraged all of us to become good musicians.  At that time also, man, it was an unbelievable amount of… All the bands would come to L.A.  As a matter of fact, they would let the kids out of school, man, when a band would come into town, which they virtually would come in on the train… They would let us go down to the train station to see Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, all the bands.

TP:    Where did they play?

CH:    Well, there were several places, big cabaret dance halls, virtually.  I guess they were called nightclubs, but they were big places.  The Casa Mañana(?), the Palladium, the average dance hall name, but…

TP:    So you’d have a band, a film, a couple of dancing acts and comedians and so forth…

CH:    Well, at that time, most of the bands carried their own show.  For instance, when I joined Count Basie’s band, Jimmy Rushing was singing, I forget the lady singer now…

TP:    Helen Humes?

CH:    Helen Humes.  And the dance team that they had was the Berry Brothers, Coles & Atkins, and Pot, Pan and Skillet.  All of these were fantastic dance acts.  And that would consist of the show, sort of a semi-vaudeville type of show, but the band would be the feature — and they played all over the country.  At the Avedon, which was a ballroom, this is where the bands that came in would play, and we all had an opportunity to hear Lunceford and Basie and Duke.

I consider myself very fortunate, Ted, because I came up during the right time.  Because to be able to hear the originals, the people who invented this particular style of music, this way of playing… You know, I was there.

TP:    I think one thing that’s misunderstood because of the nature of the recording process in the 1920’s and Thirties and early Forties is what the drums sounded like in the big bands and the actual presence of the drums.  If you hear them on records, they sound kind of tinny or in the background, but I’ll bet that’s not what it sounded like when you heard Sonny Greer with Ellington, or Jo Jones or Jimmy Crawford…

CH:    All of these guys, man…the drummer… You know that old phrase about “give the drummer some.”  All of these guys, all of these drummers, all of these great, brilliant musicians, the drummers were determining the styles of the band.  It wasn’t so much what the bandleaders were doing.  Jimmie Lunceford used to conduct with the baton.  Basie, sure, played piano; Duke played piano.  But the actual sound of the rhythm, the feeling, the whole mood that was created by the bands was created by these drummers.

Now, Sonny Greer played a particular style of drumming which was like what we might refer to…your listeners might not understand about playing on the beat, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four.  He played DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN, DJA-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, CHOO-CHI-TU, that kind of a thing.  Now, the Ellington band swung in that groove.  Whereas with the Basie band, Jo Jones did DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-CHANG, DIT-DA, DIT-DA, and he swung that band with a completely different feeling than what Ellington had.

Strangely and oddly enough, even bands of today, here, what is this, 19…what year is this…?

TP:    1994.

CH:    Here in 1994, a large ensemble still plays with either one of those two grooves, as far as the Jazz aspect is concerned.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?  When you were 15 or 16?

CH:    Well…

TP:    In the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz it says you started out playing clarinet.

CH:    I did.  I started out playing clarinet.  And the reason I started out playing clarinet is because my best friend, Jack Kelso, played clarinet.  So having my best friend play clarinet, I figured, “hey, I’d better…I want to play clarinet.”  But I soon gave it up because it became a little bit difficult, you know… Also my older brother was playing drums.  This was in grade school, so we had to be no more than 8 or 9 years old.  When he… They graduated from grade school in those days, right!  So when he graduated, I figured, well, since he was my brother and plays the drums, I’m going to play the drums.  And I just started.  I had no idea what a drummer did really, but I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do it,” and I just did it.

TP:    You did it on his pair of drums?

CH:    Well, it was the school drums.  The school had the drums.  As a matter of fact, we rented the clarinet for two dollars a week (can you believe that?) from the school.

TP:    That was a lot of money then.

CH:    Oh, tell me about it, man.  Tell me about it.  That’s virtually, in a sense, how I got started.  The more I got into playing and the more I got into the instrument, the more difficult it became, and the more difficult it became, all of a sudden, I realized, “hey, this is it; this is what I’m going to try to do.”  I started reaching out, and everyone helped me.  Everyone.  Everyone I played with.

TP:    How would they do that?  Talk about how musicians would help a young musician coming up, what the scene was like for a young musician in Los Angeles in the Thirties and early Forties.

CH:    Well, in those days, there was a camaraderie, a relationship with musicians.  You know, strangely and oddly enough, as young as I was, people like Jo Jones and Lester Young, people like that, the Charlie Parkers, they weren’t that much older than we were…

TP:    You’re a year younger than Charlie Parker.

CH:    Well, I probably was older than Charlie.  I just mentioned him… But the fact is that Bird influenced me tremendously, when I came out of the service, in California.  He and Howard McGhee virtually introduced me to what the Bebop scene was all about.

But back in the early days we were very much influenced by anyone that we heard, especially the ones with the names that came to the West Coast.  And once the guys came out to the West Coast, it was… Everybody was friendly, everybody was warm.  And we jammed a lot, man.  We jammed all day and all night long!  It was unbelievable, the amount of time we put in the jam sessions.  That’s how we learned to play.  If it wasn’t happening, somebody would pull your coat and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you try doing this” or “why don’t you try to do that” or “Why do you want to do this?” — that kind of a thing.

TP:    This is the Musician’s Show, and you’ve been listening to Chico Hamilton tell you about coming up there in the Thirties and early Forties as a young drummer.  First on cue is “Tickletoe,” the Basie band with Papa Jo Jones.  It also said in your biography that you studied with Papa Jo while you were in the Service in the first half of the 1940’s.  Tell us about that, and then let’s get to some music.

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you how dumb the Army was. [LAUGHS]  I was already drafted, I was already stationed at Fort McCullough in Alabama, right.  I wasn’t in the band, but I was attached to the band, which means that… They had four other drummers in the band, but none of them could play.  They virtually really… I mean this.  They couldn’t play.  So whenever a show came through, they would send for me, and make… They put me in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Now, I  came into the Service carrying my drum under my arm.  This is the truth, man!  And you know, when they put me in the drum-and-bugle corps, do you know what they did?  They made me play bugle! [LAUGHS]

Anyway, to make a long story short, when Jo Jones… This is why I’m saying how dumb it was.  When Jo Jones and Prez, Lester Young, when they came through there… They were drafted, and they came through the same camp, man.  They would not let them in the band!  Man, it just broke my heart.  They made them… At one time they wouldn’t even allow them to even associate, and come to the band room and things like that.  Well, anyway…

TP:    Well, Lester Young’s bad times in the Army are very well-documented.

CH:    Well, they gave Prez a terrible time, man.  First of all, he was a beautiful human being, man.  He was a tremendously warm, sensitive human being, and so was Jo.  What their contribution to what we call Jazz today, or in the Swing or whatever era…it will never be duplicated.  Because try as you might, there’s no one that could get that sound and get that feeling Jo had or could get playing, and the same thing applied to Prez.  But in the Service, I had a chance to get with Jo quite a bit when he would come off doing the daily Army thing.  We’d get together at night, and we’d jam, we’d play, we’d practice.  We would talk drums constantly, and talk music.  It was priceless.

[Basie, “Tickletoe” (1940); Ellington, “Ring Dem Bells” (1931); Basie “Topsy: (1938); Lunceford, “Tain’t What You Do” (1939); Prez/Shadow Wilson, “Indiana” (1944); Prez/Chico, “Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio, “Tickletoe” (1992)]

TP:    We covered quite a bit of ground on that last set of drummers.

CH:    Well, just about.  Music is very broad, Music is very big, Music is very long, and Music is very beautiful…


TP:    The 1946 performance of “Lester Leaps In” featured Chico’s long-time partner, bassist Red Callender.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Red and I did quite a bit of playing together when I was out on the West Coast, when I was out in L.A.  I just want to establish a fact that what the people here in New York, the East Coast people, everything they consider the East Coast Sound, which was a big thing, I guess, in the Fifties or Sixties regarding the East Coast versus the West Coast… How that originated, how that came about, I think it was in the Fifties or early Sixties, there was a club here in New York, Basin Street East, and for the first time I was coming east with my original quintet with the cello, with Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Buddy Collette and Jim Hall.  We were playing opposite (are you ready?) Max Roach’s original quintet with Clifford Brown and I think it was Harold Land, and Richie Powell and George Morrow.  So in order to stir up some…to hip business up, to make it a happening, the publicist started the East Coast versus the West Coast…

TP:    Harold Land, of course, was from the West Coast.

CH:    He was from the West Coast.  But that’s how that East Coast-West Coast thing really got started.

But in the meantime, getting back to Red Callender, Gerry Wiggins, people like that on the West Coast, there was a definite… We had a very definite way of playing, a style, a West Coast style of playing.  It’s just like they had a style, all the Kansas City musicians, the musicians from the Midwest — they had a particular style, a way of playing.  They swung very heavy, right?  Guys on the East Coast, they had their own thing going.  I’m speaking before the Bebop Era came in…

TP:    How would you put into words the Southwest sound?

CH:    Well, the Southwest sound was more… The prime example is Count Basie, the Count Basie Orchestra.  There was a band by the name of Nat Towles and Snookum Russell…

TP:    Now, did those bands come to California?

CH:    No, they didn’t make it to the West Coast.  But this was a Midwest type of band.  Because during the War years, the early part of the Forties, I sort of left the Service for a quick minute [LAUGHS], and went out on the road with Snookum Russell’s band in the Midwest.

TP:    That’s the band J.J. Johnson left Indianapolis with.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    What was that band like?

CH:    It was just a swinging thing.  Just out-and-out swing.  I realize today when I use that terminology, “swing,” that a lot of young people don’t know what I’m talking about.  But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for it.  Because whether you’re playing Rock-and-Roll, whether you’re playing Pop, or whatever you’re playing, it’s got to swing.  In other words, it’s got to have a pulse to it, to make you feel like, hey, snapping your fingers or patting your foot.  That was the one thing that the Swing Bands did do, man.  You couldn’t… It was hard for anyone to keep still when you’d listen to one of those bands.

TP:    Also, in Los Angeles, a lot of the Black community came from the Southwest and the South Central parts of the United States, and subsequently settled there.  So it seems to me a lot of that sound came into the Los Angeles sound in a certain way.  True or false?

CH:    Not necessarily.  Not during those days.  I don’t know… The fact that I was born there… Well, just from my generation up is what I’m familiar with in regards to what music was all about, what Jazz was all about.  And the majority of those guys…

TP:    They were from L.A.

CH:    They were from L.A.  Before then, who knows?  We all came from…

TP:    I was thinking about people coming for jobs in the Navy yards…

CH:    Oh, no.  Well, this was before then.  That started when the War started; people would come there for gigs.  But most musicians, if they came there, man, they came there to play.  Because there was a zillion places to play at that time.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the scene in Los Angeles towards the end of the War and the years right after.  A lot of musicians also moved to Los Angeles who lived there for long periods of time, like Lester Young, who we heard you with, or Art Tatum…

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    …and many other people.

CH:    Well, after the Service… I think I got out of the Service around 1945.  But I came back to L.A.  Before I went into the Service, the Swing thing was the thing, the Swing beat — [DA-DANG, DAT-DA-DANG], that was it.  Right?  When I came out of the Service and came back to L.A., I heard and saw for the first time, and just was blown away completely by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, people like this.  Man, this was a whole, brand-new kind of thing to me, man.  Because I was down South, and I just only knew one way of playing.  And to come back to the West Coast and start hearing Bebop, man, it was just absolutely amazing.

TP:    Were you hearing the records when you were in the Service, as they came out…

CH:    What records?

TP:    Oh, you didn’t get any of those records.  Okay.

CH:    [LAUGHS] Those records didn’t come that far down there!  No, unfortunately we didn’t have that opportunity to hear the records.  But it was really amazing.  As a matter of fact, man, I was fortunate enough to get a job, join a band by the name of Floyd Ray.  In Floyd Ray’s band, there was a piano player by the name of Hampton Hawes, there was a trumpet player by the name of Art Farmer, and his brother, Addison Farmer, played bass.  The tenor players were J.D. King, Bill Moore.  People like this.  It was a big band.  We played for… As well as playing dances and things like that, we played shows at theaters.  We were playing a show, and headlining the show was this little kid from Detroit by the name of Sugar Chile Robinson.  We used to think it was a midget; he was a piano player.  The Emcee of the show, who carried the whole show and the dance team, was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Junior.  Man, we were playing all up and down the West Coast.

We happened to be in Oakland, and this was maybe like on a Friday night… We heard that the Billy Eckstine band was coming to town to play a dance.  And in that band was Art Blakey [PRONOUNCES “Blakeley”], Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons.  I’ll tell you, man, you talk about getting blown away!  I had never in my life heard anybody play like Art Blakey!  Right?  And I was so influenced, carried away by his playing, that the next morning, when we were doing our show, I started trying to play…dropping bombs, as we say, playing Bebop licks on the drums.  And man, I almost got fired, because Sammy Davis’ father told me…he said, “What the hell are you doing?!”

But anyway, that was my first really introduction to playing Bebop music.  Hearing Art Blakey, man, was just… He turned me completely around.  Whereas Jo had set things up in the beginning, he and Sonny Greer, Art Blakey really turned me around.

TP:    He gave you a sense of the feeling.

CH:    Oh, man, did he ever!  Art Blakey was a brilliant, brilliant master percussionist.  He was just an out-and-out hard-swinging drummer.

[D. Gordon/T. Edwards, “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” (1947); Bird, “My Old Flame” (1947); Dexter/Wardell, “The Chase” (1947); Howard McGhee, “Thermodynamics” (1946); Eckstine, “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (1944); Hamp/Mingus, “Mingus Fingers” (1947)]

TP:    …after “Mingus Fingers” we heard the Billy Eckstine band, the tune Chico Hamilton said was the first he ever heard the band do, “Blowin’ The Blues Away.”

CH:    Talk about blowin’ the blues away, man; it really blew me away, man!  That was the band I heard in Oakland, California, I think it must have been in 1945, 1946.  Man, can you imagine hearing a band like that?  It was unbelievable.  Unbelievable.

TP:    That was a radio broadcast, and Art Blakey’s sound really came through well on that one.

CH:    It was fantastic, especially in regards to the fact that they only used maybe a microphone for the reed section and one mike for the brass, and that was it — the rhythm section had to go for itself.  The band was swinging, man.  It was cookin’.  You know?

TP:    And I’m imagine they were playing for dancers as well, so there was a whole ambiance that doesn’t exist today.

CH:    Well, that’s something that… For instance, every band…Count Basie… Basie had that thing that he knew the right groove to make you dance, want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford had that groove that would make you want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford’s rhythm was basically in a two-beat kind of thing.  Basie’s was a 2/4.  Duke Ellington?  Once in a while you felt like dancing to Duke’s music.  But Duke’s music, you listened to it more, in regards to, hey, you just cooled and listened to the amazing arrangements and the brilliant playing of the players.

TP:    It seems to me that Ellington had different sets for different audiences, and he could pull out so many things.

CH:    Well, different strokes for different folks!

TP:    Before that we heard Howard McGhee on a couple of classic Bebop sides, “Thermodynamics,” featuring his virtuosic trumpet from 1947, with Jimmy Bunn on piano, who was present on a lot of these early West Coast dates.

CH:    I knew some of Jimmy’s relatives, as a matter of fact. Jimmy’s cousin was a good friend of brother’s, Bernie Hamilton, the actor.  Jimmy Bunn is still playing.  He’s still in California, and he’s still playing very-very-very good.  He perhaps was one of the most underrated players as far as recognition was concerned.  But at one time, Jimmy Bunn, nobody in L.A., you know…

TP:    He had first call, is what it sounds like.

CH:    Exactly.  If you couldn’t get Jimmy… Then when Hampton Hawes started coming on the scene, Hampton began to get all the calls.  Also in there was Dodo Marmarosa.  Dodo was originally from Pennsylvania someplace, but…

TP:    Pittsburgh, I think.

CH:    Pittsburgh, yeah.  But man, Dodo could play, too.

TP:    And he recorded with many people, including Charlie Parker.

CH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Jimmy Rowles was active in Los Angeles at that time.

CH:    Jimmy Rowles.  My man, Jimmy Rowles!  I haven’t seen Jimmy in quite a while, but last time I heard, he and his daughter were playing together.  His daughter, Stacy, plays trumpet.

TP:    Before “Thermodynamics” we heard “The Chase,” one of the most famous sessions of that time, also for Dial, recorded in 1947, with Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson, a very active and strong drummer.

CH:    He was a very good drummer.  Very good.  As a matter of fact, Chuck is still playing.  And you mentioned another drummer on the West Coast…

TP:    Roy Porter?

CH:    I don’t think Roy is playing any more.  But before Roy you mentioned…

TP:    On one of these tracks?

CH:    On one of the tracks.

TP:    Well, Roy Porter played with Howard McGhee.  And… Well, I don’t know who that was.

CH:    He played with the Hampton Hawes Trio.

TP:    Oh, Larence Marable.

CH:    Larence, yeah!

TP:    He was very active, and he’s now going out with Charlie Haden’s group amongst others.

CH:    Hey, Larence is a fantastic player.

TP:    He’s someone who had an impact on Billy Higgins when Billy Higgins was coming up in the Los Angeles area.  Before “The Chase” we heard “My Old Flame” by Charlie Parker for Dial; Bird cut many sides for Dial while in Los Angeles.  And we began the set with Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, another tenor duel called “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” with Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, and Roy Porter

Again, we have this combination of native Los Angeles musicians, and musicians who settled in Los Angeles from other places, like Teddy Edwards, who came from Jackson, Mississippi to Detroit to Los Angeles, or Howard McGhee, who was from Oklahoma, Detroit, then Southwest bands into Los Angeles.  I’d like to ask Chico for brief portraits of some of your contemporaries.  Let’s begin with Charles Mingus, because you knew Mingus when he was very young.  How old were you when you first met?  Do you remember?

CH:    Well, let me see.  I don’t know, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, something like that — 11 or 12.  As a matter of fact, Charlie Mingus and my wife went to Sunday School together, attended the same church.  Do you believe that?

TP:    Which church was that?

CH:    It was some church in L.A.  I don’t recall the name of it.  Buddy Collette and his family attended that church, and Mingus’ family, and my wife’s family attended the church.  So actually she knew Mingus before I did.  But we were unbelievably young, and unbelievable at that time as young players, as young dudes.  We thought we were… As a matter of fact, some of the joints we played, we’d have to disguise ourselves to look older because of the booze thing.  But Charlie and I came through a lot of wars together as far as playing on the bandstand.  He developed into a very uncanny kind of a musician.  I guess that’s my way of saying how brilliant he was.  It hurts me, the fact that Charlie had to die a pauper.  Because what he contributed to this thing called Jazz and this thing called Music, unfortunately, he really didn’t receive any of the benefits while he was alive.

TP:    Some of the things that he wrote… “The Chill Of Death” which he recorded in 1971, was written, I think, when he was 17 years old!  Do you remember these pieces, or seeing them?  Did you talk about music or his compositions a lot?

CH:    Well, you know, every conversation Charlie and I would have would be off the wall!  I was never surprised at anything he would say or anything he would do…

TP:    Or come up with musically.

CH:    Or come up with musically.  And I guess he might have thought about me the same way.  A funny thing, though, when I came out of the Service, all of these guys, Charlie and Buddy, John Anderson and guys like that, they had gotten re-established again out in L.A. on the famous Central Avenue, and I had to come out… Nobody knew who I was, and I had to sort of establish myself all over again.  I got pretty lucky, because I ended up being the house drummer for Billy Berg’s.

TP:    A famous club where a lot of Jazz history was made.

CH:    All the Jazz, that’s where it was.

TP:    That’s where Bird and Diz came through when Bebop first hit the West Coast.

CH:    Bird and Diz, right.  That’s when I began to play for all the singers, too, at that time.

TP:    What were the chain of events that led to that?  It couldn’t have been just luck.

CH:    Me playing at Billy Berg’s?

TP:    To be the house drummer, especially then, you had to be versatile, be able to basically play anything, read, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  Well, I’d played for him before I went into the Service.  He used to have a club called the Club Capri, before Billy Berg’s.  As a matter of fact, at the Club Capri, this is when I first… Norman Granz used to be like a go-fer for all the guys. [LAUGHS]  You know, he ends up being a zillionaire, an entrepreneur.  But anyway, to make a long story short, at the Club Capri, that’s where Lorenzo Flournoy’s band, Red Mack’s band, Lee and Lester Young… When Prez first left Basie’s band, his brother Lee Young had a small group.  These were all small groups, no bigger than five or six pieces, seven pieces at the most.  Billy Berg’s was the number-one room in Los Angeles at that time.  That was it.  If you played that room, it was fantastic.

The other room that was called the 331 or the 333, I forget…


…of my playing, of my career, I played with this guy named Myers, Old Man Myers.  He kept me on brushes.  He wouldn’t let me play sticks at all, man.  We would go out and play at least three or four nights a week.  Right?  I was lucky enough to make… He’d pay me like maybe 75 cents, I mean, really 75 cents! — we were lucky if we made a dollar.  But I would play brushes constantly.  Constantly.  Every time I’d get ready to pick up the sticks, he said, “Put those sticks down!”  So fortunately, that helped me to develop a stroke that swept me into some of the choicest gigs at that time.

TP:    This conversation evolved from word portraits of some of your associates in Los Angeles at this time.  I’d like to ask you about Dexter Gordon, who was a few years younger than you, but came up around the same time.

CH:    Well, can you imagine… When Dexter was about 10 years old, he was already twelve feet tall.  Then he shrank!  We used to call him Big Stoop, from the character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates — if anybody remembers that.

Anyway, Dexter and I… You might not believe this, but Dexter Gordon and myself, and a trombone player by the name of James Robertson, we were the only three guys, three people period, to get an A in English in high school.  That was the toughest teacher in the whole entire system.  Her name was Mrs. Smith.  And Dexter and myself and James Robinson got an A in English, man!

As a matter of fact, Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he used to play clarinet, he used to come on the campus… Dexter was like the pied piper.  Dexter would play his horn anywhere, in the hall, in the room, it didn’t matter — all over the school.  And he loved Prez.  He just adored…

TP:    Took apart the solos and…

CH:    Everything was note-for-note.  So that’s how we learned to play, virtually, in a sense, by copying the masters, the people who invented that way of playing.  But Dexter was, again, a brilliant, fantastic, inventive kind of player.  And to be among this kind of talent, you know, you just took it for granted that, hey, he could play, I could play, Ernie Royal could play, you know…

TP:    And you went out and played.

CH:    And we went out and played.

TP:    And then things happened, people heard you, and that’s how…

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    A few words about Red Callender.

CH:    George “Red” Callender.  George was a little older than myself and Mingus and Buddy and Jack Kelso.  But we had a tremendous amount of respect for Red, because Red was the big-time already.  When we got on the L.A. scene before the war, well, Red Callender had been playing with Louis Armstrong and playing with all the big names.  And the fact that he was local, he was in L.A., and we… He was… You know, just to be in his presence was something.  It meant something to us.  We all befriended each other, and we came up this way.

As a matter of fact, at one time Red Callender, myself and a piano player by the name of Dudley Brooks, we were the only three Black musicians that were ever hired by the studios out there; actually put on staff, you know, at Paramount Studios at one time.  Because at one time it was a no-no.  But we got a job… I was playing for… It was equivalent to being the rehearsal player.  I was like the rehearsal drummer.  I used to keep time for people like Marilyn Monroe, Sherrie North, I used to work with all the dance directors out there, keeping time for them while they got their act together.  But it got boring after a while, and I split.

TP:    But the money must have been nice.

CH:    Hey, man, listen.  It was steady.  Right?  To get paid every week?  It was unbelievable, man.  But I don’t know, man, I was always pretty fortunate.  I was able to… I’ve been lucky, blessed, because I’ve been always able to have a gig.

TP:    Well, it seems you’ve been very flexible and adaptable as well, and yet very determined, and with very definite sounds in your mind’s ear.

CH:    Well, I’ve always, first of all, been very proud of my profession.  Like, I’m a professional musician, just like a doctor is a professional or a lawyer is a professional.  I’ve been very, very highly… Well, this is what I do.  In other words, this is the jokes, folks.  And I don’t fluff it off.  I never blow a gig, man.  Whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, man, I’m playing my heart out.  I’m playing the best that I can at that time.  And that’s it.  That’s the way I came up.  And I believe in music.  I believe in what I’m doing.  People are always wondering what I’m going to come up with next.  I have no idea what I’m going to come up with next.  But I know that when the time comes for me to come up with something different, or change, I will change.  I don’t like to get bored.

TP:    Well, you were the envy of hundreds of thousands of men as the drummer with Lena Horne for five or six years.  The listing is ’48 to ’54, approximately.  Is that right?

CH:    No, as a matter of fact, ’47 to ’55, I think it was.  I’ll tell you, playing for Lena was truly an experience.  I give her a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of credit in regards to her musicianship.  Most people don’t realize what a fantastic musician this woman is.  And through her, and with her, her late husband, Lennie Hayten, and Luther Henderson, I had an opportunity to really learn what music was all about, how to express what you feel and what you think.  Even to this day, man, we’re still friends.  I don’t see her that often.  But as one of the singers that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and that I kept time for, I would put her up at the top of the class.

TP:    Our next selection is by the original Chico Hamilton-Buddy Collette Sextet, recorded for Johnny Otis’ label, Tampa Records, or Dig Records, available through VSOP Replica Editions.

[MUSIC: Chico Hamilton/B. Collette, “It’s You” (1956); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon” (19  ); Gerry Mulligan, “Frenesi” (1953); Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1953); C. Hamilton/John Lewis, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” (1958); C. Hamilton, “Where Or When” (19  )]

TP:    That was Chico Hamilton singing, from The Three Faces of Chico, the Chico Hamilton Quintet on Warner Brothers.  That’s the group that had Eric Dolphy, one of his four or five recordings with Chico, although of course not prominent on that particular track, Dennis Budimir on cello, Wyatt Ruether(?) and bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.


Let’s begin with the Tony Bennett side and the vocal tracks we heard.

CH:    At one time I played for Tony, I kept time for him, and we became friends.  When I went out on my own, with my own group and everything, I happened to be on the East Coast, as a matter of fact, in Philadelphia, and I got a call from Tony.  He had this idea that he wanted to get all the drummers together.  He had me, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, and I forget who else was on there.  He wanted to record with all of us.  Tony has always been a rhythm man.  He’s always had a fantastic appreciation for drums, for drummers…

TP:    It had Candido, Papa Jo, Billy Exiner, Sabu…

CH:    Billy Exiner was playing with Tony Bennett at that time, and Candido, myself and Jo Jones, right?

Tony asked me which one of the tracks would I play on, and some kind of way, the idea of “Lazy Afternoon” came up, and I told him I really would dig playing to see what I could do with the sort of orchestral approach to the way he was singing “Lazy Afternoon.”  And it turned out gorgeous.  It really turned out dynamite.  We were more than pleased.  That’s how that came about.

TP:    That’s from The Beat Of My Heart on Columbia Records.  Now, Billie Holiday spent a lot of time in Los Angeles as well.

CH:    Yes, she did.

TP:    Were you a regular part of her group for a while, or was that just a session?

CH:    No, no, I was part of her group for a while.  I played for Lady in several different groups.  At one time, one group consisted of Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, myself and Curtis Counce!

TP:    Lady Day must have had a chance to rest her chops!

CH:    Man, you’re talkin’ about cookin’!  We were swinging.

TP:    Did you play bebop licks under her, or… How was she in that regard?

CH:    Lady kept good time, so all I had to do was swing.  I just played myself, you know.  As a matter of fact, all of us did.  That’s what we did.  She was a tremendous musician as well, and she dug musicians being themselves, players being themselves.  As a matter of fact, that’s how Prez named her Lady, because she was cool that way.  I met her, man, when I was about 14 years old!

TP:    What were the circumstances?

CH:    Well, I went to a jam session over… Lorenzo Flournoy, who was a piano player at that time, who I was playing with at the time.  I was just a kid, man.  I knew Prez, man, and Prez asked me, “Do you want to meet Lady?”  I didn’t believe it was her, man.  She was at the session, right, in the house.  That’s where everybody used to put on a big pot of red beans and rice and things like that, and we would blow all day long, right?  She was sitting on the saxophone case, she and Prez were sitting on this case.  And man, when I came up through the door and I looked at her, I said, “Hey…”  I told a friend of mine, [WHISPERING] “Hey, there she is!  That’s Lady.”  And when we went inside, Prez introduced us.  From then on, from time to time I would see her then.     Then later on, I started playing for her, working for her, doing dates and everything.  At one time, the group was Bobby Tucker and myself…

TP:    He was the pianist.

CH:    He was a pianist, a fantastic pianist.  Bobby was with Eckstine.  He was with B for thirty or forty years almost.  When he left Lady he joined Billy Eckstine.

TP:    And you worked with Billy Eckstine for a minute, too.

CH:    I worked with Billy Eckstine.  Also I played for… Oh, heh-heh, I played with Billy Eckstine, I played with Sammy Davis, I did some things with Danny Kaye, Ella… Oh, yeah, I forgot about Ella Fitzgerald.  And I kept time for Sarah once in a while…

TP:    All singers with different styles, different approaches of playing off the drums.

CH:    Exactly.  Here again, remembering something about Lena Horne:  I was right on the floor behind Lena, and the band was behind me.  It was very unusual, because here’s the singer, the drummer right behind her, and then the band, the orchestra would be right behind me.  It worked.  It worked beautifully.  I really developed a way of playing for her to the extent it wasn’t offensive; I didn’t get in her way.

TP:    Was Billie Holiday a strict rehearser, or was it just get in and hit?

CH:    No, Lady was cool, man.  She was cool.  Every singer I have ever kept time for was very sincere about what they did.  And I’m saying that in a complementary way.  Whether you understand that, or reading in between the lines or whatever… It wasn’t easy playing for singers, man.  It’s not easy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any drummer that can keep time for a singer.

TP:    Why is that?

CH:    Well, you never know what a singer is going to do.  Because some singers react differently.  They react to what people… They react to the audience.  If they feel as though they’re not getting to the audience, then they’re going to push, or they think…or either they’re going to fluff off something or whatever.  And the first one they’re going to take it out on is going to be the drummer.  “What’s the matter?  Can’t you keep time?”  That sort of thing.

TP:    So we’re talking about temperament now.

CH:    Exactly.  That’s the reason drummers are cool, man.  You know, a drummer sits up… When you start to realize that a drummer has to keep time for people, musicians, people he don’t even like, you hear somebody playing, somebody getting their oobies, they’re not making any music, but they’re just sounding like the teacher’s out of the room, that kind of thing — and you have keep time for that and you have to make it sound like something.  You know?  Because there’s only one drummer.

TP:    Well, sometimes there’s two.

CH:    No, you’ve only got one drummer, man.  One drummer’s keeping time, man.  Also, I’d just like to acknowledge the fact that people in general see conga players, timbales players, bongo players, people playing drums with their hands, and they say, “Hey, this is dynamite; that’s fantastic.”  But there’s nothing, nothing in the world like a drummer sitting down playing on a set of drums, where his left foot is doing something different from his right foot, his left hand is doing something from his right hand, and the hands are doing something different from the foot, the foot is doing something different from the hands, and he’s playing on at least a half-a-dozen drums at the same time.  This is amazing, man.  This is really something.

TP:    You were part of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless groups on the West Coast in the early 1950’s, and that was a different side of your work as well.  Talk about your hookup with him and your contributions to the music as it was developed.

CH:    Well…heh-heh…

TP:    Uh-oh, I stuck my foot in it.

CH:    No.  Well, I believe that it just happened to be four people in the right place at the right time.  That story is… I can go on and say, “Well, I did this or Gerry did that, or Chet did this, Chet did that,” that kind of thing.  No, it just happened that we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we got together… As a matter of fact, we got together at my house for the first rehearsal that we did.  Gerry was out in L.A., and I was out in L.A. at that time.  I was still under the employment of Lena Horne, but I stayed home; I didn’t want to go to Europe that year.  In the meantime, I was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band, and Gerry used to come out and hang out with me every night at the bar. [LAUGHS]  As a matter of fact, he said to me one night, “You know, if I was Charlie Barnet and you played for me like you play for Charlie, I’d fire you!”  Because I used to do some pretty funny things with that band.  Anyway, Charlie didn’t mind.  He was a prince, man.  He was a dynamite dude.

But Gerry and I got together, and we were talking about this and that, and next thing I know, hey, he contacts Chet and Bob Whitlock, and we get together, and we just… Like I said, man, it started happening.  And it happened, from the first time we sat down to play.  I would say everyone contributed, one way or the other; everyone contributed to making the quartet the way it was.  That’s how it came off.  That’s the reason it came off.  It wasn’t just a question of Gerry Mulligan being Gerry… Well, it was a question of Gerry being Gerry, Chet being Chet, me being me, and Bob Whitlock being Bob Whitlock.

That’s putting it simple, man.  Mild.

TP:    Would you like to get complex?  At any rate, the first track we heard featured the genesis of the Chico Hamilton group, the Buddy Collette-Chico Hamilton Sextet, from Tanganyika.  You go back as far with Buddy Collette as you do with Mingus, with Dexter Gordon, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  We go back when we were young dudes, kids more or less, young guys on the scene.  As a matter of fact, the first time I heard Buddy, Buddy had his own band, and he had Mingus playing.  Mingus really started off playing cello with Buddy’s band, and Buddy made him get the bass, because he realized that the cello was a little weak, that kind of thing, trying to play cello like a full-sized bass.  I went out to hear him one night, I went all the way out there to Watts, right — I’d heard about him.  I asked him could I sit in, and I did.  One thing led to another, and the next thing I know we were all playing in all the bands around L.A.  It was interesting.

TP:    How did that band develop a repertoire?  Because eventually, both of you were working toward a really broad tonal palette particularly.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    I mean, along with swing, but it went… Talk a bit about that.

CH:    What we did, virtually, in a sense, we copied every record that we heard by Count Basie and some of the Duke Ellington things and Jimmie Lunceford, but between them, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the bands that we imitated, even down to the solos, note-for-note.  We even played the same solos, that type of thing.  All the licks.  I tried to play all the drum licks that Jo Jones would play, that type of thing.  And eventually, it was very successful, because also, you must remember, we didn’t have… It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether you were going to play Rock-and-Roll, or whether you’re going to play the Blues, Rhythm-and-Blues, or whether you’re going to play Pop, or whether you’re going to play Country, or anything like that.  There was only one kind of music, man, and that was Swing.  So in a sense, it was relatively easy.  Because hey, there was only one way to play.

TP:    We forgot to play some of the sides you backed T-Bone Walker on for Imperial.

CH:    Hey!  He was amazing.

TP:    So we’re going from T-Bone Walker to Tony Bennett to Charlie Barnet’s band to the Gerry Mulligan band…

CH:    Right.

TP:    You really were covering the whole spectrum of Swing music in the Forties and Fifties.

CH:    Well, I’m fortunate.  I’ve been fortunate, man.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.  Because it was broad.  It was very broad.  That’s what the spectrum was in regards to what Jazz was all about.  Still, even now, what Jazz is all about.

TP:    And we’ll be hearing an aspect which Chico Hamilton is defining in his group, in many ways, the cutting edge, one branch that Jazz is in the process of becoming.

CH:    Well, I could go through a whole great big series of stories about, “Well, I decided to do this, I decided to do that.”  But I don’t know, man… Here, again, about the original quintet with Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar and Carson Smith on bass, here again… It’s not a copout, but I feel that it just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time for that to happen.

TP:    Things were in the air…

CH:    Things were in the air, and it happened.  Because no one knows why it happened.  But it happened, and it worked.


This is the first record that Eric Dolphy ever made.  This is a Billy Strayhorn composition which is one of my favorites.  Most people… A majority, I would say, of Eric Dolphy’s fans and audience don’t realize, or didn’t realize what a tremendous flute player Eric Dolphy was.  And this is my presentation of Eric Dolphy, “Something To Live For”

TP:    From Strings Attached on Warner Brothers.

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton/E. Dolphy, “Something To Live For”; C. Hamilton, “Mandrake”; C. Hamilton, “Taunts of An Indian”; C. Hamilton, “Guitar Willie”]

TP:    A selection of four compositions and performances by various groups under the leadership of Chico Hamilton.  That last was “Guitar Willie,” featuring the late Eric Gale from Headhunters, on Solid State, and my guess is that it was recorded around 1970.  Do you recollect, Chico?  Of course, being a Solid State release from that time, there’s no date, but they have a zip-code.

CH:    Probably around ’68.  Eric used to do a lot of commercials with me when I was knee-deep on Madison Avenue, you know, doing commercials.  That’s music for commercials.  Here again that was sort of unusual, because just to have the bass walking and myself keeping that time, and the horns… Steve Potts was on there, and I think…

TP:    Russ Andrews on tenor.

CH:    Yes, Russ.

TP:    Ray Nance appears elsewhere on this release.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    And Jan Arnett on bass.

CH:    Jan Arnett.  It was a happening.

TP:    Before that a few selections by the current group, Chico Hamilton and Euphoria.  Before that, a very beautiful and affecting piece, “Taunts of An Indian Maiden,” a dedication to your mother.

CH:    I dedicated to it to my mother.  She was an Indian maiden, you know?

TP:    That’s from Arroyo, a 1990 release, with Eric Person, saxophone, Cary DeNegris on electric guitar, and Reggie Washington, one of the better electric bass players around, playing acoustic bass.

CH:    Well, he’s playing electric on that.  He just sounds… That’s how well he plays it.  He’s one of the few fender players that can get the sound of an upright bass.

TP:    Before that we heard “Mandrake,” the group’s arrangement of Eric Dolphy’s composition, one of seven compositions arranged by Chico Hamilton and Euphoria on My Panamanian Friend, the most recent release by the group.

CH:    It’s an interesting thing.  Jeff Caddick was the one who suggested that we do an album of Eric Dolphy’s music.  And the more we got into it, the more we started talking about it, the more I realized and he realized, as much as people talk about Eric Dolphy, nobody plays his music.

TP:    Well, Oliver Lake is one, and a few other people play his music, but not so much.

CH:    Not that many.  Hopefully this will shake them up again.

TP:    The way that you arrange and set up your songs… I think if one held to a stereotyped view of a Jazz musician, and heard you from all these sessions in the Forties and Fifties, to hear the sound of your bands would seem disjunctive.  But it’s obviously not.  You’ve always had a predilection, for one thing, for saxophone players who like to get into the extremities of the instrument, from Eric Dolphy to Charles Lloyd to Arthur Blythe to Steve Potts to your current saxophonist, Eric Person.

CH:    Well, look, to simplify it, that’s what I’m all about.  I’m into sounds, and anybody that sounds different or original (which is pretty difficult) I’m for.  I’m open, as far as all music… First of all, I understand fully that it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I also understand that I’ve been blessed to the extent that I’m able to make music at this stage of the game of my life or my career, as opposed to just playing it.  So that’s what it’s all about.  Music I believe is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  Right?  That’s the name of the game.

TP:    If it’s meant to be… Well, you’re making it happen.

CH:    Hey, that’s what it’s all about.

TP:    A few words about the people in your group.  A few words about how musicians find you and you find musicians.  Eric Person, first of all.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Eric was introduced to me by Arnie Lawrence.  Arnie had heard Eric when he was in St. Louis.  I think he was at Eric’s school.  When Eric came to New York, I think he contacted Arnie, and Arnie in turn contacted me, and that was it.  Right away we hit it off.  I helped him to grow, and he’s grown, needless to say, and developed into one fantastic kind of a player.

TP:    You may not be able to hold on to him.

CH:    Well, it’s not a question of holding on.  He’s supposed to go on to bigger and better things.  That’s what I’m all about, again.  Hey, you come this way, you pass through me.

TP:    He’s currently with Dave Holland’s group and the World Saxophone Quartet as well as Chico Hamilton’s Ensemble.

CH:    Well, this is good, because this gives him an opportunity to play all kinds of ways.  I haven’t heard him with the other groups, but I imagine he plays different with them than he does with me.  Because we play a different kind of music; a different kind of rhythm, let’s put it like that.

TP:    Cary De Negris, the guitarist.

CH:    Cary met me.  Cary called me when he came from Albany, New York, I think.  His potential I heard right away, the first time I heard him play.  He has developed, needless to say, into really some other kind of guitar player.  He is perhaps one of the most fluent players that’s on the scene today, period, regardless of what style or what kind of guitar playing there is to be played.  He’s doing it.

TP:    Finally, Matthew Garrison, the group’s newest member.

CH:    Well, Matthew’s father used to play with me, Jimmy Garrison.  At one time he did dates and things with me.  He was brought to my attention by Cary De Negris, who heard him and said, “Hey, Cheeks, you’ve got to hear this bass player.”  As a matter of fact, man, he’s so prolific, he sounds like a guitar player.  He’s got chops.

TP:    Well, his father had that type of fluency in his sound also.

CH:    Exactly.  So I’m more than pleased, man.  I’m having a ball.  Because hey, we’re making music.

[MUSIC: “Song For Helen” (1992)]


* * *

Chico Hamilton Profile (WKCR) – (1-14-96):

[RECITAL ON “In the Beginning”, Dance To A Different Drummer:  “You know how this all started with me playing, the drums.  I guess I was around 8 years old when my mother took me to see Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life, not only did I see an orchestra, but I saw on this pyramid, the top of the pyramid, on top of the whole band was the one and only Sonny Greer.  I had never seen anything like this in all my life.  Matter of fact, he had so many drums, he had more drums than  a drum store.  But he was really something special.  And that impressed me, the way he played, the way he had control of the band, and the sound he got.  He was also perhaps one of the first percussionists in every sense of the word; not just a drummer, but a percussionist, a man who made sounds.  Everything he touched made a sound, and it blended and it worked with what Duke Ellington had written and played.  Like all kids, it was an impression that stayed with me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to be — another Sonny Greer.”


TP:    Chico, do you remember what year you first heard Sonny Greer?

CH:    I don’t remember what year it was I heard the band, and I wouldn’t even tell you if I did remember!  I was around 8 or 9 years old when I first heard the band.

TP:    So it was probably when Ellington first came out to the West Coast, around ’30-’31.

CH:    It probably was.  You know, one thing about being on the West Coast, all the bands came there, not only Ellington, but Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dorsey — all the bands eventually came to the West Coast.  A miraculous thing is the fact that the Board of Education system out there, it was compulsory to take music in all the schools in the system, whether you took a music appreciation course or rented an instrument to play or something like that.  Whenever the well-known bands would come to the West Coast, they used to let us out of school to go down to the train station to greet the bands as they came in.  Fundamentally, all the guys from the Royal brothers, Ernie and Marshall Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, myself, Jack Kelso, Charlie Mingus, all of us…

TP:    Grew up in the same area.

CH:    We grew up in the same area, with the same musical aspect in regards to… Like all kids, we had a band…

TP:    Where exactly in Los Angeles did you grow up?  Was it around Central Avenue, later the real music strip?

CH:    Yeah.  Los Angeles at that time was the East Side and the West Side, and I think Main Street divided L.A. into what was East and what was West.  I was born on the East Side of town and then grew up on the West Side of town.  Central Avenue was the street, our avenue; that was our 52nd Street.  It only consisted of two or three blocks, but within those two or three blocks, man, you had everything…

TP:    You’re talking about the 1930’s, now.

CH:    The late 1930’s and the ’40s.  They presented a big documentary about the jazz on Central Avenue not too long ago.  It’s part of the curriculum at UCLA or one of the schools.  Central Avenue… You had the Dunbar Hotel, and then inside the Dunbar Hotel was the Club Alabam, which was the equivalent to the East Coast Cotton Club — the same type of shows.

TP:    It would have been the equivalent to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, or the Braddock or the Woodside.

CH:    Exactly.  From there, that was the number-one club or joint… That was super big-time, where all the big bands played.  Then right outside of Hollywood, in Culver City, there was a club, which I forget the name of.  They had at least half-a-dozen big, big rooms, big joints where all the bands played, which made it very lucrative for bands to come to the West Coast, from the Palladium to the Ambassador Hotel.  But Central Avenue was the avenue, man.  When I was a kid, I used to burn matches and make a moustache so that I could look old enough to go in these joints.  This is when Duke Ellington’s band with all these guys, Ben Webster, the people who invented this kind of music, who really did it, were on the scene…

TP:    When the bands would come out, the musicians would also circulate after-hours or in other situations, and you would have contact…

CH:    This is what I’m getting ready to say.  After the gigs, we all hung out at a place called Lovejoy’s which was a joint on Vernon and Central, right on the corner, upstairs.  Man, many a night I used to stay in there until 7 and 8 o’clock playing, jamming, and man, I’d have to rush home and go to school… I was in high school, and I’d do everything I could to get the cigarette smoke off of me.  But man, we had a ball; we would have a ball.  This is how I learned to play.  One thing about it, the pros helped us; they helped all the young players.  They would listen to you and you’d get a chance to play with them, and they would advise you, give you some tips on what to do and what not to do.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether that still happens today.  It was really, really different.

When I got drafted and went to the War and came back, it was a different Central Avenue altogether — completely different.  Before I went, all the movie stars and everybody used to hang out on Central.  That was it.  It was just like hanging out on Broadway here in New York at one time.  But when I came back from the War, music had changed completely.  As opposed to the Swing thing, we were into the Bebop.  Miles, Diz, Bird, Erroll Garner — everybody was in Hollywood at that time.

TP:    You got back when?

CH:    Late ’45.

TP:    Right around when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got into Billy Berg’s.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Did you come from a musical family?

CH:    No.

TP:    Where did the inspiration to play music initially come from.

CH:    That’s a very good question, man.  I don’t know.  I’ve always…music has just… First of all, I’ve never done anything else but play music, or make music, or been into music.  My closest friend at the time, who is still my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet, and I figured since he had a clarinet that I’m gonna get me one; I want to play because my best friend is playing.  We were both about 7 or 8 years old, something like that at that time, and that’s how it worked out.  To play drums just was a sheer accident, because my older brother was fooling around with the drums in the school orchestra when we were both in grade school, and when he graduated, they didn’t have a drummer, so I just said, “Hey, since he’s my brother, I might as well play.”  And I went in, sat down and started playing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  And the next thing I know, I had the gig, because nobody else wanted to play.  Other than that…

TP:    Did anybody give you lessons outside of school?

CH:    Yes.  A friend of mine… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Oscar Bradley.  Oscar Bradley was on the West Coast; he was the drummer with Les Hite’s orchestra.  I used to hear them play.  They used to rehearse ar a playground near where I lived.  Before I went into the Service, I took some lessons from Lee Young, Prez’ brother.  That was about the size of it.

When I went into the Service, there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exiner, who played with Claude Thornhill.  Billy taught me how to read music.  He’d climb over a mountain, man!  It was two camps then, and one was Black and one was White.

TP:    This was at Fort McCullough.

CH:    Fort McCullough, Alabama, man.

TP:    It’s known infamously in jazz history because of the treatment accorded Lester Young and Papa Jo Jones.

CH:    I was there, man, when that happened.  But Billy Exiner taught me how to read drum music.  Actually, I was more or less self-taught.  Then when I came out of the Service I enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill.  That’s when I really got serious about… Well, I was serious about playing, period.  I was blessed because I always was able to hear things.  I used to depend upon my ear as far as music was concerned, for arrangements, cues and things like that.  The fact is that as a teenager, man, I was playing shows, burlesque shows, where you’ve really got to catch all the cues, all the kicks and things like that.

TP:    Tell me more about the gigs you had when you were a teenager.  When did you first play for a sum of money, and how much was it?

CH:    A sum of money?  It was 75 cents; like, a half-dollar and a quarter.  My friend Jack Kelso and I used to play in a neighborhood band led by a man named Myers, who we called Old Man Myers.  He had a family band.  One of his sons played piano, another one played trumpet, another one played trombone.  It was very common during that time for families to have family orchestras.  Most families who were musical had a band…

TP:    Such as Lester Young’s family, Louis Jordan’s family, Oscar Pettiford’s family…

CH:    Exactly.  So it was a very common thing.  Jack was playing alto saxophone by that time, and I played drums, and we joined the band.  We would rehearse and rehearse, and we’d play.  As far as the gigs were concerned, we would drive for half-a-day, it seemed like, outside of L.A. to play a lot of different roadhouses.  We had a kitty, and people would give us money to play certain tunes.  Funny thing, the name wouldn’t be up there.  They wouldn’t say “Myers’ Orchestra”.  They would say “All-Colored Orchestra.”

TP:    Did that mean that they could expect to hear a certain type of music?  Were you expected to play in a certain way.

CH:    That was the feature.  They knew that at least we wouldn’t be Country music or some down-home stuff or whatever.

TP:    What type of things did you play in that orchestra?

CH:    We played just the regular standard music, the old standard tunes like “Stardust.”  No original material.  We just played time whatever was popular on the radio at that time.  It was relatively simple.  As far as I was concerned, I just had to keep time.  He wouldn’t let me use sticks; I always had to use brushes.  I’ll tell you, man, I ended up… Every important job that I got seemingly was due to the fact that I could brush, keep time, and be smooth and cool with it.  Because I spent about 15 years or more just being an accompanist, playing for singers.  But during that time I wanted to play with sticks and he wouldn’t let me.  Every time I’d pick up the sticks he said, “Put them sticks down!”

Jack and I used to come home… Sometimes we’d make a buck-and-a-half.  Riding for about four or five hours, then playing until 2 or 3 in the morning kind of thing.  This was on the weekends, Fridays and Saturday nights.

TP:    And you were 14-15-16 when this was happening.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    At the same time, you were at Jefferson High School, which had one of the most distinguished music programs among Black high schools in the country, and one of the great music teachers, Samuel Browne…

CH:    Well, first of all, Jefferson High School wasn’t a Black high school.  It was a school in the area, on the East Side.  As a matter of fact, man, it was one of the most beautiful schools in the whole state of California.  It was the duplicate of Monticello, Jefferson…

TP:    Built along the lines of Greek Classical Architecture.

CH:    Yes.  And there was no such thing as all-Black.  There were just as many White students as Black students.

TP:    So the community wasn’t as segregated as it later became.

CH:    The community wasn’t segregated at all.  Because it was a deep mixture.  I was born that way.  I grew up that way.  So it didn’t become…well, if you want to refer to what is a ghetto, what is not a ghetto… It didn’t become a reservation, man, until after the War, when the War started.  Because as people progressed financially, they moved to different areas.  In fact, the only ghetto area in L.A. at that time was one called Ball Heights, which consisted of a lot of Yiddish, you know…

TP:    The Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles was the only real enclave based on ethnicity or race.

CH:    Exactly.  And when those people became successful, they moved to Beverly Hills.  They started up Beverly Hills.

TP:    I’d still like you to talk about Samuel    Browne.

CH:    Well, Sam Browne was a very good instructor, a very good teacher.  But I don’t think he dug me and I didn’t dig him.  I didn’t really take music in school.  As a matter of fact, he used to give me hell because I was gigging at night, getting to school sometimes on time, sometimes not on time.  I wasn’t in the school orchestra at that time, with Dexter and Jack and James Nelson and all those guys.  As a matter of fact, I was working with Lorenzo Flournoy working for Billy Berg, at his first place, called the Club Capri.

TP:    This was around ’38 or so?

CH:    ’38, ’39, something like that.  This is before Prez left Basie.  I was big-time, man.  I think we were making about $37 a week, which was a lot of dough.  I had my own car.  I was slick. I was cool.  But I was already playing… The only reason why I joined the school band was to get a sweater, which they gave you, and I could go to the games free.

TP:    That band played a rather challenging repertoire.  According to Art Farmer, who was there in 1945, they played Dizzy Gillespie charts at that early time!

CH:    Well, yeah.  See, that was after my time.

TP:    What was he doing in the late 1930’s?

CH:    They were playing Swing music.  Some Ellington things, Earl Hines kind of things, Horace and Fletcher Henderson, those kind of charts.  But here again, I never did anything with them.  But the band that came out of Jefferson was a band called Al Adams during that period.  We formed that band, which was myself, Dexter, James Nelson, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette, Mingus, Lady Wilcor(?), my brother-in-law James Henry, who was a trombone player, Ernie Royal was in it.  We were all about 15-16-17 years old.  As a matter of fact, when Illinois Jacquet first came to L.A. he joined us, and he was about 16 at that time.  Man, this band, we raised so much hell… If a union band had a gig and it was paying $5 we’d take the gig for $4 We raised so much hell with the union, they made a deal with us, and we got into the union practically for nothin’!  They were so happy…

TP:    Get rid of the competition.

CH:    From then, we were all in union.  I think we paid something like $7 to join; it was ridiculous.  But then we started rehearsing at the union.  One fantastic thing that happened was that all the bands when they’d come in, like Jimmie Lunceford, would rehearse at the union, so we had a chance to hear them…

TP:    So you had a chance to get up close to Jimmy Crawford or Jo Jones…

CH:    Oh, man, I’m trying to tell you… And next thing we know, we were doing everything that they were doing, note-for-note, beat-for-beat.  We would imitate them.  We started playing all the school dances, and we would sound like Jimmie Lunceford, we’d sound like Basie… It was dynamite.  Because from that band, the experience I got playing with big bands, and all of us went on to different things and different areas…

I think I was around 16 years old when I got the call to Lionel Hampton’s first band, that “Flying Home” band.  Man, I lasted about two or three weeks, because I wasn’t ready.  I did get that experience, but I wasn’t quite ready.

TP:    What were you lacking, would you say?

CH:    Well, my reading was bad.  I depended upon my ear at that time, and my sight reading wasn’t… I could play, man. I could swing.  I could keep good time.  But reading the charts, following the charts down. I couldn’t do it too well.  I wasn’t quick enough.  They’d waste a lot of time going over different sections just so I could get it.  That’s the band where “Flying Home” became a famous thing.

But when I got fired out of that band, that turned my whole life around, my whole career.  I really got serious.  I’ll never forget the day that they gave me my notice… A friend of mine…well, he wasn’t a friend, but a big-time dude that knew me who was a player, said, “Listen, kid.  You’re hurt now, but don’t let it get to you.”  It turned my whole life around, man.  I really got serious about what I was doing.  From there I got drafted, and this is when I started doing my number as far as learning.

TP:    In our previous show, you mentioned that in the big bands of the 1930’s, something we can’t hear properly on records is how the drummers shaped the sound of the band, like Jimmy Crawford or Papa Jo Jones or Sonny Greer.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Now, when you were in the Al Adams band, emulating the sounds of those bands, were you emulating the styles of those different drummers.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    So you had reached that level of proficiency.

CH:    Yeah.  I could play, man, and I could always keep good time.  I had some funny kind of ideas as far as my solo ideas were concerned.  I wasn’t a straight up-and-down kind of a player.  I have never been interested in being fast, have chops like the Buddy Rich kind of thing.  There’s nothing wrong with that particular style of drummer, but I’ve never been interested in it.  I’m into sound.  I’m into making sounds or creating sounds or inventing sounds, then taking the sounds and creating a mood.  The supply and then the demand, that type of thing.  But at the time, I could play just like Jimmy Crawford if we were playing a Lunceford type of tune.  If we were playing a Basie type of tune, I was Jo Jones.  It was groovy.  It was cool.

It didn’t get confusing, man, until I came out of the Army.  The first dude I heard… Man, I was in Oakland, California, playing a show, in which one of the acts was the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.  We were doing 7 and 8 shows a day, that type of thing.  Then we heard Billy Eckstine was going to play a dance that night, a Friday night in Oakland.  Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get off after of the last show…

TP:    This was with a band called Floyd Ray.  A young Art Farmer was in it, Hampton Hawes…

CH:    Yeah, Art, Hamp.  I’ll tell you something funny as hell that happened when we were up there.  I was taking a solo, my big moment, and Mingus came out with a hammer and started hammering on the bandstand while I was playing! [LAUGHS] I got so teed off at him, man…

Anyway, to make a long story short: We heard Eckstine’s band that night.  That’s when he had Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, “Blowing The Blues Away”, and Art Blakey was on drums.  Man, I had never heard anybody play like this before in my whole entire life!  I was just flabbergasted!  Art Blakey turned me completely around.  I had never heard anybody play the Bebop style of drumming.

TP:    How would you describe that in relation to what Jo Jones and Sonny Greer were doing in terms of your perceptions at the time?

CH:    For instance, Swing, you keep a steady beat going on the sock cymbal, which is the side cymbal, or even the top cymbal — DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING.  You keep that going.  DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING, and every once in a while you might do something with your left hand.  But in playing Bop the way Art Blakey played, he kept something going, DING, DI-DI-DING, but meantime, man, he’d dance between his left hand and his right foot.  DE-DUM, DE-DUM, DE-DUM, BOP!!  CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM, CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM.  Just dancing all the way through, keeping time, and the band was hitting… It worked!  I’d never had no idea of this style of playing.  I was just flabbergasted.

So the next morning, back at the theater, first show, I’m playing for Sammy Davis and his uncle and his father, and we’re playing, keeping time, then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to drop one of these bombs — BOP, BOOM!!  I did that, man, and Sammy’s father, his uncle, they stopped, turned around, and said, “What are you doing?!”

TP:    You didn’t do that any more, huh?

CH:    Oh, Ted, it was unbelievable.  After the show, he came up to me and said, “Listen, son, you’re our favorite drummer.  Don’t do that!” [LAUGHS] I’m just reminiscing.  It was funny as hell.  But I’m saying this is the first time I’d been turned around.

TP:    When you heard Art Blakey, had you been to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club?

CH:    I had just come out of the Army.

TP:    And you went right out on that job?

CH:    I went right out.

TP:    Did you get to see that band during that particular engagement in December ’45 and January ’46.

CH:    No, I didn’t.  But I played with Bird.  After that, during ’45 and ’46, everybody was out on the West Coast.  And I used to jam with Bird all the time.  There was a place on Central Avenue, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s…

TP:    There was a place called Jack’s Nest.

CH:    Jack’s Nest.

TP:    And the Finale Club in Japan-Town where Howard McGhee had a band.

CH:    Yeah.  Maggie was…all the guys.  It was just a happening.  Roy Porter and Chuck Thompson were the popular drummers around that time in L.A. when I got out.  Roy was a Bebop drummer moreso than Chuck Thompson was.  That’s when Wardell Gray and all those guys… It was a happening.

TP:    There’s a recording from 1946 of you backing Lester Young.  What was it like as you for a drummer to play behind Charlie Parker, purely on the rhythmic level?  That must have really developed your conception of the instrument.

CH:    Charlie was really nice to me.  Well, he was nice to everybody, man.  He was a brilliant man, a brilliant human being.  Not only did he encourage you to play, but he gave everybody a shot, the rhythm people at least, to keep some time for him, just to play, to make a gig.  All I know is hey, man, he was a helluva saxophone player.  It was entirely different from me playing with Prez or playing with guys who swung in regards to this new style of playing.

Howard McGhee helped me quite a bit with getting into Bebop playing and understanding what the concept was all about, and the phrasing.  That was most important thing, how you phrased, in playing this particular style of music, leaving space in the rhythm so you can fill up the holes.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know anybody right now who can explain that.  I can’t. [LAUGHS] It’s a style of playing that the concept came about by Diz, Bird, Monk, people like that.  Strangely and oddly enough, when they left the West Coast, that particular style went East.  It didn’t linger on the West Coast.  Shorty Rogers and all those guys, people like that, they come out of the Kenton area, and Stan Kenton’s band was a Swing band… I don’t know, it just left.  Years later when I came back and started my own thing, the quintet with the cello, flute and guitar, we were the furthest thing in the world from playing Bebop, that particular style.

[MUSIC: Prez-CH, “New Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio (Duvivier-Roberts) “Street of Drums”, “Nuttye” (1955); CH-5, “The Morning After” (1956); w/ Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1956); CH-5, “Gone Lover” (1956)]

CH:    This was the first time in the history of recordings that a drum and a guitar and a bass had been recorded as solo instruments alone, as the featured instruments, as opposed to being in a rhythm section.  Up until that time, the rhythm section, which consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, was always just a section — it was never featured.  The fact that we did this… Dick Bock promised to record me because of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet things.  Part of the deal was that each one of us would have an album.  Doing this, it was really something, because nowhere before in this particular form of music, known aa Jazz, had you heard anything like this.  Guitar, bass and drums was very common in Country music and things like that, but not presented as Jazz, solo instruments.

TP:    What were some of the inspirations for the idea?  You mentioned playing in a lot of different situations as a professional drummer, including Chet Atkins, and you undoubtedly heard the Nat Cole Trio and others that used guitar and bass.

CH:    I played with Nat Cole also.  As a matter of fact, Nat played for my wedding.  I can’t BS your listeners and say I had an inspiration.  It just happened.  The fact is, I had an opportunity to make an album, and I just thought of something to be different.  Because the previous albums I’d done with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet became unbelievably big as far as record buyers and record listeners were concerned, a different concept having a trumpet, baritone saxophone, bass and drums.  So I just more or less fell into the same pattern just by having… I was very fortunate, because George Duvivier and myself at that time were working with Lena Horne, and I knew Howard Roberts and liked the way he played, so when the opportunity arose we just did it, and it came off.  It came off beautifully, I thought.  When you stop to consider the fact that this is 1996, it still holds up today as contemporary as far as the sound and feeling are concerned.

TP:    We’ll step back and ask Chico for word portraits of some of the musicians he was associated with and friends with at different points of his career.  I’d like to ask you about Lester Young’s manner as a bandleader, and the kind of relations you had with him.

CH:    Let me tell you something about Prez.  Prez was one of the most sensitive human beings I have ever met or heard of.  He was a very sensitive man.  And he was total, total music, man.  Prez, Eric Dolphy, people like that… He was totally music.  Prez had a tremendous sense of humor for one thing.  Half the time I don’t know whether he was putting me on or putting everybody on or what.  But he was cool.  He was very cool.  Also he was very proper.

TP:    Well-mannered, you mean?

CH:    Well-mannered in regards to being respectful.  Prez was cool, man.

TP:    Did he have a nickname for you?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Yeah, he had one for me… Yeah, he was cool.  In fact, Prez introduced me to Roy Haynes, and Roy and I became friends after that.  But Prez would call everybody “Miss.”  Miss Hamilton, Miss so-and-so; everybody was “Miss” as far as Prez was concerned.  As a matter of fact, the original word “smothertucker” came from Prez, heh-heh.

TP:    He had a house as well in Los Angeles where a number of people would stay?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Any memories of that house?  I gather it was a congregating spot.

CH:    No, no… I recall when I first met Prez, it was one of those days I played hooky from school, and we were all meeting over at Lorenzo Fluornoy’s house, because he was having a session.  We used to put the pots on.  In other words, Lorenzo would cook a great big pot of beans or something like that, and all the musicians in L.A. used to come by his pad.  This particular day I came by there, and the screen door was open, and I looked in and I saw Prez, and I saw this lady that was sitting on Prez’ saxophone case who was Lady!  I told (?), “Hey, man, that’s Lady!”  Sure enough, when I got into the house, he said, “Miss Hamilton, Miss Day.”  That’s when I first met Lady.  She was something else, man; she was really something else, too.

TP:    You mentioned Mingus on the tour up and down the West Coast with Floyd Ray, coming out and banging on the bandstand during one of your solos.  You went way back with him.

CH:    Oh, man, we were almost kids together type of thing.

TP:    You grew up near each other.

CH:    Well, no.  I was in L.A.  He was in what they called Central Gardens, which was between L.A. and Watts.  But my wife and Charlie and Buddy Collette, all went to Sunday School, all went to the same church.

TP:    Do you remember which church?

CH:    No.  I didn’t make it! [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I guess we go back to 12 or 13 years, back when we were youngsters.  People say Charles used to do crazy things, but hey, he was always like that.  He was always a mischievous kid, that kind of thing.  We got along beautifully.  As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him before he passed away…

TP:    You and Mingus and Buddy Collette all knew each other, then, from back when.

CH:    Right.  Buddy had a great influence upon Charlie.  As a matter of fact, Buddy was Charlie’s mentor.  Even up until the time he had got out of Dodge, man, he would always call Buddy.  Every time he had a problem or would run into something, Buddy was his mentor… As a matter of fact, Charlie was playing cello before he played bass, and Buddy talked him into playing bass as opposed to playing a cello.  These guys out in South Los Angeles, they had a band, and we used to jam, and all of a sudden when the main hit came… We all auditioned for one job at the Orpheum Theater, I think it was, to play this show.  Buddy had his band there, and we had our band (the Al Adams Band), and we got the job.  But we needed Buddy and we needed people like that. [LAUGHS] So that’s how we all became one band.  Man, they had a helluva show.  The comedian was Mantan Marlan, and I forget who the big star singer…Ninah Mae McKinney… These were superstars at the time, and we were the pit band.  That’s how we ended up being one very good band.

TP:    In thinking of the types of influences that made the music of the Chico Hamilton Trios and Quintets have a distinctive sound, a lot of the music sounds narrative, like there’s a very specific image in mind, and it would seem influenced in many ways by your exposure to show music and those type of arrangements, film music and things like this.

CH:    I’ll tell you.  The years that I spent as Lena Horne’s accompanist, I was influenced very heavily by Lennie Hayten, her husband.  Between Lennie Hayten and Luther Henderson, my concept as far presentation began to happen, to make things dramatic, make things un-dramatic, whatever…to start creating moods.  I guess the real me started to happen.  I’ve always been a different kind of player.  It was totally impossible for me to try to play like Max Roach, you know, or Art Blakey or Gene Krupa, Jo Jones…

TP:    That was part of the ethos of the time anyway, was for players to develop an individual sound.

CH:    You took a little bit from him, you took a little bit from him, and a little bit from him, and put it all together, and all of a sudden it became you.  That’s what it amounts to.

TP:    By the way, on the liner notes to one of these old LPs, which are an invaluable source of information, you mentioned briefly playing with Jimmy Blanton while the Ellington band was in Los Angeles in 1941, I guess.

CH:    I sure did.  As a matter of fact, I had gone to the movies with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just come home from the movie, and it was about 5 in the afternoon, and when I walked up to the porch door, her mother came out and said, “Forrest, Mr. Ellington… They’ve been calling you all day!”  And I said, “Who…?” — that kind of thing.  Sitting in the car was Herb Jeffries, and he said, “Man, we’ve been waiting on you.  Duke wants you to play.”  Sonny became ill, and they were playing the Casa Mañana out in Culver City.  Here again, man, I was about 19 years old, something like that.  And man, I went out there… We came in through the backstage (because you came in through the back), and the band is playing, and the band was swinging, so man, I just knew they had a drummer up there.  My heart stopped.  I was sort of disappointed, because I really was looking forward to it.  It turned out the band was just hitting, playing its keister off!  I went up there and climbed up, way up on the pyramid type of thing…

TP:    Well, with Jimmy Blanton, sometimes you might not need a drummer…

CH:    Well, at that time, the band set-up was… Sonny Greer was on the top of the band.  The band like a pyramid; it came down in pyramids.  And way down by Duke, by the keyboard, was Jimmy Blanton.  So they were playing, oh, something like “Don’t Get Around Much” or one of those tunes, and man, I just sat down and started playing and started sweeping, and next thing I know, Jimmy Blanton turned around and looked up [LAUGHS], and he says, “Wow!”  Anyway, I stayed on there for a couple of weeks.

TP:    Did you get drafted shortly after that?

CH:    A little later, after I got married.  I was about 21 years old.  But one thing about young players at that time, we had all the records.  Every time a record would come out, man, I had the record, and we would listen to the band.  I knew everything everybody did in the band with the solos.  I could hum or whistle the solos just note-for-note almost.  So this made it really easy in a sense, because I depended upon my ear to play with those bands, to keep the time, because I knew the arrangements.  It wasn’t a question of me reading music, because number-one, man, neither Duke nor Basie, when I joined the bands…there wasn’t one stitch of drum music.  You either knew the charts, or that was it.  So this is how I got around that.

TP:    I think one thing about a lot of the drummers of that period, Art Blakey being a great example, is that he could take a piece of music, and then just know it and transform into his thing.

CH:    Well, you develop that.  That’s something you develop.  For instance, the average arranger, he’d write something for the brass section, the reed section or whatever, and write something for the keyboard and bass, would then say to the drummer, “Hey, you know what to do; you’ve got it.”  Because it was totally impossible for an arranger to write a drum chart, to make it swing.  If it’s a march type of thing, that’s something else.  That’s something different. But to write a Jazz chart and make it swing, you don’t need a drum part.  You give the drummer the first trumpet part.  Because that’s where he’ll make the hits.  He’ll play the same kind of figures that the trumpet players would play, more or less.

TP:    Dexter Gordon is another of your contemporaries from teenage years.  And you mentioned on first hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, it was Jug and Dexter.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    I think in a previous interview you described Dexter as being a kind of pied piper as a youngster, who had his horn out all the time.

CH:    We used to call him Big Stoop. [LAUGHS] Dexter.  Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he constantly had his clarinet in his mouth, all over.  That was it.  He was just clarinet, clarinet, this type of thing.  Man, no one really made the progress that Dexter did.  By the time he left L.A., man, automatically he became a giant.  He became something else, and he gained the respect of all the pros, all the heavyweight players — Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez, people like that.  Prez was the master.  They all tried to simulate… As a matter of fact, we even tried to walk like Prez, talk like Prez, even the porkpie hat…

TP:    Hold the horn sideways.

CH:    What a lot of people don’t know is Prez held the horn that way because he had a problem.  Most people thought he was doing that for show, but he wasn’t.  He did that in order keep the pressure off his gums.

TP:    That’s why he didn’t put the mouthpiece all the way in his mouth.

CH:    Right.  And that’s one of the reasons for the sound he got, which was a beautiful sound.  That was the bottom line to it.  It wasn’t a question of him doing that just for show.  That was the only way he could play his horn.

We came up beautifully, let’s put it like that.  As young as we were, we were all total music, too.

TP:    It seems like those musical values were instilled in you right from the beginning of playing music.  If you were going to go out and play in the community, you had to have certain things right.

CH:    Exactly.  Even today, man, you never… Music, first of all, deserves to be played well at all times, regardless of whether it’s two people in the place, or if you’re playing in the men’s room or the lady’s room.  Music deserves to be played well.  I grew up with this understanding.  I believe that music is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  That’s what keeps it going forever and forever and forever.

TP:    Back to Lester Young, let’s go back to Fort McCullough, Alabama, and your recollections of that experience.

CH:    Man, that was a bad time period.  It’s part of my past that I don’t want to… It was devastating.  It was very devastating for the simple reason that I’m in the Service, I’m not in the band, but I’m attached to the band.  I’m a drummer, and in my company they made me the company clerk and made me a bugler.  The Drum Corps master knew that I was a drummer, but he made me play bugles, just to show you what was going on.  And when Prez… Now, they attached me to the band, so I wasn’t in the band, but whenever a show came through there, I had to play the show, because they had three drummers in the band and none of them could play the show.    So when Prez and Jo came through there, man, they had guys in this band that couldn’t even hold their instruments.  I mean this.  And these people wouldn’t let Jo Jones and Lester Young in that band.  It was disgraceful.  It was unbelievable.  I still can’t get over it.  But it’s part of my past.  It’s just like a lot of other things that happened down there. [LAUGHS]  I don’t want to talk about that.

TP:    It sounds like the most positive thing that happened there was meeting Billy Exiner and learning how to read music.

CH:    That was the most positive thing that happened to me, along with meeting some guys who became my lifelong friends.  Jimmy Cheatham, for instance, was one of the guys who was in the band.  But other than that… Hey, that was then.  This is now.

TP:    Right.  And in our radio chronology, we’re around 1958 in Chico’s music.  The track we’ll hear features a pianist whose name is unknown to me…

CH:    Freddie Gambrell.

TP:    He, bassist Ben Tucker and Chico form the trio.

CH:    Listen, I met this kid in San Francisco.  He’s blind, and he could play his keister off, as you will hear.  This is very rare for the simple reason I haven’t recorded with piano players that much — period.  I played with Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and I did a lot of things with Nat, but it was different, a big thing where he was singing…

TP:    Studio productions.  But with Art Tatum you played as part of the trio?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk a little bit about playing behind Art Tatum?  Was keeping all you had to do, or did you embellish?  What did Art Tatum want from a drummer?

CH:    Well, you’d just try to realize where he was going all the time.  It was dynamite, it was cool.  It was easy playing with Art, in a sense, because all you had to do was swing, keep good time, and that was it.  It was just an accompanying kind of thing; that was it.

TP:    You just worked with him in Los Angeles?

CH:    Just in L.A.  I think we played maybe the 333… Just joints all over L.A.  Clubs, that is.

[MUSIC: CH w/ F. Gambrell, Ben Tucker, “Lullaby Of The Leaves” (1957); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon”; CH-5 w/ B. Collette (ts), P. Horn (as), “Take The A-Train” (1958); CH-5, Dolphy-Katz, “Something To Live For” (1958)]

CH:    Beat Of My Heart with Tony Bennett was a dynamite record.  Tony and I talked about that during when I was playing for Tony, keeping time for him, the combination of keeping time and playing with my own group… Matter of fact, I was in Philly, at the Showboat when they decided to do it, and I had to come up to New York.  It came off beautifully.  Jo Jones is on there as well.  It was really something.  Now, Tony has always had a good sense of time.  His phrasing is really very unique.  Besides, I like him.  We’re friends.  We’ve been friends a long time.

TP:    The first track featured pianist Freddie Gambrell, who seems not to have been heard much from since.  That really orchestral piano style.  He’d obviously listened some to Ahmad Jamal at that time…

CH:    I don’t even know if he’d heard of Ahmad Jamal then, because I don’t think Ahmad Jamal was known on the West Coast during that period.  This was just a young kid, man.  He was blind, but he could play his keister off.  Fantastic pianist.  Matter of fact, every time I would be in Frisco, there was an after-hour joint where we used to hang out called Slim’s, and we’d go in there and jam all night long.  The night I came in and heard him, he was sounding so good, I wanted to play with him.  So we sat up and played, and I think we played until 9 or 10 o’clock the next day, he and I and I don’t recall who was playing bass at the time.  But here Dick Bock had given me an opportunity to record again, and I told him about this kid, and it all came about.

TP:    A couple of points you raised.  In talking about singers, you didn’t say “playing drums for”, but “keeping time for.”  Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine for a minute, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole.  What’s the difference between playing for a singer within an instrumental situation?  Why is it different?

CH:    Well, number one, you never know what a singer is going to do.

TP:    Does that mean that a singer who is a skilled improviser will treat the music differently, or something less complimentary than that?

CH:    Well, all respects to singers, because I learned how to play by playing for singers.  It calls upon… You have to have a magic wand and you have to be able to look into the future playing for singers.  Because singers are subject to do things on the spur of the moment.  It all depends on what their mood is all about.  If they get an idea in the middle of a phrase, if they decide they don’t want to phrase that way, it will just change automatically, as opposed to a horn player who is more or less restricted because there is just so much he can do.  In other words, there are only so many keys on the instrument, and he’s only got ten fingers on the horn — or three if it’s a trumpet.  Singers, first of all, have the perfect instrument, which is the human voice, and they do with what and do what with.  And to keep time for them… A lot of singers don’t know how to keep time.  They just sing the way that they feel, as if they were singing in the bathroom or in the shower.  So in order to make it cohesive as a drummer, you have to keep the thing going so that the other players, if it’s a piano and bass accompanying the singer, make some sense out of it, so it gives them some idea of where they are at all times.  Because a lot of times, a lot of singers don’t sing in tune.  They have no idea that they’re not in tune, as well as singing the melody or whatever the composition is or whatever the song is.

Overall, in playing for singers, you learn how to anticipate in regards to what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.  I played for Lena Horne for eight years, and I only saw her once from the front, and that was when we were in Madison Square Garden.  All the rest of the time, the only thing I saw of her, man, was her keister.  I was right behind her.  I developed a system of watching her neck, and I could tell when she was going to reach for a note or something like that.  Playing for Lena was something else, because you never knew what Lena might decide…you never knew what tempo she was going to do something in.  She could sing, man.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a vocalist and for her musicianship… We’re all musicians.  You don’t have to be a player to be a musician.  In other words, I can’t tell you how to listen.  So everybody’s a musician as far as I’m concerned.

TP:    Tell me about your brief time with Billy Eckstine.  Or how brief was it?

CH:    With B?  I did several shows with B.  That had to be in the late ’40s and then the beginning of the ’50s.  Well, number one, B was a trombone player, a musician, and Mr. Class.  He was cool!  He was one of my favorite singers, him and Johnny Hartman.  B contributed a lot, man, to the contemporary style of not only singing, but phrasing and songs, good songs.  B sang good songs.  Everything he sang became a hit, was automatically a hit… Let’s put it this way.  Everything he recorded became big.

TP:    Well, he was a style-setter.  Like you related the way people would wear Lester Young’s porkpie hat, everyone would try to dress like Billy Eckstine.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    He had a much greater impact than people realize on the generation of people who came up after World War Two.

CH:    Well, just like Sinatra influenced a lot of people, Eckstine influenced a lot of people.  He was very hip.

TP:    What was his manner like with the musicians?  He was always supposed to be totally at one with…

CH:    Oh, man, he was a sideman as far as he was concerned!  He was always one of the guys, one of the dudes.  B was cool.  I mean that in a complimentary sense.

TP:    I can’t remember if I asked you about playing with Lady Day or not.

CH:    Lady?  Playing with Lady was dynamite.

TP:    Now, she was unpredictable, but I’ll bet there was never any question about…

CH:    No, she wasn’t unpredictable as far as keeping time was concerned.  Lady swung.  Her and Ella were good swingers.  They swung.  Their phrasing was different.

TP:    Would she treat material differently from one performance to the next?

CH:    Not so much as Lena would.  Lena would treat material different.  Plus, a majority of Lena’s book, her library, her repertoire was very heavily arranged.  It was really a challenge, because it was very well arranged, and we always worked with 12-to-15 piece orchestras accompanying her, whereas with Lady it was Bobby Tucker and a bass player and myself sometimes, which was cool, which really kept a free, flowing kind of thing going.  With Ella it would be the same thing, small groups.

TP:    So the singer would be more like a horn really in a situation like that.

CH:    Well, they were.  Matter of fact, one of the hippest times I can recall playing with Lady, Wardell Gray was on tenor, Hampton Hawes was on piano, Curtis Counce was on bass, and I was on drums.  And man, we swung a hole in her head!  I’ll tell you, we had a ball.  It was a happening.

TP:    So by the mid-’50s, Chico, you were working behind a lot of singers, pretty steady work…

CH:    That’s the name of the game, man, steady work.  Go ahead.

TP:    I understand.  And you came up during the Depression, when you had to have a job.  That was the first order of business.  But I’d like to talk about the development of the Chico Hamilton group in its various configurations.  Of course you’d known Buddy Collette for a good twenty years by this time.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Fred Katz.

CH:    Fred worked with us with Lena Horne.  Lena was doing a production number called “Frankie and Johnny”, and wherever we went we had to have a string section.  We were here in New York, as a matter of fact, at the Copacabana, and it was during the “Frankie and Johnny” period, which was a huge production number, with singers and things like that.  Fred Katz was the cellist in that group.  We became friendly, playing together every night and that kind of thing.  At that time I had no idea that Fred was a pianist as well.  So to make a long story short, when I left Lena I went back to California — my mother was ill.  Just playing around town, I became very disappointed in some of my old cronies who I used to play with.  I didn’t feel as though they had progressed any.  They were still playing the same old kind of way and the same old kind of things.  I got bored.

I realized that the only way for me to play and keep it halfway interesting, I had to get my own thing started — and so I did.  Originally I was going to use the French horn.  There was a French horn player by the name of John Graas.  I had met Jim Hall, and I knew Carson from the Gerry Mulligan days.  Of course, I knew Buddy from growing up; I needed a triple-threat man to play alto, clarinet, tenor, flute.  So the first rehearsal we had, unfortunately, John Graas had a heart attack, so that was the end of that.  Out of left field I get a call from Fred Katz who said he was playing for a singer named Jana Mason, and would I help them out; they needed somebody to make a couple of things with them out at one of those Hollywood places.  So I said, “yeah,” and I went on out, and I played two nights with them.  One thing led on to another, Fred wanted to know what I was doing, and I told him about my group and about John passing.  He said, “What if I come up to the rehearsal and bring my cello.”  I said, “Yeah!”  So he came over, made the rehearsal… It happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time.  That’s the bottom line to it.

TP:    Is that a sound you had in your mind before forming that group?

CH:    No, at first I had French horn in mind (there’s no similarity, but there is a similarity), using the guitar, bass, drums and the horn.  So it developed, and then it went on and became history.

TP:    When Eric Dolphy joined the band in 1958, he came to you as a player who was well known to musicians in the Los Angeles area, a master, mature, 30-year-old musician, already proficient on flute, bass clarinet and alto sax.  When were you first in touch with Eric Dolphy, in the early part of the ’50s?

CH:    Eric followed Paul Horn.  When Paul left the band, I needed another horn player, and my brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (he and Eric went to school together), recommended Eric.  I vaguely recalled Eric, but I had spent so much time out of L.A., back and forth, that I didn’t know… In the meantime I had called a very good friend of mine, the composer-arranger Gerald Wilson.  Eric was playing with Gerald at the time, and Gerald recommended him very highly.  So that was it.  Eric came on the band and read everything that we had, and sounded fantastic and played exceedingly well.  That was it.  I took him out and brought him east when we went out on tour.

It’s a funny thing.  Some people didn’t like him at first.

TP:    What was it about him that caused that reaction?

CH:    What caused that reaction was because they didn’t understand his style of playing.  Having heard the previous players in my band, people who had a straight-ahead kind of approach to melodies, Eric shook them up, which was dynamite as far as I was concerned.  I watched him grow.  I watched him grow.  I watched him develop into a tremendous player.  And next thing you know, he had a tremendous following going.  At that time I disbanded up that band in New York, and went back to California.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ Dolphy, “Gongs East (1958),” “Don’s Delight,” “Miss Movement” (1959), CH-5 (1992), “Mandrake”]

CH:    That set on touched on Chico Hamilton’s relationship through music with Eric Dolphy, three tracks, plus “Mandrake” from a recent dedication recording on Soul Note, My Panamanian Friend.  If I’m not mistaken, “Miss Movement” from 1959, was Dolphy’s first recorded composition, on which Chico Hamilton sings as well as swings throughout the recording.   On the liner notes to My Panamanian Friend, Jeff Caddick took down Chico’s recollections of Eric Dolphy, and as Chico mentioned before the music: “Every place we went all over the country, the first thing people would say was, ‘Get rid of him!’  Everybody wanted me to fire him.”  Of course you did not do that.  You told him that you needed the sound that Paul Horn and Buddy Collette provided before him, but on solos he was free to operate.  Has this always been the case with your groups that once the solo comes, it’s totally up to the individual…

CH:    You’re on your own.  You’re strictly on your own.  Any time you play music, well-arranged scores, compositions, etcetera, there has to be a certain amount of freedom of expression.  This is my way of letting players develop into what they want to be musically.  So I put no restrictions on anybody’s solo.  If you want to holler on your horn, it’s all right with me.  It’s cool.  Because at least you’re showing me hat you’re reaching for something.  This only way that you’re going to come into your very own as far as making music.  You have to be allowed, you have to be able to play what you hear, play what you feel.  There’s no problem playing notes that are written and arranged a certain way, a certain time meter, etcetera.  This is what Classical music is all about.  But to be able to have that freedom, that’s it.  This is one of the ways that Eric and all of us, in a sense, helped ourselves develop into what we are as players.

TP:    You mentioned again in the recollections in My Panamanian Friend that the second time this band went around the country, Eric Dolphy was accepted by most everyone who heard him, especially the musicians.  Everyone has a Sonny Stitt anecdote from the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and so forth, and there’s another one here involving he and Eric Dolphy, with a slightly different resolution than most of the stories you hear.

CH:    Man, let me tell you.  We were in Philadelphia, and in all the clubs in Philadelphia you had to play a 5 o’clock on Monday and Saturday as well as playing at night.  We got in town a couple of days early, and Sonny Stitt was playing.  We were following Sonny Stitt in the club.  So we went to the matinee on a Saturday afternoon.  I think we’d just gotten in that morning.  I had Eric with me.  Eric always carried his horns with me.  We were sitting at the bar, the bandstand was over the bar, and all of a sudden Sonny looks down and sees me, and we speak, we acknowledge each other, and all of a sudden on the mike he says, “Hey, Cheeks, I hear you’ve got a little bad alto player.  Tell him to come up and play something.”  I said to Eric, “Yeah, man, go up and play.”  Sonny Stitt figured he was going to blow him off the bandstand.  So Eric came up, took his horn out, the alto, went up on the bandstand, they did the ensemble, the first chorus, and Sonny Stitt starts playing, plays his thing, does half-a-dozen choruses…

TP:    Played about eight keys…

CH:    Yeah, and things like that.  Then he looked at Eric and says, “You got it.”  Right?  Man, Eric started playing.  Sonny kept looking at me, looking at me, looking at me, looking at Eric: “Where did you get this guy?  Where did you get this guy?”  Eric was something else.  He blew Sonny Stitt off the stand, really.  And that’s saying something.

TP:    In the liner notes to The Three Faces of Chico Hamilton, on which “Miss Movement” appears, there’s a nice quote where you talk about creating an individual environment for each of the tracks with the standard drum kit.  You say, “It’s difficult for a drummer to play anything different than any other average drummer, although each drummer does have his own individual styling.  I use the standard equipment I have with me whenever the quintet takes the stand — two cymbals, sock cymbal, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drums.  I don’t use tympani because I’m not a timpanist; I don’t carry them around.  I work with sticks, mallets and brushes to obtain different sound textures.”  Now, on the 1992 version of “Mandrake” you put a whole different beat and feeling on it than the original with J.C.  Moses on drums.  It was done in a more free-floating time; you use more of a funk beat and so forth.  Talk about analyzing tunes and putting your own stamp on material.

CH:    Well, the fact that Eric Dolphy had done “Mandrake” originally… Well, this album was Jeff Caddick’s idea.  He put the bug in my ear, “Hey, why don’t you do something of Eric Dolphy’s?”  The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it would be dynamite, for the simple reason that people talk about Eric Dolphy, but I haven’t heard any contemporary musician play any of his music.  I’m talking about the contemporary musicians today, the people out here today who are supposed to be reputed Jazz players.  They play Bird, they play Diz, but I haven’t heard them play any Eric Dolphy.  Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why we said, “Yeah, let’s do an album of all Eric’s music.”  Number-one, his music isn’t that easy to play.  Most guys find it problematic structurally.  So in order to put a different twist on it, I just did a different kind of rhythm approach.  As opposed to giving it a straight 4, a Bebop 4, I just put a little Funk thing underneath there, a little Rock beat or whatever you want to call it.  It makes a difference.  As a matter of fact, it was so different that Bonandrini, who owns the record label, didn’t like it at all! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there anything else you’d like to say about Eric Dolphy before we move on with the music?

CH:    Eric Dolphy was perhaps one of the nicest guys, nicest person, really… He was a gentleman, and he was totally dedicated to playing, to music, to his instruments, etcetera, etc., and he was a very nice person — very nice.  He did a lot of things for people that they don’t even know he did for them.  He was very kind to everyone.  I don’t think he had a vicious bone in his body, man.  I’m very proud to have spent some time with him.

TP:    The next band, the next period of Chico Hamilton’s career featured four musicians who made their mark on music.  Charles Lloyd on reeds, who was able to give the triple-threat, and also went to USC, as did Dolphy; Gabor Szabo on guitar; Albert Stinson on bass, who had he not died as young as he did, would undoubtedly have made a big mark; and George Bohannon on trombone (a two-horn front line).  A few words about creating different repertoires, different vocabularies, different environments for new groups of musicians.  Are you tailoring the music to the personalities or are the personalities fitting your music?

CH:    Well, Ted, the bottom line to that is that old colloquial expression about “do with what and do what with.”  That says it all.  Do you understand that?  Or is that too far-fetched…or too unfetched?

TP:    That’s clear, I think.

CH:    That’s what I do.  I don’t know what anyone else does.  I learned that from the one and only Edward Kennedy, Mr. Duke Ellington, because he did it better than anyone in regards to tailoring everything he did around the player.

TP:    Now, Ellington chose very carefully and selectively the people who would play with him, 95 percent of the time, I’d think.

CH:    Yeah, but 95 percent of the time he composed or arranged something, he had a particular player or a particular sound in mind.  He had the player in mind.  He knew the sound, but he had the player, because he knew no other player would play it like the player would play it.

TP:    And that’s why he got them.

CH:    Well, you dig?  That’s the bottom line.  In my case I did the same thing.  I would change up on groups.  After so many… It’s not that you get bored, but you use a sound, you do a sound as long as you can, and go with it, and as long as it keeps that thing happening, then it’s dynamite. When the thing begins to not start happening, when it becomes not music, when you find yourself imitating yourself, when you find, “Hey, I’m so busy trying to be Chico Hamilton that I can’t even play,” you know what I mean, then you change up.  It becomes time to change.  No one did that any better than Miles.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Miles for doing things like that.  And Art constantly had new groups.  Once you find a young player and you help them develop, they’re supposed to move on.  And every time someone moves on, I don’t expect them to play like the previous group or the previous player.  Because here again, everyone’s got their own sound.  They need their own space.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ C. Lloyd and G. Szabo, “Witchcraft”, “People”; w/ Mariano and Richardson, “Manila”, “Conquistadores”, “Jim-Jennie”]

CH:    Man, I’m hearing some of this music for the second time.  I never play it.

TP:    You never play your old music?

CH:    No.  As a matter of fact, people when they come to my house, I play everything else but me, and they say, “Hey, why don’t you play something… We want to hear something of yours.”  But I don’t know.  Only rarely do I play any of my music.

TP:    Getting into talk show territory here, what kind of things do you listen to in relaxing and putting music in your consciousness?

CH:    I listen to all kinds of music.  I listen to Classical music, I listen to Rock-and-Roll, I listen to Country-and-Western, I listen to bad music, I listen to good music.  To me, it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I mean that sincerely.  The hip thing is to listen to something and don’t critique.  Just listen to what it is and what it’s all about, and try to put yourself in maybe the player’s shoes or in his place, and if you can understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, what he’s trying to say, that’s really dynamite.

TP:    It seems like in the mid-’60s, when you did this series of recordings for Blue Note, you were listening to Spanish music, the Flamenco sound among other things.  You really start using the properties of the guitar quite a bit.

CH:    First of all, at one I time I was the only guy that used guitar.  Everyone else was using the piano and keyboards and things like that.  From the very beginning, I was the guitar player’s best friend.  I’ve always used guitar.  It’s only within the last 15 or 20 years that other people have used guitars and their usage… I’m an originator, man!

TP:    I’m talking specifically about some the devices of Spanish music…

CH:    Oh, the Latin feeling, man.  It’s part of my life.

TP:    A lot of musicians in the Southwest worked in bands dealing with Mexican music, and I asked you off-mike if that had been part of your experience.

CH:    And what did he say?

TP:    He said, “Chicano music?  I have a little of that blood in me, that’s all.”  But I didn’t say it to them.  I’d like you to be saying it.

CH:    Hey, I don’t speak English; I play conga drum, man.

TP:    Well, last time you were talking of playing trap drums as opposed to hand drums, and the distinctiveness of the trap drum set as an instrument.

CH:    Well, there’s a big difference, man; a tremendous difference.  The fact that a drummer is playing a full set of drums, meaning that he has snare drum that he plays with his hands, he has a bass drum that he plays with his feet, and he has a sock cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal that he plays with foot, with his left foot if it’s right-handed, and you have cymbals that you’re playing on, that means you’ve got all four things going as opposed to a hand drummer, who has his hands.  I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for hand drummers, because man, their hands are their sticks, their implements, their brushes, their mallets.  Whereas a sit-down drummer, playing a regular set, you have to control each one of these separate instruments which completes the set, and to play, to keep some time and to keep a good rhythm pattern going along with a hand drummer, is… It’s more than a notion.  Because hand-drumming, when they play those hand drums, they get set on a beat.  TOCKY-TI-BOOM, TOCKY-TI-BOOM — that’s set.  Well, in order to get in between there and help it to swing, you’ve got to come up with something entirely different.  But that’s got to correlate, it’s got to groove, it’s got to hit that same pocket.  You’ve got to find out where the main pulse is, whether it’s on one or whether it’s on the upbeat or whether it’s on the downbeat.  If it’s on the downbeat, that means that anything that goes down is down, anything that comes up is up.  It’s not easy for the two to really hit it off and to make it happen, but when it does happen it’s dynamite, when a sit-down drummer and conga player and timbales player can really mash.  It’s cool.  And it was a helluva challenge in the beginning to get this sort of groove going.  It turned out so well that Bob Thiele, who was producing these records at the time… That’s the reason we did a whole series of them, which was cool.

TP:    In the ’60s, you had been in New York, then gone back to California when your mother was ill, then you went from being in the studios backing singers on the West Coast to doing a lot of commercials and being part of the New York studio scene, which was a very different deal.  Talk about your parallel activities during the 1960’s, when those records for Blue Note were being issued.

CH:    Well, I was on the road.  I was virtually on the road at the time.  Because in the Impulse days I had the quartet with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson.  That’s mainly the Impulse period.

TP:    Say a few words about each of those musicians and how you recruited them.

CH:    The day that Charles graduated from USC is the day that he joined my band.  I took him on the road.  I took him out of L.A.  He couldn’t wait to get out of L.A.  He wanted to go on the road for the first time in his life.  And Gabor?  We were in Newport when Gabor first heard the group, and he was determined to play with me, play in my group.  As it came about, when I disbanded the cello group and put the word out I was going to form a new group, in some kind of way Gabor found out about it, and next thing I know I get a phone call from him.  Charles helped me to recruit Albert Stinson.  He knew Stinson from playing in Pasadena.  When Stinson first came in the band, he was only 16 years old.  He was a young genius as far as bassists are concerned.  Here again, man, I’m very fortunate.  There happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time.

TP:    A couple of other musicians of note appear in their early years on those recordings, like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    Sadao’s a big superstar now.  He’s very big over in Japan, and I guess throughout Europe.

TP:    Was he part of your working group?

CH:    Yeah.

TP:    And ditto with Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    You know, there used to be a bar here in New York, one of the hippest bars in the whole entire world.  It was on 48th Street right off of 6th Avenue between 6th and 7th, and it was called Jim and Andy’s.  If you wanted to see or find out where everybody was, you went to Jim and Andy’s, and that’s where we hung out.  As a matter of fact, A&R Studios was right above the bar.  Well, I met Arnie Lawrence at the bar at Jim and Andy’s.  I think Clark Terry introduced us. At that time he and Clark were playing in the Tonight Show band.  One word led on to another, one drink led on to another, and we started hanging out every day.  After my sessions I would hang out there.  It just happened.  I told him, hey, I’m going to start putting something together, and he said he would be interested, and we just started rehearsing and getting it together.  I knew Larry Coryell from the West Coast, and introduced Larry and Arnie both on The Dealer, and the record was a winner.

TP:    Now, in the ’60s your personal style begins to expand vocabulary-wise, and incorporate rhythms from Rock and Funk and Soul Music and Latin Music.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk about the process of assimilating these different sounds in your vocabulary.

CH:    You know, if they keep moving they can’t hit you.

TP:    Is that like “sting like a butterfly, float like a bee”?

CH:    [LAUGHS] I don’t know, man… I could give you a big story, BS you about something, but in all honesty I don’t know why.

TP:    Does it have something to do with playing commercials and studio type things where you had to play a lot of different rhythms?

CH:    No.  I was very fortunate as far as my commercial career was concerned here in New York as a producer and a player, because I composed everything.  In order to be different from my competitors, the only thing different that could be would be the rhythms, not the melodic structure of a commercial.  So the fact that I would come up with different ideas, with different rhythm patterns and use them… Hey, once I played a pattern it was mine, and I just went on to use it to enhance upon it.

TP:    What are two or three patterns that were signature Chico Hamilton patterns in the ’60s?

CH:    Well, we have a thing here on a track we’re going to play called “Guitar Willie,” which I’d say would be a typical Chico Hamilton rhythm pattern type of thing.  It’s difficult for me to say how I play.

TP:    This one features Steve Potts, who was introduced with you, Russ Andrews, Eric Gale.  Ray Nance plays violin on this date, who I guess you must have first met when you hit with Ellington that time.  This one is called The Head Hunters… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: CH w/ Potts & Gale “Guitar Willie,” “Theme For A Woman”; CH live, w/ Mark Cohen, Abercrombie, “Without A Song” (1971); w/ A. Lawrence, Alex Foster, M. Richmond, B. Finnerty “In View” (1973); w/ A. Blythe, “Sweet Dreams” (1972)]

TP:    A long set of music    by Chico Hamilton from the late ’60s and early ’70s, incorporating electronic and contemporary sounds into his drum style, never losing a beat and creating fresh and original sounds and rhythmic figures.

The final set will focus on recent configurations with young musicians getting seasoning with Chico — Eric Person on reeds, Cary De Nigris, guitar, sometimes Kenny Davis on bass and sometimes no bassist.  Let’s talk about the formation of this recent group, which has produced as strong and cohesive and individual a body of music as any group you’ve had.

CH:    First of all, Cary and Eric, I raised them more or less.  They joined me when they were very young, young guys.  I think both were very new to New York at the time.  We’ve been together eight or nine years maybe… So over a period of time we’ve grown to know each other, know each other’s strong points and weak points in regard to music.  They’ve come into their not only as fantastic players, but very good composers and very good professional musicians.

TP:    Considering the quality of the saxophones you’ve employed since the early ’50s with Buddy College, what are you looking for from your reed and woodwind players?

CH:    First of all, if I feel as if they have something to say and I can help them study, it’s dynamite.  Do you understand that?

TP:    If they have a voice and you can help bring that voice out.

CH:    Exactly.  Because in the beginning they’re not fully  developed.  They don’t even know themselves what they want to do, or they have an idea but they don’t know how to go about getting there.  And fortunately, I am able to help them find a direction.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the ability to get around the instrument is a given once a player is with you, i.e., sound, facility, technique, knowledge of theory and so forth.  But is that the quality you’re looking for?  Is that inner voice looking to break out of the shell, so to speak, or to mature and grow?  Is that the main thing for you?

CH:    Well, one of the important things is that they have a desire to want to grow.  They have a story that they want to tell.

TP:    How do you determine that when you first meet someone?

CH:    Well, it’s not easy, but you can tell.  I’m not impressed with somebody who can play his keister off right away, that kind of thing, who can play the instrument extremely well.  It’s how much music comes out of it, which is a big difference as far as I’m concerned.  I’d rather hear a young player try to do something, and if he doesn’t make it, it’s cool — but at least he tries.   Which means he’s going to really stretch and develop into his own person, his own sound.  That’s the only way music can be different, as long as someone plays himself.  Because you never know… Being a young player, just like being a young person, from a teenager to young adulthood, you mature.  And when you have an opportunity to play the way that we play, the way I structure my sound, my music, my arrangements and things like that, I give full opportunity for a player to be himself and play himself.  That’s why over a period of years all these guys eventually become fantastic soloists as well as good players.  They come out of my band and start their own bands, become good bandleaders with an individual sound.  I guess that’s about as close as I can come to it.  That’s close enough for Jazz anyway, right?

The first track on the next set is a soundtrack from a German movie.  The director was Rudolf Tomei(?), and it was my first association with him.  Since then we’ve done several films.  The most fantastic thing about this score and working with this director, he never forgot why he hired me.  Most directors, somewhere down the line, when you record, they become the composer.  But this man let me do what I thought and the way I felt about his film, which was dynamite.  As a matter of fact, the film opens up with a guy on a bicycle going to the park with his baby daughter.  It’s almost self-explanatory when you hear it.

[MUSIC: CH Movie soundtrack, CH, “Sorta New,” “Jeffrey Andrew Caddick,” “Song For Helen,” “Every Time I Smile”]

TP:    Are you always writing new music?  Does this happen whether you’re working or laying off?

CH:    Always.  It goes in spurts, though.  If everything is right and I’m thinking good, and I come up with some ideas, I’ll just concentrate on writing.  Then when it’s time to play, I’ll just play.

TP:    Do you practice a lot?  Are you past practicing at this point?

CH:    No, I practice, man.  I’d better.  There’s too many young players out there, man!  No, I try to practice every day.  As a matter of fact, I get the guilts when I’m at the keyboard, because when I’m at the keyboard something says, “Hey, man, you should be playing your drums.”  And vice-versa, that type of thing.

TP:    What’s your practice regimen?

CH:    There’s a difference between practicing and rehearsing.  I rehearse with the group, but when I practice, I practice within myself and the instrument.  I try to keep my chops, my hands and my facilities very loose so that I can play, and to have the strength to play… I’m a high energy kind of a player, and if you’re not in shape, playing with these young guys who can play… Eric Person is unbelievable, Cary De Nigris is unbelievable, and we’ve got a new little bass player by the name of Kip Reed who’s for real, man.  So I get as much from them as they probably get from me.  As a matter of fact, I probably come out winners as far as the energy aspect of it and the musical thing.  But in practicing, I practice my instrument because I’m still trying to learn how to play it.

TP:    You mentioned Sonny Greer, Jo Jones and Art Blakey as the three major influences in forming your style.  I’m interested in other drummers apart from them who you’ve admired, perhaps been influenced by, perhaps not, and the reasons why.

CH:    Well, who I consider my peers, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, people like this, I marvel at what they do, the things they have to say drumnistically and the way that they play.  It’s fantastic.  For one thing, no two drummers can play alike, no two drummers can sound alike.  It’s the physical aspect; I might have long arms and they might have short arms, and vice-versa.  This is how you approach the instrument.  They each have something different that they’re saying.  Elvin is completely different from Max Roach, his playing, his style, his whole ambiance, his thunder.  It’s dynamite.  It really drives you.  Max is a classic within himself, within the realm of his ability to do the things he does on the instrument.  And Roy Haynes, here again, he’s completely different from Max.  And I’m completely different from all three of them.  Plus the fact, I like anybody, man.  Any young drummer, anybody who strives to play, because I know what it takes to play the instrument.

TP:    Any of the young drummer who’ve particularly impressed you, or don’t you want to name names.

CH:    Yeah, if I can remember them.  Pheeroan akLaff, I’m very impressed with his playing.  There are a lot of them.   It’s just a question of not remembering their names.  I don’t make the scene too much any more.

TP:    A few words about the drums and dance.  There seems to be sort of an ongoing dance between the drummer and his kit.

CH:    That’s what it’s all about.  The tap-dance.  That’s what drumming is all about, really.

TP:    Did you ever play with any tap dancers?

CH:    Did I ever play with any tap dancers!  Quite a few, as a matter of fact.  There was a tremendous dance team by the name of the Berry Brothers, there was a tremendous team named the Nicholas Brothers.  I kept time for them.  I think I played with Baby Lawrence at one time or another.  When you were in the big bands, that’s what you did.   You played for all those dancers.  Most bands when they were on the road, they were with a show.  There was a complete show.  They would have dancers and singers and things like that.  So you had to learn to play for dancers, which is an art within itself.  But laying down taps on one of my records… The last album I did, Dancing To A Different Drummer, I simulate a tap dancer dancing.  I do a brush solo, which is the same kind of thing, same kind of groove.


TP:    Chico Hamilton is a drummer who has gone through almost the full history of the music, and he’s experienced just about everything that a working drummer could, from Swing music to backing singers to tap dancers to studio dates and reading, and continued to pick up on contemporary rhythms and formulating a very distinctive and individual style to them.

CH:    I appreciate it immensely.  The chance to come into a studio like this and get to hear your music played for five hours consecutively is a privilege, in fact.  It don’t happen every day!

[MUSIC: solos, “Tap Drums,” “The Snare Drum”]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Charles Mingus, “Mysterious Blues” (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, Mosaic, 1960/19__). Charles Mingus (bass, composer); Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums)

I don’t know whether that was Roy or not. It wasn’t Sweets. It might have been Roy Eldridge. That’s either a bad recording of Bird or Sonny Stitt. I don’t know. Neither one of them? I don’t know who it is. The drummer could be Denzil Best. It’s hard for me to detect whoever’s sweeping, you know. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard this before – for one thing. [There are a few people here whom you know very well.] Was the drummer Jo Jones? Okay, that’s Jo sweeping. Is that George Duvivier? [How do you like the whole thing?] For then, it was good. It’s still good now, but it’s a little… It’s nothing I would retain. It’s just some guys blowing, as far I’m concerned. Dig? Today I’m not really into solos. I don’t care what you play in your solo. I’m more interested in the ensemble sound and things like that. So just listening to somebody blow… Hey, I’ve heard them all and I’ve played with half of them, which is cool. But I don’t know who this is. Who in the hell is that? [Charles Mingus is playing bass.] It was Mingus playing bass? See, now, Mingus and I grew up together. But I’ve never really heard him play like this. I’ve heard enough of this. I’d give it 5 stars. First of all, excuse my French, but they weren’t fucking around, man. They were playing! They were playing their hearts out. As far as the performance is concerned, that’s cool. The alto player moved like Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think Sonny was on the scene during that period. [When do you think it was recorded?] Man, it had to be recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. [It was Eric Dolphy.] That was Eric? I thought it was Eric, but I wasn’t sure. Honest to God.

2. Paul Motian Trio, “Dance” (from I Have The Room Above Her, ECM, 2005) (Motian, drums, composer; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

I’ve never heard this before. Is this Ornette Coleman? Not having heard this before and not knowing who it is – and you want to know what I think of it? It’s a form of an expression… As far as I’m concerned, it takes all kinds of music to make music. If this is where your head is and your heart is and your listening vibes are, then it sounds right. If it’s not, it’s just some guys – as far as I’m concerned – doing whatever they do. Not to say that they’re doing it well. It’s every player for himself. Now, if there’s some form to it, they know the form. They got the secret. But I haven’t been able to pick up the form. [Any thoughts on the performers?] Well, there again, I’m from the school of having a pulse. I don’t get no pulse of whoever this is who’s playing, regardless of his chops. I’ve had it. It just sounds like they’re exercising. It’s difficult for me to give it stars. One of my favorite phrases is “how’s your feelings?’ That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. If that’s the way they felt, dynamite. That’s cool. Far be it from me to say, “Man, they sound like shit.” But in my opinion, I couldn’t listen to this no more than once. I don’t even know what kind of groove they were trying to say. Who were they? The Paul Motian Trio? Lovano ain’t no Mulligan and what’s-his-name ain’t no Bill Evans, so he’s out there by himself as far as I’m concerned.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, #1″ (from Baby Dodds: Talking and Drum Solos, Folkways/Atavistic, 1946/2005) (Baby Dodds, drums)

Well, it has to be some drummer from either the ‘50s or ‘60s, because he’s just playing the straight 4/4 on his bass drum. He’s not playing any syncopation licks. Everything’s on the downbeat. A lot of guys played like that during that period. Who that is, it’s difficult to say. Basically, it’s a Gene Krupa style of playing as far as I’m concerned, from what I heard. But it’s not him. You got me. I don’t know who that is. It’s good, though. It’s a little too straight-up and down for me, but the chops were cool. But like I said, I didn’t feel any syncopation. I didn’t hear any hot licks. Everything was straight up and down. It started off as a march and it stayed a march, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give him 5 stars. He was doing he was doing. Baby Dodds! Well, I knew it was one of those guys who went way back there. That’s cool. As a matter of fact, on my solo drum album I had 10 tracks, and every last one of them was different – rhythmically different.

4.  Jason Marsalis, “Seven Ay Pocky Way” (from Music In Motion, Basin Street, 1999) (Marsalis, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto saxophone; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; Peter Harris, bass)

It’s played very well. Having the rhythm, having drummer playing on top like that is dynamite; he’s got his shit going. But I have no idea who it is. I’ve never heard this before. But it’s good. [Do you like to incorporate these kinds of beats in your playing?] Here again, I’ve got the feeling of that New Orleans style of drumming; in other words, you’re dancing, but you’re not swinging. Strutting. But whatever they’re doing, they’re doing the hell out of it. I’ll give it 5 stars, too, man.

5.  Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from The Water Is Wide, ECM, 2000) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s Charles Lloyd. I finally got one. How do I know it’s Charles Lloyd? I raised Charles Lloyd. I gave him his first job, man, when he came out of school in L.A. He was at USC. When he graduated, I took him on the road. He was playing alto then. He eventually got to tenor. I don’t know the song. Oh, it’s by Ellington? Did Duke write it or Swee’pea wrote it? Duke wrote it? Okay. The performance? It’s par for the course. How do I mean that? His treatment for this particular composition is dynamite! He couldn’t do it any better. So that’s it. Is the drummer Billy Higgins? I thought quite a bit of his playing. Billy was a good player. He’s doing probably the same thing here that I would do – or I would do the same thing he was doing. There’s only one way to play for this kind of thing, to play on this kind of rhythm. 5 stars. It’s cool.

6.   Chick Webb, “Liza” (from Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald: Savoy Ambassadors, 1936-1939, JBM, 1937/1991) (Webb, drums; Bobby Stark, trumpet; Sandy Williams, trombone)

Is this Gene Krupa? No? It’s not Buddy Rich. Either Dave Tough or somebody like that? [It’s not a white drummer.] Cozy Cole. No? Shit, well, I don’t know who it is. The tune is “Liza.” Oh, it’s Chick Webb. Why do I know it’s Chick? Because of the kind of chops he had. Buddy Rich and Gene and all those guys all sort of duplicated Chick. You can’t compare him to Baby Dodds. Baby Dodds was a different kind of player. Chick swung. Baby Dodds didn’t really swing. He was a good timekeeper. But Chick’s pushing this whole band. I’ll give it 5 stars, man. I’ll give it 8 stars! Man played his ass off.

7.   Matthew Garrison, “Unity” (from Shapeshifter, GJP, 2004) (Garrison, electric bass, keyboards, programming; Arto Tuncboyacian, percussion; Jojo Mayer, drums; Jim Beard, keyboards; Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica)

I don’t know what to say about this. Everybody’s got a different groove and different moods going, as far as sounds are concerned, and everybody’s got a concept. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind. But the ensemble playing is, in a sense… There’s a lot of shit going on. I can’t really hear one particular thing. Even with the drum solo, the rhythm solo, it’s either timbales and bongos or cowbell and… It’s cool. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had it, man. I didn’t think much of it, man. Not to say that it isn’t good, because evidently somebody must have liked it. That’s Matt Garrison? The kid? He did a couple of dates with me, man. I didn’t know that was Matt. I’m not in that bag right now. I’m not in that kind of a groove. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate it.

8. Hamid Drake, “Bindu #1 for Ed Blackwell, from Bindu to Ojas” (from Bindu, Rogueart, 2005) (Drake, drums, frame drums; Daniel Carter, Greg Ward, clarinet; Sabir Mateen, bass clarinet, Ernest Dawkins, tenor saxophone)

See, with something like this, it’s hard to maybe distinguish what the drums sound like, because they all sound the same. It’s one drummer doing all that? Overdubs? Is that a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? Here again, man, you lost me. I don’t know who that is. The rhythm is a typical rhythm. I’m not excited about it. It’s not going to make me say, “Man, what’s this dude doing.” Matter of fact, it’s really just straight up and down. You hear these horns? You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like in the music room, and the teacher walks out of the room, and all the players begin to play.

9. Gerald Wilson, “Jeri” (from In My Time, Mack Avenue, 2005) (Gerald Wilson, composer; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that a West Coast band? It sounds like a West Coast style of arranging and orchestration. Oh, it’s a New York band playing? [Why does it sound like a West Coast band?] First of all, it’s not a Gerald Wilson West Coast sound. No, I don’t think so. But it’s got that West Coast feeling. I don’t think it’s Gerald’s writing. To me, they don’t swing as hard as East Coast ensemble playing. Oh, that’s Gerald? It really didn’t sound like Gerald’s writing to me. Oh, that’s Jon Faddis there. I don’t know who the drummer is. Maybe what I don’t really think is cool is the way the drums were recorded – miked. It’s getting too much of a rickitick type of sound. It didn’t pick up his cymbal playing with the swing of the rhythm section. It would be difficult for me to say… Well, I didn’t think it was Gerald, but once you mentioned it, I heard some things. But the rhythm section didn’t sound like an East Coast rhythm section. I like Lewis Nash’s playing very much. He’s one of the young players that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ll give it 5 stars for the ensemble and all.

10.  Tony Williams, “Crystal Palace” (from Native Heart, Blue Note, 1990) (Williams, drums, composer; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller; Ira Coleman, bass)

When was this recorded? 1990? The drummer is playing his ass off. Rhythm-wise, the pianist is kind of like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Kelly. Is that Philly Joe Jones? It’s the way he’s dancing. Roy Haynes? I’m getting warm. It isn’t Elvin. Elvin is a little more thunderous. This dude is swinging as well as… He’s got nice licks, nice chops. [Does he sound like an original player?] It’s difficult for me to say who is original in this particular style. Because you’ve got half-a-dozen players who play this style. That isn’t Lewis Nash, is it? I don’t know who it is. Tony Williams!? I never even thought about Tony. But like I said, he’s playing his ass off, plus the fact that he’s swinging. My goodness. I dug the shit out of Tony. Matter of fact, he dug me, too. A strange thing. When Tony passed away, I was out of town, and when I came back, picking up my messages, Tony had left a message on my service. 5 stars. In fact, I’ll give Tony 12 stars. Beautiful player.

11.  Don Byron-Jason Moran-Jack DeJohnette, “I’ve Found A New Baby” (from Ivey-Divey, Blue Note, 2004) (Byron, clarinet; Moran, piano; DeJohnette, drums)

Well, for one thing, this turns me off. I just hate to hear a player play 4/4 on the bass drum like that. That means he isn’t really going to be playing any syncopation. Everything is straight up and down on the bass. I don’t know who these guys are. The clarinet player ain’t happening as far as I’m concerned. That was my first instrument. You hear that squeak? Is that “I Found A New Baby”? No stars. What makes you think I don’t like it?! Jack DeJohnette? Oh, shit. I’m surprised that it’s DeJohnette. It didn’t sound like his playing. It didn’t sound like his instrument. He can play his ass off. But it didn’t do anything for me.

12.   Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (from Love Letters, Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone)

I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ll tell you one thing – they’re together. The rhythm section is happening. The piano player is exceptionally good. So are the drummer and the bass player. As a rhythm section, they’re happening. But I couldn’t tell you who they were right now. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but I’d say he’s a contemporary player, a player of the day, who plays everything. 5 stars. That’s Roy? The master. Dynamite. Very good. I’ll give that 14 stars, and give Roy Haynes another car! I love Roy’s playing. As a matter of fact, Prez introduced me to Roy. We met in L.A. My man.

13.  Max Roach, “Sassy Max (Self Portrait)” (from Survivors, Soul Note, 1983) (Max Roach, drums, composer)

That sounds like some I would probably be doing. I don’t think it’s me! I work with my hands and sticks to get the clave feeling, syncopated rhythms like that. That’s all he’s doing, is working with the snare drum with the stick and his hands, and the bass drum, which is cool. [LIGHTNING PASSAGE] I do things like that. Is it Billy Higgins? I have no idea. Is that Max? Max stealing my thing? [LAUGHS] It’s good. Like I said, it sounded like something I would be doing. Hey, man, there’s only one Max. Max was the first musician I met when I came to New York City in 1947 with Lena Horne. Max Roach was the first musician I met here, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was at the Capitol Theater, and one of Max’s friends was Charlie Drayton, the bass player. He came up to see Charlie, and we were in the dressing room, and me and Max started playing on the chairs. We hit it off. Ever since, we’ve been cool. I’m sorry he’s not doing too well now. But he was original. God bless him. 15 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chico Hamilton, DownBeat, Drummer, Obituary, WKCR

An Unedited Blindfold Test with Ray “Bulldog” Drummond On His 67th Birthday

Today is the 67th birthday of bassist Ray Drummond, whose huge sound, harmonic acumen and unfailing time feel have made him one of the major practitioners of his instrument since the end of the ’70s. To mark the occasion, I’ve posted the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me either in late 2000 or early 2001.

Ray Drummond Blindfold Test:

1.    Oscar Pettiford, “Tricotism” (Bass, Bethlehem, 1955/2000) (5 stars)

It’s obvious that it’s “Tricotism” in one of its versions.  O.P.  Oscar Pettiford.  I already know it’s 5000 stars.  O.P. is in the school, the great tradition of Jimmy Blanton; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers and people since then who have adhered to this  tradition.  The melodic articulation.  He’s trying to play like a horn.  He’s expressing himself, telling a story, and it’s a very articulate story.  He seems himself as a melody player in the same way that a saxophone or trumpet player would.  Plus he’s got great time, his walking is strong.  Ray Brown comes from this same approach to the instrument.  Serious bass playing.  To me this is the main stem, the trunk of the bass tree.  All the branches come from this tradition, and every bass player has inherited this.  Blanton and O.P. and Ray Brown are three of my particular heros that I learned a lot from just listening as I was coming up, as a musician as well as a bass player.  That articulation!  Just a wonderful player.  It’s O.P.!  God is in the house.  I hadn’t heard that version.

2.    Marcus Miller (all instruments), “Tracy” (Who Loves You?: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius, Concord, 2000) (5 stars)

This is Jaco Pastorius.  It’s not?  But it’s his tune.  He used to play this; I don’t remember the name.  The only person I can think of who gets into textures like this who’s an electric player is Marcus Miller.  That’s the first guy that comes to my mind.  He’s the only guy who has that kind of talent.  It’s just good music!  He’s playing all the instruments?  That’s even better.  He gets five stars anyway, in my book, because he’s such a musical talent.  He’s a great bass player, but he’s also a great musician.  Once again, going back to O.P., who was a great musician, not just a bassist.  Marcus has that sound.  It’s a little harder to catch, given the sound of the bass guitar.  I wouldn’t think I’d pick up on him, because I haven’t been listening to a lot of Marcus’s own projects.  Last time I saw him he was producing a David Sanborn record.  I haven’t seen him play in years.

3.    Rodney Whitaker, “Whims of Chambers” (Ballads & Blues, Criss-Cross, 1998) (Paul Chambers, composer; Whitaker, bass; Stefon Harris, vibes; Eric Reed, piano; Ron Blake, tenor sax) (3 stars)

At first I thought it was an older recording, but now as I listen to it I realize it’s a bunch of younger guys.  I have to figure out who they are.  It’s a P.C. tune.  But it’s definitely not P.C.  What the whole band is doing sounds a bit superfluous; as a producer I’d have to tighten it up a little by snipping out some of what I would consider self-indulgence.  The point is to tell your story, and there’s no reason to have extraneous stuff in your recording.  I think part of the problem is that the compact disk has allowed everybody to become a lot more self-indulgent.  They’re good players.  Younger players. [TP: How can you tell they’re younger players?] I can tell they’re younger because the tonal universe is broader than you would normally hear from the mainstream players of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I don’t know which young bass player this is.  I know it’s not Christian McBride.  It could be one of half-a-dozen guys.  The problem I have is to try to hear guys’ different sounds.  Like I say on my web-site, getting your own sound and projecting your own voice is not one of the paramount values that a lot of younger jazz musicians today are going for. When I came up, I was kind of the last of the generations of musicians who had been counseled, “No matter what you do through your musical life, if you really want to play, acquire a voice.”  You have a voice.  Understand it.  Play through that voice and project that, and understand that that’s you.  Even if your articulation never gets to be too hot, or your choice of tunes or your knowledge or whatever, if you never pursue a career… I can tell you  about many musicians all over the world, the guy might be a doctor or a scientist, and yet he has this gorgeous tone.  Can’t play hardly anything, he can’t improvise, he can barely play a section, but the guy gets up and plays one note — and you say OH!!!  Because he’s got this sound.  In music schools especially, I guess, nobody is teaching people to acquire their own voice as the basic value, as something even more important than getting all over your instrument.  to me that’s much more important than being able to run up and down the bass or the saxophone or drums or whatever.  Having that sound.  Some people play a couple of notes and you say, “Ah, that’s such-and-such” and “that’s such-and-such.” [TP: There isn’t one of these musicians you could say that about.”} Well, I’m listening, and I think I know…I  probably know every one of these guys.  I probably have even worked with  some of them.  But somehow I can’t get that sense.  I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars.  The musicianship is excellent.  For me, a little self-indulgent, which brings the star level down.  But in my opinion, I just don’t think that there is much personality as these players actually have.  So the producer didn’t quite get what I think is necessary to show off the musicians.  It was on the generic side.

4.    John Lindberg, “Hydrofoil (For Fred Hopkins)” (The Catbird Sings, Black Saint, 2000) (Lindberg, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) (four stars)

It’s definitely post-Ornette style avant-garde playing, but I have a feeling it was recorded in the ‘80s or ‘90s as opposed to the late ‘60s or ‘70s.  To tell you the truth, I really haven’t listened to a whole lot of these guys.  I’m not familiar with people like William Parker.  I’m not saying that’s who this, but I’m saying I haven’t been paying attention to guys like that, because I’ve been out of that loop for a long time.  when I was coming up as a musician in California in the early ‘70s, there were a fair number of opportunities to heat that kind of music, and I did some gigs like that as well.  So I’m not from that school that tries to debunk anything or thinks this is not as creative or as important or as difficult to play as any other kind of music.  I like this music.  I wouldn’t want to play it myself as a steady diet, but certainly for contrast.  I won’t take any guesses. I like the drummer.  Barry Altschul comes to mind, for whatever reason, just from the sound of the recording; the cymbals sounded like ECM.  That’s I said Barry Altschul, because I know they recorded him like that.  But they recorded that kind of music in the ‘70s and they haven’t been recording that kind of music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this is recent.  I’d give it 3-1/2 to 4 stars for the energy and execution. [AFTER] I  haven’t heard John Lindberg in a long time.  He was a good player with the String Trio, but it was much more “inside” than what I heard here.

5.    Christian McBride, “Move” (Gary Burton, for Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, Concord, 2001) (McBride, bass; Burton, vibes; Russell Malone, guitar) (4-1/2 stars)

The first thing that comes to my mind is… It feels like Ray Brown, but I don’t know if it is.  Yeah, it’s Ray Brown.  It’s got that feeling.  He’s the only one that pushes it like that. They played this Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  “Move.”  But let me listen more, because there are a couple of guys who might… I’m going to make a decision when I hear the solo.  It’s got to be Christian McBride, because that’s the only other person… We heard all the Ray stuff in the beginning there.  But this is Christian McBride.  I have to say that straight-out.  I speak about inheriting the mainstream tradition, Jimmy Blanton and how Jimmy Blanton affected O.P. and Ray Brown and the younger guys like Paul Chambers, and he obviously affected Ron Carter, then post Ron Carter you get players like me, Rufus, George Mraz, a whole raft.  And this young guy here, Christian McBride, really likes what Ray does.  That’s Russell Malone there.  I don’t know who the vibraphonist is.  The configuration reminds me of Tal Farlow, Mingus and Red Norvo.  Is this a tribute to that?  But they didn’t play like this.  They had another thing happening.  Probably Stefon Harris.  But if not, I don’t know who it is..  For the musicianship… It swings.  I can’t give it 5, but definitely 4-1/2.  It’s not at the same level as the O.P. [AFTER] Gary Burton?  I’m very impressed, because I did not know that Gary Burton had inherited so much Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo.

6.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers’ Parade” (Prime Directive, ECM, 1999) (Holland, bass; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, marimba; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Billy Kilson, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson.  It has the different rhythms and they’re right on it.  I caught them last summer live.  We ran into each other at the Northsea, but nobody could listen to anybody, and then we saw them in Munich — we came in a day early and they were working downstairs.  Dave and I are the same age, and I’ve been listening to him since the late ‘60s.  The first I met him was a the Both/And in San Francisco in 1970, when he was playing in Chick Corea’s Trio; ECM had just been formed and they were selling “A/R/C.”  I had bought my copies of Chick’s solo improvised records and “A/R/C” from Chick there in the club, and that’s when I first met Dave.   I really enjoyed what he was doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  But the first time I heard him was in Miles’ band, at a concert they did at Stanford University in 1969.  And I was familiar with him from “Bitches Brew,” which is the first time I heard his name.  He’s got his own sound.  Again, he’s from that era where older guys would say, “Get your own sound, boy!”  Because that’s as important as anything else you’re going to do as part of your musicianship.  When I heard this band last summer, it was just a delight to listen to.  Dave’s got a whole concept.  It’s him!  He’s been playing this way all his musical life.  All the projects he’s been on, from Miles to now, it’s a concept that’s been Dave.  His voice and the message, the story that he tells, and that story has just gotten deeper and deeper and deeper.  I can’t say that about every musician that’s out there.  It’s the kind of thing that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that there’s a fellow bassist who is also a contemporary age-wise… I would never want to play like that, but I love to hear that.  It gives me a lot of ideas as a composer.  It’s just very inspirational.  5 stars.  It’s definitely on the same level as that O.P. piece.  Yay for Dave!

7.    Red Mitchell-Hank Jones, “What Am I Here For?” (Duo, Timeless, 1987) (5 stars) (Mitchell, bass; Jones, piano)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Hank Jones.  From the first notes.  Even though that’s a Rudy Van Gelder recording, that’s Hank Jones’ piano with Hank Jones playing it.  Hank and Red Mitchell.  Red Mitchell.  Talk about someone with a concept, someone with a voice and someone with a great deal of… If you want to just someone by the content of their character, boy, you’ll never go wrong with Red Mitchell!  That was one serious musician.  We miss him a lot.  He had a way of playing… Of course, he strings his bass totally different than the “traditional” way that basses are strung, giving him another kind of approach as part of the concept.  Because he used to play bass the same way everybody else plays it, and then he changed his tuning in the mid-‘60s for whatever reason.  There are a lot of reasons advanced.  Two consummate masters.  Five stars.  You could listen to this all night and sip a few cognacs and pretend we’re back at Bradley’s again, back in the day.  They used to play together several times a year at Bradley’s, and it was always a treat to hear them.  Oh, would we could do such a thing today!  It would be wonderful to have that inspiration again.  One thing about Red Mitchell is that he could play with anybody, and I think a hallmark of a great musician, not just adaptability, but the ability to project that personality in such a way that you do interact with other musical personalities.  And the strongest ones, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to interact with one another using their own personal voices and their visions, and they wind up weaving a story together.  That’s what they did here.

8.    Barre Phillips-Joe Maneri, “Elma My Dear” (Rohnlief, ECM, 1999) (Phillips, bass; Joe Maneri, tenor sax) – (3 stars)

I have no idea who the musicians are.  Again, for me it’s like post-Ornette.  Well, that’s not fair, because Ornette is not the one who unleashed this.  I don’t get the sense of composition.  I get the sense of interaction  of two musicians, as if they just went in and did whatever they did.  This is part of a larger piece or concept?  That’s the feeling I get.  But it didn’t to me as if it was anything other than the two guys interacting with one another, that there wasn’t any kind of motif, or maybe there was a color that was trying to be established.  I’m relatively open-minded about the process, but in terms of the execution of this one I’d have to say 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  The musicianship definitely is good.  The guys know something about their instruments in the colors they’re trying to create and that sort of thing.  But I feel a bit lost because I’m not sure about the context in which they’re trying to place it.  That’s the only reason that I can’t give… I’d give a qualified 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  But I feel a little lost as a listener. [AFTER] I’ve never met Barre Phillips, but I’ve heard his name for a number of years.  And he’s definitely somebody who’s a trouper from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Obviously, there’s no question about musicianship and that sort of thing.  But as a listener I felt lost.  You told me about Joe Maneri and his microtonal concept, so obviously there’s a context for what this was about.  I think you need to be more informed to be able to understand what’s going on  here.

9.    Michael Moore-Ken Peplowski, “Body and Soul” (The History of Jazz, Vol. 1, Arbors, 2000) (Moore, bass; Peplowski, clarinet) (4-1/2 stars)

Obviously, it’s “Body and Soul” in a clarinet-bass duo.  As far as the performers, that’s a tough one.  The clarinet player is a serious clarinet player, like Eddie Daniels or… It’s not Paquito.  But Eddie is the guy who comes to my mind because of the sound.  Ken Peplowski also has a sound like that, but I’m going to say Eddie, even though I’m probably way off the mark.  It’s somebody that really is deep into the clarinet.  The bass player is really lyrical, and the only guy I can think of…. I don’t know how these guys have played together… I’m sure they  have, but I’m surprised to see them on a record.   Michael Moore is the bass player.  Michael is the only one that…he’s got that… It’s Michael!  It’s hard to explain.  It’s his sound and his concept.  He’s a player like Red Mitchell because he’s very lyrical in his approach, the way he plays the melody.  I’ve never heard him play with the bow like that.  I’ve always loved Michael.  Again, to go back to Bradley’s, Michael played there often.  4-1/2 stars [AFTER] I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of times with Ken, but I really didn’t get into his clarinet playing until just this past summer when we were all in Japan and I got to hear him play clarinet every night.  I said, “Oh my goodness!”  Ken is a serious clarinet player as well as a marvelous saxophonist.  The beginning was lovely, the way they wove a duet out of tempo together stating the melody and creating the improvisation around the melody and that sort of thing right in the beginning for one full chorus.

10.    Ray Brown Trio, “Starbucks Blues” (Live At Starbucks,  Telarc, 2001) (Brown, bass; Geoff Keezer, piano; Kareem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

Look out, Brown!  Signatures.  Well, we talked about Ray Brown earlier.  But there’s no mistaking him.  The fact is that Ray  Brown has his voice, he has his stories, and he’s been playing like this for almost 50 years at this point.  The first time I ever heard Mr. Brown live was as an undergraduate in college in the mid-‘60s with the great Oscar Peterson Trio with Thigpen.  They came down to Shelley’s Manne Hole, and I’d be down there two or three nights a week if they had a two-week engagement, just to listen to this trio and this wonderful bass player, this incredible master.  Oh, my goodness, that’s almost 40 years ago.  And Ray hasn’t lost anything.  He’s gotten even more… Not just the maturity, but your voice deepens as you age, especially if you allow it to be.  He’s just such a consummate player, such a grandmaster.  Every time you hear him, it’s such an inspiration.  Five stars.  You’re talking about somebody who’s been the central part of mainstream bass playing for a very long time, and still waving that flag and carrying it for all intents and purposes… I hope as many people as possible will see him while he’s still here with us.  Because we’ve lost so many people and it’s so great to have one of the grandmasters still able to do that thing that only they can do.  God bless Ray Brown. [LAUGHS]

11.    Fred Hopkins, “Mbizo” (David Murray Quartet, Deep Rivers, DIW, 1988) (Hopkins, bass; Murray, bass cl.; Dave Burrell, piano; Ralph Peterson, drums)

I don’t know who this is.  It’s funny, because I get this picture of Cecil McBee in my head, but it’s not Cecil; it’s just somebody who would like to play like Cecil, but hasn’t figured out, in my opinion, how to sound like that.  It’s not Cecil.  Right?  Whew, good.  But as a bass player, this player is chasing another kind of a value.  There’s a lyricism  I think the bass player is trying to get to that he hasn’t figured out yet.  Part of it has to do with his articulation and his intonation.  But that’s part of what he’s trying to do.  Oh, wait a minute!  That’s David!  Damn.  That’s David.  Is this Fred on here?  Fred.  That’s who it is.   It is Fred.  It’s David and Fred and…it could be Andrew.  I’ll take a stab and say Andrew.  The piano player might be Dave Burrell.  I probably missed the drummer.  I’ll stick with Andrew, though I’m probably wrong.  Oh, it’s Ralph.  Yeah, he’s trying to play like Andrew.  He plays more like Andrew than he plays like Blackwell.  Four stars.  The thing is, I loved Fred.  I really did.  But the thing is, there was a kind of lyricism he  as trying to get to that I never thought he quite got to.  But what a talent.  And what an unrealized talent!  There were certain kinds of things that I know Fred wanted to do musically that he was not given the opportunity to do.  I think that he was not only underappreciated while he was alive, but I think a lot of people are still asleep as to what he was up to as a musician.  He was amazing.

12.    Wilbur Ware, “Woody ‘N You” (Johnny Griffin Sextet.  Riverside, 1958) – (5 stars) – (Ware, bass; Johnny Griffin, ts; Kenny Drew, p; Philly Joe Jones, d.)

There’s only one Wilbur Ware, just like there’s only one Ray Brown.  It’s marvelous.  I’ve not heard this with Griffin, so this is probably something from the Riverside days.  There are several versions of this tune is on Sonny Rollins’ “Live At the Village Vanguard,” from probably around the same time, and Wilbur takes some solos on that, too, with that sound and that concept.  Again, he’s got his own way of telling a story, and it’s very effective.  He was a good player.  Kenny Drew?  Sounds like him.  Sounds like Kenny Drew playing.  Art Blakey, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin.  Marvelous date.  Five stars.  I have got to give it up!  [AFTER] I was going to say it could be Philly Joe playing his Art Blakey shit, but you know… It had that Art Blakey thing in the beginning.  But now it’s definitely Philly Joe.  Kenny Washington will probably kill me for mistaking Philly Joe Jones for Art Blakey.

13.    Peter Kowald, “Isotopes” (Deals, Ideas & Ideals,   Hopscotch, 2000) – (Kowald, bass; Assif Tsahar, bass cl.; Rashied Ali, drums) – (3 stars)

Again, we have an example of textures.  Obviously notes, too.  But we’re talking about textures and moods.  Colors.  At this point we’re into ostinatos.  Again, this is a hard one to rate.  All the example of “freer” music, if you want to call it that… But he’s using a great deal of the resources available for color… But it’s funny, because we always think of this kind of playing as so different than mainstream playing.  And yet I would submit… This is where a lot of bass players are asleep on Mingus.  Of course, this is not Mingus, so I’m not going there with this.  On “Money Jungle,” Mingus used those kinds of techniques, a lot of colors, where traditionally bass players play something else, something a little more “traditionally”-based.  This person has a lot of ability to play in this context.  It would be interesting to hear whether this person is into notes as well.  I’m not sure this person is.  But again, there’s a different approach to lyricism here, because it’s more about colors and impressions and mood creation and that sort of thing.  Ah, it’s a trio, with bass clarinet and drums.  Whoever this bass clarinet player is, this person loves Eric Dolphy!  We heard David playing earlier, and there’s some Eric in him.  I mean, he can’t help but be affected by Eric when he plays bass clarinet.  But this person in particular seems to have a real affinity for Eric.  It’s the same kind of rhythmic phrasing.  That’s definitely where David and Eric part, in the rhythmic phrasing.  Some of the concepts that David uses are similar in terms of how they approach the bass clarinet.  But Eric could have done something like this, too.  As for the bass player, I’ll say it’s Alan Silva.  But I have a feeling that this is later, probably recently, so I’ll have to back off it.  I’ll give it 3 stars.  For my taste, it gets a little self-indulgent.  Okay, you started a story.  Now, what happened?  Where’s the story?  The story has a beginning, a middle and an ending.  And we did.  On the one with David, with Fred, obviously there were some stories being told.  You may not exactly understand how everybody’s getting around it, but there was something being said there.  Here I thought they were saying something, but then it drifted off.

14.    Charles Mingus, “Mood Indigo” (Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Impulse, 1963/1995) – (5 stars) (Mingus, bass; Jaki Byard, piano; Walter Perkins, drums; Eddie Preston, Richard Williams, trumpets; Britt Woodman, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Eric Dolphy, Dick Hafer, Booker Ervin, Jerome Richardson, reeds & woodwinds)

That’s the sound of Duke.  The pianist even sounded convincingly like it could have been Duke.  That was my first impression.  Of course, this is Charles Mingus with “Mood Indigo.”  There’s only one guy who played like Mingus.  Of course, we know him.  Listen to the lyricism and technical ability.  And he had a different way of… He just did what he did.  And a lot of bass players will not give it up to Mingus as a bass player.  If you ask them what is the contribution that Charles Mingus made in the music, the first thing most bass players say is his composing, and they think of him as a composer and they don’t think of him as a bassist.  I can’t tell you how many guys actually respond that way.  It really used to surprise me once, but now I’m not.  I think it’s because  Mingus is so individual.  Charles Mingus was so strong and had his own… He just would play anything at any moment.  And I think for some bass players, it kind of disturbs them if you’re not playing a traditional part… [LAUGHS] Mingus had such a fertile imagination musically, so he could do anything.  Five stars.  Jaki Byard.  Boy, that’s another soul we miss that we’ve lost.  One of the grandmasters.


Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Ray Drummond

For Bennie Wallace’s 67th Birthday, a DownBeat Article From 2000 and Three Interviews

In 2000, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on Bennie Wallace, a tenor saxophonist with a singular tonality whose tonal abandon and harmonic/melodic control began to impress me in the late ’70s, when he released a series of trio and quartet albums for Enja with New York’s finest pianists, bassists and drummers of the day. Today’s his 67th birthday, and I’m posting the “director’s cut” of the piece, incorporating much more biographical information than appeared in the print version, which was 1000 words shorter. It  reads decently, and hopefully will be of interest. I’ve also posted the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from Feb. 2000, a portion of an interview at WKCR from 1998 (Bennie came to the studio with guitarist Anthony Wilson, with whom he was closely associated at the time), and a formal interview conducted for the piece.

Bennie Wallace (Downbeat):

On a clear late winter morning, not one man-made object impedes the treetop-skimming southern view of the Long Island Sound from Bennie Wallace’s thickly carpeted second-floor home studio in suburban Connecticut.  The walls are blanketed with albums, CDs (including two Ellington-filled shelves), books on music and a sofa on which Wallace is perched; spread on a long table abutting the window are a Mac computer and mixing equipment.  Wallace is a slender, stoop-shouldered 53-year-old with an iron grip.  He speaks with courtly diction in precisely modulated tones that give away his southern roots.  Clad in a burgundy-mocha crewneck, white shirt, beige corduroys and black soft leather loafers, the tenor saxophone veteran is every inch the country gentleman, with the manner of a tenured professor at, say, the University of Tennessee, where he graduated thirty years ago as a clarinet major, or, perhaps, a Tennessee Valley Authority lawyer in Chattanooga, his home-town.

You wouldn’t recognize the bearded, bluejeaned firebrand whose idiosyncratic style — surging, torrentially arpeggiated lines marked by jagged intervals that limn the instrument’s extremes, articulated in a fat tone marked by a turbulent, almost Gothic timbral sensibility, all at the service of an architectural command of harmony and innate narrative authority — impressed devotees of hardcore jazz on a yearly succession of albums for Enja between 1978 and 1984 with the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, Eddie Moore, Dannie Richmond and Elvin Jones that still hold up for their individuality and passion.  Seasoned by moderate late ‘80s commercial success and a bittersweet tenure in Los Angeles as a film composer/music director, Wallace in 1998 cut a pair of lyric, songbook-oriented quartet albums with A-list rhythm sections — “Someone To Watch Over Me” [Enja] and “Bennie Wallace” [AudioQuest] — that bring into deep relief his elemental connection to the Coleman Hawkins branch of the tenor tree.

“Sonny Rollins was my first influence,” Wallace recalls.  “My teacher gave me a recording of ‘Sumphin,’ a medium-tempo F-blues Sonny did with Dizzy Gillespie, and told me, ‘Look, this guy really plays the blues great.  Now, don’t listen to his tone, because he sounds like a duck; you should listen to Stan Getz for tone.’  I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since.  To this day it’s the best blues tenor solo I’ve ever heard.  There was something about the notes and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that you couldn’t put on paper, and it really got me.”

As an early ‘60s high school student, Wallace dual-tracked, playing classical music on clarinet in the school orchestra well enough to win a state championship, while moonlighting in jam sessions from 11 to 4 in the morning at after-hour chitlin’ circuit joints in Chattanooga’s black section, “with people going crazy, playing the blues and bebop tunes with good players who traveled to small clubs around the country.”  He continues: “I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people; a white kid who looked 12 years old up there playing with everybody — I told my parents I was working in a hillbilly club.  The owner took me under his wing and started giving me work.  Before I was out of high school, I did a summer there as bandleader.  I did the same thing in college, in Knoxville.  Jazz became inevitable.”

Which predestined a move to New York, where Wallace arrived in 1971 with $275 in his pocket following an inglorious stint with a poppish big band in Chicago, a year of private studies with Boston reed master Joe Viola, and a few months gigging around San Francisco.  “I rented a studio in Harlem for $5 a week, and began practicing there,” Wallace recalls.  “Monty Alexander, who was stuck for a tenor player for a gig at the Riverboat, heard me, knocked on my door and asked if I wanted a gig — which was an easy answer.  I didn’t know who Monty was at that time.  He took me across the street to a rehearsal, and here were Frank Strozier, Eugene Wright, Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince.  All of a sudden I was in the band; they got me in the union and I played with them all summer, six nights a week for dancers.”

Wallace workshopped in New York’s active early ‘70s loft scene with people like singers Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, and bassists Glen Moore, Wilbur Ware and Gomez.  “Bennie had — and has — a unique sound and approach, and a very definite and clear vision of where he wanted to go with what he was doing,” states Gomez, a bold presence on numerous Wallace sessions from then to now.  “Some of our repertoire was Thelonious Monk’s music, some was original; mostly the point was to push the envelope in the improvisation.  His compositions were angular, with difficult melodies; it seemed like pure musical thought and not conceived out of any European tradition on the instrument.  He always had a fat, mature sound which was steeped in the tradition, but the content was light years ahead.  In recent years, he’s self-edited, so the explosions aren’t quite as thunderous.  But they’re just as potent.”

A devotee of the Eddie Lockjaw Davis-Red Prysock school of sax dynamics, Wallace’s attitude diverged from much of his early Baby Boom saxophone peer group, who were obsessed with perfecting the language of John Coltrane.  “In my way, I was as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics,” he states.  “The message I got from Coltrane was his diligence in making his playing better, his dedication to the instrument, and the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else.  Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation.  The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.”

Wallace honed in on Thelonious Monk, a key inspiration for his intervallic derring-do.  One day while workshopping “Blue Monk” with the bassist Jack Six, a frequent rehearsal partner, “I spontaneously thought of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths,” he reveals.  “It created the illusion of expanding the tone of the saxophone.  I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals, play fourths and fifths to put a different read on Bird’s language, and this was a more radical leap in that direction.  My initial concept for the outside edge of my playing came in school, when I played Bartok’s ‘Contrasts for Clarinet, Piano and Violin,’ and started thinking how Bartok’s lines would fit against certain jazz chords.  It opened up my mind, and led me to composers like Elliott Carter and Charles Ives, to a woodwind quintet by Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Pierre Boulez’s “Pli Selon Pli”.  The trick is to create wide intervals that aren’t academic, but make melodic sense.”

Wallace signed with Blue Note in 1985, which set off an sequence of career-shifting strange twists and left turns.  “They wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South,” he notes drolly.  “Which turned out to be a nice idea, because I met Dr. John, who became a great friend and associate.  It gave me a chance to revisit some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid in the way I fantasized about doing them.  It was the first time I got a serious dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun.  My career became about how many records you sell instead of about music.  In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got a call from someone in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in the movie ‘Bull Durham,’ for which he wanted me to write something.”

In 1991, Wallace left his dark Washington Heights apartment for a rented house with an ocean view on the Pacific Palisades, his home base for the next six years.  Wallace scored “Blaze,” and the uncompleted animated feature “Betty Boop,” music-directed “White Men Can’t Jump,” and composed the title track for Jeff Goldblum’s Oscar-nominated short film “Little Surprises,” among other projects, while attempting to sustain his performing career in the diffuse, “no-There-there” L.A. milieu.  “I felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles,” Wallace recounts. “I was very self-conscious that I would stagnate.  One day out of the blue I called Jimmy Rowles out of the phone book and asked if I could study piano with him to learn his harmonic concept and the way he approached tunes.  He told me to come on over, and he educated me, showed me outrageous stuff.  After that we became great friends.  He was restricted from emphysema and wasn’t working much, but I would pick his brain all the time.   His memory was phenomenal and his knowledge was encyclopedic.  When you’d ask him about a tune he wouldn’t just call the changes, like anybody else.  He’d say, ‘On bar 3, the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.’  Jimmy always focused on what a song means — that narrative aspect.”

Rowles’ postgraduate tutelage supplemented earlier lessons on turning notes into narrative that Wallace absorbed during the ‘70s and ‘80s from pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey at Bradley’s, the iconic Greenwich Village piano saloon.  “One of the things that I admire most about great piano players is that they are great accompanists, able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it,” notes Wallace, who has a sheaf of Rowles’ personal lead sheets, topped by “I Concentrate On You,” on the 1926 Steinway in his living room.  “Whenever I wrote for a film, I’d think, ‘Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?’, and translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for.  What fits?  What enhances it?  The term ‘film composing’ is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind.  Now, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing for orchestras and the technical aspect of the mathematics to make music fit exactly with the frames-per-second.  But in films sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes a string quartet, sometimes for musicians who can’t even read music.  I have to be able to phrase those technical things in language people can understand so that it fits with the picture.”

Two years after resettling on the East Coast, Wallace spent much of 1999 writing and recording scores for 22 episodes of “The Hoop Life,” a Showtime series about a professional basketball team with a “behind-the-scenes” perspective distilled through the lives and dilemmas of five individuals.  Operating out of Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio, Wallace recruited a who’s who of New York improvisers — including pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock, bassists Gomez, Peter Washington, Mark Helias and George Mraz, drummers Alvin Queen, Billy Drummond, Lewis Nash and Herlin Riley, percussionist Steve Kroon, vibraphonists Steve Nelson and Brian Carrott, trumpeter John D’Earth and trombonist Ray Anderson — to express their personalities in relation to the picture appearing before them on the video monitors.

“Jazz is a very personal music,” says Joe Cacaci, the show’s executive producer, explaining why he decided on hardcore jazz rather than retro pastiche or generic hip-hop as the soundtrack for the inner emotions of the characters.  “It’s very versatile, so I knew it would give us the opportunity to handle the deep drama, the absurdity, the comedy, and in some cases reckless, dangerous behavior.  I knew there would be ample opportunity for ‘source music,’ to get in hip-hop and rap and genres more endemic to the younger audiences, which would be a perfect combination.  But for the scoring, the stuff that goes according to the story line for each character, I wanted a jazz composer.  Bennie serves the material rather than the other way around.  He understands what each week’s episode is about, better than a lot of people whose business it is to understand it, and he got into the characters very deeply so that he could start to identify with what everybody was doing and express their essence musically.  I would talk emotionally about the characters, and not make suggestions about the music per se until we got in the studio.  He’s very receptive to ideas, but at the same time has a very sharp and clear idea of what he wants to do, and takes risks.  We had a great working rapport.  He got off on direction instead of thinking that it was an imposition.  I’d talk to him like I was talking to an actor or another writer.  And he also got the most out of the musicians.  He had them into the show, identifying with the characters!  It was scoring from the heart.”

Cacaci sent me cassettes of episodes 5, 17 and 18, on which the music seamlessly complements and comments on the flow.  There are piercing atonal string quartets at psychological flashpoints, a variety of minor trumpet blues counterpointing action-resolution, a thrilling drum chant to accompany a montage telescoping the course of a championship game.  Preparing Drummond, Kroon and Don Eaton for the latter at the final recording session in January. Wallace mentioned the rubato three-feel that Elvin Jones put on “Alabama,” a clear lingua franca analogy that prompted an absolutely apropos response.   Later Wallace picked up his horn, joining Anderson and d’Earth for a precisely calibrated free-for-all on the show’s concluding theme.

“The narrative is in the preparation,” Wallace reflects a few weeks later in the cozy studio.  “Before I recorded “Someone To Watch Over Me” I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every good recording to learn the words and the way great people interpreted it emotionally.  When I actually played, I didn’t think about anything, but just let it all come out.  The experience of writing for narratives in the movies is analogous to playing without thinking about it.  Technique is out the window.  It’s all about expressing the emotions and eliminating the extraneous.  That’s one of the fortunate lessons I learned when I was in Los Angeles.  Every good filmmaker is going to demand that.  You’re there to give it to them.  That’s all they care about.”

In his maturity, Wallace seems comfortable balancing the pragmatic dictates of business in the big leagues of entertainment with the call of pure aesthetics.  “I returned East because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music,” he says.  “When I went to L.A., I thought it would be worth doing if I could make enough money at this to be able to pay my musicians so everybody feels good about the gig, and not worry about pleasing a record company whether my music is going to fit the concept they want.  I did it for a few years, but didn’t get it to the point I wanted.  Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a big project I got involved in, and I decided I wouldn’t take any more tours until I could afford to.  Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t go on any longer without being back here and playing.  I spent the last two years practicing the saxophone and taking occasional gigs in Europe — getting into ‘Hoop Life’ was a happy accident.

“I did a lot of things in California that weren’t what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft.  It was always a learning experience.  I learned a lot of positive things about show business which are very helpful now that I’m back dealing with the jazz business, and things about composition that give me a wider vocabulary on the saxophone and come out in my solos.  I want to bring some of the craft I learned into my writing for albums.  Many of the things we did on ‘Hoop Life’ were just as unconventional for jazz as for film music, and I met musicians on that project who I want to record with.  I’ll never again turn down music for money.”


* * *

Bennie Wallace (Musician Show, 2-16-00):

[BW, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”]

TP:    …that rarity among saxophonists who came up in the ’70s and ’80s, a saxophonist with a sound completely his own, yet one related to previous masters in the most organic matter.  First let’s talk about this album and conceptualizing it.  Why a Gershwin album?  I guess it was the centennial.

WALLACE:  Actually, it was a total accident.  We went out to Los Angeles in ’98 and played a week at the Jazz Bakery, and the lady who owns it asked if we’d play a Gershwin set on the Saturday night because they were doing this Film Music Association Gershwin program.  So we put together a set literally a few minutes before each gig earlier in the week, because we weren’t playing any Gershwin at the time except for “I Was Doing All Right.”  So we put the set together and played it on Saturday night, and it was fun and it was successful, so three weeks later we recorded it.  We were supposed to make an album anyway, and rather than record the repertoire that we were thinking about, we just decided to do that.  And quite appropriately, it came out the year after the Gershwin centennial.  Couldn’t do it the regular way.

TP:    Did you choose it by tunes that fall more toward saxophonistic interpretation?  How do you cull down Gershwin repertoire for a project like this?

WALLACE:  That’s not easy.  In the three weeks before we made the record, when I was really thinking about making it an album and adding a couple of more tunes for that purpose, culling the tunes was a very difficult process.  There were a couple I really wanted to do and couldn’t do because they were too much of the same nature as the ones we were doing.  But most of the tunes on there are tunes I have some sort of history with, like the one you just heard.  I never really played it before, but I always loved Thelonious Monk’s solo recording of it.  So the tune I always identified with Monk as much as with Gershwin.  Then those ballads are some of the best ballads in the repertoire.  Each tune had its own little thing that just kind of made it natural for the band.  And also trying to stay away from “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm.”  To me, that’s been done, needless to say, so many times, and there are so many Gershwin tunes that have their own harmonic identity.  That’s what was attractive to me.  And melodic identity, too.

TP:    Are you intimate with the lyrics to all these tunes?  Do you make a point of learning lyrics on songbook material?

WALLACE:  I try to.  When I’m recording it, I’m very familiar with it.  I’ve also got a very short memory.  In fact, in thinking about these tunes for the gig next week, I’m surprised how many of the lyrics I can remember.  But Jimmy Rowles kind of got me into that, of just lyrically seeing what the tune is about, and that kind of shapes your way of approaching it.

I knew Alvin Queen mostly in Europe.  I met him in 1979, and we’ve been playing together ever since, every chance we get.  He’s kind of like family.  He’s one of the most frequent phone calls I get, even though I live in Geneva, Switzerland.  We really love playing together.  Though I must say I loved playing with Yoron on this record, too.

TP:    Let’s start with some third degree.  You’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.  What got you into music?  What impelled you to pick up a saxophone and become devoted to it?

WALLACE:  When I was in the eighth grade, we got a new teacher in our school, and he was a jazz musician, and he used to leave these jazz records around just for us to steal them.  He wouldn’t loan them to us, but they’d all be sitting around.  He started a jazz band, and we had a whole group of kids who became really enthusiastic about the music.  We were actually terrible little snobs, but we were really into Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and Count Basie and all that stuff.  It was his inspiration that did it, and he introduced me to a couple of really wonderful tenor players who happened to be in the area who took me under their wing and taught me things.  I was real lucky that way.  This was in the early ’60s.

TP:    This was at a time when segregation was strong…

WALLACE:  Racial tension was really ugly.  And I was just kind of coming of the age when I was aware of the existence of something like that.  To this teacher’s credit, through the music, he made us really aware immediately of what was right and what was wrong.  We were going down and playing in black clubs when I was a teenager.  I remember going down to this black jazz club when I was about 14, and a couple of friends and I went in, and the owner (who I got to know later because I worked for him a lot), he was like crackin’ up and let us in, let us listen to music on the jukebox and hang out.  Then we went and got our buddy, Jerry White, this guy who is now a wonderful drummer, who must have looked like he was 8 years old.  When he came in, the owner just cracked and he said, “No-no, I can’t do this!”

TP:    You’re pointing up something that’s such a cultural break between 1960 and today.  You’re talking about Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is not a metropolis, and there’s a jazz club and there’s jazz on the jukebox and there are jazz musicians who are well grounded and a scene for you to play in.

WALLACE:  Yes, it was a very small scene, but it was a scene.  I got my start playing in after-hours clubs until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and people going crazy, and playing the blues and bebop tunes and stuff like this.  It was a great experience.  And it was a great learning experience as a person  It’s like I was exposed to twice as much of the world as a lot of kids I went to school with.

TP:    I’d say three times as much!

WALLACE:  That was a little conservative.

TP:    So you’re a 16-year-old white kid in Chattanooga playing til 3-4 in the morning at after-hours clubs in the Black part of town, a normal high school upbringing.  Who were the early influences?  Were you thinking of it that way?

WALLACE:  Sonny Rollins was my first influence.  That’s because my teacher gave me this solo in the band, and there was a medium-tempo F-blues that I was supposed to play on, and he had a medium-tempo F-blues of Sonny playing with Dizzy Gillespie… I’ll never forget it.  He gave me the record and he said, “Look, this guy really plays the blues great.  Now, don’t listen to this tone, because he sounds like a duck.  You should sound like Stan Getz for a tone.”  And I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since.  I fell in love with that solo on that record.  I was also listening to Eddie Lockjaw Davis, John Coltrane, Red Prysock, Stanley Turrentine — a lot of great guys.

TP:    Did you know at that time that you were going to be a musician?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  I didn’t know if I was going to be a clarinet player or a saxophone player, because I was also playing the clarinet at that time in the orchestra and stuff like that.

TP:    So you weren’t just playing jazz and blues.  You were learning the fundamentals…

WALLACE:  I wasn’t studying the saxophone in school, but I was studying the clarinet.

TP:    So what happened then?

WALLACE:  Well, the Vietnam War came along and put everybody in college, and I went to Knoxville, to the university there, and around a similar clique of localized jazz musicians.  It was a real local scene.  I often wish I’d grown up somewhere like New York, where I could hear some of the great musicians…

TP:    You probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  Exactly.  Because I sounded awful!  But there were great opportunities.  I learned a lot.

TP:    A few words on the dynamics of Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ style.  Another tenor player mentioned seeing a video of Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin playing two tenors in tandem, and the same notes were coming out of the horn but the fingers weren’t in the same place.

WALLACE:  Right.  Well, Johnny Griffin told me that Jaws had his own… Well, I knew that Jaws had his own fingering system.  Because I remember in 1964 they let Count Basie’s band play for about 15 minutes on the “Tonight Show” one night when Jerry Lewis was running it, and they had some closeups of Jaws.  Of course, I knew my saxophone, and his fingers were going where they didn’t belong.  Ever since then, I always wanted to like find out what that was he was into.  I remember going to a club to hear him play, then I couldn’t get close, then we almost made a record together before he died, and he got too sick and couldn’t do it.  But I always wanted to know what he was doing.  I’ve tried to figure out some of it with my ear and my imagination.  But he was quite magical.  In fact, Johnny Griffin was telling me that he even had some of the keys corked down.  I’ve been thinking about that, like, which ones could you cork down that would make a difference but you could still play the saxophone.  But he was totally unique!  I think Jaws could get more colors out of the saxophone than any saxophone player in the history of the tenor.  Ben had that big, beautiful ballad sound, but Ben couldn’t scream like Jaws. Listen to Jaws play “Flight Of the Foo Bird” on that Basie Atomic record — he just comes roaring.  Ben was no effeminate tenor player, you know.  But you know what I’m saying?  Jaws just had this palette of color that was just outrageous.

[MUSIC: Jaws, “Trane Whistle” & “Flight of The Foo Birds”, Ben, “Time After Time”]

TP:    The set reflected some of Bennie’s early experiences as a gigging teenage saxophonist in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and subsequently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  So you get out of school, it’s the late ’60s, it’s the middle of counterculture — most of your peers are soaking up John Coltrane.

WALLACE:  Oh, I was too!

TP:    Talk about the things that interested you in those years.

WALLACE:  At that point I was listening to everybody, and I think I was also just about as crazy as everybody at that time.  I don’t think kids today can realize what a confusing place the world was at that time for a teenager.  I think jazz, in a sense, helped me and my friends keep our heads on straight, because there was some semblance of order there and some semblance of a level of craftsmanship to aspire toward and keep us from going completely bonkers.  It’s a very difficult question you just asked, because I was growing up in East Tennessee, and looking back on my life and all the times I’ve been to Europe and Japan and in a sense earned my livelihood abroad… In those days I never even thought of there being anything beyond New York City.  That was just the mecca.  There’s nothing after that.  I never thought about leaving the country or playing or anything.  It was just New York.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, in 1966.  It was just like the overused thing, like a kid in a toy shop.  It was amazing.    I came two or three times and visited again I moved here in ’72.  The first time I came, I went to the old Half Note, and it was a double bill.  Sonny Stitt was just playing tenor at the time with the McCoy Tyner Trio, and Roy Eldridge and Richie Kamuca were playing opposite, and I think Anita O’Day might have been singing with them, and Major Holley was playing bass.  I must have been 16-17 years old, and I looked like I was 12.  There was a great waiter down there who was famous for being able to light anybody’s cigarette from anywhere in the room before they could get their lighter out.  He was a real character.  It was a novelty to him that anybody who looked that young was in there.  He introduced me to Sonny Stitt, and Sonny came over to the table during the break and talked to me…

TP:    How many keys are on the saxophone?

WALLACE:  Actually, there was none of that, which he was famous for.  I kind of got spared because I looked so young.  He was basically telling me tricks about how to practice and just being very sweet, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to destroy Sonny’s reputation!  I enjoyed hearing Richie Kamuca, too, and Major Holley.  It was an incredible experience.

TP:    When you moved to New York, did you come knowing people, with any connections?

WALLACE:  I knew a few people and met musicians to play with.  Actually, I was very lucky.  I came with $275 in my pocket and no place to stay, and I fell into this very nice man who was a sculptor down on the Bowery, who let me stay at his place, but he said I couldn’t practice there.  So I went up to… Charles Cullen was renting these studios for $5 a week, and so I was practicing up there, and Monty Alexander heard me practicing and was stuck for a tenor player for this gig that he had, so he knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted a gig — and of course, that was an easy answer.  I didn’t know who Monty was at that time.  He took me across the street where they were having a rehearsal, and here was Eugene Wright and Frank Strozier and all these fantastic players.  All of a sudden, I was in the band, and they got me in the union, and I played with them all summer.  When Strozier couldn’t make it, he’d send George Coleman to sub, and Senator would send Bob Cranshaw.  So man, I was in heaven.  “This is my town!”  That was at the Riverboat, and we were playing six nights a week for half the summer for dancers.

TP:    Was your style similar then?  Did you have that intervallic concept and the kind of coloration you put on the horn?

WALLACE:  I think my style was pretty similar.  I think the idea of stretching the intervals out came maybe a year or two later, when I was listening to this woodwind piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen and trying to practice the parts.  Also I was going to the Vanguard and listening to Monk and hearing how he would stretch intervals out.  I remember I started doing that by first taking “Blue Monk” and instead of playing it in half-steps, playing it in minor 9ths.  I was fascinated with the fact that it would make the saxophone sound so big.  So that came just a little after.  But I think my basic concept was there. I wasn’t playing like Stan Getz or imitating anybody.

TP:    So when it came down to soloing, you had your own ideas about how to approach improvising, and you could perform the section function as well.

WALLACE:  Well, some people might argue that.  But see, when I was in school I played the clarinet, and I played in orchestras and wind ensembles and stuff like that where I had to do a lot of reading.  I used to tease my wife and tell her that while I was in high school I was the state champ on the clarinet, because we had these contests, you know, with all the high school kids. I was a real reader in those years.  I could read.

TP:    And you were the state champ?

WALLACE:  I was the state champ.  I think I played the Stravinsky “Three Pieces.” They put your through all these regimented kinds of things, like sight-reading and all this stuff.

TP:    When did you put down the clarinet?  Or did you.

WALLACE:  When I got out of college.  I basically quit practicing it… Off and on over the years, if they had a job that needed the clarinet, I would play it.  But in those days, the mouthpieces and the equipment on the instrument weren’t near as good as they are today, or I didn’t know about any of the good stuff.  And with the mouthpieces I was playing, the clarinet would really chew up your lip and make you bite.  And I wanted to get my sound real loose on the tenor, so I just got as far away from that clarinet as I could when I got out of school.

[MUSIC: BW, “I Loves You, Porgy”]

TP:    In the ’70s, apart from that initial gig, did you go around, meet a lot of people, make yourself busy on the scene?

WALLACE:  Yes.  I was a little bit timid.  I was a little bit overwhelmed with the scene.  I used to play duets with Wilbur Ware, who was another really great friend.  Wilbur had a dubious reputation, but I didn’t see that.  He was really nice to me, and I used to go over to his house and practice with him.  I remember he invited me to come up to Harlem to play with him and Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones.  I can’t remember where, but I was afraid.  I wasn’t afraid to go to Harlem.  I was afraid to go play with those guys.  When I look at it now, I think, my God, if you couldn’t play with those guys… That’s one of the stupidest things I ever did!  But I played around, and met a lot of musicians, and just kind of worked on my music and did a lot of practicing.  I worked a bit with Sheila Jordan, and that was a lot of fun.  The loft scene started up and I was a bit on the periphery of that.

TP:    I was curious about your relation to that.  You’re a musician with obvious solid grounding in blues and vernacular music and bebop, and yet you’re being influenced by Stockhausen in the way you approach your style intervallically, which is an interesting mix of influences.

WALLACE:  Well, when I was in college, I was hanging out a lot with a composer named Doug Davis, who turned me on to a lot of that kind of music and taught me a lot about how 20th Century music is put together.  I had this wild ambition to be able to improvise atonally, and so I practiced a lot of that.  I would learn 12-tone kind of melodies, but I’d always relate them to chords because that was my background.  When I came to town, I guess I was playing farther out than I’ve ever played on records.  A year or two after I’d been here, I had a radio and I started listening to Ed Beach, and Ed Beach would play Ben Webster and he would play Coleman Hawkins, and I remember he played this beautiful record of Zoot Sims playing “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” and just all of these amazing recordings.  I used to tape them.  He did a Gene Ammons show… I’m so sorry I didn’t keep the parts where he was talking, because his voice was so incredible.  But then I heard that, and then I started really hearing Duke Ellington in detail for the first time, and really getting it, listening to Ed Beach.  That’s when I decided to go back and really like build the foundation of my roots and learn the music… I remember I heard him playing Don Byas doing “Sweet Lorraine.”  He just had a way of picking the best stuff, to where you’d just never forget it.  That was kind of a conversion, like a born-again experience for me.  Since then my music has always been based on that, but that other thing I studied in school is a part of my vocabulary, or makes me think a bit differently, I think.

TP:    I interrupted you when you spoke of being on the periphery of the loft scene, such as it was.  Did you have a particular clique of musicians that you were around, or…

WALLACE:  Well, I kind of knew the guys who ran the lofts.  I knew Joe Lee Wilson, who was a great guy, and I knew the guy that ran Environ and a couple of other places.  I knew Sam Rivers a little bit.  And those guys would give me gigs from time to time.  In fact, one of the first lofts I played in was Ornette Coleman’s loft down on Prince Street.  We didn’t have any gigs, and that was just like a place to play.  Eddie Gomez and I played together in the lofts, and I played with Glen Moore, I played with Sheila Jordan, with Jay Clayton, a lot of different… There was a little bit of a clique, I guess you’d say — a little community.  People would just call me up.  Sometimes I’d play my own duet and trio concerts.  For a while I had a gig in a restaurant with just bass and tenor, which was pretty hilarious.

TP:    So you were living the life of a New York musician trying to get by week to week and do what came up.

WALLACE:  Just running blind. [LAUGHS]

TP:    We’ll hear Thelonious Monk, a track along with Stockhausen that you mentioned as two kind of poles…

WALLACE:  Well, Stockhausen just kind of came out of my head.  I was listening to a lot of 20th Century music, Elliott Carter and Charles Ives and a lot of different stuff.  But I just remember there was a Stockhausen woodwind piece, and I had the music to it.  But I used to go hear Monk at the Vanguard, which got me to kind of thinking… My ambition was always to be in his band.  Everybody else wanted to be in Miles Davis’ band, but my fantasy was to play with Monk.  When you listen to this tune, listen to what he does toward the end of the bridge with the harmony.  That inspired me in terms of ways to harmonize tunes.

[Monk, “These Foolish Things” (1953); BW, “Skippy”]

TP:    When you made Bennie Wallace Plays Monk in 1981, you’d been here almost a decade.

WALLACE:  Yeah, about 9 years.

TP:    That was about your fourth recording for Enja, so by this time…

WALLACE:  Rocket to stardom, as Lenny Bruce used to say.

TP:    But in some ways your position changes.  Whether it’s a rocket to stardom or a slow boat to China, you still become a fact in the world of jazz with records under your belt.

WALLACE:  I was really lucky.  In the late ’70s I got hooked up with Enja Records, and basically without any kind of contract or anything I was making a record every year, and they were helping me get work in Europe, and so I was touring over there.  It was some great opportunities.  I made a record with Tommy Flanagan the year before I made this one.  My feeling was, well, if I don’t have the opportunity to be in those great bands of the past as a sideman, I’ll create sideman things of my own.  So I chose to make a record with Tommy and then this record of Monk tunes, because I was always really into Monk.  It was wonderful, because Enja didn’t give me any kind of economic restrictions.  I mean, they did in terms of how much money I could spend making a record.  But it wasn’t about selling so many units, as they say today, and it wasn’t about how many records you sell and where you are on the charts or anything like that.  That was really lucky.  Because all we were thinking about was trying to make the best records we could make.

TP:    You worked with some of the most eminent lights in jazz… [ETC.] Were these part of the circle of musicians in your New York experience?

WALLACE:  I’d never met Tommy before I recorded with him.  He came to a rehearsal. I’d been down and sat in with Elvin once, so I kind of knew Elvin a little bit.  And I knew Dave because we were neighbors and we used to shed together.  And Eddie Gomez and I were good friends and played together a lot.  Chick Corea heard us playing in Paris and said, “Let’s do something sometime,” so I took him up on it and asked him to play on that record.  But I knew some of the people…

TP:    In talking to Bennie Wallace about the music for this program, Coleman Hawkins seemed to be the top.

WALLACE:  Yes.  I’ve always loved Coleman Hawkins, and the more I hear him, the more I appreciate him.  I’m stumbling over my words.  He’s known for certain things that he’s incredible at, and then there’s other things that are just… The more I get into his playing, the more subtleties I find.  But the tune I asked you to play here is a recording of “Sophisticated Lady” from 1949, which I think rivals his “Body and Soul.”  I just think it’s stunning.  I remember transcribing it, like writing it out and taking it apart and seeing how it was put together.  It’s a stunning work.  And that tone is just unbelievable!

TP:    Is Coleman Hawkins someone you can describe in three-four words to someone who doesn’t know who he is?

WALLACE:  I don’t think so.  I heard an announcer say one time that he invented the tenor saxophone.  That doesn’t do justice to what he did.  Like, 1929, he kind of defined the ballad style for me on the saxophone; he kind of invented that.  I remember once Sonny Rollins mentioned admiring Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic sophistication.  I didn’t get that for a while, and then when I got farther into Coleman Hawkins I knew what Sonny was talking about.  It’s incredibly harmonically sophisticated and refined.  I mean, Coleman Hawkins was a big opera fan.  I knew a guy who worked at Sam Goody’s, and Coleman Hawkins was one of his customers, and he said to Coleman Hawkins one day, “Why don’t you look at our jazz records?” and he said, “Oh, I make those.”  But he was always checking out the opera records.  The band that he had with Tommy Flanagan with Major Holley and Eddie Locke to me is one of the all-time classic jazz quartets.  It doesn’t get nearly the recognition and appreciation that some other bands at the time did, but that was one helluva band.

[Coleman Hawkins, “Sophisticated Lady,” “Strange Music,” “Buh-de-Dah”; BW, “The Man I Love,” Ellington-Hodges, “Prelude To A Kiss,” “Jack The Bear”]

TP:    The ’80s was a real heyday for piano emporia…

WALLACE:  Yes, the ’70s and early ’80s.  After I made the record with Tommy I got to know him, and I used to go down to Bradley’s and listen to Tommy, and Red Mitchell would come over from Sweden and play for a few weeks, and I remember he’d always play two weeks with Tommy, two weeks with Hank Jones, and two-week shots with Albert Dailey.  Man, you could just go in there and get incredible music lessons every night.  In those days you could walk in Bradley’s for free and buy a drink, and it was usually so crowded you didn’t have to buy a drink because nobody would notice you.  It was just a great scene.  In fact, Tommy and Diana introduced me to Jimmy Rowles down there, though I didn’t get to know Jimmy well until I moved to California.  But that was an amazing time.

TP:    Let’s talk about the arc of your career during the 1980’s.  It took some strange twists and left turns.  You signed a contract with Blue Note in the mid-’80s.

WALLACE:   At that time I had a manager, Christine Martin, who had a hookup with Blue Note records, and they basically gave me a deal, but they wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South.  Which turned out to be a nice idea, because it gave me a chance to go back and do some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid, and do them in the way you would kind of fantasize about doing them.  That’s when I met Mac Rebennack, or Dr. John, and he became a really great friend and associate.  It gave me good exposure, because I got to go to Japan and I got to play more in the States than I’d played before, and I played at the Town Hall and Blue Note Nights and things like that.  Also, I did two records for Denon.  Christine made this happen.  She did a deal with Denon where they were going to have musicians produce albums.  So Christine called one day and said, “Make a couple of suggestions,”  so I said, “Okay, a Lockjaw Davis record and Teddy Wilson with a singer.”  So they came back and said yes to both of them.  Unfortunately, neither one got made.  I talked to Jaws and he was into it, and we had a couple of nice phone conversations about it, but that was right toward the end when he was really ill, and he didn’t get to do it.  Then subsequently I think Teddy Wilson died shortly after that, too.  But I did make a couple of records for Denon, who were very nice people.

So that was a time when I got into some diverse directions.  It’s also the first time I really got a dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun.  I remember in the ’70s Ray Anderson and I used to have a running joke with each other, we hoped that some day we would become exploited.  And it basically ain’t all it’s cracked up to be! [LAUGHS] That’s when my career became about how many records you sell.  You’re really getting into the commercial world, whether they want to admit it or not.  It becomes about that instead of about music, unfortunately.  I started getting in with some of the agents and people like that who you always hear all these horror stories about.  They’re true!  In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got this call from some guy in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in a movie and wanted me to write something for his movie.  Like, all of a sudden I’m writing movie music, again by just a total accident.

TP:    You did music for Bull Durham.

WALLACE:  That one was Bull Durham, then I did Blaze and White Men Can’t Jump, and then some smaller films.  I did a short that Jeff Goldblum directed, and the music was kind of a tribute to Thelonious Monk, which was fun.  I did another short that was an animated piece with a jazz score.  Both scores were Oscar-nominated; they didn’t make any money, but they got a little bit of attention that way.  I did quite a number of different things.

TP:    You have a number of original compositions on those Enja records, but in that period I think of you as an improviser, a spontaneous composer on the instrument.  But you’re working in sparse groups, they’re very open-ended.  Was composing always part of your interests/

WALLACE:  I always liked the idea.  And in the early days I used to write a lot of tunes based on standard forms to give me a different perspective about learning more about those tunes.  I used to do that kind of to educate myself.  Then when I was with Enja, they always wanted me to write original music because they had publishing.  And I made a little money off the publishing, too.  But they always encouraged me to write a lot of originals, which stimulated me to do it.  Composing is a lot of fun, because it’s different from playing… It’s not as much fun as playing, but it’s a neat experience to see something formulate in your mind and take a shape and then kind of get edited down to what you’re really getting at.  I like that.  But I never trained myself to write for movies, or never really… I always wanted to play music for movies, but I always was thinking more the way Sonny Rollins did it on Alfie or the way Miles Davis did it on a few of those films he was in, where it’s more about playing and not so much about orchestrating.  It’s ironic that after several years of being out there doing that, and writing for orchestras and kind of learning the craft, I came back here to get away from it all three years ago, and then accidentally came into this TV series, where it really is about playing and watching the picture go by, and really playing jazz as a score.  That’s The Hoop Life.  I kind of got off into that because it’s a full circle thing that happened.

TP:    When did you move to L.A.?

WALLACE:  About 1990.  Came back in 1996.
[MUSIC:  Flanagan, “Bird Song”; BW/TF, “Beyond The Bluebird”]

TP:    Solo piano by Jimmy Rowles, who was a fixture at various NYC piano emporia when he was here…

WALLACE:  He was a fixture wherever he was! [LAUGHS] I met him here, but I didn’t really know him.  It was just an introduction at Bradley’s late one night.  But I met him for real when I was in L.A.  Because I really felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles.  I was very self-conscious that I was just going to stagnate.  So I called Jimmy one day out of the blue, just out of the phone book, and said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player, not a piano player, but I’d like to study piano with you to learn your harmonic concept and the way you approach tunes.”  So he said, “Come on over,” and he showed me this outrageous stuff.  I went with a list of tunes, and Jimmy talked about “Body and Soul” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” which are the two tunes I thought I knew as well as I can know a tune, and he just like educated me.  Then after that we became really great friends, and any time I got a movie date I’d figure out some way to get him on it.  Not that he wasn’t a tremendous asset, but just any excuse to be there working with him, and hearing him play and hearing him sing.  He and I are both tennis fans, so we had a telephone friendship almost daily.  Like, he would talk about music or tennis.  He was one of those rare human beings.  I loved him dearly, and I was very fortunate to be able to hang out with him and learn from him.  When I knew Jimmy, he was pretty much restricted from his emphysema, so he wasn’t working much.  I used to pick his brain all the time, and it was a chance to talk to a master almost on a daily basis and just pick a tune and start… You’d call him up and ask about a tune, and he wouldn’t just tell the changes, like anybody else.  He would talk about, “Well, bar 3 the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.”  This guy had a memory that was just phenomenal to go along with that encyclopedic knowledge of tunes that he had.

[MUSIC: Rowles, “Body and Soul”; Hank Jones, “Satin Doll”; Ella Fitzgerald, “Midnight Sun”]

TP:    We discussed the second segment of Bennie Wallace’s career scoring films [1989 it started].

WALLACE:  This thing you’ve got up now is written for string quartet, and it’s not jazz at all.  It was written for a cartoon called “The Indescribable Nth.”  This was done by a fellow named Steve Moore in Los Angeles who I met when I was out there, and we met on a film and became friends and have done several projects together.  We recorded it in Brooklyn by a wonderful string quartet in New York.  It’s Todd Reynolds on violin; Victor Schultz, second violin; Ralph Ferris, viola; and Dorothy Lawson, cello.  I met them in September when I hired them for this date on a recommendation, and since then we’ve done a couple of other things together.  We did a segment of The Hoop Life with them.
TP:    Is there a narrative component?

WALLACE:  It’s really a children’s cartoon.  It’s a story about a guy who sells snow domes, and he has a little boy, and it’s about the little boy and getting his heart broken and all that.  What I like about the story and everything is it’s almost like the kind of thing that we would have seen when we were kids.  It has a timeless quality to it.  These are a few of the cues.

[MUSIC: BW, String Quartet, “The Indescribable Nth”, BW/Dr. John, “St. Expedito”]

WALLACE:  I think Hoop Life was like a who’s-who of New York musicians.  The piano players were Mulgrew, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock (I know I’m leaving somebody else out).  The bass players were either Eddie Gomez or George Mraz or Mark Helias or Peter Washington, Rodney Whitaker did one.  Herlin Riley did a couple of them, and Alvin Queen.  A lot of my great friends.  Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibes player, played a couple, and Brian Carrott is another really great vibes player.  I met a lot of guys I didn’t know doing this.  It was a lot of fun.

TP:    How would it differ from a normal score you’d do?

WALLACE:  They’d differ from week to week.  One week we had a string quartet with a couple of jazz musicians, but quite often it would be a group like you just heard, and we would literally be watching the picture and playing.  My job was to outline the thematic material and time the scenes and set the tempo and where events are going to happen in the picture.  In cases like that, people would just play.  Then there were other things that were through-composed, and there was very little improvising.  I enjoyed this job as much as any film work I ever did.

TP:    Is it the first time you were able to do that?

WALLACE:  With that kind of freedom, yes.

TP:    You said this was your aspiration when you started scoring films.

WALLACE:  Well, long before I scored films, I always wanted to PLAY with the film, play jazz and react to the picture.  This is the first time I’ve ever really had an opportunity to do that.  A little bit out there, but never with such consistently great musicians.  It was also quite a treat to hear really wonderful jazz musicians come in and react to a picture.  Some of them I think were doing it for the first time.  I can’t think of one experience that was anything less than really a lot of fun.

TP:    Why is this the type of show that’s amenable to an improvised, as it were, score?

WALLACE:  Well, it’s a show about a professional basketball team.  But the reason it’s amenable is that the producer, Joe Cicachi, has a real creative head, and is… When he called me up he said, “I want some real cutting-edge kind of stuff.”  He knew my records probably more than my film work.  Well, I don’t know; he’d have to say that.  Quite often in film work you’ve got to cater to tastes for people who aren’t very sensitive to music at all, and quite often they’re just paranoid about whether or not their film is going to make any money.  But this guy was really very creative to work with, and let us loose.

TP:    How does the music get edited within the final cut?

WALLACE:  Oh, they never change the music.  What we do goes to the picture because it’s composed or played to the picture and for the picture.  I don’t recall them ever taking anything out.  For a few weeks we were having trouble because the people in Los Angeles who were mixing the show down at the network were dialing the music way down, and we had this great editor up in Toronto, where the show is done, and he just kept pumping the music louder and louder, and finally they gave up.  So finally, after episode 5, you could hear everything okay.

TP:    How has the film writing and the music affected your relationship to the instrument?

WALLACE:  The unfortunate thing is that when I’m really in the act of doing it, it takes me away from my horn.  The real frustrating thing about something like this is I would have all these wonderful players in the studio, and then I’d be blowing the dust off my horn and trying to remember how to finger it as we started recording, rather than being in shape as I’d like to be.  But on the other hand, again it’s taken me to some areas of music that I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise and taught me some things I wouldn’t have learned.  When we were talking earlier in the show about some of the 20th century music I’ve listened… It made me listen a lot more to Ravel and Stravinsky, and I’ve been listening a lot to Olivier Messaien, and learning different kinds of coloristic techniques, and then those start finding their way onto my horn.  So I like that.

[MUSIC: “It Ain’t Necessarily So”]


* * *

Bennie Wallace (3-3-00):

TP:    Are you from a musical family?

WALLACE:  No.  I had a great-uncle who was a fiddler, but that was it.  When I was 12 years old, they came in and said if you take up a musical instrument you get out of school for an hour a day, and so I went.  I wanted a trombone, but my arms were too short, so they gave me a clarinet, and that evolved into the saxophone.  I was just playing for fun.

TP:    But you took to it.  You had a sort of innate musicality, I guess.

WALLACE:  Yeah, I took to it.  But about a year or two later, Chet Hedgecoth, this incredible musician, became our teacher, and he really built a fire under everybody.  He came in with Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie records, and John Coltrane records and stuff like that, which is stuff we had never even dreamed of, and just introduced us all to a whole new world.  It was funny, because we were out there in this real kind of reactionary community, and all of a sudden there’s this pocket of young kids who are just like fanatic jazz fans!  I remember we were listening to Charles Mingus…

TP:    Chattanooga, 1962.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  And we were right there in the middle of it!

TP:    What kind of town is Chattanooga?

WALLACE:  As one of the locals once told me, “the only thing you can do in Chattanooga is work.”  There is a pocket of some of the wealthiest people in the country down there, and they kept Chattanooga for their own little private place.  It could have been Atlanta.  It was the first choice to be the big city in the South, and these rich people just totally vetoed it because they didn’t want it growing up and getting out of their control.  So the middle class and the lower class there just… There was really very little to do.  I remember when I was playing in those after-hours joints, the legal clubs could only sell beer, and they had to close at 11 at night — and we started playing at 11 at night.

TP:    Were you a middle-class family?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  My Dad worked for the phone company.  We were just a typical middle-class family.

TP:    Were you a rebellious kid?

WALLACE:  Of course.

TP:    I just want to talk about this whole after-hours thing.

WALLACE:  Well, I just totally lied to them.  It was funny, because I used to tell my mother…

TP:    What was the name the place you played?

WALLACE:  There was two of them.  One was called the Am-Vets Club, and it wasn’t an Am-Vets Club, but it had that name.  Then there was another one called the Malibu Club.  For a brief time I worked at a third place called the Stardust Lounge.  That was the only one that was rough.  That was kind of where you could go for jazz and heroin.  But the other two places were basically like older…you know, a middle-aged crowd of people who… One of the regulars there was a guy who went to high school with Jimmy Blanton. [who’d get drunk and tell him every time.] Actually, when I look back on it, it was more sophisticated than the crowds in any of the White joints down there, even the very wealthy country clubs.  And it was totally safe.  The only problem… Sometimes White people would come down there and make trouble because we were integrating.  But as far as the clientele, it was as harmless as you could imagine in a nightclub.

TP:    Was the clientele all Black?


TP:    So White people didn’t patronize the club.  It was just your group of kids from the White school would go down…

WALLACE:  Well, see, what happened is a group of us kids went down one time.  Well, I think I was about 14, and we went in just to see the place.  The owner saw how young we looked and he was kind of humoring us.  But after that, my teacher started taking me down there, and I would jam with the musicians.  There was like an underground circuit of jazz musicians who would travel around the country, but not the big-name clubs, but little small clubs.  So that was going on, and so my teacher would take me down there to jam with musicians who would come in — really good Bebop players.  Remember a guy named Fred Jackson?  I played with him when I was in high school when he was down there.  I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people, because here’s this White kid who looked like he’s 12 up there playing with everybody.  Anyway, the owner kind of took me under his wing and started giving me work.  And by the time I was out of high school, I had a summer down there that I was the bandleader.

TP:    Was it a Black band?

WALLACE:  Mostly.  Actually it was funny, because the first night we played down there it was an all-White band, guys I’d played in school with.  Then it wound up being that the guitar player was White and the bass player and the drummer were Black, so two and two.  And we had singers came in, and… There was a great singer down there who sang kind of like Joe Williams style.  Actually that summer, Lou Rawls had that big hit on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and so we played “Shadow of Your Smile” all summer.  But that was a great experience.  Then when I was in college in Knoxville, we had the same kind of thing, because we had after-hours joints up there that weren’t so safe.  Some of the joints were totally cool and some of them weren’t cool.  But they let us play whatever we wanted to play.

TP:    Did you have to keep the shuffle rhythm, or whatever you wanted to play?

WALLACE:  No, we would play everything.  Our version of commercial music at that time was Cannonball Adderley tunes, “Work Song” or “Sack of Woe,” or Horace Silver tunes… That was as commercial as it got.  But we were playing Bebop tunes, and…

TP:    You were a tenor player from the getgo as far as being a performer.

WALLACE:  yes.

TP:    But there’s a dual track for you which runs through your life, where you’re dealing with reading and…

WALLACE:  I’ve tried to eliminate that other stuff, but it always keeps coming back up on me.  I was only studying the clarinet and classical music in school, because they didn’t teach jazz down there then, and only performing on the saxophone.  Basically, I was in school to stay out of the Vietnam War, otherwise I would have been gone…

TP:    But you were state high school champion, a good sight-reader.

WALLACE:  I was a very good sight-reader.

TP:    I know you’re downplaying this stuff, but it sounds like you had a pretty immaculate technical training.

WALLACE:  Oh, the best.  I had a wonderful clarinet teacher, actually two wonderful clarinet teachers.  And I was very serious about it at the time.  When I was in high school I was really into both of them, because I had such wonderful teachers who were such great role models on both instruments.  So I was torn about it.  But when I got to college, I think… Being able to play jazz in college was frustrating, and that’s where my energy went.  The classical music was right there in front of me, and I started getting bored with it.  Had it been better classical music, I might not have gotten bored with it.  But jazz just becoming more and more important.  It was always inevitable, though.

TP:    Was it a different sides of your personality type thing?  I know you listened to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but it sounds like you started off as pretty much a gutbucket tenor player, or is that not true?

WALLACE:  Well, I think it’s somewhere in the middle.  Like I told you the other day, when I heard Sonny Rollins, that’s the first time I experienced Art, like really got into something that really touched me.  The first time I heard Coltrane, it was the same kind of thing, but it wasn’t quite as deep for me.  It’s like there was something about that Sonny Rollins solo that was something more than just the notes.  Not to say that Coltrane wasn’t.  But I mean, the first Coltrane I heard was “Giant Steps,” and when I hear it to this day… I was watching TV the other day, and they were interviewing Cornell West, and at the end he played “Spiral” from that album.  I hadn’t heard it in years, and it took me back to my childhood.  So it was a very strong impression.  But there was something about the Sonny Rollins solo that was the notes and the pitches and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that was something that you couldn’t put on paper.  That really got me.  It was an F-major blues, and they called “Sumphin'”.  That’s just an incredibly classic performance.  I mean, to this day that’s the best blues tenor solo I ever heard in my life.  And Dizzy plays great, Ray Bryant plays great on it.  It’s a magical performance.  Then there’s a fast blues right before that called “Wheatleigh Hall,” and I also really liked that one.  I’ve rarely ever listened to the other side of the record.  I’ve still got the jacket around here somewhere.  I stole my teacher’s copy of it when I was in high school.  He never gave us records; he always left the around for us to steal them.

TP:    What was he like?

WALLACE:  He was a wonderful jazz drummer.  His favorite… Well, he actually went back in the history of the music a bit.  He was into Davey Tough and Don Lamond, but he was mostly into Philly Joe Jones, and he also was a big fan of the Count Basie band with Sonny Payne.  And Max Roach.  He was really into the down-the-middle great players.

TP:    He swung.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah!

TP:    so when you were learning, you had a good swinging drummer behind you.

WALLACE:  Well, he didn’t play with us so much, but he really taught actually three really wonderful drummers just at our high school, then he taught a couple of others who went to other schools.  Then one time I’ll never forget, he brought a bass player, one of his buddies that he grew up with, and we were playing our F-blues with the band, and I’ll never forget the first time I played with a great bass player.  Who was actually… Did you ever hear of Edgar Meyer?  It was Edgar Meyer’s father, Ed Meyer.  Her came and played with us one day, and boy, what a thrill that was.  And he could walk!

TP:    What lie did you tell your parents to get to…

WALLACE:  I told them I was playing in a hillbilly club.  And the hillbilly club I told them I was playing in was a really rough joint, but they didn’t know it.  Then inevitably at some point, somebody at my Dad’s job went to that club and I wasn’t there, and… [LAUGHS]

TP:    Did you graduate from U-Tennessee?

WALLACE:  Yeah, in 1968. [degree in music]

TP:    But by then you knew you were going to go on and be a professional.  But there’s a practical side to you.  One half of you is this sort of go-for-broke wild guy and another part that seems very pragmatic.

WALLACE:  Well, that didn’t come into play until I got married.

TP:    But you graduated.

WALLACE:  I graduated because of the Vietnam War.

TP:    Maybe that made you pragmatic.

WALLACE:  That made my whole generation pragmatic.  It not only made us pragmatic, it made us innovative.  Everybody had to figure out their own way to get out of the Army, and everybody had to come up with something different, because those guys get onto it if everybody comes in with the same affliction.

TP:    The impression I got was that you spent a couple of years as a wandering musician.  You didn’t go right to New York.

WALLACE:  Right out of college, I got a job playing in a big band in Chicago.  It wasn’t a jazz band, it was like a pops orchestra.  It was a job that I was totally ill-suited for.  I was playing lead alto and flute and piccolo and alto flute and clarinet and all this stuff.  I did that off and on for the first year, and then I went to Boston and took some private saxophone lessons from Joe Viola there.  I wasn’t in school.  And I was working with a composer friend of mine who played piano there.  Then I went to San Francisco for three or four months, and then a friend introduced me to Gary Burton.  This was an older friend who was kind of worried about me because I was so crazy and seemingly without direction.  So he played Gary some of my music and introduced me to Gary, and Gary said, “Well, the way you play, you should move to New York.  You don’t belong anywhere else.”  Actually, Gary was quite nice to me.  So he made sure that I knew some people to play with.  And my friend gave me $275 to go to New York, and I did — and I’m still here!

TP:    So you got here in ’72.

WALLACE:  Yes.  That’s when I just accidentally met Monty Alexander and got that gig.

TP:    I have that story, and the story of being scared to play with Wilbur Ware, Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.

WALLACE:  I was scared to, because I figured, “I’m not ready to play with those guys.”  And like I said the other night, in retrospect, how much more easy could it be than THAT?  And those kind of guys were always so encouraging to young musicians.  That’s one thing I’ve been very lucky with through my whole career, is great musicians have always given me a chance and been encouraging.  I think it’s because great musicians, that’s just part of their nature, to hear what’s good about your playing, and I think near-great players or not-quite-great players, their inclination is to find what’s wrong with you.  I think that’s been pretty consistent through all my life.  Some of the most intimidating people in the business… I mean, Charles Mingus heard a tape of me playing and invited down to play with him, just without meeting me or anything.  That’s when Ricky Ford was in the band, and Jack Walrath, and Dannie and Walter Norris.  Practically all the really-truly great musicians I’ve met have been like that.  Great musicians have no time for jive, no time for guys who don’t do their homework and don’t play.  But I’ve always found them to be very encouraging.

TP:    One other thing that seems to mark you is, no matter how crazy you were, it always seems linked up with work.  The work ethic seems to be part of your thing from the very beginning.

WALLACE:  It was.  Literally from the very beginning.  I remember when I was in high school I’d get up at 6 in the morning to practice an hour before my parents got up.  I always practiced, even at the height of the ’60s. [LAUGHS] That’s always been there.  It’s a part of my life.  At the beginning I think it’s a discipline that great teachers instill in you, but then after a while it becomes a way of life.  I don’t time the number of hours I practice a day or anything, but when I’m conscious I’m thinking about music and I’m attracted to it, and I’m either playing my saxophone or playing the saxophone or listening to music.  It becomes a way of life.

TP:    Let me ask you a bit about the Rollins-Coltrane polarity.  I know you have other influences.  But in your generation, most people, even if they loved Sonny Rollins, were going in the Coltrane direction.  When I’m talking about your generation, who was in New York in ’72, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman…

WALLACE:  Those guys are my age.  But…

TP:    You sounded so different.  You just sounded very fresh.

WALLACE:  When I was a kid, like I told you, Lockjaw Davis was a big influence on me, and still is.  And all the guys who played with Count Basie.  Budd Johnson was a big influence on me.  I  don’t know if I told you, but I actually got to play with Budd before he died.  Frank Foster, Frank Wess, all those guys who played there… I listened to everything on all those Count Basie records.  And when you’re a kid, there’s a certain thing of what’s in fashion, and to us that was in fashion.

TP:    But to most people your age, that’s what was out of fashion.

WALLACE:  But see, I’m talking about 1960 in Chattanooga.  At that point we didn’t know about the band with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.  To us the Miles Davis band was Coltrane and Red Garland, and we’d heard that it had broken up, but… And we were very much into Count Basie and Woody Herman’s band, Sal Nistico… I listened to Sal a lot, and actually met him in those days when he came through town.  The point I was getting at is it was right after that, when I went to college, that I discovered Prez and Bird.  My teachers in high school kind of started introducing me to Charlie Parker’s movie, which I liked, but there was something that was a real hero-mentor thing about Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and also Jaws… There was something about it being the tenor.  But then in college I got into Prez and all the Prez kind of players.  I remember my teacher was a huge Stan Getz fan, and I listened to Stan Getz a lot when I was in college.

TP:    He told you to go to Sonny Rollins for playing the blues, but he sounds like a duck, go to Stan Getz for tone…

WALLACE:  That was my high school teacher.  I’m talking about my saxophone teacher, who to his death tried to play like Stan Getz.  But that was just kind of a detour for me, because I was really into these other players.

But to get back to what you’re saying about when I came to New York: In my way, I was just as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but I wasn’t into imitating him.  The thing that I always imitated about Coltrane was his diligence to making his playing better and better, his dedication to the instrument, and also the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else.  That was the message of Coltrane to me.

TP:    So the idea with you was the ethos you find with a lot of Black musicians in the ’40s and ’50s and before — finding your own sound.

WALLACE:  Exactly.  To me, the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics.  And maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but for me, that’s the way I feel as an artist.  To me, Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation.  The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.

TP:    Another thing, you seem more comfortable navigating racial tensions than a lot of your white peer group in terms of the musicians you were able to play with.  Just talking about hooking up with Monty Alexander and fitting right into that band… Do you attribute that in some way to being from the South…

WALLACE:  Well, I grew up playing with Black musicians, playing in Black clubs.  But in those days… You’ve got to remember, things were politically a lot different.  In those days, when I was a kid, crossing racial barriers was making a very strong and sometimes dangerous political statement.  Between the black and white musicians — and not only the musicians, but the people in the clubs — there was a real sense of fraternity.  Which I think goes all the way back through the history of jazz, when you look at it, up until the more recent times when the politics has gotten really, I think, stupid.  But in the days I was growing up, the sociological message with jazz was that all that separation was such bullshit.  Read anything about the history of jazz, and it’s about brotherhood and it’s about the human experience.  That’s the overbearing social evil that’s always stood in the way of jazz, and that jazz has always stood up to.  Look at Norman Granz.  And the great… This whole thing about…

TP:    That accepted, but I’m trying to get to something about your aesthetic.  Which seems to me very fundamentally different than your peer group at that time.  I think a lot of those guys were so obsessed with Coltrane, it was hard for them to get their individuality at an early age.

WALLACE:  Well, the same thing happened the generation before that of alto players who were obsessed with Bird.  But those guys seemed to find more of their own personality.  To me, Frank Strozier sounds nothing like Bird, Cannonball doesn’t sound like Bird to me — although they are heavily influenced by Bird.  I think the thing is that Coltrane’s playing was so technical that by the time those guys figured it out, they had lost the chance to find themselves.  And that’s very sad.  Except I think another thing about our whole generation is that I think there’s the potential for guys to find themselves later in life.  In the business, Jazz is a young man’s business, but as an art it’s not as much a young man’s art as it was in the earlier days, because in the earlier days the actual elements of the music were a lot more basic and there was more of an open, fertile field for new things.  Now I think the music has evolved to where there’s so much history and so many demands, I think there’s the potential for people finding themselves when they get older.   I hope!

TP:    I think that’s really a rule of thumb.  People in this generation start to sound good when they’re 40.

WALLACE:  I was playing with Ray Anderson — who I’ve known for thirty years and always loved his playing — on the television show a few weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard him for a few years.  Ray just keeps getting better and better and better.  That’s the other thing that I really loved about doing that TV show, is I got up close to a lot of my favorite musicians and got updated with them, and everybody is just getting better and better.  Look at Mulgrew.  Mulgrew’s growing by leaps and bounds, and    I think he’s really going to be the next great master piano player.

TP:    The other thing about the ’70s is the Avant Garde, free jazz, the AACM oriented thing where people were blending contemporary classical music and jazz.  You made a comment that when you got to New York, you were playing about as wild as you ever did, then listening to Ed Beach’s shows and hearing the absolute classic, purest examples of consonant jazz affected you in a profound way.

WALLACE:  Yeah, it really sobered me up and made me realize where I was coming from, and that I didn’t have enough of the foundation of that.  Since then it’s been a matter of trying to refine both polarities of… Like, the sound of my music that I really feel and hear is jazz.  It’s like that tradition.  But a lot of the notes that I play to get to that are out of the tradition of European composed music, 20th Century music.  And to varying degrees, that can be said of all the great jazz musicians.  There’s connections of Duke Ellington to European music, obviously.  Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker.  Coltrane’s got it all over his playing.

TP:    Mingus had it, too.

WALLACE:  Right.  In a sense, that’s one thing that distinguishes jazz players from blues players.  Cornell West was talking about Jazz coming out of the Blues.  Well, some Jazz does come out of the Blues, but Coleman Hawkins doesn’t come out of the Blues.  There’s a lot of great jazz that comes out of that renaissance of music that was happening in the first half of the century.  Anyway, my music  kind of comes from all those things.  As I get older… My perception of music, and I think most artists’ perception of music is constantly in a state of change.  I think a guy like Teddy Wilson who stayed the same for all of his career is really an exception. That’s not a criticism, because I love Teddy Wilson.  But I just keep hearing it in a different perspective.  The Classical elements and the Jazz elements and the Blues elements, all those things, seem to constantly have a shifting degree of importance to me.  But most of those sides have always been there, and I keep trying to learn more about those.

TP:    What are some of your extra-musical interests in the ’70s?  Were you a reader?  A film goer?

WALLACE:  No, I was more of a reader.  I think I read just about all of the Faulkner novels, which is mostly because he was so great, but partly because I’m from the South, and living out of the South, you see that experience from a different point of view.  I remember reading Celine’s novels… Mose Allison turned me on to Celine.  I read a lot of different stuff.  I’ve always been very fond of the poet John Berryman.  And I always like reading about writers.  I used to get those “Paris Review” where they’d interview writers about their work habits.  I’ve always been very interested in how artists in all fields approach their craft.

TP:    Are you very analytical about your playing?

WALLACE:  When I’m practicing I really take it apart.  I have trouble listening to myself, like, after I’ve done something.  I fight it.  I’ve got a bunch of tapes and CDs and stuff of things that I’ve done that I’ve never listened to.

TP:    What’s your favorite record you’ve done?  Always the last one?

WALLACE:  [LAUGHS] It seems I’m stealing Duke’s cliche.  But these last two I’m very happy with.

TP:    I’d like you to analyze yourself, how you’d say your playing has changed from when you were first recording?  Then you had a sort of torrential style.  Stuff was kind of pouring out of you.  Now it’s become almost classic in form, you take a few choruses, say what you have to say, almost like a short story.  That was just one set; it might have been totally different in another.

WALLACE:  Well, I hope it would.  In fact, the night before you were there we played three sets, and I really liked that night, and the thing I liked about it was each set was totally different.  That’s the thing… I won’t say I try to do it, but when I’m happiest with my playing is when each set or each night has a totally different feel to it, and that it’s as musical and spontaneous as possible.  That’s really what I try to get at.

As far as how it’s changed over the years, I think my playing has mellowed out a bit over the years… I’m really not the right person to ask that, because I don’t analyze myself.  I don’t go back and listen to those old records.

TP:    I just wanted an impressionistic answer.  “Mellowed out” is fine.  You also were saying in the interview that you were interested in composing, but you started doing it for publishing purposes.

WALLACE:  Well, I actually started writing a bit in college…

TP:    You had a friend, Doug Davis, who introduced you to 20th Century theory…

WALLACE:  Right.  And he taught me a different way of writing tunes.  Then before I met Enja Records… That first record for Enja I produced myself and sold to them.  I think there were five originals on there, and those are all tunes I just wrote because I wanted to write them.  It wasn’t because of any pressure or any ulterior motive or anything.  Then when Matthias Wincklemann heard them and we started talking about subsequent albums, he said, “Look, you’ve got to write a lot of originals, because that’s where you’ll make your money.”  Also I like the idea of writing.  It’s a different challenge.  It’s a pressure when I’ve got a record date and I need to come up with them.  But at this point in my career, I only write tunes when I feel the inspiration, or as an outgrowth of a film project I get an idea.  Now I think I can say with complete integrity that I only write… I mean, I always wrote tunes from my heart, but right now I only do it when inspiration just hits me.  I really love playing standard tunes, and I have reasons for liking to play standard tunes, and there are so many of them that I want to record and play that I never can get to.  For that reason, I have no ambition to write any more, though writing just kind of seems to happen.

TP:    I’m always trying to find some sort of metaphor for the abstraction of music in some way.  As someone who’s involved in writing a lot of programmatic music, I wonder if you see the process of taking a solo or a composition as a narrative unto itself.

WALLACE:  I think I can explain that from my point of view real simply.  When I practice and when I compose, it’s a very self-conscious process, and it’s really… Particularly when I practice.  It’s like if you were doing something consciously to expand your vocabulary, to learn more about the English language to write.  Like, I’m learning more about the musical language to play.  And when I play, I don’t think about anything.  If I’m thinking about something when I’m playing, something is wrong.  And I just let those things… I try to provide the environment to let those things come out as naturally and as unconsciously as possible.  It’s a matter of what inspiration I get from the other musicians I’m playing with, and what happens in that moment.  So in that sense playing is very different from practicing, from any kind of preparation.  When I play a solo, I try to really think about the emotion of the tune that I’m playing if I’m thinking about anything.  All right, let’s try to really get inside of it.  It’s hard to express it verbally.  It’s a communion, is what it is.  It’s a little bit of a lofty term.  It’s a communion with myself, it’s a communion among the musicians, and it’s a communion by the musicians with the audience.  At the expense of being quite pretentious, it’s really like a spiritual or religious experience when it’s right.

TP:    There’s four people or five people in real time from whatever diverse backgrounds, dealing in the same language and saying something within it.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  And saying something together.  Saturday night during the last set, we played this blues I wrote for an earlier album which is called “At Lulu White’s.”  It’s a medium-tempo blues and it’s real simple.  There’s this little phrase in there that kind or reminds of something that Jaws and Johnny Griffin might have played together.  Two bars of melody that’s got my stamp on it, then there’s this answer.  Saturday night, Mulgrew and Peter and Alvin started playing that with me, and something happened.  And with those notes that were written out that were played… It’s not like an improvised experience; it was something about just playing the head.  To me it was the highlight of the weekend.  I don’t know what those guys were doing with that, but they took it to another place.  And that’s what I’m talking about.


TP:    Let’s talk a little more career now.  We went into not that much detail on what you did in the ’70s.  But between gigging with Monty Alexander at the Riverboat and your first Enja record in ’78, talk a bit about the network of friendships and relationships… The first record was with Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore.  How did you meet them, let’s say?

WALLACE:  Okay.  I met Eddie Gomez when I was playing with Jay Clayton.  She had a little group with her husband and Larry Karrush(?); it was a trio, and they would have guest artists for these loft concerts.  Sometimes I was the guest artist and sometimes Eddie was the guest artist, and even one concert he played one half and I played the other half — but they didn’t let us play together.  Then one day we played a concert and we all played together.  And that’s another memory I’ll never forget, is the first note that Eddie Gomez played when I was playing with him.  It was just like “My God!”  Because I’d always heard him with Bill Evans, and didn’t realize he had this other side to his playing.  It was such a big, deep, down-the-middle of the pitch sound.  Eddie and I decided that we wanted to do some things together, and he and Elliott Zigmund and I played a couple of concerts together.

Then my girlfriend at the time, who I was living with, who later became my first wife, she was a painter, and a really brilliant artist… But anyway, I was always listening to Sonny Rollins, and she didn’t like Sonny Rollins.  She just hadn’t got it yet.  Because she was usually very astute about musicians.  One night Sonny was playing at the Gate, and I was playing with Eddie Gomez I think at Rashied Ali’s place, and I said, “You go hear Sonny Rollins and see what you think.”  I said, “I think you’ll get it.”  She went and she heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “If you get a chance to go backstage, tell him I said hello, say hello for me, tell him I’m sorry I didn’t come tonight,” or something like that.  So she came back home and her eyes were just lit up, and she says, “First of all, he’s incredible.  Now I get it.  I was totally wrong.”  And she says, “But there’s something else.  I found you a drummer.”  And she had met Eddie Moore.  Now, I had never heard of Eddie Moore.  So she hooked me up with Eddie.

Then there was a guy named Gus Statiras, who was making these low-budget jazz records, and he heard me playing in Chuck Israels’ band, and Jimmy Maxwell recommended that he record me.  So Gus said, “Put together any band that you want, any rhythm section you want, and  just tell me when you’re ready to record, and we’ll make a record.”  So I called Eddie Gomez and I called Eddie Moore, and we rehearsed a bit, and we played a couple of loft concerts or gallery concert kind of things, and played a couple of gallery concert kind of things, and I called the guy and I said, “I’m ready.”  He says, “Well, the money will be here in two weeks; let’s go on and record.”  I said, “No, when the money gets here, let’s record.  But I don’t want Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore looking for me.”  So this went on for six months, and Glen Moore introduced me to David Baker, and David called Gus Statiras, and called me back and he said, “This isn’t going to happen,” then David put it together and made the first recording happen.  Then he sold it to Enja records.  So I owe David a great bit for getting me started.  Because I had no direction about a career.  I was just trying to naively learn how to play the saxophone.

TP:    Did the record sort of give you a direction?  You started doing about one a year.

WALLACE:  Well, it gave me I guess you’d say not a musical direction, but an opportunity, a palette to create from, and that was really wonderful, because there were absolutely no commercial restraints on it.  I just could make my own agenda.  The second one was “Live At The Public Theater” with Eddie and Danny Richmond.  So the next album that I made which was really a conscious decision was the first album I made with Tommy Flanagan.  I decided that I wanted to create… That’s when I made my first career choice.  I never thought about it until right now.  But I decided that I wanted to create a track record for myself of playing music that really had substance and credentials to it.  And Tommy Flanagan I just admired incredibly, so I wrote a series of original tunes based on very common standard song forms from bebop for that recording.  Then I made a record of Thelonious Monk tunes.  Thelonious Monk was always the guy I really wanted to play with.  I used to go hear him at the Vanguard . He was still living at the time…

TP:    It’s right before he retired, really.

WALLACE:  Right.  I used to hear Monk when he had… It wasn’t T.S.  It might have been Ben Riley, and it was Charlie Rouse playing tenor.  I heard him once with T.S. and Larry Ridley and Paul Jeffreys.

TP:    You said that listening to him kind of got you into your style.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  I used to hear him playing all these angular kind of things which I never really articulated enough or never really analyzed enough to say it’s this or it’s that.  But one day I was playing duets with this bassist Jack Six, who I’ve worked out a lot with, and we had been listening a lot to various 20th Century music.  I was thinking in terms of wider intervals for various reasons, and we were playing “Blue Monk” one day, and I just had this spontaneous idea of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths.  When I did it… I’ve got a tape somewhere of that rehearsal.  It was like, “Wait a minute; this makes the thing sound like something totally different.”  We just worked it out right there on the spot.  It created the illusion that the tone of the saxophone was actually bigger than it was.  I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals a little bit in his solos.  Like, where other guys would play thirds, he might play thirds and fourths or fifths or something, and put a little bit different read on Bird’s language.  So this was kind of like leaping off in that direction, but a lot more radically.

But I think the thing that inspired me to that was the composers I’d been listening to — Elliott Carter, Charles Ives and a woodwind quintet piece that Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote that had a lot of stuff like that in it.  Pierre Boulez wrote a piece called “Plies a lan Plie(?)” that’s got these incredible intervallic things in the soprano, and I used to listen to this recording a lot, and listened to this lady who was singing these incredibly wide intervals but making the m very melodic.  Also, my composer friend Doug Davis wrote with a lot of expanded kind of melodies, and he also did it and does it in a very melodic way, which makes me realize that that can really be lyrical.  To me, to this day, the trick to that is to make it melodic, to make it where it’s not just an academic wide interval but to make it where it makes melodic sense.

TP:    Do you find yourself going in and out of that style?  Does that style ever become any sort of mannerist trap?

WALLACE:  Yeah, it does.  And I’ve…with probably meager results, I try to not let that happen.  It’s kind of become a part of my language, and it can be to its detriment, yes.

TP:    I want to ask you about Bradley’s.  It seems like you’ve drawn a lot of your inspiration from piano players.  It’s like the first part of your life you were drawing it from tenor saxophonists; in the second part, a lot of it has come from pianists.

WALLACE:  Absolutely.

TP:    To that end, it seems Bradley’s was seminal, apart from the hanging.

WALLACE:  Well, I wasn’t really that much in the hanging because I wasn’t that much in the clique.  I was a little bit shy, to be quite honest about it.  But I used to go in there a lot.  The obstacle at Bradley’s was to be able to get close enough to the piano to where you could hear it over the crowd.  Although if somebody like Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones was in there, it got a lot quieter!   But there was this one place at the bar that I would always gravitate toward that was kind of close to the piano.

TP:    Front corner.

WALLACE:  You got it.  And I always used to lie for the times when Red Mitchell would be around.  He would usually come in and he would play, it seems like it was two weeks at a time, with Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey.  Those were my three favorites.  When those guys were playing, that was school.  And another guy who wasn’t a piano player who influenced me listening in those kind of situations — not at Bradley’s but in other joints — was Jim Hall.  Jim was playing a lot of duet gigs with bass players at the time, and I would go listen to him.  He played the tunes so clearly that that’s where I learned a lot of my repertoire, was listening to Jim.  Because the way he played the changes was so tasteful and so clear.  But I learned a lot from those guys.

I remember Albert Dailey would play, and one night he was playing “There Is No Greater Love,” which was one of those tunes everybody played at jam sessions, like “Oh great, here we’re going to play those changes again.”  A digression.  But an interesting thing, everybody played that tune in B-flat, but Sonny Rollins played it in E-flat, which was the same key that Billie Holiday sang it in.  If you listen to Sonny’s recording of it, maybe the only time he recorded it in the studio, and listen to Billie’s recording… I don’t know, but I’ll bet he was listening to it.  But anyway, I heard Albert… Everybody used to play it in jam sessions in the key of B-flat, and it became another one of those cliche tunes.  Then I heard Albert play it, and he did these harmonic substitutions on it.  I remember going out of there, and I was so excited, and got home, got my horn out and played through his changes to it.  Boy, all of a sudden, the tune made sense.  To this day I enjoy playing that tune because of that.  Albert also used to play these incredible cadenzas on the piano.  He was also an incredible rhythm section player.  He used to have a jam session thing in Folk City, and I went in and played with him, and it was this young bass player and drummer who I knew who didn’t have their sense of swing totally together yet, and he had those guys sounding like a major league rhythm section.

TP:    So we’re getting into the mid-’80s, about ’85, and you’re 37 years old or so, and you sign with Blue Note…

WALLACE:  Eddie Gomez introduced me to a manager, Christine Martin, who took me on.  She was hooked up with Blue Note, and she talked them into signing me.

TP:    Why did they want you to do southern themes?  Because you’re from the South?

WALLACE:  Well, record companies, for better or for worse, they need an angle.  And maybe they know what they’re doing.  That’s the subject of a whole interview.  I was working in Hollywood many years later with Bones Howe, who is a wonderful producer, and Bones said, “Let’s make a record together.  You tell me what you want to do, and then I’ll turn it into a concept to tell these people about it so they’ll give us the money to do it.”  He said, “That’s my job, is to make it one of these packages.”  Well, the southern thing is what got me in the door.  Actually, I kind of liked the idea at the time, because I’d been working with some gospel singers from Nashville on my last Enja record, and I was really kind of into that aspect of the roots at that moment.

TP:    Do you come from that type of church background in your family?

WALLACE:  Oh, no.  When I had to go, I went to this white church and the music was dreadful.  That was some pretty gruesome stuff.  But anyway, I found the idea of making a record…of going back and looking at the music that I played when I was a kid and all those… We were talking about the Black after-hours clubs, but I also played at a lot of dances, and I played a few times in roadhouses, and just to look at all of the spectrum of Southern music and then do it from a jazz musician’s point of view was a very attractive thing to me.  I enjoyed that.  Joel Dorn introduced me to Mac Rebennack.  I didn’t know Dr. John’s music at all, but he and I became fast friends, and I learned a lot of that music from him, from his world of music.

TP:    How did that add to your concept?  Did it give you a sense, say, of cutting to the chase and maybe sacrificing complexity for greater emotional impact and meaning?  Did that help you get towards film composing in some way?

WALLACE:  Well, in a very blatant way it did, because a film producer heard that album and basically dragged me into the business.

TP:    But in the pure world of aesthetics.

WALLACE:  In the pure world of aesthetics?  I don’t know if… It’s like if my next album had been an album of standards, the same thing would have probably happened in that world.  I think the real place that album took me was just really looking in more detail at the various aspects of the way that Blues approaches the music.  Because of the music on that record has some relationship to Blues, whether it… I think there’s a couple of Blues on there, but even things that aren’t Blues.  And putting me around musicians who are really great Blues players, like Bernard Purdie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Cranshaw, who I’d never recorded with although I’d played a couple of gigs with him — and particularly Mac.  When you’re playing with those guys, really in a non-verbal way it teaches you a lot about the thing that they’re really great at.  So I think that’s the thing I came away from it with.

TP:    Would you consider yourself a good blues player at that point?  You said Coleman Hawkins wasn’t coming out of the Blues particularly.  But were you coming out of that?

WALLACE:  Boy, somebody could read this and tear me apart for it.  But I think I come out of the Blues more than Coleman Hawkins does.  But as far as calling myself a great Blues player… Sonny Rollins and Lockjaw are great Blues players, Red Prysock is a great Blues player… I think the best way to put it is that my past experiences throughout my life have included quite a bit of Blues playing.  But up until that point that we’re talking about, I’d been doing less of it… When I got long-winded earlier and came down to one word and it was what you wanted… Over the course of these albums I’d been making, I’d been playing a lot of very challenging music.  This gave me the opportunity to play music that wasn’t so challenging as far as being difficult sets of chord changes and forms.  The only two tunes that were difficult on that album were “It’s True What They Say About Dixie” and “Tennessee Waltz,” where I really totally knew complex harmonies through those really mundane tunes.  But everything else is just two chords of the Blues on Twilight Time, but there was nothing really difficult in there.

TP:    What are the challenges of that?

WALLACE:  Of playing those simpler forms?  Is making music out of it.  But I think the thing that’s unique about it is, there’s not that much of a challenge to it.  You just relax and play.

TP:    So within four years, you’re writing the music for Bull Durham, which came out in ’89.

WALLACE:  I think it was ’88 that we did it.

TP:    So it’s a big change in a lot of ways.  Your lifestyle changes, because you get access to more money…

WALLACE:  Actually at that time, I didn’t get access to more money.  We got ripped really good.  It’s not uncommon.  But Mac and I went out and recorded the music that we did for Bull Durham, and we both fortunately just happened to be out that way.  We did it, then I came back home and resumed my career.  But that led to more work, so I wound up doing more movies.

TP:    I’d like to get some sort of precis of your film career, not so much a filmography as your concept of writing for films and how it evolved.

WALLACE:  As you were saying about piano players influencing my music, one of the things that I admire the most about great piano players is that in addition to being great soloists, they are also great accompanists.  Tommy Flanagan is the first name that comes to mind.  But Keith Jarrett is a great accompanist.  Herbie Hancock is a great accompanist.  There’s this thing of being able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it.  I really admire that.  Whenever I would be writing for a film, I would think, “Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?”  If you were going to translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for… Basically, it’s like what fits?  What enhances it?  The term “film composing” is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind.  Like, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing, about writing for orchestras.  Also a big part of film composing is just the technical aspect of making it fit exactly with the picture, and that’s a whole craft which I had to learn.  It’s really about mathematics and numbers and timings.

TP:    Did you learn by yourself, by trial and error?

WALLACE:  Yeah, pretty much.  It was on-the-job training.  There was kind of an old pre-computer way of doing it, with… There’s this old book of numbers that the old-timers used to use, and somebody gave me one of those books, and I just got in there and started… It’s a lot of work, but it’s not higher math or anything.  But you have to translate it from frames-per-second into music, and into something that the musicians you’re working with understand.  One of the things that’s a part of what I have done for films is, sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes I am writing for a string quartet, and sometimes I am writing for musicians who can’t even read music.  And I have to be able to put those technical things in a language that those people can understand so that it fits with the picture.

TP:    I remember one thing you said during the episode 22. You wanted Billy and Steve Kroon and the other percussion player to get a rubato Elvin Jones feel, and you mentioned one particular recording of Elvin’s.  At any rate you used a verbal analogy that was absolutely clear.  It became a lingua franca between you and them.  That’s a fairly unorthodox process in film writing…

WALLACE:  Well, I’m a fairly unorthodox film writer.  I think that’s it right there.  The first real score that I did, where I was writing the whole film score, was Blaze.  I had Dr. John, Leo Nocentelli from the Meters, and one of the Dr. John’s drummers, and I had Elvis Presley’s guitar player, and a fiddler who played with Bill Monroe, and Greg Leisz, who at that time was playing dobro and steel guitar with k.d. Lang.  Most of those people, the bluegrass players particularly, don’t read any music.  I would go out to Byron Beuerlein’s(?) garage and teach these guys the song by rote, and then figure out a way to make it fit the picture, and then figure out a way to tell them how to make it fit the picture.  Another example is when we were doing Hoop Life.  I was bringing in these jazz musicians, and sometimes the music was note-for-note right there on the paper, and sometimes it would just be an emotional direction with some way of communicating how to make it fit the picture.  It’s a lot like being a jazz bandleader, and there the great role model is Duke Ellington.  I try to bring real personal musicians into my scores and find a way to let them express that in relation to the picture, and then I come out looking good.

TP:    I noticed in the things I saw that you use atonal string quartet things for the more psychologically dramatic points, action gets minor trumpet blues… It’s interesting in this period to hear this blues type thing.  You get so inured to hip–hop beats, particularly dealing with something like basketball.  Do different musical situations, idiomatic vernacular conventions have certain resonances for you that have evolved over the years?

WALLACE:  I think so.  You’re talking about the trumpet.  John d’Earth was just an invaluable guy on that.  I’ve known John since he was 19 years old, and he was fabulous then.  John has an incredible dramatic sense in his playing.  See, that’s another thing, is finding musicians who have that talent of being able to understand the relationship with narrative pictures and music.  Again, you were talking about what’s the job about.  It’s about distilling the music into the appropriate emotion — and when you’re writing music for movies or when you’re playing music for the movies.  John is really brilliant at that.  Just about everybody I used was.  I’m proud of the musicians that I chose, but I’m also very proud of how they were able to rise to the occasion.  Because everybody can’t do it.  There’s guys who are great virtuoso jazz musicians who just don’t get that.  It’s just not part of their way of thinking.

TP:    That’s what I was getting at as well when I was asking if you have a sense of the narrative in your playing, in your musical discourse, as it were.

WALLACE:  When I’m playing jazz?  Like I say, I try not…

TP:    So those are two different entities for you.

WALLACE:  No, not really.  Because when you’re preparing, all that stuff is there.  When I’m learning the tunes, I’m learning the words, I’m listening to the way that great people have interpreted it emotionally, and that’s all part of exactly what you’re talking about.  But when I actually do it, I don’t think about that.  It’s the Zoot Sims school of playing.  I try not to think of anything.

TP:    So the narrative is in the form.  It’s almost like you’re a channel for it.

WALLACE:  The narrative is in the preparation.  Like “Someone To Watch Over Me.”  I know what that tune is about.  Before I recorded it and before I played it, I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every recording that I could find and every good one that I could find, and what emotional thing and what narrative thing that tells me about it.  But then when I play it, I just let that come out.  But when I’m writing for movies, it’s… I think the experience of writing for narratives in the movies carries over to when I play without thinking about it.  It has to.  Because when you’re playing music for movies, technique doesn’t mean anything.  The number of chords that you use, like anything that is part of the aesthetic of jazz, is out the window.  It’s all about expressing the emotions.  And that was one of the very fortunate lessons that I learned a lot about when I was out there.

TP:    Was Dr. John helpful with that, too?

WALLACE:  Absolutely.  That’s a lot of what he’s about.  I learned that mostly about him when he was producing my records, what he would… Sometimes the thing that I would think was the best part of what we were doing, he would say, “No, that’s extraneous.”  And not to say, you know, who’s right and who’s wrong, but to look at here’s a totally different point of view that’s incredibly valid.

Jimmy Rowles taught me a lot about that, because Jimmy’s a lot about what the song means.  He taught me a lot, when we would be playing a tune or working on a tune, about what that tune means — that narrative aspect.  And every good filmmaker is going to demand that.  They shouldn’t have to demand it.  But that’s what you’re there for, is to give them that… That’s all they care about.

TP:    So you were in L.A. really from only ’91 to ’96.

WALLACE:  Right.  Six or seven years.

TP:    A lot of people think you were off the scene for longer than that.  If you can give me a paragraph about the L.A. experience.

WALLACE:  I think what we just said is basically the L.A. experience.  It was about getting thrown into a craft that I had never done before, and giving myself a crash course in the rudiments of actually the craft, and learning on the job and trying to bring what I do to it, with what I do that’s different from what everyone else does.  The way I got my first real scoring job, for Blaze, was because there was nobody out there that really understood southern music.  I grew up around it.  I mean, I actually played in bluegrass bands for a short period of time when I was down South. I played with some GOOD guys.  So I knew what that was about.

TP:    You were right in the middle of bluegrass country, southeastern Tennessee.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  And of course, I had those Blues experiences… I grew up in the South, and I actually grew up in the South almost in the period of the movie.  Then what I had learned from making those two records with Dr. John gave me a preparation for doing that music that the usual suspects out there didn’t have.  Otherwise, I would never have got the job.  They would have hired one of those guys to do it.

TP:    White Men Can’t Jump, what was that score like?

WALLACE:  That was a very frustrating job, because it started out with a really great idea, and a bunch of bureaucrats pretty much stepped on it, and by the time it was over, it was nothing like what it started out to be.  But with that said, it gave me the opportunity to work with Jon Hendricks, Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, three wonderful singers, and that made me start focusing on what singers bring to music, which I carry to my music.

TP:    Is that the last major film you did?

WALLACE:  I worked on several more.  The “Betty Boop” film was the biggest film I ever did, and we never finished it because of some sort of executive squabble that really had nothing to do with the project.  The rest of them were more minor… Well, I wouldn’t say more minor, because some were among the best things I was involved with.  Working with the animator Steve Moore was probably as gratifying an experience as I had out there, and working on Hoop Life was incredibly gratifying.

TP:    You started on Hoop Life May ’99.

WALLACE:  They called me up and wanted me to write the music, and I met with them in early May.  We had an incredibly fast deadline.  We had to do the first three hours of film in just a very few weeks.  All of a sudden I was just in the middle of it.  The first five or six weeks I think is the hardest I ever worked in my life.  I’ve never been so tired.  But they were filming very fast and we were working very fast, and I was also trying to get things organized, because this was the first score I’d recorded back here on the East Coast, so I had to get hooked up with a staff, with a studio, musicians, contractors, and all the people who go into doing this — setting up shop here to do that.  So it was fast and furious there for a few weeks.  Also, I didn’t know exactly what they were going to want or how happy they were going to be with my music until we got in the studio.  Then once we got in there and saw that we were really in tune with each other, from that point it was a lot of fun and it was more relaxed, and it… I never enjoyed a job more than that one, once we got through the first part.

TP:    Apart from the notion of bringing in personalities and the notion of improvising, was there any particular overriding musical themes that span the episodes?  Did you know the arc of the narrative of that whole series at the time you started…

WALLACE:  It was more about the characters.  Since I didn’t know what was coming up and where it was going to go, I wrote music that was about the characters.  The character of Marvin was the central character.  Marvin is an older basketball player, so he was more about the Blues than he was about Hip-Hop — like me!  Also, we had some problems with executives in Showtime who wanted a commercial Hip-Hop kind of product, so that drained a lot of energy right at the beginning.  But then we got that cooled out.  I actually found a happy result of that, because I have a good friend in Holland, the tenor player Hans Dulfer, who has had a lot of success with what I call a heavy metal kind of rhythm section.  What he does, he plays like Red Prysock over one of those kind of rhythm sections, and he does it beautifully, and he’s had huge hits in Japan and in Europe.  We’re buddies, and whenever I go over there we’re hanging out, and he’d given me some of his records.  So I started applying some of his stuff to those situations, which is a lot of fun.  I always tell him I’m America’s foremost Hans Dulfer imitator.  And I found this fellow named Stephen Callow(?) who is really brilliant at those kind of things.  So we would make tracks with Stephen, then we’d bring him in and have the jazz musicians play with him.  We did a little bit of that, and it was kind of fun, because we kind of did something different with it.

But the real body of the score was about these characters, and it was really about personal stories.  There was a romance with Marvin and Paula, so I had a romantic theme for that.  And Craig, the white player who was a womanizer, I had a thematic thing that I wrote for him.  That was an interesting challenge because we had an episode where the film had that pay-for-cable soft-porn kind of feeling to it, and I wanted to give it some music that didn’t sound like what you would expect, that had some class to it.  I had Steve Nelson and Mulgrew Miller play this theme that I wrote, and my model in mind for it was Milt Jackson and John Lewis.  I remember giving the music to Steve and saying, “Think Milt Jackson when you do this.”  I started walking across the studio, and by the time I got to the other side, he and Mulgrew were playing “The Night We Called It A Day,” and they had it nailed so beautifully and so convincingly that it was just chilling.  Then when we played my thing, they let that influence their own personality.  So that thematic part of it had a lot of harmonic sophistication to it.  Then there were things that more blues-like.  t
There were things where I would use the kind of intense, almost free kind of playing we were doing back in the ’70s, like, to play anchor and play kind of intense emotions.


TP:    Before the albums in ’98, you did two in ’93, for AudioQuest and Enja.  You mentioned, as do many, that L.A. is a frustrating place to be because of the lack of a center, the lack of a scene, there’s a lot of great musicians there but not much to do.

WALLACE:  Not active.

TP:    Was that the main source of frustration for you?  That’s why you left?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  Because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music.

TP:    Remuneratively that would be a risky decision.  Or not?

WALLACE:  Being a jazz musician!  How much more risky can you be than that?

TP:    Well, that’s what I mean.  You were doing film music and probably making more money in those three-four years than you’d made in your whole career as a musician, I would think…

WALLACE:  Probably.

TP:    You had a house on the Palisades and playing tennis and this and that.  So something in you doesn’t want to get too comfortable, obviously.

WALLACE:  Well, it’s like my purpose in my life!

TP:    Of course, here I am in this house looking out over this illusion of unspoiled territory in rural Connecticut.

WALLACE:  Well, that’s just the luck of Nature.  We could as easily be doing this in the apartment I had in Washington Heights in the ’80s.  But when I made the conscious decision to… When I found myself living there… I didn’t even quite move there; just all of a sudden I was there.  I decided to pursue that because I was really disgusted with the business of jazz.  Not with the music, but with the business.  My role model I think I told you the other day was Charlie Barnet.  I thought if I can make enough money out here doing this to where I can pay my musicians to where everybody feels good about the gig, and we can go out and not worry about any of that other stuff, and me not worrying about whether a record company likes me or whether my music is going to fit the concept that they want, and not worrying about pleasing any of those people, then it’s worth doing.  I did it for a few years, and I didn’t get it to the point that I wanted it.  Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a very big project that I got involved in, and I felt, well, that’s not fair to the promoters, it’s not fair to anybody, and so I’m not going to take any more tours until I can afford not to.  Then I reached a point about three years ago where just as a person I couldn’t go on any longer and not be back here and be playing.  I had met Anthony Wilson and Willie Jones and Danton Boller, and we’ve started playing.  I’ve finally met some young musicians who are really good and really serious about playing, and that took me over the edge of what already had been stewing inside of me for a long time.  We started playing at a club in Long Beach, and I was really feeling alive.  Then I found out that two of those guys were moving back here, and it was time for me to do it.  We came back, and then getting into Hoop Life was just a happy accident.

TP:    Well, you’d been here for two-three years.  What were you doing during those two years before Hoop Life?

WALLACE:  Practicing the saxophone, and I would occasionally go to Europe and play some gigs.

TP:    Any film or TV projects?

WALLACE:  No, I didn’t do any… I turned down a film that came along right before I made the record with Tommy Flanagan and the Gershwin album.  It was, “Okay, you can make this film and make some money or you can make your albums,” and it was an easy choice.  It was also during that period that I played on Anthony’s record.  That was exactly what I said  I was going to do when I came back, is I’m not going to turn down music for money.

TP:    You expressed your distaste for the realities of the jazz business as such.  But you were navigating with a certain aplomb something that makes the jazz business look like a Mom-and-Pop candy store.  You do seem to have a very pragmatic side.

WALLACE:  See, that’s something that I really learned from those people out there.  In the entertainment business, that’s the big league.  We’re not talking about Art… In the world of Art that’s the big league.  But in terms of the entertainment BUSINESS, jazz is… You could take the money that I wasted making White Men Can’t Jump and I could make ten great albums.  But I learned a lot, for lack of a better term, about show business out there.  A lot of positive things.  Now that I’m back concentrating on… Well, it seems like I’m doing both.  But now that I’m back dealing with the business of jazz and trying to perform on a regular basis and work with great musicians, the things that I learned out there are very helpful to me.  My disgust with the business at the end of the ’80s was not all “their fault.”  Part of it was because of things that I didn’t know about business and realities, whether I liked them or not, that I wasn’t really dealing with in the right way.  I think I could deal with them much better now.  Not to say that there wasn’t some stereotypical business stuff going on then.  But I think I know a lot more about dealing with it now, and I’m older.

TP:    That said, you’re older now.  Do you foresee yourself when you’re 60, that this is the track you want to be on?

WALLACE:  When I’m 70 I want to be playing!  What I want to do is, I want to make my music as good as it can be, whether I’m playing or whether I’m writing or whether what I’m doing is a combination of the two.  I did a lot of things when I was in California that were not what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft.  It was always a learning experience.  I could spend a lifetime out there learning the craft, but what I want to do now is take what I know about and make as good a music as I can make, whether that shows up on a movie screen or whether it shows up in an album or in a concert.

TP:    Do you think that you might start using some of the musical forms that you’re using in the films that are not vernacular jazz, as your recordings are… Do you think that might start seeing its way into…

WALLACE:  I think in a very subtle way, it already has.  But in a more concrete way, absolutely.  Just as we were saying earlier that my music is a part of those two worlds right from the very beginning, I think that what I… My experiences out there are going to enable me to take that to another level.  I mean, there are things that I learned about composition when I was out there that come out in my solos, that since I learned them, it’s, “oh, you can do that when you play the saxophone,” and all of a sudden it gives me a wider vocabulary.  But now I want to expand that into writing for albums in such a way that I’m taking some of the craft that I learned out there and bringing it to that.  Really the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is just a matter of circumstance.  I really wanted to make a couple of piano quartet albums before I did anything else, because that’s a very important part of the direction that I want to pursue.  Because I played with chordless instruments quite a bit up til the middle ’80s, and in the second half of the ’80s I was playing with guitar players a lot because of the nature of that music.  I really love the classic piano-bass-drums-and-saxophone quartet, and I’ve had an opportunity to record with a couple of the masters.  But had it not been for that, those album could have just as easily been things involving more writing, more an outgrowth of what I did out there.

See, I wrote for two films.  One was Betty Boop, which the film company didn’t finish, and I wrote four tunes for that which I really want to record.  They even have lyrics.  Then I wrote a score for another film, for this little film company, and they… How do I say this without getting myself in legal trouble.  They proved to be less than worthy of business people.  And I pulled my music out of the film, and I still own that music, and I want to record that.  Those two projects were written for a little bit larger jazz group.  Also, playing with… Many of the things we did on Hoop Life gave me ideas for albums that I would love to do, and a lot of it is very unconventional.  It’s as unconventional for jazz just as it is for film music.  I met musicians on that project who I want to record with.  So I’ve got several ideas of things I want to do.

TP:    Bennie Wallace, you were in Los Angeles for how long?

WALLACE:  Six or seven years I was out there.

TP:    You were doing a lot of film music.

WALLACE:  Right.  That’s the sole reason that I went out there.  Actually, my wife and I went out with a suitcase, and before we knew it, we had leased a house.  It just kind of happened.  It wasn’t a plan or anything.  God help us if it had of been.  I moved back to New York in June.

TP:    What’s your assessment of the scene in Los Angeles?  Cosigning Mr. Wilson here?

WALLACE:  Well, let me put it this way.  There’s a couple of places that are struggling to bring in really good music.  There’s a little place down in Long Beach and there’s two places in L.A.  But L.A. is just not set up for Jazz.  It’s really not set up for human habitation.  It’s just not a Jazz town.  I remember the second time I played there.  About five years ago I did a tour with my band of Europe, then we went and played a week in L.A. and a week in San Diego, and the week in L.A. was just awful.  The owner of the club was really nice, and they were trying to do something there.  But you felt like you were trying to play jazz in a Pentecostal church or something.  You just didn’t feel like you belonged there.

TP:    It’s a paradox that because of the studios so many talented musicians gravitate to L.A., and it’s the base for many others, but so few places for it to be expressed.

WALLACE:  The only positive thing I heard about L.A.: I heard a wonderful interview on the radio one time with Red Callender.  They said, “Why do so many musicians move to L.A.?”  He said, “There’s two reasons.  You don’t starve to death and you don’t freeze to death, but I can’t think of another one.”


Bennie Wallace on WKCR, circa 1998:

TP:    I’ll bring Bennie Wallace into the conversation.  How did you encounter Anthony Wilson and this group of dynamic young musicians in Los Angeles?

WALLACE:  I first met Anthony on that gig I was telling you about where it felt so strange.  He came up and introduced himself, and we traded numbers and kind of became friends in Los Angeles.  Then just a couple of days before he did this recording session, he called me up and said he had a tune he wanted me to play on.  So he came over to the house and showed it to me, and I went in and recorded it with the band.  We set it up that we’d record my tune right after a break so we’d save time for the band, and I’d do a microphone check while they were taking a lunch break.  So during that time we played a tune with the rhythm section.  Actually I’d had my eye on Brad Mehldau, because I knew how brilliant he is.  So we played this tune to get the mike balanced, and I’m listening to Brad first, and I’m trying to give him these left turns to see if he’s listening, and he’s right behind me everywhere I went.  Then I started checking out the way these guys were playing.

I’d just scored a short movie for Jeff Goldblum, the first thing he directed.  Jeff calls me up about a week later after this date, and said, “I need a drummer for my gig on Thursday night” — he’s an amateur jazz piano player.  I said, “Call Willie Jones, because he’s really good; you’ll like him.”  He calls me up the next day and says the bass player can’t make it.  I said, “Well, call Danton Boller; they play well together.”  He calls me the next day and says, “I got Danton; I need a guitar player.”  So I told him Anthony.  So sure enough, he called two days later, and said, “My tenor player can’t make the first set.”  “All right, Jeff, I’ll come down and do it.”  So I went down and played, we played a two-hour set, and just had a ball.

That’s when I decided to book some gigs with the rhythm section.  So I called this club in Long Beach where I knew the owner, and he gave us some gigs.  So we played down there some.  Danton, Anthony and I did a lot of shedding together right before I left L.A.  Since then Danton and Willie have moved here, and if Anthony would come to his senses he would move here.

TP:    I’d like to give you a little bit of a third degree if you’re amenable to it.  You mentioned you’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

WALLACE:  Right.

TP:    How did Jazz come into your consciousness within your background?

WALLACE:  When I was about 14 years old, a fellow named Chet Hedgecoth came to my school as the band teacher.  He was a jazz musician and a big jazz fan, and he wanted to have a jazz band with the kids.  He started this band, and he used to leave his record collection around.  He wouldn’t loan us the records, but he’d let us steal them.  So we’s steal his records and trade them around.  That’s where I heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “Wait a minute.”  It was my first real artistic experience, when I heard him play this Blues solo. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

So I started playing in some of these after-hours joints that were going around in Chattanooga.

TP:    Was Chattanooga that kind of a town?

WALLACE:  What’s not known is that a lot of those towns had an after-hours scene.  It would be in the Black clubs, and it was totally illegal.  We would start at about the time the White clubs had to close, and we would play for most of the night.  I would worry my mother to death.

TP:    Were there some good musicians in Chattanooga?

WALLACE:  There were a few.  There was an excellent tenor player down there named Ed Lehman, and there was a piano player named Jimmy Hamilton who moved away and went to Detroit — and he taught Bobby Watson and Prince at his high school.  Then there was a very good bass player and piano player named Otis Hayes who went to L.A. and is still playing around.  Occasionally a good player would come through.  I remember I got into a jam session when I was still in high school with this tenor player named Hurricane Jackson.  I can’t remember his real name [Fred Jackson], but he had a couple of Blue Note records, and he was one of those walk-the-bar blues players.  Then I met a bass player down there named Stan Conover who had played and recorded with Ike Quebec and Eddie Davis, and grew up with Gene Ammons and Wilbur Ware in Chicago.  He and I became pretty tight, and I got to play with him a lot.  He played a lot like Wilbur Ware, and it was a great experience working with him.

TP:    So it sounds like you were playing a lot of Blues, or that sort of Blues-Bop crossover within that situation.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  I was really into Bebop and the more sophisticated end of the music, but you had to play… I love playing Blues, too; don’t get me wrong.  But I remember we had to play so many Blues things per set, so many Cannonball tunes or Jimmy Smith tunes, or the people would just go… They just didn’t want to hear it.

TP:    It sounds like you were already at a certain level in high school.  Were you playing music for a while before encountering this band teacher?

WALLACE:  Yeah, I was a clarinet player.  He knew that a clarinet was similar to a saxophone, and so he gave me a saxophone to play in this band.  But basically, I just fell in love with the music.  This guy Ed Lehman gave me a couple of Coltrane records, and between that and the Sonny Rollins record, that’s the first Jazz I really knew.  That’s pretty overwhelming.

TP:    But it seems to me that apart from being involved in the sophisticated harmonic end of Bebop, you got very involved in sound.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Your sound really marks you.  And you’re one of the few players in today’s scene… You know the old cliche, hear a couple or three notes and you know it’s him.  You hear a couple of notes of Bennie Wallace, and you know it’s Bennie Wallace.  Who were some of the tenor players whose sounds really struck you.

WALLACE:  At that point in my life, when I first got into it, the guys whose sound really killed me was Sonny Rollins on the album with Dizzy Gillespie, Lockjaw (I listened to everything I could get by him), and Red Prysock.  I liked Stanley Turrentine, too.  But Red with Tiny Bradshaw and Jaws with Basie (or Jaws with anything) and Sonny, that was what started it.  From there I got into Hawk and Ben and Prez and all that stuff.

TP:    So blending the older players with the more contemporary or progressive or modernist styles has always been part of the way you’ve approached the saxophone.

WALLACE:  Well, see, I’ve always loved more traditional jazz.  There’s contemporary things that I like, but the thing I’ve always really loved is the tradition of the music.  Where I got kind of the outside edge of what I do with my playing, I was studying the clarinet when I was in school, and I started studying Bartok’s music.  I played this piece called the Contrasts for Clarinet and Piano and Violin.  My composer friend tells me I’m the only one in the world who relates this stuff to chord changes.  But I started looking at the way Bartok would write these lines, and thinking of how they’d fit against certain jazz chords, and it kind of opened up my mind, and from there I went to other composers.  But that’s what got me going in that direction.

TP:    What circumstances led you to being a professional jazz musician?  From Tennessee what were your next moves?

WALLACE:  Well, I went to college in Tennessee.  It was Vietnam time, so all good Americans went to college.  Then I convinced them that I was unfit for military duty, and headed for New York.

TP:    And then?

WALLACE:  Well, I got real lucky when I got here.  I came to New York with $275 and no place to stay.  I lucked into a loft.  A very nice artist named Bill Barrett gave me a place to stay.  But I couldn’t practice there, so I went up to Charles Cullen’s(?) and rented a studio for 10 bucks a week, which I paid from time to time.  After three weeks, Monty Alexander came in there one day, and I didn’t know him from Adam.  He says, “Do you want a gig?”  He got me in the union and got me this gig six nights a week, and the band had like Gene Wright and Frank Strozier and Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince, all these great players, and I kind of met people and made friends and kind of got on the scene a little bit.

TP:    That was about 1970?

WALLACE:  That was probably 1971.

TP:    Bennie Wallace, I haven’t heard (not consciously anyway) the film scores you’ve done.  Is your writing related to your blowing type thing, or is it a different entity?

WALLACE:  Not a whole lot.  The first film I worked on was Bull Durham.  The guy heard one of the Blue Note records and had me write a thing, and Dr. John wrote some lyrics for it, and we recorded it together for an in title for that tune.  They used a couple of other things in that movie.  Then I did Blaze, and Mac played a lot on that, too, and it was a Southern kind of movie so it kind of drew on stuff I knew when I was a kid.  But with Hollywood movies, you get a problem, and you just try to figure out something in there you can do that will make it interesting.  Like, when I did White Men Can’t Jump I got Jon Hendricks and Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, and we put together this street band of singers, which to me was the most fascinating thing about the movie.  They were supposed to give us a couple of weeks to record it, and they turned us loose for a couple of weeks.  So I’ve got all these tapes of this group, which they didn’t use, because some commercially minded idiot decided that they should make it a big Hip-Hop hit, which it wasn’t, and it went right down the tubes because they snubbed Black radio — like real brilliant minds up there.

You’ve just got to do guerilla warfare with those things most of the time.  But occasionally you get to do something that’s a lot of fun.  With Jeff Goldblum’s project, he wanted a Monk-oriented thing, so we did kind of a little homage to Monk for his thing.  Then I did a cartoon for Disney last summer for Steve Moore, a brilliant animator out there, and we did a Jazz score which Disney wasn’t used to at all.  Once they got used to it and realized they were stuck with it, I think they liked it.  I hope so.

TP:    Are you continuing this on the East Coast?  Has that curtailed these activities?

WALLACE:  Well, I really want to concentrate on the music that I’ve spent my life working on.  I have a wonderful lady in Los Angeles who is my agent, and she’s out there looking for work for me, but I don’t intend to live there again.  I’ve learned a lot from it.  I don’t mean to sound like I’m real negative about it.  I want to be honest.  But at the same time I learned a lot about orchestra writing and a lot about music in general just from the things I was exposed to, that I wouldn’t have been.  But I really want to write and play real music, music for music’s sake, that kind of non-popular music that I’ve always spent my life on.


TP:    Bennie Wallace, the tenor saxophone is the most vocal of instrument, some way — maybe people who play other instruments think differently.  Is that an active component of the way you think about playing and conceive your sound on the saxophone?

WALLACE:  Sure.  There’s something about the saxophone, particularly the tenor saxophone, that’s just in and of itself.  I’ve heard the expression “vocal quality” many times.  But Henry Threadgill and I were talking off the mike a few minutes ago — Lockjaw Davis epitomizes it.  There are so beautiful colors that can come out of that instrument, and he got most of them.  I heard that when I was a kid, and there’s just a fascination with it.  You can tell so many different kinds of stories with that.  Like, you can express so many different kinds of emotions, like the warmest kind of thoughts in the world and the most angry kind of thoughts.

To me, all art is about emotional expression, and when I get inspired by something that someone in another art form has done, it’s the emotion that comes from it.  Anthony and I were listening to music yesterday, and I’ll confess, we listened to George Jones and Olivier Messiaen.  Now, that pretty much covers the spectrum.  But the thing that’s common to all great artists, to me, is that emotional expression, whether there’s any intellect to it at all or a lot of intellect.  That’s a mouthful, too!

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Filed under Bennie Wallace, DownBeat, Tenor Saxophone, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature from 2002

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th birthday, I’m posting a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz circa 2002, the interviews that I conducted for that piece, and a pair of WKCR interviews from the ’90s, on one of which he joined me at the studio with Jason Marsalis.

* * *

By Ted Panken:

“Jazz is about the art of discovery. Not discovery in terms of guesswork. You give a person a certain amount of information, and make sure that information is communicated. From that point, they begin to make decisions about that information. All you really need is the spirit of adventure, applied to the music that is being presented to you.”
—    Ellis Marsalis, June 2002.

Widely known as the paterfamilias of a musical dynasty, Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr. retired in August 2001 after a phenomenally productive 37-year teaching career on the high school and university levels. Ironically, the 67-year-old pianist, a professional improviser for half-a-century, never intended to make education his life’s work. Early tangents began to surface while the New Orleans native attended Dillard University between 1951 and 1955, moonlighting as a journeyman tenor saxophonist on local gigs with blues singers like Big Joe Turner and playing piano behind Big Maybelle and other singers at an Uptown boite called the Dew Drop Inn. Other possibilities arose during these years as he worked on and recorded original music with a peer group that included drummer Edward Blackwell and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and later with saxophonist Nat Perrillat and drummer-composer James Black.

After earning his Music Education degree from Dillard, Marsalis enlisted in the Marine Corps (stationed in Southern California, he spent off-hours in 1956 woodshedding with Blackwell and Ornette Coleman), was discharged, and returned to New Orleans where, in quick succession, he married Dolores Ferdinand, and fathered his famous sons Branford, in 1960, and Wynton, in 1961. With a young family to support, Marsalis today recalls that “the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never great anyway, had changed tremendously, with virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. I figured I might as well try to use my degree.”

From 1964 until his retirement, Marsalis dual-tracked as a performer-educator. He took a position as band director at a high school in a small Louisiana town, serving until 1966. From 1974 to 1986 he taught and designed a curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a multi-disciplinary arts magnet high school that students attended on elective from their home school. Marsalis’ pupils included his four sons — saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason – as well as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Reginald Veal and Harry Connick, Jr. In 1986 he left New Orleans to head the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He returned in 1989 to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans, remaining there until his retirement.

The beginning of Marsalis’ teaching career coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished Jim Crow laws that had stood for decades. Living under statutory segregation, he had accumulated and processed the vocabulary of jazz “in a sort of shotgun approach — a piece here, a little there,” and could draw upon no codified pedagogy to teach it. At Dillard, he recalls, “We got the basis of European music, taught in a slapdash way, depending on who was teaching. The rules of the music department were modeled to be a kind of mini-conservatory, focusing on the things band directors are expected to do, with an abundance of courses in theory and almost no practical. So there was virtually no sound, formal training ground that emanated from a specific black tradition where you could learn to play jazz on the instrument. You learned just about everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. Jazz was always second-class.”

Jazz continues to be but a blip on the collective consciousness of popular culture, but the idiom’s stature has evolved tremendously since Ellis Marsalis was a young man. Under the artistic directorship of Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz enjoys  equal institutional pride of place with classical music and opera at America’s equivalent of the French Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, dozens of universities offer degrees in jazz performance. Marsalis is one of a national cohort of pioneer improviser-educators (others include Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath, William Fielder, and New Orleans colleagues Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan) who revolutionized the way jazz is taught, and his curricular first principles are seminal in the recent intellectual history of jazz education.

At NOCCA, Marsalis relied on those first principles while cobbling together a pragmatic, homegrown pedagogy designed to teach the building blocks of jazz and improvisation so that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, “people can go out and get a gig, whatever kind of gig they can play.” “Whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy,” the elder Marsalis notes. “Mostly it happened by reaction. I heard a story about Thomas Edison. His assistant said they had done 150 experiments. None of the lightbulbs worked. He said, ‘Man, we ought to give up on this, because we’re making no progress at all.’ Edison supposedly responded, ‘On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.’ We don’t always think about going to the things that don’t work as a path to finding what does.”

Like a painter in medieval Europe who required apprentices to mix paints and prepare canvases before allowing them to wield a brush, or a master bata drummer breaking down the beats for an initiate, Marsalis taught with artisanal focus, forcing students to learn the skills of their trade before they can think about expressing their personalities through the medium. “You can get into a lot of trouble trying to figure out at what point it becomes art,” he reflects. “That becomes more philosophical than realistic. I’m concerned about whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.”

Asked how he would synopsize his method to a grant-bearing arts administrator, Marsalis responds: “Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony, and melody, not necessarily in that order. We didn’t distinguish between European music and jazz. All the students at NOCCA had private instruction. New students learn two songs a semester. You apply those component parts to each piece, drilling on intervals, on individual notes, on the correct scales. Then, if your personality is suited to it, you work on the concept of improvisation.”

Marsalis began his work at NOCCA by focusing on the blues. “Learning how to play blues is like mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic before moving to algebra, trigonometry, and calculus,” he says. “It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. I would write out 12 measures of chords that, when played, turned out to be a blues. They got the sound of the notes in their ear, and got their fingers used to the positions. They got a tangible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. The chord symbols represented vertically sounds they would deal with in a linear manner. And they’d be sensitized to the rhythmic flow, to deal with music in motion.”

Ear training is crucial. Marsalis insists students internalize the fundamental building blocks so that transcription and memorization of classic repertoire will become a more organic process. “Without the oral component of music, you take away its natural ingredients,” he says, lifting an analogy from his bottomless well of metaphors. “It’s like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. Preserves tend to taste the same; you can get them whenever you want. But the apple on the tree will be there only so long. In the same way, a solo only exists in the moment. The students who really pursue this have to learn that the concept of a solo is not unlike a novel or short story, with a beginning, a developmental section, a peak, and ultimately a climax or ending. The more references you can draw on, the more possibilities you have.

“Too much academic description can make a student lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. Someone might analyze a solo by discussing its technical components, for instance, that so-and-so used this scale and that scale and another scale – but the person who did the solo wasn’t thinking about that at all! It’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can remove the essence of what was actually going on. There’s a story that somebody was talking to Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, ‘Man, forget the recordings; you got to have been there!’ It makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what was actually going down.”


With his utilitarian bent, Marsalis is a lineal descendent of such mid-century African-American teacher-autocrats as Walter Dyett from DuSable High School in Chicago and Samuel Browne from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, whose programs produced dozens of outstanding jazz musicians from Marsalis’ generation. Eschewing the authoritarian methods by which they kept students in line (Dyett was legendary for the accuracy with which he hurled his conductor’s baton at erring students), Marsalis won hearts and minds by treating his charges as young adults with minds of their own, as individuals accountable for their actions and decisions.

“Ellis encourages and motivates his students, but he’s also direct and won’t pamper you,” says Victor Goines, Director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard School of Music. A 41-year-old New Orleans native, Goines studied privately with Marsalis in the ’70s, apprenticed with his combo in the ’80s, and has played saxophone and clarinet in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra from 1989 until the present.  “With me, he could be painfully truthful, but also compassionate to my needs as a young man. If it sounded bad, he didn’t pull punches. He was for real.”

Goines borrowed a number of Marsalis’ dicta in creating the jazz program at Juilliard, beginning with the notion that working musicians are the most effective teachers. “Ellis brought to the classroom experiences from the oral tradition he’d learned as a performer, as opposed to learning the theory of education in the classroom and trying to go out and play after the fact,” Goines says. “He believes that working with small ensembles is important because of the freedom for improvisation. Students need to have perspective on the music’s history. They need to be able to function in different idioms, and to always realize that you’re not preparing for the gig you’re doing now, but the unknown gig to come. Ellis puts you in situations that you have to work your way out of. He always told me that to try to get to something great, you have to be willing to take chances, to make a fool of yourself. He said that you shouldn’t get on a bandstand with someone you wouldn’t get in a foxhole with; if everyone isn’t working toward a common goal, it’s a waste of time. He even teaches you to take care of the business aspects. He covered all the aspects of what it takes to be a professional musician.”

“I was shocked as a kid the first time I went to his school, and heard his students call him ‘Ellis,'” says Branford Marsalis. “That just didn’t happen in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. Later I understood how hip that was. My pops was just having a dialogue with the students, to the degree of almost demystifying education. He points the finger and forces you to think for yourself. He twists standard American colloquialisms so that they make more sense to him. He’d always say, ‘You know, son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.’ That’s brilliant! Once he told a student to listen to a piece of music. The student said, ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Man, I know what I like.’ My father said, ‘No, son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ I thought about it, and realized that in order to say that you know what you like, you have to know a helluva lot. What he was getting at is that you should study the music for your own sake, not just because he tells you to. If you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”

“My father’s first principle is, ‘You don’t know unless you know,'” says Wynton Marsalis. “Don’t assume anything without first-hand experience. Don’t get chord changes out of the book; get them off the record. He always gets you to question what you know. He stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to hear. He’d guide you in a direction, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do. He gave you the opportunity to figure out your own thing.”

For a teacher to give students that much rope demands not only self-confidence, but tremendous faith in human nature. An unflinchingly realistic man devoid of illusions, Marsalis is explicitly not religious. To trace the source of such fundamental trust is therefore an intriguing endeavor.

“My father believes in jazz — real jazz,” Wynton Marsalis declares. “He never believed that jazz was White or Black. He believes it’s a universal expression, a thing that brings whoever addresses it into contact with their greater self. He doesn’t suffer from cultural intimidation. He’s very clear and uncompromising that you have to face jazz — or J.S. Bach — on its own terms, not change the music or put it on a lower level so you can feel comfortable in your relationship to it. If you practice and learn what you have to — and have the ability — you can play it. If you don’t, you can’t.

“The foundation of how I teach — what I think and know — comes from watching him. Long before we even had Jazz at Lincoln Center, when I was 19 and 20, I did workshops and went in the schools, because I saw my father doing it. The way to conduct a workshop, to present material, to pick tunes to play, to use analogies to make something clear, the importance of teaching form, the central position of the rhythm section in the band — all these concepts come from him.”

For all the inherent optimism implied by his lifelong struggle to communicate jazz values, Ellis Marsalis is not exactly sanguine about the present state of things. “The schools are teaching jazz with a conservatory approach, nice clubs are cropping up, and jazz is now a respectable area to function in,” he says. “But mainstreaming it removed a lot of individuality. Listen to the saxophone players in the conservatories that have good jazz departments. All of them can play! But when they solo, you can’t tell them apart.”

What case, then, would Marsalis make for talented musicians to study jazz in school?

“I don’t necessarily think they should,” he responds. “Jazz is a highly individualistic art. You’ll do better with a good private instructor and being around people who are well versed in the style of music you’re trying to play. Actually, there’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz at all, aside from the music speaking to you. But more and more, I think that the study of jazz, across the board, can help a musician or lay person better understand America, because the music reflects the whole of the citizenry so completely. In some ways, jazz is a form of glue that keeps American culture centered. We live in a world where people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So a disciplined approach to anything is something this country very much needs.

“I often think of America as a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him a candy store, with nobody to guide him. He goes into this candy store and proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die, he’ll ultimately learn, after he gets a bellyache, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, ‘Oh, great, this is mine.'”

No longer teaching in any capacity, Marsalis is focusing on his retirement, making decisions about his future involvement in education. He works most Fridays at the prestigious Snug Harbor club in a trio with youngest son, drummer Jason, and leaves town for occasional jobs. In the autumn he’ll release a self-produced trio CD on ELM, his own label, and will go in the studio to record several CDs worth of material. In his manner, he’ll continue to do what he can to help that 10-year-old grow up.

“My father never preached,” says Branford Marsalis. “And he never wasted any time trumpeting his strengths. He was always interested in addressing and eradicating his weaknesses. That’s something I believe in. The great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like, because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.”



Ellis Marsalis (6-24-02):

TP:    Some nuts and bolts questions.  Are you still teaching, or are you now retired from any institutional affiliation?

MARSALIS:  No, I retired August 10th, 2001 from the University of New Orleans.

TP:    So you’re retired for a year.  Are you still teaching in any capacity?


TP:    So your artistic focus is on being a piano player.

MARSALIS:  I’m focusing on my retirement.

TP:    How are you spending it?

MARSALIS:  Well, first getting used to it.  I started putting some unfinished portions of things into my computer, which is something that I’ve been slowly learning about doing.  Because the program can be very difficult.  But I’ve got some gigs.  I usually play every Friday night at a local club called Snug Harbor.

TP:    That’s the top club in New Orleans, isn’t it?

MARSALIS:  Right.  And I go out occasionally.  This summer we have a couple of grandchildren who are staying with us, going to some summer camps. So I’ll be here doing that; my wife and I will be taking care of that.

TP:    When did you begin to teach?  How long have you been teaching?  What were the circumstances?  Was it the NOCCA experience in the mid-’70s?

MARSALIS:  Well, not really.  When I graduated from Dillard University.

TP:    So way before the 1970s, then.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  I didn’t really want to teach, but eventually I went into the military and got out, and got married, and the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never that great anyway, changed tremendously, and as a result, I figured I might as well try to use the degree I’ve got.  So I started to teach in 1963.

TP:    In what situation?

MARSALIS:  It’s hard to really describe.  Because I went in to be like a music teacher, and they never had a band in there at the school.  What happened, I ended up with two or three science classes and some general music classes, with one period to develop a band.  So I stayed there for a year, and I said, “Well, I know I need the money, but I’m not going to cripple people because I need the money.”  And I didn’t know nothin’ about no science!  So I left there, and I started teaching in a small Louisiana town, Browbridge.  I was band director there for a couple of years.

TP:    Is that when you started to develop a pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, I would say.  Definitely.

TP:    By 1964, you’re an established musician in New Orleans, such as the scene was, and you’d been playing professionally for a little less than 15 years.

MARSALIS:  Wait.  When are you talking about?

TP:    Let me see if my chronology for you is correct.  You’re born in ’34.  You go to Dillard when, about ’51 to ’55.  You go in the Army in either late ’55 or early ’56?

MARSALIS:  No, I was in the Marine Corps in ’56.

TP:    You spend a lot of that time in California, and it seems that your military service wasn’t so arduous as to prevent you from playing music.

MARSALIS:  Well, basically, that became my job.

TP:    So you’re another one of the people who got to play music as part of their Service duties.


TP:    And you get back to New Orleans around ’58 or ’59, and you start to have your children, and because the economic situation in New Orleans was what it is, you start to teach.  And in the mid-’60s, you’re teaching in that high school in Browbridge.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’64 to ’66.

TP:    In one of my earlier conversations with you, you spoke about how you learned, about your formative process, that you started playing clarinet when you were 11, started playing tenor saxophone in high school, did a lot of rhythm-and-blues gigs, and you were studying the piano, and that when you got out of high school you decided to be a music major, that Dizzy Gillespie turned you on, a bunch of things turned you on.  You said: “I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to, or you were learning from someone who was either in your family or was a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, or you studied with a piano teacher who basically was teaching formal approaches to European music.”  You said that you weren’t playing in the church, which was to your regret, and you didn’t know anyone who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view, and you gravitated to the two areas that were closest to you, being Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz, and I guess some European tradition — which you’re not saying here — with that piano teacher.

MARSALIS:  I didn’t really study with her long enough to develop a repertoire.  I studied with her maybe about a year or so, and then I started at the university.  And I couldn’t put it together to continue studying with her.  Her name was Jean Coston Maloney.  You see, I couldn’t put that together, because if I had thought about it and had figured it out, I could have continued studying with her.  But I said, “Well, I can’t study with her and be a music major over here at the same time.”  I said, “When I graduate, I’m going to go back and start studying with her.”  Of course, by that time she had left town.

TP:    Would you say you had a good music curriculum at the high school that you attended?

MARSALIS:  No.  There was no music curriculum. There was none at all.  There was the marching band and the concert band.

TP:    What was the level of instruction that you received in that band?  How was learning done?

MARSALIS:  Well, that school was in transition at the time, and in fact, it closed my sophomore year.  And the band director, who had really been great, left the year before I got there, and went off to Southern University to direct bands there.  So what we did was sort of limp along.  The last part of the year, we didn’t have a band teacher at all.  We just did it ourselves.  So I didn’t learn much about music at all in high school.

TP:    I see.  Because I’ve talked to a few of your contemporaries from New Orleans, like Clyde Kerr, and I gather his house was a focal point for a lot of like-minded musicians.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  That was true with Clyde.  Clyde, Sr., was a music teacher also.

TP:    Were there any teachers in New Orleans who were equivalent to the great black high school teachers of segregation days — such as Walter Dyett or Samuel Browne or the woman at Cass Tech in Detroit — in inspiring musicians of your generation?

MARSALIS:  If I had to pick somebody, it would be Yvonne Bush.  There’s a book coming out which is going to be very interesting, and she’s featured in that book.  In fact, the guy who wrote the book, Al Kennedy, had in his first printing of it a chronology of all of the people that she influenced.  It was one of those pullouts.  Now, I don’t know if Scarecrow is going to keep that.  I mean, it may make it and it may not.  But Yvonne Bush is one of the people that I would tend to think was close to what you’re talking about.  She was a trombone player, and I think she had spent some time playing with the Sweethearts of Rhythm during their later days.

Anyway, Clyde Kerr… There was also a younger guy named Alvin Thomas who helped a couple of guys.  But he died young.  He was younger than me.  He was still in high school when I was doing my (?).  He was also one of the students of Yvonne Bush.

TP:    But in the process of learning the vocabulary of jazz and the tools that you would need to be effective, how did it operate before you went to college? Was it totally informal, like you and Alvin Batiste would get together and take down solos from records?  I know a lot of people from your generation were very homegrown, but then, other people had substantial formal instruction.  And given the subject of this article, I’m interested in how you accumulated and processed vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  In a kind of shotgun approach. Some here, a piece over there, a little bit here, a little bit there. Because once I decided that I was going to be a piano player, one of the things that I didn’t know was the dimensions involved.  That is, if you are a tenor saxophone player, you play the tenor saxophone, but you may have studied the chronology of saxophone players who played your instrument, so you get a pretty good understanding of who came before you.  But when you’re a piano player, the significance of being a piano player is that you wear several different hats. There’s solo piano, which Art Tatum scared everybody to death with that. Then there’s the trio piano playing, the stuff that Oscar did and various other people who played. Then there’s playing piano in a rhythm section, which is one of the things that you end up learning to do because of working conditions.  Usually, all of the piano players at some point end up playing in a rhythm section.  And the accompaniment role, in some cases, if you happen to be in a group with a singer.  And it’s all different.  And there was nobody there to tell me that, so I just learned it as well as I could.

TP:    You made a comment in my second radio session with you that accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.

MARSALIS:  It really is.  It shouldn’t be. But the reason why it’s so difficult to teach is because music programs are not structured in a way that the vocalist and the other instrumentalists are taught in a complementary manner.  By “complementary” I mean this.  If a person says, “Well, I’m interested in playing jazz piano,” unless you have a singer who is interested in singing jazz in accordance with the tradition in the same sense that that piano player understands their role, you don’t have a thing!  You see?

Most of the metaphors that I used when I was teaching was through athletics.  I would tell the students various things, especially when Jordan was still playing.  I would try to get them to focus on learning melodies to a song, make sure you know what that melody is.  If there are words to that song, at least learn the first verse to it, so that you see how those words connect with that melody.  The harmony is a part of that.  Learn that harmony the way that the guy wrote it, so when you hear the alterations from other people, you have a reference point. Know the rhythm so that you understand what category the piece falls in.  It may be a Rhumba or a Congo or a Bossa-Nova, or it may be a ballad, or it may be up-tempo.  I used to use Michael Jordan.  I said, “When you look at him, what you see is somebody who has developed every facet of the game, whether it’s his defensive play, or his ability to shoot around the perimeter, or it’s the various ways in which people develop moving the ball around, the free-throw shooting…”  Like, all of the aspects that go into the whole of the person.

Music teachers rarely teach like that.  The reason that music teachers rarely teach like that is because you have too many people involved, and they only hired one music teacher, and that music teacher is expected to teach a band well enough to go out on a halftime football show.  So it can become very difficult to try to deal with subtleties when it’s just you and 100-and-some students.

TP:    How did you deal with that when you were at Browbridge?

MARSALIS:  I didn’t deal with that.  I had a concert band which I dealt with, and then the football season.  I had somebody who could do the little halftime steps and all that, and teach the band that, and go out and do the halftime football show.  Basically, that’s it.

TP:    At Browbridge.

TP:    And at that point, would you say that by the age 30, you had developed pretty much the pedagogy — given, of course, the various refinements and elaborations over time — that you continued to teach? Or did it springboard you into developing that pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  See, it’s hard to answer that, because I didn’t pursue teaching sort of like in a straight line.  Like someone who wants to be a doctor.  You may end up being a surgeon or internal medicine or a podiatrist.  But you still go in a straight line.  But see, I wasn’t really that interested in teaching, and when I left Browbridge, I came back and started playing in the Playboy Club, and I stayed there until such time as… I mean, the job in and of itself was not really going anywhere.  It was a good job, playing six nights a week.  But I wasn’t satisfied with it.

TP:    Not artistically satisfied.

MARSALIS:  Well, not really, man.  It was a jazz gig.  It wasn’t like you had to play something other than that.  But even if you’re playing jazz, if what you are playing isn’t really saying anything… And then, it really wasn’t my group, so to speak.  So even though I was playing every night, there was little or no chance to do anything with them or with anybody else.  Because the city at that time had just moved away from legal segregation — maybe two years earlier, in 1966.  So it was a city in transition, and there were still a lot of older clubs and older musicians playing, and a lot of younger guys coming in who were bringing a different brand of funk to what they were doing.  There was virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of.  And there wouldn’t really be any straight-ahead stuff until, oh, much later.

TP:    Let me step back to Dillard and address the way the curriculum you received there affected the musician you became.

MARSALIS:  Well, what about it?

TP:    Let me put the question to you this way.  Do you feel you received a solid music education at Dillard?

MARSALIS:  Not really.  It was a small school, a private school, and the emphasis was on the nursing school, which had a very good reputation, and also on education.  Because heretofore, teaching and education degrees were areas that college-minded Black students could go into and get a job as a schoolteacher.  So the idea of performance was ludicrous.  At the time, I didn’t really know that was the way people were thinking who were administering the school!  So what we got was really the basis of European music, and in some cases, taught by people in a kind of slapdash way.  Not everybody.  It just depended on who you got.  It was modeled, so to speak, kind of after a poor man’s conservatory — which most of them are.

TP:    You mean most of the black colleges during segregation?

MARSALIS:  Well, most of them were anyway, even the ones that weren’t Black.  The thing is, your primary customer… For example, even at the University of New Orleans today, the primary customer is one who is going to be in music education.  So consequently, what you get is all of the rules that are set up in such a way that resemble a mini-conservatory.  So many hours on your major instrument, so many hours on the minor instruments, all those kinds of things that they expect band directors to do.  And for the most part, courses in theory.  In a lot of cases, you have an abundance of theory classes and almost no practical.

TP:    Whereas people like Yvonne Busch and Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne were extremely practically-oriented and performance-oriented.

MARSALIS:  I imagine so.  But it’s kind of hard to tell.  I used to talk with Eddie Harris about Walter Dyett, because Eddie studied under him.  And I talked a little bit with Joe Williams about the Colonel, from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago.  He went under a guy who had been a Colonel, I think, in the Army.

TP:    The guy at Wendell Phillips was Major Clark N. Smith, then Dyett succeeded him, then Dyett went to DuSable when the school was founded in 1935.

MARSALIS:  Yes, it must have been the Major.

TP:    He had the Chicago Defender Boys Band, which Lionel Hampton came out of.  I think he was a no-nonsense Marine, like you!

MARSALIS:  Also the school in Detroit, Cass Tech, where Donald Byrd… A lot of those cats went to Cass Tech.  See, we didn’t really have schools like that.

TP:    Oh, I’d been under the impression that one of the black high schools in New Orleans had a good music program.  I guess I was under the wrong impression.

MARSALIS:  How long ago?

TP:    I was thinking the late ’40s and ’50s, but my memory may be incorrect.

MARSALIS:  Well, when people say that so-and-so had a good music program, you don’t ever know what that means!  I had a guy that told me he was going into the studio down here, and he was trying to get some musicians, and he heard that St. Augustine High School had these great musicians and this great music program, and he got some of them kids in the studio.  I knew what he was trying to do, and I didn’t call him on it, but he was trying to get over cheap.  But anyway, he got those kids in there, and they didn’t know jack!  They’re not being taught any of that.  They’re a marching band, and their reputation is that.  But a lot of times, people don’t really know.  They look at these situations, and they’re not involved in music, and go, “Oh, this is a great program.”

TP:    One thing that occurs to me is that in thinking of people like Dyett and Samuel Browne and these high school music programs through which talented young black musicians emerged and were prepared to become skilled jazz musicians in the period when segregation was operative, there was a certain type of pedagogy and a certain type of attitude and a certain type of world view that was conveyed that helped these musicians function.  Looking at you from the outside, I see your work as very much in a continuum of that, granted, of course, that you were doing it in a different time.  So I’m fishing here to see if this sort of attitude stuck to you and informed your perspective on your own teaching.

MARSALIS:  Well, by the time that I started to teach music in high school at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, which was a different school… There was no marching band.  There was no band.  There was no core curriculum of math or science or any of that.  This was an arts high school that students went to, using their elective from the home school.  You could not graduate from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a diploma that was recognized as anything.  In other words, you had to go to the regular certified high school that taught math and science and English and history, and then half-a-day, you would study your discipline.  Now, a discipline at NOCCA could be dance, theater, music, visual arts, or creative writing.  And we had a faculty of artists.  So the curriculum was designed by the artists for young people who would anticipate becoming professional musicians, dancers, singers, whatever.  That was the greatest faculty that I was ever on.  There was only three of us.  That faculty was fantastic.  I learned as much as the students did.

TP:    Was that you, Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan?

MARSALIS:  No-no, not at all.  Alvin was teaching at Southern.

TP:    He wasn’t teaching there at all.

MARSALIS:  No.  Alvin was the artist-in-residence, I think, for the Orleans Parish School system.  So when that school opened, Alvin called me, and told me that they were opening up the school, and that it would probably be good for me.  By that time, I had already gone and started taking courses at Loyola Graduate School, and wasn’t interested even in interviewing for the job.  Because I had developed a plan, a modus operandi, which took me to graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to veer away from that plan.  But I did go and interview, and eventually they hired me.

So I was able to function on a great faculty.  It was Bert Braud, who was also an instrumental music teacher, and also a vocal teacher, Lorraine Alfaro.  One of the things that we didn’t really do was to emphasize or make a distinction between European music and jazz.  All the students had to study.  All the students had private instruction.

TP:    I gather you had a grant, and members of the Symphony were teaching for the amount of the grant.

MARSALIS:  Well, not always.  They would take the grant, and sometimes the students would have to supplement the grant.  But it wasn’t a lot of money for the level of instruction.  The grant was about 8 bucks, and the symphony people at that time were teaching for $12 for the students.  But it was a marvelous opportunity for them.

TP:    Would you say, then, that your pedagogy developed through the imperatives of setting up a curriculum for NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

TP:    So you get your first class or your early classes, and what do you present them with?

MARSALIS:  When I first started there, I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to approach this.  But invariably, I just started with teaching students a lot of blues.  Then I’m trying to pick standards that I knew related to a particular instrument.  For example, I knew that just about all of the trumpet players should be expected to play “I Can’t Get Started With You” and tenor saxophone players would be expected to play “Body and Soul.”

TP:    You broke down those tunes and they had to show…

MARSALIS:  They had to play them.

TP:    Did you give them recordings to listen to, or first principles that they should follow?

MARSALIS:  If I had them.  Yeah, I would do that if I had them.  We eventually hustled up some money and bought some recordings.  Also, we bought some old Collins speaker.  They might still be in use, man!  Clyde Kerr was using the same speakers, and doing…kind of piecemealing what we could do.  But I was very big on the practical side of playing.

TP:    How do you mean the practical side?

MARSALIS:  That’s it.  Play.

TP:    When did you ascertain that a student was moving in the right direction?  Was that through your knowledge as a working jazz musician?  I’m thinking about criteria, the right thing and the wrong thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, the right thing and the wrong thing is easy.  Because one of the things they had to do was be able to play scales.  Either you understood and played the right ones, or you didn’t.  And if you did, I’d work on the concept of improvisation, which is not something that’s suitable for everybody’s personality.  But there are ways in which you can get people to improvise if they are susceptible to that process.  When I say susceptible, what I mean is that some people are just not comfortable with the process of improvisation.  If it’s not written on a page or instructions that come from on high or whatever, they are just not comfortable improvising.

TP:    So when you found someone who you determined had talent… I assume that given the type of students who were coming in, you were able to take very individual approaches with each of them.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, but not because of who was coming in.  Mostly because of the way it was structured.  Because we just got public school students, period.  Whoever came to audition.  We didn’t know who was talented and who wasn’t.

TP:    I did a piece earlier this year on Harry Connick that was a cover story in “Jazziz,” and I talked to Branford about him.  He said this: [ETC.] “…if you walk in the room, my father says, ‘okay, why are you here?’  Virtually every other teacher would say, ‘Turn to page 13.  Okay, that’s great. Come back next week and give me another $100.’  My father is like, ‘Why are you here?’  ‘I’m here for you to teach me.’ ‘What do you want to learn?  I don’t know.’ ‘Come back when you’ve figured it out.’


TP:    I said, “What do you think Harry wanted to learn?”  He said, “I don’t think Harry knew, and that’s what my father wanted to get to — what is it you want to learn?”  He says he doesn’t know what you taught him, he and Wynton would rough him up and go outside, but he assumes you would do studies on the blues because that’s what you made piano players deal with first, blues and rhythm.

It seems that so many people who have studied with you are able to access the maximum of potential from themselves, and I’m interested in your philosophy of dealing with people, particularly at that very sensitive time in their lives, when things can go in so many different directions.

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t know that I had even developed a philosophy.  See, the thing that I remembered, that I fell back on, is that when I was in elementary school, in the early elementary school, first through sixth grade, that [things were done by drill]  ….[END OF SIDE]…. We had English classes, we had math class, and in all of those classes, one of the key components was drill.  So when I started teaching at NOCCA, I began to use that aspect.  Because it stuck with me.  You just drill on something and you drill on it until they get it.  And it wouldn’t matter…

See, this is another thing.  It wasn’t so much about whether somebody was into jazz or classical.  The drilling aspect had to do with whatever the subject matter was at the point that you were teaching.  Because I was also responsible for teaching Classical students, not just what we call jazz students, and I had to develop a sight-singing class which everybody had to take.  The biggest part of that that I used was drill — drilling on intervals, drilling on individual notes, drilling in all of that.  Basically, you concern yourself a lot with whether or not somebody wants to be a certain thing.  Like, I would ask students, “Give me an example of a model or somebody that if you could be like that, if you could sing like that or play like that…who would it be like?”  And you would use that sort of as a guide of trying to figure out how they were thinking.

But I think what Branford was talking about was usually private teaching.  Because you can’t do that in a school!  Now, one of the things that we used to do also was make students responsible.  You see, one of the major problems with public school education today is that, from what I can see, students are never responsible for anything.  You don’t have to be responsible.  I just read in the paper the other day where this woman in a town, she and 12 other people just resigned, plus the principal, because they wanted her to change the grade.  The parents were calling up all hours of the night… What it was is that she gave an assignment, and 23 of the students cut-and-pasted their way over the end of that, and turned the papers in, and she could see what they had done.  So she gave them all zero, and got in a lot of trouble because of that.  Because nobody wants the students to be responsible.

But that was one of the things we had that was in our favor.  We had a principal at NOCCA whose discipline was theater.  His name was Dr. Tom Tews.  The only thing he asked us to do was, “Just tell me what you’re doing,” because he didn’t want to be blind-sided by somebody coming up to him saying that the faculty is doing something he didn’t know nothing about!  But we had unlimited opportunities to restructure what we were doing curriculum-wise, and change it around to meet the needs of the students that we had — just to do a lot of things that were flexible.  But we would make students responsible, even when the parents would come in hollering and screaming.  And I think that’s basically what the problem is right now.  They’re not allowed to be responsible.  Then they get out in the world, and there it is!  But that’s a whole other story.
TP:    It would seem that a magnet arts school, where you have motivated students, would be well suited…

MARSALIS:  Well, that’s a myth, see.  The whole idea of having very motivated students comes either after they get there and discover that there’s something they can develop if the platform is suitable for their individuality.  Otherwise, the motivated students usually get turned-off at school.  Because schools do not emphasize individuality.  And when people become motivated, they become motivated as an individual.

TP:    Do you emphasize individuality?

MARSALIS:  Oh, we had to.  That’s the only way an arts school can work.  You cannot herd an art school and have it really work effectively.

TP:    Donald Harrison told me that Kidd Jordan would call him at 8 in the morning to make sure he’d done what he was supposed to, that he’d take extra time and so on.  Did you take a role with students outside of the school?

MARSALIS:  Not a lot.  Well, I had a lot of other responsibilities.  If it was something that I could help them with and it took some extra time, I’d find that.

TP:    Let’s get through NOCCA, and start talking about… You started teaching at the University of New Orleans when?

MARSALIS:  1989.

TP:    So the timeline is, you’re at NOCCA from 1974 to what year?


TP:    Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.


TP:    That’s where Victor Goines and Clarence Penn and various others come under you, then you get a faculty position at the University of New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Yes, but that’s not really so much true for Victor Goines.  See, Victor was a kid that I knew along with my kids when he was still in high school.  He didn’t go to NOCCA.  For a while, he was at Loyola.  Before he graduated from Loyola University, he started to study privately with me.  And eventually, I just put him in my band.  Because I had a quartet.  The band went on a Southeast Asian tour in the month June of 1986, before I left to go to Virginia Commonwealth.  Because see, Victor was teaching math at St. Augustine High School.  After I left, he decided that he wanted to come up and go to graduate school!  That’s what he did.  But to tell you the truth, while I was at Virginia Commonwealth, I never had any classes that Victor was in.

TP:    So there are three different categories.  There’s the New Orleans public schools, the Catholic schools, and there’s private tutelage.  So musicians in New Orleans coming up would go through any combination of these routes.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  There was also the total practicum, like the kids who went to the junior high school and learned some basics, and then put a band together and went out on the street, and opened up their cases, and started playing for the tourists.

TP:    Which is something that’s distinct to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of places, they’ll put you in jail if you play on the street. You can’t just play on the street.  But in New Orleans, that’s a different town.  They may have some restrictions by now.  But man, a lot of people were playing on the street, some who now have careers!

TP:    Kidd Jordan disapproved of the effects of that.  He said it sort of stifled the urge to learn or expand or explore.  In a broader sense, how do you see the impact of the vernacular aspect New Orleans music and the Caribbean tinge of New Orleans culture on the way musicians develop and evolve and think?

MARSALIS:  Well, for the most part, I think it’s all economic-driven.  I mean, those people who call themselves music teachers in public schools… It’s economically driven.  If there were no jobs out there, they would not subject themselves to four and five years of college training to get a degree not to work.  And these kids get an early start, especially from some of these junior high schools with these brass bands.  Now, I don’t think that it’s anathema to learning at all.  I think kids get turned off by adults very early in life.  It’s not the music that’s causing them to do that.  It’s the mere fact that there’s nothing going on in the schools.  If there was something going on in the school, they wouldn’t quit.  Or if there was something happening musically, they wouldn’t want to… For example, Terence Blanchard was going to John F. Kennedy High School.  A marvelous band instructor over there.  I mean, this guy was great — the concert band.  Well, he played in that concert band while he was a student at NOCCA, because there was something going on over there.

Branford went to de la Salle, and the music program over there was okay.  But Branford was talking at one point about going and being a lawyer or something.  Which was all right with me.  I didn’t care.  But it didn’t appear to me that he was doing what he needed to do to be at the school.  So we came to the mutual agreement that he ought to leave that school and go to the one of the public schools, and then just attend NOCCA and study the music for the remainder of his high school time.

TP:    So to you, the cultural thing in New Orleans where the younger musicians play and the oral tradition aspect is a very positive thing.

MARSALIS:  Of course.

TP:    Could you elaborate a little on why it’s a positive thing?

MARSALIS:  Well, mostly it’s positive because, first of all, it’s economically driven, and the kids who do it generally need whatever monies they can come up with.  It also promotes a certain amount of teamwork, because it means that these kids have to organize themselves into a functioning unit with virtually no adult supervision at all.  That’s another thing.  And that skill is a very useful skill for anybody or any group of people to learn early enough in life.  The next thing is, they begin to understand a friendly relationship with the general public.  When you go out there on the street and open up your case, there are things that you can get to learn.  You learn what people will put money in the case to hear you play, and probably they don’t want to particularly put their money in… In other words, if you’re out there and you have a group, and your group was playing some Bach chorales with a brass ensemble, the amount of money that you get is going to determine whether you keep playing that.  Now, if you keep playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and people start putting money in the box… I mean, it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out!  So these kids go out there immediately playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” or some other piece like that.  Now, it’s anybody’s guess to assume that at some point they will have wanted to play some chorales of J.S. Bach.  We don’t really know.  And a lot of people say, “well, if they wouldn’t have been doing that, then they would be learning this over here.”  We don’t really know that.

There have been numerous times… There was a wonderful band teacher who passed on, named Donald Richardson.  Donald Richardson had a junior high school, and he was totally devoted to his kids, and when they would graduate from that junior high school, if they went to a high school and that high school didn’t have a challenging band, the horns were in the case, the case went under the bed, and they went and did something else.  So we can’t make the assumption that kids have this undying need to learn certain kinds of music.

TP:    What kinds of music?

MARSALIS:  Any kind.  Anything that would be considered by the people who make those statements as challenging.

TP:    There’s a quote in an article I saw on the Web from Jason Marsalis that instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so they’ll discover certain things on their own.

MARSALIS:  Yes, I think jazz is really about the art of discovery.  And I don’t mean discovery in terms of guesswork.  What I mean is that give a person a certain amount of information, and you have to make sure that that information is communicated.  Then from that point, they have to begin to make decisions about that information.  And like I said earlier, not everybody has the personality to improvise.

TP:    What sort of personality do you need to improvise?

MARSALIS:  All you really need is the spirit of adventure, and it’s applied to what your understanding is of the music that is being presented to you.  Because it’s very easy, man.  I did a workshop, and I can’t remember where it was, but it was a guy who had a band; there was a whole room-full of students in there, and it was just me and this little raggedy piano.  And I developed a way where I could give a kid maybe five notes, and play some little things on piano.  If you just play those five notes any way you want to play them, you can’t go wrong — except if you don’t play at all.  This one kid was playing vibraphone, and I said, “I want you to try it.”  Oh, no.  He was real shy.  And his fellow students started to encourage him.  So finally, he decided that he’d try it, that he’d play, and I backed him up as he played.  And about ten minutes, man, we couldn’t shut him up!  He wanted to play the rest of the workshop!  Now, I don’t know that he had an opportunity to do that before. He didn’t act like he did.  But he didn’t even want to try.  So you don’t really know.
TP:    So half the battle is breaking down the resistance to trying.

MARSALIS:  Well, if it’s in the personality.  There was a young man who was a trumpet player, and he came into the class.  And I could not communicate with him what it took for him to experiment in improvisation.  It didn’t appear to be in his personality to want to do that. I mean, he tried and he wanted to do it.  He went on eventually, man, to become a principal trumpeter in the symphony orchestra.  So the musicality was already there.

TP:    Let me get back to what Branford said you do with piano players, and what you said you did initially in NOCCA, which was deal with the blues.  Now, there’s no established pedagogy for the blues, certainly not when you were beginning 27 years ago.  How did you organize your principles of teaching the blues?

MARSALIS:  See, what I had to do… It reminds me of dealing with a kid with Play-Dough.  What you do is, you give him the play-dough, and you say, “Here, take this and make something out of it.”  I would write out some notes which, when played, would be 12 measures of the blues.  So they could do two things.  One, get the sound of the notes in their ear; the other is to reposition their fingers in such a way that they would play when they would practice.  Their fingers would get used to those positions.  I have one exercise where it was just the left hand, another exercise where it was both hands, another exercise where it was the left hand with some different chords.  But it was all based on the blues.  And there again, it’s just a matter of drill.
TP:    A matter of drill and then their personality accepts it or it doesn’t.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Well, with the piano players it could be a little different.  Because with the piano players you’ve given them notes which basically outline a whole form.  It’s a different thing with a piano player.  The piano player still has to do the same thing from an improvisatory standpoint.  But what you do is, you give them all of the notes in the beginning.

TP:    Would you say that your experience as an improviser informs your teaching and the way you relate to students?

MARSALIS:  Yeah, definitely.  First of all, it helps me to understand a lot better what it is that I’m trying to get them to do.  Because if I can’t improvise myself, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to teach them.  But see, what causes one to be able to teach, and somebody else to be a great improviser and maybe not be able to teach, is that they don’t necessarily do respective thinking about what they are doing so that they can convert it and create a language to communicate that.  Because all of teaching centers around a language.  How could you teach Medicine if you don’t have a name for the principles.  It’s the same thing.

And a lot of times, the problem… Well, I don’t know if it’s the problem or not.  There is not a codified language for jazz.  There are some things, the blues… But “blues” is a general term.  It’s not by any means as specific as, say, the heart would be if a doctor studies medicine.  That’s very specific!  But what I’m saying is that we have to have enough terminology so it can communicate what the essence is in terms of studying jazz improvisation.

TP:    In one of these things I saw on the Web, the writer describes you asking a trumpeter if he knows “Caravan,” the student replies that he has the sheet music, and you say that “the sheet is always secondary — always.”  Does jazz continue to be an oral music in any manner?  And how do you deal with that quality within the prerequisites of teaching within an institution and a curriculum?

MARSALIS:  Well, the thing about jazz being an oral music is that if you don’t have the oral component of the music, what you will have done is taken away the natural ingredients of it.  It’s sort of like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit.  See?  Like, if you could walk up to a tree and there are some apples on that tree, you can pick an apple, and you can eat that apple.  Now, there are people who learn how to make preserves, and in most cases, they always taste the same.  And you can get it whenever you need it.  But the apple on the tree is only going to be there for so long. Like the solo.  I mean, if somebody plays a great solo, if you’re not there when they do it, then you won’t hear it.  If it’s a recording, you hear sort of a replication of it.  Which would be like the preserves.  Which is why the term “preservation” comes into play.

TP:    That’s a very interesting metaphor.

MARSALIS:  But that’s basically what it is.  And any student has to develop an understanding of what a solo really is.  Solos are not unlike a novel — or a short story.  You have a beginning, you have a developmental section; you have a point or a peak; and then ultimately you have a climax or an ending.  Solos are like that.

TP:    To what extent do you give students vocabulary from other players as part of their repertoire?  A process a lot of people do, maybe you did this yourself with Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell, is the imitation of solos and an understanding of how master artists organized vocabulary in different periods.  Is that important to your curriculum and pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, but I don’t like to academize it.  See, students spend so much time with academic descriptions of things, until they begin to try to put everything in that category, and they begin to lose the ability to hear certain subtleties.  I mean, it’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can sometimes take the essence away from what was going on.  It reminds of something I read that Earl “Fatha” Hines said. Somebody was talking about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, “Man, forget the recordings thing; you’ve got to have been there!”  That’s a whole other level of experience in that music.  Students have to learn, the ones who are really going to pursue it, that the concept of a solo is in the development of it, and the more references that you have to draw from, the better possibilities you have of a solo.

TP:    To extrapolate on that Fatha Hines quote, “You have to have been there,” it’s becoming increasingly hard for younger musicians to be there in terms of at least of expressing the older vocabulary as expressed by the people who created that vocabulary.  Is there any contradiction in there?

MARSALIS:  How could it be a contradiction?

TP:    It could be a contradiction, because if someone is dealing with getting the sound of Jelly Roll Morton together, such as Eric Reed, who dealt with it functionally in the LCJO, he wasn’t there to witness it, but he dealt with it in a real-time situation.  One thing that’s often noted by younger musicians is at once the increasing options of vocabulary available to them and the increasing distance from the people who created that vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re saying.  Well, the point is this.  There again, I use metaphors in athletics.  The same could be said of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.  Those who were there when Magic was doing what he was doing, got the experience that those who were not there didn’t get.  Now, it doesn’t mean that those who were watching Kobe Bryant cannot appreciate the game, the style of play, which essentially was a part of the same thing that Magic was doing.  But I think what happens with music is that it becomes so academic.  When I say “academic,” it becomes like the analyzation of a solo in which somebody starts talking about the technical parts of it, and the scale, and how he used this scale and that scale and another scale — and that’s not what the person who was doing the solo was thinking about at all.  I’ve also used as a metaphor that it would be like if somebody asked a student to do a book report, and when they got ready to do the book report, they’d stand up and say, “Well, the person who wrote the book led off with two prepositions, three nouns, two adjectives, followed by a period,” and go through that whole thing.  Now, if you want to analyze the sentence structure, that may be true.  But I doubt very seriously if that’s what the person who wrote the story was thinking about.  And it’s a similar kind of thing with music.

So when Fatha Hines said that you had to have been there, I mean, that’s one of those things that sort of vibrated sympathy.  Obviously, he couldn’t have been where Tatum was, but it expressed something that makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what actually was going down.

TP:    How important is it for students to know about the milieu in which the music was going down?

MARSALIS:  It’s important totally.  There again, it’s the same thing with athletics.  I mean, the average kid, when he comes into the NBA today, he knows about the City Game!  They know about the City Game.  Kareem knew about the city game.  All of them!

TP:    Well, Kareem was part of the City Game!

MARSALIS:  So what I’m saying essentially is that what a lot of students don’t get, in some cases, is the academic complement.  I think if you can get an academic complement, so that the experience becomes total…

TP:    But the way I mean the question is: Is it important for a kid who is marching in brass bands and is then going on to further musical education to understand, let’s say, the historical origins of brass bands, how marching bands might relate even to customs in Africa, as you once described on a radio show we did.  Is that sort of well-rounded knowledge essential to a contemporary aspiring jazz musician?

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  I was listening to one of those guys in a brass band doing an interview.  And one of the first things he said when a young guy came into the band… He said, “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that this is part of a tradition, but when you come here, you don’t come here with no strange attitude.”  And he wasn’t talking about music to him.  What he was talking  about are those things that are peripheral, those things that put some meaning into that.

I remember Wynton made a statement to me one time, and he was waiting for me to rebut him.  He started talking about bebop.  He said, “man, bebop brought a negative element into the music.”  And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.  It did.”  And that’s a generation that I was a part of.  And the reason why that occurred had as much to do with the recording industry as it did with anything else.  Because in the recording industry, technology advanced to a point where people could begin to play longer and longer and longer. When you go back and listen to Charlie Parker…

TP:    Three minutes.

MARSALIS:  Well, maybe five.

TP:    He has the famous quote, “If you can’t say all you have to say in two choruses, you’re practicing.”

MARSALIS:  That’s right. So essentially, what happened is that another negative element… Well, actually, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative element.  When they started to emphasize the whole drug scene.  Well, that has to do with something else.  I mean, whoever controls the press decides what’s going to get in it.  And if anybody was paying attention, the amount of jazz musicians interested in drugs wouldn’t even register 0.000-whatever.  So that element I didn’t consider.

TP:    I think in bebop it was a pretty consequential element.  I’ve been doing articles on people like Jimmy Heath, who had that experience.  I spoke to Frank Wess on Friday for a piece, and he said one reason music today is better than it was then is that the musicians then dissipated themselves in an almost commonplace manner, and today that isn’t the case.  I think that’s a fact about at least a lot of the musicians of the time, for better or for worse.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s not so much that that’s not a true statement.  But I don’t know that that could be proven.  I’ll tell you the reason why I say that.  First of all, there are peripheral factors involved.  When I say “peripheral,” let’s take, for example, the first fifty years, from 1900 to about 1950-ish.  The total economy of the jazz musician was gangsters.  There was no other economy.  Now, that managed to produce a lot of fantastic players in spite of the fact that that was the situation.

Now, as great as some of the young players are today, the democratic process that goes on with the schools teaching jazz and some clubs coming along, and… Like where I work.  It’s a nice club!  The situation is conducive now to make jazz a respectable area to function in.  In reality, it has lost a lot of its individuality as a result of that.  Because when you mainstream something… Everything has a good and bad side.

TP:    It’s a dialectic.

MARSALIS:  Right.  But when you go back and you start listening to all them tenor players, man, from Chu Berry on, and people who were lesser lights, like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and…

TP:    To some, he is not a lesser light.

MARSALIS:  Well, when I say “lesser light”…
TP:    I know what you mean.

MARSALIS:  Believe me, man, Jaws was a personal friend of mine.  I loved Jaws and I worked with Jaws. I listened to Jaws play some introductions, man, on his own… [LAUGHS]

TP:    I’ve heard people from every sphere of music talk of him, like how did he get those sounds with the fingerings he used?

MARSALIS:  The only reason why I said “lesser light” is because Lockjaw Davis never forgot that he was in show business.  He could never have been a John Coltrane attitude-wise.  He was never that.  So that level of dedication was not going to be there.  And it was the same thing like a Charlie Parker, who spent an enormous amount of time practicing, trying to figure all of this stuff out.  Jaws was a product of the times!  He was going to be representative among the players who was there.  He was the straw boss of Basie until he couldn’t… He and Basie philosophically fell out.  But what I’m saying was by no means saying a lesser light…

But when it comes down to it, when you listen to these kids, you hear them and you say, “Oh, man…”  My youngest son, Jason, is very responsible for some of these younger kids, and he’s almost like a senior to some of them.  The reason why is because Jason has learned the importance of researching the older guys, so he can tell a young drummer about Dodds!  About Baby Dodds!  See, he’s already researched that.  He can also tell them about, “Look, when you’re getting ready to present a solo, this is what you do.”  He did a session just recently with Curtis Fuller, who was in New Orleans during Jazzfest.  When Curtis got ready to play a ballad, the producer was saying, “Look, this is just with piano, bass and trombone.”  And Jason immediately knew what the problem was.  He didn’t say nothing.  So when they started playing, Jason got behind the drums and started sweeping.  So this guy said, “Yeah, man, that’s hip.  Not too many young guys can even play brushes at all.”  But see, he knows that.  And he knows about people not knowing the technique of playing brushes.  And he also understands when it started, and the whole ball of wax.

So I’m saying all of that to say that it is necessary that young kids understand and learn all of these things, because otherwise it becomes kind of like a guitar player, a kid who came to NOCCA when I was teaching there.  He was a senior, and usually we didn’t take seniors, because it was too late.  I said, “Look I’ll take you, and whatever I can do for you in a year, I’ll do.  Play the electric guitar.”  I put some records on to let him hear that.  I put George Benson on, and the recording George Benson made of “Paraphernalia” with Miles.  When the record was over, I said, “Well, what did you think?” He looked real bewildered.  He said, “I don’t know, man.  All I ever thought there was to Benson was ‘Breezing.'”  So consequently, what you get is a bunch of kids who just don’t know!  Because there’s been nobody there to say, “Hey, man, if you’re playing tenor saxophone…”


TP:    …among black musicians was the notion of having your own sound, above and beyond just about anything else, in many ways.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, that was one of the things that contributed to the fact of whether you were going to work or not.

TP:    So again, it’s economic.

MARSALIS:  Well, that was one of the factors.  It wasn’t just the only one.  But the thing is, there was no uniformity.  You go up to Eastman.  They’ve got a great music department at the Eastman Conservatory. Look at the cats in that band.  I mean, there’s a conservatory approach to jazz.  All the saxophone players got the same sound.  And they can all play!  And you listen to these guys playing a solo, and you can’t tell which one is what!  There is no individuality, man.

And having your own sound has as much to do with… I remember Jug told me, Gene Ammons told me… See, Gene Ammons went to school under Walter Dyett.  Gene Ammons said, man, “When I went to study in the band, the first thing the dude did was gave me the mouthpiece, and I had to play that for a month.  Then I got to the neck, and I had to play that for another month or so.  Then finally, I got the horn.”

TP:    Von Freeman told me the same thing.

MARSALIS:  Yeah!  He said by that time, what you do is develop a sound.  In some cases, it’s not so much my sound as much as it is a sound.  Because when you start to play jazz especially, you hear differently than what happens when you study classical music.  And even with Classical music, there are people who have individual sounds with that, even though you’d have to be really attuned to hear them.

TP:    Well, connoisseurs can tell Michelangelo Benedetti from Pollini, or Dinu Lupatti from…

MARSALIS:  Michelangelo Benedetti was one of my favorites, especially for French music.

But for the most part, I think that’s one of the things that sometimes people misconstrue when they say “my sound.”  Everybody’s got a sound.  Because once you learn how to play that instrument, whatever comes out of it is going to be your sound anyway.

TP:    I’m trying to circle around to an ending.  How, within your pedagogy, did you give students that imperative of developing your own sound?  Is that just implicit within what you give them?

MARSALIS:  Essentially it is.  Because I never had them for that long.  That’s the one thing you’ve got to realize about teaching in a high school.

TP:    But now I’m talking about college, too.

MARSALIS:  Well, college is totally different.  See, the thing about college and universities, you get students in clumps.  If you’re teaching an improvisation class, you get all of the students that’s taking that at that time.  Now, they’re studying their instrument with somebody else.  You see?  And if you happen to have a combo that you’re teaching, there are some things you can pass on to them in that context. That’s teaching a combo.  But that individual approach is not there nearly as much.  Because by the time you get to the university, you have to spend a lot of time, hopefully, in dealing with refining what’s there.

TP:    But do you use the same principles in dealing with your university students as you did with your students at NOCCA?  Is what you did at NOCCA the building block for the Ellis Marsalis way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  Yes, definitely.

TP:    Let’s say I’m some administrator giving you a grant.  How would you boil down your principles for me?  The one or two minute synopsis.
MARSALIS:  Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody, not necessarily in that order.  And you apply that to each piece that you play.

TP:    Since you only took ten seconds to answer: How are you going to go about giving it to them?  Through drill?


TP:    It’s all drill.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  You can really study two songs a semester, and teach everything that you need to teach in that given semester.

TP:    What two songs would those be?

MARSALIS:  Any two songs that have to do with the form.  Like a 32-measure form, AABA… It doesn’t matter.  Because all of them are going to have rhythm, harmony and melody.  It’s a busy-word(?) concept to give somebody 25 songs to learn.  I was telling my colleague that.  He said, “Man, they ought to learn 25 songs at a minimum.”  I said, “But what are they going to play on those songs?”  You take one song and say, “Okay, here is the verse, here is the melody, this is what the harmony is.”  Now, the first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to play each of those component parts.  And it takes time to do that.  Now, you multiply that by ten, and what time do you have?  You don’t have no time.  You’re scuffling, trying to make some arbitrary deadline.

TP:    So you really are like Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne in a lot of ways.

MARSALIS:  I hope so. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You really are.  I’m glad I’m not imposing some rigid thesis on you.  One final question.  What do you think of the state of things in jazz now?  We’re talking about some negatives, like maybe lack of individuality among young musicians, but overall, what’s your sense of the state of things as opposed to 15 years ago, when you started at Virginia Commonwealth, or 28 years ago, when you started at NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  Well, those are very short periods of time.  I think that jazz ultimately will become a major part of the cornerstone of American music.  I just heard a trio… This was a classical group.  I think all of them went to Juilliard, and they were playing a piece by one of their contemporaries, who is a violinist, who has been playing with a Rock band, and is now composing music, and has been playing violin with Ornette Coleman.  It was piano, cello and either violin or viola.  When they started to play his piece, I could hear “Lonely Woman,” man, in the beginning theme of it.  That’s the direction that the music is going in.  And the people who are going to make the biggest contributions towards it are the same as it was in Europe as composers.

TP:    When you say “that’s the direction,” do you mean Ornette Coleman or do you mean the hybrid?

MARSALIS:  The hybrid.  That’s it.  It’s going to be like this violin player, the bluegrass player… He’s written a composition that’s very interesting, too.

TP:    A young guy?

MARSALIS:  Not too young.  He’s younger than me.  Top of the list.  Top line.  The representative of that.  Well, anyway, I’ll think of it.

TP:    Another aspect of the hybrid is all the musicians internationally who are coming here with substantial idiomatic knowledge of jazz and bringing their own cultural information to the table.  I’m thinking particularly of musicians from all over the Caribbean and South America.  And it seems to me that the rhythmic template of jazz, things that were maybe esoteric 10-15 years ago, are no longer esoteric.  Do you perceive this internationalization of the music, that it’s incorporating more information at this point?

MARSALIS:  Of course.  That’s the way that is. That’s why we get terms like “globalization.”  I don’t think music is the only representation of that.  I think whatever you see is happening in terms of economics, in terms of the market, in terms of trade… There was a big thing in the paper here yesterday, they’re trying to make a deal between France and New Orleans to build a super-port.  So it’s all-inclusive.  That’s what I’m saying.  It’s not really a separate thing.

TP:    So the world is smaller, people can transcend the particularities of their locale, and you can get anywhere in a day, that sort of thing?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):

TP:    Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?

MARSALIS:  Correct.

TP:    What was the situation when you arrived there, and what did you do?

MARSALIS:  There’s different layers to that.  First of all, there’s the idea of moving to another state at that time in my life, and a lot of pressures that it brought on my wife.  That’s one situation.  Then not only was it beginning a job, but a university job in a program that was rather young.  They had a jazz program when I got there, but it was not totally defined in any strict way.  The band director, Doug Richards, was probably the best jazz band director that I had ever seen; he could really get a tremendous amount out of a jazz band.  But there wasn’t anybody there who really wanted to actually head a program.  In other words, we had a whole lot of soldiers and no real chiefs.  The faculty was a very able faculty across the board.  There were 44 people on that faculty, most of whom were in classical music, but it was not an antagonistic situation.  So there were things I had to get used to.

But it’s one of those things that the more I did it, the more I found out that it wasn’t that much different than teaching at NOCCA.  The reason for that is that when you teach in a typical high school, there’s an adversarial situation between the administration, the teachers, and the students which is built in.  And the laws of any given state do not permit you to treat the students as really the way they are.  They’re really like young adults who have intelligent.  But the various state laws don’t permit you to function with them like that.

TP:    As young adults.

MARSALIS:  Right.  So teaching in the average high school, they have virtually no real responsibility that’s allowed.  All the classes are like herds.  you go in one herd to Class A, and then to the math class, and then to the history class, and then at some point you go home.

Now, at the university, there’s a lot less pressure from that end, because the students decide what they take and what they don’t take.  So it creates a different kind of pressure, if you will.  Because students who go into high school are going mostly because they either need it as a means to get somewhere else or because it’s mandated by the state after a certain age.  At the university, when a student chooses to go to a university, they do so because they think that it’s going to affect their lives in some way.  So the way that we taught at NOCCA, it was very much like a college, even though it wasn’t a college, because the students that we would retain were students who had shown a determination towards performance at a professional level.

TP:    Did they tend to sort themselves out?  How did you ascertain that they were ready for that?

MARSALIS:  Well, it isn’t a case of them being ready for it at all.  It’s a case of them making a decision based upon what was asked of them, whether or not they wanted to pursue that particular discipline as a career.  There were five disciplines at this school.  Then what they had to do was to look at it and make that decision.  And encouragement for professionalism was always there.  At the average high school, band directors would never tell students in the band that they could be professionals, unless that person was a pro himself and would sort of pick somebody and put him in a group with them and say, “Look, if you want to, you could probably do this.”  Because in most cases, teachers who teach in high schools… I remember something that the chairman of the music department told me at Virginia Commonwealth, which I really thought was tacky.  He said, “Most of the people on this faculty are failures.” I said, “What do you mean, they’re failures?” He said, “Well, they really want to do what you do, but they don’t really have it, so they teach instead.”  I said, “Damn, man, that’s a little bit jive.”

TP:    I’ve heard a lot of musicians say, for instance, who went to Berklee, that they were taught by someone who couldn’t play, etc.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of times, people are hired on that basis.  The reason for the preponderance of an emphasis on certification by way of academic credentials is that it creates the means by which people can hire someone, and as a result, blame it on somebody else if it doesn’t work out.  Because if you have a Ph.D and whatever, that’s the justification to pay you X amount of dollars and give you certain… I think my wife was telling me, or somebody, that the corporations are beginning to look differently at MBAs, saying an MBA is nothing, that hiring people on the basis of that is not the thing to do.  The school system here just got rid of the second superintendent in a row, and it’s decided that the procedure they’re going to go through is not to go and look for some superstar somewhere, but to actually go within the university community to see if they can get someone to be the superintendent of the public schools in the city that they function.

TP:    So someone who knows New Orleans to deal with the New Orleans schools.

MARSALIS:  Well, that could be what their mindset is, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth.  Like I said before, man, there’s a lot of things about the law which nobody really deals with, which just doesn’t permit you to do certain things in the schools.  And the kids know the law.

TP:    I’m getting away from the college, and I want get back to it.  But it seems the subtext to what you’re saying about what you were able to accomplish at NOCCA is that you were able to do it precisely because it was a magnet school.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.  It was a magnet school, and we had a principal who came from the theater as a background [Tom Tews].  Consequently, his philosophy was, it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission.  So we would do a lot of things that were good for the students, and if necessary, tell the school board people later.

TP:    I think I’m restating we talked about last week, but you developed a lot of your ideas about what was good for the students through your experience as a working jazz musician and an improviser.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.

TP:    I had asked you to boil down your educational philosophy as though I were an arts administrator, and you said, “Learn the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, and do it through drill.”  Can you boil down what it was you learned as a professional jazz musician and improviser that gave you the sense of what your students needed to know?

MARSALIS:  I think I discovered the relationship between the Blues and the American Canon, the music canon, and how it related to… How can I put this? Learning how to play Blues became like learning arithmetic.  Before you can get to algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you must have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic.  The Blues is like arithmetic.  It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation.  And that’s one of the things I learned about Blues.

TP:    And why is it the simplest approach to learning about improvisation?

MARSALIS:  Because you don’t have a lot to deal with.  Like, 12 measures is equivalent to one chorus.  It’s a repetitive situation, chorus after chorus after chorus.  And the students can be given relatively few notes.  I would write out 12 measures of chords that would turn out, when played, to be a blues.  I was doing two or three different things at the same time.  One, I was presenting them with a visible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus.  Two, I was using chord symbols to represent in a vertical manner the sounds that they were going to deal with in a linear manner.  See, after a while, this thing gets to be complex.  The next thing is getting them to a point where they could deal with music that’s in motion.  When you start to play and you count off the Blues, they begin to understand that you have to be at Measure 1-2-3-4, in a certain time frame, so you become sensitized to the flow of the rhythm.

TP:    Of the knowledge you had accumulated up to this time, what percentage of it was vernacular and functional, and what percentage of it came from your academic training?

MARSALIS:  None of it came from my academic training to speak of.  First of all, I did not go to a music school.  The university that I went to had an ample music department, which was sort of typical.  It was sort of like, “Okay, this is a university, we need to have music, so we’ll just put something there.

TP:    Didn’t Dillard have a very good art department in the ’30s and ’40s?

MARSALIS:  Well, in the ’30s and the ’40s, there were people there who had the beginnings of what could have evolved into a great music program — or a great anything.  See, when you start to talk about the ’30s and the ’40s, you’re talking about a completely different America.  What happened after the Second World War had a tremendous amount of effect on shaping what we’re going through right now.  I don’t care if you want to talk about Enron and WorldCom and them, or whether you want to talk about those young guys who’s out there playing a million notes a second in the name of Jazz, or the rappers who, when all else fails, curse.  It doesn’t matter.  What happened at the end of the Second World War set the stage for the American culture that we see today.  Now, what was going on before that was the beginning of something that sort of was just left behind.

TP:    What sort of things?

MARSALIS:  There were things that were common among universities.  For example, at one time, university presidents could help shape public policy.  Nowadays, university presidents are about fundraising.  Then, we’re talking about a predominantly black university, and there were several of those, and they were producing very good students.  For example, Tuskegee had George Washington Carver, who was doing miracles with the soil in Alabama and actually created crop rotation.  People like Charles (?), who at Howard helped to develop plasma, which saved the lives of a whole lot of guys in the Second World War.

What I’m saying is that the seeds that were planted during those days could have evolved in a lot of different directions.  Now, it’s for another generation at another time to go back and begin to ford all of that stuff out.  It’s sort of like looking at why the Roman Empire collapsed.

Anyway, in reference to what you were talking about as far as college is concerned, one of the first revelations that I had after I got there… I ended up meeting with the Chairman, and the Chairman said, “I was just looking over the applications that came in for the Fall, and I don’t see any jazz students’ names on these applications.  So what are you going to do about that?”

Well, that was a shock to me.  Because I had never been in a situation where I was under the gun for the RR — Recruitment and Retention.  See, that’s one of the things that you have to face when you’re going into a university — Recruitment and Retention.  Then I was forced to begin to say, “Now, who actually is the jazz student?”  We would take the big band and go straight up I-95 in Virginia, and go to these  different towns and these different high schools, and we’d leave there and go up into Maryland, where the high school similar to NOCCA, the arts high school… Antonio Hart came from one of them.  Then we’d leave there, and go on up to Philly, and go into that high school where Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco, some of them came from.

But eventually, what I started to realize was that most of the students we ran into, especially the trombone players, the good straight-up musicians, not necessarily people who were well-versed in jazz, but the good musicians — they were all talking engineering.  And the ones with the 1400s on the SAT, none of them were talking about going into the music.  And it wasn’t that I blamed them!  It’s just that I had never really thought about jazz studies.  Because in a high school, like at NOCCA, we were there for students to explore the possibilities of a career in one of five disciplines, whereas once you get to college, the students who come to a college are there to make decisions that will affect, if not the rest of their lives, at least a sizable chunk of them.  And whether it does or doesn’t, the motivation for going to a university is based on, “Hey, I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to help me to get a job here, doing this or that.”  Jazz was not viewed as economically viable in terms of university students, period.  Now, there’s always exceptions.  But you can’t run a program off of exceptions.  That’s one of the things I learned real quick.

TP:    Well, Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco went right into the fray.  They didn’t go to college, or at least not into that sort of program.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  Well, those are exceptions.  That’s why I said I wasn’t talking about exceptions.  There are people who do that now.  There are even people, man, who are leaving high school and going into the pros.  In fact, they’re not the first ones anyhow.  Moses Malone did that.  I think essentially, if you can stay, that does… Because even if you go all the way through college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay.

TP:    That’s right.  You can go backwards in college.


TP:    So you were faced for the first time with having to recruit a band.  It brought your job description to a different plane than it had been before.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I had go to out and try to find some students.

TP:    And I guess in competition with other programs, too.  You had to be like a coach.

MARSALIS:  Well, you’re always in competition with other programs.  Everybody is.  With the exception of whatever those programs are that just automatically get a huge body of people that they just have to say, “Well, we don’t want any more.”  I don’t know if Engineering is like that.  It may not be.  I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a professor at UCLA who teaches composition.  I had one lesson with this guy.  I forgot his name, but anyway, he was telling him that at one time, of his composition students at UCLA, he would get maybe 4 or 5 or 6 who were interested in film scoring.  See, all of them are now.  Every single one of them.  And when you think in terms of what has been happening lately, there is much more of a pronounced emphasis on John Williams, on Howard (?), on even one or two of the Newman family, of which there’s been an abundance in the film scoring world!  So television and movies play an important role in the decisions that people are making, and I think ultimately, the universities haven’t really figured out some of that.  I’m sure some institutions have.  But when it comes down to it… I was reading where Harvard University had a course called (?) that they just got rid of, because there wasn’t anybody taking it.  One of the things that was an assist when I got to UNO is that there were a lot of courses which had been approved through committee, and there was nobody teaching it.  So those numbers were there, and see, a lot of times, man, if you know what they are, you can go and take the number and develop a course without having to go totally through committee.  Because going through committee can sometimes be a hassle.

TP:    So you’d do an end run.

MARSALIS:  It’s kind of like an end run, yeah.

TP:    But at VCU, a number of musicians went through who are making an impact now.

MARSALIS:  Well, there’s only three that I know.  Clarence Penn, Alvester Garnett and Loston Harris.

Victor was teaching math in high school in New Orleans.  He’d been in my group.  I used to tell him, “Vic, if you really want to teach, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but to me it doesn’t make any sense to be teaching at these schools.  You ain’t got no benefits, man.  They could fire you tomorrow!  And you have no recourse whatsoever.  So if you really want to teach, you ought to teach in public school.  At least you’ll get some benefits!”  And when I left to come to VCU, he told me he’d thought about that, and he said, “Man, look, I don’t want to be sorry one day looking back and saying ‘I should have.'” So he split and came up there to work on his Masters.  He really did it in a year, but they wouldn’t let him finish in a year. They made him come back and register for a recital.  Eventually, he started to utilize his saxophone skills in different ways.  He went up to New York and was doing sub work in some of the Broadway type shows. I think at that time “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was running and a couple of other ones.  I remember he told me that when he went up to New York, somebody up there was talking to him at an audition, and the guy said, “Hey, man, do you know how to read?”  And he said at first he got insulted!  “Man, what is this?”  He said after he was around New York for a while, he found out why he was asked that. [LAUGHS] A lot of the musicians up there couldn’t read!

TP:    What would you say you brought to the faculty at VCU that hadn’t been there before?  Did you bring a new attitude, a new way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  I don’t think so.  Because I wasn’t there long enough.

TP:    Three years, right?

MARSALIS:  I was there for three years.  And I’m not sure to what extent that would have been a possibility to do.  Because I came in without the benefit of the kind of experience… Just to give you an example, there’s a guy at Virginia Commonwealth, a trombone player named Tony Garcia.  He edits the “Jazz Educational Journal,” which is the official organ of IAJE.  He sent me an email and asked me if I would be able to come up as part of a program that they are doing, and he outlined some of the things that he was able to do.  This is over the period of one year.  It’s fantastic.  Because what this guy was able to do is nothing short of miraculous.  Well, for one thing, he was instrumental in getting somebody (I don’t know the guy personally) to give 2 million bucks to the jazz program at VCU.  No jazz program has ever gotten that kind of money.  Not in a state institution.  I was the recipient of a million dollar chair.  But when it came down to it, nothing like that.  What it takes to be able to do that is the kind of press-the-flesh…

TP:    You need to have very solid political skills to pull off something like that.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  There’s just an awful lot of things, man, that he was able to hook up.

TP:    The question has more to do with philosophy: Looking back, what would you have done that you didn’t?

MARSALIS:  One of the first things that I realized about Virginia Commonwealth was that being in Richmond meant… There was no music tradition in Richmond.  There was one little small space — I never went to that space — where some of the guys would play.  There was another space that was like a restaurant, but it was bigger.  And every now and then, they would bring somebody in.  But for the most part, the benefits of being in a city that had a history of music, where students who were coming out of high school as well as those who were coming out of the city of Richmond to go to VCU, would have been able either to participate in or just be a spectator of.

When I go to work on Friday nights at Snug Harbor, there’s a live band that’s playing right across the street.  On the corner from there, there’s a place Cafe Brazil, with live music.  Across the street from Cafe Brazil, there’s live music.  Now, we’re not even talking about what might be happening on Bourbon Street.  Then there’s all of these other different places in the area.  On North Rampart Street, there’s three spaces within two blocks of each other, one called Funky Butt, the other one called Donna’s Bar & Grill, which specializes in brass bands, and then a blues joint which the owner of Funky Butt owns.\

Richmond didn’t have that.  So when I looked at that, I started to realize that getting some people to come to Richmond, especially during the ’80s, to study Jazz, was seemingly very difficult.  So I decided that if I was going to stay here, I needed to find a niche, something I can, which would really not only justify being here, but make it a positive musical experience for most of the students.  So I was thinking of concentrating on developing rhythm sections — the piano, bass and drums.  That would mean getting people to come here and trying to specialize in that area.

TP:    Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.

MARSALIS:  Right.  Now, Alvester I met while he was still in high school.  He came to VCU the following year.  So I was there I think a year while he was there.

TP:    I want to step back to your comments about what happened after World War II.  Is what you’re saying, in one sense, that the focus on core curricular values started to deteriorate at this time and it had a deleterious effect on the culture?  You made a very strong statement.  The tone of voice is strong.  The words are strong.  It seems what happened is an important issue to you.

MARSALIS:  I need to be more speculative here than direct, because it’s very difficult to be as close to that and be accurate historically.  What I’m beginning to realize is that we tend to be judgmental about things which are different from the way we grew up.

Anyway, the thing that happened after World War Two was television, for one thing.  And for the first time, here we have an invention which goes right into people’s homes, and within five years, which would put it right around 1950, there were about 10 million sets in the country.  Now, what television managed to do was twofold, at least.  One was to instantly let you know whatever was going on in almost any other part of the world that the networks chose to broadcast. Unlike, for example, “War Of The Worlds” on the radio with Orson Welles in 1939.  I mean, there were people out there in fields in the Midwest with guns waiting to go to war with the Martians.  And America, before World War Two, was not that much different, even going back to the past century.  I mean, there just was not that much of a difference in terms of the way the country was going on.  But as soon as World War Two came in, things like plastics were invented… I wish I knew all of them different inventions.  I remember we got our very first refrigerator in 1941.  Before that, it was the icebox.

TP:    In New Orleans, that was an important thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, it was an important thing everywhere.  Because what it meant was that you could now keep food one or two days longer than you could otherwise.  So many things started to happen.

I think what happened with jazz is that jazz moved closer toward the musical objectives that have been prevalent primarily in European Classical Music.  What I mean is this.  During the time of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Kid Ory, all of these earlier guys, they played music for the sheer entertainment of people.  They played dances, and when they played the blues, it was for people to dance to.  They had cutting contests, but the cutting contest was music played at the level of the audience themselves.  For example, what they would do, they would have these flatbed trucks, and two bands would come. [The ballyhoo.] Whoever won that one, that’s where the people would go to dance.  By the time World War Two came (and I’m using World War Two more as a marker than the cause of anything), you had musicians coming out of the Swing Era with the dance bands, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and various people… The top level of people was one thing, but then there were all of the disciples, if you will, like Sonny Stitt and various other people.  So the emphasis started to be placed on the soloist.  The elements of the music carried over was related directly to the band.

TP:    Max Roach used to say that had something to do with the tax the Federal government started putting on dance…

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re talking about.  That was in Dizzy’s book.  During the war, the government put a war tax of 10% on all venues that had a show.  Now, shows could be anything from juggling to dancing girls… For example, the Cotton Club, where Duke played.  Now, I don’t think the Cotton Club uptown was going on during the war years, because Owney Madden had gone to jail by then.  But anyway, 52nd Street had a lot of these little bitty clubs, and they would put a combo in there.  So with the combo, not having a show, the guys, especially the soldiers and sailors passing through… Ultimately, what you begin to get were bands that played for people who were sitting around the bar.

TP:    Minton’s wasn’t unlike that either.

MARSALIS:  Actually, Minton’s looked like a toilet almost.  There wasn’t nothing happening when I went to Minton’s in the ’50s.  It was in August and there were some bands there, but it was just a big old space.  I think there was a piano in there.  But it was like a lot of joints I’d seen in New Orleans.

Anyway, most of those places were like hustles.  That’s what I called them.  A hustle is when a guy opens up a club, because he either likes people or he’s fortunate to have someone leave him a piece of property, or whatever, and you didn’t really need anything other than connections to get a license and sell some booze.  Because at that time, I don’t know if anybody was dealing with food in these places anyway!  But Prohibition had gone by the wayside by 1933, when Roosevelt came in, so you’re looking at the development of the urban community on all fronts.  At the end of the war, you start to see the suburban community come into effect.  They’re building all of these post World War II houses in these little towns, and selling it, and the veterans is coming back, man, $500 to get you a house… [LAUGHS]

All of this played out in terms of signalling exactly what was going to be happening in America, and the music was no different.  Monk came out of the dance bands, too.  But when Monk started to play Monk, Monk was expressing Monk via his musicality and his intellect.

TP:    [rambling question on the way Monk, Bird, Powell were educated vis-a-vis contemporary musicians]

MARSALIS:  You’re looking in terms of trying to get an analogy between they learned and the way musicians learn today.  For one thing, it’s hard to really nail it down.  For example, on the back of a vinyl album, Willie The Lion Smith made the statement that a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to develop the left hand through learning the music of J.S. Bach.  James P. Johnson was very good classically; he was accompanist for a soprano at that time named Sister Rita Jones. Fats Waller was one heck of an organist.  So there had been all along people studying and learning European music.  Except as we get later and later into the century, we begin to find that schools primarily utilize European music as a discipline criteria to reinforce the attitudes, in some cases cultural, in some cases blatantly racist, and exclude anything else than European concert music in terms of teaching — you develop orchestra, choruses, choirs.  Everything you do centers around practicing and playing European concert music.

So jazz and any folkish music was on the outside.  The bluegrass players were like fiddlers.  Some of them used to have a joke that said, “He was a great fiddle player, but he went to college and learned to become a violinist.”  So the folk music aspect was kind of forsaken.  And jazz really was a folk music.  But the difference between jazz and other types of folk music was that jazz became grist for the mill of composers, even Ravel.  I think we are now beginning to get some composers looking at bluegrass.  Copland did to an extent, but it was all surface with Copland — “Billy The Kid” or “Appalachian Spring” you can hear that influence slightly.  But jazz sort of became a more formal statement of Americana through the development of the instrumentalist.  And when I say “the development,” what I mean is that the process of improvisation was something that was an intellectual development, and it occurred over a period of time with a considerable amount of musicians honing in on it, and it became separate from dance music.  Lester Young came to maturity with a lot of the stuff that he did in the Basie band, which was a dance band.  Woody’s band was a dance band.  Stan Kenton’s band was a dance band.  All of those bands were dance bands.  So the soloists had kind of a minor role.  In the early days, Billie Holiday used to complain about the fact that she had to go up there and sing just half-a-chorus and go back and sit down.  All the rest of those bands, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Eberle…

TP:    Jimmie Lunceford.

MARSALIS:  Definitely.  Lunceford was a straight-up show band.  What I’m saying is that basically the bands were really like dance bands.  Sometimes in colleges they would refer to them as “swing bands.”  When I was in high school they had what they called a swing band. You could go buy arrangements.  There would be stuff like “9:20 Special” or you could get the stuff that Harry James was doing.  You couldn’t get no Duke Ellington, but you might get an arrangement somebody made for a standard band of something that Duke did.  But for the most part, that’s the way it turned out to be.

TP:    One thing a lot of people who passed through the bands note is that they themselves were a training school, like a functional conservatory, in terms of standards upheld and information being passed on.

MARSALIS:  In some cases you would find that.  But for the most part, there were several differences just in terms of who was doing what.  For example, jazz had always been a music that you either already had to know how to play, or you had to have a significant skill on the instrument in order to get it, and you just about learned everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it.  And there were a lot of kids learning because their daddy was a player or some other relative.  I saw that among musicians in New Orleans who were younger than me.  Clyde Kerr. The French brothers, Bob French and George French, the sons of Albert French, who played with Papa Celestin.  Sammy Alcorn, whose daddy, Alvin Alcorn, was a trumpet player.  But invariably, it was always second-class.

TP:    Jazz was second-class.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  It wasn’t like nowadays.  When I read the stuff that was done at Lincoln Center, they have status with the other aspects of Lincoln Center now.  There’s a big building going up, which they have a part of.  We’re speaking about a whole different thing.

TP:    It occurs to me when you say that many of the principles you espouse or the way you teach, in terms of how they got filtered through Wynton, are very much responsible for why Lincoln Center is in the position that it’s in, or what Victor Goines is doing at Juilliard.  So again, what your first principles are would seem to be very significant in the intellectual history of jazz at this moment because of the way they’ve been transmitted and filtered through other people. Maybe you think I’m wrong or overexaggerating, but I don’t think so.  When I hear him speak and hear you speak, I hear a lot of similar thought processes.  His own mind, certainly, but similar thought processes, similar metaphors.  This piece is about you as an educator, but I’m trying to pinpoint what it is about your first principles, the principles you bring to conveying information and the way you’re able to do it that has stuck.  The proof is very much in the pudding here.  We have these facts, these institutions.  This is a tangible change from 1987.  And in 1987, when the Lincoln Center Jazz program started happening, it was a very tangible change from 1974.

MARSALIS:  I think that the whole process is somewhat like America as a nation.  We’re still in the process of evolution.  We’re still evolving.  And I think the same thing is the case for the music.  I think if you would look at the formal aspects of European music, for example, at some point there was a peak which was reached by way of the composer.  And, to some extent, not only by the composer, but the performer.  I mean, Beethoven never heard his music on a Hamburg Steinway.  He would have no idea what that sounded like!  But it didn’t prevent him from writing the kind of music that makes stars out of people who do play on Hamburg Steinways.

So what we’re looking at is a multifaceted kind of thing.  The guy who invented the saxophone, his invention was too late for the European Masters, as they called them.  And the Rhapsody that Debussy wrote… He didn’t even like the saxophone.  Some woman gave him a check for about $500 for a piece, and he delayed as long as he could, and the woman aggravated him to a point to where he finally wrote this rhapsody for saxophone.  Now, there were other French composers who probably didn’t feel the same way about the saxophone.  Probably Ravel, because he wrote saxophone into “Bolero” which played a rather prominent part.  But the thing is, you can’t overlook that also.

So whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy.  Mostly it came by way of a reaction.

TP:    The music and the circumstances were telling you what to do at any given moment, and you were responding.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  And I would begin to do, I imagine, since I haven’t really studied, something similar to what Thomas Edison was doing.  I heard a story that his assistant said they had done about 150-200 experiments, and none of the lightbulbs worked.  Finally he said, “Man, we ought to give up on this, because this thing ain’t workin’!  We ain’t makin’ no progress at all.” And Edison supposedly said, “On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.”  We don’t always think in terms of going to what doesn’t work.  That was one of the things that I started to learn.  For example, I remember one of my colleagues who was teaching instrumental music, he said, “Man, these kids need to learn 25 tunes a semester.”  Well, what are they going to play on those 25 tunes?  Because his expertise in terms of improvisation was really not that strong.  So he didn’t understand that you do practice improvisation, that you do actually do that.  But basically, I didn’t have a philosophy per se.

TP:    But you had first principles.
MARSALIS:  What do you mean?

TP:    You had a set of aesthetic values that governed your responses to these situations, and you had a culture and a milieu from which you emerged to face these situations.

MARSALIS:  Right.  That’s true.

TP:    This is all I’m saying, and it’s one reason why I’m so interesting in hearing you address the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and how you perceive those times vis-a-vis today.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, the situation in the ’40s and a large portion of the ’50s was based on the entertainment side of music.  So jazz did not enjoy an acceptance in any academic sense.  And it’s not that people didn’t study.  I think I told you about this book that’s coming out on Yvonne Bush.  People went to school, and they studied, and the better teachers you had, probably you were most fortunate to have learned whatever you learned.  But when it came down to it, how to apply it was sometimes tied directly to employment opportunity.  I remember listening to stories… See, I had a chance to work with Cab Calloway.  I also had a chance to work with the Judge, Milt Hinton, and I knew Dizzy also.  The Judge would tell me how, during the break between shows somewhere they were playing, Dizzy would say, “Come up on the roof, man,” and he and Dizzy would get together on the stuff Dizzy was working on, and he’d tell him what to play.  Cab told me how… This is a little ancillary story.  They were doing a live broadcast for NBC Radio, and while they were going through the broadcast, Cab got hit in the back of the head with a spitball…

TP:    And it wasn’t Dizzy.

MARSALIS:  No, it wasn’t.

TP:    It might have been Jonah Jones.

MARSALIS:  It was.

TP:    Then they had the knife fight…

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Then Dizzy stuck him in the rear with the knife.  But Cab told me, “Man, the next time I saw Dizzy, Dizzy came through with this arrangement, man, and said, ‘I’m going to try this arrangement; listen to this.'”  So they played it, and Cab said, ‘Man, what is that?'” Dizzy said, “Man, this is the new stuff; this is what’s happening.”  There were all of these people, like Gil Fuller, who was doing some of the writing, and Tadd Dameron.  To some extent, some of these people were also teachers.  For example, John Lewis was a teacher at CCNY.  I think Ron, too.

See, I have several ideas that I have yet to be able to implement.  First of all, I think that the drumset is the most important instrument in the jazz band.  That’s the first thing.  I’ll tell you an example.  I was doing a workshop in North Carolina with the jazz band at a university called Shaw.  It was a pretty good sounding band.  So after they finished playing, I asked the guys in the band, “Can you guys hear the drummer?”  See, a lot of times what happens, nobody takes the time to find out whether or not some of these people in the band can really hear from one end to the next, and unless they’re experienced players, they don’t know to tell the band instructor, “Hey, man, I can’t really hear what this guy is doing over there.”  So I asked them, could they hear the drummer, and they said, “Yeah, we can hear.”  So I said, “Let me ask you something.  When you listen to the drummer, tell me what you hear.”  Do you hear [SOFT ARTICULATED BEATS] or do you hear [UNDIFFERENTIATED BUZZ]?”  They said, “Yeah, that’s what we hear [LATTER].”

So I knew what was wrong with that.  And these were all very serious players.  I’ve done some workshops where guys come in with marching band sticks broke in half, no tips, paper on them.  They’re not even serious.  So I asked the drummer, “Hey, man, what size sticks are you using?”  He said, “I’m using 7A.”  He said, “Well, 7A, man, is a combo stick.  If you’re going to play and kick and a big band, you need at least a 5A, and if you’re going to play with a 5A, when you practice, you need to practice with a 3A, so that you build up to that.”  See, these are some things that I found out later on.

TP:    Very practical.  To help them succeed.

MARSALIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    So you take for granted that they are going to have the fundamentals down through drill.  It’s as though the process of learning music is like learning a trade or an artisanal skill, and then it becomes art through all the permutations to which those skills are applied.

MARSALIS:  Well, you can get into a lot of trouble, man, trying to figure out at what point it becomes art.  That becomes a lot more philosophical than it does realistic. I mean, I listen to cats talk about “the art of hip-hop.”

TP:    But I’m talking about the art of Charlie Parker.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I know.  But, see, that’s where the argument comes from.  Who gets the right to use that word?

TP:    The word “art.”  Do I have the right to use it.

MARSALIS:  Well, everybody has the right to use it.

TP:    But you know what I’m saying.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  But it at some point it may become art, and it may not.  See, that’s the thing.  We don’t really know to what extent it will or won’t become art.

TP:    But you’re not concerned about that when you’re teaching, then.

MARSALIS:  No.  See, what I’m concerned about is whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.  Because it becomes very difficult to start dealing with philosophy.  I think I might have told the story about the guitar player who was doing… When you get students like that, they have not had enough experience dealing with anything of a philosophical nature to start trying to preach “art” in that sense.  In most cases, you get to be lucky if they can play their instrument.  And if they can play their instrument, we just go from there.

TP:    Let me take you to University of New Orleans, so I have the chronology.  You stayed at VCU for three years, and then for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, you move back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, for one reason.  The chancellor came and he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.

TP:    But I guess he didn’t have to hold a gun to your head to get you back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Oh, no!  I still thought that New Orleans was the best place to develop a jazz program.  I think that New Orleans today is still the best learning town in the world!

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because of the various places that exist to ply your trade, to practice.  There are so many different spaces here to play in, so many different kinds of places.  You could play a brass band, you can play in trad bands, you can play in a traditional jazz band, you can play Ska.  There’s all of this stuff.

TP:    You can play in Latin bands now.

MARSALIS:  That’s right!  The people who come from other places to come to New Orleans, they don’t have to concern themselves nearly as much about property.  At one point, guys were going around Soho…well, they weren’t even calling it Soho then…

TP:    You could rent a cold water flat cheap.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, you could get a loft, man.  Now that’s all gone.  New York becomes one of those places that if you go there, you’d better have a gig when you go there, and when the gig runs out, you’d better be ready to go back somewhere else.

TP:    So you’re saying that in New Orleans you can learn music on a major league level without having to shell out $2000 a month for a railroad flat.


TP:    Very practical.  What was the program like at UNO when you got there?

MARSALIS:  There was no program.

TP:    So you actually had to start the program and get it off the ground.

MARSALIS:  There was one guy on the faculty named Charles Blancq.  In fact, he’s got a son who I think is living in New York now, who was at one time teaching at Queens, named Kevin Blancq.  A good little trumpet player and arranger.  Anyway, I knew Charles for years, even when he was a music student at LSU, the club that I had, and all the rest of that… Anyway, the Chancellor asked me to come back to New Orleans, we finally came to terms, and I agreed and went back.  I did one more year at VCU, for the seniors before they left.  So Charles Blancq and I put together a curriculum over the telephone, and that enabled Charles to go to the committee at UNO to get the courses certified for a degree.  Because it was a liberal arts degree.  They were all basic courses.  Because as a freshman going into this university, a good portion of what you took in the first 17 hours was like English, Earth Science, history, just the fundamentals — not music.  You got so many hours for playing in a combo.  It was maybe three or four years before we really got a big band.

TP:    Around ’94 or so?

MARSALIS:  I forget the year.  Maybe even later.  But what I’m saying is that this is where we went to.  Ultimately, we had a series of meetings where we tweaked this or changed that, or tweaked that and changed this, or reorganized that… We knocked it down from 132 hours to 128 hours to graduate.  All the while, putting a major emphasis on performance.  We had to develop ways for evaluation.  Like, when we listened to the guys play, what were we listening to?  A lot of things that we started out with and ultimately changed were concepts we got from the existing wing of the music department, which was the Classical Department. We eventually got permission to do recital hours with just the jazz students.  Also, we were able to get the jury… Most times what you would get would be the faculty for a particular instrument, and the private teacher would come in, and they would talk about the student, and the student would play whatever they were working on.  So we had meetings about that.  We said, “Man, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  What we really need to do is go and listen to the students in the context of what they’re playing, hear them in the combo that they play with.  Because that’s really where they function.”  So we were able to change that.

TP:    Is University of New Orleans part of the State University of Louisiana?

MARSALIS:  Right.  But basically, those are some of the things we were able to do.

TP:    You retired last August.


TP:    Who are some of the students who came through University of New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  There’s a guy in New York right now named David Morgan, a piano player.  He was the first graduate from our program.  There’s a saxophone player who came at the same time he did named Bryce Winston.  There’s a couple piano players — a guy named Josh Paxton, who works down here, and finished in the graduate program.  There’s some people who came and didn’t really stay.  Nicholas Payton came and stayed a semester.  Irvin Mayfield stayed a couple of years.

TP:    Was Peter Martin involved?

MARSALIS:  No.  Peter was teaching, doing adjunct teaching over there.

TP:    Why should people go to school to study jazz?

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t necessarily think they should.  That’s not a statement that I would make.  I think if they really need… Well, let me put it another way.  As I mentioned to you earlier about the concept of being in a state of evolution, there may be a time in the future when going to school to study jazz would be maybe the same thing as going to school to study engineering.  Maybe.  But as it stands right now, jazz as we know it is such a highly individualistic art, until, if you get a good private instructor and you’re around in a situation… I’ll have to say that this excludes pianists.

TP:    Why?

MARSALIS:  Because you can play by yourself.  You can do the Keith Jarrett thing.  But if you are around people who are well enough versed in the style of music that you’re trying to play, then you really don’t need it.  You’ll do better with private instruction and just going out and playing.

TP:    Why should people continue to play jazz?

MARSALIS:  There’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz.  Aside from whatever personal reasons that they bring to it, that the music speaks to you.  Now, I think more and more that the study of jazz, across the board, whether it be as a musician or as a lay person, can help you to better understand America and its relationship to the citizenry as a whole.

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because the music itself reflects the whole of the citizenry, moreso than any other music.  In other words, you can listen to and develop an appreciation for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, but that don’t have nothin’ to do with America!  Neither does any of the other musics developed in that canon.  But if you listen to “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and really get to appreciate what was going on in there, you begin to understand what was going on in the early part of the century in America, and you begin to connect that to the numerous blues players that were wandering across the country during the time when the Depression was on and nobody had any money.  You can connect it in Chicago, where all these blues players were.  That’s basically what I’m saying.

TP:    But how does that pertain to the here-and-now?  It’s an interesting situation.  You have all these skilled jazz players of many different generations, and as far as the broader culture is concerned, even with Lincoln Center and the various institutional stronghold in the universities, it’s just a blip on the consciousness of popular culture.  As an educator and thinker and the father of four extremely accomplished musicians, what do you think playing jazz offers to young people of today?

MARSALIS:  I think in some ways we can look at jazz as a form of glue that keeps American culture centered and provides avenues for research, whether it be formal research or whether it just be chasing down the name of somebody you find and enjoy and seeing what else that person has done.  In the kind of world that we live in now, people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist.  So consequently, a disciplined approach to anything becomes something that’s very much needed in this country.  As I mentioned to you, jazz is the only music that started as a folk music and evolved as a folk music.  Most of the other music that started as folk music, especially the music in the European tradition, started as folk music, stayed folk music, but became an influence on composers — so the composer became the filter.  For which you heard various… “Hungarian Dance #3,” and all the stuff Bartok ripped off from them gypsies.  Well, I won’t say “ripped off.”  But their music was a predominant influence.  But in America, jazz remains a folk music that evolved as a folk music.  And even though you might hear Charlie Parker with Strings, if you were to take that recording and bleep out Charlie Parker, what do you have?  You have some whole note-half note violin players sawing away, and a Mitch Miller solo on oboe.

But for the most part… One of the things that has not yet become a staple is the quintet.  When I say a staple, what I mean is as a course of study, as a recognized ensemble.  For example, if you study classical music, there are several ensembles. String quartet is one.  The symphony orchestra is another.  Then there are various others, brass quintets, brass quartets… Invariably, there are combinations that are not necessarily that standard. But in jazz, it’s the quintet, the tenor saxophone, the trumpet and the rhythm section.  There’s more recordings made with that combination that have yet to really be studied in that context, where you look at it and say, “Okay, this is an ensemble that’s representative of a jazz ensemble of this period.”  Whereas if you go earlier to traditional jazz, especially when it’s New Orleans, what you get is the sextet, with the trombone, cornet and clarinet.  Which was a big influence on Duke.  On “Mood Indigo” that Duke Ellington did, he flipped everything upside-down.  He took the trombone and made the trombone higher, then he took the clarinet and put the clarinet on the bottom, and the trumpet was playing the melody with a mute.

I hear some younger kids today, some kids who play with Jason, and as young as Jason is, he even recognizes that some of these don’t have really any idea about their instrument — about the tenor saxophone.  At one time, there used to be this person who was a tenor saxophone player, and he was recognized as a tenor saxophone player.  Nowadays, some of these guys play the tenor, and there’s no particular reference to that instrument in any particular fashion in terms of what they play.  That is, when you listen to them, you don’t get the feeling, “Well, man, I think he may have listened to Ben Webster” or he might have listened to Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Chu Berry — some of the more well-known tenor saxophone players.

TP:    So that link to the broader narrative thread that runs through the music ceases to exist.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s like writers.  You read a writer and think, “Has he ever read Hemingway?  Has he ever read Faulkner?  Has he ever read Mark Twain?”  I think what is beginning to happen… I clipped an article out of the paper by a local writer who was talking about two people who were at a university in the State of Louisiana in education, and the chairman of the department used to like to take them on junkets to different places — South America, China — talking about education techniques.  As soon as they get a couple of miles away from the university, they were minority kids in dire need of (?) an education techniques, and there was no observation of that at all.  So eventually, this guy and his wife… This guy got to be dean of the school, of the education department, and he and his wife took a year and they went to the furthest corner of Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, and for a year they taught in an elementary school in a rural parish which is extremely poor, and they wrote a book… I don’t know if they did it together or he did.  He taught fourth grade and his wife taught the third graders.  In this book, they talked about the instance that LETA(?), which is what they call the standardized tests in Louisiana… They actually said that it was fraudulent.  I’d never seen anybody say so strongly that this is fraudulent.  I mean, I’ve always thought that.
But when you think in terms of young musicians and jazz musicians, you realize… Like the guitar student I had.  They don’t really know that there is something to know about what it is that they’re doing.  I was working once with a student on “Summertime,” and I said, “Have you ever heard the original rendition of ‘Summertime’?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I got that recording by Miles.”  And I had to explain to him about this aria in an opera called “Porgy and Bess” that was written by George Gershwin.

This is one of the dilemmas that we have.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a very young country.  I often think of America the way that I would about a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him this candy store, and he had nobody to guide him or nothing.  So he just goes into this candy store and, like, proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid.  And ultimately, he has to learn every time he gets a bellyache, if he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die before then, that there’s something to know when you got this place.  It’s not just, “Oh, great, this is mine.”

I think that invariably, the sources of information, as they descend, becomes filtered to a point where there’s very little meaningful information that gets through in terms of any discipline.  And unless it’s popular enough, it doesn’t get through at all.  Just to hear some young guys come up to me in school and say, “Hey, man, what do you think of Hip-Hop and Jazz?”  I cannot think of more of an oxymoron than Hip-Hop and Jazz.  And there are people who defend that.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (#3):

TP:    As I understand it, it would sound like your two cornerstones were Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.

MARSALIS:  Actually, not Bud so much. I got to Bud later.  But Oscar Peterson was the first major influence on piano.  See, the thing about it is, I was primarily a band piano player.  I didn’t study piano the way Oscar and Bud studied piano, so I came into it playing piano in a jazz group and sort of filling in the blanks.  So I didn’t really develop that pianistic philosophy that people develop when the study the instrument, like a Keith Jarrett did, he had all these recitals… You learn to play the piano with the objectives that go along with the history of that instrument.

TP:    With you, it had more to do with the function of playing in bands and combos.  Did you play piano in rhythm-and-blues bands also, or is that something you did more as a tenor player?

MARSALIS:  It was more as a tenor player.  By the time I got out of college, looking back at it, the scene here was changing a lot.  This was in the mid-’50s, and I started practicing and working on learning some pieces… At that time, Clifford and Max was a great influence on us.  Because I was then playing with Edward Blackwell and either Peter Badie or Richard Payne on bass, and Nathaniel Perrilat.  But we never really succeeded in getting a trumpet player to round out the group.  So a lot of times we would play those pieces just quartet-wise.  But it was still essentially like a band thing, because that’s where I was concentrating my energies.

TP:    When did that band with Ed Blackwell begin?

MARSALIS:  It’s really hard to say.  Because it evolved more than it began.  Edward was a cat who always was interested in playing.  He might call me up and say, “Why don’t you come over?”  There was a tenor player named Clarence Thomas, who later became known as Luqman.  He would go over to Edward’s house, and then I’d go over, when I first started trying to put the piano together, and we’d play things and work on stuff.  We didn’t have a bass player.  Eventually, Harold Battiste started writing some original pieces, and we just would get whatever bass player we could find and started playing some of that material.

TP:    This is while you’re at Dillard.

MARSALIS:  And after.

TP:    So it begins around ’52-’53, like that.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’52-’53 was sort of the beginning of the end when it came to the rhythm-and-blues thing with me.  When I look back at it, I realize that the whole rhythm-and-blues concept was changing entirely, and I was not a part of the people who were doing it.  In the earlier years, in the 1940s, see, the rhythm-and-blues catered primarily not only to the singer, but there was a lot of blues being played.  Big Joe Turner was singing blues, Louis Jordan was singing blues, Wynonie Harris… There was a lot of blues singing going on.  So if you were playing in one of those bands, essentially your function was to deal with that in playing blues.  You’d learn a lot of shuffles if you were a piano player or guitar player or drummer in the rhythm section.  There’d be a lot of shuffles going on, and you had to learn that.  If you were a saxophone player, usually that’s who would play the solos.  And if you played the backgrounds, they were usually riffs… It was a rather simplistic kind of thing.  Everything about it was primarily functional.  It wasn’t a band thing, like a string quartet gets together.

TP:    Or a bebop combo.

MARSALIS:  Well, even with those.  The bebop combos got together pretty much the same way.  You had to go out and find somebody who could play the music.  You see, there was no training ground officially where you could learn to play the instrument that emanated from a specific tradition, and that there were formal instructions involved — which is the reason why I mentioned the string quartet.  So this is basically how that whole thing went.  And if you were playing rhythm-and-blues, you were playing rhythm-and-blues because you had a gig.  Pure and simple.  Otherwise than that…

TP:    There would be no reason to play it.

MARSALIS:  Right.  And there was virtually no real opportunity for you to learn it, unless you were actually playing.  The other performance-oriented situation was in the church, and sometimes in the earlier years, if you were playing in the church, it was advisable to conceal the fact that you might be playing elsewhere.  I didn’t have that problem, because I didn’t play in the church.  But for the most part, a study of that period of time in terms of jazz, is a lot more about the communal aspect of the way the musicians lived than it is about any formal study.

TP:    Are you saying that as a general principle, or are you saying that about New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  I’m saying it about New Orleans because I’m from here, and when I talk to other people, essentially it was the same thing where they were.  In other words, there were lots and lots of people who studied music, but there were very little opportunities to really study jazz music.

TP:    Unless you were in New York or Chicago…

MARSALIS:  Even if you were in New York or Chicago.  I mean, you didn’t do that.  I mean, if you were Herbie Hancock, you were playing classical music.  Herbie played with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11 years old.  Or if you could study with Walter Dyett or Major Clark Smith before then.  But if you talk to, for example, Benny Goodman and Milt Hinton, they both went to the same classical music teacher.  Because the Judge was a violinist.  He switched to bass because he couldn’t get no work.

* * *

Ellis Marsalis (WKCR–Out To Lunch) – (8-5-95):

[MUSIC: Ellis/Branford/Tain/Hurst, “L’il Boy Man” (1994); E. Marsalis/R. Brown/B. Higgins, “Swinging At The Haven” (1992)]

TP:    I’d like to start from the beginnings, your musical background.  I gather your family had a place in New Orleans which was a gathering place for musicians, where musicians played, or is this incorrect?

EM:    No.  It makes for wonderful mythology, but it’s really not true!  My father was in business.  He had a motel.  And I succeeded in convincing him (this was after I had gotten out of the Service; I had spent a couple of years in the Marines) to allow me to take the house that we had been living in, and turn it into a club.  Because I had fantasized that operating a club wasn’t really that difficult.  You know, so that I could have the band and play.  Well, I found out that none of that was true, that either you’re going to play music or you’re going to operate a club.  You’re not really going to do both of those and do either of those well.  So I was in business about six months.

TP:    Ooh!

EM:    [LAUGHS] And from that came the last selection, “Swinging At The Haven.”  The Music Haven was the name of the club.  Harold Battiste, who is currently one of my colleagues at the University of New Orleans, had been instrumental in developing AFO Records.  One of their initial jazz projects was to record some of the local musicians, of which I was one, doing some of our own music, and playing jazz as opposed to some of the other things that the label was recording.  They had had a very big success with a recording of Barbara George singing “I Know,” and there were a few other R&B type things that they were doing.  So Harold thought for posterity we should really record these people.  And that boxed set from 1956 to 1966 is the result of Harold Battiste.  Now Harold is slowly reissuing a lot of things on CD.  But it’s still the same old shoestring operation, so he’s got to piecemeal it here and there.  But it’s coming along.

TP:    Did you start playing the piano very young?  And how did you go about it?  Was it lessons, or through the family?  What was your path into the music?

EM:    Well, I started playing the clarinet when I was about 11.  In fact, it was around the same time that I met Alvin.  We were in elementary school.  I started to play tenor saxophone in high school, somewhere around a sophomore, I think, in high school, because the tenor saxophone was the rage instrument for reed players in rhythm-and-blues, and we were playing a lot of rhythm-and-blues in those days.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

EM:    1948, 1949, around that time.  But I was always interested in jazz.  I had had the chance to hear the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1949 in the spring, the one where he was doing “Things To Come” and “That’s Earl, Brother” and “52nd Street Theme,” I mean, that screaming, brand-new Bebop that was coming on the scene.  And man, that whole experience really just took me out.

TP:    They came through New Orleans.

EM:    Yeah, they came through New Orleans.  And it was really… I can’t really describe it.  I had a chance to talk with Diz about that.  But it was really a tremendous experience.  Because I knew when I heard that band that this was really what I wanted to do.  Man, that was it, what those guys were doing on that stage.  I was about 14 or 15 then.  I had started piano lessons, but I was not that serious about it.  I just liked to play.  But I was mostly concentrating on tenor saxophone.  So when I got out of high school and decided to go to college, I decided to be a music major.

I had been studying with a really great piano teacher.  Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to or you were learning from someone who was either in your family, or a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, Stride or what have — or you just studied with a piano teacher, and the piano teachers was basically just teaching European music, formal approaches to European music.  The other two I didn’t have.  I wasn’t playing in the church, which is to my regret, and I didn’t know anybody who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view.  So I gravitated towards the two areas that were closest to me, Rhythm-and-Blues, tenor saxophone playing, and Jazz.

There was not as much of a line drawn… Well, what I mean is, the difference between Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues was extremely narrow at that time, because most of the same people that was playing, Sonny Stitt… Charlie Parker had been with Jay McShann’s band.  I don’t know, but I think Monk somehow avoided all of that.  I don’t know if there’s any record of Monk ever playing in that idiom.  Maybe so.

TP:    I think he traveled with some traveling preachers in the Carolinas in his teens, but after that I don’t think so.

EM:    Yeah.  But for the most part, that’s what I gravitated towards.  And the solos at that time were basically influenced by religious music and secular music, which were sort of like opposite sides of the same coin.  I was living in what was then a racially segregated society, so it became inclusive.  The experience was all-inclusive in terms of economics, in terms of social interaction, in terms of education.  All of that was basically within the American-African community.  So we would play music that was reflected… We sort of bounced off of each other.

And the newer recordings of… Well, the recordings of the new music, which would be called Bebop, was coming out at least on a monthly basis, and they were all like 78 records.  So you would go the record store, and there was sort of like a phone chain.  There was a lady in the record store, I can’t think of her name, but anyway, she would call a couple of people; you know, I’ve got a new record in by Charlie Parker or Miles or whoever it was.  And we would, in turn, call people and say, “Hey, there’s some new stuff in,” and we’d go down to the record shop.  It was a place called the Bop Shop, and we would go down and listen to it and buy it, and then start working on the solos.

That was an integral part of the learning process.  It was not within the context of the system.  The schools were not amenable to that at all.  So…

TP:    Was there any jazz in your high school band at all, or was it all marching band and brass orchestra type music?

EM:    It was mostly marching band, John Philip Souza marches, (?)Ed Bagley(?) marches.  And there was a group in one high school that I went to that was what you call a swing band.  Now, the swing band played those stock arrangements.  There was stock arrangements, like “9:20 Special” and Harry James’ “Back-Beat Boogie” and most of that.  But there was nowhere to really get at the whole idea of soloing.  Because unless you could figure it out for yourself, there was nobody there to do it.  And even the swing bands were sort of tolerated.  It wasn’t something that the music teachers looked upon with great favor.

However, New Orleans was a little different (I have to say a little different, because I don’t know about the rest of the country) in that there were several music teachers who were jazz players in previous generations.  Some of the older guys were teachers.  So if you happened to be fortunate to get one of those… It reminds me of what Eddie Harris used to tell me about Walter Dyett, and a lot of people talked about him in Chicago.  And there was another band teacher in Chicago that Milt Hinton used to talk about…

TP:    Clark Smith, Major Smith, who had the Chicago Defender band.

EM:    Yes.  So as time went on, we began to get less and less of the kinds of fundamentals that produced the level of musicianship that was being produced at that time, especially within the context of a jazz idiom.  Invariably what would happen, you would begin to get people who would study the more formal approaches to European music, and then try and figure out how to make those application, people like Phineas Newborn — and Charles Lloyd, too.  When I met Charles Lloyd, Charles was at USC.  I think he was a freshman at USC, and I was in the Marine Corps.

But that was basically what I had done, was to kind of piecemeal some things, and become a music major at Dillard University.  Which was very standard.

TP:    Describe the music scene in New Orleans when you were a teenager, and going into college.  Were you doing little gigs when you were playing the saxophone and clarinet in high school, for instance?  And what kind of gigs would they be?

EM:    Oh, yeah, we were still playing some dances.  The YWCA was one of the places that we would play dances.  And different schools.  We would go to a lot of different high schools and just play dances with the local R&B pieces, “Blues For The Red Bar,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Roy Brown’s piece, Joe Liggins’ stuff, all of the people who was doing the dance music of the day.  What Jazz there was going on, I didn’t know anything about at all.  Especially the Trad, especially traditional jazz, I didn’t know anything about that.

TP:    You weren’t involved in the Second Line in any way as a kid?

EM:    Not as a kid, no.  I didn’t know anything about that.  So eventually, what I would start to do in the high school was play those rhythm-and-blues solos.  Because I could hear those.  Also it was an interesting thing, if you could play the dance music of the day, then you could get the attention of some girls, you see!  Because I was too small for football, too slow for track, too slow for basketball — and there was no future in that in those days anyway.  So when I realized that I could learn these solos, then I said, “Oh, okay, this will work!”  So I started concentrating on some of that.  Eventually, I would get real serious about jazz, and then found out that nobody wanted to hear that!  But by then, you’re stuck, like a habit.

TP:    Who were the pianists whose solos you were emulating once you started getting more serious about Jazz and more advanced?

EM:    Actually, you know, it’s funny.  I never did transcribe any solos at all.  I listened to Oscar Peterson a lot.  But for some reason, I never did really try to play those.  I’m not sure what it was.  I mean, I would always try and play whatever I heard.  But the transcription was not something that I was doing on piano.

Now, when I first started trying to play the solos on saxophone, I remember there was a recording of Charlie Parker, “Parker’s Mood,” and I tried to play all the solos on there on tenor saxophone, John Lewis’s solo on piano and Charlie Parker’s solo — but there was a lot of Charlie Parker’s solo that I couldn’t get!  All of those recordings were really short then.  You know, this was long before Trane started making those LP’s.  In fact, they didn’t even have LP’s at the time!

So I started essentially like that.  Eventually, when I was old enough to go to the local nightclubs…

TP:    Who was playing in the nightclubs then?

EM:    Well, most of the local musicians.

TP:    Name some names.

EM:    There was one club called the Dew Drop Inn which was sort of the anchor club, if you will, in the American-African community.  Lee Allen would play there; he would eventually make all of those recordings with Fats Domino.  A lot of times that scene was more a matter of a show.  That is, the club-owner would put together a band.  He’d get a bass player, then a piano player and a drummer, and maybe get a singer.  There was one female named Bea Booker who used to sing there, and there were some other singers, but I never did work with them at the time.  I think Anna Laurie and Paul Gayton, and I think Dave Bartholomew used to play (he was a trumpet player).

But by the time I came on the scene, some of those people were no longer working in that establishment.  And then a lot of us started to work there.  When I say “us,” I mean a lot of younger guys who would comprise the sidemen in the band, being the piano player or what have you.  We would play behind the strip dancers, local singers.  Every now and then somebody may come from out of town.  But a lot of times when they did, they would get the better players — of which I was not one!

TP:    Who were considered to be the better players?

EM:    Wow, let me think.  There was a drummer there named Earl Palmer, who is now on the West Coast.

TP:    He played with Ray Charles for many years.

EM:    Who, Earl?

TP:    Oh, I’m incorrect.  Excuse me.

EM:    No, not Ray.  The drummer from New Orleans who did play with Ray Charles… Edward Blackwell did for a very brief period of time.  But Wilbur Hogan played with Ray Charles’ band.  In fact, that was the very first time that I ever heard Ray Charles, was at the club, the Dew Drop Inn.  They had a jam session, and I was playing saxophone at the time, and a local trumpet player named Raynell(?) Richards, who was in his band… Ray was playing piano, and I mean, this guy was burnin’!  And I knew just about all of the piano players who could play.  I knew who they were.  And I asked the trumpet player, “Who is that?”  He said, “Oh, that’s this guy, Ray Charles.”  I said, “Where is he from?”  “Oh, he’s out of Florida.”

But basically, it would be a matter of choice among some of the singers as to who they liked.  There were some piano players who were better suited for some songs, and they would also make a lot of gigs with some of those people.  And I wasn’t really making a lot of gigs, because I was still in school.  I remember there was a group in New Orleans that was called the Johnson Brothers, which was Raymond Johnson and Plas Johnson.  Plas left to go to California, and Raymond asked me to join the band — and my father said no!  So that opportunity passed me by.  And by me being in school over an extended period of time, I was always maybe just playing on the weekends or whenever I could.

TP:    Two of the musicians you’re best known for having worked with regularly in those early years are Alvin Batiste and Edward Blackwell, and according to the books, Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans for a while and you were going through musical adventures with him.  Can you talk about that?

EM:    I didn’t know Ornette in New Orleans.  I didn’t know that at all.  Melvin Lastie I think knew Ornette.  I didn’t meet Ornette until 1956, when I went out to California and Harold Battiste.  The three of us went out there.  I had just graduated, and was really not doing much of anything.  Actually, it was the summer of 1955, really.  So I decided, “Well, I’m going out to California.”  Basically, that was when I met Ornette, because Ornette had sent for Blackwell to come back out and start trying to do some work with him.

TP:    Tell me about the young Ed Blackwell.  Were you involved with him in any way as a youngster, or did that start a little later, too?

EM:    Well, no, he was a little older than I was.  I met Ed Blackwell basically the same way I was telling you about the other situation.  Whenever he couldn’t get the better piano players, he’d call me up!  I remember the first time I went over to his house, he was living Uptown in New Orleans on Danille(?) Street.  He was living with his sister I think.  And he had his drum set out.  And it was the most melodic set of drums I’d ever heard, but then at that time I hadn’t heard that much anyway.  He was the first drummer that I ever heard play a drum solo on a ballad, and it made perfect sense!

There was a saxophone player, I think his name was Clarence Thomas.  He was up in New York; I think he was going by the name of Luqman.  But anyway, the three of us was at Edward’s house one day, and we were playing.  It was the first time that I had ever been over there.  And it was a captivating moment for me, because we started to play with some degree of consistency… I have to say some degree of consistency, because there was not that much employment around for what we were trying to do.  So we would play whenever we could.

There were two guys in the city of New Orleans named Al Smith and Clarence Davis.  They used to rent the spaces, and then hire jazz groups.  And they’d hire us, too, to play.  Clarence Davis had been a drummer with Dave Bartholomew’s band, and Al Smith was really trying to play the drums.  So they had something like Al and Beau Productions, I guess you would call it, and they would rent spaces on holidays, you know, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, which was one way of hedging your bet.  And we would go out and play, and people would come out.  That was some of the few times that we really had a job as a whole quintet.

TP:    Let’s hear the reconfigured American Jazz Quintet at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, which was hooked up by Rob Gibson from Jazz at Lincoln Center.  The proceedings were documented on Black Saint Records, FroM Bad To Badder.  We’ll hear a trio track on that featuring Ellis Marsalis, Richard Payne and Ed Blackwell, a composition called “Nostalgia Suite.”  Any comments?

EM:    Actually, I’m not sure what that is right now.  When we did it, I think “Nostalgia Suite” was a fancy name for what we used to call medleys!

[MUSIC: “Nostalgia Suite” (1987); AJQ, “Chatterbox” (1956); EM/Branford/Wynton/J. Black, “Nostalgic Impressions” (1982)]

TP:    Was the bassist on “Chatterbox” William Swanson or Richard Payne?  I don’t have it right before me.

EM:    I’m not altogether sure.  Swanson came in town with the Billy Williams band, and we started just jamming.  Because he liked to play with us.  It was just about that time… When I say “that time,” I mean, it was somewhere close to December.  Because we went into the studio and did this just before I went in the Service, and Swanson was still in town at the time, and Harold used him on a couple of selections.  But I’m not sure exactly which ones right now.

TP:    Blackwell was the drummer, though, and we can hear, just from the evidence in that, that his sound was all there back in 1956.

EM:    Oh, yeah.


TP:    On our last conversational segment, we took you out to the West Coast.  What was your Army experience like?  Was it a time when you were able to do a lot of playing?  Were you in the Army as a musician or were you in the line?

EM:    Well, I was in the Marine Corps, which first of all meant that I had to do the basic training.  It was between conflicts, that is, I went in just after Korea had ceased, and it was before Vietnam.  So I wasn’t involved in combat.  Most of the time that I spent on the West Coast was really due to the fact that I was in the Marines at the time.  I did go out earlier at the time that I went out with Harold and Edward, but I only stayed a couple of months, and then I came back home.  Because at that time, the military was still conscripting and I had gotten the notification to report to the draft board.  In fact, I’ve often thought about how it was a lot like Caesar said, everybody should go home to be taxed.  Well, you had to go home to be drafted into the Service!

I volunteered for the draft, which is what that was called, and they sent me back to California.  So I ended up doing basic training at MRCD in San Diego, and was sent to the air base at El Toro, which is in Santa Ana.  So I was able to drive into Los Angeles quite frequently.

TP:    Moving up in a totally disjointed way here, we heard James Black, and I’d like you to talk about some of the musicians you worked with after returning from the Service in the early Sixties in New Orleans, like James Black and Nat Perillat.

EM:    Well, when I got out of the Service, I went back to New Orleans, and Edward Blackwell was playing a trio gig at a place called the Jazz Room in the French Quarter.  I went to hear him play one night, and the piano player… On the night that I went, the piano player got into a dispute of some sort with the owner, and he came back to the bandstand after the break was over and started the song, played his solo, and got up when the bass player started playing a solo — and left!  And the bass player and Edward Blackwell were playing, and it took a minute before they realized that he wasn’t coming back!  So to make a long story short, the owner asked me did I want a gig.  I had just got out the Service, and I said, “Yeah, definitely.”  So that was how I got on that gig.  I stayed on it for about six months, and  it ended up going the way that the other piano player went, except I got fired instead! [LAUGHS]

But for the most part, that first band was with a bass player named Otis Duvirgney(?) and Edward Blackwell.  Durvirgney(?) was an interesting bass player.  He was sort of like a self-taught bass player.  I mean, he had the strongest groove — swing you to death.  But it was difficult to record, because his technique…the notes weren’t really true, and the microphones would pick up a lot of that.  But it was a great feeling to play with Otis.  Eventually I think he left and moved over to the Coast, around Biloxi, and we started working with another bass player named Peter Beatty, Chuck Beatty, who had played some time with Lionel Hampton’s band and different groups.

We tried to get Nat Perillat on the gig so we’d have a quartet, and we succeeded in doing that for the most part.  It was always hard to get club-owners to go beyond a trio, because with the trio being a complete band, they couldn’t see justifying the expense.  So we were able to get Nat on the gig for the most part… In fact, now that I remember it, I think Nat outlasted me on that job.

TP:    Talk a little bit about his sound and style and approach to music.

EM:    Nat didn’t have a big tenor sound.  It wasn’t thin either.  But he wasn’t a tenor player in the tradition of what has become known as the Texas tenor, like Arnett Cobb and a lot of those saxophone players that came out of Texas.  But Nat was a diligent musician that practiced for extensive periods of time.  His facility was flawless.  In fact, one of the best examples of Nat Perillat is on that album that we made in 1963 (which is on From 1956 to 1966) where he played on “Yesterdays.”  I mean, he played a solo on “Yesterdays” that sounded as good as anything anybody’s playing now.  He and Alvin were both practice practitioners extraordinaire.  I mean, it was nothing for them to practice seven-eight-nine hours a day, every day.

I was never that kind of a practicer.  I mean, I could practice long enough to get some things that I needed together.  But my discipline wasn’t substantial to practice that amount of hours!

TP:    You were creating a lot of original music at that time as well, and the music was quite substantial, as evidenced by the recent release Whistle Stop where you recapitulate a lot of compositions from thirty years ago that sound totally fresh and contemporary.

EM:    Well, a lot of that was James Black, too.  Because James…!  He had a genius about music that didn’t pervade his whole life; but musically James had a concept which was unique, to say the least.  I’m really sorry that he didn’t pull a lot of other things together which would have permitted him to have document his music, and wrote and recorded even more.

TP:    Talk a little bit about the particulars of his sound that made him so distinctive.

EM:    Well, James was also a guy who could sit down and play a paradiddle for a solid hour on a snare drum to get his technique flawless.  And his cymbal sound… He had a clean attack, the definition of his cymbal.  See, when we talk about definition, a lot of times you hear guys going, DING-TING-A-DING, TING-A-DING.  Well, if the definition isn’t there, you usually get that TINKATENGADDDDD…you just get a hint at that whole thing.  Because each stroke, each attack and release on that cymbal has not been developed with the particular technique that is needed for it to be clear.  And James was a master at all facets of playing each one of the drums, whether it’s floor tom, mounted tom, bass drum, ride cymbals, sock cymbals.  He had studied it to that extent, and was meticulous about it.

Edward Blackwell, for example, was more of a Max Roach drummer.  And when I say a Max Roach drummer, his major influence was Max in terms of the way he set up his phrases, his early ideas.  Eventually, Edward would evolve into being his own person, playing some of the music of Ornette Coleman and also studying some music of West Africa, which came as a result of some jobs that he played with Randy Weston — because he played with Randy, I think, a lot, and had been over in Rabat in Morocco.  So he had a lot of those influences.  And he was a true percussionist in the absolute sense of the word.

Whereas James Black, he had played solo trumpet in the concert band in the university, he played guitar, he could play piano, he could write — I mean, he was a more comprehensive musician.  But drums was… I remember Harold Battiste made a statement which was appropriate about James Black.  He said whenever he thought about James Black, he never thought of him as a drummer; he just thought that drums was one other thing that James could do.  It was, for the most part, his instrument of choice.  He had the best time sense of anybody that I ever played with.

TP:    Did you mutually influence each other’s ideas and writing?

EM:    Oh, I’m sure that occurred.  I know he used to tell me about various… In fact, this tune “After” was influenced by at least one chord I got from him.  Because he used to tell me about things that he got from me playing piano.  But it’s very hard to talk about your influence on somebody else, because that has to come from them.  I mean, sometimes you can listen to it and you can say “Oh yeah.”  But then you’d have to be really aware of where you are, because your things also came from being influenced by somebody else, so you can’t always be sure if that person is influenced by you or by the person who influenced you!  It never comes at you, usually, in an absolute way.  It usually comes somewhat almost like a point of view.  So that when you hear it, if they don’t say, “Well, you know, I took this right here that I got from you and then I did this with it,” sometimes you won’t even notice it.

[MUSIC: EM w/Branford… “A Moment Alone” (1994); Marsalis/ Black/Perillat, “Monkey Puzzle” (1963)]

TP:    While “A Moment Alone” was playing, you said you liked the way your son played on that particular track, and indeed, on this recording he plays all of the music with great subtlety, nuance, swing and a great sound as well.

EM:    Branford has an unusual gift, that is, to be able to play in any idiom.  I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is.  I have a tape of him doing I think it was the Jacques Ibert(?) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra!  And he plays, as you know, the latest Funk licks and Hip-Hop, and he’s got two or three albums that I hope will be released where he did a live concert with he and Jeff Watts and Bob Hurst as a trio, Jazz recordings that is really out there!  So it doesn’t really make much difference to him what the music situation is.

And the most difficult thing I think there is in any kind of music is to really be able to play slow.  That is… I mean, a lot of people are impressed with virtuosity and speed and agility.  But believe me, to be lyrical and play slow is very difficult.  And to some extent, I think that there are people for whom that’s a gift.  Even if it’s a gift, you still have to work about it.

TP:    Well, I don’t think we can allow you to speak about one of your sons without mentioning the other three that I know of that play music.  So I’m sorry to do this, but a few words about the qualities of each of your very strong and individual sons.

EM:    Well, the thing of it is that all four of them are really great musicians.  They bring different things in their personalities to the music.

Wynton is likewise comfortable in any idiom.  He chooses not to be involved in some Pop idioms, which doesn’t mean that he couldn’t do it — it just means that that’s what he chooses not to do.  His contributions to the history of the trumpet, as far as European music is concerned, is already documented.  There’s any number of recordings that you could get to hear that.

Delfeayo is kind of a late bloomer performance-wise, because he spent a lot of time with production.  And he’s been playing with Elvin Jones lately, which means that the more that he begins to play in a setting like that, the better he will get at it.  And he’s a real good writer.  His album Pontius Pilate’s Decision was very well crafted and well constructed in terms of arranging.

Jason is probably the most amazing.  I think Jason probably has more natural talent than all of us combined.  It’s going to be enjoyable to watch him develop, because he chose the most unlikely instrument for his ability; his ability to hear pitch as accurately as he hears it.  And then to choose the drums… Of course, that is the instrument of choice now.  I have no way of knowing what he will do at some future time, see.  But he has a very strong interest in percussion, and he says that he wants to write for percussion.  He’s got a stack of original songs that he’s written for his own band even now.  But he’s one of those kinds of people that will not be confined to the arbitrary lines of music that are drawn up.

See, we’re moving more and more towards a real concept of what is called world music.  World music can mean a lot of different things.  But I think that with technology being what it is today and what it promises to be in the future, being exposed to as many different kinds of instruments, instrument concepts, performers, cultures and all of that, we can begin to find these other influences being a standard part of various composers.  There are some composers that I have had an opportunity to hear… I can’t even remember the name of it.  There was a clarinet conference at the Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was on the faculty there for three years.  And the last year that I was there, there was a clarinet conference in which some new music, that is, music say since 1980, was being performed for various combinations — piano trio, piano-clarinet-violin.  And some of the composers’ techniques for clarinet were right out of the jazz book, but they were all written in the context of the piece itself, and all of the players were totally European-trained and European performers…I mean, the music was European.  So it wasn’t a case of getting a jazz player to come to do it.  And it’s coming to be more and more a part of the compositional techniques of various composers.  I’m not sure if it would even be limited to American composers, even though it’s largely American music that they’re drawing from.

TP:    We’ve been speaking with Ellis Marsalis, and he has to meet his car, so we have to say so long.  There are many other things we could discuss.  His teaching activities in New Orleans over the last twenty-five years, and the many musicians who highlight today’s stages around the world who began under his tutelage.  We could talk about his ideas about the distinctive New Orleanian quality of music, but he’s grimacing, so I’m glad we didn’t time to ask him that.  And many, many other things, but he has to catch his car.  We’ll send Mr. Marsalis off with a selection from the most release, Joe Cool’s Blues, which seems to have been co-marketed with the producers of Peanuts.

EM:    You know, it’s difficult to talk about this project because it didn’t all come under one roof.  I was in New Orleans, and I think Delfeayo produced it, and Delfeayo asked me to come into the studio and record some of the Peanuts music.  I worked on it, and we recorded it.  A pianist who works with Delfeayo, Victor Atkins, was asked to do some arrangements. and one of the arrangements that he did was on “Little Birdie.”  Well, we had laid a track down for “Little Birdie” from which the arrangements by way of Victor, and the vocalist, Germaine Bazile, came in later and sang that.  Eventually, when I did hear the whole thing, Wynton’s group, the things that they were playing, I heard later on.  Some of it came from the show that the Peanuts characters did on the Wright Brothers!  It was such a potpourri of things until it didn’t seem like a project to me.  Because I was sort of like one of the chessmen in the game!  So I never really got a whole feeling of this… For example, when I did the recording with Wynton on Standards, Volume 3, The Resolution of Romance, that was a complete project that went from beginning to fruition with everybody that was involved.  But this was piecemealed in such a way that I didn’t get a real holistic feel of it.

TP:    Nonetheless, I don’t think the listeners will really be able to tell that…

EM:    Nor do they care!

TP:    We also haven’t had a chance to talk about your brief career as a football coach.

EM:    Where did you hear about that?

TP:    Your son told us about that about a year-and-a-half ago.  He said they almost won the game also.

EM:    [LAUGHS] Believe me, it would definitely take some time to go into that.

* * *

Ellis & Jason Marsalis (WKCR, 1-16-97):

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, have you performed in New York with Bill Huntington before?

EM:    I performed with him, but it wasn’t in a club scene.  It was in a university.  I can’t remember exactly what the event was.  I can’t remember what university even.

TP:    You’ve been playing with him for a long time, though.

EM:    Well, I usually think of it in terms of, I’ve been playing with Bill for as long as the State of Louisiana’s laws would permit me to do so — since 1964.

TP:    So it must be very nice to come here and play with someone who breathes alongside you, as it were.

EM:    Yeah, it is.  It’s quite interesting, because the latest musical endeavors have always been with younger people.  I think there’s a positive side to that, but there’s a difference in terms of… I remember I was listening to Frank Morgan play, and at the end of his performance I said to him, “Man, I had almost forgotten what that sounded like.”  Because most of the guys that I had been playing with were youngsters.  And it doesn’t take anything away from them.  It’s just that there’s something about age… I guess in a way it’s sort of like vintage wine.  There’s something about the age and the seasoning of a player that’s just different from the talent and the exuberance of a younger player.

TP:    In a certain way perhaps, the frequency with which you play with younger players has to do with your considerable reputation as a teacher of the music and someone who communicates its fundamentals to young musicians.  I’m sure this must have been the case with you, Jason, coming up.  I recollect seeing you play in the Jazz Heritage Festival when you were 12 years old; I don’t remember exactly which year.  How old were you when the drums became your overriding interest.

JM:    Well, it depends.  When you say overriding, I guess age 13 was about when that happened.  But the first instrument I played was not the drums, but the violin.  How exactly did I get started on that?  Was that your idea?

EM:    Well, it was a Saturday afternoon program at a public school about six or seven blocks away from the house.  This was part of the Suzuki program.  They had 35 violins, and the first 35 people could get a violin for their kid for the cost of the insurance, which was 10 bucks a year.  I said, “Wow, I can’t beat that deal!”  So I made sure I was one of the first 35 people.  Jason probably was 6, 5, somewhere around that age, which is sort of typical of when younger players start in that Suzuki program.  He stayed with the violin until we went to Richmond, Virginia, for three years — I was on the faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth.  When we came back in 1989, that was the end of the violin.

EM:    Richmond was the reason for that, though.

TP:    You couldn’t find a good teacher there?

JM:    Oh, no-no.  There were good teachers in Richmond, Virginia.  That was not the problem.  What happened was, is I had always played in student orchestras in New Orleans for a long time, and when I got to Richmond, Virginia, it was the same kind of thing except in Richmond they called it the Sinfonietta, the Junior Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra or whatever.  Well, in sixth grade, I believe it was… I was in sixth grade in school, about 12 years old, and I was in the Junior Youth Orchestra at this point, and this was the first orchestra I played with that had a percussion section.  It had a percussion section with a timpani and snare drum.  I had never played with an orchestra that had a section like that.  When I first got there, I was upset.  I was like, “They have a percussion section?  Why am I over there?  This isn’t fair!” [LAUGHS] Then a year later, when I got back to New Orleans I said, “No, I want to pursue percussion a little bit further.  Violin is nice, but that’s not really what I want to do.”

TP:    How long had the drums been part of what you were doing?  I gather you’d been playing drums all along.

JM:    Yes.  I had started drums at age 6, a year after the violin.  I used to sit in on gigs with my father, played just off and on.  It wasn’t really an everyday sort of thing.  That didn’t really start until I was 12 or 12, when I became more serious about the drums and it became a more ongoing thing.

TP:    Was it something you were just picking up by yourself?  What kind of instruction did you have when you were 6-7-8 years old?

JM:    The first drum lessons I had were from James Black.  I was about 7 years old.  I was a kid.

TP:    That’s quite a teacher.

JM:    Oh, definitely.  I was fortunate enough to study under him.

TP:    The last time I interviewed your father he made an interesting comparison between two of the drummers he was involved with, James Black and Ed Blackwell.  Encapsulate the style of James Black and what made him so special as a drummer.

JM:    Well, the thing about James Black is that he was more than a drummer.  He was a musician.  To my knowledge, he played trumpet and guitar besides drums.  Also he was a great composer.  He had written a lot of great, challenging music.  I mean, he had written music that involves odd meters, which is something a lot of drummers do.  I notice drummers always write tunes in 5/4 meters, 7/4 meters, and he was a drummer that did that.  James Black also I guess you could say always was looking forward.  He had a knowledge of the history of the music, but he was always one to look forward from what was happening in the music at the time.  Whether it was happening in the ’60s or ’70s, he was always looking forward.

TP:    There was a real flow to his music also.

JM:    Oh yes.

TP:    It would be in an odd meter, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear that first off.

JM:    Oh, no. [LAUGHS] Not the way it was being played.

TP:    Ellis, what was your first contact with James Black as far back as you can recollect, and what were the circumstances when you began playing together?

EM:    James was a few years younger than I was.  I had really been introduced to drum concepts in a small group setting by Edward Blackwell, who was really a Max Roach style drummer.  It was through Edward that I first began to hear drums.  By “hear drums” what I mean is that Edward would play solos very musically.  See, you can play drum solos that are rudimental, which is almost like marches, and you just have a little signal at the end of your rudimental playing, and everybody comes back in.  But Blackwell, following the path of Max Roach, would play in the form of the songs and play phrases that were like horns.  So I had to learn to hear those kind of phrases.  Blackwell was the very first person that I heard do that.

In 1960 Blackwell moved to New York, and we didn’t have anybody who was going to step in the shoes of Edward Blackwell!  There were a few drummers at home.  Nathaniel Perillat, the saxophonist, and I tried a couple of guys, and they were okay.  Then Nat Perillat told me about this kid, James Black, who was at the time I think a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge.  Nat had been going up there playing jobs, and he said, “Man, we ought to try this guy.”  So we tried James.  At first it was that typical energy kind of thing. but as James began to settle in with the group, especially whenever we got a chance to play quartet, the whole jazz scenario became like his world.  Because all he really needed was an avenue to express the abilities that he had.  So he was able to write, because he knew whatever it was he wrote, there were some musicians who could play it.

We had different assorted engagements.  Because there was really not a scene, so to speak, in New Orleans for Modern Jazz.  We did a stint at the Playboy Club for a while, and we lost that job because… See, we were hired to accompany all of the Black artists, singers that were coming into the Playboy Club, and because of segregation, when they stopped coming we didn’t have a job.  That lasted about three months.  Then we would play wherever we could, a club here, a club there, about two or three months here, a couple of jobs there.  Finally, we sort of went in different directions.  Because the ’60s were a little different.  James left I think to go with Lionel Hampton.  He came to New York and played, I think, with Horace Silver for a while, joined Lionel Hampton, he recorded with Yusef Lateef.

TP:    Live at Pep’s, I think.

EM:    Yes, and there’s also an album called Psychomosis, Psycho-something that I think he’s on.  In fact, Yusef recorded the “Magnolia Triangle.”

Eventually James came back to New Orleans, and we started to play again wherever we could.  We played off and on together I guess until just about the time I left to go to Richmond.

TP:    Jason, when did you begin studying individual drummers in terms of styles and the different approaches they took, the different voices of trap drummers — and who were they?

JM:    Very good question.  That didn’t start until I’d just moved back to New Orleans, like Eighth or Ninth Grade.  That’s when I started looking at individual drummers.  I had always heard drummers.  I’d heard Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, but I hadn’t really studied them.  Around this time I started studying them, and the first drummer I started studying was Jeff “Tain” Watts.  His style with all the polyrhythms he’d be playing and just his powerful sort of style attracted me.  He was the first drummer that I really emulated, copy solos and so on.  A lot of my earlier playing was really influenced by him.

Then after a while I wanted to branch out and deal with the history, like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, like I mentioned earlier.  I decided that I wanted to investigate what these drummers were playing, and I did that for a while.

Then after a while I started investigating drummers like Ed Blackwell.  My Dad would drop me off to school and whatever, and on the way we’d listen to the jazz radio.  There would be some mornings when Ed Blackwell’s drumming would be on the radio, and I’d think, “Man, this is interesting; I’ve never really checked him out; I’m going to have to investigate his playing.”  But the unfortunate thing is, a month later, the next thing I know, he was dead.

TP:    What were the qualities of Blackwell’s style that were so appealing to you and struck you so singularly?

JM:    Well, the first recordings that I started really getting into that he wason was the music of Ornette Coleman.  What I thought was so interesting was his sound.  It was a really clear sound.  Also it had an African quality to it that’s kind of hard to explain.  That’s one of the things that my older brother Wynton was always telling me about.  He said, “Man, check Ed Blackwell out.  He has that African sound in him.”

TP:    Let’s explore that a bit.  How would you define that aspect of his sound?

JM:    Well, Ed Blackwell, from what I know, was really into African music and the African drums.  Pretty recently I’ve been listening to some African percussion, a percussion group from New Guinea.  The rhythms of that music are interesting enough, but there’s a quality about the sound, a very pure, very natural kind of sound, and that’s sort of how Blackwell sounded — it was very pure, very natural, very deep.  I think the way that he would play syncopations was a little different, too, the way he would play on the downbeat.  But that natural, pure sound in his playing was what was really interesting.

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers you’ve gone into and analyzed in depth?

JM:    Another drummer, also by the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis, was a drummer who played with Thelonious Monk by the name of Frankie Dunlop.  When I started getting into him, one of the first things that attracted me was his getting into the beat, so to speak.  Most drummers usually have a set way that they play, a routine way of playing.  But Frankie Dunlop’s playing was not like that.  He was always playing around with the beats.  You’re almost not really sure where the beat is almost.  It’s like someone who plays a trick on, so to speak, like someone who’s joking with you.  You’re not really totally sure where the beat would be.  His drumming has that playful quality to it.

TP:    I’d like to take Ellis Marsalis back a bit, and talk about pianists who had an impact on you back in the 1950s when you were starting to formulate your sense of how your piano style should be, and the ensemble sound as well.

EM:    Well, there was Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson and Oscar Peterson.

TP:    That was it.

EM:    Actually, around 1950, Peterson had been in America for I think a year.  He was touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and they came to New Orleans.  At that time he was functioning in a duo format with Ray Brown.  I went to hear them, and it fractured me, so to speak.  I had a recording called Stratford Up On Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio, a vinyl recording, and I just wore it out.  First of all, I had never heard anybody play with that type of agility, in that format.  I had heard Art Tatum play, but Art Tatum was a wizard.  I mean, everybody understood where Art Tatum was coming from who listened.  But Oscar Peterson was a trio player who utilized that medium.  First of all, I never heard anybody play as fast as that in that format.  I just loved it.  In fact, I was so enthralled with Pete, it was years before I went back to listening to Bud Powell and really trying to get to that!

There were lots of influences.  In a way, in the Jazz arena, a pianist sometimes is not always a pianist.  It just depends.  Oscar was definitely a pianist of the first magnitude.  But when I always thought of Thelonious Monk, for instance, as the piano being a vehicle for his music, and his writing was equally as important if not more important than his piano playing.  I mean, it’s as though his piano playing existed to play his music.  Monk apparently could do a lot of different things.  I’ve heard him play Stride, but when he plays Stride it doesn’t sound like Willie the Lion and James P. — it sounds like Monk playing Stride.  And Duke Ellington, who was a wonderful pianist, but somehow it didn’t matter, because what Duke was about was so much bigger than whether he was a piano player.  John Lewis was the same situation.  I love John’s playing, its subtleties, but with him also what he did as a composer was bigger than just the fact that he was a good piano player.

Also, there were the band players.  When I say “band players,” what I mean is there were the players like Richie Powell with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, the different piano players that Miles Davis’s band had, the different piano players in Art Blakey’s ensembles.  There are a lot of recordings of musicians that at the time I thought were bands, but they weren’t; they were just recordings where somebody was a leader, and would go out and find some gigs from that recording.  There were a lot of piano players like that.  Wynton Kelly was one, and Red Garland was another one.

Tommy Flanagan was one of the better of those.  But see, Tommy was also bigger than that.  Tommy spent a lot of years with Ella Fitzgerald, and accompanying a vocalist is a very special thing.  Accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.  I’ve been teaching for better than twenty years, and I’ve devised methods lately of dealing with the concept of accompaniment.  Usually my piano students, when they get to a certain level, they have to bring a singer into their lesson, and we work on pieces where they are accompanying the singer.  That’s the only way to really do that.  In a setting where a lesson is occurring, we could talk about it all day.  There are a few things about accompaniment everybody should know.  First of all, you should definitely show that you know the song in and out.  If you’re accompanying the vocalist, you’d better know the words.  Also, you’d better be prepared to learn how to breathe with that instrument.  Even though it’s not a wind instrument, the concept of playing is directly connected to the concept of breathing, and you have to understand that each singer… It’s also true for instrumentalists, but I dwell a little bit more on singers from the accompaniment side, because singers are working with something that’s a little different.  The interplay with a soloist is not quite the same.  A singer is trying to deliver a message through the sound-word.  So the enhancement of that is what is expected from the pianist.  I would say, get a recording by Hank Jones, who by the way I think is the consummate concept of a pianist, I mean, a total pianist… Believe me, this doesn’t take anything away from anybody else.  But from an academician who is trying to create Jazz programs, I’d say Hank Jones would be my model of the consummate pianist.  Hank Jones recorded a duo album with Abbey Lincoln recently.  Every student of recording and accompaniment, that recording should be under your pillow, on your CD, wherever you go.  And there are others.

TP:    Could you comment on the piano trio concept of Ahmad Jamal?  Did that have an impact on you in the 1950’s.  I know that Jason also works with the Marcus Roberts Trio, and the first person I thought of when I heard you play (not many people can make me think of this) is Vernell Fournier, a fellow New Orleanian.  Jason is deferring to his father, so Ellis Marsalis first.

EM:    I don’t know if that’s correct, because you addressed it in terms of drumming…

TP:    Well, drumming and the piano trio concept.

EM:    I’ve gotten to know Ahmad, but I’ve never been able to sit down with him and talk about it.  But based upon what I have heard… Ahmad influenced me in ways which I would not consider very complimentary to me or Ahmad.  When he did “Poinciana,” it was one of those songs that we all had to play as a trio.  So what happened is that I listened to “Poinciana” and learned it (in the wrong key, I might add, which is neither here nor there for the listening audience), and it was sort of like emulating Ahmad Jamal, not appreciating the real subtleties of what he was doing.  How many different kinds of grooves he was playing.  How he would use those vamps in ways… A vamp is a consistent pattern that’s played which allows you to play something over that, kind of a static groove, if you will.  It would be years before I would really listen to Ahmad in ways that one needs to listen in order to get the real message.  Without having spoken to him about it, I think maybe that hit he had probably threw a lot of us off.

Now, Miles thought so much of Ahmad Jamal that Miles recorded a lot of Ahmad Jamal’s solos, just played them right out.  I think some of the younger drummers and piano players are now beginning to discover Ahmad.  “We ain’t never heard about that!”  They are now beginning to discover Ahmad.

TP:    One thing about “Poinciana” is that the beat Vernell Fournier is from a vernacular New Orleans rhythm which is now known as the “Poinciana Beat.”

JM:    Well, it’s really some second-line.

TP:    There you go.

JM:    When I first heard that beat, I didn’t know Vernell was from New Orleans, and I was kind of suspicious.  I said, “Man, this sounds like some Second Line.”  But then when I found out he was from New Orleans, I said, “Oh, okay, that solves everything.”  But that’s really the influence of the New Orleans music, the traditional music of New Orleans, be it brass band music or whatever.  That’s really where that beat comes from.

Now, as far as Ahmad Jamal’s trio, it’s interesting, because I’m working with Marcus, and that’s someone Marcus listens to a lot.  When you listen to the Gershwin For Lovers record, you can really hear a lot of the influence of Ahmad Jamal.  One thing Miles Davis said about him was that he liked the fact Ahmad would let the music breathe.  Ahmad used a lot of space in his playing, and that’s one of the things I found interesting about his music as well.  He didn’t necessarily have to razzle-dazzle and play all kinds of fancy stuff.  He would let the music breathe.

Not only that, but my Dad mentioned students… Down in the New Orleans area, every young musician was into Ahmad Jamal!  I don’t know of any young musicians who are not into Ahmad Jamal.  All of them just loved Ahmad Jamal records.  It was really a big thing.  But I think a lot of young pianists and drummers these days are especially influenced by Ahmad Jamal.

TP:    And extrapolating, Vernell Fournier.

JM:    Right.

TP:    One thing about Vernell Fournier and Idris Muhammad, who credited Ellis with bringing him to a Jazz concert for the first time… Idris said he got his unique concept of the bass drum his assimilation of Second Line rhythms.  But both are masters of drum timbres and the sounds of the different components of the trap set in combination.

JM:    That’s a kind of complex thing there!  Well, there’s something about the bass drum that New Orleans drummers have always played differently than drummers from anywhere else. Whether it’s Funk drums, a drummer like Zigaboo Modaliste from the Meters, or whether it’s the traditional Jazz drummers, there’s always something about the bass drum, the way the bass drum grooves that’s always different.  I think one thing is the emphasis that the drummers put on the beat-four.  That’s one of the things I’d say that’s different.

But as far as different timbres, so to speak, there are so many nuances to that, especially listening to a drummer like Vernell Fournier.  One of the things I like about his playing is his brush sound, which was subtle as well as powerful.  Even playing sticks it was sort of the same thing.

TP:    Have you had a second line experience for yourself, in one form or another?

JM:    I’ve had a few.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

JM:    I’ve done a few performances, Second Line gigs I guess you would say, playing with brass bands.  I’ve played snare drum a few times with some brass bands, and I marched in the Mardi Gras parade once playing snare drums.  So I have played snare drum in a brass band on a few occasions.  There’s also one interesting experience in New Orleans, which can only happen in New Orleans, that a brass band will be just playing in your neighborhood down the street, you’re in your house, then you hear this band playing, and there’s all these people just following them around, and marching in second line along with them.  That’s something that happens, like, whenever.

EM:    That’s an    African tradition.  If a group, especially those who live in the bush, go through a village in a ceremony, the people from the village, some of them will just join right in and follow the ceremony.  That’s the common pleasure that exists today.  There are what they call social and pleasure clubs, and every now and then what they will do is get a brass band and stage a parade.  Which doesn’t specifically have anything to do with Mardi Gras.  They will just stage a parade, and they will march in the area where their club functions.  They just get permits, and they march down the street, and people in the various neighborhoods just jump right out in the street and start what they call the Second Line.

For people who don’t really understand what that means:  See, the Second Line goes all the way back to the days when people who passed away was interred in a grave-site that was always within walking distance of the community that they lived in.  So they would get a band to go out and play some religious music, “Flee As A Bird,” “Just A Little While To Stay Here”…

JM:    “A Closer Walk With Thee.”

EM:    Yeah, “A Closer Walk With Thee.”  After the body is interred, at what is considered to be, as they would say, a respectable distance from the grave-site, you would hear a trumpet player.  He would say DO-DIT-DAH-DIT, like that, which was sort of a signal to the other musicians that they were going to start.  Then usually what would happen, they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  Now, without going off into religion and philosophy, the Christian concept of rejoicing when one passes on, that’s part of that.  The person has lived a life and is now passed on, and the celebration belongs to the people who are alive.  So they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  What would happen, the members of the bereaved’s family would be right behind the band.  The Second Line would be those who had no real kinship, but just came out and joined the celebration, following behind the family, which would be considered the First Line.

Now the tradition, in a somewhat modified sense, is still going pretty strong in New Orleans, except that now grave-sites are not within walking distance, and you may find a band playing and you may not.  But in other kinds of ceremony, you will find… There’s a lot of brass bands.  Whoever is going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, when you get off that airplane, there will be a brass band at that airport to meet you.

TP:     Speaking of brass bands, Jason, have you been studying and analyzing the older New Orleans drummers such as Baby Dodds?

JM:    Oh, yes.

TP:    Talk about that, and the importance of that concept of playing to a contemporary drummer performing contemporary music.

JM:    It’s good you should mention Baby Dodds, because he’s someone I’ve just started to investigate.  Baby Dodds’ playing is much different than playing now.  One thing that’s different is, for example, he didn’t play like drummers play on brushes, time on brushes and time on the ride cymbal.  He didn’t play like that at all.  I have a recording that Dr. Michael White gave me to record where he’s playing an early form of the drum set, like snare drum, bass drum, two toms, and he’d have woodblocks and cowbells and so forth; the basis of his set was the snare drum and the bass drum, while the other drums were used for decoration.  In the brass bands, the basic setup of the drums was you’d have a snare drummer and a bass drummer — two different drummers.  In his setup, the snare and the bass drum was the main thing happening; the other drums and stuff was just decoration.  That was just some stuff he’d use for fill-ins and so forth.  So how he used his setup is one of the things that’s different about him.

TP:    How do you incorporate that concept, if you do, into what you do in the here and now.

JM:    A very good question.  Well, there are certain things that Baby Dodds played that can be used in the music today. But the music played back then is so much different than the music being played now.  It just was a different time, a different era back then.

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, you said in an earlier interview that you weren’t particularly involved in Second Line experiences, but you were playing saxophone and playing a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues type of saxophone?  Do you think your experience as a saxophonist had a substantial impact on the way you approach the piano?

EM:    Definitely!  In fact, Edward Blackwell told me once that I was not a piano player; I was a transposed saxophonist to piano.  It took me a while to figure out what he meant.  See, I had studied piano, but I had not really approached the piano like Phineas Newborn, Oscar and people like that.  And when I started to play in bands, especially with Blackwell and Nat, and we would do things from Clifford Brown and Max Roach and Miles, the pianistic approach for me was sort of like patchwork.  For one thing, I also realized later on that the concept of accompaniment, or comping as it’s called, was still in a state of evolution.  When you listen to what Bud Powell was doing in earlier years, that kind of accompaniment was nothing close to what was occurring when Miles had Tony, Ron and Herbie.  That rhythm section defined a peak in terms of accompaniment, solos, every aspect of it.

TP:    People are still dealing with the implications of that rhythm section.

EM:    Oh, they’re going to be dealing with that for a long time.  I mean, that was a major breakthrough.  It was like Isaac Newton’s theory.  That was something that was a major breakthrough, and it’s around, and it will be around.  Physicists come and go.  Newton’s concept stays!  That rhythm section virtually defined the small group approach to rhythm section playing and accompaniment.  It was a similar kind of thing that was beginning to evolve.  Wynton Kelly was playing with Miles, and his approach was a lot more closely associated with Paul Chambers and what Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones was doing.

The historical significance of the Jazz musicians, the contributions have come to us in patchwork, because we’ve never had an institution, a Jazz institution that was a part of the culture.  If you go to Brazil, you’ve got a Samba Club, lots of Samba Clubs.  In Trinidad, there are steel pan bands, lots of them.  It’s in the fabric of the culture.  Jazz has never been in the fabric of American culture.  So everything that came about, came about as a result of so much patchwork.  That’s why people from New Orleans were unique to that.  That was a lot closer to the Caribbean experience.  You talk to some of the guys from Detroit.  I mean, there’s a lot of musicians!  P.C. came from there, Doug Watkins, Ron Carter, Bob Hurst… [END OF SIDE A]

…of the dance, you see, and the dance came about by way of what the American-African brought to that whole experience.  If you were to come to New Orleans tomorrow and there was a brass band down the street, and you would see guys in the Second Line, what you would see is guys doing a strut.  Now, it’s not a military band.  In fact, if you ever go to see what we call SWAC (Southwest Athletic Conference), the Universities of Texas Southern, Jackson State, Southern University, Florida A&M, all those historical Black colleges, you’ll see those marching bands at halftime — they don’t march like soldiers.

TP:    The most advanced trap drummers can be conceived of as analogous to African dancers because in African dance the interdependence of motion of each limb in conjunction with each other is the principle of the dance, and I guess a trap drummer is trying to make the rhythm from each limb, the extension of himself or herself, their own personal dance.

EM:    Well, in the African dance, the difference is going to be in the age.  There are some dances which are primarily for males, older people.  And there’s also some dances and music and rhythms that are primarily for females.  Mainly today we talk about those things which are traditionally done in the bush country.  You get into Lagos and those cities, then you’re looking at skyscrapers and cars and traffic jams, all the things that happen everywhere.

TP:    [ETC. ON MUSIC] A few words about “Cochise.”

EM:    That’s a piece Alvin wrote based on the chord structure of “Cherokee.”  We made a recording of this as youngsters.  I don’t know if it will ever be released.  It was so fast, it was ridiculous.  Talk about youthful energy and arrogance borderlining on stupidity to play like that!  Anyway, it’s a very difficult piece because it reflects the highest level of virtuosity.  Alvin wrote that, and we used to play it, because in those times were going through that young period when you’re feeling your oats.  Like, everything was about how fast can play — that kind of thing.  Forget about the music.  How fast can you play? [LAUGHS] I think “Cochise” was one of the pieces we used in that manner.

[MUSIC:  B/E/J Marsalis & B. Hurst, “Cochise” (1994); E. Marsalis-E. Harris, “Homecoming” (1985); E. Marsalis/ Perillat/J. Black, “Swinging at the Haven” (1962)]

TP:    A few words about the project with Eddie Harris, the great saxophonist and musical thinker who died last year.

EM:    Eddie was an enigma.  It’s very hard to really put him into a category.  As a musician he was extremely well prepared for practically anything.  He evidently had some rather inventive qualities, too.  I remember hearing Eddie play with a machine that had a tape loop, and he would play a Blues, he’d play a chorus, and he would put a solo on it, then it would play back, then he would record another one against that, those two would play back and he would record another one.  I’ve heard him go up to six different tracks on that machine.  And there came a time when he didn’t travel on that machine very much.  I’ve heard him play trumpet by putting a saxophone mouthpiece on the end of the trumpet in the place of a conventional trumpet mouthpiece, and play that. [LAUGHS] And done of these were gimmicky.  It was not a gimmick.  He actually figured out how to make this work.

TP:    He was someone who was tremendously concerned with the permutations of sounds in motion, in many ways.

EM:    Well, Eddie Harris covered a lot of bases.  He had a unique approach to playing jazz, especially those wide intervals that he played, and he was very comfortable in the Pop idiom where there was quality music being played there.  He and Les McCann did several wonderful projects together.

TP:    What was the genesis of your duo recording?  Had you known him for a number of years?  Was it something that just got set up by circumstance?

EM:    It was a combination of both things.  Eddie used to book himself a lot.  He happened to call a club called Tyler’s in New Orleans, which is no longer there.  I happened to be working there that night, and during the break the owner says, “Hey, man, I’ve got Eddie Harris on the phone.  How about a duo with you and Eddie?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  I think I’d played with Eddie before at another club in New Orleans, so I knew him.  Anyway, he came in, and we did the duo at this particular club, Tyler’s.

As I remember, maybe David Torkanowsky set the session up.  We went in to Dallas, Texas, to do it.  I’m not sure of all the particulars, but I think David’s the one who set it up.  Now, “Homecoming” was a piece I was surprised was even on the album, let alone the title.  I’d written the piece, and as I was walking out the door to catch the plane, it was laying on my desk, so I said, “Well, I’m not going to do this, but I’ll just take it with me and get Eddie to look at it.”  So I almost didn’t take it to the studio, and we ended up recording it!

But it was always fun to record or work with Eddie, because Eddie was a funny, funny cat.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  I remember once he told the audience, “I have decided to make a career change, and I am going to be a Rock-and-Roll singer.  I have all of the qualifications necessary — no voice and nerve.”  He was always making witticisms like that.

TP:    Jason Marsalis, what is it that makes your father an educator who is able to produce musicians of the quality of those who’ve come from under his tutelage?

JM:    Bright students perhaps! [LAUGHS] That’s a very good question.  Hmm.  I don’t know…

TP:    Not to put you on the spot or anything.

JM:    It’s interesting, because a lot of people ask me what has my father taught me.  Now, I’ve learned from him in different ways, but not necessarily in the concept of teacher-student.  It’s moreso father-and-son than teacher-and-student.  As far as teacher goes, he’s always found good teachers for me when it comes to studying percussion, whether it was classical percussion or studying drums or whatever.  He’s always found good teachers for me in that aspect.  But as far as his qualities as a teacher, it’s hard to tell.

I think one of the things with him teaching at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in New Orleans at that particular time… One good way of explaining it is maybe it was one of those things that was the right place at the right time, the way the whole school jelled.  It was a great faculty… Just the people who came together at that time.  The students that were there.. There was just something about that particular time.  I mean, I was a baby then!

As far as him being a teacher, one thing is that teaching wasn’t what he was set out to do at first.  Playing was really the first thing.  In fact, me and my older brother Delfayo had a debate about that, whether my father was a teacher or a player.  Delfeayo was, “He’s a player!” and I was, “No, he’s a teacher!”

TP:    There are some strong personalities in the family, in case people out there don’t know it.

JM:    There sure are.

EM:    This is probably very difficult for Jason to answer, because he was the only musician who went to that school that I didn’t teach, because I wasn’t there at that time.  But the thing about it was that… A lot of what he said, too, was correct.  First of all, the time in America was such that the magnet school concept was prevalent.  A lady named Shirley Trusty, who is now Shirley Trusty Corey(?), was very instrumental in getting a grant that ultimately helped to create the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.  As a result, we were able… When I say “we,” I mean the whole faculty, because there were four disciplines… Let’s see, it was five disciplines eventually.  I started out with music, dance, theater and visual arts, and then creative writing was added later.

When we started out, our mission was to give students the opportunity to explore the creative area so that they could make career decisions relating to the arts.  It wasn’t the objective to crank out a bunch of Jazz musicians or Classical musicians or anything!  It was really to try to help students to understand what this was all about and make decisions in high school.  Those who needed to go further, went further, and left and attended Juilliard… Branford left and went to Southern University and eventually to Berklee.  Donald Harrison went to Berklee.  Later on, Harry Connick, Jr., went to Loyola University for a semester, and later attended Manhattan School of Music.  And there were any number of people who went into Classical music and conservatories.

What we tried to do, and had the opportunity to do mainly because this was a magnet school, the students who came to the school could use their electives to choose which discipline to be in.  So we had a model school.  We had 100 percent opportunities to present what we wanted to present the way we wanted to present it.  We had virtually no support from the Board of Education.  There was no budgeting for anything like what we were doing.  The Federal Government was fast disappearing from those concepts.  But for the most part, we were able to get students at a young enough age… We had a grant, which was very important to our program.  It was only $8 an hour.  That was it!  But most of the guys in the Symphony Orchestra would agree to teach for the grant and a couple of dollars above that.  That meant that the students got very good instrumental instruction from people in the orchestra.  And it didn’t matter… See, we didn’t really deal as much with the concept of Jazz and Classical music as a separate thing.  If a person wanted to concentrate on Classical music, obviously that’s what they did, and they spent as much time as it took for them to get into a major institution.  If the student said, “Well, I want to be a Jazz player,” he got the fundamentals from studying what would be Classical music –but major scales and triads are not necessarily Classical music; they’re just the fundamentals.

TP:    That word “fundamentals” is perhaps the key to your gift as a teacher, that you seem to have the ability to break down almost any body of work into its fundamentals and are able to communicate them in a very practical way to students, and I think the proof is in the pudding.


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Filed under Alvin Batiste, Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Jazz Education, New Orleans, Ornette Coleman, Piano, Wynton Marsalis

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th Birthday, a 2004 DownBeat Feature , and Several Verbatim Interviews

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th birthday, I’m posting my “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature, as well several contemporaneous interviews, an interview that appeared in the liner notes for one CD of the double set Anthony Braxton & Andrew Cyrille: Duo Palindrome 2002, and the proceedings of a WKCR interview  from 1997.  Additionally, here’s a link to a previously posted Blindfold Test from the early ’00s, and an interview i conducted with the maestro in 2001 for a piece on Cecil Taylor. (
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Over a fortnight in July, Iridium, the upscale mid-Manhattan venue, presented two very different bands comprised primarily of hardcore survivors of the ‘60s “New Thing.” The common denominator was drummer Andrew Cyrille, who fed and stoked the simmering fires that, back in the day, had led the cohort to try to change the world with music.

During the first week, Cyrille participated in open-ended tabula rasa sets with Henry Grimes and Perry Robinson, who were joined for one night apiece by Dave Douglas and Gary Bartz and for the final four by Bennie Maupin. On week two, Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman propelled outcat avatars Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd through 12 sets of their own programmatic music. Cyrille addressed each circumstance with the finesse and power of a master tennis player, instantly intuiting intentions, recalibrating dynamics and rhythmic shape, volleying back deadly accurate, complementary responses to every salvo and deploying an enormous lexicon of beats and timbres to keep his postulations fresh. In the consistency of his creativity and unfailing professionalism, Cyrille epitomized the discipline and exhilaration of speculative improvising at its highest level.

These qualities are no secret to Cyrille’s peer group. Attracted by his ability to mold a multitude of drum dialects into a continuous  stream of ideas, composer-improvisers like John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, Don Pullen, David Murray and John Lindberg employed him extensively on projects during the ‘80s and ‘90s. During the past 15 years, he’s partnered with Workman and Lake in a coop trio, and on numerous gigs and recordings with Mal Waldron, Horace Tapscott, Dave Burrell and Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen. In the ‘70s and ’80s, Cyrille expressed his compositional voice with Maono, a quartet featuring David S. Ware and trumpeter Ted Daniel, and over the past decade he’s led more consonant, groove-oriented ensembles that articulate the rhythms and melodies of the African diaspora. These followed the pioneering 1969 solo drum recital What About [BYG] and a 1972 percussion dialogue with Milford Graves entitled Dialogue of the Drums. Over the past quarter-century, Cyrille has documented a string of extemporaneous encounters with such diverse artists as Jimmy Lyons, Irene Schweizer, Richard Teitelbaum, Vladimir Tarasov, Borah Bergman, Peter Brotzman, Odo Addy, James Newton, Peter Kowald, Greg Osby and, recently, with Anthony Braxton.

In a conversation for the liner notes of Duo Palindrome: 2002, Vols. 1&2 [Intakt], documenting the Braxton-Cyrille meeting, Braxton, whose 1979 duets with Max Roach are classics of the idiom,  illuminated Cyrille’s extraordinary resourcefulness at musical conversation. “Andrew has his own special rhythmic logics and sense of time, and he hears everything in the music,” he said. “He has a very clear understanding of what constitutes an idea. He works with devices that he’s evolved to suit his own needs that give the illusion of time in a very strict way. He’s a conceptualist who is able to respond to the moment in a dynamic array of syntaxes and propositions, while at the same time, his work is very mature and he goes to the HEART of the problem.”

“Andrew is a very sharp-minded individual,” says Grimes, who recalls first breaking bread with Cyrille on a Brooklyn gig with baritone sax legend Harry Carney in 1963, and toured with him and David Murray shortly before the Iridium engagement. “We develop forms playing with each other. I think the important thing to remember is that we both learned to do that playing with Cecil Taylor. You never forget those things.”

* * *
“I didn’t know that,” Taylor laughs, upon being informed that Cyrille, his regular drummer from 1964 until 1975, was preparing at the time they first met to matriculate at St. John’s University as a chemistry major. Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to Haitian immigrants, Cyrille learned his rudiments in a junior high school drum-and-bugle corps from instructors like Lenny McBrowne, Willie Jones and Lee Abrams, all established jazz drummers of the day. They brought the aspirant to see Max Roach, himself a son of Brooklyn, rehearse at a bar called the Putnam Central  around the corner from his school, and told him about Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke and Shadow Wilson. By 16, Cyrille, who had bussed dishes at a Horn & Hardhart cafeteria and rolled carts of ready-to-wear around Manhattan’s Garment District after school, was earning pocket money on local dances and social functions with a trio that included guitarist Eric Gale. Soon, he was swinging on gigs with eminent beboppers like pianist Duke Jordan and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne.

One afternoon, trumpeter Ted Curson heard Cyrille rehearsing, and came in from the street to listen. “When the rehearsal was over, Ted said he was going to Times Square to rehearse with this piano player,” Cyrille recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.’ I took my snare drum. We went to the school, and I met Cecil Taylor. Cecil let me sit in, and then we took the train uptown and played some more at a club on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th Street where I’d gone several times for sessions.”

“What I remember about Mr. Cyrille,” says Taylor, “is a session at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. I think it might have been Mal Waldron’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in. At one point Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that made me stop playing. I looked at him, and I asked him, ‘And what is that?’ He gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, ‘Well, you want me to try it again?’”

That year, Cyrille, daunted by the difficulty of studying chemistry by day, gigging at night, and doing both to the best of his ability, opted for music and transferred to Juilliard. There he “learned the literature and materials and theory of music,” and began to accrue the strains that comprise the sum of his mature tonal personality. “My head was into jazz, and that’s what I wanted to get together,” he says. “My teacher told me he’d prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, which was not what I had in mind. So I went out and found people who would help me – like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village in Brooklyn. Same with John Handy; we played a gig at the Shalimar in Harlem, across the street from Sugar Ray’s by the Hotel Theresa.”

Extracurricularly, Cyrille gigged and recorded with Sudanese bassist-composer Ahmed Abdul Malik and Babatunde Olatunji’s drumcentric ensemble, and began the process of internalizing the rhythms of the African continent and extrapolating them to the drumset. He played for classes at the June Taylor School of Dance for emerging choreographers like Michael Bennett, Jamie Rogers, and Claude Thompson. “That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums,” he states. “I drew on that experience in making solo percussion records. Someone would tell me, ‘Make my body move,’ and I had to play the rhythms and accent things in a way that would do that. I also learned the way Africans visualize some dance component when thinking about the music. When I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what informed my playing, and one thing I told him was that dance did.”

As Cyrille accumulated knowledge, he became restless with the musical status quo. Throughout this time, he remained in touch with Cecil Taylor. “Cecil wasn’t who he is now,” Cyrille states. “He was a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. We’d run into each other, or he’d hear me play, and say, ‘Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.’ I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. We developed a spiritual relationship through our musical attraction until we began to work together regularly.

“I had never heard anyone play the piano that way – the speed, the alacrity, his passion for the music, the information he had, the way he notated his music, what he asked from each of the musicians who played the music in rehearsals. With Cecil I could do whatever I wanted. I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’ He’d say, ‘Man, you know how to play the drums. Do what drummers do.’ So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  I did not want to do anything against the tradition of those guys, and the people from whom I learned, like Max and Art and Philly Joe, in case people might say that it wasn’t it wasn’t blue-blood, so to speak. I got my information together on every aspect of the drumset – the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying – and I brought my information to the table. But it was my own sense of how to do it. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms my mentors they would play or the way that they would parse or organize the rhythms. But then again, it was!”

“Mr. Cyrille had a secret,” Taylor says, choosing his words with care. ”You could take him wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. He understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer.”

Taylor recounts hearing Cyrille put his process to work over a week at the Blue Note several years ago with Mal Waldron and Workman. “I went three consecutive nights,” he says. “It was an experience in what mature musicians can do. On one occasion it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement, and I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. You could actually hear Andrew developing the material in Mal’s compositional form, and see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.”

Whatever the context in which the give-and-take of improvising occurs, Cyrille attends to the kinetics of sound in motion. “I think a lot of the invention in improvising comes from the push-and-pull of people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with their concept of the music,” he says. “I try to think of a rhythmical shape that will allow me to make music with the voices of the drums. For example, when Cecil sits down at the piano, he’ll usually start with something pointillistic and jagged. So I’ll begin that way, then I’ll take a step, another step, two-three steps, then sit back and listen for a while, and pace, like fencing or a cat stalking a mouse.”

* * *
In one of their rare meetings since 1975, Cyrille joined Taylor’s group for a panoramic 1999 Berlin concert, documented last spring on Incarnation [FMP]

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalls. “We had a magical dialogue. This kind of improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a game. We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation. We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to create art. But the way we put forth the effort is so much smoother and more nuanced. We’re much more confident with the language than we were.”

Cyrille manifests that confidence whether, as Workman puts it, he’s “doing what you do the way you want to do it or compromising certain things to satisfy a need.” “I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say,” he says. “For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. It’s giving what’s being asked for. When I was in school, Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, ‘You’ve got to be a professional.’ Max Roach was a consummate professional. I’d see Gigi Gryce and Jackie McLean at a place called the Continental, and they looked professional. That means they were working and making money.”

During the ‘70s, as musicians from Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles came to New York and shook up the scene, Cyrille found new sources of inspiration. “What I got from those people is that there’s no particular formation or configuration to play this music,” he says. “I appreciated that cultural perspective. I love adventure. I love to explore. It boils down to being creative and dealing cooperatively within the concept the music presents to find exciting, new and different stuff. It’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make things happen.

“When I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from forty years ago. It’s different when I play with Muhal Richard Abrams, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal often plays blues at the end of his gig, and he’ll want a backbeat. I used to play organ gigs at those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, on Thursday or Friday nights, when those sleep-in women who worked at the homes out there had a night off. You’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that. That’s part of being a professional. With Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then is to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, ‘Okay, drummer, make my body move.’”

“Part of the excitement of playing with Andrew is the spectra of gambits thrown into the air,” says Braxton. “It’s not like we just do everything we can come up with. We define parameters and work inside them, and he presents me with very mature ideas and conceptual propositions to either accept or transform. There are rhythmic time spaces, sections that demonstrate extreme timbre states, sections which take more silence into account, and sections which are multi-directional. His vocabulary is really broad. It’s the same with Max Roach. He has enough ideas and experience to take the hi-hat, make a whole concert on it, and not bore you. Andrew has that kind of understanding. His music goes past the concept of idiomatic. He always respected the scholastic and scientific components of the music, he’s always been open, and that openness put him in a very different psychological and vibrational space from many of the New York musicians of his era.”

Closing in on 65, Cyrille is not about to close any doors. “When the element of surprise is not there, it doesn’t seem like there’s too much happening,” he concludes. “I remove as much of any barrier as I can, I aim for the heavens, and always try to have something that will surprise not only myself, but the musicians I am playing with and the audience that listens.”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (7-22-03) — for Duo (Palindrome) 2002:

TP:    Was this your first duo interaction with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  The first duo, yes.

TP:    What’s your performing history with him?

CYRILLE:  I did a recording, it must have been back in the ’80s, with him and Jon Raskin, the bassist Cecil McBee, and a pianist named Dred Scott, on Tristano music.  That was for Hat Hut.  Years ago we did a concert in Connecticut — I think at Wesleyan, when Bill Barron was up there and Bill Lowe.  Anthony Davis, Gerry Hemingway; a lot of cats who were new music at that time, and that was one of the places where it was done.  Prior to that, I first met Braxton in Paris when I went there with Cecil in 1969.

TP:    That’s when he traveled to Europe with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Maybe it was during that BYG Festival business, when all the musicians were in Paris, and I did those recordings with Grachan Moncur and Jimmy Lyons, and I did the solo What About album.  I met Braxton in the street, and I forget the details, but he came up and said, “Oh, my name is Anthony Braxton,” and we started talking and meeting each other, etc.  It was just guys from different parts of the country who were into the music, and in Paris, and had something in common.

After that, I’d see him in Europe and other places on occasion.  He was doing a lot of recording.  He was then almost the way David Murray was in terms of recording.  He was recording all the time.  He was the darling of a lot of those people.

TP:    That quartet was very popular for a few years.  He kept them working quite a bit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, he did a lot of stuff.  Before that I saw him with Circle, that quartet with Chick Corea.  So I’d been checking out Braxton from time to time.  I remember this one time someone had put out the word that he didn’t want to work with drummers, or something derogatory from him about drummers, and I went up to him at the old Five Spot and asked him about it.  And he said, “Me?  No, man. How can I not love drummers?  I play with drummers all the time.  Drummers are some of my favorite people.” Blah-blah, blah-blah.  You know how he gets.

Then later on, I heard that duet recording he did with Max Roach.  And on a number of occasions, he said to me that I was one of his favorite drummers and one day he’d like to do a duet with me.  He’d done one with Max Roach and he’d like to do one with Roy Haynes.  I don’t know if he ever did one with Roy Haynes, but here I am, number two, and maybe one day he might do something with Roy.  But that’s more or less how we got in touch with each other.

TP:    What was your early sense of the dynamics of his music?  I’m presuming you didn’t listen too closely to it, but enough to form an opinion.  How would you describe his musical personality?

CYRILLE:  It was different. See, a lot of times what defines great musicians, and sometimes you have to get used to this… It’s not necessarily the melodies they play, or maybe even the harmonies they play, but it’s the rhythm.  And the way he assigned rhythm was just a little bit different.  It was a little bit pointillistic, you might call it.  Steve McCall was working with him on occasion…

TP:    Barry Altschul played in that group, so did Thurman Barker and Gerry Hemingway.  It was a pulse-oriented group.

CYRILLE:  All I’m saying is that the way he would play… I bought a couple of records.  To me, a lot of the music was pointillistic. In other words, BEEP bop, BOOP.  Buh-bu-bup.  buh-bup.  That’s kind of what I thought about it.  I knew he could play tunes, etc.  But then, when we played Lennie Tristano music, which had to do with straight-up-and-down bebop, more or less, then he came into another light.  The light had to do with, I guess, playing not in a pointillistic, but let’s say kind of a legato, where you had those melodies, like “Lennie’s Pennies,” based on “Pennies From Heaven.”  Those kinds of bebop lines. The legato kind of thing instead of staccato.

TP:    So you found that could go into various approaches depending on the context.

CYRILLE:  Exactly.  Which is the sign of a great musician, somebody who is flexible and has studied and learned the language.

TP:    What was it like to work for him that first time in organizing that Tristano date?

CYRILLE:  Well, it was a lot of work.  I can’t say that it was easy. But he knew what he wanted to do.  He had a sense of direction, and he knew more or less what he wanted from each one of us. When we play jazz, period, I don’t care what variation it is, most of the composers or people who are the leaders want you to play the material their way, so then we can come together.  I just had to find my way on the drumset with that music, and then we’d bring my department to the other departments, and join them so we could have more or less a corporation — or a cooperation.  It was pretty cool.  I enjoyed that music.  Everybody was straight-ahead, everybody wanted to make it a success, and I think it came out being that.

TP:    In a broader sense, what was your impression when you encountered the AACM guys 35 years ago?  You’re a New York musician, and that approach wasn’t necessarily agreeable to every New York musician. Maybe I’m wrong about that when you all were in Paris.  But what was your overall impression of that earlier AACM music at the time?

CYRILLE:  I have always been one who understood the regionalisms that existed and exist in the music.  First, I knew that there were regional bands, and people who came from different parts of the country and played the music a bit differently, who came in with certain ideas and feelings and things they thought were important, and at the same time made the contribution to the whole.  I felt the people from Chicago were some of the most innovative in terms of breaking with the tradition as well as being part of the tradition.  I know they were doing all sorts of things in terms of how they were composing. It wasn’t AABA form a lot, or the sonata form, so to speak.  They were playing a lot of extended forms, and doing all sorts of things rhythmically and harmonically that maybe some of the other people from other places weren’t doing.  You had musicians who came out of Detroit, you had musicians who came out of Indianapolis, even the New Orleans people…

TP:    But what I’m getting at, Andrew, is that perhaps more than any other New York musician of your period, you really embraced the aesthetic that a lot of the AACM and BAG people were dealing with when they got to New York.  You played with Muhal for years, and others.  As a New York musician at the time, with Cecil, I mean, Cecil was pretty much full-bore straight-ahead and take no prisoners type of thing in 1966 and 1969 — though I guess not all the time.  But it was a different attitude toward organizing music.  So I wonder if you can trace back to the impact that attitude of making music had on you.

CYRILLE:  Now, you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Cecil, who of course is one of the great people in my music life.  But I’m not Cecil, see!

TP:    But you were in the band 11 years and knew him from the late ’50s.

CYRILLE:  That’s true.  But as a result of having experienced playing with Cecil and wanting to make a contribution to the history of the music, to the lexicon of the music, and especially as far as drums were concerned, AND the fact that my mind was opened… I was still and am still learning.  I love to explore different ideas with people and see what I can do with those ideas as far as those drums are concerned. I’ve done things with Japanese musicians, or the drummer Vladimir Tarasov from Russia, and the dancers, etc.  So when I met people like Muhal and Leroy Jenkins, and they asked me to part of their concepts… I even organized a tour and took Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins to Europe after Steve McCall quit Air.

There was another contingent of musicians from Chicago who I’d had the opportunity to work with prior to the time when people like Muhal and Jenkins and Wadada and George Lewis… I worked with George and Leroy and Richard Teitelbaum… Well, Teitelbaum isn’t from Chicago, but I met him long ago in Connecticut.  All of those people were more or less in touch with each other.

But just to get back to what I was saying about my openness, and the fact that… Look at Coleman Hawkins.  He was all over the place, doing all kinds of things with people.

But getting back to the other Chicago musicians:  I met people like Julian Priester.  Also there was John Gilmore, whom I had done some work with in the Olatunji band.  And on a couple of occasions, I did play with Sun Ra and that Arkestra — way back when.  Sun Ra used to come to my house, as a matter of fact, when I was living in Brooklyn.  He and Walt Dickerson used to show up early in the morning.  There was Clifford Jordan, who I’d played with on occasion, doing some gigs in Brooklyn.  Charles Davis was another one, who lived around the corner from me.  So it’s not that I didn’t know these guys.  So when the second wave came in, hey, here I am.  I’ve got feet in both camps, so to speak — the bebop camp and then the avant-garde camp.  But I knew this, too.  If I were going to do something that was a bit different from some of the other drummers, then I knew I had to do something that was going to be conceptually acceptable to a lot of those people from the AACM.  And that’s where their heads were.  So in a sense, my connection with Cecil, who let me know that I could do anything with anybody I want, any time I wanted to do that… So it was no problem for me dealing with the concepts of the people from Chicago.
All I know about all of this stuff is, if somebody asks me to do something with them, and if it’s different, then I have to learn about what it is, and then it’s my job to bring it to life — especially if I like it.  If I don’t like it, that’s a different story.  But for John Carter and all those people, I have to bring this stuff to life.  A lot of the stuff is written music. But it’s not the page that’s playing the music, it’s the person.  That’s the way I feel about most of that stuff.

TP:    Are there different challenges for you in dealing with, let’s say, the less pulse oriented forms of drum music that you’d be encountering?  Did you have to develop new techniques?  Did you have to develop a difficult vocabulary?

CYRILLE:  That’s an interesting question.  Most of the time, when I think about myself, I think about myself as using pieces of the language that I have learned from the traditional greats, like Jo Jones and Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Baby Dodds, and listening to all of those people, seeing and hearing how they would play.  Frankie Dunlop and the big bands I saw him playing with.  Rufus Jones.  Even Buddy Rich to some degree, even though he was a speed merchant.

TP:    That came in handy with Cecil!

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s right!  Number one, to be able to play the drums.  When we learn the instrument, we have to go through the schools, more or less, of some of the other drummers.  When I was working with Illinois Jacquet, he had Jo Jones in his head.  So to some degree, I had to give him some of the stuff.  I couldn’t do all of it, because I was too young and I didn’t know that much about Jo Jones.  But I had to be able to play songs like “Robbins Nest” and “Flying Home.”  Certain things would happen in those songs that would bring certain kinds of climaxes, which were almost things that were scientifically proven, you might say!  They would get to certain peaks, and then make certain descents, and go back to certain peaks… You had to know what to do in order to play that music.  So yeah, I was learning, and of course, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and sometimes I’d be frustrated because I couldn’t give people like Jacquet, for instance, everything he wanted all the time.  Then, again, I don’t necessarily think that I had to, because I was trying to find my own place, trying to do my own stuff, and some of the stuff he probably didn’t like either.  But he was stronger than I was at that time.  He was the leader of the band, and I was still finding my way.  But still, he hired me.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that with all of the stuff that I’ve learned, even the stuff that I did with Nellie Lutcher way back, playing in 2/2…those kinds of things I can use in some way with the things that I do today.  So for instance, if I’m doing a duet with Braxton or Greg Osby and it comes into my mind, well, I want to try something that might have a two-feeling for a part, or maybe even a whole (I never really thought about this until now), I can play like a two-feeling, and maybe stretch the meter, so to speak.  Then it’s up to THEM, then, to deal with what I’m putting down.  So what I’m saying to you is that the stuff that I play as a drummer, it’s not necessarily so much where I’m not using the techniques or not using the vocabulary that I have.  It’s just that I might be using it in a different way.  It’s the same old thing, like when people talk.  We still use words.  But sometimes, when we think about what we’re saying, we use the same words but the meanings are different.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that applies to what you and Braxton are doing here.  You mentioned at the beginning that Braxton had told you that you’re one of his favorite drummers and he wanted to do something with you some day.  So let’s jump-cut to 2002, and talk about this recording came to be.  Was it on your initiative or his?

CYRILLE:  Well, this is what happened.  Very often, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and the sky opening up and the lightning come out, and it strikes whoever is in the vicinity and we say, “Eureka, I’ve found it!”  Anyway, I had gone to hear Anthony play a solo concert at the Ethical Culture Society.  I was there with a number of other people listening to him, and the music was gorgeous.  But at the end of the concert, I went over to congratulate him, and he said, “Oh, Andrew, it’s good to see you.  When are we going to do our project?”  So I complemented him on his playing and I said, “Look, Anthony, any time you’re ready, man.  Let’s exchange numbers and talk about it.”  He said, “Okay, I’ll call you.”  So I gave him my number, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Hey, man, let’s get together and do this project.”  He told me that he had Jon Rosenberg in his employ, and Jon and he had already done some work at Wesleyan University, of Anthony recording with different people, and Rosenberg would be willing to come up and record us.  The price was right, and we got a date together, and I said, “Okay, fine,” and then it came to pass.

TP:    How much preparation did this involve?  Was there a rehearsal?  Let’s talk about the dynamics of putting together this two hours.

CYRILLE:  I sent Anthony some music I had written and prepared.  Sometimes with those concepts… Well, we talked about them a bit on the telephone, and he told me some stuff that he was going to do.  I forget whether he faxed me any music or not.  Maybe he did.  I can’t remember.  But I know we were preparing for each other.  Braxton’s solo concert was in May 2002, so from May until we came together…

TP:    What’s interesting is that his compositions here are Compositions 310 and 311, and on the solo concert he did five subsets of Composition 312.  I don’t know what that means, but I’ll try to find out from Braxton.  Because each one has a different graphic connotation.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] Well, that’s what’s happening.

TP:    So it sounds like he gave you some stuff that was preoccupying him at the time of the solo concert.

CYRILLE:  Perhaps so.  But all I saw was the music.  I didn’t remember the melodies.  I played them at Wesleyan and I got into it.

TP:    well, your stuff seems more melody-oriented.  His stuff seems like more sound navigation structure stuff.

CYRILLE:  Kind of.  Well, he only gave me I think two written parts.

TP:    The other one seems more just a motif you took off on.  It doesn’t have a number, but is called “A Musical Sense Of Life.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a title like that from Braxton.

CYRILLE:  Well, those titles were to a large degree my titles.  We sat down and talked about it.  I came up with these titles and words, and explained to him, why I felt this particular piece should be that, and so on, and he agreed.

TP:    So we had this conceptual preparation before you actually came up to Wesleyan in October.

CYRILLE:  Very much so.  Conceptual and including improvisation as well as written music.  He has two credits individually, I have two individually, and then we have the rest in duo as composers.

TP:    I think your point that he brings out a more legato side when playing with drummers… On the Max Roach records, he played beautiful melodies, and here he plays similarly.  Do you approach different configurations with a different approach to the drums.  Would you play differently with Oliver and Reggie or Dresser and Marty, or if you’re playing with a Muhal Sextet… Obviously, they all have different demands.  But your overall approach to the interactive component of playing with other people… How does it differ in duo context for you?

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a heavy one.  When you use a term like “overall”… Overall has to be the person.  It has to be Andrew Cyrille.  And then it depends upon what music I’m playing.  Then I get my information on what I have to do from what the composer dictates when he writes the composition.  If I’m playing with David Murray’s Big Band, and we’re playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” and he’s got Carmen Bradford singing, I’ve got to bring myself to that and give those people what they need so they can deliver what they deliver in the Ellington mode.  That’s the same thing that I do with everything, even though they might be different in terms of concept.

TP:    Let’s talk about the conceptual aspects of duo music, then.

CYRILLE:  Playing solo to me is the most difficult.  The reason is that you don’t have anybody to feed off of or to get some kind of information from that you can relate to, so to speak, so you’re always more or less relating to yourself.  With duet, you have fewer than three or four.  So as far as playing a duet is concerned, you have to give something to the other person that they can more or less vibe off of or feel good about, or hear or conceptualize with the desire to play.  And they have to do the same for you.  During the duet with Osby… All of them.  I’ve done duets with Osby, Oliver. Carlos Ward, who’s another one that a lot of people haven’t gotten.  I did duets with Jimmy Lyons.

TP:    A lot of pianists say they think of the piano as an orchestra.  Do you think of the drumkit as an orchestra?

CYRILLE:  You could very well say that, too. There are so many different parts of the set, and you can get so many different sounds in relationship to the combinations, or the combinations in relationship to the different pieces of sound that you can find on the set.  Then you have to be able to generate that so that somebody gets something from it, so it’s not just noise, or what some people might consider noise.  I guess it’s the attitude, too, that whomever it is playing with the drummer comes to that forum with.  If you think it’s noise, then perhaps you won’t make any music. But if you think it’s music, then it’s a different story.

But there’s one other thing, too, that you’ve got to remember about drums, especially from where the “jazz drummer” comes, and from there in terms of Western music, where a lot of the other people come from, too — the Rock and Fusion people.  That’s out of a metrical sense of time.  So when you start thinking about Africa, again, and you start thinking about a lot those rhythms that the Africans play, which is very often the basis of the feeling that jazz musicians play off of, like the shuffle beat, CHONK-A-CHOOK, CHONK-A-CHOOK, then you’ve got that and you go CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCKA-CHOCKA-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM… You get a lot of that stuff that comes out of Africa.  And many jazz pieces are still being written off that rhythmical motif, what they call the quarter-note, and then you get the dotted eighth note and the sixteenth note.  BANG, DIKA, BANG, DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG.  I’d say damn near 85% of all the music written in jazz is based on that rhythmical motif.  That’s one of the problems we have with stations like WBGO moving away from that foundation to play music that perhaps doesn’t emphasize that dotted quarter-note, dotted-eighth and sixteenth beat.  See, all of that music that you hear that’s so-called mainstream or CD-101 stuff comes out of that particular motif.

TP:    As opposed to what we might call swing or…

CYRILLE:  No, it ain’t opposed to swing.  That’s what swing is. That stuff is based on Swing. So I’m saying, it kind of comes out like a shuffle, see, which is nothing but you get the quarter-note and you get the dotted sixteenth, and you just keep repeating that with the accentuation on 2 and 4.

TP:    So 35 years ago, when you’re making Akisakila with Cecil, the patterns and responses you’re making are constructed off these elemental building blocks from African music that you’re speaking of.

CYRILLE:  Precisely.  So from those building blocks you can thrust a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    Or many kinds of feeling, I guess.

CYRILLE:  Or many kinds of feelings, that’s right.  See, this goes back to me working with Mary Lou Williams and saying to her, “Gee, Mary Lou, I’d like to play the ride beat differently and still play the music.” She said, “Well, if you did that, you’d lose a lot of work; a lot of people wouldn’t hire you.”  And that’s what she was talking about.  So if you go BANG-DING-A-BANG, DING-A-BANG, and I’m playing that with Jacquet, then I say, BANG-DING-A-DANG, and let a couple of beats go and no space, or say, BANG-DING-A-BANG, BANG, DING-A-BANG, DINGABANG-DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, he’ll say, “What the fuck are you doing, man?!  Swing!”

So when the concepts change, and you have Cecil and the people from Chicago and now a number of other people considering how we’re going to move these rhythms, then it’s no longer a problem because they’re basing their music on what it is that either the drummer is playing or however it is that they conceive of playing that dotted-8th or 16th, and maybe they’ve even moved away from that and… See, a lot of the time, the way most of those composers got to their music (I know this to be a fact with David Murray, and you can go back to Ellington), is they’d think about what the drummer would be playing, and then they’d write their melodies over that.
TP:    Well, going back to Ellington, there was often a dance orientation to it.  I mean, the drummer used to be completely functional, back when there were chorus lines and tap dancers and so on.

CYRILLE:  Of course!  Let me tell you something.  You know that I played for dancers.  I’m talking for people out of the June Taylor School — Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson.

TP:    You played for dance classes.

CYRILLE:  Dance classes, and I did gigs… I did something with Cleo Parker Robinson at Jazz @ Lincoln Center 2001.  I’m trying to make a point.  I had a gig one time in the projects somewhere.  It was a dance for regular people who came to a party.  They had no dance education or training, but it was what they would do socially, what they’d learn from their parents or friends.  The three musicians I was supposed to play with, probably a bassist and piano player and saxophone player, for some reason didn’t show up for a while. I was there, the first one.  The people began feeling impatient with the music.  I mean, they’ve got their schedule.  So I just started playing the drums.  I don’t know what rhythm I did, but I was playing something.  And do you know, those people got out on the floor and started dancing.  All I’m saying to you is knowing certain things to play and certain things to do that will elicit certain responses in people.  Music is also scientific in that light.  We deal with emotions, but there are certain ways that musicians can make people feel by the notes and scales that they play.  We learn this stuff in school.  It’s the same thing with the drums.  If I want you to march, I’ll play a march.  If I want you to waltz, I’ll play something in 3/4.

So with that kind of information, when I decide that… How can I put it?  I can augment it.  I can contract it.  I can do it like I’m talking to you in terms of rhythm — those ingredients.  That’s what I do.  Here you and I are having a conversation.  I’m not talking to you in 4/4 meter, one-two-three-four, here-I-go-Ted, you-can-hear-me-talking…

TP:    It’s not iambic pentameter.

CYRILLE:  Right.  So as I’m speaking to you, sometimes it’s the same way as I think in playing the music.  But I’m still using my words or the words I’ve learned.  Maybe I can learn new words, go in the dictionary and find out the meaning of so-and-so and bring another word into my vocabulary.  But it just clarifies, let’s say, more what it is that I’m trying to say.

TP:    But of course, within a musical performance, each musical conversation is organized around a certain set of themes and structures.  You’re not just going anywhere.  Within an improvisation, there are explorations of separate motifs; you’re not going all over the place on every different thing.  So there is a formal aspect to a performance.  It’s not just like a conversation.

CYRILLE:  You are precisely right.  But now, you see, here is another concept that some people don’t realize or understand or don’t know about, and I guess it has to come into realization. There are two ways of playing.  There’s one way where there’s a prescription: In other words, we say we’re going to play this tune or that tune, or we’re going to play this composition or that composition based on either some idea that the composer presents, whoever the composer is, or we’re going to play a piece that’s “open,” which means that the composition is after the fact.  So when you say “all over the place,” sometimes the music can be all over the place.  It depends on what one decides to do.  And sometimes, when it’s all over the place it can be fantastic.  For instance, the concert I did with Kidd Jordan and William Parker at the Vision Festival.  We had no rehearsal.  The first time the three of us played together was when we got up on that stage.  And from what I understand from the people who were there, they enjoyed it very much, the heavens opened up and all that sort of thing.  But as one of the participants, I can’t exactly tell you what people were receiving in the audience. I’m having a good time playing.

TP:    But what I mean is that you’re playing ideas.  You and Kidd Jordan weren’t just playing random sounds.  You’re playing ideas that you’ve developed over 50-55-60 years of playing music and thinking about music.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Just like we’re having a conversation now.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test for Downbeat, I gave you a Braxton-Max Roach piece.  You said, “Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms is amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know that he has to work with it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums, and that’s why it comes out with such clarity and weight.”  And motif and theme-and-variation construction, and so forth.  It seems that, more or less in this concert, you play from that perspective.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would agree with you.  Because I am a product as much of Max Roach, in that evolutionary line, as you might say somebody like Carl Allen or Cindy Blackman or Joe Chambers.  All of us come from more or less the same funnel, that same matrix.  Max comes out of Jo Jones and Baby Dodds.  Max was telling me himself the people that he listened to.  Kenny Clarke and Sid Catlett.  When you start thinking about the person who started syncopating the rhythm with the swing, Kenny Clarke was the person who did that shit.  Kenny Clarke was older than Max, and Kenny Clarke was doing that stuff up at Minton’s.  In terms of that bebop stuff, with those licks being put on different parts of the drums, especially with the bass drum being syncopated, Kenny Clarke started that stuff.

TP:    After Max and Braxton, I gave you Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley.  And you said about Oxley, “The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics, rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm, as, say, a Max Roach would. So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, or give-and-take. There wasn’t a lot of the polarity, which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic and generates another kind of feeling.  I think usually in improvisation, a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms and motifs in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.”  So you were saying that there’s basically a unison and it was less interesting.  So there are two different approaches to playing in these separate duets that you elaborate upon, and it seems very much that you’re in the former camp.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.  Now, if I had to do some stuff like Tony… I’ve played with Tony, and let me tell you when I did that.  I did that with Tony and Rashied Ali, and there must be a recording of this.  I’ll get back to the point.  Don’t let me lose the point.  I played with Tony and Rashied with three saxophone players and three bass players in East Berlin right after the Wall came down.  We did a concert there for Jost Gebers and FMP.  I’ve also done things with Peter Brotzman and Peter Kowald, and there’s something in the can that was done back in the ’80s with Brotzman and Kowald.  He has a duet with Teitelbaum and another duet with John Tchicai, and he’s trying to figure out how the stuff can come out.

Anyway, on this one piece with these nine musicians, I played with Oxley.  Sometimes there would be duets between myself and Oxley… The concept of the concert was that among the nine musicians there would be certain kinds of combinations.  So maybe there would be two basses and a saxophone, or two saxophones and two drums.  Whatever the configurations came out to be was how the music was presented.  So I can’t tell you exactly when I played with Tony or with Rashied, or when all of us played together.  But with Tony… And I heard Tony and Cecil again in Den Hague a couple of years ago, when I was over there with Mal Waldron and Reggie Workman. It’s like a wash, so I can get a lot of percussion instruments… There’s a guy named Paul Blackman who plays like this skiffle band in New Orleans, but he plays these rhythms, etc. But I can get all different kinds of…

Hey, this is even better.  If I had all of that stuff, let’s say, that Chick Webb had around him, or maybe even Sonny Greer, and then I would go and just wash…

TP:    You mean washes of color.

CYRILLE:  Washes of color.  You know when you play on the piano and you from one end of the piano, and you go all the way up to the top, and you play these glisses… That’s the word.  To me, very often what Tony does is he plays these glisses of rhythms.  Which is cool.  But sometimes, too, you could take those pieces of glisses and you can make certain rhythms out of it.  So for me, instead of playing like that wash… I can’t say that’s all he does.  But the general impression that I take away from having listened to Tony is this is how he plays.  At least, this is how he was playing with Cecil.  Maybe when he was doing that stuff with Bill Evans years ago…

TP:    Well, when it was time to play time, he played time, and when it was time to play with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  But here’s what I’m saying.  When you start talking about time, time can also be pointillistic.  And he doesn’t do that.  He plays glissando time.  Here’s another term.  People use these things, and I come up with them sometimes, too.  It’s difficult to explain sound and feeling, to give people a good picture in words of what’s happening with the music. So you come up with stuff like “liquid time.”  Liquid time to me would be like water, where you would get motion, but you wouldn’t get any separation.  Think about a river or think about the ocean.  Don’t you see motion?  Don’t you see rhythm?  But is it divided?

TP:    If you were going to think of a visual arts analogy, there’s a kind of Jackson Pollock analogy to Tony’s playing.

CYRILLE:  Yes, all right.  In other words, all of us being human beings, we have to try to relate whatever we do to our bodies on this planet!  So we can’t get too far out, although sometimes we can make analogies as to what it is that we think and what it is that we feel, from whence these ideas come.

TP:    But your playing on this duet with Braxton, for the most part, is not pointillistic.  It’s much more in that Max Roach sort of theme-and-variation aesthetic.  You postulate a rhythm and you sort of set it up as a field, and then you do various iterations and modulations of that idea, and Braxton plays his melodies and does his theme-and-variations and modulations on the melodies and rhythms.  Then the next piece is another idea.  It seems like there’s a sequential sequence of ideas that you work on.  Is that accurate or inaccurate?

CYRILLE:  I can’t say it’s either one.  It’s somewhere in between!  Because there are certain pointillistic things that are done in some of those compositions.  I remember there are some things where I’m playing on the rim of the snare drum, or something, and I would call that pointillistic.  Then maybe I might go from pointillism to some kind of legato, or maybe even glissando type of effect.  Maybe not so much glissando.  But thinking about it now, I could consider that in some kind of musical way from the drumset.  But there are certain things where I play a click and a clack and a bop and a bang, and Braxton relates to it in that way — and that’s what I consider to be pointillism.

TP:    Who would set what up first, from tune to tune?  Would the rhythm be the first principle?  Would the melody be the first principle?  Would it vary from tune to tune?

CYRILLE:  It would vary from tune to tune.  Sometimes Braxton would start something… See, what he’d do, sometimes he’d go to one of his other horns, and each one of those horns have a different timbre, and then I would think to myself, “Gee, what could I do to match that timbre?”  Then with the rhythms he would play, I’d think what can I do to give some kind of contrast or unison to those rhythms.  Sometimes, when we would stop…and I’d stop it… See, that recording could have been a blast… It could have been the same kind of performance that I did with Kidd and William — just played from beginning to end.  Kidd and I stopped maybe once during that performance, and then we started again.  But sometimes, even some of the stuff I’ve done with Cecil is just from the beginning, just get up and start playing and we don’t stop until the final note is hit.  But with Anthony, we started playing, and then it got to a certain point… Like, the first piece, “Duo Palindrome,” it got to a certain point and I said, “I’m going to stop now,” and it was a complete piece.  Also conceptually, I was thinking we’d have different pieces, this was not just going to be an improvisation from Point A to Point Z.  I wanted it to be that way because I wanted different feelings and different concepts to project it.

TP:    Braxton did a live recording with Max on Hat Art after Birth and Rebirth which is totally different.  Probably because it’s a studio recording, Birth and Rebirth is segmented into tunes, but on Hat Art it’s basically an 85-minute improvisation where they flow one into the other.  What dynamics in Braxton’s playing have evolved over time?  Is he a different player than he was 15 years ago when you did the Tristano record, or when he was doing the quartets, or the duo with Max?  what do you hear as distinct to this period?

CYRILLE:  Like all of us who decide as youngsters that we want to play this music, more or less essentially we’re the same people.  I think of Picasso. Of course, he’s the grandmaster, a genius, and I could only aspire to be something like him.  But when you saw Picasso’s stuff from his twenties, there was a grand line that started from his first paintings to the time he died.  You could always tell it was Picasso.  The grand line. Regardless of whatever it was that he was conceptualizing or doing, you knew that this was Pablo Picasso.

TP:    You could say that, but if you’re familiar with Picasso you can also locate a piece by how he is deploying that grand line at any given moment.  You sound different now than you did 35 years ago or 20 years ago.  I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but I think I can discern your periods.

CYRILLE:  That’s very interesting.  Frank Lowe said to me that he was playing for somebody some recordings I did with Coleman Hawkins, and then he turned around and played something you might consider more modern or different from “Just A Gigolo.” And the person said, “Is that the same Andrew Cyrille?”

TP:    Parenthetically, someone told me he played for Kenny Washington something you did with Bill Barron forty years ago, and he was nonplussed.

CYRILLE:  You’re talking about Hot Line.  I had a great time on that date.  But my point becomes this.  Is there a certain kind of recognition of my sound, maybe of some of the ingredients that I play from one period to another. I would like to think so.  I don’t know.

As far as Braxton is concerned, to me he is the same Anthony Braxton who has now evolved and has become set in his concepts in terms of what it is he wants to do, and feels that he is carrying some weight, and what he says means something as far as the lexicon is concerned — the evolution and history of the music.  I would more or less have to feel the same way.  Both of us are still here, we’re still making contributions, and we have a sense of history, we have a sense of present, and we also have a sense of where we would like to go in terms of what we have done.  I am always looking for new things to bring forth, but there’s no way in the world I can deny my mother and my father!  You know what I’m saying?  In that way, I think Braxton is more or less the same.  Because when we talked to one another in order to get this feeling of camaraderie and hand-in-glove, we’d talk about the same things you and I are talking about in terms of what makes us tick, and what makes us tick from then until now and what we hope will continue to make us tick, all things considered, as far as life is concerned.

TP:    When we’re talking about the theme-and-variation-on-a-design Max Roach approach to rhythm and Tony Oxley’s glissando thing, you can almost extrapolate that into cultural aesthetics about how to approach musical improvisation, the Afro-diasporic and the Modernist European, as it were.  Perhaps we could discuss this in terms of the scene of world improvisation, where these worlds have come together substantially over the last 30 years, in great part because of the AACM guys and their embrace of the forms and structures of the Euro-Modernist canon, and also the European community of free improvisers.  Do you have any reflections on the convergence of those streams and how it might be manifested in an interaction between you and Anthony Braxton?

CYRILLE:  You’re bringing in another piece of who we are.  Me being an African-American, I’m very much European, too, because this is what we learned, this is our culture, this is who we are.

TP:    But I’m talking about forms of music.  But please continue.

CYRILLE:  But there’s no way in the world for anybody who is a legitimate human being to start talking about what they do outside of where they live and how they got to be what they are.  So when I play with someone like Irene Schweizer, and I’ve done a number of things with Irene, and we’re going to do some more stuff… David Murray was part of he last thing I did with Irene.  So how in the world can Irene Schweizer, me and someone like David Murray get together and play on a stage if we don’t inherit certain things from each other’s culture?  Does it have to be so cut-and-dried?  You say Europe, you say Africa, you say America.  Well, yeah, you’d have the polarity when musicians from Africa and from Europe did not play together.  But as we have evolved… We’ve had a couple of wars in Europe, people like James Reese Europe…

TP:    But you didn’t have Stockhausen playing with Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, or Pierre Boulez using Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson to improvise  within a piece.  Those are very different attitudes towards what music is.  But within the AACM, or with Cecil Taylor, that convergence exists.  It is a kind of paradigm shift.  I’m speaking more of the modernist notion of European music than the broader civilizational stream.

CYRILLE:  But you see, all of these things are works in progress.  In other words, civilization is an evolution.  So in a sense, when you start talking about Stockhausen and about Boulez, how do I know that Boulez won’t call me up and say, “Come on, Andrew, play some drums” for one or another thing. This is an evolutionary process.  Some people understand it. Some people want to see what will happen when they put maybe acid and a base together to see what the effects are going to be.  Sometimes nothing will happen, sometimes you get an explosion, sometimes you get a hybrid or a mutation that’s fantastic.  People say, “Yeah, we should have thought about that all time,” but sometimes it’s just an accidental combination.

Point:  Last year Reggie Workman and I go to Finland to do a project with one of the great Finnish saxophone players, a guy named Johanni Altern(?), along with some Finnish strings.  Now, the guy who wrote the string music is a guy named Ato(?) Donner(?).  Now, Ato(?) Donner(?) has 18 strings, violins and cellos and basses, reading this music.  So he says to me, “Play what you hear within the context…” He gave me some charts that I had to read, but as I was reading the charts with the strings, I’m also improvising the same way I would do it if I’m reading Duke Ellington charts.

What I’m saying to you is that those people from Finland, coming from that cultural base, get together with me, coming from another cultural base, but at this time, in terms of the evolution of civilization and the planet, I’m influencing them and they’re influencing me.

TP:    So as the world gets smaller, these kinds of interactions become more common.  It’s no longer an exotic thing for this to happen.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s not as exotic as it was before.  Maybe if I went to play with some Amazonian Indians, there might be some different stuff coming out.

TP:    That’s something Peter Kowald was interested in, taking folk musicians out of their local contexts, and creating a broad dialogue of discrete vocabularies.

CYRILLE:  Outside the concepts people have about each other… There’s only one human race, and the simple reason for that is because everybody can still cross.  We can all have an offspring with anybody on the planet.  So conceptually, in terms of culture, the same thing could be possible!  Again, when you start talking about Braxton and the guys from Chicago dealing with some European forms with which they have filtered some Africanisms, so to speak: That’s what jazz has always been anyway.  From the spirituals through the gospels… Well, maybe the gospels were a little different.  But you’d take those harmonies by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they’re singing some of those European hymns about Jesus and God.  It’s the same thing that’s been reprocessed over and over through the generations.  It’s just that each generation has to interpret it according to the dynamics of the time in which they live.  Some times are better than others.

TP:    I think the one problem with comparing this hybrid phenomenon we’re talking about is that the role of the drums is very different…

CYRILLE:  Well, in the Fisk Jubilee Singers there were no drums.

TP:    But there were certain rhythms that they more than made up for.  If you want to really extrapolate abstractly, there’s a continuity from that up to the Cecil Taylor Trio with you!  If we look at that trio and the John Coltrane Quartet as the two extremes to which that notion of music-making went, and how much farther could it go after that?  So there is evolution. There is a difference.  And I think Braxton and the AACM people are the people who were doing all that research and development on how to elaborate that difference and find a way to continue — find their space.

CYRILLE:  In some ways, something I did that worked was a concert with Miya Masaoka, Richard Teitelbaum and Frank Lowe.  Masaoka is Japanese-American, and she comes in with the koto, etc., and we start playing these rhythms.  You hear the sound, so you’ve got to get used to the rhythm.  That’s something that’s going to be in evolution as time goes, what the Asians bring to this mix of “America” and “American music.”  I’m all for it, in a lot of ways.  I am open to it.  I want to be part of it. It feeds me, I feed them, we feed each other.  For me to say, “Well, my thing is this, and I don’t do nothin’ else,” that’s not Andrew Cyrille.  Whether it be avant-garde or whether it be Ellington stuff… Because Lord knows, I had a fantastic time playing Ellington’s music, and I’d do it tomorrow if I had to.  I loved it.  With all those great musicians up there, and Carmen Bradford singing on top of all that stuff.

But getting back to Braxton: As the arc of life moves from the time I met him, back in Paris around 1969-70… I was hanging out with Philly Joe Jones in Paris, and we started talking about Braxton. He said, “Yeah, man, I knew Braxton can play.  You know how I knew he could play?  I watched the way his fingers moved.”  And we laughed.  But that was Joe’s impression of Braxton, and Joe relayed that to me, and that made me also consider Anthony… Because he was given an endorsement by somebody whom I looked up to.

TP:    We’ve been talking a lot about concept, but we haven’t talked that much about feeling.  And obviously, the way you play in an improvisation will pertain directly to the way you feel.  You’re going to feel one way with Cecil Taylor.  You’ll feel another way with Oliver Lake and Reggie.  You’ll another way with John Carter, another way with Muhal, and another way with David Murray.  How does it feel to play with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] It feels good!  I can’t say it feels bad!

TP:    Well, it felt good to play with all those people, or you wouldn’t have stuck with it all that time.  But it felt good differently.  Let’s talk about the distinctions that make the difference, even though they all made you feel good.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] You’re something else, man, with your analyses and questions.  They cause me to think, and I have to find things to carry some truth to them and also mean something.

I always have to come from the way that I get to how I feel, and then I have to understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about feelings.  Feelings usually come from some experience that somebody has.  Right?  You feel good or you feel bad.  So in the brain it says to you, “Gee, this is going through my body” — like sound, etc., because it travels through the skin and that’s how we feel, too, physically.

In a musical sense, what I have to do, again, is find out what’s on the page.  In other words, let’s put it this way.  Braxton gives me a score, and he’s playing one line, I’m playing the other line, and then we come to a part whereby there is this…it’s not a painting, but you might call it a sketch, where he has these lines and figures, and he says, “Play this at this particular time, whatever you think or feel about this.”  So here I am now, at the moment I’m talking to you, and let’s say he had venetian blinds — because I’m looking at venetian blinds in front of me.  So let’s say it’s venetian blinds on this page, and I’m looking at them and saying, “Well, what do I feel about venetian blinds, and how can I interpret venetian blinds on the drumset?”  I can go from left-to-right and right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, and I can do that, say, from snare drum to tom-tom, from snare drum to tom-tom, back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth.  And just from that motion, a motion like a windshield wiper blade, I’ll be able to get kind of sound.  I’ll get some kind of rhythm.

Now, how does that make me feel?  Does it make me feel good?  Yeah, it could, if I’m doing it and it’s coming out and I’m not flubbing, and it’s very clear to me in terms of how I’m doing it in terms of one to another.  You gave me another idea in terms of a rhythm — OOM-BOOM, OOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM; I could do it slower or I could do it faster — looking at the Venetian blinds.

Then what Anthony does in relationship to it also makes me feel a certain way.  When he’s playing, I could say to myself, “where is he going with this?  How can I play this so that it makes him move into another area or makes him feel he wants to create with this sketch he’s given me up to a certain point, and then we move on.”  That happens on the record.  Sometimes I’ll play certain things, and then he will imitate them.  He’ll come back and play verbatim rhythmically just the piece I’m in.  It’s interesting and it’s cute, and it makes me laugh.  So in that light, it makes me feel good.

I don’t like to think… Hey, look, it’s like asking somebody is the cup half-empty or is the cup half-filled.  So I don’t want to start talking about what I don’t like, because it ain’t about that.  So the only thing I can say as far as doing the thing with Anthony is concerned and how I feel about him in relationship to John Carter has to do with what they’re asking me to eat.  In other words, what they have cooked up for me to eat and taste and digest, and what am I to do with it with my on sense of seasoning, or to put in my oven and bring out a certain way.

It’s a difficult question.  This is how I have to look at the overall thing, since you used that term…

TP:    I did.  But now I’m being very specific.

CYRILLE:  How can you get to the specific without some kind of overall?  Or how can you get to the overall without some kind of specific?  Both of them relate to each other, even though they may be on opposite sides of the pendulum.  But when you ask “how do you feel about something?” what else can I say than that I feel good.  I can say in terms of this project, I thought it was a grand recording.  There are some magical things that happen.  There are some things that come out of the tradition, where you have theme-and-variation, but I feel there are also some other things that weren’t quoted or stated in past presentations.  Now, this has to be for people who can sit down and listen with some sort of history of the music in terms of the evolution, or people who will sit down and just say, “Hey, man, this is some good stuff; where are THESE guys coming from?  I like this.”  Or some people will say, “Hey, man, turn that shit off.”  Because I’ve been in the company of so many people who just don’t even give a damn what’s being played.  They don’t want to hear that.  You’ve got to turn on 97.1 with the hip-hop, and then you get a response out of them.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great project and I think it will stand the test of time.

TP:    Some of these songs I’m familiar with.  I think you did “The Loop” on one of your solo albums in the ’70s, and “The Navigator” is from that quartet you had with Sonelius Smith.  Can you discuss the dynamics of those pieces?

CYRILLE:  I have a duet tape somewhere around here of me and Butch Morris doing “The Loop.”  That was the first time I ever played the piece in public many years ago, when he and David Murray first came to New York.  “The Loop” is a piece I’ve played on occasion with people, you could say as a foil maybe, or something to give them to think about, and I’ve explained to them what I mean by “The Loop.”  The loop, to me, is like a figure-8 laying on its side, like the infinity sign.  So you go back and you go forth, you go back and forth.  It goes, DINK-duht-duht-DANK, DINK-duht-duht-DANK.  Then on top of that, I improvise a rhythm with the drumsticks on the drumset, with the basic rhythm being with the hi-hat and the bass drum, with that feeling of looping.  I explained that to Anthony, and I asked him to improvise something within this particular concept.

He wanted that one, and he also wanted…there’s another one that starts out with a basic ostinato kind of drum feeling.  He wanted those to be the first pieces, I think, of each CD, but I didn’t want that.  So we discussed that and came to an agreement.  I wanted “Duo (Palindrome)” to be the first piece, because that was more representative of how I felt our collaboration was or is at this time — even though “The Loop” is part of it.  Sometimes they say that to sell a CD, you’ve got to have a hook, and the first hook should be one of the strongest things on the CD in order to get people to buy it.  Because usually, when people pick up a recording, the first thing they do is play the first track, and if the first track is appealing, then they say, “Hey, I want to get this,” and then they listen to the rest of it.

Anyway, I thought it would be better for me and Anthony to have “Duo (Palindrome),” since that’s the idea anyway; we’re looking at each other, and 2002 is 2002 going forwards and backwards.  So conceptually, that’s what I got him to agree to.  He had another idea in terms of the water.  But I sat down and thought about it and explained it to him.
TP:    The tracks that are co-credited could be called improvisations.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.

TP:    Then we have “Water, Water, Water.”

CYRILLE:  That comes basically out of an African matrix that has a 6/8 feeling.  “Water, Water, Water” is a piece I recorded with Mor Thiam on Ode To The Living Tree, and I’ll tell you where the concept came from.  That came from me being on Gorie Island, which is one of the slave points of embarkation in Senegal, with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Fred Hopkins and Adegoke Steve Colson.  That was my first recording in Africa.  The feeling of being on that island… I was saying, “It could have been me,” as being one of those people moving through the door of no-return, getting on those ships, and being in those places of confinement.  I’ll tell you this much.  I visited Dachau, which is near Munich, and the construction of those camps and what I saw on Gorie Island is the same.  The same people could have constructed it.  It’s terrible.  And it makes me feel very sad as I’m talking about having viewed both of those places.  What people do to people, man, is terrible shit sometimes.

Anyway, I just thought about the buoyancy of being in one of those slave holds of one of those ships, and the ship moving up and down on the water.  That’s how I got that sense of composition for “Water, Water, Water.”  The beat is a 6/8 Ghanaian beat — GANK, GUGANK-GUGANKGU-GANK, GUGANK-GUGANK-GANK — and I augmented it with some other things that I do… In other words, that was the code.  The other part of it, with the sock cymbal and left hand and the bass drum, I added in terms of independent rhythms to support that code.  That was one of the pieces that I played with Anthony that projected this ostinato, which he liked very much.  I think he also wanted that to be the first piece on the second CD.  So we compromised, and I said, “Okay, Anthony, that can be the first piece of the second CD.”  I didn’t w want “The Loop” to be the first piece of the first CD.  For some reason, I didn’t want the drums to be out there like that on both CDs.  Maybe I have to analyze more in my head why I didn’t want that.

The excerpt from “The Navigator”: I wanted a rhythm that projected some kind of a march, and that was something that was the section of “The Navigator” which comes from the beginning part.  Now, all this is very interesting about me and water.  I’m not sure about what all this means, even though I’m a water sign, as they say, but I don’t necessarily believe in that kind of shit.

TP:    Did you used to go to Brighton Beach or Coney Island?  You’re from New York!

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Riis Park was the place.  The thing about “The Navigator” is that when I asked a friend of mine to send me a picture of what he thought of the music, he sent me a picture of the coast of Panama, with these palm trees, and when I saw that, I said, “Yes, this works as the cover for ‘The Navigator,'” and then the association with water came after I’d written the composition.  I wrote the music, then I remembered this term, “the navigator.”  Noah Howard had said to me somewhere in Europe, “Yeah, you’re the navigator.”  So when I started writing this piece, I was going to call this “The Navigator.”  The navigator can be an airplane pilot, too.  Anybody can be a navigator.  But in this particular case, it came down with water and the navigator.

“Dr. Licks” is a brand-new piece, the one I most recently wrote.  “Dr. Licks” comes out of some drum licks, and I just wrote some notes to the drum licks.  I’m going to expand either with Marty and Mark or Reggie and Oliver.  It’s a sketch, so to speak.  But Anthony played it very well.  He brought some information to it in terms of how we could do it, and that was good.  We had to practice that a few times, because how it was written was relatively difficult.  I’d have to do it again myself, even though it’s my tune.  But I’d have to get in and use my brain to play the music.

TP:    You said you titled “A Musical Sense Of Life.”

CYRILLE:  Right.  I titled most of them, except for Anthony’s.  But we agreed on the titles.  I did the same thing with Richard Teitelbaum, titling most of the things on that recording, Double Clutch.  It has to do with how the music makes me feel, and what it makes me think about.  I guess all music which does not have words makes people think of something.  So whatever it is that you think of could be the title.  And if you agree with somebody that you’re in collaboration with, then fine.  Or if it’s just your piece… I said, “This is ‘Dr. Licks.'”  I didn’t say, “Tell me what you think about this title.” The other ones I said, “This reminds me of so-and-so; does it remind you of this?” And we sat down and listened to the music.  This was up at Rosenberg’s house, when we were thinking about titles.  He said, “Yeah!” or “No” or “Yeah, but you can add this word.” Like, “Duo (Palindrome),” I was going just going to say, “Palindrome,” but he said, “No, let’s make it ‘Duo (Palindrome),’ and when I explained to him what the word “Palindrome” meant in terms of 2002, he said, “Yeah, let’s call it ‘Duo (Palindrome) 2002.'”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 7-30-04):

TP:    Let’s talk about the two weeks at Iridium, and then we can branch out. It was an opportunity for you to navigate a lot of the different areas you navigate. One was very open-ended improvising, and the other was more task-directed, playing tunes and interpreting them in your own way. Looking back, how do you evaluate the whole thing?

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, was challenging in that I had to deal with different personnel in the front line, so to speak. The horns were different. It was Dave Douglas the first night, then Gary Bartz on the second, and the third through sixth nights was Bennie Maupin, and each one of them came with something else insofar as how they decided how they were going to play what was being asked for. A lot of times, when people say things are open, sometimes they are very open and sometimes they are a little less open, even though, say, the improvisation might be free insofar as what you do within those different aspects of being open.

Now, what I mean is a lot of times, Henry would say, “Okay, Andrew, you and I will go out and we’ll start something and play together, and then Perry will come in, and then Bennie would come in.” Or he might say, “I’m going to start with a solo, and then Andrew, you come in, and then Gary, you come in.” Or he’ll say, “All of us start together.” In that light, I have to decide what it is I’m going to do based on a couple of things. One would be if that I’m going to start with Henry, then I have to have something in my head that’s pretty clear in terms of what I’m going to do to thrust the music out there and give it some thrust as I am presenting what it is that’s on my mind. At the same time, it’s like a gambit, an opening gambit in a chess game. So you make a move, and if both Henry and I make a move together, it might be some kind of unison, and sometimes it might not be a unison. So from that explosion, so to speak, or that piece of genetic, or genesis-birth, we go from there.  Then we begin listening to each other.

On the other side, if he says, “Okay, Andrew, you start and I’ll come in,” then I’ll start something more or less with the same idea that we play something, then he’ll relate to it.  He’ll listen and then he’ll play what he thinks goes with that.  It’s the same thing with me.  If he starts something, then I’ll listen to it.  Then I’ll try to find some music in my head that comes out of the drumset that will go along with what he’s playing on the bass.

TP:    By the end of the week, were you doing more unisons or call-and-responses?

CYRILLE:  Well, sometimes it was a call-and-response and sometimes it wasn’t. What I like to do sometimes with bass players… Horn players, too, but especially sometimes with bass players, because it’s not often done during the song… We’ll do exchanges.  So in that light, they’re not necessarily unisons; they’re like call-and-responses. Unisons are usually played when somebody plays something definite and it’s repeated. So then if I wanted to play exactly what would do that, and that would be a unison.  Other than that, there’s always a certain amount of “counterpoint” that’s going on, whether it be rhythmical or whether it be melodic — or even sometimes harmonic, depending on what the instrumentation is.
person was playing, or vice-versa, then we
TP:    You have a lot of experience playing in that context, but how much do you get to do that these days with people who share your history? What was interesting about the two weeks is that you were playing with people who were your generational peers and whose histories intersect in various ways. It’s an interesting dynamic.

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, with Henry and Dave and Perry… You have to understand, too, that Perry is an extraordinary musician, insofar as, yes, he’s part of what you might call the avant-garde movement, but he plays a lot of standard tunes also. When we were touring in Europe… We didn’t do too much of that at the Iridium. On occasion, we’d play a standard.  But he was playing things like “My Foolish Things.” We played “Oleo” at the Iridium.  We also played that in Europe.  And there were several other pieces, standard repertoire. Another one was “Doxy.” He likes those standard tunes Sonny Rollins played, because he had a lot of experience with Sonny.

Anyway, we would segue sometimes from things that were totally open, or freely improvised, into something that had a certain kind of form. What that does is, that gives a kind of tension-and-release not only to us, the musicians, but also to the people who listen. Very often people appreciate that. Then sometimes, with certain groups, it’s just freely improvised for the whole set. On occasion we did that at the Iridium. We didn’t play any standard material with Dave Douglas; that night it was just free improvisation for the most part, if I remember correctly. When Gary came in, you know, Gary likes to play certain things in the pocket — grooves. So at a certain point in time, he would start playing something that had an ostinato motif, and we would all pick up on that and go there. Also sometimes, coming out of a solo, let’s say… And this was something great that Henry did. Coming out of a solo that I was playing. I’d start playing some kind of a rhythmical motif in an ostinato way, or maybe not even ostinato, maybe I’d just do it a couple of times coming out of a solo, and then Henry picked up the rhythm and added some pitches to it, and that became the genesis of another piece, or something that evolved from a solo that I was doing.

He’s great that way. His ability to be flexible is fantastic. Bass players very often have to play a lot of ostinato lines, and then when those ostinato lines are played everybody, including me, the drummer, and the horn players or piano players, we can dance on those kinds of things.  It gives us a bed that we…like little kids jump up and down on and do whatever flips, jumping off the bed, jumping back on the bed, etc., landing on your behind, on your stomach — and it’s because you have that mattress there.  That’s what Henry provided.

So that week was interesting in that way. The other thing about sometimes playing free is that you have to find something, number one, that is of interest to you.  That is, I, the musician, have to find something that I feel good about, and then try to get the musicians on stage to relate to it and have them feel good about it, and then collectively we can give that to the audience, and the audience feels good about what we’re feeling good about.  So it’s not as easy sometimes as people might think it is, because we have no prescription.

TP:    Playing free doesn’t imply, then, any particular way of playing.  It doesn’t imply playing rubato or playing metrically.  It has more to do with playing the idea that suits the moment.

CYRILLE:  Right.  And that could be metrically or it could be rubato. It all depends on what you decide to do.

TP:    Would that have been the case, say, forty years ago?  Let’s say you and Perry Robin and Henry had been playing at the Judson Church in 1966, would those options have come into play, or would there have been a more rigid approach to what you could or could not do?

CYRILLE:  Well, it all depends on where our heads were at the time, and what was being put out there at that particular time.  I can’t really tell you. Forty years ago…

TP:    1964-65-66.

CYRILLE:  Well, it would depend on the people I was playing with. I remember playing rubato stuff with Walt Dickerson back in 1961-62. There weren’t very many people that I came into contact with at that time who were doing that kind of stuff.

TP:    But by ‘65-’66, you were with Cecil a few years, and Unit Structures is ’66 and Conquistador is ‘67, or vice-versa. What I’m saying is, had the three of you been together then, would you have availed yourself or so many options, or might your approach have been a bit more rigid?

CYRILLE:  Well, I can’t answer that. It all would have depended on what we wanted to do at that time.  If somebody came up with that idea and said, “Well, let’s play free…” Well, for instance, look.  When I was a kid and 15-16 years old, I had a band where it was Eric Gale, the guitar player, and another young fellow in Brooklyn named Leslie Braithwaite. We used to get together, and we’d play tunes like “But Not For Me” “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Scrapple From The Apple.” Now, at that time, if somebody said, “Hey, man, let’s play some rubato stuff,” probably everybody would say, ‘Hey, man, what are you talking about?  That stuff is not what we want to do; that’s not the kind of music we play.”

I was trying to learn how to play time, learn how to swing, etc.  Around that time we began meeting certain musicians, like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne, etc., all those guys in Brooklyn, and there was a certain kind of basic thing that you had to do if you wanted to play drums with them, if you wanted to be a musician. If you couldn’t do that, that meant you couldn’t play with them.  Now, all of this other stuff came later on insofar as musicians who became stronger and decided that they wanted to do something else musically — philosophically is really what it comes down to — and had the strength to do it.  Like, for instance, Cecil. Because Cecil played standards, but then he decided to become more or less what you might say an iconoclast.  And he broke that up!  Because he felt that he needed to do something else…a way to play the music. And he would say that there was another way to swing, you see.  In some ways, that’s true.  But when you don’t play changes in a very methodical way, if you don’t keep time in a very methodical way, it opens the music up. Things open up. So at that particular time, when we began to do that kind of stuff, it was something that we were doing in contrast to something that we had already known about, you see, that we could do.  It was a matter of choice.

TP:    I won’t keep this real historical.  But I’ve never had a chance to ask you in a detailed way which drummers you were modeling yourself after when you were that 16-17-year-old learning to play those tunes.

CYRILLE:  Well, listening to records.  The first records I went out and bought were… The first or second 10” record was one with Red Rodney, and the other one was “Tempus Fugit” with Miles Davis, with Gil Coggins on piano. Red Rodney looks like he’s about 19 years old on the cover. But I had a job.  I was working in Horn & Hardhart, washing dishes, and I started getting into the music.  I had a drumset.  And I began listening to this music, which was fascinating to me.  And since I was playing drums, I decided, “Gee, I wonder can I do this; I’d like to do this.”  And I kept trying.

TP:    You  were in high school, working at Horn & Hardhart, and you’d already been in the drum and bugle corps.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  I started in the drum-and-bugle corps when I was like 11.

TP:    And you picked up your rudiments quite quickly from all accounts.

CYRILLE:  Well, sort of.  Rudiments are something you don’t necessarily pick up quickly, because they’re sticking patterns, and you have to LEARN them. Then you have to continuously repeat them in practice, and then, of course, you put them into parade cadences for drumming, the bugle, etc., and bass drums and tenor drums to be in conjunction with.  So you play those march rhythms, those martial things. For military!  That’s what those drum-and-bugle corps are.  They’re quasi-military bands.

TP:    For the troops to march in time.

CYRILLE:  That’s right. You see what I mean?  We could start talking about that, too, scientifically, a 17-stroke roll and a 13-stroke roll.  Like, when you start it and then you end it on the 13th beat, that takes a certain amount of time for the soldiers to make their steps. RRRRMMMMMP, and that’s when they put the foot down. They hear that, and then they know; this is how you get them to march in unison.  So if you want to get them to march a little faster, you play a shorter roll.

TP:    So you’re in high school studying chemistry and you have an after-school job at Horn & Hardhart, and you start hearing trap drums on these jazz records.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  But let me take you back a little more, too.  See, it all is mixed with other influences.  Many of those people who were teaching me the rudiments to play in the marching band were also jazz drummers. People like Willie Jones, for instance. Then there was Lenny McBrowne at that time, and Lee Abrams, who was working with Dinah Washington and probably had done some stuff with Lester Young. Willie Jones had done some stuff with Lester Young and was working with Monk. But see, the person who came to the grade school to start the drum-and-bugle corps…

TP:    You were saying the people who taught you rudiments were jazz drummers, and the person who started you in grade school was a guy named Pop Janson.

CYRILLE:  Abdulio Janson(?) was his name, that’s right.  He came to the school and resuscitated the drum-and-bugle corps that had existed before I got to the grade school.  I guess this was during World War Two.

TP:    Had your family emigrated from Haiti?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  My mother and father did. My mother came here at the age of 23, and they came here in 1926. My father came here in 1919, you see, and he was born in 1894. They’d been here for a while.  My mother had me at 36, and my father was 46.

TP:    Was there music in your family or extended family?  Were people playing the Haitian folkloric stuff or various Caribbean things?

CYRILLE:  My mother would sing me the songs like “Frere Jacques, frere jacques…” She was always singing to me, and playing those games, the fingers go into the chest and then into the mouth and then the eyes, to teach you how to talk and where the different parts of your body were.  She always did that. We had a piano in the house. I never took any lessons; my sister got the lessons. But see, then, my mother and father separated when I was 4. Had they not separated, I don’t necessarily know what would have happened to me, what they would have done with or for me.  But I remember before my mother and father separated, she gave the piano to a club that she belonged to, the Haitian Alliance, because they needed a piano. She’d say that I was dirtying up the keys and I was biting the wood and all that sort of stuff. I guess I was teething or something like that. Anyway, she gave the piano away, and I… The piano always fascinated me, and I always wanted to play it.

So eventually, when I got a call to join the drum-and-bugle corps… As a matter of fact (I tell this story all the time, and it’s true), when the call came around to the classroom (I was in 7th or 8th grade at the time) that Pop Janson wants to start a drum-and-bugle corps, I remember saying to myself, “I don’t want to join any drum-and-bugle corps because I don’t want to march up and down the street.” Probably if some of my schoolmates hadn’t joined up, that wouldn’t have done it either.  But a good friend of mine at that time, my buddy in grade school, he had gone to the bugle corps, and I had gone over to his house in the afternoon that day to meet, and his mom said that he had gone to the auditorium. So I went over to the auditorium. Now, this is a funny story. Another classmate of mine, whose name was Eli Beans(?), and Eli came out of the auditorium… Of course, at that time there were other kids in the class who were like tough guys, and we’d have to spar with them. Sometimes you would get into fights. Because some of them were bully types, but some were rational and intelligent [LAUGHS], so they joined the corps. I remember one young man named Smith, and as I was walking up to the door of the gym, Eli looks at me, and said, “Hey, man, Smith said if you don’t join the corps, he’s going to see you tomorrow.” So I guess some of it… And it’s not that I wouldn’t have fought with Smith, and gone out there and did what I had to do all the time in order to survive in that environment.  But my friend Bernard was in the corps, there were a few other boys from the classroom, and so I said, “Okay, I’ll join.”

TP:    It was the path of least resistance.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, so to speak.  And, then, too, I wanted to hang out with my buddies who played the drums and bugles, and they asked me what did I want to play, and I said, “Okay, I want to play drums.”

This is how things work sometimes. You go in and put a quarter in the slot machine, and then you hit the jackpot. So I went in there and they showed me how to hold the sticks, and then they said, “Play this” — the roll, mamadada, mamadada, bop-bop-bop-bop, right-right, left-left, right-right, left-left. Then they showed me one that was a little harder. They said, “Okay, you can do this, that’s good; now try this one.” Right-left, right-right, left-left. And not even thinking, I did it, right-left, right-right, left-left. I remember it was Willie Jones, and he said, “Hey, man, look at this kid!  He can play this paradiddle!” They called that a paradiddle. I didn’t know what was going on.  I just did it.  So then they discovered that I had what they called natural hands.  As a result also, I liked doing it, because it was a challenge…

TP:    And you could do it, so you didn’t get bored.

CYRILLE:  I could do it.  So I found a vehicle.  I found a voice for myself in terms of sound and being able to do something that made me feel good and made other people feel good.

TP:    Once you discovered the trapset, though, and were playing, I’m interested in who the voice were that you were emulating.

CYRILLE:  Okay, let me finish the story. People like Willie Jones and Lenny McBrowne were coming down there, helping Pop Janson get these kids together, of which I was one.  Then Willie said there are other ways to play the drums, and got a drumset. So he would invite me and some of the other kids, especially Bernard, over to his house on occasion, and we’d sit at the drumset. So then he started telling me the bass drum does one thing, the hi-hat does another thing, the right hand does this, the left hand does that. Also Lenny McBrowne was saying the same thing. They were older than us, obviously. Then they started talking about these jazz musicians. They said, “there’s music that drums play other than parade music.” So then they started talking to us about Max Roach, they started talking about Art Blakey, they started talking about Shadow Wilson.  And then, sometimes they would take two or three of us to this place called the Putnam Central, which was around the corner from the school we went to where the auditorium was, where Max Roach would be practicing. (Putnam Ave. and Claussen.) So Max would be up in this place, practicing — I say “up” because it was upstairs. We couldn’t go in because they sold alcohol in the place, So we would stand in the vestibule and listen to this guy up there playing, and I mean, I heard this BARRAGE coming out of there, and I didn’t know exactly what it was… They kept talking about these people.

Just to make a long story short, that was my introduction to the drumset and to the sound of jazz, so to speak. Aside from hearing Max Roach practicing, during that same period of time, there was Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich was out there, Cozy Cole, and these people were making hits that were played on the radio station WWRL.  Out here, people liked Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and they’d be playing that music. So as a result of all of this stuff coming together, I was given a certain kind of ground, I was given a nest that I could go to, and then begin to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life.

TP:    And then someone like Willie Jones or Lenny McBrowne could show you how Max or Art Blakey or Shadow Wilson constructed a pattern or a groove.

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah.  But you see, it’s not as easy as that. Because drummers… There’s a certain thing called independent coordination. You’ve got to do it over and over and over, until after a while, it becomes something where you don’t even really think about certain things, and it becomes muscle-memorized. Then you go on from there.

TP:    Let’s take things from there to 1964: There are a number of things you’re doing. You’re doing regular gigs where you have to play time, like with Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet…

CYRILLE:  Nellie Lutcher was way before that, like 1959.

TP:    It sounds like you go to Juilliard around ‘60, and there you play at sessions, you get a gig with Mary Lou, with Jacquet, you have to play time and do what you have to do. Then you’re also playing with dancers and you’re getting a multidimensional notion of what rhythm is, and a certain sense of abstraction. Then you’re hearing African drummers, and you get a gig with Olatunji, which is seminal for you, because you’re hearing all these rhythms and having to play them and internalizing them. Then you meet Cecil when you were about 19 or something…

CYRILLE:  I met Cecil when I was 17.

TP:    So it’s 1957, you’re 17, you meet Cecil, and you go to this joint with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  No-no.

TP:    You’re at Hartnett and then go uptown…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, but see, that was much later on. That was six or seven years later. Cecil and I would just see each other. I mean, he was another musician. He wasn’t who he is now. He was just a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. I mean, he had a sense of direction, I’m sure.  But he’d see me, and we’d wave to each other, like guys see each other on the street and sometimes nod… I’d play, and he’d say, “Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.” I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. Yeah, I liked Joe, because I met Joe at the same time, too.

TP:    He hung in Brooklyn a lot.

CYRILLE:  He lived in Brooklyn, not too far from the Turbo Village.  But there were a lot of musicians who worked there. Here’s a footnote for you. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village. The first musician that John Handy ever played with when he came to New York was me. We played a gig up at the Shalimar by Randolph, in Harlem, across the street from a place called Sugar Ray’s at 135th and 7th, across the street from the Hotel Theresa. I forgot what the organ player’s name was. But that was the first gig John Handy made when he came to New York. We were talking about when he was at Iridium, laughing about it.

What I’m saying is that all of these things, in a sense… See, even before I went to Juilliard, I was playing gigs with people like Duke Jordan, like wedding receptions and things like that. There was a lot of that stuff going on in Brooklyn. Like, almost every weekend, you’d sit by the telephone and somebody would call you up in the morning or late in the afternoon, and you’d get a phone call saying, “Hey, man, there’s a gig uptown on Bainbridge Street’” or “There’s a gig on Ralph Avenue; they need somebody for a party,” or “There’s a wedding going on; are you available” or “Can you do this tomorrow?” Eventually, I didn’t have to work at Horn & Hardhart, or I didn’t have to deliver… I was working in the garment center. I was delivering rolls of textiles from one place to another.

TP:    and you were studying chemistry.

CYRILLE:  And I was studying chemistry. Exactly. That was something I had to make a decision about as to what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to continue pursuing chemistry or whether I was going to pursue music. The difference was that I liked chemistry, I liked it a lot, but I loved music — so I went with the love.  And the love continues.

TP:    At what point did playing function, playing time, start to feel confining?

CYRILLE:  See, that’s a term that I don’t like.

TP:    Well, when did it feel that you had to do something? Playing with Illinois Jacquet to playing with Cecil is a radical difference in attitude.

CYRILLE:  But see, the thing is that for  me, Andrew Cyrille, there’s not such a bifurcation. For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. So even if it was, say, ametrical or not playing certain tempos, time, etc., that was fine, because we were playing another kind of music. It’s like when I was playing in the high school band and playing Dvorak and stuff like that.  It’s what was being asked for.  When I was playing for the dancers, it’s what I heard in my mind that was given to them so that they could do their choreography.

TP:    So you were a professional. You had the attitude of a professional very early on. Was that notion of professionalism innate to you?  Or did musicians teach you that?

CYRILLE:  Hey, look, this is what goes down, man. You look at the dictionary, or at least when I was in school… Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, “You’ve got to be a professional.” I’d see a Gigi Gryce, a Jackie McLean, all those cats at a place called the Continental. They looked professional. So what does that mean?  That means they were working. See, they were in business. So if I also wanted to make some money, like Max Roach… Max Roach was one of the consummate professionals.  You’ve got to do what people do who do the business, who make the money.

TP:    But you turned that into a way of also making art, because you approached each function as creatively as you could.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    At least, you now have all those vocabularies down, and it’s your creative voice.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s therapeutic for me, because I’m one of those people who loves excitement, who loves adventure, who loves to explore. I mean, those things that I did with Milford Graves, playing drums with him, was one of the most exciting things in my life — that record we did The Dialogue of The Drums.  That’s some tough stuff. So anybody, even when it’s with Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Oliver Lake, it’s all still the same thing in terms of being creative and us dealing with each other in terms of the concept that the music presents. So if I’m playing “Hope Two,” that piece Archie wrote for Elmo Hope, I still have to struggle to find some stuff in there that’s going to be exciting and that’s going to be new and different, even though the prescription might be the same.  But it’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make the shit happen.

TP:    Are people interpreting the prescription similarly, or is it a different prescription now than it was forty years ago, when all of you who were on stage at Iridium were feeling your oats?

CYRILLE:  Look, if I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from what it was forty years ago.  If I’m doing something with Muhal, then it’s different, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal plays blues a lot of times at the end of his gig, and he’ll say he wants a backbeat.  When I was playing those gigs with people like George Braith and Billy Gardner… I used to sit in with Lou Donaldson from time to time.  You play those organ gigs where you have to go out to those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, where those sleep-in women who would be working at some of those homes out there… On Thursday night or Friday night, they’d have a night off and they’d come to those clubs, where you’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, where people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that.  That’s part of being a professional.  But as a musician, it’s not something that you deal with from the head down.  You deal with it from the stomach up to the head, and then you FEEL good about what you’re doing, and then those people, of course, feel good about what they’re hearing you play, what you’re giving them.  They’re out there on the floor dancing. It’s the same thing even when I was playing for people at the June Taylor School of Dancers.  You play the music, and then you can watch their bodies move to the way you play the rhythms, how you accent certain things. So that’s the thrill for me.

TP:    It sounds like playing for Cecil was your own time.

CYRILLE:  Well, with Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then becomes to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, “Okay, drummer, make my body move.”

TP:    Or if you were “swinging.”

CYRILLE:  Yeah. But see, the definition of swing to some people means Sid Catlett.  That’s who Kenny Clarke told me was his favorite drummer. See, Kenny Clarke told me… And all these things MEAN something to me.  I’d like to BE that if I could.  He told me that Big Sid was a drummer who all of those chorus line dancers who used to do stuff with Duke up in Harlem, when they would have rehearsals… Because sometimes, as a drummer, you need that if you’re going to do certain moves. He said those dancers loved Big Sid because he made them feel as though they were dancing on a cloud. And when you start thinking about it, all of those instruments sit on the rhythm.  They sit on the drums.  They sit on the drums and the bass.

TP:    You were joking about Valerie Wilmer’s comment, and it’s in the liner notes of this FMP date with Cecil, that Cecil gave you the metaphor of playing for a dance along with him, or extrapolating the things you’d done in dance towards creative uses with him.  Is that how Cecil helped to shape what you were doing, or was it something you were prepared to do and came into naturally?

CYRILLE:  See, a lot of times people will say certain things, and then you have to come up with how you’re going to do it. So if that was said to me, then I had to think about maybe something that I played for a dancer somewhere, at sometime, or maybe something that I would play for a dancer now if that were the situation.

The most outstanding thing, in my mind, that Cecil ever said to me was, “Do what drummers do.” It’s very simple. I know what drummers do, because I’m a drummer, and I’m going to do what I do. See?  So in that light, he never told me, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, that or the other.” Maybe twice I remember he asked me to play something specific, like a 3 against a 5, or some kind of metrical situation.  And he wasn’t really that specific about it. He just said, “Play 3 against 5 here,” blah-blah, blah-blah. And I did whatever it was that I thought he was talking about.  But most of the time, and I’d say 99% of the time (if I have to talk about that being 1 percent when he asked me to play this or that), it was always, “do what you want to do, man; you know what to do.”

Even when we were at Antioch and we were with that big band, we had that orchestra of students… There are some tapes around from that period, which is great. But what I was doing with that orchestra and the “percussion section” was whatever I felt like. See?  I would write music out in my way for the other drummers, who were part of the ensemble, and that’s what went down. So when Cecil would do the orchestration and give the notes to the other voices, I would be in the back, and whatever it was that I heard, I would apply the percussion music to whatever it was that was going on with the melodies and the harmonies. So it was always that way with me and him.  And the challenge for me becomes to bring that up the highest artistic level that I could, to bring some kind of feeling, bring some kind of logical meaning to what it is that I am playing or what it is that I am orchestrating.

TP:    Still, the overriding notion is whatever it is.  It’s not a one-sound type of thing. I’m not saying this pejoratively, but when Rashied Ali was playing with Coltrane he was going straight-ahead, and so was Sunny Murray with Ayler.  But I can’t see them approaching each area in the systematic manner you do. What makes you stand out, it seems, is that you’re able to apply systematic logic in a very creative way, which makes you and Braxton a logical mix.

CYRILLE:  That could very well be. That could be the analogy.  But see, I’ve always tried to be open. I can’t say I love everything because that would be a lie. But I have played duets with Rashied, and I have tapes of me and Rashied playing together in a concert at Antioch, and it’s great music. Now, Rashied showed me a lick, which is something I use from time to time when I do solos, that’s something Coltrane showed him — it’s a thing called “Coltrane time.” It deals with a rhythmical concept that’s based on numbers, like 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, and you play it a certain way, and it comes out of what Coltrane was doing when he was into the Indian raga stuff, like “Sun Ship,” when you hear that kind of rhythm. Rashied showed me and Milford Graves that rhythm, and sometimes when we get together and do a collective…or when I do it with maybe other drummers, too… I’ll show them the rhythm, and we’ll play it. So that’s a system, and if you want to call that a certain straight-ahead prescription…

But straight-ahead very often means that you’re playing 4/4…

TP:    I meant it differently. What I’m thinking about with is how many different areas of getting sound and vocabulary and stories out of the drums you seem to be able to weave together into one personality. It’s like Braxton said, you have these thousands of phrases that you can call up at a moment’s notice…

CYRILLE:  You know why?  Because I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say.  That’s the vocabulary. That’s like words. You’re talking I’ve got to come up with a typology.  Well, if you knew all the words in the dictionary, I’m sure you wouldn’t have that much of a problem.

TP:    Which also sounds a lot like what the AACM people were talking about in the ‘60s. Braxton made some reference to that as well. The notion that you listen to everything.

CYRILLE:  Yeah. And I love being that kind of person. Not long ago, Zildjian did a thing for Steve Gadd. They were talking about the greatness of Steve Gadd is that he can go into all of these sessions… And we’re all sitting there listening to whatever they’re talking about, and they’re praising him, all praises due… They’re talking about how he goes into these studios, and then he listens, and whatever these people want, he gives it to them, and sometimes they don’t even know what they want, but they ask him to do something in relationship to what it is they’re playing, and he comes up and he plays this stuff, and it WORKS for them! And obviously, it must work for him.

I am the same kind of person in this genre — or I want to be this kind of person. Max Roach to some degree is that kind of person also — almost.

TP:    He wouldn’t occur to me because he seems to be so unto himself.

CYRILLE:  Well, he played for dancers. He played shows.  He played big band with Ellington. He played in the drum and bugle corps. He wasn’t always the Max Roach that we knew. He just worked hard, found himself in that situation with Bird and those people, and he wanted to be somebody who contributed to that vein of music.

TP:    That applies to your professional life now, because you play in a staggering range of situations. The Finnish cat, Tarasov, the European improvisers, Cecil, the thing with Reggie and Oliver is one sound, the thing with Dresser and Marty is another type of sound, the percussion group with Moye, Tabbal and Obo Addy… So apart from keeping you busy with a lot of projects, the diversity and multidisciplinarity of it must keep you tremendously stimulated.

CYRILLE:  Oh, yeah.  And the point becomes to manage my time so I can find the time to do what I really need to do to to give what’s necessary to all of it.

TP:    Now, the quality you’re talking about, that you’re the type of guy Zildjian was referring to with Steve Gadd, really came to the fore in the second week at Iridium. You have a bamako beat, on another one you’re playing 4/4 spangalang… Each piece had a frame, and within that frame you’re…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, the bamako beat comes out of my experiences with Africans. Olatunji wasn’t the only African I played with. This is interesting. I played with a group of guys, we used to play dances — a guy named Victor N’Kojo Finn and Joe Mensa. There was a saxophonist from Detroit named Wendell Harrison. There was John Gilmore and Marshall Allen in some of those bands. Sun Ra used to come up to rehearsals and sometimes tell Olatunji to play one thing or another. Yusef Lateef even did a couple of gigs with Olatunji. But anyway, all of those people I mentioned to you, including myself, were playing the African stuff. So when somebody like Roswell Rudd comes up with “Bamako,” there’s ten different things that I can do with that!

TP:    Did you ever play with Latin bands?

CYRILLE:  Yeah, you play mambos.

TP:    Or with Haitian bands.

CYRILLE:  No, I never played with any Haitian bands, but you hear the rhythms.  Here’s the point. Even when you’re playing with Latin bands or Cuban bands… I’ve done some stuff with Daniel Ponce — he, I and Milford, as a matter of fact.  The thing is, once you understand what the matrix of that stuff is with this African rhythm, then it can move through anything that relates to that kind of playing, you see, with that downbeat on the 1 and the downbeat on the 1 and 3.  With swing, the inflections are on the 2 and 4, which is another way of thinking about music — and why that is is another thing.  What you play in the middle of it, from one beat to the next is the flavor. But when you play, like, Brazilian music… Now, one of the musics that I did play with some people that gave me a little bit of trouble was Brazilian music, because the inflection of where they placed the beats in the meter was a little different.

Another thing is that a lot of music comes out of the way people talk.  So what’s being played is also how it’s being said in words. It’s just that they’re playing it in sound. Because you take all of those people from the South and the Delta, etc., when you hear them talk and you hear them play, it’s almost the same thing.  What I’m saying is that when you play the African music, and you understand how to move from one place to the next with those sounds, you can play with people from Cuba, you can play from people from Nigeria, you can play with people from Haiti, you can play with people from the Dominican Republic. So anybody who is related to that in any way all can come together.

TP:    The common root.

CYRILLE:  It’s the common root.  It was the same thing with Mor Thiam, who’s from Senegal. On that record, Ode To the Living Tree, on the end there’s a piece called “Water, Water, Water” and at the beginning… Well, Mor Thiam just sat down and started playing. I had some concepts about evolution in terms of playing the swing beat, which is what I did, and we had no problem. Because I understand the genesis of that music.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question. What do you think about the way drum vocabulary has evolved since you first got in the game?

CYRILLE:  Well, it’s fantastic. Elvin brought another thing to it. Tony Williams brought another thing to it.

TP:    Were you paying attention to Elvin and Tony?

CYRILLE:  Damn right I was paying attention to them.  You pay attention to it because you hear it, and all of a sudden, you hear something that’s kind of the same, but the way it’s being said… We all speak English, but sometimes you hear an orator talk, and he begins putting some stuff together, like Martin Luther King stringing it together in a way that you know is cool, but then again, it’s different — and it’s attractive.

TP:    But in the ‘60s, you were checking Tony out?  You were checking Elvin out?

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  Because when I first heard Tony… I met Tony at a place called the Coronet in Brooklyn. I forgot who he was working with. But he was one of the cats that had come on the scene.  He was working with Jackie. He wasn’t working with Miles yet.  Then I hear this guy, and the thing was that being so young, he was so strong, and then the way he was assigning the rhythm, the way he was playing it, how he was, let’s say, enunciating what he was saying, was very, very strong, and then, at the same time, very, very musical. So then what you say to yourself is, “Damn, how did he hear that?” What is the grid for that? Well, you kind of know what the grid is, but you say, “Damn, this guy…” It’s like looking at a painter. You give him a canvas and somebody does one thing with the canvas and then somebody else uses the same paints or form, but you look at it and say, “Wow, this is really different!” So that’s what I saw with Tony…

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers who emerged after you got your mature voice who you were checking out and paying attention to?

CYRILLE:  I’ll tell you who I like.  Lewis Nash is a good one. Lewis is strong.  Lewis knows the language of playing the drums.  And he’s creative with it, and I can tell that he continues to work at it.  He’s very strong, and so many musicians in the straightahead idiom like him. They like working with him.  He gets all kinds of calls for that kind of stuff.  He’s not so much of a threat insofar as taking them into some area where perhaps they won’t be able to do what they need to do.  In other words, he’s the consummate drummer for people like Tommy Flanagan or maybe Cedar Walton… And he can do so many types of things. He worked with Oscar Peterson and all those people…

Somebody else who is a very creative musician but doesn’t get the same kind of play in the media is Michael Carvin. I’ve done duets with Michael Carvin. Which were superb!  I might do some more of them.

TP:    Where I’m coming from is I want your sense… You’re 64. So you’ve lived through about a half-century of jazz music. Things have changed, and the way drums are approached has changed — maybe. Is that so?  If so, how is it…

CYRILLE:  I teach over at the New School.  So I see a lot of young kids who come in there who are 19-20-21 years old, and they know a lot about what has gone on — and some of them don’t know a whole lot about what has gone on. But they come in with raw talent, you see, and some of them are a little further along than others in terms of their ability to play the music at hand or the music that’s asked for by teachers in the classrooms.  And some of those kids are really excellent. I mean, they’re phenomenal.  And some of them are already playing professionally. So they come in with the attitude that they want to do their thing, and the point becomes that if they’re doing their thing within the prescription of the classroom, of what’s being asked of them, then it works. Very often I don’t tamper with certain things. I might nudge them this way or that a bit, or make them realize certain things that they should look for when they’re playing with a singer or maybe doing something with a bass… Anything that will make them better musicians.  But insofar as them being creative and being able to play certain kinds of rhythms within the tradition, sometimes it’s just amazing.  All you’ve got to do is come up there and check some of them out. We have these what they call listening sessions once a semester, and the classes come together, and each class plays a couple of tunes, and the bands from the different classes get graded by the faculty that’s designated to be there on that day. I might be there, Joanne Brackeen might be there, Reggie Workman has a class there, Joe Chambers, Billy Harper, maybe Cecil Bridgewater, Cecil McBee was there… All of our classes play.  And in some of those classes, some of those drummers are fantastic little students.

TP:    One thing that’s happening is you’re finding a lot of drummers from outside the U.S., like Dafnis Prieto… The term might seem amusing to you, since you’ve brought so many elements into your music for so long, but there’s a sort of bilingualism, where people have an idiomatic command of Cuban music, say, and learn the jazz vocabularies, and blend the cultures into a sort of hybrid.  There are so many musical communities in New York breaking bread with each other. Do you see that having an impact on the sound of the music now?

CYRILLE:  Oh, of course. Because jazz has always been a music that has been evolving.  This is what the United States is. So if we have not done anything, we’ve done this.  We’ve given different cultures another methodology to express themselves within their own cultures.

TP:    I think that’s a great one-sentence breakdown of the phenomenon.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  And all of them love us for that.  That’s why I can go to the Soviet Union and play with Vladimir Tarasov, and we can have a ball.

TP:    So it really has to do with the process.  The process is the most important thing.

CYRILLE:  And if one understands the process, then we can work together.  Now, there is one group of drummers with whom our process does not always fit immediately, and that’s the Indian drummers, because they have another system of counting.  When you begin to base certain things on the Western tradition in terms of how we learn music… For instance, when I went to Russia and was playing with Vladimir… He invited me to go play with him. So I was saying to myself before I went, “What in the hell are we going to play?  What are we going to play together?” So all I could do was prepare myself for what I had.  And when I got over there, I had written the chart. He could read it. He gave me a chart.  I could read it.  Then, from there, he began telling me that where we was born, Archangel, was a port more or less like New York, where you had sailors coming in from different parts of the world. So when he was gigging, like me, you’re 15-16-17-18-19, or however old you have to be in order to get into places that sell liquor, you begin to learn these different kinds of musics from the different people that come through, and for certain things you have to play for people. For instance, I learned how to play polkas when I would be playing barmitzvahs and stuff like that. So I’m sure he more or less learned the same kind of thing.  So when you’d say “shuffle,” he understood what a shuffle was.  When you’d say “backbeat,” he understands what a backbeat is. When I went to his house, there was a picture of him standing with Duke Ellington. See, Duke had gone over there, and it just so happened that he was able to take a picture with Duke.  That’s where his head was.  So when he got with me, we had the same type of methodology, even though his inflections were perhaps a little different because he came from outside the States.  Also, the other part of it with him is that he was dealing with the Ganelin Trio, who were also playing “free jazz.” So in a sense, we had worked together insofar as the processes were concerned.

I did something with him last year in Hungary (and I think it was done twice) with a dance company called… The name will come to me. Vladimir and I played music to a piece that was choreographed… It was like a play.  Then there was a film.  We improvised a lot… We talked about how we were going to do it, certain places, certain things we were going to improvise.  Just like I did with Henry.  Here we improvise, here you play this, here I’ll play that, you play this against this, here we’ll read a certain thing, here you’ll only play, there you’ll only play. The dancer is… They live in a place called Kanitza(?), which is right below Hungary, in Yugoslavia. He came to New York.  He’s a big-time guy over there. I think he lives in France, too. Joseph Nagy.

All I’m saying is that with Vladimir, we understand the process, and with that, we can get together. We can communicate.

TP:    You said that your early mentors pounded into that you have to be a professional.  Did they also pound into you that you have to be an individual?

CYRILLE:  Yes. And I’ll tell you why.  I used to hang out with all of them cats. But the cat that I would be with on a physical level more than any of the others was Philly Joe Jones. When we were with Joe and Max and all them people, they would talk about, “Hey, man, you got to play your own shit.” Among the intelligentsia, it’s about “is this cat playing his own shit or is he playing somebody else’s stuff?”  And it’s cool if you’re playing somebody else’s stuff, because it works. It’s been tried, it’s true, and it’s been tested.  But when you can get out there and do something unique, like Elvin or Philly Joe Jones or Max Roach or Roy Haynes… Even Buddy Rich, to some degree. I could talk to you about how I feel about him.  But he was unique in a lot of ways. He played his ass off in some ways. But as far as Joe and Max and those guys, it wouldn’t be true to say they don’t respect other drummers, because that’s not true.  They do.  All of us out here are trying to do what we do.  But the people who shape the music, who cause other drummers to think about what they’re doing and think about those people, are the people who are lionized. I can’t say they’re respected the most, but these are the kings.  Then you have the rest of the world — the princes, the dukes and the earls.

TP:    You mentioned Lewis Nash and Carvin. Can you name anyone else doing what you describe.

CYRILLE:  There are people who are trying to do certain things. I don’t always understand what he does, but he’s in it to some degree in terms of being creative and trying to find something that works — Bobby Previte. Hemingway is another one who’s an individual, who works from his own system as far as tuning the drums is concerned. Of course, Paul Motian is another one.  The way Motian assigns the rhythm is different. I’ll tell you who else is different, though I don’t know if he’s under 50, is Tony Oxley. I don’t necessarily play that way, but he’s got an arsenal of whatever makes percussive sounds, and that’s what he plays.

TP:    I was thinking of people like Tain or Bill Stewart…

CYRILLE:  Those cats are… Stewart is a strong man. I first heard Stewart when he was playing with Enrico Rava in Germany. I had a gig with Spencer Barefield and Oliver Lake at Leverkusen, and I heard Billy Stewart, and he was really quite impressive. He was strong, and he knew what he wanted to play, and he was fast, and he gave the band what they wanted — he was somebody to behold. Tain is another one who is a great person, extraordinary with his talent.

But what I’m talking about is when you hear somebody who comes in, and they’re playing something that is really different. I’m talking about like a Tony. He’d do certain things with one hand, he’d do something with another hand, and the way he was playing those rhythms, you never heard anything quite like that.  That was different! Elvin was different.  See, Tain is different, too, but not AS different. Another one who is like that, to me, is DeJohnette.  See, DeJohnette is kind of like a synthesis.  He is an excellent drummer, but I don’t think he has influenced the legions of drummers around the world the same way like Max or Tony or Elvin or maybe Philly Joe Jones.  Then there are other people who come under that. I remember I liked listening to Frankie Dunlop, and I like listening to Ben Riley.  All these guys are very good.  Another guy who is really unique, but to me he hasn’t diffused what it is that he does within the wider context of the music, is Milford.

TP:    He’s pretty much unto himself, not much of a team player.

CYRILLE:  Right. In a lot of ways, you have to play with him.

TP:    I think one reason why the drumset is such a powerful instrument apart from the noble sound is that the rhythms all embody some sort of story, since the original function was to convey information. I’m wondering if, when you’re dialoguing in rhythm and using independent coordination, if you think of it that way — if you think of it as a storytelling function.


TP:    Is that explicit?

CYRILLE:  Well, very often it is. Let me go from here. I remember playing with some Africans one time in London, and the guy said to me, “Just don’t think, man; just go ahead and play.  Don’t think; just let it come out.” Now, to me, that’s playing and the music is after the fact. Just play. That happens sometimes when you get on the bandstand. Like, if I’m going to go up and play with Brotzmann or Kowald or something like that, it’s fun, and you let it happen, and then it evolves. You’re listening to each other, see, but you’re playing the music. Now, if somebody says to me, “Hey, man, play something for me like Art Blakey played on ‘Moanin’ because I want a march rhythm…” Oliver sometimes says this, “Yeah, I kind of want to march.”  So you think of a march, a martial rhythm. Now, you might improvise on the martial rhythm, but everybody knows… [SINGS CADENCE] It (?) Because it has a certain cadence that you’re telling a story of something that’s martial. So if somebody says, “Yeah, I want you to play the bridge of ‘Night In Tunisia” with a Latin beat,” so you think of something that tells the story of Mambo or Cha-Cha or whatever, like some of those tunes like Reggie was playing with Roswell and Archie last week.  They had a montuno kind of cadence to them, the one that Roswell calls “Puchi and the Bird.” Reggie plays a montuno on it, and as long as he stays there with that montuno, I can play all kinds of stuff in relationship to it.  But still, there’s a story, so if I play, he goes [SINGS OUT DIALOGUE] — automatically that brings somebody to Africa. It can also bring you to Cuba or Haiti.

TP:    You have a very scientific approach to music within your creativity.

CYRILLE:  Well, yes.  You know why? What does science mean?  Science means that when you do a certain thing, you know you will get a certain result. That’s what all musicians do, I would imagine. I would think that singers in particular, if you want to sing a ballad… “My man don’t love me!!!” Isn’t that a science?  Isn’t that the science of music?  And isn’t that what we teach, or what you learn when you go to the conservatory?  You learn how to do that shit to affect people.

TP:    But different people have different ways… You’re very systematic. It’s interesting, because you’re so methodical but also so creative.

CYRILLE:  Well, we could start talking about what is creativity.

TP:    Yes, we could.  But maybe we won’t.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, right.  See, it’s all fun to me, man. As long as I can make some money, too.


Cecil and I did have a couple of rehearsals, with Honsinger and Franky. We played together the night before for quite some time, so we got all our vocabularies together. In other words, we began to feel each other out, and when we went to do the concert, the energy was more or less the way we’d played it.  The thing about it is, sometimes you can’t really prescribe what’s going to happen.  Sometimes that’s what makes it so beautiful, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you just get into it, and something fantastic happens. Now, sometimes it doesn’t work, for whatever reason.  But some of the greatest moments I’ve had with a lot of musicians playing creative music is when you just go out there and hit, like doing the shit with Kidd Jordan and William, or even some of the things that I’ve been able to do with Dave Burrell recently. Some of these things haven’t been recorded; just when you get together on stage and play a concert, you say, “Wow!  That was really something else.”

Again, with all of this stuff, it’s a matter of it happening in the moment with whatever we have to bring to the table.

TP:    I wasn’t saying anything one way or the other about it. I was just surprised that that was the feeling.

CYRILLE:  See, what happens is Cecil sits down at the piano, and he begins playing the way he plays, or I’ll begin playing the way I play or the way that I feel right then. So if it’s one of those up-tempo energy kind of things, I’ll do that.  Very rarely does he sit down and start playing very legato, ballad type things. Most of those things are very pointillistic when he starts, jagged to some degree. So you begin that way. You take a step, take another step, take two-three steps, then you sit back and listen for a while, and pace. It’s almost sometimes like a cat. You watch cats, and they go up, and then they see what they want, and they’ll move down to the ground, then they sit up again, and they move and see what they want, and then… It’s almost like stalking sometimes. Sometimes.

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 11-16-97):

[With Muhal: “Drumman Cyrille”]

TP:    Let’s repeat your biography.  A Brooklyn native, and you started playing drums around when?  What piqued your interest?

CYRILLE:  I started playing when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I guess the thing that piqued my interest in the drums is that I found a way to express myself that I didn’t have prior to playing the drums. I found, in a sense, my voice; I could enlarge my voice. That might be a literal explanation

But along with that, I had other young guys with me, who used to play in my drum and bugle corps, and we would get together. It would be like friends who would be playing a game. We would learn these rudiments and these drumbeats, these beats that we would play for parades, etc., and as a result we’d see who would do one or the other better.  If one could do something better than the other, then we’d try to help the other one do what it was that he didn’t know — or I didn’t know.  There was a gentleman named Abdulio(?) Janson — Pop Janson, we used to call him.  He’s the guy who founded the drum-and-bugle corps in the grade school I went to in Brooklyn, St.  Peter (?). When we graduated from that school, he used to come to Brooklyn and get us and take us out to Long Island to play at the C.W.V. Post in Huntington.  So it was an outing for us.  It was something for us kids from the school and in the neighborhood to do.  Like most kids…

TP:    Did you play all the components of the drum within that?  Did you start playing the snare or the bass drum?  Do you remember which implement was the first one for you?

CYRILLE:  It was the snare drum from the very beginning.  Some of the other kids played the tenor drum, which stands behind the snare in the drum line, and then the third line, you’d have the bass drum.  So we had some kids who played the bass drums, some who played the tenor, and some who played the snare. I was one of the kids who played the snare. It was really a great time, in a way, to get us out of the neighborhood and have us do something which was positive.

TP:    In Brooklyn at that time there was an active music scene, and you could see music be played, and you probably had access to watch some drummers.

CYRILLE:  Oh, very definitely.  Some of the drummers who used to come to the Corps to teach the kids were professional jazz musicians.  There was Lee Abrams, who used to work with Dinah Washington and Lester Young. There was Willie Jones, who also worked with Lester Young and Thelonious Monk. Then there was Lenny McBrowne, who worked with Paul Bley and did a show in California with Jon Hendricks –  maybe Blues For Mister Charlie or one of those things that Jon Hendricks had put together. Lenny was the drummer for that, and he also worked with people like Booker Ervin. Of course, all
those drummers were aficionados of people like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson, and so they told us about those drummers also, and other ways of playing the drums.

TP:    Were you into emulating drummers at that time?  Who were some of the people you’d try to replicate motions and strokes?

CYRILLE:  For the most part, we learned these strokes, etc., so as a consequence, when you start listening to records, you have to imitate somebody… The records I used to buy had Max Roach on them, they’d have Art Blakey on them, or I’d hear Shadow Wilson… There were young drummers in Brooklyn like Maurice Brown and Arthur Trotman, and a few others.  There was my grade school partner, Bernard Wilkinson, who was Max’s brother-in-law.  We would all listen to the professionals. There was Steve Butler, too.  We’d all look at each other, watch each other, talk about the drummers that we liked, and some of us would play more like Max or Philly Joe or Art Blakey or Arthur Taylor or others.

TP:    Let’s talk about your transition from student to professional, and how it became apparent to you that being a musician, being a drummer, would be your avocation, would be your life.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a large jump. There were some things that I thought about doing with my life in a professional capacity before I really said to myself, “Okay, I want to go for music.” When I left high school, I had decided to study chemistry for a while, so I was a chemistry major.

TP:    Where did you go to high school?

CYRILLE:  I went to St. John’s Prep, and then I went to St. John’s University.  Then, at St. John’s University, I was still playing at night. I was playing with people like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne and making gigs.  So it was hard for me to do both, and do both well — and I’m one of those people who, if I’m going to do something, I want to do it to the best of my ability. So I had to make a choice. Either I was going to remain in chemistry and really study that and put the time in as I should, or I was going to be a musician and put in the time to do that. So I had to make a decision between something that I felt I liked and something that I thought I loved. I liked chemistry; I liked it a lot.  But I loved music.

So I went with the music — for a number of other reasons also. Like, for instance, it was teaching me about the history of African-Americans. It also gave me an opportunity to see a direct entrance into employment. Also, I kind of felt like it was a line of least resistance in terms of something that was natural to me. I liked chemistry.  I don’t think I was a natural mathematician.  I had to work at, if you know what I’m saying. I think my brother is more of a mathematician than I am. In fact, his daughter just got a scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon for mathematics.  But I’m not as good as they are. So I went with the music.

TP:    But you were already at a level of proficiency where you were making these type of gigs, and then had to make a choice of what it was going to be. Do you remember your first professional gigs, and what sort of gigs they were?

CYRILLE:  There was always a bunch of young musicians in Brooklyn.  I remember Chris White (the bass player). There was a saxophone player, Jimmy Revis(?).  There was also Bobby Hamilton, who played drums.  There was another trumpet player, Larry Greenwich. We’d get together on occasion and play for dances, parties. We’d get together and have jam sessions. Also, the people whom I really started learning the music with, the language of music, was the piano player, Leslie Braithwaite, and the guitar player, Eric Gale, who went to high school with me. We had a trio, and Eric would play bass on his guitar, and Leslie would play the piano, and I would play the drums. So we started learning those tunes — “But Not For Me,” “Now Is The Time,” “Well, You Needn’t.” This is how we began to develop. As a result, people would hear about us and they would hire us to do various little jobs.

TP:    You eventually entered Juilliard. You make a decision that music will be your life, you make arrangements to enter Juilliard…

CYRILLE:  I thought, well, if I’m going to study music, I might as well go to a music school. Again, with Leslie and Eric, we were saying, “Man, if you want to study music, you can go to Manhattan or you can go to Juilliard,” then we started asking musicians who had gone to both what the difference was.  I decided I wanted to go to Juilliard, so I had to prepare to take the entrance examination.  Believe it or not, I didn’t think I would pass!  The guys who were my examiners were these two great musicians in the European classical world. They were Morris Goldenberg, who was playing for the Metropolitan Opera and also for the NBC Orchestra at the time, and Sol Goodman, who was playing for the New York Philharmonic. I went to take the test, and they asked me to read something which I had prepared, they asked me to play a few drum rudiments, and I played it.  I remember I made a mistake in the part I’d prepared to read, and they said, “Hold it, you made a mistake there!” — and I went back and corrected it.  Then I got a letter saying that I was accepted to the school, and I was very, very happy. As a result, I never really looked back.

In the school then were other young guys who helped in terms of helping one focus as to how one was going to do this music and its business. In the school at the time was Roland Hanna, Bobby Thomas, Addison Farmer, Gary Bartz was up there with me, Grachan Moncur was up there, John Gordon, and a host of other people who aren’t as prominent today.  Herbie Martin, a tenor player, was another one.  We’d all get together, and we’d start talking about what we were going to do in this business!

TP:    Was there any possibility of dealing with jazz in the Juilliard curriculum forty years ago?

CYRILLE:  No.  I actually went to Juilliard to learn how to play jazz, but it wasn’t to be then. So I had to meet people who were learning the music so that I could learn how to do it. There were people like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet. Those were some of my first experiences, while I was still in school. I’d met Morris Edwards, who was a bass player at the school also.

TP:    You were gigging with them at night while studying days at Juilliard?

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah, but it was closer to music. But I’d do those things, and sometimes in the summer you’d have gigs and go off when there was no school.

TP:    How would you evaluate the Juilliard experience?  Was it valuable for you?

CYRILLE:  On a certain level, yes.  It taught me about the literature and materials of music, a lot of the theory, etc. It got me into a music in a way which I hadn’t been before. As far as having a percussion major and playing the xylophone and learning about the timpani… Even though I played timpani in a high school band, but it wasn’t anything like what I was going to learn on the college level, and especially at a place like Juilliard. It prepared a certain foundation for me as far as understanding how music was put together in a literal way.  But if I went back and continued to study now, I’d probably get more out of it.  Because my head was really into jazz, and I really wanted to get that together.  I remember Morris Goldenberg telling me that he would prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, and that was not what I had in mind.  But that’s what he had in mind for me.  Even though he liked jazz, he wasn’t that much of a person who would direct his students in that way.  It was a philosophical difference in terms of what I wanted and what they wanted to give me. So again, I went out and found the people who help me in what I wanted…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Right.  I remember we used to go into the record library, people like Gary and myself and John Gordon and a fellow named Vernon who played alto saxophone.  We used to have to listen to recordings of people like Mendelssohn and Elgar, Bach, Beethoven, whomever, for our literature and materials in music classes.  Then the next day, when we had a class, the teacher would place the record needle on a particular part of the record and ask us to identify the composer and the movement, and so we had to listen to those recordings.  It was just like somebody asking you to read some book and prepare the lesson. This was the way they did it with audio recordings. What would happen is very often we’d be in the library, not necessarily listening to those pieces, but listening to some jazz records.  Sometimes jazz records would cause one to react in a very emotional way, and you’d say, “Yeah! Yeah!” — and it’s supposed to be quiet in the library, and you’d be saying “Yeah,” and you’d have these earphones on, so sometimes you couldn’t necessarily hear what you were saying, you couldn’t hear yourself making these exclamations. Then the librarian would come over and say “Sshhh,” and we’d say, “Oh.” That’s the kind of thing that was going on there as far as us and jazz.

TP:    We’ll begin our chronology with a track from Andrew’s first recording, with Coleman Hawkins, on the Moodsville label…

CYRILLE:  It wasn’t my first recording.  It was my third or fourth one down the line. My first recording was with Walt Dickerson, and we can talk about it later on.

TP:    Were you doing odd gigs with Coleman Hawkins at this time?

CYRILLE:  Not at all. That was a very interesting collaboration, so to speak.  I had been doing some recordings for Prestige with Walt Dickerson. I remember this one particular afternoon, after doing one of the recordings, the A&R man, Esmond Edwards, said to me that he had a recording with Coleman Hawkins in a couple of weeks, and Charlie Persip was supposed to make the recording, but for some reason Charlie had a conflict and couldn’t make it.  So he asked me would I be available.  And of course I could be available!  And I was available.  I had never played with Coleman Hawkins before.  As a matter of fact, I had never heard Coleman Hawkins live. I had heard him on record and on the radio.  But I didn’t know what to expect.  So I showed up at the studio, and we had the rehearsal in the studio. I was shaking in my boots, because I thought I was going to be sent home because I couldn’t make it, but they started the recording, and Hawkins never said anything to me, but just nodded when he liked something that I did, or we listened to the takes and he said, “Yeah, okay, that’s fine” — and that was it. That’s how I met him.

[AC-Hawk, The Hawk Relaxes, “Just a Gigolo”; w/ Walt Dickerson, w/ Bill Barron, w/ Ahmed Abdul Malik]

TP:    That set indicates that you were exploring a wide range of percussion texture, meters, and exploring ways of extending what the drumset could do at that particular point. Maybe we can keep our comments on the particular tracks keyed to that process, because in the next set we’ll be hearing you with Cecil Taylor circa 1966-67. A very fruitful relationship with Walt Dickerson over the years.

CYRILLE:  Walt was introduced to me by Philly Joe Jones. He was coming to New York from California, and he had asked Joe did Joe know of a drummer he could call who wouldn’t mind working in a group he was thinking about putting together. Walt came to New York, and gave me a call, and that began a relationship. That must have been back around 1960-61, if I’m not mistaken. We’ve made a lot of music together. Walt gave me a lot of freedom at that time to play the drums within the context of the music that was being presented, and in conjunction with being musical colleagues, we also became very good friends to this day. Walter had a unique gift for playing vibraphone, and as a result, he expressed it with what you hear, and he would also try to relate to me more or less the same attitude about playing drums.

TP:    It almost seems redundant to say, but his conception of the instrument is quite percussive in terms of an ongoing dialogue with the drummer, an ongoing web of texture.

CYRILLE:  That’s where his head was.  He would play the vibes with such speed and alacrity, and I’ve never really heard anybody duplicate that, the way he would phrase and the kind of technique that he displayed.  Vibe players to this day, when I see people like Bobby Hutcherson or even someone like Brian Carrott, ask me how Walt’s doing, where is he, etc. As a matter of fact, I mentioned him to Milt Jackson a while ago, and Milt knew Walt Dickerson. So everyone who plays that instrument is aware of the kind of vibraphone player he is.

TP:    Did the date with Bill Barron have anything to do with a working group?

CYRILLE:  It’s the dream of most musicians (and at the time, I think Barron was no exception) to have a working band, a band that can go out and get some gigs. So when he told me about us doing this recording, it was also with the idea of making some gigs, having some gigs result from making the recording. So I’d say yes, it was something that we were thinking about.  But the employment scene for musicians, especially who play creative music (even then, one could always say cutting edge. I guess I’ve always been in that genre of musicians), it’s difficult. It was difficult then. So I don’t think we ever really made any gigs with that formation. I made some gigs with Bill afterward at places. I remember at Wesleyan College where he was teaching, and a couple of other things in Brooklyn. But that session was done… We rehearsed, we got the music together, and we did the recording. Yes, we kept our fingers crossed hoping we would get some work, but it wasn’t to come to pass.

TP:    Was Ahmad-Abdul Malik a working situation?

CYRILLE:  Same idea.

TP:    A very ambitious musician, and a unique sound for that time with the meters, colors and rhythms he was using.

CYRILLE:  Right. Ahmad had a passion for African music, and especially the kind from North African, and in particular, for this case, the Sudan. So he wanted to bring that expression, that subculture into the larger culture of jazz. So that’s why he would have a horn player like Tommy Turrentine or a saxophone like Eric Dixon, a drummer like myself or a cellist like Calo Scott, because he wanted to express that kind of music, that expression of music within the larger jazz context.

TP:    This would imply that at this time, or maybe before, you were beginning to expand your sense of possibility on the drumkit. Were you beginning to study African music and absorb it and find ways to absorb it into your concept?  When did that start?

CYRILLE:  That really started when I was working with Olatunji. I was aware of African music, but not the extent that I would become involved in it when I was working with Olatunji and literally African drummers or American drummers who you might call Afrophiles. As a matter of fact, that was at the same time I was at Juilliard, which was in the early ’60s.

TP:    So it is at the time of this recording, which is May 1961.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s all around the same time.

TP:    What did it do for you to be around the African drummers? I’d imagine it was a big consciousness-expander.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, and what it did was, it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot of those African rhythms and apply them to the drumset. Let me go back for a moment, because you were asking how I learned a lot of these rhythms and did I study this-that-and-the-other. Sometimes, one gets into more of a particular kind of expression when one is introduced to it. This is like somebody bringing the book to you about mathematics, and you look at algebra, and before you know it, you’re into trigonometry or calculus because of the interest. Most musicians who are composers and who might have unique ideas about doing things will ask a drummer to play certain rhythms.  Malik had a very specific idea in mind, in terms of the kind of rhythm that he wanted on “La Ibkey,” he explained it to me, and then, of course, I had to work it out.  I had to work out what he had in mind so that he would be satisifed with the rhythmical foundation for the music that you heard. So once that was introduced to me, then, yeah, I might go out and buy some music that was played by Hamzel(?) Djinn(?) or some other Arabic percussionist, and hear more of how those drummers would play rhythms. Yeah, you learn from that. As a result of working with Olatunji, I had to learn how to play African claves. So as a result of that, yeah, I’d go out and buy some more music that dealt with Africa.

A lot of the times, yes, it is after the fact when something is introduced that one goes out and investigates more.  And of course, too, if one is very serious about what one does, then one goes out and one gets more information so that one can be broader when the occasion arises again.

TP:    As one’s consciousness and philosophy changes, it’s not necessarily apparently until it’s already happened.  But looking back on it, can you discuss how your philosophy of music-making changed, if it all, from 1962, when you made “A Cool One,” and working with Cecil Taylor in 1966. Was there a change in philosophy, or was it the demand of the function?

CYRILLE:  Well, a demand of the function adds to the philosophy, because the philosophy is what it is that you think about the music. So if somebody begins to talk to you about what it is that you think, then you start talking about it. Then they tell you what they think. Then if they want a certain thing, they say, “This is what I would like to have, so can you play this, or try this, or do this or that or the other?” So that adds to your philosophy. So this is, in a sense, how you change.  This is how you absorb.

TP:    I don’t want to say “free music.” But when did your orientation toward the type of music Cecil Taylor was playing begin to happen? Certainly it was all in the air in New York City.

CYRILLE:  Yes, it was all in the air.  And if you listen to one of those tracks with Walt Dickerson, I think “The Desert,” you will hear me playing some free drums. That’s before I began working with Cecil. So that is a documented track that shows I was playing you might say rubato drums on that particular track. So my head was already there.

But you see, I was always one who wanted to make a contribution.  And during this period, too, you’ve got to remember, I was working with people like Mary Lou Williams, and most of us who know about this music know where she came from, and she was, in a sense, a free spirit with an open mind. She worked with people like Andy Kirk way back when to doing duets with Cecil Taylor, so you know she had to have an open mind. I used to say to her, “Gee, I’d sure like to find a way to play the ride cymbal differently.” With her own information and what she knew about the business and the music, she’d say, “Well, if you do, you won’t find anybody to work with.”  But then I did find people to work with, and the main one in this particular instance was Cecil Taylor. I could do whatever I wanted to do with the cymbal or the ride beat or whatever you want to call it. So as a result, yeah, a door was open for me to play “free music.”  And it’s not as free as a lot of people think it is.  But this is how you get into it.  This is what happens.

TP:    Let’s hear what Andrew Cyrille sounded like with Cecil Taylor in 1967 on Conquistador

[CT, “With/Exit”]

TP:    I’ll read from Valerie Wilmer’s liner notes for a solo percussion album that Andrew did in 1969, a year of creative ferment in Paris, entitled What About?  “This is the first recording as a leader by Andrew Cyrille, and it remains a classic. Nothing like it had ever appeared before. Using the Western drumset alone, Cyrille expresses every emotion from a whisper to a scream. Then as now, the drummer’s personal vision lent an unusual angle on his cultural roots. He ignored the trends then being favored by his peers — the total rejection of timekeeping pioneering by Sunny Murray, the more obvious manifestations of an African aesthetic epitomized by people like Milford Graves. Indeed, at a time when the assertion of ethnic identity could be said to have been as important as the need for change in the music itself, his approach seemed curiously purist.  But thoroughness and attention to detail have always characterized Cyrille’s work. He even uses a metronome in rehearsals.”  Still?

CYRILLE:  Sometimes, yes.  When I practice myself. I don’t use it… [LAUGHS] I’m supposed to be the metrnome!

TP:    “In Brooklyn, where he grew up, he was renowned for his control of the ‘rudiments,’ as certain ritualized sticking techniques are known in the drummers’ vocabulary.  “Everybody knew Andrew had hands,” Milford Graves recalls. His first gigs were with pianists Nellie Lutcher and Mary Lou Williams, and in 1964 he met Cecil Taylor who hired him because of his affinity with dancers and ability to approximate their actions with the drums.” What do you recollect about your first meeting with Cecil Taylor and how you moved into that school of thinking and playing?

CYRILLE:  Well, I met Cecil Taylor years before 1964!  And we were playing together years before 1964. I saw Ted Curson the other night, and I refreshed Ted’s memory about how he introduced me to Cecil, walking down the street in Brooklyn, where I was playing in a place called the Universal Temple with Leslie Braithwaite. Leslie and I were playing duets, and Ted happened to hear us from the street — he and Harold Ousley, as a matter of fact.  They came in, and started talking to us about what we were doing. Then the rehearsal was over, and Ted said he was going to New York City at this school called Hartnett, and he had a rehearsal with this piano player called Cecil Taylor, and he said, “Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.”  I said, “Okay,” and took my snare drum. We went over to Hartnett, which was located on 42nd Street near Broadway at the time, and I met Cecil Taylor.  Cecil let me sit in at their rehearsal, and then Cecil and I took the train and went uptown and went to a club, which I forget the name of, which was up on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th or 155th Street. I had gone up there, because they used to have sessions there, and I remember a piano player who worked up there named Cecil Young. I knew there was a piano, so I said to Cecil, “Let’s go up there…” At the end of the rehearsal with Ted, Hartnett closed, and Cecil and I wanted to continue playing, so we went uptown, we played some more — and that was our introduction to each other.

From that time, we had more or less a spiritual kind of relationship in terms of people who were attracted to each other in a chemical way musically. I used to see Cecil on the scene from time to time, and he’d see me. The opportunity to begin to work with Cecil when he had actually begun to develop the Cecil Taylor identity with what he was doing with the music…

TP:    How would you describe the Cecil Taylor identity?

CYRILLE:  The way that he plays the piano.  Nobody that I ever heard played the piano that way, again, with that kind of speed, alacrity, the information that he had about what he was doing, the way he would notate his music, the passion that he had for the music.  Also the way that he would have the rehearsals, what he would ask from each of the musicians who was playing the music. I guess that identity on the drums, as far as I was concerned, was that he’d let me do anything I wanted!

TP:    You had total trust that whatever was done would knit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  He trusted my integrity, and of course, I trusted his integrity.  We talked about the history of the music.  That was something that we talked about all the time. There was never a time when we did not acknowledge our predecessors, from Louis Armstrong to Joe Oliver to all of those people.  We always talked about that, and that was the foundation, to a large degree, for what it was that we were doing.  We were very clear about that. So yeah, we trusted each other, and as a result, we decided that we were going to play this music a certain way.

Cecil would always say to us it wasn’t just his music, it was OUR music, and we were all making contributions, so it was true.  He would say things like, “Look, all of us are geniuses.” Not just to throw around a term like that loosely, but he was just talking about the creativity and what we were doing in relationship to what Valerie was saying.

So just to get back what you were saying about the dance, etc., and how I met Cecil… See, all of those years between ‘57-’58 to ‘64, when I really started working at Cecil… That happened up at Hartnett, too, because Sunny Murray was involved, and drummers were being changed, so he asked me did I want to do this with him up at Brandeis. Those are the details. But prior to that, all during that time, I was working. I was getting my education together as far as learning about jazz, and I was learning it from the masters.  I was going to classes with people like…I’m saying this not in the academic sense of being at an institution…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Extracurricularly, with people like Illinois Jacquet. Mary Lou Williams. I was working with people like Kenny Dorham.  I was learning from people like Hank Mobley. I was making those gigs. Also with all of that happening, Olatunji was in there.  I was also playing dance classes at the June Taylor School of Dance with people like Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson — these great choreographers.  Michael Faison used to come in there.  All kinds of people.  And a lot of these people were also Juilliard people — Juilliard dancers. See, I was introduced to that aspect of drumming, which is a whole other thing (we could talk about that perhaps, about dance and the drums) by Bobby Thomas, who was playing clases. I used to go up there and sub for Bobby sometimes, and then eventually I got my own classes.  That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums.  That’s how I was able to make a couple of solo percussion records, just because I was able to play music that the dancers would say… For instance, I remember Herman Howell would say to me, “Okay, make my body move.” Then I had to come up with something that would make his body move, that they would like and that they could do their exercises and choreography to. So as a result, when I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what would inform my playing.  And one of the things I said was that dance did — and it was true.  So that’s what Valerie is talking about.  So it’s a very concrete reference.

TP:    Let’s hear the solo recording to which Andrew referred, and of which Valerie Wilmer wrote.

CYRILLE:  “From Whence I Came” was a conceptual piece, and you’ll hear me breathing and you’ll also hear me playing mallets on the tom-toms. My idea at the time was the fusion of body and soul together, which talks about from whence I came. In other words, as human being, we’re spirit and we’re also flesh, so the flesh has to do with playing the drums and the spirit has to do with me breathing. So this is what you will hear.

[AC: “From Whence I Came”; AC/Milford, “Nagarahl”; AC/Lyons/Lee, “Nuba 1”]

TP:    The first two hours have given us a 360 of musical color and sound. It’s astonishing to think of the ground Andrew covered between the 1961 recording with Coleman Hawkins and “Whence I Came.” A few words about what we heard. First, The Dialogue of the Drums with Milford Graves. You and he are often mentioned in the same breath, along with Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali when people talk about the drummers who came to the fore in the new music of the 1960s.

CYRILLE:  This session was part of a larger session at which Cecil Taylor was present with the larger ensemble we had been teaching at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It lasted several days, if I’m not mistaken, and at one part of the concert in one of those days, I had suggested that Milford and I do a duet. As a result, the concert was recorded. Actually, these are just excerpts from the total concert. I forget how long it went.  But there used to be a guy there named Fred Siebert, and Fred was the person who helped us edit the larger tape, and we got it down to about 40-45 minutes. We decided we’d give titles to certain parts of the concert and make tracks. That’s how Dialogue of the Drums came about.

TP:    When did you and Milford become associated?

CYRILLE:  It must have been back in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s. I first heard of Milford at a class that I was having at Hartnett, and Giuseppe Logan came in with this recording, and he asked the teacher if he could play this recording to listen to him and his drummer — and the drummer was Milford.  But I had met Milford before that, when Milford was playing timbales. I was playing a gig in Long Island, at St. Albans Terrace, and there were two bands. I was working with John Gordon, the trombone player, and Milford was working with a dance band, and he was playing timbales. That’s the first time we laid eyes on each other.  Then as time went on, I began hearing his name, doing the “free jazz,” and then I heard of him in association with Sonny Morgan, the hand drummer, who was also working with Olatunji as part of the drum ensemble at the time I was there. Then I heard Milford in association with Don Pullen. I remember doing a concert, if I’m not mistaken, at the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem with Sam Rivers; I was doing a gig with Sam, and Milford was up there with Don Pullen. He checked me out and I checked him out, and eventually we got together at my suggestion; I suggested we get together and play, and document some of the things that both of us were about at that period of time.

I was always under the impression, and I think legitimately so, because Max and Philly Joe would say to me that each generation should come and make their contribution to the music, and see what they had to say.  Not only them, but that’s also an African tradition. So I thought that I was on firm ground. I knew I was doing this kind of music with Cecil, and I was the drummer, and I knew Milford was doing the same thing with Albert Ayler and Don and the New York Art Quartet, etc. — and I thought we should get together and do what we do together in order to say, okay, this was our time, and we were an offshoot of some of the things that had gone before…

TP:    An outgrowth, organic development…

CYRILLE:  Right. That’s the way I felt, and I’m sure he felt the same way, more or less. So we got together, and we started doing these duets, keeping, of course, Africa in mind, as you hear — and during that time there was a very large consciousness about “black is beautiful,” with all of the things that made Black beautiful in our minds. Then, of course, I knew Rashied Ali was doing these things with Coltrane, Interstellar Space, etc., so he was also a natural choice in terms of a larger drum ensemble.  So we called that ensemble Dialogue of the Drums, and we did a number of concerts together, and we even did a TV show on the NBC program Positively Black.

I think Milford is a drummer that everybody should check out at least once, because he’s unique. He’s different in his approach to the drums and how he thinks about making music from the drums. I think his contribution simply has to do with the approach he has to let other people know that they can do a lot of things that are outside the “metered time” aspect or technique of playing.  It can be done.  He’s done it.  And that’s something I can say I appreciate him for.

TP:    I’m going to step back to the question about picking up information, particularly in regard to African music, which requires not only a command  of meters and patterns, but a philosophy of playing and interacting with other musicians. So throughout the ‘60s and I’d imagine as you began to travel more, you’d see more African musicians and picking things. A bit more about your exposure to African music and conceptualizing it into your total approach.

CYRILLE: Well, I used to play a lot of gigs with African musicians. This is one great thing about being on the New York scene, because so many people from so many different cultures come, and if they like you and they want you to be part of their program, and if you’re willing, then it kind of happened.  There used to be a guy up here at WKCR who had a program named Joe Mensa, on The African Show. Joe Mensa played guitar. Joe Mensa also used to play a lot of African dances, African parties. I started working with Joe Mensa.  He liked me, I liked him, I wanted to get more into the African way of thinking about rhythm in a literal way, and Joe Mensa was a very good conduit for me. We started working. He showed me how to play African Highlife, etcetera, how Africans would assign rhythm to the music with the drumset.

TP:    Elaborate on “Africans would assign rhythm to the music.”

CYRILLE:  It had to do with playing space.  Also playing certain emphases that would accentuate certain parts of their music. Also a way that they think about the music and dance, because you hardly ever hear any African music without visualizing or seeing some dance component. So the way of playing on the 1 and the 3 of the bar, which are supposedly the strong beats of the bar, so you think about something like the African 6/8, which goes 1-2, 1-2, and you can also count 1-2-3-4-5-6, click… You hear me clicking; I’m clicking on the 1 [click], 2… There are different ways of approaching that. But how you flesh out the meter with the rhythm makes the feeling different from the 1-and-2-and, when you get a march… [SINGS THE FEELING] That’s what I mean when I’m talking about how they assign rhythm to a certain kind of mathematical meter.

I learned that from Joe, I learned that from Olatunji, and I also worked… This is interesting, too.  I worked with a band called Victor and Kwesi Finn.  They were two guitar players; one played guitar and the other played bass.  They had a band which included me, John Gilmore from Sun Ra’s band, Marshall Allen was in the band, Wendell Harrison, who’s a saxophone player from Detroit, Danny Thompson also. I’ll tell you something else.  Sun Ra used to write music for Olatunji.  So we’d get all these interconnections, and we all felt that this stuff was legitimate in terms of the large part of what jazz was founded on — African music. That it was a legitimate and positive and real heritage to what we were doing. We felt no pain.  It was great.

TP:    No pain.

CYRILLE:  Right. It was fantastic.  And we were being liberated again, or at least being given more information. The other thing, too, that a lot of people don’t realize about Africa and Africans: Even since the slave trade, from the slave trade until now, Africans have always come to these shores and have reinforced the music that we play. I play with Africans today.  I did a duet not long ago at Dale Fitzgerald’s Jazz Gallery with Obo Addy from Ghana. Did he reinforce me?  You’re damn right he did.  So there we are.

TP:    We also heard what you described as a conceptual piece for solo drums, and something which sounds like an extension of that, Nuba, with Jeanne Lee and Jimmy Lyons. Talk about the evolution of bringing your experiences in dance and theater and drama into your musical presentation. Not too dissimilar to things the AACM was doing in Chicago at that time.

CYRILLE:  When I and, I would imagine, a number of other people who compose music need inspiration, we can get inspiration from anywhere.  You can get inspiration from an orange or an apple or a tree, and you can also get it from the dance.  And since I’d had a lot of experience playing with dancers, I thought… Then, the philosophy which tells us we’re both body and soul. I thought with that piece, “From Whence I Came,” it had only to do with the body and the soul coming together, and then you have this life form which is made.  And human beings starting off, you know, flesh, spirit, then growing and becoming what we all are, human beings as a species, and doing what we do in life. Now, yes, a lot of it was abstract, but a lot of it wasn’t abstract either.  If you start thinking about some of the repetitive rhythms I play within the context of the whole piece, some of the ostinatos, which one could say, “Yeah, Baby Dodds could play some of this.” Then of course, I would go off and play some things which were rubato, ametrical.

The way I think when I’m doing these kinds of things is that… We move, and we don’t have any kind of real prescription in terms of how we’re going to move our arms or when we’re going to get up.  We don’t get up at a count, we don’t sit down at a count, we don’t move our arms to a count. We do it.  If we want to get a glass of water, we just go and get the glass of water. So if you have to try to imagine how to replicate or reproduce something like this in an art, then you have to take what you do, that is, with the medium that you do it in, and try to give a reasonable facsimile in terms of somebody making a move.  A move might be [SINGS A PATTERN] rather than another…

TP:    It’s a sort of artificial grid to keep everything ordered and together.

CYRILLE:  It’s a matter of choice. Cats are out on the football field right now, today, on a grid, and that’s part of the game.  So it all depends on how you want to make your “game,” or how you want to have your prescription, or make your music. See, you could do more or less whatever it is that you want. People will listen. Either they’ll get it or they won’t.  They’ll like it or they won’t.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.

TP:    The next set will focus on groups Andrew Cyrille led up into the early ‘80s. Andrew Cyrille & Maono.

[AC & Maono, “Metamusician Stomp”; “That Life Can Endure”; “High Priest”]

TP:    A few words about your compositional concept for ensemble, two-horn, no piano, one-horn and piano… Beginning a band.

CYRILLE:  I met David Ware when he was part of an ensemble that Cecil had together for a Carnegie Hall performance.

TP:    He played with him in ‘75-’76…

CYRILLE:  Yes.  I met David, and I liked him, and I wanted to form a band and put something together.  There was a trumpet player, I think his last name was Gray… I forget his first name. He was part of a group that Cecil had, too. He had gone to Japan with Jimmy Lyons and this guy.  Anyway, I thought about Ted Daniel in putting this work together, and I had done some work with Ted some years before over at the Washington Square Church, so I knew about him. I needed a bass player, and actually Nick was recommended to me by his brother Gene, who was studying with me back in the mid-’70s. So I just felt that I needed to explore some other avenues of whatever talent I had and I thought it would be a good idea to do some writing and try to have this played by some musicians of my choice.

TP:    Your comment on the liner notes of Special People is: “A lot of people say that the tunes come out of the drums, which in a sense, they do, because I think like a drummer.”

CYRILLE:  I think what’s meant by that is that drummers have rhythm. A lot of composers… I’m talking about guys who do some of the great music that we know, like Ellington.  A lot of the music that they write is structured on some drum rhythm. They get a rhythm, and then they layer it with melodies and harmonies. So if a drummer has rhythm first, if you get the rhythm, that’s usually the first element of music. Then you get melody and harmony. If you have the rhythm, then you have to find melodies, notes which express that other part of music, melodic motion… So I think that simply what is meant… For drummers sometimes it’s a bit difficult because we don’t deal with pitched notes in terms of the diatonic scale — the piano, etc. — so you have to develop some knowledge about composition and about the piano, and have some idea about what you want to put these rhythms to, or what you would like to put to these rhythms. That’s in a sense how I write.  Not all of the time do I think of a rhythm first. Sometimes I think of a motif and then I try to expand on it. It’s not an easy thing for me to do, but sometimes I am able to struggle and get through it and have something which I can offer and people like to hear, and will play, or will buy.

TP:    The next set will focus on your associations with some of the musicians who emerged in New York in the ‘70s from Chicago and St. Louis. You’re still playing with many of them, like Oliver Lake.  They infused fresh blood into the New York scene. You’ve made  numerous recordings with Muhal Richard Abrams, five or six. How would you describe his take on things and its effect on your thinking.

CYRILLE:  Muhal is a true spirit. Muhal is one of the deep thinkers. And again, I have to say this:  He comes out of the tradition.  There is never a time when we get together where he isn’t talking about some of the great piano predecessors like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. He just knows all about that stuff.  And Muhal, of course, has a lot of information about composition.  He is a great composer.  He knows how to put those voices together.  In other words, an orchestration comes out, and it comes out beautifully, and he has some very original ideas.

Just to give you a little bit of background, I met Muhal, again, with Cecil.  We were playing a gig in Chicago. I remember Muhal coming to the concert. I remember Henry Threadgill being there. I don’t remember if Malachi was there; I kind of have an idea in my head… Well, Malachi could have come to that concert, but Malachi and Roscoe and Lester I met years ago, way before the ‘70s, back in 1967, in Palo Alto, California.  I’d gone out again with Cecil, and I was living at the house of a fellow named David Wessel, who is a drummer, and now a doctor in psychological acoustical sound. I remember Roscoe and Lester were in town, and they were living in a facility that was not too far from David’s house. It was a building…

TP:    They were bivouacking.

CYRILLE:  They were bivouacking!  But the stuff is something when cats are true believers, true spirits.  You get out there and you do it the best you can, and you realize it.  I was living at Wessel’s house, and I’d get up in the morning, and I’d hear Lester and Roscoe and Malachi over there practicing. It would be 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, and these cats would be tootin’!  So eventually, they came over and we introduced ourselves to each other.  There’s a recording actually of the first time that we met of me and Roscoe and Lester. I have it at home on a tape.

TP:    In the history of the music, what the people in Chicago were doing has often been counterposed to what was happening in New York in a variety of ways.  They were dealing with a different method of organizing their music. What was your impression? How do you regard that other path, if indeed there was one.

CYRILLE:  You see, I think that was great, what they did. What I got from all of those people is that there’s no particular formation to play this music. So if I want to play a gig with a cello player, I would do that.  As a matter of fact, I’ve done duets with Leroy Jenkins; not here in the States, but in Austria we’ve done duets. Different kinds of ways to make the music.  A lot of people feel that “jazz” has to have two horns, piano, bass and drums, and if the formation is outside of that configuration, then it ain’t jazz and something is wrong with it. That is not the case.

Those musicians from Chicago came to New York… They’d been doing it out in Chicago.  But when they came to New York, they knew that they had something which worked, and whatever the configuration was, it happened with the music. So you listen to something without a piano or without a bass, or sometimes even without drums. On occasion, I was part of those configurations, and I appreciated that kind of cultural perspective.

Just to say more about Muhal and myself: Muhal gave me an opportunity to participate in his concepts about music and composition, and I had a number of opportunities to play with large ensembles, big bands with Muhal, to take the information that I had accumulated up to the point where I met him, and introduce that to his music in my style. Of course, there was a lot of reading of charts, which is also something that I was told by my predecessors, people like Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Frankie Dunlop and Charlie Persip — drummers have to know how to read. That was very important at one point. Sometimes they’d say if a cat couldn’t read, that meant he was lacking in some way. So I went and learned how to read music.  Which I’m so glad I did, because I use it to this very day.  So many of the more modern forms of jazz are extended pieces, it’s just impossible to remember everything if you can’t read. That’s something I can appreciate. And Muhal  had a number of pieces which went in many different directions. So that and the opportunity to bring to life a lot of the scores that he wrote, for me to bring to life via the drums in conjunction with many of the other voices, was something that I’ll never forget and will always appreciate.  Just his general knowledge.  Also, he showed me a lot of compositional techniques. So I can’t say anything but right on, Muhal.

[AC/Muhal, “Seesall”; w/ L. Jenkins, “Albert Ayler: His Life Was Too Short”]

TP:    A few words about your association with John Carter and the suite, which was a bit overlooked at the time, and is out of print.

CYRILLE:  Eventually it may come back. I think the young people who are interested in this music should go out and research it… [ETC.] I had a wonderful experience with John Carter. Working backwards, I remember the last time I spoke with John. He wanted me to go to Japan to do a duet with him. That would have been fantastic, but fate did not allow it, and John passed on.

TP:    He was an innovator in clarinet techinque and concept.

CYRILLE:  I liked the clarinet. I’d listened to people like Benny Goodman and Johnny Dodds, and I heard Jimmy Hamilton, and I knew about Alvin Batiste. But when I had the opportunity to listen to John Carter, and then hear and play with him, he really did something else for me with the clarinet. I met him on a gig at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I had taken the train from Spain the night before, and I had to make this gig at the Bimhuis with John… I was in Spain with my own group, Maono, and after that I had something to do with John. I remember getting into town right before the gig started, and I remember walking into the Bimhuis, and there was John on the stage with Santi DiBriano, and we introduced ourselves, had a rough rehearsal, and played the gig.  I must have gotten there at 7:30 or something like that, so we must have had an hour, and then we made the gig.  From that period on, John and I formed a relationship. He liked the way that I played drums.  He liked the way that I played his music.  Then he started hiring me to do any engagement that he had on the East Coast and New York.  He told me, “When I come to New York, I want you to be the cat to work with me.”

Through John I also met Bobby Bradford, and formed an association with Bobby, and have been doing some work with Bobby in conjunction with David Murray over the past couple of years.  Bobby has introduced me to several players, notably Chris Fagin, who is one of John’s students.

Anyway, John had this vision to do the recordings you mentioned, starting with Castles of Ghana, and when he put that together, he wanted me to play drums. John was an interesting composer. He’d come to the rehearsal not with everything formed in detail. He would have these ideas and he would have notation.  He would know what he would want to do in special places.  But more or less, we would put the arrangement together and the segues right at the rehearsal, and sometimes even in the recording studio, depending on how much time we had to get it all together and when the date was.

Conceptually, John was very close to me.  As I continue to write, I’d like to do some things, more or less, in the same way John did them, just in terms of how he’d use certain fragments of the music and link them together in a kind of loose but at the same time very focused and direct way. For instance, you can get a theme, then he’d say, “Work this theme a certain way,” and you can do this or do that or the other, then when we get to this section you can do a certain fill or fill-in so we can move from this section to the next part of it, which might represent something conceptual in relation to what the music is. Like in Castles of Ghana, you have the castles of Ghana as it begins, and then the next… He’d get these different themes, and link them together one to the other.

TP:    It’s an episodic concept.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  Also the way he’d play lines with Bobby, how at some point they’d be in unison and then split off into some dissonant harmony, and then come back again, and play maybe the same line but just about echoing each other, maybe a fraction of a beat behind. At the same time, even though it had this feeling of freedom; this kind of elasticity that would be overriding some kind of fundamental rhythm, but it was still free, and you would get this feeling of being something that was breathing in and out, but not necessarily contained by a BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM, and then you’d have to do whatever melody you had in relationship to the meter exactly. So you could have a rubato kind of theme that is placed on the musical bed of an ostinato rhythm or something else.

[AC w/ John Carter, “Capture”]

TP:    The next set will consist of duos, and speaking of pregnancy, it’s the most intimate form of musical communication. The first will set Andrew with long-time partner Jimmy Lyons.

CYRILLE:  Again, I try to think of a shape, a rhythmical shape that I can make music with the voice of the drums, or the voices of the drums. I lay that down, and either I will have some kind of a melodic line or a theme that I ask the other voice to play, or I let them play what it is that they hear in relationship to the rhythm that I present. So more or less, that’s how I play duets. Then, of course, too, you have to listen very closely to the other person and try to make a musical marriage that will be beautiful, that works.

TP:    A few words about Jimmy Lyons. Working with him so consistently over 10-11 years, and many subsequent encounters. The dynamics of his style and the place it put you, performing with him.

CYRILLE:  Jimmy was a real aficionado of Charlie Parker. Sometimes when I would look at him playing, the stance he would assume and the way he’d play the saxophone, in other words, how he looked while he was playing… Bird never moved, as far as I know.  I never had the opportunity to see Bird. But I don’t think he moved back and forth, to and from the microphone, or would be bending, etc. He would just stand up straight and blow. That’s the way Jimmy was. He would stand up straight and start blowing. I would listen to him, and sometimes listen to that tone he had, which was very reminiscent of Charlie Parker. Even some of the excerpts that he would play while we were in our improvisation, sometimes, marathon as they were, you’d hear him quoting some lines from Bird, some of those tunes, and maybe even some of the things that Bird would play in a solo.  But of course, Jimmy was extending or elaborating more and trying to go further with his improvisational perspective, with the kind of music that we were playing.

Again, Jimmy Lyons was another true spirit in the tradition of this music, a very dedicated being who took nothing for granted as far as the practice of this music was concerned. I never felt a letdown from him.  I never felt that he wasn’t trying or that he wasn’t giving his all in relationship to playing. When I was with him. as with so many of the others; I’ve been very fortunate this way… Whenever I was with him and I was playing with him, I always had a ball.

TP:    We’ll excerpt from Burnt Offering, a release of a 1982 concert in Allentown, PA., May 15, 1982…

[AC w/Lyons, “Burnt Offering”; AC w/Tarasov, “One Up, One Down”; AC w/ Kowald; AC w/ Crispell]

TP:    Any other thoughts on duo performing after the series of performances we just heard, which contained such great variety of material, concept, information, colors, rhythm, sound…

CYRILLE:  It’s just another manifestation of what one can do with music. You have to conceptualize what it is you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and then you have to do it. If you have a very willing partner, then, of course, the sky is the limit. I love playing duets. I love playing duets with any of the number of voices that we have with musical instrumentation, from drum duets… Sometimes I do duets with the great drummer Michael Carvin; he’s another one I love to play with. Sometimes you have to not think about the fact that there’s not the conventional instrumentation around you, and you just go into… I go into the drums and try to find as much music within the instrument as I can, so that I can make myself feel good, and of course, feed the person I’m doing the duet with and hope that they feed me in return, which is usually the case.

TP:    Seems you really thrive on the sound of surprise and being surprised by the other person’s locutions in the performance.

CYRILLE:  That is another tenet of jazz principles. What I think most of us like about jazz in its broadest conceptions is the element of surprise.  When the element of surprise is not there, then it seems like there’s not too much happening.  To hear Elvin Jones playing, and to hear one of those riffs that come out of nowhere, and you say, “Wow, what is that?” That’s what made Charlie Parker so great, when he would take a phrase and how he would develop it and where he would end up with it.  That’s something which I always try to remember when I’m playing, and which I try to incorporate as much as possible — as much as my creativity will allow, sometimes even thinking about its limitations. So I try to remove as much of any barrier as I can, and I aim for the heavens and always try to have something of a surprise, not only for myself, but for the musicians I am playing with and for the audience who listens.

TP:    One of the great things in jazz is the quality of aiming for the heavens within the most grounded, functional situations, and I think that Shakill’s Warrior by David Murray is a great example…

[AC w/D. Murray/Pullen, “Live At The Cafe Centrale”; AC w/Hannibal, Oliver Lake, Steve Colson, Reggie Workman, “Where’s Nine?”]

TP:    A few words about My Friend Louis, more the traditional drummer’s record than your earlier Maono recordings. Those featured primarily your compositions; here you’re working a variety, and interpreting them with an all-star ensemble.

CYRILLE:  That was a band I put together to play at Condon’s, the club on 15th Street, and had the opportunity to record for DIW/Columbia. I wanted to do something for my musical colleague, Mr. Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, whom I had an opportunity to do a duet with in England back in 1980, and wrote “My Friend Louis” for him. As a result, since I had this all-star lineup and I had these excellent musical minds, all of whom compose, I asked each of them to contribute a few, which they did.

TP:    Later we’ll hear an album called Tribute To Bu, and this gives me an excuse to ask about some of your drum influences. You mentioned drummers that you heard and drummers who are your contemporaries, but you didn’t mention the drummers who thrilled you as a youngster and perhaps continued to as you became more experienced as well. First a few words about Art Blakey and his impact on you.

CYRILLE:  One of the first records that I ever bought had Art Blakey as a drummer.  That was a record with Miles Davis called Tempus Fugit, a 10” Blue Note LP, and with that, I heard Art for the first time on record.  Then I went out and bought Dig with Miles and Art. Then, of course, I used to listen to Art Blakey play at the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street, way back when. I used to hear him there with Johnny Griffin, and also with Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean and Spanky DeBrest, Wayne Dockery. So I’ve been an aficionado of Art Blakey from way back when I started playing drums. Also, with my solo percussion ventures on record, of course, I was given entree not only by Max Roach, who did (?) and Drum Conversation, but Art Blakey, with his Message for Kenya and Freedom March. So I wanted to pay respects to a mentor, one of the elders in my heart and in my mind as someone who has given me so much — and so many.  Not just drummers, but horn players, piano players… I thought it would be fitting to play something that was kind of reminiscent of him, but at the same time more or less my interpretation.

[AC w/James Newton, “Tribute To Bu”; w/ Mor Thiam, “Ode To The Living Tree”; AC/ “X-Man”]

TP:    The X-Man date, Andrew, brings in explicitly folkloric Haitian rhythmic and melodic themes, with a different connotation.

CYRILLE:  We won’t have time to play two compositions with Alix Pascal, “Lydia” and “Answer Me.” I would like to do more of that kind of exploration with Alix and other Haitian musicians, if possible, and bring that subculture more into the “mainstream” of jazz, like so many of the other Caribbean rhythms and melodies, to be filtered through our experience here in the United States with jazz.

[AC w/Lake, Workman, “Shell” [excerpt]

TP:    Words about Oliver and Reggie.

CYRILLE:  I met Oliver many years ago in Toulon, France. He was there with the Black Artists Group, Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie. Over the years we’ve been able to collaborate. I used to see Oliver play at the lofts, the Ladies Fort and Studio Rivbea. We had an opportunity to play in Europe — he, I and Leroy Jenkins.  Then Reggie got us together to do some things with his Synthesis group — Crispell, myself and Oliver. Then Oliver called me to do some work with him on  CDs called Edging and The Other Side. I called Oliver to do some things with me.  And so forth, and here we are.

I’ve known Reggie since Reggie lived on New York Avenue in Brooklyn, and he was working at the Muse Museum and running the music program there. Of course, Reggie Workman, Cecil and me did something at Town Hall in the late ‘60s with Jimmy Lyons.

[AC w/ Mor Thiam, “Water, Water”]

* * *

Andrew Cyrille Colleagues (Henry Grimes, Reggie Workman, Cecil Taylor):

TP:    Well, there’s the things with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Yes, we did a lot of playing with Cecil together.

TP:    But before playing with Cecil, you hooked up on jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

GRIMES:  Yeah. I remember one job specifically just in Brooklyn. It was Harry Carney’s group, and we were both there playing with him.

TP:    What was that gig like?

GRIMES:  It was fantastic. We did a lot of swinging and enjoyed that kind of swinging thing with Harry Carney.  It was beautiful, just that inspiration of improvised music.

TP:    Do you remember which club in Brooklyn?

GRIMES:  I don’t remember the name.

TP:    What things at that time struck you about Andrew’s approach to trapset?

GRIMES:  He had a definite flavor. Like, you look at Kenny Clarke; he has that definite flavor thing. Certain musicians have a charisma that comes out in their music, and he reminds me of Kenny Clarke.

TP:    In the sound or in his attitude and process?

GRIMES:  In the sound that he makes musically.  And rhythmically. He does some rhythm things… Sunny Murray and him are on par together, but that’s the degree of power that Andrew has.

TP:    They have very different approaches to playing drums, though.

GRIMES:  Very different.  They are both avant-garde, but one is like a swing player — that’s Andrew.

TP:    Are you saying that Andrew embodies more vocabulary out of the timeline, that he absorbed the drummers before him and builds on it.

GRIMES:  Yes, I think so.  It probably is so, because he knows a lot about percussion and who’s playing.

TP:    So you played with him with Harry Carney, and probably not long thereafter with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Right.

TP:    In 1963 or 1964, was playing with Harry Carney and playing with Cecil two aspects of the same sensibility, or did you have to have a real different mindset?

GRIMES:  Well, it’s the same in that it’s demonstrating that all musicians tend to this one thing, and it’s about “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Jazz musicians had that swing. Sunny Murray was one of them even though he’s vastly avant-garde; and so is Andrew very avant-garde, but he’s also one of them.

TP:    You played with Cecil, and then it was probably close to forty years before you played with him again. So it must be clear to you how Andrew’s playing has evolved. What are your impressions of the type of musician he is now vis-a-vis the Andrew you knew in ’67?

GRIMES:  Well, the thing is that he always has made a certain progress, and I think that’s his power — of understanding music and drums.  He always makes this progress.

TP:    Do you mean a methodology of playing, or do you mean that he is always accruing new vocabulary and building?

GRIMES:  It’s always a new vocabulary that he accrues, and that’s a very interesting thing about his playing

TP:    Everything has changed in the interim, but some things are very similar. Apart from the growth that any musician will experience as they mature and gain wisdom, what are some things Andrew is doing now vis-a-vis then that strike you?

GRIMES:  Well, he’s always the same Andrew today.  It strikes me that he demonstrates that power that he has time after time after time.

TP:    It seems Andrew is always playing ideas.


TP:    A constant stream of ideas. Never patterns. It’s really ideas. It’s fascinating to focus on, and it must be fascinating to play with him.

GRIMES:  Oh yes, it is. He’s a very interesting player.

TP:    Talk about how you’d set things up for him. He said a lot of sets would start from a blank slate, you’d start with an idea or he’d start with an idea, sometimes it would be a unison, sometimes it would be a call-and-response, but it was often from a blank slate

GRIMES:  Well, I think the important thing you’d like to remember is that we both played with Cecil Taylor doing that. Playing with Cecil Taylor and learning things with that, you never forget those kind of things.

TP:    Could you describe some of those things?

GRIMES:  Cecil brings out the best in his players, and Andrew is one of them. I was another one.

TP:    What is it that he does?

GRIMES:  It’s the sheer force and power of music. The dynamic power in music, and the progress of jazz itself. But that’s something that’s hard to convince you of just talking about it.

TP:    But watching the two of you next to each other, anyone with any knowledge of how the timeline works is going to think here are two people who have played with just about the whole aesthetic spectrum of jazz. You and he both played with the people we think of as the great straight-ahead players of the time, and leapt into the next thing as well.

GRIMES:  Well, we were working together at the Iridium, and by the time we stopped working, I was just getting warm. That’s the way it goes.  But I’m looking forward to working with him again.

TP:    I’m sure it will happen. You seem to have infinite possibilities in what you can get done. Is there anything you’d particularly want to express about him that I’m not eliciting with these questions?

GRIMES:  Just that it’s form-fitting. Not like a suit, but like… We develop forms playing with each other.

TP:    And you seem to fit hand-in-glove.

GRIMES:  Oh yeah. He’s always working things out that way.

TP:    It sounds like you listen in the same way that he does.

GRIMES:  I think so. I think we do listen in (?).

TP:    He described it at the end of the conversation. He said Cecil used to have a lot of cats, although now he likes dogs, and he followed that by making the analogy of playing with Cecil as being like a cat looking at the prey, and taking a step, then standing back and thinking about what he wants to do, and then…

GRIMES:  I know what he means.

TP:    It seemed to fit the experience of listening to the two of you.

GRIMES:  I know what he means by that.  He’s a very sharp-minded individual.  And accurate. Deadly accurate.

Reggie Workman on Andrew Cyrille:
TP:    When do you recall first playing with him? He recalls a concert with Cecil at Town Hall in ’69.

WORKMAN:  Yes, that could possibly be it. I seem to remember running into him at some jam session at some place in Brooklyn before then, though.

TP:    Do you have a memory of what he sounded like in the jam session?  Were the building blocks of what he does in place when you first heard him?

WORKMAN:  I wouldn’t say anything, except I could hear that he had a unique approach to the instrument. I wouldn’t say anything was in place at that point, way back there. By ’69, he definitely had started shaping himself. But when I first heard Andrew, I think it was at some session somewhere in Brooklyn.

TP:    In your words, what’s unique about Andrew’s approach to the drums?

WORKMAN:  Well, once Andrew decides to go inside himself and deal with the music the way he likes to deal with it instead of fitting the need, which he can do very well, he has a very fluid style of approach to the rhythm and the time. A very fluid approach.

TP:    He seems like a real master of theme-and-variation in the way he articulates his ideas. He always seems to be on a track, and develops his ideas to logical conclusions.

WORKMAN:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    You’ve been playing together quite a bit at least 15-20 years. How did that start? What brought you together?  Was it settling out in New Jersey?

WORKMAN:  Well, not really.  Basically, Andrew and I, because of seeing one another and knowing one another over the years, we’ve always had a mutual respect for one another’s music.  Therefore, we come together whenever we can. So when we have a gig with somebody else here and there, that’s part of our honing our musical relationship, and then we found that as we all try our individual projects, we were on the same page, and so we often were at the same place, with him and Oliver and myself.  If it was not their band, it was one of my bands or one of Andrew’s bands. So we would end up running into one another often. It turned out that as we approached the business arena, since we were often with the same band or with the same person, we looked at the difficulty in booking projects, so we decided that we should try to get together one project where we would work together only under that circumstance — and it was a compatible circumstance, because all three of us had a compatible musical direction.
TP:    You also were working with Mal Waldron for a chunk of time. What do you think are the attitudes that you share in common? You seem to function very comfortably alongside each other.

WORKMAN:  It’s a hard thing to pinpoint.  But basically, it’s the aesthetic of the music.  The other part of it would be just the idea that we have the same concept as far as time is concerned. We understand one another’s strong points and weak points, and we compensate when necessary without any recourse. There’s a musical compatibility as far as understanding where one another are coming from, and therefore it makes it possible for us to make the music whole as a unit.

TP:    You were talking about sharing a similar approach to time. Can you go into that in a little more detail?

WORKMAN:  Well, Andrew’s approach to time is very fluid, and so is mine.  Therefore, we find a matrix there. He knows when he’s working with me that he shouldn’t expect to hear things the way they usually are coming at him, because I usually don’t play that way.  I know the same thing about him. And at the same time, I know that he understands where it always is, and if he deviates, and it doesn’t affect my thought pattern. I imagine over a period of time that we’ve both come to understand that about one another. At the end of the day or at the end of the chorus, we’re all in the same place at the same time.  It doesn’t affect our creativity as to how we get there, but yet it turns out to be a harmonious venture.

TP:    Was the recent week at Iridium a satisfying one? If someone had seen you a lot that week, would it be hearing the two of you on your highest level together?

WORKMAN:  No.  I don’t think you can say it’s a highest level when you’re satisfying a need for a situation.  Because your highest level is when you’re doing what you do the way that you want to do it, and then you have to compromise certain things with certain people according to their whim if you happen to be dealing with either some kind of a coop group like Archie and Roswell have. Andrew and I are featured guest artists, but it’s not our program.  It’s their program. Therefore, we satisfy the need as far as that’s concerned.

TP:    So the group with Oliver would be…

WORKMAN:  More compatible, because we each bring something to the podium.

TP:    Is there anything you want to say about him that doesn’t fall under the response to a question.

WORKMAN:  Well, the only thing is that Andrew is a very brilliant musician. He’s not just a drummer. He’s a very brilliant musician who has real strong ideas about the music, about the aesthetic, about the history, and he puts a lot into his music, and he’s very serious and sincere about what he does.  And you hear that in the way that he approaches a groove. I know each project that I’ve had with Andrew, it’s been… All of that is apparent in the music when you work with Andrew, when you know who he is and what he’s doing.  And therefore, whenever I get the opportunity, I recommend him for whatever situation that I’m in, if it’s compatible with the way that he thinks. All are not, of course. There are many different situations. So each situation has something that’s compatible with each person. Like, there are many situations that are not compatible with me, and I would rather not be there.  That’s one of the democratic things about this music: You find your own level, and that’s where you function best and that’s where you seek to be. With Andrew, he has found his own level, he knows what he wants to do, and now he does it well.

I am very glad you’re doing this. Because Andrew has been around for a while.  He’s been putting a lot in.  And he deserves some recognition.

Cecil Taylor on Andrew Cyrille:

TP:    When was the last time you played with Andrew?  Is it the record from ‘99 that’s on FMP?

TAYLOR: Well, I think it just came out this year. That was interesting, because Tristan was on that, and this guitarist Franky Douglas, and man, it was really funny and it was really wonderful. For many years, I’ve felt that Tristan was really my right-hand musical personality. But on this date, I believe it was the first time Tristan had played with Andrew. Andrew started playing, and Tristan’s reaction was…well, he just started dancing while he was playing!

I’ve been very fortunate in the percussionists who I’ve played with over the years.  And Andrew had a secret. You could take Mr. Cyrille wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, and to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. So he understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer. And plus, his personality is… He’s a fine human being to work with.

TP:    It’s interesting that he stated that his choice around the age of 18 or 19 was to be a chemist or to be a musician.

TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] That I did not know.

TP:    But he was working as a musician, so he could make money.  But that would have been around the time when you first met him. He says you met around 1957. You were rehearsing with Ted Curson at the Hartnett School. He went up there with a friend named Leslie Braithwaite, he sat in, and then (I may be conflating several encounters into one thing) you went uptown to a place in Harlem where there was a pianist named Cecil King, and played—and that began things. What do you recall?

TAYLOR: Well, the first time I remember meeting him, although it’s very possible that he has another take on it… I do remember at the Hartnett School; that’s where I met Earl Griffith. What I remember about Mr. Cyrille was at a… They were having sessions at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. That’s where I met Mal Waldron. I think this was 1958. I think it might have been Mal’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in.  Then at one point, Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that I just stopped playing and looked at him, and I looked at him and I asked him, “And what is that?” And he gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, “Well, you want me to try it again?” – or something like that.

It was a very fascinating experience to hear Reggie, Mal and Andrew, play those three consecutive nights, and I was there when they were playing at the Blue Note. I went three nights, because it was an experience in what mature musicians… I imagine their three ages built up to maybe 180 years, and to hear these gentlemen play… Mal, as you know, besides being to me one of the really fine human beings, but one of the most subtle pianists. By that I mean he really understood the magic of how to make music below middle-C – among other things.  But one of the most outstanding things that happened, besides they all played beautifully together, was that on one occasion Mal, who wrote the most musical organizations of sound, you know… When it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement on that, I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. The Maestro, of course, said, “The drum is a woman.” Other people say the piano is but a drum with 88 keys. His intelligence: You could actually hear the material in Mal’s compositional form being developed by Andrew, and you could actually see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.

TP:    Did Andrew embody that quality when you first began to play together regularly?

TAYLOR: Well, I don’t know. What I know is that… That’s very interesting, because there was a drummer from uptown I played with, a very nice man, I think his name was Jack Williams. Then the wonderful Dennis Charles. At that time, when I ran into Andrew, it (?), but in the meantime, in 1960, I played with the Whirlwind, James Marcellus Murray, right on Christopher Street. In terms of my own development of the music that I was about… You see, in meeting Jimmy Lyons, and by ‘62 it was obvious we were going a certain place. When Murray left… Of course, Murray, who… That’s something I could talk about on another occasion.  But when I first played with Murray, Murray could do Elvin Jones, you know, perfectly. But we all were living in a loft on Bay Street, where the Trade Towers were, and man, I remember Murray saying, “Well, what do you want me to play?” I said, “Whatever the music suggests to you.” Well, whatever it suggested to him, he told the wonderful (?), “That MF Cecil, I could have been the world’s greatest bebop drummer.” But as time went on, you see…

But then, on the other hand, Andrew’s personality was different, you see. That’s what I mean about his understanding. Wherever I want him to go, Mr. Cyrille understood that and supported and complemented that.

TP:    That’s a quality he’s always possessed.

TAYLOR: And that makes him, you see, in the time where there are many drummers who seem to have a hearing problem, an inverse problem, you can hear them and no one else, you see… But he knew how… Well, he is one of the preeminent percussion forces for me.

TP:    To what extent do you think his being there in ‘64 and ‘65 and ‘66 molded the shape of your music in those years?

TAYLOR: I mean, it’s a trip that, once started, does not end. My parents’ temperament were perhaps diametrically opposed.  Well, different. So Mother, of course, took me at the age of 5 to the Apollo to hear Chick Webb and his new singer, Ella Fitzgerald. The next year, when I was 6, she took me to the Paramount to hear the Benny Goodman band, where I heard the extraordinary Teddy Wilson and this monumental Lionel Hampton, as well as Gene Krupa. And hearing Papa Jo Jones at the Roxy Theater in 1944 with the great Basie Band, and Lester, you see, and the quality of… And then hearing the Lunceford band with Crawford – all of those drummers. And of course, the Maestro with Sonny Greer, you see. And then hearing Buhaina, you see, with THAT kind of… And Philly, you know.  And of course, Maximilian Roach, that shit that he did with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown in the years ‘54 to ‘56.

But, you see, when I heard “Poco Loco” – ha-ha-ha… I was attending New England Conservatory at the time.  And by the way, I noticed there was an article about Richard Twardzik. It’s a matter of chance, you know. I knew Dick Twardzik while I was in Boston, you see. As a matter of fact, we went to Symphony Ballroom to hear Bud Powell, and …(?)… playing in a club in Boston, and I would go there and listen to that, and nothing very interesting. [BLOTTED OUT] …think of the percussionist …[BLOTTED OUT]… As you probably know, I met Lee Konitz when he was a salesman at Sam Goody’s in 1948. So I knew all about… I mean, Tristano was one of the people that I really listened to.  Then it finally came out… Just three years ago, I was sitting with Tony Oxley in this hotel bar where we were staying, and in walks Lee Konitz, only to find out that Lee Konitz had played with Tony Oxley.

When I think about all the …[BLOTTED OUT]… the masters, really, you either hear them or you ….[STATIC, BLOTTED OUT]….

So the idea is that once you become aware in the deepest part of your being that the music has chosen you, then you don’t have the choice but to just surrender to it and you will ….[STATIC]….

TP:    But you and Andrew for eleven years were playing together a lot, even if a lot wasn’t publicly. You started your last comment in response to my question on how Andrew might have molded the way your music sounded over those years. Now, one thing he said is that he only remembered two times when you told him what to play, that once you wanted a five-beat pattern, another time something. Whatever you have to say. You seem to think so alike. There was something different about that group.

TAYLOR: Listen, when I started playing with Jimmy Lyons, whom I met in 1960, it went on for 26 years. And with Andrew, we would still have a …(?)… It was a continued crescendo of the evolvement of an idea that we all agreed about. As a saxophonist, Lyons ….[INAUDIBLE]…. waiting for those notes, but he of course had the liberty of writing the notes any way he chose. Because that was one of the compositional ideas, to give players the ultimate choice in the transcription of an idea. So it became obvious that there was another voice emerging, there was a group emerging.  That’s why it was called the Unit. It was a specific idea about where we were going, and those two gentlemen who played with me the longest, you know, helped solidify an idea. So one has to be forever grateful for the generosity shown.

TP:    How often between ‘75 and ‘99 did you and Andrew share a bandstand?

TAYLOR: Let me see.  I went to Antioch in probably ‘72, and Andrew and Jimmy came out, and then Andrew left when I came back to New York in ‘72. We played… It was funny. He was going to Israel, and I said, “Well, I’ve not been to Israel.” I was going to Nickelsdorff, and he said, “I’ve never been to Nickelsdorff.” I said, “I’ll take you to Nickelsdorff if you take me to Israel.” Now, Andrew can probably correct me on this. I believe we went to Israel in the summer of ‘88. Because I think it was the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s independence. Then I took him to Nickelsdorff, where he introduced me to… Oh, that wonderful pianist. I have his picture on my bathroom wall, along with Don Pullen. Horace Tapscott. So I met some of Tapscott’s musicians in Nickelsdorff. Then Andrew, the next time we played together I guess was for Jost Gebers in ‘99. The record has just come out this year, I understand.

TP:    I’m interested in your perspective on the quality of his tonal personality now vis-a-vis when you were playing with him then.

TAYLOR: Well, you know… Ha-ha…

TP:    Is it just a matter of maturity?

TAYLOR: Well, we all do that.  But when you play with musicians, they will let you know that they will follow you.  And I was obsessed, you see. And these gentlemen…we all agreed that the path that I would like to go was comfortable for them. So the contribution was shared by all, you see. Now, my personality was shaped by many things, and you bring that into the proscenium whenever you play, as certainly all musicians bring their personality as nurtured by the environment they live in. So what I’ve found (and I only want to speak for myself) as you grow older, you have a finer appreciation of the camaraderie that exists between musicians, because then you realize that these gentlemen do not have to play with you.  And there are times when some of my rehearsals have been 6 and 7 hours long, and it isn’t so much as telling people what to do. You don’t do that. You let the music speak, and if a passage or the shape of the musical design…if I am required, I can play it over as many times as possible, so that the musician can hear it, you know, and then decide what they want to do with it.

TP:    The other big piece I’m writing right now, as it turns out, is an appreciation of Bud Powell on his 80th year.

TAYLOR: Oh, God!! My God!

TP:    So, Cecil, would you like to put in your own two cents?

TAYLOR: Well, I can tell you two things about Mr. Powell. When I heard “Poco Loco,” in the store in Boston which was right on the shoulder of Symphony Hall, they had a booth in there where you could take a record out and you could go in the booth and listen to it. And when I heard “Poco Loco,” I said, “Well, he’s gone.” And Maximilian is holding on for dear life. You probably know what Bud said about that.

TP:    “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

TAYLOR: But the other thing is… You see, the other loving information I got was from Walter Davis. You see, Walter, who could play “Poco Loco,” and told me this wonderful story when he took Bud to meet THE Thelonious, and Thelonious sat down at the piano and said, “Oh, I know about you, young fellow; let me show you, I can play a lot of notes.”

But the other thing about Bud, I was sitting under him (as I did graciously and felt very fortunate to be able to do this) when he was playing at Birdland, and when I heard him play “Glass Enclosure,” my attitude was, “You mean, that’s possible?”

TP:    Was he part of your learning process? Did you study his compositions? Did you emulate his style?

TAYLOR: Well, you know me. I’m not that gifted. What I do is, I simply listen, and if it touches me, that’s what I go with. I mean, I heard… I mean, that propulsion!!

TP:    Well, there are many times when it sounds like you’re inspired by that sense of propulsion.

TAYLOR: Well, now, I’ll tell you a funny story. The wonderful Dexter Gordon, whom I really will always love, said to Woody Shaw, on two occasions, “Woody, who is my favorite bebop pianist?” And Woody, who used to tell me, “Eric Dolphy told me about you, Cecil – and you look like my uncle.” I said, “Fine, Woody.” So I mean, the wonderful Dex said to Woody, “Hey, Woody, who’s my favorite bebop pianist?” So Woody just looked blank. And the wonderful Dexter said, “Well, he’s standing right next to you, Woody.” He did that twice. But Dexter was a very clever… I would say if Andrew Cyrille is a model of human behavior on one level, certainly for me, Dexter was a model of human behavior on another – before I even get to the magnificent Mr. Jones.

TP:    Could you elaborate a bit on the model of behavior?

TAYLOR: Well… Ha-ha-ha! We could always do this for another time. Oh God, there’s a wonderful word I’d like to learn, and it has to do with (oh, I’ve got to get this right) the adoration of women.

Let me put it this way. When I saw Cabin In The Sky and then saw Stormy Weather, I said to my father, “I’ve got to go see her.” She was going to make her first appearance on the Capitol Stage, and the great Ellington band was there.  And Dad, who never raised his voice, he looked at me and said, “Well, son, she’s pretty, but she can’t sing. You’d better listen to Ethel Waters.” Which was so… Dad was so… Because Dad, of course, had five favorites. Coming from Kiawah, North Carolina, the same place that Mingus’ long-suffering drummer came from. It was Danny who said, “No, you don’t pronounce it ‘Key-a-wah,’ it’s “Ky-a-wah.” Because Dad’s father was a full-blooded Kiawah.

Anyway, when I go to the Capitol Theater… Oh, I could tell you a lot about Lena. Jesus Christ. When Lena came on that stage, Ted, it was like she was floating on air, and the people said, “Ooohhh!” The other interesting thing was, Luther Henderson, who was related to Fletcher, was her vocal instructor, and she had a jazz septet, you see.

Now, that was ‘42. One of my relatives… My Dad was the head chef at the River Crest Sanitarium, and he said, “You never go into Howard’s room.” I said, “Okay, Dad.” But Dad went to sleep, you know, and I watched him go to sleep, and I walked down the hallway… By the way, River Crest Sanitarium was in Astoria, and Dad was the head chef. Tony Benedetto comes from Astoria, so Dad knew Tony, you see, because the family… I mean, Dad was the head chef. Anyway, I go down to the end of the hallway, and there in Howard’s room the lights were…

By the way, my mother had a living room. She had crocheted all these doilies and shit, you know, and said, “No, you can’t go into my living room unless… You’re not dressed appropriately.” So she had… The feeling in the room I’ll always remember, because… You met Syeeda, haven’t you? Syeeda was the five-foot woman who used to carry drinks to the bar at the 55. Well, that was my mother. My mother was five feet tall, 90 pounds, and her foot size was 3.

Anyway, I go down to the end of the hall, and the first thing I see, the lights in Howard’s room were like coefficiently in tandem with the lights in my mother’s living room. And then I see a picture of a blond sailor on the wall, then I see Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and I say to Howard, “What is that music you’re listening to?” “Well, kid, it’s Billie Holiday.” I said, “I see.”

So I say to my Dad, “Well, I’ve got to go see Billie Holiday.” “No son of mine will ever go to see that woman!” So I get… He gives me the money, and I… This is in ‘42. Billie is working on the street, and I go down there. In those days, they had these gentlemen who seemed like they were seven feet tall, they had on the uniforms with the cap on, the epaulettes.  And I put my foot in the door, and this guy looked at me and said, “Kid, where do you think you’re going?” Well, Mother ran the family. When she got mad, the whole house shook. Whatever I said to that cat, I remembered Mama!  And he looked at me and he laughed, and he said to me, “All right, young man, will you follow me.” He took me to the end of the bar, he called the bartender over, and he said, “You give this young man any soda that he wants.” And I’m standing there, and this vision comes and starts singing.

And it’s very interesting. Hildegarde, the German chanteuse, was at the Waldorf, and there are pictures of this blonde Hildegarde. For some reason, she had on white velvet gloves that went up over her elbow.  And here is this woman named Billie Holiday, with a gardenia in her hair on the left side of her face, dressed all in white, abundant but not even chubby. She had on white velvet gloves. And when she sang, her right elbow moved toward the center of her stomach and her left leg dipped, and I said, “Jesus Christ, where am I?” I said, whatever that woman did to me when I was 13, if I ever grew up, that’s what I would like to do to an audience.

I saw Billie through all of the years. The last performance I saw Billie was the last one that she gave at Town Hall, where we had to wait, you know. The wonderful Mal Waldron was playing with her, which is another tribute to Miss Holiday – because Holiday’s pianists were stride pianists. And when Billie came out… Oh, man, I could tell you so much about these ladies! Boy!

Because when she came out the first time, that’s when I understood about the spirituality of the music BEYOND the appellations they were giving it, you see. Because I mean, I stood out in front of Carnegie Hall, and I watched these people, all kinds of… It’s like when Ellington was buried, I’m at this big church up there, and two women who happened to be of different ethnicity, they are talking about what the Maestro has given them. Those are the kinds of things that you say, “My God, it is, it transcends…it’s not even about the womb; it’s about the gene.” It’s not about… Well, anyway, Billie’s last performance, of course, her face had changed…

If I might be so bold as to say, send her to Dr. Fu Hsieng, down at 369 Broadway. He was raised in China, I believe. He’s an acupuncturist. And many of his patients have gone to chemotherapy. And a lot of his patients have been told to go down and see him. He is listed.

TP:    Back to Bud: Did you get acquainted with him?

TAYLOR: No-no-no.

TP:    In Paudras’ book, he writes about you visiting him and spending time with him when he came to New York, that you and Ornette were spending time…

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. Oh, oh-ho-oh-ho!  Hey, but if he didn’t mention Bill Dixon, because Dixon was there, and that was something! Ornette and Bill Dixon. Of course, Paudras, if I remember correctly, was sort of a pianist who was supposedly shepherding Mr. Powell. But as you know, Powell had had a lobotomy.  And man, oh, boy, you know… When he came back, I was sitting in my usual place right under him at Birdland. I heard the first note, and I ran from the place.

Another thing I can tell you about my experience with Bud: I was in Birdland one night, and he was playing with a trio, and he got up there before the bass player and the drummer, and he started playing a piece. David Rose wrote this piece. David Rose, I believe, was Judy Garland’s second husband. It’s a beautiful piece called “Our Waltz.” And Bud started playing it, and the manager of Birdland said, from the middle of the floor: “OKAY, BUD, STRIKE IT UP!!” – and the master went into strike up the band.

And of course, the last time I saw the great, and… I mean, for me, THE figure after 1940 was Charlie Parker – and Diz, of course.  But Charlie Parker.  And I’m there, and Bud is playing with Bird, and I could tell you that shit was something.  And Mingus.  And for some reason, Mingus left the bandstand, and for some reason Bud got up and left the bandstand, too. I can still see the Master saying, “You guys are destroying the music.” Charlie Parker said that. No, Mingus could never play with… Mingus, I mean…oh-ho-ho, the stories I could tell you about Mr. Mingus. Well, we all have to deal with our parents.

I hope you found something of interest, because Cyrille is just a marvelous… And give him my very best.

TP:    I hope to see you play in New York one of these times.

TAYLOR: Well, that is something else.  But anyway… It’s so much about the pianists that I grew up listening to. I could tell you about Erroll Garner and all of those beautiful people that kept me alive, really.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Drummer, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR