Back in 2002, when he was recording for Atlantic Records, I had two encounters with trumpeter-singer Olu Dara — a DownBeat Blindfold Tests at Atlantic’s offices, and a WKCR Musician Show. The Blindfold Test has been since Olu’s 73rd birthday in 2015; I’ve just transcribed the Musician Show, after digitizing it from cassette to mp3.
Olu Dara Blindfold Test:
1. Louis Armstrong, “You Go To My Head” (from LOUIS ARMSTRONG MEETS OSCAR PETERSON, Verve, 1956) (5 stars)
From the first couple of notes, although he has a cup mute, if it’s not Satch, it’s someone who’s been living with him all his life in the back room somewhere. [AFTER] Of course that was Louis Armstrong. A lot of the trumpet players from that era had a certain sound, it was a staccato, but you know it’s Satch with the vibrato at the end of his phrases. That’s how you can really tell. And the tone. I usually prefer Satch playing other type of songs, not these conventional standard type songs. It’s a strange thing for me. It’s like a hybrid of something… Knowing where he came from, New Orleans, the Southern thing, him doing this is like a Chinese singing a Puerto Rican song. You know what I mean? It’s hard to describe. Now, the piano player sounds exactly like something McCoy Tyner played, almost note for note. I don’t know who came first, this piano player or McCoy, but it’s an exact duplicate of the way McCoy played behind Coltrane on “Ballads.” [This piano player came first?] Who is he? Oscar Peterson? Amazing. In instrumental music there’s a lot of…it’s not copying, but they almost cookie-cutter each other. It’s amazing how that happens, especially in jazz music. Anyway, just because it’s Satch, I would give him everything. 5 stars, 6 or 7. Because I know he can do that laying on his back.
2. Leo Smith, “Anoa’s Prophecy” (#8) (from DREAMS AND SECRETS, Anonym, 2000) (5 stars)
It sounds like a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer trying to play funk. But that is Miles Davis…or someone close to him. No? [LAUGHS] That’s deep! Keep playing it! Is that the trumpet player who writes in film? [Not Mark Isham.] It’s not Mark Isham. [AFTER A HINT] Oh, that’s Leo Smith. It’s funny about horn players from… I didn’t know who the other people were, but I do recognize horn players close to the Mississippi River. There are certain things we do…we can do a lot of things, and that’s one of the things we can do. We can go that way, we can do the Satchmo thing, we can do the Miles Davis thing, we can do the Clark Terry thing, we can do the avant-garde thing. You’ll find that most trumpeters from this area, where we’re from, we’re documented playing all types of music. This is close. That’s why I thought it was Miles at first, because the sound is so real. It’s authentic, his sound. The concept also. Now, the rhythm section is another story. I’ll give this five stars because of Leo’s conceptual ability to play any type of trumpet style and really play it authentically, like it should be played. I would say he’s one of the most creative musicians I’ve met, especially on the trumpet. Period.
3. Tremé Brass Band, “Gimme My Money Back” (from GIMME MY MONEY BACK, Arhoolie, 1995) (Kermit Ruffins, tp.) (3 stars)
I’ve heard this live in New Orleans. The Dirty Dozen. It’s not the Dirty Dozen? [There are people in this band from the Dirty Dozen, but it’s not the Dirty Dozen.] That makes a difference. That’s not Brass Fantasy, is it? The saxophonist sounds like Maceo Parker. The trumpet player sounds like Gregory Williams who plays with the Dirty Dozen. I can’t identify the horns. The horns sound like conventional trumpeters. It’s hard to play anything other than conventional type trumpet on this type of beat. So I’m sure I won’t be able to identify the trumpet player. [AFTER] That did sound like the Dirty Dozen, but not the real Dirty Dozen. Some of the Dirty Dozen you could feel in there. I couldn’t identify the horn player. I know the tuba player, Kirk Joseph. He’s one of the finest tuba players I’ve heard. I couldn’t identify the trumpet player, because as I said, it’s hard on that type of beat…a trumpet player would have to be extraordinary to be able to create something on that kind of beat other than what trumpet players create on that beat. But I’m quite sure I may know the trumpet players. [Kermit Ruffins] Oh, I’ve never heard his music. For being able to play that music in this day and time, I give them 3 stars for just the idea of keeping it around.
4. David Murray, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” (from SPEAKING IN TONGUES, Just In Time, 1997) (Hugh Ragin, tp.; Fontella Bass, vocals) (3 stars)
I don’t know who it is, but it’s…I don’t know what you can call it. It’s “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”. I know it wasn’t produced in the South. They wouldn’t do that with that beat on it, and especially playing a lot of notes on the solo, since it’s a lament. So it seems like a strange way to do that. I’m quite sure they’re young musicians, but were young musicians doing it. Let me see what else you got there. Right now the introduction was too long, so I didn’t want to hear more. Sounds like Mavis Staples singing. But it’s not Mavis. I can’t identify anybody. I can’t really feel it. That’s David Murray right there. [AFTER] Fontella Bass. I was in the ballgame! I didn’t know who the trumpet player was. But he didn’t grow up in that environment with that kind of music. But you could clearly hear David. David has a very distinctive concept and tone. I didn’t know Fontella, because I hadn’t heard her since “Rescue Me.” That’s been a jillion years ago. She reminded me of Mavis in a way. Just for the idea itself, once we got past the introduction [LAUGHS] and got to Fontella and David’s solo, then it made sense. I’ll give it 3 stars for all of that.
5. Fred McDowell, “Going Down The River” (from THE FIRST RECORDINGS, Rounder, 1959/1997) (5 stars)
[TO HIS SON] We may have it at home, but I probably haven’t listened to it. I know it’s out of Mississippi. That’s one of our people. But it could be anybody. I don’t listen to a lot of CDs as it is. But I know he’s from Mississippi. But there are hundreds of us who can sing like that down there. So I wouldn’t be able to identify this man at all. That’s creative music right there. That’s where a lot of jazz comes from. If you listen closely, you can hear a saxophone solo in the guitar work. You can hear Monk in this man’s voice, you can hear big band arrangements, everything right here. You can hear Miles Davis, “Freddie Freeloader” — BANH-BAM, it was the same note. A good band! Sounds very Mississippi. Very. But I don’t know who he is. Mmm! I probably know who he is and don’t know who he is at the same time. [AFTER] That was beautiful music of the best kind. Who he was… Fred McDowell. I have heard him before, but I didn’t recognize him. That’s a 5-star for the whole outfit, from the drummer, guitar players — extraordinary music. Like I said, you can hear all types of music from right there. You can hear Duke’s band, you can hear Monk, you can hear Louis, you can hear everybody with that one song.
6. Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In The Dark” (from THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT, Blue Note, 1962/1994) (3 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Is that Duke Ellington? It sounds like Clark Terry playing the trumpet. Sounds like Duke’s band. Mingus? Okay.. Duke or Mingus, because they had a tendency to use arbitrary notes in their ensemble playing. That’s what I heard. They were one of the few bands that would use just arbitrary notes. They’re called arbitrary notes by some, but to me it’s proof that all notes go together if they’re done with the right people playing them and the right attitude. It’s not the kind of music I like to listen to, but I would give it 3 stars for being able to make instrumental music sound real soulful.
7. Chocolate Armenteros, “Choco’s Guajira” (from GRUPO FOLKLORICO EXPERIMENTAL NUEVOYORQUINO: CONCEPTS IN UNITY, Evidence, 1975/1994) (5 stars)
Is that Cuban music? Is it Sandoval on trumpet? I love this kind of groove. when I first heard this kind of sound, I was in Cuba many years ago. [TO HIS SON] The vocalists sound Puerto Rican. It’s hard for me to identify a Spanish-speaking band, very difficult because I don’t speak the language. I can’t identify the soloists at all. They have a certain solo style that’s kind of similar, which is why it’s hard for me to identify the musicians. But they have a Congolese-Cuban kind of feeling to it. Sounds like they’re making music in New York City. I can tell because of the claves and the conga drums. Because the Cubans and the Congolese have a much heavier congo sound, but here they use timbales. The claves are a central instrument. But I have no idea who they are. [AFTER] Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are excellent musicians. Not only do they play the music of their people, but they can give a feeling of Cubano and also the jazz music. They know how to do very good mixes on music here. I liked the trumpet player. Was he Jerry? Oh, Chocolate. I don’t know if he’s from Cuba or not. But I could recognize that pure Cuban trumpet style. That’s why I said Cuban in the beginning. [Do you feel a connection to that style?] Yeah, there’s a connection. Armstrong had that style, and early trumpeters had that style, and I feel that style is still in me. I feel a connection with the Cuban trumpet style or Hugh Masakela. Those styles are not spoken about much, but they are not as easy to play as people think they are. You have to have a real feeling for it to play that trumpet style. 5 stars all the way.
8. Blue Mitchell, “Hootie Blues” (from A SURE THING, Riverside, 1960/1994) (Jimmy Heath, ts., arranger) (3 stars) (Wynton Kelly, piano; Jimmy Heath, arr.)
Sounds like Wynton Kelly on the piano, which makes it a stronger blues. The blues was kind of lightweight with the head and everything. Wynton Kelly is one of the few pianists who plays contemporary jazz that could be identified not only by musicians, but the masses, so to speak — the listeners, the non-musicians, whatever. He had a certain signature. The trumpeter came in with a Miles Davis lick, but I’m quite sure it’s not Miles! He came in with a Miles Davis lick that civilians know! [LAUGHS] I wouldn’t have done that. Now, who could that be? Sounds like Blue Mitchell. [AFTER] I don’t really like the tune that much. It’s a lightweight blues head. The recording isn’t that good because I can’t hear Wynton’s real sound, nor Blue’s. But it shows you how great they were. With that thin recorded sound, you still can identify Blue Mitchell and Wynton Kelly. I’ll give it 3 stars for them. Without Wynton and Blue, I don’t think I could have listened to it.
9. Sidney DeParis, “The Call Of The Blues” (#16) (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, 1944/1998) (5 stars) (Jimmy Shirley, guitar; Ed Hall, clarinet; Vic Dickenson, tb.)
Cootie Williams? Bubber Miley? It’s a very interesting concept he has, the trumpet player. He didn’t play the lick form, which is very unusual. Charlie Christian? Is this the ’40s? It’s really difficult for me to identify any of these people because I was only a mere child, and then I didn’t listen… The rhythmic concept is unusual, because there’s a boogie-woogie beat, there’s a straight jazz beat, and there’s a rhythm-and-blues beat mixed up in it. An old jazz sound coming from…now they mixed that with a Dixieland sound. So it has multiple concepts in it. The way they do the solos is not conventional, not as conventional as famous people who will solo? Is the trombonist Trummy Young? Dickie Wills? I would never guess the trombone player. Not Al Gray? Not Vic Dickenson? Okay. Sounds like somebody Clark Terry might have listened to. Did this trumpet player ever play with Duke’s band? [Yes.] It’s not Artie Whetsol. It’s not Cat Anderson! Ray Nance? Sounded like Hot Lips or Red Allen for a while. Guy’s great, whoever he is. Just right. But I never heard him, ever. But that was a beautiful record. That’s when creative music I thought was at its best. The horn players really played. Everybody played what should be played, nothing more and nothing less. 5 stars.
10. Wynton Marsalis, “Sunflowers” (#13) (from THE MARCIAC SUITE, Columbia, 1999) (3 stars)
Are all these guys under 40? I can hear the youth. They sound like college players. In the tones, yeah. Sounds like they all went to the same institution, either college or music school. You can tell by the tone. The tones sound similar. You don’t hear any individual tone. You’d have to know them personally to know their tone. And there’s not much space in the music. That’s another way you can tell. Then they have the pianissimo things, the forte things, so I can tell they’re university or music school. Then they’ve got that Miles Davis “All Blues” thing hidden in there somewhere! But I don’t know who they are. There are a lot of glissandos and triplets. They don’t sound relaxed. They’re young, under 40. That’s enough of that one. [AFTER] I don’t know who they are, but I would give them 3 stars just for wanting to be musicians.
11. Craig Harris, “Harlem” (#5) (from ISTANBUL, Double Moon, 1998) (Carla Cook, vocals; Craig Harris, tb., arr.) (3 stars)
Sounds like Craig Harris on trombone. That’s one of his licks. I probably know the singer personally, but I don’t recognize her. I know Carla Cook, I’ve ever worked with her, but on the CD I didn’t recognize her voice. I don’t know what they were doing. I live in Harlem, too, so I understand what they were saying. It’s nice. I’d give them 3 stars for trying to do what they were trying to do. [What were they trying to do?] I don’t know yet! [LAUGHS]
12. Cootie Williams, “Dooji Wooji” (from THE DUKE’S MEN, VOL.2, Columbia, 1939/1993) (5 stars) (Johnny Hodges, as)
Is that Duke Ellington? It’s part of his group. Somebody has broken away, Johnny Hodges or somebody. But who? Could it be Cootie? It sounds like Cootie’s band away from the Duke, with Duke on the piano. It’s excellent. This is top-grade, high-quality stuff. I had never heard Cootie’s group, but you could just feel it! I hear Johnny Hodges there. This is excellent. That’s what I mean you can tell between the old heads and the young heads. There’s a certain feeling. You can dance to this. You can get images of people, not just men, but women, children, food and drink. You can hear church and nightclub. It takes you there. Really, to me it’s all about tone. The tone has to have that real feeling, and not just academic. That’s beautiful. 5 stars. You know that. That’s it! That’s the stuff right there. It doesn’t even exist any more. It’s not here any more..
13. Neville Marcano, “Senorita Panchita” (from THE GROWLING TIGER OF CALYPSO, Rounder, 1962/1998) (5 stars)
Sounds South American. But then it sounds Cuban also. I’m especially attracted to this kind of music because it has so many mixtures in it. To me, this is one of the first multicultural musics. I hear many cultures in it. Spanish, the island people, the African, the Cape Verdean people I hear. Now, who this is, I have no idea. Sounds raw. The bass almost sounds like he’s playing a tub. I’m sure it’s a real bass, but just the way he hits it. And how loose the rhythm is, but still in rhythm. It sounds like a neighborhood band. I like that sound also! And this type of vocalization is excellent. It’s what the young people are doing now. I like to vocalize like this also. Free form vocalization is beautiful. There’s a musician named Garth something from England. He’s a singer-rapper. He’s very popular now. He’s got a vocal style that’s just exactly like him. This kid must be 21-22 years old. He has a moustache, like that. He’s from England and he’s a rapper. He’s talking about being at his girlfriend’s house and his parents don’t know he’s there, he don’t mean any harm. He wears a little white kufi. This is old, right? Ah, ’60s. This is excellent stuff. Because the kids are using it now. [Any idea where he’s from?] It sounds like Martinique…not Martinique or Surinam or somewhere like that. [KUFI: It sounds like from the islands.] It’s an island sound. To me it sounds like Cuba. Trinidad? That’s definitely 5 stars. The vocal alone, just the style of it alone. The looseness of it is beautiful.
14. Art Blakey & Jazz Messengers, “Afrique” (from THE WITCH DOCTOR, Blue Note, 1961/1999) (Lee Morgan, trumpet) (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Lee Morgan! The greatest!! This is a man who’s an unsung hero in the history of jazz. There’s none like him. They talk about Dizzy, Miles, a lot of them. But this man here, he’s the only trumpet player I know, back in the day, who had direct fans, people who SCREAMED when he came on. Just the average man on the street liked Lee Morgan. He’s the only trumpet player I know in the history of the music that the common man on the street liked, the man who was not a jazz fan. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Now, who Lee Morgan is with I have no idea. Is that Billy Higgins on drums? Wait a minute. Is the tenor player Billy Harper? Not Frank Mitchell? Whoo, who is this? John Gilmore? Oh, Wayne Shorter! I got it now! [LAUGHS] Wayne threw me off for a minute because Wayne is so… I’m talking about in the past. It sounded like Wayne in the past, when he played more street; he had a street sound to him. Tenor saxophone. No soprano. Beautiful. This dude right here brought a lot of young people into jazz music. Is that Buhaina? [You didn’t recognize Buhaina right away.] Well, because I was listening for something else. When they came in, it was an unusual gathering of the musical instruments together doing something they didn’t normally do. So I didn’t listen for Bu until they got to the solos. Drummers don’t play that beat. These are the guys who brought people of my generation into jazz who may not have wanted to go into jazz. The tone of Lee Morgan — impeccable. He was straight-out. He didn’t try to do anything else but play straight out. He didn’t try to fool you with anything or try to be different or even try to be intellectual. To me, he was intellectual and street-wise at the same time. A brilliant man. The whole group. Is that Timmons on piano? The whole group. Philadelphia bass player. Jymie Merritt. For jazz in that era, that was it. Five stars. Of course! All the way.
Olu Dara Musician Show, WKCR, March 6, 2002:
[MUSIC: Olu Dara, “Okra,” “Father Blues,” “Herbman”-Neighborhoods (2001)]
TP: “Herbman” was from Neighborhoods, Olu Dara’s 2001 release on Atlantic, featuring Olu on vocals, Kwatei Jones-Quartey on guitar, Ivan Ramirez, guitar, John Abrams, tenor saxophone, Dr. John on Hammond B3, Fredger “Saïd” Dupree on Wurlitzer and electric piano; Rod Williams, electric organ; Alonzo Gardner, bass; Coster Massamba, congas and cowbell; Larry Johnson on drums.
“Father Blues” much pared down – Olu all by himself as a vocalist, guitar, and trumpeter on the aboriginal trumpet. “Okra” is the signature tune for the Okra Orchestra – Olu Dara, vocals, cornet, aboriginal trumpet; Kwarte Jones on guitars and percussion, Ivan Ramirez, guitar; Rudy Herbert on Hammond B3; Alonzo Gardner, bass; Richard James, congas; Greg Bandy, trapset; Melba Joyce, Cantrese Alloway and Darada David, background vocals.
That’s a lot of musicians, but they all deserve to be cited because they did a great job with Olu Dara. Welcome to the Musicians Show this evening.
OLU: It’s good to be here, Ted.
TP: We have a motley array of music. “Motley” is the wrong word. But it goes from Robert Johnson to Lester Bowie. By the end of the show, we’ll see how this diverse spectrum reflects Olu’s unique personality.
Before we get into the meat of the show, let’s talk about the recordings we played. Around 1997-98, the then-head of Atlantic Records, Yves Beauvais, called you (I think the story goes) 10 or 15 minutes after your son, Nassir, called and asked you to do a record. You said “no.” 15 minutes later, Yves Beauvais called, and thus a contract with Atlantic. Is this a true story.
OLU: Yes, it’s a true story. Yes, Yves and Atlantic Records had been approaching me for many years to record. I was busy. And it just happened that particular day my sons called me, asked me to come with them at Columbia, and I said, “no, I’m not interested in recording.” When Yves called a few minutes afterwards, that was an omen to me. I knew that I couldn’t say no twice in 10 minutes for something I had never done before, and never thought about doing before. But, I felt that it was something I had to do.
TP: What was the source of your reluctance to record during those years before? There are many people in New York – friends, fans – who would wonder why Olu Dara isn’t recording because of their admiration for the variety of things you do so well. What was the stumbling block for you?
OLU: There were many things involved with my decision not to record. One thing is, it wasn’t ever my ambition to become a solo artist in the record business, and even before that, it wasn’t my ambition to become a musician in New York. I didn’t come here to become a musician. I got stranded here in New York and I did other things. I enjoyed music a lot, but I had played music in my earlier days in high school, a few years of college, and the military. But I was also busy doing theater, which is what I really love to do — composing for theater. Also, writing my own plays. But just writing songs all the time, and handing them over and listening to them live all the time. That was a wonderful feeling, with other people doing my music like that.
Some other things… When I first started playing out in New York, when I came to Manhattan to play with the musicians I was recording with, they were playing another type of music that was not my game.
TP: You’re talking about when now? Back around 1970 or so?
OLU: In the 70s, yes. I was working a lot with a lot of musicians, a lot of well-known musicians. But the music that was popular at the time in the jazz world, or I would say the instrumental music world, was not my fare. I didn’t want to present myself that way. But I was getting a lot of offers to record in that genre.
TP: You’re speaking of the recordings you did with people like David Murray or Henry Threadgill…
OLU: Or just many others. The whole thing was writing music and being known as a jazz trumpeter. I wanted to avoid that by all means. I didn’t want my history to be “the jazz trumpeter,” because there were limitations to that as far as my personality is concerned. So I avoided that very well, I believe.
TP: There are different people who know you for entirely different things. Some people who might have heard you between 1974 and 1990 might only know you as a jazz trumpeter or someone in that tradition; then there are people who might have started listening in 1992, when all those records were out of print, and they may know as a vocalist, raconteur, and sometime blues singer and purveyor of a pan-diasporic blend of music.
OLU: Since I didn’t have any solo records out on my own, I had complete freedom to do what I wanted to do when I got on the stage with my own situations. I had my two bands for over 25 years, so a lot of people knew me from those bands. But a lot of people just knew me only from recordings or seeing me with some of their favorite artists, only knew me as a horn player. Then there were people who knew me as a bluesman, a singer and a guitar player and a harmonica player. Then there were some people who knew me as a theater man. So I was very happy about that because I could appear in public in any form, in any way. In other words, I didn’t have to appear with a horn, I didn’t have to appear with a jazz band, I didn’t have to appear with anything in particular of what I wanted to do – so that gave me complete freedom.
TP: But with that freedom came the responsibility of laying down a bunch of work. What was the strategy? Drawing on 25 years of work with those two bands, basically?
OLU: Yes, it was very easy. All I had to do was go in and pick from the hundreds of songs I had written over the past 25 years, especially just from theater. I’d just go and pick some. Plus, I had a lot of songs I’d been doing with my band for 25 years, like I said. I just picked from that. Then I like to make up songs on the spot, so that’s what I did. I picked some old songs. Some of the songs on those two albums are over 25 years old. But they were fresh enough for me to record in this time.
TP: Having stated that you did not want to be stamped as a jazz trumpet player, you’re a very fine jazz trumpet player and quite learned in the history of jazz trumpet, as I found out when I gave you a Blindfold Test for Downbeat not that long ago. Your comments were quite incisive. So if you’ll allow me, I’d like to explore that aspect of your background. You came up in Natchez, Mississippi.
TP: Was picking up the trumpet something that happened through school? Was it just an accident that you became a trumpeter? Or was it something you really had a desire to do?
OLU: I guess neither. It was just destiny. We didn’t have a school band at the time. I was 7 years old. The story goes like this. A man came into town, and he asked for a place to stack his wares or whatever. I helped him stack his wares. My family helped him find a little place to live in, an abandoned church. As I helped him unpack, he told me what he was, and he did everything. He said, “I do everything. I play musical instruments, I’m into metaphysical stuff, I paint, I want to start a newspaper here – I’m going to do all kinds of things.” He did everything. He spoke 7 or 8 languages. He said, “I need a band.” I asked him why. He said, “I need to make some money.”
So he went to Natchez Junior College, went in the basement, and we found some old horns — cornets, clarinets, and whatever. I had no intention of playing any music. He said, “Look, I want you to start; I’m going to teach you and your friends how to play.” So that’s what he did. He said, “Here’s a balloon. If you can blow up a balloon smoothly, then it’s like playing a new cornet.” He started me off like that. Then he gave me a mouthpiece and said, “Play some things into the mouthpiece, some songs that’s in your mind into the mouthpiece.” Come back. The first thing he taught me was the bridge to “Sophisticated Lady.” He started humming. He called me “Senor.” He said, “Listen tothis: [SINGS REFRAIN] Now, I’d never heard anything like that in my life. Never heard any notes going together like that in an interval…I like to call it intervalactic kind of stuff.
So I learned how to play it by ear. Then come the next day, he said, “Now, this is what it looks like on paper.” So I learned how to read quickly, like that.
TP: How old were you?
OLU: I was going on 8 then. Three months later we had a band. My bands… The band was integrated… I’m saying he had 7 and 8 year old kids; he had 21 year old people. He had 17 year old people in the band. He was only 24, but he was prematurely gray. I thought he was much older, but I found out years later he was only 24 years old
Anyway, I played all the way through high school, and tried to quit the band many times so I could play on the basketball team. But they tricked me. They let me sit on the bench. The principal told the basketball coach, “He’s a good basketball player, but don’t let him play, because we want him in the band.” So that’s what happened. I went back into the band… By this time we had a high school band. It was junior high school.
So I went back and played trumpet. I found out that the cornet and trumpet helped me out in a lot of ways. When I went to college, I was majoring in pre-med for a while. That was at Tennessee State, Nashville, Tennessee. Dick Barnett had been there. Wilma Rudolph. Leon Thomas was there. Moses Gunn. Quite a few people.
TP: Were you listening to records then? Were you hearing other instrumental personalities? Was that part of what you did?
OLU: No records, because my grandparents, who lived right down the street, didn’t play records, and my parents didn’t play records. So it was like live music all the time. It’s always live. I guess until the year before I left for college… We bought a record player, and I bought a Dizzy Gillespie record.
TP: So you knew about Dizzy Gillespie, you knew about Lee Morgan, but you didn’t…
OLU: No. I didn’t. I just found a Dizzy Gillespie record. That’s the only jazz record they had in town. They had Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, but nobody else. They had one Dizzy record.
TP: Describe the music you were playing? Mostly blues? Jump band things?
OLU: Various forms of music. It’s hard to describe what they called it. They had big bands. A band called the Red Tops, which was like a territory band in Mississippi. They played for our dances and stuff, so I got a chance to hear a lot of blowing, a lot of instrumental greatness. I think they were out of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is about 65 miles away from me. Then there were guys in my band who learned how to play very quickly – how to improvise and stuff. I would just listen. But we all had to improvise right away. In school, if you didn’t have any music… Like, baritone horn parts were missing. So I would have to play the baritone horn and I would have to improvise. The band director would say, “We don’t have any music for the baritone horn, so I want the sound.” So you’d just solo around what you think should be played. That’s how I learned how to improvise.
TP: So you were simultaneously an ear player but were taught formal skills at the same time.
OLU: Yes, at the same time. All the mentors down there, the musical guys, they want you to be able to come in and play what you hear first, because they didn’t have time to write out all the music all the time. But we had bands that had music out. The first band I was in had the music written out. But if someone walks out and calls something we don’t have on paper, they want you to know how to play it. They would have people stand off to the side and hum it to you.
TP: I’d think that tone production would have been the most important thing in those situations, really projecting your sound and…
OLU: Sound was very important. It wasn’t about the notes you play. It wasn’t about how fast you could play or what notes or scales you could play. You had to have a tone that the people liked. That’s all that people talked about when they’d come to hear us play. Even at football games, basketball games, the older people would talk about the tone. That’s all they were interested in, your tone projection.
TP: Leo Smith once talked about having to fill up the big open spaces with the sound of the horn coming up in Mississippi.
OLU: Yeah, we had to play outdoors. Most of the time you played outdoors.
TP: Let’s jump back. You were at Tennessee State, you move to Nashville, and you’re now listening to records.
OLU: My roommate had a big collection of records, people I never heard of. I never heard of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan… Only person I’d heard of was Dizzy Gillespie, and I just learned about him through that one record. And Louis Armstrong – I knew of him through early television days. But I never heard of all these guys, no jazz people at all, until I went away to Tennessee State.
TP: Is that when you heard the record we’re about to play, which is Lee Morgan with Art Blakey?
OLU: Art Blakey’s band and Horace Silver’s time was the music of the time of the youth of Tennessee for jazz. They’d listen to just a few artists — Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Coltrane. Maybe one more. I think it was Miles.
TP: But Lee Morgan struck you.
OLU: Well, Lee Morgan struck all of us. He was our favorite when it came to listening to jazz records. It was always Lee Morgan first, even if he was a sideman. Everyone loved Lee Morgan.
Once I started to learn about trumpet players, and started listening to some of my roommate’s records… He’d sit there and say, “You want to play jazz?” I said, “I would like to.” He’d say, “Well, listen to this guy.” He’d play everybody. He’d say, “Now, listen to this guy here, Lee Morgan.” They would say, “This guy has a street sound,” which is what the kids liked. He was like the hip-hop trumpeter of the day. So when I heard his sound, I said, “You’re right; he’s studied, but he’s not studied to the point where he sounds like a machine.” You could feel that he was just a natural musician with lots of talent, and he would do things that most trumpet players… He was unpredictable. Plus he had tone. The tone was wonderful.
[MUSIC: Messengers with Morgan & Shorter, “Dat Dere”-The Big Beat; Ornette-Don Cherry, “Congeniality”]
TP: During our first conversational segment, Olu took us from Natchez to Nashville, and Tennessee State University, where your roommate introduces you to jazz trumpet and plays you Lee Morgan records. Is this also when you discovered Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman?
OLU: Two years after that, when I joined the Navy, I think the first day I got into the music school in the Navy…it was full of musicians, of course…that record, right you just played, was there — one guy had it. It was being passed around. That’s when I heard it. I can almost name the date when I first heard the record. I think it was 1960 or 1961.
TP: That’s when you joined the Navy.
OLU: I joined in 1960. I went two years to college, two years in the summer. Then I got bored with that. I wanted to see the world and maybe get a chance to play some music, too.
TP: What was your academic interest in college? You said you had no intention of being a professional musician; music was more of a tool for you.
OLU: It’s always a tool. I didn’t have any plans academically at all. My mother and father had the plans. They wanted me to be a doctor. So I enrolled in pre-med courses. I found that was like backwards, so I didn’t want to deal with that. I said, “Well, what can you do while you’re taking these boring courses?” So I joined the band which was very exciting. I stayed in the band a couple of years, and enrolled in school in the summer to be ahead of time for my junior year, and I got bored right away. I saw two sailors, and I went down and joined the Navy.
TP: And you decided to try for the music school for the opportunities it would give you…
OLU: Yes. That was my plan.
TP: I guess you’re alongside dozens of musicians who through Armed Services music programs developed their skills and broadened their musical horizons. That goes back to James Reese Europe, and World War Two, and up on through.
OLU: Yes. I’d heard about musicians making their way in the military. It was easier. You could go to a school and be around musicians who really didn’t need the school, but it was a place for us to hide away from saluting and all that kind of stuff. That’s what we did. For four years I played music and traveled the earth, and it was a very nice thing.
TP: I’d imagine it broadened your horizons as far as what you were listening. And you must have played in the different places you visited outside of the Navy bands.
OLU: Oh yes. You got an opportunity to play at all times. People were hungry for musicians, professional musicians, where we were. We could play when we were off-duty, and we were always off-duty. If you’re a musician in the military you don’t have to do much at all but play and just hang out. Also, the travel. You got a chance to open up your mind to various musics of the world and just to see what the world has to offer also.
TP: What were some of your ports of call?
OLU: Puerto Rico. Trinidad…
TP: That’s where you first heard Caribbean music.
TP: Did it resonate with you right away?
OLU: Right away. It was something you knew was there, but you hadn’t been very close to it — but you knew in the back of your mind it was there on earth. The Caribbean, then Africa, many places in Africa, all around the continent. Every place we went it was different. Ten miles this way, it was different; ten miles that way it was different. From country to country, it was different sounds and different ways to apply music.
TP: So the roots of what you do now, apart from your early years in Natchez, heark to that naval experience when you went around the world and heard all these things first-hand.
OLU: Yes, it has to do with my freedom, my youth, when I didn’t have any ties to the world. I was just out there on my own. So I spent all this time being around musicians and listening to that music and playing this kind of music. So I never was a person who grew up on records. I didn’t grow up on records, so I’m not really influenced by recorded music – and I’m very happy about that. I’m very happy about it. I know a lot of musicians, my peers, the young guys especially…they’re very influenced by records. You can hear it in their voices, the things they say through their instruments. You can tell it’s not a life experience, but it’s a record experience. It’s a big difference.
TP: So you never transcribed solos?
OLU: Never. I thought that was horrible, when I heard musicians say, “But I transcribed Charlie Parker’s or Lester Young’s solo and Dizzy’s solo, and I learned this solo…” I was shocked. Because when I was growing up, reading about jazz musicians, I thought they would create on the spot. That excited me when I heard it. I said, “wow, these guys…” They got a lot of press, a lot of historical records on musicians. My thing was, these guys are the most creative musicians on the planet. That’s the way it was written up. So I’m young and I’m looking for this. I didn’t think musicians had to look for chord changes or anything. All these things shocked me. All these things shocked me when I saw it. I used to see musicians who I really heard about or respected or whatever, and they’d say, “Where are the chord changes?” I’m saying, “My goodness, what is this?” Then when they’d say “I transcribed this guy’s solos,” to me that was horrible. Not because they were wrong, but because that’s the way I think and the way I was brought up. When you transcribe a guy’s solo, it’s like transcribing his soul. It was like taking his soul from him.
My whole concept is this man that you’re transcribing had his own soul and his own life, and his own thoughts. If you transcribe a solo, you don’t know what he’s saying. You’re just transcribing notes. And if you’re bringing these things into you, then you become part of him – or almost like cloning in a way. So I said all that to say this. I thought it was horrible when I heard people transcribe other people’s solo.
TP: Did hearing Ornette Coleman somehow correlate with that sense of the world? Was it a pathbreaking experience for you?
OLU: No. No, it wasn’t. See, he’s a southerner. So I could hear… I do remember guys were gathered the record player, listening to it – the same record we’re talking about. I listened to a couple of sides, and I just kept walking. Because to me, him being a southerner, I knew exactly what he was doing. Don Cherry. I could hear the creativity in both of their voices. It wasn’t a surprise for me. It was like a surprise for others, I believe. But I knew that music had to be somewhere on earth anyway.
TP: So it was more along the lines of hearing a kindred spirit.
OLU: Simple as that.
TP: So it’s 1965, you get out of the Navy, you’ve seen the world, and then what happens?
OLU: I get stranded in New York. I was discharged in New York in July 1964, and I ran out of money. My plan was to go and live in places that I liked outside of America, places like Barcelona, Spain, which I really loved, and places like Kenya…there’s a lot of islands I liked. I was just going to take a chance. I was young enough to do what I wanted to do. But I stayed in New York a couple of days too long, and I ran out of money. So I wound up being here.
TP: Were you always playing music for money, or did that start later?
OLU: Yes, I always played music for money. Other than the time I spent playing in college bands… I think that’s the only time I didn’t make any money playing music, was when I was in college those two years, because I just played in the school marching band.
TP: Oh, you didn’t play outside.
OLU: No. When I got to college, it was a total jazz thing. The college guys, the jazz musicians, if they didn’t know you, you couldn’t get anywhere near them. That’s one of the other reasons I left college, because these guys were from larger cities and they had this little clique. If you didn’t know a couple of tunes they knew, then you were out of the picture. So that’s one of the reasons that helped me make up my mind to leave college — because you couldn’t get in the little jazz clique.
TP: I know you did many things in NewYork, but as far as the musical end of it, what sort of scenes were you involved with in 1964-65-66?
OLU: I thought it was very creative, in a way. The beboppers were… It seemed like they’d said to the beboppers, “You’ve had your turn or whatever.” But I was around a lot of those guys because they were so accessible. So many of them. Kenny Dorham… I can name many of them. So just say anybody who was playing between 1949 and 1965.
TP: You hung out and you met them.
OLU: I used to hang out at places they’d play, especially in Brooklyn. Most of the beboppers who were well-known lived in Brooklyn at the time. I lived right in the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where most of the musicians were living anyway.
TP: So the Blue Coronet…
OLU: The Blue Coronet especially. You could see everybody there. Coltrane, Rahsaan… That’s where a lot of musicians who were just making record dates, like Freddie Hubbard or Kenny Barron, they would come there and wax out their tunes or whatever and play it there, and the next thing you know they’re recording these things. Cedar Walton. Cal Massey. Lee Morgan. I saw everybody right in the neighborhood. I wasn’t in the music as far as playing. I wasn’t going to play at all.
But I enjoyed just being around the music, listening to all kinds of stuff. At the time, there was a lot of different kinds of music – African music, Caribbean music, rhythm-and-blues. Eventually I started playing with rhythm-and-blues bands first. It was very difficult to meet the jazz musicians, in a way. They had another kind of thing. It was more like an old boys’ club, what they call it… For young guys coming up, you couldn’t get in unless you knew somebody. I didn’t know anybody. Therefore, I was out of the picture. But I enjoyed myself hanging around. And I had no thoughts about going into the music game. I had other talents.
Eventually I got talked into playing by guys who remembered me from the past. But I waited a long time. I was in my thirties before I even bought another horn. I borrowed those; I hadn’t made up my mind yet.
TP: Sound like your musical activity up to 1972 or so was rhythm-and-blues bands…
OLU: Yes. Caribbean bands, African bands – yes.
TP: That also imparted the feeling we hear on the records by the “best new jazz artist of 1998,” Olu Dara – at 56.
TP: We’ll move to music by James Brown circa 1970 or so. You have a contemporary perspective, because, though you’re younger, your span as a music-listener would match his career as a recording artist.
OLU: He embodies the feeling of the South. Everything. When I think about him. Also, his music spans the world. To me, he’s the first World musician in America. What they call a “world music musician.” In other words, he uses the polyrhythms of the African beats, mixed with the gospel, the country-blues, the funk, orchestral stuff — everything. If someone had to ask me “who is the greatest living in America?” or “who is the greatest musician ever in America?”…for me personally… I would always say James Brown. He embodied the in and outside music of the saxophone with Maceo, and the tight band of the so-called Basie-ites, and the drumming of the Afrobeat drumming. His drummers are…
Let me break this up a minute and say one thing. I went to a conference one time about ten years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, and they were talking about drums. Who were the greatest drummers in America. America’s drummers – who are they? They started naming people. All kinds of experts, critics, musicians – they named all kinds of names. They went from Buddy Rich to Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Art Blakey – everything. Ok, the place was full.
They asked one guy, I don’t know if it was me or somebody else. And somebody said, “Well, there are some drummers out here who everybody has heard before. Because all you people never heard Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones like that, but everybody in this room, guaranteed, you’ve heard these drummers – but I’ll bet you can’t tell me their names.” They say, “What? What drummers? We know?” He said, “Name one drummer who played with James Brown? I know you danced off his music or heard it many times.” Only a few people could name like Starks or Stubblefield or people like that.
But what I’m saying is, his drummers span the time. They’re universal. The whole concept of James Brown’s band is universal. They dance all over – in Africa, all over the world. And still today his music is… They talk a lot about the greatest bands and all that stuff, all the time, but his name is never mentioned. They’ll mention Ellington. They’ll mention Basie. The Philharmonic. Barry Manilow. It could be anybody.
[MUSIC: James Brown, “Lickin’ Stick”; John Lee Hooker, “Graveyard Blues”; Staples Singers, “Reach Out, Touch A Hand”]
TP: So it’s Brooklyn during the 60s, and you’re hanging out, playing in African and Caribbean and rhythm-and-blues bands. Around 1973, after various trials and tribulations, you wind up with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. How did it happen? What was the path?
OLU: He just called me. We didn’t know each other at all. I hadn’t really played in any jazz bands per se. I’ve had a couple, I played a couple of tunes here, a couple of tunes there. But I just got a phone call from him. I guess I was recommended by somebody who he had just hired in his band – all of the guys I knew. I knew Carter Jefferson from the rhythm-and-blues bands we played in together. Neither one of us has really been in a jazz band, but we were inching towards it. Rhythm-and-blues bands were really jazz bands to me anyway, because we improvised and we played horn lines together – improvised everything.
TP: That’s when every band had a horn section.
OLU: Every band had a horn section.
TP: Did you play with any national acts?
OLU: Rhythm-and-blues? We went on the road with this group out of Cleveland…
TP: You were part of a horn section that would contract out?
OLU: Yeah, we had this local band. It was called Ecstasy, Passion and Pain. It became nationally known. We were called the Sounds of Soul. Then I played in the Fatback band, but before the Fatback Band was named the Fatback Band, we were called Pretty Willie and the Soul Brothers. I would go out with these bands, and we would open for the Ohio Players and things like that. So that’s basically what we were doing in rhythm-and-blues. Plus, we played a lot in the five boroughs. Rhythm-and-blues was all over the place, and all of a sudden, boom, it disappeared. So nothing was left but jazz bands. So New York became a complete jazz band city after that. So my only means of income would be to play jazz. So Carter Jefferson, my friend, he went with Mongo Santamaria. I went with Carlos Garnett, Afro-Caribbean Jazz Band, and then after that with Doug and Jean Carn — and after that I went in with the jazz bands. So I went with Art Blakey, sight unseen. I met him in Milwaukee someplace.
TP: he needed a trumpet player, he called you, you go out to Milwaukee.
TP: You went and hit without rehearsal?
TP: What was that like for you?
OLU: The funny thing about it, trumpet players dream of playing with Art Blakey. That was one of my dreams. I never thought I would ever play with Art Blakey. I never even thought about it. But he called me, and I just went. I needed a gig and I went. I didn’t care who called me. I didn’t care what kind of music it was. Although I had never really tried to practice that music, or have dreams of playing with jazz per se – but I had dreams of playing with Blakey. And I’d played with him in my dreams already, so I was satisfied! But it was a dream come true, in a way. I stayed with him for one year, and after that I wanted to do something else.
TP: But within that time, there must have been something that stuck… You and Carter Jefferson already had an ensemble sound.
OLU: Yeah, we had something going.
TP: Did he try to rein you in any way? Did he give you input?
OLU: He was the freest bandleader I’ve ever had. He didn’t say a thing. He said, “You guys take over. Whatever you want to play. Play what you want to play.” He was like that. He just wanted to have fun and play drums. And he had complete trust in us. Even when we were fumbling over the tune we didn’t know, or the heads or anything like that… But he liked the idea that Carter and I from rhythm-and-blues… We knew how to make it sound like we’d been together for years. That’s why he didn’t fire us right away! We knew how to make a band sound together. And we played a different type of Messengers sound, due to the times. He enjoyed that, because we would go all kinds of ways and bring other kinds of rhythms. He enjoyed it immensely. We stayed together for one year until we decided we wanted to do something else.
TP: This is 1973.
OLU: 73 to 74.
TP: So the sound you were bringing was really apropos…
OLU: To the times. We traveled all over. We went everywhere. For that one year, I think we only had two weeks off for the whole year. We played almost every night, all over the world. It was something that I needed to experience, so I could know what it was. It would be a shame for me to have dreamt that I played with him and never played with him. I think I’d still be worrying about that today, or thinking about it.
TP: Is that a beat that you still feel? Art Blakey was one of the most dynamic drummers, sonically and creatively, that ever was.
OLU: Yes, I feel his beat. Of course I feel his beat. His beat was a very good feeling. Like we used to say, he’s one of the few jazz drummers who was not ashamed of a funky beat, of the funky shuffles and things like that. He knew how to play the bass drum and the snare drum. It was very youthful. Not overly hip. Know what I mean? But he was a stickler for the beat. Period. He didn’t try to show off or try to be slick or anything like that. He was just an old school drummer with a big beat.
TP: You leave Art Blakey in 1974, and around then is when your name starts to pop up with the musicians from the Midwest, the South, and the West Coast who were coming to New York around that time. You play on Oliver Lake’s Heavy Spirits in 1974. You appear on some of the Wildflowers sessions from 1975 and 1976.
TP: So by then, you’re pretty headlong into what was called the “downtown” scene.
OLU: It’s funny how that happened, too. Because when I left Art Blakey’s band I wanted to stop music again. I said, “Look, I’ve done that; is that all there is to it?” When you get into something from the outside, it looks one way. When you get into it, it’s something else. So I decided, “Well, let me give up music now; I want to do something else.” But I got a call from Hamiet Bluiett, and he said, “All the guys are coming into town…”
TP: You knew Bluiett…
OLU: Through the military. I met him in the Navy.
TP: Anyone else we’d know who you met in the Navy?
OLU: No. He’s the only one you may know. I know I passed Howard Johnson out to sea. I asked, “Who’s that guy playing trumpet out to sea?” somewhere in the Red Sea, and they said it was Howard Johnson. I met him many years later. But Bluiett I actually met in the military. We played together when he would come through my port or whatever. But he called me and said, “Look…” He’d just left Mingus’ band and I’d just left Basie’s band, so it was like, “What are we going to do now?” Is this all there is to it?
So we both were in that frame of mind. I was saying, “I’m going to do something else; this is it for me.” So he said, “You want to play? Some guys are coming to town; they’re playing some different kind of stuff that we used to play out of St. Louis.” When I got around those guys, it wasn’t stuff I was used to playing at all. The music was somewhere else. The guys from the AACM, from Chicago, they had their own sound. The guys from California, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, James Newton, Butch Morris. Then the St. Louis people – Hemphill, Lake, the Bowies, Bluiett, Marvin Horn. Quite a few people from each area.
TP: You’d met them traveling with the rhythm-and-blues bands?
OLU: No. I met them in New York. I met some of them…
TP: I thought you mentioned playing with some people in St. Louis. That’s why I asked.
OLU: Well, I did. I met some of the musicians, like Luther Thomas, in St. Louis. But most of the musicians I met is when they migrated to New York City, and they all had different types of ways of expressing themselves, which was… I’d never spent that much time playing with those kinds of bands. Never had, because they were not here. But that sustained me for some years, and put me in a position where I made a name for myself playing music. It’s funny how life is. I made my name internationally by playing with musicians who I never thought I would play or music that I didn’t know too much about. What I found was, when I played with so many of them, the trumpet players in New York didn’t want to play anything but maybe straight-ahead jazz. I would play anything. I didn’t care. So I would take the gigs. The other trumpet players didn’t want those gigs, so I would take all those gigs. And I wound up playing with everybody. And so I sustained myself, and I learned a great deal. Although it wasn’t the kind of music I wanted to be known as playing, it was the music that helped me make my reputation.
TP: Why wouldn’t you want to be known as playing that?
OLU: Heh, it’s like… I’m from Mississippi. We play a different kind of music. It’s like B.B. King. You think B.B. King wants to spend his life playing with Ornette or somebody? Not that anything is wrong with Ornette, but B.B. King has his music. That’s the way he expresses himself. Ornette expresses himself one way. He doesn’t mean either one is inferior or superior.
TP: Absolutely. But they’re both from the South and each of them did what they did. Leo Smith is from Mississippi…
OLU: He’s similar to me. He’s a guy who migrated, and he didn’t bring a whole lot of Mississippians with him. He came as a lone Mississippi player and played with people from…
TP: But he went to Chicago…
OLU: That’s what I’m saying.
TP: …where there were a lot of people who were from Mississippi.
OLU: Exactly. But they were not born in Mississippi.
TP: Some of them were.
OLU: Let’s say this. In my experience, hardly anyone born in Mississippi. Believe me. Leo was born there, I was born there – as far as I know in this situation we were into. Leo and myself. We both happened to be trumpeters. These guys were born in big cities. They were more sophisticated than I was. Believe me, they were. They knew a lot of things that I did not know, about a lot of things. So I got my opportunity… They were bent on becoming famous people. I could tell how they migrated and said, “Look, we’re going to do it.” [LAUGHS] And I stuck with them. Although I knew in the back of my mind that this wasn’t the type of music I would present to my people in Natchez or my people out on Long Island when I’m playing rhythm-and-blues. I tried it already. It didn’t work. It did not work.
But I knew in my own mind I had my own way of doing things, and eventually I would do it. So I formed my band… They put me in a position where I could form my own band. So that’s what I did.
TP: We’ll start the next set of music with the Henry Threadgill Sextett, playing Threadgill’s “Black Blues.”
OLU: Henry Threadgill and I had a situation where he played in my band, and I played in his band. It was a very good thing. There are some songs he wrote that I got a chance… This is one of the songs that I got a chance to feature. He featured myself on this particular number, “Black Blues,” and it’s one of my favorite songs by him.
TP: I remember that band vividly, and he really made use of your sound. It was an amazing ensemble, with you and he and Craig Harris and the two drummers.
OLU: That was very good for me. Threadgill did write for your sound. I feel that he hired me not because he wanted a trumpet player; it’s because he…I respected that…he wanted to hear my sound.
TP: Your voice.
OLU: The same reason he was in my band. He had a voice.
[MUSIC: Henry Threadgill Sextett, “Black Blues”-Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket; Bluiett-Olu, “Tranquil Beauty”-Rivbea, 1975 -Moye and Bobo; Olu-Hemphill-Tacuma-Rochester, “Show Stopper”-Jamaladeen’s Show Stopper-1982]
TP: Before the next set of music, culled from Olu Dara’s two recent releases, Neighborhoods and In This World, both on Atlantic… You spoke earlier about those earlier times, but I’d like to ask more about the choice of brass instrument, which became primarily cornet as opposed to trumpet.
OLU: Why I changed from the trumpet to cornet? I started out as a child with the cornet. And as time went on, of course, the trumpet became very popular I guess after the 30s… I think the 40s the trumpet became very popular. That’s when I start playing cornet. I remember in school kids would laugh at you if you had a cornet. But after I got in the theater and had a part in a play as an actor playing the cornet back in the late 70s, it brought me back to my original instrument – which is the cornet.
TP: Is there a difference in…a more vocalized sound? Is that basically what it is?
OLU: Yes, for me it is. The trumpet is longer, slender, and to me it gets a slenderer sound than the cornet gets for me. So it is a more vocal thing for me.
TP: You were saying that doing this work in the 70s and 80s enabled you to start bringing out your own music. That often would happen at the same venues where these instrumental bands were playing. You might appear with Henry Threadgill, or music with dissonance or not necessarily a straight 4/4 beat, and then you’d enter the same venue with your band. Did you start organizing material for those bands, or did it emanate out of your theater experience?
OLU: In the beginning, I organized the material myself, before I had a whole lot of experience in theater. But I was fortunate to be able to have that kind of music within the venues we were playing. They were very strict on New York and the East Coast, period…Europe, too. They were very strict on what kind of music they would let through. But since I was part of the gang, I was in a position to get my band in those same venues. It was a strange experience, because a lot of musicians hated funky music or what you’d call roots type of music. It was a wonderful experience for me to watch the reaction to my music from musicians especially!
Then, at the same time, I was the only one who didn’t have records out. So I was an anomaly in the first place with that, being able to work these clubs and whatever. At the time, I found I could work anywhere with that band, because I started bringing out people from different communities who didn’t come out before. So I could sustain myself and be able to pay the band well and work almost anywhere I wanted to without records. Then, as we spoke before about records, that’s another reason I really wasn’t running up trying to get recorded – because I had what I needed. I had an audience.
TP: You were singing then. As a kid in Mississippi, I’m sure there was a lot of blues around. Do you remember a lot of songs, or were there songs you were making up… Has it always been a free form sort of thing for you?
OLU: My situation is free form. I don’t like to sing other people’s music because I don’t know what they’re talking about. So I like free form anyway. I like to make up my songs on the spot. I change lyrics on a daily basis. I don’t like to retain lyrics, because it’s just words. I like the moment. I like to improvise lyrics like I improvise on the instruments. When I was growing up I didn’t do a whole lot of singing. But I did a whole lot of listening and feeling. So I started to sing in New York just by being tired of playing the horns all the time.
TP: Do you have charts?
OLU: When I first started out in the 70s, everybody had music in front of them. Every band I played with you had to read music in public. That used to embarrass me. I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t like that at all. It was too sterile for me. But everybody… So I had to do it. I said, “I guess this is what I have to do, too, in order to get some recognition out here.” They want to see you what I call…they want to see some literacy, heh-heh. So you write music for the bands. After a while I said, “Well, I’m not writing any more music. I want to get musicians who can play straight out from the head.” That’s what happened. I just stopped writing music, period, and just let it happen naturally.
TP: obviously, once people are playing together for a while they get to read each other’s minds and so forth. But at first would it be a call-and-response sort of thing?
OLU: At first… As long as I had the rhythms I wanted. You didn’t even have to call it “call and response.” You know? It was just us creating a song.
TP: You just had to have the beat…
OLU: All I needed was the beat, and I could go from there.
TP: Who were your drummers back in the 70s and 80s?
OLU: I had many drummers. Pheeroan akLaff, Philip Wilson, Greg Bandy, Andrei Strobert. When I first started my Okra orchestra, I think it was Don Moye, as a matter of fact. There are some other ones I forgot about. But I didn’t employ many drummers. I always wanted… See, a lot of drummers can play only jazz, a 4/4 beat, 3/4 beats, or bossa novas or whatever. But I needed a drummer who play everything. So I needed a guy like Philip Wilson who played with Stax Records and played with Paul Butterfield, so I knew he could play real funky music. That’s how I was able to form a dance band. We played for dances and everything. Or any other drummer who can really play the beat – I mean, the REAL beat. Philip Wilson passed away, but he… Philip Wilson and Greg Bandy were the best I’ve seen since I’ve been on the East Coast.
TP: Greg Bandy is both an accomplished jazz drummer and dance drummer.
OLU: Yes. Afro-Beats, everything. So was Philip.
TP: Alonzo Gardner has been playing bass with you for a long time.
OLU: A very long time. I found out when I started playing around New York, they’d ask me, “Who’s in the band?” I thought, “Why does everybody ask me who’s in the band? They never asked me that before anywhere else in the world?” Then I found out it was a jazz thing.
TP: Well, yeah.
OLU: It’s like a jazz thing!
TP: What’s wrong with that?
OLU: I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. But I’m saying when I played in an African band, a Caribbean band, a blues band, whatever…nobody said, “Who’s in the band?”
TP: Because it’s a functional thing.
OLU: Right. But here they’d say, “who’s in the band?” They would insist. A lot of times I didn’t know who was going to be in the band. But then I found it was like what you’d call a “jazz star” kind of system they had. Sometimes you couldn’t play… I used to play with some jazz band that they wouldn’t let musicians in the clubs unless they had the individual members at the club, or a recording where the record company would say, “I want him and him and him in your band.” That was different I’d never seen anything like that in my life. So I stopped playing with a lot of bands because of that, too. I’d never anything like that. That was, like, weird.
I played in one band… I’m not going to name any names. I’d been playing with this band for a year. We played the Vanguard, and went to the Vanguard, and Max Gordon walked over and said, “Look, I’ve got my own trumpet player for this band.” The drummer gave me $10 and said, “Look, I’m sorry.” That was something I’d… I don’t even think I’d read about things like that. But then after a while I saw that they could call certain individuals. The bandleader had no authority at all. So I said I’d call all the musicians who wouldn’t get in there to play. The guys who are in my band right now who nobody has noticed…they’re the best musicians I’ve ever met, because nobody notices them, because they’re just regular guys. They didn’t call themselves jazz musicians or anything. So that’s how I formed my band, through musicians who were great musicians but who were not in that world.
TP: You have two bands. One is a 4-piece band and one is a 7-piece band, more or less.
OLU: I have one band now. I got rid of the Okra Orchestra many years ago. It’s just the Natchezsippi band I have now. I hand-picked these musicians.
TP: Let’s talk about them.
OLU: These people have been with me over 20 years. My drummer, Coster Massamba, has been with me 25 years. The guitar player, Kwatei Quartey, he’s been with me 20 years about. Alonzo has been with me 20 years or so. Greg Bandy has been with me 20 years or so. I think the newest musician I have no is Larry Johnson, who’s been with four years – because Bandy moved back to Cleveland.
TP: They have to be able to play all the different beats.
OLU: Everything. All the beats authentically. You have to play the Afro-beats, the highlife-beats, Country Blues, rhythm-and-blues, jazz – whatever comes up. And they have to be able to play for concerts and dances.
TP: What’s the difference?
OLU: It’s a big difference. A concert is one thing…you can do anything you want on a concert. You can play soft, loud, you can lay out, lay in – you can do anything you want on a concert. A dance, you can’t. A dance, you have to have the music with a beat where people can have fun and dance. It’s a big difference between playing a concert. But I can use the same music I play for a concert and a dance. I can use the same music, and it can sound like I’m playing jazz or anything. But then you have to know how to juxtaposition it. It’s called survival musically.
TP: When did you start functioning as a guitarist?
OLU: I started doing that when I was working in theater – when I was acting in theater and writing my own plays and I would be in plays others wrote, and I would be the bluesman in the play. That’s when I started bringing the guitar out in the public – through theater.
[MUSIC: Olu Dara-“Neighborhoods”; “Nobody Was There”-Conjure: Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon; “Used To Be”]
TP: You said that “Nobody Was There” came about because you were showing Bobby Womack how the piece went down, and they decided to use your version.
OLU: That’s not quite it. It’s close, though. I was running it down. Because Bobby wasn’t there. He was supposed to come back and finish the record. I missed him. I came in late. I said, “If he comes back, this is the way the song sounds.” He never came back. So they put that one out.
TP: Happy accident.
OLU: Yes, it was.
TP: Was that the first time you had sung on a record?
TP: But you’d been singing with your band a good ten years before that…
OLU: Well, I wouldn’t say ten years. I sang very little in my life. I was singing in the choir, in school and stuff like that, but I used to sing inside of myself. So that’s only the first song I ever sang straight out from beginning to end, that was recorded.
TP: So the Okra Orchestra was purely instrumental for you.
OLU: Well, mostly instrumental. I would sing every now and then, joking around. But I never really just came out and belted a song out. The first song I’ve ever belted in life was recorded, and that was it, and it wasn’t even planned. I’m happy about that.
TP: We’ll move now to a couple of songs by Nina Simone, who you’ve cited as one of your two favorite female singers, along with Mavis Staples.
OLU: Most of these people I’m playing are from the South, and that’s where my thing is. But female singers… When I was 15, that’s when I first heard these two songs you’re going to play by Nina Simone. I was in high school. I’d never heard of her before. There was a little juke joint I used to go. They used to play “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Porgy” by Nina Simone, and it basically changed my life, how I looked at music or whatever. I never knew anything like that talent existed on earth. If you live in a small town, you don’t hear much music or whatever. If you don’t listen to a lot of records or if you don’t have access to recordings and stuff like that, which I didn’t, you wouldn’t know these people existed. So it was on a 45 in a little juke joint I used to hang out in, and every time I went in there I would play “Porgy” and I would play “Love Me Or Leave Me.”
[MUSIC: Nina Simone-“Love Me Or Leave Me” and “I Loves You, Porgy”]
TP: Coming up is music by Miles Davis circa 1985 from Tutu. Olu had asked for something else, but I just couldn’t locate it, which I apologize for. In our discussion about trumpet players this evening, we haven’t discussed Miles Davis, who’s such a major figure for almost everybody from your generation, and the generation before and the generation after – so many musicians.
OLU: He was beyond being a trumpet player to me. His sound was heavenly, His concept was ingenious. He represented everything to me. He represented the world through the horn. The horn became something else rather than the mechanical machinery it is. He represented to me the sound from the Mississippi, the mighty Mississippi River. It seemed like he encompassed the feeling of Americana – the pop music of the 40s, the music from the Broadway plays, the background music to movies, the funk the classical… One man expressed so many different ways of looking at life and looking at music. He is an icon in my mind and heart, and he is to the world. So he’s very special.
When I first heard his sound I think I was in college. My roommate turned me on to that also. His name was Benny Carvin. I haven’t seen him since those days. He’s from Birmingham, Alabama. I haven’t seen him since 1959 or whatever.
TP: We owe him a lot.
OLU: I know I do.
[MUSIC: Miles Davis, “Tutu”]
TP: Next we’ll hear music by Robert Johnson from the late 1930s.
OLU: this is another Mississippi spirit, I would say. Miles and a lot of people I’ve been playing were born close to the river, like I was. There’s something about it. They’re all different, and they bring different expressions from the same source. Robert Johnson reminds me…when I hear him sing, I think of my grandmother. Those Mississippi people in that era had a certain type of vocal expression. You can’t explain it in words. It’s just a nuance of feeling.
TP: Did you hear the Robert Johnson things as a kid?
OLU: No, we had no records. Like I said, I listened to my grandmother in person, and people around the neighborhood. I didn’t really hear a Robert Johnson record until I was in my fifties. I’d heard his name bounced around in New York, but I never really… Once I did hear him, it reminded me of the vocal things I heard when I was growing up.
TP: As I mentioned earlier in the show, Olu sat with me for a Downbeat Blindfold Test last Labor Day, not that long before 9/11. One thing I played for you was something by Mississippi Fred MacDowell, and you were speaking about how creative the playing was, and you heard all of modern jazz in it – you heard horn riffs, orchestral passages, everything in it.
OLU: It’s the same thing with Robert Johnson. When I finally heard him on a CD late in life, I said, “Oh my goodness,” the first thing I heard was all the territory bands, including Duke Ellington and all these bands. I said to myself; Robert Johnson was doing all this as a one-man show; his guitar was doing all the things the big bands were supposed to be doing. They were way ahead of the instrumental big bands – just one man and one guitar. The whole concept was right there, already there in one instrument and one man.
[Robert Johnson, “Love In Vain”]
TP: Now we’ll hear “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong.
OLU: Pops… My father called me “Pops” as a nickname. I didn’t know why. I guess because I had a cornet. But once I saw Louis Armstrong on television when I was about 12, then I knew who the original Pops was. But here’s another man from the Mississippi River. He’s blasting out another style. There’s so many different styles coming off that river. It’s something to feel. But he came with everything. He came with the beautiful sound, the beautiful tone, and he came with the beautiful voice – his vocal technique was out of sight. Any way the music turned, he would be right there to catch it. So Satchmo, he encompasses, even more than a lot of guys I talked about already, Americana and the world. The Ambassador of Music. And he’s lovable. I loved him because he had a nice, beautiful smile, and I liked him for his confidence in himself. It exudes from television, it exudes from things he says in a magazine or a book. So he was a very powerful person in my mind, and we’ll play some of him now.
[Pops, “West End Blues”]
TP: Now we’ll end the Olu Dara Musician Show with more music by Olu Dara from his recent Atlantic recordings, In The World: From Natchez to New York and Neighborhoods. The first track is from In The World, and it’s a collaboration between Olu and his son Nassir, also known to the broader world at large as Nas, one of the most renowned hip-hop artists around. Now, to someone like me, who follows improvised music and what we call jazz, and isn’t so into the hip-hop world, your son wouldn’t be so much on my radar – which probably is something I shouldn’t confess in public. But I know you’ve had a similar experience in sort of the irony of parenthood, of a son who becomes so well known that you’re known as his dad, as his father.
OLU: That’s a quite unusual experience for any adult to have. It was totally unexpected, when you walk down the street or when you go anywhere and they say, “Look, aren’t you his father?” or whatever. I mean, from young people, from old people, whatever – people from all ages. It’s nice. I had to get used to that, because it’s reverse of the way life should be. But the way things are, it’s a good thing. I’m glad that I did a good job. At least I can say, “Yes.” I don’t hide behind the building and say, “No, I’m not.” At least I’m not ashamed of having a son and he’s not ashamed of having a good father. So it’s good in respect that I’ve been a good father, and that’s all that’s important to me.
TP: It seems there might be some continuity in the way you approach lyrics, improvising lyrics, and what happens in hip-hop. I don’t know whether there’s any direct influence, but there’d certainly seem to be a continuity.
OLU: Yes, there’s a direct continuity. Especially with the freestyle. That’s my thing. I love it, and I still do it today. I guess I’m one of the oldest hip-hoppers on the planet. That’s the way I feel about myself, too — a free-stylist, just like he is.
[MUSIC: Olu-Nas, “Jungle Jay”]
TP: How has the success of these records changed what you do as a musician? Are you more selective now about gigs?
OLU: I have more time to do what I want now. Before I was working with Diane McIntyre, putting on plays and acting and dancing and writing songs all the time, and then I was doing theater all the time, and then I had a band, too. So I was doing a lot of things, and then trying to raise children. Now I can just concentrate on the band. It makes my life much simpler now.
[MUSIC: Olu, “Massamba,” “Rain Shower”]