Monthly Archives: October 2015

For Eddie Henderson’s 75th Birthday, An Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2006 and a Liner Note from 2000

A day after the 75th birthday of the master trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2006, and a long liner note that I had the opportunity to write for his 2000 recording Reemergence.

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Eddie Henderson Blindfold Test:

1. Jimmy Owens, “Birdsong” (from ONE MORE: MUSIC OF THAD JONES, THE SUMMARY, IPO, 2006) (Owens, trumpet; Frank Wess, flute; James Moody, tenor saxophone; hank Jones piano; Thad Jones, composer; Mike Patterson, arranger)

First of all, I enjoyed the tune on this first cut. I have no idea who it is. My first impression is that some younger musicians who have studied and listened to records from the past. I heard the trumpet during his solo, he tried to…he was influenced… He heard Dizzy Gillespie—some of the runs he heard. Fats Navarro. Probably Howard McGhee. The flute player and the saxophone player, well-schooled. I don’t know who they are. The rhythm section, I have no idea. I didn’t hear any particular personalities. One thing that struck me musically is I didn’t hear any dynamics through the solos. It just sounded like a monotone, like everybody was playing the changes. They played them well. But from the place where I came up in the older days, everybody had a signature with their sound, the way they phrased. These musicians on this cut, they studied well, but it takes time to get your own character together. 3 stars. Jimmy Owens? That makes sense. Because he was influenced by Dizzy and Fat Girl. I haven’t heard him that much lately. Frank Wess? Wow. Moody? Wow. How long ago was that recorded? Last year? I’m shocked. Very competent musicians, all of them. It was a rhythm changes form; I recognized that. Obviously, everybody on the date is well versed with that idiom, and they come from that generation. No wonder they play it so well. I’ll give it 4 stars for the people on it. But musically, I would have wanted to hear more dynamics. They played the heads well, and I can tell they rehearsed it. It wasn’t just some put-together thing. A

2. Nicholas Payton, “Teru” (from MYSTERIOUS SHORTER, Chesky, 2006) (Payton, trumpet; Sam Yahel, organ; John Hart, guitar; Billy Drummond, drums)

I have a couple of impressions. First I was going to say, “Damn, when did I make that?” A lot of the things on trumpet sound like me, things harmonically like I hear. The trumpet player was excellent harmonically, and I like the trumpet player. Sounds like Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ as my first impression, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and I’ll say the trumpet player—since I know this person plays with Dr. Lonnie Smith and harmonically sounds like that—is Ingrid Jenson. No? Joe Magnarelli? No? Then I’m dead in the water. The performance was great. I liked the composition. It sounded Tom Harrelish harmonically, though it wasn’t Tom Harrell. Beautiful ballad, interpreted well. 4 stars. Nicholas. How long ago was this done? Last year? I met Nicholas when he was 15 years old and I played with him a couple of times. He’s evolved so quickly, I don’t know where he’s at, and I’m not THAT familiar with his playing. Of course, he’s a master at harmony; he plays the piano so well, and the bass. He knows what he’s doing. His sound is impeccable, his virtuosity on the trumpet, his ideas I love, but I’m not that familiar with his personality. Sam Yahel! My first impression was Dr. Lonnie Smith because of the dynamics and the inner sanctum he puts in the chords that makes it real mysterious. Sam can do that, too, but I’m more familiar with Dr. Lonnie Smith.

3. Dizzy Reece “Plantation Bag” (from Andrew Hill, PASSING SHIPS, Blue Note, 1969/2006) (Hill, piano, composer; Reece (solo), Woody Shaw, trumpets; Joe Farrell, tenor saxophone solo)

This cut was obviously influenced by Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” I get recollections and reflections of that, when Miles did it. The one thing that jarred me during all the solos was the background horns when they came in. It tended to make things a little stiff. It felt like it was arbitrary, rather than coming at a time when the solos reached a peak. I don’t know anybody on the date. The saxophonist was an excellent player, very creative ideas, but when the backgrounds came in, it took away from his solo. The trumpet player was obviously influenced by Woody Shaw. I should know him; he’s an excellent trumpet player. [It’s an older record. 1969] The rhythm section sounds like a jazz rhythm section trying to play funk. You wouldn’t get Sam Jones, Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton to play one of James Brown’s tunes. It sounds like a jazz rhythm trying to play funky. It was done in 1969. Maybe that might help. It sounds Woody Shaw-ish. Maybe Randy Brecker? I have no idea. 3½ stars. Dizzy Reece? I’ve only heard him play once in my life. I’m not familiar with him. Ron Carter, Lenny White and ANDREW HILL playing funk!?? The rhythm section just didn’t lock. It sounded like everybody was well versed in bebop or almost approaching the avant-garde genre. But there was so much happening, it didn’t really lock. A lot of information. Too much. I remember Miles Davis told me one time, “Whatever tune you’re playing, play it within the context of the tune.” I heard a lot of different directions going on all at once.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Martin Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums)

First of all, I liked the composition very much because it had surprises, it was mysterious, it really took you on a trip. My guess for the trumpet player would be Jeremy Pelt? It’s not Jeremy? I know he composes like that. Well, whoever it was, I’m glad they play the trumpet. I liked it very much because of the way he takes his time in his solos, and he’s so relaxed, and he never forces anything. The trumpet player was very expressive. Before I find out who it was, I’d like to say that the composition is the kind of thing I like. It’s not so nailed down in terms of structure. It’s open-ended, and if the chemistry is right in the band, which it was in this particular band, the music can jump off the music paper and things take place. I could tell everybody’s intuitive and listening to each other, so it leaves the possibility for things to happen. I enjoyed everybody in the band. The piano player was obviously influenced by Herbie. I don’t know who he was. Excellent comping behind the soloist, and a very nice feeling. He’s listening and he never forced anything preconceived. The bass player was excellent. He fulfilled his job. He never got in the way, he wasn’t playing too much. Everybody was on the same trip together. The chemistry of the band was excellent. The drummer was very supportive and interesting. It sounded like a band, rather than a bunch of guys put together. 4½ stars. I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never heard him play. He’s excellent. I just got back from Poland and I heard about him so much. I heard he was great, and he is.

5. Brian Lynch, “Jazz Impromptu” (from SIMPÁTICO, Artist Share, 2006) (Lynch, trumpet, composer; Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Eddie Palmieri, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Robby Ameen, drums; Pedro Martinez, congas)

I liked that tune very much. It was reminiscent of Horace Silver’s sound, like “Silver’s Serenade”-ish. The band had a nice feel on the melodies. On the in-melody, for some reason I didn’t hear it, but on the out-melody I heard it… I liked the dynamics going out. The band came down at the middle part. Maybe there’s some reason; I’m not familiar with the tune. But the band played very well together. The trumpet player is a good one, well-schooled and very soulful; I liked him very much. I can’t place who it is. The alto player and trumpet player play together very well—a nice blend. The alto player is excellent, well-versed in the Charlie Parker tradition. I liked the bass player because he never got in the way. He fulfilled his function in the rhythm section. Played the bottom. Didn’t get in the way. Whenever I like a bass player, I don’t notice him! The conga player sometimes was a little obtrusive. He stuck out in terms of the genre of the swing. I’m not used to hearing that kind of beat. He’s a good player, but it didn’t seem appropriate for this kind of tune. Maybe for the last part of the tune, when it went into a Latinish thing. But when it went into swing, it seemed a little inappropriate to me. The piano player was good. 4 stars.

6. Randy Sandke, “Monk’s Mood” (from TRUMPET AFTER DARK: JAZZ IN A MEDITATIVE MOOD, Evening Star, 2005) (Sandke, trumpet; Bill Charlap, piano)

Very nice. I forgot the name, but it’s a Monk tune. It sounded like Kenny Barron to me, but the touch wasn’t as soft as Kenny’s. I know Kenny likes Monk very much, and on the piano player’s solo I heard that kind of stride thing—but something was different. The trumpet player: Good intonation, good sound, very interpretive on the melody. Who was it? Just a duo. A Monk tune. I know I’m probably wrong. Jimmy Owens or Terrell Stafford. I didn’t think so. For the composition, for the way they interpreted it… I can’t say anything wrong about it. 5 stars. You know, I never heard Bill Charlap in person, but I hear he’s an excellent player. I just met him in Uruguay, and he knows a lot of music. I came to find out his father wrote “I Got A Crow” from Peter Pan, and ironically, I used to figure skate, and I skated to that. He was shocked that I knew the words and everything. That’s a pleasant surprise. It was excellent. I enjoyed it.

7. Sean Jones, “In Her Honor” (from GEMINI, Mack Avenue, 2006) (Jones, trumpet, composer; Tia Fuller, alto saxophone; Mulgew Miller, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums)

I liked that tune very much. It was a very contemporary sound. It had nice elements in the melody and also in the form of the tune. It had swing elements and it had Latin elements. A nice fusion of the two, the way they blended together and went from one section to another. I really like the way the alto and the trumpet played the melodies together. The drummer was very fiery and appropriate. He listened and responded well to the soloists. The bass player was very good. It sounded like a band, that they play together a lot. The piano player was exciting. The trumpet player was good. In terms of who he was, I’m going to take an educated guess, and say Jeremy Pelt, because I heard his group at Cleopatra’s Needle when he had an alto player, Julius Tolentino. Oh, it’s neither/nor or any. [Is the trumpet player younger or older?] Not that young any more, if I’m thinking of the right person. In his thirties, I’d say. Roy? Then I don’t know. 4 stars. Oh, Sean! See, I’ve only heard him play once in the Gerald Wilson Big Band. I was standing next to him. He’s a great trumpet player! I said Jeremy, but I knew the sound was different. Sean’s composition.

8. Dave Douglas, “Hollywood” (from KEYSTONE, (Greenleaf, 2005) (Douglas, composer, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jamie Saft, Wurlitzer; Gene Lake, drums; Brad Jones, bass; DJ Olive, turntables)

I liked that. The composition itself had an Eastern sound or a Bitches Brew-influenced sound from Miles or Zawinul. Nice harmonies. I liked it because it was very sparse and all the synthesizer work. It sounded like Wayne Shorterish writing. The saxophone player was very mature and obviously Wayne-inspired. I like the synthesizer work. The trumpet player is influenced by Miles Davis. I never heard the trumpet player I’m thinking about—Wallace Roney— play in this genre before. But I don’t think it’s Wallace. Other than that, I don’t know any of the personnel. But I like the context of the tune, the feeling was nice—it took you on a trip. It was definitely inspired by that generation of music. 4 stars. Dave is an excellent trumpet player. I’ve only heard him once in person, at the Vanguard. It’s hard when you write a tune in the Bitches Brew genre not to sound like Miles Davis, because that sound is so stylized. That’s why I said Wallace, because I heard a couple of Miles Davis characteristic runs on the trumpet that are identifiable. I knew it wasn’t Miles Davis, and it didn’t sound like Wallace, to tell you the truth. I’m not that familiar with Dave. But it was excellent.

9. Terrell Stafford, “Tenderly” (from Matt Wilson, SCENIC ROUTE, Palmetto, 2006) (Stafford, trumpet; Gary Versace, organ; Dennis Irwin, bass; Wilson, drums)

If nothing else, I will get the name of this tune correct because that was the first song I ever learned in my life! You won’t believe who taught it to me. Satchmo. He was my first teacher. My mother had been in the Cotton Club… You know the story. I like the trumpet player because the way he interpreted the melody had Satchmo influences. That struck a bell with me right away. The organ player during the trumpet solo was a little overbearing for my taste. He wouldn’t let the trumpet player relax to express himself. Since it was just the organ and trumpet, it could have been a little more sensitive, for my taste, especially playing a ballad like that. 3 stars. I would never have guessed Terrell in a million years.

10. Charles Tolliver, “Rejoicin’” (from WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Tolliver, trumpet, composer, arranger; Todd Bashore, alto saxophone; Robert Glasper, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I loved the big band. It was an excellent big band. It was a nice melody. However, there was so much movement going on and too much up in your face all the time. There was so much melodic movement going on, I didn’t feel dynamics in the composition, when there could have been. I didn’t write it, so it’s really not for me to say. But to me, it was too much in your face and it needed more dynamics. It was a very difficult tune. It sounded like Charles Tolliver’s big band. Bingo! Just from the trumpet solo, I recognized… Charles writes some of the most difficult music. I remember seeing Charles Tolliver way back in 1964, when he’d always take gigs that Freddie Hubbard couldn’t take. I recognized his sound and his ideas. He has a phenomenal mind. Was the alto player James Spaulding? At first I thought the pianist might have been John Hicks, but it sounded more like Stanley Cowell, with his virtuosity. Neither of them? Robert Glasper? I’ve never heard him. He’s a young player? No kidding. I thought it was somebody much more mature, with his virtuosity…but these days… But for the composition and the venturesomeness of doing something like that, 4½ stars.

11: Wynton Marsalis, “J Mood” (from Branford Marsalis, ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Marsalis Music, 2003) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

This last tune was absolutely lovely. I enjoyed the trumpet player because he took his time and told a story during a solo. It reminds me of when I was with Art Blakey when I was much younger, and Art Blakey always made the young musicians who came through tell a story when you play a solo. This trumpet player was very soulful, an excellent trumpet player. I especially liked the rhythm section because the time was wonderful, so supportive. The main thing I noticed about the drummer and bass player was their hookup. The ride cymbal and the pulse of the bass was the life support system of the whole group. They never sped up and started rushing, they never slowed down. Even when the saxophone player was playing a lot of notes, they held their ground and kept it steady, which is the mark of true artistry on a tune like this. I don’t know who the saxophone player is, but great ideas, great musician. The trumpet player played so superb. I don’t know anybody who plays the trumpet so well like that and, as I said, tells a story; you don’t learn that in books and school, you have to have on-the-job training. I’ll have to say Wynton Marsalis. 5 stars. That’s Branford’s date. 2003? It sounds like from a while ago. Wynton sounds very, very mature. Branford sounds great—great ideas, great musician—but didn’t sound to me as mature in the context of the tune that they were playing. He was trying to exhibit a lot of notes, and this tune doesn’t call for that. But I’ll give it 5 stars. I enjoyed it.

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Eddie Henderson Quintet (Reemergence):
Discussing “Dreams,” an original composition recorded by artists as diverse as Kenny Barron, Norman Connors and Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson remarks: “It sounds different every time you play, depending on the personnel, or even if it’s the same personnel. It’s just like a dream; it’s not the same every time. It lends itself to interpretation. That’s the way I like to play.”

Henderson sings the ethereal refrain. “I wrote it in London in 1973, while I was with Art Blakey, just after I left Herbie Hancock,” he recalls. “I was practicing, came up with this, and decided to try to put it together as a sketch. That’s how Miles Davis wrote. Let the band members finish it, and make it a collective portrait rather than just my self-portrait. That’s how I tend to write, more as a sketch of things, and let the musicians fill in the interpretive aspects. Like a collective painting. The collective effort far supersedes any individual effort.”

That’s a pretty good description of what happens on Reemergence, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Henderson’s achievement. Yes, the top-shelf quintet — a working unit for five years that sounds like it — is in glistening form throughout, imparting a breathe-as-one quality. But the 58-year-old trumpeter is in peak form, addressing the bottom, middle and top of the horn with equal resonance, able to execute any idea that comes to mind and resolve it into an organic, cliche-free line. Every solo is a living entity, drenched in emotion, personality and flair. No trumpet player on the scene is saying more.

Henderson says, “I think this album is a conglomeration of where I came from, where I’m at now, and hopefully where I want to go. In the last few years I’ve been able to put in quite a bit of time on the trumpet every day, which I hadn’t done since I was with Herbie Hancock. I think I’m just coming into my own and trying to find my own sound and my own voice.” Henderson stamps his musical signature on the above-cited original, a pair of big-room ’60s tunes from Wayne Shorter and Woody Shaw, an original by Joe Locke, and four Gershwin classics that are fundamental to the jazz canon.

Which is Henderson’s by birthright. His blood father, Edward Jackson, sang with Billy Williams and the Charioteers, a popular Black singing group of the 1940’s; his mother, Vivian, was a dancer with the Cotton Club Girls, whose alumni included her friends Lucille Armstrong and Lorraine Gillespie. “I started playing trumpet in the fifth grade, in 1949,” Henderson recalls, “and after I’d been playing about six months, my mother took me to the Apollo Theater to hear Louis Armstrong. I was sitting in the loge seats with my mother on one side and Sarah Vaughan on the other. I remember Louis Armstrong warming up behind the curtain while Lucky Thompson’s big band was playing, and how his sound projected over and above the whole big band. Then my mother took me backstage to meet Satchmo, I played a couple of notes on his horn, and he laughed and gave me some pointers.

“I began taking private lessons with an excellent teacher who taught in a music studio near where I lived in the Bronx, and nine months later my mother took me back to see Satchmo. He said, ‘Well, little Eddie, you’re still playing? Let me see your horn.’ I played ‘Flight Of the Bumblebee.’ He fell out laughing, backwards, and fell off the chair — I’ll never forget this. He grabbed me and said, ‘That’s some of the baddest shit I’ve ever heard in my life!’ He gave me a book of ten of his solos transcribed, and wrote at the top of it, ‘To Little Eddie: You sound beautiful. Keep playing. This is to warm your chops up by. Love, Satchmo.'”

Henderson followed Armstrong’s admonition; he never stopped playing, continuing private studies at the San Francisco Convervatory with symphonic trumpeter Edward Haug after his mother remarried and moved west. His stepfather, Dr. Herbert Henderson, “was a doctor to all the musicians who came through.” One was Miles Davis, who was the Hendersons’ house guest during a residence at the Blackhawk in 1958. Miles drove 18-year-old Eddie, full of beans, to the gig. “On the way home,” Henderson continues, “I said, ‘You know, my parents told me you play trumpet, but you don’t play correct.’ All of a sudden the car stopped and he said, ‘Well, by the way, what do you play?’ I said, ‘I play trumpet.’ There was about a 9-second delay. When I looked back at him, he looked at me deadpan straight in my eye, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet you play the trumpet!’

“He came back about nine months later, and in the interim I found out who he was, and so I practiced with Sketches of Spain. When he came in the door again, I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to hear this.’ He sat down very patiently, because he was in my parents’ house. I put the record on, played with the record, didn’t miss a note! I said, ‘Well, how do you like that, Miles?’ He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, ‘You sound good. But that’s ME.’ It was like a baseball bat hitting me in my head, a revelation — Aha, you can emulate but don’t copy.

“Miles was my first big influence. From the time Louis Armstrong gave me that book and subsequently in the Conservatory, it was more or less mechanical to me, with no emotional or spiritual impact. But after hearing Miles, I realized that I wanted to play jazz music. I listened to all his records, learned all his solos ‘verbatim’ by ear, though I didn’t know what I was doing. I took a hiatus while I was in the Air Force, and when I came back in 1961 I’d go to hear all the bands that came through. After the gigs, people like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan would sit in at after-hours sessions at Bop City. I enrolled at UC-Berkeley as a pre-med student, and began gigging locally around the city while I was going to college. My first professional gig of any stature was with John Handy’s Nonet in 1962 or ’63.”

“Between 1964 and 1968 I attended Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. I played in the big band at the Howard Theater behind all the Motown groups. The medical school was about 10 blocks away. The movie for the first show was at 2, it was over at 3:15, then they did the stage show. I’d play the stage show, run back to school for the next lecture, then run back and do the stage show until 11 or 12 at night. While the movie was going, I’d study. I was always busy. I had no time to get bored.

“During ’67 and ’68, my last two years in D.C., I had the house band at the Bohemian Caverns, where all the national bands came through. I came up to New York every weekend to study. I’d be at Freddie Hubbard’s house on Saturday morning, and at Lee Morgan’s house on Sunday morning. Freddie showed me little motifs, little licks, little exercise techniques that would facilitate my playing in the long run, if I worked it out in every key. But he left the burden on my shoulders to work it out or not. Once he said to me, ‘Just like Gabriel in the Bible, he played trumpet; you get this one together, that’s the baddest of all.’ The Messenger of Truth, and that’s what Gabriel played.

“Lee would pull out the duet book and we’d play duets together, actually touching shoulders. I realized that Lee Morgan was going out of his way to blend with me! It was thrilling. He stopped and we laughed and he said, ‘You understand how to do that? Always go out of your way to make music, so it sounds like one voice.'”

Henderson returned to California to fulfull his internship and residency requirements, but joined Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in 1970, several months before finishing. “I knew Herbie when he was with Miles, and I’d been listening to him all along; I knew all the tunes. Johnny Coles, his regular trumpet player at that time, was on consignment with Ray Charles when Herbie came through San Francisco, and he called me to fill in. After we hit the first night, he said, ‘If you want to join the band, you’ve got it.’ That’s all I wanted to hear. It changed my life forever. That sextet changed my framework of improvising. It became like one big, grand composition, a collective portrait. There were solos, but everyone was free to do anything they wanted. Sometimes we’d play one tune for a whole night, from 9:30 to 2. The best bandleaders, I think, allow that freedom. That’s how the music evolves.”

Art Blakey gave him a quick lesson in bandstand concision. “The first tune, my first hit with Art Blakey, I played for about 20 minutes,” Henderson laughs. “I thought I was cutting it short. He jumped up and ran off the stage after me in the middle of the set and started choking me by the throat! So I kind of got the message: When you’re in Rome, do as Caesar says. At first I resisted. I said, ‘Man, if you don’t feel like playing, stay home.’ But then I learned. He said, ‘Eddie, if you start up there, screaming and honking, you have nowhere to go but down. Tell a story. It’s like opening a book. There’s a beginning, then you climax, then the end — get out of there.'”

Henderson pursues that inside-outside paradigm on Wayne Shorter’s set-opening “This is For Albert,” originally performed by the Messengers. “I dedicated it to a gentleman who passed last year, a music-lover, a friend of all musicians who used to go to Bradley’s and the Vanguard,” he reveals. “It’s a traditional AABA, but open-ended, not like a bebop kind of tune. I think my forte is really those open sky type of things, which leave a lot of latitude for self-expression.” Henderson grabs every bit of it on his darting solo.

“Sweet Love Of Mine” is a direct tip to Woody Shaw, who wrote it. Of his friend and rehearsal partner whom he met in 1964, Henderson says: “Woody was very precocious in terms of his maturity, and he had his own definite sound. He liked long jumps of intervals, which on the trumpet is mucho difficult, but was just the natural way he played — his soul. I used to play with Woody on the bandstand when he lived in San Francisco in the early ’70s, and was working with Bobby Hutcherson.”

Actually, Henderson and front-line partner Joe Locke evoke the distinctive edgy-romantic cut Shaw and Hutcherson achieved in the ’70s. “The timbre of the vibes and trumpet is very close, and Joe and I come from the same musical roots and influences,” Henderson comments. “We phrase like each other, and it’s a pleasure to actually touch somebody’s soul through the medium of sound.” Locke contributes the movie-themish “Saturn’s Child” — “You don’t even have to solo, the melody is such a mood.” And their trumpephone blend is crucial to the impact of the leader’s concluding vignette, “Natsuko-San,” dedicated to his wife — “It was a statement I wanted to make; no solos, just a beautiful statement which reflected her.”

The band’s collective flights on Gershwin raise Reemergence to timeless status. After Henderson’s almost rubato reading of the melody to “The Man I Love,” followed by pithy, harmonically rich solos by Locke and pianist Hays, there’s a trumpet solo that’s all rhapsodic, yearning sound. Joe Locke suggested the 6/8 treatment of “Summertime”; Henderson’s restless solo over Billy Drummond’s authoritative funk beat evokes the mood of ’60s long, hot summers. Hays wrote out the phrasing of the subtly building “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; his two architectural solos are the essence of brevity, morphing into flowing comp that spurs Henderson and Locke to heights of melodic invention over Howard’s grounded bass lines and Drummond’s crisp brushwork.

“In jazz,” Henderson concludes, “it’s about personal expression, identity. The mark of a true artist is when you can play one note and it’s identifiable — everyone around the world says ‘That’s so-and-so’ from that one note. Once many years ago I was at a jam session trying to play changes, and Miles came and heard me. He said, ‘Eddie, why don’t you stop trying to play the trumpet and play music?’ Bingo. He was trying to register something very important. Don’t play the instrument. The instrument is only there as a vehicle through which you can convey your soul.”

Which Henderson does throughout. His reemergence during the ’90s to the top of the trumpet tree isn’t exactly a well-kept secret, but this is the clearest picture yet of how far he’s come.

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R.I.P., Mark Murphy, March 14, 1932-Oct. 21, 2015

Singer Mark Murphy passed away in his sleep last night. I only knew him professionally — we met about 15 years ago when he joined me for a 90-minute interview on WKCR, then had opportunities to write a liner note for his terrific 2003 recording Memories of You, one of several he did for High Note, and to interview  him in 2007 for a Jazziz piece framed around the release of Love Is What Stays (Verve) and the documentary The Evolution Of An Artist. I’m including the liner note, the interview for the liner note, and the interview for the “Jazziz” piece in the link below.

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Mark Murphy (Jazziz Interview, Oct. 2, 2007):
TP: In light of the new record, let’s talk a bit about the repertoire you chose for Love Is What Stays, which mixes older and newer material, a lot of different contexts, and of course you make each your own. Do you make any distinctions between the older songs, the songs you came on, and the newer repertoire, whether in a formal or structural sense? Or is that not particularly an issue for you.

MURPHY: Well, it’s not an issue, because you work that out in the musical analysis. For instance, the Johnny Cash song is really like singing blues, and the other one we had to be a little more careful with, so people who knew… Mind you, jazz people don’t know those… What’s the name of the group that sang “What If?”

TP: I don’t remember.

MURPHY: Well, they don’t know them. So it was just a matter of taking out or lowering some of the kind of poppish feel sung by the whole group, and making it more something that I could just sort of live in, so it would sound maybe like an improvisation for me. Yeah, that’s mainly it, to make it sound like I was just freewheeling there.

TP: So the trick is to work on something enough to make it sound like you’re freewheeling.

MURPHY: Yes.

TP: There’s orchestral accompaniment on some of these, you’re performing in several configurations, and I’m wondering if those configurations pose different challenges for you.

MURPHY: Sure.

TP: Do you have preferred configurations as well?

MURPHY: I wasn’t there when the orchestra was put on. In the old days, everything you heard on the LPs was done right there, including the strings. I don’t know whether I prefer it or not. Well, see, with Nan Schwartz, she has a sixth sense about how I sing, and so I have no worries there. My God, what she does with the four French horns sends chills up my spine today. My main concern with her work is that she helped us make the record a great work of art, and Jazz Art singing. That’s really what I do. You had a difficult path there to make sure that your fans are satisfied, but that you might say hello to a few new people.

TP: You’ve already given me about a third of my piece!

MURPHY: [LAUGHS]

TP: I’ve been asked to ask you this, and I apologize beforehand if it’s a boring question. But my editor wants to know your feelings about some of the newer generation of jazz singers.

MURPHY:   I was just out in Oakland. Have you heard Kenny Washington? He’s a very, very short black singer who sings around Oakland, and he is one of our rays of hope. Of course, J.D. Walter on this coast. He is a motherfucker! He’s something else. It’s wonderful what he does, and did. He’s exciting to hear live, and he’s building up… Look, it’s always slower. It’s an incredibly slow build in jazz, because it’s an art form, and people have to come to it in strange ways. I was almost a little depressed after the record was all finished, because I said, “This is too good; this is too much above most jazz fans.”

TP: Your new record, you’re taking about.

MURPHY: Yes. Well, I was kind of nervous about that. As I see now, it’s a record that makes very slow, turtle-like progress towards any kind of recognition. However, that’s always the way it is in this kind of singing and production. It’s just something you have to get used to.

TP: You were mentioning what hard work it is to make every piece sound freewheeling and improvised. About how long did it take to prepare the repertoire for this recording?

MURPHY: Well, I had to get used to some of the songs, and I finally did, and we eliminated some of the other ones. I understood what Till [Bronner] was doing. In records that I did years ago, I learned some harsh lessons in that sort of thing, Jazz fans don’t like some sorts of songs that I do.

TP: Which type of songs that you like, don’t they like?

MURPHY: Years ago, at Capitol, we took top-40 hits and just indiscriminately jazzed them up. That record was a huge bomb. So we’ve got to be careful… I don’t know how to describe a jazz fan, what his taste is. But it comes from a different place, and it’s got to be… They’re a little rigid in their expectations of what you sing. So I’ve learned to walk…well, maybe a strange line there.

TP: Tell me a bit about your attitude in this phase of your life and career towards scat singing and vocalese, which played so much a role in what you were doing a number of years ago, and which many people think of as synonymous with your tonal personality.

MURPHY: I know. Well, I usually wait until the performance part of it comes up to start my improv lines, because I don’t sort of actually sing very much vocalese any more, because not much of it is being written. Jon is the last one to be alive of the great writers who did that. So you’re kind of hemmed in to pick something from that genre. So it’s harder and harder to please yourself and to please the people who listen to you. I got into hot water when I did that group with the group in Seattle called Song For the Geese. I got so mad at the guy who ran my…well, it really was an English fan club, that I had to tell him I don’t want to work with him any more. He was really out of bounds with what his… Not to have the attitude. But you don’t work for someone and write about them as an editor without first saying, “I am the editor, but this may not be my favorite of Mark’s records,” but you don’t come out and slam it, you don’t bring it to… He was in the audience at Birdland, going around the room, spitting his opinion all over people. I was pissed off! It took me about a year to compose what I was going to say to him, and I never said, “Stop the magazine,” all I said was, “Take my name off it.” He couldn’t understand that. Well, he and I don’t comisserate any more. Like I say, you’re getting some people who can be very rigid and unmoving in their opinions and what they say about them.

TP: Since you were talking about records, what aside from your latest are your favorite over the years?

MURPHY: I’d have to include this one as one of my favorites. Going back through them, I’d have to include Song of the Geese. I’d have to include two very early ones—Rah in its original form, and then Midnight Mood made in Germany with the Clarke-Boland Band. I heard these years later and said, ‘Whoo, I was good that day!” Or I’d say, “Oh my God, what did I do that for?” Then in between there, we accomplished some rather remarkable things with Bop for Kerouac and the second Kerouac record. I was really responsible, I think, for bringing the Kerouac name back into the fore, because two years after my record came out, I noticed that the records started putting out Beat Generation stuff. Hmm! I was never given any credit for it, but anyway, that was my thought on it. Well, I loved the record I did called Brazil Song, where I took some Brazilian material and did it with a Brazilian band from San Francisco so it was as close to being in Brazil as possible. I didn’t want it to be another bossa nova record. I wanted it to attempt to get right into Brazil. All those titles are some of my favorites. I loved a ballad album I did for Fantasy called September Ballads, which includes that “Goodbye” song to Bill Evans and some beautiful pieces by writers of the ‘70s, which I’m very surprised that people who sing my type of songs don’t pick up on. So there you are.

TP: I was also asked to ask you about influences, who could be singers or instrumentalists.

MURPHY: I really was knocked out by what happened to Miles Davis when he met Gil Evans, the effect it had on his playing, and I, sort of in my head, said, “That’s the way I want to sing.” If I take any students these days (and I don’t), I say, “If you want to learn how to sing a ballad, listen to Miles and listen to his ballads, and learn the courage it takes to use space in your work. I get nervous with too many notes. That’s why I’m off saxophones and onto trumpets. Not that trumpet players don’t use a lot of notes, but I just… It’s probably because the trumpet and my range of voice is sort of like a tenor sax and trumpet, which was so popular with the groups, say, in the ‘70s and ‘80s to start their band repertoires. You can analyze it further into… Oh, I adored Arthur Prysock. Nobody knows him any more, but I think he’s probably still alive and singing somewhere. Johnny Hartman was a sweetheart. I liked Dick Haymes very much. Nobody knows them any more, hardly. I am kind of the last on the list of several generations of I guess baritone jazz crooners. But see, the reason, when I was coming up in Syracuse, is that the bop musicians liked my sense of rhythm, which is pure Celtic—Irish. They asked me up to sing because I swung! Well, I still do. But you use it maybe in a slightly different way. It comes right out on that track on this new record called “The Interview.” It is just simply the joy of riding on rhythm. It’s kind of like a jazz skateboard thing! I never could do it physically, but I do it vocally.

TP: I suppose when you hit your seventies, being on the skateboard isn’t necessarily such a wise thing to do.

MURPHY: Well, Katherine Hepburn got it after she got into it in her seventies. But I don’t think I want to try it! But I would also say that it’s rather like basketball players dribbling down the court, only your dribble comes out of your mouth. If it’s connected to the drummer, you’re cool. If it’s not, don’t do it.

TP: Speaking of risk-taking and being in your seventies, you seem to be taking as many risks with your voice as ever, if not more so, and I wonder if you can talk about your secret about keeping your voice…

MURPHY: I don’t have a secret. It could be because I gave up teaching suddenly. Because that is very draining. All of a sudden, my voice is doing everything I ask of it. I don’t do anything differently practicing-wise, but it will just almost do anything that I ask of it—and I ask a lot of it. Now, that would be impossible for some older singers. I actually don’t know why I’ve lasted so long vocally. I never was a smoker. Now Till Bronner has got me smoking cigars—once in a while. I like a taste now and then. But for God’s sakes, don’t buy me two martinis. Or it could be that just from teaching so much vocal technique that it honed my own working of the chops, the singing in the head and bouncing it off your diaphragm and all that sort of thing. In other words, to save the larynx area wear and tear.

TP: One last question that I’ve been asked to ask you is: What are you listening to now? Do you have an iPod?

MURPHY: No, I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen, because my head is full of music all the time. I’m sitting, as I say, in an airport lounge, my foot’s going all the time, and I can’t stop it. Sometimes I have to go to certain extremes just to turn it off, so I can relax. It’s a machine that don’t want to stop. It’s like my father, whose voice I inherited, is up there in the singer’s heaven, saying, “Come on, Mark, don’t stop; you can go on a few more years.” The poor cat died when he was 57. I don’t know, it’s all of those things.

TP: The favor I’m going to ask is if you could give me some reflections on Eddie Jefferson.

MURPHY: Eddie was an unsung hero and a genius who.. Actually, I don’t know whether he or Jon was first out there doing that. I know that Jon got lucky with a couple of pop hits, but I know that Eddie had to go work in the post office for a while. Several jazz musicians I know, do, just to get the pension. There are some very nice people in the post office! See, I have a great vote of thanks to give him and Richie Cole. They brought vocal jazz back in the ‘70s. It had been wallowing in the underground darkness ever since them there Beatles started what they did, and then turned over the whole pop music business. Then they got working I think it was in a club in Washington, D.C., and got a great following there, and then it was possible for me to get what we call a jazz hit with “Stolen Moments” and those things I did in the late ‘70s, of course, on to Bop for Kerouac.

He was not an easy person to get close to, so I never sort of wanted to say, “Hey, let’s go out and have a drink” or something, or that sort of thing. He would come in once in a while to hear me with Richie or with other people, and it wasn’t sort of a close personal thing with us. See, since he was a dancer… This is fantastic, because it turns out that my other favorite singer, who had a three-song repertoire, Gregory Hines, was also one of the world’s great dancers. And I believe Ella started out as a tap dancer. When I sing, especially when I’m bopping, it’s like I close my eyes and I’ve got Eleanor Powell next to me doing those fantastic things she did with her feet, and I do it with my voice. It’s all of those things, and I would say that Eddie must have been one helluva dancer.

TP: Anything more to say about him?

MURPHY: I’d have to say I don’t know anything more about him. He was an extremely private person.

TP: Were the early records important to you when they came out?

MURPHY: Well, people would come and say, “Why don’t we try this.” I don’t remember. It’s a long time. It’s fifty years ago. I don’t actually remember. It’s just that on the odd jazz radio show when I’m going through towns or whatever, I would hear something, and that’s usually when my ear caught it. Like, my ear caught the other day Jill Scott, who is very new to me. She’s not who I would say….like John Legend who, although a great singer, is not a jazz singer. But my goodness, they’re doing something wonderful.

Eddie didn’t invite closeness. Jon Hendricks is a different kind of person. He’s more extroverted. That’s just how people are.

————

Mark Murphy for “Memories of You” – (6-6-03):

MURPHY: It’s a nice title.

TP: You said in the last liner notes by James Isaacs that you make concept records and make records that are just songs. Where would this one fall?

MURPHY: Well, this would be a concept of remembering…well, exactly what it said — “Remembering Joe.” I have asked a few people, who… I sometimes forget how old I am, and I said, “You remember Joe Williams, don’t you?” And these kids say “no.” And I can’t believe it! Even with kids who are supposed to know something about jazz. But there you go.

TP: When did you first hear Joe Williams?

MURPHY: It was very lucky that Milt Gabler heard me just before Joe broke, because what I do is not blues, but… I’m wondering sometimes if he would have used me then.

TP: On this record, you go into the full depth of Joe Williams, that he was a singer and then sang other things, and was always influenced by a blues mentality, but wasn’t necessarily per se a blues singer.

MURPHY: Well, we call it urban blues, that he was a Midwestern, big-city… No, you’d have to call him a blues singer. But he did love ballad singers, too. He loved to sing ballads. But he, of course, never got to do that until he got on his own gigs with Norman, because the Basie stuff or the big band is what the audience came to hear.

TP: I interrupted you when you were going to tell me about your early experiences with Joe Williams.

MURPHY: Well, there weren’t many. Well, he was always gracious to me and outwardly friendly, and not… There wasn’t a bitchy streak in him. And he had to go through some long waiting periods — and those waiting periods do strange things to people — before he got… I would say he was about 40 when he got hot with Basie. But he had NOT a trace of bitterness, and that’s very hard to escape in this business.

TP: Are you sort of saying you come out of a not so dissimilar set of aesthetic experiences? That you have a kind of natural affinity for his sound or for his musical personality?

MURPHY: Well, see, the thing is that I really…and he…probably were the last developed singers who came really out of the Swing Era. Because I grew up on Errol Garner and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, who were, say, the last sort of big band developments of that era, before the goddamn guitar took over. And I’d say he probably was another of that ilk. So it wasn’t difficult for me to like his whole concept and enjoy… Because I swing. You see, it’s my Celtic roots that give me that ability. Like, Annie Ross was the timekeeper of Lambert-Hendricks-Ross. Have you ever seen a Scottish marching band? Well, they get out there, these plain-looking people, and they get a hypnotic… It’s intense! There’s very deep Celtic roots in the formings of jazz, too.

TP: But that’s a real root for you.

MURPHY: Yeah. Sure.

TP: You were raised in Syracuse?

MURPHY: 26 miles north of there, in a little town called Fulton near the lakeshore, near Oswego. For us, in those days, Syracuse was the big city.

TP: Was there a big band there, or a jazz scene?

MURPHY: There was more like a small bop scene. We had our own little beatnik scene there. Not recognized at that time. Because at that time, about five years later, out came On The Road, which was reminiscences of Jack ten years ago, say, from ’60 back to ’50 and ’45 to ’50, of his reminiscences of those days. As did I and Joe, he bridged the swing into bop into modern jazz eras. Then they get fuzzy in there; you can’t tell the lines any more. But in there was a powerful swing. Nobody was ashamed of it. The moment Birth of the Cool came out, boom, everything just cooled down. I show that sometimes, in my stage performances, how the dancing changed, so that nobody even dared to smile. Because Miles didn’t smile. And he couldn’t understand why Louis Armstrong smiled so much. [LAUGHS]

TP: No more Lindyhoppers after Birth of the Cool.

MURPHY: That’s it! It wasn’t cool to show your aerobic side.

TP: Although they do say that when Charlie Parker played a dance, it was something else. The Audubon Ballroom or something. But this is a different type of band than on the last few records for High Note.

MURPHY: Yeah, I wanted to go with… The first thing I fear is that people will say, “Oh, we love it, but boy, you sure miss that Basie band.” So we tried, with a very small budget, to… It worked, especially on the introduction to “The Comeback.” That’s why I started out with that, because it really grinds in like the clappers. Jesus, I was one of the last people to dance to Count Basie with Freddie Greene and him there at some Grammy party…it must have been in the ’70s in L.A., and… You couldn’t not dance to it.

TP: There are some singers who are going to do what they do regardless of what the rhythm section is doing, but you don’t seem to be one of those.

MURPHY: I just enjoyed being able to relax and let the swing part of come right out. It’s right back to my roots, too. It was a very mellow recording experience for me, I must say. Grady Tate is something else. Not everybody can ride a cymbal like that.

TP:  Were all the tunes chosen by you? How did you go about selecting repertoire?

MURPHY: Norman Simmons faxed me a few lists, and I went over it and picked songs I liked. But I wanted a lot of blues in there, because I like to sing it, although I’m not considered a blues singer — but I do love to sing it. I suppose they’ll say, “How come you didn’t do, ‘All Right, Okay, You Win.'” I don’t know. It just didn’t seem to fall in there.

TP: You certainly inhabit them all with your own personality. It’s a great homage because it’s all you dealing with these great tunes. On some of these records, you’ve gone into detail on your responses to each song. “The Comeback.”

MURPHY: Well, see, I also was a Peggy Lee freak.

TP: She liked you, too, right?

MURPHY: [LAUGHS] I don’t know whether she did or not. She was a strange broad. But she took “The Comeback” and did it [sings striptease beat] much slower. Which worked for her, and the record is powerful! It was in those Decca days after “Lover” when she really started shouting out. That HAD to be in there. So I said we’ve got to do that and “In The Evening,” which is a lovely blues, and “Every Day.” Those had to be in there, I think. And “All Right, Okay,” somehow didn’t settle in. So I didn’t force anything in there.

TP: “Every Day” is an interesting arrangement. It starts with a James Brown funk line and then goes into K.C. swing.

MURPHY: That’s all Norman’s idea. I just let him go.

TP: So basically, he presented you these arrangements and you came in and flowed with them.

MURPHY: Sure.

TP: Did you just go into the studio and hit, or…

MURPHY: We had at least session with me and him to make sure the keys were okay. I’m a stickler for tempo, so sometimes… Until I find my groove, I don’t want to see it yet. So we had to fool around with some tempo changes sometimes. But that’s all. One reason I felt smiling about it is that it did fall into place very easily — for me. Bill Easley and Paul Bollenbeck were…oh, it was just natural to everybody. Did you listen to the blues chorus that Norman plays just before I start to sing on “In The Evenin’?” That’s such a far-out harmonic conception, but it is blues. Stuff like that was thrilling to me.

TP: What was your association with “In The Evenin'”?

MURPHY: I always loved the way that Quincy and Ray Charles did “I’m Gonna Move Way Up On The Outskirts Of Town.” I wanted to get something like that in that particular blues.

TP: Where would you mostly be gigging at the time you came to New York? What sort of rooms were you playing in then?

MURPHY: In some of those things I was playing piano for myself, and I don’t play well, never did, but I could get a few gigs. [LAUGHS] Most of the time I got paid. One time the guy said, “Come here a minute,” and he gave me some money and said, “I’m going to take you to the railroad station.” [LAUGHS] I was sitting there in a tuxedo, and he just left me there, and I had to wait all night for a train. So once in a while that would happen. But New York was a pretty brutal town in those days. You know the movie Sweet Smell of Success? It was those days. Nobody had tried to pretty up New York, like Giuliani did with plants and flowers and trees. Now it’s a stunning city. It was then, too, but it was hard-ass. It was…

TP: Everything was mobbed-up then.

MURPHY: Well, okay. There was in Vegas, too. And that was good for us because they liked jazz. The first guy that spoiled all that was Howard Hughes. Then he sold it all to Trump, and that fucked everything up. No more jazz. No more swing.

TP: But in your twenties in New York, when you would play jazz gigs, would they be in the Village? Would they be Midtown? Did you play uptown?

MURPHY: I used to play at a joint called the Toast, which was over on First Avenue a little bit up from the Living Room, one of those rooms where you could sit in easy chairs. Those were big then, with piano-singers and piano trios. Out on the West Coast, people like Paige Cavanaugh were doing that. Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup came out of that sort of era, although Bobby Troup was a little more previous to that.

TP: Were you ever singing gigs where you’d be needing to access the blues side of your personality? Or was that something that’s always there?

MURPHY: Probably that would have come out more in the latest ’50s and ’60s, when for the first time I got to having sort of a regular band, out of Cincinnati, which I would take wherever I could. That wasn’t very many places. But I did get them into New York once or twice. In that era, I did some blues stuff. Because out of that era came my hanging at the Showplace in the Village, where Roger Kellaway was appearing, and I got him his first record date, and that was that This Side Of The Blues album. So I always had that connection, and there were one or two or three absolute blues lyrics in that record. Most of them were what we call blues songs, like “Blues In The Nights.” I’m fascinating with introducing my kids now to Harold Arlen, because all of his songs are blues, but they’re songs. Jesus, “Blues In The Night” is a fantastic piece of material! Or “The Man That Got Away.” If you get the right blues groove from the band, the singer, if she or he has got it, can really dig into that. But it’s hard sometimes for them to hear that.

TP: Well, for “Memories Of You,” you put on the verse. An extended rubato verse.

MURPHY: Well, I always liked to do that, the verse.

TP: Well, I never heard anyone do the verse for “Memories of You,” though my experience isn’t comprehensive.

MURPHY: Well, it has a line to and from periods of my life when… I found out Gregory Hines was collecting my records, and he came upon the stage in Vegas with his purple tap shoes, and tapped with us on a blues. I think it was a Wardell Gray…the one about the girl… “Farmer’s Market.” That’s all blues. But then, one night, I was driving around San Francisco, and KJAZ, god bless the memory, played this tune called “My Old Friend,” and this singer I had never heard before. It was like, “Jesus Christ, this guy is doing everything I want my kids to do.” And I pulled over, and if it wasn’t fuckin’ Gregory Hines! He did three tracks on a record of a drummer…he was on my blues album… Anyway, that’s how I discovered that he was really now my favorite singer. But his rendition of this song, “My Old Friend” (I don’t know who wrote it), was about Eubie Blake. Evidently, they were real close family chums in his evolution up from the Hines, Hines & Dad. But my God, can he sing! I don’t have any contact with him now. But I’m literally on my knees begging him to get into the studio again. I think he got stung by that session he did with Luther Vandross which was supposed to be a Pop thing, and it didn’t happen.

TP: How many of these songs were part of your repertoire before you made this album?

MURPHY: I do “Close Enough For Love” quite a bit. It’s a ballad just for piano, a haunting song — I’ve always dug it. Most of the others were not in the repertoire I’ve been doing, say, for the past thirty years. Outside of the closeness of some of the blues in the Kerouac stuff. It was, I would say, slightly more sophisticated.

TP: So you had to assimilate lyrics for ten new songs, basically.

MURPHY: Well, I purposely chose things… I have a horrible absence now of memory for words. The music is not the problem, but man, do I help with the words, just to remember them. So I didn’t want to be struggling on a date with a lot of things that weren’t part of me.

TP: What are saying about you approached the material and the date? Because it all sounds like it’s part of you. There’s barely a note that doesn’t sound like it.

MURPHY: I wanted everything to be really copasetic and organic with me, like stuff I grew up with or… That for me was a departure. For the last few years I’ve been bringing in stuff that was new to me, because I liked it or because I had written it and so on.

TP: Specifically on the records for High Note?

MURPHY: Yes, because I had a New York band that I loved and could do that sort of thing.

TP: Lee Musiker is a very accomplished arranger type of pianist.

MURPHY: Yes, but he is also for me a very emotionally harmonic one. It’s strange when… Yeah, it’s something singers go through. Peggy kept Jimmy Rowles for so long that they began not to get on well together, because they were too familiar with one another. But she finally found that Lou Levy, “the great white fox,” could approximate what Jimmy played. She said, “What band are you going to use?” and I told her Jimmy Rowles, Joe Mondragon and Shelley Manne. “Oh, she said. “Sounds like I should have been there.”

TP: How about “Squeeze Me”?

MURPHY: I haven’t done it for years, but it is a gorgeous piece. Right out of Ellingtonia. As is, to my ears, the playing of Bill Easley. It was so Ellingtonia. Well, I used to love Basie, too. But Duke would bring the whole Harlem Renaissance with him wherever he went. He had dancers and Kay Davis was leaning against the edge of the stage with no microphone and one of these revealing gowns and singing these vocalese things. He was a fascinator, that Duke Ellington.

TP: You saw him a lot.

MURPHY: As much as possible.

TP: Was Louis Armstrong someone whose singing you paid a lot of attention to as a young singer?

MURPHY: No. It took me a long time to get used to what Billie Holiday was doing, because it seemed almost wrong — until I heard her sing that series of stuff she did with Oscar Peterson. Then I understood that she was naturally back-phrasing, and then I got fascinated with how she almost fucked up but didn’t because her style was what it was. You were hearing a style that nobody else could do. Lee Wiley was that way, too. Never sang a bad note, never sang a bad song, never had a bad track on a record, every record she made was better than the last one. But few people remember her today.

TP: But Louis Armstrong wasn’t a strong influence.

MURPHY: No. Well, the giant of jazz he was…

TP: But in the ’50s a lot of people didn’t like him.

MURPHY: No, because Miles really had made Louis look a little corny. Whether he wanted to or not, I don’t know. But you can say that Bobby McFerrin did the same thing in the ’80s, quite purposefully, I think sometimes, too… He made a lot of singers look corny. Because he could do the acrobatics of his kind of vocalese in his new way. He sort of intellectualized what… I do his solo on “Freddie Freeloader,” the Miles Davis solo is done on the record by…. He made a record of “Take Five,” a big hit… He’s a tall, skinny guy…

TP: Sorry, I’m no help.

MURPHY: Anyway, a lot of people my age could not sort of easily take Louis Armstrong.

TP: Interesting, because the timbral liberties you take remind me of him in some strange way. Maybe it’s because you’re singing repertoire like “Memories of You” and “Squeeze Me.”

MURPHY: See, that’s a problem in style, too, for some people. He was doing things that no other singer had ever done, say, technically — like starting scat singing (with Bing Crosby, by the way) — and, covered up by this sound style which a lot of people found unattractive to listen to, were these innovations. So by the end, you sort of just took Louis. He was the guy that came out with the wet handkerchief and did those cute little trumpet solos. But he had, in his day, innovated trumpet playing into something it had never been before, like Miles did in his day.

TP: Speaking of Miles, “If I Were A Bell” seems very much in Miles’ style.

MURPHY: Well, he’s sort of more my basic sound anyway, out of the Birth of The Cool. And then, my God, those… I call him the Picasso of Jazz, because he never stopped reinventing himself. I was able to do that myself until the last album called Song Of The Geese, which we couldn’t sell in the United States, because the business had changed so much in the ’90s. By the time I’d conceived the album, by the time I had it done, the whole business had done another flip-flop. Some day I’ll tell the whole story of that. It ended up in a warehouse in Jersey, and the freaks have got all the copies, and there aren’t any left. But it is an exquisite expression of what I wanted to do.

TP: So “If I Were a Bell” was Norman Simmons’ arrangement, and you just hit the groove and followed along.

MURPHY: Yeah. “Close Enough For Love” was all Norman, too. That was a new concept for me behind it. Because I like to do it just very slow and very understated.

TP: I never heard Joe Williams do “Love You Madly.” On “I Got It Bad” you do the verse again.

MURPHY: Yeah. I LOVE that verse! And nobody does it. Then you get into…there’s several verses in that tune. And the trickiness. I forget the writer’s name right now, but the trickiness of the melody…it can trip you up so easily. It’s a very difficult song to sing correctly. But I really wanted to do that one with the verse for this record.

Norman said that Joe did “S’posin'” nearly every night, that he loved the tune and the swing of it — just the joy part.

TP: “A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry” is a great urban ballad.

MURPHY: Yeah. We did that in one take. It was really like a little black-and-white movie there.

TP: So you’ve done homages to Nat Cole and now Joe Williams. Any other male singers you’ve done that with?

MURPHY: No. Nat and Joe were the greatest to me. Nat, my God, he would sing so effortlessly and just fracture you with what swing was and what syncopation is. I scream at my kids, “For God’s sake, learn the time step” or “bring in some brushes.” Then I put them right up with the drummer and make them watch his hands, and try to make them sing with their voice what he plays with his hands and feet. And it works. Once in a while, it works!

TP: Most singers, when they scat, it sounds artificial, but it’s very organic with you. Are you very self-analytical about your singing, about your records?

MURPHY: No. I hardly ever listen to my records. Once in a while I hear them now on the radio, and this is the time I can, “Oh, Jesus, I was good that day.” Because you’re so close to it and you’re so… I don’t want to be hyper-analytical. I want to do it, let it out and then go on to the next one. So that I don’t become hung up with self-criticism. That can really fuck your head up.

TP: It can really hang you up the most, right? But I wonder, do you think of yourself as being stylistically unique as a singer?

MURPHY: Well, see, I never considered myself a stylist. I was always a creative singer. If you say there’s a singer still singing now who is a stylist, and everything comes out stamped like the last one… In a sense, the Sinatra records were the genius of Stylism. Because he did what the crowd wanted, because that was what he did, so he did it.

Then there was also this question of me… It’s amazing that I made what little impact I did make when I was at Capitol, because they had… First of all, they were making all that money with the Kingston Trio, and that’s a problem in itself! They made more money for them I think than Sinatra sales. Peggy’s sales were sometimes large, and George Shearing was there, and Dean Martin, and then Murphy was down somewhere… I was just trying to do something that nobody had ever done before, in a sense. Now, some singers don’t have to try to do that, because they are stylists. But I had to invent ways of doing things differently. Because every time I would start over again, I’d find that all the bases were loaded, so I had to go out somewhere where they couldn’t go, and so I had to go, say, far out on the edge of jazz. People say I’m a risk-taker, I’m on the edge. But I had to be there, because that was the only place that wasn’t overcrowded.

TP: So whatever style evolved, or whatever sound people recognize Mark Murphy by, evolved from your running away from being a stylist. Because you have a sound anyone who appreciates singing would recognize.

MURPHY: It’s a discussion that can go on forever. It’s very, how do you say, quixotic; you’re on quicksand there.

TP: But was the zeitgeist when you were coming up the notion of having your own sound and distinguishing yourself with a sound?

MURPHY: I guess the thought was they’ve taken me because I do something different. See, I was just at the edge of the last… Joe Williams was the last of singers like me, who were before… Because as we were beginning and making our first successes, undermining all that was “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and then the guitars took over, and then the ’60s happened, and the shit hit the fan. Anybody could get up and sing a song for the children. [Herman’s Hermits style] “Oh, my, I’m walking down the street, I look a little…” Anything could go. [LAUGHS] I had to put my jazz book away for ten years, the ’60s and ’70s.

TP: You were acting, too, right?

MURPHY: Well, yeah. I was living in England mostly in the ’60s. The economy got so bad there, like it’s getting here, and I had to go out… A girlfriend of mine was an actress, and she said, “Why don’t you go see Margaret.” So I went to see this lady, and I bluffed my way into a couple of roles. Then even that got scarce. Cleo Laine started making a success in New York, and I was surprised by that. So I said, “Maybe something is happening here.” So I went back and poked around, and found that there was a slight resurgence.

TP: In the way you treat a lyric or treat the arc of a lyric, is there an analogy at all to acting?

MURPHY: Sure. It is my love of words and emotional-motivational… It’s like if I say to you the “emotional-motivational fuck,” will you understand what I mean? That you get the words and you shove them in and you bring them out again. You do all sorts of things with them. That’s my fascination with this music, that you can do it that way, and it will be accepted.

TP: With this set of repertoire, do you feel you were able to do that? Or is there a function that overrides some of your autonomy?

MURPHY: You say function. I would get probably a bit funkier actually in my own… If I’m doing these songs, some of them I probably would take at slightly slower tempos, so I can get where I want, where I can do that… Like, if you come see me at Birdland or Joe’s Pub some time, you’ll see I take it further. It’s a joy to me that I am able to do this. Some days I wonder if the audience is receiving this, but most of the time they are. Because they know that I do this, and that’s what they come for — to see if I ever really will fall off the edge.

TP: It does seem a very generational approach, the way Shirley Horn does it, or even Freddy Cole…

MURPHY: Yeah! Like Jackie & Roy’s audience towards the end would fill up in San Francisco with all people with white hair, who were the hippest of the hip fifty years ago.

[ETC.]

MURPHY: Would you remember a place called the San Remo? Kerouac used to hang out there. That’s the first time I ever heard a girl rush over the bar and say, “It’s J.F.K., baby!” — because he’d just been elected. Sawdust on the floor. I stood outside two years ago, when he was filming it, and read some Kerouac, and then we moved to some other places. So that thing… Well, look, it’s all a tourist trap now, but that thing then was real, and at least I got inon the end of real. [LAUGHS]

TP: You could make a song out of that one.

MURPHY: Right. [SINGS] “At least I got in at the end of real.”

[ETC.]

MURPHY: When I was a kid up in Fulton, the little kids, some of the musicians or jazz lovers…there were three or four of us in Fulton at the time… I don’t think Symphony Sid, WJZ from Birdland… I don’t think that they had FM then. So sometimes at night the sounds would drift up to us, starting at about midnight. We’d listen as long as we could, and then fall asleep, and whoever fell asleep last would wake up the other one — “Well, I stayed up til 4 a.m.!” So it was kind of an exciting time in that kiddie sense.

TP: Developing your hanging chops at an early age.

MURPHY: Well, I used to be a great hanger, but that diminishes with time!

——

Mark Murphy (“Memories Of You: Remembering Joe Williams“):

“I’ll never forget a concert at Kent State University. I looked up and backstage, and there grinning in the wings Joe Williams stood, big as life. Ever since then his blues picked me up more times than I can remember. I was — as all were — so TOUCHED by his attempt to leave that Vegas hospital and die at home — poor baby didn’t get there — but his spirit is up there! Maybe he’ll give his blues crown to the great Ernie Andrews now…” — Mark Murphy.
____________________

“I sometimes forget how old I am,” says Mark Murphy, “and I ask my students, ‘You remember Joe Williams, don’t you?’ But these kids mostly say ‘no.’ And I can’t believe it! They’re supposed to know something about jazz. So the concept of this album would be exactly what it says — remembering Joe.”

In case you’ve forgotten, Williams made his name singing the blues in front of the “New Testament” Count Basie Orchestra, solidifying his fame in later solo years with repertoire that mixed his blues, ballads and jazz songbook classics, delivered with a trademark velvety, fluent baritone, peerless diction, and deep soul. He was also a famously classy guy.

“Joe Williams was always gracious to me,” says Murphy, who moved to New York in 1954, a year before Williams hit the jackpot with “Every Day I Have The Blues.” “There wasn’t a bitchy streak in him. He had to go through some long waiting periods — and those waiting periods do strange things to people — before he got hot with Basie. But he had NOT a trace of bitterness, and that’s very hard to escape in this business.”

A “singer’s singer” for half a century, Murphy’s c.v. cites close to 40 albums and seven Grammy nominations. He boasts a staunch international fan base that includes quality peer-groupers — Kurt Elling built a career off his style, and Shirley Horn and Gregory Hines are avid admirers — and enough critical plaudits to fill a few scrapbooks. Still, he knows a thing or two about long waiting periods, and shares with Williams that sense of perspective he describes. Like Williams, Murphy hears time like a drummer, his diction is immaculate, and he cuts to the emotional essence of a lyric. Also like Williams, he’s aged gracefully. No one would ever use the adjective “velvety” to describe Murphy’s instrument, but it remains resonant, flexible and magnificently textured, with a gravelly ache, at the service of its master’s restlessly improvisational imagination.

“I’m one of the last developed singers who came really out of the Swing Era,” Murphy remarks. “I grew up on Erroll Garner and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, who were, let’s say, the last sort of big band developments of that era, before the goddamn guitar took over. Joe probably was another of that ilk. So it wasn’t difficult for me to like his whole concept, that Midwestern, big-city, urban blues feeling. Because I swing.”

“I never considered myself a stylist,” he continues. “I was always a creative singer, trying to do something nobody had done before. Some singers don’t have to try to do that, because they are stylists. In a sense, the Sinatra records were the genius of Stylism; he did what the crowd wanted, because that was what he did, so he did it. But I had to invent ways to do things differently. Every time I started over, I’d find that all the bases were loaded, so I had to go out somewhere they couldn’t go, far out on the edge of jazz. People say I’m a risk-taker, that I’m on the edge. I had to be there, because that was the only place that wasn’t overcrowded.

“It took me a long time to get used to what Billie Holiday was doing, because it seemed almost wrong — until I heard her sing that series with Oscar Peterson. Then I understood that she was naturally back-phrasing, and then I got fascinated with how she almost screwed up but didn’t because her style was what it was. You were hearing a style that nobody else could do. Lee Wiley was that way, too. Never sang a bad note, never sang a bad song, never had a bad track on a record, every record she made was better than the last one. But few people remember her today.”

Other jazz singers take extreme liberties with a lyric, but Murphy is sui generis in his ability to approach singing like a character actor, conveying the arc of a song by isolating words and syllables with precisely calibrated accents, inflections and melismas. “I love words, and I love to put them through an emotional-motivational fuck,” he says. “You get the words and shove them in and bring them out again. You do all sorts of things with them. That’s my fascination with jazz, that you can do it that way, and it will be accepted.”

That Murphy weaves his seductive web on a set of 11 main-stem classics from Williams’ repertoire without distorting or detracting from their blues identity testifies to his gifts. Out of Fulton, New York, a small town near the shore of Lake Ontario about 25 miles north of Syracuse, Murphy evokes the days when he and a small group of fellow teen musicians and jazz lovers would stay up late to listen to Symphony Sid Torin broadcasting live from Birdland. “We had our own little beatnik scene there and in Syracuse; not recognized at that time,” says Murphy, whose most famous album is a musical adaptation of the writings of Beat King Jack Kerouac.

“Like Joe and I, Kerouac bridged the swing into bop into modern jazz eras,” Murphy says. “Then the lines get fuzzy; you can’t discern them any more. But a powerful swing was in there. Nobody was ashamed of it. The moment Birth of the Cool came out, boom, everything cooled down. I show that sometimes, in my stage performances, how the dancing changed. It wasn’t cool to show your aerobic side. Nobody even dared to smile. Miles didn’t smile. And he couldn’t understand why Louis Armstrong smiled so much. Miles actually made Louis look a little corny. Whether he wanted to or not, I don’t know. A lot of people my age could not sort of easily take Louis Armstrong, even though he was doing things that no other singer had ever done technically, like starting scat singing, and — covered up by this sound style which a lot of people found unattractive to listen to — were these innovations. You can say that Al Jarreau did the same thing in the ‘70s by re-Africanizing scat, and Bobby McFerrin did it in the ’80s, quite purposefully, I sometimes think, because of the way he intellectualized the acrobatics of his new kind of vocalese.”

Known for launching into his own brand of extravagant vocalese at the drop of a hat, Murphy sings barely a wordless syllable through the course of the recital. Helping him to swing the blues right is a killer rhythm section, comprising pianist Norman Simmons, who doubles as the date’s arranger, Monk Competition bass winner Daryl Hall, and drum giant Grady Tate.

“I’m not considered a blues singer,” he says. “But I do love to sing the blues. On this I wanted everything to be copasetic and organic, like the stuff I grew up with. That’s a departure. For the last few years I’ve been bringing in stuff that was new to me, because I liked it or had written it and so on.”

“Norman and I had a session to make sure the keys and tempos were okay,” Murphy says. “I’m a stickler for tempo — until I find my groove, I don’t want to see it yet. But that’s all. It fell into place very easily, and I enjoyed being able to relax and let the swing part of me come right out. It’s right back to my roots. A very mellow recording experience, I must say. Did you listen to the blues chorus that Norman plays just before I start to sing on ‘In The Evenin’?’ That’s such a far-out harmonic conception, but it is blues. Stuff like that thrilled me.”

Murphy’s testimony on “In The Evening” is a classic example of his art. Early in the verse, over a perfectly executed slow groove, he contracts and expands “eee-ve-ne-in” like he has a rubber band in his larynx, then reaches for the stars on “if I could HOLLER like a mountainjack, if-I-could-hol-ler-like-a-moun-tain-jack” — without ever making the flourishes seem excessive, rococo or precious, and never losing the thread of the narrative. On “The Comeback,” he floats like a butterfly over Grady Tate’s coal-digging shuffle, while on “Every Day” he sings the opening over a wicked Clyde Stubblefield-style funk backbeat, before the tune transitions to swing-like-a-gate Basie four/four. After this opening trilogy, you might be inclined forevermore to utter the blues and Murphy’s name in the same breath.

The Andy Razaf-Eubie Blake title track and Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad” are classics of the genre that Murphy describes as “blues songs.” Hearkening to his long ’50s apprenticeship in New York (“it was a brutal, hard-ass town in those days”), where the aesthetics of Broadway and cabaret were essential at certain venues, he articulates the full verse. He delves further into Ellingtonia with “Squeeze Me” and “Love You Madly,” on which Ella Fitzgerald, another Murphy advocate, put her indelible stamp in the ’60s.

“I saw Ellington as often as possible,” Murphy recalls. “Duke would bring the whole Harlem Renaissance with him wherever he went. He had dancers and Kay Davis was leaning against the edge of the stage with no microphone in one of these revealing gowns and singing these vocalese things. He was a fascinater.”

Murphy offers two homages to Miles Davis — “he’s my basic sound, out of Birth of the Cool.” Also by Razaf is “S’posin'” (“Norman said that Joe did ‘S’posin” nearly every night, he loved the swing of it — just the joy part”), which Miles recorded with John Coltrane in 1955, while the Murphy-Simmons treatment of “If I Were A Bell” hews to the way Miles did it with his quintets from 1956 to about 1962.

Bill Easley’s keening soprano intro and apropos obbligatos highlight Simmons’ arrangement of “Close Enough For Love,” one of the few tunes on this program that is part of Murphy’s regular book. “I like to do it very slow and understated, so this was a new concept for me,” Murphy says.

Simmons offers another vivid piano intro to the album-closer, “A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry,” a great urban ballad that was a Williams staple of the ’60s and ’70s. “It was like a little black-and-white movie,” Murphy remarks.

The different phases and cycles of Murphy’s nomadic life might inspire a filmmaker of a certain sensibility to shoot a black-and-white film noir, but he is sanguine.

“It’s a joy to me that I am able to do this,” he says. “Some days I wonder if the audience receives it, but most of the time they do. They know that I do this, and that’s what they come for — to see if I ever really will fall off the edge.”

“Would you remember a place called the San Remo?” he asks, referring to an Italian restaurant on the northwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village that was a favored hang for Kerouac and various other Village artistic types, Bohemians and political folk. “Sawdust on the floor. That’s the first time I ever heard a girl rush to the bar and say, ‘It’s J.F.K., baby!’ — because he’d just been elected. Two years ago someone was filming a documentary, and I stood outside the site and read some Kerouac before we moved to some other places. Look, it’s all a tourist trap now, but that thing then was real. At least I got in on the end of real!”

Ted Panken_

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Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Singers

For Wynton Marsalis’ 55th birthday, an Essay-Interview Written on the Occasion of the Premiere of Blood on the Fields

For Wynton Marsalis’ 54th birthday, I’ll reclaim a piece that’s been on the internet since 2001 via the Jazz Journalist Association website. I put it together in 2005 at the instigation of  Steve Cannon and Gathering of Tribes on the occasion of the premiere performance of Blood On The Fields. It contains an essay-review, followed by a long composite interview.

————–

The Reigning Genius of Jazz to his admirers, the Emperor With No Clothes to his debunkers, Wynton Marsalis has attracted public attention and provoked ferociously divergent responses like few musicians in the music’s history. Since his emergence in the early 1980’s as a trumpet virtuoso and composer-bandleader, the result of Marsalis’ choice and treatment of material and his penchant for salty public statements is a public persona akin to a massive lightning rod or magnet that absorbs and repels the roiling opinions and attitudes informing the contemporary Jazz zeitgeist.

A visionary revisionist, Marsalis has worked tirelessly over the last decade to build a bully pulpit from which he speaks as advocate, spokesman, teacher and musical implementor of the aesthetic notions of continuity and inclusiveness intoned by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Committed to Jazz, perceiving it lacking a functional basis in contemporary Pop culture, he preaches the necessity of a fully idiomatic assimilation and refinement of the music’s lineage all the way back to its polyphonic roots in New Orleans as the road to a rooted personal voice. Perhaps his most important achievement has been to influence many of the most talented musicians of the generation after his (Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton are a few) to follow in his path.

What kept me from jumping on the Marsalis bandwagon during the 1980’s was that the volume of his bark was often disproportionate to the bite of the music that he was producing. Marsalis was forced to experience the growing pains of apprenticeship before an ever-expanding and largely uncritical audience for whom a Wynton Marsalis record was often more a status symbol than an object of serious reflection.

Marsalis’ strengths were substantial. He was capable of spinning out solos of a logic and lyrical force reminiscent of Fats Navarro’s greatest efforts. His compositions were based on the language of the 1960’s. He blended the scintillating turnarounds and swinging odd meters concocted by James Black in the isolation of New Orleans with the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, the harmonic and structural parameters of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the modal, almost Pentecostal feeling of John Coltrane’s Quartet. But as one might expect of a prodigiously gifted young musician in the process of feeling his oats, adding and discarding, his performances too often struck me as brilliant simulacra that did not comment on their sources. When I listened to Marsalis play his music, it was frustrating that he seemed to be almost willfully holding back, restraining the passion of his individual voice, a voice which burst out in full splendor on occasions when one heard him sit in with, say, Frank Morgan at the Village Vanguard, or at a memorable engagement at the Public Theatre with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and Edward Blackwell.

Since Marsalis became the focal point of Jazz programming at Lincoln Center in 1988, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to play the music of the keystone composer-improvisers of Jazz in variously idiomatic settings, from the inside-out so to speak, to develop a relationship to their vocabularies that is both functional and poetic. As his ideas have matured and consolidated, he has found a way to conjure his omnivorous musical interests into a highly personal, detailed compositional sensibility. Recent recordings such as the 1990 soundtrack for Tune In Tomorrow and the 1991 dance score City Griot revealed an ambitious composer who already had imprinted his cosignature to Ellington’s expansive timbral palette, Jelly Roll Morton’s organizational techniques, Monk’s percussive harmonic dissonance.

Furthermore, Marsalis has dramatically increased his range as a soloist. The sometimes mechanistic harmonically and rhythmically complex solo lines spun by the Freddie Hubbard admirer of earlier years have coalesced into clear, direct shapes. Marsalis is now capable of bringing to life a spectrum of stylistic approaches — the to-the-point heavyweight tales laid down by Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown, the smooth modulations of Joe Smith and Joe Wilder, the sonic extremities of Ellington trumpets Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, the allusive modernist progressions of Booker Little and Woody Shaw.

The two March 1994 performances at Alice Tully Hall of Marsalis’ lengthy commissioned composition for large jazz orchestra, Blood On The Fields [scheduled for an early 1996 release on Columbia-Sony] upped the ante. It is the first self-contained extended piece from Marsalis that I have heard in which form and function blend seamlessly. It tells a story whose internal dynamics are about dialoguing voices, stories and songs. It is also a conversation with the history of Jazz on its highest level. No imitation of its antecedents, Blood On The Fields demonstrates Marsalis’ sophisticated reading and revision of his sources, does justice to his oft-stated, oft-derided mission of reaffirming and reclaiming the optimistic narrative thrust of African-American culture.

What most impressed me about the performances of Blood On The Fields was the rich language of its complexly metered, starkly intervalled vernacular libretto, sung with elegant fluency and finesse by Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and Jon Hendricks. Ellingtonally, Marsalis gave each musician in the orchestra a voice, and the orchestra itself a meta-voice. Call-and-response, New Orleans polyphony, shuffles, Ellingbop, dirges, parade march press-rolls, second-line struts, intricately detailed ensemble dialogues, impossible unison brass lines, idiomatic solos — even a Greek chorus! — signified and counterstated the songs. And they swung hard all night!

About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet with Marsalis twice for discussions about his music. During a week’s engagement of the Wynton Marsalis Septet at the Village Vanguard in December 1993 Marsalis visited my “Out To Lunch” program on WKCR-FM in New York and spoke on a variety of topics. The interview began with Marsalis’ brief description of each of his band members (Wessel Anderson and Victor Goines, reeds and woodwinds; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums), three of whom are from New Orleans (Veal has since left the band).


TP: Why is the New Orleans connection so important to you in terms of the musicians you perform with? It sounds like sort of a naive question, but I just would like to hear how you see it.

WM: Well, you know, it just has worked out that way. I didn’t plan it that way, really. It’s not like I went to New Orleans to find musicians, because I’ve been in New York for twelve years. But Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal with the drums and the bass, are from New Orleans, and they give us the ability to really play some New Orleans music. When you don’t have New Orleans musicians in those two positions, it’s difficult to get the authentic sound of the music. But you can always distill that sound, like the way that Duke played. He got that type of sound out of Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard. It’s just that it was transformed. It didn’t sound like the New Orleans beat.

TP: Of course Ellington got that sound out of Wellman Braud in the 1920’s.

WM: Well, he’s from New Orleans. As a matter of fact, Wellman Braud is in my family. You expect that New Orleans musicians will play like that. In Duke’s early bands, he had Sidney Bechet, he had Wellman Braud, he had Barney Bigard — he had access to New Orleans musicians. He had Bubber Miley, who even though he wasn’t from New Orleans, he was the closest thing you could find to King Oliver outside of Louis Armstrong.

TP: What type of repertoire does the band play in performance? You’ve accumulated such a diverse body of work in your recent recordings. Do you play the whole spectrum of material?

WM: We play all of it. Even the stuff we used to play, like “Black Codes From The Underground” or “Knozz-Mo-King.” We play Duke’s music, Monk, Wayne Shorter — anything really. We haven’t played that much of Wayne’s music recently, but we’ll really play pretty much anything… Some cats will play ballads. Or we try to play some of Trane’s music…

TP: Two of your band members, Wessel Anderson and Reginald Veal, studied with Alvin Batiste, who has been associated with your father for over forty years, playing contemporary and very strong music.

WM: Right.

TP: And Edward Blackwell was part of their circle, too, over forty years ago.

WM: That’s right.

TP: Did your father’s work with [drummer] James Black in the early 1960’s have an impact on some of the early things that you were doing with your group?

WM: Definitely. You know, for me, it was more that I just absorbed the music, because I was always around it. I didn’t like it when I was growing up. We were really Country. We lived in Little Fork, Louisiana, in Browbridge, in Kendall, Louisiana — and nobody I knew liked that kind of music. My Daddy and them always were kind of like outcasts. They were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans at that time. But I always loved them because of their hipness. They had the combination of the intelligence and the soul. So as a kid, that manifested itself in things like, if we were in the barber shop, my Daddy would win the argument.

TP: With anybody, huh?

WM: Yeah. Well, he just knew a wider range of things. He was a Jazz musician. He had a more sophisticated understanding of American culture.

James Black was the same way, even though he had a volatile personality. But out of the cats in my father’s band (Nat Perillat, James Black, my father), I liked James the most. He wrote a lot of tunes, like “The Magnolia Triangle.” He had the talent. But he had a volatile personality. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, and he was always ready to fight at the drop of a hat. You never knew what he was going to do; he was unpredictable. But as a boy of like, seven, six, eight, there was always something about him I liked. He also was a trumpet player. I was influenced by his music. I liked his songs, like “A Love Song,” and things that the people wouldn’t know…

They played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s that was on Ramparts Street in New Orleans, and when I got to be, like, eleven, I would hang out in the club. I would go to the club just to see the men and the women and hear what they would be talking about, not to really check the music out so much — but the ambiance had a profound effect on my understanding of how the world works. Because you’re liable to see anything in that type of club. And also in New Orleans, down in the French Quarter there’s a wide range of things going on.

TP: Human activities.

WM: Yes, human…

TP: The full range…

WM: Yes.

TP: The depth…

WM: …and levels of human intercourse taking place. As men they had a profound effect on me more than as musicians.

TP: Had you picked up the trumpet by that time? Did you know music was going to be…

WM: No.

TP: …what you were going to do then?

WM: Well, I had a trumpet. I played in Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church band when I was eight. Herlin Riley actually played trumpet in that same band, but before I was in it. I was only in the band for like six months or so, actually longer, maybe a year. We would play parades, things like “Over In The Glory Land,” “The Second Line,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Didn’t He Ramble.” Now, I had a trumpet, but I didn’t want to be a trumpet player. I wanted to be some type of athlete or in some type of scholarly activity, be a chemist or something — I had my little chemistry set, and I liked playing with it.

But the thing I always try to convey is just the feeling of that time. Because my father and them were all men struggling, they had their families, they weren’t making any money, they were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans. An album like The Monkey Puzzle, I might have heard that a million times; it’s like a New Orleans underground classic. They had a belief and an optimism, a belief in the music, a feeling that they had as men, that’s the thing that I really could relate to. Because during that time, that music really wasn’t that important.

We had a little league football team, and we used to lose almost every game. This was during real segregation, so they had like three Black teams and seven or eight White teams. The Black teams always had like the saddest equipment from the city, and our fields didn’t have hashmarks or anything. We were glad just to be playing. Because before our age, they never had Black teams. But we would lose every game. Our coach was a cat named Gus, and he had a black-and-tan car we used to call the Judge, a GTO, and he used to sit on his GTO… We’d go to the games, and we’d always lose. One game Gus didn’t show up, and my father coached. He packed all of us into this little Buick Skylark; he had like eleven of us in a Buick Skylark, man…

TP: In uniform and pads?

WM: Oh yeah, in full dress. I don’t know how we got in there. We were laying all on top of each other! And we went to the game — and that’s the only game we almost won.

TP: Why did you decide to get serious about the trumpet? What was it that inspired you?

WM: Well, then I went through puberty, and I wanted to have something that would distinguish me so that I could be able to rap to the ladies and they would have some respect for what I was saying…

TP: A lot of musicians say that about it!

WM: Oh, man, that’s a motivating factor, now. And also just the competition of being in high school; a lot of people could play. And then I actually started listening to music. I started listening to Coltrane’s music first, and then later on Clifford Brown and Miles Davis…

TP: Who turned you on to that?

WM: Well, my father always had the records sitting around. I just had never taken the time to listen to any of them. Mainly before that I was just listening to like James Brown or the Isley Brothers, whatever was popular — Earth Wind and Fire then was becoming popular. We’d go to those little house parties that they have. Once again, it was still in the country. We weren’t living in New Orleans yet.

In the summer that I was twelve, I was working, cleaning up a school. That’s when I started listening to Trane. I would come home from doing that, and then I would listen to “Giant Steps”, and then I’d listen to Clifford Brown and Max Roach On Basin Street, and then Clifford Brown With Strings, and then a Miles Davis album entitled Someday My Prince Will Come, and then a Freddie Hubbard record entitled Red Clay. That got me into Jazz.

TP: How about Jazz education? Your father, Ellis, along with Alvin Batiste, was one of the major educators in Jazz really in the country in the 1970’s.

WM: [CHUCKLES] Well, I always hear that, and it makes me laugh. At most, my father never had more than five students in a class. We had the raggediest room in the school…

TP: Look who came out of it!

WM: Well, none of us knew we were going to make it playing Jazz. We really didn’t even want to play Jazz, with the exception of me and Donald Harrison; we were really the only two who wanted to play Jazz. When my father would try to explain something to us, by the time he would leave the blackboard to come back to the piano, we’d be playing a Funk tune. Alvin Batiste was the same way. He and my father, they’re like brothers almost. You know, I would always see them struggling, trying to have workshops in the community that no one would attend, always doing stuff — never for any payment, of course. Nobody was that interested in Art.

So now my father has this big reputation of being a teacher. And he is a great teacher. You have to be around him and really get the feeling of the music from him, because that’s what he carries with him, the seriousness and the joy and the love that’s in Jazz. He teaches his students through that method. But when we were growing up and in his classroom, it was only me, Donald Harrison, Branford, Terence Blanchard — we were the only five or six in the class. He would be just experimenting with us, walking the bass lines.

TP: You must have become extremely passionate about the trumpet to have worked that hard at it throughout your teenage years.

WM: Well, I always believed in working hard. You know, I used to cut lawns. And in New Orleans it’s hot. And in Kendall they have them big…them country lawns, so you have to really cut a lawn. And my attitude toward cutting a lawn was that my lawn was gonna be even. And this is when I was ten or eleven. So however long it would take to get the job done… That’s something that my father and my great-uncle would always tell me. My great-uncle was a stone-cutter for the cemetery, and he was in his nineties. He would always say, “Learn how to work a job. Your job is your identity. You don’t work a job for somebody else. You work your job for yourself.”

So when I got to be serious about music, I started practicing, and trying to look for teachers. I was very fortunate, of course, to have my father and Alvin Batiste, even Kidd Jordan. We would go over to SUNO, Southern University in New Orleans, and play what they call Avant-Garde music. We would all just get in a big room and just play as loud and as wild as we could. Even though after a while I got tired of doing it, in a way it was hip, because it allowed us to just express whatever we felt like expressing — which wasn’t that much. But we would all laugh about it. We would play some of Alvin’s tunes, one tune called “Naningwa.”

TP: He’s written some wild tunes.

WM: Yeah. So we grew up in that type of environment. My first teacher was a guy named John Longo. He also was at Southern University in New Orleans. He had grown up in New Orleans, and attended St. Augustine High School. John Longo studied with George Janson, who was my second teacher. George Janson had studied with William Vaggiano, who became my teacher at Juilliard. George Janson was from New York, and he had moved to New Orleans, and he was one of the few teachers who would teach the Black musicians in the 1950’s.

But in New Orleans it’s not like Jazz is a form of scholarship. They were Jazz musicians, my father and them, they were struggling with the world and trying to raise their families and deal with the social situations and all of that. And we were growing up in that, and we were just a part of it. The relationships in the New Orleans musical community were a certain way. And of course, always hearing the tradition of music, even though I didn’t gravitate toward it at that time, because I always equated it with Uncle Tommin’… We were from like that other generation, with the Afros and Malcolm; all of that was popular in my age group. But still I was around the people like Teddy Riley and Ford, and earlier Danny Barker. It was a community, a very small community, and everybody knew each other. And if you were in that community, you participated in what was in it.

TP: The other aspect of music in New Orleans in the Sixties and Seventies was the vernacular music that was embedded in the cultural fabric of the city — the Neville Brothers, the Meters, all of these great bands. Was that something that you were aware of and involved with at that time as well?

WM: Well, we played Funk music at our gigs, and we knew about the Meters and the Neville Brothers, of course. Everybody in New Orleans knows about them; they have hits. But the type of music that most of the people in my age group listened to was Parliament or Earth, Wind and Fire, just like in New Orleans today most people listen to Rap music or whatever is on the radio. They don’t really listen… Most of the teenagers, the kids in our age group, they don’t really have a sense of the New Orleans tradition. At the end of every Funk gig we would play the Second Line. In New Orleans you can play a second-line any time. That’s the New Orleans classic from the traditional music. But in terms of the Meters’ songs and covering their hits or the songs they used to play, any type of historical perspective — we didn’t really possess any of that. Let alone to deal with Fats Domino or Dave Bartholomew or any of the 1950’s musicians. We were mainly just trying to be popular and current. So when a new record would come out, that’s what we would play.

[The conversation turned to clarinettist Dr. Michael White’s presentations of early jazz at Lincoln Center.]

WM: We don’t do Repertory Jazz. When you hear Sonny Rollins play “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” that’s not a piece of repertory music. If you had heard John Coltrane, when he was alive, play “I Want To Talk About You,” you wouldn’t say that was a piece of repertory music. There’s this belief that what we’re doing is transcribing things off of albums and playing them like the way that they were played a long time ago. We don’t do that, and we aren’t trying to do that. These styles are always alive, because Jazz has a ritualistic component. Its history won’t be just like Classical music. It’s just that those who write about the music don’t understand that yet, that part of the music is a continuum, and that the earliest New Orleans style is still the most Modern style of Jazz because it allows for the most freedom for more people participating. You have that polyphonic horn style, which is very difficult to play.

When Michael White comes to New York, when he comes to Lincoln Center and we present New Orleans nights, we do that because he is the foremost authority on that style of music. He breathes life into that music. A lot of times we don’t even have arrangements. I’ve played on a lot of those concerts, and all we have is like a sheet with written instructions — “One Chorus, Clarinet,” “Two Choruses, Head,” “Ensemble Improvisation.” What we are trying to do is play that style of music the way that we know how to play it. We aren’t really trying to necessarily recreate the sound of a given band, because you can’t do it.

All of the musicians, everybody who plays, learns from that type of music. If you’re a trumpet player, it teaches you how to play melodies and how to play quarter notes. If you play clarinet or if you play the trombone or the saxophone, it teaches you how to play with other musicians on horns, how to play longer-note values, when to play riffs, how to respond to something while still playing, how to address the dynamics of a group of horns playing at one time. If you play bass, it teaches you how to play that two-groove and how to stick to a basic beat feel, how to provide a good foundation. If you play piano, you learn different ways of comping, like the quarter-note comp, and it teaches you how to play with the left and the right hand, the stride style.

Now, after you learn that, you can do whatever you want with it. You can always do what Marcus Roberts does, which is something that you would never hear any of the older pianists do, play in two and three different times at once, all kind of real sophisticated syncopations and different harmonic conceptions. It’s just a matter of addressing the fundamentals so that you know the building blocks. Then you have the tools at your disposal to do whatever you wish to do with them. When we play the New Orleans music, that’s what we’re trying to do.

TP: When you came into the studio, before we went on the air, you were talking about how difficult it is to train people to play like that. Do you want to elaborate on that a little?

WM: Well, it’s just that there’s not much impetus in the culture for group improvisation. Everybody wants to solo all night. It destroys the architecture of the music. Also, we have gotten used to this form of just playing a head, and then soloing for two thousand choruses, and then playing the head out. Whereas in that New Orleans music, they played marches and waltzes. They actually played quadrilles. They played music with a wide range of forms. The forms are much more sophisticated. So you might only play eight bars, or you might only play a solo for eight bars, but you’re playing all the time. It’s very hard to get the younger musicians to understand the value of that type of expression. Also, they used Blues expression, whereas it’s very hard for today’s young musicians to learn that, not because they lack the talent or the ability or that they don’t have that aspect of their lives or that they don’t have the soul, but because the sound is not prevalent in the culture.

It’s very difficult to teach that. That’s the advantage, I think, of studying with someone like my father. He doesn’t teach you technically, but he teaches how to transmit that feeling. Now, I don’t really know what that feeling is. That’s how Art Blakey was also. There was something in his feeling that could teach you what the meaning of Jazz was. It’s that combination of intellect and soul, and a seriousness toward the music, and a desire to groove and to continue to groove, and to develop material. And to pass that on to younger musicians is really difficult.

TP: New Orleans, of course, is a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and deeply connected to the whole Caribbean region in complex ways. I’d like to ask you about the aspect of New Orleans music that Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge.” Have you been influenced in any way by the Cuban trumpet tradition, particularly in terms of the sonic aspects of it, the timbre and so forth?

WM: Well, not from that aspect. But I always liked Rafael Mendez, who was Mexican. It has always been my feeling that next to Louis Armstrong, he was the greatest trumpet player I have ever heard. Just the soul that comes through his sound. [SINGS A PHRASE] I like that kind of real bravura sound. And I think that the Cuban trumpet players I’ve heard have that. Sandoval has that, and musicians like Chocolate [Armenteros], they have that kind of thing, and even guys who are not well-known in that way, somebody like Victor Paz, who I had the opportunity to play with, he has that type of feeling in his sound. Of the younger generation of musicians, I think a guy like Charlie Sepulveda has that in his sound.

When they say the Spanish Tinge of New Orleans, it’s that BOOMP-BUM-BUM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM — the accent comes on four. And that’s how the New Orleans beat, BOOMP-BOOMP-DABOOMP-BOOM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM… So when they sing like the New Orleans music, [SINGS THAT BEAT AND CLAPS IT] — it’s that same rhythm. [SINGS THE RHYTHM] So in that way we have a lot in common with the South American and the Caribbean sounds. But of course, in the Caribbean they have a much more sophisticated version of it. In Cuban music, they have so many grooves and it’s very, very sophisticated. We don’t have that level of sophistication.

TP: I’d like to take up your previous comments on the misunderstanding about the ritualistic aspect of Jazz amongst many observers of the music. Do the words “classic” or “classicism” have a different meaning when applied to the Jazz aesthetic as opposed to, say, European Music?

WM: Well, you know, I never really know what they’re talking about. Some people say “Classic Jazz,” and they mean the 1930’s. Some say New Orleans music. Some call Coltrane’s group the classic quartet.

TP: What do you mean by it, though?

WM: Well, personally, a term like “Classic Jazz” really has never meant anything to me. You know, that’s the title that was used for the Lincoln Center series that we do in the summertime. Jazz in Lincoln Center is what I believe in.

My feeling is to call it “Real Jazz.” Because Real Jazz means that you are trying to swing. And when I say “swing,” that means that you are dealing with the rhythmic environment that allows for the thematic development, consistent thematic development, in the context of a Jazz groove. Which means that you don’t have to be going TING-TINKADING-TINKADING-TINKADING… A Jazz musician will take this same groove, DOOMP-DUM-DUM, DOOMP-DUM-DUM… That will be repeated, but all of the instruments will be improvising and the soloists will be constructing solos that develop thematically.

So it’s a matter of development, whenever you want to distinguish whether something is Jazz or not, and the range that is played on the groove. A Jazz drummer like Elvin Jones will take a groove like that, and he’ll play many different things on it. Whereas people who are not playing in the style of Jazz might take that same groove, and they will still be improvising, but what they will be playing will be more proscribed. They can improvise, too, but it will be off of the clav? or off of a certain thing that’s set, whereas a Jazz drummer also includes that into his vocabulary. Which is not to say that Jazz is more sophisticated. It’s just different. Because the other way is very, very sophisticated.

But when the horn players play and the soloists play, we deal with interaction. The key to Jazz music is the interaction of the voices. And the way you can tell whether a piece of Jazz is being played is if it’s being rendered with some Blues feeling, Blues melodies, rhythms and harmonies, in the context of some type of form. That means that you’re always addressing syncopation, some rhythms are being set up and they’re being resolved. If it has the Blues in it and also if it’s swinging, then it has that sound that we identify with Jazz.

It also becomes then a matter of percentage. For instance, if I would take a gallon of water and squeeze one lemon in it, technically you could say it’s lemonade. But it’s not. It would be like some water with some lemon in it. And we’re always concerned with the range and the precision and the degree of control of the idiomatic nuances. That really determines whether something is Jazz or not.

Jazz music has always been burdened with a tradition of writers who hang onto it, they’re paternalistic, and they always feel as though they know more than the musician knows. This is the thing that I’ve always been trying to say in public, and why a lot of times they’ve said I’m outspoken and all of this. I’m not outspoken. It’s just that these people who are supposed to be conduits between the musicians and the public don’t function in that fashion. They feel that they are above the musician or that they are above the music, and they aren’t.

These people like James Lincoln Collier, who writes these ignorant books. See, a lot of times all you can find in libraries of colleges will be James Lincoln Collier and one other book. James Lincoln Collier makes statements like, “The question is not whether Duke Ellington was a great composer, but was he a composer at all?” He’ll say Louis Armstrong, actually must have been born earlier to attempt to diminish the genius of Louis Armstrong — when in actuality Louis Armstrong was born later.

There’s always this confusion between sociology and music. When you try to teach students, you can’t teach them sociology. You have to teach them something about music. I can’t stand in front of a class and say, “Well, man, I want you to go home and stand on a corner with a chicken wing, and then come back and put some barbecue sauce on it, and come back next week, and then you will be able to play some Blues.” You have to come with something specific, which is not necessarily technical.

Like what I was saying about my father. He wouldn’t necessarily teach you technically, but he would transmit to you the feeling of Jazz, which is the combination of soul and intellect and the engagement with the consciousness, with American consciousness and with American culture. But we are burdened with a lot of the guys who write for our music because they lack the humility to really successfully communicate the feeling of the music to the public.

TP: Another aspect of learning to play the Blues or the idiomatic nuances of Jazz is just functional, practical experience. Where do young musicians get that these days?

WM: It’s very difficult. Young musicians from around the country call me all the time saying, “Man, there’s no place to play.” Nicholas Payton is one of the finest young musicians in the country. He lives in New Orleans, and a lot of times he calls me and says, “You know, I’m not playing; I don’t have anywhere to play.” So we have a lot of problems in terms of training younger musicians to play. But it’s much better than it was when I was coming up.

TP: How so? Can you elaborate on that?

WM: When I was coming up, we didn’t even know what Jazz was. I could tell what it was from being around my father and them. But what we considered Jazz, like in my band and stuff, that was like some Funk tune with somebody putting a solo on top of it. The thought of trying to learn how to play Blues, the thought of interacting with each other… Now, we would play a Blues every night and we’d play the Second Line every night, but we’d play like kind of Funk licks on top of it. We weren’t trying to get to any real profound adult level of emotion on it, like what you have to try to do when you play the Blues. We were trying to do what we heard on the radio basically.

TP: But you got to play, let’s say, with Art Blakey for a year-and-a-half, Herbie Hancock for a while, different bands around New York. Before you started your career as a leader, you still had those two or three years of functional experience with other people’s bands.

WM: But you don’t have those kind of bands up here now. Who are you going to play with?

TP: Really I’m just trying to get your reflections on the state of things as they are now. Optimistic? Pessimistic?

WM: No, I’m very optimistic. Because there are more and more people who want to play. When I was, like 17, there was me and Wallace Roney, and then Terence Blanchard was kind of coming up. But before I met Wallace Roney, I had never met another trumpet player who really wanted to play real Jazz. Wallace really wanted to play. I would hear about him, “Yeah, there’s this kid in Washington named Wallace Roney, and he knows about the tradition and swinging.” But when I would meet Clark Terry or when I would meet Sweets Edison or the guys when I was 15 or 16, they would be telling me, “Man, there’s almost nobody who wants to play.” I sat in with Sonny Stitt once when I was 15, and he was telling me, “Man, you could be great in this music, but you have to practice and be serious. And I can see that you’re going to be serious. But you have to play this music. Because I’m traveling around the country, and I don’t see any youngsters who even want to play it.”

Whereas now, when I go around the country, I see hundreds of kids who want to play. Now we have to put the systems in place to enable them to learn and prosper and develop. The kids are ready. But the systems just are not in place to support them.

For example, there are people in the Jazz community who will complain because some twenty-year-old kids have a contract. Well, to me, this is a reflection of deep ignorance. The people who have their contracts are not the young Jazz musicians, it’s all the people in Rap music or in Pop music or in all these other forms of music where the contracts are awarded — 15 and 20 contracts a day are given out. Instead of complaining against the five or ten young Jazz musicians who are at least trying to play, complain against all these other people who aren’t even trying to play music, who just want to get a hairstyle and make some money.

But what is the response of the Jazz community? It’s to cut the younger musicians down, to hold them to a standard that’s far above what their upbringing would allow them to be on. Somebody like Roy Hargrove might have been the only person in Dallas who wanted to play and really seriously swing at his age. So he can’t be compared to Miles Davis when he was 15. I mean, Clark Terry, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy Gillespie, all these great people were practicing.

TP: Well, they had the music all around them. It was the culture.

WM: This is what I’m saying. A guy like Roy Hargrove has got to be celebrated by the Jazz community. Instead of saying, “Well, he sounds too much like Lee Morgan” or “he needs to do this and he needs to do that.” Maybe all of that is true, or maybe it’s not true. But the fact is, he is trying to play. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize a man’s style. But you have to be cognizant of… Are you the Jazz community or are you not the Jazz community? You don’t shoot the only warriors you have. You don’t say, “Well, you’all are not going to be able to fight like the people fought fifty years ago, so instead of us engaging in battle, let’s just kill all of them.”

What happens in the Jazz world defies logic. It’s absurd almost. I never can really figure out if the intellectual community and the writers who surround the Jazz community are interested in the music. Like, they will say something is a new version of Jazz if a musician says he’s not playing Jazz. The latest example would be this so-called Jazz-Rap trend, where it’s just somebody rapping and somebody plays solos like we used to play in the Seventies on top of it. Then all of the people who are supposed to be dealing with Jazz jump on the bandwagon, and they’re talking about, “This is the new form of Jazz, and finally people are overcoming the conservativeness of…” This is just crazy! It’s ludicrous.

TP: Well, a lot of it is also marketing, and a lot of marketing is inherently ludicrous anyway.

WM: Well, from the record companies’ standpoint. But I think in terms of the Jazz writers, it’s a lack of intellectual integrity, how they will attempt to apply political terminology… Like they will call one group “Neoconservative” (I guess that’s what they’ve tried to put on me), when, in actuality, the true conservative position is held by them. Because they are the Establishment. So they want to assign somebody else the term “conservative,” and I guess they are avant-garde or something, and that means they’re in the front of something. Well, that’s not true. Because they’re not in the forefront of thought on Jazz. Because no kids or people who want to learn how to play are learning practicing their philosophy. And they are so stubborn and they lack humility, that they end up being detrimental…

They are an albatross. They sit on top of our music and they push it down instead of raising it up. That’s why I’m always forced to come to the public and plead with the public, “Well, look, you can’t trust these people who are supposed to be a conduit.” You have to go to the schools and try to convince the kids of the value of learning how to play.

TP: On your last few recordings, some of the ensemble pieces have utilized Ellingtonian voicings and tactics in a very creative and I think personal way. I can really hear some things coming out that were touched on and echoed in past years.

WM: Well, just trying to be a part of the tradition. This is a steady growth process for me. I try to educate myself as I go along. And I’m coming from the 1970’s, where I would never listen to a Duke Ellington album.

TP: When did you first hear Duke Ellington?

WM: I was 18 or 19. Stanley Crouch played some Duke for me. He said, “Check this Duke out.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, just some old ballroom music for people. I mean, I was so steeped in the philosophy of my generation that… Then gradually I would start to listen to it, and hear all kinds of different forms, and people playing in different times, and the harmonic sophistication coming out of the Blues. Then I got in touch with Jelly Roll Morton through the concert we did at Lincoln Center, the Jelly Roll Morton concert, and that gave me an understanding of how to construct these forms.

I mean, there’s nothing really you can say about Duke. His genius speaks for itself. I went to the Smithsonian to see his scores, and there’s walls full of large cabinets packed with Ellington’s music written in his own hand. Anybody who is ever in Washington, it’s really a great education to go in there and look at some of the volumes of music that this man wrote. The thing that’s most amazing about Ellington’s music is that when he wrote it down the first time, he really didn’t change it that much, apart from structural changes he would make. You will see pieces of music with people’s phone numbers on it, and it will be “The Harlem Suite,” and the whole suite will be written out. His conception is very, very clear, and his penmanship is very neat. He writes the notes very small. It doesn’t mean that much, but for someone who wrote that much music it’s very neat.

TP: A final question. When people write about you, one of the things that’s most often noted is your virtuosity as a trumpet player, both in the Jazz area and in European Classical music. Would you discuss the place of virtuosity in Jazz and in improvising?

WM: Well, I think that virtuosity is the first sign of morality in a musician. It means that you’re serious enough to practice. And there are many different aspects of virtuosity. Many times, when we think of virtuosity, we think only of velocity. But there is also tone, flexibility, and then the virtuosity of nuance or ability to project different types of feeling through a sound. Then there’s all the growls and smears and stuff that Sidney Bechet said that he practiced on, which is called effects.

But you find in the history of Jazz that the musicians have always been virtuosos. That’s what distinguished Louis Armstrong from other trumpeters; he could play higher, with a bigger sound, with more harmonic accuracy, would bend the notes better and with more… Art Tatum, of course. Thelonious Monk. Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins — the list is endless of people who were serious practicers. Coleman Hawkins. Paul Chambers. Mingus. All of these men were virtuosos, and all these men believed in technical competence.

That’s very, very important to being a musician in general. It’s like Paul Hindemith in the beginning of his book, The Craft Of Composition. He said he always hears about people talking about their feeling, “but must not this feeling or impulse be tiny if it can manifest itself in such little knowledge?” That’s just how I feel about technique.

After this interview aired, the editor of this magazine contacted me about printing the interview in conjunction with a brief review of Blood On The Fields. He suggested I speak again with Marsalis to flesh things out. In June 1994, three months after the concert, I visited Marsalis’ apartment for a more specific discussion of the development of his aesthetic and procedures, and of the genesis of Blood On The Fields. I began with a question about his relationship with Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, Marsalis’ intellectual mentors.

WM: I met Stanley Crouch at Mikell’s when I was 18 –I had just turned 18. He came down to the club. My father had told me earlier in the summer about having read an interview with Stanley and Imiri Baraka, where he had said that he thought that Stanley was making much more cogent points. This is when I didn’t know really who Stanley Crouch was, or even Imiri Baraka, for that matter. I had just come from New Orleans. And Crouch invited me to his house. Then I would be having to cook for myself and stuff, and I didn’t know how to cook, so I was glad to be invited to anybody’s house to eat, because that ensured that I would get a good meal.

So I went down to Stanley’s house. Stanley was living in this small apartment, but he had thousands of books and records. He reminded me of a history professor that I had in high school. His name was Diego Gonzalez, and he lived three blocks from my house on Hickory Street in New Orleans, so I would stop by his apartment sometimes on my way back home. He was a Classical Music fanatic, so he had thousands of Classical albums, and he also was the coach of the chess team.

So when I went to Crouch’s house, first just looking at the albums and the books kind of blew my mind. Because I mean, my father is a musician; he’s not a scholar. I hadn’t been in that many people’s homes which were like libraries. And Crouch, he was a writer, so it wasn’t organized; it was all over the place. So I immediately liked him because he was soulful, and he was extremely, extremely intelligent, but he also wasn’t above putting his foot in somebody’s booty if he had to do that. So I really could relate to that.

He started playing all of these albums for me, and asking me what I thought about it. Well, I had never heard any of that. He asked me what I thought about Ornette Coleman, and I said, “Well, Ornette Coleman, yeah, that’s out.” I just would say whatever I had read. I had never really listened to it. Then he put on a record and said, “What do you think about this?” And I would be saying stuff like, “Man, I didn’t know Charlie Parker played like that.” And he said, “No, man, that’s Ornette Coleman.” The first time I really listened to Duke Ellington, Crouch brought this big Duke Ellington collection over to me. He says, “Man, check this out. This is Duke Ellington.”

So just in general, he imparted a knowledge and a history of the music — and I didn’t have any of that. I mean, I had been around the music my whole life, but I had never looked at it artistically in that way. I had never studied it. I didn’t feel that it was something you had to study that way. I felt like you could play it or you couldn’t. That’s what we all thought, basically. I was so used to being the only person I knew that really was into Jazz, that to meet somebody like Crouch blew my mind really! And he had all of these books… Most of the stuff he would be talking about wouldn’t even be music! It would be stuff that I had never heard of before. It was just fascinating to me.

Then we started talking. I would call Crouch, and he would just tell me about all of these books and things to read… Still. Still today it’s that same way. I still learn a lot from him. He and I talked last night. We haven’t been talking as much recently, in the last month or two. But there was a time when me and Crouch would talk almost every day. And we never have, like, lightweight conversations. It’s always something… I’ve learned so much from him, not just about music.

TP: What were some of the books he turned you on to that were important to you?

WM: Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. Well, actually, that came from Al Murray. Al Murray told Crouch to read it, and Crouch had read it. He was telling me about the whole big lesson of a blessing being a curse, how you might get all this publicity and all this, but you also have to deal with the weight of this other thing. That goes all through Thomas Mann.

Proust. William Faulkner. I would read something, and then I could discuss it with Crouch. I would say, “What do you think about this?” He would say, well, he thought this. Then sometimes when we were talking, he would say, “Well, let’s go see Al and rap with him about this,” and then we would talk about it. Something like The Invisible Man, Crouch knows that inside and out, or Herman Melville, Moby Dick… But a lot of the homework and stuff he was giving me, I still haven’t done. The real, true level of discussion we could have about a lot of literature, we haven’t had that, because I haven’t really read all of the material like I should… I just need more time.

But there’s even more stuff. I’m leaving out a lot. All kinds of stuff on music, man. Books on music like Early Jazz by Gunther Schuller. Of course, Al’s book, Stompin’ The Blues really helped to uncover a lot. That was the first book I had ever read that addressed the expression of Jazz the way I knew it to be. It’s like I had known it to be that, but I had never really been educated in it, so I didn’t really know it. Because there was such a big breakdown… My generation was really only into Pop expression, and Pop music, and Pop thought. So even though I didn’t really want to be associated with that, you can only rise so far above everybody else that you’re around. Most of the seriousness I experienced when I was growing up really only came from me. It wasn’t like I had a group of friends who were all so serious. I was always trying to make them become more serious! And things about Afro-American culture that I maybe knew intuitively, like New Orleans music — I liked it, but I didn’t really like it. I associated it too much with Tomming, which didn’t have anything to do with the music. That was like a social thing. And I would always be confusing social science with music.

Stompin’ The Blues really helped to clarify the whole question of playing with Blues expression. We grew up playing Funk music, which has very little Blues in it. Our generation of musicians, the Funk musicians, so little of the Blues was left in that, that it’s very hard to produce a Jazz musician out of that style. When you’re playing on Funk, most of the time you’re playing with a lot of accents, and you’re only playing pentatonic scales. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff we grew up playing. Our style of music wasn’t really based on creating the melody in the context of an improvising rhythm section. Because we were playing Funk [SINGS FUNK LINE A LA KOOL AND THE GANG], so the rhythm section was going to be playing that the whole time you played, [SINGS LINE], whatever the vamp was, or whatever they were playing.

The Blues music is more continuous. You have to come up with ideas, and you develop them through the form. Whereas on Funk music, you mainly are playing on a vamp, and you’re just trying to excite the audience. You don’t really have aesthetic objectives. If you can trill a note up high and circular-breathe on it, you do that, you know…

TP: Albert Murray writes about Blues as a cultural style. How does that translate into this period?

WM: Well, what Albert Murray is writing about mainly only existed in the Church tradition. Now, in New Orleans, we had the Jazz parade and all that, but the parades we played in…well, first, everybody would be playing loud, and we wouldn’t really be playing with that type of expression he’s talking about. He’s talking about the real adult expression and also the optimism. Most of that wasn’t in the music that we played. Our music was mainly party music. The music was a background, really. It wasn’t the center or the focus of anything. Like, most of the shouts and the call-and-response that’s essential to the Blues between the musician and the audience, even in Funk gigs, you never really experience that. People would shout for you if you played something that was flashy. But you never really got that type of cosignature that goes on in a church when the preacher is… First the music would be so loud that if you said “Okay” or something, nobody in the audience would hear you. The whole dialogue in the society was different.

So when I read Stompin’ The Blues, I noticed first how Albert Murray differentiates between the Blues as such and the Blues as music. In our generation, we would say, “That’s only a Blues,” like, the Blues wasn’t really nothin’… We felt, man, “Giant Steps, that’s what’s hard to play; the Blues, anybody can play that — that’s just three chords.” We didn’t really think of the Blues as nothin’ important to learn. We would play a Blues every night on our Funk gig, because we would play the New Orleans Second Line. But we didn’t really see the Blues as being central to Afro-American expression. To us, the Funk was what was central. BOOM-BAP-DE-BOM-BAP, the backbeat, that’s what we really…

Now, when I was in high school, I kind of knew that it wasn’t the backbeat, but I didn’t know what it was. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when something is wrong with you and you know something is wrong but you really don’t know what it is. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.

TP: Another essential aspect of Albert Murray’s conception of the Blues is that the Blues is a narrative tradition, and a tradition that connects generations and spans place and time as well. That seems to be something you’ve tried to elaborate with the Lincoln Center hookup and a lot of your activity in the last decade.

WM: There are certain things that Albert Murray strongly believes are at the root of the real Afro-American and also the American experience. He doesn’t believe in the generation gap. Now, I always felt this, but I didn’t know that I felt it. Like, I never looked at the people my age as being that different from my father. Of course, my father was a Jazz musician. So I didn’t know anybody as hip as him. I never was a part of any movement when I was 15 or 16 that I felt was hipper than what my father was doing. We had our Afros and our dashikis and platform shoes, and whatever the trend of the day was, and we played Funk music. But I never had the feeling that what we were doing was as hip as what my father could do, or that we knew anything more than what he knew — or my grandfather, or my great-uncle.

Albert Murray believes in that, in the continuum. The whole question of affirming something, having a dialogue with something; counterstating it or else affirming aspects of it.

The true central proposition that I really learned from Al is optimism. Because in that way, the Afro-American expression is fundamentally different from European Art expression. A lot of European Art, especially in the Twentieth Century, is pessimistic, is tragic, has a tragic vision of what stuff is, whereas the Blues expression recognizes the tragedy but is optimistic.

When I wrote Blood on The Fields, I wanted to make it tragic the whole way through, with no redemption, just go “Okay, this is just a messed-up situation, and it’s still messed-up.” I talked with Al extensively about that, and he told me if I wanted to do it, fine. He sat down with me, and we went through all the different forms of tragedy, going all the way back to Greek tragedies, to Oedipus, The Libation Bearers and Agamemnon, how you set the tragedy up, the modes of tragedy, the complaint and plaint — we analyzed all of these things. But he said, “The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re going to make it all tragic, the expression that you will be coming from will not really be Afro-American, because that’s not in our expression.” It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that that way of looking at the world has taken over our culture, and it is not our real attitude.

I started to really contemplate what he was saying, and I came to an agreement with what he was saying. At first I was against it, but then I had to say, yeah, that is the transcendent value of the Blues and of swinging, and that is what makes Duke Ellington’s music so great in relation to something like Bartok or Stravinsky. You listen to Stravinsky’s music, and you will like it, and it will be some great music. But Duke Ellington was swinging. So you have the complexity, and you still have that optimism, where it’s saying, “Man, this is a tragic situation, but it’s gonna be cool.” And that’s a very important part of that expression, of the Jazz expression.

TP: It seems to me that you’ve effectively used the opportunities of the different presentations of Jazz at Lincoln Center to engage in a dialogue with the different genres of music in performance situations, and that you’ve assimilated the vocabularies in a very personal way.

WM: Well, that was always what I wanted to do. But that was my intention from the beginning of playing music, from my first album. Even though I didn’t know a range of music, I still would try to use Charleston rhythms, I would try to change times, use stuff with modes on it, play standards. Whatever information I knew about, I was always trying to include it. Play stuff that had, like, a New Orleans call-and-response, play standard forms like “Rhythm” changes, and try to transform them.

My thing is to not cut myself off from my own tradition. That tradition can be anything from John Philip Sousa marches to Beethoven’s symphonies, to the Blues, to whatever. Because I grew up playing all of that different type of music. I didn’t understand it, but that is what I grew up doing. I played in a waltz orchestra. I played in the marching band. I played in a Funk band. I played in a Jazz band. I played in a circus band. Played on a Broadway show. Played Salsa music. All of these musics are part of my experience as a musician. So I don’t feel that I should cut myself off from the traditions I come out of to create a narrow style that’s easily identifiable.

TP: To the contrary, I think it’s very expansive. But I think the point I was making is that it seems to me that you have assimilated everything you’ve been working on from the inside-out more or less, and that it’s coming out in your writing in a very natural way.

WM: Well, it is very natural to me. First, I only went to school for a year — to Juilliard. I went for one year. And there really was no Jazz class. I remember the first band we had, my brother had gone to Berklee, so he knew more about Jazz music, because they have all these exercises and stuff that they had done. So I would always be saying, “Man, what is this and what is that?”

A lot of what I have learned about Jazz music, I have learned from the musicians. I learned stuff from Art Blakey. I had the opportunity to play and talk with Elvin Jones, and I learned a lot from him. Sweets Edison. Clark Terry. Whenever I’m around the musicians, I’m always really checking out what they’re playing, and listening very carefully to what they are saying. Roy Eldridge taught me how to growl on the trumpet, then I started trying to learn how to do that. How to use the plunger. Joe Wilder gave me lessons on how to play with the hat. I mean, these things I just learned. To me they are all techniques that are important to know, because the expression of Jazz music is something that you have to just be familiar with.

I’m from New Orleans. My Daddy’s a Jazz musician. So even though I didn’t really necessarily understand the music, my whole life has been nothing but being around musicians and around Jazz music. I remember being around Blue Mitchell or Sonny Stitt. When they’d come to New Orleans, my father would say, “Man, go check out Blue”… Even more than being around them, I know the life of the musician from birth. Something like a New Orleans parade; I played in parades when I was eight years old. It’s just what it is. My real true feeling and affinity is for Jazz music and for swinging, and it’s always been that. Now, because the environment that I grew up in was so poor in terms of what my generation was playing, my playing suffered. But in terms of my understanding of the Jazz lifestyle and of Jazz music and the musicians, that’s never really been anything I had to study.

TP: In Blood On The Fields there are some impossible-sounding ensemble passages for horns that were executed flawlessy and totally flowed. It’s surprising that you only had one year of formal schooling to develop the technique to express the sounds you seem to be hearing in your head.

WM: Well, I just learn slowly. I get these scores of Duke Ellington, and I study them. I talk with Dave Berger. He helped me, just some basic things about the voices and about the instruments. Even in my year in school I was studying Classical trumpet; we sure didn’t study Jazz music. And even that year that I was in school, after a half-a-year I started playing with Art Blakey, so I didn’t really take that year that seriously. I really wanted to play with Art Blakey, or to play Jazz music.

It’s just a matter of slow study. Like, when Crouch brought me those Duke Ellington albums, it was twelve years ago. I remember listening to it, I said, “Man, this music is so complex; it’s impossible to even figure this out.” And I remember Crouch telling me, “Man, look. You never know what you’ll be doing in ten years.” And that was like twelve years ago.

So it’s just a matter of consistently studying and working and trying to think, to figure out how to make these colors work… As far as the ensemble passages go, or the different rhythms, mainly what I do is, I write out what I would play on the trumpet. I play a style that has a lot of multiple rhythms in it and a strange kind of chromatic way of playing through the harmony. So when I write it out for the ensemble, it sounds very strange. I turn the beat around. But I have been playing that way for ten years.

TP: The lyrics to Blood On The FIelds are extremely expressive and were sung with great elegance and interpretative nuance by Cassandra Wilson. Considering the sonic extremities and metrical complexity of the music, it was some of the most formidable singing I’ve heard.

WM: Well, Cassandra did a great job. She wanted to sing it. That’s the basic thing. She worked real, real hard on it, and it was very, very difficult to get it together. Really, she just worked on it and hooked it up. Miles Griffith also worked very hard on his parts.

Part of the story comes from a Stephen Vincent Benet story called Freedom Is A Hard-Bought Thing, which deals with the knowledge it takes to get free. There are a lot of little side stories, too, in Blood On The Fields, about a woman losing her mind, and she’s on this ship. There were a lot of different things I was trying to investigate.

Most of the words are generated from today. I used the situation of the people today, but I made them speak like they were slaves. But it’s not really about them being slaves; it’s about how people are today.

TP: So the language illustrates a broader time continuum.

WM: Yeah. The crux of it is the point where Miles sings, “Oh! Anybody, hear this plaintive song.” He’s speaking to the whole world. That’s like the position of the people, especially the position of the Afro-American people. Anybody in the world, hear this plaintive song. When you see the kind of stuff that’s going on out here today, this is the cry for help. Like the whole Rap expression and the violence and the ignorance that’s just taken to be a part of the Afro-American culture, and it’s not. It’s like a cry… When somebody does something that’s absurd, you say, “Man, they must need some assistance.” It’s anybody, hear this plaintive song.

Then it gets specific. “Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” We need help. Who wants to help their brother? And then it’s not even so much about Afro-American people; it’s just about life in general. First you address the whole world: Anybody hear me, I’m trying to exist out here. Who out of all these people will help me dance this dance? That’s life. Just to hold the dance… You dance your way through the world, through life. Dance is the first art. So it gets more specific, like a community of people. Who wants to help me dance this dance?

And then this is what I’m doing for my part. “Oh, I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.” That’s about the United States of America. That’s what the whole question of soul is in America. It’s a healing agent. That’s what soulfulness is about. A great tragedy has occurred, but that’s all right. It has forgiveness in it. It’s beautiful. It has a beauty to it. This is the thing that has been devalued. And this is why we have such a tremendous tragedy on our hands today dealing with our society, and with our culture, because we’ve lost the real meaning of soul, which is that whole redemptive thing that it has in it. It’s been confused with, like, some fried chicken or some hipness or something that has…I don’t know, with some slang or something, man. I don’t know. But the whole lyric comes down to that one thing. Who wants to help their brother dance this dance? “I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.”

TP: How did the song forms start to come out?

WM: Well, each one comes out of the experience. The first one [“Move Over”] is supposed to be on the ship, so it’s like a wave. It just goes up and down, up and down…

TP: And you had the different sections going against each other on that one.

WM: Had the sections going against each other. Like, a minor section, I’ll go into a groove. [SINGS] And the harmony goes that way. I have a whole dialogue where she’s losing her mind. She plays, and the band is like the waves pounding against the ship; it just keeps coming in. Then the harmony goes inside. She goes, “My head is spinning round and round,” [SINGS MELODY] I’m trying to use things out of the experience she’s singing about to give it that feeling.

And Cassandra heard it. She adapted to the form so quickly. Because I felt that the form would be difficult for her to grasp, but she understood it immediately. She just gravitated toward it and sang it. And when the man comes in and sings [“You Don’t Hear No Drums”], he’s singing the Blues, with the same refrain. Because he’s on the ship, but he’s not really rocking up and down too much. He’s so mad, he’s not really cognizant of any of that. He’s addressing her, saying his rage is something that he’s… So it’s like real harsh, at the top of his range; he’s screaming it out.

When they do the coffle march, she sings like a dirge. [DOM-DOM, DOM-DOM] Then he sings a march, “I’ll never be a slave.” [“I’ll never slave for any man.”] So when he comes in, the snare drum comes in. It’s like some Country people. Every song, like that chant he sings, “I sing with soul to heal,” this three-part chant; it’s a Blues, but the changes are all switched around. It’s done like in the style of the Spiritual.

So I used forms that came out of the experience of whatever that thing is.

TP: Are all the lines initiated in songs, or songs that you’re hearing? How are they generated in your mind?

WM: Well, it depends on where they are. I try to have the whole piece be integrated. I’ll just keep bringing themes back, harmonies back, progressions, lines. Something that was the harmony will become the melody of another thing, or some theme will be turned around. I have big central progressions going through the thing. The form is very difficult for me to explain, because it’s very complex. I’m trying to just connect things.

TP: You seem to have assimilated several decades of Ellington’s development in terms of the tonal palette of the ensemble, but the harmonic language sounds like very much your own.

WM: Yeah, some of it. Sometimes I use verbatim stuff I heard Duke do, or Jelly Roll — whoever I know of. I don’t really suffer from an identity crisis. so anybody’s music I’ll use. I’ll steal from anybody.

TP: Well, they say the mediocre person borrows and the top cats will steal.

WM: Yeah, I’ll steal, and I’ll admit it freely.

TP: Is this part of a connected series on African-American life or some other connected theme? That’s how I’ve heard it described.

WM: Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet. First I’m going to finish this one. It’s still not finished. I didn’t really initially plan it to have a plot that was that literal, but since it ended up being like that, the end of it is kind of messed up. It doesn’t follow clearly all the way through. So I’m going to rework that and record it in September.

I really want to do something on the Civil War. I’m thinking I’m going to wait and learn how to write for strings, and then just write one big integrated piece, like an opera or something, on the Civil War, make it long, like 20 hours or something. [Marsalis’ commisssioned composition for the March Jazz at Lincoln Center will be performed with the Center Chamber Orchestra.]

TP: The piece also used the Chorus of Greek Tragedy as a connective device.

WM: Well, I got the idea for that from Al. Well, not to use it for Blood On The Fields, but just the whole concept. As I said, we were talking about tragedy, reading Oedipus, and I got Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, and Agamemnon — I was reading that. And the whole thing of the chorus coming in, singing, and setting the stage helps you go from thing to thing, too. But I liked that, the fellows in the band sitting up there, commenting on the stuff and then playing it! It was sort of cantorial, like a call-and-response.

TP: It was very funny.

WM: It had to be funny. But I conceived of it as being funny — ironic. Like, these guys are sitting up there saying something like that, and then they play some music.

TP: In Blood On The Fields and in recent recordings, the sounds that have been coming out of your trumpet have been really extreme, evoking the “Avant-Garde” of Jazz. What is your sense of the Avant-Garde in Jazz, however you would define it?

WM: Well, I believe that the challenge of Jazz is to create coherent solos through a harmonic form, to swing at different tempos, to play with some Blues authority, and to deal with contrast. Now, there’s many different styles that they call the Avant Garde. Like, Ornette Coleman is totally different from Cecil Taylor, but they will both be lumped into the same thing.

My feeling, since I played a lot of Classical music, is that the styles are not addressing swinging, most of them, that just deal with like sounds… Like, you hear somebody playing something like… [HE PICKS UP THE TRUMPET AND PLAYS A PHRASE THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PARODY OF BILL DIXON]. I mean, that’s not Jazz to me. Rhythmically, it sounds like Classical music. People say, “Man, this is real modern.” It’s not even Modern. There are people who have been doing that for forty or fifty years.

Because you have a certain hairstyle or you talk about being from the community or whatever, all that social jargon, that doesn’t mean anything to me. Because I’m from the South, man. Railroad track South. So there’s a lot of social commentary that’s passing itself off as a badge of authenticity and all this, man…

The thing I like about some Avant-garde music is that they deal with a wide range of styles. But the thing about what they’re doing is that a lot of times the level of musicianship just is not that high, in terms of their actual ability to address harmony, really truly swinging, and playing in the time at different tempos consistently… The hard thing about swinging is not to do it for twenty measures; it’s to do it all night. Swing is a certain thing. It’s continuous. Now, when I say “swing,” I don’t mean that same groove, TING-TING-TA-TING-TA-TING-TING, but I mean a sensibility that does come out of the shuffle rhythm, and something that requires that you are continuously coordinating your ideas with the rhythm section and with other people that are playing — at different tempos. That means you’re trying to swing fast, slow, medium-tempo.

And what’s being called Avant-Garde… I think that they play in an expressive fashion, now. I will say that, in terms of the best of the Avant-Garde, like David Murray, Olu Dara. I feel that when you hear them play, they play very expressively. Archie Shepp. They play the melodies, they have the vibrato and the thing that they play with. But for me, what a lot of times was lacking was the real true degree of sophistication that’s necessary to play Jazz, just to play Jazz music, let alone to be on the forefront of Jazz.

TP: Is Jazz avant-garde in its essence?

WM: The whole of Jazz is avant-garde. Like, the conception of a group playing with no music and improvising on a form, playing all these different rhythms, playing polyphonically, and it sounding good — that’s an avant-garde conception. It’s never existed. That’s the conception we should be trying to develop. I think one of the problems in Jazz education has been too much focusing on harmony, in terms of harmony being the only way of recognizing innovation, like, “Well, they played this on this chord or that…” Most of the analyzation is harmonic analyzation. Rhythm is very important and also the dialogue is very important.

I feel that the New Orleans Jazz is still avant-garde, because you have three horn players who stand up and play and make up their own parts, and it’s coherent. Almost nobody in the world can really play that style. Maybe there are three or four people. But you will never hear three horns playing together and they sound good. This is a part of the concept of Jazz that’s very important, that we have just let go. The whole conception of arrangements, ensemble parts, key changes — all of these things are an important part of our music. And it’s all in the context of a dialogue and a desire to converse musically with other people, while still swinging. Very seldom do you hear people who want to really, truly swing hard all night.

We’re in a position now where we have to reassert what our values are going to be. Jazz musicians make a big mistake when they use the same philosophies and conceptions that helped to destroy the audience for Classical music. This whole self-absorbed concept of innovation. What if that concept is impoverished? There are certain things that are just taken to be true that have to be questioned. The whole Oedipal strain in Western thought, where everybody thinks the next person has got to devour what came before it. You don’t have to do that. I was reading a book on Picasso where the guy keeps saying that Picasso emasculated his father, because he was such a great painter. His father gave him the paint brush and said, “Well, you paint now; I’m never going to paint again.” This whole thing that runs through so much of criticism.

The continuous thing of ritual is actually important in Jazz, which is what Albert Murray always says. And that means that whole Oedipal strain of, well, you have to destroy your father and you have to create a new thing, that might just be one part of what the greatest people do. There might be another whole branch of people who play the same thing and sound great. I always think of a musician like Sonny Stitt. He represented the highest level of musicianship. Now, he wasn’t Charlie Parker in terms of that type of innovative genius and brilliance. But he represents something that is not to be disrespected on any level. And Charlie Parker respected him. We need more musicians like that.

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For Freddy Cole’s 84th Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2009

For grandmaster singer-pianist Freddy Cole’s 84th birthday, here’s a DownBeat feature I had an opportunity to write about him in 2009.

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After breakfast on the second Sunday morning of this summer’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, the 78-year-old singer-pianist Freddy Cole, only a few hours removed from Saturday’s midnight show, considered a question about retirement.

“No,” Cole said. “No-no. No-NO.” He laughed, ha-Ha-HA, like a descending triplet. “A lot of people ask that. My golfing buddies say, ‘Man, when you going to stop?’ For what? To stay home and be miserable like you? Music keeps you alive.”

It was the final day of Cole’s 12-set, no-nights-off run at Hotel Brufani, a palatial hilltop villa that hosts the festival’s high-profile acts, among them Wynton Marsalis, Roy Haynes, Cecil Taylor, and George Benson, the latter on tour with his “Unforgettable Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole” project, which incorporated a septet and a 27-piece string orchestra. All of them dropped into the Sala Raffaello, a rectangular banquet room filled with white-tableclothed round tables, to hear the maestro sing and play the Fazioli piano with his trio.

“Damn near all of Wynton’s band was there,” Cole said. “I played with them the day before Obama’s Inauguration at Kennedy Center. The kids came grabbing me, called me the old man.”

“Cecil told me he hadn’t seen me play since Bradley’s,” Cole continued, referencing the prestigious Greenwich Village piano saloon where he played nine separate week-long engagements between 1988 and 1991, and a week apiece in 1994 and 1995. “Carmen McRae, who was a very good friend, used to come there all the time. She loved one of my tunes called ‘Brandy’—she’d say, ‘Do my song.’ I’d generally do it.”

At Perugia, Cole spent consequential time performing material—Benny Carter’s rueful ballad “I Was Wrong”; the Ella Fitzgerald-Ink Spots World War Two hit “I’m Making Believe”; Cole Porter’s insouciant “You’re Sensational”; O.C. Smith’s soulful flagwaver “On The South Side of Chicago”—from his new release, The Dreamer In Me [High Note]. But no set was the same, and Cole treated the flow in a conversational, free-associative manner, imparting the impression that even the most knowledgeable connoisseur of the Great American Songbook would be hard-pressed to call a tune that he doesn’t know. His brain seemed analogous to a generously stocked i-Pod on continuous shuffle, with each sound file comprising a well-wrought arrangement complete with harmonized piano-guitar voicings, sectional call-and-response, and shout choruses, each song rendered with such authority as to give the illusion that Cole had sung it every day for the previous year.

“Once I start to play, things happen,” he said. “Unless you stop me right then and there, I don’t know what I’m thinking about. Once I see from the body language that people are into what we’re doing, I’m home free. I can call whatever I want.”

As an example, Cole noted that on the previous evening, “for the first time in quite a while,” he had performed “I’ll Never Say Never Again,” a 1935 chestnut that Nat Cole had covered in 1950. The rendition was one component of a lengthy interlude, spontaneously triggered by a medley built upon “Tenderly,” during which he conjured a suite of his big brother’s good old good ones, segueing seamlessly from one to the next, evoking the elder Cole both in the timbre of his gravelly, septugenarian voice and his exemplary diction, never stiff or exaggerated. Cole imprinted each tune with the stamp of his own personality. A master of the art of compression and release, he swung unfailingly, didn’t scat, and avoided extremes of tempo and register. Perched sideways on the piano bench, he wore an ambiguous smile, simultaneously eyeballing his sidemen and the audience. He accompanied his declamations with unfailingly supportive, hip progressions; counterstated them with precise, pithy, bop-tinged solos that blended vocabulary drawn from the lexicon of, among others, John Lewis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner; and phrased them with a bathos-free subtlety and unpredictable voice-as-instrument suppleness more akin to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn, than to his brother. The delivery, though, contained a panache and directness imbibed from such master male balladeers as Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams, both friends and mentors during his adolescence and young adulthood in Chicago. As the week progressed, the years dripped off his baritone, which grew more resonant and open.

“Their voices are exactly the same, but that’s genetic,” said singer Allan Harris, in Perugia to perform Nat Cole repertoire daily on an outdoor stage in the gardens that face the Brufani’s entrance. “That’s the way they were raised. Back in the day, the number one thing that a black entertainer needed to cross over into the white record-buying thing was that you could understand what the brother was saying. You had to speak the Queen’s language to perfection, even to the point of exacerbating it on stage. Not only does Freddy do that, but he puts his own little soulful twist on it, more than his brother did. There’s times where I prefer Freddy over Nat in that respect, because Freddy keeps the soul about him continuously through his performance.”

“With me, every song is a new song,” Cole said. “I don’t do them like everybody else does them. When I do seminars, I tell students about learning a song the right way—the way the composer wrote it. Then you do what you want.

“You’re not going to hear me scat either. A lot of people who do that are good singers, but my way of thinking is that they have great musicians with them—let THEM play. To me, BABA-BABA-DABA-DOP don’t mean nothin’. We had two great scatters, and that’s Miss Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. After that, you could say Jon Hendricks and maybe Eddie Jefferson. They did it with taste and style. But now you have these younger singers who think that scatting makes them a jazz singer. Well, actually, what is a jazz singer? I have no idea. I would say Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz singer. Sarah Vaughan could sing anything, so they put the ‘jazz singer’ title on her. Carmen McRae was a great singer. But Carmen was a stylist, like Billie Holiday, and my brother, and Billy Eckstine. Lurleen Hunter, from Chicago. Johnny Hartman, who was a dear friend. You get a label put on you, like I say.”

It has been both Cole’s blessing and curse to be labeled “Nat Cole’s younger brother,”a descriptive to which, some decades ago, he penned the riposte “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” which he sang ebulliently to transition into the final portion of his Saturday set. Indeed, as Harris pointed out, although Cole has drawn extensively on the Nat Cole songbook over the years on recordings, concerts, and special projects (he duetted with Benson on “I’m Biding My Time” on Perugia’s main stage), such an extended homage is indeed a rare thing.

Harris pinpointed an occasion in 1977 at a club in Atlanta—Cole’s residence since 1970—when Cole responded to his “mistake of asking for a Nat Cole song” with precisely the same musical answer. “Freddy did that song strongly, and with verve, and he did it demonstratively,” Harris recalled. “Not like he does it now—happy and so on. He didn’t really say he wasn’t about to do any Nat King Cole tunes, but after he finished it was put to rest that you didn’t ask Freddy for any of his brother’s songs.”

“Before I started to play at Bradley’s, I was really ‘Nat Cole’s brother,’” Cole remarked. “That’s about as blunt as I can put it. Or I was a ‘cocktail piano player,’ whatever that is. You get tied into one of these corners, and that’s all you’ll ever be. It’s been a long, hard, worthwhile, fruitful struggle—what’s the use of crying about it now? My brother was quite a man. I always say I’d rather be 10 percent of the man that he was than an entertainer. If he or my father said something, or gave you their word, that was it. I try to be that way. With all the years I’ve been out here, nobody can say that I didn’t pay anybody, that I ran out on a hotel bill. The old one of the ten commandments—do unto others as you’d have them do unto you—is a simple way to live.”

[BREAK]

The Dreamer In Me is Cole’s fifth recording for High Note in the past five years, and his eleventh collaboration with producer Todd Barkan, who first recorded Cole in 1993 on his breakout release, Circle of Love. His emergence over the past two decades from “Nat Cole’s younger brother” to the international stature of his golden years is one of the great second acts in the annals of show business.

“Besides Tony Bennett, Freddy is one of the last vestiges of that era where front men told a story with the song through the voice,” Harris stated. “He’s an older gentleman now, and his voice may not be as clear as it was 25 years ago, but his delivery is far beyond anyone younger than him. Freddy takes you on a magical journey. You forget about vocal styling. You forget about smoothness. He’s a master at what he does, and he doesn’t have to impress anyone. Most vocalists, including myself, take a whole song to get our point across. Freddy does it in one phrase. From all the years he spent in clubs, touring the world, and studying the American songbook, he completely understands where the composer is coming from, and stays true to it.”

Cole offers insight into the formation of his aesthetic in rendering O.C. Smith’s paean to the time “when jazz was king on the South Side of Chicago” with “all those little honky tonk joints, filled with people glowing while the cats was blowing.” Early on, when the family lived at 57th and Michigan, he met the Chicago’s prime movers and shakers through his brothers—not only Nat, but also Eddie Cole, a bassist and successful bandleader who had played in Europe with Noble Sissle, and singer-pianist Ike Cole (“he could flat-out play”), whose career comprised primarily long-haul hotel gigs. He began to play with the local luminaries towards the end of the ‘40s, after graduating from Waukegan High School where his promising football career—he was an all-state halfback as a junior—abruptly ended after a tackler stepped on his hand, causing a bone infection that led to an 21-month hospital stay.

“The medical term for it was tuberculosis arthritis,” Cole said. “My brother brought in a specialist from California. I had three operations in the same hospital, but instead of stitching it all up, they drained the bone. It had to heal. Every day for so many hours, I’d sit with this concoction that they put me in. Playing piano was therapeutic—it kept the flexibility in the wrist.”

Cole entered the trenches at 17, when trumpeter King Kolax, whose bands were a rite of passage for several generations of Chicago musicians, hired him for the piano chair. “I was struggling to keep up with the other musicians,” he said. “I was young and dumb. We thought we were hip. We thought we were playing bebop.”

After a four-year apprenticeship around Chicago while attending Roosevelt College, Cole moved to New York in 1953 for a semester at Juilliard, spent 1955 and 1956 at New England Conservatory, and moved back to New York in 1957. “I was playing jazz music before I got to school, and it was difficult to try to fit into this other mold,” he said. “If somebody come through with a gig, I’m out of there! Then I’ve got to go back and catch up. But I’m competitive. I’m a fighter. I will give out before I give up. Looking back, I wish I’d applied myself more. But I did what I had to do, and got my degree.”

He remained in New York for thirteen years, moving to Atlanta in 1970. Over the years, he worked the East Side supper clubs and steakhouses, “joints with the crooked-nose guys,” corner taverns and bars in the outer boroughs. “That’s when I was learning how to do everything,” Cole stated. “I got great advice from a lot of great people.” He referenced an early gig with ex-Ellington drummer Sonny Greer. “He would hold court every day at Beefsteak Charlie’s, where you’d see all the old-timers. Sonny told me, ‘Little Cole, you’ve got to learn how to be a storyteller. You’ve got to tell this story about this song.’ When you’re a little kid listening to the teacher read, Sonny said, she’d have you believing that story if she was really good. It took a while to get to what Sonny was trying to tell me. It really hit home when I was in Brazil in 1978—Brazilian singers sing as if they’re singing directly to you.”

There were other lessons. “Without saying it, most of those clubs were run by ‘the fellas,’” Cole said with a chuckle. “Some would be set up for a late night thing when they would all meet later in the evening, so you had to learn the ‘Set ‘Em Up, Joe’ type songs. Unrequited love. You’d see the girlfriend sitting there, etc. Also, there were the barmitzvahs, and other functions. Then you played clubs where it’s nothing but swinging, and some clubs where it was dancing. It was a total learning experience about how to play, what to play, and when to play it. The people that came into those clubs at that time knew what was happening. You weren’t fooling anybody. If you were messing around, you wouldn’t have the gig long. They knew the songs, and would ask about them, so if you didn’t know it tonight, you’d better know it tomorrow. There’s the expression, ‘Yesterday made me what I am today.’ That’s really true for me.”

It was evident from Cole’s forthcoming itinerary that he is as old-school in his “make the gig at all costs” attitude to road life as in song interpretation. Perugia was the last stop of a European sojourn, which began with engagements in Switzerland and Slovenia. He would resume his travels five days hence across the pond with a rapid-fire succession of East Coast bookings, before resuming his “rolling stone gathers no moss” lifestyle with various autumn travels.

“Freddy is invincible,” said Randy Napoleon, his guitarist. “The schedule in this band is more difficult than anything else I’ve done. We’ve done tours where we were out for weeks, traveling every day, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, driving two hours to the airport, catching a flight, maybe transferring and catching another flight—and then hitting. Or you drive nine hours in a van, and then get up and work that night. Freddy loves it. His famous quote is, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m a young man, I’m in good shape, but I’ll be bleary-eyed. Four-five hours of sleep, Freddy’s gone.”

“I’m like an old penny,” Cole said. “I turn up anywhere. That’s what I’ve done throughout my years in the business. I don’t look at myself as a so-called star. I’m just plain Freddy. That’s all you can be.”

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Filed under DownBeat, Freddy Cole, Singers

For Pharaoh Sanders’ 75th Birthday, An Interview with Him and Kenny Garrett From 2004

Pharaoh Sanders turned 75 yesterday, and for the occasion I’m posting a slightly edited interview that I conducted with him and Kenny Garrett (they were then beginning the collaboration that produced the fine recordings Beyond The Wall and Sketches of MD: (Live at the Iridium) for a DownBeat cover story.

__________

Kenny Garrett-Pharaoh Sanders (12-2-04):
TP: How did the collaboration begin? Who made the first overtures? How long have you known Kenny and how long has Kenny known you?

PHARAOH: I haven’t known Kenny personally really that long. I always liked the sound of his music, his concept. Kenny loves to play all the time, and one night when I was working at Iridium he brought his horn and asked me could he sit in. I said, ‘Kenny Garrett? Yeah.’ From that point on, whenever I’d come in town, he’d come by to sit in if he had some time. Sometimes he wouldn’t bring his horn, and I’d tell him, “Man, bring your horn next time.” The agent saw what was happening, and started putting things together.

TP: Why did you think it would work?

PHARAOH: Not so much his style of playing, but his concept of the music. Also, he’s very comfortable around me, and that made me feel comfortable around him. When he sat in, I saw what he’d do the band, and I really liked it. He opened up a lot of things in my head. So the idea of us working together was right on time. I’ll put it that way.

TP: What sorts of things did Kenny bring out of you, or is bringing out of you now?

PHARAOH: We talked about systems of multiphonics, how to get more than one note at one time. He’s into different fingerings and harmonics, and does that very well, and he knew that I was doing similar stuff, things that must horn players would never get into. He brought me a book that I’m still trying to get into. I’ve done my own concept, my own way that fits me, and we each have things we like to do. So we’d listen to each other and try to figure out what it was.

TP: I guess you figured those things out for yourself in the ‘60s.

PHARAOH: Yeah, from playing. I got into it back in Oakland, California, from a music instructor named Professor Penn. I heard how Ornette Coleman could do two notes at one time, and I asked him about it. He educated me a little bit—not that much—about overtones and the harmonics. From that point on, I just went for myself, what I heard.

TP: Parenthetically, overtones and multiphonics became part of musical parlance during the days of jump bands and rhythm-and-blues bands and blues bands, in which saxophonists were what used to be called colloquially “honkers and squealers.” Was that part of your early experience in Little Rock or when you went to California?

PHARAOH: Part of my experience when I moved from from Little Rock to Oakland. At the time, although I liked what I heard, I don’t think I was ready to perfect overtones and multiphonics, because I was still into trying to study the other elements. I hadn’t learned chord progressions, or how to create arpeggios, or all my scales. Then I learned a bit how to play on the piano. Before I came to New York, I was playing in clubs around in Oakland and Frisco, playing a lot of ballads and Charlie Parker music.

TP: One commonality I see between you and Kenny is that you’re both interested in extending the technique of your instruments as far as you can, but it always seems to be towards purposes of melody and communication, so that it isn’t done for its own sake, but towards a purpose.

PHARAOH: I don’t even think of the tenor when I’m playing. I’m not so much into saxophone technique as another person might think. I look at all of it—drums, harps. I don’t know what my concept might be at the time. It really depends on what tune we’re playing, and that’s what I try to convey through my horn, whatever instrument I hear, or whatever sound I hear.

TP: I’ve seen raucous houses go silent on one decrescendoing note as you wind down a set. Sound seems so important to your tonal personality.

PHARAOH: Well, it is. It just seems like there’s no end to my trying to perfect what I’m trying to do. That’s the way I look at it. And Kenny reminds me of myself a lot. He don’t seem to be satisfied just on what he does. It sounds so great to me, but it always seems like he can make it better.

TP: Another common thread is that neither of you is afraid to be populist. After you played with Coltrane, you attracted a wide audience with Creator Has A Master Plan with Leon Thomas, and in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s you did things like Journey To The One and Rejoice, with choruses and African percussion. And Kenny incorporates the music of his youth, Funk and R&B.

PHARAOH: Kenny does what he does very well. I don’t even call it funky. It’s just Kenny to me. There’s so many different ways to express yourself. And if a person wants to call it funk… I’m not into categories.

TP: My point is more that both of you are so focused on technique and extracting everything you can from of your instrument, and yet the ultimate purpose is to communicate, you never lose sight of melody, and you appeal to a wide audience.

PHARAOH: I always try to figure out, every night, when there’s people in a place, how to play what they want to hear, but NOT play what they want to hear! [LAUGHS] I got tired of trying to program a first tune, second tune and so on. I just start playing, and whatever happens at that moment is what’s existing at the time. But I always feel like I’m the audience and the player. If I don’t like what I’m doing, then I don’t need nothing else.

TP: Do you see the saxophone as an extension of your voice?

PHARAOH: That’s what I work on. I’m still trying to learn how to play a straight sound, play the pitch straight. When I’m playing, I worry whether every note is close to being in tune, about the way I attack the notes, the concept of how I feel—I mean, the whole spirit of the thing. If I’ve got a bad reed, I can’t be what I want to be. Some reeds give you a resistance where you can play, but when you find a reed that’s going to curl up, just dead, and then your sound will be like that. I don’t like to play until I find a good one.

TP: Was that also an issue for you back in the ’60s when you were playing with John Coltrane?

PHARAOH: Yes, that was a problem then. I didn’t know John had that problem, too. I used to wonder if it was just me. But I saw John throw reeds right on the floor if it wasn’t happening. I used to wonder sometimes: Why did I have to play saxophone? I could have played trumpet, and not have to worry about a reed every night.

TP: What got you started on saxophone? School band?

PHARAOH: I played bass clarinet in the school band. They didn’t want no saxophone. And when I played clarinet, I always wanted more of a soft, mellow flute sound rather than a squeaky sound. I used to tune the whole band up when we played festivals and concerts. When I heard a James Moody tune called “Hard To Get,” I started tipping off on the alto saxophone, but I was still thinking clarinet.

TP: Was that on your own, or in bands?

PHARAOH: That was on my own. Well, I was playing on blues jobs in Arkansas. I started playing tenor because there were lots of alto players in my town, and I felt like tenor was more my instrument.

TP: Were there any stylists you were focusing on then?

PHARAOH: I liked Charlie Parker, but no one had his music. So all I could listen to at that time was James Moody, who I always loved, and also Count Basie, “April In Paris” and tunes like that. That was about it until I left.

TP: Then you went to Oakland, and there was that very active Bay Area scene. I remember reading that you’d head out at 9 at night and come back at noon the next day, and hit all the different spots.

PHARAOH: I was staying with my aunt. I think they thought I was a bit crazy, kind of out, because I didn’t want to work on a day job. “He doesn’t want to work.” I wanted to work, but it seemed like the music was first with me. Every time I’d go to the employment office and try to find work, I would sit there for a minute, and leave. I just wasn’t into it.

[KENNY GARRETT, WHO HAD BEEN DELAYED BY TRAFFIC, ARRIVES]

KENNY: I’d like to say first that it’s an honor and blessing to be able to stand on the same bandstand with Pharaoh. I mean, Pharaoh sat on the same bandstand with John Coltrane. I try to stand as close to my understanding of the truth as possible, and Pharaoh is that to me. I just wanted to put that on the record, since Pharaoh is sitting here, and I never told him that. I think he knows anyway.

Every time Pharaoh played in New York, I tried to come down. A lot of younger musicians sleep on people like Pharaoh and George Coleman, who set the pathway. I’ve always tried to hear the guys I admire, no matter where I am in my career, because I feel it’s very important to stay in contact with that. Now, I’ve always incorporated hip-hop, funk and jazz in my music, and that’s still there when I play with Pharaoh. But the tenor has a fatter sound than the alto, and being on the bandstand with Pharaoh makes me think of other sonic possibilities. Pharaoh also shows me that I can do things differently—make that note a little bigger or sing it a little more. He brings me closer to what it is I’m trying to get to.

PHARAOH: As I said before, it seems like Kenny’s the performer and he’s the audience. That’s what comes out in his music, and people react to it. I start dancing myself! I love connecting with the audience, because you can do what you want. If they’re open. It depends on what night.

TP: This is a difficult business. And Kenny, you’re a road warrior. You’re out a lot.

KENNY: Yeah, I try to stay out. My generation doesn’t get the opportunity to play at the Five Spot for six months or a year, so I think it’s important for me to play as much as possible. When I think about Monk or Trane or Miles, guys who played all the time, they were better able to cultivate their talent or concepts.

TP: How are you approaching this quintet’s presentation?

KENNY: We’re just playing, still trying to figure out how to set it up. We both have an idea of what we want to play, and then collectively we try to find tunes we’re comfortable with. Sometimes, on my own set, after we’ve played all the high-energy music, I like to play a ballad or something that takes your mind off that a little bit. There are some people who are hearing jazz for the first time, and a little groove never hurt. I try to picture myself as a listener. I like to hear cats play all night, but I also want to have something that I can nod my head to. I’m interested in a variety of things, and I try to challenge myself. So I play with people like Q-Tip, Guru, and Jazzmatazz, or play Adagio for Strings with the New Jersey Symphony, or play Charlie Parker’s music with Roy Haynes. Then you learn things about yourself and about that music, and you can present that in the next situation.

TP: Pharaoh said that you talk a lot about multiphonics, and that you presented him with a book on the subject, while his approach is homegrown. Did Pharaoh influence you in this area?

KENNY: Definitely. Actually, it’s something that Pharaoh plays that goes BAHT-BAH-DAH—BAHHHH! I was trying to figure out how he did it, and I went home and figured out a system for myself. So I got into it the same way Pharaoh did—searching. Then an Italian saxophone player showed me a book on it, and I dropped the book on him.

TP: All sorts of interesting dynamics occur in any improvising situation. Pharaoh started off as an alto and clarinet player before coming to tenor. Last night, you were so far down on the horn that if my eyes were closed, I might have thought you were playing tenor saxophone.

KENNY: Someone else said that last night. I do play a little farther down in the horn because I like the sound, but maybe it’s more obvious alongside the tenor that I’m playing that style. Plus, I’ve been playing my C-melody, which is a combination of a tenor and an alto, so that’s a little confusing, too.

TP: When Kenny walked in, Pharaoh was discussing his influences, and he mentioned that he got to Charlie Parker through James Moody’s Octet, which toured the South a lot when he was a teenager.

PHARAOH: I started playing the alto at that time. I wasn’t hearing as much as I should have, because in Little Rock there wasn’t much to hear except blues on the radio. Also, I wasn’t able to practice at home that much, so I had to go somewhere else. Whatever I learned came from my teacher, Jimmy Cannon, who was a trumpet player. He brought records to the school, and as he played them I’d ask who it was. That’s how I started listening to Miles and Lucky Thompson, who was a great tenor saxophonist, and Trane, Rollins, and Harold Land. He liked Clifford Brown and talked about him a lot, so later on I bought Clifford Brown’s record with strings, and tried to figure it out. One thing led to another.

KENNY: My earliest influences were Hank Crawford and Grover Washington, and Cannonball Adderley’s commercial recordings, like “Mercy, Mercy, Me.” As I checked out Cannonball more, I found that he actually played straight-ahead. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy. I’m from Detroit, and everybody was checking out Charlie Parker, but all the tenor players were playing like Dexter and all the alto players were playing like Jackie McLean. to play more like Bird, trying to understand… [END OF SIDE A]

…and he used to play along in the lower part of the register—he used to love that. So I heard that, and as I got older, I used to go back and listen to that record to see he what was so impressive about that. I actually got a chance to play with Joe Henderson before he passed away on Black Hope and on a Mulgrew Miller record called Hand In Hand. I also listened to a lot of trumpet players because I loved the strength of the sound. I had an opportunity to play with Cootie Williams in Mercer Ellington’s band, and Marcus Belgrave was my teacher and mentor. I also played with Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Tom Harrell. Freddie particularly inspired me a lot; I always wanted to try to match his feel and his energy.

I felt the same thing when I first heard Coltrane. In fact, there’s a story that I should tell. When I was in high school, I used to play John Coltrane’s soprano, although I never KNEW it was his soprano! Because I went to school with his nephew, who used say, “My uncle is John Coltrane.” I never believed him.” Then one day Ravi called me and said, “My cousin Daryl is here with me.” I didn’t say anything. I just thought about that soprano. I wish I’d known. I would have tried to keep that horn. Maybe those vibrations would have rubbed off!

TP: Another thing you have in common is that you both started working early. Kenny could have gone to college, like a lot of your contemporaries, but you didn’t. When Pharaoh was coming up, college was less common. To use a cliche, you learned on the university of the streets.

PHARAOH: I started playing drums first. Man, I should have kept on playing drums. But I wanted me a horn, so I bought a clarinet from a guy that went to church. He wanted $17 for it. So I gave him 20 cents every other Sunday until I could buy this clarinet. I thought that was the world, for me to get this clarinet. But it was a metal clarinet. But at the time it was okay for me. The older musicians used to tell me, “You got to get your sound. You got to get the right mouthpiece. The right horn.” I was always trying to figure out how could I get a Selmer tenor. In my time, a Selmer was about $500, and that was like saying a million dollars to me. I never even had a hundred dollars in my life! I had some friends at home who let me use a King alto and a Buescher tenor, but I wasn’t comfortable because I had to take care of the instrument—don’t mess it up. I still had my clarinet, though I didn’t want to play it. My father looked at me and at that horn, and said, “That’s not nothin’. Get you a job.” I had to go to a friend’s house to get in an hour or two practice, or there’d be some conflict. practice in. Still, I was always wanted my school to have a good band, and for the guys to play right and read stuff right.

TP: Kenny, you could have gone to college, but you joined Mercer Ellington right out of high school. Was this altogether a good thing? Were there pros and cons?

KENNY: It was all pros to me. Basically, the harmony that I learned, I discovered by myself. I use different nomenclature. If I sat down with a professor, they might say, “Well, that’s what we call this,” and I’ll say, “Well, this is what I call this.” I remember talking to Herbie Hancock, and he said, “Well, everybody calls the different chords different names.”

To me, if I had gone to Berklee, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play with Cootie Williams, who came out of retirement. Or to sit with Harold Minerve, who was a lead alto player who was a protégé of Johnny Hodges. I was able to catch the last part of the big band era, and play in organ trios. So I look on all of it as a blessing, because it makes me who I am now.

TP: Did the older musicians talk to you the same way as Pharaoh experienced, that you have to have a sound of your own?

KENNY: Actually, my father told me that. I remember one day we were at the Dairy Queen on Mack and Michigan, and he said, “Who is this on the radio?” I didn’t know. He said, “Well, everybody has a sound.” It was Stanley Turrentine. After that, I think I subconsciously started thinking about a sound. I didn’t realize I had a sound, though, until I was about 18 when I heard a tape and recognized myself. Once I realized that my sound was a bit different, then I started trying to cultivate it.

TP: Is the sound that you now project the sound that you had in your mind’s ear when you were just starting out? Or did it develop on its own?

KENNY: I think for me it was a combination of both. I definitely was conscious about the sound I wanted—and am still searching for! Every day I think about that perfect sound, if there is a perfect sound. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I might not find the PERFECT sound, but I have something that’s uniquely mine. So I just accept that as a gift from the Creator. Of course, I’m always searching. I have different mouthpieces, and I’ll say, “okay, that has this element in it, but not this other element I’m looking for.”When you get the right combination, you know it, and you can play whatever you want to play. All the ideas just flow out.

PHARAOH: I know what Kenny’s saying. He reminds me so much of John Coltrane. John would ask me after a night working, “How did that mouthpiece sound?” “It sounds great, John. It sounds like it’s been sounding.” One time I was working on a mouthpiece, and I knew John would like it. He tried it out at Birdland, and afterwards he said, “Man, I’ve got to have this.” I thought that maybe I should work on all of them like that. Later on, he called and told me, “I’m not getting the same sound all over my horn, so it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work for me.” The bottom was cool, but the upper register was sort of thin. I’d filed five of those mouthpieces. So stopped working on mouthpieces, because I was messing up.

There’s no end to looking for the best sound or tone you can get. I don’t even know what I’m looking for! Once Big Nick Nicholas told me, “I told Rollins and them cats to open up the keys so you can get some sound.” So I started raising up my keys. But that put a defect on the technique. My fingers would get stuck between the keys; they were just too high. I decided to have the keys on one horn raised up high, but not the others. that. The horn I’m playing on right now is raised up high. Because I use a very small layer mouthpiece, that kind of helps me to center the sound, so I can play louder. But if I used the same mouthpiece on an instrument where the keys are normal height, I wouldn’t get that much sound out of it.

TP: Kenny, is there anything you’d personally like to ask Pharaoh for purposes of this conversation?

KENNY: I’ve always wondered what it felt like to stand on the bandstand with John Coltrane and hear that beautiful sound. What went through your mind? Because when I’m standing next to Pharaoh, what’s going through my mind is, “Oh, he has such a beautiful sound.”

PHARAOH: I always felt that what I was doing wasn’t happening at all. I’ve heard a lot of saxophone players play in person. And I played clarinet, and always felt I had a pretty good sound. But playing with John on the bandstand, it seemed he’d been through that and was just a little bit ahead of us, in a way. I tried to figure out what is it he does to the combination of the mouthpiece and the reed to get that gutty kind of sound. But I heard him play on all kinds of mouthpieces, and it still comes out. On the bandstand, it seemed like his sound wasn’t so much like a saxophone sound. Whatever he did was coming from inside. It was more like a personal voice or something on every note. It seemed like the sound had more meat, more of everything that I’m looking for. I didn’t want to SOUND like that, but I was trying to figure out how was he able to go beyond. I know I’m fingering the same note. But I’m not getting nearly what he gets out of it.

That made me start to search for different ways to finger certain notes. I play, say, middle-C so many different ways, with so many different fingerings, and I still don’t know which ones to use. When I’m playing on a ballad, I use a certain fingering to make it more like a quality sound. Then it goes on and on. I’ve tried many mouthpieces, and I’m still not happy about the sound. I have to keep working on it. Sometimes Kenny comes to me and says, “Oh, that’s a good sound.” When he leaves the room, I want to know what he’s hearing! To me, I’m trying to be the listener, to figure out what the good sound is. Is it because the sound is more resonant? It’s cutting through? I go up and down, up and down. I’m still not satisfied.

KENNY: Miles used to talk about when he was playing with Charlie Parker, that he thought he wasn’t ready and so on. But usually the leader hears something. I would like Pharaoh to tell me what he thinks John Coltrane heard in him, what he was looking for.

PHARAOH: I don’t know! [LAUGHS] It seemed like he’d challenge the horn, trying to get all he could get out it. One time he asked me, “Can you do a low A?” I think Earl Bostic could do that just with his lips. And he used to talk about the lower B-flat on the horn. I guess he was looking to go another step down, to get whatever he could out of the instrument for his expression. But I haven’t yet got to the point yet of trying to find out what he found in me. I used to do a lot of things on my horn that I know he wasn’t doing, and he would ask me how was I fingering this or that. I couldn’t even tell him. I’d have to do it just right on the spot. A lot of my stuff comes from the inside. Especially for the lower notes, I try to get a raw, like, riled sound by humming into the horn, or harmonize it some kind of way, to just change the textures. Not all the time. Just sometimes. Or maybe make another harmonic so you say, “What’s he doing?” It wasn’t any kind of fingering.

TP: It sounds like your character must have appealed to Coltrane, just as Kenny’s appeals to you. Your perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo and always trying to advance and find something new—perhaps that was part of it.

PHARAOH: I know Kenny tries to find all kinds of way to develop his sound. That reminds me of John. John was a different than any other musician I know. I’m trying to figure out what he was hearing, and it’s hard to say. I do know he heard something.

TP: Is this collaboration going to continue?

PHARAOH: It will, but not now.

KENNY: I hope it does continue. There are only a few people who I want to sit down on the bandstand with, and Pharaoh is definitely one of them. Also, it’s a learning thing for me, too. It’s not only about being a leader. And as I learn, I hope that I’m also giving, that I’m saying, “Okay, this is another approach.” When I hear him, I think, “Oh, wow, that’s exactly what I was feeling.” I just can’t do that at this point! It’s a lot of fun to play with him, because there’s mutual respect. I know Pharaoh is going to play, and I’m going to play; we come to play music and have a good time.

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