A heavy workload and some traveling have kept me away from the blog for several days. Hence I missed the shared August 3rd birthday of saxophonists Greg Osby (51) and Roscoe Mitchell (71).
One of the pleasures of tracking jazz as long as I’ve done is the opportunity to watch careers unfold in real time. This is certainly the case with Osby, whom I first interviewed in 1989 for WKCR, and for whom I’ve had the opportunity to write several liner notes and album bios. Our most recent encounter was a public conversation last December at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
I’ve posted below our third WKCR conversation (a Musician Show from November 1995, on which Osby—then 35, he was beginning to transition out of a long plugged-in, neo-populist phase of his musical production—played and spoke about music that had influenced him) and our final WKCR conversation (which originally ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com), which took place in August 2008. It originally ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com.
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Greg Osby Musician Show (WKCR, 11-8-95):
[MUSIC: Osby, “Black Book” (1995)]
Greg is appearing at Sweet Basil next week with a very strong quartet, featuring James Williams, piano, Kenny Davis, bass, and Jeff Watts on drums. Have you played with this band before, with this rhythm section, or each of the different rhythm sections in different contexts and situations?
I’ve played with all of them individually in various groupings. That’s the way it is in New York. You play with a lot of people, and you just hook up for certain occasions — tours, record dates and things like that. You cross paths. You see a lot of people more in the airports than you do on the bandstand.
Apart from availability, what is it about these musicians that you see as a fit for the week?
OSBY: James Williams is a stylist, and we need more of those. He has a very individualistic approach and touch to the instrument. He was the first professional guy that I played with when I moved to New York, so I have a really sweet spot in my heart for him. Jeff Watts and I have a long-standing relationship. We played together in college; I’ve been knowing him forever. Kenny Davis is just, you know, a warm soul, and he’ll bring the swing to the whole foray. So I’m looking forward to playing with all of them in the grouping.
The records that you brought along look extremely well taken care of, but also that you’ve had them for a while and listened to them a lot. Before we get into the music, I’d like to talk in a general way about your development as a musician. You’re from the St. Louis area.
Exactly. I’m from St. Louis.
Have you been playing since a very young age?
I don’t know if you’d call 12 very young. I’ve been playing since 1972. And I took to it rather rapidly. I was, you know, I guess destined to do this…
Clarinet, actually. Clarinet, then flute, and then alto saxophone. Saxophone stuck. It got the little girls going, and it also brought dividends quickly, you know. So I stuck with that…
If you’re talking about monetary dividends, does that mean that you were playing in little groups, earning some money playing?
What sort of music?
These were R&B bands, Funk groups and Blues bands — because St. Louis was really heavy on the Blues. And throughout high school, in the mid-Seventies, I was playing in organ trios, really groove trios, Grant Green and the like — that kind of stuff.
Older musicians. I was always the youngest.
Name some names. Which musicians, what kind of music were you playing, what songs did you learn?
Kenny Gooch, Terry Williams and the Soul Merchants, things like that. Charles Drayne(?) and the Players. Soul groove bands. We played in a lot of atmospheres that actually I was too young to even be there, to be a participant, a legal participant, but I was welcome, because they really… They accepted me as a young funky guy.
Now, in the 1970’s, the Black Artists Group was very active in the St. Louis area. Were you in contact with them, in touch with them?
I was only in contact as an absentee kind of situation. I couldn’t get into the places, so I listened in the alley and outside. You know, they used to play with the windows open. It was kind of an upstairs situation. So I was aware of all of them, and I followed their movement and their progress, but I couldn’t participate.
Now, did that aesthetic of, I don’t know what to call it, but I guess merging many different elements of the arts… Well, obviously in some way, whether directly from that or not, it certainly seeped into what you wanted to do, because that’s what you’ve been very much involved with over the last number of years.
Yeah, but the key element was, during that whole period my mother worked at a record distribution place in St. Louis. They distributed all the records to the local stores. So she would bring home daily armloads of D.J. copies, promotional copies and cutouts and things. I mean, we had a record collection like you wouldn’t believe.
And you listened to all of them?
I listened to all of it, you know, with no discretion. I’m talking about the Doors, Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, the Jackson Five. It was whatever she brought. So as a result, I just gravitated toward the sound.
Was it more sound for you, like you’d hear a sound and then you’d try to get it out, rather than analysis at that point? Or when did the analysis part begin for you?
The analysis part didn’t happen until college. Because I really wasn’t pursuing music as a career until then. I had a hankering to be an architect actually. But you know, the music bug bit, and it stuck, and it became analytical. It became a search for more possibilities more varied forms and environments in music. That’s kind of my little catch-phrase. I call myself a musical environmentalist. I like to immerse myself in different environments and see what happens. I like to cross the line and straddle the fence, if you will.
College was where?
College was Howard University in Washington, D.C.
That was a very fertile environment at the time you were there for a young musician.
Yeah, that was 1978. At that time, Wallace Roney was there, Geri Allen, Clarence Seay, Gary Thomas, and a handful of others. Then I migrated north to Boston, where I went to Berklee College of Music for three years.
What were some of the things happening in Washington at the time you were there. John Malachi seems to have been a mentor for a lot of the young musicians in the D.C. area.
Right. John Malachi, Keeter Betts, Kirk Stuart, people like that. Local teachers. They had an adjunct situation at the school, so you got kind of a hands-on application. I was still a bit green, though, because the environment wasn’t thriving enough to give me what I needed. When you’re impressionable, or as impressionable as I was at that age, and as eager to learn, you need to be bombarded with information. So I sought a healthier situation, which is why I moved to Boston and went to Berklee. Well, I didn’t move. I got a scholarship and went there. And it was a who’s-who of what’s happening on the scene. Everybody that’s happening now pretty much was there at the time, from Branford Marsalis, Wallace Roney was there again, Cindy Blackman, Jeff Watts, Kevin Eubanks, Victor Bailey, Smitty Smith and on and on and on. It was a great environment.
Let’s commence Greg’s programming portion of the Musician Show, beginning with the great master who is doing his annual New York concert with Jackie McLean in a couple of weeks at the Beacon Theater. We’ll start with a track from Tenor Madness. When were you first exposed to Sonny Rollins? Say a few words about him and your feelings about his music. Put on the professor’s hat here for a minute.
I really love him because of his explorative spirit, the way he twists certain tunes, and reshapes them, reworks them, rethinks them. I find that to be most inspiring. Even to this day he’s still searching. And that’s what I look for in music. I mean, people who don’t rest on their laurels and who don’t sound the same way they sounded forty years ago, and stopped and allowed themselves to get stuck in a time warp. That’s why I really dig him.
And also because he took a lot of tunes that were popular tunes of the day, show tunes and the like, and he made them environments for improvisation, just like the song we’re going to check out. That’s kind of the theme of the show today. What is commercial music? What is commercial?
[MUSIC: S. Rollins, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” (1956); Don Byas/Slam Stewart, “I Got Rhythm” (1945); Bird, “Just Friends” (1950)]
One thing that I as a ‘civilian’ could say about that set, just to start a conversation, is that all three of those incredible, seminal saxophonists are total masters of time. All of them float over the rhythm, and bar lines really mean nothing. They’re just totally relaxed with it at all times.
I guess that’s what everyone strives to achieve in music, is musical mastery of the time, and the ability to shape and mold the time to fit certain phrases. Because naturally, things aren’t even and metric as they lay claims that everything should be in academia. Things should be elastic and they should stretch, and there should be that type of appeal in everyone’s playing, I think.
Greg, you in your work are dealing with very complex and interlocking rhythmic structures, and I guess try to achieve that same quality of floating or being very relaxed with those rhythms.
Exactly. I have made that a concentration in and about my playing for some time. I made a concerted effort to study that and to try to dissect the particulars of rhythm and time so that I would be comfortable in those types of environments. I’ve made it a point to I guess endear myself to drummers who are known for twisting time around. I have a real strong rapport with a lot of the drummers on the scene.
A couple who I can think that you’ve worked with are Jeff Watts next week, Marvin Smitty Smith, you worked in Jack De Johnette’s group for a few years…
Since you’re an alto saxophonist, I’m particularly interested in your comments about Charlie Parker.
Oddly enough, of the three here that we’ve just checked out, Sonny Rollins had the most influence on me, because his sense of time and rhythm appealed to me more so than the harmonic explorations of Don Byas and Charlie Parker, until later, until I recognized the value and the wealth of information that their playing contained.
Don Byas is an unsung hero, as far as I’m concerned, a technician of the saxophone who experimented with various sophisticated cycles and substitutions and change-running. He was known for running a cat out on his ears at many a jam session. Also he had a heavy emphasis on his tone and shading of his tone, and muting, and a real strong vibrato, reminiscent of that real muscular tenor school.
For my money, Charlie Parker still isn’t completely recognized for his contributions to music. I mean, people aren’t really dealing with some of the more prominent stylistic characteristics of his playing. When people say, “Yeah, he plays just like Bird,” they’re just playing, you know, the Acme, do-it-yourself, just-add-water licks, not really dealing deep into his concept and to the meat.
Talk about what they’re missing.
To me, they’re missing a highly, a highly developed and sophisticated sense of rhythm and time, and the ability to shape that time. The harmonic sense speaks for itself. Listening to Art Tatum and people like that, and being aware of Stravinsky and Bartok and those type of people, you’re going to… And this is the 1940’s we’re talking about. So he was way ahead of his time, and people still haven’t checked that out. Also, the ability to take popular tunes of the day, which I guess were Pop tunes, you know, and to make those environments and transform them into vehicles for melodic exploration and development. That took a lot of forethought.
Sometimes I gather he’d just hear something on the radio and start playing it that night, and would start a whole process of exploration for him.
The ability to recall those variables in those songs and make them into something listenable requires a highly developed ear. And the ability to recollect that kind of stuff is… A lot of people do it, and it’s very corny and it’s very patronizing. I don’t want to name names, but it’s… I mean, he would take it and make it something that was very valid and very profound.
Talk about Charlie Parker’s sound. I know that as an alto saxophone player, you probably have a very particular ear for the distinctions in the sound of alto saxophonists.
Well, I was turned on to him right about at the same time… It was about 1974, and I was listening to cats like Maceo and Ronnie Laws and Cannonball Adderley and Junior Walker, more the R&B kind of guys. Then when I heard him, what appealed to me more so than his sound was the way he played. I just recognized… I didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was doing and how to get to that level, but it was something that I aspired to. The sound sounded very bright and very brittle and very hard, and it sounded very forced. It was as if he was over-exerting himself. So the sound didn’t appeal to me at first, until I heard the stories from the people who were there, until I had a chance to meet and talk to Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie and people like that, who told me that he could fill up a room and he could be heard from the outside and that kind of stuff.
Without a microphone!
Yeah! And you got a better appreciation of his sound. There’s really no way of telling. It’s really the same way that people talk about John Coltrane. You listen to the records, and you would think that his sound was really loud, and they say it really wasn’t. You would think that Elvin Jones was playing so loud that he would have to be very loud to accommodate, and they say he wasn’t really loud. So you just have to get the stories, and you have to embrace the truth before it’s too late.
The next set of music begins with an early effort by Wynton Marsalis, the Hot House Flowers release, which was a very popular recording for him in the early ’80s.
Well, despite the media wars that would have various factions of music pitted against one another, I have a great deal of appreciation and respect for Wynton. I love his sound, I love his spirit and his enthusiasm. Sometimes, you know, his perspectives…
Are not maybe what you would…
Yeah, we differ, but that’s natural and that’s healthy, I think, to have that type of debate.
You’ve got to have it, or else, where are you going to… But anyway, I really like this record. I really love strings, I like to see to see people in various environments, and I like the way he rose to the occasion, the way him and his band dealt with it. And this is in keeping with the theme of the lecture here, which is: What is Commercial? Because these are popular songs, and this effort is highly commercial, and I think it was highly successful.
Now, one point we can make here is that we’ll hear a track of Marsalis playing “Stardust”, which in 1984 is not necessarily a popular song of the day.
Not necessarily. But I guess it was stylized…
But does that give the music a different context when it’s reflecting back thirty or forty years, as opposed to the music being right there, or does it have the same connotation?
Well, not necessarily. I mean, we have versions of these songs that were made popular by various artists. We recall those versions whenever we hear those songs being performed. Now, that they were or weren’t popular in their day when they were written is not really important. The key here is to take something and to rethink it, and to make it an environment for exploration.
I think that’s a very important point.
Yeah. But some people say, well, you can’t do that with commercial music, because then you’re being commercial. And everybody wants to sell their music. We’re not doing this for fun. So everybody is commercial in a sense. But the issue really is quality. Because some people can be commercial, and they can be of very low quality.
[MUSIC: Wynton Marsalis, “Stardust” (1984); Prez, “Two To Tango” (1953); Lou Donaldson, “Alligator Boogaloo” (1967)]
I’m not quite sure how to link everybody up in that last set, but it sure sounded good. A few words about Lou Donaldson, one of the master alto saxophonists, and playing a consistent level of music for forty years.
Yeah, but there was a departure in this period. They were embracing the boogaloo beat, him and many others, and it was a commercial venture. However, it didn’t detract from what he could do. It was just a choice. It was what he wanted to do.
There Lou Donaldson was using a drummer who was partly responsible for a lot of the beats that we were hearing in black popular music of the 1960’s, Idris Muhammad.
Oh, yeah. Idris, Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield, some of the funkiest drummers who ever walked the planet — but also some swinging individuals as well. Further examples of how people can straddle the fence.
Now, Lou Donaldson is about as much of a disciple of Charlie Parker as there is. I take it you’ve been checking him out for some time now in your music.
Sure. Him, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean. I mean, it’s necessary. That’s part of studying the lineage of the instrument and the music. You want to know who did what, and how they interpreted it, and how they filtered Bird’s means through their music. Sometimes it’s easier to get to some of the more difficult players by listening to their descendants and disciples.
Lou Donaldson is your journeyman jazzman. As a student, if you have a particular difficulty in a certain area in music, he and players like him, Sonny Stitt, people like that, they lay it out for you. They lay it out for you on the table, also maintaining the stylistic characteristics that made them who they are. I wouldn’t call Lou necessarily an innovator, but a great contributor to the language of the music.
Lester Young speaks for itself. Also I think he did that recording as a goof, but he’s still swinging. So swing is bone-deep. Also just his sense of time and how he approaches the beat. It’s a very lazy approach. And he influenced generations of musicians, too; I mean, too lengthy to go into right now.
What do you mean exactly by that word, “a lazy approach”?
Well, you have different ways of approaching time in Jazz. Some people are very agitated and they’re very ahead of the beat. It’s a very classical and legit approach to the beat, and it sounds skittish and augmented, as opposed to what’s been widely accepted as the Jazz feel, which is a more laid-back feel. I don’t know what brought on the acceptance of that feel, if it was a lot of people that were, you know, inebriated or intoxicated or high or whatever. But it feels better. It just feels better. I can’t even explain it. I mean, if that’s synonymous with swing, so be it, but I don’t know. And we haven’t really come up with a concrete explanation for that, anyway.
One other thing I’d like to raise as a more general point in talking about Lester Young, is that a lot of the younger musicians who do these Musician Shows, don’t play the music of a lot of the musicians who came before Charlie Parker, even the direct antecedents to Charlie Parker. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a general rule it doesn’t seem to be necessarily central to their vocabulary. Talk about how a contemporary musician can draw inspiration and information from the earlier musicians.
As a saxophone player, it’s necessary for me to study the greats of the instrument, naturally, and also to study who they studied, to see how they arrived at their conception. Apart from Charlie Parker, I’ve also checked out, I’m also checking out Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, Buster Smith, Willie Smith, Johnny Hodges of course, Sidney Bechet, people like that.
Interestingly enough, the saxophones were made differently in those days mechanically. It’s an articulated G-sharp and a side F-sharp and B-Flats and things like that. They were just mechanically different. So the players played differently to get around those horns. In the mid-Forties, the way the saxophone was constructed changed, so it also changed the way people could finger and get in and around the horn.
We know that Parker was playing in his style pretty much in 1942, ’43 and ’44. Do you speculate that that might have had an effect on the way he could get around the horn and the development of his conception?
Some people believe it was the change from what they call vertical playing to horizontal playing. Vertical is a more arpeggiated, up-and-down motion, outlining chords and things like that, where horizontal is a more melodious, in-and-out, peaks and valleys approach to the music. I tend to think that Charlie Parker was solely responsible for freeing up that type of thinking, and I think he was ostracized for it initially, because he dared break the norm!
It’s time to hear a duo between our host, Greg Osby, and pianist-composer Andrew Hill. You appear on two of his Blue Note releases. I know he’s someone you listened to also before actually encountering him in the flesh.
Definitely. And it was such an honor to be part of his world. He’s been more or less an absentee mentor, and we stay in touch constantly. I mean, I did some work for him this summer, teaching at the Portland State University, where he is an artist-in-residence. I went out there and hung out with him for a few weeks, and I was able to immerse myself in his wealth of information. I mean, amidst all the great pianists that were his contemporaries, that he emerged so strong a player with so much personality and with so much integrity is a monumental achievement. There are but a handful of people who are my contemporaries whom I could recognize in a few notes, in just a phrase. That’s what we all strive to achieve, and I long for the day when people are playing and the way they interpret things is as individualistic as their vocal pattern, or the way they talk, the tone of voice. I mean, things should be that personal, as opposed to emulating someone for the rest of your life.
[MUSIC: Osby/A. Hill, “Friends” (1990); Hill-Joe Henderson-Richard Davis-Roy Haynes, “Pumpkin” (1963); Herbie Hancock, “Speak Like A Child” (1968)]
What comes to mind most for me in listening to that set is what some people might think of as an abstract connection, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. Both Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock are from Chicago, and kind of developed the groundwork of their musical aesthetic coming up in the Chicago area. You’re from St. Louis, and it’s often been said that there’s a shared Midwest aesthetic to the music.
Oh, yes. Places like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City are located, of course, in the middle of the country, the heartland.
The Mississippi River…,
…the Illinois Central Railroad.
The Bible Belt, all that. And a lot of these places were stopping points to get from East to West or vice-versa.
Or North to South.
Yes. And a lot of people stayed, and a lot of people left remnants of their visit behind. So it was kind of a melting pot, if you will, even more so than in the coastal areas, because it was the center. Whereas New York and L.A. would kind of be the final destination for a lot of people. So being in that area, you benefit from all of those regional differences, regional particulars.
Well, not only that, but each of these cities—and certainly St. Louis, which was known for producing high-level brass players—had a self-contained, distinctive musical scene. Anything to say about that?
Well, St. Louis being on the Mississippi River, it was part of that whole riverboat trek. And also it’s in the direct path of the Great Migration, you know, in the second decade of this century. A lot of people sought a better life in the North, so they migrated from New Orleans, which is where my people are originally from, and parts of Mississippi, and migrated on up, and stopped off in Arkansas and St. Louis, up to Chicago, to Cleveland or Detroit or whatever. So you get the benefits of that whole experience as well, that whole way of expression, and it’s reflected in the trumpet stylings of Clark Terry, Miles Davis, people like that coming out of St. Louis.
Anything to say about Herbie Hancock’s beautifully orchestrated Speak Like A Child, which has impacted so many musicians?
I’m a big student of orchestration and arranging, although a lot of my current projects wouldn’t reflect such; but a lot of people that know me, know that, and my big band writing and score writing and chamber writing past and history. But I studied it, I dissected that whole album and took it apart, that as well as a lot of Mingus’ works. I love his choices of instrumental couplings. Alto flute, trombones, French horns, things like that. It’s very unusual. Flugelhorns… And he made them real popular. Him and people like him, Thad Jones… Some of the more obscure woodwinds, bass clarinets, bassoons and oboes in a jazz setting make for some really nice sounds, juxtaposed with the more traditional rhythm section elements.
Were you a student of the Miles Davis band in the Sixties, and the types of abstractions with which they treated standard material? Did that have an impact on your conception of music?
Not so much. I was more into the players themselves than how they sounded together, you know, being placed with one another in Miles’ band. Because it was kind of a collaborative vision. It wasn’t one person’s vision. I’m really into… I mean, it evolved, and you know, it just happened that way. But I’m really a big fan of Herbie’s. I had the pleasure of touring with him for a couple of months, and that was one of my greatest experiences, one of the greatest triumphs in my short history. I learned a tremendous amount.
The next set will focus on the alto saxophone,beginning with Louis Jordan, who shared with Lester Young roots and antecedents in a family band that did the carnival circuit in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A trumpeter, Leonard Philips, who lived in Washington, who toured with the Young Family Band in his youth, mentioned an encounter between the two family bands that he said sparked quite a few fireworks, at some point in the Twenties.
Is that so.
You could say Louis Jordan might be the father of Rhythm-and-Blues.
Well, there you go. He’s the father of Rhythm-and-Blues and Rock-and-Roll, and that whole thing, but was largely overlooked when other elements came into play. Since he was a predecessor of Charlie Parker and one of his contemporaries, it’s notable to marvel at how he remained pretty much unaffected by the “wrath of Bird,” as I call it, and his musical onslaught and his stylings. Also, his sound and the way he approached the instrument is reflective of the way those saxophones were constructed in the day. I mean, he was a more vertical player, and he had a really rich and deep tone, and very wide. I just implore my fellow saxophonists to really check this out, because it’s food.
[MUSIC: Louis Jordan, “The Dripper” (1954), “Whiskey Do Your Stuff” (1954); Earl Bostic, “Harlem Nocturne” (1954); Sonny Stitt, “Every Tub” (1954); Earl Bostic, “Moonglow” (1952); Coltrane-Hartman, “They Say It’s Wonderful” (1963); Osby, “We’ll Be Together Again” (1989)]
Listeners who have only heard Greg Osby’s recent releases may be wondering about the relevance of the music he programmed for that set to his musical production. But indeed, there are some very personal connections involved in just about all the music we heard. For instance, you were mentioning to me an experience you share with many young saxophonists who came up in the Seventies and Eighties, a first-hand encounter with Sonny Stitt.
Sonny Stitt was notorious for altering the keys in standard compositions on jam sessions. And a lot of younger players, arrogant as they are, will practice and play those songs in one key, as I did. I had the audacity to ask him to sit in, this was about 1977, at a club called B.B.’s in St. Louis on the riverfront. I sat in with him. He did the whole gig sitting on a stool, had his fifth of gin in his back pocket — he was chillin’, as they say. And he did “Rhythm” changes in A-flat. Now, it’s commonly played in B-flat, so that’s all I was dealing with. So of course, I was thrown. Then they also played an alternate bridge, a bridge that I hadn’t practiced. So by the end of the first chorus, I was already underwater. Heh-heh. A most humbling experience.
As far as Louis Jordan, “Caledonia” was still on the jukeboxes when you were a young guy. It was the break song for the organ trios you worked in.
Right, that was the break tune, “Caledonia.” We played that and, you know, “Rusty-Dusty Woman,” things like that. I mean, it was way above my head. It’s things that I was involved in and introduced to that I had to research and find the value and the validity of. But it was a great experience to play in those organ trios then.
We heard your interpretation of “We’ll Be Together Again.” So it’s quite evident that this music is a deep part of your musical experience, and really back to the very beginning. You made a point that around the time you recorded “We’ll Be Together Again” you were listening deeply to singers. Now, many of the great saxophonists have been very much aware of the lyrics of the songs they play.
My exploration into vocal stylings was inspired by a lot of my contemporaries. They were only concerned with velocity, playing really fast and loud and honking, and just being very bullish and arrogant on the instrument. I wanted to explore the possibility of subtlety, which has been exploited by people like Miles Davis and softer players like Joe Henderson. So I was really interested in how Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Hartman, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, people like that, how they would interpret the song and how they would break up the lyric. Billie Holiday, how she would interpret a lyric so personally, it was as if she was the composer.
I’d gone through the rigors of the velocity school, and didn’t get much of a rise out of people. Laypersons, they don’t really react to that. They react to heart-wrenching feeling. Not that I want to just be a soul player either. I mean, there has to be some kind of cerebral content, or else it’s not Jazz as far as I’m concerned; there has to be something intellectual about it. So I spent about two years really shedding on my sound and my tone and interpreting lyrics. Not that it was really necessary for me to know every word, because the songs themselves had a totally different meaning. But I must say, it does help.
One of the saxophonists who really combined the cerebral and the gutbucket, we could say, was Earl Bostic, and we heard those two tracks. A few words about his alto playing. On “Moonglow” he sounded like a tenor saxophone, he was playing so low in the register.
I’ve always strived to try to emulate that sound. I always wanted to give the illusion that I was some big fat guy playing, you know, with a lot of girth, with a gutbucket belly or whatever. And it’s an ongoing pursuit. I’m not a large cat…
You want to keep the belly down but the sound up.
Yeah. I want to give the illusion. I really miss that sound. And there’s a handful of young players that sound that way, but a lot of people are, I won’t say victims, but they’re coming from the throat school of alto playing as opposed to the diaphragm. There’s two ways of producing the sound, the throat and the diaphragm; there’s two types of vibrato. A lot of the older, more gruff and smoky tenor players play from the diaphragm. Von Freeman gave me and Steve Coleman a lengthy discussion on that. It’s slower and more deliberate, and it’s less natural than playing from the throat. Playing from the throat if you’re playing in big bands or rock-and-roll groups where you have to cut and project the sound. The sound is a lot more strident, it’s a lot more pointed. The diaphragm vibrato is actually a flute technique, because flutists don’t have reeds or mouthpieces, so they have to vibrate from the diaphragm. So it’s more a Classical derivative. And it gives a wider sound up, with more breadth and the illusion of girth. And that’s what I like to hear.
Next up is Cannonball Adderley.
Cannonball is the result of all of these musicians having been his predecessors. He also helped define, or redefine or lay down the law for what’s known as contemporary popular saxophone playing, people like him and Junior Walker and people like that and Maceo and them cats in that day. I can’t even begin to talk about Cannonball. For several years, I was a Cannonball fanatic, a fiend, and when I emerged on the New York scene I took great strides to kind of exorcize the shades of Cannonball out of my playing, because it was at the point where it was debilitating. Hammiet Bluiett gave me a lecture one time, talking about how some musicians don’t recognize the cut-off point, the natural cut-off point when you should stop emulating somebody and try to emerge with your own voice. And that’s…you know…
A valuable lesson.
Exactly. And it leads to the early demise of many a talented musician, because they’re knee-deep in somebody else’s concept.
[MUSIC: Cannonball Adderley, “Love For Sale” (1958); “Miss Jackie’s Delight” (1957); w/S. Mendes, “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars (Corvocado)” (1965)]
Before a final set of Greg’s music, we must mention Wayne Shorter, whose way of through-composing and general style has had a huge impact on you.
Exactly. And he’s always been a very kind gentleman to me. He’s always been very informative, and he’s embraced me and showered upon me oodles of knowledge. Not so much in a literal sense, but the way he describes music is kind of cryptic, you know, in this panorama. So you kind of have to decipher it. He is definitely a genius, and I don’t use that word loosely. Without being too descriptive and breaking down, he’s played an impacting role on my development.
TP: There are many connections between the Greg Osby recording we’ll hear to conclude the show, which date back to 1989. Can you give a general description of how your music has evolved from Season of Renewal, which we’ll be hearing, to Black Book, your latest release?
In order for me to remain inspired, it’s necessary for me (and this is on a personal tip) to put myself in varied, highly varied environments, to see if I sink or swim. That’s the true challenge. Since I don’t have the luxury of playing with a whole bunch of different musicians and different rhythm sections, in a thriving scene with a lot of clubs where you can interact with a lot of people, you have to create your own environments. Also that I don’t have the opportunity to do more than one record every year or two days, much to my dismay; it’s not like the Blue Note days or Prestige where they could do four or five sessions a year, and they could fully document their musical meanings and aspirations. I have to kind of get it all in one effort. So all the recordings reflect my experiences, trials, tribulations, so to speak, in between projects. And hopefully, they show some type of growth and, you know, just experience.
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http://www.jazz.com Interview with Greg Osby, August 2008:
“When you look the music’s lineage, the people that stand out have something that’s their own, as unique as their vocal patterns,” Greg Osby told me a decade ago. “Hopefully I’ll reach the point where people say, ‘I can recognize Greg Osby in two notes because nobody else approaches a song that way.’”
Now 48, Osby can reflect on an iconoclastic oeuvre, much of it documented on 13 recordings for Blue Note, with which he signed in 1991. It includes, as I wrote in an Osby bio several years back, several pioneering attempts at mixing jazz and hip-hop aesthetics, a project framing his tart alto saxophone sound with strings, a two-sax pairing with tenor titan Joe Lovano, various acoustic quartet investigations of his structurally rigorous, off-kilter compositions, a burnout club performance, and several deconstructions of the jazz tradition. He’s also brought his tonal personality to numerous encounters—duos with drum-master Andrew Cyrille and impressionistic pianists Marc Copland and Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi; ensembles with guitar harmony-master Jim Hall, rhythmically complex Turkish guitarist Timucin Sahin; jams with the Grateful Dead, an Ali Jackson-led quintet with Wynton Marsalis. His bands have launched some of the next generation’s best and brightest, employing such present stars as Edward Simon, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland, and Nasheet Waits early in their careers.
Now unattached to a mothership label, Osby, like many 21st century musician- entrepreneurs, has established his own imprint, Inner Circle, which he recently launched with 9 Levels, featuring a new sextet. In October he’ll follow-up with releases led by younger talent, including several by members from his group. In August, Osby debuted the sextet at the Village Vanguard; to publicize the occasion, he joined me at WKCR for a far-ranging conversation.
Let’s talk about your new group.
It’s yet another installment of young upstarts. I’m loath to use the term “up-and-coming,” because they’ve already arrived as far as I’m concerned. That’s actually what appealed to me, that they sounded so resolved in their musicality. They were the missing pieces to the puzzle. Interestingly, I don’t have to search for people any more. They find me. Every day, I’m getting solicitations from young players who either want me to evaluate what they do, or want to play with the group, or want some kind of commentary. Every day, so many great talents come across my desk. I wish I could employ them all, because the cup runneth over with talent out there. I do what I can.
You haven’t worked with a vocalist in about 20 years, since Cassandra Wilson sang on some of your records, then there’s piano and guitar, plus bass and drums. So it must be a nice prod to get into your mad scientist thing, working out tunes and sonic combinations for this ensemble.
It’s been a while since I heard a vocalist who had the dexterity, the attack, and just the complete musicianship of a Cassandra Wilson. Right now, we’re in an era where they’re embracing a lot of female vocalists. But it’s dangerously teetering on the precipice of the “chick singer,” the flame-siren-vixen sitting on the piano kind of thing, as opposed to women who really can sing instrumentally, like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or Betty Carter or Abbey Lincoln—singers that are instrumental as well as vocal. My current singer, Sara Serpa, is from Portugal—Lisbon. I met her on MySpace. We had mutual friends, then I saw her, then I clicked, I listened, and I was floored. I contacted her, and she responded immediately. She’s more or less the second horn. It’s not so much words and lyrics, but really she gets inside the music. She learns all of the intricate melodies. Harmonically, she can negotiate chord changes and progressions just like an instrumentalist.
You were using guitar in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with Kevin Bruce Harris, but not so much in about a decade. Given your past proclivities, I imagine they’d negotiate different roles within the ensemble from piece to piece.
Well, a lot of guitarists don’t like to play with pianists, because they navigate the same territory, and there’s a lot of conflict in terms of chords and comping and role playing. Here I’ve assigned people to stay within certain ranges, and they have very specific material that they adhere to and certain particulars that they work within, so they won’t violate territory or turf, musically speaking.
Adam Birnbaum is a Boston native. He plays in and around New York. I think he has a regular daily hotel gig. He’s an amazing stylist. On guitar I have Nir Felder, who’s from upstate New York. He’s also a Berklee College of Music graduate, and he’s an amazing talent on guitar. I can’t even describe it, and I don’t want to use the same terminology that irks me, so I’ll just say he’s one for the years.
Our young drummer, Hamir Atwal. is a Bay Area native. He’s also a Berklee College of Music student that I heard last year when I was doing a residency there for one week, and I said, “I’m going to use him immediately.” The bassist, Joseph Lepore, is from Italy. He’s been living in New York over ten years, and has a big, rich, reverberant sound. I need that bottom to support the structures. I don’t need a notey bass player or someone who plays all the time and just bombards the music with those
What’s the median age of this group, the leader excluded?
I would say around 28.
It’s an ethnically and probably socially diverse group as well.
Oh, yeah. An Italian, a Portuguese, one of Israeli descent, another of American-Jewish descent, Hamir is half-Filipino and half-Indian. So yeah, we are the world. It’s like United Colors of Benetton!
In the Times review of your Tuesday performance, Nate Chinen used the word “postmodern” to describe the group. What I’d read into that is that these are players who are familiar with a very broad range of vocabulary, and can access any dialect in an almost modular way to suit the dictates of the moment. That’s been a component of your compositional and musical thinking since you emerged as a composer in the mid ‘80s with your recordings on JMT.
It’s a hybrid of sorts. The compositions comprise a host of particulars that I have embraced, and hopefully developed some of them through my travels and through my needs as a composer and a musician. I had to put myself in an environment that I think is provocative for me, that prods me, and also makes the musicians think. You have to analyze the music, make deductions, and figure out what you can do within a certain sonic set. That prevents people from playing the same thing twice, playing stock phrases, being too comfortable. I like that phrase Milt Jackson used when he said, “It’s like walking on an oil slick on a sheet of black ice on a bed of marbles.” With that kind of thinking, you stay on your toes. It works for me.
You said that a lot of young musicians want to play with you. What qualities in your music appeal to them?
The first thing that appeals to them is that they know I’ll let them play. It’s not a one-man show. It’s not about me and they are the support system. It’s a group effort. It’s a collaborative. I allow their voices to be heard and allow them to develop, too. I don’t admonish people and browbeat them for making mistakes or doing the wrong things. They have to find their way, just as I found my way. I would safely say that I cut my teeth in Jack DeJohnette’s band. He was the archetype leader in that he nurtured by staying out of your way. He was very hands-off, but he led and he conducted. There was no intervention in terms of, “well, do this and don’t do that” or “your gig is in jeopardy” and so on.
They know that a lot of people have come through my band and are doing very well now, and they know that I’ll allow them to do things that may be unorthodox or outside of what’s common to these types of presentations, that if it works, we’ll incorporate it, and make it part of the repertoire and part of that expression. I’m not trying to approach this in an educational fashion, like, “Okay, this is the University of the Streets and we’re going to play…” I’m learning just as much as they are. I’m enjoying it, and I still have the enthusiasm. Some of these players have so much to offer. They’re so learned and so accomplished in what they say as musicians. I’m all ears as well. I’m soaking it in, too.
This new recording also signifies an economic transition for you. After 17 years as a Blue Note artist, that relationship is severed. A lot of the records are out of print. You’re starting a new label, bringing you into the ranks of musician entrepreneurs, an ever more common job description. How’s it working out?
These seeds have been sown for a while. It’s only recently that they’ve actually germinated and blossomed. But it’s something that I’ve always planned to do. It’s just the natural order of things, especially today. Blue Note They gave me a clean slate to express myself, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. But at the end, record sales weren’t what they could or should have been, and I guess my commentary or suggestions weren’t heeded or recognized as valid, because I’m the artist. That’s when the end comes. The records aren’t moving and you’re dissatisfied. Then also, the tide is turning. The whole climate is…
Internet, downloading, and you’ve been at the top of that curve. You’ve been offering downloads for the last several years.
Well, that, too. I mean, aesthetically, here I am at Blue Note Records, and it represents…the things that are being produced… It was just time.
So is there an overall aesthetic to your label?
Absolutely. It’s called Inner Circle Music, named after my favorite Blue Note recording, called Inner Circle. The Inner Circle was a band with Jason Moran and Tarus Mateen, and either Nasheet Watts or Eric Harland, and Stefon Harris. We were on the road constantly in all our various groups, and it was interchangeable. The only thing that would change would be whoever was leading the group. I decided to document it with a series of compositions that celebrated that union. So here I am now, with Inner Circle Music. All music in an era is dictated either by a sound or a variety of integers and compounds that give it a sound, that mark it or date it. Then some writer gives that sound a name, be it “swing,” “dixieland,” “post-bop,” “hard bop,” “avant-garde,” “M-Base,” or “postmodern” you said…
Did a writer give “M-BASE” the name?
No-no. We were in control of that.
Thank you. Don’t blame everything on us.
I wanted to have a record company that mirrored both the Strata-East umbrella structure as well as United Artists, where the artists were in control of their own destiny. Here the artists make contributions financially, business-wise, promotionally—they really get in the trenches. To keep the overhead low, everyone has to have roles and you have to delegate duties and responsibilities to everybody. That way you can keep things moving. It also gives them more incentive if they have a financial stake.
Have you toured with this group?
We haven’t toured. This week is our first hit as an ensemble since the recording. We’re on to Chicago after this, and some other things. But it’s deep, keeping the band together, keeping them working, keeping them occupied and stimulated. What did Dizzy say? The best way to keep a working band is to keep the band working. Or vice-versa. Kind of like keeping the landlady happy. They will bounce on you. They will go to other places. I have had other band members either stolen or just yanked out from underneath me…
Evolved to the next phase might be a way of putting it.
Yeah. Financial needs prevail, and people need to pay the bills. My band is considered an art band. You can work and you can express yourself, but you won’t make a windfall of money at the beginning. But as soon as the momentum starts to happen, people defect. It’s just the way it goes.
You were born in 1960. So you’re the same age as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney, Jeff Watts, Marvin Smitty Smith, people who got tagged in the ‘80s as the “young lions,” that ill-fated term, and have gone on to do many different things and transcend those labels. When you yourself were in your twenties, you played with Jon Faddis and Jack DeJohnette and Andrew Hill, and gigged with Herbie Hancock and Muhal Richard Abrams, and were affiliating in collectives with Steve Coleman and Robin Eubanks and Geri Allen. How were people in your generation different in sensibility and attitude than musicians coming up now? Or were you? Can you pinpoint ways in which your ideas about music were shaped by the environment in which you came up? Some of those dynamics don’t exist for musicians today.
That’s exactly the point. The situation in New York was a lot more vibrant when we arrived in town. There were a number of jam sessions on any night. You could bounce around and hear the new cat off the bus, so to speak, to see if they would do the make it or break it thing. You’d hear about someone blowing everyone away at a previous night’s jam session, and you would go out to hear for yourself. Then after all the sets at the major clubs, people would either go to Bradley’s or to these various jam sessions. A lot of veteran players would come to these sessions unannounced, and you would sit and get an earful. Then also, during the day, it was very common to have jam sessions at our respective apartments. So there was always something happening in a progressive sense. Now the musicians are a little more desperate. They’re a lot more proficient, mind you, because there’s a lot more intellectual access, so they learn more rapidly. But they don’t have the vehicles and venues for expression. Now it’s a scramble: “What shall I do now? Now I have a degree. Now I have these professional particulars and variables, and I’m ready to do it, but where shall I do it? Where shall I find employment? How shall I get the break? How shall I get people to become interested in what I’m doing?” This is their dilemma.
What did you think New York would be like?
GREG: Of course, you have this ideal of the utopian metropolis—bustling with ideas and support and progressive minds and that type of thinking. You’re going to descend upon the scene with what you do, and take the whole thing by storm. This is what everybody thinks. It’s the big-fish-in-the-small-pond thing. You’re the best cat in whatever university or conservatory or hometown situation, then you come to New York and you find that whole dream immediately shattered. You find that there are a lot of people who not only are as good or better than you and have more experience, but also have better connections, for whatever reason, be it where they’re from, or who they know, or whatever. So now you have to start at the bottom, and you have to establish a reputation. You have to meet people and network and find some other like-minded folks who will help you to see your vision through.
Who was your first clique when you got here?
When I first got to town, I was playing with Jon Faddis at the Village Vanguard, and I guess someone had told Steve Coleman, there’s some guy who plays alto and he…
Had Faddis met you in college?
I was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I think he played up there, and then I sat in. That was a Friday. That Monday, his manager called and said, “We’re going on the road, let’s do it.” I didn’t need a second invitation. That’s how that happened. Immediately, the first week I came, and we were at the Village Vanguard, right out of school. This was a dream come true. Fortunately, I was ready. I was a good reader, played various saxophones, and knew the bebop repertoire. I think he wanted somebody who wasn’t really knee-deep in the scene, who was better known than he was, or would compete for attention.
Anyway, someone told Steve Coleman, “Yeah, there’s a cat who sounds like you.” So when you hear that, you think, “Let me go see for myself.” Both he and Cassandra Wilson came to the Vanguard, and we struck up an immediate friendship. We talked outside the club until sunup, and found out we had a lot of common ground. I went home and slept a couple of hours, and then he called, and we talked again for another five hours about, “What do you aspire to do? What is your vision? What are your long term goals?” Things like this. We mutually agreed that we needed to engage in some kind of musicians’ collective where people could freely talk about music, bring new compositions, talk about approaches to improvisation as well as composition, and also to school each other on business. We also agreed that business was the main reason why many of our predecessors had led lives as paupers, even though they were amazing contributors to the music. They always had to have a benefit to pay for hospital bills or whatever, they had no insurance, no holdings, no real estate, nothing. So we needed to school each other on that, as well as the particulars of music business law, negotiating, recording techniques—all the things that a musician should know. Unfortunately, many musicians stopped short. They say, “Ok, I can write, I can improvise,” but they don’t learn everybody else’s role. So therefore, they are led around and they just sign on the dotted line, they say yes to everything, without really knowing the fundamentals of survival and business.
So these were ideas you were thinking about as a student.
Absolutely. I was always like that.
Is that innate? Were there things happening in St. Louis, where you grew up, that influenced you that way? People you encountered in college?
Actually, fear of failure made me think about these things. I would look around the environment where I was from, and you saw so much depravity and so much blight. As a youth, I said, “I’m not going to be about this. I’m from here, and I can recognize it, but I have to step above it. Otherwise, I can’t help anyone else and I certainly can’t help myself.” I don’t understand why a lot of young people say, “Yeah, I’m from the streets. I’m the ‘hood.” That’s really nothing to be proud of. So fear of not being able to leave or do better for myself, made me go to the library on my own, without any prodding from anybody else. I have to learn about these things, and I have to learn about the world and learn how to relate to people. I talked about that way back.
It’s tempting to think of this loosely formed consortium of musicians that convened together under the name M-Base as a 1980s descendant of Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, but in reality, as young artists, neither you nor Steve Coleman had that much contact with either the AACM, in his case, or with the Black Artists Group, in your case. Or am I wrong?
Not at that time. I mean, I certainly heard the Black Artists Group as a youth in St. Louis. But I didn’t know what was going on. I would climb this building and hang onto the bars of the window, and I would look in, and I saw Hamiet Bluiett and I saw Floyd LeFlore… I saw those cats, wearing, like, big straw hats and dashikis and real tie-dye kind of stuff. It was loft scene stuff, the REAL stuff, in warehouses. I would ride my bike down there. So maybe that…
It rubbed off.
Yeah, maybe it did. Because now Bluiett is one of my best friends, and Murray, all those cats. So I guess it did plant some kind of seed back then. But we also fashioned that collective off George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the big umbrella structure where there would be one mass group and a lot of mini-groups that resided up under it. So you would have interchangeable personnel on each other’s projects that would give it a sound and be a glue that held everything together. So there were other models.
Mentioning George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic as a model segues to another question. When you think about the enduring legacy of M-Base in the ‘80s, on a superficial level the most obvious component would be the rhythmic innovations of that period, bringing hip-hop and funk rhythms into jazz flow, working kind of in parallel with musicians familiar with Afro-Caribbean rhythms doing the same thing. Then in the ‘90s, people started intermixing and intermingling all those rhythmic structures, Steve Coleman not least among them. Can you speak to the process by which you worked out and conceptualized those ideas within your own musical production?
It’s important for me that the musical environments I place myself in be inclusive and encompass the values that I consider essential for thinking and progress. I would never want to be involved in something so predictable and rote that people can anticipate what’s going to happen, anticipate the moves or decisions you’re going to make. So it’s important to set up a host of variables and parameters that disallow the same choices, with each cycle, with each generation. This strategy is very deliberate. Each composition has a point—either rhythmic, harmonic, or structural—that I’m trying to make. We deal with different structures that aren’t necessarily chords—voicings that are derived from purely rhythmic means, mathematical means; different weights and depths; different balances. But you’re always trying to mold these theorems into something that sounds musical, because otherwise it sounds solely technical, left brain, and analytical.
Well, that was a criticism at certain points.
Right. Well, that’s going to happen, and that’s inevitable when you’re experimenting. These sounds tend to be foreign, they’re not very familiar to people, and they are works in progress, so they may not be fully resolved. In the process, there will be hurdles, there will be mistakes, and there will be complete failures. But even those failures will eventually yield triumphs if you stick to it. Also, a lot of the things you work on, you realize you have to abandon, because nothing fruitful is going to come from it. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole.
But you can’t figure this out unless you take to its conclusion. There’s beta-testing to know you can’t use something.
Of course. The admonishment of the critics, and the thumbs-down, and the negative stars in the polls, and the dark reviews and all… Anybody who I champion, certainly, turned a deaf ear to that.
You’ve been playing two nights with this band. Did the music change from Tuesday to Wednesday? Do you want your music to be mutable? Are you looking for that?
Most definitely. Each night it ascends to a higher rung on the ladder. It’s great to witness the growth and development of a new band, to see these young personalities blossom, as they climb the stairs towards realizing themselves and who they are as artists. Again, my personal frustration is that I don’t see it often enough. I wish the scene was as bountiful as it was when I got to town, so I could go out to see what the new arrivals have to say, then see some of them run home with their tail between their legs, and then emerge again and redevelop. Sometimes people need that kind of shaming to get the lesson. Or you need the scolding of a Betty Carter or an Art Blakey or an Elvin Jones or a Max Roach, as elders, to put you in your place and let you know that either you’re not ready, or you have things to work on.
Did anybody fill that role for you?
Not in New York. But before I got to New York, in St. Louis as a teen. The elders were very intolerant and unyielding in their position as caretakers of the scene, and they didn’t let things go by.
Who were some of those people?
Willie Akins. Freddie Washington. Both are tenor players. Other players. They said, “Look, man, you’ve got to get out of there.” I’ve had the band stopped on me. “Stop. Get outta here. You don’t know what you’re doing?” I’ve had bombs dropped on the drums, they hit the snare really hard or hit a cymbal really hard, or they’ll just like lay out, or start playing really soft, and then you’re just out there. You’re young, you’re arrogant, you don’t know what you’re doing. Then you don’t come back until you’ve learned THAT. Then there are other lessons to learn.
I actually sat in with Sonny Stitt when I was 17. I could play blues. He said, “Well, young man, what would you like to play?” I said, “I’d like to play a blues.” But I only knew blues in a couple of keys. So of course, Sonny Stitt being who he was, he played it in a very, very difficult and obscure key…
Then he probably transitioned to another one.
Man! So that let me know. You just can’t coast. You have to learn how to access everything on your instrument, and be able to adjust in a variety of contexts. It was tough love. We don’t have enough of that, because right now, younger players are being embraced right out of school, with no training, no apprenticeship, they don’t go on the road. They get record deals…
Your generation was accused of those sins as well.
Yeah, but the thing was, we still had the benefit of being apprenticed. I started out with Faddis and Dizzy and all these people, and Steve Coleman at the time was playing with Abbey Lincoln and Thad Jones. Cassandra Wilson was playing with Henry Threadgill, and Geri Allen was playing with Oliver Lake as well as James Newton. So it still was happening. They still would allow us to sit in. George Coleman, Cedar Walton, Lou Donaldson, other people, would let you sit in until you were too disruptive or proved you weren’t ready. But fortunately, a lot of us were conservatory-trained. We had gone to Berklee or Oberlin or Manhattan School of Music or North Texas State or various places. A lot of people were prepared.
Which is a dynamic that may differentiate you from previous generations—that conservatory background.
Well, by the time I got in school, they did have jazz programs. Prior to that, you could get kicked out of school playing jazz—even a music school.
There were some in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but the real burgeoning began with the class you entered school with.
Right. It was a great time to be in school, and everyone was New York-minded. This was the ultimate destination. So everyone played and carried on and had the profile of somebody who was en route to New York. We did our jam sessions on a very competitive and furious level. We practiced all day and all night, every moment. All the drummers would walk around playing air drums. All the trumpet players and trombone players would walk around buzzing on their mouthpieces. All the saxophone players always had a neckstrap on. All the piano players were stretching their arms and doing finger exercises and things. People knew there was a slim chance, but possibly a chance that you could land a gig with somebody and go on the road and see how it was done. By and by, that dried up, and Bradley’s closed, which was the end of everything, as far as I’m concerned. That was the end.
October 1996. That was the end.
GREG: That was the end. That was the all-night hangout spot where you could go hear amazing music being played, up-close and personal, and then you turn around and there’s George Benson sitting next to you, then Freddie Hubbard will come in, Horace Silver is over there… It was amazing. I like to talk about the many nights that I saw the piano roundtable go down, where the John Hicks Trio might be playing, then Kenny Barron would come in, and he might play “Round Midnight”—he’d play a few choruses, then Roland Hanna may play a few choruses, then Cedar Walton may play a few choruses, then Mulgrew Miller and James Williams and Donald Brown. You might hear 5 or 6 pianists play the same song, and it might go on for like an hour or two. You’re sitting there with your mouth open. It’s like a university education in the night. You’ll sit there and talk to various people. Stanley Crouch is holding court. So you get an earful of stories and anecdotes.
Many levels of humanity in that place.
GREG: Absolutely. But it was great. That was jazz to me. That’s why I came to New York. “Mr. Coleman, can you tell me…”—and George Coleman would indulge you. You could sit and talk to anybody. Can you imagine? John Hicks. Just the stories.
That was the end. Then a lot of the jam sessions closed up, too. Unfortunately, musicians during Reaganomics, they weren’t making a lot of money, so a guy would buy a beer and be at the jam session for five or six hours, and he’d still have that same beer—it would be still two-thirds full. He couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Those places couldn’t afford to stay open, when people were holding up the wall, so to speak. I really miss it. I miss seeing people get embarrassed. I miss seeing people just get smoked on the bandstand. They need to know that they’re not ready, that they need to practice, that they don’t have the particulars to make it on the competitive New York stage. Without that, you have whole legions of people who aren’t ready but don’t know that they’re not ready. You’d go to the Jazz Cultural Theater, and Barry Harris would be there, or Jaki Byard. Anybody would walk in. Clifford Barbaro. Betty Carter would come and say, “Honey, you need to go back to Cleveland or Arkansas or wherever you’re from; you need to work.” You NEED this. We don’t have it. You don’t have Art Blakey playing two weeks in a row at Sweet Basil or Mikell’s or wherever. You can go every night, and he may let you sit in, and you get to hear some amazing jazz with people your age. Or you go to the Blue Note and play at Ted Curson’s jam session. This is before you had to sign your name and wait all night, and get to play one solo. Or you’d go to the Star Café on 23rd Street. Or you’d go to the 7th Avenue South, when the Brecker Brothers had that club, and you could hear that kind of jazz. David Sanborn might be there, Hiram Bullock, Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, Michael and Randy or whatever. Or Grand Street. Greene Street. There were so many places.
GREG: Yeah, hangs. Not only there, but you would see so much great music on the street. Arthur Rhames. Vincent Herring was 17 years old, playing out in Times Square. George Braith, with his dual saxophones welded together, the Braithophone, would be in front of the public library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. This was before policemen started confiscating musicians’ instruments. They would take cats’ stuff, then demand that they get a laminate and a peddler’s license, just like a hot-dog cart guy. You could hear music all the time everywhere.
I don’t want to reminisce like it was the glory days, and I think it can happen again. I just think younger players need to get back into the idea of having jam sessions at their houses, and really twisting each other’s arms, and getting out, and just being more enthusiastic about it, more creative, and take more chances, more risks, and stop playing it safe. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere.