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For Evan Parker’s 70th Birthday, a 2010 DownBeat Feature

The sui generis master soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker turns 70 today. I’ve been enthralled with his music for several decades now, and have had several opportunities to interact with him, initially in 1990 through the auspices of Ben Young, who organized what I believe was a ten-day festival of his music, and allowed me to participate in an on-air interview. In the early aughts, on assignment from Jazziz, I interviewed Evan and photographer Thomas Struth (it wasn’t published). Then, in the winter of 2009-10, I wrote a long profile for DownBeat framed around  a long residency at the Stone. The piece ran a little shorter than I would have preferred, and for the occasion, I’ve offered a director’s cut, a bit more lugubrious than the final copy, but more thorough.

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 Evan Parker Article, Downbeat, 2010 (Early Draft):

“I believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, that there’s a life in that relationship or set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue. The notion of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once, and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  You have nothing to judge it by; there’s no point of reference. It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context. Of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello. But I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.” – Evan Parker, 2003

Forty-five years into his career as a professional improviser, saxophonist Evan Shaw Parker remains a  perpetual road warrior, pursuing a lifestyle—on the move at least six months a year, long rides in cars or trains or airplanes from one destination to another, irregular sleep and meals, less than stellar accommodations—that could wear down most artists half his age. Yet Parker, who turns 66 this year, embraces the sacrifice of itinerancy with the enthusiastic attitude of a circuit-riding preacher or union organizer of days gone by whose imperative it was to deliver the message in person.

Parker travels not to praise the Lord or organize the masses, but to find as many contexts as possible in which to present his sui generis conception of the saxophone. He drew first principles from the innovations of the ‘60s avant-garde—John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were Parker’s window into the use of multiphonics, overtones, and circular breathing—and grafted onto this aesthetic bedrock the harmonic extremities of European post-12-tone modernism, a global array of scales and intervals drawn from Herman Helmholtz’s authoritative lexicon, and independent fingering and projection techniques associated with playing the Scottish bagpipes and the launeddas, an ancient three-pipe Sardinian reed instrument. He’s refined his language with micronic precision, developing his ability to articulate and develop two or three simultaneous lines in a sort of musique concrete counterpoint.

“A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system—there’s no effort to control it, no effort to think,” Parker told me a few years back of the way his imagination functions as he plays solo. He describes a process analogous to ars memoria, the medieval system of memorizing large systems—and also the oral traditions of preliterature cultures—by placing objects in familiar places. “I enter that room where the music is,” he said. “I can do almost anything to open the door, then I look around until my attention lights on some particular place and I know roughly where I am. I look again. What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was here? I stay until something happens, and takes me somewhere else.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.”

Even by his standards, Parker took on, as he put it, “an exceptional schedule” over the last three months of 2009, bringing his tenor and soprano saxophones to an extraordinary array of encounters. There was an October duo in Barcelona with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and workshops and concerts with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton in Cannes and Paris. A two-week tour with the Schlippenbach-Lovens trio included engagements in Berlin, Ulrichsberg, Prague and Brataslava, where Parker also found time to play a recital with Alvin Lucier, a concert with the Globe Unity Orchestra, and a gig with the electronic unit Groovetronic. He guested with the out-trio Marteau Rouge in Tours, Paris, and Brussels; navigated composer-cellist-electronicist Walter Prati’s processed structures with a medium-sized ensemble in Milan; triologued  with regular mates John Edwards and Tony Marsh at London’s Vortex, where he has a monthly hit, and with keyboardist Stephen Gruen and drummer Philip Marks in Liverpool.

Prior to all of these events (directly following a 3,000-mile, 7-gigs-in-7-nights tour with extended techniques sax master Ned Rothenberg that had begun on the West Coast and ended in Montreal), Parker presided over an audacious first-two-weeks-of-October residence at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue,where it was evident that he listens as attentively to others as to the voices deep within him. Directly after a seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York, he launched the event with a solo recital executed with characteristic derring-do, followed an hour later by an avuncular duo with synthesist Richard Teitelbaum in which Parker, playing soprano saxophone, created instantaneous acoustic responses to Teitelbaum’s assorted burbles, birdcalls, critter onomatopoeia, virtual percussion, swoopy waves, Bachian cello, celestial harmonics, and prepared piano pings—they ended spontaneously on the same pitch.

Such energy and acuity belied whatever exhaustion Parker may have felt, and he delineated the harmonics with such precision that only the most educated ear could discern that he was playing with a stock mouthpiece, having recently left his three painstakingly customized ones on a train. But to wallow in self-pity was not an option, and Parker would carry on. Hunkered down three blocks away in a small flat on Avenue D, he took on all comers, two shows a night of one-shots with partners representing vastly different predispositions and ways of thinking about music.

In the opening section of his meeting with Fred Frith, Parker projected droll tenor responses to Frith’s Dadaesque antics on lap guitar (he brushed it as though polishing a shoe and prepared the bowed strings with a tin can and chain metal); then unleashed a jaw-dropping unaccompanied interlude on soprano before rejoining the dialogue with with vertiginous intervals and audacious unisons; then uttered a long tenor drone which Frith somehow complemented with more prepared bowed strings.

Earlier in the run, before a house so jammed that the fire marshals cleared it before they were done, Parker and Milford Graves played a five-part suite marked by incessant rhythmic modulation and dynamic ebb-and-flow. After Parker unleashed Coltranesque torrents in the tenor’s lower register in the second movement, he switched to a balladic seven-note theme that received intense theme-and-variation treatment. Graves’ slow rolling tom-toms that crescendoed to jet-force, propelling Parker into a multiphonic whirlwind. An hour later, with George Lewis on trombone, laptop, and interactive electronics with which to modify and manipulate the pitch qualities of Parker’s soprano saxophone lines, Parker—his face beet-red, his embouchure visible as a dimple-line running 45 degrees from nose to jaw—went with the flow, circular-breathing to create a feedback loop of chirps and crackles and waves.

To honor Thelonious Monk’s birthday came a few nights later,  Parker, Matthew Shipp and William Parker played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolating other Monk fragments at various points. “If they’d jumped on the tune at the very outset, well, it would have gone another way,” Parker said two days later over a lunch of roast chicken, tostones, and rice-and-beans on Avenue C.  Salt-bearded and bespectacled, with a barrel chest and thick soccer legs, he wore a charcoal shirt, black jeans and black loafers, and carried a just-purchased copy of Robin Kelley’s new Monk biography. “But they played ambiguously in relation to it,” he continued. “The point is to do it in such a way that it’s there if you want to hear it, and not there if you don’t want to hear it. It’s raw material. It’s a free choice. When you say you’re playing freely, it also means you are free to play things that you absolutely know and things that are rather predictable.”

Parker related that for his sixtieth birthday, outcat pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, a constant associate since the latter ‘60s on such Eurocentric projects as the Globe Unity Orchestra and a long-standing trio with drummer Paul Lovens, most recently documented on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], had presented him with a handwritten folio of Monk tunes, transposed for saxophone, that also contained a drawing of Parker (Schlippenbach refers to his mild-mannered partner as “The Bishop of Faversham”) topped with a Bishop’s mitre,

“I’ve since got the official book, which Steve Lacy told me was accurate, and I’ve been trying to memorize them all as an homage to Steve,” Parker continued. “When I was here as a teenager I heard his School Days band at a Bleecker Street coffee shop called Phase 2. At the end of the first set, Steve said to the audience, which must have been five of us, ‘We’d like to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that we play requests; the band will play any tune by Thelonious Monk.’ On his way back to the bandstand, I said, ‘Mr. Lacy, I’d love to hear “Four In One.”’ He said, “Uh-HUH”—and they played ‘Four In One’!

“Since then, it’s become almost a rite of passage to get to grips with those things, to play on the structures or just use them as study material. Monk had a very rigorous approach to constructing a line, a melody, which Steve distilled in his own work—systematic combinatorics of limited interval types in order to bring out their inherent characters. There are a thousand ways to define what we mean by a fourth, a major third, a minor third. The material goes beyond scales and arpeggios—the idea is to get it to fall under your fingers in a way that you’re not simply playing from the riff book. You have to hear your way through, know what is the underlying cliche and how to disguise it. I make the analogy with the armature in a sculpture. A sculptor might use a steel frame underneath to hold the clay in certain positions which otherwise it wouldn’t hold. But it’s not the armature that’s interesting. It’s the form of the clay. Without those things it’s just…formless might not be the word, but lacking in structural integrity.”

[BREAK]

The weekend after Parker left town, in an odd quirk of scheduling, the Abrons Center on Grand Street, a half-mile south of the Stone, hosted a two-day festival dedicated to the legacy of Incus Records, the label that Parker, Bailey and Tony Oxley co-founded in 1970. After Oxley departed a few years later, Parker and Bailey—who died in 2005—served as co-directors. They ran an efficient operation, producing some of the seminal documents of European free improvisation. They split on acrimonious terms in 1985, with Parker keeping possession of his own copyrights and master tapes. Since 2001, he has been bringing back into print—along with new material by himself and various associates—on Psi, his imprint, which now boasts a catalog of over 60 items.

“It functioned quite well for a while,” Parker said. “But it’s very hard for two people to agree about everything, and we didn’t agree about everything. In fact, towards the end, we didn’t agree about anything. I wasn’t happy being treated as though I was number-two in a situation where we should be equal. So I just thought the best thing to do would be to take my ball and go home.”

This was all Parker had to say about the rift. “Derek is no longer here to speak up for himself,” he said. However, George Lewis, who was close to both, offered some observations.

“Derek was a very forceful personality,” Lewis said. “He was a little curmudgeonly, very determined and single-minded. That attracted a lot of people. At the same time, uncompromising people like that tend to have very few friends, because people can’t handle it for long periods of time. But Evan seemed to be a person who could handle that, and was able to mold things that Derek did to his own requirements. Derek was very private; part of him would be very suspicious if he thought people liked it too much. Whereas I think Evan is more comfortable with being liked. Being loved, really—people love both these guys. They were together so much that when they finally stopped being together, it was wounding not only to them, but to the larger community.”

Parker was willing to discuss the ways in which his and Bailey’s respective personalities played out in their musical production, “Maybe the most crucial difference between Derek’s approach and mine is that I’m interested in a much more adaptive language, a much more flexible sense of musical persona,” he said. “The main job is to select the relevant material, much more of the material that I use to represent myself, the music masks that I use to play behind, or through, varies with the context than Derek’s. ‘Mask’ is a much more complicated idea than simply a disguise, something to hide behind.  Think of the way masks are used in African music ritual. The mask is a particular chosen projection of identity.”

Unlike Bailey and most of his contemporaries from the first generation of European experimental improvisers, Parker chose to embrace American jazz as a lineal, if often hidden influence. “It’s just where I come from,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t know about Boulez and Stockhausen and Xenakis and all those other things. But in shaping the idea of personal direction, the point that Coltrane got to, especially in Interstellar Space, is a kind of defined place. Even the idea of kind of multi-linear approach to soprano is derived from thinking about certain things Coltrane was doing on the longer solos on “My Favorite Things,” where he’s sort of hinting at two lines and keeping two lines going. There’s an enormous lack of modesty involved in thinking you can do anything past that, and you have to be aware of this. But through practice and effort and concentration on what makes your direction YOUR direction, there are some corners left to work in.”

Told that Rothenberg had remarked on his “whirling” time feel, “with a pulse that tends to breathe in a kind of ebb-and-flow,” Parker described it as his “default mode,” citing not only “the work I had to do to play with John Stevens,” the British drummer with whom he made much music in the ‘60s and ‘70s (“it was a baptism of fire”), but also “the constellation” of the New York Art Quartet with John Tchicai and Milford Graves, Milford’s duo with Don Pullen, the Coltrane-Rashied Ali duos, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. “These were the very last bits of concerted influence, where you feel, ‘Ok, these are the materials that I must learn to deal with,’” he said. “After that, it became essential to deal with what John Stevens was doing, what Derek, Paul Rutherford, Paul Lytton, Barry Guy, and all the people associated with that first generation of London-based free improvisers were doing.”

Parker’s simpatico for the American—or, more accurately, New York—context stems from the summers of 1962 and 1963 when, by dint of a free flight enabled by his father’s position with BOAC, the predecessor of British Airlines, he was able to see his musical heroes on their home turf. Ensconced in a YMCA on 34th Street, he bought records by day and haunted clubs and coffee houses at night. In addition to the aforementioned encounter with Lacy, he heard Eric Dolphy with Herbie Hancock at Birdland, Cecil Taylor’s trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray at Phase 2 on Bleecker Street, Carla Bley in duo with Gary Peacock.

“Coltrane was always out of town, so I didn’t hear him here, though I’d heard him in England in 1961,” Parker recalled. “But to hear Cecil Taylor before he came to Europe for the first time, to hear Dolphy and Herbie Hancock before Herbie went with Miles—I’m not going to forget those things. From that point, New York was the center of the world as far as the music I was interested in.”

[BREAK]

“I’m ready for a break,” Parker said at the beginning of February from his home in Kent, referencing his recent travels. Over a month or so of down time, he would work on “thinking about how to practice, practicing, organizing for the label and for events coming up.” Most important among the latter, he said, were several concerts with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, a project that he has documented since 1997 on five ECM CDs, increasing the number of participants from six to 14 on the most recent iteration,  The Moment’s Energy, which includes Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi, Peter Evans on trumpets, and Ko Ishikawa on sho, a reed-based Japanese mouth organ, an orchestra’s worth of real-time electronic processing vehicles. In distinction to the prior ECM dates, Parker used the studio as another instrument, remixing and realigning the  materials of the real-time version to construct a final document. It’s the latest development in Parker’s ongoing investigation of digital media as a tool to transcend the limits of what he can do with the saxophone.

“What works for a concert is not necessarily what works for a record to be played in people’s homes,” Parker said. “It’s partly to do with dynamic range, partly with what Manfred Eicher  calls dramaturgie. You don’t quite know the circumstances under which the record will be played. So the idea of modifying something in response to that is no longer a kind of heresy for me. It’s just part of the work, and if people want to discuss it and take positions for or against, well, that’s fine.”

For all the audaciousness and fire that he projects through his horn, Parker’s extraordinary chops have brought him trouble with members of the “avant-garde police,”  who have accused him of being a sort of overly technical, non-interactive Johnny-one-note more concerned with attaining individual transcendence than dialogic interaction. Bailey’s biographer Ben Watson, a doctrinaire Trotskyite, most memorably expressed this critique with the shit-sling, “the totalitarian afflatus of [Parker’s] technique steamrollers specific ambiance, turning his music into the kind of dependable commodity required by promoters and applauded by the general public.”

Lewis addressed this issue in a more nuanced way. “Derek liked to smash genres together, people from different traditions and practices,” he said. “Evan was starting to do this as well, but then he broke away from it. Now it’s reached a new level where he is content to be at the center of his own world than ever before; he’s found ways to make music that bears his stamp, music that’s him,  through the medium of improvisation. It’s not being an improviser that’s important. It’s what Evan’s music is.”

For Parker, who developed Anarcho-Socialist leanings during university days, philosophical materialism coexists in pragmatic equipoise with his investigations into the mysteries of shamanism, as he denotes with his label’s name.

“I juggle those things every day,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by current developments which are more related to finding consensus on the solution to specific problems, and less concerned with building an overarching ideology that purports to solve all problems at a stroke. Shamanism, by the way, is one of the ways that you can solve some of those small problems. It’s metaphysics, but it’s also practical. Spiritual is material, too. If you define materialism as to recognize the way things work, then we have to include psi phenomena, the things which physicists can’t explain.”

Parker himself found it difficult to explain the criteria he uses to decide what constitutes a successful performance, and what to release and not-release, either on his label or others. He had not yet found time to evaluate his massive output at the Stone, which was professionally recorded and line-mixed. “It would be crazy not to release some of it, but I want to make sure I do it properly.”

“It’s a total response,” he added. “It can be a good idea sometimes to wait a year or more before you listen, otherwise you just reinforce the memories of the struggle that was involved, which may affect your objectivity and not be at all important in the bigger picture. It’s easier to be positive about some solo thing that you feel came out well. Everything else is complicated about expectations about what other people may or may not do. All I can say is that if I think that the thing is a failure, I have no problem leaving it on the shelf.”

He remarked that he had worked for a decade on Time Lapse [Tzadik],  a critically acclaimed high-concept unaccompanied suite in which he juxtaposes unaccompanied and overdubbed solos, an endeavor he launched in 1991 with Process and Reality [FMP]. “I wanted to give John something special,” he said.  “I had to think and plan something that wouldn’t disappoint John, who I think of as a man with very high standards, both ethically and aesthetically,” Parker said. “It’s not that I would set out to disappoint anybody. But in John’s case, it’s a case of ‘Among roses, be a rose.’”

He added that he had taken similar care with House Full Of Floors,  his 2009 Tzadik release, on which Aleks Kolkowski, playing Stroh viola, cylinders, and musical saw, joins Parker, guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards on a pair of quartet  improvs—on the final track, the trio responds to a Kolkowski-generated wax cylinder of their playing.

“John proposed the New York event, and we negotiated the programming,” Parker said. They met in 1978, the year Parker first came to the U.S. professionally, doing 29 solo concerts in 33 days, and remained in touch ever since.

“It was a highly memorable two weeks,” he retrospected. “New York was always a special city for me, from its mythic origins to my first experiences there as a young man. Every time I come back, I get a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else in the world. There’s an incredible community of players to draw on. And John’s support for the venture allowed me to be among friends. The Stone is absolutely my kind of space, like a non-denominational chapel of music. There’s no frills. It’s a room where you can play some music and some people can come and listen.”

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For The 89th Birth Anniversary of James Moody (1925-2010), A DownBeat Feature From 2000, three Uncut Interviews with Moody, and Interviews from Six of his Colleagues and Associates

It’s the 89th birth anniversary of James Moody (1925-2010), the brilliant alto and soprano saxophonist, flutist and humanitarian, whose 65-year career in the jazz business took numerous twists and turns, all of them linked by Moody’s unending quest for knowledge and self-expansion. In 2000, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece on Moody, for which I conducted three interviews, all of which are included below the article, which comes first in the queue.

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Compact, bearded, owlishly bespectacled, spotlit stage-center at Avery Fisher Hall, James Moody is bending back, blowing on his tenor saxophone with a vengeance as he bobs and weaves through the jagged changes of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Birks’ Works.” Moody screams in the horn’s higher register, roars gutturally through its lower depths, displacing the rhythms with dazzling panache, shaping an elegant, soulful statement that caps a succession of spot-on declamations by an honor roll of Gillespie disciples — Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, Paquito d’Rivera, Slide Hampton, Kenny Barron. They, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and a packed house that spans about five generations and comprises a living rainbow coalition, are helping Moody celebrate his 75th birthday.

In 1996 Moody recorded Young At Heart [Warner], a lyric recital of songs associated with Frank Sinatra; as the applause and whoops wind down, educator David Baker takes the stage to deliver an eloquent encomium that explains why the title is so apropos to Moody’s persona. Baker notes that Moody is the paradigm of a man who is “ageless, perpetually young,” that he never stands still, that “unlike many musicians who develop a personal style early in their career and perpetuate it, his vision keeps evolving.” He praises Moody’s avid predisposition to exchange information with his peers, and mentions that he is an incessant practicer who continues to follow a lifelong dictum to learn everything he can from any source. Concluding, he observes that Moody sustains an open, humane attitude to all comers, regarding “everyone who crosses his path as a child of the Creator.”

A quick scan of the program bears out Baker’s claim; the material, representing Moody’s 54-year musical journey, reflects the span of his quotidian repertoire. He showcases his dry, minimal vibrato soprano sound on a modernist Gil Goldstein arrangement of Henry Mancini’s “Slow Hot Wind,” a showpiece of his most recent album, Moody Plays Mancini. He addresses the ’60s with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” and reprises a pair of iconic hits, “Last Train To Overbrook” and, for perhaps the fifty thousandth time, “Moody’s Mood For Love,” replaying his iconic improvisation with utter conviction. And he dives head-first into a challenging admixture of Gillespiana, with “Things to Come,” “Manteca,” “Con Alma” and “Emanon,” tunes that, like Moody, reveal new layers every time you hear them.

“Moody is way into altered scales, different kinds of harmonic devices, use of fourths, of pentatonics, of compound scales, of bitonals,” says Todd Coolman, Moody’s bassist of choice since 1984. “He’s aware of every so-called advanced harmonic device, he has them in his ear and he can play them. At the same time, if you want to play a blues in B-flat, he can play the traditional vocabulary as well. At heart, I think ultimately as a tenor player he just wants to be a singer of melodies.”

“I remember saying to Diz one time, ‘I wish I would have gone to school and studied music,’” Moody had recalled the previous afternoon in the sitting room of his hotel suite, the crepuscular light illuminated by gigantic bouquets courtesy of Bill Cosby and Peter Jennings. “Diz looked at me and said, ‘Moody, you ain’t dead.’ That lightbulb went on. I immediately went and bought some music books.”

Over the course of three conversations, that pithy anecdote was the only personal reminiscence I could elicit from Moody about the man with whom he toured incessantly between 1963 and 1970 and who featured him as the primary tenor soloist in the first iteration of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra from 1946 to 1948. “There are people who elaborate, and it really amounts to nothing but a hill of beans,” Moody says. “Then there are people that say it was a relationship that I will value as long as I live, because of its importance and profoundness.”

Fittingly, Moody opened the concert with “Emanon,” a medium-tempo Gil Fuller blues that Gillespie recorded for Musicraft in 1946, on which, with one 16-bar solo, Moody established himself — along with Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson and Sonny Stitt — as a pioneer in translating the vocabulary of bebop to the tenor saxophone. “Moody’s ‘Emanon’ solo was very exciting to all the saxophone players around Philadelphia,” Heath recalls. “It was different than any blues solo that you had heard, similar to what was coming out of Charlie Parker. He had the bebop sound. The way Moody accented was much faster than other saxophone players; when he played an eighth note or sixteenth note line, the accent was always on the AND, the one that was off the beat, which gave it a different kind of float.”

Moody recorded “Emanon” five years after his Uncle Louis, who was in attendance at the concert, presented him with his first saxophone, an alto; although he could read music, he was playing by ear at the time. The son and namesake of an itinerant trumpet player whom he did not meet until the age of 21, he spent his early years in Reading, Pennsylvania, and came of age in Newark, New Jersey. His mother was a jazz enthusiast, and the youngster absorbed her collection of Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie records, supplementing them with pioneer deejay Martin Block’s offerings on New York’s WNEW radio. A devotee of Lester Young (not to mention Georgie Auld and Ben Webster), the 16-year-old Moody attended a Count Basie concert at Newark’s Adams Theater expecting to hear his idol, only to be confronted with the virtuoso tenor tandem of Buddy Tate and Don Byas. Two years later his mother supplemented the aspirant’s arsenal with a tenor saxophone, an act which proved prescient once Moody enrolled in the Air Corps that year.

“I was at Basic Training Center #10 in Greensboro, North Carolina, where three-quarters of the base was Caucasian and one quarter was Negro,” Moody relates. “The Air Corps was segregated (German prisoners-of-war could go downtown and eat, and I couldn’t), and they wanted the Negro part of the base to be self-sufficient, which meant they wanted you to stay on your side. I was being trained to be a soldier, and they wanted to have a Negro band. They said, ‘Has anyone here got a horn?’ I said, ‘I’ve got one.’ They said, ‘Send for it.’ They didn’t ask if you could play it. So I sent for my tenor, and luckily for me I was able to get in the band — if it had been a regular band, I wouldn’t have been able to cut the mustard. As time went by, they had the musicians from the official Air Corps band come over and help the ones that needed the help. I appreciated their help. Dave Burns and Linton Garner, Erroll’s brother, were in the band; so was Pop Reeves, who I think wrote some arrangements for Benny Goodman.”

Sometime in the spring of 1946, not long before Moody was due to be discharged, Dizzy Gillespie, in the middle of a long string of Southern one-nighters, played a concert at the base. By this time Moody had listened “over and over and over” to seminal Parker-Gillespie sides like “Hot House,” “Shaw Nuff” and “Salt Peanuts,” and was a convert. “Dizzy told me and Dave Burns that he was going to form a new band when he got back to New York, and told us to try out for it, which we did,” Moody relates. “I didn’t make it, although Dave did; Walter Fuller, the band director, said I didn’t play loud enough. I had a gig, though. I was working at Lloyd’s Manor in Newark on weekends, and my pockets had the mumps. A couple of months later I got a telegram from Dave that said, ‘You start with us tonight at the Spotlite.’

“The first night I was there, Thelonious Monk was the piano player, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke and Milt Jackson were in the band. Clark Monroe, the manager, was a Negro, so he was probably fronting it; he dressed well and took care of business. The club was very small, and it was jammed every night; all the different people I’d heard on the radio — Coleman Hawkins, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman — would be in the audience. It was a thrill sitting there playing the music. Dave Burns showed me the line of ‘Things To Come’ just before the gig, and I played it. It was a breeze; I could read a little bit, and with time I learned to read more and more.

“We’d go on the chitlin’ circuit, what they called Around-The-World, the Apollo Theater in New York, then the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard Theater in Washington and the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. If you could make it in those theaters, you could make it anywhere. Then we went on tour down South with Ella Fitzgerald, which was a drag, because you couldn’t eat in restaurants and the bus driver, who was Caucasian, had to get sandwiches for you. We played dances where there would be a rope down the middle of the hall, with Caucasians on one side and Negroes on the other side; some places had two dances, the first maybe for Negroes with White spectators, and then a Caucasian dance with no Negro spectators.”

In October 1948, Moody took an octet of Gillespians into the studio and recorded ten sides, including “The Fuller Bop Man,” “Moody’s All Frantic,” “Tropicana” and “Tin Tin Deo.” The latter two featured Art Blakey and the legendary drummer Chano Pozo, with whom Moody roomed a few times while with Gillespie in Los Angeles. “Chano had a couple of bullets in him, and some nights when he was playing he would feel good and some nights he wouldn’t. He’d tell me, ‘Moody, feel here,’ and I could feel the bullets. One time Chano cracked me up. You remember the phrase people used to say, ‘Boy, that’s some deep shit’? Chano came to me looking real perplexed, with his face kind of frowned-up, and he held his hand up high and said, ‘Moody, Moody, what ‘deep shit’?’ People were saying, ‘boy, that’s some deep shit,’ and he was looking for some deep shit somewhere. I tried the best I could to explain it to him. I’m telling you, it was funny, man.”

At a certain point it became apparent that Moody was embroiled in some deep shit of his own. On the interminable bus rides with Gillespie, he relates, “I’d be in the back, with the hoot-hounds, talking with Dave Burns; the pot-hounds rode in the front.” By 1948, he was drinking to excess, “just drug and everything — my uncle, who was living in Paris, told my mother to send me over for two weeks to cool out. I stayed for three years.”

Ensconced comfortably in his uncle’s Paris apartment near the Eiffel Tower, Moody began to blossom into the voice that defined the first stage of his career. He free-lanced around Europe at his leisure, hung out frequently at the Club St. Germain, where he once jammed with Django Reinhardt, and interacted with the likes of Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Bill Coleman. He got married, had a daughter, and moved to an apartment across a courtyard from Sidney Bechet. He recorded over 90 sides for a variety of labels, producing statements on a series of ballads, blues and bop tunes that remain models of melodic invention. These include a remarkable spring 1949 session with Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron and Kenny Clarke, four tunes with Charlie Parker’s working band under Max Roach’s leadership, and an innocuous Fall 1949 session in Stockholm with charts by Swedish saxophonist-arranger Gösta Thesalius on which, using a borrowed alto saxophone, Moody improvised a solo on “I’m In The Mood For Love.” It became an instrumental hit, and in 1952, when King Pleasure recorded Eddie Jefferson’s lyric to the solo, “Moody’s Mood For Love” entered the realm of legend, imprinted in public consciousness like Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul” and Illinois Jacquet’s solo on “Flyin’ Home.”

“When I play a song, I don’t know the lyrics,” Moody claims. “All I know is the melody, and if I like the melody, I’ll play it.” Enough people liked the melodies Moody conjured during his European stay that savvy associates back home urged him to return to capitalize on the interest. “I wasn’t going to set foot on American soil again, because I was pissed off from what had happened to me in Greensboro,” Moody relates. “But I figured I’d come back, make the money, and then go back to playing in Europe. When I got here I said, ‘I was born here; why should I let them run me away from where I belong?’ That was it.”

Moody formed a septet, four horns and rhythm, commissioned arrangements from John Acea and Quincy Jones that captured the ambiance of Thesalius’ charts, hired the ur-hipster Babs Gonzalez as his band singer, and began a grueling regimen of touring through all corners of ’50s Afro-America.

“We worked all the time,” Moody says of the band that influenced the sound of Ray Charles’ seminal ’50s unit. “The only time we were off was traveling to the next gig. In the wintertime we worked in the northern cities and in the summertime we worked in the southern cities. Like my mother would say, everything was bass-ackwards. I did all the driving; I didn’t trust anybody else. After Babs Gonzalez left, I hired Eddie Jefferson to sing with the band, not knowing that he was the one who wrote the lyrics. I told Eddie, ‘I’m going to make you the manager, you’ll have a clicker, and after you get finished singing you go and keep clicking the numbers as the people come in.’ It was the same old shit as before I left, but only smoothed over with whipped cream.”

Perhaps in response to the pressures of incessant road life, Moody became increasingly dissatisfied with his playing during these superficially successful years. “The way I came up musically was wrong, I think, from the standpoint that I thought improvising was spontaneous,” Moody reflects. “I was playing by ear, and I thought you just did it; I didn’t realize that you had to practice changes. I started drinking, because people were saying how great I was, and I couldn’t play crap. It’s like I was flying an airplane but I didn’t know what the route was. If you don’t know the changes, you’re skimming.

“My music thing started changing later, when I started trying to find out about chords and theory. I’m 75 years old, and I haven’t reached my peak chord-wise, because I’m still trying to find out how to play the changes. See, the young cats come up and they learn this from the very getgo; I mean, they can play the hell out of them. The musicianship is much better with these younger musicians. They have the books and the teachers; if you feel like you want to learn something, you can learn it, from the bottom up. If you get a good teacher, you can play real quick. If you have a bad teacher, you’ll still be scuffling, years upon years upon years.”

After a six-month dryout, Moody returned to the road for a lengthy U.S. tour on which he spent the endless bus rides not drinking, but learning the ABC’s of harmony in intense sessions with band trombonist and chief arranger Tom MacIntosh. He disbanded for good in 1962, played a succession of three-tenor gigs with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and finally replaced Leo Wright as reedman-flautist in Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet, the chair he held for the remainder of the decade. Newly armed with harmonic knowledge, augmented by intensive study of John Coltrane’s harmonic system, Moody brought his playing to new levels of complexity and abstraction, never losing sight of melodic underpinnings or the necessity of a humorous overview. In 1973, recently married and with a young daughter, Moody moved to Las Vegas, opting for the security of a steady job in the reed section of Hilton Hotel house band. In the ’80s, after a stint with Gillespie bandmate Mike Longo’s group, he resumed the freelance life of a solo artist; since 1985, he’s toured with a series of quartets and made the guest star appearances that jazz giants make in their golden years.

“Moody started off with a gift, and he developed it,” Jimmy Heath says. “As an ear player, he was already extremely advanced; right now, he’s one of the greatest players who ever lived. I admire his tenacity and focus. If he hears you play a lick or a sequence that he hasn’t heard, he’ll ask you what it is, and once you show it to him, man, Moody takes it into his own style and elaborates on it, turns it inside-out, and does everything possible with that idea to make it his own.

“Over the years, Moody has become so free — not in a random fashion, but a scientific freedom — that he can do anything he wants with the saxophone. His sound has gotten real smooth and mellow with his old age, like wine. It’s not harsh and brash. It’s very soft until he wants to imply these certain emotional hollers or screams. If he wants to play in a bluesy fashion, he can do it. If he wants to play in a straight bebop way without the blues or just the changes, he can do it. He has true knowledge. He is in complete control.”

“Moody is constantly searching for things that are new to him, trying to find different things to do and say,” remarks Kenny Barron, who was 18 when he first played with Moody at the Five Spot, and two years later was recruited by Moody for Dizzy Gillespie’s band to replace Lalo Schifrin in the piano chair. “It’s never ending with him. Behind all of that, there’s still his sense of fun. One minute he’s playing all these strange fourths, really looking for it, but on the other hand he plays these real humorous things. That’s what gets me, along with his energy, and the fact that he’s constantly trying to improve.”

“I need to practice!” is how Moody sums it up. “You play one horn because you like its sound, then you play the other horn because you like its sound and you want to play certain things on it, but then you play the other horn and you like ITS sound and you want to play certain things on it…finally you want to play everything on everything. So you start trying to do that, and when you look, it’s time to go to bed. Then you get up and try something else; you look, and it’s time to go to a gig.”

Asked if music keeps him youthful, Moody concludes: “Let’s say the biggest secret is God. The next secret is my mother was 86, and my Uncle Louis is 86. And not to say that you always get to do what you want, but when you’re doing something that’s fairly like what you want to do, it makes everything in your system work fairly well. And my wonderful wife, Linda, who keeps me going. Being in love helps. When you don’t have that, you kind of fade away. When you do, you kind of want to stay in.”

[-30-]

* * *

James Moody (3-31-00):
TP: In all the biographies I’ve seen it says you were born in Savannah, Georgia, came to Newark at a certain point and got a saxophone when you were 16. How old were you when you left Savannah?

MOODY: I was only born in Savannah. My father played trumpet, and he was playing with a circus band. We were living in Reading, PA., my mother and I. My father was with the band, and he didn’t come back to Reading, so my mother went down to Savannah to look for him, because that’s where his mother and father were. He wasn’t there. And while she was there, I was born. She recuperated and came back to Reading. I didn’t meet my father until he was 21. His name was James Moody.

TP: So you’re James Moody, Jr.?

MOODY: No, I’m just James Moody. And I was raised in Reading, Pennsylvania and Newark, New Jersey.

TP: Was the time you got the saxophone your first exposure to music? It couldn’t have been…

MOODY: No, it wasn’t my first exposure to music. The point is, I was exposed to music on the radio and of course my mother playing records. I’m thankful that she liked jazz, because she liked, like, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, like that — Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey. That’s the kind of music she played, and that’s what my ears became acclimated to. I’m thankful for that, because the other music was that doo-wop music, and I could have maybe come up… I don’t think so, because I always liked Music, something with some substance. And to me, that was Jazz and the so-called Pop music of the day, which was Music at that time.

TP: In Reading when you were a kid, did the bands come through?

MOODY: Oh, in Reading I was a kid. I didn’t know anything about…

TP: You weren’t taken to any of these.

MOODY: No, I didn’t know anything about the music thing at all until I was actually in my teens. Then I knew about bands coming somewhere or something, or seeing some musicians. But I had never…

TP: What early bands do you remember seeing?

MOODY: The only band I remember seeing was a group playing… Pancho Diggs in Newark, New Jersey. Pancho Diggs had a band, and his hit song was “Swanee River.” Pancho Diggs, and there was another band there led by Mandy Ross. Finally, they started bringing bands to the Adams Theater in Newark on Park Place…

TP: Ellington’s band broadcast from there, and there are other broadcasts I’ve heard from there.

MOODY: Oh, I don’t know. But I know that’s where I saw Count Basie, because I liked Lester Young, and I wanted to see Prez play. But when I got there, Prez wasn’t there, so it was Buddy Tate and Don Byas who were playing tenor. I had an alto, and I wanted to play tenor, too — I liked that. So anyway, when I was drafted into the Air Corps, my mother got me a tenor. I got a tenor. Because then, we had a couple of bucks that we could put down, I guess, to buy a horn. But my Uncle Louis got me my first alto.

TP: That’s when you were 16?

MOODY: I was about 16.

TP: And that’s around when you saw Buddy Tate and Don Byas?

MOODY: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Were you a very quick learner on the saxophone?

MOODY: Well, I wouldn’t say that.

TP: Let me just say that five years after you get your first saxophone you’re recording your solo on “Emanon” with Dizzy Gillespie. So it sounds like you were pretty quick.

MOODY: Well, I was in the band. But I had a lot to learn. I don’t know. Maybe somebody could have done it in three years. Know what I mean?

TP: Maybe so. But were you a kid who memorized a lot of Lester Young solos and Coleman Hawkins…

MOODY: No.

TP: You hadn’t done that sort of thing.

MOODY: No, I hadn’t done that. All I did was just listen to things, and I liked them, and there would be certain pieces of something I liked, and I would go with that.

TP: Because a lot of people from your generation would memorize Chu Berry’s “Stardust,” or “Lester Leaps In” or Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul”, they’d learn the solos and go off from there.

MOODY: Yeah.

TP: But it was a different process with you.

MOODY: I didn’t do that. Because in the first place, I didn’t know the musical scene. I didn’t know what it was to learn music. I didn’t know how to go about learning. As a matter of fact, I used to go around asking, “What are chords?” It’s funny, because when you ask someone and they don’t know, it’s like the blind leading the blind. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help me. It was just that they didn’t know and I didn’t know. So for the longest time, I just went not knowing. Then finally, when I got with some people that did know, then I had to start trying to learn.

TP: Was that in the Service?

MOODY: That was when I had my septet.

TP: Oh, so not until the ’50s.

MOODY: Yes, that’s when I had my septet that I started getting with the chords.

TP: I read in one of the liner notes that Tom McIntosh had a lot to do with that.

MOODY: He’s the one. He’s the one who taught me my changes.

TP: Let me take some steps here. You’re saying that you really didn’t know how to play, but obviously you did in some sense…

MOODY: I played by ear.

TP: Tell me about your Service experience.

MOODY: I was in the Air Corps. I was drafted in ’43 and discharged in ’46. I was in the Air Corps, and it was segregated at the time, and so they wanted a Negro band, and that’s how I happened to get in the band. Actually, where I was, it was BTC #10, Basic Training Center #10. So I was being trained to be a soldier, and they wanted to have a Negro band. So one quarter of the base was Negro, the other three-quarters was Caucasian. So they said, “Has anyone got a horn here?” So I said, “I’ve got one.” They said, “Well, send for it.” They didn’t ask if you could play it; they just said, “Send for it.” So I sent for my horn, and they formed a band and I was in the band. Dave Burns was in the band. Pop Reeves who I think wrote some arrangements for Benny Goodman. Erroll Garner’s brother, Linton, was in the band. And as time went by, what they did was, they had the musicians from the official Air Corps band come over and help us, the ones that needed the help, and they helped. I formed a friendship with a couple of the guys that were in the band, because they… Afterwards, when I came out and got with Dizzy’s band, I would look sometimes and they would be in the audience. We’d be playing a dance or something, and they’d be standing down front. People used to do that. It was just nice to see them again. And I appreciated their help, too.

TP: Were you playing alto or tenor in the Army?

MOODY: Tenor.

TP: A lot of musicians who were in Army bands say it was a great experience for them, they’d practice every day and their whole day would be music, and it helped form them as musicians.

MOODY: Well, that’s the case now. But at that time it wasn’t like that, because you didn’t have the Jamey Aebersold books, the David Baker books, the Gary Campbells or Jerry Cokers — we didn’t have those. So we’d just try to get a look at whatever it was and try to play that, and if you learned it, that was about the extent of…

TP: Did you hear Charlie Parker during that time?

MOODY: Oh yeah. Charlie Parker, that was it. Charlie Parker and Dizzy, that was the stuff that you listened to.

TP: Did you hear Bird when he was with McShann or subsequent?

MOODY: No. I heard him afterwards.

TP: Do you remember the first record you heard? Was it live or a record?

MOODY: It was a record. I don’t know what it was. It might have been “Now’s The Time.” But in those days, one record would come out maybe every five or six months. Now 20 million records come out every second. But in those days you’d get a record, and then finally everybody would say, “Hey, man, have you heard the latest thing by Diz and Charlie Parker, man? You’ve got to listen to this. It’s called ‘Now’s The Time.’” I said, “Wow, what’s that?” Then the next thing you know, there’s “Salt Peanuts.” That came out. They didn’t have albums; there was just one record with two sides.

TP: So you’d memorize…

MOODY: So you just listened to that and say, “Oh, man.” Yeah, you’d play it over and over again.

TP: Where were you stationed?

MOODY: Greensboro, North Carolina.

TP: Was that a situation where you could go off base and hear bands coming through?

MOODY: You could go off-base and hear… I heard Benny Carter play there. But then Dizzy came on base and played at the Big Top for us. But he played for us, because like I said before, it was segregated. That was the place where I went… I guess you know that they had the German prisoners-of-war on the base there, and they would go into town and go into restaurants and eat, and they could socialize and do whatever they wanted, eat and whatnot…

TP: The prisoners-of-war could.

MOODY: The prisoners-of-war. And they wouldn’t let me… I couldn’t go in a restaurant.

TP: Is that where you met Dizzy?

MOODY: Yes.

TP: Did he give you a phone number and say…

MOODY: No, what he said was… He was playing at the Big Top, which was a big tent where we had our entertainment. He told me and Dave Burns that he was going to disband the band that he had, and when he got back to New York he was going to form a new one. We told him that we were going to be discharged in a few months. So he said, “Well, come on by and try out for the band.” And that’s what we did.

TP: When did you get to New York?

MOODY: Well, after a few months, when I was discharged, then I came back to Newark, New Jersey, where I was, and then I went and tried out for the band. I didn’t make it. Walter Fuller, who was the band director at the time, said I didn’t play loud enough. Then about two or three months later, my mother was ironing clothes and she had a smile on her face, just a look, and I asked her “What’s happening?” And she pointed onto some sheets that she had ironed, and under there was a telegram from Dave Burns that said, “You start with us tonight” — at the Spotlite on 52nd Street.

TP: Were you gigging after the Army?

MOODY: Oh yeah. Well, I had a gig. I was working at Lloyd’s Manor in Newark on weekends, man, and my pockets had the mumps. I was making some bucks.

TP: Was it bebop…

MOODY: It was a jazz gig! Piano, bass, drums and me.

TP: But were you playing the new music, or a mixture…

MOODY: I was playing what I was playing, and what I was playing was what I liked, so whatever it was, that’s what I was doing. But it wasn’t Dixieland, for sure.

TP: So you were with Dizzy for about 2½ years with one interruption when you went with Howard McGhee…

MOODY: No, I didn’t go with Howard McGhee. I was with Dizzy, and I did a recording with Howard McGhee. I was with Dizzy up until the time I went to Paris. I went to stay for two weeks and stayed for three years.

TP: That was in ’48.

MOODY: Yes, in ’48.

TP: Within that time you were some records with Dizzy and that wonderful session for Blue Note with Gil Fuller…

MOODY: Yes, “Tropicana”…

TP: Right, and “Fuller Bop Man.” And Chano Pozo was on the date as well. I’m sure you’ve been asked these questions about 8 million times, and I’m sorry you have to deal with them again. But had you ever dealt with Afro-Cuban before being in Dizzy’s band?

MOODY: Well, Mario Bauza was the one who hipped Dizzy to Chano, and Mario Bauza was aware of the Afro-American thing, and he played with Cab Calloway. I think he had something to do with Dizzy getting in the band. So Diz always had a big respect for Mario Bauza. In the interim I think he hipped him to Chano Pozo. So Dizzy got Chano Pozo in the band, and started writing like “Manteca” and different things, and Chano would be playing on it.

TP: Was that feeling something you had an instant affinity for?

MOODY: Well, it’s another feeling. Because if you’re feeling a straight 4/4 on the drums, CHICK-A-DING, CHICK-A-DING, you know, and then you get BUNCK-GOO, BAHK-A… It’s another feel. It’s another rhythm, another feel and it’s another lesson.

TP: Was Dizzy very proactive in breaking it apart…

MOODY: Dizzy was adept at it. I mean, he just loved it. He just went for it.

TP: One thing that seems to have been maybe his most lasting contribution was his ability to convey information to other musicians in a very specific way and break down music to its primary fundamentals. How did that apply to your experience with him during those years?

MOODY: Oh, I learned a lot from it. And my wife has heard me say this a lot of times, like, “Ah! That’s what I meant.” Even now I look back at certain things, “Oh…okay.” So it was a good learning experience. And Dizzy would take the time, and he would sit down at the piano and explain what something was, or he’d beat a rhythm and say, “See, this goes with this; listen to that.”

TP: So there was an aspect of school and you were really in the forefront-cutting edge of what was going on in the music at the time.

MOODY: Well, life was a school. That’s what it was. So right along with it; that’s what it was.

TP: Paris. Talk about your time there. You went there with Dizzy for the Salle Pleyel concert?

MOODY: No. I went to Paris mainly because I had a bout with alcohol. I had a bout with alcohol, and I was just drug and everything. So my uncle, who was living in Paris at the time, told my mother, who was his sister, “Well, send him over here for a couple of weeks, just for relaxation. Maybe that will do him good.” And I went over for two weeks and stayed for three years.

TP: This is the uncle who gave you an alto saxophone.

MOODY: Yeah, my Uncle Louis.

TP: Was he a musician?

MOODY: No. He worked for the government, the civil service. He wanted to be a dentist, but he couldn’t because we never had enough money for him to go to college.

TP: Talk about the way things got set up in Paris? Someone wrote you recorded something like over 90 tunes in a few years, which seemed hard to believe.

MOODY: No. You mean when I did 11 tunes in Sweden.

TP: Some are classics, and one is a song you still have to play…

MOODY: “Moody’s Mood For Love.” No, I did 11 sides. Anders Burman… I was down jamming at the Club St. Germain one night, and Anders Burman, who is a drummer, came in and sat in and played. But he also had something to do with the Metronome Record Company in Stockholm, Sweden. So he said, “Would you like to make some sides with us?” Like, 12 sides to be exact. I said, “Sure.” He said, “Okay, I’ll send you a plane ticket; you come up and record for us.” So I went to Stockholm and I played there a week and recorded.

TP: Then you another bunch of sessions two years later.

MOODY: Where?

TP: In Sweden? Well, there are sessions from ’49 and sessions from ’51. Prestige just put out a CD with 24 sides recorded in 1949 and 1951 with the Swedish musicians. Lars Gullin is on the latter sessions.

MOODY: That was in France. What was funny was, I didn’t know that “I’m In The Mood For Love” had become a hit. And all of a sudden, everybody in France was calling me. They wanted me to record for them. And I didn’t understand what was going on, because my mother didn’t have a telephone and I wasn’t telephoning home. You didn’t do that; you’d just write cards or something. And now, when I look back, what it was, was they wanted to get a hit, too. It was a hit already. You know what I mean? So when I look back I say “Ah.” If people want you, then they want to use you.

TP: You have such a lyric style, and within the modern harmonies, and I was wondering if you were influenced by singers in the way you approach…

MOODY: No.

TP: Not at all?

MOODY: No. And when I play a song, I don’t know the lyrics.

TP: Really.

MOODY: No.

TP: That surprises me.

MOODY: No. I don’t know the lyrics. All I know is the melody, and I like that; if I like the melody, I’ll play it.

TP: Did somebody put those songs in front of you, or were the songs your choices? Like “I’m In The Mood For Love” or “Pennies From Heaven.”

MOODY: No, I set “I’m In The Mood For Love” at the time.

TP: Were you gigging throughout the three years you spent in Europe?

MOODY: No. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just living there. My uncle was taking care of me. [LAUGHS] I didn’t have to work.

TP: So you came back to the States in ’52?

MOODY: I’m not sure what year I came back, but I came back reluctantly. I say that because of how I was treated when I was in the Air Corps. But when I got to France it was different. I said, “Oh!” Because I always thought something was wrong with me, and then when I got to France and saw what was going on, I said, “Ah, I see it isn’t me; it’s them. It’s the government back here.” I said, “I’m never going back there.”

TP: What brought you back?

MOODY: Well, they kept insisting that I come. I said, “I’m not going back.” They said, “Yeah, but come back and make that money, man.” I said, “All right, I’ll come back and make the money and then go back to playing.” But then when I got back here I said, “Why should I go back when I was born here, like I’m letting them run me away from where I belong?” So that was it.

TP: So you’re back here in the ’50s, and you put together a septet, and it works with an interruption or two until about ’61 or so, a similar format. And it was very influential. One of the first pieces I did for Downbeat was with Hank Crawford and Fathead, and they both were emphatic that the sound of your band influenced the sound that they were getting with Ray Charles and what he wanted.

MOODY: Yes.

TP: I’d like to talk about how you conceptualized the sound of that band, and what you did, and that experience.

MOODY: What happened with the sound of the band, the idea came from the sound that Gösta Thesalius did in Sweden for the “I’m In the Mood For Love” date. See, we had done all the sides with the strings. So we had a couple more to do, and so we did “I’m In The Mood For Love.” So Gösta Thesalius went into the john and sat down and sketched the harmonies out, and it was one take on a borrowed alto saxophone — from Lars Gullin. Then when I came back, I had to have those arrangements done so that they would sound similar to the record. So Johnny Acea, Quincy Jones, Gene Tease, Jimmy Boyd, they wrote the music for me. They wrote it, and it had that sound. It was a good little band, too.

TP: A fabulous band. The bass player was great. John Lathan.

MOODY: John Lathan. He had good time. The first time I heard John Lathan he was in Cleveland, Ohio, playing with a band called Gay Crosse, and that’s the first time I heard John Coltrane, who was playing alto — because he was living in Cleveland at the time, playing with Gay Crosse. I said, “Man, who IS that?”

TP: You I liked him right away, huh?

MOODY: [LAUGHS] Immediately. Before that.

TP: You were in Europe when he was with Dizzy, so you didn’t…

MOODY: No, I didn’t know him.

TP: And the drummer was really swinging, Clarence Johnston. On the hottest tempos he’s swinging.

MOODY: He’s from Boston. He studied with Alan Dawson.

TP: One thing that’s so interesting about that band is that it’s as modernist as music would get harmonically at that time, but it’s also a very communicative band.

MOODY: Oh yes.

TP: One reason why you’ve been so popular and loved by people over the years is being able to blend that very serious concert attitude to music with a very communicative thing. I wonder if you could comment on that.

MOODY: Actually, I guess I must say that I was probably just fortunate. Because you see, I didn’t do anything purposely to say, “Well, I want to do this and get a hit.” I was doing it because I liked the way it sounded.

TP: I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of getting a hit…

MOODY: But that’s what most people think. They think, “He wants to get a hit, so maybe he can scream on this” or do this or that. Do you know what I mean? But that wasn’t it. It was just something I liked, and so it was done.

TP: How much did that band work?

MOODY: We worked ALL the time.

TP: Any time off at all?

MOODY: No. All the time. The only time we were off was traveling to the next gig. In the wintertime we worked in the northern cities and in the summertime we worked in the southern cities.

TP: The easy way, huh?

MOODY: Like my mother would say, everything was bass-ackwards.

TP: And you had let’s say two cars or something?

MOODY: Yes, a station wagon and a car.

TP: And Eddie Jefferson was the band manager for most of that time?

MOODY: What happened was, after Babs Gonzalez left, I hired Eddie Jefferson to sing, and then as we would play these dances, we would go and there would be a certain amount of people… Say there would be 1000 people in the dance hall, and the guy would tell us there were 300 people. You know what I mean? I got Eddie. I said, “I’m going to make you the manager, and you’ll have a clicker, and after you get finished singing you go and keep clicking the numbers as the people come in.’

TP: And did the singing evolve out of his being in the band, or was it also part of it…

MOODY: No, he was a singer, and I was looking for a singer. He was a singer and a dancer, you see, and so I hired Eddie Jefferson to sing with the band, not knowing that he was the one who wrote the lyrics.

TP: Oh, you didn’t know it.

MOODY: No, I didn’t know that.

TP: When did you find out?

MOODY: When I found out, I said, “Wow!” His girlfriend had telling me this for the longest time. Her name was Tiny. She said, “Oh my old man, he loves your music; he put some words to your music, and you’ll hear him one day.” Then when I met him, and then when he told me about Tiny and then I saw them together, I said, “Ah!” Then two and two made five.

TP: So those bands, you were playing dances, clubs…

MOODY: Dances, clubs, yup.

TP: Mostly black clubs?

MOODY: Naturally, sure. Mostly Negro clubs. The reason I say that is, what color am I?

TP: Very deep brown with probably tints I can’t even tell.

MOODY: Red tints, but not black. Right? You see what I mean? This is black, that watchband. I read a thing, the guy says, “When I was in the Air Corps I was colored, then when something else happened I became a Negro, then when I got to such-and-such again I’m black.” Know what I mean? I just like “Negro” better, even though it means black in Spanish. I prefer “Colored,” really.

TP: So throughout that period you would play for Negro audiences.

MOODY: We would play for Negro audiences, and then sometimes we would play for Caucasian audiences. Then sometimes they would have two dances. They would have a rope down the middle, and the Caucasians would be on one side and Negroes on the other side.

TP: So it was still the period when that happened.

MOODY: Yes.

TP: Did you change repertoire when you did that?

MOODY: No! We played the same things we had! Played the arrangements that we had. That was it.

TP: And you recorded so many classics during that time for Prestige and Chess. Do you ever listen back to those old records?

MOODY: To be perfectly honest with you, Ted, I don’t have to do that. If I have time, I’ll listen to somebody else — steal as much as I can get. But my wife, she collects them all. We’ve been in Europe and she says, “Wait, I want to get this!” She gets it. I say, “Honey, forget it. That’s done.” But she has the collection herself. But I don’t want to hear them.

TP: So you get to hear him play night after night and practice and the records!

LINDA: Yes, but he doesn’t really have a lot of time to listen to music when he’s home. He has so many things to do, to play catchup and do what he wants to do.

TP: So we take you through the ’50s with the Septet, and then you rejoin Dizzy in ’62.

MOODY: I’m not sure when I joined Dizzy, but I joined him and stayed for eight years.

TP: How was it the same? How was it different?

MOODY: Oh, it was different then because it was a quintet, and then we were together more. Because in the band, you’re never… You won’t be around too much together. But then with the quintet we started hanging out more together being together. It was a smaller group.

TP: So that’s when you became closer.

MOODY: Closer, yes. As a matter of fact, after a while the band was Rudy Collins, Lalo Schifrin and Chris White, then Leo Wright left and I came in and took his place. Then after a while Lalo left, and when Lalo left, Dizzy wanted a piano player, and I told him to get Kenny Barron.

TP: How did you know about Kenny?

MOODY: Well, Kenny had been with my sextet. See, I had a sextet at the Five Spot in New York. Kenny was 18 years old then. And do you know what? Out of all these years… Kenny is almost 60 now. Do you know, I’ve never heard him make a mistake? Never, ever… I mean, he’d play a solo, and each solo, no matter what it was, it would sound as if it were a painting. I’ve always said that Klenop. I always say that when I see him.

TP: Also, during those years, you were doubling alto-tenor by the late ’40s, and then in the ’50s you added flute. I’m not sure when the soprano became part of what you do. I’d like you to talk about the challenges of multi-instrumentalists. Because another thing I think people are so impressed by is your ability to project a very individual and distinctive voice on each instrument, to make each instrument sound like your main one and not just a section sound. So anything you want to say about the different instruments.

MOODY: I need to practice them! Yeah, I need to practice them. That’s about the size of it. You play one horn because you like the sound of that, but then you play the other horn because you like the sound of that, and you want to play certain things on that, but then you play the other horn and you like the sound of that and you want to play certain things on it, then you play another one and you play that, and finally you say you want to play everything on everything. So you start trying to do that, and when you look, it’s time to go to bed. Then you get up and try something else; you look, and it’s time to go to a gig.

You know, if I had $40 million, do you know what I’d do? I think I’d give a concert every now and then, but I would be in school every day, practicing, and my wife would be sitting, whatever she wanted — there would somebody just fanning her, bringing her whatever she wanted.

LINDA: Sitting down. [LAUGHS] Oh, you’re so cute.

MOODY: You know what I mean? But mainly all I would do is practice, and give a concert every now and then. And of course, I’d want to help some people, too, buy some horns for some kids and help them get by.

TP: There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, that you got the flute one day from someone in Chicago and played it on the gig the next night?

MOODY: Not the next night. But I got it, and then I recorded in a week or so with it. And it sounds like it, too! [LAUGHS] But I would never do that again, the way I got the flute. I bought a hot flute, and I would never do that. I guess I was young and dumb. Because when you buy a hot flute, you’re stealing it from somebody. So why do that? I’d never do that again. So I’ve asked forgiveness for that.

TP: Without asking any particular specific question about Dizzy, but when you look at the people who are performing in it, he had a huge impact on just about everyone who’s performing in it, one way or another.

MOODY: Dizzy had an impact on every musician, he and Charlie Parker, I would think. Because who do you know didn’t play with Dizzy?

TP: Not too many people.

MOODY: See that? So that’s about the size of it. And it wasn’t because somebody was pulled into him. It was that they wanted to be around him, or be in his band or something. And for me, it was a good lesson. The only thing is I wish I would have been more spongy. I wish I would have absorbed more quicker. But then you look back in that respect, and a lot of times you say you wish you would have done, so I’m going to keep in mind what Dizzy told me before. Because I never will forget, I told Diz, “Diz I wish I would have gone to school and study music, because I never studied.” And Dizzy looked at me and said, “Moody, you ain’t dead.” And a big lightbulb went on in my head.

TP: Did he tell you that during the Sixties?

MOODY: I don’t remember what year it was…

TP: Was it during that second time?

MOODY: He told me when I told him I wished I’d have gone to school for music. Ever since he told me that, you know…

TP: Let me just ask you about some of the personalities you’ve encountered over the years who my impression would be you were close to in one way or another — or don’t, if you don’t want to.

MOODY: Yes.

TP: Kenny Clarke?

MOODY: Klook was wonderful. When I joined Dizzy’s band at the Spotlite in ’46, Klook was the drummer. But I got to know him even better in Paris when I was living there, because he was living in Paris — and we played together.

TP: Any particular reminiscence about him?

MOODY: No. Just nice being around him.

TP: Gil Fuller.

MOODY: Gil Fuller was a brilliant person. He was brilliant, but he was detrimental to himself, in a way, I would think. But a brilliant man. Brilliant but…I don’t know. A little more spirituality would have been good for him, I think.

TP: Lester Young. Did you get to know him?

MOODY: I knew Lester a little bit, yeah.

TP: Because he was one of your first idols.

MOODY: Yes, he was one of my first idols. I didn’t know him to be around him all the time, but I liked the way he sounded. He was just one of my idols.

TP: Did you get to know Bird?

MOODY: I didn’t get to know him, but we had dinner together one time together in Detroit, at a Chinese restaurant. I was staying at Sonny Wilson’s Hotel, which was a Negro hotel, and when Charlie Parker and I got finished having the dinner, I drove him back… I had my car. I drove him down to the hotel on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Charlie Parker was in this splattered white t-shirt, some blue bermuda shorts, white silk stockings that came up above his calves, and looked like black patent shoes or something. I took him down to this hotel, and it was strange to me because he got out and said, “Thanks, Moody,” and it was strange to me as he walked down this hall, as I’m looking at him, through the lobby downtown, because Negroes couldn’t stay in the hotels downtown in Detroit. So my assumption was that the gangsters said, “This is Charlie Parker and we want him to stay there,” and that’s it.

TP: That’s quite an image you just painted.

MOODY: Yeah, that was it.

TP: A couple of other names. Was Don Byas somebody you were close to?

MOODY: Don Bayez. That’s the way they called him in France. He was in France when I was there, along with Bill Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge. I got to know them all. It was nice. Don was from Oklahoma, you know — Muskogee. Coleman Hawkins, it was nice to know him. It was nice. A lot of saxophone playing going on over there, boy. Don Byas, boy, was bad! I mean, Don knew those changes, boy. Hawk knew changes, too. Hawk was like WHOO-DOOD-LOO; Don Byas was like WHOO-DOODLEOODLE… And I loved Roy Eldridge.

TP: When I hear you now on these recent records… I realize it may be totally impressionistic and have nothing to do with what’s happening. But for some reason, Don Byas is what I’m thinking of. I don’t know why.

MOODY: Well, I don’t know. Maybe something subconscious is there.

TP: It’s probably just me.

MOODY: Oh, okay. All right.

TP: So you were with Dizzy throughout the ’60s. Then you spent the ’70s in the Hilton Hotel Orchestra in Las Vegas?

MOODY: Yeah, I was at the Las Vegas Hilton.

TP: That was an economic decision?

MOODY: Well, that was an economic decision mainly because I wanted to see my daughter grow up. I had a family, and I wanted to see my daughter grow up. I didn’t want to be going on the road and… I saw her when she was born and I said, “I’m going to watch this daughter grow up.” Because I have a daughter coming from France now, she’ll be here for the party with her husband, who I didn’t see grow up.” She’s in her forties now, and the one I saw up until she was in almost her teens she’s 31. So I wanted to stay in one place, and work and come home, work and come home. That’s when I did all the shows, like Liberace, Ann-Margaret, Connie Stevens, Milton Berle, Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, the Rockettes, the Osmonds — I played all those shows.

TP: You just played a functional section man or…

MOODY: No-no-no! I was in the Hilton Orchestra. They had 40 pieces or something, had a string section and all that, and I had a book they put the music in and I had to play my part — that was it.

TP: Did you garner anything from that musically?

MOODY: Oh, definitely. Because I was used to play with Dizzy, with big band stuff. But when you play the show music it’s something altogether different — the intonation, everything. And they tell you exactly the way it’s going to be. You look at it – BAM. [LAUGHS] Boy, it was a lesson. A good experience. If I had to do it all over again, I would.

TP: What’s the name of your daughter who’s 31 now?

MOODY: Michelle Moody. The other one is Maryvonne, and she’s in her forties.

TP: In the ’80s you did a group of records for RCA-Novus all very different, each with its own personality. Did your decision to start touring and going back on the road as a solo artist coincide with your daughter graduating high school or getting older?

MOODY: Oh, no. I was divorced. I got a divorce before she even got into her teens. I was divorced and I left again, and I started playing with a quartet. I played with the Mike Longo trio, then finally I got another group, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I recorded with RCA…

TP: Kirk Lightsey was on one.

MOODY: Kirk Lightsey was on one…

TP: Kenny was on another.

MOODY: Right. Kenny, and Tom McIntosh did the arrangements. And you know something? I think those were nice records. I think they were nice musically. I think so. But it’s a funny thing, and I’ve always said this, and I hate to have to say it. The record companies want to make the records and they want you to sell them. And it should be the other way around. They should let you make the records and they sell them, because that’s how it should be. But they think they know what sells and what doesn’t, and I’m sorry to say no one does.

TP: No one knows what sells and what doesn’t.

MOODY: No. Like, good music, I would think, would sell.

TP: You’d think.

MOODY: Sure. And you know something? I’ll tell you what sells. A little public relations and stuff behind it? Bang, it sells it. Because nothing really sells itself unless it’s in a position to sell itself. And things aren’t in that position, because you listen to the radio, you hear what people play. So I still maintain musicians should be able to make the music.

TP: Did you have that freedom on the RCA records? Those seems like pretty personal dates.

MOODY: There was a certain amount of freedom that was given to me, and I’ll give credit where it’s due. Certain things. But do you know what my thing of freedom would really be? To go in a studio with the musicians that I want, wouldn’t anyone be in there but me, them and the engineer. That’s it.

TP: Otherwise is there a vibe on you that…

MOODY: Well, then you can talk to the guys and say, “You know what? I’d like to do so-and-so. I don’t think I want it like that” or “Yeah, I like that.” And I’m a one-take person, maybe two. But when you start three takes, four takes, that…

TP: Is that what happened?

MOODY: Well, what happened is, you’re gung-ho and everything, and the second take…I mean, by the fourth take you’re talking about ho-hum.

TP: Are you still with Warner Brothers?

MOODY: No.

TP: There are two records of your own and the two-tenor thing with Mark Turner. Both are excellent and I thought you were in wonderful form. For the purposes of this article, this those closest to the fact, tell me a bit about the Sinatra record and the Mancini record. Was the Sinatra date your concept?

MOODY: Well, what happened was, they wanted a concept, so we came up with Sinatra, which was okay, because Sinatra, he was singing the good songs, so you can’t go wrong with that. Then Henry Mancini wrote good music; you can’t go wrong with that.

TP: And Gil Goldstein set up the arrangements, you came in and…

MOODY: Oh, Goldstein’s a wonderful arranger, a wonderful musician. Nice guy. My buddy, too.

TP: What are you looking for in the musicians who are in your bands? Since Mike Longo, your pianists have been Lightsey, Mulgrew Miller, Mark Copland; the bassist is always Todd Coolman for years; a bunch of drummers, including Teri Lyne Carrington…

MOODY: They all can play. They play their buns off. That’s it. Play their buns off and punctuality.

TP: Got to be on time.

MOODY: Be on time, yeah. I’d rather have a musician that didn’t play as well but could play, and would be punctual — and that’s it. Because there are no stars. The only star that I know is Jesus. I mean, you have to be on time, because no matter what it is, everything is business. Business, business, business. Then when you have your own time, you come and go as you feel like it. But when you have to deal with other people, you have to be on time.

TP: Do you keep abreast of what the younger musicians are doing?

MOODY: As best I can. As best I can. Because there are a lot of people I haven’t heard that I wish I could hear, and then you hear them and you say, “Boy, wow, they sound beautiful!” Because so many records come out. Who do you listen to? It’s like a bookstore. I mean, how many books can you hear at once? You hear this person and say “Wow!” That’s why it’s good for jazz, because you can have a whole lot of jazz clubs, because one person can’t work all the clubs at the same time. So it’s good for clubs to be there so everybody can work.

TP: Among some of the younger musicians you’ve come in touch with, who are some who’ve particularly impressed you?

MOODY: All of them. Sure.

TP: Let me phrase it more generally, then. Things obviously have changed socially and politically since you came up. But musically, how do you see the generation of musicians from the Baby Boom on? Do you think highly of the musicianship…

MOODY: The musicianship is much better with these younger musicians. Why? Because they have the books and the teachers now that really… Jamey Aebersold and David Baker, like I said before, and Gary Campbell, Jerry Coker — all of these playalongs. Not only that, the schools.

TP: Sure. You can study with Jimmy Heath or Donald Byrd.

MOODY: Right. You see? If you feel like you want to learn something, you can learn it, from the bottom up. And if you get a good teacher, you can play real quick. And if you have a bad teacher, you’ll still be scuffling, years upon years upon years.

TP: A lot of people who have written about you in liner notes from the ’50s and ’60s remark on you having self-doubt and never being satisfied with what you do…

MOODY: Sure.

TP: Is that something…

MOODY: No. I have a doubt, but it’s not a self-doubt. My doubt before was that like I was flying an airplane but I didn’t know what the route was. You see? What it is, if you don’t know the changes, you’re skimming. I might skim now, but at least I know I’m skimming. I skimmed before, but I didn’t know I was skimming.

TP: Are you saying that until you did these busride sessions with Tom McIntosh and your subsequent studies, you were sort of walking the edge every time that you played?

MOODY: Right. And I can also say that still, even at 75, I haven’t reached my peak, because I’m still trying to find out how to play the changes. See, the young cats come up and they learn this from the very getgo; I mean, they can play the hell out of them. See, I’m a little slow with them, but at least I know things that I have to learn and I’m trying to learn them. So I’m going to sound different one time or other, because I’m going to be playing some of the changes. It’s not going to be the same as not playing them.

TP: What are the advantages of being an ear player?

MOODY: How about the disadvantages?

TP: Are there any advantages?

MOODY: Well, let’s look at it this way. Like, if you’re an ear player and then you learn the changes, what was advantageous about not knowing the changes? That’s where the self-doubt is, see? You’re playing by ear, but you’re saying, “Damn, I don’t know this, and I’m scuffling. Was that it?”

TP: Another person I’d like you to say a few words about is Tom McIntosh.

MOODY: Wonderful musician. Nice trombonist, too. Wonderful orchestrator and writer, and a wonderful human being.

TP: When you had those sessions with him, how did he approach it with you?

MOODY: It was very simple. He would say, “Moody, this is a C-scale. This here is a C-Major Triad, and you flat the third here. This is a C-Minor Triad. This is a C, E, G, a B-flat, and that’s a C7. C, E, G, B, that’s a C-Major-7. C-Flat-7, Dominant-7. And he’d be telling me that… Then after I learned them I said, “Oh, boy, I got that.” So I wanted to play a song, and I’m looking at them, [SINGS REFRAIN FROM "Cup-Bearers"] I said, “Yeah, but it doesn’t sound like that when they’re playing. Because you can’t hit tonics and play. You have to start on 3rds and 2nds and 5ths. You know what I mean? And you have to be able to weave and bob and come up half-steps below and half-steps above… But at least I’ve got an idea of what it is now.

TP: Did you get hands-on instruction in that regard from Dizzy in the ’60s? Specific harmonic information?

MOODY: Hands-on?

TP: Well, by “hands-on” I mean did he sit down with you and break things down?

MOODY: Well, he told me about the minor VII-flat V chord. That was one of his things. That’s why when he wrote “Woody ‘n You” and those things… He liked Monk a lot, because Monk had those minor VII-Flat-V chords, and Diz always called them… He said, “I like to look at them as minor-VI.” [SINGS THE SOUND] Diz looked at it as a minor-VI. He used to call a minor VII-flat V a minor VI chord. He looked at it that way.

TP: Also, Zan Stewart who wrote liner notes for a reissue, talked about your having immersed yourself in Coltrane’s harmonic system.

MOODY: Oh, yes, man! [LAUGHS]

TP: You’re one year older than Coltrane. Talk about the impact he had on you.

MOODY: Well, the first time I heard Coltrane, like I told you, was in Cleveland, Ohio. He was playing alto with Gay Crosse. I heard him and John Lathan. Boy, they were playing “Our Delight,” and I said, “Man, who is that guy, because he sounds phenomenal.” And I was down the street at another club, and as soon as we finished I’d break over and run over to the other side to listen to what he was doing!

TP: But later on, when he’d developed his concept, were you friendly? Did you talk to him?

MOODY: I didn’t see Coltrane that much. But I did take him from Chicago… I think he was working at the Sutherland Hotel, and he wanted to go to Elkhart, Indiana.

TP: To the Selmer Factory?

MOODY: Right. So I drove him to Elkhart. And he was playing that stuff then, and I was saying, “What is it?” and he said, “Oh, man, it’s nothing.” And he really meant it, that it wasn’t nothin’. Then he got this soprano, and a few months later is when he came out with “My Favorite Things.”

TP: Did that inspire you to play soprano, or were you already doing it? Was the soprano the last of the instruments you added to your arsenal?

MOODY: Well, I played the soprano I guess because everybody else started playing it. So I got one, and I liked the sound of it. Because when I was living in Paris, Sidney Bechet lived across the courtyard from me, and he played soprano. But I didn’t necessarily feel like I wanted to play it at that time.

TP: Did you get to know Sidney Bechet?

MOODY: Well, I knew him, but not as a… I saw him, because he lived across the courtyard from me in Paris. Just like with Django Reinhardt; I played with him one time in the Club St. Germain, but I didn’t get to know him. But he seemed like a nice person, and so did Sidney Bechet.

TP: Talk about what it was like in Paris for those years.

MOODY: Well, in Paris it was like I could go anywhere I felt like going, and it was like you were accepted anywhere you went, as long as you acted like a gentleman. It was different, especially after being stationed in Greensboro, North Carolina.

TP: Or being on the road as a professional musician and dealing with all the bullshit.

MOODY: Being on the road, and going on the bus and having the bus driver to get you sandwiches and things because you couldn’t go in the restaurants and eat.

TP: I’d like to talk a bit about this concert. Say a bit about the different people who are appearing.

MOODY: Like what?

TP: Like, what do I want you to say?

MOODY: No… Well, you’ve got Jon Faddis. I remember Jon when he was 12 years old in San Francisco. We were working at the Jazz workshop with Dizzy. Jon came in, a tall, lanky kid, a nice kid. We liked him. I liked him from the jump. And it’s nice to see him now, doing what he’s doing. I remember Wynton when Wynton was with Art Blakey, when he first came to town. I like to see him doing what he’s doing now. Paquito D’Rivera, I remember meeting him when he first came from Cuba, and he’s doing okay. Of course, Tito Puente is my man. I’ve known Tito for a long time.

TP: In the ’50s when you were off the road, did you play with the great Latin bands of the ’50s?

MOODY: No, I didn’t. But when Jack Hooke was there, I used to play Salsa Meets Jazz, and I’d be featured down there at the Village Gate. I did some of those.

Slide Hampton, man. I call him Slick Slide, boy, because he’s got a whole lot of music under his belt, boy. He’s a wonderful arranger and trombonist. Jimmy Heath — “Section.” I’ve been knowing Section for a long time, man. Fantastic arranger and composer and saxophonist.

TP: Did you meet him as a kid in Philly?

MOODY: yes.

TP: When he had that big band which was based on Dizzy’s big band.

MOODY: Yes. And his brother Tootie and Percy.

TP: Will this concert cover the various musical situations you’ve moved into? For instance, with Paquito there, will “Tropicana” or…

MOODY: We’ll play “Manteca.”

TP: Will there be a lot of Dizzy’s arrangements.

MOODY: We’ll play “Manteca” and we’ll probably play “Emanon,” “Con Alma”…

TP: And the vocalists will do vocals to some of your solos…

MOODY: Mmm-hmm.

TP: And your own small group will play some of it.

MOODY: We’ve got Renee Rosnes, fantastic pianist. Todd Coolman, a fantastic bassist. We’ve got Kenny Barron, who like I told you, I’ve never heard make a mistake. We’ve got Mike Longo.

TP: Adam Nussbaum is your drummer these days. Helluva drummer.

MOODY: Tell me about it.

TP: I’m looking at you and I can’t believe you’re 75 years old. I might think you were 60…

LINDA: He’s going on 18.

TP: Well, 60 anyway. Is music the secret for you? Is music what keeps you young?

MOODY: Well, let’s say the biggest secret is God. The next secret is my mother was 86, and my Uncle Louis is 86. But the music… You know, when you’re doing something and you like what you’re doing… Not to say that that there are times when you do things…you don’t always get to do what you want to do. But if it’s fairly like what you want to do, it makes everything in your system work fairly well. Happiness…when you’re happy… And then especially to have a wonderful wife, to be in love, that helps, too. When you don’t have that, you kind of fade away. But when you do, you kind of want to stay in.

TP: And you’ve been married since ’89?

MOODY: Yes, 11 years.

LINDA: You have done your homework, Ted.

TP: Oh, I always do my homework.

LINDA: It’s refreshing, I have to tell you.

TP: How did you meet?

LINDA: Would you like me to tell you? We met in a club in Los Angeles called Catalina. I drove my friend from San Diego to Los Angeles so that she could hear Moody. I didn’t know who he was, had never heard him or of him or anything else. So I took her, and then the next year he came to San Diego to play and she and I went to hear him on opening night — and three months later we were married. During those three months, he was gone for a month in Africa with Dizzy doing a State Department tour. So he called me every day from the different embassies where he was. He would be out playing tennis with different heads of state, and they would say, “Oh, come and use our phone to call Linda; it’s so much easier.” And he sent me love faxes every day.

TP: So it was love at first sight.

LINDA: Well, at second sight, mmm-hmm.

MOODY: I sent her dozen roses every Monday.

LINDA: Since our first date. I still get them.

MOODY: She still gets them.

LINDA: I still get them.

TP: And there are flowers in the hotel room. There’s about a 100-pound bouquet from Bill and Camille Cosby on the coffee table in front of us.

LINDA: I’d say it’s about 150 pounds.

TP: And Peter Jennings by the TV.

LINDA: Peter and Kaci, his wife. This is from Jazz at the Lincoln Center, and that’s from the hotel, and the sales department who took care of all of the reservations for all of our friends and family who flew into town. It’s just been one big collaboration and help, and everybody’s been so kind.

TP: And how long has this concert been in the works?

LINDA: We’ve been working on it for about a year, but intensely since about last October.

TP: Are there special commissioned arrangements?

LINDA: David Baker did the big band arrangement of “Last Train From Overbrook,” and that’s a new arrangement. And Lalo Schifrin did an arrangement of “Happy Birthday.”

[PAUSE]

TP: The waiter just came in bringing champagne and a huge basket of fruit.

LINDA: The other two big band arrangements of “Slow Hot Wind” and “Young At Heart,” Gil Goldstein did those. Then several tunes Moody’s going to do with his quartet, and of course the LCJO with Wynton.

* * *

James Moody (5-20-00):

TP: In our first interview I spoke with you about your beginnings on the instrument, and I wanted to ask a couple of more questions. You said you got your first horn when you were 16, and you went to the Adams Theater because you wanted to hear Lester Young play, but instead you heard Buddy Tate and Don Byas. Were you playing any music in the years before that?

MOODY: No, I wasn’t playing.

TP: You started playing that year?

MOODY: Mmm-hmm. When I got the saxophone.

TP: Before you went in the Armed Services…

MOODY: I like Air Corps. Because when you say “Armed Services,” nobody knows where, but when I say “Air Corps” they know exactly where I was

TP: That said, were you working with people your age? Were you doing little gigs around Newark? When did you actually start playing before a public?

MOODY: Oh, I didn’t start playing before a public until I got out of the Air Corps.

TP: So was it that you were basically practicing on the saxophone, woodshedding on the saxophone, maybe playing with some friends, you get in the Air Corps and you volunteer…

MOODY: No-no-no-no. I wasn’t jamming or doing anything. In other words, I didn’t know the instrument. I learned the instrument in the Air Corps. I wasn’t jamming. I didn’t have that in Newark. They might have had it, but I didn’t know anything about it.

TP: And so you learned it in the Air Corps, and you knew some of the music by hearing it on the radio and starting to buy records.

MOODY: Right.

TP: You said you liked Prez. Who were the saxophone players that were your favorites and probably were in your mind when you were starting to formulate your vocabulary?
MOODY: You mean from the very beginning? From the beginning was Jimmy Dorsey.

TP: On alto saxophone.

MOODY: Yes. And I guess the reason for that is because in those days they had a radio station in Newark, New Jersey, WNEW, and on Saturdays there was a guy by the name of Martin Block who come on and play a half-hour or an hour of jazz. When you say “jazz,” it would be like Benny Goodman or Jimmie Lunceford or Count Basie or something like that. And I heard Jimmy Dorsey on the radio like all during the week or something like that, and then finally I heard Charlie Barnet, and I liked Charlie Barnet better than Jimmy Dorsey. Then finally I heard Rudy Williams, who was an alto guy from Newark, and I liked him better. Then I heard Count Basie and I heard Lester Young. I said, “Oh, wait a minute, I like this.” I heard Georgie Auld. I liked him. And I heard Coleman Hawkins.

But my thing that I liked at the beginning was Lester Young, because of I guess that feel he had and the swing [SINGS PREZ REFRAIN] Boy, that used to knock me out. Even though Coleman Hawkins, when I look back now, was playing more changes. You know what I mean? But that wasn’t the thing. All I knew was what I felt and what made feel good. So I heard Count Basie was coming to the Adams Theater in Newark, and so I went down there hoping to hear Lester Young, and when I got there Don Byas had taken his place. So the two tenor players were Don Byas and Buddy Tate. Anyway, that was that.

Then when I heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, that really put an end to everything. I said, “That’s it; this is it.” So that’s how that went.

TP: Just so I get it straight when you heard Buddy Tate and Don Byas, you had just gotten a saxophone at that time?

MOODY: No-no, no-no. I got my saxophone when I was 16 years old. I used to go and listen to… Like, if anybody played a saxophone anywhere, I would listen to it. So there weren’t that many people for me to listen to, at least that I knew of in Newark. So when the band would come to the theater, naturally I would go and listen, because it would knock me out. That’s the first time I heard Georgie Auld, was when he played with Artie Shaw. And Artie Shaw had strings in his band, I never will forget, and Georgie Auld played “Body and Soul.” Boy, that was beautiful. At the Adams. Then I liked him. Have you ever heard of Georgie Auld?

TP: Yes, I’ve heard some Georgie Auld.

MOODY: He was from Canada.

TP: And your uncle got you an alto, and then you got a tenor before you got into the Air Corps and your mother sent it to you?

MOODY: My mother sent it to me. She sent it to me because when I was drafted into the Air Corps, they wanted to form a Negro band. But at first, I was just drafted in the Air Corps, and I was in the basic training center. They were training me to be a soldier. I don’t know what they were training me to be, but the point was, they wanted to have a band, a Negro band. Because three-quarters of the base was Caucasian and one-quarter was Negro, and they wanted the Negro part to be self-sufficient. What self-sufficient meant was they wanted you to stay on your side.

TP: They wanted a segregated band.

MOODY: That’s it. And they had it. So lucky for me, I was able to get in it. Because if it had been a regular band and all like that, I wouldn’t have been able to cut the mustard.

TP: So you had a rudimentary knowledge of the saxophone at that point, and being in that band you were able to practice and work on the horn…

MOODY: Well, being in the band, what they did was, they had the men from the official Air Force Band come over and teach us. They would show us things, at least the ones that needed it. It’s funny, because three years later, after I was discharged and I was in Dizzy’s band, a lot of those guys were my friends afterwards, because they would come and see me, and said, “Boy, it’s nice to see you, Moody. Yeah, man.” Because I was with Dizzy Gillespie then.

TP: That’s why I’m picking on this subject so much. Because when you said you knew nothing about the saxophone before going in the Army, then three years later you’re taking the solo on “Emanon,” it just seems remarkable that you were able to do it, apart from your innate talent.

MOODY: Well, that’s the way it was. That’s the way it happened.

TP: When you were in the Air Corps, is that when you first heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker?

MOODY: Well, I think I heard a little bit of it just before I was drafted. I was drafted in ’43, and I heard something of it. Then when I got to Greensboro, North Carolina… You know, in those days the records didn’t come out as often as they do now. So when they came, everybody had it or everybody was listening to it. So I heard Dizzy and Charlie Parker good, boy, and I would listen to that stuff over and over and over.

TP: Well, their first records I think were “Shaw Nuff” and “Salt Peanuts”…

MOODY: The Dials.

TP: The Dials were in ’46 and the Savoys were in ’45. I asked you previously if you had heard Bird with McShann, and you said, “No, later,” then I asked you what the first record you heard by Bird was, and you said it might have been “Now’s the Time,” but you weren’t sure.

MOODY: No, the first time… I heard Charlie Parker with Jay McShann when he played “Hootie Blues,” and the guy was singing, “Hey, baby, don’t you want a man like me” or something like that, and Charlie Parker played the chords or something on that. That’s the first time I heard that. But I think the first time I heard him was “Shaw Nuff” or something.

TP: So that must have been towards the end of your stay in the Air Corps, mid or late ’45, just based on when the things came out.

MOODY: I suppose so, because I’m very bad with dates.

TP: Right. I’m not trying to pin you down on the dates. I’m trying to deal with your aesthetic in some way.

MOODY: Sure.

TP: Can you describe the impact Charlie Parker had on you in some specific language?

MOODY: Well, the impact was that I liked him better than any other saxophone player that I heard?

TP: And why?

MOODY: Because of what I heard. That’s why. It’s very simple. If you look at it chronologically, the way I said, I said the first one I liked was Jimmy Dorsey. Right? Then I continued on with different people, Ben Webster, you know, then Lester Young. Coleman Hawkins I wasn’t too thrilled with. I didn’t like the way he sounded. But when I look back now, he was playing more changes than all of them. But then when I heard Charlie Parker, wow.

TP: Well, he was playing all the changes, and then he had that flowing, fluid thing you liked in Prez.

MOODY: He what?

TP: His harmony was as sophisticated or more than anyone, and then he had the fluidity Lester Young had, too.

MOODY: Who?

TP: Charlie Parker.

MOODY: No, wait a minute. No, I think you’re mixed up there with it. What I’m saying is, I heard Lester Young. Lester Young wasn’t playing the changes like Coleman Hawkins. But Coleman Hawkins didn’t do anything for my soul at that time the way Lester Young did. Then when I heard Charlie Parker, he did more for me than either one of them.

TP: Dizzy Gillespie first came to Greensboro to play a concert, which is where you met him.

MOODY: He played a concert on the base, at a place called the Big Top, which was a big tent.

TP: And you’d heard Dizzy by then.

MOODY: Mmm-hmm.

TP: So you knew that sound, and that sound had captivated you.

MOODY: Oh yes.

TP: If let’s say “Algo Bueno” or “Dizzy Atmosphere” were out by that time, could you play those by the time that you…

MOODY: Heck, no. But when I got with Dizzy’s quintet and stuff, I could play it.

TP: But Dizzy heard something in you and he wanted you to play with him.

MOODY: Well, what it is is word-of-mouth, I guess. We went and tried out for the band, and Walter Fuller said I didn’t play loud enough. My friend David Burns — we were in the Air Corps together — made it. About a couple of months later I got a telegram from Dave that said, “you start with us tonight at the Spotlite.” That was it. Because they probably needed a tenor player, and Dave probably said, “Get my guy Moody.” That’s how guys get in the band. You get in the band when somebody needs you… When I was with Dizzy’s band and Lalo Schiffrin left, and Dizzy needed a piano player, I said, “Get Kenny Barron.”

TP: What do you remember about that first night?

MOODY: The first night I was there, Thelonious Monk was the piano player, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson. The club was very small, but all the different people who I heard on the radio before were there. Coleman Hawkins, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, they would be in the audience. It was a thrill sitting there playing the music.

TP: Were you rehearsing intently?

MOODY: No. We were playing! When I went, the band… It was a gig!

TP: I meant, within the big band was it a thing where you’d learn and internalize the music by playing every night, or were there a lot of rehearsals as well.

MOODY: Oh, yeah, we rehearse. You’d rehearse a tune and then play it. But that night I had to just look at the music and go from there. What it was, my friend Dave showed me the line of “Things To Come” just before the gig, so I’d play that. so it was a breeze.

TP: It was a breeze!? Because you said you were playing by ear pretty much at that time and for the next 12-13 years.

MOODY: Right. I was playing by ear, but I could read a little bit, and then I learned to read more and more. The more you read, the better you read. then when you don’t read, you get rusty, and it’s hard.

TP: The Spotlite was the club that Clark Monroe owned, the guy who had owned Monroe’s Uptown House, and that was his joint on 52nd Street.

MOODY: It was either his or he was managing it or something. He was a Negro and he probably was fronting it. I don’t know.

TP: Was he around?

MOODY: Yeah.

TP: What was he like?

MOODY: Well, he was like a Negro guy who dressed well and took care of business.

TP: Do you remember on that first engagement with Dizzy if there were large crowds and the crowds were enthusiastic?

MOODY: Oh, there were a lot of people. Every night.

TP: Were people very excited by it? Did it seem like something totally new and…

MOODY: Very-very-very excited. Everywhere we went, places were jam-packed and everything. You’d look up and you’d see Lena Horne and Ava Gardner. It was jammed.

TP: What was it like going on the road with the band in terms of the audience reaction in the provinces in the South or Midwest?

MOODY: Well, we’d go on the chitlin’ circuit, and the chitlin’ circuit was like… If you could get over in New York, you could get over anywhere. So the chitlin’ circuit was New York, the Apollo Theater, then the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard Theater in Washington and the Earle Theater in Philadelphia.

TP: They called that the Around-the-World.

MOODY: Right. And if you could make it in those theaters, you could make it anywhere. Then we went on tour with Ella Fitzgerald, and we went down South, and that was a drag, because you couldn’t eat in restaurants and the bus driver had to go get sandwiches for you. The bus driver could go in the restaurants, but you couldn’t because he was Caucasian. But that was the same thing when I was in Greensboro, N.C., because the German prisoners-of-war could go downtown and eat, and I couldn’t.

TP: But the audiences were enthusiastic?

MOODY: The audiences were very enthusiastic. We played dances where there would be a rope down the middle of the hall, and there would be Caucasians on one side and Negroes on the other side. Then they’d have two dances at a place, like a dance tonight and a dance the next night. The first would be maybe for Negroes with White spectators, and then when they had the Caucasian dance there would be no Negro spectators.

TP: But you played the repertoire you were playing. You didn’t compromise on the repertoire.

MOODY: No, we played the band.

TP: In our earlier interview, you said to you went to Paris in late summer of ’48, a few months before Dizzy went and played the Salle Pleyel concert that got recorded. You were living with your Uncle Louis, who got you the alto, and you said he worked for the U.S. Government.

MOODY: Yes, he worked for the U.S. government.

TP: You said, I think, that Sidney Bechet lived across the courtyard from you?

MOODY: My uncle lived near the Eiffel Tower. But later on, when I got married, I was living in another apartment where Sidney Bechet lived across the courtyard from me.

TP: What part of Paris was the apartment you lived in when you were married?

MOODY: I’m not sure now, but it was a nice area. I forget which Arrondissement it is. Where I lived with uncle, it was Avenue Chanfoucault(?), and I could open up the veranda on the balcony and look out, and there was the Eiffel Tower right in front of me. The maids quarters were upstairs. It was nice.

TP: And Paris for you was a wonderfully liberating experience, you said, because you could just be you and not have to worry about White and Black.

MOODY: Well, the point was that I always had a thing there was something wrong with me, and I didn’t know what it was, except the way I looked. I was wondering why I was disliked so much. So when I got to Paris, then I found out it wasn’t me. I said, “Ah, I see what it is. It’s the people. It’s them. They’re going by a color thing.’ Then when I looked back at it, I said to myself, “Damn, the majority of those people who are hating me aren’t worth two dead flies and even me worrying about them.

TP: Well, you said you went there originally to cool out some because the pressures were getting to you.

MOODY: I went to cool out for two weeks, and stayed three years.

TP: I just want to talk about the music in Paris. It seems like such a rich time, because so many great American musicians were there, not to mention Django, and that’s when you did the sides that endure today. I’d like to talk about your musical evolution while you were in Europe. Do you feel like you grew a great deal musically during your three years there?

MOODY: No, I don’t think I did. What happened is… You see, the way I came up musically, I came up wrong, I think, from the standpoint that I thought improvising was spontaneous. In other words, I thought you did it, and I didn’t realize that you had to practice, you had to practice changes… I didn’t know any changes. I didn’t know. I was playing by ear. So when I came back from Europe and started trying to find out about chords and things like that, then my music thing started changing. I started drinking, because people were saying how great I was, and I couldn’t play crap. Why are they saying I’m great? I’m not great.

TP: This is after you’re touring with the septet and becoming famous.

MOODY: yes.

TP: And you felt insecure about it.

MOODY: Yes. So now, when I look back at it… I’m 75 years old, and you know, I haven’t reached my peak chord-wise, because I’m still trying to study and learn how to put things where, and trying to become a better musician. And it’s pretty good, too. Because I’ve got a whole lot to learn, boy!

TP: I guess it gives you the feeling that there’s a lot to wake up the next day to, whatever you’re going to discover.

MOODY: Not only that, but I know which way I’m going, too. Whereas before, I didn’t know which way it was.

TP: That said, could you describe the scene in Paris? Were you gigging in Paris and in Europe?

MOODY: No, I didn’t have to. If I wanted a gig, I’d take it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t.

TP: But you could if you wanted to.

MOODY: I could if I wanted to, yes. And so what happened was, like, I would just go out every night to the Club St. Germain and listen to different people. But they only had two clubs. One club was called the St. Germain, and that one was jazz, and the Rue Columbier was Dixieland. I wasn’t a Dixieland person. Claude Lutere played there all the time. That’s why Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay fell out, because Panassie was a Louis Armstrong freak, and Delaunay was a Dizzy Gillespie freak.

TP: Well, he was a Modernist.

MOODY: Yes. So when Panassie died, Delaunay said he was sorry that it was like that . But that’s the way it goes.

TP: You made one famous bebop session there, the “Prince Albert” session.

MOODY: Yeah, I did that with Kenny Dorham and Max Roach. I was played with Miles while I was there, too.

TP: You came back, you said, because “Moody’s Mood For Love” became a hit, and you had other popular cuts, and people told you that you could make some money here.

MOODY: That’s the only reason I came back. Other than that, I wasn’t going to set foot on American soil again. Because I was pissed off from what had happened to me in Greensboro.

TP: It sounds like when you came back, what you found in America fulfilled what you might have expected, the reasons you left, that it matched your worst fears about it.

MOODY: Well, not my worst fears. What happened was, I came back and it was the same old shit, but only smoothed over with whipped cream. And the funny thing about it is, when you look at it, you look how the government… Excuse me, Ted. I have to say this the way I have to say it. Excuse me. But you see how the government fucked up a whole race, generations of one race, fucked them up to where they had no history, they had no chance of anything, and they didn’t give them anything, they lied to them, they cheated to them, they killed them. Then when it was time for them to get paid, they lied and said that they were owed rather than them having to pay them. When you look at this, I mean, that’s a Holocaust in itself. There’s a book out now by Randall Johnson called The Debt, and America, not only America but the world owes a debt to the Negro, mainly because every country in the world has screwed over the Negro race. If you think I’m lying, how do you think systematically the Third World countries are all dark? And how do you think that all these places have diamond mines, gold mines, and they don’t have one iota of anything to show for it. They wouldn’t let them get an education, and now they want them to be educated. Negroes have been hollering discrimination for years and years. Nobody says shit. And as soon as two Caucasians said, “Hey, wait a minute, they wouldn’t let me get a job,” they say, “No, we can’t have this discrimination stuff. That’s wrong.” You see? So they have more than three or four or five standards that they go by, and you can rest assured that the Negro’s ass is always going to be at the bottom.

Frankly, I’m not angry with any individual about it, but I think the Government in America is full of shit, and it sucks because of what they do, and the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is full of shit because they don’t do shit. They only talk about superfluous stuff instead of getting down to the business and saying, “Look, we have to do right and we have to be honest.” And the first way to be honest is to give an apology to all the Negroes, and then repay them for the work that was done and was never paid for. And I’m not saying, “Give each Negro some money.” I’m saying, give them an education. Quit that bullshit about color-blind. You can’t be color-blind because you see what colors you see. They are there. Never mind the color. Just be fair. That’s what I’m saying. That really bugged me. But it doesn’t make me hate anybody. Like, Ronald Reagan. I can’t stand the son-of-a-bitch. But if I could raise my hand to make him well, I’d do it. My wife. Blonde, green eyes. You saw her. But we have the same blood type. So what’s that shit about Negro blood and White blood? That’s bullshit.

TP: Well, in this country it’s all mixed up.

MOODY: Listen, this country started this shit. It’s all over the world now. Mainly because when economics is involved, there has to be a scapegoat, and there is no better scapegoat than someone who doesn’t look like you, supposedly. But if you look… See, people don’t see the forest for the trees or the trees for the forest. But if you were to look at an individual, you would see ears, nose, eyes, hair, no-hair, if it’s male or female. But they don’t see those similarities. All they see is, “oh, look at that color.” But how many people do you say, “Oh, look at the yellow rose,” “oh, look at the white rose,” “oh, look at the red rose.” It’s “Oh, look at the roses.” Same thing with tulips or any other flower. I’m sick of all these ignorant assholes with the shit that they talk, who stand up saying one thing and meaning another thing. Look at McCain. He got up there and spoke about that flag, the Confederate flag, and said, “I think the people should take care of it.” Then later on, afterwards, when he was out of the race and he said he had to be truthful about it, he said it was wrong to have the flag up there. And it is, too. First of all, slavery was wrong, and it was wrong to fight for slavery, and I don’t give a shit who fought to save slavery. If they fought for it, they were fighting for the wrong cause. Take the fuckin’ flag down.

All of that pertains to music. Because music is a feeling. You feel what you play. You see things, you feel something and you play. No matter what you do, you do it from your feelings. So consequently, whatever it is that you feel, it comes out. But the thing with me is that my anger through music… Like, I want music to be loving. So my anger comes out in a more beautifying way. Because I want to spread love, not ignorance, like all these people that…I don’t want to say sons-of-bitches in this…

For the longest time, I can tell when they think they’re giving me the boot. Because a lot of Americans grow up thinking they’re better than certain people. So you mean to tell me if you’re this color, you’re better than them, so that’s it. Even down South, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, we taught them all we know,” and they ain’t shit.

TP: Let me ask you something. In the ’50s, it sounds like you were taking out that anger on yourself and you were drinking…

MOODY: No. The anger was coming from no knowledge.

TP: No knowledge of music?

MOODY: Yes.

TP: So in ’58, when you get out of Overbrook, and Tom Macintosh starts running down the ABC’s of harmony, it sounds almost like a new life for you…

MOODY: Of course.

TP: Then you join Dizzy in ’61. Is that when you start to accept Bahai?

MOODY: No. Dizzy didn’t tell me about the Bahai or anything. First of all, Tom Macintosh… I was out there, and people were giving me fish, and Tom Macintosh taught me how to fish, and I’ll always be indebted to him for that. If a person is hungry and you give him a fish, you give him a fish for a day. But if a person is hungry and you teach him how to fish, you’ve fed them for life, haven’t you. That’s what I’m saying. Check this out. Here’s a fish. You cook it and you eat it. Now, how are you going to get another one?

TP: You have to fish.

MOODY: There you go.

TP: I’d like you to talk about how you arrived at your faith and how it affects your music.

MOODY: When Linda and I were married, we were married at a place called Faith Chapel. That’s another thing got me, too. See, Sunday is the most racist day in America.

TP: Sunday is.

MOODY: Yeah. The White people go to their White church and Negroes go to their…because God is White and all that bullshit. And it’s a bunch of malarkey, because all of the religions come from the Far East or somewhere else. Anyway, my wife and I would go to Faith Chapel in San Diego, and when I would be sitting in the pews, the minister would be saying, “And Jesus said ‘do right,’” Every Sunday “Jesus said ‘do right.’” And I would be counting, let’s see, there are 28 women in the choir and 28 men. How many letters in that word? There are 35 lightbulbs over there. That’s what I’d be doing. Because he wouldn’t be saying a damn thing. Nothing. Then Martin Luther King’s birthday came up; they didn’t say anything about that. So one day my wife overheard me say to somebody, “I’m so sick of counting people in the choir and the lightbulbs,” and she said, “Honey, I had no idea you felt that way.” I said, “Honey, they never say anything. Nothing!” I mean, they say the same shit over and over again, which doesn’t mean anything. Suppose I see you every day, Ted, and I say, “Good morning, Ted.”

TP: “Good morning, Moody.”

MOODY: Good morning, Ted. And there we go. Shit, there’s more to that than… “Good morning, Ted. How are you? Hey, Ted, how’s the family?” Whatever it is. So my wife looked in the papers and saw there was something at the Bahai thing. So she said, “Honey, would you like to go to this thing?” I said, “Sure.” It so happened that it was a feast. We went, and when I walked into the place, right away it felt altogether different. Now, Faith Chapel, where we went, like there were Negroes, Caucasians, everything. But the vibe was a bullshit vibe, where people raise their hand, “Oh, Jesus!” and getting tears in their eyes, calling me a nigger today and then repenting, then coming back next week to…

TP: Two-faced.

MOODY: Yeah. So the thing at the Bahai place, there was Spanish people, Caucasians, just everything, and they were saying prayers in Hindu and Spanish or Persian. I said, “Wow, man.” It just felt nice there. And they didn’t have a minister. You just sat down and everybody talked. Did you know that I could marry someone because I’m a Bahai? Myself. Me.

TP: You can perform the ceremony.

MOODY: Yes. And I like that. Do you know why? Because that stuff about the minister standing up talking…man… Oh, and another thing about the Bahais is… When I went into the Air Corps they said, “What religion are you?” I said, “I don’t know. I think…” “Well, what was your mother?” I said, “I think my mother is a Baptist.” They said, “Then you’re a Baptist.” I said, “No, I’m not.” With the Bahais, a child cannot become a Bahai until the child investigates the religion and wants to become a Bahai. It’s beautiful. And the Bahais believe that Mankind is One, and Earth is one country. They had a convention at Carnegie Hall, and man, they had Bahais from all corners of the earth, and we played. I was looking out there, and I said, “Now, see, this is the way the world is.” You go to one church and you see all Caucasians sitting up there talking about “Oh, Jesus,” but they don’t want a Negro or a Chinese in there. Listen, man, the Negroes and the Chinese, they built this country. But this country and didn’t get paid for it. They promised the Negro 40 acres and a mule. Any time the Negro asks for something they say, “These black son-of-a-bitches are always asking for something. Why don’t they get out and work?” Well, shit. If they hadn’t worked, there wouldn’t be a White House, there wouldn’t be Germany, England… There wouldn’t be a lot of shit.

And that stuff about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves? It’s a lot of bullshit. None of that stuff had anything to do with freeing the Negro. There’s a wonderful book called Forced Into Glory by Lerone Bennett. He really tells about Abraham Lincoln was a racist. He loved nigger jokes.

TP: So you came to the Bahai faith about thirty years after playing with Dizzy, if it was 1989. But you said in the earlier interview that you became much closer to Dizzy the second time around.

MOODY: Oh yes.

TP: It seems there must not be another musician who had more impact on you than Dizzy Gillespie.

MOODY: We had a wonderful relationship. It was wonderful being around him. I could talk to Diz and he could talk to me. It was just a good feeling being together; we liked being together when we were. I’d be in Sweden or somewhere, the phone would ring, and it would be Diz, calling me from Paris. When Diz was sick, every chance I could get… When I came from California, I would get a car and pick him up and take him out for a ride. It was just a good experience. Nice.

TP: He was so famous for passing on and sharing information, and I wondered what your experience was like in that regard.

MOODY: Oh, he shared information with me like that. He showed me things. I remember looking at him one time and saying, “Diz, you know what? I wish I would have gone to a music school and studied music.” And he looked at me and said, “Moody, you ain’t dead.” A light went on. That did it.

TP: I’ll conclude this conversation. But this week you’re playing with Mark Turner who is about 40 years younger than you. You do a lot of education. You made a comment in the earlier interview that musicians today are better than ever because they have access to such good education. I think that jazz music is unique among the arts because there’s a real-time interaction, real-time storytelling or narratives going on on the bandstand. They can be 80 and 20, they can be from Australia or Chicago, they can be from anywhere, and they’re still sharing a common language and moving things forward. I think what goes on this week on the bandstand would seem to bear that out.

MOODY: When you look at it, you have to remember. You have to have some musical knowledge. You can say musicians can get on the bandstand because they’re musicians, but not all musicians can get on the bandstand together. Because some people know songs that other people don’t know.

TP: So jazz is a meritocracy as well. You have to know something.

MOODY: Yeah, you have to know something, sure. Then when you get in, it’s an exchange of ideas. What’s happening is, literally I’m learning as much as I can learn. I don’t know what Mark is doing, but I’m stealing as much as I can steal or get or hold.

TP: So for you, every exchange is an opportunity to learn and take your stuff up another step.

MOODY: That’s it for me. I’ve played with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon…

TP: Let me ask you about a particular week. Was there a week in Chicago around 1961 where you and Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons played a three-tenor week at McKie’s?

MOODY: Yes. It was just one of those things. Every time I looked, they threw us all together all the time. It was one of those things — bang.

TP: So it was another event within the long ride of your career.

MOODY: Yes. And you learned… I look to learn. The young kids today are very well schooled. It’s something where you have to… I’m trying to study on my own. Not only that, but I get things from Mike Longo, David Baker, Nathan Davis, Mark Turner… I’ll ask anybody a question to try to learn something.

TP: Do you listen to recordings, to music regularly apart from your practice?

MOODY: Well, I can’t say I listen to it regularly, because I don’t have regular times. But when I get a chance to listen, I do. I like to listen.

TP: Any particular area of music, or do you listen to everything?

MOODY: I try to listen to what’s going on today.

TP: In jazz.

MOODY: Yes.

TP: What have you been hearing in the last month or two…

MOODY: There are so many young musicians, that I don’t even know some of them, but they all sound good. If I go somewhere now and I hear somebody and they don’t sound good, I’m disappointed.

TP: That didn’t used to be the case.

MOODY: No, it wasn’t the case. Because people weren’t in school.

TP: So the rise of jazz education, of people being in school the past 25 years has been of incalculable benefit to jazz music.

MOODY: Without a doubt. 250,000 percent. Because whereas it would have taken somebody four or five years to start doing something, now you can do it in two years. You know what I mean?

TP: I’m being a Devil’s Advocate here. A lot of people talk about musicians of your generation having very individual sounds and very personal voices, and you can recognize someone in four notes, and that that isn’t so with the young musicians these days. Do you think there’s anything to do that?

MOODY: Let me say this. I always said when I was younger that I would never say that about a younger musician when I got older. Mainly because a young musician is like a colt. A young colt is running and ripping and dashing and darting. So the older musicians used to say, “Oh, they play too fast.” Well, see, before I can complain about anything or before I can criticize something, I should be able to emulate it. I should be able to do it. Then I have a license to say, “That’s no good.” If you say, “Why?” “Because of this.” “Can you do it?” “Yeah, here it is. Bam.” But you notice that people, they can’t do it, and if they can’t do it, then other people shouldn’t be doing it. So, man, young musicians are taking their music… Because what I hear, I hear. But because I hear what I hear…see, somebody else is hearing something else. When we’re all walking down the street together, we don’t see the same thing. The same thing applies to music. And if a younger musician is studying… Like, see, all these different rules that they’re making in music, they’re only made to be broken. Because things do not stay the same. Everything must change. And I say if the change is for the better, that’s beautiful. I think there are a lot of young musicians who are taking things, and they get the good stuff right at the beginning, and they’ve got it and they can just build up on that. It’s like habits. If you get a bad habit and then you build up on it, now you’ve got to break that habit and try to do a new one. Well, imagine the person who had the good habit at the beginning and they’re building. They’re way ahead of your ass. So the thing is for you not to be discouraged, to just go ahead and study. Study and try to get better. And quit talking about somebody, and listen for the good that everybody is doing. Because everybody can see bad if you want to, but look for good, and try to give good.

[-30-]

* * *

James Moody (8-26-00):
TP: I wanted to ask you about your current professional life. One thing is repertoire and handling a week in a club, like you’re doing now. How many tunes do you draw from with this band? Is it an infinite number? Is it a similar set every night, a different set every night?

MOODY: It’s different. What you do is you’re constantly trying to learn another tune, a different tune. But then, don’t forget, it’s Charlie Parker’s birthday the 29th of this month, and tomorrow is Lester Young’s birthday, so you would play a few of Charlie Parker’s things and a few of the numbers he was associated with, and then you’d play a couple of things you’re trying to learn. That’s how it goes. It’s constantly a learning process. If I played “Pop Goes The Weasel” every night, I would never be able to play as much as I could play on it. With a musical composition, you could play it… Say, if you were born and you could only play one number for the rest of your life, you would never be able to play everything that could be played on that composition. Do you see what I mean?

TP: Do you mean that every composition holds within it infinite possibility?

MOODY: Definitely.

TP: So when you play “Moody’s Mood For Love”…

MOODY: But hold it. There’s a difference. I don’t improvise on that. I’m playing that theme. See, if you play a theme, that’s one thing. Now, when you start improvising, the possibilities are infinite.

TP:   So in your performance, you have themes and tunes that you improvise on.

MOODY: Right.

TP: And the themes might be “Moody’s Mood For Love” and “Bennies From Heaven”…

MOODY: No-no, “Moody’s Mood For Love” I don’t improvise on. Because “Moody’s Mood For Love” was the improvisation that I did.

TP: But just like Coleman Hawkins would play “Body and Soul,” though he would play it differently, and Illinois Jacquet would play “Flying Home,” you play “Moody’s Mood For Love.”

MOODY: Yes. But the only thing is, “Moody’s Mood For Love” is a song. That melody is the same melody that I played. Whereas that was a solo that I took, and I wouldn’t play that same solo over and over again, and it became a hit and that’s what the people want to hear.

TP: Also, you play it with such conviction, that if someone hadn’t heard it before they might not have any idea that you had played it about 25,000.

MOODY: Yeah. Or maybe 50,000. I still don’t know it.

TP: But apart from those pivot points within a set, everything else is open and fluid around it for you. In other words, all the other material and what you choose to play and what you select is an open, fluid learning process.

MOODY: Well, hopefully. When I play, I’m performing and I’m also practicing. You’re also practicing, because you keep in mind to hold your mouth correctly, you want to breathe right, you want to finger the horn right, you want to play something. If you play something and it didn’t come out, you do it again. The people might not dig it, but you’re doing it. In other words, you’re trying to give the people the best you can give them, and when you’re doing that, you’re being honest.

TP: Do you find that that sort of concentration focuses you in a mood for improvising at your best because it puts you in that honest frame of mind? What I’m thinking about is how you put yourself in the frame of mind to be fresh every night, every performance after playing for so long.

MOODY: Well, after playing for so long, you want to try to play something fresh if you can. See, actually there’s really nothing fresh. What it is is just put in a different way. And after playing for so long, if you don’t know how to put something in a couple of different ways, you might as well give it up.

TP: It always has seemed to me that if you weren’t a musician, you could have made a career as a comedian because your timing is so precise.

MOODY: I don’t even like to dwell on that. Because that’s like a little icing on the cake. If I care to say something, I’ll say it. If I care not to say anything, I’d like for it to be that way, too. Sometimes I just want a musical thing going. Know what I mean? And sometimes I feel it conducive to say something. But then a lot of times, guys start writing articles about it, and they put the lines I say… It wasn’t an offense, but the point is, you gave away who the survivor was.

TP: Who the survivor was? What do you mean?

MOODY: You don’t put the two and two together? What I say is when you give punchline away, you gave away who the survivor was. You say who won the million dollars. Didn’t you hear about that show?

TP: No, I’m sorry. I didn’t see the show.

MOODY: Now two and two makes four, right? But now, if I get ready to say something or somebody is playing the number… Like, a guy that was really aware of something like that would say, “his choice of music or the compositions was very profound, I thought, and I think when you go and listen to them, hopefully you’ll feel the same way I felt about them,” rather than saying, “Well, he played ‘Mood Indigo’ and the he played ‘Jump Off The Bridge, Mama,’ and then he played so-and-so.” I’m not saying you. I’m just saying that would be good if people would do that.

TP: I’d heard most of the jokes you told at that concert before, but you still got me. So I don’t think you have to worry about giving away the punchline. Have you in this year gotten hooked up with any record label or any recording I should know about?

MOODY: No, I didn’t. But I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee School of Music, and they presented it to me at Umbria, Perugia, in Italy this year. Wasn’t that nice. Me and Dave Holland got one.

TP: Will there be any records forthcoming at the end of this year or next year?

MOODY: I don’t know. What I want to do is, I want to do something that’s James Moody. All me. I want to do it myself. I want to do everything on it. I don’t want anybody to have anything to do with it or have anything to say about it. I want to just, bang, do it and put it out.

TP: What would something that was all James Moody be that was different?

MOODY: Look at it this way. It would be different because I would be doing it. That’s what would be different. I would be doing it and I would pick who I wanted to be on it, and be able to play what I wanted to play.

TP: Can I jump back with you? In our first interview I asked you to tell me a few sentences about some of the people you’ve encountered, which segued into something else. I’d like to state some names, you tell me whatever you want. Babs Gonzalez. It seems to have been a very close relationship at a certain point.

MOODY: Babs was aware of how things went as a road manager, and things on the road. Al Cooper of the Savoy Sultans was the one who recommended Babs to me, and that’s how we got together.

TP: Do you have anything to say about Babs’ wit and verbal virtuosity?

MOODY: Well, see, wit to you is not wit to someone else, and what someone says might knock you out but it might not knock me out. So Babs was Babs, as far as I was concerned.

TP: He was your road manager for a while, then he left, and Eddie Jefferson came in.

MOODY: He left and I hired Eddie Jefferson.

TP: And you told me the story that you didn’t know he’d written those lyrics until his girlfriend told you. What year did Eddie Jefferson join you? Can you remember?

MOODY: No, I don’t.

TP: Was it after a couple of years of the septet?

MOODY: I’m not good with names at all.

TP: His first recordings with you are in ’55.

MOODY: Well, I know he joined me in Cleveland, Ohio, because I was looking for a singer. That’s when he came to join me.

TP: You got paired a lot in the ’50s and ’60s with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt for various jam sessions. A few words about each of them.

MOODY: Oh, it was wonderful, because Jug was a helluva player and so was Sonny Stitt. Every time I came to Chicago, they always stuck me in between those two guys.

TP: Any particular anecdote about either one?

MOODY: No. We were just always playing. And it was always enjoyable. It was always a good learning experience for me.

TP: Tell me about what they call “cutting contests” or “tenor battles.”

MOODY: That term gets on my nerves. I’m so sick of that. First of all, when I’m playing music, I like to play a certain way I play. Then they want to put 20 million playing with you, “I want to hear these people together.” Well, when people are making love, they don’t ask someone else to come in there with you to help you to do that. I’m not really particular about them. If there’s a thing and somebody’s playing, and you’re playing on a stage and they hired you for something, okay. But in a club or things like that, I’d rather play with my quartet or something, and let it go at that, and express myself, and that’s it.

TP: Are you very interactive with the different musicians in your band? Do they find things to surprise you and take you in different directions?

MOODY: Well, the thing is, I never tell anybody how to play. See? That’s the very reason I don’t do it. Lots of people have ideas, and I don’t want to stifle anybody, just like I don’t want to be stifled.

TP: In your improvisations are you picking up on information they’re giving you and taking it in unexpected directions?

MOODY: In other words, what you’re talking about is, am I listening to the group. I listen all the time. I hear everything. I listen, and if it goes over my head enough times, it will come to me another way.

TP: Let me ask you about Chano Pozo. You’re about the only person I can think of who recorded with him outside of Dizzy. Were you friendly?

MOODY: We roomed together a couple of times in California, in Los Angeles. He had a couple of bullets that were in him from… He wrote a song or something in Cuba, and it was a good-seller, and he wanted his money from the publishing company, and the publishing company told him to come back at 1 o’clock, but the guy wasn’t there with the money, and when he came back at 1 o’clock there was a guy waiting there, and he shot him. So the guy shot him a couple of times, and the bullets lodged in him and they couldn’t take them out. So Chano Pozo some nights he would feel good and some nights he wouldn’t feel good when he was playing. And some nights he’d tell me, “Here, Moody, feel here,” and I could feel the bullets in him.

Another thing was, one time Chano cracked me up, because… You remember the phrase people used to say, “Boy, that’s some deep shit”? Well, one day Chano came to me looking real perplexed, and he says, “Moody, Moody, what ‘deep shit’?” And he held his hand up high as if to indicate “shit” up high. Boy, I cracked up laughing. I tried to explain it to him as best I could. But he couldn’t understand when people were saying, “boy, that’s some deep shit.” He was looking for some deep shit somewhere. I’m telling you, it’s funny, man. And that look on his face when he was saying it. His face was kind of frowned up, like… Because he really wanted to know, and he didn’t know… Deep shit! And then he had his hand raised up high, like “Deep shit!” So anyway… [LAUGHS]

TP: Subsequently, over the years, you said you played a lot of Latin gigs, guest-starring, with Machito’s band or Tito Puente…

MOODY: Oh, Tito Puente was wonderful. Tito Puente and also Ray Barretto.

TP: And being with Dizzy, who more than anyone else was responsible for bringing the rhythms of the world together in a jazz context, and people seem to be picking up on that thoroughly in the last ten years or so…

MOODY: See, there’s a difference in playing a band that’s playing [SINGS LATIN GROOVE] and then playing with a Latin band. There’s a difference in the rhythms. What the difference is, it has to do with the way the Latin people play the rhythms and sing and then the way they play the jazz, and the way the jazz play the jazz and play the Latin. There’s a big difference. I can’t be more specific about it because of the rhythms. I’m not hip to the rhythms. If I could explain it to you, I would. But I know what’s happening. I can feel it. Like, there’s a guy who falls off a building, and when he’s killed, they say, “Can you tell me what velocity he fell? Can you tell me how many miles it was and how many inches did his head bash in? I don’t know all that, but I can tell you he fell.”

TP: That’s very well put. You said in our first interview that you first heard Coltrane in Cleveland, he was playing with Gay Crosse, and then you once met him in Chicago and drove him to the Selmer factory in Elkhart, Indiana.

MOODY: To pick up his soprano saxophone. I drove him to Elkhart, and he was looking at these saxophones and so forth, and that’s when he got this soprano, and a couple of months later is when he made “My Favorite Things.”

TP: You started playing soprano in the mid-’60s or so?

MOODY: Oh, I don’t remember what the date was. But I started playing soprano late, I started playing flute late, and I started playing everything late.

TP: Someone was telling me the other day that soprano saxophones are manufactured so much better now that intonation isn’t the problem it used to be…

MOODY: I can agree with that.

TP: Do you think that’s true in general, that instruments are much better made these days?

MOODY: Yes.

TP: And you’ve said very emphatically several times that you think the young musicians are extremely equipped…

MOODY: Yes. There are more schools. As far as I’m concerned, they have a better chance than I had when I was coming up for getting their knowledge, and getting it quick.

TP: Let me ask you about John Lewis. You must have met him 54 years ago.

MOODY: I met him with Dizzy Gillespie. Monk was there one day, and then a couple of nights later John was there. We roomed together a couple of nights in St. Louis. We see each other. In fact, I saw John in Perugia. We were on a panel together. We don’t stay in touch, but when we see each other we can look back at something and think, boy, what a wonderful memory that was.

TP: Did you have other dealings with Coltrane?

MOODY: I didn’t have any other dealings with him. None at all, other than he seemed like a nice, kind guy and so on. And he was a helluva musician.

TP: But you were very taken with his ideas and the conclusions he came up with.

MOODY: Of course. His impact on the music was phenomenal, and I’m still learning from it. Like, when the guy went to the moon and he said, “One big step for mankind.” Well, Coltrane was one big-great step for music-kind.

TP: It’s Lester Young’s and Charlie Parker’s birthday coming up.

MOODY: Lester Young was one of my idols. First I liked Jimmy Dorsey, then I liked Charlie Barnet and Georgie Auld, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and them. But then, when I heard Lester Young, that did something else. There was something about that that got me, and I wanted to play like that. Then I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, then I wanted to play like that.

TP: But you never forgot anything you did before. It’s just additive.

MOODY: Well, I hope not.

TP: You said when you heard Prez and Bird, you wanted to play like that? Did you memorize their solos?

MOODY: What it was, I didn’t copy any of their solos from the standpoint of transcribing them. What I did was, there would be something in a solo that I would like and I would just copy that part, and I would do it with my ear. I would listen to it, play it over and over and I’d have it.

TP: Have you always had that ability to translate what was in your ear to moving your fingers on the saxophone from very early?

MOODY: Any musician can do that. That’s not such a big deal. Like I always say, “if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.”

TP: So if you can’t sing it, you’re not going to be a musician.

MOODY: You’re not going to be a player, right.

TP: Kenny Clarke.

MOODY: Klook was wonderful. He was in Dizzy’s band when I joined it, and in Paris I got to know him better. We played together. I remember one time either I invited them over or they invited me over… I had a son and he had a son, and they were both in the bathtub for cribs, and we had a spaghetti dinner in Paris. I remember that.

TP: It seems like in Paris you met all the people a generation older than you who were living there.

MOODY: When I was in Paris, Coleman Hawkins was there, Don Byas was there, Roy Eldridge was there. A lot of those guys were there then.

TP: Did it have an effect on your attitude towards music, just being around those guys…

MOODY: Well, it wasn’t a musical thing. First of all, I was living with my uncle. I didn’t have to work. I wasn’t working. I went over there to stay for two weeks and stayed for three years. After I found out how the people were over there I wasn’t coming back to America, because I had been discharged, and I had been on the road with Dizzy, and I saw how the racism was down South. I had experienced all of that stuff, like Colored fountains and Colored waiting rooms. The bus driver had to go see if we could get food. He would have to go get sandwiches for us. We couldn’t stay in the hotels. If we went to a rooming house, if it was two dollars, it would be five dollars when we got there. There was a whole lot of crap down South. When I got to Europe it was different, because I thought, “Why do people hate me so much? What have I done?” Then when I got to Europe I said, “Ah, it’s not me; it’s them.”

TP: But was it different for you than when you were in Dizzy’s band and traveling around and being on 52nd Street, or did you feel a sense of collegiality with the older musicians during the years before you went to Europe?

MOODY: No, I didn’t. Because I looked up to them. It was a different feeling.

TP: But in Europe you felt a sense of collegiality with them.

MOODY: In Europe it was still a different feeling. It was a little better than it was in America, but it was still the same thing. You kind of have the respect for, like, Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas.

TP: You were at the hotel in Las Vegas for how long?

MOODY: The Hilton International for seven years in the ’70s. I did Liberace and Connie Stevens, Elvis Presley…

TP: You told me you weren’t a soloist, you were in the section.

MOODY: I was in the band. I was in the saxophone section, the woodwind section. That was it.

TP: What did it do for your musicianship?

MOODY: It made my reading very good at the time. At the time, I could read much better. It got better and better. Now my reading is slow. Because if you don’t use it, you lose it.

TP: And for the last twenty years, since about 1980, you’ve been a touring musician, either with your own band or with a rhythm section or special projects?

MOODY: Yes, twenty years.

TP: Are you satisfied with doing that?

MOODY: I’m not satisfied with what I’m doing, because first of all, I don’t have what I want, the way I want it. I would like to have a permanent group, permanent, so that I could work with it and have it like I want it, to travel with me all the time.

TP: So the band with Todd Coolman and Renee and Adam Nussbaum doesn’t go with you everywhere now.

MOODY: No, they can’t. If I could have them like I wanted to, all the time at my disposal, and I could or subtract what I wanted to from it to put certain things or something… That’s what I would want.

TP: During this year and the last few years you’ve had a lot of honors, some highly produced, elaborate tribute concerts, things like this. Is there any situation you would aspire to do that hasn’t come your way over 54 years as a professional?

MOODY: Yes. I would like to have a nice, lucrative record contract where I was the producer and I was able to do whatever I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it, when and how I wanted to do it. James Moody. I would like to be able to do it, to show that if James Moody was able to do what James Moody wanted to do himself, James Moody would be a great success.

TP: Please talk to me a bit about your relationship with Dizzy. I know you’ve discussed this 800 million times and spoke to the guy earlier for the book…

MOODY: It’s very simple. You can only be… There are people who elaborate and it really amounts to nothing but a hill of beans, and then there are people that say it was a relationship that I will value as long as I live, because of the importance of it and the profoundness of it.

TP: Would saying more about it trivialize it?

MOODY: Yes. Because that’s it. There are times you feel like saying things, and then there are times you just want to say what you say.

TP: You said one very specific thing, about a particular harmonic figure that h wanted, and you told me twice that you were bemoaning to him that you hadn’t gone to music school and he said, “Moody, you’re not dead.”

MOODY: No. What I said was, “Diz, I wish I would have gone to school and studied music.” And Diz said, “Moody, you ain’t dead.” And that lightbulb went on. I immediately went and bought some more books, music books.

TP: In the band in the ’60s, did you do a lot of rehearsing? Your unisons are so precise. On some of them, like the “Groovin’ High” date, you sound almost as good as Dizzy did with Charlie Parker in the ’40s…

MOODY: Look at it this way, Ted. You’ve got to say this. Did you rehearse? Yes, we did rehearse. Some people can rehearse one time and get it perfect. Some people can rehearse it two times. So just say we were sufficient with the rehearsals.

TP: How many days a year would you say you worked with Dizzy in the ’60s? Half the year? 210 days a year?

MOODY: I don’t know. We worked when we worked, and we worked a lot of times just on the road.

TP: You spent a decade doing about half the year on the road with Dizzy.

MOODY: I don’t know. I’m not good at that. I’m not going to say “I’m 20 days here and 30 days off.” I’m not like that.

TP: If I say in the story that “in the ’60s Moody toured incessantly with Gillespie”…

MOODY: That would be sufficient.

TP: And that your friendship blossomed in that period in a way it couldn’t when you were with the big band, that would also be sufficient?

MOODY: No, I wouldn’t say it blossomed the way it couldn’t. It blossomed more because we were closer in the quintet.

TP: Were you close when you were in the big band?

MOODY: No. In the big band you’d be in the bus. Dizzy would be down front talking to other people. I’d be in the back of the bus, talking with Dave Burns. The bus was called… The hoot-hounds were in the back and the pot-hounds were in the front. Hoot is drink.

TP: So the drinkers were in the back and the ones who were smoking pot were in the front. Sounds like you had a lot of fun on the bus.

MOODY: Well, it depends on what the stuff did for you when…

TP: I guess you were trying to blur the reality of being on the goddamn bus.

MOODY: Yes.

TP: You’re still on the road a lot. What is it like? Does it feel like second nature? Is it something you have to endure?

MOODY: Well, it feels a little better from the standpoint that I travel first-class. There’s no other way. First class by airplane, and that’s it. Because I think I’ve earned it. It’s even better when my wife is with me. Everything, whatever I do, it’s always first-class airplane tickets if they want me. If not, don’t hire me. Because I am not going any other way.

TP: But it’s nothing like when you had your septet with the car and drove to the northern cities in the winter and the southern cities in the summer.

MOODY: I was doing all the driving. All the driving and everything!

TP: You did all the driving, too?

MOODY: I didn’t trust anybody else. And I said, “Lord, if I ever get a chance, I’m going to fix it so…” That’s where I got so I like to travel alone. Because traveling all the time bunched together and everything… I said, “Lord, if I ever… I’ll give everybody their plane ticket. You go when you want, you go when you want, and I’m going when I want.”

TP: I guess when you’re traveling with a bunch of characters in the band, it can get a little hairy…

MOODY: You get sick of the same old shit. Because there are other things going on, a lot of beautiful things going on, like the twelfth planet, stuff like that.

Do me a favor. You’ve got to put down who keeps me going, and who I love more than anything in the world. That’s Linda Moody.

TP: I may print what she said about how you met.

MOODY: Okay.

TP: I think it’s interesting how someone in their seventies keeps going, keeps stays fresh and youthful, and you said it there. It’s because you’re in love and have something to look forward to.

[-30-]

* * *

James Moody Colleagues (Kenny Barron, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Heath, Todd Coolman, Talib Kibwe, Mark Turner):

TP: Moody said that he brought you into Dizzy Gillespie’s band?

BARRON: Yeah, that’s true. When I first came to New York I wound up working with Moody, and when he went with Dizzy, which was about a year after that, I happened to run into him one day on Broadway… Dizzy was working at Birdland, and I ran into Moody, and he told me that Lalo Schiffrin was leaving, and he asked me would I be interested in the gig. And of course. I’d just gotten married, wasn’t married. So I went to Birdland to talk to Dizzy, and he hired me without even having heard me just on Moody’s recommendation.

TP: What were the circumstances of your working with Moody when you got to New York?

BARRON: I was staying on East 6th Street, next door to my brother, Bill, which was walking distance from the Five Spot, where Moody was working. I went to hear him, and since he knew Bill, he allowed me to sit in. I guess I must have made a favorable impression, because I started working with him. He had a nice sextet, with Dave Burns, Tom Macintosh on trombone, Edgar Bateman on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. Most of the music was Tom Macintosh’s, very nice sextet kind of stuff. It was mostly his music.

TP: What was he like as a bandleader? You were very young. What was his manner toward you?

BARRON: He was very gracious. Which he is today.

TP: He said he’s never heard you make a mistake in 40 years.

BARRON: Well, I have — plenty of mistakes. But Moody was very gracious, very generous, and he hasn’t changed since I’ve known him. He’s always been a very sweet person.

TP: He noted that towards the end of the ’50s is when Tom Macintosh started teaching him music theory, that before that he’d been playing more or less by ear, and that his life turned around from learning to read music. It got rid of a lot of his insecurities, and so on. It would seem to me that around the time you got with him is shortly after that process started happening.

BARRON: For me, when I first started working with Moody, he was incredible! [LAUGHS]

TP: It seems unbelievable that this guy who was playing all this stuff says that he was playing by ear and so on, but so he says.

BARRON: Yes. And even today, I can recall working not with his band, but I think during one of those tributes to Dizzy or at Lincoln Center. We were going over some music, and he kept asking me to run over the changes for him, which he didn’t feel comfortable. Which I knew wasn’t true. He may have felt uncomfortable. But he played more stuff than I could ever play! He’s still like that. He’s very humble. He’s always been like that.

TP: Had you listened to him a lot before you joined the band?

BARRON: Yes, I did. I wouldn’t say he was an influence, but he was very popular.

TP: You were growing up when the septet was big. Can you talk about how he was regarded by musicians in the ’50s and the impact of the band?

BARRON: That’s kind of when I first started listening. But everybody… Moody has always been very well-respected by his peers. I think he’s always been known for… Moody is very adventurous and a very adventurous player. Although the band he had during that time kind of a very…not almost commercial, but it was a very accessible band. They played nice music. I remember some of those records on Prestige. Actually, my sister had a lot of those records. She lived around the corner from me, and I used to go over there just to listen to her records. I remember one tune in particular, “A Sinner Kissed An Angel” where he had John Lathan on bass, Gene Keyes was the piano player, Clarence Johnston on drums.

TP: Hank Crawford and Fathead said that the sound of that band influenced the sound Ray Charles started to use, that it was influential in the way popular music was being constructed.

BARRON: I can believe it. Again, I was young then. I remember hearing some of Hank Crawford’s band when I was with Dizzy, and I’d think about some of those recordings of Moody’s, and I’d think about how Ray Charles’ band sounded. It was very close.

TP: Talk about your relationship developed with Dizzy’s band?

BARRON: We became very close. We were roommates for a while. We’d be in San Francisco. Especially after Chris White and Rudy Collins left the band, we’d be roommates a lot of the time.

TP: Was he very much a mentor to you? Kind of another older brother?

BARRON: I kind of looked at him that way. He may not have looked at me that way. But as I say, he was a very kind of person, and I very seldom saw him get upset about anything.

TP: He has a very even temperament?

BARRON: Yes. Except for smoking. [LAUGHS] And we both smoked during that time. But other than that, he always took care of his health… These are things I remember. He was very conscious of his health; although he did smoke at the time, he eventually stopped. And he was always practicing. Again, he was a very-very kind of person. Sometimes we’d work in Boston at Lennie’s on the Turnpike, and at the time I didn’t have a car. He lived in Forest Hills, and my wife and I would take the subway to Lefrak City, where he lived, and we would ride up to Boston with Moody and Allison. One time I had my baby with me; my daughter was an infant. He was always very cool that way.

TP: He said that he and Dizzy became very close during those years. Because it was in a big band before, they really hadn’t gotten to know each other that well, but during the ’60s, because of the proximity in the small group, they became quite close then, or their relationship cemented itself.

BARRON: I think that’s kind of true. They were very close. The relationship was very healthy. It was a lot of fun also. I mean, I could see that between the two of them.

TP: It was a lot of fun because they both have a sense of humor.

BARRON: Yes. And it wasn’t put on. I mean, it was really like that. And musically…I won’t say musically they were like minds, but in terms of stage presence. I think they both looked at music as being entertainment as well.

TP: The purpose of it being to communicate maybe.

BARRON: Yes. And they really did that very well together on stage. So it made it really work.

TP: Is there any particular anecdote about, say, their humor that sticks in your mind?

BARRON: I can’t think of any one particular thing involving the both of them together. Of course, a lot of it was very spontaneous. And it affected the whole band sometimes. I remember playing a matinee at the Lighthouse in L.A. Between tunes all of a sudden Chris White starts screaming, “Okay, it’s time for me to reveal my true identity,” and took off his shirt and had on a Superman shirt. Little things like that.

TP: Everybody became a comic.

BARRON: Everybody became a part of it. That’s because Dizzy’s and Moody’s sense of humor was infectious. One time we were going to San Francisco from New York, and Dizzy had on these long, flowing African robes that he wore on the plane. When we got off the plane in San Francisco, people actually thought he was an African dignitary. And Moody kind of played it up as just a valet or whatever.

TP: “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac”, were they working that out during the time that you were in the band?

BARRON: No, that had been done before.

TP: You say you don’t know whether they were necessarily of the same mind musically. Can you elaborate?

BARRON: They certainly came from the same period. But I think Moody may have been a little bit more adventurous than Dizzy was.

TP: In terms of dealing with the up-to-the-minute stuff that was going in the music, like Coltrane?

BARRON: Yeah. I think Moody was a little more into that.

TP: I guess Dizzy was complete unto himself, wasn’t he.

BARRON: Right. Which wasn’t a bad thing.

TP: Not if you’re Dizzy.

BARRON: Right! Because there were some incredible moments that I heard during the four years I was with him, and listening back to some of the older tapes and recordings that I did with him, they’re unbelievable — the whole band. But Moody was obviously… There’s a tape from the BBC, my very first trip to Europe, and Moody played so much stuff, it’s just unreal.

TP: If you were going to describe Moody’s sound to somebody who hadn’t heard him… Well, maybe you’d tell somebody to go buy the damn record. But if they weren’t in a position to do so, how would you describe it?

BARRON: I don’t know if I could. The quality of his sound. And it depends on the kind of music. Because on the very up-tempo things his sound can be very percussive, a very rough sound, and in the kinds of things he might choose to play, a lot of strange intervals. So that’s one particular kind of sound. I mean his sound is actually…I wouldn’t say harsh, but hard. Then I’ve also heard him play ballads (I’m talking bout tenor now) where his sound is very deep and warm. It depends on the mood.

TP: Sounds like more of a blues-informed player on the more up-tempo, technically complex stuff, more vocal inflection on the notes or whatever.

BARRON: Yes.

TP: Then you continued to play with Moody on and off. You worked with him for a minute in the ’80s, I recall. Two of what I consider his best records you’re on. One is Feelin’ It Together and there’s another on RCA. How do you see Moody’s concept having evolved in the period since Dizzy?

BARRON: Well, he’s constantly searching. You can see that. Constantly searching for things that are new for him. And he’s constantly on his horn, trying to find different things to do and say. It’s just never-ending with him. And behind all of that, it’s still his sense of fun. I mean, I just saw him not too long ago at the Charlie Parker thing. As usual, he sounded great. It was him and Jon Faddis which is almost like listening to him and Dizzy. But Moody is unbelievable. And when I think about how old he is and his energy… That’s what gets me, his energy, and the fact that he’s constantly trying to improve.

TP: Is there any particular point about Moody’s persona that you would hone in on as the most salient thing to know about him?

BARRON: In terms of his music, a couple of things. His sense of adventure and his sense of humor. I really like those two things about his playing. One minute he’s playing all these strange fourths, really looking for it, but on the other hand he plays those real humorous things. He changes the sound of his horn so it sounds real old. He does all kinds of things.

TP: So he’s a wizard of the saxophone.

BARRON: Yes. In terms of his personality, he’s a great human being. That’s basically it. He’s a really great human being.

TP: Another thing is that he’s so strong on alto sax and soprano, but that he has a personality on those instruments.

BARRON: Yes, alto sax and the flute. Although he plays tenor most of the time now. When we were with Dizzy he played alto a lot more, and quite a bit of flute. For me he’s probably one of the better flute players among multi-instrumentalists. People who just play flute exclusively obviously play a bit differently than someone who plays all the reeds. But for me, Moody is probably one of the best flautists.

TP: But when you think of Moody, it’s primarily a tenor sound you hear.

BARRON: Now. That’s interesting. Again, when I thought of him years ago I always thought of alto. I don’t know why. But when I think of him now, I hear tenor.

* * *

TP: I guess you first met Moody when you met Dizzy. You’ve known him now for thirty years.

FADDIS: Over 30 years. I would say that Moody is one of the warmest people of all time and he’s also very smart. He’s really, really intelligent, and I think that’s reflected in the style of playing that he does.

TP: By “style of playing,” do you mean the consistent quest for new challenges, which seems to be the thing that animates him and keeps him going, the search for new ways of expressing himself.

FADDIS: Well, that. But also there’s a certain logic to his playing. I don’t want to say his playing is intellectual, but it’s very intelligent and logical. And he’s like Dizzy in that regard, in that he can sit down and tell you… You say, “What was that he played, and then he’ll sit down and tell you and say, “here’s what it is.”

TP: So he has the ability to break everything down into its components.

FADDIS: oh yes.

TP: He said that in the first phase of his career, he was flying blind. He said he couldn’t read music, he didn’t really know what he was doing, he was playing by ear, and it led to various insecurities, going as far to say that part of why he had his drinking problem at that time is because he felt like he was treading on such thin ice. So it’s interesting he’s developed such a comprehensively analytical (?).

FADDIS: He never really told me that! I knew he had a drinking thing, but I didn’t know that was the cause behind it. But then again, Dizzy must have heard something!

TP: He said he started playing alto at 16, didn’t really start until ’43 when he went into the Army, and he comes out three years later with Dizzy! If you had to describe his sound in some impressionistic way, what language would you use?

FADDIS: I wouldn’t say impressionistic. I would say pointillistic. I’d put it this way. It’s like that painting by Seurat, “Sunday In The Park With George” at the Art Institute of Chicago. When you look at it up close, it doesn’t look like much. It looks like a lot, because you see all these details, and it seems sort of disjointed. But when you step back, you get a much clearer picture of the connection and the great work of art that it is. To me, that’s something like Moody. Sometimes you can stand next to him for a while and almost take him for granted. But then when you sit in the audience and listen to him, you say, “Oh my God.” You step off to the side of the bandstand and say, “Oh, man, what is he playing.” Because a lot of times when you’re on the bandstand, you’re a part of the music, even if you’re not playing it. Moody is always full of surprises. But when you’re on the bandstand, you might not notice them as much as if you would step back a little bit.

TP: Is that because he makes himself blend into the ensemble in a certain way?

FADDIS: I don’t know if that’s something he does consciously or unconsciously. But I’m speaking as somebody who has stood next to him on the bandstand, and what that’s like being next to him on the bandstand.

TP: I guess you’ve been aware of Moody from your earliest years of listening, just from having been involved with Dizzy’s music so much. Can you talk about how you hear his sound having evolved from those early years to how he approaches things today?

FADDIS: Well, his sound, or his style. I would say more his style. As far as his sound, the only thing he did which I didn’t really care for was his use of plastic reed. I thought he sounded better with the wood reed. But his style has evolved quite a bit, and it’s become I think a lot more harmonically advanced, but within that development it still retains a sense of melody. It’s still melodic playing.

TP: How is it being a leader on a session where he’s a guest artist, such as Dizzy’s World?

FADDIS: It’s fun. Moody is very humble. He’s not in the practice or coming into a gig and just reading any more, as he was when he was in Dizzy’s band or when he was in Vegas for all those years, when he had his reading chops up. He’s not in the habit of doing that much any more. So when we did that Dizzy’s World thing he was like, “Oh, man, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” It’s really funny.

TP: Was he very personally supportive of you when you were young? I’d imagine you met him when you met Dizzy?

FADDIS: Yes, he and Dizzy both. But the thing that surprised is when I first met Moody… He started giving me advice the first night that I played with Dizzy, and he said, “Man, whatever you learn to play, learn how to play it backwards.’” That’s one thing he said that I can remember. One thing that felt good to me and felt very warm is that I was playing with Mingus in Nice in 1972, so at that time I was 18, almost 19, and hanging out with Dizzy a little bit backstage, and Moody was there, and he remembered me, and he gave me a hug and said, “Yeah, I remember you sat in with us at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco; how you doin’, man?” I was like a long-lost son or brother or something.

TP: So he has an embracing personality. People almost universally talking about how warm and open he is, and his penchant for sharing information.

FADDIS: The one thing about that embracing which no one really talks about. See, Moody had this cologne made up for him. Did you know that? He had this James Moody cologne. And when Moody sees you in the morning, going on the bus or at the breakfast, you get up and he’ll always insist on a hug on both sides. But when he gives you that, his cologne sort of rubs off on you! And it carries with you throughout the day. Which can be okay if you don’t carry your own. So usually if I’m on the road with Moody, I’ll avoid putting my cologne on.

TP: This is what being a jazz veteran really means, is knowing when to wear the cologne and when not.

FADDIS: Something like that.

TP: Would you talk about his relationship with Dizzy, and your speculations on what drew Dizzy so closely to Moody? Moody said that they didn’t really become close until they traveled in the ’60s.

FADDIS: Well, I wasn’t there in the ’40s. I know that in the ’60s, that’s also one of my favorite bands that Dizzy had, the one with Moody and Kenny Barron and Chris White and Rudy Collins. Moody would talk about things that Dizzy told him back in the ’40s that he is just starting to understand what Dizzy meant. That’s how deep Dizzy was. I know they must have been very close, because Dizzy was Bahai and then Moody became Bahai.

TP: Although Moody said it had nothing to do with Dizzy. It happened after he got married.

FADDIS: I don’t mean close in that he was copying Diz, but that they shared the same outlook on I guess the spiritual aspect of life. There was a book about Dizzy last year by Alan Shipton, and he asked me what I thought of the book, because they asked me to do a little blurb for the back cover, and I refused to do it. One thing he mentioned in that book is that Moody, in his opinion, during the ’60s, was just acting as a comic foil to Diz. I’m saying, “how can he say that?” Then he cites a couple of tracks on a recording where it wasn’t Moody doing the stuff! It was Chris White.

But Moody would always talk about the things Dizzy would tell him about life and about music. I guess the first time that Moody really seemed grounded and satisfied with his life is after he married Linda.

TP: He makes no bones about that.

FADDIS: I think that’s something very important with him. She provides him with a lot. He had gone through some other relationships, and he would sit down and talk to me about them and shake his head. He’d say, “Isn’t that strange?” I’d say, “Yeah, that’s strange.”

TP: I don’t see comedy as denoting any superficiality at all. I think one could say that even with you a bit because you have a penchant for broad or drier humor. I noticed at his concert in April that he was telling the same jokes he’s been telling for 30-40 years, but you still laugh because his timing is so perfect. Do you hear that humor in his playing also?

FADDIS: Oh yeah. He’s one of them cats like Picasso who can make you laugh out loud at some of the stuff does. “Oh my gosh, where did that come from?” He can really touch you deep down with I guess the subtleness of humor in his playing. It’s not a more evident type of humor, like, say, somebody like Clark Terry. It’s a little more subtle.

Call Kenny back and ask him about the blue uniforms they used to have with the piping…

* * *

TP: Let me take you back to the beginning. When do you remember meeting Moody? Must have been the first time you saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

HEATH: Right.

TP: Can you pinpoint it?

HEATH: It was probably 1946. I think they came to Philadelphia, and Moody was in the band. If it wasn’t ’46, maybe he can correct me. But I remember we invited the whole band down to my mother’s house. John Lewis was playing at that time.

TP: Was Kenny Clarke the drummer?

HEATH: Yes. We invited them all down to the house, and a lot of the band members came, Moody and Dave Burns… I don’t recall everybody that was there. But that was my first time to meet Moody.

TP: I guess he’d done the “Emanon” solo then.

HEATH: In Philly we had heard the “Emanon” solo, and all the musicians around Philly were crazy about the Dizzy Gillespie band, period, and the new music, Bebop, and the solo was very exciting to all the saxophone players around home.

TP: Let me ask a moron question. Why was the solo exciting at that moment in time?

HEATH: Well, Moody played very fast on tenor. He doubled up. And the solo was different than any blues solo that you had heard, similar to coming out of Charlie Parker and the bebop sound. He had the bebop sound.

TP: So along with Dexter Gordon…Moody and Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards were the first who articulated that on the tenor sax.

HEATH: And Sonny Stitt. He was one, too.

TP: Then your first acquaintance with Moody is 1946; you’ve known him 54 years. I would imagine you kept in fairly close touch with him over the next few years.

HEATH: Oh yes.

TP: What do you remember about his manner and his personality as a young man?

HEATH: Moody has always been a very nice person, and everybody knows that. He was very interested in learning as much as he could about the music. He actually was basically playing by ear at that time when he played “Emanon.” Later on, when he had his group with Johnny Coles and Tom Macintosh, some of the people like that convinced Moody he had to learn his changes and play by changes. I don’t know why…

TP: Moody says he’s eternally indebted to Tom Macintosh for that. He says that before it was like flying blind, and it caused him all sorts of anxiety and inner turmoil.

HEATH: Well, there were things within himself he couldn’t do. Because if you don’t know the insides of the music and the changes, there’s a limitation put on what you play. As a player by ear, he was already so far advanced, it didn’t take much concentration — but I guess it did. It took a few years. Because Moody began to play so good by changes, until… He recorded one of my songs in a later year, “A Sound For Sore Ears,” which had kind of difficult changes, and man, he ate that stuff up then! Because Johnny Coles and Macintosh were… Particularly Macintosh. He was a schooled musician from Juilliard. He was a writer, and he knew a lot about the harmony. And when Moody decided that he was going to do that, the result is obvious, that he is one of the greatest players who ever lived — now. Moody, right now.

If he hears you play a lick or a sequence that he hasn’t heard, he’ll say, “What is that, Section?” He calls me “Section.” We call each other Section from playing in reed sections together over the years. If he hears you play something and he asks you what that is, once you show it to him, man, Moody takes it and takes it into his own style and elaborates on it, turns it inside-out, and does everything possible with that idea to make it his own. I know on one occasion, Moody and I made a record with Bags. The record is called Big Bags for Riverside. Tadd Dameron wrote half of the music on it and Ernie Wilkins wrote the other half. It’s one of the greatest big band records I’ve ever been a part of. The reed section was wonderful. What I was getting to is the fact that on some of the things someone was playing lead alto, but then on Tadd’s arrangement on “Round Midnight” Bags asked Moody to play the lead. And man, that is one of the most beautiful sounding lead performances that I’ve been involved in. And he’s playing alto. But Moody mostly played tenor all of his career. But that was one experience, and the others are numerous.

TP: Let me take you back to the ’40s for a second. You came in Dizzy’s band after Moody had moved to Europe.

HEATH: Right.

TP: Were you in actually to replace Moody?

HEATH: No. I didn’t replace Moody because I was playing alto. Coltrane and I played alto in the band. Jesse Powell was one of the tenor players, and Rudy Williams, known as Bones, and then Paul Gonsalves was in the band.

TP: Where I was going with that is that Moody is just one year older than you and Coltrane. Did he seem much older to you at that time, or was he musically that much more advanced, or was it just a matter of circumstance?

HEATH: He was advanced because he was around Dizzy. He was in the first big bebop band that recorded. So that made him a person for us to idolize, in a way, because we…

TP: You aspired to that.

HEATH: Yeah. We had never gotten to the point where he was.

TP: Do you have any memories from your perspective at that time of the relationship Dizzy and Moody had in the ’40s, of their interaction, or is that something you just don’t know about?

HEATH: I just know that Dizzy really dug Moody. Of course, in the long career that followed afterward, you can’t separate Moody from Dizzy.

TP: Moody said they became closer in the ’60s when they had more proximity.

HEATH: Well, they played in a smaller group together. In the big band, Dizzy had a lot of personalities that he had to deal with. But Moody was one of his main people, and probably, like you said, they got closer when the big band broke up and they were always on the road and everything.

TP: Part of the thing about Moody is that he has this photographic memory and exceptional musical intuition on top of the hard work he’s put in. Particularly in his ear-playing days.

HEATH: Well, he had a gift that he developed. He started out with a gift, and he developed it. One thing technically is Moody’s tone. The way he accented on the saxophone was much faster than most of the other saxophone players, and distinguishable in that. Moody used to tell me that when he played an eighth note line in the bebop tradition he would be thinking to himself, “tit-a-little, tit-a-little, tit-a-little,” [SINGS PHRASING REFRAIN], that accent on eighth notes which was… The bebop language included a lot of eighth notes or sixteenths. The accent was always on the AND, “uh-dah, uh-dah,” on the one that was off the beat. It gave it a different kind of a float.

TP: Did you follow the septet he organized when he came back from Europe?

HEATH: Yes. They used to come to Philly to the Showboat, and when I was there I used to go see them. One of my good friends was in the band playing trumpet, Bill Massey. Bill Massey was the person who introduced me to Coltrane. They were in the Navy together. We had a lot in common because we were interested in both composition and playing… No, sorry. I’m wrong about that. Bill was with Gene Ammons. Johnny Coles was the one. But they used to go to Philly and play the Showboat, and I would go hear Moody. Moody and I played together on several occasions. But whenever Dizzy was around and Moody and they would come around, if I wasn’t working, I would go see them.

The thing I admire about Moody is his tenacity and his focus. When he was out in Las Vegas playing as a kind of studio musician, he called me once. “Section,” and he started playing the clarinet. He was practicing the clarinet on the phone and showing me how he had been able to get to the clarinet. He was always a great flute player. To me, he is the epitome of the Bebop flute player. He is not the Western Classical traditional flute player. It doesn’t sound like somebody who has been trained in Western Classical Music. But he could play with the Bebop style on the flute, and it’s distinguishable.

TP: I did an interview with Hank Crawford and Fathead, and they said that when Ray Charles was forming his band and his sound they were paying close attention to the sound of Moody’s Septet, the John Acea arrangements and so forth. Do you recollect that as an influential band in defining a certain type of sound?

HEATH: Was it a sextet?

TP: A septet, four horns.

HEATH: I don’t remember that band that much. Except things he did, like… Was that when he did “Last Train From Overbrook” and all that stuff?

TP: That was later on. Then all the things with Eddie Jefferson in the mid-’50s.

HEATH: Right. I know Moody was having trouble drinking wine or something. He said he went to the police station and told them to stop the green men from chasing him.

TP: He didn’t tell me that, but he attributed what caused him to do to playing by ear and the anxiety it caused him on a nightly basis.

HEATH: Well, guys were coming along with great chordal knowledge, and Moody wanted to be like them. He wanted to play with the same knowledge of the other guys who were playing at that time. I didn’t know that was the reason he was drinking. The road, man. The road is rough when you’re traveling all the time.

TP: And he was traveling all the time. He said the northern cities in the winter, the southern cities in the summer, and he didn’t let anyone else do the driving. He didn’t trust anyone else to do the driving.

HEATH: Well, see, all that kind of wear and tear, that leads to drinking and smoking or whatever you do. So he was drinking a lot, which…

TP: And he had the presence of mind to take care of it.

HEATH: Yeah. And the thing about Moody is that he’s a giving person. He’s always giving. I got a straw hat that Moody gave me. If he finds some books that are interesting, he sends me books. He may find books about health or vitamins. He carries a ton of vitamins on the road with him. He has a suitcase full. “Section, have you ever tried this?” He will hand you… He’s just a person that gives all the time. We went on tour with…they had two bands on tour with Philip Morris, and we had about three or four weeks in all different places, the Philippines, all over the place. Moody will… I don’t know when he started that. He adapted just a way of kissing everybody. He would get up in the morning and go to breakfast, and you’d be there, and he’d kiss you once on one side, once on the other side. Everybody! Everybody that he meets. He’d kiss them once on each side. If you come back to lunch together, Moody would kiss you on both cheeks. “Hey, Section!” Boom! And then if you come to dinner together, BOOM. To leave you at night, he kisses you. So I eventually said at the Blue Note when they were having the birthday or something for him, they asked me one statement about Moody. I said, “Moody got more kisses than Hershey’s.

TP: Talk about the evolution of Moody’s sound, specifically on the tenor, or the phases of his sound in the time you’ve known him.

HEATH: Well, there are certain things that are identifiable with Moody. I don’t care how his sound would change, and what mouthpiece and what equipment he’s using. There’s James Moody in there. I can always tell. Moody has his own sound. You can identify Moody when he starts. I can tell if he plays four bars; I know that’s Moody. There are certain things that he does. Jumping up in the higher register and screaming in a certain way. But over the years, his development now is…he has become so free, not in a random fashion, but a scientific freedom, that he can do anything he wants (that’s what I think) with the saxophone. Speed has never been a problem with him. He’s always been a fast player. So when he wants to slow down, he slows down. But usually, he’s going to play fast. So he had great technique. His sound right at this point (and having played with him for the last four or five days together in Pittsburgh with Jon Faddis) is real smooth now. He’s gotten real smooth and mellow with his old age, like wine. He’s mellow. It’s not harsh and brash. It’s very soft until he wants to imply these certain emotional hollers or screams.

TP: When I heard him it was the Charlie Parker birthday, not at Tompkins Square but at Iridium, and he started off with “Groovin’ High,” and he played so much blues on it, putting so much vocalization on it, and it always seemed like the most difficult interval was when he’d put the most vocal emphasis.

HEATH: I think he can do anything… If he wants to play it in a bluesy fashion, he can do it. If he wants to play it in a straight bebop way without the blues or just the changes, he can do it. He has control. He has true knowledge. He is in complete control. Moody’s flute playing and his saxophone are so mature at this point. The way he acts…his personality is what I was trying to get at. The fact of being with Dizzy Gillespie, who is the mentor for both of us. That’s my man. Birks was the guy. His sense of humor, his stage presence. I think he learned a lot of stage presence from Dizzy also, not only music. He learned how to be a nice guy, or he felt it after he straightened his habit out…how to be a nice guy. That’s what Dizzy was. A down-to-earth human being with a tremendous sense of humor. Moody is a very funny guy.

TP: His timing is unbelievable. You can hear tell a joke you’ve heard 15 times, and you’re still going to laugh.

HEATH: Yes. Moody is one of my dear friends. He’s been that since the ’40s. We had so much fun last week as we do every time we get together. I just look forward to being in his company. He’s got more kisses than Hershey’s! That’s got to be in this.

* * *

TP: How long have you been playing with Moody?

COOLMAN: Since ’84 or ’85. Precisely I don’t know. But I met him around that time, and started playing with him shortly after that.

TP: This is a few years after he left Las Vegas and the studios, and was out again as a solo artist. Was he working then primarily as a solo artist, picking up rhythm sections and trying to gather a more or less permanent working band by that time?

COOLMAN: Yes. I know he had a band, Rufus Reid and Harold Mabern… I’m not sure if the drums were stabilized by that time, but I know that those two other guys were working with him more times than not, that they were doing things together for at least a couple of years prior to my being involved with him. All during that time he still was doing things with local rhythm sections when he would go on the road some. He didn’t seem able to always have those guys with him when he traveled. So he was hoping to get a band together, I think.

TP: What were your impressions about him before knowing him and meeting him?

COOLMAN: I first heard Moody, believe it or not, after I had finished college and was living in Chicago in the ’70s. He played on a television show on a PBS station. The show was Dizzy, Bags, Al Haig, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, Sarah Vaughan…

TP: That has to have been in ’76, when Kenny Clarke came here, and played the Showcase with Al Haig.

COOLMAN: It probably was. I got wind of this show, and they wanted an audience, and you could get free tickets by calling or something, and I did that. I went down and heard Moody for the first time. I was amazed by how fluent he was. I remember how easy he made everything seem. It seemed like he had no problem playing anything he wanted. And of course, I associated him then with those other players, because I didn’t know if he had a band or who he was working with, but I figured, “Gee, if he’s with these people, he must be that great.” But besides that, besides having a great respect for his playing, I didn’t have any lasting impressions. I never got to meet him. I heard him play in clubs a couple of times around that time, too, but not as a bandleader. I always heard him in these all-star things. I think Joe Segal would have him come for what he called “Charlie Parker Month”. I knew he was a great player, but besides that I had no real impressions.

TP: So you’ve been with him straight through those 15-16 years as his bassist of choice.

COOLMAN: I think so, yes.

TP: What has it done for your playing, playing with Moody?

COOLMAN: The main thing is that Moody is so interested in music, in the learning process as well as playing, that he has always encouraged me to really play a lot, and leaves a lot of open space for the rhythm section to solo in, and he’s very encouraging to have you develop and do what you do. I think part of it is because he’s just really generous; that’s part of it. And the other part is because he really wants to learn from the people he’s around. It’s very unusual, I find, that he’s so curious as to what other people are doing. It probably serves two purposes. One is that he wants you to feel like you can express yourself, but he also wants to learn what you’re doing. He’s always looking for things to use as raw materials for things he wants to develop. So he’s extremely curious about music.

TP: So he’s giving you a lot of space to just go where you will as long as it’s within the context of what he’s going.

COOLMAN: Yes. Not just that, but he’s just been real encouraging. He’s a very positive, nurturing, encouraging person. I guess a bandleader is not obliged to be that way and not obliged to have you develop your own voice. If you’re serving the music the way the bandleader wants, and if that doesn’t mean you’re developing as a player…if you’re serving his needs, that’s enough.

TP: How do you see Moody’s playing in these all-star situations vis-a-vis what he does in the band?

COOLMAN: That’s a good question. I would say that when he plays in a band, with people that he’s more familiar with, his playing is a bit more exploratory and a little bit more searching, where he’s working out ideas. I think when he plays in these all-star things, he pretty much… I don’t know if the word is “conservative,” but he plays…

TP: More of a recital maybe.

COOLMAN: Yeah, a little bit. More like he knows…he’s fully in command of what he’s doing, and he’s not really searching so much as he’s just establishing his voice — that sort of thing.

TP: Well, he made a distinction, even in the band, between the things he does that are recitals, more or less like “Moody’s Mood” or “Pennies From Heaven,” and playing.

COOLMAN: Oh yes.

TP: He was very clear about it. You can see it even in his comments. His account of how he met Dizzy, which obviously he’s had to tell people 8 million times, is almost word-for-word exactly the same in the Dizzy Gillespie autobiography as what he told me. It’s really interesting. And he tells the story so well. When you hear him tell these jokes, you’ve heard him say it… You hear them all the time. I’ve heard them before, and I still laugh at them. Like the Joe Frazier…

COOLMAN: Yeah-yeah. [LAUGHS]

TP: I mean, he has such incredible timing.

COOLMAN: I think all that stuff, the humor and even “Moody’s Mood For Love’ and all this stuff which is part of what I guess you might call his routine, in some way I’ve always thought that that was patterned after his years in Vegas, that somehow the idea of music being entertaining and being a show that has sort of a theme… Somehow I think he’s incorporated that as a bandleader. It works for him in clubs, because I think it helps him reach the less initiated. That’s the thing about working with him that’s kind of interesting, that at any club on any given night you have aficionados and you have virgins! He has a way of reaching everybody. Because the routine has some sort of universal appeal, I think. Then the other, more venturesome side of his playing is going to appeal… If Jimmy Heath is in the audience, he knows that he’s going to hear something he hasn’t heard before, somewhere, if he hangs with it.

It’s a very subtle thing. A lot of people have said to me that they’ve noticed over the years that he plays a lot of the same repertoire and tells some of the same jokes and this-that-and-the-other, and “don’t you get tired of that?” Well, not really. Moody pointed out to me long ago that if it wasn’t for “Moody’s Mood For Love,” maybe he wouldn’t be working today. So his attitude is very pragmatic. I’ve never felt once that he did that with any sense of regret or boredom or resignation or anything. He just views it as part of keeping working.

TP: Well, it seems also, apart from Vegas, Dizzy Gillespie had a lot of routines as well, and I think his ability to blend the two things is why he was so successful. So I’m sure he learned that from Dizzy.

COOLMAN: Yes. There’s no question that the whole humor angle and the sort of clowning-around and all that came from Dizzy, without a doubt. And yet, I think that it did… It’s all part of what makes the thing work. Actually, I think if Moody just played, if you want to call it just a strict set of like art music, then that, too, would mean the audience is just artists, and that would be very appealing on a certain level. But he is very sensitive about the fact that he wants to play for the public. He is just as eager to play for the guy next door as he is for, say, George Coleman. I’ve always admired that about him. There’s something very non-condescending about that approach to performing.

TP: You’re a music educator, and I’d like you to put on that cap for a second and talk about him as a tenor player, the things he does as particularly as a tenor saxophonist that distinguish him among the universe of tenor saxophonists.

COOLMAN: The answer is real simple, and it’s an answer I don’t think anyone would give you. I really believe people are sleeping on this about Moody! But despite the many things he does just as a player, the thing that I think is his strongest trait is his sense of time and his pulse. I mean, I put him up with Sonny Rollins and all those people as far as how he plays time and how he swings. What’s interesting is that that has nothing to do with the notes he plays. The music students come down, or his peers come down with their little notebooks, writing down patterns that he’s playing. They’re missing the boat. The boat is how he plays time.

Now, having said that, the thing I love about his playing, even from an academic point of view, is it’s a beautiful sort of chronology of tenor saxophone vocabulary that goes back to Coleman Hawkins, and it’s thoroughly, at the same time, contemporary. So his playing is well-versed in the whole bebop language, but it incorporates post-’60s language. So he is way into what we call altered scales, different kinds of harmonic devices, use of fourths, use of pentatonics, use of compound scales, bitonals. So in other words, every so-called advanced harmonic device, he’s aware of them. He has them in his ear and he can play them. But at the same time, if you want to play a blues in B-flat, he can play the traditional vocabulary as well.

TP: Do you feel he is able to shape the advanced devices into a melodic type of framework, or is it more academic?

COOLMAN: That’s a good question. I think the answer ultimately is yes. But part of that has to do with his stage of development, with a particular sound. Sometimes he’ll hear somebody play something, and he’ll figure out theoretically what’s going on. He’s actually asked me, “Write out the scale that’s the basis of that. What is that scale called?” Then I’ll hear him practicing that or practicing patterns based on that scale, and even bring them to the gig that way, and play a more patterned, academic approach to it initially. But I hear that sort of morph over the nights into something that becomes very strongly melodic actually, and eventually evolves away from the mechanical toward the more artful. At heart, he’s a singer, really. So he can’t lay with material that’s not song-like for very long.

TP: He’s a helluva singer.

COOLMAN: Yeah! And I think ultimately that’s where he’s at as a tenor player, is he just wants to be a singer of melodies. So yeah, on any given night you’ll come down, and I think you’ll hear him play very melodic things, and then in other cases I think you’ll hear him play very patterned…quite frankly, it almost sounds like he’s practicing at times. But he’s working something out. That’s another interesting thing about him, now that I think about it, is that very few artists are very willing to do that. They’re only willing to play things that they know sound good. They don’t want to run the risk of not sounding good. There are nights when Moody will play certain tunes or work on certain material that he doesn’t have together. On the bandstand he’ll do it. Then he’ll come up to me later and say, “Man, I just don’t have that together yet, man. I have to practice that, because that’s not working the way I want it to. But there’s a sound in there. There’s something in there, and I know I can get to it. I’ve always been inspired by that, because he’s been playing seriously since he was about 16. So after 50 or 60 years of playing, this guy wants to learn something and he wants to work it out. That’s unbelievable.

TP: He says that’s what keeps him going.

COOLMAN: I believe that. I know that. It’s the quest. It’s the curiosity. And he’s always looking for another way to say something. So it’s inspiring, really.

TP: I went to hear you at Iridium the night of the Charlie Parker birthday. He starts off with “Groovin’ High,” and it’s one of the most amazing solos you’ve ever heard, he’s like shouting on the most extreme intervals, so much dynamics, then all of a sudden it’s “Moody’s Mood,” and then he plays “Confirmation” on flute for 15 minutes. I just said, “Goodness, I’m glad I heard ‘Groovin’ High.” Which is what you were saying.

COOLMAN: Yeah. But I think in common parlance, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he really plays the way he feels. If he’s struggling with music, he’s not afraid to show it. Somehow, I think he wins people’s sympathies by the fact that in every set they’re going to hear a “Groovin’ High” moment. [LAUGHS] So people cut him a wide berth, and say the reason he’s so great is because he has a work shit out.

TP: With the band, is he a real taskmaster? Is he very open? It doesn’t sound like anything is very heavily arranged.

COOLMAN: Well, in 16 years or so of being with him, I can’t remember… I think we may have had one or two rehearsals.

TP: Does he give you charts?

COOLMAN: On occasion. Over the years, for some recordings, he’s had people write arrangements on various things. And sometimes he’ll want to pull those out and revisit them. Then there will be charts. Even at that, now that I’m thinking about it, most of the charts he has…

TP: Are pretty schematic?

COOLMAN: Yeah. Of late, we haven’t been dealing with them very much. But occasionally we’ll pull them out and revisit them for one reason or another. But it’s not really… No, I’d say that “taskmaster” is not one word that comes to mind when you think about him. He really is as interested in people’s input as he is like having something go a certain way. So he’s very open, and he seeks information and input all the time.

TP: He has a real reverence for his past, but he seems totally non-nostalgic for it.

COOLMAN: Well, more than not-nostalgic. He has a morbid fear of sounding old or old-fashioned. It’s beyond not-nostalgic. But you know what? He’s always aware of his musical surroundings, too. So when he’s with an all-star thing… Let’s say he’s up there playing with the Golden Men of Jazz or whatever he’s doing. He’s always aware of his surroundings, and he’s aware of what will fit in a certain context.

TP: Because he’s pragmatic

COOLMAN: Yeah. But basically, he doesn’t want to sound old. He wants to sound like he’s growing and that he’s developing new vocabulary.

TP: Right up until the end, that’s what he’ll be doing.

COOLMAN: Oh yeah. No question in my mind. I think that the last solo he ever plays will have as many surprises in it as the first one does. Because he’s not satisfied with status quo and he’s not interested in looking back. I remember one night on the bandstand, we were playing a slow blues or something, and the drummer started playing a backbeat, and he made him stop doing that. After the set he explained that the backbeat makes him feel like it’s old and made him feel like it’s 1952 again. He said, “I just don’t want to go back there.” He has certain idiosyncracies, and certain musical devices don’t appeal to him. In this case, I think it reminds him of another era, and he doesn’t want to be associated with it. Which is interesting. On certain tunes, he will play bebop-oriented, real inside material. But he does it in such a fresh fashion that he doesn’t sound old doing it. He’s preoccupied with sounding “modern,” whatever that means.

TP: I think as a subtext, he was very seared by the racial climate of that time. That had a lasting impact on him. He keeps referring to being in Greensboro and the German POWs being able to eat in the restaurant and he couldn’t, then coming back here and the various bullshit on the road. So I think a lot of that attitude may have its root in that situation, associating the music of the time with the physical and cultural environment of the time.

COOLMAN: Could be.

* * *

KIBWE: I’m 47 now. I met Moody when I was 18, when he was playing with Eddie Jefferson, and we’ve been friends since then. Every time I see him, he gives me things. In July we played together in a big band Don Braden had in Litchfield, Connecticut. I was sitting next to Moody, who was special soloist. Paquito was playing lead alto and clarinet, I was playing second alto, Moody was to my right, Paquito to my left, and Slide Hampton was right behind me on the trombone. That was another time when he came up and said, “Check this out on ‘Giant Steps.’” He’s so open! I began working on that in July.

TP: So he’s always sharing information.

KIBWE: Always! He’s a true master. To give you an example: He got to the gig a half-hour before we hit because of the transportation screwup, and he didn’t make any rehearsal. So he was like, “Man, I want to look at the music.” I said, “Oh, Moody, there ain’t nothin’ but some whole notes and half-notes.” Yeah, right! So we get on the gig, and I think the second tune was a Braden original, a swingin’ tune, a killin’ tune… It was based on a minor blues, but it had some definite alternate changes up in there, and it was an extended bridge… It was a very involved piece. I’ll put it to you this way. It’s not a piece of music that if somebody played it for me once and asked me to solo without looking at the changes I could do it. I’d have to look at the changes. So Braden wanted Moody to solo on it, but he was a little apprehensive, because Moody hadn’t even looked at it. First Braden said, “Okay, Moody, you take the first solo.” Then he said, “No, you’d better wait. Let the piano solo, then so-and-so, and then you solo.” Moody said, “Okay, whatever, I’ll try my best.” Then we play. Now, he hasn’t looked at the changes. He just started counting it off. Now, he’s playing his part. He ain’t got time to look at no changes because he’s got to get to the ensemble part. Then we get to the solo, and for some reason Braden pointed to him first. And he stood up and played and never looked at the music. I was like, “Oh, shit!” So I was sitting next to him, you know… Actually, he was so close to me, he was playing, and literally his tenor was touching my shoulder. I said, “Great. I’m just going to absorb all of this shit.” But he killed it!

TP: I think the most interesting thing is that he’s 75 years old, and he has this perpetual curiosity.

KIBWE: Oh, it’s incredible. He was just telling me, “Pick up this book.” He had a book based on Coltrane’s harmonic progression on “Giant Steps.” But when I first met Moody, he showed me stuff on flute. He gave me some advice. You know what he told me? He said, “Man, I want you to become a Jehovah Witness and I want you to join the Navy Band.” I was 18. That sounded like the most crazy thing for me to do. But years later, as I was thinking about it, I thought logically it made sense. He looked at it from the point of view, you know, he didn’t want to see me out there struggling for a living. He figured if I joined a Navy band, after 20 years in the Navy you can retire and you have a pension and you can do your thing. I asked him about why did he want me to join the Jehovah’s Witness. He said, well, because one time he was in New York, and this guy was trying to rob him, and had a gun or something and wanted to shoot him or whatever went down. But he just said, “Jehovah,” and the guy just walked away and didn’t mess with him. I thought that was really heavy.

TP: If you were going to talk about him analytically, his role in the music, the dynamics of his style as a saxophonist and on the different instruments.

KIBWE: The first thing that comes to mind is that he was one of the first doublers who stood out in my mind — cats that played tenor, alto, flute extremely well. What also sticks out is that he was probably the first saxophone player with his own voice coming out of the Bird era. If I had to sit down and analyze it, I could say it in musical terms. But just his sound and hi conception of how he soloed and how he played his instrument… He had his own voice. He didn’t sound like Bird. Whereas when I heard Stitt, even though Stitt said he didn’t study Bird, but he sounded to me like Bird a lot. Cannonball in the beginning, even Eric Dolphy for that matter… All those cats in the beginning sounded a lot like Bird. But Moody didn’t sound like Bird to me.

TP: But he still had the modern vocabulary.

KIBWE: Oh yeah, he always had a modern vocabulary. But he didn’t have a Bird sound. I mean, all the other cats, Charles McPherson, Jackie McLean, even Jimmy Heath, had that Bird vibe. But Moody was the first cat for me who didn’t have the Bird vibe.

TP: Maybe it’s because he started playing alto before he heard Bird, and then when Bird came along he was playing tenor.

KIBWE: Then he played flute! I have books of his solos, and I’ve been studying his shit for years. Moody has some very heavy tritone things happening in solos that I’ve been checking out. He does a lot of tritone substitutions. He does a lot of stuff going in and out of the chord. Like, there might be a C-Major-VII, but he’ll be F#. But the way he resolves that shit is so slick. His vocabulary is so immense musically. Like on his solo of “Bebop” he plays “Giant Steps.” Now, the A-section of “Bebop” is a vamp on F-minor. He was able to put “Giant Steps” through that shit! He modulated but it fit. Yeah, he’s… Oh, man, Moody! No, he’s bad. As opposed to Benny, every phrase of Moody is an exercise. Benny’s is connected… Moody is connected, too. But you can take a solo and take 2 bars of this… Like, I’ve been taking two bars of his solos, and I have an exercise.

TP: Does that make his playing sometimes overly technical, or is the warmth always there?

KIBWE: No, I’m not trying to say it makes it overly technical. His stuff is so deep that you can take segments of his playing and turn it into an etude, turn it into an exercise to where you can study that and modulate it and extract from it and play it across changes, and utilize it, interpret it that way. That “Bebop” that I have, I’ve gotten maybe 10 to 12 phrases out of that solo that I can use just as technical exercises to help me develop my facility. When I hear a cat play something like that, that I like, I’ll take it through the keys, and then maybe add a note here or there to personalize it.

* * *

TP: How did the collaboration happen? Was it just a record label project that turned out well and so you did subsequent hits?

TURNER: Yes, that’s exactly it.

TP: How did you prepare for playing with Moody? It wasn’t necessarily the most obvious pairing on the surface.

TURNER: That’s true. Well, there were supposed to be some other saxophone players on the date, and they fell through, so it was just me. Everyone brought in tunes they wanted to play.

TP: What were your impressions of Moody before going in there?

TURNER: I had studied a little bit of him, but not that much. I would say that early on I did. In high school I was into his playing, especially some early recordings when he was in France. I learned quite a bit from those recordings. There was something about his tone quality which I haven’t heard in other saxophone players in that period, partially because at that time he was playing…I guess he always did play with rubber mouthpieces. So it had that kind of a Lester Young quality, though Lester didn’t always play with rubber mouthpieces, but it had that kind of thing, whereas a lot of other tenor players (except for Stan Getz) who were playing bebop-oriented music have… It’s not as dark of a sound, a warm, woody… That’s why I gravitated to it, because that’s a lot of what I like. Warm and woody but with still a strong core. That and also he had that… The distinction, if you want to make it, between the bebop players and the post-bebop players… He was in that camp to me, the bebop camp, of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and those people, more clearly towards that sound, and one of the only tenor players that I know of. Because the others I usually hear after that in vocabulary and phrasing and sound and in the way he improvisers. In other words, not quite so codified yet, as opposed to these horn players.

TP: In working with him, you addressed quite a span of vocabulary. It was very collaborative, and he didn’t particularly play the star on it. How was it working with him in the studio? How was he with you?

TURNER: He was very amenable, amiable, straightforward, and ready to get down to business.

TP: And how would you describe his style within the contemporary framework?

TURNER: It’s great, because he’s still like really-really playing, to me. And he’s definitely always trying to… He’s really curious. He has that curiosity, and it’s in his playing, and he’s always trying to keep it fresh for himself.

TP: People who work with him say he’s always finding information, bringing people books… This incessant quest.

TURNER: Exactly.

TP: Was he very interactive with you?

TURNER: Somewhat. Yes and no. A little bit of that and a little bit of not. I wasn’t sure how much he was into that. Because when it went there, he didn’t seem to be that into it, at least not the way I was doing it.

TP: Were his solos from night to night on the same material different?

TURNER: Definitely.

TP: So it wasn’t like a recital. It was art music.

TURNER: No, he’s definitely improvising on the same songs.

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Filed under Article, Dizzy Gillespie, DownBeat, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron

For the 81st Anniversary of David “Fathead” Newman’s birth, A 1998 DownBeat Interview with him and Hank Crawford and a Liner Note

Today is the 81st anniversary of the birth of David “Fathead” Newman, a master practitioner of the saxophone family and the flute, whose sound helped stamp Ray Charles’ various units during the ’60s and ’70s and whose own leader career is documented on three dozen or so recordings. I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for one of those dates, Keep The Spirit Singing, and to interview Mr. Newman both on WKCR and for my first-ever DownBeat feature, a joint interview with him and his long-time saxophone partner Hank Crawford in 1998. I’ve posted the liner notes and the unedited transcript of the interview.

David Newman (Notes for Keep The Spirit Singing):

In the exciting times directly following World War II, when David Newman was a young man in Dallas, Texas, interstates, jet planes, mall culture and television did not exist.  People from different regions did things their own way.  For black tenor saxophone players from the wide open spaces, that meant cultivating the larger than life sound of the kind projected by luminaries like Herschel Evans, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and John Hardee on the popular recordings by big bands and jump bands of the day.  As much Newman and his peer group — Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Booker Ervin, Dewey Redman — absorbed the startling modernist postulations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during those years, they never strayed far from the elemental principle that the horn is an analog for the human voice.  The sound was of the essence.

Then, musicians learned by jumping into the fray.  Initially an alto saxophonist, Newman attended high school with future luminaries like Cedar Walton and James Clay and jammed on up-to-the-minute bebop with a teenage Ornette Coleman.  He played in bands led by a pair of little-recorded legends, the alto saxophonist Buster Smith, who was Charlie Parker’s earliest and primary influence from Kansas City days, and the tenor saxophonist Red Connor, who Coleman cites as a primary mentor.  We’ll digress with Newman’s comments on both.

“Red Connor was a very fine musician with a sound somewhere in between Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, or Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, with a little Don Byas or Chu Berry in there,” he recalls.  “Booker Ervin listened quite a bit to him, as you can hear in Booker’s playing.  I don’t know of any other players that had Red’s particular style and his sound; he was very much his own person and  didn’t particularly pattern himself on any of the forerunner tenor players.  Red knew all the Bebop tunes, he was playing Bebop always, and I got a thorough training by playing with the Red Connor band when I was in high school.

“At that time Buster Smith had moved back to Dallas, and he had one of the best big bands in the city.  One night I sneaked into a club to hear his band play, and he gave me a chance to sit in, which was a very big thing for me; soon I started to play with him.  Buster had an advanced approach, different from most musicians of his era.  He had a huge sound on the alto, and his execution was superb; he could get over the instrument really fast — he knew it backwards.  His phrasing and harmonic concept were modern, ahead of its time.  He was a self-taught musician with perfect pitch, and he could sit and write arrangements while we were riding up and down the highways — he wouldn’t have to be anywhere near a piano.  He would write out full arrangements, and on a jump blues that he wanted to extend he would set up different riffs for the saxophones, then someone in the brass section would set the riffs for the trumpets and trombones.  They called Buster ‘Prof,’ short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.

“Buster put together small combos for the road or to back up people like T-Bone Walker and others who came through Dallas.  Around 1951-52, Buster organized a group with Leroy Cooper and myself to do a tour with Ray Charles, who was singing and playing the alto.  We played mostly the southern states out to California.  I had met Ray a little earlier, when I was playing with Lloyd Glenn, a piano player with a hit record called ‘Chickaboo,’ and Ray was with Lowell Fulsom, who featured him playing piano and singing.  We were traveling on the road at black theaters and dance halls with a package that also included Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.  Sometimes Ray sounded similar to Charles Brown, sometimes he sounded like King Cole, even sometimes like T-Bone Walker, but you could hear his thing starting to come out.  I think Ray’s recording of ‘I Got A Woman,’ when he started to inject a Gospel feel, is where the real Ray Charles started to emerge.”

Newman blossomed as a star sideman with Charles’ brilliant small band from 1954 to 1964, but he’s never felt aesthetically encumbered by his past.  “Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation,” Newman told “Downbeat” a few years back.  “Before I encountered Ray, my only real love was jazz and bebop.  With Ray I learned how to respect and admire and love all other forms of music.  This music is an incredible gift.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me, put my stamp on it, my feeling, and see what comes out.  I want to explore other areas, bridge the generations.  You can’t close yourself off as music moves on.”

Now 67, Newman sustains that attitude of freshness and exploration throughout Keep The Spirit Singing.  Performing on flute and tenor and alto saxophones, he sculpts his sound with refined nuance through a broad matrix of emotion and rhythm-timbre, enhanced by an ensemble of creative veteran improvisers who know the Old Master well enough not to have to waste time getting acquainted in the studio.

Pianist John Hicks spent his formative years in St. Louis and Atlanta, and knows intimately the language of blues and church forms; his distinctive voicings and ebullient beat fit Newman like a custom-made suit.  “I’ve known John a long time, and he’s been one of my favorite pianists for many years,” Newman says.  “He knows where I’m going, and we blend as a very good combination.”

On three selections Newman pairs off with trombonist Steve Turre, a fellow Charles alumnus who coaxed the master into playing four tunes on his recently issued In The Spur of The Moment [Telarc].  “I like the blend of the tenor saxophone and trombone,” Newman says.  “Ray’s standard instrumentation was two trumpets and three reeds, but in the ’50s when we played the Apollo and the Howard Theater, he would use the trombone.  I wanted Steve because he gets that wide-open, full sound.”

Newman first met Turre and bassist Steve Novosel when both were working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another devotee of extracting a full sonic palette from an array of horns.  “I first met Rahsaan in Chicago, when I was playing with Ray,” Newman digresses.  “Rahsaan was just getting his start, and had come over to Atlantic Records.  He would hang out at the Sutherland Hotel, where we stayed quite often in Chicago.”

Returning to the subject at hand, he continues: “Steve Novosel is a solid, great player.  I depend on him a lot for his ability to carry the melody.”

Like Novosel, trapsetter Winard Harper works frequently with Newman.  The relationship began when Harper hired Newman for a record date a few years back; the in-demand 38-year drummer plays with idiomatic precision and imaginative flair throughout. Joining him for several tunes is percussion wizard Steve Kroon, who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s with customary panache.

Guitarist O’Donnell Levy composed and arranged the Caribbean-flavored title track and the samba-esque “Asia Beat,” which frame the session, while Turre offers the pungent “Mellow-D For Mr. C.”  “I like the way the changes move in the tune,” Newman says of the latter, which refers to Ray Charles.  Does the Caribbean beat relate to the 12/8 feel Newman played over 45 years ago?  “Yes, it does.  It’s a very natural feeling.  A lot of people today seem to like that feel, and I am one of those people.”

Newman’s “Cousin Esau” showcases his vocalized flute sound.  “I adapted some of the things that Eddie Harris and Les McCann used to do with this particular beat,” Newman says.  “No one has a name for it, but I call it the Listen-Here beat.  Most drummers that I ask know what I mean.  It’s a four-beat rim-shot figure played on the snare drum; most people can groove to it.  I thought of the flute when writing this tune.  Through the years I’ve tried to get an identifiable flute sound, and somehow it’s starting to come together.  It’s a very earthy, open sound.  When I was a kid I used to blow across a Dr. Pepper or R.C. Cola soda bottle to get a sound; after I started playing the flute, I found it was a good way to get a good open sound.”

Newman wrote “Karen, My Love” for his wife; his bravura performance comes right out of the Gene Ammons tradition of heart-on-the-sleeve balladry using only the choicest notes.  “John Hicks helped me flesh this out,” Newman reveals.  “I knew exactly what I wanted, but John could put meaning to what I had in mind.”

Newman reprises “Willow Weep For Me,” which he recorded years ago for Atlantic, taking it here with a 3/4 feel.  It’s a showcase for his bright, declamatory alto saxophone style, and shows that his early experience with Buster Smith “has stuck with me all through the years.”

John Hicks composed “Life,” one of his many lovely waltzes, with Newman’s flute in mind.  “It has a natural feel,” Newman says.  “John wanted me to play it as I felt it fit me.”

Newman is no stranger to the Latin sound that inflects much of the proceedings.  “I guested many times with Machito’s band, and later on with other Latin groups, and that gave me the feel of the Latin beat as well as some things coming out of Cuba,” he notes.  “The jazz feel with the African-Latin influence and the European influence is part of what jazz is all about, especially these days — it’s all come together.”

Pushing the envelope remains the animating imperative for Newman, a musician who can retrospect on a career that spans a half-century — 45 years in the spotlight.

“You don’t want to get yourself into a dated position,” says the man whose sound defines soul tenor for several generations.  “I like to incorporate the modern approach I hear from the younger players in playing the changes, and I still include some of the things that I played and learned from the veteran musicians when I was young.  You take what you have and ride with it, put it all together, and keep moving with the feeling, keep going forward.”

Hank Crawford-David Newman – (3-3-98):

TP:    The first question I’ll address to you both is when you were first aware of the other?  Hank Crawford, did you first meet David Newman when you came into the Ray Charles band?

HC:    Yes, I first met him when I went in Ray’s band.  But I was aware of his playing from some records I had heard, solo things he had done with Ray Charles.  But the first time we met I’d just joined the band actually.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you, Hank, about your path into the Ray Charles band, and I guess we should start from your early years as a musician.  When did you start playing music?

HC:    I started playing at the age of 9.  I started on piano.  Piano was my first instrument.  I studied three years of private lessons; I guess that must have been at about the age of 6 when I started taking music lessons, and from there I went to the saxophone.

TP:    Why did you go to the saxophone from the piano?

HC:    My father was in the Service, and when he came back, he’d bought a saxophone with him, which was a C-melody — actually it was a C-melody saxophone.  I think he was sort of a frustrated saxophone player himself, but he never did go into it.  But he brought the horn, and I was studying piano and still in elementary school.  So I still had, I guess, 6th, 7th and 8th grade to go.  And once I entered high school in 9th Grade, naturally I wanted to be in the high school band, and piano was a bit much to march with.  So I just went to the closet and picked out the horn.  I’m self-taught saxophone.  I just got a book actually in Ninth Grade and taught myself after I learned the fingering, because I already had a slight knowledge of music from taking piano lessons.

TP:    You could read probably, and knew some chords.

HC:    Right.  And I started playing saxophone in Ninth grade.  Then after I taught myself the fingering and stuff, I just kept playing.  Later I had lessons on the saxophone, too, but that was in college.  That’s when I entered college.

TP:    What sort of music program did you have in high school?

HC:    Well, it was basically the marching band, a concert band, and a dance band which we called the Rhythm Bombers.  It was a 16-piece high school band.  Our band director in high school was a trumpet player by the name of Matthew Garrett, who is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father.  Actually, Dee Dee’s given name is Denise Garrett.  Her father was Matthew Garrett, and he was my high school band director.  We used to play a lot of Woody Herman charts and Count Basie charts, just big band stuff.

TP:    Did he have you working outside the high school, like Walter Dyett did in Chicago, got his guys in the union?

HC:    Oh yeah.  We played a lot of Monday night things, usually on campus.  And then we played some things off-campus, which was in local clubs.  But even in high school, we were playing major functions.

TP:    Had you always been listening to records and other saxophonists?

HC:    Yes.

TP:    And when did the alto become the horn of choice, or the horn that suited your ear.  From the influences that you describe on your bios, you mention Bird, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, later Cannonball, they’re all alto players.  So I assume that was the primary voice that you heard.

HC:    During that period I heard a lot of saxophone players, from Bird to Bostic, Tab Smith, and on up through to Ammons, Sonny Stitt, you know… So really, I can’t say just one more than the other inspired me the most.  Because I love to hear musicians play, all saxophone players.  I got a bit from each one.  But I always liked the sound of the alto, although I did play a little tenor or baritone.  But I could express myself more on alto.  That seemed to be my voice.

TP:    You also mentioned your church experience as being very important for you.

HC:    Oh yes.

TP:    And it seems to me that the alto saxophone is the sound that’s more commonly inspirational in the church.

HC:    Oh yes.  I think the alto is very voice-like.  I approach the horn vocally, as if I was going to sing.  I guess that comes across because of my early beginnings or early roots in the church.  That’s where I started when I was playing piano.  I used to play for the junior choirs, the senior choirs, prayer meetings.  My whole family was really involved in church a lot.  If they didn’t play, they were singing.  So all my life I was involved in spiritual music.

TP:    What was the name of the church you belonged to in Memphis?

HC:    Originally, Springdale.  Springdale Baptist Church.

TP:    That’s where you had your piano lessons, or played piano.

HC:    Yes, right there.

TP:    Well, we’ll stop with Hank in high school playing with the 16-piece band in high school with Matthew Garrett as the band director, and go through the same process with David Newman.  Your path on the saxophone.  When you started playing, what the circumstances were, etcetera.

DN:    You mean right from the very beginning.

TP:    When did you first put a horn in your mouth.

DN:    Well, it was the mid-Forties when I first picked up the alto.  Like Hank, I started out with the piano.  I had a few piano lessons at first, but I didn’t stay with the piano as long as he did.  I only had a few lessons, and then right away my friends started calling me a little sissy, so I wanted to pick up a more masculine instrument.  So I asked my Mom to get a horn, and I didn’t know exactly what kind of horn.  But then I heard Louis Jordan play the alto saxophone, and it just blew me away, and right away I chose the alto — that’s what my Mom bought me.  I was still in elementary school, and started taking private lessons from my music instructor, J.K. Miller, who was the band director at Lincoln High School.  He taught Cedar Walton and James Clay, alike from Dallas.  We called him Uncle Dud.  When I started high school I went directly into the band.  Uncle Dud was the one that gave me the name “Fathead.”  He wanted me to read the music instead of memorizing music like what I was doing, and he called me a fathead in class, and that’s been my nickname until this day.

TP:    Unapropos.

DN:    [LAUGHS] Unapropos, but nonetheless that’s the way it was, and it’s a trademark by now.  I don’t get offended by the name at all, because it goes so far back, and it’s just a nickname anyway.

TP:    What sort of music program did he have.  Hank Crawford’s describing playing contemporary Basie and Woody Herman charts, a 16-piece band.  Did you have something similar to that in high school?

DN:    We had something similar to that for the jazz band, some Basie charts, some arrangements by Buster Smith, who was a local alto saxophone player and arranger and composer from Dallas, and also some stock arrangements, which were published orchestrations.  I was playing alto for many years, and after about my second year in high school, a friend of mine introduced me to Bird.  He brought along a Charlie Parker record, a 78 on Savoy Records, and Bird was playing “Koko,” which was “Cherokee.”  I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I was thinking that there was no other player that could play any faster or better than Earl Bostic.  Earl Bostic was the man at that time.  And when I heard Charlie Parker it just blew my mind away.

From that point on, I fell into the Bebop bag, and I started listening to all the Bebop tunes as they came out.  And during that particular time, it was very easy to keep up with all the new tunes that came out, because there weren’t that many.  So I would listen to J.J., Diz, Bird, Fats Navarro, Dexter, all the players.

TP:    What a lot of people describe is that when these records would come out, their whole little clique of musicians would get together, memorize the solos, and then…

DN:    Exactly.

TP:    Was that your experience, too, Hank?

HC:    yes.

TP:    Do you remember your first Bird record?

HC:    Maybe not by name, but I can say this.  Like David was saying, at that particular time it was the Bebop era that we both came through, you know, and some of the same people he named I really admire.  I love Bostic for power.  He was a power player.  But we all came through all phases of music, from the Blues, Gospel and Jazz… Actually, I was speaking about the spiritual side of music, but we were also playing Bebop.  That was the era that we really come through.  We always tried to play Bird’s solos, and did play them, note for note!

TP:    So you memorized your Bird solos also.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

TP:    I’m going to ask you each about your contemporaries, because you each came up with a small group of distinguished cohorts.  In David’s case, you came up with James Clay, Cedar Walton and Ornette Coleman.  You’ve mentioned a good story about Ornette, playing in the park.

DN:    There was a park in Fort Worth (I forget the name) where we would all gather around the gazebo and play there.  I was playing with an older musician there named Red Connor, a very good saxophone player.  He never was that well-known because I don’t think he left Texas that much, but at the time he was the leading saxophonist in that area.  His sound was more or less between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and even maybe Don Byas.  He was a Bebop player, and he knew all the Bebop tunes.  I was playing in Red’s band, and Ornette would come and play.  I was playing the alto and Ornette was playing the tenor saxophone when I first met him.  We would play all of Bird’s tunes, and we both knew his solos, as well as Sonny Criss and the other alto players.  We’d learn these solos note for note, then after we finished playing whatever Bird had played, then it came time to do the individual thing, and this is when Ornette would go Ornette.  Then we could hear come in after he would run out of Bird’s solos, then he would go to Ornette! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Ornette as we know him today.

DN:    Ornette as we know him.  It was Ornette.  He wasn’t calling it harmolodics at the time, but that’s the direction that he would go into.  He would not conform to the chord structure.  He would just go completely different, because he had his own conception.  His concept was entirely different.  We knew he was on his way to being something different.  We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was a different thing happening with Ornette.

TP:    Hank Crawford, I can think of two pretty fair saxophonists in your age group, George Coleman and Frank Strozier.  Were you all acquainted?

HC:    Yes, we were all in high school together.  In fact, George and I were in the same class.  Frank was a few years behind us, but we were all in the same band.  Speaking of local saxophone players, at that time the guy who impressed me the most was a tenor player named Ben Branch, who sounded a lot like Gene Ammons — and I always liked Ammons’ playing.  There was a guy who played alto in Memphis who I got my name from, an older man named Hank O’Day — really Hank, not Henry.  He was playing in a big band that was led by Al Jackson, who was the father of the drummer Al Jackson from the Stax scene.   There was George, and then a few years behind us was Charles Lloyd.  There was another guy who played saxophone who sounded very much like Bird… At that time, George Coleman was the king.  He was playing all of the Bird stuff.

During that era, we were studying a lot of Bebop.  That’s why we went from house to house, to learn all these bad tunes.  But basically, our primary function when we would go out to play was the Blues.  We’d practice the Bebop all day at each other’s house, but when we had to go out and play, we’d play a lot of Blues, Memphis being the home of the Blues, they say.  I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.

I remember listening to Johnny Hodges, and I remember Tab Smith played on “Because of You” that floored me.  I like melodies.  I really like ballads, and I think I’m most expressive on ballads.  I guess that comes from being around vocal music a lot.

TP:    You mentioned that starting in the church as well.  You mentioned that in your trademark horn arrangements, the horns are the backup singers, you’re the lead singer with the alto.

HC:    Yes.  I found that to be true when I joined Ray Charles’ band.  I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was at least eight pieces, from 8 to 16 pieces, five horns at least.  Big bands was a favorite of mine, too; I loved big bands.  I even had the opportunity to meet some of the great big band leaders later on in my career.

TP:    Lunceford was from Memphis from originally.

HC:    Yes, and Gerald Wilson.  And later, when I went to school at Tennessee State in Nashville, I had a chance to meet Ellington and Dizzy.  They would come and play the homecoming campus gig every year.  There would always be a big name.  I had an opportunity to meet Charlie Parker three months before he passed in Nashville.  I was a senior at Tennessee State, and Bird came through on a show with Stan Kenton, June Christy, Nat Cole.  There was a tenor player in Nashville named Thurman Green. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re laughing.

HC:    Well, he was funny.  He was funny just as a human being and then he was funny as a player.  We used to laugh at his playing.  He just played funny, man.  He knew Charlie Parker personally.  And Bird came through at that particular time with that show we were talking about, and he came down to a little place that I was playing called the El Morocco.  I was playing an off-campus gig, and Bird came down there, just hanging out.  He didn’t play anything; came with Thurman, his friend.  He sat there, and for about two hours, man, after we finished, I had a chance to sit next to him and talk.  I don’t know what we were talking about.  Just fun things.  This was like in December, and he passed in March.  That’s about three months.

TP:    It sounds to me that the thing you both share is you had thorough high school educations.  You got a thorough musical preparation in a lot of ways in high school, and then you were playing functionally on these type of gigs and getting professional experience from a fairly young age.  How old were you when you did your first professional gig, whatever amount of money it was?

HC:    Actually in high school we were getting paid.  Because at that time, at 14 and 15, we were going out playing the dances.  The senior players, they were out, too.  But at that time, Memphis was full of great musicians, man.  Phineas Newborn was there.  He was playing at that age, man, and he was just out of sight.  So we played all of the R&B gigs and all of the jazz gigs and so forth.

TP:    There wasn’t a differentiation between Jazz and other forms of music.  It was all one big pot, kind of?

HC:    Right.  Well, playing Bebop, that was our classroom.  That was the study period, you know.  But Blues just came as a natural if you were from that part of the country.

TP:    I take it that Dallas, Texas wasn’t so dissimilar in terms of the requirements for playing in public, am I right?

DN:    My experience in that area was we’d play Bebop in jam sessions, and maybe there was one club or two where we would play together for the door, which wouldn’t be very much money, like the Log Cabin in South Dallas.  But you couldn’t earn a living playing Bebop because the people, especially in the Dallas area, they weren’t that interested in Bebop.

TP:    What would happen if you might throw that into your playing?  Would they be very verbal and vociferous and clear in their displeasure?

DN:    Well, the younger people would dance to anything that we played.  They were receptive.  But the older generations, from the thirties on, they didn’t take too much to Bebop.  They would listen for the beat and that sound which they were accustomed to.  If it wasn’t Swing from the Big Band area, then it had to be something like Blues or Rhythm-and-Blues, something from a beat there, and the Blues, bluesy tunes.  So you had to play the Blues.  In order to make any kind of money playing music around the Dallas area and Texas, you had to play the Blues.  T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and I would play gigs and go on gigs.  Whenever T-Bone would come through town, I would go on gigs, because Buster Smith usually put bands together to back up T-Bone.  Lowell Fulsom lived in Fort Worth, and I’d work with him.

TP:    Would you go out with them or just play gigs?

DN:    I would go out.  My first outing from Dallas was with a piano player named Lloyd Glenn, who had a hit record out called “Chickaboo.”  They would have packages on the shows.  It would be Lloyd Glenn’s band, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and I was playing with Lloyd Glenn. That was my first outing other than going out backing up T-Bone Walker playing in Buster’s band.  But my first outing on the road professionally was with Lloyd Glenn.

TP:    Tell me a little bit about Buster Smith, the master of riff arranging.  How did you come to meet him?

DN:    Well, Buster was well-known.  Buster had left Dallas, and he was living in Kansas City.  He’d played in the Blue Devils, which was from Oklahoma City, and then with Bennie Moten, and then Basie, and then came back to Texas for various reasons in the ’40s.  He was very good arranger and he had control of the alto saxophone.  His execution was very good.  He was very fast.  This is how Bird came to listen.  When Bird was very young and later when he was playing with Jay McShann, he’d come over to hear Buster play, because Buster was really getting over the instrument.  Buster was a main influence on Charlie Parker more than most people realize.

TP:    What were your personal experiences with Buster Smith?

DN:    I played many engagements with Buster.  He was a very gifted musician.  I think he was a self-taught musician.  He had perfect pitch.  We’d ride up and down the road, and Buster would just sit in the car with his cigar in his mouth.  He wasn’t a drinker; he just had a cigar.  As a matter of fact, they used to call Buster “Prof,” short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.  But he taught himself music, really, and he had this wonderful gift.  He could arrange and write without being around any kind of instrument at all from having perfect pitch.  I learned so much from Buster.

TP:    I don’t know if you recall this from our last encounter, but I showed you a transcript of an interview Buster Smith did for the Oral History Project at the Institute of Jazz Studies, and he said that he had a sextet with you and Leroy Cooper, and that Ray Charles used that band in the very early Fifties, and that was your first encounter with him.

DN:    That’s true.  Leroy Cooper and I were both from Dallas, and Leroy had been to the Army and was back.  When I came to Lincoln High School, Leroy had graduated and was going to a college called Sam Houston, and from there he went to the Army.  Buster had a small combo together.  He usually kept a big band, but for putting together bands for the road or when people like Ray Charles would come through, Buster would put together these little small groups, and that’s how Leroy Cooper and I came to playing together.  Leroy and I also played together behind a guitarist called Zuzu Bollin, who had a record out called “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night” that Leroy and I played on.  Yeah, we played on this record, “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night.”  Then after that, Leroy left and went out with Ernie Fields’ Big Band, and when he came back… See, Leroy was playing alto.  He was originally an alto player.  But when he went out with Ernie Fields, Ernie Fields needed a baritone player, and Leroy started playing baritone.  When he came back from Ernie Fields’ band, he was playing the baritone.  When he was playing alto, he just literally ripped the keys off the alto because he was so fast.

TP:    But do you recall the specifics of the linkup between Buster Smith and Ray Charles?

DN:    Well, Buster was probably recommended to Ray.  Because Ray needed a band to back him up when he came through, and Buster was the man around Dallas.  I don’t know what the connection was, who brought them together, but Buster was probably recommended.

TP:    What was Ray Charles’ style like at that time insofar as you mentioned.

DN:    He sang like Nat Cole, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown.  He hadn’t found his own identity yet; he was still searching.  He could sound like probably anyone, but his favorite people were people like Nat Cole, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker.

TP:    I’ll ask Hank Crawford now to talk about your college experiences and your beginnings as a professional musician, which were in college, but entering the fray from that.

HC:    Well, as I think about it, there was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands were covering at that time.  They all came through Memphis, and they used to play at places like the Palace Theater, amateur shows (we called them midnight rambles).  There was the Hippodrome, and there was Club Handy which was at that time in Mitchell’s Hotel.  They would all come through Memphis.  We didn’t have to really go too far to see these people.  That was one of the good things about that era.  We got a chance to see a lot of the people that we later got to know.  A lot of singers would come through town, like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too.  We got a chance to see these people.  Sometimes they’d come through maybe with not the full band and pick up locals, and we would always be the ones that would play for these certain entertainers, whether it be… Really, man, it was an era of everything going on.  You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers — shows.  We played shows.

TP:    And you’d play the whole show.

HC:    the whole show.

TP:    You’d be playing for the shake dancer, for the tap dancer, for the singer, for the comedians act.

HC:    Yeah, for all of it, before the Apollo even entered my mind, you know.  That all was happening.  It’s a long story; I could think of a million things.  But that was part of it in Memphis, among a whole lot of other things.  When I left Memphis…

TP:    When did you first go out on the road?  Do you recollect?

HC:    Really, really go out on the road?

TP:    Was that at that time, or after?

HC:    Most of that time I was basically in Memphis.  When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents, and we would play locally, and as far as we would get would be Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then we’d get up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill.  This was all while I was still in school, so we’d go out during the summer months and play for the summer, that southern route, New Orleans, St. Louis and stuff like that.  I was basically a student most of the time, but I had a chance to meet all of these people, because they would come in the locale that we were all based, really.

I had some great teachers at Tennessee State.  W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he’s a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the “hundred steps, 8 to 5…”

TP:    Oh, that’s when they started that?

HC:    Yes.  When that started, FAMU and Tennessee State, you’d just be running down the field almost.  Anciel Francisco was my reed teacher.  I didn’t start studying saxophones and clarinets and reeds until I got in college.

I played around Nashville, and I met a lot of people.  I met Roland Kirk in Nashville, and Leon Thomas, and man, you could go on and on.

But really, I guess my big real-real going out on the road was when Brother Ray came.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that happened, for about only the three hundredth time you’ve told the story.

HC:    Well, I was still in school, and like I say, I’d heard Ray — “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Drowning In My Own Tears”   were some of the first things I heard.  I remember I heard something about David.  One of the first things I heard him play was the solo he did on “Ain’t That Love.”  It knocked me out, man.  Actually, I had a couple of buddies who had already joined Ray’s band.  There was a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville.  Anyway, Ray came through Nashville.  I think Leroy Cooper, “the Hog,” he had taken a leave of absence, and he was out for a minute, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part.  I never played baritone in my life.  Never.  You know, just around the band-rooms fooling around with the instrument.

DN:    I took the same route.  I came in the band playing baritone.

TP:    Well, I think music before it was anything else was functional for you.  This was how you were earning your livings basically from the age of 14-15-16 years old.

HC:    Yeah, from day one.  I never did anything else.

DN:    We were both reed players, so we played the reeds.

HC:    I happened to be the Student Director on campus.  I had a big band at Tennessee State; I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band — I was writing then.  I was impressed by the sound of Ray’s small band.  Actually, in Memphis, we always had eight pieces, and always had that kind of Gospel type of sound.  So I kind of knew the feeling.  But getting into Ray’s band, it just made it much more better, because I fell into the same kind of groove that I had been raised up with.

So anyway, I went down, didn’t even audition.  I don’t think we had a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice.  I went to the campus band-room, I talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed, and I took it down to the Club Baron where they were playing.  I sat in and played the gig that night, and that was the end of that.  Three months later, I got a call from R.C. — or his manager, Jeff Brown at the time — and he asked me if I wanted the job.

I never thought I’d stay as long as I did.  I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world.  Ray was getting into his thing.  He was really beginning to blossom at that time.  The period that I’m talking about, when I joined the band…

TP:    Do you mean blossom musically or blossom in terms of the breadth of his audience?

HC:    The fans.  He was really going… I got in the band at a great period, man.  I really came in the band at a great period.

TP:    Let’s hold that, and I’ll talk to David about his route to Ray Charles so you can catch up to each other on the time line.

DN:    Well, I met Ray in ’51, when he was featured with Lowell Fulsom, singing and playing.  He had recorded a few singles, and he said that he was going to get his own band.  We became friends right away, and I asked him, when he formed his own band to let me know, and that I would love to come play with him.  And sure enough, he called me when he formed his band in ’54.  We’d played together in ’52 when he was touring around, and we played with Buster, backing him.  But when he formed his band in ’54, he called me, and I stayed with the band until 1964.

TP:    How did the band evolve from ’54 until Hank joined?

DN:    Well, the band just    blossomed right away.  I started out playing baritone, and Donald Wilkerson was on the tenor.  There was a trumpet player from Houston by the name of Joseph Bridgewater, and he knew John Hunt, and Ray needed a second trumpet, so Joseph Bridgewater called John Hunt into the band, and John Hunt in turn called Milt Turner from the band, who was from Nashville.  That was the Nashville connection.  Then we came through Nashville and there were already musicians in the band who knew Hank, so that was the connection.

But I stayed with Ray from ’54 to ’64, then by ’66 I came to New York and first played some gigs with Kenny Dorham and then later played a few gigs with Lee Morgan and did a couple of recordings with him.

TP:    Now, you switched to tenor while you were in the band, and it seemed like that was a great meeting of the minds and ears when you started playing tenor with Ray Charles.

DN:    Donald Wilkerson left the band for a minute.  Now, the tenor player was getting all the solos.  During all my time playing baritone I think I got one solo, and that was a tune called “Greenback Dollar Bill.”  I took a solo on that, because that was my one and only solo.  I wanted to stretch out, so I asked Ray could I take the tenor chair.  He didn’t have any particular tenor player in mind, so he said yeah, if I could get a tenor saxophone.  So I went out and got myself a tenor saxophone, and from that time on I started playing the tenor.  I had never played tenor before.  I had played baritone and alto, but not tenor.

TP:    How was the switch for you?  Natural, I would assume.

DN:    Oh, it was natural.  I was just eager to make the switch anyway, and I was eager to play.  I knew the book pretty well anyway; it was just a matter of switching from an E-flat to a B-flat instrument.

TP:    How do you see the differences between the two?  Are they different voices for you the way you play now.

DN:    I have a different approach on each instrument.  Whatever instrument I pick up, I tend to have a different approach.  It’s a different flow; I just feel them differently.  I can’t say exactly what it is.  I just know that I have a different voice on each one.

TP:    Now, you came in as the baritone player.  Was Ray Charles playing alto and piano in the years before Hank joined?

DN:    When we’d begin, the first half-hour or so before Ray would come in to do his singing and performing on piano, we would play these five-horn jazz arrangements Ray had written, and Ray would play the alto part.

TP:    Then Hank eventually took the alto chair. Clarify that for me.

HC:    See, I went in the band in ’58, and I played baritone 1958 to 1960, for two years.  I didn’t think I was going to be playing baritone that long, but for some reason Leroy didn’t come right back — it was a period of two years.

TP:    Did you get a solo?

HC:    Yeah.  In fact, I was playing baritone on Ray Charles At Newport, but I was called Bennie, my real name.  A lot of people ask me, “Now, who is Bennie Crawford?  Whatever happened to him?”  I say, “Well, he’s still around.”  Anyway, I played for two years on baritone.  And like Newman was saying, I was shocked.  One night, however it happened, here comes Ray Charles with his alto saxophone… See, that was one of the good things about that band, too.  It was educational, because everything we did was on paper.  We did a few head things, but even they sounded like arrangements.  We were just that kind of band.  In 1960 Ray graduated from the small band.  He had big band eyes.  I think that’s when he did “Let The Good Times Roll” and that big thing, which is on The Genius, one of my favorites.

DN:    Excuse me, but Hank played baritone when Ray Charles presented me to Atlantic and we did Ray Charles Presents.  He had solos on that and he did some of the arranging.

TP:    I was about to ask Hank about your arranging activities with the Ray Charles and the dynamics of it, the type of feeling you were trying to convey and what he was asking you to do.

HC:    When I joined the band with Ray, that was an avenue for me to do a lot of things.  Like I said, I had been writing for small bands a little bit in Memphis.  To be honest about it, Ray and I kind of clicked right away.  We became section buddies and we always communicated, and I think he might have had something with me, because I even got the job as music director when Ray got the big band.  I was directing the small band.  Even in the small band, when I was playing baritone, when Ray was not on the bandstand, that’s the first time that we introduced the electric piano.  There’s only two people I know who were playing electric piano at that time, and that was Joe Zawinul with Cannonball and Ray Charles.  Ray liked the sound.  I remember he bought a blond Wurlitzer.  I got a chance to kind of use my piano chops, because Ray wasn’t on the bandstand, so we only had bass and drums.

TP:    You play piano on a couple of the albums that are on the CD.

HC:    Whatever I could do on it, you know. [LAUGHS] When through whatever channels things went through, I was asked if I wanted to take the job as music director, naturally I agreed, because I just dug the whole scene.  And I kept that post for three years.  That’s when I got a chance to do a lot of writing.  I did most of the writing in the small band.

But back to your point.  As the thing grew, Ray started playing alto and he started writing more charts for the small band, which featured him a lot on alto.  And he was quite a fine alto player.

TP:    Who were some of the influences for you and Ray Charles as arrangers?

HC:    Well, I liked Quincy, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster…

TP:    So the Basie-Dizzy Gillespie type charts of the mid-Fifties when you were in school.

HC:    Yeah, and the Ellington things.

TP:    Had you taken those apart and analyzed them and studied them in a really exhaustive way, or were you just taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and applying it as appropriate?

HC:    I would take a little bit from each arranger.  But basically, I was sort of being myself.  I think even after listening to all the saxophone players that we talked about, I found my own voice.  Even when I play now, I try to play like Hank, but you will find yourself playing a bit of this guy and a bit of that.  I’ve always been a melodic player, I’ve played in all sets, but like I said, I found my voice.  And being in Ray’s band is such a long story, but it was quite an experience.  I went to alto when the big band was organized.

TP:    You were playing together how many nights a year during that time?  250?  300?

HC:    Oh, man, we were busy.  We played the theater circuit, dance halls, clubs, whatever.  It was something else.

TP:    That gives the band the type of tightness that you can’t get in any other way, doesn’t it.

HC:    And the thing, too, about it, there were some great musicians in the band.  There was Fathead, Cooper, Marcus Belgrave, John Hunt, and there later came to be Bruno Carr and Philip Guilbeau — and all of these guys were dynamite players.  So it was a learning experience.  We all had knowledge of music, and we could play together well.  Whether we were playing outside or inside, whatever we played, the musicianship was so good that it happened automatically.  So everybody felt comfortable even in that setting, whatever we played.

Before Ray, I guess the band that really knocked me as a small unit was James Moody’s Octet.  Even before I went into RC’s band, Moody did some of the first small band records that I heard, and I loved the sound of Moody with an octet.  I’ve always loved the sound of a band.

TP:    That’s the sound you put on the recent record, Tight, five horns and rhythm.

HC:    I’ve always used horns on my records, except for a few I’ve used just a quartet.  I like the sound, and when I joined RC I studied his formula for it, how he’d take tenor, alto and baritone and two trumpets to come out sounding like a big band.  I found out there wasn’t that much really involved. It’s basically I, III, V, VII and IX.  I don’t think we ever played anything in that small band that had anything above a IX chord in it.

TP:    David, I think Hank’s looking at you to answer a question.

DN:    What’s that?

HC:    I was just talking about the simplicity of the music we played, and how it wasn’t complex, but it came off as the sound of a big band.  I was just saying I don’t think we ever played anything chord-wise in terms of the structure of a horn that was over I-III-V-VII-IX.  We didn’t get into the flatted chords and extensions.  Everything was basic.

DN:    With the five-horn arrangements and two trumpets, it really gave the sound effect of a big band, because of the brassy sound.  Ray preferred two trumpets to trombone.  His voicing for the five horns was very unique.

HC:    It’s like a vocal group.  You have soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.  Those are your five major voices.  Anything over that, you’re doubling.  When you get into IX or XI, you’re only doubling the third or whatever you played before.  When you take a VII-chord, man, and it’s voiced right, five horns can sound like ten.  It’s when it’s distorted that makes it sound less.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

TP:    Hank, the first time you met David?

HC:    Actually, it was in Nashville when I joined the band for that one night.  The band bus pulled up in front of Brown’s Hotel.  At that time it was called a Wiener.  Red-and-white, long airport style.  I was standing outside, and they pulled up, and I remember David getting out with this grin on his face.  I’d heard him, as I said.  He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back.  I’m meeting David, you know.  It was just that simple.  That was the first time I actually saw him.

TP:    David, let’s talk about some of the productions on the record, inasmuch as you remember, starting with the first one, Ray Charles Presents David Newman.  First, how much input did you have into the material on these records.  Do you feel that these are a good expression of who you were in that period.

DN:    Well, yes.  My only tune    on here was a tune called “Fathead,” and that was my contribution to the arrangements.  Hank Crawford knew Paul Mitchell from Atlanta, and he introduced me to the tune “Hard Times,”  which he arranged.  Hank also arranged “Bill For Bennie,” and “Sweet Eyes” and “Weird Beard.”  Ray’s arranged “Mean To Me” and “Willow Weep For Me.”

TP:    Did this record evolve organically out of things you were doing in the band, plus your own interests?  Also, how were the records set up in terms of choosing material, personnel and so forth?

DN:    I had no idea that I was going to become an Atlantic recording artist.  Ray had just said that he was going to feature me.  I really didn’t know that he would be presenting me as such, and that I was going to become an Atlantic artist myself.  Because Ray was recording for Atlantic.  I just thought we were really doing an instrumental, and Ray was just going to feature me.  But what he did is, he set it up.  It was called Ray Charles Presents Fathead.  It was like setting me up.  And hence, from that recording on, I became an Atlantic artist, and I signed a contract then.

We did some of these tunes when we were on the road playing.  Like I say, Hank had introduced “Hard Times” to me.  I thought it was a helluva tune when he first played it, and I immediately asked him where he’d gotten it.  Then when Ray said this was going to be my introduction and he was going to present me on this recording, we started to think about tunes that we could play.  So Ray did the arranging on “Mean To Me,” he spent a lot of time on that, and then “Willow Weep For Me.”  Then Hank arranged most of the other compositions that we played, like  “Tin Tin Deo” and “Hard Times”…

TP:    What do you remember about Straight Ahead, with the slick New York rhythm section?

DN:    Oh, Straight Ahead was a wonderful date, because I particularly wanted to record with Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, I knew Charlie Persip, and I asked him how he felt about playing with Wynton and Paul, and he said that he would love it because he’d never recorded with them before. It turned out to be a wonderful date for me.  It was the first time I’d recorded on the flute.

TP:    Does this reflect what you were able to do on the set with Ray Charles before he would come out?  You’d be playing Jazz for two-three-four tunes, and then the show would start?

DN:    On Fathead, not Straight Ahead.  Straight Ahead was later on, a separate thing.  Because I had been spending time living in New York when I did Straight Ahead.  In fact, I wasn’t even in Ray’s band at all when I recorded Straight Ahead.  That was done around ’65 or ’66. [THIS IS INCORRECT]  I was still playing with Ray when I did Fathead Comes On.  That was the second recording.

TP:    I know you probably want to get out of the Atlantics and talk about recent things you’ve done.  You did two very strong records with Herbie Mann, a former Atlantic recording artist, and his now-defunct Kokopelli label, both with strings, a smaller group on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool, and then more lush arrangements on Under A Woodstock Moon.

DN:    Bob Friedman did the arranging on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool , which was a tribute to Duke, with all Duke Ellington tunes.  Bob had played baritone for a brief spell with the Duke Ellington band and was familiar with the Ellington compositions.  I think the original concept about doing a tribute to Duke came from Herbie Mann.

TP:    Was it all material that was meaningful to you as a young musician?

DN:    Some of it was, and then some of the tunes, like “Azure” and “Almost Cried,” even at the time I started to work on the project.  My parents had all of the records by the swing bands of the Big Band era like Ellington and Armstrong.  Johnny Hodges was one of my favorite alto players, and I’d listen to him play “Jeep’s Blues,” a tune that I always loved, “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”  I had heard “Prelude To A Kiss,” but I’d never played it before.

The second recording, which was Under A Woodstock Moon, was my outing as a producer.  I always wanted to do strings, and I’d had strings on an album entitled Bigger and Better for Atlantic, with Bill Fischer arranging in the late Sixties.  Kokopelli couldn’t afford to do a whole string section, so we did a string ensemble thing with a string quartet, which was as much as they would allow me to do.  Bob Friedman did the arrangements.  I had just moved to Woodstock, and this was a tribute to Mother Nature.  One of my compositions was “Under A Woodstock Moon” and another called “Amandla.”

TP:    It’s a very mellow, melodic record, with a lot of variety of color and texture.

DN:    The other tunes were a tribute to Nature, like “Up Jumped Spring,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Autumn In New York,” and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”  I have another composition on there called “Amandla,” which is an African name for freedom.

TP:    Let me ask you one or two things that the editor wants me to ask you.  What do you think was the impact of the Ray Charles Band you were in on contemporary music, in terms of the way the grooves and the feeling has permeated it?

DN:    I don’t know about the impact.  I would say that there is definitely an influence on the music from the Ray Charles feel and what was happening musically with Ray.  Ray Charles certainly influenced my playing and Hank’s playing jazz-wise and in terms of music as a whole.  Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation.  Before my encounter with Ray, I really didn’t have any kind of concept about music appreciation.  I only liked to play jazz and bebop.  That was my only real love.  But after meeting Ray and playing with Ray, I learned how to appreciate all other forms of music also, like the Blues, Spirituals, Gospel, and even Country-and-Western.

TP:    To play the whole range of music with conviction and soul.

DN:    Right.  And to have the respect and to really admire and to love the music.  So it was a lesson in music appreciation that I think we got from Ray.  I don’t know about the impact, but there was definitely an impact.

TP:    That’s a beautiful answer.  You’ve really stretched out a lot on your recent recordings, taken chances, worked with progressive musicians.  Is that your true heart in the music?

DN:    Well, yes.  Because this music is a gift, it’s an incredible gift.  What happens is the music doesn’t really come from me or from us; this music comes through us.  So I want to explore what I can do in all the different areas of music.  I don’t necessarily want to stick to a certain form insofar as the music goes.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me and as I feel it.  I really like to bridge the generations, so to speak, when it comes to the music that I’m playing, because this music is moving as the time moves on, but we still have these feelings about music.  So I want to explore and to play in other areas, even see how my music fits into the Rap situation — I mean, poetically.  I don’t really see anything wrong with Rap.  It’s just the content in Rap that’s a little offensive sometimes.  But the Rap music itself is really an extension of the music, coming from Louis Armstrong.

TP:    Do they use samples of your solos ever that you know about?

DN:    Not that I’ve heard.  Nothing that I’ve heard so far.  But I’ve become interested in this, just listening.  I was listening to Quincy Jones speak the other day about the music.  Jesse Jackson asked him why would he be interested in Rap, and Quincy said the same thing, that the music comes not from him, but through him.  That’s the same way I feel about this music.  It comes through me, and what you do is, you put your particular touch onto the music and what you feel.  You put your stamp on it, your feeling, let the music come through you and see what comes out.  You can’t close yourself off from the different forms of music as music moves on.

TP:    You also have access to so many sounds and colors from being a multi-instrumentalist.  How do you keep your chops up on all the instruments?

DN:    Well, I manage to keep my chops up, especially since I have moved to Woodstock now.  I get a chance to work on the different instruments.  I still have a soprano, I have an alto and a tenor and my flute.  I get quite a few calls to do studio work to record with various musicians, and I manage to stay halfway busy to keep myself going.  Of course, I know that to keep my chops up and play, I have got to pick the instruments up and play them.

TP:    People say it’s a struggle to keep one instrument up, and you’re keeping up four!  You’re doing pretty good.

DN:    Well, it’s a labor of love, that’s what it is.  I love the music.  I think I’ll always… It’s not about practicing, but I just pick up the instruments and play.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Equipment from David Newman.

DN:    I have a Selmer alto.  My mouthpiece is a hard rubber Otto Link.  I used to play the Meyer mouthpiece, but now I have Otto Link hard rubber.

TP:    Why?

DN:    I like the Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece.  I don’t play the metal mouthpiece any more, because I have dentures now, and I’m a little more flexible on the hard rubber.  I like the Otto Link because I like the sound, especially the old Otto Links.  I use that on my alto and my tenor.  I have a Selmer soprano also, and I used a Meyer mouthpiece on the soprano.  I have a Selmer Mark-VI tenor that was made in the ’60s.  It was made in about ’60 or ’61, a very good time for Selmer tenors.  Any of the Selmer saxophones made in less than 100,000 would be really good quality material that they were putting into the instruments.  They still make very good instruments, but the newer instruments these days… That’s the reason why so many musicians try to get a Mark VI.  The Mark VI was really one of the classic saxophones.

I have a Germeinhardt flute.

TP:    Anything you want to say about why you use these instruments, or have you said your fill?

DN:    Well, my first flute was…when I first became interested in the flute… We were traveling in Ray’s band, and we came through Orlando, Florida, and we had a few off-days.  I passed by this pawn shop, and in this pawn shop they had two wooden ebony Haynes flutes, very good and expensive flutes.  Some guy there who had played with the symphony had these instruments, and the pawnshop owner let me have it for little or nothing.  He had a C-flute and an alto flute, and I think I gave the guy $25 for the C-flute, which had an E-flat trill on it.  I should have bought the alto flute also.  I brought this flute back, and the guys in the band asked me, “Do you know what you got there?”  I said, “It’s a flute.”  They said, “Man, you’ve got a Haynes wooden flute, and this is a very expensive instrument.”  And I started teaching myself to play the flute, and listened to other flute players, particularly James Moody and Frank Wess, and I eventually started trying to get a sound on the flute.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I, we both maybe started on the flute around the same time.  I was a couple of years older than him, so I might have started earlier.  Eventually, the flute was stolen from me, I lost it, and then I started playing other C-flutes, of course.  But my first flute was a Haynes flute, and the flute I have now is a Gemeinhardt.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David has left, and Hank and I are here together.  A few words about the recordings on Memphis, Ray and A Touch Of Moody.  What do you remember about More Soul, the first one you did?

HC:    Actually, that was my first recording as a leader.  I wrote some of the arrangements in Nashville, maybe a couple in Memphis, and the rest I wrote while I was in Ray’s small band.  But we played these arrangements in Ray’s small band.  We used to go 45 minutes or an hour before he would come on to sing — the band had it.  When we recorded that, we were playing at the Apollo Theater, doing a show, and we finished the late show.  We were doing five or six shows a day.  We finished at about midnight, and we went directly to Atlantic Recording Studio.  We got there I guess by 12:30, and we started recording at 1, and we didn’t stop until we’d completed it, which was 7 or 8 o’clock the following morning.  Most of the musicians and the music we were playing in the small band of Ray Charles.

That’s when I got the opportunity to start writing, because after I had been in there for a while, R.C. found out I that I was doing some arranging and liked to write, so he just kind of hinted, said, “You know, if you want to do some writing…” Plus I found it a good place to be, because I was very interested and very much into writing and arranging, and being in that band, since he liked to write and I had written for bands that size… See, I was familiar with the size of that band.  I just didn’t have the venues or the musicians to play the music.  I was still young and hadn’t been that far.  So that gave me an opportunity to write, when he found out I was writing a little bit.

TP:    The writing started in high school for you.

HC:    Yeah, I’ve been writing since then.

TP:    There are two Moody tunes, “The Story” and “Boo’s Tune.”

HC:    I did the arrangement on everything except “The Story,”  which Ray Charles did.  I told Ray I was doing the date and asked him if he would do a tune for me, and he did “The Story.”

TP:    So Moody’s band was very influential in a lot of ways that aren’t well known.

HC:    I loved him as a player and I liked the sound of the band.  I think Johnny Acea was writing for that band at the time.  I always loved the octet sound.  Moody’s was one of the first bands I heard that small that really knocked me out.  Of course, before that I was listening to Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, which is just like five pieces.  But Moody’s band was like an octet, and I loved the sound of the band.

TP:    I have to tell you, when I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to the reincarnation of Earl Bostic, in a certain way, just in the way you approach a melody and the sound.

HC:    Well, Earl was a power player.  In fact, I play strong myself.  I’m naturally a power player.  That was the thing that I like about Earl, plus he was playing a lot of ballads and standard tunes.  At that time, you know, I was hearing a lot of Bostic, so he was just automatically one of my first influences.

TP:    And I’m sure it affected people when you played like that, just because of the way the sound is.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Anyway, the second record, From The Heart, sounds more like what I’d expect to hear from you later, more range, lush textures and so forth.

HC:    Well, From the Heart was completely mine.  Nobody did any arrangements on that.  At this time I had really found my way of writing.  I was kind of comfortable with what I was doing on From The Heart.  It was basically the same band, because I was still with Ray.  But I was getting the opportunity to play these tunes before he would come out.  Once I got the job as music director, he pretty much just gave it up, and gave it to me.  So I used that, man, and I did a lot of writing, and the music got exposed because we were going everywhere, playing concerts.  It just gave me a chance to expand on what I wanted to do earlier anyway, being in that group.

TP:    Then there’s a strings album on this.

HC:    Ah, yes.  I asked to be recorded with strings, and I was surprised when I got a yes on it from Neshui Ertegun at Atlantic Records.  He agreed, to my surprise, and asked me who did I want to do the arrangements, and I said Marty Paich.  I had heard Marty Paich’s small band arrangements when he was writing for Shorty Rogers and Stan Kenton, the West Coast scene, and I liked the way he voiced the strings.  I found out the secret; he used french horns with strings to get that real melancholy sound.  So Neshui agreed, and we went to California to record the record.  I selected all the tunes except one, which really turned out to be sort of a signature tune for me, which was “Whispering Grass.”  Marty Paich suggested that.

TP:    You have quite a memory.

HC:    Oh yeah, I try to remember these things.  I mean, it stayed with me, man, because it was such an experience.  I heard Marty do a string session with Gloria Lynne, “I Wish You Love” and all those things, and I thought it was beautiful work.  To be honest about it, when Ray wanted to do his first thing with strings, around the time of The Genius, by me being close to him, I suggested Marty Paich to him, and he used it.

I was with Ray Charles 24-7, because I was the music director.  He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate.  So I was always busy.

TP:    So you have as much of an insight as anyone into the inner workings of his creative mind.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Well, after a while, he noticed how I was writing.  He’s an individualist, you know; he’s the only one.  Like, there are certain saxophone players, certain musicians there’s only one.  Like, I haven’t found anybody that has my sound yet, and I don’t think David… We all have our distinctive sounds.

TP:    That was the ethos of the time.  Everybody had to have their sound when you were coming up.

HC:    That’s the secret of survival in this business, is identity.  You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play — I mean, young and old.  But nobody knows who they are.  And people buy identity.  You put on Miles Davis now, and automatically somebody goes, “That’s Miles.”  Then you put on Dizzy, and they know him.  But once they don’t know who you are, you don’t really sell.  Like, Louis Armstrong; they know Pops.  That’s what people buy.  When they go into a record shop, they say, “I want this guy.”  They’re not going there to listen to fifty other guys just to buy a record.  They know basically who they want when they go in.  So that’s what to me sells, is identity.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David just came in to mention to make sure I mention that he and Ron Carter were the two senior cast members on the 2 CDs for Kansas City.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Your comments on identity were a tangent from talking about Ray Charles.  You said you were with him 24-7, and the type of insights that gave you into the way his mind works.  Some general comments on his approach to music and the impact he had on you.

HC:    Well, see, it was so real for me to be there, because being around him and his background… There’s only like a four year difference in age between us.  So we are all from the same era, and we basically had the same experience with music, which was Gospel and the Blues and Jazz.  We’re all from that era.  So I heard the same things that he heard, and whoever was around at that time.  It just so happened that when I joined Ray, that was a period when things were happening within that unit that eventually went to the Moon.  Anyway, that’s what made it so easy for me to understand.  Because when he would dictate to me, writing his own charts… See, he wrote his own charts; he just didn’t put them on paper.  I was the one who was doing all the notating.  So when he found out that I had a background in arranging and composing and voicing chords and stuff like that, after a while, he would come in and make his initial statement about what he wanted, and he would write it, and then he would say, “You got it.”  So really I studied him.  It was another teacher, but it was not that much difference in how we felt about the feeling of music, because we all had the same type of background.

TP:    You were almost his alter-ego.

HC:    Yeah.  So I really understood where he was coming from.  I studied that, and I found out that, hey, I have some of the same kind of thoughts about this music, which made it easier for he and I to relate.

TP:    Is it harder for you to find people who have that sort of unspoken communication and empathy in the projects you do now?

HC:    Yeah, because you don’t have the association with musicians like you had at that time.  I mean, it was a community.  The Jazz community was great.  We were friends, man.  We hung out together and studied together, broke a lot of bread together.  We had venues to play.  There aren’t any venues now like there used to be, and the community is divided.  We don’t see each other as we once did.

TP:    You don’t cross paths in the same way.

HC:    Man, right here in New York City we used to walk down Broadway and go to 52nd Street or 50th Street, and stand right there on the corner — every day, 24 hours a day — and you would meet friends.  And we didn’t only play together.  We discussed music.  That whole era was a learning period from everybody.  But now, man you almost walk out like… You can’t find anybody.  Everybody’s moved out or they just don’t come out any more.  You know what I’m saying?  There’s just not the community like it used to be.  There’s no association, just, “Hey, how you doing, I’ll see you next time.”

TP:    But how does that affect your performing or recording projects, or the way you deal with bands right now.  I guess you have to dot a lot more i’s and cross a lot more t’s.

HC:    I’m not one of the type of players that’s concerned a lot about changing with what’s in.  No, I found my sound, and I think I’m going to stick to my guns.  I think that’s what destroys a lot of players.  Instead of being themselves, they try to be like others.  And in this business, there’s only one of one.  Like, there’s only one Bird, there’s only one Coltrane, and there’s only one whoever.  But what happens with a lot of musicians, I think, they’ll be inspired by somebody when they are learning, and they grew up trying to play like that person.

TP:    A lot of the young players.  Because they don’t have so many places to play.  They’re in school, and that’s the way they’re educated.

HC:    That’s it, man.  Like I said earlier, I’ve played in all settings, Jazz, Blues and everything.  I’ve had an association with all kinds of music, man, and with some great people.  I think I have established myself and my sound and what kind of player I am really, although I might play Jazz, I might play this, I might play that.  Like I said, I approach the horn as a vocalist.  I try to sing through the instrument, and play melodies, not a lot of technical things.  I think if I would lose that identity that I’ve established myself and that people know me by, and go into something just for the sake of saying, “Well, I can do this just as well as that person,” I think I’d lose my identity.  I could probably get away with trying to play some Coltrane for maybe a couple of tunes, and then your fans or your audience is going to say, “Hey, you’re trying to play like so-and-so; get back to yourself.”

TP:    That raises a question.  What you play on the surface is very simple, basic.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Is it deceptively simple?  How complex is it really to do what you do?

HC:    For some people it’s hard.  For me, playing simple is almost a natural.

TP:    Because you’re a very sophisticated, educated musician.

HC:    I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to it.  The technical things… I’ve studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard Bebop.  But that’s not just me naturally.  I just play what I feel naturally.  And I’ve been into some great sets with some great players, you know, but it ends up that I’m better being myself.

TP:    George Coleman played all the notes.

HC:    Yes, in all the keys!  We studied that, too.  I tried that.  I said, “Well, you know, I can do a little bit of this, but that’s just not where I’m from; that’s just not me.”  So I chose to do what I do best.  Because if you’re going to survive in this business, man, you’ve got to have your own identity.  Nobody’s going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That’s the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.

TP:    Your name is your sound.

HC:    Right.  And once you lose that, I think you’ve destroyed everything.  You can turn on the radio, man, and you can hear this trumpet player or this saxophone player, and man, they’re playing!  But there’s something that don’t register with you if he doesn’t have a certain sound or play a certain style of phrasing.  If you can’t recognize that in a player, then you’re just listening to somebody and all you can say about it is, “Ooh, who is that?  He sure plays good!”

TP:    Are there any good young players, saxophone or any instrument, who you think have a sound?

HC:    Well, there’s a tenor player who’s young compared to a lot of people… I think Joshua Redman has his own sound.

TP:    That’s probably why he’s so popular.

HC:    That’s part of it.  There are a few others; I can’t think of them now.  But there are so many youngsters, man, that I hear and they sound good, they’re playing!  But that’s what’s missing.  And I’ll even go so far as to say this.  As far as the man walking on the street, who knows nothing about music, but knows it when he hears it, and he knows whether the player is playing or jiving, or he knows when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.  All these people on the street, man, they know when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.

There are so many players like… I just want to use a major influence on young musicians, and I mean nothing by this because I have a lot of respect for him.  That’s Wynton Marsalis.  What I’m going to say that is when I was talking about identity…

[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

TP:    Now you know it’s him when you hear him play.

HC:    The man has all the facilities in the world.  I mean, he’s a good trumpet player, he’s a good educator, he’s a good everything — I have to give it to him.  But the average layman, I’ll bet you, man, 75 out of 100 would identify a Freddie Hubbard or a Dizzy or a Miles faster than they would identify Wynton — as far as identity.  I mean, if you don’t really know, if you’re not a musician… And not only Wynton, but anybody.  If you don’t really know him and know the techniques of playing because you are a musician or a good listener, you would not be able to identify this bad cat, whoever it is.   It’s just like Count Basie.  One note.  You know the tag he plays, BOP-BOP-BOP?  I can go the piano and do it (it’s only three fingers) you could do it, I could teach my kids, anybody.  BOP-BOP-BOP, it’s all in one place.  But nobody sounds like when Basie hits it.  Same notes.  But when Basie strikes it, there is something else that comes out of the note.  You know what I mean?  And Oscar Peterson or somebody like that can go right behind and play the same thing, and you know how great Oscar is, but Basie has a stamp.  When he hits it, you automatically know it.

TP:    Do drummers today get the tempos they were in the Fifties and Sixties?

HC:    I like drummers.  A drummer is very important to me.  Because everything I play is basically to the root.  I don’t go outside too much.  A lot of musicians find that hard to do.  The simplest things can be the hardest sometimes.

TP:    The more you know, the harder it is not to go into everything that you know.

HC:    Right, man.  The drummer is very important.  You’ve got to learn how to be able to do what’s necessary for you to do in playing in a band.  In the drummer’s case, it might be necessary for him to just keep time.  It’s not necessary for him to play a solo.  Or anybody in there, but especially drummers.  Some guys felt like that was not enough just to keep time and complement the man out front, the front line.  It was a drag to a lot of people just to keep time until you get that give-the-drummer-some, that one solo a night.  Otherwise, he’s playing time.  And a lot of guys don’t like to do that because they like to do other things, but it’s not necessary for you to do nothing but keep time here — and that’s hard.

TP:    And tune to the drum to the sound of the band…

HC:    Right, and do that every night!  Every note.  It’s got to be this way every time you play it.  Certain music.  Certain music you just don’t explore on, man.

TP:    I need your equipment.

HC:    I’m just playing the Selmer Super-Action 80.  That’s what I’m playing now.  The mouthpiece is Barrett.  It’s really like a stock mouthpiece.  I never played anything other than stocks.

TP:    What is it about the Selmer alto?

HC:    It’s like the Rolls Royce of saxophones.  You ain’t got a Selmer… It’s just like having a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  It’s the king.  It’s a good horn, and most professionals play it.  There’s a lot of other horns, Bushes, Conns, all of them, but the Selmer is it for me.  The body, it’s got good weight, feels good, and it responds.  To me, it’s just the best horn.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Hank has some thoughts on Fathead.

HC:    Well, we go back to almost the beginning of my professional career, and we’ve been more than just musicians, section buddies.  We have a little friendship.  I respect him as a man, and we kind of have that respect as men — and I respect his playing.  I broke a lot of bread with David.  The thing I like about him is whatever he plays, for me, I can understand it, I can feel it, how he expresses himself.  He’s just the kind of player that I like, and there are many others, but David is one that I had the experience of being around a lot, so I know him from A to Z!  He’s a very soulful man, and he can play in almost every setting.  I think that’s what we all learned coming up through that period.  He’s just one of my favorites… He’s on most of my recordings.  Every time I use a small band, I always use David.  He has a beautiful sound, a warm sound, and he always finds the blue notes.  He’s a stylist, and I think that’s true of most of the musicians from our era.  We’re stylists.  We all style whatever we play; we put our tag on it.  That’s just the way it is.  And I like all music, man.  I’m not trying to put down anybody.  I have respect for anybody who gets involved in the business because it’s so competitive.  But when I hear a guy that can cross all bridges, and comfortable playing in each setting, that’s what I admire — and don’t feel guilty playing it.

I don’t feel guilty playing “Steel Guitar Rag” if I’m called to play it.  You know what I mean?  I heard that when I was coming up as a kid, man, at 6 o’clock in the morning.  Down South, that’s the first thing you’d hear on your radio, is Country & Western and Gospel music.  That’s what you wake up on, C&W and Gospel!  I spent many days listening to Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow and all of those people.  And we all liked it!  Even Jazz musicians, they can’t say they didn’t grow up listening to these people.  So I played it as a youngster, and I don’t feel offended by it.  I just do my best in it.  So it’s music to me.  I don’t mind being square because I play this tune.  In fact, it’s a blessing to be able to play in all the styles.  That’s when your phone keeps ringing!

TP:    Well, it’s like what David said about Ray Charles.  He said it was like music appreciation.  He learned to play with soul, from the heart in every different situation.

HC:    Look at Cannonball, man.  His biggest hits were Soul music, “Mercy, Mercy” and stuff.  And Cannon was one of the greatest saxophone players in the world to me.

[-30-]

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For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

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On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

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Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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For Cecil Taylor’s 83rd Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2001

Master pianist and meta-musician-poet-dancer Cecil Taylor turns 83 today. I had the honor of writing a lengthy feature about him in 2001 for Jazziz, which I’ve appended below, as well as the transcripts of phone interviews that Andrew Cyrille and Tony Oxley graciously gave me towards this  project.

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 “The best preparation for playing with Cecil Taylor is to be fit and open your ears.  Things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make it go where perhaps you want it or where you think it might go.” — Tony Oxley.
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For three weeks in February, in a smallish basement performance space at the Turtle Bay Music School on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street, the meta-virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor guided a hand-picked master class — the final iteration comprised 11 sax and woodwinds, one recorder, one trumpet, one bass trombone, six pianists, one guitar, two violins, two vibraphones, one bass, two trapset, one percussion, one voice, and includes a poet and a painter — through ten intense rehersals of ten of his compositions.  Each musician paid $300 for the opportunity to observe how Taylor organizes material, how he chooses to express it, how he shapes it into strong images, how he makes the drama develop.

Around four o’clock on the final day, the orchestra was concluding their “dress rehearsal” with a spontaneous joyful roar.  After a dinner break, they were to reassemble for a culminating, self-conducted public concert, to be followed by a Taylor performance with as-yet undetermined personnel.  I sat in the pale light of the school’s foyer with Trudy Morse, Taylor’s confidante and frequent liaison to the outside world.  A mother of six with 20 grandchildren, Morse is 82, six months removed from her third near-death experience and three months past major surgery, but her voice is clear, her diction precise, her grip firm, and her eyes probe you like a laser beam.

Shortly after the death of her husband in 1987, Morse traveled to Huddersfield, U.K., to attend an electronic music festival, where she witnessed a concert featuring pianists Roger Woodward — performing Ianis Xenakis’ “Herma,” “Evryali” and “Mists” — and Cecil Taylor.  At the post-concert lecture-interview, she perceived amongst the gathered cognoscenti a tone of condescension towards Taylor as a “jazz artist.”

“This puzzled me,” she relates.  “I stood up and apologized to the scholars, and asked them if they understood Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  One man responded, ‘What are you talking about?’  I said, ‘Well, Heisenberg said that the spectator actually controls the experiment.  I would suggest to you that in music it’s the same.  We bring something to this concert.  That’s the way Cecil Taylor strikes me, although I don’t know him personally.’  Cecil Taylor suddenly looked at me and wondered who I was.  I sat down.  Later I noticed that he kept turning pages of music with very interesting notation.  I said, ‘Mr. Taylor, I don’t mean to be too curious, but what kind of notation and whose works are these?’  From then on, it’s history.  Cecil Taylor puzzled me enough that I accepted his invitation to tour with him.  I’ve been touring ever since.”

Morse met Taylor a little more than a year after the death of his significant other in music, the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his collaborator and alterego since 1961.  From 1964 to 1975, Lyons and the drummer Andrew Cyrille developed with Taylor a way of collectively improvising with furious lucidity off of shapes and structures at whirlwind velocities that picked up where the likes of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Max Roach left off.  Their investigations, documented in the pathbreaking recordings “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador,” inspired musicians around the world as a guidepost to the future.

Over the phone, Cyrille described their process: “As the years went by, after we began to play together consistently, Cecil would say, ‘This is our music.’  He meant ‘our’ inclusively, because we were all creating it from whatever we brought to the table.  I’d say, ‘Is there anything you want me to play in particular?’  I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’  We would rehearse, listen for hours upon hours, days at a time.  It opened me up and allowed me to try things that I had never played before.

No matter how deeply Taylor, Lyons and Cyrille ascended to the outer partials of abstraction, their connection to the jazz lifeblood was implicit.  After 1975, when Cyrille stopped playing full-time with Taylor, the pianist worked with a succession of drummers — Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall — who postulated definite rhythmic ideas, bringing forth a certain tension between the personalities from the contrast, the opposition, the push-and-pull.  After 1986, Lyons was no longer available to demonstrate instantaneously and authoritatively how his notes should be phrased, and Taylor — whose aversion to authority or canons or systems of any sort is legend — had to develop a sort of pedagogy by which he could concretely communicate his intentions and maximize the understanding of the other musicians.

During the ’80s Taylor began to crack open a Pandora’s Box of improvisational possibility in encounters with Max Roach, with AACM individualists like Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Thurman Barker, and with European outcats like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, John Tchicai and Peter Brotzmann.  He increasingly incorporated his authoritative knowledge of Native American, African and Japanese ritual into his performances.  Then festivals in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1986 and 1987 spurred him to focus more steadily on Europe not only as a welcoming theater for his music, but as a source of broadening improvisational nourishment.

Taylor’s inexorable forward march gained irreversible momentum during a June 1988 residency in Berlin that juxtaposed him with the creme de la creme of European free improvisers in a series of concerts documented on 13 CDs on FMP.  There followed consequential [visits] in 1989, 1990 and 1991 that left a permanent mark on the European scene.  During those years Taylor collaborated on several hundred occasions with the English drummer Tony Oxley, whose capacious tonal palette has inspired comparisons to an improvising Varese or Harry Partch.  Taylor now employs in his various units such virtuosi from the European speculative improv community as drummer Paul Lovens, cellist Tristan Honsegger, and soprano saxophonist Harri Sjostrom.  Recent encounters include improvised colloquies with Oxley, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, and the American vibraphonist Joe Locke, three supreme duets with Max Roach, six with Elvin Jones, and a 1998 meeting with Andrew Cyrille.

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalled.  “We had a magical dialogue.  This kind of music and improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a game.  We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation.  We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to create art.  But the way the effort is put forth is so much smoother and nuanced.  We’re so much more confident with the language than we were.”
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The Turtle Bay project gestated prosaically.  At a party in March 1999, Morse met the guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, a faculty member.  She inquired whether the school, which has neither a jazz nor an avant-garde tradition, would be interested in hosting such an event.  Eisenbeil investigated.  The answer was yes, providing Eisenbeil would organize it.  Needing to recruit 20 participants to meet expenses, Eisenbeil sent a mass email announcement to several contact lists and a slew of websites, and received 40 responses.

The age range of the musicians who gathered for the first rehearsal was  12 to 60.  Apart from a few Taylor veterans — violinist Ramsey Ameen (1978-1980) and Elliott Levin (a veteran of a 1973 Taylor workshop at Glassboro State University and of an octet that formed from a huge orchestra project at the Knitting Factory in 1995) — they had no idea what to expect from the maestro, a sylph-like man who retains the elastic musculature of a dancer one month shy of his 72nd birthday.  Dressed for work in stocking feet, black stocking cap, gray sweatshirt tie-dyed orange on one side, pants dyed white-aquamarine on the left and pink-gray on the right, Taylor first asked each participant to take a one-minute solo.  Speaking quietly, in calm, declarative sentences, he dictated a sequence of chords, then sang the line with a variety of attacks.  “Whatever you play, play it so people who hear it can hear the magic,” he urged.  “Try to remain connected; I want you to have control of each note you play.”  The musicians separated into sections; Morse strolled from point to point bearing a pot of hot tea.  With his brisk, precise dancer’s movements, Taylor glided to the trumpets and to the strings, imparted information, then sprang to the stage to recite another chordal sequence, seemingly conjured in instant response to what he was hearing, which he demonstrated with stunning precision on the piano.

“Play notes exactly/the way they are supposed/to be played,” he intoned, punctuating his words with well-timed vertical hand-chops.  “I played you just a single line.  Unless you play this extension chord, you have all sorts of possibilities within that sound.”  After a break, Taylor read off another passage, fine-tuned each section with a total command of detail, then played the passage with his left hand and launched into seven or eight variations.  Tenorist Moshe Ras spontaneously applauded, and embarked on a few minutes of spirit-catching through his horn.

Taylor concluded the session with a statement of purpose.  “There will be time for solos,” he told the ensemble.  “But we have to play so that everybody can get the information.  Each of you has the right to say, ‘I would like to hear this part over again.’  Each section has its technical problem.  What is the relationship of the note to the overall structure?  I can show you where everything is connected, but I don’t want to be in the position of telling you how to play it.  Where do you want to begin?  How do you want to proceed?”
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Over the course of the next nine rehearsals, several key themes emerged.  During the second session Taylor distributed photocopies of his scores, giving the musicians a chance to look at how he thinks about tones.  He divides the scores into small modules, which he calls quadrants.  Each has specific rules, with cues and gestures as to how they can be played, and each fits with the others in some manner.  He uses neither bar lines nor staves, but presents the notes as pictographically arranged hieroglyphs of letters, ascending from A to G and descending from G to A, with register and pitch indicated specifically according to the distance in whole steps from middle C.  They look like the branches of a tree, abstract landscapes of plateaus and mountains and valleys, perhaps a graphic representation of a dance.

“The scores seem to be what I would call fields,” says Dan Marmorstein, a composer-pianist whose friendship with Taylor dates to 1985.  “Each page might have a group of 12 to 20 sections of notes.  Each section might notate a melody or group of melodies (sometimes repeats are specified), but it might also be suggestive of a certain collection of notes that can be treated as a scale or mode.  Part of the fun is too discover the possibilities of combining these notes in different ways.  Soometimes Cecil stacks sequences lines of tones, and you get a sequence of diads or triads or polyphonic chords.  These areas of the score can be very dense, and once again, the player has to keep alert and on his toes and decide whether to deal with the vertical stacks and the horizontal lines as consecutive tones or as simultaneously voiced chords.

“The musicians are asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will according to their own library of experiences.  This being said, Cecil will often play the line on the piano and expect that we will be capable of hearing that this is the way he wants it to sound.  Sometimes you can hear it, but sometimes if he plays it with his own customary incessantly florid fluidity, it can be difficult to hear the bare skeleton; he’s asking us to sketch the daisy when he’s given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids and African violets.  Cecil sometimes simply is playing a melody voiced in four octaves.  Of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano — with authority!”]

Taylor is able to process instantly all the possible permutations of each quadrant, and splice them together in endless combinations.  But how are mere mortals to self-orchestrate?  For example, how to navigate section-to-section transitions?  Once he suggested: “Play it as many times as it is rhythmically of interest.  Play dynamics.  When it’s exhausted, that’s when it ends.  I am only giving you suggestions.”

The essential issue facing the orchestra was how to sustain a dynamic level that kept them dancing in and out of the vortex, like a magician who enters the maelstrom of a column of fire and exits unscathed.  Taylor incessantly emphasized the imperative, in Marmorstein’s words, “to play in such a way that they could leave room, make space, and listen to one another.”  Early on, he offered a lyric sequence at the piano, then asked each section to repeat it.  “Play it as soft as you can,” he told the saxophones.  “Tenors, think of Ben Webster.  Think of the breath.  Whoo-oosh. It should float.”  He distributed the next section, which began with a three-note sequence for the tenors followed by a three-note response by the strings, commenting, “This piece is rather rapid.  After all, that was pastoral.  This is FIRE.”

Attention to breath, the silence before the note, is crucial. As the ensemble worked through possible approaches to Section 10, Taylor gave a telling exhortation.  “After each sound you’ve got do this” — he inhaled — “so that each component becomes very clear.”  One sound is exploding out; the next time when you repeat it, it’s exploding in — in other words, it’s becoming softer.  We want to separate each quadrant, so that it doesn’t become a blur.  It’s the continuation of the piece.”

Occasionally Taylor would decline to demonstrate.  To a saxophonist who asked him to phrase a sequence, Taylor responded, “No, I’ve done that. It’s an emotion; you didn’t just walk into the room.”  But soon after, Taylor stated, “We’re going to change the mood,” and set up a rolling bass line reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” tossing it off on the left hand with flawless nonchalance.  Another time Taylor sang a four-note sequence and asked the group to play it twice.  “But I also want you to break up the rhythm,” he added.  “These notes are divided into different rhythmic registers, and that could be the basis of a whole improvisational…” Rather than complete his sentence, Taylor demonstrated five or six variations at half-speed.  “Anything is possible,” he said.  “Let’s try it.”
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By the day of the concert, Taylor had convinced the ensemble, now winnowed down to 30 members, that anything WAS possible.

Bruce Eisenbeil compared Taylor’s organic process of orchestrating, arranging and composing during the rehearsal, coping with the colors and timbres of every instrument in real time, to the way Duke Ellington would state a chord, play it on the piano, and begin assigning notes to specific members of the orchestra.  “Cecil’s musical vocabulary speaks of what’s going on today,” Eisenbeil said.  “His body of work is idiosyncratic to him, as the music of Ellington and Miles Davis is idiosyncratic to them.  As well as Xenakis, or Bartok, or Stravinsky.  Each has a unique sense of rhythm, full of life and urgency.  When he told the saxophones, ‘I want the breath tone; I want Ben Webster’ — that’s calling on the continuum!  That’s so key and central to what the jazz vocabulary is about.  Older musicians relate how Dizzy Gillespie taught them to play the new language of bebop fifty years ago.  This is what you get when you hang out with Cecil today.”

The ensemble’s cogent, flexible navigation through four Taylor constructs — the emotional landscape spanned signature Taylorian canned lightning bellows to achingly ruminative rubato elegies — showed in a way that the rehearsals could not foretell how deeply they internalized the maestro’s principles.  They played like an organic unit, with restraint, dynamic nuance, and idiomatic articulation; the brainy soloists conjured an array of rhythmic attacks, playing with concision and structural variation, always with the overall narrative in mind.

Perhaps the most startling “piece” was “Ka-Kaba”, a 45-minute masterpiece of tension-and-release.  Pianists Dan Marmorstein and Alex Tarampi stated the core melodic kernel, the horns and violins dialogued over a swelling ensemble tone that ascended to a joyful roar.  Elliott Levin and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh commenced a firebreathing passage which subsided, giving way to a delicate shakuhachi-like recorder solo.  The band clapped and hollered the syllable HA!! over entexturing violins and percussion; from the churning sound emerged a voice-like bass trombone statement.  The band roared the syllable SO!!, counterstated by flutes, vibraphone glisses, pizzicato violins, guitar sonics, sax-breaths, and synth tone-shapes — Levin’s solo brought the section to climax.  Poet Ulla Dydo chanted a Gertrude Stein-inspired poem (“Better and most and yes and yes, Yes and yes and more and yes”) complemented by synth, guitar, drum scrapes and clarinet microtones.  The roar swelled oceanically, was becalmed by precise pizzicato violins and pointillistic piano, then returned with a high-overtone horn ensemble interlude.  Clarinetist Kevin Sullivan floated over synth nachtmusik, John Keith’s malleted tom-toms gently underpinned a lissome bassoon-piano-bass trombone conversation.  Then Rosi Hertlein sang a piercing DRRAAA-HAAA; trumpeter Amir El Saffar answered the call.  She cried A-HA-HAA; the horn section, breathing as one, found a tonal analogue.  The full ensemble reiterated the original theme, decrescendoing until the recorder emerged from the depths to play free rubato melodies with the violins and guitar until nothing was left to say.

For another hour the ensemble conjured fire and air in equal measure over two more Taylor compositions; they left the stage to a well-earned ovation.  Before they could bask in the afterglow, Taylor abruptly strode to the piano, cellist Tristan Honsegger and trapsetter Jackson Krall in tow, to begin a furious fanfare.  Poet Naima Wade embarked on an impassioned recitative about slavery, miscegenation, and hegemony of the master race’s world view.   Honsegger responded with the dagger-like syllables “mata, mata, matamatika!!”, creating long, startling shapes, playing with such intensity that his bow began to shred, yet hitting the notes and tones with the spot-on articulation of a virtuoso.

He inspired Taylor, who may possess more ways of extracting sound from 88 keys and 3 pedals than any pianist in the world.  Playing as though his arms were attached to springs, he deployed an awesome lexicon of meticulously choreographed snatches, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, clips, slides, thrusts, plucks, punches, slaps, thumb glisses, and elbow crashes, each movement honed to micron-precise specificity.  As the poet referred to Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, Taylor answered with blindingly complex right-hand passages, riposting with exquisitely executed left-hand flurries.  Honsegger danced around the cello, Taylor laid down a stride figure, Honsegger stomped, chanted and bowed demonically and consonantly with his decomposing wand.  The poet sat.  Honsegger took a dark solo that turned into a Bartokian stomp, answered by more Taylorian variations, left hand completing long, ascending runs begun by the right.  Krall dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.

There was more.  The unit evoked rainfall, the forest, the sounds of creatures large and small.  They wound down with a collective rubato triologue, Honsegger miraculously conjuring music with his all but disintegrated bow, Taylor’s head cocked to the right, his vigilant left ear attuned to sounds that he might alchemize so as to extend this iteration of his singular ritual.

Indeed, Taylor evoked the mythic half-man, half-dragon persona of Keqrops, the Egyptian who founded Athens in 1600 B.C., whose name titled a composition that Xenakis wrote for Roger Woodward some years after the Taylor-Woodward concert in Huddersfield that Trudy Morse attended in 1987.  We thought of Tony Oxley’s delirious encomium, “To play with Cecil Taylor, you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a God!”

“There was a lot of intensive work during my three years with Cecil,” Ramsey Ameen had stated midway through the rehearsals.  “Now, twenty years later, I see a purification.  Cecil has cleared a path to reach the basic elements of music that go beyond all elements of style, that go to human expression.  Anything extraneous to that is irrelevant.  He’s talking about sound, volume levels, what the ensemble should play very precisely, what they should not play too stiffly, and so on.  I keep thinking I have to go back and read again the Herman Hesse book, Magister Ludi (The Music Master), a person who is constantly deepening into this state of musical grace.”

* * * *

Andrew Cyrille on Cecil (3-16-01):

TP:    Do you perceive any change in the way Cecil approaches music since Jimmy Lyons passed away, conceptually or emotionally or in his inclusiveness of other vocabularies?

CYRILLE:  I don’t know whether it’s changed really in terms of how he prepares.  When I played with him two or three years ago… It must have been ’99 I did that concert in Berlin which was a live recording in Berlin..  We rehearsed, and it was an open kind of improvisation.  I remember years ago… He probably still does this.  I haven’t worked with him since.  He would give out notes.  The last time I saw him giving out notes before a concert we did was in Austria probably in 1987 in Nickelsdorf.  He gave notes out to John Carter, Leroy Jenkins and Roberto Miranda, then later on in the evening we got together and performed the music he had given out.  The last time, Tristan Honsegger was the cellist and a bassist from Curacao whose name I can’t remember.  He lives in Holland.  Anyway, we had a rehearsal, but the rehearsal was based on how we listened to each other and how we would feed each with the music that we made on the spur of the moment.  We rehearsed for hours, I remember, that night.  Then the next day, when we got a good idea of what each other did or could do, then we went ahead and did the concert.

I can say this much.  I think that Cecil was very-very sharp.  His technique had just gotten much better.  He was much more comfortable.  He listened.  I remember he and I on occasion, when maybe the other two would lay out in a performance, we just had this dialogue, and we were having a great deal of fun.  It was magical in terms of what was going on.  Because what happens with us and that kind of music and improvisation, it’s really a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a conversation.  It’s almost like a game, so to speak, where certain things are put forth — certain sounds, certain ideas, certain rhythms, certain kinds of melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements.  It’s how we surprise each other with replies and the ability to continue to evolve within that kind of dialogue.  If anybody is listens closely, they can hear the creativity, the way that we spontaneously play and listen and create this music.  It’s just endless.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, we just go ahead and resolve it as though we’ve finished saying something to each other in some kind of conversational story.  There are so many parallels that can be thought about. It’s almost like a dance sometimes, where we can be inclined(?) with each other, and just move along and glide so easily.

But in order to do that, you’ve got to be on top of your game with your technique, what you want to do, and the other person has to be on top of their own technique.  But it’s a matter of being able to listen and to hear and to create with what’s being delivered.

TP:    Earlier you said that Cecil’s technique has become even better and sharper.  One thing I noticed at  this workshop was how many methods he has of eliciting sounds from the piano, the mechanics of how he does.  I found the following verbs to describe what he does with his arms and hands: snatches, hammers, fences, flutters, clips, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, slides, scrapes, thumb glisses, clusters, slaps, punches, plucks, spooling notes even…

CYRILLE:  That’s right.

TP:    All of those things, and all calibrated to micronic degrees of specificity.  Was he that specific in eliciting sound production 30 years ago, or was it a different quality?

CYRILLE:  No, it was the same.  We were all in a sense, moving in the same direction that way.  But I’d say we’ve gotten better at doing it.  The older you get, as is said, the wiser you’re supposed to be.  I know I’ve accumulated more information and I’ve been able to deliver more information in a wider variety of ways.  I know more about drumming now.  I feel more comfortable about drumming and what I did over the years than I did 20 or 30 years ago.  And the beautiful part of it is that I’m not finished.  I’m still learning and still evolving.

You made a very good analogy with the term fencing.  It was like, “Hey, we’re crossing the floor, and you back up and you thrust it forward, and sometimes you touch somebody and sometimes they touch you, and sometimes you knock the blow away, etc.  So all that can be considered sports-like or dance-like or maybe like a card game.  But it was just delightful!

TP:    Could I paraphrase that both you and Cecil have become more subtle players, more nuanced over the years?

CYRILLE:  I would say yes.  Because we’ve grown.  We’ve matured to some degree; to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to be able to create art.  There’s always a certain amount of effort that one has to put forth.  But the way that the effort is put forth is so much smoother.  And as you say, nuance.  Yes.  Listening to Akisakila, which we did in 1971, if I were to do it again, it would be so much different.  That was formidable, but now there’s so many other things happening.  We’re so much more confident with the language.

TP:    Did Cecil use the notation he uses now when you first met him?  Can you comment on how it evolved?

CYRILLE:  He uses the same method.  But for this particular concert, he did not give out any notes.

TP:    The way he presented the notes to the people in the group, they looked almost like graphic renderings of a dance.  They were like pictograms.  Is that the type of notation he was using 35 years ago?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  See, he gives out notes, and he has his own particular way of drawing the lines.  They may move in a number of different directions, going up, going down, for instance going straight-up vertically, on the other axis going horizontal… They’re like branches, in a sense.  This is how his compositions look.  So when he gives those notes out to the other instrumentalists, he will tell them whether they will be higher or lower or in the same register.  Then the individuals write down the notes that he’s giving, and they play the notes.  Interestingly enough, sometimes there may be unisons and then sometimes there are contrasting rhythmical lines, and sometimes the rhythmical lines are created by the players themselves with the notes.  See, sometimes he doesn’t necessarily give the rhythms.  He lets them decide their own rhythm with the notes that he gives.

TP:    Can you give me the short version of the story of how you first linked up?

CYRILLE:  It was so coincidental.  It was Ted Curson, with whom I went to a rehearsal he was having with Cecil at a school called Hartnett-New York.  This might have been ’57.  I was living in Brooklyn, and that same day I was rehearsing with another pianist named Leslie Braithwaite.  Ted and Harold Ousley heard the music from the street and came to investigate, and Leslie and I were about to wind down our playing for that afternoon, and Ted said he had to go to Manhattan to play with this piano player named Cecil Taylor.  He told me, “You’ve never heard anybody play piano like this guy; come over and check him out.”  So I went with him, and walked into the studio where Cecil was, and he was sitting down at the piano just playing.  Ted said, “This is Andrew Cyrille,” and Cecil looked up and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” and Ted asked him if I could play.  He said, “Yeah.”  So I sat down and started playing.  And to some degree, more or less, it’s like what we do now.  It’s kind of like what we did at the concert in Berlin.  It’s just that now I know, to some degree, what’s happening in terms of how he plays and how I would play with him.  When I first met him, it was a thing whereby you play and you wonder what is it that he would want.  Do I play the rhythms the way that I play with other people?  I guess that is part of it.  But nothing was said, except for the fact that we played with each other and it was something that we wound up exploring.

After that rehearsal, I knew a place up in Harlem… School closed, and I knew this club on Amsterdam Avenue that used to have jam sessions and was a place that had a piano trio with a guy named Cecil Young at night… I knew the bartender because I had gone there several times for sessions.  Cecil and I went up, I asked the guy if we could play, and he said, “Yeah.”  This was late afternoon.  I had a snare drum.  Cecil sat down at the piano and started playing, and I started playing with him.

That’s more or less how we met.  There was never any tension or conflict or, “Man, I don’t know what you’re doing.”  I was listening to him, trying to do what I could with what I heard him play, and I’m sure vice-versa.

As the years went by, after we had begun to play together on a consistent basis, he would say, “This is our music.”  And he meant “our” inclusively, in terms of me and Jimmy and whomever else was playing, because we were all creating the music at that particular moment.  So whatever we brought to the table was ours.  And putting it together, we got this whole.  Yes, of course, he gave us direction so far as allowing  us to do what we wanted to do within the context of the concept.  We would rehearse with each other, we would listen, rehearse, listen, rehearse.  We did a lot of that, days, hours upon hours, within that period of time.

TP:    Was it improvising or was he giving notes?

CYRILLE:  He was giving notes for the players who played those kind of diatonic notes.  But he never really told me to play anything.

TP:    How did it change your conception?

CYRILLE:  It opened me up..  It allowed me to try to play things that I had never played before, some new things.  When we had these rehearsals, in order to make sure that I’d play the same rhythms when he called a particular piece, I’d memorize what I played.  Those things, in a way, became how the heads were made.  It made me feel as though I was really responsible for whether or not this thing came off in terms of what I was adding as a drummer.  I’d say, “Is there anything you want me to play in particular?”  And I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, “Do this” or “Play five beats of this or give three beats of that” or whatever.  He’d say, “Man, you know what drummers do.  You’re the drummer.  You know how to play drums.”

So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  Because this was what was going on in my head.  I did not want to do anything to the tradition and the memory of those guys, and the people whom I learned from, listening to Max and Art and Philly Joe Jones, because it could be said that it wasn’t genuine, that it wasn’t blue-blood so to speak.  So I worked on that stuff, man!  I got my information together, and I brought my information to the table.  “Hey, man, look what I found now.  Check this out!  I worked on this.”  That was on every aspect of the drumset, with the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying, the way that the other members of the rhythm would accompany horn players…. But it was my own sense of how to do it.  It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms that they would play or the way that they would parse the rhythms or how they would organize the rhythms, etc.  But then again, it was!  It was the same but it was different.  Because  I played the same kind of drumset as most of those guys, and on occasion I’d play all kinds of percussion instruments, too.  It’s like when we did that recording, “Niggle Feugle,” for BYG.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test, you made a comment about Cecil with Tony Oxley which was very interesting.  When you play with Cecil, when Max Roach plays with Cecil, when Elvin plays with Cecil, you postulate very specific rhythmic ideas, there’s a counter-dialogue.  Another approach, which Sonny Murray did and Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley, is “matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm,” so there isn’t so much push-and-pull, but it’s more a unison or a synthesis.  Jackson Krall referred to it similarly.  Did your approach change a great deal once you were performing constantly with him?  Was there a difference between the rehearsal and the performance?

CYRILLE:  No.  It’s just that sometimes during the rehearsals, we would play some stuff that I wish would have been played during the performance.  Because it’s improvisation.  So sometimes certain things come to mind that are really gems, etc..  And a lot of times, what also has to be taken into consideration is the way you feel, the sound of the room, where the musicians are located in relationship to each other; in other words, where Honsegger was sitting, where this bass player was standing, where Cecil was, where I was…

TP:    Honsegger is something else.

CYRILLE:  Yes, Tristan is an excellent player.  But I heard Cecil a few years back when he did a solo in Paris, and at the same time the segue to the concert with a group he had that was Honsegger, Harri Sjostrom and Paul Lovens playing drums.  But the solo concert he played was just so magical!  I mean, he just played, and his command of what he was doing… It was almost like a laser beam!  He’d focus on something and he’d go after it and he get it!  It was so pliable!  And the place was packed, SRO, and it was in France.  The people were just enthralled with what he was doing, and then he danced in conjunction and spoke his words, etc.

What I’m saying is that years ago the ideas were there, and we went ahead and did what we wanted to do.  But as the years evolved… It’s like you’re cooking something, and you learn over the years how to make this thing come out and taste a certain way.  It’s like he was the master chef now.  You can put some stuff on the stove and say you’re going to experiment with this and sometimes it comes out beautifully and sometimes not so well and sometimes it’s a bomb.  But on this particular night, it was like he was the master chef, he knew just the exact ingredients to put into the food to make it come out being sumptuous.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the comment that when he was with Cecil, Cecil didn’t say much during the rehearsals.  He said he thought one reason why is because whenever the ensemble needed to know how to phrase a section, Jimmy Lyons would just play it, which would give everyone their cue.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    The implication might be, again, that absent Jimmy Lyons, Cecil had to become more inclusive.

CYRILLE:  That’s just what I was saying before in terms of a strong rhythmical player playing the certain notes.  When you say “phrasing,” what is phrasing?  It’s just make a rhythm out of what you have.  Jimmy Lyons was a master at doing that, because he and Cecil played together in combination longer than any other individuals.  He was with Cecil for 25 years.  That’s double the time I played with Cecil on a consistent basis.

It’s so good.  It feels so good.  Like, if I have to sit down and do something with a big band, whether it be Muhal or John Carter or Murray doing Ellington’s music, you know there are certain things you can do in order to bring the music to the level that it should be.  A certain amount of risk is always involved, but you mature and you bring the weight of that maturity with you.  So if I want to play “Northern Lights,” I do the rhythm with a certain amount of conviction.  It’s not that I’m timidly doing it because I wonder whether this is the right thing to do.  I’m doing it because I know this is the right thing to do!  So it’s the same parallel when I play with somebody like Cecil.  Hey, this is what we’re going to do right now, this is what I’m going to do…

The thing that Cecil also appreciates, which is also why he doesn’t say anything, is because he wants your talent to come forth to inspire him.  And when that happens, that’s when you have this beautiful dialogue where there’s laughter and all these elements of surprise that come up.  It makes you want to continue doing what you’re doing, because it’s evolving on such a high creative artistic level.  And you just don’t want to stop.  It’s fantastic what’s happening at the spur of the moment.  I heard that happen with Max to some degree when he played with Max at Macmillan Hall in 1979.  I haven’t heard him play with Max in duet again since.  And I haven’t heard him play with Elvin.  But all I’m saying is that you have these two giants of the drum coming with all of their artillery, the full weight…the bag of all the stuff, and knowing what’s in that bag and knowing what they can use, and they selectively use whatever they feel is apropos.  I feel the same way at this point.  And as far as I’m concerned, hey, let’s do some more.

TP:    How do you assess Cecil’s stature both in the music’s timeline and vis-a-vis people you’ve worked with, like John Carter or Muhal or Anthony Davis?

CYRILLE:  These people feel as though he is definitely a seminal figure.  He helped change the direction of this music.  Before Cecil, there were certain things that were not happening.  The expanse of the compositional arrangement… In other, it’s not like AABA (though that’s still a viable form, and people use it in many ways).  But the music moves in so  many different directions which aren’t necessarily limited by a prescribed traditional way of playing.  The way, again, he would give out notes and expect people to bring whatever it is that they did to the table.  This is where the weight of the sound, the creativity of his different bands, comes out.  Because he is giving these people the chance to play what they play juxtaposed to what he plays.  Like all those records for FMP with Bennink… He absorbs all of that, and they absorb him, and they juxtapose what they do in relationship.  Now, you can’t find a whole lot of people who would allow all of that on their bandstands and that they would want to deal with.  Then again, you have so many people now who say, “Well, this is the way it goes.  I can do this.  I can play duets with anybody.”  And that’s with anybody on the planet.  A man like Cecil has broadened the palette of technical possibilities — I’m talking about ways of doing things — that was not necessarily available outside of a certain kind of structural way that music had been made or had been produced before.  Another way of manufacturing it.

TP:    The people who played in this master class all paid 300 bucks, and everyone could play.  Some were more adept improvisers than others, but everyone had command of the instrument.  Jackson Krall said he thought that they had a certain focus he hadn’t seen in similar ensembles because they had paid money, and people left their egos at the door, so to speak.  But when I spoke with them how the experience of working with Cecil matched their preconception of who he was, a couple of them were coming at him from a jazz perspective, and seeing him as kind of the apotheosis of the jazz timeline, and others were fascinated with his relationship with European classical music and 20th Century music.  Do you see him as having achieved a sort of ultimate cultural synthesis.

CYRILLE:  I don’t know if I’d use the word “ultimate.”  But he’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country.  There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots.  I’m talking about Native American.  A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also.  Maybe somebody should ask him how much does he feel very close to this that he brings to the surface.  You talk about being integrated and being a true American.  It’s embodied in person like that — and many others also.  When you talk about the synthesis of Europeans and Africans and African-Americans in how all this stuff comes together… All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form.  We get information from that area also.  Africans don’t play the same kinds of chords that Europeans brought to the table of humanity.  They don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff.  That’s not in their vocabulary.  It may come out incidental, but there’s nothing in their vocabulary that says that, okay, now we’re going to play this kind of chord and use this kind of color or voice it like… All that stuff comes out of Europe.

The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling.  The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want.  We’re going to make it ours with what it is that you put on the table.  And it could be because maybe there’s nothing else available.  But we’re going to do it this way.  Then of course, there are other ways of manufacture of clothing by people from Africa, like the robes, free-flowing kinds of dress where you can have air that passes through because it might be a hot, arid place or whatever.  As far as I’m concerned, all of it is valid, because all of it is valid in terms of giving life to human beings in the place where they live — to stay alive!  So one can’t be more important than another.  You wouldn’t wear the same kind of clothes in Northern Europe that you would wear in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The same thing comes about more or less with the music.

All this makes me feel better about myself.  As you ask me these questions and I try to give you some good, qualified answers, it lets me know t some degree that I’m not crazy.  I have more students now than I have ever had who are coming to me, asking me about playing free.  So there has to be a certain kind of qualification and certain parameters.

TP:    I guess the paradox of the notion of musical freedom is the incredible discipline you have to have internalized to be able to do it.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  There is nothing free.  Not really.  Number one, you’re confined by the properties of the instrument you play.  But the reward comes out of finding things in that instrument that bring you to other places.  You say, “Wow, I can do this with the instrument.”  You listen to how you brought forth something you weren’t aware of that you can do with the instrument.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s the beauty of the creativity and the evolution.  Which certain kinds of methods don’t particularly allow you to do.  But within the forms of those methods, you can find certain elements that are magical also.  But you can go beyond that, too.  So for me, that has been the contribution of a person like Cecil Taylor.  I think it’s fantastic.

* * *

Tony Oxley (on Cecil Taylor) – (3-20-01):

TP:    I am interested in what CT has indicated is an aesthetic and personal evolution in the last fifteen years, and it may be that your tonal personality is the one he feels the most affinity towards.  So first: What was your first exposure to Cecil’s music?

OXLEY:  It was in the ’60s, of course, with the legendary records Conquistador and Unit Structures.  Of course, I heard something before that.  I think it was from Denmark.  I remember that showing up in the ’60s as well.  But I think you’ll appreciate that living in Britain at that time, it was not easy to get this music.  In fact, there were various people who worked on the Queen Mary who used to actually smuggle it back from New York — as well as equipment, American drums, Gretsch and stuff like that, which you couldn’t get here.

TP:     People in the ship bands?

OXLEY:  Yes.  So a lot of this early culture and contributions of Cecil… I mean, it would have wonderful to be able hear…. On the few occasions he was working in those days, it would have been wonderful to be able to hear this live.  but the real impact for me was Conquistador and Unit Structures.

TP:    You became interested in speculative improvising at an early period, before those records came out.  How did hearing that, if at all, affect the course of how you approach the drums and spontaneous composition?

OXLEY:  Well, I found it very refreshing, very optimistic.  For me personally… I can tell you that the people who were interested in that music in Britain who I knew used to use it as their standard-bearer, if you like.  If they were trying to inform anyone to what was happening in New York with Cecil’s music, those two records would be the thing they would be talking about.  Of course, people were starting to tape this stuff and send it to each other, because you could only get very few records.  So the impact of it for me… It was an alternative, you see, that was not exploited over here in Europe.  That really comes out of what went on before in New York, a continuation in some ways.  Very surprising.  For me, very different to Ornette Coleman, which was a bit more predictable, in a way.  The rhythmic elements in Cecil’s work had a lot more possibilities, in my opinion.  Ornette’s approach had quite a traditional rhythm moving behind it.  It was well-commented-on.  It was noticed over here.  But Cecil seemed to give the space in every direction for what seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, and the right way to go, and how to respond to the way he was working.  So I think there was a lot more openness in the rhythmic side of the music to match the harmonic side.

TP:    When you’re referring to the music as a continuation of what went on before, are you referring to Cecil’s immersion in Bud Powell and the jazz tradition, or are you talking about the early roots of jazz music in the U.S.?

OXLEY:  I don’t know if he comes out of Bud Powell in a direct line.  I wouldn’t like to speculate about that.  But I do know how much of an admirer of Thelonious Monk Cecil is.  And there might have been some kind of connection between what he does and Thelonious Monk.  Now, of course, that might seem ridiculous on first hearing — kind of the opposite.  But influence works in many ways, and it does not work in imitating, in my view.  The philosophy is the thing you learn from, not the imitation.  I would hesitate to recommend anyone imitating.  But that’s another question.

TP:    If I may go on a tangent, who are the drummers whose aesthetic philosophy you assimilated when you were developing?

OXLEY:  Of course, the big band era was very prominent when I was growing up.  So consequently, the big band drummers were very prominent in the public eye.  But for the more discriminating jazz listener who would be brave enough to look for small groups (because big bands really dominated the scene), I would have to say that, first of all, Art Blakey, and then Elvin Jones, and then Milford Graves in those plays were very influential in showing the real issues in American jazz music.

TP:    The real issues?

OXLEY:  Well ,the reality, if you like.  What was important and how to do it.  How they do it.  Because they were all different.  Roy Haynes was another very interesting player in my development for years.  Of course, we’re always developing.  We never really stop, I suppose.

TP:    Was your development entirely through listening to records, or were you ever able to witness any of these people in Britain?

OXLEY:  I did actually.  Because Norman Granz used to send shows with four or five bands in them around Europe, and fortunately, they showed up in Sheffield, where I lived.  So I was able to hear Monk and Blakey live during that period of time.  But it wasn’t very easy to anticipate what might be coming, because you’d have Ella Fitzgerald on the bill, then Monk or Blakey…a variety of music.  But never Cecil Taylor.

TP:    But also in the ’60s, around the time Conquistador comes out, you’re the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s.

OXLEY:  That was in ’66.  But in ’61 and ’62 and ’63, I did take some work, deputizing for the regular bands on the Queen Mary, and that meant three trips a year because there were three bands that needed to be deputized for.  Of course, on those trips, with the 36-hour turnaround in New York, that 36 hours was consumed entirely by chasing around, looking for the best music we could find.  So as a kind of pattern of activity, I would say to you that it would start in the late afternoon at the Metropole, listening to the Woody Herman Big Band.  The Metropole was just one long bar; the band was all strung out along one line, like washing.  There were mirrors on the opposite wall so they could see each other through the mirrors.  And people stood at the bar, so that meant you’d two yards away from the trumpet section.  That was unbelievable!  Lift you off your feet.  Then we’d move on to Birdland to hear Blakey.  Then we’d move on to the Vanguard and hear Bill Evans or Miles Davis.  Then we’d move to the Five Spot to hear the legendary quartet with Thelonious Monk.  So doing that three times a year, hoping that they would be there…  It wasn’t always Blakey at Birdland when we happened to be in town.  But at the best times we had, it was such a ritual as that.  And that was ’61-’62-’63, so quite early in my active professional life I was able to be exposed to some of the realities of New York at that time.

TP:    And I guess you were able to bring that sensibility back to what you were doing in England.

OXLEY:  Well, it couldn’t be ignored, could it.  It was a very dramatic experience for me, I must confess.

TP:    So in the ’60s you were able to function as both a straight-ahead, timekeeping drummer and as somebody interested in a more open-ended form of pulse and texture with the kit.

OXLEY:  Well, at the same time, I was very interested… In ’62-’63 I was starting to work with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars.  I’d previously been playing diatonically Classical music, i.e., Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Haydn, this kind of area.  I was in the Army, and this was the kind of thing we used to be doing…heh-heh, apart from other things.  Of course, when I came out of the Army, I continued my interest in what’s called Classical music, European Classical music.  So that interest transferred itself to 12-tone music.  So during this time, around ’63, I became very aware of Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and of course, that led to John Cage eventually.  So this was happening at the same time as hearing the developments in improvised music, i.e., Cecil Taylor-Bill Dixon, and my interest was continuing to develop in what’s called Classical music, only the second Viennese School.  So there were a lot of influences going on with me at that time.  And I was very hungry as well to hear it.  I suppose that might answer your question.

TP:    Between then and when you wind up playing with Cecil, it’s another two decades.  When were you first actually able to witness a performance by him?

OXLEY:  It would be in the ’70s at Ronnie Scott’s.  There was a production for a week at Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was included on the program with Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    The Fondation Maeght recordings are from ’69.

OXLEY:  It could have been.  The date I don’t know.  But it was in that area, and there was a whole week of television from Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was  the program with that quartet.  I think I’ve got a recording of it somewhere!

TP:    What was your impression?

OXLEY:  Well, I was more worried about how Cecil was going to find the piano.  Because the kinds of pianos that he needs…really they have to be in very good condition.  This has nothing other to do than that the way he approaches the music, the instrument has got to be in good shape.  And I wasn’t so sure about the piano at Ronnie Scott’s holding up!  We’re talking about the late ’60s now.  But from the musical point of view, of course, I was very happy to be there and hear what waas happening.  I remember speaking to Cecil, but of course he wouldn’t remember that.  Many people were saying “hello” and “how’s things” and how’s… I remember  asking him how was the piano.

So it was the ’70s when I first heard him live.  Then I don’t remember him coming to Britain… .The impact of playing with him in 1988 kind of obliterated any preconceptions I might have had about what the music that he might be playing… It was such an impact, that all my concentrations went onto that and not so much an historical view.

TP:    So in other words, it erased anything but the immediate moment of getting sound out.

OXLEY:  Absolutely.  I felt I needed all my concentration and effort, and to try to put out of my head anything that I’d heard him do with other people on record.  And the only records I had were those two that I mentioned.  I tried to put that out of my head in order to approach it with a cleaner palette.

TP:    Does playing with him demand new strategies and approaches on your instrument?

OXLEY:  The music speaks for itself, you know.  When you’re playing with Cecil Taylor, there is only one Cecil Taylor.  And when you become involved in the music, things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The best preparation I’d say is be fit and open your ears!

TP:    I’ve heard you quoted that you have to have the stamina of an athlete…

OXLEY:  …and the imagination of God! [LAUGHS] You can quote that, if you like.  Well, it’s just to give a sincere answer to a kind of general question, ,to bring it into some kind of perspective.  I think just recently, when we played in the Tonic, I think the power of his work and the power of his imagination was evident.  I thought it was best in ’88 anyway to try to approach it as prepared and unprepared as possible.  Let’s put it that way.  It’s a contradiction, but…

TP:    Over the years have you sustained that strategy of no-strategy?  Do you go into each performance with him with that blank slate?

OXLEY:  Well, I am fortunate, because I love to play with Cecil Taylor and I love to be with him — and so does my wife.  We actually are always together when we are with Cecil.

The joy…and believe me, that word is very, very important when I have to describe the experience of playing with Cecil… The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make the music go where you want it perhaps, or think it might go.  With Cecil you don’t have to have any of those worries.  There is always something happening.  So you can relax and have this experience of working… He has his language.  I have my language.  And we think, I hope…at least  I think that the compatibility is quite special.  That is one of the most important aspects to remember when you’re either listening or thinking about his music.  That’s about the best way I can describe it.

TP:    Can you discuss your philosophy of playing this music?  Do you have a philosophy of playing with Cecil Taylor?

OXLEY:  No.  As I say I don’t have a plan.  I think by whatever grace, whether it’s the grace of God or the grace of whoever, we actually came to the point where we play together.  Now, before that, I don’t know if he had heard  me.  I doubt it.  So I don’t think there’s any answers to this question in that direction.

But I will say to you that when I was growing up, leaving school, I was a steelworker in Sheffield, and I think that that environment, which I paid close attention to, not only listening, but physically it wasn’t, shall we say, something you wanted to jump out of bed to do every morning…but anyway, it had to be done… The sounds and the rhythms of that kind of environment, I’m pretty sure, had more influence on me than I have ever appreciated, and I am starting to think now that maybe that has quite a significant role to play in the way I work with percussion.  For the rest of it, we’ll wait for the book! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some of your interactions with Cecil are totally improvised and some would involve his notation, I imagine, with the larger ensemble perhaps.

OXLEY:  Not very often.

TP:    So you’re the wrong person to talk to about his notation..

OXLEY:  Of course, I’ve been quite close to Cecil since ’88, and I’ve seen him in situations with ensembles.  But to put it on a basic level, it would rather depend on the ensemble.  If people come along and they’re well aware of Cecil… Why would they be up there, I suppose, if they weren’t?  But if they come along with the right attitude and they want to be there…

TP:    Trudy Morse said that one reasons she’s very proactive in instigating these workshops is because she wants to introduce as many musicians as possible to Cecil’s notation.  And having seen a number of the sheets he was passing out, they’re graceful, poetic, dancelike…

OXLEY:  You’re talking about this last project, and of course it would be difficult for me to comment about that because I wasn’t there.

TP:    But there were people who had participated in projects of his from 1970 and 1973 who said that the notation was similar.  I thought you’d be interesting to ask about it because of your immersion in modernist classical music?

OXLEY:  It would be easier to talk to Cecil about that.  Have you tried to approach him about that question? [ETC.] Cecil is one of the most generous, sensitive people I know.  But it has to be respected that he also needs time to himself and he also has his way of dealing with a situation.  He works at his own pace.  But believe me, at the risk of repetition, he is one of the most generous and sensitive people I have ever had the privilege of working with and playing with.  So it’s nothing other than having to catch him at the right time.  Between you and me, when I’m ringing him, which is reasonably often, I can ring three or four times and not even get him on the phone, and the machine comes on, and I’ll leave him a message.  He has his own way of working, and that I respect 100 percent because he gives me the same freedom also.  If I’m not there, I’m not there.

TP:    Let me ask you one more question that I raised in the fax.  You addressed Cecil’s impact on the community of European improvisers in the ’60s.  I’m wondering how his intense interaction with that community in the last 15 years has affected the music in Europe.

OXLEY:  You mean personally or musically?

TP:    Both perhaps.

OXLEY:  It’s hard for me to speak for other people.  But of course, I am aware of the people who have worked with him over here in various things, particularly in that production for FMP, the box, which accounts for quite a few people.  I know quite a lot of them, and I know that the impact was quite surprising.  There are different drummers in the duets who show different ways of approaching the music.

TP:    More generally, can you describe the impact he’s had on the community?

OXLEY:  Different people have different views on it, as far as I can gather, and I would only be prepared to speak for myself on that.  Because people change their views.  And the views that I heard in ’88 would probably be very different now.

TP:    Without quoting anyone, can you tell me what views you heard in ’88?

OXLEY:  This time he spent in Berlin I think left a mark in history that will never be erased, in my view.  I think that’s about as much as I can say there.   Musically, it was absolutely phenomenal.  And after we finished…there were gigs being prepared even before he went there.

TP:    I looked at the website.  I counted 24 different gigs.  Not individual dates, but gigs of varying length between 1988 and 1991.

OXLEY:  Well, that’s only half of them that we did.  There’s a 10-CD production coming out from London which I expect will be called “The London Trios.”  If you think about that, that’s ten CDs, and go  back to the box and also go back to the productions Jost Gebers made outside of the box, which I think there are 7 CDs that I’m on… If you look at that amount of work and that amount of playing, it’s quite a phenomenal achievement, when you think about it.

[ETC.]

TP:    You used to use an enormous…

OXLEY:  A cowbell.

TP:    Well, not just a cowbell.  Your drumset incorporated things that normally wouldn’t be found.  Do you still have such an expansive tonal palette in your drumkit, or  have you pared it down?

OXLEY:  Well, I’ve cut it down, but not from when you heard it in Sweet Basil.  I cut it down from the late ’60s when I had electronics as well.  I actually devised a system of having live electronics with the kit, which there are some records around.  Pity you don’t know them..  But it’s an interesting way of working, and I found it great.  I worked with that until about ’78 or ’80.  If you’ve got February Papers… Some of Howard Riley’s recordings; I played the electronic stuff with his trio.  But anyway, around ’80 I gave up the electronics, and went back to playing acoustic entirely, and that’s the kit I used at Sweet Basil.  More or less.  You change a few things here and there, bring a few different things in.  If you have a sound you want to reproduce, then you have   to find a way of doing it.  If you have to make something, then you make it and then, of course, you add it to your language.

* * * *

Dan Marmorstein on Cecil Taylor (3-29-01):

TP:    A little of your personal history with Cecil.  Where did you first meet?  How did you become involved with his music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I first read about what Cecil was doing in the Leroi Jones book called “Black Music.”  I was largely living on the West Coast then when I was about 14 years old, so for me to read about this phenomenon of this kind of inferno of musical activity that was taking place largely on the East Coast fit in with my mindset, which was that nothing was really happening out there in the suburban West Coast, and I was looking for some kind of sanctum-sanctorum of energy and consciousness, which seemed to be being described in Jones’ book.  I went and got the records.  I guess the first record I got was Looking Ahead, which is still one of my absolute favorite records made by anybody at any time.

TP:    Were you playing piano at this time?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, I’ve always played around on the piano, and I’ve always been involved with the piano enough to feel comfortable on it, but never enough to really call myself a pianist.  That’s still largely the situation.  So my approach to all this stuff is as a composer.  I’ve basically taken the piano thing and written things for other people to play, even on my own releases with my music.

TP:    And was your interest in composition then beginning?  Did it begin with Cecil?  Did it begin before  Cecil?  Was Cecil tangential to it initially?

MARMORSTEIN:  Cecil’s music functioned more as a magnet for me to stay connected and close to the idea and process and activity of making music, whatever that may be, in the way that other things have operated on me as kind of magnets.  I would also call S. Balanchandra, the vina player from Madras, a kind of magnet.  I would also call the Grateful Dead a kind of magnet in the same way.  But in the field of let’s call it modern improvisational American Music, I’m closer to Cecil’s music than I am, for example, to Duke Ellington’s music or, for that matter, even bebop.  Cecil’s music speaks to me more directly in a certain way, and always has.

Starting with Looking Ahead was coming in on a good page.  I think from Looking Ahead I went to Conquistador, which I still think is a beautiful symphonic seance.  That’s what I would call it.  Both sides of it.  The last couple of years I acquired the CD where you have the alternate version of “With/Exit”.  And you can understand why they chose the one that they chose . But even hearing those characters try the same piece twice…things like that brought home to me how compositional Cecil’s music is.  You used the word “structuralist” in one of your questions, and that’s not a word I feel completely facile in using because I don’t know exactly what you meant.

TP:    I’m interested in the way Cecil puts his compositions together, and I thought you’d be the best person to discuss with among the people there.  Because you see the scores and you have a sense of his process and how one process links to another and you attended every one of the rehearsals.  How he presented the material, how the material was received, how the linkages came together, the psychology of the band.  I’m interested in your overview.

MARMORSTEIN:  I’m real qualified to talk about that.

TP:    I know.  First of all, tell me how you met Cecil.

MARMORSTEIN:  My meetings with Cecil as a member of the audience were numerous, before I actually met him personally.  He was already such an object of… There was so much admiration there that I was too shy to approach him or come up to him in several situations, even in several what I would call pretty close encounters.  One the more interesting of the encounters was… Is it okay to say things that I’m not sure if I want…

TP:    Anything you want off the record, just say so.

MARMORSTEIN:  One of the most interesting encounters was when I went to Duke Ellington’s funeral at St. John’s the Divine, which was packed with people, and various artists were performing from the pulpit.  There was no place to sit down.  I came in just as the funeral was starting.  Somewhere about ten minutes into the service, a woman stood up and left, and I decided to grab the seat.  I walked up several aisles in the apse of the church, and turned to the left, and I was about to sit down at the empty place I said to myself, “My God, that’s Cecil Taylor sitting there.”  So I sat next to him for the whole funeral.  And I knew from the things I’d read that for him Ellington was a kind of spiritual father.  So in no way, shape or form was I going to disturb him there.  Then when we left the church I managed to both evade him and take another street down and get away, but when I got on the subway to go downtown, he was on the subway also.  Then I ended up going on the same subway car with him, and we were alone in the subway car.  This would have been my chance to say, “Hey, you’re a big influence in my life.”  But the guy was coming from a funeral and I was coming from a funeral, and it just didn’t seem appropriate.

There were a couple of encounters like that.  Once a guy came to my college and we were going to take a ride to Montreal and Toronto, but on the way we were going to stop off at a little college in Vermont where his brother was teaching, which was Goddard College, and we got to Plainfield, Vermont, which… I’m from New York.  This is in the middle of nowhere, and there was this college, Goddard…oh, and by the way there was a concert there that night.  And who was playing?  Oh, yeah, some guy from New York named Cecil Taylor.  I actually think that concert was recorded and put out on a CD or a bootleg.  It was a stunning concert.  He played solo.  As I remember, there were 50 or 60 people in the audience.  A month later he came to my college, to the music department at Brandeis, and played for less than 50 people with Sirone and Andrew, and then they answered questions.  But Cecil got tired of the public quickly.  Somebody asked him a question, “What kind of musical cues do you give each other?”  Cecil didn’t like the question, and he got very upset at that question, and he let Andrew take over the rest of the question-and-answer session.  Andrew had a very direct and strong way of confronting the audience which impressed me very much.

So there were experiences and close encounters.  But then we have to cut about ten years later.  I was living in New York, and finally I asked somebody who I knew was in touch with him if it was possible to obtain the phone number and phone him.  And I did.  I introduced myself on the phone and told him I was calling him because I had started composing music fairly late in life, but I had been very influenced by his music since I was in my early teens, and I had always wanted to approach him and ask him if I could take a composition lesson with him — or several composition lessons with him.  He said to me, “I don’t give lessons.”  But he said it in a nice way, and we continued to talk for over an hour.  Then he said, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow at around 11 and we can continue this talk.”  I remember I somehow made a reference that I’d be coming over at about 11, but maybe I could stop into this place and some… Then I realized that he wasn’t asking me to come at 11 in the morning.  He was asking me to come at 11 at night! [LAUGHS]

So I came over at 11 that night, and we talked, and we must have talked for several hours.  Around 3 o’clock, he said to me, “Well, this piano piece that you told me about on the phone that you wrote, did you bring it with you?”  I said, “Actually I did.”  Even though he had said he wasn’t going to give me a lesson.  He said, “Can you play the piece yourself?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  He said, “Well, go in the room and play it.”  So he’s got this rather large piano.  I have basically a four-movement piano sonata, and I went in the other room and played it for him.  It took me about 50 minutes to play it.  Then I came back in the other room, and he was sitting there, and he began to talk about the piece.  And he spoke so directly and so insightfully and so analytically and constructively about the piece that it was the lesson that crystallized what I was doing up until that point and which I have continued to draw from since.

We became friends from that meeting, and I never broached the question of having lessons with him again since that.  As you know, Cecil is a guy…

TP:    You approach him at his own pace.

MARMORSTEIN:  He’s a guy who goes at his own pace. [LAUGHS] I’ll just agree with you on that.  And you have to catch it when you can.

TP:    So you’ve had a relationship since you were about 30.

MARMORSTEIN:  Right.  Since about February 1985.

TP:    Just so I get it straight: You are an American who lives in Denmark?

MARMORSTEIN:  I am an American.  I lived in America my whole life until 1982, when I moved to Holland, and lived in Holland for two years, and attended the Stedelink Conservatory and studied with Misha Mengelberg.   I was a guest student in the Improvisational Department.  At the end of that year I had kind of run out of gas in Holland on a lot of levels, especially… Well, that’s a whole other subject.  But then I moved back to New York to tank up, especially economically, and I lived there for a year during which I met Cecil.  I was able to pick up some teaching jobs.  Then the woman who I had when I was in Holland who lived in Denmark came to New York and had an art show there, then we lived together, and in the summer of 1985 I moved to Denmark.  And I’ve been here ever since.

So my contact with Cecil, during the time I’ve known him, has largely taken place when I’m in New York for anywhere between a week or two weeks or a month at a time.  Maybe I’ll see him once or twice.  Maybe I’ll see him more than that.  Very often I don’t see him at all.  I might phone him several times, or we get the machine — and you never get any clue whether he’s around and just not answering the call, or whether he’s out of town.  Since 1989, a lot of my meetings have actually taken place in Berlin.  He’s in Berlin a lot, and Berlin is close enough to Copenhagen.  I’ve been to Berlin to see him three or four times.

TP:    Did you witness the June ’88 event?

MARMORSTEIN:  I wasn’t there for any of the box, but I was there in ’90 when he played at the Bechstein Hall.  I think that concert recently came out on Free Music Productions.  Off the record, I don’t think Cecil is very pleased with the release of that, because I don’t think he authorized it.  That’s the Workshop Orchestra.  I was also there for a concert he played at the Berlin Opera House a year after that, in the summer of 1991.

This invitation to the workshop came as a thrilling surprise to me. I have a computer, it’s hooked up to the telephone, and who knows what’s going to happen?  Usually you turn the thing on, and it’s nothing but a lot of junk mail asking people to do this or do that.  But all of a sudden there was this letter that was forwarded to me from Trudy Morse that had been sent out by Bruce Eisenbeil about the workshop.  It was a very nice thing for Trudy to do.  I had met Trudy in Berlin a couple of times with Cecil.  I responded right away.  I guess first I emailed Trudy and said it sounded really good, and should I really  take this as an invitation.  Because to me this was like rubbing the magic lantern.   This is what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study composition with Cecil Taylor, and to be invited to participate in a master class like that.

So I emailed Bruce, who I’d never met, and said, “I’m not a skilled jazz pianist; I don’t play changes.  I’m not an expert classical pianist.  But that being said, if I am still welcome to participate in the workshop without taking up a place that would be better reserved for a more adept pianist, then I’m in..  I would love to do it.”

I remember Bruce’s response.  He said, “Thanks for your email..  I think you should come to this workshop.  You’ll have a blast and you’ll learn a lot.”

The workshop definitely lived up to that.  I had a great time and I learned a lot.  It was a pleasure.  There was one day when I think you weren’t there when Cecil got a little bit tight, and he kind of scared all of us!  But I think for the rest of it he was in a great mood, and I think he was very-very generous with all of us.

My impression is that he was writing the stuff the night before.  Maybe some of it was old stuff that he had lying about.  But he came in with veritable reams of composition.  I could see from what I could guess that… You can’t talk about pencil markings as being fresh; you can only talk about ink markings that way.  That was my sense, that the graphite was fresh on the paper.  He came in with this stuff day after day.   He brought in about ten compositions which we played….we rehearsed ten compositions over the course of the event, and played four at the concert.

The first day of the workshops, my recollection is that he didn’t give out any paper at all.  He dictated the tones to people.  If you weren’t ready with your pencil and your paper before he started talking and you weren’t 100 percent concentrated as he was talking, then you simply couldn’t keep up with the succession of tones.  He was dictating them really rapid-fire.  So I was actually able to get some of that stuff, and some of the other people in the class were able to get some of the stuff.  So what we were able to practice the first week was pretty much what we were able to get.

Then by the second class he came in and gave us a score, so we were able to look at the score and look at his way of thinking about tones.  There are certain  intervals that he likes.  There are certain links that he likes.  There are certain licks, especially in connection with octaves and how octaves are filled in.  One lick that seems to be quite prevalent in his music is something being voiced in octaves and…

[END OF SIDE]

…middle will stay where it is.  So a lick that turns up a lot in these scores is something like a C to the C above it, with the G in between, and then the C# to the C# above it, but then still with the G in between — or things like that.  Then maybe you’ll go up from the D to a D, and probably keep the G as a pedal tone.  There are a lot of sounds like that.

Also, as a pianist, it was interesting to see that a lot of the power of his playing and his melodic statements have to do with the fact that he simply plays these rather curlicued and very harmonically dense melodic lines, which don’t always follow a diatonic sequence of tones but a much more chromatic sequence of tones, but that these lines are played sometimes as octaves or as double-octaves or, in many cases, simply as triple octaves — Cecil is simply playing a melody over four octaves.  But of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano.  But that gives a color and a dimension.

The scores seem to be what I would call feels.  On the page of the scores, he has a group of anywhere between three or five or as many as ten, and sometimes he may stack sequences of lines, in which case you could have 25 or 30 different tones.  Quite frequently, more than one tone is described.  The way that music is transmitted to the musicians is that the musicians are basically being asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will.  But that being said, with Cecil being there, Cecil will often play the thing on the piano and expect that we can hear that that’s the way he wants it to sound.  And sometimes you can hear that, but sometimes if he plays it with his own floridness, it’s hard to hear the bare skeleton through this beautiful flower.  He’s asking us to sketch the daisy when actually what he’s done is given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the point that before Jimmy Lyons died, basically personnel took phrasing cues from Jimmy Lyons’ articulation of the melodies and lines, that Jimmy’s phrasing would tend to be the authoritative guidepost for the musicians.

MARMORSTEIN:  [ETC. ON JIMMY] I wasn’t around…

TP:    The essential issue with the orchestra seemed to be how to phrase this music and how to create a dynamic level that didn’t keep them in the middle of the fire, but enabled them to maybe go into the vortex and then skip out, and go in and out and in and out like a magician going into the center of a maelstrom of fire and coming out unscathed.

MARMORSTEIN:  I think in this workshop situation, Cecil was sitting back and listening quite a bit.  I think he wanted to hear to some extent how this music would sound in a large group of people, and his coaching of the group tended to be on the minimal side — unless he really felt that it had become messy and that people weren’t listening to each other.  His coaching largely consisted that people should play in such a way that they could leave room for each other, make space for each other, and listen to one another.  That was not always the case in the rehearsals.

The miracle of the concert for me, from where I was sitting, was that suddenly everybody seemed to be listening to each other, and suddenly these pieces really functioned as finished pieces.  Okay, maybe not recording studio quality, but interesting enough for people who hadn’t been part of the building-up process to sit and listen to it.  As you probably know, we didn’t know what we were going to play until just before we played before the public.

TP:    How do sections come together in Cecil’s music?  First, is his notation singular unto him?

MARMORSTEIN:  I’ve never seen it before in any other composer.  But the composer Glenn Spearman had charts which are the only things I’ve seen which look something like Cecil’s composition.  But I know Cecil was doing it before Glenn Spearman was.

TP:    As a composer and someone who is immersed in post-Webern European music, can you speak to the Cecil’s connections structurally and on a more metaphysical level to that music.  I mean, during our conversation he was talking a great deal about Xennakis.

MARMORSTEIN:  And I guess Xennakis died a few days later, on the same day as J.J. Johnson.  He did tell that story about Xennakis being kind to him the way he was.

TP:    Trudy met Cecil on a Xennakis festival. [ETC.] Obviously there are palpable connections.  Without your necessarily going into the details of how that concert was put together, I wonder if you see connections in their musical thinking.

MARMORSTEIN:  I certainly can hear connections in Xennakis’ music with Cecil’s stuff, to the extent that when I first heard Xennakis’ piano music,  I thought this was somebody who was trying to play like Cecil Taylor.  But when I mentioned this to Cecil, Cecil didn’t seem to be too thrilled about that kind of cross-comparison.  I think Cecil… I get this as much from what’s written in the Spellman book than actually talking about it at great length with Cecil.  I think Cecil’s attitude about compositional music that’s built around a system of any kind is…I think he tends to stay away from that.  I think he almost tends to eschew that….

TP:    Are you saying that he tends to stay away from the system or that he’s internalized the system so comprehensively that he is able to use that as a part of his improvising vocabulary without even thinking about it?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, yes, but that still wouldn’t be right, because I think by nature he avoids system.  He would avoid Serialism.  He would avoid any kind of licks stuff.  John Cage’s famous objection to the word “jazz,” as I remember it, is that…

TP:    He said it’s imprisoned by the beat.

MARMORSTEIN:  Did he?  I knew also that he said something about the fact that jazz players learn licks and then stick with that.  I think Cecil is trying in every which way to not be confined to his own shtick as such.  Yet, what I think he tries to do is cultivate a familiarity and an honesty about…you know, definite, clear, sort of subject-predicate-adjective sentences.  I think he tries to say things in music which can only be said through music, a la Schoenberg’s response to Webern’s music when he talked about the Bagatelles — that famous preface.  I guess that’s why I gravitate both to Cecil and to the Webern-Berg Schoenberg thing.  But whereas I would say Webern-Berg-Schoenberg were interested in positing systematization, especially Papa Schoenberg, I think Cecil is not interested in that.  He is not interested in creating a system.  He is not interested in creating a George Russell type theory.  Although I know he respects that thing.  I know he respects George Russell and what he has been doing, by and large.

That’s why it’s a funny thing to be in a workshop situation with Cecil. He doesn’t really want to teach his approach.  What he wants to do is motivate the participants to find their own poetry and their own way of getting started with this stuff.  I think what he wants his compositions to do is to get people to think about music as a process activity and not just a kind of finished product.  I think that’s his game.

I use the word “game” because to me the scores function a little bit like games.  You asked me how did we move from one field to the next.  Cecil gave various directives on that.  In one instance, he simply said, “When you feel that you’ve exhausted the material in one of these melodic sequence fields, when you feel that you’ve said it the way that you wanted to say it with as much variety as you can, especially rhythmic variety, then take a breath and move on.”  That was a very explicit instruction he gave.  Now, how do you translate that when you have 39 participants in the workshop, which had boiled down to about 30 by the time the concert rolled around.

That was funny paradox of the rehearsals at the concert, that for me during the rehearsals it never really-really jelled or was clear.  But somehow, when the public was sitting there, and people were forced to collectively in not an antagonistic us-against-them but in a cooperative us-and-them situation… When you have the performers and the public, you do have an us-and-them situation.  You have the people you’re playing with, and you also have people that you know are listening, who have taken cut these few hours out of their otherwise busy prime-time Saturday night and paid a their money, and you want to offer them something.  You’re not just playing for yourselves.  Now you’re playing for them.  And somehow, like magic, it worked.

Cecil turned to us literally five minutes before the public came in and he said, “Okay, we’re going to play this one and this one and this one and this one.”  Then shortly after that, he said to me, “The first piece is called ‘To be’ and the second piece is called ‘Ka’ and the third piece is called ‘Ka-Ba’ and the fourth piece…”  When he gave those names, that’s the first time I or anyone else had heard those names, and I think it’s the first time that they had names.   So I that the process wad done like that.  It was like finally the creator of the games decided that these four games were the ones that would work best together, and then he gave then names which gives the audience a chance to remember them.

So I’d say each one of the scores has an element of chess or a game of Go, where different variables happen in one area and different variables happen in another area.  In some scores, you’d play through the whole score and then there was a da capo, where you started again and went back to a certain point.  The link between the “Ka” and the “Ka-Ba” pieces, which was the second and the third piece, was something that maybe Cecil had in mind.  I guess he did bring those pieces in on the third day.  But we all could feel that it was a very natural progression from one piece to the other.  But otherwise, the pieces seemed to function as independent… And I use “games” on the highest level I could use the word.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s music is singular in the world of music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I think that’s definitely the case.  I don’t know any music that sounds like that except… I would say that as a pianist, Cecil is the next step from Thelonious Monk.  Also Duke Ellington, but certainly Thelonious Monk, in the same way that for me Eric Dolphy is the next step from Charlie Parker.  It’s a certain way of taking the predecessor, and expanding it and stretching it out and making it little more Gaudi-esque in its shape.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s absorption of architectural shape and form and structure influences the arc of his pieces.

MARMORSTEIN:  Absolutely.  That’s something you know if you talk with him for ten minutes.  And I absolutely think that ballet…dance in general, but for me, his interest in the Classical Ballet…

TP:    It’s like he’s dancing over the piano.  That’s what his gestures are like.

MARMORSTEIN:  His fingers are making the same kinds of leaps that the dancers make in space.  I’m sorry I never saw the duet he made with Baryshnikov.  Another thing that I think is super-important to him these days is singers and vocalists.  So I think we can’t really talk about his piano playing or his composition without talking about architecture, dance and singers, especially the jazz singers, or opera singers, or singers of any kind who have influenced him.  He’s got so many things coming into him.  He’s so hooked up to the outside world and he’s got so much input, that it comes out with this kaleidoscope of stuff which doesn’t sound, to my mind, like what anybody else is doing.  But sometimes, in terms of the internal intelligence and humor in the melodic sequences, you could say that his music is kind of Monkish.  I don’t think Cecil would take too much offense at that.

TP:     I kind of see him as a cross between Monk and Tatum.  I can’t think of any other pianist who ever had that kind of technique.  Of course, he admires Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, who are contemporaries of his.

Can you address Cecil’s relationship to the European improvisers community?  It sounds like you’re an interested observer in that scene, and I think one of the more interesting developments of the last 15 years is the mark Cecil has made on that community, and I think they’ve made quite an impact on him.

MARMORSTEIN:  That’s a tricky question.  I don’t know if I can come up with so much on the last one.  My impression is that Cecil misses some blues in the European music.  He misses some basic things that for him are essential in the music.  He misses some American Indian and he misses some Blues, which to me the European guys often don’t have.  My impression is that the European guys sometimes manifestly eschew it in their way.  They say, “We don’t want to just be like blues guys.  We want to come up with something all our own.”  Of the European guys, there’s quite a few of the drummers that he feels have something very important to offer.  I don’t know his feeling about the wind players and the pianists.

I think the impact Cecil has made on that community is enormous.  But in my opinion, the impact that community has made on Cecil is more social and humanitarian, in a certain way, than musical.  I think Cecil likes the respect and the fair treatment and the admiration that he gets in Europe, which pleases him.  But I don’t know how much of the music itself…

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For David Murray’s 57th Birthday, a Jazziz Article From 2007 and a DownBeat Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

David Murray turned 57 a few days ago; he’ll be in NYC next week to present his latest project, a big band collaboration with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a partner on various projects over the last 35 years. I’ve appended a feature piece that I wrote about Murray in 2008 for Jazziz, framed around the release of Banished, and also a Blindfold Test from the early ’00s.

* * *
“I’ve always been around poets,” said David Murray, in New York City in January to play the Knitting Factory with his quartet. “They bare their soul so much. When I get my hands on a good poem, I can see the music jumping off the page. The word is powerful.”

Recently arrived from his home in Paris, Murray was having a pre-gig dinner at Chez Josephine. The walls of the West 42nd Street bistro are festooned with photographs and memorabilia of Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer-chanteuse out of St. Louis, who sailed to Paris in 1925, at 18, and transformed herself into a staple of French popular culture. After the second world war, she adopted a dozen impoverished French orphans, one of them the proprietor, who reinforces a tone of soulful Francophilia, both with the menu — fried chicken and collard greens share pride of place with snails and bouillabaisse — and the entertainment, provided by an elderly black woman in her Sunday best singing to her own piano accompaniment and a woman of similar vintage blowing melodies and obbligatos on trumpet.

Murray and his pianist, Lafayette Gilchrist, sat near the piano, facing Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife and manager, and Jim West, who runs Justin Time Records, which recently issued Sacred Ground, Murray’s 10th release for the label. On Sacred Ground, Murray and his Black Saint Quartet stretch out on seven songs — on two, Cassandra Wilson sings lyrics by Ishmael Reed — that the leader wrote for the soundtrack of Banished. The PBS documentary film, which premiered in February, examines three towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas from which residents of African descent were forceably removed during the years after Reconstruction, and which remain lily-white today.

Banished is the most recently realized of an ambitious series of projects, all touching on Afro-diasporic themes, that Murray, 52, launched after he migrated from New York City to the City of Light in 1996 to join Malot, with whom he has two children. It follows Pushkin, a fully-staged quasi-opera, as yet unrecorded, on which Murray wrote a suite of songs to French, English, Creole, and Bantu translations of texts by the immortal Russian poet, himself the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince. During his dozen years of self-imposed exile, Murray, among other things, has composed big band and string music for Cuban ensembles, and created repertoire for bands comprised of musicians from Guadeloupe (CreoleYonn-de, and Gwotet, Senegal (Fo Deuk Revue), and the Black American Church (Speaking in Tongues). Later that evening at the Knitting Factory, he intended to touch base with poet Amiri Baraka, the librettist of “Sisyphus Syndrome,” scheduled to open on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, for which Murray had as yet completed only five of 15 songs. In two days, he would fly to Cuba, to audition a string ensemble to perform as-yet-to-be written arrangements for a proposed celebration of Nat “King” Cole with Cassandra Wilson.

After ordering the fried chicken, Murray took his glass of vin rouge to a quieter spot at the front of the bar. “Next week I’m going to be writing like crazy,” he said. “But the deadlines keep me motivated. It’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘If I want to get something finished, all I need is a deadline.’ But between Banished and Sisyphus, I have music to play with my quartet for the next two years.”

In the summer of 2006, Banished director Marco Williams, a Murray fan since the saxophonist’s New York glory days in the ’80s, contacted Malot about Murray’s availability and sent a two-hour rough cut to Paris. “He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to use me, but I forced myself upon him,” Murray said. “I stopped everything else I was doing, didn’t wait for nobody to give me no money, started writing songs, and had Valerie tape them and send them to him over the Internet.”

“It was a challenging process,” Williams relates. “David is not someone who’s going to write notes that hit a certain cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether the music was going to work or not. But I wanted a collaborator, not someone just to score the film. And it was completely evident that David got the movie, it meant something to him, and he wanted to express something. The music was so beautiful, so evocative. I told my editors, ‘We’ll just get all the stems, and cut down as needed.’”

“Basically, this is ethnic cleansing,” Murray elaborated. “You see that monster, you got to cut the head off. My way of trying to cut the head off was to send him tunes.”

Without much prodding, Murray revealed that the film’s particulars resonated with his own family’s experience.

“Most black people who know their family history talk about how they got ran off,” he said. “We don’t know the terms ‘banished’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We say, ‘We got ran off.’ When a town decides it don’t need you no more, that’s just how it is.” Murray cited his maternal grandfather, George Hackett, a sharecropper who went to Midland, Texas, and struck oil. “They ran him off the property, but he managed to sell his oil rights, and moved to California,” he said. “He was very enterprising. He went north to the Bay Area, but that was too far. A black man at that time couldn’t do nothing with the sea. Then he remembered he’d seen cotton in Fresno. He knew cotton, so he turned around to go where the produce was. He bought a block in Fresno, called Hackett Flats. It still has that name, and I own property on that plot.”

By Murray’s account, his paternal grandfather, a Nebraskan, was less fortunate, leaving his wife six months pregnant with Murray’s father when he fell from a scaffold in a gusting wind. Born in 1925 and full-grown in 1940, David Murray, Sr. hopped a train from Nebraska to Los Angeles, started a body and fender shop near Central Avenue, sent for his mother and older brother, and at 17, lied about his age and joined the Navy. Decommissioned in 1946, he moved to the Bay Area, tried out for the San Francisco 49ers, even joined the circus as an acrobat, but then returned to body-and-fender work, raised his family, and played guitar at church in a band with his wife, sons, and two nephews. Murray played bongos, but for one evening’s gathering, having just received an alto saxophone from his junior high school band director, Phil Hardiman, he brought his new possession.

“I didn’t know jack-shit, just squeaked and squawked,” he says. “I probably sounded a little like I do now, but now I actually know what I’m doing. It was like, ‘Wow, that young Murray is exuberant. He’s got a lot of energy.’ Then a couple of weeks later, ‘He’s starting to learn the songs now. Oh, yeah!’ I knew the melodies because my mother was always playing them. You can say that I am an on-the-job training type of guy.”

Physically mature like his father during high school, Murray, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, starred as a football tailback, got good grades, and earned money playing music. “I was always a leader,” he said. “From 13, I was bringing money home to give to my dad. We won a youth contest to play all the Shakey’s pizza parlors in the Bay Area. We had a gig every weekend for three years. We’d do any song, like ‘A Taste of Honey,’ and I’d improvise, not even knowing that I was playing jazz. Then I began to learn it. I’d heard Sonny Rollins play a solo saxophone concert at the Greek Theater, and he was a mighty influence. That’s when I started playing tenor. Later I had a funk group called the Notations of Soul, one of the tight bands in town. We played all the dances and proms. We played a lot of James Brown, of course. They started calling me ‘Murray-O,’ after Maceo Parker.”

During Murray’s teens, post-bop titans like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw settled in the Bay Area, but Murray — who was slowing down Coleman Hawkins LPs to 16 r.p.m to analyze his solos — opted for the freedom principle, particularly the high-intensity post-Coltrane direction emblemized by Albert Ayler, himself a son of the sanctified church with early R&B experience. On a tip from trombonist Ray Anderson, whom he met during a successful audition for a horn section, Murray matriculated at the University of California-Claremont, and spent the next few years refining his craft with the likes of Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Butch Morris, all regulars at informal sessions at the house of Stanley Crouch, then a playwright, poet, and professor on the Claremont faculty, and a  drummer under the sway of Sunny Murray.

In 1975, Murray moved to New York City, sharing a loft with Crouch over the Tin Palace, an ultra-hip bar on the Bowery.

“All my Dad said was, ‘Just go out there and make some money — you’ll get good,’” Murray said. He followed that advice, performing as a peer of such A-list outcat elders as Sunny Murray, Don Pullen, and Lester Bowie, as well as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett, his future partners in the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1979, he assembled an octet, hiring the likes of Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Henry Threadgill. As the ’80s progressed he gigged frequently with two quartets, one a boisterous harmolodic unit with Blood Ulmer, the other a quartet with hardcore jazz masters like pianist John Hicks, bassists Fred Hopkins and Ray Drummond, and the iconic drummers Edward Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille. He also led ad hoc encounters with Randy Weston, Jack DeJohnette, and Milford Graves, and conceived elaborate homages to such heroes as Hawkins and Paul Gonsalves.

“I figured out that I could actually call the best musicians in the world and they’d show up, that I’d have one of the best bands just by hiring the best rhythm sections,” Murray said. “They taught me how to play. But I became a man in the World Saxophone Quartet. I’d be saying too much about myself if I said I was their equal when we began. But after five years, my sound started getting bigger. Finally, I became their contemporary — and they let me know it.”

Murray attracted a worldwide fan base through the lyric swagger and raw edge of his tonal personality. He drew criticism from many ’80s “young lions,” who attacked him as a poseur, suggesting that his predisposition to blast off to the outer partials stemmed less from an independent aesthetic decision than insufficient grounding in the tropes of tradition. As Crouch, who had championed Murray during the ’70s, joined forces with Wynton Marsalis to establish the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut, Murray was unceremoniously deleted from the mainstream conversation. He recorded ever more prolifically, for multiple labels, and toured regularly with his various ensembles, but he was falling into a rut, and his rambunctious lifestyle was beginning to take a toll.

“I was troubled, and I needed to leave,” Murray recalls. “I had Paris in my sights.” For one thing, Paris was a magnet for African musicians. For another, Malot, who grew up in North Africa and whose sister’s husband, Klod Klavue, is a master Gwo-Ka drummer from Guadeloupe, understood — and through her booking and production experience was in a position to actualize — Murray’s desire “to get closer to my African roots and do a little personal research” on them by traveling to and performing with “groups of people in Senegal, in Ghana, in South Africa, in Cuba I’d met that I could relate to.”

“Jazz has the primal feeling of African drums and the sophistication of the city,” Murray says. “A primal force, like [drummer] Dudu Ndiaye Rose, brings very complex rhythms. I bring the harmonies and melodies. It  makes me want to play and sweat, like praising the Lord, going into a trance and getting back to roots. I’m trying to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

Today, Murray is less enamored with Paris than he once was. (“[The French] have an attitude that gets on your nerves.”) Nonetheless, Murray finds family life a sanctuary that provides space to think and focus, to work more systematically than the distractions of the New York City allowed.

“I used to put out five albums a year; now I put one out every year or 18 months,” he says. “I worked all the time and took pretty much any gig; now I take select gigs, maybe 120 concerts a year. I’m in Paris half the time, moving around the other half.  I’m not aligning myself with the avant-garde or the bebop, I’m just David Murray. I take my kids to school at 8:30, then I exercise, and I’m home at 9:30. I write until noon, and practice the rest of the day till 6, going through my books, trying to keep my chops up and my mind open. When a project comes up, I get very serious, and don’t study nobody else’s shit but mine. That will last for three months, and then there’s no project. Then I go back to my little everyday shit.”

He’s restless, though, and perhaps another journey is imminent.“One year I’m going to take my saxophone and go around the world myself,” he said. “I’ve got to do it soon, before I’m 55. What kind of music do people make in Tibet? What are people doing in India? I want to play with them.”

* * *

David Murray Blindfold Test:

1.    Charles Mingus, “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” (from “Live at Antibes,” Atlantic, 1960/1994), Mingus, bass, composer; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Ted Curson, tp.; Dannie Richmond, d. (5 stars)

That’s Mingus.  “Better Get It In Your Soul.”  I just love… I heard this on the radio in Paris the other day.  We were in a car.  Everybody said, “Who’s that guy back there?”  I said, “That’s Mingus.  He’s pushing the band on.”  He’s saying all kind of stuff.  We need people like this guy.  We need more people like him.  Is the trumpet player Lonnie Hillyer?  [It's not Lonnie Hillyer.]  Who’s that bald-headed guy, that trumpet player?  [Ted Curson.] That’s Ted!  I could be wrong, but I get the Clifford Jordan vibe from the tenor player. [No.] So it’s Ted Curson, Eric and…goddamn, who is it?  [Well, how did you like the saxophone player?] I loved him.  It wasn’t a long solo.  He was kind of breaking up there at the top, but I liked him.  And definitely it’s before the period when George came into the band.  It couldn’t have been him.  I’m trying to think of who was in that band, because I’ve never seen that band… [Should I tell you?] No, not yet.  Because I might come up with it.  [How would you describe his sound?] What’s the characteristic of his sound?  [Warm.  A little brittle at the top.  [Do you get a sense of where he's from?  Could you locate him geographically by his sound?] Texas. [You got it.] Texas.  I’m just trying to think who the heck it is.  What’s that tenor player…Red Conner? [No.  But this guy was under Red Conner.] Under Red Conner. [He heard that when he was young.  People say he sounded very close to Red Conner.] That’s a very good hint.  Under Red Conner.  And this guy is still around. [No, he died.] Oh, boy.  Texas.  Who’s from Texas.  He sounds like a few different people to me.  That’s why I thought it might have been Clifford, because of the way he started that solo.  Because Clifford always had that restraint, then you’d wait for him to bust it, then he finally busts it at the end.  To me, that’s Clifford.  When I was playing with the Mingus All Star Big Band on that record we did in Paris, I was sitting between Clifford and…who’s that alto player, that guy who’s riding on the horse… He did like one of them slick tunes.  I can’t remember his name.  He teaches at University of San Francisco. [Not John Handy.] Handy.  I was sitting between Clifford and Handy.  Damn, this guy is dead, huh? [For many years.] From Texas.  The only guy he sounds like to me… [AFTER] Goddammit.  I love Booker.  Man, I love him.  I should have got that. {How about the Mingus band?  Did it have an impact on you?] I heard that a lot.  In fact, that… [Your octet reminds me of that sort of feeling.] Sure, of course.  Because I love Mingus’ music.  My son is named Mingus!  That kind of explains things, too.  Just having those three horns or however many horns he’s got, and me having five horns, you get a balance… You could go many ways, especially if you have at least five horns up there.  It could go so many different ways.  Mingus taught me that, how you could try to make a small or middle sized band sound sometimes like a big band, sometimes like a small group, have that flexibility.  Booker Ervin, what a beautiful player. [You have to give stars.] On a recording like this, it’s stood the test of time.  It’s got to be a 5.  Of course.

2.    Charles Lloyd, “Homage” (from “Voice In The Night,” ECM, 1998), Lloyd, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. (4 stars)

He’s got that Trane thing happening.  Coltrane influenced a lot of people, man.  The guitar, that’s interesting.  I wasn’t expecting the guitar.  Man, there was like a budding genius… I forget his name.  He played tenor and guitar and piano.  Remember that guy?  He died. [Arthur Rhames.] Arthur Rhames. [It's not him, though.] But he had Trane down, though.  Is tenor his only instrument? [He plays flute, soprano, but primarily tenor.] Wow.  [He was very well known thirty years ago.] Is he still alive? [He's still alive.  This is a recent record.] This guy did an album of Billy Strayhorn… [Oh, Joe Henderson.  It's not Joe.] It don’t sound like Joe. You got me on this Bay Area thing, though.  Who the hell was this… I got out of the Bay Area so fast.  As soon as I got out of high school, I was gone. [Should I tell you?] No, let me hear it out. [You might want to think about who the drummer is, too.] [MIMICKING THE STROKES] Sounds like Billy Higgins.  [It's a studio band, though they did tour.] He just loved Coltrane, whoever the hell he is!  But everybody loved Coltrane when I was growing up. [Where does he sound like he's from?] Is this guy really old? [Not really old? [Not really old.  The generation right before us.] Who’s this tenor player, he plays a lot in the studio… He had the same piano teacher who I studied with.  He’s from the Bay Area, but he wouldn’t be the next generation before us.  He would be 25 years before me.  But he doesn’t sound like him.  Tell me. [AFTER] Charles Lloyd!  That’s Charles.  He had that Trane thing down.  I love Charles Lloyd. I guess he was in the Bay Area, but I always thought he was hanging out in L.A.  Yeah, that’s the second time I’ve been stumped by Charles Lloyd.  They played a piece for me in Japan one time, and all I could think of was John Coltrane.  But that lets you know how well he absorbed the Coltrane legacy.  He doesn’t necessarily sound like Coltrane that much now.  But during that period he was certainly all over. [Well, that was the one piece on the album that was in Coltrane's style.  How many stars?] I’d have to give it at least 4 stars, because Billy’s back there playing and boppin’, and I’ll leave off one for creativity perhaps.  How can I say it… Coltrane is such a large figure that… Can’t nobody do it like Coltrane.  I don’t care who you are.  That’s why, in my explorations of Coltrane, I tried to stay away from trying to sound like him, because that’s too easy.  All the notes are written somewhere.  When he studied Coltrane, I’m sure he absorbed it mostly from the records.  In old times, you could slow it down and put it on 16 and get the solo, and then speed it back up.  But now you’ve got all these Coltrane transcriptions.  I have a book over here with all of the different versions of “Giant Steps,” transcriptions of just “Giant Steps”…

3.    Michael Brecker, “Freedom of Expression” (from Milton Cardona, “Cambucha,” American Clave, 1999), Michael Brecker, ts; Milton Cardona, shekeres, doo-wop vocals; Sergio Cardona, percussion (bells). (3½ stars)

Doo-wop with like the shekere, an African kind of thing — that’s nice!  That’s creative.  I want the tenor player to play more.  When was the recording made? ['99.] My first reaction would be… I know it’s not James Carter.  What’s that guy?  Who are some of the new guys… Whoever it is, they like me.  I mean, I don’t know if they LIKE me, but they’re influenced by me. [That's questionable.] Well, I hear it.  [This guy is older than us.] Well, then it is questionable. [And he was very prominent when you came to New York.  Although in a different area.  Do you know who the shekere player was?] He’s an old guy.  Chief Bey. It sounds like him on those shiko drums, that low drum.  Can you play it again for me? It was so sparse, I could never get a fluidity thing. [I think that was in the arrangement.] Probably so. [Because it wasn't his arrangement.  He was playing someone else's concept.  I'll give you a hint.  This is a Kip Hanrahan project, and Milton Cardona is playing shekere.] Oh, Milton, yeah!  He has a strident kind of tone; maybe it’s the recording.  Is this guy alive? [Oh yeah.] [AFTER] I would have never got that.  I like Michael Brecker.  He can play his ass off.  But it’s not something that I listen to often. [I was playing that because you've done so many things with African rhythms.] It’s interesting.  I like the doo-wop part of it.  He always comes up with good ideas. [It was Milton Cardona's project, and they used him.] I’ve never consciously listened to Michael other than I used to hear him play sometimes at Seventh Avenue South through the wall, because I used to live through the wall there.  I like him, but I would never have named him.  3½ stars.

4.    Von Freeman, “Solitude” (from “Never Let Me Go,” Steeplechase, 1992), Freeman, ts.; Jodie Christian, piano; Eddie DeHaas, bass; Wilbur Campbell, drums. (5 stars)

Ah, this is “Solitude.”  He has a nice touch.  Is he from Chicago? [Yes, he is.] Sounds like Von to me.  You know, that motherfucker is so bad.  I was in a bar… He plays at the Apartment Lounge I think every Tuesday night or whichever night of the week.  But whenever I’m there, it’s a must to go hear Von, because he’s one of the last great tenor players.  See, I have a problem in general with… Certain people’s sounds stick in your head, because it really is their own.  That’s probably why I got this one and didn’t get the others.  I hear parts of people in other people’s sounds, but I hear pure Von.  That’s him, man.  He’s great.  It’s just the way that people from Chicago play.  When you hear Johnny Griffin, there’s a certain kind of distinctiveness between the beat.  He’s going to fit as many notes, but it’s the way he lands that makes you know it’s him. [SINGS SUPERSONIC GRIFFIN PHRASE] Damn!  How’d you get all those notes in that couple of beats there.  Incredible.  I’ll give that 5 stars for being Von, for all of the things he’s done and all of the people he has influenced, including his son, who is also great.

5.    Charles Gayle, “Touchin’ on Trane, Part B” (from “Touchin’ on Trane,” FMP, 1991), Gayle, ts.; William Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums.

Sounds like Frank Wright.  Is it that guy who used to play with Cecil?  You know the guy who does those festivals… [William Parker.] Is that William?  [Yes, that's William.] [AFTER RAISING HIS EYES] I keep making these facial expressions because… Maybe it’s David Ware or somebody.  I don’t know.  [Not David Ware.] I don’t want to be negative, but I… Let me not be negative. [Be constructive.] What’s that guy that used to be homeless? [Charles Gayle.  That's who it is.] He wears a clown suit sometimes.  In Europe, Sunny Murray did a gig with him, and he said he was wearing a clown suit.  There’s a struggle that you can do when you play with your horn.  When it’s not really relaxed, it sounds like you’re fighting your horn or something like that.  That’s why I keep grimacing, is because I’m not hearing the fluidity.  But what I do hear, I like the mood of the piece.  I like what William Parker is doing.  Let me think about who the drummer is now.  It’s somebody I played with.  That’s Andrew, it sounds like. [No.] I don’t know. [It's Rashied Ali.] Rashied, okay.  It’s hard to tell who’s playing when they play brushes.  He knows how to play the brushes.  I’ve got to give it 3 stars.

6.    Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge” (from “Ben Webster with Strings,” Verve, 1954/1995), Ben Webster, ts; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arr.) (5 stars)

That beautiful string arrangement that Billy did.  You know, I did a string arrangement kind of based on his string arrangements when I did the Ellington thing this past summer.  We had a big band, plus we had 20 strings with 2 harps.  So I kind of listened to what Billy had done with the arrangement he did for Ben. It’s beautiful, so I took that and tried to add to it.  I had 20 strings.  He only had a couple.  But it sounded like a lot of strings; it sounded great.  That’s the way the saxophone is supposed to be played.  There’s no struggle.  It’s like he’s having a conversation with you.  Now, in the Billy Strayhorn book, he said that Ben was kind of proud of Billy, and he kind of took care of him like a little… I can see that happening, because he LOVED him, because he knew how great he was.  They appreciated one another for their music.  That’s what I aspire to be. [LAUGHS] I want to be just like that when I grow up.  Shit, man, this is pure music.  And it’s not the genre even.  No, it’s not the genre.  Like, the last thing… Well, I don’t want to go back.  They could have been playing anything.  But it’s just the way that you hold that horn, the way you use it as your form of expression, it’s almost like you love it… Do you love it, or is it just a piece, a thing that you use to spit through?  Do you love it?  He loves that horn!  Shit.  I don’t know if you were around when I did that string concert at the Public Theater years ago.  I did all ballads.  I think I had 14 strings.  That was one of my most successful concerts, because people were actually weeping in the concert.  I wasn’t weeping, but I had a little funny reaction, and then a couple of years after that this family comes up to me on the street and there’s this little baby, and they said, “You know, we have to thank you, because our son was conceived that night you played this concert; it made us really fall in love.”  I did my job!  To me that was the highest compliment that anybody ever paid.  And Ben and Bird with Strings… Every saxophone player has to realize his potential in playing in front of the strings.  I think it’s a wonderful. [So I don't need to ask you how many stars for that.] Oh, man, if they could give more stars, they could give him the tip-top.  That one stood the test of time, jack!

7.    Eric Alexander, “Straight Street” (from “Solid,” Milestone, 1998), Alexander, ts; John Hicks, piano; George Mraz, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. (4 stars)

This is a classic recording.  This is the one, right?  Oh, it’s a remake of it!  Oh, they got my piano player.  That’s John Hicks, for sure.  It sounds like Ray, too.  Wait.  No, that’s not Ray.  Hell, no.  He’d kill me!  Let me put my thinking cap on.  I like this one. [LAUGHS] Is that Curtis Lundy? [No.] I like his sound.  He sounds a younger guy, but with that old sound.  Whoever it is, he’s got it down.  I can’t say I know who he is.  I could take a wild guess, though.  When was this recording made? ['98.] Who are some younger tenor players?  I don’t really know who’s around. [AFTER] He sounds really good.  He sounds excellent.  I’d give it 4 stars, because it’s a remake of a legend.  I’d give it 5 if it were the real thing.  But John Hicks gets 5 stars for just being John Hicks, man!

8.    Sonny Rollins, “Cabin In The Sky” (from, “Plus 3,” Milestone, 1995),  Rollins, ts; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, el. bass; Jack deJohnette, drums. 3½ stars.

I know this guy.  I don’t want to be stupid too soon.  I think I have a good idea already who it is.  It’s not who I thought it was at first.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but he is a contemporary of mine, this guy… No? [He's older than you by a fair piece.] Is he living? [He is living.] It’s Sonny Rollins when he was going through his teeth problems.  That’s  what it sounds like.  He’s going through his teeth problem.  Because it ain’t CLASSIC Sonny.  Ah, how can I say this without being negative to Sonny.  It just sounds like he’s dealing with serious dental problems.  Let’s talk about it.  Let me say something different.  Sonny Rollins, but… Let’s just say it’s not the period of Sonny Rollins that I really, really am fond of.  I think Sonny Rollins… Sonny is such a… That’s why I was grimacing during that.  Because when you play tenor, when it’s a struggle to play certain notes for somebody that great, you know there’s something physical going on.  You can tell.  Because some of the notes that he was struggling with, somebody with regular dental work wouldn’t have.  So it probably was during the period of time when something like that was happening.  Well, I loved it!  It’s Sonny Rollins.  I love Sonny Rollins.  I mean, I love him for being Sonny Rollins.  That’s not one of his best recordings, I would say.  3½ stars.  He’s going to kill me.

9.    Sam Rivers/Tony Hymas, “Glimpse” (from “Winter Garden,” NATO, 1998), Rivers, tenor sax; Hymas, piano. (5 stars)

Whoever this is, they have a very nice sound.  You know, the saxophone is the kind of instrument, when it buzzes, you know you’ve got something.  When you don’t hear that buzz, you get a flat sound.  It’s too straight.  This horn has got a buzz.  It’s alive.  He knows his horn.  Now let me figure out who it is.  Is he from this continent? [Yes.] I like the tune.  It’s beautiful. [The saxophone player wrote it.] It’s great.  He’s a good writer.  It’s got that real international kind of sound.  I’m not quite sure who it is. [He was also very prominent in your scene when you got to New York, and he was already in it.] Oh.  In my scene.  [Or parallel.  And he's old enough to be your father.] Okay. [And you'll kick yourself if you don't know who it is.] I will kick myself.  Who’s the brother who teaches in upstate New York… [Not him.] Play me a little more.  I don’t want to be kicked by myself.  I love it.  Whoever it is, I really dig it. [PLAY "Impulse"] My father is almost 75 years. [That's how old he was when he made this.] Incredible.  Is it Sam Rivers?  He’s the only guy it could be!  Sam Rivers is such a great person.  He gave me my first gig in New York.  It sounded like somebody who just knew… He’s probably forgotten more shit than most people know.  It sounded like somebody like that.  It really helped this other tune.  I may have never gotten it with just that ballad.  That’s a beautiful song.  You know when you hear a song and it sounds like it doesn’t matter what year it was made… [It's like Classical music.] Yeah, it’s like Classical music.  It’s always going on.  You could sing it in a different language, and it will still work. [Why did you ask if the saxophone player was from this continent?] Because at first it sounded like somebody from Brazil, like what somebody Ivo Perelman might do.  I like Ivo.  But then as it went on, it sounded like somebody more mature who has been through generations.  And when you said he was old enough to be my father and you put on the faster song, I could hear Sam’s rhythms.  Rhythmically, Sam has a different kind of expression because he’s been through so much, I guess.  His rhythm is not like Sonny Rollins, where it’s like BOM-BOM, right on your head, the way he attacks.  He’s snake-like; he kind of slides through.  But he’s got that sound.  God bless Sam Rivers, man.  I hope he lives to be 100.  I’d give that tune 5 stars.

10.    David Sanchez, “Lamento Borincano” (from “Obsesión,” Columbia, 1998), Sanchez, tenor sax; Edsel Gomez, piano; John Benitez, bass; Adam Cruz, drums; Richie flores, Pernell Saturnino, percussion.  (4 stars).

Is it a recent recording? [Yes.] Everybody loves Coltrane, man!  He’s probably the most quoted tenor player since Bird, I guess.  I take it these are Spanish musicians. [Hispanic-American, U.S.-based.  But mostly from Puerto Rico.] I’ll just take a guess that it’s David Sanchez or somebody like that.  One time this guy had a funny idea to do a Three Davids –  David Murray, David Sanchez and  Fathead! It was funny, man.  People run out of themes sometimes.  So we did this thing.  And it was nice.  We did it with an organ player.  I kind of remember his sound from there.  I kind of like David Sanchez.  He’s still young.  He’s got a ways to go.  But he’s going to be one of the great ones.  I think in about two years he’ll be where he wants to be.  It takes time to be… You’re thrown in there, and there’s this big fray in New York, and they expect you to be great already.  And I’m sorry, it just doesn’t… I didn’t get my own sound til I was about 28, and I feel like I got it early. [So you feel you didn't get your own sound until about '83-'84.] Something like that.  I had to absorb all this stuff around me, people saying this about me, they’re writing about, “Oh yeah, you’re the next blah-blah-blah.”  What the hell, I don’t know, man.  I’m trying to play my horn.  So David Sanchez, he’s getting a lot of recognition, but at the same time, this is a young man.  Give the guy a chance to develop.  He’ll be good.  I’ll give it 4 stars.

11.    Paul Gonsalves/Sonny Stitt, “Perdido” (from “Salt and Pepper,” Impulse, 1963/1997) Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt ts; Hank Jones, p.; Milt Hinton, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. (4½ stars)

It’s two tenor players.  Paul sounds different than before he really got plastered! [You think this is before or after?] This is before.  When he gets really plastered… Here I am going negative again.  But before he’s really libated…he slips and slides even more when he… Before that, he sounds more like a normal tenor player.  You know what I’m saying?  when he plays his little figures.  But when he gets plastered, he sounds like he’s in his own zone.  And I hate to say it for the youngsters, but the guy sounds good when he’s plastered! [LAUGHS] I don’t know!  It’s like no abandon, just pure… I love Paul.  He’s my favorite tenor player, man.  This is definitely pre.  He seems pretty sober here. [Then you have to figure out the other one.] Let me see who’s in the right here.  Paul is in the left.  This is like a separate recording from an Ellington project.  This is not an Ellington project at all.  They both sound wonderful.  That’s all I know.  He’s not an Ellington tenor player. [No.] Not at all. [Not at all.] This is from a whole nother zone. [He had his career as a hired gun.] Okay!  With the correctness of the way he plays, it sounds like it could only be Sonny Stitt.  What comes to mind is the Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt thing with Dizzy where they both play their ass off, then Dizzy ends up smokin’ them both!  You’re not going to find two better tenor players on the planet anywhere than Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Stitt. [Any idea who the piano player is?] Let me hone in.  Is he alive? {The piano player is alive.  He’s an elderly guy now, but this was 40 years ago.] [AFTER] I couldn’t really get his left hand, but I should have figured that was Hank Jones.  I played with Hank once in a tenor battle in 1978 at the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Hague.  It was Archie Shepp, Lockjaw, Fathead.  Hank Mobley got sick and I took his place.  Illinois Jacquet was running the session.  Hank Jones was on piano and Max Roach on drums and Wilbur Little on bass.  That’s when everybody in Europe recognized me and said I hung pretty good with the old guys.  So that was my moment.  I’d say 4½ stars for this, only because I’ve heard Paul play better, I guess maybe for the reasons I mentioned!  I don’t know why.  But it passed the test of time again.

12.    Branford Marsalis, “Attainment” (from Jeff Watts, “Citizen Tain,” Columbia, 1998), Marsalis, ts; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Watts, drums. (5 stars)

Is it one drummer?  I like the tone of the sax player.  I’m waiting for them to get into it.  It’s nice how they got into it finally, like a lilt kind of.  [4 minutes.] I’m not quite sure who this is, but the spirituality of it is something that I can sort of relate to.  Is this a young player, or an older one? [A little younger than you; not too much.] Sounds good, though. [He's someone you have encountered over the years.  You've had a dialogue.] A word dialogue? [I just mean a dialogue.] Oh, a dialogue.  That sounds good to me.  You mean we played together. [I'm just going to say you had a dialogue!] Okay, man.  I’m trying to figure out… It sounds familiar.  Somebody that I know.  Geez… It’s not Chico.  [Okay, you played together.] I’m trying to think what tenor players I played with.  A tenor player that I played with and is younger than me.  [Not that much younger, but definitely affiliated with a different generation than you.] Branford Marsalis.  He sounds good, man.  The spirituality comes through.  It sounds good! [So you can probably figure who the other guys were.] I guess with his band perhaps.  Jeff Tain and the brother who just passed away, Kenny Kirkland.  It was a very nice piece.  I’m impressed.  We encounter one another in Europe all the time.  He’s playing a lot of soprano.  He don’t play tenor that much on the gig.  But I admire him.  He’s a great player.  I’ll give that 5 stars because the spirituality is there, and you feel something. [That was Tain's record, not Branford..] Tain did a good record, then.  God bless him.

13.    Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth” (from “From The Soul,” Blue Note, 1991), Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. (4 stars)

It kind of sounds like Dewey. [Dewey's influenced an aspect of his playing.] Dewey’s son. [No, it's not Joshua.] Okay.  He definitely likes Dewey.  But he sounds good.  I like the composition… [Who's the drummer?] I wasn’t even listening for that.  Give me a few more minutes, a little glimpse of the drummer.  I’ll play you the one before, a duo. [PLAY "Modern Man."] It’s definitely not Dewey now.  He sounds completely different now to me. Is it a recent recording? [1991] I think I need a clue. [The saxophone player has become very prominent in this decade.  This was a sort of breakthrough recording for him.  And he's a year or two older than you.] Oh, that’s great.  Gee.  A year or two older than me.  It’s not Don Braden or someone like that.  I don’t know who it is. [AFTER] Oh, I know Joe.  I should have known that.  I don’t really know his sound.  He sounds good, though.  I’ve seen him over in Holland; we were hanging out in Amsterdam.  I don’t really know his sound, so I probably would have never guessed that. [Who's the drummer?  Do you know?] [AFTER] That’s Blackwell?  No shit.  4 stars.

14.    Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (“In All Languages,” Verve, 1987/1997).  Coleman, tenor sax; Don Cherry, tp.; Charlie Haden, b.; Billy Higgins, drums.

It sounds like they’re out of the Ornette Coleman school.  Which is a great school.  Sounds like Dewey to me.  Is that Dewey? [No.] That’s Ornette on tenor!  No wonder it’s out of the Ornette school! [LAUGHS] There’s one note Ornette always play when he plays tenor.  He plays like he’s playing alto, and it just hits that note!  I think he can play any saxophone.  But I’d like to hear him play baritone one day.  He probably could play the shit out of that, too.  People have to recognize that there are… If we’re lucky enough while we’re here, we’ll come across maybe 3 or 4 geniuses whose music really is something that has a lot of influence, and Ornette is one of them.  There aren’t many of them out here now left that their concept was maybe the strongest thing… The concept supersedes even the playing itself.  That’s what brings his genius into it.  That’s why you can hear his… When he did this thing at Lincoln Center, I heard about it.  I heard it was wonderful.  I want to hear some recordings from it.  But those kinds of things Ornette is brilliant on.  We need to hear him more.  He gets 5 stars for all the abuse they’ve given him over the years

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A 2002 Downbeat Profile of Frank Wess for his 90th birthday

Due to a foulup by my provider, my Internet has been down for the last week, a refreshing if frustrating lifestyle change. Today, though, it’s incumbent to observe Frank Wess’ 90th birthday, Jan. 4th, by posting a profile that I wrote about him ten years ago for DownBeat. A magnificent musician.

* *

Not long before his 80th birthday, Frank Wess, in the studio with the Bill Charlap Trio, unfurled a tenor saxophone solo on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” that stands with the classics of the canon. Over a relentless camelwalk groove, Wess leaps in from the top, dissecting the melody with minimum embellishment and maximum soulfulness, spinning out lucid theme-and-variations with a burnished candlelight tone that contains just the right amount of vibrato. Poetic and functional, he conjures the spirits of such old-school storytellers as Lester Young and Chu Berry, who set the standards when Wess was cutting his teeth as a teenager in Washington, D.C.

Wess was full of stories in June at his compact mid-Manhattan apartment, chock-a-block with a top-shelf audio system, instruments, sheet music, tapes, albums, photographs and correspondence. Just back from a Seattle weekend, he was gearing up to fulfill a ten-day itinerary that would tax a man half his age—two concerts with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, successive one-nighters with tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and with Charlap’s trio, and a week’s residence at the Blue Note with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Orchestra.

“When I heard Lester Young, that was that,” Wess says, leaping back to 1937. An Oklahoma native who had moved to D.C. two years before, he took early stylistic cues from such big sound heartland tenormen as Don Byas (he met him while summering with his mother in Langston, Okla., in 1932), Dick Wilson and Ben Webster. “Basie came through town for a dance at the Lincoln Colonnades; I couldn’t even sleep that first night. They were waving those hats, doo-wah, doo-wah. Prez and Herschel Evans were in the band, and Eddie Durham was playing guitar. The band was hot!

“Prez was staying at a three-story rooming house, and a friend of ours brought us there. Prez came out in his pajamas, with his horn in his arm and a little powder-box full of joints. He offered everybody a joint! We asked him how he made all those funny sounds, and he showed us.”

Sixteen years later, Wess became an integral component of the Basie mystique. From 1953 until 1964, he served as a triple threat tenor saxophonist, alto saxophonist and flutist, almost single-handedly creating a modern jazz vocabulary for the latter instrument. Within Basie’s distinctive environment, operating on the principle “less is more” as opposed to “bigger is better” and never—for all the compositional sophistication of such hardcore modernist colleagues as Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Ernie Wilkins—going over anyone’s head, Wess blended the varying strands of his epoch into a style that might define the term “mainstream.”

Wess speaks of his employer with unsentimental fondness. “I hadn’t been with Basie long, and we were in Atlanta,” [he recalls]. “Next door to the hotel was an upstairs club, and I was drinking, feeling good and acting crazy. Basie saw me, and when I went back in, one of the valets said, ‘Chief wants to see you.’ I knock on the door and come in; he’s sitting on the side of one bed and I sit across from him. He started talking about the transportation was eating him up, and all the humiliation he had to go through. He went through a whole lot of shit with me. I didn’t say nothin’. I didn’t nod my head one way or the other. I just looked at him. And he started through his story the second time, and I still didn’t say nothin’. He’s crying the blues; he was in debt. Then he started through his story the third time. I said, ‘You know what I think? I just want to know why you ever hired Jimmy Rushing, the way you can cry the blues.’ He was trying to talk me out of my salary. That’s the last time he ever did that.

“You had to understand Basie. We used to go to the track together; he loved to gamble and couldn’t gamble—not one lick. So everything was beautiful as long as you didn’t ask him for the money. Then you got stories for days. When we went to England the first time, he wouldn’t carry the music. He said, ‘I’m not gonna pay all of that overweight. You all don’t look at it no-way; you’re always looking out in the audience at some chick!’ So we went to England, and we did two weeks with no music. Blew them people’s minds! They invited us back to do a command performance the same year.”

Basie himself had learned the techniques of blowing people’s minds with swinging riff-based music as a late ’20s member of the Oklahoma City-based Blue Devils, the territory band that spawned the southwest sound. Wess lived a few hundred miles down Route 66 in Sapulpa, an oiltown of 20,000. Guitarist Barney Kessel and future Basie lead altoist Marshall Royal had grown up there, and Wess recalls childhood games of marbles with trumpeter Howard McGhee, a few years his senior. Wess’ mother taught school in town; his father, raised on Lake Seneca in upstate New York, taught 30 miles down the road in Okmulgee, the hometown of Oscar Pettiford. There wasn’t much to do in Sapulpa but practice, and Wess—who picked up the alto saxophone at 10—progressed quickly.

Relocated to Washington, Wess enrolled at Dunbar High School, studying theory with orchestra teacher Henry Grant, a friend of James Reese Europe who had taught Duke Ellington. Away from the classroom, the precocious cohort—they included pianist Billy Taylor and saxophonists Julius Pogue, Billy White, Paul Jones and Charlie Parker soundalike Oswald Gibson— soaked up information from local mentors like guitarists Samuel Wood and Biddy Fleet (the latter would soon show Parker how to execute the augmented and diminished chord extensions that became the DNA of bebop).

Wess graduated high school at 15 and enrolled at Howard University, attending classes by day and working a succession of increasingly remunerative jobs at night. He ascended the ladder, graduating from the dance bands of Bill Baldwin and Tommy Miles to a $35-a-week [position] in the Howard Theater pit band. Blanche Calloway took over the band and brought Wess on the road in 1940 for double the pay. After various adventures involving Lionel Hampton, union bookers and a tragicomic Boston run-in with Bojangles Bill Robinson, Wess enlisted in the Army, sponsored by his ROTC bandleader, John J. Brice, for a spot in the Special Services. Sent to Africa in 1942, he honed his skills as assistant bandleader of a 17-piece unit that accompanied Josephine Baker on a 1943 tour of North Africa.

A few months after his discharge, Wess joined [young firebrands] Gene Ammons, Fats Navarro and Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s bebop orchestra. A proponent of the gangsta esthetic half-a-century before hip-hop, the dapper, silken-voiced Eckstine commanded tremendous respect for his well-documented willingness to beat crackers and hoodlums at their own game at various points along the road. “B didn’t take no shit,” Wess agrees, launching into another saga. “People would come up and say, ‘Hey, B!’ and slap him on the back. ‘How you doin’?’ He’d say, ‘I’m fine!’ and then he’d smack them in the stomach.

“We lost a job nine days before Christmas in 1946 in Boston. The stage is about two feet higher than the floor, this couple is sitting ringside, and while he’s doing his act the woman keeps hollering, ‘Sing it, honey chile,’ a whole lot of bullshit. B kept doing his act. When he finished, instead of going off backstage, he went off front, walked down to this table and said, ‘Now, listen. When I’m doing my act, you don’t be hollering up on me. You crazy bitch, what’s wrong with you?’ Then he told her husband, ‘Man, you’re a silly son-of-a-bitch for being out with a dumb bitch like this.’ So her husband gets up. When her husband stood up, B knocked him down and went to get on top of him, but he kicked B in the mouth. B is going for his hunting knife. The cat gets up. Art Blakey is standing right up over him on the dance floor with a chair, comes down with it on his head, and back down he went. At the same time, two of them big Irish cops are standing in the back of the club. They ain’t moving. Then the boss comes out there saying, ‘Get that goddamn band out of here.’ He was a crazy man. Good cat to work for.”

Eckstine disbanded in February 1947. With a young family, Wess settled in Washington, supplementing local jobs through road work with Eddie Heywood, Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson. “After I’d been South with Moose for the third time in one year, I gave it up,” Wess says. He enrolled in D.C.’s Modern School of Music on the G.I. Bill to study flute. “Mr. Grant had given me one when I was 14, but I realized that I couldn’t do it myself, and I couldn’t afford a teacher then. So I put it on the back-burner until I had a chance to do it.”

After several years of scaling down, Basie began to reassemble his “New Testament” band in 1951, and Eckstine recommended he snare Wess. “Basie had been calling for a couple of years, but even once I graduated school, I wasn’t thinking about going on the road,” Wess says. “Then Basie said, ‘Frank, I can give you more exposure than you’ve had.’”

At this point, according to Wess, the band was nowhere close to the sleek polished powerhouse it would become. “It wasn’t sounding too good,” he says. “There wasn’t much music and the brass wasn’t too strong, though the reed section was pretty good. Things started tightening up after our first tour south, when Joe Williams and Sonny Payne came in. I knew Snooky Young from 1940, when I was in Boston with Blanche Calloway, and in ’57 I talked him in. That really did it.”

Congenial and sharp, Wess had a keen eye for talent that would fit. “Basie didn’t know anybody. I told him to get Al Aarons and Thad Jones. I knew Thad from ’51, when I did a whole summer in Atlantic City in the front bar at Club Harlem, working with a quartet and a singer, and Thad was in the back room with Jimmy Tyler’s nine-piece band, making it sound like a million dollars. Later I I brought in Eric Dixon and Sonny Cohn, and early on, I recommended Eddie Jones to play bass. When Basie said they were getting four trombones, I recommended Bill Hughes, who lived across the street from me in Washington.”

Wess would frame his flute with those four trombones on one of several mid-’50s albums that built on the popularity of his fluid, blues-drenched sound on Basie charts like “Perdido,” “The Midgets” and “Cute.” “Don Redman had heard me play flute on jobs around Washington, and asked Basie if he’d heard me,” Wess says. Then he describes some of the secrets of the Basie sound.

“Basie never fired nobody. That’s where he was smart. Everybody got to know each other—for good or bad—and we knew what to expect and how to work together. He never rehearsed us. Everybody in the band had been playing forever, and we knew how the music should go. The reeds were a fraction behind the trumpets, and the trombones were a fraction behind the reeds, but it was consistent, so when you heard the BAM!, it sounded like one thing. And the band laid back til the last split second to hit a note. That’s the way the music said it should be played. Basie would let you know what he wanted in his own way. He’d say, ‘I want something like this,’ and you’re supposed to know what he’s talking about.”

By 1964, Wess figured he’d been in the game long enough. “The band changed,” Wess says. “It wasn’t as good as before. Snooky and Eddie Jones left the same day. When I told Basie, he said, ‘When do you want to go?’ ‘Sunday.’ ‘No, I’ve got something important coming up. Don’t go now.’ He went through that for about a month. Then we were in Chicago and I told him, ‘Base, I’ve got to go home. Tomorrow.’ ‘Who am I going to get?’ ‘Get Sonny Stitt or somebody.’ ‘He can’t read.’ ‘Well, I don’t care who you get. I’ve been listening to all that for a month. I’m gone.’ ‘When you coming back?’ I said, ‘I’ll be back in ten days.’ I came home and I got everything straightened out for doing Golden Boy with Sammy Davis. I went out and got paid with Basie one Thursday; the next Thursday I got paid for Golden Boy. I never missed a payment.”

Since then, Wess has made his blues turn green as a first-call New York freelancer, putting his kids through college on a mix of jingle sessions, sinecures in TV bands and Broadway pit orchestras, and occasional combo and sideman work, including the New York Jazz Quartet, a “Two Franks” quintet with Frank Foster, and a quintet with trumpeter Johnny Coles. Since 1984, when he left “Sugar Babies,” Wess has stuck strictly with jazz, leading and guest-starring in a variety of what he terms “trendy necrophiliac ensembles” and doing sessions with such younger New York mainstreamers as Bryan Stripling (Wess plays up a storm on Bryan … Get One Free ), Bill Charlap (Stardust), Joe Cohn and Michael Weiss.

A witness to seven decades of jazz history, Wess ruminates on the changing mores of[the scene. "When I was coming up, jazz was a dirty word," he says. "At Howard, they’d put us out of school if they caught us playing jazz. Now it’s in the schools and you can get a degree, which doesn’t always mean something, but still you can get it.

"And the kids don’t dissipate as much as they did. I remember a time when it was just pitiful. Almost everybody was messed up. I drank, but I never was in that other clique. I was lucky when I was 17, in the pit band. One of the trumpet players, who’d been with Lunceford, was the first junkie I knew. We hung out together, and he was a helluva nice cat. He used to tell me, ‘Look, kid, you keep on drinking your whiskey; don’t ever bother with this stuff.’ We’d go to rehearsal Friday morning at 8, and he’d come in with a mouthpiece. I’d have to borrow one of my friend’s horns for him to make the gig.

"What’s funny is that when I was in B’s band, wasn’t nobody in there messed up. Maybe smoking some pot or something, but nothing more. Miles Davis was smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca-Cola. Jug wasn’t messed up until he went with Woody Herman. Fats Navarro wasn’t messed up. Dizzy used to sit in with B’s band to play with Fats; both were playing in the same idiom, but Fats had a little Spanish tinge to his thing and his sound was so much bigger. He’d hit a high G and A, and it enveloped the whole band. After the band broke up, I was playing the Apollo with Eddie Heywood, and I was walking down 126th Street. Somebody called, ‘Hey, Flank.’ That’s what Fats used to call me. I looked around, and man, he was just a skeleton. I almost cried. Just that quick."

Then Wess jerks himself into the present tense, and offers a closing thought [on the futility of nostalgia.] “Ellington never did a whole concert of nobody’s music. Neither did Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. Ain’t nobody that we revere and know ever did that! There’s 24 hours in the day. If you spend all your time looking back, how in the hell you going anywhere?” DB

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today.  Monk didn’t practice practicing.  Monk practiced playing — sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes.  I lived with Monk for ten years, and one day he said, ‘Come on, let’s play the piano.’  Monk started playing ‘My Ideal.’  I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one.  I wish it had been recorded.  He was a very special kind of cat.”

Monk probably learned “My Ideal” during his mid-’40s tenure with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street; Harris played with Hawkins extensively from 1965 until Hawkins died in 1969.  “I put him in the hospital when he died,” Harris recalls.  “He didn’t want to go, but I had to put him in.  I had gone to live with him on 97th Street, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around.  He was a recoverer.  He might overdo things a bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right.  It just happened this time he didn’t recover.

“I can remember the first time I sat in with Coleman Hawkins;  he was playing at the Five Spot.  He called some tune that I knew the melody to, and I figured I could figure out the chords.  So we played it, and all he said was, ‘Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player!’ [LAUGHS] I felt lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a different outlook on things.  One time he called out ‘All The Things You Are,’ and after he played I just said, ‘Oh my goodness.’  He would play a phrase, laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase.  I wasn’t chording.  I was trying to steal his phrases!  It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard.  We can’t think of anybody really as the end.  We were the bebop boys.  That was our music.  But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played.  So one had to work at trying to reach this other level.

“He had a special philosophy.  For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements.  I’m a firm believer that the key thing is how you go from one place to another.  One should know how to go to the relative minor, how to come back from the IV to the I, all these different little things that young cats don’t really know nowadays.  A lot of horn players, unfortunately, sit at the piano, hit one chord and then another, think it’s  hip, and decide to write a melody on it.  They’re missing the boat, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies, and most people don’t remember a thing you played.  Music is more than that.  Music is movement.  You have to play a chord that moves.  Once you know more about movement, then you can venture away from it.”

Harris still lives in De Konigswater’s home, facing the west bank of the Hudson River with a spectacular Manhattan skyline view, and he speaks of her with reverent reticence.  “She was beautiful towards musicians,” he says.  “All the musicians knew it, too.  She probably helped us all in some kind of way.  One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, people would walk by a jazz club and see her Bentley or Rolls-Royce parked out in front, and they’d come into the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or Bentley.  Up in Harlem, they protected that car.  She could park any place up there, in front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s.  She never locked the trunk or the glove compartment, and nobody ever touched it.  She was a jazz lover.  That’s no stuff.  She was one of our assets.”

Harris recorded four strong sessions for Riverside, including “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” which is a bible of trio playing for a number of younger pianists.  When the label folded in 1964, Harris began to do business on a handshake basis with A&R man Don Schlitten, for whom he recorded steadily, both as leader of a series of increasingly personal, poetic recitals and as the penultimate sideman, prodding the likes of Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Criss, Red Rodney and McPherson to superb performances on dates for Prestige, MPS, Muse and Xanadu until the early ’80s.

“He knew all the tunes,” Schlitten comments.  “Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  Therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  It seemed to work all the way down the line.”

Harris began teaching formally during the mid-’70s with Jazz Interactions, an non-profit organization run by the trumpeter Joe Newman and his wife Rigmor; his classes became so popular that Harris eventually started his own school, the Jazz Cultural Theater, on 28th Street and 8th Avenue.  Picking up where he’d left off on his Detroit home sessions, JCT became Harris’ New York platform for articulating his palpably unorthodox theories.  “I believe in scales,” he says.  “I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and so forth, but my thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  The question becomes to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into — and one can.  I am more of the opinion now that if you give students a little basic harmony, to go from one place to the other, and then combine that basic harmony with the scales, one will be on the right track to teach.

“I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.  They have our young now learning these funny songs that don’t have movement, so young people all over the world aren’t even getting a chance to learn to play.  Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays.  The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money.  Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music.  But because people are playing their original music, we can’t have the jam session thing too much.  I could go up and play when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins were playing, because they’re going to play something I know.  There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, like ‘How High The Moon’ or ‘Just You, Just Me.’  Young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session.  That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going every Wednesday night, even though it never was anything.

“With a lot of the young people, I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play like they play.  Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  The pianists can’t play two-handed chords; they think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  Whoever taught them that and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.”

Harris’ pessimistic prognostications belie his actions, which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.  “I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have,” he says.  “Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  Hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is right.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  They tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  You should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.

“The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.  It’s a science, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  That’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

“You learn from teaching.  I have my students trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ‘em catch up to me.”

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Filed under Article, Barry Harris, Detroit, DownBeat

A Jazziz Article on McCoy Tyner from 2003 {Plus Interviews}

To mark the 73rd birthday of piano maestro McCoy Tyner, I’m posting a feature article about that I had the opportunity to write for Jazziz in 2003. I’ve attached below the verbatim transcripts of the two interviews that I conducted for the piece.

* * *

Thirty-six years after the death of John Coltrane, with whom he famously played from 1960 until 1965, McCoy Tyner remains a jazz icon. The 64-year-old pianist reinforced that stature one night last March, during a thrilling set with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Al Foster at Manhattan’s Iridium in the middle of a week’s stand supporting Land of Giants (Telarc), Tyner’s superb 2003 release.

“There’s a prayer that comes through as the music is being played,” Hutcherson noted during a subsequent conversation. Hutcherson, who first recorded with Tyner in the mid-’60s, when both were Blue Note artists, is perhaps Tyner’s most inspired foil. “You’re vulnerable, naked. McCoy knows how to mold the group and make it sound the way it should. We just fall in and then we’re swept away. He throws out so many suggestions and then asks what you think. If you catch it, you catch it. He implies the color or the one note throughout a sequence of chords that says, ‘Play me, play me again!’ — and with that starts the prayer. After every set I’ll turn to him and say, ‘Boy, you were really praying.’ He’ll laugh, but he understands exactly what I’m saying.”

When I paraphrased Hutcherson’s remarks to Tyner, he laughed. “Did Bobby say that? I’ve got a name for him: Rev!” As we sat on the backyard patio of his booking agent’s brownstone office on a bright, 90-degree July afternoon, the pianist looked clean as a whistle in a contoured black sports jacket, a textured, blue silk shirt, a white patterned silk tie, and white linen pants. He wore his hair marcelled into short neck-clinging braids that didn’t betray a speck of gray.

“I don’t want to sound overly poetic,” Tyner continued, on a serious note, “but you do feel cleansed when you’re done playing. I pay homage to the Creator for what he has given me and all of us. But I’m not preaching. If people hear things in my music and identify with them, that’s good! The music speaks for itself.”

I mention that Hutcherson’s description of how it feels to make music with Tyner evokes the collective catharsis that Coltrane stirred in audiences on a nightly basis during the ’60s. “It was a spiritual experience every night,” Tyner reflects. “We were giving everything we had, and you never knew what would happen. There was no time for ego.”

Tyner stands out among professional contemporaries because of his grounded persona and the relentless consistency of his career. He is no stylistic eclectic in the manner of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea, all of whom continue to follow the example of their former employer, Miles Davis, in seeking new worlds to conquer. Rather, Tyner’s path more closely resembles the High Modernism aesthetic of Coltrane — and the likes of Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, and Keith Jarrett — who coalesced and refined diverse influences into a holistic musical conception.

Like all of the aforementioned, Tyner possesses a vocabulary of global dimension. Core sources include Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, and Coltrane. Every other year or so, he releases a new recording, invariably acoustic, on which he reframes elements of his long-influential style in different contexts. Every important jazz pianist from the mid-’60s until the present — including Hancock and Corea — has assimilated his homegrown system of navigating harmony with fourth intervals. For improvisational fodder, he deploys an exhaustive knowledge of the rhythms and scales of Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and India, as well as the chordal structures of the American Songbook. And he articulates everything with soulful cadences drawn from the Afro-American urban-church and blues cultures of his youth.

Tyner differs from his distinguished contemporaries in that he has never shrunk from expressing his tonal identity within the framework of his roots in mainstream jazz. Perhaps that predisposition — in conjunction with a pronounced lack of personal eccentricity and the middling skills of his working trio of the latter ’80s and much of the ’90s — explains why, despite the fact that Tyner commands universal admiration among musicians and retains what market researchers call a “high recognition quotient,” many “progressive” connoisseurs perceive him as a conservative figure. But no such considerations deterred several thousand New Yorkers — young and old, and with a larger African-American contingent than usually turns out for jazz events south of 96th Street — from packing a cavernous concrete space on the south edge of the Lincoln Center acropolis, called Damrosch Park, on a humid August night for a free concert by Tyner’s trio, with guest flutist Dave Valentin.

Stimulated as much by the crowd’s support as by the inventive accompaniment of bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Al Foster, Tyner stretched out through seven originals on the trio portion. With unerring logic, impeccable touch, and an astonishingly powerful left hand, he conjured yearning, inflamed melodies from dense harmonies and complex polyrhythms, ornamenting his designs with luscious voicings and elegant figures. He executed every idea with magisterial authority while sustaining the aura of instantaneous creation. For all the baroque grandeur of the lines, he stripped every idea to essentials, imparting an air of poetic inevitability to the arc of each improvisation. With Tyner as the attentive moderator, the trio transcended notes and beats and achieved seamless musical conversation, rendered in cogent sentences and paragraphs.

BREAK

Unfailingly amiable and gracious in conversation, Tyner is not one to expound on the particulars of his art. However, his colleagues are happy to fill in the gaps.

“McCoy is a consummate accompanist,” says tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who won a Grammy for his solo on Coltrane’s “Impressions” on Tyner’s 1996 album, Infinity [Impulse!]. “He gives you a lush, wide-open cushion, and you have a feeling of complete freedom. If I hint at building a harmonic tension, he’ll be there instantly, almost like he’s reading my mind. It’s powerful to hear that quality of tension-and-release on the great Coltrane records, but to actually experience it first-hand is incredible.”

Some of Tyner’s most efflorescent playing has occurred in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian contexts, most recently on the prosaically titled McCoy Tyner and the Latin All-Stars [Telarc, 1998]. “McCoy is a master of rhythm,” says trombonist Steve Turre, a regular participant on such projects, who has also played in Tyner’s big band since 1984. “A lot of guys don’t commit to a rhythm; everything is kind of abstract. But McCoy never floats. Rhythm permeates everything he does.”

“Rhythms have languages, and even if you don’t know the language, you can sense what it is and play it,” says bassist Andy Gonzalez, recalling an occasion where the pianist performed as a guest with Libre, the unit Gonzalez co-leads with iconic timbalero Manny Oquendo. “I asked McCoy if he wanted to play Latin-jazz tunes with [chord] changes or montunos, and right away he asked for the montunos,” Gonzalez says, referring to the triplet-based vamps that counterstate the drumbeats of clave. “I had Charlie Palmieri play a real down-home, Cuban-dance-rhythm montuno at him, and it was fascinating to hear him answer it with his own chords and rhythmic feel. It was effortless. Montunos are related to the kinds of pentatonic modal scales that Coltrane was working on, and improvising in those kinds of modes is really McCoy’s forte. That’s very African, very deep-rooted, getting to the very beginnings of music.”

Gonzalez mentions a late ’60s conversation with Tyner during a set break a Slugs, an infamous club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The pianist revealed that a window opened for him after a concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater when Coltrane, sharing the bill with Machito, borrowed the Cuban bandleader’s bassist, Bobby Rodriguez to fill in for an absent Jimmy Garrison. Tyner confirms this. He also emphasizes the impact of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, to whom Coltrane was close, on sustaining his own awareness of African roots. But African music entered Tyner’s consciousness in the early ’50s, when a Ghanaian drummer named Saka Acquaye arrived at Philadelphia’s Temple University to study political science, and earned tuition money by teaching African rhythms to local drummers at a dance school that employed the teenage pianist as an accompanist.

“I fooled around with the drums, but the joints of my fingers started to hurt, and I had enough sense to stop,” says Tyner, who began formal piano studies about a year before the drummer came to town. “I observed Saka and learned how to connect one rhythm with another, how to operate with different layers of rhythm. I was fascinated with the drums even before I met him, and I’ve incorporated those rhythms into my style along with other things.”

Tyner acknowledges regarding the piano as a kind of extended drum. “Thelonious Monk did, too. Monk was very percussive and rhythmic. He’d do stuff that was off-rhythm or against the rhythm or tempo of the song. It was miraculous to me how he could interject so much feeling and depth into such simple ideas. It wasn’t about how many notes he played. It was the immediacy, the spontaneity of the situation. He taught me that what’s important is what you do with the idea you’re trying to portray – the will to push the envelope.”

While Tyner’s ensembles at Damrosch Park and Iridium played with a palpable attitude of freedom, critics cite numerous ’80s and ’90s recordings and performances with less resourceful partners on which his playing sounds attenuated and rudimentary, as though he felt responsible, say, for stating both the drum and piano parts. “I have a mixed personality in that respect,” Tyner admits. “I have a controlled sense of experimentation. I go outside, but there has to be something to work with. I conceived one tune on the new record as having no melody; we just used tonal centers, moved from one tone, one sound, one cluster, to another. I had that experience playing with John. But I use it when it’s appropriate for me, not as a main way to express myself. It’s a tool, and that’s all. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone, and I don’t want everything to be predetermined. It’s not artistic.”

Perhaps that sentiment explains why, last year, Tyner decided that his two-decade association with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott had “served its purpose for that time period” and formed the current rotating unit with bassists Moffett and George Mraz, and with either Foster, Eric Harland, or Lewis Nash on drums. “You can’t get so attached to someone that you restrict them from doing what they ultimately have to do,” he explains. “I had my previous trio for a long time because I hadn’t heard anyone — and I knew there were guys around — who could really do what I was looking for. Then they came along. The right thing always comes around eventually.”

What precisely is Tyner looking for? “I like guys around me who are willing to take chances, explore and feel the situation at hand, as opposed to, ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ – but on a level of professionalism that stands out. It’s not good for an artist to feel that kind of fear. But it’s very personal. You’re asking a person to be honest with themselves and not be afraid. And most of us have fears and sometimes we’re not honest! We spend a lifetime, or at least we should, trying to find out who we are. It’s crazy to stick with something forever.”

The ethos of risk taking was customary during Tyner’s years with Coltrane and was a key component of his formative years in Philadelphia. A late starter, he studied classical music formally for two years before putting aside the books and finding his own solutions in functional situations. “I developed facility because I practiced all the time,” he says. “And the dancing school taught everything, so I heard a lot of music there. I studied things by Bud Powell like ‘Celia’ and ‘Parisian Thoroughfare,’ and I heard Monk’s records. Bud and Monk were my main influences — and John, of course. But I listened for the individuality, not to copy. Monk respected you if you had your own direction. A lot of things come out of so-called ‘mistakes.’ In reality, nothing is a mistake; it’s how you shape music, how you resolve it.”

Like trumpeter Lee Morgan, a childhood pal in Philly, Tyner learned to think on his feet in the crucible of live performance. He played with blues singers and R&B bands, worked fraternity dances and graduations, and, with Morgan, worked two summers in the no-holds-barred environment of Atlantic City. By his late teens, Tyner was a first-call pianist for national bands passing through town, and he spent memorable weeks with, among others, Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, and with a unit co-led by Red Rodney and Oscar Pettiford. By then, he’d been playing several years with local trumpeter-composer Calvin Massey, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Tootie Heath. Massey introduced Tyner to Coltrane in 1956 after a matinee job at a neighborhood spot called the Red Rooster.

“When guys from the older generation saw you had some talent, they’d call you for gigs and show you tunes,” he recounts. “And you learned by accompanying. Guys expected you to be supportive, and I learned a lot that way. That cocky attitude of ‘I can’t wait to get my own band’ didn’t fit in at all. The standards were very high. Appearance, presentation — you had to be on point. I came up in an era when Art Blakey would say, ‘People see you before they hear you.’”

I ask if his mother, Beatrice, a beautician who kept McCoy’s piano in her shop, was the source of his fastidiousness. “My mother had a lot to do with everything in my development,” he replies. “She was very elegant, not in terms of her clothes or attitude, but just her demeanor. She was honest, personable, and caring, and people loved her. She loved music, and she’d let me know when anything came up that she thought would interest me. We had a very close relationship. I took her to cotillions. Once she wanted me to play a concert at Mount Olivet Baptist Church – not church music, but the songs I had learned from my instructors. She wanted me to put on tails, and I did.”

I thought of that image toward the end of the trio portion at Damrosch Park. After a venturesome a cappella introduction by Moffett, Tyner — who did not remove his navy, double-breasted blazer throughout the high-energy set — launched into the thunderous theme of “Manalyuca,” carving out the melody with his left hand and comping with his right, using them interchangeably in an improvisation that built to an immense crescendo. He gave way to Al Foster, who, Max Roach-style, stated the design of the melody and transitioned into improvised variations on a march. Tyner re-entered at the peak he had reached before desisting, then, through a gradual decrescendo, reached the final melody statement. He immediately launched into a boogie-woogie figure before embarking on formidable two-handed blues variations that foreshadowed a deeply swinging, medium-tempo excursion through “Blue Monk.”

As at Iridium a few months before, he reminded the witnesses precisely why his name means what it does in the jazz timeline.

“I only did what I was supposed to,” Tyner says of his career. “I mean, people think it’s fabulous, and when I look back at my musical history, I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, and to have risen to the occasion. I like simplicity and balance, and I’m dedicated to music, but it doesn’t consume my every minute. I don’t need to be put on a pedestal to feel good. But I don’t downplay my contribution or creativity. I’m confident, but I don’t allow myself to feel I’m in command of everything. Confidence is a tool to get where you want to go. I feel I did the best I could. And I thought it was pretty good.”

* * * *

McCoy Tyner (6-10-03):

TP:    I’ll try not to burden you with too much stuff that’s commonly known, but if I write a longer piece, I may want to ask you some other things.  Let’s talk about this group and this project.  It’s obviously not the first time you’ve joined forces with Bobby Hutcherson, but is this the first time you and he have worked together in a while, or has it been ongoing?

TYNER:  It has been ongoing over the years.  Periodically Bobby and I connect on a project.  We did a duet record, “Manhattan Moods,” just him and I for Blue Note, and several things in the past.

TP:    “Sama Layuca” and “Solo and Quartet.”

TYNER:  Right, with Herbie Lewis.  And he was on “Time For Tyner.”  So quite a few projects.  Then last year we went on tour in Europe, with this particular band.

TP:    Which generated this record.

TYNER:  Yes, it was a nice tour.  We just closed at the Iridium.  Eric wasn’t with us, because he’s been doing things with Terence Harland.  We try to set it up so everybody will be available to work with me, but we set that sort of thing up gently so that there won’t be any bad feelings.

TP:    Al Foster isn’t a bad guy to have available in a pinch.

TYNER:  Let me tell you.  Al is fantastic.  He adds so much to the music, and knows just what to do dynamically.  So it’s a pleasure having him around so we can play together.  He’s going to Italy with me tomorrow.  It will be a trio with Charles Fambrough.  I’m in transition at the moment, kind of floating a bit, and it’s real nice.  I’ve got some guys who are sailing right along with me.

TP:    You mean you’re changing personnel.

TYNER:  Yes, I’m changing personnel.

TP:    Because you were with Aaron Scott and Avery Sharpe for many years.

TYNER:  Yes.  Avery was with me over 20 years, and Aaron about 16-17 years.

TP:    Thinking of Charles Fambrough, it occurs that you have a bunch of alumni from your bands who are prepared to step in and serve as almost interchangeable parts.

TYNER:  Fambrough hasn’t worked with me for a while, but when he was with me it was a great band.  We had George Adams and quite a few people.

TP:    Right, and Joe Ford.

TYNER:  Right, Joe Ford and George Adams and Wilby Fletcher and Charles Fambrough.  I can always give them a call when I get stuck.

TP:    what are you looking for in your musicians?  Apart from the usual things, sensitivity and technical proficiency, is there a particular perspective they need to have on music, or an attitude?

TYNER:  What it is… I was looking at some of the younger guys, not just because of age but because of talent, and if I think they have potential for growth and development, and they can bring something to the table in terms of my music… A lot of them have grown up listening to some of my music, along with other artists.  Like, Eric had been with Betty Carter, and she was a consummate teacher and very strict about what she wanted, and so she got him in the right place.  Charnett’s father worked with Ornette Coleman, so he brought something else to the table.  It just so happens, I’m not the kind of guy that randomly fires people.  I try to give a guy a chance to see what he can do.  George Mraz has done some things with me, we went to Europe not too long ago.  And Al is a real professional and a great guy.  So I’ve got a bit of selection.

TP:    With Bobby and Charnett, it was interesting, because it provided you with two foils.  Because Charnett is such a strong soloist and projects such a powerful sound, he was really a match for you.

TYNER:  Yes.  He’s been quite an individual, and has been from a very young age.  His father gave him the right idea about what the music is and said “Go ahead, take a shot, go your way and see what you can do.”  With me, he’s able not only to free himself up, but he wants to learn something else about structure in the music, some traditional stuff, which I like to do.  I like to do a lot of different things.  He’s able to do that.  He follows very well, listens, and he’s got a good sound and a good concept.  I like those two guys very much.

Of course, Bobby and I go way back, and we play well together conceptually.  We’ve been like that for a long time.

TP:    It seems you have an exceptional simpatico.  It seems you follow each other’s ideas intuitively.

TYNER:  We phrase a lot alike.  His wife even commented.  She said, “Sometimes I can’t tell,” because we’re both keyboard instruments.  We have the uncanny ability to phrase a lot alike.  It’s kind of unique.  A lot of fun.

TP:    It’s great to hear the two of you together.  You had that sort of simpatico with Joe Henderson on the various records.  And I think it would be hard for people to get that with you, because your conception and execution is so formidable.

TYNER:  Joe sounded great on his records that I did, and I’m very happy with the things he did with me — “The Real McCoy” and “New York Reunion.”  I really miss him a lot.

TP:    It seems one thing you and Bobby share is a fascination with pan-diasporic music in its many varieties, rhythmically, the melodies, the scales and so on.  I wanted to ask you about the evolution of your incorporating that information in your sound.  I gather there was a certain point when you went to Senegal.

TYNER:  Well, actually it started when I was a teenager.  I was very fortunate.  I came up in a very active community musically.  The musicians that were around and the jam sessions that were going on.  We had this guy Saka Acquaye, who was from Ghana, and he came to Philadelphia and taught some of the conga players and drummers in that genre of playing.  A lot of different rhythms, and how to connect everything, how sometimes you play one rhythm and that connects with something else, and you have different layers.  He was great.  And his sister taught African dancing.  I’m writing a book and someone is helping me, and she happened to run into Saka’s name.  I don’t know the correct spelling of the name, but it’s definitely in the book.

TP:    Did you study drums ever, apart from piano?

TYNER:  I was fooling around with it.  But it started in the joints of my fingers, and I said, “I can’t mess…” A lot of these drummers wore tape around the joints of their fingers, so it wouldn’t hurt so much.  I always had a fascination with the drums…

TP:    From the time you met him?

TYNER:  Actually, a little before.

TP:    How old were you at that time?

TYNER:  I must have been about 14-15.

TP:    So it would have been 1952-53.

TYNER:  Something like that, in the early ’50s.

TP:    A lot of Africans started coming to the States after the U.N., like the dancer Asadata Dafora in New York.  Do you think of the piano in a very percussive sense?

TYNER:  That’s part of my style, I think.  I’ve incorporated those rhythms into my style.  Also other things.  But I used to play for a dancing school, and they did a production of “Viva Zapata” that was… It was a song, actually, kind of a hit song back in the ’50s.  So I played piano for them…

TP:    This was as a teenager in Philadelphia.

TYNER:  Yes. Saka was studying at Temple University, political science or something, and was teaching on the side.  I never actually got instruction from him, but I watched him teach the guys who were playing congas.  At the time, there was a lot of identification with the Africans, because during that time… Not political.  Cultural.  Everybody wants to politicize it.  But I think cultural identification is good.

TP:    Were people like Edgar Bateman checking him out?

TYNER:  I’m not really sure.  He was around during that time.

TP:    I’m just thinking of some of the progressive musicians around Philly.

TYNER:  Like Eric Gravatt.  Eric had a very keen knowledge of African rhythms.  Because he worked with me for a while.  Then he went to Minnesota and took up residence there.

TP:    Michael Brecker told me that when he was a teenager, they used to play tenor-drums duets.

TYNER:  I wouldn’t doubt it.  Michael is a fantastic musician, and being from Philly… Guys from Philly have a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    But you had an orientation toward African rhythms at the time that you met John Coltrane, and certainly when you were in the band.

TYNER:  Yes.  And when he came to New York, Babatunde Olatunji was here, and John and Olatunji were very good friends.  John would play at his place in Harlem sometimes.  So there was a keen interest in African culture.  That was good, identifying with the roots.

TP:    Do you feel that inflected your compositions, the melodies and scales, and some of the rhythmic patterns?

TYNER:  Yes.  Especially certain compositions.  I think affiliating with this dancing school, I heard a lot of different kind of music.  Because they did ballet, they did everything, so I had a chance to check out a lot of music.  Also, I studied with two teachers, one a beginning teacher and the other an Italian teacher who took me through Bach, Beethoven, and other areas of European classical music.  So I had a wide range of experience in that respect.  I tried to keep my mind open.  And I always liked Latin music.  The music world is so broad.

TP:    People of your generation I think learned the music differently than the generation today.  Kenny Barron told me that as a teenager he’d play gigs until 3 in the morning, and then go to high school the next day.

TYNER:  Yeah, we had a lot of jam sessions around Philadelphia.  A lot of jam sessions.  We’d be at my house one time, the Heath Brothers would have jam sessions at their house, one time I played up at Lee Morgan’s house.  Plus, Philadelphia is in close proximity to Atlantic City.  So I would go to Atlantic City in the summer and play… We didn’t have much money, but we managed to scrape up three meals!  I played at the Cotton Club in Atlantic City with Lee Morgan’s quartet.  It was fantastic, because we had a chance to see… I met J.J. Johnson, and Tommy Flanagan and Tootie Heath were playing with J.J.  Dinah Washington.  Atlantic City was one of the entertainment capitals of America.  That was a great thing.  We spent two or three summers down there.

TP:    That’s on a very professional level.  There were places with chorus lines and so on.

TYNER:  Yes.  You learned from… There were some fantastic guys around, older guys, the older generation.  They took you under their wing, and if they saw you had some kind of talent, that was all they needed to know.  They’d call you for gigs and show you tunes, old standards.  You would learn just by accompanying.  A lot of the things I learned were by being supportive.  It wasn’t so much like now, where a lot of people want to set up their own band.  There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to get your own band, but when I was with John I wasn’t necessarily looking, “Oh, I can’t wait to get my own band.  I just savored the experience of being with him, and I learned so much just by coming together…” You learn how to do that.  When I was growing up, that’s what the guys expected from you.  They weren’t looking for you to have that kind of cocky attitude.  That didn’t fit in at all.

TP:    I think it would be a situation with Coltrane where you could play the whole history of the music and frame it as individually as you would want.

TYNER:  Well, John was in the R&B band.  Sometimes we’d travel and these guys would show up.  He used to play with a guy named King Kolax, who would show up when we’d play the Midwest.  I played with guys who played what we called House Rockers — the cat would get up and honk his horn and the rock the house, and people would put money in the bell of the horn.  That was a great thing, because it wasn’t about a lot of articulation — it was about feeling and sound.  If you had a sound on your instrument and a good feeling, hey, that was it.  I played with those kind of guys, coming up with blues singers and all that sort of stuff.  So yeah, it was on a professional level, even if you were young.  That didn’t have anything to do with it.  The thing is, to get that experience was wonderful.

TP:    Does it make a difference in the way you play what kind of drummer you have with you?

TYNER:  Well, it doesn’t change the way I play, but I think what it does, if the drummer is playing WITH me, as opposed to just sitting there playing time, I think… That’s a very important element.  But I think if he’s responding rhythmically to what I’m doing on the piano, it’s a tremendous asset.  Because I play very rhythmic anyway, so rhythm is very important, and then I’m able to go from there to other things.  It’s a good point of departure.

TP:    I want to continue on the rhythmic aspect.  In the ’50s and ’60s were you listening to Cuban or Puerto Rican piano players, and that style of playing in clave, which is different than jazz improvising.  Because your own brand of that music is so idiomatic and yet personal to you.

TYNER:  Well, I think that has a lot to do with the African influence.  The jazz and Latin rhythms came out of the African experience.  But because we were from the Americas, it’s a little different.  But that’s the foundation of gospel music and blues, and jazz came out of that.  So those rhythms have been able to last.  But that’s basically where I had a real pleasure just… I played with a lot of Latin musicians over the years, and we feel as though there’s very little separating us, and more connecting us than anything else.

TP:    I did read that you had gone to Senegal, and that it was an important experience for you.

TYNER:  It really was.  It must have been 7-8 years ago. I flew into Dakar, and then we drove from Dakar all the way down to St. Louis.  The French government put on a festival there.  A guy who produced several of my recordings of the big band, who has some affiliation with that festival. It was beautiful.  We went through many villages on the way down.  When I got down there, there were some djembe drummers who played with me.  I went down with Jack DeJohnette, and these guys sat in.  They were a family of drummers.  What happened is that they liked us so much, the French guys and the Africans, that they asked we do a tour of France with… I think Jack did the tour, and there were two drummers from that family.  It was great, and we were able to create a nice marriage.

TP:    Was it a very organic process to start bringing this material into your music circa 1969, when you did “Expansions,” and the early ’70s?

TYNER:  Yes, I’d say it was pretty organic because of my previous experience with African rhythms and drummers, guys who played… One of the guys who played regular trap drums in my R&B band when I went into modern jazz was a conga player, Garvin Masseaux, and he studied under Saka, along with a guy named Bobby Crowder.  They played together a lot and they were good friends.  So from an early age I’d been influenced by African music.  Bobby played and did some recording with Red Garland.  Those guys were our premier conga players around Philadelphia.  Garvin played with my R&B band.

TP:    And I gather that’s the band that you started you off in writing charts and writing tunes.

TYNER:  Yes.  I wrote this chart that never ended. [LAUGHS] Well, it seemed like it never did!  Boy, it was long.  I must have been about 14 or 15.

TP:    Jimmy Heath described his early writing efforts in Philly in a similar manner, and so did Benny Golson, so you’re not alone.,

TYNER:  Yeah.  You have a lot of ideas and you try to cram them all in one song.

TP:    When did your early mature pieces come, things like “Effendi,” and so on.  Did you write them in the early ’60s, or did you bring them up then…

TYNER:  Yes, that’s after I got… John and I were the first two jazz artists on Impulse, and “Inception” was my first record.

TP:    Wayne Shorter, for instance, said that he was writing pieces from the early ’50s, and some of them got into the Art Blakey book when he joined up.  I was wondering if you had been that prolific before coming to New York and entering the public stage.

TYNER:  Yeah, I was writing some things when I met John.  But I came to New York after the Jazztet.  I worked with the Jazztet for a while, because John was committed to Miles and he couldn’t leave, and he wanted people in his own band and it took him a while, so Benny Golson asked me if I was available to go to San Francisco.  He had three weeks at the Jazz Workshop over on Broadway in San Francisco.  I said sure. Then John left Miles not too long after that.  That’s after we did the Meet the Jazztet record, where we did the first version of “Killer Joe.”  It was a great band, but completely different from the direction that was about to develop being with John.

TP:    Benny Golson said he knew it was confining for you.

TYNER:  Well, the thing is, he wrote some nice charts!  Benny’s a heck of an arranger.  And he wrote some nice tunes, “Along Came Betty,” “I Remember Clifford,” some nice songs.  I enjoyed my experience with them.  But I had a verbal commitment with John that whenever he left Miles I would join his band.  So to make that transition took a little time — not too much, because I was with the Jazztet only 7 months.  Then John left Miles, and he came to me and… It was very tough, because I grew up under Benny.  It was tough for me, too, because they were such nice guys and really very helpful, but it was something that had to be done.  I think Art and Benny realized that later on.

TP:    Are you writing for the personalities that you’re playing with?  Is there any of that in your composition?  Or do things just come out and people adapt to them?

TYNER:  What it is, you want to surround yourself with people who can interpret what you write.  With the big band I have more that type of thinking, because it’s a different type of thing — but not so different.  I’ve had the big band since the ’80s. Some of the members of the band, like John Clark and Joe Ford were in the band when I first started it, and they’re still there.  So I know their personalities, and I know generally which songs I like.  I mean, anybody can play on any songs, but with some guys it’s just tailor-made for them.  I think that’s what happens.  Duke Ellington wrote for some of the guys who were in his band.  You can’t help but do that, I think.

TP:    Also, there are a number of your songs that have been performed in many different contexts.  Are you still writing prolifically?

TYNER:  This record has some songs I’ve recorded before, but a lot of them are new, like “December,” “Serra Do Mar,” “Steppin’”.  “Manalayuca” was recorded before; the title has changed a bit.  I’ve recorded “For All We Know” before.  So there’s the mixture.

TP:    And were these written and chosen with this personnel and instrumentation in mind?

TYNER:  Well, yes, in a way.  Definitely, because I knew who was going to be on the date.  I don’t really earmark… See, Bobby and I have no problem in terms of concept, because we think alike conceptually.  But I don’t necessarily all the time… “December” was a song that I had in mind… When I wrote that, I thought it would be wonderful to hear what Bobby could do with it.  Because I know it fit his style.  And I felt like Eric and Charnett would really be able to handle “Serra Do Mar” because it goes from one rhythm to another; different segments of the song interchanged, and I thought they’d be able to interpret that well.  But often I don’t necessarily write everything to tailor-make the song to fit a person.  But I try to pick people who I think like to play my music or can interpret my music well, as opposed to, “Oh, let me write music for this guy.”  But I like to surround myself with people… Because if a guy doesn’t fit into the concept that I have, then he doesn’t need to play with me — that kind of thing.  I shouldn’t say it like that, because I have played with guys who aren’t necessarily used to playing with me, and it’s different for them.  I’ve heard people say, “You’re moving all the time.”  But that’s from playing with John.  He liked me to move around.

TP:    Just talking to you, the program seems almost autobiographical.  There’s material that addresses pan-African rhythms, and you have the blues and the standards and the Ellington and the ballads, and it’s all part and parcel of your musical biography.

TYNER:  I think that music should reflect you.  If you’re the one who’s performing or composing, it should reflect who you are.

TP:    You do concept albums, which is logical, because to keep putting out albums, you have to find ideas to tag them on and give people different angles.  But this has a very organic quality.  It doesn’t seem like there’s any imperative involved except something coming out of you and what you’re thinking about at the moment.

TYNER:  I think you nailed it.  I’m glad that came out, because that was actually the way I felt.

TP:    Seeing you at Iridium put an exclamation point on it.  They had me sitting right up by stage left so I could see you at the piano, and I’d never been that close to you before, and I noticed that you play with a minimum of motion.  For someone who gets as huge a sound as you get… For instance, Ahmad Jamal moves a lot around the piano and dances around the piano.

TYNER:  Keith Jarrett does, too.  He really gets around.  It’s whatever works for you.  For me, in how I utilize the instrument, and it has many characteristics… I approach it a certain way in terms of touch and uses of the pedal, and that gives me the power I need.  I figure it has a lot to do with the touch as well.

TP:    Was that a sound you heard in your mind’s ear and worked towards, or did it come out of your development as an instrumentalist.

TYNER:  I think it was already up here.  I think your sound is who YOU are.  That’s exactly what it is.  You can’t create it if it’s not there, and you can’t embellish on it if it’s not yours.  We have our own sounds!  When you talk, when people recognize who you are, I’ll say, “That’s Ted.”  You have your own sound, and it comes out when we play an instrument.

TP:    But if I put my hands to a piano, people would say “shut up!”  There’s truth to what you say, but there’s also a craft component.

TYNER:  Have you studied piano?

TP:    Many years ago, and I’m not suggesting I couldn’t develop a certain proficiency…

TYNER:  If you ever played the instrument enough, you would hear Ted coming out.  You have your own identity, man.  I think we all do.

TP:    Many musicians would tell me that the instrument is an extension of themselves, and that music is just another vocabulary…

TYNER:  A language.

TP:    And they say it gets passed down.  One of the great things about jazz is that the oral tradition still holds true.  Who for you are some of the people who passed down that oral tradition…

TYNER:  I was very fortunate.  I met Bud Powell.  He lived around the corner from me when I was a teenager.  My mother was a beautician, and my piano was in her shop.  So Richie Powell was on the road with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown band, and Bud occupied Richie’s apartment.  It was right around the corner for me.  And my mother did the superintendent’s wife’s hair.  So she came and she said, “There’s this piano player around the corner who doesn’t have a piano; can he come around and practice on your son’s piano?”  So I asked my mother who it was, and she said, “Bud Powell.”  I said, “Of course.  He can come around any time he wants.”  But he was a hero to us.  We used to follow him around.  We had a place where musicians would hang out, and we’d get him to go up there and play.  His recordings were fantastic.  And Thelonious.  I used to… But I didn’t listen to them to copy them.  What I heard was individuality, the fact that they focused on who THEY were and they did their thing. But they were very inspirational to me.  And later on, Art Tatum, because [LAUGHS] he was an impeccable musician. But stylistically, Bud and Monk were really major influences on me — and then John, of course.

TP:    There’s that German word, the “zeitgeist,” of the time.  They were absolutely one with their time!

TYNER:  Yes, that’s right.  And they were so inspirational.

TP:    So it wasn’t so much that Bud Powell said, “Here’s how I do this voicing” and so on.  You soaked it up.

TYNER:  No.  You have to do that yourself.  You have to find out what your voice is yourself.  That’s it.  Not only is it lasting, but you can develop something from your own personality, your musical personality.  Otherwise, you’re not going nowhere with it.  You’re just limited to whoever the guy is you’re copying, or you’re trying to model yourself after.

TP:    Were there any pianists you did that with?  Herbie Hancock told me that when he was 13, or maybe 11, he found a guy in his class who could play, and he’d been playing Mozart and classical music and was a prodigy, but he couldn’t do this.  Then he found out it was George Shearing, and his mother had a George Shearing record at home, and so he played along with it until he got the accents and phrasing, and that launched him.

TYNER:  Bud Powell was that image for me.  I had Bud’s records, and I was trying to play things like “Celia” and things like “Parisian Thoroughfare” and a couple of other things.  But then I knew that, “Hey, that’s Bud Powell.”  Because that’s just the way it is.  You can’t go but so far.

TP:    But those were things as a kid, you memorized and…

TYNER:  Well, you have to… A lot of the horn players were playing as well.  Actually, what it was, we knew certain pieces like from Clifford Brown-Max Roach and Dizzy’s music and Bird’s music, all these guys playing Charlie Parker’s music.  So I had to learn that stuff in order to play with them.  When I was a teenager, Sonny Stitt would come through… I would play with different people.  Sometimes Sonny Rollins would come through, and Sonny Stitt.  I was playing around locally with a lot of the older musicians.  So I had to learn the tunes.

TP:    Was that at a place called the Red Rooster?

TYNER:  Well, that was I met John, at a matinee.  It wasn’t far from where I lived.  It was a local kind of…not an elaborate place, but a fairly decent place, and people used to come there to listen to music.  I was playing in Cal Massey’s band.  Cal was the friend who introduced me to John.  And Jimmy Garrison was in Cal’s band, and Tootie Heath.  John came out and checked the matinee.  He was on sabbatical from Miles, there was a little period there, and then he came up and he and Cal got back together… Cal was a composer as well.  So that’s how I met John, one afternoon.

TP:    But back in 1960, you weren’t the average 22-year-old.  You were a pretty experienced musician.  I think you recorded with Curtis Fuller in ’59.

TYNER:  Yes, my first record.  I think it was “The World of Trombone” or something for Savoy.  That’s actually before the Jazztet was formed, and after that they had a meeting with Art and Benny and Dave Bailey and Curtis, and they said they wanted to form a band, and I said, “Okay, but when John leaves Miles, I’ve got to go.”  It was a tough one.

TP:    Did you play with any vibraphonists then?

TYNER:  Yes, there was a vibraphonist around Philadelphia who was very popular…

TP:    There was Lem Winchester in Wilmington and Walt Dickerson.

TYNER:  Walt was the guy.

TP:    And he had an expansive concept himself.

TYNER:  Yes, he had an expansive concept.  Absolutely.

TP:    As I recall, the “Time For Tyner” record was a live record in North Carolina?  That’s when you and Bobby first hooked up.

TYNER:  No, it wasn’t live.  Let me tell you what happened.  People have made that mistake because of the way the guy wrote the liner notes.  I played a concert at this university in North Carolina, and the guy came down and reviewed it.  Then for some reason, he happened to mention that on this recording, and it left people with the idea that it was recorded live — and it wasn’t.

TP:    But was it a working band?

TYNER:  No.  Bobby and I never worked extensively together. But we knew each other very well.  We came up in the same generation, so…

TP:    And you were both on Blue Note.

TYNER:  Both on Blue Note.  Wayne and a lot of guys were all on Blue Note at the time.

TP:    What’s interesting is that a lot of the things that were recorded on Blue Note were just in the studio and didn’t have to do with working bands.  Was that the case with you?

TYNER:  Yes, after late ’65, when I left John… It was almost six year.  Which records are you talking about?

TP:    “Expansions” or “Time For Tyner.”

TYNER:  No, those weren’t working bands.

TP:    “The Real McCoy.”

TYNER:  No.  Joe Henderson just happened to be in town, and they wanted to do a date.  I did some recordings with him.  “Recorda-Me”, I think.  Kenny Dorham was on it.  But I didn’t have a working band at the time.  Ron Carter did a lot of recording with me, too, but I didn’t have a band.

TP:    But with Bobby Hutcherson, it just emanated from…

TYNER:  Our musical association.

TP:    And it just kept cropping up again.

TYNER:  Yes, exactly.

TP:    Does the record label you’re recording for have any impact on the type of music you’re recording, or does it just have to do with the time and the place.

TYNER:  No.  Telarc is basically a jazz label, as far as I know.  But they have no bearing… They know when they ask me to record what they’re getting into.  I don’t do that.

TP:    So all the projects you’ve done for Telarc have been at your initiative?  The trio and “Jazz Roots.”

TYNER:  Absolutely.  If they make a suggestion, maybe I’ll try this or that or whatever conceptually, but I have the final word on everything.  If I don’t like it, I won’t do it.

TP:    Are you exclusively with Telarc now?  Or are you still a freelancer?

TYNER:  I’m not signed with them, because I like to be a free agent.  But I have done some consecutive work for them.

TP:    Since that thing for Impulse, “McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane,” I think everything you’ve put out has been on Telarc.

TYNER:  Yes, that was done in 1997, but they released the tapes in ’99.

TP:    Tell me about the Jazz Roots album, the tribute to your various influences.

TYNER:  It wasn’t so much influences.  It was a dedication to the musicians that I knew — and know — and who were part of the history of this music, and guys who passed on and a lot of them who are here.  It’s a tribute to jazz pianists.  That’s basically what I was doing.  Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Chick, Bud Powell, Thelonious… It was just a conglomeration of different people.

TP:    was it easy to choose the repertoire, or a difficult process?

TYNER:  Not really difficult.  Because I chose songs that I thought fit these guys, and did the best I could to do that.  I felt pretty good about it, the choice of songs for each guy.

TP:    Is performing in front of an audience for you a very different experience than performing in a studio?

TYNER:  It’s different.  The thing is, it all depends.  If you’re working with people consistently for a long period of time, it has to make a difference.  Like, “A Love Supreme” was sort of a culmination of all the musical experiences that we’d had with the quartet, and it was a high point.  But we knew each other.  We knew each other’s musical vocabulary.  If you talk to a person long enough and you live around a person long enough, you begin to get familiar with how they phrase, in terms of the words the pick, whatever.  Even if you can’t nail it right on the head all the time, but you have a sense of where they’re going with what they’re saying.  And it’s the same if you play with somebody for years.  You don’t have to second-guess.  You can just about go where you’re supposed to.

TP:    Your solo records are so rewarding.  I have the three solos or duos you did for Blue Note, and then this one…

TYNER:  I like to play solo.  I really do.

TP:    You sound free when you play solo.

TYNER:  Yes, because you can go where you want to go.  You don’t have consider if the bassist is following you.  Well, you can hear.  You don’t have to worry about the drummer, if you’re dealing with the rhythms or the melody or with the harmonic content. It’s all about what YOU want to do.  And that’s a lovely thing.  I like playing with a group, because if you can bring that kind of sensitivity to a group setting, it’s wonderful to have two or three or four guys or a big band do that, be sensitive to what’s going on, and listening and responding.  But if you really want to talk in terms of empathy, I think you can’t beat solo playing.  It’s about you.  You’re the only one there.  You can’t lay the blame on anybody!

TP:    Do you still practice a lot?

TYNER:  No, I don’t.  Not at all.  I should.  But I play a lot.  I perform a lot . But I try to compose.  I hear things in my hear and try to do that.  But I really don’t spend time practicing.  I used to years ago.  But my whole career, I’m very fortunate that I was working a lot with John… I haven’t really practiced since I was a teenager.  I spend time at the piano composing. That’s about it.

TP:    If you were going to practice, what might it be that you’d want to work on?

TYNER:  You know, Miles never practiced either.  There’s something about… When you play before the public, it’s better than practicing, I think.  Because you know that there is a communication that has to be made.  The music is about communication, too.  And I don’t mean playing down to people.  I mean just acknowledging the fact that they’re there, listening, and you’re going to take them on this journey.  I think that’s basically what it’s all about.

TP:    Philly Joe Jones once made the comment that he knew exactly what his hands were going to do, so why did he need to…

TYNER:  Yeah.  Well, see, you want it to be automatic.  You want it to be real self-expression.  And practicing is… I already had the tools that I need to work with.  It’s just a matter of ideas and how you present it.

TP:    You said that Miles didn’t practice, and he didn’t rehearse either.  And I gather you have a fairly liberal attitude about rehearsal.

TYNER:  Yes.  Because we didn’t rehearse… With John, I think we might have had… Well, I wouldn’t say a rehearsal.  We ran over some material we were going to record, maybe the Ballads album, and all I did was get like an intro and an ending, and that was it.

TP:    So getting together with Bobby for the European tour and presenting this new material, how did you let it evolve?

TYNER:  Well, we had to run over the material, because there were certain things I wanted to emphasize. But I wouldn’t say practicing.  It was just reviewing the music.

TP:    Because you’ve known each other so long.

TYNER:  That’s what it is.  It’s true, what Philly said.  Because if you have the tools, what are you practicing?  If you HAVE the tools, then it’s just a matter of the ideas and the feeling.  That becomes paramount, as opposed to “let me get in a couple of more runs under my fingers.”  Eventually that happens if you play enough over a period of years, that you can execute without thinking about it.

TP:    Would you talk a bit about the distinction between composition and playing?

TYNER:  I like to play my songs actually.  But then, again, I stuck that Duke Ellington song in there, “In A Mellow Tone,” because I like it.  And Duke’s songs have a tendency to swing!  Just playing the melody itself.  But basically I do like to play on the songs that I have written.

TP:    I guess they suit your style.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s what it is.

TP:    I’ve heard many musicians refer to improvising as spontaneous composition.

TYNER:  That’s a good phrase.  That’s exactly what it is.  And a lot of times, you’ll come up with a melody based on something you’ve played — that you are playing.  “I’ve heard that before.” “Oh, I played that last night.” [LAUGHS] Maybe you think about that.  I don’t know.  You don’t know where exactly it’s from, but it’s part of your expression in some kind of way.

TP:    I don’t know exactly how many records you’ve done, but there can’t be many things you haven’t done in your career.  I’m wondering if you have any aspiration that you haven’t fulfilled yet.

TYNER:  We’ll see.

TP:    You’ll let it come along.

TYNER:  Yes.  Something will tell you.  You just do it, and something will say, “Well, yeah, that’s the right thing.”  It just comes to you.  If music is your world, or whatever it is, it becomes intuitive. You don’t have to sit down and plan it for a year.  I can write a whole date in a couple of weeks in advance.  I wouldn’t advise people to do that.  But I’m just saying that when I’m placed under pressure, I do pretty well.

TP:    Pressure is the great motivator.

TYNER:  Yes, it sure is.  When you have a deadline.  But that’s good, because you learn how to deal with it.

TP:    You bet.  And it makes you stronger.

TYNER:  That’s right.

TP:    So this summer, are you going to be out a good bit, and any with Bobby?

TYNER:  I’m going to Italy and to Japan for about three weeks, and George Mraz and Lewis Nash will be playing with me.

TP:    You’re just getting all the second stringers, aren’t you.

TYNER:  George is a wonderful bass player.  He knows how to play with a piano.  For some reason, you can go where you want to go, and George is right there.  He’s a nice man, he’s fun to be around, and it’s nice to have that kind of selection of people.  He played with Oscar, he played with Hank, he played with Tommy Flanagan.  He knows what to do when it comes to piano players!  He’s not trying to take it out.  He’s the kind of guy that likes to blend into what’s going on.  But when he solos he’s got a beautiful sound on the instrument.  I love George.

TP:    You’ll have fun with Lewis, too.

TYNER:  I did an album of Bert Bacharach’s music that Lewis is on.  I host at Yoshi’s in Oakland every year (this will be the tenth year), and a lot of guys play, and each week is a different band.  Lewis and Christian McBride, who’s one of my neighborhood guys, played very well together.  This year it’s going to be Tain Watts.

TP:    Tain told me a story about having an initiation with you, back in ’87, when he played with you and put out all his stuff on one tune, and he said that after that he was hanging on for dear life, because he’d played it all already.  You were just beginning and he’d played all his stuff.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Well, he’s increased his knowledge.  He seems to have a lot left.

TP:    Well, he told the story with relish. It was, “Yeah, McCoy got me.” But again, Art Blakey did it, Miles did it… You’ve become this jazz elder…

TYNER:  Elder statesman? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Well, a jazz elder griot type of thing, where the material gets passed down in this manner to so many people who then sustain it.

TYNER:  I’ve been fortunate to have known a lot of great people who were great inspirations, and I’m very thankful for that opportunity — or whatever you would call it.

* * * *

McCoy Tyner (7-25-03):

TP:    I’d like to talk first of all about your summer itinerary, the configurations you’re working in, the musicians you’re playing with.  I gather you recently did three weeks with Lewis Nash in Japan.

TYNER:  Yeah, he went with me to Japan, and we did a tour of the Blue Notes in Japan.  It’s very nice; Blue Note franchised out the name over there.  It was a great reception.  I’ve been going to Japan since 1966.  The first time I went over was what they called the Drum Battle (it was more like a reunion to me) between Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey.  It was the first time I went over, with Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Owens, and I forget the bass player.  Of course, I’ve gone back after that with my own bands over the years.

TP:    You did a number of recordings there.

TYNER:  I did a solo piano thing, “Echoes of A Friend,” which was dedicated to Coltrane.

TP:    You did it in ’72.

TYNER:  Yeah, something like that.  But there’s a solid base there.

TP:    Japan is part of your regular touring itinerary.  I guess the trio with George Mraz and Lewis has a certain type of tonal personality. Do you go in a different direction, say, with that personnel than, say, with Charnett Moffett and Al Foster.  Or if Jack DeJohnette were playing in a trio with Ron Carter.  I’m just throwing out names.  I’m wondering how different musicians of different attitudes affect the way you respond and listen.

TYNER:  Well, it’s always like that anyway, when you play with people of different characters and characteristics, different personalities.  It’s just like meeting an old friend.  You can’t compare him to the one you ran into yesterday.  They’re completely… Well, they’re not completely different, but what it is, they know what my style is like.  So what they do is, they know they have to listen, and that’s all I ask.  Because I wouldn’t have chosen to have them on this tour if I didn’t think that they could perform with me.  And individually, they have.  George played with me and Al when we did this Coltrane tribute, and Lewis did the Bacharach thing and something else with me.  So they know what they’re in for basically.

TP:    Do you know what you’re in for beforehand?

TYNER:  No, I don’t want to know.

TP:    Do you like the surprise?

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.  I’m surprised all the time.  Because they’re growing, and I say, “Oh, wow, there’s something different this time.”  It’s always different anyway, but it’s nice to hear them move in a positive way and develop.  Because we’re all growing.  That’s what it’s all about.  One tour you do with a guy one time, and then the next year or so it’s different.

TP:    But you had a working band for many years with Avery Sharpe and Aaron Scott.

TYNER:  Yes, I did.

TP:    You did other projects, but that was basically the band.  Now it seems like you’re experimenting with different configurations.

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    What was the reason for disbanding at this point?

TYNER:  Well, everything runs its term.  What I’m saying is that everything has a term.  I had a great rhythm section with them for years, but then I thought it might be a good time to do something different.  I think if you force something to happen, even if it’s change, you can have a negative response. But if it happens naturally… In all the bands I’ve had, it reached a point where it served its purpose for that time period.  Then it was time for me to choose something else.  But I didn’t force it.  Avery was with me for 20 years and Aaron was close for 17-18 years, so it served its purpose.

TP:    Can you describe what the purpose might have been with that band?  I mean, they were obviously very suitable to you.  You had a three-way affinity.  You’re not going to do anything you don’t want to do for two decades.

TYNER:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Talk about the qualities.

TYNER:  It was very good qualities.  The thing is that they were very consistent in what they were doing, and determined.  They were eager to learn and develop.  And that’s one thing I do like about people who work with me.  I hope that when it’s served its purpose, that they walk away with information that they didn’t have before they joined my band, and had the opportunity to develop.  I think that’s very important.  But I think it went as far individually as it could have gone, and as a group, consequently, if you don’t move, then everybody is sort of stuck in a situation… You want to be organic.  You want to be healthy no matter what the configuration is.  You want that healthy attitude.  And we can only do what we can do.

TP:    It sounds to me as though you’re now in a mind space where it suits you to play with as many different empathetic personalities as you can, and are able to give yourself a lot of leeway.  Would that be true, or are you looking to find a steadily working group again?

TYNER:  As long as they’re compatible, is what I’m doing.  If they’re not compatible… I can tell sometimes by listening to people.  I heard Eric when he was with Betty Carter.  We were in actually, of all places, Beirut, Lebanon!  They invited us over.  I was a little hesitant at first, but then I’m glad we went.  They were very nice people who invited us there.  Eric was playing with Betty then, and I was playing I think with the Latin band opposite her.  I had a chance to hear Eric then.  I had met Eric actually as a teenager in high school in Houston.  I went to the university to give a little bit of a talk, and met him.  He was a kid at the time.  Of course, he’s developed quite extensively from when I met him with Betty, but it was nice…

TP:    She raised him good.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Well, the thing is that we were able to play together and have fun, and that’s good.  He plays with Terence Blanchard and other people, and I think he was with Charles Lloyd recently.  I think Charles heard him in London when we did the thing in London, and said, “Oh, I want that guy to play with me.”  It’s not a steady gig, but he definitely has been making some appearances.  But hey, whenever possible.  That way, I don’t have to dependent on any one guy — on one bass player or one drummer.

TP:    So there’s the trio, and are you doing anything with Bobby Hutcherson this summer also?  Or are you resuming that quartet in the Fall?

TYNER:  I think we’re resuming in the fall.  We’ve come back from Japan not too long ago, maybe ten days ago, and we’re doing something at Lincoln Center on August 2nd.  Dave Valentin is playing flute, and Charnett Moffett and Eric on drums.

TP:    I’d like to ask about the Latin band a bit.  This will take me back a bit and focus on that Philadelphia territory.

TYNER:  Are you from Philly?

TP:    No.  I know a lot of people from Philly, though, and I’ve talked with a lot of musicians who are your peers and older than you and younger than you, like Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath and Reggie Workman and various people.  When we spoke earlier, you said there was an African drummer in Philly whose name you couldn’t quite recall the spelling of, who taught you in the early ’50s…

TYNER:  He didn’t teach me, but I was in his presence.  He taught guys who percussion was their thing.  That was their instrument.  I played piano.  I was just messing around with him.

TP:    You said you did fool around with the drums, but it damaged your fingers.

TYNER:  Yeah, in the joints.  That’s why you see a lot of conga players who have tape on the joints.  They say, “I’m not going to ruin these babies.”

TP:    The crown jewels!

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] I had enough intelligence even during that time!

TP:    You mentioned Garvin Masseaux, Robert Crowder…

TYNER:  Rob’s still there.

TP:    Eric Gravatt might have been an extension of that.  But what this guy was doing filtered into your consciousness, sort of became imprinted on the way you think about music.  Then there was a quote in Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane from your former wife Aisha that Latin music was very big in Philly, and everyone danced the merengue.  So all this stuff was percolating for you when you were a young player, in formative years.  I wondered if you had anything to say about how that environment became more solidified as you became a more mature musician.

TYNER:  I was exposed to African culture when I was a teenager because the atmosphere was conducive to that.  So Saka coming to study at Temple University (I think it was political science or something like that), and bringing his sister over to teach African dancing was very appropriate, because at that time people were involved and being conscious of who they are in history.  From that point, we then… Of course, we met Olatunji in New York.  Although my association with the dancing school at the time is where Saka came to teach the other guys, the percussionists.

TP:    So when his sister would teach African dance, he’d come in and play or bring those guys in to play with the class?

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    And did you play in the dance class that he was teaching, or the drummers?

TYNER:  No, the drummers would.  The only thing I did was, I composed a…not composed, but I just played a little piano for one of those things they did, a kind of South American production, along with other things…

TP:    I think you said “Viva Zapata.”

TYNER:  Yes, “Viva Zapata.”  I played that for the dance company.  Because they did some choreography for that, and that was kind of a big…

TP:    But when you started composing music… You said your first charts were with that R&B band you had, but I’d think your more mature compositions began when you were 19-20-21…

TYNER:  No, before that.

TP:    What’s the earliest composition of yours that you recorded?

TYNER:  Well, I did an album called Inception on Impulse!, and there’s a song called “Sunset.” “Effendi” is another thing.

TP:    “Effendi” you wrote in Philly?

TYNER:  No, I didn’t write that in Philly.

TP:    I just wondered if there was anything when you were 18 or 19…

TYNER:  Yeah, I wrote a song, but it was so long, I should have called it “When Is This Going To End”?  I wrote a few songs, but I don’t remember exactly the title of the song.  It was something I wrote for my R&B band. But what we did was play “Flying Home” and some Tiny Bradshaw stuff…

TP:    You were how old then?

TYNER:  14 and 15, like that.  I improved very rapidly, you know.

TP:    It sounds like your learning curve was immense.

TYNER:  Yeah.

TP:    You didn’t play until you were 13, but by the time you were 17, Coltrane was impressed!

TYNER:  Yes, it was meant to happen.  I played with a lot of people.  Red Rodney moved to my neighborhood, and he knew Oscar Pettiford, and Oscar came in.  We played one week at a local place called the Blue Note.  Red had played with Bird, and he moved into my neighborhood, so he found out about me.  Then, of course, I met Calvin Massey way before that, and that’s who introduced me to John.

TP:    People in Philly born in 1938 include Lee Morgan and Reggie Workman and Archie Shepp.  Pretty good company.

TYNER:  Yeah!  I used to play with Archie and Lee.  Lee and I used to play fraternity dances.  We did a graduation at Cheyney College outside of Philly.  We did gigs around.  We went to Atlantic City, which was fun.  Then Max Roach came through.  I met him when I was 18, right after Brownie and Richie had passed, and he was trying to get me to join his band.  But Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham were playing on there, and George Morrow.  That was a heck of a band.  But I didn’t travel.  I did the week at the Showboat.

TP:    The story you told about Max was that he asked, “Do you know ‘Just One Of Those Things’?” and you played it at his tempo, and he said, “Ah!”

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yes.  I loved playing with Sonny.

TP:    So the standards were high when you were coming up.

TYNER:  Yes, the standards were very high.  Appearance, presentation — you had to be on point for that.  It was good training, because things to changed as time went on, and people started looking at it completely differently.  The musicians, basically, the way they presented themselves, and… Of course they were very talented people.  But still, I think presentation is a major part of the music.

TP:    You’re obviously someone who pays a lot of attention to personal style.

TYNER:  Uh-huh.

TP:    It’s obvious, just seeing you now.  It’s 90 degrees, and Mr. Tyner is in a very nice, dark blue…is it a silk shirt?

TYNER:  Yes, silk.

TP:    A beautifully textured silk shirt, a white patterned silk tie, and it looks like white linen pants.

TYNER:  Yeah, that’s what it is.

TP:    Now, maybe you have someplace to go now.

TYNER:  No.  I just…

TP:    But you always look tip-top when you’re performing.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s important.  I came up in an era when Art Blakey used to say “People see you before they hear you.”  It’s just a respect for yourself and what you’re doing that I think should emanate before you go up.

TP:    No doubt.  Your mother was a beautician, had a beauty shop.  Did she have a lot to do with your personal style and sense of presentation?

TYNER:  My mother had a lot to do with everything in my development!  Her name was Beatrice — Beatrice Tyner.  She was just the ultimate classic person.  Very, very elegant, my mother.  I don’t mean that in terms of using clothes or to make her better than anyone else, but just her demeanor, her personality.  She’s a very honest, very likeable person.  People really loved my mother a lot.  She was caring, a very caring person.  She loved music.  She loved piano actually.  She didn’t play, but sometimes we’d go to somebody’s house who had a piano, and she’d tinkle a little bit.  But when anything came up that she thought I should be interested in, she’d let me know — and be very supportive.

TP:    It surprises me, just because of your level of technique and fluency with the instrument, that you started playing at 13.  It sounds like you were listening to music from way before that.  It sounds like all this was in your head and your body by the time you started playing.

TYNER:  Yes, I’d say so.  I listened… From my affiliation with the dance school and the fact that I had two good teachers in the beginning, one guy who taught the beginner piano and then I had an Italian teacher who went through the books and all that.  That was kind of before I formed my R&B band.  I was 13, 13-1/2, whatever.  Then about 14, I put the books kind of the side, and just started studying a little theory.  I went to Granoff School, but that was more like… It was a basically European approach, and that wasn’t what I was looking for.  And the (?) Music Center, which was a nice place…

But I think that mine just came from… I had the facility, because I used to practice all the time.  But like I say, you can’t describe why you have certain treasures, why certain things emanate from you, why certain things just emerge.  It’s hard to explain a gift.  I mean, how can you explain that?  It’s just one of those things.  You keep doing it.  And of course, I had the encouragement of a lot of older musicians around Philadelphia.  Even before I met John, there were guys who were very encouraging — older musicians who heard about me.

TP:    Piano players?

TYNER:  Well, there were piano players around town that were very nice.

TP:    Who were some of your mentors?

TYNER:  Well, Bud Powell was around the corner from me.

TP:    Was he personally encouraging?

TYNER:  No, not personally encouraging.

TP:    Did he have a wall around him at that time?

TYNER:  Well, he was kind of like a child prodigy.  But he needed care.  He needed somebody to be with him.  He needed somebody to take care of him.  He couldn’t function alone.  So he always had these guys.  I don’t know how sincere they were, but they were around him.  But the level of musicality around Philadelphia was on a higher level.  The jam sessions… We used to have jam sessions all the time.  See, what you can’t do… If you’re going to add to what’s there, if you’re going to contribute something, you can’t copy from… You can’t copy people.  It has to be there.  It has to be something that you’re born with.  I never wanted to play like… As much as I loved Bud and Thelonious, I learned a lot from them, from listening to them, and then, of course, meeting Bud and meeting Thelonious later…over the years… They taught me… And Monk was adamant about it.  He respected you when you had your own direction.  He loved that.  I mean, I learned a lot.  I used to kind of try to (?) Monk when I was still (?).  But not to the point where I wanted to be them or wanted to sound just like them.  But Monk was definitely the kind of person, like, “You have your own thing?  Great!”  Because that was the way he was.  I was very fortunate to know him kind of on a personal level.

TP:    There’s that old jazz cliche, “make a mistake; do something right.”

TYNER:  That’s right.

TP:    Benny Golson had a story about playing maybe with Buhaina at the Cafe Bohemia, and his eyes are closed, and he looks up, and there’s Monk in his shades, and after the set he made a comment to the effect that he was playing too perfect, and he just stop thinking about being perfect.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s true.  A lot of things come out of so-called “mistakes.” Really, it’s how what you do with it.  How you shape music.  Nothing’s a mistake.  It’s how you resolve.  When you play something, how you resolve it.

TP:    Thinking on your feet.

TYNER:  Yeah, thinking on your feet.

TP:    At this stage of your life, do you ever make mistakes that you resolve?

TYNER:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    There’s a certain sense of magisterial authoritativeness to the stuff you do!  I don’t know how else to describe it.  But there are times when it sounds as though you’re allowing yourself to get to the other… It sounds like you get into separate spaces when you play, that sometimes it’s just the way it’s supposed to be and presentation, and sometimes that it’s more open-ended.  Now, I don’t know you at all, but am I anywhere close to the reality?

TYNER:  Yeah.  Well, the thing is, I sort of have a controlled sense of experimentation.  That’s what it is.  I go out, but I have to come from something.  Whatever it is, there has to be something there to work from.  Or it can be created.  If it’s sort of a song that’s open, like one of the songs on the record…I forget what I called it… Not “The Search,” but the title is something like… We didn’t have a melody, but it was conceived that way — no melody.  So we just used tonal centers, moved from one tone to another, from one sound, one cluster to another — that kind of thing.  Which I had that experience paying with John.  But I try to use that when it’s appropriate for me, as opposed to using that as a main way to express myself.  It’s another tool.  That’s all.

TP:    It’s interesting that you can go in and out of those attitudes.  A lot of people who have a total sense of their music, who are composers, don’t allow themselves to get into that space, or very rarely so. And you seem able to access both parts of yourself.

TYNER:  Yes.  I have sort of a mixed personality in that respect.  I can do that.  I’m not trying to prove anything…to no one.

TP:    I wouldn’t think.

TYNER:  Just trying to have some fun, and trying to find out more about myself musically.  And sometimes, you find out after you listen back at something.  You say, “Wow, that’s what I did.  Where was I going?”  Because I don’t want to reach the point where everything is predetermined.  It’s not artistic when everything is predetermined.

TP:    I don’t want to burden you too much by dwelling on your time with John Coltrane, but your comment makes me think of a comment I read in a French magazine, where you spoke of your contribution to the evolution of that music, and that it was rooted particularly in your time, in the authority of your left hand, that he always had a home base to come back to somehow, and that you always have a home base to come back to somehow.  I wonder if you could talk about that for the purposes of this conversation.

TYNER:  Well, something’s got to come from someplace, go somewhere, and then return to someplace.  Maybe it might be a different place that you ultimately return to.  But I think it’s good to have these different dynamic dimensions, to go from here to somewhere, using that as a base, and go somewhere and then from there to return…or to resolve it.  Resolution is very important.  Sometimes you listen to people and they go into very interesting places, but then they leave you hanging.  Where are you going from here?  You going to leave me here?  Whatever.  But I always like to make it a complete journey — a departure, a flight and then a landing. [LAUGHS] Sort of what I do normally when I travel!  A good analogy.

TP:    You haven’t crashed yet.

TYNER:  Hopefully not.

TP:    You said you were interested     in drums before encountering Saka.  Who were some of the trap drummers who were favorites of yours in your pre Coltrane years?  I imagine Philly Joe Jones must have been one.

TYNER:  Yes.  I didn’t know Philly when he was there, though.

TP:    Specs Wright.

TYNER:  I knew Specs.  Philly had left, because he was with Miles — him and Red.  But I knew they’d been around Philly a long time.  But there were guys from my generation who were around Philly.  Tootie Heath.  We jammed together.  Lex Humphries was there; he left to go with Dizzy, but he was around for a while.  A guy named Eddie Campbell, who passed; he was a good Art Blakey style drummer.  There were a lot of good guys around who played well.  We were very fortunate in that way.  I mean, we did have good musicians around.

TP:    Were you leading trios around Philly?  Actual piano trios?  When you did Inception, was that just something you went into the studio and did, or had you put some time into that format?

TYNER:  I did some things trio, but not many.  When I’d go to Atlantic City, there would usually be a horn player.  The first time I went was with Paul Jeffries.  Paul came from Philly, and some kind of way Paul got that job in Atlantic City.  We worked at a place called King’s Bar.  That’s really what it was, a bar.  The guy liked my playing so much, he went to Philadelphia and bought a piano.  He bought a little spinet.  Because his piano was horrible.  So Paul and I, we worked together down there for a while.

Then I went down with Lee Morgan.  With Eddie Campbell one time.  I know once with Lex Humphries.  There was a place called the Cotton Club, big-time, that had two stages.  Dinah Washington came in, she was on one stage with Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on piano.  Then J.J. Johnson came in with Tootie and Wilbur Little on bass and Tommy Flanagan on piano.

TP:    A heady summer.

TYNER:  Yes.  We spent a couple of summers down in Atlantic City.  I think we came back to that same club, the Cotton Club.  It was nice, because we’d have jam sessions late at night after everybody got off at the Steel Pier, all the big bands, and they’d converge on this club until dawn.  How I learned how to play was hands-on.  It wasn’t examining somebody.  Just okay, sit down and play for a while, and then when you’re done there’s another piano player, get up and let him sit down and play.  So everybody had a chance.  When I used to look back and see the line of tenor players that were looking for me to comp, and there would be about ten guys, each looking to play.  Then my mother’s shop was a favorite place.  And a lot of the homes.  Another place called Rittenhouse Hall.  This guy loved the music, and he loved to have dances on the weekend.  People danced to bebop music.  It was the music of that period that I came out of.

TP:    You said somewhere that in doing the gigs, you had to learn the tunes of the day by Bird and Dizzy and Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins.  Sonny Stitt might come through and call those tunes, so if you wanted to make the gig, you had to learn the tunes.  It was an organic thing.  Your quotidian, as they say.

TYNER:  What was so unique about playing for Sonny Stitt, was that whenever Sonny would come to town, there would be four or five tenor players in the club waiting to sit in and cut Sonny.  What he would do… He solved that very easily.  When he saw these guys, he said, “Come on up!  Come on!  Don’t be hesitant.”  The cats would get on the stage.  He’d say, “‘Cherokee’” – [CLAPS FAST] Like this.  And then he would modulate half-steps.

TP:    He’d play every key.

TYNER:  Every chorus he would go up half-steps.  B-    flat, B, C, C-flat… Then the guy would be shaking… “What’s wrong with the saxophone?”  He solved that problem.  Sonny was an amazing musician.  And then, to work with Sonny Rollins and K.D. was… From playing with Max, I really had a chance to meet some very fine…

TP:    Had you chosen to leave Philadelphia in 1958, say, you would have been equipped to do so.

TYNER:  Yeah.  I was ready.  I was ready to do the album John required, Giant Steps.  I knew those songs.  Of course, he used Tommy.  Tommy was in New York.  I guess he felt, “This guy is so young.”  But I was really poised to be on that date.

TP:    You’ve expressed that in print on many occasions.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] But to question his judgment… Then eventually, of course, I moved up to New York.

TP:    Well, you seem to have had such a sense of certainty that you were meant to be with Coltrane.  Anything I’ve ever seen written about you, you express with utmost certainty that it was meant to be from years before it started.

TYNER:  Yes.  Because he was like family to me.  His wife at that time was very close to my girlfriend, who was going to be my wife, and then, my sister-in-law was a singer.  He was like family.  I didn’t have a big brother.  So he was like a big brother, and his Mom… I’d go to his house, and sit up while he composed “Countdown” and all those songs.  So we had a beautiful, friendly relationship.  It’s almost, like I said, like a family.

TP:    Walter Davis, Jr. would talk about being a teenager and going to Bud Powell’s house when he was composing “Glass Enclosure” or “Hallucinations,” and Walter Davis would play motifs so Bud could hear it.  There was that synergy, so he felt totally intimate and at one with Bud’s music and with Bud.  It was a destiny thing.

TYNER:  Walter Davis was a beautiful guy.  I miss that guy.

TP:    But it seems it was the same way for you with Coltrane.

TYNER:  Yeah.  It was more than just me being a piano player.  He used to call me “Coy.”  “Hey, Coy, what about this?”     It was a very, very close, more of a family kind of relationship.  He had confidence in me, and he knew that that’s where I needed to be, whatever he’d want in his band.  Of course, it took a while, because Miles had to figure out how to get used to him not being there. [LAUGHS] It’s hard to get rid of a guy that great!  Anyway, there was no question that’s where I belonged.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the solo record, Jazz Roots.  Maybe I’m overstating the case here, but I wonder if you could give me impressions of some of these piano players who you signify on here.  Is it okay?

TYNER:  Yeah, if you want to ask me questions about it.

TP:    Let me start with one who isn’t on here, Ahmad Jamal.  When I listen to your earlier records, it seems you were listening to him a lot at that time.

TYNER:  It’s hard to cover the whole spectrum of pianists because there were so many.  I knew Ahmad very well.  But I think I was mainly influenced by Bud and Thelonious.  I really think that was my main influence at the beginning.  Of course, being with John… John was really maybe the number-one instrument, but on the instrument, Bud and Monk.  But the thing is that playing with the Jazztet, when we did “Killer Joe,” that situation kind of reminded me of Ahmad’s playing. Miles loved Ahmad, and I think Benny picked up on that.  So that might have been what that was.  But I just did what I thought Benny wanted for that song.  But Bud and Monk were my main influences.

TP:    I’m not so much looking for what you picked up as your impressionistic sense of what it feels like to hear them.

TYNER:  Individuality.  You see, that’s the key to the whole thing.  You cannot be anybody else but yourself, even if you want to be!  I would like to be like this guy.  Why do we need those kind of heroes?  A guy is already a hero, whether you acknowledge it or not, any time they make that kind of impression on the scene — on music, I should say.  It’s nice to give people the props and give them the praise for what they’re doing and what they’ve done.  But to make them supersede what you ultimately want to be by being them, it’s impossible!  You can never be them.  You have to be yourself.

TP:    Does everyone who plays with you have to have that quality, too?  Do they all have to be straight-up, individualistic players?

TYNER:  I hope so.  In other words, at least look for that.  I think we spend a lifetime, or at least we should, trying to find out who we are as people, as individuals, as opposed to “Let me copy that guy, let me copy that guy…” It’s a blind alley, I think.  Because you can be a spy about somebody, but to say, “Okay, wow, let me stick to this for the rest of my life” is crazy.

TP:    Is it harder to find those type of individualistic personalities now than it was, say, when you started leading groups in the mid-’60s after you left John Coltrane?

TYNER:  Well, yeah, it became a little difficult, I guess.  Everybody had graduated, and I had my band and some of them formed their own bands and carried on with their own lives, and I thought maybe that was very good.  You can’t get attached to someone to the point where you restrict them from doing what they have to do ultimately. So if they’ve learned something from working with me, then I have to continue to look, to see what’s next on the agenda, who’s going to be the next guy that works with me.  That’s it.  Who knows?  You never know.  I had my previous trio for a long time, because I hadn’t really heard anyone — and I knew there were guys around — who could really do what I was looking for.  Then they came along.  Lewis. Of course, Al was around, but he was busy; he worked with Miles for many years.  So it was one of those kind of things.  It always come around eventually, if you keep trying.  The right thing comes around.

TP:    You made a comment in our previous conversation that.. [END OF SIDE] ..what might those qualities be?

TYNER:  You have to have an open mind and the ability to execute the ideas that you hear within your limitations — or within your conscious limitations.  Because you might be able to do a lot better than you think you can.  I think not being afraid to take chances, not being afraid to feel the situation at hand, as opposed to feeling, “Oh, I’m limited; I can’t do this.”  It’s not good for an artist to feel that kind of fear.  If he wants to consciously do something particularly simple or maybe for this particular song he wants to keep it simple, that’s different.  But being afraid to explore, I think is… I like guys around me who are willing to take chances, but do it on a level of professionalism that stands out, as opposed to just doing… But it’s a very personal thing, because you’re asking a person to be honest with themselves and not be afraid.  And most of us have fears and sometimes we’re not honest! [LAUGHS]

TP:    On that level, of chance-taking in a professional way, I can’t think of a more deft foil for you than Bobby Hutcherson.

TYNER:  Yes, Bobby and I play very well together.  His wife said that sometimes she listens to the way we phrase, and she said sometimes it’s hard for her to tell who’s playing, or which is playing, the vibes or the piano.  We phrase very much alike.  We have a similar approach.

TP:    It seems you read each other’s minds.

TYNER:  That’s right.  He’s a very responsive and creative individual.

TP:    Listening to this record through headphones is a lot of fun!

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Now, that’s a main point.  You said what are the qualifications of people playing with me.  You like to have fun.  I love to have.  It’s very important.  You’ve got to have fun!

TP:    If you’re a performer, you can’t communicate that sense to other people unless you’re experiencing it yourself.  It may not be a qualification for other professions, but as a musician…

TYNER:  Yes.  You’ve got to be able… You’re out there… I remember a guy told me one time… I was playing a solo gig, and he said, “Yeah, you’re out there, you put yourself out there.”  He admired that, because he knew that took courage.  Playing music, you have to love it, but you can’t be afraid to express yourself.  You’ve got to just jump in and do it.

TP:    At this stage, the name McCoy Tyner is known around the world.  You have a world-wide audience, you have a visibility beyond the jazz audience.  In some ways, you’re almost as iconic a figure as Coltrane was in his day. You’ve lived another 35 years at a high level of creativity and accomplishment.  I did a piece on Sonny Rollins a few years ago, and he said to me, “I’m supposed to be a legend, right?”

TYNER:  [LOUD LAUGH]

TP:    “But I still have to go up there on the stage, so what good does it do me?”  Something to that extent.  How do you respond to that persona?  Obviously, you’re living your life day-by day, you put your pants on one leg at a time.  Blah-blah-blah.  But you also know that you’re McCoy Tyner.

TYNER:  Well, you have to keep that in mind, that you put your pants on one leg at a time! [LAUGHS] Don’t lose sight of that!  Right.  The simplicities of life are very important.  And I think when you start riding on this high horse and thinking of this and that… I only did what I was supposed to do, and basically it… I mean, people think it’s fabulous.  And when I look back at my musical history, I’m very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and to have been able to rise to the occasion.  I think it was really great to have been in that kind of environment and been able to do that.  But as far as labels and so on, I think that one should never down play one’s contribution or creativity or look down on themselves.  I don’t do that.  I feel as though I did the best I could.  And I thought it was pretty good!  It wasn’t bad!  Some people sort of might want to rest on their laurels or they don’t feel good unless somebody’s putting them on a pedestal.  I’m a very simple guy.  I like simplicity in life.  But I don’t downplay what I’ve done, not at all.  I have the confidence in myself.  That’s very important to me.

TP:    Can I ask you what you like to do in your off-time when you’re not playing music?  Are you a reader?  Do you watch films?  Do you go fishing?  Do you work out at the gym?

TYNER:  There’s one four letter word I like to use — “r-e-s-t.”  Rest.  I do like to rest, and I drink a lot of health juices.  There’s a juice bar across the street from me.  I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager — carrot and celery juice and all that stuff like that.  I need to exercise more, but sometimes I’m so tired from going through airports… I like going out to the theater.  I’ve seen musicals on Broadway, and various plays, and I like that.  I have friends that enjoy me asking them out to dinner and then a play.

TP:    Are you vegetarian?

TYNER:  No.  It’s funny, because I do like the vegetarian cuisine, and I do have friends who are vegetarian.  But I’m not like…

TP:    You’re not a fanatic.

TYNER:  No, I’m not a fanatic.  No way.  I’m not a vegan.  But I like the juice.  I have a juice machine at home.  I don’t use it, because when the juice bar moved across the street I said, “I’m not cleaning this machine!”  I go to his place and let him clean his machine!  I love the diet, but I’ve never claimed to be… I like meat and chicken and fish.  I have a pretty normal diet. But I try to eat good and healthy, and not overdo it.

TP:    Are you someone who thinks about music all the time?

TYNER:  No.

TP:    There’s stuff around us right now, and some people would say, “Ah, I hear music in the rustling of the trees; I can put that into a composition…”

TYNER:  I think it has to be like osmosis.  I don’t think you necessarily should consciously say, “Wow, man, that leaf is so gorgeous, I see a song!”  But I think when you put yourself in good environments, or you happen to be in an environment that’s uncomfortable, whatever it is, you will get something from it.  I think it should be an unconscious assimilation.  When I say “unconscious,” it’s nice when you can absorb things without saying it.  You can feel it if you’re getting something.  To sensitize yourself.

TP:    But you don’t practice.

TYNER:  No.  Not any more.  Somebody asked Miles that, and Miles said, in his blunt way, “Practice for what?!”  What it is, once you attain a certain amount of technical ability, then it’s what are you going to do with it?  It’s not about attaining more.  John even said it.  John said, “After a while, you have enough technique” — because he used to practice a lot to do thing that he wanted to do, that he heard.  And I think he reached the point where he felt like he had enough.

TP:    Really?  He stopped practicing?

TYNER:  No, he would practice.  Because he was hearing a lot of things.  But he reached a point where I guess he felt as though he had enough of a facility, but maybe he was practicing for another reason — for sound and things like that.  Because if you step away from your instrument for a long period of time, you don’t lose the connection, but it’s not the same.  I feel as though I’m in a very good state when I’m performing.  If I stay away from performing for a long time, from playing for a long time, being in contact with music, it’s not as healthy for me as when I’m playing.  I feel very good when I leave the gig and I’ve had a good night — I feel elated.

TP:    Do you keep a sort of steady but not overly… There are a lot of people who say that they just practice on the bandstand or at soundcheck?

TYNER:  You see, what it is, like I said before: The physical side of playing is having a facility to execute certain things — to have the ability to execute.  But how you… Like Lance Armstrong, for instance, this guy who had that bout with cancer.  He’s won the competition now for how many hears?  But there’s something that kicks in that has nothing to do with the fact that… I shouldn’t say nothing.  But maybe it’s more the ability of wanting to win or wanting to overcome or whatever it is, to show just how far you can push the envelope.  whatever.  So I think that’s sometimes more important than having the facility to do things.  The physical aspect is one thing, but if you don’t have the motivation, then that’s…

TP:    The will.

TYNER:  The will.

TP:    Do you ever write stuff for yourself that’s beyond your technique to give yourself a challenge?  Maybe there isn’t anything that’s beyond your technique.

TYNER:  I never do that. [LAUGHS] I never do that!  I don’t want it to be an exercise.

TP:    I’m not suggesting it would necessarily be an exercise.  But is there anything you conceptualize that you have to stretch to play?

TYNER:  Why strain myself? [LAUGHS] I like me!

TP:    Maybe that’s what it is. If that’s your answer, that’s your answer.

TYNER:  What can I tell you?  If I do write something that’s challenging, it’s good!  It’s good.  Like the rapper say, it’s all good.

TP:    I think that precedes the rappers.  I think it comes from the jazz musicians.

TYNER:  I think so.  They took a lot of things from the jazz musicians.  And then when you tell them, it’s “Hmm, really?” [LAUGHS]

TP:    So your attitude about technique is that it’s at the service of…

TYNER:  It’s a facility.  That’s all it is.  Look what Thelonious did with so little.  That to me was miraculous, how he would take a very simple idea and with the feeling he interjected into that idea… It wasn’t about how many notes he played, not at all.  It was about the idea and the feeling that came out of that situation.  He would tell Charlie Rouse… Charlie would want to do another take in the studio, and Monk said, “sorry, that’s it; whatever we did, that’s all you’re going to get.  That’s it.  I’m not doing another one.”  The immediacy of it all. The spontaneity.

TP:    Did you spend a lot of time with Monk?

TYNER:  What happened is that John had worked with Monk for a while, with Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware.  I heard that band.  Oh my God!  I walked into the Five Spot… Before I came to New York, my wife and I actually came up… We knew John.  Like I said, it was a big family.  I heard he was playing with Monk, so I said, “Oh, man, one of my heroes…” I walked into the Five Spot, and Shadow was set up right near the door.  And that cymbal beat, and then Wilbur… Oh, man!  Monk was up at the bar dancing and John was taking a solo.  Oh, man, I’ll tell you.  Whoo!

TP:    Imprinted on your memory.

TYNER:  Yes, it sure did!  But it just goes to show you how important simplicity is.  It’s so important. Sometimes even more than having the facility.  Having facility… It’s what you do with it.  It’s the idea you’re trying to portray, more than having… Look, it counts for something.  Everybody has their own way.  Bud was different.  And he loved Monk for that reason, too.  A simple idea and the depth that he was able to demonstrate with simplicity is amazing.

TP:    Your style has so much ornamentation, but there are always very melodic ideas, and it never gets far away from the melody no matter how far out it might get.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.  John said that in one thing he wrote.  He said that I try to make things sound beautiful.  I don’t know about that…

TP:    Maybe that’s just part of who you are.

TYNER:  Yeah, you can get away from yourself.  That’s for sure!

TP:    I’ve been listening as much as possible to your various records, and a lot of the songs sound like they were made to have lyrics put to them.  Have you ever written a song that got onto mainstream radio?

TYNER:  I did an album called Looking Out for Columbia, on which I had  Carlos Santana and Phyllis Hyman. That’s when Bruce Lundvall was at Columbia; he got a lot of jazz guys on the label.  So they wanted me to do something they felt was a little more accessible.  I knew Carlos, and Carlos loved the music I did with John, John was a big hero of his.  So he said fine, and I tried that.  I wrote a song for Carlos kind of in the Latin Rock kind of thing.  I liked it.  My mind is very wide.  I deal with the situation at hand.  So I wrote a song called “Love Surrounds You Everywhere,” and Phyllis sang it.  I wrote the lyrics for it.

TP:    “You Taught My Heart To Sing” just seems like a natural.

TYNER:  I’ll tell you.  I wanted Barbra Streisand to do that.  I kind of felt as though she could do a good job with that.  Of course, Diane Reeves recorded that.  Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics.  Somebody mentioned that to Sammy, and he’d heard me… I went up to his New York apartment, and Sammy was on the typewriter, we were back-to-back that way — he had a little spinet.  Sammy said, “Play that again.”  He wanted to hear the actual melody.  He said, “Just play it straight.”  And he was typing away!  He must have had a good…

TP:    Did you play much with vocalists?  Apart from the Johnny Hartman Trio, for which I can’t imagine a more sympathetic trio… Did you have much experience?

TYNER:  Just my sister-in-law, that’s about it.  Because she was around locally in Philadelphia.  I did a thing with Ernestine when she came through Philly.  I worked with a few vocalists around Philly.

TP:    I think of the Bradley’s school of pianists, or someone like Jimmy Rowles, who knew the lyrics and chords for the whole American songbook?  Are you like that?

TYNER:  No-no, those guys are special. Jimmy Rowles and Ellis Larkins.  They’re special!  That’s their thing, and nobody… Also, Jimmy Jones, who played with Sarah Vaughan.  Norman Simmons, who played with Carmen for years.  They’re special guys.

TP:    But in your tunes, is there a narrative, a message, some sort of story?  Are they musical ideas and the story comes later?

TYNER:  Well, that’s what accompanists do.  They learn… I have an idea what the song means.  But those guys know the lyrics so they can construct their chords and the nuances to the music.  But a singer may phrase something, and she says, “It’s raining,” and it sounds like water running off of a rock — whatever.  If he knows that, he’ll accompany her at that moment to give a description musically of what’s happening.

TP:    So in Jazz Roots, when you’re playing “My Foolish Heart” or “Sweet and Lovely,” you’re not thinking so much of the lyrics as of the musical ideas you’re trying to express.

TYNER:  Yeah, and I don’t want to sound like the guy that I was honoring.  I want to sound like me.  It’s just something that reminded me… I had a thing called “Happy Days” that kind of reminded me of Keith, and “My Foolish Heart,” Bill Evans had recorded that, and Monk and Bud Powell… I wasn’t trying, “Oh, let me sound like Bud here.”

TP:    On “Night In Tunisia” you sort of did, but I think it was an accident.

TYNER:  Well, I’m guilty.  Okay? [LAUGHS] Guilty as charged!  You got something on me.  What can I say?

TP:    Are you in the planning stages for the next record now?

TYNER:  I’m thinking about it.  I’ve got a big band date coming up at the Chicago Jazz Festival.  It’s been a while since I recorded it.  We’ve won two Grammies with it.  The big band is still a baby.  I need some time to work on some new charts and new directions I’m hearing with the band.  That’s an ongoing kind of endeavor that I need to…

TP:    You have the big band, the trio, this quartet, the Latin group, the solo activity.  There are these files of activity that overlap and intersect with each other that you can return to and refresh yourself.

TYNER:  Yeah.  I’m not a one-dimensional guy that way.  I try to confound myself. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Do you?

TYNER:  No, it’s not conscious.

TP:    Some people do.

TYNER:  Some people do, that’s true.  Everybody functions on a different level.  What makes one guy happy confuses another guy.  So everybody has whatever vibe, whatever level they’re functioning on.

TP:    You seem like one of the most grounded musicians I’ve ever met.  Did that come from your mother?

TYNER:  I think so.  My mother gave me many gifts, and I think that’s one of the things she gave me.  I either learned or got it from her, inherited certain things… You don’t expect too much.  Just do the best you can.  That’s all you can do!  Do the best you can.  Sometimes we set these goals for ourselves, and we want this… I didn’t set a goal for myself.  I just did the best I could.  I think that’s all you can do.  You start setting goals for yourself, “I’ve got to get here, if I don’t get here by next year…” Come on!

TP:    But it’s obvious that you have a certain sense of destiny. You just said “those are accompanists,” which means, “I don’t think of myself as an accompanist.”

TYNER:  I adapt.  When I did something with Johnny Hartman, Carmen heard that, and she said, “Oh my God!”  She thought it was good!  That’s all.  All it is, is my…

TP:    And when you played sideman on those ’60s Blue Note dates, it was obviously a different mindset.  Obviously, a Wayne Shorter date with you and a Wayne Shorter date with Herbie Hancock are two fundamentally different sides of Wayne Shorter.

TYNER:  That’s right.  Because he and Herbie do well together.  It’s wonderful.  That Miles thing, whatever it is; I don’t know.  They’re very tight.   Bobby and I have that kind of affinity.

TP:    He has that sort of groundedness also…

TYNER:  Well, if you don’t ground yourself, you’ll fall off the handle!

TP:    He can go all the way out like this, but comes back…

TYNER:  I like that about him.  We’ve learned some good lessons over the years, I think, and that’s great!  It’s good to learn from this.  It can be arduous at times, and demanding and challenging.  But as long as it serves you, that’s… It always has to serve you.  You don’t want to be a slave to this.  I love it. I mean, music is a whole other story.  I don’t think you should be a slave to music or anything like that.  I think it should work for you.  It is very demanding, the level that you want to perform, but you can always rise to that occasion if you have the right focus and realize what it is — that it’s there to serve you.

TP:    You always seem to come back to Ellington.

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    My first record of yours was Plays Ellington, before I even knew about Coltrane.  I didn’t know anything about jazz.

TYNER:  I still play Ellington.

TP:    Did you see Ellington when you were a kid? Did he make a big impression on you always?

TYNER:  Yes, I saw him, and I knew everybody in his family.  I knew his sister, I knew Stevie, I knew Mercer.  But the thing  is, he represented an era in the music that was… I mean, all of it is important.  Louis Armstrong.  Fats Waller.  All those guys.  But Duke had an iconic kind of image in his music.  Duke was a hard worker, traveled a lot.  He really paid his dues and really earned his rep.  He was a consummate genius of music, always writing and always totally involved.  And that kind of sacrifice isn’t… I mean, it’s nice if you can do that.  I like being dedicated to music, but not to the point where it just consumes my every minute.  I’m not that kind of person.  I like a balance in life — whatever balance is.  But a balance for one guy may be not a balance for someone else.

TP:    You’re born in 1938, and when you’re 10-11-12 is right when big bands start to decline.  People like Jimmy Heath talk about going to the Earle Theater to hear the big bands, and playing hooky for school.  Was that any part of your experiences, going to hear those bands, going to dances, things like that when you were younger?

TYNER:  Yeah, we had a band.  Tommy Monroe had a band…

TP:    But did you go to hear the traveling bands?  Say, Basie when you were 15?  Or if Ellington played in Philly in 1953 or 1954, would you go to see him?

TYNER:  I was kind of young.  But I was able to hear the records and things like that… Dizzy’s band.  Lee Morgan joined Dizzy’s band as a kind of child prodigy.  When Lee was about 17, he was in Dizzy’s band.  Benny Golson and a lot of big players were in that band.  Melba Liston, Walter Davis.  So I had a chance to hear Dizzy’s band more than Basie and Duke.  I saw Basie and Duke on TV, and I heard the recordings, but I didn’t actually physically see him until later.

TP:    Did you attend the Ellington Meets Coltrane session?

TYNER:  I couldn’t get there.  I tried.  My car broke down.  I was so disappointed.  Because I knew Mercer. I knew his family.  But I wanted to meet Duke in person.  Stevie told me he knew who I was after I did that album of his music.  But I couldn’t get to the session.  That’s the way it goes!  Now, I heard Duke’s band at the Newport Jazz Festival [1962-3].

TP:    But your mother… So there was a musical environment for you all the time, but she wasn’t the type… A lot of people I’ve spoken to, their parents would take them to live music from early on.  It sounds like she let you be a kid until it was time for…

TYNER:  Thank goodness for that.  I took her to cotillions.  I was very close to my mother.  She was a wonderful person in my life.  I was very lucky.  I wrote a lot of songs for my mother and my sister, my ex-wife, whatever.  I had a very close relationship with her.  So I can conclude by saying that life is good!

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