For the 78th birthday anniversary of the late, great pianist Bobby Timmons (Dec. 19, 1935-March 1, 1974), I’m posting a liner note that I wrote for a Fantasy Records “Best Of” culled from his Riverside recordings, and interviews from an elite group of associates and friends: Albert “Tootie” Heath, Kenny Barron, Reggie Workman, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. I had fun putting this one together.
* * * *
“The Best Of Bobby Timmons,” Liner Notes:
It seems apparent, given the dearth of first person testimony in the liner notes for his numerous recordings for Riverside and Prestige, that in matters of self-description, pianist Bobby Timmons [1935-1974] held firmly to the dictum that music speaks louder than words.
Cherrypicked from seven Riverside albums between 1960 and 1963, The Best Of Bobby Timmons, if nothing else, highlights that Timmons was one of the seminal communicators of his generation. He was 24 when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to the Timmons ditties “Moanin” and “This Here,” which had debuted instrumentally on stirring albums with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet that were released in 1959. Soon thereafter, Oscar Brown’s version of “Dat Dere,” originally documented by Adderley in February 1960, made it onto jukeboxes around the country. On the strength of these hits, Timmons cut his sideman affiliations in 1961, and accepted a string of national bookings with his own trio. Much to his discomfort, “soul jazz” would be the label forever be affixed to his name.
Out of South Philadelphia, a bebop hotbed in his formative years, Timmons’ music was relentlessly earthy and primal. He was anything but primitive, but a soulful perspective was in his bones.
“Bobby’s grandfather raised him around the corner from where our family grew up,” says drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the baby brother of bassist Percy and tenor saxophonist Jimmy. “His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby played in his grandfather’s church. Later he came into jazz. We didn’t go to elementary school together, but later I saw him quite a bit. He took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who taught harmony to most of my young friends, and was an educator for a lot of people, like Lee Morgan and Jimmy Garrison. We played as a trio at dances at fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania, and were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe along with Lee and some other people who went on to get big names in jazz.
“We would imitate whatever we could from records – Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group – and we liked Ahmad Jamal. I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ahmad came to Philadelphia with Vernell and Richard Davis, and we were too young to go in the club, so we stood outside, and heard what we could whenever the door opened. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.”
In the trio, the aspirants completed the triangle with bassists like Garrison, Eddie Matthias, Spanky DeBrest, Jymie Merritt, and occasionally, Reggie Workman.
“Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling whatever the engagement called for,” recalls Workman. “We all had to do everything, jazz clubs as well as dances, cabarets and parties. That’s where the music was heard and made. I remember Bobby as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say. He was always an ardent dresser, neat in his music and in his personality. He was also very witty. It all turned up in his music. No matter what he was doing, he always had his personal voice. You’d know that it was Bobby Timmons doing it.”
Timmons moved to New York in 1954, honing his craft on consequential jobs with Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker. In the summer of 1958, Benny Golson, recently recruited by Art Blakey to bring a new sound to the Jazz Messengers, brought Timmons, Morgan and Merritt into the fold.
“He was inventive,” says Golson, “He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He could play bebop and he could play funky – he could play a lot of things, and I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby, who could go here or go there, rather than walking in a single corridor.”
As the Messengers hit the road, Golson noticed that Timmons frequently would “play this little funky lick in between the tunes.” He continues: “I got used to hearing it, and after he’d play it, he would say, ‘Ah, that sure is funky.’ I’d say, ‘Sure is.’ We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it. We got to Columbus, Ohio, and I called a rehearsal. Bobby said, ‘We’ve got everything down; why are we going to rehearse?’ I said, ‘You know that little lick you play?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, ‘No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand and compose a bridge.’ In about half-an-hour he said, ‘Come and listen,’ and then he played it. I said, ‘Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.’ He did something, and called me over in about 15 minutes and asked what I thought. I could see he didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘That’s it. Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.’ Then I said, ‘Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ He said, ‘“Well, it sounds like moaning.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”
In the fall of 1959, Timmons left the Messengers for Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, in which he, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes formed a slamming rhythm section on Live At The Jazz Workshop and Them Dirty Blues. He returned in the spring of 1960, in time to appear on classic Messenger dates like Night In Tunisia, The Big Beat, The Freedom Rider and The Witch Doctor .
“I had to play ‘Moanin’ and ‘Dat Dere’ when I joined the Messengers,” says Cedar Walton, Timmons’ successor in the piano chair. “They were arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. I was hardcore when I got in the band, and couldn’t imagine playing them. But once I got there, I found myself enjoying them. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen, which was a challenge.”
It’s a challenge that Timmons addresses with relish throughout this well-wrought compilation, consisting of six Timmons originals, each with hummable hooks and tasty changes, and seven show tunes of the torchy persuasion. Powell’s presence is everywhere. Note the fleet runs on “Old Devil Moon” and “Easy Does It,” the stark substitutions he deploys on the brief intro to “God Bless the Child,” the voicings that pop up on “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “Goodbye,” the Dameronian flavor on the bridge of “So Tired.” As Ron Carter puts it, “Bobby wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer like, Benny Golson. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melodies and songs so that the band could tell the difference from night to night, but it would sound the same for the audience. He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.”
Although Timmons was a bandleader with a firm, distinctive point of view, he was never rigid. “He would accept input,” Carter says. “He always remembered my basslines from the other night. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before. Can we play the same idea in a different key, or play it slower, or develop another way to make the song work? I’d say, ‘Bobby, that isn’t working; can we find something else to do with that?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, what?’ If my idea worked, that would become part of the tune. Tootie would suggest something, Bobby would say, ‘I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.’ So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.”
The chronology ends in 1963, when Soul Jazz was no longer ascendent, the national circuit was drying up, and the tragic shadow that dogged so many of Timmons’ heroes began to attach itself to him. “Bobby stayed in town more,” says Carter, who recorded with Timmons as late as 1967. “We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at places like the Lion’s Head and the Needle’s Eye.”
“Bobby was a wild cat,” Walton says, and indeed, Timmons did drink himself to death, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1974. But the darkness never entered his music. As Carter notes, “I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. I’m not sure how you can call ‘Moanin’” indicative of Bobby’s giving personality or ‘Dis Here’ with the fact that he would go to the mat for you.”
“He had no ego about him,” Golson adds. “He was always upbeat, never downbeat, and he never maligned anybody unless it was in a humorous way. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, and he could PLAY funky, but he could also get into things. Of course, now is a different time. But then he was right on the cutting edge.”
* * *
Tootie Heath on Bobby Timmons:
TP: In reading the program notes from Bobby Timmons’ records, only one had an interview with him, and all of them say mostly the same thing. I was talking with Reggie Workman about another subject, and Reggie told me a little. But I knew you grew up nearby and were the same age, and knew him well.
HEATH: We kind of grew up together and we grew apart together also. After the New York days, he went in his own direction. I didn’t see Bobby much after Art Blakey. I think our trio was before Art Blakey.
TP: I think it was after his first time with Art. He joined in ’59 with “Moanin’” — that’s when “Moanin’” because famous. Then he went with Cannonball.
HEATH: Right. For a short period. A year.
TP: Then he went back with Art for a while. That seems to be when he formed the trio.
HEATH: Right. That’s when the trio came in. After all of that, I guess.
TP: A number of the first records are with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, so I guess he did those when he was with Cannonball, and maybe that’s how he came to sign with Riverside. But you were part of the first working trio?
HEATH: Yes, I think so. With Ron Carter. We even played that around Philadelphia, before we left Philly, as a trio sometimes, with Jimmy Rowser and a couple of other local bass players. Mostly Jimmy Rowser, and sometimes Eddie Matthias, Jimmy Bond, and Reggie a few times.
TP: Can you tell me anything about his musical background?
HEATH: All I know is that we were all on the same mission. We were all practicing and studying and listening to records and learning as much as we could about jazz. Bobby did play in church. His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby did play in his grandfather’s church. He lived with his grandfather. Actually, his grandfather raised him around the corner from where we lived, where our family grew up. So I saw Bobby quite a bit, and he took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who was there, teaching harmony to most of my young friends and a lot of people. An educator for a lot of people.
TP: That would have been when he had the big band in ’47 and ‘48?
HEATH: A little after that. Because Bobby… We weren’t quite there for the big band stuff. I mean, I was there in the house. But we were 10-11 years old during that time. But later in life, when we were in high school or junior high school…
HEATH: Yeah. ‘50, around in there. Then Jimmy was very helpful with Lee Morgan and Bobby and Jimmy Garrison and a whole lot of people. That’s who played bass with us, too, a lot — Jimmy Garrison.
TP: Did Bobby get to know Bud Powell at all, like McCoy Tyner did?
HEATH: I have no idea. I never knew Bud Powell in Philadelphia. I knew his brother, Richard, but I never knew Bud. Bud was gone. And they lived outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. I knew Richard from his period with Max Roach.
TP: May I ask one or two detailed questions? What was the name of the church where his grandfather was minister?
HEATH: I have no idea. Bobby had a sister, too, named Eleanor, who died maybe 10-15 years ago, long after him.
TP: When did you meet him? You were 11-12 years old?
HEATH: Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t go to elementary school together. I don’t know what school he went to. I went to school in South Philly with some different guys, like Sam Reed and Ted Curson and guys like that. But Bobby kind of came all of a sudden, because he was playing the piano, but he was playing church music, and he came later into jazz music, into being interested in jazz — around 15 or so.
TP: Did you play in teenage combos?
HEATH: Yeah, we played as a trio. We played some fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania. Bobby was kind of a favorite on some of those dances. I used to do things with Bobby and Ray Bryant. We also were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe, and Lee Morgan was in that band and some other people who had gone on to be rather big-name people in jazz. But Bobby was also in the big band with us, and we played some dances, and then we played some trio stuff around in the fraternity houses. That was kind of a good thing to do as a teenager.
TP: So when you were 16-17 years old, ‘51, ‘52, ‘53.
HEATH: Well, in ’58 I came to New York, when I joined J.J.’s band. But I used to go back and forth to New York, and I think all of us did that for a while until we all made the final move. We had an apartment down there on the Lower East Side with Bobby and Lee Morgan and Spanky DeBrest.
TP: You all lived in an apartment together?
HEATH: Yeah, we had an apartment on Fifth Street, 315 East Fifth Street. Elvin Jones lived across the street, Ted Curson lived on that block, Jon Hendricks lived on that block, Kenny Barron’s brother Bill. A lot of musicians. I think it was between Third and Second. We used to walk around the corner to the Five Spot.
TP: Maybe it was 215.
HEATH: Maybe it was 215. But it was not far from the Five Spot. We’d go right around the corner, and Ornette was there and sometimes Mingus would be playing. Actually, we never played in there because we weren’t quite there yet. We were in bands. Bobby was with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.
TP: So you were part of the Manhattan contingent. There was a big Brooklyn contingent, too.
HEATH: Yeah. We all lived in Manhattan. Jimmy Garrison and I got a place in Brooklyn later, which didn’t last very long, but we did have one there.
TP: When you were playing combo at 16 or 17 around Philadelphia, what kinds of things were you playing? Was it mostly Bobby’s arrangements?
HEATH: Yeah, some of it was his. A lot of stuff we were just imitating recordings. We would play whatever we could from records. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group — whomever.
TP: But were there any piano trios he was emulating or trying to get with?
HEATH: Yeah. We liked Ahmad Jamal. Jamal’s music was popular around that time. Ahmad had his club during that time, and that’s when his stuff was real hot, because they sat in that one club and played for five years, and that’s where they developed the sound of the Ahmad Jamal trio. We heard their music. They used to come to Philadelphia, and of course, I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ron was going in his own direction already.
TP: In ’51 and ‘52, Ahmad had recorded, but at the time he had a trio with Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.
HEATH: This trio that we liked and saw was with Vernell and Israel. Actually, the first one I saw was with Vernell and Richard Davis. They used to come to Philadelphia, and we were too young to go in the club, so we would kind of just stand outside, and whenever the door would open we could hear a little bit. That’s how we got to loving Ahmad’s style of trio music. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.
TP: That sort of organization.
HEATH: Yeah, and the arrangements and the interesting things they used to do together.
TP: Well, it’s a very orchestrated style. The drums would have a role and a voice and the bass…
HEATH: That was it. Those were the guys for us.
TP: How about pianistically? Was he modeling himself after anyone? You hear a lot of Bud in his playing. There’s some Horace Silver and…
HEATH: He liked Horace Silver and Ahmad, and I’m sure he liked Bud, too. But I didn’t get that part of him, the Bud Powell thing.
TP: Do you remember him speaking to you about influences ever?
TP: Were you not such close friends, but just musical colleagues?
HEATH: No, we were close.
TP: What was he like personally?
HEATH: That’s hard. We were young people, and being young guys.
TP: Was he a humorous guy?
HEATH: Oh yeah. He had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he had a great personality. People liked him.
TP: Do you think he maybe developed that in the church a bit, that performing for church people from a young age gave him a public personality early on?
HEATH: I doubt it. Because in the church, you don’t really have a voice in there. You just sit up and do what you do. I doubt if he… I don’t know. That’s a hard one.
TP: Was he a very warm person?
HEATH: Yes. Sure. He dressed immaculately all the time. He was very conscious about his appearance.
TP: On all the albums, you see him in a very form-fitting suit, and he’s so skinny, he fits it well. Was he a chukka-boot wearer?
HEATH: He probably did. I think that’s something that everyone was doing at one time.
TP: Was he painstaking with his arrangements? Did he go over them with a fine-tooth comb?
HEATH: Oh yeah. He was very particular about his music.
TP: He was particular about the way he dressed and particular about his music. What were the rehearsals like? Was he very specific about the drum parts?
HEATH: I don’t really remember. I remember us, as part of our development, sitting down and playing, but I don’t remember a so-called rehearsal where we had something… He just accepted whatever I did, and I listened to what he was doing, and tried to fill in what I thought it should be, and he didn’t have any specific drum parts or bass parts or any of that. We developed that from playing together.
TP: There’s a recording on Riverside of a gig at the Vanguard. Do you remember the circumstances of that recording? Were you playing as an opening act for another band?
HEATH: No. I think we were the only group in there.
TP: I remember seeing old handbills, and Ahmad Jamal would be opening for Miles or something.
HEATH: No, we weren’t a part of anything like that. We had our own week down there when we did our recording.
TP: Were there good crowds? Was he very popular?
HEATH: Yeah. He had a lot of fans.
TP: Because of those tunes.
HEATH: Yeah, a lot of people liked them.
TP: Were those tunes like “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere” and “Dis Here” on jukeboxes?
HEATH: No. I don’t remember hearing them on jukeboxes until the vocal recordings came around, with Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross and those people. When they started doing them, then it took on a whole nother character.
TP: Would the music evolve over a week, or once the music was set, was it set?
HEATH: No, we played together. So it changed. Whenever he did something, we would follow him. Or if we did something that he liked, he would follow us. That’s how we developed. That’s how the Miles Davis band developed. That was the way in those days. Sitting down and having rehearsals with parts and “you do this and I…” – that wasn’t a part of it. We were a working trio, so every night was a rehearsal.
TP: Do you happen to recall the year the trio started functioning as a working trio? Would that have been around ‘60? When he left Cannonball…
HEATH: I would say yes. But I’m sure you can look back and get some records on it.
TP: But you had been out on the road with J.J., and you were playing drums on a lot of sessions, particularly on Riverside, and Jimmy had a relationship with Riverside at the time as well. Is there any particular quality about him that you’d want people to know about?
HEATH: No. I think he was just a person, and he was a decent person, and I never saw him do anything wrong to anybody.
TP: Any injuries he causes were to himself.
HEATH: Yeah, he did, like we all did during those days.
TP: But he sure paid a heavy price.
HEATH: Yeah, he did. He got on out of here really young.
TP: Your relationship sort of ended around ‘63-’64? You didn’t see much of him after that?
HEATH: I don’t know where Bobby was, but I was traveling around in New York with different people and playing with different groups and traveling myself, and I kind of lost touch with Bobby. I mean, I talked to him whenever I’d see him somewhere.
TP: I think he was a victim of the way the sound of the music changed then in some ways. Did the trio travel?
HEATH: We did a West Coast tour. We went to Detroit; I remember that. We went out to California and the Jazz Workshop out there. We did a lot of playing around New York and in the New York area, the Village Gate and places like that around the city. Yeah, we played quite a bit, for maybe two or three years.
TP: How much would you say you were on the road?
HEATH: Well, our traveling wasn’t that intense.
TP: So it wasn’t like you’d be in a car for 30 weeks a year, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit. You didn’t do that circuit.
HEATH: No. Most of the times, we flew. We were flying.
TP: Was he easy to play with?
HEATH: Yeah. Well, I can say that I always felt that we were all in the same place in our development. I can’t say that Bobby was any greater than anybody else in the band, and neither was I, and neither was Ron Carter. We were all just kind of developing and trying to find our way.
TP: But he was the composer. I guess that set him off.
HEATH: He was the composer and he was the leader. He got the gigs. So that made him a little different.
TP: Do you remember who was the manager or the agent?
HEATH: I think Orrin did the California trip. I don’t remember who did the other stuff.
Kenny Barron on Bobby Timmons:
TP: Did you get to know Bobby Timmons pretty well?
BARRON: I didn’t know him in Philly. Only from seeing him in New York.
TP: Did you get to know him in New York?
BARRON: Not well.
TP: Were you checking his stuff out?
BARRON: Oh yeah. Actually, the first time I ever heard his name is when I was in junior high school, in my music class. One day we had a substitute teacher, and she was asking if anybody liked jazz, and a few people raised their hands. Then she said… This was a black woman. She said, ‘I have a cousin named Bobby Timmons, who plays piano with Chet Baker.” That’s the first time I heard his name.
TP: But you never caught him around Philly.
BARRON: No, I didn’t meet him until I moved to New York.
TP: Did you like the trio stuff?
BARRON: Oh yeah. I did.
TP: Did you ever play those hits, “Dat Dere,” “Dis Here”?
BARRON: Yeah, I’ve played them.
TP: What are they like to play?
BARRON: They’re fun. They’re fun to play on.
TP: Are they tricky? Are there things in them that go beyond the obvious? Did he put twists and turns in his stuff?
BARRON: They’re not unusually tricky. I wouldn’t say that. But they’re catchy.
TP: People still like those tunes.
BARRON: Oh yeah. When you can have somebody write lyrics for your stuff, that means there’s something there.
Reggie Workman on Bobby Timmons:
TP: Is there anything you can tell me about your recollections about Bobby Timmons?
WORKMAN: Let me turn the page. The mental page.
TP: I know you grew up in a different part of Philly, and you’re three years younger. But I figure you must have crossed paths at various points.
WORKMAN: Of course. You know, the music community is very small — actually worldwide. No matter where you go, you always run into people who are thinking somewhat in the same direction that you are. Therefore, I ran into Bobby Timmons’ neighbors, and the Heath brothers, and Bobby Green and all the guys down in South Philadelphia often, because whatever was happening, if there was something musical happening, one of those persons would be there — and Bobby was often on the scene. I remember him as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say. And it always turned up in the music.
You know who reminded me of him when I first saw him a lot at the school was Carlos McKinney. The way that Carlos McKinney is now, Bobby used to be when he was young. He was always an ardent dresser, he was always a very neat person in his music, very neat in his personality, and very witty as far as being a person was concerned. That always turns up in the music. And he’s always reflected his experience in his music, no matter what he was doing. You could hear… And he always had his personal voice, no matter what he was doing. No matter what kind of job he was doing, you would know that was Bobby Timmons doing it.
TP: This being in Philly before he came to New York, as well as after…
WORKMAN: That was Bobby. And that was the aesthetic of the music then. Back in those days, that was as much of a thing to strive for as playing music right, was to find out this voice is MINE; this is the way that I express myself, and this is the way… Therefore, anybody you hear from the era that Bobby lived, you know who they are. You can hear who they are without question when you hear their audio sound.
TP: Were you in the Messengers at the same time as he?
WORKMAN: No. He was in the Messengers before I was.
TP: I think he did it twice, in ’59, the Moanin’ session, and then he came back in ’61, before Cedar came in. Were you ever part of his trio?
WORKMAN: Well, we worked around Philadelphia on occasion.
TP: What was he like as a leader? Was he very organized, did he have…
WORKMAN: That I don’t recall.
TP: Was the music stimulating to play? Were there challenges? Did it go beyond the basic bass function?
WORKMAN: Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling the engagement, whatever it was calling for. Because there are many different types of things we had to do. We didn’t come together that often, but when we came together, it was because of some situation around Philadelphia where we happened to cross paths, and instead of Eddie Matthias or instead of Spanky or instead of Garrison, I might be on the scene. It was seldom, but it happened.
TP: So those were the bass players he played with most often in Philly.
WORKMAN: That I can remember. Of course, there was Jimmy Bond, there was Jimmy Rowser, there was Jymie Merritt. There were so many bass players from Philly that when you got a chance to cross paths with one of the musicians, you were lucky. Of course, I was young then. I was just honing my craft, just beginning to develop, and I was from a different part of town.
TP: At that time, would his scene be mostly in Philly’s jazz clubs, or would he be playing dances and parties…
WORKMAN: We all had to do everything. We all had to do jazz clubs as well as dances… Dances and parties were as much a part of the… As you know about the Savoy Ballroom with Charlie Parker, they were as much a part of the arena in our community as any club or any other place. Cabarets and parties and dance clubs, and special occasions were… That’s where the music was heard. That’s where the music was made.
TP: It was part of the community.
WORKMAN: That’s right.
Cedar Walton on Bobby Timmons:
TP: Did you know Bobby Timmons pretty well?
WALTON: Pretty well, yeah.
TP: I’m doing a liner note for a best-of compilation. Was he in New York when you got here?
WALTON: Probably so. I didn’t meet him until he joined the Messengers. The mother of my three children was friendly with his wife, and there was a Bobby Timmons, Jr. I think I got better acquainted with him when he was in the Messengers. But he had gigs with Chet Baker and Kenny Baker, gigs all around.
TP: Well, he got famous with “Moanin’” with the Messengers, then he went with Cannonball for a year, then he went with the Messengers for a bit, and then you joined the Messengers.
WALTON: Right. I replaced him.
TP: Did he leave just because he had so many trio gigs?
WALTON: That was for him to know and me to find out. I just got the call. Where he went and what he did, I didn’t… But probably so.
TP: What did you think of his trio at the time?
WALTON: I thought it was fine. It would be hard for me to find fault with anything. He had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, as I recall, on his first trio outing. But it might not have been his first. It’s the first one I know.
TP: He recorded with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb when he was with Cannonball, but when he got the trio working, it was with Tootie and Ron Carter. He grew up in Philly with Tootie. What kind of person was he?
WALTON: That’s a great question. All I know is he was the son of a minister, and moved into a building on Sterling Place in Brooklyn with Estrella and Bobby, Jr. Freddie Hubbard was a neighbor as well as Louis Hayes. But very shortly after that, Bobby made his home in the Village.
TP: East 5th Street. Tootie said they had an apartment on East 5th Street.
WALTON: Right. But he ended up in the West Village, hanging out at Boomer’s. His favorite bars were over on that side by the time I caught up with him.
TP: Was he a witty guy? A friendly guy?
WALTON: Sure. A typical Philadelphia type. I hesitate to…
TP: What’s a typical Philadelphia type?
WALTON: Joking all the time.
TP: Good dresser, too.
WALTON: Yeah, he did care about his wardrobe.
TP: Did you play his tunes?
WALTON: Yeah. I had to play “Moanin’” when I joined the Messengers, and also “Dat Dere.” I don’t think we played “Dis Here” but we played “Dat Dere.”
TP: Did you play his arrangements?
WALTON: Yes, they were Messengers arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. You could play them, in my estimation. I remember asking Walter Davis when he joined the Messengers for a little period. I said, “Oh, man, you got to play ‘Moanin’ and all that?” I was hardcore then. I couldn’t imagine any… But then when I got there, I found myself enjoying playing it.
TP: Did those tunes pose any challenges for you?
WALTON: Certainly. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen with them, and that was a challenge. They weren’t difficult like “Tempus Fugit” or “Un Poco Loco” or things like that. They were simple and deliberately aimed at the commercial market.
Benny Golson I think composed the bridge to “Moanin’.” We used to do that all the time without any qualms. I remember writing a bridge to “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones. I actually wrote the ending of “Naima.” Mr. Coltrane had the chords. He said, “Cedar, what would you do with this I-IV, I-IV, I-IV?” I said, “Well, you could just go right up the scale.” And he kept it in. Those kind of things were just regular things to do in those days. I’m talking about the ‘60s, not too far back – but far enough.
Bobby was a wild cat. He could drink, too.
Benny Golson on Bobby Timmons:
TP: I’m under the impression that you recruited Bobby Timmons into the Jazz Messengers.
TP: How did you know him? What was your acquaintance with him in Philadelphia?
GOLSON: I wasn’t acquainted with him in Philly. But I had listened to what he had done. He was working with Chet Baker when I heard him. I didn’t really know him, but I liked what he did, and therefore, I recommended him on that basis. Well, I knew him superficially, but I didn’t really know him.
TP: But you knew him from the Philly connection.
GOLSON: I didn’t know him from Philly. He was a different generation. He was much younger. I was gone by the time he started to make a little noise.
TP: He was in New York by that time.
GOLSON: He was in New York, yes.
TP: What was it about his sound that appealed to you?
GOLSON: Well, he was inventive, and he could play a lot of things. He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He was sort of, well, he could play bebop, or he could play this, he could play funky… “Moanin’,” for example. And I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby.
TP: Because of Art’s penchant for backbeats and shuffles, you wanted somebody who could provide that?
GOLSON: No. It was to find somebody who could go here or they could go there, rather than walking on a single corridor. I thought he was a little broader. He was on a boulevard rather than a narrow street.
TP: I know you brought him into the band, but you weren’t in the band that much longer once he was in it
GOLSON: About a year.
TP: So you got to know him fairly well, I’d think.
GOLSON: All of it happened within a year.
TP: Tell me what you can tell me about him personally. People say he had a very good sense of humor, he was amiable, a good dresser…
GOLSON: Absolutely. All of those things. He was clothes-conscious, he and Lee. Every night, they had a contest going on!
TP: Around then, it was chukkah-boot time, wasn’t it?
GOLSON: They had the boots, yeah, and the pants were cut a little high so you could see the boots. I’m telling you, they were a card, those two guys!
TP: Two wild young men.
GOLSON: And they used to play this little funky thing in between the tunes, this little lick, and I got used to hearing it, and he would play it and he would say, “Ah, that sure is funky,” and I’d say, “Sure is.” We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it. We got to Columbus, Ohio, I called a rehearsal, and I said to Bobby… We had everything down. He said, “Why are we going to rehearse.” I said, “You know that little lick you play?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, “No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand…” We were in the club. Nobody was there during the day; they were washing glasses and stuff. I said, “We’ll go sit over here and just lollygag, and you compose a bridge.” So we went over, and in about half-an-hour he said, “Come and listen,” and then he played it. I said, “Hmm, that’s not really like the …(?)… 8 bars,” Bobby. I said, “No, this has got to be your tune, Bobby.” I said, “Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.” “Okay, all right,” and he did something, and in about 15 minutes he called me, and said, “Well, what do you think?” I could see he didn’t think much of it. He played it, and I said, “That’s it.” I said, “Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.” We learned it, and I said, “We’re going to play it tonight, and as we play it, I’m going announce it, and let the people know that this is the first time they’re hearing something that they’ve never heard before.” He didn’t have a title for it either then. I said, “I’m going to observe the audience, and they’ll tell us whether it’s of any value or not.” I said, “Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, what does it sound like?” He said, “Well, it sounds like moaning.” I said, “Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”
TP: And it became a hit.
GOLSON: Oh, absolutely.
TP: The audience responded to it right away?
GOLSON: Oh yeah. That and “Blues March.” Those uplifted the whole album.
TP: If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like for him, that it wasn’t… You might think it was a natural thing from his being in the church…
TP: But he was thinking about bebop, and he needed to be pushed to do these kind of tunes…
GOLSON: Oh, no. It was there. Now, he MIGHT have been feeling like that because of the church, but I don’t think that the church was the primary influence on WHAT he was playing. Because Bobby could play funky! Many times he did play funky. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with the church. He was just feeling that way. People say that and try to make it sound psychological.
TP: Well, he learned to play in the church and had all that experience when he was young…
GOLSON: Well, he did it. But Ted, it was intuitive.
TP: On this CD, there are trio versions of “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and “So Tired” and stuff like this. Did he write those then to capitalize on…
TP: Were you around at that time or not?
GOLSON: No. That came after I was gone.
TP: Did you continue to stay in touch after leaving the Messengers?
GOLSON: No. Just seeing him when I happened to see him. No deep phone calls or anything like that. I’d just run into him, “Hey, how you doing?” – like that.
TP: Do you recall any impressions you had of his trio?
GOLSON: I don’t remember much about the trio. I can’t recall as we talk the natuure of the trio. I don’t even remember who was in the trio.
TP: He worked with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, and also with Sam Jones & Cannonball.
GOLSON: I’d forgotten all about Ron Carter.
TP: But you brought him in from hearing him on the scene, and he seemed like good fresh blood for Art.
GOLSON: I brought him in on the basis of what I heard. It wasn’t that I knew him. It was just on the basis of what he played, his musical concept. Then I got to know him.
TP: Can you give me any impressions about him just from that year?
GOLSON: Well, this was important to me. He had no ego about him. [LISTENED TO BENNY AND RESPECTED HIM AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR] [INAUDIBLE, BREAKS UP]
He was always upbeat. He was never downbeat. And he never maligned anybody. If he did, it would be in a humorous way, someone’s bad feet, the way he walks or something. But no, he was all right.
TP: So his tunes reflect his personality, then.
GOLSON: Absolutely. “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere,” that was Bobby. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, but no, he could get into things.
TP: Well, there’s an “Old Devil Moon” where he runs off these fleet Bud Powell lines, and on another there are some Dameronian voicings.
GOLSON: I liked the way he played. Of course, it’s a different time. But then he was right on the cutting edge. And I thought that he would work well with the Messengers, and he did. That “Moanin’” thing helped quite a bit. Because it was epochal, that group in 1958 with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, and me. That’s when things changed. It was because of Bobby and Lee, and my composing, and “Moanin’.” When Art used to announce the All-Star Jazz Messengers, the regular group was there, but we were like an adjunct to it, and we’d come out for the second half of the show and play with them, and when he got to me, he’d say I was the one that started it all. That was kind of confusing, because he had that group together years before I came on the scene. But he was talking about that band from that time. Because during that time, when I joined the band, he wasn’t making any kind of money. But when I left, he was making money, I saw he got the right bookings… Because everybody listened to me. Looking back in retrospect, why did they listen to such a green kid? [ETC.] I said, “That picture has to go on the cover,” the booking office didn’t (?) the concert in Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. “But why hasn’t he been to Europe? Send us to Europe.” “We’ve got to wear uniforms, Art.” After the band broke up, he would come to me: “What do you think I should do here?” But that has nothing to do with Bobby Timmons.
There was the spirit of the whole thing. And those guys were exactly right for that group.
Ron Carter on Bobby Timmons:
TP: When did you first encounter each other? How did you first break bread musically?
CARTER: It was probably on some dates for Riverside Records on which he was a sideman, earlier Riverside dates on which Orrin Keepnews as a producer. Then he put together the trio, and we flew to the Jazz Workshop down in North Beach. We rehearsed with Tootie Heath… At the time, Riverside Records had a little studio across the street from the President Hotel on West 48th Street. So we rehearsed a couple of days, to learn the library, and went out to California, to San Francisco the next day and did a week there. Then we went to the Purple Orchid in Los Angeles, came east and did a gig in Detroit, and went to a place in Philadelphia…
TP: So when you did Live At the Vanguard, you’d been on the road a month. What was his attitude towards rehearsing and the sound of the group? Was he very definite about how he wanted pieces to sound?
CARTER: I think he trusted that… He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound of the trio. That was one of our favorite groups at the time.
TP: He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound.
CARTER: And he liked the sound of Red Garland’s trio with Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor. He knew Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Eventually, the sound of the trio developed as we matured, as we got more gigs, and got the kind of sound we were looking for…
TP: So your interpretation of the material molded into what the group sound became.
CARTER: We dealt with …[INAUDIBLE]… what the first couple of choruses of the song would sound like, and then we were on our own to develop whatever we saw fit for the remainder of the arrangement of the tune.
TP: Did the sound change from week to week? Was he improvising a lot within the format of the trio from one night to another? Would his solos vary?
CARTER: He always remembered my basslines from the other night. I mean, I don’t think great musicians wake up in the middle of the gig and play something that no one ever heard before. I think great players get to that zone by developing what they stumbled on the night before, or the set before, or the chorus before. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before, or an idea really sounded good, and can we play the same idea in a different key, or can we play it slower, or can we play a bridge in the ..(?)… and develop another kind of way to make the song work.
TP: Talk a bit about the dynamics of his compositions.
CARTER: They were simple. He wrote nice tunes or some ballads. He wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer in like Benny Golson, or other composers that I could think of. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melody and song different for the band but not for the audience. The band could tell the difference from night to night in the ..(?).. of the melody, and it let us know that we had even more range to develop our melodies as the gig wore on.
TP: Who would say were his main influences?
CARTER: Bud Powell as far playing the piano was concerned. He was aware of Ahmad Jamal’s approach and he played block chords like Red Garland could do, but his primary infiuence would be Bud Powell.
The trio had two or three gigs after the Vanguard, and then kind of separated. Bobby was staying in town more. We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at the Lion’s Head… He was getting sick even along the way. The Needle’s Eye. He would play at Boomer’s.
He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.
TP: Good dresser, too.
CARTER: Well, back in those days, everybody wore suits. Shoes shined, tuxes.
TP: Would you consider his music a reflection of his personality in any palpable way?
CARTER: I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. [INAUDIBLE] I’m not sure how you can call “Moanin’” indicative of his giving personality or “Dis Here” with the fact that he would go to the mat for you. I don’t know how you can find that in his tunes.
TP: So he knew what to do as a leader.
TP: And he had a firm and distinctive point of view, would you say?
CARTER: Well, it wasn’t rigid. He would accept input. I’d say, “Bobby, that ain’t working, man; can we find something else to do with that?” He’d say, “Well, what?” And if my idea worked, that would be a part of it. Or if Tootie would say, “Bobby, let’s try to do this,” and Bobby would say, “I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.” So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.