Category Archives: Chicago

For Denny Zeitlin’s 76th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2005, My Liner Notes for the 2000 Release “As Long As There’s Music,” and Our Interview for that Liner Note

The magnificent pianist Denny Zeitlin turns 76 today. I first had an opportunity to encounter him whenwas asked to write the liner notes for his 2000 release (1997 recording) titled As Long As There’s Music, a trio date with Buster Williams and Carl Allen. Five years later, he agreed to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. I’m posting Blindfold Test first, then the liner note, then our complete interview, in which Dr. Zeitlin offered a lot of interesting information about the Chicago scene in the ’50s, among other things.

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Denny Zeitlin Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Ben Waltzer, “The More I See You” (from ONE HUNDRED DREAMS AGO, Fresh Sounds, 2004) (Waltzer, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Immediately when that track starts, I get the feeling I’m in the hands of a really good bebop player. Really sinuous lines, great time feel, the group is very much together. Then it goes into a very interesting statement of the head. I’m trying to remember the name of that standard. Is it “The More I See You”? Really a very charming treatment of that. Then some very good, solid blowing with single lines, right hand lines that are always crackling and popping along, and the rhythm section is very much together. This pianist, at least on this cut, is using his left hand primarily as a comping instrument, and some very interesting ostinato figures begin to emerge towards the end of the piano solo, which get repeated at the very end, and it sort of transmutes into an Afro-Cuban vamp at the end, which is a very nice way to end this tune, with a kind of surprise chord at the end. Overall, it was really nice to listen this really crackling trio. It seems to me this pianist is somebody who has listened a lot to Bud Powell, and is probably in the next generation. This could be somebody like Kenny Barron or someone else of that ilk. I liked it a lot. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know these cats, but they sound very good. Very solid. Very much out of that tradition.

2.   Eddie Higgins, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from HAUNTED HEART, Venus, 1997) (Higgins, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That was the old standard, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It begins with a quite dramatic rubato introduction. The pianist obviously has a very nice touch. He chooses to play this piece with a minimum amount of reharmonization, at least at the beginning of the cut, moves into a stride-like treatment, sort of more old style treatment of this tune, with bass and drums staying very much in the background but certainly supportive, and several choruses of working with the changes of the tune. Overall, there’s an elegant, relaxed feel about it. I enjoyed the nice, Tatumesque series of changes coming out of the final bridge before the last statement of the melody. I could tell as the piece was developing, particularly the improvisation, that this was a pianist who was holding himself back a little bit, which makes me think about the context of a recording or perhaps some restrictions placed by the record label.  I would give it 3½ stars. I’ll probably be embarrassed to find out who it is, but I don’t recognize the player. You don’t know sometimes how much a producer, for instance, really gets into a recording session, or how an overall thematic approach to an album concept does. What I remind myself, and I wish listeners would keep in mind is that when they hear a cut from an artist’s CD, they’re getting a snapshot of what that artist was thinking, feeling and doing at that time. It’s not necessarily a statement about who he or she is musically in some global way at all. It’s merely a snapshot. [AFTER] Well, I’ve always enjoyed Eddie’s playing very much, and I’ll give myself credit for recognizing the touch. That’s something I’ve always been most drawn to in Eddie’s playing, is the touch. [Any recollections of him from Chicago days?] Yes. Eddie was one of the players who was established on the scene when I first started to play back in the ‘50s. He was very encouraging to me and opened some doors in introducing me to people, and has always been a fan of my playing, and I’ve always really admired his playing very much. He’s wonderful behind singers, too. A marvelous accompanist.

3.  Robert Glasper, “Rise and Shine” (from CANVAS, Blue Note, 2005) (Glasper, piano, composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Damien Reid, drums)

Wow, I really loved that cut. It was quite a journey. A wonderful piano player with great command of the instrument, and time and shapes. I loved the tune and the arrangement and the overall feel of this trio. You get the sense that this is a trio that’s worked together a lot. Very integrated and very interactive, and I love the different time signatures and their way of working with it. The solo consistently built and was intriguing and swinging throughout. Initially, I felt quite confident it was Brad Mehldau, and then towards the end some of the developments and figures were things I’ve never heard Brad do. Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do them. Just the cuts I heard didn’t have some of those things, and the recorded bass sound was a little different to the way his trio usually sounds. But I thought this was a terrific cut. 5 stars. My best guess would be Brad Mehldau, but I have a hunch it’s somebody who’s listened to Brad a lot, maybe some younger cat or someone contemporaneous with him. [AFTER] I’ve heard his name, and I know he’s done an album for Blue Note. People are talking about it. I have not heard him play. Terrific, I think.

4.   Andrew Hill, “Malachi” (from TIME LINES, Blue Note, 2005) (Hill, piano, composer)

That’s a very atmospheric mood piece, with a very unusual use of the sustain pedal, creating clouds and then abrupt disappearance of them, and new sounds appearing. It was almost entirely in one mode, which certainly sustains the atmospheric mood, punctuated by unusual use of dynamics with adjacent notes sometimes quite different in intensity, and occasionally punctuated by this little three-note motif, and then at the very end finally shifting the mode into a minor ending. Interesting atmosphere. 3 stars. I have no idea who it is. It’s someone seemingly coming out of a rubato classical tradition. [Any sense of it coming out of someone’s sustained body of work over the years? An older player? A younger player?] I would say that this is an older player. This does not strike me as a younger player’s work. It sounds to me like somebody who is steeped in the classical tradition, certainly has an understanding of how modes and atmospheres work, and… I don’t know much more to say about that. [AFTER] I always enjoyed Andrew very much. He’s one of the players who was playing actively at the time I started playing in Chicago. He always had a very original, unusual concept. Now knowing that it’s Andrew, and I could rewind the tape in my head and understand how it would be him. But I’ve never heard him play a piece like that. I’ve always heard him play much more angular kinds of things, either with a trio or with larger groups. But he’s certainly one of the original players, a real force in the music.

5.   Chris Anderson-Charlie Haden, “Body and Soul” (from NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, Naim, 1997) (Anderson, piano; Haden, bass)

That’s one of my favorite tunes on this planet. I seem to never get tired of playing it or hearing it. This was a very relaxed, languid reading of this piece with a pianist whom I certainly don’t recognize off the bat, accompanied by I believe Charlie Haden. If I’m correct about Charlie, I know he also loves “Body and Soul.” I think he even did a project once with a whole bunch of piano players or maybe other instrumentalists playing “Body and Soul.” I never heard the project, but he was always talking about doing it, and I’ll bet this well could be a cut from that project. I don’t recognize the pianist. I’d say it’s a pianist who was probably actively playing back in the ‘50s. It was very relaxed, and I enjoyed it. Clearly, they just got together and just played it. It was like they jammed on this tune, and it had a very relaxed feel. 4 stars. [AFTER] Is that right? Wow. It didn’t sound like Chris. Knowing now that it was Chris, I’d say a little bit of the halting aspect to the right hand lines reminds me of some of the searching way that Chris would go at it. But what doesn’t tip me off to Chris on this particular cut is that he usually had such unusual harmonic progressions and voicings that he would bring to a tune. This piece doesn’t strike me as what’s the hallmark of Chris Anderson’s really quite innovative approach to jazz voicing. [What was the nature of his influence on you, or someone like Herbie Hancock, people who came under his spell during the late ‘50s in Chicago?] He was a legend in Chicago. Bobby Cranshaw first told me that I had to hear this cat play. When I first heard him, it was wonderful to hear the unusual ways he would put voicings together. That’s really what I think his contribution was. He himself was profoundly influenced by Nelson Riddle. He was very interested in the effects of doubling notes and not doubling notes. He was often very careful not to double certain notes. I remember grabbing this guy and saying, “Chris, you’ve got to show me how you voice that chord,” and I’d be sitting there writing down stuff and trying to figure it out. A lot of players in Chicago were doing exactly the same thing, because he really had a lot to offer.

6.   Fred Hersch, “Bemsha Swing” (from THELONIOUS: FRED HERSCH PLAYS MONK, Nonesuch, 1997) (Hersch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

That was an interesting approach to “Bemsha Swing.”  I feel an affinity for that tune, having just recorded it myself as a solo pianist, and it’s always so interesting to hear what other people do with it. This pianist took it in a very different direction, dealing with a lot of the fragments of the melody, and it was played in a very spare way. It sounded to me like someone who has quite a bit of a classical background. I liked the originality of some of the figurations and way of approaching the tune, which I thought breathed some freshness into this. 3½ stars. No idea who it might be offhand. [AFTER] I love Fred’s playing, and I wouldn’t have picked this one out. Monk is so marvelous, because not only was he unique in the universe, but his compositions are springboards for so many players and improvisers to take things into their own realm. I don’t think the idea is to be “faithful” to Monk (I don’t think he would have wanted that), but rather than you could use these pieces as wonderful launching pads. So I’m always interested to see what other players do with Monk, and I’ve always found his compositions to be really inspirational. I think I started playing some of his stuff in high school. I heard some of the Blue Note things that I liked. Another album that really appealed to me was called Nica’s Tempo, a Gigi Gryce album on Signal. Half the album was Monk, Gigi Gryce, Percy Heath and Art Blakey, and they had things like “Gallop’s Gallop” and “Brake’s Sake.” I loved those pieces, man. And I loved the early Blue Note stuff, which I heard in high school. [Did you have to figure out fingerings and ways to play them? Was that part of the pleasure, too?] Sure. You had to figure out how to negotiate them. But I guess in some ways, more even than physically playing his tunes was the inspiration his compositions and improvisations gave to me to be able to take my own work into different spaces. I think that’s generally been true of how I’ve assimilated music. It hasn’t been so much that I’ve wanted to play a lot of the pieces of other jazz musicians, although I do and I’ve recorded, but even more, their gift to me is what I can do, and then take it in terms of my own compositions and improvisations. The same thing is true with the influence of the classical composers on me when I was growing up. I was always drawn much more to the modern people. Initially I made a big leap all the way from Bach to the impressionists and beyond. In more recent years, I’ve sort of been drinking in the period in between with a great love for Rachmaninoff and Chopin and lots of other people. But I was tremendously drawn to Ravel and Bartok and Berg and people like that, and then, of course, George Russell, when I heard him in high school, knocked the top of my head off. [Were these things in the air in Chicago at all? Do you think that you and generational contemporaries were listening to similar music and affected by similar strains?] I don’t know. I don’t remember talking to people a lot about, for instance, what classical composers they were listening to. We would talk a lot about records that had come out or players we liked in the jazz genre. But I had come up studying classical music throughout grade school, and had always loved these more modern people. But again, I didn’t have a tremendous interest in keeping up a classical repertoire and performing classical pieces. I wanted to use that material in my own music. That’s always been the way I’ve been built. [I’m also interested in the common strains? A Chicago school of piano playing?] I’m trying to think. I don’t remember having conversations with Chicago pianists about classical music very much. I remember talking to Chris Anderson a bit when he was talking about Nelson Riddle. He certainly loved the Impressionists and the voicings of those players. But I don’t remember talking about Classical music with the Chicago cats.

7.   Craig Taborn, “Bodies We Came Out Of” (from LIGHT MADE LIGHTER, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Taborn, piano; Chris Lightcap, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

That was another piece that really takes you on a journey. I thought it had tremendous hypnotic drive to it, a very skilled pianist. I enjoy very much overlaying different time signatures against each other and asymmetric figures that crash through and drape over barlines, and this pianist enjoys doing that kind of thing, too, so I feel a kindred spirit with that. There was just a wonderful roiling feeling to it all the way through. The drummer was just terrific. Very enjoyable. 5 stars. Don’t know who that is, though. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Terrific pianist.

8.  Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 2000) (Hancock, piano)

Boy, what a beautiful journey through “Embraceable You” that was. Gorgeous recording in terms of sound. The pianist has a beautiful touch. Now, these are the voicings that I would have expected from the Chris Anderson cut. If Chris were physically in better shape, I’d say this could be Chris, but he rarely was feeling physically well enough to be able to play at this technical level. As you know, he had ostogenesis imperfecta, and was always nursing injuries. It was amazing that he could play at all, given what he was dealing with. This was just a beautiful rendition, I thought. The rubato treatment. Beautiful and unusual reharmonizations throughout. Lovely surprises. You feel the pianist searching, taking his or her time with this piece. Going for not the easy answer. Some of the modulations I thought were heartbreakingly beautiful, and the improvisation using fragments of the melody rather than feeling that they had to be worked through in terms of the actual structure of the tune per se. Beautiful playing. 5 stars. I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Herbie? Wow. Beautiful. It’s gorgeous, and I’ve been a big fan of Herbie’s playing over the years. We had only a nodding acquaintance in Chicago. We got to know each other better when I was out on the West Coast and he would come through with Miles. We used to get together and do four-handed duets on my piano, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s  work a lot through the years. I am hoping, if Columbia ever releases a CD of this concert that was done in honor of Conrad Silvert back in the ‘80s… Herbie and I did a two-piano duet on “Round Midnight” which I would love to see included. I thought it was something really special.

9.  The Bad Plus, “Flim” (from BLUNT OBJECT: LIVE IN TOKYO, Sony, 2004) (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Certainly very different from anything you’ve played for me so far today. This is a melding of Pop and Rock and perhaps even Folk elements. Aspects of it remind me of the Bad Plus, but it doesn’t have the fire and the drive that I typically associate with their playing – at least that I’ve heard. It makes me wonder about a group that I haven’t yet heard, but I’ve heard about – whether this could be E.S.T.  Certainly the group was using these very simple motifs, and just laying them down very repetitive, I think trying to establish a hypnotic groove on those terms. It certainly seemed like it’s played by people who know how to play their instruments, and it’s just a question if one is drawn to this kind of thing. For my own personal taste, 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it could have been screaming Europeans! I haven’t heard E.S.T. Do they sound like this at all? [They sound very Nordic – folk music, club beats, classical harmony] I heard them last year at IAJE, and I loved them. I thought what they did that night was terrific. But this didn’t have the balls.

10.  Edward Simon, “You’re My Everything, #1” (from SIMPLICITAS, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Simon, piano, composer; Avishai Cohen, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

Nice treatment of an old standard, “You’re My Everything.” A pianist who obviously has a realized style, a very sumptuous, relaxed sound. Nice voicings. The whole group sounded very relaxed. There were some nice reharmonizations on the head. The bass player is terrific; took a couple of excellent choruses. Then the piano solo was interesting, had a great relaxed feel to it, some moments of nice right hand-left hand interaction. When they finally got into walking on this piece, there was a really good groove, and a very nice feel to it. I liked the way the head was approached at the end in a kind of loose way, and then they moved into this eighth-note vamp at the end which was very relaxed and had some interesting piano figures on it. Overall, a very satisfying cut. 4½ stars. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Never heard him. Nice player.

11.  Renee Rosnes, “Miyako” (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, TLE, 2002) (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

That was “Miyako” from my favorite living composer, Wayne Shorter. A very nice treatment, verging into the more dramatic ways of approaching the piece. The pianist had very, very nice voicings and command of the instrument. A very graceful style. It sounded more like Herbie to me than anybody. I doubt you’d play two tracks from the same pianist in the same Blindfold Test, but it’s somebody who has certainly been very influenced by Herbie. The bass player sounded like he was influenced by Charlie Haden, but also played very well. I thought the whole feel of the piece was very satisfying. 4½ stars.

12.  Eldar Djangirov, “Maiden Voyage” (from ELDAR, Sony, 2004) (Djangirov, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Todd Strait, drums)

A furious, tumultuous version of “Maiden Voyage,”  played by a pianist who I think must be Eldar Djangirov. I’ve never heard his recordings, but I did hear him live last year at the IAJE Convention. He’s a young man with obviously prodigious talent and technique, and hopefully he’ll stay healthy and have all the exposure he needs that will nurture his talent, and that more and more what will emerge will be his true voice, his true center. Right now, I think he’s facing the problem that almost all young jazz players face, particularly if they’re as gifted as he is, of becoming an editor of one’s own materials. There’s a tendency to want to put everything into every piece that one can do and that one knows. There’s a gravitational pull to do that. It can be very seductive. I think time will tell, and with this kind of talent he’s got a brilliant future. 3 stars.

13.  Ahmad Jamal, “I’m Old Fashioned” (from AFTER FAJR, Dreyfuss, 2004) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums)

That was Ahmad Jamal playing “I’m Old Fashioned,” or somebody who clones himself after Ahmad. I enjoyed it tremendously. I will assume it’s Ahmad, and so make comments about him and what I think his music has meant particularly to the whole trio tradition. Coming up in the ‘50s in Chicago I had a chance to hear him, and his use of space and the way of floating over the time and getting that kind of groove. The groove on that piece was very typical of the kind of groove that Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby would get with him back in the ‘50s when he was playing these kinds of pieces. There was always this wonderful sense of drama and surprise in his playing. He, too, had been influenced by Chris Anderson and had gotten some very unusual ways of reharmonizing and voicing chords I think at least partly from Chris. He certainly is an original and has his own thing. It’s a pleasure to hear this. I’ll be embarrassed if it’s somebody cloning himself after Ahmad, but that I think is worth 5 stars.

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Liner Notes, Denny Zeitlin, As Long As There’s Music:

On As Long As There’s Music, pianist Denny Zeitlin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster, who boast more than one hundred years of combined professional experience, embody the principle of the trio as an equilateral triangle.  Addressing a varied program of interesting Songbook and Jazz standards plus a few pungent originals, Zeitlin, guided by unerring melodic radar, ingeniously reimagines his material, reharmonizing and orchestrating with spontaneous elan, maintaining peak focus and flow throughout the recital, deploying towards unfailingly musical ends a prodigious technique that Marion McPartland, referring to a duet they played last year on her NPR “Piano Jazz” show, described as akin “to a tidal wave washing over me.”  Williams and Foster anticipate Zeitlin’s postulations, responding with laser quick precision, nuanced musicality and relentless swing; if you didn’t know that this was their first-ever encounter, you’d swear they’d shared bandstands for years.

Zeitlin is a psychiatrist with a large private practice in the Bay Area.  He also teaches at the University of California and lecture-demonstrates on the psychology of improvising.  So he can speak with some authority on the interpersonal dynamics of trio playing, of which this session might serve as a textbook.  “You always hope for a merger experience with your partners, which can be complicated in a trio,” he remarks.  “If things go extremely well, three people can feel that the music is just emanating from the stage — it’s hard even to know for sure who is playing what.  When my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I also have it when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist, a sense of inhabiting the world that my patients are talking about.

“If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine how I would infuse my three-thousandth appendectomy with new excitement.  As you do psychotherapy, as much as it’s true that you hear common themes in the human life cycle that endlessly repeat, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  In my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient tell their story.  My function is to help them feel it’s safe to go into areas of their life they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  The role of accompanying another soloist on the bandstand is parallel.  The biggest difference is that I often solo for long periods of time on a stage, which I’m not doing in my office with patients.”

Now 62, Zeitlin is no stranger to jazz connoisseurs.  His five mid-’60s trio albums for Columbia won widespread acclaim, resulting in two first place finishes in the Downbeat Critics Poll.  He spent the ’70s focusing on a pioneering integration of jazz, electronics, classical and rock, culminating in the 1978 electronic-acoustic score for Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. He concertizes internationally, working with bass giants like David Friesen, Charlie Haden, and John Patitucci, appearing at one point or another with John Abercrombie, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, the Kronos Quartet, Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, and Paul Winter.

That said, most Zeitlin devotees probably don’t know much about his formative years, when he encountered the blend of cultural influences that shaped his sensibility.  It started at home, in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. His mother, Rosalyn, was a speech pathologist and “fairly decent classical pianist,” while his father, Nathaniel, was a radiologist “who couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear.”  As he puts it, “I bilaterally had both fields — medicine and music — from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say people can follow their muse, that it doesn’t have to be either-or; from very early on I had a sense that I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.”

Zeitlin remembers traversing the keyboard at 2 or 3; soon after he began “picking out little melodies and improvising.”  Formal instruction began at 7 or 8.  He recalls: “I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel, and was tremendously excited by composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg.  I started to listen to jazz around eighth grade.  One night my music teacher brought to a lesson a recording of George Shearing playing ‘Summertime’ and I was knocked out.  Here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  I wanted to learn about this genre!  She began bringing Art Tatum albums over, and that was it.”

As a high school freshman Zeitlin formed a piano-guitar-drums trio called the Cool Tones for which he composed original music informed by the cutting edge of the zeitgeist.  He cites as early influences Bud Powell (“his power and angularity and originality spoke to me”), Billy Taylor (“he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch; I was particularly drawn to the power of his ballad playing”), Lennie Tristano (“his harmonic conception and rhythmic subtleties with the line of a solo”), Dave Brubeck (“I thought he had his own thing and followed it with tremendous conviction”), and Thelonious Monk (“an utterly quirky genius full of endless surprise”).

Zeitlin began to partake of Chicago’s raucous jazz scene as soon as he could drive, hearing headliners and “resident greatness” at North Side institutions like Mr. Kelly’s and the French Poodle, hanging out in South Side rooms like the Beehive and the Stage Lounge until 4 or 5 in the morning.  By his senior year he was jamming with hardcore Windy City progressives, forming relationships that deepened as he pursued pre-med studies at the University of Illinois, in downstate Champaign, where Joe Farrell, Jack McDuff and Roger Kellaway were among the local talent.

“My parents knew I was utterly galvanized by this, that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to encourage and allow this to happen,” Zeitlin explains.  “They had a tremendous amount of trust in me; that I wasn’t, for example, using drugs or having problems with alcohol, that I could be around that subculture without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced.  I was able to take this opportunity of a priceless many-year informal apprenticeship in the music.  In those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the way one had to learn it.  I would collar somebody like Chris Anderson after the gig and say, ‘Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?’  By osmosis I tried to absorb as much of this art form as I could, and generally, I found musicians were gracious and willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play.”

By 1954, Zeitlin’s influences, as he puts it, “rapidly became non-pianistic.”  He honed in on Miles Davis’ “incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.”  He was fascinated with the roles of drums and bass, particularly Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath and Paul Chambers — he took up the instruments enough to do some gigging both in high school and college.  He analyzed the harmonic system John Coltrane was developing circa 1959-60, and analogizes the experience of hearing Coltrane as “like being shot out of a cannon, being at the center of a cyclone; I was tremendously drawn towards what some people have called his vertical chromaticism.”  He fell in love with the free improvisation aesthetic of the Ornette Coleman quartet; “I’d enjoyed free improvisation since I was 2 or 3 years, and here were guys making a whole life out of doing it in jazz.”

While Zeitlin attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, he “had carte blanche, whenever I could sneak away, to come and sit in at the North End Lounge,” owned by the father of saxophonist Gary Bartz, where he played with musicians like the younger Bartz, trombonist Grachan Moncur and drummer Billy Hart.  In 1963, while attending Columbia University on a fellowship, he met composer-theorist George Russell — “We hung out, talked about music, played with each other; he was tremendously encouraging to me.”  During that time, Paul Winter, a Chicago acquaintance, “dragged me kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he startled me by saying, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can play whatever you want and use whomever you want.’”

Consider this complex matrix of experience as you listen to the assorted treasures — they’re primarily first takes — on As Long As There’s Music.  The title could serve as Zeitlin’s raison d’etre.  “I try to get to the piano every day,” he states, “not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but that I am called to it.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I was never drawn to technical exercises.  I garnered new technical skills by pushing myself to play classical pieces somewhat beyond my current technical capability.  Now when I practice, I usually just improvise, sometimes with an ear towards possible composition.  Doing that keeps my fingers lubricated, and it nourishes my soul to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.”

The title track, which Zeitlin first heard on an early ’50s George Shearing quintet side, is a favorite of the bassist Charlie Haden, who Zeitlin met when the pianist arrived in the Bay Area in 1964 as an intern at San Francisco General Hospital.  Haden was on two of Zeitlin’s early Columbia LPs, and they recorded a duo version of the song on a 1983 ECM album.  On this version Zeitlin shifts the piece into waltz time, employs a bit of organic reharmonization, Foster articulates barely perceptible shifts in tempo and dynamics, Williams nudges the pulse along with subtle accents, and the trio rides out with a polyrhythmic dialogue on a sweet vamp.

Zeitlin notes: “The challenge of a standard is to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but find an approach that might breathe fresh life into it.  You can reshape it structurally, but most often you may want to reharmonize it, which can seduce you with its possibilities.  At its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  Often, the tune gets lost, or becomes so cluttered that it becomes a logjam of material.  I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to see what new directions the tune might take.”

Zeitlin conceptualized “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “The Man I Love” for a Gershwin concert celebration a few months before the session.  On the former, after the trio serenely states the head, Zeitlin plays solo piano with a bit of stride and a nod to Art Tatum, which cues an increasingly intense piano-drum duet, which leads to a double-time trio section that evokes the essence of Bud Powell.  After Buster Williams’ spot-on solo, they transition to the original medium-tempo head statement.

The latter tune, which concludes the album, opens with a brief free piano improvisation which sets a mood, before a rubato melody statement that brings in the trio, which springboards off a vivid vamp into ever-escalating improvisational adventures.

Is the consummately lyrical Zeitlin a lyrics man or is he inspired by a song’s musical content?   “It’s more of the latter,” Zeitlin responds.  “I know many musicians feel it’s crucial to know the lyric — almost ‘How could you not know it and play the tune?’  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer.  Now, the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any tune that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.  Favorite female vocalists whose lyrics stay with me over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.”

Add to that list Billie Holiday, the inspiration for “For Heaven’s Sake,” which Zeitlin played for years in solo, duo and trio contexts, but never recorded.  His reharmonized interpretation, framing a delicate Buster Williams solo, evokes the inherent tenderness and yearning in the melody.

“There and Back,” the first of two Zeitlin originals, moves back and forth between walking jazz time and a straight-eighth, funky feel, while “Canyon” is a clever “minor blues-oid construction.”  “I’ve always perceived improvisation as being spontaneous composition,” says Zeitlin, whose best-known piece is “Quiet Now,” which Bill Evans recorded numerous times.  “I hope my improvising imparts a sense of a journey, a feeling of inevitability about how it proceeds, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake.  I often think of my pieces as roadmaps that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other, with some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that challenge me and the musicians.”

Zeitlin heard Barbra Streisand sing “I’m All Smiles” on her ’60s People album; the trio plays it straight in a relaxed version that brings out all the beauty of the melody.

“Cousin Mary” continues a long line of Zeitlin interpretations of John Coltrane’s “Atlantic period.”  Zeitlin reharmonizes the head and drives hard-edged right into the blues; he sounds like a playful dancer, deconstructing the harmonic structure with wit and imagination.

There’s an elegant reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste,” and a heart-on-the-sleeve version of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” that Zeitlin describes as “a real organic journey.”

The same could be said for the entirety of As Long As There’s Music.  “I organized the arrangements to explore different things we could do as a trio,” Zeitlin concludes.  “I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  I felt there was some special chemistry here.”

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin (For As Long As There’s Music) – (9-16-00):

TP:    Let’s talk about the circumstances of this record.  You haven’t recorded with a trio for 10-11-12 years.  What’s the most common configuration in performance, solo, duo, trio?  Are they all equally…

ZEITLIN:  In some ways they are yes.  Over time they’ve been pretty balanced.  Rarely I’ll play in a larger context, maybe a quartet, but it’s typically more of a solo, duo or trio setting for me.

TP:    Perhaps you could state in a succinct way the different experience of performing in each media, how each creates a different space for you.

ZEITLIN:  The solo playing offers the unique challenge of having to create all the music oneself.  I’ve always thought of the piano as a symphonic instrument, so it gives me an opportunity and a challenge of trying to paint with all the colors of the orchestra as best I can, using the piano.  It also offers me complete freedom as to where I might take the form from moment to moment.  I don’t have to really be concerned by the forces that might be mobilized by the other musicians on the stage.  In some ways that’s a plus as a soloist.  Out there all by myself, I can take it wherever I would like.  On the other hand, you can argue that I miss out on all of the input that another or other musicians would give me.  So there’s always positives and negatives to these situations when you compare them to other possibilities.  But just in and of itself, the solo situation is a marvelous one for me in that I do get a chance to take the music wherever it might want to go from moment to moment, and that I have this kind of unique possibility for producing all of it myself.  In that setting, on a psychological level, the kind of emotional connection I’m making is to the music and to the spirit of the music, and then to the audience in the sense of reaching out with this music to I guess what Stravinsky used to talk about as “the hypothetical Other” — the perfect audience person.  And I’m hoping there’s at least a few of them out there in the actual audience.  I’m sending the music out there in the hopes that the people will try to reach out and meet the music halfway.  When that happens, it’s a very palpable experience for me, and at its very best I end up feeling like I’m just a conduit for the music, and that we’re all in the audience listening to what’s going on.

TP:    Now, the duo situation I would presume has a somewhat different dialoguing quality.

ZEITLIN:  It does.  And it still contains the complement of sending the music out and hoping for a merger experience with the audience.  But in the duo setting, I’m hoping for a merger experience with whomever is my musical partner up there.  Since typically it’s been bass, although I do duets with David  Grisman, and I’ve played duets in the past with Herbie Hancock, with John Abercrombie, with Marion McPartland… It’s the most transparent kind of group playing, as far as I can see.  With just two people up there, there is a tremendous kind of interpersonal nakedness, which at its best can lead to some very special music.  It doesn’t have the complexity, in some ways, of a trio, but in some ways it has more freedom in that there is maybe more opportunity to take the form in different directions from moment to moment, because there could be a greater possibility that two people will be in synch than three.  And particularly with bass and piano, with no drums, there is a lot of opportunity for a certain kind of subtlety and nuance to be heard that might otherwise be covered sometimes, at least, by drums, no matter how sensitive a drummer might be, and very subtle shifts in timbre can be heard and perceived.  So I think of the duo situation more like a kind of group chamber music of a sort. And it’s a very exciting form, and I’ve enjoyed that.  I’ve done a lot of duo playing over the last 15 years with David Friesen; we’ve recorded a number of albums together, and that’s been a very special experience.

In the trio it gets more complicated.  I think we still have the opportunity and obligation to attempt the merger with the audience, but now we’ve got three people…if things are going extremely well, three people who could somehow have a kind of merger experience where we all feel that the music is just emanating from the stage, but it’s hard to even know for sure who is playing what.  I think when my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I think it’s also true when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist.

TP:    That you have a sense of merger with the patient.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, with the patient and with the material, a sense of really inhabiting the world that they are talking about.  I am hoping to achieve some measure of that in the musical setting as well.

TP:    Hopefully what a writer would wish to achieve with his subject.  Empathy.

ZEITLIN:  It’s empathy and also the flow experience, that Mihalyihas Csikszent has written about.  He’s written about a dozen books, starting in 1976, about the flow experience.  What’s the essential fun in Fun, and what is it that particularly will call people to do activities that don’t seem to have tremendous external rewards.  He over a period of time delineated the characteristics of the flow experience, which are things like utter concentration without being aware that one is particularly concentrating, an altered sense of time, a sense of tremendous internal rightness about what’s going on, a process orientation rather than a content orientation, the merger experience with the activity and often ecstatic feelings about it.  Those are parts of the flow experience, maybe not an exhaustive list of the components of it.

TP:    Had you ever worked with this particular configuration before?

ZEITLIN:  This was a first time experience.  One rehearsal the day before.

TP:    You sound like to me like you’d been playing together for ten years.

ZEITLIN:  I thought there was a special rapport that immediately generated with these guys.  I had loved their music for years.  I first heard Al with Miles years ago, and I heard Buster even earlier when he was with Herbie, and I had always hoped that someday I might get a chance to do a project with them.  In fact, Todd asked me to do a little personal liner for the album, and I mention that.  I’ll send you those few paragraphs.  I go into it, that I’d always hoped to do a project with them.  So when this came along, when Todd called me about doing this trio album, I thought immediately of them, and I was delighted that they were available and it turned out that they were both familiar with my music and had liked it, so that we approached it all of us having a good vibe about what we’d heard earlier in each other’s music, and I think considerable excitement about what we might do together.  Sometimes studio sessions can sound fairly mundane or just workmanlike, or people get together and the music is good and whatever.  But I felt there was some special chemistry here.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of live recordings.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and I generally prefer the live setting for a recording, because I think it helps get people into that flow experience, that the presence and challenge of an audience can pull more for that sort of merger experience and a higher level of excitement.  So a studio poses a challenge of can you tap into this somehow.  I thought all the ingredients were present in this setting.  This was Clinton Studio A.  I’d never played there before.  I thought the room had great feel.  It was one of the best Steinway Grands I’d ever performed on.  It was impeccably maintained.  It was as if I had sat down at the piano and played a few notes, and the piano said to me, “We can do anything you want.”  Sometimes one gets a personal sense of connection to an instrument.  It’s interesting that almost everyone else carries their instrument with them wherever they go, so they develop I’m sure a much more intense personal attachment and connection to the actual instrument.  I am at the mercy of what’s at every venue.  So there’s always some anxiety, despite reassurances, as to what I am going to run into, whether it’s a performance or a recording.  This just happened to be an almost miraculous Steinway, one of the top 3 or 4 pianos I’ve ever played in my life.  The studio had a whole cupboard full of almost antique treasures, of tube and Neumann microphones, which are just gorgeous.  They gave that wonderful warm sound to the piano.  It’s I think a really extraordinarily excellent piano-sonic recording.  And the way it was set up, the earphone mixes were excellent, so I could hear everybody.  And Todd is a wonderful guy to work with.  He was sensitive, he was helpful, but totally non-intrusive.

TP:    Here’s the way I want to approach the note.  It’s a program that refers to a very wide span of material, and it’s consistent with… I’m afraid I really don’t know your ’60s music or the electronic things you did in the ’70s, but it seems that in the last 15-20 years a lot of your performance has been about including the dynamics of your whole range of experience.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I think that’s very true.

TP:    I would like to take you back a little bit into your influences in conceptualizing the sound of a piano trio.  I’d like you to talk about each of the tunes and the associations those tunes had for you, and a bit formally about how you approached those tunes.  And I would like to go into a little biographical detail about your formative years, which I haven’t read in any of these notes.  So let’s go back to the boilerplate things, and take it into something specific and informative about how it inflects on this record.  You started playing at an incredibly early age.

ZEITLIN:  I started when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old.  I do have memories of sitting on the lap of whichever parent was playing the piano, and putting my little hands on their hands and going along for the ride kinesthetically before I could even play a note.  I had a sense of what it was like to traverse a keyboard.  Then I started just picking out little melodies and improvising, and I think very wisely, my parents held off formal instruction, so that I think I was 7 or 8 before I really had a hunger to start studying music and learning how to read notes.  I was composing and improvising for some years by then.  They sensed that I just needed space and time to explore that.  It was I think a very important decision on their part.  My mother turned out to be my first music teacher.  She was a fairly decent classical pianist and also a speech pathologist, so she brought both medicine and music from her side.  And my father had a very good ear, couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear, and he was a radiologist.  So bilaterally I had both fields from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say that people can follow their muse, and it doesn’t have to be either-or.  I think from very early on I had a sense I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.

TP:    Your first influences were classical, obviously.  When did you start to become aware of jazz?  And more specifically, when did you start to become aware of the notion that there were improvisers who articulated specific voices.  Improvisational personalities.  Let’s say the difference between Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and George Shearing, presuming those are people who are part of your matrix.

ZEITLIN:  I think it was really in eighth grade that I started to listen to jazz and really notice jazz.  Certainly I had heard the music.  But prior to that I was studying Classical music, always drawn much more to 20th Century music and the Impressionist.  It’s as though I took a leap from Bach, whom I always loved, all the way to the Impressionists and beyond.  I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance, and tremendous excitedly by composers like Prokofiev and Bartok and Stravinsky and Berg.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel.  This music just really always touched my soul.

In eighth grade I remember my music teacher brought a little 10″ MGM LP to a music lesson one night, and the title of the album was You’re Hearing George Shearing.  I remember hearing that; the first piece I ever heard him play was “Summertime,” and I remember being just absolutely knocked out, that wow, here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  The rhythmic drive on that album with other instruments… Boy, I just wanted to learn about this genre.  So she began bringing other albums over, listening to Art Tatum, and then I was in…

TP:    You had a hip piano teacher.

ZEITLIN:  Oh, she was great.  She couldn’t play jazz, but she was absolutely wide-open to anything I wanted to do.  It was a great-great blessing.  When I got into my high school, in my freshman year there were a number of other fledgling jazz musicians, and I formed a trio with drums and guitar… I still remember.  We called ourselves the Cool-Tones!

TP:    This was around 1952 or so.

ZEITLIN:  This would be ’52.  I started listening to Bud Powell.  The first trio I ever heard live, in terms of a touring band, was the Billy Taylor Trio, and I remember being tremendously excited by what he was doing and touched by his music.  I felt he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch.  I was particularly drawn to the beauty of his ballad playing, and I loved everything he did.  Bud Powell’s power and angularity and originality spoke to me.  Lennie Tristano’s harmonic conception and the subtleties of what he would do rhythmically with the line of a solo.  I really was drawn to that.  I liked Dave Brubeck a lot.  I thought he had his own thing, and really followed it with tremendous conviction.  I continued to listen to George Shearing.  Certainly Thelonious Monk I liked a lot.  Those were the very early pianistic influences.

TP:    So you were very much in tune with your zeitgeist of your time, in many ways.  This is what the cutting edge was in 1955-6-7.  And you grew up in the north suburbs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I grew up in Highland Park.

TP:    And when did you start partaking of music as beyond your immediate milieu.  You mentioned it briefly before, that at a certain point you started going into Chicago quite a bit, and specifically the South Side scene.

ZEITLIN:  I started going into the city to hear music when I was a freshman in high school, because I was tall and in a dark room I could pass.  But I didn’t actually start sitting in until I was a senior in high school or something like that.

TP:    So there’s the Beehive, the 63rd Street strip…

ZEITLIN:  Yes, the Stage Lounge I remember.  Then there were places like Mr. Kelly’s, the French Poodle…

TP:    How much hanging out did you do?  You did get into medical school eventually!

ZEITLIN:  I did, I did.  But in my spare time, I would just carve it out.  I was immersed in this music, listening to it, rehearsing, going to jam sessions, listening to great musicians.  And there was fortunately a tremendous amount of resident greatness in the Chicago area, as well as people who would come through, traveling headliners that I would get to see.  It was marvelous…

TP:    Were you paying attention to Ahmad Jamal during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I liked Ahmad very much.  I wouldn’t say he was as much of an early influence as these other people I mentioned.

TP:    There are a lot of orchestrative things you do within the dynamics of this record… Well, I guess his impact was so pervasive on the sound of contemporary piano trios…

ZEITLIN:  It’s sometimes hard to… You get immersed in a form, and you listen to dozens and dozens of players, and you get… To some degree, we’re influenced by everything we hear.  What you hope is that you integrate it in a way and that you have something personal to offer, that you develop a personal voice.

I had a chance fairly early on to play with some really fine players, like Bobby Cranshaw, the bassist, and Wilbur Ware, Walter Perkins, a great drummer, Ira Sullivan, a marvelous trumpeter and tenor player, Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin.  Really excellent players.  So all through college I would come up, frequently on weekends, and go to jam sessions and play with these guys, play gigs… Also, there were very good players at the University of Illinois, where I was an undergrad.  Joe Farrell, whose real name was Firantello, was there, and we used to play together a lot.  Jack McDuff was living down there at the time, playing bass as well as organ, and Roger Kellaway was around.  He also played very good bass, as well as piano.  I feel everywhere I’ve gone since high school I’ve been fortunate to find excellent musical opportunities to keep the juices flowing while I was studying either premed or medicine.

The same thing happened when I went to Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1960.  Gary Bartz’s father had a jazz club called the North End Lounge in Baltimore.  I used to go sit in with Gary and some other great cats who… I remember a couple of times Grachan Moncur was down there, and Billy Hart was a resident drummer.  I had a carte blanche invitation, whenever I could sneak away from medical school, to come and sit in.  It was just great fun.

Then in 1963, I stumbled really into recording.  I’d had some inquiries and nibbles early on, and really had some resistance to the whole idea of making a record.  I’d heard so many stories from musicians about how record companies ripped them off, subverted their musical identities, etcetera, etc.  And I figured, “Look, I’m going to be a doctor; I love this music; I can keep it pure; I’ll just play; I don’t really care about particularly a public career.”  Then I was in New York on a fellowship at Columbia in 1963, and Paul Winter, who had been at Northwestern for a number of years and had heard me play and had always liked my playing, he had been recording for Columbia for a year or so, and he dragged me literally kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he just loved what I was doing, and startled me by saying, “Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can record whatever you want, you can use whomever you want” — carte blanche.

TP:    Was what you played within the tradition or in the framework of stretching out?

ZEITLIN:  Both.  John was a marvelous guy with tremendously broad tastes, and he was as good as his word.  He wanted me to get my feet wet with recording by being the featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on Jeremy’s first outing for the label, which was in 1963.  That was a lot of fun.  I remember that session as being a ball.  Ben Riley was on drums and Ben Tucker was on bass.  I thought the chemistry was great among the four of us.  Then what followed were four trio projects for Columbia over the next handful of years.  Out here in California I was able to hook up with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli, and we were a working trio for 2-1/2 years and did an album and a half together.  Then I played with some other cats in a trio, and we recorded most of the last album I did for Columbia, which was called Zeitgeist, actually my favorite of the whole series.  That came out in 1967.

By that time, I’d been listening to quite a bit of Rock-and-Roll and some of the avant-garde electronic music, and I was interested in a lot of what was happening in modern Classical music, and I was getting restless with what felt like the limitations of the acoustic piano sound.  I wanted to be able to bend notes, I wanted to be able to sustain notes like horns and guitar players could.  So I really withdrew from public performance for over a year or so, and tried to do some R&D as to what was available, and I hired engineers to build me sound modules…

TP:    Boy, were you in the right spot in 1968.

ZEITLIN:  Well, a lot was starting.  But this was before you could walk to your corner grocery and come back with a Moog synthesizer under your arm.  This was the era where you take wires and you patch together a sound, and it probably takes you five minutes to do the whole cascade, and then you get one note.  You don’t get two notes.

TP:    It’s fascinating because you’re in on it from the beginning.  It’s as though someone presents something to you, you work with it, then they present something else, you can work with that, and it’s all fresh and new and un-cliched.

ZEITLIN:  I’ve always been drawn to new ways of trying to express myself.  I am attracted to the idea of stretching.  I have never been an either-or type of person.  I’ve always been a both-and type of person.  I think you were quite correct when you talked about the breadth of what I try to do.  For me, there’s no reason why there have to be artificial boundaries between Classical music, Rock, Funk, Jazz, Folk music, Electronic music.  There’s no reason why one has to, in some a priori way, say that some are off-base for others.  There is material in all of those forms that called to me.  Why not try to have a musical palette to paint with that can use all those colors?  That’s what I’m drawn to.  So I was just excited at the prospect of what I could do with electronics.  So I got people to build the various things for me, and sound-altering devices and foot switches and pedals.  A lot of it was totally customized at that point.  Gradually I developed what looked like a 747 cockpit of six or seven keyboard instruments, along with the acoustic piano and miles of cords and banks of flip switches that were more complicated than a B-3 pedal box.  It would take 6 hours to tear this down from my studio at home, take it to a local gig and set it up, play the gig, and then another 6 hours to undo it.  And for several years I did this.  There was a ten-year period, from ’68 to ’78, when I really was involved in this electronic-acoustic integration of all of these forms.  I found musicians who were willing to go on that exploration with me.  People I played with predominantly during that period were George Marsh on drums and Mel Graves on bass.  That’s when I did Szyzgy and the album Expansion, which was the first album of this kind of music.  When I wanted to make a record of it and queried some record labels at the time, I got a lot of responses back saying, “Gee, Denny, honestly we love this music, but we don’t know how in the world we would market it.  We wouldn’t know what conduit to put it through marketing-wise.”  So I ended up starting my own label, called Double-Helix records, to even put this out, and I sold out the first pressing.  Then there was a local, very avant-garde label called 1750 Arch Records which expressed an interest in taking it over, and I was delighted.  Because being an administrator and packing up LPs is not my idea of a good time.  So they took over Expansion, and then I did Szyzgy for them and also a solo piano album of totally free improvisations called Soundings which was released in ’78.

’78 really marked a turning point for me again.  I had an opportunity, again just by luck, to score a major motion picture film…

TP:    The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

ZEITLIN:  That’s right.  Philip Kaufman was a Chicago guy, and he had heard me play and had it in his head that some day he wanted me to do a jazz score for him.  So he called me in in ’78, I guess, or maybe it was late ’77, when he was in the process of getting ready to shoot this film, and asked me whether I would be interested in doing it.  It sounded great to me.  I love science fiction, and I’d always hoped some day I would get a chance to score a major film but figured it was really unlikely.  Because to get that, typically, you live in L.A., you pound on doors for ten years, then you’re given maybe a dozen first projects where the budget is for a kazoo and a harmonica, and maybe if you’re lucky and play enough political games, about five years later you’ll get to score a major film.  So all of a sudden this back door seemed to be opening, and I was very excited about it.  But then it looked like it wouldn’t happen, because Philip’s idea about the film shifted, and it looked like he was going to need an 20th century avant-garde symphonic score.  I had no established credentials for this.  So I had to convince him and his producer that I could do it, and I sold them on it.  And it took some selling.  It was one of the more exciting and challenging experiences I’ve ever had, to be able to write for a symphony orchestra, plus do all of this electronic stuff.  I had the prototype of the Prophet-10 voice synthesizer.  It hadn’t even been released for sale, I believe, at that point.  I remember it wouldn’t even stay in tune for more than about 10 or 15 minutes.  I had to turn it off, let it cool off, and then reboot it.  But for studio work I could use it.  And it had some marvelous capabilities.  I did small group stuff.  I had Eddie Henderson come in, and Mel Martin recorded some things with me.  So I had a chance to do virtually everything I loved to do, plus this whole new experience of writing for a symphony orchestra, and going down to L.A. and having this orchestra play, taking the 24-track tapes back to San Francisco and overdubbing on that, and going back to L.A.  It was an exhausting 10-week project.

TP:    At this point you’re 40 years old and you’re always a practicing psychiatrist.

ZEITLIN:  Yeah.  I started my psychiatric practice in 1968, after finishing a three-year residency at the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Institute, which is part of the U.C. Medical Center in San Francisco.  I’ve been on the clinical faculty since ’68, teaching residents how to do various kinds of psychotherapy, and had a private practice.  So at this point, in ’78, I’m ten years out into practice, still teaching at the university, and having this marvelous opportunity to score this film.

TP:    Are you one of these people who needs 5 hours of sleep?

ZEITLIN:  Actually, if I can get 8, I’m delighted to get 8.  But I can get along, at least in short bursts, on less.  This was a particularly challenging period.  I remember I cut back on my practice 50% for five weeks, had a lot of advance planning so nobody got into any trouble, and I had coverage and everything.  But I do remember after this project was over, it had been very exciting, but so arduous.  I was working 18-19 hour days.  My wife would come down and literally peel me off the piano stool and deposit me in the hot tub to stretch out, put me to bed for a few hours, and I’d get up and do the thing again.  As exciting as it was, after all that, and then having to deal with the politics of Hollywood, which almost involved me having to sue the studio in order to get paid my money, I said to myself, “I’ve had my one experience, I’m very lucky, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”  I had some other offers, and I just shined them on.  I never wanted to do it again.

I was very grateful for the opportunity and very pleased that I was able to have a soundtrack album from it, but it did represent a turning point to me in that I wanted to get back to the purity of acoustic music, and I really haven’t done any major projects with electronics since.  I’ve just been focusing on the acoustic piano and acoustic situations.  What I found, to my pleasant surprise, was that all the years of playing other keyboards and dealing with electronic instruments and synthesizers had opened my ears in some way that I was able to get a lot more nuance out of the acoustic piano than ever before.  So that was an unexpected dividend.  A lot of people have had just the opposite experience, that playing multiple keyboards with different degrees of heaviness of touch, messes up their acoustic piano playing.  But I didn’t have this experience.  So since 1978, I’ve been focusing primarily on solo, duo and trio playing, with an occasional quartet of acoustic music basically.

TP:    It sounds that at a certain point you got very much into John Coltrane’s harmonic system circa 1959-60-61, and you also deal quite a bit with Ornette Coleman’s music.  Could you talk about the impact of that hypermodernism, if we can call it that, on you at the point when it was coming out?  Non-pianistic influences obviously.

ZEITLIN:  That’s a good question, because very rapidly, the major influences for me became non-pianistic.  I think most players start off with their major influences being on their own instrument, but they may then branch out.  Not inevitably, but I think it’s a natural tendency to broaden one’s horizons.  For me it really ended up that the major influences, if I had to look back, were non-pianistic influences.  Miles, Trane, Ornette, George Russell.  Those would be absolutely tops on my list.

Miles’ incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.  I was tremendously drawn to him.

Coltrane, it was like being shot out of a cannon, listening to him.  He was totally ripping the fabric of jazz apart.  Sometimes I’d listen to him and feel like I was watching a terrier shake a rat.  It was incredibly exciting music.  It was like being at the center of a cyclone, listening to Trane in his exploratory earlier period, his harmonic period when he was developing what some people have called a kind of vertical chromaticism.  I was tremendously drawn to that.

George Russell’s writing and ways of thinking about music were tremendously important to me.  I never formally studied the Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization.  But in 1963, when I was a resident at Columbia University for this fellowship (that’s when I met John Hammond), I also hung out with George, studied with him, and it was more a kind of mentorship.  We would hang out, talk about music, play with each other.  He was tremendously encouraging to me, and I think I could make a remark…

I think it’s often notable when people talk about their careers, that there are nodal points where the encouragement of a valued mentor or authority is extraordinarily helpful.  I remember three points in my career where this happened.  The first was Billy Taylor.  He came out to the house with his trio when I was probably a sophomore or freshman in high school, invited by my parents.  We had dinner, and my little fledgling trio played for them. [END OF SIDE] …[he said] there was no reason why I couldn’t do both of them, and talking about the hard life of a full-time working jazz musician.  So his encouragement was priceless.

Then I remember George’s encouragement in 1963, before I even began to record.  Then after I made my first trio album for Columbia, called Cathexis, I had read a Blindfold Test that Bill Evans had done for Downbeat where they played a track from Flute Fever, the first album I did with Jeremy Steig, and he was very complimentary about my playing.  So I figured, well, I’ll give Bill a call and I’ll see if he’s willing to listen to this record and give me a critique and see if he has any suggestions.  I went over and met him for the first time, found him utterly gracious, a gentle man, totally noncompetitive.  He was very secure in his music and didn’t have any trouble being generous to somebody else.  Basically what he told me was, “Look, I don’t have any suggestions other than just keep doing your thing — follow your music.”  That was extraordinarily helpful and encouraging to me at that point, too.

I think of those three guys at those points in my life as being very important moments.

TP:    Finally, the impact Ornette Coleman had on you at the time.

ZEITLIN:  When I first heard Ornette, I just loved that music.  I was in college at the time.  I think the first thing of his I heard was The Shape of Jazz To Come, and I just thought that was marvelous stuff.  I’d always enjoyed since I was 2 or 3 years old free improvisation!  So here were guys doing it in jazz and making a whole form, a whole life out of it.  I thought it was terrific. TP:    Is there anything within what I was talking about that you felt I neglected?

ZEITLIN:  I think we covered a lot of ground.  Just thinking in terms of all the parameters of what would be useful selfishly to me in a liner note, I would hope, though it’s always nice for an artist to imagine that everybody who will buy the album knows who he is, there hopefully will be some people who may hear me for the first time on the air, and say, “Gee, I’d like pick up that CD” and they get it… So if you would be willing to establish some of my credentials in context of the liner notes, the stuff that’s highlighted in the third paragraph of the bio.

TP:    Last night I did a search on you, and two things popped out.  One thing was a blindfold test that Leonard Feather did with Thelonious Monk.  Monk wasn’t listening to anything anyone was playing unless it was an interpretation of Monk, and at the end of the Blindfold Test he played him “Carole’s Garden.”  This was after Monk had pointedly gone to the toilet while Leonard Feather played an Oscar Peterson trio thing.  Monk was listening and said, “Yeah, that piano player knows what’s happening!  He’s a player!  He’s on a Bobby Timmons kick, and that can’t be bad.”  Then I noticed a Marion McPartland interview where she said your technique in playing was so fantastic when you duetted that she felt like a tidal wave was washing over her.  She’s a very gracious person, but not prone to compliments such as that.

How much time do you have now and how much need do you have now to practice?  Is technique something that’s innate in you from having played the piano for so long?  Do you have to practice a great deal to keep up your technique?  If so, how do you find the time to do that?

ZEITLIN:  I do try to get to the piano every day, not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but I am just called to it.  I want to get my hands on the keyboard and I want to get into music.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I’ve never been drawn to the playing of technical exercises.  I think the way I build whatever technique I had initially was from always pushing myself to play classical pieces that were somewhat beyond my current technical capability, and the act of trying to get those pieces together helped me garner new technical skills.  Now when I go to play, usually I’m just going to improvise, or with an ear towards possible composition.  Very often when I play I just have a tape recorder rolling in case something comes up that I’ll want to refer to later.  I want to be free from the tyranny of having to remember everything I play in case I want to notate it later, and so the tape recorder takes care of that and I can let the music flow as best I can and just sort of get out of the way.  Doing that certainly keeps my fingers lubricated, and it really nourishes my soul just to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.  And I think that kind of attitude has also helped me at moments where I am in danger of being derailed by intrusive thoughts of some kind.  Let’s say getting ready to play a concert, and I’m on the road and begin to think about, “Gee, did I really make that plane reservation” or “Did I pack such-and-such?” or “What about my passport?”  I start getting bothered by this things.  I just gentle myself out of that by reminding myself of, in fact, how grateful I am to be able to play.  So it becomes kind of an internal mantra that I will invoke at times when I could be distracted.  This could even happen at a millisecond of playing, in the moment of improvisation.

I think it’s a challenge all improvisers face, is how do you stay in the zone?  It’s certainly a challenge that athletes face and write about.  I’ve played tennis for many years and follow the sport, so a lot of my observations of the parallels of sports and improvisation came from playing tennis and watching tennis and listening to tennis players in interviews talk about their game.  The challenge of staying in that flow experience, or, as Arthur Ashe put it, “being in the zone,” is a tremendous one.  And how do you wipe away your memory of the stupid shot you just dumped into the net at an important point in the match?  How do you make this next point absolutely new?  The same thing is in the line of improvisation.  If I stumble for a moment, if I find myself playing an alternate idea rather than what I was reaching for, am I going to get involved in some self-castigation or a burst of embarrassment, or will I allow myself simply to let it go and be in the moment for this next millisecond of play?  I have found at times just that gentle reminder of the gratitude of being with music has a tremendously therapeutic effect for me.  And I have found actually in my work with patients who are involved in the creative arts, particularly creative performance arts, that talking with them about that has been extremely helpful for the.  In my role as a psychiatrist, using that concept has turned out to be extremely helpful for them, because they end up actually thinking about that and using that, and it centers them in their work.

TP:    Tell me a bit about your practice.  You mentioned that a couple was cancelling… Do you do many different areas of therapy?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I do.  I can tell you a little bit about what I don’t do.  I don’t do hospital psychiatry.  I don’t actively engage in psychological or psychiatric research.  I don’t have time for that, so I am engaged in a research group for the last 25 years that studies psychotherapy research.  I don’t work with very young children, and I don’t do any administrative psychiatry.  Long ago, I realized that if I wanted to be involved in a really organic, passionate way in two fields, I had to be realistic with myself about what aspects of those two careers I could involve myself in with the necessary dedication and intensity to get back and to be able to give what I wanted.  So I pared away these areas I just mentioned in psychiatry, and decided what I wanted to focus on was doing psychotherapy and teaching psychotherapy — that that’s where my heart really lies in the psychiatry field.  So what I do is focus on intensive outpatient psychotherapy, and work with individuals, couples, and people in groups.  On occasion in past years, I’ve worked with whole families, but I don’t do that any more.  I tend to work with people for more than a year at a time, some people for many years, if they’re really involved in in-depth explorations of their lives.  And I find it endlessly fascinating.  If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine what it would be like to do my three-thousandth appendectomy and to infuse it with new excitement.  But as much as it’s true that there are common themes that endlessly repeat in the human life cycle that one hears as you do this work, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  So every opportunity to sit down with a patient in my office again is a parallel opportunity for me to be grateful for the trust that this person is placing in me, grateful for the opportunity to try to understand another human being and to be helpful.

TP:    So it’s not so dissimilar from improvising.  There’s a set of forms that repeat in certain ways, but the context is infinitely different, as is the context and vibration… Not to stretch the theme too far.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I think that there are tremendous parallels.  We were talking yesterday about this merger experience and empathy, and that that and the whole idea of communication is a tremendous parallel between the two fields.  The idea of improvisation holds.  The main difference is that in my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient solo in the best possible way they can, to tell their story.  At times it requires a little added embellishment, the addition of a semicolon or a couple of hyphens or placement of a period or a clarification or a sidebar.  That’s my function, is to help them feel that it’s as safe as possible to go into areas of their life that they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  When I’m accompanying another soloist on the bandstand, the role is really quite parallel.  The biggest difference is that there are times when I am soloing for long periods of time on a stage, and I’m not doing that in my office with patients.

TP:    Let’s run down the tunes one to ten.

ZEITLIN:  All right.  I haven’t given this any advance thought; this is right off the top of my head.

TP:    The title track would seem to be emblematic of your philosophy that music is a blessing.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I thought it was an awfully nice tune to use for the title.  The first time I ever heard that tune was from George Shearing very early in my experience of beginning to learn how to play jazz.  I don’t remember what album it was that he played it with his quintet, but it was one of his early MGM albums.  I always loved the piece.  I’d never played it, except for a duo recording with Charlie haden for ECM in the early ’80s.  It was a piece that Charlie always loved, and we approached it as a vehicle for him to solo on. Then when I was getting material ready for this date, I said, gee, it really would be nice to revisit this piece in a trio context and really play on it.  It’s interesting, as many tunes as Buster Williams has played over the years (you can imagine, there’s virtually nothing he’s not heard), for some reason he had never heard this piece.  He was very intrigued getting into it, and then of course he played his ass off on it.

We had agreed there would be a little vamp at the end of this piece on a particular chord that we would use to just ride out the piece.  I remember this was just a first take, and we did it, and we got into I think this delicious end vamp where there’s all kinds of time being played simultaneously, and just being overlaid and going in and out of phase with each other, and I found it so delicious to play on.  When it was over, we looked at each other and said, “Well, we sure don’t need to play another take on this one.”

TP:    Was most of this record like that?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, that was very much the flavor of the project.

TP:    “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” has been done by numerous people, but what’s your association?

ZEITLIN:  Actually the pull to do that piece was really suggested a few months earlier, when I was asked to participate in a Gershwin concert celebration.  I sat down and thought about, well, if I’m going to do some Gershwin pieces, what would I really like to do.  So I began to approach that tune and “The Man I Love” at that point.  I always like, when I approach a standard, to accept it as a challenge to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but to allow myself to approach it in a way that might breathe some fresh life into it.  That often involves not only reshaping it a little bit structurally, but most often reharmonizing it.  I have felt often when musicians approach reharmonization, they can get seduced by possibilities, and at its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  And often, the tune gets lost, or it becomes so cluttered with reharmonized material that it becomes almost a logjam of material.  So for myself, I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to just see where the tune might go in a new way.

In the case of this tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” I didn’t do an awful lot of reharmonization, and actually there’s relatively little.  What I did is really, in terms of the arrangement, move us through a lot of different approaches to the material.  We state the head, then I play some solo piano on it and allowed myself to cast a nod in Art Tatum’s direction, then at the end of the solo piano which involves a little bit of stride influenced material, to bring Al in for a piano-drum duet, which I’ve always loved to do with drummers, and which he got into just beautifully.  Then we bring in the whole trio.  When the bass comes in, another level of excitement is added, then we’re burning on the tune for a while, and Buster takes a great solo.  The arrangement has a kind of arch form, because as the more double-time part ends, we move back into the original approach of the head of the tune from the beginning.  So in a way, it does form a lot of arch.

TP:    I think I was thinking of that particular performance when I asked you about your experience with Ahmad Jamal’s music.

ZEITLIN:  I don’t really count Ahmad as one of my influences.

TP:    And I’m not going to try to make him one!

ZEITLIN:  But I would certainly underline the comment I made yesterday.  I’ve heard so many people, and I’ve tried to be as porous as I can, and take stuff in.  It’s one of the things I worry about when I write a new composition.  After I write it and start playing it, and it becomes familiar to me, then I start to say, “Unh-oh, where might I have inadvertently taken this from?”  I’ve talked to a lot of jazz composers who go through pangs of that and say, “Unh-oh!”  In a sense, nothing is totally original.  How could it be?  But you hope that you’ve had enough of an aesthetic filter and enough of your own voice has developed over the years that it really emerges as your own.

TP:    In your professional experience, you haven’t done very much playing for singers, have you?

ZEITLIN:  No, not an awful lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album with a singer.  I did one album with a singer that hasn’t been released, a wonderful singer named Susie Stern who wrote the lyrics to “Quiet Now,” which is probably my most well-known composition, courtesy of Bill Evans, who just kept recording it and recording it!  It was so flattering that he never seemed to get tired of it.  He kept it in his repertoire for about 25 years.  So Susie finally wrote a lyric that I could accept for that tune, and I did an album with her where she sings, and it’s just beautiful.

TP:    I ask the question because so many pianists paid the rent by accompanying singers for long periods.  But you always seem to have had a trio thing going on for yourself and sustained it.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.  If I had been a full-time musician having to put bread on the table with it, I might have had to do a number of projects like that.  Maybe some of them I might not have liked.  But that is one of the privileges I’ve experienced because of having two careers, is that I’ve really never had to do anything musical that didn’t really call to me.  I’ve been very lucky that way.

TP:    You’ve been blessed in that way, too.  Another point in addressing the American Songbook.  Are you a lyrics man?  Are you thinking of lyrics, internalizing them, or is it more the abstract sound of the song?

ZEITLIN:  It’s more of the latter.  I’ve read a number of musicians who feel it’s somehow crucial to know the lyric, and almost “How could not and play the tune?”  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer, really, not the lyricist, although certainly the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I do find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any of these tunes that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.

TP:    You’re a Sinatra man.

ZEITLIN:  I am a Sinatra man in terms of male vocalists.  I would say my favorite female vocalists over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.  Those names pop into my head.  Probably an unusual trio of names to list together.

TP:    Billy Taylor said the same thing vis-a-vis lyrics.  Now let’s discuss “For Heaven’s Sake.”

ZEITLIN:  That’s a tune that I first heard Billie Holiday do, and I have to list her with those other three.  Of course, she’s in the top echelon for me.  That was my first experience with the piece.  I couldn’t right now tell you the lyric to that piece, but that’s where I first heard it.  That’s another tune that I reharmonized a bit, and I love to play it.  I’ve been playing it for years, played it as a solo, in duo situations, and in trios, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to record it before.  There were a number of occasions when it was on the roster of possibilities but somehow it didn’t get done.  So I was happy to get this take done with Buster and Al, and it had just the feeling I wanted.  The tenderness and yearning that’s somehow inherent in that melody and in the structure really comes through.

TP:    “There and Back” is your first of two compositions here.  It seems your two most famous compositions were recorded by the time you were 26 or 27, which would be “Quiet Now” and “Carole’s Garden.”  Is composition intertwined with the notion of improvising for you?  You mentioned that you composed some tunes back when you had the Cool Tones as a kid.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I was composing literally at age 2 or 3.  It’s always been a part of my music, and I’ve always seen improvisation as spontaneous composition.  My hope, as part of my own personal aesthetic when I play, is that when I’m improvising there is a sense of a journey, that there is something organic about how it develops.  Ideally there would be almost a retrospective feeling of inevitability about how it had proceeded.  I don’t claim to reach that all the time, but that’s what I’m aiming at, I think, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or just a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake, but that there is something organic and a feeling of intentionality about it.

TP:    Is composing a systematic process for you, or is it more of the moment?

ZEITLIN:  Of the moment.  What happens usually is a few fragments or motifs will develop, and I’ll start working with them, and they’ll start building like crystals build in a solution.  There are rare occasions when something has just burst forth totally complete in some Mozartian fashion, but that’s rare for me.  I remember one tune that happened like that called “One Time Once,” which wrote itself as I was walking to a surgery lecture in medical school.  And there was a tune called “Brazilian Street Dance” which appeared all at once when I was working on a project for Paul Winter’s label, Living Music.  But what happens generally is that a section of a piece appears, or even a thematic idea that is like the beginning of crystallization or a seed from which a composition grows.

There’s basically two sections to “There and Now.”  The way we approach it once we’re improvising on it is that the A-section has more of a feeling of walking jazz time or more that kind of approach to it; the B-section has various kinds of funk or eighth-note/double-note feel on it.  I like the movement back and forth between those two feelings.  Harmonically the way it’s organized just happens to be a roadmap that appeals to me.  In many ways, I think of when I’m setting up pieces to be played by a group… I’m sort of setting up a roadmap that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other.  But there’s all kinds of possibilities for alternate routes, and I hope that they will be taken and I hope that I’ve set up some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that will be challenging to myself and to my fellow musicians who are approaching the piece.  This piece has a number of opportunities like that, which I think brought out some interesting music.

TP:    I’m not familiar with “I’m All Smiles.”  Who wrote it?

ZEITLIN:  A guy named Leonard.  I think it was from a show.  I think the first time I seriously listened to that piece was on Barbra Streisand’s People album years ago for Columbia, which is my favorite album she’s ever done.  It had some fabulous arranging by Peter Mats(?).  It’s Streisand at her best.  It’s most free of the over-emotionality and stuff that she can fall prey to.  The purity of her voice and the feeling..it’s glorious.  And she sings this piece on it, and I’ve always loved it, and again, I was thinking about, “Well, what might I do for this album?”  I realized, “Well, I’ve never actually played that piece; why not get into it?”  So I did, and reharmonized it just a bit because the piece is so beautiful it doesn’t need much help.  We just approached it as a piece we could play and improvise on.  I think it unfolds in a very relaxed way.

TP:    Your “Cousin Mary” continues a line of Coltrane interpretations from that ’59-’60-’61 period of Coltrane.  I was listening to your solos on “Lazy Bird” and of “Fifth House,” which were real virtuoso turns, and I guess this one is very virtuosic, but a restrained, playful virtuosity, dancing through it and deconstructing it.  I was impressed with the ambiance of that interpretation.  Perhaps we can reprise some of your comments yesterday about your response to Coltrane.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I remember my response to the whole Giant Steps album when it first appeared; it was a pivotal album for me.  I was going away on a fishing trip where I wasn’t going to be near much of civilization for a while, and I actually went into a little record store that was near this fishing town.  I rebought the album and made a deal with the record store owner that I could park it with him, and that probably a couple of times in the next two or three weeks, while I was on this fishing trip, I would be needing to come in and hear it.  So that album was precious to me.  I’d played “Cousin Mary” before as a duo.  What I wanted to do again is certainly be respectful to Coltrane, but allow myself to experiment with the tune and its possibilities, so I did reharmonize the head, as you can hear.  Then we really approached it as a blues that you can do anything you want with, and this is what happened on that day.  There is quite a bit of deconstructing of the harmonic structure of the blues at various points in the improvisation.  I felt that Al and Buster were totally up for it.  We took it into some I thought rather unusual spaces that were very exciting and intriguing, and I thought that the overall rhythmic drive of the piece was never lost.  I liked trading sixes with Al; it just kind of happened, and worked out, I thought, very nicely.

“Triste” is a Jobim tune, a tune I first heard Elis Regina do in an album called Elis and Tom with Jobim playing and his arrangements.  I just love that album (it’s one of my all-time favorite Brazilian albums), and I love that piece.  I wanted a bossa-nova, and I’d never played this tune nor recorded it, and so we did it.  That tune I felt required no reharmonization from me.  We play it basically just as Jobim wrote it.

“Canyon” is a minor-bluesoid construction.  It has an unusual little melody the way it’s placed.  It’s a lot of fun to play.  I thought we just got into it and went on a journey with it.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily” is a ballad I’ve loved for many years.  I can’t remember who I first heard do it; I remember hearing Miles do it in the early ’60s.  But I had only started to play it in the last decade or so, in duo or trio formats.  I don’t believe I’d ever recorded it.  This is a ballad that’s full of all kinds of feelings, and I think we really took our time with it, and it unfolds and has this kind of organic feel in terms of how the improvisation developed which I am looking and striving for.  It also happened on the ballad “For Heaven’s Sake,” that there is a real organic journey.

TP:    Finally, “The Man I Love” which is iconic Gershwin.

ZEITLIN:  Again, I tried to organize this in terms of the arrangement in ways to explore different kinds of things we could do as a trio.  I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  It starts with a brief free improvisation on the piano which sets up a mood, then the melody gets stated and the trio comes in and organizes around it.  There’s a big of reharmonization in the structure of the piece, and then there is a vamp figures quite prominently in this piece that serves as I think a very exciting springboard into improvisational overlays.  I get involved in doing this, and then eventually at the end of the piece a kind of climatic session where Al starts soloing over the vamp while Buster and I state it.  Then we ride out the piece on that vamp.

TP:    Is the program in the sequence you recorded it in?

ZEITLIN:  No.  I’d say that would be an extraordinarily rare event.  You  play the pieces, you see what you’ve been able to harvest, then you figure how it would be most listenable when put together.

TP:    And this is the path you’ve followed from your beginnings, a mix of interesting standards, some originals, and some of what are called jazz standards as well.

ZEITLIN:  That’s absolutely true.  I’ve always tended on these projects to program for maximum variety, to sort of reflect what I would do in a concert.

TP:    You came up in Chicago at the same time as Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, [Eddie Harris], many of the people you mentioned.  I’m wondering if you see any particular Chicagoistic qualities in your approach to music.  People who came up then in Chicago talk about the ethos of Chicago musicians being individuality, that stamping your own sound and making your own statement was of paramount importance if you were going to be a respected musician in Chicago.  Apparently you were up 1960.  Your bio says you played professionally there, and the people you played with were individualists of the first order.  So the impact of Chicago on who you are as a musician.

ZEITLIN:  Not having grown up anywhere else, I can’t compare it!  As you say this, I flash back to remembering that there was a lot of value placed on somebody having their own thing.  There was a lot of respect; people would say, “Yeah, he’s got his own thing; he’s really doing something different; listen too that.”  That certainly is something I can recall.

TP:    But as far as forming your ideas, this sort of just happened.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.

TP:    As a teenager, once you started being able to drive is when you started going to clubs in Chicago?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, starting at age 15.

TP:    You’d go down Lake Shore Drive to 63rd Street and hit those clubs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and stay there til 4 or 5 in the morning and come home.

TP:    And go to school.

ZEITLIN:  Well, that was mostly on the weekends.

TP:    And your parents were fine with this?

ZEITLIN:  Well, they knew I was so utterly galvanized by this and that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to just encourage and allow this to happen.  They had a tremendous amount of trust in me, that I wasn’t for example using drugs of any kind or having problems with alcohol,  and that I could be around a subculture like that without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced, and I was trustworthy, and I was able to take this opportunity for this many-year informal apprenticeship in the music that was just priceless.  Because in those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the one had to learn it.  I spent hours and hours listening  to records and rehearsing with people in high school and with other people in Chicago, and then going and listening, and trying to get chances to sit in and get pointers from people, and collaring somebody after the gig and say, “Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?”  By osmosis trying to absorb as much of this art form as I could.

TP:    Did you check out Chris Anderson at all during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, indeed.  That’s interesting.  Very few people even know about Chris.  But when I said I would collar somebody to show me a voicing, I was exactly thinking of a couple of experience I had with Chris where I said, “Chris, I’m not letting you go home.  You’ve got to sit down.  How did you voice this thing, man?”  He showed me some stuff.  I remember just a few remarks he made to me way-way back then that were very-very helpful.  He is an unsung hero, a wonderful musical mind, and everyone who was around in Chicago then knows of Chris and speaks of Chris.  Herbie Hancock talks of Chris, and Bobby Cranshaw remembers Chris fondly.  Chris is prototypic of the kind of musician I would try to collar.

TP:    So we could call him an influence.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, he was an early harmonic influence.

TP:    And perhaps a link between you and Herbie Hancock in some ways, as the two of you are roughly contemporaries.

ZEITLIN:  I never heard Herbie play until I heard him on record with Miles.  I never met him or heard him.  But we certainly grew up around the same period.

TP:    It’s fascinating to me.  You were very young and probably one of the few white kids who would be on that scene, and hanging with some people who had serious addiction problems, like Nicky Hill or Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell.  I don’t know that most people who know you know much about Chicago, or how heavy the musical scene was in Chicago at that time.

ZEITLIN:  Again, having nothing to compare, all I can say is that I felt fortunate that there was so much going on and so much excitement that generally I found musicians so gracious and so willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play… I can’t say that it was always that way; there are instances where you try to talk your way into getting a chance to play at a jam session and it doesn’t happen because they don’t know you.  I certainly had experiences like that.  But overall, it was a very generous spirit in Chicago.  And also, I didn’t experience much Crow Jim flavor at all — only very rarely.  I got some of that in New York when I was sitting in at some places in 1963, when I was on a fellowship.  Got a little feeling of that and a little feeling of the ethnocentricity of New York.  But I didn’t feel that in Chicago growing up at all.  I didn’t feel racial tension at all!  I very often was the only white person in some of these clubs late at night, and I had no cause to feel like I was an intruder, that there was hostility coming my way or that I was in any kind of danger.  It just wasn’t happening.

The genesis of my two careers is the tremendous support I got from my parents, Nathaniel and Roslyn Zeitlin.  One anecdote I think will give you an idea of how supportive they were to me in both ways.  When I began to really get involved in eighth grade in high school and starting to play jazz, they would go to New York, where they typically would go every year because they loved theater, and they would go to all their shows, all their plays, and afterwards, even though neither had been a jazz fan at all prior to my interest, they would go to all the jazz clubs where all my heroes were playing, they would listen to their music, and they would get these players to jot down little notes to me on cocktail napkins!  I remember one from Marion McPartland, and one from George Shearing, and one from Billy Taylor on one occasion.

TP:    Bird?

ZEITLIN:  No, not Bird.  I only got to hear Bird play live once in my life, in a very unlikely context — playing in front of Stan Kenton’s orchestra.  He was looking very dissipated.  But it was a thrill just to hear him play.

[-30-]

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chicago, Chris Anderson, Denny Zeitlin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

A 1992 WKCR Interview with Ira Sullivan, Who Turned 82 Yesterday

Just noticed that yesterday was the 82nd birthday of Ira Sullivan, the magnificent multi-instrumentalist who has inspired several generations of South Florida musicians since moving there from Chicago more than 40 years ago. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR in June 1992 while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard with a quartet, and am presenting the transcript below.

* * * *

Q:    It’s my pleasure to introduce a musician who is really beyond category, a virtuosic instrumentalist on trumpet, fluegelhorn, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute…and what am I missing?

IS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I play some drums if I have to.

Q:    Did you ever do a record as the whole band?

IS:    I’ve been asked…

Q:    You once did a record where you played all of the instruments.

IS:    Yeah, I have never heard that.  I have heard about it.  But I have been asked to do that, but I haven’t planned anything yet.  The only time I think I did any overdubbing was on that Bernie Brightman Stash record with Hank Jones and Duffy Jackson.  We went in, and we had seven hours; we did seven tunes in seven hours.  I went back another couple of hours.  I left the holes open, you know, so I could go in the next day and overdub the fluegelhorn parts.

Q:    And there are some sections where you do exchanges with yourself as well.

IS:    Right, right.  That was interesting.

Q:    Anyway, we haven’t even introduced you.  The person I am talking about, as many of you may already know, is Ira Sullivan, and he is appearing at the Village Vanguard at the helm of a quartet this week, featuring pianist Reuben Brown, bassist David Williams, and drummer Steve Bagby.  When was the last time you led a group in New York playing your music with this type of a band?

IS:    Well, I always feel I’m the leader, because I only have myself to contend with, you know.  I have never believed that man needed a leader.  I have always thought that to be starting so young, the leader was Christ.  Jesus is the leader to me, and everything else is just superfluous.  I mean, we just do…we bring all our talents to what we do, and do it.  I never think of pecking order, you know.
I play with different people so much.  See, growing up in Chicago, when I’d get a job for a quartet, I’d get calls from 12 or 18 musicians saying, “Hey, I hear you got a job this Friday night.  I’m available.”  Well, you can only hire three other guys.  So I always had this wonderful wellspring of great musicians to choose from, that’s what I’ve done all my life.  I’ve never really kept a band together for a long time.

Q:    When did you start performing professionally in Chicago?  How old were you and…

IS:    I was 16 when I started playing at the jam sessions.

Q:    Was that about 1948?

IS:    No.  I was still in high school then.  I think 1948 is when I got out of high school.

Q:    What was the situation that led up to you performing?  You’ve been playing since you were three or four years old.

IS:    I started when I was 3-1/2, yes.

Q:    On a record you did for Horizon, there’s a picture that shows you playing the trumpet, and the trumpet literally is almost as big as you are.  Was that your first instrument?

IS:    Actually, as you notice, I’m almost resting it against my knee there.  The trumpet was my first instrument, yeah.  I never picked up anything else until I was in high school and I had to for the school band.  I became a trouble-shooter.  You know, when somebody was absent, I got the call.  My father had a record by Clyde McCoy called “Sugar Blues” that I wanted to play.  I wanted to work the wah-wah mute, the little Harmon mute on the end that makes it sound like a baby’s cry.  So he got me one of the little short German cornets, a little fat cornet that you’ve probably seen some guys in the early bands play.  I think Joe Thomas used to play one in Basie’s sextet.  And so I could work that wah-wah mute.  But the trumpet you saw was a long, full-sized trumpet, and that was my first instrument and it remained my first instrument until high school.

Q:    You grew up in what part of Chicago?

IS:    The North Side of Chicago, and then later the South Side.

Q:    And your father I gather was an avid listener to music and collector of instruments.

IS:    My father was from a family of fourteen children, and they all played instruments.  One uncle was with Souza’s band, and another was in what I guess they called Ragtime at that time — you know, free Dixieland.  He was an improviser.  He was the first one who taught me about playing Free, actually, way before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and all those fellows.  He taught me about playing impressionistic music when I was ten years old.

Q:    What was his name?

IS:    Tom Sullivan.  Thomas Sullivan.

Q:    Did he play professionally?

IS:    Yes.  He was in the Jazz band I talked about.  I had never heard him, but he was an improviser.  My Dad played.  He had beautiful chops and a very good tone, and he just played for relaxation when he came home from his business.  He was like a Charlie Spivak, Harry James, very clean, you know, straight melody — he didn’t improvise.  In fact, when I was five and six and we used to play together he always would turn to me and ask me, “Ira, where are you getting all of those extra notes?”   See, because I’d be putting little obbligatos in and stuff.

Q:    And was that coming from your imagination at that time?

IS:    Yes.

Q:    So there was always music around you, from the very earliest part of your life.

IS:    Always.  Always.  Our family reunions were meals, the women cooked all day and then we had dinner about 4:30, and then we played the rest of the night.  All the neighbors would come in.  Every one of my aunts played.  One played violin.  One just played a snare drum.  She had a snare drum with brushes, and she would come in and keep time.  And the gentlemen all played, and another aunt played piano.  So we had quite nice family sessions then.

Q:    Were there records in the house also?

IS:    Oh, sure.  I was firmly steeped in the music of Harry James before he was a popular bandleader.  He was quite a Jazz player, you know.  I had that record of him with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, you know, playing Boogie-Woogie, and I was fascinated, because I had only heard Harry with the big bands.  I listened to Basie, and really just to every kind of music.  I discovered Classical on my own, because we had it around the house.  But nobody forced me, and said, “Oh, listen to this, listen to this — this is what you should listen to.”  I was given complete freedom.

Q:    Did your parents take you to hear music, the big bands at the theatres or anything like that in the 1930′s and 1940′s?

IS:    Yeah, after I asked them.  Yeah, later on, I’m sure… Well, see, that was a beautiful thing about Chicago.  When you went to see a movie in Downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing.  It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, or even just a dance band.  But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened.  And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with.  That was really a very exciting time in my life.  It was common then.  Now it’s hard to find big bands, you know.

Q:    And in these years (we’re talking about, I imagine the years before high school and the early years of high school), which instrumentalists really impressed you?  You mentioned Harry James.  Who apart from he?

IS:    Well, remember I was only a five-year-old child!  Well, I grew on Harry James.  There was Clyde McCoy and Henry Busey, and Muggsy… I heard Dixieland players; I didn’t know what they called it.  I didn’t ever hear the word Jazz until I was 16 and in high school.  To me it was music.  I didn’t call it Swing or Funk or whatever labels they put on.  Then when I got in high school, a senior in high school introduced me to some records I had never heard before, such as Coleman Hawkins on Commodore with young Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet [sic], then we moved from that into Dexter Gordon and Allen Eager, Charlie Parker — which all gave me another musical direction.  I was definitely intrigued.

Q:    So that turned your head.

IS:    It certainly did, yeah.  And as I say, it set me off in a new direction.  I wanted to learn that language, that Bebop language.

Q:    What sort of musical education was available to you in high school in Chicago?  I know you were already a proficient musician.  But I think it was much more prominent in the schools then than it is today.

IS:    Oh yes.  Yes, that’s the bane of my existence, to go around and talk to these poor musical directors in the schools the people who are trying to promote music, and realize they have trouble actually getting a little band together, whether it’s a stage band to play modern arrangements or just a concert band.  When I was in sixth grade, I had a 90-piece orchestra, 90 to 135 pieces, depending on how many children were graduating and moved out of the school.  So it’s quite thrilling to play with an orchestra when you’re that young, you know, and hear violins and clarinets and everything.  And they weren’t that badly  out of tune.  We had a very good director, as I remember.

And then when I went to high school, I moved right into the concert band in my freshman year, and had certainly enough music… I had two periods of band every day, and I was playing trumpet, and two days of the week I went upstairs to the orchestra room, and got to play with the orchestra.  So it was quite nice.  And of course, I also had a double period of Art.

And it breaks your heart.  Because when I see schools in Florida that can’t even get a music program started, and I realize how kids respond… We did clinics at this Pennsylvania festival.  We start Friday night, and then Saturday morning we do clinics with the high school kids around there.  And we had a young boy who was about 10 years old, Jonathan, and he’s in sixth grade — and you should have heard him play alto.  He went out and played with the high school band.  He’s very precocious now.  When you see children like that, it’s great if they have an outlet in school.  I mean, imagine little children who grow up and they already love, say, poetry or creative art and music. And then the teachers find them falling behind in their other subjects.  Education has lost the idea that if you give a child something that his little heart desires, his spirit is bursting to produce, it might straighten out the rest of his or her’s mental outlook towards the process of education.

Because God, I think, He imbues us each with a unique spirit.  We don’t all love the same things, the same foods.  And what we want to do with our life I think a lot of us know very young.  As I say, I went from crib to the trumpet.  I never asked for anything else in my life to do.  I was quite happy, as long as I could play music.

Q:    [ETC.] We’ll create a set of you performing on trumpet.  We’ll hear “That’s Earl, Brother,” which I imagine you heard at the time you were first introduced to Bebop.

IS:    Actually the first time I heard it, it was by Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt with a rhythm section, and then later I heard it with Dizzy’s big band.

[MUSIC:  "That's Earl, Brother (1977)," "Angel Eyes (1968)," "Everything Happens To Me," "Our Delight"]

“Angel Eyes” comes from Horizons, which was issued in the Eighties on Discovery, featuring I guess the band you worked with in Miami at the time, shortly after you moved there from Chicago in the 1960′s.

IS:    Yes, it was.  1968 that recording was originally done.

Q:    Tell me about your early experiences with Bebop.  Did you hear it on records, or hearing musicians that came through Chicago?

IS:    Well, I started hearing musicians coming through Chicago, as you say.  You were asking earlier about concerts.  I remember when I was 16, my Dad did take me to see… We went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, one of those early ones at the Chicago Opera House.  That was quite exciting.  Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town, and that’s when I met Red Rodney, who was the featured trumpet soloist.  Charlie Ventura was still in that band.

Then, as I say, in high school, I met this gentleman who turned me…had some Dexter Gordon records.  He was a Jazz collector; he had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with “Salt Peanuts.”  It threw me for a loop, because I had always been able to, as they do in college now, transcribe solos.  Now the fellows sit around and transcribe the solos off the record, write them down, and then play them.  But I didn’t use this process.  I just memorized the solos, and would try to recreate the phrasing and the breathing that I heard from Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton or any of the Jazz trumpet players.  Again, reminding you I didn’t know they called it Jazz.  It was just music.  So I just tried to reproduce what I heard.

But then when I heard the Bebop idiom, I could not get near to that at all.  The rhythmic concept, the syncopation, the fast triplets…

[END OF SIDE A]

…or the writers that this will never last, a bunch of silly symphonies, and it’s not going to be around long, and then 20 years later it was so assimilated into the culture, I heard Bebop licks coming out of Lawrence Welk’s horn section, because these young arrangers had grown up and were slyly sneaking some of it in — you know, it was wonderful to see it become part of our culture.

Q:    Of course, you were one of many young musicians in Chicago who were assimilating and developing very individual artistic statements out of the Bebop idiom.  When did you begin to interact with that broader Chicago community of musicians?

IS:    In the jam sessions.  By the time I was 18, I had met a lot of the… Lou Levy, who we used to know as Count Levy in those days, who played with Stan Getz and Peggy Lee, and he’s one of the finest young… I still call him a young player.  He still is, because he was 19 when I met him.  I was out playing with these fellows, and then I finally sort of built a little reputation.  But I noticed they always called me for the jam sessions and not enough for the gigs, see.  So then I had to change that a little bit.

Q:    Now, when did you start incorporating the saxophones into your repertoire?  Were you doing that at this time as well?

IS:    Through being a trouble-shooter with the band.  Well, I didn’t mention my mother also played piano and alto saxophone.  So I always had a saxophone around the house, but I never was really interested in them.  Then in the high school band, as I say, we had 19 trumpets.  So we lost our baritone horn player; he graduated.  So I said, “Well, let me try the baritone horn.”  I started playing on that, and then I took it out to a couple of sessions.  A month or so later, we had a Father’s Night concert, as they called it, in the auditorium.  We had 35 clarinet players and only two tenor saxophone players, and one of them got a cold and was absent.  The band director said, “I don’t what we’re going to do; we need a replacement.”  I said, “I think if you let me take that tenor home, I can handle the part.”  Because tenor saxophones in a concert band, they have nothing to do but long tones, you know.  I took that tenor home, and I sat down, put my Lester Young record on, you know, sat down and just played one… You know how Lester would just get one note, DI-DA-DU-DAH-DOOT… I said, “Gee, I think I can do that.”  So I sat there with my one note all day long, phrasing, getting the rhythm phrasing.

Then I fell in love with the tenor.  I said, “This is quite a horn.”  I started fooling around with it.  It was just nice to be holding a tenor, because now I’d been listening to… I knew they called it Jazz now, and I had been listening to Allen Eager and Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young and fellows around.  So the tenor became fascinating.

And then, when I was about 18 or 19 and started working in Chicago, I couldn’t get a job with a trumpet with a quartet.  You’ve got to remember, now, Chicago is a tenor town.  They had Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon was around, Sonny Rollins spent some time there, Sonny Stitt, and you had Tom Archia, Melvin Scott — great tenor players all over the place.  Don Lanphere was there.  He was one of my early heroes.  I mean, he could play faster on a tenor sax than anybody I’ve ever known.  Kenny Mann was around there.  So it was a tenor town.

So I took that tenor, that borrowed tenor from school, and I started getting in the shed, as they say, and practicing on it — and I learned three tunes.  I learned the Blues, and I learned “I Got Rhythm,” and my fast tune was “Fine and Dandy.”  That way I got a gig.  Once I got a gig…

Q:    “I Got Rhythm” will get you through a lot of jam sessions.

IS:    Get you through a lot of jam sessions.  And the Blues will, too; I mean, you learn them in two or three different keys.  And then I went out, and like I say, we got a job with a quartet.  But then, when I pulled my trumpet out, the club-owner was quite impressed.  He’d say, “Hey, I’ve got a triple-threat man.”  But I could not get hired with a trumpet and a rhythm section.

Q:    Well, how about your history on the alto saxophone?

IS:    Well, as I say, my mother had an alto saxophone at home, so then I started… Well, once I fell in love with Bird’s sound, that naturally would make you curious about the alto.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird?

IS:    I think the first recording would be… I remember the intro: [SINGS REFRAIN]

Q:    “Now’s The Time.”

IS:    “Now Is The Time,” right.  And the other side was “Billie’s Bounce” probably.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird live?

IS:    That would have been at the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Q:    Now, Bird was frequently in Chicago.  Did you get to know him at all, or play alongside him?

IS:    I got to know him after we played together at the Beehive in ’55, actually, which was the year of his demise.

Q:    That was only a couple of weeks before he passed away, I think.

IS:    About a month.  Because he had asked me to come to New York.  He wanted to send for me and bring me to New York.  So I was considering the possibilities of that.  But at the time I could see he was also quite ill.  Not so you’d know it, but I mean, when you’d hang out and talk to him, there were things happening in his life.  His daughter had passed away a year before, and I think that still was taking its toll.

Q:    So you met him at a low ebb.  But musically, what was the experience like?

IS:    Oh, musically it was great.  He had found a doctor who was taking care of him a little bit, and getting him to feel a little better, and giving him the proper medication.  I think they got him full of Vitamin B-12, and sort of… I remember he came in the second night, and he had his usual libation, and he looked at me bright-eyed after the second set, he says, “Strange, I can’t get drunk.”  But he was feeling good, you know, and he was playing good — and we had a really nice time there.

Q:    Who was that band?

IS:    I was just going to say.  I think Norman Simmons was on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Bruz Freeman on the drums — Von Freeman’s brother.

Q:    Another tenor player who was prominent in Chicago.

IS:    Oh, Von was another one that I got to play with in the early days.  So it was like growing up with Bird.  It’s like they say, you reveal from one spirit that God had, and when you’re in Jazz, you find that the spirits are one.  We all have individual statements, we’re all trying to get our own voice on our instruments, but the common bond…. For instance, I was just reading some of these liner notes on my albums which I’ve never seen, and I talk about going over in Europe, meeting people over there, they don’t speak the language, but once you sit together in a session, you just mention a tune and you’re off and running.  So that’s one universal language we know that never fails us.

Q:    Well, Chicago in the 1950′s is almost universally described by musicians as one big workshop, where everybody could get their creative self together, so to speak.

IS:    Exactly.

Q:    Just describe the scene a little bit.  There was music on almost every major crosswalk on the South Side, I know.

IS:    Well, yes, and on the North Side, too, as I said before.  We spoke about those big bands.  I mean, you’d go down and see a movie, and you got an hour-and-a-half movie, but you also got a stage show with a great band, and maybe singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, whatever — but my focal point was always the bands and the musicians.  And there were a lot of clubs to jam in, different clubs where trios were playing.

You had a lot of clubs in downtown Chicago, little bars where there would be a single piano player or a duo or a trio or a quartet.  Downtown, I remember there was a place called the Brass Rail upstairs and the Downbeat Room downstairs.  Henry “Red” Allen had a band there with J.C. Higgenbotham.  Red Saunders was the drummer.  The trumpet player Sonny Cohn was there.  It was really interesting.

As a youngster, I would go downtown, at 16, 17… I remember I’d wear my Jazz coat, and one night I painted a false moustache on with my mother’s eyebrow pencil, you know, so I’d look older.  Naturally, I couldn’t get in; they spotted me right away.  But I went downstairs.  There was a fellow that had worked at my father’s restaurant, and he was now working at the Downbeat room.  So he opened the fire door, and through the fire door, in the mirror there, I could see Henry “Red” Allen and Higgenbotham up there, and I could just catch the two of them.  He let me stand up there, but he said, “Now, if anybody comes by, close that door and get out of here!’  So there I was with my phony moustache and my tweed coat down there, soaking up the Jazz.

Q:    I’d like to ask you about a couple of the musicians in Chicago who have somewhat passed into the realm of legend because they were insufficiently recorded.  Did you ever have a chance to play with the drummer Ike Day behind you?

IS:    Oh, yes.

Q:    Can you describe his style a little bit?

IS:    You’d have to hear Guy Vivaros, who is a gentleman who is quite alive, travels with me a lot, does concerts with me.  Guy was Ike’s second nature.  I mean, that’s all Guy did.  Guy and I have known each other since we were about 17.  Guy got together with Ike Day, and Ike loved Guy, and Guy loved Ike, and Guy had given all his time, just like many teachers do now with young students, and they hung out together, and they just were inseparable.  And he gave Guy as much as he could of his stuff, this phenomenal and quite unusual method of drumming.  I mean, drummers certainly can appreciate it.  You say it to the average person, they wouldn’t tell one drummer from another.  But Ike had something that nobody else had, and Guy is the closest living representative I know who plays something like Ike.  But nobody can duplicate what it is.

Q:    Do you have words to describe what was special about Ike Day’s style?

IS:    Well, see, I played some funny sessions… You were asking me about the scene around Chicago.  I mean, a lot of us, we’d go jamming the blues clubs if there were no Jazz clubs open that night.  We just wanted to play.  So once in a while there would be a session after the Blues band had finished playing, and the Jazz fellows would go in, and we’d set up.  And Ike, one time I saw him play, he had literally a pie pan for a cymbal, and another gold cymbal that had a big chunk broken out of it, and no sock cymbal, and a hat box for a snare drum that he’d play with the brush, and then a regular tom-tom, and then a big bass drum with a Hawaiian scene painted on it, a waterfall scene from Hawaii painted on it.  And he played that set, and at no time did you know that there wasn’t anything… It could have been a brand-new set of Slingerland drums behind you.  So that was some of his magic.

Q:    I’ve heard that from a couple of drummers who had heard him, that he could play magically musically in tune with the band with almost anything, or a minimum of equipment.

IS:    Yes.

Q:    Others say that Buddy Rich actually used him briefly as a second drummer.

IS:    Yeah.  He also used Philly Joe Jones as a second drummer.  You’d have to hear Ike to know.  They say, “You’ve seen one drummer, you’ve seen them all,” but when you heard that inside magic that Ike had…
Ike used to play without his shoe, take his shoe off so he could get the feel of the wheel a little better.  One night he was playing at a long… In those days at the sessions there may be ten or twelve horn players on the stand, tenor players, maybe there would be one or two trumpet players, a couple alto players, all waiting in line to play — and the tunes would go on interminably.  I’ve actually seen a bass player where there was a phone the bar, pick up the phone and dial another cat, stop playing under a chorus, and say, “Hey, you want to come down here and get some of this?”  He’d been playing thirty-five minutes on the same tune, probably “I Got Rhythm,” and call another guy that was in the neighborhood to come over and relieve him.    Well, Ike took his sock off one night and played a tom-tom solo with his toes.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.  He just put his foot up on the tom-tom, and you could hear his…

Q:    Well, that’s really some independent coordination.

IS:    That’s some coordination I don’t think many drummers have tried yet.  But I wish Ike had been recorded just a little bit.  I think he is on a record, Tom Archia…

Q:    He is on a record, Tom Archia and Gene Ammons…

IS:    But not well…

Q:    It’s submerged to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable.

IS:    Right.

Q:    Would you say a few words about Wilbur Ware?

IS:    Oh, he was another one.  You know, the symphony players from the Chicago Symphony used to come to hear Wilbur when we played out at the Beehive, which was the going Jazz club then, where a lot of us worked in and out of.  I was always sort of brought in as the extra added attraction.  They’d have a quartet with Wardell Gray, and I got to play with the late Wardell Gray there, or Roy Eldridge and Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt, and so they’d bring me in as a trumpet player.

And one of the outstanding musical experiences of my life was playing with Wilbur Ware.  Wilbur Ware had… He told that his father had made his first bass out of an orange crate and thick inner tubes cut to different sizes of the strings and they played on the street and stuff like that.  But he had a touch unlike any other I’ve heard.  Very light.  He didn’t play heavy… Of course, the bass players of today sound heavy because they now have amplifiers.  Wilbur just played a wooden acoustic bass.  But he had this gorgeous, beautiful tone, just like with a feather touching the bass, and the sound that came out was wonderful.  I think a good example is that Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard, where there is no piano, and you can really hear Wilbur outstanding.

And I used to watch these symphony players come down and be fascinated and watch him, because he had this almost legitimate technique — but he was definitely a self-taught musician.

Q:    Also, he often was not on what you’d call even close to a first-rate instrument…

IS:    Oh, no.

Q:    …and was yet able to elicit a tone.

IS:    Right.  He’d get up in the morning… We’d be rooming on the road, and he’d get up in the morning, at maybe 11 o’clock after the gig, and pick up his bass, before he’d even taken his pajamas off or brushed his teeth or had a cup of coffee; he’d pick up his bass and start playing “Cherokee” at a breakneck speed, you know, and just play… And he wouldn’t disturb anybody in the hotel.  You couldn’t hear him beyond the room.  Just… [SINGS RAPID WILBUR WARE LINE SOFTLY]  He’d just be working off the little patterns and everything.  It was wonderful, the love that he had for the instrument.

Q:    What were the circumstances that led to Art Blakey calling you and Wilbur Ware to join the Messengers in 1956?

IS:    Well, I guess because, as I say, I was always around jamming with everybody in Chicago, and when he’d come in, if I had a chance I’d get up with Art.  We had met, and everybody met, and so he’d call me, “Come on up and sit in, Ira.”  Then one day he just called me, and asked me if I’d want to go with the band, and brought Wilbur and I up at the same time.  Kenny Drew, Senior, was the piano player then.  I have to say Senior, because his son is around and performing.  He’s been up in Sarasota, Florida, for quite a while.  So Kenny Drew was in the band, Donald Byrd was the trumpet player — so I originally went in to play trumpet and tenor.  That’s when that terrible tragedy happened with Clifford, and Donald Byrd was given the call from Max to come in and replace Clifford Brown in the Max Roach-Sonny Rollins Quintet — the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet actually they called it.  So then the next young trumpet to come in the band, after we went through Philadelphia, was Lee Morgan, who was 17 years old at the time — and I was playing tenor then.  Then a gentleman who was in last night to see me at the Vanguard, Danny Moore, was on trumpet for a while with that group when we left, because Lee was, I think, still in school, hadn’t quite graduated yet.  So we left Philadelphia and we got Danny Moore…

Q:    Lee Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie at the end of that year, I think.

IS:    Yes.  As soon as he was out of high school.  Then Idrees Sulieman came in the band, which was quite interesting to most people, because as we got announced, it was very hard for them to tell the difference between the names — Ira Sullivan on tenor, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet.

Q:    Did you play exclusively tenor with the Messengers, or would you get into trumpet battles?

IS:    Well, I played some trumpet, but I always had to be careful with sensitive souls who… And I’d feel a little sensitive, too, because I felt like I had an act together or something.  You know, when I’m on my own and I can make my own choices, and pick up a trumpet or a flute or a saxophone when I want to, it’s something else.  But it’s not quite fair to a trumpet player, no matter how they good they are, to come in the band, and here I am playing tenor and trumpet.  Well, now, immediately you’re going to garner some attention.  So I sort of opted to just play tenor in the band, and Art Blakey and I talked about it, so…

Q:    Will you be playing a lot of trumpet and fluegelhorn this week?

IS:    As much as I can handle, yes.  It all depends on what my face can do on that particular night.  I have to always consult my face first.

[MUSIC: "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Stella By Starlight," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," "Sprint."]

IS:    A lot has changed around us.  We used to read about pioneers, but in a way we’re pioneers, too, because our mores, our society is changing, even as we speak around us, you know.  So you always have to figure it’s an exciting time that you live in, mainly because you’re breathing in and out.

Q:    Well, you certainly seem to be a musician or personality or spirit that creates excitement around you wherever you bring your instruments.

IS:    I don’t know whether I create it or just sort of nudge.  Somebody says, “You’re a wonderful inspiration.”  I say, “No, I’m sort of a nudge.”  I just open up and let these young people play, and let their natural talent come out.  I think a lot if it is, even as in school, when we teach, overcoming that temerity, to realize, “Hey, man, you can do it; just get out there and do it.”  Most of them have the talent and they’re ready.  You just have to give them a little nudge.

Q:    Which of your instruments do you have this week?

IS:    Well, the tenor, trumpet and flugelhorn, which I always carry, and alto flute and soprano sax, which is enough to keep me busy.  People ask why I play long sets, and I say, man, it takes me at least three hours to get each horn in a proper playing shape, and as I say, get my face to play them all.

Q:    It seems unimaginable to many musicians that you can actually pull off a set because of the different embouchures and musculatures involved.  What do you do?

IS:    Well, you just do.  You have at it.  You keep going for it.  You have problems every night.  Every musician who plays just one horn knows it’s not the same every night.  You always have the physical problems to overcome where your musculature is and your mouth that day, or your face.  As I say, it’s not easy.  But the more I do it… It’s easier when I play six nights a week, constantly, as I was doing in Florida.  Several clubs I played in, I’d stay there two or three or four, five years.  And that six nights a week, that regularity makes it a lot easier.  Now I play festivals on the weekend, then I may not play for three or four days, and then I get in a setting like this where I’m playing six days, and it takes a little time to do it.  But I keep doing it until I get it right.  And sometimes it comes off.

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Filed under Chicago, Interview, Ira Sullivan, trumpet, WKCR

Two Interviews with Pianist Chris Anderson from 1986 on his 87th Birthday Anniversary

A few months after I joined WKCR for what would be a 23-year run, I made it my business to interview pianist Chris Anderson, who, despite the dual handicap of being both sightless and brittle-boned, made an enormous, underground impact on piano vocabulary as a person who famously influenced, among others, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and Denny Zeitlin as young pianists on the Chicago scene. You could still hear Chris play at this time, and he continued to have it together, as evidenced not only by the duo album with Charlie Haden titled None But The Lonely Heart, but also a terrific trio date for DIW titled Blues One with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins that followed a memorable week at Bradley’s in 1991, which was also documented on a 1994 date on Alsut.

Chris and I had two long conversations. The first took place in his apartment; the second  comes from an in-person “Musician Show” at WKCR. In honor of the 87th anniversary of his birth I’m appending the complete transcripts below.

* * * * *

Chris Anderson (3-16-86):

TP:    Chris, let’s start with the basic facts.  Are you originally from Chicago, Illinois?

CA:    Yes, I was born there.

TP:    What year was that?

CA:    1926.

TP:    Tell me about your beginnings in music.  How old were you when you first played the piano?

CA:    It would be easier probably… I loved music, and I listened to a lot of it on the radio, the standard fare of the day, on the Jazz station — it was called Black Music or Race Music in those days.  But I found myself trying to pick out… I found that I could pick out melodies on piano.  And the harmony that goes with it, I knew in my head…I knew what it was — if I could just find it on the piano.  It’s like taking off boxing gloves.  I knew it would take a minute.  Because I knew I had an ear for harmony and melody, particularly harmony.  So I always knew from the get-go that I was going to play, was going to be a musician.

TP:    Who did you hear on the radio?

CA:    Oh, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, but mostly, oh, the popular singers of the day — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, all of them.

TP:    And they’d be on the radio, and that’s how you…

CA:    Yeah.

TP:    Did you ever get out to hear live music in Chicago when you were a youngster?

CA:    When I was a kid, no.  When I was really a kid… What got me into going places was when I got involved in music, got playing music, and then it forced me to meet people to play some kind of… I knew some people… They used to have things called tramp bands, with a guitar, bass, stuff like that.  The bass fiddle would be a washtub with a stick and a rope nailed up to it.  You’d turn the tub upside-down on the ground, and you’d nail a stick to it vertically from the ground up, and then you’d pass the stick up around the top, and you’d tie a big knot in the end of the string, and with the hole in the center of the tub, you’d pull it through that tub from the underside, you know, exerting tension on it — like a saw, the same you’d play a saw.  And you had your bass fiddle.

I got to know these people, and some of these people graduated into being professional musicians.  A professional bass player, a professional guitarist, stuff like that.  And they told me about places where music was played.  They said, “If you’re interested in music, you ought to go and hear some people play.”  And they took me.

TP:    Do you remember where they took you?

CA:    Oh!  That’s when I started learning about the… What’s the name of the place that Earl Hines played…?

TP:    The Grand Terrace.

CA:    Yes, the Grand Terrace, places like that.  A place called Old-Timers on 47th and Cottage Grove.  I don’t think there were too many.  Oh, and of course on the West Side.

TP:    What did you remember about Earl Hines’ band in the 1930′s and early Forties?

CA:    Well, see, as far as Earl Hines is concerned, I didn’t get to know a lot about Earl Hines then.  And Swing, as far as black people were concerned, was on its last legs.  Bebop was getting ready to be born.  The Grand Terrace closed for  a while, and that was Earl Hines’ stomping grounds.  And the War, World War Two closed down so many big bands because they couldn’t afford it any more.  Everybody was going away, going into the Service.  Everybody was putting together small combos.

That’s the only thing that gave me a shot at music.  I remember asking my harmony teacher in high school if I could play professionally, and he said, “No, not unless you surround yourself with musicians who can get the jobs.”  But being just a teacher and not a musician, he didn’t understand that the big band… The people in the sections had to read, but reading wasn’t necessarily going to be the most important thing for a while.  So a lot of people got to learn and so forth.

TP:    By the way, I didn’t hear where it was that you went to high school and primary school.

CA:    I went to Douglas Grammar School in Chicago, and I went to Philips High School for a while, and then I also went to Marshall High School.

TP:    Who was the bandmaster at Phillips High School.  I know that’s where Walter Dyett had taught before he went to DuSable.

CA:    Yeah!

TP:    But who was there when you were there?

CA:    Let me see… I don’t remember his name.  He was German.  He was a German teacher.  He was a character, too; he was a real character.  I can’t remember… The (?) was in the band, but I couldn’t remember his name.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

CA:    I graduated from grammar school in ’41, now that I think about it.  So ’41 to…

TP:    Then when you first played professionally, were you still in high school or was that after you graduated from high school?

CA:    I didn’t graduate from high school.  Now, I had one more semester to go, and I got a chance to go on the road with a guitarist named Leo Blevins, who was very much a part of the Chicago scene.  You having talked to a lot of people, people could have told you about him.  He introduced a lot of people to a lot of other people.  Anyway, I got a chance to go to Denver, Colorado, with Leo.. Well, it wasn’t his job.  It was a bass player named Louis Phillips.  And he had a chance to go to Denver.

No, my first gig actually was in Chicago at a place  called the Hurricane on 55th Street, next to the Rhumboogie.  I remember one of my first gigs, next door, a great guitarist who used to play with… I can’t remember his name either.  He used to play with (?)Billy Slack(?), who had a very popular national hit — Billy Slack.  A Blues guitar player…

Anyway, that was my first gig.  Then after that, I went to Denver, Colorado for about two weeks.  We were supposed to be gone longer than that, but the bass player got very ill, an illness that he never recovered from.  I came home.  Leo stayed a few weeks longer, until the bass player’s family could come get him home.

In fact, one of the reasons I left Denver to go back, couldn’t stay out there, I decided, “Well, I’ll go back and finish my last semester of school.”  I got back the first of September, got home, and started over, and decided not to go back.  I decided pretty much that music was going to be my livelihood, and you don’t need any education but music.  [CHUCKLES] You understand?  So I didn’t finish.

TP:    What kind of music were playing in that band when you went to Denver?  Was it Jump band type music?

CA:    Yes…

TP:    Was it sort of precursors to Bop?

CA:    Well, from Jump to Bop… It was quite a thing from there.  It was not like people in New York were doing, see. Because all the musically literate people were in New York, people that really were studying.  Everybody else was just like playing cafes, or parties, or played strip joints.  Just Jump and the Blues.  And most of these people didn’t know many tunes.  They just knew seventeen different types of Blues, and make it sound different, or some “Rhythm” changes, and they knew a few standard tunes — the people that I met in Chicago anyway.  There were a lot of old standards.  There were a lot of old-timers who knew a lot of real old tunes.  These were the ones who knew a lot, the ones who were a lot older and had been around a lot longer, so they were the ones who were more likely to have been locked in the style of the late Twenties and Thirties, see.

That’s why I say making that jump, the music… In Chicago making that jump into Bebop was quite a thing.  The young Turks coming along were… Well, they weren’t quite in the music, just on their way into the music.

TP:    In Chicago in 1943, Earl Hines did have Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, although I know they were traveling and Chicago was just the base.  But did you ever get to hear that band?

CA:    Unh-uh.

TP:    No.

CA:    I was just beginning to get into music then.  I didn’t know anything about Charlie Parker.  I didn’t know anything about Bebop!  I didn’t know anything about anything.  And I hope the point of your question is not “What do you know now?” because I’d have to say I don’t know very much!

See, with Earl Hines… The thing is, the advantage of the big band, you could solo a little bit and you could kind of make it, but the big thing is that all you had to do was learn the discipline of reading, being professional, and they just took care of the business for you.  And the exceptional people that would come along, like Charlie Parker, who were going to make an art in their generation, make a new art form, out of a solo style that doesn’t need… In fact, a big band would get in their way most of the time.  Even Satchmo, as much of an innovator as he was in his time, didn’t play enough notes to get in the big band’s way.  Not that Charlie Parker would get in a big band’s way now.  He’d play across it.  He could play right across it.  But it’s kind of… It was a different thing.  People were beginning to look… Plus, the war years had gotten people used to listening to something else besides the big bands, so soloists had to do more as part of their playing and part of what they wanted to do, too!

I didn’t get a chance to hear any of that… Before 1945?  No.

TP:    When you got back from that ill-fated trip to Denver, Chris, did you begin to gig around Chicago?  What was your process from that to working somewhat regularly?

CA:    Well, the process was cementing relationships, developing relationships.  I knew what I was going to do, or at least I didn’t have anything else to do.  I found myself being with musicians for a good part of my time.  That’s how you make contacts, and if you’re a go-getter and you hustle and do all these things (I never was a great hustler), then sometimes you just …(?)…

Music was developing, people were hearing about Bebop.  The music was beginning to come alive in Chicago.  For instance, there was a place in Chicago on 29th and Indiana called The Hole.  And that’s where everybody would meet, experimenting with this new music.  It was an after-hours joint, and it opened at 12, from 12 until about 7.  So everybody who was interested in music would be there, you know.  And that was where we began to find out about this music.  We already had a feeling before we were there.  But the thing is, with everybody in the same spot, you got to know everybody!  See?

TP:    Who were some of the people that you remember getting to know at that time?

CA:    Well, I had heard of Wilbur Ware, a young bass player who I’d heard around.  This fellow Leo Blevins, that I was telling you about, told me about Wilbur Ware.  Leo introduced me to so many people and introduced other people to so many people.  He was the kind of person who if he would walk in here now and tell me that the most unlikely person that I could imagine was a good player, I’d have to believe it.  It seems that at that time, right then and there, Wilbur was in Milwaukee with Little Jazz; he wouldn’t be in town for another week.  And I waited, and looked forward to it — and he was a person that was part of Chicago, one of the people I was most impressed with all of my life.  That started it.  I’d see many of the people who were going to be the mainstays, people who you’d look up to just as part of the music.

Shortly after that, Sonny Stitt came to town.  He lived there for a while.  I got to know him.  He worked around.  As good as he was, as great as he was… Well, he was one of the pioneers; a pioneer, you know, in Bird’s footsteps.  But there was another fellow there named Henry Prior, and he was great, too, but he met a very untimely death, very early — about 1945 or ’46 maybe.

Anyway, the first gig I ever really had… I worked with Sonny Stitt with other people, in other people’s bands there.  The first gig I had with Sonny Stitt was on an Easter, about ’47, I think.  It was the Bird at the Pershing Ballroom.  And that’s how I got to meet Bird.  I worked with Bird a total of three times.  And that was amazing.

Well, actually, it was Leo who introduced me to Sonny Stitt.  We worked at another gig at a place called the…it was on the West Side…

TP:    You and Sonny Stitt worked a gig on the West Side before you went into the Pershing?

CA:    Yes.  As part of his rhythm section.  It was a famous club, I think on 47th and Western or something.  We worked opposite Jackie Cain and Roy Kral.  I remember that.

TP:    Were you working with a regular rhythm section at the time, and you’d accompany people?

CA:    No, we’d just put the rhythm section together for that particular gig.  It was just two weekend gigs.

TP:    And shortly thereafter you went into the Pershing?

CA:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    I’ve read that you were part of the house rhythm section at the Pershing Ballroom, and you played there with Bruz Freeman and Leroy Jackson, that you were the standing rhythm section to back up the soloists.

CA:    Standing… Try sitting.  Because it just worked out.  You could say that.  People get strange… There were a couple of… The last two appearances I made at the Pershing with Bird, one was with Von Freeman’s group — Von, Bruz and Leroy and so forth.  The other was with a tenor player who used to be there named Claude McLin.

The one with Von wasn’t Von’s gig.  I don’t remember how it came about.  The pianist on the gig was named Prentice McCrary.  I happened to come in, and they let me sit in.  And somebody recorded it.  They had a wire recorder.  In fact, the way they recorded this thing, they had a back room behind the bandstand at the Pershing, and they had a speaker on the wall back there.  They recorded this off the speaker.  And they put this out on a record.  And doing the research for this record, the people were going back in their memory, because this wasn’t… They didn’t try to get the documentation and stuff together.  This was in the Seventies!  They went to Bruz Freeman and a few other people, and they told them I was on the gig.  I was not on the gig!  I just happened to be sitting in.  See?

So what I’m getting at is the information concerning this, because being part of the expanding house band… It was the luck of the draw.  Let me show you how much it is a luck of the draw, things can happen to you.  The third time, the last time I worked there with Claude McLin, this session was recorded, too.  In fact, it was put out in about 1975 or something like that.

I was raised in a foster home.  And I went to school with some kids who became close friends of mine, about three or four of them.  They kicked around in foster homes, too.  And they were brothers.  So for a time we lived together in different spots.  And we figured out… Like, the oldest brother that looked after them, he said, “Okay, I’m working; I’m going to take care of this aspect.  Chris, I want you to take care of his cultural needs.”  They knew I was a musician and so forth, and knew a few things in terms of Black culture, or whatever else there is to learn at that particular time.  They wanted to keep him out of trouble.  You know what I mean?

So this Sunday we were sitting around, we haven’t got any money, and I wanted to go hear Bird so bad!  And I wanted to take him to hear Bird, because he hadn’t heard Bird.  He had listened to his records.  He was a sensitive(?) kid, bright, and liked good music.  He just  liked to move his foot.  He liked to stomp his foot to music.  So anyway, I’m really disappointed, because I told him I would like to hear Bird, and he would like it… It didn’t annoy him that much.  But it annoyed me.  I was getting pretty depressed about it.  And he was trying to make conversation with me, and I’m not listening.

We were living in a rooming house.  So someone came and knocked on the door and told me there was a phone call for me.  I went to the phone, and it’s this guy Claude McLin, who said, “Look, what you doing?”  He said, “Look, my piano player can’t make it.  I’ve got this gig here with Bird…” [LAUGHS]

So that’s how I got on that one.  You know?  There was no standing rhythm section.  They didn’t have no standing… A lot of times you’d work there with different people, then they’d call you standing.  It’s not like the owner of the Pershing would say, “Well, you work every week with this guy and this guy,” you know.

But the people who worked there were people like Von Freeman (he worked there quite often) Claude McLin (he worked there sometimes) and a few other people.  And there not a lot of pianists there!  So that increased your chances.  See?  So everybody was getting a lot of the same events.   You see what I mean?

TP:    Another person you were associated with who was very prominent at the time and not that widely known about, one was the great drummer Ike Day.

CA:    Yes.  The first thing… You’ve heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I won’t be redundant…

TP:    Well, I’ll tell you something.  I haven’t heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I don’t think anything that you say about him will be redundant.  I’ve heard a little bit about Ike Day.

CA:    Okay.  First, Chicago in the Forties, as I told you, before Bebop everything was Blues Swing… Before they called it Rhythm-and-Blues, it was just Blues — Supper Blues, Steak(?) Blues, whatever you wanted to call it.

This had to be about 1943.  I had to still be in school — yes, of course; I was still in school.  And I joined the big band… Because it was like the way… Just take a bunch of musicians in any high school in this land, whether it’s the Music Department, they learn to read, and somewhere in the high school or on the fringes of the high school, someone puts together a swing band.  These musicians aren’t very good.  And then they had this big band that most of the kids would end up in.  A lot of the kids made it out of Phillips High School in the school band and so forth.

We worked a few places, like in community centers and stuff like that.  I remember the first gig I had at the community center; I got paid a whole fifty cents!  One night we got a gig called the Apex out in Robbins, Illinois. It  happened to be Ike’s home base; Ike and his mother lived out there.  And we went into this club.  On the way we heard a strange noise.  “What’s that?”  We heard a drop(?).  “What the hell is this?  What’s going on?”  We’d never heard anything like this before.  The first thing that comes into our head, what’s wrong with these guys… Well, we’re late in the first place.  We’d never been out there before.  The driver didn’t know where we were going.  We were late.  So I said, “Oh, they hired another band.”

We walk in the other door, it’s no other band — just Ike Day.  It turns out they had been running… They had a floor show there, and on this floor show they had this Blues guitar player named Johnny Shines.  He was like Muddy Waters to me.  Pure Blues, you understand?  They had a shake dancer, and for music they had Ike Day playing.  But the thing is, they were all separate acts.  They thought so much of Ike Day out there, and Ike Day was so great, that Ike Day came in there and worked, just playing drums!  And he used to have to play a little solo for about twenty minutes, then he was through for the night.  He might play for the shake dancer if he wanted to.  He didn’t play for the guitar player.  The guitar player played by himself.

That’s how great he was.  It’s as if… Someone once asked Earl Weaver about Brooks Robinson as a third baseman.  You know how great he was.

TP:    Yes.

CA:    Okay.  He asked Earl Weaver, “How great is Brooks?”  He said, “You know, he plays third base as if he came down from another league.”  That’s the way Ike was.  He played drums like… He didn’t play loud drums.  He was just so… Everybody was so awed, in awe of him, he was so great… Everyone was around him all the time, because he was just great.  You know?  He just was!  You see?  And I didn’t know what anything was about yet!  [ETC.]

You think about how you assess things when it first happens to you, and the only thing that may make it valid are the changes thirty or forty or fifty years later; you can look at it, and you seem to still feel the same way.  That was the darnedest thing I have ever seen!  I have never seen anything like this.

This man was… And they had a lot of professional people coming in and out of this club, working at different times.  You know?  But just what was going on then… Man, we used to tease our drummer in our band, our big band — because this was a big band, about 12 or 13 or 14 pieces.  We said, “Well, how long do you think you’re gonna last?” –  we teased him!  “You’ll be playing…”  Or during intermission or something, he’d come back and find a cymbal missing, somebody had taken it and hid it.  We teased him all the time.

In about two weeks, our drummer got the word that we can’t afford to have two drummers.  So Ike wound up playing with our band for a while.  Of course, the only thing our band could play were leaders’(?) arrangements and stock arrangements, Basie band, Jimmy Dorsey and stuff like that.  That was the fare in those days.  The change hadn’t been made yet, see.  That’s why I tell you that ’43-’44 is what I’m talking about now.

TP:    But you knew Ike Day over the years, though, until he passed.

CA:    Oh, yes.  I was in the hospital when he passed.  I had a broken hip.  Oh yes, I was in the hospital.  He died of tuberculosis.

TP:    And you played with him also over the years in any number of situations, small groups and larger groups and so forth?

CA:    Small groups.  I never got to play with him in large groups, no.

TP:    Well, one thing, there’s a picture I’ve seen on the back of a record jacket, a Chess compilation of Chicago tenor players.  And there’s Max Roach and Kenny Dorham all standing right over Ike Day and watching him play, and Max Roach has a look of rapt concentration on his face.  Was this the kind of impact he made on everybody?

CA:    Pretty much.  Pretty much.  Well, you see, people like Max and people who are sure enough great… And there was not only him.  People like Jo Jones, Papa Jo Jones.  When he knew he was going to retire, he tried to get…he wanted Ike to take his seat in the band.  But Ike wasn’t thinking about going out on the road.  Buddy Rich, all the drummers… All the drummers knew about him, and all the other musicians knew about him.  But they didn’t all rhapsodize over him that much, because you took him for granted.

Ike was good with people, too.  See, that’s another thing.

[ETC.]

Vernell Fournier had a stool that belonged to Ike Day, a drum stool that belonged to Ike Day for years.  He wouldn’t let anyone touch that stool.  I don’t know if Vernell still has it.  But he revered it so much, he kept that drum stool for years, all those years, because Ike Day sat on it.

TP:    So I guess you were playing around town in these various situations in the late Forties and early Fifties.  Would you go on the road with people for brief periods of time, or were you mainly just around Chicago?

CA:    I stayed on Chicago.  Going on the road… Me being handicapped was a problem.  Besides, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do anyway.  I went on the road for very short periods, two or three weeks at the most.  And that was in the late Fifties.  In the mid to late Fifties I did it for a while, with just one person, a guy named Cozy Eccleston, who had a rhythm-and-blues band in Chicago.

TP:    Cozy Eccleston?

CA:    Yeah!  I went out with him.  In fact, for a rhythm-and-blues band, he had one of the hippest rhythm sections that the world has ever seen.  He had Wilbur Ware and a drummer named Dorel Anderson, who was part of the scene there (he   was a great drummer who died also), and me.   We went out a couple of times.

TP:    That was in the latter part of the Fifties?

CA:    Yes.

TP:    Were you able to stretch out at all in any of those situations you played in?

CA:    Well, he would love to go do his thing, and then he’d go sit at the bar drinking, listening to us! [LAUGHS]

TP:    I don’t blame him.

CA:    [LAUGHS] We didn’t get to stretch out a lot.  It was his band and his program.  He wouldn’t let things get out of hand.  The thing is, the (?) stuff, we found a way to loosen it up.  You know?  We’d take it gently by the hand and make the music a little more endurable.

TP:    There’s another story (tell me whether this is true or not) that you were in the rhythm section at the Beehive during Charlie Parker’s last appearance in Chicago.  Is that correct or not?  That was around February 1955.

CA:    That I was working?  No.  I think Norman Simmons worked that job.  Norman Simmons and Victor Sproles had that job at the Beehive.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    What were the circumstances that brought you to New York?

CA:    I got a chance to come out on the road with Dinah Washington.  Joe Zawinul had just left her to go with Cannonball.  And she had this club that had been called the Roberts Show Lounge; she bought it and changed it to Dinah-Land, and she worked there for a while.  And while they were there, Joe Zawinul handed in his notice, because he’d made a commitment to Cannonball.  So she tried a couple of local pianists there, and nobody really wanted to go on the road that much, and nothing was happening for me.  So Eddie Chamblee and Leo Blevins, again, this guitarist again, told her about me.  This is what I was telling you about.  He’s a person who really helped a lot of people there.  It was really because of him I got that job.

So I came… Let’s see.  I think it was exactly six weeks.  We went to Philadelphia first for two days at Pep’s.  We went to the Howard in Washington for a week, then we went to the Apollo for a week.  Then we went to Town Hill in Brooklyn.  And she was coming back to Chicago, and I decided I wanted to stay here in New York.  Well, everything can’t be perfect, but I don’t want to deal with any negatives now.  Thanks to her, I got here, you understand, and I stayed here.

TP:    Did you have work when you first got to New York?

CA:    No.  But, let’s see, I got work… I went through a very bad period there for a couple of years.  I broke some more bones, and I was kind of out of it for a while.  I had to really get my act together.  I never did do a lot of working in New York until three or four years ago actually.  I’d get a gig now and then, but I only had a few.

TP:    You did record, though, in 1961.

CA:    Oh yes, when I first got here.  Well, see, the reason why that came about, Orrin Keepnews was connected with Riverside at that time, and he happened to be in Chicago.  Johnny Griffin had told him to come hear me.  He wanted him to record me.  And he came by to see me and said, “If you’re ever in New York, let me know, and we’ll do a date with you.”  So I happened to be here.  So I called him and told him, “Well, I’m here.”  So he gave me a date.  So that’s how that came about.  That was through the good offices of Johnny Griffin.

TP:    Another one of your old running mates in Chicago?

CA:    Yeah.

TP:    Can you pinpoint when you were first aware of Johnny Griffin, when you first heard him play?

CA:    My memory of first hearing him is kind of vague, because the music was in the midst of change, and I was hearing a lot of other people.  But he was fresh out of high school, came out of Captain Dyett’s band, like so many great people, like Jug, Gene Ammons, and like…

TP:    Well, your friend Clifford Jordan came out of DuSable.

CA:    Clifford Jordan.  And what’s this great bass player…?

TP:    Richard Davis.

CA:    Richard Davis.  Victor Sproles came out of there, too. And Gene Ammons, as I said… Anyway…

TP:    Von Freeman also went to DuSable.

CA:    Von Freeman, yes.  Von, Bruz, George — the whole family.

Anyway, you asked me about him being called Little Giant.  My memory failed me; I didn’t connect it at first.  I consider it apocryphal.  But there may been a reason for it.  I can trace it to a time… And I heard about this more.  I didn’t see it happen.  But I didn’t know… When he… The thing that brought Johnny Griffin to the attention of the world, he got a chance to go with Lionel Hampton.  And that was a time when Arnett Cobb was with him.  Arnett Cobb was big.  And that’s back in the days when you had these saxophone battles, the same way as in those days they’d have these big band battles.  Johnny Griffin happened to join Hamp during an engagement at a place called the Rialto Theatre.  The Rialto Theatre was a strip joint, but they changed it to a theatre.  And Lionel Hampton was the opener; he opened that place.  By the time Lionel Hampton and these two cats, Arnett Cobb and Johnny Griffin… They excited people so they threw people out, three fell out of the balconies… It was a riot!  They closed that place after about two or three performances — the place couldn’t stand it!  They turned it back into a strip joint!

And the clash, the battle between David and Goliath… See what I’m getting at?  And out of this, I think Johnny Griffin got the name the Little Giant.  Well, everybody wants to go for the underdog, you know.  The new music was just beginning.  But Griffin, he was into everybody else’s thing, Arnett Cobb honking and playing… But Bebop, the new music hadn’t filtered through.  They’d play a few notes, but the new music hadn’t been born.  But as far as sound was concerned, he held his own with Arnett Cobb!  Everybody goes for the underdog.  But he was the underdog only in size, so they called him the Little Giant.

TP:    You played with Johnny Griffin quite a bit, though, around Chicago — yes or no?

CA:    Not a lot.  No.

TP:    But at any rate, he of course knew you and you’d known each other a while, and that’s why he referred you for this date.

CA:    Yes.

TP:    I’d like to ask you about some of the tunes you did on the date.  I don’t know if you remember it; if not, I’ll refresh your memory.

CA:    Oh, yes, I remember.

TP:    Were these tunes that you’d been playing for many years?  Is the material on Inverted Image representative of the type of set you would play in Chicago?

CA:    No.  No, because… Well, the title of the album was decided upon pretty much before we… I don’t remember who came up with the idea for it.  I think it was Orrin Keepnews who came up with the title, and the idea of the Rorschach thing.  He said, “Okay, this should have a song for it.”  So I wrote a kind of upside-down Blues; half the changes were upside-down, or inverted — I turned them around.  So it all sounded like the Blues, but the (?) bars go in different directions, and you don’t know what it is until the last two bars.  So that’s the inverted image.

Now, I wrote that, but Bill Lee wrote most of the rest of it.  He wrote the ballad called “Only One.”  There were   a lot of standards.

TP:    There’s also a collaboration called “See You Saturday.”

CA:    No, that’s no collaboration.  That’s Bill Lee’s tune.

TP:    And everything else is a standard.

CA:    Right.

TP:    “Lullaby Of The Leaves,” which Johnny Griffin did a great version of once on a record, “My Funny Valentine”… These were tunes that you’d been playing for quite some time, that were part of your standard…

CA:    Yes.

TP:    Von Freeman, when I interviewed him, said that you had the greatest harmonic ear that he had ever heard.  Do you feel that you had any impact on other pianists who came up in Chicago during the Fifties?

CA:    There are a couple of people who I influenced in Chicago, I know for sure.  But I don’t think anybody else I influenced at all.  They were going their own way and doing their thing.  Because to really be influenced… Well, what I mean by influenced, a pianist to influence another pianist, you’ve got to spend time with him.  Or if he plays something a little bit like you, in a song he finds a change or finds a way to voice something, that’s okay, but it’s not no big thing.

But to influence somebody, what I call influence, is maybe… As far as piano is concerned, there is only one pianist in Chicago that I have influenced, and he doesn’t live there any more.  His name is Billy Wallace.  The reason being we spent a lot of time together.  We got into each other’s heads.  I know what he knows, he knows what I know.  And we know why.

TP:    Billy Wallace played with Max Roach for some time…

CA:    Yes, he did.  And there was a bass player there named Bill Lee.  He can play the piano and he arranges.  But I’m talking about influencing him not so much on piano, but  musically, in terms of every facet of it.  People like John Young, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens, the piano players that were there?  No, I didn’t influence them at all.  Muhal Richard Abrams?  No.

[PAUSE]

There was something I wanted to tell you about this album, Inverted Image.  It really didn’t sell very much.  In fact, for a while, everybody I knew had got the album, they went by Riverside and got a free copy!  I didn’t know anyone that ever bought it.  It didn’t sell well.  They didn’t promote it, of course.  And to my mind, it’s not indicative of the thing I do the best.

And lately, the last four or five years… There was a thing we went through in the Seventies where there was no pianos to play, so you had to buy an electric piano, or even worse, before that, you had the organ in the Fifties and so forth — and they had such lousy pianos.  Now they’ve got good pianos in most places, they have a grand piano.  And more than a bebopper, I’m a sort of painter, in a sense.  My friends have put me in the kinds of situations that allow me to do what I do best.  Some people say I’m trying to be a Classical pianist, and that’s a painter, you know.  Or you can call me a house painter!  I’ll accept that.  I’m still painting.  Sometimes I like to play by myself.  I like to paint around singers.

[-30-]

* * *

Chris Anderson (4-9-86) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: BIRD IN CHICAGO, PERSHING BALLROOM]

TP:    In the first part of the show we’ll focus on musicians Chris was involved with in Chicago, where he was an active member of the scene for about a 15-year period, wasn’t it, between 1946 and 1961 or so.

CA:    Yes, that’s about it.  Actually a few more years than that.  But professionally, yes, you could say fifteen years.  But I started playing around in the mid to late Forties.  So it’s really more like twenty years.  But yes, 1945 to 1961 professionally.

TP:    Chris, tell us about working at the Pershing Ballroom.  You played there quite frequently and different people would come in.  What was the set-up like there?

CA:    Well, the Pershing Ballroom was just that.  It was a ballroom, a dance hall.  They gave dances.  But the thing is, in dealing with Jazz, dance halls were just used as a place for people to stand.  People really began to listen more… Jazz was changing from something to dance to, to a music to listen to.  You’d have a place like this with maybe, oh, twenty-five hundred people, nothing but wall-to-wall people.  It was quite a thing.  It was a dance hall in name only, because there was no room for anybody to dance in most cases.  And even when they were, it was just… A stand-up nightclub, that’s all it was.  That’s the best way to explain it.

TP:    The Pershing also had an upstairs and a downstairs room.  They would book two different bands at one time.  Is that not right?

CA:    Yes.  Well, they had a place called Budland in the basement.  Well, they had something there every week.  That was dealing with the local musicians more than having big names come in.  Big names would only come in once in a while, you see, so it wasn’t really quite the same thing.  And there was the Pershing Lounge, so really there was three places in the same building.  And that’s where Ahmad Jamal would hold fort for a long time, and put the Pershing on the map.

TP:    Tell us about this date with Bird.  What were the circumstances of that evening?

CA:    You want to go through that again.

TP:    Well, we went through it before, but that’s all right.

CA:    Remember we were talking about the fact that I was supposed to be part of the regular house rhythm section there, and I explained to you that it didn’t happen that way at all.  The saxophone player, Claude McLin, his piano player couldn’t make it for some reason.  And I wanted to go so bad, I didn’t know what to do.  I was sitting around the house depressed.  And I got this call from Claude McLin, who asked me to come, and I got to hear Bird, and not only hear Bird, but to play with him.  Of course, I had heard him before I played with him, once before, but at least it got me in.  I had to work a little, but it was a pleasure.  That’s about all there is to that.

[MUSIC: JUG-STITT, "Saxification"; JUG, "Down The Line"]

A strange incident happened to us once when we were working in Chicago.  I teased Jug about it for years!  I have to explain to you first, Chicago is known for the Blues, and there was a time that Blues was much more alive as Jazz than it was Rock-and-Roll before Rock-and-Roll came in.  This was before Blues players made a lot of money.  They made no money.  So the Blues players were in a certain section of Chicago, called the West Side.  They stayed on the West Side, while we stayed on the South Side.

TP:    The Jazz musicians stayed on the South Side and the Blues musicians on the West Side.

CA:    Yes, and never the twain shall meet.  So a gig came along, and Jug having a name, we went over there.  A friend of ours, a guitarist I’ve told you about, was very important in my life.  His name was Leo Blevins.  Now, he came from a Blues background… What I mean as Blues, he came from that genre, he could fit in just as well with Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, anybody who played Jazz… In those days musicians did some of everything, and they did it with feeling.  Whatever was going on, they did it with feeling.

So we had this gig.  It was a Blues house.  There was not many people in the house, oh, maybe ten people.  It sounded like three, the way it was scattered around.  And we went into playing the Blues, what I mean, the Shuffle Blues.  The rhythm was like ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK.  It would be like what Memphis Slim was doing or something like that.  Back in those days, guitar players would get down on their knees, I’ve seen bass players lie down on the floor and play their bass.  They were required to be very entertaining.

So we finished this number.  And everybody said, “Hmm, so this is a Blues house, huh?  This ought to take care of them.  That ought to fix them.”  All of a sudden we heard a voice way in the back: “When you gonna play me some Blues?!”

And we stood there just dismayed, just stupidly!  We hadn’t done a thing.  And I teased Jug about this for years.  I never would let him forget it.  Sometimes people have a little antipathy toward each other anyway, and I teased him with that from now til Doomsday.  I always think of that when I hear Jug play the Blues.  But he was a wonderful Blues player; it was just a different thing.

TP:    When did you start playing with Jug?  How did you meet him?

CA:    I don’t even remember how I met Jug.  That’s something I could not tell you.  See, I was not close to Jug.  I was not close to Jug in the least.  He had a name.  He was in and out of town quite a lot.  He was not a part of the Jazz scene when I got into it — or a regular part of the Jazz scene.  He was in New York and traveling and stuff like that, so I didn’t get to know him that well.  See?  Just in the latter years that I was there I’d see him occasionally, work with him or something.  But I don’t have a memory of when I met him.  I don’t.

TP:    [MUSIC OF JOE WILLIAMS]

CA:    There is something that has always bothered me, it’s annoyed the hell out of me! — excuse the expression.  When Joe went with Count Basie…  This ties up a great deal with what I was saying about Jug and the Blues, and so forth.  When he went with Basie, all of a sudden I was hearing this reputation coming back.  I would hear it from disk jockeys, establishment disk jockeys; I presume critics wrote it up that way; “The greatest Blues singer in the world.”  So when I think about Blues singers, I think about Blues singers.  Joe Williams, as far as Jazz is concerned, singing, I guess he’d have to be the greatest Blues singer, because that’s all they knew about him from Basie.

But the thing about Joe, the reason why I’m annoyed by it… The first time I had the pleasure of having an exchange with Joe… A singer named Joe Evans called me to accompany him on a gig in a little after-hours spot in Chicago.  I had never been there before, I had never seen it — I didn’t know the place existed.  Sometimes you think you know all about your environment, you think you know where everything is, you think you’re pretty hip.  Okay, I go down to this club and go in there… Remember, I don’t know this place exists.  Who’s there?  Joe Williams, Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler, Dinah Washington was there, another famous singer in Chicago whose name was Lillian Hunter, and a few other people that I can’t think of.

Okay.  They asked Joe to sing a song with me, put me right on the spot.  He says, “Look, can you play Pagliacci for me?”  Well, the famous…the part of Pagliacci that everybody would know, the part that was written for Puccini, it was written for a tenor.  Okay, he adapted to it, because he has a bass voice.  And he gave it beautifully!  He scared me death!

And I hate the thought of anybody thinking of him as a Blues singer.  He’s just a wonderful singer.  And as a ballad singer, he has no peer.  I picked this particular track to give you an example of what he can sing like without a large orchestra.  “Young and Foolish,” I think it is.

[MUSIC: Joe Williams, "Young and Foolish."

TP:    We'll hear next some music by Von Freeman, another person Chris was associated with for quite some time.

CA:    Mmm-hmm.  I probably worked longer with Von than... Probably!  I know I worked longer with him than anybody I have ever worked with.  I spent five years in and out of his bands.

TP:    Tell us about the band.

CA:    Well, the band consisted of Von, his two brothers George and Bruz... George is a guitarist.  In fact, he's the guitarist on that album with Bird you played.  Bruz Freeman was a drummer.  And we worked at different clubs around Chicago, and went on short tours to nearby states, and so forth, maybe for one-nighters.

TP:    What was the repertoire of the band?  What sorts of things did you play?

CA:    Back then we played practically all standard tunes, some things that were written, new lines to old chord progressions, things like that -- but pretty standard.  All the new Bebop tunes weren't on the scene yet.  See, we're talking Forties.  We're talking '47, '48 and '49...'51.

TP:    Can you talk about what Von's sound was like in the late 1940's?

CA:    His sound was very much like Ben Webster's.  You could always hear the air coming the side of it.  You could always hear that.  That's one description.  It was pre-Bebop.  It fit Bebop, but... It fit then and it fit now.  It fit Bebop the same way Don Byas or Paul Gonsalves would fit Bebop, so correct and so right.  So when Bebop came in, all he had to do was alter a few lines; he'd do that, too.  The basis for it was there already.  Or he doesn't have to do that.  Because if he'd deal with Bebop and think of it as such, he'd wind up playing certain cliches and lines, and it's hard to get out of it sometimes.  It's not really thinking; it's doing what you hear, and what you hear is quite often what you've heard somebody else play, not something that you've put together.  You may think you're putting it together; I guess you could say you are.

But Von wasn't just a wonderful instrumentalist, he was a wonderful musician.  He knew a lot!  He could sit down at the piano and play things, so I knew he knew about harmony.

If I go on about him, it's because we have a mutual admiration society going for sure.

TP:    I know that, because Von has said about you that you have the greatest harmonic ear he's ever heard.

CA:    He's one of my favorite people.  He knows it. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Von, "White Sands," "I Can't Get Started," "Sweet and Lovely"]

TP:    Chris says that Von has been playing “White Sands” since 1946 or 1947.

CA:    Yeah, that’s true.  As I said before, back in those days they were just really starting to write new melodies to old changes.  Well, that’s not true either, I guess, because they were already doing that to “I Got Rhythm” and writing different melodies to Blues.  But they hadn’t extended out much further than that.  They hadn’t taken too many standard songs with a lot of changes and so forth, and redoing them.  At least not in Chicago.  Chicago’s another place…

TP:    Well, how about the younger breed?  How about someone like Henry Prior, a young alto player in Chicago, who passed away too young, but…

CA:    Now, see, I was talking about Henry Prior being one of the… I remember I told you that most of the people had to wait for Bird to make the next record, because they didn’t know what to do.  And I was saying that Henry Prior was one of the few…one of the people that had the light.  But I forgot to add, he was from New York!  He brought the message from New York.  He was not born in Chicago.  He moved to Chicago.  He knew what it was all about, as far as Bebop was concerned, the technical aspect of it.  He just died too soon.  He died too soon.

TP:    That’s the case for a lot of musicians of that generation.  There were a lot of perils involved, and it was not the safest time for a lot of people.

CA:    No, it wasn’t.
TP:    But the people who survived came out very, very strong.

CA:    A friend of mine gave a birthday party for me a couple of years ago.  His toast was, “We’re celebrating Chris just because he’s still here.”

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll hear now “Two Bass Hit” by Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  I know Chris has some things to say about it.

CA:    I certainly do.  When Dizzy had his big band, it was the first time I really… For bass players… This was before I met Wilbur Ware.  But in the earlier years, the great bass players were Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton and so forth.  But this is for their solo work, keeping in mind the technique of recording back in those days was not too good, and the music was such that…the music the bass players played as a background, playing behind people, you didn’t hear very well, and there wasn’t much to be said for it, I assume.  But when music changed…

Well, the short of it (never mind the lecture), when I first heard Ray Brown, it hit me… I even remember the thought that I had.  I had this thought three times in my life — “that’s how bass should be played.”  And it just fit so well with the band.  I’m not talking about his solo work.  That’s phenomenal.  I’m talking about just the way he sounded with the band.  It just threw me completely.

And Dizzy… I never had the pleasure of playing with Dizzy, doggone it, but you know what he is to music.  I keep thinking what makes Dizzy so different than the rest of the trumpet players — the fact that he’s such a great musician, or is it his personality, or what it is.  And it hit me.  He has music down… I heard him in an interview where he was explaining about him and Bird.  The interviewer was trying to put Dizzy up as having a great personality as such, a good style.  He explained that Bird was the one that had the style.  What Dizzy, in all his humility, would not say (you don’t say this about yourself) the fact that he could arrange, he could write — he brought the music to everybody.  In his first band, he used to teach everybody what everything was about.  The trumpet players, the arrangers, so they would know what it was all about.

All the great trumpet players, coming down from Fats Navarro, Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, they have to take the music so serious, they all had something to prove, being the greatest.  It’s quite a thing when you don’t write and can’t see the whole picture.  And I had never heard any of them once… Dizzy is the only one I ever heard approach music with a sense of humor, and it’s no joke.  He can have fun with the music.  It’s so right, he can do anything with it.  He will always be the boss.

And this record here was one of the first records that I ever heard that really impressed me.  I am putting that wrong; they all impressed me.  But this is the first record that I was really impressed by.  Just his writing and Ray  Brown’s playing, it pinned it down for me.

[MUSIC: "Two Bass Hit," Griff, W. Ware, "Woody 'n You"]

TP:    Listening to Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware brings up a host of memories for Chris Anderson, who played with both of them pretty extensively.

CA:    Yes.  That’s asking me to tell you about a lifetime.  Listening to Wilbur… Wilbur was not only a great bass player, he was good with people.  He was good with kids, he was good… Everybody loved him.  He had a laugh that you’d never forget.  And don’t let him get to know you well, know your weak spots, he will get to you one way or another.

I remember an incident, he was working down at Pee-Wee’s, at a place on 11th Street, a club.  The owner used to be the emcee at Birdland for a long time.  Keep in mind, any family where you deal with each other all the time… I say “family” because that’s what we were.  So we were making a fuss about something.  I remember a time when I had a grievance against Wilbur, real or imagined.  It wasn’t much.  To show you how little it was, I went down to the club to hear him, which I don’t do that often.  I decided, “Okay, I’m not going to even talk to him.  I’ll ignore him.  I’ll talk to everybody else.”  He yelled at me, “Hi, Chris!  Hey, Chris!”  I wouldn’t say anything to him.

The bandstand was about three feet off the floor, so he was up there.  He said, “So you’re ignoring me.  Okay.”  And after a while he called me again; I wouldn’t say nothing to him.  He was coming at me from the other direction.  So what he did, he took the bass and put it on the floor.  And the bandstand maybe was 7 or 8 feet from the tables where I was.  And he put that bass… All that music went out of the bass down through the peg, across the floor, through my shoes, up my legs, and through my body… Maybe I could tune out my ears if I wanted to, but… That’s the wonderful thing about acoustic bass.  When it was played right, it felt right, and you could not ignore it.  I must have looked up and said, “All right, I give.”  I said, “I got it!  I got it!”

TP:    Wilbur Ware had one of the most distinctive sounds of any bass player around, I think.

CA:    Yes, indeed.

TP:    Again, this may be an impossible recollection, but do you recall the circumstances of first meeting Wilbur?

CA:    There’s something I was telling you in my interview, Leo Blevins telling me… There was this place in Chicago called the Hole, where all the Jazz musicians would meet…

TP:    Where was it?

CA:    29th and Indiana.  And Leo was telling me about this great bass player, Wilbur Ware, that was coming to town, and he wanted me to hear him.  Leo turned me on to everybody I ever met, and also was responsible in some way… I mean, he introduced me to somebody that introduced me to, at least!  He was only twice removed from me meeting them, at least — not directly responsible.

Wilbur was in Milwaukee.  He was in Milwaukee with Sonny Stitt.  And when Wilbur came back, Wilbur and Sonny Stitt came to town for the first time, too, and lived there.  I didn’t remember that before when we were talking about it.  So I got to meet Sonny Stitt at this time.  Wilbur lived in Chicago, of course; he was just out on the road.  And when they came back, Sonny resided there.  This would have to be ’47, ’46 or ’47.  Let’s say ’47.

TP:    You mentioned in the interview also a time with a Rhythm-and-Blues singer who liked to go to the bar and hear the rhythm section.

CA:    Cozy Eccleston, yes.

TP:    Would you do a lot of those type of gigs, not just Jazz, but Rhythm-and-Blues singers and Bluesmen and so forth?  Or was it never the twain shall meet?  What was the environment for you as a working pianist in Chicago?

CA:    Listen.  Remember, I was saying a while ago, musicians, they worked a weird assortment of gigs.  You’d never know what was… The same thing I was telling you about Ike Day. He had this gig playing drums, no band, no nothing.  Well, musicians, whatever there was to do or play, they did it.  And Wilbur could play drums, he was a dancer, he was a drummer.  He learned the entertainment business.  He just happened to be a great bassist, that’s all.  He played rhythm-and-blues gigs, he played Blues gigs, Blues gigs, b-l-u-u-z-s gigs.  He played for singers, he played some… Everything that could be played, he played it.  And to think someone like him graduated from a tub, a stick and a rope.  That’s what he learned on.
TP:    His foster father built him a homemade bass, I believe.  Isn’t that right.

CA:    Yes.  That’s what we’re talking about.

TP:    The Reverend Turner.

CA:    I don’t remember… Yes, wait a minute.  Yes, I do.  I only got to know about him shortly before Wilbur died.  We were talking about it, but I’d forgotten about that.

TP:    The music we’ll hear next features Wilbur Ware in company with another tenor player who spent not that much time in Chicago, but the time he spent there seems to have been quite significant for him, Sonny Rollins.

CA:    Yes, he was there a couple of years, I think.

TP:    I think it was late 1950, early ’51, and then 1954-55.

CA:    I think it was ’54 or ’55.  Because he had a gig at the Beehive in Chicago.  That was his last gig, then he left and came back to New York.

TP:    I also read that he was there in 1950-51, and he played with Ike Day and jammed with Johnny Griffin and so forth.

CA:    Oh yes.

TP:    Anyway, what do you remember about Sonny Rollins in Chicago at that time?  Anything in particular?

CA:    He was warm.  He was a wonderful musician.  And being who he was, he helped the musicians out to learn.  But he worked all the same kind of gigs that we worked.  He worked gigs that you wouldn’t believe he’d be on, for his stature.  But he was in the salt mines.  He worked the Blues gigs, rhythm-and-blues gigs… There was even a place… There was a place outside Chicago called Calumet City that had a bunch of strip joints.  We worked those even; we had to.  He worked them, too.

TP:    So Sonny really blended into the scene, and became part of the community.

CA:    Exactly.  It had to do with doing what you had to do.  That’s a fact.

[MUSIC:  S. Rollins, Wilbur Ware, Elvin Jones: "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" and "All The Things You Are"]

Incidentally, that’s the second time I had the thought that that’s how bass should be played.  Whoo!

TP:    Wilbur Ware is such a heavy figure to talk about, we forgot to discuss Johnny Griffin, whose playing we mentioned before.

CA:    I don’t know how I could forget to talk about Johnny Griffin, because he was responsible for me getting to record, too, as well as having many other jobs in Chicago, and a lot of things.  I haven’t had a chance to see him much since I’ve been in New York.  In fact, I’ve only seen him twice since I came to New York in ’61.  But he wasn’t in town a lot…

TP:    He lived in Europe, and didn’t come here for more than a decade.

CA:    Yes.  In fact, I think it was about ’79 or so, he did a concert at Carnegie Hall.  I remember Wilbur and his wife Gloria went, and Wilbur was so debilitated at the time, he had to go up in a wheelchair.  It was so difficult; I remember that.  And I think I was ill or something; I didn’t get to go to that performance.  So I didn’t get to see him then.  And he was at the Grant Park once, and we were supposed to go…

TP:    Grant Park in Chicago?

CA:    No, not Grant Park.  I mean, Grant’s Tomb in New York.  He was finished playing, and I got to see him just for a second.

TP:     I guess I keep asking you the same tired question…

CA:    That’s because I don’t answer it.

TP:    No, I’ll ask you one more time, as I have for various other musicians we’ve played, what were the circumstances by which you first met Johnny Griffin in Chicago?

CA:    I don’t remember.  It’s just like I’ve always known him.  I can’t remember my first meeting with him.  For the life of me, I’ve tried.  Because you asked me in that interview, and I haven’t been able to come up with any more. It’s like Jug.

TP:    What do you remember about playing with him?

CA:    Oh, that I enjoyed it.  It was fun.  I can’t remember any particular incident that stands out.

TP:    Did you ever hear Griff play alto sax?  He started off as an alto player.

CA:    I don’t remember… Yes, I did see him play the alto.  There was a club called Swingland; there used to be a Cotton Club in Chicago, and they changed it to Swingland.  Now, that was during the late Fifties.  Now and then he would switch to alto.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC:  Sonny Stitt, "Casbah," "Idaho"]

TP:    Did you play with Sonny Stitt on sessions?

CA:    Yes, I played with Stitt, I worked with him… The  first time I played with Sonny Stitt was Easter of 1947.  We were supposed to work a gig at the Pershing Ballroom with Bird, the first time I worked with Bird.  Sonny Stitt was supposed to be on that gig, but he got sick, and we worked some gigs…

Sonny Stitt by then was part of the local crowd, the same way we talked about Sonny Rollins.  Sonny Stitt was in that same situation.

TP:    In ’47, ’48, ’49?

CA:    Yes.  I worked a lot with him.  I worked as much as any other piano players with him.  I could say I worked a lot, as much as there were gigs.

TP:    What was a standard set by Stitt like?  A lot of standards, substitutions, Bop tunes?

CA:    Well, there were a few originals, like “Ray’s Idea” that was coming on the scene, some things written on Blues and some things written on “Rhythm.”  But there were not a lot of complete originals, with completely different chord changes yet.  So they played things like “Idaho.”  This is one they played back then.   I haven’t heard anyone play this tune in maybe over twenty years now.  They don’t play it any more.  Things like “Fine and Dandy” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” those were the standards that they used in those days?

TP:    Was he playing any alto at that time, or was it exclusively tenor in the late Forties?

CA:    Oh, no.  He played alto a lot.  In fact, he played alto mostly.  It would depend on which one he wanted to play, which was most convenient for him to play at the time.  He had horns in different places.  He might have used an alto last night, and it might have been too inconvenient for him, or he’d forget the tenor so he played alto — or vice-versa.  Rarely did he switch.

TP:    He was also playing baritone at the time in Gene Ammons’ band and other situations, I recall.

CA:    Yeah, for recordings.  But generally speaking, he didn’t do it too much.

TP:    Do you have a preference for his alto or tenor?  Or is that not a fair question?

CA:    It’s a fair question.  I prefer him on tenor.  This medium, Bebop, to my ears, fits the tenor better.  The only people that I ever heard fill up an alto, I mean sound-wise, were Bird and Cannonball.  And alto players, despite their technical achievements out of the horns, I get a picture of a little-bitty horn when you play alto.  But the tenor, it fits the medium a lot better with the things that they play on it.  Most people, if they get a real big sound, it sounds like the sound is bigger than the horn to me.  It seems to me like Bebop was made more for a tenor.  It takes a special person to play it easily and get a big sound on alto.  That’s just my opinion, that’s all.

TP:    [ETC., STATION ID]

CA:    I would like to put in a disclaimer here, so that I don’t get shot.  Now, I know quite a few alto players still.  Some of my best friends play alto, and they play it well and they do the job.

TP:    There’s a wonderful record you’re on by Frank Strozier, for instance.

CA:    Yes, indeed.  And there’s C. Sharpe; he really plays.  George Coleman switches from alto to tenor.

TP:    And many others, and I’m sure they all know who they are if they’re out there.  No offense intended.

CA:    But they are the exceptions.  That’s my feeling.  More tenor players are going to sound good playing Bebop than alto players.  That’s what I think I’m saying.

TP:    [ETC.] A lot of what Sun Ra was doing in Chicago in the late Forties and Fifties is obscure, but I know he had a rehearsal band in the late Forties and early Fifties, and he was doing arrangements at the Club De Lisa, I think, and in the rehearsal band were people like Von Freeman, Red Holloway, Wilbur Ware… What do you remember about Sun Ra at the time?

CA:    You see, before he got into this experimental music, doing things, Sun Ra was an arranger for the De Lisa Club band.  This was a big show club, they had dancers…

TP:    Red Saunders’ band was there.

CA:    Red Saunders’ band, exactly.  And he did his arranging with that band.  But he did not have his rehearsals and stuff over there, to my knowledge.  He rehearsed down in Budland, in the Pershing Hotel, where the Pershing Lounge was.  That’s where they had the rehearsals.

TP:    Do you happen to recall any of those rehearsals, what was happening in them?

CA:    Well, first, to show you how experimental and how out he could write, one day I was talking to him on the telephone, and he played a tape of something.  It was called “The Devil Dance.”  And it scared me over the telephone!  It really did.  I had never heard anything like this in my life.  But as far as his big band, it was quite a band; in fact, everybody would be in it at one time or another.  Wilbur Ware and Victor Sproles would be in it, for bass players — I think even Israel Crosby did it for a minute.

TP:    Von Freeman said that having played with Sun Ra made it possible for him to play any type of music anywhere.  He wouldn’t be daunted by anything!

CA:    Yes, that would do it!  That would do it.  We had the most wonderful exchanges, because we were into different kinds of music.  And he’d have these rehearsals, performance rehearsals on Sunday afternoon.  At this particular time, I was living in the Pershing Hotel.  I came in one day, and he turned around and said to me… Because he’d been asking me to come down, but  I’d never managed to get down there, because I was doing something, or not doing, or too lazy to come down.  And he turned around, and he said… Everybody was looking at me.  He said, “Well, you finally decided to come down, huh?”  I tried to think of something to say: “Yeah.  Well, I heard you were going to walk the water today; I thought I’d have to come down and see this.”

But he could really write.  And one of the wonderful things about him, he took some musicians who couldn’t read too good, and taught them how to read, and made them stand up and be men.  And he had a lot of these people in his bands for years.  So he’s contributed a lot to the music.

TP:    Some for thirty years, and the band is still going strong, except for Count Basie and Mercer Ellington, I suppose.

CA:    That got to be quite an organization.  Because even now, they… They all stay together.  They’re a very close-knit group.  He owns a big house up in Philadelphia, and most of the band members live there.  So he has a way of keeping a band together.  And that’s what you must do if you’re going to have any longevity as a bandleader.  Because things aren’t going good all the time.  Because he kept the band together, but that doesn’t mean that they worked all the time in this country.  Sometimes they go to Europe, sometimes… They’ll work anywhere.  But he still manages to keep them together.  Keeping a band together, it gives the implication that they worked all the time and they worked regularly.  This is not the case.  He had other things going for him, and he found a way to keep his band together.

TP:    And I hear that band rehearses like crazy.  They rehearse all day long, every day to keep that discipline going.

CA:    Yeah!  Not only did it keep the discipline going, it kept a lot of people out of trouble, which was very important during those early days.  That’s very important.

TP:    “Young and Foolish,” as the song goes.

CA:    Yes.  What in the world were we thinking of?

TP:    [ETC.] …Barry Harris’s record For The Moment, on Uptown Records, recorded live at the Jazz Cultural Theatre.

CA:    Let me say one thing about this album.  I didn’t know Barry  had made this album, but I knew he’d made a lot of live albums.  So I heard a cut one day on the radio, and something told me… I was listening to the cloud sounds, and something told me this was made at the Jazz Cultural  Theatre.  I don’t know whether it was wishful thinking or what it was.  But when it turned out that it was, I was shocked.  I have quite a thing about ESP and the supernatural and stuff like that.  Anyway, it really surprised me.  Maybe I think everything’s at the Cultural Theatre, because that’s been a home for me.  It’s a place where I’ve been able to hold forth, thanks to Barry and… Well, I’m not going to talk much more about this, but…

TP:    The piece we’ll hear is “To Monk With Love.”  Barry Harris spent much time with Monk in the last years of Monk’s life, and absorbed a great deal, after having absorbed the vocabulary of Bud Powell.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Barry Harris, "To Monk With Love," C. Anderson with B. Harris & Choir, "Come Sunday."]

CA:    Barry Harris is so wonderful.  He’s a great player, he’s a great arranger, and talking about good with people… He’s a wonderful teacher.  He had these classes that they started at the Jazz Forum.  And putting this thing together was something amazing to watch.  There were days when we didn’t think it would work, human beings being what they are.  The choir consisted of professionals, semi-professionals and so on, all the musicians were professionals.  I had done some Symphony Space concerts with Barry before, but doing something in Town Hall was something special to us.  And the feeling about the whole thing, it was amazing.

One of the reasons I wanted to play this, forgive me, this was one of the greatest nights of my life, bar none — and I have Barry Harris to thank for it.  And I want him to hear it publicly.  I’m always thanking him, but it will never be enough.

TP:    [ETC.] The next two selections will focus on two tenor players who are very important to Chris, George Coleman and Clifford Jordan.  Both LPs feature Billy Higgins on drums, and he’s a close friend of Chris.

CA:    He certainly is.  He’s one of my very closest friends.  I remember asking him one day, “How many records have you made?”  He made an attempt to answer, and he scratched his head, and he said, “This is ridiculous.  I don’t know!”  He didn’t have the faintest idea he’s made so many, because he’s recorded with so many people.  But in the 1970′s he’s been the main man in Cedar Walton’s trios and quartets and quintets and so forth, but he has recorded and played with other people.  He is just the greatest drummer… He has so much taste.  He’s the personification of taste.  There’s not enough I can tell you about Billy Higgins.  And as a person… He’s the kind of person you go up to Grant’s Tomb, and people from all over show up from different facets of his life.  He’s another one of those people that just attracts people.

George Coleman?  Now, he’s one of the greatest phenomenons I’ve ever seen in my life on the saxophone.  I met him when he came to Chicago from Memphis, him and Booker Little and Frank Strozier — two of them came together and one came later. I don’t remember how it was.  I think Booker Little and Frank might have come first, and then George (I’m not sure) shortly behind.  It was a case of saying, “You go ahead; I’ll be right behind you,” I’m sure.

But George, the first gig we had the Roosevelt College in Chicago, I remember thinking, “This man is going to go somewhere; he’s really going to go somewhere.”  And he has so much talent.  Sometimes I think one of the only things that may have slowed him up when he was getting off the ground… He has such phenomenal technique, I’ve had people tell me… You know, he practiced a lot.  Like, Sonny Stitt in his early years was a practicer.  Every time you’d see him, he had his horn in his hand.  He didn’t have a natural talent for technique; he acquired it.  But George seems to have this natural technique, and understanding of harmony and the melodic line.  He understands it all.  And he’s become a great arranger.  He’s a complete musician.  He’s just not a saxophone player.  He’s just one of the most phenomenal men I’ve ever met.  And he stands tall, he knows how to take care of business.  He’s what he is.  He’s always been the same.

And he’ll be standing tall fifty years from now.  He’s the kind of musician (which is unusual for a musician), he gets up and runs in the morning.  He gets up at five o’clock.  He’s always been like this.  So you got a health nut that’s a great artist, too!  So he can sustain himself.  He got involved in circular breathing along the way.  So he had to keep himself in good shape.

[MUSIC: Eastern Rebellion (GC), "5/4 Thing," "Clifford Jordan, "John Coltrane."]

TP:    Chris, you say Bill Lee is the third man who makes you think “That’s the way the bass should be played.”

CA:    Yes.  And I said a lot more, because he got to be quite a part of my life.  All the great people that you know that play, there’s somebody you identify with more than others.  It has nothing to do with greatness.  See, he got to be a part of me.  I know what he’s about and he knows what I’m about.  I have to say he’s my favorite bass player in the world.  He has some albums out on Strata-East, big band things.  He’s a great arranger.  He’s just a great musician.  Poet… He does everything.  I could be talking all night about him, so we’ll have to skip that.

TP:    Clifford Jordan you’ve played with quite a bit.

CA:    Yes, quite a bit.  Cliff Jordan lived in Chicago, too, but I didn’t get to know him really until I got to New York.  I got to know him starting in the Seventies, and played with him a lot.  I’ve used up all the superlatives on George Coleman, but they apply to Clifford Jordan just as well, just as evenly.

TP:    One of the most distinctive sounds in all of Jazz.

CA:    He doesn’t just play Bebop.  He doesn’t play cliches.  He plays.  I’m proud to know him.  I can’t say much more than that.

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll close the show with someone who comes from a similar line to Chris Anderson, but took the music in a different direction in Chicago, and was responsible for fostering a whole school of creative music, improvised music, Jazz if you will, in Chicago in the 1960′s.  I’m speaking of Muhal Richard Abrams.

CA:    He taught musicians how to write their own music, arrange, arrange their own concerts, take care of their business.  He made complete musicians out of men.  He brought about a new breed of musician.  He really did.  That’s what this generation is about.

[MUSIC: "J.G."]

[-30-]

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Filed under Chicago, Chris Anderson, Interview, Piano, WKCR

An Interview with Alvin Fielder, July 2002

Following up on the previous post, which contained a couple of interviews with Kidd Jordan, here’s one with drummer Alvin Fielder that I initially conducted for what I’d hoped would be a Downbeat feature on the pair. DownBeat wanted to go shorter, and gave me permission at the time to run the verbatim transcript of each interview in Cadence. Now it’s time to post this on the blog. A  lot of valuable information.

[for a retrospective, read John Litweiler's wonderful Jazz Times article from 2001. For an oral history with Alvin Fielder, Sr., link here.

Alvin Fielder (7-1-02):

TP:    Let’s start with the standard boilerplate questions. You were born in '35.

FIELDER:  Yeah, on November 23rd, in Meridian, Mississippi.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Oh, back in '48, when I was in high school.  About 12-13.

TP:    Was your family musical?

FIELDER:  Yes.  My father had studied the cornet, and my mother was a violinist and a pianist.  My grandmother was a pianist, and my uncle was a clarinetist.

TP:    So playing music was something you did.

FIELDER:  Back then, practically everybody did.  Every household had a piano. Everybody did something -- poetry, dance or something.  Not in a professional way, but they just did it.  Well, TV wasn't out then, so I guess you had to pass the time.

TP:    What line of work were they in?

FIELDER:  My father was a pharmacist, and my grandmother worked for the Federal Government.  She was a home demonstration agent.  She worked all over the county. She would go out and teach the country women how to can and preserve foods, about sewing and various things. My grandfather was a brick mason and a stone mason, and he had a crew of about 15 or 20 men.

TP:    So these were people who had survived and built firm roots in the South.

FIELDER:  Oh, yes.  All the neighborhoods were pretty mixed.  When I say "mixed," I mean this.  On the corner we had the high school principal. Next to the principal was one of the town's biggest plumbers, and next to him was a butcher, and on the corner was a guy who owned a big tavern.  On our side of the street, we lived next door to a man who was a Colonel in the U.S. Army, a black guy, and on the corner was an apartment complex that my people owned.  We had a variety of people in our neighborhood.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Back in 1948, when I was 12 or 13.  The latter part of my freshman year. The school band had just started there.

TP:    It was segregation, separate and I'd imagine not very equal.

FIELDER:  Well, not really.  But we didn't know the difference.  I'd been in Mississippi all my life.  That was the way it was!  I'd done a little bit of traveling, not much.  I hadn't seen that much.

TP:    Was it only a school rudimental situation, or were you listening to records, too?

FIELDER:  I can remember early on I used to listen to people like Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins and Ella Fitzgerald.  Early on. There was a trumpet player who had been in World War II whose name was Jabbo Jones.  He came home, and he brought back all these records which he’d carry around to the neighbors' houses, and play -- all the Fats Navarro stuff and early Kenny Dorham and Dizzy...

TP:    Oh, so he brought bebop to town.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he was a real bebopper.  I happened to hear...it was a Savoy 78. "Koko" was on one side and on the other side was "London Fog," by Don Byas, which was valuable.  I think that's the first modern jazz thing I heard.  I was quite impressed with Max Roach's 32-bar drum solo, and I wanted to play drums after that.  I had studied piano from when I was about 6 or 7 up until about 10, but I didn't really like it, so I stopped playing piano and started playing baseball and football. Then I heard Max Roach and Charlie Parker, and that was the turning point of my life.

TP:    In what part of Mississippi is Meridian located?

FIELDER:  It's right on the Mississippi-Alabama line. Meridian had three ballrooms and 10 or 12 clubs. A lot of bands came through. One band was led by Red Adams, a tenor player who played out of the Coleman Hawkins thing. He had a trumpet player by the name of George Frank Sims[(?)], who had worked with Barnum & Bailey, who was a good friend of Louis Armstrong.  He could play.

TP:    So he was one of those carnival cats.

FIELDER:  Well, he had worked in the carnivals.  But he was a jazz player.  He even spent some time in New York.  At that time, his people owned two funeral homes. A well-to-do family.  He would work the country clubs and everything.  Everybody knew him.  He was a good dresser, always drove a Cadillac, had a lot of money, and just a real nice guy.  So I got a chance to play those jobs with him at the country club.

Then I was working with another group by the name of Lovie Lee and his Funky Three.  He was Muddy Waters’ piano player.  I saw him recently on a “BET on Jazz” thing that had been filmed six or seven years ago. He was a boogie woogie piano player, a blues player. I played those kinds of jobs.

TP:    So you were playing jobs in Meridian during high school.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I started playing jobs after the first year or so.  I wasn’t playing very much, but…

TP:    You could keep time.

FIELDER:  Yeah.  Keep time. I learned how to use the brushes right away, playing the dances and stuff, and of course I was playing the shuffles, too when I played in the blues clubs.

TP:    You didn’t want to get too abstract in those blues clubs.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah. But going back: In Meridian, everybody passed through.  B.B. King was through at least once a month.  Ray Charles came through once a month.  Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie — everybody came through town.

TP:    So on Dizzy’s southern tours, he’d stop at a ballroom in Meridian.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  And that’s the first time I saw Kenny Clarke.  I was 11 or 12.

TP:    Kenny Clarke left Dizzy in ’47, and Joe Harris took over. But they did a southern tour in ’46.

FIELDER:  I think it was called the Hep-Stations.  The man who brought them there is still alive.  He’s about 97-98, and I usually go by and see him.  His name is James Bishop.  He owns a funeral home.  He brought in all these bands — Buddy Johnson and Lionel Hampton.  I got a chance to meet a lot of these people.  I met Jymie Merritt very early, in ’49 or maybe ’50, in Meridian when he came through with B.B.’s band.

TP:    Which means you had a chance to observe professional drummers early on. So as a kid you learned your rudiments, and then started playing.

FIELDER:  I didn’t learn the rudiments right away, see.  I didn’t get into the rudiments until I got to New Orleans and Houston.

TP:    Didn’t you have a teacher?

FIELDER:  I had a teacher, but of course, the teachers were like clarinet players or trumpet players.  I enrolled at Xavier College in New Orleans in 1951, when I was 15, and started all over again. I got with Ed Blackwell, and Blackwell had me transcribing stuff.

TP:    Describe the New Orleans scene in the early ‘50s.

FIELDER:  I met Ellis Marsalis in ’52 when he was going to Dillard.  He became a good friend. He was playing tenor saxophone then, and a little piano.  His teacher was probably the first bebop pianist in New Orleans, Edward Frank.  I think he was a violinist in the beginning, and then he started playing piano. He was out of the Bud Powell thing.  He played his left hand things with some of fingers sometimes, and then he’d play with his elbows and stuff.  He could play!  He was part of the first of the bebop movement down in New Orleans, with Ellis and Alvin Batiste and Blackwell… There’s a drummer Ed Blackwell used to listen to…

TP:    Are you referring to Wilbert Hogan?

FIELDER:  That’s right.  Wilbert Hogan.  By the time I got down there, there were several fellows.  Harry Nance was a left-handed drummer, a very good reader.  He could write anything.  He wrote everything in 16th notes, and he would tie those notes together… Yeah, he was precise, a very good player. Then there was another drummer by the name of Tom Moore, who worked with Dave Bartholomew.

TP:    Earl Palmer was down there, too.

FIELDER:  Earl was there.  But Earl was playing more out of the Shelley Manne thing.  He could play, though. He was working the good jobs.  And he had a day job, too.  I think he worked for the railroad or something, and he was working probably five-six-seven nights a week.  Always working.  I had approached him about studying, and he referred me to Blackwell.  He said, “I just don’t have time, but there is a drummer here — Ed Blackwell.” That was how I met Ed.

TP:    So you approached Earl Palmer for lessons, and he sent you to Blackwell.  What was Blackwell like?  Did he have his modern sound, or a different type of sound?

FIELDER:  Blackwell was basically playing out of the Max Roach thing.  He was practicing every day with a tenor player and a trumpet player.  The trumpet player’s name was Billy White, who used to sound a lot like early Miles Davis, and the tenor player’s name was Booty.  That wasn’t his real name.  He’s in New York now, and he used to work with Idris Muhammad a lot.  They would be practicing all day long.  I’d go to pharmacy school, get out of school at 4 or 5 o’clock, and go right down to Blackwell’s house and watch them practice.  They were playing all of the early Charlie Parker things, “Buzzy” and things like that.  I didn’t hear them play “Confirmation” then.  I didn’t hear them play too many of Dizzy Gillespie’s things.  I didn’t hear them play Monk.  Mainly Bird’s things.

TP:    Things that Max was on.

FIELDER:  Yes, Max.  I really didn’t find out about Kenny Clarke until later.  I didn’t find out about Roy Haynes until later.  Blakey I found out about in ’52.

TP:    Were you dual-tracking, or devoting most of your time to studies?

FIELDER:  To studies.  Blackwell was the first one to put me in a book.  It was a rudimental book, the “100 Rudimental Drum Solos” by Ludwig, if I’m not mistaken.  That was just for the hands and to get me disciplined.  That’s what we did.  I was with Blackwell for about maybe a year-and-a-half, until I transferred from Xavier to Texas Southern in ’53.  I met Blackwell probably after being in New Orleans for half a year or three-quarters of a year, and then all of the second year.

TP:    Was there any scene to speak of for modern-thinking musicians in New Orleans then?

FIELDER:  It was more or less a mixture, because there was a lot of rhythm-and-blues. But the rhythm-and-blues at that time was different than the rhythm-and-blues is now, because all of the rhythm-and-blues bands had a bunch of bebop players playing in them.  All of them!  All the drummers I heard — people like Tom Moore, Harry Nance, June Gardner — either came out of the Max Roach or the Blakey thing.  They were playing the shuffles, but they were hip shuffles, not like the backbeat type shuffles.  That was a help after I got into Texas.  I ran into a trombone player there by the name of Plummer Davis, and I played in Plummer’s band.  I don’t know how I got that job.  I took Richie Goldberg’s place.  Richie Goldberg was a drummer out of Houston who went on to work with Bud Powell, Ray Charles, and with Roland Kirk’s band. Good bebop player. He was a drum-maker… He made all of Billy Higgins’ drums in later life.

I got a chance to study with a lot of drummers in Texas.  Every time they’d come to town, I’d be there. I met G.T. Hogan, a very good drummer who had worked in Earl Bostic’s band with Benny Golson and Coltrane and Tommy Turrentine.  Another drummer by the name of Jual Curtis, J.C. Curtis.  He used to play with Al Grey’s group with Bobby Hutcherson, and also Wilbur Ware.  I got a chance to practice with Jual all the time.

All the bands were coming through. When Gene Ammons came through, I would practice with his drummer, whose name was George “Dude” Brown.  I got a chance to spend a lot of time with him.  James Moody would come through and he had Clarence Johnston.  That’s how I had a chance to learn my paradiddles; he taught it to me the easy way.  Then Bennie Green would come through with Charlie Rouse and Paul Chambers and a drummer from Newark, New Jersey, by the name of Chink Wilson.

TP:    So you picked up this and you picked up that and you picked up something else.

FIELDER:  Right.  And I would write everything down, and I’d write down all their books.  Clarence Johnston would come through with a trunk-full of books on the road.  He could read his butt off.  George “Dude” Brown couldn’t read at all, but a swinging drummer.  I also studied with Herbie Brochstein, the guy who owns Pro-Mark drumsticks.  I was one of his students, and so was Stix Hooper.

TP:    So you were a very analytical young guy.

FIELDER:  I think too much.  But it all paid off.  I’ve got just books of things.  I’ve got books of Max Roach’s four-bar solos and Roy Haynes’ extended solos — stuff like that.  I don’t even look at them now.  Well, I look at portions of them, but that’s all.

TP:    So you’re in Houston, you graduate Texas Southern, and then what’s your path to Chicago?

FIELDER:  I graduated in ’56. I had taken the State Board of Pharmacy and passed it, but I was 19, so they wouldn’t allow me to practice pharmacy any place except with my father until I was 21.  I went back to Mississippi, and just lolled around, until I decided to go back to grad school.  I went to the University of Illinois, the Medical Center Branch on South Wood, studying manufacturing pharmacy.  In the meantime, I met Sun Ra…

TP:    Did you have family in Chicago, like a lot of people from Mississippi?

FIELDER:  I had an uncle and cousins, and a lot of my mother’s family.

TP:    So you had some roots there.

FIELDER:  I hadn’t been there.  But I had a lot of kinfolk there.

Let me tell you about my first night in Chicago.  I told my cousin, “Look, I’d like to go out and hear some music!”  He said, “Fine.”  So we went down on 63rd Street.  This first club I went in was on Stony Island between 62nd and 63rd (I can’t remember the name), and it was Lester Young, Johnny Griffin, Norman Simmons, Victor Sproles, and a drummer by the name of Jump Jackson.  He was big in the union politics.  He could play time, but he really wasn’t one of the premier drummers there.  He wasn’t like Dorel Anderson or Marshall Thompson or Vernell Fournier or James Slaughter or Wilbur Campbell.  But he got the job!  I thought, “Oh God!  If these guys are using this drummer, I know I’m going to be able to work.”  So we sat, we listened.

Then we drove to a club named Swingland on Cottage Grove in between 62nd and 63rd.  Lo and behold, I go in Swingland, I hear this BAD music, unbelievably terrible.  Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, Bill Lee, Wilbur Campbell, and Jodie Christian. They’re playing “Cherokee,” Wilbur Campbell asleep on the drums, but I mean, BURNING.  Oh, man!  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I had never heard anything that bad in all of my life.  I sat there and I listened, man, and I got nervous.  I had to leave the club.  Of course, I came back the next night.  But I went down the street, and at the Kitty-Kat Club there was Andrew Hill, a drummer by the name of James Slaughter, who was really burning, too, and Malachi Favors.

So that was my first night out.  Then, look here, I haven’t been the same since.  Believe me, I heard three different types of drummers.  Wilbur was a musician and a beautiful drummer.  He was more or less out of that Elvin Jones thing from the ’50s.  And I heard some Roy Haynes then.  I didn’t hear much Max Roach or Kenny Clarke in it.  A beautiful touch.  James Slaughter was a rudimental drummer, the type of drummer who would go on a set and say, “Well, I’m going to play the drag paradiddle throughout this whole set, and see what I can do with it.”  He would turn it inside-out, and play it off the cymbal or the snare toms.  Beautiful cat.  He showed me a lot about the rudiments, and I really appreciate it.  I talk to him all the time still.  He isn’t playing any more.  He has arthritis.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you start to get yourself into the scene.

FIELDER:  Right.  I started playing around, and met a tenor player named John Tinsley.  John was out of the bebop thing, although he wasn’t like Nicky Hill or George Coleman, any of those players.  But he would always keep a quartet together, and had a good group. I was working a dance thing with him on the West Side, and lo and behold, the pianist was Sun Ra.  I’d never heard of Sun Ra.  Sunny and I started talking.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mississippi.  So he said, “Look, man, I bet you can play some shuffles.  I’d like for you to come by and practice with me.”

So I did.  Went down to this big auditorium.  I don’t even remember where it was.  All these people were there.  James Spaulding was on it, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Hobart Dotson, a trombone player named Bo Bailey who was one of Julian Priester’s teachers, and Ronnie Boykins.  I see nine or ten other people sitting out front. I didn’t know it then, but they were drummers.  Bugs Cochran was out there, and several more drummers I didn’t know.  They called a tune, and I played it, then he called another one and I played it.  I thought I was playing well, but as I look back, I’m sure that I wasn’t.  Anyway, Sunny invited me to join the band.  So I did.  He was using two other drummers then, sometimes together and sometimes not — Bugs Cochran and Robert Barry.  I guess I listened more than I played.

TP:    Was that your first time in a situation where you were outside the norm?

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I was way above my head.  Everything was way above me.  John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, all those guys.  But it got to be interesting, and…

TP:    How regularly did you play with him?  I know he was rehearsing all the time, but not gigging all the time.

FIELDER:  I was with him part of ’59 and’60. We’d play on weekends at various places.  I guess we played more at the Queen’s Mansion than any place.  But we would play all over, on the West Side… Of course, the money wasn’t that great.  But then again, as I look back, I should have been paying him.

But from that, I was working with Ronnie Boykins’ trio. I was working in Spaulding’s quintet.  He had a group with Bill Lee and a trumpet player by the name of Dick Whitsol.  I just wonder where he is now.  I can’t remember the piano player.  We used to play a lot of the colleges.

TP:    So basically, taking you up to the early ’60s, you’re playing with Sun Ra, playing gigs that are more straight-up with people from Sun Ra… Were you doing other things?

FIELDER:  I was working with several groups.  I was working with a tenor player by the name of Cozy Eggleston.  Steve McCall was working with him some; DeJohnette was working with him, too.  And I thought of the drummer’s name who influenced Jack.  His name was Arthur McKinney.  We all played around.  But going from Sun Ra, though:  One summer I went to Denver with a saxophonist named Earl Evell(?) and a pianist named Daniel Ripperton. Actually we were going out to California, stopped over in Denver while passing through, and met a bass player named Sam Gill who was working in the Denver Symphony. He used to work with Randy Weston; he was in school with Gunther Schuller and Max and John Lewis. He was telling me he and Richard Davis had gone out and auditioned, and he got the job.  He was a great player.  We were working after-hours.  We did that for six months.  That was in 1961, I think.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question.  Obviously, the way you’re hearing music is starting to change, or there’s something in you that’s looking for something different…

FIELDER:  Well, not at that time.  I was still tied up in Max Roach.  Max was like my Daddy, Granddaddy, Great-Granddaddy, everything.  I’d heard Blakey on those early Miles Davis things down in New Orleans, “Tempus Fugit,” the ones with Jimmy Heath and J.J. Johnson.  And I’d heard Kenny Clarke.  Wasn’t that impressed with Klook at that time, until I learned better.  Roy Haynes?  I heard Roy, but I didn’t really hear it.  But early on, in Chicago, ’60-’61, I was still listening to Max.

TP:    Well, Sun Ra was always swinging at that time.  There comes a point where you go from a notion of swinging and keeping a pulse to a notion of time being something different.

FIELDER:  Interacting and stuff, yeah. But I hadn’t reached that level musically.

TP:    For instance, Jack DeJohnette is someone who would feel very comfortable playing both time-based things and bebop, and then also going into other areas.

FIELDER:  Jack was always very loose.  I can remember him playing at sessions at the Archway, where a lot of drummers came, and Jack was always the loosest of them all.  You can attribute that to Jack being a pianist, knowing the music, knowing how the changes were falling.  Most drummers know the structure of tunes.  One of the things I try to teach my students is how to recognize the II-V-I turnbacks, the cycle of fourths, and what a minor-III chord is, the sound of the VI, and things like this.  But Jack was a pianist.  He knew all of that then, whereas Steve McCall didn’t.  I was somewhat familiar with it, but I didn’t really know it.

TP:    I’m trying to get at what brought you from a swinging drummer to the person who is playing on Sound.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] All right, we’ll get to that. In 1962 I spent about eight months in New York.  Pat Patrick showed me around. I had a chance to play with Bernard McKinney, Tommy Turrentine, Wilbur Ware, all of the beboppers. But it was a little clique thing; all the musicians from Boston, Detroit and Chicago played together every day.  During the summer.  Tony Williams had slipped away from home and came to New York to stay with Clifford Jarvis. Clifford Jarvis was at all the things, and another drummer from Boston, George Scott.  I was playing every day. I was listening to Billy Higgins and Elvin by this time, a lot to Philly Joe and to another drummer by the name of Arthur Edgehill. I went back to Chicago later that year, and somehow got with Muhal. Muhal had a trio with Donald Garrett, and I replaced Steve McCall in the trio.

TP:    What sort of gigs were you playing?

FIELDER:  We were rehearsing. We did a lot of practicing.  Then he brought in a tenor player by the name of Bob Pulliam, who lived on the West Side.  Good tenor player.  I don’t know what’s happened to him. I first started to loosen up after meeting Muhal.  Roscoe Mitchell came to a rehearsal I was doing with Muhal, Kalaparusha and Lester Lashley. He just sat and listened, and asked me could I play free. [LAUGHS] I said, “Yeah, I play free.”  So he invited me to a rehearsal with Freddie Berry and Malachi Favors.  That’s how the original Roscoe Mitchell Quartet started.  Of course, then I was still playing like Max, Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and trying to play Elvin’s cymbal patterns.

I think the turning point in my life was one night when I was at the Plugged Nickel — Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Howard Johnson, Beaver Harris.  Sun Ra had always told me, “Al, loosen up.”  I didn’t know what he meant, really. I wasn’t familiar with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille at that time.  When I heard Beaver, I said, “This is what it is!”  It was like he was playing time, but there was no time. He was playing all across the barlines. If they were playing 4, he might play 4-1/2, another cat plays 3-1/2… It was like a conversation.  It wasn’t like 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, BAM.  It was just flowing. I developed a philosophy there that I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible. That way, it can all blend in.  Billy Higgins is a good example.  Andrew Cyrille is a good example.  So is Elvin.

My drumming went in a different direction for a long while.  Then I was tight, I guess.  None of the bebop cats would call me any more, once I started working with Muhal and Roscoe.  Of course, the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet led into various groups.  We tried various people, like Leroy Jenkins for a while, and Gene Dinwiddie, but that didn’t work out.  Somehow, we got Lester Lashley, and after Freddie Berry left, Lester Bowie came in.

TP:    Still, there’s a process of transition going on.  Because Sound doesn’t sound like anything being done at the time.

FIELDER:  It wasn’t.

TP:    It sounds wholly unto itself, it’s totally realized and virtuosically played. Yet you say in ’64, you were playing more or less straight-ahead.

FIELDER:  In the beginning, I heard Ornette and Eric Dolphy in Roscoe, which I guess is conservative when you think of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright.

TP:    I don’t know if “conservative” is the word I would think of…

FIELDER:  Maybe the word is wrong. Omit that word. [LAUGHS] Insert another word.

TP:    Well, the music of Ornette and Eric Dolphy and Roscoe has form, and there’s very little in Albert Ayler and none to speak of in Frank Wright.

FIELDER:  Yes.  But see, the first compositions we played in Roscoe’s group were very much like Ornette’s music.  “Outer Space” and… I can’t even think of the tunes.  He’s still playing those tunes.  And they were actually swinging.

TP:    Would you say that Roscoe in ’64-’65 was on a world-class level as a musician?

FIELDER:  Look, let me tell you something. I remember Joseph Jarman, and all of the guys in the AACM.  Only a few players could compare to Roscoe.  Of course, Muhal.  At that time, Jodie Christian, of course.  Fred Anderson.  But I do believe that Anthony Braxton wouldn’t be who he is today if he hadn’t heard Roscoe.  Joseph Jarman either.  Absholom Ben’Sholomo was another one of the saxophonists in the AACM.  Now, Braxton’s playing always amazed me.  Because when I first heard him, man, I heard a lot of Paul Desmond!  He was swinging, but it was a different type swinging.  When he got around Roscoe, his swing got a little deeper.  But it was never as deep as Roscoe’s. Roscoe was the most advanced saxophonist in the AACM by a long shot.  He influenced ALL of the saxophonists.  Roscoe was in the middle at that time.  He would always tell the rhythm section to play straight, but of course, the front line could play totally free.

TP:    He did that in the Art Ensemble, too, with Moye playing a straight four swing beat.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he had me doing that.  And when I left the group, I formed a trio with Anthony Braxton and Charles Clark.  We used to play opposite Roscoe a lot. Then the group expanded into a sextet, with Leo Smith and Kalaparusha and Leroy Jenkins — trumpet, alto, tenor, violin, bass and drums.

TP:    Did that group have the seeds of that trio where there’s very little kind of pulse, or were you the pulse?

FIELDER:  That group swung a lot.  We were In and Out.  It was very flexible.

TP:    With Charles Clark, I can imagine.  Tell me what it was like to play with him.

FIELDER:  Oh, unbelievably easy.  It was floating.  In a way, it’s like working with William Parker now, but Charles was lighter.  William has a pulse… Oh, he’s one of my favorite bass players, along with Henry Franklin and Malachi Favors. There’s an electric bass player in New Orleans, Elton Heron, who’s a beautiful player.  I just finished a record date with William and Elton, and they played beautifully together.

TP:    I realize that things were changing in Chicago during that time, and straight-up jazz was on a decline.  Places were closing down.  But suppose someone like Sonny Stitt had called you, if Ajaramu couldn’t make it, given the way you were thinking at the time, would you have done that type of gigs?

FIELDER:  I played with Gene Ammons and Bennie Green and Pat Patrick and Sun Ra and Malachi Favors.

TP:    Right before the AACM years?

FIELDER:  Yes.

TP:    So you weren’t rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Oh, definitely not.

TP:    Because a lot of the people who were taking things out were rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Bebop has always been a challenge, and it still is.  Bebop is the foundation for everything I play now.  Even when I’m playing totally free, my phrases are going to be bebop phrases, but I might play them looser, slower, or faster.  I have developed a way to apply the rudiments to bebop and to so-called “avant-garde,” free music. I think it can be done.  I have tapes of probably 90% of the concerts I’ve done since the ’60s  I go back, I listen, and see what I have to leave out or didn’t play.  But of course, the Chicago years were the turning point.

TP:    Why do you think that sensibility was emerging at that time, to incorporate so many different approaches to music into an improvisational aesthetic?

FIELDER:  It was mainly because we weren’t working. Where could Joseph Jarman work?  So we had to set up our own network.  And the thing was to play original music.  It wasn’t to play Charlie Parker’s music.  It wasn’t to play Coltrane’s music.  That was part of the AACM bylaws.

Everybody was playing in different situations.  Muhal was working with everybody!  He had worked in Woody Herman’s band and in Max’s band, and was playing all types of jobs around town.  Jodie was, too.  I was playing everything. I was playing barroom music with Cozy Eggleston, and… But some of the musicians weren’t really working at that time.  I just think that we all took on Muhal as a father figure.  Muhal is a genius.  Genius!  If any Chicago player were going to get the MacArthur Award, it should have gone to Muhal.  See, Braxton is a beautiful player, and a very smart fellow, but I think it should have gone to Roscoe before him.  But first and foremost, it should have gone to Muhal.  He was everybody’s teacher.  Everybody’s.  I can remember MJT+3, when you were dealing with Booker Little and George Coleman, Bob Cranshaw and them… Muhal was the strong man in that group in the beginning.

When I really made the change, I had no alternatives. I either had to play one way or the other.  There were different camps at that time, and being able to play free with some kind of control… I guess I’m not like Sunny Murray, who is just a creative force.  I think of Sunny Murray the same way I think of Max Roach in the music.  Because when you think about it, all modern drummers come from four sources.  They either come from Max, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes or Kenny Clarke.  Kenny Clarke first, of course.  And the newer drummers, the free drummers, the avant-garde drummers, all come from Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris.  I don’t know why, but they come in threes and fours.  Andrew Cyrille I like to think of as the Max Roach of the free drumming.  I think of Sunny Murray as the Roy Haynes of the free drummers.  I think of Milford Graves as the Art Blakey of the free drummers.  And I think of Beaver Harris as the Kenny Clarke of the free drummers.

TP:    Pittsburgh, there you go.

FIELDER:  That’s right.  And Beaver Harris studied with Kenny Clarke.

TP:    Chicago was isolated enough that you could develop your own music, but sufficiently big and cosmopolitan that what you did had to be on a very high level of sophistication, and there was enough other artistic activity to provide a template against which to bounce off.

FIELDER:  And see, I didn’t know it then, but there was a drummer there by the name of Ike Day.  Ike Day — I guess indirectly — was an influence.  I was listening to Wilbur Campbell also, and Wilbur comes from Ike Day.  I was listening to Vernell Fournier.  Vernell came from Ike Day.  I was listening to Dorel.  Dorel was from Ike Day.  And the stories I’ve heard about Ike Day… I used to sit down and just talk to Wilbur Campbell and Vernell and to Slaughter about him.  Somebody needs to write a book on Ike Day, really.

TP:    Andrew Hill described him as sort of layering rhythms in the African manner.

FIELDER:  Stacking the rhythm.  Yes.  But the bottom line was that he reminded them all of Big Sid Catlett.

TP:    He was a great show drummer, apparently.  Buddy Rich dug him.

FIELDER:  Yeah, Buddy and Art Blakey, when they’d come to town, they’d want to see Ike.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you are the drummer on one of the landmark records of the mid-’60s.  Sound is kind of like Shape of Jazz To Come because it doesn’t seem to have any antecedents.

FIELDER:  It was done at the very same time as Unit Structures.  That was different than the Chicago way of playing…and I guess the New York way!

TP:    But you’re the drummer on this, and then you leave Chicago when, in 1969?

FIELDER:  August 1969.

TP:    Take me from Sound up to 1969.

FIELDER:  Okay.  At the time we recorded Sound, I was just about getting ready to leave the group, because Roscoe and Lester Bowie had brought in another little drummer, and we were rehearsing with him… I can’t think of his name.

TP:    Philip Wilson?

FIELDER:  No, Philip came in a little later, after a guy who was also from St. Louis.  I can’t think of his name.  So it was three drummers sometimes, and we had started to play the little instruments a lot, and I wasn’t playing the drums that much.  Actually, nobody was.  Everybody was playing everything else.  I felt the challenge had left that group.  I wanted to play.  I wanted to swing.  I wanted to develop in a certain way.  I was listening to Elvin Jones, listening more to Blackwell also, and to Billy Higgins constantly. I was listening to Wilbur Campbell a lot, too.  So I felt I had to leave.  Anthony Braxton had just gotten back in town, and I approached him and we formed the trio together, and then the sextet I told you about. We were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 a night…

TP:    But you weren’t exclusively a musician.

FIELDER:  I was working in pharmacy.  I was married.  I started working in pharmacy again six months before I got married.  When did Kennedy get killed?

TP:    November 1963.

FIELDER:  Well, I started working six months before then.  But I wasn’t working full time.  I was working to make enough money to play.  But we were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 apiece.  I suggested to the guys, “Why don’t we approach the club-owner, rent the club and take all of the door and pay ourselves?”  They didn’t want to do it.  So I left the group, and turned the drum chair over to Thurman Barker.  Then we formed another group, Fred Anderson, Lester Lashley and me; that was called The Trio.

TP:    Lester Lashley was playing bass?

FIELDER:  He was playing bass, cello and trombone.  Very good group.  Michael Cuscuna reviewed us in Coda.  He loved it.  I was in that group until I left in August of ’69.  I can remember when everybody was getting ready to go to France, Roscoe and them; they had a concert out at University of Chicago, and Philip couldn’t make the job, so I played it.  That was the last job they played there.  I left two or three days after they did.

TP:    They went to Europe and you went back to Mississippi.

FIELDER:  Back to Mississippi, yeah. [LAUGHS] And after I got back to Mississippi, I got involved in politics, with the Republican Party and stuff.

TP:    The Republican Party?

FIELDER:  Well, they enabled me to bring in Roscoe, Kalaparusha and all the AACM people, and Clifford Jordan and Muhal and everybody!  I used to work out of the White House.  I worked out of the White House for two-and-a-half years.

TP:    You mean in the Nixon White House?

FIELDER:  Yes.

TP:    Who did you know there?

FIELDER:  I was on the Executive Committee of Odell County.  My grandfather had been in the Black-and-Tan Party.  He had been the State Treasurer. My father was a Republican.  My whole family.

TP:    I guess that was an act of rebellion in Mississippi at that time.

FIELDER:  Well, in Mississippi, you have to remember that Blacks couldn’t even talk about joining the Democratic Party back in the teens and the ’20s and the ’30s.  That was like a death wish.  So all blacks then were Republican.  Since I was raised up in that type house…

TP:    Were they able to vote?

FIELDER:  No.  You had to pay a poll tax, I think $2 a year or something.  I have all of those records.  I’m in the process of putting the house back together like it was back in 1913.

TP:    So you went to Mississippi, and your family connections were such that you immediately stepped into a very strong community role and were able to make things like this happen.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I belonged to everything — the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, ACLU. I don’t belong to anything now.  Anyway, I was able to get grants from National Endowment, from Mississippi Arts Commission… I worked most of my concerts at the Meridian Public Library.  Roscoe and Malachi Favors and John Stubblefield worked the first job. Stubb and I had worked in Chicago, too, in a group with Leroy Jenkins — violin, tenor and drums.  That was a great group.  So that’s what I did after I left Chicago.

TP:    You had your pharmacy business, you expanded the pharmacy business, and you played.

FIELDER:  Right.

TP:    How did you meet Kidd Jordan?

FIELDER:  I met him through Cliff Jordan.  I was working with Cliff a lot in a quartet — tenor-piano-bass-drums.  Cliff had come to Mississippi, and I’d play all the Mississippi dates with him.  I had written a tune for Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Billy Higgins, and we always played it.  Of course, Cliff went back to New York. In 1976, Kenny Clarke had come through town, and he was going to Chicago to work the Jazz Showcase for a week with Clifford, Al Haig and Wilbur Ware.  Clifford told Klook about me.  So Kenny Clarke called me at the drugstore.  “This is Kenny Clarke.” “Come on, man. Whoever you are, don’t play with me.”  “No, I’m Kenny Clarke, and Cliff Jordan told me about you.  I’d like to invite you up to Chicago.”  So he sent me a ticket, and I went to the Jazz Showcase and watched him play. Kenny Clarke was a very slick, busy drummer, but very quiet, with a touch unlike any other drummer.  Actually, Philly Joe Jones played a lot of Kenny’s stuff, but louder, and he played a lot of Max’s stuff and Blakey’s stuff.

Anyway, Cliff and I got to be very close friends. Cliff went to New Orleans, and did a clinic at Kidd’s school, Southern University of New Orleans. He called me and said, “Look, Al, there’s a saxophone player down there who’s a helluva saxophonist, but he’s getting ready to stop playing.  Go down there, talk to him, and play with him.”  So one Sunday I drove down with a bass player named London Branch (he’d been in Chicago; good bass player), and we looked for Kidd all day long.  Couldn’t find him until 6 o’clock that evening.  We sat and talked for a minute, and Kidd said, “Let’s go play.”  So we went out to the school, just the three of us, and we played til about 9 or 10 o’clock that night.  Kidd said, “Man, look here, I haven’t this much fun in a long time.”  I said, “Neither have I, man.  I’ve been playing some, but this is… Wshew!  What we need to do is just come back down here.  We’ll be back next weekend.”  When we came back down, Kidd had gotten together a tenor saxophonist, Alvin Thomas; Clyde Kerr on trumpet, a percussionist (I can’t think of his name); and another saxophonist by the name of Curt Ford.  We played all that Sunday.  God, we just played-played-played.  I’ve got everything on tape.  When we went back the next week, it was a quintet — Clyde, Kidd, London, Alvin Thomas and me.  We brought in some arrangements.  Then we decided to name the group Improvisational Arts Quintet, to keep it together and start playing.”

TP:    It seems the operative assumptions of the saxophonists you played with in Chicago were a little different than Kidd’s.

FIELDER:  They were.  You must remember, a lot of it is environmental.  Kidd is from Crowley, Louisiana — Cajun country.  I don’t know of any other saxophonist in the South who plays like Kidd.  Now, I have played jobs where Kidd has sounded like Johnny Griffin.  And he’ll play Johnny Griffin tunes.  At the end, though, he’ll stop and laugh — heh-heh-heh.  He loves Johnny Griffin.

TP:    But he just can’t bring himself to go there.

FIELDER:  He chooses not to go there.  Our trio with pianist Joel Futterman… We have some unbelievable tapes.  Joel is from Chicago.  He once had a quartet with Jimmy Lyons and Richard Davis; they did an album, and it took them three and four months to learn the music he wrote.  After that, Joel said, “I don’t ever want to play any more written music.”  He’s a beautiful pianist.  Joel is bad!  We’re going to put some of our tapes.

I guess Joel and Kidd reached a point where they just don’t want to play any more written music.  However, Kidd is very versatile.  Have you heard that date with Kidd and Alan Silva and William Parker?  Well, he’s done another one with Bill Fischer.  Bill Fischer is another genius.  He was my college roommate. He did a lot of writing for the McCoy Tyner Big Band and Cannonball.  He’s from Jackson, Mississippi.  He was a tenor player, and switched to cello.  He and Kidd did an entirely written thing, with Bill playing synthesizer and Kidd on alto.  Kidd had music stretched out over rooms, and he read it all. Kidd is an excellent saxophonist.  He studied a fellow by the name of Fred Hemke at Northwestern .

TP:    Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis have both talked about Kidd as a teacher.  Donald said Kidd told him about his intervallic concept.

FIELDER:  Yes.  And he plays all the reeds — clarinet, flute, alto, tenor, soprano, sopranino.  He plays everything.

TP:    To me, his musicianship is beyond question.  My question is why the imperative to play on the tabula rasa all the time? And do you feel that you can get there consistently, or is there a sort of predictability within the process?

FIELDER:  In working with Kidd, I always am surprised.  Because Kidd works it off a different angle. He’ll work off a cymbal. He’ll work off of a rim-shot. He’ll work off of a tom-tom sound.

TP:    Does he listen mostly to the drums?

FIELDER:  He listens to everybody, all at the same time.  His ear is phenomenal.  I’ve heard him play opposite Brotzmann and Fred Anderson and Frank Wright.  Kidd is a chameleon, with all this technique and knowledge; he can go anywhere, at any time, at the drop of a hat.  I’ve been extremely fortunate to play with saxophonists like Roscoe… Cleanhead Vinson was another great player!  An unbelievable violinist.  Most people don’t know it, but he played good bebop violin.  When I played with him in ’55 and a portion of ’56, his saxophone skills were out there.  He played all kinds of ways.

TP:    The musicality isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the mindset.  You’re a guy who came up in the South in an environment where metrical swinging was the imperative at all times. Again, the question is becoming more pronounced because of the climate of the times.  The younger musicians aren’t grabbing onto that sensibility.  They’re blending it all with other things, picking and choosing from styles and periods.  Why does the tabula rasa remain the main imperative?

FIELDER:  I think there is something even past this.  Younger students often ask me, “Is there a formula?”  There is no formula.  I think that in order to play this music, you’ve got to have a working knowledge of bebop and a working knowledge of swing — of all music — and be able incorporate all of it. I told how the drummer Harry Nance would break down everything in 16th notes and tie it all in.  With so-called free music, I can analyze everything. Everything I play, I can write. I used to sit down with Billy Hart and do that.  Every time I talk to DeJohnette, the first thing he brings up is, “Are you still writing everything, Al?”  No, I don’t any more.  I’ve gotten past that.  I’m writing it in my head, and I play it.  Really, I still hear everything in 1/1 time.  Everything is one.  However, you have your phrases, your fallbacks.  If you listen to my solos, even in the so-called free music, they are all based on two-measure phrases, four-measure phrases, eight-measure phrases.

TP:    Small cells.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I’ve made it my business to track rhythms, going back to Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, O’Neil Spencer, Kaiser Marshall, Cuba Austin.  I like to track things.  I did a study of Art Taylor.  Most people think Art Taylor is from Max Roach and Art Blakey, but he’s not.  He’s from J.C. Heard.  J.C. Heard has just a branch of Big Sid Catlett.  He took just one little branch.  That’s like Al Foster.  Al Foster took a branch of Tony Williams, and he’s working that into his own thing.  Everybody took a little branch of somebody.  I like to listen to drummers play, and I say, “Oh yeah, that’s a pattern I heard such-and-such a person play on such-and-such a record. Really, there’s nothing new.

TP:    It’s like you have this enormous Rolodex of rhythms going on in your mind and you cross-reference them at any given moment.

FIELDER:  On the spur of the moment.  And I go through so many books.  I’m going through a book now, Charlie Wilcox’s “Rollin’ In Rhythm.”  He has a study on a five-stroke roll, a six-stroke roll, and the extended rolls and stuff.  I can work one page of that, and I can play gigs for a month.  If you listen to it, you’ll hear Max, you’ll hear Philly Joe…

For instance, I went in the studio with a quintet about two or three years ago.  I decided to play all Monk and Charlie Parker things.  We were playing “Confirmation” and “Little Rootie Tootie” and so on.  The tapes sounded great. I make it my business to be able to play a strong cymbal pattern that way.  I’ll play the same cymbal pattern playing looser music, but I loosen it up.  I combine what I would play on the snare drums on both my cymbal and snare drum.  And it fits perfectly.

I used to practice with a lot of drummers, but I don’t any more.  I can’t find drummers to practice with.  Everybody is stuck on doing this particular thing. I think the rhythms of, say, 1994-95 and up, tend to be a little bit herky-jerky, whereas the rhythms in the ’40s and the ’50s flowed a lot more.  That went on through the period of Sunny Murray.  I don’t think the younger drummers have really listened to Sunny Murray.  Sunny has so much to say!  Andrew Cyrille I think is just as important as Tony Williams on the shape of drums…on the shape of musical drums.  You have drummers and you have musical drummers. Andrew is a musical drummer.  Sunny Murray is a rough musical drummer.  Sunny would say his music is controlled chaos.  I like to think of Andrew Cyrille as being the same way, really controlled.  Andrew is a whiz.  DeJohnette is a whiz.  Billy Hart is a whiz.  These are the drummers, outside of Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin, Blakey, Philly Joe and so forth… I hear younger drummers like Billy Drummond and Kenny Washington (fabulous drummer) or Carl Allen, Herlin Riley… I hear these drummers as drummers that could have played in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s quite easily.  But I’m hearing a newer rhythm in the drummers coming up. I’m not saying it’s bad.  But I think jazz has lost its street thing. I don’t mean the New Orleans street thing. I’m talking about the street thing that Philly Joe Jones had.

TP:    You’re talking about the attitude.

FIELDER:  Yes.  See, if you listen to the drummers from Boston as compared to the drummers from Philadelphia, to the drummers from Pittsburgh and Washington, the Chicago drummers, the Midwest drummers, the St. Louis drummers… There was a drummer named Joe Charles from St. Louis who was phenomenal drummers, sort of like Wilbur Campbell.  Wilbur was a little more disciplined than Joe.  But if you had to pick a St. Louis drummer, Joe would be the one.  And there’s one in every town.  Wherever you go, you’re going to find somebody.  In Pittsburgh, there’s Roger Humphries.  In Philadelphia, Mickey Roker and Edgar Batemen are still there, Edgar Bateman is still there. But Joe Charles had rhythm above that.  Billy Higgins told me about him.  Kenny Washington always talks about him.  Elvin talks about him.  If you can imagine a drummer with Kenny Clarke’s cymbal beat, Elvin Jones’ left foot-right foot-left hand, and a person who thinks like Sunny Murray, you’ve got your sound.  He made one record.  It was called “Buck Nekkid.”  You need to get it.  It’s BAD.  He was Ronnie Burrage’s teacher, I think, and Philip Wilson’s teacher.  A guy who never left town.  Guy who had a big family, worked in a meat market, and he worked with Grant Green and Jimmy Forrest and that was it.  But BAD.

But there’s somebody in every town.  There’s G.T. Hogan.  Billy Boswell up in San Francisco.  Other drummers in Los Angeles.  They all have a different rhythm.  I can tell a Boston drummer from a Midwest drummer.  I can tell a Midwest drummer from a West Coast drummer.  No matter who he is; that includes Larence Marable or whomever.  But it’s the same way.  You can usually tell a ’40s drummer from a ’50s drummer from a ’60s drummer, and so forth.  And of course, there’s further breakdowns.

But what worries me now about the drummers is they don’t have that roughness about them. If you listen to Philly Joe and Sunny Murray, there’s precision, but a roughness, too.

TP:    Did you perceive in the ’60s — and today, if you did see it that way in the ’60s — what you were doing as something that was avant-garde?

FIELDER:  I didn’t think of it as that.  I knew that I heard something different being played, but I just thought of it as an extension of bebop.  Most of the cats could go either way.  Most of them could.  I didn’t say all of them.

TP:    How did you see the music of the ’60s in relation to the culture and politics of the time?

FIELDER:  I’ve always associated changes in the music with world events, and I saw this as part of the Vietnam conflict and the Civil Rights movement.  But I never thought of myself as trying to be… It was more like a challenge for me to play some of the things that I was playing, and I wanted to see how I could work them out — from a coordination standpoint and a musical standpoint — and how I could interact with various players.  For an instance, in the Improvisational Arts Quintet, we had a bass player, London Branch, who was basically a bass player from Pettiford’s era, but he wrote from the Mingus thing — gorgeous arrangements and compositions.  We had Clyde Kerr, a trumpet player who was on the fringes of freedom but he played good bebop.  Alvin Thomas was not quite as far-out as Clyde was; great player and everything, but more of a bebop player.  Clyde had one foot in bebop and one foot in, say, the avant-garde music.  And Kidd was totally out.  So in any one composition, I had to play three different ways.  I could play the cymbal thing in back of one, and I could play a little dizzier and loosen up behind the next player, and with Kidd it was like go for it!  It was a challenge.

I found that more of a challenge than with some of the Chicago musicians, other than Muhal. With Muhal, I could go either way, and it never bothered him.  I could play as straight as anybody, and then I could just loosen it up and be totally free, or play a stream, or play air, or anything.  Of course, the music would always fit him, no matter what.  Roscoe was pretty much the same way.  But I never thought of it as being something different.

TP:    So the word “avant-garde” doesn’t mean anything to you.

FIELDER:  No, not to me.  I like to think of it as playing looser, stretching rhythms, stretching the time, stretching the pulse.

TP:    And it has to do with the internal satisfaction and interest.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I know when I’ve played well on a given night, and I’m very pleased after that.  And I know when I haven’t played well, even if I’ve gone back afterwards and watched videos, and it sounds fine.

TP:    You were referring to the younger drummers projecting a qualitatively different sound.  And when you’re talking about the musicians in the South — in Mississippi and Louisiana — who are playing free, you’re talking about people born before the Baby Boom.

FIELDER:  But you must remember, you don’t have but a few so-called free players down South.

TP:    Well, you were saying it’s you and Kidd and Clyde Kerr…

FIELDER:  And Joel Futterman.  He lives in Virginia Beach. Whenever we do a festival, we are the only ones there not from Chicago or New York.

TP:    Why do you think that this way of playing music hasn’t appealed to, let’s say, the brightest talents of the younger generation?  Presuming that’s true.

FIELDER:  Like you were saying, they were raised on a different diet.  They came up in a different area.  I talk to young kids in schools now, and they don’t know anything about FDR or Martin Luther King even.  Harry Truman, George Washington Carver — nothing.  No sense of history.  If I get a student, the first thing I do is talk to him about what was before Tony Williams.  But they don’t know anything about Kenny Clarke.  They don’t know anything about Papa Jo Jones. They don’t know anything about Chick Webb. They listen to the way Tony Williams tuned his drums after he started playing with Lifetime, not even the Tony Williams prior to that.  I knew Tony when he was 15, and Tony went through every drummer — Kenny Clarke, Max, Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb.  So he could PLAY this.

TP:    Sam Rivers told me that Tony when he was 14 would play them and then play his variation on it.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I met Tony when he was 15.  I used to practice with him in New York.  Every day, he would go to the music store and buy another drum book. That’s what he was doing.  Just an unbelievable talent.  I don’t see that drive in players today.  And I see a lot of young drummers.  The guys can play their butts off, but they can’t swing.  Well, they swing in their way.  But a drummer like Billy Higgins could play like minimal stuff and just wipe all of that out.  Kenny Washington can do it.  Jeff Watts… I was listening to Jeff the other night on Jazzset, and the compositions he was playing, nothing was really burning; he was playing ballads and stuff.  But it was sounding beautiful.  I’m not saying that Jeff is young; he’s about 41-42 now.  I remember him early on.  He’s another Pittsburgh drummer.  He’s just another extension of what Pittsburgh has turned out.  I don’t know what’s in the water there.  But they have something.  when you think of Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Beaver Harris, Kenny Clarke, or Roger Humphries, who’s there now… Every time Roger Humphries came to town with Horace Silver, I would drive him around, and I’d take him out to the Slingerland Drum Factory. I always loved Roger’s playing; he played those parts so beautifully in Horace’s band.

TP:    We should talk about your situation with Kidd and your teaching.  How much does the group play?

FIELDER:  Now we probably play five-six times a year.  We used to play in little clubs, like a place in New Orleans called Lu & Charlie’s where we played a lot.  But most of our jobs now are festivals.

TP:    Who else do you play with?

FIELDER:  I work with a pianist in Memphis by the name of Chris Parker.  We have a trio together.  London Branch on bass, Chris and myself.  We play a lot of the music of Elmo Hope and Monk.  We just finished several jobs with the tenor player Harold Ousley in Tennessee and Mississippi about a month or so ago.  And I did a tour of Texas, Louisiana and Atlanta with Assif Tsahar about a year-and-a-half ago.

TP:    And do you teach around Meridian?

FIELDER:  No.  I teach at the jazz camp in New Orleans.  Herlin Riley… We have four drum instructors.  There’s a great drummer from Baton Rouge, Herman Jackson, who plays with Alvin Batiste.  Alvin is on the faculty.  Kent Jordan, Kidd, Germaine Brazile…

TP:    Sounds like you’d like to be playing more.

FIELDER:  I would, but I’d like to be playing in the right situation.  I’m not that fond of playing in clubs any more.  I like the festival thing.  We just can’t find a good manager.  So we don’t work as much as we should.  The trio with Joel Futterman and Kidd is a helluva group.  William Parker plays with us two or three times a year. I’ve played some with Peter Kowald, too.  Peter, Kidd and I just got through working together on April 28th.  We’ve got a great video.  It was a beautiful concert.

Kidd is like a twin, really.  He’s my daughter’s godfather.  He’s a beautiful player, a beautiful person.

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Filed under AACM, Alvin Fielder, Cadence, Chicago, Drummer, Uncategorized

Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR

n 1995, I had the opportunity to interview the master saxophonist/woodwindist/composer Roscoe Mitchell on two separate occasions on WKCR. Although the transcripts have been up for a number of years on the Jazz Journalists Association website, http://www.jazzhouse.org., the occasion of Roscoe’s 71st birthday on August 3rd offered a good excuse to post the proceedings here as well. On the first session, he came to the station with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, his friend since the mid-’60s; he came solo six months later.

Roscoe Mitchell & Amina Claudine Myers (WKCR, 6-13-95):

[MUSIC: RM/M. Favors "Englewood H.S." (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, "Oh, the Sun Comes Up, Up In the Morning"]

Roscoe, having just heard the two recent releases, a few words about each of them, the continuity of the ensembles, the ideas behind each CD.

ROSCOE:  The New Chamber Ensemble, Pilgrimage is dedicated to Gerald Oshita, who was a member of our original trio, which was Space.  The New Chamber Ensemble, you could say, is a continuation of that work.  Gerald passed, and we dedicated this record to him.  On this record there is also a composition by Henry Threadgill with a text by Thulani Davis entitled “He Didn’t Give Up; He was Taken.”  For the pieces that we’re going to be doing Saturday we’ll have joining us also two members of this ensemble.  Thomas Buckner will be performing with the S.E.M. Ensemble, which is an 11-piece chamber orchestra, in a piece that I wrote entitled “Memoirs Of A Dying Parachutist,” a poem by Daniel Moore.  We’ll also be doing a trio piece for piano, saxophone and baritone voice, with the members of this particular ensemble.

In the 1980′s, apart from your work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, you were working concurrently with the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble and the Roscoe Mitchell Space Ensemble, and sometimes combining the two.  Would you talk a little bit about your concepts for each of these groups in terms of the words “sound” and “space” as separate and converging intents.

ROSCOE:  If you’ll remember, back in 1966 my first record to come out on Delmark was titled Sound.  This is the where the name for the Sound Ensemble came up.  Over the years, though, we’ve worked in different combinations with both of the groups, either doing large pieces, which you will find on that CD on Black Saint, Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles.  Sometimes we would tour with both of these groups, and we would do pieces with one group and pieces with the other group, and then combine pieces.

If I could talk about your question on the scope of the music, I don’t really see that much difference from one to the other.  I’ve always tried to work in lots of different areas with both groups.

In the Sixties, when Sound came out, Amina, were you… I know Roscoe played in some of Amina’s ensembles in Chicago in the 1960′s.  At that point had the two of you met?

ROSCOE:  Yes, we had.

AMINA:  Yes.  Actually I played… Roscoe did an all Duke Ellington concert, and had me doing vocals, and he did another concert where I played and sang.  But he never played in any of the groups that I had organized.

ROSCOE:  Except the group we had at the Hungry Eye.

AMINA:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.  That organ group!

ROSCOE:  We had a hot group at the Hungry Eye.  The first time we had Gene Dinwiddie with us…

AMINA:  That’s right.  Kalaparusha, Lester Bowie…

ROSCOE:  …and Lester Bowie, and then we went to Kalaparusha and Lester Bowie and Ajaramu.  I mean, we had one of the hottest organ groups that you wanted to hear back in those days.

AMINA:  That’s right.

ROSCOE:  That’s when they had the music up and down Wells Street, the Plugged Nickel, the Hungry Eye, and so forth.  All those clubs were there.  It was like a miniature New York or something.

AMINA:  That’s right.

What was your impression of Amina’s music when you first heard it, Roscoe?  Do you remember the circumstances?

ROSCOE:  I was always knocked out by Amina’s music.  At that time, in Chicago, the organ was starting to gain more presence on the scene.  Jimmy Smith had come out with that record, The Champ, and so on.  And in Chicago there were a lot of organ players then.  Baby Face Willette was there, Eddie Buster… So in Chicago at that time, there was music almost every night.  So I always knew where to go.  You could go out every night and play with somebody if you wanted to, and this is what I did.

Where were some of the places you’d go out to play?  Would they be on the South Side?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, a lot of them were on the South Side.  There was the Wonder Inn…,

AMINA:  McKie’s.

ROSCOE:  …McKie’s, and then there were clubs that were further over toward the lake.  I can’t remember the names of all of them…

AMINA:  The Coral(?) Club.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, and then that club they had down on Stony Island…

AMINA:  Oh, yes.

ROSCOE:  …and one on 71st Street.  There was a lot of… See, I came from that kind of a thing.  I mean, when I grew up in Chicago, not only did I listen to the same music that my parents listened to; I could go right outside of my house and go down the street, and they’d be playing there.  My parents and all of us, we all listened to the same music.

What was that?

ROSCOE:  That was a wide variety of music.  Whatever was popular was on all the jukeboxes.  I mean, those were the days where you could go to a jukebox and there was some variety in the music on the jukebox.  I mean, now you go to a jukebox and it’s all the same thing.  But whoever was popular.  I mean, when Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams had that hit out, that was on there.  James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was on there.  I mean, just to give you… It was jazz pieces, popular pieces; whatever was popular at that time was out.

Were these clubs hospitable to young saxophonists coming in to sit in?  In other words, were there jam sessions at a lot of clubs?  Were you able to get gigs at some of these clubs with the local musicians?

ROSCOE:  Well, that was my musical upbringing.  I always went out and sat in with people, so I got to know different people.  Like I said, I could go out and play every night.  Then it was also at that time when the licensing for the clubs was getting changed.  If you had a trio there, it was one price for a license.  If you had anything bigger than a trio, then it was a bigger price for a license.  So a lot of house bands were working, and people would come and sit in and stuff like that.  Because it was right on the verge of the era where people were starting not to have as much live music, and the disk jockeys were starting to become popular in the clubs.

Were you playing alto saxophone all this time?  Was that your main instrument back as a teenager?

ROSCOE:   I started on clarinet, then in high school I played baritone saxophone.  Then later on I went to alto, and so on and so on.

A lot of the musicians in Chicago who came to prominence went to DuSable High School with Walter Dyett, but you went to Englewood High School.  Tell me about the music program there.

ROSCOE:   Well, that’s where comes this next CD.  I was very fortunate in Englewood High School to have met Donald Myrick, who is a founding member of the AACM.  He is also a founding member of Phil Cohran’s group he headed, the Afro-Arts Theater, which later on became the Pharaohs, which they did also record under that name, and then after that became members of Earth, Wind and Fire.  Now, like I said, I know that DuSable had Captain Dyett, but we had Donald Myrick at Englewood High School.  And I was fortunate to meet him at that time, because he was already playing the instrument in high school, and he kind of like took me under his wing and, you know, started to show me about music.

I’d like to talk a bit about your gradual transition from being let’s say a talented apprentice on the instrument to becoming a person for whom music was a life.  Did you always see music as your life?  Do you recollect when that started to happen?

ROSCOE:   Well, I know I’ve always loved music, and like I said, it was always in my family.  Through an older brother, I got really introduced and really very interested in Jazz, because he had all of those old 78′s, and we’d spend a lot of time just listening to them.  “Hey, come over here, sit down, let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.”  So yeah, music has always been in my life.

Then, when I was in the Army, I started to function as a professional musician twenty-four hours a day, and I was in the Army for three years.  So when I came out of there, yeah, I was pretty much on the track to being a musician.

I gather that you were exposed to a lot of interesting music when you were in the Army, stationed in Europe.  If I’m not mistaken, I recollect hearing you talk about hearing Albert Ayler play in Germany maybe…?

ROSCOE:   I was in the band in Heidelberg, Germany.  Sometimes we would go to Berlin along with the band from Berlin and the band from Orleans, France, and Albert Ayler was a member of that band.  We’d come together and do these big parades in Berlin.  But at that time, when all the musicians got together, there were a lot of sessions and different things.  So when I first heard Albert at that time, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, but I did know that he had an enormous sound on the tenor.  I remember that once someone called a blues or something at the session, and I think that for the first couple of choruses Albert Ayler played the blues straight, and then when he started to go away from that, then I started to really kind of understand what he was doing.

But I have to say that, as a musician, when I was in the Army, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I didn’t really fully understand what he was doing.  When I got back to Chicago and met Joseph Jarman, he was already more advanced than I was in terms of listening to Eric Dolphy… As a matter of fact, it was John Coltrane who brought me back into that music with his record Coltrane, which has “Out of This World” on it.  That was when Coltrane started to go away from the regular chordal pattern and use a sort of a modal approach to the music.  When I started to hear that, I said, “Wait, I’d better go back and listen to Eric,” and then I said, “I’d better go back and listen to Ornette,” and then I started to fully understand.  That was like about two years as a musician being able to understand that music.

Talk about the beginnings of your relationship with Joseph Jarman.  I gather that you and he and Malachi Favors were all at Wilson Junior College, now called Kennedy-King.

ROSCOE:   Yeah, it was Wilson Junior College.  Also Jack De Johnette was there, because we played a lot in those early days.  Jack was known around town as a pianist, but he always played drums, too, because he was very talented.

Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

ROSCOE:   In Jack’s trio?  I don’t remember at that time.  I know it was Scotty Holt.  Steve might have done some things with him.  But it was Scotty Holt, the bass player.  So we were all there together, and that’s where we first met.  And of course, Muhal was always the person who brought everybody together.  He had his big band rehearsals down at a place called the C&C every Monday night, and we all started to want to go down there and be a part of that.  This is what brought everybody together to where people started talking about, “Oh, yeah, let’s put together an organization where we can kind of control our destinies a little bit more” and so on and so forth, and this is where the thoughts for the AACM originated.

What was your first contact with Muhal like?  What was your impression?

ROSCOE:   Well, Muhal always impressed me… Now, he was a guy who would always help out anybody who needed help, and everybody would always come over to his house, and at the end of the week he would still have a piece for the big band!  I don’t know how he did that, but he did it! [LAUGHS] For a while, all I did was, I’d go to school, and then after school then I would go over to Muhal’s house.  Sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 9 or 10 o’clock at night or something like that.  And that’s what a lot of us did in that period.

Amina, you weren’t originally from Chicago.  You came there from Arkansas.  But when did you get to Chicago?

AMINA:   In 1963.

Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

AMINA:  No.  I went there to teach school.  I taught Seventh and Eighth Grade music.  I really wasn’t thinking about playing.  And I went out with a young man one time, he was a photographer… He was really a photographer, but he liked to play the hand drums.  Unfortunately, he had no rhythm, none.  But he would go up on the West Side and sit in, and I went there with him one night and played the organ, and the leader of the group fired his organ player and hired me.  Then I went from there, and started working with a guy named Cozy Eggleston.  While working with Cozy, Ajaramu, the drummer, heard me, and we formed a group together.  He was the one that brought me into the AACM.

Talk about your background in Arkansas.  Had you been playing piano and organ since very young, and in church?

AMINA:  Well, I started playing the piano… I was taking European Classical music around 7, and then I started playing in the church, leading choirs and co-leaders of several gospel groups in my pre-teens, all the way up through college.  Then the organ was introduced in the early Sixties.  I was playing the piano in a club, then the organs came in, and then I started playing in the churches, playing church organ.

So you were playing both in the church and jazz as well?

AMINA:  Yes, I was.

Talk about your early exposure to Jazz.  Who were the pianists who inspired you in the type of music you were trying to play?

AMINA:  Well, first of all, I was doing Rhythm-and-Blues and everything.  And a young lady when I was in college came up to me and she said, “I have a job for you, but it’s playing in a nightclub.”  I’ve told this story so many times.  I wasn’t even thinking about playing in a nightclub.  I said, “Girl, I can’t play no nightclub.”  She said, “Yes, you can.  It pays five dollars a night.”  And as I have said so often, we called her “the black Elizabeth Taylor,” because she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor.

So I went down there and got this job playing.  I copied all of the… Because I was singing.  I always sang and played at the same time.  I copied all of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Stomping At The Savoy,” note for note.  But like Roscoe was saying, the jukebox there had Ornette Coleman, Lou Donaldson, and Ornette’s music was very popular.  I always liked it.  It sounded strange, but I liked it.

But a lot of the piano players from Memphis, Tennessee, used to come to this hotel which had a room in it…  The club was in the hotel.  So I picked up a lot of things on piano from the pianists that would stay at the hotel.  They played at the white country clubs in Little Rock.

Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

AMINA:  Charles Thomas.  He’s in Memphis now.

He played a week at Bradley’s in New York a few months ago.

AMINA:  Oh, a few months ago.  I heard that he had been this way, but I didn’t know when.  A young man that’s passed away now, Eddie Collins.  There’s a young guy that’s on the scene now, his father is… I can’t think of his name.  He’s from Little Rock now.  He’s very popular.

So this is how I learned.  I started picking up things on the piano, trying to learn how to play “So What” and things like that.  But mainly I was copying Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald.

What was early impression of the AACM after you got to Chicago?  What was your first experience like?

AMINA:  Well, I was very apprehensive.  Because Muhal had those charts!  I thought they was… I said, “Oh, my goodness.”  There were about two or three piano players on the scene, and I was hoping I wouldn’t be called!  Because reading the music, it looked so, so difficult.  I was more or less shy.  Believe it or not, I was.  I was hoping I wouldn’t be called to play.  I would worry all while I was up there at the piano!  I was worried about playing the wrong note.  Because the music looked very difficult to me, and it can be.  But Muhal was very patient and very encouraging.

Then when we started organizing smaller groups, we all did things.  Like, Roscoe and all of them were inspiring.  I never felt… You know, I felt that I belonged and that I was, and I realized that I could write, and that I had something to say.  Because you know, Roscoe used to walk around with this big tall top hat, it was about five feet high tall!  He was painting, Muhal was painting.  They were doing all these things.  It was very, very creative.  So it was like a beehive of activity, and I was inspired.

It sounds like Chicago was a place where you could really actualize anything that came to mind through the work you were doing and put it out there, and it would generate new activity, and it just kept going and going.

ROSCOE:  That’s true.  Because we were very fortunate to be in a spot where there were so many people that were thinking the same way.  It was also very inspiring.  Because I remember going to different people’s concerts, and then the way I would feel, I’d be so excited that I felt that I wanted to go home and try to really work hard for my next concert.  And so on and so on.  You would always be inspired… it was just a great time, a great learning time for music, and you didn’t have to be quite as rushed as, like, for instance, if you had been in New York at that time, where everybody is over here and over there, you know, trying to do this and do that to make some money or whatever.  I’m not saying anything about New York.  I’m just saying that it was easier to get a bunch of people together there, at that time, then it would have been in New York.

AMINA:  Mmm-hmm.  It was.  It was.

Well, New York seems a much more competitive, cut-throat type of place in many ways.  Considering the AACM has stayed together and the relationships have remained over thirty-plus years, it’s testimony to the bonds that formed during that time.

AMINA:  Right.  Because of our foundation there.  I don’t think it could have happened here because it’s too spread out.  There’s too much… You have to work so hard to survive here.  It was much more relaxed in Chicago.

But I don’t exactly get the sense that in Chicago it was so economically wonderful for the musicians in the AACM, but I guess it was maybe a little easier to live.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, that, and then… Well, we’re an example to the world of what musicians can do if they put their resources together.  I mean, not only did the AACM exist.  I mean, of course, we started it off… The way we got things going was, we paid dues, and we saved our money, and we had our programs for the children in the community, and then we would do our concerts.

AMINA:  We had a training program.

ROSCOE:  Yes.  Then we also went on to an idea beyond that.  We thought, like, “Hmm, well, why don’t we encourage people in other cities to do a similar type thing, and then have exchange concerts and things like that.”  I mean, we also created work for musicians, in a way.  We’d have musicians come up from Detroit, which later became the B.A.G, the Black Artists Group…

AMINA:  St. Louis.

ROSCOE:  I mean, St. Louis.  Sorry.

You were going back and forth to Detroit also, I guess.

ROSCOE:  Well, Michigan is where I started the C.A.C., which is the Creative Music Collective.  We followed the same format that we had laid out in the AACM.  I mean, we did our concerts, and then we’d bring different people in to play.  It was like creating employment.

Roscoe, it sounds like you and Malachi Favors formed an instant bond from those days in junior college.  And he was a member of your original ensemble, even before the first Delmark recording.  A few words about that relationship.

ROSCOE:  Well, he was also at Wilson Junior College with us.  It was Threadgill, Malachi, Jack De Johnette, Joseph, John Powell, and a bunch of other folks.  Yes, Malachi was in some of my earliest groups, that’s true.  We did form an immediate bond.  Although we don’t always agree on everything, we do at least agree on music, you know!  So that’s kept us together through all of these years.

Talk about your earliest groups, before The Sound was recorded.  Were you basically working toward the areas that you explored on Sound in those groups in ’64 and ’65?

ROSCOE:  Well, like we were talking about before we went on the air here, we’ve got a record way back there with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, who is a trumpet player that used to play with us, Malachi and myself, which is a very good record which we might release sometime.  But then even before that, Gene Dinwiddie, who I don’t know how many people know of him now, but he went on to be a member of Paul Butterfield’s band for a while; and then Kalaparusha was playing with us a lot in those days.  The other night I was playing in Chicago at the Hot House, and a guy came by with some photographs from that period, thirty years ago, with Lester Lashley on there playing cello, and this other drummer that we worked with out of St. Louis — at that time his name was Leonard Smith, and now his name is Fela(?).

In those days, that’s all we did, was play.  I mean, we rehearsed every day.  When it was warm, we went to the park and played every day.  I mean, Chicago was that kind of place.  When I was growing up there, if you went to the park, you could always find Curley out there, a saxophonist, playing.  And a lot of guys that were really trying to learn how to play and stuff, they would go out there and hang around him.  So these groups and the AACM, I mean, they all evolved out of this kind of philosophy.

Amina, what did having musicians available like Roscoe and Kalaparusha and many others do for your writing with your various groups, Amina and Company, in the mid-1960′s?

AMINA:  Well, everybody has a different style and approach.  For instance, Kalaparusha was playing with us for quite a while.  We traveled together.  I had this little electric piano, and I would watch how he voiced his chords with the clusters and things.  And just observing the scores and hearing the music, I saw that the mind was free to create whatever you wanted to create, and that it would work, you know, if you believed in it, and it would have a meaning to it.  I noticed this with all the music, with Muhal… Everyone was different, but yet they were unique within their own.  Of course, my background was mostly just Gospel.  I never studied technically.  So basically, mine was I guess a little bit more simple.  I didn’t know anything about chords or anything like that really.  I just had some of the basic things.  So I just had to observe and listen and watch.  I’d see what Muhal would do… I just picked up what I could.

I guess later, when you worked with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, the chords probably came into play a little more.

AMINA:  Yes.  They didn’t believe in having music.  Sonny Stitt would rehearse something, and then three months later he would call it.

ROSCOE:  [LOUD LAUGH]

AMINA:  I remember “Autumn in New York,” he rehearsed that, and then I forgot all about the song.  But he said, “‘Autumn In New York,’” and just started playing it before…!  They didn’t… So it was like you had this on your mind.  See, I didn’t know anything about going to the stores and buying sheet music.  I was very naive, believe it not; very naive.  In doing Gospel music, we never used any music.  We picked up all the songs off the radio.  There was no such thing as buying music.  You know, I was from a little village on the highway, and the quartet singers would come through, so I mean, we never saw music — you just picked it up from what you heard.

So therefore, with Sonny and Jug… Jug did have a few little tunes he wrote on the chord changes on occasion.  But basically, they wanted you to hear it up here.  You had to hear it.  They said, “Use your ears.”  Especially Sonny Stitt.  He would always say, “Use your ears.”

Roscoe, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons are really synonymous, in a way, with a certain sound of Chicago.  Were they a big part of your early experience as a saxophonist?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, of course.  And Nicky Hill was also a big part.  I mean, a lot of folks don’t know about Nicky Hill.  He was also a great saxophonist in Chicago.  There were so many people!  I mean, Clarence Wheeler was a great saxophonist.  There was a guy when I was growing up named George Fullalove(?), who was a great saxophonist.  And this guy that I just told you about, Curly; I mean, he’d go out in the park and he’d be out there six-eight hours a day, standing up there, running scales and arpeggios all day, all day long.  We’d just go out there and sit and listen to him, and he’d tell us about this and tell us about that, and show us different things and stuff like that.

Chicago has a very rich tradition in music. I mean, there are so many people that you don’t even hear about that are totally great.

And it’s been that way since the turn of the century, since the Pekin Theater was built on 27th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1905.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.

A center of show business and black artists.

[MUSIC: Amina, "Jumping In The Sugar Bowl" (1986); Roscoe, "Walking In The Moonlight" (1994)]

“Walking In The Moonlight” was a composition by Roscoe Mitchell, Senior.  Was your father a musician, a working musician?  Obviously he was a lover of music.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, he was a lover of music.  He was a singer, you know.  Not only was it the jazz artists who were real popular in those days, but the Popular singer was also very popular; Nat King Cole, of course, comes to mind…

Did your father know him from his younger days in Chicago?

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.  My mother went to school with Nat King Cole.  They remember him always going to the church to practice the piano and stuff all the time.

Nat Cole’s father was a minister…

ROSCOE:  Yes.  And… Oh, what was I saying…?

I interrupted you.  Sorry.

ROSCOE:  Yes. [LAUGHS]

Your father was a singer…

ROSCOE:  Yes, my father was a singer, and he was one… I guess you could group him into the group of singers that they call crooners.  He also used to do a thing where he would imitate instruments, you

Would you say you picked up your earliest musical inspiration from him?  Did he get you your first instrument?

ROSCOE:  Well, I would say that my father always wanted me to be a singer, you know, because that was his first love.  I think my brother is the one who got me interested in the instrument.  I always loved music.

Well, you have that rich baritone.  I’d imagine you could have gone somewhere with it!

ROSCOE:  Yeah.  But it was my brother who was largely responsible for me starting to know about people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and so forth.

A number of the older musicians in Chicago who people might not necessarily think of as being involved in the AACM were early members, like Jodie Christian, the pianist on Hey Donald.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he was.  Jodie was my idol when I was in high school.  I mean, I remember Lester telling a story about Jodie and a group he had with I think Bunky Green and Paul Serrano, and it might have been Victor Sproles or somebody on bass — I don’t remember.  He remembered they came down to St. Louis, and they were so great that the people just said, “Oh, they’ve got to stay a few more days,” so they cancelled their whole program and kept them down there.  All those people were just a great inspiration to me.  Like I said, in Chicago you could just go out and see these kind of people, like, all the time.  So there was always something to keep you thinking about something.

Eddie Harris, who is working at Sweet Basil…he and Richard Abrams were actually partnering on a workshop orchestra that eventually became the Experimental Band.

ROSCOE:  That’s correct.

Muhal, of course, worked with Eddie Harris’ groups in the late 1960′s and early Seventies.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.

Now, Eddie Harris is someone who was very much concerned with sound and explorations in sound in similar ways to what you have been doing.

ROSCOE:  Of course he is.  I mean, Eddie Harris is the only guy that I really know that really has ever done anything with the electric saxophone and all of these different kinds of things.  He has always been right on the edge of creativity all the time, I mean, with all the different things that he invented, and his books, and he’s got the ability to be extremely experimental or just walk over here or something and get a big hit — as a Jazz musician!  You remember when he came out with “Exodus,” I’m sure.  He was always a great inspiration to all of us.  I was just in St. Louis, I don’t know, a few months ago, and I was very lucky that Eddie Harris was playing at the hotel that I was staying in, so I got to see him and listen to his music again.

Amina, in Little Rock, where you settled I guess as a young adult, there was a thriving musical community as well.  Two musicians prominent on the scene today who come to mind, although I don’t know if you were there exactly when they were there, are Pharaoh Sanders and John Stubblefield.

AMINA:  Well, when I was in college I met Stubblefield.  His group came over to play.  We had originally hired Arthur Porter I believe is his name.  His son, Art Porter, Jr., is now very popular on the scene.  Art Porter couldn’t make it so, he sent Stubblefield’s band.  We clashed the first night, but we’ve been very good friends ever since then.  Pharaoh wasn’t there.  He had moved by the time I got there.

Tell me about the music that you’ve composed for the concert on June 18th.  It’s original music commissioned for this concert.

AMINA:  Well, I’ve been commissioned to write a composition for a chamber orchestra of 12 pieces, the S.E.M. Ensemble, directed by Petr Kotik.  Then Roscoe and I will be doing a duet, along with other duets he’s doing.  This will be original music also.

Roscoe, you mentioned that your Army experience sort of catapulted you into being a professional musician.  In the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I think everybody but Moye spent some time in the Army.  It seems to me that that experience must have had a big impact on the Art Ensemble’s being able to forge their path during the difficult days of the late Sixties.

ROSCOE:  Well, you learn how to survive in the Army, that’s for sure.  And it’s true, I met great people in the Army.  Like, another guy out of Chicago, Reuben Cooper, was in the Army with me at that time.  Lucious White, who is Joseph Jarman’s cousin, who is an excellent alto saxophonist and bassoonist.  When I was in Heidelberg, Germany, Nathaniel Davis’s group had won the All-Army competition, so they came and stayed with us for almost about a month or so.  I would go around with him and he’d be playing… I remember one time we were down at the Cave 54 in Heidelberg, Germany.  There was a great Danish saxophonist there who was in Germany at that time, Bent Jadik, and he’d always be down there kind of running over everybody, and then when Nathaniel Davis came down there that night [LAUGHS], we saw Bent Jadik kind of perk up a little bit!

Like I said, a lot of really talented musicians that were willing to share some time with me and show me different things like that.  Some people may have had a bad experience in the Army.  Mine wasn’t that bad.  I mean, I actually came out of there knowing something about music.

Talk a little about that three-year sojourn in Europe with the Art Ensemble.  What was your impetus for going over there?

ROSCOE:  Well, we had been all over the States.  We were very adventurous, you know.  And I think that we’re responsible for a lot of people that go over there now.  Because people weren’t really going over there, you know.  We went over there and carried the banner of the AACM.  We started playing at this club, it was a small theater really, in Montparnesse, called the Luciniere(?) Theater.  We played there four nights a week, and sometimes we’d have enough at the end of the gig to go get ourselves a cheese sandwich and a beer.  But people started to know about us.  And this is how people became interested in us in Europe.

Also Steve McCall was over there at that time, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith was there.  But not only them, there were all these people from New York.  I mean, Paris was alive with music then.  I’ve never seen Paris like that as I saw it in the late Sixties.  There was always music all the time.  This guy who put out all those records, Jean-George Caracas(?), did this big festival.  He was supposed to have it in Paris, and at the last moment they wouldn’t let him have it at the Mall de Mutualité, so he had to change everything around, and he had it in Amiges(?), Belgium.  This was like a grand festival, with a whole week, two different stages, one shut down and the next one kicked right up, and so on.  He had all kinds of music there.

Then after that was that whole rich time when we did all those different recordings.  I got a chance to record with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur and Sunny Murray and so on and so forth.  I mean, there were concerts almost every night.  Every day everybody was at the American Center, playing all the time.  I’ve never seen Paris like that.

Well, the records bear that out.  There’s a real sort of fire burning through all of them collectively.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.  I mean, Cal Massey was there.  I was hanging out with Hank Mobley, Don Byas, so on… I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a richer experience as a young musician at that time.

One musician who both you and Amina have both mentioned as being right there, and who was at the beginning of Roscoe’s musical explorations, is Henry Threadgill.  In the next set we’ll hear compositions by him on which Amina and Roscoe perform.  In Amina’s case, she’s featured on organ on a song entitled “Song Out Of My Trees,” the title track of a 1994 release on Black Saint, with Ed Cherry on guitar, Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums.  Then from Roscoe Mitchell’s new release on Lovely Music, Pilgrimage, the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, we’ll hear “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken”, music by Henry Threadgill and poetry by Thulani Davis.  This is a quartet for baritone voice, Thomas Buckner; violin, Vartan Manoogian; alto saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell, piano, Joseph Kubera.

Amina, a few words about the piece we’re about to hear.

AMINA:  Well, on this particular piece, Henry started hearing things for organ.  He’s always coming up with various combinations of instrumentation.  And it seems like the organ started coming back on the scene again, so I was glad to see that.  It was very interesting playing this particular composition with Henry.

ROSCOE:  I’ll have to say about Henry, he’s a great musician and a great inspiration.  I’d like to start off by saying that.  Because Henry was also there back in Wilson Junior College Days.  My admiration of him as a composer… I mean, he just completely overwhelms me every time I hear something by him, because I’m always inspired by what he’s actually writing.  This piece that we do on this record is a text of Thulani Davis about a guy who was homeless, but despite all of that he didn’t give up, he went on, he was taken, he had a purpose.  This piece grew out of a concert that happened in New York at Town Hall, where we had the New Chamber Ensemble and Henry Threadgill’s group both doing separate pieces and combined pieces.  So he wrote this piece for the New Chamber Ensemble at that time.

[MUSIC: Threadgill-Amina-Nicholson-Cherry, "Song Out of My Trees" (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, "He Didn't Give Up; He Was Taken" (1995)]

In summing things up, I’d like to talk about current events, current projects.  Roscoe, you’ve been living in Madison, Wisconsin, and using it as your base.  How many groups are you working with now? Are you  teaching…

ROSCOE:  For the moment I’m not teaching.  The different groups that I’m playing with right now:  Of course, the Art Ensemble is one.  The Note Factory is another.  The New Chamber Ensemble is another.  Then, I do different variations of different things.  I had a concert in Chicago last Saturday with Matthew Shipp, Spencer Barefield (who is a member of the original Sound Ensemble), Malachi Favors, Gerald Cleaver, who is the new drummer (and an excellent drummer, I might add) that I’ve been working with out of Detroit, and of course myself on woodwinds.

I’m a composer also, so depending upon what someone is asking for, the size of the ensemble or whatever, I’ll write for that also.  Then of course, don’t let me forget, we just had the record come out with the quartet with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors and Albert Tootie Heath.

You also appear on a recent recording on Delmark with Jodie Christian, a couple of very strong pieces.

ROSCOE:  Yes.

TP:    You’ve always incorporated extended techniques on the different saxophones, but it seems that your use of circular breathing has really been entering your compositional formats in the last decade.  Can you talk about the aesthetics of circular breathing, what it allows you to do?

ROSCOE:  Well, if I look at Frank Wright, for instance, and the kinds of things that he was doing in the early Sixties, which I was very impressed by, what I can do now is go back and reflect not only on that situation, but other situations musically.  Just his approach to the sound, for instance, I’ve studied that, and now I can extend that through circular breathing.  That’s what it allows you to be able to do.  It also gives me the opportunity to be able to put more, longer phrases together, and the opportunity to explore when notes really come at you very fast and continuous for a long time.

With me, it’s an experiment.  Everything is an experiment.  So when I’m out with one of my groups, it takes us at least a week or so playing every night before we really start to get up there, and then it gets so exciting that after a concert is over you can never sleep at night.  So sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine and it will calm me down.

But to me, it’s all an experiment.  The fun for me is going out and having the opportunity to explore these different ideas that I have in my head.

Of course, I listened to Roland Kirk all the time when he was alive, and I was totally amazed by what he did, because not only did he circular breathe; he was able to play several instruments, you know, out of his mouth and some out of his nose, and so on and so forth.  Now, there’s a guy who really had control over that.  If you think about circular breathing, it’s a very old tradition.  I mean, the aborigines used it, the Egyptian musicians used it a long time ago. I became interested in it through Roland Kirk, and I had to think about it for about a year before I was able to do it.

In regard to everything being an experiment, the Art Ensemble of Chicago must have been an ideal vehicle for workshopping ideas on a consistent basis, night after night, week after week, year after year.

ROSCOE:  Of course. I mean, I think that’s the thing that keeps people going, is the opportunity to explore music.  I could never be one of those musicians that just plays the same thing all the time, because that’s never been my interest with music.  The thing that’s always fascinated me about music is there’s so much to learn, and I like to try to keep myself as much as I can in the forefront of that learning process.

Amina, same question to you as I posed to Roscoe: The different situations you’re working in, current projects, etcetera.

AMINA:  Well, right now I’m doing a lot of Blues, Gospel, Jazz and extended forms of music solo piano.  Hopefully, I’m trying to organize pipe organ work in Europe, various parts of Europe.  They have expressed interest in that.

Talk about the dynamics of that vis-a-vis working with the Hammond or various electric organs.

AMINA:  Well, of course, with the electric everything is right there, right at the touch.  With the pipe organ you’re dealing with the air.  The sound is so vast, it’s like… You work at it more, but the rewards are so much greater with the pipe organ, because there’s phenomenal combinations, and the size of the pipes, you get all the different kinds of sounds.  You can’t beat it.  I mean, the Hammond, I would say, would be, as far as electric organ, I would prefer that.  If I had to play the electric organ, it would be the Hammond B-3.  But pipe organ, there’s just no comparison really.  It’s very thrilling to be able to play that.  I would like to do more with that.

Originally I had done some work with voice choir with the pipe organ, so hopefully I can continue to do that.  I’m just working now on Gospel, writing Gospel tunes for the solo performances.

So it’s primarily solo.  You don’t really have a working band…?

AMINA:  Oh, yes, I have a trio.  Well, I do a lot of trio work.  Right now I’m getting calls for a lot of Bessie Smith material and the trio format.  The solo piano and trio formats.

On the next set we’ll hear separate duos by each of you with Muhal Richard Abrams, who has been such a great inspiration for both of you.  I know I asked you for some words about him before, but maybe we can conclude with some comments about you, the AACM, and your relations with Muhal Richard Abrams over the years.  Roscoe?

ROSCOE:  Well, like I said before, Muhal has like always been a mentor, not only to me but so many other musicians in Chicago.  I think it was through his efforts of keeping that Experimental Band going where all these people could get together; it provided a place where all these ideas could come out.  Like I said, this was where the ideas for putting the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about.  We were interested in controlling our own destinies, because we’d read the books and seen what happened to people who were out there on their own.  I think they didn’t really treat Charlie Parker that well, or Coltrane.  I think Charlie Parker had maybe one European tour or something in his life; I don’t know what it was.  But those kinds of things made us want to reassess the situation and try to band together, so that we could create self-employment for ourselves, sponsor each other in concerts of our own original music, maintain a training program for young, inspired musicians.  These are the kinds of things that have kept us going throughout the years.

AMINA:  Muhal is really my spiritual brother.  I think we must have known each other in a past life.  You see, Muhal, he never stops creating.  He constantly inspires me.  He’ll push without pushing.  He’ll say, “Okay, Amina, you need to do this, you need…”  So he’ll always find ways to encourage me to write and to create and to do things.  He’ll bring up some ideas.  Because he knows the things that I can do sometimes that I don’t even think about doing.  So I mean, he’s very inspiring to me.  I didn’t know that he was coming to New York; I don’t know if he knew that I was coming.  But we have been in close contact since being here.  As I said, he’s my spiritual brother, and I appreciate all the things that he has done to encourage me.  He still does that.  Not that I depend on him, but I can look to Muhal for any type of assistance, musically or whatever.  And he has inspired a lot of people, and people love him because of that.  I certainly do.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC: Muhal-Amina, "Dance From The East" (1981); Roscoe-Muhal, "Ode To the Imagination" (1990)]

Roscoe Mitchell (Ted Panken) – (12-5-95):

[MUSIC: "Songs In The Wind, 1&2"]

I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the Roscoe Mitchell Chamber Ensemble.  You and Tom Buckner have been at least recording together since the late 1970′s, and you’ve known each other now for at least thirty years, I gather.

Yes, that’s true.  We met in California in the late Sixties.  That’s when we first met.  We started performing together when we put our group together, Space, with Gerald Oshita.

Tom Buckner was up here a few days ago, and described hearing the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, I believe it was, several times in the Bay Area in the mid-1960′s.  What were your first impressions of Tom Buckner?  What was he into at the time you were out there?

Well, let’s just say that when this group came together, I was putting focus on composition and improvisation.  And Thomas Buckner interested me because he was an improviser when I met him.  I don’t know if you recall any of his earlier recordings with Ghost Opera, but it was a group that was from the West Coast that used improvisation in their music.

I first met Gerald Oshita when I was in California in 1967.  He was playing in a group with Oliver Johnson and Donald Raphael Garrett.

All of these people were improvisers at that time, and this group came together to study improvisation and composition as they relate to each other, and that tradition continues today.

When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?

I met Vartan at a concert of Joan Wildman at the University of Wisconsin.  We were playing together on a composition by Joan Wildman.  I think we struck a chord from that very beginning, and we decided that we would go on and try to do some work together.  I think our first performance was on a concert of Vartan’s at the Eldon(?) Museum in Madison, where we performed the composition, the duet for alto saxophone and violin entitled “Night Star.”

You’ve been involved in maybe four or five simultaneous ongoing projects over the last number of years, it would seem to me.  This ensemble, with Joseph Kubera, Vartan Manoogian and Thomas Bucker, that’s performing Thursday; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which has been a primary interest for a quarter-century and more; the Sound Ensemble; the Note Factory.  Are compositions written or structured for specific musical units, or are they mutable, adaptable to different performance situations?

Well, certainly you can transpose a composition so that it will fit, you know, any situation you want it to fit.  Usually how I start off on a composition is first I have an idea, and then I figure out how to get that idea down.  Then a lot of times you are given the size ensemble that will perform the work that you’re writing.  So it’s determined by lots of things.  One composition, “Nonaah,” started off as a solo piece, and has ended up being played by larger ensembles, quartets, trios, so on and so forth.

We could probably do a nice 90-minute presentation on various examples of how “Nonaah” has been formulated.

Yeah, people have done that.  There’s a young woman in Madison, whose name slips my mind right now, who did her dissertation on that piece, along with some works by Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, I believe.

When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?

In the early Seventies, as a solo piece, like I said.

Putting together a solo piece, does it come from your explorations of the instrument?  Does it come from a more conceptual framework…?

Well, let’s look at it.  One part of “Nonaah” is set up so that it has wide intervals.  One of the thoughts that I had when I was composing it, I wanted to have a piece that was played as a solo instrument that would give the illusion of being two instruments, and with the wide intervals like that, you can get that, because the instrument sounds different in the lower range and the mid range and the high range, and then there’s also the altissimo range, of course, which sounds different from any of those other registers.  So if you construct a melody that moves in that way, in taking advantage of the intervals, then you will achieve that goal at the end.  And that was one of the thoughts that I had when I was constructing the composition.

But then, of course, after that, you use that same basic formula to structure other movements of the piece.  So for me, I guess, I am at the point now where if I needed to do anything in that particular system of music, I could do it, I feel like I could do it, because I have built the vocabulary related to that structure.

I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago perform in Chicago on December 1st, and you were performing on soprano, alto, tenor sax, and you had the bass saxophone as well, although I don’t think you got to play it…

No, I didn’t play it, actually.  I just brought it along, because it was going off to Jamaica where we’re going to be for the next month, and I guess I just kind of forgot to play it.  I mean, a lot of times I don’t really get to instruments, but I like to have them there if I’m moving in that direction.

What determines which instruments you’re playing at a particular time?  Your main concentration over the last number of years seems to be with the soprano and the alto saxophone.  It doesn’t seem like we get to hear you always on the tenor, but when we do, it seems like you’ve really been putting a lot of work or thought into a particular area.  Has that been happening lately?

Well, I mean, what determines what sounds I get to is, like, a lot of times I’m trying to just move different sounds around, and then whatever I hear that can add on to the structure I’m working on, I’ll select the instrument based on that.  So this is how these things get determined.  Unless, of course, there’s a specific composition which calls for a specific instrument.  Then that would be played on that instrument.

How long has multi-instrumentalism as a way of getting to the plethora of sounds that are at your disposal been a major preoccupation of yours?  Did that begin with your exposure to the AACM and that group of musicians?

Well, I think that, like, in the late Sixties I wanted to explore other sounds.  But then, if you notice, in the history of the music, before the Bebop era, in the larger bands, a lot of the woodwind players doubled.

Tripled.

Yeah.  If you see some of those pictures, they had quite a variety of instruments that they played.  I think the music at some point moved to where it was a one person, one instrument type focus.

With smaller combos, sure.  I mean, Harry Carney played baritone sax, bass clarinet and clarinet, and Jimmy Hamilton…

And so on, yeah, sure.

But in terms of your preoccupation, you weren’t really coming up in Chicago in an environment where that sort of multi-instrumentalism was a common thing as such.

That’s true.  But I think my fascination with sounds drew me toward that.  For instance, the Art Ensemble is an outgrowth of a quartet of myself and Malachi Favors and Philip Wilson and Lester Bowie.  When Philip left the group, we were drawn more to percussion sounds.  That was because we didn’t really have anyone that we thought could come into the group and function in his place in terms of the type of melodic structure that he dealt with.  So that drew us more into percussion.

It just kind of added on to my fascination with the exploration of sounds.  I mean, sometimes I don’t really hear like a scale per se.  I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle, or a whistle with kind of a wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell.  There are so many different possibilities to explore.

When did your obsession with the saxophone begin?  When did it become evident to you that music was going to be your life?

Well, I guess I kind of knew that in high school.  And I was fortunate enough… If you remember the record, Hey, Donald!, that’s dedicated to my friend Donald Myrick, who went on to help establish Earth, Wind and Fire.  Donald Myrick was an excellent musician when I met him in Chicago, and he was a big motivation for me — you know, to see someone, one of my peers actually doing that.  So I guess I kind of knew it then.  And I had an older brother who had many, many 78 records, and he would get me to sit down and listen to them, and that really…

What kind of records were they?

Oh, you know, all of the old ones — J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker.  Everything was on 78 then.  Billie Holiday…

In the late 1940′s, early 1950′s?

Yes.

Who were the people who really caught your ear first as far as stylists, specifically as saxophone stylists?

That’s hard to say, because I liked different stylists from different records.  If I were to look at the tenor saxophone, I’d look at like our history of many styles.  And this is how the tenor is represented in my mind.  And then I always listened to, you know, the same music that my mother and father listened to.  So it was a wide variety of music.

What were they listening to?

Oh, everybody listened to everything that was popular then.  It could be a popular song or… Oh, and it was always on the jukeboxes, too.  The jukeboxes actually had a variety of things that you could select from.  For instance, when James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was popular, everybody listened to that, not just a select group of people from here or a select group of people from there.  Everybody knew about that.  Everyone knew of that duet with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams.  You know, whatever, whether it was a song by Nat King Cole, or even when Johnnie Ray had his hit, “Cry.”  All of these different things were common knowledge.  So for me, I had a wide variety of music to select from.

Did your choice to pick up a saxophone at an early age… How old were you when you first began playing?

Oh, I was a late starter on saxophone. I mean, I started clarinet first when I was 11 years old.  That’s late-starting.

How was that inspired?  Through your family or through school?

I guess mostly through my older brother, Norman.  I was always interested in music, and I used to sing a lot when I was younger.  But I guess mostly influenced by him to want to go on and actually pursue an instrument.

What was your first more or less formal tuition?  Was that in high school or in the elementary schools?

That was in high school. I started clarinet in Milwaukee, at I think it was West Division High School.  I don’t remember the teacher.

Did you further that in high school in Chicago?

Yes, at Englewood High School.

I’m sorry to keep putting you all the way back in the Fifties, but there are some things I’ve been curious about for a long time, so I’m taking the opportunity.  Were you playing in a lot of teenage combo situations, gigs for money and so forth then, in high school…?

Well, no, not that much.  I mean, we had our regular obligations that we did in high school, with the concert band, and I was also a member of the dance band.  I think that I started to function probably more as a professional musician when I was in the Army, from 1958, I believe it was, to 1961.  So by the time I got out of the Army, it was pretty much solidified that I was going to be a musician.

I gather that the Army was a real mind-bending experience for you musically, and you were exposed to many different ways of playing music.  I think one account I’ve read has you encountering Albert Ayler in Germany in the early Sixties.

That was a big influence on me.  Because at that time, I was aware of Ornette Coleman’s music, but I have to say, even as a musician at that time, I didn’t fully understand what Ornette was doing.  The thing about Albert Ayler, when I first met him, one thing I knew about him, I knew basically what was happening with the saxophone, and I knew he had a tremendous sound on the instrument, and that lured me in to want to try to figure out what it is that he was doing on the saxophone.  I remember once there was a session.  They were all playing the Blues, and Albert Ayler, he played the Blues straight, like for two or three choruses, and then started to stretch it out.  And that really helped me.  That was kind of a major mark for me musically, just to be able to see that that could really be done.

Again, referring to interviews, you’ve described being impressed at that time by Sonny Rollins, by Hank Mobley, by Wayne Shorter — I think those are the three names that come to mind in terms of playing in a style.  Were you playing tenor, alto…?

I was playing alto.  I mean, in the dance bands I played baritone.

So the multi-instrumentalism started there.

Well, you could say so.  I mean, my first encounter with the saxophone was baritone in high school.  The guy who was playing baritone in the dance band graduated, and I was moved up to that position of playing the baritone.  But I think the alto was the saxophone that really caught my interest.

Describe the ambiance of being in an Army band in Germany, in 1959, 1960, 1961.  The regimen, the musicians, and the off-base scene that was happening in Europe at that time.

Well, that was a really good time to be where I was in Germany.  I was in Heidelberg, Germany, which is the place of the famous Cave 54.  Now, that was a club where most of the local musicians would play in, and everybody that was coming from out of town would play there.  There were a lot of sessions there.  Some of the people that you’ll know now were there.  Karl Berger was there, Albert Mangelsdorff was there, Bent Jadik (who when I was in Denmark at this time I didn’t see him, but I was talking to the guy at the music store, and I asked about him, and he said he was still around).  Many things happened there.  Then Nathaniel Davis stayed in our barracks.  He was in a quartet that won the All-Army competition, and they stayed with us for a while, and they were going around Europe playing.  And then names that you don’t know.  Joseph Stevenson, who was a Sergeant, who now I’ve heard is a Warrant Officer, was a great musician, an alto saxophonist and composer.  Many, many people.  William Romero.  Just a lot of people that made influences on me.  I mean, there was a guy there, Sergeant Mitchell.  Palmer Jenkins, a tenor saxophonist.  So there was a lot of music and a lot of opportunity to learn.

I gather in the Art Ensemble, you, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, all had Army experience.  Lester has stated that that experience helped you survive as a unit on your travels and travails particularly in Europe in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and in the years before that in the States.

Well, that’s very true.  I mean, no one has ever done anything for us.  We’ve always done everything for ourselves, in a way, so far as the Art Ensemble is concerned.  I don’t think the Art Ensemble gets any recognition now.  And we’re still going on, and still doing concerts, and still filling houses, and everybody tries to act like we’re not doing that.  So yeah, I guess our Army training did help us get to this point.

A lot of discipline entailed that I’m sure was retained and is retained in the way the Art Ensemble functions.

Yes, that’s true.

When you got back to Chicago after the Army, what sort of scene did you find?

Well, that was when Muhal had the Experimental Band there… In ’61 Muhal Richard Abrams had the Experimental Band.  It met once a week, and it was a great opportunity to go down and meet all these great musicians, and get a chance to really be in a big band that was rehearsing.  This year at the Chicago Jazz Fest Muhal put together that band as closely as he could for a performance there.  It would be great to do more things with that band.  After I had been in Israel and heard everybody sounding the same, and then got back and I was in a band where everybody sounded like themselves, it was a very interesting phenomenon.

You’re talking now about 1961?

I’m talking about Muhal’s big band.  Everybody in there sounds like themselves.  They don’t sound like anybody else.  They all have distinguishable sounds, their ways of phrasing, their different ideas about music… I think this is one of the things that stimulated me over the years, to be fortunate enough to be associated with people like that.  So that was a great experience.  That band was rehearsing every Monday night, and I would have to say that that band was the place where started the thought, you know, of the AACM — to actually put together an organization that would function in promoting its members and concerts of their own original music and maintain an educational program for younger, inspired musicians.  These things we carried on from there, as you know.  Like, when the Art Ensemble went to Paris and we carried the banner of the AACM.

At that time also you encountered a number of musicians with whom the relationships have maintained for three decades and more.  Malachi Favors at Wilson Junior College at the time, Jarman, I think Henry Threadgill was around then…

Threadgill.  Jack De Johnette was there.

Braxton before he went in the Army.

Yeah.

And Jack De Johnette at that time I gather had a piano trio with Steve McCall on the drums.

Yeah, he did.  But he was starting to play drums then.  Because he and I used to play drums and saxophone all the time.

So was there a lot of interplay and experimentation and workshopping amongst you, working with different ideas and so forth?

Well, you could say that Muhal’s place was like the meeting place for people.  We’d kind of all show up over there, and then Muhal would be bothered with us, you know, for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.  Amazing.

So Muhal’s place was really sort of the clearing house where all these ideas could come together and be formulated.

That’s right.  And we studied music, art, poetry, whatever.  It was like a school.  It was a school.

Talk a little bit about how your first band that recorded, which recording I believe will be issued for the first time on Nessa… A 1964 recording which I think you mentioned last time…

Yeah, I did mention that.  I still don’t have a release date on that record.  That was an early quartet with Alvin Fielder, Fred Berry, Malachi Favors and myself.

Was that quartet performing all original music by you, or was it a more collectively oriented thing?

The music was mostly by me.  I remember on that one tape there’s a piece by Fred Berry also.

Are there any pieces that you wrote at that time that you still perform to this day, that have lasted?

Oh, certainly.  There’s many.  We still perform “Ornette.”  I still perform “Mister Freddie,” which was recorded on a recent Jodie Christian disk.  We intend to perform “Sound” again.  To me, any music that you do is just a kind of work in progress, so to speak.  So you can at any time go back to that work and extend it or… As for me, I mean, some things that I did with “Sound,” for instance, become more interesting to me now that I could apply maybe circular breathing to those situations, and do something, I don’t want to say more, but do something different with it in the way of expanding it.  So to me, it’s a work in progress.

The Art Ensemble’s Friday night Chicago concert concluded with Malachi Favors’ “Magg Zelma,” but before that you performed “Ornette,” if I’m not mistaken.

“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.

At any rate, I’ve given Roscoe Mitchell the third degree now for about half an hour, so we’ll give him a break right now and play some music.

I thought it was a talk show!
]
[MUSIC: Pilgrimage, "He Didn't Give Up; He Was Taken" (1994); R. Mitchell Quartet, "Hey, Donald," "The El" (1994); Art Ensemble of Chicago, "The Alternate Express" (1990).

The next set of music focuses on Roscoe Mitchell with some musicians who played a very important role in his music of the 1980's, Detroit-based Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, Hugh Ragin was part of some of your quintet music, and Michael Mossman is another trumpeter who was involved with you.  I'd like to talk about that aspect of your music-making in the 1980's with Michigan- and Wisconsin-based musicians.

If you look at Michigan, there we had the CAC, which is the Creative Arts Collective, which is a group that followed the same basic fundamentals as the AACM in its structure.  It was a group of musicians that came together; you know, we did our own concerts, we had our small groups and things inside of that larger group and we had concerts for them.  We also brought in musicians from Chicago and New York to do concerts.  We had the help of the Abrams Planetarium on the Michigan State University campus; they let us use their hall for concerts...

This was in the Sixties, the Seventies...?

In the Seventies it was, yes.  So this is another ongoing work in progress, my work with the Detroit musicians.

Do you recollect your earlier meetings with Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal?

I was living in Michigan at that time, and that's where we met.  Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal weren't there at that time.  It was Spencer Barefield, one of the musicians who I saw the other night at the AACM 30th Anniversary, Dushan Moseley was there, and other Michigan musicians, William Townley... Guys who...we had put together an organization that, like I was saying, was similar in philosophy to the AACM -- for that purpose.

I guess interplay between the AACM and the Detroit-based musicians goes back to concert exchanges in the 1960's, when Chicago musicians would go to Detroit to present concerts and vice-versa.

That's true, but that was largely due to John Sinclair, who at that time was the leader of the Detroit...God, what was it... It wasn't the White Panther Party then.  It was another name.  Then he went on to be the leader of the Rainbow People in Ann Arbor.  But they had their own newspaper in there, and they had like maybe a whole city block there, where they had places for performances, for musicians or artists to come and be involved in the program that they had there.

This group developed in some very interesting ways, and I guess was the kernel for several offshoot groups -- the Note Ensemble and various editions of the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble.  I'll repeat a question I asked earlier:  In working with these particular groups, what are the dynamics of each of them that impact your writing or arranging or structuring of sound for either the musicians or the overall ensemble?

Well, I'm hearing different things for different situations.  Like you said, those groups can be broken down, because I've worked with different varieties of those groups.  But the Note Factory is getting closer to I guess this grande sound that I'm hearing.  That's why we have like the two basses and the two drums and piano and myself as the bare bones of it.  Eventually we'd probably like to have two pianos, and then I've thought of a couple of other horn players to go with that sound -- it would probably be Hugh Ragin and George Lewis.

You recently were on a record of George Lewis, in acoustic duos and interactions with the Voyager computer program.

That's true.  We also did a concert at IRCAM this last summer in June, which was a concert at IRCAM for the Voyager program.

[MUSIC: Mitchell/Ragin/Tabbal, "Fanfare For Talib" (1981); Note Factory "Uptown Strut" (1987); Bergman/Buckner/Mitchell "Looking Around" (1995); Mitchell (solo) "Sound Pictures #3: Solo For Winds and Percussion" (1995)]

Our thanks to Roscoe Mitchell.  One final question about solo performance.  Your solo work on record goes back to the 1960′s, and continues to this day, I gather, with some frequency.

Yes, that’s true.  I’ve always been interested in solo playing as one of the options.

What’s attractive to you about solo playing?

Well, one thing I can say about solo playing, if you’re listening to me, and I sound like an orchestra and not a saxophone, then I’m successful to some degree.  When you’re playing with someone else, I guess you can always blame them for messing up.  But if you’re playing with yourself, then you have to blame your own self.  So it’s a challenge, of course… Well, it’s a challenge playing with someone else, too.  So to me, I just see it as one of the parts that make up the whole picture.

Is there a process of trying to transcend the saxophone, whatever limitations there are in performing it?

Well, I think everybody does that when they are really successful at whatever it is that they are doing.  You actually do transform the instrument that you’re playing.  I mean, the instrument is just the vehicle by which you are able to transmit the sounds.

[MUSIC: RM (solo) "Nonaah" (1976)]

ROSCOE:

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Filed under AACM, Chicago, Interview, WKCR

Vernell Fournier on Ahmad Jamal, WKCR, 1990

Yesterday’s Ahmad Jamal birthday posting included a conversation with New Orleans drum master Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer of choice during the ’80s. Today I’m sharing an interview that I conducted in 1990 on WKCR with Riley’s famous New Orleans antecedent, Vernell Fournier. I can’t precisely recall the circumstances, but as best as I can reconstruct it, I was presenting a six-hour Sunday Jazz Profiles on Jamal. Given Vernell’s massive contribution to the sound of the Ahmad Jamal Trio—among his many accomplishments, he refracted the Two-Way-Pocky-Way vernacular rhythmic signature of the Crescent City into the “Poinciana Beat”—it seemed a good idea to invite him up, which  I had a chance to do when I ran into him one night at Bradley’s.

One of my big regrets is the disappearance of my cassette copy of a Musicians Show that I did with Vernell around this time on which he spoke about his life and times in great detail—never had a chance to transcribe it. In any event, I’m glad I was able to document this encounter—this marks the first airing of the transcript.

The proceedings began with “Extensions,” a 14-minute track from 1965 that makes full use of Fournier’s extraordinary skills.

* * * *

How much input did you have into the way an involved piece like “Extensions” developed, or more generally, into the way the arrangements were set up through the course of the trio’s life?

Well, as things would progress, you’d have more input.  But in the beginning it was generally Ahmad’s format.  Ahmad laid down the format, then you tried to fit something into that you that you thought would be worth it.

When did you first play with Ahmad?

The beginning was I think in ’56, ’57, somewhere up in there.

How did it happen?

Walter Perkins was his drummer at the time.   Walter was involved with the MJT Plus Two, who were a very popular group during that time.  I think that’s the story… But anyway, I got the call, and at that time I was available to join Ahmad.  Because there was a lot of work in Chicago then, you know, a lot of good groups.  My first gig with him was at the London House, I think.

In 1956.

Yeah.  He was playing off nights there.

Had you been listening to Jamal in the years before that?

Well, of course, his first record, “The Volta,” yeah.  It was very popular around Chicago.  But no, I hadn’t listened to him… Because in the beginning, Ahmad had a string… It was a coop group, with guitar, Ray Crawford, violin,

Eddie Calhoun, I believe.

No, this bassist, he and his wife were Islamic followers.  In fact, I remember him so well because of his wife, because she made beautiful flowers just by hand; she used to sell hand-made flowers.  Anyway, he was the first bass player.  I can’t think of his name.  But it was just strings.  And they were generally working main stage at a place like the Kitty Kat and a few other clubs, but they worked downtown quite a bit, too, in the off-nights.  They stayed busy, in other words.  But that was his first group.

Was that primarily a supper club type of scene?

Half-and-half.  No one in the Jazz world stayed on the supper club scene, because it wasn’t as demanding as the club scene.  You know, when you’re young you’ve got a lot of energy you want to exert.  But of course, the supper club scene was cool also, because you could reach a high level and still be appreciated.   You didn’t have to subjugate yourself to a lower level type of music.  Just softer music and more confining.

What did Jamal ask of you as a drummer?   Rhythm has always been so important to his trio conception, it would seem that the drummer doing the right thing is absolutely essential.

Well, yes.  Well, you see, he hadn’t had but one drummer.  And Ahmad is a master at knowing to draw the ultimate from a musician.  He can fit his entire thing, I guess something like Duke was, to bring out the ultimate, to make you sound really a hundred times better than you would normally sound.  He has that gift.

As a musician, he didn’t ask anything… Actually, when we were playing at London House… I think I remember this; I’m not sure, but it’s in my mind, so it must have happened.  I had just finished setting up my drums, and I hadn’t sat down yet, and he struck out on the tune.  I think it was “Poinciana”; I’m not sure.  And I’m scuffling to get to the drums.  I’m there, but I mean, I’m not quite…you know… Well, from then on, very seldom would he have any input.  But if there was something in particular he wanted, he would repeat it with the piano many, many times until you understood what he was saying, or he might tell you — but very seldom would he speak to you about your playing.  I don’t think he ever told any drummer that was with him to do this or do that, or do anything.

And he used one of the great bassists, Israel Crosby, for many, many years.  Tell us about Israel Crosby and his function in the group.

Well, I say Israel was the rock of the group.  Because Ahmad either adjusted his changes to Israel if Israel came up with some finer changes, or Israel always would adjust himself to Ahmad, because Ahmad always had fine changes.  As far as I was concerned, he was a rock as far as the time was concerned, and he was so pleasant to hear — his choice of notes, his big fat sound.  I think he was the real catalyst, one of the major… I know he affected my life immensely.

He had also played earlier with Teddy Wilson in trio format, and was very experienced.

Yes.

Who, by the way, would you say are some of the influences on Jamal in terms of his concept of the trio sound? — if you feel you can say that.

VF:    Well, yeah, I think I can, because most trios came from the sound of Nat King Cole.  The unity and the way he used dynamics brought about a new phase of playing.  Ahmad just had more difficult dynamics, and so many of them.  That was the thing.  I mean, there were five or six ways he could play one tune.  He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want that accent with it when he did it.  You had to consciously be aware that he was playing the piano.

[MUSIC: "Night Mist Blues," "This Terrible Planet"]

Ahmad Jamal is a rhythmic innovator in the music.

Yes.  He never did sort of, for the trend of the time, the straight-ahead Jazz thing.  He always intermixed, I guess for lack of a better word, exotic times, or exotic feelings into Jazz.  Rumbas, tangos, believe me, you were able to do all these kind of things and still make it sound like Jazz.  Generally what he did, while I was with him, he’d get the melody, say, for “This Terrible Planet” that was written for him by Bob Williams, he’d get the tune, it was sent to him and he liked it… I remember one day he called a rehearsal.  I think we were getting ready to have a record date, or he was thinking of a record date, I don’t know.   Anyway, we called a rehearsal, and he laid down the line and he laid down the bass line — on “Terrible Planet,” the bassist was Jamil Nasser.  And he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted.  And naturally… Nobody writes for drums.  It’s funny, but nobody writes… They always try to get some kind of an input from you.  And from the rhythmic pattern that was set with the total melody, then the drum pattern was developed.  Not to talk about the drum pattern on this thing, but for the drummers out there, it’s interesting… If you can understand, it was a 6/8 time, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1 — so it starts the sequence over and over again.  And once you get used to that, then the rest of it is easy.  And the tambourine was used on the side.  I didn’t know what to do with that tune, and I played the tambourine, and I guess Ahmad smiled, and so I kept it there.  That’s what you look for really — what pleases the guy that you’re working for.

He has to smile.

Yes.  Smile or something.  Smile is good enough.  The tom-tom thing came in with the left hand; that was for something else.  But anyway, Ahmad would set a pattern.  And  actually, the whole rhythmic pattern derived from the melodic pattern that he set with the bass line and himself, and once he set that then you just joined in with the… Until you did something that pleased whoever you’re working with.  If they set up a pattern, then you try to do something… You keep looking for something until you think that that’s what they want.

Jamal also would set up a lot of his lines against the drum pattern and create that type of dialogue.

Oh, yes.  He’s a phenomenal rhythm… I can’t find the word I want to use.  But as I told you earlier, I happened to do a thing with him in Perugia about 1987 or ’88, and it was really one of the high points of my life again to know that I could still play with him — or still try to play with him.  Anyway, now he’s into all kinds of rhythmic pattern things, 7/4, 5/4.  Very seldom does he play straight any more.  It’s always 6/8 or… And it’s very exciting.  He’s gone into another bag altogether.

Another aspect of his playing is just his phenomenal technique.  Harold Mabern refers to his “masterly chromatic runs.”

Well, I’m sure… He never talked much about himself in all those years.  But I’m sure that he had… He did mention his teacher in Pittsburgh, who all the cats from Pittsburgh during that time knew of or came under him.  I think Erroll Garner… Well, all the cats.  Ahmad had a lot of Classical piano.  I have always said, especially now, that he wanted to ever go into another bag, like the concert bag…

[END OF TAPE SIDE]

I’ll tell you, I think Ahmad is really just developing.  Because he always had this.  But you know, you get to a certain age… By that I mean, Ted, you get to a certain age where you figure, “What more can happen?  Let me go on and try a two-bar thing.”  You know what I mean?  And I think he’s at that stage now.  So there’s no telling what direction he’ll… Well, like Miles, the same thing.  Miles takes another thing, but when you listen to it you still know it’s Miles.  One of those things.

We’ll next hear some tracks from Live At The Black Hawk in San Francisco.  What were some of the circumstances surrounding that date?

VF:    Well, the Black Hawk in San Francisco was the last recording date, but immediately after that the trio was disbanded supposedly temporarily.  Well, we didn’t really know whether it was temporary or permanent, but it was disbanded.  Also that was one of Israel’s last recordings. I think he made a couple after that, but that was his last  recording with Ahmad.

Another thing, Ahmad was getting away from the softer sound, and getting more into the stick sound.  I was playing sticks more than brushes, and at one time I didn’t pick up a stick, except for “Poinciana.”  But then he started getting more into that.  He started expressing himself in a more volume-ous [sic] way; I guess that’s the word.  With more… I don’t want to say “loud,” but he became more…

More intensity.

Well, more progressive, more progressive on the piano, and showing what he really could do.  Because you know, for many years they called him a “cocktail piano player,” which was really a drag.  Like the group was a cocktail group, you know.  But I guess he proved to many dissenters (I guess that’s the right word) that his talent wasn’t limited.  And it was a very happy feeling, surprisingly.  You know, right before death…not death, but the demise of the group, this happy feeling was immediately before that.

[ETC.] We’ll begin with “April In Paris.”

VF:    That was a direct take from Basie.

[MUSIC:  "April In Paris," "Two Different Worlds," "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine," "The Best Thing For You"]

We’ll move next to more live material recorded in 1961 at Ahmad Jamal’s own club, the Alhambra, in Chicago.  Where was the club located and what was it like?

It was located on Michigan Avenue, either between 13th and 14th or 14th and 15th.  But it was right above what they call the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Loop.

The South Loop, right below the Roosevelt Avenue…

Right.  Or above, either one of them.  If you’re talking about the South Side, you’re talking about above.  Originally it was a three- or four-story office building, and Ahmad purchased the building.  He had his offices on one floor, and he had two rented out, and the bottom he took and made a restaurant out of — the Alhambra Restaurant.  It was a magnificent place.  The decor and the food and the comfort was well-accepted by the public.  And it was a non-alcoholic place, so that made it able to stay open 24 hours a day.  During the prom season, you would be surprised at the amount of youngsters that would come there at 12, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and still hanging, but come in and hear the music and have their dinner or whatever.  It was a wonderful place.

Was the band pretty much playing there constantly, week after week?

Well, the general idea behind the whole situation was that we would spend maybe six months of the year, so we could be with our families, and six months for travel — go out for two weeks, come home for two weeks, that type of thing.  And I think he had plans of booking people like Miles and these kind of people into the place, eventually.  We were there for a couple of months to try to get it off the ground, which we did.

Then it was one of those stories after that.  You hear a million stories.  I’ve heard a couple of versions.  But the club could have been successful, would have been successful, but the only way it could succeed was with Ahmad.  Ahmad had to take  up the slack in the lean days to build it, to make it flourish.  You know how Jazz is.  You have to establish it where someone knows at any of the day, the night, seven nights a week, they can go somewhere and have good music, good food — and that takes a while to do.  But I think he had succeeded in doing that.

People say that at around this time in Chicago, the club scene was in a kind of a downswing.

I don’t know, Ted.  Because there was always X amount of work on the South Side.  The phenomenal thing about Ahmad, this didn’t take five or six years to do.  He did this in less than two years, from working the places on the South Side, which paid well, but from hundreds of dollars, you’re talking about thousands of dollars now — and it’s a matter of a year-and-a-half.  And there was still an abundance of work on the South Side.  The South Side didn’t really start to deteriorate until I guess the rest of the United States started deteriorating, after the death of Martin Luther King.  Then the clubs and everything…

But there was always an abundance of work all over town, not just the South Side.  You had the North Side, the near North Side, you had the Gold Coast, you had the far North Side, you had Oak Lawn.  There was many, many places.  Calumet City!, ha-ha, which is close to Chicago.  But the club was very successful.  Very successful.  But it couldn’t make it without Ahmad.

[MUSIC: From Live at the Blackhawk: "All Of You," "Love For Sale," "Time On my Hands," "Sweet and Lovely"]

We’ll next move to the date that brought Ahmad Jamal to  wider public recognition, his dates at the Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove.

Yes.  In the Pershing Hotel, right on the corner.

There were several venues in the hotel, weren’t there?

Yes.  There was the Pershing Lounge upstairs.  And downstairs, I forget the name of the place, but that’s where Sun Ra got his thing together, the first big band together, was downstairs at the Pershing.

Was it El Grotto?

It was called El Grotto…

That’s when Earl Hines had the place.

That was before my time, see.  That was all over with when I got to Chicago.  But there was also a dance hall above that, believe it or not, Charlie Parker used to play for dancers, and Charlie Ventura and Lester Young — they used to play upstairs there.  Would you believe that?  It was great!  The joint would be packed.  Anyway, there was a lot of activity at the Pershing in the late Forties and early Fifties that I saw.

Apart from just the sheer talent of Jamal, can think of  why this particular recording have broken the band out as spectacularly as it did?

I don’t know.  I don’t think we ever figured that one out.  I guess it was just time.  It was just time.  For that recording, I think we did three nights in the Pershing, two or three nights recording us at that time.  It could have been the live thing, with the people clapping.  That could have done it.  But it was accepted all over immediately.  Immediately.

Jamal has always had great acclaim with the public and quite a bit with musicians, but the critical community has always seemed to have a little trouble.  So I guess the public spoke in this case.

Well, like I said, when the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!  That’s wrong, I know, to say.  That’s quite a statement to make over public…

I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment among the musical community…

VF:    Well, generally the critics… Well, it was just like Charlie Parker.  You know, when Charlie Parker first hit the scene, everybody, almost everybody except the youth was against it, was anti-Charlie Parker.  But the youth were definitely there.  And that was Ahmad’s crowd also.  But then he reached not only the youth; he played something for the elderly also, the people that were used to the other kind of music — but with a new feeling.  The same music, but the new feeling.  That’s what Bird did.

As you mentioned before, a lot of what Jamal did comes out of the tradition of the Nat Cole Trio, and there’s Art Tatum sound, and the Erroll Garner sound as well.

Well, to me Erroll is… I hate to say it, Ahmad, but Erroll is my favorite pianist.  And the reason for that is Erroll is the only guy I know who can play by himself and swing an entire audience — by himself.  He’s a one-man band. Ahmad loved Erroll.  A lot of times, he played it.  He could play like Erroll.  Which is very, very difficult.  It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of good timing.  Erroll had excellent timing.

But what made the trio successful, I don’t think either one of the three of us knew.  All of a sudden, there it was.  Because we left home, went out on the road… In fact, our first trip from home with the trio, after the record had hit, was Des Moines, Iowa.  And it was a complete disaster.  Well, that’s a long story.  But it was a complete disaster, because it was held under certain auspices that weren’t sanctioned at that time.  But we didn’t come back disgruntled.  We knew we felt good when we played.  And the next engagement we had, we left and went to Washington, and then boom, that did it — Washington, D.C.

So you’d go to each town and the record would break in  each town as…

Well, no.  The record broke immediately.  I mean, as we were traveling from town to town, the record was breaking way before we got there.  In other words, before we got to California, which maybe was three or four months after we left to travel on the road, the record had become phenomenally big then.  One of those kind of things.  It was an immediate response.  I’m sure of it.

We’ll begin a set of several compositions recorded at the Pershing with a special request from Vernell, “Poor Butterfly.”

When I was looking at the album, it reminded me of Israel Crosby’s wife.  She loved that tune.  So she must have been in the audience that night.  And that’s how spontaneous Ahmad is.  He had certain things that he could  make an arrangement immediately.  We knew exactly what he was going to do.  But Hazel was her name.  In fact, she’s the godmother of one of my older children.  So naturally, when I see the title of this tune, I think of both.  And it came from a famous opera.

[MUSIC:  "Poor Butterfly," "Autumn Leaves," "Cherokee," "But Not For Me"]

As you said before, Ahmad Jamal didn’t make Bebop his whole thing…

No. But of course, he had the technique to do anything that he wanted to do.  And naturally, during that time, all of the younger musicians could really play Bebop.  You know what I mean?  That was the thing to do.  If you wanted to really play music, you had to play Bebop, because that’s the one that called for all your expertise.  So a lot of times if you listen to him, I think you could realize that he was very capable of playing Bebop.  I know it wouldn’t have been any kind of problem for the straight-ahead thing.

Now, Chicago was a real jam session city in the 1950′s.

Yes, it was.

Did Jamal go around and play at sessions?

No, he didn’t.  He was basically a very quiet family man.  But a working family man.  He worked all the time.  I think we talked earlier about his conception.  He was trying to get his conception of what he thought he should do with the piano into the forefront.  But no, he didn’t really hang out.  There was a special restaurant we used to go to, and drummers used to get together, and bass players… Anyway, it was a home for the musicians after we got off from work.  We’d hang til four or five in the morning.  But very seldom did Ahmad hang.

Which place was that?

That was called the Home Restaurant on 63rd and Cottage.  We sort of took over the restaurant from like 2 to 5 or 6.

Was Jamal very popular among the young pianists in Chicago?

Oh, yes.  And amongst the musicians.  In Chicago at that time, they had such a variety of music going on.  The music wasn’t limited whatsoever.  There was Bebop and all the rest of the things happening in Chicago.  So there was a lot of education to be had, a lot of knowledge to be gained.  Because you figured Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, people like Sonny Stitt, these were staple men in Chicago, they were always around in Chicago.  And drummers and bassists… Well, a lot of your best bass players during that time came out of Chicago.  The musicianship was very high quality.  I think I told you before, the last time we talked, that if a band was leaving New York City going to Chicago minus a man, they didn’t worry too much, because they knew they could pick up someone in Chicago that could fill that spot until whoever they really wanted would come forth and be part of the organization.  But Chicago was a very thriving musical town.

But no, Ahmad didn’t hang that much.  But everyone knew him.  Everyone would go see him, you know.

Another aspect is his great orchestrational abilities within the trio format.  I think Ellington must have been an influence on him there.  And he recorded Ellington compositions and Ellingtonia throughout his career…

Well, I think Ahmad always paid homage to the great musicians.   I don’t care who they were.  Naturally, he paid homage to a lot of composers.  But also what we call cliche licks that different musicians used to make, he’d also pay homage to them on those.  Tatum and Garner… Like I said, he could do the thing just like Garner if he wanted to.

Anyway, whatever the situation demanded, he had the power to come forth and take care of the business.

[MUSIC: "Raincheck," "Squatty Roo"]

This last segment will focus on the drummerless trio that Jamal first recorded, three or four recordings, one for the Okeh label and one for Argo-Cadet.  Do you recollect hearing this particular trio in person?

Yes.  Is Eddie Calhoun on bass on that one?

Actually, it’s Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.   The LP is Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

I remember hearing Ahmad many, many times.  Whenever he’d play the South Side, there was a particular place that loved him and the people loved him there.  It was called the Kitty Kat, at 63rd Street.  It was a very small place, but it stayed packed for Ahmad.

Was it a good piano?

A very good piano, yes.  Of course, there weren’t as many grands around as there are now, but most places had well-tuned pianos.  I’ll put it like that.  Sometimes a grand piano would have taken up too much room, some of the joints were so small.

No Bosendorfers in these places.

Oh, no.  I didn’t hear of Bosendorfer until… I  think George Shearing played one when I played with him.   But sitting next to a grand could be very detrimental to a drummer during that time, because if a guy really plays that grand, when he digs into those bass notes, it really can affect your ears — in a pleasant way, but it can affect them.

Another thing about this time, a number of these tunes, some six or seven that we won’t be able to get to, were recorded by Miles Davis around this time with the great quintet.  He collaborated with Gil Evans on “New Rhumba.” “All Of You,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” “Ahmad’s Blues” and  “Billy Boy” were features for Red Garland.  “Autumn Leaves” and “Squeeze Me,”  too [ETC.] Ray Crawford had a very percussive technique on guitar.

Yes.  He started… Now, I don’t know if he originated it, but he was one of the first, I think, to record the bongo beat on the guitar.  It gave it an extra body, it gave it an extra sound, instead of just strumming all the time.

But to get back to Red,  you know, Ahmad recorded “Billy Boy” and those things much longer before Red Garland recorded those things.  But that’s when the group really started expanding, when he got into the trio thing.  I think Joe Kennedy and whoever else was there left and went back to Pittsburgh, and then he stayed with the trio at all times.  It wasn’t augmented whatsoever.  What was the question…

It wasn’t a question, but more of a comment.   What you’re responding to has to do with Ray Crawford’s guitar and had you seen the drummerless trio.

Yes.  And in fact, at this particular club, the Kitty-Kat that I was talking about before, they’d work on a Monday night when most of the groups were off on Mondays.  And Monday was a big day in Chicago.

They had the breakfast…

The breakfast show was Monday morning, and then you went to the jam sessions afterwards, then there was an evening jam session, then you’d go to the clubs that night.  So it was a 24-hour situation, or a 36-hour situation.

Chicago was  wide-open.

That’s right.  So we’d all head over to see Ahmad, pay him a visit, listen.  But then there were other things that you wanted to hear, too, so it wasn’t a constant thing.  But we always knew he was there.  We’d get full of his sounds, and we’d leave and come back and get replenished with them later on, like guys do today.

[MUSIC: "New Rhumba," "Billy Boy"]

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Drummer, Interview, WKCR

It’s Ahmad Jamal’s 81st Birthday

A few weeks ago, the unfortunate news went semi-viral that the U.S. government had blocked Ahmad Jamal, who turns 81 today, from receiving a $10,000 fee for a forthcoming  performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, citing the bank transfer as “a donation to terrorism.” Apparently, he was being confused with Jamel al-Bedawi, a Yemeni wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. It’s unclear whether the State Department or Department of Homeland Security has resolved the confusion

Jamal is, of course, a universal influence on the sound of hardcore mainstem jazz by dint of Miles Davis’ application of his strategies to his own rhythm section during the middle ’50s (Miles  recorded much of the repertoire of Jamal’s early ’50s Three Strings trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and assigned pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans to head to his steady gig with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of what he wanted them to do), and the subsequent assimilation of his syntax by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, and Bill Charlap, all of whom cite him as a seminal early influence. He’s of course evolved with age, broadening his concept, extending the forms, playing with an imaginative oomph and unfettered imagination.

As Jim Macnie put it in a cover story that ran in DownBeat last March, “All the signature Jamal elements are in place: the exquisite touch, the profound grace, the mercurial improv choices. Though they’ve been there for decades—certainly since he made his first big career splash with At The Pershing: But Not For Me, the 1958 powerhouse that rode the charts for more than two years—these days everything about his playing is a bit sharper, a touch more vivid, a smidge more fanciful.”

I had a chance to write my own Jamal profile for DownBeat  in 2003, when Dreyfuss released the wonderful trio date  In Search Of…Momentum. The piece incorporated a contemporaneous interview, but also drew heavily on Jamal’s remarks during a five-hour WKCR program in 1995 on which he presented his music and spoke about his life. I’ve posted the transcript of that encounter below, as well as interviews about Jamal with Harold Mabern, Herlin Riley, and Richard Davis

* * *

Ahmad Jamal Profile (WKCR, 2-5-95):

[MUSIC: "Poinciana" (1958); "Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me," "Chelsea Bridge" (1994); "Acorn" (1992); "Foolish Ways" (1989); "Divertimento" (1989); "Blue Gardenia" (1992); "Never Let Me Go" (1994); "Rossiter Road" (1985); "Haitian Marketplace" (1964); "Night Mist Blues" (1961); "Music, Music, Music" (1961); "Too Late Now" (1961); "You Don't Know What Love Is"; "Patterns," "Dolphin Dance" (1970)]

I’d like to speak with you about your early years in music and your years coming up in Pittsburgh as a young pianist.  I gather you began playing piano very early, and had a facility for it that was quite immediately evident.

AJ:    Well, Pittsburgh is a very interesting town, Ted.  You have a lot of players that are still there that are just as astonishing as the ones that have left.  We had Billy Strayhorn there, and I sold papers to his family when I was a kid, which was an experience in itself.  Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, who is long forgotten — we all went to the same high school.  Mary Lou Williams, same high school.

Which high school was that?

AJ:    Westinghouse.

Was there a great band teacher at Westinghouse High School?

AJ:    There was.  His name was Mr. Carl McVicker.  I think he lived to be 96 or 97.  I think he’s passed on now.  But to use the over-used word that Sue Clark comments on quite often, the legendary McVicker.  Yes, he was quite popular around there.

What was his manner like?

AJ:    Well, it was his approach.  He was quite innovative.  He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?).  It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.  He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on.  Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least.  But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946.

I interrupted you when you were listing the musicians out of Pittsburgh.

Well, it’s so many.  You have Loren Maazel, you have Earl Wild, the exponent of Liszt, and Erroll Garner, as I mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams, Dodo Marmarosa, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Phyllis Hyman, Dakota Staton, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey — and it goes on and on.

I’ve read that you first were put at a keyboard at the age of 3 or 4, and your ability became quickly apparent.

Yeah, I took a long time to decide.  I started playing at 3.  Earl started playing at 3, too.  It happens.  It’s very rare, but it happens.  I began with Mary Caldwell Dawson, one of the great teachers, when I was 7; I started studying with her at 7.

Were your parents musical?  Did they play?   Was there always music in the household?

Later on, much to my astonishment, I found out that my mother had approached the piano before we started coming — that was astonishing, because she never mentioned that to me.  But the whole family has the ability to play the instrument, and some of us do.  I have a first cousin who was down at the Blue Note the other night.  She plays very well.  She doesn’t play any more, but she plays very well.  So there’s music throughout the entire family.  And if they don’t play, they have a very thorough knowledge and insight into what music should be all about.

What sort of music would you be listening to in the family?  Were you listening to a wide range of music as a young guy?

Well, I was a collector as a youngster. Ted.  I used to send away for… You had to send away for records then.   So I have a lot of collectors’ items.  I have big band records that Erroll Garner was on that very few people know about.  Guild was the label.  He did some things with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld.  We had to send away for things like “Salt Peanuts” when Dizzy and Bird first came out on those.  I was quite a collector, and so was my brother.  We collected everything, the big bands, particularly the sounds of Jimmie Lunceford and Basie, all the bands who used to come to the Savoy.  We had the Savoy Ballroom.  That’s when I first saw Diz, when Hen Gates was his pianist.  I don’t know if you remember the name Hen Gates.  Joe Harris, who’s another Pittsburgher, was playing drums — he’s a marvelous drummer.  So all those bands we went to see at the Savoy as well as the Stanley Theater, where I first saw Duke Ellington and Sonny Greer.  Which was a picture in itself, because Sonny was behind many, many percussion instruments.  “Ring Dem Bells” was one of the things Duke wrote for Sonny, I believe.

Many people have commented that the sight of the big bands as a spectacle was almost as inspiring as the sounds that emanated from them.

Well, that’s where I first heard Bud Powell, too.  Bud was playing with Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater.

Speaking about Bud Powell, which pianists caught your ear early on?

Well, some were fairly formidable, to say the least.  I mean, there are some great players in the so-called Boogie-Woogie idiom, too.  James P. Johnson and Albert Ammons, forget about it; they were just incredible.  But the ones that I think I began to follow most widely were Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and of course, Erroll Garner was my biggest influence.

How did you go about assimilating these influences?

Well, you’re going to emulate.  You have to emulate different people until you develop your own path or your own pattern.  So you’re going to emulate all those great players, and see what they’re doing, analyze what they were doing.  Then you go to your sessions… We had these historical sessions in Pittsburgh, which unfortunately are  absent now for a lot of the younger players.  So you take these things off a record, and you apply them in the jam sessions, and eventually, if you’re lucky, if you’re blessed, you’ll find your own approach to these things — which is not easily come by.

Who were some of the players your age that participated in these sessions in Pittsburgh?

A great trumpeter who is Stanley Turrentine’s brother, Tommy Turrentine.  Tommy taught me my first flatted fifth chord.  He’s a great musician, Tommy.  In fact, I got Tommy a job with George Hudson’s band shortly thereafter, after I joined the band.  Joe Kennedy, the great violinist, was one of the prominent figures in the jam sessions.  There was the great guitarist Ray Crawford, who started out playing saxophone; he was one of the great saxophonists.  Joe Harris.  Ray Brown would come back, when he wasn’t on the road; he would come back and play, too.  Leroy Brown, the famous Leroy Brown in Pittsburgh.  Osie Taylor, a phenomenal saxophone player.  Sam Johnson, the great Sam Johnson, a pianist.  Cecil Brooks, who now has a son, Cecil Brooks, III.  Cecil was one of the great figures around 471, where the sessions took place.

Were these private sessions, or would people come from around the community and offer their input?

Well, it was a private club of musicians.  You had to be a member to get in.  But we also let the general public in if they said and spoke the right words!

Was this club affiliated with the union?

Yes, it was our 471 local.

Apart from that, were you out doing little or not so little gigs in the community for money as a teenager?

Yes, I was working in just about every setting possible.  I was working sometimes with Eddie Jefferson, who was a tap dancer then.  He wasn’t singing at the time.  I used to play for Eddie Jefferson on rare occasions.  In fact, Eddie used to come down to the club and participate in jam sessions, too.  And I was with all the big bands.  I did a lot of big band work in Pittsburgh.

Local big bands?

Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray, Jerry Elliott.

What type of chart would they be playing?  Were local arrangers doing it, or were they working with stocks, or the popular charts of the day?

50-50, Ted.  We had some great writers within Pittsburgh, so we had some stock charts, but we also had our own writer that would write as well.

I guess Billy Strayhorn had left a little before that time?

[LAUGHING] Yes.  We didn’t have Billy’s things!  Duke had those.  We had the stock arrangements of Billy’s by that time, I would suppose.

Then I had some very unusual settings where we would go.  Carl Otter, who was a great musician around Pittsburgh, his father was a great pianist, and Carl was one of the  saxophonists… We used to play jobs in Uniontown, just piano and tenor, no drums, no bass.  Can you imagine that, just piano and tenor.

Earl Hines in his autobiography mentions Wylie Avenue as the strip where he really picked up his information in the 1910′s and early Twenties.  What was the Pittsburgh Jazz scene like when you were in there as far as the older musicians, and what part of town was it located in?  Give us a sense of the ambiance in Pittsburgh.

Wylie has been replaced with the new sports center, the coliseum, the sports dome, whatever they call it.  It’s been replaced, and Wylie Avenue is no more, unfortunately.  They should never have torn down Local 471.  They should have kept the building (it’s a historical landmark), and moved it at least.  But that was lost, which was a tremendous loss.

Wylie Avenue was the place where we all gathered, the places that were around there were the Washington Club, where I first met Art Tatum.  I was 14 when Art came and played for us.

What was that experience like?

Well, it’s very difficult to describe an experience like that, [LAUGHS] a 14-year-old kid sitting and playing along with Art Tatum.  Of course, he played last!

Did he have any comments for you at that time?

I don’t know.  I was too in-awe to even get into that.  His quotes were mentioned later on in some of my press releases.  Someone found some quotes of his as a result of that, and put them in some subsequent press releases.

Then we had the Bamboolah Club, and we had Crawford’s Grill, which I’d imagine you’ve heard of.  Crawford’s Grill was the definitive place for players.  I, interesting enough, never worked Crawford’s Grill.  Then, of course, the capital, the dome of the capital, the Musicians Club.  To me that was the dome of the capital as far as music was concerned.

So you came up in some very tough company in Pittsburgh, very high standards.  How old were you when you began working regularly and taking home some money.

Too young.  I was 11 years old.  That’s too young.  I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets.  That’s too young.  I don’t recommend that.

Can you give us some descriptive sense of what you sounded like at the age of 11 or 12, in 1941 or 1942?

I sounded well enough… See, in my case, I had an aunt from North Carolina.  That was when publishing was publishing, and she used to send me sheets and sheets and sheets of music that was written before I was born.  So I sounded well enough during those years as a result of having all this great body of work that I drew from this sheet music, that I was working with guys 60 or 65 years old, and they were astounded because I knew all of these sounds.  That’s how I got so much work, or enough work to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.

Were you improvising at that time?  Were you functioning as an improvising Jazz pianist?

Well, when I first started playing, I just played everything I heard, so I was improvising just like anyone else does who sits down, whether it’s Bach or Beethoven.  They’re all improvisers, too.  Improvisation is not confined to American Classical Jazz.  Anybody who sits down and starts doing innovative things is an improviser.  So I was doing it all my life.  I started doing that at 7, started writing charts at 10, and was quite at home with, as I said before, guys 60 or 65 who had been doing it for a long time — because I had this great body of work that I was drawing from.

You mentioned that you left Pittsburgh with the George Hudson Band.

George made me leave my happy home.  That’s where it started. George is also from Pittsburgh, but he transplanted to St. Louis, stayed in St. Louis, and is still there, if he’s still living.  Out of that band came Clark Terry, a great number of musicians.  Myself.  Ernie Wilkins, a great writer who used to write charts on the bus.  I can see Ernie right now writing charts on the bus.  He was a phenomenal writer.  He came out of that band, too.  Bill Atkins, one of the great, unheralded first saxophonists, possibly the top first man in the world.  Marshall Royal was another one, with Basie for many, many years, but Marshall was known — Bill wasn’t.  So George produced a lot of great musicians.

So you went out with him and wound up in Chicago, is how it went?

George sent for me.  He came through and heard me, I guess, at one of those historic jam sessions at the 471, and I got a call to come to Atlantic City.  I was 17 then.  I had my eighteenth birthday in Atlantic City.  So I stayed in Atlantic City all summer, and there I met Johnny Hartman — because Johnny had just started.  We worked for Billy Daniels, who was one of the so-called superstars at that time.  Butterbeans and Susie.  Ziggy Johnson had the chorus line; that’s another historic figure.  We had Jimmy Smith, the xylophone player who used to tap-dance on the xylophone — incredible.  He passed away in Chicago at the Pershing Hotel from tuberculosis.  Oh, it’s a line of people that were there.

We stayed for an entire season in Atlantic City, at the Club Harlem, which is now no more.  We would start at 8 o’clock at night, get out when the sun was coming up.  Louis Armstrong came through one time, and that’s where I met the famous Sid Catlett.  It was one of the thrills of my life, playing with Sid Catlett.  We had great times there.  Great times.

It seems like by the time you’re 18 or 19 and getting to Chicago, you’d had as much experience as some people get in sixty years!

Well, there are a few of us that have, I call it, embraced three eras of music.  A few of us have done that.  George Coleman, Thad Jones, Jamil Nasser, the late Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, and Miles Davis, as well as Gil Evans — because Gil was writing back then for Claude Thornhill.  Musicians who have embraced three eras are very fortunate, and their whole approach is different, because we were youngsters when the big bands were in vogue, we were still young when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came along, and we’re still around in the so-called Electronic Age.  So when you’re drawing from this great body of work, your approach is quite different.

[MUSIC:  "Raincheck" (1960); "Prelude To A Kiss" (1976); "Squatty Roo" (1958); "Don't You Know I Care?" (1994)]

We were taking you from Pittsburgh to Chicago in our last conversational segment, and you were spending a season in Atlantic City with the George Hudson band.  From then to Chicago, what happened?

I left the band to go back to exploit with Joe Kennedy the possibilities of getting the Four Strings in gear and getting some work for the group that we had at the time.  The group was Joe Kennedy, Ray Kennedy, myself and Edgar Willis at that time (Peepers) was playing bass, one of Mary Lou Williams’ favorite bassists.  He passed away some time ago, two years ago.  He was the bassist with Ray Charles for a while, after he went to California.  So I left the band to go back to Pittsburgh, then we went back to Chicago with that group in 1948, called the Four Strings.

Did you have a gig?  Was it set up through a booking office or something?

We couldn’t get any work.  We had one job that came out of an office in Chicago, and that job was not in Chicago — it was in Dayton, Ohio or somewhere.  So that group broke up because we couldn’t get work.  Joe went back to teaching in Pittsburgh.  Out of that group came the Three Strings, because what was left was the guitarist, bass and piano.

Did that begin your concept of the orchestrational piano trio?

Well, you know, before the formation of the trio, I worked with Israel Crosby for a while.  He had a trio.  I worked with him at Jack’s Back Door at 59th and State.  I was doing maintenance work at Carson Pirie and Scott downtown for $32 a week, and I would work at Jack’s Back Door with Israel and Johnny Thompson.  I’m the only living member of that group.  That was another interesting combination, saxophone, piano and bass — no drums.

Von Freeman cites Johnny Thompson as having been an influence in the 1930′s.

Johnny was one of the great players.  In Chicago, you know, that was the age of saxophone.  Tom Archia went there, that’s where everyone went… That’s where Vernell was working.  You couldn’t get Vernell, because Vernell was sought after all over the place.  It took me a long time to get Vernell in the group.  So I was working odd jobs.  I couldn’t work every night anyway, because I hadn’t joined the union.  I hadn’t put my transfer in, or some crazy rule.  I worked with Von Freeman a bit.  I worked with another saxophonist called Claude McLin, that people don’t know about.  He was a great player, too.  Gene Ammons was around; he was the big boss.  And Tom Archia where Vernell was working.

So finally, I went into this steady job over the weekend with Israel — Israel Crosby, Johnny Thompson and myself.

Then I played solo at the Palm Tavern.  Once in a while, Ike Day would come in and play for me.  People don’t know Ike Day, except for a few like the late Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones, and people who are in that really essence of the core elite.  Well, Ike Day was one of the great drummers who never left Chicago for very long.  He used to help me in my single engagement at Jack’s Palm, the Palm Tavern.  Unfortunately, he passed away in untimely fashion.

So I worked single, and I worked trio with Israel, then I formed my own group in 1951.  That was quite some time after the Four Strings had disbanded, though.  In the interim, I had gone out with a group called the Caldwells, and Ray Bryant and I were the graduates of that particular college, working for those three singers, the Caldwells.  Ray and I were the pianists of record with the Caldwells.  Then I went back to Chicago and formed my trio in ’51 after working around for three years.

By this time the union had straightened out…

Not really.  A friend of mine, who was one of the great saxophone players, Eddie Johnson, heard me play, and he went to Harold Gray and said, “Look, I want him on my job,” and he’s got to get in the union.  That’s how I got in the union.  Harry Gray was the head of the union at that time.  A very tough man.  Very tough.

I gather when you met Von Freeman, was working weekends at the Pershing Hotel, which you became identified with in the 1950′s.  Describe the ambiance around the Pershing Ballroom a little bit, and also what was going on around the South Side’s booming Jazz community.

Well, Von was at the Circle Lounge.  He wasn’t at the Pershing when I met him.  I worked with Von at the Circle Lounge at 63rd and Cottage Grove.  The Pershing was at 64th and Cottage Grove.  It was one of the more sophisticated places on the South Side, along with Harry’s Show Lounge, which was the last time I saw Nat King Cole.  Nat came in and saw me there when I had a trio working in the front room.  We had graduated from the back room up to the front room at Harry’s.

Then we had the Hi-Hat Club, where Lester used to come, and Vernell and Israel were the musicians of record; they accompanied everyone that came through there.  That was quite a place, too, the Hi-Hat; I think it was on 63rd Street.

I went into the Pershing early-on, in 1951.  I asked for a job in there and didn’t get it; they didn’t hire me.  So I went somewhere else, and I came back in the Pershing later on, in 1958.  But the whole atmosphere there, Eddie Harris and I would be walking down the street, and there were great things happening there.  As I said before, Tom Archia, Willie Jones, and Willie Dixon.

Leonard Chess had just started his label.  He started it with five artists.  He started it with a little guy named Chuck Berry, some old masters by James Moody, some old masters by me, and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.  He had about five artists.  So the whole thing was one of great historical interest.  In fact, the place where he started is now a historical landmark in Chicago.  He owned the Macombo, where Tom Archia held court every night with Vernell and Willie Jones.  Leonard Chess owned that place.  So the atmosphere was really something when it came to saxophone at that time.  And of course, there were a great deal of venues to work, too, which are missing now.

Chris Anderson, of course, was playing with Von Freeman then, and he’s cited by many people who heard him at that time as having a very advanced concept for that time, and he seems to have had an impact on a number of

Chris has always been one of our favorites, along with Billy Wallace, who is a pianist that all the insiders know.  Billy is now playing a single up in Seattle.  But Chris had, and has always had a great harmonic concept, absolutely amazing, astounding.  And I have to get out and steal a few chords from you, Chris, as I mentioned before.  I haven’t seen Chris in a long time.

Of course, there was a bunch of greats around.  Chris. Bill Lee (the bassist, Spike Lee’s father).  Billy Wallace, who used to hold court quite often in Chicago.

The tracks we have cued up were recorded in 1951 and early 1952 for the Okeh label, with the trio of you, Ray Crawford, and Eddie Calhoun.  About three or four years after you cut these, Miles Davis then recorded most of these sides in his own way.  He always was very outspoken about his debt to your concept.  He had family in Chicago.  Did you know him at that time.  Do you recollect first meeting Miles Davis?

I knew Vernon quite well, Vernon Davis.  I met Vernon before I met Miles.  Vernon probably is still in Chicago.

But everybody came to the Pershing.  Billie Holiday came there with her chihuahua dog, Art Tatum used to come through there, Lena Horne — everyone came to the Pershing.  Sammy Davis was there the night before he lost his eye.  And I guess that’s where Miles first heard me.  What happened, there’s a man named Cadillac Bob who built the place downstairs, beneath the lounge, and he used to bring artists such as Miles there.  That’s where I first saw a teenager named Paul Chambers, and I was astounded that he was on the bandstand at his age.  And Miles I think was introduced as a result of him working downstairs and coming  up to the Pershing.

Eddie Harris, in a show we did last year, said he used to play on your off-nights at the Pershing, and he’d double on piano, and Charles Stepney, who played vibes, would take over on piano and he would play saxophone.  He also said that for a while Billie Holiday took a financial interest in a club that was based in one of the rooms at the Pershing that was called Budland.

Yeah, Budland.  That’s correct.  That’s downstairs, that’s right.  That’s the one that Cadillac Bob built.  Later McKie Fitzhugh had a place down the street where John Coltrane used to work, and McCoy used to work on the spinet pianos there!  I remember that, too!  Terrible pianos.

Describe the layout of the Pershing a little bit.  I believe there were three venues located in that hotel, the dance hall, the upstairs lounge and the basement.  Is that right?

Well, they had the Pershing Ballroom, the ballroom where they had the dances.  Those I never attended because I was busy working downstairs, but they did have fairly big names come in there.  But I never went upstairs.  C.B. Atkins was around.  He was one of the husbands of Sarah Vaughn.  C.B. used to come in and out of there, upstairs I guess in the ballroom, and he would tell me what was going on upstairs.  But I never attended.

The Pershing was one big, massive, circular bar.  The bar was the entire room.  It was a big room.  The stage was adequate.  It was high.  It was the place, at that time when we went in there, where everyone came.  That was the place where everyone came.  Downstairs was Budland, as you just reminded me, was the other venue.  So there were three.  There was Budland downstairs, and the Pershing Lounge, and upstairs the ballroom.

I guess a few years before you came to Chicago, Earl Hines, whose geographic path you followed, owned a spot down there called El Grotto, and Joe Louis I believe had an interest in that place as well.

Yes, I knew the El Grotto.  Again, I didn’t go to the El Grotto much.  But I do remember the El Grotto.

Was Earl Hines someone who had an impact on you coming up?  Were you very aware of him as a young pianist in Pittsburgh, his legacy and his presence in Pittsburgh?

Oh, sure.  Earl was a great, great player, and a great band, and great records.  So you had to listen to Earl Hines.  I was a collector of Earl Hines’ records.

The big band that had played at the Grand Terrace.

Sure.

We’ll give Ahmad Jamal another break and hear these seminal sides from the early 1950′s on Okeh.  I don’t know how many exactly we’ll hear, but we’ll begin with “Ahmad’s Blues,” one of Ahmad’s many famous compositions, recorded May 5, 1952 — Ray Crawford, on guitar, Eddie Calhoun on bass.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Crawford/Calhoun, "Ahmad's Blues", "Surrey With the Fringe On Top", "Billy Boy" (1951-1952); Jamal/Crawford/Crosby, "Autumn Leaves"; "New Rhumba" (1955)]

I’d like to speak with you about bass players, because the bass plays such an essential role in your conception of the trio, and you’ve worked with such superb bass players.  Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis had one of his early gigs with you in Chicago, Israel Crosby, Jamil Nasser, and onward and forward.  Would you discuss your ideas on what a bassist needs to do performing in your group?

Well, the bass essentially, Ted, has to be an extension of your left hand, as Al McKibbon was in the case of George Shearing, and as Israel was and as Jamil was when he was working with me.  So that’s what the role of a great bassist is as he or she relates to the pianist.  And I’ve also sought those bassists who had sensitive ears, who had the ability to hear.  Because I myself am drawing from a great body of work (having explained before that my aunt sent me sheets and sheets of music), so you have to have a man who has the ability to have this perception of what  you’re doing when it comes to pulling these compositions of years and years ago, as well as the present things that we do.

How much input do you have into the lines that the bass player comes up with, apart of course from being the pianist and the main soloist?

AJ:    Most of the bass lines I myself have done.  The rare exception was the bass line that Israel played on “Autumn Leaves.”  That was his bass line, which has been widely used.  So most of the bass lines I have developed myself, because I have a thing for that.  I love bass lines.  So most of the things, 99 percent of the things, I write.

You’ve mentioned that you worked with Israel Crosby before you even recorded, and then subsequently he joined your band…the year I have in my mind is 1954.  I’d like you to say a few words about Israel Crosby for the audience, what made him so distinctive as a bass player, and your own personal relationship.

AJ:    Well, as I said before, I worked with Israel before he worked with me.  I joined his trio with the late Johnny Thompson, and worked at Jack’s Back Door for maybe a year.   It was a very interesting job.  We played everything, all kinds of tunes.  It was great.

It was a while before I could get Israel, because Israel was working a lot with Benny Goodman and Buster Bennett around Chicago, and it was difficult for me to get Vernell as well as Israel.  So finally I got Israel into the group, and we stayed together for around eight years, Vernell, Israel and myself. First of all, the incredible thing about Israel is that he used a K-bass.  He didn’t have a Tyrolean bass (I think that’s what James Cammack is using now; he just bought one) or a German bass or some of these fabulous instruments that you see various bassists with.  He just had a K-bass.  It was phenomenal how Israel could get this kind of action, this kind of sound, this kind of penetration out of a K-bass.  But he did.

And of course, the remarkable thing about Israel is that he was a master of intonation.  His intonation was flawless, just absolutely flawless.  And a tremendous ear.  Again, here’s a man that knew many, many, many compositions.  He knew all the tunes.  You couldn’t play a tune he didn’t know.  He was just a phenomenal bassist in the fullest sense of the word.

And I guess a very ingenious musician as well, because performing with you, the other musicians have to fill in a lot of space and come up with counterpoint and dialogue.  In a show we did a few years ago, Junior Mance was commenting that Israel Crosby always came up with ingenious ideas that blended with the most perfect taste.

Well, the classic line that Israel created (and Todd Coolman, who is another great bassist, and I often talk about it with him, has written these things down that Israel did) is his line on “But Not For Me.”  That’s a classic Israel Crosby line, as well as the things he was doing on “Poinciana.”

You mentioned how difficult it was to get Vernell Fournier into the group because he was so busy.  I’d like again for you to say a few words about his very special qualities as your drummer for eight years, and then for a little bit after in the mid-Sixties.

Here again, I’ve had three great drummers from New Orleans.  The New Orleans atmosphere down there produces this type of talent.  I had Vernell Fournier, and Herlin Riley, who left my group and went with Wynton Marsalis, and now Idris Muhammad.  They all have that great New Orleans background, that great magic that only can come from New Orleans.  They all have that approach to music.  And when you visit New Orleans and you are down there, and you explore these beginnings and whence it comes, you realize what they have that many other drummers don’t have.

That’s a tantalizing comment.  Can we explore that a little bit?  What is it about the New Orleans beat that’s so special to you?

AJ:    Well, historically I don’t know it as well as Idris does or Vernell does.  But when you talk about New Orleans, you talk about the funerals that are conducted and the way they are conducted, where the drummers participate to a large extent, to say the least, and the French Quarter — and it goes on and on and on.

Vernell is one of the great brush players of all time.  Tremendous approach to drums tonally, and one of the great innovators.  What he’s done on “Poinciana,” if he could have copywritten that, he could build a bank.  Many of the things you hear that drummers do, whether it’s Maurice White or whether it’s in some Rock groups, some of that stuff came from Mister Vernell Fournier.  But it’s very difficult to keep from being plagiarized when you’re playing in the context that he played in.  The thing that he did on “Poinciana,” for example, one of the most widely imitated rhythms in the world.

In fact, it’s called the ‘Poinciana Beat,’ isn’t it, by drummers?

Of course!

Which brings up another aspect of your playing, which is the extensive use, and often within the same piece, of different time signatures and different rhythmic approaches to music.

That’s the Pittsburgh influence.  We have a little influence in Pittsburgh, too.  We have some things that happened there as well.  As I said before, I’m drawing from three eras of music.  I have had more influences than pianists.  Ben Webster was a big influence upon me.  The big bands were a big influence upon me.  So I think orchestrally.  I’ve always thought orchestrally.  That’s the way I approach my group, whether it’s a duo, a trio, a quintet or whatever it is — it’s my orchestra.  And with an orchestra, you have to have, or at least I like to have a variety of things going, rhythmically and melodically and harmonically.  It’s part of my training.

Let me bring you back to the Ben Webster influence.  He’s the only non-pianist you’ve mentioned so far…

Well, Roy Eldridge influenced me, too, on trumpet.  I play some of Roy’s things!  Lucky Thompson influenced me.  Don Byas was one of my biggest influences.  It goes on and on and on.  These things you incorporate, and they stay in the inner recesses of your mind, and they become a part of your conscious playing.

Well, the trio became immensely popular at the time of the release of the album Live At The Pershing, although of course, you had established yourself prominently in Chicago by that time.  Let’s talk about the events leading up to the immense popularity of your trio and of your concept, and the tremendous exposure the band now had.  Of course, you were well-known to the musicians’ community, but now the broader public and international public came to know your work.

Well, first of all, it’s almost impossible for an instrumentalist to have a breakthrough.  It was no meteoric rise in our case.  I had been recording for seven years, and the group I had was far too subtle to continue working in the various venues, because guitar and bass sometimes are lost in the bigger venues — so I went to drums as a result.  It wasn’t an overnight thing.  I mean, I had worked long and hard to try and get a group together, and I went in as artist-in-residence in Chicago.  After working here in New York, I decided to go and stay at home.  Home then was Chicago.  So the thing that happened in Chicago was very, very rare.  There’s only a few of us that have that kind of breakthrough who are instrumentalists.  The singers get the hit records.  We instrumentalists don’t.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles, Dave Brubeck, and then you begin to think who else.  But there haven’t been too many hit records instrumentally.  Ours stayed on the charts for eight weeks, which is very, very unusual.

[MUSIC: Jamal/Crosby/Fournier, "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine" (1961); (w/J. Nasser) "This Terrible Planet" (1965); "April In Paris" (1961); "Love For Sale" (1958), "All Of You" (1958); "Cherokee" (1958)]

Tell me about your nightclub, the Alhambra.  You said you had 43 employees.  It was a very ambitious venture.

43 too many.  Yeah, it was quite a venture, and one I got away from.  Interesting club.  I had Jackie Cain and Roy Kral there as well.

You had a non-alcohol policy, I gather.

Yes.  I had one of the great oud players (and one of the great bassists, too) while I was working for George Wein up in Hyannisport, at the other Birdland up there.  I had Abdul-Malik.  The late Abdul-Malik played an engagement there for me as well.

We’ve covered a short space of time in your musical career.  What have I not mentioned that you would like to express for the radio audience?

Well, there are so many things to mention, Ted.  But wWe didn’t mention the concert with Duke at Carnegie Hall, the 25th Anniversary of Charlie Parker with Strings.  I think I’m the only one around from that concert that we did with Duke.  Of course, I worked with Duke on a number of occasions, and shared the bill with him at Basin Street West also.

Your new [1995] release is dedicated primarily to Ellington and Strayhorn.  It’s called I Remember Duke, Hoagy and Strayhorn, and there are versions of “I’ve Got It Bad” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Don’t You Know I Care”, “do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and also “Prelude To A Kiss.”  You mentioned earlier seeing the Ellington band at the Stanley Theater and seeing Sonny Greer for the first time. Do you remember your favorite recordings by the  Ellington band of that era?

“Cottontail” was one of my favorites.  That’s a classic recording of Ben Webster’s.

Did you get to see the band that had Jimmy Blanton in it in person?

No, I never saw that band.

When did you first start going out, by the way?

My sister took me to the theaters when I was around 7.

What are your early memories of seeing big bands?

Quite impressed, you know.  That’s when I first heard Cootie Williams.  As I said, he had Bud Powell in the band then.  And seeing Count Basie come into the Savoy, and seeing Diz.  Very, very good for a young musician, to say the least.

But we have to also talk about some of the great bassists I’ve had.  That’s one thing I didn’t expand upon.  I’ve had some tremendous bassists.  At the beginning with Tommy Sewell out of Pittsburgh, and then Eddie Calhoun, who passed away.  After that, Israel.  Jamil Nasser was with me for many, many years.  He’s one of the bassists, coming here with one of the great players of all time, Phineas Newborn.  Jamil came to New York with Phineas, so Jamil had a tremendous association with a great pianist.  So he was with me for a number of years.

Not to speak about… I’ve had some great drummers.  I had Wyatt Ruether.  Papa Jo Jones also worked with me.

I had Richard Davis after he left Cozy Eccleston.  That was the second job he had when he joined me.  I had both the Pates, Johnny Pate and his son Donald Pate.  It goes on and on.  A great bassist, Mike Taylor, out of Pittsburgh.  But I’ve had some tremendous players.  But we’ll have to talk about that when I have time.

One more question: On the relation between technique and improvising.

AJ:    Technique is extremely important.  I’m amazed at some of the young players out here now.  They have tremendous techniques.  They are power technicians, and they’re doing tremendous things.  But technique without the ability to tell the story is meaningless.  You have to tell a story.  Art Tatum had tremendous technique, incomparable technique. There are very few parallels to Art Tatum, or to a Phineas Newborn.  But they also told a story.

Technique is something that is invaluable for any musician, and I respect it tremendously.  But I also respect the ability to tell a story.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Coolman/Gordon Lane, "Dreamy" (1980); w/ Strings, "Bellows" (1989); "Tranquility" (1968); "Manhattan Reflections" (1968); "I Remember Hoagy" (1994); "Skylark" (1994); "Round Midnight" (1985)]

[-30-]

On various WKCR Musician Shows over the years, the following pianists presented these tracks by Ahmad Jamal:

Mulgrew Miller : “Dolphin Dance,” “Poinciana” (1971)

K. Barron: “Music, Music, Music,” “There is No Greater Love” ["Live At the Pershing was very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was 'Music, Music, Music.'  And again, it was 'Who is that?'  It was just so hip. I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There's just so much space and so many ideas and he's so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is...I mean, it's unbelievable technique.  His touch... So he has it all happening for him."

Cedar Walton: "Haitian Marketplace"

James Williams: "Patterns", ("Night Mist Blues")

Cyrus Chestnut: "You Don't Know What Love Is"

John Hicks: "Rossiter Road," "Too Late Now," "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine"

Junior Mance: "Raincheck," "Poinciana

In a 2008 piece for the now dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com, pianist Eric Reed selected a dozen Jamal favorites.

Here are  interview excerpts in which several of Jamal's contemporaries, bandmates, and fellow pianists remark upon his qualities.

Richard Davis:

RD:   But the first time I got a job which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh -- that was Ahmad Jamal.   This must have been 1952.

Q:    So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer?  Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?

RD:    Yeah.  He had Eddie Calhoun...

Q:    He had Ray Crawford on guitar?

RD:    Yeah.  Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar -- I can't remember his name now either!  Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course.  Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraccas while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he'd get this effect.  And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum.  It was a fantastic thing.  And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable.  And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed.  It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.

Q:    Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time?  And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?

RD:    He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.

Q:    There were several levels to that club, weren't there?  There were like two or three different venues within that hotel...

RD:    Well, the ballroom.  See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through.  Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young.  And several people would come.  Charlie Parker... They'd all work in the ballroom.  And the lounge was the place...I think that's when first heard Eddie South, the violinist.  I can't remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad.  And it was a classy kind of a  joint.  You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments -- you know, it was very pleasant.

Q:    Good piano.

RD:    Good piano, yeah. It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad.  The one thing I'll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, "Who is your favorite piano player?"  And I said, "Oscar Peterson."  You know, who else?   And he said, "You want to know who my favorite bass player is?"  I said, "Tell me."  I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody.  He said, "You are."  I said, "Me?"  He said, "Yeah, because you're here with me."  I said, "God, what a lesson!"  I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him.  That was a real booster.

Herlin Riley:

TP:    You went out on the road with him in '82?

HERLIN RILEY:  From '82 to '87.

TP:    Go over how he heard about you.

HERLIN RILEY:  Ahmad Jamal happened to be in New Orleans at a place called The Blue Room, which is the Fairmont Hotel.  There was a trumpet player in the house band there named Omar Sharif -- Emory Thompson was his Christian name -- who Ahmad knew.  Ahmad needed a drummer, because the guy who'd been playing drums with him left him in New Orleans, and he'd hired some guys in New Orleans who didn't work out.  Ahmad was going to Phoenix, and he asked Omar if he knew somebody who could do his gig, and Omar recommended me, and called me to tell me.  Then I got a call from Ahmad about 7:30 in the morning. "May I speak to Herlin Riley?" "This is he." "This is Ahmad Jamal.  I understand you're an excellent drummer, and I need someone to work with me in Phoenix. Can you do it?"  Of course, I accepted, and I got some other guys to do my gigs around town.  We went to Phoenix, we did a soundcheck, and we hit.  We hit the same night.  I was familiar with his music, but I hadn't met him.  So we played, and after the set he offered me the gig.  I happily accepted.

TP:    When we spoke for the liner note, you said the soundcheck was the rehearsal, and it was very easy to work with him.  He sat down at the piano, started playing, and continued to play.  He pointed to the bass player, who came in; he pointed to the conga player, who came in; he played the cycle of the song around and around 3-4-5 times, then pointed to you and brought you in.  He didn't tell you what to play; you just heard them, and found your pocket.  Let's talk about the dynamics of playing drums with him.

HERLIN RILEY:  The things I said are still true.  Playing with him was an enriching experience.  Ahmad's music is organic, and the fact that he can arrange it on the spot... Because everything is cued.  The music has a structure it has a form, but he gives you hand signal to direct you inside of the form with the music.  It tells you if you're playing the top of the head section, the A-section or whatever, then he'll give you another cue for the bridge, then he'll give you another cue for the interlude.  So if he wants you to repeat any of those three cycles, he can just give you the same cue to repeat it over and over. Then when he gives you the next cue to go to the next part of the tune, you go there.  So the music is constantly being shaped and arranged on the spot, which makes it very organic and very rich.

Also, Ahmad Jamal can be very percussive in his playing, so we often had a lot of rhythmic and percussive interaction.  We would play off of each other.  He always does that. I've found myself very much at home playing with him.  If I was to play with him now, it would be the same.

TP:    He obviously has an affinity for New Orleans drummers.

HERLIN RILEY:  I think one thing about New Orleans drummers is the fact that most of us grew up within the street band and parade band traditions, and the bass drum is very prevalent inside of that.  It's just like the music of the early '20s.  It comes from the bottom-up.  New Orleans drummers play the drums from the bottom up, from the bass drum up, as opposed to a lot of other guys who perhaps play from the cymbals down.  I think Ahmad is one that likes the groove.  And when you hear most music that has a solid groove on it, it comes from the bottom up.  He really likes playing grooves [vamps].  I think he just has an affinity for the nuances that New Orleans drummers bring him; that is, incorporating the bass drum inside of the grooves.

TP:    So you think he just hears that sound as part of the orchestra in his head.

HERLIN RILEY:  That’s what I think. He didn’t talk to me about it, but I just know from working with him that he likes the groove!  When he stands up, he’ll watch you play, and kind of clap his hands and get inside the groove.  It’s kind of unexplainable, but it’s something I’ve found I’ve been able to identify from working with him over the years.

TP:    You said that in working with him, you dealt with rhythms you’d never faced or dealt with before.  Can you be specific about the rhythmic signatures he likes to work with and the ways he works with them that are unique?

HERLIN RILEY:  For instance, he would play sometimes a tune in 6/8, and we’d get into the 6/8 feeling, and inside that 6/8 feel he would impose a regular 4/4 meter over the top of that, so you’re playing two different meters at the same time.  I had never experienced anybody who had that kind of rhythmic control, to really be able to go back and forth seamlessly between the two.  Because it’s two different ways of thinking.  But I could hear him doing that. It would be two different rhythms going on at the same time, and I had never experienced that.  Also, I remembering playing a tune with him that Jack DeJohnette wrote called “Ebony,” and inside of the cycle of the tune there was a 3/8 bar.  So you go 1 2 3 4, 1-2-3 1-2-3-4… It wasn’t music that was counted out to me like that.  It was something that he played, and later on I came to understand what it was.  But he just played it, and then I had to just kind of figure it out and play inside of it.  Later, as I started working with him and he started introducing those kind of 3/8s and 7/8s and 5/8 kind of rhythms inside of the music, then I could see it from an academic standpoint.  But when I first started working with Ahmad, it’s stuff that was just played, and you had to react and find your place inside of that.  As opposed to actually knowing what it was, you had to instinctively know what it was and go with your instincts.

TP:    And your instincts were sufficiently honed by playing in the range New Orleans contexts to be prepared.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes, being in New Orleans, I was prepared.  I had a lot of experience I could call on.  New Orleans is a small community, but there were a lot of things going on musically in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, a lot of styles of music.  I got a chance to play in Latin bands, bands that were playing a lot of free jazz, and even got a chance to play in vaudeville, burlesque… I played for strippers, then later I played in “One Mo Time.”

TP:    From what you say, it seems Ahmad Jamal has had a big influence on the rhythmic content of contemporary jazz.  Whether it’s direct or indirect, a lot of things he’s done have filtered into the contemporary mainstream.

HERLIN RILEY:  I would think so.  But a lot of that stuff is unspoken, because Ahmad Jamal is not one of the most in-your-face jazz figures who is out here.  He hasn’t had the same kind of recognition as people like Miles Davis or Dizzy or even Monk at this point. Most jazz musicians know who he is, but the general public, when you mention his name, they’re like, “Who?”

TP:    Do you think he’s a little taken for granted by the jazz public?

HERLIN RILEY:  I think the Jazz Establishment has shied away from him, especially early on in his career, especially the fact that he changed his name, became a Muslim at a time when it was very unfashionable.  My personal feeling is that he’s had to endure some backlash from that.

TP:    True, but he was quite successful in the ’50s… And he doesn’t want to take any stuff from anybody business-wise.  But he was never the type of bandleader who would instruct you how to play your parts.  It would be a general feel, and whoever you are becomes the interpretation of it.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes.  I think that’s one of Ahmad’s great assets.  He understands and he can hear musicians, and hear that musician’s voice for what it is.  Either it’s something that he can work with or it’s something he can’t work with.  If it’s something that he can work with, then he’ll let you really be yourself and let you speak your musical voice as it may be.  Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions in the music.  He used to tell me, “Don’t fill in every time the phrase comes around; you don’t have to play a fill.”  He’s always directing the volume and dynamics inside of the music. But really, he’s just shaping whatever is already there; whatever talent you already have, he knows how to shape it, but just let it grow and be better.  But he doesn’t disturb it in trying to have you change your direction or change who you are musically speaking.

Harold Mabern:

TP:    You seem so well positioned to put Ahmad Jamal in perspective.  You’ve heard play since when?

HAROLD MABERN:  1954 in Chicago.  Frank Strozier and I graduated from high school together in 1954, and moved to Chicago.  Booker Little graduated in ’55, and he followed us there.  George Coleman came in ’55 or ’56.  I hung out a lot with Booker and Frank, because they went to the conservatory, and we used to practice together at the YMCA.  Booker Little was the one who turned us on to Ahmad Jamal.  He’d gone out one night to hang out, and we asked him, “Where did you go last night?”  He said he went to see Ahmad Jamal.  We didn’t know who Ahmad was, but Booker knew, and he said that he’d heard one of the greatest pianists in his lifetime.  Booker played a little piano, too; not solo, but he knew a lot about it, having been around Phineas Newborn.  After that, the Pershing became our hangout night after night.  But we also heard Ahmad at the Kit-Kat Club with Ray Crawford and Israel.

TP:    You probably heard him with Ray Crawford and Israel Crosby first.  Because I think Ray Crawford left in ’55, and the Pershing began in late ’55.  Was what he was playing when you first heard him similar to what’s on the earlier recordings?

HAROLD MABERN:  The way he sounds on records is the same as it sounded in person. There was no difference.  It was all great.

TP:    But usually, before an audience, people will stretch out, or it’s more experimental, or chance comes into the equation…

HAROLD MABERN:  I see what you mean.  Well, he stretched out then, but naturally not as much as he does now.  Because he is constantly evolving.  It’s that way with all of us; you get to the point where you take more chances, you don’t play it safe.  But he did stretch out, but it was more of a format situation.  Now he’s really stretching out.  But at the time I’d heard him, I’d never heard that kind of approach before.

TP:    Describe what was unique about his approach.

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, I have to put Bill Lee into it, because he also told me about Ahmad.  The fascinating thing to me — after being around Phineas, with the technical aspect; which was great, and is still great, with the touch and the sound — was the sound that Ahmad was getting then.  After being around Bill Lee, I became attracted to his chords; I’d never heard chords played that way.  That’s when Bill Lee told me about Chris Anderson, Billy Wallace and Ahmad Jamal.  So then when I heard ahmad, it was the sound and the chordal approach.  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “Wow, how can that piano sound that way?”  That’s the only I can exlpain it, is his overall sound.  We’ve had a lot of great pianists, with great sounds and touches.  But there’s something about his approach…the sound he got that was unbelievable.

TP:    Did you see it as an extension of the great piano trios of the ’40s and early ’50s, like Nat Cole and George Shearing…

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, Nat Cole especially was one of his main influences, with the guitar and bass.  But one of his main influences, as I’m sure he spoke about, was Errol Garner.  They grew up together.  If you match up any record by Erroll Garner and any record by Ahmad, from an orchestral standpoint, you say, “Wow, there it is right there.”  But it was a lot like Nat Cole in the touch, the sensitivity of what he played, the chord voicings…

TP:    And probably a more progressive conception of harmony.

HAROLD MABERN:  Exactly.

TP:    So he was incorporating bebop, Bud Powell’s language onto the trio as a logical extension.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right, with Art Tatum touch… I call it Franz Liszt touch.  I tell my students that it’s the touch that produces the sound.  A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but it’s the touch and the sound they get out of it — like a Chopin touch or a Liszt touch.  That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are.

TP:    Well, he played Liszt when he was 11.

HAROLD MABERN:  That’s exactly right.  So all that produces the sound.  I would say the format of Nat Cole and Erroll Garner formulated his overall concept.  Then he just got beyond that and took it further, to the point where his stuff is so awesome… But it’s undescribable.  You have to hear it, and then all you say is “Wow, gee-whiz…”

TP:    Well, he has that amazing control.

HAROLD MABERN:  Total control.

TP:    In the ’50s, would he do things like work with different time signatures in one piece?

HAROLD MABERN:  I didn’t see him do that myself until he got to New York City. Which was another thing I thought was hip.  I said, “Wow, why didn’t I think of something like that?”  But that made me think of something he said once, that everybody needs to be directed or have a director, even if you play by yourself — because you have to direct or conduct yourself.  But that time thing, that thing with the hand signs, I’m pretty sure I saw him do that when he came to New York City.  And naturally, his buddy, Monty Alexander, has taken that… See, he has a special relationship with all of his piano friend, and I consider him to be a friend as well as my mentor.

TP:    He seems to have very warm relationships.  As he puts it, he’s been grown-up since he was a kid, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.

HAROLD MABERN:  To show that that’s true, I have a picture on my wall where Ahmad was playing one of these Elk type clubs, a junior lodge in Pittsburgh, and he was like a little kid sitting with all the older kids.  So I can see that he’s been a responsible human being for a long time.  People always said he used a lot of space; he’d rather call it discipline.  To have that kind of discipline and patience… He has really done his homework

But again, the overall thing about him, besides his touch and control… I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident.  His time is impeccable.  He will play a run and stop on a dime.  And the way he is able to play in those different time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4… He is a master at that.  It’s really unbelievable.  He is not playing cliches.  He is playing music.  Mulgrew Miller said, “man, I have a hard time playing in 5/4.”  But Ahmad can play with no problem in any of those weird time signatures.  He’s what you call a super-duper genius in every sense of the word.

TP:    So you actually were able to see the trio live from the beginning.

HAROLD MABERN:  As I said, I saw him with Ray Crawford and Israel at the Kit Kat Club, which was a real small club on 63rd Street.  It was real small, and man, the people were packed in there like sardines.  Then when they moved to the Pershing, naturally, that being a larger club, we were able to stretch out.  We also started working there on Monday mornings with the MJT+3, and Israel Crosby would come to sit in with us on Mondays.  That became our home away from home.  Ahmad would work the night, we would the breakfast party on Monday mornings.

TP:    That would be ’57-’58-’59, but you’d been seeing him since ’55. I guess his first drummer was Walter Perkins, and then Vernell.  Was the trio extremely popular in Chicago?

HAROLD MABERN:  All the piano players in Chicago, including Ahmad and Herbie, had their own individual sounds.  But there were three groups in Chicago that had hit records — the Ahmad Jamal Trio, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the MJT+3.  We all had our different audiences…

TP:    Herbie Hancock said that one thing that marked the Chicago pianists was that they were interested in reharmonization, parallel to and before Bill evans, and that Chris Anderson was responsible for a lot of it, and that Ahmad had his fingerprint on all of it.  Did Chris have an impact on Ahmad?

HAROLD MABERN:  I’m sure they did on each other.  To tell the truth, I really can’t say for sure.  They both have great love and respect for each other.  Chris went to Wendell Phillips High School, because Nat Cole went there.  Chris wanted to go there to be around Nat Cole. But I’m sure Ahmad had an effect on him, too.  I always tell the story that Billy Wallace said, “I got this piano player, and I got this piano player; I almost got Ahmad.”  When I tell that to Ahmad, he laughs.  To this day, he said, “I almost got Ahmad.”  In other words, he lets it be known that Ahmad is still the king.

TP:    And you feel he started to stretch out once he left Chicago and moved to New York.

HAROLD MABERN:  When he left Chicago and moved to New York, that’s when he started to really stretch out.  He had all these little basslines [SINGS REFRAIN].  You hear them and say, “Well, that reminds me of something McCoy Tyner…” Well, he influenced McCoy Tyner.  We know how he influenced Miles and the whole group, to the point where Miles told all the piano players to say, “Play like Ahmad.” Which was fine with me.  In fact, Miles used to make them… It was mandatory that when Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly left their gig, they all had to come to the Pershing.  Ahmad was almost like an assignment.  That’s where we met Miles and Cannonball.  So when Ahmad got to New York, that’s when he really started opening up, and his stuff grew in all sorts of ways. Compositions so modern… I was talking to James Cammack, who played with us Monday night at Smoke, and we were talking about the different compositions and how many tunes Ahmad has in his book, and we were talking about “Bellows” and what a hip tune that is!  That tune sounds like it was written a few minutes ago.  I’d say he probably wrote it in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he was with 20th Century.  That’s when he recorded Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning.”  We both love pop music.  Most pianists don’t fool with that. But Ahmad and I have never had a problem with putting music in a category.  If it’s good… I always say that we bump heads, because he’ll record a tune that’s kind of off the beaten track, and it’s a tune I’ve been thinking of recording.

TP:    Let’s touch on some of the dynamics of what happened when he started to stretch out.  You talked about the extended basslines.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right.  The extended basslines, and then he did… Well, he could go from the basic II-V-I sound in his right hand to the modal sound, the things you hear McCoy doing.  He just explores the whole piano.  And in doing all that, he never loses his originality.  Again, it’s because of what he plays, the way he plays it, and his touch.  He can play a modal type line, but you always know it’s Ahmad, and it’s mainly because of the touch.

TP:    Why do you think he has such an affinity for New Orleans drummers?

HAROLD MABERN:  If I had to sum it up:  The beat.  When you think about that beat Vernell put on “Poinciana,” David Lee and Ed Blackwell played it… It tends to come from the marching band things. [street beats]

TP:    But he’s from Pittsburgh, where Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Joe Harris are from, which is a different way of approaching time.

HAROLD MABERN:  True.  But I think it’s that the New Orleans beat comes from the street and it swings.  And once he heard what Vernell played on “Poinciana,” that opened the trio up to do other things that advanced his musical goals.  It’s hard to explain it beyond that.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and say, “Wow, what is that?”

TP:    He did very radical things on albums like Extensions and Naked City Theme, with “Haitian Marketplace.”  Let’s talk about his last 10-15 years, which seems a particularly fruitful period, primarily acoustic, a lot of recording, a lot of new compositions, framing his sound in many contexts — playing Ellington-Strayhorn repertoire, doing septets, live recordings, bringing in George Coleman and Donald Byrd and Stanley Turrentine, bringing in percussionists like Manolo Badrena, extracting a maximum of color.  But how do you observe is progression since the latter ’80s?

HAROLD MABERN:  Not to be redundant or repetitive, but the way I see it is that he’s constantly evolving.  He has never disappointed me.  Never is a big word, but he has never disappointed me.  Every time I go to hear him, I am always learning something.  When I leave, I’m totally inspired.  Todd Barkan told me that Cedar said that Ahmad Jamal gets his complete attention.  When I go to hear Ahmad, I don’t want to go…even if it’s another musician… If you’re going to talk, go to another table.  Because Ahmad is the kind of musician who, when they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ahmad Jamal,” before he even sits down, he’s hit three-chords that’s a masterpiece.  Before he even sits on the stool, he’s played a three-chord masterpiece, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s… I don’t know anybody like him.  It’s very hard to explain.

He’s really too deep for some people.  A lot of musicians can’t handle it. As George Coleman said, a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.  They can’t handle it by themselves.  But I’ve always been one to understand and appreciate genius.

TP:    So he’s a total original.

HAROLD MABERN:  Totally original.  I can think of three other pianists who are original like that.  One is Erroll Garner, one is Phineas Newborn, one is Thelonious Monk.  Then there’s Ahmad Jamal.  I’ve listened to them all, but what Ahmad has done and continues to do… The main thing is just his sound!  I mean, it’s the sound, his knowledge of chords, his compositions, his touch, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top.  Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps going back to the bridge and each time it’s totally different.  He’s just a very special and blessed human being.

Tommy Flanagan:

Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral.  He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time.  He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark.  But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner.  Tatum had another kind of style.  I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes.  He had so much to play, he never could stop himself.  But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing.  Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing.  There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.

Mulgrew Miller:

Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player.  He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there.  Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique.   He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists. He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along.  That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Interview, Piano, WKCR

Andrew Hill’s 80th Birthday Anniversary

Two years ago to the day, not long after I’d started this blog, I posted a piece I wrote for DownBeat in 2000 on the  pianist-composer Andrew Hill (1931-2007). I’m augmenting that post today with four interviews that I conducted with Andrew (below the text of the story), two  on WKCR (1996, 2000) and three in 2000 for purposes of the article. As you can read in the section of 1996 interview that addresses Andrew’s encounter with Charlie Parker at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom in 1949, and in a few other spots, Andrew was playing along with a 1937 birthdate attributed on the liner notes  of his Blue Note recordings in the ’60s…but 1931 is what it was.

* * *

When I was a child, I was able to write music without hearing  it,” Andrew Hill told me in the spring of 2000, during one of several conversations for a DownBeat article that ran later that year.  “I’d write it at the piano, and then reshape it away from the piano by looking at it—lines, counterlines, and different things. I was in the streets, hustling, and and people began to notice. The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized notation.”

Individuality was the defining trope of Hill’s career. Born in Chicago 80 years ago today, and a South Side resident until 30, Hill—who died on April 20, 2007—blossomed creatively during the ’60s, recording a series of sui generis recordings—Point of Departure, Smokestack, Black Fire, Judgment, Compulsion—on Blue Note, animated by the likes of Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, and Richard  Davis.

“To me, it’s more like an alternative approach,” Hill had said of his attitude to music during a 1996 conversation on WKCR. “In Western civilization, melody is the major voice. Rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory. Though many things have changed traditionally, that dynamic hasn’t changed.  Always check the rhythm to hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s retrospective or trying to go ahead.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.”

Hill’s music contained extraordinary rhythmic nuance—in the manner of  Charlie Parker, he stacked rhythms, morphing time signatures from measure to measure in his pieces, and, when comping, altering the beats in every phrase. This is one reason why Vijay Iyer, one of Hill’s numerous acolytes amongst creative musicians under 45, could write for the now-dormant webzine www.jazz.com that what had always drawn him to Hill’s music was its innate sense of mystery. “It challenges your sense of what music is,” Iyer stated. “You can’t really listen to it as style, like, ‘Oh, this is a great example of hardbop, or postbop.’ To me, it just explodes all those categories. It’s something much more fundamental about existence.”

In the aforementioned DownBeat article, posted below, Hill spoke of the context in which he developed his ideas.  (Please also see David Adler’s fine 2006 profile in Jazz Times.)

* * * *

At Birdland on the Saturday night after the United Nations Millennium Conference, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure Sextet concluded a ferocious 90-minute first set to raucous applause from an audience that included a generous percentage of dark-suited men wearing wires up their sleeves.  Moments later, prompted by what the pianist-composer later informed friends was a Presidential request, Hill and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, played “Summertime” as an impromptu encore.  Well, the bartender later burst the bubble by noting that it was the wife of the President of Ecuador who popped the question.  But it didn’t seem such a stretch to imagine Bill Clinton — who attended jazz camps as a teenage saxophonist when Hill was recording the 8 or 9 Blue Note sessions by which many people still define him — taking a break from various off-the-record meetings to hear the composer-pianist on whose classics “Black Fire” and “Point of Departure” tenor hero Joe Henderson appeared.

Hill began to revisit the sonic terrain of Point of Departure — which blended the sounds of Henderson, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Richard Davis and an 18-year-old Tony Williams — two years ago, not long after returning from a two-decade West Coast residence spent teaching and sporadically performing.  Expecting to find a scene where “everything is a retrospective,” he instead discovered what he describes as a “golden age” defined by an intense cadre of improvisers intent on “creative contact with older musicians” working toward the end of “reclaiming a lot of things that had been lost.”

“There hasn’t been as much young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s,” Hill states.  “Life has been breathed into the music.  I’m seeing young musicians who understand the traditional musical vocabulary — the free playing, which has been out for forty years, and the magic of Bebop — enough to be able to use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process that will fit into this period.  They aren’t playing things they heard off records; they’re not looking at anything as old and new.”

Inspired by his young cohorts, Hill “got the writing disease,” producing a flood of new work, a smattering of which he recorded on Dusk [Palmetto], in September 1999.  The music is sui generis — mysterious, elusive, soulful, rich in mood and character, expansively written, replete with beautiful melodies and counter-melodies, complex intervals, unique voicings, intense vamps and ostinatos, each section tailored to the tonal personalities of the musicians, morphing in a nonce from keening rubato passages to long lines propelled by churning counter and cross-rhythms that define the overall motion.  “Each piece inhabits its own musical world,” Ehrlich says succinctly.  “Andrew is using a lot of different compositional devices in them, but what’s consistent is a sense of musical poetry and lyricism.”

Dusk is the capstone of a very good year for the 69-year-old pianist-composer.  He engaged Bobby Hutcherson, David Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Archie Shepp in well-publicized duos.  After spending most of the summer in a wing of a well-appointed castle courtesy of an Italian artists’ colony, he performed on a showcase night at the Chicago Jazz Festival that included a reunion with Von Freeman (they played “Stardust”), who appeared on Hill’s debut recording in 1956, for Ping, a Chicago independent operated out of the back of a record store at 47th and Cottage Grove.

“Andrew’s music is very heavily mental,” says Hutcherson, who first recorded with Hill on Judgment (1964) and on Dialogue (1965).  “You go into rooms you wouldn’t normally enter.  There’s always a little story in the melody, a reason why this tune is being played; it’s your own story, what you’re seeing as you play.  He’d give you melancholy, long notes, you’d think, ‘man, how long can you hold this note so that there will be this texture?’ — then all of a sudden it burst into a chant, a hope within the note.  Religious, I guess you can say…well, the religion of the bandstand…of someone’s thoughts.  It was very challenging, just because of its openness; the melody could be loose as a rubber band.  But just remember that it’s going to come down; the bar line is still moving at the same pace.”

“Andrew’s writing and playing sound like geometry to me,” notes Greg Osby, a Hill alumnus and vociferous acolyte who employed the pianist and guitarist Jim Hall on this year’s well-received The Invisible Hand.  “He builds his lines and melodic development and motives and themes in small fragments, and breaks those down into even smaller fragments.  It’s like building a pyramid, and setting that off with TNT, then building another pyramid based upon the smaller rock chunks or fragments, each one being more important than the structure itself.  And he has total elastic time, not your metrical, militaristic four-four predictable time feel.  It’s akin to that Dr. Doolittle animal, the pushmi-pulyu, which was like a two-headed llama who goes in both directions.  You have to really be game to push in the beat and pull it back — compression-expansion I call it.  Otherwise, you’ll get tossed.”

Scott Colley, Hill’s bassist of choice for the past two years, says: “No matter how much you’ve internalized the material, you have to be ready for the unknown.  More than anybody I’ve ever played with, Andrew is a true improviser.  If he feels you’re starting to formulize the music, he’ll take bits of a composition from one part of the form and put it somewhere else.  Though he writes simple bass parts for me, I have to look at the score because so much is going on that defies traditional harmony, that can’t be notated traditionally in terms of chord changes.  It sounds logical and beautiful, but when you analyze it, you realize it’s amazingly different.”

The unorthodox was norm in the blues culture of postwar South Side Chicago, Hill’s home town, where the overriding imperative was to establish an individual sound.  Hill’s parents, who had migrated to Chicago from the South, bought their son an accordion when he was 3; a few years later they acquired an old foot-pedaled player piano.  “I would match the keys as much as I could,” Hill recalls.  “I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever sound suited that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.”

Hill’s family was poor, and by age 12 he was a street musician, playing blues-style accordion and tap dancing “with his hustling companion,” guitarist Leo Blevins, who had a washtub with a string on it.  “It was safe at the time,” Hill remembers.  “I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street and State, which was a good block.  Across the street was the South Center department store, a little further down was the Savoy Ballroom and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing, and the Regal Theater was right next to that.”

An almost mute child with above-average intelligence, Hill enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School in what would today be called an off-track program that allowed him freedom to follow his muse.  By his teens, he was working weekends at sorority house dances, at rent parties, even after-hours sessions.  Hill’s first taste of the latter occurred one early morning at the Macombo Lounge, an all-night joint at the intersection of Oakland and Drexel Boulevard owned by the Chess Brothers.  Trumpeter/bandleader King Kolax and tenorist Claude McLin were playing “Idaho” with bass icon Oscar Pettiford and the drummer Ike Day.  “The piano player didn’t show up, and Kolax knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so he invited me on the stand,” Hill remembers.  “I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, ‘Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!’  They were nice enough to gently ease me off the stand; they told me what I did wrong.

“Ike Day had this incredible feel, and the way he played opened up my concept of rhythm out of the rigid 1-2-3-4.  It was a live rhythm, a rhythm you could feel with your whole body.  He played over the entire drumset, like Roy Haynes does, incorporating everything into a rhythm, creating a floating rhythm sound in the African manner almost.  He did amazing things; he’d come off the bandstand into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.”

Hill cites Albert Ammons as an early local influence (“his boogie-woogie was a living thing; he created with it”).  As a teenager delivering the Chicago Defender he met Earl Hines, and “bugged him to death until he decided he would let me play something on his grand.  I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had a technical facility for not having really studied.  What I liked about Earl Hines was that he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate and play something creative outside the structure; when I talked to him he said, ‘Well, that’s what we call concertizing.’”  Hill also admired the lesser-known pianist Willie Jones (“he used to play with ninths in the bass and had a nice single fingering, even though he was known around Chicago for his exciting block chord Milt Buckner approach; I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer”) and Sun Ra.

“Sunny had a basic Chicago approach,” Hill remarks.  Even on a Blues you would go Out and you would go In.  A lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others, but to an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  There wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or about what someone else was doing; it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But it was category-less.  It was organic, like an African modal situation, in which the performer would play in all the different voices.  Jazz wasn’t an art form; before television and integration got strong, it was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  The music was coming from the streets.  Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.”

As his teens progressed, Hill also soaked up recordings by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as they came out, plugging his turntable into a guitar amplifier “so I could almost hear them the same way that I heard the live artists.”  He found someone to show him Czerny technique to get the fingering necessary to grapple with Powell.  He and a gifted friend named King Solomon, “used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift Monk’s stuff off the records when I was 16 years old — it came natural to him because he was a church pianist; after he taught me the church perspective, Monk’s concept became more accessible.”

As the ’50s progressed, Hill became “mesmerized” by the environment around me,” and established himself as a professional musician in Chicago.  “I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing,” he recalls.  “I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.”  He sidemanned at the Beehive on 55th Street and the Crown Propellor and Stage Lounge on 63rd Street, backed the likes of Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young at various venues, played at Joe Segal’s bebop jam sessions, and from 1955 to 1959 became house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge, where national acts like Sammy Davis and Barbara McNair would come through.  He summer vacationed with Dinah Washington in 1954, who took him to New York for the first time; he subsequently returned to the Apple with singers Johnny Hartman and Al Hibbler and with the comedian George Kirby.  He did supper lounge gigs on the Gold Coast with a steady trio comprising bassist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter, became the pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band, and began to explore his voice with hardcore Chicago progressives like Nicky Hill and Ira Sullivan.  And he never stopped playing the blues.

In 1961, while working a mundane job on the West Side of Chicago, Hill decided it was time to come to New York.  “I saw that if I stayed in Chicago I would descend morally because everything had a type of sameness,” he says.  “Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!”  Hill found work with Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Walt Dickerson, and went to Los Angeles in early 1962 on a job with Roland Kirk.  There he met his first wife, Laverne, a talented organist; the couple moved back to New York in the spring of 1963.

Freed of Chicago’s artisanal cultural matrix, Hill found in New York a nourishing environment.  Opportunities presented themselves.  He eschewed sideman gigs that might pigeonhole him as a “blues pianist” or “singer’s pianist,” and instead pigeonholed himself as an artist, forging aesthetic commitments with a cadre of like-minded generational peers like Joe Henderson, Joe Chambers, Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson.  Through a job with Dorham, Hill met Joe Henderson; they woodshedded and gigged, and Henderson hired him to play on “Our Thing.”  During the session, Hill recalls, “Alfred Lion said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera, that he liked the way I played and wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  The next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.”

The rest is history.  At Birdland, 36 years after the original “Point of Departure,” and a year after “Dusk,” working from a book that now constitutes about 40 new compositions, Bill Clinton, if he was there, heard music by — in Ehrlich’s words — “a master composer at the height of his powers” performed by an ensemble (Ehrlich and Aaron Stewart, reeds and woodwinds; Ron Horton, trumpet; Colley, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums) at ease with its intricacies.

“It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder just to continue playing,” Hill concludes.  “The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  To me it’s terrible to play without the passion of music.  It’s the passion that connects, not the academic correctness.  The passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  It was inspirational to discover that things aren’t static; it’s led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.  The spirit of jazz is supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.”

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR) – (6-26-96):

[MUSIC: "Monk's Glimpse" w/C. Jordan-Reid-Riley]

TP:    “Monk’s Glimpse” features you with a fellow Chicagoan, Clifford Jordan, who I imagine you knew during your days in Chicago.  Did you?

AH:    Yes, I knew Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, later on Leroy Jenkins, a few other what you would call precocious kids all my life, because when we would run into each other when we were quite young, and each one of us would have our instruments and different things that economics would allow us to do during that period.

TP:    The three people you mentioned all went to DuSable High School on the South Side.  Is that where you went?

AH:    No.  I was one of the first children admitted to the University of Chicago pilot program.  At that time, intelligence was based upon a certain middle-class standard, and if a person didn’t fit into certain this middle-class standard they wouldn’t have so-called “intelligence.”  But for some reason I appeared to be bright.  I was semi-autistic, but as they called me, bright.  So they took me in and brought me to the point where I would be sociable.

Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  I used to call it the University of the Streets, because on the tip of Oakwood Boulevard you had the Macombo where I could listen to people like the late Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, I even saw Fats Navarro one time playing tenor, quite a few others.  They had this class where I would miss school… Well, I didn’t have to miss school.  I was brilliant and kind of eccentric, even then.  So we would meet up.  And Jazz wasn’t an art form.  These were the days building up to the zenith in Jazz in the ’50s and ’60s.  So every block would have a band in the area… I grew up in somewhat a Red-Light District, not Red-Light defined as…well, yeah, Red-Light, where you would have music available.  Then they also had after-hour parties that I could attend, because musicians would come and get me.  So I would mentor under Albert Ammons, Earl “Fatha” Hines, all these type of influences.  I wasn’t musically literate then, so I didn’t categorize of classify things, so here I had this rainbow collage of music available at every turn — and so did all of us.

TP:    The years you’re talking about now would be directly after World War Two until the early 1950′s?

AH:    Well, the years I’m talking about is consciousness; you know, when consciousness first hit me and when I started accumulating childhood memories.  My memories go back to, we’ll say, 1941 as a baby almost, to the Regal Theater, which was part of the chitlin’ theater for Black artists, where I experienced such phenomenons as Fats Waller playing the organ and different things.  Then in 1945 there was a bar right down the street from me called the Savoy, where they had people like Hot Lips Page, and I would be chaperoned in these places.  There’s a joke about that.  I took up the northeast corner of 47th Street, because on the corner where the Regal and the Savoy was (what they called South-Center) that was the spot for me to play accordion Blues style and tap dance.  So I’ve in a sense been organically part of the scene since I was a little kid, because it was inclusive of me, and older artists would give me what I needed.

TP:    It sounds like music has been part of your entire living consciousness and memory.  Do you remember a time when you weren’t playing music?

AH:    No, not even recently.  Because a lot of times, when you’re not visible on the New York scene, there’s this theory that you’re not functioning.  Even off the scenes, I’ve written string quartets, performed with 40-to-100-piece choral groups.  It’s an interesting life, because music it has always been with me.  The crowd comes and goes.  At one moment it’s the mode, you’re not; the next moment you’re not so hot.  So now I’m back in New York again, and now it looks like everything is a retrospective.  But even in the retrospective I’ve begged to come back on the scene, because in a retrospective some things are missing, some things have never been captured, and if the person really don’t come back and give them a guideline to what was going on… Because it might just be the link to creativity itself, but if only the academic situation is available in a mausoleum type learning process, that means something could be lost.

TP:    I’d like to step back again to your days in Chicago.  You mentioned people like Albert Ammons and Earl Hines.  Some capsule impressions of them, and other pianists who influenced the way you approach the piano.  Albert Ammons first.

AH:    Albert Ammons, because he played boogie-woogie, and the way I played accordion, boogie-woogie was accessible, because you would approach it rhythmically, not harmonically, which after he taught it to me made me ambidextrous, which gave me complete independence between the hands.  And then Fatha Hines was interesting because, as you know, he started the single finger approach to Jazz.  And then there were so many other followers around the area with these individualistic approaches to music.  This was the difference between Chicago and New York for a long period of time.  In New York you would have one person who would be a great innovator, and a lot of imitators — which it’s all common property.  But in places like Chicago, after the music left New Orleans and came to Chicago, then people had the freedom to be flexible and not have to sound like anyone.  Their only rule was that they had to fit into the Tradition itself, the Tradition coming from, we’ll say, the beginning of the oral Protestant tradition.

TP:    Who were some of the other pianists in Chicago who had an impact on you?

AH:    There were so many.  There was a fellow named Vernon Griddle(?).  I don’t know if he ever made it; he was phenomenal.  Then there was Chris Anderson, who had and still has a unique approach to harmony, similar to Willie Jones.  Willie Jones played like Milt Buckner, but then he was into the new music aesthetic where he used to listen things like Lukas Foss 1950s’ music and stuff, so I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer.  Then there was Sun Ra, or Sonny Blount.

The amazing thing about Chicago was that there wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or what someone else was doing, because it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But Sonny’s approach was a basic Chicago approach even on a Blues, where they said we would go Out and we would go In — which a lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others.  To an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  But like I said, Chicago was category-less, so people would come out to hear the music, so it was just an organic situation, like an African modal situation, which would put on the performer to be able to play in all the different voices, not a monotone where it’s a stylistic supported by an academic element who are more lettered than oral.

TP:    Ahmad Jamal followed Earl Hines’ path from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 1949, and was also a child prodigy and performer.  Did he have an impact on the way you approached the piano or the piano trio?

AH:    No.  In retrospect, what I just said is there were so many brilliant people, known or unknown, and we would exchange ideas.  But any time you go to mimicking or idol worship, you cancel creativity, because you negate the openness that you need to have creative contact.

TP:    Besides Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore and Leroy Jenkins, who were some other people in your peer group that you associated with?

AH:    I mentioned those, but there were a lot of others.  There was always Johnny Griffin, who was a little ahead of us.  But a lot of the others developed.  They had more of an academic approach than a natural talent approach, with a  continuous learning process.  There are people who are born with a talent for music.  The more you listen to something, the more available it becomes, and when it’s readily available in your environment, your aesthetic, your sense of harmony, rhythm, etcetera, develops that much faster.

TP:    When did you start working on the professional music scene in Chicago as a pianist in rhythm sections or as a trio pianist in various venues?

AH:    Almost from the start.  I remember at 12 years old an alto saxophonist named George Lee came and got me and took me on my first job.  It was at a sorority house.  From then on I was working every weekend.  Then I found out about the night circuit where the rent parties were still going on.  The pianists who were working that circuit used to get too much work, or they’d have a job where they couldn’t get there until 12 o’clock.  I had no curfew, so I could go and play the piano from around 8 o’clock until 12:30 in the morning.

TP:    I gather that your first recording was on a very obscure date with Von Freeman in 1952?

AH:    Yeah.  I had Von Freeman, Pat Patrick, Wilbur Campbell, and Leroy Jackson.

TP:    Was Von Freeman one of the people you were working with?

AH:    Well, Von Freeman used to work all the sorority gigs, he had some high school dance jobs, so he was always a presence because he and George and Bruz would always play those type of affairs.

TP:    Outside of people in Chicago, who were musicians on the national scene that had an impact on you.  We began with “Monk’s Glimpse,” and there’s always seemed to be a certain affinity to Monk’s approach to music in what you do.

AH:    Well, retrospectively, Monk to a lot of young pianists my age in 1949 was very accessible, in terms of understanding what he did and following his music.  That’s why now, when I talk about the periods of Jazz, I talk about the period when it was a popular music and when it became an art form.  Like, I came on the end of the period when it was a popular music, so that way someone from another lifestyle or another area in life could look at it as experimental, when it was very organic, which comes from people like Monk.  Before Television and Integration got strong, Jazz was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  So certain things we heard all the time.  It wasn’t even called Jazz then.  I remember up until 1949, Downbeat used to have pictures of Negroes (as we were called during that time) talking about how we play the flute, but my lips are too big… So when I think about Jazz, then I think about the first Jazz recording by a group who sounded like Spike Jones, and the Creoles were supposed to have the first recordings, but then they excluded the Blacks from Uptown, even though their music goes back to before Slavery…  I’m only saying that to say that ever since they took the drums away from us in this country, the music has been flourishing, and then 1917 is where Jazz came in, which isn’t very inclusive.

So a lot of people have had an influence on me, and then I’ve had an influence on quite a few others.

TP:    The next tracks we’ll hear come from a few of the extraordinary series of recordings Andrew Hill made for Blue Note when he hit New York from Chicago in the early 1960′s, and took the jazz world by storm through the originality and distinctiveness of these recordings.

[MUSIC: AH-Hutcherson-Davis-E. Jones, "Siete Ocho"; A. Hill-J. Henderson, "McNeil's Island"; A. Hill-KD-Dolphy-Williams, "Refuge"]

TP:    Listening to those tracks raises several questions.  I asked you while the music was playing whether these were working groups, groups that performed live and played this or other music in performance.

AH:    Well, the group with Bobby Hutcherson, we worked the University of Toronto and Montreal.  We had an incredible college tour…

TP:    Did you set up drum parts in this music, or was the drummer free to create their own…

AH:    Well, it was basically drafts written off my interpretation of someone else’s playing, so that really was the catalyst.

TP:    Was all the music on Judgment set up for Elvin Jones’ style?

AH:    Yes, it was set up for his style.

TP:    Was the group with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes a working band?

AH:    Yes, we were really getting ready to work, but the only wrench that was thrown in that was right after we did a few nights at Birdland and a few other places, Joe joined Horace Silver.  So that was the end of that for a while.

TP:    Did you write the music for Black Fire with Roy Haynes’ style in mind?

AH:    Yes, I really loved the way Roy Haynes played during that time.  I still love his playing, but I was really enthralled during that period.
TP:    The front line of Point of Departure, indeed the whole band, reads like a who’s-who in the history of Jazz.  Was this a group that got to work for a while?

AH:    Well, we did a few things before Eric left for Europe, mmm-hmm.  During that period I was lucky enough to get quite a few college concerts, so there was always an opportunity to play with some of the great ones from that period.

TP:    Again was that music written with Tony Williams in mind?

AH:    No, actually Tony surprised me and gave me a little more than I was looking for — which I enjoyed.  Because you really couldn’t hear his whole style with Miles Davis, even though it was a great group, but it still didn’t cover all the areas that Tony could go into.

TP:    One of the characteristics of Andrew Hill’s groups is that always dynamic drummers are featured, and the drums and rhythm seems to be a major component in both your improvatorial and compositional sensibilities.

AH:    Well, I researched that while I was at Portland State, and then I came into this phrase “African retention” (all this after the fact).  To me, it’s more like an alternative approach to music.  In Western civilization, melody is the major voice, and rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory.

TP:    It’s almost as though rhythm is part of the dialogue that emerges among the musicians in improvisational situations.

AH:    It is.  And though many things have changed traditionally, that hasn’t changed.  That’s how you can really hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s a retrospective or people trying to go ahead.  Always check the rhythm to see whether it is static.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.

TP:    One thing you seem to do to insure rhythmic dynamism is change the rhythmic signature from measure to measure within the compositions.

AH:    Well, between one and one in a space of time you can have 5, 7, 12 or 4, but it’s always imposed upon a strong four like the heartbeat.  Still, in between, so many things can be done with it rhythmically, even thinking in terms of strong and weak accents.
TP:    Let’s talk about some of the drummers you played with in Chicago, stepping back 40 or 50 years.  Ike Day is one of the legendary drummers of all time.

AH:    Oh, I cut my teeth on Ike Day.  Only three people had a profound musical effect on my life, and those were Charlie Parker and Ike Day and Thelonious Monk (I’d always heard Monk play but when I saw him play, it had a profound effect).  Ike Day was amazing.  As a kid, I didn’t know who these people were, but I used to see people like Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, all of them would come to Chicago for a glimpse of Ike Day so they could prepare their respective styles.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    What made him so special?  Was it his interdependence?  His command of the timbre of whatever surface he was striking?

AH:    To really explain that, I have to bring in the sociological connotations.  Because in that period the community and the musician was close, because it was all a part of a sociological aesthetic in the community.  Tap dancing was strong.  The rhythm you played wasn’t like a dead rhythm; like you hear drummers play, and you say, “That’s dead” or “that’s alive” or “that’s great” — whatever one says.  But it wasn’t a dead rhythm; it was a live rhythm, one that you could feel with your whole body.  When I was in Chicago there was a place called the Macombo where the bandstand was perched up high, and Ike Day came down off the bandstand, like you’ve seen Gene Krupa and all of them obviously do, but there’s something about when you see the Master do it… He was the master.  You get involved.  It had an emotional impact.  It wasn’t just a static, visual experience.

TP:    Let me pin you down a little more on Ike Day.  Was he someone who was let’s say dealing with a different line with the right hand, left hand, right leg, left leg, like Max Roach developed and Andrew Cyrille?  Was he doing that functionally?

AH:    Well, you asked me about Roy Haynes.  The one similarity between him and Roy Haynes is that when he played the drum set, he played all these things over the entire drum.  He incorporated everything into a rhythm, so you had this floating rhythm sound instead of him stacking just doing a parallel…

TP:    So Ike Day was stacking rhythms on top of each other in the African manner almost.

AH:    In the African manner almost.  It’s true.

TP:    I commented that within “Refuge” that you’re constantly changing the rhythmic backing of each phrase, and this was something Charlie Parker would do this in his solos.

AH:    And I was saying I was surprised you knew that!  It’s really evident when you’re dealing with a music that’s really built off the rhythm, not the tonic dominant harmony, and that’s what I learned from playing with Charlie Parker. That’s why he had such a profound effect on me.  Some tunes I was too young to know, and Barry Harris took my place on a few numbers.  Well, I tried to get Barry to take my place, because Barry was one of the older Detroit guys at the time.  Anyway, before I played with Charlie Parker, he said, “Well, you play good and you do this well, but place more emphasis on the rhythm than the lyrical approach.”

TP:    Do you remember what year this was and the venue?

AH:    It was June 1949 at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit.  Illinois Jacquet and Bullmoose Jackson were on the bill.

TP:    You were 12 years old at the time, playing with Charlie Parker.

AH:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    The third you mentioned was Thelonious Monk.  Do you recollect when you first heard his records?

AH:    Oh, I heard his records as a kid, me and another pianist who we used to call King Solomon.  We used to dissect things like “Hackensack” and stuff like that on the piano, which came easily.  But then the dynamic of seeing him play in person… I’d heard his sound all my life, but to see that he played with two hands, you know, to maintain a certain type of volume, and the way he would hit the piano, it was just profound.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first saw Monk in person?  He did perform at the Beehive in Chicago…

AH:    Oh, I didn’t go to that, because I didn’t like the milieu of the situation because they didn’t give him the respect he was due.  So I really heard him at the Five Spot in New York when he was having this long run, and I would take the train or the Greyhound out and hear him, and get on it again and go back satisfied.

TP:    Did you perform at all with the great Wilbur Ware in Chicago?

AH:    Yeah, Wilbur Ware, the great one! [LAUGHS] I did a few things with Wilbur.  I enjoyed him.  But then, fortunately or unfortunately, being a retrospective of what I said around 40 minutes, there really wasn’t any great ones, because then you had Israel Crosby in Chicago and all these incredible bassists.

TP:    Richard Davis was up there as a young bassist as well.

AH:    He was coming up with the Ahmad Jamal trio, and this fellow who used to play Classical music.  He was hot for a brief moment, nationally and internationally.

TP:    What circumstances brought you to New York on the eve of your series of recordings for the Blue Note label?

AH:    Well, it was just like what brought me to New York to reside in this period.  My life seems to be based upon intuition, discernment, the ability to know when to go and when not… I don’t know, I just had this urge…

TP:    So it wasn’t a gig that brought you here; you just decided to come here on your own.

AH:    Yeah, that’s my life story.  Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!

This weekend with Lonnie Plaxico and Pheeroan akLaff, in an environment where the only thing they can feed me is myself and my soul consciousness escapes in an occasional flurry, I say to myself, “I might as well…”  In the old days people didn’t really get carried away with what they sounded like.  The emphasis was on never playing the same thing twice, to create.  And I figure this weekend I can go for that.  I won’t be with people who are jaded, who go in different areas.

TP:    No repeater pencils, as Lester Young would say.

AH:    Oh, no.  No pencils! [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: AH-Davis-Khan-Haynes, "Smokestack"; A. Hill, "Sunnyside"]

* * * *

Andrew Hill (3-22-00):

TP:    First things first.  Let’s talk about current events, about the record, about Dusk.  You recorded “Ball Square” in 1986 and “15/8″ is on that solo record.  Did you do a lot of composition for this?  Has this been a fertile period for you writing?

HILL:  Yes, a very fertile period, where I’ve written new things that, as you said, went over older things and added different sections to it for… Let’s see, from ’97 to now it’s like I’ve had the writing sickness.  I find myself writing music all the time.

TP:    Talk about accumulating this personnel.  It’s the same instrumentation as Point of Departure.  I don’t know you’ve done this since.

HILL:  I’ve never done this sextet since.  I’ve done other sextets and septets and 10 pieces for Blue Note during that period that they haven’t yet released. They have enough backlog on me to bring out for ten years.

TP:    Another Mosaic box.

HILL:  Yeah, of unreleased compositions.

TP:    But here, was most of the writing done for the date?

HILL:  Most of the writing was done for the band.  We didn’t actually record all the compositions for this period, because when I recorded this there were 20 originals and it keeps on growing.  Now there’s more. [October '99]

TP:    You’ve talked about writing for personalities.  Talk about the band as it’s constituted, and how you see each person as being applicable to what you do.

HILL:  Well, Marty, when the band was first formed, he brought a certain excitement to the band in his solos.  Ron Horton has improved drastically on trumpet, and he’s also helped me by copying the music and counting it out in strange situations where the bandstand won’t allow him to see me.  Greg Tardy, he’s like a fresh young talent, a star on the rise.  And Billy Drummond is a very musical drummer.  And Scott Colley has this incredible technique with this sensitivity to where he doesn’t overpower you with technique; he just overpowers you like a second left hand.  So I’m really happy about the last year because we worked some quality concerts, and the group was able to record intact, which is very unusual when I think of the caliber of the participating artists and their talent, and the fact that they’re working all the time.  Scott is very generous.  A lot of times he turned down jobs or other situations where he asked not to get paid… So to have this type of fellowship to the extent where everybody makes rehearsals, it’s just like a musical spirit that’s extended.  Like I was telling Howard, that’s why I was happy to have documented it, because sometimes it’s dependent upon economic expediency of some sort, where you get the band to work more, and the band has been generating work on its own, but it’s been sporadic, but at least maybe two or three concerts every two months, but that’s not enough to hold quality musicians.  So I’m glad we could stay together and partially document the music.

TP:    You came back in ’97?

HILL:  I left the college, Portland State University, in ’96, and I arrived in ’97.

TP:    Did you have any particular focus in mind for what you were going to do when you came back East?  Did you envision this…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t see anything, because at the time I came back for love, not my career.  I remarried in Portland, and my wife was part of the dance faculty, and they dissolved the dance department, so she was offered and received a position as the educational director at the Joyce Theater in New York City.  Her name is Joanne Robinson Hill.  So from that, I started navigating here.  The college was extremely generous to me, and they let me go… It was a good situation.  I came back for love, and I’m amazed by the venues that I hadn’t dared to dream of in decades.

TP:    Why hadn’t you dared to dream of them?

HILL:  Well, it’s good to be a rumor in your own mind, in a retrospective.  But with life in its current situation, one knows the impossibilities available to them.  If they dream from the reality, that’s one thing…

TP:    What you’re saying is that people tend to identify you with the records you did in the ’60s and less so the current things…

HILL:  No.  I’m talking about the venue.  It’s good that people think anything of you, good or bad.  But the reality is that you can tell whether you’re lukewarm or not from the activities that you’re participating in.  Because it’s till a supply-demand type situation.  So I was in a university out of the music milieu, and was completely… I could run off concerts and colleges and a few trips to Europe, but I really wasn’t in the business.  I was an educator, and I really couldn’t think about other things, because even if I hustled, they were obviously not available to me at the time.  So I came back here, and all of a sudden these unlimited things are… Like I said, things that I dared not dream of because it would be beyond my reality to envision my being accepted back on the scene like I have been.

TP:    In Portland talk about the scope of your performing activity, and also the way you organized curriculum and your aesthetic of teaching.

HILL:  Well, in Portland, a friend of mine was food and liquor manager at the  Salishon Lodge there, which is a resort.  After my deceased wife died in 1990, he invited me there for a few months to just relax on the grounds and shape my vision that spring.  So when the Fall came, it was time for me to pick a bigger city, and Portland was the biggest city there, so I arrived in Portland, and they presented me with information on all the colleges in Oregon to bring me into the circle.  Then I got a commission… While I was there I got every commission that Portland had to give, and received a tenured teaching situation at Portland State University as Associate Professor of Music.  So I could have stayed and gotten full professorship and all that.

But anyway, my classes were similar, in a sense, to the way I learned how to play in Chicago.  The only thing is it had texts with it.  But the way I tried to organize the curriculum was so one could make evolutionary type of advances.  Like any aesthetic, the more you introduce the students to certain things at a certain period, and all of a sudden they become more familiar and make the text their own.  I accepted students only through the audition process.  So I had these workshops where I tried to teach the students how to hustle, or I should use the word “market” themselves [LAUGHS], so they understand the mechanics of the business.  If you’re good, you can… But other than that, no matter who you are, you have to reach out.

TP:    But there was more to it than teaching students about marketing themselves.

HILL:  I had these ensembles that were created.  I created jam sessions for them to participate in.  In other words, I made a pedagogy out of my approach by having different aspects of musical training, like jam sessions, playing the tune in class, so different classes can get together and have a jam session on the material.

TP:    Were you mirroring your own experience as a young musician?

HILL:  I would say mirroring my experiences, plus taking advantage of the knowledge that I learned about teaching in, Pittsburgh, California before, where I was teaching special children, teaching advanced school…what they call in California key classes.  I was in K-to-12.  I started the Jazz Department at the New College of California in San Francisco when I first got there.  But anyway, all this accumulative experience helped me in teaching my students and giving them a sense of self-esteem.

TP:    Were you taking them also through the tradition in a step-by-step-by-step way?

HILL:  Well, I would have a question there where they would tell me their interests, what inspired them.  Because I want them to be grounded in text and situations and areas they weren’t interested in.  Because I figured if I could get their interest and work with them in their areas of interest, that they will evolve themselves the more they develop.

TP:    For you, in terms of writing your music and turning your music into text, not necessarily on a printed page, but maybe in a more general sense… When did you start writing music, composing music?

HILL:  Well, I always haven written music.  That’s what attracted great composers to me, because they figured with my imagination…composition… When I was a child I was able to write music without hearing music.  I was just writing symmetrical…

TP:    Oh, you could write it without being at the piano, out of your head?

HILL:  Yeah, write it at the piano and then reshape it by looking at it and have lines and counterlines and different things about it.  That came natural, and that used to amaze…

TP:    You can do that intellectually without sitting at the piano.

HILL:  Uh-huh, without sitting at the piano.

TP:     How old were you when people started noticing you could do that?

HILL:  About 10 or 11.  Because I was in the streets, hustling.  When you’re on a stage, you never know who your audience may be that day.  So everyone I met used to tell me, “Well, you’re writing it right, but that’s not…”  The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized way of notation.  After I explained it to them, they told me the notation had to become more homogeneous.

TP:    Let me set a scene, and let’s start talking about Chicago.  You’re born in ’37 in Chicago.  Your parents had a piano in the house?

HILL:  Well, at the age of 2 or 3 I received an accordion.  First it was a toy accordion, then it was a regular accordion with the buttons on the side.  Then when I was around 7 or 8, we got this old player piano in the house, where you use your foot to pedal the rolls.

TP:    And you would match the keys?

HILL:  I would match the keys as much as I could.  Because I found out that a lot of those player piano rolls were built for two piano players.  So I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever the sound for that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.

TP:    So by the time you were 7 or 8 you were playing piano all the time.

HILL:  Yeah.  Well, any chance I could get to it.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.

TP:    There’s a published story I think that you won a turkey at the Regal Theater?

HILL:  Yes, for playing the piano and accordion when I was around 6.  They used to call Black Chicago Bronzeville, and in those days they had a regular Thanksgiving party for the “Defender” newspaper boys.  So every Thanksgiving they would have this amateur contest where the winner would receive a turkey.

TP:    And you played the accordion.

HILL:  Yes, and sang.

TP:    When you talk to people who grew up in especially in black neighborhoods in the ’20s-’30s-’40s-’50s, they say music was everywhere, and all kinds of music was everywhere.  Where was the music coming from for you?

HILL:  Well, the music was coming from the streets.  Like, my first jam session was at a place called the Macombo on Drexel Boulevard, where Oakland and Drexel come together at 40th Street.  It was owned by the Chess Brothers, the ones who later owned Chess Records.  But I didn’t know about that at the time.  I was just a young kid, 12 years old, at one what they called “blue morning” jam session.  King Kolax was playing, a tenor player named Neal Green, and Oscar Pettiford was there on bass and Ike Day was on drums.  So I was sitting there… They were playing “Idaho,” and King Kolax kept telling me when the bridge came, “A-flat!  Go to A-flat!”  I was young enough where they weren’t vicious; they delicately eased me off the stand after I played one number.  But I said, “Well, shoot, I was able to play with Oscar Pettiford.”

TP:    But when you were 4-5-6, you were basically picking up music…

HILL:  Picking up music hustling.  Hustling on the streets with my hustling companion Leo Blevins.  He used to play a washtub with a string on it.  And his brother Bobby Blevins and somebody else.  It was safe at the time.  I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  I’m glad I learned that from playing music money comes, not poverty, because poverty is a lack-of.  There were these record stores you could just go in… And my hustling block was a good block.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street.  Across the street was the department store, South Center.  A little further down the block you had the Savoy Ballroom, and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing.  Even though I wasn’t old enough to go over there, but it was still…

TP:    The milieu.

HILL:  The milieu.  And the Regal Theater was right next to…

TP:    When you were coming up, that was the center of entertainment on the South Side.

HILL:  Yeah, that was the cultural center.  They had stuff from the Lafayette Theater, you know, visiting places in other areas, but that wasn’t my area of interest…

TP:    So this is all happening from when you were 5-6 years old?

HILL:  Yes.  The moment I could get out of there.

TP:    What did your parents do?

HILL:  My parents were people who suffered from the oppression, who were basically trying to keep a family together and raise a family.  The best thing I can say about them is that they worked and found a way to work.

TP:    And they were able to get you an accordion and a player piano.  Were they musical?

HILL:  As I started playing, other relatives not in my direct family said they played, but my parents didn’t play any other instrument.

TP:    Were they born in Chicago or did they come from the South?

HILL:  My mother came from the South.  My father, it’s rumored that he came from Alabama.  But he was a strange…a very dark man… They say he may have been what they call Geechee.  Other things I’ve been trying to find…

TP:    Find out for yourself.

HILL:  Well, not really.  But now, the older I get, the more some of my relatives that I’ve never known before are trying to enter my life, so I guess the information is available if I get friendly!

TP:    You also said that you got in the University of Chicago Lab School.

HILL:  Well, most people during that period thought I was talented but autistic.

TP:    You weren’t verbal?

HILL:  No, it wasn’t anything verbal.  So they took aptitude tests on me and found out that I had an over-average intelligence.  So I was one of the second group of people accepted in this off-track type educational process.  I hear about off-track education now.  But then it was like an off-track situation.  Because from my background and stuff, tracking me… If it was just a situation where they would put me within certain types of rules and regulations of places, like things I was supposed to… I seemed retarded.

TP:    But then you were writing music.

HILL:  Yeah.  But in other areas… So a lot of times, I found out later, as I began to investigate myself, sometimes being autistic is just a refusal to enter society at a certain point.

TP:    When did you start to study the piano with someone?

HILL:  Well, I would take musical lessons with people, but sometimes my teachers were so boring, I just let them know after they played something one time that I could play the same thing that they could.  Then an old preacher liked me for some reason, so he was trying to tell me… He said, “Wouldn’t it be better for you, whatever you want to learn, learn that?”  That’s the way I approached the students.  He said, “What do you want to do?”  I said I wanted to build chords.  He said, “Well, find a teacher who can teach you that.”  Then at a certain point I needed technique.  So one teacher took me to the (?), but she couldn’t take me all the way because… It’s almost like what they call master classes today by me starting to participate in the jam sessions early, because I wasn’t stopped after that.  I didn’t go and put my head in the sand.  I just kept on participating, and through that, even though everyone… You know, you had these Classical pianists actually playing jazz better than the 25 cents and 50 cents teacher who needed the money who was located at these different community centers.  You had people who really… So they helped me out.  I would ask them how you do this, they would show me, and then I’d make a project out of it.  So there were so many different flowers in Chicago, especially in the period when jazz was popular music before it evolved to classical music.  You could almost learn in the street, which is where I tried to achieve different projects.  Instead of giving people a lot of material that they really can’t study, just…

TP:    Up to the time you were 14 or 15, when you do those early records and join the Paul Williams band and all this stuff, you’re taking lessons, you’re participating in various jam sessions with older master musicians and with your peer group, and you’re also listening to a lot of records as well…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t start meeting my peer group until I was around 17-18.  Because all of them, the ones who could play, went to DuSable.  And a lot of them hadn’t advanced harmonically to the point where they could play according to the form.  In other words, they first arrived at free music, and then regulated themselves to become musicians.

TP:    So you mentioned on our radio show that Albert Ammons and Earl Hines were the first two piano players who influenced…

HILL:  And Count Basie, when he first came…

TP:    Talk about all three, and how they entered your world.

HILL:  Well, Albert Ammons entered my world because when I was a kid he was at the tail-end of when Louis Jordan was hot, and boogie-woogie was popular.  But I noticed that Albert Ammons played his boogie-woogie differently.  It was a living thing more than a novelty.  He just created with his boogie-woogie.  He wasn’t just in one space.  That interested me, because his approach kind of freed me to really try to play the blues.

Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, what I liked about him was he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate from the form and play something creative, not within the structure of the music itself.  I like that.  When I talked to him he said, “Well, that’s what we call concertizing.”  It’s what they do now, you know, when they take extended solos off… But it was called “concertizing” then, because jazz had… You know, they had these black jazz musicians at Carnegie Hall, and Israel Crosby was telling that when you played with Benny Goodman then you didn’t play like you did with… If you were a black band, you had to alter it to concertize.  And Willie Jones, I liked him because most people during that period, known and unknown, were playing the piano voices like the (?) bass and the seventh up top in the left hand, and D in the right hand, A and D octave… He dealt with some variation of that.  And Willie Jones used to play with ninths in the bass and some really incredible things, and he had a nice single fingering even though he was known around Chicago for his block chord Milt Buckner approach because it was exciting, but he always had this terrific band playing with him — so he was a wonderful experience.

And Basie, when I was a man and heard “April In Paris” and so on, I didn’t associate that with the same Count Basie I’d heard when I was a kid.  Because when I heard him as a kid, he was a really exciting stride piano  player — and he had hair.  Then it took me years to realize that this sophisticated big band leader is this person whom I used to love hearing play those exciting stride piano solos.

TP:    A lot of people your age and up to a few years older than didn’t have a whole lot of connection to what they call prebop players.  Someone like Barry Harris was mainly inspired by Bud Powell.  But you from an early age were inspired by people who preceded that and then came to it from that perspective.

HILL:  Well, sometimes, when you’re living instead of studying, preparing to-be one day, it has a more natural evolution.

TP:    So you’re saying because you were performing this whole time, your ideas developed organically.

HILL:  Organic.  You ask questions, and there’s some memory work, and a little text, whatever the people give you.  I discovered Bud Powell and Monk as an adolescent, but before them there were people in the neighborhood.  So it wasn’t an outside influence that captured me.  The music itself captured me, and I acknowledged different other artists as they came that was true to form perhaps, it wasn’t real… Even though I devised a way to make me a music system out of a guitar amplifier at that time from the turntable so I could get the actual sound… A guitar and one of these turntables that would plug into the guitar amp for the sound of the records.  That’s how I heard Bud Powell, on records, but never live; that’s how I set it up so I could really hear him, so I could almost hear him the same way that I heard the live artists.

TP:    Did you transcribe Bud Powell or did you just apply it?

HILL:  Well, I listened to it and a lot of things I could hear.  What I couldn’t play naturally… Someone showed me Czerny, so I could get the fingering necessary to play that.

TP:    To play like Bud Powell, the Czerny technique.

HILL:  For piano fingering, mmm-hmm.

TP:    Again, the same thing about Bud Powell and Tatum.

HILL:  Well, before Bud Powell had the shock treatments he was the most exciting piano player I’d ever heard.  After he had the shock treatments he was a different person.  But he was an exciting approach to me on piano, because hearing stride piano in Chicago, those who didn’t play well, it sounded like BOOM-CHANG, but he eliminated that in such a way where he could play like a horn, in a sense, pianistically.  It was exciting, and it was an extension, in a sense, of what Fatha Hines was doing.  It was just a different approach, different music in the evolution.

Art Tatum was interesting, because… A lot of people love his technique, but I love his harmonics and the voicing of his chords and his contrasts, which was as strong as Monk, but more romantic whereas Monk is more rhythmic.

TP:    As far as understanding harmony, was that innate, or was it through developing your ear on the bandstand with people?  Hearing Tatum, you were able to comprehend what he was doing?

HILL:  Well, by the time I really heard Tatum, I had heard it before from pianists around Chicago, a lot of them unknown, who played like him.  Then they had this piano book on him that they released in 1944 or 1945, with “Body and Soul” and all these things transcribed.  So he wasn’t the first, but he had taken it to a more polished level than a lot of the stuff I heard in Chicago.

TP:    I want to talk about Monk and Bird and Ike Day, maybe Ike Day first, since you recollect sitting in with him when you were 12 years.

HILL:  He had this incredible feel of rhythm.  It was rumored that everyone from Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and got what he was doing.

TP:    Did he affect your sense of rhythm?  How to play against the drummer…

HILL:  The way he played, even back then, opened up my concept of rhythm.  It took me from a rigid 1-2-3-4… Because even before that time, with him playing between swing and bebop, he did so many amazing things.  When I heard him at the Macombo he was at the height of his powers before he got ill.

TP:    You said he was playing all over the drum set all the time.  You made an analogy to Roy Haynes.

HILL:  Well, it was similar to Roy Haynes, but not, because he had approached it a different way.  Not only did he play on the drum set; he would come off into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old, and that was decades ago.  Lionel Hampton and a lot of people got… He was just incredible.  I never have heard anything like that since, which really leads me, every time I talk about him through the years, to say how important he became.

TP:    You said he played all these things over the entire drum, and incorporated everything into a rhythm so you had this floating rhythm sound.  And there’s something of that in the way you play over the drums.

HILL:  Well, a lot of times I would really like to play with them.  But sometimes that type of synergy isn’t available.  The main thing, you try to have this creative contact that seems to fit in certain situations more than (?) playing with someone… Especially now with everyone concertizing, they establish a certain a certain space as a rhythm.  So the only way you can exist is like a counter-rhythm.

TP:    You said you heard Monk’s records as they came out, when you were 10 and 11 years old.

HILL:  Me and a friend of mine, who was another prodigy, we used have a challenge to see who could play Monk’s compositions.  It came natural to my friend because he was a church pianist, so he was approaching it from the church perspective and play everything on a different degree, but still keep it… So after he taught me that, Monk’s things became more accessible.

TP:    Monk’s impact on you had more to do with his rhythmic concept?

HILL:  Well, Monk’s harmonic concept, the way he heard the harmonies, but still he kept it basic.  Even though he borrowed, his whole concept was very unusual, but then part of it traditional if you approach in from a church perspective from that period with modern harmonies.

TP:    What do you mean by “a church perspective”?

HILL:  Not the Baptist Church.  The Holy Roller; a certain church perspective.

TP:    You’re talking about getting the spirit, spirit-chasing…

HILL:  Well, that’s that type of musical approach, like the Prayer-Masters, which they call the piano and these religious situations that developed naturally in the community.

TP:    Were you in a church situation?

HILL:  Well, no, I really didn’t get into a church situation until I was 30.  So that’s why my friend was such a resource, because he played church piano and he could show me what he hear.

TP:    And one thing Monk and Charlie Parker had in common is that they were both dance musicians.

HILL:  Well, most music for the period up until 1960 was… Well, not dance music.  People had a more developed sense of rhythm than they have now, for some reason, maybe because the music and dance had split, became categorized and separated.  But from that, it wasn’t like commercial, homogeneous dance music.  People did unusual steps.  It wasn’t so much of a formula as it is now.

TP:    People were creating steps.

HILL:  Creative steps.  That’s before television took control and stuff.  Where I played with Charlie Parker was a dance hall, and they had dance halls across country, where they…

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    [BIRD AT GRAYSTONE WAS '51 OR '52] You’re 14 or 15 and you’re going to Chicago, but you’re going to Detroit for a gig.  You also said that when you came to New York, you’d already had a full career in Chicago.  You’re 25-26 with a fully developed aesthetic.

HILL:  Bruz Freeman came by my house and told me that he had a job for me to play with Charlie Parker.  He said that Bird had asked for me, to play with me.  I have no idea how he knew me.  Like I said earlier, I was playing at the jam session.  I was really young and visible on the scene, and it was noted that I had certain natural things and I was a better supplement than a lot of other people who had evolved from the swing period or people who listened to the records…

TP:    So you knew the new harmony.

HILL:  Yes, I knew the new harmony better than people who could play just like Bud Powell or any of them, but it was like an artificial music because they weren’t flowing, they were just playing like the classical music, which it would be one day, but what really gave it the vitality for that earlier period was people being able to express themselves.

TP:    So to put it in my own terms, you knew the language of Bebop and you knew the phrasing of it, and yet it was a natural organic thing for you…

HILL:  Well, it was natural to a certain extent, but then there were things I had learned.  But at least I did have a learned approach that was partially creative at the time.

TP:    Which was the jam session at the Macombo, and you were doing that from the age of 12 to…

HILL:  Well, it evolved.  At first, Pat Patrick was rehearsing this big band, and I went to him and he showed me what the standard harmonies were, the popular harmonies that everybody was playing.  Because I could chord and I had a harmonic concept, but it really didn’t fit into the sound that people wanted to hear during that period.  So he gave me the basics, and I was able to go from there.

TP:    So that was from rehearsing with the Pat Patrick Big Band.

HILL:  Yeah, Pat Patrick and (?).

TP:    does that mean that you were hearing Sun Ra then, too?

HILL:  Well, Sun Ra was always around, but I had a different approach to him, because I asked him to sit in and he refused me as a kid.  So then as I got older he said I should support him, you know, and he really didn’t mean that much to me.

TP:    So Bruz Freeman comes by and has the gig for you, and you drive to Detroit and there you are with Bird.  When did you start making a living as a musician?  Were a professional musician then?

HILL:  Yeah, taking gigs.  Like I said, it was still a popular music; it hadn’t become an art form.  So I could look forward to being employed all week or all weekend.

TP:    If there was such a thing as a typical week, what would it be?  Would you be playing the same type of program?  Different functions?

HILL:  Well, there were so many various jobs, because it was before television.  There was weddings, funerals, dances, social clubs, blues jobs and jazz jobs…

TP:    Miss High School, 1958?

HILL:  Well, I missed those high school things.  I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing.  I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.  But it was all type of… You could play a stage show. I played with a variety of singers.  It was just anything.  There was just work all around.

TP:    So you played the full spectrum of functional situations that a professional pianist would do.

HILL:  Yes.  Then they had places like Roberts Show Lounge, where Sammy Davis, Barbara McNair and all them were coming through, and I was the regular house pianist there.  I had a trio.  That was from around ’55 to around ’59.

TP:    Willie Randall, the old Earl Hines alto player, was the manager there?

HILL:  He was the bookkeeper.

TP:    So you were basically backing all the major acts coming through Chicago, and did a lot of playing with singers.

HILL:  And then at the Beehive also a few years before that when I was 16-17.

TP:    Then Norman Simmons did that later.

HILL:  Well, Junior Mance started with Buddy Smith and Israel Crosby.

TP:    At the Beehive you’re playing with the national jazz musicians coming through and you’re playing…

HILL:  And I played at Joe Segal’s sessions.

TP:    Did you back Lester Young ever?

HILL:  I never did back Lester.

TP:    Coleman Hawkins ever?

HILL:  I went to Milwaukee in his band as a kid.  They had a jazz club there.  I was invited to his house.  Then Sonny Stitt.  Almost anyone…

TP:    Ben Webster.

HILL:  Ben Webster.  Oh, I did play with Lester.  I played in a place called the  Stage Lounge.

TP:    So you’re playing rhythm sections, and you do that first trio on Ping.

HILL:  Right, where I had Wilbur Campbell on drums and Leroy Jackson on bass.

TP:    I have the one on Warwick with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter.

HILL:  That was ’59.  I made the ’45 for Ping in ’56.

TP:    I’m trying to get to the development of your concept and sound.  Because nothing I can remember on that Warwick record in ’59 sounds anything like, say, Smokestack or Black Fire.

HILL:  Well, that was designed for the supper clubs I was playing at the time.  Like, in Chicago you weren’t pigeonholed into one situation.  You could participate in multi-situations.  But here in New York, they just seemed to pigeonhole you into where you started working.  In Chicago, you could play the blues, you could play jazz, you could play behind a singer or in the various supper clubs that existed on the Gold Coast at that time.  So if you make a name and people dig whatever you do…

TP:    So each function was one function and there were other functions.

HILL:  That was one function.

TP:    It’s almost as though you got pigeonholed into being an artist in New York.

HILL:  Well, when you’re young and you first come to a city, you find your way.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll find something to get occupied with.  But here in New York… Like, I came to New York with Dinah Washington as a kid and Johnny Hartman, and I could see after that, when I got back to Chicago, the singers, like Al Hibbler…all of them would want me.  So if I came here…which is quite a bit… The only thing that would be available with me would be as an accompanist.  Regardless of what else I did… I was offered a job with Paul Butterfield, but then if I started working that job, I would be polarized again as a Blues pianist.  It was offered to me in New York, and that was why I couldn’t accept it, why I didn’t accept it even though I was moving at the time.  But I’m just saying that to say that whatever you participate in, you become part of.  Now I’m above all that where I’m doing it for my leisure and my sanity at this age.  But earlier, when I was younger, it was just polarized areas.  If one did one thing, he was drafted(?)…

TP:    Let me get you from 1959 to 1963, from the Warwick record where you’re doing supper club music, to Black Fire and Smokestack, which don’t sound like anything else anyone else is doing!  Was the music that you were doing on those first records music that you’d written and conceived of and performed in Chicago?  Or was it project-oriented?

HILL:  Well, the one on Warwick had some standards and originals I wrote, but it was conceived for a certain situation, as were things for other situations, but they were never recorded at the time.

TP:    So the music on that early Blue Note record were things you’d conceived of but never…

HILL:  The things on Blue Note were written especially for that session.

TP:    Did you perform music like that when you were in Chicago?

HILL:  Oh yes, especially with Ira Sullivan’s band before he left Chicago… We had a great band with Ira Sullivan, Nicky Hall…

TP:    Not Malachi.

HILL:  No, not Malachi.  Malachi wasn’t progressive; you know, at that time.

TP:    It almost seems to me, the way you’re describing your function as a musician in Chicago is almost artisanal.  Everything is according to a function and then you create art within that parameters of that function.  I can relate that to writing.  In this article, there are certain limits to what I can do, but I can try to make it as substantial and rich as I can.

HILL:  You have to compartmentalize.

TP:    When you came to New York, did you stop having to compartmentalize?

HILL:  Well, other opportunities were available here from people having seen me in Chicago.

TP:    Who were people you met in Chicago who you linked up with when you came to New York?

HILL:  Well, actually a lot of people I met in Chicago, I didn’t link up with.  Like Art Farmer, Charlie Mingus, who I refused to play with… So everyone I played with who were useful in Chicago weren’t useful in New York, but life has a certain way where you can flow on.

I played with Dinah Washington in ’54.  In the period they said I played with Dinah Washington I was with Johnny Hartman.  Then George Kirby, the mimic, I was his pianist for a while during that period, and I traveled for a short period of time with Al Hibbler.

TP:    Is that how you got to L.A.?

HILL:  No, I got to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, and stayed over and played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    What gig got you to New York?

HILL:  I just paid my own way here.  I was working somewhere on the West Side of Chicago, and the way I looked at it then is I’ll be doing this all my life, even though I wouldn’t… The way things turned out, all of that evaporated.  So I just decided it was time to come here.

TP:    Chicago started to dry up a bit?

HILL:  No, it didn’t dry up for me.  I was doing fabulously.  I was working with Red Saunders doing stage shows at the Regal, getting all the jazz gigs, and getting… I really was pretty active.  But after ten years of it, it began to get boring.

TP:    So you thought you could find some fresh ways of expressing yourself in New York?  What was the pull?

HILL:  The pull was just the fact that it existed, and I wanted to see what it was, because I knew what I had in Chicago.  What I had in Chicago was nice and great, but it wasn’t satisfying at that point, and I saw to myself that if I stayed there I would have condescended morally because everything had a type of sameness to it.  And then in New York, once I got there, I discovered it had a certain type of environment that nourish me, nurture me.

TP:    And you came at a time when… At the time you got there, you and your peer group, the people you recorded with, Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson all had… I mean, in terms of a distinction with a difference, you not such dissimilar sources and influences, and were looking for something new and for different ways to articulate it.  So it was this wonderful convergence.

HILL:  that’s the way I looked at it, to sustain me, and opportunities presented themselves.  It’s almost like this period now; it’s like coming full circle.  Even though the names and the faces have changed, it’s almost the same situation where there are some younger musicians on the scene, a lot of them unknown, but they exist, and the music can be played on a higher level.

TP:    Because they’ve mastered the tradition in some ways, or have a command of the fundamentals.

HILL:  Yeah, enough where they’re participating academians(?) where they might be able to enter the music.  A lot of them can… It’s just exposure.  In other words, that type of natural resources is here with the talent where one can be catalytic to the music, moving the music ahead.

TP:    Let me ask you about some dates and some of the personalities.  You and Joe Henderson had a real linkup… Through him you got the Blue Note…

HILL:  I did the Our Thing session with him.

TP:    Did that come out of a working situation?

HILL:  When I first came back to New York in ’63, my first job was with Kenny Dorham, and Joe Henderson was playing with Kenny Dorham.  Then the (?) thing started.  Joe had a session and he asked me if I would participate on it.  Then while we were playing the session Alfred said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera.  He really liked the way I played and he wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  So next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.

TP:    How did you know Kenny Dorham?

HILL:  I’d played with him in New York before I left to go to California.  I played with Kenny Dorham, with J.C. Moses, with Jackie McLean.  Anything else between ’61 and ’62 was a situation where I worked out of New York.

TP:    Talk about the affinity you and Joe Henderson had.

HILL:  Well, it wasn’t that close like relative fellowship.  During that period there were so many musicians, and everyone was feeling the music and had a different unique approach to the music.  Some people later defined it as it was recorded and worked, and others didn’t.  Because they had such a variety of artists there.  Blue Note was looking for a certain type of artists, like records companies are looking for a certain type of young artist now.  Each period has its similarities.  They were looking for someone who played in the tradition, but who could write music and had some type of direction.

TP:    You played with Walt Dickerson, too, that first time in New York.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  And I loved the way Joe Henderson played, but there were so many scholars to hear at that time.  The way he played excited me.  But then I still enjoyed hearing Von Freeman at the time.  So it wasn’t to me anyone greater or lesser.

TP:    This question isn’t about who’s greater and who’s not…

HILL:  No, but they were all an equal influence, because any other way would become too centralized.

TP:    Sam Rivers mentioned that he was playing in your band for a while, i think.

HILL:  Well, Sam had recorded for Blue Note, and I had this job in California where I had written something for 7 pieces.  Sam did a library job at Lincoln Center, I think, back then, with something for the Musician Fund, and I liked what he did there.  So I heard him and asked him to go to California to me.  He said he was leaving the Miles Davis band and that he wasn’t going with Art Blakey, so we had a certain period of time together.

TP:    Did you play in his bands at all?

HILL:  No.

TP:    And he did one record with you of all your music.  You said that the Point of Departure band was actually a working group for a while.

HILL:  Yes, we had a few concerts.

TP:    With Tony Williams.

HILL:  J.C. Moses was the drummer for things that weren’t recorded.

TP:    Did you ever in performance have Roy Haynes or Elvin or Tony in your band?

HILL:  Well, it was in ’71 when I was doing encounters with Roy Haynes and Richard Davis and Billy Harper.

TP:    But they never got recorded, though.

HILL:  They never got recorded.
[PAUSE]
HILL:  In Chicago the audience seemed to have the (?) with the artist, those who really liked the music of a different sort.  A lot of things that people in later years approached as experimental was almost like a natural evolution of the music itself.  You could approach music in various directions, like playing in two keys at once, or playing certain things and having an audience were a certain synergy existed.  That’s why a lot of people say, “Did they have approach this as such-and-such?”, etc., or some type of musical terminology that’s applied to it after the fact, after the actual… But these were just a natural evolution in that period, even to the extent of the New York… Like, with Ira Sullivan I had written things that evolved differently, like tunes with 10 bars and stuff like that.  A good part about that in Chicago is it wasn’t for just a situation where you would go to a coffeehouse or something and say it’s new music; it was something that the people felt.  That was why you could have somebody like Coltrane, who represented a certain musical period.

* * * * *

Andrew Hill (4-21-00):

TP:    At one point in our conversation you mentioned that this seems to be another golden age in jazz, not unlike things that happened in the ’60s when you came to New York.  Could you elaborate on that?

HILL:  Well, you have fresh young musicians on the scene who are not coming from the same aesthetic as the older musicians.  They’re coming because it’s economically expedient to play music.  They can make a career out of it, come college on.  Then on the other hand also, you have the younger players playing with older players, so that means a lot of things that were lost during what I call the retrospective period shortly before this period now have been acquired by the younger musicians through creative contact with older musicians.

TP:    Are you saying that musicians within the generations before this, maybe 1980-95, weren’t sufficiently in touch with older musicians?

HILL:  Well, they weren’t.  Because when the resurgence occurred, it occurred with what I call retrospective bebop.  In other words, good young musicians… Like you always have had good young musicians who copied other people’s music, and could play without achieving any type of creative contact with each other.  So you had that, which is the normal process for younger musicians to go through.  But now, I’m beginning to see young musicians with concepts where they’re not just playing things that they heard off the record, even though it’s still homogeneous, where Coltrane is still the main influence you hear out of a lot of them… But the music is changing again, going its own way, and then you have all this volume of jazz…all these jazz clubs for almost every genre of jazz here, and all of them have a capacity crowd.  Then you have another thing, that jazz all of a sudden seems to be a middle-class or upper-middle-class music.  Because it’s so expensive, a lot of people don’t hear it unless they hear through, you know, Wynton Marsalis, which is a service because it’s like a music appreciation lesson.  Even if one don’t agree upon the text, you can agree that he is bringing the music to young people who never heard it.  And other people have done it, so I can see there’s a wide flurry interest in jazz where people are trying to find not promoted hype, but the truth on the Internet and stuff like that.  Then most of the audiences, you have your chronological cross-section.  You have your older fans, but you have young fans, too.  Because where there’s younger musicians, there’s younger fans.

TP:    You’ve said a few times in these conversations that when you were coming up, jazz wasn’t an…I think the word you used was “art music.”

HILL:  It wasn’t like an art form.  It was still like a people’s music, but from the change of direction that Jazz has taken… Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities!  They were more in tune to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk… I heard him with a piano player friend of mine.  We used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift his stuff off the records when I was 10 years old.

TP:    This was King Solomon, huh?

HILL:  Yeah, King Solomon.  Oh, I told you about that.  Well, the art form was in the neighborhood even before television.  In almost any neighborhood that you wanted to go into, you could hear the music.  It was just coming out… I remember one time when I was 5 years old, I walked down the street and I could hear Billie Holiday coming out of every apartment blasting.  So it was like a people music.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.  It hadn’t become an expensive art form for social climbers and jazz connoisseurs.

TP:    But of course there was a group of connoisseurs, though not necessarily social climbers.  I just finished a story for Downbeat on Barry Harris, and he was talking about that time sitting in with Bird in Detroit when you drove there with Bruz Freeman.  But he said that when he was coming up (and he’s older than you), he and his friends got together, they listened to every record when it came out, they absorbed the solos, they took the things off the record, they slowed the records down until they had absolutely internalized all the solos that interested them.  They had their lessons, but they basically taught each other.

HILL:  Oh yes.  But then Chicago was definitely…it seemed to be further away…not further away… But it seemed to be geographically further and culturally different.  There wasn’t an emphasis on everyone being homogeneous.

TP:    Oh, you think the Detroit cats were homogeneous?

HILL:  In their approach to music.  Because you had all these older piano players who played different ways in Chicago.

TP:    you were mentioning Willie Jones.

HILL:  There was Willie Jones.  A slew of fine pianists.  They weren’t, you know, hip-hip-hip, or they weren’t the currently fashionable as the new jazz thing in the black community, but they worked all the time, and each one of them could play.  So you had all these variety of styles, from ragtime piano players who were in the church who were playing with Thomas Dorsey, the one who allegedly created gospel music…

TP:    Or commodified it anyway.

HILL:  Yeah, commodified it.  To all the fine pianists who were coming through town, which one could jam with; which I could jam with when one of the mature pianists was in there.  That’s how I got the job with Bird.  He asked for me and Bruz drove me there.  In other words, we had people like George Eskridge, who could take Bud Powell and Charlie Parker note-for-note off there, but there was no emphasis… Naturally, a lot of the alto players played like Bird.  But then you had Porter Kilbert and other older musicians who played like Willie Smith.  So there was such a cross-section that there was no…

TP:    Everybody was playing everything, is what it sounds like.

HILL:  Yeah, it wasn’t codified or marginalized.  You could work at supper club jobs; there jobs on the North Side, jazz gigs… In other words, there was an emphasis on people being well-rounded instead of polarized.

TP:    I understand.  Let me throw out another question.  How did you meet Hindemith, and what was the nature of your interaction with him?

HILL:  When I was a kid, I used to hustle on the corner of 47th Street with Leo Blevins, who at that time had a bathtub with a board with a G-string.  Me, Leo and Robert Blevins, I would bring my accordion and tap-dance, and we would just play on the corner.  That was our corner.  It was 47th Street and State on the northeast corner.  Because across the street was the cultural heart of what was called Bronzeville.  You had the Regal Theater, where they had a stage show and a movie, the Hurricane Lounge where Albert Ammons and later Gene Ammons played, the Savoy Ballroom, where Hot Lips Page and all… Then adjacent to that from where that was, there was a department store called South Center, which was the biggest… In other words…

TP:    The hub.

HILL:  The hub.  That was the hub of Bronzeville.

TP:    And your corner was in the hub of Bronzeville.

HILL:  Was in the hub of Bronzeville.  So when people didn’t show up, I used to go to South Center and just get a brown paper bag and allegedly call myself writing music.  And Hindemith came — I wasn’t musically literate as far as who’s supposed to be what in classical music and stuff — and he asked to see what I had written.

TP:    You mean he just was down there and he saw you doing it and said, “Little boy, let me…”

HILL:  It wasn’t “little boy.”  He was a very nice man.  We had a little conversation, as much as the age barrier would allow, and he asked me.  He said who he was, which I didn’t know.  But he said what I was writing was musically correct, but people who played, professional musicians, would have another type of notation.  And he showed me how I could do certain things without any type of musical instrument, like writing notes down and arranging them symmetrically and asymmetrically.  Things like that.

TP:    And you said that you had an innate ability to do that, to hear music without a tangible sound in front of you.

HILL:  Yes, I could do it without a sound in front of me.

TP:    But continue with Hindemith.  You wound up sending him something and he gave you a critique?

HILL:  No.  It was just when he was town he always arranged for us to get together and talk.  Later some people would call it a master lesson.  But the way he dealt with me is the way I tried to deal with my students in later life.  He didn’t try to change anything I was doing, but just enhance what I had naturally.

TP:    What about Bill Russo?

HILL:  Well, I bought a few lessons from him.

TP:    how old were you when you met Hindemith?

HILL:  I was around 14.

TP:    So that’s around 1951, and this relationship continued through the ’50s, to your being an adult?

HILL:  For a few years.  Once you get into your adolescence, different things change, and I became more mesmerized by the environment around me.

TP:    Elaborate.

HILL:  Well, I was getting to the point where I was making…you know, playing jobs.  Like, in ’54 I went out with Dinah Washington as her pianist, just a summer vacation.

TP:    She was covering tunes that were already hits.

HILL:  Yes.  “This Bitter Earth” and stuff like that.  That was right before she did her Emarcy sessions.

TP:    Are you saying that your performing career in Chicago subsumed your composing aspirations?

HILL:  Yes.  Because I had a career in Chicago as an adolescent and young man before I came to New York.  In Chicago there were so many things to do.  There were singers to play with, musicians to jam with — not to mention trying to stay in school.  So consequently, all my working time was in functional activity and trying to correct what needed to be correct so I could be more proficient.

TP:    And you were house pianist at the Beehive in ’53 and ’54?

HILL:  No, I played there.  Aside from the Beehive, they had the Crown Propellor and the Stage Lounge.

TP:    You sat in at all those places, but you were never house pianist as such.

HILL:  Well, I played…was almost house pianist at the Stage Lounge, which was on 63rd and Stony Island.  Then you had the Crown Propellor right before Cottage Grove.

TP:    And that was part of that 63rd Street strip.

HILL:  Yes, that 63rd Street strip.

TP:    A lot of musicians who were around then describe 63rd Street in awestruck tones.

HILL:  Oh, it was similar in a sense to what people said 52nd Street was.  On Cottage Grove you had the 6310; that’s where Willie Jones and his band played.  Then they had a disk jockey named McKie Fitzhugh, who had a club directly across the street.  And on 64th was the Pershing Lounge, where Ahmad Jamal was playing, and downstairs you had the first Cadillac Bob’s, where Sun Ra’s band used to play.

TP:    And they had a ballroom in there, too.

HILL:  Yeah, the Pershing Ballroom, where Gene Ammons, Tom Archia, Illinois Jacquet and people like that used to play all the time for the kids.  So the strip went up… They had a gay place a little further down on 63rd Street near South Park.  This was in the latter part… This was from ’54-’55.  Then before that, they had Nob Hill.  That’s where the Beehive was.

TP:    That was on 55th Street.

HILL:  Yes, in the Woodlawn area.

TP:    So you basically worked in all those places, and you said that you were de facto house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge.

HILL:  Well, I did have the house trio at the Roberts Show Lounge with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter — and Teddy Thomas for a while.

TP:    So that formed the core of your activity in the ’50s.  You’re performing, you’re doing tons of jobs, you’re finishing school, you have your compositional fires sort of fueled by meeting Hindemith, but you’re not really doing it because there’s not time and not really opportunity, except for some things you’re doing with people like Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill at certain concerts, and maybe some jamming.

HILL:  Oh, you know the names.

TP:    Well, I know a lot about the Chicago    music.  But when I asked you if there was any analogue to your Blue Note work, you mentioned that you had done some things like that with Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

HILL:  Yeah.  And Red Lionhart(?). There was a bunch… Because Saturday mornings… Ira and the gang was on the North Side, and I was on the South Side, but I would occasionally go on the North Side to play with them.

TP:    And you said you played some of the North Side, Gold Coast supper clubs.

HILL:  Yeah, supper clubs, and they had a jazz club over there, too.  I forgot the name of that place.

TP:    And the Warwick record is ’59, not ’55.

HILL:  Yeah, ’59.

TP:    So you leave Chicago on your own, you get to New York, you know people I guess from their having met you through coming into Chicago, and you work with Johnny Hartman, you work with Walt Dickerson, you leave for Los Angeles with…

HILL:  Al Hibbler.

TP:    Al Hibbler.  Then you go to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, where you meet your wife.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  We played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    And you do that record [Conflict] with Jimmy Woods.  Then you get to New York and settle back in.  So if I cite that as your chronology, I’m accurate.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    But just tell me one thing about playing with singers.  Was that something you liked doing?  Was it valuable?

HILL:  It was very valuable to me, because instead of voicing the chords which were popular then, which were sevenths in the right hand and, and thirds and sevenths, you know, like that…or fourths, bass on the seventh in the right hand… I could really go into the harmonics of the tune.

TP:    With the singers.

HILL:  Yes, with the singers it called for not the voicings so the horn players could play, but to play the harmonics of the tune so you could embellish and bring out what the singers were doing.

TP:    Did playing the accordion so young have an effect on your sense of time flow at the piano?

HILL:  Well, I played accordion very much like a harmonica.  Because with those bellows and stuff, you would get the same type of sound, just like a blues accordion player or zydeco…

TP:    All that vocalized timbre.

HILL:  Yes.

TP:    So it didn’t really have that much to do with your conception as a pianist, you don’t think.

HILL:  Well, in a sense it did, because you have the buttons, or stops, on the left hand.  But on the right hand, you had to deal with chordal clusters, not the chord itself.

TP:    In Chicago, did you see yourself as a Jazz pianist as such, or did you see yourself as a pianist who could play a variety of functions, including Jazz?

HILL:  Well, then I saw myself just as a pianist.  Because there was no need to polarize myself in one corner.  Because unlike New York, or maybe… When I came to New York, that road to supper clubs and the singers… I used to play with comedians like George Kirby.  So when I came here, I was more interested in playing jazz jobs than being well-rounded.

TP:    Did you come here with the intent of playing your own music also, or did that sort of happen…

HILL:  Well, that just came on its own.  Because everyone was to me writing so many interesting things, I found out I could evolve myself harmonically by participating with the others instead of stagnating for a certain style.

TP:    So in other words, through playing the original music of Joe Henderson and other people, it kind of spurred things that had been welling up in your mind over the years and music just came pouring out?  Was it that type of thing?

HILL:  Well, I always was a prolific writer.  But like most writers, you need new material to keep from becoming passe in your approach to writing, unless you market yourself to some institution where it’s necessary for you to have a certain almost commercial approach to writing.

TP:    Without going into a lot of detail about… Oh, Bobby Hutcherson asked me to ask you about coming back on the D-train early in the morning from Brooklyn.

HILL:  [LAUGHS] I’m not going to tell you about the D-train.  That’s not for public consumption.

TP:    But you mentioned sort of offhandedly that the friend you did the transcription with was a church pianist, and you learned a lot of the techniques of church music…

HILL:  Oh, that was afterwards.

TP:    You said you learned a lot from him, but you didn’t have your own church experience until you were 30.

HILL:  Oh, it was a her, not a him.

TP:    Oh, so it wasn’t King Solomon.

HILL:  That was a lady named Oveal Warren.  She was the choir-master at the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, California.

TP:    So that happened when you moved out…

HILL:  Well, when I left New York in ’76, first we bought a place in the Mariloma(?) Park section of San Francisco.  But I couldn’t take that because San Francisco at the time was trying to be just like New York, and Pittsburgh was kind of country, but it had the nerve to have its own identity.

TP:     Why did you start to get sick of New York?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t get sick of it.  My deceased wife was becoming ill, and once I moved there the condition was described as terminal.  So rather than run back to New York, I decided that I would just stay there because she would need me to be with her.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the present and talk about Dusk.  I don’t want to ask you anything so trivial as to talk about the genesis of the record.  But you said you’d been doing a tremendous amount of writing since you came back east in ’97, that it kind of opened up… Not everything on the record is from the last few years, but I gather most of it is.

HILL:  Well, maybe two or three.  Because when the sextet first started, we had a different repertoire, but the two or three tunes I kept in the book.

TP:    Well, Ball Square you played with Clifford on that Spirits record.

HILL:  Yes, but I just put more sections on it.

TP:    And “15/8″ you might have done solo.

HILL:  Yes, I did on a French record.

TP:    Were you writing music for the qualities of the musicians in the sextet, or was it more them just dealing with your conception?

HILL:  Well, there was a combination of both.  The first compositions I wrote, that I took out the book literally wasn’t changed for the sextet.  But they really didn’t fit the sextet, so the compositions became more personalized the longer the group stayed together.

TP:    And the group going into the Jazz Standard is slightly different.

HILL:  Yes, we changed the bass player and drummers from last year.  Ratzo Harris is taking Scott Colley’s place, and Nasheet Waits in on drums.  The tenor player is Aaron Stewart, plus Marty and Ron…

TP:    And since this record I think you said you’ve done 20 more tunes.

HILL:  Yes, 20 more tunes.  But then some tunes were shaped around Greg Tardy, because he plays clarinet and bass clarinet also.  With Aaron Stewart we’re starting off with 7 tunes, and we’ll possibly rehearse every day we can during the job, so I can try to get a repertoire that fits his personality.

TP:    And then you’re going to record again?

HILL:  I think I’m recorded out for the moment.  The reason I did this recording, between you and I, is I was talking to Howard and telling him that I was thinking about disbanding the sextet, and he said, “Well, it would be good if you did a recording before you do that.”  Because the sextet is good, but it has a life of its own; it seemed to have a synergy that connected with the people.  So it created its own life.  Even though at times I wanted to stop it, but you know, it has a life of its own.

TP:    So it fulfilled a function and maybe now it’s not fulfilling its function and it’s more of an obligation.

HILL:  Well, I really don’t know how I feel about it, because time the people change, the music changes.  It’s a situation that I have to see how it goes at the Jazz Standard.  I know when I changed to Nasheet Waits it improved for me, because I had a more sensitive and open drummer.  Billy is wonderful, but he played like a leader drummer instead of a sensitive drummer.  Which was good, because the band before I started changing it around was like a machine that would just play on its own.  But then what I hate about big bands is the stagnation that comes from repetition.  So this was like a little big band, and it started getting to the point where it could easily become very repetitious from the way some people approached it.  So by making the change, sometimes it became more interesting.

TP:    Do you see your composed music as infinitely mutable material?

HILL:  Well, at the time I really write, I see my composed music as an outlet for my emotions.  Sometimes life is just life, and it has its frustrations for everyone, or problems or whatever, and I can use it as a vehicle to soothe my emotions, and I notice that every time I write when I’m emotional, or even when I write when I’m not emotional, something new and good to me will come out of it that expresses those emotions.

TP:    What’s the role of improvisers within your music?

HILL:  I like to try to get people who are sensitive, like I said before, and who love the music.  Actually the music is just a blueprint for, in most spots, the way it develops, for group improvisation.

TP:    So you see your compositions, at least within an improvisational sense, as templates for group improvising and group creation.  I guess the phrase you like to use is “creative contact.”

HILL:  Yes, for group improvisation.  Because some parts they play as written, but then what’s written sometimes is just a theme to expand on together.

TP:    Lately you seem to be doing a lot of concerts and special appearances.  I don’t know if the thing with Bobby was a singular event or one of a series you’ve been doing, but I know you’ve also done duos with David Murray…

HILL:  Yes, and last week I did a duo with Archie Sheep in London.

TP:    I guess Archie Sheep is your age, but one thinks of you as being from different generations for some reason — maybe because you were on different labels and didn’t at least historically interact during the ’60s anyway.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    And you see to be distinct from the “free” school of players.  Particularly in that time.  Did you see a distinction between you and, say, some of the players who were around Coltrane, or as you said when you called me while I was playing your record and Greg Tardy was soloing, “it sounds like Albert Ayler.”  Did you have any contact with that group of musicians then?

HILL:  Oh yeah, when I was in the Black Arts period, I produced Albert Ayler, the drummer Milford Graves and Don Pullen… On the streets of Harlem, I had three concerts a night(?) of free music.  But as far as myself, the only reason I was catalogued as an avant-garde is because they had no category to put me in.  Which they explained to me when I asked about it.  They said, “Well, we can’t say that you’re a Bebop drummer or a post bebop piano player or a solo piano player or avant-garde.”  But for marketing purposes, they put me under the classification of avant-garde, which seemed to have… It gave me life in the catalogue.  Because if I was classified as a post-Bebop piano player, that only had a certain duration on the jazz market.

TP:    I remember reading a review which I xeroxed of you doing a concert in Chicago in ’67 of your group opposite Roscoe Mitchell, I think it was.

HILL:  No, Roscoe Mitchell came up and jammed with me.

TP:    I realize you were out of Chicago by that time.  But did you have any contact with the nascent AACM, or its antecedents in the Experimental Band, or did you ever touch base with them…

HILL:  Well, I gave them one of their first jobs out of Chicago.  Because John Sinclair, who was in Ann Arbor, asked me to name some musicians who were with the new avant-garde, and I mentioned the AACM, particularly Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.

TP:    And subsequently they got a lot of work through him.

HILL:  Yeah, he really gave them a big push.  That was around ’67-’68.

TP:    Do you remember your early contact with Joseph and Roscoe?

HILL:  Well, I first met Roscoe when he sat in with me.

TP:    What did you think of what they were doing when you first heard it?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t really know what they as a group were doing.  I just played with Charles Clark and Thurman Barker with a trio, and it was good, you know, but people have been playing like that in Chicago before Ornette Coleman hit the scene.  In Chicago we used to play what we would call “in” and we would play what we would call “out.”  So that was really nothing new for Chicagoans when it got promoted.  That represented a situation where we had Marshall Allen and a few people unnamed.  So when music was… Popular music.  I’ll go back to that.  The audience’s ears was more developed, so you could have a type of synergy…

[END OF SIDE A]

So people had been playing like that.  It was just…

TP:    I guess there’s a certain element of that that goes into blues playing as well.

HILL:  Well, it really goes into blues playing, because the true blues musicians really don’t cater to so many bars, let’s say.  Where people might say it should be a 12-bar blues, and it may be a 15-bar blues.

TP:    It’s whatever they feel at the moment.

HILL:  It’s like choir music, where you have the refrain before you start again, and all that.  Even though it’s based on some type of rhythm, what’s on top may not really fit in with Western harmony the way people think Western harmony should be.

TP:    You also mentioned that Israel Crosby told you that black musicians would play differently, say, with Benny Goodman than in a black band — that they had to concertize.  Which was the thing that impressed you to Earl Hines.  So we can even trace that way of playing Earl Hines in a very stylized show situation.

HILL:  Oh yes, playing something simple like “Sweet Lorraine” or whatever the repertoire, but he would take it out of the context of the standard form, even though it was in the mode of chords of that period, and do certain things… A musician like King Kolax would talk, and they would say… When they crossed over then, they would use that term, that they would concertize their music, put it in almost more of a concert form where the soloist would elaborate a little more than they would just playing together…just playing with each other.

TP:    When you’re talking to me about the range of sources that you can work with, it sounds like the way Muhal Richard Abrams talks, or Anthony Braxton, or Joseph Jarman — that almost any form of music, any genre of music, whether it’s Hindemith, or whether it’s the Blues, or whether it’s Charlie Parker, is grist for your mill, is something you can express yourself with in the most natural way.

HILL:  It is.  All material that you hear… A lot of things have been recycled or expounded upon.  Like, the rhythm may change over the decades or certain elements may change but the basics remain the same.

TP:    Going back to the idea that this is another golden age in the music, do you think this particular group of musicians at this particular moment is ready to seize upon all those possibilities in a way that they haven’t for a while.

HILL:  The ones who aren’t literate.  And by literate I mean those who aren’t so well read that they associate the music with European Art, the part of European art which has been adopted into Jazz, where people think they either have to compromise or live in poverty to play creative music.

TP:    Elaborate on that.

HILL:  By compromise, sometimes it’s not a compromise… They feel that because of the venues available and the visibility available from the institutional position of jazz when you’re in places like Lincoln Center, and the repertory used…that they either have to play like that, or they’re afraid to expand on their talent, because either they’re not open enough to receive it or feel that they won’t work.  To me, both camps, the retrospective camp…and the Free camp is retrospective also, because that’s over forty years old.  But then I see the young people using the entire vocabulary instead of one aspect of it to move the music forward.  Because when I first came back here I thought, like everybody else, “Well, ain’t nothin’ happening.”  Then I started playing with people and I thought, well, something is happening.  The music has moved already, even though it’s imperceptible to those who are loyal to the different camps… But the music itself, the way it’s being played, is totally different from what it’s been.  Now you have those who depending on what school they went to will dictate whether they’re playing allegedly Free or Bebop — because that was the text.  But those who have got past the academic approach, who have gotten into the sound, are taking it somewhere else.

TP:    Did that inspire you when you got back here and you found that out?

HILL:  Yes, it was really inspirational to find out that things aren’t static, which led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.

TP:    You don’t have to recreate the things that you put down in the spur of the moment… You don’t have to be those three or four years of Blue Note recordings.  You can be who you are now, and progress and grow within a community of people.

HILL:  Yes.  And that’s always rewarding rather than isolated in a retrospective view of yourself.  Or I can express it better.  It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder to just continue playing, because when one plays, either… The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  Then those who compromise can have a longer tenure of playing.  But it’s terrible to me playing without the passion of music.  Because that’s what I hear a lot of times, people playing without even a passion.  Because it’s the passion that connects; it’s not the academic correctness.  Because the passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  But to be playing without any passion but playing correctly seems like people just make a career out of it instead of following their passion.

TP:    What music do you like to listen to these days?

HILL:  Well, now, other than newer things, I like Steve Coleman, the things I like…

TP:    Another Chicagoan.

HILL:  With his own… Yeah!  Then I liked the duo record that Frank Kimbrough did with Joe Locke, Saturn’s Child.  I listen to a variety of things.  Because what I do is, everybody is giving me CDs… I try to tell them not to give it to me.  So the things that I like, which is around 3% of what I get, I keep and listen to sporadically, and other things I just put in care packages and send them out to friends.

TP:    How did you like The Invisible Hand?

HILL:  I enjoyed doing it because Greg gave me the… I didn’t approach it as a sideman.  I just did it because Greg expressed to me sincerely how disappointed he would be if I hadn’t done it, and I have a feeling for him, so… I first met Greg ten years ago when we did Eternal Spirits, and it was good to see where he had progressed to and where he was at this point.

TP:    And in Classical music?  What do you listen to?

HILL:  Yes, I listen to Classical music.  I never have grown tired of Bartok’s string quartets — and other things.  I listen to a whole mixture of different music, but the composing I don’t really listen to it that much.  It seems like I’m able to draw a lot of things from the inside, even though I do go to concerts of all types — Classical, Jazz and stuff.  I have a preference myself for live music, because recorded music to me is like representational art.  That people hear so much… Even though most abstract things can be hung.  And the spirit of jazz is not on the repetition, but it’s allegedly supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.

TP:    And I think we have a good concluding question.  So you’re optimistic.  You’re seeing enough young people in this generation who embody that spirit going forward.  It sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about it.

HILL:  Yes.  I not only see the spirit; I see the outlet for that spirit, where someone, one who commits himself to the music, the rewards will be greater than someone who just approached the music career-wise.  I see where an outlet for creative music is bigger than the outlook for those who can confine them to a certain music simply because they found one formula that they can work or gain a professional image with.

TP:    One other question.  In the program notes to the Mosaic box, Cuscuna says that in the late ’60s you invested wisely in real estate and were able to support yourself comfortable and get away from the vagaries of the existence of being solely a performing musician.  Is that right?

HILL:  Well, from my beginnings, what made me play music was the desire to play, but also it was motivated by the fact that I got paid.  So I never associated music with poverty, because I found that when I played, no matter what my skills may be or how I may attempt to be the Renaissance man, that my rewards were greater even financially than they were by my being a tenured college professor.  But then I also realized that for me to have any duration I would have to get away from the music for certain periods so I wouldn’t be jaded either by my contemporaries or by my having a musical formula which I considered successful.

TP:    So you looked for outlets so you could keep your juices going.

HILL:  Well, when someone says they’re an artist, that’s not a poverty thing.  To be a true artist, you have to have a certain economic freedom.  And if you weren’t born with that, you can give it to yourself.  Because by working, you have escaped poverty.  So it’s just a matter of what do you spend your money on.  Do you need all the new technological toys or do you want a good life?

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR, 5-5-00):

[MUSIC: "Dusk"]

TP:    Let’s talk about the genesis of this record.  The instrumentation comes from one of your most famous recordings, done for Blue Note in late 1963, called Point of Departure, which featured some of the legends of jazz in an ensemble oriented situation articulating your music [ETC.].  I guess the idea arose a few years ago came to revisit the aural timbre of that event for a Knitting Factory festival a few years ago.

HILL:  To revisit the aural timbre and try to reset the state of excellence.  Because there was a certain artistic excellence with that album which wasn’t uncommon for musicians when they got together for that period.  But for this period I figure we’d try to create a band that had the same type of synergy with the audience and who loved the music.

TP:    That brings up two questions.  One is, what qualities, in the general sense, distinguish the musicians who performed on Point of Departure from the generation that appears on Dusk, and what they need to interpret the music with the sensibility that it demands.

HILL:  What I’m trying for now is to be more open and not deal in comparisons.  Because the social and economic situations that created the artists of 20 and 30 years ago isn’t prevalent today.  Because now it’s economically expedient to be a jazz musician.  So you’re dealing with a vast majority of younger musicians who went to college to study jazz (bebop probably was the text) who can make a career out of music.  For me, when I discover musicians in that chronological age with a passion for that music, that’s what gets my attention.  Because I really can’t say what happened (it would seem like a contradiction of what I just said) can’t happen today, but it is happening, seems to be happening in a different way.  Because before I got more involved in my writing and playing, and the interchange with various chronological, 3 or 4 generations from… I discovered that something is happening today.  Because the usual look is that Jazz is something unique that happened in the 20th Century and went its own way and died, and is being preserved.  But now I look at some of the younger musicians and I say, “Well, they really don’t need anything but to play and to play with a certain type of openness.  Like, in any subject, they say, well, once people forget what they studied, then it all becomes organic and instinctive and something great arrives.  But I’ve seen those qualities in quite a few young, middle-aged and older musicians where I say, well, the music really doesn’t need anything.  Because those type of human resources are still available, and the cream of whatever always will find a way to rise to the top, regardless of the obstacles.

TP:    I guess a lot of the musicians who can sustain themselves in the contemporary scene will have to have internalized the styles of many different periods to be able, as you put it, to forget it — forget what they learned and play, in some sense.

HILL:  When I was at the university, the way I approached it was it’s good for a musician to transcribe and have a certain model for entry, and then once they discovered that formula they have something to study and make various improvements on the improvisations.  So it’s a matter of a student nowadays, moreso than everyone who’s been before them, is just to be able to apply critical thinking to the subject matter.  It’s good to go back, but if one really can’t go back and get the feeling out of it, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Because music is not just based on the academic approach, like tonic-dominant harmony and stuff, but it offers a certain magic when people play together and get a creative contact.  So if one can listen, like any aesthetic…listen gradually and get the emotional content out of their music, and in some kind of way figure out how it fit into the sociological mores of the time for the period when jazz was a popular music, not an art form.

TP:    Well, what is your relationship to this older music?  You began your recording contract for Blue Note in 1963, and by ’65, certainly by ’66, you had recorded 8 or 9 albums that stand out as individual documents and classics of the time — over about a three-year period.  To a lot of people it was like you’d come out of nowhere.  Well, that certainly wasn’t the case, because you’d been an active working musician in Chicago for more than a decade before that.  But most people define you by this music from 35 years ago.  So what’s your relationship to it in putting together a body of work for a group of contemporary musicians with that instrumentation, your relationship to that older body of music.

HILL:  Well, for my selection process, I would like a musician who partially understands everything that has gone on before, like the free playing which has been out for forty years, then the bebop, the retrospective, then the magic of Bebop… Just have an understanding of the traditional musical vocabulary that has happened before them enough where they can participate, use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, the sounds, able to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process, to say, “Well, this will fit into this period.”  Not looking at anything as old and new.  Because it’s all common property and always been recycled with a different beat.  But I look for people to have a knowledge of what has gone on in the past, because the freedom I will give them, I want them to make good musical choices.

TP:    There’s an explicit reference in this… The title track is inspired by a section of Jean Toomer’s Cane.  Talk about how your impression of the text set off the musical impressions we hear on the CD.

HILL:  Cane is basically a bunch of short stories linked together which is built on his experience in the South, when he went down South to teach and was drawn into what I call a native environment.  Prior to that period he was raised as mulatto gentry from that time, a Washington, D.C. background with his family… But what links it is these different things, like they say “her skin was beautiful, it was like dusk…”  Everything emphasizes dusk.  Dusk to me is the period between day and night.  Each one has a different dusk.  One could smell smoke, the baby burning… That was kind of a dusk.  Not dealing with it chronologically in years, but dealing with it chronologically by the season.

[MUSIC:  "Sept"]

TP:    When people in the band talk about playing with you from night to night, they describe an attitude on your part towards the music that it’s kind of like a work in process.  The musical texts seem to be infinitely mutable.  You change the form of the compositions from night, occasionally without much warning or on the spur of the moment.  Has that been your philosophy?

HILL:  Yes.  The sextet is nice, but then when you have arranged things it can become as boring as a big band.  Because some of the most interesting big bands I have heard, the musicians who play in them regularly are bored to death.  So I figure, well, maybe if you can change the form and context of the material and get the soloists involved where they can go into group improvisation on a theme or on a rhythm, you can keep the music alive.  Because other than that, everyone who would probably sound incredible from playing the same thing over and over again… But there’s a certain magic of creation.  Because I would rather have the magic of creation, which is success, rather than perfection of an academic approach where everything is perfect but meaningless.

TP:    Did you ever lead a big band or write big band music?  Am I correct that there is one unissued big band record in the Blue Note archives?

HILL:  There’s actually three big band things I started, with a tentet, with unorthodox arrangements, then I have two or three with 12 to 14 piece instrumentations, which to my memory isn’t like a standard orchestra.  But I always have enjoyed writing for almost any group.  Writing seems to be my passion.  I was amazed today… Two days ago I was working on a tune, and today it just revealed itself as a futuristically incredible composition.  So I’ve written for big bands, orchestras…

TP:    And you’ve been writing since before you knew it was writing, in a certain sense.

HILL:  Yes, I always have had that.  When I grew up, everybody would say it was weird, because the young kids my age were playing baseball, hitting each other in the head with the bat, the little things that came with childhood in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But I preferred, in a sense, to hustle.  I had two or three street corners where I would stand and play my accordion.  Leo Blevins, who was ten years older, had a bathtub with a board and a G-string.  So we would liberate a corner and play there.  During the intermission I would go to the department store and allegedly write things down on a brown paper bag, which I found out in time was correct… I was told that my method of notation… Because when you write, you try to make things a little more homogeneous so people can read it.  But my music didn’t have any mercy for the musician who would read it, but it was correct.  I always loved to write music.  Then when I got to the point where I could hear the music back, I loved it that much more, just… I notice that whenever I’m troubled or whatever, it’s like an…it’s amazing that from your creative outlets, something is born.

TP:    The neighborhood you grew up in that you’re referring to is the South Side of Chicago, which was a center of enormous cultural ferment in the time when you were growing up, after World War II and during the 1950′s  And the person who let you know about what you were writing, if I’m not mistaken, was Paul Hindemith.  Not necessarily the person you’d expect to encounter on the South Side of Chicago.

HILL:  Well, across from the corner where we were playing, you had such cultural attractions as the Regal Theater, where they had the stage shows, part of the black theater circuit, then you had the Savoy Ballroom where great artists would come in who people would dance to.  Then you had the Hurricane Lounge, where first Albert Ammons was playing, but then Gene Ammons and Tom Archia played… It was just a hub.  Not to mention 47th Street itself.  As you walked down 47th Street from east to west you would run into a few places that had blues bands.  So you would find a lot of people going through that strip because it was safe and there was a lot of, in a sense, material available.

TP:    So Hindemith just heard you, saw what you were doing, and took an interest.

HILL:  Yes, he took a partial interest.  I think he was going to the Regal Theater.  I think one of Fats Waller’s last performances was there, and he played organ.

TP:    So you were 6 years old when…

HILL:  Hmm-hmm. Anyway, he stopped… I guess I was a sight, a little raggedy kid who could play the accordion, and when I played it, it was like a harmonica almost, where it sounded like a mouth instrument, because you can  have those waves of air.  So that was interesting.  It looked like the stage show was getting ready to start…

TP:    And you were more interesting than the stage show.

HILL:  Well, everybody put their instrument down.  So I sat down and wrote something on some music paper.  I was calling myself writing, because I could hear the sound from when I was a baby… In hard times they had rent parties, and you had some of the finest pianists coming by your house playing stride and boogie-woogie and some modern.  So music was always available, and from my ears I could separate the various sounds.  I’ve always been talented at that.  At first it was like a game, but then the game grew into another type of reality.

TP:    I guess through playing on the street is how people like Albert Ammons or Earl Hines would have heard you play — you’ve mentioned both as early mentors.

HILL:  Well, Earl Hines, a few years after that he was at the new Grand Terrace.  The old one was at 35th Street.  In ’49-’50-’51-’52-’53, it moved to Oakwood Boulevard, which was on Oakwood and South Park, which is now King Boulevard.  Anyway, from being at the Regal as I got older, I started selling the Chicago Defender.  The way that worked was, you would go to the distributor and buy so many newspapers yourself.  Part of my route where I would go was these hotels and buildings, and sometimes it was the Grand Terrace.  I stumbled upon Fatha Hines.  Because at that age I didn’t know who was supposed to be who or what, but I was just happy that when I ran into an older artist, they would be supportive and maybe give me a…you know, explain something musically to me.  So I bugged him to death. [LAUGHS] Then he decided he would let me play on his grand.  So I played on his grand, I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had an unlimited technical facility for not having really studied.

TP:    It’s something that couldn’t be duplicated today.  You mentioned to me that at 12 years you sat in for one tune at a breakfast session at the Macombo Lounge…

HILL:  Yes, they were playing “Idaho.”  They gently eased me off the stand because I didn’t play the bridge in A-flat.  Oscar Pettiford was playing bass and the legendary Ike Day was playing drums.  King Kolax, who was an older musician who had been in all these various big bands… The piano player didn’t show up, and he knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so they invited me on the stand to play “Idaho” with them.  I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, “Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!”  But after that, they were nice enough to generally ease me off the stand, but they told me what I did wrong.  They said, “On the bridge, you go to A-flat.”  Then years later…well, not that many years, when I discovered who everyone was, I was overwhelmed.  Which I think really created my personality now.  I said, “If people of that magnitude can be generous and gracious and giving, let me try to be like that.”  I know there was others who turned their back to the audience.  I’m not saying anything is greater or lesser.  But from my experience, I also try to be supportive.

TP:    Through the ’50s, you finished school, and also played rent parties, did various gigs around the South Side, which meant a range from supper club things to hardcore jazz to playing with singers — and blues.

HILL:  And blues.  Then all of a sudden I became a pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band.

TP:    You played at the Beehive, where national acts would come through.

HILL:  Played the Beehive when it was in Nob Hill.

TP:    Subsequent to that, the Roberts Show Lounge, where major entertainers came in, North Side supper clubs, different clubs on the 63rd Street strip.  So by the time you got to New York in 1961, when you were 24, you already a decade’s professional experience, which puts into perspective the splash you were able to make once Blue Note allowed you to unleash your creative juices on the scene you encountered in New York City.

HILL:  The (?) had become polarized, in a sense.  Sometimes I’d say to myself, well, since I played all these clubs and so on in Chicago, why wasn’t I drawn to that in New York.  But when I arrived, what got my attention was all the various flowers, known and unknown, was were available.  It was just a big potpourri of musical talent.  It was thrilling to be alive.  Music wasn’t economically expedient at that time, but there was a certain type of fellowship and certain information and certain…you know, the joy of musicians really having a social work style where they were liberally given information all the time, and you were able to play… No one had gotten big enough where they couldn’t refuse certain situations where they got together.  Before I left, things had changed.  I knew it was time to go, because people were charging me for rehearsals.  I said, “The scene is changing.”

TP:    Dusk has a programmatic component to the recital.  There are sextet pieces, piano with a three-horn orchestration type of thing, and some solo tracks as well, of which we’ll hear one, which is called “Tough Love.”

[MUSIC: "Tough Love"; w/ Osby, "The Watcher, Vol. 2"; POD, "Flight 19"]

HILL:  I really enjoyed Freddie Waits.  He was a incredible drummer.  He was like Ike Day to me, one of the great masters who never really got their due.

I love playing with Marty because he’s always fresh and he always inspires me.  I can’t remember when he played the same thing twice on any different occasion, which I love.  Ron Horton is a nice person, a person I like who I’ve seen develop his own style, really coming into his own.  I heard Aaron Stewart last year with Marty Ehrlich’s group playing Julius Hemphill’s music, and I was impressed with his sound.  I was also mostly impressed with the fact that at the time he didn’t sound like anyone but himself.  Nasheet Waits is a person who has won my heart.  To me, everything is built of the spirit of the drums and where the drums goes, so to me, he’s the spirit of drums at this moment.  And Ratzo Harris is a very magnificent bassist.  I’ve been playing with him for years, since he was 17 in San Francisco, and he was spectacular then, so it will be interesting to see…

TP:    You spent a good chunk of the ’80s and ’90s on the West Coast.  There’s always been a bit of mystique about you, people wondering whether such-a-such a fact is accurate.  I guess you were away from New York for 20 years or so.

HILL:  I left in ’75 and returned in ’93.  I’d make runs in and out, but then at a certain point I felt New York was the place.  Because I could see New York coming alive again, things changing, a different space but the same place.

TP:    You’ve said that you think we’re in a sort of golden age, and the group of musicians who are sort of entering their prime now and defining the next stage the music will take… You describes it as almost analogous to the period when you first made your big creative splash.

HILL:  There hasn’t been as much new, young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s.  But I see the music is well in their hands as evolving to something else.  Then I see the concert stages more available, not really comparatively… But Classical music has lost much of its audience, and it’s been sustained in a lot of areas with the orchestras contracting jazz artists for a collaboration.  I see where Jaazz is just going to flower.  The reason I say it’s going to flower is because of the creative young artists that are still alive, who… If they were all dead, it could really be looked at as a retrospective.  But I see life has been breathed into the music.

TP:    The way information is passed down is a lot different than when you were coming up, isn’t it.

HILL:  Well, now information and misinformation… Like, everything is… Now it doesn’t have the substance.  When it was passed down to me, like before television and stuff, it was, in a sense, more accurate.  You heard about Coltrane, and in New York they heard about me… Different people were..> it was more of an accurate assessment than it is now.

TP:    But I was referring to the way vocabulary was passed down, musical information.

HILL:  Well, it was more of the oral tradition, where they would show you… Depending on the instrument, you would show the instrument… And the ears were more sensitized or… I can’t compare it.  But you could play the most complex figure for someone two or three times and they would have it.  Whereas now everyone is reading 100% synthetic, so one really has to have compositional skills to write it down.  Because there is a great chance that if you try to share it through the oral tradition, it will really take more time.

TP:    [Re Shades] Did you used to gig with Clifford Jordan in Chicago?

HILL:  Yes, I used to gig with Clifford off and on when he was available during that period.  Clifford could play every instrument — bass, drums…

TP:    Speak foreign languages…

HILL:  Oh, he was an incredible person.

[MUSIC: "Ball Square" from Dusk]

TP:    I’m going to take you back about 40 years.  In the years before you left Chicago, which was in ’61, what if any was your connection with the people who comprised the AACM in Chicago directly or indirectly?

HILL:  Well, I had a talk with Richard Abrams…Malachi…

TP:    He was part of your working trio.

HILL:  He was part of my working trio.  But other than that, I had no working connection.  After I had moved to New York, I came back and played at a concert they presented at the University of Chicago, and introduced them to John Sinclair, who was at Ann Arbor at the time, and through that introduction they were able to expand into other areas.

TP:    Next week, how much is new repertoire and how much old?

HILL:  We’re starting with the tunes on this album, but we have about 7 compositions we’re going to work into the repertoire.  By the end of the week, I’m hoping to have a new repertoire of 25-30 tunes.  Because I’ve written a few things before, but I really can’t write for the group effectively until I’ve played one or two nights with the musicians.  Then I can write music that would fit their strengths.

TP:    So for you, writing is as much personality-based as it is…not abstract…

HILL:  Well, in certain situations… Extended compositions are different.  But in these groups, improvs where you put different sections of music together depending upon who is playing.  I’ve noticed through the years you may give an artist material that really may not fit their mindset for the period that they’re in.  This way, everyone can… Like the old jam session, even though it’s a little more rehearsed.  You can find a common denominator, a common level to play on.

TP:    You’ve also been doing a bunch of duos in recent years, as with Bobby Hutcherson recently, duos with David Murray and Archie Shepp.  Are these very satisfying performances for you?

HILL:  I don’t know if “satisfying” is the word because I approached them with apprehension, and then when they’re over it takes me two or three weeks to figure out whether they were successful musically, but they are challenging.

* * * *

Andrew Hill (6-22-00 & 6-23-00):

TP:    I’d like to speak about your relationship to your history, to your past.  I’ve seen you play several times now this year, with your current group, but also situations that bring you back in touch with past associations.  The concert last week with Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson reaffirmed something I knew about your music, which is that you operate with a very specific language and vocabulary, and it seems that to be articulated in an effective way, it needs to be done with all appropriate detail, which it didn’t seem you had time to rehearse enough to make it come out in the concert.

HILL:  That’s partially true.  The problem with this job and the job coming up at the Chicago Festival, most of the promoters want to book me with past associations, because they say it will bring a better house.  But the other side of the coin is, everybody hasn’t kept up.  Musicians come to me with a desire, as they say, to play in the big room, which is defined as playing open, and they really haven’t developed their skills.  That’s why in my band I have a preference for… I can cross racial, chronological and different lines, and find open people who are open enough to have developed these skills to the point where we can go onward with a series of workshops and reprogramming.  Like I was telling Howard, this coming Festival, the only way I can see myself surviving is to cancel and redo it with musicians who I feel I can play with this decade, who may have been wonderful for me 20-30 years ago.  But like I said, everyone hasn’t really kept up.  I’m versatile enough to play other people’s ways.  But the unfortunate thing is, most of the older musicians… With the so-called success or whatever it is, the promotional visibility that I’m getting now, they figure they want to cater to me to the extent that they can play with me.  But then, it’s not about anything retrospective.  We’re talking about current skills.  Because the younger musicians have an encyclopedia from the so-called “avant-garde,” which isn’t avant any more, or bebop… So they have an encyclopedia where they can go into certain aspects of certain styles, and develop a new sound and even an identity.  But then if someone has been out there for years and really hasn’t upgraded their skills, in a sense they’re back at point one.

TP:    Or at the very least, their skills may not have gone in parallel with where you’ve gone in your own music.  Like, Jackie McLean’s skills are immense, but he’s a leader, and he hasn’t been a sideman on anything but Charlie Parker’s music and the tradition for a long time.

HILL:  Well, he wasn’t supposed to be a sideman.  It was supposed to be a collaboration where we went through new material, nothing so hard that anyone would have to go to school for it.  Just little things that were supposed to be natural, natural enough where people could just get together and get into the sound.  But for sound, it would be better for people to play the way they play.  That was my objection to the concert.  I figured it would be stronger if people didn’t try to get with me and allowed me to get with them.  That way I could accompany them, and bring them out.

TP:    I thought for that concert that a more effective way, if you didn’t have a day or two to rehearse…

HILL:  We didn’t.

TP:    …would be maybe to do trios or quartets or break the thing up.

HILL:  It was supposed to be broken up like that.  But they didn’t give us the space necessary for trying to adapt.  That’s the way it was arranged.  But we had bass, drums…everyone was supposed to be in different combinations.  But for some reason it didn’t happen.  Because for the performance, everyone really kind of reverted back to their first nature.  So this type of space was very new.

TP:    The concert needed a producer.

HILL:  It had a good producer.  Everything went well.  The problem was the same aspect that people couldn’t really relax, and when they couldn’t relax they were like a bull in a china shop.  Nothing bad.  But if they had relaxed, and just let everything float and had come in floating, they would have found that space and no one would have noticed.  But then people get used to becoming a dominant soloist, so much so that they feel they must fill up all of the space in certain areas, but they’re not equipped to fill up the space without listening and capturing what’s going on around them.

TP:    So in the ’60s, when this music was all fresh, people weren’t so set in their vocabularies, weren’t so set in their ways.

HILL:  Yes, that’s it.  Just like a young aspiring player today, or anyone creative.  To be creative, you can’t… Everyone can find a formula where they  can sound good, and they can sound good for decades by applying the same formulas.  But when someone says that there are more, then it is their responsibility to themselves that they keep on listening and evolving.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which your sense of composition has evolved over the years.  How do you hear your older music now?  How does it sound to you?

HILL:  The older music brings back the moods of certain periods.  I can almost experience my life during those periods by listening to the music, and enjoy it.  But as far as my having any established formula… I just write music every day, and there’s 10 or 12 ways that I try to get to a new creation.  But I can become analytical only when I’m inside the creation, as to which ways the melodies or fragments of melodies lean towards.  Some things lean towards voices.  So my sociability is my music composition.

TP:    Is the 4-5-6-piece combo sort of your natural metier?  Is that what you hear most naturally?  Or is that a pragmatic choice to write for?

HILL:  Well, I figured I’d get a sextet, get in and write some compositions.  It can be an outlet, but it’s not what I hear or all that I hear.

TP:    What are some other things you’re hearing?

HILL:  Oh, I hear voices, big bands, string quartets, two-basses.  Quite a few things.

TP:    Apart from the unissued tentet stuff for Blue Note, have you done big band…

HILL:  There’s 12 or more in the can.  And I did a big band composition for Harvard University and a few colleges.  I wrote for big bands and orchestras when I was an Associate Professor at Portland State University.  I’m marketed in such polarized areas that there’s really not that much interest in that aspect of me here.

TP:    Can you talk about how your style of piano playing and your individual technique of playing the piano inflects how you hear and compose?

HILL:  Well, it’s almost two different things.  On piano, I go through certain periods where I seem to be very dexterous, and then periods when I’m more into the content than the quantity.  These are things that I don’t analyze, but I try to…

TP:    They happen.

HILL:  Well, it’s not like a gift from God where I just sit down and play.  I have to keep on refining my skills to see how I want to play.

TP:    Tell me something analytically about the pieces on Dusk.

HILL:  Basically all I can say is that the various compositions are constructed in sections.  Different sections where I’ll put certain sections together with the versatility of the musicians.  Each section can have a different sound.  Then as a result, I can bring out different aspects in the various sections.  But as far as my approaching it analytically, at the moment I’m not… I haven’t really been analytical since I left the college.  I have the skills, so I want to apply the skills in almost an organic manner.  In approaching a composition in general, I generally don’t want to talk about something so that I find myself trapped within that for my interpretation of a certain type of creative… I’m happy that the sound means different things to different people.  But for me, as long as I have an activity…in writing, I just would rather pursue it naturally, instead of it being natural or retrospective about what I have done, to keep from having a series of repetitions. TP:    Let me ask you about your range of activities this year.  What are you doing in Italy?

HILL:  In Italy I have a fellowship to retreat for creativity and clarity.  It’s in the vicinity of Tellunueri Castle in Umbertide, Italy, right outside of Perugia.  There will be some writers, poets and painters there also.  I’m the only musician.  I’ll have a wing of the castle to myself a studio and an apartment.  They’re providing transportation, lodging and food, and a car and bicycles.  It’s kind of like the McDowell Colony.  The purpose, they say, is just to give creative artists a chance to reflect and, for consideration of their generosity and hospitality, maybe mention their name.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of duos, special projects. Hutcherson and David Murray are the ones I know about.

HILL:  I did one with David Murray, one with Andrew Cyrille, one with Archie Shepp.

TP:    How were they set up?  In an informal way?  Were they playing your compositions, compositions by both…

HILL:  No, in situations that I try not to be academic about the approach, to try to approach it seeing that there’s two people where I feed into their strength, or their style of performance, trying to create something that’s not specific… My approach to their different individual solos isn’t specific.  I just tried to play with someone and achieve some type of creative contact, no matter what approach I may have to use.

TP:    But which approach did you use?  Did you play your compositions…

HILL:  No, I played their compositions.  I’d try to make them feel completely comfortable.

TP:    With Hutcherson you have a much closer relationship, so I’d imagine the dynamic of performing together is very different.

HILL:  Well, with Hutcherson what happened is, I went to his house for three days and we just had an intensive workshop.

TP:    How is it different for you playing in let’s say the duo as opposed to a situation where there’s a drummer?

HILL:  Well, the drummer is still the basis of jazz, really.  When you’re playing jazz and you’re playing without drums, it’s kind of artificial, but it’s the mood of the time.  It’s artificial because jazz is another aesthetic.  Even though it’s European as far as tonic-dominant harmonies, it’s still a music where Western culture, the emphasis on the melody and harmonics, and rhythm is an accessory.  In African music the emphasis is on the rhythm, and the harmony and melody are accessories.  So basically, it’s been an osmosis of those things.  But still when you get past the rhythm, the beat, the feeling of the heart, all of a sudden you’re dealing with a situation where the guidelines between classical music and jazz are dissolved.  So maybe because people have two artists they call it jazz… It’s still spontaneous music.  It’s really spontaneous music then, because you two are relying on each other to feed each other.  But as far as the tradition, you take the drums out (like, I hear the drums being taken out of James P. Johnson’s music), and you have something else entirely.

TP:    Of course he made up for that with what he did with his left hand, but I take your point.

HILL:  I mean out of his written music.  He has operas and string quartets also.  But for all those things the rhythm has been taken out of the music so you have something completely different than what he wrote.  But like you said, on the piano itself… When they took the drums out of America, the piano because the spiritual master, where you have an evolution of church music in this country.  Especially in the black African-American Negro tradition, the piano has been evolving as a rhythm instrument, even going back to 1850, when they used to play the rolling piano, which was boogie-woogie.  So boogie-woogie came before ragtime.

TP:    I didn’t know boogie-woogie went back that far.

HILL:  They used to call it the “rolling piano” style.  It was known in the West, the same approach that boogie-woogie had.  These things were nourished in the subculture, even though it wasn’t predominant in the greater society.  Because in that period, from the free Negroes and the slaves, they wanted Coon music.

TP:    This record is extremely rhythmic, with amazingly complex and dynamic rhythms.  In the sextet with Nasheet Waits, you have an incredibly dynamic young drummer.  How much of a blueprint do you give the drummer?  Are you very specific about the rhythms that they have to articulate?

HILL:  First, I get drummers, again, who love the music.  The ones I’ve select, I select because of their abilities to play counter- and cross-rhythms.  So from that alone, I give everyone in the band the freedom to be themselves (it’s not a dictatorship) to the extent where they can utilize and develop their creative voice.

TP:    Greg Osby said that with your music, you have to disregard the page.  The page is just the blueprint and you can’t follow it literally.  If you follow the notations and rhythms just as you wrote it out, it won’t have the right sound, that there has to be a real experience of hearing the music.

HILL:  I understand what you’re saying.  With different musicians I use different approaches.  I have to, because everyone has their…soloists have their certain rhythmic priority, places where they can go and places where they can’t go.  Like, the younger musicians aren’t supposed to be as creative as the older ones, even though they’re developing that, but they have something special in the fact that they can read anything you put in front of them.  Even though I’m humble, but most people don’t realize that having been an Associate Professor for year, I am very precise.  Like, I can write for strings and do things for strings that most people can’t do.  They said in the old days that you couldn’t write for strings because they really couldn’t swing or capture the magic of jazz.  I’m skilled enough to communicate with anyone.

TP:    Do different musics that you write have different functions?  Does the music for the performing group have one set of parameters and the string music has another?

HILL:  Well, each song you write has to me a life of its own once you’re developing it.  It itself will tell you according to one’s own references what area or genre you think the music would fit best in.  So you develop it from that point on.  It’s not a thing where you sit down… Quite frequently melodies come to me in the head.  But then other things… Even they have a form of their own.  So when you write music, you try to capture the form, and when you’re playing with other people you try to capture the essence of their presence and not control them.  So with Greg, I give him the liberty that if he hears other things, he plays other things.  I don’t write it so set that if a person goes contrary to what I thought, that I’m offended.  I give it to the artist.  Some prefer to read it with the dynamics and stuff written in, like the sextet…

TP:    So in other words, the flow of it goes according to the personality of the artist and where they’re willing to go with what you give them.

HILL:  Yeah, and the things that I have completely written, like extended compositions.  Well, you’re supposed to be dealing with the creative music.  In the old days they used to take standards and bend them to their interpretation, so that they can take music and bend it to their interpretation and style where… If it’s natural to them, I honor it.  I don’t say, “Well, you have to play this note.”  Because what the sextet brought out is it shows the players how to play rhythmic counterpoint against each other in the group improv.  So I see from my having done that on the scene, it’s become popular on the scene.  But now the older musicians cater to me, but the younger musicians have been hearing me so long that I’m natural to them no matter what way I go.

TP:    With someone like Nasheet, his responses are based upon having heard you for a long time and kind of intuitively knowing what you need.  And of course, that’s his own predisposition to play like that.

HILL:  His response is to play.  Like I said, the sound may sound natural to him.  But to play and not be hemmed in.  Whoever you are, present yourself, moreso than the call-and-response… It’s a term that really is not completely appropriate, even though it’s used on certain occasions.

TP:    Now, Bobby Hutcherson said that the main thing about your music for him is that every song makes him think of a story.  There’s always a little story in the melody, and there’s a reason why it’s being played.  Do you write music abstractly, or does a work always have to correlate to some sort of story or some sort of mood or some sort of color.

HILL:  Well, those are two questions.  On the first question, about Bobby Hutcherson’s impression of my music compared with Greg’s impression of my music, everyone who performs with you looks at it a different dimension of your music, according to their understanding and how they connect with you.  But it has nothing literally to do with the composer himself.  I’m glad, as we said earlier, that the music can be interpreted by other artists in various ways.

Question two: I write because it is as natural to me as breathing.  I just write music.  I write all the time.  Like I said, that’s my relaxation and my sociability.

TP:    You made a comment a few years ago about Point of Departure, that Tony Williams surprised you in some ways in everything he did, and that there were areas he couldn’t go into with Miles that you were able to bring him into in some of the thing you did.  That’s how I’m interpreting what you said.  If you could be specific, what areas would those have been?

HILL:  Well, playing with Miles was an egocentric, demonstrative situation.  For a professional musician that the epitome, because from that other things are coming, and the more demonstrative you are, even musically, the more you’ll be seen.  But with me, he could go into calmer rhythms and deal with the music not in volume but in rhythmic intensity.

TP:    Also stepping back to the ’60s, you said that during that time in particular you were extremely enamored with Roy Haynes’ playing, and what you specifically liked was a quality you said also Ike Day had, that he incorporated every component of the kit into the rhythmic flow, so that there was therefore a floating rhythm rather than a stacked rhythm.

HILL:  What attracted me to Roy Haynes, when I first came to New York he was playing with trios all the time.  And I loved the way… Like you said, it’s a floating rhythm, it’s a relaxed rhythm… Playing with him, he relaxed the beat, i a sense.  Philly Joe Jones and them were playing precise metronome, like 1-2-3-4, and everything was pyramided on top of that.  But with Roy Haynes, he left space and he left the soloist, whoever it may be, a space where they could be precise but they could still float in.

TP:    What is the synergy between you and Nasheet Waits?  He seems to be an extremely effective drummer for your music.

HILL:  With me, being homogeneous, I’d say, well, my blessing is through these various decades to play with the best artists available, young artists, being able to interact with them, interact with anyone… Through the decades… I’m not going to say, “Well, such-and-such is the greatest,” but I will say that I’ve liked people who love the music… I mean, Billy Drummond, what he did is phenomenal, and I like Billy Hart.  I’m not so polarized on one person.  All I ask a person to do when I get together with them is play.  If they can play, I like them.  If they can’t play, I don’t like them.  I see people develop certain instinctual skills.  So if I’m lucky enough to be in an area where there are still some great budding artists, it means jazz isn’t dead, that it’s still evolving.

TP:    You said before that this is a golden period.

HILL:  Well, in more ways than one.  In the artists that’s available at any time… You have younger artists, you have young audiences — that’s a given.  So you have to have a chronological cross-section who love the music, and that will pick up the volume demographically.  So there are opportunities for things to happen that haven’t happened since the ’30s, and will go further than what happened in the ’30s.  It’s just the laws of general dynamics.

TP:    Everyone I’ve talked to has said that your voicings are totally distinctive, that if you write a standard chord change you can’t really play it as written because other notes are implied that aren’t in there.  I guess that’s maybe for them to say and not for you to say at this point.

HILL:  Well, that’s just a leftover from the old days.  People didn’t play the same chord the same way all the time.  They took certain liberties that gave the soloist liberties.  That’s just an extension of that.

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Filed under Andrew Hill, Article, Chicago, DownBeat, Interview, Piano, WKCR

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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