Category Archives: Interview

Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR, and a 2017 Downbeat Feature

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. Ahead of these in the sequence below is the final draft that I submitted to Downbeat of a feature piece on the maestro in 2017.

 

Roscoe Mitchell, DB Article, Final Draft:

In spring 2014, not long after Roscoe Mitchell received a $225,000 Doris Duke Artist Award, ECM founder Manfred Eicher wrote a congratulatory letter to the iconic woodwindist-composer. Eicher proposed to Mitchell, then represented on ECM by three albums under his leadership since 1999, and by four with the Art Ensemble of Chicago since 1978, that they should start thinking about their next project.

Not long thereafter, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art invited Mitchell to present an on-site concert in September, in conjunction with its second-half-of-2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments In Art and Music, 1965 to Now, mounted to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of which Mitchell was an original member. Beyond the realm of notes and tones, Mitchell contributed several paintings and his percussion cage, a “sculpture-instrument” comprised of dozens of globally-sourced bells, gongs, hand drums, mallet instruments, rattles, horns, woodblocks and sirens that CMOCA positioned on an installed stage alongside the percussion setups of AEC colleagues Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. It was Mitchell’s second AACM-related event in Chicago during 2015, following a March concert with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Vincent Davis documented on Celebrating Fred Anderson, on Nessa Records, whose catalog tracks Mitchell’s evolution since 1967.

Although Mitchell “didn’t even have an idea what music I would do” for the CMOCA event, he nonetheless contacted ECM. The end result is Bells For the South Side, a double CD featuring four separate trios embodying a 40-year timeline of Mitchell’s musical production—James Fei on woodwinds and electronics and William Winant on percussionist; Craig Taborn on piano and electronics and Kikanju Baku on drums and percussion; Jaribu Shahid on bass and Tani Tabbal on drums; Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, trombone, piano and percussion cage. On some of the ten compositions, the units function autonomously; on others, some with Mitchell performing and some not, he assembles them in configurations ranging from quartet to full ensemble.

Mitchell, 76, sat amidst half-packed suitcases in his downtown Brooklyn hotel room, a few blocks from Roulette Intermedium, where, the night before, he’d performed with a new edition of trio SPACE, a unit whose initial iteration, between 1979 and 1992, featured multi-woodwindist Gerald Oshita and vocalist Thomas Buckner. Joining Mitchell and Buckner was Scott Robinson, whose arsenal included such bespoke items as reed trumpet with two-bells, a slide sopranino saxophone, a contrabass saxophone, and a barbell. Robinson elicited authoritative lines from each instrument, complementing and contrasting Mitchell’s own sometimes circularly-breathed postulations on sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, intoned with precision along a spectrum ranging from airiest subtone to loudest bellow. Buckner triangulated with micronically calibrated wordless shapes, timbres and pitches.

Mitchell’s next stop was Bologna, Italy, where, four days hence, he’d participate in the latest instantiation of the ongoing concert project, Conversations For Orchestra. The title references the transcriptions and orchestrations of improvisations that Mitchell, Taborn and Baku uncorked on some of the 21 pieces contained on Conversations I and Conversations II (Wide Hive), from 2013. As an example, Mitchell broke down two treatments of “They Rode For Them,” originally rendered as a bass saxophone-drums duet. “I took myself off bass saxophone and reinserted myself as an improviser on soprano saxophone,” he said. “I used Kikanju’s very complex drum part, giving one percussionist his hands and the other percussionist his feet. In New York, I took the bass saxophone part and featured bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck as an improviser.”

On site in Bologna would be one-time Mitchell student Christopher Luna-Mega, who transcribed and orchestrated the improvisations on “Splatter,” and current student John Ivers, who, on “Distant Radio Transmission,” in Mitchell’s words, “transcribed the air sounds the soprano is making with these gradual shifts of pitch, and then the real notes involved in that, and then transcribed those for strings, and orchestrated it for the string section.” The interchange not only satisfies Mitchell’s predisposition “to put my students in the same space I’m in when I’m working,” but is congruent with Mitchell’s “studies of the relationships between composition and improvisation.” He continued: “It’s a new source to generate compositions from. I have these transcriptions and can do what I want with them, so it removes the element of ‘What am I going to write?’”

A similarly pragmatic attitude towards the creative process informed Mitchell’s approach towards generating material for Bells For The South Side. He referenced the Note Factory, an ongoing project that debuted on the 1993 Black Saint sextet recording This Dance Is For Steve McCall, and scaled-up to octet and nonet on Nine To Get Ready (ECM-1997), Song For My Sister (Pi-2002) and Far Side (ECM-2007). “Because the Note Factory was big and didn’t work all the time, I’d keep working with different elements of it—a quintet concert here, a trio there,” Mitchell said. “That keeps everybody engaged with the music, so it’s easier when I get the opportunity to put together the larger group. I enjoy long-lasting musical relationships with people. It takes time to develop certain musical concepts.”

Few musicians have known Mitchell longer than Shahid and Tabbal, with whom Mitchell founded the Detroit-based Creative Music Collective along AACM principles after he relocated from Chicago to a Michigan farm near East Lansing in 1974. Colorado-based Ragin joined them in Mitchell’s Sound Ensemble a few years later; Taborn entered Mitchell’s orbit on a mid-’90s tour playing piano with James Carter opposite the Art Ensemble. The Fei-Winant trio coalesced after Mitchell joined them on the Mills College faculty in 2007 as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition; neighborly proximity has allowed ample rehearsal opportunities, as is evident in the uncanny mutual intuition they display on Mitchell’s epic For Trio: Angel City (RogueArt).

Baku, a Londoner who plays in noise bands with names like Bollock Swine, had contacted Mitchell before a January 2013 engagement at London’s Café Oto with Tabbal and bassist John Edwards. After inviting Baku to sit in on the second night, Mitchell decided to pair him with Taborn for the Conversations sessions 10 months later. About a year earlier, Mitchell first played with Sorey (whose teachers include Mitchell’s AACM peers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis) when he was invited to play duo with the younger musician at a Berkeley house concert. “He sounded so amazing playing solo, I thought, ‘Now, what am I supposed to do with him?’” Mitchell recalled. The answer came that July, when Wide Hive recorded a Mitchell-Sorey duo encounter, with Ragin augmenting the flow on several numbers.

Three years later, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mitchell assigned Sorey to perform in the percussion cage on “Bells For The South Side,” while having Baku open the proceedings by dancing with Favors’ sleigh bells and ankle bells. The journey continued via the following sonic roadmap, tracing a route along vocabulary signposts Mitchell had heard each musician deploy: “Kikanju is joined by interjections of the hanging wind chimes found on the blue rack of Joseph Jarman’s percussion setup, then is joined by short bursts of rolls on the piccolo snare drum, gradually adding cast iron bells whose pitch will be used to construct a melody for piccolo trumpet being played at the far end of the exhibition space. This melody should develop gradually, starting with long tones, with silence in between the melody consisting of more than one tone. This section should end with a cued gong attack that should be marked, ‘Let Ring.’ Inside each of our percussion setups, we have bells of all different sizes that we can swing, and they will continue to swing and ring on their own. They start very small, and gradually build up to the great big bells. Then the sound of the trumpet, and at the end, under my percussion setup, you hear this huge school-bell with a handle on it.”

“Prelude to the Card Game,” a Mitchell-Shahid-Tabbal trio, is the latest in a series of card compositions Mitchell first developed during the 1970s. In them, he provides material on a set of six cards that fit together to be configured in different ways, whether overlapped, side-by-side, or out of numbered sequence. The intention, Mitchell said, is to help inexperienced classically trained improvisers “to avoid making the same mistakes—that is, following, or being behind on a written piece of music.”

He continued: “Each time the information comes up, it’s done a different way. If you play something I like, I can store that and bring it back, say, when I’m running out of information. By then, you’re in another space. Suddenly, we have an important element—a musical composition. That’s counterpoint. I can take your idea and put my own take on it and bring it in another way. Where we had one thing going on, now we have two. If what I’m doing registers to you and you want to put a different take on that, then we’ve brought three different things.

“Every moment is different. If I can remain aware of what’s happening in the moment, it’s helpful in constructing an improvisation. For instance, I might have done something really good last night, but if I try to do the same thing the next night, it might not work. An improvisation should never be a situation where there’s only one option. To me, improvisation is trying to improve your skills so you can make these on-point compositional decisions. That takes practice.”

“Panoply,” which “deals with different sound textures,” features Fei on alto saxophone, Winant on xylophone, Ragin on trumpet, and Baku, Sorey and Tabbal on drumsets. It is also the title of the Mitchell painting on the back cover of the booklet jacket.

“The art came from my mother’s side of the family and the music came from my father’s side,” said Mitchell, whose father sang professionally until he developed problems with his vocal cords. “When I was growing up, one of my uncles created a kind of comic book structure of myself and my sisters and our friends, where we met all these different people from different planets. He used a crayon and ink, and then he’d put the crayon on the paper and then scrape it and mix colors. My other maternal uncle made a lot of my toys and stuff growing up.”

Asked if his creative process involved synesthetic elements, Mitchell responded: “If you’re an artist, sometimes you just make a choice which way you want to go. You’re using the same thought patterns that create painting and music and writing.” In this regard, Mitchell mentioned early AACM colleague Lester Lashley, who played cello and trombone on Sound, the 1966 Delmark recording that vaulted Mitchell into international consciousness. And he mentioned Muhal Richard Abrams, whose paintings were also on display at the 2015 CMOCA exhibition, as were Anthony Braxton’s graphic scores. Mitchell met Abrams in 1961, not long after he returned to Chicago from a three-year stint as an Army musician during which he developed from acolyte to well-trained practitioner prepared to follow Abrams’ dictum of self-education..

“Muhal was painting then, and we talked about painting a lot,” Mitchell said. “Even now, when we get together, we may go to a museum. We always had a sketch-pad with us. I enjoyed sitting in front of the canvas and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I still try to keep something going on. I do a lot of drawing, and right now I’m working on a sculpture out of pieces of trees that were cut down at Mills—this thing I call the Cat. It’s a two-faced sculpture—one side, to me, has a male image, and then, when you flip the head around, it’s more of a female image. I made glasses for it, so you can display it in several different ways.”

It was time for Mitchell to finish packing, check out, and catch his flight to Bologna, but he took one more question: Considering the time he devotes to teaching, composing, traveling and art-making, how does he sustain his gargantuan chops on the array of instruments on which he continues to perform as a virtuoso?

“I’m not doing so well with that right now,” he said. “I’m longing to get back to practicing six-seven hours a day, like the old days, when all I did was play and I had a real embouchure. There’s an old phrase, ‘catting on the pass.’‘Oh, you got red together, so here’s red, here’s red, here’s red.’ I’m trying to get out of that. I want to get past the point of practicing just to get my embouchure back together. I need to practice consistently until I can get to a point where I can start learning.

“As we live longer, people don’t want to be categorized. I think the best thing, what I always encourage my students to do, is to study music, not categories, so that you can seek in any musical situation you’re in. Certainly be aware of everything that has happened in music, and study that. But strive to study the big picture, which is music.”

[—30—]

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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The Pile, Oct. 7, 2018 — Elio Villafranca’s “Cinque” Plus Interviews From 2013 and 2014

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

Having stated that caveat, here’s the second installment of the new “Pile” — my impressions of pianist-composer Elio Villafranca’s superb Cinque, released in the spring. Following the review I’ve appended two interviews that I conducted with Villafranca in 2013 and 2014.

Elio Villafranca (Cinque):

Without multiple listenings on the granular level, it’s not possible to do justice to the various layers that Elio Villafranca interweaves into his panoramic five-movement suite, Cinque (Artists Share), a major work that wears its erudition lightly. Roughly speaking, it’s framed around  the life and impact of Joseph Cinque (1814-1879) (a free man from Sierra Leone who was kidnapped into slavery in 1839, masterminded the capture of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, was imprisoned in the U.S., and was freed in 1841 to return to West Africa as a free man in 1841) and also the events of Haitian Revolution that preceded Cinque’s birth. These events are well-depicted in the extremely thorough program booklet, as are the Kongo and Gangá cosmologies that underpin the proceedings in an illuminating essay by the Ned Sublette, author of the essential Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo — the  value added contained therein is a good reason to eschew streaming and buy Villafranca’s self-produced, crowd-funded double CD package (if you’re equipped to play a CD, of course).

 

This being said,  you don’t need a scorecard to viscerally appreciate Villafranca’s vivid compositions, which reference an expansive gamut of jazz approaches spanning Ellington to Tyner to (Wynton) Marsalis, while using raw materials drawn from an array of Afro-Caribbean musics that surrounded Villafranca (a son of San Luis, Cuba, in the Pinar Del Rio region) during formative years. Villafranca came up through Cuba’s rigorous system of musical pedagogy, and graduated from Havana’s the island’s world-class conservatory, with separate degrees in composition and percussion. He’s a world-class pianist, who has made it his business since emigrating to the United States two decades ago to assimilate and attain fluency in an expansive array of dialects —- his solo declamations call up, at various points, vocabulary from the Maestro, McCoy Tyner, Monk, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Kenny Barron (check the “What If” motif that he uses on “Conga Y Comparsa”) — that he’s refracted into his own argot. Villafranca intersperses field recordings of master folkloric practitioners from his home region that contextualize the narrative and illuminate the Afro-diasporic interconnections between the hemispheres.

 

For the occasion, Villafranca recruited an ensemble of masters who have interpreted  his music for several years. The fulcrum is Lewis Nash, grandmaster of the trapset, who, given an opportunity to stretch out, displays his extraordinary ability to function both as a generator of idiomatic grooves in a coro  with four hand percussionists of Cuban descent and bassist Ricky Rodriguez, while displaying his creativity in dialogue with the exceptional  soloists. Steve Turre, a long-standing master at fusing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies, generates evocative timbres and primal melodies on conch shells, and applies his sui generis trombone conception on a range of muted and open-horn solos that range from J.J. Johnson-level hardbop to Lawrence Brown-esque romance). Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy’s stirring declamation embodies the title “The Night Of The Fire”; Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Vincent Herring on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, and Todd Marcus on clarinet and bass clarinetist contribute statements of equivalent panache and fire. Villafranca leaves space for two pithy, well-wrought solos by Wynton Marsalis, whose own interpretation of the Afro-diasporic message, as expressed in  programmatic suites like Blood on the Fields and Congo Square, has established an aesthetic template for ambitious cross-cultural works like Cinque. Indeed, Cinque debuted at Marsalis’ “house,” the Appel Room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, during the 2014-2015 season.

On a more meta level, Villafranca’s achievement is emblematic of the maturation of the Cuban musicians who have claimed their position in the international jazz conversation since Gonzalo Rubalcaba left the island during the late ‘80s — a short-list includes Yosvany Terry (whose historical opera Makandal needs a commercial recording), Dafnis Prieto, David Virelles, Roman Filiu, and Aruán Ortiz. 

I’ve appended below two interviews I had an opportunity to conduct with Villafranca (who has since moved from Temple University to Juilliard) in which he discusses his personal history and aesthetics. The one from 2013 was conducted for a Jazz Times piece with several Cuban musicians (including all of the aforementioned) on their educational experience in Cuba; the one from 2014 was for a Downbeat web piece.

*****

Elio Villafranca on Cuba Education (May 14, 2013):

TP: A few basic things first. How old are you?

EV: I’m 44. (December 1968)

TP: And you’re from Pinar Del Rio, which is in the west of Cuba.

EV: Correct.

TP: Are you from a musical family?

EV: No. There’s no music in my family.

TP: Did you learn to play music in school as a kid?

EV: I went through the system that Cuba has. I started in the Casa del Cultura of my home town of San Luis, Pinar del Rio. I started painting first (that was the first thing I did) when I was very young, and then, from there I picked up the guitar. I studied guitar for about two years. Then I knew that there were music schools, that they were accepting people for music. Then I presented myself to do the test… I did the test without telling my family, actually, and then they accepted me, but they told me that they didn’t have room for guitar players any more, so I picked percussion.

TP: This was the regional school?

EV: Yes.

TP: Dafnis Prieto went to Santa Clara when he was 10 or something.

EV: Exactly. The same thing. But I did it in Pinar Del Rio. Every province had those original schools, where you get the general music education, and then you go to Havana, where it’s more like the high school kind of thing where you get the specialization on your instrument, and then I went to the ISA, the university of music in Cuba, in Havana. Then I did percussion, because they didn’t have guitar… Actually, I have two degrees—in percussion and composition. I picked up piano when I went into school. I didn’t play piano before I went to school, but then, since it was mandatory for me to play the piano, I was playing it all the time. Then I fell in love with the piano, and then I took it seriously, and then I devoted myself to piano playing.

TP: Was it at the regional school?

EV: That was mostly at the ENA. In Havana, that’s when I first was introduced to jazz, and I was like, “Wow,” and that’s when I started playing.

TP: Can you tell me something about the pedagogy in the regional school?

EV: It’s very intense. The whole system is like, you have double sessions, one session during the morning…from morning til noon you do the regular classes, which is math, physics or chemistry, and then in the afternoon you do the musical classes. At the regional school it was more focused on solfege and theory and piano, and a little on your instrument, the instrument that you were applying for, and also general history of music and music history classes, general, informative type of classes for general music and education.

TP: Dafnis said it was European music, classical music?

EV: Yes, it’s constantly European. My entire education… I think also for him… I mean, for our generation, it’s mostly in classical music. Like, my education, my training in percussion and in composition was fully classical music.

TP: Dafnis said he learned bongos and different percussion instrument, went to tympany, went to mallet instruments…

EV: Yes, exactly that. From my experience, I learned mostly classical. I didn’t know, like Cuban percussion, until I got to Havana. That’s when I started playing a little bit of Cuban percussion. But that was very, very simple information that they give you on that, because actually the courses were mainly classical music. They were following more like the Russian style. They used to see all the Cuban percussion as the lower form of music, basically. Then most of us, me in particular, learned all these other things more in the streets. I used to go and see bands play, and I would play with other groups sometimes on the street, I would go to jam sessions—but not because of education necessarily. Then there was a point in the ISA that they realized that it was a good business, because there was a lot of interest from Europeans and Americans to learn it, so then they started opening classes for foreign people and for the students, and then they opened the catedra of Cuban percussion, then I got a chance to learn from a lot of great masters in Cuban percussion when they were allowed to teach at the conservatory. Remember, in Cuba, for you to be teaching… Everything is through the government. For you to be teaching at the university level, the ISA, you have to have a degree that says you have a doctoral degree or masters degree so you can teach at this level. But most of the percussionists, rumberos and everything, they didn’t have anything.

TP: They’re street musicians.

EV: Exactly. Then there was this conflict for them to accept them in the school, because they thought, like, “oh, we…” It’s like an elite kind of thing. But finally, I think they decided, “We’re going to teach those classes.” Even though here was some tension between them, because it was kind of like, “Ok…”

TP: I can imagine what the tension was like with highbrow Russian teachers and these street guys…

EV: But you know what? Believe it or not, the tension was not between the Russian teachers and the Cubans. It was between the Cubans who had learned in Russia… A lot of my teachers… I had Russian teachers who didn’t speak Spanish enough, and I remember having translators in the classrooms, and then the other teachers were Cubans who studied in the conservatories in Russia. Those are the ones who thought, like, classical music is an elite thing, “I don’t want you guys to be playing any popular music, because that’s not really a good…” They thought that it was not really good music.

TP: You anticipated my question, which is where you picked up Cuban popular or folkloric music. I guess it was in the air, on the street all the time.

EV: Yeah, in the air, on the street, but I have to tell you also that… I just came to realize this in my later years, that actually I experienced my folkloric music in San Luis (?—9:28) for the first time when I was a baby, when I was born there. San Luis is the area where the Tambor de Yuka exists at this moment, and the Tambor de Yuka is a very rare form of Cuban music from the Congolese culture (the shape of the drum looks like a yucca). But it was very popular in Cuba throughout the slavery process because the drums are not sacred. They are the kind of drums that are played in the festive activities before the sacred music was played. It’s the drums that they… The slaves didn’t have to have a religious celebration to play them. They can play it whenever they want to play it. So it was a very popular form of drumming. In my home town, since I was a kid, I would always listen to those drums. I didn’t know what they were. I was more fascinated by the fire, because for you to tune the drums you have to make a fire, because they’re tuned by fire. For me, as a kid, that was the most exciting thing. Not so much of the drums, because the drums are kind of old-looking, kind of made out of those trees, a very simple form of making a drum. But then only when I went to the school I started realizing, “Oh, I see, this is what…” I’d been listening and exposed to that particular of Afro-Cuban music since I was at a very early age.

TP: Once you were in Havana, were you starting to play outside, to be a professional musician?

EV: Yes. When I was in Havana… One of the reasons why I took the piano very seriously was not only because I liked it… I mean, with jazz. I should say with jazz. Because with piano, I always liked it. I was taking it serious. I was taking classes and all that. But in the catedra of percussion, we used to do jam sessions. That was the only faculty that would do jam sessions. We would go there, jam, and it was great, a lot of fun. There were a lot of percussionists but no pianists. So every time I got there, all the instruments were already taken, and the only thing that was not played was the piano. Then I start sitting on the piano just to create like a real jam session, and then they start asking me to come and play the piano for the jam session. Then I realized, “wow, ok, maybe I should start taking it even more seriously,” to be able to play and jam and improvise and all the things on the piano. That’s the beginning of how I started to get into jazz.

Then, by doing that, I was hired by a few groups kind of as a pianist, but no pay—because when you are in the school, you are not allowed to be paid. Then finally, a group that I was hired for, that I was there with them for 8 years throughout my school, was with Carlos Varela, who is a singer-songwriter from Cuba who I am sure you’ve heard of—from the Nueva Trova. He is almost like the disciple of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. He was very famous, and I was joined his band, and I became his musical director.

TP: You had all the tools from the conservatory, but the feeling from playing on the street.

EV: Yeah. And then I did my own group, my jazz group which I played at jazz festivals all the time.

TP: How old were you when you started your jazz group?

EV: I was maybe 17. [1985]

TP: I saw Shawn Brady’s piece on you, which was built around the story that you had a teacher at school who told you that he’d come down hard on you if you had any jazz in the composition.

EV: Yes.

TP: Were you able to learn jazz at all in conservatory, or is that also a self-taught process?

EV: It’s a self-taught process. There were no classes on jazz. For example, even tunes—there were no Real Books. The only way we could learn tunes was either transcribing, or sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s home, because I knew he was traveling, or Chucho Valdes, or Pucho Lopez, or Harold Lopez-Nussa… Those are the people who I used to visit their home and say “I want to copy some standards.” I remember Gonzalo sometimes would say, “I have a book, but you can copy it here,” so I would bring paper, and handwrite the songs. I remember he used to have “Eye Of The Hurricane,” Herbie Hancock with Wynton…the transcription of Herbie’s solos. I’d sit down there and handwrite all these things while he was practicing. I was always listening to him practicing! I’d be writing from the book while he was playing.

At that time a cassette tape in the black market cost 15 pesos in Cuba, when the average salary was 150 pesos. My mother and my father would put together 35 pesos to give me to live for a month in Havana. Just relying on the food the school would give us, was not enough. Often when I return from home to the ENA some one would be selling tapes at the entrance of the school. The black market was the only place where you could buy cassette tapes, so I will use 30 pesos of my 35 (leaving me only with 5 pesos for the entire month to live off) to buy two tapes so I could record Chick’s music, or Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie, Miles, Trane, Freddie Hubbart… on and on… So much music to hear. I would then ask musicians who were traveling out side of Cuba such as Chucho, or Gonzalo, Horacio Hernandez, Gonzalo’s drummer at the time, Ernan, to record some music for me. Some times I would team-up between a friend who also liked jazz, so that way we can trade recordings. I’m really proud of the choices I made between food or great music. Specially after been among the 5 pianist chosen by Chick Corea to play at his own festival this past May 16th at Dizzy’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center. That was one of the greatest feelings of a dream comes thru.

TP: What was it about jazz that appealed to you at that time?

EV: It’s freedom! Growing up in a system where freedom was not a common thing to have was difficult creatively at times…, and I’m not talking about politics only, also in music, therefore playing jazz was a very liberating experience. Having that freedom to express your self, when that lacked in politics and in society was intoxicating…

The very first group that really impacted me in jazz was Richie Cole. [alto sax] I remember when I first came to Havana, I didn’t know anything about jazz. I loved rock music. I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—that was my music. And then, a friend of mine, who was already at the school, said, “You definitely have to go to the jazz festival.” I really wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know what it was, but I said, “Ok, I’ve got to go.” I went and Richie Cole did a concert there, and I was with my mouth open the whole night. After that night, I just decided I want to be a jazz musician. That was the first band that really impacted me. Then after that, I started digging. Then Chick Corea, Three Quartets and Crystal Silence, and all these beautiful things, and I also got into the Herbie Hancock vein. That’s when I first started noticing about Wynton, that album with Herbie, The Eye of The Hurricane. Then from that point on, I started reaching, reaching, reaching for new albums.

TP: When did you get out of school? At 21 or 18?

EV: Out of ISA, I was 24. I did two careers there. I was not allowed to graduate from the two careers in the same year—percussion and composition.

TP: By the time you graduated, you were playing in a number of bands. Were you able to start traveling at that time?

EV: Yeah. Even before I was graduated, I was traveling with my rock band, with Carlos Varela. We were going to Spain. We were going to Colombia. Actually, we coincided a concert in Colombia with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. We were traveling. That band was good on that thing. That helped me to survive. Because I wasn’t allowed to get paid in Cuba, but I’d travel with them I would get paid, kind of a stipend kind of thing, and then I would bring that money back to Cuba, and then I would be able to survive on that.

TP: So by the time you were 24, were the musical ideas that we’ve heard from you for the last 10-15 years in the States more or less in place? How did things develop? How did the type of education you received affect the way things were developing?

EV: I teach at Temple, and I see sometimes some of the faults in the educational system here in terms of musical education. I feel like sometimes the students, they don’t really get a very extensive, full education in music. Not just in jazz or how to play bebop tunes, but in music in general. Maybe because I was in such a stiff kind of training in classical music that I was exposed to a lot of great music… I had a really fantastic education in Cuba in terms of classical music and music in general—solfegge and a lot of things. So that really helped me…it’s been helping me all this time, just even… When I write music and when I play, I don’t see music as just one style. I’m not a bebop player or a Latin Jazz player or a this player. I’m just a musician, and I have so many formations inside of me, from classical to, of course, jazz… I’ve been here long enough and I’ve been studying jazz since I was in school, on my own, and sometimes taking classes and stuff. But also, the Latin music, the background that I’m coming from. This all is inside of me. So I see myself as something that…I can only be in this way if I was raised in the way I was raised in Cuba. I don’t feel like… There’s no other way around.

TP: It doesn’t seem any other place in the world can really produce this type of musician.

EV: Yes. The other thing is, what I’ve told other people also… When you see a Cuban musician, what you see is a filter, a sort of filter, a very competitive filter…I don’t know what will be the next word… But what I mean by ‘filter’ is you see the people who made it after they went to the filter. I know a lot of people all my career that never made a musician. Because in Cuba, not only do you have to be very good, but you have to be very good to be able to get at the level that we got. I mean, at the level to be able to go to the ENA or be able to go to the ISA. At that time, there was only one ENA and there was only one ISA, and they only have limited space available for students. Let’s say, for example, in some of those years, when I went from the EVA, it’s called the EVA, “Escuela Vocacacional de Arte”…from the EVA to the ENA, Escuela National de Arte,” you have to do a test, a very competitive test where they say… There’s only 9 places for percussion, and there are 60 people applying for the same position. In Cuba, all the schools from all of the provinces used to go to Havana to do that test, to go into the ENA, because the ENA was only one ENA at that time and there was only one ISA at the time. Now I think there’s more ENAs around the country, but at that time there was only one—the one in Havana. So the people who made it there were the people who were basically the best of the best.

Then, when you get past the ENA, you have to do exactly the same thing for the ISA. Only one ISA. And in my year, I remember there were only five positions for percussion and two positions in composition. I did what everybody normally does, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do both,” because I knew that I did not want to go back to Pinar Del Rio. I wanted to stay in Havana, because I was already in that group, I was playing jazz, and I wanted to stay in the capital. So I did the test for both, and I was lucky enough that they accepted me in both, which created a kind of problem, because when they accepted me in both, that meant there was one person who wasn’t coming in. That meant there was one bed less for them to give away. They say, ok, there’s 5 beds for percussionist; 2 beds for composition. But that’s it. I had one bed technically on paper for percussion, and I was also taking one bed for composition. Then they were trying to figure out, “Well, you have to give up one.” But since I got first place in both tests, none of the teachers wanted to release me. They said, ‘I don’t want to give away my first place for another year.’ So they said, “You can start one career this year, and then in two years you will do the other one.” But no one wanted to do that. So then they decided, “Well, you have to do both at the same time.” I said, “Well, I’ll do both at the same time.” Then my father said to me, “you’re going to go crazy.” “Well, I don’t think so; I think I can do it.”

That’s what I did; I did both at the same time. But even though I did both at the same time, I was not allowed to graduate…for bureaucratic reasons, I was not allowed to graduate the same year in both. Because you have to spend one year creating a composition, one year creating the piece, and then present it in the following year, and then, in percussion, you have to follow the program and then graduate. That’s why I stayed longer in the school.

TP: Do you feel that, let’s say, movements (I use the word loosely) like timba or developments in popular music in Cuba in the ‘80s and ‘90s have anything to do with the conservatory system, or is that not accurate?

EV: Well, not quite. The timba movement started in the ‘70s, when the… Los Van-Van was one of the pioneers of that movement. It’s a process that, of course, was started at that time a little bit, and now into the ‘90s and then in the ‘00s, it becomes consolidated on what it is. But it started as far as that, and it has nothing to do with education. There were different factors. After the revolution happened, they decided, “ok, we’re only going to do music that belongs to the Revolution,” and then you see La Orquesta de Pello el Afrokan and all of that, and then also Van-Van comes out of that trend, too. The original Los Van-Van was after Fidel Castro’s speech, called “Van-Van,” the “que van van,” talking about sugar cane. So they did that, but then, at the same time there was a very strong influence from Rock music, coming from America, and then that, in combination with…

The government decided also, “Well, all the groups have to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music.” For some reason, they felt like Beny More and all these other bands represented an era they didn’t like, the era before the revolution and the big casinos and these big bands that played in those casinos disappeared. So they really pushed the bands to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music. But Van-Van did something very interesting. Van Van said, “We’re influenced by Rock,” but they did the rock side of music the Cuban way. That’s why they started the drumset without cymbals. Because with cymbals, it’s typical American Rock. So the first movement of songo will be that without the cymbals, because they used the bambu as the cymbals… They wanted their drums to sound very African, but it was an American drum. Then only with Changuito… Changuito decided, “I’m going to put back the cymbals.”

But that’s the whole movement of timba. It’s a combination of the rock that we were listening to at the time, and musicians trying to create new, different combinations and find different ways to create music, different from the music that was played back in the ‘50s and before the Revolution.

TP: I’m not sure I’m clear on whether you’re primarily a self-taught pianist, or received instruction, but it was outside the academy?

EV: No, I had a lot of instruction. The only thing that I am self-taught, to a point, is in popular Cuban music, and jazz. Even though I had several mentors once I got to the US.

TP: You’re a highly trained pianist.

EV: Yes, in classical music.

TP: Can you speak a bit to the ways in which pianists of your generation think differently about music than, say, pianists of Chucho’s or Emiliano Salvador’s generation? If it’s possible to say that, because obviously everyone is an individual. But if there’s anything you can say about the way you learned music in terms of the impact of the conservatory.

EV: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s really… I know Chucho’s playing and I know Emiliano’s playing, and I feel… It becomes a matter of choice.

TP: Or Frank Emilio or Bebo or Peruchin…

EV: I’ll compare it to the hip-hop movement here. The hip-hop movement here is like a social statement. Rather than to be a musical style, first rap came out as a social statement. The same thing for us. I know when I was in Cuba, this trouble of trying to match Chucho’s playing… Chucho came from a generation that was listening to a different type of jazz. I mean, when I came in, it was Weather Report, all of this electronic…the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and also the high development of… We were seeing Cuban music completely different than we were used to… The syncopation in the music was also different. In the ‘50s, the syncopation of Cuban music, you listened to, in groups such as Beny More, and even if you listened to Peruchin, even though it’s very highly syncopated music, was almost specific. Like a pattern, but when you start to listening to groups like Bamboleo, it’s like the syncopation has changed from a pattern idea to a more global inclusion of genres and rhythmic styles. Anything goes… We tend to add a lot of that rumba and Afro-Cuban mixes into the music, and also funk. I am saying this because musically it will affect us, the way we see music, the way we compose mainly…the way we compose, and also the way we think about the instrument, the piano in this case. But more than that, those musicians, you know, from Peruchin…they were also influenced by jazz music. Back in the ‘50s, they could travel to America… The bridge was way smaller than it is now. But for us, the fact that we weren’t close at that time, that we didn’t have access to that music any more, but we have to learn from underground to consume the music because it was illegal…to consume it underground, and all of that investigation that you have to do, the hunger to learn something that you were not supposed—that changed the attitude in how we approached the music, I think, than when you have it at hand.

TP: I’ve talked to Dafnis a number of times, and one issue he had in Cuba was the ability to find situations where he could play what he wanted to play, what he was hearing, not even because of the government, but just because there weren’t that many like-minded musicians. Was it your experience that you were able to fully realize the things you were hearing when you were in Cuba? Did things change… I’m not sure about your process of coming to the States…

EV: Exactly that. There were very few places in Cuba where you could play. The first time I played with a band that played jazz was with Bobby Carcasses’ group, at a club that used to be called the Maxim. That was maybe one of the two clubs, or the only club that was in Havana at that time. That was my very first experience playing with a band. But aside from that, for me to play, I have to just… That’s when I did my own band, because I wanted to be at a festival. But that was only a few times—once a year at the Havana festival, and then if I’d go to the Maxim to play some music, and the jam sessions that we would do at school. Definitely, there were a lack of places or situations where you can play jazz.

TP: The other question was the notion of developing your own vision, your individuality through music. Was that something you were able to do in Cuba? Did it become easier to do once you left?

EV: Yes. It became easier once I left, definitely. Being in Cuba, especially being a pianist… Chucho was a big cloud.

TP: He’s the king.

EV: Yeah. He still is. But he was a very huge cloud for any pianist who wanted to become their own particular voice. Because Cuba, it’s a system… Almost the same system that happened in politics is the same system that happened in music. There was only one voice, and that was the voice. And then, everybody else almost didn’t exist. Even Gonzalo had to struggle to become his own voice. Because there was always Chucho, and Chucho was—or is still—the favorite pianist. I mean, he’s an amazing pianist. But the system is like, “Ok, nobody can really match him; this is what we want.” Then in Cuba, if the government says, “This is the person,” that’s the person.

TP: He also had a lot of clout because Irakere was of such great value to the government.

EV: Exactly. Even since Irakere. So for us, for me, or a lot of pianists to become their own voices was really difficult. The whole thing that started when you move out of Cuba, and then you start realizing, “Oh, wait; there are so many different voices; it’s not just one thing…” You don’t have to play like Chucho to be heard. You can play the way you want to play. Then when I got here, I started informing myself. I listened to a lot of different pianists, took some lessons, did some sessions, and listened to a lot more records and played more. I think the process of creating your voice is a non-stop…

TP: Well, it never ends, but maybe the roads you travel become a bit more defined as you get older.

EV: Yes.

TP: So it seems that one consequence of so many of the Cuban jazz musicians coming out of the conservatory is that it’s a virtuosic music, and it’s a music in which you have a lot of options because of the breadth of their education.

EV: Yes. I think that’s one thing. The other thing is, we’re in a system where it was very competitive, and if you have Chucho as your high mark…or Gonzalo… You had Chucho and Gonzalo; those are two high marks. To compete with that in Cuba, it was not about choice. It was more like a competition. It was more like, “Ok, you have to play more than them to be able to be considered in anything.”

TP: By playing more, do you mean more virtuosic? Does it have to do with the athletics of it?

EV: Yes, there’s a lot of athletics.

TP: That is something that Cuban musicians have been criticized for—playing a lot of notes, being very busy, flash over substances. But it seems that this is much less of a criticism for players who’ve been here for… I mean, look at the way Gonzalo has pared down, going for simplicity and the essence of things. It’s like he’s trying to unlearn that almost.

EV: Exactly. Because once you leave that environment, then you start understanding that you can really do music without having to play a lot of notes. But it’s true. That process only was started once you leave Cuba. Not only because you’re in a different country, but then, when you start being exposed to and listen to other pianists, then you start hearing different music… But then it does help that you went through such a rigorous musical training, because then you have the mechanism to do whatever you want.

TP: You have all these tools to apply to the free marketplace of ideas, so to speak.

EV: Right.

TP: Like, in Cuba you wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing.

EV: No. Definitely not. I wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing. That would be too outside of the box. I don’t think they would consider that an opera, to begin with, then I’m not sure if they would appreciate all of this free improv stuff I do in that project. In Cuba, music tends to get very specific, and so is the way it is played. As a matter of fact, one of the last times I went to Cuba, the festival was happening, and I coincided with a few of my friends, musicians, and I went to a jam session. It was unbelievable, everybody fast and furious, loud and everything. Then one of my friends said, “Do you want to play?” I was like, “No, I can’t play; look at the environment.” Then he said to me, “Are you afraid?” I was like, “No” What, afraid? Music is not about to be afraid. It’s freedom of expression. I said: The only thing I could do there to impress anybody is just get a can of gasoline and light the piano on fire. That’s the only thing that was left to do.

TP: One last question. Do you feel that the musical production of the musicians who left Cuba is having an effect on the last couple of generations of musicians in Cuba, and on the conservatories, and the way musicians are being taught now? That the music that you or Gonzalo or Aruan Ortiz or Fabien Almazen or Dafnis or Yosvany or Gonzalo…I could name 15 more people…that the music you’ve created and documented is having an effect on younger musicians in Cuba, or on the pedagogy, or the way musical education is approached?

EV: I think so. When we go back home, people do comment a lot on the music that we are producing actually, like Dafnis and Terry and myself and Aruan… In a way, we always will look at the thing that we were doing… Because we are living outside of Cuba, when you get there, everybody wonders, “So, what are you doing?” Then once they find out the music we’re doing is different from what they would normally do or different from what they’re hearing in their country, they realize that they do have an apprciation of it.

Especially young musicians… It’s interesting when you go there and you meet a young musicians who hasn’t really met you, who is not from your generation, and they can talk about, “oh, we’re following you and we’ve listened to some of the things you’ve done.” It’s a beautiful thing.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

******

Elio Villafranca (Detroit—Aug. 31, 2014):

TP: You’ve been doing multiple projects for a long time, pretty much since you arrived here, and each recording seems to document a different sphere of activity.

Villafranca: Yes. I always had very broad interests in music. As you know from our earlier interview, I was playing classical music, and that training really opened my ears to many different things. I didn’t grow up in the traditional jazz per se. I listened more to classical music. From there, I got an interest in jazz and in popular Cuban music. But then, my early exposure into music was the Congolese traditions. So I always had the interest. The reason why I came here was because of that, because in Cuba I was only doing the Carlos Varela group, and then I couldn’t really do any other thing. I was playing at the jazz festival once a year. There was only one festival. There were not many clubs to play. So that has been my mission since I’ve been here, just to do a few different projects.

My first album, Incantation, was like the album that I did almost the date that I left my country. So I was going to do my first album; it was going to be pretty much all Latin music. I owed that to myself and I owed that to Cuba. Being in Cuba, that was the first thing I wanted to do. But after that, I realized that music is way bigger than that. I didn’t want to be stuck on just the Cuban pianist that’s only doing Cuban music and stuff like that.

This album, the Jass Syncopators, is almost the beginning of my explorations of music of the Caribbean and tying it in with classical music, and putting everything together with jazz and everything.

TP: Were the pieces all written for this as a project, or did the accumulate over the years?

Villafranca: There were pieces that were specifically written for this project, like “Caribbean Tinge” and “Sunday Stomp At Congo Square” and all so on, that were written specifically for that. “Flower By the Dry River,” “Mambo Vivo,” all these pieces were targeted specifically for this project, the band I had at the time.

TP: Give me the evolution of putting together a personnel like this.

Villafranca: I knew that in order to accomplish what I wanted to do, I needed to have two types of band in one band. I needed to have a band formed by American jazz musicians, fully fluent in the language of jazz, and I needed to have the other band, which is the Latin musicians who are fluent specifically in Latin music… I wanted to marry those two concepts.

The one thing different about this project is, like, before… I don’t know if you know this, but for us Cubans, it’s really hard to detach from the clave and to detach from the cascara and all these traditions. When I came to this country, it was pretty much like that. If I would rehearse a band, I would look for a drummer, I would look for a drummer who knew about cascara, clave, all of these things, and it was always challenging, because you don’t find that unless you play with a Cuban drumnmer, but if you play with a Cuban drummer, then sometimes the jazz language [makes spangalang motion with his right hand] can be a little bit compromised. I wanted really to have those two things. So I thought that if I get a bassist who has knowledge in Latin music, and myself and some percussionists who are knowledgeable in Latin music, that’s it. I don’t need any other thing. American drummers, if they study the tradition of jazz, they feel rhythm the same way we do. The tradition of jazz is pretty close to the same way as the tradition of Cuban music. Think about New Orleans and the rhythms and everything. I don’t have to tell the drummer, “You need to know the clave on everything,” because the clave is around us all the time.

TP: Well, the New Orleans beats are another way of dealing with the African root.

Villafranca: Exactly, which is the same source. Then I realized I just want to do something where I don’t have to tell anybody anything. Just, “this is the music; just feel it. Just feel the music. They’re going to do the thing. Just listen to what they do, and play what you think feels good at the moment.”

TP: Was this band tailored for the people who play on Caribbean Tinge? There are two great jazz drummers.

Villafranca: Yes. You don’t know this, but Billy Hart was the drummer in one of the initial versions of the band, and I also had Victor Lewis in the band. Actually, the first recording that I did with this band, which I donated to a company that creates funds to save children that are subject to abuse and starvation and all of that… They came to me and asked if I’d do a record to help raise funds to help children, and I said yes. So the idea was that all the money that recording would generate would be towards that mission. Victor Lewis did that session. The same with Pernell Saturnino (?—6:23) and Gregg August. So in my band, I have Victor Lewis, I have Willie Jones, III, who plays on the record, I have Billy Hart and I have Lewis Nash. The one thing that all of them have in common is that they feel the African music really deep inside. I didn’t have to tell them anything other than basically go through the music, and that’s that.

TP: How about the horn players? Are the pieces tailored to their sounds, or are they more interpreting parts?

Villafranca: It’s more like interpreting parts. When I first talked to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to do a concert, which I still will in the future… I wanted to do a concert that featured Wynton and Paquito. I wanted to have the two languages there, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to interpret the language from the Latin and Wynton from the jazz. Having those two great musicians together in a project was my first thing that I wanted to do with Lincoln Center. But then they were wise enough to say, “Just form your team, and don’t depend on anyone else,” and that’s when I started to think about finding people I know who have that language.

TP: We spoke about this when I was writing program notes for the Nuevo Jazz Latino concert. Is a new kind of music being developed by the Cuban musicians who have been coming here during the last 10-15 years, or a new variant?

Villafranca: Some people have mentioned that to me in the past. They feel there’s a new thing going on…

TP: You, Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Aruan Ortiz, Roman Filiu will probably be developing some stuff…

Villafranca: Yes, I think maybe. History will be the judge of that, but it feels vibrant. I think everybody is doing their own interpretation of music. The common thing that we have is that we all came with a very strong classical background and classical training. That’s basically the whole thing we all went through when we were all in Cuba. We all listened to jazz like you wouldn’t even imagine. Really, we were eating jazz every day and listening to all these things. But we had limited access to jazz, and that informed us in a very particular way, too. And then, we were not just listening to the American jazz. We were listening to a lot of Brazilian music. Brazil was a really big influence on us.

TP: Wasn’t Carlos Masa a bridge for a lot of people.

Villafranca: Not so much for me, but he was for Dafnis, because Dafnis used to work with him. It’s true that he introduced a lot of things to some Cuban musicians, especially the people who played with him. Because he had the benefit that it can be in and out of the country. In a place where we couldn’t really go anywhere, anybody who would bring… The person who was very influential on me was Hernan Lopez-Nussa, the uncle of Harold Lopez-Nussa (his father is Ruiz Lopez-Nussa, the drummer). Hernan was one of the persons who, whenever I needed some kind of musical challenge or recordings that I didn’t have, since he was one of the people who was coming in and out of the country, I would go to his house, and I’d bring a tape, and he would record for me something new. I also used to go to Chucho’s house, and have a conversation with him about music. And Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because in Cuba there was no real book.

TP: You’re 45, so you were born in 1968. Gonzalo was still in Cuba when you were in school.

Villafranca: Yes, Gonzalo was one of the kings in Cuba. I was fortunate… I don’t know if you remember that I told you this, but I used to go to Gonzalo’s house when he was practicing.

We didn’t have real books, so basically the only way we could get hold of some jazz tunes was by transcribing. Sometimes, we knew… I knew that Gonzalo had access to some books, and then I would go to his house and say, “Gonzalo, I would love to have some tunes,” and he’d say, “Oh, yes, fine.” He’d bring out some of the books that he had access to, and he’d say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can notate whatever it is.” I would bring this huge manuscript and I’d spend hours and hours writing tunes by hand while he was practicing.

TP: That’s a very interesting way to learn some music. It becomes a very personal experience.

Villafranca: Yes. I remember having my hand very sore, because literally I would spend in his house like 3 hours. I notated some of Herbie Hancock’s tunes, stuff like, at the time, “The Eye Of The Hurricane.” I remember when that album came out, we were really all over the place. We were all over it, and we really liked that album with Wynton Marsalis, and then the V.S.O.P. after it came out. We had Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band album. I had it in my head before it even was on the market.

TP: Did you just miss the post-Gorbachev years, when the subsidies ended?

Villafranca: No. I was right in the middle. Half my teachers were Russians, and I remember one day coming to school and all of a sudden there were no teachers. I was like, “what happened?” Then we were told that perestroika happened, which basically is when Cuba and Russia got into a dispute and Cuba kicked everybody out. Russia said, “You owe us money,” and Cuba said, “We don’t owe you anything,” and then everybody was kicked out. All my teachers left like overnight.

TP: And there were shortages and scarcities.

Villafranca. Oh my God. There was the “special period,” which I went through, and another period called the “Option Zero.”

TP: Didn’t you tell me that you had a certain allowance each month, and instead of buying food, you bought tapes?

Villafranca: Yes. My mom and my father would put together 45 Cuban pesos, which is almost half of a salary, for me to survive in Havana for a month. I’d go to Havana, spend a month, and then come back for a weekend. I’d go there, and then at the school you’d see… The Black Market was really at its height, selling everything, and they were selling cassette tapes. Each cassette tape would cost 15 Cuban pesos, which is a very high price in relation to salary. I would buy two, because I wanted to record two albums. Then I would go to Hernan’s or Chucho’s or Gonzalo’s or Pucho Lopez, and I would ask them to record something for me. Or El Negro, Horacio Hernandez, right before he left (he was playing with Gonzalo at the time). That’s the sacrifice we made in those days to learn this music.

TP: You’re the same generation as Yosvany, Dafnis is younger but he was in there, and Omar Sosa is a little older.

Villafranca: Yes. When I was in school, Omar was already really out there. He was music directing for Xiomara Laugart and other bands.

TP: In retrospect, what do you think the impact of those experiences has had on the way you approach your career in the U.S.?

Villafranca: I can’t think of any way other than to feel grateful. Even though we went through those hard times, even though we didn’t have all the materials to deal with the music… Like, we had one tape player that belonged to someone in the entire school, and then we had to take turns. Maybe my turn would be 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., whatever, and whenever it was, then I would use that time. But whenever I got my hands on that tape player, I would make sure that I listened to that music to my 100%. I would listen and listen, and go back, and listen again, listen again, listen again. That’s what made me get to this point today. It gave me a very strong… I mean, I still study for four hours. I grew up in that environment, and it’s really made me a better musician.

TP: I guess there was a lot of competition in the school also.

Villafranca: Extremely competitive.

TP: It was an opportunity for advancement, for social mobility as well.

Villafranca: But that also has a catch to it as well. A lot of friends of mine who were very talented didn’t make it, just because in Cuba it’s just got to be one person. If it’s one pianist, it’s going to be one pianist. It was Gonzalo and Chucho. But it was really hard, because there was no space for a different voice.

TP: Another aspect aesthetically of coming up in Cuba is that (I think I’ve heard you say this) that the competitive environment makes people treat music almost as a sport to the detriment of the artistic aspect, and that slowing down is a complex thing. I guess that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

Villafranca: That’s a good and a bad. You always have the good and the bad. It’s good for the people who made… For every musician you see on the scene right now, there are 20 or 30 of them that didn’t make it. Not because they were no good. It’s just because there’s only what we call dambulo, which is like a very open hole where only one or two people can just fit through. It’s a very strong filter, stronger than America here, where you can get musicians of all different kinds. The beautiful thing about this is you might get some people who are not that great or whatever, but they have the opportunity to express themself. In Cuba, if you were not the level that they think you should be, then you don’t get anywhere.

TP: You were saying at the beginning of the conversation (and other musicians from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora have told me this) that breaking away from clave and cascara and so forth is more complicated than might be readily apparent. How did that process work for you? What were some of the steps you took once you came here?

Villafranca: Basically, it’s a liberation thing. It feels to me like a liberation of the soul. What I mean by liberation is that I started to look at music in the more pure form, not in a very specific way. I am realizing that when the musicians have the freedom to express, they’re going to play better than if they have to feel tied to something that I’m giving them. If I wanted to play something that has a very strong Cuban accent, like charanga or something like that, I will get a musician who is very knowledgeable in that. I’m going to be play charanga music; we’ll play Peruchin’s music. When I do that, I want just to be 1950s. I want that. Right? But when I do jazz, like the thing with the Jass Syncopators… For example, I am premiering a suite at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February next year which is an expansion of what the Jass Syncopators is right now. That’s why I mentioned that the Jass Syncopators is just the beginning of something. I am very much interested in looking at Congolese traditions in the different regions of the Caribbean. I am done with Yoruba, because I’ve done that, everybody’s done that. My roots are Congolese, not Yoruban. Then I am looking at that tradition of Congolese music in the different areas. If I play you something from the Congo people in my hometown, there is no clave. It’s like something more traditional than that. These people don’t even know anything. They don’t know anything about clave, all they know how to feel… When I was interviewing them…

TP: You were a percussion major.

Villafranca: Yes. It was so beautiful to see them, when they start playing the drums, they don’t have it compartmentalized the way we do when we go to music school. Of course, when we go to music school, they teach us to compartmentalize everything, to analyze everything. I am trying to go away from that. I want it to be more like feeling the music rather than technically analyzing it.

TP: You need to be careful with that idea, though. It works for someone as highly trained as you, but…

Villafranca: True. But I’m not far from what Pat Metheny said when someone asked him why he covers all this melody? Well, he grew up in that environment, and that’s what he does. Yes, you’re right, I come from a very strong background in African music, but that could go two ways. You could either focus on that and try to play just like that, or you know that you have it, so open up and experience the moment. When I see my people from the Congo in San Luis, they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about clave, they don’t talk about anything. It’s funny, because you ask them and they say, “No, this is what you do.” [plays rhythm with his hands] Then that’s it. You ask them, “Explain it to me,” they don’t know how to explain it. I want to be that way. I want to experience the music at that level, not from the analytical point of music.

TP: Tell me about the band you’re playing with today. You have a recording with Eric Alexander, The Source In Between, that celebrates the sound of swing and hardbop.

Villafranca: That record was the beginning, when I started… That’s why I chose the title, The Source In Between. I thought I could write music that could played in a Latin Jazz tradition with percussion, and also can be felt in a jazz tradition. For example, if you remember the album, the track called “Oddua Suite,” it’s like the music of John Coltrane but it’s just basically a Yoruban chant. Then I decided I’d have Eric, who is a very bebop-oriented person, but then I want to have Dafnis, who is very strong on everything, and then Jeff Carney, who is an American bass player who has nothing to do with Latin music. So I wanted those two poles. The Jass Syncopators is the expansion of the same content. That’s how I was thinking about this project.

I think it works, because when you think about music, it doesn’t have to be… As long as the musicians you’re working with feel the same way, they honestly feel what you’re trying to do, it’s great. Having Eric here with me today is so beautiful, because I haven’t played with him in a long, long time. I met him when I did a couple of tours with Pat Martino’s band. I was living in Philadelphia then.

TP: What you’re saying about Congolese traditions seems like a similar attitude Yosvany Terry is bringing to Arara.

Villafranca: He was initiated. I am not initiated. I am doing it because I grew up on that… Since I was a baby, literally.

TP: You were speaking about being done with Yoruba, and…

Villafranca: In Cuba, if you say “Yoruba,” then they say, “Havana or Matanzas?” It’s regional. You can talk about exactly the same tradition or exactly the same orisha, but you go to Havana, then they completely play it different, and the words…sometimes they’re using the chants in one way, and you go to Matanzas it’s completely different. He was initiated in an Arara casa in Matanzas, and Pedrito’s is from Havana. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that Pedrito might know what was happening in Matanzas.

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Filed under Cuba, Elio Villafranca, Interview, The Pile

For Saxophonist-Composer Yosvany Terry’s 45th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, Two Interviews from 2013, and A Downbeat Profile (and the Interview for that Profile) From 2013

Today is the 45th birthday of the master alto saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry, which is a good excuse to post documents of three formal encounters I’ve had with him since 2006. At the top is a 2014 feature piece that I wrote about Yosvany for Jazziz magazine framed around the release of New Throned King, his investigation of arara culture. Following that are two interviews from 2013 for a Jazz Times piece in which I interviewed 8 Cuban musicians who had transplanted to the U.S. about their education in Cuba. Following that is a short Downbeat profile from 2006 framed around his CD Metamorphosis, and following that is a long interview that we did for that piece.

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Yosvany Terry, Jazziz Feature Article, 2014:

“It’s interesting that this happened in New York,” Yosvany Terry says, reflecting on the chain of events that culminated in the June release of New Throned King (5Pasion). Joined on the CD by a 10-piece all-star band comprised primarily of fellow Cubans transplanted to the New York metropolitan area, the 43-year-old alto saxophonist-chekere player refracts the rhythms and chants that animate Cuba’s obscure [i]Arará[i] religious ceremonial with a comprehensive, poetic conception of modern jazz harmony and phrasing.

In early June, over a lunch of shrimp croquettes, roast pork, yuca and moro rice in a Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village, Terry offered the involved back story that led to New Throned King. The chain of events sprang into motion in 2006, when Terry, a Harlem resident since emigrating from Cuba in 1999, applied for a grant to research Arará traditions. His fascination with the subject had gestated a year before his move to New York, while he was touring on a Steve Coleman-led collaboration with the folkloric ensemble Afro Cuba de Matanzas, who played Arará chants on congas. “I loved the chants, and I wanted to discover more where they came from,” Terry recalls. “But I had never seen real Arará drums in person.”

Brought to Cuba from Dahomey (now Benin), Arará drums, which animate Haiti’s vodún religion, were not to be found outside  Matanzas province, where the famously hermetic Sabalú cabildo — a religious/social organization originally formed by African slaves — that has preserved the tradition over multiple generations, maintains hawk-eyed custody. The drums portray deities with characteristics similar to those described by the Yoruba bata drum choirs that fuel the majority of Cuba’s traditional Afro-descended ritual practices. Arará drums are tuned lower and sculpted from different wood than batas, and are used to generate rhythmic patterns, chants and dances that differ entirely from those generated by their Nigeria-rooted counterparts.  “A community can use the Arará patterns to tell another community to prepare for war,” Terry said. “Batas are more ceremonial, to play for the king and other occasions.”

In December 2006, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors awarded Terry an $85,000 grant. In September 2007, he made an initial visit to Matanzas, where he contacted Mario Rodriguez, a.k.a. El Maño, a master practitioner of the Arará, bata and abakuá dialects. This trilingual guru figure played a key role in the Sabalú cabildo, which, Terry says, has “turned away great musicians and ethnomusicologists” on suspicion of their motives. However, El Maño knew Terry’s father, a violinist and singer who had built a national reputation since the 1950s as leader of the prominent charanga ensemble Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, based in the Camagüey Province, 260 miles east of Matanzas. El Maño decided to share his knowledge and assumed the role of Terry’s padrino, or godfather.

Parallel to these lessons, Terry commissioned a set of Arará drums, which, he says, would enable him “to hear the way the Arará chants were supposed to work with the original instruments and in the right environment.” He continues: “Seeing the drums was like a flashback. These were the exact same drums, deities and cultural traditions that I grew up with from the vodún tradition in the Haitian side of my family, even though Camagüey and Matanzas have no relation to one another in Cuba.”

With assistance from Matanzas-born percussionist Sandy Pérez — an Oakland, California, resident who put Terry in touch with El Maño — Terry taught the rhythms and chants assimilated in these encounters to master percussionists Román Diaz and Pedrito Martínez, both Cuban-born first-callers in New York. Although familiar with the Arará religion as rendered in Havana, their hometown, where, Terry says, “there is no chance you see those drums,” neither drummer knew the idiomatic Matanzas style. The three powerhouses formed the core of an ensemble that Terry convened to make a demo CD of five initial compositions framed around the traditional Arará toques,  representing, Terry says, “my take on going to a ceremony, but with a different aesthetic vision that includes everything I’ve been exposed to since I started studying music in Cuba and then living in New York.” Joining the drummers were the leader’s bassist brother, Yunior Terry, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes and — to add “an American perspective” — Oakland native Justin Brown on trap set. Terry named the unit Ye-Dé-Bgé, after a Fon phrase meaning “with the approval of the spirits,” and led them through several concerts around New York City and northern California in 2008.

After this initial salvo, Terry continued to study with El Maño, exponentially expanding his information base as he earned the trust of the members of the Sabalú cabildo. (In early 2011, he and brother Yunior were initiated into the sect.) During this period, Terry fleshed out the older pieces and composed several new ones, among them “Mase Nadodo,” written in conjunction with a commissioned poem by Ishmael Reed depicting the Minos warrior women of Dahomey, and “Reuniendo la Nación,” a drum chant that Terry augmented with ghostly sounds from Haitian DJ Val Jeanty and improvised piano from Jason Moran.
Terry’s sense of familial obligation to preserve and extend the cabildo’s traditions became even more palpable after Rodriguez died in August 2011. “Without El Maño, I wouldn’t have any information; nothing I could use was available on the internet or on CDs or anywhere,” Terry says. “I think he realized that I was not just a student interested in learning the patterns and chants, but someone who sees himself as part of the same lineage. In that way he embraced me. When my cousins saw me playing the drums in my house, they knew these were same drums they’d known as children. So I was able to connect my family tradition with Arará. One path developed in Haiti and one developed in Cuba.”

BREAK

In Terry’s view, neither New Throned King nor the Ye-Dé-Bgé ensemble could exist outside of New York City. Indeed, he ascribes his decision to emigrate to a deeply felt need to further his education by “living and participating in the mecca of music and the arts.” Having digested New York in his own manner, he has arrived at his own sound and, paradoxically, moved closer to his roots.

“I understood that my journey was not complete,” Terry says. “I wanted to meet the great masters of the jazz community, to learn directly from the source, not from books. That forces you to look more within yourself, to state who you are and what you really think about music, about life and your aesthetic perspective. Living here, you hear jazz mixed with Middle Eastern music, with music from areas of South America that you don’t hear in Cuba, with music by people from Europe, Japan and around the world. We no longer think of music in terms of Cuban flavor. For us, jazz is everything together. So my intention was not just to recreate Arará culture, but to do something with it from a New York standpoint.”

When he moved to Manhattan, Terry, then 28, was well-prepared to stake his claim within the world’s most competitive jazz scene. The early training he received from his father engendered intimacy with a broad array of folkloric styles and an ability to play the gourd-like chekere with the narrative flair of a griot. Comprehensive training in the Euro-canon at Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories polished his musicianship and sharpened his technique. “Even in Cuba,” he says, “I liked the concept that I could play multiple styles.”

After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana in 1992, Terry freelanced in Cuban jazz and dance bands, with folk and rock ’n’ roll singers and with nuevo trova singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who exposed him to a Pan-American musical conception. He joined pianist-composer Carlos Masa, who brought Terry onto the European festival circuit and exposed him to Steve Coleman’s musical production. Terry met Coleman in 1995  at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, launching an intense, mutually beneficial relationship.

“Steve was one of the first people who told me to come to New York,” Terry says of his former guru. “In fact, he was the first person to bring me here.” Like several of his jazz-oriented generational peers from the Southern Americas, Terry benefitted from Coleman’s willingness to share seminal saxophone recordings by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to impart his vast knowledge of the codes embedded in h the notes and tones.

“When we met, I told Yosvany that I was coming to Cuba to do a project with Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and that I wanted him to be my Mario Bauzá,” Coleman recalls, naming the trumpeter-composer who introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban  while they were section mates in Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in the late 1930s. “I needed someone who knew Cuban traditions and a bit about the folkloric stuff, but was also familiar with what we do. Right away I noticed that he’s serious, intelligent and curious, with an ability to break things down. Yosvany was always quick at rhythms, like he was familiar with them already. He had a lot of questions about our tradition; I had a lot of questions about his. We traded information over a long period of time, conversations deep into the night about all kinds of stuff. I would say it changed both our lives in terms of directions and paths.

“He was immediately interested in the experimental nature of that project. He also had leadership qualities, an ability to organize. His English was always good, so he was my main communication with those musicians, who didn’t speak English at the time. I think Yosvany did more for me than Mario Bauzá did for Dizzy.”

Once ensconced in New York, Terry continued freelancing, playing an assortment of styles on gigs with a range of forward-thinking musicians, including Coleman, Dave Douglas, Brian Lynch, Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Manuel Valera, Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto. Although the Rockefeller grant signified a transition from sideman work to a leadership role, Terry continues to apply a pluralistic orientation to his various endeavors (which still includes an abundance of work as a sideman).

The Arará project was the most imminent of these during the spring. Terry presented it over a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with the members of Ye-Dé-Bgé and dynamic, costumed dancer Francisco Barroso, who found alternate pathways to refine and develop the repertoire. “Each one is a cultural bearer who knows the traditions,” Terry says of his bandmates.  “Without their knowledge the project could not be given birth and could not have grown.”

Terry emphasizes that his quest to learn and refract the music he was listening to “even before I was in my mother’s womb” is far from finished. “It will take several years to complete my big idea,” he says. “I need to learn all the ceremonies in depth, so that I can then write a mass for it. How could Mozart compose his Requiem without being a believer, to know what a requiem means, and how to write a ‘Kyrie’ — all the parts of the Mass? My approach is to compose as though representing the entire mass of the church in classical music, but within the Arará tradition.

“Hearing these chants is like seeing my grandmother, my aunts — everyone in the family — dancing in the ceremony. To be able to work with things that are part of what made you puts you on a different plane than someone who just does the research and tries to work with that. You understand everything, even what a chant means. When you hear the chant, you can see the old lady who came to the ceremony all the time, doing so many different things. It couldn’t be more personal.”

SIDEBAR

In 2010, Terry received a call from Brad Learmonth, the Program Director of Harlem Stage. “He asked if I could write a musical opera,” Terry recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I can do it. Why not?’ I had never done anything like it, and I never thought I’d do anything like it. But I always think that if a human being did it, I am supposed to do it, too.”

Terry was tasked with composing music for Makandal, conceived a decade ago in Miami by Carl Hancock Rux, who wrote the trilingual book and libretto. The narrative interweaves the stories of François Makandal, an escaped Maroon slave of the mid-18th century who directed effective slave resistance for two decades from the hills of Haiti until he was betrayed and burned at the stake in 1758, and of a boatload of Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans clandestinely crossing the waters in search of brighter prospects. Both the historical and contemporary protagonists interact consequentially with the spirit world, portrayed by Edouard Duval-Carrié in images and by Terry in notes and tones.

At an open rehearsal for funders and board members in late June, a six-piece ensemble rendered Terry’s deftly deployed mélange of traditional Cuban music, classical music, jazz and electronica, both as backdrop to the dramatic action and choreography, and in direct engagement with the nine extraordinary singers who comprise the cast.

“It was a super-challenging project, not like writing compositions for my band,” Terry says. “It wouldn’t work to use a European composer, because they needed someone who knows the Caribbean traditions and can use them within the environment of the piece. So it allowed me to bring in all my different roots. I wasn’t familiar with Carl’s work, but we spent a lot of time together, sharing, exchanging information. I did a great deal of research so I’d have a concept of the material I’m working with.

“To do this, I felt that I needed to add more tools to the art of composition, so I was forced to go back to school, which I’d been wanting to do. I took counterpoint lessons at Juilliard’s evening program, and studied composition, orchestration, analysis and more counterpoint with Leo Edwards at Mannes School of Music. Music existed before I was born, and it will be here after I’m gone. The more I can try to grasp and learn, it will only make me stronger. I consider myself an eternal student.”

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Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 1 (May 16, 2013):
TP: You’re from a very well-established musical family and I’d guess got your early musical training and ideas within the home before going to school.

YT: Yes, for sure. I started studying music within the family at 5 years old, with my father and also with a private teacher. He got us a private teacher to start music studies. We knew from an early age that we wanted to be musicians. Having said that, since music was in the family, everything was different for me in that case. So we learned a great deal from my family and also through friends, too. So it’s completely different than when you just go to school and the only music environment you have in your life at that time is the school.

TP: When did you start to study music in school formally?

YT: I started studying music in school formally at I guess 10 years old.

TP: Did you go to one of the regional schools when you were 10? Can you take me through the process a bit? I assume, then, that you didn’t attend a casa de cultura.

YT: No, not at all. I would say the first exposure that I had to music within the school system there that is… Each area has a music program that the school tunes to… The name of it is like “Singing With the Invisible Teachers.” Through that program, people are introduced to music in the sense of learning a little bit about singing in tune, and singing songs, and things like that. Very basic. I started, as I said, at home, but at 10 I went to what they call there the vocational arts school. The vocational arts school is a school that is built in every province in Cuba. Since it was built in every province, then you can guarantee that in Cuba the education is centralized by the government, and then it was a way to make sure also that all the students would get the same education in every province, in every little municipality. Say, for instance, that the vocational arts school was in Camagüey, and when I started my family had already moved to Camagüey, but by then, my older brother, Yoel, he was going… We were living in the municipality of Florida in Camagüey. So he would go from Camagüey to Florida, and then from Florida to Camagüey to go into the school. In other words, since he was from a little further away, he was going as a boarding student, too. So when I started also, and when Yunior, my brother, started at school, it was as a boarding student. And now, Yunior started early, because Yunior started at at 7 years old already in the boarding school. His first violin teacher at the school was a Russian teacher. In my case, my first saxophone teacher was from Camagüey, and he was a great saxophone player, and also an arranger, and he composed and arranged for one of the important bands in town. So that was a little bit what I got at the school.

TP: Had your teacher studied in Russia?

YT: No. My saxophone teacher studied in Cuba. In fact, he graduated in ENA, in Havana, which is the national arts school. What happened for saxophone is that most of the stuff… Also, the program for saxophone is modeled to the French program for saxophone in France. So yeah, it was fully classical music that we studied. The school is a classical music school. They taught a little, little bit of what they call music from Cuba in the school, and in that regard, I was fortunate to have my father, because my father was …[DROPS OUT]…

TP: You said you were fortunate to have your father…

YT: I was fortunate to have my father, because it was through my father that I was introduced to all the popular music culture of Cuba. Because even when I lived in Florida, my town in the municality of Camagüey, during the carnivals and major events in the province, all the big orchestras that would play in Florida would stop by my house, because they were all friends with my father. So it is now …(?)…. the same way… [DROPS OUT] [9:32]; L’Orquesta Aragon, Los Van Van, all these orchestras always stopped by my house in the carnivals, because they were very good friends with my father, and had known him for a long time. So the house was like a cultural center for the Cuban music, and we were fortunate to be around that.

TP: So you were able to absorb the whole timeline of Cuban popular and folkloric music.

YT: [DROPPED OUT] [10:39] … Afro-Cuban music, it was also present in my family, because from both sides of my family they were practitioners of the different religions that came from Africa. So since an early age before I know, I was going to ceremonies and everything even before I… [DROPS OUT] Because both sides of my family would practice within the …[DROPS OUT]…

Both sides of my families were practitioners of religions that came from Africa, and that is how I was exposed at a very early to different cults that still prevailed in the Caribbean, related with Afro-Cuban religions.

TP: Did you assimilate all the traditions in a very holistic way? Did your training in the African rhythms cause you not to play the classical exercises as a classical player might want, or was relatively easy to handle all the idioms on their own terms?

YT: The fact that I was exposed to the music at a very early age, and also from all the religion, it was a plus, because in terms of understanding rhythms, I was already exposed to many other things before getting to a school. So it made things easier, in a way, given the sophistication in all the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban religions. So of course, that helped greatly. It was never a problem, the fact that I knew that… It was never a problem to learn classical music or… I mean, it didn’t stop anything. If something, it really helped, because those were knowledge that I didn’t learn in the school at all.

TP: At about what age did you start to become conscious of jazz and interested in it?

YT: At 13 or 14.

TP: From family, or friends at school, or a teacher…

YT: That was from my family. Because my older brother was the one who had… He was introduced to jazz, and I think he was at that time introduced to one of the Chick Corea CDs, Friends. I was fascinated with the music, because it had nothing to do with what we were learning at school or what I’d heard before. Then there was this moment that they would go into this thing that was improvisation, that was like, “Oh, what is that?” So right afterwards, I discovered there were two jazz stations that we could get on the radio waves, so we quickly started tuning in every night to all these radio stations in order to hear jazz, and then we started going to… We found out that the library in my town had a huge jazz collection of LPs and things that we just didn’t know about. They had records by Coltrane and you could hear Charlie Parker. And then, at the school, they had also jazz later on, that they would play every… The guy who was working as the sound engineer in the school was also a fan of jazz, so he would play jazz in the afternoons. It was like that.

Then later on, one of the teachers at the school was a great saxophone player and a jazz player, Alfredo Thompson, and it was through him that I started learning jazz harmony. He just taught us a great deal of harmony, phrasing, and exposed us to a lot of music, too. So it was like that, by word of mouth and people who would bring information… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ernesto Simpson.

TP: Of course. Great drummer.

YT: The drummer. So Ernesto Simpson back then was playing with one of the important bands in Havana. But his family lived in the building just next to us, and both families were really good friends. So I remember at age 13 or 14, whenever he would come into town, he’d perform with the group that he was with…I’ll remember the name of the group in a second… I remember waking up early, and then knocking at the door to see if they’d brought in a new style from Havana, what music he brought, and so on. So it was through him, for instance… He was the first one who brought me Elvin Jones and Trane and things like that. So it was something like that. Since there is no music store where you could buy any music, and they were not in Camagüey specifically any really old jazz musician, it was something that happened like that—by word of mouth, and knowing…some of the teachers discovered that the public library had jazz, discovered what the jazz station was, and discovered that there were some people that we knew who were familiar with this kind of music that we just discovered and was so hip for us.

TP: As a young musician with a lot of information under your belt already, what was it that it was appealing to you at the time?

YT: What appealed to me about jazz that I liked from the beginning was, you would hear them playing the themes, the melody, and then they would go into this zone that you didn’t know what it was, and that was improvisation. So for us, for me, that was really fascinating. You’d hear them playing the melody, but then all of a sudden, wow, everybody went into improvising. That kind of thing we didn’t have in classical music, the classical music that we were learning in the school, and it also was very different that the improvisation approach within the Cuban aesthetics. So we do have improvisation in Cuba, within the Cuban language and vocabulary. It’s different, because harmonically it was a whole different approach to improvisation. So I think it was improvisation and soloing, the part that really fascinated me.

TP: As your education continued, were you able to express these interests within the school, or did it always happen parallel to school, outside of school?

YT: I would say that the school was really hermetic and closed, in the sense that they would like people to learn classical music. Again, I was fortunate that my saxophone teachers, they were familiar with jazz, and of course they would let us be excited with it and would let us also bring jazz standards to play in the school. But the great thing is, if you want to play jazz, you have to be also good in classical music. So we couldn’t become bad students just because we were just playing jazz. So in other words, I always say that given that I discovered jazz and was interested in jazz, that forced us also to be the best classical music student, because we needed to prove the fact that we like jazz was not going to turn us into bad classical musicians. And the school was a classical music school, so in fact, we have to do double everything. You have to be really good in classical music in order to be able to play jazz.

TP: At what age did you go to Havana?

YT: Around 17. Once we started discovering jazz at age 13-14, then we discovered Irakere, then we discovered Emiliano Salvador, then we discovered Paquito D’Rivera, we discovered all the musicians who were doing jazz in Cuba.

TP: Did your father know them?

YT: Yes. My father knew Chucho. He knew who Emiliano was, but he wasn’t friends with him because Emiliano Salvador was a local figure more in Havana. The difference with Irakere is, like, Irakere also played a lot of popular dance music, and they would do tours and play in the carnivals in Cuba, so that was one of the few chances to see them perform, not only performing dancing Cuban music but also they would play an instrumental tune, completely a Cuban jazz tune. So that was completely (?—22:52).

In my province, also, like I said, one of the saxophone teachers was a great jazz musician. So there was a band in Camagüey that was named Fever Opus. They would have a regular gig every Sunday playing their original compositions, and it was jazz. For us, that was also another way to see live bands playing. I remember also, for instance, Gonzalo Rubalcaba going on tour with his sextet all around the country; when he stopped in Camagüey to play with it, we went to see it, too.

TP: So you got to Havana in 1989.

YT: Yes.

TP: And you did attend conservatory then, yes?

YT: Uh-huh.

TP: What did you major in?

YT: I studied saxophone.

TP: Can you speak a bit to when your own conceptual ideas began to emerge? When you arrived in Havana?

YT: No. I started exploring with improvisation in Camagüey. So by the time I got to Havana, I was already improvising, so I quickly joined the jazz musicians in Havana. So when I went to Havana at the school, I met Osmany Paredes, who was there. I met Dafnis. I met Elio Villafranca. I met Roberto Carcasses. I met also ….(?—25:29)… All the musicians I was performing with then. Also Julio Padrón. That was an opportunity to meet a lot of people who were really great musicians, but they were also playing jazz for a long time.

TP: People have said that it was tremendously competitive, at each stage of the way, the best of the best converging, and this had an impact on the way the music was thought of and the way it sounded.

YT: Yes, I think that it was competitive, too. The fact that we had to be really good students, and the fact that there were so many great musicians. Ok, I’ll give you the idea. It was like being at Manhattan School of Music or the New School or Berklee, but with the difference that there are all these great musicians at the school, but not only are they all great jazz musicians, but they’re all playing classical music. So now the amount of information that they’re dealing with is …[DROPS OUT—27:01]… In my case, I always loved classical music, so it wasn’t that I was just in the school because that was the only way to learn music. No. I love classical music, and still to this day I practice classical music and I play classical music with different people in New York. So it was a great challenge and it was a great… Well, like I said, coming to one of those great schools that you will run into many of the great musicians playing on the scene today, but they were all in the school, and you were friends with them at that time.

TP: As far as getting groups together and playing for audiences in Havana, was it complicated? Easy? I gather you couldn’t get paid for gigs like that playing in Havana. How did you deal with the issue of gigging and making a living as a musician?

YT: Well, there’s two things. Once you’re a student, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to support yourself. My family was supporting us. They provided us the money, the resources for us to be fine in the school. So I started gigging with groups from the school at the jazz festival in Havana. Money was the last thing that we ever thought about. We were just so focused on music, that in my case I never thought about any money. Then, right when I graduated from the school, I started playing with a local…with a singer-songwriter, with Santiago Feliu, for the first two years. Then I was playing with another group, the Grupo (?—29:16), and in that group there used to be musicians who worked with Emiliano Salvador. So they were all great jazz musicians. I was with that band for two years. From then, I started working with Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio Rodríguez was the person I started touring abroad from Cuba, in South America—Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile. That was with the band Diakara.

When I stopped working with Silvio, I stayed as a freelance musician, because at that moment I wanted to play just the music that I wanted, and it was at that time that I created Columna B with Dafis, Roberto Carcasses and Descemer Bueno. We started playing in all the venues and things like that. But the band… We got to be in one of the Cuban… We went on tour with Columna B, into Spain, and I started coming to the United States, because I had met one of the co-founders of Stanford Jazz Workshop, so he invited me to teach at Stanford. [Bob Murphy] He came to Cuba because he was interested in Afro-Cuban music, and there was a course being organized by someone from the Bay Area that would bring a lot of people from the Bay Area interested in Cuban music and musicians, to learn Afro-Cuban music in Havana. It was through those courses that I met John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebecca Mauleón, who is now head of the Education Board of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. All of these people came to Cuba because they were interested in learning Cuban music. They were really playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area. But for them, that was an opportunity to come and learn with the master. Because in those courses, Changuito was teaching, Tata Güines was teaching, my father also was teaching, and all the great musicians of Cuba.

So Bob Murphy came to one of those courses, and I met him, and he realized that I was playing with a different band, and we… Then it was like that, and he invited me to be part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, to teach over there. It was through the Stanford Jazz Workshop that I came for the first time to the U.S. It was known after the second time that I was at the workshop that I spoke to the director, told him that I had the band, Columna B, and it would be nice to bring the band. So it was through a grant from Meet The Composer that…it was to collaborate with a composer from the United States, and in this case it was Wayne Wallace, and there was a choreographer, Judith Sanchez,  and myself. So with us three, we were commissioned to write a piece with an element of collaboration between both countries. It was that way that I brought Columna B to be part of the project, which was Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, Dafnis, Descemer, and also my father came in, too. So that’s how Columna B got to the United States.

TP: What year did you start touring with Silvio Rodríguez?

YT: In ‘92. [20 years old] I had just graduated. It was end of ‘92, I remember.

TP: What year did you start Columna B?

YT: Columna B didn’t start until ‘97.

TP: What year did the Bay Area musicians come to Havana for the Master classes?

YT: They started coming from ‘91-‘92. So it was not until ‘94 that they invited me to Stanford Jazz Workshop, and it was not until ‘95 that I came to the United States, because the first time they didn’t grant me the visa because they said that I was too young and I was going to defect in the United States. So the next year, when I applied, and I had a great friend intervene in my case, who was at the time the UNICEF ambassador in Cuba. Then they grant me the visa, and when they saw that I returned to Cuba, then they started granting me the visa every year to go to the United States. In fact, I had a great relationship with the American (?—36:41) in Cuba, so I would receive… Then we had such a great relationship that they would send me every month the DownBeat magazine, so that was another way to be informed about what was going on in the jazz scene.

TP: Was it during these years that folkloric percussion started being part of the curriculum in the conservatory? Dafnis told me that his pedagogy was classically-oriented, and that at a certain point, because of interest from foreigners, they started teaching folkloric percussion and Cuban traditions and so on. Does coincide with Stanford Jazz Workshop and these events in the early ‘90s.

YT: Yes, with the Afro-Cuban music courses. Afro-Cuban music courses I think were really key, especially for the school and the educational system, to notice that a lot of foreigners were interested in Cuba for its culture. So even though we had Cuban music in our curriculum at the school, I don’t think that it was taught at the same level that was taught the other classical music. So right after that especially, the very, very last year… I remember in my case, in the very last year of my courses, they started to put more emphasis in the courses teaching Cuban music in our program in the school. Like I said, I was fortunate that music was in my family. So everything that I am learning in popular Cuban music was from my father, from my family. It wasn’t from the school. So if I had learn from the school, then I had ….(?—38:54)…. when they decided that Cuban music was important for them to put in the programs.  I think it actually became part of the pedagogy at the end of the ‘80s-beginning of the ‘90s—‘88-‘89, and on into the ‘90s.

TP: And you think the motivation is because there was interest from abroad.

YT: Yeah. People were going to Cuba not to learn about Mozart and about Beethoven and Stravinsky, but people were learning …(?—40:21)… in Cuban music which was going around the world. But what happened is, the people that get together and put together the programs for the classical music school in Cuba, they are not necessarily the popular musicians playing with all the popular bands. So as a result, they have a different orientation in what is important to them in music. That’s what I’ve always believed.

That’s why, yes, you study in theory who was Beny Moré , who was all the… There’s more inclination to teach about the Cuban classical music. Then the Cuban popular music is just taught in one semester out of the four years of one school and out of the four years of the other school. I was always like: Why are we studying our music only for one semester? There are so many things that would interact from there. So that was the case. But like I said, all my saxophone teachers were… My first saxophone teacher was a great arranger and a saxophone player. He played baritone. Then in the second school I went to, one of the saxophone teachers, who really wasn’t actually my saxophone teacher but he was teaching tenor, he was a great jazz musician. That’s why, by the time I came to Havana, I knew so much about jazz, because I was already learning learning with my teacher in the school. In that school, it was… In terms of saxophone players, Roman Filiu was there, Felipe Lamoglia, all these great saxophone players, were in the school. César Lopez, who was in Irakere later, also is from Camagüey. There’s a lot of great players who come in from Camagüey. Even if they are not from Camagüey, they went to study in Camagüey for some reason.

TP: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, because I know you have to start getting ready to perform.

YT: I know there are so many things that happened during these years that you want to know. We can talk another time, if you want, and we can talk for a little while more now.

TP: I don’t think I need you to say that your preparation in the conservatory and what you got outside the conservatory made it relatively easy for you to adapt to the different challenges you faced outside of Cuba, with all the different circumstances you have to function it. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but it would be helpful if you could talk about it. Could you synthesize, state in a relatively general way, how you draw on the information you received in the conservatory in the music you’ve been putting out in the last decade or so? Dafnis said, for example, that studying theory and composition has been tremendously helpful for him in organizing his ideas in composition.

YT: I’ll give you my take on it. I think studying at the school and in Cuba, and being exposed to all this classical music program at a very early age, gives you also a discipline of how to approach and learn music. I think one of the things that made Cuban musicians different from musicians in different parts of the world is all of the information that they have in music from a very early age. I must admit, in the Cuban cases, not only the Classical music but also the music of our culture. That is also really important for us.

In terms of composition and theory and all that, of course it’s important to me. As a composer, even when I came to New York, I went even further to study at Juilliard… I went to Juilliard to study counterpoint, and I went to Mannes to study composition, to study orchestration, to study analysis, to study theory, because I wanted to deepen all this knowledge that I brought from Cuba. Since I was in New York, it was even to me more important. I wanted to really master composition and all of that… I went to school here in the United States to keep learning, because I believe also, like, there were certain things that I didn’t learn in Cuba because of information. I didn’t go to study composition directly at the ISA, so composition was always important to me, but I always studied on my own and with people. Therefore, the amount of technique that you are exposed to in terms of composition, orchestration, analysis, and counterpoint…that I have been exposed to…is starting in New York. Going to the classical music school in New York to study that has been tremendous. And I keep in contact with all my friends that I went to school with in Cuba, that they also went to study classical composition outside of Cuba, and we all coincide with all the information that we have incorporated for ourselves as composers.

It is true that the fact that I went to the school makes you a strong musician, and it’s always… To me, also, I have a different vision, because I am a teacher at the New School, and I can see the way that the program has been put together. I see areas where there is a gap of information that the student needs in order to become a better musician at an early age, so they can …(?—48:43)… at the school to start discovering on their own what to do. It’s like all of the students that I teach at the New School, I always send them to take orchestration classes at Mannes. I always send them to take analysis, conducting, all these classes at Mannes, because I said, ‘Listen, you are not just a jazz musician; you are a musician. To be a musician is more important than just to know one different kind of vocabulary in music. So you’re a musician, you’re supposed to…like Mozart, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Beethoven, you’re supposed to be able to understand and work at the higher level with understanding of music. So it is great that you are learning everything here at this school, but we need to know what music is about. Music is something that has been around forever, and it’s going to be around afterwards. So there’s so many things that we need to learn to for that. So it’s like I always push them to work to their limit, because this is the belief that I have in music. To me, music is just one.

So that’s the way that I think with the school. I don’t know if it answers your question.

TP: There’s no one answer. Did you ever at any point feel limited in what you could attain in Cuba, in how far you could go with music, or being able to express your musical ideas… You left Cuba. A lot of musicians left Cuba. Yet, you were nourished in this extraordinary way in Cuba, that probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of being here?

YT: That is a good question. There is a big reason why I left Cuba. I left Cuba because, like any other musician interested to learn music and interested to master and assimilate a lot of information from all over the world, you need to know what the mecca of the arts are. In the 19th century, the mecca of the world for music was in Paris, so a lot of musicians were moving to Paris to learn and be part of that important energy that was happening at that time. There was so much information going around. The mecca of the music and the arts moved to New York then. So since the mecca of the music was in New York, I realized that I needed to come to New York if I wanted to be part of all of this great information and things that were going on around the mecca. I’ll tell you something, too. If the mecca of the world in ten years moved to Burundi in Africa, I would go there, too, because it’s there where I really need to be in order to learn about that.

Of course, I understood that my journey was not complete in Cuba, and I needed to go out to do it. Because it’s like everybody has to do it in their time. So for me to come to New York, it was important, because wow, it’s there that I have the potential to meet all these other people that were great masters and idols and heroes to me that I needed to learn from. I mean, you don’t go there… I am not going to learn that from Rio De Janeiro. I am not going to learn that from Cuba. You’re always going to learn what do you think is this business about? Well, you will not learn from the horse’s mouth, you know? This is an oral tradition. Jazz is really an oral tradition to this day. You need to hear from people. There’s a lot of information that you just don’t learn from the books. The same happened even with classical music.

That’s why you always have to travel where the good teacher is, because it is with this teacher that you’re going to get a lot of information passed orally. Yes, it is true that you can get all the Bach fugues and Mozart concertos and everybody… All this is printed in books, and you can get it even in South Africa. But no, you need to go to Europe to study with the great performers and teacher in order to get the information that has been passed orally from that tradition.

TP: One thing I’m curious about, but feel a little shy in asking, is what sort of effect the armature of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics as applied to education affected you in any particular way? It’s hard to tell. Since I never had direct experience with it myself, it’s hard for me to get how it impacted people who were raised under that umbrella.

YT: It’s like…music and politics don’t go together. You know? At the same time, I was born in Cuba, which is a Communist country, and I consider myself a very political person. I think one of the greatest effects that I saw from that society in Cuba was that it made the highest education available to everybody, whereas I see here that you can study at a lot of the greatest schools, but you need to have a lot of money, too, to be able to have access to them or be lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to those schools. To me, one of the best things that could ever happen in Cuba is that that system made education available to everybody. In every little corner, in the most remote place, there are people coming from there who had the greatest music education. Even though I agree or not in my political views with the system, I cannot deny that I had really the greatest teachers I could ever have to learn anything that I learned, and this knowledge is going to travel with me to the end of my life.

 

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Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 2 (June 6, 2013):

TP: I’m not clear on how the plantilla system affected everyone, as it seems to have.

YT: Ok. It’s a simple concept. Plantilla is more…what it means within the music term is like contract and format, and the band instrumentation at the time. So to have a plantilla within the company, that means that you have basically a contract with the band. Let’s say, for instance… Every group, to be part of the company, they need to be plantillas.

TP: What is the company? The state?

YT: No, the companies are the music companies. Actually, the same term can be used at any regular companies, say, like, within the civil engineer company or agriculture company or a building products company. So plantilla are all the…how do you say in English…how do you call it when you work in the university and you’re part of the faculty, but you are… Let’s say, in my case, I teach at the New School, but I am an adjunct faculty. I am not full-time faculty. So plantilla is like a full-time contract. That’s what it means. That’s actually the meaning. It’s a full-time contract. So when you have a plantilla in the music company, your group has a full-time contract, and sometimes you have a contract, but you have a temporary contract—so you are not plantilla. You are not a full-time contract. That’s actually what it means.

TP: But the contract is with the regional empresa… In other words, who is the contract with? And what are the implications of the plantilla? Is it restrictive? Or does it make it difficult to move from one band… Or did it? I’m talking about conditions 20 years ago. I hear things have loosened up some now. But yes, was it restrictive in terms of moving from one band to another.

YT: I’ll give you an example. Say, for example, I am forming a new band, and I’ve got to gather all the musicians, I prepare their repertoire and everything. Now, I have to audition for one of the music companies in order to get a plantilla, a full contract, so that my band can receive a salary from the music company. All the music companies are sponsored by the government. Therefore, let’s say when we had Columna B, before we started getting a salary from any music company, we created the band and we started playing, but then we said, “Ok, we need to belong to a company.” Because if you don’t belong to a music company, then it is impossible to travel abroad of Cuba, because all of the tours are managed through the Instituto de la Musica or the Ministry of Culture. So therefore, for us to go and tour in Europe, this is… The Instituto de la Musica as well as the Ministry of Culture, they are the ones that do all the paperwork regarding passport, contracts, and everything.

So if you want to work and make money… I’ll give you another example. If you want to do a national tour, and you’re planning to perform in Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, all the provinces, in order to make contracts with the institutions and make Cuban pesos, because you’re going on an international tour, you still need to be part of the structure. So plantilla is like being part of that structure. It’s part of the government. It’s like the Cuban music enterprise, you know?

TP: And is there one company for classical music, one for popular dance music, one for folkloric music…

YT: Yes.

TP: Which one were jazz groups placed under?

YT: Yes, there were differences. The one that we were associated with was Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto.

TP: Do they have you on a fixed salary?

YT: Yeah, we were on a fixed salary. That means Concert Music Association. That was the music company that would deal with people doing a lot of creative music. So that is one type.

Then there was another one called the Karl Marx Company. That was based next to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. There was also a lot of creative music being done within that company. Also there was another one named Beny Moré , named Beny Moré . There was another one named Adolfo Guzmán, named after the Cuban composer Adolfo Guzmán. There was another one…

Those companies are mostly named after important musicians who were in Cuba. Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto, which is the one we were with…the symphony orchestra was through that, a lot of chamber music, all the classical concert soloists, and a lot of jazz musicians also—a small group, like Hernando Posnosa(?), and different things. So we were part of it.

But in order for us to be part of the system like I said before, we formed a band and started playing, and then I said, “Guys, actually, we need to be part of the system if we want to have a salary, and at the same time we need to prepare if we’re planning to tour abroad of Cuba.” So we did a… What was interesting is, like, the director of the Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto was one of the teachers at the school, so he knew already the musicianship of the band. So in our particular case, we didn’t have to do the audition because he knew who we were. They just came to a concert, heard the band, and then of course created the plantilla, created the full-time contract for the band to be in the company.

Then we started actually having a salary. That was the way we would do all the paperwork to travel abroad when we were touring in Spain, and then we came to the United States. All this paperwork has to be done through the company.

TP: Let’s suppose you had a gig with, I don’t know, Isaac Delgado or someone like that, and you wanted to move to another band. Would you easily be able to do that, or would that be very difficult?

YT: Well, that’s the other side of that system. That system makes it a little bit difficult to be a freelance. So let’s say if Isaac Delgado needed…if the saxophone player is sick, and he has a tour and he needed to do a tour with me, then I have to do a temporary contract with his music enterprise in order to have all my paperwork done with them so that I can have a salary to that. So that’s the other part. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.

TP: So it can be cumbersome.

YT: Exactly.

TP: And it can keep you with the same band. It can make it difficult to develop creatively, it might seem? Or not?

YT: Well, I don’t think it will stop you from being creative. Because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what you do. But what I think is, it’s not natural. It is not natural to the way musicians interact with each other. Imagine if you had that system here, it would be chaos, because everybody is free-lance, everybody works with everybody. So whenever you had to work with a band… Say, I have a concert with Tain at the Jazz Standard in July, but then I am playing with my band, and then I am playing with some other people. So any time that I have to play with everybody, I have to go through a contract and things like that. It would make things really difficult, really crazy.

But that doesn’t stop people from recording with each other. All the records, people go to the studio and just, like, you go with whomever you want.

In Cuba, there is a great culture of bands. So when people form a band…when there is a band, musicians stay for a quite a while with the band. It’s a different concept here, because people here are just playing with each other and we’re playing with everybody. But over there, when you talk about Los Van Van, you’re talking about, like, an institution. So it’s more the concept that used to be here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where Art Blakey was an institution, Horace Silver was an institution, people who would work with Monk would be with Monk for a long time, with Dizzy Gillespie for a long time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, you name it. It’s the same concept that still prevails in Cuba. That’s what it is. That’s why when you see the bands that come here, they sound like a band. They rehearse.

At the same time, with the music company, they always try to get them a rehearsal space and things like that. Different companies do different things. Different companies ask for a certain amount of concerts that you have to perform a month in order to make your full salary.

TP: Let me ask one other thing. When you were in school, it coincided with the “special period,” of real shortages and so on?

YT: That was at the very end of my school years.

TP:   What effect do you think going through that had on musicians in your age group? Some musicians left the country.  It seems to have made people determined to do whatever they could to… In a certain way, it seems to have strengthened people who were stronger.

YT: Looking back and thinking what I had in my time when I went to school, and then what I saw looking at the school when the “special period” came and the younger generation, what they were going through that I didn’t… I think it was the beginning of the collapse of a lot of great things I had during my time. Because in my time, when I went to school, the most important thing was just to be a great musician, to be a great student. Now, when the special period came in Havana, and then everything started being shortened and everything was…it was more difficult to do anything, to get reeds, to get anything, because of economics, then you could see how the principles that unified all the students start to be dismantled.

I’ll give you an example. It was not until I graduated that I started thinking what was I going to do after school, what band I was going to be working with. Because up until then, all I thought was just to be the greatest student, you know, and the best thing. Then, when I looked to the younger musicians who were in school during the ‘special period,’ now the whole thinking had changed, because the students from the schools while the ‘special period’ was going on, they were looking how to join a band in order to make money, so that they could have money to support themselves. Because everything was more difficult. Even for the parents to support those students was more difficult, too. So they were just thinking how to start your own band, to travel abroad and make money so that they could have their family and things like that. Which in my time, I never thought about anything like that. I was just about, like, “Ok, I want to be a great musician; I want to learn music.” So I never had to think, like which band I can join that would have a tour so that I can make money and support myself. You see? So I think that’s one of the big impacts.

The other impact that I noticed with the special period is, like… Of course, the students were not the only people involved with that, but the teachers, too, so the teachers now had to make sure they could get on tour and make money for themselves. So a lot of teachers started getting contracts out of the country. A lot of teachers started touring more, because their salary was not enough to cover all their needs. So like I said, right at that point, the whole system started to collapse, because… Well, when you have such an economic crisis, that crisis removes, in effect, the foundation. Therefore, everybody has to then rethink how are they going to support themselves, from the teacher to the student to the system itself.

It was interesting, because the ‘special period’ came, and all of a sudden, I started seeing all my friends from my generation, if they had finished their studies, they all started traveling abroad of Cuba, and they all started staying, and defected to different countries. A lot of my friends started traveling, joining orchestras in Europe, in South America, in Colombia, in Ecuador, El Salvador, and they went to those places where they didn’t have as strong a classical music foundation, and they started making orchestras everywhere. I have friends who live in El Salvador, classical students, who play in all these orchestras—in Spain, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Chile you have Cubans also who are teaching and playing in the orchestras. So the same thing that happened with the Russians in Europe. Now, you go to Europe, there’s Russian musicians playing all over Europe in all those orchestras. Yeah, the same thing happened with the Cuban musicians.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

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Yosvany Terry (Downbeat Article — 2006):

“New York is an incredible learning experience,” says saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera. “Every band or session or musical project that you participate in has people from all over the world, bringing new information and knowledge on what they do.”

A native of Cuba’s Camaguay province and a Habañero through the ‘90s, Terry, 35 and a Harlem resident since 1999, is a long-established first-caller in the jazz capital. His c.v. includes consequential stints with such radical conceptualists as Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and Brian Lynch; pan-diasporic postboppers like Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, and Manuel Valera; Latin music envelope-pushers Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto; the tradition-centric show band Afro-Cubanismo!; and Norteamericano Afro-Cuba purists like Jane Bunnett and Glenn August. All value Terry’s immaculate musicianship, his rare ability to blend in when executing the idiomatic nuances of the function in question while also stamping his creative, recognizable voice within the flow.

“All the different gigs you play in town put you on the spot, and you always end up growing,” Terry said. “I like to be a sideman as much as playing my music; the different accents and demands put you into corners you wouldn’t get to otherwise.” He cited bassist Cohen’s various Middle Eastern influences, and trumpeter Cohen’s use of West African melodies and rhythms. “Of course,” he adds, “I was exposed to this kind of music in Cuba; my father also traveled in many African countries.”

Terry referred to violinist-chekere player Don Eladio Terry, who has led Maravillas de Florida, a popular charanga unit, since the ‘50s. He trained Yosvany and his brothers—flautist Yoel and bassist Yunior—both in the African codes that inform Cuban folkloric and popular music and in Euro-Classic strains.

“Growing up, music was really exciting,” Terry recalled. “When we were little, he would bring us to the bandstand, fill a big plastic bottle with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we’d sing and dance. We had a piano, and we were around musicians all the time. All the big orchestra names that came through my town to play in the Carnival would visit the house, because they were friends of my father—Miguelito Cuní, Chappottín, Beny Moré. Everyone knew him—he was a showman, a really good dancer with the hat and cane, and the orchestra drove around the country in this huge limo. My father created respect for the tradition of music, and even now I enjoy playing traditional music because of the feeling. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. When you hear the good bands, it isn’t just done at the intellectual level, but you feel that it’s moving people, too.”

Terry took up the saxophone at 10, and caught the jazz bug in his early teens. “I heard a jazz recording, it sounded really fresh, and I didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I wanted to learn. I studied piano and jazz harmony with a teacher in my school named Alfredo Thompson, who worked in Irakere and is now the musical director for Omara Portuendo. He played saxophone with the one jazz group in my province, led by Gabriel Hernández, a pianist who worked with Roy Hargrove after Chucho Valdés stopped working with Crisol. My father brought him to the Maravillas de Florida, and he’d put Coltrane harmonies in the bridges of the tunes. They were amazing, in-depth musicians, and I heard them play as often as I could.”

After graduating from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory in Havana, where he moved at 17, Terry linked up with a clique of contemporaries for whom jazz was not a samizdat experience, as it had been for prior-generation Cuban jazzfolk like Paquito D’Rivera, Ignacio Berroa and Arturo Sandoval. He became, as he puts it, “one of Havana’s first freelance musicians, began to travel with such diverse personalities as  Silvio Rodriguez, Diakara, Santiago Felifi, and Chucho Valdés, and joined Prieto, pianist Roberto Carcasses, and bassist Descemer Bueno in Columna B, an over-the-top timba-rhythms-meets-postbop harmonies unit. “I liked the concept that I could play just music, not one style,” he says.

Attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1995, Terry began a relationship with Steve Coleman, which solidified the following year when Coleman spent quality time in Cuba to prepare and document The Sign and the Seal, his epic collaboration with the folkloric group AfroCuba de Matanzas. “Steve knows the tradition so well, and he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff,” Terry said. “He’d bring us recordings by Bird and Sonny Rollins, and break them down for us so we could really understand them.

“There are are major differences between the vocabularies here and in Cuba. Now, [pianists] Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio were playing from a perspective of deep knowledge. But I think my generation was a victim of all this fusion that happened in the ‘80s, Chick Corea and so on. We didn’t have access to recordings by the old players like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas that the older generations were exposed to. I knew a little bit when I got here, but only then did I realize how deep I needed to go in order to integrate. If you want to be part of this community, you need to know this language and vocabulary so you can play with people in different formats.”

A worthy document of Terry’s hard work and due diligence is the 2004 recording Metamorphosis [Kindred Rhythm & EWE], issued earlier this year. Drawing on a lexicon of strategies deployed by such Terry employers as Coleman, Lynch, Douglas, and Watts (the latter performs on one tune), Terry arranges seven of his own originals and one by his brother Yunior for quintet, sextet and septet configurations. He tells his stories with gorgeous harmonic voicings that frame narrative beats postulated by Prieto and conguero Pedro Martinez and apt tumbaos from Yunior Terry and Hans Glawischnig. Avishai Cohen is a mercurial trumpet foil, and pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Mike Moreno comp and solo with elegance and imagination. Playing primarily alto sax, Terry uncorks an array of fresh, uncliched ideas, phrasing them in a singing-through-the-instrument Charlie Parker-through-Steve Coleman manner (check the out-of-the-blue quote of “Ornithology” on “Subversive”) and projecting them with a tenoristic tone that bespeaks immersion in the Gary Bartz-Kenny Garrett school of alto expression.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Cuba,” Terry said. “The rhythmic concept is so sophisticated and elaborate, but it’s the folklore, the popular music, what you would hear in the ceremony or from people sitting down on the corner. But I want to be part of something bigger, of music in general. That’s what you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky, who came here after living in different countries. Cubans have been doing this for a long time. It keeps the music fresh in content, to take tradition and fabricate something new.”

More and more, Terry accesses Cuban roots through the chekere, to which he returned while on tour with [bassist] Avishai Cohen’s International Vamp Band. “I started to discover myself more,” he said. “In Cuba, the chances to play the instrument were less, because my father is so active. Now I think about the instrument when I’m walking around, imagining how I can apply rhythms that I just learned and develop a solo. It helps me feel more Cuban, closer to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.”

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Yosvany Terry (May 12, 2006):
TP: I want to start by talking about the different things you do in New York now as a working musician, and then work back to how you got here. How many different bands are you working with now?

YOSVANY: Well, I work with different people, which is one of the things I like about the city, is the different styles of music. I’ve done stuff with the Jason Lindner Big Band, which is a specific kind of music, but it’s original music, and it’s very dependent on the creativity of the moment. People just get freer and freer right there on the spot.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the bass player first. With him I worked on three different projects – his bass project, the Vamp Band, then his quartet. They were three different kinds of bands, and helped me to grow a lot. Also with Dafnis’ band, which is different music, and that has a whole different perspective and demands with the music…

TP: The music you’re playing with him on the Absolute Quintet record is very abstract.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also with Eric Revis, with his band a little bit, although he hasn’t been playing a lot lately. But it’s different music, because it’s associated I’d say with avant-garde type of music where there’s a lot of room for experimenting with other kinds of sounds where you normally wouldn’t go in other groups. With Jeff Tain Watts’ band, which is another kind of music. You learn a different kind of perspective in the music… I think his goes more from a wide palette, respecting tradition, breaking it, and then going out and doing nowadays stuff, too. So that is also very interesting, because it puts you right on the spot. If you have a gap on it, you’d better go back to the room and work it, because you have to play it on the concert the next day.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. That’s more African oriented, where he’s working with a lot of material from the western region of Africa. It’s a different kind of band, with different musicians, like Lionel Loueke, Jason plays in the band sometimes, Eric McPherson has been doing the gig, Omer Avital, and then… In there I use also the chekere… I try to use the chekere in the other bands, too, unless it doesn’t feel right. But all the time I try to bring it, because people like it anyway.

TP: You make it sound like a talking drum almost.

YOSVANY: Yes. To me, it’s an instrument that can be placed in any style. Then I have my band with all the exigencies that I have on my own music. And I’ve been working a lot with Gregg August, a bass player and really good composer. It’s more like a large ensemble with three horns and rhythm section. It’s really good, because it’s another perspective.

TP: How about Steve Coleman?

YOSVANY: With Steve Coleman I used to work also a lot, but lately not, because he has a different personnel. But we’re always close and we’re always talking about music and concepts and things he’s researching, and its application within a musical context. He likes to learn and research all the time, but he’s always looking for the application to his music. He’s not somebody who just wants to accumulate knowledge and leave it outside. So in that regard, it’s really interesting and inspiring, too, because he’s also someone who really respects tradition. It’s always inspiring you to grow out of it.

TP: Are you playing traditional Cuban music gigs also?

YOSVANY: Yes, I missed one. I play with Eddie Palmieri, recording and touring. The first year I came here, I started working with them. I did this concert at Hunter College, and he invited me and Dafnis for that concert, and since then he’s been calling me for concerts and recordings.

TP: If Donald Harrison doesn’t do the gig, you do the gig?

YOSVANY: Exactly. When he can’t do it… It was at a time when Donald was traveling a lot.

TP: But traditional Cuban music, is that still part of your professional activity?

YOSVANY: I used to do it more at the beginning. Now I still do it sometimes, which is something I’m trying not to be disconnected from, because it’s my source, my own music, and it’s something that I’m learning, I keep growing in all the time. I get called to do different gigs, traditional Cuban music, too.

TP: Now, Metamorphosis comes from 2004, so it’s two years old, and presumably you were putting it together for the year before that. Does it reflect where you are now, or have you gone somewhere else in your own music?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting. I think it reflects where I was, and it’s still reflecting where I am now. Of course, the record, like you said, was done maybe two years ago. That doesn’t mean that we stop as a musician just growing up. So of course, I’ve been growing more and more, and trying to compose new music, too. I still play all these compositions, and I’m going within those compositions, too, because even though they were created at that time, it wasn’t like I was touring all over the world with that music. That’s what forces you to really change the repertoire. So mostly, I performed it at the Gallery and different venues here, whatever was available to play. But it’s now that I’m trying to really take the band on the road. Because also, I have all these demands to be a sideman, so it’s not like you can put all the energy into your own band. And I really now want to do that.

TP: Bring your own band on the road. Who would that band be?

YOSVANY: Now I’m going to the West Coast for a tour in mid-August, so we’ll be four days at the Jazz Bakery, then we go to the Outpost, then we go to Yoshi’s, the Jazz Hall in Seattle, and Boulder and Denver. That will be quartet with Yunior Terry on bass, Justin Brown on drums (a young drummer from the Bay Area who lives in New York; he used to go to the New School), and Osmany Paredes on piano, who is a very talented piano player living in Boston (we went to school together). I recently did one week in New Orleans and Lafayette, doing the Banlieu(?) Series at Lake Charles and also at Snug Harbor. It was really successful, and it was also a chance to expose the music down there… To me, it’s a very important city musically, because it has that Caribbean feeling, and the people’s reaction to the music was so natural.

TP: Several bands down there have doing… Cubanismo had roots in New Orleans, and the Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers Group was doing a pan-Caribbean thing out of there, so it’s a receptive place. Is what you’re doing now what you envisioned you’d be doing when you moved to the States? If not, how is it different that what you thought 7-8 years ago?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because the music I was doing in Cuba before moving out here was very much alike, concept-wise. We were trying to do music in the border kind of region, trying to understand our own language and the traditions we represented and everything that we knew. I don’t think that changed. That vision didn’t change. What changed…

TP: For the record, Yosvany is having shrimp croquettes and tostones rellenos, and I’m having an avocado salad and a tamal.

YOSVANY: I don’t think the vision changed, because also it was… I had opportunities to make ..(?).. here, and then we worked together… My point is that the vision didn’t change. But when I moved here, you’re receiving so much information, that then I realized, “Okay, I have to learn all that,” and for a minute, it’s not like you stop your vision, but you go into a different process, just to really learn and digest all the new things that are happening. All that really helped me to grow. It’s helping me still, because now… Every day you discover more stuff that you need to check and there’s more things that’s going to inspire you.

TP: For how long was it your aspiration to come here? Because you don’t just leave. It’s something you had to be dreaming of and thinking about for a while.

YOSVANY: I really started thinking about it seriously in ‘99. Before then, I was coming here back and forth since ‘95, because I was going to Stanford Jazz Workshop and then playing up here with different musicians. But back then I never felt that I wanted to live here. I felt comfortable just coming back and forth. But it was not until late ‘98 and ‘99 when I decided that I really wanted to be part of what was going on here, and also…

TP: What happened? What made it the right time?

YOSVANY: I don’t know what happened really. There were many things that influenced me. I used to travel all the time, even when I was living in Cuba, so maybe the idea was that it was a slow year, for some reason. Then the first travel I did within that year was to the States, to this conference that I was invited to for all the people who had been getting grants through different philanthropic foundations here. So I decided, well, maybe it’s the time. Also, I had done a week with Chucho at Bradley’s and some people asked me for my phone to get a gig, and then when they asked, “So, where do you live?” and I said, “In Cuba,” that’s the beginning of the end, too. So all these things were hitting me.

TP: So living there was holding back your creative development in a certain way, because you’d been exposed to people but you could only take it so far.

YOSVANY: Yeah. Some friends were telling me, “man, you have to move to New York; it would be nice if you do it,” dah-da-dah. So I think at that time, I was decided that I wanted to do it and make a move, so that I could just keep learning.

TP: When you and Dafnis and some of the other Cuban musicians came here, I think because of your conservatory education, you arrived as well prepared as anybody does to meet the requirements of the scene – to play a lot of different music, play complex music, deal with different moods and contexts. What was the biggest challenge you found when you came here that you didn’t expect?

YOSVANY: The big challenge, which I think is still today and is going to be all the time, is all the information of music from here. We had information in Cuba about the music here, jazz in general, but it was not until I moved here that I really heard about Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas…

TP: The jazz tradition.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So this information, a lot of that I was missing there. Then it was a shock, also, the development of the language of that tradition. Because I remember starting, going into sessions, and then I heard that they were playing something that wasn’t exactly what I was playing, and it was, “Oh, now I need to sit down and figure it out.” So that helped me a lot. Also at the same time, if you don’t work with that language, you can get certain gigs, but there’s a lot of gigs that you’re not going to get into.

TP: Did the language come fairly naturally to you, or was it hard for you to adapt?

YOSVANY: It was both. It was natural in a way, because I was listening to jazz since Cuba. There are points of coincidence. But at the same time, it’s different from the rhythmic accents of Cuban music. So it was relearning it and being conscious of the difference. When you know a language that you learn in the street, and then you go to the country where the language is spoken, then you have to learn all the nuances and the subtleties, and everything is different. “Wait a minute.” This is what I knew. I could get by. But there is a whole deep level of it.

TP: Your English is excellent.

YOSVANY: I’m trying to work on it a little bit.

TP: It’s excellent, which I think speaks to the way you assimilated the musical language, too. What was interesting in 1999, to hear you and Dafnis, is that previously, when Chucho or Gonzalo came here, they were arriving as stylists, with their own idiosyncratic style.  I’m wondering if anything was happening in Cuba within that decade that made it possible for you and Dafnis to be more open to taking in the information rather than coming in as Columna B.

YOSVANY: I think what happened was… Someone who helped also was Steve Coleman. Because we were friends back then, and then he would bring me a lot of recordings. For somebody like him, who is from here and he knows the tradition really well, maybe he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff. So he would bring a lot of Sonny Rollins, Trane, Bird, all this kind of information. We would talk a lot about music. He would break it down for us so that we could really understand…

TP: What would he break down? The harmonic stuff? The phrasing? The rhythm? The accents?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because some of that stuff it’s not like he would say, “This is the way to do it,” but he would say, “Check that, and check the way they do this, or check this out.” We’d discuss about some of the concepts he was working on at the time for his own music that we could share, and also we would tell him what we were working on in Cuba at that time.

There were also lesser-known musicians in Cuba who were working more with the traditions here. For instance, Ernesto Simpson, the drummer, I used to know when I was little, maybe 13 or 14 years old, but he used to live next to my building, when I was studying in Havana, so when we would come in town I would wake him up… He was the first one who played me Trane with Elvin Jones and all that. So he was bringing all that kind of information from Havana to Camagüey. He was the person, him and two other saxophone players who I respect a lot, who were working with this kind of information, too.

It’s interesting, because at a certain time, I think my generation was victim of fusion, this Chick Corea…all this fusion happening in the ‘80s.

TP: The way Irakere sounded in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, there used to be Emiliano Salvador, there used to be Frank Emilio and all this tradition, people trying to play music from a different perspective, with a different depth of knowledge in the music. So it all helped. It wasn’t – like you said – that I came here all of a sudden and I just did anything. I mean, I knew a little thing. But here was where I really saw that I needed to go deep if I really want to… My thing was that I wanted to integrate. I didn’t want to come here and just be an alien. I wanted to be part of the scene.

TP: So when Steve Coleman played you Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, how did that augment your knowledge?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because even though I was listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane since I was maybe 14 or 15 years old… But here’s the deal. It’s the same if you lived, say, in Ohio, if you lived here and were listening to Cuban music… New York isn’t a good example for that, because there’s a Latino community. But if you were listening to Cuban music, I don’t know, in San Francisco, and you’re here with friends, but for the first it’s different when some Cuban musician comes in town regularly and then you’re getting together with them. Then you can listen to the making of the music. You can really see to what they’re listening to. So even though I was listening to Trane and Wayne Shorter and all these people in Cuba, but it’s different when you get together with people that…

TP: It’s different when you’re in the culture, hearing Cuban music in Cuba and how it relates to…

YOSVANY: Exactly. It’s the same. That’s the example – you start understanding the Cuban system. Maybe you heard Cuban music since you were little, but you never knew really the details.

TP: When you were 14 or 15, how were you hearing Coltrane and Sonny Rollins? Was jazz sort of in the air with musicians? Was it a samizdat, the way Paquito describes it when he was young in Cuba… As he describes it, in the ‘60s it was dangerous to listen to jazz; people would pass around cassettes. I take it that it was different in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yes, it was different. In my generation, we didn’t go through all this trouble that Paquito and his generation had to go through at the time, in terms of not being able to listen to jazz or listen to a lot of music that represented some other political views. There were a lot of bands traveling, a lot of musicians by (?). So to me it was just a whole different new sound. Listening to Sonny Rollins with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and then Coltrane with his own band. Also, there was a jazz program in Cuba, a jazz show at night to which I used to listen all the time, one at 10 o’clock and one at 11 o’clock…

All I’m trying to say: To me, I think this is… Let’s say, if you’re a musician, you start listening to traditional Cuban music, and you like it but you don’t…let’s say… The way I would describe it is, yeah, I was trying to imitate it, but at the same time, there are so many layers of learning one culture that maybe I considered I was at the outer level at that time, and then, because I was at the imitation stage… It was at the imitation stage because I wasn’t really knowing the tunes, so I couldn’t manipulate the music. It’s not until really you know the tunes that you can manipulate it on your own and you can create your own sound and you can just try to say something different. Because you understand what he’s saying and at the same time you understand what he’s doing, so that inspires you to do your own stuff, knowing the tunes and even challenging the tunes. So that was the difference at that time, and when I was 14 or 15 and listening to that, it was just in the imitation stage. It wasn’t like I could understand, “Oh, they’re doing this hip dominant substitution.” At the same time, I was getting around to knowing my instrument, too. This kind of music really demands a knowledge of your instrument.

TP: You started off how?

YOSVANY: I started off playing violin at the age of 5, and then saxophone when I started in the conservatory when I was 10 or 11, I think.

TP: A conservatory at Camagüey?

YOSVANY: Yes.

TP: I had Dafnis Prieto on the air yesterday, and he said that as a kid in the cultural center in Santa Clara, he was learning bongo and conga, and learning in a very specific way, in a youth band playing traditional music. You come from a musical family. Were you trained in a ritualistic way?

YOSVANY: My way was completely different, because my father being a musician, the whole universe of music was open since I was born. So there was a piano always in my house, there were musicians visiting my house. All the big orchestra names that would stop by in Florida, my town in the province of Camagüey, they would come and visit the house, because they were all friends of my father. Like, let’s say Miguelito Cuní, Chappotín… They would come play in the Carnival, because there was Carnival in all the little towns, and they would all come to the house. Benny Moré also would come with his orquesta. I was very little, but they would stop in the house.

TP: Benny Moré was alive then…

YOSVANY: He died in the late ‘70s. I was born in ‘71. I might have been 1 or 2 years old. Orquesta Aragon. All the bands came because they knew my father, because the Maravillas de Florida was one of the most important charanga in the interior. So I grew up in a real music environment. It’s different than what happened to Dafnis. So then, that’s why, when I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was 5, my father got us a real…you know, a private teacher, and we started learning solfegge on the instrument… Since I was little, I went to the performances that my father played in town. Music was always in the family. Yunior is the same way, and also Yoel, my older brother.

TP: Were you playing with your father at a certain point? Was that part of the deal? Or was it separate?

YOSVANY: It was interesting. Because my father, we always got inspired by him because he was always practicing at home all the time, but he didn’t want to force us into music. He wanted us to decide for ourselves. So when we decided, he said, “Okay, if you really want to be a musician, I’ll get you a teacher.” That was the end of playing on Sundays and Saturdays, because he said, “if you want to be a musician, you have to be serious.” So we had to practice for the teacher when he would come on Sundays. That was the stop of my playing with other kids on the weekend. Which I didn’t understand at the time, but now I appreciate it, because it really made you understand the discipline. If you want to be a musician, you have to take it serious; it’s not like a fun time. I remember when we were little, 3 or 4 years old, he would take us to the bandstand, and then he would take a big plastic bottle, fill with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we would sing and we’d dance. But we were always on the bandstand. So that was a different… Growing up as a child, it was really exciting. We were around musicians all the time.

TP: When you play chekere, when you play traditional music, it’s in your blood. It’s very natural.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s natural. Because my father created respect for the tradition of music. That’s why even now, when I’m called for traditional gigs, I like to play it. I really enjoy playing the traditional music. Because you have the dancing feeling. It’s made for the dancer. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. That’s one of the reasons why I like jazz. Because when you hear the good bands, you have a feeling that it’s moving people. It’s not just done at the intellectual level in which it just can be heard from that narrow point of view. I like that quality a lot, too. But to me, it needs to have both.

TP: Did your father have any connection to jazz?

YOSVANY: He likes a lot Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. But he knew very little. It wasn’t like he knew much.

TP: Did he know Bebo?

YOSVANY: Yes, of course he knows Bebo. Every Cuban knows Bebo Valdés, Arsenio Rodriguez. Everybody.

TP: He knew Cachao back in the day?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. Because he started… Orquesta Maravilla Florida was founded in the ’50s. He was one of the founders. They started working on that in ’57 or ’55…I forgot. So at that time, he knew everybody. He was somebody who was really distinctive in the charanga orchestra, because he was the leader at that time, and then he was like a showman. He was a really good dancer, and he would dance with the hat and cane. The orchestra also used to have this huge limo that would go all around the country. So everybody knew him.

TP: Was he a little like Bobby Carcasses?

YOSVANY: Yes, a little. But Bobby does that, mixing jazz and Cuban music, and this was with the traditional, with the charanga music, using also the folklore music. It was geared to the popular people, to the regular people, people who go to the ..(?)…

TP: The folkloric music, when it’s applied to the States, is almost an avant-garde concept, in terms of the rhythms. It’s like bringing a story to a particular set of beats or rhythms. I don’t know if there’s a question in this. But it’s interesting how the popular music of one culture can take on a different flavor in another.

YOSVANY: It’s true. In that regard, that’s why I feel very fortunate to have grown up there. Because when you look at that, like you say, from this perspective, it’s one of the most sophisticated rhythm concepts. Really, really sophisticated and elaborate. But that’s the folklore, that’s the popular music there. So this is what you would hear in the ceremony, or what you would hear from people sitting down on the corner to do that. So for me, I’m used to that since I was little. Just like it would be so natural for people here to listen to people at the early stage hearing jazz and blues — and it’s really sophisticated music when you look at it from a different perspective. So there’s a lot of similarities of culture. That’s why I believe that, besides they have the same kind of background… But that’s what made them interchange.

TP: Did politics impinge on you at all as a kid?

YOSVANY: Did they stop me from doing something?

TP: Did they stop you from doing anything? Or was music always an apolitical thing? A lot of people in Cuba don’t have mobility and can’t travel, and to be a musician, there’s a certain status that’s involved. I don’t know exactly what the question is.

YOSVANY: Here’s the thing. My father is a musician playing popular music before the revolution, and then I guess, since I was born in ’71, so I didn’t go to music school until the ’80s… Then in the ’80s, all that was going on with musicians not being allowed to do different things… By the time that I started going to conservatory and studied music, that was calmed down. It seems like maybe like… I don’t know what was the factor that made all this turmoil calm down. But maybe it was just a different time, a different generation; maybe they grew out of it by the experiences they had before of musicians leaving the country because they couldn’t do what they really want to do. So really, I didn’t live those moments. I came out of something different. That’s why it’s so difficult for me… All the musicians of that generation who left, I understand where they’re coming from. But I don’t have anything to understand, because I didn’t live that. All I can know is that I listen to them, because they know the story that I didn’t know. I learn whenever I talk to them.

TP: Let me get back to music. You start playing saxophone at 11 or 12, get yourself together on the instrument and start hearing jazz musicians at 14 or 15. Among jazz saxophonists, was there anyone you started modeling yourself after stylistically?

YOSVANY: Over there? It’s interesting, because there was… When I was there, I liked a lot of Trane and Wayne Shorter. Even though I heard Bird, I didn’t really discover him until later, when more recordings were available to me.

TP: What do you think of Bird?

YOSVANY: I was really transfixed when I started to transcribe him. I heard him many times before, and I didn’t know the level at which he was involved until I started transcribing him and just to realize that he was just beyond anything I could imagine before that, and everything that I heard, it was like wow. It was just like total awe — about everything he did. His melody concept, rhythmic concept, harmonic concept. It’s really impressive that a person can have all these things developed only in one person. Some people are good with rhythm, some are good with harmony and melody — but he had everything. Don Byas, too. That’s why those persons… You could be 50 years from now, and he will be sounding the same.

TP: Did your awareness begin when Steve started pointing that out to you, or before?

YOSVANY: To realize about Bird? I think it was more when I moved here, and also in talking to Steve, and then I started getting together with Antonio Hart, too, to practice. Antonio was really important to make me be aware also of the tradition and the depth of the music that they were working with. Because it sounds hip already when you listening to it, but then when you break it down and go inside, it’s even more profound. So he was really a deep person. And many other people, too.

TP: It seems like musicians here were very open to you.

YOSVANY: Yes. I think one of the…

TP: Well, you’re from a musical family and know how to behave around musicians, so I’m sure your manners and personality has something to do with it.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also, when people see that you want to learn, then they open the door. If they see that you’re going out with an attitude, it’s not the same. I’m just interested to learn. At this point, I want to learn as much as I can. You learn from everybody. Also, it’s true that we used to work with a different kind of information coming from our culture that people are always trying to learn here, so for them….

TP: You have something for them, too.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So it’s… It’s a shame. Everybody would like to go to Cuba right away, but they don’t have the possibility So whenever they see an opportunity from somebody who can talk to them in the same language and they can talk to them on the same music level, it’s great, because they can exchange. I learn from them, they can learn from everything I know from my own culture, and you have the exchange.

TP: In New York, it’s not just Cuba and jazz, but there’s Vijay Iyer and Rudresh, with North Indian music, all the North African and Middle Eastern themes. What do you make of that? Do those cultural ideas enter your concept?

YOSVANY: Well, from before moving out here, I have so many Indian music tapes in my house, all the great Indian musicians. I have all the great Brazilian music, music from all different parts of Africa, all the different countries. That’s what I was doing before that. The music vision hasn’t changed, because I was exposed to all that, and that was my interest before. Here it broadened it more, and then I had the opportunity to have the access to more information to really put in the sack.

TP: But it’s interesting, because on one night you might be playing in Avishai Cohen’s group with Lionel, then you might be playing another night in Jason Lindner’s band, another night Dafnis’ more abstract music, all these different flavors that you have to adjust to.

YOSVANY: Last night I was doing a gig at the Zinc Bar with Samuel Torres, who works a lot with Columbian folklore and music from South America, too. Edmar Castaneda came with the harp, and another guy… They were digging up in the tradition. Then if you play with Tain, it’s a whole different demand. You have to really know about tradition in this culture, like jazz tradition and also the concept that he’s working on.

TP: Not just the jazz tradition, but you have to have it all at your fingertips – you have to be post-Branford and even where someone like Henry Threadgill is.

YOSVANY: That’s the challenge that I like. Even when I was in Havana, I think I was one of the first freelance musicians. Over there, everybody is in a band. I like the freelance concept, so I started being freelance, and that’s why I started moving easily, coming here and then traveling to Europe with Carlos Masa. I liked the concept that I could play… I wanted to play music, just music, not one style.

TP: Why were there not so many other freelance musicians in Havana?

YOSVANY: Everybody who is over there, normally they have to belong to a certain music company through this band, and the way that the system is organized now doesn’t allow you to do a lot of freelancing. But now, more and more, people are trying to do it.

TP: So more people are trying to do this now, which also lends itself to an open attitude towards embracing a lot of music.

YOSVANY: The great thing is, I was playing with singers, Cuban music, Cuban jazz, rock-and-roll singer. I also liked folkloric music, too, because I was working with the people from Folklorica Nacional. Then I would do my own stuff with my own band, and also with some other jazz groups over there. I would get together with singer-songwriters, too. It was all these things that I was doing.

Now, the difference I find from what I was doing there and what I’m doing now is, like, now I am doing, as you say, all different kinds of things in the palette, but… Here I’m not doing funk or hip-hip or folk music or anything like that, which before I used to do a lot. Which is something that I want to start to incorporate more and incorporate a bit more. Because before I also had the pressure that I had to learn so much new information that… I mean, you either concentrate to learn it or you don’t. Because there is only way to do it. There’s no shortcuts. You have to be in your practice room. That’s the way to learn it. Or going out and playing in sessions. Because I’ve been putting in all this time to learn, I haven’t been doing a lot of other different things which I want to do. Also, I played with El Negro and Robby Ameen’s band, in which we were trying to do a whole different approach. We were trying to mix Cuban music with more Funk and Hip-Hop, too, and some other current sounds. So that was really good. It was another kind of exposure.

TP: You were talking about learning Cuban music outside the context. In New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eddie Palmieri and Barry Rogers, and then Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were reaching their own conclusions on the great Cuban music of the ‘40s and ‘50s. What did you think of what they were doing at that time? Were you listening to Eddie Palmieri or the Fort Apache band?

YOSVANY: I didn’t know much about the Fort Apache band, but I really did know Eddie Palmieri.

TP: What did you think of it in Cuba?

YOSVANY: What was really interesting was that they were keeping the form that was developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, so that was a great respect to the tradition, and now the new thing, why it was a real feeling for me, it was all the challenges that Eddie was doing with the harmonies. He’s a great writer. So that sounded really refreshing to me. That’s why people know who he is in Cuba. That’s why they know also that other people playing Cuban music here, like (?) Cedeno, El Canario, Oscar De Leon, who are also challenging a little bit the harmony. That sound a little bit came from the mix of jazz here and the awareness of harmony also on a different level. So that’s why it sounds appealing to a lot of Cubans.

TP: One criticism some of these guys who like the old-school music have of the music in Cuba is that it’s so fast, so intense, so virtuosic, it doesn’t breathe in some ways. I don’t want to cite Jerry Gonzalez as the authority on all matters, but is there anything to that idea that the music in Cuba these days…

YOSVANY: I know what you’re talking about. I can see it in people, especially when I go back sometimes. But let’s say if you are never exposed to, say, Coleman Hawkins playing a ballad, or Ben Webster or Lester Young or Johnny Hodges playing a ballad, then you don’t learn about that side. Because let’s say all the musicians doing jazz before in Cuba, they knew those people – Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole.

TP: Those musicians played shows in Cuba.

YOSVANY: Yeah, Roy Haynes played there.

TP: Stan Getz. Bebo described playing shows with Stan Getz.

YOSVANY: Also, Philly Joe Jones was there. So all these people from that generation, they KNEW. But then after ‘59, when there was the gap, no more American music was coming into Cuba to be performed, and it was not until 1978 when they had that Havana Jam… But again, this is only one night. It’s not like you were able to see that every day. Then at the same time, the fusion thing came in. So a lot of people grew up out of the fusion, and they never had the opportunity to learn. So that’s why I understand where Jerry is coming from, because I can see. He’s someone who has so much knowledge about the culture from here… He’s from here, you know. So of course, the younger generation, they don’t have that sound he was looking into. But he’s an incredible guy, because he’s always playing tapes, saying, “You have to check this out,” and so on. He’s hipped me to many really interesting things.

TP:  Within the broader frame of things, do you see yourself as specifically Cuban or as part of a broader Pan-Latin movement? In 1990, say, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was here, Danilo Perez was establishing himself, Ed Simon was here doing different things. Each was distinctively from their own culture, but also part of something broader, at least the way their identity portrayed itself here. Do you see yourself in that way, or is your identity here a more specifically Cuban identity?

YOSVANY: I understand your question, because you could be here and still keep your pure Cuban identity, which I know some people… But no. To me, the feeling here is to integrate, to be part of something which is bigger, which is music in general. Which is the same thing that you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky. They all came here after living in different countries. They’re from something bigger than solely their own culture is going to be. I know Cuba is one… The three countries with the most important popular cultures are the United States, Brazil and Cuba. But I feel I’m trying to present something a little beyond. It’s music in general.

TP: Someone like Danilo extrapolated Panamanian folkloric music onto Cuban and Brazilian strains. There are people doing tangos who from Argentina and Uruguay. Ed Simon, ironically, learned about tonadas from Paquito. David Sanchez with bomba and plena. So it’s interesting how people integrate their own specific folkloric ideas into the broader fabric.

YOSVANY: But that’s what people have been doing for a long, long time.

TP: Since the Cubans came to New Orleans in the 19th century.

YOSVANY: Yes. That’s what also keeps the music fresh in content, when you can see people taking tradition and reviving it in a different way, but not for the sake of saying, “oh, I play tradition.” No, it’s…” You didn’t say this word, but it’s more like the intent to fabricate something new. It’s like when you put the fabrics together and you come up with something different.

TP: I was asking what you found so special about Bird. I want to ask you that about some other musicians. How did Coltrane strike you when you were in Cuba?

YOSVANY: I don’t know. There was something about his tone and his ideas that make it sound different. Even though I didn’t know much people… But when somebody has a power in their speech, then they can convince you. Maybe you speak to a thousand people within a day, but it’s like one or two that you remember the next day – “Oh, that an interesting conversation I had with this guy because of what he was saying and the way he was putting his piece together.’ I think that was what struck me on him. Like I said, I didn’t know much about what he was dealing with musically; I couldn’t understand that back then. But what he was expressing, even though I didn’t know the terminology, it struck me.

TP: Charlie Parker was part of the tradition of Cuban music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t see an analog to Coltrane. I can hear it in Elvin Jones.

YOSVANY: But you can hear Bird in Trane, and that’s the bridge. Also, you can hear Dexter Gordon in Trane, and Dexter was somebody I always liked.

TP: When you heard something like Interstellar Space, was it something you could relate to?

YOSVANY: No, it wasn’t. The first time I heard that was on the jazz radio shows. I remember it was something completely different. At the beginning, I didn’t dig it much, because I didn’t understand what he was dealing with. I remember one of the radio guys was real into free jazz, which was hip, too, because if it hadn’t been for this guy, I would never have heard that. He would play a lot of Trane in his last period, and Albert Ayler, and… The guy passed, but he was into this type of sound. So he would cover the whole history, but always at the end of the month or every two months he would do a show with just that sound. For us, it was like you’d check the dial, because you’d wonder if it was the same station. It was so different. No, there was no way to relate.

TP: But when you came here you could relate to it?

YOSVANY: When I came here I could relate to it a little bit more. It’s not like this kind of sound is walking around the street. But at the same time, you can relate it also with the city. You can relate it with the dynamics of… Now that you’re here, you can see what the dynamic of the city and this whole city rhythm is, and you can arrive easier to that aesthetic.

TP: Another aspect is that a lot of the musical community here, musicians who play downtown at certain venues, that’s the sound they work with. It’s a very large clique of musicians who do it. Then you mentioned Wayne Shorter. Talk about his appeal when you were in Cuba.

YOSVANY: I first discovered Wayne with Weather Report. But he played so different within that sound, because he didn’t sound like any of the featured saxophone players who were playing within the fusion style. He sounded so different that it made me look for some stuff he was doing before, and then some people gave me cassettes of his LPs, and I found out that he was a monster who had all this tradition and knowledge within himself. Even though you couldn’t tell from the Weather Report, but at the same time there’s a certain tune he’s playing that you said, “Wow, this is not a cat who is coming out of the fusion; what he’s playing is something different.”

TP: When did you first hear him with Miles?

YOSVANY: When I was maybe 17-18. But I was in Camagüey still, but I might have been 16-17… There were people from Havana bringing all this information. Then I heard his own record with McCoy and then with Miles.

TP: Was improvising important to you as a teenager? Was there room in Cuban music for you to improvise? Someone as immersed in music as you and so at-one with your instrument, it would seem that the notion of creating your own music would be equally attractive to interpreting other music beautifully. You seem to be a musician who is equally comfortable doing both. There aren’t too many.

YOSVANY: I like to do both. I like being a sideman, being able to interpret music. That I got from the school in Cuba, because as we studied classical music, you have to interpret it like it’s yours, but then at the same time, when I heard a jazz recording, it’s when I was maybe 13 or 14, and I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing something really fresh. So then I wanted to learn how to do that. Even though there wasn’t much… I was lucky that there was a teacher around there who knew…he was a jazz player. So I learned with him piano and harmony, and I learned to understand the concept. His name is Alfredo Thompson. He is now maybe the musical director for Omara Portundo. But he knew jazz. He knew harmony and he knew Coltrane and all the jazz players. He also worked in Irakere before, and then he worked in …(?)… There was a jazz group in my province, only one, but they were really incredible players. The piano player was Gabriel Hernandez. He worked with Roy Hargrove in the latest stage of Crisol. After Chucho stopped working with Crisol, Gabriel Hernandez started working with Crisol. They were just amazing musicians, who really knew in-depth, and they were serious.

TP: And you knew them.

YOSVANY: Yeah, yeah, through my father. Coincidentally, my father was the one who brought Gabriel Hernandez to the Maravillas de Florida charanga orchestra after Gabriel had studied in Havana. If I play you those CDs, they’re really amazing, because it will be like a Charanga Orquesta, and then you will hear like Coltrane harmonies in the bridges.

TP: That’s what Emilano Salvador did.

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. But you never heard that in a Charanga orquesta. They did that because Gabriel was hip to all this music. So I used to go every Saturday when they played, just to listen to them, because he was an amazing musician.

TP: We’ve covered a lot. I’m trying to think how to tie this up. Was alto saxophone your first instrument?

YOSVANY: I’ve played alto since I started, through all my studies in Cuba. But when I finished school, since my alto was cool, my parents gave a tenor as a present. So for the next three years, tenor was all I played. Tenor and also I bought a soprano because I started working with Silvio Rodriguez, and he wanted to travel to Argentina. But I had to become a tenor player because I didn’t have any alto. Then I ended up liking it. It gave me a whole different register in sound. I like to play an alto more with a tenor sound instead of playing with more of a kind of alto sound.

TP: Like a lot of modern alto players.

YOSVANY: Yes.

TP: Were you into Jackie McLean and Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah.

TP: I know with Antonio you got a good dose of Gary.

YOSVANY: Yeah.

TP: Those guys all appeal to you.

YOSVANY: Yeah, definitely. Even Steve. He played with a different approach, not an alto type of sound. He was influenced a lot by Von Freeman, so he’s got so much of that depth. When he plays, it’s not like he’s taking the altissimo register. He’s got a deep bottom. But he’s very much raised on Bird. Bird is so strong in his style but at the same time he’s singing so much that mainly he’s just playing the instrument. That’s a whole different approach. Most of the people that imitate him don’t get his singing sensibility through the instrument, like the horn becomes an instrument, so they make the cliches or whatever…

TP: The licks.

YOSVANY: The licks. But by recreating the licks, you’re not really understanding. His real ability was to sing through the instrument. It was a different perspective.

TP: Not different than the sensibility of the older Cuban music.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s something that used to be there a lot. What happened now is that the chances for a soloist to take solos in the popular Cuban music are all the time less and less. Before it was common. Everybody would take solos. Now I went to Havana, and it’s like you don’t listen to a soloist.

TP: Are people listening to MTV or hip-hop?

YOSVANY: No, they don’t have MTV there. There’s only 2 channels; it’s really controlled. But for some reason, reggae is there, and hip-hop has been there, too. They have a TV show… They don’t have something like MTV that would be playing mainstream. They have a show once or twice a week in which they pick whatever the emcee likes, and they will put it on. But I’ve never seen them… You know how MTV is sort of hip-hop. I haven’t seen it that much. It might have gotten there in some way, because of course people know. But they don’t have MTV bombarding them.

TP: So you play the three saxophones and the chekere. Has the chekere stayed there all through, or was there a period when you weren’t playing it and you’re bringing it back?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because in New York… I was playing with my band in Cuba, and then at some point I did a tour with my father playing in the band, on which I didn’t play chekere at all because it was right there. But then I would take it with me on the road with my other band. But I think it was here where I started playing it more and more, and then I grew up more playing the instrument. And with Avishai Cohen, because at the beginning I started playing with him in the International Vamp Band as a tenor player, and then chekere – but I think I was playing even more chekere sometimes than tenor (and also soprano). Even though I didn’t understand the concept of using it, I just wanted to blow my horn. But then, by playing the chekere every time and having to do solos and play it the whole concert thing on a tour, I grew up, and then I started developing more and more.

TP: Developing a personality on the chekere.

YOSVANY: Yes. Then I started to discover myself more. In a way, I was… It’s not like it was harder in Cuba, but the chances to play the instrument were less, because it was only my band, or maybe through… Well, very few other bands, because my father is really active there. So it was here that I had the opportunities.

TP: Here it becomes an art instrument instead of functional. People are sitting down watching you play it instead of responding.

YOSVANY: Yes. My father also played in places like that. But for some reason, people also haven’t seen the instrument. They don’t know it.

TP: Does playing chekere in some way, the longer you’re away from Cuba, help you stay Cuban?

YOSVANY: Not only that, but also stay closer to my Afro-Cuban roots. Even though I listen to that at home, too, the same way that I check out Brazilian music, classical music, music from the different parts of India and Africa… But I think about the instrument also when I’m walking around, imagining the way I can develop a solo, how I can apply certain rhythms that I just learned on the instrument. So again, it helps not only to feel more Cuban, but feel more close to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.

TP: Other musicians – Omer and Avishai – described that in Israel they didn’t really think of playing Ladino or Yemenite music, they just focused on hardcore jazz, but when they got here, they found themselves gravitating towards bringing those things into their sound as a way to do something individual, but also in some mystical way, so that being here brought them more in touch with their own national identity through art. That’s one reason why I’m asking this question.

YOSVANY: Ah! Now that you say that, it’s interesting for me to know that. When I look at musicians coming from Israel, they are the ones with the strongest sense of rhythm, in which they can understand Latin rhythms… They can pick it up really quick. That doesn’t happen in many other cultures. But of course, that helped me not to lose the tradition and not to forget about my roots, where I’m coming from, and then to adapt it and put it in whatever I’m doing.

TP: Your record Metamorphosis I suppose is your calling card for 2006. Do you have plans to do another record?

YOSVANY: Yes, I want to see if I can do another recording, maybe towards the end of this year. I’m already working with different material that I’ve been composing, and I want to compose more. But I would like to record something that’s here…

TP: This record has a formal quality, very composed, not something you’d be able to bring in every week, let’s say. Do you want to do something that’s more live-oriented. It’s your first record as a New York musician, and first records can be grand statements.
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YOSVANY: When I do live shows, I go back and forth and new stuff that I’m playing now… If you want to pick up the word “formal,” they’re not as formal. They have to be more like what is happening, the way that you’re feeling that day and the way that it’s happening that day. That’s some of the quality that I like on the music. This music happened this way because I know that I composed it and I was working a lot on it. So even though it sounds more through-composed, I guess, it changes all the time in the live performance. It changes, because then I would put a whole different intro, like solo instrument intro here, and then we’d just switch the sections to here. I will do it differently, completely differently.

TP: And next year, you’re going to try to move your activity more towards leading your own group, but you’ll keep a lot of your sideman things.

YOSVANY: No. I love to be a sideman because it’s the way that I grew up. I like to be a sideman as well as I like to play my music. When you get to play other people’s music, with the different accents and demands, then you’re into corners that you wouldn’t get there unless you were working with some other people.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Yosvany Terry

For Trombonist Steve Davis’ 50th Birthday, An Interview From 1998 for the Criss Cross Recording “Crossfire”

The exceptional trombonist Steve Davis turns 50 today. For the occasion, here’s an interview I did with Steve in 1998, when I was putting together the liner notes for his Criss Cross CD, Crossfire.  At the end is a brief conversation with Steve’s mentor, teacher and early employer, Jackie McLean.

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TP: Birthday.

SD: 4-14-67.

TP: So you’re just turned 31. You’re from Binghamton?

SD: I was actually born in Worcester, Massachusetts, but I pretty much grew up in Binghamton, New York, from the age of 6 until 18.

TP: Music in the family?

SD: Yes. My Nana, or Grandmother on my mother’s side (I called her Nana), played piano by ear. She didn’t read any music. She was actually semi-professional. She used to do some gigs around Westchester and Connecticut actually, down in the Southbury area, Waterbury, Connecticut. She passed away when I was 19 and I had just started at Hartt; I finished a year there. She played in kind of the stride, maybe Teddy Wilson style. She really liked Oscar Peterson. She used to play “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Them There Eyes,” and sing it.

TP: And she performed?

SD: Yes. She played all types of tunes. “Embraceable You,” a lot of the great standards. She had like a hybrid sort of boogie-woogie, some of that in there. It’s funny, because I guess for her time, it was… She was of WASP heritage or whatever, and it just wasn’t really the thing for a woman to be a Jazz pianist…

TP: A Yankee woman.

SD: Yeah, exactly, a Yankee woman. It was kind of like a novelty. “Oh, Betty is going to play now,” and at parties and stuff like that. She played everything in C or F, but man, she could really play her ass off. I have some tapes that I’ve got to investigate further. She was really gifted, and I just wish she had lived a little longer, because I really could have learned a great deal from her.

TP: And she improvised.

SD: Oh, totally. She didn’t read a note.

TP: Like Eddie Higgins or Dave McKenna.

SD: Exactly. That kind of thing. I’d say she was probably, of course, compared to someone like Dave McKenna, very limited. But she really could play.

Then on my Dad’s side, my Grandsir, who is still alive, played a little trumpet. He’s a real swinger. He’s a big Ellington and Louis Armstrong fan, and Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, that’s his stuff, and a little bit of Bix he talks about. But he would always tell me about hearing Ellington on the radio. He’s from Boston, and…

TP: The Southland Ballroom.

SD: Yeah, right, and in 1932 he was at the Roxbury Latin School, and he remembers hearing the shows from the Cotton Club and all that.

My old man didn’t play. He plays a little electric bass as more like a hobby. But he is the one who really exposed me. He had tons of records, man, when I was growing up in Binghamton. He had all kinds of Blue Note, Horace Silver, a couple of Messengers records, a lot of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder which was one of the first things I heard that grabbed me, and a lot of Blues, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Otis Rush and people like that.

TP: So you were listening to music all the time.

SD: Yeah, it was around all the time. I was going through the usual paces of the Rolling Stones, things like that, or the Beatles…

TP: But were you playing an instrument from…

SD: I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade, and I switched to euphonium, to baritone horn, when I got braces halfway through the fifth grade.

TP: Because the embouchure was bigger?

SD: Exactly. Because I almost was going to quit. I liked music, and I was about to quit, and I was encouraged not to by my band director and my old man. That’s how I got into bass clef, and I played tuba for a while in junior high school. The trombone came around last. I was hearing these jazz records with J.J. on them and Curtis, or Bob Brookmeyer…

TP: Where were you hearing those records?

SD: My Dad. Then I was told, “Well, if you want to be in the stage band and that kind of stuff, you really should learn the slide trombone as opposed to baritone horn.” My band director in junior high taught me the correlation between the valves and the slide. It’s pretty similar once you get the same correlation. Then I just kind of took it from there. I really didn’t start taking trombone lessons until the end of tenth grade.

TP: But you had a lot of musical background.

SD: Oh yeah.

TP: And you could read music by then?

SD: Yes. Although it was quite a switch from the treble clef baritone, like, B-flat trumpet treble clef music, to all of a sudden like sousaphone ledger lines bass clef. So for a while I was playing the tuba by ear, because I couldn’t make the cosmic leap into the bottom of the bass clef. But that was good, because my ear always gravitated to the bass, and my Dad used to talk about the bass in blues bands and the bass in Rock-and-Roll and certainly in Jazz, so I had an affinity for that.

TP: What were some of the outlets for improvising and such?

SD: Well, the director of our junior high school stage band was very encouraging, as was our high school stage band director, Mr. Mann. They really encouraged us to take little solos and improvise. There was a little kind of cadre or whatever of guys that were playing. There’s a trumpeter named Tony Kadleck, who is in New York now, does a lot of sessions, big band stuff — he was a great player. So that environment was encouraged. Then at SUNY-Binghamton, there was a guy named Al Hahm(?)…

TP: Did you go there because of the Music Department?

SD: Well, I didn’t attend. I used to go to workshops and play in their jazz ensemble when I was in high school. They had summer workshops, and I think 1982 when I was maybe 15, they brought in Bob Brookmeyer one year with his sextet. I think that was in ’82, and I was maybe like 15. I had already started listening, I had the bug, and I got to hear and spend a week with Bob Brookmeyer, who had Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano and Jim McNeely and I think Nussbaum and Michael Moore. But Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano took a particular interest in me and a friend of mine named Chris Jenson, a really good tenor player. Dick Oatts, I remember vividly, said, “J.J. Johnson.” I said, “yeah, I’ve heard a couple of records.” He said, “No, man, go really listen to J.J. Johnson.” And that stuck with me. They really were very encouraging. So kind of after that I started listening to “Giant Steps” and “Kind of Blue” and henceforth.

TP: Was it apparent to you at this time that you were going to be a musician?

SD: Of some kind, yeah. My Dad’s a journalist, a newspaperman, his parents, Grandsir and his mother, were both journalists, and my mother is very literate. So it was kind of encouraged. The humanities thing for college was pretty much a given; that I was going to go someplace that was a university as well as the music. I mean, the music was never discouraged; it was always encouraged. But my parents really wanted me to have a broad education as much as possible.

TP: And you did.

SD: yes. My mother took me to audition at the music schools, Manhattan, Rutgers, New England Conservatory, and then to Hartt at the University of Hartford. She liked the campus environment. And I met Jackie McLean when I auditioned, and he really charmed my mother. I’ll never forget the audition. I played “Summertime” just by myself for him, no rhythm, and then he played the piano, and he started playing this little vamp from D-minor to E-flat-minor, and he said, “Let’s see what you do with this, son,” and he started playing these little rhythms, and I played some little response, and he said, “Yeah, you got it, man; you got all the shit happening. Come on, where’s your Mom? Let’s…” [LAUGHS] It was hilarious, man. So he talked to my mother and really made her feel at ease about coming to school and not going right to New York first, but coming up there to the campus and getting a real education, and that he would… Especially at this time in the mid-’80s, his program was really taking off, and he was there a lot and he was overseeing all the students very much. So he kind of sold my Mom on that one.

TP: And at Hartford you pursued primarily music but also other things.

SD: Yeah, a little Shakespeare. I was close to a minor in Political Science. I think I had three credits left. But mostly music. By the time I got to my junior year, all I wanted to do was play and get to New York.

TP: Talk about some of the affiliations you made at Hartt.

SD: Well, besides the faculty, which of course, Jackie just for me and for so many others of us just turned our whole world around. Especially his history course was really important. You’d take that ideally as a freshman for two semesters. He used to call it “Man and Music,” and now he got politically correct — it’s called “People and Music” or something. He goes back to Africa and makes you realize… He gets into the origins of Man, and things that we take for granted and that you don’t get educated about in public schools generally. Maybe nowadays you do moreso than 1985. Then he takes you through the whole music of slavery and field hollers, and how that evolved into the blues and brass bands and all that kind of stuff. So by the time you get up the second semester, to Charlie Parker and what he can really first-hand tell you about him, it’s pretty exciting. It really gives you a tremendous concept for the history. So that was important.

Jaki Byard was still there, and being around him was great. Hotep Galeta was just coming into his band, and he was starting to teach there, and he was a very big role model for me, as was Nat Reeves. Hotep and Nat not only taught ensembles at the school, but they used to gig a lot around Hartford. There were several little clubs. So the two of them, they might play duo in a restaurant, or they’d grab a decent drummer from the area. And Hotep started hiring me eventually to play quartet. To me that was just the thrill of my life. It was such a privilege to be on the bandstand with those guys. This is leading up to and during the Dynasty record that they made, and Rites of Passage was after that. That band with Carl Allen and Rene would rehearse sometimes at the school, and it was very exciting to see that developing. They’d go out to L.A., or go on the road to Italy, and Jackie would send a postcard. It was just my dream to ever play in that band.

Also, when I first got to Hartt, Antoine Roney was still a student there. It was his last year. And he had a huge influence on me. I mean, he taught me so much. He was the first guy… Within my first week, we borrowed somebody’s car and drove down to New York together and went and heard Joe Henderson at the Vanguard, and he took me to the Blue Note session Ted Curson was running where you’d sign the list. Ted Curson was doing it. He showed me around Harlem a little bit, showed me where Bud Powell lived and all that stuff.

TP: Well, Antoine and Wallace are soaked up in the lore.

SD: Oh yeah, big-time. So meeting and hanging out with Antoine was a big…

TP: So that must have helped you when you made the transition to New York.

SD: Oh, it did. Because he moved down there within a year or two after that, so I used to go hang with him. We used to go to Rashied Ali’s house to play a little. Jackie recommended me to Charlie Persip when I was still a student at Hartt, and my first real New York gig was in the Superband, at Visiones in 1988. There was a club in Hartford, too, called the 880 Club. Nat was in the house band of that with Donnie De Palma, a pianist. They used to bring every Thursday night, like, you name it, man…Junior Cook, Tom Harrell, I got to play with Pepper Adams there… When Eddie Henderson first came back East he was coming up there all the time, and I met him there. Kenny Garrett. A whole lot of people. So that was also really exciting, and it gave you a taste of what the real Jazz world is like.

TP: So it doesn’t seem like New York seemed particularly overwhelming to you, that you were quite well prepared arriving here.

SD: Yes and no. I mean, I was, but it was still overwhelming, trust me. When I got there… And ’89 is when I really moved to New York… I had been kind of zipping in and out quite a bit, and I got there to live, and for six months I basically went through all the money I had saved gigging around Connecticut and living cheap up there. It was scary. That’s when Jesse Davis was doing Augie’s. He had Antoine in the band, and Eric McPherson, and that’s where I met Chris McBride, Ugonna Okegwo had just moved to town, Marc Cary went there. That was an exciting time, and I used to go sit in a lot up there. But I wasn’t working that much. The gig with Art Blakey came up right at the end of ’89, and it was right on time, boy, because I was starting to scuffle.

TP: What sort of gigs were you doing?

SD: Well, not a whole lot. I was coming back to Hartford to do a lot of gigs. I was doing a couple of little club date kind of gigs, because they paid good, and I wasn’t happy about, but… A few little big bands. I was rehearsing with Charlie Persip every Thursday, and what work he had I was doing. Just trying to make jam sessions and be around. That’s what was happening.

TP: How did you get to Art?

SD: Jackie had told him about me. I never stood in the same room as the two of them, which is ironic to me, because they’re both such big mentors.

TP: Frank Lacy preceded you with Art?

SD: Yeah.

TP: Was it a situation where someone suggested you go hear the band at Sweet Basil and linger around the bandstand, or were you just called to make it?

SD: No, Jackie had encouraged me… I was doing that anyway at Mikell’s and Sweet Basil for years, hearing all the different bands. But by the time it got to that, I was around a lot. I think I sat in in September of ’89, and Art knew about me. He said, “Oh, that’s you” or whatever; “bring your horn back Sunday.” I sat in on “Moanin'” or something with a bunch of other guys. Then at Christmas-time, I saw him again, and he told me, “Don’t go far.” I figured, well, okay, that must mean something. I went home literally for Christmas Day, and the next day, the 26th, I was coming back, and that’s when Jackie called me in Binghamton at my parents’ house, and said, “Steve, call Buhaina; he’s looking for you.” He gave me the number, and I called Art’s house, and he got on the phone. He said, “Well, can you make it tonight?” It was 4 in the afternoon, and I was three hours away — I said, “Sure!” It was hilarious. I left my keys in Binghamton. I didn’t have any dress clothes. I had to borrow a suit from a friend of mine. I barely made the gig on time. Frank Lacy was still on the band, too, so that was a very interesting week.

TP: A few words in general on Art Blakey’s impact on you in general musical terms, and maybe specifically on your style as a trombonist.

SD: Well, it’s hard to put into words, of course. Javon Jackson once said something that I really agree with, that I thought was great, that he had a way of showing you what to play, or how to play, without actually telling you anything. He just did it through the drums, and he guided you… One night we were in California, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I was scared to death. We played “Minor’s Holiday” and some of the classic things. We came off the stand and he put his arm around me. He said, “Steve, listen. You make your statement, you build to a climax, and you get the fuck out. Right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Simple, right? Okay. Well, do it.”

Art taught me, as has Jackie later, from a different vantage point, how to get to the point, how to get to the fire quick, and say what you’re going to say. That’s what they say about Charlie Parker. If you listen to Curtis Fuller, he never plays more than two or three choruses. So it was such a lesson in getting to the stuff, getting to the point quick.

The other thing is just that beat. Being around Art at time of my life, I was just turning 23, and it’s like he plants a seed in you that hasn’t even blossomed, hasn’t even grown yet, and it’s going to grow as you grow. He told me one time… He was singing all these Fletcher Henderson arrangements and doing the trombone parts, and he said, “You watch, that’s going to be your style; swinging, that’s going to be your style.” I was listening to and kind of captivated by Miles and Wallace Roney, and I wanted to be that on the trombone. Not obvious, but more subtle, mysterious, maybe cold, not cold like spiritually cold, but not the kind of warm breathy sound, but more icy or something, like slick…

TP: Or abstract.

SD: Abstract. I was really thinking about that stuff, and how J.J. and Miles had a certain no-vibrato, and I really liked that. But then being around Art put things in perspective, and then I started to really listen to how Curtis took the Lester Young-Miles-J.J. influence and brought a warmth to it. I’m still trying to find the balance, actually.

TP: So you’re trying to blend the older trombone approach of the big band, pre-J.J. trombonists with the harmony and authority of J.J. and… Do you feel that Curtis Fuller kind of embodies that?

SD: Oh yeah. He’s got the tradition… You can hear it. He comes after J.J., but he was born in 1934, so certainly the Swing Era…he grew up in it. He talks about people like Jack Teagarden and the Basie Band. The thing that I love about J.J., too, is that they came from that tradition so much, that it was such a feat for them, as with Bird and Miles, to break out of that, and to start defining this new approach, and maybe more stark melodies and playing harmonically, more daring, but also precise at the same time. That’s what I really like, is Miles and J.J. and the choice of notes. Curtis was very close to Trane, obviously, when he first came to New York. He talks a lot about that, being around Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. Obviously Trane was a huge influence on Freddie in phrasing… To me, what Curtis has done with the phrasing, just playing groupings of notes, is like saxophone stuff. J.J. certainly opened that can of worms in a lot of ways for the trombone, and certainly guys even before him did. J.J. had the prowess and the focus to really start to think that way and approach the instrument that way, but Curtis took it another step, where he’s just daring, he’s going to throw it out there, and he doesn’t care if he gets his feet muddy.

[PAUSE]

TP: Anyway, you stayed with Art Blakey a year, and he dies at the end of ’90. The what happens between that and your joining Jackie McLean?

SD: Some tough times, actually.

TP: Do trombonists have a particularly tough time in the business right now.

SD: Well, I’ve been extremely lucky. A couple of good things happened. I did play with Lionel Hampton’s band for a period, and it was great just to be around him and be a part of that legacy for a minute. But that’s a tough gig. Everybody knows that’s a dues-paying kind of gig, but I’m very glad I did it. But the thing that blew me away, though, I did two concerts with Elvin Jones. I was subbing for Wallace Roney, actually. I’d met Elvin at Art’s house about a week prior to Art’s passing. He was very nice to me (I don’t think he’d ever heard me play), and he took my number. Keiko was there. I was just thrilled to meet Elvin. It was a terrible circumstance to meet him under, because Art was kind of laying on the couch, sleeping, he wasn’t well, and Elvin was sort of watching over him. At first he didn’t even know who I was. He kind of asked if he could help me, like he was protecting Art, then I told him I was the trombonist in the band. I just never imagined, ever, that he would call, but he did, and I did a couple of concerts with him. That was a great experience, and something I would love to have an opportunity to do again.

TP: Say a few words about drum styles, and playing with drummers, and the trombone as a rhythmic instrument.

SD: I know for a fact that Art loved the trombone. He used to play a certain way, and you can hear it particularly with Curtis on all those records. I think he inherently understood… The trombone is the underdog instrument, in a way, especially… I always refer to Curtis Fuller as such a role model. He stood next to people like Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, and transcended those limitations that the horn might present. It’s the last thing you think of when you hear Curtis playing…

TP: That there are any limitations.

SD: Whatsoever. His velocity and authority was astounding. A lot of it is just the timbre of the horn. It’s where the voice is for a male, which to me is the greatest thing about the horn. But that can get lost in the density of the music; sonically, you can lose the sound a little bit. And you’ve got more to travel. There’s more horn. You’re moving a slide with your arm and your wrist, as opposed to valves, so it’s physically more demanding to get around in terms of speed and articulation. Art had a way of goosing… He kind of prodded you and rooted for you, and gave you some stuff to play off of. It’s like riding a tidal wave. All you’ve got to do is stay on the surfboard, and all of a sudden you’re up here where you never thought you’d play.

TP: Talk about Elvin Jones a little bit in this regard.

SD: Elvin was different. Eddie Henderson warned me. He said, “Oh yeah, you’re going to play with Elvin?” He said, “Don’t try to assert the beat the same way you did with Buhaina, because it will be like stepping in quicksand.” I didn’t really figure that out well enough, I don’t think, at that time. I noticed there was a great similarity in just the sound of the drums. To me it was a similar feeling between Art and Elvin, but at the same time vastly different. Elvin didn’t play as loud as often. He could play kind of soft and sort of exposed you in a different way, which I think about all the time now. I just hope to have a chance some day to play with him again, but even if I don’t, I learned a lot just in those two hits.

TP: Then there were various little gigs here and there, that sort of thing?

SD: Yes. There’s a trumpeter named Kenny Rampton. He was Geoff Keezer’s roommate, and I used to hang at their pad in Brooklyn a lot. Kenny had a nice sextet with Sam Newsome and myself and Keezer and Dwayne Burno (Benny Green and for a while Chris McBride did some gigs) and Greg Hutchinson. We did a little like demo tape that I thought sounds pretty good actually, with a lot of Kenny’s music. So that was important for me at the time. We did Birdland and Visiones.

But there wasn’t a whole lot happening. I actually took a little part-time day job handing out flyers for Manhattan Podiatry. [LAUGHS] That’s the only day job I ever had to do.

TP: You joined Jackie when? What happened?

SD: He called and said there was going to be a potential opening back at the school, conducting the big band.

TP: You had a degree in music at this point.

SD: Yes. And I had been out of the school maybe three years. So I certainly hadn’t fashioned myself going back to Hartford so soon. But Jackie sort of indicated…

Well, one thing I’m forgetting before this is that I did meet Leon Parker in ’91, and I formed a group with him, Brad Mehldau, Ugonna Okegwo and Mark Turner on tenor. That was a huge part of my development at that point, particularly with Leon — we had gotten real tight.

Then Jackie had kind of extended this offer for teaching. Mary and I had moved to Rhode Island for a while just to kind of get our stuff together — we had gotten engaged. And Leon was living up in Rhode Island, just because he liked it. He just wanted get away from New York for a minute. We were in Westerley, and Leon was up around Newport and Providence, and we’d kind of band together. We started getting some little gigs. It was like a collective led group, but then it eventually was under my name and most of my music.

TP: So you were writing a lot at this time.

SD: Oh yes.

TP: You mentioned in the interview for One For All hearing Tony Williams’ band and being very impressed by the openness of the material. Talk a bit about the evolution of your writing.

SD: Obviously, Jackie and Hotep and Rene McLean had a huge influence on my compositional influence. As I mentioned, I was around everything. The three of them together in that band (under Jackie’s auspices) had a real sound happening, a real vibe.

TP: Let’s describe that sound. I haven’t heard any music that really sounds like those records, Rites of Passage and Dynasty.

SD: It’s really something. To me, it’s got so much in there. There’s such a recipe. There’s a lot of South African kind of influence in Rene’s and Hotep’s music, but at the same time those guys were both long-time New York cats through the ’60s and ’70s. So there’s to me a real earthy, but hip kind of thing. It’s very rhythmic. It’s hard to explain. I think the vamps and the rhythms and then the way chords move laterally kind of, then coming up with some melodies or lines over that, is real interesting to me. Like, with Jackie you might find a vamp-sounding thing… I think the goal is always to have something just a little different about it. Jackie’s music is always accessible, it’s catchy, but there’s some different stuff in there, some notes you wouldn’t expect, and little jagged edges here and there that makes it what it is — identifiable.

TP: You mentioned the ‘big room’ concept, that he may want to have it sound distinct, but he wants to really express your personality or not be too confined within that structure.

SD: Exactly. Believe me, Jackie can run some changes, and Rene can too. Like that tune “Jay Mac’s Dynasty,” that’s like some “Giant Steps” stuff, but then boom, you’re out there again. So there’s a temperament of kind of hitting you with some density, and then opening it up at the same time, so you encompass a lot.

TP: And there’s also a sort of Monkish, very specific rhythmic quality to what Jackie does, too.

SD: Yeah, and Rene… I think Rene is a tremendously important composer. He’s left-handed, and Hotep and Alan Palmer and Nat Reeves, all of them have said, “Southpaw, Rene. I forget!” He writes these wicked bass lines, and these guys are always groaning, “Oh, man, what are you doing to us?” Rene is very important to me — and Jackie, of course. They bridge the kind of outside and inside so nicely and with such integrity and honesty. Then Hotep’s writing, too, is terrific.

Anyway, if you take all that… Then I was kind of on my own after the Art Blakey-Elvin time, so I had no choice. I had to start a band, because I really wasn’t doing very much playing. Leon was sort of in the same boat, and we’re roughly the same age. It was a drastic switch, and all of a sudden Leon’s got me practicing duos where he’s just playing one little ride cymbal. Then I got into the Miles thing, and the suspended chords and what I’d mentioned about Tony Williams’ writing as one good example. I knew Brad Mehldau from Hartford, and I always liked the way you could hold a note, and he would dress it up and do some things. So we kind of got into that, and I was starting to write with all these things in mind.

TP: So you were into some very open stuff the whole way through.

SD: Yeah, I really was.

TP: So you joined Jackie, a position opened up at Hartt…

SD: Right. We were doing some stuff with that little group. We did a week at the Village Gate in early ’92, and made a demo tape that we were shopping but never got anywhere with it. I wasn’t satisfied with my own playing, but we did all my music. Anyway, it was funny, because Jackie kind of grabbed me, Mark Turner went with Delfeayo Marsalis and moved down to New Orleans, Leon was starting to get work with Tom Harrell and a whole bunch of different people, and Brad went with Josh Redman. So it just kind of went poof. But see, in retrospect, it all made perfect sense, and I got to come back and really fulfill my destiny, in a way, with Jackie, to really play in his band.

TP: It was the first time he’d really… Well, that’s not true, because all through the ’60s he was taking young players in New York and creating his sound around what they were doing with his ideas in a lot of ways, so I guess this band was an extension of that. But in New York, they weren’t his college students; they were young cats on the scene, though some were out of Juilliard or something. Let’s talk about the arc of the band musically from when you joined it through your six years playing with it.

SD: Okay. Well, Alan Palmer and Eric McPherson had come in the group about six months before, replacing Hotep and Carl, and they had done maybe one week at the Vanguard and a couple of little gigs. I remember it was somewhat of a struggle for Jackie at first; he had two very young cats, people loved that other band and everything. But as with any transition, it took a little time, and those guys learned quick. I think both of them are very special players, particularly Eric McPherson as a drummer. I mean, he’s got something going on that is very rare and unique, and I think he is going to become known as a pivotal young drummer. I have no doubt about that.

TP: All he needed to do was smooth off a rough edge or two.

SD: Sure. So anyway, that was very exciting. I always call Nat Reeves “Uncle Nat,” because he was kind of like our big brother. Especially when Rene wasn’t there, Nat kind of pulled all the rest of us up to a certain level, and particularly in the rhythm section he really pulled the other guys along and kind of helped them get it together.

We did the Rhythm of the Earth record right at the beginning. I had been in the mind like a few weeks. Jackie brought in Steve Nelson and Roy Hargrove as guests, which was smart, because I think that helped kind of smooth everything over. But then I’d say within a year after that we did a lot of touring as the front line with Rene, myself and Jackie (there was no trumpet yet) for about a year-and-a-half, in Europe, South Africa, the States. For me to become a third voice with Jackie and Rene, whereas Jackie hadn’t had another horn besides Rene for maybe twenty years before that, was such an honor. We basically played the Dynasty and Rites of Passage book, adding new things all the time, and then the Rhythm of the Earth stuff and some other things that we brought in that we never even recorded. But they already had it together. They had a sound. It sounded great without me. So I just found my own third parts.

TP: Were you investigating Grachan Moncur?

SD: Very much. Grachan, who I also know and greatly admire, he… You know the records. I once asked Jackie what he dug about Grachan, and he said, “His nerve,” which I thought was quite an answer. He liked his sparse approach, but Jackie liked that he had the nerve to try to do something that different — and he liked his writing a lot. He was a big inspiration to me to not always try to keep up, or don’t feel like you’ve got to play a million notes, and go ahead and stick some big colors out there. Go ahead, man, as long as you’ve got the ceiling.

See, being next to Jackie always made you feel special and that nobody could mess with you. You’re always scared, you’re always daunted, because he’s playing so much stuff it’s just ridiculous. But he always rooted for you. Every solo, man, you could feel him over there rooting for you. Every little thing you played meant something to him. If you crack some notes, who cares about that? “Nobody knows but you, man,” he used to say. “All my favorites, man. Lee, that was my baby; he could crack notes. Miles, K.D.” He just gave you that spirit, to go ahead and try.

TP: Now, this raises a couple of points for me. The ’70s was a great decade for the trombone, because people like Ray Anderson and George Lewis, and then people like Watrous on this other end of incredible technical capacity. But in terms of the open approach to the trombone, did you ever check out the former approach, like what George Lewis and Ray Anderson did with Anthony Braxton, taking advantage of the huge sonic possibilities.

SD: Yeah, Craig Harris, and Joseph Bowie I’ve heard a little. Sure, I’ve listened to some of that. But that was never really it for me. It was nice, but I wanted to play like Bud Powell and like… I wanted to be able to do that like Jackie, and play the lines and play the slick stuff and get up in there with those guys, with Woody Shaw — that kind of playing. Certainly Miles and Curtis do that. I know what you’re driving at… I like the spirit, but I don’t… Just as with the plunger, I love to listen to it, I love the spirit of it, and I want to get all that in my sound without literally having to do it.

TP: So you don’t want to be Tricky Sam, but you’d like to have a reference.

SD: I think you have to. How can you play the horn and not know something about Dickie Wells and Lawrence Brown and Jack Teagarden, as much as they played, and with that feeling and lyricism. I love it.

TP: A second point. You’re talking about Jackie saying it’s okay to crack a note or “no one knows but you.” I think one characteristic that’s often been noted about the generation you’re roughly involved with is almost the fear of failure as like a reason not to stretch, because they’re not going to do it right.

SD: Oh yeah. I want to get to that point where I feel totally comfortable with just playing. Actually, going out with Chick is going to be a really great experience in that regard. We did that week at the Blue Note, and they recorded it, and they’re going to put out a CD, and all of us just couldn’t believe it — like, “No, you’re not recording already; we hardly played together; my God, a live record, the music’s so hard.” Chick said, “you know, one of the liabilities you have to take in being an improvising musician is you have to accept the fact that some nights, sometimes it’s going to go nowhere — to you. It’s going to feel like this is going nowhere. So let it go nowhere. Then the next night, the next set, the next tune, you try again.” I felt there was so much wisdom in that. He’s been through it, and he’s a guy that wants to take chances. You wouldn’t necessarily lump Jackie McLean and Chick Corea together, but that’s something that I see in common, that they’re artists, they’re going to be daring, they’re going to let the work show, they’re going to let the flaws be there and make it become part of the music. And you’re absolutely right that our generation… When you hear some of these recordings from the mid and late ’60s, you just say, there’s no way we would do that in this day and age if we’re in the studio, and say it’s some up-tempo thing and the time got kind of funny, and then it just kind of disintegrates into some free-sounding stuff — everyone would stop the take and say, “No, man, this sucks; this is unacceptable.”

I think there’s a lot of good values to that, to really trying to… I think we’ve all kind of slowly but surely raised the overall level of expectations in each other, what you’re supposed to be able to do and handle. But at the same time, there’s a spirit in the process that’s maybe lacking. I think you nailed something on the head. I’m still going through trying to really play good, just play good melodies and learn how to swing and play changes well. But eventually, I’d like to move to a point where I’m not so conscious of that, and thinking about more artistic kind of things, and let it be what it’s going to be.

But right now for me, particularly with the One For All guys and some of these Criss-Cross dates, it’s been a great experience just trying to make good, solid records that are going to stand the test of time, but still you’re trying to lay it out, with no baloney.

[ETC.]

I’ve yet to really flesh out my own original music, and especially the chance to record with Harold Mabern is a privilege right there… I keep thinking that no matter what I get to eventually, I’ll always like to play pretty melodies and try to swing too much to not do it. There’s something about it, that you like it too much to just abandon it or sacrifice it in the name of something else.

Jackie McLean on Steve Davis, 1998:

TP: What do you remember about Steve when he came to Hartt?

JM: He just came with his parents, like most students do, to go to school. That’s when he enrolled in my program, and that’s how I met him. I was very impressed with him. Mostly that I liked the background that he had in the music. He had a good concept and a good understanding of the music, and a great appreciation, plus he’s a very-very nice young man.

TP: He obviously developed a lot, because eventually he came into your band. Can you discuss his progress over the years?

JM: Well, he didn’t waste any time at school. We spent an awful lot of time together. He would come to my saxophone ensembles with his trombone and play, and he was there all the time. He was an A-student, he was great in his ensemble work, incredible in the large orchestra under Mr. Al Lepack’s(?) leadership, and he just took advantage of all the opportunities that the school offered him. Then when you link that with his natural talent, you see the result.

TP: Did you stay in touch with him between when he left Hartt and rejoined you in ’92?

JM: He never went anywhere. I got him a job immediately. He never left Hartt. The first thing I did for Steve is when Art Blakey needed a trombone player, I recommended him. But he never left Hartford, and he’s still teaching there.

TP: So you were always in touch with Steve.

JM: Yeah. From the time he walked in the door, we’ve been in touch with each other.

TP: Talk about the events that caused you to ask him to join your band.

JM: Ted, it’s very simple. When I hear somebody who plays at a particular level, and I like their concept and I like the way they write, the way Steve does… Steve writes wonderful, plays wonderful. There’s nothing other than that. Just “come on and let’s try to play some music together.”

TP: But it augmented your ensemble in a lot of ways. You were starting a new band. It was kind of a transitional time at that time?

JM: No, it just happened. He was up in Canada, and I told him to come play with me at a concert. I had our quartet, and he came and played. Then Rene and I had our quintet, and we added him to that, and he played there for a while. Then he just stayed with me all that time.

TP: He said that one of the great things he got from you that he thinks he’s brought to some of the contemporaries he’s worked with, is your idea of the “big room,” taking small cells of material, and then expanding on it. Did he always have that facility, to be very creative within the situations you present?

JM: He’s very talented in many-many ways. His ability to write music the way he does, his great feeling for harmony and colors… He’s another young great musician developing and playing very well.

TP: Was Grachan Moncur the last trombonist you worked with before Steve?

JM: Yes, he was the first trombonist after Grachan.

TP: How do you hear his playing evolving from when he began to work with the ensemble in 1992 to now?

JM: It’s very difficult to put into words how somebody grows. He’s playing better. He came to the school playing very well for a freshman, and over the four years he was there, his playing… It’s like he was always in my band, I felt like, because we were always playing together, not on the bandstand so much, but around the school, at my house, in different places. Yeah, he’s grown, just like everybody grows. He’s grown immensely. He’s a wonderful musician. He’s one of my favorite trombone players of all time, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t matter that he’s not my contemporary. I like his sound, I like the way he writes. He’s just a very special musician.

TP: Anything else you want to say about Steve?

JM: Well, I’m just very much in love with him, and his wife, Mary, who is also very talented. His wife is a wonderful musician, great piano player, and his little boy, Anthony… He’s part of my family. I feel like he’s part of my existence. He’s magnificent and wonderful. I feel great that I’ve had this relationship with him, first as a student and now as a colleague and a compatriot in the music. Just because right now we’re not playing together so much doesn’t mean that we’re not going to play together in the future. I’m looking forward to hearing Steve more at some future time.

 

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Filed under Interview, Jackie McLean, Steve Davis, Trombone

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

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

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

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

TP: I don’t remember.

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

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

MURPHY: Yes.

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

MURPHY: Sure.

TP: Do you have preferred configurations as well?

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

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

MURPHY: [LAUGHS]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Anything more to say about him?

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

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

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

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

————

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

MURPHY: It’s a nice title.

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

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

TP: When did you first hear Joe Williams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: But that’s a real root for you.

MURPHY: Yeah. Sure.

TP: You were raised in Syracuse?

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

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

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

TP: No more Lindyhoppers after Birth of the Cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: She liked you, too, right?

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

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

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

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

MURPHY: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Everything was mobbed-up then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Specifically on the records for High Note?

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

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

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

TP: How about “Squeeze Me”?

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

TP: You saw him a lot.

MURPHY: As much as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Sorry, I’m no help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: You were acting, too, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ETC.]

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

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

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

[ETC.]

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

TP: Developing your hanging chops at an early age.

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ted Panken_

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Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Singers

In Response to the Passing of Bruce Lundvall (Sept. 13, 1935-May 19, 2015), An Uncut Interview From January 2009

It isn’t often that musicians collectively respond with sadness to the death of a music executive, but that is precisely how the artists who knew Bruce Lundvall have reacted to the news of his passing this afternoon,  after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

A mass email from Blue Note announcing the event gives the basic facts:

“A self-described “failed saxophone player,” Bruce took an entry level marketing job at Columbia Records in 1960 and over the following two decades rose to lead the North American division of the label, signing artists including Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson. After launching the Elektra/Musician label in 1982, he received the offer of a lifetime in 1984 when EMI approached him about reviving Blue Note Records which had been dormant for several years. He jumped at the chance, partnering with producer Michael Cuscuna to bring back the label’s earlier stars like Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson & Jackie McLean, and signing new artists including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Michel Petrucciani, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood.

Under Bruce’s stewardship Blue Note established itself as the most-respected and longest-running jazz label in the world. He presided over a prosperous nearly-30-year period of the label’s history, reaching commercial heights with artists including Bobby McFerrin, Us3, Norah Jones, Al Green and Amos Lee, while recording some of the most important jazz artists of our time including Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Don Pullen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Terence Blanchard, Jacky Terrasson, and many others.”

I didn’t know Mr. Lundvall very well, but had several occasions to hang out with him in one club or another, and, as consequentially, to interview him on several occasions about his life and times. One was a public interview before a rather large crowd at the National Jazz Museum In Harlem, of which I don’t have a tape. A couple of years earlier, on January 9, 2009, I interviewed him for a story in Jazziz at an Italian restaurant near the Blue Note offices. He drank three martinis without batting an eyelash, as he took on the questions. I had to cut 75% of the text for the piece; here’s the entire conversation.

 

Bruce Lundvall (Jan. 9, 2009):

TP: I’ve been trying to think of a phrase or two phrases to encapsulate my impressions of you.

BRUCE: Unh-oh.

TP: One is “survivor” and the other is someone who could be a master diplomat in your ability to balance the dictates of art and commerce. So let me ask you about that. You’ve survived in the record business, flourished in the record business, and made your mark on the record business for close to 50 years. Not an easy feat.

BRUCE: 49 actually.

TP: 49. Since 1960.

BRUCE: Yup.

TP: I’d like to relate that to the state of things right now.

BRUCE: I’ll tell you on Tuesday, because I have an interview with my boss on Monday.

TP: Who is your boss?

BRUCE: Nick Gatfield. He’s the global head of A&R now. They’ve changed the structure of the company completely, as you probably know.

TP: Yes. But I don’t know exactly they’ve changed it and how it affects Blue Note.

BRUCE: Essentially, it affects Blue Note because Blue Note no longer has the staff that it used to. We have an A&R staff, and then we use the services of a marketing staff and the services of an international staff, etc., which handles Blue Note, Capitol, and Virgin. In other words, it’s sort of like a top-down… It would be like, in a way, recreating Columbia Records where they handle Epic and everything else… But Epic had its own staff, so it’s not a good analogy. But there is a common staff now to handle every one of the three major labels—if we’re talking about Blue Note as a major label, Blue Note-Manhattan. So they’ve taken away the idea of having a team of people who are just Blue Note. So Blue Note is now just essentially A&R. So Ian Ralfini runs Manhattan. I run the combination of Blue Note and Manhattan. Eli Wolf is the head of A&R for Blue Note. Lauren is his assistant. And Mike (?) is the guy who does A&R for Manhattan. So that’s kind of like our little staff of people. Then we use the services of people like Zack, J.R., Cem, and so on. Cem has other responsibilities than Blue Note, but only a few. It’s a different structure altogether, but it works the same way.

TP: And you report to Gatfield.

BRUCE: Yeah, Gatfield.

TP: That’s a private equity group?

BRUCE: No. Terra Firma is the private equity group that bought EMI last July and June. So now the guy who runs EMI is a guy named Elio Leoni-Sceti. They hired this guy who worked in a different business altogether to run EMI-Worldwide. So he is the ultimate boss. But the company is owned by Terra Firma. Leoni is a very smart Italian guy from Rome, who has lived in the States before, lives in London now. He is in charge of EMI-Worldwide, but reporting in to the board of Terra Firma.

TP: How long was the previous structure in place?

BRUCE: Forever.

TP: How many different bosses have you worked for over the years?

BRUCE: At least 15 since I came here in ‘84. I’ve had various jobs. It’s always been Blue Note and Manhattan, and then at one point Capitol on the East Coast. I’ve had about 14 or 15 bosses, starting with Bhaskar Menon and Joe Smith… I don’t want to get into a whole list of people. I can’t remember them all.

TP: With all these different bosses, the label has retained a remarkable consistency as far as the face that it presents. It would seem from the outside to be fairly seamless.

BRUCE: We have been left alone for the most part. No one has ever told us to drop an artist. No one has ever told us we’re in trouble. We’ve always made a profit, too. We’ve had a profit every year since ‘85, which is amazing. The advent of the Blue Note catalog. The advent of Blue Note on CDs, of course—people buying their whole collection of LPs on CD. All that is past us now, but that was part of it. Then, of course, the phenomenon of Norah Jones, other phenomenons like US-3 and Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Things like that, that happened and had hits. The basic roster has done pretty well.

[ORDER: Bruce: caprese & orichette w/sausage & broccoli rabe]

TP: You just said that you’ve always made a profit, which would be the reason why you’ve always been left alone?

BRUCE: Well, it’s certainly one of the reasons, I think, with respect to what we do. I think we’ve brought some class to the company, and the fact that some artists really are prestigiously important and artistically important. That’s a good part of it. But the fact of the matter is, the target, it’s hard to say in… We started this in ‘85, when the first releases came out. Then we had Manhattan as our pop label as well. So on balance, Blue Note (not always Manhattan, but Blue Note) has had a profit in each of these years, and the combination has had a profit in most of the years. So therefore, we’re looked upon as a profitable resource for the company. Not like Capitol or Virgin—or Nashville, which is immensely profitable. But we’ve had those big years. When Norah had her big success, my God, we outbilled Capitol and Virgin, and had more of a profit as well. So that helps, certainly.
The fact of the matter is that they’re proud of the heritage of Blue Note and they’re proud of the artist roster that we have, so we’ve been pretty much left alone. Now it’s a little different, because the economy is tough, and they’re looking at every dime that’s being spent, which you have to do, so we don’t have quite the flexibility that we had before. But no one is saying, “You’ve got to get rid of these people” or anything like that, which is good.

TP: Two things come to mind. One is that your own personal management style must have something to do with it.

BRUCE: I can’t speak to that.

TP: Can you describe your management style, though?

BRUCE: Well, I think luck. First of all, I am mostly about music. I have done this long enough that I know about business, too, but I’m not a numbers guy really. But I know what it takes to make money and lose money on a record. The parameters of deals that we should be making. We don’t make any crazy deals. We don’t have any million dollars or anything like that, including the artists that we have on Manhattan. Well, maybe Sarah Brightman, but she pays her way. Those kinds of artists are much more expensive, but they’re profitable artists for us. But normally, we make reasonable deals, intelligent deals, and that’s part of it, and we try to keep our rosters manageable and not let it get too large. Very often, these pop labels, their artist rosters expand and become really bloated, and the cost is so high it’s crazy. That’s not the case any more, right now, but in the past that’s happened. But we’ve already kept our rosters pretty tight. In terms of the number of artists we’re carrying on the roster, we’re very selective.

TP: I’m noticing that there seem to be fewer artists than ten years ago, or is that a mis-assumption.

BRUCE: No, not really. If you just take Blue Note alone, which is what we’re really talking about… Manhattan had a lot of artists when it was a major pop label in New York. Now it’s a smaller… But Blue Note has been pretty much about the same. We have 22 to 25 artists on Blue Note right now. A few people are gone.

TP: But let’s get back to this management style issue. Was there anyone who mentored you, for instance, after whom you modeled yourself?

BRUCE: I had maybe four mentors in my lifetime in the business. The first one was John Hammond. We were very close. The second would be Joe Gallagher, who was head of marketing at Columbia Records and hired me. The third one would be Ken Clancy, who was the head of A&R at one point at Columbia, and then RCA. The fourth one would be…I’d say Clive probably, because Clive helped me a great deal. These are the people I learned the most from, I would say. And others as well.

TP: Did you model yourself after them, or was it always your own personality?

BRUCE: I think I tried to keep my own personality, but a lot of my points of view were either confirmed by the way they behaved or what they taught me. John Hammond was really interesting, because he said, “If you hear someone that’s original, don’t ask any other questions. Just sign the artist period. Don’t ask if it’s going to be successful on radio. Always ask, ‘Does this artist sound like somebody else?’ and if so, don’t bother.” Good lesson to learn. I didn’t learn that just sitting down in two or three words. But he set it by example. He was a guy who produced a lot of records. He wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer. Or, commercially speaking, he wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer, certainly. Stick with your convictions, and don’t be influenced by other people saying, you know, ‘You’re full of shit.” I remember when John Hammond came out with Bob Dylan, it became known as “Dylan’s Folly.” Everyone said, “He can’t sing, he can’t write, he can’t play the guitar, blah-blah-blah.” John said, “You’re wrong, he’s a genius and original,” and certainly he was exactly that. He was called “Hammond’s Folly” for the longest time. That happened with other artists with John, too.

TP: Forgive me for not knowing this, but at what time during your tenure at Columbia did you move into A&R and signing artists?

BRUCE: I became the General Manager of the Columbia label in 1970. That’s when I first started being able to sign some artists. The first artist I brought to Clive was Herbie Hancock when he was still on Warner Brothers. I said, “We’ve got to sign this guy.” I said, “Let’s sign him under the name Mwandishi.” That was his Swahili name; he had that group called Mwandishi. Clive wisely said, “Let’s wait til he gets off Warner Brothers.” As soon as he got off Warner Brothers, he was signed. Clive signed him, but I brought him to Clive. I brought Bill Evans to Clive, too. We signed Bill. I was the head of marketing then. The first successful artist I had who I signed on my own was Phoebe Snow. Before her first record came out, On Shelter, there was a lawsuit going out. It came out and did very well. But I had heard it was under litigation. I said, “Well, I have to have this artist.” And we did very well with her, too. We won the lawsuit and we put out two albums that were gold albums, and subsequently two more.

I made a lot of mistakes. Because shoemakers are supposed to stick to their last, as you know the old expression. When I thought I could sign rock-and-roll bands, and I fell on my face. I signed some. I won’t mention who they were, because no one in the world would ever remember except the artists themselves, if they’re still alive. But I was much better at signing, obviously, jazz artists, singer-songwriters, R&B artists, and country artists—of all things.

TP: It seems to me that one accomplishment we can attribute to you is helping to put hardcore mainstream jazz back on the map via large label representation, by signing Dexter Gordon in the mid ‘70s when it was against the grain. Now, this article is about Blue Note, but it’s also about you. I also realize that you’ve recounted this endless times before. But if you could speak to that. Also, during those years, since it pertains so much to your reign at Blue Note, your forays into Cuba and beginning your relationships with Cuban artists.

BRUCE: Obviously, my first love is straight-ahead, serious jazz music. Dexter Gordon was an artist I had never seen, but I had bought his 78s on Dial and Savoy as a kid, and then I bought all his LPs. But I’d never seen him. He was living in Copenhagen. In the Army, I was stationed in Germany, I went to Copenhagen to see Dexter, and he was away on tour. He wasn’t playing at Montmartre. So I missed him there.
I was at John McLaughlin’s wedding in New York at the Plaza Hotel, and I went to the reception, and a guy named Stan Snyder, who was my head of sales, who was a big jazz fan, said, “Dexter Gordon is playing at Storyville,” which was a club that Rigmor Newman was managing on 58th Street. I said, “oh, shit.” So I went there right away. We left the wedding, we made some feeble excuse to leave the wedding reception, and ran over there and caught the first set, or maybe the second set. Dexter was playing brilliantly, and I went backstage. I said, “You don’t know me, but you’re my hero. I want to sign you to Columbia Records.” All he said, “CBS” in that inimitable way. We came in the next day and we signed him.

I signed Stan Getz there, and I saw McCoy Tyner, and Arthur Blythe and Return to Forever. Bob James was a commercial signing. Al DiMeola. Woody Shaw.

TP: A real renaissance in the artistic aspect of the label.

BRUCE: Well, Columbia Records had a great history in jazz, after all, and it was dwindling. Everyone wanted rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll, and more rock-and-roll. I felt that my contribution could be where my heart was. Essentially, that’s what I did best. I loved that, so I wanted to have those artists on the label, and we did that. I had no resistance at all. The thing that made it interesting is that we didn’t have a jazz label. It was just Columbia Records. It was never the Columbia jazz label, not even a Legacy then. So in a way, when you had the kind of success that the company was having in rock-and-roll music and in pop music generally, if you signed Dexter Gordon, instead of signing 10,000 records, he might sell 40,000 or 50,000. The perception was that we could do anything better than anyone else. The company was an amazing company during those years in terms of their power in the marketplace. So very few of those artists lost money for us.

Who else did we sign? One record with what’s his name, the guitar player..oh my Lord. It doesn’t matter.

TP: In signing Dexter Gordon, you weren’t particularly making any calculations. It was Hammond’s dictum.

BRUCE: Yes, exactly right. I wanted quality, and I loved the music, and I loved Dexter Gordon’s playing, and I said, “My God…” When I heard him that night, there was just no question. No question. You know who called me the next day after he found out that we had signed him, was Ahmet Ertegun. He said, “You’ve done a completely great thing.” I said, “Mr. Ertegun…” I referred to him as Mr. Ertegun). I said, “I did? What did I do?” “You signed Dexter Gordon. We should have done it at Atlantic. We never thought of it, but you did it at Columbia Records.” “Yeah.” I didn’t think there was anything so special about it, but he thought it was. It was an amazing thing for a label like Columbia to sign Dexter Gordon. Dexter himself thought he was going to be signed to an independent jazz label.

TP: What you’re saying bears out that by 1976, you’d already lived through several eras of the music and made your impact felt. I don’t know if there’s anything to ask about that…

BRUCE: You have to remember that I started out as a marketing guy. I wanted to be in A&R, but I didn’t have any real credentials. So they put me in marketing, and I was in marketing up until I became the General Manager of the Columbia label, and then I learned how to sign artists. The first thing that I did, which was a terrible mistake, is… Chip Taylor was the artist, a pop artist who wrote “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” a very talented guy. I said, “We’ll make a four-album firm deal.” The head of business affairs said, “Lundvall, no-no-no!” I said, “What did I do wrong?” “You don’t make a one album firm deal; you make one album with options.” I said, “oh, shit, that’s right.” We got away with it anyway. Not four albums firm, but one album with options, with four options.

TP: How did the record business evolve vis-a-vis the culture of Columbia during the ‘60s?

BRUCE: When I was at Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson was the President of the company, who was a genius and a visionary man, and he felt that art precedes commerce always. You get the art right, the commerce will come with it. But we were late in rock-and-roll because Mitch Miller and the people who were in the A&R staff felt that rock-and-roll was trash. So we were rather late compared to Warner Brothers. We had Bob Dylan, we had Simon & Garfunkel, we had the Byrds, and we had Chad and Jeremy—those were the only rock-and-roll bands. And Paul Revere and the Raiders on Epic. That was the contemporary roster. There was a big battle going in the company. It was a very middle of the road company, with Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, Percy Faith, Jerry Vale, Steve and Eydie, and so on. Very middle of the road, and the A&R staff was very middle of the road for the most part also. The A&R staff was people like Bob Mersey(?—20:27) and Tony Altschuler and Mitch Miller and people like that, who were very much involved with the pop music of the ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and weren’t particularly fond of rock-and-roll music at all.

There was a time when we had an A&R meeting in Miami, and we had a system… The product managers were involved with the A&R department very closely, just doing the marketing after the records were done, and they were talking to the A&R people about the records while they were being made—which is something I think I had a lot to do with. So we were in Miami with a meeting of myself and a couple of the other product managers and the A&R staff, and a big fight ensued at this planning meeting over how deeply we should be involved in rock-and-roll. The young guys, of which I was one of them, all felt we were missing the boat completely, and the older A&R people were saying, “No, we shouldn’t get that deeply involved, because it’s not really good music,” and so on.

So it ended up with a lot of screaming and yelling, and Goddard had to come down from New York to resolve the issues. So Goddard said, right after that meeting, after he calmed everyone down with his great sense of humor and his great erudition, “We have to be in every area of music that counts” and so on, blah-blah. He said, “What I want to do is have at our Columbia Records convention at the Americana Hotel in New York next summer is have a contest, and have one night where we invite the winning high school attend at a gymnasium, and we’ll have all of our rock-and-roll acts.” The reaction was somewhat negative. It was “God, there will be a riot; we’ll have to wear plectron units and all that kind of stuff to police the building,” and all this shit.” “No-no, I’m not worried about that.”

So the convention came along, here it is, 1500 people world-wide, everybody in the company, all over the world, are at this convention. This one night… Every other night, it was Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, the Brothers Four, whoever the big artists were that were performing, on the normal nights, on the Americana stage. The other night, the rock-and-roll night, we all went to this gymnasium. We sat in the bleachers, but the kids were on the main floor—standing up, of course. We had Chad and Jeremy and the Byrds and Bob Dylan—it was three acts. The crowd went insane. And the man standing in front of the bandstand, wearing a safari jacket and moving with the music, was Goddard Lieberson. He changed the culture of the company without saying a single word. He was the one that got the company completely into rock-and-roll. In other words, “you see what the impact of this music is; you either get it or you don’t work here any more,” without saying that at all. I have to say, it was a genius stroke. You’ve got to be on board. Whether you really dug the music or not was immaterial, but it’s going where it’s going.

TP: One anecdote that I think is interesting, and also oft-told, is that directly out of college you went to the Blue Note office to ask for a job and were told it was a two-man show. I’d like you to relate that, but also ask if during the ‘60s you developed any relationship with Lion and Wolff.

BRUCE: No, I did not. The first time I ever saw Alfred Lion was at One Night at Birdland, when they were recording it live. I came home for a college weekend, and I was there. I saw the wires going into the kitchen. I said, “What’s going on there?” “Oh, they’re recording live.” So when you hear the applause for those passages, well, it’s my hand on that record!

So anyway, I was there, and I saw Alfred Lion—I didn’t meet him, but I saw him. What happened is that when I got out of college, I went directly to Alfred Lion’s office with my resume. No preceding phone call or setting up a meeting of any kind. I didn’t know any better. I was walking the streets of New York, looking for a job in the record business, and I started at Blue Note. He was very polite. As I recall, the meeting lasted, oh, 5 or 10 minutes. He said, “Just Frank Wolff and me; we do everything ourselves; we don’t need nobody.” I said, “I’ll work for nothing.” He said, “No, we don’t need nobody; it’s just Frank and I. We even put the records in the sleeves and ship them out ourselves.” I said, “Well, I’ll help you.” “We can’t. We can’t do it. I’m sorry.” He was very polite and very nice, but I was ushered out the door. Within five minutes, I was out with my resume in my hand. So I went to Columbia Records, I went to Capitol, I went to RCA—those three. No one was hiring anybody just out of college in those days, because you still had the draft in front of you—there was a mandatory draft in those days. Nobody had a training program either. So I was working for an advertising agency for a year, and then I was drafted myself and ended up going into the Army in 1958.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BRUCE: In Stuttgart. I was in the counter-intelligence agency.

TP: Good training for the record business.

BRUCE: Yeah, right. “Counter-intelligence” is correct, too. It was fun. I had the best time of my life. I was stationed in Stuttgart.

TP: Not so much towards the interview, but I know at the time a number of musicians were stationed in Germany, which made for a fairly active jazz scene.

BRUCE: Who was there at that point?

TP: Don Ellis, Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, people like Roscoe Mitchell and Albert Ayler were and intersected with the Germans… Various prehistories to careers.

BRUCE: Well, in basic training, I used to play a terrible alto saxophone. I’d go to the enlisted men’s club and play with Calvin Newborn. There was a great piano player from Brooklyn who made one record, not as a leader, but as a sideman—Ed Stoudt. A black dude. Good player.

TP: And you went back, and you went to Bucknell. You majored in what at Bucknell?

BRUCE: Commerce and finance.

TP: So you had a business training.

BRUCE: I spent more time with liberal arts courses. I was more interested in literature and philosophy and all that than music courses. But my major was because my father was insistent that I have a career. So I had a Bachelor of Science degree. But I was more interested in the liberal arts subjects, so I took a lot of those.

TP: Was your father a businessman?

BRUCE: He was an engineer, a mechanical engineer. He went to Stevens in Hoboken. He took me down to Stevens for a test, an aptitude test. I was able to con the test. I could tell. He wanted me to be an engineer more than anything else. I had no interest in the sciences at all. I was feeble when it came to math and all that stuff. So I took a preference test with a pin that you hit to answer whether I’d rather be this, this, or this. By the time it was done, I’d rather be… My father and I sat down with the shrink who read back the results. He said, “Your son’s first skills are in music, then literature,” and way down the list was sciences. I said, “Dad, I told you.” I could easily tell where these questions were leading. Because he really was insistent. He was really tough about it. “Be an engineer, a real man’s job.” “ I like this, Dad.”

Anyway, I was a business major. I booked concerts at Bucknell. Every time we’d get a chance, I’d go to Philadelphia to hear Clifford Brown or Brubeck, whoever was playing there, or I’d go home to New York and go to Birdland. Mike Berniker was my roommate. He was a fabulous A&R man. He did all the Streisand records, and he did a lot of jazz records for Epic, too, like One Foot In The Gutter and those things. We were college roommates. We used to share our jazz collection, and we used to run off and drive down to Philadelphia and see Clifford Brown and Max Roach and all that.

TP: So you were the hipsters of the school.

BRUCE: Yeah, we were the hipsters of the school. There was no interest in jazz there.
TP: It’s interesting, because in the ‘60s, while you were establishing your mark on Columbia, Blue Note was at least in its artistic prime, in a lot of ways, or the second wave of its artistic prime.

BRUCE: Yes.

TP: You signed Bob Dylan in ‘64 or ‘65. There may have no better two-year period for Blue Note than those two years.

BRUCE: I didn’t get out as much. I was a new father. In ‘65, our first son was born. When I first got married, I had no money. I would go out as often as I could to see jazz in New York, but normally my wife would come with me. Then I went out to see jazz less frequently, because I had a kid, and when I was in New York, I was a 9-to-5’er. So there were people I really missed. Not missed, but I missed them live.

TP: One thing that Lion and Wolff did, it seems to me, and one reason why the musical production during the ‘60s is so consequential is that they went to the source and trusted the artists to record original music. They showed real faith in them, and it seems that this is something you’ve managed to do at Blue Note even in the changed environment of the ‘80s and ‘90s to the present. That’s a real continuity. I’d like to ask you about this and other continuities between the Lundvall Blue Note and the Lion-Wolff Blue Note.

BRUCE: The simple answer is that I believe that you have to give a real artist artistic freedom. You can’t tell them what to do, you can’t tell them how to make records, and you shouldn’t sign just marketing…we call them marketing…inconsequential marketing records. Marketing confections. I’ve done those in my career. You make real artistic records, and let the artist… The artist knows better than you do. You’re just a middleman. You make the right signing choices and let the artist have the freedom to make the record they believe in—within certain financial parameters, of course. That’s what Alfred and Frank did, I’m sure. That was a lesson I learned through John Hammond and through all the records I bought as a fan.

TP: But in the 1970s, it seems the prevailing ethos was not so much along those lines.

BRUCE: Well, you’re talking about the fusion era, too. We had Bitches Brew at Columbia Records with Miles. It was a landmark record. I signed Return to Forever. Clive…well, somebody else signed Mahavishnu. So we had some of the better examples of fusion music.

TP: Who signed Keith Jarrett, by the way?

BRUCE: Clive did, and dropped him. There was a moment in time, I think… I shouldn’t tell you this, because I don’t want to disparage Clive. There was a moment in time where we had Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Mingus. They were all dropped in one day. How this happened, I have no idea. I think on the same day all of them were dropped at one point. Keith Jarrett called me… It was the only time I ever really spoke to the man. I was a marketing guy. “You fucking jerks,” and so on. I said, “Listen, I didn’t drop you; I had nothing to do with your contract at all.” But he was very angry at Columbia Records, that’s all.
Bill Evans, whom I had convinced Clive to sign (I was still in marketing then), had won a Grammy for the trio album. He made two albums, the trio album and an orchestral record…

TP: With Claus Ogermann?

BRUCE: Yeah. Anyway, he had won a Grammy for his first album, the trio record, and Columbia Records didn’t win any other Grammies of any consequence that year, and Clive (this is not for the article) walked right by him. Didn’t even say, “Congratulations.” He was so pissed off we didn’t win any pop awards. Bill started crying. I had to stay with him half the night—he and Helen Keane. He was just so upset. The man who’s the President of the company wouldn’t even say “congratulations.” I won this Grammy, one of the few Grammies had won that year. That’s the way it was.

I think what happened is that Clive thought he could do anything. He had all these successful rock-and-roll acts. He was the king of the hill. Therefore, if you sign the jazz artists who were important names, that someone else would tell him were important, that would be great.

TP: I don’t know how accurate Frederick Dannen’s book is, but grandiose notions, grandiose ambitions seemed rife in the overall culture of the record business during those years.

BRUCE: The idea that the executives are more important than the artists, yes.

TP: So you had no relationship with Lion and Wolff, other than that you were probably getting the records at the time.

BRUCE: I got all the records, but I didn’t really know them at all. I knew Ahmet. I knew Creed Taylor. I knew Bob Weinstock from Prestige. I knew Norman Granz. But for some reason, I just didn’t know them. They were rather private people. Apparently, Frank Wolff was a very private man, and Alfred was a shy fellow.

TP: Also, they were emigres, so perhaps felt a bit alienated from the mainstream culture.

BRUCE: Yes. I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I can’t give you an answer. I loved the label. It was always my absolute favorite label, my favorite jazz label by far. I would buy many of the records without even hearing them in the store, even at the time when you could listen to records in the store.

When I finally met Alfred, when we started Blue Note, for the first time really meeting him, we brought him in for the Town Hall concert, he asked me two questions. One, he said, “What are you going to do to make money?” “You’re asking me this? YOU are asking me what we’re going to do to make money, a man who did such great artistic records that probably didn’t make money?” That was the surprise first question. He said, “Yah, you’re owned by EMI, a big corporate company. What are you going to do? You have to make money, or Blue Note will be dead before you know it.”

TP: He experienced that with Liberty.
BRUCE: Sure. So I said, “Well, you’re completely right.” So the first artist that we signed was Stanley Jordan, who sold a half-a-million albums. Alfred loved Stanley’s playing. He thought he was a total original, which he was—but he had certain limitations; we’re not going to talk about him.

Then the second question was, “I want you to use guys who are going to go as far out as we did with Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and these people.” So we did a little bit of that. Not as much as I’d have liked.

TP: Well, you signed Don Pullen in the ‘80s.

BRUCE: Don Pullen George Adams. Andrew Hill we signed back. Andrew Hill was a request of Alfred at Mount Fuji. When he was invited to come to the first Mount Fuji Festival in ‘86, Andrew Hill had all new music, and he had a band with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, and so on. We went to a rehearsal in the afternoon which was extraordinary. Every musician was sitting there, in awe of what Andrew had created. Then came the concert the next afternoon, and there was a huge windstorm, and all the sheet music was blowing off the stage, and these guys were trying to play this very complex by memory. It was kind of disastrous, in a way. It still worked. But had the sheet music not blown away… It was really blowing off the stage. But Alfred said, “The one guy I thought was a total original genius, like Monk and Herbie Nichols and Bud Powell, was Andrew Hill, and I really want you guys to sign him.” And we did.

TP: Before we get to what you did with the label when you assumed your position, could you recount for me (I know it’s for the eight-millionth time) the circumstances that led to the label’s revival and your… You went to Elektra from Columbia, right…

BRUCE: Yeah. I started Elektra Musician…

TP: It was a great label.

BRUCE: Well, thank you. We tried real hard to do something fresh with it, the way we did the covers, the liner notes, and all that stuff. I was very proud of the label, and I was on the RIAA board. The RIAA had quarterly meetings, and we had a meeting down in Washington, and Bhaskar Menon was on the board as well, from Capitol Records. He said, “I’d like to have dinner with you tonight.” So we had dinner. He said, “How would you like to start Blue Note again? It’s been dormant now for about five years.” “What?” “Can you get out of your contract at Elektra?” I said, “Wait, wait, wait-wait.” I hesitated for a moment. I said, “This is my favorite label. Do you know how tempted I am to say yes right now? But I also do pop music on Elektra. I don’t want to stop doing that. I enjoy it.” He said, “Well, we need a catchment center on the East Coast.” “A catchment center? What is that?” “We have two labels on the West Coast, Capitol Records and EMI-America. We have no label on the East Coast. So we could start two labels. We could start Blue Note again and start an East Coast, fully-staffed pop label, not just a vanity label.” I said, “When we do we start?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘we’?” I said, “Michael Cuscuna and I. I want Michael to help me with Blue Note, because he knows… He has Mosaic, so I can’t hire him on staff, but I’d like to hire him as a consultant.”

TP: Did he already have Mosaic then?

BRUCE: Yes. I said, “We can hire him as a consultant.” He agreed to that. So Michael and I together started Blue Note, not just me alone.

TP: What was the original division of responsibility between the two of you?

BRUCE: There was none. Like Alfred and Frank, in a way. Well, I shouldn’t make any comparisons. The first question I said was, ‘How the fuck do I fill Alfred Lion’s shoes? I’m not qualified.” What a challenge. What an opportunity! My favorite label, and I’ve been asked to run it after all these years.” This is what I really wanted to do right when I left college. Now 27 years later, I had the chance to do it.

I realized that my musical interests were focused essentially in jazz. I could do other things, and I wanted to keep doing other things, but I felt you stay true to the art that you grew up with and that you love still, the thing that moves you more than any other kind of music. So I had to do it. Anyway, I had to get out of my contract at Elektra, which had a year to go. So I went to a guy named David Horowitz, who was Steve Ross’ senior executive who handled all the record labels—Elektra, Warner’s and Atlantic. He said, “We don’t want you to leave. Krasnow and you have returned the label to profit.” Which we did. We’d lost a lot of money; we returned it to a profit, luckily, doing the Linda Ronstadt What’s New album and Dick Griffey’s label, Solar, having a lot of success. So we’re doing well, we’re making money again, and they didn’t want me to leave. I said, “I really don’t want to stay here. This is too small a company to have a Chairman and a President.” Krasnow was the Chairman, I was the President. We didn’t really get along very well.

Finally, David Horowitz said, “Look, we never someone to just work against their will. If you really want to talk that badly, you have to talk to… I’ll let Bob Krasnow make the decision.” I said, “oh, good.” I knew what Krasnow would say. I went to Krasnow and said, “I have this opportunity and I really have to take it now.” “You’re right! Good for you, man. Do it, do it!” He wanted me out of there, like, in a flash. By the end of the night, I was gone. I had my farewell party and I was gone.

One of the funniest things that happened was… Krasnow and I had an off-and-on relationship. Difficult man. Good music man, but a difficult guy. We got along, but just barely. So that night at the farewell party, Bill Berger… I don’t know if you know Bill Berger at all. An international guy with a good sense of humor. They had all this talk about me. He said, “I remember when Lundvall got two phone calls on two different lines. One was Michael Jackson, the other was Dexter Gordon. He picked up the phone, he said, ‘Hi, Dexter!’” That summed it up. [Berger: Senior Vice-President of International for Elektra Records and was responsible for all aspects of their artist’s foreign sales, foreign tours and marketing.]

TP: Is that a true story?

BRUCE: True story… I don’t know if it’s true or not. [LAUGHS] But I love that story. “Bruce, I have Michael Jackson on line one and Dexter Gordon on line two.” “Hi, Dex!”

TP: So at Blue Note, you have to form a roster and create a personality for the label, and the challenge not to make it a retro label, but to sort of be what Blue Note would be in its time.

BRUCE: Here’s what we did. Blue Note has to be a label of its time. So the first thing I thought of was: Well, we don’t have Frank Wolff’s photographs. We don’t have Reid Miles, because he’s now making television commercials, making a lot of money, and we can’t afford to hire him to design the covers. And Rudy Van Gelder can’t be the only engineer to make records with the Blue Note artists, because they have the freedom to be on any studio they want to. That’s very clear to me. So what do we do now? I thought we should have Reid Miles do all the covers so we had a consistency. But then I thought, “You know what? It will look like the old records maybe. So maybe it’s better not to have them. If we can’t afford Reid, we can’t afford him.” So I had to use different designers and so on to do the covers. Rudy understood that he couldn’t be the only studio in town. Frank and Alfred owned the label. It was their label; they could do what they wanted. Rudy was my favorite engineer. So some artists would like to record there, and others did not. So I had all these issues. It was really causing lots of problems, just thinking about, “What the hell do I do now?” The answer was, “Just do what you have to do. Be a label for the current time. Sign artists for the current period of time that are moving the music forward, who hopefully are quality artists, and change the cover design to whatever it has to be and go to whatever studio the artist wants to go to.” And they had the freedom to do it.

TP: 1985 is an interesting moment in jazz. Columbia had been in the forefront of the “Young Lions” phenomenon with Wynton Marsalis, and Art Blakey was resurgent and all these young artists were coming through that. Then the artists from the ‘70s fusion and avant-garde areas who were still popular and active, some of whom you signed. There were many factions and styles, some overlapping, some not. I’m interested in how you strategized.

BRUCE: What happened is, there were two artists who had come to me at Elektra-Musician who I wanted to sign, and Krasnow… I don’t want it mentioned in the article. But I was turned down. Put it that way. Jordan came to my office and played for me. He brought his guitar and his little amp on a Pullman cart from the railroad station, and played for me. I thought he was fairly outstanding, pretty unusual. Petrucciani I saw with Charles Lloyd. I thought this guy was an amazing player; long lines, a beautiful, conceptual player, a creative player.

The first artist I signed was probably Stanley, although it might have been Michel. I’m not sure. I knew about them, so those were the first two signings for Blue Note. Then Michael and I decided we should bring back the artists who were still relevant. So we signed Tony Williams, Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, to make records again for Blue Note. Which made sense. Then we had the Town Hall concert in 1985, and we brought back as many artists as we could. Now, I told Cuscuna, “We’ve got to do this; we have to relaunch the label with a flair. Let’s have a concert. Do it at Town Hall. Bring back all the Blue Note artists from the past and bring all the new ones on stage that we’ve signed.” Cuscuna thought I was mad. But I said, “We’ve got to do this.”

So Michael did the whole thing. Then he said, “Let me get Alfred to come. His wife will never let him come to New York, because he’s got a bad heart, and half of it probably comes from his experiences with these artists through so many years of sessions every night, and all this stuff.” so I said, “Let’s send him a telegram.” So we sent Alfred a telegram, saying that we were having this concert on February 26th (I think it was, or 22nd, I’m not sure…) at Town Hall to celebrate the rebirth of Blue Note, and we want you to come as a guest of honor, and Rudy Van Gelder, and Reid Miles, and so on.”

The next day, I got a phone call at home. It was a Saturday. He said, “Bruce. It’s Alfred.” “Yes, Alfred. My God, it’s you.” He said, “Do you have a pen or pencil there, and a piece of paper?” I said, “Yes.” “Write this down. We have to have Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley…”—he listed all the tenor players that are on there. “Alto saxophone. Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson. Drums. Art Blakey.” He went on and on, the whole thing. I said, “I have a list here of about 50 different artists. I don’t think we can have that many of them. We’ll have as many as we can get.’ So we had 35 different musicians, including the newly-signed ones.

Alfred came to New York. We started with a dinner at the Plaza Hotel. At the beginning of the dinner, I saw a tear in Alfred’s eye. I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “You don’t understand that Ruth would never be allowed in this hotel when we had Blue Note.” She’s a black woman, a very light-skinned black woman. “This is the first time she’s ever eaten in this hotel; we always wanted to eat here.” A sad moment.

TP: A poignant moment.

BRUCE: Poignant is right. Then “What are you going to do? Are you going to make it commercial? Are you in tune with the times?” All that kind of stuff. We had a long, wonderful meeting. The next day at rehearsals, he brought his little camera. He had a reunion with all of his friends, Art Blakey and all of those guys, and they rehearsed into the night. Then the night came. It started at 8 o’clock and ended I think at 4 in the morning.

TP: I guess you didn’t care about the union overtime that night.

BRUCE: I said, “Fuck the union now. We’re too late. There’s nothing to do about it. We have three more acts to go on.” So it ended at 3 or 4 in the morning. The only artists who couldn’t play, who really wanted to play… There were two. Milt Jackson we failed to invite—bad mistake. Hank Mobley was too ill. He came and wanted to play alto saxophone, but he wasn’t very well.

TP: so that relaunched the label.

BRUCE: When the concert was over, we had a party with a jam session until 8 or 9 in the morning. It was incredible. Incredible memory. Walking out into the daylight, and “oh my God, what have we been through?”

TP: Some of those guys were used to those hours.

BRUCE: Oh, yeah. But just the idea of “What have we done here?” It took a while to really readjust that we’ve actually relaunched the label. It was great. Not all of the music was great, but most of it was at a high level. Art Blakey forgot his hearing aid. He didn’t hear the rhythm right at first, then he finally caught up right away. Cuscuna could tell you a lot about what happened on the stage and backstage. Then we gave an award to Alfred. I have a lovely tape of Alfred’s speech. Beautiful. He said, “Thirty-five years ago, Art Blakey asked me to be one of his little messengers. I tried to preach the good gospel of jazz for all this time, and I hope Art is happy.” A lovely thing, the way he said it, with the German accent and stuff. He became our spiritual godfather. He was on the phone for most of the week with us at least.

TP: When did he die?

BRUCE: ‘86 or ‘87.

TP: So not long…

BRUCE: No. We brought him to Mount Fuji for the festival. That was another festival. The Japanese were in awe of Blue Note records, which were licensed by King Records in Japan.

TP: They had all the unissued and out of print albums.

BRUCE: Right. All that.

TP: I recall seeing them at Soho Music Gallery in the early ‘80s, when people like John Zorn were fetishistically collecting all this stuff.

BRUCE: Oh, I know. So they decided they would put on a festival, a major television station there, at the foot of Mount Fuji, right at the base of Lake Yamanaka(?) looking out on Mount Fuji. They built this enormous stage, about the size of Woodstock, had a 7-camera shoot over three afternoons and two evenings, and on a smaller stage at the hotel for nighttime jam sessions after the major events were done. It was amazing! Alfred was the guest of honor. The moment that was poignant for me was when Alfred came out and was introduced for the first time—I think it was on Saturday afternoon. These people stood up, and something like 30,000 fans out there… It was like Woodstock. It was incredible. Standing, giving him a standing ovation that must have lasted fully 3 or 4 minutes. He was in tears. He said, “I’ve never been to Japan before, never in my life. To think that now, after all these years, they’d be honoring my label.” So it was a pretty amazing time.

TP: How was all this translating into sales and profitability at the beginning?

BRUCE: At the beginning, mainly it was coming from the reissues, obviously. Stanley Jordan was selling a lot of records. His record was on the Billboard jazz chart for a full year. 51 weeks. Not 52, but 51 weeks. Tom Noonan was running the charts then. Tom cheated us out of the last week. We could have had a full year!

Anyway, his record was selling. The reissues, obviously, of Sidewinder and Blue Train were the key, records that had been big in the past. Song For My Father.

TP: They were big in the past. But it seems that when they were reissued they became recognized as iconic.

BRUCE: Iconic. Exactly right.

TP: I don’t think they’d been iconic before then.

BRUCE: Probably not before then.

TP: So the brand took on an identity of its own. Joe Jackson ripped off the Sonny Rollins album cover. In the postmodern pop world, something about Blue Note resonated as a signifier.

BRUCE: Yes. It became extremely hip. Then the England company started to put out these crazy reissues, Blue Bossa, blue-this, blue-that, about 25 different releases, with hip artwork. They’re fun, and they sold extremely well in the U.K., and they sold a bit here.

TP: I’m going to ask a few of my talking points. One is how you reestablished the Blue Note brand to suit the climate of the early ‘80s. Not that you necessarily thought of it as a brand, but you were a marketing person.

BRUCE: I hate the word “brand”, by the way. It was clear to me that Stanley Jordan, for one, was an artist that had a young appeal—as well as good traditional appeal, to a degree, but certainly a young appeal. At the very least, we were very interested in reaching out to that, as well as retaining the serious, straight-ahead aspect of the label. Then Petrucciani became a bit of a phenomenon in his own way. Then later, Eliane Elias came to the label and she sold the Brazilian stuff very well. Later, in ‘89, Greg Osby did a hip-hop kind of record. We signed Medeski, Martin and Wood; I chased them around for a long time. Then Charlie Hunter. Then Dianne Reeves. Because after all, we didn’t have any… Alfred was not a big fan of vocalists, apparently. I never asked him about this. I should have. I should have, though. He preferred instrumentalists. He recorded one Sheila Jordan album, two albums by Dodo Greene, and that’s about it—unless Babs Gonzalez could be considered a serious singer (I don’t think so).

TP: Bill Henderson on the Horace Silver records.

BRUCE: Yes. But he was apparently not a big fan of vocalists. But it was second nature to me. When I heard Dianne Reeves for the first time… George Duke had called me and said, “You should sign my cousin, Dianne.” I said, “I don’t particularly like the record she made on Palo Alto. She’s a good singer, that’s for sure.” Well, I went to L.A. for a…outside the Wilshire Theater. There was a Duke Ellington tribute that they were videotaping and recording, that never came out, but Dianne Reeves was a guest vocalist on the night, and she sang two solo Ellington pieces and one duet with O.C. Smith, the R&B singer. I fell apart. I raced back to her dressing and I said, “You’re on Blue Note. I’ve got to sign you.” And we signed her then, in ‘87 or ‘88. She was the first major vocalist that we signed, and she’s been with us ever since.

After that, it was Rachelle Farrell, who is an amazing singer with an incredible voice, and she was very successful as well, selling half a million records. Although that was on Capitol; on Blue Note she sold several hundred thousand. Then I brought in Lena Horne at one point, and we made the last record of her career.

TP: Then Cassandra in 1993, who was very successful.

BRUCE: Very, very successful. Cassandra wanted to make a jazz album of R&B tunes. Actually, I heard her perform at an R&B club, owned by a former R&B singer, on 8th Avenue…B. Smith’s. Cassandra was singing upstairs. It was a fusion kind of thing. It was one of her downtown phases. She had a percussionist and a synthesizer player and a very loud guitarist. They all but drowned her out. I met with her the next day. I said, “Cassandra, I didn’t sign a democratic group here. I want you. I signed you. You have a great voice, you write interesting songs. Let’s make an acoustic record. Can we do that?” She was a little insulted. We had a long meeting. “How about doing this album of R&B…” I said, “It’s been done before. It’s ok. I want to make sure you do an album that focuses on you, your voice, your songs, and I want it to be acoustic.” That was my contribution to her career, and that was it. So she came back to me in about a week with two songs, “Tupelo Honey” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, produced by Craig Street, who I didn’t know. I had heard the name, but I didn’t know who it was. He had produced a Jimi Hendrix concert and some other stuff. He was working in construction, living in the same building that she did in Harlem. He had broken his foot, so they used to hang out on the front porch and just talk about music. He’s the one that said to her, “Who were your influences when you were young? You like Joni Mitchell. Why don’t you do one of her songs?” And so on. So when she came in with this demo, I said, “Oh my God, this is the whole plot. We’ve found the plot. Or he did. Or the two of you did. This is the record.” The record was enormously successful for us.

TP: And it established a certain template for ‘90s pop music that remains today. It brings me to another question. Looking at it retrospectively, as someone who has been a fan of the music as long as you have and been involved in it professionally as long as you have… The sound of jazz was changing at the cusp of the ‘90s in a lot of different ways. The vocabulary was becoming more inclusive, more internationalized, with Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music entering the mainstream, hip-hop influences, and so on, and you signed Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Osby, Don Byron…

BRUCE: Chucho.

TP: Ron Carter, too.

BRUCE: We licensed Ron through the Japanese company.

TP: Weren’t Chucho and Gonzalo also through…

BRUCE: No. What happened is, when I was at Columbia Records, we did Havana Jam. I went down there and signed Irakere. I heard how great the musicians were in Cuba, and I became a huge fan of what was going on in Cuban music, and we signed Irakere to Columbia, with Jimmy Carter’s blessing, and we won a Latin Grammy with the first album of Irakere. So with Blue Note, I went back down there and signed Chucho, but I had to sign him through the Canadian company with the embargo. Charlie Haden brought me Gonzalo. He’d just come from the Montreal festival, where they’d done a series of nights dedicated to his music. One night he heard this Cuban pianist. He said, “Have you heard this kid?” I said, “No. Let me come…” Charlie Haden played me a tape. Gonzalo had just gotten off the plane after trying to get to Montreal through Kennedy Airport. They wouldn’t let him stay off the plane. They sent him back to Cuba, and he had a private plane. I heard him, and I thought, “This guy is unbelievable. I have to get down…” So we went down to Havana and signed him, but through the Japanese company, since we weren’t allowed.

TP: So you were able to leverage the international structure of EMI in a creative way.

BRUCE: We also made another album with Irakere. We made an album with Frank Emilio Flynn.

TP: Lovano came on board in 1990. Very long term relationships with these artists.

BRUCE: Well, yeah. The idea is to stay with them as long as you possibly can. Lovano has been with us now for 16 albums, something like that?

TP: I think this will be his 21st.

BRUCE: You’re right. Dianne Reeves since ‘87. Osby had a long run.

TP: So did Don Byron, and Gonzalo has been with you ever since…

BRUCE: Gonzalo ever since the beginning.
TP: Again, this comes back to balancing art and commerce. Through your acumen or luck or whatever it is, you found artists who sold large units, and used one to pay for another, or so it’s said. Is that how you were thinking about it? Speak a bit about the economics of creating art records.

BRUCE: Well, we’ll start with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” as an example. We sold millions of records all over the world. It was a Blue Note record that we put out on the Manhattan label, because we didn’t think it should be in the jazz section of the store. We thought we had a it, and we did. But it was a Blue Note record, actually, because he was signed to Blue Note, but Manhattan was a sister label. It was a matter of marketing technique. We put it on Manhattan, because we didn’t want to be in the jazz section of the store; we wanted to be in the mainstream section of the record store.

Then came US-3 with “Cantaloupe Island,” which was ‘90 or something. That album sold at least 2 million copies. Then between that, we had Dianne Reeves’ very first record, which sold several hundred thousand. So we always had something going like that, starting with Stanley Jordan.

But I didn’t think of it in terms of paying the way for the other stuff. We were able to keep our budgets fairly tight. Some of the artists did lose some money—not a lot. Others made a small profit. It continues that way right now. When Norah Jones came around, she changed the paradigm of everything. That was one of those… People ask how I signed her. I say, “I returned a phone call.” “What do you mean, you returned a phone call.” I said, “So many people in our business are so arrogant, they don’t return phone calls. I return every phone call I ever get, by the end of the day, if possible, and by the end of the week, certainly.” I got a call from some woman in the royalty accounting department whom I didn’t even know. She was an accountant. I said, “Do we have a royalty problem?” She said, “No. I want you to hear this jazz artist that I found.” I said, “Ok, send me something.” She said, “No, I want you to meet her.” I said, “Ok, bring her in on Friday at the end of the day, when things are a little bit more quiet.” So Norah came in… This girl, Michelle White, who is in our royalty department, and like a lot of people in the royalty department you don’t know these people at all. It turns out that her husband, who is a jazz musician, has a downtown band, and Norah used to sit in with the band. He said, “Take her to Lundvall, who runs Blue Note.” Well, after hearing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” one time, I said, “You’re on Blue Note.” She said, “What?” I said, “I don’t even need to hear the other two songs.” I said, “Who’s the piano player? He’s a pretty good piano player.” She said, “Oh, it’s me.” “You’re on Blue Note. Get yourself an attorney.” That’s really how it happened. Then I listened to the other two songs, that were equally good. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” is the one that killed me. It’s a tough song to do. She did it better than almost anyone I ever heard. It was a demo. Then she played me “Walking My Baby Back Home,” which everyone does, and it was fine. Then there was a pop song.

While we waited for her to get a contract, we did a separate demo deal, so she could demonstrate some of the songs that she wanted to think about for her first album. Well, it was all over the place. There were pop songs, there was a Mose Allison song, there was a Hank Williams song, there was Ellington, there was Strayhorn, Bessie Smith (“Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”). They were all this (?—1:12:17), and they’re all terrific in their way. She demoed these songs in one night.

I said, “what kind of record do you really want to make?” She said, “This is the music I want to do.” Anyway, Arif Mardin produced the record, and it had a huge success—20 million records worldwide with that one record. It changed everything. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to be on Blue Note, including Kenny Loggins, whom I knew from Columbia days. I said, “Listen, it’s still a jazz label.” So he came to us as a jazz artist. He didn’t make exactly a jazz record, but jazz-informed, yes.

TP: Is Van Morrison on Blue Note?

BRUCE: Was. One record came out on Blue Note. Looked like a Blue Note cover. That’s his history. He makes one record with each company, and then goes on to the next one. So he has a new one coming out on Manhattan, Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl.

TP: Al Green started resurrecting himself on the label.

BRUCE: We found out that Al Green was ready to make his first secular record in a lot of years. So Michael and I went to Memphis, and Willie Mitchell played us the record with Al. Al is incredible. We had dinner that night. Al was going to make this record on his own vanity label. By the end of the night we’d had a few drinks, and he said, “I think we should be on Blue Note.”

The Anita Baker came along. She wanted to be on the same label that had her favorite singers, Cassandra Wilson and “that young girl, what’s her name…” I said, “Norah Jones.” “That’s where I want to be.” She had a vanity label under her contract, but she said, “I want to be on Blue Note,” so she’s on Blue Note.

TP: So the bottom line is that Norah Jones opened the door for people to see you as a label that could handle them, market them.

BRUCE: They knew the quality of the label, the history of the label. “If I can be on this label, I add to the great quality and artistic history, and they can still sell as many records as Capitol can, or more. Or I want to be on the pop label.” That was really it. Norah Jones made that a very clear example.

TP: Do you think this develoment had something to do with the changing demographics of the listening audience, an aging audience with different tastes and aspirations?

BRUCE: I think so. I think people were getting tired of the quality of the music that they were listening to. Norah summed it up pretty much with one album. Great voice, sensitive, intelligent, very musical, jazz-informed, and yet not inaccessible.

TP: You also had Kurt Elling during these years.

BRUCE: I read a piece in the Chicago Tribune by Howard Reich about the three most important jazz singers of the decade. It was Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Kurt Elling. I said, “Who the hell is Kurt Elling? I never heard of this guy.” So about a week later, I was going to the dentist’s in western New Jersey, and I was going through my bag to look for something to play, and picked a cassette—Kurt Elling. “This is the guy Howard Reich wrote about.. I was curious. I put it on and I went nuts. “Oh my God, this guy’s really fresh and very original.” so I went to the dentist’s office, got my novocaine and all that stuff, drove back to New York, and I’m still listening to it a second time, I’m going out of my mind. I see there’s a phone number on the cassette, and it might be his number, so I dialed it from the car phone. I said, “I’m looking for Kurt Elling.” He said, “This is Kurt.” “You don’t know me. My name is Bruce Lundvall; I’m with Blue Note records.” I said, “I love your record; I’m listening to it now,” and I played it back over the phone.” I said, “When can I see you? I want to see you perform?” “I’m playing Monday night at the Green Mill in Chicago.” This was a Thursday night. “I’ll be there.” “This is just an improvisational thing; it’s not anything planned.” “Even better. I’ll be there.”

So I went. I had Richard Marx with me, who I had signed to Manhattan Records— a pop artist. He lives in Chicago. A great cat. “You want to come with me?” We had dinner, and we went to see Kurt Elling at the Green Mill. Kurt Elling didn’t know who I was. After the first song, Richard said, “You’re going to sign him, aren’t you.” I said, “You’re fucking right, I am.” So we had a handshake then and there, and we signed him.

TP: You’re extremely hands-on.

BRUCE: Yeah.

TP: Well, not everyone who runs a larger label is as hands-on as you. I could be wrong about that.

BRUCE: No, they could be wrong by not being more hands-on. They have to be. If you love the music, you are hands on. Are you going to sit and let someone else do everything? I’ve become a fairly decent delegator at this point in my career after all these years. I was never that good at delegating in the past. But I still want to keep my hand in. I don’t allow anyone to be signed who I don’t approve of. Eli Wolf is becoming a terrific A&R man for us. Terrific. He’s been doing this now for about ten years, and I trust his judgment. But we still work together like that. Michael and I work together like that.

I think what’s happened, in a strange way… I’m writing a little piece for a book that’s coming out in Germany of Frank Wolff’s photographs and Jimmy Katz’s photographs together, which ten years ago is the way we presented the sixtieth anniversary of Blue Note, with the box set and the booklet with his photographs of the current roster and Frank’s photographs of the past. I think Jimmy Katz is becoming our Frank Wolff photographer at Blue Note. He doesn’t do every cover by any means, but he’s fabulous.

It’s interesting, the way things come together in this manner. I feel we’re really a team. It’s not me. It’s a team of people that are friends, who respect one another, that work together very effectively. We have issues, too, that we have to face that are not so pleasant from time to time. But we do have a good team of people who respect one another, and are really first and foremost about the music. That’s what’s made it work. I’d really be embarrassed if I had to tell you that this has been a failure. It’s been successful commercially, it’s been successful artistically as far as I’m concerned. It will never be as successful as what Alfred Lion created in the first place.

TP: Why not? Why couldn’t it be?

BRUCE: I think he had artists that were so one-of-a-kind and had such giants. We have to see how many of our artists become that in time. We’ll see.

TP: What’s your sense of it?

BRUCE: My sense is that there are certain artists we have who will be recognized 30-40-50 years from now. Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano certainly, Gonzalo without question, Jason Moran certain, hopefully Glasper (we’ll see what happens). Who else am I missing?

TP: All of them are high quality artists.

BRUCE: Bill Charlap, too, in his own straight-ahead way, a conservative way, but what a masterful player.

TP: He’s serving as the face of your 70th anniversary at this point.

BRUCE: Yes. Well, he’s really the Musical Director of the Blue Note 7. He’s very anal. He’s very precise. Highly intelligent. So he’s brought a group of guys together in a way that they got very frustrated, but they respect him, and when it was done they said, “We like this record; thank god for Bill.” They all had their own ideas, but they respected him. He handled them very well.

TP: I think he got excellent training for that in booking the 92nd Street Y series.

BRUCE: Yes. He’s an amazing man. Wynton has been a joy to work with. I wish he worked only on making records, and not working on all these other things, like building Jazz at Lincoln Center. But he’s done an extraordinary piece of work with this music, no doubt about it. He’s a great player, no question about it. I wish he had more time to devote just simply to writing and playing.

TP: Then Terence Blanchard, who’s recorded at least one major work for you.

BRUCE: Oh, yeah. Not only that, we’ve signed two artists out of his band, Aaron Parks and Lionel Loueke. So here’s a guy who fosters young talent brilliantly. They’ve stuck with him.

TP: I think Terence hews closely to the Art Blakey dictum of nurturing young players.

BRUCE: Exactly right. When people say there’s no more Art Blakey around, or a school of Art Blakey or a school of Max Roach, or that kind of thing—well, there’s a school of Terence Blanchard.

TP: But again, without trying to butter you up too much…

BRUCE: You can keep doing that. It’s ok.

TP: Ok, I’ll butter you up. It seems that Blue Note under you has been uniquely receptive to the shifting winds. You’re not the most radical label, but in the ‘80s your roster included Don Pullen and James Newton, and Lovano and Gonzalo have done some pretty wild records, Osby never compromised on anything, Jason is conceptually venturesome, Don Byron as well.

BRUCE: You bet.

TP: Again, we get back to you as a kind of diplomat. Not quite akin to sustaining world peace…

BRUCE: World peace I can’t handle.

TP: …but keep the balance between the million-sellers and this sort of…

BRUCE: You have to do that. As Alfred suggested, what are you going to do that keeps the label profitable? Because if you’re not profitable, they’ll close you down. We’ve been profitable every year. Last year was a tough one. We lost a little money last year. That was the first time in… I have a 12-year running tab on our profitability, and we were profitable at least for 12 years. In the early years we were, too, but we were coalesced with the Manhattan label and so on. So we’re separated. We wrote a separate P&L on both labels.

TP: Your brand is so associated with the legacy of music in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and the notion of back catalog.

BRUCE: Yup.

TP: Now, it’s impossible not to notice that even an artist like Joe has only four albums listed on the website, none of Osby’s are listened, only two of Don Byron’s—at least as far as hardcopy.

BRUCE: They will be all available on the Internet.

TP: Let’s speak about the challenge of sustaining the label’s identity in an environment where economics don’t allow much back product to be in print.

BRUCE: The problem really is that there are no record stores any more. It’s as simple as that. Very few. Thank God for J&R Music World and places like that. Borders’ is on the threat of bankruptcy, and Tower is already gone. There are very few Virgin stores left anywhere. So it’s really a tough time for retail. Those are the retailers that carry catalog, carry Blue Note and carry classical music and everything else. They’re not here any more. So the Internet is the way forward. It has to be. There’s no other options. There’s a small market for vinyl. We’re doing vinyl again on a certain level. But we’re talking about something that’s small. Still, it’s encouraging to see that people like the quality of vinyl and they’re buying turntables again. It doesn’t surprise me, but in a way it does.

TP: Do you have any feelings about analog versus digital?

BRUCE: I love the sound of vinyl. I’ll be honest with you. I think the seeds of destruction were built into the CD itself. You get 79 minutes of music. That’s too much music. Less is more. What is art about? Less is always more. You always want the audience waiting for more. You buy an LP, you’ve got 17 minutes on a side, you can turn it over or not turn it over right away, you’ve got a 12″-by-12″ portrait, you had liner notes that you could read even when you got old and your eyes got bad. Now I have to read the notes with a magnifying glass. And the sound is not as good. It just isn’t. Put on an LP, and the warmth of the sound and quality of the sound is quite superior. Even when you hear scratches and ticks, it doesn’t bother you. We’re used to them; at least I was. But I think the CD, as much as it did for the music, it encouraged artists to do more music.

I remember when Stefon Harris said to me, “I filled out every second of music on this CD.” I said, “Why?” First of all, you play the vibraphone with overtones, and it’s very hard to listen to that much vibraphone. Secondly, you don’t have that much good music. I didn’t really say it to him this way. I was more diplomatic than that. But I said, “Less is more, Stefon. If you had five great songs and the record lasted 45 minutes, it would be worth more than the record is now, at 70-75 minutes or whatever.” Now, don’t use the artist’s name, if you don’t mind, but an artist on the label. But I think this is true.

Also, CDs have become very expendable. You come into the office and grab a bunch of CDs. You couldn’t carry that many LPs out of the office. I really think that it encourages artists to be a little sloppy. They think they’re being diligent by offering you more music. It’s funny. If you’re documenting a symphony orchestra or something like that, then a CD that can contain the entire symphony, that’s wonderful. But it’s too much to listen to. No one’s attention span is long enough to sustain listening to 79 minutes of everything.

TP: I think CDs have the advantage in documenting live performance, because it’s a more seamless experience.

BRUCE: That’s true. But 50 minutes is fine. It’s all you need. I’d say, “Oh God, that’s so great. I want to hear more. I wonder what the next one is going to be like.” Rather than being sated by all this endless, endless stuff. After a while, the quality fades.

TP: Your taste notwithstanding, you adapted.

BRUCE: Well, yes. I remember at Columbia Records going to the Museum of Modern Art. We were right around the corner, in the CBS Building in those days. So I’d get a couple of guys in the art department to have lunch at the Museum of Modern Art, and we’d walk around and discuss the exhibits. I like art very much. I remember John Berg, the Art Director, and a woman who was there, too, whose name I’ve forgotten now, saying, “This is terrible, this whole advent of the CD. It’s going to be 5″-by-5″, and you can’t design anything for that size. It’s not going to work, no one will see anything, the LP is perfect…” They were thinking of it in terms of design, as graphic artists. I said, “Technology is going to win; you can’t win this one. You’re right in many respects, but you’re going to have to learn to design for the 5″-by-5″ format.

TP: Apart from questions of CD design, we’re already speaking of old history with digital technology.

BRUCE: Oh, I know.

TP: I just want to note for the record that you grimaced when you said “Oh, I know.” Nonetheless, you’re adapting.

BRUCE: About 16% of our volume now comes from digital technology, from the Internet. I don’t know how much downloading is done without paying for the music. Not too much in jazz, I don’t believe. Still people are buying physical records. But it’s all going to turn digital at one point in time, I think. Not entirely so, but I think 90% of it will be downloading the Internet. So we have to adapt that way. I’m a little bit old for that. I’m not really a technological guy at all. It frustrates me very often, to see people downloading everything and walking around with Ipods. Yes, it’s good in a way, but I think the problem with the computer world is that people spend their time looking into a fucking computer screen, and they can’t even communicate verbally or write a note that you can make sense out of. It’s a weird experience. Frustrating for me. I still write everything down.

TP: You write longhand.

BRUCE: Yes, always. It’s not easy for me now, because I have a little pre-stage Parkinson’s, so my handwriting is very small and illegible. That’s why I talk this way. It’s very strange. Supposedly, it’s not going to get any worse. I take a couple of pills every day, and that’s about it. But it affects your handwriting, it affects your speech, it affects your walking.
TP: You seem to have the discipline to mask it.

BRUCE: That’s good. For three years, I’ve been doing this show on Sirius, on Channel 72, which I do pro bono, of course. But why not? To get an hour, three times a week on the air, promoting Blue Note Records? Why not? It’s not easy for me just to talk into a microphone without an audience, but fortunately, I’ve had good producers like Matt Abramowitz, and now I’ve got Mark Ruffin, since they converted with XM. But the other day I did a show, and I completely lost it in the middle of describing something I wanted to play. It was the last tune on the show. My words just got fuckin’ jumbled. What the fuck is going on? What’s that? I snap into this malady.

TP: It must be very frustrating, after being so in control in your world.

BRUCE: It is. But normally I’m ok, but it will happen when you least expect it. It just happens. Your mind is going faster than your mouth.

TP: Let’s speak a bit more about the implications of the digital world. What to do to ensure Blue Note is around for its 75th?

BRUCE: You find the best and most original artists you can possibly find, and you sign them, and you give them the freedom to make great records. And they’re out there. It’s always a surprise. People like Jenny Scheinman. Fucking incredible artist, by the way. Many, many others.

TP: Did you sign her?

BRUCE: No.

TP: Who are some people out there whom you like?

BRUCE: There are a lot of people developing that I like. I haven’t found a tenor player that really strikes me now. Ravi Coltrane is coming into his own. I’m interested in him now, slowly, after the misjudgment of playing the same instrument his father did. He’s trying to develop now his own voice. But he’s been around for a bit.

Lizz Wright as a singer. She’s done three or four albums, but I think she’s got much more than she’s exhibited on record thus far.

TP: I don’t think she’s been produced properly.

BRUCE: No. Me either. Miguel Zenon. He’s got a great vision. Francisco Mela, this young drummer, is fabulous. I heard him before Joe. I heard him with Kenny Barron, and he just killed me! I thought, “Who the hell is this?” This guy has something special as a drummer. There’s a drummer named Willie Jones. I think the best trumpet player out there among the young guys, who is no longer a kid, is Roy Hargrove. He’s kind of stayed in one place, but still he’s a helluva player.

TP: Quickly, while the check comes, three signings you’re most proud of.

BRUCE: Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Joe Lovano. Not three. I have to give more than three. Jason Moran. Shit, man, that’s not fair. Bill Charlap I’m very proud of also. And Dianne Reeves. You have to include Dianne. She is the greatest singer around.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Bruce Lundvall, Interview, Jazziz

For Lou Donaldson’s 86th Birthday, the Complete Transcript of A June 2012 Conversation For the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project

To mark Lou Donaldson’s 88th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a two-day interview that I conducted with him for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project on June 20 & 21, 2012, shortly after he was designated an NEA Jazz Master. If I may say so, it’s a fairly comprehensive conversation. Many thanks to Ken Kimery for giving me the assignment. I’m also linking to a 2011 post of the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Lou did with me in 2006.

 

 

Lou Donaldson Oral History for Smithsonian (June 20-21, 2012):

LOU DONALDSON
NEA Jazz Master (2012)

Interviewee:        Louis Andrew “Lou” Donaldson (November 1, 1926-)
Interviewer:        Ted Panken
Dates:            June 20 and 21, 2012
Depository:        Archives Center, National Music of American History,
Smithsonian Institution.
Description:        Transcript. 81 pp.

[June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken. It’s June 20, 2012, and it’s day one of an interview with Lou Donaldson for the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Jazz Project. I’d like to start by putting on the record, Mr. Donaldson, your full name and your parents’ names, your mother and father.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Louis Andrew Donaldson, Jr. My father, Louis Andrew Donaldson, Sr. My mother was Lucy Wallace Donaldson.

Panken:   You grew up in Badin, North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Badin. That’s right. Badin, North Carolina.

Panken:   What kind of town is it?

Donaldson:   It’s a town where they had nothing but the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Everybody in that town, unless they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or something, worked in the plant.

Panken:   So it was a company town.

Donaldson:   Company town.

Panken:   Were you parents from there, or had they migrated there?

Donaldson:   No-no. They migrated.

Panken:   Where were they from?

Donaldson: My mother was from Virginia. My father was   from Tennessee. But he came to North Carolina to go to college.

Panken:   Which college did he go to?

Donaldson:   The college he went to was the oldest black college… I’m trying to think of it now. But Olds-heimers has got me. Not Alzheimers. Oldsheimer’s. It was in Salisbury, North Carolina. What was that college… Can’t think of it.

Panken:   We can look it up.

Donaldson:   You don’t have to look it up. I’ve got all that information in a book.

Panken:   Maybe we can get at it tomorrow. But in any event, how old were your parents? When were they born?

Donaldson:   They were old. What can I tell you?

Panken:   You don’t know the birthdates?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know the birthdates. I’ve got all of that. If you need that. But they moved to Badin… My mother was a teacher. She went to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, and she came back to this town and was a first grade teacher and music teacher, and choral director, band director, everything with music. My father was an AME Zion Methodist preacher and an insurance salesman. So we had a pretty stable family.

Panken:   You had two siblings, I think?

Donaldson:   Me?

Panken:   Yes. Did you have brothers and sisters?

Donaldson:   Yes, I have two sisters and one brother.

Panken:   Would you mind stating their names?

Donaldson:   Yes. My brother’s named William—William Donaldson. My older sister is Elouise Donaldson. My younger sister was Pauline.

Panken:   Did they all play music?

Donaldson:   Yup. All played music. All went into education. All are now retired and rich.

Panken:   Was your mother the main teacher?

Donaldson:   Not really. I mean, she started them out, but they originally went to college…all of them went to college.

Panken:   Now, socially, what was Badin, North Carolina like in the 1930s when you were growing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t too much…

Panken:   Was it segregated? Well, it was the South.

Donaldson:   You KNOW it was segregated.

Panken:   But was it a bad town, were there ways…

Donaldson:   No, it was segregated. It wasn’t a bad town because all of them worked together. Blacks and whites worked together in the aluminum plant. 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to wear these suits like space suits, and sometimes that ore would pop out and get on that suit, go right through the suit and right to their arms. It was a tough job. What they did, they separated the bauxite from… They got the bauxite from South Africa, and they’d process it and get the aluminum out of there, and it would flow out into some vats. It was a tough job.

Panken:   What was your entry into music? I think I’ve read that you started out playing clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I started playing clarinet. I didn’t want to play piano, because when she’d give lessons she had a switch, and when you’d miss a note she’d hit you across the fingers. So I said, “No-no, not me.” I was a baseball player. So that’s all I did, play baseball. But I used to go around the house humming, like the Bach Etudes and Haydn and all that, because I heard it when they played it on the piano. She got me one day and said, “Louis, you’ve got more music talent than anybody in this family; you can remember tunes and everything.” She said, “You need to start playing piano.” I said, “Not me.” She said, “All right, all right.” So she went across town and got a clarinet from the Alcoa Aluminum bandmaster. They had a band, all-white, of course. He gave her a clarinet. I mean, he sold her a clarinet. She brought it back. She didn’t know anything about a clarinet. But he had a book, and we studied the book, and I just learned how to play it.

Panken:   You studied yourself out of the book?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had a quick learning curve.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Obviously, you were meant to play music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, evidently.

Panken:   As a kid… You said you graduated high school when you were 15 and were the school valedictorian.

Donaldson: Yeah, right.

Panken:   So you must have had other interests besides music and sports. Or, if you weren’t that interested in school, it must have come fairly easily.

Donaldson:   Well, I was…what you call it…a precocious guy. I checked everything out. I could tell you right now New York Yankees in 1936.

Panken:   You mean the lineup?

Donaldson:   The whole lineup. I was a paper boy, and I used to deliver papers in the morning. I’d get up about 6 o’clock and deliver my papers, and about 7:30 I’d be finished with my papers, so I’d just sit on the front porch and read the sports. Way back.

Panken:   I know myself, box scores were a nice window into arithmetic and mathematics.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   But what were some of your other academic interests.

Donaldson:   Nothing really. I just…

Panken:   You just did well.

Donaldson:   I did well with anything, you know.

Panken:   So you graduated at 15. That’s 1941-42…

Donaldson:   ‘42.

Panken:   You were playing baseball, and you went directly to college?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Where did you go…

Donaldson: North Carolina A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. Greensboro, North Carolina.

Panken:   How far away is Greensboro from Badin?

Donaldson:   From my home town, 64 miles north.

Panken:   What was that school like?

Donaldson:   Well, it was an agricultural and technical school. They didn’t have a music department. I mean, they had a music department, but they didn’t have a music degree. But I got into the band, and got to play in it, so I was all right.

Panken:   What sorts of things did you play in that band, and what sorts of things were you used to playing…

Donaldson:   Marching bands and little semi-classical tunes.

Panken:   Where I’m going with this is, were you performing at all as a kid in Badin?

Donaldson:   No, no-no, no-no. Nothing in Badin. Nobody performed there but Country-and-Western. Roy Acuff. Hank Williams. People like that. They didn’t have no jazz.

Panken:   No black bands were coming through.

Donaldson:   No, no-no. We had a big station, WBT, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had one guy there named Grady Cole. Grady Cole had one record by Louis Armstrong, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on one side, “St. James Infirmary” on the other side, and he played it every… He loved it. I got to hear Louis singing and stuff. So that created my interest in jazz.

Panken:   Hearing Louis Armstrong on that record.

Donaldson:   That’s right. On that record.

Panken:   When you got to Greensboro, did jazz start to enter the picture more?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Because see, back then you couldn’t play jazz in college. If they caught you practicing jazz in the practice room, you couldn’t practice any more. They didn’t like jazz. They didn’t like nothing but classical and band music—the teachers. But what happened to me, a guy came from Seattle, Washington, named Billy Tolles, and he had been around all the musicians, and he had his saxophone. He could play. Excellent player. He knew Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and he knew Lester Young’s “Just You, Just Me,” and used to play those things. He was way ahead of all of us country boys. We didn’t know anything like that. So we kind of idolized him and started to learn him. Whenever he went back for a break, we’d give him $2 or $3 to bring us back some jazz records, and he would do it.

Panken:   So you got into jazz, it sounds like, by memorizing solos…

Donaldson:   Well, not exactly memorizing. I sent for the music.  I got Benny Goodman’s records, “Let’s Dance,” and Artie Shaw’s record, “Summit Ridge Drive.” I got the music. He’d bring the music back, and I’d practice…I’d learn them.

Panken:   You learned the solos off the transcriptions.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   When did you start to transition from clarinet to alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s a funny story. In 1945 I was drafted into the U.S. Navy. I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. And I went to Great Lakes. When you go to Great Lakes, you have a pool, say, of about 200 musicians. Anybody who says they’re a musician, they put them in the pool. A lot of them wasn’t that good. But I went in that pool, and I never went down to take an audition, because a lot of guys were there and they had this hair with the stuff in it…

Panken:   Pomade.

Donaldson:   They had the slick hair, and they’d walk with a hump in their back, and they brought their horn, their instrument. I didn’t take an instrument. I’d be talking to them and they said, “Yeah, I worked with Count Basie…” So I was there with my friend, Carl Foster. We came from A&T. I said, “Carl, no need for us to try out. We can’t compete with these guys. This guy has been with Lionel Hampton’s band.” They were lying, of course, heh-heh-heh. So we didn’t even take the test.

One day I went by the band room, and I heard a clarinet squeaking in there, SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK. So I just stuck my head in the door, like in the Navy, you know, “Who the fuck is making all that noise in there with that clarinet?” The bandmaster was in there giving somebody a lesson. He said, “Oh, you think you can do better?” I said, “Yeah, give me that thing.” So he gave me the clarinet, and I ran it up. So he put up some music and I played it. I knew it anyway. Then he put up some hard music. I played that, too. He said, “You’re the best clarinet player around here. Do you play saxophone, too?” I said, “Yeah.” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t touched the saxophone! But what he did, he gave me a clarinet, which then was like an Army issue. Everything was metal. The clarinet was metal and the saxophone was metal. He gave me and said, “Take that back to the barracks, and come back two weeks later.” So I took it back to the barracks and I started practicing. By the end of the two weeks, I could play the saxophone, enough to read the music.

I woke up one morning, they had a sign up there that said, “Donaldson, report to the band.” Man, these other cats were looking sad! So as I was making my bags I’d walk by where they were, and I’d say, “You jive…” Neither one of them got in the band. Neither one of them. I told my friend, Foster, and he went down there and auditioned and he got in right away, because he could play trumpet and piano—he was an excellent musician. That’s how is started paying saxophone?

Panken:   Were you drafted in 1944 or 1945?

Donaldson:   1945.

Panken:   Ok. I’d read 1944 somewhere. There were a lot of musicians who were legitimate musicians at Great Lakes.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Some of the names I have are Willie Smith, great alto player.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Clark Terry.

Donaldson:   Yeah, right.

Panken:   Ernie Wilkins.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Major Holley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Jimmy Nottingham.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Wendell Culley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Luther Henderson.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Talk a bit about how the band were set up, the types of things they played, the functions they played.

Donaldson:   What they did, after they broke down the bands, they had about ten bands. Now, these guys you’re talking about were a little older than me. They played in a band they called the A-band.  Then they had another band. The guys were a little older. The B band. I was in the C band, because I was 18, and most of the guys in the band where I was were 18 years old. We were young people. But at the end of all the rehearsals and everything during the day, they’d have jam sessions, so we’d go and sneak on in, and play with the big boys…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

Donaldson:   It was great. A great set-up.

Panken:   What sorts of things were they playing then?

Donaldson:   Whatever was happening during that day. “Take The A Train,” “Satin Doll,” stuff like that. “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” A lot of stuff.

Panken:   I also read that you had some leaves in Chicago, and you saw Charlie Parker for the first time in Chicago with Billy Eckstine.

Donaldson:   Yes, with Billy  Eckstine.

Panken:   Did you spend much time in Chicago, or did you go in every…

Donaldson:   I went in there every… Well, Chicago is not but 40 miles from Waukegan.

Panken:   So talk a bit about that scene, and the places you went.

Donaldson:   Well, I went in Chicago every weekend. I’d go down to the Crown Propellor and see Pete Brown. Pete Brown was down there. I’d go to another place to see a Dixieland band. I can’t remember the band right now, the names of them… Then I’d go down to the DeLisa Club. There was a guy named Red Saunders.

Panken:   He had the big band there. A drummer.

Donaldson:   That’s right. It was at 55th Street and State. Black people couldn’t go past there. You go past there… They’d shoot a black cat if he went past there. That was the end of the line. But they had a great show and a great band. Chicago was great.

But I went down there because the guys in the Navy had been telling me about Charlie Parker. I had never heard him, and I went down to see him in Billy Eckstine’s Band. When I saw him, it was very depressing, because he looked like he hadn’t had a bath in years, and his suit was hanging. I said, “Is that him?” But once he started playing, it was a different situation. I never heard anything like that. I said, “Man, what the hell is he doing?” Boy, he was PLAYING some saxophone.

Panken:   I’ve also heard that he was an extraordinary lead alto player? That he made the section phrase like him…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Do you have any recollection of that?

Donaldson:   No, I don’t have any recollection of that. Because the night I went down there, he was so high, he couldn’t play the lead. Budd Johnson had switched from tenor to alto, and he was playing the head in the band the night I saw him.

Panken:   Was Gene Ammons in Eckstine’s band then?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. A lot of people were in there.

Panken:   By this time, were you listening more regularly to records…

Donaldson:   Well, they didn’t have many records. They had but one or two records, “Jumpin’ The Blues” by Jay McShann…

Panken:   But in general, not just…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’d listen to anything that I figured was jazz. But I wasn’t a record addict, because I didn’t really want to hear anything but what he was playing, and once I heard him…

Panken:   So based on “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Charlie Parker with McShann, it changed your…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that changed everything. Not me. Everybody.

Panken:   Talk about how it changed you. What did it do?

Donaldson:   Well, it made me want to pursue music as a profession. Because actually, when I went to college, as I told you, I was an honor roll—I was planning to go on to probably pre law school or something. My parents wanted me to do something else. Because I was asthmatic, and they figured that playing a horn is the latest thing they’d want you to do. But they were wrong, because playing the horn actually made me survive. The diaphragm, breathing, and stuff like that; it made my lungs much stronger than weaker. That’s what it made for me.

Panken:   Listening to you now, it’s obvious how influential Charlie Parker was, but you’ve also talked about listening to a lot of alto saxophonists who were active then…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I heard them.

Panken:   Eddie Vinson.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Tab Smith.

Donaldson:   Right. Louis Jordan.

Panken:   Earl Bostic.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Earl Bostic.

Panken:   Talk about those people, and how you assimilated…

Donaldson:   Well, those people were so great. Every one of those people had a different style. See, not like it is today when everybody plays the same way. But back then, they had a different style. Earl Bostic was the greatest technician I’ve ever heard on a saxophone. He could play three octaves. I eventually got to talk to him, and he told me what mouthpiece I should use, and reed, and I’ve been using them ever 1957.

Panken:   What kind of those?

Donaldson:   Meyer #6 mouthpiece, #2½ reed. Now I’m down to 1½ because old age has caught up with me, so…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 3]

Panken:   We just took a short break, and Lou found a sheet of paper with information that perhaps can supplement some of the things we’ve spoken about. What have you got?

Donaldson:   Not what you want. This is not it

Panken:   Well, you know what we can do? Perhaps we can find it and go over that material tomorrow, and interpolate that later.

Donaldson:   yes, this is another thing here. It’s a family reunion schedule of all my people. But anyway, it was Livingstone College. That’s the name of the college that my father went to.

Panken:   We were just discussing alto saxophonists. You mentioned Earl Bostic. But could you talk a bit about each of the people I mentioned, and how they affected you? Let’s say, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Donaldson:   Well, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson affected me because he was a good blues player. That’s the way I play, you know. I used to see him all the time in Cootie Williams’ band. He was great in Cootie Williams’ band. Then he started doing solo, and I got to see him. He sang a little bit, too, which I’m doing now.

Panken:   You’ve been doing that for 20 years or so.

Donaldson:   Yes. Eddie was a good songwriter, too. He wrote a couple of songs that Miles stole and put his name on.

Panken:   “Four” was one of them, right?

Donaldson:   “Four.” Ha-ha. You know about it, yeah.

Panken:   “Tune-Up” maybe?

Donaldson:   “Tune-Up,” yup. Yeah, you know about it. That’s what was happening back then. It’s a different world.

Panken:   So you did see Cootie Williams coming through…

Donaldson:   Greensboro.

Panken:   This was once you got back from the Army.

Donaldson:   Yeah. From the Navy.

Panken:   But when you were there, were you checking Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter

Donaldson:   Right. I used to play all of Johnny Hodges’ solos. Benny Carter came through and wrote an arrangement for our college band. We played that. There were some nice cats. Tab Smith came through. At that time, Tab was playing with Count Basie’s band. But he was from Wilson, North Carolina, so he was a North Carolinian.

Panken:   When were you discharged from the Navy?

Donaldson:   I don’t know…it was the summer of ‘45.

Panken:   So you were only in for a few months.

Donaldson:   11 months, yes.

Panken:   So you went back to Greensboro after that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I went back to A&T. A&T College.

Panken:   At this point, were you starting to be a professional musician?

Donaldson:   No, not at that point. When I went back, it was the middle of the semester, and I didn’t stay on the campus. I had to get me a room out in the town. I was still making up some courses that I had lost during those 11 months.  After I got the courses made up, I started actually to play a little commercial music in a club called the Mombassa Club. The guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, he had the band. Nipsey Russell was the comedian. First job Nipsey ever played. Nipsey was a Lieutenant in the Army, and he was a very smart guy, as you know, if you watch him on TV. He came to Greensboro, and settled, and started working as an emcee in this club.

Panken:   The spelling?

Donaldson:   M-o-m-b-a-s-s-a.

Panken:   Did I read somewhere that Ellington came through?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Ellington came down there. He came down to the club, and brought all the musicians. We met them, talked to them. Russell Procope…

Panken:   The band played an engagement there?

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played a dance.

Panken:   What was it like hearing the Ellington band?

Donaldson:   Oh, it was great. It was much different than the other bands. Ellington actually had a different type of band. But I had heard about all the guys and read about them, so I just wanted to see them—like Taft Jordan and Cootie Williams, then he brought Jimmy Hamilton in… He had a great band. Russell Procope. It was a great band.

Panken:   What other bands came through Greensboro?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, all of them came through there. Jay McShann. Andy Kirk. Erskine Hawkins. Lionel Hampton, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Louis Jordan. Several other bands—I can’t think of all of them.

Panken:   So this was all during that year or two after you were discharged from the Navy.

Donaldson:   Right. From the Navy. Right.

Panken:   They were all coming through Greensboro on their southern tours.

Donaldson:   Yeah. They had 60 one-nighters from New York to Florida.

Panken:   Who did? Each of the different bands…

Donaldson:   No, it was a tour down there they called the Weinberg Tour. A guy named Weinberg used to book them. He bought all the dance halls from New York to Florida, and he’d send the bands down there, and they played. Dizzy’s band came through there.

Panken:   What did the Mombassa Club look like? How was it set up?

Donaldson:   Ah, just a club. Kind of dark in there. It was an exotic looking club. Heh-heh. For the South.

Panken:   Did you get something different from all these bands? Did you like all of them? Did you have favorites?

Donaldson:   I liked all of them. I used to go to see all the bands. Because, see, we were in college, and we could go down and get in the dance hall before the customers got in there. They let us in there because they knew us, and we’d meet the musicians and talk to them. A funny story I had, I went down there, and… Luis Russell came through there. I went down there, and I saw this young kid back there setting up the drums. I said, “Oh, that must be Luis Russell’s son.” He set up the drums and everything, and started playing a little bit on them. I said, “Oh yeah, he can play a little drums, too.” Then eventually, all the band members came. And he went and put on a coat, just like the band members. I said, “Oh, he got a coat, too.” I never knew who he was. So finally, Luis Russell came in, and the kid was playing. I said, “Why is he playing? The drummer didn’t come?” The guy said, “He is the drummer.” I said, “What is his name?” “Roy Haynes.” Roy Haynes. Roy told me he was about 17 years old then. Every time I see him, he cracks up.

Panken:   Any other good anecdotes about the bands? Memorable experiences seeing them…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. When I came back from the Navy, they had an Army base in Greensboro, the O.R.D., Overseas Replacement Depot. I was back at the cottage, and the guys from the Army band used to come over and play with the other band. They hadn’t seen me. Then I came back, and I’m playing bebop. I’m not playing like the guys around Greensboro. The guy said, “Who is this guy? Is this guy from New York?” They said, “No, he’s from here.” They said, “Oh, no, he can’t be from here playing like that.” But see, I had been in the Navy.  When I found out who was there—James Moody, Dave Burns, a saxophone player named Joe Gale, Linton Garner (Errroll’s brother), Walter Fuller (Dizzy’s arranger), all of them were right in that band. It was a great band, and then I started going, playing with them. I got to meet them, play with them. It was nice.

Panken:   Talk about how for you the Ellington band was different.

Donaldson:   Well, they had Harry Carney.  Anybody with Harry Carney, the saxophone section is going to sound different, because he was a great, GREAT baritone player. Big sound and everything. And Johnny Hodges, the way he played. It was a special band. You couldn’t… Duke had picked them just right. He wrote his arrangements very compatible with the guys who were playing them. Ray Nance run out with his trumpet… It was a different kind of band. It wasn’t just a jazz band. See, critics got carried away hollering about a jazz band, but they played a whole lot more stuff than jazz.

Panken:   You’ve been talking each of the alto saxophone players you liked—and I suppose on tenor and baritone, too—all having an individual sound, a stamp…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played different.

Panken:   An “I.D.,” you’ve called it before.

Donaldson:   All of them played their I.D. Right. They had their I.D.

Panken:   How did that start to develop for you? Was it something you were consciously striving for?

Donaldson:   No, not really.

Panken:   Was it something that happened as a result…

Donaldson:   Not really. I wanted to play nothing but bebop. That’s all I wanted to play. But after I got married and had two daughters going to college, and I’m trying to pay our house mortgage, I had to play some other type of gigs. So I had to kind of temper my music to the people I was playing for. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re not playing jazz no more.” But I was playing exactly what I had to play to keep those jobs.

Panken:   I want to talk about that. But what I’m trying to focus on now are these developmental years, before you get married, before you move to New York, when you’re still in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I didn’t…

Panken:   Were you think about that sort of individuality at the time?

Donaldson:   No, nothing but bebop back then. I wasn’t thinking about nothing individual.

Panken:   Was learning bebop a matter of getting all the Charlie Parker records and learning the solos…

Donaldson:   That’s right. Learning the solos and learning the standards that they came from. Most of those tunes came from standards. They just put another figure on the chords, and that’s how they played them. In fact, I wrote a thesis down there at North Carolina A&T, for my graduation thesis, and they took it and book-binded it and made it a book, and now all the students who go through the college have to study my book.

Panken:   What’s the name of the thesis?

Donaldson:   The Transition From Swing To Bebop.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Is it a musicological analysis?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. I got illustrations and chords, broke down the chords and everything. 1947.

Panken:   So you were extremely analytical.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. And critical. Analytical and critical.  So I was in good shape.

Panken:   I gather that you made your first visit to New York in 1948?

Donaldson:   1947. ‘47…or ‘48.

Panken:   Whatever the case, let’s talk about that experience.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, our band came to play halftime at the New York Giants’ game.

Panken:   Ah, the North Carolina A&T…

Donaldson:   The North Carolina A&T band, One of our players, a guy named Stonewall Jackson [Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson] , was signed by the Giants, and we came up and played the halftime ceremonies.

Panken:   So he would have been one of the first African-American NFL players.

Donaldson:   That’s right. I got to meet all the guys. Frank Gifford. Emlen Tunnell was there. He was (?—13:17). But it was great. Then I went down to 52nd Street, of course, because I had been reading about it. We had a shortwave radio. We could pick up music from New York once in a while. It faded out, but you could pick it up. Bands from New York. Like, when they had the Benny Goodman Hour, the Chesterfield, and Harry James… We could pick up those bands, and we could hear that on shortwave down in North Carolina. And when we were there, I went over down to 52nd Street, and went to see Dizzy and… It was supposed to be Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett and them, but Charlie Parker wasn’t there as usual, you know, and they had this little short guy playing saxophone. Ray Brown was in the band. So I asked Ray, “Ray, who is that guy? He sounds almost as good as Charlie Parker.” Ray said, “He sounds better than Charlie Parker.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What’s his name?” He said, “Don Byas.” And sure enough, I went back the next night to hear the band, and the band sounded much better with Don Byas than it did with Charlie Parker. Because Charlie was all messed-up and couldn’t half-play, but Don Byas was great. He was great.

Panken:   Had you known about him before? Had you heard the records he did with Dizzy?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him.

Panken:   I think “Anthropology” was one of them…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him. And he made this record with Slam Stewart, Slam Stewart and Don Byas, just two instruments. He was great. He was a great player.

Panken:   What else did you do that first visit to New York?

Donaldson:   I went by the Onyx Club, too, to see my favorites. And very depressing. Heh-heh. The Onyx Club. That was on 52nd Street, too. They had J.J. and Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Miles, and every one of them was all messed up. It was terrible. Very depressing.

Panken:   Were they playing well?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, they played good, but I said, “Man, I can’t… I don’t think I can handle this.”

Panken:   So this discouraged any ideas you might have had about coming up to New York right away…

Donaldson:   I mean, and playing with them.  It didn’t discourage me about coming to New York. But playing in that scene, I couldn’t do that, because it was too hazardous.

Panken:   Did you check out the scene in Harlem the first time you went to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I came to Harlem, I went through Harlem. I saw the scenes. I saw the scenes in Harlem.

Panken:   Was it overwhelming to be in New York?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. It was overwhelming to be in New York. You got to see all the musicians. It was great. I went to the Baby Grand. By that time, Nipsey had moved to New York, and he brought me around to the Baby Grand. I got to meet all the musicians. It was great.

Panken:   Who’d you meet?

Donaldson:   Well, I met everybody who was playing in there. A guy named…I can’t think of his name…a bass player… It was a long time. But then I went on down the street, and I met other people, like Percy France, and I met another guy down there… Lockjaw was in Minton’s. Big Nick was over at the Paradise, and Willis Jackson was in Smalls. So I got to see all of those guys.

Panken:   That was a heady visit. A great preparation.

Donaldson:   A great visit. I couldn’t keep myself away from New York then.

Panken:   Well, it must have let you know that you belonged here, or that you’d be able to deal with the scene when you got here. It must have been a very good gauge for your own progress.

Donaldson:   Yeah, because the bands used to come through North Carolina, and I used to sit in with the bands. Like Dizzy and Illinois Jacquet, all of them used to say, “Man, what you doing down here? You should be in New York.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” They’d say, “You need to be in New York, man. You’re wasting time down here.” So finally I just decided to come on to New York. So I came over to New York.

Panken:   Before we bring you here permanently, you played semipro baseball for a couple of years.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played down there. Played baseball.

Panken:   You were a third baseman?

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What sort of player were you?

Donaldson:   I was the best. Nobody better.

Panken:   Nobody better at third base, or nobody better…

Donaldson:   Nobody better. Nobody better. If black people had been able to get into the majors then, I’d have been somewhere. Or maybe in the minors. I don’t know if I could have made the majors.

Panken:   So you were the best in North Carolina…

Donaldson:   Well, I was one of the best. We had some good players, but I was one of the best. I could have easily made it. I was a player sort of like Eddie Stanky. That kind of player.

Panken:   Scrappy player.

Donaldson:   Scrappy. I could bunt.

Panken:   Contact hitters. All the fundamentals. Intelligent.

Donaldson:   I could bunt. You couldn’t strike me out.  They called me “Deadeye,” because they couldn’t strike me out. In fact, I’d be in school, and somebody would be pitching a no-hitter out on the ball-field, and they’d come and get me out of the room, to go out and break it up. I was tough! And I had a glove, man. I could wipe up a ball.

Panken:   You had good hands.

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I could wipe up a ball. I used to be the mascot for the senior team when I was a little kid, and after they did it, I’d take infield practice with them, and then they’d bet dollars that the guys couldn’t hit a ball past me. They’d try to hit a ball past me. They couldn’t get it past me. Anything I could reach, I got.

Panken:   Eddie Stanky was a winning ballplayer, that’s for sure. His teams won.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. He was a nuisance.

Panken:   Is that how you would describe yourself?

Donaldson:   Yeah, sort of like that. Sort of like that.

Panken:   So the fall of 1945, you come back to Greensboro from the Navy, and you get your degree from North Carolina AT&T. You’re playing semi-pro baseball. I think I read that you broke a pinky, and that ended your career…

Donaldson:   Well, it didn’t end my career. I just stopped playing, because I couldn’t play my clarinet once it puffed up.

Panken:   You’re continuing to develop your facility and artistry on your instrument, and you’re getting validation from people like Dizzy Gillespie and the cats in his band…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   …and people like Illinois Jacquet…

Donaldson:   Jacquet, right.

Panken:   …and they’re telling you to come to New York—and you spend some time in New York. So finally, in 1950,  was it…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   You make the move. Talk about the circumstances. I gather that you followed your future wife, who moved here.

Donaldson:   Yes, I followed my future wife. Because she came up as like a work-in maid or whatever it was. You know, they used to get girls from the South, bring them to New York, and they’d work. She came up here, then I said, “Well, I got to go,” and I came on up. I had a good set-up, because I didn’t have to do any work, because I was a G.I. So I went to the Darrow Institute of Music.

Panken:   On the G.I. Bill?

Donaldson:   Yeah, on the G.I. Bill.

Panken:   Where was Darrow Institute of Music?

Donaldson:   58th-59th and Broadway.

Panken:   What sort of school was it?

Donaldson:   You know, a music school. A lot of musicians. Right next to it was the Hartnett Studio, and they had big bands all day, so I could go over and sit in the section and practice.

Panken:   At this point, you’re playing primarily alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Alto saxophone.

Panken:   Clarinet is a doubling instrument by now.

Donaldson:   Yeah, doubling. I was about to throw that away.

Panken:   So you’re a full-fledged alto saxophonist.

Donaldson:   Yes, alto saxophone.

Panken:    By the way, what your late wife’s name?

Donaldson:   Maker. Maker Donaldson.

Panken:   Talk a bit about getting settled in New York, and acclimated to New York. Where did you live when you came here?

Donaldson:   I lived with my brother-in-law, ex-brother-in-law. He had an apartment up on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street. So I didn’t have to pay any rent.

Panken:   Near the Polo Grounds.

Donaldson:   Right across from the Polo Grounds. I used to go out and stand on the bridge out there with binoculars and see the whole game. I couldn’t see the catcher and the batter, but I could see the pitcher and everything. When they hit a ball, you could tell where it was going by where the outfielders went. Eventually, I got enough money to start going to the Polo Grounds. $1.75 for the bleachers. One day I was sitting out there, and I see this big fat cat come up, weighed about 400 pounds. He sat by me and said, “Yeah, Lou, what you doing out here?” It’s Bob Weinstock. I said, “Man! What you doing out here in the bleachers?” He said, “I can see the game better from here.” He was right, because we were sitting out there in 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit that home run. In the Polo Grounds, seat 7… The game started about 1 p.m., so it was about 4:30, and there always was a haze over the stadium. He hit the ball, and we couldn’t see where it went, but we saw all the people jump up in that Section 21, and once we saw the people jump up in Section 21, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese turned their heads down and started walking back towards the outfield, because that’s where we were, sitting right out there…

Panken:   The dressing rooms were in center field, by the bleachers.

Donaldson:   Right by the bleachers. They started walking back. So we knew the game was over. Eddie Stanky runs down and jumps up in Leo Durocher’s arms. Leo was coaching third base that day. So I got to see all of that.

Panken:   By then, you’d been in New York about a year and a half.

Donaldson:   Two or three years.

Panken:   Well, if you got there in 1950, and his was 1951…

Donaldson:   Seemed like I’d been there longer.

Panken:   So you’re going to music school, and I assume that you start to make the rounds and establish contacts.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Right.

Panken:   Let’s go into some detail about that. Who some of the first people were that you played with, and…

Donaldson:   Well, the funniest thing about it, when I got there and I got to playing, and the guys said, “Yeah, man, you play good, but you’d better get a tenor, because alto players can’t work in New York.” I said, “Oh, no?” So one night I took my alto, I went around to every club on ‘25th Street and down on ‘16th Street, and I sat in with all the bands, and I came back the next day and I was laughing. They said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I don’t know whether it’s alto or tenor, but any job there I can get, because the guys there can’t play anything.”

Panken:   Why did you say that?

Donaldson:   Well, that’s just the way they talked. “You’ve got to play tenor.” Because then, see, everybody was walking the bar, playing “Flying Home” and stuff like that. But I got to working with a club where they had singers.

Panken:   Which club was that?

Donaldson:   The Top Club, and some gigs at the Baby Grand, and some gigs at Smalls Paradise. They used to have entertainers. I got to playing in these clubs, and eventually I got to working with Dud Bascomb’s band, the trumpet player with Erskine Hawkins. He got a band, and we started working out in New Jersey, not too far from the prison out there, at a place called the Chicken Shack.

Panken:   In Jersey.

Donaldson:   In Jersey. That was my regular gig, I could play that, but I could take off any time I wanted to if I got another gig. I was set up pretty good.

Panken:   So you were interested in bebop, but on these gigs you weren’t playing bebop.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played bebop when I took a solo. I played the music, but I played bebop when I took a solo.

Panken:   Who were some of the singers you played behind in those clubs?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I played with great singers. A woman named Lady Hallocue [PHONETIC] [spelling?—26:46] She could sing. She had some weird songs. You really had to be up on your p’s and q’s. I played with a female impersonator, a guy named Phil Black. Best-looking man I ever saw in my life! He put on his dresses… He had the best clothes. I’ve never seen a woman with clothes that good! Every night, somebody was hugging and kissing him, and trying to take him home with them! That was good. It was good down there.

But it was good. I played behind Johnny Hartman. And Arthur Prysock. There were a lot of good singers around.

Panken:   So these clubs all had shows still at the time.

Donaldson:   They had shows.

Panken:   They had, like, a little chorus line maybe?

Donaldson:   Well, not a chorus line. They’d have one woman who was supposed to be an interpretive dancer, but she was…

Panken:   Shake dancer?

Donaldson:   …nothing but a strip. She wasn’t nothin’ but a striptease dancer.

Panken:   Exotic dancer, as they might say.

Donaldson:   That’s right. But she wasn’t no interpretive… Didn’t interpret nothin’ but stripping off them clothes. But that was good. See, the only thing about that, you didn’t get to play but one song. You’d bring on the show with the one song, and from then on you’re playing background.

Panken:   So there’d be a dancer, there’d be a singer, there’d be a comedian…

Donaldson:   A comedian, right.

Panken:   One instrumental act?

Donaldson:   Or one instrumental tune. The rest of them would be backup until you played the closing song.

Panken:   How big was the band?

Donaldson:   Usually three or four pieces.

Panken:   So who were you playing with? Were you the leader by this time?

Donaldson:   Oh, no, I wasn’t the leader of a lot of the bands. I played with a lot of bands. A lot of bands. I played with a guy named Charlie Singleton. He made a lot of background records for singers, and I got that, too. That was a little extra money. It was great.

Panken:   So no wonder you were learning all the tunes, had so many tunes in your bag.

Donaldson:   I knew all the tunes. Knew all the music, all the tunes, and I was just assimilating them and cataloguing them.

Panken:   So this is what you’re doing in 1950 and 1951… How long did you go to Darrow Institute?

Donaldson:   I went there until I guess about ‘52.

Panken:   ‘52 happens to be the year that you start your long relationship with Blue Note Records and make your first sessions with Blue Note? But before we get there, I have just a couple of other questions. Did you ever play in any territory bands?

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   Was Dud Bascomb’s  band a big band?

Donaldson:   Oh, we went out. We played…

Panken:   So you did play in some big bands?

Donaldson:   Yes, right.

Panken:   Was that a good experience, playing in big bands?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Good bands.

Panken:   Talk about why.

Donaldson:   Well, because you got to travel. You got to go to towns. You got to see people.

Panken:   And they got to see you, I guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah. And you got to know the grinds of music. Because there was a certain grind you have to really go through before you get indoctrinated into the music business. Because, see, the bandleaders are always… I worked with Lionel Hampton for a while. The bandleaders always drive off to the Hilton Hotel, and stop the bus. Then you had to get out, and we had to walk down the street and find a Y, because they wasn’t payin’ no money, so we had to get the YMCA, $2 or $3 a night room. We didn’t make any money.

Panken:   Were there boarding houses, too? Did you stay in people’s private houses?

Donaldson:   Yeah, boarding houses.

Panken:   How did that work? Did they differ in quality, where some were nice, some weren’t nice?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Some were nice and some weren’t nice.

Panken:   They’d feed you breakfast?

Donaldson:   Yeah, most of them would feed you breakfast.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking just a few other things about Harlem, circa 1950-51? Were there restaurants where musicians liked to eat after the gig?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   What were some of those restaurants.

Donaldson:   Well, the only place I ate was the Sheffield Café. That was on 126th and 8th Avenue. But most of the musicians used to go up to Wells, and have chicken-and-waffles. Wells Café. That was a famous restaurant.

Panken:   What sort of food did they have at the Sheffield Café?

Donaldson:   Well, they had breakfast food. Bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits.

Panken:   So breakfast after the gig.

Donaldson:   Yeah. $1.25. That’s all you had to pay.

Panken:   What was the schedule like at the clubs? 10 to 5?

Donaldson:   10 to 4 a.m. in New York and about 10 to 5 in Brooklyn.

Panken:   How many sets would that be?

Donaldson:   Well, what would happen was this. We’d hit at 10. We’d play 2 or 3 sets, and then we’d try to stretch it. But eventually, what would happen, about 3 or 4 o’clock, the pimps would come in with their women. They’d got the money. They’d come in and set up the bar, and the man said, “Well, they set up the bar; you’ve got to play a little extra.” So we ended up playing til 5 o’clock.

Panken:   Would they tip?

Donaldson: Joe Louis would come in there, and then everybody’d see him and then run to Joe, and Joe, you know how he was: “Give everybody a drink!” So the man said, “You’ve got to play a little set for Joe.”

Panken:   So you were playing for a full spectrum of society.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Who would be there earlier in the night, and how would it…

Donaldson:   Oh, they had all kind of people coming in there. It’s hard to say now. I knew all of them. Adam Clayton Powell…

Panken:   This is Smalls you’re talking about?

Donaldson:   No, this is Minton’s. Malcolm X used to stick his head in the door, but he didn’t come in there. The big gangsters, Bumpy Johnson, all those people, they used to come in. Another guy named Red Dillon. He was… Phew! Dangerous man. But he used to come in there. See, they had a cook in there named Adele, and everybody loved her cooking.

Panken:   This was at Minton’s.

Donaldson:   At Minton’s. So they’d come in and eat.

Panken:   What were her specialties?

Donaldson:   Fish and chicken. She could cook. She was a good cook.

Panken:   Were meals on the house, or did you have to pay for them?

Donaldson:   No, we had to pay for them! Wasn’t no meals on the house.

Panken:   I’m actually surprised. Don’t know why, but…

Donaldson:   No meals on the house then.

Panken:   Another question. As a musician, you had to be sharp. You had to dress well. Were there particular tailors that the musicians went to, that you went to?

Donaldson:   No. I’d be working at Minton’s, and the boosters would come by.

Panken:   Oh, I see. Off the rack from the…

Donaldson:   They’d come by and look at you. “42-short.” Every time, I’d know what they’re going to say. He’d pull out a nice one. I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I like that.” He said, “Yeah? Well, $100.” They always do that. But I say, “All right. I’ll talk to you later.” But I’d wait until the end of the night, and when I see him on the corner he’s still got that suit. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, here’s $25—give me that suit!] [LOUD LAUGH] And he gave me the suit. I saw a guy… One night, a guy had a brand-new cello. I don’t know where he stole it. He must have gone down to the Philharmonic or somewhere. He was outside the door. When I came out, he said, “Hey, Lou, here’s a cello.” I looked at it and I said, “Man, where did you get that cello from?” He said, “Man, don’t worry about that. $700.” I said, “Man, here. I got $75. Give me that cello. Because the police are going to come down here and ask you to play it, and you’re…” [DISSOLVES WITH LAUGHTER] If I’m taking it, they won’t say nothing to me, because they know I’m a musician, but you walking around the street with that cello…” I took it and gave it to my daughter. My daughter played cello.

Panken:   But this is probably a little later in the ‘50s. Earlier in the ‘50s, who was your contact person to bring you into Blue Note?

Donaldson:   Oh, nobody. They came up… Alfred Lion came up to Minton’s. He might have had Ike Quebec with him.

Panken:   I thought Ike Quebec was his talent scout.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that was later on. But then, I don’t really know whether Ike was with him or not. But he came up to me and said, “Oh, do you want to record for Blue Note?” Well, you know I’m going to tell him “yeah.” He said, “But you’ve got to play like Charlie Parker. Can you play like Charlie Parker?” I thought, “No, I can’t play like Charlie Parker, but I won’t tell him.” I said, “Yeah, I can play like Charlie Parker.” Heh-heh. And I got the date.

Panken:   But before you did that date, you made a sideman date with Milt Jackson and a very interesting date with Thelonious Monk, with three horns.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Do you have pretty thorough memories of those dates?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGIN, June 20th, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Back from a quick break. We were just getting to Lou’s Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson on April 7, 1952. This was shortly after Alfred Lion approached you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Yeah, shortly…

Panken:   Who was your band at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   I don’t know who I had then. I’m sorry. I can’t remember the musicians. But what happened, I knew this fighter, Art Woods…

Panken:   Oh, he used to work at Dayton’s Records on 12th and Broadway.

Donaldson:   Yeah, he worked in a record shop. We used to train all the time. He’d come to me… There was a place called Newman’s Studio down there on 116th Street. After I’d practice… I’d give the guy 50 cents to practice, and I’d practice about an hour, then he’d bring his gloves and we’d work out.

Panken:   So you boxed, too.

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I would box.

Panken:   What was your weight?

Donaldson:   Featherweight. I was a good boxer. What I wanted to do, in case somebody bothered me, I’d knock them out. But I didn’t have nothing to worry about, because all those guys were junkies. You know what I mean? They couldn’t fight.

He told me, “Lou, let me tell you something. You go around here, you show up to the gigs on time, and you wear your black suit with your black tie, and you don’t drink no liquor, you don’t have no tab—you ain’t gonna make it in this business.” I said, “What you talkin’ about?” He said, “Man, you got to go around and act like you’re high, and buy up some liquor. Even though you don’t drink it yourself, give it to somebody else.” Man, I took his solution, and I haven’t been out of a gig since!

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   I’m telling you! I meet people every day who tell me, “Lou, you sure look good since you straightened up.” I say, “Straightened up from what? I don’t even drink a small Miller beer.” [LAUGHS] “No, man, I know I used to see you down there with Bird; you’all was gettin’ high!” I said, “No, you didn’t see me down there with Bird.”  I used to hang around with him, but I wasn’t doing what they were doing.

Panken:   Did you hang out with Charlie Parker at all? Did you get to know him?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I finally got to know him when I came to New York and stayed for a while, and I got to see him a lot.

Panken:   After 1950.

Donaldson:   Yeah, after 1950.

Panken:   Did you talk to him? Did you spend time with him?

Donaldson:   Yes, a lot of time spent…

Panken:   Can you describe the relationship?

Donaldson:   Well, he was a brilliant guy. We talked about politics…and a lot of things. He was a smart guy. But he had that bad habit.

Panken:   Did he show that habit around you, or did he keep it from you?

Donaldson:   No, he didn’t show it too much around me.

Panken:   I gather that certain people he might not show it to at all. They might not even know that he got high, unless they’d know what to look for.

Donaldson:   Well, he knew I knew he got high, but he didn’t really exaggerate it around me.

Panken:   Do you recall the particulars of any of your conversations? Any one or two encounters that stand out?

Donaldson:   Not really. Because he was like the rest of the people who were drug addicts. They worked 24 hours a day to get money for the next hit. That was their daily procedure.  A lot of times when I’d see him, I’d go to the other side of the street because…

Panken:   So you wouldn’t give him money.

Donaldson:   I didn’t have anything to give him.

Panken:   So part of your interaction was he would want to get a little money.

Donaldson:   Of course. Money was always… But he talked to me. We talked.

Panken:   Did you ever sit in with him?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. What happened, one night in the Paradise I was there, and he came in, and I was sitting in with Big Nick Nicholas, and when Charlie Parker came in, there were about ten saxophone players on the stand, and all of them ran, you know, like a rattlesnake was coming in there. I was getting ready to get off the stand, too, and he said, “No, you play with me.” I said, “Man, I’m not playing with you.” He said, “Yeah. If you don’t play, I’m not going to play.” So the manager comes by and says, “Man, you’ve got to play now, because Bird says he’s not going to play if you don’t play.” I said, “Ok.” So we played a couple of tunes, “I Got Rhythm” or something. I played, and he leaned over to me and said, “Man, what was that you played on that thing? That was some nice stuff” It was stuff I had copied off one of his records. So I said to myself, “Is he pulling my leg, or is he really sincere?” That’s when I realized the guy was a genius. He didn’t really remember.

Panken:   You mean, he’d invented it, but he hadn’t memorized it.

Donaldson:   He couldn’t remember it.

Panken:   But you were analytical. You’d written a thesis about the musicological transition from swing to bebop.

Donaldson:   Right. The change to bebop. The change to the alternate chords.

Panken:   How did that work when you were improvised? Did you have set solos, were you…

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t have no set solos, but I had set chord changes. I’d change up the chords a little. Not really a set solo.

Panken:   Again, before Blue Note, did you ever… I think I read on a liner note for one of your recordings that you were in a session or two with Bud Powell.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

Panken:   What was that like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. With Bud, you know… When I came to New York, Bud was going nuts, going bananas. He was hard to deal with.

Panken:   Were you on an actual gig with him?

Donaldson:   I played some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   His band?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Where?

Donaldson:    Oh, all around town. A place called Bowman’s up on 155th and St. Nicholas Place, and another club up in there…I can’t think of it… But I played a few gigs with him.

Panken:   So you played his music.

Donaldson:   Some of it.

Panken:   What did you think of his tunes?

Donaldson:   I was crazy about them. Crazy about them. But he was bad with the money. Because he’d get the money, and by the time you got ready to get your pay, he’s gone.

Panken:   Let’s move to these early Blue Note sessions. So Alfred Lion approaches you at Minton’s, or maybe Ike Quebec, we’re not quite clear… But one way or the other, you go in the studio for the first time, at least as recorded in the discographies, on April 7, 1952, with Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, and…

Donaldson:   Percy Heath.

Panken:   Percy Heath on bass.  What was that date like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. I didn’t particularly like John Lewis. But it was nice.

Panken:   Were you nervous to be in the studio?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So by this time, you belong. You’re part of the thing.

Donaldson:   Right. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Panken:   Any specific memories of the date?

Donaldson:   Not really. All I know is I liked Milt. Milt was a good friend of mine.

Panken:   The date with Monk, then. I’ve read a quote from you that you hadn’t worked with Monk before that; that you had to go in and basically read the music down…

Donaldson:   Yeah, try to.

Panken:   Maybe there was a rehearsal before.

Donaldson:   Try to read it. He didn’t write it out like he wanted it played. You had to rehearse it a couple of times. But it ended up fine.

Panken:   There were a couple of tricky tunes on that session.

Donaldson:   Yes, sir.

Panken:    “Skippy” for one.

Donaldson:   “Skippy” is tough. “Carolina Moon” is tough. Tough tune.

Panken:   How did the session go? He’d present the tune, you’d run through it a few times, and then…

Donaldson:   And then we recorded it.

Panken:   How did he express his intentions? Would he be singing it to you?

Donaldson:   He played it on the piano, you know…

Panken:   Had you known Monk before that?

Donaldson:   Yes, I knew him.

Panken:   Because he spent a lot of time at Minton’s, I would think, among other places…

Donaldson:   Not at Minton’s. He was at Blue Note. Every time I went down there, Monk and his wife would be down there, at the company, down there in back of Bloomingdale’s. They’d be down there all the time.

Panken:   What was the office like?

Donaldson:   Wasn’t nothing but just a little place. Wasn’t really an office.

Panken:   Were you a fan of Monk’s compositions, of his music, his musicianship?

Donaldson:   Not really.  I couldn’t use them on my job, because if I played them, I’d be fired. See, back then people hadn’t…they wasn’t compatible with Monk. It took a long time before they got compatible with Monk.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, they wouldn’t buy his records.

Panken:   Oh, you mean before people got used to his music and the sound of it.

Donaldson:   Yes. And the big companies wouldn’t record him. Like Capitol, Columbia, even Savoy—they wouldn’t record him.

Panken:   No, he was on Blue Note, then he went to Prestige…

Donaldson:   Prestige, right.

Panken:   …and then the Riverside things brought his name out… I guess this would be pushing to the future a bit. I read in one interview that you later on worked with Monk in a club with Kenny Dorham, Oscar Pettiford maybe…

Donaldson:   No, Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be there, but they brought Mingus in there.  Max Roach on drums.

Panken:   Where was that?

Donaldson:   The Open Door. No, the Famous Door.

Panken:   I think it would be the Open Door. The Famous Door was long closed…

Donaldson:   Bob Reisner.

Panken:   Yeah, that’s the Open Door. Was it a different experience working with him for a week or two?

Donaldson: Oh yeah, much different.

Panken:   Any memories of that?

Donaldson:   [LAUGHS] Only bad memories.

Panken:   Any bandstand memories? Anything positive you can say about the music…

Donaldson:   Well, what happened the first night, see, he was expecting Oscar Pettiford, and they brought Mingus in there, and he didn’t like Mingus, and he played ensembles, but he never took a solo. And about the second set, I was asking Kenny Dorham, I said, “when is he going to play?” He said, “He’s not. He don’t like Mingus.” I was a low guy on the totem pole. I didn’t have much to say either. So finally, Wilbur Ware staggers in there, and Bob Reisner takes him around the corner and gives him some vitamins…and he comes back. He don’t say nothin’; he just goes up and takes the bass from Mingus and started playing. Monk started to play.

Panken:   Well, he loved Wilbur Ware, yeah.

Donaldson:   Loved Wilbur Ware.

Panken:   I guess you did three 10-inch recordings…or two—one in 1952, one in 1954. The first one is with Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Blue Mitchell, and Gene Ramey.

Donaldson:   It wasn’t Art Blakey. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Were these guys you were working with?

Donaldson:   Yeah, basically.

Panken:   How did the session get set up?

Donaldson:   I set it up myself. We just went down and played them.

Panken:   These are things you’d been playing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no great stretch to play them.

Panken:   Do you remember…were you working that week?

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Tell me about Blue Mitchell. That was one of his very first recordings.

Donaldson:   Great trumpet player.

Panken:   How did you meet him?

Donaldson:   I met him…he was working with Lloyd Price’s band, and I heard him, and he sounded so beautiful. I said, “Man, I got to get you a date.” So he came on over to the Blue Note. See, a lot of people don’t know, I brought Horace over there, too.

Panken:   I was about to ask you.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I brought Horace. Horace was working…was practicing down at the studio where we used to go and train for boxing, Newman’s Studio down on ‘16th Street. I used to hear him playing piano. So one day I knocked on the door. I said, “Are you a piano player?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You want some gigs? Can you play a blues?” He said, “Yeah.” So I took him on a couple of gigs. He couldn’t play no blues. I said, “Man, you’re going to have to start playing blues.” Then I used to call him the “old Portuguese piano player.” I said, “Man, you got to go to Harlem and eat you some chitlin’s, some black-eyed peas and rice, and get some feeling.” [LAUGHS] So finally, he started playing kind of bluesy. And you know the rest. He made 15 hit records.

Panken:   So you met him in New York.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had Horace Silver and Blue Mitchell on the date. Had you been working with Arthur Taylor?

Donaldson:   Yes. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Well, that’s a helluva band to be working with. Were they with you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Actually, we had a band with Kenny Dorham, but Kenny got busted or something. He couldn’t make the date. We had a band with Kenny Dorham and Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.

Panken:   You were pretty close to Kenny Dorham.

Donaldson:   Yeah. We had a band together.

Panken:   I guess you recorded a sextet thing in 1954. How did the relationship start?

Donaldson:   Well, it was just a matter that I had to do a record date, and I needed some musicians I thought could make it.

Panken:   Had you been playing with him before that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’d been playing with him a little.

Panken:   What kind of guy was he?

Donaldson:   Nice guy. Very nice guy. Very intelligent. But he had a lip problem, you know. Chops problem. But all of them did, Miles and all of them. Chops problem. I don’t know what it was. Probably they didn’t learn how to play correct. The best trumpet player around New York during those times was a guy named Idrees Sulieman. He could play better than any of those guys. But he knew he wasn’t going to get no gigs because all the promoters and all the club owners were Jewish, so he just packed up and went overseas.

Panken:   They didn’t want a guy with a Muslim name, an Islamic name.

Donaldson:   No. Muslim was out. Back then, the Muslims was out.

Panken:   I guess Sahib Shihab had that problem, too.

Donaldson:   Sahib Shihab, right.

Panken:   During the first part of the ‘50s, when you played New York, were you mostly playing in Harlem, or were you playing downtown?

Donaldson:   I was playing in Harlem.

Panken:   Was there a circuit in Harlem? Describe it a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, Harlem was a place where you had to play for the people 100% if you wanted a return engagement. You had to kind of do a little swing. So I got a chance to play at all these clubs. There was a woman around there named Hilda, and she worked… I guess she worked for the Mob—I guess. But she had the inside on all the clubs. So any time I wanted a job, I just called her. I got it right away.

Panken:   How many different clubs were you…

Donaldson:   About ten different clubs.

Panken:   So Smalls, Minton’s…

Donaldson:   Small places, too.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, what would you make for a week in one of these clubs at the time?

Donaldson:   Oh, I don’t know. Not much. Maybe 125 bucks, something like that.

Panken:   That you’d clear, and then you’d pay the guys in your band what, $75 or something…

Donaldson:   Whatever they’d make. $50. Some of them didn’t make any money at all.

Panken:   You also did a very famous session for Blue Note with Elmo Hope and Clifford Brown in 1953.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In the past, you’ve stated, as everyone has, the most laudatory things about Clifford Brown. Had you known him before that session?

Donaldson:   No, not really. I was working with Elmo. Elmo worked in Dud Bascomb’s band, and I saw him every night—you know, when he showed up. I had heard about Clifford Brown. In fact, all the musicians knew about him. But, like, you know, Max and Art, they wasn’t going to bring him to New York, because they’re looking out for theirself, which is I guess…it’s what you do when you’re a junkie. You live from day to day, trying to cop. So it’s a disastrous situation, but that’s the way it is. I knew he was working with Chris Powell, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames, which was a funk group. So I saw he was working in the park down in Harlem, so I went down there to see him, and he wasn’t working, because he was playing piano—because he’d broken his shoulder or something. He was accident-prone. Every time I saw him, he’d had some kind of accident. I told him I wanted him to make this date with me because I’d heard he was a great trumpet player. So he took the trumpet and laid up on the fence, and held it. That’s the only way he could play it. We played, you know, “Confirmation,” two or three tunes. I said, “that’s all right; that’s good.” I said, “Now, as soon as your shoulder gets better, call me.” And when his shoulder got better, he called me. He made the date.

Panken:   Then the following year, the Live at Birdland date with Art Blakey. Had you been playing with Art Blakey for a while?

Donaldson:   No-no, no-no. I wouldn’t trust Art Blakey around the corner.

Panken:   How did… Sorry to ask so many details about so many gigs, but…

Donaldson:   What happened, the company wanted to do a date. Originally, there was Kenny Dorham, Gene Ramey, Art Taylor, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson. You can tell by the material, Horace and I got all that material together. Art was in California. He’d got busted out there. He couldn’t even get back to New York. But what he did, he saw a bass player out there and told this bass player that if he drove him back to New York in his car, he was going to be his bass player. So I see him one day, and he stops on the street, and he says, “Yeah, Lou, I want you to meet my bass player.” I had to hide my head to keep from laughing. I said, “What the hell are you doing with a bass player with all these bass players in New York who aren’t working?”

So finally, Alfred Lion evidently… Evidently, Alfred Lion was giving him money to get him back to New York, and I go down there and Alfred said, “Well, Art is going to be on the date, and Curley Russell,” which was all right with me, because they could play. The second night after we hit, after Clifford Brown was such a sensation, people were going crazy. Art gets up on the microphone, “Yeah, I want to get these guys together, these young guys…” Me and Horace was looking at each other, saying, “What the hell was he talking about?” The company date was gone. Art Blakey had taken over the date. Alfred Lion was afraid of him, or else he owed Alfred so much money, he made him the leader where he’d get his money back. A lot of people think that was… And then he talked about the Messengers. That wasn’t no Messengers. Art Blakey had a band called the Messengers year before…

Panken:   That was a big band.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Out in Brooklyn. Actually, Ray Copeland was working in that band. There was Art… Idrees Sulieman played trumpet in that band. Colbert Hopkins(?—23:26), Ray Abrams played saxophone… Sahib Shihab played baritone in that band, because Cecil Payne was the baritone player but he left and went on the road with Illinois Jacquet. And this guy, Howard Johnson, who played with Dizzy, played the lead, and the other boy, Ernie Henry, played the third alto. I saw the band. That was the Messengers. But the critics, see, they didn’t know. They said, “Oh, Art got the Messengers.” That was no Messengers band. Art was a con man.

Panken:   Great drummer, though.

Donaldson:   He was a great drummer—when he wanted to be. People ask me that all the time. I say, “Yeah, Art was great when he wanted to be.”

Panken:   What do you mean by that?

Donaldson:   Well, sometimes, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Art played so good you wanted to go back there and kiss him. But on the weekend, a lot of people came, especially if a woman comes up there and crosses her legs and pulls the dress up over her knees, the arrangement changed, everything changed…heh-heh. You got to know who the bandleader is, and you know ….(?—24:48)…. were drums. You’re supposed to play two choruses. You play one chorus, and you’d hear Art back there, “I got it, I got it, I got it.” [LAUGHS] He’d take over the… You had to let him have it, because he’d drop the tsunami on you back there! An earthquake. A volcanic eruption! I told him one night, “Art, man, you’re the greatest drummer in the world—sometimes.” And he just laughed. [LAUGHED] Any time a good-looking woman comes up there, she definitely has got to know who the bandleader is. She don’t have to ask no questions of nobody. She can tell right away who the leader is. Heh-heh…

Panken:   So that date was a week at Birdland.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   It wasn’t a one-night thing.

Donaldson:   It was a week, a whole week.

Panken:   Was that the only time for that particular band, or did you do further engagements?

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s the only time.

Panken:   I read an interview in which you talked about the difference between bebop and hardbop, and presented that recording as a paradigm-setter for what hardbop was. There was a specific sense of the difference. Can you describe that?

Donaldson:   Well, that was hard bop. It was hard swinging. See, when you accelerate the energy and the sound, you’re playing hard bop. It’s hard to do that. And the way I play, if he upped the sound, you had to up your playing, and that made you press a little more, so you’re playing like hard bop.

Panken:   Was it  a matter of volume or a matter of where the beat was being placed?

Donaldson:    Well, it’s the volume and the beat. Volume and the beat.

Panken:   What about the beat was different between bebop and hardbop?

Donaldson:   Well, it was louder. Art probably was high. He got too high, and in his ears he couldn’t hear how loud he was playing. Evidently. I don’t know. What can I tell you.

Panken:   Did you gig with Max Roach much?

Donaldson:   I did some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   Was he playing hard bop or bebop?

Donaldson:   He was playing more like bebop.

Panken:   Again, was that a matter of volume? He wasn’t playing as loud…

Donaldson:   And pressing. Press down. When you bear down, it’s a little different than when you just play. You can play, but then you bear down…when you bear down…

Panken:   Then, between swing and bebop, is it a rhythmic difference, a harmonic difference…

Donaldson:   It’s a harmonic difference between that, and swing is steadier, a steadier rhythm, like the Count Basie mode.

Panken:   Like, say, the way Papa Jo Jones played vis-a-vis the way Max Roach played with displacements and so on.

Donaldson:   Yes, of course.

Panken:   So by 1954, when you’re making these dates, you’ve been primarily a leader for a couple of years, but you’re doing some sessions with other people. And you took a couple of years hiatus from recording, say from mid-1954 until early 1957, when you do the first in a long series of recordings for Blue Note, plus things with Jimmy Smith.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you describe what you were doing during those years?

Donaldson:   I really shouldn’t tell you this, because I’m going to put it in my book. I got mad at Blue Note Records. Angry. Because I went out to do a session one time at Rudy’s house, and we played a couple of tunes, and then some guy came by with some vitamins, and all of them went in the bathroom—Rudy, too. I’m not saying he was doing nothing, but… But he went in there with them, and when they came out, you’re talking about some bad stumblin’ and fumblin’. So I went to Alfred. I said, “Look, Alfred, that’s it. I’m not going to record another record with a junkie. Forget it.” So for two years I didn’t do a record.

So he finally called me back, “You’ve got to do a date.” I said, “I’ll do it, but you’re not going to pick none of the musicians. I’m going to pick them.” And you can see the date, Blues Walk. I had Herman Foster, who was a religious singer, him and his wife—they sang religious music. But I had been going up to Connie’s, a place where they’d jam, and I had been playing with him, and he sounded so good, and we were compatible with our playing.

I went and got Dave Bailey, drummer. Now, Dave was a liquor salesman up on Boston Road. But I used to work at a place called the Apollo Bar up on Boston Road, and he used to come by and sit in—and he played good. I said, “Yeah, this guy is good.” Ok, so I got Herman Foster; I got Dave Bailey.

And then, I got Peck Morrison, bass player, who lived with me in the project. We were in the project. I got him on the date. Then I got Ray Barretto to steady down the rhythm…

Panken:   To play congas.

Donaldson:   Yes. I was working at Showman’s. I was the first band to work at Showman’s.

Panken:   Showman’s Lounge.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Showman’s was right down next to the Apollo Theater then, about 1956 or 1957. I’m working in there, and Ray used to come by and play. I said, “now, look, I don’t want no Puerto Rican drums. I want swing.” He said, “that’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to learn how to swing.” And he had his friend with him, a little alto player who had a hump in his back, a guy named Chuck Eubanks. They used to come by all the time. I used to let him sit in.

Panken:   Chuck Eubanks.

Donaldson:   Chuck Eubanks and Ray. So when I finally got ready to make the date, that’s who I had. Herman Foster, Peck Morrison, all these guys. Alfred Lion didn’t know any of them. So he comes there. “I don’t know these guys.” I said, “Alfred, I told you; I’m not going to record with no more junkies.” Because Alfred by then… Now, Alfred was nice at first. But by then, Alfred had a belief … [PAUSE AT 33:09 AS VOICEMAIL PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]

Anyway, Alfred Lion’s jaws puffed way out. “I don’t know…” See, at that time, Alfred Lion just didn’t believe that nobody couldn’t play unless they was high. He just got… Like the rest of the record companies. They want to see a guy nod, they go, “Oh, he’s great.” So he finally said, “All right, I’m going to take a chance on this; I know I’m going to lose money.” Man, we made that Blues Walk—let me tell you something. Symphony Sid started to playing it. Spider Burke started to playing it in St. Louis. Daddy-O Dailey started to playing it in Chicago. And this guy in Detroit started… That record was a hit. The first record… They don’t tell you that. The first record that Blue Note ever put out that all the distributors took it, from New York to California, and put it on the jukebox.

Panken:   So the date for Blues Walk that I have is July 28, 1958.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   But you had made three records before that, and Herman Foster was on two of those. The first one in the discography is Wailing With Lou, from January 1957. I’ve got Swingin’ Soul, which is from June 1957. Both are with those groups—Donald Byrd played with on Wailing With Lou. Then there’s a date that a lot of people like, called Lou Takes Off, which is a sextet with Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd and Sonny Clark…

Donaldson:   And Jamil Nasser.

Panken:   Jamil Nasser and Arthur Taylor as well. Did you and Alfred Lion then reach an understanding?

Donaldson:   There was no understanding. He knew that he didn’t know what was on and I did. When the records started selling. And “The Masquerade Is Over” on the other side.

Panken:   Because you were traveling so much, you must have had a very good feel for what the public wanted to hear.

Donaldson:   That’s the key. I tell that at all my seminars. Every seminar, when I’m talking to young musicians, I say, “Feel out the audience. You try this kind of tune, that kind of tune, the other kind of tune—whatever you like, that’s where you lay.” You lay there with your setup.

Panken:   Now, in ‘55 and ‘56, even though you weren’t recording, you were working.

Donaldson:    Yeah, I worked.

Panken:   Were you starting to tour the country, go outside New York by that time?

Donaldson:   Right. I had my own tour.

Panken:   When did that start happening?

Donaldson:   I don’t know exactly the date, but I got my own tour from New York to California.

Panken:   Who was booking you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, I was booking a lot of the gigs, but another guy named Warren Stevens, who used to work for Ruth Bowen Booking Agency… He’s a guitar player himself. He was a good friend of mine from Columbus, Ohio. He starts booking it.

Panken:   Describe the circuit a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, it was the greatest circuit in the world. I’m the only one that did it—first. Then McDuff and Groove Holmes and Jimmy McGriff and all of them came in later. We started in Rochester at a place called the Pythodd. Jon Hendricks’ brother owned it—Stewart Hendricks. Then we’d go from there to Buffalo, to the Pine Grill. Or another place up there was the Bon Ton. We had about four clubs we could work. Then we’d go to Pittsburgh, play Crawford’s Grill. Then we’d segue into Cleveland. Now, all these places were short jumps. So we didn’t have no transportation problems or nothin’. We’d go to Cleveland. We’d play Leo’s Casino.

Panken:   You’d be a week in each town?

Donaldson:   A week in each town. Sometimes two weeks. Leo’s Casino. Leo’s was on 55th and Central at that time, but he died, and his son took it over and put it on Euclid Avenue. His son is named Leo, too, but this was the original Leo.

Then we’d leave Cleveland, and we’d go to Columbus, Ohio. Now, Warren had a club there himself, right down in town, and he had an unsegregated club, way back then.

Panken:   Were they called black-and-tan then?

Donaldson:   No, this club was called the Sacred Mushroom. But it was integrated. Because somebody threw a bomb in there one night, a stink bomb.

Panken:   This was in Columbus.

Donaldson:   Columbus, Ohio. Then I go down to Dayton, Ohio, a place called the Lavender Lounge. I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d play down there, then we’d go to Louisville, Kentucky, and play a place called the Idle Hour. Some rich guy down there had some money, and he let us play the club. We’d go down there and play, free food and everything. We were on a budget. Then what we’d do…

Did I say Cincinnati? We played Cincinnati, too. We played Cincinnati. Babe Baker’s in Cincinnati. He was like the guy at Minton’s. He wanted nothing but a jazz club. In fact, one day, a disk jockey came in and put some James Brown records or something on the jukebox. He threw them out the window. He said, “don’t bring nothing in here but jazz.”

Then we’d go…from Louisville, we’d go on Highway 50, go into St. Louis. Played the Gaslight Square, sort of like the Village—a lot of clubs down there. A lot of people hang out. Then we’d play over in East St. Louis, which is just 7 miles across the river, right by the Dome, right past the Dome. And we’d go from there to Kansas City, which ain’t but 240 miles. From Kansas City, then we’d go to Wichita, Kansas. I had this all set up. We’d go to Dallas, Texas. We’d go to Houston, Texas. Sometimes, if we could work it out, we’d play one-nighters in small towns, like Port Arthur and Belmont, Corpus Christi—we’d play one-nighters. Then we’d get set and head for California. Get Route 66, we’re gone, all the way to Los Angeles. Played the It Club.

I knew all these guys. All these guys were hustlers, so I knew them. If I didn’t know them, I’d call them two or three weeks in advance and set it up. I was a lucky guy back then. Didn’t make a whole lot of money, but we worked all the time.

Then I’d work San Francisco, and Oakland, a place called M Major’s.  He’s dead now. But we worked in those clubs. Then we’d come on back. We’d bypass Utah, because we knew what was there, and we’d come on into Denver. Then we’d come on back into Omaha. We had a schedule. 500 more miles, we’re in Chicago. Joe Segal—he had two or three clubs. Then we’d leave there, we’d go to Detroit. Sure enough, before we got back, they wanted us so bad, we’d go right on back into Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and then come home.

Panken:   We’re not talking about ‘55 and ‘56, now. We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Donaldson:   We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Panken:   But in ‘55 and ‘56, you were starting to go out of town?

Donaldson:   Yes, I was starting to go out of town.

Panken:   Who were you taking with you? Was Herman Foster with you yet?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Herman was with me.

Panken:   So by the time you’d made those first records, you’d been working with him for a year or more.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Herman Foster, Peck. Morrison, and Jimmy Wormworth was the drummer. We went up to Buffalo, and hit some of the same clubs. But we had it set up…

Panken:   That’s when you started establishing that circuit and those relationships.

Donaldson:   Yes. Well, the reason I used an organ was because a lot of times we’d go into a place, and they didn’t have a piano—and renting a piano, that’s out of the question. People want a thousand dollars to rent a piano. Shit, a thousand dollars, we weren’t even making that much for the gig. So we decided we’d buy an organ, and we’ll get a bass player and a piano player at the same time. All we need is a U-Haul truck and a hitch. So I put a hitch on the back of my station wagon, and we’d pull it. We’d save money and made money.

Panken:   But if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t start touring with an organ until about 1960 or so?

Donaldson:   It was in the ‘60s somewhere.

Panken:   I’d like to stay in the ‘50s for now, if we can. What did you do when the piano was crap or a club didn’t have a piano?

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play the gig!

Panken:   So you wouldn’t play a gig without a piano.

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play it, no. So what happened then… You see, the funk groups were coming out, and the funk groups had these synthesizers and electric bass. We didn’t have that.

Panken:   You did so many gigs with Jimmy Smith in 1957 and 1958. People still treasure those recordings and play them, they’re a firm part of the history. When did you start establishing a performing relationship with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   ‘57, ‘58, somewhere in there…

Panken:   Where I’m going is, was it set up by the record company? Was it your initiative?

Donaldson:   No. Babs Gonzalez set that up. He brought Jimmy to New York and told Alfred he should record him. So Babs was in the middle of that.

Panken:   So Jimmy Smith got the date, and then you got the call to do the record?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Were those satisfying engagements?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. The Sermon is one of the greatest records ever made. It’s a great record.

Panken:   What do you think was the key to your simpatico with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   We were compatible. He liked me. The organ sound and the alto sound is beautiful. Yeah, he liked me, because I played the blues, and that’s what he played.

Panken:   Can you describe personally what he was like during those sessions?

Donaldson:   Jimmy? Jimmy was carefree. Nice guy. In his latter years they said he was something else, but I didn’t know him then. I hadn’t seen him in a while.  But back then, he was just a carefree guy.

Panken:   Had you heard before he played organ, when he was a piano player?

Donaldson:   No, I hadn’t heard him when he was piano player. The first I heard him was a record he made down in Wilmington. That’s where I heard that record, and it was so dynamic. With Thornell Schwartz. That was a great record.

Panken:   Had you been playing with organ players before that?

Donaldson:   Not too many. I played with John Patton.

Panken:   Before Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I played with John Patton, Baby Face Willette, a couple of guys.

Panken:   The records with John Patton are around 1960, with Baby Face Willette around 1961. I wanted you to tell us about the Jimmy Smith recordings just because the records are so great…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they’re great.

Panken:   So whatever insight you can give us into how they were set up, or how…

Donaldson:   Jimmy was a musical genius. He can play. He was just like Art Tatum at the piano. It’s hard to play anything that he hasn’t played.

Panken:   Did that give you a feeling of freedom, that you could…

Donaldson:   Uh…yeah, freedom. Inspiration. Because he had good basslines. He could kick it.

Panken:   I’d like to ask about some of the alto saxophonists who were roughly your contemporaries who came into prominence in the ‘50s. Sonny Stitt is someone you’ve often been compared to stylistically.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Cannonball Adderley hit the scene in 1955. I’m sure you were aware of him quite quickly. Jackie McLean was a local hero in New York, and a protégé of Charlie Parker. Phil Woods was coming into his own during those years. Were those all people you were touching base with in one way or another?

Donaldson:   Yeah, in one way or another.

Panken:   Can we say a few things about each of them? Sonny Stitt, for instance.

Donaldson:   Well, Sonny Stitt for me was the number-two man behind Charlie Parker. I always thought that. Sonny Stitt. But Sonny Stitt was a guy who knew the saxophone so well, he could get anything out of it. But…like, Charlie Parker was the only one I know that play that way and still play the blues in all of his playing. Sonny Stitt was more technical, but he was great. Great guy.

Panken:   How about Cannonball Adderley? Did you become aware…

Donaldson:   Cannonball didn’t even come to New York until after Charlie Parker was dead. So he was a big thing. But he’d have come while Charlie Parker was alive, he wouldn’t have been anything like that. But he could play. He was nice. He was a nice guy as far as I know. He played a little Country-and-Western. Sometimes he sounded like a hillbilly, but…

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   I mean, he played corny. You know what “corny” is, don’t you?

Panken:   I do.

Donaldson:   All right. He played corny. But he knew the saxophone. He knew it. In fact, Miles asked me to play with him two or three times when he had Coltrane there, but I wouldn’t play with Miles, because Miles wasn’t reliable with money, and I couldn’t afford to play a week without bringing in some kind of income.

Panken:   Were you tempted?

Donaldson:   No. No way. Because I didn’t want to do what you have to do to people like that. Because he was an icon, people liked him, and I wouldn’t want nobody to see me hit him upside the head with a baseball bat or something.

Panken:   Were you a fan of his music?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I was a fan of his musicians. Red Garland I loved. Paul Chambers. And Philly.

Panken:   Did you get to know Coltrane?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew him. Coltrane’s from North Carolina.

Panken:   I was going to ask you about that. Monk as well had roots in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yes, Monk’s from Wilson, North Carolina. I knew Coltrane real well. He was a hard-working guy. But most of his stuff was drug-related.

Panken:   What do you mean?

Donaldson:   He’d get high, go in a room and play eight hours, you know, without coming out. Drugs. They don’t tell people that when they’re talking about him.

Panken:   What was your practice routine like?

Donaldson:   Oh, practice…

Panken:   I’m talking about then, the ‘40s, the ‘50s…

Donaldson:   I was working a lot then. I didn’t have no practice routine. When I started playing a lot, I never practiced, because I’d just go to work. If I got tired of playing a song, I just played it another key or something like that. Keep myself fresh. It made me think about what I’m doing.

Panken:   Back to alto players, did you get to know Jackie McLean well?

Donaldson:   I knew Jackie McLean well. He was like a brother.

Panken:   When did you meet him? When you got to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I lived up there. I lived on 155th. He lived on 158th. Sonny Rollins lived around the corner. Edgecombe Avenue. I’d see all of them. But these guys were junkies. They were junkies. Sorry to say, but I had no use for no junkies. Because I thought it would just be my luck to be talking to one of them and the police run up and get us—get everybody.

Panken:   You thought you’d be caught in the same net, you mean?

Donaldson:   You got it. Because all they did was hustle every day to try to get money, to get high. They had some musical talent. But they’re characters that I wouldn’t recommend.

Panken:   Now, people did change and get over their habits.

Donaldson:   I don’t know. I doubt it.

Panken:   When did you first meet someone who was strung out on drugs?

Donaldson:   When did I first MEET someone?

Panken:   Yeah. In North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Oh, no. No drugs in North Carolina. They’d give you thirty years for smoking weed down there. They didn’t have no junkies in North Carolina, not when I was there. When I got to New York, I saw plenty of junkies.

Panken:   So your attitude towards people who were abusing drugs was more based on self-preservation, it sounds like, than anything else…

Donaldson:   Well, actually, none of them played as well as they thought they was playing when they was high. I could have got somebody sober to play better. Because everybody was following Trane. But Trane jumped the track, and they jumped it right behind him. Now all of them are unemployed. I call that “unemployment music.” And they still play it. Disk jockeys and record companies are so stupid.  They don’t even acknowledge it because they’re stupid.

Panken:   Elaborate.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s a style of music that you can’t play in Atlanta.  Charlotte, North Carolina.  Birmingham. Big cities. St. Louis. You can’t play a steady gig there playing that.  Kansas City. All the big cities. You can play it in New York, maybe one joint in Chicago—although Joe Segal has now started mixing up his entertainment. Nowhere in California can you play it, not on a steady gig. And that’s very counter-productive.

Panken:   Back to alto players. Phil Woods was the fourth name I wrote down here. Were you and he friends in the ‘50s?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I like Phil. I like Phil very well, because Phil was one of the few white guys that, when he got famous, he didn’t forget the black guys. A lot of the white guys, once they got famous, made a couple of records and ran all off with the white bands. But Phil always kept some brothers around. Well, I guess he wanted the feeling in his band.

Panken:   Another alto player I can think of in the ‘50s who had his own sound was Lee Konitz. I recall when we did the DownBeat Blindfold Test, I gave you a track by him, and you had some interesting things to say.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know Lee Konitz. Lee Konitz is a sax-o-phon-ist. I wouldn’t call him exactly a great jazz player, but he’s a good saxophone player. Him and Paul Desmond, too. They sound like they’re playing clarinets. They don’t even have the sound.

Panken:   So for you, it’s very important to have…

Donaldson:   I mean, a SOUND. A bluesy sound. They don’t have it. They can’t play the blues, unfortunately. They play what they’re playing. But the blues, a different thing. And if you can’t play blues, you can’t play jazz, period. Now, if you can play it and don’t play it, you’re still not playing jazz—period. I listen to all the stuff Coltrane’s playing. No blues. In fact, I did a survey… I didn’t do a survey. Mark Elf, guitar player. I had him to monitor the public commercial radio stations. He got the best tune that was hot, something by 50 Cents or somebody, and he monitored that tune for a week. You know how much airplay they got?

Panken:   How much?

Donaldson:   715 times. And I had to monitor Coltrane and see how much airplay he got on a commercial station. You know how many he got?

Panken:   How many?

Donaldson:   [RAISES HAND WITH INDEX FINGER AND THUMB IN A CIRCLE, AND THREE FINGERS OUTSTRETCHED]

Panken:   That’s three. Oh, it’s zero.

Donaldson:   That’s zero! Not one. Now, that’s no good. You can’t even stay in business like that. Because you know, and anybody else knows, that years and years and years, we got a lot of play on commercial stations with Duke Ellington’s tunes and Count Basie, “April in Paris” and all that kind of stuff. We got play on commercial stations. But now jazz…kiss it goodbye. TV? I haven’t seen a jazz show since Tony Bennett was on there years ago, and brought Count Basie on there.

Panken:   I’m going to move into another area. You were one of the first jazz group leaders to use a conga player, as you were describing with Ray Barretto on those Blue Note dates from 1957. I think you used the phrase just now, “straighten out the rhythm.” What exactly did you mean by that, and what…

Donaldson:   Actually, I meant control. Now you can see today you’ve got these guys like Poncho Sanchez and a couple of more Latino musicians making a lot of money, because they put that beat with jazz. Because there’s no such thing as Latin Jazz. You can kiss that goodbye. That’s a misnomer. It’s jazz with Latin rhythm. That’s all it is. And when they keep that rhythm, which is the heart of the thinking in their music, they can sell the records. We could have done it ourselves if we’d kept our rhythm, with Kenny Clarke and Max… Those guys were shooting a little cocaine…shooting a little heroin and snorting a little cocaine—they didn’t want to swing any more. They wanted to take a solo. Most of the time, when somebody else is soloing. That’s what the problem is. That’s how they’re losing out.

Panken:   But what was the value for you of having the conga player?

Donaldson:   To steady down the rhythm. That’s all.

Panken:   You had done a date in 1955 with Gene Ammons. It’s the one sideman recording with you that I know of from that period. I know that he also liked to use the congas.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He used it a lot. Were you friendly with him?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   There’s something about your records in the ‘50s and his records…a very similar vibration.

Donaldson:   Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s a groove. A groove record. It’s a swing record. Groove records. It’s hard to say, but that’s what jazz is all about. If jazz was played the way they’re playing now, there would have never been any jazz. In fact, people have played like Coltrane and… Well, I don’t want to, you know, beat on a dead horse, but it sounds like he’s playing a concerto! He states a theme, and then he [SINGS WILD SCALE]. That’s not jazz. A lot of times, when you play the theme, you’re playing the jazz. You take a guy like Louis Armstrong. He played the same way until he died. He never changed one thing. And when he was an old man, he started making hit records. “Hello, Dolly” and this other one…” [SINGS REFRAIN OF “MACK THE KNIFE”] Now, the way he’s playing it, he’s playing jazz in the melody. That’s what makes it. Like George Shearing. You hear him play “I Got Rhythm.” George played [SINGS IMPRESSION OF SHEARING PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”]. Louis Armstrong doesn’t play it like that. He said, [SINGS IMPRESSION OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”] Man, he’s playing jazz in the melody.

A lot of people forgot that, and they go to these high-priced schools, they learn how to play music. They’re great musician. I mean, a lot of young saxophone players, they can really get over a saxophone. But they couldn’t play “Tea For Two.” I say, “Do you know ‘Tea For Two’?” “Oh, no, how does that go?” So I say, “How in the world can you play ‘Giant Steps’ and you can’t play the melody for ‘Tea For Two’?” there’s something wrong somewhere. That doesn’t make any sense.

Panken:   I think now we should stop for today, and we’ll get together tomorrow and bring this to the present.

Donaldson:   I hope so. Because we’re getting into some deep things about music now. I’m going to tell you why they should set Monk up in a different category. I’ll tell you exactly why he should be in a different category.

[END OF June 20, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken at Lou Donaldson’s house for day two of the Smithsonian Oral History Project interview. It’s June 21, 2012. Nice to see you again, Lou.

Donaldson:   Nice to see you.

Panken:   I’d like to return to what we started off with yesterday, and speak a bit more about your family. You had some information you were going to think of. For one thing, I’m not sure whether we got on tape what college your father went to.

Donaldson:   Livingstone College.

Panken:   He was a minister. Was that a theological college? A seminary?

Donaldson:   No… I don’t know. It might have been. But he was one of the first black students there. It was the oldest black college. I don’t know exactly what they taught there.

Panken:   You said your whole family were educators.

Donaldson:   Yup.

Panken:   Except you.

Donaldson:   Me, too. I’m the most educated. No, what I was saying was most of them had doctorates. I got a Bachelors, but they got…

Panken:   I said educators, not educated.

Donaldson:   Oh, educators. Oh, yeah. All of them were educators, right. All of them went into education. Schoolteachers and people like that.

Panken:   Can you talk about what kind of person your father was? Was he very strict.

Donaldson:   Ah, he was… It’s hard for me to say. He was just a father.  He wasn’t that strict because I never did anything to make him angry. He was a preacher and an insurance salesman, and every Sunday I had my duties and the regular stuff I had to do. But other than that, he was ok. Heh-heh.

Panken:   And your mother? You stated that she was a music teacher, and you didn’t want to take piano because of the threat of the strap, but…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   But what else can you tell us about your mother?

Donaldson:   Well, my mother had to be the greatest woman that ever lived. She was like, uh, the black mayor of Badin. Anything you had to do know once you crossed the tracks, they came to her to get the information. She was a powerful woman. Actually, she was a first grade teacher, so she knew all of the people in the town, because she taught them. She was a music teacher and she was choir director, and the church organist. So she did everything. She did everything in the town.  All the social activities. She just about (?—3:27) them. She sent all of us to college. We were the first kids from the town to really go to college. First black kids really to go to college. There were four of us.

Panken:   And they all played music, too?

Donaldson:   Yes, they played music.

Panken:   What did they play?

Donaldson:   They played piano.

Panken:   So European classical music?

Donaldson:   Not really. Just piano. Except my brother, he was a bandmaster. He played classics. He ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the director of the bands for years.

Panken:   High school?

Donaldson:   He was a high school teacher.

Panken:   That’s what I meant. He was director of high school bands.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, high school bands. Right.

Panken:   I can’t remember if I asked you this yesterday. Coming up as a kid in Badin, did you have any instructors other than your mother? You taught yourself, I guess you said.

Donaldson:   Oh, to play the clarinet?

Panken:   Yes, to play the clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I taught myself. And my mother…

Panken:   Your mother could help you a little bit.

Donaldson:   With the music and the notes. Keys. Signatures on the music and all that.  She didn’t know much about the clarinet, but I just read the book and found out about that.

Panken:   And you figured out the embouchure and all the details…

Donaldson:   Oh, yes. I figured all that out.

Panken:   Did you perform at all before you went to Greensboro?

Donaldson:   No!

Panken:   Did you play at home…

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I’d play at home, and I’d play down… I’d go down in the middle of town and play like marches and things that I’d learned. All the kids would come around, because I was the only one playing music in the town. They’d come out, and they would listen to me. I used to tell them, “One day you’re going to have to pay to see me play.” And now, every time one of them comes to see me play, I act like I don’t know ‘em. [LAUGHS]

Panken: You don’t really do that.

Donaldson:   Yes, I do.

Panken:   Do you?

Donaldson:   Yes, I do. I was at the Club Barron one night, and this guy, Arthur Merriweather… I played with him at North Carolina A&T, in the band. He was a great trumpet player. We had a jazz orchestra and everything. What happened, they caught me playing in the band room some Benny Goodman solos, and they took away my privileges. So I didn’t have anywhere to practice. So in the middle of the day, when everybody else was at class, I’d go into the shower room and practice. He used to come by and say, “Oh, you’re the shithouse clarinet player.” I used to tell him, “All right, one of these days you’re going to have…”

When I was at the Club Barron, the guy said, “A guy is at the door from A&T that knows you who says he wants to get in.” So I went out and I saw him. I said, “I don’t know him.” Ha-ha. “Don’t let him in; I don’t know him.” After I finished playing a couple of tunes, I saw him sitting in there. He’d gone out to the car and got a picture of the band from A&T, and brought it back to the door and showed the guy. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   That was very enterprising.

Donaldson:   I was sitting right by him in the band. [LAUGHS] I cracked up.

Panken:   Did you acknowledge his existence at that point?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. Of course. Of course. He was a great guy.

Panken:   So playing on a bandstand for people started when you were in college.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   First couple of years.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   The implication I got from the story you told about Great Lakes, where you peeked in and the bandmaster discovered you could play clarinet well… I’m interested in how you went from being a student to the idea that you were going to be a professional musician, how that crystallized in you.

Donaldson:   Well, once I heard the band at Great Lakes, I wanted to be a professional musician. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Panken:   So that made you think “this is what I want to do.”

Donaldson:   Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. After I heard Charlie Parker, that really solidified.

Panken:   But before that, you were talking about practicing the Benny Goodman solos.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Did you practice to a lot of clarinet players when you were 14-15-16?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no, no-no. It was just me. I’d send to New York and get his music…

Panken:   The transcribed solos.

Donaldson:   Transcribed. And Artie Shaw. People like that.

Panken:   But had you listened to Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw by that time?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I listened to them. I listened to them on radio. I told you we had a short-wave radio. We could pick it up late at night down in the South. We’d pick them up. When they got to 12 o’clock, we couldn’t…

Panken:   I wasn’t sure of the timeline, whether that was before the war or after the war that you were able to do that.

Donaldson:   that was during the war.

Panken:   Of course. You were 15 when the war started. But what I meant to say was, before you were drafted.

Donaldson: No, that wasn’t before then.

Panken:   Are you more like one of your parents than the other?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’m more like my mother.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, because she was a very passionate person, and she helped a lot of people. I tried to pattern myself after her. Actually, she just about controlled the black neighborhood in our town. Because many times, people would get into trouble, and she’d go over and talk to the sheriff—he’d let them go.

Panken:   So she knew how to approach the powers that be.

Donaldson:   She knew everything. Because she worked as a schoolteacher from September to June, and then she worked in the country club in the white section of town, which was a lot of big officials from the Alcoa Aluminum plant who lived in the country club. She was almost like an assistant to the woman that owned the club. She used to make me real angry. Because I told you she was just a passionate, nice person. Because somebody wouldn’t make up a room, like, she’d go in there and make it up herself. “Now, you’re not supposed to be doing that!” [LAUGHS] But she would, and had no thoughts about it. And you couldn’t say anything about race at the table, or else she’d pull out that switch.

Panken:   You mean say anything about race as far as saying anything about white people?

Donaldson:   As far as about white people. You couldn’t say nothing about white people. She loved white people. [LAUGHS] She loved the white people. Because we used to be mumbling stuff under the table, you know… Sometimes the sheriff would come over and, you know, shoot somebody or something. You know how it is down…

Panken:   The South, yeah.

Donaldson:   You couldn’t say anything about it. She wouldn’t let you do it. I never heard her say a bad word about anybody. Now, of course, that’s different from me. That’s one characteristic I didn’t pick up. Heh-heh…

Panken:   Was she a very religious woman?

Donaldson:   Of course. Religious. Very religious. She went to church four times every Sunday.

Panken:   Did you have to go to church?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I had to go to church. And once I got away from there, I haven’t been to another one.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   That’s right. I told my father, once I get away from here, that’s it.

Panken:   How much music was there in the church apart from your father’s playing organ?

Donaldson:   All kind of music. My mother knew more music than anybody I ever met in my life. When I was a little kid, I was singing a lot of stuff that people started singing later on.

[BRIEF PAUSE AT 13:05 FOR PHONE]

Panken:   We were talking about church. Let’s start from the top. She was an organist, you went to church with her, and she knew all kinds of music.

Donaldson:   Yes. All kinds of music. When I was a little kid, I was singing songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I knew James Weldon Johnson—I knew about him. FMI(?—13:37), and all that stuff. “Precious Lord” and all those songs that the black composers wrote. I knew all about it. I knew all about Sojourner Truth and Highland Rebels, and all of them…black people after reconstruction. She taught us all of that.

Panken:   So you learned about black history.

Donaldson: She told us all about black history before I was 5 or 6 years old. We knew all about it.

Panken:   So her attitude about what you could talk about and couldn’t talk about at the table didn’t correspond to not giving you information about heritage.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I got the information. She gave me information about everything.

Panken:   Do you feel that those experiences… This is kind of an obvious question; I’m sure I know the answer. But do you feel that your musical experiences in church as a boy and a teenager have an impact on who you are now as a musician?

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Talk about that.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, we used to have these things down there they called sanctified meetings, where all the people would go to the church, and they’d start a beat [CLAPS THE BEAT], and they wouldn’t stop that beat for two or three hours. They’d be singing the spirituals. And after about two or three hours, the most dramatic stuff you ever saw in your life. People that had canes and had walkers and had wheelchairs would be up in the floor shouting. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] They used to have the sanctified meetings. It was amazing.

Panken:   And your father was leading the sermon?

Donaldson:   Well, not in that. That was something separate. He would preach on Sunday. But that was like in a special service in the middle of the week or something. And there would be a lot of preachers there.  A lot of preachers would come in from everywhere for that meeting, and everybody would have to testify and do all that kind of stuff.

Panken:   What was your father’s style of preaching?

Donaldson:   My father was a kind of in-between.

Panken:   In between what?

Donaldson:   In between intellect and… He would moderate his preaching to where the people could understand what he was talking about. But he was a real educated man. And back then, they didn’t like educated preachers. They liked preachers that used to yell and scream and… A lot of those preachers couldn’t even read the Bible. They’d have like a kid, a young kid reading the script, and they’d quote it after… It’s amazing. It’s a lot of stuff.

Panken:   So all those things factor into the voice you have on your instrument.

Donaldson:   Of course. The time, the tempo, the rhythm, the building up of like a solo—all of that goes into it.  And such wonderful singers. You never heard such wonderful singers in all of your life.

Panken:   Do you try to emulate that singing quality when you play the saxophone in any way?

Donaldson:   Actually, I was trying to emulate Johnny Hodges and those kind of people. I wasn’t really trying to emulate the church. Because I knew all of the… Like, Pete Brown, and another saxophone player I was very…I’d go to see him all the time…a cat who worked with Red Allen named Don Stovall. He had a beautiful sound. And he played like a ROUGH saxophone, and I tried to play stuff like him sometimes.

Panken:   Just stepping back again, was there any blues in town as a kid?

Donaldson:   In my town? Yeah, people would sing blues.

Panken:   Were you checking that out as a kid, or were you sheltered from it?

Donaldson:   Not really. Not really, because they’d be drunk when they started doing it, and I’d get away from there quick, because I’d know eventually what was going to happen. There would be some fracases. So I’d get away. Because they lived a tough life. They was working in this Alcoa Aluminum factory at 222 degrees Fahrenheit, and on the weekend everybody was drunk. And now that I’m old and I look back, I can see exactly why. That was tough work. Tough work. Because you worked ten years breathing those fumes and things, you had to be well messed up.

Panken:   You described the extraction process yesterday.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   And there was no EPA at that time.

Donaldson:   No-no.

Panken:   Just a little bit more about when you made the transition from clarinet to alto saxophone. Johnny Hodges was the prime first influence, and then Bird came into the picture? Is that kind of…

Donaldson:   Well, not really. All of them came into the picture about the same time. I heard Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington. In fact, he was the first saxophone player I got to see. Somebody had a video… We went to a town, I think it was Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a much larger town than mine, and I put a nickel… I saw Duke Ellington, so I put a nickel in the nickelodeon, because that’s all it cost to play a record, and they had a video of the band that came up while they were playing, and I got to see Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, all of those type guys.

Panken:   So he made a quick impression.

Donaldson:   A big impression. I wanted to play like that.

Panken:   I’ve asked a few people from your generation how they felt and what the experience was like when they listened to Charlie Parker for the first time. You’ve told me that you heard “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Jay McShann…

Donaldson:   Yeah, “Jumpin’ the Blues.”

Panken:   …and you saw Bird in Chicago…it had to be 1944, because that’s when he was with Eckstine. Can you describe for me the impact he had on you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, he was different. He was just different. The sound was different. The way he played was different, the way he would drive when he played, the power behind his phrases. Just different. And everything was swinging. Just different from anybody else. You actually would have to live back during that era to understand it. Nobody else was playing that way, but him.

Panken:   So it made you want to find out what he was doing…

Donaldson:   Find out what he was doing and play the same way. Play it the same way, if possible.

Panken:   How did you measure yourself in that regard? Did you just listen to the records over and over and over, and wear them out until you…

Donaldson:   That’s what I did. Listened to the record. I’d wind the record down to the aluminum base. They had an aluminum base. I’d cut it down. And when I couldn’t get the phrases, I’d put it down to 33-1/3 speed. It would be in another key, but you could still get the phrases. If you cut it down, he sounded like Lester Young—if you cut down the speed.

Panken:   How did you get the records?

Donaldson:   I got them from the guys in Chicago. See, some guys in my band came from Chicago, and they brought the records out to the base, and they’d be playing them?

Panken: Which records at the time? The Guild records with Dizzy Gillespie and Sid Catlett?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no.

Panken:   “Red Cross”? Or before that.

Donaldson:   No. Way before that. Wasn’t nothing like that out.

Panken:   Well, he made those dates in 1945, but I don’t know if they were out at the time.

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t hear that until later.

Panken:   But apart from “Jumpin’ Blues,” what other Charlie Parker solos did you learn…

Donaldson:   “Jumpin’ the Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” with McShann. A couple of more tunes. But all of them were with McShann.

Panken:   Everything with McShann. So your experience with Charlie Parker…

Donaldson:   Was with McShann.

Panken: After you got out of the Army, did you stay up on all of Charlie Parker’s records, the Dials and the Savoys?

Donaldson:   Of course. Stayed on everything.

Panken:   Did you do the same thing with those?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Copied everything. Played everything. Played the solos.

Panken:   How did you learn what to do with that information as a performer?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, the tunes that he did then were just variations of other tunes. So I’d learn the original tune, and compare that with what he was playing, and that gave you something to work on. It was nice.

Panken:   So you could use your imagination and creativity that way, by finding out the connections.

Donaldson:   Of course. Once I learned to resolve chords, go from one chord to another, I’d just buy the sheet music and I could see where the chords went.

Panken:   Now, I’m unclear from our conversation yesterday whether this was a solitary activity or whether you had people in Greensboro who were similarly interested in bebop and the new music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. Everybody in Greensboro was interested in it. My good friend, Carl Foster. This other guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, who was a great saxophonist.

Panken:   Billy Tolles was from Seattle, right?

Donaldson:   Seattle, Washington.  He was a great saxophone player. He could play all that kind of stuff when he came down to North Carolina.

Panken:   Now, the people you played with in Greensboro… Were you moonlighting outside of school? Did you ever do three-four days out on the road with a blues singer, or go to a dance…

Donaldson:   No, we played in clubs. And we played bebop. We played a regular show, then we’d play bebop. You had to play a regular show first. Then we’d play some bebop tunes.

Panken:   You mean at the end of the show.

Donaldson:   At the end of the show.

Panken:   Now, you said that’s been your m.o. ever since.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:    You play during the regular show things that will communicate to the average man and woman, and then you…

Donaldson:   Once you get them in your corner, then you play whatever you want to play. One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me (I don’t know whether I told you this before) is that when I came back from the Service, I didn’t have a saxophone…

Panken:   You didn’t tell me that.

Donaldson:   I had to go to the music shop to buy a saxophone. I didn’t tell you that?

Panken:   No.

Donaldson:   I was in there, so I started to play the… [SINGS REFRAIN OF “GROOVIN’ HIGH”] All of a sudden, I hear this guitar player over there playing the same thing I was playing. I looked around the corner at him, and it’s a white boy. He had all this paint over his clothes and paint on his face. He looked like a painted Indian. He was a sign painter. And I said, “Man, how you know that?” He said, “Well, I’m trying to learn all the bebop I can learn.” I said, “I’m glad I saw you. So there’s one person in this town…” He said, “Can I come down to the Cottage?” I said, “yeah, you can come down every time.” So he started coming down there every weekend, and we’d play. And you’d never guess who it was.

Panken:   I think I might know. Let me try one guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Tal Farlow?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow. He was from Greensboro. He’d come right down, and we played. We was integrating everything. Nobody said a word. They loved it. That was great.

Panken:   I got so involved in talking about your musical path, but I wanted to pick up on a couple of things you were mentioning just before we sat down and the tape went on about your extended family. I think you mentioned your grandfather, or was it an uncle, who was a stone-mason and built…

Donaldson:   Oh, my great-grandfather. He built St. Paul University. He built the buildings. He was a mason and a carpenter.

Panken:   Was that during Reconstruction times?

Donaldson:   It had to be in the 1920s.

Panken:   Your great-grandfather?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He would have been elderly at the time…

Donaldson:   Well, maybe my grandfather. My mother’s father. That’s who it was. My grandfather. A lot of my mother’s sisters taught in the college.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, and tell me if you do, how far back can you trace your lineage?

Donaldson:   Way back.

Panken:   Talk about that a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, I had the paper to show you, but my sister-in-law absconded with it, so… I didn’t know these people myself.  My mother told me all this. I never saw these people. I saw her sisters. See, my grandfather had three wives, three sets of children, and she was in the first set.  There were some younger ones.

Panken:   At the same time, or serially?

Donaldson:   Yeah, at the same time. He was… I guess he was a playboy, whatever he was. Bigamist. Whatever he was. He had three sets of children.

Panken:   Hard-working man. Where was he from?

Donaldson:   I guess he’s from Virginia. St. Paul, Virginia. I guess.

Panken:   Perhaps if you do find that sheet of paper, the Smithsonian can get a copy, and it can be entered into the record of the transcript later.

Donaldson:   Yes. Maybe I can find it.

Panken:   Let’s jump, then. Our conversation yesterday took us to about 1960, give or take, around the time when you make the transition from carrying a pianist in your band to starting to carry organ players, and when, apart from Jimmy Smith, you record with Big John Patton, you record with Baby Face Willette, projects like this. But first, I’d like to talk a bit more about the bands you recorded with in the late ‘50s. Some had Bill Hardman on the front line with you; some didn’t. Herman Foster or Horace Parlan were the pianists…

Donaldson:   George Tucker and Al Harewood.

Panken:   Also Peck Morrison and Dave Bailey.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   In general, what qualities did those musicians have in common?

Donaldson:   Well, for me, they weren’t junkies. That’s why I used them. Because like I told you, I told Alfred Lion junkies had to go.

Panken:   But how about as far as what they did musically?

Donaldson:   Well, we played around New York together. I’d see them all the time. We had two or three places we played, and then we had one place we’d play every night called Connie’s. That was at 134th and 7th Avenue. We played in Connie’s… After the rest of the clubs was closed, we’d go up there and play from about 5 til about 10 in the morning.

Panken:   You mean the breakfast session.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Was that all week, or just Monday?

Donaldson:   Every night. Right across the street was Roy Campanella’s liquor store. Any time some famous ballplayer would come over there, they’d run across the street and tell us, and we’d go over there and meet them. Don Newcombe, Hank Thompson… In fact, Leo Durocher was over there one time. We got to meet all the ballplayers.

Panken:   I guess the New York Giants were Harlem’s team.

Donaldson:   Of course. The New York Giants. And the Brooklyn Dodgers. They loved the Dodgers, too. I was there the night Campanella got hurt. [January 27, 1958] What happened… This is an amazing story. I was in Small’s Paradise. Wilt Chamberlain owned it at that time. I was over there talking to Wilt, and Campanella came in there because once… He closed up about 1 o’clock, and Wilt stayed open til about 4. There was a girl, a barmaid that Roy liked, so he came over, but it was snowing a little bit, not much… He sat there until about 4 o’clock. By that time, the snow was getting deep, real deep, and I started talking to him.  I said, “Roy, I know you’re not trying to go home in this snow.” He said, “No, I think I’m going to go down the street to the motel and stay there the rest of the night,” because there were some bad curves getting back to Brooklyn. I said, “Ok.” I never will forget it, because when I got in my car, I came up Bruckner Boulevard, which was a two-lane street then but they were making it a four-lane, and they had dug these trenches, and if you slid in one of those trenches you never could get your car out. So I drove my car in low gear from Harlem all the way right to this house in the Bronx. When I got in, I was so late… My wife said, “What in the world are you doing coming in so late?” I told her I couldn’t drive fast, because if the car got stuck I had no way to get it out. I drove right in the middle of the road because there was no other traffic out there.”

I got into bed, and she came in at about 12 o’clock and said, “Roy Campanella had an accident.” I said, “What you mean, accident?” He told me was going to the hotel. He wasn’t even going to try to go home.” She said, “Well, he did, and when he went around some curve, he got injured, and he’s paralyzed.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. When I finally saw him 3 or 4 months later, he told me, “I didn’t listen to what you told me. You told me not to do that.” I said, “Because it was too dangerous.” I went up Bruckner because that’s a straight line. Wasn’t no hills or nothin’ up there, just straight up the street. If I had to go down some curves, I wouldn’t have any gone anywhere either. That’s amazing. Amazing story.

Panken:   So you were really around and in direct contact with the elite of a lot of different worlds.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Everybody.

Panken:   In the black community mostly, but some in the white community, too.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. I could be called an historian. I met everybody, and I was out every night.

Panken:   Working.

Donaldson:   Working or looking. When I wasn’t working, I was looking. I met everybody. Everybody you probably can name, I met them.

Panken:   Wilt Chamberlain bought his interest in Smalls when? 1961? 1962?

Donaldson:   Something like that. I don’t know exactly. He had a lot of money.

Panken:   So you were working for him.

Donaldson:   Sometimes. Not all the time.

Panken:   You worked at Smalls. You worked the breakfast thing at Connie’s. Where else did you work in Harlem?

Donaldson:   I worked at the Club Barron. I worked at Count Basie’s.  He had a club. I worked down at the Baby Grand sometimes. Another place called the Top Club.

Panken:   About how many days a week would you say you were working from 1955 to the late ‘60s? 300 days a year?

Donaldson:   No, not that much. I wouldn’t work that much. There was three or four clubs out in Long Island I worked, too. Bop City and two more clubs out there I used to work.

Panken:   Brooklyn, too, I would think.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Brooklyn… I used to work the Baby Grand over there, and I used to work Scotty’s Club over there, and that other club on Fulton and Nostrand.

Panken:   Oh, not the Blue Coronet…

Donaldson:   The Blue Coronet. That was a tough club.

Panken:   Tough in terms of the clientele?

Donaldson:   That’s right. You had a few fights now and then.

Panken:   Again, talking about the band, do the Blue Note recordings from 1957-1958-1959, like Blues Walk or Sunny Side Up reflect what your band was playing in those clubs?

Donaldson:   No. Because I used all that on those things… I wasn’t even playing organ in those clubs.

Panken:   On Sunny Side Up you used piano. Horace Parlan.

Donaldson:   Oh, ok. Maybe I did. I went on the road with that group, Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Al Harewood, and I had Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   So the records were not a direct reflection of what you would do in the club.

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   How would it be different?

Donaldson:   Well, when they wanted a date, I’d just figure out something to do to make it. I’d change the personnel according to what I was playing at that time. What I used to do, I used to play… If I was going to make a date, two weeks before I made it, I’d play the tunes in the club to see what kind of response I got, and the ones I didn’t get a response to, I didn’t record, and I was home free. Because everything I made during that time, sold.

Panken:   Probably a lot of ‘78s also at that time.

Donaldson:   Many ‘78s.

Panken:   For the jukebox trade.

Donaldson:   Yeah, many ‘78s.

Panken:   When you started carrying an organ, it’s about 1960…

Donaldson:   Yeah, something like that.

Panken:   The first organist you traveled with extensively was John Patton, although you’d been doing some gigs with Jimmy Smith before that.

Donaldson:   Yeah, John Patton was the first one I took on the road.

Panken:   How did you meet?

Donaldson:   I don’t know how I met John. It was in New York. I met John Patton, Ben Dixon and Grant Green. We had a nice group. Nice group. I met Grant in East St. Louis, Illinois. In fact, I’m the one who brought him to New York.

Panken:   What was he like?

Donaldson:   He was a junkie.

Panken:   Can you separate your assessment of his personality from that, or does that define it for you?

Donaldson:   Yeah, he had no personality. A junkie got no personality. Junkie works 24 hours a day trying to get money to get a fix. That’s that personality.

Panken:   But you must have really liked his playing…

Donaldson:   I loved his playing.

Panken:   You had a group with him for several years.

Donaldson:   But I didn’t take him on the road.

Panken:   Oh, you didn’t.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I never took him once on the road. Because they got the ten-year Mann Act. You cross the line with some drugs, goodbye—you’re gone. I never took him with him me. I didn’t take that chance.

Panken:   Who did you take on guitar with you at that time?

Donaldson:   I didn’t have a guitar. I took Bill Hardman on trumpet. Then I took Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   How did you meet Bill Hardman?

Donaldson:   I met him in Cleveland.

Panken:   Where he was from, where he grew up.

Donaldson:   That’s where he was from, yeah. He came by to sit in, and I liked him, so I hired him.

Panken:   I’d like to ask you a general question about balancing your creative impulses with the function of doing the gig, and how you satisfy your creativity within the dictates of making a living?

Donaldson:   What we did, we had one set we would play in a new place where we worked, called a “feel ‘em out set.” We played blues, then we’d play a little fast one, then we’d do some swing, then we’d play some other stuff, and whichever way the people went, that’s where we stayed. Stayed. That’s the secret. Most musicians who have work, they know it. They know how to do that. That’s still… Like I told you, we’d play exactly what they wanted to hear for the first set. Second set, they’re getting drunk. Third set, they’re real drunk. So we would play “Cherokee” or anything then. They didn’t know what it was. Because they’re drunk!

Panken:   One thing I’ve noticed seeing you in person however many times it’s been, is that you play everything as though you were playing it the first time, which is what Illinois Jacquet and what I’m sure most of the saxophonists who were your role models did. How do you do that? Do you play tricks with yourself? Is it a natural thing…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s what it is. You try to make yourself play different. It’s hard to do, but you try to do that while you’re playing the same songs all the time. Hard to do it, but you have to do it.

Panken:   What tricks do you play on yourself? If you’re not giving away trade secrets…

Donaldson:   No, ain’t no trade secrets. No tricks. We just play different phrases, different things on the same changes. We play on what we call chords and resolutions. Now, sometimes when I used to play on the road, we’d play the song so much because the people were requesting it, so I’d just start playing it in another key. It made me think about what I was playing. Because I played them in one key so long, I didn’t even think about it. I just went up there and played it. But if I had to play it in another key, I’d have to think. So that kept my mind sharp.

Panken:   For instance, every time I hear you go into whatever blues you’re presenting at that time, singing it, or other things you play that I can’t think of right now, there’s a certain conviction to it, a freshness. It’s the way James Moody would do his signature tune, or Jacquet would play “Flying Home.”

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   That’s difficult to do?

Donaldson:    No, not really. You build up to it. You play a variety of tunes, and when you get to that one, you’re ready. You’re ready to play it.

Panken:   You moved into the house we’re conducting this interview in, in 1963, was it?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In 1964, you start a couple of years recording for the Cadet label. What precipitated that, and what was it like functioning on Cadet?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, Esmond Edwards, who was the A&R man at Prestige, went over to Argo, and he went over there and they gave him a lot of money, so he paid us 3 or 4 times what we were making at Blue Note. So I went over and made a couple of tunes. That’s the only reason.

Panken:   It sounds like you were functioning mostly as your own producer for Blue Note after you came back in 1957. Was that the case at Cadet, or were those more produced?

Donaldson:   I produced them. Just about everything you see on a record is produced by me.

Panken:   One of the records on Cadet, if I’m remembering correctly, is the first one I can think of where you’re working in a larger ensemble, like maybe 8 pieces, with arrangements behind you… Did you approach the Cadet dates any differently than Blue Note?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Same thing.

Panken:   The date I mentioned is Roughhouse Blues. Oliver Nelson did the arrangements.

Donaldson:   Oliver Nelson, yeah.

Panken:   That’s the first one I can think of (I may be wrong) where you functioned with an arranger. Everything before that was a combo date.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Why didn’t you do more larger dates before? Why was everything a combo?

Donaldson:   Because the other stuff was selling. We didn’t want to rock the boat. Next thing I did was the one with Duke Pearson, Lush Life.

Panken:   That was in 1967. Which I have to say, personally, is one or my 2 or 3 favorites of yours.

Donaldson:   That’s a beautiful record. A couple of records I made myself, and then George Butler added two or three pieces on it, but it wasn’t really me.

Panken:   Would those be the early ‘70s things on Blue Note…

Donaldson:   Yeah. They overdubbed them. Messed them up actually. But it doesn’t matter.

Panken:   I want to ask about the way you developed your group sound in the ‘60s. Alligator Boogaloo or Midnight Creeper are a very different sound and approach than, well, Lush Life, but also the records with Big John Patton four-five years before.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you speak about evolving towards that way of thinking about making records and your sound, and how it reflected the audiences you were playing for and what was going on around in the music, which was changing in the ‘60s…

Donaldson:   I met Earl Bostic in ‘57, and he told me… I was playing a Brilhart mouthpiece, and he told me, “Get rid of that and get a Meyer.” He said a Meyer is better for the Selmer saxophone. He was right, and I got a different sound. Much clearer. I got the new sound, so I started playing slightly different. Not much. Slightly different.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, I started making a lot of groove records. The groove records depend on the groove. You don’t have to worry about anything else really but the groove. Because if you’ve got the right tempo, and everything is hitting where it’s supposed to hit, you’re in business. You can play variations on it, do anything on it, but if the groove is there, you’re in business.

Panken:   Are you saying you started to do that in ‘57-‘58, after you got…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Those earlier records seem to be a mixture of those sorts of tunes, and bebop tunes and popular tunes and blueses…

Donaldson:   Yeah. It was a mixture of bebop and swing.  That was the formula we used. And all those records were selling, too.

Panken:   But in the ‘60s, after you’d been touring with an organ for a while, and you pick up Lonnie Smith and George Benson and Leo Morris, also known as Idris Muhammad…the sound of those records is very different than the sound of the records by the previous bands.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that’s Rudy. Rudy got some new equipment, some new Telefunken equipment. Plus, that’s a great band you’re talking about.

Panken:   I’d like to know how the band came together.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, John Hammond fired George.

Panken:   In 1966.

Donaldson:   George was with Columbia. John Hammond fired him, and George… I knew it. I used to see George all the time. So I said, “Well, you ought to come and make a record with me if he fired you.” And he did. Lonnie was in his band so I got both of them at the same time.

Panken:   Anything else you’d care to say about how you addressed things with this band?

Donaldson:   Well, no. See, he had a great band. He had Ronnie Cuber… He had a great band himself. That told me right there that John Hammond didn’t know the first thing about talent. Because he wouldn’t know it, and the people listening to this or reading this are going to be surprised, because John Hammond fired George Benson (I mean, not fired him—let him go), Aretha Franklin, and Eddie Harris, and the next record each one of them made, you know what happened? A hit record. The next record they made, a hit record. Eddie Harris made Exodus. Aretha Franklin, I don’t know what she made, but you know what happened with her—everything she made was a hit. And George, the next record he made with me, which was a hit, and then he went on to CTI, started singing, and that was a hit. John Hammond missed all three of those people. They were right on the label.

Panken:   You were touring with them in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What was band like live? Were you following the same format or stretching out more?

Donaldson:   We stretched out a little more on the “Impressions”(?—53:36) stuff.

Panken:   Now, your relationship with Lonnie Smith has been ongoing ever since…

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   …and it’s one of the great partnerships in this music. Can you talk about your interplay?

Donaldson:   We were so compatible, we just made records for years—15-20 years.

Panken:   Thirty.

Donaldson:   All of them were selling. That’s another thing. A lot of people say, “Well, you made all those records.” I say, “Yeah, but you got to understand; if you make a record for a company and it doesn’t sell, that’s your last record.” What we did, we’re going to sell some records, even if it’s not a hit. It’s going to sell some records, enough to keep us on the label. It worked that way.

Panken:   Working with Idris Muhammad put a completely different framework on what you were doing.

Donaldson:   He’s a great drummer. Great drummer.

Panken:   Did he come as kind of a package deal with George Benson and Lonnie Smith?

Donaldson:   No-no. I saw him down in New Orleans, and I got him from there. He was down there. I got him from down there. He’s a great drummer. Great beat.

Panken:   it was a somewhat different beat than you’d been working with.

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Can you talk about that a bit?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to talk about. It was just a different beat. He used to, like, ruffle on the drums, RRRPPP, DUH-DUHT-DUH-DUHT, RRRPPP. He had a different thing, that he was sliding on the drums. Other drummers hadn’t picked that up, and that was a big hit.

Panken:   Those beats in still in common parlance. They’re being sampled…

Donaldson:   Yeah, but they don’t sound like him. Unfortunately.

Panken:   I’m asking about these sides because they’re still resonating with deejays, samples, in popular music… As you were describing earlier, though perhaps not this piece, Madonna had sampled a beat from one your sides, and you got a big check; Mary J. Blige has used these beats; and so on… Which is why I’m interested in what you were thinking about then in modifying your group sound in the latter part of the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no special effect. It was just that we were playing, and everybody played well together. That’s what made it sound like that.

Panken:   So it had to do with everyone expressing their personalities on their instruments…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   How would you say the audiences changed in the late ‘60s, or did the circuit change…

Donaldson:   Maybe a little, but not much. Maybe a little, but not much. See, at that time you had a lot of organ groups going around. Groove Holmes. McDuff. Don Patterson. Jimmy McGriff. A lot of organ players going around. We had a little circuit that we played, which I told you about, and we just went around it. We kept going around and around.

Panken:   So the slump that of jazz musicians encountered at this time didn’t really affect you…

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   …because you were able to stay on your circuit.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   How long did that last? Did things ever slow down, or did it stick…

Donaldson:   It didn’t really slow down. I just stopped making it when I got to making a little bit of money. A lot of places we played couldn’t pay. Because we played some of those places at a bare minimum. But it didn’t matter because we played consecutively. Sometimes I’d be at a club, and I knew I was going to be there for two weeks. So I’d just call around to the next down, and make a deal with somebody there, and we’d go over there and play. I was booking myself.

Panken:   You were traveling so much… I’d like to move onto a completely different tack. You were married for 56 years.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   And you were traveling half the time.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   It sounds like a very strong marriage.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. My wife was from close to my hometown. I knew her many years before we got married. She saved every penny, heh-heh…

Panken:   So you sent it home.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I sent money orders. Every week I’d send money orders. She raised the kids and put both of them through college. Both of them went on to get doctorates.

Panken:   What are your kids’ names?

Donaldson:   One of them, this one up here [POINTS TO PHOTOGRAPH BEHIND HIM] died. Lydia.

Panken:   With the violin?

Donaldson:   No, that’s Tracy. That’s my granddaughter. See, they moved…they changed the house around, so I don’t even know what’s up there any more.

Panken:   How many kids did you have?

Donaldson:   I had two.

Panken:   Lydia was one.

Donaldson:   And Carol.

Panken:   They both got doctorates.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:  In what, if I may ask?

Donaldson:   Carol’s is in psychology, and Lydia’s was in education. Some kind of… I don’t remember exactly what it was. In other words, she was a procurer for teachers down in Broward County.

Panken:   Oh, in Florida.

Donaldson:   Yes. She traveled all over the United States to the Black colleges, and tests the students and see if they were qualified to come back down there and teach.

Panken:   Was your wife working during those years?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So you were able to support a family of four and send them to college as a constantly working musician, playing live, recordings… Did you ever do other sorts of sessions? New York had a huge studio scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s…

Donaldson:   All I did was background. I did background sometimes with Charlie Singleton’s band. Background for singers. We did backgrounds. But they always stole the material, so it didn’t matter.

Panken:   With your skill sets, reading and technique, it sounds like you would have done very well in the studios. For example, Phil Woods nailed a lot of those kind of gigs. I don’t know how much racial politics entered the equation… But was it ever a temptation for you to try to do the studio thing?

Donaldson:   Too confining. Too confining, and I wanted to be, not free, but have flexibility.

[END OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Before we paused, I was asking about the New York studio scene in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and whether that had tempted you at all. You stated it was too confining. Where I want to go from that is, when did you know you wanted to be the leader of a group? You haven’t done a whole of sideman things for 55 years or so.

Donaldson:   I knew I wanted to be a leader when I started working for guys that were junkies. Because they wouldn’t pay you. Rather than to beat them up, guys that I liked, I just said, “Well, I’ll get my own stuff.” Because I was tempted many times to go to work, heh-heh…

Panken:   Take matters into your own hands, so to speak?

Donaldson:   Go to work. One time Buhaina didn’t pay me. I said, “Buhaina, you’re a big rough guy, but you’re a junkie and I’m sober. All I got to do is wait for you to start nodding, and I’ll pull out my baseball bat…,” heh-heh-heh…

Panken:   To which he responded?

Donaldson:   “I bet you would do that.” I said, “Yeah, I would. I’m not gonna fight you fair!” [LAUGHS] But actually, it was so sad… But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And most people who are interested in jazz…

One time I played down in Washington, in the park, sort of like a Jazzmobile. It was on a Saturday. It was from 5 to 8. So I’m playing, and at the end, it was still light and everything, and I said, “Man, let’s drive back through Baltimore and catch Miles,” because Miles was at a place called the Wagon Wheel, down on Pennsylvania Avenue. So we drove, we went from about 30 miles from Washington to Baltimore, and when we get to the club, Philly Joe, Red, and Paul are sitting out on the curb, the drums out there and the bass out there. I said, “What you all doing out here?” They said, “the guy wouldn’t give us any money.” I said, “What you mean he wouldn’t give you your money? You’re working, aren’t you?” They said, “Yeah, but Miles drew out the money last night. He said he was going to New York and he was coming back—and he didn’t come back.” Heh-heh-heh… The guy was angry. It was a wonder the guy hadn’t beat ‘em up.

I said, “Well, I can’t take you to New York.” But I had my station wagon and I had my organ back in the U-Haul, and I didn’t really have any luggage or anything in the station wagon because I hadn’t intended to stay over at night. So all of them crammed back in there, put the bass and everything back in my wagon, and I drove over to Philadelphia, which wasn’t but about 50 miles. When I get to the outskirts of town, I pull into the gas station. They thought I was going to get some gas. But I said, “This is it.” They said, “What do you mean, man? We’re not in Philly yet. We can’t…” I said, “You don’t think I’m going to drive into Philadelphia with you guys, and all you guys are junkies.” Because they had a guy over there named Rizzo.

Panken:   Yes. Frank Rizzo.

Donaldson:   Frank Rizzo. I knew you’ve heard of him! Every time somebody would come over there, he’d pick, them up, especially Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. That was his favorite duo. I said, “No way. I’m not driving into town.” So they had to call, they had to call and call. So they finally got somebody to come out there and get them. I said, “Ok, I’ll see you.”

So I came home to New York. When I was here for a week, Red called me. He said, “Man, we quit Miles, we quit Miles. Miles would never come up with…” I said, “Red, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” I said, “You guys are the greatest; you’ve the greatest rhythm section in the world.” I said, “I’m going to rent the Audubon Ballroom,” the place up there where Malcolm X got shot. So I went up and rented it for a month, and I played it every Sunday from 5 to 9, Lou Donaldson and the Red Garland Trio. Now, every week, Miles came up—about three times. So they’re hugging, and I know where they’re going to get some vitamins once they got that money…

The business got so good, we hired Betty Carter as a vocalist. I was raking in money! Philly Joe didn’t like Betty Carter, because Betty Carter was young then, and beautiful, singing straight-ahead, you know. She wasn’t doing her crazy stuff.  Every time she’d sing “Perdido,” she’d put her hips up in the air, and the people would go crazy. So he’d drop a bomb or do something. She came to me and said, “Hey, Lou, you got to stop that. Every time I start doing my song, Philly Joe messes it up.” So I went and I said, “Joe, listen. You can’t do that. The girl is trying to get over. Give her a break.” “All right, all right, all right.” But then, when the crowd started really screaming again, he said, “YAAAHHH.” He couldn’t stand it. Put another bomb in there. Finally, Jack Whittemore came up there and had a couple of gigs for Miles, and Miles guaranteed he was going to pay them, so they went back with Miles. But see, a lot of people don’t know that. [LAUGHS] I said to myself, “Man, I might as well get me a group and go out on the road,” and that’s what I did. I got me a group and went out on the road. And it worked out fine. Wonderful.

Panken:   You were able to be friendly with people whose personal behavior you disapproved or you felt would damage you.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   You could separate your feelings in that regard.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’m an amazing guy, because I’m the only guy… Say, like, a guy like Miles… Miles did some bad things to people. He never did it to me. Any time I talked to him, he’d come up and we’d talk.

Monk. Monk would hardly talk to people. People asked Monk, said, “How you doing, Monk?” He’d just look at them. He wouldn’t say a word. Every time I saw him, we’d talk. We’d talk a long time. We were very friendly. In fact, I used to really feel sorry for Monk, because back then, his music wasn’t compatible. I started to say I’d take Monk on a couple of gigs, but I knew I’d get fired, not because of the way he played, but the way he acted. Because he’d sit up there and smoke a cigarette, wouldn’t say anything to anybody. You can’t do that in a ghetto club. You’ve got to be friendly with the people, or somebody will start bothering you.

I used to work with Elmo Hope. He used to work in the band with me with Dud Bascomb. We worked over in Jersey. I used to pick him up every night. What happened, the reason I stopped picking him up is that Ron Jefferson, the drummer, went down to a Cadillac place down there on 10th Street and bought him a Cadillac, and he was coming back home, and just before he got to Central Park, he picked up Freddie Redd, and they started home. People were standing out there waiting for him to come with the car. They had a party going on in there… Shit, he never even got through the park. The police got him. And Freddie Redd had some drugs. They took the car, put him in jail, and he never even reached home with his car. I said, “My God!”  So I told Elmo, “Look, Elmo, what I want you to do is to go down to the Holland Tunnel…there’s a subway stop right there, just before you go in the tunnel.” I said, “I’ll pick you up there every night.” So I’d pick him up right there, go through the tunnel, we’d work in Jersey, and come back, and I’d put him out right back there. I said, “I’m not driving through town with you in my car.”

Because junkies are hazardous people. Real hazardous. I remember one night I was coming up to 110th Street, Central Park, and I stopped at a light. They said, “Wait a minute. I got to get out, I got to get out.” So I thought he was going out there to take a leak or something. So he comes back and opens the back door, and I hear this noise back there, CLING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING. So I took back there. Four hubcaps. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, are you crazy?! Not only… You weren’t out there but a few seconds. Where did you get four hubcaps?” You know what he had? He had a can opener.

Panken:   That was a resourceful way to do that.

Donaldson:   I said, “Man, you ought to be… You could get away from the FBI.” [LAUGHS] They were some crazy people. Crazy people.

See, I got away from all of that by getting me a band with no junkies. Didn’t make much money, but we had a nice time.

Panken:   You mentioned yesterday that you hired Cecil Taylor to do some gigs. That must have been the middle ‘50s.

Donaldson:   I didn’t actually hire him. I had Freddie Redd. And when I came to work, Cecil was sitting…you know, bifocals. I said, “Who is that?” Didn’t nobody really know his name. So I started to playing, and he started playing. And he club-owner… Now, this guy…

Panken:   Which club was this, by the way?

Donaldson:   Showman’s Bar. Right next to the Apollo Theater. That’s where it was located then. This guy was a Jewish guy named Willie. Willie knew everything about music, at least he thought he did, but he didn’t know anything about it… But what happened, he came by there and he said, “Lou, who is this guy?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, if you want this job, he better not play any more. See, if he plays any more, that’s the end of it.” I said, “What?” So I went over there and I told Cecil. I said, “Cecil, you’ll have to stroll a little bit,” you know, lay out this chorus. He said, “How many choruses?” I said, “For the rest of the night.” [LAUGHS] For the rest of the night! And he did it. He did it, too.

Panken:   Let me ask you this. As objectively as you can, talk to me about how you were responding to some of the ideas that percolating in 1959 and 1960, when Coltrane was moving towards what he went to, and Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot. Without invective… Because when we did the Blindfold Test a few years ago, you said some very interesting things about Ornette Coleman. I’m interested in how you processed that when it was coming out.

Donaldson:   Well, I’m telling you. The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, we were… I was working in the Five Spot before he came there. Before Monk came there, too. It was groups like mine that kept the place open, because we didn’t make any money—$15-$20. First time I heard him, I said, “Man, they say this guy is a genius…” I said, “I didn’t know I was a genius; that’s the way I sounded the first day I got my horn before I learned where the notes were. That’s the way I played. So if he’s a genius, I’m a genius and I don’t know it.”

And Coltrane… See, Coltrane used to come down and play with Monk, and he’d run down in the basement after every set, rehearsing his songs and things that he had to play with Monk. Then he’d come back up and play them. It was strange music. Real strange music. It’s like overplaying music. Because you can give a person so much, but then you got to stop. Because if you overplay the music, that’s it. It’s all over.

Panken:   Did you listen to Coltrane’s records later in the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   I listen to everything. I keep up with all music.

Panken:   Talk about that some.

Donaldson:   Well, he started to get worse and worse, when he started making his stuff like “Ascension” and all that kind of stuff. It’s really some out music.

Panken:   Did you like records like “Ballads” or the record he did with Duke Ellington or things like that?

Donaldson:   No. I like nothing he did. To me he’s an amateur saxophone player. He plays the tenor like an alto. He never gets the pure tone out of a tenor, like a tenor saxophone player. In fact, they played a record by him the other day. I was listening to Sirius. And right behind that they played a record by Ike Quebec. Such a difference. Such a difference, I’m telling you. For me, I don’t understand why the critics don’t see that, but they don’t.

Panken:   That brings me to a whole other question, which is the way you’re received by writers, critics, the broad discourse about the music? Do you feel you’re properly understand? Insufficiently understood? Misinterpreted? Overlooked?

Donaldson:   Well, I don’t know. I’m a different kind of… See, I’m a guy that tries to play the traditional stuff, and I’ll stretch out a little—sometimes, but not much. They wanted to say I wasn’t playing jazz when I went to play on these funk records. But actually they’re not funk records. They’re swing records. The records are swinging more than… Because I changed the beat of the drums. See, my records, you don’t hear the same drum-beat. Like Eddie Harris. You don’t hear the same beat. Different kind of records, and they sell like mad. That’s why I did it, because I knew they would sell. See, because Coltrane with Elvin in there, he was never going in there.

Panken:   Well, he did sell a lot of records. You don’t agree?

Donaldson:   Ah…I don’t know about a lot of records. I mean, you hear them on the jazz station. He didn’t sell no records.

Panken:   We don’t have enough time to debate it, but A Love Supreme sold a lot of records.

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Oh, you think that’s exaggerated?

Donaldson:   Yeah. That’s just a lot of BS. Herb Alpert had ten straight one-million-dollar record-sellers. Did he do that?

Panken:   Now, is that the criteria?

Donaldson:   If you’re talking about selling records. Selling records is selling records.

Panken:   In your opinion, why do you think Coltrane struck such a chord with a lot of people in the jazz public, younger people particularly, during the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Well, he’s a junkie. Any time you see a junkie, and people like that. They like that. He used to play one chorus for an hour. That’s not no… And he played a lot of harmonics and technical things. Got nothing to do with jazz. Jazz, you can play one or two notes on a tune. You don’t think so, you listen to Gene Ammons. I used to see Gene and Sonny. Sonny used to eat Gene up playing stuff. Sonny was a technician. Gene played two or three notes. People didn’t even want to hear Sonny any more.

Panken:   You did both, kind of.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   You’re kind of a cross between Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s what I said. I’m one of the in-between musicians. I try both sides. See, Trane… I listened to Trane… I took one of the old saxophone players, Wild Bill Moore. Now, he used to rock-and-roll, walking the bar, all that kind of saxophone playing. I let him hear “Ascension.” So he listened to it. I said, “What you think?” He said, “He sounds like a wounded rhinoceros that somebody shot and left out in the woods and died.”

Panken:   How did you feel about Sonny Rollins’ playing in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Not much. ‘50s good. ‘60s not-good. Sonny Rollins was a great saxophone player in the ‘50s. But once he went onto that bridge… It was reported that a cross-tie fell on his head while he was on…

Panken:   That’s not nice…

Donaldson:   That’s what they tell me. A cross-tie fell on his head. Just to see him now, it’s sad. Very sad. He looks like Santa Claus.

Panken:   Do you feel that you’ve been somewhat overlooked by people who write about the music? Not the public.

Donaldson:   Not really… Oh yeah. By the people who write. Yeah, of course. Of course. Of course. I told you I just went to Europe, and every place was sold out.

Panken:   Now, when did you start going to Europe regularly?

Donaldson:   The ‘70s and ‘80s.

Panken:   Is it different playing for a European audience than let’s say an inner city…

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Do you do the same thing, or do you take a different presentation?

Donaldson:   I play the same thing. Same thing. Same thing. This guy Wim Wigt started booking me.

Panken:   Hence, you started recording for Timeless and other…

Donaldson:   Timeless, yeah. He even made an album called The Forgotten Man. He said, “People forgot about you.” I said, “they didn’t really forget about me, because I started working, and I wasn’t in town.” I was working like on the road. And the jazz critics, people, they don’t get around that much.

Cut that off for a minute.

[PAUSE AT 22:42]

Panken:   [22:49] We were talking about critics, the press you received, and being perhaps misunderstood or improperly evaluated.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, evidently, there are some people that are not too knowledgeable about what jazz really is, and when they see somebody trying to play straight-ahead, they probably say they’re not keeping up with the trends, you know. Because you take people like Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks, or this other guy who used to work with Bill Doggett… All these young saxophone players around New York…

Panken:   In the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Donaldson:   …when they would get stuck, they’d come to me and learn the changes to the songs. I read a book about hardbop in the ‘60s, and the guy didn’t say a thing about me. I was talking about Percy France, was another one.

Panken:   You have that book in your bookshelf. [Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, by David Rosenthal]

Donaldson:   Yeah.  Percy France. Percy France and all of these people. I read it. I said, “I don’t know how he could have figured that out.” Hard for me to say. At one time, I used to work down at the place down there on…not the 5-Spot, what’s the other place down there…

Panken:   Sweet Basil?

Donaldson:   Sweet Basil. I was the house band there. I played all the time. The place was full of people every night. Never got a writeup.

Panken:   When was that? In the ‘80s?

Donaldson:   The ‘80s.

Panken:   Mostly with Herman Foster.

Donaldson:   Herman Foster most of the time.

Panken:   You linked up with him again for a long time in the ‘80s before you went back to the organ format.

Donaldson: They never said a thing about Herman, and Herman was a genius. Herman was a guy… Sometimes we’d play a year and never have a rehearsal. He knew everything. He was a genius. We played a concert once in Belgium. The guy had Dave Brubeck on there. I went and told the promoter, “You’d better let us play last, because if we play before Dave Brubeck, people are going to leave.” He said, “No-no-no, this is Dave Brubeck.” So Herman got to doing his stuff. Shee… Dave Brubeck came on, and everybody was outside trying to get Herman’s autograph.

Panken:   Now, in the ‘80s, it seems like the climate changed somewhat because of the infusion of young musicians who were interested in playing the music…who paid attention to the hardcore jazz tradition. It got more acoustic in some ways. Wynton Marsalis had something to do with it, but also Art Blakey brought all these guys into the Jazz Messengers. And you’ve kept track of the young alto players who emerged during that time, like Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What’s your impression of that… Well, they’re not young any more; they’re middle-aged, in their forties and fifties. But your impression of that particular period and how things played out with that group of alto players. Your sense of the state of the alto saxophone these days.

Donaldson:   Well, back in those days, see, Art Blakey had those Messengers… That was like a scam band. He did that so he could keep his habit going. He wasn’t interested in promoting no musicians. He talked it all the time, but he wasn’t. Because the reason all of them quit was as soon as one of them would ask him about the money, he’d get another one. [LAUGHS] See, I know that, but the critics don’t know that.

Panken:   Nonetheless, it did wind up being probably beneficial in the long run for these guys to have the chance to do that.

Donaldson:   For some of those musicians. Yeah, Wynton got famous with that. Wynton got famous with that, and he’s still famous.

Panken:   But apart from that band, just your sense of this group of musicians who started to emerge then? Was it a healthy thing for the music? Did it change the climate?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s always healthy when somebody new comes in. Because it’s like new blood. It’s always healthy. But what happens is that you get so many people… Lee Morgan was one of them, too. You get so many people until you can’t…you got a whole lot of chiefs and no Indians.  Because when they leave Art, they want to get a band. So what you got is a lot of bands, but no musicians, and no real definite sound. Now, you notice that nobody, even now, is dominant. What’s the alto saxophone player that’s dominant? I mean, other than Kenny G. David Sanborn. No jazz alto saxophone player is dominant.

Panken:   What do you make of that? Too many chiefs, no Indians, or…

Donaldson:   Well, not necessarily that. It’s because all of them come through the same thing, and they’re not playing anything, because all of them are playing the same.

Panken:   Is that because of the way jazz education is now? Coming up in conservatories and not bands?

Donaldson:   Well, partly. Partly. Partly. But anybody who comes through school and learns all the basics, they got to know that everybody is not supposed to sound the same. If you go through the school and learn the basics, you know that.

Panken:   Well, they have to sound a little different. When we did the Blindfold Test, you told them all apart. You could pinpoint who Donald Harrison was, and who Kenny Garrett was, and who Vincent Herring was…

Donaldson:   Yeah. Well, still you got to… Right now, I don’t know. Nobody is dominant. We did a survey, which the critics don’t know about. A cat bet me $100 that… I bet him $100 to $500 that I could stand down at the Apollo Theater and pool the people when they came by, and it would be ten times more people that knew Kenny G than knew Sonny Rollins. You know how it came up? We didn’t even have to stay there but about a half-hour. Everybody he asked about Sonny Rollins said, “Oh, yeah, I know him; he plays with the Boston Celtics. He’s with the Giants.” Not a living ass knew who Sonny Rollins was. Then he started asking people about Kenny G. Everybody he asked knew Kenny G. In fact, a lot of the people who came by there knew me. “Hey, Lou, what you doing out here?” But I told him, “I’m famous in Harlem; I used to live right on 127th and 8th Avenue. I know all about Harlem.”

But that’s just the way it is. It’s a sad situation. Sad situation.

Panken:   I’m going to ask one final question. I asked you about feeling…whether you’ve been overlooked, underrated somewhat. And you’re now in receipt of an NEA Jazz Masters Award. It hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be by the time this comes out. Does that mean something to you? How are you reacting to it?

Donaldson:   It’s a prestigious award. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m 86 years old…85 years old. It doesn’t mean a thing to me. Because I figure I should have had an award 25-30 years ago.

Panken:   I wouldn’t disagree.

Donaldson:   In fact, I could have had it if I’d wanted to. They invited me to the first or second or third time they gave out the award, but I was on the road and I couldn’t get back to New York to go to the meeting. I’m pretty sure I would have got it then. But it doesn’t bother me, because I’m very fortunate. I’m one of the horses who got out the stall. A lot of these guys get blocked in, and they’re down for years. Not me. I was lucky.

Panken:   Well, you know what Branch Rickey said.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   “Luck is the residue of design.”

Donaldson:   Yup. Yup. But, see, music… Let me tell you something about music before you cut this off. You talk about Wynton. Now, Wynton did something that is very hard to do. He brought this music back and got back the dignity, the stuff that people used to have in the music before the junkie era. Because I remember when I was a kid, musicians used to come through Greensboro and get stranded, and people would let them come to their house and stay, and they’d feed them and everything, until they got another job. But not during the junkie era. But he brought this back, and he does a wonderful job. Wonderful job. I wish all the best for him. He’s a nice guy.

Not my favorite trumpet player, you know… Because you can see that I worked with Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham… I worked with guys who really knew how to play a trumpet. Idrees Sulieman, a great trumpet player. Great trumpet player. Donald Byrd. I worked with these guys. Tommy Turrentine. But he did what he did, what he had to do, and he did it. More power to him. Only thing now…that he does now, he just tries for more of his type of artist than other artists, which is… Maybe he’s just doing it because he’s got a chance to do it. But you’ve got to spread it around.

Panken:   It’s complicated, because he’s trying to function as a composer also…

Donaldson:    Yes, and a musician.

Panken:   So he brings in people who play his sound, what he hears.

Donaldson:   And a musician. I just heard a record the night. It shook me up. I was listening to Sirius, and they played his concert, and he played “Blues Walk,” featuring Sherman.

Panken:   Sherman Irby.

Donaldson: Yeah, he’s a good saxophone player. I didn’t know that. So I called him and left a message. He didn’t call me back. I told him thanks. But he did a good job. And his father before him. I used to travel down through the South, way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his father had a progressive group then, down in New Orleans, which is almost unheard-of. Because you got too much competition here—all that Dixieland. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, all those guys, they had everything sewed up. But Ellis also had his band.

Panken:   I think Ellis was working with Al Hirt for a while, too.

Donaldson:   Yes. He worked hard. He worked hard. He kept it going.

Panken:   Any final comments, wrap-up comments?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to say. The NEA is doing a good job. A good job. It’s very rewarding to receive this reward. And… What can I tell you? I started to send it back, but then I thought about it. I said, “I’ll take it.”

Panken:   You mean because it had been so long coming, and it should have been before.

Donaldson:   So long coming. Plus, I don’t need the money. I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable. So just one of my… I’m a Scorpio, so sometimes I think first… But now, since I got to be old, I think before I act. [LAUGHS] But I’m not…

It doesn’t bother me that I was not recognized. You know, they haven’t had my name in the alto poll for over twenty years.  My name has not even been listed. And I was working over in Europe every day, and they have people in the poll that don’t even work any more, or couldn’t work. That bugged me for a while, because Eddie Harris used to come in… It bugged him, too. Because he had… Well, Eddie had a lot of hit records, so Eddie made a lot of money. He said, “Why we can’t get in the poll?” But we figured it out. We figured it out. And you’d be surprised what we figured out. If you don’t play with Miles, you don’t get in there.

Panken:   Critically…

Donaldson:   If you don’t play with Miles. Look at all these people that are in there. They played with Miles. Except Norman Granz’s people, but that’s years ago. Because you know, with Norman Granz, he had Jazz at the Philharmonic, all his people always won the polls. Oscar Paterson. Ray Brown. Jo Jones. Roy Eldridge. Dizzy. Charlie Parker. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. Who was the trombone player with Woody Herman?

Panken:   Bill Harris.

Donaldson:   Bill Harris. J.J. I saw that for years. Because I’m up on it. I watch it.

Panken:   So you haven’t stopped working since you were 20 years old.

Donaldson:   No, not really. But I was lucky, because I got a circuit to work. It was a tough one, because most of the guys that owned the clubs, the ghetto clubs, were like hustlers.

Panken:   Tough guys. Hustlers.

Donaldson:   Number writers, dope sellers, and whatever else they did. I didn’t never get really tight with any of them because I couldn’t afford to go to jail—you know, my family and stuff. But I even worked a club for Don King.

Panken:   Cleveland, must have been.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Corner Tavern. He had a club called the Corner Tavern. He won’t admit it, but I worked there. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   Mr. Donaldson, thank you very, very much for this very candid two days of interviewing.

Donaldson:   All right. I hope you got a little material to interest the people.

Panken:   Can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be interested.

Donaldson:   I can’t tell you my ending, because it’s X-rated, so I wouldn’t put it on there.

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