Category Archives: Jazziz

For Roswell Rudd’s 80th birthday, An Interview from 2005 and an uncut Blindfold Test From 2001

Master trombonist, musical conceptualist and  free spirit Roswell Rudd turns 80 on November 17th. In anticipation of the occasion, I’m running an uncut interview that was boiled down for a brief piece in Jazziz in 2005, and an uncut Blindfold Test for DownBeat from 2001.


Roswell Rudd Blindfold Test (8-9-01):

1. Bill Harris, “Bijou” (from Woody Herman, Blowin’ Up A Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-47, Columbia 1945/2001) [Ralph Burns, composer] (5 stars)

That was “Bijou” with the Woody Herman Orchestra, featuring Bill Harris, the great trombonist, one of my favorite singers on the horn. Arrangement by Ralph Burns; it’s really a gem. A Latin flavor. I don’t know if at the time… I think this is late ’40s. I don’t really know how many American swing bands were doing Latin-influenced music. This may be one of the first things like this. Ellington had one called “Flaming Sword,” which was a Juan Tizol vehicle. In terms of the ’40s, there were Latin bands, but non-Latin bands getting into African-influenced rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, Latin American rhythms… This is a wonderful early example of that.

Bill Harris, when I was about 11 years old or so and started hearing this stuff on records… The quality Harris had of attacking certain notes and making them swell, like Flamenco singers… I was over in Portugal and I heard a couple of good Fado singers, and they do this with these longer notes that they sing; they start soft and then they fill out. There’s a crescendo. It’s uplifting. It just grabs you, takes you out of your seat. Then when they go into a string of embellishments after that and bring the line down, they’re with it all the way. But that swell into the first note is the launching pad to a lot of the phrasing in that music, and I’m sure it’s in a lot of other places, too.

I can’t say enough about Bill Harris and the great Woody Herman bands at that time. I’m not sure who the other people were in the band, for instance, if it might have been Dave Tough on drums, who was a very innovative man in this day, or Chubby Jackson, another innovative guy. I think it was Woody Herman playing the alto sax obbligato there. A wonderful thing. A real gem. It makes you thankful that there are ratings. 5 stars.

2. George Lewis-Bertram Turetzky, “The Ecumenical Blues” (from Conversations, Incus, 1997) (5 stars)

To me, this was a wonderful example of two people listening closely to each other and making music through the process of their interaction in the moment, a wonderful sort of crossing-over by the trombonist into the realm of bowed string colors, how he could complement those on his instrument. I loved that great nasal sound the trombonist had at the beginning, kind of matching the sound of the bowed contrabass. A little later on, if he had a mute in there for that…he took the mute out and got a different color at one point, and carried that through to the end. It was a nice changeup in his color, and it also was a way of complementing the bass. I use this technique myself with a single mute, which is a Harmon mute that I’ve loosened up with a screwdriver, so that if I turn the outer part of the mute a certain way, it’s very loose and it sounds like a giant kazoo, and if I turn it another way it tightens up and it sounds more like a bad Harmon mute. But this business of imitating each other’s sounds, like a cross-gender kind of playing, is a wonderful way of developing textures in music.

I also want to say that aside from these two performers being so beautifully attuned to each other, as far as dealing with sound, getting into the sound and letting the sound tell them what to do, the content of the trombonist’s playing was beautiful, too. There’s some good blues in there, a kind of lament. It was a bit like Bill Harris at the beginning; the kind of tone production that the trombonist was getting could relate very strongly to that. Very vocal. Somebody singing, somebody talking. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. 5 stars. But I can’t tell who it is.

3. Jimmy Knepper, “Invisible Lady” (from Charles Mingus, Tonight At Noon, Label M, 1961/2000) (5 stars)

That was a quintet — bass, piano, drums, baritone sax used very judiciously — and it just has to be Jimmy Knepper on the trombone. Because nobody else can do what he can do, the way he does it. It’s masterful continuity that I love, and the way he sequences his lines, where you have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of a phrase… It’s the tempo acceleration thing that was so prevalent in Charlie Parker’s playing. I think Jimmy was one of the first people to pick up on what the Bird was doing. It was really a heroic musical achievement to take this concept of Charlie Parker’s saxophone dexterity and apply it to the trombone. Jimmy was one of the people that really freed up the instrument and at an early time. I don’t know when this is done. But it’s the 22nd Century as far as I’m concerned! So expressive and so… Again, pushing the instrument to places where it’s never been before and keeping the emotional musical content wherever he goes with his dynamics through phases of tempo modulation. He’s just a master. Absolutely 5 stars.

The portimento is the word that should be in here. It means that the line is unbroken even though it’s going through these incredible transformations. It’s the mastery of the breathing.

4. Conrad Herwig, “Africa” (from The Latin Side of John Coltrane, Astor Place, 1996) [Eddie Palmieri, piano]. (5 stars)

Nice African rhythm section. It’s a theme that I associate with Coltrane. I like the way that the trombonist built his chorus. He opened up with this long lip trill that gradually crescendoed, then there was some linear improvisation, some shouts, and he reached a point where there was a nice kind of drumming on two notes a minor third apart, very effective, and some more shouting, and playing on either side harmonically of the drone. I think it was a great effort.

Just sticking to the piece the way it is, and without saying I wish there could have been more or less of this or more of that…checking it out the way that it stands, it holds up. Somehow…it may be the result… If it was a live recording perhaps, the profile of the trombone gets lost in there sometimes. But he’s there, he’s staying with it, and he brings it up front again. I’ll give it 5 stars, because I know what kind of energy and ears and knowledge it takes to do this kind of thing.

Who it might be? I can’t say. Steve Turre maybe? Barry Rogers? Fine, fine playing. The clarity of the recording somehow bothered me, because he was doing interesting things but they got kind of masked out. This is just the way things go sometimes. But if I listened to again or maybe a third time, I would try to go further and further inside the sound of the recording and then be able to get behind the mask a little bit in those places. But this was a tour de force.

5. Julian Priester-Sam Rivers, “Heads of The People” (from Hints On Light and Shadow, Postcards, 1996) – (5 stars)

What I notice so far between all these examples we’ve listened to is the infinite possibilities of trombone. Because every player brings a different thing to the instrument, and most of these players are composers, too, so it’s not just bringing a new voice, a new personality infused into the instrument, but also beyond that, into the other components in the performance. Here we have a beautiful tension built up between maybe a prerecorded tape and… Really nice. It sounds like an African sound system. You get some terrible sound systems over there, as you do in other places in the world; but in Africa the sound system becomes a part of the music. As beautiful as the balafon and the great stringed instruments and the tuned drums sound acoustically, it all goes into this sound system and comes out sounding another way totally! What’s going into the system is so good to begin with, that when it comes out, it still comes out good; even though the system has got it completely screwed up,. it still has a beautiful structure to it, but the original timbre has completely disappeared. I got that effect from the taped part of this.

There was a nice tension built up, because the trombonist stayed in the same mode throughout. He was just playing the blues in one place and keeping it there, changing the register from time to time, and he had his timing so that the prerecorded part shone through all the time and maintained that tension between a kind of moving, weird jumble, street-sounding, sound-effects-sounding wall that was going on behind the trombone, and he never attempted to imitate any of that. He never attempted to go across and into the taped part, for instance, the way that George Lewis did with the bassist, where they really reversed their roles and exchanged roles as far as the sounds of their instruments go. On this, the trombonist created a tension between himself (or herself) and this background that was kind of in flux all the time. It was very interesting for me.

It’s uneven, in a way, but that’s part of its beauty. The main thing is that it works, that it has moments which are unachievable any other way. It’s real, and if they performed it again it would be different. But the concept of creating a tension was fundamental to the success of the music here — the music being interesting, the music having impact. Beautiful. Beautiful execution. Again, putting yourself in a corner and coming home with the goods. I’ll give this 5 stars, too. I was going to say maybe not 5 because it was uneven in places. But I realized at the time I really need to have those other places in order to have moments of impact. So it was a fluctuating thing, with this very static quality in there, too… I think there was good interplay between those two elements. Yeah, I’m going to give it 5. I was going to take it down a notch, but I’m going to give it 5.

It might be Julian Priester, because he used to do stuff with tape — just some sound, something to create another component — and let it run and just work with that.. It reminds me of what Johnny Dyani used to do. He used to turn the water on in the sink in the bathroom just to hear the sound of the water running, and off the harmonics of that he would practice his bass and play along with it. Again, it wasn’t exactly the same as this… I’m just talking about the nature of the components here. Because Johnny would play inside and outside the sound of the water, but he wouldn’t play as if he was in a different room than the water, which is more the effect that we have here of these two different things going on simultaneously and the tension that’s created between them. But hearing this brought that situation with Johnny to my mind.

Oh, it was Julian? 5 stars for the adventure, my man. It was beautiful.

6. Ray Anderson, “Green Eyes, Fireflies” (from Bonemeal, Raybone, 2000) [Mark Helias, bass; Matt Wilson, drums] – (4 stars)

Quartet — guitar, bass, drums and trombone. I think it might be Ray Anderson; it sounds like plunger things I’ve heard him do in the past. I don’t think this is as successful as other things I’ve heard by him. But he’s a great humorist, and he has so much heart in his playing, he can bring it off. I would have loved to hear this melody played a little straighter. It was kind of a Strayhorn-influenced thing, and I was frustrated, in a way, that I couldn’t hear the actual pitches. There was so much siding off the preconceived melody, if there was one, and I missed knowing specifically what that might be. That in a way is the reverse magic of the thing, like: Damn, I wonder if he was going to score this, what the actual notes were. So the sliding around effect had a way of making you wonder what was the real melody. I enjoyed that kind of inversion. It was pretty successful, because he was consistent with his inconsistencies. But it frustrated me because I know there was a beautiful melody there, and I wish I could have heard that, too. But maybe it’s up to me to take this and factor it down to what I might conceive of as the real melody, because there’s so much playing around something there. My trip would be to see if I can average it out to something that I could just pick out on the piano as a beautiful melody. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but let’s leave it at that.

I would say 4 stars in relation to other things by Ray that I think were just clearer to me. But I’d say 4 stars for not coming up to other things that he’s done, but 5 stars for the attempt at this kind of inverse humor — if that’s okay for a rating.

7. Steve Turre-James Carter, “Eric The Great” (#6) (from TNT, Telarc, 2001) – (5 stars)

That was a beautifully conceived track. I love the very minimal horn playing with the sax and the trombone, and featuring the bass at the slow tempo, and then the change of tempo. It sounded to me even though it was measured, that it was free harmonically. And I enjoyed the continuity of the trombonist. He went to a lot of different places, but he remembered where he was. The saxophonist made just a great entrance that marked a special place in the performance, and he, as the trombonist, went to different places, but kept a continuity. The recapitulation back to the first section after the fast tempo was very effective. Was it Steve Turre? I want to give it 5 stars for the concept and something… I don’t know, some ingredient was missing there in the playing. But the experience of hearing these different trombonists…. I realize how great they are and what a great instrument it is. All these voices are so distinctive, and it’s the same old B-flat trombone. It’s amazing. But something was missing, some kind of heart-sincerity thing. It was kind of stiff. It may have been the intention of the players, but I felt it kind of stiff at times, kind of dry. I didn’t get the personality, the warmth part of it. But they were executing the concept, and I have to give them full credit for that.

8. J.J. Johnson, “How Deep Is the Ocean” (from Vivian, Concord, 1992) – (5 stars)

Hearing this melody played, “How Deep is The Ocean,” I’m trying to put my finger on the composer. He’s one of America’s greatest songwriters and he lived to be 100 years old. I can never remember his name…Irving Berlin…even though I can play 50 of his songs or whatever. And to hear it played so statuesquely on the bone made me realize what a great legacy we have in American melody. Sometimes I thought it was J.J. Johnson, sometimes I thought it was Bennie Green. I wasn’t quite sure. It was maybe somebody right in between those two people. But the phrasing was fine. It had the kind of clarity that J.J. brought to his performances. He’s so sorely missed. And Bennie Green’s kind of intonations, and the way that he would alter the density of his sound from time to time, and his phrases. It’s probably neither one of these guys, but well-done.

It’s J.J.? Was it recent? It’s a little flawed in places. But there’s only a couple of people who can really play this way. A lot of people who try to play like this, but there’s really only a few who really do it — who innovated it actually. That’s the important thing. We’re talking about somebody innovating this style which is something we think was brought about collectively, the work of many hands. But when you think about people like J.J. and Monk and Louis Armstrong and so forth, they innovated this stuff. We just take for granted that it came from many, many people. Maybe it did, but it all came through one person. This approach to performance on the instrument was the creation, was the invention of one person. 5 stars.

9. Carla Cook-Craig Harris, “Dem Bones” (from Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2000) (Fred Wesley, composer) – (5 stars)

It seems to me that Joseph Bowie does something like this. Maybe it’s him, and he could be overdubbing himself. I love the concept (I do a couple of these things myself) of songs about the trombone, and featuring the trombone. The one that I do, “Slide, Mr. Trombone.” Dinah Washington used to do one. It’s great. It’s like a novelty thing. The singer was into it. I think the novelty part of it was achieved, and the humor was great, especially when the trombone was in the foreground toward the end with the mutes and the gutbucketing and the hooting and heavy breathing… I love it. So I think it achieved its intended effect. I felt that as far as the blues part of it went, there wasn’t too much depth to that. When you’re ripping and you’re playing modal phrases, it’s difficult for me to separate the content of this kind of melodizing from…to strip the content out of it and just play the notes, kind of. I felt that it was just kind of playing the notes sometimes here, without the feeling going into it. So I missed that. You could knock off a star for that. But then, you have to say that on the whole it achieved its effect as a novelty and just getting people up off of their seats and getting them to dance and getting them to move. It had a nice invitational thing going on that way. I found it attractive that way. Even though taking the soulful phrases and just playing the notes without having the feeling in there put me off a little bit. But you can do this in music. You can lift notes off of the feelings, and you can play them dispassionately and create a certain effect that way. Put them in another context. This is all going on. It always has. It’s part of the continuity of musical progress in the human race, the way it fuses and defuses and disconnects and reconnects. It’s all part of the process. I think the recording achieved its purpose, and I’m fine with that. So I’ll give it 5 stars for achieving its purpose as I hear it.

10. Wycliffe Gordon, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues” (from The Search, Nagel-Heyer, 1999) – (4 stars)

“Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” a Thelonius Monk masterpiece. Good execution and good interplay between the sax and the trombone. I like the way they break it up with each other. I like the different voices that they change into on their instruments the different colors that they get from time to time. It makes you think there are different people who just walked in to play 8 bars and disappeared again. It’s a great effect. I had a problem because I heard the composer play this a number of times, and there are some things happening in the structure of this particular blues that I think it’s helpful to deal with when you improvise on it. Working with Monk’s variables is often very helpful as far as building a good foundation in your own playing. So not to take advantage of them, it seems to me that you miss the opportunity here to really… There are many ways to improvise. But one way that really interests me is if you know the structure that you’re coming from, and you deal with the ingredients of that structure, you get a certain kind of continuity that you don’t get any other way. .. And having done this with Monk’s compositions for some time, it’s hard for me to approach them in any other way. I would give this 4 stars, because I think it achieves the humor that they found in the piece. I just wish they had dealt with the musical variables of it a little more. But they were great players. Could that have been Bill Watrous? Curtis Fowlkes? It might be somebody I just don’t know. Wycliffe Gordon? I’ve never heard anything by him. He’s new to me and I have to check him out.

11. Quentin “Butter” Jackson, “To You” (from Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia, 1961/1999) – (5 stars)

Thad Jones-Mel Lewis? Is it Thad’s arrangement? I don’t know who the trombonist was. Let’s see, who could do this? Booty Wood? Or Britt Woodman, who recently passed. Oh, he had people who could do this. It wasn’t Lawrence Brown or Tricky Sam or any of those guys. It was I think a younger guy. [AFTER] That was Quentin Jackson? Wow, I missed that. I feel bad about that. 5 stars.

12. Vic Dickenson, “Squeeze Me” (from Art Hodes Blue Note Jazzmen, Hot Jazz On Blue Note, 1944/1996) – (5 stars) [Edmond Hall, clarinet;

[INSTANTLY] Vic Dickenson. You know it right away from the sound. Every note that he plays. He’s got so much personality. This is something you find in the older players, that every note they play is imbued with their own character. I guess it breaks down to where nowadays it’s hard to separate people by the particular personality that they have in their sound. But back in the days when there were fewer people doing this, there was more identifiable individuality. But now so many more people are doing this that it becomes harder and harder to identify the individuals. But they’re still there! I’m telling you. And especially on this instrument, which is all about imbuing the sound with your own personality so that you can be identified just from the sound of a few notes that you play. Edmond Hall on the clarinet, who I played with at one time. He’s the same way. You know who he is right away. I don’t know whether it’s because I was there or I grew up on it. But these sounds are so distinctive, these voices. Vic Dickenson liberated the trombone into linear improvisation the same way Jack Teagarden did, and this was a heroic thing. There’s some of Vic’s humor. The name of the tune is “Squeeze Me,” written by Fats Waller. This is great free counterpoint. We’ve heard some good free counterpoint today. I think this is something that trombonists know how to do. It’s in our blood. We love collective improvisation. We know how to find the part. We know how to share with other people. We know how to complement. We know how to play behind. We know how to accompany. We know how to go out front and solo. 5 stars.



Roswell Rudd (Feb. 15, 2005) – (Jazziz):
TP: When I was assigned this piece, the editor initially wanted me to talk to you for their Traditions issue, but this now will be in the World Music issue. But it seems to me that both would work, because it seems that over your 45-50 years playing professionally, everything you do is informed deeply by transmuting traditions into the present tense, whether those are the traditions of American jazz, or ethnomusicology… What I’d like to do now is start with some concrete facts and figures about your current projects, and extrapolate out. We should probably start with Malicool. How did it begin? I gather you went there in 2000?

RUDD: I would go back a little farther and say that I started collecting African recordings back when I was in college. I was fascinated with what I could understand about the sounds of these recordings. Folkways and labels in Europe, notably France, where they did a lot of recording of West Africa, and the Hugh Tracey records. Whatever I could get my hands on. Then I went to work as an archivist for Alan Lomax, and I did that on and off from 1964 until shortly before his death. I would work occasionally for him, and I got quite a bit of exposure that way to what was available in the way recordings from all over the world. But I didn’t start really playing with musicians in Africa until 2000. I want to say that the inspiration for doing it… It’s been a dream to travel there and play with some of the musicians. Toumani Diabaté is someone Verna turned me on to, and I thought it would be out of this world to try to do some stuff with him. So we went over in 2000, and jammed a little bit, and did a concert of… I mean, it was basically a spontaneous concert. The chemistry was so good that we decided we’d come back a year later and try to do a recording. That’s the Malicool recording. It was first out on Universal, and a couple of years later came out on Sunnyside here.

TP: Before going there, had this been building up in you for years? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when the opportunity arrived?

RUDD: Yes, that was the point I was trying to make. My curiosity was really piqued by this time, so that the opportunity to travel, which I really hadn’t been able to do, came along at just this time. We were able to go over there in 2000 and spend some time informally, and then go back in 2001 and take into the studio in Bamako, and record with the musicians there. We’ve been back… I took the Shout band over there to play on the desert last year. This year I just spent a couple of weeks in Benin with some brass players, with a brass band…

TP: A local band, from Benin.

RUDD: Yes. They’re all from Cortino(?). I just don’t have words for it. The young lions in Africa on these horns. Forget it. And the drumming is just… I can’t believe how young the people are who are playing this stuff. The old masters are there, and they’re touring a lot. They’ll come through the States and they’ll be in Europe and Japan and so forth. But these kids, these African kids, are playing so much great stuff.

TP: It’s an interesting phenomenon to be at the stage of life and intellectual development that you’d achieved by 2000, when you were 64-65 years old, had taught ethnomusicology, had been listening to African music for about 45 years (if you started doing it in college), and you have a certain point of view on what African music is. But you haven’t been there. And now you go there. What surprised you?

RUDD: What’s missing with recordings, wherever they’re from, is the context. I’m talking about the cultural context —the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the vibe from the people. 99% is missing. This gave me a chance to go to one of the older places in Africa where there’s still a homogeneity to the sound of the place. It’s not so barraged by Western media that there’s just a morass of all kinds of music in the air. No, it’s basically Malian music that’s in the air. I mean, traditional music. There’s a tonal system to this music which you can hear wherever you go in Mali. You can relate to it right away. You know that it’s from there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, where thousands of people are in this system, and there’s very little disrupting it. That’s the first thing that got to me. Then the more I got inside of that sound, which was in the environment all the time anyway and with the people I was playing with. Then I started to feel that way and hear that way, and I was really trying my hand at expressing myself in that system.

It’s something that is a great challenge for improvisers. Basically that’s what I am. I don’t consider myself a jazz… I only consider myself a jazz musician in the sense that I am an improviser—basically an improviser. The challenge in America always was to be able to play with different people, to be able to fit in—into the old music, into the swing music, into the now music, into the future music. The thing was just to be able to go from the sound, play from the sound of what’s happening, and develop that, make a performance out of it. Basically that’s what I’m doing when I go to Africa.

TP: But it was never quite so spontaneous as that. If you’re going to sit in one of those situations, you seem pretty prepared. You’ve had one famously documented master-apprentice relationship with Herbie Nichols, and I’m not sure what other master-apprentice relationships you’ve had… Have you had anything like that with the African musicians?

RUDD: Well, see, there we go. Context. This is one context. New York City, the boroughs. That’s kind of one context, and it’s a myriad of styles. Herbie Nichols, he had this thing going. One guy with a universe. Then the more I explored around here, I realized that there were many musical universes walking around.

TP: You got into Monk’s universe in a similar manner.

RUDD: Yes, I followed him around. That’s another universe. So it’s all in the boroughs here. But believe me, there is to me a tremendous difference between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. It’s almost the same difference as playing in Bamako with Toumani Diabeté and playing with a Dixieland band here. Worlds of difference. That’s always been the most satisfying thing to me, is to go into these different musical worlds and try to find myself in them.

TP: What do you do to ground yourself so you can function.
RUDD: [POINTS WITH BOTH FINGERS] Ears. And the acoustical experiences that are built up inside of you. That has everything to do with your ears.

TP: Do ears come before systems, or scales, or…

RUDD: It’s hard to say. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. But I think a lot of what your vocabulary is musically… [PAUSE]

TP: We’re talking about grounding yourself within the improvisational context.

RUDD: It all collects inside of you, all of your experiences with different players and different bands. It can be in your locale, where you were raised, and it can be in other other cultures, in other continents. The way that you adapt, I think, has to do with your collective experience. It’s not easy to adapt. Playing with a Mongolian band, which I’ve done recently…

TP: There will be a record out in the Fall, right?

RUDD: Yes. There will be a recording coming out of some things that we’ve collaborated on. Even though that was happening here. They came here. I was able to work with them here and record with them here. This was really an extreme adaptation for me, because this is basically a five-tone system. Africa allows for a little bit more than that. So coming out of the Malian system, that was a new parameter for me. But you see, every time that you are in a different system, you could call it the limitations of that system, but it brings out certain kinds of unlimitedness in yourself that you haven’t explored before. That’s what I love about this. So it meant that with the Pentatonics… We call ourselves the Pentatonics, because we’re basically working with a five-note system. We get the effect or the richness of a larger tonal system through the kind of embellishment we do, and the kind of bending, sliding, all of that very-very musical stuff that goes with just exploring with sound, playing with sound. Those kinds of things. The nuances. You discover nuances. It brings out your ability to nuance, the more that you limit yourself away from chromaticism and…

I can’t wait to get to India. That’s the next thing I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get to India. I’ve got to get to China. Because these people really know how to embellish. If they only had two notes to work with, they would be able to… They could keep you happy for hours exploring the sound of just two pitches, and with all that rhythm and sense of color and dynamics… Oh, man! This is what I live for. This is what improvisers dream of. Going into situations like this and just having to find in yourself the resources to blend with what’s going on. I love this. That’s basically what I’ve been doing here for 45 years, from the time that I was playing along with Spike Jones and Duke Ellington, up until now.

TP: What initially sparked your interest in African music when you were at Yale? By the way, what was your major?

RUDD: I was liberal arts. I wanted to major in music composition. But my professor in freshman year, my theory professor did me a favor. He didn’t know it, but he did me a favor. I was prevented from majoring in composition. So I put together a curriculum for myself out of what was being offered in the way of theory and history courses at Yale, which was very European. There was very little about traditional music in the curriculum. Yale was all very European. They didn’t get into the European folk music at all. It was just European composed music from the earliest notations up through the present, up through Webern and Stockhausen, the big maestros of the 20th century.

TP: So what spurred you to start listening to African music and other things?

RUDD: Curiosity. Because I knew that a lot of American music came from other places, and I was curious about these places, these other cultures. Sifting through the record bins in stores where I would go, occasionally I would find these things.

But the real breakthrough for me was working as an ethnomusicologist with Alan Lomax at a time when he was putting together an archive of field recordings. He had contacts with people who were doing their theses out in the bush somewhere, and they would be sending back very bad recordings of what was going on around them in these communities. It was my job to analyze a lot of this stuff, according to this cantametric(?) system that Victor Grauer put together for Lomax. I was just learning a great deal about what I wish I had learned in college. I was finally getting an education in traditional music, which I think is really important for people now.

It’s time. We had a lot of American music that never got into the educational system until recently. Now I think it’s important to expand from there and maybe get more of the world into the educational system. Because for a long time, if you wanted to study traditional music, you had to take anthropology, and that way you would get into comparative musicology. You would be able to get maybe an inkling of the vastness of musical tradition that was going on in the planet. Otherwise you would just be doing your Mozart and your Brahms and your Stockhausen. You would not be getting down into the roots of this stuff, where all this stuff is coming from for millions of years. I mean, hey! I used to get really bummed at these professors who’d say, “Ro-co-co” your ass off. But where are these guys getting their stuff? It’s got to be coming from a lot further around than their associates and their little tradition that they’re building up here. There’s a hugeness to this thing that we’re not looking at, that goes beyond this stuff that you’ve picked out.

TP: Now, I’d assume a traditional musician like Toumani Diabaté has some knowledge of jazz and other forms by dint of living in Paris, where so many worlds are converging.

RUDD: Toumani’s been out of Mali. He’s been over here, he’s been in Europe a lot.

TP: But how does that interaction impact the different traditional musics? Do you focus on that dynamic when you play with these musicians? Or are you trying to get to some essence within the root or pristine condition of… Do you see this music existing in some pristine way, or do you see them as evolving musics?

RUDD: I see the music in terms of the carriers of the music. That’s something that I was turned on to with American music when people were categorizing our classical music here, or when they were saying there was this era and that era, and now here comes the New Wave and the Avant Garde and so forth. I was saying, “No, really, it’s just about Charlie Mingus. It’s about him. It’s about his music. It’s about Ornette Coleman’s music. It’s about Ornette Coleman, this thing coming out of himself, and orchestrating other people into that to make the music.” It’s really about the carriers.

So going to work with Toumani Diabaté, it’s about him. It’s about what’s inside of him. Not everybody is a great improviser. It’s not only true here. It’s true anywhere in the world. But there are improvisers out there everywhere you go, to some degree or another. Toumani Diabaté, in his culture, is a great improviser. And there are not that many people in Africa who can improvise on his level, believe it or not. With all that incredible drumming and singing, the Djeli improvising new lyrics every day for what they’re doing, extemporizing their asses off… There are really supreme improvisers and there are improvisers just on a simpler level, people who are just making a few variations from day to day. But somebody like Toumani Diabaté is a formidable improviser. I can give him a theme or a form, and he’ll work with it, take it apart, and put it back together again until he’s got it inside of himself. Then he’ll really be able to speak, not only himself, but in terms of this form, in terms of himself. It’s both things.

But when we started talking about this, it’s not so much about… I think these categorizations of traditions and trying to corner them and put a label on them… I think that maybe is a way to start; it may be a way to start learning from a distance. But what it always come down to is the players. The play is the thing, the players are the thing. The guys that have the music in them. The living repositories. That’s where I think…

TP: When you were in a position of having to set up a curriculum and a pedagogy yourself for six years, what did you do? What were your first principles? Apart from faculty politics and everything else. Just in terms of trying to communicate information to six new classes of students, who were sort of blank slates, what were your first principles?

RUDD: As I said, from a distance you have to work with whatever information you have—the books, the recordings. You try to bring some players in, some living examples of it. But you’re at a disadvantage. You’re thousands of miles from the actual people who are part of the tradition or living in a different culture musically. I did enough. I think I inspired people enough, opened them up enough by bringing in American improvisers. And they got into the spirit of what it is to do something spontaneously, wherever you are, in whatever culture you are. Again, it’s a combination of what you’ve been taught, what’s in your environment all of your life, and what you can pull out of yourself. It’s a combination of those things—what’s been put in and what’s in there, what’s churning around in there. I don’t know what the process is, really, that’s going on inside of me, but I keep coming up with stuff. That’s just my thing. That’s what I was put here to do.

TP: I was at a concert you did last fall at Merkin Hall on Ornette Coleman’s music, where Wynton Marsalis played the second set. Very interesting concert, in the contrast between the first and second half. You were mentioning Mingus-Ornette-Diabaté as the carriers, and there’s something very fundamental and universe-unto-himself about Coleman’s music. I’d like to ask you two things. What was your response to Ornette’s music when you first heard it, and second, what was your approach to addressing and interpreting it.

RUDD: That’s a good question. Yeah, he opened up at the Five Spot on my birthday in 1961, so I was there. I guess I played a couple of his songs, took them off the recordings… But I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and I could sing parts of his music through all these intervening years. Then this opportunity came to do a concert of his music, and I found out that really this was the first time that I seriously went into 10 or 12 of his songs, and had to learn them from the inside. But you know something? It really helped to have been singing those things to myself, what I knew about them, just in my blood from those days. It was like a ticket. It was like a ticket into the inside of the music. It made it so much easier at that time last fall to inhale so many details that you have to do when you are really performing somebody else’s music, especially music that is as individual and as original as Ornette’s. You’ve got to learn a lot of detail. But just having a sense of his music and having heard it for so long, and just enjoying it that way as a listener, made it much easier, I think, to apprehend a lot of detail, enough to do that concert.

TP: What spoke to me most was the way you and Marsalis draw out the folkloric elements, these deep southern roots—the stomps, the deep blues tropes. Drawing out the folk forms, and extrapolating them into the narrative you were expounding.

RUDD: That’s beautiful, what you said about the tropes. Because the tropes are the things that I knew from the music. That’s what you remember as a listener. When you spend an evening listening to somebody’s music, you go out troping, you go out on the riffs that you remember. These are the things about Ornette that were kind of in my blood. I knew these stylistic features of his, the feeling of them. It was just a beautiful opportunity. I have to say that there never would have been this concert if… Greg Cohen, the bass player, knew that I was desperate to get together with somebody before this thing, and to work out some of these songs, work out some parts, make it more than a jam session. Sick as he was, he came over here the night before that thing, and we ran down a dozen songs from the inside. That is what enabled that concert to happen to the extent that it did.

TP: Did Marsalis have charts? It looked like he did.

RUDD: No. The only music we used was stuff I had taken off his recordings. I had spent a little time transcribing parts of these things. But I was desperate to get together with somebody else before this, and not have to just go on total recall to do these things. So I have to say that Greg Cohen is my hero.

TP: Herlin Riley’s uncle was Melvin Lastie, who was Ornette’s friend, and his grandfather, who raised him, grew up in the foundling home with Pops. So he comes from a very specific, deep New Orleans tradition, and Ornette is kind of family to him. And Wynton’s father was very close to Ornette and to Blackwell. What was the interaction like?

RUDD: Herlin Riley is exceptional. This guy has precognitive hearing. This is what you look for in improvisers, people who are waiting for you in an unknown situation. They’re there. They know the space. They know it ahead of time, and they’re there. I was getting a sense of that from him. That was great.

Wynton Marsalis plays the most perfect eighth notes I’ve ever heard. You just can’t carve out better eighth notes. So it was a unique experience for me to play some counterpoint with him. Because my eighth notes are… I’ve got different kinds of eighth notes. But Wynton Marsalis, boy, he’s got the eighth note to the Nth degree. I have to say, he really astounded me from that point of view. Something about his mechanical perfection as a player was very meaningful to me. And he’s a very broad musician. But when you get into a free counterpoint situation with somebody, it’s about their rhythmic orientation and how you express this. It’s the temporal thing that you’re going from. And to have a great drummer and a great bassist at the same time… Whoa! We were getting into it.

TP: During your hiatus, when you were off the scene, doing the shows in the Catskills, teaching, etc., was that to your benefit as an instrumentalist? Did you firm things? Were there certain things you could work on and get together that were to your benefit when you began to perform again on a more regular basis?

RUDD: Let me say this in regard to that. I’m one of these people since I was a kid, really, where I had to play every day. It didn’t matter what I was doing with the rest of my life. I pretty much managed to find a way to take time out every day, and blow a horn, or sing, play some piano, dance around, scat—find a way to express this thing inside me. So that regardless of whether I was teaching, or playing commercial music, or driving a truck, or working in a store, or working in a hospital… I’ve done a lot of different things. But the thing that’s been a constant line through all of this, and where I think the effect of a lot of this living experience has gone is into this… What would you call it? It’s like a musical lifeline of just playing every day. I said to someone that the reason is that it’s my therapy. He said, “No, you’re wrong. It’s your practice. It’s not your therapy. It’s your practice. So you’ve been practicing since you were a kid every day.” A lot of it has just been pure improvisation, coming home from a day’s work, and just letting the feeling that’s accumulated from the day come out in some kind of acoustic expression.

So I’m telling you that all the musical experiences I have had informed me. This is true of the Catskills show band. There was a lot of great Dixieland and sight-reading, working with comedians and fire-eaters, puppeteers and dancers… Life is about learning, and learning is essential for growth. Man, there’s nothing like growth.

TP: A lot of the older musicians with whom you played when you were a young guy came up in tent shows, where they had similar experiences. A lot of them played circuses and were on the trains and did that sort of stuff. The territory days.

RUDD: That’s true. The vaudeville, the standup… This is a great tradition. This is the old travelling carnivale outfit.

TP: We’re talking about context again.

RUDD: There’s a context here, and this is definitely a part of it. Any way that you can inform yourself about this is helpful. But I think this was missing in my experience, that vaudeville thing. I got a little bit of it through the Dixieland. But in the mountains, the whole show was there. You’ve got the tummler, the standup guy or standup lady, whoever it is. You’ve got this person sort of playing the audience, playing the musicians, and getting the whole thing into this wonderful complementary uproar. So pretty soon, the whole place is improvising. This is the great thing about that tradition, that it really is… Or there was. I don’t know much of it is left. But there was, at the heart of it, a great spontaneous and improvisational essence. The success of the show largely was dependent upon that kind of energy. Unknown things happening, coming out of the wall, coming out of people, and somebody who knew how to play off that and make that develop.

TP: Did you have anything analogous to that in the ‘60s and ‘70s in your quotidian life as a musician?

RUDD: Oh my goodness. I would have to say that the musical associations that developed from the earliest time that I came down here to live in the late ‘50s… These were improvisational hangs. The thing that I developed with Herbie Nichols was really, in large part, an improvisational thing. He would throw his compositions into it, and that would just be more fuel for me, because I would have to bring my creative thrust into his kind of format. You need those two things to create a compound, to get more. The thing with Steve Lacy… We started off with a lot of different music, and we ended up just pursuing Thelonious Monk’s compositions because they were the right… It was the right music for this instrumentation. The soprano sax and the trombone resonated with Monk’s tunes more than any other music. These were just the right tunes for the soprano saxophone and trombone. So there was a whole unknown thing flowering out of that.

Particularly with Lewis Worrell, John Tchicai and Milford Graves, that was all improvisation for quite a while, until songs, little tunes kind of congealed from all the improvising. But that was just getting together. Even if all of us couldn’t make it, we did it, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, in different configurations, and just kept a spontaneous conversation going on. We were never able to work that much, but what we were able to do…

TP: Was Milford still playing a snare drum then? [END OF SIDE A]

RUDD: …but rather than a snare drum… Although I think that was there from time to time, the snare drum effect. But he could have been inventing that. But it seems to me that the tuning of the drums was very important, the tuning of the whole set. Well, Milford Graves, we could talk for a few hours on that…

TP: What’s occurring to me is that all of the different musics you approach, whether musical carriers or systems of music, you seem to approach in some sense from an ethnological perspective. I don’t mean that in a dry sense.

RUDD: What does that mean, “ethnomusicological.”

TP: I’m simultaneously writing a piece on Nguyen Le. His parents emigrated to Paris from Hanoi in the ‘50s. He started off playing jazz, playing Hendrix, played in an African fusion band, and then in the early ‘90s, when he was in his early thirties, he hooked up with a traditional Vietnamese singer and began to bring those influences into his composing, and then he started bringing North African, particularly Gnawan influences into his music. So now, within one personality, you have Gnawan music, traditional West African music (possibly some of the Malians you know), Vietnamese music, jazz musicians like Art Lande and Paul McCandless, and he just did a record on Hendrix’s compositions with Terri Lyne Carrington. He spoke of approaching Hendrix, and all his records from an ethnomusicological point of view. But it isn’t schematic…

RUDD: Each of these people carry a certain amount of their cultural context with them, but they carry their individuality, too. But the culture rubs off.

TP: What was your cultural context that made you so open to the different musics you encountered when you arrived in New York?

RUDD: The thing I tried to tell you before is that the improvisation was the thing that was there in Spike Jones and in this old jazz that I grew up with. There was a mystery. There was an unknown variable drifting through this music that somehow flourished and kept it alive for the 3-minute 78 experience, and going beyond that, and hearing these people performing live, doing concerts and playing in clubs and stuff… It’s the energy, the spontaneous expression, the individuality, the thing that’s inside people having a chance to come out. Their individuality. That’s what you hear in that old music. You hear the individual voice. That somehow affects everything else that you hear. I was disappointed because I couldn’t find that in a lot of music. It kind of narrowed down what my alternatives were as far as enjoyment goes, because from an early age, that’s what I was listening for in the music—the voices and the individuality. I know at the same time that everything I’ve experienced ,acoustically and otherwise, in America since the time I grew up… I also know that if I jumped into another country somewhere, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s American; you can tell by this or that.” But I can’t, man.

That’s why I asked what you meant by ethnomusicological. I think I can perceive it better if I go to another world than I can in my own. Although New York is a great place, because the whole world, in a sense, is here. So people do stand out. Believe me! Herbie Nichols really stood out. Spending a day with him was like going into another galaxy. So you don’t have to go that far to find individuality or other musical universes. But ethnographically, I would have to say Herbie Nichols is New York. That’s what he represented to me. All of the West Indian, European, Hispanic…the mix of all of this place… There’s so much. It’s just hard to sort it out and say, “This is that…”

TP: It’s all coming at you at one time here.

RUDD: Yeah. Your culture is you, kind of. It’s what’s been pouring into you from the time you come out into the world. Your family and then beyond the family into the culture at large. Maybe that’s been defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I don’t know.

TP: Your father was an amateur drummer, so you heard music. Your grandmother was a choir director, I think. She liked the spirit of jubilation, you said.

RUDD: Yeah. When I was a teenager, and having kids come to my house to jam… And believe me, it was raw. It was horrible. But she was there. And to her, that was like religion. It was the same thing that she went to church for, was like the joyful noise, the exaltation, just people pouring themselves out in a very naive and joyful way with the sounds. Yeah, she really encouraged me. My parents kind of hated to see me… After going to college and everything, they were really concerned about my future when I decided on music. But not my grandmother. Man, she said, “wow, if you can just do this, it’s enough.” I think the clincher was being at one of Armstrong’s performances at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid. That really clinched it for me. I couldn’t think of anything else for months after that. That made such an impression on me.

TP: It sounds like you had a sense of music as a ritual from the very beginning, in the same way that Diabaté’s music emanates from ritual, and in the way a lot of the musicians you were performing with in the ‘60s were trying to achieve with their music. The notion of music being a spontaneous conversation, a lot of it comes from trying to reimagine the ritual that some of the black musicians got in the church when they were young. Sounds like you had that, too, in your own way.

RUDD: Ritual. Yeah, let’s just talk about ritual. Because it is. Daily ritual. That’s great. Can we leave it right there. I’d like to leave it with ritual. That just summed up our whole conversation, man. Thank you. Thank you for ritual. Is improvisation a ritual? Because if it is, that’s my ritual. That could be a very basic ritual, improvisation. That can be a personal ritual, improvisation.

TP: But of course, we’re speaking of music that emanates from social ritual. Black church. Village functions.

RUDD: But Ted! The individuals that comprise the black church. The individuals. My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was the highest voice in the church. That was her thing. Descant. Back in the day, and even in the black church, you’ve got to have somebody that can get up over everybody else and be the voice in the sky that just puts the top layer on it, that clinches it. That was her thing. This is the Protestant church, a New England kind of energy. Compared to a black church, it was pretty toned down. But that was her function in the church. This is the musical ritual that she carried in herself. Then there were a couple of other good singers there, and a good organist and so forth. But to me, if you can look at the individuals down in the heart of these great traditions that were built by the work of many hands, so to speak… If you can get down into the individuals, then I think that’s where you’ll find, like, the improvisational spirit and the people who are really carrying this thing, really shouldering this load.

Cecil Taylor! Whew! This guy can comp for 15 musicians, and lift the whole room.

TP: Do you see yourself in any way embodying these New England traditions? They are kind of at the core of a certain level of American identity. Emerson, Thoreau…

RUDD: Oh, the Transcendentalists?

TP: Is that encoded in you on any level?

RUDD: Yeah. I get a good feeling about Transcendentalism, what I pick up about these people and what I’ve read by them. Yeah, there definitely is an effort about perception Beyond. Trying to get closer to the unknown. Trying to get closer to the mystery. Trying to have a more open perception of the energy, of what’s coming, of what’s around us. Yeah, I definitely get that. So those guys have always been a lift for me. Yeah, I think that’s one of the positive things in what you could call that New England culture.

But there’s another side to that, and that is a lot of repression. That comes from… I think we’d better stop before I get into historical precedents in the roots of New England life. But there was the other side to it, thankfully, that I was exposed to through my father and my grandmother. Once people instill that in you, once they let you know that there’s another world besides this, that sets you on your way. You’re on your way. You’re a seeker. You’re a seeker from that point on. That’s always what I’ve been. I’ve just been investigating the hell out of it. As far back as I can remember, when my father got on those drums, he changed. His expression changed. He was a different person. In fact, I liked him better when he was doing that. So I knew that he went somewhere else, and it seemed like a good place to go.

Louis Armstrong lived there. Louis Armstrong had a foot very solidly in both worlds. But you see, my father had to kind of suggest it to me, and then other people made it plainer and plainer, that that was the reality.
Ritual! Ritual, man. Ritual on the one hand, and ethnology and this other stuff… Ethnology. Study of ethnos. I’m down on the individual ritual. I’m more down on the individual ritual than I am in the big stylistic contours of continents and all that stuff. Lomax did some great studies, I’d have to say. After all that analysis of all these little performances, he was able to actually make a statement about big prehistoric cultural traditions, like the great American Indian tradition. Incredible. When you think about all the individual contributions inside of that big-big-big tradition that goes all the way around the planet. Millions of individual carriers making it possible for him to make this big general statement about it. So I think the general statement may be where you have to start, from a distance, when you’re looking at this. But when you get down in the forest and into the individual trees, that’s more where I am. That’s where I’ve been.

TP: Except that there’s an element of your personality that comes out in your writing and your discourse on music that’s intensely analytic. You break everything down into its constituent components. Your improvising is not coming from nowhere.

RUDD: This is what improvisers do. This is how you get in there. This is what I do. This is my ritual.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roswell Rudd, Trombone

For Sonny Rollins’ 85th Birthday, Three Downbeat Articles from 2000, 2007 and 2009 and a Jazziz Article from 2005

Sonny Rollins, who turns 85 today, hasn’t played in public for several years, and it’s unclear—though much wished for by his international cohort of admirers—that he will  be able to do so again. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to write about him on a number of occasions since 2000. I’ve posted four of these pieces below. The first, for DownBeat, was a long overview, framed around the 2000 studio recording This is What I Do (this is a “directors’ cut”). In the second, done in 2005 for Jazziz, Rollins spoke about the death of his wife, Lucille, his up-close encounter with the events of 9/11/2001, and his decision to begin to release the first of the Road Shows series, documenting his personal creme de la creme choices from concerts on his own label. The third reports on his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.  The fourth is a piece for DownBeat‘s 75th anniversary issue in 2009, in which he responded to his quotes in DB articles about him from 1956 until 2005.


Sonny Rollins (Downbeat-2000):

It’s Saturday night, and Sonny Rollins is about to emerge for his second set at B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street. The joint is jumping. A rainbow coalition of hardcore fans, package-deal customers off the tour bus, critics in various states of rapture, and renowned saxmen looking to pick up a little inspiration pack the capacious theater basement, which offers good sightlines, a competent sound system, bordello-red wallpaper, a bar as long as a city block, and an admixture of straight tables and strategically placed semi-circular banquettes. Like the theme-park-like facades that line the sidewalk above, B.B. King’s oozes the unsettling aura of virtual reality; it’s a fresh-scrubbed replica of the inner city lounges around the country where the licensor and the evening’s featured act paid their dues as aspirants in the years following World War II.

A hip filmmaker might want to dress the customers in period attire and transform B.B. King’s into Club Baron, a spot on 135th Street where gangsters and glitterati mixed during the Harlem Renaissance, but whose glory days were long behind it in 1948, when Rollins — a teenage devotee of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — led a trio there opposite Thelonious Monk. “Monk heard me then,” recalls Rollins, “and saw something in me that he liked. Then he sort of took me under his wing. I began to go to his house and rehearse with his various bands. Guys would say, ‘Man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet’ and all this stuff, and then we’d end up playing it.”

Executing the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night — is the operative trope of Rollins’ astonishing career, and although he recently turned 70, his audience expects nothing less. Some already are familiar with his latest album, This Is What I Do [Milestone], a mellow, reflective recital on which the maestro places his singular voice — gruff, burnished, passionate — at the forefront throughout, soloing with transparent vigor on three new originals and three tunes from the ’30s Songbook. He seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.

None of these effusions mean much to Rollins, who cites Armstrong as his idol, and is acutely conscious of his reputation. “If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?” he had asked rhetorically over the phone from his Tribeca pied-a-terre several weeks before. “Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can’t be, ‘well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,’ and that’s it, good-night. I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall. I don’t like to take money when I don’t earn it, and I don’t like people to be disappointed when they come to see me. In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.”

The reference is to the Williamsburg Bridge, a nondescript symbol of urban decay which connects Delancey Street in lower Manhattan to what presently is a wildly gentrified area of Brooklyn. Then a 29-year-old Loisida resident at the top of his game (several bootlegs of March 1959 performances in Europe affirm the assertion), Rollins appropriated a secret alcove there which for two-and-a-half years he used as a private rehearsal studio “to shore up some fundamental technical things on the saxophone.”

His sabbatical generated extraordinary consternation and speculation within the jazz community. Rollins already was a stylistic role model; had he never again picked up his horn, he would remain a major figure in jazz history. By his 25th birthday, the Harlem native had recorded and gigged as a peer with Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, composed still-enduring jazz originals like “Oleo,” “Airegin” and “Doxy,” and fought down a serious heroin addiction whose consequences led to incarcerations in 1950 and in 1952. In December 1955, Rollins left Chicago — where he worked as a factory janitor and lived in a room at the YMCA at 35th and Wabash while getting himself together — with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. He proceeded to record a succession of enduring masterpieces — including the aptly titled “Saxophone Colossus” — which showcased an immense, speechlike tone, elastic time sense, an unfailing penchant for melodic invention that revealed a romantic sensibility completely devoid of bathos, a sense of humor that some called sardonic, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of spontaneous composition.

“A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why I would stop playing,” says Rollins, whose imposing frame, larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belie the notion that demons of doubt could ever have gnawed at his innards. “But I know I learned something. I felt it was a necessary thing for me to do to have the kind of confidence I need in playing music like this. It was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve, because it was against the grain of public opinion. So outside of the musical benefits, it was also good for my soul.”

Between 1962 and 1964 Rollins released six divergent albums for RCA-Victor, which presented him with a $90,000 advance and unlimited studio access; in 1965-66 he cut three intermittently brilliant albums on Impulse. Picking up on procedures he’d implied on his pioneering trio recordings of the late ’50s (see Way Out West, Live At the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite), he documented his exhaustive investigations of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, and moved inexorably towards the principle of improvising from a tabula rasa. In listening to his flights of fancy from this period, it’s interesting to consider that Rollins, who like fellow saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter, was a gifted cartoonist and watercolorist in his youth, noted in a mid-’50s interview that he had only recently definitively decided that music would indeed be what did.

“I liked painting a lot,” he muses, “but of course there was no money in it. I was getting out of school, and in music I was able to play jobs and make some money; there was the promise that this might be a career. Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, I said, ‘Gee, I must be okay.'” Perhaps his roots in shaping imagery and design explain why — as guitarist Jim Hall, his 1961-62 quartet partner, once noted — Rollins began to deploy a sort of synesthetic mojo during the post-Bridge years, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos.

Rollins built his far-flung abstractions upon formidable bedrock. I convey to him alto saxophonist Gary Bartz’s description a few years back of hearing Rollins at the Village Vanguard during the mid-’60s. “What impressed and helped me,” Bartz recalled, “is that one night Sonny would play like Lester Young all night; he’d play songs like ‘Three Little Words’ that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note with Prez’ sound before going off into his own solo. The next night, he might do the same thing with Coleman Hawkins. Then the next night he would be Sonny. So I used to go every night, as you see!”

Rollins emits a hearty guffaw, and responds bemusedly: “I didn’t approach it that analytically. We were young and didn’t always get an opportunity to see our heroes in person, so we learned a lot by listening to the records and copying the solos. Well, I’d get as close to what they did as I could. I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. In trying to get the style of Prez or Coleman Hawkins, I would try to inhabit their soul, feel what they felt, interpret music the way they did.”

As band-members Stephen Scott and Bob Cranshaw note, Rollins continues to pay private homages to his idols during soundchecks, which certain obsessives in the crowd at B.B. King’s might prefer hearing him do to having sex; they might even sacrifice their left nut to hear him return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time ’50s-’60s style. But although Rollins is the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory which morph into stunning spur of the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, reenacting times past has never been on his agenda.

“Sometimes I think I would help myself if I listened to some of my old playing,” Rollins muses. “Every now and then, when I listen to something of my own, I hear things I used to do that I forgot about, and think, ‘Wow, I should do that again.’ But I shudder when I hear myself; I’m always saying, ‘Gee, I should have done that’ or ‘I don’t like my tone right there.’ I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to listen to myself objectively, and it probably would help me play better. But I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill. Certain things I don’t want to analyze too closely. I’d rather they just happen.”

That’s the procedure Rollins followed after emerging from a second lengthy hiatus during which he spent long stretches in Japan and India, explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. Following the lead of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he turned his attention to contemporary music, adopted a more pronounced vibrato, electrified his band sound and layered it with rhythmic texture, added to his arsenal tunes that featured heavy electric bass vamps and funk beats, addressed a repertoire that comprised more melodic, dance-driven content mixed with exquisite balladry. After releasing the majestic “Horn Culture” [1973] with teen chum Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and the powerful live document “The Cutting Edge” [1974], Rollins issued a frustratingly inconsistent succession of albums, proffering attenuated, self-conscious solos on attractive tunes whose authoritatively played heads barely hinted at the life force he imparted to them when performing before an audience.

“I’m often criticized about the ’70s and ’80s because I used a backbeat and guitars and all, but I don’t understand a lot of it,” Rollins says crisply. “Jazz has to be alive. This gets back to what I said about playing like somebody. If you can appreciate what someone is doing and try to get their essence, then it’s alive. If you copy them to a tee, it probably wouldn’t sound alive. In the ’70s I was trying to find different ways to make my music relevant. I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where I can’t play a calypso or a backbeat. I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid. This is the way I play. The music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics. It’s anti-industrial. But what It is, I don’t know. Every now and then, I’ll get a glimpse, but I can’t get to It as often as I would like. Until I feel satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.”

Whatever one thinks aesthetically of Rollins’ populist, vernacular-oriented path between the mid-’70s and “Falling In Love With Jazz,” the 1989 album that marked his recorded return to hardcore jazz values, it’s of a continuum with his earliest experiences. “I like dancing and I like playing for dancers,” says Rollins, who remembers going to Calypso affairs as a small boy with his Virgin Islands-born mother. “In our teens we did a solitary dance called the Applejack where you’d just do moves to the music. It’s what Monk did when he’d get up from the piano to dance. I remember going to see Dizzy’s band a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom; Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. He would dance the Lindyhop with a chick, and they would really be going to town, with the people crowding around them in a circle.

“When I was coming up with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was one and the same thing. Mostly we played either a club with a dance floor or what we called a function, where everyone was dancing. Sometimes in Harlem we had to play Caribbean-type tunes for dancing only, but a certain musical element was foremost — that’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes. I always did my own variations, tried to change things around a bit. I play a style of calypso which is different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, and it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play think that I’m not really playing calypso. I never broke rhythms down in a methodical way. Anything that I wanted came to me intuitively. I’d say, ‘I can use that’ or ‘that sounds right to me,’ and I just did it. What I do is completely natural, basically off the top of my head; I’ve never had the skill of being able to play the same thing from night to night. Not that I’d want to. I respect the skill of people who can do that, but I think I prefer to be who I am.”

Playing Harlem dances with the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey, or sessions in late ’40s Chicago with drum legend Ike Day, undoubtedly honed Rollins’ preternatural rhythmic facility, which is one aspect of his magic that even he doesn’t soft-pedal. “I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues, “I remember playing with Art Blakey once at Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way; after he came off the stand he said, ‘Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it, didn’t bother you.’ That gave me more confidence.

“Sonny likes to have the time solid, so that he can juxtapose playing across or under or through it,” says Jack DeJohnette, who first recorded with Rollins in 1972 on “Next Album.” “He is complete; he hears the drums, bass and piano in him, and he plays by himself.” That’s why Rollins has employed bassist Bob Cranshaw off and on since 1959, and why the R&B influenced drummer Perry Wilson has lasted with him for three years. “Bob is a steady player, and as abstract as I often like to get, I’ve always liked to contrast abstraction against something steady,” Rollins states.” “I play a lot of different stuff — Caribbean things, straight-ahead, a little backbeat — and I need a drummer who has a little bit of range, who isn’t locked into one style of playing. A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine. Perry has the range that’s needed to play with Sonny Rollins. I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout; I always have the song in mind regardless of what I do.”

In the manner of his role model Coleman Hawkins — and slightly lesser hero Gene Ammons, with whom he jousted on various visits to Chicago — Rollins is peerless at the operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to balladry. “I love ballads,” he says. “Growing up, I loved a lot of people singing, Of course, I like Nat Cole, the way he phrases and seems sincere and gets it over. Even when he did some things in his later years that were thought to be overly commercial, they didn’t turn me off because it was him. I liked the Ink Spots and I liked Bing Crosby, who I saw in a lot of movies, which might have reinforced my admiration for him as a performer. We had a windup victrola on which I heard some of those old RCA Victor Carusos. I remember as a kid going to the City Center in New York and hearing operettas; when I was really young, maybe 2 years old, I saw a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates Of Penzance” in Harlem, and later on in junior high school we had to go through “H.M.S Pinafore” and all this stuff. I was the youngest child, my oldest brother was a good violin player, and I’d hear him studying and playing all the time, and my sister played piano in church — so I imbibed a lot of music from them also.”

I ask Rollins to elaborate on his church background. He responds: “I was brought up in a sect called the Moravian church, where I went to Sunday School and got confirmed and so on. It was very straight-laced, with an organ playing hymns and Bach Cantatas. But my grandmother used to take me to a church run by a woman named Mother Horn right there on Lenox Avenue. It was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, and it made a big impression — I remember hearing a trumpet player who was really swinging.

“I went to Chicago for the first time in 1949 with a friend who played trumpet in a gospel group; he and his sister were in a sanctified church, and I used to go there every week, which I enjoyed because the music was so animated. Chicago was very exciting. It was earthier and more blues-oriented than New York, and they had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time there, and met and played with a lot of musicians. It was a very formative period in my life. When I lived there in 1955, trying to get straight and get my life together, an interesting thing happened. I got up early one morning to catch the bus at 35th and State Street to get to work, and I saw in the window of a little record store on the corner a record I had made with Monk, ‘Just The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I was on the cover. An interesting pull.”

“We’re here in the year 2000, so let’s forget the good old days,” says an avuncular Rollins, elegant in a black ensemble, horn-rimmed shades, and liberally salted beard, midway through the second set at B.B. King’s, reacting to exhortations from the happy throng after he executes a dramatic downward swoop with his horn to state the final note of his passionate cadenza to “Moon Of Manakora,” an Academy Award winner in 1937 written for the Dorothy Lamour movie “Hurricane” that is the final track on “This Is What I Do.” Then he kicks into “St. Thomas,” his variation on a melody that he first heard at one of the Calypso dances that he attended with his mother which has been a staple of his repertoire since he waxed it in 1956 on “Saxophone Colossus.” He then croons the theme of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Sonny Rollins + 3 (1996), before hurtling into a lengthy abstraction on which he plays endless games with the time over the surging rhythm section until there’s nothing left to say.

Rollins concludes with “Don’t Stop The Carnival” (“What’s New,” 1962), a Calypso-Highlife hybrid that he uses as a frequent concert-closer. He roars like a lion through a succession of choruses, fingers popping in a St. Vitus dance over the saxophone keys, firing out cascades of notes from the bottom of the horn. Occasionally, for emphasis, he splits the reed to jackhammer precisely calibrated low overtones that seem ready to blast through building’s substructure and onto the tracks of the subway line that runs below 42nd Street. On the final chorus, as his parting shot, Rollins quotes Denzil Best’s “Move” — parrying pianist Stephen Scott’s witty reference to the bop staple in the kickoff solo to “This Is My Lucky Day” 90 minutes before — before a final cadenza on which he states “There’s No Place Like Home.”

“Hardcore Jazz is political,” Rollins had said during our initial conversation. “It’s real art, and it’s got a lot to say about things that are really happening. Unfortunately, a lot of forces out here want to divert people, don’t want us to think about anything; everything is all right, don’t think about the environment, don’t think about any kind of social problems — just go along and consume and make money. That’s what Hardcore Jazz is up against.”

Rollins seems primed for the battle. This Is What I Do caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan has confronted his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history — the oceanic linearity of the ’50s, the expressionist timbre of the ’60s, and the groove-oriented populism of the ’70s and ’80s. Rollins lived what’s now called the tradition; he grew up immersed in it, he played no small part in creating it, his memories of it provide the narrative subtext for the vivid declamations he continues to spin. Significantly, he dedicates two originals — “Have You Seen Harold Vick?” and “Charles M” — to colleagues passed on.

“It’s good to honor and recognize fellow musicians,” Rollins declares. “Somebody needs to chronicle the guys that contributed to the whole nation’s musical history and never got heard of, who made life good for a lot of people but never get talked about. Harold Vick was a good player and was beloved by his colleagues. Why not talk about these guys? Why just let life rush on, rush on, rush on as if these things don’t matter?”

He proceeds to reminisce.

“Mingus and I were kindred spirits. We had a lot of problems dealing with the acceptance of the music and the way minorities are treated — the usual crap that people go through every day. He always wanted me to do some things with him, but they never panned out. I did play with him a couple of times. He would come by the RCA studios on 24th Street to play piano with me. And I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to the Five Spot on Eighth Street to play with Eric; in Mingus’ mind it was something like, ‘Man, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool.’ I never got around to recording any of his tunes, though I wanted to record one that Miles did called “Smooch,” which was reminiscent of a ballad called ‘Time’ that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.

“My relationship with Miles continued forever; we were always tight. Once Miles was playing with the group he had with Wayne Shorter at a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I went by and came in the club, and he didn’t see me. The guys said, ‘Sonny’s here, and Miles almost jumped out of his skin! It touched me, because I realized how much he thought of me. I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols. I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that. But he thought a lot of me.

“When I was growing up, we went to high school with a fine trumpet player whose name was Lowell Lewis, who played with Jackie McLean and all of us. When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” in 1945, he heard it and he liked the way Miles played. I liked him, too, actually; he took such a poetic solo on one of those tunes. When Miles played with Bird, he took a different tack. Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything, and at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere. He was a god. But he was only four years older than I, which is why I think my relationship with him was more like one of a peer. Dizzy was much older. Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing. Of course, we know Bird was into his own thing. It was really hard to catch the Bird. Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh. But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.”

Rollins hasn’t stopped working since 1972; as he enters his eighth decade, a Buddhist practice as homegrown as his music helps him maintain focus. “I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism,” he notes. “Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me. I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied Yoga. What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I meditate. That’s the way I seek enlightenment during this lifetime, like the Buddha. And I’ve found out that to play my instrument, to concentrate and get inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things. I’m trying to get some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, to get beyond jealousies and hatreds and envies, all of these little things in life which are so stupid and inconsequential. This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned. I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.”

“You have to stay on it, you know,” he adds, referring to a clarion Tadd Dameron line that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with his big band in 1947. “Dizzy played a beautiful solo. It was very informative, and it taught me a lot about playing. Everything about it was very logical, and I like logical playing. It had all the other elements of great jazz playing, and it made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, the way he came in and the way he left space. It was just perfect.”

Which is what a good portion of the crowd must think of Rollins as they bask in the afterglow of the performance. Reality beckons as they file up the stairs and into a wee hours drizzle on 42nd Street, a mere ten blocks from the legendary 52nd Street clubs Rollins played when breaking in, and two stops on the A-train from 125th Street and the Apollo Theater, where a post-adolescent Rollins would go with “an astute bunch of young guys on my block who knew all about Ben Webster and the Ellington band.” He emphasizes, “We were all into jazz as opposed to guys that, say, were into rhythm-and-blues at that time. I mean, rhythm-and-blues was okay, but we knew the real stuff. I thought of Jazz as something which was extremely special. Yeah, that’s the word. It was special. Everything about it was great. There’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”



Sonny Rollins (Jazziz, 2005):
Last December, not long after the death of Lucille Rollins, his companion since 1959, his wife since 1965, and his business manager since 1971, Sonny Rollins decided to conclude his current contract with Fantasy Records by releasing Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert). It documents a Rollins concert at Boston’s Berklee Performing Arts Center in Boston on September 15, 2001, four days after Rollins, whose highrise Tribeca pied a terre was a few blocks due north of the World Trade Center, found himself in the middle of a disaster.

Rollins remembers that he was in no mood to do the job. “My legs were wobbly and I was mentally disjointed,” he says over the phone from his upstate New York home. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s cancel.’ But she convinced me that we should do it. Lucille was a very straight, Middle American-values person, and she hated to renege on a contract in any form. That might have been part of why she insisted. I’m sure there were more noble reasons. Some people suggested that my playing would help other people, which I don’t know if she thought of or not.”

Perhaps no one in the house benefitted more than Rollins, who, on the fateful morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was preparing to run some errands when he heard Flight 11 pass directly above his roof. “Then I heard a big POW!!!!” he recalls. His apartment looked north, up the Hudson River, and he thought a small plane had crashed along the waterfront. He turned on his black-and-white TV, just in time to see Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.

“Then I went downstairs,” he says. “The streets were bedlam, women running around screaming. When the South Tower came down, we started to run, because we thought it would take everybody if it fell over. Since it imploded on itself, that didn’t happen, but a tremendous amount of toxic dust filled the air.”

Downtown Manhattan was already sealed off, and, for lack of a better alternative, Rollins decided to take the elevator back up to his apartment. The phones were still working and he called his wife. Then he started practicing.

“I was definitely in shock,” he says. “Even when I heard the North Tower come down over my radio, it didn’t seem so bad, but even if it was, I was going to practice anyway. I didn’t think it was anything the government couldn’t handle in some manner or form.”

By now, the power was off, and Rollins, who had just turned 71, was marooned. The next morning, a National Guardsman climbed to the 39th floor, found Rollins and three other residents, and ordered them to evacuate. Rollins gathered what he could carry, not neglecting his tenor saxophone and a flashlight, and negotiated all the steps down the dark, narrow stairwell to the street.

“It was like a scene from a World War 2 movie about the London Blitzkrieg, where the place has been bombed, everybody’s out, and the sirens are going off,” Rollins recalls. “There were so many ambulances, firefighters going into Stuyvesant High School for oxygen and new guys coming out. Everybody had to put on masks, because the air was acrid with toxicity.” A CNN cameraman caught Rollins, gear in hand, walking to a bus, which took him to Washington Irving High School, near Union Square Park. There Rollins called his driver, who came in from the Bronx, picked up his charge, and took him home.

The Boston concert was imminent. Rollins arrived there on Friday afternoon, and convened his band at soundcheck the next day. “Everyone seemed more contemplative and thoughtful than usual,” he says of his band’s comportment. “I suppose they were shaken, and the fact everybody knew I was in the middle of it might have contributed. It seemed everything was much more serious and purposeful. Although I hate to think that any other time we play is not purposeful.”

In truth, nothing much happens on Without A Song until the 25th minute, during the final third of “Global Warming,” when Rollins responds to the beats of hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, his regular percussionist since this engagement, and channels the gods on a 6½ minute statement, transforming the lower depths of his instrument into—for lack of a better analogy—a swinging, melodic drum. He spins a three-minute classic on A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, developing and resolving several themes simultaneously, breaking the bar lines, accelerating and decelerating the tempo, veritably speaking through the instrument. He uncorks another amusing, cubist, high-velocity declamation on Why Was I Born, interpolating Stephen Foster quotes into the line. Similar pyrotechnics stamp his opening inventions on “Where or When,” before Rollins begins to lose his embouchure and concludes the proceedings.

Such transcendent moments are not uncommon in Rollins’ concert performances since 1972, the year he returned from a three-year hiatus spent primarily in India and Japan, and began to record for Milestone. But on studio recitals, as observers often remark, the saxophone colossus has resembled Atlas chained more than Prometheus unbound, projecting nowhere close to the creativity and life force he emanates in live performance.

“I think there’s a lot of credence to that,” Rollins comments on the concert-studio issue. “Something about the interaction of human being to human being creates a tension, and I get more involved, which probably changes what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of it. But once I’m out there, those forces obtain.”

Rollins channeled those forces admirably on a succession of masterpieces that established his legend between 1955 and 1966, and began to reestablish studio consistency on Sonny Rollins + 3, a well-wrought 1996 combo date with old pal Tommy Flanagan, and on This Is What I Do, a melody-drenched recital from 2000 that finds the maestro in poetic voice.

“For a long period, the studio was a big inhibiting factor,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve begun to bring that thing from live performance into a studio a little more easily. During my early career, I didn’t feel so inhibited playing on the records with Miles and Max and Monk. So I think it’s just a phase. I don’t know what brought it about. Perhaps it’s because I realized that technology had reached the point where you could overdub and change things, and it was easier to reach for a more ‘perfect’ solo and all this crap.”

That being said, nowhere on the aforementioned sessions does Rollins scale the Olympian heights he accesses on Without A Song, which is one of several hundred privately recorded Rollins concerts, primarily from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, that capture Rollins navigating the high wire. Carl Smith, a Maine-based archivist of this material, has given them to Rollins in hopes that he will approve their public release and thus clarify the scope of his achievement during the second half of his astonishing career.

“Lucille would have killed this guy,” Rollins says with a chuckle. “I am not quite as adamant as she was on that issue. I would have to listen to them, which is hard for me to do, but perhaps that’s another phase I can overcome, as I think I have about recording in the studio. I don’t want to compete with myself, but I’m not averse to releasing some of those in a judicious manner if I hear something really good.

“In fact, I’ve been taping my own performances. This was a point of contention between Lucille and myself. We were at loggerheads. I did it, but she didn’t want me to. Someone else was recording it anyway. I tried to explain that someone like Pat Metheny records all his performances, but we still couldn’t quite agree. I don’t understand exactly why she felt that way. That’s one of the things that she left me here to ponder alone.”

With his wife making the decisions, Rollins was allowed “to play my horn and read my books, and sort of live the leisurely life of a baron.” He pauses for several seconds, and sighs. “It’s all over now.”

Nearing 75, Rollins, in his words, is “just getting into the business aspect,” a tricky proposition for a man who doesn’t operate his fax machine, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have a cell phone. He gets help from his nephew, trombonist and band-member Clifton Anderson. Still, Rollins says, “I’m doing a lot of things I had never had to deal with before. I’m in a whirlwind right now. There are so many disparate things that I am obligated to do, and I’m trying to get them all done. It fills up 24 hours a day.”

Asked if there’s a therapeutic aspect to immersing himself in mundane details, he responds: “It may be a good thing that I’m able to interact on some things. I grieved for a long time. I’m still grieving, because it hasn’t been that long. After she left me here, I couldn’t play for a long time, man. I took my horn out and tried to play a little bit, a few minutes at a time. Gradually, as I began to accept engagements again, I got back to practicing a little more.”

The words burst forth. “I want to go through the rest of my travails on earth,” he says. “We lived together a long time. I’m laying on the bed my wife died in, and she was right next to me, and I was trying to do things for her, and I’m still here. I don’t need to leave that. Going out and playing is enough contact with people. I feel I’ve had a successful life, and I don’t need to get involved in any other phase of life.

“As long as I am able to play, I’ll be playing. I still have my challenges to surmount. I’m still practicing, I’m still studying, and I want to synthesize what I’ve learned in a way that might affect my playing. I still have the same attitude to music.”

Rollins has chronic dental problems, and whether he will be able to actualize that attitude to his satisfaction is an open question. “Physically, you need your teeth to play,” he explains. “It’s frustrating to want to do certain technical things, to have the physical strength, but not be able to. It’s an extra impediment on top of everything else. But look, man, life is frustration.”

This summer Rollins will undergo “procedures that my dentist assures me will enable me to practice when I want.” If the dentist is wrong, Rollins is well aware that he will face another crossroads in this time of tribulation and transition.

“I never want to get to the point where I’m doing nothing,” he says. “I’m trying my best to do something which I know I should be doing better. If I feel, ‘Gee, this is five concerts in a row where I sound like shit’—no. Then I would probably forget it and stay at home and practice in my studio, and just play for myself. Things have to end. Yeah, there’s nothing like getting to some musical point where you feel satisfied—reasonably satisfied—and having people appreciate it. Although you can’t go by that. People will smile in your face and say, ‘Oh, you sounded great,’ which I know is a lot of crap, because I know how I really sound.

“Probably nothing will fulfill me as much as trying to create music on the stage, with all that entails. But should I have to stop, I can’t be, ‘Oh, my life is over.’ I would go on and do whatever else there is to do. I don’t believe in suicide. I believe we’re put here for a reason, and the reason is to go through all these things we go through. You can’t cut it off by your own choice. So whatever happens, I’ll go through it like everybody else.”




Downbeat Readers Poll Feature, 2007:

“Let’s put Roy in the middle,” said Sonny Rollins, evoking his leader’s prerogative, as he, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride convened for a photo shoot near a piano, not in use during their afternoon rehearsal at Avatar Studios for a Carnegie Hall concert on the next evening.

“Why?” Haynes responded. “Because I’m the littlest one?”

“Little in the middle,” Rollins said, and Haynes acquiesced. “That looks better!” Rollins said.

“Damn,” said McBride. “The mob!”

“Sugar Hill, man,” Haynes chimed in, referring to the Harlem enclave where Rollins, 77, spent his formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and where Haynes, now 82, settled when he moved to New York sixty years ago. “Me and Sonny Rollins, from Sugar Hill. Shit.”

“The Hill!” said Rollins. “You dig?”

“I’m not from there,” said McBride, 36, a Philadelphia native. “But I lived there for a minute. That can count, right? I lived on Edgecombe.”

“Is that right?” asked Rollins, who as a youngster lived on Edgecombe Avenue, down the block from the old Polo Grounds.

“Sonnymoon for Three,” Haynes quipped.

Photographer John Abbott machine-gunned the camera for a minute or so.

“You got the gig, John,” McBride said.

“That’s what Prez told me, man, after I played two tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom,” Haynes recalled. “He said, ‘You got the gig. But I won’t tell you the words, because they may put it in print.’”

“Are you going to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?” McBride inquired, referring to the ballad on the trio’s program.

“‘You got your slave,’ right,” Rollins replied, reciting the lyric.

“‘If you got eyes, that slave is yours,’” Haynes shot back. “You can only say that if you know what you’re saying, though.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Rollins agreed.

Rollins planned to sandwich “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song from South Pacific that he had never recorded, with two long-standing hits: Kurt Weill’s “Moritat,” known popularly as “Mack The Knife,” from his 1956 breakthrough record, “Saxophone Colossus,” and “Sonnymoon For Two,” a discursive Rollins blues signifying on his first marriage that he most famously recorded on a November 1957 gig with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones that produced Live at the Village Vanguard. Several weeks after that 1957 date, Rollins played those tunes at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert—his first appearance on the hallowed stage—with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis, sharing the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie with Austin Cromer on vocals, Ray Charles, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. Carnegie Hall recorded the proceedings, and the Library of Congress unearthed them in 2004, yielding the Blue Note’s big-seller, Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. That release coincided with the death of Rollins’ wife and manager, Lucille, and briefly preceded Concord’s purchase of Fantasy Records, the corporate owner of Milestone, his label since 1972. Concurrently, Rollins launched his own label, Doxy, under the imprimatur of Oleo Productions, both entities named after original compositions that Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954. Now an entrepreneur, Rollins decided to throw a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the event, and to release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a single CD, following Sonny, Please, his first Doxy title.

At the time of the 1957 concert, Rollins was already a stylistic role model—Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver had named him the “Greatest Ever” tenor saxophonist in a poll conducted the previous year by Leonard Feather. But although his immense, voice-like tone, elastic time sense,.penchant for melodic invention, seemingly intuitive sense of structure, and relentless swing thrilled his devotees, Rollins was looking for a [context]. Increasingly, he was finding it by eschewing the support of a chordal instrument.

“Trio playing has been a big part of my musical life for a long, long time,” Rollins had related a few days before the rehearsal  during an extended interview on WKCR. “As a matter of fact, in the late ‘40s, Miles Davis heard me playing with a trio to open for a group of all-stars at the 845 Club in the Bronx, and asked me to join his band. I always can get into myself just playing solo, and when I was a kid, just starting, I’d practice in my room for hours and hours, and I’d be in my paradise. ‘Sonny, come on, time to eat.’ I’d be in my reverie. So the idea that I needed other people to fulfill my musical ambitions came reluctantly. So playing by myself or with as few musicians as possible—with trio—was a normal and natural thing.”

Such tunnel vision perhaps explains why, over the next dozen years, Rollins played so much extraordinary music with trios and two-horn quartets (in addition to the aforementioned, personnels on albums and bootlegs during the period included Ray Brown and Shelley Manne; Max Roach with Oscar Pettiford or Jymie Merritt; Paul Chambers and Haynes; Henry Grimes and Pete LaRoca, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris, or Billy Higgins; Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; Gilbert Rovere and Arthur Taylor; even Ruud Jacobs and Han Bennink on a confrontational 1967 performance). Freed from chordal constraints, he explored motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, coloring phrases with vivid splashes of timbre even at the hottest tempos. It may also explain why it was complex for [Rollins] to retain personnel.

“I’m not like that any more,” he said on WKCR, responding to an observation that he has been famously particular about drummers, to the point of firing individuals, themselves no slouches, a day or two into a week-long gig. Indeed, Rollins now is sufficiently solicitous that, before committing to play publicly with McBride and Haynes, he asked the permission of his working band.

“Whether people appreciate it or not, I am deeply involved with my own group and in trying to get a certain thing happening,” Rollins said. “That is my primary focus.”

Rollins has worked hard to realize this aspiration since he began taking a more populist direction in 1972, after a long hiatus during which he explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. When they’re available, he works consistently with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, the versatile trapsetter Steve Jordan, hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, and— returning to the tenor-trombone front-line format he experienced frequently during his early career with J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green—trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew, who works closely with his uncle on business matters.

“Clifton’s role has evolved,” Rollins said. “He’s got a big, beautiful sound, and he knows what to play and where to play it, which I never told him how to do. He just knew how to support me, and what notes to play that would complement my saxophone lines.”

“There are times when I can hear a piano, and other times when I can relate better to a guitar, which is a little less invasive,” he continued. “Bobby is an excellent accompanist for me, because he plays together with the rhythm section and I don’t hear it. If I did hear it, he’d be doing something which would be jarring to me. When I’m soloing, I don’t want to hear anybody. I just want to hear the beat, the groove, the pocket, or whatever way they describe it these days. That’s why I’ve always used Bob Cranshaw on bass, because of his strong foundational beat. With that steady pulse, I’m free to manipulate the time or do abstract improvisations, or anything else I want to do.”


“Playing with Sonny today, I can’t describe the feeling,” Haynes said at Avatar. “We’re talking to each other musically, and I’m feeling this, feeling that, and he’s listening, I’m sure. The idea that we were together earlier in our lives, and we can do that now is precious.”

“There’s very few people from our era who know what that whole thing is about,” Rollins chimed in. “I’ve played with Roy from the beginning of my career. We speak the same language. We understand each other.”

“Mmm,” Haynes agreed. “That is really something. We’re talking, man, and even when it’s silent, there is some shit going on.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rollins said emphatically. “I’m listening CLOSELY.”

“I could feel that,” Haynes said, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s something spiritual that comes from here.”

The veterans first played together in 1948, on a Capitol recording by bop vocalist Babs Gonzalez; the following year with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro on the Blue Note date that produced “Dance of the Infidels,” “Wail” and “Bouncing With Bud”; and on a 1951 Prestige session led by Miles Davis, with John Lewis and Percy Heath.

“I was hearing a lot about Sonny Rollins up on the Hill,” Haynes said. “I didn’t realize that this was the guy who had come by my house with another friend of ours.”

“Lenny Martinez,” Rollins interjected.

“During that period I was either with Luis Russell or Lester Young,” Haynes said.

“You were with Prez when I was coming by your house,” Rollins said. “I saw Roy play at the Apollo with Luis Russell’s band. I asked him a lot about the singer.”

“Lee Richardson,” Haynes states.

“I’ll always remember he made a tremendous impression on me, because he really had a good voice, good pipes.”

“I didn’t know that Sonny was playing an instrument until one night shortly after that visit, when I saw him with an alto at a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue where we used to eat after gigs on Saturday night,” Haynes said. “I said, ‘You play saxophone?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a little gig.’ There was another guy who played tenor, who walked slew-foot, bandylegs, and didn’t make it. All the time when people said ‘Sonny Rollins,’ I thought this other guy was him.”

“Will the real Sonny Rollins stand up?” joked Rollins. “Right.”

“Right! You stood. I do remember one gig in the late ‘40s where I hired Sonny. It was the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X got finished. They used to have Sunday afternoon gigs there, two o’clock high and all that stuff.”

“People could dance in the back.”

“That’s what was so great about those days.”

“People would be doing the Applejack in there,” said Rollins, referring to the steps that Thelonious Monk, his early mentor, used to do after his own solos.

“Oh, that’s right,” Haynes said. “Especially at Minton’s sometimes, they’d come up when anybody was soloing, and sometimes when a drummer was playing a solo, people could dance to it. Today, man, they’d be crying the blues, complaining.”

Asked if he’d seen Haynes play with Monk, Rollins responded, “I don’t think so.”

“We played together with Monk for a minute at the Five Spot,” Haynes corrected. “I remember one night Monk said to me, ‘Roy Haynes. You play better when you wear that suit. You agreed with him, too. I had a black suit with stripes on.”

Rollins guffawed. “Well, that sounds like Monk. One of Monk’s pronouncements. Monk got the best people he could. But it wasn’t just getting the best. There were only a few people that could cut the gig. Just like today, there’s only a few musicians that can really do the music as it should be done, so these people are at a premium. I mean, there’s only one Roy Haynes.”

He pointed at McBride, seated quietly at the piano, taking in every word. “This gentleman here is a young chap, I’ve just met him, but he’s on his way to becoming a legend and a ‘one-of’ guy. This is the way it is. It’s not like the old days, man, when Roy and I would get on a gig at the 845 Club, and it would be Lucky Thompson and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson. Things began changing. In a sense, for the better.”


Until September 11, 2001, when he had to give up his pied a terre four blocks from Ground Zero, and decided to live full time in the house in Columbia County in upstate New York that he purchased in the early ‘70s to ensure that he would not have to climb a bridge or enter a park to practice at his leisure, Rollins rehearsed his bands incessantly.

“The type of music that I play, guys need to be able to complement where I’m going, and I do best with that kind of intimacy,” he said. “Now, I’m not Count Basie’s orchestra, who would be making precise hits and like that. We try to get inside the music in a much less industrial way. Everybody has a beat center, and I want to hear where that is for Christian and Roy.”

Towards that end, Rollins had called McBride to work through the tunes 48 hours earlier at a Chelsea rehearsal studio, and the bassist was still on cloud nine.

“I’m sure I’ll create a lot of enemies, people knowing I got to play a whole day of duets with Sonny Rollins,” McBride joked before the photo session. “He was practicing on some sheet music when I walked into the studio, and when I asked what it was, he said, ‘These are just some little patterns and scales that I worked out.’ This is the greatest living improviser, and it’s amazing that he’s never rested on his improvisational genius, that he’s practicing with the same fervor that he did forty and fifty years ago. With any giant or icon, if you jump on the end of the train, you can miss the path that got the person to that level of greatness. For example Sonny does these rhythmic things that are far beyond what seems to be happening with the bass or the drums. There’s playing free, and then there’s playing without any sense of the rhythm or the feel of the tune. A lot of tenor players do THAT. Whereas when Sonny Rollins does that, it comes from a place that’s so grounded and rooted. He sounds way different than he did on Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard or East Broadway Rundown. Imagine all those years of growth on top of that, and practicing at this still mega-level of intensity.”

As for Rollins, practice time is less a burden than a lifestyle. “I can’t practice maybe 16 hours, like I used to, but I do whatever I can,” he said. “It’s fun. If I don’t practice for more than three or four days, I begin to get physically ill. I think, ‘Gee, what’s wrong?’ If I practice, bang, I’m back in the stream. It’s my form of meditation, my form of prayer—it’s the whole thing. But playing is something else. You can learn more in two minutes on the stage than from practicing maybe five weeks; in a subliminal way, all these things happen, and you really learn.”

He was also learning that entering the brave new world of self-production carries extra-musical challenges. “I’ve played with Roy from day one, Christian has played with Roy, and we got together easily because we’re trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The challenges have been taking care of the business aspects—worrying about tickets and logistics, and also doing a lot of media. I’ll try to change that if something like this happens again, because it occupies a lot of space in your mind, and takes away from the music part.

“But I’m expecting it to be very exhilarating and rewarding. These people are of a high caliber, and I’m looking forward to hearing some things that I haven’t heard before, and being in the middle of the jazz experience, which is what it’s all about. This is the instant creation. It’s like food to me. This is why jazz is the music of today, tomorrow, and forever, because things are happening right then.”


A rainbow coalition comprising hordes of hardcore fans and more eminent musicians than you could count as the paying customers—as well as an assortment of freeloading critics—turned out for the rare opportunity to hear Rollins return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time style of the ’50s and ’60s. They got exactly what they came for.

From the very beginning of “Sonnymoon For Two,” Rollins developed and resolved several themes simultaneously, breaking the grid, accelerating and decelerating the tempo with sleek lines as long as a rambling freight train, punctuating them with multiphonic honks and long held notes, downloading deeply embedded fragments of musical memory at Pentium speed and interpolating them into the flow. Playing the room magnificently, Haynes tap danced complementary rhythms with his sticks. Facing Haynes directly, with McBride centering the action with impeccable taste and requisite force, Rollins engaged him in a series of exchanges that further developed the themes they had both stated, and provoked more dialogue for another ten minutes or so, until he concluded the journey with one last harmonic abstraction.

With Haynes now wielding mallets, Rollins addressed “Some Enchanted Spring” in the key of A, and bellowed the gorgeous melody like a tenor singer in an operetta, floating gruffly over Haynes’ [richly textured], not quite rubato beats. Upon conclusion, they launched directly into “Moritat,” immediately embarked on improvised dialogue, and sustained the postulations and responses at the highest level for 15 minutes or so; it seemed like they could have gone on all night, but Rollins, aware that [he had another set to play with his band], arbitrarily halted this exemplary demonstration of what an equilateral triangle might sound like in musical form.

That set was another story. While giving his men much rope, Rollins generated sparks on the melody statement of the set-opener, “Sonny, Please,” but blew only perfunctorily on the remaining tunes, “Nu-Nile,” “Biji,” and even “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” on which a mighty dialogue by Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu could not generate further heroics from the leader. Carnegie Hall’s notoriously indifferent jazzcoustics sound didn’t help It was a disappointing, anticlimactic conclusion.

“I was trying, in the back of my mind, to keep track of the time, but had there been no time constrictions I would like to have gone on a little bit with Christian and Roy,” Rollins said a week later, after playing concerts in Portland and Monterrey. “That wouldn’t have happened in a nightclub, which is why people prefer nightclubs to concerts. In the concert we played at Monterrey, I myself played more. We closed out with one of these festive numbers, and the people went crazy, with the girls standing up twirling their torsos around. At Carnegie Hall, with the time factor, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to play.”

Rollins’ commitment to his group might discourage him from booking further explorations with the extraordinary trio. But he’s certainly thinking about it.

“I might have to go in a different direction, which would open up some interesting musical vistas, shall we say,” he said. “Things happen with musicians of that caliber. With the drum and the bass, the primacy of the beat didn’t play as big a part. Velocity and volume level is different, and this dictates that the music go in other directions. I have a different role to play.

“When Christian and I played together on the first rehearsal without Roy. I said, ‘Wow, we should do something with just you and I,’ because we were interacting in another way. That is also a possibility sometime in the future, because I heard something with just him and I playing together where we began feeding off of each other. It was very interesting, and portended things to come.”

A fortnight before this conversation, towards the end of his three hours at WKCR, Rollins, who had earlier asked that the monitors be turned down while his music was going over the airwaves, smiled and swayed his shoulders as he and Max Roach threw melodies and rhythms at each other on “Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward song that appears on the B-Side of his classic album, The Freedom Suite, recorded within five weeks of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert.

“I liked that!” he exclaimed, before realizing he was on mike. He recovered quickly. “This is supposed to be secret. I’m not supposed to enjoy myself, and I usually don’t. I don’t want to give the false impression that I enjoy my own work. The guys that I played with are like redwood trees. I have a high standard to keep up with the people that I’ve been associated with. So I hear my shortcomings when I listen back to myself. Hopefully, too many other people don’t hear them! But I hear them. It’s okay, though. I’m still playing, so there’s still a chance for me to [reach] perfection. As long as I’m still practicing, I have a chance to get closer to my own nirvana, so that’s cool.”


Sonny Rollins DownBeat 75th Anniversary Article (#1):

Several hours into retrospecting on a half-century of Downbeat’s copious coverage of his career, Sonny Rollins paused. “I hope you understand that it’s emotionally jarring to go over your life,” he said.

That qualifier aside, Rollins treated the process with customary thoughtfulness and good-humor, offering blunt self-assessments and keen observations on the changing scene described within the seven articles in question. His comportment brought to mind Joe Goldberg’s remark (“The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins,” August 26, 1965): “It is almost impossible to talk superficially to Rollins. He examines whatever is under discussion in much the way he examines a short phrase in one of his solos: over and over, inside out and upside down, until he has explored all possibilities.”

Rollins will observe his 79th birthday in September. Even in his Old Master years, a life stage when artists of parallel stature—filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman come to mind—pare down to essences, he continues his efflorescent ways, applying his singular mojo towards imperatives of (as I wrote in Downbeat in 2000) “shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night.” In his maturity, as documented on his most recent studio CD, Sonny, Please [Doxy] and the 2006 concert performance documented on the DVD Vienne [Doxy], it seems, as I wrote in 2000, that Rollins has “reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.”

“It’s like Lionel Hampton,” Rollins joked over the phone. “You’d bring him in the wheelchair, help him up on the bandstand, and BANG, he’s a 20-year-old kid again,. To some degree, it’s like that. Once I start playing, I lose track of the time.”

Over the years, Rollins’ larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belied the notion that self-doubt could ever impede his forward motion. But much of the Downbeat narrative describes a character around whom Bergman might have framed a film—a gifted artist less than fully confident that his abundant talent suffices to satisfy his aspirations, engaging in a continual process of introspection and self-criticism, and, furthermore, possessing the courage to act upon his convictions by removing himself from the public eye during three extended sabbaticals. In short, as Downbeat’s reportage makes clear, the progression of Rollins’ musical production is inseparable from the development of his spiritual life.

How consistently Rollins hewed to his path is clear from a comment that Nat Hentoff places at the end of his 1956 cover story, “Sonny Rollins,” which appeared a mere 11 months after Rollins, already dubbed “saxophone colossus” at 26, had left Chicago, his home during his first self-imposed hiatus. “I was thrown into records without the kind of background I should have had,” he told Hentoff, expressing a concern that his career was developing too fast.. “I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to do it.”

This theme would recur in different variations over the next quarter century, as would several others expressed in Dom Cerulli’s 1958 followup. By then Rollins had already investigated the possibilities of the pianoless tenor trio on Way Out West, Live at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite, each an enduring classic. He explained this direction as a response to his difficulty in finding band personnel who could fulfill his vision, noting a particular ambivalence about playing with pianists who were not Bud Powell. He also elaborated on the pros and cons of nightclub performance vis-a-vis the concert stage, expressing concern about “setting aside enough time to keep up to his horn” and his “hang-up” with “finding time to rehearse,”

Certainly, Rollins circa 2009 connected to concerns expressed a half-century ago. “Everything here seems like I could write it today.” he stated. Not least is his remark to me in 2000 that “there’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

Nat Hentoff, Sonny Rollins – Nov. 28, 1956

“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene until I’m completely finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything…”
Dom Cerulli, Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes he Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has To Date – July 10, 1958

“Right now, I feel like I want to get away for a while… I need time to study and finish some things that I started long ago. I never seem to have time to work, practice, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night.”


“I’m vindicated. I always claimed that my motive for going on the bridge was as I stated, but people said, no, Sonny’s just going on the bridge because of the ferment in the music world, the competition from new people coming to the front, like Ornette and Coltrane. Everything I said in 1956 and 1958, I still speak about. I still practice every day. I still have a vision which I haven’t yet achieved in my improvisations. I mentioned that I always wanted formal music training, which my brother and sister had. I didn’t. I was always trying to catch up on my education.

“This shows my conscience about the clubs, as well. They were great, and I played in them until I was able to realize my ambition. But they were problematical because of the lifestyle—and also I thought that doing concerts would elevate the public perception of jazz.”

BILL COSS, The Return of Sonny Rollins – January 4, 1962:

“A few weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returned to the public jazz world from which he had voluntarily retired two years ago. On his opening night at New York’s Jazz Gallery, the large audience had an unabashed air of expectancy more familiar to a football stadium than a night club… When he…moves toward the bandstand, there is a ripple of sound and movement preceding him, shouted hellos and exhortations. It is reminiscent of a championship fight, as Sonny is reminiscent of a championship fighter… Nowadays he even sounds like ex-heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, advocating clean living, study, lots of exercise. ‘I’ve stopped smoking,’ he says, ‘and cut down on the drinking, and I lift barbells every day.’ Then he begins to play, and he wins every round.”

“In order not to disturb others, he looked long and hard for a deserted enough place to practice while he was retired. ‘Then I discovered the Williamsburg Bridge,’ he said. ‘It’s right near where I live. It’s amazing. Very few people walk along it. Probably most people don’t even know there’s a sidewalk on it. But the ones who did walk there paid very little attention to me. You’re just suspended out there. You feel as if you’re on top of everything, and you can see so far and so much, and so much of it is beautiful. I can blow as hard as I want there and be impressed. It gave me a kind of perspective about music, people, everything, really, that I never had before. Everything began to jell afer that. When I quit, I suppose I had the intention of changing myself drastically, my whole approach to the horn. I realized after awhile that that wasn’t what was needed or what was bothering me. So instead, I began to study what I had been doing, and explored all the possibilities of that. I knew I was beginning to control my horn.”


“In 1956, I moved to 400 Grand Street, between Clinton and Norfolk, a block below Delancey Street. I was walking on Delancey Street (do you remember the film Crossing Delancey?), shopping in that area, and I looked up and saw the steps leading up to the bridge, and sort of thought about it, ‘Gee, where does that go?’ I walked up there and said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ There was my place to practice.”

“I didn’t do any performances during those years, although I did go out a couple of times to clubs. I went to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery. Steve Lacy had a loft on the Bowery, and I might have gone there. I heard Ornette at the Five Spot when they first came to town. I met Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins when I went to California for the first time, in March 1957, at the time I did Way Out West. I hadn’t known them before. They all came out, and we got tight and practiced together. After I began to want to change the Bridge group, I remembered their playing and called Don and Billy.”

“Opening night was rough. There was so much hoopla, so much press buildup that I was doomed to fail. But I had to do it. Like Bill wrote, I was fighting like I always do—trying to get something happening.”

Joe Goldberg: The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins –August 26, 1965

“Rollins showed up to take me to his home. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, was smoking a cigar and driving an Impala. He negotiated the heavy traffic with the ease of the cabdriver he once was. He lives in a Brooklyn apartment near Pratt Institute with his wife, Lucille, and two German shepherds named Major and Minor. The decor consists of paintings by the Detroit painter known as Prophet and souvenirs from overseas trips. The music on the phonograph ranged from old Basie records with Lester Young through Indian and Japanese music to operatic arias.”

“‘The average Joe,’ he said, ‘knows just as much as I do—he knows more than I do. I’m the average Joe, and I think people recognize that.”


“I never actually drove a cab. That might have been a little exaggeration. A job was offered to me, but I never did consummate the act, if I can put it that way.

“I really had it together. My wife Lucille, and two German Shepherds named Major and Minor. A Chevy Impala. Nice paintings on the wall. It was a nice, big apartment. I didn’t look like I was suffering any.”

“ I think ‘average Joe’ is an exalted term. To me, it’s really Everyman. What I meant is that the audience is pretty savvy and not to be downplayed. They know what’s happening. The audience pays their money, and it’s up to me to give them what they paid for. If I have a night when I am more or less satisfied with my work at any particular concert performance, the audience is satisfied. Now, there are some nights when I am not satisfied, but the audience may still be satisfied to some degree. That’s ok, because I am always my worst critic.


“Rollins said he never particularly wanted to be a leader, that he would have been content to remain a sideman with none of the non-musical worries and responsibilities that go along with leading and stardom. ‘You’d be surprised how many very famous people told me not to become a leader, you’d be surprised if I called their names.’”


“I’d give a yes and no to that remark. In the kind of music we play, where everybody is extemporizing and has their platform, you have an advantage over the leader. A sideman can play great or not so great, without responsibility. A leader has to play great all the time. On the other hand, everybody has enough ego to want their name in lights. Furthermore, the fact that you devote your life to creating this music and want acceptance for creating something personal is also a big ego trip—hopefully in a less negative sense. I believe some of my religious teachings that we have to be very careful about the ego, so I try to be careful of THAT. See, I don’t want to be just be playing for vanity. That would be a worthless life. I’m trying to get to somewhere musically, and create some music that I think I hear every now and then. I’m trying to get to that place.”
IRA GITLER, Sonny Rollins: Music is an Open Sky – May 29, 1969

“Rollins had played a very short set, and then emphatically gestured that the curtains be closed. The audience, stunned for a moment, instigated a concerted clamor, and after a few minutes Rollins reappeared, saxophone in hand. His fans, eager to showcase affection on him and listen to more of his music, began calling out their favorite selections. Sonny, at odds with himself and his adulators, responded with halting words of explanation and then played snatches of various standards and an abortive calypso. It must be said that he made an effort, but a lot of disgruntled people left Town Hall that night.”

“…after the concert…at the Village Vanguard, he exhibited that staggering brand of gigantic tenor that makes you feel as if you are the instrument being played. The music does more than surround you with grandeur; it gets into your circulatory system and courses through your body.”

Rollins’ response:

“This is what makes Sonny Rollins’ career so…well, interesting or so different. Once I got a name, everything I did wasn’t a success. I had a lot of unsuccessful concerts, like this one, which was a big venue, Town Hall. I had to regroup and come back. Most people, once they’ve made it, then it’s all staying on that level, or going uphill. But Sonny Rollins was, ‘Oh yeah, Sonny Rollins, terrible concert; gee, how can he recover?’ Then ‘oh yeah, good concert.’ I can create a scenario of what happened on the concerts that were not successful. Technical matters probably played a big part—preparation time, interaction with certain other members. But in exceptional times, I can overcome a lot of things.”


“Constant shifts in personnel has become the expected pattern within Rollins’ groups. Players come and go like guests in a hotel for transients… ‘There are a lot of guys I can work with, and who can work with me,’ he said, ‘but until I get a steady itinerary and offer steady work…’ Why doesn’t a major figure like Rollins work more frequently? In the past, he has chosen to take sabbaticals of varying length, for reasons ranging from dissatisfaction with himself to disenchantment with the jazz scene. One factor these days is salary. Rollins has spent many years to reach his high plateau of artistry, and feels that this entitles him to a certain basic compensation…”

“The saxophonist began studying yoga on a formal basis when he went to Japan in 1963. During the next five years he maintained contact with his teacher, Master Oki, and with the Yoga Institute of Japan. When he returned at the beginning of 1968, he visited temples and shrines and spent time at his teacher’s school in Mishima, near Mt. Fuji. ‘The atmosphere creates an attitude for meditation,’ Rollins said. ‘There is a feeling of peace. Some of the students were jazz fans.’ The Japanese experience led him to India and an ashram—“a religious colony of Hindu monks and women, yoginis”—on Powaii Lake, about an hour’s travel from Bombay… He meditated and took courses in Vedanta philosophy.”

Rollins’ response:

“Business problems certainly would be part of my Sonny Rollins story. I felt always that jazz musicians not only should be appreciated more, they should be paid better. I certainly expressed that, and maybe Ira was right that I was pricing myself out—he might have been close to some of these club-owners, so they may have confided that to him. I consider myself an open sky, and I am open to all kinds of stuff; I’m not a moldy fig, so I felt a fairly substantial amount of interest in everything that was going on, especially Miles—I’d played with Miles. The business was fracturing around that time. A lot of other influences were coming in, and mainstream jazz (if I can put myself in that category) was not getting accepted. Well, it was never accepted, which meant things were even worse for jazz musicians. Everybody knows how the music business is.

“When I first came out on my own, I worked for Joe Glaser, from Associated Booking, and he had an agent handling me who had also worked for boxers in the fight game. He told me, ‘Sonny, I’ve been an agent in the fight game, I’ve been an agent in the music game. The music business is worse.’ So those were the conditions that we had to work under, and I was getting disillusioned with it. Somebody else might feel, ‘This is just the way jazz is.’ Well, I might take it a little more seriously than other people, and want to fight back. I felt that my name would give me the wherewithal to do something. Also, I was getting more and more deeply into my spiritual quests. So that was a perfect time for me to get to India. I’d been there already, because I had been studying a lot of yoga books, and I wanted to see if I could get involved with the schools of some the people I was reading about. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, really touched me (I still have an original copy in my library), but he had passed on. But there were other people. Spirituality and music are very close together, and it’s sort of looking for more of a meaning out of life.

Gordon Kopulos: Needed Now: Sonny Rollins – June 24, 1971

“With just two or three other living tenor players, Rollins shares the distinction of having an original tone. It is deep, strong and full-throated, even in the upper register. In the lower ranges, it is reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins, and occasionally in the middle octave he calls Ben Webster to mind. His tone is certainly not without its influences, but the way he twists or bends about every third note sets him apart from everyone else in the known universe. His tone is breathy at times, too, particularly on ballads… Though the full tone isn’t exactly popular, traces of the Rollins approach are discernible in some contemporary saxophonists: Archie Shepp, for instance. Pharaoh Sanders, too, has recently displayed a tone much fuller than the one he was using with Coltrane… [Rollins’] contribution consists of much more than just this, though. Rhythmic innovators in jazz can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. Rollins is one of those who must be counted… His use of space is possibly the greatest imaginable object-lesson in how to make the absence of sound create rhythmic and melodic tension… Even if Rollins decided to hereafter play only straight melody, he would still be a creative jazz musician. Because by the time a melody has undergone his singular treatment of singing tone and organismic rhythm, it is infused with a vitality that renders it a new thing… Rollins’ experiments in harmony helped to clear the trees for the present harmonic daring of the avant-garde.”
Rollins’ response:

“So far, I like this one the best. Some of the things he’s saying in there are not conventional wisdom. I think he’s very prescient and right-on.

“My sense of time is probably unique to me. The things he says about my tone could have been written any time; I’ve been working on my sound all the time. I really got into harmonics through studying Sigurd Raschèr’s book, Top Tones For Saxophone. He’d demonstrate with a saxophone that had no keys, and would play all these notes to demonstrate the way the harmonics fell in. I wasn’t working so much with multiphonics, which is a term used more by guys who created fingerings that allow them to play two tones at one time. That was a worthy technique, except you couldn’t really control the volume. But I was working on breathing and embouchure to play the natural harmonics, playing two notes at once, to increase the vocabulary of the instrument, and enhance my own expressiveness.

“There is something avant-gardish about my playing, even though people might think of me in terms of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, or more conventional playing terms like bop, hardbop, and so on. Ornette put out a record on tenor, and everyone said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Sonny Rollins.’ People look back and say, ‘Well, he played like this in 1948, and then he played like this in 1953, and he played like this in 1965.’ Well, I have to accept the fact of my history in music. It’s on record…if you’ll excuse the pun. Somebody might hear me today, and say, ‘Oh, Sonny’s gone back and he’s playing tunes again.’ Which is ok. Yes, I was playing tunes at that time. But I’m not going to play the way I did in 1948 or 1965. I don’t like to be caged. I might feel like playing tunes, but then at another moment I might not.. There’s a lot of things on my mind. I need to learn and increase my arsenal of things to do. Performance is when you get a chance to go through the attic, and I can’t perform as much as I’d require to really stretch out and do all the different things I want to do.”
Tam Fiofori, “Reentry: The New Orbit of Sonny Rollins,” October 24, 1971

Q: What were the influences responsible for your playing tunes like St. Thomas and Brownskin Girl?

SR: My mother is from the Virgin Islands, and when I was fairly small I remember going to dances with her and listening to some of this type of music—Brownskin Girl, St. Thomas and calypso things. Of course, when I got into playing jazz they were not thought of as being jazz music, and a lot of people would even try to make a big separation, and I did, too. I didn’t actually begin my jazz career playing those types of songs. I just began to really incorporate that at a later stage. But the fact that I had heard a lot of them as a child made it so that I was able to play them particularly well. Then I felt that it was good if I could play them and people liked them, and it was something I could do in a natural way and it proved to be a sort of a trademark. Then again I’ve heard some African music which is I think somewhat similar to calypso in a way…some of the music they call Highlife… I think a lot of [calypso] and [Bossa Nova] and [rock] rhythms are being used a great deal more, which is good.

Rollins’ response:

“I would say that it’s unfortunate for Sonny Rollins that I made such a searing impression when I came out on the scene, like that was me. Because that’s not me. I’m a very eclectic player. I’m open to a lot of things. Music is an open sky—back to that again. My first guy that I liked when I started playing was Louis Jordan, a real rhythm-and-blues man. I’m a little like Dizzy. I’m serious, but my music is… Dizzy did a lot of things like, “Who Stole My Wife, You Horse-Thief” and so on. I tend to go that way sometimes, and I don’t feel that it diminishes anything else I did, just like it didn’t diminish when Dizzy was playing ‘Groovin’ High.’ So in the period after that article, I might have gone that way, but that was part of me. I didn’t decide to do anything that was antithetical to what I believed in. I’m not a good enough musician to do that. My playing is too natural. If I play some kind of way, it’s got to be that I have a deep feeling about it.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s I was talking about needing to get away from music for different reasons. Well, during the ‘70s I moved out of the city. I got the place where I live now, where I could practice more or less whenever I wanted to, away from the madding crowd. So I was able to stay ‘active’ and still have the chance to meditate and do the things that I needed to do, but couldn’t do in the ‘60s because I was right in the middle of everything, and had a lot of pressures and so forth. Lucille and I made it so that we didn’t overwork. The booking agency used to call my wife ‘Mrs. No.’ We wouldn’t work that much. We’d only take things that we thought were really good in many respects. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to take sabbaticals away from the music scene.


Q: Do you think that the music has by now severed most of its ties with Western music other than environmental ones?

SR: “There’s nothing Western about the way I play in the least. The only Western thing is that I play some Western songs.”

Rollins’ response:

“Of course today these guys can probably write down what I do. But the point is well-taken. I’d say the same thing now.

“I think I’m like a diamond in the rough. That’s what George Avakian used to call me. I’m a very rough player. I’m not a polished player, although I’m trying to be—but I’m not. That’s why Fiofori probably had an affinity to what I was doing, because he’s from a Third World African country, and he heard something in my playing, besides some of these calypsos, which probably was reminiscent of that way of playing.”

Bob Blumenthal, Sonny Rollins Interview – May 1982

BB: I hear you’re producing your next album.

SR: I have been thinking about producing for a long time. I was listening to Roberta Flack talk one night, and what she described was similar to me. She was actually producing her own albums; she was selecting the material, picking the people. What I haven’t been doing is talk to the people on the date about money and various arrangements. The rest is something I think I should be doing—it just means more control over what you do. It’s a logical conclusion to end up producing your own things. It’s more responsibility that I should be handling myself.

Rollins’ Response:

“I began to trust my wife’s judgment, which helped me move more or less seamlessly into that side of the business. I was able to listen to her a little bit, and, ‘ok, I won’t get angry if you pick out what you think is the best of what you’ve heard.’ I’d listen at the end, and if it wasn’t intolerable, we’d let it go.”


BB: It has become a cliche that Rollins albums don’t capture the spark of Rollins in live performance. Does this mean anything to you as a player-producer?

SR: I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve got to concentrate more on making a studio date have a certain pizzazz, a zing to it that performances would have by virtue of the people and I interacting. That’s something I’ll deal with this time. It’s also a psychological thing on my part, about going into a studio and playing as much like I usually play as possible.

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first started recording in the ‘40s, I’d go into the studio, say, with J.J. Johnson and do two takes. There wasn’t any chance to do it over. As time progressed and the possibility of overdubbing arose, I began to think, ‘Gee, maybe it can come out better.’ That had a big influence on why it became more difficult as the years went on. I’ve gotten past that self-doubt; I don’t feel I have to overdub everything. I’m more confident that what I play is the best that I can do at that time, and I won’t feel the need to do one take after another. Of course, live, you don’t have to worry about doing take after take; hence, my live stuff always gets more acclaim.”
Bob Belden, Sonny Rollins: The Man – August 1997

“…when I found out about Coleman Hawkins, I was attracted, I think, to his sound, and then it just seemed like he knew so much music. Just his mental thing and intellectual approach really got to me. Coleman had harmony down to a high art… Hawkins is the one that gave me the sense that this is something beyond even the feel-goodness of music. Not that there’s anything wrong with the feeling-good aspect of music.”

Rollins’ Response

“Music is so fluid. I practiced today, and things came to me that didn’t come to me yesterday. But I am deeply embedded in my roots. Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Lester Young, all these people that I’ve heard. People I’ve played with. Coltrane. Bird, of course. So yeah, I think I’m close to those people. Sometimes, in soundchecks, I’ll play like Don Byas. This is rudimentary for me to get my chops up. Everything I do is involved in what I’m doing now, and I’m not trying to play like Coleman Hawkins. I don’t consciously think too much about these people unless I’m listening to something by them. But I’m sure the fact that I knew Coleman Hawkins and have tried to play like him, is involved in everything I do. I did a seminar with Gary Giddins last year, and a young guy asked me what I think about the jazz of today. I remarked that…which I thought about later; it wasn’t a complete enough answer…but it may have been… I said that as long as whoever is playing this music thinks about Lester Young in what they’re doing, I would give it my seal of approval.”

John McDonough, September 2005

“Sonny Rollins finds himself on yet another bridge these days. On September 7th he turns 75, and within the last year his wife, Lucille, died. The two had been married for about 40 years.”

“‘I’ve been suffering from an overload,” Rollins says in a husky, hoarse voice, apologizing for being late for this interview. “I lost my wife, and she did most of these things. I’ve been completely swamped with interviews, appointments, taxes. I don’t like to operate like that. When a time is set, it’s not my usual method of operation to be late.”

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve always been a guy who’s stood out, who’s pretty much been my own man. At this age, it’s better for me to keep everything more compartmentalized, and reduce the things that I have to do so I can just concentrate on my music. I can only practice about two hours a day now. I have a group of people that I feel fairly comfortable working with; it’s somewhat of a loose family, and it makes life a little bit easier. But I still have to oversee everything. I can’t not be involved, like I was when my wife was with me and I could live like a baron and just go out to the studio and play all day.

“You never want to get too accustomed to any other person. We’re born alone and we have to leave the planet alone. So it’s a matter of adjusting to life’s different knocks. I’m able to deal with things a lot easier now than four years ago. I never feel that the burden is too heavy. Obviously, I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t live like a baron now. But I’m making my own statements and doing what I want to do.”


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Filed under Christian McBride, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins

For Oscar Peterson’s 90th Birthday Anniversary, A Verbatim Interview from 2002 and a Liner Note

To acknowledge the 90th birth anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007), I’m appending a verbatim interview that I conducted with him for a piece on his excellent autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey, and a liner note that I wrote for the release of Oscar Peterson’s Big 4, Live In Japan, an after-the-fact issue of a 1982 concert for Pablo Records. Other references to the maestro on this blog-site can be found here.


Oscar Peterson (on A Jazz Odyssey):

TP: Why the autobiography? When did you start thinking about it, and what steps did you take in beginning to write and conceptualize it?

PETERSON: Well, it started, believe it or not, about 15 years ago, when the late Norman Granz spoke to me and said, “You ought to think about writing a book about the way you came from Canada, from Montreal, and got into the jazz ranks, and got into Jazz at the Phil and all the work that you’ve done.” And I didn’t give it that much thought. I tried several ways. I tried it with the inevitable tape recorder, and I didn’t like that. Then finally it resolved to the point where Norman suggested that I bring in Richard Palmer and have him critique and then editorialize things I had written already. Richard had already written a book on me in London… Richard Palmer consented to act in the role of an editor of stuff that I had written, and he came over and spent time with me. Nothing much happened for a while after that, because I became very, very busy and decided to give a rest to it. Then we resumed…

TP: What was the year?

PETERSON: I can’t remember the year.

TP: Was it ten years ago? Five years ago?

PETERSON: It was in that time period. I can’t give it to you chronologically, because I don’t remember myself.

But Richard came over, then we let it go for a while, and then we decided to complete the book within the last year-and-a-half, and we sort of went over it tooth-and-nail and decided that it was as good as it was going to be.

TP: When did you actually start the writing? Right after Norman Granz made the suggestion?

PETERSON: I started approximately a month after he suggested it, which was about 15 years ago.

TP: So this book has been in the process of creation since 1986 or 1987.

PETERSON: That’s correct.

TP: Did you just start writing, or did you think about a form? For instance, did you write it in chronology, as the book, or did you write about different subjects?

PETERSON: I wrote about my feelings and my thoughts about how deeply I wanted to get involved in the professional end of the jazz world. Because I had to make that decision after having met Norman Granz. So what I did was go back and write a chronological report on how I started studying, my family and so forth and so on. Then I got into the part where I left the United States, and then talked about the various people I worked with and how they influenced me and what I learned from them.

TP: Had you written before, besides correspondence and so forth?

PETERSON: No. I’m a piano player, remember?

TP: I do. Is writing something that came naturally to you, or did you work on it with the sort of determination that marks your approach to the instrument?

PETERSON: Well, literature was one of my better subjects in school, so I enjoyed it from that end in the beginning. But I did not realize what a monumental project I had taken on until I was well into it.

TP: You say literature was one of your better subjects. Who are the writers you favor? Did you have any stylistic models?

PETERSON: Not really. I just enjoyed the courses in school, in literature, and I enjoyed writing different things.

TP: Any two or three favorite novelists?

PETERSON: I read various things over the years. My memory is failing now, so I can’t remember them all. I remember reading everything from detective stories, like Mickey Spillane and things like that, and I read a lot of scientific things. I was interested in space and things like that. So I never paid the authors that much mind; I just enjoyed what I was reading.

TP: Well, there’s a real authorial voice in the book, which is not something that always comes naturally. It looks to me like you did a great deal of writing-editing-rewriting-editing…

PETERSON: No, I didn’t. Richard really did not rewrite hardly any of my thing, because he wanted it to be totally in my words, as he put it. I appreciated that about him, because I didn’t want it to be false fiction.

TP: I meant rewriting by you. It had the rather smooth feeling that comes when you’ve really worked on something and honed it.

PETERSON: I’m going to say this to you. Over the years, when things have happened, funny instances have taken place in my life, and I’ve recounted them to people, various people, including Norman. I think this is the factor on which he predicated his insistence that I start the book. They have always said that I told a great story, whatever that means, whether I was telling jokes or things that have happened to me, and so forth. That’s where it started.

TP: You set the table very well in your various anecdotes. You have a very firm sense of scene and place and drama.

PETERSON: I’m not really aware of that. It’s just the way I saw it.

TP: What’s also interesting is your command of the voices of the other musicians. The way you capture Lester Young or Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins or Ella Fitzgerald or Ben Webster and on down, even those to whom you devoted only a paragraph or two. Did you just conjure them up in the process of writing? Did they come from stories you had told before? Do some of these stories reflect the type of stories Norman Granz would have been thinking about when he suggested you write the autobiography.

PETERSON: Well, it’s really based on the effect that these people had on me when I met them, and the way they reacted when certain things happened. You’re referring to Lester Young. We roomed together for a while, for instance, and I got to know a lot of his habits. The same with Flip Phillips, and Bill Harris.

TP: People I knew 20 years ago, I can’t necessarily remember the nuances of their syntax and the way they spoke unless I had it on a tape.

PETERSON: The reason for that is because I had a great admiration for the way people put things in context. I always insisted that Lester Young had a language of his own; the way he would talk to people. I admired this, because it was something very, very special to Lester, and it’s just the way it affected me.

TP: Do you feel that’s the case for all the musicians you profiled in the book?

PETERSON: I think so, yes. Because don’t forget, I was the new face among them, the new kid on the block, and everything that happened around me sort of saturated me, and I took it all in. It had a profound effect on me.

TP: So there’s a sense in which the spoken voice of the musician reflects their musical voice.

PETERSON: I think so.

TP: Secondly, you wrote about training yourself to listen in that manner, and that being analogous to the process of playing as well.

PETERSON: Well, I had to do that because I was accompanying a lot of these people on the jam sessions in the rhythm sections. I always preach that to my students whenever I hold a seminar. I tell them to be sure to listen to the soloists, and don’t think you’re a soloist against another soloist.

TP: Artists aren’t always articulate about the creative process, and the process of accumulating vocabulary and technique and information. You’re an exception. Your passages on the way you trained yourself, what you were looking for, just your entire approach, are unique in the literature of jazz. Is this something that reflects your personality over the years, or was describing it something you had to think about and work on?

PETERSON: I tried to write the same way we talk musically. I tried to write it as ad-lib as possible. Because I felt that if I stopped and conjured up, or tried to beautify or whatever you want to call it…various phrases and things… I just felt that if I spoke honestly about what had happened and what people said… I tried to be very careful to not add anything to what people had said to me or done to me. In other words, I didn’t want any of my personality to come through in what people were saying and doing to and with me.

TP: Are you satisfied that you did that?

PETERSON: I feel honestly that I did, yes.

TP: Were you writing in longhand? Were you typing?

PETERSON: I started out with the famous microphone and tape, which I didn’t like, in a certain way, because I found that I started to edit a lot of things when I played them back. I didn’t like that. I wanted it to be as improvisational as possible.

TP: A lot of people in your position use the tape recorder because they feel that speaking the story to the tape recorder more will come out and the inhibitions won’t take hold. It sounds like it was the opposite for you.

PETERSON: It was the opposite. Then I transferred it at the beginning of the computer age. I had a little Radio Shack computer, and I started writing on that. But I’m not the world’s greatest typist. I gave that style up years ago.

TP: You wrote longhand after that.

PETERSON: I wrote longhand. Then finally, I was very fortunate not having Richard, because he looked over a lot of those things and questioned a lot of the things, but fortunately, my wife Kelly is a wonderful typist, and sat there dedicatedly, hour after hour, while I rambled on.

TP: So you would talk and she would type as you were talking. You dictated to her.


TP: So much of this book is dictated to your wife.

PETERSON: An awful lot of it.

TP: Who I guess would be the person you could talk most comfortably to.

PETERSON: Right, because she never questioned anything and she never stopped the flow at any point. As I recall it, she never had to say, “Wait a minute, I missed this.” She’s that good a typist, which is lucky for me.

TP: When you first met Richard Elliott, how much of the material that is in the autobiography was written, do you think?

PETERSON: I think perhaps almost half of it.

TP: Was it chronological or different spots of the book?

PETERSON: I would think it was a little jagged. He put it in the context, insofar as indexing it in the proper way.

TP: But the first things you wrote were about your formative years.

PETERSON: Yes, and then I jumped around. Because when that became a little mundane to listen to myself talk, I stopped to think about different things. As I mentioned different people, that meant I would jump to a different era, a different part of my life. So Richard put that all into the right context.

TP: Have you read other jazz autobiographies and biographies?

PETERSON: Definitely not. One good thing is… I’m glad I didn’t, because they didn’t influence me. Some of the people I admired and loved so much, such as Bill Basie and Duke, I didn’t want to be influenced by. I wanted it to come out pure, the way it should have been.

TP: It’s closer in some ways to Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography.

PETERSON: Yes, I’d like to read it. I’m trying to get hold of it.

TP: So the chronology is: Norman Granz makes the suggestion, you start writing…

PETERSON: Then I tired, and I put it away for a while.

TP: And at that point, you had maybe half of it.

PETERSON: Less than that. I picked it up two or three times, and then finally Richard Palmer entered the picture.

TP: He enters the picture, goes over the material, makes suggestions for directions you might go in, for how to organize things you’ve already done…

PETERSON: And things and people that he thought I perhaps had forgotten to write about or that he thought people might be interested in hearing my views on.

TP: Who were some of those people? What were some of those things?

PETERSON: I can’t remember.

TP: Then you resume writing and put the book together.


TP: I love the poems you wrote. Did you write them in the process of writing the book, or were they things you’d done otherwise?

PETERSON: I did them separately. I had a cottage up in the Halliburton Islands here in Ontario, and I was sitting around with my computer, and I was thinking about people, and for some reason, I said to my wife, Kelly, “I think I should write something about them.” She said, “that’s a good idea.” Then I was kibitzing around, I started thinking about the rhythmic things about these people and the way they thought and played, and I decided that I would take a shot at writing a few verses about these various people. I don’t know how many I wrote…God knows how many I wrote in over a year. But I came back from the cottage, and I showed them to various people, and they were quite enthralled with what I had written. They said, “You should publish those.” The best thing that happened that I remember is a poem I wrote for Ella, which was read at her tribute in New York by Lena Horne — and what a reading she gave it. It was something. And I was really moved by that. But I don’t consider myself a poet by any means. I never pursued that.

TP: Even formally they’re beautiful forms, and they’re quite cogent. It’s not just stylistic; they really say something about their subjects. Have you read the book since publication?

PETERSON: No, I haven’t.

TP: Were you actively involved in proofing the book and in the final galleys and so forth?

PETERSON: No. I left that to Richard.

TP: What I’m leading to is, we’re saying that the notion that the spoken voice of the musician runs in a tone parallel to their instrumental voice. Do you feel that your authorial voice in this book is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?

PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”

TP: How much did you delete from the book?

PETERSON: I don’t think there was a lot deleted. Richard didn’t take that kind of liberty. He would ask me if I thought that I had written enough about someone, or did I clarify the subject well enough. Or did I cover a certain period well enough. That’s the kind of thing he was doing.

TP: So he functioned on several levels. As a fan of your music, obviously. As someone who was more than a fan, but an extremely informed observer and perhaps scholar of your life in music. And as a skilled professional writer and editor who could polish the book into a form that would meet your standards of professionalism.

PETERSON: Well, I trusted Richard, because first of all, I had read various things he had written before — reviews and so forth. And as I said, he wrote a book on me, and I found it to be very direct and honest. So I didn’t hesitate to ask him when Norman suggested him.

TP: Are you as critical of yourself musically as you sometimes portray yourself to be in the book, on various minor points of detail and so on? In the book, your confidence in your ability, and assuredness and acceptance of your ability shines through all the way, and so does your capacity for self-criticism. It’s an interesting dynamic, and honestly reflected in the book.

PETERSON: Well, I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. When you work with people, I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I am doing that’s causing them to do certain things. I think that’s what this arises from.

I hope you enjoyed the book. I’m going to get around to reading it as soon as I get the time!

TP: Do you listen to your own records back?

PETERSON: No, I don’t. I listen to them in the studio, but I don’t sit at home and play my own records. I don’t have that kind of ego. [LAUGHS]

TP: You were there and did it, so there it is.

PETERSON: That’s excuse enough, I guess.

TP: Do you listen back to the sideman things you did?

PETERSON: Oh, I listen to those. Because I listen to the other people, like Dizzy and Ella and Roy Eldridge and Stan Getz and so forth.

TP: You didn’t recount your sessions with Louis Armstrong.

PETERSON: They were wonderful. He was a complete comedian during all those sessions. He kept us in stitches. Including Ella. Sometimes we had to do second and third takes because was doing his comedic act. After they sang, and I had to play something, sometimes he’d yell “Yeah!” or whatever, and it didn’t bother him that they were doing a take. The one thing I tried to do was to follow every nuance that he put into his singing. It wasn’t easy to accompany him because he took all kinds of risks vocally, which other singers would not.

TP: You write humorously and lovingly of Coleman Hawkins, who legendarily stayed au courant with everything that was happening, including Thelonious Monk. You don’t mention Monk in the book. What was your attitude towards his playing?

PETERSON: I didn’t have an attitude towards his playing. I didn’t admire his playing. I admired his compositions. Look at it realistically. If you talk about pianists, and you say Thelonious Monk, would you say Art Tatum in the same voice, or Hank Jones or Teddy Wilson? There’s a certain understanding or rapport that you gain with the piano…I think. This is my own selfish opinion. Horowitz had it, obviously. So did Teddy Wilson. So did Bill Evans and Hank Jones. But I don’t feel pianistically that Thelonious Monk had it. That’s one reason why he’s not in the book. My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!

TP: Are you as self-critical as you portray your character to be?

PETERSON: I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I do that causes them to do certain things.

TP: Do you feel that your authorial voice is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?

PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”

  • * * * *

Oscar Peterson Big 4 (Live In Japan) – Liner Notes:
“A jazz phrase to me can’t be a jazz phrase without a certain type of blues feeling to it. If someone tries to play the blues, that’s the quickest way of knowing where they’re at jazz-wise, in my book. I have seen so-called prolific players humbled by the simplest of players who could play the blues… I’m not ashamed of the blues. The blues is a definitive part of jazz history and of my playing, and I want it to stay that way. I don’t want it to ever change, because if it does, then it throws me in with the classical end, and that’s not what I’m doing.” – Oscar Peterson, “Contemporary Keyboard” (December 1980)

Oscar Peterson offered these thoughts a year before the Tokyo concert that is “The Oscar Peterson Big 4 In Japan,” and the listener would do well to recall them while listening to the deftly paced program documented herein. It’s a particularly welcome addition to the meta-virtuoso’s vast discography; addressing repertoire that represents an aesthetic autobiography on a fine Bosendorfer before a tuned-in audience, Peterson — then 56 — is at the top of his game.

You could say the same for Peterson’s cohorts. Guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, each a world-class poll-winner of long standing in 1982, had worked with Peterson in a variety of contexts since 1973 (see “The Good Life” [OJCCD-627-2 and “The Trio” [OJCCD-992-2], among others). Collective improvisers par excellence, they operate at a stunning level of interaction with the maestro, who faces no barriers to the execution of any idea he thinks of. Pentium-speed thinkers, they match Peterson’s breathtaking velocities, pristine articulation, and intensely swinging beat; they anticipate the long, clear phrases (think Art Tatum’s chops crossed with Charlie Parker’s vocabulary), augment the fat, beautiful voicings, answer the intricate harmonic twists and turns with inventions of their own devising. Drummer Martin Drew — who with Pedersen remains a vital member of Peterson’s current units — keeps immaculate time and remains keenly focused on dynamics.

Peterson, Pass and Pedersen comprise an immensely resilient, fluid equilateral triangle; their interplay reminds us that to whatever degree Peterson’s unlimited technique conjures Tatum, who was his idol in formative years, his overriding imperatives are orchestral, and have been since his years as a teen prodigy in Montreal, when he devoured recordings by Nat Cole’s popular piano-guitar-bass trio. “I was trying to build what I thought was the world’s biggest trio,” he told Contemporary Keyboard. “Within that context I was playing whatever kind of piano I played.”

Peterson recently addressed the Cole effect in a missive on his website about the “The Nat Cole Trio” (Capitol), in the process unveiling the thought process that undergirds his efflorescent locutions.

“I consider this album, by itself, to be a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring jazz pianist,” he wrote. “Consider Nat’s rendition of his ‘Easy Listening Blues.’ The performance is simple and direct, yet in it Nat puts together all of the components that, to my way of thinking, are necessary to be able to play the blues. First and foremost, his distinctive yet soulful delivery of the melodic line sets the tone for the whole performance. His distinctly articulated touch and time, as he sets out and releases his phrases, serves to tell a story that he wants his audience to hear. I think it’s important to take notes of the restraint of the performance. No one instrument intrudes on the other, but rather serves to enhance Nat’s lines. The time quotient throughout is, to my way of thinking, exact, low-key, believable and moving. There is a great lesson to be learned here, and that is that shared effort is the most important component in trio playing.”

That said, he IS Oscar Peterson, and Tatumesque virtuosity is the watchword on the pair of solo turns that begin the proceedings. Peterson states the iconic melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” at a graceful rubato tempo, then embarks on a succession of variations that deploy tension-and-release, building from legato melodies to arpeggiated crescendos in the archetypal Tatum manner. Then he medleys Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” with Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby,” moving in and out of stride, walking the tenths in the graceful manner of Teddy Wilson, articulating the surging phrases with stunning clarity.

The leader steps aside for Joe Pass, “the impresario of the guitar,” for an elegant a cappella turn on “Easy Living.” There follows a ferocious Pass-Pedersen duo on Denzil Best’s “Move”; Pass has the opening salvo over Pedersen’s fleet bass lines, NHOP takes a frighteningly facile solo over Pass comp, and they launch a series of exchanges on which each reads each other’s mind.

Peterson returns, and brings the audience to church with a stately reading of his composition “Hymn To Freedom,” then transitions to his early ’80s opus “The Fallen Warrior,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela, still a prisoner in 1982. The quartet states a slow-medium bounce, stoking smoldering flames. After a guitar solo, Peterson ratchets up the intensity, climaxes, then winds down the sermon.

Peterson constructs an abstract intro to “Sweet Lorraine,” paying homage to Cole and Wilson. Once Pass and Pedersen enter, the dialogue is co-equal, Pass and Peterson switching off interchangeably as the lead voice.

The first set ends with a quartet performance of Walter Donaldson’s “You Look Good To Me,” a Peterson staple. Drew tips on the brushes over an NHOP two-beat, NHOP solos, Pass solos succinctly over NHOP’s brisk walk as Drew switches to sticks, then the pianist builds a characteristic force-of-nature statement, referencing the structure of Coleman Hawkins’ classic solo on “The Man I Love” from 1943.

Peterson opens the second set with a rollicking “Now’s The Time,” the Charlie Parker blues, setting up an irresistible good-time house party feeling. All members say their piece. After a stirring Pedersen solo reading of “Future Child,” the rhythm section states a supersonic tempo on “Mississuga Rattler,” a fire-breathing bop-blues that features an extended Peterson-Pass call and response.

The bassist and Peterson get a kalimba-like feeling on the gentle savannahs-of-Africa vamp that comprises the extended introduction to “Nigerian Marketplace,” an original with a 12/8 Ahmad Jamal feeling that Peterson had recorded seven months previous for Pablo.

The “Emily”-“Tenderly” medley opens with a cappella turns by piano and guitar on the Johnny Mandel ballad staple; Peterson hews gently to the melody, Pass improvises coruscating inventions, then they create melodic variations to match the innocence of the song’s subject, concluding with a seamless segue into “Tenderly,” whose sweet theme the quartet takes out at a medium-slow bounce.

Peterson recorded “Night Child” — an original with a rock-the-cradle gospel feeling — in 1979 on electric piano; Pass postulates delicately parsed high notes to Peterson’s light, lush treble in the Bosendorfer for a more layered, textured iteration of the effect. Then Peterson launches another rolling solo of inexorable momentum, quoting “Moose The Mooche” along the way, before solo turns by Pass, another “how-did-he-do-that?” statement by Pedersen, and a last word from the boss.

The concert ends with Peterson’s “Cakewalk,” whose syncopations catapult the popular turn-of-the-century dance into the bebop era. All have their say, the audience roars, and another of Peterson’s thousands of concerts is history.

Two decades later, we can revel in Peterson at the peak of his powers, as did a talented teenage aspirant from Mississippi named Mulgrew Miller when he heard Peterson perform around 1970 on “The Joey Bishop Show.” “I just flipped,” Miller related in 1994. “Here was Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication. That motivated me. I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never MOTIVATED to do that. But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.”

The Oscar Peterson Big Four in Japan” will stand among the piano titan’s strongest recordings; it contains the kind of playing that inspired Miller and countless other young keyboard talents to devote their energies to jazz.

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For Terri Lyne Carrington’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2011

To acknowledge the birthday of the estimable drummer-producer Teri Lyne Carrington, a force on the scene since her late teens, here’s a feature article that I was given the opportunity to write about her for Jazziz  magazine in 2011. (Her inclusivity and incisive taste come through in this excellent Jazz Times “Before and After” with  Larry Applebaum.)

* * *

When Terri Lyne Carrington was 17, about to matriculate at Berklee School of Music as a full-time student, her fellow Bostonian, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, intoned the now-famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Without implying any direct influence, one might say that Carrington—now a 45-year-old tenured Berklee professor, long-standing master drummer, and respected producer—operates by the imperative that “all music is social.”

That principle applies to Carrington’s new release, The Mosaic Project, her fifth as a leader, and fourth on which she coalesces, as she states on a promotional video on her website, “a lot of different textures and colors and pieces to make a whole picture.” There are 13 genre-spanning selections, including her arrangements of songs by Irving Berlin, Al Green, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nona Hendryx, and the Beatles, and originals that refract the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and M-Base schools of hardcore jazz and fusion. To perform them, Carrington assembled nine singers whom she’s either worked with or produced (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carrington, Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Patricia Romania, Esperanza Spalding, and Cassandra Wilson), and an ace ensemble including, in various configurations, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, and Helen Sung on piano and keyboards, Spalding on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tineke Postma on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen on clarinets, and Sheila E. on percussion. She propels the proceedings with a global array of beats, navigating each flavor with idiomatic authority and a point of view, unfolding an intricate metric web in whatever direction the music suggests.

With so many moving parts in play, the outcome could well have been disjointed, or by-the-numbers stiff. Instead, Carrington creates a cohesive suite—the flow is relaxed and kinetic, the soloing is intense and probing, the ensemble breathes as one. “Terri has a broad, clear voice, and knows how to state her intentions so people understand,” says Reeves, who met Carrington when the drummer was a 10-year-old prodigy. “If she’d painted this picture with somebody else on drums, it would still be uniquely Terri Lyne Carrington’s music.”

“Terri is a connector,” Allen says of the way Carrington’s calm demeanor inspired the tight-yet-loose chemistry. “She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects. This setting felt like home, a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here.”

Notions of family, both biological and musical, deeply inform Mosaic Project and two prior Carrington recordings from the aughts. On 2001’s all-instrumental Jazz is A Spirit [ACT], she convened several first-call peers, as well as Herbie Hancock, her frequent employer, and the voice of drum icon Jo Jones circa 1984, with a year to live, telling Carrington, “As long as I’m here, you run into any problems, call me—because of your grandfather, because of your father, and because of you.” She explicitly acknowledged bloodlines on the 2008 session More To Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen), a creative take on the funky side of smooth jazz (with brief blasts of Afro-Carribean and hip-hop). On that album she plays the contemporary grooves with an attitude that recalls the function that her grandfather, drummer Matt Carrington, fulfilled when jazz was swing, and swing was dance music. He died a few months before her birth, and his drums became her first kit.

On the aforementioned projects, Carrington, like many prominent sister musicians accustomed to being the only woman on the bandstand, recruited almost exclusively male associates to convey her vision. But on Mosaic Project, Carrington makes a firm statement on what it means to be a female jazz musician in the 21st century.

“People always tried to put me in situations with women, but it never felt comfortable or natural,” Carrington said. Influenced by recent engagements with Spalding (she performs on her 2010 release Chamber Music Society), and with Allen (they’ve shared numerous bandstands since the ‘80s, most recently in Postma’s quartet), her feelings shifted. “For me, Esperanza completed a circle,” she continued. “Nothing against other female bass players, but I felt like-minded with her, as I do with Tineke and other female horn players I’ve met recently. I won’t think twice about accepting a gig with them or calling them for a gig, because I like the way they play.”

Carrington provided detailed charts, each catering to the idiosyncracies of the vocal and instrumental soloists. She conveyed the nuances not only through in-studio instructions, but by sending to each participant an MP3 demo containing horn parts, basslines, chord changes, harmonic voicings, even her own interpretation of the lyrics in the style of each singer. “I composed every note you hear, other than the solos,” Carrington says, noting that she wrote nightly last spring after putting her three-year-old son to bed.

Sometimes, Carrington loosened the reins, instructing the players to do “something more personal” by focusing on the chords and not the written voicings. That flexible perspective and attitude of trust was crucial in actualizing her “jazz means no-category” aesthetic. “Terri doesn’t play drums like a groove machine that I need to lock into with a bass part,” Spalding said. “To me, she plays drums sort of like a piano. Each register and drum of the kit is like its own instrument that you could say she’s orchestrating, as though each drum has a voice. Playing bass, I have to be solid keeping the time in a specific place, but stay on my toes and be ready to dance with this orchestrated, multi-faceted momentum she’s creating. She’s so diverse—in her playing, you hear all the styles of music she’s mastered.”

In Allen’s view, Carrington’s encyclopedic knowledge of drum history bedrocks her cool boldness. “Terri has the foundation together, and she’s always felt confident to push ahead and mix, in a seamless way, the root with the future,” she says. “She understands drumming from the perspective of different world musics. She understands technology. She understands the pulse of what’s happening today.”

“I’m a jazz musician who is influenced by many other things,” Carrington said. “I try to mesh them together in my presentation, but jazz is still going to come out.” In this regard, she mentioned her father, Sonny Carrington, a professional saxophonist who went 9-to-5 to raise his family. “When I was doing TV shows in the ‘90s (she was house drummer on the Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe, hosted by Sinbad), I was playing very little jazz jazz, and I told my father I didn’t want to put the word ‘jazz’ in front of my name, like ‘jazz drummer’ or ‘jazz musician.’ He said, ‘You can’t run away from who you are.’ It stuck.

“I grew up listening to his music, jazz-based stuff that felt good—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Hank Crawford. That swing conception is my root. Then I allow all my experiences as a child, teenager, young adult, and now adult, to seep in. Obviously, classic jazz is not of our generation—though I’m not putting down people who live more in the past, because they’re keeping that alive. It goes back to art for art’s sake or art for social consciousness. If you want to be socially aware through your art and tell people how you feel about life in general, what you’re doing has to reflect who you are, and current music is important. With instrumental music, it’s challenging for the listener to really know your intent. That’s why vocal music has always been so important to me—the message gets out to the listener.”


Carrington remarked that she predicates her musical affiliations on “who I can connect with without thinking too hard,” and that playing with women “doesn’t feel particularly different” than with men.” Indeed, as she states in the publicity materials, the whole point of The Mosaic Project is that “you don’t hear gender.”

Reeves concurred, stating that she felt only “the vibration of creativity.” Yet she also states that on her album, That Day, a Carrington-supervised opus from 1997, “it was exciting to have a woman’s voice” in the producer’s chair. “As an artist, you want the producer to respect you for what you do—your ideas, your ability,” Reeves said. “I’ve known Terri so long, I knew I was in capable hands; she allowed me to feel I could be vulnerable—that I could stretch. She hears everything, she has strong opinions, and she came up with specific ideas that she knew would appeal to me. She knows how to do that with other people, too.”

Spalding opined that gender plays a subtle role in musical production, parsing the Mosaic Project experience through a music-mirrors-life approach. “Working with all these women, for the first time I experienced what most men always experience,” she stated. She noted that women are raised by similar codes, encounter similar “social stigmas and social habits,” and that, since music “is an extension of our identities and personalities,” these affinities “can’t help but seep into the way we choose to interact with music as it passes by us in real time—maybe we’re communicating a little closer to the same language. Sometimes I feel it in a subtle, sort of unconscious way, but as soon as I try to identify something, it’s gone.”

For Carrington, that “something” is the female predisposition to be “a little more in tune from a compassionate perspective, a serving perspective, a ‘let me make this bed for you’ perspective, whereas a guy more naturally just steps in. I like both things, and both are happening in most women. The best male players have it, too. But a woman’s nature, I think, is to hold back for a second, assess the situation quickly, and be supportive. That nurturing quality—without trying to—makes the music feel more beautiful. Sometimes I have to work at not doing that too much, so everything doesn’t sound too polite.”

She observes such reticence among the young women who study with her at Berklee. “I think it’s less natural for women to hit things,” she said. “Even though we’re making music, it’s still a somewhat aggressive action that a lot of women—not all—don’t gravitate to. The majority are still a bit apologetic. When kids play catch, say, a girl’s instinct is to throw or pass the ball. A guy’s instinct is to grab the ball and hold onto it.”

It was hard to imagine that this had ever been an issue for a musician who spent consequential time on bandstands with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Perez, following postgraduate New York associations in the ‘80s with such high-pedigree jazzmen as Clark Terry, Frank Foster, James Moody, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, Stan Getz, and Mulgrew Miller, not to mention M-Base innovators like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas.

“No, I think it has been,” Carrington responded, recalling past engagements at the Village Vanguard when she “wanted to put my best foot forward” before her drummer peers in the crowd, “to show off and say, ‘Yeah, I’m bad; I can play.’” Often, she added, “I couldn’t get past a hurdle to do that ownership thing. I wanted to stand out more, but I couldn’t make myself do it if it didn’t come naturally at that moment.”

It seemed that this response might pertain more to the demands of apprenticeship than some inherently female characteristic. “That’s true,” she said. “But I felt a lot of the younger drummers were more willing to step all over the music. To me, that’s a male quality. Some people perceived that as overplaying or being inappropriate, whereas many people felt I was always appropriate, didn’t overplay. As I got older and more seasoned, and played with peers or younger people, I became more confident and comfortable with myself. I know that I’m naturally about serving the music and fitting in, so I don’t mind saying, if necessary, ‘We’re going over here for a minute, and we’re doing this.’ I’m always going to be appropriate. But now I see being appropriate differently.

“My father told me, ‘You never give anybody a show.’ He felt I could. But that’s not what I do. I like playing through everybody’s solos, and bringing something to it. I’ve started realizing that this can be captivating in itself. People tell me they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and I hadn’t taken a drum solo. So I allow myself to be featured without featuring myself. I know that when I get deep inside the music, it can be a force, a magnetism, that draws people in.”

Few drummers could conjure as much contextually appropriate dazzle as did Carrington in November with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci during a Philadelphia concert exploring the repertoire of Perez’ landmark 1996 date, Panamonk, on which she and Jeff Watts split drum duties. Earlier in the month, after several gigs in Spain with Perez and Patitucci in the Wayne Shorter Quartet—she recommended them to Shorter at the end of the ‘90s—as a sub for Brian Blade, Shorter told Carrington it was as though she “had never really left the group—I was like the fifth member all that time.” He backed the words by asking her to join the group in Brazil in June.

Still, Carrington’s 2011 itinerary includes numerous encounters with women, including various Mosaic Project offshoots, tours with Spalding’s trio, a collaborative Carrington-Allen-Spalding trio, and hoped-for follow-ups to a program of young girls’ songs that debuted at the Kennedy Center last October on which Allen and Rushen played Steinway Grands. Over the summer, she’ll play drums and serve as music director for a tour called “Sing the Truth,” on which Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright will interpret songs written by African-American women from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.

“I might want to do a Joni Mitchell song, even though she’s not African-American, because she’s such a strong songwriter,” Carrington says of the latter endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be just writers either—it could be a Mahalia Jackson song.” She expounds on her ecumenical tastes, referencing Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, neo-soul, “organic rock with a blues orientation” a la the Allman Brothers, and drummers “who aren’t mechanical” like Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. “From TV, I developed respect for all the genres, because I had to sound as close as possible to people who specialize without imitating them. You focus, come on strong and make the point, because you have less than a minute. There’s no room for error.

“I’ve always put my heart into whatever I do,” she continues. “One of my favorite gigs ever was with Bill Withers when he came out of retirement to do a party. If I was just about playing the drums, then playing with Wayne or Herbie would be much more satisfying than playing with Bill Withers. For me it’s about making music and being creative.”

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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.


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.


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 Morse 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.


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?


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.


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Filed under Bruce Lundvall, Interview, Jazziz

For Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th Birthday, a Blindfold Test From 2007 and a Jazziz Article

In recognition of Hammond B-3 master Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th birthday today, I’ve posted three separate pieces I’ve done with him over the years — a 2007 Blindfold Test for Downbeat, a 2006 profile for Jazziz, and a publicity bio for his 1999 concept album Goodfellas, on Concord.


Joey DeFrancesco Blindfold Test:

1. Sam Yahel, “Saba” (from TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Origin, 2007) (Yahel, Hammond B3; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s nice. That’s got a Larry Young influence. I’m trying to figure out who the horn player is. This is not typical organ stuff, which is nice. Some guys trying to do something different. Once they get into the thing, I might be able to know who it is. There’s a lot of arranging here. It’s a nice sound on the organ. It’s a nice recording. It’s definitely something more modern. It kind of reminds me of Larry Goldings. But is it Sam Yahel? They’re very similar. I knew it was one of those guys. Sounds great. I don’t know who the horn player is. That’s not Josh Redman. Is it Josh? I kind of thought so. But he can play so many ways. Sounded like his sound, though. I love it, man. Who wrote that? Sam did? I like it. It’s a nice piece. It’s difficult. What are they, in 7? It’s all over the place. Brian Blade is on drums. That’s right, this is a group that was working. I don’t have this record, though. Oh, it’s brand-new? It’s nice to hear people doing some different things with the organ like that. It sounds a little like it’s difficult just for the sake of being difficult. But there’s still a great feeling there. I mean, they can do it, so why not? I like Sam. He’s got a lot of facility and a lot of harmony. He reminds me of Larry, but Sam to me has more fire than Larry does. He gets a little funkier sometimes. But I love Larry, too. Sounds great. I love Brian Blade, of course. We’ve never played together, though; that’s one guy I haven’t played with, but he’s a great drummer. 4 stars.

2. Mike LeDonne, “At Long Last Love” (from LIVE AT SMOKE, NYC, Savant, 2006), (LeDonne, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Cole Porter, composer)

This is the way of recording the organ that… Everybody is really trying to get that old Rudy van Gelder Blue Note sound, because that’s the staple. “At Long Last Love,” that’s the tune. Frank Sinatra, man. “That’s what I’m feelin’, for real…” Yeah! Look out. Is this something new also? Recent? This is traditional here. Good organ music here. Nice guitar. The guitar player sounds NICE. Got a little Grant Green in there. I like when the organ player is playing in that low register. It’s a nice, warm, bell-like sound with the percussion. Ah, Lonnie Smith. No? I’ve got to listen a little more. He’s building it like Lonnie. Tony Monaco? No? Oh. That’s Mike LeDonne. I love Mike, man. See, you’ve got to listen. When somebody’s building, it could sound like a lot of different things, but then there’s signature things, and there it is. He’s got a lot of harmony, and he plays the organ in a swinging tradition. Is that at Smoke? That sounds great. So that’s Pete on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums. I don’t have this record, and I never heard it, but I’ve heard about it. I know about… [BREAK] Whoo! Ha! He’s got a lot like Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith… A lot of similar influences that I have. I guess that we all have. That’s nice. This always feels good. The drummer’s playing what they used to call a conga beat. Hey, man, 4 stars. He’s building and building and building. I’m going to have to get that. Again, really nice recording, and that’s live. That organ isn’t easy to play in there. That B3 organ at Smoke is a tough organ. He plays it all the time, though, so he’s probably really used to it. It’s got a great sound, though, and the way… See, he’s building up to the big full organ… Now, you get the Leslie spinning on tremolo. Everything’s out. All the stops. Smoke was interesting. When I first played there, they took a direct signal out of the organ, straight into the system, as well as miking the Leslie, and that’s how Rudy Van Gelder… That was his big secret, how he recorded, that nobody could figure out all those years—then finally we did. That’s how we play live now, too. Because you get that nice fatness straight out of the organ for the bottom end and all that. That style there comes from Wild Bill Davis—the shout. Because it’s like a big ball when it gets into the shout chorus. This system does sound… Man!

3. Gary Versace, “Gallop’s Gallop”(from Loren Stillman, THE BROTHERS’ BREAKFAST, Steeplechase, 2006) (Versace, Hammond B-3; Stillman, alto saxophone; John Abercrombie, guitar; Jeff Hirschfield, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This has got some nice humor in it. Everybody you’ve played so far uses the Jimmy Smith setting. That’s just a staple. I mean, you’ve got to play with your own style, but as far as how you set the organ, he really set the ground rule. Whoever it is has got some imagination. Yeah! Is this somebody new? [It depends on what you mean…] I don’t know who that is. I liked it, though. The approach is similar to where I’m at, what I’m doing right now, but I’m always thinking different. But I like that. When you say the name, I’ll probably know who it is. I’m not sure, though. I like the saxophone player, but I don’t know. [How do you mean similar to what you’re doing.] Harmonically, going outside the vocabulary with a different language a little bit. He’s got nice technique, too. Who wrote the tune? Monk? I figured it was someone like that. “Gallop’s Gallop” is a rare tune. I’m going to learn this. Well, the bass line isn’t swinging as hard as I would like. But I don’t know if he wants to do that. It might be a kind of implied thing. [polyphonic section] Wow. Definitely a piano player first, whoever it is playing. I can’t recognize anybody. You got me! 4 stars. This tune is a bitch.

4. Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Note Bleu” (from THE DROPPER, Blue Note, 1999 (John Medeski, Hammond B3; Marc Ribot, guitar; Chris Wood, electric bass; Billy Martin, drums)

This sound is a very over-driven sound. That’s what we call that, when you push the Leslie and get that little crunch in the sound. Which is sometimes a cool little effect. There’s a bass player on this one. A minor blues. This guy really likes a dirty sound on the organ. It’s a little too much for me. Too much overdrive—distortion. It’s a little jerky style for me. It’s okay, though. It’s still good. I don’t like all that overdrive, though; it’s just too much. Especially for something like… I mean, if you want to play some high energy rock or something, that’s the sound for that. 3 stars. I don’t know who that is. Medeski, Martin & Wood? That makes sense. Too much distortion, John. That’s his sound, though. But for something a little mellower like that… But he still has the organ set the same way we all do, except he uses a little bit…on the vibrato part, the chorus, he’s got a little bit less depth on it. That’s for the organ geeks out there.

5. Count Basie-Oscar Peterson, “Memories of You” (from NIGHT RIDER, Pablo, 1978) (Basie, organ; Peterson, piano; John Heard, bass; Louis Bellson, drums)

Now, I like this. This is happening. This is old…I think. Is this from the ‘80s? Earlier? I can tell just by the sound. With the piano in there… This is a very old-school style. He’s got the Leslie on tremolo, fast speed. Not as percussive a sound. It’s very pretty. “Memories of You.” Is that Milt Buckner? It’s the older style like that. Is that Ron Carter on bass? Somebody influenced by him, though. That style. It’s definitely an older player. Is the pianist Oscar Peterson? You can tell that. Is it the Count on the organ. Man, I’ve got to get this. I’ve heard about it. That’s Oscar and Count. Is it Bobby Durham on drums. [No, Louis Bellson] And Ray Brown. [John Heard] I have the two-piano things they did, but Count’s playing organ here. I knew it was Oscar, and I knew the organ player was somebody from back in the day. Milt Buckner played with Lionel Hampton, and he kind of played like Count. 5 stars, man. That’s easy. The way he sets the Leslie is very old-school. See, when the Leslie speakers first came out, they weren’t supposed to be turned on and off. They just were on to add tremolo to the organ, to add vibrato to the organ. Then really, the jazz people and the pop people started to think, ‘If we could turn this in and out, it would be very dramatic.” That’s how that started.

6. Larry Goldings, “Sound Off” (from Michael Brecker, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, Impulse, 1999) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Goldings, Hammond B3; Pat Metheny, guitar; Jeff Watts, drums)

Pat Metheny on guitar. That sound is unmistakable. Michael Brecker. Great. Whoo! On the drums, is that Jeff Watts? Oh, and Larry Goldings. I don’t have this record. But everybody on there is so unmistakable, such a strong style. Pat Metheny, Michael, Tain… Tain is killin’, man! The tune has a lot of rhythm in it, there’s a lot of hits, and it’s a little brisk, too. It’s also modal; not a lot of changes in it. A minor kind of thing. Who wrote this? I thought it was Larry. I could tell. It’s his harmonic approach to stuff. Larry’s got a nice bassline. He doesn’t play much foot, though. But he doesn’t like to play it. He don’t want to play it. Now, he can play. I love Larry. He swings. 5 stars. He hasn’t soloed yet, but it’s gonna be good. I want to hear it. I love Jeff Watts. A lot of fire. I’ve played with him quite a bit. I regret that I never played with Michael. We talked about it. We were going to record a record at one time. I often thought about recording two organs with Larry. We’re so different. But same, too, in a lot of ways. He plays perfect, man. Every note is the right note. He’s got wonderful feeling. He’s influenced a lot by Larry Young. Fantastic player. Smooth. Pat’s compin’ nice behind him. I’d like to play with Pat. I’ve never played with Pat either. I’d like to just get in there and play with that whole band. Isn’t Elvin on this record, too. I’m going to have to go out and get this. It’s interesting for Pat Metheny, too, because he doesn’t have his delay and all that shit out. It’s just guitar. And Pat can play his ass off. 5 stars there, man, for sure. A bunch of bad motherfuckers.

7. Melvin Rhyne, “Light Life Love” (from TO CANNONBALL WITH LOVE, King, 1992) (Rhyne, Hammond B3; Carl Allen, drums)

I don’t recognize the tune. I think I might know who the organ player is, but I’m going to listen a little more. It’s a very organic sounding recording. See, there’s a touch of the overdrive I was talking about before, but it’s nice. [That little burry thing?] Yeah. It’s a growl, kind of. It’s an older player, I think. Is this just a duet thing? I don’t hear a guitar comping, but he could be laying out for now. Is it Mel Rhyne? I know his style. When he played with Wes, he had a different sound, and later on, he used different settings. I like it better. But I know his style. Very melodic. Played around the changes. Very bebop, old-school—wonderful style of playing. Who’s on drums? Carl Allen? Ah, now he’s playing the foot with the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right, which is really the legitimate style of organ playing. That’s great. Mel Rhyne, man. 5 stars. Is this a ballad he wrote? Very nice. Wow, I don’t know this record. I don’t know any of these! I mean, I heard of some of the ones you played, but I definitely don’t know this one. It’s happening.

8. Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense” (from David Murray, SHAKILL’S II, DIW, 1991) (Pullen, organ, composer; Murray, tenor saxophone; Bill White, guitar; J.T. Lewis, drums)

Nice. They’re playing something in 5 here. He got a different kind of sound on the organ there! These guys sound a little uptight. They don’t sound relaxed. It’s not swinging. It’s not 4/4, it’s 5/4, but you’ve still got to groove. They’re rushing a little bit. You gotta relax! It’s obvious they know what they’re doing. Who’s the tenor player? David Murray. He knows what he’s doing. But now that I know who he is, he’s going for a more edgy thing. He can play in, but he played more out. He had like a nice combination. He’s playing an organ setting, man. That’s pretty cool. This must be from a while ago. I have a pretty good idea who the organ player is. It sounds like Don Pullen. I have a video of him playing with John Scofield, so that’s how I know. Don was an organ player, man. A piano player, but he knew what he was doing with that organ, too. These are the Out guys playing In. But it’s edgy, man. It’s rushing. It’s not real relaxed. But they didn’t play that way that often. But they knew how to play inside. At one time, probably that’s what they did. For many years, most of David Murray’s stuff was way out. So this is cool. But that’s why I’m hearing that little edgy thing. I’ve still gotta give it 4 stars. I have a lot of respect for these guys, the tremendous body of work and things they’ve done. But I stand by it’s not relaxed-sounding. He’s got some weird sounds on the organ, too. He’s got a weird vibrato, like UHHUUHHHUUHHH… I use that sometimes for an effect. But he’s playing the organ the way you play it, got the left-hand bass going and… There are his Pullenisms. There’s still Jimmy Smith in that. There’s still a Jimmy Smith influence in the style. A lot of people don’t know that Jimmy could be out as could be! He had a very avant-garde approach. If you knew him and heard him play on his own… But a lot of the things Pullen is playing here, you know he definitely dug Jimmy Smith. I mean, I don’t think he could play the organ without… Anybody who says anything different than that, they’re lying.

9. Pete Levin, “Uptown” (from DEACON BLUES, Motema, 2007) (Levin, Hammond B3, composer; Joe Beck, elec. guitar; Danny Gottlieb, drums)

It’s amazing. There really are a lot of organ players. You think there’s not that many, but… I’ve got to figure out who this is. Too much melody, man, for too long! It’s not interesting enough to be that long. I mean, you get into the soloing… All right, here we go. The guitar player went into Wes Montgomery right away—the octaves. A lot of Wes Montgomery influence here, which is great. The organ player is playing too much behind the guitar player. The guitar player is playing block chords. You’ve really got to play minimal, almost no chords, just bassline, and leave it open for the guitar when he’s playing that fat. Otherwise, it gets too busy-sounding. He shouldn’t be playing any chords there—in my opinion. It’s a little corny-sounding. It’s not real greasy. Even if you play out or avant-garde or harmonic, there’s got to be a certain amount of grease in there, funkiness and… This is very choppy. I don’t know who it is. Now, the guitar player was really into Wes. But the organ is real stiff-sounding. It’s not necessarily wrong. But it doesn’t move me. 2 stars. [AFTER] He’s probably not an organ player. Right? I like Joe Beck. Joe sounded like Wes there, man. I did a record with Joe, one of those Japanese releases. It was all songs named after ladies.

10. Trudy Pitts, “Just Friends” (from Pat Martino, EL HOMBRE, Prestige, 1967) (Pitts, organ, Martino, electric guitar; Mitch Fine, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Trudy Pitts, Pat Martino, “Just Friends.” I love Trudy. I grew up… Trudy was like a musical mother, man. I know Trudy and Bill Carney, her husband, Mister C, since I was 8 years old. In fact, we just did a concert together… I didn’t have to hear too much of the playing. I just knew what it was right away. [You probably know every note on the solo.] Oh, yeah. Pat plays his ass off on here. His choice of drummer on here… I asked him years later. I said, “That drummer on there wasn’t really up to par, Pat.” He said, “Yeah, but the guy was a sweetheart, and I really liked him, and he was my friend, and he was excited to do the date.” But Trudy sounds great on here, so does Pat. I could do without the bongos. But this is 5 stars easy. I haven’t heard it in years, but this is one of those things you just know. This solo Pat takes here influenced generations of guitar players. For me, this is Pat’s best playing. The feeling he played with, and he was bluesy, and he swung hard, and he listened more. I love this period of Pat. And Trudy is playing so great here. Trudy is underrated. She never got the due she should have. That’s Orrin Evans’ godmother. I’d love to have heard this with a great drummer, though. Pat basically played like Wes Montgomery, but with a pick, and a little more percussive and aggressive attack. But this is definitely out of Wes—totally. Grant Green. He’s probably 19 or 20 there. Swinging like crazy. They did a record, Bar Wars, a Willis Jackson record. That’s some shit there. That’s Charlie Earland and Idris. Charlie Earland was very limited, man, but he could swing like crazy. And you know what? Sometimes that’s what you’d rather hear.

11. Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Invitation” (from Ximo Tebar, GOES BLUE, Omix/Sunnyside, 1998/2005) (Smith, Hammond B3 organ; Tebar, elec. guitar; Idris Muhammad, drums)

Well, there’s no question of the drummer. That’s Idris. I’ve played with him a lot. He just swings his ass off. That’s Ximo Tibar and that’s Lonnie Smith. I’ve played with Ximo and Idris. Boy, listen to Idris. Ximo is directly out of George Benson, Pat Martino…and that’s the Doc. Let it play, though. Ximo’s my man. I love Ximo. Now he lives here. But being Spanish, at this time… I think they made this record before the record we made. He did a lot of funny things sometimes, quotes that… We used to tell him, Idris and I, “Don’t play that, man. That’s corny.” Or “If you go to New York and you play that, they’re going to laugh at you.” He wasn’t aware of certain things. We used to have a lot of fun. One night he said, “I can’t play this. I can’t play that. I can’t play… What am I going to play?” We said, “We’re helping you, man, filter all this shit out so people don’t laugh at you.” He’s such a great player, but he would put little corny things in there. Now he’s even better. Is Lou Donaldson on this record, too? [3 tracks] Of course, this is “Invitation,” a standard. Now, there’s the Doc. I love Doc. Lonnie Smith plays better now than he ever did. In the ‘60s, when he was with George Benson and Lou Donaldson, he was just learning how to play the organ. But he had such a great FEELING that he could pull off… But now…oh yeah, he plays his ass off. 5 stars. Idris and Lonnie, man! Plus Ximo. Lonnie’s got some showbiz in him, too. A lot of showbiz. Lonnie’s from Buffalo, N.Y., and there was a guy in Buffalo named Joe Madison that he learned pretty much everything from, and he does sound a lot like him. My family, except for me, is from Niagara Falls. My Dad kind of learned from the same cat. So Lonnie’s and my father’s groove always reminded me of each other, and then I figured out why. Idris is so lyrical, man. He plays that Second Line and funky stuff just unbelievable. Killing, man. I love that. Lonnie’s playing that full organ sound.

12. Jeff Palmer, “A Happy Trail” (from SHADES OF THE PINE, Reservoir, 1994) (Palmer, Hammond B3; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, elec. guitar; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums)

One thing I know right away, it was recorded at Rudy van Gelder’s. I know that sound. That’s fast, man! Blues in B-flat. Is that Marvin Smitty Smith on drums? Who the heck is this, man? Whoa! John Abercrombie? That’s Jeff Palmer. I’m not aware of anything he’s really recorded. [He hasn’t recorded much since this record.] I have a record he did years ago by himself. It was a solo organ record. I think Marvin Smitty Smith and John Abercrombie played together some. And John did another record with Jeff, and maybe Adam Nussbaum. [He did a few records with Jeff. One with Rashied Ali, one with Victor Lewis.] I want to play with Rashied Ali. Let’s see if I know who the horn player is. Is that Bob Berg? No. Who is it? Oh, is that Bill Pierce? Jeff is a nice player, man. I think underrated. It’s a shame more people didn’t talk about him and he didn’t have more recordings. I like Jeff. 4 stars. He likes to play tempos, man. A man after my own heart. Great, swinging player. He’s got a nice imagination. Doesn’t play the norm. He’s stretching it out nice. He’s got a lot of chops, man. He can play. He isn’t swinging real, real hard, but it’s still happening. I played with John Abercrombie once, and I liked the way he accompanied. He comped real nice.

13. Larry Young, “Luny Tune” (from Grant Green, TALKIN’ ABOUT, Blue Note, 1965/1999) (Young, organ; Green, guitar; Elvin Jones, drums)

This is the shit, man. “Luny Tune.” Larry Young, Elvin Jones and Grant Green. What can I say, man. Larry was influenced by Jimmy Smith, but he took it into a little different vibe, with the influence… When McCoy started playing with Trane, and playing fourths and things like that, that influenced Larry. Grant Green just swings so damn hard. And Elvin… How can you go wrong here? This we’re going to have to give 10,000 stars. This is some of Larry’s best playing on record. Is this Talkin’ About J.C.? I covered this tune on a date for the producer Milan Simich, with Lenny White, Kenny Garrett, and a guitar player, Tony…an Italian name. We did it. It was cool, but nothing’s going to be like this. There’s a warmth and feeling to this. Elvin played so great on here. Just a big huge, rolling sound. That’s such a big pad to play over. You never heard a Rhythm change swing so hard, man. That is really, really swinging! And Elvin’s just stomping that sock cymbal, man—hi-hat as they call it now.


* * * *

Profile for Jazziz in 2006:

It’s noon on the last Saturday of June. Joey Francesco is sitting on a couch in the front section of his bus—a fully outfitted unit in which he sleeps, cooks, showers, and hauls his Hammond B-3—as it ambles along the Delaware River into South Philadelphia.

“I love the B-3,” muses DeFrancesco, who, above his bare feet, is dressed comfortably in a T-shirt and pajama trousers. “They have a certain smell with the motors and the oils and the wood—especially if it was in a smoky club for years. It’s organic, like having an orchestra right at your fingertips. All the sounds and power you can get—very brash or obtrusive, and at the same time mellow and warm, just like a person. It’s a moving, human sound if it’s played right. And it’s the most spiritual of instruments, which is why it’s used in church. I was born to play it. There’s nothing on organ that I can’t do, and a lot of stuff that most guys that play it can’t do.”

Asked precisely what that “stuff” is, DeFrancesco elaborates. “Maybe the way I can play a tempo and the bass line never moves. Then my energy level and the way I never play anything that’s not swinging. I feel so at home behind that instrument. It’s an extension of me. I own it. It doesn’t own me.”

DeFrancesco, who titles himself “The World’s Greatest Jazz Organist,” now owns a dozen or so Hammonds, including a portable 1958 B-3 that Jimmy Smith used on the road for most of his life. Smith gave it to him, along with a baby grand and Yamaha upright piano, not long before he died in 2005, symbolically transferring to his protégé the keys to the organ kingdom.

Originally a pianist out of Norristown, a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, Smith singlehandedly turned the organ trio into a jazz genre with several dozen LPs for Blue Note and Verve between 1956 and 1966. Onto the aggressive, extroverted sound of the popular Wild Bill Davis, who played big, stomping block chords and percussive left hand bass figures, Smith extrapolated the virtuosic single-note approach of Bud Powell, with whom he played when Powell lived in Philadelphia in 1954. That year Smith formed a trio with John Coltrane, and became the first organist to separate the bass and horn functions, conjuring modern basslines to support harmonically sophisticated solos that he executed with impeccable technique and unending groove.

Smith was the right voice for the time. “In the ’50s and ’60s,” DeFrancesco says, “people who owned lounges and beer gardens realized it was cheaper to have someone carry in their own organ than to own a piano. Organ and drums, you have a gig. Add a guitar or saxophone, you have a bigger gig. So every club around Philly had an organ. It was big in the blue-collar world, because they played this very soulful, bluesy, spiritual stuff that moved people when they needed it. It was the same thing they heard in church—that rocking, grooving sound.”

That sound was out of fashion in 1989, when DeFrancesco, 18 and fresh from a year playing keyboards with Miles Davis’ “Amandla” band, signed with Columbia and released the first of five organcentric sessions with the label. Wynton Marsalis, along with various editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, had brought hardcore ’60s jazz back into the consciousness of the post-Baby Boom generation, but as in the years before 1956, the organ was perceived as a poor relation. In the wake of DeFrancesco’s success, such ’60s soul-jazz icons as Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, John Patton, and Shirley Scott—all of whom were recording for small labels and gigging in various hotels and inner-city lounges—found new audiences.

“I was kind of the savior for the instrument,” DeFrancesco says without affectation. “I say that humbly and with no ego—it just happened. I might have played terrible, but it made everybody interested again. My first record sparked an interest. I’d worked with Miles, and things were rollin’ nice. People who’d forgotten about organ said, ‘Wow, that’s a great thing.’ People who still loved it were happy it was happening again, and people who’d never paid attention or younger ones who thought it was brand new wanted to check it out. There was a demand for that sound again. It needed a new face, and I was young and white. As Jack McDuff said, white people never had a white organ player to cheer for.”

DeFrancesco was always much more than a Great White Hope. He started playing at 4, inspired by his father, a gigging Philadelphia B-3 organist known as “Papa John,” who in 1978 took the prodigy to hear—and sit in with—Smith at New York’s Sheraton Hotel. At 10, DeFrancesco bought his first B-3, a used model, for $900. Before puberty, he had played weekend jobs around Philly with the likes of Hank Mobley, Bootsie Barnes, and Philly Joe Jones. How deeply he assimilated their work is apparent on his latest release, [i]Organic Vibes[i] [Concord], titled for the presence of Bobby Hutcherson and also notable for two guest shots by veteran tenor sax virtuoso George Coleman. Playing with authoritative, old master relaxation, eschewing tricks, licks, and long-held notes, DeFrancesco guides the icons through a broad range of genres—Coltranecentric postbop, on-the-one bebop, testifying ballads, travel-the-spaceways funk, pork-chops-and-pasta soul.

The rhetoric of organ marketing rankles DeFrancesco. “Jimmy [Smith] was as sophisticated harmonically as he was soulful,” he says, “but everybody latched onto [i]Back at the Chicken Shack[i]. Of course, Jimmy had a lot to do with that, because he latched onto those hits and had the same set for almost 40 years. I get that, too. Every ad, every marquee, every poster says, ‘greasy, soulful, gutbucket.’ Now, I love the blues. But I’ve played with John McLaughlin, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles. What about when I play Coltrane tunes? His influence is one reason why I play a lot of notes sometimes. My guitar player’s role is the piano in a quartet. Trane would play a tune’s head, then McCoy built for a while, and Trane entered when the fire was stoked and took off from there. The organ is nice for that.”

But DeFrancesco has few other complaints. “I’ve always pretty much stuck to my guns and done what I wanted to do,” he says. “For some reason, people like it. I played recently in Dayton, Ohio. There was a nice middle-aged to older black crowd who wanted the hits and some white college kids who were calling out all the Wayne Shorter stuff. I catered to them both. As long as everything comes from your heart, you’re going to be okay.”

Sidebar for Jazziz Article

In production from 1955 to 1975, the tone wheel-based, analog Hammond B-3 organ weighed 425 pounds and was a sonic universe unto itself. It had two 61-note keyboards (manuals), and players could incorporate various effects—percussion, chorus and vibrato, adjustable attack and decay. Each keyboard had 9 preset keys and two sets of stops (drawbars), representing the harmonic wave patterns of an orchestral array of instruments. Add to that a two-octave set of foot pedals with two pedal drawbars built into the console, an expression pedal built into the base, and massive Leslie speakers with a pair of rotating treble horns at the top of the cabinet, a pair of rotating horns at the bottom, and a bass woofer that enhance the organ’s vibrato.

“The very early ones sounded good, but the sound we love so much, the way Jimmy Smith sounded when he started recording for Verve, is from the models after 1958,” says Joey DeFrancesco. “They made little refinements to the technology that no one really knew about. But it became too expensive to make them—all handmade, a lot of parts, a lot of screws.”

In 1977, Hammond launched a transistor-based model called the B-3000. “It wasn’t too successful,” DeFrancesco says. “Then they attempted one called the Super-B, which was a nightmare, with all kinds of problems—people still weren’t happy.” In 1988, Suzuki Instrument Corporation bought the name and, as DeFrancesco puts it, “got serious about rejuvenating the legend.” In 1993 they introduced a line of digital, MIDI-adaptable organs, and as the decade progressed, with help from DeFrancesco, continued to work on sampling techniques to tweak the nuances, an effort that culminated in 2002 with the “New B3,” which uses a digital tone generator.

“They’ve come a long way,” DeFrancesco says, of Suzuki’s exertions to replicate the B3’s nuances digitally. “ Now you’d be hard-pressed to tell the old and the new apart.”

While every electromechanical B3 was idiosyncratic, like a piano, the digital iterations are consistent. “That’s good, because I know what each one will sound like,” says DeFrancesco. “On the old model, everybody had their own sound. But these new ones represent the ideal sound that we all love.

“To bend a note before, you’d shut the motor on and off, like Groove Holmes used to do, but now you can actually hold a note—there are pitch bend wheels which weren’t on the original. With MIDI, I can put strings on my lower manual, play the organ on the top, and put an upright bass on the foot. I can switch from organ to piano trio with my own upright bass. Another band.”

Bio for Goodfellas, 1999
“The whole concept of Goodfellas,” organist Joey DeFrancesco comments, “was three Italian guys playing music that we grew up listening to. We all in common love Mafia movies and Italian-oriented films. All the tunes are hand-picked to associate being young as an Italian, growing up with all Italians around, the music that we listened to and played — living the Italian life. The whole thing — the food, the music, and a lotta love.”

Joined by guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola and crisp swing-to-bop drummer Joe Ascione, the 28-year-old South Philadelphia native puts forth a varied paean to the Italian-American experience with musicality and brio, displaying his characteristic blend of jawdropping chops, attention to nuance, and high comfort zone for playing many styles and colors of music with a singular idiomatic voice. “I’ve always been a chameleon with everything I do,” he remarks. “If I’m talking to somebody with an accent, I start talking with that accent. I don’t even do it consciously. And it rubs off in my music. I can get pretty much into any bag with anybody.”

It’s as though DeFrancesco was born to play the organ. His father, “Papa John” DeFrancesco has gigged steadily on the Hammond B-3 around Philadelphia and its immediate environs since the ’60s. “I started playing when I was 4,” he recalls. “I could just play. I was already hearing Jimmy Smith and stuff like that around the house, then one time my Dad brought the organ home from the gig, and when I heard that sound I really got into it. He guided me in the right direction, the dos and the donts, but he was never very forceful about it.” His father began taking the prodigy to clubs at 7 or 8, and he began playing for money on weekend gigs at 10 years old. By high school DeFrancesco was working steadily around Philadelphia, receiving first-hand instruction from the top-shelf organists who populate and come through the City of Brotherly Love, such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and numerous others. During those years his trio was named “Best High School Combo” at MusicFest USA, a student competition; he was also the first winner of the Jazz Society of Philadelphia’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship.

“I went five years to music school,” he recalls. “I didn’t pay attention, never learned how to read a note. I love to play and I love to listen, and pretty much whatever I hear I can play pretty quick. I’ve been influenced by everything — Miles, Coltrane, piano players like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal. Whatever music is prevalent in my life at the time comes out in my approach. If I’m listening to a lot of horn, I’ll play horn-like, single-note lines; if I’m listening to a lot of piano, I’ll play pianistically. Ray Brown and Ron Carter influenced my bass lines, but I don’t even have to think about them. They’re like another brain that’s just there. I can totally concentrate on my right hand; the coordination has always been easy.

“I love Jimmy Smith; to this day he’s the king. The Blue Note records he did in the late ’50s are very innovative; he was doing things that Coltrane did five-six years later. He’s a great hardbop single-note player with impeccable technique, but blues-drenched with an amazing groove. He’s all-around great! Larry Young’s the one who put the John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner approach to the organ. He didn’t swing as hard as Jimmy Smith, but his touch was so nice.”

You could appropriate DeFrancesco’s description of Jimmy Smith to describe his style. He swings ferociously, executes spot-on single-note lines and imaginative bass lines underneath them, can dig deep into the pocket or float over the time. He’s told his story with equal comfort in a panoramic range of idioms — power postbop, on-the-one bebop, abstract reharmonizations, funk that travels the spaceways and soul jazz of the pork chops-and-pasta variety. His high-visibility career kicked off when Miles Davis asked the 17-year-old organ wunderkind to join his late ’80s band (he appears on Amandla and Live Round The World). Then he signed a contract with Columbia that resulted in five varied records from 1989 to 1994. He’s worked extensively during the ’90s with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin (see After The Rain and The Free Spirits [Verve]), and been a sideman in bands led by guitarists Dave Stryker, Randy Johnston, Jimmy Bruno, Danny Gatton and Paul Bollenbeck, his band guitarist for many years. He’s been in the studio with saxophonists like Houston Person, Ron Holloway, Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Eric Alexander.

Though assembled specifically for the date, the “Goodfellas” trio plays with the synchronous intuition that long-standing interaction imparts to a unit, finding fresh approaches to the classic material. “If something swings, I like it,” DeFrancesco enthuses. “It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s grooving. I’m more of a Miles Davis-John Coltrane approach kind of player, but the stuff on Goodfellas is more Louis Prima oriented! It’s grooving. It’s swinging. It’s supposed to be fun, but on the other hand the musicianship is impeccable. We weren’t goofing off and making fun of it.

“Frank Vignola’s sound goes way back into the Swing Era — Freddie Greene, Django Reinhardt. “He’s got a lot of soul and a very clean way of playing that makes me play more in the mode of traditional, older school jazz, like before Bebop, more like Count Basie big band style. I accompany him like I’m the whole horn section, little stabs here and there, comping. Frank brought Joe Ascione on the date; this is the first time we’ve played together. He played great, and he knows this bag very well.

“If you’re going to do an album about Italians and having influence from Mob movies, you’ve got to have the theme song from ‘The Godfather,'” DeFrancesco continues. “Am I right?” Yes, Joey. The trio addresses “Speak Softly Love” with “Jimmy Smith’s version of the Erroll Garner approach; the tune’s probably never been played like that — Frank’s got Freddie Greene happening on it.”

“Volare” evokes images of Italian crooners like Vic Damone and…Jerry Vale. “My favorite!” DeFrancesco laughs. “Those tunes are great. See, I heard jazz all my life, mostly. But when we went over to our family’s houses on Sunday for pasta, sausage or meatballs, this was the stuff that your aunt or uncle or grandmother was playing in the background. That’s part of the tradition.” The band gooses up the tune with a heartbeat-steady up-tempo groove treatment directly out of the Louis Prima textbook.

“Fly Me To The Moon,” “All The Way,” and “Young At Heart” are direct tributes to Frank Sinatra, a huge presence in the aural soundtrack of DeFrancesco’s life. “Sinatra is like a God for Italians, especially from South Philly, where I grew up,” DeFrancesco states. “Now, they liked him more because he was Italian and had a good voice. But when you’re a musician, especially a jazz musician, and you listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane and guys like that, you start to realize how great he was. His phrasing was perfect! He sounded like an instrument. Many of the ballads Miles would play were Sinatra tunes, and Miles played them like Sinatra phrased them. He always credited Sinatra for his phrasing. I really got hip to it when I started playing with Miles. He told me, ‘You’ve got to listen to more Frank Sinatra.’ I said, ‘Well, I do listen to him.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to listen to the way he’s singing those notes.’ He was truly a jazz singer, particularly in the early days, the ’50s and the ’60s. He took a lot from Billie Holiday, too, the way he slides, and from Dorsey with those long notes. He had that sound, and he swung like crazy. That’s why guys like Miles and Trane loved it.

“‘Fly Me To The Moon’ is the Frank Sinatra-Count Basie arrangement in trio form. It’s a great tune. We played ‘All The Way’ very sweet; I like the way it came out. We played the melody of ‘Young At Heart’ straight. It’s one of my Dad’s favorite tunes; he always used to sing it when I was a kid, and the song became one of my favorites.”

The trio swings the “O Solo Mio” aria; opera influences DeFrancesco’s shaping of melody and phrasing. “Opera is very powerful, with a lot of dynamics and emotion. It comes out in my playing. That’s why I play so wild, like such a maniac sometimes, and then I can come down and play something real sweet.”

There’s Italian vernacular (“Mala Femina”, taken as a boogaloo, and an album-closing “Tarantella”), and three originals that take titles from Mafia argot. Ascione’s “Whack ’em,” a blues based on Jimmy Smith’s arrangement of “Organ Grinder Swing,” takes inspiration from hit-man dialogue in the Martin Scorsese film that gives the album its title. “You See What I’m Sayin'” references a trademark declamation by Robert DeNiro, a DeFrancesco hero; “it’s an Uptown ‘Rhythm’ changes with a ‘Jumpin’ At The Woodside’ vibe on it.” The title track is a slow blues in the organ tradition, collectively developed by the trio. The trio is jazz all the way on Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” also known as “Justice,” where DeFrancesco floats with fire over the angular harmonies.

Goodfellas is DeFrancesco’s debut as a leader for Concord, after a sideman appearance with guitarist (and fellow South Phillyite) Jimmy Bruno [Like That, C-4698] and a co-led two-organ date with mentor organist Brother Jack McDuff [It’s About Time, C-4705]. It’s the latest chapter for the protean young veteran with a firm grip of the jazz lingua franca; like all his records, it celebrates the music’s eternal values of communication, intelligence and swing.


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For Steve Gadd’s 70th Birthday, a Jazziz Profile From 2013

A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.

* * * *

The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.

“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”

It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.

“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”

Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.

During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.

“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.

“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”

Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.

“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”


The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.

“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”

In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”

Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.

“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”

This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.

“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”

A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”

Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”

“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”

“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”

Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”

For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.

Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”


James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”

Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”

“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”

When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”

If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”

Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.

Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.


In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.

“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”

Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”

Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.

“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”

At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”

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Filed under Article, Bob James, David Sanborn, Eric Harland, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Larry Goldings, Paul Simon, Steve Gadd