To honor the 69th birthday anniversary of pianist-composer James Williams (March 8, 1951-July 20, 2004), I’ve posted my liner notes for a magnificent 4-CD set of duos that he self-produced in 2003, titled Jazz Dialogues, as well as the interview that I conducted with him for the project. I’ve also posted a comprehensive 17,000-word interview that we did in 1993, when James asked me to write the liner notes for a pair of albums (DIW) devoted to Memphis, Tennessee, his hometown — Memphis Piano Convention featured solo performances by “Memphis school” pianists Donald Brown, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, Charles Thomas, Russell Wilson, and James himself; while on Memphis Convention James convened those pianists as well as saxophonists George Coleman and Bill Easley, trumpeter Bill Mobley, and guitarist Calvin Newborn with the stellar bass-drum pairing of Jamil Nasser and Tony Reedus.
James was a very important person to me. He was frequently my guest on WKCR (someday I have to transcribe the interviews we did on several Musician Shows and a Sunday profile), but also brought musicians who were important to him (Charles Thomas, as an example) to the station for interviews and profiles, particularly when he was booking his favorite pianists into Bradley’s, where he was an essential member of the rotation. The Memphis Convention dates were my second-ever liner notes, coming 12 years after I was given the opportunity to write the notes for Art Blakey’s Album of the Year. James was extremely giving, kind, gracious person, and a magnificent talent. He is missed.
One of my favorite tunes by James is “Alter Ego,” which Roy Hargrove recorded early in his career. I’ve linked to a youtube clip of a performance of “Alter Ego” performed live at Bradley’s by a trio in which James and Robert Hurst sidemanned for guitarist Kevin Eubanks. If you look very closely at the cover photograph, by Jimmy Katz, you may be able to discern the shadowy profiles of two women — one is my late wife, Donna Sturm, the other is her best friend, Lezlie Harrison.
I don’t have time to do full fact-checking or spell-checking on these texts, but will certainly respond to remarks from those who read this.
Liner Notes for Jazz Dialogues:
In January 2001, his fiftieth birthday fast approaching, James Williams decided to give himself, in his words, “an early birthday gift.” The result is “Jazz Dialogues,” a summational program of 43 musical conversations on a capacious repertoire spanning Williams’ own originals, jazz and songbook standards, even a composition by 17th century Middle Baroque composer Henry Purcell. “Jazz Dialogues” takes place between Williams and 24 top-shelf improvisers, almost all of them friends from his three decades as a professional jazz musician.
“It was a labor of love, something I’ve long wanted to do,” Williams says. “I didn’t think I could put together a big band, and I couldn’t do a concert with all of them, so I decided to make something a little different. I wanted to express myself in a wide range of approaches. Media seem to put me into one or two categories — ‘James Williams, oh, he was a Jazz Messenger, and his piano playing is soulful,’ and so on. I thought this would be a chance to break down some preconceptions about my total musicianship.”
Williams was a church organist in his native Memphis during formative years, and the voicings and time feel of spiritual music and the blues deeply inflect the sounds he conceptualizes and executes. His playing throughout Jazz Dialogues reminds us of the elegance and idiomatic authority with which he deploys the tropes of those languages, and of bebop and harmonic impressionism to suit the requirements of the moment. The tonal personality is cosmopolitan and downhome, flexible and holistic, attuned to storytelling and dialogue, averse to didacticism and self-absorption. It denotes sophistication, an open mind, and a willingness to listen, qualities that any pianist must possess to flourish in New York, where on any given day they must address new material, make sense of it, and impart to it a fluent, natural sound.
A member of the New York piano elite since he settled in Brooklyn in 1984, Williams honed his savoir faire the hard way — on innumerable wee-hours-of-the-morning solo, duo and drummerless trio jobs at various New York piano emporia, and through extensive sideman work with, to name a few, the likes of Boston drum-master Alan Dawson, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Milt Jackson, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown and a host of others.
“There’s a certain energy, a certain swagger, a certain recklessness,” he says of the New York state of mind. “Carefree might be a better word for it. When I think of New York, all those things should be present, up-close and personal. But New York is also very unpredictable, and that’s the perspective here.”
Williams made sure that would be the case by organizing the recordings in a manner suited to imperatives of spontaneity and confident professionalism.
“We did the date in 3 days, and I had everyone come in at different times, every two or three hours,” he recalls. “Some things were planned and others were spontaneous. Steve Nelson has played with me a lot, and he showed up with my book of music; we ran down the tunes — very in-the-moment. I wrote ‘Le Wizard de Basso’ for Ron Carter, which we’d played on a tour with Billy Cobham and Donald Harrison. I wanted to hear Joe Lovano’s take on two of my originals, and after a couple of runthroughs we did them on the spot. Ray Drummond often played ‘For My Nephews’ with me at different piano rooms; I didn’t even have to bring out the music. The only vocal I rehearsed in advance was the Purcell piece with Roger Holland and Thomas Trotter. I wanted to make sure I could play it! Freddy Cole taught me ‘That’s My Desire’ and ‘Close To You’ in the studio prior to the recordings. I told Miles Griffith that I heard his voice with ‘These Foolish Things;’ he said he knew it, and we found a key and did it. Etta Jones told me she’d never recorded ‘Skylark,’ which I thought was perfect, because I didn’t want anyone to sing songs they’d already done five or six times on record.
“I basically wanted to make everyone do things a little differently than they would in their own situation. Usually, I let them lead and zoned in quickly on their mood at that moment. I didn’t go by their reputation and what they’d recorded. If we were laughing or silly and clowning around, I’d try to bring that kind of buoyancy. If they were playing behind the beat, I had to make sure that I wasn’t following them so much that the tempo would drag or things would get sluggish. Throughout, I was less concerned about how well I played as a soloist as much as I wanted to be really on top of my game as an accompanist. Accompanying means being a team player, even if, in a sense, I am half of the team. I wanted to move things along, to do two or three takes maximum, and not have anyone work that hard. I wanted it to be more like a gig or a party.”
The festivities never flag; from start to finish, “Jazz Dialogues” documents serious musicians having serious fun.
James Williams for “Memphis Convention” Liner Notes (1993):
Q: I think we should talk about the different people on the album, and why you wanted each of them, and your experiences with them over time.. So your brief biography, let’s say; your brief account of the circumstances through which you know everybody.
JW: I will say that there are numerous artists from Memphis that I really wanted to participate in this session as well, that deserve to have been there perhaps moreso than I did, but due to the fact that, obviously, for one session it wouldn’t be fair if we had everybody…if we had each and every soloist from Memphis that deserved to have been there. No one would have gotten a chance to play much more than a chorus at best. So it was a decision made on several factors, some of which were availability and things like that, and who was interested in doing it at that point in time, that we came across… But fortunately, everyone that did participate in this particular session was a high priority anyway.
Q: Let’s start with the veterans, because it’s a multi-generational project. Calvin Newborn.
JW: Calvin Newborn, of course, is from one of the distinguished families and one of the first families of Jazz, especially down in Memphis. Of course, everyone knows of his brother Phineas. But his father… He really got his experience, both of them did, playing with his father’s band, Phineas Senior. They had many great artists come through that group while they were there in Memphis playing in perhaps the late Forties or early Fifties in particular, including people like Frank Strozier and George Coleman, Booker Little, Jamil Nasser, and different ones that would come through who actually played with that family band. And it literally was a family band, because Calvin’s future wife, Wanda, at that time was also the vocalist and trombonist in the group, and others participated along the lines(?), and all of the guys doubled and that whole thing.
So I think he was essential, because he is really one of the premier Jazz guitarists to come out of Memphis. And of course, he’s excellent in his own right, in addition to being Phineas’ brother. Had they not even been related, he would have deserved to have been there.
Q: I think you may have been the person responsible for bringing him into Bradley’s a couple of years ago.
JW: Yeah, that’s correct. He played up there with a quartet that I was leading. We had just a real festive time. And people that consider him one of their mentors, people like George Benson was by, Milt Jackson came by to see him, Kenny Burrell sent regards… It was just really a real, like, homecoming, because he hadn’t played in New York in over thirty years at that point in time..
Q: Would you say that Calvin Newborn is the primary source of a certain guitar style…? What are his sources as a guitar stylist?
JW: I think it would probably be Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green in particular. I’m sure there would be others that he would name and he would have been influenced by. But particularly, those are the three I think that can serve as inspirations.
Q: Was he playing in Memphis at the time you were there?
JW: No, actually he wasn’t. As a matter of fact, his brother only had moved back when I was just kind of peripherally starting on the Jazz scene around there, and playing… I was a student in my early days at Memphis State. And Calvin wasn’t living in Memphis at the time. He was still traveling with Hank Crawford’s group and doing, I imagine, some other freelance work, but still living in Los Angeles during that period of time, and really didn’t move back to Memphis until the Eighties or maybe the late Seventies perhaps. And of course, that was after I had left and gone to Boston, and subsequently come to New York.
Q: Let’s talk about his rhythm section mate, Jamil Nasser, who in the Fifties in Memphis was known as George Joyner.
JW: That’s correct. Likewise, I didn’t know Jamil in Memphis at all, too, because he left in the early Fifties, going into the Service and later on playing with B.B. King’s band — both he and George Coleman. B.B. really transformed George from an alto player to a tenor player. And Booker Little and a few others got to work with B.B. during that period of time. And of course, B.B. was at that time living in Memphis himself.
So I met him a little bit later. I saw him play in about 1975, after I had moved to Boston, with the Ahmad Jamal Trio (he was a member of that group for about ten years). Then occasionally, he would come home. I do remember him coming back to Memphis one time prior to my leaving Memphis, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him on that particular occasion. And he would still come down maybe once a year. Because both of his parents, I may add, are still living in Memphis, and his sisters and brothers. One of his brothers is a distinguished minister down in Memphis as well.
So I got a chance to know him a little bit there, and then I met him a little more… I got to know him much better in the latter part of the period he was with Ahmad, and then he played Monty Alexander for a while. And then I guess I knew him even better at the time he started working with George Coleman’s quartet, and we would be on certain tours together, for instance, in Europe or something like that when I was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, or they would play in New York or come to Boston or something like that.
Q: How would you characterize Jamil’s playing and contribution at the session?
JW: Jamil is certainly inspired by people like Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, and he is really a throwback, which a lot of the younger bassists have kind of gone back to more, or being a bass bass player. I mean, that is really coming in there and playing good time for you, walking you to the Moon and back, making sure everything feels real good for the soloist. I wouldn’t say that he was a distinguished soloist in his own right. But he gives you everything you need, the right kind of energy, the right kind of pulse and sound for that, and really knows how to drive a band, has an extended repertoire of standards and things like that, and is really… When you hear the word “bass,” it really typifies what he or Ray Brown or Milt Hinton or some of the young bass players like Christian McBride and Peter Washington and others who are coming right along, and bringing that tradition back. Because it’s like when you build a house, when you say the base, it’s got to be something firm, and you can build everything else around that. And the same thing with building a band, an ensemble around the bass and subsequently the rhythm section.
Q: Were there any bassists in Memphis who preceded him and who he might have listened to as a young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties?
JW: I’m sure there were. Because Jimmie Lunceford is from Memphis, and that band was there… Of course, I don’t know some of those names, unfortunately, that I can’t call. But I would love to speak to him about that, and find out…
And a bassist that came up of note after his time, who is a contemporary of mine is Sylvester… [PAUSE]
A bassist of note, a young, charismatic bassist who is named Sylvester Sample, as I mentioned, one of my contemporaries, grew up there. But his specialty… He played the bass violin, but he was a magnificent Fender bass player, and he was one of the first ones… He was kind of innovative in his own way, because he was one of the first bassists to play the fretted bass, combining the Jazz bass with the fretted neck and, you know, things that people like Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Berlin and Stanley Clarke eventually started picking up on and doing a little bit later. But he chose to become an engineer, a civil engineer, and didn’t pursue music full time as a career. And now he’s in Chicago, and he tells me he’s now thinking that he really wants to come and do some things like that. But he was really, really something, and really was instrumental, because having someone like that really helped me to grow as a pianist — and certainly I think Donald and Mulgrew can attest to that, and Russell and Charles, too, for that matter. Harold didn’t really know Sylvester that well, although he did play with him a couple of times on one of the first occasions that I met him as well.
Q: Let’s also talk about George Coleman, who also came up in Memphis in the 1950’s. He and Mabern both went from Memphis to Chicago at a certain time.
JW: Well, actually, George went a little earlier. Because once again, as I mentioned, George went out with B.B. real early. And Harold and Frank Strozier actually went to Chicago together. Booker Little had been up there… Now, let me get it right. Harold and Booker Little went there together. Frank had already gone up to the Chicago Conservatory, and Booker eventually joined him there, and of course, Harold soon followed.
So actually, I knew George Coleman’s name more from the Miles Davis period than anything else when I was growing up. But he did come down to Memphis when I was a student at Memphis State, and he was a guest soloist with our little Jazz ensemble. And that was really the first time I really got a chance to meet him. I heard him play in Memphis a year or so earlier, when he came down to one of the local clubs that was bringing artists in. That was a real good period of time, maybe somewhere like around ’72, ’73, that time, and maybe even a little earlier, too, that they were bringing in different artists, many of them Memphis musicians coming home, like George Coleman or Frank Strozier, Marvin Stamm, but they also brought in people like Clifford Jordan, Hubert Laws, Pepper Adams, Freddie Hubbard came down… All playing with a local rhythm section. As a matter of fact, Charles Thomas, who is on this session, was the pianist for all of those performances.
Q: George started out as an alto player, I think. Yes?
JW: Yes. George’s brother Lucious was an alto player, and I think it was one of his first inspirations. And as I mentioned, B.B. King bought his first tenor for him….
Q: To go on the circuit.
JW: Yeah, playing that Rhythm-and-Blues out there. You know, he had to go out there and do that and walk the bar, and probably a number of other things I don’t know anything about!
Q: How would you characterize George’s playing and his contribution to the session?
JW: Oh, energetic. A virtuoso performer. That goes without saying; that’s been known for thirty years. But at the session, he was just absolutely beautiful, a model to follow all the way. On time, willing to give up extra time if we needed to rehearse or a little something else. Wasn’t at all caught up with being of the stature that he is, that he could have taken a different attitude. He was there for us. He was just loving being around his colleagues and friends and stuff like that. And it was just really a nice time, even though he was always on time…
As a matter of fact, most of the guys were there early. It was like they couldn’t get there quick enough to see each other.
Q: And his soloing is extremely consistent, and you know it’s him, of course, right from the first couple of notes.
JW: Sure. And on the selections that George does solo on, I deliberately was wanting to hear him play in selections that… He has an extensive repertoire and plays a wide variety of things. But I wanted to hear him play even things that I had never heard him play on club dates or concerts and things like that. Of course, I knew he’d be quite at home with playing something like “Our Delight,” but I had never heard him play it. And I wanted him to do some music like Tadd Dameron, some things like that.
I wanted to challenge the guys, but yet at the same time have everyone fairly comfortable in what they were going to be doing, so they could be as relaxed as possible, yet at the same time not just do something that they have been doing almost verbatim in many of their concerts or club dates or something like that as well.
Q: And Harold Mabern is the fourth member of that particular generation on the session. As a pianist, I’m sure you have a certain relationship to his playing that perhaps you don’t to the other three.
JW: Of course, Harold made such an impression the very first time I met him. Like I said, my first really professional engagement was at a Holiday Inn. This was 1972 in Memphis, and Harold had come home to visit his father, who was ill. And I… I was working with Herman Green, who is actually one of the other veterans on the date, and I guess someone had told him that Bill Mobley and I were on that engagement. And he came down to the club and hung out, and of course, Herman invited him up. I even remember that he sat in and played “Green Dolphin Street” and “Secret Love,” and it was just so impressionable hearing him, how he was able to play my Fender Rhodes piano, which they called it at that time, and still, you know, capture a certain energy and spirit.
And he was always so giving and gracious, you know, because we were just learning — on-the-job training, literally. And he was still very open, even though he was already, you know, quite well-celebrated as far as being a recording artist. And of course, he was in that last Lee Morgan group there, and at that time it was just a matter of a few months after that tragedy had happened. And all the great people like Wes and Miles and Sweets Edison that he’s been associated with.
So that main impression has always carried over, how much he was comforting and encouraging to all of us there on that engagement. With the exception of Herman, all the rest of us were just students there, glad to have our first gigs.
Q: This may not be fair to ask you, since you’re now his producer. But how would you characterize Harold’s style and his playing and, again, his contribution to the parts of the session that he was on?
JW: Well, he contributed a lot beyond just even what he did on the session. First of all, Harold was there for every note that was played on those sessions, even at the rehearsals. He was there. You know, we were having dinner together, he was at the hotels with the guys. Any other assistance we needed… He said he told his wife, “Look, just don’t even plan to see me this week. I’ll come home for dinner or something like that, but these cats are in town and I’m going to be hanging every night.” So of course, she understood that, and said, “Okay, well, I’ll see you next week then.”
So he was just there and doing everything, and like our main cheerleader, when somebody was playing, whether it was Russell playing some of Phineas’ favorite Classical pieces, or whether it was me out there going through whatever I was doing, playing the B-3 or something, and certainly not only the pianist, but Mulgrew and the arrangements he was… He contributed a beautiful tune that Mobley orchestrated for us. And he was just there, well beyond… And then, of course, he comes out and plays the daylights out of the piano.
So you know, that kind of spirit there is really… You know, you have somebody… It’s always one or two people you can just focus when things are down or you’re a little tired, that you can rejuvenate and reinvent yourself around. Because this person always has that little extra intangible or energy there that you need to really get through the remainder of whatever is going on at that point.
Q: Let me return to the first part of the question, thought and talk a little bit about his style and a little bit about his history in Memphis.
JW: I did get away from that. Historically, like I said, he left Memphis in 1954, too. So that was a little soon for me to get to know any of those guys.
But his style has eventually evolved where I see influences of people, certainly from Phineas and people like that, but also I hear Ahmad Jamal and even people that he initially inspired in Chicago, like Herbie Hancock or people like that, or Andrew Hill. But also, you certainly hear the stylings of Bud and Hank Jones or Red Garland there. But he has a real deep Blues feeling, and he is always about playing the Blues. Because the Blues is never far away in Harold’s playing, whether he’s playing some of his beautiful contemporary pieces, or playing compositions of John Coltrane, or whether he’s playing standards or playing the real Blues. So that’s the thing, that he has really absorbed much of the history of that, and yet he has a very personal sound. When you hear little young pianists like Benny Green and Geoff Keezer out there playing, you really hear how he has had a profound effect on them — and others as well, all of us Memphis musicians.
That’s where I hear Harold coming from. And he was influenced a lot by horn players, too. You hear stylings of Clifford Brown, and certainly, like I said, Lee Morgan and people like that, that he’s worked with over the years. The singers… He used to work with the choice singers like Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan.
So he’s been around, you know, people who really did the stuff so authentically that he was able to absorb all those things, being basically a self-taught musician. And that’s one of the purities of it, of being self-taught, is that you absorb things. You don’t dissect and say, “Well, do I really need to do this or should I do this?” You know, if it sounds good and it feels good and it feels natural, your instincts will carry you that way. And I think that’s where Harold’s style is coming from. You know, people like… Buddy Montgomery is another example of some of those purer Jazz players, pianists, in terms of… You just don’t hear anything academic in their playing at all. It’s just music there. And certainly Erroll Garner is probably one of the greatest examples of that.
Q: I think what you just said about Harold you might be able to use on one of his records… [ETC.]
JW: Oh yeah…
Q: Now, Herman Green was the last of that people of that generation, and he would be the least known to the general public. So a little detail on his background…
JW: Herman Green is a woodwind player. He’s a saxophonist, he plays alto and tenor and flute. But actually, Herman has been around. He has had extensive experiences on the road. He played with Lionel Hampton for about three years. He played with Lloyd Price’s band when Slide Hampton was the musical director. He has been around and been in different settings. He knew Coltrane and Philly Joe, and lived in New York in the early Sixties, and lived all over the United States it seemed like, you know, even before he returned to Memphis.
And it was a critical time when he came back, because just at that time was just when I was just starting to play, and some of the rest of us, you know, we were really too young to even go to the clubs… We’d go down there and try to get in, and we’d sit out there for a few moments, and you know, the club owner would come and waltz us right back on out of the club. So we’d stand outside and listen to him playing at a place called The Music Box, right on Second and Beale Street — I can remember where it was.
So it was a little later… So when he settled down there, he was playing with a group sort of commercial… Herman is also the kind of guy who was sort of a jack of all trades, who could… You know, he adapted. He really was a musician that if he had to go play a commercial gig, he went on and made that gig, because that’s what had to be done to take care of his family and get this thing done. So he wasn’t playing Jazz full-time, and even, I’m sorry to say, at this stage of the game he’s not playing Jazz full-time. He’s not getting a chance to play very much Jazz at all down there.
But he would do this… He would play with another group at that time, just before… I was just ready to become a study out at Memphis State, so I was aware of who he was. And because, like I said, at some of these concerts, he would sit in… George and those guys would have him sit in with them and different things. So we knew that he was bad at that point.
So after this commercial gig broke up, he got this gig at the Holiday Inn. Because all of the other guys left, and since he was already a member, he stayed on and put a group around that. Well, of course, he hired young guys… He hired me on one of my first Jazz engagements where I didn’t know hardly any tunes. I might have known maybe “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Satin Doll” and maybe five other songs. Marvin Stamm was in town. The late Joe Dukes was on the gig; he was home visiting. And we had a bass player that was on the gig, that…you know, he couldn’t help me. They called “Stella By Starlight.” I said, “What are the chords?” He said, “Well, the first note is an E.” This is where we were coming…! So I knew I was going to be in for a long evening.
But I guess he must have heard something, because he let me hang around. I figured that Charles Thomas and those guys were already busy. So I said, “Well, everybody else must be busy, too.” So luckily, I was able to get this on-the-job training. Later, Sylvester Sample and Bill Mobley were able to join in and get some of this as well.
And that really happened, oh, maybe several months later after that first thing I mentioned in the Holiday Inn. And that was a beautiful engagement, even though it was a commercial job. The waitresses danced on the table and sang pieces like from “Those Were The Days, My Friend” and from Cabaret and from Hair… Anyway, that was a good experience.
But we also had three band sets. We just wanted to play, and I would be… I was trying to learn some of these Chick Corea tunes and all this stuff. And he was teaching us standards and all these things; you know, he would play them, and we had a little book… So we had a chance to really go out and play. We were playing six nights a week, five hours a night. And that was a good experience with Herman there, leading us and letting us get that playing time in.
And also, as I mentioned, when different musicians were either coming through town or either hanging out, that would be the only place it would be that many nights… The first time that I met Bill Easley was down there at this Holiday Inn. Phineas used to come down and sit in. Clark Terry would be in town, and Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke….
Q: This was the center of Jazz in Memphis.
JW: Yeah, this was downtown, and they had… At the time I didn’t realize it, but it turned out to be a very hip gig. And we were making fifty dollars a night; we thought we were on top of the world. I’m living at home, no expenses and playing at church, too, getting paid — so I was in seventh heaven. I didn’t have to work no job.
Q: So Herman Green was in the center of that for you.
JW: He was for us and, like I said, for Bill and several other of the younger musicians. Donald and Mulgrew got some taste of that a little later, too, as well as different ones floating in and out at different times. Although I was much more…you know, worked with much more than either Mulgrew or Donald. So he was really good.
So that’s another reason… This is sort of my way of reminding him that I did realize that his contribution to my career, especially at that stage of the game, was considerable, and I did remember that. But beyond just trying to just repay him back for that, he deserved to have been doing this, and he was qualified to be on there and everything. So it wasn’t any kind of favor that I felt obligated to acknowledge, you know.
Q: Let’s just keep running through everybody on this same tack. You just mentioned Bill Easley. Are you contemporaries, you and Bill Easley?
JW: A little bit. He’s a few years older than I. He’s about seven years older than I am. So we had him up on that pedestal as well. Because he was the only person… I never heard anyone who could play all those instruments so well, and who was a virtuoso and had such soulful feelings…. He was around there. And then at that point, we would hear him… He was playing with Isaac Hayes and doing all kinds of gigs like that. But whenever it was a Jazz gig that he had, we’d do it.
And I can remember going over to his house asking him would he come and jam with us sometime! And here’s this guy, he’s already an accomplished musician. He had been with George Benson and these people and lived in New York, and we were over there asking him… I said, “Man, come on over. Would you like to come to a jam session we’re going to have?” You know, I think about that, because sometimes when someone has asked me to do this in subsequent years, I try not to just sort of look back and say, “Oh, man, you’ve got to be kidding.” Because I remember that incident, it’s so vivid in my mind, and how nice he was, that… Like I said, I didn’t have his telephone number, but I had given him a ride home one night. So I actually went to his house and did this! So I think back on it, you know, and think, well, he could have just really canceled me out, and my feelings would have been hurt forever. But you know he was nice. He declined making the jam session, I may add. But the way he did it was very tactful.
Q: Say a few words about Bill Easley’s background.
JW: First of all, Bill Easley was really from Olean, New York, and had come there from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — of course, that’s part of where the George Benson connection was. Then he settled down in Memphis. Actually, he said he got stranded in Memphis, and then, as it turned out, he got a gig like about two days after he was there. Somebody told him… He was staying at this hotel, and the guy who was working there was a part-time singer. He said, “Oh yeah? Well, look, I can you a gig.” Easley said, “Oh really?” He said, “Come down to this club at a certain time.” And lo and behold… He didn’t believe it; he just went down there anywhere. And that’s how he got… And he ended up loving Memphis. To this day, Easley is still talking about he’s going to buy him a house in Memphis.
So that’s how he settled down there. And I just started hearing a little bit about him. Because like I said, we were just peripherally on the scene, and we couldn’t get in a lot of these places, and we’d hear about these people… But he is just such a magnificent musician and can play so many different styles… That’s one reason why he’s so popular here in New York, because he can vacillate, and he floats back and forth between doing Jelly’s Last Jam and Broadway things, and doing all kinds of other Rhythm-and-Blues gigs, lounge gigs, and recording, and doing all kinds of different things with the Lincoln Center Orchestra — you can just see him everywhere.
And that impressed me in a lot of ways, that he could do that. I said, “Well, I like all that kind of music; I should be able to do that, too.” So in an indirect way, it sort of set the tone for the way I started thinking. Why do I have to just play this? Because if I like all these things, I can kind of float back and forth. But my passion was still to go and really learn how to play Jazz, because that was the most challenging, and that was where I was really feeling the direction I wanted to go most of all.
Q: How would you characterize his contribution to the session? I guess one thing is because he plays all the instruments so well, he makes it very easy to do certain type of arrangements.
JW: Well, he only played tenor, alto, clarinet and flute; he didn’t bring his piccolo to the session. Well, that says it in itself. He gave us the extra dimension to combine different instrumentations that we needed just to add a different variety of texture to the recording. You know, if it would have been just all saxophones, and maybe a trumpet here and there or something like that, or guitar or whatever, I think the sound of the record would have been a little more monotonous than it turns out to be. Now you’ve got these things, and you’ve got a clarinet solo here on what’s generally considered a bebop tune, and just a couple of little curlicues thrown in there along those lines. So he really gave us an added dimension there.
And of course, like I said, he was just thrilled just to see all these guys again and to see what everybody’s been doing and all of this, and he and Lewis Keel getting a chance to play together for the first time in a long time. So through his artistry, and equally as important, his enthusiasm too was just there.
Everybody just smiled… I wish we had recorded the conversations that were going on in the back room there between takes and so on and so forth. That would have been worth almost releasing as well; at least, a certain segment…
Q: The private issue.
JW: Right, the private collection of the Memphis Convention.
Q: Let’s talk about Lewis Keel.
JW: I met Lewis Keel when I was seventeen years old, coming into Memphis State. Lewis Keel was a student at Memphis State; a graduate student there. It was several different things. First of all, he was directing the Third Jazz Ensemble, which was just being assembled that year. Because that first year I was there, I couldn’t even place in any of the Jazz ensembles — according to my director at least. But when they put this together, he directed that. So I met him during that time. Actually, I didn’t even play piano in that ensemble.
But he was the director and was around, and he was the best soloist in the school on any of the instruments. So we always just loved to go hear him play. And he had a few gigs around town. We didn’t get a chance to catch him there, at that point, but on a couple of concerts around school, and then guys would play over in the student center, and just any time he was playing, we were just there. So we were going through that.
And Lewis was just so special that way. And he would tell us, because he knew some of the guys from Memphis; he knew George Coleman and Hank Crawford and all these people. So he was a great story-teller for us, too. He said, “Oh wow, what these guys do,” and he would tell us about records and stuff. I remember he always said, “All you cats need to do is get you some records and some exercise books, and then you’ll learn how to play Jazz. You learn the instrument and you learn how to play.” You know, learn your instrument.
He and Charles Thomas were always very clear. They were given a lot of academic information about theories, and flat ninths and this and that, and voicings and so on. They would give some basic information, and if you could dig it and really hear what they were saying, you would just follow that practice, and you would be able to get to a source of the music.
So like I said, he had a profound effect during that time there. And I eventually got a chance… He even hired me for a gig one time down there. I was glad to take my electric piano over there; I would be there with bells on.
Q: How would you characterize his style? He’s very in the blues thing…
Q: He has a sort of Plas Johnson type of sound.
JW: Yeah. But I would say it’s probably more influenced… He’s really very influenced by Hank Crawford and David Fathead Newman and players like that, Stanley Turrentine. See, when I knew Lewis in Memphis, he was playing tenor always. He’s now just kind of… He told me he’s not even playing that much tenor any more. I wanted him to play tenor. When I called him about this, I said, “Yeah, man, bring your tenor,” because I was thinking, well, Easley will play to cover the alto stuff. And he said, “Well, I’m really not playing tenor. I really would rather play alto if I’m going to play saxophone.” I said, “Okay, bring your alto then; no problem.” I was aware that his recording was on alto, but I was just assuming that he still played tenor, because all those great solos we remember out there at school were tenor solos.
I think he played flute on something, too. I’m not sure if he did. Maybe we thought about it and we didn’t record it or something.
Now, his alto sound, like I say, is very distinguished. I like his choice of notes, his ideas, the way he plays. Mobley and I were talking about that. At times, on the Rhythm changes and stuff like that, he really finds some different notes to play there, how he resolves some of his phrases. I said, “Yeah, man, that’s some bad stuff; I need to figure out exactly how he does it.” And these are things, you know, that I think are personalized, because I really haven’t heard anyone else… It’s not that it’s innovative as such, but it’s really just some personal statements that he was finding. And I always liked his feeling, because he was about that always, too.
And he was around here. He used to play with Frank Foster’s Loud Minority band, and he played with Howard McGhee in the Seventies. So he had been in New York as well. He knew Russell from back in college days, too, so they were able to catch up on a lot of things there. So once again, he was a source…
Everybody showed up at all the sessions, whether they needed… Sometimes I said, “Well, look, I only need you for an hour-and-a-half or two hours.” But the guys stayed around. Everybody was there. Nobody wanted to leave or miss anything, no matter what was going on there.
So that was another way…stylistically… You said Plas Johnson. I can hear that. But I guess I hear it more directly between Hank and maybe David Fathead Newman and Stanley Turrentine.
Q: Let’s talk about the last of the horn players. Bill Mobley is someone who is highly respected by many musicians, and he contributes a couple of arrangements on this album as well, so he has two roles here. [ETC.]
JW: Well, I sort of made Bill our musical director. I said, “Bill, we’re going to do this date; it’s really going to happen. But I know James Williams to know that I’m not going to be doing this stuff like I want to do it. So you’ve got to do it.” So he said, “Oh man, are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, sure. We know what we’re going to do.” So I told him what we had in mind, and worked out the instrumentation for each tune, and said, “Look, this is what we’re going to do, and we’ll have this… Now, this is just a general idea of what I have, but basically do what you want to do with this. I don’t want to restrict you, but at least I want to give you a concept of what I’m hearing with the ensemble in terms of soloists on each tune and what kind of instrumentation on each tune.”
And he was just magnificent on those, especially the ones where we had more than two horns playing on that. And it was creative, it was inventive, yet it was challenging. We had the guys there, you know. I told the guys, “Look, you all got to practice this music now.” I knew he wasn’t going to have a lot of time, so I said, “Bill, xerox them for us and send them to everybody,” and I got all the addresses and sent them to him so he could do that. And he just took care of all kinds of business like that before he picked up the trumpet or the fluegelhorn.
Then he came in and just quarterbacked the whole session like that along those lines. And Bill is a very shy person. I am always on him about being a little too shy. But he is an excellent, excellent musician, and he is solidly fundamentally sound.
I’ve known him since he was sixteen years old. We attended the same high school. I’m two years older than he is, but we came out of the same high school. So obviously, we go way back.
Q: Which high school?
JW: Central High School in Memphis. Probably every city has a Central High School.
Q: Was that a high school with a certain type of arts program?
JW: No, that wasn’t fashionable then, unless you just went to a music school…
Q: Was there any in Memphis. Detroit had one, Cass Tech, and…
JW: Right. But they didn’t really have that in Memphis that I knew of. But I went to Booker T. Washington for a year, which is the school where the Newborns and Charles Thomas and Booker T. Jones and a lot of folks came out of that school…Jamil…
Q: Was there a particular teacher there when they were going?
JW: Yes, W.T. McDaniels. He was the head of all the Black music programs in the high schools. So he got a chance to rub shoulders with Charles Lloyd, he had Frank Strozier — you name it. Everybody who came out of Memphis through that whole time, from the Forties right up until the Sixties came up under him. Even Russell and those guys just barely missed him. They might have gotten a year of him, but not really; you know, they didn’t get the full thing. But Charles Thomas, the Newborns, Garnett Brown, Isaac Hayes, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire — all these people who came up under that whole tutelage of them. Booker T. Jones from Booker T. and the MGs. So you really got a wide range of folks that dealt with him. And before he was there doing that, Mister Jimmie Lunceford was the cat. So you see where that was coming from — and with that whole tradition there.
So the late W.T. McDaniels… His son, Ted, Junior, now is the Chairman of the Jazz Studies Department at Ohio State. So he’s kind of keeping that tradition alive, unfortunately not in Memphis, but nevertheless, very much so involved in it.
So Bill Mobley and I, we played in the first Jazz… The first time I was trying to play Jazz with a group, Bill Mobley was just about there I think without two months of that time. This other trumpet player friend of mine was from Memphis, and he was around, and he knew a little more than Bill did. But Bill was always real quick and sharp, and picked up on things real fast. So we’ve really been playing together for that length of time. I can remember playing our first concert together and playing Jazz compositions like “So What” and trying to play stuff way over our heads, that we had no business trying to do some of those… Like “Joshua,” those kind of tunes!
So like I said, to this day I can call up Mobley and say, “Look, we’ve got to have this done” (we’ve got some other projects we’re involved in) and he takes care of it. And then he’s going to come out and he’s going to play the music so well. I think he’s very underrated. I would love to see him really doing more things, because he is so gifted and so unassuming in some ways. That’s a certain nice quality to have in this day and age of real aggressive kind of mentalities.
Q: Finally, just a few words about his style and his playing.
JW: Stylistically, I think he’s coming from people like Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, as well as Freddie, Lee Morgan, maybe to a slightly lesser degree Booker Little. But I really think those are his primary influences that I hear coming through. Woody Shaw also, I should say. Woody Shaw I would say is a major influence. So that’s where he’s coming from in music. He really checks them out. But that doesn’t mean that… He certainly knows Miles’ and he knows Dizzy’s and Fats Navarro’s and Clifford’s playing very well. I mean, we play all these tunes he’s transcribed, and so he’s done an in-depth study. But you know, he’s never really focused around those players as such in terms of the way he developed his own approach.
Q: And he arranges “Our Delight” and “There But For The Grace Of,” Harold Mabern’s composition, on the recording.
JW: That’s right…
Q: Now Tony Reedus, your nephew.
Q: So we don’t have to talk so much about Tony…
JW: People like Tony and Mulgrew and Donald are so well-documented right now that anything I’d say would probably be repetitive.
He came in there and he was ready… Once again, I was saying, “We’ve got a lot of music to play.” But he comes to the session prepared. He does homework. If you say, “Look, we need you to really lock in on this,” and so he did that very thing. He came in and he knew what was happening. He took the extra time if things may have been questionable. He’s always going to be swinging. I think he’s still one of the most exciting young drummers on the scene. And I knew he would make a major contribution.
He and Jamil don’t play together that often, so I was glad that they were able to develop a rapport to get things going there. And of course, he plays with Mulgrew all the time, so he… With many of the musicians there. Tony a little later got a chance to get a little experience around playing with Calvin Newborn and Herman Green in separate situations around Memphis when he first started playing, around ’77 or ’78, something like that. So we had that connection, too. So he knew that. And of course, since he’s been in New York, he has certainly played with George and Harold and Easley and those guys — he’s on Easley’s albums.
So I think he was not only the logical choice; I guess you would say he was the only choice. Because anyone else… The only thing I do regret is that I couldn’t get in touch with Joe Dukes. I would have probably asked him to be on some of the session. And just off the record, I was even hoping that we… We were planning on doing a second session, and I was going to just have Joe make the entire one. But I didn’t have the vision for what happened there prematurely.
[ETC./NOW THE PIANO PLAYERS]
Q: Russell Wilson.
JW: Russell Wilson was my piano teacher at Memphis State. He was a graduate assistant there. Actually, as a matter of fact, many people there, when I talk with faculty members, they feel that he’s probably the finest pianist to ever come out of Memphis…
[END OF SIDE A]
Russell Wilson was a gentleman I met shortly after I got to Memphis State, and he soon was one of my piano teachers while I was a student at Memphis State, although in some ways he’s sort of like a contemporary. Actually, he’s more of a contemporary of people like Bill Easley’s and that generation there. He was a source of inspiration there. Many people felt that he was probably the finest pianist to ever come out of Memphis State, speaking to his various teachers that are still on the faculty, the chairman of the Piano Department and different ones.
Russell is also well-versed in the European Classical literature, and has done perhaps more formal study in that area than any of the others of us that are participating in the session.
Q: And he performs pieces by Ravel and Chopin.
JW: Yes, that’s right. One of the reasons why I asked him to do that is because I knew that Phineas was fond of a lot of that literature, because he had actually played a number of those things as well. Even on one of his recordings, he used part of the “Sonatine” for an introduction to “Lush Life” — on the World Of Piano album. So that was one of the reasons why that particular Sonatine was chosen to perform. And hearing Russell play it was really the first time I had heard it played in its entirety. I had never heard a recording of it. I hadn’t been able to find one other than that. So in a way, this is a sort of rare presentation, and unique. And it gives a different thing for the recording, too, because it shows the expansiveness of the Memphis musicians and the artistry of the Memphis musicians that have come through there as well.
And of course, he also chose a composition in addition to that; he chose a beautiful composition by one of my favorite pianists and composers, Randy Weston — “Little Niles.” That likewise was recorded by Phineas on one of his earlier recordings.
Russell stylistically is hard to pin down, because, like I say, he has that influence there, but very much so the people that he enjoys listening to… You’d think, with his virtuoso skills, it would be just pianists along those lines. And naturally, he loves Art Tatum and people like that. But he’s a big fan of people like Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. So when you’re dealing with that kind of touch and things like that, you can never go wrong.
I think in a lot of ways, Russell has come back… He’s such an expansive musician. He’s always interested, curious and listening about learning things. I think he’s probably been influenced by some of us younger musicians who came up under him, some of the younger pianists, obviously like Donald and Mulgrew and perhaps myself there as well, and other musicians. Because he’s always interested, and asking, “Well, what do you think are some good tunes I should be learning?” or “Who are some of the younger players out here; tell me about some of these people.” He has that enthusiasm, which I like.
And that’s another characteristic of all of the artists represented here, is that it’s never “Well, okay, because I have attained this level, this is the end of it.” I’m always curious to know what else is around the corner there, and who is doing what, and what can I do to kind of improve. And I think everybody wanted to play well for each other. For ourselves, but for each other, too, just so that everyone could see just how we’re going to make this spiritually nourishing as much as it was musically.
So Russell brought some of those intangibles. You know, he only played on the solo selections, but likewise, he came up for the entire session. He was there doing everything, from just support group to videotaping to taking photos, as well as playing the daylights out of the piano.
Q: Was he working on the Memphis scene when you were there in the clubs? Or is he primarily an educator?
JW: No, he was doing a couple of engagements. I also have to thank Russell, because Russell is the one who introduced and first told me about Charles Thomas. I had never even heard of Charles Thomas and hardly many other musicians, and he told me…
Russell was working with a singer, a guy who kind of wanted to sing like Johnny Hartman around Memphis. He was doing those things. And they had a little TV show, they would be on on Friday nights about midnight or something like that. And he was leading the house trio. So they would be doing standards and blues and that kind of thing.
So he was out on the scene, being a little older. And he said, “Oh man, I just heard this great pianist. You definitely would love to check him out. His name is Charles Thomas, man. Real fluid and everything, great feeling throughout.” I said, “Oh yeah?” So I filed it away. And then eventually, it was probably another six months before I got a chance to hear him play. So Russell even then had that same kind of thing. He’s always doing…motivating himself and receiving that kind of energy from that.
And he lives now… He teaches… He is a teacher now at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, where he plays a steady job I think at one of the hotels there, but he also is a pianist with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra as well. So he keeps a wide variety of things, and continually updates his repertoire, does recitals, Classical recitals and Jazz recitals every year without fail. Whereas it’s easy… If you have tenure, most people immediately go into retirement.
Q: Is he originally from Memphis?
JW: Oh yeah, he is. And he grew up in the same neighborhood, although younger, that Charles Lloyd was in. He remembers hearing Charles Lloyd practicing saxophone on his back porch. And like I say, he was a contemporary… He was a student at Booker T. Washington when Booker T. Jones and Maurice White was there, and there were some other musicians around Memphis that were not present here on the session who still work regularly.
And I might add, he played… Well, he was a clarinet major when he went to college… He and someone else on this session went to college together; I can’t even think right offhand. But people like Sonelius Smith, who is around here in New York, was around at the school, and others… So he was a real… Oh, I know who else was there. John Stubblefield. So all of these people, they were around there in college together in Arkansas, and then eventually Russell transferred back to Memphis and finished up at Memphis State.
Q: The next person you mentioned was Charles Thomas.
JW: Well, I told you how I met Charles Thomas, was first becoming aware of him through Russell. As I said, I couldn’t go hear him in the clubs. But he did make an appearance on this particular show, this Johnny Scott show, the singer down there. And I said, “Wow, this guy can play some piano!” I didn’t know what he was playing, but I knew he could play. And that’s where I first heard him, very unassuming, seemingly. But a certain presence that always was very captivating to me in a sort of mysterious way.
Eventually we were able to go hear him in clubs, and we were down there all the time. It was a good period. He was working with another vocalist, kind of her style was like Nancy Wilson, and they were doing all kinds of great things. He was the one that really inspired me to think about learning a lot of songs, because they never had music on the bandstand. Never. I never saw them read one note. And they were always doing all kinds of tunes. I could go down there three, four nights a week, and would very rarely hear some of the same songs repeated. She would maybe sing some of the same songs, but their instrumental set would always be… It would range from “The Sweetest Sounds” and “Speak Low” to you’d hear something like “Seven Steps To Heaven” or maybe “Dolphin Dance” or maybe something like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, “So What,” those kind of things.
So it was a really inspirational kind of thing to go hear Charles play on that level every night with that trio, even though I wasn’t, you know, as inspired with maybe the trio as I was with him. But the trio played well, though, and they played well with him, too — so in that sense it worked.
And so it was about a two-year period where they had a lot of steady work, maybe a little longer like that. And that was real critical for us, because we got a chance to not only get out there trying to practice this stuff at Memphis State or in my parents’ den or somewhere; we also got a chance to reinforce and hear the great local players play it right down there.
And eventually, I found out that Charles went to school with my older sister, Tony Reedus’ mother. She said, “Oh yeah, I remember Charles Thomas around Booker T. Washington.” So I invited him over to the house, so he could become reacquainted with my sister again and everything. But really I had my ulterior motives, just to get him over there to play and see if he would teach me anything. Well, Charles isn’t the teaching type, but he will sit down and play. And I learned a lot. I just sat down and watched him play. I said, “Oh man, that’s bad. Well, play this. Would you play that?” So I really learned a lot from Charles just doing that, and then, like I said, going to hear him play in person, and he would be talking about different records to listen to — and that’s where his influence was.
In a way, I feel somewhat well that I was able to do that on a much smaller scale for Donald and Mulgrew when they were first kind of coming around a little bit more — and basically we’re just talking about like maybe three years apart here. But by this time I had accumulated a little bit of a record collection, and we would do this, and maybe tape something, or I let them borrow records… I can’t even believe it. I wouldn’t dare let anyone borrow them. Probably a few years later, when I got to Boston, folks stopped returning them!
So it was really a nice connection from Charles and having a chance to hear him play. He now works… It’s a shame that he doesn’t perform in Memphis, but on occasion, you know, several times a year. But he works steady in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he is able to work and make a very comfortable living doing that. I still would love to see him in New York. If he came to New York for two years, I would love to see what level of artistry he would attain.
Q: Where is he cominng out of as a pianist?
JW: Charles is coming from Bud Powell. Certainly he was influenced by Phineas, because he was a few years younger than Phineas, and he got a chance… He told me, “Man, I was in junior high school, and Phineas was a senior,” and he said he could not believe… He heard Phineas playing stuff in high school that he has heard very few people play to this day. He said he would just be down there, and he would be down in the band room practicing all the time, just playing, and playing the most incredible stuff — playing the Classical literature, the whole stuff. Tommy Flanagan told me a story about that. He said one time Phineas came over to the house, and he just went through his Chopin books like it was nothing.
So Charles was influenced by him. He was very influenced by Bud Powell’s playing. He turned Harold and Frank Strozier and those guys on to Bud’s playing and Dizzy’s works and so on and so forth. I would say also he is a big, big fan of Red Garland’s playing, and to a lesser degree, Wynton Kelly. But all of those pianists from that period. I would say primarily more of the Bebop players. And certainly he can play some Stride and stuff like that, so he is certainly aware of Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole and like them, and Erroll Garner and Horace…
Q: Did he turn you on to information also?
JW: Well, like I said, Charles wasn’t really the type of guy who did a lot of verbalizing. Even conversation-wise he isn’t a real big talker that much. But he would tell me about these records. He said, “Yeah, you should check out this,” and you know, listen to Bud Powell. At the time, I was kind of wanting to hear Herbie and Chick and McCoy; I was talking about, you know, give me this hip stuff.
And he likes that… You know, the interesting thing, too, is he is kind of influenced by like earlier things of Herbie’s and McCoy’s, and Chick’s as well — Keith Jarrett, for instance. Although I don’t think it’s apparent in his playing, those are players that he talks about quite a bit, too, that he really admires. He likes Kenny Barron, of some of the contemporaries, and certainly Harold. But those kind of people that I hear him speak of quite a bit…. And he’s checked out George Shearing, and he can play some of those Tatum runs and stuff like that.
I used to say, “Oh man, how do you play those things?” He said, “This is a pentatonic scale” — I remember one of the first times I heard that name he was saying that. But it was just like he was kind of playing it, and if you can catch it, more power to you!
Q: Just a couple of words about his two pieces on the solo piano record and why them.
JW: In terms of the solo pieces, I had no idea what anyone was going to play.
Q: So this wasn’t your prerogative as the producer.
JW: No, I didn’t suggest anything with the solo. I felt like the other part needed a little bit more structure. But with these guys, I didn’t worry. It was just like having a private concert there in the studio, and everybody came out and just played… So I had no idea what they were going to play.
In some cases, it was like we didn’t know what we were going to play. I kind of had thought about it that day. “Well, I think I’ll play this,” because I thought the selection I chose would probably be something that no one else would play and would have, once again, a different flavor to it. We have everything from the European Classics to a traditional Baptist hymn on there, which sort of typifies Memphis music.
So that’s where I was coming from with that. So I had no idea when Charles went in there in the studio what he was going to play. So he played an untitled original piece as well as “What Am I Here For” by Duke Ellington.
Q: That was great, what you just said about the unity of the pieces, in terms of Memphis music. Now, Donald Brown is the next-oldest, I guess, and he had a full range of experience in Memphis. I think that’s one thing we could talk about, him being house pianist at Stax-Volt and the type of things he went through coming up.
JW: Yeah, sure. Probably more so than any of the others of us, Donald has had the versatility and flexibility to jump into all of those genres as comfortably as possible. I think he was actually a staff musician over at High Records, which is where Willie Mitchell and Al Green and Ann Peeples, and I don’t even know if you know some of these Rhythm-and-Blues artists were doing recordings. He might have done some things at Stax, but I don’t… I don’t particularly remember Stax as being… Even when I was just starting to get out there a little bit, it was just at the very tail end. And I got a chance to play a little bit with Isaac and Al, too, but it might have been one of those things…
Q: My mistake.
JW: So he was doing that. And he always kind of was interested in doing that music and all, but he was kind of learning… When he got out to Memphis State, he was picking up on Jazz like a fish takes to water. I have to kid him, because I remember… I think I taught him how to play “Green Dolphin Street.” I shouldn’t say I taught him how to play it, but I sort of showed him the chords on it, and then gave him the records. And he had it and was gone! It just seemed like it was just a matter of weeks, and he already had picked up on the feeling and all of the nuances of what one could do in that short period of time.
Versatile. Can play so many instruments. Donald plays about five different instruments, in which he can at any time…. Of course, we know he’s probably the premier composer in Jazz right now. But any time on any of those instruments, if he needs something to be conveyed, it’s nothing unusual for him to ask someone… He might ask Mister Ron Carter, say, “Ron, do you mind if I play this figure on the bass just so you can kind of see what I had in mind?” Then of course, he says, “Oh, yeah, that’s what you do,” and then, of course, you put it back in the master’s hand and they go right on with it, and you’re able to get that. So you really can get someone who gets to the essence of the music that way.
And it’s influencing his playing, too, because you can hear the independence. When you hear him play “Poinciana” on there, boy, that is just a work of art in itself. The independence, the dexterity that it takes to do it… It sounds easy because it’s so relaxed and it feels so nice and mellow, and then you realize, hey, he’s just playing all this by himself. Because I would have to sit down here and really do some serious thinking and working on that one, I think! But that’s very typical of Donald as a musician.
And I have known him… During that period of time at Memphis State, too, he was always… We became fast friends, even though we played the same instrument. We would hang out, and we would go hear different people. I would try to get him to sub on certain things. And he was always real shy. A lot of times he wouldn’t even accept the jobs, because he wouldn’t feel like he was ready to do it. Probably these days, people don’t care whether they’re ready or not. They say, “If you get the opportunity go on in there.” And there’s some merit to that, too.
So I can’t say enough accolades about Donald Brown. And he brought actually a real spiritual commitment to this session, too. I wanted him to play… I asked Donald…. We sort of commissioned him to write… That’s the origin of
“Squindo’s Passion,” is that…. I said, “Donald, I really want it to have something that all the horns can participate in, and I need you to write something.” I told him the session was going to be these days… About two days before we’re supposed to do this, I get a call from Donald. He said, “James, didn’t you say something about writing something? What kind of thing you had in mind?” I said, “Donald, don’t pull this stuff. You better show up with something. I don’t care if you have to sing the parts to everybody.” And of course, he comes through. And he said, “Well, I had this idea. Let’s see what this sounds like.” And he put it together, and that’s where he is…
He’s very organized. So he’s probably… He and Thad Jones have the same birthday. I always kid him. I say, “You’re definitely an extension of Thad, because you write all these great orchestrations in your mind, and it’s just a matter of sitting down there and getting it to the paper.” But they’re already written. And he brought that in…
The same thing in his playing, the whole spectrum of doing that. And the other selection he did on there was just a completely different mood. I can’t remember what it was that he played… “The Second Time Around,” which is a favorite standard of his. I notice that he plays that every once in a while in a club. One time he was playing with Milt Jackson, and Milt asked him, “What do you want to play?” He said, “Let’s do ‘The Second Time Around.'” So when he did that, it kind of reminded me of something from a few years earlier, that he always liked playing that tune, and tunes that have that kind of quality to it.
Q: We talked about Harold before, so I’ll integrate that into this. Now let’s say a few words about Mulgrew and again his “Memphisism”.
JW: So many people are born elsewhere… Mulgrew was actually born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and certainly considers doing his musical teeth-cutting and growth there i Memphis. Even when we first heard him play, you just saw this raw talent there. There was something there. Bill Easley I think picked up on it before any of us. And I was aware of it, but Bill Easley said “Wow….” We sat down… He sat in at a club down there and played “Blue Monk,” and Bill Easley just immediately said, “Wow, listen to that.” You’re talking about somebody eighteen years old or something like that playing, and you just see where… It’s just enough of that there just coming through that if you have any kind of insight or foresight, you knew this was something great that was going to develop, this was going to blossom into something real special.
And that’s what the case is. I mean, on and off the bandstand. His personality… It’s not at all surprising that Mulgrew is as great as he is, because what you hear is what you get off the stage, too. I know him so well, and we talk two and three times a week on the telephone if we don’t see each other, or grab some dinner, or do something. He is the type of person that you just gravitate towards.
And then you find that he’s got all this musical wealth of feelings and experiences. He’s a tremendous Gospel player. Tremendous! I mean, he could go out there and make a living just playing Gospel music, and we know what he can do out here with this Jazz! And he is developing into a real fine composer, I think, too. It’s not at all surprising… As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably the first-call pianist in New York right now at this stage of the game — arguably. People will try to get him on their sessions. And I guess you, being at the station, know how many sessions show up in the studio there with him on them.
Q: I guess he said that he’s trying to deliberately stop that…
JW: Oh, he’s stopping that right now because he’s going to focus on the trio. But I’m just saying that over the last six or seven years, or maybe eight or nine years, that that has been very much so. I equate him to what Herbie and McCoy and Andrew Hill were doing with Blue Note and some of the other labels back in the Sixties, appearing on numerous dates as sidemen. And he can bring something to everyone’s session, whether it’s original music, whether you’re playing standards, whether you’re playing Blues — he’s a tremendous Blues player, I think.
He’s got great hands. He is a pianist. When you see him, you know, he’s not a piano player. When you watch him play, when you hear him play, the sound he is able to draw out of the piano… It’s not like he’s banging. He’s got that touch that’s really happening, that touch is really starting to convey.
There’s one thing that Calvin Newborn said that I think is exactly true. I think that he perhaps, maybe more than any of the others of us, is really the guy that really carries forth Phineas’ spirit. Not by playing just the two-hand things, not just doing stylistic things that Phineas perfected and innovated, but through the whole persona of how he approaches the instrument, of really being an extension of himself there. I think that he is really… And I don’t think any of my dear, dear colleagues would disagree with me saying that. I think that he at this point in time carries that spirit forth more so than perhaps any pianist in Jazz right now.
Q: Now, I want you to talk about you as well somewhat. But first let me ask you to extend that statement and say a few words about Phineas Newborn, who seems to be the figure whose breadth stretches over everything that’s on this particular album.
…that Phineas’ breadth is sort of the spirit that’s hovering over the approach to the album.
JW: Oh, he is. His spirit is very much present throughout the entire session, but particularly here with the piano. Because the piano is the orchestra. And the way he approached it, his playing was so orchestral, so deeply rooted in the basics of just good Jazz playing, so deeply rooted in piano playing that it’s a shadow that even if we wanted to get away from it, we couldn’t — because he cast a long shadow in that area.
When we did this, I think all of us had Junior in mind, because he really set the tone for what we realized as possibilities of being able to do on the piano, and still do it with good taste and elegance, and do it with the kind of spirit and swing that’s the full essence of Jazz. He dared to be daring. And he really gave us, I think… And certainly there have been others who have. But more so there, he set the tone as being the inspiration.
In a sense, he could be just like what Earvin Johnson was to the Lakers, what Larry Bird would be to the Boston Celtics, what any number of great artists in theatre or ballet or in any other art form…
Q: It would be like John Coltrane was to saxophonists; Phineas maybe had that impact in Memphis and other…
JW: Yes, very much so. The same kind of thing that John Coltrane, or perhaps in earlier times, Charlie Parker, and a little bit earlier we can say Billie Holiday or Lester Young, that kind of profound…
His was maybe more regional. I think he’s a very underrated artist. He arguably could be the most underrated artist in the history of Jazz. But as far as that region of the South, and especially the mid-South area, people who heard… The stories are legendary, and yet the beautiful thing about it, the legends are true. They are not exaggerated. Him going out and being able to smoke a cigarette with his right hand and play the song with his left hand and not miss a beat; being able to play trumpet and baritone horn, and play vibes and tenor saxophone — as well as, you know, being one of the greatest pianists.
You know, Barry Harris first heard him playing tenor saxophone. He said, “Yeah, this is a good young tenor player coming up here from down there; the father’s band was up there playing.” And he asked Barry… Barry was playing with Yusef Lateef and those guys up there. And Barry told me this story himself. He asked him, “Would you mind if I could play a tune or two on the piano the next set?” And Barry said, “Oh, you want to play piano?” He was probably saying, “Oh, you really must be something if you’re going to run up there behind Barry Harris.” And he sat down and played the piano, and Barry said, “Wait a minute now.”
So that whole story, to see that… And to be able to come up with such unique arrangements. You don’t have to talk just to the Memphis pianists. Those in the know really are aware. You can talk to Ray Bryant or talk to Billy Taylor… And I spoke to the late Red Garland about it, too, and Red Garland told me (and these words are almost verbatim): “Look, when Phineas came to New York, he scared all of us to death, including Oscar Peterson.” That doesn’t necessarily have to be on this. But he said that he really did that… And Sam Jones and different ones have spoken of him in such high regard, including Oscar and Hank Jones and Jay McShann and different people like this.
So this is a thing that goes well beyond… In terms of the general population knowing him, it would be more regional. In terms of the entire Jazz world, it would be more of the people who really are well-versed in the music and have made it a point to really know Jazz piano and Jazz piano history, and the contributions it has made.
And he set the tone of excellence. You know, that’s the reason why we try to play like we do, whether we’re playing a three-fingered Blues or whether we’re trying to play something that’s much more challenging, like Thelonious’ music or whoever, Bird’s music, Thad Jones or whatever. The thing is that he set the tone for us, that it’s got to be of a certain standard and excellence there. And like I say, you have to be daring. You don’t have to be conservative in your playing.
That’s what I was saying about Mulgrew, that what he has done is taken what Junior did and taken it to the next step, in many degree. And I think to a similar degree, Donald and Harold and maybe myself, too, that we are strongly influenced by that, but yet are not completely locked into it, in terms of we haven’t been made a prisoner of just mimicking Junior. He wouldn’t want us to do that. He would want us to take that and to build on it, and find our own personal voice through that. And that’s what we have done. And that’s the reason why, you know, we have a range of pieces and players here that can cover his full spectrum, from Russell Wilson’s stylings on various pieces, to Harold coming in there and playing “For Carl,” something that Phineas recorded, and Mulgrew playing “Dancing on The Ceiling” — that could very well be him dancing on the keys, because of the way his…he writes poetry at the piano for sure.
Q: What’s Mulgrew’s other piece?
JW: In the ensemble with the trio, it’s called “The Sequel.”
Q: I know this will be a little tough, but a few words about you in relation to the things that we’ve been talking about. Maybe you don’t want to talk about yourself in the notes, and that’s all right, too.
JW: Probably not. I mean, what can I say about myself? All I can say is that I just enjoyed… This is one of the most inspirational things I’ve done – certainly musically – in life, because of just seeing the expressions of everyone, the feeling that everybody brought. Like I said, it was such a jovial spirit, and everything that was present in this room, it was like a Church service, but a ceremonious…a real celebration. You know, guys seeing each other… People showing up over at the session, other musicians coming in town, people calling and inquiring: “Is this really happening? Is it really going to go down?” Herman Green… Virgil Jones came by the session. He hadn’t seen him since they were with Lionel Hampton in the Sixties. When the word got out, different folks wanted to see this.
Meeting down at Bradley’s. Donald was playing there every night. Going down there and having meals every night, and everybody… Just the camaraderie. We were just hanging twenty-four hours a day, it seemed like, or roughly sixteen, seventeen hours a day with each other. And it was just the most intense, beautiful five-day period of time that you could see. People were really catching up with each other. Many of the guys who were in from out of town were staying in the same hotel, so they could get together and have breakfast, or walk to the session together. We were recording at Power Station, and they were at the Edison, so they would have a six- or seven-block walk over where they could kind of get caught up in seeing New York at the same time — that same kind of rapport.
So, see, that really made the music, I think, come in even more special. Because when you don’t have time to rehearse or perform before you do that… That extra intangible carries over and adds an extra dimension, you know, that doesn’t show up in any statistics or anything, or maybe not known by anyone else — but I realize that.
Also, like I said, some of the guys… There’s two musicians from Memphis in the Basie Orchestra, and they came by the session.
So that was the main thing that I think feel good about it, thinking that we actually accomplished something of this magnitude. And to my knowledge, no other city has done this — and Memphis musicians have done it twice. We’re talking about thirty-some years in between.
Q: Young Men From Memphis, right.
Q: Well, you titled it Memphis Convention I, so that leaves room for the sequel. Do you want to say a few words about the tunes you selected for the ensemble pieces? Are they all your selections or commissions and so forth?
JW: Yeah, they were. Let’s go down.
“Squindo’s Passion” was… I commissioned Donald brown to compose something specifically for that. Donald, once again, is a person that musically I just trust everything to. I just said, “Okay, Donald, write us something.” No criteria. The only thing we might talk about is, he said, “Do you need something fast or do you need something loud?” — and that would be some very general kinds of things in terms of feeling. And I said, “Well, we can go either way.” And just leave it to him, and he’s going to take care of the natural business there. So that’s how that came about, and that was something that got all of the guys involved ensemble-wise to play.
“Ray-El” was a friend of mine by Thad Jones. Bill Mobley actually suggested it, “Well, maybe we ought to something like “Ray-El”. It’s a Blues, and you know, Memphis is the home of the Blues, but yet at the same time it has a different kind of feeling, it’s sort of a soulful kind of thing, too. So it could come out of different expressions. And I had been thinking about that, because I had been playing that in Elvin Jones’ band, and we brought it in there. So it was a natural choice to go along with that.
“There But For The Grace Of…” is one of Harold Mabern’s pieces. I consider that almost like an anthem. And once the lyrics are applied to it, it could be almost as special as something like “Lift Every Voice” or “Some Day We’ll All Be Free,” Donny Hathaway’s piece — of that kind of quality. It does that. I wanted that… And that was another one that I thought would be just great because it has such a built-in arrangement. Basically, it was still Harold’s arrangement and Bill Mobley’s orchestrations for that.
“The Sequel”: I asked Mulgrew to do something with either solo or with the trio, preferably in a trio setting, that could kind of be just special for Phineas. Of course, he showed up with a piece that he subsequently called “The Sequel.” So in a sense, this is a sort of continuum with what people like Jimmy Lunceford and Jimmy Jones and Phineas and people like that before really did.
And the beautiful thing is, he didn’t try to write a virtuoso piece that… Because see, Phineas had many different moods and different directions he could come out of. Most people, when they think of him, many times think of him as just being a virtuoso artist who could play incredible tempos and things like that, and be real fluid. But Phineas also was a great player… He could play “the real blues,” as Stanley Cowell once said, and he could come down there and play some three-finger piano that just sounds like somebody who don’t play but in one key or two keys or something like that. And of course, he could play a lot of different things; he was inspired through Bud and other composers.
So Mulgrew really came up with something that really on the surface may not sound like that, but was very much in tune with the spirit of what Junior was about.
“Tickletoe”: There was no real reason to play that other than the fact that I like the tune, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to hear Charles Thomas play. I said, “Oh, he would be the perfect guy of any of us. He would play that better than any of us would play it.” Then I said, “Well, hey, it is Lester’s piece, and Prez is special, so let’s get a tenor player on this.” And that’s when we got Mister Bill Easley to do that and Bill Mobley — and they contributed major performances on that as well.
“Night Mist Blues”: Well, you know, Ahmad…
Q: You play the Hammond.
JW: Yeah. I wanted to do something a little different. Because in Memphis, I played…you know, at church, I played organ all the time. So that was as much a part of what I was doing as whatever I was doing at the Holiday Inn. And I’ve been thinking about it, and hearing… Since some of the younger guys are coming out here playing that and kind of inspired by Jimmy Smith, I said, “Look, I can still play organ. I may be a little rusty in places, but I want to play it.” And I said, “What could we use that on?” Then I said, “Well, let’s do that.” Then just at the last minute, I enlisted Donald’s services to come out and set the tone for us on the piano and give us a little body and soul there underneath, to give the organ a little more space, and make my role less defined.
“Our Delight”: I’ll tell you, I have to admit, that was just something I wanted to hear what George Coleman would do on tenor and what Mobley would play on trumpet, what Bill Easley could put on clarinet… Bill Easley plays two instruments on there, alto and clarinet.
Q: Alto on the ensemble.
JW: On the ensemble, yes. Then also Mulgrew… I wanted to hear those guys come out and put a thing on that tune there. I knew it would be challenging, but I knew they would also be able to rise to the occasion for it.
“Cottontail” was a tune I thought… You know, we could never go wrong with playing Duke’s music. But I was thinking that would be good for Herman and some of the guys, because this is some music… Playing “Rhythm” changes is no problem. It would be something that I felt would add another little side to it. Most of the time in Memphis, when I heard people playing “Rhythm” changes, they were playing “Oleo.” So I said, “Let’s just do something a little different, a different head there, and let them just go and get in there.” And that was a good showcase for Calvin, Herman, Lewis and Charles in particular.
“No Moon At All” is an old standard that a lot of vocalists used to sing back in the Forties and Fifties. But it’s really Phineas’ arrangement. He recorded it on the Fabulous Phineas album. All I did was adapt it to the horns there. He did it with just the quartet, with his brother and Denzil Best and Jamil. And Jamil was saying, “Man, I don’t think I’ve even played this since we used to play it with the group.” So I wanted to have something that was close to him there in that way, and it was fun — and we just came in and hit one take and did it. But like I said, I thought I would add the horns just to have a slightly different sound to it other than being just a total mimic of his arrangement verbatim there. So having them in added a little spice to it. And once again, as I say, it’s a showcase for him.
“Locomotion”: That was just an after-thought at the end. I thought we should have at least one other tune, because we were running out of time, and I had hoped to read down some other music or come through something. I said, “We don’t have time to really put any more arrangements together. Let’s do something where the guys can play and just really have a blowing sessions, and just sort of have the horns going back and forth” — just to see who really was up for the occasion as much…
So that was really a fun choice. We just kind of worked out a little ending, and it’s basically Coltrane’s arrangement, what he did with the three horns in unison, and a couple of harmony notes here and there towards the end. And it’s really just a showcase also… I asked Mulgrew… I said, “Well, Mulgrew, this is the horns; you just play some trills there and you’ve got the bridge.” So really there’s no piano solo on there. But I asked Mulgrew because I knew that he’s such a great accompanist that he would be right in there and would maybe just give them that added sparkle that I think the horns needed. And I thought it would be fun, too; that Herman and Lewis would get a kick out of playing with Mulgrew again. And actually, I found out that Lewis and Mulgrew had never played together. So that really added another…
Q: One more question. Say a few words about the connection of Memphis that knits the diverse group of musicians on this session — if you can in any sort of general way.
JW: Maybe you should say the last part of the question again.
Q: What is it about your mutual or shared experience in Memphis, whether you born there or work there, that links you as musicians, that gives you this common ground that you can function like this?
JW: It’s hard to say. In Miles’ autobiography, he said it must be something in the water. But I don’t quite say it oversimplified just to that… I think it was always that Memphis was… You heard good music… Even before I was a musician, I was hearing good music, and I assume this is true for most of the other musicians, if not all of them. Long before I was even thinking about even playing piano or playing music in general, whether it was at church or whether I was listening to the radio. And I caught the tail end of the times when they didn’t have the program directors telling you what to play. So you could hear James Cleveland and Aretha, or you could hear Nancy Wilson or Nat King Cole or Dinah Washington, and then you could hear the Ramsey Lewis Trio or maybe Rufus Thomas or somebody like that all within the matter of an hour or two on the same program. So I have always associated that with thinking that music is not only feel-good music, but artistically there’s a lot happening too. And probably it was more pronounced when Harold and Frank Strozier and Charles Lloyd were playing around Memphis there…
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
Q: I guess what Kazunori wants us to elaborate on is what distinguishes Memphis Jazz. And that’s probably actually a better way of describing my questions. How are all these musicians Memphis musicians, how does it come out in their playing. But I think he also wanted in a more specific way, what distinguished Memphis Jazz from, say, New York Jazz or Chicago Jazz or Los Angeles Jazz and so forth…
JW: Well, I can’t speak about the specifics about all of those other locales. But I think, just my opinion, and probably if you asked another one of the musicians you might get a startlingly different viewpoint…
But in my case, just from my observations, I have noticed many of the musicians that have come out of Memphis, first of all, have been really very conscious about certain standards by which they approach the music, being serious about the music, whichever style they are — they are very committed to that. They also usually have fairly good command of their instruments, too. They take a lot of time and care to really know their instruments. Not to be a virtuoso, but to really know what you’re capable of doing, to draw out of your instrument.
And I think also a lot of emphasis is on being able to play the Blues, being able to keep that inflection there and carry that around when you do that. Presentation and all that. Being able to carry in the most professional way in terms of presenting the music when the situation calls for it. Obviously, sometimes we don’t have control over that and we can’t make those kinds of artistic decisions.
And particularly, just to summarize once again, I think that a certain dedication and also a certain command and love and high standards of being able to play the instrument and know your instrument as well, and like I said, certainly the influence of being able to play the Blues and a love for being able to play the Blues. Maybe with some of the others, like Mulgrew and myself, and even Donald to maybe a somewhat similar degree, that Gospel influence is definitely ever-present too. So you have a whole variety there musically.
Now, in terms of the city, where it’s located… I think a lot of musicians gravitated there historically, because on the Mississippi River, during that time they had groups playing on ships and steamboats going up and down there. So if anyone had an aspiration, say, to go from New Orleans to Chicago or to Kansas City, the chances are they came through Memphis.
Charlie Parker’s mother was from Memphis, and actually he was born in Kansas City two weeks after she moved there. So he easily could have been born in Memphis himself! That’s just for some trivia that ..(?).. Aretha Franklin is from Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up in Detroit — but she lived there long enough to really remember living in Memphis the first nine or ten years of her life.
So you have all these other influences there that people always… The beauty of the city. For many years, even when I was growing up, Memphis would win the City Beautiful Award. So it was a very comfortable place to live in terms of space and in terms of climate. The greenhouse effect has done a little change on that!
And also just the whole historical part of it. Because the Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy is from right there. And you have, like I said, later on a connection with Jimmie Lunceford and hiring many of his students from Manassas High School, from Tennessee State, which is actually in Nashville, a university there…
So these standards were set in a lot of ways. And like I said, the city was always expansive. And even though it was a Southern city, it was probably a little more tolerant than many other Southern cities in terms of the Black families being able to grow. I talked to Milt Hinton. Milt Hinton said he spent time in Memphis, and even his father…. When his father died, he was living in Memphis. So when people came from Mississippi and Arkansas and Alabama and so on and so forth…
So from that perspective, people were able to develop, because even though they knew they still had many of those restrictions, and by no means was it utopia, it was comparatively much better than other cities. You know, the first thing… There was a law at the time when Milt Hinton and my father was growing up that Black men couldn’t leave a state like Mississippi. If you were old enough to work, or like a young adult or something like that, you couldn’t just go up there and just relocate — because they knew people were trying to do that. You either had to have some kind of reason or something like that… So many times, parents would get their young males out when they were young boys, twelve years old or something like that! It’s a whole different thing there.
So I think that, once again, could have set the tone for why people there… And then, of course, people were entertaining themselves, whether it’s through rent parties and other situations, and that whole communal thing made for an effort that… By the time that George Coleman and that generation and then later on my generation and all of us came along, these things were fitting into place — and Beale Street was the place it was jumping off.
I don’t know anything about Beale Street in that sense, because by the time I was kind of coming on the scene, Beale Street had become almost like deserted. You know, it was just a couple of pawn shops open down there. They’ve since renovated it, but anyone I’ve talked to…you know, it doesn’t have the same spirit and the same feeling. It’s beautiful and it looks good for the tourists and all of that, but it’s not really quite the same, you know, heyday as it had… And Beale Street was equivalent to what people know as Bourbon Street in New Orleans…
Q: The Red Light District, and all the entertainment was centered there ancillary to that.
JW: Sure. And some of the more important churches were congregated in that area. The church where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his last speech was just right around the corner; it’s not on Beale Street, but it’s a block away — Clayborne Temple.
Q: Let’s try to focus a little bit on the variety of music that was around when Calvin Newborn, George Coleman and Jamil Nasser were coming up, when you and Lewis Keel and Bill Mobley were coming up.
JW: When the generation of Jamil and George and Harold was there, all the musicians played Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues; but maybe the reverse order — they played Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz. It wasn’t any distinction. This was just something that came about in the Sixties, when the music was starting to be separated and stuff. But you know, you went on a gig and you played a little bit of each one of those things, and all that whole thing was carried over. And dance music… The musicians could dance and musicians were all-around entertainers. They could sing, and I don’t mean just sort of go through the motions, but everybody did something…
Like I mentioned with the Newborn family band, all the guys doubled — Phineas was playing four or five instruments, Calvin was doing three or four, Wanda was singing and playing trombone. So you had a whole variety of things that you could change the whole look. They had an organist and they had a pianist, too. So if somebody picks up a different instrument, you’ve almost got a whole different band up there on the stage. That was there…
By the time we came along, some of those elements were there. But it became…the community was a little separated. There were people who were known as Rhythm-and-Blues musicians or Blues musicians, and those who were Jazzers and those who were Rockers and all that kind of stuff. So I caught a little tail end where I got a chance to get some Rhythm-and-Blues experience, and like I say, I was playing religious music, and I also got a chance to subsequently some Jazz too.
But it was kind of funny… By the time… Not only in Memphis, but around the country as well, when you’re thought of as a Jazz player, people just assumed you didn’t do anything else but play Jazz. I still have people walking up to me and say, “Oh, man, I’m surprised. I didn’t know you did that. I thought you were just a guy who was into Bud Powell” or something like that. Now, unfortunately, I see that even happening just within the Jazz thing, that people are thought of as just playing Contemporary or Straight-Ahead and so on and so forth.
So those kind of separations started happening a little bit around Memphis, but it was much less pronounced and more soft-pedaled at that time. So you could still float a little bit… Donald Brown was probably the last of the musicians who really got a chance to float into all of those areas as comfortably and could move into those circles from one right to the other, and not miss a beat, so to speak.
I still love Memphis, you know. If Memphis was in New York, I’d live there any day. If I could only bring Memphis to New York, it would be definitely the best of both worlds, or when worlds collide, or something like that…
James Williams for “Duos” (4-16-03):
TP: So what is the nitty-gritty? How long ago did you decide you wanted to do this project?
JAMES WILLIAMS: Not much before I did it. It was done about 15 months ago [Winter 2002]. It was something I thought about doing, sort of an early birthday gift idea, in terms of putting that kind of financial effort and time and labor into this. It was a labor of love, doing something I wanted to do. And it involved many different friends, many of whom happen to be outstanding artists in one way or another. I didn’t think I could put a big band together, and I couldn’t do a concert with all of them, so I said, well, something a little more permanent that can be recaptured. The most logical thing was to do a CD, and that’s how I came to the conclusion to do this and present as wide a range… Most people seem to like to conveniently put me into one or two little categories, “James Williams, oh, he was a Jazz Messenger, and his piano playing is soulful,” and so on. But there are other areas I’m interested in and touch on, and feel very comfortable expressing myself in, so I thought this would be a chance to break down some of those preconceptions of what my musicianship is.
TP: You think people have typecast you after all these years.
JAMES WILLIAMS: Especially after all these years, in some ways. Because they see the associations with Art Blakey or Milt Jackson or Ray Brown or Benny Carter or Art Farmer or Milt Hinton (which I’m extremely proud of), but they don’t quite see the ones with Elvin or Lovano or Joe Henderson or Woody Shaw or Thad Jones, or even Joe McPhee or Frank Lowe.
I just called everybody up and said, “Look, this is what I want to do; can you do this at this time?” Luckily, I feel so good about my friends and colleagues that I know they’re going to say yes. I found this out from doing the Finas Sound Tributes concerts. Kenny Barron used to tell me, “Look, don’t even ask me any more; just tell me when the date is — I’ll be there.” That’s very comforting, and it’s also a lot of responsibility. I don’t want to abuse my friendships or my friends. So I knew that they would do it if we could just find a common time.
We literally did it in two or three days, where I had everyone comes in at different times. It was like I had an appointment book. John Clayton was the first one I did. I told my sound crew, “John Clayton’s scheduled to come in at 12 o’clock, Christian’s going to come in at 2 o’clock,” so on and so forth. Ray Brown was doing that triple bass thing at the Blue Note. Ironically, I didn’t get him, because that was the first open day in the soundcheck, so he said, “I can’t do it; I’ve got a golf match.” He wasn’t about to give up a golf game to come in there and just play a couple of tunes with me at that point. “I’ve given you three albums already; we’ll do it next time we come to town.” So we laughed about that. Etta Jones was coming in, Ron Carter was coming in… I had everybody every two or three hours…
TP: If you can resurrect the schedule… So you basically called everyone, and they came in one after the other over three days.
JAMES WILLIAMS: Yes. The nice thing is that some of the guys came early to hear other guys. Joe Lovano came in early to hear Billy Pierce, and Steve Wilson was in to hear Steve Nelson, Patitucci came in to hear Ray Drummond. [very relaxed]
TP: Did you know what repertoire you wanted to play with person, or did you mutually decide it when you were there?
JAMES WILLIAMS: I had some ideas, like certain originals. Steve Nelson said, “Let’s do that tune of yours I used to play every once in a while that I like so much; we never played but a couple of times on gigs.” I said, “Yeah? Which one is that?” It was “Be Real Special.” I said, “Gosh, I haven’t played it in a long time, but if you want to do it, let’s do it.” We just did it in the studio. Steve played with me a lot, so he showed up with my book of music. He has a Geoff Keezer book, a Donald Brown book, a Mulgrew Miller book. So he just came to the studio with my book of music, and he brought it there. I said, “Okay, let me run through it and make sure I’m clear on it, especially playing solo piano.” I just hadn’t thought of it. In that case, it was very in-the-moment.
Certain tunes I had in mind to play, but I wasn’t sure who I wanted to play them with. Jon Faddis had a request to do “A Child Is Born,” and I hadn’t been thinking about it, but I knew he had a great association with Thad, as had I to some degree.
My originals certainly were planned. I wrote a tune for Ron Carter called “Le Wizard de Basso,” and we’d played it on a tour in 2001 with Billy Cobham and Donald Harrison. I brought the music, but I knew he’d do something to make it interesting and give it a different slant than what we did with the quartet.
TP: About what percentage would you say was spontaneously decided at the studio and how much was pre-planned?
JAMES WILLIAMS: All the originals I had planned to play at some point with somebody, and usually it was someone who… I wanted Joe Lovano to play two of my originals. I wanted to hear his take on them. I’d heard Steve Wilson and Billy play on them, and wanted to hear what Joe would bring to the table. No rehearsals. We ran the tunes down, tried out some things, made sure the parts were clear, the beginnings and the endings, and did them on the spot.
Steve Nelson liked “Old Times Sake,” but he’d never played it with us before. He always asked me, “Look, why don’t you ask me to play with ICU?” I told him Dave Holland and George Shearing wouldn’t let him go away; I couldn’t hire him for anything.
TP: Did more pre-planning go into the vocals?
JAMES WILLIAMS: A couple of vocals were planned, like the Purcell piece. That’s the only thing I rehearsed in advanced, because I wanted to make sure I could play it! I suggested to Miles Griffith that I heard his voice with “These Foolish Things,” he said he knew it, and we found a key and did it. The Leon Ware tune that Roger sang, “I Know It’s You,” which is associated with Donny Hathaway, is one I’d asked Roger about, and we had a little rundown because it’s pretty tricky. I’m not sure if I played it as well as I even think we could have played it. On “For All We Know” I put a little vamp on.
But I asked Etta what she wanted to sing. She said, “You know, I never recorded ‘Skylark’; let’s do that.” I thought that was perfect, because I didn’t want them to come in and sing songs they’d done on records 5-6 times already. I basically wanted to put everyone in a slightly different element and make them do things a little differently than how they’d do it in their own situation.
Ray Drummond used to play “For My Nephews” with me often at Zinno’s and the Knickerbocker and places like that. I didn’t even have to bring out the music. He and Christian always came to my gig and had done their homework; they knew my music before they got there.
TP: Who’s Thomas Trotter?
JAMES WILLIAMS: He’s an opera singer, who is a friend of mine. I wanted to do something a little different, after I chose that Purcell piece. I asked Roger to come up with a little arrangement, a little duet.
Kim Nally is a vocalist from San Francisco. A friend of mine knew her and suggested her, that she was going to be in town that week. I didn’t really know her, although I’d heard her sing, and said, “Let’s go for it.” Same thing with Steve Heck, who’s a former piano student of mine from Berkeley. I ran into a few years ago playing a Howard Johnson’s gig, and I thought, “he sure sounds good.” I said, “He looks like a student of mine,” but he hadn’t been singing at that time, but his piano playing sounded good. I wanted to have someone on there that nobody knew as well as people like Lovano or a singer like Freddy Cole…
Now, the songs with Freddy I didn’t know. Freddy taught me the songs, and then we just recorded them. Right now, I’d be hard-pressed to play them; I’d have to go back and learn them and listen to them again. If he were to call “Close To You” on a gig right now, it would get a little confused. He sat down and played them through a couple of times, and I said, I think I’ve got it.”
TP: This is about four hours of music all-told, and the music is so wide-ranging. You’ve been a professional since 1977, so it’s 26 years as a professional doing all sorts of jobs. What challenges are involved in playing with all these personalities?
JAMES WILLIAMS: A lot of times I wanted to led them lead and zone in quickly on what mood they were in at that particular day and moment, not go by their reputation and what they’d recorded. If we were laughing or silly and we were clowning around, I’d try to bring that kind of buoyancy to the music. Sometimes they’d play behind the beat or play at… I had to make sure that I wasn’t having a tendency to follow them so much that the tempo would drag, or everything would get in a sluggish mode. That was always the other side of the challenge, to be a good accompanist all the way throughout. I was not all that concerned about how well I played as a soloist on this session as much as I wanted to be really on top of my game as an accompanist. Accompanying means being a team player. Even though I was the only team member, or I am the team in that sense.
TP: But you’re the boss, too!
JAMES WILLIAMS: That’s interesting, too. Because in a sense, they wanted to please me. They came in and said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “I want you to be yourself.” Ron said, “What do you want today?” I said, “I’m not too demanding; just play some of that Ron Carter stuff on my date and sound good for me.” He started laughing. I said, “You probably can handle it; I don’t know. I’m sure you can.” We worked at it. Ron is all business, he doesn’t deal with a lot of small talk unless he’s around people he really likes and knows pretty well.
Now, Etta was totally passive. “Oh, James, what do you want me to sing?” “Etta, let’s just do what you feel.” She said, “Well, I never recorded ‘Skylark.'” I said, “Let’s do it, then; I can play it.” I told her, “Thank goodness you do it in the original key.” I could have transposed it. I probably would have taken a moment and written it out. Because I didn’t want anybody to be doing a lot of takes. I thought two or three takes maximum. I said, “We’ve got to move this right along. I want this to be more like a gig and like a party.” I didn’t want anybody to work that hard and get all caught up like it’s a real studio date.
TP: Did you therefore allow the personalities of your partners to determine your approach to the piano? Some things are kind of beboppish, some things are kind of churchy, some things are bluesy, some things are more harmonic and impressionistic. Does the material rule that? Does the dialogue rule that?
JAMES WILLIAMS: Both, actually. I wanted to play some bebop. I said, “Look, that’s what I do.” I play bebop. I love that music. That’s what really excited me about the music, especially when I first was starting to play more. So that had to be represented. Obviously, the church and gospel and bluesier side of things is also what I seem to have become known as. Now, I don’t think of myself that way. When I hear that, I think of Ray Bryant and Bobby
Timmons and Junior Mance and cats like that, but not so much myself. I’m always sort of amazed. I say, “Is that what people think of me.” I don’t really see myself in that light. I don’t want to dissociate myself from that as much as to add on…
TP: Put it in its proper perspective.
JAMES WILLIAMS: Okay, that’s one dimension. Let’s move on and explore some other sides. That’s the other thing I wanted to keep out front, and hopefully… I don’t necessarily expect this necessarily to change that opinion. It’s a different project. I just want each CD to display another side of where I am at that point in time.
TP: Is this a New York centric CD? You’re a New Yorker since January 1984, when you moved from Boston.
JAMES WILLIAMS: I think it definitely is. There’s a certain energy, a certain spontaneity, even a certain recklessness. Carefree might be a better word for it.
TP: Maybe a confidence.
JAMES WILLIAMS: That, too. A certain swagger to it. I think all of those things are certainly what we look for. When I think of New York, all those things should be present, up-close and personal. But New York is also very unpredictable, and that’s the perspective here. The industry is now volatile and unpredictable. That’s the reason this is happening the way it is. To me, anybody that’s supposed to be in the business would jump on this immediately. It has everything they say they need — marketability, name value, things along those lines. But right now, everyone is doing just the opposite of what jazz is about. For the most part, they’re being very careful and ultra-conservative in some cases, going for the sure thing only, and not deal with anything that wants to take any chances. There’s a whitewashing of the music in a lot of ways. The people making the decisions are saying people only want to hear this and not be challenged. So that’s reflected in this, too.