Category Archives: Mulgrew Miller

For Kenny Barron’s 70th Birthday, A 2005 DownBeat Feature and WKCR Interviews From 1991 and 2004

To mark the 70th birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-conceptualist-educator Kenny Barron, who made it to the big leagues of jazz at 18, not long after he moved to New York, and has remained there ever since, I’m posting a pair of interviews we did on WKCR — a Musician’s Show in 1991 and an appearance promoting a week in a club in 2004. I’m also putting up the first of two interviews I conducted with the maestro for a DownBeat profile—which leads this entry—that I pitched and was given the opportunity  to write in 2005.

Kenny Barron Downbeat Article:

The wall of windows behind the bandstand of Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room revealed a twilit tableau of Central Park treetops and the Fifth Avenue skyline as pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Mino Cinelu prepared to begin set one of the Kenny Barron Festival last April. Barron put down his glass of red wine, cocked his head slightly to the left, and began to play “Prelude To A Kiss.” He spun out flowing rubato variations on the melody, imparting to his lines the joyous ache of romance, then brightened the tempo and stated a kinetic Caribbean beat as he painstakingly built the arc to ecstatic resolution.
As the sky turned indigo, and the lights of Fifth Avenue twinkled in the distance, Barron sustained the Spanish tinge with discursive three-way dialogues on “All Blues,” a tune he played frequently during a lengthy ‘70s stint with Ron Carter, and “Calypso,” a lively original that he first recorded on a 1981 solo album for Xanadu.  Then he parsed the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Shuffle Boil,” and embarked on a solo tour de force, conjuring luscious voicings atop a rock solid stride to complement the long, fluid, melodic lines he carved out with his right hand, deviating slightly in tempo and inflection from a version that appears on The Perfect Set, a new release on Sunnyside that documents an April 1996 engagement at Bradley’s, the saloon that was then New York’s sine qua non for piano jazz.
Thus inspired, Barron concluded the set with “Madman,” built on a fourth interval theme constructed around a bass line he heard in his teens from Hassan Ibn Ali, a famously eccentric Philadelphia pianist who regularly came to Barron’s house to practice with his older brother, Bill Barron, a tenor saxophonist with a taste for navigating the outer partials. He channeled the into-the-wild-blue-yonder side of Bud Powell,  engaging in intense rhythmic dialogue with Cinelu; at the end, he announced that this was his first public performance of the tune, which he recorded in duo with Roy Haynes on Wanton Spirit [Verve] in 1995; he deviated from the record by adding a free, rubato coda.
The festival lasted three weeks, and Barron framed himself each week within a different sonic environment. He shared the stage with Cinelu for the remainder of week one, joined by bassist George Mraz and kora player Abou M’Boop on nights three and four, and Mraz and guitarist Romero Lubambo on the final two evenings. During week two, Barron addressed hardcore, straight-ahead modern jazz, assembling a crackling sextet, fueled by drummer Victor Lewis, to interpret his fire-to-romance compositions. For the final week, Barron recruited Drummond and drummer Grady Tate to form a Bradley’s style “classic” trio.
Throughout the engagement, Barron followed the imperatives of the moment, resolving audacious ideas with the panache, in the words of Victor Lewis, of “a cat who always lands on his feet.”
“The rhythms were all over the place,” Barron said of week one. “I don’t think we played anything straight-ahead, which forced me to play other things. We started with no preconceived ideas or notions, and the tunes went whichever way they went.”
“What always surprises me about Kenny is his apparent nonchalance and very casual approach, and yet the tiger within,” said Cinelu.  In 1996 he and Barron collaborated on Swamp Sally [Verve], a free-form electro-acoustic project on which Barron referenced an exhaustively global lexicon of strategies and attacks.
Swamp Sally is one of a string of Barron recordings since 1992 on which French producer Jean-Philippe Allard encouraged Barron—now a serial poll-winner and Grammy-nomintee, but then typecast as a bop-oriented sideman supreme—to allow his imagination to roam, and paved the way for him to assume his present stature as a distinguished jazz elder. These albums include a kaleidoscopic duo with violinist Regina Carter; two recitals of Barron’s Brazil-inflected compositions, including Canta Brasil, a 2002 encounter with Trio de Paz; and several venturesome quintets and sextets comprising diverse personnels and instrumental configurations, most recently Images, with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummer Kim Thompson, all young stars on the rise.
Barron infuses each of these recordings with a spirit of spontaneity, human warmth and dance-like grace that often eludes musicians who possess his surfeit of technique.
“Kenny knows how to play inside the drums, and make the drummer sound good,” says Danilo Perez, a keen student of Barron’s music. “He knows how to syncopate—how to jab behind the beat for a swing feel, and jab on top, pushing it just like a Latino. With the Brazilians, he plays the subdivisions pretty much in their style. He’s a master of knowing what to do at the right time, whomever he’s playing with.”
“I like music, and I like all of it,” Barron stated. “I don’t want to be put in any kind of pigeonhole, even though I’m sure I am. Ideally, in one set I can go through everything. One song might come out as straight bebop, the next may go outside or be Brazilian. You don’t know what it sounds like until it reveals itself, so to speak. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun. Let’s see where it goes. I don ‘t think I need to go to school and study Brazilian music for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it, and respond whatever way I can.
“As you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. There’s another chorus coming! You can try it again. Whether you make it or not, you’ve got to reach. Very interesting things can develop through that process.”
* * * * * *
Barron bedrocks his predisposition for risk on a strong foundation in the jazz tradition, which he absorbed first hand as a Philadelphia teenager. “Bud Powell is at the core of what I do,” he said, citing Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and McCoy Tyner as other strong formative influences. At the top of Barron’s list, however, is Tommy Flanagan. The infatuation began in ninth grade, when a friend brought the 1956 Miles Davis-Sonny Rollins recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” on which Flanagan sidemanned, for their art class to paint to.
“I stopped painting,” Barron recalls. “It was so crystal clear, and the touch was so light, so delicate. I fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there. Nothing tugs on my heartstrings the way Tommy could.”
Within several years, on Bill Barron’s say-so, Philly’s finest were calling the youngster for cabaret gigs at Elks Clubs and Masonic Lodges, as well as some less savory venues. “I remember an after-hours place called the Northwest Club where I played with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker and (bassist) Arthur Harper,” says Barron, who recalls playing until 3, taking the last bus home, and waking up for 8 a.m. classes. “The rhythm section had to play a show, and there wasn’t always rehearsal. I played for singers, comedians, shake dancers and tap dancers—a lot of standards,  songs based on ‘I Got Rhythm’ and rhythm-and-blues. It taught me how to listen and helped me with musical language. It prepared me for New York, where I still had to do those kind of gigs. I didn’t start working at Birdland right away.”
In point of fact, Birdland was the site of Barron’s first New York gig—a Monday night in 1961 with his brother and Ted Curson. Not long after, he hit the majors on jobs with Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson, and James Moody, In 1962, he married, moved to Brooklyn, and, on Moody’s recommendation, joined Dizzy Gillespie. His four-year stint with Gillespie kicked off a three-decade string of high-profile sideman jobs with Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, and Stan Getz, all admirers of his consistent creativity and lyric gifts, and with Sphere, the Monk-inspired collective quartet he co-founded in 1982 with Riley, Charlie Rouse and Buster Williams. At Lateef’s urging, he earned a college degree, and took a position at Rutgers in 1973, where for the next thirty years he mentored young talent like David Sanchez and Terence Blanchard, repeating his high school ritual of making early morning classes after finishing the third set at Bradley’s a few hours before. He moonlighted extensively, working with top-shelfers like Moody, Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Carter and Frank Wess and playing duo in various New York piano rooms. He documented his point of view on an impressive series of albums for such independents as Muse, Xanadu, Enja, Reservoir, Candid, and Criss Cross between 1975 and 1991.
“Each bandleader I worked with had a different style,” Barron says. “For example, Dizzy’s band was very tight and precise. I learned to keep stuff in reserve, not play everything you know all the time. Yusef was looser, the music was freer; you could play out, as far as you wanted to go. Ron likes hills and valleys; I learned to use dynamics. Stan and I shared a love for lyricism. We fed each other. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.”
As documented on Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions [Verve], a 1989 quartet session that was not released until 2003, Getz played Barron’s tunes—these included such present-day standards as “Sunflower,” “Voyage,” “Phantoms” and “What If?”—and related to him as a de facto co-leader. Still, Barron was not able to generate consequential interest in his own projects—around 1985 he Barron formed an incendiary quintet with Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield, David Williams and Victor Lewis to play his compositions—until Getz died in 1991.
“For some reason, the industry was late getting to Kenny,” states Lewis, whom Getz employed throughout the ‘80s. “It was frustrating, because we were all active members of the jazz community, we felt the  group and Kenny’s writing were special, and we couldn’t understand why we never worked much. We did a tour of the West Coast, and Kenny took out a loan to pay the airfare, to try to promote us.”
Perhaps one reason for Barron’s tortoise-like breakthrough lies in his genial, understated personality, devoid of visible idiosyncracy. During his sextet week at Dizzy’s Room, for example, Barron functioned as the band pianist as much as a leader, comping enthusiastically for his youngish front line—youngbloods Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone next to veteran Vincent Herring—and soloing when they were through. “I have to give cues,” he chuckled. “So it’s easier that I take the last solo. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether as a leader or a sideperson.”
“Kenny has incredible ability, and yet he is never flashy about it,” says Cinelu. “Which I guess frustrates everybody but him. He has a special touch. It’s easier to get the message when you see a musician who has a lot of obvious charisma and an obvious routine—who is very visual, let’s say. Kenny is not that. Yet, his message passes. He’s one of the great jazz pianists.”
It’s interesting to compare the gradual arc of Barron’s  career to the rapid ascent of such generational contemporaries as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, all Miles Davis alumni who broke ground as young men and then, inspired by Miles, established themselves as leaders by differentiating themselves from the jazz tradition. In contrast, after apprenticing with Gillespie, Barron—who enthusiastically abstracted form during tenures with Hubbard and Lateef—was never willing to shed mainstream values.
“Things evolve the way they should,” Barron says. “I don’t know what other choice I could have made. I was influenced by Herbie with Miles and on Blue Note, like Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, not so much the electronic stuff. By Chick’s writing more than his playing; to me, Chick in the ‘60s was still sounding a lot like McCoy. But I didn’t know quite what to make out of Herbie. His stylistic influences were harder to pin down, other than some he shared with Bill Evans, like French Impressionism.”
“Kenny has a unique approach, a kind of blending of styles,” says Mulgrew Miller, Barron’s partner on a dozen or so duo concerts in recent years, following an initial mid-‘90s encounter at Bradley’s. “He’s rooted in the bop language but takes risks you don’t necessarily hear from people we call bop players. He wasn’t breaking down barriers like McCoy or Herbie, but he’s always trying to reach past his limitations, and he shares with those guys a command of the language of whatever area he’s dealing with.”
In a manner almost unique in 21st century jazz, Barron’s tonal personality encompasses the entire jazz timeline organically and unaffectedly. In the course of a set, he’ll stride with a percussive force and joie de vivre that would not sound out of place at a Harlem Renaissance rent party or a Roaring Twenties Park Avenue soiree. He channels the hard-boiled, warp speed attitude that marked the bustling 52nd Street bars and soulful uptown lounges where bebop flourished after World War Two, and the nuance and polish of the trios that entertained the bibulous mix of gray-flannel suits and tourists who patronized midtown’s upscale grills in the ‘50s. He’s au courant with the craftsmanship and sophistication of the American Songbook, and interprets  it without irony, on its own terms. The airy melodies and surging rhythms of Brazil and the Caribbean dapple his compositional palette, and he has an intimate relationship with the tropes of the Saturday night blues function and Sunday church ceremonial.
“I like Kenny’s touch,” adds Billy Taylor, a friend since Barron’s Gillespie days. “Whether he’s playing a bossa nova or wailing on something with guys playing Art Blakey kind of things behind him, he has the thing for that. To be able to change your touch that way is remarkable. He’s curious, so he’ll take a gig playing ballads. That gives him a chance to play beautiful songs that not everybody plays. Then he works with a group that’s straight-ahead with a soul thing happening, and he’ll go back to church with you. I used to hear him with groups that, quite honestly, were not up to what he was capable of doing at the time. He always found something in that group to take with him. That’s the mark of a first-rate artist.”
It’s also the mark of a pragmatist, a man with responsibilities. Barron intends to work as much as possible as he moves through his seventh decade. Although his stated intention after retiring from Rutgers in 2003 was to eschew teaching for practice and musical exploration, he soon received offers he could not refuse from the jazz departments of Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, where he taught a total of 10 piano students privately during the 2004-05 school year.
“My daughter’s getting married, and I’ve got a wedding to pay for,” he says. What wouldn’t he do? “I’d probably hate playing Hawaiian music,” he responds, perhaps with tongue in cheek.
Has he always been a practical person?
“Practical? Do you think I’m practical?”
Well, yes. Married for 42 years, Barron is a musician who sustained creative edge while paying the bills and found a way, like Tommy Flanagan, to maximize his value as a performer in the world in which he functioned.
“I would be inclined to say it’s there,” he says. “Not that other people haven’t helped me. Yes, I’ve been able to function and be consistent. Work. Be married. Try to be in creative situations as much as possible. Whatever the word for that is, yeah, I am.”

[—30—]

* * * *

Kenny Barron (March 21, 2005):

TP:   First, the editor wants me to write about the different groups. When we spoke on the radio, you said that playing in different situations all the time, which is what you do on your records, keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking differently…

KENNY:   Oh, it does.

TP:   Have you ever done a three-week event like this, where you showcased a different sound over the course of an engagement.

KENNY:   Actually, I have. I did at the Vanguard twice. It was the same rhythm section every week, myself and Ben Riley and Buster Williams, and each week we used a different horn player. One week we used Vincent Herring, another week David Sanchez, I think Jesse Davis… It was fun.

TP:   But that’s a different proposition. These are three different…

KENNY:   Three totally different environments. True.

TP:   The first week with Mino Cinelu… You called the record Swamp Thing. This is a pan-Latin, pan-Brazilian…

KENNY:   Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything! Every two nights it’s going to change. The first two nights it’s myself, Mino Cinelu and John Patitucci. The next two nights John was unavailable, so George Mraz is going to play bass, myself Mino and Abdou M’Boop, the percussionist, who will also play kora. The last two nights will be George Mraz, Mino, myself and Romero Lubambo. That will have more of a Brazilian cast.

TP:   Have you played with Abdou M’Boop before?

KENNY:   No, I haven’t.

TP:   But you’ve played with Mino and Romero.

KENNY:   True. But I haven’t played M’Boop. He came by here and brought his kora, and it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be in terms of how it’s approached, so I have to rethink how it’s going to be used.  But he also plays talking drums, so he’ll be playing percussion as well. Kora is an interesting instrument, because once it’s tuned it has to stay in a particular key. It’s not a chromatic instrument, it’s diatonic, so you tune it to a particular scale and it stays there. If you tune it to B-flat, you can’t play in A-flat. He can retune it, but it’s a very time-consuming thing. He can’t do it between songs.

TP:   So you have to do the whole set in a particular key.

KENNY:   Well, the pieces that I’m going to use will all be in the same tonality. If it’s B-flat, it can also be G-minor, which is the relative minor of a B-flat. So it can be major and minor, but the notes will always be the same.

TP:   Keeping that interesting will be a challenge.

KENNY:   Very much so. There’s a way to do it. We ran over some stuff here.

TP:   That will be the one premiere of this week. Let’s discuss each of the people. Mino Cinelu  is one of the great pan-diaspora percussionists. He seems to have everything…

KENNY:   He can do almost anything. Well, he does. He does everything. He has some very interesting equipment. He has a wave drum, which produces all kinds of interesting sound effects and colors, and I’m sure he’ll use some of that. On the recording, we also did some all-acoustic stuff duo. We did a couple of concerts in Europe.

TP:   So you have a repertoire.

KENNY:   Yes, we have a repertoire. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily be doing… Since we have bass player, we’ll try to expand it. Because there was no bass player on the recording we did.

TP:   With Romero Lubambo, you had a project that had legs with Trio de Paz. But in this case, it’s George Mraz and Mino.

KENNY:   I’m sure we will do some Brazilian stuff, but we’ll do some other stuff as well.

TP:   You and Mino are the ones who are going to shift what you do to suit each environment.  This is an old question. But I’d assume that your involvement with pan-African rhythms goes back to playing with Dizzy.

KENNY:   To a certain extent, yes.

TP:   Did it precede it when you were in Philly?

KENNY:   Yes. Especially Latin music. More Latin music. This was before bossa-nova and Brazilian music. But Latin music was always popular in Philly when I was coming up.

TP:   Did you play Latin gigs?

KENNY:   I didn’t play that many, no. But I’d hear the records by people like Joe Loco and Machito, Perez Prado. I listened to that music a lot.

TP:   Was your peer group interested in it?

KENNY:    Not so much. It was something I liked to listen to.

TP:   How did it come to you?

KENNY:   I heard it on the radio, and said, “Wow, listen to that.” There weren’t stations so much that played it. But there was a jazz station that played it… I don’t know if you know Joe Loco.  He was Cuban, and he had a lot of hits on standards, but always with an acoustic kind of group, trio or whatever. As I got older, when I moved to New York, I started listening to Symphony Sid, who played a lot of Latin music. That’s when I really…

TP:   Did you go to the Palladium at all?

KENNY:   No, I never went to the Palladium. Again, just listening to the radio.

TP:   When you came to New York, it was an efflorescent period for Latin music.

KENNY:   Yes. I came in ‘61.

TP:   Did it give you the same feeling as jazz? Did it add something to your palette?

KENNY:   I think it added something.  I always found Latin music to be very joyful. There’s always dance… It sounds kind of corny, but it was happy, happy kind of stuff. It was fun.

TP:   That’s interesting, because it isn’t a quality that all your contemporaries embodied in their playing. Certainly, modern jazz of the early ‘60s in New York wasn’t so much about keeping a groove going.

KENNY:   No, certainly not. During that period, music started to really become concert music. It got to be THAT kind of thing. I was into that myself. I wanted to be SERIOUS. But that’s one of the elements that I think Monk had, was humor, a sense of fun, playfulness in the music. I think that’s often missing. We’re all so busy being serious, or trying to show that we’re not really enjoying it. That’s what I loved about Billy Higgins. Billy was always smiling. He loved what he did! And that joyfulness, it showed.

TP:   It came out in his sound, too.

KENNY:   Yeah, it came out in the music, and it kind of infected everybody in the bandstand and the audience.

TP:   Did you and Mino first play together on that 1995 project?

KENNY:   No, that was really the first time.  I first heard Mino in Nice with Miles. We had a mutual friend who kind of thought it might be interesting for us to play together. I started going over to his house, and just talk about music… We became really good friends, which we still are. His wife would fix these great meals, and we’d sit and talk about music, and he has all this great equipment. Consequently, a lot of the stuff on the recording we did in his music room. We also did stuff in the studio, where I overdubbed this or that.

TP:   You’ve been very bold in your aesthetic choices. You won’t ever let anyone put you in a bag. One recording you’ll do ballads with Charlie Haden. Another one is wild duos with Mino. Then you’re doing a new quintet with young players, with a flute up front, you’re doing your take on post-bop with the sextet, a duo with Regina… What you’re doing over three weeks characterizes the way you’ve presented yourself over the past 15 years, when you began to do records with serious production values.

KENNY:   I don’t want to do just one thing.  The thing is, I really like all kinds of music. I’d like to expand it even further, do some other things. Another project coming up, and I don’t know if it will come to New York, is I want to do some stuff with the Turtle Island String Quartet. We’ll do something in November, but right now I don’t think there are any concerts slated for New York. So that will be a challenge for me, to play in that kind of environment. I don‘t want to only do one thing. There’s too much to learn.

TP:   Certain people, when they go into Brazilian music or Latin things, deeply study the idiomatic nuances of each idiom. That’s not your approach.

KENNY:   No. I just listen to it, and I respond in whatever way I can, so it’s organic. I’m not Brazilian, so I can’t be Brazilian. But I love the music. So whatever I do, it’s going to be my personal take on it, so to speak.

TP:   But with a lot of people, there might be a quality of superficiality in addressing something without… It’s like someone playing bebop without knowing the changes. Your personality comes through. You always sound completely at home.

KENNY:   Yeah. I don’t know why. It just is. I think it’s because I love the music. I don ‘t think it’s necessary for me to go to school on it. I don’t think I need to go to school and study it for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it. That’s all that’s necessary, is to listen to it.

TP:   Was very Dizzy very much about breaking the stuff down for you in the early ‘60s

KENNY:   He didn’t do it for me. He was very helpful in terms of showing me voicings, harmony. But I saw him do some stuff with Rudy Collins, where he wanted a particular rhythm. So he told Rudy, “Do this with your right foot, do this with your left foot; play this with your right hand, that with your left hand; hit the cymbal here.”

TP:   Do you do that when you play with younger musicians?

KENNY:   I don’t like to do that. If I hire somebody, it’s for what they can bring. My idea about leading a band is to let people do what they do. That’s why you hired them.

TP:   With Romero, you told me that Trio de Paz played for a long time at the Coffee Shop on 16th & Union Square East. I don’t know if you made it a destination, or if it was by accident…

KENNY:   Well, the first time was totally by accident. My wife and I were there shopping at the green market, and we said, “Let’s go get something to eat.” We went in there, and there they were along with Duduka’s wife, Maucia(?), who was singing. Then it became a destination. So every Saturday we were in town, we went there to hear some music. Then we met them and became good friends, and eventually it turned into, “Boy, I’d sure like to play; let’s play something.” Then it turned into, “Let’s do a record.” It evolved that way. We did some tours and concerts. I’d like to do some other things with them, because I enjoy playing with them a lot.

TP:   It sounds like all these projects evolve organically out of your life as a musician…or your life in general.

KENNY: I think so. A lot of things just happen. If I hadn’t gone to the Coffee Shop, the whole thing would never have happened.

TP:   You would have heard about them eventually. But maybe not.

KENNY:   Yeah, or maybe not. You never know. But I would have missed a lot.

TP:   Have you played much with John Patitucci?

KENNY:   Only once, actually. But I love his playing. I have one of his records that I really love. It’s called Communion. The first time we played was actually on a recording with a singer, Cheryl Bentyne. I’ve always loved his playing. So I’m really looking forward to this.

TP:   You and George have played together, but not that much.

KENNY:   When I first started working with Stan, we played together. A couple of times, I’ve subbed for Hank Jones, and worked with George and Dennis Mackrell. But I haven’t played with George in a long time. Actually, on one of the very first gigs with the Ron Carter Quartet, Buster Williams wasn’t available, he was in California, so George made that. That was in the early ‘70s.

TP:   After Dizzy, you played a lot with Freddie Hubbard. Was that a fairly steady-working band?

KENNY:   It was a working band. We didn’t work as much as I’m sure Freddie would have liked, but yeah, it was okay. We didn’t do long tours. It was mostly around New York, working at Slug’s, and a place called La Boheme, which was at 61st and Broadway, and the Coronet in Brooklyn.

TP:   What else were you doing in New York after you left Dizzy?

KENNY:   One thing I did right after I left Dizzy was work with Stanley Turrentine at Minton’s for five or six weeks. The rhythm section was Herbie Lewis and Joe Dukes. That was great, working uptown in that kind of environment. Six weeks back-to-back.

TP:   Dizzy’s time at Minton’s was long gone.

KENNY:   He’d gone past that. Financially, he was past that. But when I left Dizzy, I more or less freelanced for a while, working with as many people as I could.

TP:   The thing with Ron Carter began in the early ‘70s? The mid ‘70s?

KENNY:   Probably the mid ‘70s. Before that was Yusef Lateef. We toured quite a bit, especially during the summer. Yusef was teaching at the time at Manhattan Community College. He actually got everybody in the band to start going to college. He encouraged everyone, “You should go back to school.” So I did. It was a two-year school, and I got an Associate’s Degree, and after that I went on to get a Bachelor’s Degree from Empire State College, which is part of the SUNY.  When I was going to Manhattan Community College, and we were going on the road, I would always tell my teachers, “I’m going on the road for three weeks; what material will you cover in that three weeks?” They were always pretty cool about telling me. I’d bring math. We had math, and I had never had this kind of math before in my life. When I came back, I was ahead of the class.

TP:   You didn’t allow yourself to be distracted.

KENNY:   No, I did the work. But I attribute that a great deal to Yusef’s personality, because that’s the way he was. He was very centered and very into doing what you have to do to make things work.

TP:   I’m sure the relationships between music and mathematics make the logic systems clearer.

KENNY:   You’d think so. But that didn’t necessarily happen.

TP:   Your involvement with Ron Carter was long-standing.

KENNY:   Yes. How that gig started, I was working at the Keystone Korner with Yusef, and Ron was in town and came by. That’s how that happened. It’s a question of being in the right place at the right time.

TP:   When did you first start to lead two- and three-horn ensembles? Your first record is ‘71, I think, forMuse.

KENNY:   There were no horns on that. It was basically trio. Sunset To Dawn. On one tune, by Freddie Waits, Warren Smith said, “Why don’t I play vibes on this.” So it’s a really fast Freddie Waits tune, “Alkefa.” “I’ll play vibes on this.” he was incredible. But there were no horns.

TP:   When did you start?

KENNY:   One of the first times was at a place in the Bronx, the Blue Morocco, where I used Bennie Maupin and Bill Hardman. It was the same rhythm section, with Freddie Waits and Herbie Lewis.

TP:   Was that because of the gig, or was something in you wanting to…

KENNY:   No, that was just a gig. But in terms of starting to write music and say, “Okay, I hear this for quintet,” probably happened first when I had the quintet with John Stubblefield. The ‘80s. Wallace Roney did the first record, What If.

TP:   Was that just percolating? A lot of pianists showcase their instrumentalism and wind up playing trio. But you’ve built up a large body of work for various ensembles.

KENNY:   I like being part of a team. One of the things I like is that I can write for it. I find it difficult to write things for trio. People do it all the time, but it’s more difficult for me. I have no idea why. But it’s easier for me to write things for horns. You can showcase harmony and movement and stuff like that. In that particular group, it started as part of a grant. I had applied for a grant to write some original music, so that was the band I chose.  I’d been knowing John for a long time, and Victor Lewis and Cecil McBee. I got the grant, and did a concert at what was then Carnegie Recital Hall, and they made a tape. It sounded so good I thought I’d like to record it, and I talked to Enja Records. That was the beginning.

TP:   Does a song like “What If” come out of your trio experience?

KENNY:   No, for the quintet. I really heard it for those particular people, for that group. When we first started playing as a group, the music at the time—live anyway—was going to the left. It was starting to go out. Which I loved!

TP:   That would be John’s propensity.

KENNY:   Yes.  But again, it was organic. Nobody said, “Well, let’s play out.” But it just started to move that way. One of our first gigs was a place called Joanna’s [18th Street]. We did a set, and played two tunes in an hour or something. But it never got boring, because the music went in so many different places. We had such a great time. When we did the record, there are considerations of time and length, so it didn’t…

TP:   But subsequently on your ensemble records, you added different flavors. Some had more of a pan-Caribbean-South American feel, some were more hardboppish…

KENNY:   Right. I didn’t set out and say, “Okay, this record is going to be bebop and this one…” It just happened.

TP:   I suppose it speaks to the fact, again, that you’ve assimilated so many musical languages. Is there ever an element where they’re competing for space within you? A bebop side competing with the lyric Brazilian side competing with the classic piano side… This is probably an absurd question. But I find the tonal personality you express so personal but also encompassing so many flavors. I’m sure it seems totally organic to you because you’re living it, but I want to see if we can pinpoint where it comes from.

KENNY:   I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t feel competition in terms of different styles or different idioms. Ideally for me, in one set of music, I can go through everything. What it is, I think each tune kind of carries itself. Each song is a development in itself. One song, if you play it, it may actually be straight bebop. That’s how it might come out. The next song may go out. Or the next song may be Brazilian. All in one set.

TP:   Do you know beforehand?

KENNY:   No, I don’t. It just happens. We may play a blues, especially with the group I have now with Anne and Kim Thompson, and it may go out! I kind of like that. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun for me. Let’s see where it goes.

TP:   Do you think of the different styles as different styles?

KENNY:   Probably not. There’s 12 notes.  There are only 12 notes. It’s just music.

TP:   What differentiates them?

KENNY:   It’s rhythm primarily that will make a difference. The way you approach the rhythm, and phrasing. If you’re playing bebop, for instance, there’s a certain kind of phrasing that works best. The attack. If you’re playing R&B, or if you’re playing some funk, there are certain kinds of voicings that won’t work so well. If the voicings are too sophisticated, they won’t work.

TP:   The sextet you’re bringing in the second week has a new tenor player, Dayna Stephens.

KENNY: I met Dayna in California at a clinic I did for a week at the Monk Institute at the University of Southern California. He’s one of the people who was there, and he really impressed me. When I was looking for a tenor player, I thought about him, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Then somebody told me he had just moved to the New York area. I think everybody will be very surprised. He’s a very good player.

TP:   Everyone else you’ve played with…

KENNY:   Oh, yeah, for a long time. In different situations. Actually, I haven’t worked with Victor in quite a while.

TP:   New repertoire?

KENNY:   Some new stuff, and then some stuff that will be recalibrated or whatever.

TP:   Do you always recalibrate?

KENNY:   Not always.  But sometimes just having a new player will make that happen.

TP:   Benny Golson discusses the art dearth writing, trying to make three horns sound as big as possible. Is that a concern… Let’s put it this way. What are you trying to put forth on this sextet than the quintet?

KENNY:   In terms of instrumentation, the sound is heavier because it’s three horns. And harmonically, with three horns you can do more rhythmically and in the way you can use them. The different colors also that you can have from three horns. Dayna plays tenor and soprano…

TP:   Like most young guys.

KENNY:   Yes, like most young guys. Those are different colors that you can utilize. So for me, it’s about the harmonic movement that three horns allows you. Eddie is only doing two days, and Jeremy Pelt is doing the remainder.

The third week is the trio, what they call the Classic Trio. Ben wasn’t available, because he’s going to be in Europe with his Monk Legacy. Well, he does get back in the middle of the week. But I wanted someone close to Ben in style and age, and I called Grady Tate. Grady does this tour I do every other year in Japan called 100 Gold Fingers, and I’ve always enjoyed playing with him. He’s a very tasty, very sensitive drummer.

TP: What does the term “classic trio” mean to you?

KENNY:   I have no idea.

TP:   But does it mean something to you? Jazz? Classic?

KENNY:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Well, is it a trio that you play a certain type of repertoire and not another type of repertoire?

KENNY:   Well, that could be true. With a trio, I tend to play more standards and… Yes, that’s basically it.

TP:   Well, you probably have 800 tunes that you can draw from.

KENNY:   Yes. I remember we did this at Bradley’s one week with Ray and Ben, no repeats. [18 sets] I have to think about whether to do that again!  But it might be fun. Not repeat any songs. That means there won’t be any “arrangements.” You’re saying, “Oh, let’s do this song.”  But at the same time, I don’t want it to be a jam session.

TP:   So in a certain sense, the classic trio is closer than the other formats to being what that idealized notion of what jazz is supposed to be.  It’s this older material, but you’re approaching it in a totally spontaneous way.

KENNY:   Yes, a spontaneous way. So you won’t know what a song is going to sound like until it starts to reveal itself, so to speak. Again, that can be a lot of fun. Again, I don’t know if that’s what we’re going to do, but it’s a thought.

TP:   So you’re telling me that you don’t go into any performing situation with the whole arc of a performance planned out. There’s always room for openness.

KENNY:   Oh, yes.

TP:   There are general outlines or motifs, and every night you’re approaching it in a different manner.

KENNY:   Hopefully, I’d like that to happen. Almost nothing is planned, other than, “We’ll do this song.” But how the song evolves is up for grabs.

TP:   That doesn’t happen as often as the commonplaces about jazz would have you think it does, to actually approach a set with that attitude. It’s kind of risky in some ways, because you have to get the stuff out there, and a lot of people aren’t so interested in leaving themselves open that way.

KENNY:   I like that. When you reach for something, you have to say it’s okay if you don’t make it. But you’ve got to reach. We all have bad days.  But sometimes you have to reach for it and say, “Well, I didn’t make it.”

TP:   Is  that innate? Or did you learn to do it?

KENNY:   I think as you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. Because there’s another chorus coming! So you can try it again. That’s one of the things that makes music interesting for listeners sometimes, is to hear someone reach for something, and maybe not making it, but trying it again. Sometimes very interesting things develop in that process.

TP:   One reason why you don’t hear much chance-taking is that young musicians go to school and study everything so thoroughly. That can be at odds with what we’re speaking about. Now, you’ve been an educator for thirty years. How do you address your students on this issue?

KENNY:   I put a lot of stress on being as creative and lyrical as you possibly can. I’m not big on transcribing solos. I never have been big on that.

TP:   Not even Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal back in the day?

KENNY:   I said transcribing. I learned solos, but I learned them by rote. By hearing them and then playing them. A lot of people are into transcribing, but I find that when you transcribe solos, you only get involved with the notes. There’s a lot of other aspects to a person’s playing. So if I’m listening to Red Garland with Miles… When that record Round About Midnight came out, I knew all those Red Garland solos. I never wrote them down. But one the things that happens when you write them down is you only deal with the notes. If you learn it by rote, then okay, you get this person’s touch. It’s easier to emulate this person’s touch, phrasing, all of that.

TP:   So Red Garland was one of the guys you got into your body.

KENNY:   Yeah.

TP:   Who were some of the other people?

KENNY:   I used to listen to Horace Silver a lot. I’m talking about junior high school and high school. Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones. They were all different. Wynton had this feeling, and a harmonic concept that was unique. Red had this touch. Everybody had something different to offer.

TP:   You’ve paid some explicit homages to Bud Powell, with that piece “Bud-Like,” and “Madman” has certain qualities to it… It’s an area that you seem to have a fondness for.

KENNY:  Oh, I do. Probably that particular style is at my core. I think Bud is really at the core of what I do.

TP:   Did you ever meet him in Philly?

KENNY:   No. I got to meet him once, when he was not doing well.

TP:   Did you ever meet Monk?

KENNY:   No.  I saw him, but he was always such an awe-inspiring person that I would never go up and say anything.

TP:   Do you mean intimidating?

KENNY:   Yes. He was intimidating, actually. He was very big and… I had just come to New York, and… So I never went up to say anything…

TP:   [Ben Riley’s story] You’ve been in New York since 1961. Initially in the East Village.

KENNY:   I stayed next door to my brother, 314 E. 6th Street, where all the Indian restaurants are. It was a great block. A lot of musicians lived there. I stayed at Vishnu Wood’s place. The rent was something like $60 a month, and it was hard to make that. But it was just one room. Across the street was Lee Morgan, Tootie Heath and Spanky DeBrest, all Philadelphia people who had an apartment. Upstairs from where I lived, Pepper Adams and Elvin shared an apartment. Reggie Workman lived with Lee and Spanky, too. Ted Curson lived a couple of doors up from them.

TP:   A real Philly enclave on East 6th Street.

KENNY:   That’s right. I could walk to the Five Spot and the Jazz Gallery, which were owned by the same people. Coffee shops, like the Fat Black Pussycat, Café Wha, Café Bizarre, all in the West Village. There was so much music. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I heard Cecil play duo with Clifford Jarvis at the Café Wha?

TP:   What does living in New York have to do with your embrace of so many vehicles of self expression?

KENNY:   Well, I think because it’s all here. Music from everywhere is here in New York, and you can hear it all.  Just life in New York in general, especially during that time for me. I was young, and it was exciting, and all the people whose records I would buy, I could go hear them, I could talk to them, I could see them. Then other things as well. I really got into Latin music then, mostly due to radio. But I really got into it then. Everything is right here in New York.  Just the vibrancy of the city. It’s such a great city.

TP:   You’ve been in Brooklyn for how long?

KENNY:   Actually, I was in Manhattan only one year. I got married in ‘62, and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since. The first place I lived was on St. Marks and Franklin, and then I moved to Prospect Place and Nostrand.

TP:   There was a fairly consequential scene going on in Brooklyn then.

KENNY:   Oh, there was a lot of music in Brooklyn. There was the Coronet, the Continental, and quite a few other places. There were also a lot of musicians. When I moved to Prospect Place, I discovered that Cedar Walton lived around the corner on Sterling Place. Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes lived around the corner in the same building on Park Place. Wynton Kelly lived around there on Lincoln Place. Cecil Payne lived nearby.  There were a lot of musicians.

TP:   Were the Brooklyn audiences different at all than the Harlem audiences?

KENNY:   I don’t think so. One of the things that was happening during that time is that the audiences for the music… If you went to the Coronet to hear music or to play, you would see the same people all the time. Neighborhood people came out to hear the music. That kind of stopped in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

TP:   Did that impart a different flavor to the way you played?

KENNY:   I don’t know if it added a different flavor.  But it was definitely inspirational.

TP:   For people in New York at the moment you arrived, you could hear the whole history of the music, people who effect the outer partials of what’s happening now, like Cecil or Ornette (whom you’ve played with), or you could hear Willie The Lion or Ellington or Coleman Hawkins. And you told me that you did.

KENNY:   Yes, I did. I remember working at the Vanguard playing with Freddie Hubbard, and we played opposite Coleman Hawkins for two weeks. Barry Harris was playing piano with him. I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I know Barry was there. That was amazing.

TP:   A lot of younger musicians in the ‘60s were perhaps not so embracing of the older forms, but it seems that even that is part of… On the Live At Bradley’s record you played Blue Skies and Sweet Lorraine, and a lot of tunes you’ll play with the trio are from that era.

KENNY:   Well, apart from bebop, I grew up listening to… Well, the first person I heard do Sweet Lorraine was Nat King Cole. And I loved it from that point. But it was a long time before I started actually playing it. But you have memories of these things, and you say, “Oh, I remember that song; let me start playing that.”
TP:   But someone born after your generation probably wouldn’t have heard Sweet Lorraine on a jukebox.

KENNY:   No, they wouldn’t have. Or Canadian Sunset. I remember hearing that on a jukebox.  Eddie Heywood. And Jug also recorded it.

TP:   Someone like me heard it because I went out looking for it. But it wouldn’t have been an organic part of my upbringing unless I was in an extremely specific house or environment.

KENNY:   Right, it was all around. You’d go into a luncheonette, and on the jukebox there you’d see John Coltrane, Blue Train or Moment’s Notice, or Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana. Any jukebox. In a luncheonette, a restaurant.

TP:   So those things come out in your sound.

KENNY:   Yes.  That stuff was all around. You’re exposed to it.  People who are younger have to search for the music. You have to look for it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear it on television…. Well, you didn’t hear it on television then either. But you have to look for it now.

Plus there were certain experiences, playing situations we were able to get as young players that aren’t available. They weren’t necessarily “jazz” gigs. I used to play dances a lot. We called them cabarets. You had to play standards. You had to play rhythm and blues. That’s what that really meant: I Got Rhythm and Blues. A lot of songs based on that. You had to play for singers. You’d have to play a show.  A singer would come up. “What key are you doing this in?” “I don’t know.” There wasn’t always a rehearsal. If you played, you’d also have to play for a comedian, tap dancers, stuff like this. You’d get to play all this…

TP:   You’d play a whole show. What was the club in Philly…

KENNY:   Oh, there were many clubs. Many. Sometimes they weren’t necessarily clubs…

TP:   The Masonic Lodge, the Elks…

KENNY:   Exactly. That kind of stuff. But I remember there was one club in particular in Philly that was called the Northwest Club. They had a lot of after-hours clubs. I remember working there one time with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker, and Arthur Harper was the bass player. But as part of the rhythm section, you had to also do this other stuff. You had to play with the singer and the comedian. That was just something you did.

TP:   That had to have been ‘59 or ‘60, if you did it with Jimmy. So you were 16 or 17.

KENNY:   Yes.

TP:   That prepared you for New York.

KENNY:   Yes.  There are certain kinds of experiences you had. You knew how to play for a show.  You knew what to do, how to end songs and things like that.

TP:   It’s a very rare musician under 45 who’s had had that experience. Although there are a few.

KENNY: There are some. But it’s rare.

TP:   What  did that do exactly?

KENNY:   Well, one thing, it taught you how to listen. It taught you how to listen, and then it helped you with the language. Musical language. It wasn’t enough just to know… Well, one thing is that you have to learn songs. We used to play for what was called shake dancers, kind of tame strip-teasers.  They would dance to Duke Ellington, Caravan… Exotic dancers. Jimmy Forrest, Night Train, a bump thing. Those are the kind of things you learn. It really prepared you to come to New York. Because it didn’t change that much once you got here. You still had to do those kind of gigs. You didn’t come here and start working at Birdland right away.

TP:   But you came here and soon started working with Dizzy.

KENNY:   Well, I came here in 1961 and started working with him in November 1962.  I graduated high school in ‘60, then I kind of laid around Philly, and came to New York in the Fall of ‘61. Then I got married in ‘62.

TP:   You grew up very young, didn’t you.

KENNY:   Well, I got married very young.

TP:   It wasn’t like a whole lot of time to “find yourself.” But maybe you did that later.

KENNY:   Well, still.

TP:   But a lot of people in that situation would take jazz as a job. You’re always very open-ended within the function stuff you do. You were a professional from 16-17-18. Music was a job, a livelihood from that age, and there are a lot of functions you have to play.  Some things must have felt rote to you. Some people would allow their imagination to be stifled in those situations, and many people have allowed their imaginations to be stifled. Others settle on one kind of sound and stayed with it—and evolved it, which is great. You’re not that way.

KENNY:   I think one of the things that helped was having an older brother who played, having friends… There was a drummer, for instance, named Jerry. I used to go over to his house. He always had the latest records. He built his own stereo system.  We would sit there and listen to the latest records. That’s the first time I heard Ornette, was over at his house. “Wow, what is that?!” So I’ve always been into listening and trying to hear new stuff.  Trying to do it, too.  That’s part of growing. I didn’t want to become stuck. I never did. I don’t know if you believe in astrology, but that’s part of being a Gemini. “Oh, let’s try this.” I think that’s part of it. Just being exposed to other things is is important.  When I came to New York, my brother Bill had been working with Cecil Taylor. He was really into avant-garde.  That was his thing. He loved that. He listened to Stockhausen and showed me 12-tone row music and stuff like that. It made me listen, too.

TP:   You did a tune, didn’t you, called Row House?

KENNY:   Yes, I did, which is a 12-tone row. So again, there’s always something to learn, something to try.

TP:   What was it like playing with Ornette?

KENNY:   It was different.

TP:   Has there ever been a situation that didn’t quite work?

KENNY:   I wouldn’t say that situation didn’t work. But there’s always hindsight. I wished I could have done this, wish I could have… But it came out okay. I was surprised that he called me. Because I think the whole idea was to recreate the group he had with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, who were both there, and Wallace Roney to take the place of Don Cherry. But one of his first groups had piano.

TP:   What I recall about the concert is that he took out his trumpet and played a chorus, and summed everything up in that chorus.

KENNY:   I enjoyed it. Probably even more memorable than the gig were the rehearsals, as he tried to explain his harmolodic concept. Which I never really got. So I just played.

TP:   Lee Konitz told me that Charlie Haden told him, “We really play changes.”

KENNY:   On some of the earlier things, the stuff is so melodic, it really sounds like they’re playing changes, or playing around changes. There’s some stuff there you can hear on The Shape Of Jazz To Come. That’s one of my favorites. Lonely Woman. You can hear harmonic structure in all of his pieces. It’s not just willy-nilly. They’re playing some stuff.

[—30—]

* * *

Kenny Barron (WKCR, September 2, 2004):

TP:    Sitting across from me, looking extremely cool and relaxed on this beautiful day, after a subway ride, is Kenny Barron. Next week, he enters the Village Vanguard with a sextet comprising Terrell Stafford, David Sanchez, Vincent Herring, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and Ben Riley. On Wednesday, he starts his semester at Juilliard. On Thursday, he starts his semester at the Manhattan School of Music. So it will be like old times for Kenny Barron, who during the Bradley’s days, would leave at 3 in the morning, and go out to Rutgers the next day at 8 or so. You’ve been doing this for a long time.

KENNY: Yes, I have.  And as you get older, you get tired faster!

TP:    Well, there are no 3 in the morning sets any more.

KENNY: Not any more. Although I kind of miss it.

TP:    That’s the thing. You want to hang out late, but then in the morning you feel sort of happy that you didn’t do it. But several years ago, when you retired from Rutgers, I recall you saying, well, you wouldn’t be teaching any more. You were going to devote your time exclusively to music, and practice…

KENNY: I did say that, didn’t I.

TP:    What happened?

KENNY: Well, I got a call from Justin DiCioccio at Manhattan School of Music, saying, “We would like you to come and teach?” and I said, “I want this amount of money,” and he said, “okay.” And I only wanted a certain number of students…

TP:    And he said okay.

KENNY: Yeah.  So it’s been working out actually.

TP:    And at Juilliard as well.

KENNY: At Juilliard as well.  Well, I guess from the beginning, I’ve only had two piano students there. So this semester, starting this week, I’ll have four.

TP:    This show is not about education. But what sort of students do you have?  You’re not teaching them the basics.

KENNY: Oh, no. They could almost teach me. I mean, some of them are so incredible, especially in terms of technique, and they really understand the language very well. Actually, it’s fun to teach them. Because they really challenge me. They’re great students. A couple of them have won some competitions.

TP:    It’s a truism by now that, given advances in jazz pedagogy and education, that the technical level and proficiency of young musicians today…they start younger and younger, and they can do more and more. What things don’t they have?  What do they need to get?

KENNY: I guess the things they need to get, they’ll only get by living. Experience.  Experience and paying dues; as Ben Riley likes to say, “having their hearts broken.” So they’ll have some stories to tell. When you’re young and everything is fine, you don’t REALLY have any stories to tell.

TP:    You yourself were 18 when you moved to New York.

KENNY: Right.  In 1961.

TP:    You moved to the East Village, I think.

KENNY: Right.

TP:    Everyone was living on East 5th Street and 6th Street.

KENNY: East 6th Street I lived on.

TP:    You were working, and then joined up with Dizzy Gillespie and got your first college education on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Subsequently, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you went back to school and got a degree…

KENNY: I did.  I went to Manhattan Community College, and got an Associate’s Degree from there.  They had a program, part of the State University of New York, called Empire State College, and I got my B.A. from there.

TP:    I don’t want to put you in the position of looking back to the good old days. But just step back to those days a bit and discuss the climate then, and the attitudes of the musicians you were running with when you came here from Philly. What was percolating? What was in the air.

KENNY: Well, there was a lot. The block I lived on was the block where there are now a lot of Indian restaurants—Curry Row, they call it.  Sixth Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. I lived at 314. I was staying with my brother for a while, and then I moved next door with a bass player named Vishnu Wood. Upstairs, for instance, lived Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams. They shared an apartment together. Across the street lived Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, and a bass player from Philly who’s passed away named Spanky DeBrest, and Reggie Workman also, and two doors up from that lived Ted Curson. It was a great neighborhood. I could walk to the original Five Spot, which was on the Bowery, and the same guys, the Termini Brothers, also owned the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks. So I could walk to all those places. All the coffee shops. I first heard Cecil Taylor, for instance, at Café Wha in the Village.

TP:    On McDougal Street.

KENNY: Yes.  I heard him in that year, ‘61. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I first heard Kenny Dorham.

TP:    Was there a lot of collegiality? Were people supportive of each other?  Was there a sort of give-and-take?

KENNY: Oh, I think there was.  I would have to say yes. Especially among the musicians from Philadelphia.  There was always a kind of brotherhood, so to speak, among the musicians from Philly.

TP:    So even if someone was from Germantown and someone was from South Philly, once they get out of Philadelphia…

KENNY: Oh, yeah.  Well, even in Philly there wasn’t any kind of neighborhood rivalry.  You were a musician. You were one of the cats.

TP:    Prior to that, had you been working a fair amount on the Philly scene?

KENNY: Some. I was doing a lot of local stuff, and occasionally I would get to work in… When I was there, Philly had two major jazz clubs, the Showboat and Pep’s. At some point I got to work there. One of the highlights, I was still in high school, and I got to work there with Jimmy Heath and Lee Morgan and Tootie and Spanky DeBrest. I was thrilled to death.

TP:    This would have been shortly before you came to New York?

KENNY: Yes, shortly before.

TP:    I seem to recall you mentioning to me that while you were in high school, you’d play jam sessions, and catch the last bus home, and get home at 4 or 5 in the morning, and then go to school. I may be overstating the story…

KENNY: Well, not a jam session… But that is true. I would be out a little late, and my mother would be very upset!

TP:    I’m sure there are exceptions, but young musicians don’t have these kinds of experiences these days.  Again, not to get you embroiled into an “our generation had these things,” but do you see it as a different quality by which the information is processed when it’s processed in such a functional situation?

KENNY: I don’t know. I guess there’s something to be said for both. There’s something to be said for going through academia, and there’s something to be said for just learning it organically, through the streets. However you learn it, it’s great. But I guess one of the things when you learn it on the street, so to speak… For me, I think it really stays with you. You get more… This is hard to explain.  There’s more spirit involved. In school, sometimes you can over-intellectualize everything, and everything becomes about scales… It becomes too intellectual.

TP:    Philadelphia may be known as the City of Brotherly Love, but I gather that doesn’t necessarily apply to the attitude of audiences when you’re not doing things as you’re supposed to.

KENNY: Oh, no.  They’d let you know. You get embarrassed a few times, and you’ll work on your stuff.

TP:    What dicta did the older musicians tell you? Would people be quick to correct you on the spot?

KENNY: Well, yes, they would. If I was interfering with what everybody else was doing, yes, they would definitely be quick to point it out to me. But if it wasn’t too bad, they would wait til after the song was over or after the set was over, and pull me aside.  But generally speaking, they were very willing to share information and to let me know: “Voice this chord this way” or “These are the right changes here.”

TP:    So when you got to New York at 18, it was that, but on an everyday basis.

KENNY: On an everyday basis.  And you might say at a higher level, too, in terms of the musicians who were here in New York.  But it was more of the same, yes.

TP:    I apologize for bringing you back 43 years on the third question. So let’s step up to the present. Kenny Barron is performing at the Village Vanguard next week with his sextet. You’re one of many musicians of different generations who express themselves through different configurations. I think you have two-three forms of sextet; there’s one that’s sort of straight-ahead hardbop, another uses strings and flutes, a Brazilian-tinged group, there’s trios, duos, the quintet that you’re working with flute and vibes… Did this also happen organically?  How did it come about that you use so many modes of expression?

KENNY: I like different things.  That’s basically it. With the Brazilian project, for instance, I used to go to this place called the Coffee Shop. [Union Square & 16th]. That’s where I first met Duduka DaFonseca, Nilson Matta and Romero Lubambo. I just happened to be passing by, heard the music, went in, introduced myself, and we talked. Then I wound up going there every Saturday just to listen to them. Eventually, I said, “Wow, I sure would like to play with these guys,” and we figured out a way to make that happen. They were there for 12 years.

TP:    Were they doing a brunch gig?

KENNY: Yes, every Saturday afternoon.

TP:    But your exposure to Bossa Nova goes back to the American involvement in the idiom with Dizzy, who picked up on it fairly quickly.

KENNY: That’s true. Actually, the group that started me really listening to Brazilian music was Sergio Mendez, Brazil ‘65. I still have that vinyl record that I bought in 1965.
TP:    I’ll assume the group this week, to use the term in a totally generic way, a more straightahead, hardbop oriented thing.

KENNY: Yes, it is more straight-ahead.

TP:    The three horns…if you were around in 1990, you’d call them young lions, but now all are established tonal personalities on their instruments. David Sanchez has been on a few of your records.

KENNY: Yes. David actually was a student of mine at Rutgers. That’s when we met. I was there when he auditioned, and I remember how nervous he was. I don’t think he graduated. He left because he actually started working. I ran into him a couple of years later at the Village Gate. They used to do Monday nights where they’d invite a jazz artist with a Latin band, and I was playing with Eddie Palmieri, and happened to turn around, and David Sanchez was playing on the band.

Although he wasn’t my student, Terrell was a student at Rutgers University. Vincent I met a long time ago, and always loved his playing.

TP:    Kiyoshi Kitagawa has frequently played bass on your gigs.

KENNY: Yes, frequently. That started at times when Ray Drummond wasn’t available, and then Ben Riley actually told me about Kiyoshi. I love the way he plays.

TP:    You and Ben Riley go back a couple of minutes, too.

[MUSIC: “Um Beiju”; “Things Unseen”]

TP:    This was Kenny’s core quintet for about a decade. Eddie Henderson and John Stubblefield, KB, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis, and Minu Cinelu… Perusing the recordings here, you’re the composer of all but two tunes on Spirit Song – 8 or 10. You’re the composer of all the tunes on Things Unseen from ‘95. On Images, the latest release, you composed 6 of the tunes. And your compositions comprise the preponderance of the material on many of your records. You’ve been composing for a long time, and some of your songs and little melodic hooks are part of the vocabulary now. You hear musicians quoting “What If,” for example. However—and I could be wrong about this—people don’t necessarily think of you first and foremost as a composer of the scope and breadth that you demonstrably are.

KENNY: Well, it’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a composer. I write tunes. It’s a work in progress. I’m still working on trying to find things to write. I’d like to try to write something for a larger group.

TP:    Aren’t you being unnecesarily modest here? Do you mean that you don’t through-write? What to you is the difference between a tunesmith and a composer?

KENNY: Maybe what I mean is, the stuff I write isn’t terribly complicated. For a lot of people, it’s not a composition unless it’s difficult.  The stuff I write is really very simple. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

TP:    Do you write for personnel?

KENNY: Generally, if I’m writing for a particular project, then I’m writing for the people in the band who I’m going to be playing with. Not necessarily for the instrumentation, but for those particular people. I kind of know what they sound like, and I think I know what they’re capable of.

TP:    Since the ‘70s, when you first recorded for Muse, your tunes incorporate a lot of exotic scales, a lot of world rhythms—Brazilian, Latin and African rhythms. You have a rather broad template, which you’ve used for at least thirty years, and perhaps even going back to your days with Dizzy.

KENNY: I enjoy listening to all kinds of music. I enjoy trying to incorporate various aspects of different cultures into the music, as much as I’m able to.

TP:    Are you trying to find new material to improvise on?  Is the goal always to find something to take off from?

KENNY: As a jazz artist, I think ultimately it’s about improvising and having a vehicle for that.  But at the same time, I would also like to get more involved in through-composing, really writing a piece all the way through. I think it would be interesting to do.

TP:    Who are your models as a composer?  Among your contemporaries are some of the major people, and you worked with Dizzy Gillespie who codified bebop composition.

KENNY: Among my contemporaries, I love Wayne Shorter’s writing. Of course, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. That goes without saying. Some of those pieces they wrote, like Blood Count, Lush Life, they’re really incredible. Bud Powell, things like Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit.

TP:    For example, this week with the sextet… You occasionally recycle or reconfigure compositions, but not too often. Usually a Kenny Barron record presents a bunch of new pieces. Are there new things in the book for the sextet next week?

KENNY: Most of the things we’ve done before. I think we’re going to try two or three new things next week?

TP:    Are you a deadline-oriented composer, or is it a matter of when the spirit moves you?

KENNY: If you give me too much time, I won’t do it! If I have three months to write something, I’ll wait until the day before…or a week before. It’s really just a question of developing a certain kind of discipline, which I have yet to do; to just sit down and… I remember sitting down with the pianist Hassan in Philadelphia, who I’d known since I was a little kid, and he told me that he wrote a tune a day.  That’s 365 songs.

TP:    You must have at least 100 copyrighted.

KENNY: Maybe a few more than that.

TP:    You haven’t exactly been a slouch… Having spoken of composition, we’ll hear some blowing by Kenny on the piano, of which there are ample recorded documents.  This trio worked frequently at the time; you could hear them every 3 or 4 months at Bradley’s. Am I exaggerating?

KENNY: No, you’re not. We were there a lot.

TP:    It’s a one-hour recital of ten tunes, and it reflects the flavor of what your sets would be like. There are tuneful originals with nice rhythmic feels, there’s a couple of Monk, a couple of great standard songbook things, some soul tunes…

[MUSIC: Sweet Lorraine, Alter Ego]

TP:    Lemuria would have done when the trio did a no-repeat week; a week at Bradley’s without playing the same tune twice. That would be 18 sets. I think it happened around ‘91… Playing this music from Bradley’s: You worked there a lot with this trio. It was a real locus for New York’s piano community for about twenty years.

KENNY: I think the first time I worked there, they had a spinet piano. The first time I went there, I heard Bobby Timmons, who was there quite frequently, and eventually I started working there. But I loved working there.  The ambiance, and like you said, it was a really great hang. The last set sometimes would be full of musicians coming by from their gigs. I remember one really memorable night. I think Tommy was working there, and Carmen McRae was working at the Blue Note, and she came by after her set, and I think she played almost the whole last set at Bradley’s. She sat at the piano and sang and played. Only at Bradley’s could you catch something like that.

TP:    What does it do to a musical community to have a gathering place like that? There hasn’t been anything quite like Bradley’s since 1996.

KENNY: For me, I felt very much at home there. I think most of the musicians did.  It was like home.  You’d go in there, you knew everybody… I never had to order a drink!  Because the bartender knew what I drank. He just put it right in front of me.

TP:    So even if you wanted to change for that night, you still had to drink it.

KENNY: Yeah! [LAUGHS] I miss it. I really do miss it.

TP:    A more general question. Is there a New York piano school? Obviously, we’re not talking about people born in New York, because the majority of musicians who make their living here come here from someplace else.  But that being said, it seems that the overall sound you’d hear at Bradley’s from one week to the next and from year to year kind of crystallizes a New York approach to piano.  But it’s unclear in my mind specifically what that approach might be. So do you think of it that way, or is that a bit too general?

KENNY: It’s a little hard for me to think of a New York school of piano playing. As you mentioned, everybody comes here from somewhere else, and all those forces come into play. You’ve got people who come from Detroit, like Tommy and Hank and Barry Harris and Kirk Lightsey. But oddly enough, there is a Detroit sound. Especially with Tommy and Hank and Barry and Roland Hanna, those guys had a particular sound. I think whatever happens is just an amalgamation of everything that’s happening around the country. Because everything comes here; everybody comes here.

TP:    The last time you can really talk about an indigenous New York sound might be the ‘50s, when you have people directly coming out of the stride pianists, and Bud Powell and Walter Davis and Walter Bishop. When you got here in the early ‘60s, what were most of the piano players listening to? At the time, you got here is the same time Herbie Hancock got here, it’s the same time Chick Corea got here… I mean, roughly.

KENNY: Yes, it was around the same time.

TP:    Keith Jarrett got here then. You all arrive in New York with diverse influences, but coming out of the same things that were in the air.

KENNY: I’m trying to think of what I was listening to when I came to New York, the people I would seek out to listen to. For me, it was Tommy and Hank, even though they were rarely in New York during that time. I think they were always busy working, so I never got a chance to hear them live that much then. People like Sonny Clark. I used to listen to Erroll Garner. I never really got a chance to hear Bud, unfortunately. I heard him one time, and he was really not himself. So it was kind of sad for me to see. And Monk; I got to hear Monk.

TP:    As one of the founding members of Sphere, you played Monk’s music extensively in the ‘80s, after he died. Did you get to know Monk?

KENNY: No, I didn’t really get to know him. When I saw him a few times earlier on, I was very young, and I was so much in awe, I would not have approached him at all. Plus, he was a very awe-inspiring looking figure. He was a very big man. I’m a kid. I said, “Wow.”

TP:    You didn’t know what he might say to you.

KENNY: Right.  But I certainly did listen to him.

TP:    And being with Dizzy Gillespie, I suppose that would be a first-hand channel into the attitudes and tales of the music of the generation before you.

KENNY: Oh, sure.

TP:    Is that something you were very curious about at the time? I’m asking in this context. For a lot of younger musicians who didn’t have a chance to experience those lifeblood artists first-hand, didn’t get to see Monk, didn’t get to see Bud Powell, maybe didn’t get to Dizzy—didn’t even get to play in those bands, a lot of them. So for them, the notion of being around New York in 1961, you’d think of it as a kind of golden age. Here’s Coleman Hawkins.  Here’s Monk. You can hear almost the whole history of jazz on any given night in New York in 1961 or 1962 or 1963.

KENNY: That’s true.

TP:    Was it that way to you at that time?

KENNY: Yes, it was.  It was that way to me at that time. I got to hear, thankfully, a lot of people. I got to hear Willie The Lion Smith.  I got to work opposite… I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the Vanguard, and we worked opposite Coleman Hawkins for a week. We played opposite Cecil Taylor for a week. I heard some incredible music.  And I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people.

TP:    Have you always had a very open attitude to music? Looking at your discography in recent years, on the Bradley’s record you play “Everybody Loves My Baby But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” a ‘20s Tin Pan Alley thing, which you play in the stride manner but in your own style.  Then with Minu Cinelu on the track we’re about to hear, you’re prerecording fragments of material, recording electric keyboard bass, using the latest technology. On another track, you explore intervals that you might associate with Cecil Taylor or Hassan. There’ s a lovely arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations.” Really, your music and musical persona seems to encompass very comfortably the whole timeline of the music in a rather organic way.

KENNY: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I love and appreciate a lot of different kinds of music. In terms of being open, I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always listened to all kinds of stuff. I’ve always wanted to play as much as I could, all different kinds of music.

TP:    We have a set of duos by Kenny Barron with different people. First is “Mystere” with Mino Cinelu. A few words on how this recording was set up.

KENNY: We did a lot of stuff that you’d call preproduction, setting up certain things—in his living room actually.  He’s a whiz at the computer, so he’d add different things with the computer. I know nothing about that stuff, other than how to get my email. He did all of that.  Then in the studio, I opened up the acoustic piano on most of it. On my solos, he added other things electronically and altered the sound on certain things with the computer. So when I heard it back, it was totally different.  On quite a few tracks he altered the sound or added things to it. But on the track you’re about to play, we did some of the stuff in his living room, we came in and I overdubbed the piano solo, and I also played keyboard bass.

[KB-Cinelu, “Mystere”; KB-Regina Carter, Fragile; KB-Roy Haynes, “Madman”]

TP:    A set of duos concluded with a few signifying drumstrokes by Roy Haynes, concluding a piece called Madman, from Wanton Spirit. Was that your tune?

KENNY: It is a tune, actually. I’ve never done it live and never recorded it since then. But I think I will start doing it.

TP:    You played Sting’s “Fragile” in duo with Regina Carter.

KENNY: My wife was working at the time, and I went to pick her up, but she wasn’t quite ready, so I went to a bar next door in Soho. I was having a drink, and they were playing Sting singing this particular song. I thought it was so beautiful! So I asked the bartender who it was. I had no idea who Sting was. So I went out and bought the record, and to my surprise, I liked the entire record, but that particular piece, I really fell in love with.

TP:    In 1996, not too many people were working with computers to create the sounds you got on Swamp Sally. And we’ve heard a very diverse selection of music, many colors and scales and cultural reference. But almost all have been done for the same label and the same two producers—earlier for Jean-Philippe Allard, and more recently Daniel Richard, who produces you for French Universal, no longer issued in the States by Verve, but currently by Sunnyside. It seems to me that there might be some connection between having a steady, familiar relationship with a receptive producer and the venturesomeness of your output.

KENNY: Fortunately, they are two producers who I really appreciate. They’ve allowed me the maximum amount of freedom in terms of what I wanted to do. “Go ahead!” Interestingly enough, the CD with Roy Haynes and Charlie  Haden, Wanton Spirit, was actually a suggestion of Jean-Philipppe Allard. Because I never would have thought of it. He said, “What do you think about recording with Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes?” I said, “Wow, that could be… Yeah.” So that’s how that one came about.

TP:    Charlie Haden has a similar relationship with him, as does Randy Weston and Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones and others. The ‘90s was a prolific, fertile for all of them in terms of albums. But a lot of musicians in your position, after more than forty years in the music business, an established bandleader for at least thirty of those years, and with a pedigree that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Stan Getz during the ‘80s… For all of that, you seem very willing to make music with almost anything good that comes your way. It’s a very egoless type of… Of course, you have your ego. And I don’t want to throw around paeans to you here.  But there’s a sort of openness to new experience that seems to inform what you do.

KENNY: Oh, I do like to try new things, yes. They may not be NEW new, but they’ll be new for me. So in that sense there’s certainly a sense of adventure about it for me.

TP:    What underlies that?  Is it as simple as just trying to keep yourself fresh so as not to repeat?

KENNY: No, I think it really is curiosity. I’m not really concerned about becoming stale or anything like that. Now, I should be! But it’s really curiosity. I get inspired by a lot of different things. I’ll go out and hear one of the cats or one of the young women playing today, and I’ll get inspired. I’ll say, ”Wow, that was incredible.” So inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and it inspires you to try a lot of different things on your own.

TP:    Having seen you on nights-off or after a set going out to hear people, I know for a fact that you do check out a lot of music. In your quintet, everyone is under 35, and most of them are under 30.

KENNY: The two young ladies, Kim and Anne, are 23. Stefon Harris is just 30. Kiyoshi is older than you’d think. I was surprised when I found out how old he was.  But still, he’s younger than me.

TP:    What is the benefit to playing with so many people? Because your sound is very identifiable always within whatever context you’re in. I’m not really going to give you to someone on a Blindfold Test, let’s say.

KENNY: Well, what I get playing with all these different people is that they make me play differently. Playing with some straight-ahead, which I love to do, that makes me play one way. Playing with a good singer makes you play another way. Playing with young people who are really energetic, that energizes me. Playing with someone whose music is a little more esoteric puts me in another thing. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether it be as a leader or as a sideperson. Sounding good is more of my concern.

TP:    So if the group sounds good, you’re sounding good.

KENNY: Essentially, yes. That’s very true.

TP:    Is that innate? Did you learn it from someone?  A little bit of both?

KENNY: Maybe a little bit of both.  It’s a team effort.

TP:    Stepping back forty years ago, you were part of Dizzy Gillespie’s group, from 18 to 22. What’s the most important lesson you learned from that, apart from learning all those great tunes from the inside-out and hearing him every night, and the stage presentation and so on.

KENNY:   Well, those are among the things. I can’t say there’s any one thing that was more important than any other.  But it’s how to save yourself, by which I mean that you don’t give up everything all at once every night. You save some stuff.  Keep some stuff in reserve. One of the things I learned is not to play everything you know. That’s it. You don’t play everything you know all the time.

TP:    Why not?

KENNY: What for?

TP:    You played a lot with Ron Carter in the ‘70s. The group was popular, lots of recordings and bookings.

KENNY: That was a really great band, with two bass players; Ron played piccolo bass and Buster Williams the full-sized bass. Ben Riley was on drums. Ron is a really good bandleader, because he knows what he wants, and he knows how to TELL you what he wants and how to get it. One thing I learned from playing with Ron is dynamics, how to use dynamics. He’s very used to not playing at one level all the time—hills and valleys in music.

TP:    How about Stan Getz? Since he passed, some amazing recordings have come out of your collaboration.

KENNY: I guess the thing Stan and I had in common was a love for lyricism. I think we fed each other in that way.  I certainly learned a lot from hearing him. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.

TP:    Is there anyone during the time we could call your apprenticeship, which was a long one… You played steadily as a sideman for thirty years, though for a chunk of that time you were a leader. Is there anyone you wish you could have played with that you didn’t get to?

KENNY: Yes, a few people. Pre electronic days, I always wanted to play with Miles.  And Sonny Rollins is someone I always wanted to play with.

TP:    With Sonny, that could still happen.

KENNY: One never knows!

TP:    After you leave here, you have a rehearsal for next week. So will this be the first rehearsal for this band for this program?

KENNY: Yes.  And unfortunately, I don’t think everybody is going to be there.  People are still out of town. So we’ll muddle through.

TP:    You mentioned that you have three new pieces. Are you a stickler for rehearsal? Your bands always have a sound of elegance and casualness that makes me think that you might be working them really hard.

KENNY: No. I rehearse because it’s necessary.  But I don’t LIKE to rehearse.

TP:    The trios with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, I’ll bet you didn’t rehearse.

KENNY: Oh, no, we rarely rehearsed.  And many of the arrangements are really just head arrangements. They evolved over the course of playing them over a period of time.

TP:    You said that your music is very simple, but it’s very distinct. What do you think is the hardest aspect of playing your compositions correctly?  Is it the phrasing?  Is there a certain attitude?

KENNY: I don’t know. Again, I don’t think it’s difficult, but if there’s anything, it’s playing with the right attitude. I certainly don’t think the music is terribly difficult. If it’s anything, I think it’s playing with the right attitude and the right feeling.

TP:    Another one of your tunes that’s gotten some broader play is New York Attitude. So maybe it’s the New York attitude. Not everyone has it.

KENNY: Could be.

* * *

Kenny Barron Musician Show (WKCR, 2-13-91);

[MUSIC: K. Barron, “New York Attitude”]
Q:    [ETC.] Kenny is from Philadelphia.  I think that’s probably the first thing anybody should know.
KB:  Right.  From North Philadelphia.
Q:    Neighborhoods are pretty important in Philly.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, there’s North Philly, South Philly, West Philly.  They’re all different, too.
Q:    You’re from quite a musical family as well.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, Bill was the oldest.  There were five of us altogether.  Bill and myself are the only ones who became professional musicians, but everyone else played the piano, two sisters and another brother.  They all played the piano.
Q:    There was one in the house?
KB:  Yes.  There was always a piano there.  My mother played also, so she was kind of the one who inspired everybody to do that.
Q:    What kind of music was played in the house?
KB:  It was usually Jazz, Rhythm-and-Blues — primarily.  And Gospel Music on Sunday.
Q:    What were your folks into?  The big bands?
KB:  It was strange, because my folks…my parents didn’t really listen to the radio, or they didn’t seem to listen to music that often, other than my mother, who as I said, listened to Gospel Music on Sunday.  But my brothers and sisters listened to lots of different kinds of music.  At the time, they had some really great radio shows, Jazz radio shows in Philly.  As I got a little older, by junior high school I was also listening to, like, Doo-Wop groups and things like that.  So I listened to all kinds of music.
Q:    You were also studying European Classical Music.
KB:  Yes, I was studying Classical piano.  I did that from the age of 6 until I was 16.
Q:    Now, what was your first exposure to the world of Jazz in Philadelphia?  Did you sneak out when you were younger and go hear groups in the neighborhood, or was it through your brother?
KB:  Actually it was through my brother.  He had a fantastic collection of old 78’s, Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro, Dizzy, people like that.  So I used to hear those things all the time.  I can remember being very affected by one tune in particular; I’m talking about when I was maybe ten years old.  That was a piece called “Sippin’ At Bells.”  I always tried to find that piece and that record, and I couldn’t remember the record label.  Somehow or other, it really got to me.
Q:    Bud Powell was on that, yes?
KB:  I believe so.
Q:    Of course, I’m sure your brother must have been practicing around the house.
KB:  Oh yeah.
Q:    It must have always been there.
KB:  Yes, there was always music.  His friends would come by.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the pianist Hassan from Philly.  Well, he and Bill were very close, so he used to come by the house quite often, and they would spend hours playing and just talking together about music.  So I would be there listening and checking them out.
Q:    Do you have any particular reminiscences about Hassan? He didn’t have a lot of visibility outside of Philadelphia, and recorded only once, albeit with Max Roach.
KB:  One record, right.  That’s right.  He was unique as a pianist.  Eccentric.   He just had a very unique style.  Kind of Monkish.  Of course, at that time, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew nothing about Monk.  But he had, like I said, a very unique style.  Later on, I found out that one of his biggest influences was Elmo Hope, and not Thelonious Monk.
Q:    One of the compositions on that record, actually is dedicated to Elmo Hope, too.
KB:  That’s right.  Actually, I plagiarized a bass line from one of his compositions from The Incredible Hassan on one of my records.  I see you’re taken aback!  It’s funny, because only a few people knew it, and they were all people from Philadelphia!
Q:    I’ll bet.  Who were some of the other people on the Philadelphia scene who were important in the 1950’s, and particularly when you were beginning to emerge and find your way?
KB:  Well, there were people… There was a saxophonist, for instance, named Jimmy Oliver, who was very influential on the Philadelphia scene at the time.  Jimmy Heath.  I had a chance to work with Jimmy while I was still in high school.  Oh, and just the guys that I came up with; there are people who probably aren’t that well known outside of Philadelphia.  A bass player named Arthur Harper…
Q:    He played with J.J. Johnson…
KB:  Exactly.
Q:    I think he’s playing with Shirley Scott now.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.   He is playing in Philadelphia.  He moved back to Philadelphia, and he’s working there.  But he was one of the guys that I came up with who had a very big influence on me.  He was a fantastic bassist.  We used to play together a lot, and talk about music.
Sonny Fortune, we came up together.  So a lot of people were around during that time.
Q:    I guess you were a little young to remember Jimmy Heath’s big band…
KB:  Yes, that was a little before my time.  But I often heard of it, because Bill played in that big band, and I often heard him talk about it.  And there were some great people in it.  I think John Coltrane…
Q:    And Benny Golson…
KB:  Benny Golson, right.
Q:    [ETC.] Now, you’re on record as saying that the first record that really grabbed you was a Miles Davis session from 1956 with Sonny Rollins and Tommy Flanagan and…
KB:  Yeah.  Max. [sic: Art Taylor]
Q:    …you were really into Miles Davis at that time.  So we have a set of Miles from that period lined up for you…
KB:  [LAUGHS]
Q:    …by the miracle of radio.  Was this one of your brother’s records, or did you hear it on the radio?
KB:  No, actually what happened, I was in junior high school, and we had an art class, and the teacher used to encourage the students to bring in music to paint by, so to speak.  So a friend of mine, a drummer, who is now an English teacher actually, he brought in this record, Collectors Items.  The tune that they were playing that got me was ” In Your Own Sweet Way.”  I stopped painting, I was listening, and I was “Who is this?  Who is that?”  Because it was just so clear, so crystal clear, and the touch was so light,  delicate.  And I just fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there.
Q:    Well, we’re going to hear that in this set.  But we’re going to start with “All Of You” performed by the Miles Davis Quintet, with two other Philly legends, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the famous recording, Round About Midnight.
[MUSIC: Miles, “All of You,” “In Your Own Sweet Way.”]
KB:  When that record came out, it had such an impact on the Jazz scene that I was coming up with… One of the things that we could do, for instance… I mean, I knew everybody’s solo on every tune.
Q:    From the Round About Midnight record.
KB:  Yes, from that record.  I mean, I could do that as you were playing it then!  I mean, that didn’t make me unique, because everybody did that then.  I mean, that was one of the ways in which you learned about improvising, was just through trying to imitate and learn solos, and find out how they did it, what they did.  It was a great… It’s still a great learning tool, just to listen.
Q:    At about the age of 14 and 15, who were the people you were following?  Obviously Red Garland.
KB:  Yeah, Red Garland.  I also was listening to Horace Silver.  I think I may have been a little younger than that when he came out with Six Pieces of Silver.   For some reason, I remember at that particular time we didn’t have a record player in the house.  There was a luncheonette about five or six blocks from the house, and they had on their jukebox “Señor Blues” and “Enchantment.”  And I went up to this luncheonette every day to play that, play those two songs.  Then when I found out that the drummer, Louis Hayes, was 18, I mean, that really gave me a lot of inspiration.
Q:    There’s hope for me yet.
KB:  Yes. [LAUGHS]
Q:    You were also listening to Ahmad Jamal at this time.
KB:  Right.  The Live At the Pershing album came out at this time.  Well, maybe a little bit later.  But that was also very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was “Music, Music, Music.”  And again, it was “Who is that?”  It was just so hip.
Q:    Just encapsulate your impressions of Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver, their contributions in retrospect, now that  you can look back at it.  They’re still doing it, actually.
KB:  Well, that’s right.  Still!  I heard Ahmad a couple of summers ago, and he’s still unbelievable.   Actually, I appreciate him even more now, now that I really know what he’s doing; not really know, but now that I kind of understand what he’s doing.
I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique.  His touch… So he has it all happening for him.
Horace was also a very big influence on my playing.  He’s completely different from Ahmad.  Horace is a much more percussive player, and you know, a little more out of the  Bebop thing, but a great pianist and an unbelievable composer.  So just about every Horace Silver record that came out, I would go and buy it, or find somebody who had it so I could listen to it.   Because I was as fascinated by his compositions as I was by his playing.
Q:    As are many musicians still.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    I think he’s one of the most popular fake-book…
KB:  Yeah, that’s true.
Q:    Were you engaged in teenage combos at this time?  Were you working at all?
KB:  Not working as such.  But yeah, I did.  I had a little trio.  We used to perform in school functions and things like that.  It was fun, and it was, again, a great learning device.  While I was in high school I met Arthur Harper.  We  happened to be… I was studying bass at the time, and we happened to be studying with the same teacher.
Q:    Who was?
KB:  I don’t even remember his name.  He was a Classical teacher.  Mr. Eaney(?).  That was his name.  Wow.  He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And I had my lesson at 10 o’clock, and Harper had his lesson at 11, so I would see him, you know, when… I never knew how good a bass player he was, and I guess he never knew that I played piano.  Until one day I happened to go to a jam session in West Philly.  I was playing bass, you know.  So one of the guys, we later became great friends (his name was Jimmy Vass, an alto player) but I had just met him this particular day.  He called “Cherokee.”  And obviously, I couldn’t make it!  [LAUGHS]
Q:    It wouldn’t seem obvious to us now.
KB:  I’m talking about on the bass, now.  I was playing bass.  Then I spotted Arthur Harper!  And I had a pleading look in my eyes.  He came up and rescued me, and I sat down and listened to him, and all I could say was “Wow!”  I mean, he was such a good bass player.  His time… He was incredible.
[MUSIC:  A. Jamal, “Music, Music, Music,” “No Greater Love,” H. Silver, “Señor Blues”]
Q:    Did you discover Bud Powell around the time you first heard Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver?
KB:  Actually I discovered Bud later.
Q:    Later.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    Monk, too.
KB:  Monk, too — later.  I guess I was so taken with Ahmad and also with Tommy Flanagan that I kind of neglected to go to the source, so to speak, which was Bud Powell.  It’s hard not to come through him for almost any pianist.  It’s very difficult for any pianist who is playing today not to have come through him, to have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly, one way or another.
[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Glass Enclosure (1953),” “Hallucinations” (1950]
Q:    We’ll move now to music emanating from Philadelphia in the late 1950’s that Kenny was involved with in one way or another as a young musician.
KB:  Well, I met Jimmy Heath: I was still in high school when I met him.  He had done this first album for Riverside [The Thumper and Really Big], for kind of a small big band, and he organized a group in Philadelphia, kind of scaled it down.  So I had a chance to play with him, and play a lot of the music from that album — and it was really a lot of fun.  A couple of times he even used the big band.
Q:    I take it he heard about you through your brother.
KB:  Through Bill, right.  And also through another saxophonist in town by the name of Sam Reed, who I think had mentioned me to Jimmy.  He was very helpful, in terms of my career, even though he may not know it.  I remember one time Yusef Lateef came to Philly, had a matinee at the Showboat, Monday, 4 o’clock, and his pianist missed the flight.  So Jimmy gave him my number, and he called me, and I went and played the matinee — and that was it.  He paid me.  Then about three months later, just after I graduated from high school, I got a call from him to come to Detroit and work ten days in a place in Detroit called the Minor Key.  It was a great experience.  First time on an airplane, first time on the road.  It was a great experience.
Q:    And Detroit was quite a scene at that time.
KB:  Yes, it was.  Yes, it was.
Q:    Did you meet most of the people then residing in Detroit?
KB:  I met some, yeah.  I met some people.  The drummer was from Philadelphia, though: his name was Ronald Tucker.  The bassist was from Detroit, I think he lives here now, or he may be back in Detroit now: he was Ray McKinney, who comes from a very musical family.  That was a great ten days.  And the music that Yusef was doing at the time was really unusual.  So it was my first time experiencing that.
Q:    Of course he later became a big part of your career, some fifteen years later, which we’ll be hearing later on in the course of the Musicians Show.  The other material we’ll hear on this set is a Philly Joe Jones date from 1960 called Philly Joe’s Beat, which is your brother’s debut on record, more or less, a wonderful recording.
KB:  Yeah, it is.  It is.
Q:    It features a lot of the Miles Davis arrangements, and other things, done Philly Joe style.  Now, did you know Philly Joe Jones at this time, or was he too much out of town…?
KB:  Well, he wasn’t in Philadelphia that often except to work.  But again, I got a chance to work with him when he came through Philadelphia.  It was the same sort of situation.  He came through Philadelphia, and his pianist wasn’t able to make it.  So I got a chance to do I think four nights with him, along with Arthur Harper, my brother Bill was there, and trumpet player Michael Downs.  We did four nights at the Showboat in Philly.  Again, it was pretty much the same music that’s on this album, Philly Joe’s Beat.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Heath 10, “Big P” (1960); Philly Joe, “Salt Peanuts” (1960); J. Heath 10, “Nails” (1960)]
Q:    Kenny participated in all of this music in one way or another around the time that the material was recorded.
KB:  That’s true.  That’s very true.  I had a chance, again, to work with Philly Joe, where we played pretty much the same music, and I had a chance to work with Jimmy Heath during that time, and played a lot of the music that was on that Really Big album.
Q:    I’d say we’ve thoroughly covered the Philadelphia period.  Now we’re in 1962, and you’ve been to Detroit with Yusef Lateef for ten days, and done some other things.  But now you join Dizzy Gillespie, and that lasts four years and really brings your name out into the wider world of Jazz.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    How did Dizzy find out about you?
KB:  Again through a recommendation.  When I first moved to New York, I…
Q:    When was that?  When did you make the move?
KB:    I moved to New York in 1961.
Q:    Right out of high school?
KB:  Well, I graduated in ’60.  So I spent about a year around Philadelphia, and then I moved over here.
Q:    What induced you to come up?
KB:  Well, just the same thing that induces everybody.  Just to be around all these musicians and to be around all this music — and to learn, you know.
But anyway, when I first moved here, I moved next door to my brother on East Sixth Street, so I used to walk to the Five Spot a lot.  James Moody happened to be working there, and I sat in — and he hired me!  We did some gigs in Brooklyn, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, and again at the Five Spot.
Anyway, about a year later, I ran into Moody on Broadway.  Moody had gone with Dizzy, and I ran into him on Broadway.  He said they were appearing at Birdland, and he said, “You know, Lalo Schifrin is leaving Dizzy; would you be interested?”  And I had just gotten married, and I needed a gig! [LAUGHS] You know?  Plus, I mean, that’s such an honor.  So I said of course I’d be interested.  So he said, “Well, come by Birdland.”  And I went by Birdland, and just talked to Dizzy.  You know, Dizzy had never heard me play, and he hired me.
Q:    Without hearing you play.
KB:  Without hearing me play.  Just on Moody’s recommendation.
Q:    Well, they have some history together.
KB:  Yes, they do! [LAUGHS]
Q:    Did you just go in cold?  You must have had a rehearsal or two.
KB:  No, actually we didn’t.  Right after Birdland, the first gig was in Cincinnati — and there was no time for rehearsal.  So I remember after checking into the hotel and going to the gig in a cab, Dizzy was running down these things to me, talking certain tunes down.  Then Chris White, who was the bassist at the time, and Rudy Collins, the drummer, they were also very helpful in pulling my coat to what was happening with each tune and… The gig wasn’t a whole week, I don’t think, maybe just a few days.  So we managed to get through it.  And by that time I felt a lot more comfortable, after playing it a few times.  So it worked out. [LAUGHS]
Q:    Apparently it did, because you did four years with Dizzy Gillespie.
KB:  Right.
Q:    A few words about Dizzy, and evaluating the experience.
KB:  Well, I mean, what can you say?  I think Dizzy’s a national treasure.  I mean, as a musician, as a human being, and his sense of humor — I mean, that’s real; that’s not just on stage.  I mean, that’s real.  He’s just a great human being, a great musician.  And I learned a lot musically, just being around him, how to save yourself… You know, one thing you do when you’re young is, you play everything; you try to play everything you know.  But that’s one of the things, listening to Dizzy, that you learn; you don’t have to do that all the time.  Save yourself for those difficult moments when you really have to do that.  And you don’t have to play everything you know at every moment.
Q:    Dynamics.
KB:  Exactly.  I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned from him.
Q:    You made several records with Dizzy, but we’re going to go back to a recording by the great big band of the 1940’s, and listen to a version of “Manteca”.
KB:  Well, this is actually one of the first things I heard.  I can remember hearing this on the radio, this big-band version of “Manteca.”  And again, I was…whoo, I loved it.  And I’ve never really liked big bands that much, but there were a couple of things that really got me, and this was one of them.
[MUSIC: Dizzy Big Band “Manteca” (1948); Monk (solo) “Blue Monk,” “Ruby My Dear” (1971); Dizzy Big Band, “Round About Midnight” (1948)]
Q:    Dizzy Gillespie and Monk are two musicians Kenny has been associated with, although in very different ways.  The public associates you very much with Monk, I imagine, through your work with Sphere, and also from recording a lot of Monk’s tunes on your albums.  But you didn’t really get into Monk, you said, until rather late.
KB:  Yes, not until much later.  Towards the end of high school I really started listening a lot to Monk, and really began to appreciate his writing and his playing.  They are almost inseparable; they are so similar.  I mean, it’s very hard to imitate him, he’s such a strong stylist and so unique.
Q:    So what do you do?
KB:  Well, you play yourself playing Monk.  That’s the best you can do.  I mean, you can do it tongue-in-cheek…
Q:    I never got that impression from you, though, that you were ever doing Monk tongue-in-cheek.
KB:  Well, there are certain things you can allude to, you know, about his playing.  The humor in his playing, the use of dissonance, his touch, the percussive touch that he had.  So you can allude to those things just for flavor, but I don’t think that it would make sense to really imitate Monk.
Q:    Well, he really developed his own fingerings and his own personal language.
KB:  Yes, as you say, his technique was very personal.  I got to see him live only a few times, and just to watch him would amaze me, looking at his fingering, how he would execute. I mean, I’d think, “Is he actually going to pull this off?”  Of course, he always would.
Q:    Walking the tightrope.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  It was just so unorthodox.  But I think his approach and the way he did things is part of the uniqueness of his music, what makes it all sound so special.
Q:    I guess “Round Midnight” was in Dizzy’s book when you were performing with him, because I know you recorded that with him on one of the Mercury albums.
KB:  Yes, it was.
Q:    [ETC.] Now we’ll take an interlude, and listen to some musical offerings by our host this evening, Kenny Barron, in quintet and trio format… [ETC.]  I wonder if you’d elaborate on your speculative title “What If?.”
KB:    Well, it’s like always looking ahead and trying to find problems, when there aren’t any.  “What if this  happens, and what if that happens?” rather than just go with what is happening.
[MUSIC: KB Quintet, “What If?”, KB Trio, “The Courtship”]
Q:    Now we’ll get back to influences, and we’ll hear something by McCoy Tyner, who had a major impact on you.
KB:  Yes, he has.  Well, on almost all players younger than him.  I met McCoy when he was still living in Philly, and his playing was quite different then.  After he joined Trane, it just really changed, and just grew and grew and grew, so that he became a major influence himself.  But his playing when he was still in Philly was a little more beboppish, a little more bebop influenced.
Q:    He’s not really that much older than you.  There’s about a five years difference.
KB:  Yeah, something like that, five or six years.
Q:    Which means a lot then, but…
KB:  Well, at that time, at that time, at that stage, yeah, it can mean a lot.
Q:    Who was he working with in Philly?
KB:  Well, he used to work with people like Odean Pope, and also he used to work with, like, Lee Morgan and people like that.  Whenever someone would come in from New York… I remember one time Kenny Dorham came in, Kenny Dorham and Jimmy Heath, and the rhythm section was McCoy and Lex Humphries, and I can’t remember who the bassist was…it might have been Jimmy Garrison, I’m not sure.  This was at a little small club that didn’t last too long in Philadelphia, so whenever someone came through Philly, McCoy would always be the pianist.
Q:    Those are some high standards on the Philadelphia scene that you had to come up under.
KB:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.
Q:    You couldn’t be messing around in Philadelphia.
KB:  No.  And there were some other good pianists there that no one ever heard of, who still live there.
Q:    Well, now they’ll hear of them.
KB:  There was a guy there named John Ellis, another pianist named Omar Duncan.  Hen Gates, who some musicians may know, is from Philadelphia.  Some others…the names escape me right now.  But there are a lot of good musicians.
[MUSIC: McCoy, “Inception” (1962)-DEFECTIVE]
Q:    Coming up will be music by Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef, and in each instance we’ll hear one of Kenny Barron’s compositions.  You joined Freddie Hubbard immediately after leaving Diz, or…?
KB:  No, it wasn’t immediately after, but maybe a year after I left Dizzy.  Freddie lived in the same neighborhood… Actually, at the time he lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn, and I started working with him.  It was a great experience, because it was totally different from working with Dizzy.  Things were very, very structured with Dizzy, but with Freddie it was a lot looser, and I was able to take a lot more chances, to be a little more adventurous.  It’s all part of the growing experience.
Q:    Which was very much in keeping with the times as well.
KB:  Exactly.  Exactly, because it was during the Sixties.  I went through several different bands with Freddie.  One was a sextet, with James Spaulding and Bennie Maupin, the late Frederick Waits, and a bassist who is now back in California, Herbie Lewis.  That was a really good band.  It was the kind of band that could shift gears.  It could play inside, outside.  Then we had another band called The Jazz Communicators, which never recorded, which was with Joe Henderson, Freddie, Louis Hayes, Herbie Lewis and myself.
Q:    Never recorded.
KB:  Never recorded.  So I’ve been through several different situations working with Freddie, and they were all great.
Q:    I can’t recollect whether you’re playing electric piano or piano on the track, but you did quite a bit of work on the electric piano over about a 10 or 12 year period.
KB:  Yeah, during that time I did quite a bit on the electric piano.
Q:    Why were people concentrating so much on the electric piano then?  Was it because clubs didn’t have pianos?  For experimentation?
KB:  No, that was primarily for recording.  I think what you have there was the very, very beginning of the fusion thing.  So a lot of record companies, when you recorded, wanted you to use electric piano to add other colors.  Because the fusion thing could go in several different directions.  It could be used kind of for more avant-garde kind of music…
Q:    Color, texture…
KB:  Yeah, texture and things like that.
Q:    Freeing things up.
KB:  Yeah.  And also it could be used percussively for more R&B kinds of things.  So a lot of companies wanted the pianists to use the electric pianos during that time.  I think one year I won a New Star Award or something from Downbeat, and I never had an electric piano.  I won the award on the electric piano, I mean; and I never owned one.  But I was using it a lot on recordings.  Not at my request, but the company’s request.
[MUSIC: Freddie, “The Black Angel” (1968); Yusef, “A Flower” (1976?)]
Q:    Now, Yusef Lateef was the first musician with whom you went out on the road, in 1960 or so, and you did five years with Yusef in the 1970’s.  How much was the group working then?
KB:  He was teaching himself at the time.  So we worked primarily during the summer.  We would either go to Europe or out West, a California tour, work our way out to California and back.  So for about four or five years that’s all we did.   And again, it was mostly during the summer, because he was teaching.  And during that time, everyone in the band also decided to go back to school, so everyone else was in school as well, studying.
Q:    That whole experience was very positive.
KB:  Yeah, he had a very positive influence.  Like I said, he influenced everyone to go back to school.  Well, he’s an amazing person.  He just has a very positive effect.  I was in one of his classes, actually, a harmony class.  I remember one of the projects, everyone had to write a large piece of music, so I wrote a string quartet.  He said, “Well, it’s nice that you wrote all this music.  How can we get to hear it?”  So everyone in the class put money together, and we hired musicians, and actually gave a concert to perform these pieces of music that we had written for our term projects.  And it really came out great.  But that’s the kind of person he was, who inspired you to do things like that.
Q:    Coming up we’ll hear the last issued record by Kenny Barron’s late brother, Bill Barron.  There’s one that’s ready for issue in the near future.  Your brother was the head of the Jazz Department at Wesleyan University at that time.
KB:  Yes..
Q:    You recorded with him on just about every record under his leadership, I think.
KB:  I believe so.  Just about every one.
Q:    You’ve mentioned, of course, your brother’s influence.  Just a few words about your older brother, Bill Barron.
KB:  Well, he was an incredible musician.  I don’t want to use the word “underrated,” but there it is, you know.  In terms of the public, I think he was.  I think musicians knew and respected his work, you know, as often I’ve heard… Especially people that he came up with.  People like Jimmy always spoke very well of Bill.   And he was a really good person, and very dedicated.  He was very dedicated to music.  I think he spent most of his waking hours involved with music one way or another, writing music, talking about music.  He was also a very good composer.  He had some unique ideas about composition, very different ideas, and it came through when he wrote.  He was just a great player and a great person.
[MUSIC: B. Barron, “This One’s For Monk” (1990)]
Q:    A few words about the quintet working at the Village Vanguard this week.
KB:  Well, I could speak volumes about them.
Q;    Then we’ll do short stories.
KB:  On trumpet is Eddie Henderson, who I think is one of the finest trumpet players around today.  He’s obviously a very intelligent person; he’s a doctor…and a funny guy, too!
I guess what I love about everyone in the band is that when it’s time to work, they really hit very hard.
John Stubblefield is, you know, from Arkansas, so he’s got a certain kind of grittiness in his sound.  At the same time, he has that certain other kind of thing that maybe Wayne Shorter…
Q;    From that AACM background, there’s another…
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  And David’s background is West Indian, but he’s been here for a very long time, and he’s worked with almost everybody.  He’s a current mainstay with Cedar Walton’s European trio, the trio that he takes to Europe quite often, sometimes with the Timeless All-Stars.  He works a lot.  He’s dependable… I’m talking about in terms of music.  I can count on him to be there, and to be imaginative, good sound, good intonation, good time.
Now, I don’t know exactly what I can say about Victor Lewis.  I mean, Victor can function in practically in any kind of circumstance.  Whatever kind of music you want to play, he can do it for you, and do it well — and enjoy doing it.
Q:    And different every time.
KB:  Yeah, different every time.  One of the things about having this band, I don’t tell them what to play; I just let them bring whatever they have, their own thing to it, and it works out better that way for me.
Q:    [ETC., THEN MUSIC]
[MUSIC: Moody/KB, “Anthropology” (1972); KB Trio, “The Only One” (1990)]
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Mulgrew Miller, R.I.P. (1955-2013) — A Downbeat Article and Several Interviews

I am deeply saddened at the death of Mulgrew Miller, who succumbed yesterday to his second severe stroke in several years. He cannot be replaced, but his impact will linger. It’s hard to think of a pianist of his generation more deeply respected by his peers. He found ways to refract various strands of post World War Two vocabulary — Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell, Monk and McCoy, Chick Corea and Woody Shaw  — into a singular soulful, swinging conception.  I heard him live dozens of times, whether in duos and trios at Bradley’s or Zinno’s, or with his magnificent, underrated, and influential group Wingspan at the Vanguard and other venues, with his working trios, and on dozens of sideman dates with the likes of Joe Lovano, Von Freeman, and a host of others. I can’t claim to have known Mulgrew well, but nonetheless had many opportunities to speak with him, casually between sets at a gig, and more formally at several sitdowns on WKCR and, once over dinner for an article — I didn’t have quite as much space as I hoped to get — that appeared in DownBeat in 2005. I am appending the article, the transcript of that conversation,of a conversation a month before that on WKCR, and an amalgam transcript of separate WKCR encounters in 1988 and 1994, one of them a Musician’s Show. We did a very far-ranging WKCR interview in 2007, as yet un-transcribed.

* * *

Mulgrew Miller: No Apologies

Ted Panken

Down Beat

Ironies abound in the world of Mulgrew Miller.

On the one hand, the 49-year-old pianist is, as Eric Reed points out, “the most imitated pianist of the last 25 years.” On the other, he finds it difficult to translate his exalted status into full-blown acceptance from the jazz business.

“It’s a funny thing about my career,” Miller says. “Promoters won’t hire my band, but they’ll book me as a sideman and make that the selling point of the gig. That boggles my mind.”

“Mulgrew is underrated,” says Kenny Garrett, who roomed with Miller in the early ‘80s when both played with Woody Shaw. “He’s influenced a lot of people. I’ll hear someone and go, ‘Man, is that Mulgrew or someone who’s playing like him?’ When they started talking about the ‘young lions,’ he got misplaced, and didn’t get his just due.”

Miller would seem to possess unsurpassed bona fides for leadership. As the 2004 trio release Live At Yoshi’s [MaxJazz] makes evident, no pianist of Miller’s generation brings such a wide stylistic palette to the table. A resolute modernist with an old-school attitude, he’s assimilated the pentagonal contemporary canon of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, as well as Shaw’s harmonic innovations, and created a fluid personal argot. His concept draws on such piano-as-orchestra signposts as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner, the “blowing piano” of Bud Powell, the disjunctive syncopations and voicings of Thelonious Monk, and the melodic ingenuity of gurus like Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton. With technique to burn, he finds ways to conjure beauty from pentatonics and odd intervals, infusing his lines with church and blues strains and propelling them with a joyous, incessant beat.

“I played with some of the greatest swinging people who ever played jazz, and I want to get the quality of feeling I heard with them,” Miller says. “For me it’s a sublime way to play music, and the most creative way to express myself. You can be both as intellectual and as soulful as you want, and the swing beat is powerful but subtle. I think you have to devote yourself to it exclusively to do it at that level.”

Consequential apprenticeships with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin and Shaw launched Miller’s career. A 1983-86 stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers put his name on the map, and he cemented his reputation during a long association with Tony Williams’ great cusp of the ‘90s band, a sink-or-swim environment in which Miller thrived, playing, as pianist Anthony Wonsey recalls, “with fire but also the maturity of not rushing.” By the mid-‘80s he was a fixture on New York’s saloon scene. Later, he sidemanned extensively with Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Golson, James Moody, and Joe Lovano, and from 1987 to 1996 he recorded nine well-received trio and ensemble albums for Landmark and RCA-Novus.

Not long after his fortieth birthday, Miller resolved to eschew club dates and one-offs, and to focus on his own original music. There followed a six-year recording hiatus, as companies snapped up Generation-X’ers with tenuous ties to the legacy of hardcore jazz.

“I won’t call any names,” Miller says. “But a lot of people do what a friend of mine calls ‘interview music.’ You do something that’s obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. I maintain that jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don’t include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

“A lot of today’s musicians learn the rudiments of playing straight-ahead, think they’ve got it covered, become bored, and decide ‘let me try something else.’ They develop a vision of expanding through different areas—reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here, soul there, classical music over here—and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. Rather than try to do a lot of things pretty good, I have a vision more of spiraling down to a core understanding of the essence of what music is.”

This being said, Miller—who once wrote a lovely tune called “Farewell To Dogma”—continues to adhere to the principle that “there is no one way to play jazz piano and no one way that jazz supposed to sound.” He is not to be confused with the jazz police. His drummer, Kareem Riggins, has a second career as a hip-hop producer, and has at his fingertips a lexicon of up-to-the-second beats. When the urge strikes, bassist Derrick Hodge might deviate from a walking bass line to slap the bass Larry Graham style. It’s an approach familiar to Miller, who grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, playing the music of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Al Green in various Upper Delta cover bands.

“It still hits me where I live,” he says. “It’s black music. That’s my roots. When I go home, they all know me as the church organist from years ago, so it’s nothing for me walk up to the organ and fit right in. I once discussed my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim, and he described what I went through as a community-based experience. Before I became or wanted to become a jazz player, I played in church, in school plays, for dances and for cocktail parties. I was already improvising, and always on some level it was emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was finding out how to connect with people through music.

“By now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played popular music, and although that style of playing is part of my basic musical being, I don’t particularly feel that I need to express myself through it. To me, it’s all blues. The folk element of the music doesn’t really change. The blues in 1995 and in 1925 is the same thing. The technology is different. But the chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same—exact same. I grew up on that. It’s a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving.”

For all his devotion to roots, Miller is adamant that expansion and evolution are key imperatives that drive his tonal personality. “I left my hometown to grow, and early on I intended to embrace as many styles and conceptions as I could,” he states. “When I came to New York, I had my favorites, but there was a less celebrated, also brilliant tier of pianists who played the duo rooms, and I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them. The sound of my bands changes as the musicians expand in their own right. I’m very open, and all things are open to interpretation. I trust my musicians—their musicianship and insights and judgments and taste—and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. In the best groups I played with, spontaneity certainly was a strong element.”

Quiet and laid-back, determined to follow his muse, Miller may never attain mass consumption. But he remains sanguine.

“I have moments, but I don’t allow myself to stay discouraged for long,” he concludes. “I worked hard to maintain a certain mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s mostly due to my faith in the Creator. I don’t put all my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy. That allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don’t have to play music for money. I play music because I love it. I play the kind of music I love with people I want to play with. I have a long career behind me. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make.”
[-30-]

* * *

Mulgrew Miller (11-22-04) – (Villa Mosconi):

TP:   I’m going to ask you a broad question. It might be embarrassing or hard to answer. For a lot of pianists, a lot of people your age and younger, and some who are older than you, too, you’re regarded as the heir to the throne. You know this. Tommy Flanagan was quoted a few times. A lot of pianists in their mid-40s think of you as the guy who brings the tradition into the present in a way that they admire. I don’t mean this as a way for you to brag on yourself. But what is the position that you think you occupy within the piano lineage at this point?  What is it you think you represent? What is it you think you’ve been able to accomplish?

MILLER: Whoo! Well, first of all, I consider myself an eternal student of the music. Perhaps I have been able to bring a fairly wide palette of ideas and a range of stylistic things that I have amalgamated into a sound. That sound that I have probably lends itself to a lot of different ways of playing. Because one can be a student of sort of a narrow range of styles. For instance, one can be a student of maybe the ‘60s piano players, and be good at that; or one can be a student of that as well as some of the earlier styles; and so on. My initial influences were people like Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal and Phineas Newborn and Art Tatum and those kind of people, and sometimes you don’t find that in a guy my age and younger. A lot of times, their biggest influences are maybe Oscar, but usually it’s… [CAESAR SALAD ARRIVES] Usually, a guy might start off liking one of Miles’ many piano players, which I do love, too.

TP:   In the Musician Shows that we did, Wynton Kelly was in there, Bill Evans was in there…

MILLER: Yes.  But my foundation in jazz comes from an earlier basis, the old Art Tatum thing and Erroll Garner and Oscar.

TP:   Did you get to that early?

MILLER: In my mid-teens. When I started playing jazz, those were the players that I heard first. A little while later, I heard McCoy Tyner and Herbie and Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.

TP:   There are quite a few players who have become adept at playing a fairly broad timeline, but you seem to have been there a little earlier than some of them. But maybe it’s just because you’re older.

MILLER: Yeah! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Perhaps you came first in that generation by dint of playing with Mercer Ellington and Woody Shaw and Art Blakey. But sensibility-wise, is that something you’re predisposed to? Are you very open-minded? Did you come from an open-minded background? Because it’s not like you’re from one of the big cities. You’re from a fairly small town in Mississippi. You played in the church, you played rhythm-and-blues. I’m sure there was some talent, but maybe a parochial world-view or maybe not—I don’t know. But tell me something about what you see giving you the curiosity and wherewithal to explore all this.

MILLER: Expansion and evolution is part of my motto. The reason I left my hometown was to expand and grow, and if I was going to do that, I had the notion early on to embrace all these different things, especially in terms of piano styles and ranges of conception and so on. If I heard a great piano player, I liked him. When I came to New York, I made it a point to hear every good pianist who was playing, not just my favorites, so that I could learn something from everybody who was playing.

TP:   Give me a few examples.

MILLER: My favorites would be Cedar Walton or McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal—or among my favorites. But of course, in New York playing the duo rooms there was another less celebrated tier of pianists you heard, but brilliant all the same. I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them.

TP:   Let’s talk about the Memphis approach to piano playing. You and James and Donald Brown coming up behind Mabern and Phineas Newborn…there’s a distinctive approach. It seems like gravitating to New York was a natural. You all fit into what the New York thing was or was becoming. Can you talk about some of the stylistic things you brought to the table when you arrived?

MILLER: I’m glad you brought that up, because I have never ascribed to a Memphis school of piano. Even though there are similarities in our styles, but most of the people who influenced either one of the pianists that you are naming from Memphis, are not from Memphis. If you talk to the late James Williams and Donald Brown and myself, you’d find that, yes, we were all inspired and influenced by Phineas Newborn and Harold Mabern and Charles Thomas. That’s the soil in which we were rooted. But you would also find that we’re all influenced by Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones and OP and all these people who were not from Memphis, and in various ways and various degrees. So I don’t ascribe to a city as a way of identifying a certain sound.

TP:   Is it more some of the influences that were available Memphis, or a way of filtering that information? Or does it have to do with all of you playing R&B and church music?

MILLER: Well, yeah. But what I’m saying is that a person living in Texas, having the experience, if he didn’t announce where he was from, you might not know if he was from Memphis or not.

TP:   I’ll take your point.

MILLER: Or Alabama, let’s say, Do you think a guy from Birmingham…

TP:   Are you thinking specific?

MILLER: No, I’m not.

TP:   Because in the Jazz Messengers, for ten years, it was James, Donald and you coming out of that nexus. So it’s not as though I’m trying to put capital letters…

MILLER: One of the things I think we have in common is that we all studied a certain breed of piano players, which critics call the mainstream. We’re all students of that breed of piano player. But we’re not the only ones. And my point is, I don’t think we all sound alike.

TP:   That wasn’t my implication at all.

MLLER: Right.  So a guy from Hot Springs, Arkansas, might sound more like me than a guy from Memphis.

TP:   But I suppose I’m trying to trace the continuity from when you started forming your ideas about how music should take shape up to this point. And music being such a social art and having such an oral component… I’m just thinking that this was the early ‘70s, the type of jazz you play wasn’t particularly popular or in the air, you were playing a lot of different music, and you each have a personal way of bringing the lineage into the future.

MILLER: I was discussing my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim one time, and he had an excellent term for describing that experience. He called it a community-based experience. Which I had early on. One of the interesting things about jazz is that players come from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. But before I became a jazz player or wanted to become a jazz player, I had varying experiences playing in the community. I played in church. I played in school plays. I played proms. I played for dances in an R&B band. I played for cocktail parties. So there’s what I’d like to call a social connection there that I think maybe was nurtured early on in my playing, a kind of connection to people. The point I’m trying to make is that before I became a jazz player, I was already improvising, and I was always on some level emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was already in the process of finding out how to connect with people through music.

TP:   Is that still how you see what you do?

MILLER: Yes.

TP:   It’s still consistent.

MILLER: It maybe isn’t as consistent as I’d like it to be. But you hear different players, and some people communicate… It’s something about what they do that reaches people on a certain level more than some other players. I’m not sure where I fit into that whole thing. But I began trying to make that connection real early in my development.

TP:   What’s more important on some level, communication or the aesthetic?

MILLER: As I think I understood you, for me, one is not different from the other. Communicating in the moment is what… I’m a very moment kind of guy. I’m not an over-organized musical mind by any means. My intention, my agenda when I sit down at the piano is to connect with people. I think that comes first.

TP:   You’re talking about coming up in this community-based experience. The scene has changed so much.

MILLER: It has.

TP:   And the social nature of music-making has changed a great deal. I was just noticing in the recording session, these guys who are half our age, how they’re behaving and what they’re thinking about. The drummer, who is extremely talented, is relaxing between takes by scratching on Doug E. Fresh. The trumpet player’s twin is doing a video verité of the whole thing. Everyone is, on one level, extremely sophisticated about technology and art and ideas, and on the other hand, there’s a sort of naiveté that’s kind of charming as well. Not that I went to so many sessions 20 years ago, but that scene would seem unimaginable twenty years ago. You relate and employ in your band very young musicians, people who will commit to you.

MILLER: Well, they are products of their own time, as I am a product of my own time. However, as you stated, the scene is different now. I think one of the things is that musicians don’t find the scene now as enticing as it was when I came on the scene.  There aren’t as many bands, there’s not as many clubs to play in across the country.  Sometimes they look in other directions for a way to express themselves and for other career options. Let’s face it.  The scene as it is now is not terribly encouraging to a young artist, and they come on the scene and see another little fellow in another arena making hundreds of thousands of dollars just rapping, rhyming. They’ve grown up with that. So in their minds, this beats sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

TP:   Well, Kareem Riggins, your present drummer, is a successful hip-hop producer. So you’re experiencing all that first-hand.

MILLER: Yes. And my bassist is involved in pop music as well.

TP:   When you were coming up… I know Donald Brown was a house musician at Stax/Volt. Did you ever do anything like that?

MILLER: At Stax?  No. I came in a little town where there was nothing like Stax…
TP:   I meant once you got to Memphis.

MILLER: No.  That scene was just about on its last legs.

TP:   But do you think that then… It seems the young players today maybe compartmentalize a little more. It’s like hip-hop is hip-hop… It’s like Lampkin was saying to Duck when Duck was doing that rap, and saying, “No one my age raps,” and he said, “Jazz musicians!” So here’s a young guy who obviously has a lot of respect for what being a jazz drummer means, but he also has respect for what the other thing is. He’s not trying to conflate one with the other. I think at that time, a lot of jazz musicians were trying to mix the two, sometimes with success and sometimes not so successfully.

MILLER: True. For one thing, jazz musicians playing in R&B bands go way back!  Benny Golson and Coltrane played in R&B as it was known then. Which at the time, though… what we called R&B then sounded a lot more like jazz than it does now.

TP:   Tadd Dameron was arranging for one of those bands.

MILLER: Yeah!  And through the decades, people like Idris Muhammad, who was playing with Sam Cooke and so forth…

TP:   He invented the Meters beat. Not to mention Blackwell.

MILLER: Yeah, exactly. So all these people… McCoy played with Ike and Tina Turner at one point! So this thing about straddling the fence, so to speak, is really old. As I said, I grew up playing the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Al Green and all that kind of stuff.

TP:   Does that music still mean a lot to you?

MILLER: I still enjoy it. Because it’s soul music. It’s black music. And that’s my roots. It still hits me where I live.

TP:   But there some musicians among your contemporaries who present that music and arrange it and work with it on records. You haven’t done that so much on your records. There may be implications of that vibe on one tune or another. But it isn’t an explicit reference in what you do. Is that deliberate?

MILLER: Well, you see, by now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played pop music. By now. Although that is a part of my basic musical being, I don’t feel particularly that I need to express myself through that style of playing. However, I am not against paying homage to my roots, as it were. It’s nothing for me to go into a Baptist church… Like, when I go home, it’s nothing for me to go to church and walk right up to the organ and fit right in. I do it. I did it this August.

TP:   Do you do it in Pennsylvania?

MILLER: No. I don’t have time to be involved in a church.  But if I go home and visit a church in my community, they all know me there as the church organist from years ago. So they all assume that that’s what I’ve come to do.

TP:   There are different ways that artists construct their persona as they grow and develop. Some people want to be completely autobiographical and encompass everything. For instance, such as Cassandra Wilson did in the last few years. You played with her on one of the best straight-ahead singing records of the period. But now she’s bringing in everything. But it doesn’t seem that to do this gnaws at your insides.

MILLER: No, it does not. Well, my experience is that I played with some of the greatest swinging people that played jazz—Art Blakey and Tony Williams and Johnny Griffin and Woody Shaw. I’ve been so captivated by that whole experience that I want to deepen that. Not necessarily to isolate myself from everything else. But that’s my focus because I see how that is so special. The way THEY did it was so special! Not everybody who’s playing swing music (let’s call it that for now…swing-based music) swings with that same quality. In today’s world, it’s possible to be expansive, to do a little bit of this and a little of that. But somehow, when I hear some of those groups, I don’t hear the quality of the feeling of swing that I heard when I played with those guys. So my focus… Rather than to dilute that by trying to do a whole lot of things pretty good, I want to do that really well.

TP:   Let’s talk about what it is that makes that approach to music so special. There are a number of people, your peers included, who love bebop and swing music, and it’s about the only thing they love. Or at least, publicly that’s what they say…

MILLER: Well, it’s not the only thing I love.  But what makes it so special for me is that, of all the different areas of music that I might delve into, that is, I’ve found, the most creative way of expressing myself. You can express power and beauty all at the same time, and yet express intellect. And the swing beat is powerful but yet subtle. So I am just enthralled with all of that. When I played with guys like Art Blakey and Tony Williams, and when I heard Elvin Jones, and when I play with Ron Carter, and all of the great swingers that I’ve played with, I see how that music affects people. For me, it’s a sublime way of playing music. So I think you have to be devoted to that in a singular way almost to do it at that level.

TP:   When did you begin to be that devoted to it?

MILLER: When I heard Oscar Peterson. I knew that I wanted to play this music with that kind of quality of feeling, and with that kind of integrity.

TP:   Let’s talk about why this music, against all odds, and with this culture the way it is, still survives. There may not be a big market, but there sure as heck are a lot of young musicians who can play.  And most of them are willing to learn. Obviously, there’s jazz education. But if it were just jazz education, then the music would be an artifact.  And it’s not. Perhaps you can address through some of the young musicians who play with you.

MILLER: I think young musicians are hearing and feeling the same thing I felt when I first heard the music. When they first hear this music, they see an opportunity to express themselves at a level that they had not been able to do previously in whatever other musical pursuits they were pursuing. I think this music that we call jazz is the only form of music that offers that opportunity, to have an integration of sophisticated harmony and sophisticated melody and sophisticated rhythm all at the same level, and be creative and improvise within that. I mean, you have sophistication in classical music in terms of harmony and melody, but the creative level is not there. I’ve played all of these musics on some level—R&B, and I’ve studied classical. But Jazz is the most enthralling music because you can express all of that. You can be as intellectual as you want to and yet be as soulful as you want to at the same time.  So to me, that’s what captivates the young musician.

TP:   For instance, John Lampkin knows all the hip-hop and drum-bass stuff. His beats are up to the second. I’m sure Karriem is the same way.

MILLER: Yes, he is.

TP:   Though with you he plays the function.  But are you paying attention to all these things? Are you incorporating what’s happened since Art Blakey and Tony Williams died, and the music of your sidemen into your own conception?

MILLER: Only what they bring themselves. At this stage of the game, I’m not trying to delve into that area with them. But they bring their own sensibilities from that. And things might happen on the bandstand that might not have happened with an older group of musicians. And I mean, just slightly older. For instance, Derrick might slap the bass a la Larry Graham.

TP:   Whereas Peter Washington wouldn’t.

MILLER: Yeah. Peter Washington wouldn’t do that.

TP:   Lewis Nash probably wouldn’t be playing those beats that Lampkin…

MILLER: Yes.  However… [LAUGHS] That wouldn’t be called for with me. But something like that might happen.

TP:   So you think all this is healthy. People incorporating this inclusive… For instance, Donald seems to want to do rap as well as rappers, and do smooth jazz as well as anyone doing smooth jazz. That’s sort of his stated purpose, and he doesn’t do a bad job, and doing these things doesn’t dilute what he’s able to do. I don’t know what the total effect is, but…

MILLER: I don’t see it as unhealthy. Let me put it that way. However, I don’t see how being good at rapping will help your understanding of what melody is, or deepen your knowledge of what harmony is. Most jazz musicians today have a pretty good knowledge of melody and harmony.  But even with the vast knowledge that’s out there, many of us are not even close to the core of what that is all about.

TP:   Who is?

MILLER: Who is? Well, I can tell you who was.

TP:   We also have to be careful not to search for the unreachable Holy Grail. Those cats may not have thought they had it either.

MILLER: Well, for instance, Bobby Hutcherson is a person who is creative on a deep level, and his involvement with harmony and melody and rhythm is very deep.

TP:   Mr. Nelson seems like he contemporary embodiment of that.

MILLER: Without a doubt. Kenny Garrett is a person who is involved with music on a very deep level. There are others. But I find that a lot of musicians have learned the rudiments of playing straight-ahead and become bored with it. [LAUGHS] But they think that they’ve got that covered, so “let me try something else.”

TP:   Why do you think they get bored with it?

MILLER: Well, in a lot of cases it’s because they haven’t had a chance to explore that with one of the great ones. Because if you’ve just come through four years at Berklee School of Music, or you’ve copied X amount of saxophone solos, and haven’t had a chance to do the thing I’m talking about, to see how that works in communicating and connecting with people, then you might be able to think that you’ve attained a certain amount of mastery, but in fact, all you might have is rudiments.  And a lot of that will not be effective if you get on the bandstand with Art Blakey or Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes or Ron Carter or Sonny Rollins or Johnny Griffin.

TP:   What’s it been like playing with Ron Carter lately? You’ve been doing the trio thing for a year or so now.  Is it your first sustained playing with him?

MILLER: Yes. Let me tell you this. When I was listening to Four and More and all those records in college, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would have two different relationships with people on that record—Tony and Ron. For me to have an ongoing relationship with Ron just blows my mind.

Ron is such a deep bass player. He’s unique in a lot of ways, but particularly he’s unique in the sense that he’s found a way to… Well, let’s say that he epitomizes the long, sustained note and the bouncing beat. Sometimes it’s hard to find those two together. A lot of times you find guys with the long sustained note, but no beat. Sometimes you find a guy with a big beat and he gets a thump out of the instrument. But Ron epitomizes that thing about the sustained note and the bouncing beat.  His walking conception is second to none. It’s very advanced, Ron’s walking conception.

TP:   It seems to me he’s the master of a certain type of counterpoint that’s singular to jazz, both rhythmic and melodic, with a call-and-response feel. Is the record The Golden Striker emblematic of how the trio sounds?

MILLER: Pretty much. We’ve stretched out a bit more since we did that record. Ron is a big fan of the MJQ with John Lewis, and this trio reflects his conception. That’s the kind of effect he wants to get over.

TP:   Are there any other situations in which you’re playing with someone’s band as steadily as that?

MILLER: No. My priority now is my band.

TP:   So with Ron, it’s because there’s still something you can learn and garner.

MILLER: Well, yes. Ron is one of the few people that I would do sideman work with now.  But even in that case, it takes a back seat to my own stuff as a leader.

TP:   He understands that, no doubt. He’s an eminently practical man. So you’re not talking about recording sessions or coming in for hire.

MILLER: No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about appearing on club dates.

TP:   I have seen you as a sideman on some club dates. What are the criteria? Does it have to be musically satisfying? Someone you have a long-standing relationship with?

MILLER: Basically, it has to in some way serve my career (let’s be honest about it), and it has to be musically edifying. It has to be challenging. It just has to be on a certain level. Playing with Ron and Bobby Hutcherson. Those are two people that I’ve singled out who I’d play club dates with as a sideman. That being said, over the years I’ve worked a lot with Benny Golson, James Moody, and Joe Lovano.  But I’ve scaled back from just doing sideman appearances. This thing with Ron is kind of an ongoing project. It’s not just dropping in on a club to be a sideman. It’s a conception and an idea… And where else would I play with a bass player like Ron Carter?

TP:   And the piano plays a very prominent role…

[PAUSE]
TP:   Is it important for you to have a trio as such… It might tempt you to do your next record with Ron Carter and Lewis Nash, let’s say. But I get the feeling you’d think twice about it because you see the trio as an extension of your vision more than just what you play.

MILLER: Exactly. That’s very well said. And with an organized, more or less, trio…

TP:   Well, the thing is, it doesn’t seem that organized. You don’t seem to approach it that way.

MILLER: Well, it’s not, in that sense. But it is in the sense that there’s a continuation of musical thought from gig to gig, and if you have a set group of musicians, it evolves over time. That’s the main reason why one would do that.

TP:   Is there also a sense of following through on your own experience of having played with elders and passing down information? Do you feel some broader sense of responsibility beyond your career?

MILLER: I do.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:   Kenny does it, Terence does it. Wynton does it even.

MILLER: Some musicians have a vision of themselves as expanding through different areas of music—reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here and soul there, and classical music over here—and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. I have a vision more of spiralling down to a core, to a core understanding of the essence of what music is. What playing melody really is beyond the language that we have come to know as the vocabulary…

TP:   You’re trying to get to something that’ s beyond vocabulary?

MILLER: Yes.  For instance, a young musician might have transcribed many solos and be armed with an expansive amount of vocabulary, but may still not understand what creative melodic expression is. Not to mention harmonic expression. Or a drummer might study the styles of several different drummers, but still not have insight. To me, knowledge and insight are two different things. Knowledge has to do with intellectual facts about something. Insight has more to do with a sort of understanding of what the essence of something is, beyond what the facts might be.

TP:   You made a comment on the radio in 1994 that people make a mistake about McCoy Tyner. They talk about him as a phase of music or a style of music that is something to get beyond, and you said they’re missing a fundamental point, that he and Coltrane created a sound, that the sound had profound implications and was almost a metaphor for something beyond itself, and that it fundamentally changed the sound of jazz. Which also implies the notion of the music as something broader than itself, as actual narrative, having a similar force. Is that something that you are striving to communicate on some level?

MILLER: Yes.  Embracing all that spirituality, so to speak, in the music. I don’t think that’s a sound that’s going to go away. What they did was embrace more universal aspects of the music than had been discovered in the West at that time. They broadened their scope, so to speak. It was a new thing, but those things that we’re discovering about music… These were old things from the older part of the world. So it enlightened Western music, especially in terms of jazz, about what that was. So I think that they were musical prophets in that sense.

TP:   Do you ever get discouraged? Do you get the feeling that you’re fighting an uphill battle and you’re holding onto this noble aesthetic that the world no longer is prepared to support? How do you sustain your fortitude in the midst of all this stuff. I’m your age. I get tired. Obviously, you can make a good living at this, but also it’s obviously not all you would like it to be.

MILLER: Absolutely. I don’t allow myself to get discouraged. I have moments, but I don’t allow myself to get discouraged for long.  This culture and this society doesn’t do a lot for the morale of jazz musicians. It’s a wonder that all of us are not seeing psychiatrists! As Dizzy Gillespie once said, this culture and this country doesn’t deserve jazz. It has disowned it. I mean, largely. Especially when you consider that every year you have a show called the American Music Awards, and the word “jazz” is not even mentioned. How could that be?  So one would tend to get discouraged…

TP:   How do you do it? Is it religious faith?

MILLER: Well, it’s faith. Yes. It’s faith in the music. It’s faith based on experience, though. It’s faith based on the fact that I knew that guys before me went through the same thing.  In the ‘70s, I heard that Art Blakey was pared down to three people and a singer! Yet in the face of all of that, he just kept on going.

TP:   Well, what else was he going to do?

MILLER: The thing is, we all feel like that. What else am I going to do? I could do other things. But I feel like what else am I going to do? I play this music because I feel I have to play it. It’s like a calling to me.

TP:   Do you think that’s true for most people who play it?

MILLER: I can’t speak to that. But I’m sure it’s true for many of them. I don’t feel it’s true for all the people who are playing music.  A lot of  people (I’m not calling any particular names) are responding to the pressure that’s created by the industry to do something different. Because they see that they get writeups when they do something that’s really obviously different. A friend of mine calls it “interview music.” You play a certain way and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention for playing that way. Now, what we have to do is address why is that. From what I’ve observed, it’s that the music is heavily critiqued at this point in time (maybe it always was, but I do notice that it is now) by people who have a heavy Eurocentric perspective on the music. They view the music as something that’s totally progressive. I think that the music is a progressive art form. But it’s also a folk art form.

TP:   It’s still a folk art form.

MILLER: It’s still a folk art form.

TP:   You’re going against the grain in saying that. What do you mean?

MILLER: I’m talking about the folk roots of this music, which we know is the blues.

TP:   The church, too?

MILLER: Perhaps. To me, it’s all blues. Whenever writers and critics hear people… I don’t know what it is, especially African-American players. When they hear them refer to that, it becomes blase in their ears.

TP:   Or corny. One or the other. Like some atavistic…

MILLER: Right.  But here’s my point. The folk element of the music is something that doesn’t really change. If you hear the blues in 1995 and you hear the blues in 1925, it’s the same thing. The technology is different. One is electric guitar and one is folk. The chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same—exact same. I grew up on that.  The guitar that Robert Johnson was playing was the same kind of guitar that Little Milton plays. Basically. So that basic sound is there. It’s a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving.

TP:   But jazz is an art music.

MILLER: Partially.  Well, yes.

TP:   It is concerned with evolving.  Ellington was concerned. Bud Powell, Charlie Parker… The genius of it is… Ellington came from a very different background. But Charlie Parker took these rather humble materials and was able to create a universe out of them. Ellington was able to take these vernaculars contemporary to him and create what you call this universe of sound and color.

MILLER: Yes.  But let’s revisit the word “art.” There are people who would debate that almost any kind of expression is art.  So blues is art. Any kind of musical form is art.

TP:   We’re speaking of the progressive conception.

MILLER: That’s something different.

TP:   People will say, “Coltrane and Charlie Parker weren’t trying to play the music ten years before…”

MILLER: Yes, that’s true. I’m happy to address that. Because in their progression of the music… When Charlie Parker came up with this great conception, the conception was different, but the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was still intact, especially in the case of Coltrane.  But now we have a situation where the establishment doesn’t care if that element is there or not. If it’s not there, that’s fine. If a guy can walk on stage and not pay homage to that or have that as part of his expression, then they almost get applauded for it. Let me tell you, if you’ve ever seen B.B. King on a jazz festival, then you’ll know that the blues connects with people more than any other… That in this music is what connects to people. I can tell you from experience, you can bring your conception to the stage and play a thousand notes a minute, but after about 45 seconds of that, people don’t want to hear it any more if it’s not connecting with them on that other level that I’m speaking of.

TP:   On some level, it’s almost as though the folk expression these days for young kids isn’t hip-hop, but popular music. Because when you were growing up, B.B. King and Little Milton was probably a lot of what you heard on the radio. Nobody’s hearing that on over-the-air radio now. Or, on a more sophisticated level, some of the brother and sister musicians from Latin America who are bringing in folkloric music and vernacular music of their cultures and integrating it on some level. Now, a guy like Ed Simon can say something on the blues as well as his own, and others do it less successfully. But it seems not to be phony, but something that’s real and also progressive. There are all these hybrids going on in jazz. But you’re not dealing with any hybrids, though you probably could.

MILLER: Well, it depends on how you look at it. Jazz was a fusion music from the beginning. Fusion of European elements… So in a sense, I am! [LAUGHS] But I still maintain that this music is part progressive art and part folk art, and there are forces out there now that don’t really care about the folk art. What they attribute progressivity to is something that lacks that folk element.  And I say that that view is essentially a Eurocentric view, and most of the writers and critics, whether they be African-American or non-African-American, have a certain amount of that view. Most, not all.

TP:   I don’t think it’s as much Eurocentricity as Corporatecentricity. I know a lot of African-Americans who could give a goddamn about the folk element… It’s the fact that a large audience isn’t coming in, or if it’s six figures or not… But I do understand what you mean.

MILLER: If I can get up on the piano and reflect a heavy involvement in Schoenberg or one of those ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am now. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

TP:   How does that make you feel?

MILLER: Terrible!  Because I know the depth of the musicians that do what I do. I’m not even talking about me. I’m talking about guys like Steve Nelson or Peter Washington or Billy Pierce. I know how, when those guys get together and play together… See, this is an interesting thing, how the PEOPLE enjoy them. The people can have a great time listening to those people play, and the writers will say, “Well, nothing new happened; it was just passé.”

TP:   The Europeans wouldn’t book certain bands unless you could be on it, I think.

MILLER: He did some gigs. See, this is a whole nother thing. It’s a kind of funny thing about my career. They won’t book me as a leader, but they’ll book me as a sideman and make that a selling point of the gig.

TP:   You’re an iconic guy for that kind of sound.

MILLER: Yeah. If you want the gig, bring Mulgrew in. But I won’t hire Mulgrew’s band. That just boggles my mind. I have seen times when a guy with absolutely no name… He’s a good player, but a guy with no name could get a gig based on the strength of my name being on the bill at a particular club. But yet, it took me years to get in that club.

TP:   So on the one hand, it’s “wow!” and on the other…

MILLER: But you asked how I maintain.

TP:   It’s like Thelonious Monk said, “I’m famous! Ain’t that a bitch!”

MILLER: [LAUGHS] I have worked hard to maintain a certain sort of mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s mostly due to my faith in the Creator. It’s more that than anything else. I don’t put all of my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy.  So that allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don’t have to play music for money. I play music because I love it, and I play the kind of music I love. At this stage of the game, I can play who I want to play with and I have a long career behind me. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make.

TP:   You can sleep at night.

MILLER: Yes.

[-30-]
* * *

Mulgrew Miller (WKCR, 10-28-04):

TP:   We were speaking about some of your early bands, and a musician from the next generation called and said, “Make sure you talk about the Buhaina days.” Now, we’ve spoken about those days before, but there are people out there, like Derrick Hodge, who probably wasn’t even born when you were out with Woody Shaw…

MULGREW: He was just being born.

TP:   So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to go back and give folks a sense of what times were like at the time you came up. You came out of Greenwood, Mississippi. You once told me that you heard Oscar Peterson on The Joey Bishop Show when you were a kid, and it inspired you, gave you an aspiration that piano could be a mode of expression and not just something you were learning how to do.

MULGREW: Very much so.

TP:   It got you into jazz. You moved to Memphis for college, to Memphis State University, where you met people like James Williams and Donald Brown and Bill Easley. Then you get out of there and embark on your professional career. What were the steps between Memphis State and your going out into the great wide world.

MULGREW:   Mercer Ellington came through Memphis shortly after the death of Duke Ellington, and picked up the multi-reed player, Bill Easley, and Bill left Memphis on the road with Mercer. A few months after that, Mercer needed a sub on the weekend for the then-pianist Lloyd Mayers, and Bill Easley recommended me to Mercer. I went out with the orchestra for a weekend, and later on for another weekend, and a year-and-a-half later I actually joined them. I was on the road with the Ellington orchestra for about three years. During that time, I was making connections in New York. I met Cedar Walton and other musicians…

TP:   Did you move to New York when you joined Mercer Ellington?

MULGREW: Kind of. We were on the road so much, we actually lived on the Greyhound bus. But when we were in town for a few weeks off or days off, we would be at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, which is where all the big bands stayed going back through the decades.  Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and all the bands stayed at the Edison. So that was my New York address during the time I was in the Ellington Orchestra. When we were there, I’d go hang out in the Village and hear all my favorite bands and piano players. I guess word was starting to spread that there was this young pianist from the country who was playing with the Ellington Band who wanted to come to New York.

TP:   Memphis is the country?

MULGREW: Well, Greenwood, Mississippi is the country!  Eventually, Betty Carter called me, because my name came up with her from several different sources, including James Williams, who was then with Art Blakey, and then Cedar Walton and a few others. She asked to come in to do an audition, which I did, and she hired me.

TP:   Over that three-year period, 1976 to the beginning of ‘80, something is happening to your playing, from leaving Memphis and getting into the mix, both playing the Ellington book, but also soaking up the New York piano, which was at a certain peak at the time with Bradley’s and the other piano bars… What do you think were the most important lessons you learned during this time?

MULGREW:   Well, it was like a double-gauged evolution. First of all, there’s the personal evolution. I was becoming an adult while I was on the band… I think I turned 21 during the time I was on the band. So I was learning a lot about life, being around so many of the elder gentlemen in the band. I have to tell you that being on the road with 18 different personalities is quite a learning experience.

TP:   And Ellington was famous for having eccentrics in the band. I don’t know if that carried over into the Mercer Ellington edition…

MULGREW: Well, there were a few! Some would come and some would leave. But most of them were very interesting personalities.  We spent a lot of time on the bus and a lot of time in the same area of space, so to speak. So you really had to learn how to get along with people. I like to say that I became a man on that bus. There was also the opportunity to learn to play the music of Ellington and to sit in the piano chair, and hear all of those extended works and soak in all of that sound. So it was constantly opening my mind up to a whole world of sound…

TP:   Parenthetically, let me take you on a bit of a tangent. Ellington himself had one of the most distinctive sounds and presences on piano of anyone who ever played it, and a lot of what he did in real time would influence the direction of the band. So there are a lot of dynamics to that piano chair. Now, I know you’re very into Monk. Did you ever try to emulate Ellington? Did his approach soak in for you?

MULGREW: Not really, especially during that time. Obviously, there were certain signature things that you had to do, like the introduction to Satin Doll and Take The A Train and Things Ain’t What they Used To Be. You had to learn all those classic intros. I did take note of how Ellington played with the band as an accompanist, but I didn’t really try to emulate his style a lot at that time. I was listening a lot to Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner and many of the modern…

TP:   Soaking up the modern vocabulary.

MULGREW:   Pretty much. Because my agenda was eventually to get to New York and play with all the small groups. So I was listening to all the small group players.

TP:   Then Betty Carter called.

MULGREW: Then Betty Carter called. We were on our way to Japan, and I told her, “Well, you have to wait two weeks until I come back from Japan.” Then she did, and John Hicks was getting ready to leave the piano chair in Betty’s band. She called me, and I went to an audition. At the time, she had Curtis Lundy on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. She used to call Kenny Washington “the kid,” because he was very young at the time. I made the audition, and I stayed with Betty about eight months.

TP:   That would be a different type of seasoning.

MULGREW: Yes. Because now I’m in a trio, and I have to realize my capacity in a trio format. I had to really develop as an orchestrator and a soloist. So compared to the big band, there’s more focus on the piano chair.

TP:   In that group, you’re rather exposed.

MULGREW:   Yes, and Betty puts the heat on.

TP:   There were a lot of hits in that band. Very precise.

MULGREW: Yes, everything was very arranged and crisp. So it was a great experience, even though it’s one that I never fathomed I would get to. I knew who Betty Carter was, but I wasn’t that familiar with her work. So I had to do a crash course.

TP:   After eight months, what did you think?

MULGREW: I’ll tell you what. During my time with her, I came to realize how great she was and who she was, and the music and so on. But my whole big thing was to come to New York and play with Woody Shaw. I had heard Woody’s records—as well as everybody else’s—before I left Memphis, then I met Woody Shaw at a summer jazz camp, one of those Aebersol jazz camps for students. Woody was there with Joe Henderson, and man, they lit the camp on fire. He had just emerged out of one of his heavy woodshedding periods, a lot of practices, and so he was just on fire. He and Joe Henderson played and they lit the camp up. I have never forgotten that feeling, that fire and creativity they had when they played on the faculty concerts.

They had a piano class, and Woody came and sat in on one of the classes. Whoever the teacher was at the time had each pianist play a chorus of blues, and I played my chorus or two, and then he went on to the next student. At the end of the class, I went up to Woody Shaw just to introduce myself, and he says, “Hey, man, I’m going to see you in New York in two years.”

TP:   Sounds like a big moment.

MULGREW:   Yes.  And wouldn’t you know that it was about two years to that week, or to the day almost, after I had joined Mercer Ellington, that I went down to the Vanguard to hear Woody Shaw’s band, and on the intermission I went back to the kitchen, which at the Vanguard is also the dressing room and the hangout and the office and so forth. I went to say hello. Now, mind you, at this point, Woody was legally blind, suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. I said, “Hey, Woody, how you doin’?” Or maybe I said, “Hello, Mr. Shaw.” Whatever it was. At the time I guess he was seeing well enough to see who I was. He says, “I remember you. You’re that piano player with the funny name. I told you I’d see you in two years in New York, didn’t I.” And it was two years almost to the week from when he’d said that earlier.

I continued to follow his groups. Whenever he played in town, I would go to see Woody’s group, or Dexter’s group, or Johnny Griffin’s group, Cedar Walton’s group with Billy Higgins and Sam Jones. These were all my favorite groups to hear. Woody kind of kept track of me through Betty Carter’s group and so on. When Larry Willis left the band, Woody called me, after I’d been with Betty Carter for about eight months.

TP:   For a lot of musicians of your generation, his harmonic ideas, his ways of moving from point A to point B were significant and consequential. A lot of people see his music as one of the last big vocabulary jumps. Can you articulate what he did that had such an impact on musicians?

MULGREW: Woody had a conception that he had gleaned from listening to a lot of John Coltrane, and playing with McCoy Tyner and playing with Eric Dolphy and playing with Larry Young. All of these people were on the cutting edge of jazz development at the time, and Woody came right in the wake of that. So he had evolved a conception of using a vocabulary that was a departure, in many respects, from the many trumpet players before him, who used a more diatonic approach in improvising in the vocabulary they used. A lot of bebop oriented lines which go straight up and down the scale, and so forth. But Woody developed this concept of playing the pentatonics and other intervallic ideas, very similar to what McCoy was doing and many of the modern players were evolving. So in that respect, he was really the cutting-edge trumpet player.

TP: He certainly figured out how to transmute those ideas into memorable melodies. That’s what gave him such cache. Everything was so flowing and consonant.

MULGREW: Absolutely. Well, what we remember about a lot of those players from that time, including John Coltrane, is the beauty that they were able to bring out through the experimenting with all of those things. As you said, all of the great melody and all of the beauty in the harmony… The great thing about Woody Shaw is he could play all of that stuff, and it would be beautiful. It wasn’t just intervals. It wasn’t just pentatonics. All those things were lyrically and melodically beautiful—and harmonically beautiful. There are times when I hear his signature sound in the playing of the trumpet players or in the writing of other writers.

TP:   Is his sound imprinted in you, would you say? I’m not talking about a copycat way, but there are moments when it resonates in your own compositions.

MULGREW: I’d like to think so. I’d have to be a blockhead to be with him for three years and now absorb some of that stuff.

TP:   You go into the Messengers in ‘83.

MULGREW: Yes.  In most of those bands I spent three years. Just happened to be that way.

TP: Our caller wanted you to talk about those days, so here’s your chance. Just to put it in context for your bass player, who was only 2 or 3 at the time: When James Williams and Bobby Watson joined Art Blakey, there began an upswing after several years of treading water. Then in 1980, when Wynton and Branford and Wallace Roney come to town, and later Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, his becomes the band the hot young players were landing in. And the piano chair took a Memphis signature, from James to Donald Brown to you. So it was a very fresh period for Art Blakey, and his band became a workshop, in which ideas were batted around and coalesced.

MULGREW: It was really kind of a renaissance period on the scene.  Of course, Art Blakey’s band had been an institution for decades. Art Blakey’s band was a career-maker. If you played in the band, chances are you had a great chance at establishing yourself as a name in the business. Or moreso than with other bands. You really had high visibility, and you really got recognition if you played with Art Blakey. So I always say that, well, that period and that experience put me on the map as a name.

TP:   I’d imagine one thing it gave you was a taste for declarative drummers.

MULGREW:   You got that right. That experience defined, pretty much, for me what I wanted to hear in other drummers. I thought I knew up until that point, but I really got to know and experience and feel what a swinging drummer feels like.

TP:   Did it change your approach to piano?

MULGREW: I think it was an overall projection thing. Art played so powerfully rhythmically and sonically. He had such a big sound and the beat was so wide. If it affected my playing in any way, it was probably in terms of how I felt and heard the beat. Because Art had such a wide, strong beat. But it also affected me in terms of my projection on the instrument. The piano doesn’t naturally have that kind of clarity that the trumpet or saxophone has.  There’s something about the trumpet that says, “Hey, listen to me.” There’s something about the vocal quality of the saxophone that says, “Hey, check me out.” But the piano has a tendency to be kind of understated and dynamically less obvious than some of the other instruments. So to play with a drummer like Blakey, you really had to learn how to project a certain kind of dynamic beyond the lights of the bandstand, as Art used to call it. He said, “You’ve got to make it go beyond the lights of the bandstand.”

Let me also state Art Blakey showed us how to be bandleaders. As Benny Golson said, he was very didactic in his own way. Art wasn’t one to always tell you “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” You just observed him, and he led you by the sheer force of his personality—and his musical personality. He shaped your musical experience just by sitting behind the drums and swinging so hard. He allowed us to compose and arrange.  The whole experience was basically about the presentation of music, how to present music, and not get on the bandstand and not sound like you’re in a jam session. It was an organized presentation. So you learned a lot about professionalism, and how to call a set, how to arrange the repertoire from one song to the next, and varied the song… All those kinds of things are important. So we learned a lot just observing him observing us.

TP:   Then you and Wallace Roney and Bill Pierce, and Charnett Moffett was one of the bassists with Tony Williams… It was an extraordinary band. I don’t think the contributions of that band are sufficiently recognized right now.

MULGREW:   Tony Williams, in my eyes, was the same breed of musician as Woody Shaw, in that their involvement with music was so intense and so serious and so deep. Tony, in my estimation, was a true genius of the drums—of jazz music. I’m not saying this because he’s no longer with us; I used to say this when he was here. As an instrumentalist and musician, I always put him on the same pedestal with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum and John Coltrane. If Tony hadn’t played another beat after he was 19 or 20 years old, he would have changed history.  Maybe even if he was 18 or 17.

TP:   But he played a lot of beats afterward.

MULGREW:   Yes, thank God! But he came to the scene with a ripe imagination and a fertile mind for the music. I think when Tony came on the scene at 17, he was already a visionary, and that vision was firmly in place about how he wanted to play music and how he thought music was supposed to go.

TP:   Projecting with him must have been a challenge as well. He was playing LOUD during those years.

MULGREW: Well, I think loud was a natural component of what he was doing. He wasn’t only loud. He was powerful dynamically. Tony’s playing had that real urge in it.  But quiet as it’s kept, Art Blakey was a pretty loud drummer. He wasn’t quite as loud as Tony, but Art was a very powerful and dynamically and sonically loud drummer. Tony Williams was even more so, and maybe for a lot of reasons, having gone through the whole rock-and-roll experience… Tony played some big, heavy drums, big drums, big cymbals, big sticks. I think Tony’s vision of music was that it should sound really BIG. I think he genuinely felt that way about the music. I don’t think he was just playing loud because he couldn’t play soft.

TP:   You did a trio record towards the end of his life that amply demonstrates what he could do with dynamics when the occasion called.

MULGREW: That proved to be his last recording.  But I played a few trio gigs with Tony, and on most of those trio gigs he played as loud as he played at other times.

TP:   Back to you: All of this 16 years or so of playing in these high-level situations, during which time you were starting to emerge as a trio pianist and with Wingspan on records that come out in ‘87-‘88-‘89… Having self-assurance and a sense of who you are as a musician is a must. You can’t really coexist with them on the bandstand without that.
MULGREW:   Exactly. I spent all those years developing self-assurance and confidence. When I came to New York, the last thing on my mind was having a record date of my own.  Having my own record, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking can I get a chance to play with this person or that person, and grow and develop.  I think it’s a little different now. A lot of the youngsters want a record date when they get off the plane.

TP:   Well, that attitude began in the late ‘80s during the Art Blakey renaissance when the “Young Lions” came up. Looking back, what do you think of the way the music evolved during that period? The overall sound. Did it change?

MULGREW: I think a certain area of the music changed. The younger players sort of had a sound and the older players had a sound. But because there wasn’t enough attention devoted to the older players, the younger sounds and developments and bands and music were perpetuated. I think the music suffered in a lot of ways because of that. Even though you had some really outstanding musicians then who were young and developing, many of them—or many of us—were exposed prematurely and with fragmented development and so on, and the major record companies weren’t pushing the veteran musicians enough. While the teenage piano players were getting record contracts and television appearance, Cedar Walton went around without a record contract. And how you gonna do that?! How you gonna do that to the music? In spite of that, Cedar Walton, for example, is one of the finest pianists playing today, and has been for the last 40-50 years. So I think that the Establishment, the jazz industry did a lot of disservice to the music by hyping so many musicians and ignoring the veterans, and so on.

James was a very dear, close friend for 31 years. We met at Memphis State, and he was one of my prime mentors. I loved him so and respected him so much, as everybody did. And he touched so many people.

TP:   Wingspan goes back close to twenty years. Wasn’t the first Wingspan album [Landmark] in 1987?

MULGREW: 1987.

TP:   At the time, you’d just joined Tony Williams after several years with Woody Shaw and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which would be two good apprenticeships, if you want to call them that, for setting up a group with horns and expressing your own compositional vision. Would that be accurate?

MULGREW:   It would be indeed. I’d like to add that before the Art Blakey and Woody Shaw experiences, I was with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and with Betty Carter.

TP:   You’ve continued to put in dues over the years because of the way the marketplace has treated the lifeblood music. You mentioned you did a Japanese tour and a West Coast tour with the group. The personnel’s been fairly stable over the last few years, no?

MULGREW: Well, it’s changed somewhat. The only original member is Steve Nelson. Steve Wilson has been with us for ten years or so, and Kareem Riggins has been with us off and on for about ten years. Our new bassist, Derrick Hodge, also plays in the trio; he’s been with us about 2½ years now. And we added trumpet a year ago with Duane Eubanks,

TP:   Does this configuration inspire much writing?

MULGREW: I haven’t done much fresh, brand-new writing. But this project in 2002, all the writing was new.

TP:   That’s pretty new.

MULGREW:   It’s new to me!

TP:   I guess it must take a while to wrap your mind around a tune and have it evolve. But there also will be tunes you’ve been doing since the late ‘80s. Some of your things are close to modern standards.

MULGREW: We’re also doing some songs I wrote from a recording I did for RCA called Hand In Hand in the late ‘90s. Plus, we do standards and cover tunes by such composers as Hank Mobley and so on.

TP:   Now, with all respect to your writing, when people think of Mulgrew Miller, they think of your piano playing. And most pianists, when they’re presenting their music, will do so in the trio format. What are the satisfactions of a larger ensemble?

MULGREW: You get to take advantage of the different voices and colors, and get a larger palette of colors and sounds to deal with in playing the compositions. We have vibes and trumpet and alto saxophone. Steve Wilson plays also soprano saxophone and flute—his flute playing is a well-kept secret, but Steve is a marvelous flute player. We have the option of all these sounds, and it adds another dimension to the trio.

TP:   Do you see it as the trio-plus?

MULGREW:   I don’t really think of that, although personnel-wise, it really is that. For instance, in some cases, the repertoires are different. We play songs in the larger group that we don’t play in the trio, and vice-versa. So I don’t necessarily think of it as a trio plus horns either.

TP:   You went for six years without being signed to a label, once RCA released, but you’ve found a home for now with MaxJazz.

MULGREW: They’re wonderful. Richard McDonnell and his sons are musicians, and they understand the art and they understand the artist vision. I’m really privileged to be able to work with such understanding businessmen who run this company, and we get a lot of support from them.

TP:   Your most recent date, Live At Yoshi’s, is a trio record. How does a live performance differ from the studio? How will the experience of seeing Wingspan in person differ from a studio recording?

MULGREW: Well, the repertoire is pretty set. The thing about Wingspan is that the group is constantly evolving as the musicians evolve. The way we’re playing now sounds a lot different than how we played four-five years ago. It’s a matter of individuals in the bands expanding in their own right. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of growth in our drummer. Just in the last year, he’s playing at a whole different level than he was a year ago. Our bassist, Derrick Hodge, brings a lot to the table. By the rhythm section being different and evolving, that affects and stimulates what happens on the front line.

TP:   How proactive are you as to tempos and beats? Are you open to feedback?

MULGREW:   I’m very open. We might talk about a basic feel to a tune, a basic idea or something, but all things are open to interpretation. These are all remarkable musicians, and I trust them very much, and I trust their musicianship and insights and judgments and taste, and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. If Kareem wants to take a Latin tune in a swing direction or in a 3/4 direction, then we go there.

TP:    Were these liberties granted to you at an equivalent stage of your career?

MULGREW: More or less.  I’ve always been open to the idea of flexibility and spontaneity. In the best groups I played with, that was certainly a strong element in various ways. Spontaneity is important.

* * *

Mulgrew Miller Musician Show, WKCR, 5-4-88 (Ted Panken):

[Art Tatum: “Caravan,” “Sophisticated Lady” (1954?)]

TP:    I’ll turn the reins over to Mulgrew and let him say a few words about Art Tatum.

MM:    Oh!  What can I say?  Well, as we hear, it’s pure genius.  It’s divinity on the keyboard. [LAUGHS]

TP:    At what point in your musical life did you hear Art Tatum?

MM:    Well, it was pretty early actually.  I had been a great Oscar Peterson fan in my early teens, and just through research… You know, I like to find out where the guys come from or who they’re influenced by.  And when I learned that Oscar was influenced by Art Tatum, I thought I’d better go back and check this guy out.  And lo and behold, I heard something that was unbelievable.

TP:    Messed you up, huh?

MM:    Yeah.  I think Art is definitely the greatest of all time.

TP:    You came up in the state of Mississippi.  Tell us about your early years in the music, your early training and so forth.

MM:    Well, I started playing the piano, like a lot of kids do, very naturally.  You know, you go to the piano and you pick out these little tunes that you’ve heard around… My father eventually got a teacher for me, and I studied through high school, and then I attended Memphis State University.  In Mississippi I played rhythm-and-blues as a teenager, and I played in church, Gospel, you know, spiritual music.  I played a lot of cocktail parties.  I had a little teenage trio, and we tried to emulate Oscar Peterson and Ramsey Lewis, heh-heh..

TP:    You were born in 1955.  That would make this 1970, 1971 when you were making your first strides…

MM:    Yes, about ’71, ’72.

TP:    This is all a matter of record, but we might as well get it down.  Who were some of the people that you listened to?  These are some people whose music we’ll be hearing during this course of this evening.

MM:    Actually, while I was playing R&B, my really first piano influence was Ramsey Lewis.  My older brother was into Jazz, and he kept telling me about this guy named Oscar Peterson.  And I said, “Hmm-hmm-hmm, Oscar Peterson could never play…”

TP:    Like Ramsey Lewis.

MM:    You know, nobody can touch that.  So I finally heard that Oscar was going to appear on the Joey Bishop Show one night, and I said, “Well, let me sit and take a listen to this cat, and see what’s happening.”  And I was turned around forever, for good!   And the record that I think  we’re going to play next is very dear to me, because it was the first Jazz record that I had.  This was the record that I started listening to, and it featured Oscar in his classic trio situation playing tunes like “Girl Talk” and…

TP:    “Moon River.”

MM:    “Moon River,” yes.

TP:    “I’m In The Mood For Love” and so forth.

MM:    “On A Clear Day.”  He did some excellent block chord work.  And it’s just so tasty, everything on the record is just exquisite.  Well, this was the record that I was trying to emulate when I was 14 or 15.  I had no idea of what was going on!

TP:    But this sort of opened the door a little bit.

MM:    Right.

[MUSIC: Oscar Peterson, “Girl Talk” (1970), Phineas Newborn/Jones/Hayes, “Way Out West” (1961)]

TP:    Phineas Newborn was in Memphis at the time when Mulgrew was attending Memphis State in the music education program.  Tell me about the program, the areas that you were covering as a student.

MM:    Well, as a student, I was a Music Education major.  I only attended for two years.  But the Jazz program at Memphis State was probably one of the best in that part of the South at that time.  Unfortunately, they didn’t really have a program where you could focus on small group playing and improvising.  It was basically a typical college big-band situation.  And they had four bands at different levels, and so forth and so on.  So that was the extent of the Jazz program at Memphis State.

TP:    Did you enter competitions?

MM:    Yes, we did.

TP:    What kind of material did you play?

MM:    Oh, we played a variety of composers and arrangers, some of the things from the Kenton band, and some of my favorite charts that we did were Thad Jones’ material, and there would be arrangements from the students within the band, and so forth and so on.

TP:    Is Memphis State where you had your first efforts at arranging and writing?

MM:    Well, you might say my first efforts.  It was not much more than an effort at that time.  I really was more into composing than arranging.  But I guess you might say that my first compositions I wrote at Memphis State.

TP:    [ETC.] Mulgrew will be appearing with the American Jazz Orchestra as part of a Jimmie Lunceford tribute — arrangements and recreations of the music of Jimmie Lunceford.  You’ve been rehearsing that music this week.  What’s it like?

MM:    Well, it’s a very educational.  I had had some big band experience playing with the Ellington band on the road for three years, so in a way it was sort of comfortable to me.  It’s a situation where I have to exhibit my discipline, and lay back, and play the things that the music requires.  John Lewis, of course, is directing the orchestra, and there are some very talented musicians in the orchestra as soloists — we’re really trying to recreate the style of the music.

TP:    [ETC.: APPEARANCE BY WINGSPAN] We’ll next hear some music by Bud Powell.

MM:    Bud Powell also was an artist who I discovered around the time I was in Memphis.  I had known all along of his importance in the music, and his innovations, and his contributions.  I first heard a record called The Amazing Bud Powell.  I really listened carefully, and tried to understand what his contribution was.  Of course, he was  to influence a whole generation of piano players to play the same type of lines that Charlie Parker was playing, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically.

[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Celia,” “Cherokee” (1949)]

TP:    Mulgrew, someone asked me to ask you how you came up with the name Wingspan for your group.

MM:    Actually, Wingspan is sort of a dedication to the legacy of Charlie Parker — Bird, you know.  The tune “Wingspan” on the record is a composition sort of written i that sort of Bebop mode — with a few curves here and there!  But it’s basically a Bebop oriented tune.  Once again, the title derives from thinking about the legacy of Charlie Parker.

TP:    When we last spoke with Mulgrew about his earlier years, we were around 1973, Mulgrew has left Memphis State.  Pick it up.

MM:    Well, after leaving Memphis State I had heard about a piano teacher in Boston who was sort of well-known among certain circles.  She had taught years ago at Boston University, I believe.  She was the mother of the great baritone saxophonist, Serge Chaloff, who was one of the original Four Brothers with Woody Herman’s band.  She was known as Madame Chaloff.  I wanted to study with her, because I heard that she really had this great concept for piano technique, and a lot of guys that had studied with her were the guys that I admired — Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, quite a few guys, Hal Galper had studied with her, and a lot of lesser-known pianists.  She was sort of like this mystical piano guru hiding out in Boston.  So I went to have a few lessons with her, and I’d like to think that I really benefitted from studying with this lady.

TP:    What were some of her unique approaches?

MM:    Well, her concept was sort of mystical and metaphysical, in a way.  It involved things like breathing, a lot of things in principle that are similar to Yoga.  It involves breathing and likeness of the arm and muscle-power…I mean, finger-power rather than arm power, you know.  It was a whole philosophy behind the concept that sort of reminded me of some sort of Eastern philosophy or something.

TP:    Again, in Boston were you able to supplement your studies with gigs?

MM:    Yeah.  Well, actually I was doing more working than I was studying!  There in Boston I met some very fine musicians — Ricky Ford, Billy Pierce, Chris Albert, and some of the guys that are still around Boston.  Some of them have since come to New York, like Boots Maleson, who plays bass in the Ron Carter Quartet.  And I played with all of these guys around Boston, and this was back in 1975.

TP:    Was it was around that time that you joined Mercer Ellington, or was there a hiatus?

MM:    There’s about a year between that and the time I joined Mercer Ellington.

TP:    That’s when Ricky Ford joined Mercer.

MM:    Ricky joined Mercer about that time.  Now, I was in  Boston during the winter, and you know, coming from the South, I had never been that cold in my life! [LAUGHS] So it got a bit cold for me.  I couldn’t stand it.  Snow, covered cars for a month at a time.  So I had a friend that I had gone to high school with who was living in L.A., and he kept saying, “Come out to L.A., man.  You could make it out here.”  And I had always heard that L.A. was like paradise, you know, since I was a kid.  So I went to L.A., and I stayed out there for a year.

That was a very interesting period in my life.  I met a wonderful tenor saxophone player.  He’s really a marvelous, magnificent player.  His name is Rudolph Johnson, and he’s not a well-known saxophonist, but he is one of the best-known saxophone players I’ve heard.

TP:    Is he originally from Kansas City?

MM:    No, he’s from Columbus, Ohio.  But he’s been with Ray Charles for the last eight or nine years.  But this guy is one of the most incredible tenor saxophonists I’ve heard.

TP:    Did he record for Black Jazz?

MM:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Okay, I know which Rudolph Johnson you’re talking about.  What else was happening in L.A.?

MM:    I was working, I was doing all sorts of things in L.A. — musical things!  I was working at some of the smaller jazz clubs down on the beach, and I was also playing in a church at that time, which I had been doing since I was a kid.  So I sort of played in church from the time I was 8 years old until literally up until the time I joined Mercer Ellington.

TP:    Some thoughts on the relationship of the church music to the secular music.

MM:    Well, yeah, especially in the direction of Jazz and Blues.  Certain areas of Gospel music and inspirational music, the tonality and the colors are very closely related with the feeling of the Blues.  Actually, that’s what it is, the dominant seventh sounds and that sort of thing, and the rhythms.

TP:    How did you come to hook up Mercer Ellington, then?

MM:    Well, that’s sort of a long story, but I’ll try to make it short.  I first studied with Mercer Ellington in my sophomore year at Memphis State.  He had been touring some part of the South.  Lloyd Mayers had been the piano player since Duke’s death, and I think Lloyd had to miss a weekend or something.  A friend of mine who was working with the band named Bill Easley, who plays clarinet and saxophone, recommended me to Mercer to work one weekend as a substitute for Lloyd Mayers.  I just did that weekend, and it was almost a year when I ran into Mercer in Los Angeles.  I learned that he had been looking for me.  He didn’t know where to find me because i had moved to L.A.  I think it was coming up to New Year’s Day, 1977, and he needed me to play a New Year’s Eve gig.  He said, “What are you doing for the next three weeks?”  I said, “Well, nothing.  I can make the gigs.”  So he took me for three weeks, and actually, what was supposed to be three weeks turned out to be three years.

TP:    Did you come in cold, or were you pretty familiar with the Ellington repertoire?

MM:    Well, I was familiar with some of the most popular of Ellington’s music.  But there was a great volume of stuff that I’d never heard.  But I was familiar with Duke’s personality, because I had seen him on TV and I’d heard a lot of his music as a kid.  So I didn’t feel like I was totally cold, but I was very green.

TP:    That’s a heavy chair to fill.

MM:    Well, I never related to that idea of filling Duke’s chair or his shoes, because my position in the band was that of a sideman.  Mercer was the leader.  So sort of all the pressure was on him.

TP:    What were your features with the band?

MM:    I had one feature I would play.  That was a song I think Duke sort of spontaneously composed called “Reflections In D,” which is a beautiful piece for piano.  It had an orchestrated background.  So I did that, and sometimes Mercer would feature me on solo piano playing “Lush Life.”

[MUSIC: Wingspan, “Dreams of Brazil,” “Wingspan”]

TP:    Your stint with Mercer Ellington spread your name around to the wider Jazz audience, I would think.

MM:    Actually, as far as spreading my name around, my name didn’t really get around that much, especially in the circle of musicians, because Mercer didn’t travel that circuit that much.  I mean, Mercer kind of… We played a lot of college dates, a lot of country club dances.  So as far as getting my name around among the circle of musicians and critics and so forth and so on, I guess it was a very limited amount of exposure.

But, far more important than that is the fact that I got a chance to hear the very colorful music of Duke Ellington every night, still being played by a lot of the people that played with him, and it really opened my ears up to the world of musical color.  And since that time, I’ve been really affected by that.

TP:    Did it spur you to go back into the recorded work of Duke Ellington?

MM:    Yeah, a bit.  Yeah.  Actually, yeah.

TP:    After leaving Mercer, your next major gig was with Betty Carter…

MM:    Actually, before we address Betty, I probably should add that a lot of people are familiar with Duke’s famous pop tunes, “Satin Doll” and “Sophisticated Lady” and so forth and so on.  But not a lot of people are familiar with his more extended works, his suites, the “Liberian Suite” and the “Afro-Eurasian Suite.”  I mean, that is some of the greatest music that’s ever been composed in this century.  And I thought that is deserving of mention on this show.

TP:    His work was so comprehensive, it seems impossible that one man put it down.  I guess that can happen if you have your band as your instrument for forty-five years.

MM:    That’s right.  But I think he was exceptionally prolific.

Anyway, as we were saying, I left Mercer in January of 1980 after receiving a call from Betty Carter, and I was on the road with Betty for about eight months.

TP:    Did you replace John Hicks?

MM:    I replaced John Hicks, that’s right.

TP:    Now, being with Betty Carter places a whole different set of demands on the piano player.  You’re almost the second voice in the band, in a lot of ways.

MM:    Yeah, in a lot of ways.  But still, there was a common thread there underlying the experience, because I was still an accompanist, and that was my basic role — being an accompanist.  I really learned to be sympathetic to that role and to whoever was up front, the soloist or the leading voice or whatever.

TP:    Was this the time when you settled in the New York area?

MM:    Yes.  As a matter of fact, upon being employed by Betty, I found residency in the New York area — in Brooklyn, as a matter of fact.

TP:    [ETC. on MUSIC]  Your feelings about McCoy Tyner’s music.

MM:    Actually, I have to say that there are a lot of piano players that had a great effect on me.  As with most musicians, there are people who affect them more than others.  In my case, I think my first great inspiration was Oscar Peterson, and after that time I was really affected by a lot of people, some of the people we’ve played.  But when I heard McCoy Tyner play live at the time he had the band with Azar Lawrence and Junie Booth, I felt that my soul was being ravished. [LAUGHS] It really took hold of me.  I went back to Memphis State, and I was determined that I was going to practice as hard as ever, because I was really set on fire by what I had heard from McCoy Tyner at this period.

[MUSIC: McCoy Tyner, “Theme for Ernie” (1962); Freddie Hubbard/Wayne/McCoy/Elvin, “Birdlike” (1961)]

TP:    That was killing, wasn’t it.

MM:    Yes, indeed!  That was one of the most famous Freddie Hubbard solos, I believe.

TP:    You seem to have memorized everybody’s solo on “Birdlike,” gauging from your response while it was on.

MM:    [LAUGHS] Oh yeah.  Well, that was a record I really listened to a lot.  McCoy’s playing on that is just immaculate, and Freddie’s playing and Wayne’s playing — just the whole group.  That is really a 10,000-star record.

TP:    You wanted to say some things about the pianist’s relation to the horns.

MM:    Well, part of the conception of playing Jazz and improvising is playing lines.  This particular innovation was carried forward moreso probably by horn players than piano players — maybe.  Of course, in Modern Jazz, most of us have been influenced by the innovations of Charlie Parker and through Bud Powell, and a lot of the horn players that came afterwards, like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, and of course, John Coltrane, and so forth and so on.

TP:    We’ll now hear Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” which Monk recorded in 1954 with Mulgrew’s former employer, Art Blakey, and the title track of your second release for Landmark.

MM:    My first exposure to Monk I think was the “At the Five Spot”…

TP:    With Johnny Griffin, another former employer.

MM:    Right.  I remember one of the first so-called Hard-Bop songs I learned was “Blue Monk” and “Straight No Chaser.”  I remember driving to high school, when I would drive to school in the morning, and a friend of mine and I would sing the melodies to these songs.  But I readily related to Thelonious Monk’s music, because in a way, it was so simple.  You know, in its complexity it was so simple.

TP:    Monk really developed his conception performing up and down the Eastern Seaboard with various church bands in the 1930’s.

MM:    Yes, and that’s easy to hear.  When I listen to his composition, “Crepuscule With Nellie,” that sounds a hymn to me.

[MUSIC: Monk/Heath/Blakey, “Work” (1954); Monk/Roach, “Bemsha Swing” (1953)]

TP:    We’ll continue with a selection featuring another of Mulgrew’s favorite pianists, Wynton Kelly.

MM:    Wynton Kelly was a supreme accompanist and a very wonderful soloist.  One of the great things about Wynton was his pulse and his time, and the way he made you feel when he played.  He had what we call a lope.  He played with a kind of a lope that was really deep in the time, and it kind of made you pat your foot or your feet or snap your finger.  That’s one of the great traits in his playing that a lot of piano players have tried to pick up on.  Just the way he phrased and the way he placed his notes.

TP:    And he was a master of almost any type of music he had to play, whether Bop or Soul type pieces, ballads…

MM:    Oh, definitely, right.  I think Wynton Kelly was almost everybody’s favorite sideman.

TP:    He also played a great deal in the churches in Brooklyn during his too-short life.

MM:    Well, he certainly had that feeling, you know. [LAUGHS]

[Miles/Stitt/Kelly/Chambers/Cobb, “Walkin'” (1960); Bill Evans/Israels/Bunker, “Round Midnight” (1965)]

MM:    We all know the contributions of Bill Evans, with its harmonic colors and the spring-like, airy lines that he played, and his renditions of the songs.  I think he made a timely contribution to the art of playing Jazz piano.  I’ve certainly learned a lot from listening to Bill Evans.

TP:    As has many a pianist.

MM:    Yes, as many a pianist and horn players.

TP:    The next set will focus on Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.  There’s another Miles Davis connection.  Miles got a lot of ideas from listening to Ahmad Jamal in the Fifties in Chicago, and of course, Herbie Hancock and Chick both worked with Miles.

MM:    That’s true.  Miles had so many wonderful piano players.

TP:    Ahmad Jamal was one of your earliest and primary influences.

MM:    Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player.  He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there.  Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique.   He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists.

TP:    And his music has been evolving as well for really some thirty-five years, in a continuous evolution.  He’s never stood on his laurels.

MM:    That’s right.  He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along.  That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.

[MUSIC: Ahmad Jamal, “Dolphin Dance (1970); Herbie Hancock, “One Finger Snap” (1964)]

MM:    Herbie, you know, what can I say?  Herbie is like the supreme conceptualist.  He is the ideal for me, without ever wanting to become a Herbie “clone.”   Herbie is such an expansive pianist, musician, his compositions, and he has incorporated so many conceptions and devices into his playing.  To me, Herbie’s playing at best is what Jazz is all about.

TP:    Herbie performed on “One Finger Snap” with your current employer, Tony Williams, on the drums.

MM:    Yes, let’s mention Tony, because Tony is one of the most incredible musicians that I have ever had the experience of witnessing on any instrument.

TP:    For the last five or six years you’ve been working with Art Blakey and Tony Williams night after night after night.

MM:    It’s an incredible experience.  I think I’ve become addicted to those loud drummers.  These are some of the greatest drummers of all time.  Back in the summer, I had the experience of playing with three of the greatest drummers alive in one night!  I played with Tony Williams at the Blue Note Festival, then I went down to Sweet Basil and I sat in with Art, and then as I was sitting in with Art, Elvin Jones sat in on the same  set.  It was just incredible.

TP:    [ETC.]  Any concluding comments?

MM:    Unfortunately, we didn’t have four or five hours to play some of the artists who have affected me since I’ve been in New York.  I’ve learned so much from a lot of the players in New York that we haven’t had a chance to talk about, players like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, one of my very-very favorites, who I think is one of the most underrated piano players in the world, Kirk Lightsey, Kenny Barron and Harold Mabern — the list goes on.  Of the younger players, there’s Kenny Kirkland and Renee Rosnes and Benny Green, and there are a lot more that are coming up behind us.  So it’s really a healthy environment.

TP:    [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Chick Corea, “Tones For Joan’s Bones” (1966)]

[-30-] Mulgrew Miller (Musician Show, 6-29-94);

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Elegy,” P. Newborn, “Lush Life” (1961), Bud Powell, “Parisian Thoroughfare” (1953)]

TP:    In selecting the music, Mulgrew was very definite about particular musicians and tracks.  “Lush Life” was by Phineas Newborn, who bestrides the talented group of pianists who emerged from Memphis.  Was your first exposure to him when you attended school there?

MM:    Yes.  I had heard of Phineas Newborn prior to my arrival in Memphis, but I didn’t know much about him.  And I met him in a club one night, and subsequent to that I heard him playing live, and I was blown away — needless to say.

TP:    In what kind of venue?

MM:    Oh, it was very small, what we would call down there a hole-in-the-wall joint.  A small club with an upright piano where it seemed like half the keys didn’t work, and he played them like it was a Steinway grand.

TP:    Who did you meet when you got to Memphis?

MM:    Well, the first pianist I met in Memphis actually was Donald Brown.  We were both students at Memphis State at the time.  A few days later I met James Williams, and we became very good friends, and James became a very important mentor to me.  Actually James was a mentor to both Donald Brown and myself at the time.  There was a very fantastic pianist who has made some impact in New York in the last year or so named Charles Thomas.  And Phineas, or “Fine-as” Newborn was there also.

TP:    Which is it anyway?

MM:    I don’t know.

TP:    How should I say it?

MM:    I would say that it’s officially Phineas.  But everybody down in Memphis called him Fine-as.  Some even called him Pheenus.

TP:    Pheenus.

MM:    Yeah.

TP:    I remember the first time I had to pronounce his name on the radio, I had four phone calls, literally, telling me one was right, and they were divided between the two pronunciations.

What was the extent of your background in the literature of the music when you arrived in Memphis?

MM:    Well, I came to Memphis State right out of high school.  Up until that time, I had really been into the more traditional stylists, like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and to a great extent Ahmad Jamal and Art Tatum.  Those were my favorite players at the time.  When I got to Memphis, there was a great student environment, a lot of students learning about the music.  At that time, I was able to absorb the more modern players (that’s a comparative, relative term), people like Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner.  Although I had heard some records by Bud Powell records McCoy Tyner records, and records by all of the contemporary players back down home, I didn’t really get into listening to them until I got into Memphis State.  I would say I think of some of them more as conceptual players than actual stylists.  In other words, you can sit and analyze what they do, and find certain formulas for things, and create your own language from that.

TP:    I’m sure that being able to play in such a stimulating setting helped begin to hone the process of forming a vocabulary.

MM:    Yeah.  Because when I met James, I didn’t know very much theoretically or analytically about what I was doing.  I was just sort of going for a sound.  And there are a lot of limitations to that approach.  James had been a student at Memphis State  for several years, and he was actually in his last semester there, and I was in my first semester.  So James knew all the stuff that I was trying to learn, like chord voicings and certain scales, certain records to listen to, who to listen to, what songs you need to learn, and he was very generous about directing me along those lines.

TP:    You came up in Greenville, Mississippi.

MM:    Greenwood.

TP:    Excuse me.  How much was Jazz listened to in the community when you were coming up?  Were you an exception as a youngster playing Jazz on piano, or…?

MM:    Oh, definitely, yeah.  Well, actually there was an older guy who still lives there, who played a style that was kind of out of Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Teddy Wilson.  He had been a mentor.  You know, I kind of looked up to him and tried to copy, emulate the way he played.  But he wouldn’t explain things academically.  You just had to sit and listen and wonder, “Wow, what was that?”  Or he’d show you a lick or something like that.  But to learn to look at the music analytically so that you could put it together yourself, I didn’t get to that until I got to Memphis.

So to answer your question:  Yes, in my generation, in high school, I was practically alone in learning to play Jazz.

TP:    Were you dealing with other types of music, that your peers were into, which I’m assuming was rhythm-and-blues and Blues…

MM:    Yes.

TP:    And of course, church music.

MM:    Yes.  Well, that was really what I was doing.  I was playing on the weekends, playing in the rhythm-and-blues bands, and on Sundays, sometimes two or three hours from the gig, I was in Sunday School class!

TP:    So the secular and the sacred were right on top of each other.

MM:    Oh, yes.  Yes, indeed.

TP:    What were some of the models for the music you were doing with the rhythm-and-blues bands?  What sort of bands were you listening to?

MM:    We were doing kind of a wide range of things, from the really bluesy things like Little Milton, Albert King, B.B. King to the more popular hits of the day.  James Brown was big at the time, and Aretha Franklin, and Al Green, and Marvin Gaye — all of those kind of things.  Around 1966, when I was sixth grade, I started trying to emulate Ramsey Lewis, because he got two or three hits at the time, real big hits.  He was probably my very first idol.

TP:    You wanted to be in with the In Crowd.

MM:    Yeah.  But actually this was a little after that.  This was the “Wade In The Water” period.

TP:    Our discussion of Phineas Newborn brought us back to Mulgrew’s younger days in Greenwood, Mississippi.   After Phineas Newborn’s arrangement of “Lush Life,” we heard Art Tatum’s arrangement of Massenet’s “Elegy.”  You mentioned hearing Tatum in high school, I guess, and then probably delving into him in more depth subsequently.  We also heard Bud Powell performing his original composition “Parisian Thoroughfare” in 1951.  What were your first impressions of Bud Powell?

MM:    Actually, I’m afraid the first record that I heard by Bud Powell didn’t really impress me at all, because it was a recording that was made in Europe, and I don’t think it was from his most fruitful period.  He was playing some ballads, and they were very slow and very stark-sounding voicings that were… I was used to the big, fat, pretty voicings of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum and so forth, and a certain kind of mood that would be set in a ballad, and most of these things that I was hearing from Bud Powell at first were very slow, very stark-sounding ballads.  So I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed at first.

But I think the first record by Bud that impressed me was The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1, I think, the one with Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins.  Because I have always been impressed by long lines, long right-hand single-note lines; that always got me.  And I was really impressed when I heard Bud’s conception of that.

TP:    Mulgrew’s next selection (Charlie Parker and Strings, “Just Friends”) leads me ask whether primarily pianists, or also other instrumentalists have affected your conception of how to play the piano?

MM:    Well, I would say primarily pianists, but certainly not only.  I have learned a lot from listening to John Coltrane, from Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins…

TP:    Is it about attack?  About different types of…

MM:    Generally about the language.  Just learning language from them.

[MUSIC: Bird and Strings, “Just Friends” (1950), Miles Davis/Mobley/Kelly/PC/Cobb, “Bye-Bye Blackbird” (1961)]

TP:    …”Bye-Bye Blackbird” featured the subtle swing and strong solo by Wynton Kelly, about whom I know Mulgrew has some words.

MM:    Oh yeah.  Well, it’s interesting to me that you referring to it as “subtle swing.”  I think of it as very pronounced swing!

TP:    Very pronounced, but I guess I was referring to the little modulation he did at the beginning of his solo.  I should have been more precise.

MM:    Oh, yes.  Well, he had that kind of finger-popping, foot-tapping way with the way he played time.  It’s very, very unique.  I’ve heard many players, younger players trying to emulate that, including yours truly.  It’s interesting to see how that happens in a person’s playing.

TP:    Well, maybe I should have used the word “sophisticated.”  Because it is everything you say, and yet, it’s always done in such an elegant way somehow.  I mean, these are subjective words for dealing with music.

MM:    Yeah, and words are always inadequate to describe something that’s so natural and so beautiful.  But Wynton is still, I think, a very strong influence in the Jazz piano world.  First of all, Wynton was a great accompanist.  I think anybody who wants to be a contemporary accompanist would have to check Wynton out, because as Miles Davis said, he knew how to feed the fire.  And that’s important, how to contribute to the time mechanism of the group, how to help the rhythm section and get deeply into that pocket.  And that feeling we were just talking about, I think most of us would want that if we could have it! [LAUGHS]  But you can’t teach that kind of thing, you can’t analyze it so that somebody else could really get to it.  That’s one of those mysteries that happens in this music, when a person’s personality, his own ways and idiosyncracies (or however you want to refer to it, call it whatever you want to call it), when that takes a big part and comes to play into the music.

TP:    I guess Wynton Kelly was the product of a number of influences, from Brooklyn and a West Indian background, and Classical music and church and all of that went into that incredible style, the singular distillation of which we heard on “Bye Bye Blackbird.”  In terms of Charlie Parker’s music, have you as a pianist dealt first-hand with Charlie Parker in formulating your aesthetic?

MM:    Well, probably not first-hand.  I mean, I guess first-hand I would have to be here to play with him.  But I understand what you mean.

Yeah. there was a phase in my development where I really listened to a lot of Charlie Parker and a lot of Bud Powell.  And I still listen to them.  But I always thought that Charlie Parker had the ultimate phrasing.  If I were to pick someone to model how I would like to phrase my lines on the piano, it would be Charlie Parker.

TP:    Well, enough said.

MM:    [LAUGHS]

TP:    [ETC.]  Next up is Lee Morgan’s “The Delightful Deggie” from Delightful-Lee on Blue Note.

MM:    Well, this is one of my very favorite albums.  I think if I could probably take 10 or 20 records on the road or to  the moon with me, this would be one of them.  It’s great because it features both Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, and it shows the contrasts and similarities in their participation in the Jazz scene at that time — and it’s a very interesting study in contrasts.  It also features McCoy Tyner, who I have always thought of as a very, very gifted melody-maker as a soloist and improviser.

[MUSIC: L. Morgan, “The Delightful Deggie” (1966); McCoy Tyner, “Surrey With tHe Fringe On Top’ (1968)]

TP:    “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is a trio performance within a quartet concert at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1968.  As liner-note-writer Ed Williams who said, the trio hijacked “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and took it into some different territory!

MM:    Oh my! [LAUGHS]

TP:    [ETC.] You were mentioning McCoy Tyner’s melodicism before the set, and I guess nobody needs to be told about how that piece swung.

MM:    Absolutely not.  But yeah, I think that McCoy has had, and still has a very unique gift of melody.  Because I realized what the challenge would be of getting into an area of pentatonics and fourths and other kinds of unconventional intervals for the time, and to sort of get melody out of it takes a rare gift.  McCoy has that gift, and you can hear it in his very earliest recordings.  He has a very, very great gift of melody.

What I’d like to say here is that I think writers and critics have probably not understood the great significance, the cultural significance of McCoy’s influence in American music — Trane, along with McCoy, or vice-versa.  But I often see reviews where they will critique a younger player, such as myself or some of the younger players, and sort of write off, “Oh, he’s another McCoy Tyner influenced piano player.”  But I think that influence is not going anywhere very soon.  I think it has great cultural significance.

TP:    Elaborate.

MM:    Well, there’s a sound there.  There’s a sound in McCoy’s playing, in the music that Trane brought forth, brought into fruition, that very much influenced American society and American culture.  So I think McCoy’s playing will affect American music for a long time.  Not only Jazz, but I hear it, you know, in keyboard players in particular in all sorts of genres of music.  I think some of the writers and critics sort of treat McCoy’s style as if it’s, you know, another passing phase — “Well, it’s time to get on to something else,” and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.  But I see McCoy as sort of a prophet of musical truth, and that’s going to be around a long time.

TP:    Of course, McCoy Tyner recently has recorded some amazing solo releases for Blue Note that show his expansive grasp of the whole piano continuum, and always with his own distinctive sound.  It’s always there.

MM:    Right.

TP:    You mentioned before that Oscar Peterson was one of your primary early influences coming up in high school.  I think he’s also been misunderstood by the critical community, and I think Phineas Newborn ran into that problem with people who were writing about the music.

MM:    Well, I guess it’s sort of the nature of the beast when you have this whole thing that we call art criticism.  You know, you have to say something!  And it’s always a matter of opinion.  There are no absolute truths in those criticisms.  It’s always opinion.  I think many, many great musicians, especially John Coltrane, suffered from the lashings of the critics.

Oscar Peterson, there’s no doubt about it, is one of the great pianists of all time.  But Oscar is primarily a stylist.  I don’t see Oscar as a conceptualist as I do, say, Bud Powell or McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock.  He brought forth a style that was pleasing, and it’s the cause of his popularity maintaining itself through the decades.

TP:    Well, he’s one of the virtuosos of his time…

MM:    Absolutely.  Undeniably! [LAUGHS]

TP:    …and a pinnacle that almost any jazz pianist has to deal with.  You were very specific about wanting this particular trio side from the mid-1960’s with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham as opposed to one of the sides with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.

MM:    Well, I think when people think of the “classic” Oscar Peterson Trio, they think of the Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen trio.  And I think that’s probably true.  But without trying to compare anybody with Ray Brown or anybody with Ed Thigpen, I think as a unit this particular trio with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham (and at one phase of it was Louis Hayes) brought out another side of Oscar, a kind of less cocktailish side, if you will… I’m taking a bold step in saying that, because I never thought of Oscar Peterson as being a Cocktail Piano Player.  But those are relative terms.  You know, I’ve heard people refer to Ahmad Jamal or Red Garland even as sort of a Cocktail style.

TP:    Some cocktails have more of an impact than others.

MM:    Yes.  As a matter of fact, I’ve heard some so-called cocktail piano players that I’d rather hear than some Jazz players!  But that’s all relative.

But anyway, this particular trio brought a little edge to Oscar’s sound, I think, and to his playing, if you will.  This particular record was my first record.  Oscar was the first real Jazz piano player that I heard that really just knocked me out, that made me… When I heard Oscar Peterson, I knew I wanted to be a Jazz player.  And this was the first record that I had.

TP:    It’s a moment you remember vividly, I take it.

MM:    Very vividly.

TP:    How old were you?  Where were you?

MM:    I was about 14 years old, sitting up one night watching The Joey Bishop Show.  And they announced that Oscar Peterson was coming on.  And I had been hearing about Oscar Peterson through my older brother, who was always trying to point me in that direction — because I wanted to play like Ramsay Lewis and whatever.  But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I just flipped.  Because I could relate to it on a number of levels.  Here is Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication.  That sort of motivated me.  I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never motivated to do that.  But when I saw Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.

[MUSIC: OP Trio (Jones/Durham), “Girl Talk” (1972); A. Jamal, “Poinciana” (1971)]

MM:    As one can tell from that performance, the one great thing about Ahmad Jamal is, for me, he affirms once more that there’s no one way to play Jazz.  There’s no one way to play Jazz piano.  There’s no one way that Jazz is supposed to sound.  I was very captivated about the way he went about that performance with reckless abandon.  There’s something about that approach that’s really captivating for me, very interesting.  He did some very daring and unusual things in that performance.  Ahmad has always been one of my very favorite pianists, one of my initial inspirations.

TP:    Well, Herbie Hancock, who we’ll hear next, undoubtedly heard a lot of Ahmad Jamal when he was coming up in Chicago…

MM:    I’m sure of it.

TP:    …and Miles Davis, of course, used Ahmad’s orchestrational approach to the trio as the model for the dynamics of his rhythm section.

MM:    Yes.

TP:    And I’m sure Herbie Hancock applied these lessons to very good use during his time with Miles. [ETC.] Next is “Head Start,” from a recording by the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet featuring Herbie Hancock in February 1966, one of several collaborations between the two, although not all were issued contemporaneously.

MM:    Well, I’d like to say, everybody knows how great Herbie  Hancock is, and there’s no doubt about it — I mean, Herbie is so amazing.  You hear that because so many young pianists today are emulating Herbie, and he’s had a mammoth amount of influence on the piano scene for the last thirty years.

TP:    If you had to crystallize it, what would you say it is about his sound and his conception?

MM:    The great thing about Herbie is that it’s no one thing, it’s a lot of things.  There’s the touch, there’s the sophistication, the taste, the intuitiveness, and the versatility.  So it’s all of those things that make Herbie so great.  He’s just such a phenomenal musician.  Probably if “genius” applies to anyone these days, it’s him!

I’d also like to say that Bobby Hutcherson, who is playing on this next recording, is one of my very favorite musicians alive.  He’s just such a great improviser.  I’ve personally been influenced by the way Bobby plays.

TP:    How does that translate?

MM:    Well, Bobby has a very advanced harmonic approach in the way that he plays his lines.  He plays his lines between the cracks, I think.  I mean, Herbie has that same quality, and that’s why they were such a great match for this record.  I played with Bobby back when I was with Woody Shaw in the early Eighties; Bobby was a great friend of Woody’s, and they played a lot of music together.  Bobby did some recordings and concerts and tours with us, and I was just knocked out by him, not only as a musician, but as a person also.  So he’s one of my very favorite improvisers.

TP:    I guess you must have had an extended taste of Woody Shaw’s unique harmonic sensibility.

MM:    Oh, yeah.  Well, another one of those great affirmations that there’s no one way to play Jazz.  Woody was always searching, you know, for that certain sound that would open up vast new musical horizons and territories.

[MUSIC: Hutcherson/Hancock, “Head Start” (1966); Bu/Golson, “Along Came Betty” (1958)]

TP:    [ETC.] Both Benny Golson and Art Blakey have played an important role in Mulgrew’s life. You were a Jazz Messenger for several years in the mid-1980’s, and you’re on several of Benny Golson’s recent recordings.

MM:    Right.  I have actually worked quite a bit with Benny over the last five or six years or so.  Benny is one of the greatest saxophone players alive.  I think he’s very much underrated today.  I think it’s kind of sad that we don’t take those giants and embrace them and treat them the way they should be treated.  Benny plays a whole lot of saxophone these days.  His style has changed somewhat from the days we just heard.  He still has some remnants of that sound, but also conceptually, he’s taken on some of the Coltranish mannerisms in his playing.  And you know, quiet as it’s kept, it might have been that they influenced each other.  They were friends, very close friends…

TP:    Jimmy Heath was a third leg of that relationship, too.

MM:    That’s right, that Philadelphia kind of connection there.  Benny has always had that almost kind of sheet-of-sound concept, as you can hear in this solo, running up and down the saxophone.  He was doing that way back then, playing the chords and things like that.

TP:    Without knowing it for sure, it would seem to me that Benny Golson has folloswed that Coleman Hawkins-Hershel Evans-Don Byas-Lucky Thompson line of saxophone playing, and Trane maybe got more into the post-Lester Young end of that spectrum…

MM:    Yeah, Dexter Gordon and that kind of thing… Yeah, absolutely.  There are points of departure, but there are also points where they have things in common.  You can hear, especially when Trane first started to get into running the scales up and down the saxophone… There’s a lot of similarities in the approach to that anyway.  The stylistic sound of the horn is different.  But probably they influenced each other.

TP:    When Benny Golson joined the Jazz Messengers, as he tells the story, Art Blakey was looking for a way to establish a definable group identity.  Not that it was floundering, but when Benny Golson came in he seems to have codified what became the Messenger sound, and begun the continuity of Jazz Messenger units that lasted over the next thirty years.

MM:    What I’ve noticed from playing with many bands, it’s usually two major factors that sort define the sound of the band.  Not necessarily in this order, composition is one of the main factors that defines the sound of a band, and number two is the drummer.  The drummer has a great influence on the sound, how the band plays, how it swings, he influences the freedom and the type of vocabulary that a soloist can use.  Coltrane might have been quite different in his development if he had had some other drummer than Elvin Jones.

TP:    Well, referring to our next set, speaking of drummers, and speaking of Art Blakey, he and Thelonious Monk were just about best friends, birthday-mates, and so forth.  Of Clark Terry there’s not much we can say except that there is no greater trumpet player.  And there’s a session Mulgrew was very specific about including called In Orbit, from 1958, Clark Terry with Thelonious Monk as a sideman, Philly Joe Jones on drums and Sam Jones on bass.  You’ve recorded a number of Monk’s compositions.

MM:    Yes.  I first heard Thelonious Monk’s records when I was in high school, and it was probably some of the first real Bebop (as it were) records that I heard.  I found it so easy to relate to Monk, as opposed to how I first heard Bud, for some reason.  Monk I could easily relate to.  It was that childlike kind of simplicity in his playing.

TP:    Did you first hear his solos or his group things?  A lot of people seem to have first heard his solos.

MM:    Well, I first heard the group things, the Five Spot records with Johnny Griffin and all of that.  And I first heard tunes like “Straight, No Chaser,” you know, the melody and the rhythms — the syncopation in the melody really intrigued me.  I was talking to Bill Easley last night, and he was telling a story about how he first heard me, first met me in Memphis, when I walked into a jam session and played “Blue Monk” just like I’d heard it on the record, or as close as I could get it.  It was probably one of the first Bebop tunes I knew, if you want to call it Bebop.

TP:    James Williams tells that same story.

MM:    Oh, does he?  [LAUGHS]

TP:    The same session.  He thought, “Wow, there’s a sensibility at work here.”  Let’s listen to the only Monk composition on In Orbit, “Let’s Cool One.”

[MUSIC: CT/Monk, “Let’s Cool One” (1958); Keith Jarrett, “Rainbow” (Bye-A-Blue)]

I was just saying to Mulgrew Miller that every pianist who comes up to do a Musician Show has their one favorite Keith Jarrett solo, to which Mulgrew said, “And this is mine.”

MM:    Yes.  Well, I think Keith Jarrett is a melody-maker of the highest order.  Not only is he a great melodist, he’s also a very lyrical player, and there’s so much poetry in his lines and his improvising.  “Rainbow” is just one of the finest recorded examples of that, for my ears anyway.  I just love that piano solo.

TP:    This will take us into the world of Duke Ellington, and the “Liberian Suite, Dance #1.”  Mulgrew, I guess the gig that got you out into the broader world of touring, professional big bands and Ellingtonia was two or three years with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, from about 1977, was it?

MM:    Right.  Three years.

TP:    I guess that experience would give you a full, idiomatic range of piano techniques and melodies and the great Ellington book, not to mention the opportunity to play in an accomplished big band.

MM:    Well, that was a great experience on a number of levels, not only musically, but personally, too.  I always like to say that I grew up in that band.  I turned 21, I think, the year before I joined the band.  It was quite an experience on a personal level, because I had to learn to live with 18 other people on a bus, [LAUGHS], and get along with them, all types of personalities, and so forth and so on.

But on a musical level, it was a great experience because I learned in that band that music is about sound and color and feelings.  It’s not about exercises and formulas all the time, you know.  Duke Ellington was a sculptor of sound, a painter of sound, if you will.  And that has left a lasting impression upon me.

TP:    Were you able to check out the scores, for instance, in the band?

MM:    There were piano scores.  But a lot of the extended works we were doing were transcriptions, and basically my experience was hearing the performances live.

TP:    As the pianist in the Mercer Ellington Band, you’re of course inheriting the mantle, so to speak, of one of the most individual-sounding pianists that ever played the instrument.  Were you at any point trying to actually get the type of sonorities and dynamics, or was it a question of playing live?

MM:    No.  Of course, there was a certain role as accompanist to the band and a certain thing about… I mean, I had to deal with the style to a certain degree.  There are certain intros, like the classic intro to “Satin Doll” or to “A-Train” that I had to do.  But basically, I mean, my whole musical makeup is totally different from Duke Ellington’s, you know, and I wasn’t expected to come there and sit in the band and be Duke Ellington.

TP:    And thank God for that.

MM:    Yes, and thank God for that.  I would never have been able to fulfill that kind of demand.

TP:    So of course, the band then took on a very different personality than the Duke Ellington band.

MM:    Yeah, because there were a lot of younger guys in the band as well, and the younger guys are influenced by a lot of different things than, say, Cootie Williams and some of the older guys who were the Ellington luminaries.  So yeah, you’re right.  It took on a different feeling and a different sound, with a different personality.

TP:    And yet, an invaluable experience.

MM:    Definitely.  Most definitely.

[MUSIC: Ellington,”Liberian Suite, Dance #1″ (1947); Milt Jackson/Cedar/Higgins, “Bullet Bag” (1993]l

MM:    Well, what can I say about Milt Jackson?  He’s probably one of the greatest musicians of all time.  I only played with Milt Jackson for the first time about a year ago.  When I first came to New York, I had a list of guys that I really wanted to play with, and he was on that list.  Up until last year, last June I believe it was, I had played with just about everybody I wanted to really play with really badly.  When I played with him, I told him, “I can go and quit” or lay down and die in peace or whatever!  But it really sort of put the lid on all of my greatest desires as far as playing with people.

TP:    What impresses me most in listening to him is that he seems like an endless fount of melodic invention.  I can recollect a concert a few years ago, just kind of a pickup band.  He played 14 or 15 pieces.  And he started hitting his stride maybe around the fifth piece, and everyone that followed he did something to out-do what he’d done on the previous piece, when it didn’t seem he could possibly come up with anything new to say.

MM:    Yeah, he’s amazing.  Milt Jackson is amazing.  And how he can weave everything around the Blues, no matter what kind of song it is… I heard him play what we would call a modal tune, I think “So What” or “Impressions,” one of those tunes that he plays sometimes, and how much blues he can play in that is amazing!

TP:    Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins is a rhythm team that goes back thirty years.

MM:    Well, when I first came to New York, Cedar and Sam Jones and Billy used to play together.  And I think to this day it’s probably the finest rhythm section that I’ve heard in New York.  That was just a team that was unbelievable.  Cedar is another one of those great, great melody-makers.  I love Cedar’s playing because he’s so great with melody and orchestration.  He’s such a great trio player because he’s a great orchestrator.

TP:    A role he filled with the Jazz Messengers, one of your predecessors.

MM:    Certainly.  And I’ll say this about Billy Higgins.  A few years ago I got to play with Billy Higgins for the first time on a record with Bobby Hutcherson, and I mean, I was high for a month!

In closing I’d like to talk about Art Blakey.  I would like to talk about Art because we miss him, and I miss him, and it was great experience — and the scene misses Art Blakey.  There is now such a void for that kind of energy on the scene.  I think if anybody deserves credit for the so-called revitalization of Jazz vis-a-vis the young lions and all of that, it’s Art Blakey.  Because throughout the decades, he kept marching right on, in spite of whatever the conditions were.  I think the Messengers at one time had sort of come down to three pieces and a singer.  But he kept on!  So when it came time again for an interest in Jazz, he was there already, with a whole army of new and young talent.  So I think Art Blakey deserves a lot of credit for revitalizing, if you will, Jazz.

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