Category Archives: Obituary

R.I.P. Jim Hall (Dec. 4, 1930-Dec. 10, 2013)

Very sad to hear of the passing of Jim Hall, the master guitarist-composer who was a universal influence on guitar sound and practice post-1965. He was playing wonderfully as recently as Nov. 22 and 23rd at a Jazz at Lincoln Center event with two of his acolytes, John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. I’d like to share three items documenting separate encounters with Mr. Hall (who I first had the opportunity to meet during the ’90s on several WKCR encounters), most recently in October for the program notes for the aforementioned concert. I’ve also appended the proceedings of a public DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in Orvieto—where he was performing all week in a two-guitar context with Bill Frisell, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron—right after New Year’s Day in 2010, and a conversation for a piece I wrote for DownBeat about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s. I haven’t transcribed the proceedings of our WKCR shows, in which he related his personal history in some depth. You’ll be able to find biographical particulars elsewhere, but this documentary from the late ’90s, written by his daughter, Devra Hall, is a great place to start, as is this conversation with Larry Appelbaum. So are these DownBeat articles, from 1962 and 1965, respectively.

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Jim Hall Concert with Peter Bernstein & John Abercrombie – Program Notes:

“Jim Hall is, in many ways, to me, the father of modern jazz guitar.”–Pat Metheny

“I used to focus on playing like Jim Hall, trying to play slow and really hear whatever I was doing, not let my fingers get ahead of me. I love Jim because it’s not a whole lot of notes, but he generates so much intensity with such a poetic vibe.”—Mike Stern

“Jim Hall is like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat. He’s so quirky and unorthodox, but always musical, with a purpose to everything that he plays and does. There’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein. Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too.”—Russell Malone

“Jim plays the baddest stuff I’ve ever heard. It’s like guitar playing from the future, but yet it’s happening right now.”—Julian Lage

* * * *

On this evening’s concert, guitarist Jim Hall, 82 years young, augments his trio with fellow plectrists John Abercrombie, 69, and Peter Bernstein, 46. Both regard the elder maestro as a preeminent signpost figure in their stylistic development, while most closely resembling him in the individuality of their respective voices.

A game-changer for the last four decades, a key figure in assimilating and coalescing the various streams that entered jazz expression during the ’70s, Abercrombie—like Hall—remains a work in progress in his golden years, as is evident on 39 Steps, his lyric, harmonically erudite 2013 release on ECM (his 24th for the label since 1974), and on its immediate predecessor, Within A Song. On the latter date, Abercrombie reconfigures in his own argot four songs from ‘60s recordings by Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer and Bill Evans to which Hall made consequential contributions. Among them is “Without A Song,” from Rollins’ 1961 masterpiece The Bridge.

“I heard it in a record store when I was 17, and had an epiphany,” Abercrombie told me last year. “I didn’t know what he was doing, but it sounded so perfect. That was the strongest reaction I’ve had to any piece of music from the jazz world.”

Bernstein experienced his own epiphanies as Hall’s student at the New School during the latter ‘80s. “Playing duo with him then, I’d wonder how he kept the harmony and time so clear,” he recalls. “He’s such a great listener, so supportive, so empathetic—all the things that he is as a human being come through when he accompanies.” Over the subsequent quarter-century, he’s  earned the esteem of peer-groupers like Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, and elder masters like Rollins, Jimmy Cobb and Lou Donaldson for his touch, the voice-like quality of his tone, the melodic and harmonic clarity of his solo declamations, and, as Hall notes, “his complete avoidance of cliches.”

“Jim introduced a completely new aesthetic,” Bernstein says of his mentor. “He came out of Charlie Christian and Freddie Green, and doesn’t shy away from playing the blues and bebop, and doing things that the guitar wants to do as an instrument. At the same time he’s a very intellectual musician with an advanced harmonic concept.”

As always, Hall will follow the core principles by which he’s operated since his debut recording with Chico Hamilton in 1955. “I try to make each performance kind of a composition,” he says. “The idea of improvising in the first place is doing whatever it takes to appropriately get out of the guitar whatever goes through your mind. Ideally, all of us on stage—whether it’s three or four or five—will always be listening with that same target in mind, to make it into a nice composition.

“I picture myself as a listener when I’m playing or writing. That’s one reason why I solo the way I do. I like to leave space for the listener to reflect on what’s been played already, and then take them some place else.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Jim Hall Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Julian Lage, “Lil’ Darlin” (from SOUNDING POINT, Decca, 2009) (Lage, guitar; Jamie Roeder, bass; Tupac Mantilla, percussion; Neal Hefti, composer)

I actually know him. That’s Julian Lage. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I think he’s 21 or something now. I really admire him. He’s very different. A lovely young guy. On this record also, although not on this track, he has a banjo player, Bela Fleck, who is outstanding. That was a Basie tune, right? Right, “Lil’ Darling.” It was a completely unique treatment of a standard jazz tune. Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Greene, was amazing. He really kept the Count Basie band together. When Freddie left, they sounded great, but it just was not the same without Freddie Greene on guitar. In fact, I wrote a piece which we’ll play this evening called “OwedTo Freddie Greene,”

2.   Egberto Gismonti-Alexandre Gismonti, “Aguas & Dança” (from SAUDAÇÕES, ECM, 2009) (Egberto Gismonti, acoustic guitar, composer; Alexandre Gismonti, acoustic guitar)

That’s amazing guitar playing, and I have no idea who it is. Egberto Gismonti wrote it and played it? I know Egberto Gismonti, and he is a fantastic musician. He plays fantastic piano, and he’s a composition… I think he lives in Rio still. That’s one of the marvelous things about music. You just played a record by a very young guitarist, and now you played one by a slightly older Brazilian guitar player. [Brazilian music has been in your repertoire for many years.] It’s kind of a gringo version! I just admire Brazilian music so much. We’re playing a piece this week called “Cavaquinho.” I was in Brazil several times, starting in 1959 or 1960. It felt like everybody in Rio played the guitar. Music was coming out from everywhere. It was a great experience.

3.  Bobby Broom, “In Walked Bud” (from PLAYS FOR MONK, Origin, 2009) (Broom, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I don’t know who that is either. [SINGS REFRAIN] I’ve forgotten the name of the tune. “In Walked Bud,” that’s right. Fantastic guitar playing. I could have used a little more harmonic sense, maybe a chord now and then just filling in, but it sounded great. Tell us who it was. Bobby Broom? I just know the name. [He’s played with Sonny Rollins since the early ‘80s.] I know Sonny Rollins. [LAUGHTER] That’s why Sonny doesn’t call me any more. Working with Sonny was probably my most important job. I first heard him with Max Roach’s group with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, and I admired his playing. I joined Sonny in early 1961. I was only 12 years old. It was very challenging, because it got me practicing. I’m serious. Sonny was and is one of my heroes. I was in the hospital for a long time this year with back surgery, and Sonny called. He never talks very much, but in the hospital we talked for 45 minutes on the phone one day. I almost hesitate to get into this, but in those days there was still a lot of racial crap going on, and Sonny made me aware of it. All of my early heroes were African-American—Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and then Sonny later. It was just fascinating. I was so honored to play with him. This may not be appropriate to say, but I think with our new American President, it’s gotten so much better just in terms of getting along together.

4.  Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Fall” (from REFLECTIONS, Word of Mouth, 2009) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Eric Revis, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

I don’t have any idea who that is. It seemed like it was in an odd meter, 7/4 or 5/4.. I don’t know what they were performing. . It sounded a great ensemble, and I admire the guitar player—it sounded good to me, but I don’t know anything about it. Oh, it’s Kurt. It’s interesting. A lot of this is brand-new to me. If I listen to music, generally it’s classical music. If I listened to great guitar players, it would be depressing. Bela Bartok. He plays good guitar. It’s amazing how guitar playing has just opened up and gotten better. Bill Frisell and I have known each other since Bill was a teenager, I think. Now I’m learning from him. That’s how it goes. It seems to me that one of the requisites of being involved in music, or any art form, is that it keeps growing, and if you’re open, then you will grow as well, and not stop someplace and say, “Well, that’s over; now I’m just going to keep playing this G-7 chord.”

5. John McLaughlin, “Stella By Starlight”(from THIEVES AND POETS, Verve, 2003) (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, arranger)

Again, I don’t know who that is, but it was an amazing guitar player. I know it’s “Stella By Starlight.” It sounded like B-flat. For me, I love that melody so much, I think that I would not have put all that filigree. I would have concentrated on the melody and the words to the song. I think that needs to be presented. It seems like each piece, especially if it’s a song, should probably be presented in a different way, and this is a love song, and it has nothing to do with flashy picking like “I Got Rhythm” or something. This is an amazing guitar player; again, I didn’t particularly like the way the song was treated. This song came from a period where there were so many fantastic songs that I think need to be played more. I feel like, in a lot of ways, younger people are cheated because recording stuff all got into the hands of marketing people. It’s great to hear lovely compositions performed and recorded again. [AFTER] That was John? I knew I’d insult a friend. Again, I wish I could do that. I’m sure I have a lot of things which would embarrass me.

6. Wolfgang Muthspiel-Brian Blade, “Heavy Song” (from FRIENDLY TRAVELERS, Material, 2006) (Muthspiel, guitar, composer; Blade, drums)

Again, I don’t know who that is. It’s interesting, and it made me think about amplification. It sounded like an excellent guitar player. It’s funny. I still like the sound of the acoustic guitar just being amplified a little bit, but that was a whole different genre, I guess. I hope you’ll hear, when we play later, that I like to be able to hear Scott Colley on bass fiddle, not necessarily amplified, and Joey Baron, who is close to me and I can hear everything he plays. I understand amplification and the need for it, but I think it needs to be, in general, kind of tuned down a bit. Maybe start over with Andres Segovia or something—I don’t know. Because when you perform as a quartet, you’re part of a group of four people, and I like to be able to react to what Scott plays in the bottom of the texture, and then what Joey does. That’s just my personal preference. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like some old fogey up here. I enjoy all of this music. It’s just that my feeling about music is different. Because I couldn’t hear the individuals in the group at all, and it puzzled me. [AFTER] It would probably make one interesting track on a CD, I guess. Again, I love all the guitar playing. [It’s interesting. I’m selecting one piece from a CD that reflects a broad spectrum of music.]

7.  Adam Rogers, “Sight” (from SIGHT, Criss Cross, 2009) (Rogers, guitar, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Clarence Penn, drums)

That one I really enjoyed. Again, I have no idea who it is, but in relation to what I was saying earlier, I could hear the whole texture very clearly. Marvelous guitar playing, and he or she… Do you know Sheryl Bailey? She’s a great guitar player, too—I hate to say “he” all the time. The guitarist would listen to what was happening and react. It seemed like people were listening. I love that. And it sounded very original, too. The shape of the piece, the chord changes, the bassline—it really kept my attention. It wasn’t Les Paul, was it. [LAUGHS] I loved Les Paul.

8. Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau, “Ahmid-6″ (from METHENY MEHLDAU, Nonesuch, 2006) (Metheny, guitar, composer; Mehldau, piano)

Again, I do not know who it is, but it’s another amazing guitar player. Again, I wish that somehow or other, there was some clarity at the beginning of the piece, so I would know what they were improvising on. The playing was amazing, but it just sounded like playing over chord changes pretty much, and I would like to have… Like with a painting—you have a background and then some stuff added. But I thought it was great playing. I never had great facility, so I just play slowly, and then, when I play a little bit faster, they say, ”ooh, it’s fantastic.” [AFTER] I’ve known Pat since he was about 15 years old. He’s done so well.
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9. Jonathan Kreisberg, “The Best Thing For You” (from THE SOUTH OF EVERYWHERE, Mel Bay, 2007) (Kreisberg, guitar; Matt Penman, bass; Mark Ferber, drums; Irving Berlin, composer)

That I enjoyed a lot, too. Whoever it was really presented “The Best Things Thing For You Is Me,” presented the tune very clearly—and again, the guitar player was amazing. I enjoyed it. On every selection you played, I thought the guitar playing was pretty stunning. But that one was clearer to me, because whoever it was played the melody so well.

* * *

Jim Hall (Vanguard 70th) – (Jan. 30, 2005):

TP:   70 years in one place in Manhattan. It’s staggering.

HALL:   I agree.  I don’t know how old he was when he died…

TP:   He was born in 1903. He was close to 90.

HALL:   I remember when he had the Blue Angel uptown.

TP:   And he had it for 20 years. He got it when the Vanguard was already ten years old.  Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath and Roy Haynes all were here before you.

HALL:   Yeah. I visited with Chico Hamilton and played at Basin Street East, but I finally moved here around 1960.

TP:   The clubs I can ask you about would be the Five Spot, the Bohemia…

HALL:   I played the Bohemia with Jim Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer, and we played opposite Miles’ sextet.

TP:   So it was a trip to New York before you moved.

HALL:   Right.

TP:   I can ask you about the Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Half Note, and Bradley’s.

HALL:   The place where I first worked with Sonny Rollins was owned by the Termini Brothers – the Jazz Gallery.

TP:   Let’s start with your first trip to New York with Chico Hamilton and Basin Street, and the Bohemia. What was Basin Street like?  Do you recall the layout of the room or the ambiance?

HALL:   It was my first trip to New York as a musician, and the whole thing was kind of overwhelming.  It was Chico’s quintet, and I think Jerome Richardson played with us instead of Buddy Collette, because Buddy was doing the Groucho Marx television show or something. We played opposite Max Roach with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow. As I remember, it was laid out like a big board meeting room or something, and there was a bar and lots of tables.  All kinds of people came in. One time I looked up, and Richie Powell was sitting there with his brother, Bud Powell.  Erroll Garner came in. Sammy Davis, Jr., came in and sat in on drums one night!  I don’t know how long the place lasted, though.

When I was with Jimmy Giuffre… Later on he was managed by Norman Granz. But there was a guy doing the booking whose name I can’t remember, but he also managed Mort Sahl, and Mort had a show on Broadway for about three weeks called The Next President.  Jimmy, Bob and I played there with Mort Sahl, and then we’d go down to the Bohemia and worked there, too.

TP:   What was the Bohemia like?  It was a big room on Barrow Street?

HALL:   Exactly.  It looked like a high school auditorium.  I remember there were lots of tables set up, and the bandstand was kind of raised in the back, like an auditorium, kind of.  As I said, we worked opposite Miles’ great group with Bill Evans.

TP:   What was the atmosphere like, the clientele?  I guess it was a lot different than Basin Street. Maybe not.

HALL:   This was all so new to me… I remember Stan Getz came in one night, and down in the dressing room he was trying out one of John Coltrane’s horns, and I played a couple of tunes with Stan.  Another time I remember Neshui and Ahmet Ertegun came in with Queen somebody… Her husband was King Hussein of Jordan, I think, and he had fired her because they couldn’t have kids together. So the Ertegun brothers came in with her, and I was sitting with Charlie Persip.  Charlie was working with Art Farmer someplace, and he came in to hear Miles’ band.  I said to Charlie, “You see that beautiful lady? That’s Queen Saroya (I think) of Jordan.” Charlie said, “No shit?”

Anyway, it was great working opposite Miles and…

TP:  Was the place full all the time?  I get the feeling reading about it that it was a very popular room, and all the cats would go down there to hear.

HALL:   Probably.  It was hard to have a perspective.  First of all, I did the show with Mort Sahl.  David Allyn sang on Mort’s show, too. The club didn’t have the coziness of the Vanguard, certainly, or the magic, I think.  It was more like a theater, I felt.  So was the Jazz Gallery, a bit.  They had an interesting background at the Gallery, though, with moving lights or something behind us.

TP:   Did you also play the Five Spot?

HALL:   Yes.  I remember it being crowded all the time, and very… I was staying at the Van Rensselaer Hotel in the Village at the time, and I worked opposite Ornette Coleman’s group there once with Jimmy.  It was Ornette and Charlie Haden and either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, probably Billy. That was a thrill.  I also remember hearing George Russell play with a ten-piece group or so there. I remember the Five Spot as being small and kind of dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness, sort of.  Thelonious Monk came in one night. Then Leonard Bernstein came in; that was the time he jumped up on the stage and kissed Ornette or something. Cecil Taylor would sometimes come in late at night.  He and Buell Neidlinger were buddies, I think, and Cecil would play sometimes after work, or…
TP:   Sit in after the last set?
HALL:   Yeah.  It just seemed like an extremely hip place, that’s all.

TP:   The epitome of hipness is a nice phrase. What do you remember about Ornette being there?  That’s an engagement that sort of rocked the world.

HALL:   I guess.  I had known Ornette in California.  Actually, he was doing a date with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne and Don Cherry.  Red was a close friend, and he invited me to the record date.  When I got there, I was in the control booth, and Red was sitting in the control booth, and they were playing without him.  Red was very controlling, and he kept asking Ornette, “Well, how many measures before this? How many bars?”  Ornette would say, “Just trust me.”  So Red got frustrated, and he bailed.  He was sitting in the control booth for a while. But I loved Ornette’s playing right away. I’d gone to a conservatory of music, and I heard Bartok and Hindemith and Schoenberg and all those people, so it didn’t surprise me.  But I loved his playing right from the start.  But it was great being around Ornette when he was kind of breaking ground.

Then John Lewis had Ornette and Don both up at the School of Jazz at Lenox…

TP:   Oh, I forgot that you were on Jazz Abstractions.

HALL:   Right.  And John would bring in ringers to go to this music school.  It was every summer for two or three weeks, I think, at the end of the summer up at Lenox.  He got Don Cherry and Ornette there as students, and Attila Zoller was there as a student, Gary McFarland… It was kind of a rich period. But obviously, you don’t realize it when you’re living it.

TP:   Of course not.  What were the Termini Brothers like?

HALL:   They were great.

TP:   Soulful guys?

HALL:   Yeah, they were just nice guys. When I was a kid, all the club owners were these guys with the broken nose and cigars and stuff, and the Termini Brothers seemed like they would have been good neighbors or they could run a grocery store, or something like that.  Really nice.

TP:   And you played with Sonny at the Jazz Gallery.

HALL:   I  did. It was on St. Marks Place just east of the Bowery.

TP:   I know you played at the Half Note quite a bit.

HALL:   Yes.

TP:   It seems that all the musicians enjoyed playing there.

HALL:  It was really relaxed, and the Canterinos, Mike and Sonny, they were great. The bar made a sort of oval around the bandstand, and they had this great guy, Al the waiter, who wore this tuxedo all the time, and he would kind of drag his feet when he walked, and he would call out orders. It’s probably on some records. He’d say, “Son-ny!!” when he wanted beers or something.

TP:   Is he the guy who would always light people’s cigarettes?

HALL:   Yes.  We called him “the torch” sometimes.

TP:   Back when you got to town, all the clubs went to 4 a.m., right? Three sets, 2 a.m. last set?

HALL:   Yeah.  When I worked at the Five Spot, they had this Budweiser clock right above the bandstand that would kind of circle around slowly, and I’d look at the clock and it would say 20 of 3, and I’d play about an hour, we’d play an hour, and I’d look up and it would say 15 minutes to 3!  I think it went to 4.  You played long.

TP:   And the Half Note was isolated, so it had to be a destination.

HALL:   That’s right.  It wasn’t in the heart of things at all.

TP:   It seems the mid ‘60s is when a lot of the small piano rooms downtown cropped up.  But Bradley’s, the Knickerbocker, Village Corner.

HALL:   I wasn’t a regular at Bradley’s, but I did hear a lot of… I heard Jimmy Rowles there with Red Mitchell, and stuff like that.  The Knickerbocker somehow seemed not as important to me. Bradley’s was a fun hangout, and I liked Bradley, and I got to know Sam Jones really well there.  In fact, when Sam was dying… Sam was a big fan of boxing, so anything having to do with boxing, I cut it out of the newspaper and would mail it to him.

TP: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, were there other places you’d wind up trying to get to?

HALL:   Just to hear music?  On the one hand, I loved Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and they were at the Half Note a lot.  The Half Note moved uptown or to midtown for a while, but it didn’t seem to gel. I played there with Paul Desmond, Ben Riley and Ron Carter, and we played opposite the Bill Evans Trio there.  I remember the Cantorino brothers and the old man wearing tuxedos. They were all dressed up. That seemed kind of weird to me.

TP: How did the clubs in New York differ from the clubs in L.A. and Cleveland?

HALL:   I’m not sure. In Cleveland there was a club called Lindsay’s Sky Bar that was very hip. I heard everybody there. It was a bit like the Vanguard.  It was small and dark, and I heard Charlie Parker there. I heard Art Tatum. I heard Red Norvo with Tal Farlow; that’s where I heard Tal.  I heard Stuff Smith; that was great.  That was a very hip club. There were a couple of them in Cleveland. Later I heard Charlie Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach at a different club. So there was stuff to hear.

But for some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard.  The sinkhole!  I mean that in a good way.  You go down there, and you’re in an environment. After I spoke with you the first time, I made a list of all the people I had heard there and stuff.  I lost part of it.  But Jesus, I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there, and Slam Stewart was playing with him. I heard Ben Webster there. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over before I knew him.  Oh, and I think I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May.  Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce there.  I think Mort Sahl, but I’m not sure.  I heard Wes Montgomery there with Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly, I think. And I worked in a duet with Miles’ group with Wynton and Jimmy Cobb and Paul and Hank Mobley.

TP:   So you’ve been working at the Vanguard for almost fifty years.

HALL:   Seems like it!

TP:   Has it changed?  New sound system, they removed a post…

HALL:   I’ll have to check with Jed about this, or maybe you could, but there was a Japanese company that came in, and they wanted to get the sound of the Village Vanguard somehow, and they measured it from top to bottom, everything, and then as a payoff they gave them a new sound system.  So that changed the whole thing!  It cracked me up.

TP:   For better or worse?

HALL:   I really don’t know. I’ve just always enjoyed playing there somehow.

TP:   What does it? Is it the spirit?  The sound?

HALL:   The sound is good. It’s mostly just the ambiance, all the pictures on the wall.  So many memories.  And Max Gordon sitting in the back there.  And that kitchen is… Talk about magic meeting.  One time, on Paul Desmond’s birthday, my daughter cooked something for his birthday, and afterwards my wife and I and Paul went to the Vanguard. Thelonious Monk was working there before his son. I think Thelonious was not doing too well then. It’s the only time I’ve ever had a conversation with Monk, was with Paul Desmond and Thelonious.

TP:   And you’ve continued to play there steadily since ‘57 or ‘58.

HALL:   Right.  I remember hearing Joe Lovano with Bill Frisell and Motian there. That almost got me in a fight with Stanley Crouch later on. He put them down… I saw Stanley and Wynton Marsalis on Charlie Rose, and Stanley was pontificating, and they started putting down Miles Davis by his later bands. Stanley said, “I could tell he was going out by the way he was dressing?”  I thought, “Shit, what about Duke Ellington?” That really infuriated me, and I thought especially Wynton to say anything negative about Miles, and Miles opened so many doors for people… I always thought Miles could play silence better than most people could play notes. So I went in to hear the trio with Lovano and Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, and I was knocked out. I came outside, and Stanley was outside.  He said , “Oh, Jim Hall, down there listening to that junior music, huh.” So that got me bugged, and I started arguing with him.   P.S., Stanley called me the next day to have lunch after we had a shout-out!

TP:   Are clubs different now than they were when you first hit New York?  Are the audiences different? The general run of clubowners… But you don’t play that many other clubs.

HALL:   The Blue Note sometimes, and the new Birdland. Somehow the Vanguard… Maybe it’s because it’s underground. But somehow it seems like home to me.

TP:   There’s something about it that is jazz, nothing but jazz…

HALL:   Exactly.  I was working there once with Don Thompson and either Elliott Zigmund, or maybe Ben Riley, a trio, and some guy came down the stairs and robbed Cliff Lauder at the door with a gun while we were playing “Body and Soul” or something.

TP:   But the Vanguard has stayed the same pretty much.

HALL:   It really has.

TP:   It’s so rare in 2004-05 to have anything similar to what it was 20 years ago, even 50 years ago.

HALL:   Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.  Did I tell you about Lorraine Gordon and Henry Kissinger? Jed told me that Havel was there, and a few minutes into the set Henry Kissinger came down the stairs and Lorraine wouldn’t let him in!  She said, “You can’t come in; the set’s already started.”

TP:   I think eventually she let him in, but made him pay.

HALL:   She said, “Okay, that will be thirty dollars.”

TP:   Who are you going to play with on your night?

HALL:   I’m not sure yet.  I might just do it as a duo. Maybe Henry Kissinger will come in and make a speech.  He says, “Perhaps you don’t know who I am.” She said,”Oh, I know all about you; that’s part of the problem.” You’ve got to love that, no matter what kind of pain in the ass she is.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, Jim Hall, Obituary, Uncategorized

R.I.P. Chico Hamilton (September 20, 1921-November 25, 2013). Two WKCR Interviews and a DownBeat Blindfold Test

Word comes through Facebook that drummer-composer Chico Hamilton, a master drummer and bandleader, and fresh thinker through more than 75 years as a professional musician, passed away last night at the age of 92. His immense c.v. and accomplishments will be abundantly available for your perusal on the web. During the ’90s I had the privilege of doing two comprehensive shows with Chico, one a Musician’s Show in 1994, the other a five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profiles” show in 1996. Later, I had an opportunity to conduct a Blindfold Test with Chico at his East Side Manhattan apartment. I’ve appended the full transcripts below.

* * *

Chico Hamilton Musician Show, WKCR, July 20, 1994:

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton, “Around The Corner” (1992)]

TP:    We’ll be creating sort of an oral autobiography.  Chico is surrounded by records, of which we won’t get to a fifth.  It covers the Los Angeles scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a variety of people.  The first selection cued up is “Tickletoe,” by the Count Basie, featuring the man who drummed like the wind, Papa Jo Jones, who seems to have been the person who influenced your approach more than anyone else.

CH:    That’s absolutely correct, Ted.  As a matter of fact, Jo… Actually, the first drummer I ever saw was Sonny Greer, and I was very impressed with him.  I was a youngster, about 8 or 9 years old.  But when I started playing, which was I guess 9 or 10 or something like that, and when I was in junior high school, all of a sudden Count Basie’s orchestra came on the scene, at least on the West Coast.  We began to get his records.  Then when I heard Jo Jones… Because Jo completely turned the rhythm aspect of drumming completely around, you know, with the sock cymbal.  As a matter of fact, that last composition that you opened up with, “Around the Corner,” was sort of dedicated to Jo Jones and the Count Basie era because of the sock cymbal, you know.

TP:    Let me turn the conversation to a few things you touched on in those few sentences.  You came up in the Los Angeles area, and when you were ten years old it would have been around…

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you.  It was two weeks before baseball.  How does that grab you?

TP:    Do you care to elaborate on that one?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Well, I started playing in the late Thirties and early Forties, more or less the early Forties.  I guess when I was around 13-14 years old, we had a band, a big 15-piece band.  It was under the leadership of a guy by the name of Al Adams, and the only reason why he was the leader is because he was the oldest.  I think he was about 19 at the time.

TP:    What was the age range?

CH:    The age range was from 14 to about 19.

TP:    From all over Los Angeles or from the neighborhood?

CH:    From the neighborhood and from all over.  We had guys like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Charlie Mingus, myself, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette…

TP:    Now, for those who aren’t familiar with the West Coast, tell us about the neighborhood, as specifically or as generally as you want to, and the circumstances by which you met, some of the factors in your musical education and so forth.

CH:    Well, I don’t know how it was throughout the rest of the country, but in L.A., in the school system, you were required to take music, either Music Appreciation or an instrument or something.  It was in the curriculum.  You had to be involved with music.  Regardless of whether it was junior high school or high school, you had to become involved in music.  And at that time, L.A. wasn’t a very large place.  As a matter of fact, everybody just about knew everybody.  Young guys, young musicians will always be able to get together or find one another, just as they do today.  That’s how it really came about.  Also, we came out of Jefferson High School, which most of us attended.  Buddy and Mingus, of course, were from the Watts area.  But the school actually was the common denominator.

TP:    There was a very prominent teacher at Jefferson High School, I recollect.

CH:    Yes, his name was Samuel Browne, the music teacher there, who virtually, in a sense, encouraged all of us to become good musicians.  At that time also, man, it was an unbelievable amount of… All the bands would come to L.A.  As a matter of fact, they would let the kids out of school, man, when a band would come into town, which they virtually would come in on the train… They would let us go down to the train station to see Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, all the bands.

TP:    Where did they play?

CH:    Well, there were several places, big cabaret dance halls, virtually.  I guess they were called nightclubs, but they were big places.  The Casa Mañana(?), the Palladium, the average dance hall name, but…

TP:    So you’d have a band, a film, a couple of dancing acts and comedians and so forth…

CH:    Well, at that time, most of the bands carried their own show.  For instance, when I joined Count Basie’s band, Jimmy Rushing was singing, I forget the lady singer now…

TP:    Helen Humes?

CH:    Helen Humes.  And the dance team that they had was the Berry Brothers, Coles & Atkins, and Pot, Pan and Skillet.  All of these were fantastic dance acts.  And that would consist of the show, sort of a semi-vaudeville type of show, but the band would be the feature — and they played all over the country.  At the Avedon, which was a ballroom, this is where the bands that came in would play, and we all had an opportunity to hear Lunceford and Basie and Duke.

I consider myself very fortunate, Ted, because I came up during the right time.  Because to be able to hear the originals, the people who invented this particular style of music, this way of playing… You know, I was there.

TP:    I think one thing that’s misunderstood because of the nature of the recording process in the 1920’s and Thirties and early Forties is what the drums sounded like in the big bands and the actual presence of the drums.  If you hear them on records, they sound kind of tinny or in the background, but I’ll bet that’s not what it sounded like when you heard Sonny Greer with Ellington, or Jo Jones or Jimmy Crawford…

CH:    All of these guys, man…the drummer… You know that old phrase about “give the drummer some.”  All of these guys, all of these drummers, all of these great, brilliant musicians, the drummers were determining the styles of the band.  It wasn’t so much what the bandleaders were doing.  Jimmie Lunceford used to conduct with the baton.  Basie, sure, played piano; Duke played piano.  But the actual sound of the rhythm, the feeling, the whole mood that was created by the bands was created by these drummers.

Now, Sonny Greer played a particular style of drumming which was like what we might refer to…your listeners might not understand about playing on the beat, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four.  He played DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN, DJA-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, CHOO-CHI-TU, that kind of a thing.  Now, the Ellington band swung in that groove.  Whereas with the Basie band, Jo Jones did DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-CHANG, DIT-DA, DIT-DA, and he swung that band with a completely different feeling than what Ellington had.

Strangely and oddly enough, even bands of today, here, what is this, 19…what year is this…?

TP:    1994.

CH:    Here in 1994, a large ensemble still plays with either one of those two grooves, as far as the Jazz aspect is concerned.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?  When you were 15 or 16?

CH:    Well…

TP:    In the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz it says you started out playing clarinet.

CH:    I did.  I started out playing clarinet.  And the reason I started out playing clarinet is because my best friend, Jack Kelso, played clarinet.  So having my best friend play clarinet, I figured, “hey, I’d better…I want to play clarinet.”  But I soon gave it up because it became a little bit difficult, you know… Also my older brother was playing drums.  This was in grade school, so we had to be no more than 8 or 9 years old.  When he… They graduated from grade school in those days, right!  So when he graduated, I figured, well, since he was my brother and plays the drums, I’m going to play the drums.  And I just started.  I had no idea what a drummer did really, but I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do it,” and I just did it.

TP:    You did it on his pair of drums?

CH:    Well, it was the school drums.  The school had the drums.  As a matter of fact, we rented the clarinet for two dollars a week (can you believe that?) from the school.

TP:    That was a lot of money then.

CH:    Oh, tell me about it, man.  Tell me about it.  That’s virtually, in a sense, how I got started.  The more I got into playing and the more I got into the instrument, the more difficult it became, and the more difficult it became, all of a sudden, I realized, “hey, this is it; this is what I’m going to try to do.”  I started reaching out, and everyone helped me.  Everyone.  Everyone I played with.

TP:    How would they do that?  Talk about how musicians would help a young musician coming up, what the scene was like for a young musician in Los Angeles in the Thirties and early Forties.

CH:    Well, in those days, there was a camaraderie, a relationship with musicians.  You know, strangely and oddly enough, as young as I was, people like Jo Jones and Lester Young, people like that, the Charlie Parkers, they weren’t that much older than we were…

TP:    You’re a year younger than Charlie Parker.

CH:    Well, I probably was older than Charlie.  I just mentioned him… But the fact is that Bird influenced me tremendously, when I came out of the service, in California.  He and Howard McGhee virtually introduced me to what the Bebop scene was all about.

But back in the early days we were very much influenced by anyone that we heard, especially the ones with the names that came to the West Coast.  And once the guys came out to the West Coast, it was… Everybody was friendly, everybody was warm.  And we jammed a lot, man.  We jammed all day and all night long!  It was unbelievable, the amount of time we put in the jam sessions.  That’s how we learned to play.  If it wasn’t happening, somebody would pull your coat and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you try doing this” or “why don’t you try to do that” or “Why do you want to do this?” — that kind of a thing.

TP:    This is the Musician’s Show, and you’ve been listening to Chico Hamilton tell you about coming up there in the Thirties and early Forties as a young drummer.  First on cue is “Tickletoe,” the Basie band with Papa Jo Jones.  It also said in your biography that you studied with Papa Jo while you were in the Service in the first half of the 1940’s.  Tell us about that, and then let’s get to some music.

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you how dumb the Army was. [LAUGHS]  I was already drafted, I was already stationed at Fort McCullough in Alabama, right.  I wasn’t in the band, but I was attached to the band, which means that… They had four other drummers in the band, but none of them could play.  They virtually really… I mean this.  They couldn’t play.  So whenever a show came through, they would send for me, and make… They put me in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Now, I  came into the Service carrying my drum under my arm.  This is the truth, man!  And you know, when they put me in the drum-and-bugle corps, do you know what they did?  They made me play bugle! [LAUGHS]

Anyway, to make a long story short, when Jo Jones… This is why I’m saying how dumb it was.  When Jo Jones and Prez, Lester Young, when they came through there… They were drafted, and they came through the same camp, man.  They would not let them in the band!  Man, it just broke my heart.  They made them… At one time they wouldn’t even allow them to even associate, and come to the band room and things like that.  Well, anyway…

TP:    Well, Lester Young’s bad times in the Army are very well-documented.

CH:    Well, they gave Prez a terrible time, man.  First of all, he was a beautiful human being, man.  He was a tremendously warm, sensitive human being, and so was Jo.  What their contribution to what we call Jazz today, or in the Swing or whatever era…it will never be duplicated.  Because try as you might, there’s no one that could get that sound and get that feeling Jo had or could get playing, and the same thing applied to Prez.  But in the Service, I had a chance to get with Jo quite a bit when he would come off doing the daily Army thing.  We’d get together at night, and we’d jam, we’d play, we’d practice.  We would talk drums constantly, and talk music.  It was priceless.

[Basie, “Tickletoe” (1940); Ellington, “Ring Dem Bells” (1931); Basie “Topsy: (1938); Lunceford, “Tain’t What You Do” (1939); Prez/Shadow Wilson, “Indiana” (1944); Prez/Chico, “Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio, “Tickletoe” (1992)]

TP:    We covered quite a bit of ground on that last set of drummers.

CH:    Well, just about.  Music is very broad, Music is very big, Music is very long, and Music is very beautiful…

[ETC.]

TP:    The 1946 performance of “Lester Leaps In” featured Chico’s long-time partner, bassist Red Callender.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Red and I did quite a bit of playing together when I was out on the West Coast, when I was out in L.A.  I just want to establish a fact that what the people here in New York, the East Coast people, everything they consider the East Coast Sound, which was a big thing, I guess, in the Fifties or Sixties regarding the East Coast versus the West Coast… How that originated, how that came about, I think it was in the Fifties or early Sixties, there was a club here in New York, Basin Street East, and for the first time I was coming east with my original quintet with the cello, with Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Buddy Collette and Jim Hall.  We were playing opposite (are you ready?) Max Roach’s original quintet with Clifford Brown and I think it was Harold Land, and Richie Powell and George Morrow.  So in order to stir up some…to hip business up, to make it a happening, the publicist started the East Coast versus the West Coast…

TP:    Harold Land, of course, was from the West Coast.

CH:    He was from the West Coast.  But that’s how that East Coast-West Coast thing really got started.

But in the meantime, getting back to Red Callender, Gerry Wiggins, people like that on the West Coast, there was a definite… We had a very definite way of playing, a style, a West Coast style of playing.  It’s just like they had a style, all the Kansas City musicians, the musicians from the Midwest — they had a particular style, a way of playing.  They swung very heavy, right?  Guys on the East Coast, they had their own thing going.  I’m speaking before the Bebop Era came in…

TP:    How would you put into words the Southwest sound?

CH:    Well, the Southwest sound was more… The prime example is Count Basie, the Count Basie Orchestra.  There was a band by the name of Nat Towles and Snookum Russell…

TP:    Now, did those bands come to California?

CH:    No, they didn’t make it to the West Coast.  But this was a Midwest type of band.  Because during the War years, the early part of the Forties, I sort of left the Service for a quick minute [LAUGHS], and went out on the road with Snookum Russell’s band in the Midwest.

TP:    That’s the band J.J. Johnson left Indianapolis with.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    What was that band like?

CH:    It was just a swinging thing.  Just out-and-out swing.  I realize today when I use that terminology, “swing,” that a lot of young people don’t know what I’m talking about.  But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for it.  Because whether you’re playing Rock-and-Roll, whether you’re playing Pop, or whatever you’re playing, it’s got to swing.  In other words, it’s got to have a pulse to it, to make you feel like, hey, snapping your fingers or patting your foot.  That was the one thing that the Swing Bands did do, man.  You couldn’t… It was hard for anyone to keep still when you’d listen to one of those bands.

TP:    Also, in Los Angeles, a lot of the Black community came from the Southwest and the South Central parts of the United States, and subsequently settled there.  So it seems to me a lot of that sound came into the Los Angeles sound in a certain way.  True or false?

CH:    Not necessarily.  Not during those days.  I don’t know… The fact that I was born there… Well, just from my generation up is what I’m familiar with in regards to what music was all about, what Jazz was all about.  And the majority of those guys…

TP:    They were from L.A.

CH:    They were from L.A.  Before then, who knows?  We all came from…

TP:    I was thinking about people coming for jobs in the Navy yards…

CH:    Oh, no.  Well, this was before then.  That started when the War started; people would come there for gigs.  But most musicians, if they came there, man, they came there to play.  Because there was a zillion places to play at that time.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the scene in Los Angeles towards the end of the War and the years right after.  A lot of musicians also moved to Los Angeles who lived there for long periods of time, like Lester Young, who we heard you with, or Art Tatum…

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    …and many other people.

CH:    Well, after the Service… I think I got out of the Service around 1945.  But I came back to L.A.  Before I went into the Service, the Swing thing was the thing, the Swing beat — [DA-DANG, DAT-DA-DANG], that was it.  Right?  When I came out of the Service and came back to L.A., I heard and saw for the first time, and just was blown away completely by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, people like this.  Man, this was a whole, brand-new kind of thing to me, man.  Because I was down South, and I just only knew one way of playing.  And to come back to the West Coast and start hearing Bebop, man, it was just absolutely amazing.

TP:    Were you hearing the records when you were in the Service, as they came out…

CH:    What records?

TP:    Oh, you didn’t get any of those records.  Okay.

CH:    [LAUGHS] Those records didn’t come that far down there!  No, unfortunately we didn’t have that opportunity to hear the records.  But it was really amazing.  As a matter of fact, man, I was fortunate enough to get a job, join a band by the name of Floyd Ray.  In Floyd Ray’s band, there was a piano player by the name of Hampton Hawes, there was a trumpet player by the name of Art Farmer, and his brother, Addison Farmer, played bass.  The tenor players were J.D. King, Bill Moore.  People like this.  It was a big band.  We played for… As well as playing dances and things like that, we played shows at theaters.  We were playing a show, and headlining the show was this little kid from Detroit by the name of Sugar Chile Robinson.  We used to think it was a midget; he was a piano player.  The Emcee of the show, who carried the whole show and the dance team, was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Junior.  Man, we were playing all up and down the West Coast.

We happened to be in Oakland, and this was maybe like on a Friday night… We heard that the Billy Eckstine band was coming to town to play a dance.  And in that band was Art Blakey [PRONOUNCES “Blakeley”], Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons.  I’ll tell you, man, you talk about getting blown away!  I had never in my life heard anybody play like Art Blakey!  Right?  And I was so influenced, carried away by his playing, that the next morning, when we were doing our show, I started trying to play…dropping bombs, as we say, playing Bebop licks on the drums.  And man, I almost got fired, because Sammy Davis’ father told me…he said, “What the hell are you doing?!”

But anyway, that was my first really introduction to playing Bebop music.  Hearing Art Blakey, man, was just… He turned me completely around.  Whereas Jo had set things up in the beginning, he and Sonny Greer, Art Blakey really turned me around.

TP:    He gave you a sense of the feeling.

CH:    Oh, man, did he ever!  Art Blakey was a brilliant, brilliant master percussionist.  He was just an out-and-out hard-swinging drummer.

[D. Gordon/T. Edwards, “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” (1947); Bird, “My Old Flame” (1947); Dexter/Wardell, “The Chase” (1947); Howard McGhee, “Thermodynamics” (1946); Eckstine, “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (1944); Hamp/Mingus, “Mingus Fingers” (1947)]

TP:    …after “Mingus Fingers” we heard the Billy Eckstine band, the tune Chico Hamilton said was the first he ever heard the band do, “Blowin’ The Blues Away.”

CH:    Talk about blowin’ the blues away, man; it really blew me away, man!  That was the band I heard in Oakland, California, I think it must have been in 1945, 1946.  Man, can you imagine hearing a band like that?  It was unbelievable.  Unbelievable.

TP:    That was a radio broadcast, and Art Blakey’s sound really came through well on that one.

CH:    It was fantastic, especially in regards to the fact that they only used maybe a microphone for the reed section and one mike for the brass, and that was it — the rhythm section had to go for itself.  The band was swinging, man.  It was cookin’.  You know?

TP:    And I’m imagine they were playing for dancers as well, so there was a whole ambiance that doesn’t exist today.

CH:    Well, that’s something that… For instance, every band…Count Basie… Basie had that thing that he knew the right groove to make you dance, want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford had that groove that would make you want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford’s rhythm was basically in a two-beat kind of thing.  Basie’s was a 2/4.  Duke Ellington?  Once in a while you felt like dancing to Duke’s music.  But Duke’s music, you listened to it more, in regards to, hey, you just cooled and listened to the amazing arrangements and the brilliant playing of the players.

TP:    It seems to me that Ellington had different sets for different audiences, and he could pull out so many things.

CH:    Well, different strokes for different folks!

TP:    Before that we heard Howard McGhee on a couple of classic Bebop sides, “Thermodynamics,” featuring his virtuosic trumpet from 1947, with Jimmy Bunn on piano, who was present on a lot of these early West Coast dates.

CH:    I knew some of Jimmy’s relatives, as a matter of fact. Jimmy’s cousin was a good friend of brother’s, Bernie Hamilton, the actor.  Jimmy Bunn is still playing.  He’s still in California, and he’s still playing very-very-very good.  He perhaps was one of the most underrated players as far as recognition was concerned.  But at one time, Jimmy Bunn, nobody in L.A., you know…

TP:    He had first call, is what it sounds like.

CH:    Exactly.  If you couldn’t get Jimmy… Then when Hampton Hawes started coming on the scene, Hampton began to get all the calls.  Also in there was Dodo Marmarosa.  Dodo was originally from Pennsylvania someplace, but…

TP:    Pittsburgh, I think.

CH:    Pittsburgh, yeah.  But man, Dodo could play, too.

TP:    And he recorded with many people, including Charlie Parker.

CH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Jimmy Rowles was active in Los Angeles at that time.

CH:    Jimmy Rowles.  My man, Jimmy Rowles!  I haven’t seen Jimmy in quite a while, but last time I heard, he and his daughter were playing together.  His daughter, Stacy, plays trumpet.

TP:    Before “Thermodynamics” we heard “The Chase,” one of the most famous sessions of that time, also for Dial, recorded in 1947, with Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson, a very active and strong drummer.

CH:    He was a very good drummer.  Very good.  As a matter of fact, Chuck is still playing.  And you mentioned another drummer on the West Coast…

TP:    Roy Porter?

CH:    I don’t think Roy is playing any more.  But before Roy you mentioned…

TP:    On one of these tracks?

CH:    On one of the tracks.

TP:    Well, Roy Porter played with Howard McGhee.  And… Well, I don’t know who that was.

CH:    He played with the Hampton Hawes Trio.

TP:    Oh, Larence Marable.

CH:    Larence, yeah!

TP:    He was very active, and he’s now going out with Charlie Haden’s group amongst others.

CH:    Hey, Larence is a fantastic player.

TP:    He’s someone who had an impact on Billy Higgins when Billy Higgins was coming up in the Los Angeles area.  Before “The Chase” we heard “My Old Flame” by Charlie Parker for Dial; Bird cut many sides for Dial while in Los Angeles.  And we began the set with Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, another tenor duel called “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” with Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, and Roy Porter

Again, we have this combination of native Los Angeles musicians, and musicians who settled in Los Angeles from other places, like Teddy Edwards, who came from Jackson, Mississippi to Detroit to Los Angeles, or Howard McGhee, who was from Oklahoma, Detroit, then Southwest bands into Los Angeles.  I’d like to ask Chico for brief portraits of some of your contemporaries.  Let’s begin with Charles Mingus, because you knew Mingus when he was very young.  How old were you when you first met?  Do you remember?

CH:    Well, let me see.  I don’t know, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, something like that — 11 or 12.  As a matter of fact, Charlie Mingus and my wife went to Sunday School together, attended the same church.  Do you believe that?

TP:    Which church was that?

CH:    It was some church in L.A.  I don’t recall the name of it.  Buddy Collette and his family attended that church, and Mingus’ family, and my wife’s family attended the church.  So actually she knew Mingus before I did.  But we were unbelievably young, and unbelievable at that time as young players, as young dudes.  We thought we were… As a matter of fact, some of the joints we played, we’d have to disguise ourselves to look older because of the booze thing.  But Charlie and I came through a lot of wars together as far as playing on the bandstand.  He developed into a very uncanny kind of a musician.  I guess that’s my way of saying how brilliant he was.  It hurts me, the fact that Charlie had to die a pauper.  Because what he contributed to this thing called Jazz and this thing called Music, unfortunately, he really didn’t receive any of the benefits while he was alive.

TP:    Some of the things that he wrote… “The Chill Of Death” which he recorded in 1971, was written, I think, when he was 17 years old!  Do you remember these pieces, or seeing them?  Did you talk about music or his compositions a lot?

CH:    Well, you know, every conversation Charlie and I would have would be off the wall!  I was never surprised at anything he would say or anything he would do…

TP:    Or come up with musically.

CH:    Or come up with musically.  And I guess he might have thought about me the same way.  A funny thing, though, when I came out of the Service, all of these guys, Charlie and Buddy, John Anderson and guys like that, they had gotten re-established again out in L.A. on the famous Central Avenue, and I had to come out… Nobody knew who I was, and I had to sort of establish myself all over again.  I got pretty lucky, because I ended up being the house drummer for Billy Berg’s.

TP:    A famous club where a lot of Jazz history was made.

CH:    All the Jazz, that’s where it was.

TP:    That’s where Bird and Diz came through when Bebop first hit the West Coast.

CH:    Bird and Diz, right.  That’s when I began to play for all the singers, too, at that time.

TP:    What were the chain of events that led to that?  It couldn’t have been just luck.

CH:    Me playing at Billy Berg’s?

TP:    To be the house drummer, especially then, you had to be versatile, be able to basically play anything, read, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  Well, I’d played for him before I went into the Service.  He used to have a club called the Club Capri, before Billy Berg’s.  As a matter of fact, at the Club Capri, this is when I first… Norman Granz used to be like a go-fer for all the guys. [LAUGHS]  You know, he ends up being a zillionaire, an entrepreneur.  But anyway, to make a long story short, at the Club Capri, that’s where Lorenzo Flournoy’s band, Red Mack’s band, Lee and Lester Young… When Prez first left Basie’s band, his brother Lee Young had a small group.  These were all small groups, no bigger than five or six pieces, seven pieces at the most.  Billy Berg’s was the number-one room in Los Angeles at that time.  That was it.  If you played that room, it was fantastic.

The other room that was called the 331 or the 333, I forget…

[END OF SIDE 2]

…of my playing, of my career, I played with this guy named Myers, Old Man Myers.  He kept me on brushes.  He wouldn’t let me play sticks at all, man.  We would go out and play at least three or four nights a week.  Right?  I was lucky enough to make… He’d pay me like maybe 75 cents, I mean, really 75 cents! — we were lucky if we made a dollar.  But I would play brushes constantly.  Constantly.  Every time I’d get ready to pick up the sticks, he said, “Put those sticks down!”  So fortunately, that helped me to develop a stroke that swept me into some of the choicest gigs at that time.

TP:    This conversation evolved from word portraits of some of your associates in Los Angeles at this time.  I’d like to ask you about Dexter Gordon, who was a few years younger than you, but came up around the same time.

CH:    Well, can you imagine… When Dexter was about 10 years old, he was already twelve feet tall.  Then he shrank!  We used to call him Big Stoop, from the character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates — if anybody remembers that.

Anyway, Dexter and I… You might not believe this, but Dexter Gordon and myself, and a trombone player by the name of James Robertson, we were the only three guys, three people period, to get an A in English in high school.  That was the toughest teacher in the whole entire system.  Her name was Mrs. Smith.  And Dexter and myself and James Robinson got an A in English, man!

As a matter of fact, Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he used to play clarinet, he used to come on the campus… Dexter was like the pied piper.  Dexter would play his horn anywhere, in the hall, in the room, it didn’t matter — all over the school.  And he loved Prez.  He just adored…

TP:    Took apart the solos and…

CH:    Everything was note-for-note.  So that’s how we learned to play, virtually, in a sense, by copying the masters, the people who invented that way of playing.  But Dexter was, again, a brilliant, fantastic, inventive kind of player.  And to be among this kind of talent, you know, you just took it for granted that, hey, he could play, I could play, Ernie Royal could play, you know…

TP:    And you went out and played.

CH:    And we went out and played.

TP:    And then things happened, people heard you, and that’s how…

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    A few words about Red Callender.

CH:    George “Red” Callender.  George was a little older than myself and Mingus and Buddy and Jack Kelso.  But we had a tremendous amount of respect for Red, because Red was the big-time already.  When we got on the L.A. scene before the war, well, Red Callender had been playing with Louis Armstrong and playing with all the big names.  And the fact that he was local, he was in L.A., and we… He was… You know, just to be in his presence was something.  It meant something to us.  We all befriended each other, and we came up this way.

As a matter of fact, at one time Red Callender, myself and a piano player by the name of Dudley Brooks, we were the only three Black musicians that were ever hired by the studios out there; actually put on staff, you know, at Paramount Studios at one time.  Because at one time it was a no-no.  But we got a job… I was playing for… It was equivalent to being the rehearsal player.  I was like the rehearsal drummer.  I used to keep time for people like Marilyn Monroe, Sherrie North, I used to work with all the dance directors out there, keeping time for them while they got their act together.  But it got boring after a while, and I split.

TP:    But the money must have been nice.

CH:    Hey, man, listen.  It was steady.  Right?  To get paid every week?  It was unbelievable, man.  But I don’t know, man, I was always pretty fortunate.  I was able to… I’ve been lucky, blessed, because I’ve been always able to have a gig.

TP:    Well, it seems you’ve been very flexible and adaptable as well, and yet very determined, and with very definite sounds in your mind’s ear.

CH:    Well, I’ve always, first of all, been very proud of my profession.  Like, I’m a professional musician, just like a doctor is a professional or a lawyer is a professional.  I’ve been very, very highly… Well, this is what I do.  In other words, this is the jokes, folks.  And I don’t fluff it off.  I never blow a gig, man.  Whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, man, I’m playing my heart out.  I’m playing the best that I can at that time.  And that’s it.  That’s the way I came up.  And I believe in music.  I believe in what I’m doing.  People are always wondering what I’m going to come up with next.  I have no idea what I’m going to come up with next.  But I know that when the time comes for me to come up with something different, or change, I will change.  I don’t like to get bored.

TP:    Well, you were the envy of hundreds of thousands of men as the drummer with Lena Horne for five or six years.  The listing is ’48 to ’54, approximately.  Is that right?

CH:    No, as a matter of fact, ’47 to ’55, I think it was.  I’ll tell you, playing for Lena was truly an experience.  I give her a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of credit in regards to her musicianship.  Most people don’t realize what a fantastic musician this woman is.  And through her, and with her, her late husband, Lennie Hayten, and Luther Henderson, I had an opportunity to really learn what music was all about, how to express what you feel and what you think.  Even to this day, man, we’re still friends.  I don’t see her that often.  But as one of the singers that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and that I kept time for, I would put her up at the top of the class.

TP:    Our next selection is by the original Chico Hamilton-Buddy Collette Sextet, recorded for Johnny Otis’ label, Tampa Records, or Dig Records, available through VSOP Replica Editions.

[MUSIC: Chico Hamilton/B. Collette, “It’s You” (1956); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon” (19  ); Gerry Mulligan, “Frenesi” (1953); Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1953); C. Hamilton/John Lewis, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” (1958); C. Hamilton, “Where Or When” (19  )]

TP:    That was Chico Hamilton singing, from The Three Faces of Chico, the Chico Hamilton Quintet on Warner Brothers.  That’s the group that had Eric Dolphy, one of his four or five recordings with Chico, although of course not prominent on that particular track, Dennis Budimir on cello, Wyatt Ruether(?) and bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.

[ETCETERA]

Let’s begin with the Tony Bennett side and the vocal tracks we heard.

CH:    At one time I played for Tony, I kept time for him, and we became friends.  When I went out on my own, with my own group and everything, I happened to be on the East Coast, as a matter of fact, in Philadelphia, and I got a call from Tony.  He had this idea that he wanted to get all the drummers together.  He had me, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, and I forget who else was on there.  He wanted to record with all of us.  Tony has always been a rhythm man.  He’s always had a fantastic appreciation for drums, for drummers…

TP:    It had Candido, Papa Jo, Billy Exiner, Sabu…

CH:    Billy Exiner was playing with Tony Bennett at that time, and Candido, myself and Jo Jones, right?

Tony asked me which one of the tracks would I play on, and some kind of way, the idea of “Lazy Afternoon” came up, and I told him I really would dig playing to see what I could do with the sort of orchestral approach to the way he was singing “Lazy Afternoon.”  And it turned out gorgeous.  It really turned out dynamite.  We were more than pleased.  That’s how that came about.

TP:    That’s from The Beat Of My Heart on Columbia Records.  Now, Billie Holiday spent a lot of time in Los Angeles as well.

CH:    Yes, she did.

TP:    Were you a regular part of her group for a while, or was that just a session?

CH:    No, no, I was part of her group for a while.  I played for Lady in several different groups.  At one time, one group consisted of Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, myself and Curtis Counce!

TP:    Lady Day must have had a chance to rest her chops!

CH:    Man, you’re talkin’ about cookin’!  We were swinging.

TP:    Did you play bebop licks under her, or… How was she in that regard?

CH:    Lady kept good time, so all I had to do was swing.  I just played myself, you know.  As a matter of fact, all of us did.  That’s what we did.  She was a tremendous musician as well, and she dug musicians being themselves, players being themselves.  As a matter of fact, that’s how Prez named her Lady, because she was cool that way.  I met her, man, when I was about 14 years old!

TP:    What were the circumstances?

CH:    Well, I went to a jam session over… Lorenzo Flournoy, who was a piano player at that time, who I was playing with at the time.  I was just a kid, man.  I knew Prez, man, and Prez asked me, “Do you want to meet Lady?”  I didn’t believe it was her, man.  She was at the session, right, in the house.  That’s where everybody used to put on a big pot of red beans and rice and things like that, and we would blow all day long, right?  She was sitting on the saxophone case, she and Prez were sitting on this case.  And man, when I came up through the door and I looked at her, I said, “Hey…”  I told a friend of mine, [WHISPERING] “Hey, there she is!  That’s Lady.”  And when we went inside, Prez introduced us.  From then on, from time to time I would see her then.     Then later on, I started playing for her, working for her, doing dates and everything.  At one time, the group was Bobby Tucker and myself…

TP:    He was the pianist.

CH:    He was a pianist, a fantastic pianist.  Bobby was with Eckstine.  He was with B for thirty or forty years almost.  When he left Lady he joined Billy Eckstine.

TP:    And you worked with Billy Eckstine for a minute, too.

CH:    I worked with Billy Eckstine.  Also I played for… Oh, heh-heh, I played with Billy Eckstine, I played with Sammy Davis, I did some things with Danny Kaye, Ella… Oh, yeah, I forgot about Ella Fitzgerald.  And I kept time for Sarah once in a while…

TP:    All singers with different styles, different approaches of playing off the drums.

CH:    Exactly.  Here again, remembering something about Lena Horne:  I was right on the floor behind Lena, and the band was behind me.  It was very unusual, because here’s the singer, the drummer right behind her, and then the band, the orchestra would be right behind me.  It worked.  It worked beautifully.  I really developed a way of playing for her to the extent it wasn’t offensive; I didn’t get in her way.

TP:    Was Billie Holiday a strict rehearser, or was it just get in and hit?

CH:    No, Lady was cool, man.  She was cool.  Every singer I have ever kept time for was very sincere about what they did.  And I’m saying that in a complementary way.  Whether you understand that, or reading in between the lines or whatever… It wasn’t easy playing for singers, man.  It’s not easy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any drummer that can keep time for a singer.

TP:    Why is that?

CH:    Well, you never know what a singer is going to do.  Because some singers react differently.  They react to what people… They react to the audience.  If they feel as though they’re not getting to the audience, then they’re going to push, or they think…or either they’re going to fluff off something or whatever.  And the first one they’re going to take it out on is going to be the drummer.  “What’s the matter?  Can’t you keep time?”  That sort of thing.

TP:    So we’re talking about temperament now.

CH:    Exactly.  That’s the reason drummers are cool, man.  You know, a drummer sits up… When you start to realize that a drummer has to keep time for people, musicians, people he don’t even like, you hear somebody playing, somebody getting their oobies, they’re not making any music, but they’re just sounding like the teacher’s out of the room, that kind of thing — and you have keep time for that and you have to make it sound like something.  You know?  Because there’s only one drummer.

TP:    Well, sometimes there’s two.

CH:    No, you’ve only got one drummer, man.  One drummer’s keeping time, man.  Also, I’d just like to acknowledge the fact that people in general see conga players, timbales players, bongo players, people playing drums with their hands, and they say, “Hey, this is dynamite; that’s fantastic.”  But there’s nothing, nothing in the world like a drummer sitting down playing on a set of drums, where his left foot is doing something different from his right foot, his left hand is doing something from his right hand, and the hands are doing something different from the foot, the foot is doing something different from the hands, and he’s playing on at least a half-a-dozen drums at the same time.  This is amazing, man.  This is really something.

TP:    You were part of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless groups on the West Coast in the early 1950’s, and that was a different side of your work as well.  Talk about your hookup with him and your contributions to the music as it was developed.

CH:    Well…heh-heh…

TP:    Uh-oh, I stuck my foot in it.

CH:    No.  Well, I believe that it just happened to be four people in the right place at the right time.  That story is… I can go on and say, “Well, I did this or Gerry did that, or Chet did this, Chet did that,” that kind of thing.  No, it just happened that we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we got together… As a matter of fact, we got together at my house for the first rehearsal that we did.  Gerry was out in L.A., and I was out in L.A. at that time.  I was still under the employment of Lena Horne, but I stayed home; I didn’t want to go to Europe that year.  In the meantime, I was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band, and Gerry used to come out and hang out with me every night at the bar. [LAUGHS]  As a matter of fact, he said to me one night, “You know, if I was Charlie Barnet and you played for me like you play for Charlie, I’d fire you!”  Because I used to do some pretty funny things with that band.  Anyway, Charlie didn’t mind.  He was a prince, man.  He was a dynamite dude.

But Gerry and I got together, and we were talking about this and that, and next thing I know, hey, he contacts Chet and Bob Whitlock, and we get together, and we just… Like I said, man, it started happening.  And it happened, from the first time we sat down to play.  I would say everyone contributed, one way or the other; everyone contributed to making the quartet the way it was.  That’s how it came off.  That’s the reason it came off.  It wasn’t just a question of Gerry Mulligan being Gerry… Well, it was a question of Gerry being Gerry, Chet being Chet, me being me, and Bob Whitlock being Bob Whitlock.

That’s putting it simple, man.  Mild.

TP:    Would you like to get complex?  At any rate, the first track we heard featured the genesis of the Chico Hamilton group, the Buddy Collette-Chico Hamilton Sextet, from Tanganyika.  You go back as far with Buddy Collette as you do with Mingus, with Dexter Gordon, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  We go back when we were young dudes, kids more or less, young guys on the scene.  As a matter of fact, the first time I heard Buddy, Buddy had his own band, and he had Mingus playing.  Mingus really started off playing cello with Buddy’s band, and Buddy made him get the bass, because he realized that the cello was a little weak, that kind of thing, trying to play cello like a full-sized bass.  I went out to hear him one night, I went all the way out there to Watts, right — I’d heard about him.  I asked him could I sit in, and I did.  One thing led to another, and the next thing I know we were all playing in all the bands around L.A.  It was interesting.

TP:    How did that band develop a repertoire?  Because eventually, both of you were working toward a really broad tonal palette particularly.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    I mean, along with swing, but it went… Talk a bit about that.

CH:    What we did, virtually, in a sense, we copied every record that we heard by Count Basie and some of the Duke Ellington things and Jimmie Lunceford, but between them, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the bands that we imitated, even down to the solos, note-for-note.  We even played the same solos, that type of thing.  All the licks.  I tried to play all the drum licks that Jo Jones would play, that type of thing.  And eventually, it was very successful, because also, you must remember, we didn’t have… It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether you were going to play Rock-and-Roll, or whether you’re going to play the Blues, Rhythm-and-Blues, or whether you’re going to play Pop, or whether you’re going to play Country, or anything like that.  There was only one kind of music, man, and that was Swing.  So in a sense, it was relatively easy.  Because hey, there was only one way to play.

TP:    We forgot to play some of the sides you backed T-Bone Walker on for Imperial.

CH:    Hey!  He was amazing.

TP:    So we’re going from T-Bone Walker to Tony Bennett to Charlie Barnet’s band to the Gerry Mulligan band…

CH:    Right.

TP:    You really were covering the whole spectrum of Swing music in the Forties and Fifties.

CH:    Well, I’m fortunate.  I’ve been fortunate, man.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.  Because it was broad.  It was very broad.  That’s what the spectrum was in regards to what Jazz was all about.  Still, even now, what Jazz is all about.

TP:    And we’ll be hearing an aspect which Chico Hamilton is defining in his group, in many ways, the cutting edge, one branch that Jazz is in the process of becoming.

CH:    Well, I could go through a whole great big series of stories about, “Well, I decided to do this, I decided to do that.”  But I don’t know, man… Here, again, about the original quintet with Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar and Carson Smith on bass, here again… It’s not a copout, but I feel that it just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time for that to happen.

TP:    Things were in the air…

CH:    Things were in the air, and it happened.  Because no one knows why it happened.  But it happened, and it worked.

[ETCETERA]

This is the first record that Eric Dolphy ever made.  This is a Billy Strayhorn composition which is one of my favorites.  Most people… A majority, I would say, of Eric Dolphy’s fans and audience don’t realize, or didn’t realize what a tremendous flute player Eric Dolphy was.  And this is my presentation of Eric Dolphy, “Something To Live For”

TP:    From Strings Attached on Warner Brothers.

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton/E. Dolphy, “Something To Live For”; C. Hamilton, “Mandrake”; C. Hamilton, “Taunts of An Indian”; C. Hamilton, “Guitar Willie”]

TP:    A selection of four compositions and performances by various groups under the leadership of Chico Hamilton.  That last was “Guitar Willie,” featuring the late Eric Gale from Headhunters, on Solid State, and my guess is that it was recorded around 1970.  Do you recollect, Chico?  Of course, being a Solid State release from that time, there’s no date, but they have a zip-code.

CH:    Probably around ’68.  Eric used to do a lot of commercials with me when I was knee-deep on Madison Avenue, you know, doing commercials.  That’s music for commercials.  Here again that was sort of unusual, because just to have the bass walking and myself keeping that time, and the horns… Steve Potts was on there, and I think…

TP:    Russ Andrews on tenor.

CH:    Yes, Russ.

TP:    Ray Nance appears elsewhere on this release.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    And Jan Arnett on bass.

CH:    Jan Arnett.  It was a happening.

TP:    Before that a few selections by the current group, Chico Hamilton and Euphoria.  Before that, a very beautiful and affecting piece, “Taunts of An Indian Maiden,” a dedication to your mother.

CH:    I dedicated to it to my mother.  She was an Indian maiden, you know?

TP:    That’s from Arroyo, a 1990 release, with Eric Person, saxophone, Cary DeNegris on electric guitar, and Reggie Washington, one of the better electric bass players around, playing acoustic bass.

CH:    Well, he’s playing electric on that.  He just sounds… That’s how well he plays it.  He’s one of the few fender players that can get the sound of an upright bass.

TP:    Before that we heard “Mandrake,” the group’s arrangement of Eric Dolphy’s composition, one of seven compositions arranged by Chico Hamilton and Euphoria on My Panamanian Friend, the most recent release by the group.

CH:    It’s an interesting thing.  Jeff Caddick was the one who suggested that we do an album of Eric Dolphy’s music.  And the more we got into it, the more we started talking about it, the more I realized and he realized, as much as people talk about Eric Dolphy, nobody plays his music.

TP:    Well, Oliver Lake is one, and a few other people play his music, but not so much.

CH:    Not that many.  Hopefully this will shake them up again.

TP:    The way that you arrange and set up your songs… I think if one held to a stereotyped view of a Jazz musician, and heard you from all these sessions in the Forties and Fifties, to hear the sound of your bands would seem disjunctive.  But it’s obviously not.  You’ve always had a predilection, for one thing, for saxophone players who like to get into the extremities of the instrument, from Eric Dolphy to Charles Lloyd to Arthur Blythe to Steve Potts to your current saxophonist, Eric Person.

CH:    Well, look, to simplify it, that’s what I’m all about.  I’m into sounds, and anybody that sounds different or original (which is pretty difficult) I’m for.  I’m open, as far as all music… First of all, I understand fully that it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I also understand that I’ve been blessed to the extent that I’m able to make music at this stage of the game of my life or my career, as opposed to just playing it.  So that’s what it’s all about.  Music I believe is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  Right?  That’s the name of the game.

TP:    If it’s meant to be… Well, you’re making it happen.

CH:    Hey, that’s what it’s all about.

TP:    A few words about the people in your group.  A few words about how musicians find you and you find musicians.  Eric Person, first of all.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Eric was introduced to me by Arnie Lawrence.  Arnie had heard Eric when he was in St. Louis.  I think he was at Eric’s school.  When Eric came to New York, I think he contacted Arnie, and Arnie in turn contacted me, and that was it.  Right away we hit it off.  I helped him to grow, and he’s grown, needless to say, and developed into one fantastic kind of a player.

TP:    You may not be able to hold on to him.

CH:    Well, it’s not a question of holding on.  He’s supposed to go on to bigger and better things.  That’s what I’m all about, again.  Hey, you come this way, you pass through me.

TP:    He’s currently with Dave Holland’s group and the World Saxophone Quartet as well as Chico Hamilton’s Ensemble.

CH:    Well, this is good, because this gives him an opportunity to play all kinds of ways.  I haven’t heard him with the other groups, but I imagine he plays different with them than he does with me.  Because we play a different kind of music; a different kind of rhythm, let’s put it like that.

TP:    Cary De Negris, the guitarist.

CH:    Cary met me.  Cary called me when he came from Albany, New York, I think.  His potential I heard right away, the first time I heard him play.  He has developed, needless to say, into really some other kind of guitar player.  He is perhaps one of the most fluent players that’s on the scene today, period, regardless of what style or what kind of guitar playing there is to be played.  He’s doing it.

TP:    Finally, Matthew Garrison, the group’s newest member.

CH:    Well, Matthew’s father used to play with me, Jimmy Garrison.  At one time he did dates and things with me.  He was brought to my attention by Cary De Negris, who heard him and said, “Hey, Cheeks, you’ve got to hear this bass player.”  As a matter of fact, man, he’s so prolific, he sounds like a guitar player.  He’s got chops.

TP:    Well, his father had that type of fluency in his sound also.

CH:    Exactly.  So I’m more than pleased, man.  I’m having a ball.  Because hey, we’re making music.

[MUSIC: “Song For Helen” (1992)]

[-30-]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Profile (WKCR) – (1-14-96):

[RECITAL ON “In the Beginning”, Dance To A Different Drummer:  “You know how this all started with me playing, the drums.  I guess I was around 8 years old when my mother took me to see Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life, not only did I see an orchestra, but I saw on this pyramid, the top of the pyramid, on top of the whole band was the one and only Sonny Greer.  I had never seen anything like this in all my life.  Matter of fact, he had so many drums, he had more drums than  a drum store.  But he was really something special.  And that impressed me, the way he played, the way he had control of the band, and the sound he got.  He was also perhaps one of the first percussionists in every sense of the word; not just a drummer, but a percussionist, a man who made sounds.  Everything he touched made a sound, and it blended and it worked with what Duke Ellington had written and played.  Like all kids, it was an impression that stayed with me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to be — another Sonny Greer.”

____________________________________________________________

TP:    Chico, do you remember what year you first heard Sonny Greer?

CH:    I don’t remember what year it was I heard the band, and I wouldn’t even tell you if I did remember!  I was around 8 or 9 years old when I first heard the band.

TP:    So it was probably when Ellington first came out to the West Coast, around ’30-’31.

CH:    It probably was.  You know, one thing about being on the West Coast, all the bands came there, not only Ellington, but Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dorsey — all the bands eventually came to the West Coast.  A miraculous thing is the fact that the Board of Education system out there, it was compulsory to take music in all the schools in the system, whether you took a music appreciation course or rented an instrument to play or something like that.  Whenever the well-known bands would come to the West Coast, they used to let us out of school to go down to the train station to greet the bands as they came in.  Fundamentally, all the guys from the Royal brothers, Ernie and Marshall Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, myself, Jack Kelso, Charlie Mingus, all of us…

TP:    Grew up in the same area.

CH:    We grew up in the same area, with the same musical aspect in regards to… Like all kids, we had a band…

TP:    Where exactly in Los Angeles did you grow up?  Was it around Central Avenue, later the real music strip?

CH:    Yeah.  Los Angeles at that time was the East Side and the West Side, and I think Main Street divided L.A. into what was East and what was West.  I was born on the East Side of town and then grew up on the West Side of town.  Central Avenue was the street, our avenue; that was our 52nd Street.  It only consisted of two or three blocks, but within those two or three blocks, man, you had everything…

TP:    You’re talking about the 1930’s, now.

CH:    The late 1930’s and the ’40s.  They presented a big documentary about the jazz on Central Avenue not too long ago.  It’s part of the curriculum at UCLA or one of the schools.  Central Avenue… You had the Dunbar Hotel, and then inside the Dunbar Hotel was the Club Alabam, which was the equivalent to the East Coast Cotton Club — the same type of shows.

TP:    It would have been the equivalent to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, or the Braddock or the Woodside.

CH:    Exactly.  From there, that was the number-one club or joint… That was super big-time, where all the big bands played.  Then right outside of Hollywood, in Culver City, there was a club, which I forget the name of.  They had at least half-a-dozen big, big rooms, big joints where all the bands played, which made it very lucrative for bands to come to the West Coast, from the Palladium to the Ambassador Hotel.  But Central Avenue was the avenue, man.  When I was a kid, I used to burn matches and make a moustache so that I could look old enough to go in these joints.  This is when Duke Ellington’s band with all these guys, Ben Webster, the people who invented this kind of music, who really did it, were on the scene…

TP:    When the bands would come out, the musicians would also circulate after-hours or in other situations, and you would have contact…

CH:    This is what I’m getting ready to say.  After the gigs, we all hung out at a place called Lovejoy’s which was a joint on Vernon and Central, right on the corner, upstairs.  Man, many a night I used to stay in there until 7 and 8 o’clock playing, jamming, and man, I’d have to rush home and go to school… I was in high school, and I’d do everything I could to get the cigarette smoke off of me.  But man, we had a ball; we would have a ball.  This is how I learned to play.  One thing about it, the pros helped us; they helped all the young players.  They would listen to you and you’d get a chance to play with them, and they would advise you, give you some tips on what to do and what not to do.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether that still happens today.  It was really, really different.

When I got drafted and went to the War and came back, it was a different Central Avenue altogether — completely different.  Before I went, all the movie stars and everybody used to hang out on Central.  That was it.  It was just like hanging out on Broadway here in New York at one time.  But when I came back from the War, music had changed completely.  As opposed to the Swing thing, we were into the Bebop.  Miles, Diz, Bird, Erroll Garner — everybody was in Hollywood at that time.

TP:    You got back when?

CH:    Late ’45.

TP:    Right around when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got into Billy Berg’s.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Did you come from a musical family?

CH:    No.

TP:    Where did the inspiration to play music initially come from.

CH:    That’s a very good question, man.  I don’t know.  I’ve always…music has just… First of all, I’ve never done anything else but play music, or make music, or been into music.  My closest friend at the time, who is still my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet, and I figured since he had a clarinet that I’m gonna get me one; I want to play because my best friend is playing.  We were both about 7 or 8 years old, something like that at that time, and that’s how it worked out.  To play drums just was a sheer accident, because my older brother was fooling around with the drums in the school orchestra when we were both in grade school, and when he graduated, they didn’t have a drummer, so I just said, “Hey, since he’s my brother, I might as well play.”  And I went in, sat down and started playing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  And the next thing I know, I had the gig, because nobody else wanted to play.  Other than that…

TP:    Did anybody give you lessons outside of school?

CH:    Yes.  A friend of mine… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Oscar Bradley.  Oscar Bradley was on the West Coast; he was the drummer with Les Hite’s orchestra.  I used to hear them play.  They used to rehearse ar a playground near where I lived.  Before I went into the Service, I took some lessons from Lee Young, Prez’ brother.  That was about the size of it.

When I went into the Service, there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exiner, who played with Claude Thornhill.  Billy taught me how to read music.  He’d climb over a mountain, man!  It was two camps then, and one was Black and one was White.

TP:    This was at Fort McCullough.

CH:    Fort McCullough, Alabama, man.

TP:    It’s known infamously in jazz history because of the treatment accorded Lester Young and Papa Jo Jones.

CH:    I was there, man, when that happened.  But Billy Exiner taught me how to read drum music.  Actually, I was more or less self-taught.  Then when I came out of the Service I enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill.  That’s when I really got serious about… Well, I was serious about playing, period.  I was blessed because I always was able to hear things.  I used to depend upon my ear as far as music was concerned, for arrangements, cues and things like that.  The fact is that as a teenager, man, I was playing shows, burlesque shows, where you’ve really got to catch all the cues, all the kicks and things like that.

TP:    Tell me more about the gigs you had when you were a teenager.  When did you first play for a sum of money, and how much was it?

CH:    A sum of money?  It was 75 cents; like, a half-dollar and a quarter.  My friend Jack Kelso and I used to play in a neighborhood band led by a man named Myers, who we called Old Man Myers.  He had a family band.  One of his sons played piano, another one played trumpet, another one played trombone.  It was very common during that time for families to have family orchestras.  Most families who were musical had a band…

TP:    Such as Lester Young’s family, Louis Jordan’s family, Oscar Pettiford’s family…

CH:    Exactly.  So it was a very common thing.  Jack was playing alto saxophone by that time, and I played drums, and we joined the band.  We would rehearse and rehearse, and we’d play.  As far as the gigs were concerned, we would drive for half-a-day, it seemed like, outside of L.A. to play a lot of different roadhouses.  We had a kitty, and people would give us money to play certain tunes.  Funny thing, the name wouldn’t be up there.  They wouldn’t say “Myers’ Orchestra”.  They would say “All-Colored Orchestra.”

TP:    Did that mean that they could expect to hear a certain type of music?  Were you expected to play in a certain way.

CH:    That was the feature.  They knew that at least we wouldn’t be Country music or some down-home stuff or whatever.

TP:    What type of things did you play in that orchestra?

CH:    We played just the regular standard music, the old standard tunes like “Stardust.”  No original material.  We just played time whatever was popular on the radio at that time.  It was relatively simple.  As far as I was concerned, I just had to keep time.  He wouldn’t let me use sticks; I always had to use brushes.  I’ll tell you, man, I ended up… Every important job that I got seemingly was due to the fact that I could brush, keep time, and be smooth and cool with it.  Because I spent about 15 years or more just being an accompanist, playing for singers.  But during that time I wanted to play with sticks and he wouldn’t let me.  Every time I’d pick up the sticks he said, “Put them sticks down!”

Jack and I used to come home… Sometimes we’d make a buck-and-a-half.  Riding for about four or five hours, then playing until 2 or 3 in the morning kind of thing.  This was on the weekends, Fridays and Saturday nights.

TP:    And you were 14-15-16 when this was happening.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    At the same time, you were at Jefferson High School, which had one of the most distinguished music programs among Black high schools in the country, and one of the great music teachers, Samuel Browne…

CH:    Well, first of all, Jefferson High School wasn’t a Black high school.  It was a school in the area, on the East Side.  As a matter of fact, man, it was one of the most beautiful schools in the whole state of California.  It was the duplicate of Monticello, Jefferson…

TP:    Built along the lines of Greek Classical Architecture.

CH:    Yes.  And there was no such thing as all-Black.  There were just as many White students as Black students.

TP:    So the community wasn’t as segregated as it later became.

CH:    The community wasn’t segregated at all.  Because it was a deep mixture.  I was born that way.  I grew up that way.  So it didn’t become…well, if you want to refer to what is a ghetto, what is not a ghetto… It didn’t become a reservation, man, until after the War, when the War started.  Because as people progressed financially, they moved to different areas.  In fact, the only ghetto area in L.A. at that time was one called Ball Heights, which consisted of a lot of Yiddish, you know…

TP:    The Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles was the only real enclave based on ethnicity or race.

CH:    Exactly.  And when those people became successful, they moved to Beverly Hills.  They started up Beverly Hills.

TP:    I’d still like you to talk about Samuel    Browne.

CH:    Well, Sam Browne was a very good instructor, a very good teacher.  But I don’t think he dug me and I didn’t dig him.  I didn’t really take music in school.  As a matter of fact, he used to give me hell because I was gigging at night, getting to school sometimes on time, sometimes not on time.  I wasn’t in the school orchestra at that time, with Dexter and Jack and James Nelson and all those guys.  As a matter of fact, I was working with Lorenzo Flournoy working for Billy Berg, at his first place, called the Club Capri.

TP:    This was around ’38 or so?

CH:    ’38, ’39, something like that.  This is before Prez left Basie.  I was big-time, man.  I think we were making about $37 a week, which was a lot of dough.  I had my own car.  I was slick. I was cool.  But I was already playing… The only reason why I joined the school band was to get a sweater, which they gave you, and I could go to the games free.

TP:    That band played a rather challenging repertoire.  According to Art Farmer, who was there in 1945, they played Dizzy Gillespie charts at that early time!

CH:    Well, yeah.  See, that was after my time.

TP:    What was he doing in the late 1930’s?

CH:    They were playing Swing music.  Some Ellington things, Earl Hines kind of things, Horace and Fletcher Henderson, those kind of charts.  But here again, I never did anything with them.  But the band that came out of Jefferson was a band called Al Adams during that period.  We formed that band, which was myself, Dexter, James Nelson, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette, Mingus, Lady Wilcor(?), my brother-in-law James Henry, who was a trombone player, Ernie Royal was in it.  We were all about 15-16-17 years old.  As a matter of fact, when Illinois Jacquet first came to L.A. he joined us, and he was about 16 at that time.  Man, this band, we raised so much hell… If a union band had a gig and it was paying $5 we’d take the gig for $4 We raised so much hell with the union, they made a deal with us, and we got into the union practically for nothin’!  They were so happy…

TP:    Get rid of the competition.

CH:    From then, we were all in union.  I think we paid something like $7 to join; it was ridiculous.  But then we started rehearsing at the union.  One fantastic thing that happened was that all the bands when they’d come in, like Jimmie Lunceford, would rehearse at the union, so we had a chance to hear them…

TP:    So you had a chance to get up close to Jimmy Crawford or Jo Jones…

CH:    Oh, man, I’m trying to tell you… And next thing we know, we were doing everything that they were doing, note-for-note, beat-for-beat.  We would imitate them.  We started playing all the school dances, and we would sound like Jimmie Lunceford, we’d sound like Basie… It was dynamite.  Because from that band, the experience I got playing with big bands, and all of us went on to different things and different areas…

I think I was around 16 years old when I got the call to Lionel Hampton’s first band, that “Flying Home” band.  Man, I lasted about two or three weeks, because I wasn’t ready.  I did get that experience, but I wasn’t quite ready.

TP:    What were you lacking, would you say?

CH:    Well, my reading was bad.  I depended upon my ear at that time, and my sight reading wasn’t… I could play, man. I could swing.  I could keep good time.  But reading the charts, following the charts down. I couldn’t do it too well.  I wasn’t quick enough.  They’d waste a lot of time going over different sections just so I could get it.  That’s the band where “Flying Home” became a famous thing.

But when I got fired out of that band, that turned my whole life around, my whole career.  I really got serious.  I’ll never forget the day that they gave me my notice… A friend of mine…well, he wasn’t a friend, but a big-time dude that knew me who was a player, said, “Listen, kid.  You’re hurt now, but don’t let it get to you.”  It turned my whole life around, man.  I really got serious about what I was doing.  From there I got drafted, and this is when I started doing my number as far as learning.

TP:    In our previous show, you mentioned that in the big bands of the 1930’s, something we can’t hear properly on records is how the drummers shaped the sound of the band, like Jimmy Crawford or Papa Jo Jones or Sonny Greer.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Now, when you were in the Al Adams band, emulating the sounds of those bands, were you emulating the styles of those different drummers.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    So you had reached that level of proficiency.

CH:    Yeah.  I could play, man, and I could always keep good time.  I had some funny kind of ideas as far as my solo ideas were concerned.  I wasn’t a straight up-and-down kind of a player.  I have never been interested in being fast, have chops like the Buddy Rich kind of thing.  There’s nothing wrong with that particular style of drummer, but I’ve never been interested in it.  I’m into sound.  I’m into making sounds or creating sounds or inventing sounds, then taking the sounds and creating a mood.  The supply and then the demand, that type of thing.  But at the time, I could play just like Jimmy Crawford if we were playing a Lunceford type of tune.  If we were playing a Basie type of tune, I was Jo Jones.  It was groovy.  It was cool.

It didn’t get confusing, man, until I came out of the Army.  The first dude I heard… Man, I was in Oakland, California, playing a show, in which one of the acts was the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.  We were doing 7 and 8 shows a day, that type of thing.  Then we heard Billy Eckstine was going to play a dance that night, a Friday night in Oakland.  Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get off after of the last show…

TP:    This was with a band called Floyd Ray.  A young Art Farmer was in it, Hampton Hawes…

CH:    Yeah, Art, Hamp.  I’ll tell you something funny as hell that happened when we were up there.  I was taking a solo, my big moment, and Mingus came out with a hammer and started hammering on the bandstand while I was playing! [LAUGHS] I got so teed off at him, man…

Anyway, to make a long story short: We heard Eckstine’s band that night.  That’s when he had Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, “Blowing The Blues Away”, and Art Blakey was on drums.  Man, I had never heard anybody play like this before in my whole entire life!  I was just flabbergasted!  Art Blakey turned me completely around.  I had never heard anybody play the Bebop style of drumming.

TP:    How would you describe that in relation to what Jo Jones and Sonny Greer were doing in terms of your perceptions at the time?

CH:    For instance, Swing, you keep a steady beat going on the sock cymbal, which is the side cymbal, or even the top cymbal — DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING.  You keep that going.  DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING, and every once in a while you might do something with your left hand.  But in playing Bop the way Art Blakey played, he kept something going, DING, DI-DI-DING, but meantime, man, he’d dance between his left hand and his right foot.  DE-DUM, DE-DUM, DE-DUM, BOP!!  CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM, CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM.  Just dancing all the way through, keeping time, and the band was hitting… It worked!  I’d never had no idea of this style of playing.  I was just flabbergasted.

So the next morning, back at the theater, first show, I’m playing for Sammy Davis and his uncle and his father, and we’re playing, keeping time, then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to drop one of these bombs — BOP, BOOM!!  I did that, man, and Sammy’s father, his uncle, they stopped, turned around, and said, “What are you doing?!”

TP:    You didn’t do that any more, huh?

CH:    Oh, Ted, it was unbelievable.  After the show, he came up to me and said, “Listen, son, you’re our favorite drummer.  Don’t do that!” [LAUGHS] I’m just reminiscing.  It was funny as hell.  But I’m saying this is the first time I’d been turned around.

TP:    When you heard Art Blakey, had you been to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club?

CH:    I had just come out of the Army.

TP:    And you went right out on that job?

CH:    I went right out.

TP:    Did you get to see that band during that particular engagement in December ’45 and January ’46.

CH:    No, I didn’t.  But I played with Bird.  After that, during ’45 and ’46, everybody was out on the West Coast.  And I used to jam with Bird all the time.  There was a place on Central Avenue, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s…

TP:    There was a place called Jack’s Nest.

CH:    Jack’s Nest.

TP:    And the Finale Club in Japan-Town where Howard McGhee had a band.

CH:    Yeah.  Maggie was…all the guys.  It was just a happening.  Roy Porter and Chuck Thompson were the popular drummers around that time in L.A. when I got out.  Roy was a Bebop drummer moreso than Chuck Thompson was.  That’s when Wardell Gray and all those guys… It was a happening.

TP:    There’s a recording from 1946 of you backing Lester Young.  What was it like as you for a drummer to play behind Charlie Parker, purely on the rhythmic level?  That must have really developed your conception of the instrument.

CH:    Charlie was really nice to me.  Well, he was nice to everybody, man.  He was a brilliant man, a brilliant human being.  Not only did he encourage you to play, but he gave everybody a shot, the rhythm people at least, to keep some time for him, just to play, to make a gig.  All I know is hey, man, he was a helluva saxophone player.  It was entirely different from me playing with Prez or playing with guys who swung in regards to this new style of playing.

Howard McGhee helped me quite a bit with getting into Bebop playing and understanding what the concept was all about, and the phrasing.  That was most important thing, how you phrased, in playing this particular style of music, leaving space in the rhythm so you can fill up the holes.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know anybody right now who can explain that.  I can’t. [LAUGHS] It’s a style of playing that the concept came about by Diz, Bird, Monk, people like that.  Strangely and oddly enough, when they left the West Coast, that particular style went East.  It didn’t linger on the West Coast.  Shorty Rogers and all those guys, people like that, they come out of the Kenton area, and Stan Kenton’s band was a Swing band… I don’t know, it just left.  Years later when I came back and started my own thing, the quintet with the cello, flute and guitar, we were the furthest thing in the world from playing Bebop, that particular style.

[MUSIC: Prez-CH, “New Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio (Duvivier-Roberts) “Street of Drums”, “Nuttye” (1955); CH-5, “The Morning After” (1956); w/ Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1956); CH-5, “Gone Lover” (1956)]

CH:    This was the first time in the history of recordings that a drum and a guitar and a bass had been recorded as solo instruments alone, as the featured instruments, as opposed to being in a rhythm section.  Up until that time, the rhythm section, which consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, was always just a section — it was never featured.  The fact that we did this… Dick Bock promised to record me because of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet things.  Part of the deal was that each one of us would have an album.  Doing this, it was really something, because nowhere before in this particular form of music, known aa Jazz, had you heard anything like this.  Guitar, bass and drums was very common in Country music and things like that, but not presented as Jazz, solo instruments.

TP:    What were some of the inspirations for the idea?  You mentioned playing in a lot of different situations as a professional drummer, including Chet Atkins, and you undoubtedly heard the Nat Cole Trio and others that used guitar and bass.

CH:    I played with Nat Cole also.  As a matter of fact, Nat played for my wedding.  I can’t BS your listeners and say I had an inspiration.  It just happened.  The fact is, I had an opportunity to make an album, and I just thought of something to be different.  Because the previous albums I’d done with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet became unbelievably big as far as record buyers and record listeners were concerned, a different concept having a trumpet, baritone saxophone, bass and drums.  So I just more or less fell into the same pattern just by having… I was very fortunate, because George Duvivier and myself at that time were working with Lena Horne, and I knew Howard Roberts and liked the way he played, so when the opportunity arose we just did it, and it came off.  It came off beautifully, I thought.  When you stop to consider the fact that this is 1996, it still holds up today as contemporary as far as the sound and feeling are concerned.

TP:    We’ll step back and ask Chico for word portraits of some of the musicians he was associated with and friends with at different points of his career.  I’d like to ask you about Lester Young’s manner as a bandleader, and the kind of relations you had with him.

CH:    Let me tell you something about Prez.  Prez was one of the most sensitive human beings I have ever met or heard of.  He was a very sensitive man.  And he was total, total music, man.  Prez, Eric Dolphy, people like that… He was totally music.  Prez had a tremendous sense of humor for one thing.  Half the time I don’t know whether he was putting me on or putting everybody on or what.  But he was cool.  He was very cool.  Also he was very proper.

TP:    Well-mannered, you mean?

CH:    Well-mannered in regards to being respectful.  Prez was cool, man.

TP:    Did he have a nickname for you?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Yeah, he had one for me… Yeah, he was cool.  In fact, Prez introduced me to Roy Haynes, and Roy and I became friends after that.  But Prez would call everybody “Miss.”  Miss Hamilton, Miss so-and-so; everybody was “Miss” as far as Prez was concerned.  As a matter of fact, the original word “smothertucker” came from Prez, heh-heh.

TP:    He had a house as well in Los Angeles where a number of people would stay?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Any memories of that house?  I gather it was a congregating spot.

CH:    No, no… I recall when I first met Prez, it was one of those days I played hooky from school, and we were all meeting over at Lorenzo Fluornoy’s house, because he was having a session.  We used to put the pots on.  In other words, Lorenzo would cook a great big pot of beans or something like that, and all the musicians in L.A. used to come by his pad.  This particular day I came by there, and the screen door was open, and I looked in and I saw Prez, and I saw this lady that was sitting on Prez’ saxophone case who was Lady!  I told (?), “Hey, man, that’s Lady!”  Sure enough, when I got into the house, he said, “Miss Hamilton, Miss Day.”  That’s when I first met Lady.  She was something else, man; she was really something else, too.

TP:    You mentioned Mingus on the tour up and down the West Coast with Floyd Ray, coming out and banging on the bandstand during one of your solos.  You went way back with him.

CH:    Oh, man, we were almost kids together type of thing.

TP:    You grew up near each other.

CH:    Well, no.  I was in L.A.  He was in what they called Central Gardens, which was between L.A. and Watts.  But my wife and Charlie and Buddy Collette, all went to Sunday School, all went to the same church.

TP:    Do you remember which church?

CH:    No.  I didn’t make it! [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I guess we go back to 12 or 13 years, back when we were youngsters.  People say Charles used to do crazy things, but hey, he was always like that.  He was always a mischievous kid, that kind of thing.  We got along beautifully.  As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him before he passed away…

TP:    You and Mingus and Buddy Collette all knew each other, then, from back when.

CH:    Right.  Buddy had a great influence upon Charlie.  As a matter of fact, Buddy was Charlie’s mentor.  Even up until the time he had got out of Dodge, man, he would always call Buddy.  Every time he had a problem or would run into something, Buddy was his mentor… As a matter of fact, Charlie was playing cello before he played bass, and Buddy talked him into playing bass as opposed to playing a cello.  These guys out in South Los Angeles, they had a band, and we used to jam, and all of a sudden when the main hit came… We all auditioned for one job at the Orpheum Theater, I think it was, to play this show.  Buddy had his band there, and we had our band (the Al Adams Band), and we got the job.  But we needed Buddy and we needed people like that. [LAUGHS] So that’s how we all became one band.  Man, they had a helluva show.  The comedian was Mantan Marlan, and I forget who the big star singer…Ninah Mae McKinney… These were superstars at the time, and we were the pit band.  That’s how we ended up being one very good band.

TP:    In thinking of the types of influences that made the music of the Chico Hamilton Trios and Quintets have a distinctive sound, a lot of the music sounds narrative, like there’s a very specific image in mind, and it would seem influenced in many ways by your exposure to show music and those type of arrangements, film music and things like this.

CH:    I’ll tell you.  The years that I spent as Lena Horne’s accompanist, I was influenced very heavily by Lennie Hayten, her husband.  Between Lennie Hayten and Luther Henderson, my concept as far presentation began to happen, to make things dramatic, make things un-dramatic, whatever…to start creating moods.  I guess the real me started to happen.  I’ve always been a different kind of player.  It was totally impossible for me to try to play like Max Roach, you know, or Art Blakey or Gene Krupa, Jo Jones…

TP:    That was part of the ethos of the time anyway, was for players to develop an individual sound.

CH:    You took a little bit from him, you took a little bit from him, and a little bit from him, and put it all together, and all of a sudden it became you.  That’s what it amounts to.

TP:    By the way, on the liner notes to one of these old LPs, which are an invaluable source of information, you mentioned briefly playing with Jimmy Blanton while the Ellington band was in Los Angeles in 1941, I guess.

CH:    I sure did.  As a matter of fact, I had gone to the movies with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just come home from the movie, and it was about 5 in the afternoon, and when I walked up to the porch door, her mother came out and said, “Forrest, Mr. Ellington… They’ve been calling you all day!”  And I said, “Who…?” — that kind of thing.  Sitting in the car was Herb Jeffries, and he said, “Man, we’ve been waiting on you.  Duke wants you to play.”  Sonny became ill, and they were playing the Casa Mañana out in Culver City.  Here again, man, I was about 19 years old, something like that.  And man, I went out there… We came in through the backstage (because you came in through the back), and the band is playing, and the band was swinging, so man, I just knew they had a drummer up there.  My heart stopped.  I was sort of disappointed, because I really was looking forward to it.  It turned out the band was just hitting, playing its keister off!  I went up there and climbed up, way up on the pyramid type of thing…

TP:    Well, with Jimmy Blanton, sometimes you might not need a drummer…

CH:    Well, at that time, the band set-up was… Sonny Greer was on the top of the band.  The band like a pyramid; it came down in pyramids.  And way down by Duke, by the keyboard, was Jimmy Blanton.  So they were playing, oh, something like “Don’t Get Around Much” or one of those tunes, and man, I just sat down and started playing and started sweeping, and next thing I know, Jimmy Blanton turned around and looked up [LAUGHS], and he says, “Wow!”  Anyway, I stayed on there for a couple of weeks.

TP:    Did you get drafted shortly after that?

CH:    A little later, after I got married.  I was about 21 years old.  But one thing about young players at that time, we had all the records.  Every time a record would come out, man, I had the record, and we would listen to the band.  I knew everything everybody did in the band with the solos.  I could hum or whistle the solos just note-for-note almost.  So this made it really easy in a sense, because I depended upon my ear to play with those bands, to keep the time, because I knew the arrangements.  It wasn’t a question of me reading music, because number-one, man, neither Duke nor Basie, when I joined the bands…there wasn’t one stitch of drum music.  You either knew the charts, or that was it.  So this is how I got around that.

TP:    I think one thing about a lot of the drummers of that period, Art Blakey being a great example, is that he could take a piece of music, and then just know it and transform into his thing.

CH:    Well, you develop that.  That’s something you develop.  For instance, the average arranger, he’d write something for the brass section, the reed section or whatever, and write something for the keyboard and bass, would then say to the drummer, “Hey, you know what to do; you’ve got it.”  Because it was totally impossible for an arranger to write a drum chart, to make it swing.  If it’s a march type of thing, that’s something else.  That’s something different. But to write a Jazz chart and make it swing, you don’t need a drum part.  You give the drummer the first trumpet part.  Because that’s where he’ll make the hits.  He’ll play the same kind of figures that the trumpet players would play, more or less.

TP:    Dexter Gordon is another of your contemporaries from teenage years.  And you mentioned on first hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, it was Jug and Dexter.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    I think in a previous interview you described Dexter as being a kind of pied piper as a youngster, who had his horn out all the time.

CH:    We used to call him Big Stoop. [LAUGHS] Dexter.  Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he constantly had his clarinet in his mouth, all over.  That was it.  He was just clarinet, clarinet, this type of thing.  Man, no one really made the progress that Dexter did.  By the time he left L.A., man, automatically he became a giant.  He became something else, and he gained the respect of all the pros, all the heavyweight players — Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez, people like that.  Prez was the master.  They all tried to simulate… As a matter of fact, we even tried to walk like Prez, talk like Prez, even the porkpie hat…

TP:    Hold the horn sideways.

CH:    What a lot of people don’t know is Prez held the horn that way because he had a problem.  Most people thought he was doing that for show, but he wasn’t.  He did that in order keep the pressure off his gums.

TP:    That’s why he didn’t put the mouthpiece all the way in his mouth.

CH:    Right.  And that’s one of the reasons for the sound he got, which was a beautiful sound.  That was the bottom line to it.  It wasn’t a question of him doing that just for show.  That was the only way he could play his horn.

We came up beautifully, let’s put it like that.  As young as we were, we were all total music, too.

TP:    It seems like those musical values were instilled in you right from the beginning of playing music.  If you were going to go out and play in the community, you had to have certain things right.

CH:    Exactly.  Even today, man, you never… Music, first of all, deserves to be played well at all times, regardless of whether it’s two people in the place, or if you’re playing in the men’s room or the lady’s room.  Music deserves to be played well.  I grew up with this understanding.  I believe that music is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  That’s what keeps it going forever and forever and forever.

TP:    Back to Lester Young, let’s go back to Fort McCullough, Alabama, and your recollections of that experience.

CH:    Man, that was a bad time period.  It’s part of my past that I don’t want to… It was devastating.  It was very devastating for the simple reason that I’m in the Service, I’m not in the band, but I’m attached to the band.  I’m a drummer, and in my company they made me the company clerk and made me a bugler.  The Drum Corps master knew that I was a drummer, but he made me play bugles, just to show you what was going on.  And when Prez… Now, they attached me to the band, so I wasn’t in the band, but whenever a show came through there, I had to play the show, because they had three drummers in the band and none of them could play the show.    So when Prez and Jo came through there, man, they had guys in this band that couldn’t even hold their instruments.  I mean this.  And these people wouldn’t let Jo Jones and Lester Young in that band.  It was disgraceful.  It was unbelievable.  I still can’t get over it.  But it’s part of my past.  It’s just like a lot of other things that happened down there. [LAUGHS]  I don’t want to talk about that.

TP:    It sounds like the most positive thing that happened there was meeting Billy Exiner and learning how to read music.

CH:    That was the most positive thing that happened to me, along with meeting some guys who became my lifelong friends.  Jimmy Cheatham, for instance, was one of the guys who was in the band.  But other than that… Hey, that was then.  This is now.

TP:    Right.  And in our radio chronology, we’re around 1958 in Chico’s music.  The track we’ll hear features a pianist whose name is unknown to me…

CH:    Freddie Gambrell.

TP:    He, bassist Ben Tucker and Chico form the trio.

CH:    Listen, I met this kid in San Francisco.  He’s blind, and he could play his keister off, as you will hear.  This is very rare for the simple reason I haven’t recorded with piano players that much — period.  I played with Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and I did a lot of things with Nat, but it was different, a big thing where he was singing…

TP:    Studio productions.  But with Art Tatum you played as part of the trio?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk a little bit about playing behind Art Tatum?  Was keeping all you had to do, or did you embellish?  What did Art Tatum want from a drummer?

CH:    Well, you’d just try to realize where he was going all the time.  It was dynamite, it was cool.  It was easy playing with Art, in a sense, because all you had to do was swing, keep good time, and that was it.  It was just an accompanying kind of thing; that was it.

TP:    You just worked with him in Los Angeles?

CH:    Just in L.A.  I think we played maybe the 333… Just joints all over L.A.  Clubs, that is.

[MUSIC: CH w/ F. Gambrell, Ben Tucker, “Lullaby Of The Leaves” (1957); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon”; CH-5 w/ B. Collette (ts), P. Horn (as), “Take The A-Train” (1958); CH-5, Dolphy-Katz, “Something To Live For” (1958)]

CH:    Beat Of My Heart with Tony Bennett was a dynamite record.  Tony and I talked about that during when I was playing for Tony, keeping time for him, the combination of keeping time and playing with my own group… Matter of fact, I was in Philly, at the Showboat when they decided to do it, and I had to come up to New York.  It came off beautifully.  Jo Jones is on there as well.  It was really something.  Now, Tony has always had a good sense of time.  His phrasing is really very unique.  Besides, I like him.  We’re friends.  We’ve been friends a long time.

TP:    The first track featured pianist Freddie Gambrell, who seems not to have been heard much from since.  That really orchestral piano style.  He’d obviously listened some to Ahmad Jamal at that time…

CH:    I don’t even know if he’d heard of Ahmad Jamal then, because I don’t think Ahmad Jamal was known on the West Coast during that period.  This was just a young kid, man.  He was blind, but he could play his keister off.  Fantastic pianist.  Matter of fact, every time I would be in Frisco, there was an after-hour joint where we used to hang out called Slim’s, and we’d go in there and jam all night long.  The night I came in and heard him, he was sounding so good, I wanted to play with him.  So we sat up and played, and I think we played until 9 or 10 o’clock the next day, he and I and I don’t recall who was playing bass at the time.  But here Dick Bock had given me an opportunity to record again, and I told him about this kid, and it all came about.

TP:    A couple of points you raised.  In talking about singers, you didn’t say “playing drums for”, but “keeping time for.”  Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine for a minute, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole.  What’s the difference between playing for a singer within an instrumental situation?  Why is it different?

CH:    Well, number one, you never know what a singer is going to do.

TP:    Does that mean that a singer who is a skilled improviser will treat the music differently, or something less complimentary than that?

CH:    Well, all respects to singers, because I learned how to play by playing for singers.  It calls upon… You have to have a magic wand and you have to be able to look into the future playing for singers.  Because singers are subject to do things on the spur of the moment.  It all depends on what their mood is all about.  If they get an idea in the middle of a phrase, if they decide they don’t want to phrase that way, it will just change automatically, as opposed to a horn player who is more or less restricted because there is just so much he can do.  In other words, there are only so many keys on the instrument, and he’s only got ten fingers on the horn — or three if it’s a trumpet.  Singers, first of all, have the perfect instrument, which is the human voice, and they do with what and do what with.  And to keep time for them… A lot of singers don’t know how to keep time.  They just sing the way that they feel, as if they were singing in the bathroom or in the shower.  So in order to make it cohesive as a drummer, you have to keep the thing going so that the other players, if it’s a piano and bass accompanying the singer, make some sense out of it, so it gives them some idea of where they are at all times.  Because a lot of times, a lot of singers don’t sing in tune.  They have no idea that they’re not in tune, as well as singing the melody or whatever the composition is or whatever the song is.

Overall, in playing for singers, you learn how to anticipate in regards to what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.  I played for Lena Horne for eight years, and I only saw her once from the front, and that was when we were in Madison Square Garden.  All the rest of the time, the only thing I saw of her, man, was her keister.  I was right behind her.  I developed a system of watching her neck, and I could tell when she was going to reach for a note or something like that.  Playing for Lena was something else, because you never knew what Lena might decide…you never knew what tempo she was going to do something in.  She could sing, man.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a vocalist and for her musicianship… We’re all musicians.  You don’t have to be a player to be a musician.  In other words, I can’t tell you how to listen.  So everybody’s a musician as far as I’m concerned.

TP:    Tell me about your brief time with Billy Eckstine.  Or how brief was it?

CH:    With B?  I did several shows with B.  That had to be in the late ’40s and then the beginning of the ’50s.  Well, number one, B was a trombone player, a musician, and Mr. Class.  He was cool!  He was one of my favorite singers, him and Johnny Hartman.  B contributed a lot, man, to the contemporary style of not only singing, but phrasing and songs, good songs.  B sang good songs.  Everything he sang became a hit, was automatically a hit… Let’s put it this way.  Everything he recorded became big.

TP:    Well, he was a style-setter.  Like you related the way people would wear Lester Young’s porkpie hat, everyone would try to dress like Billy Eckstine.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    He had a much greater impact than people realize on the generation of people who came up after World War Two.

CH:    Well, just like Sinatra influenced a lot of people, Eckstine influenced a lot of people.  He was very hip.

TP:    What was his manner like with the musicians?  He was always supposed to be totally at one with…

CH:    Oh, man, he was a sideman as far as he was concerned!  He was always one of the guys, one of the dudes.  B was cool.  I mean that in a complimentary sense.

TP:    I can’t remember if I asked you about playing with Lady Day or not.

CH:    Lady?  Playing with Lady was dynamite.

TP:    Now, she was unpredictable, but I’ll bet there was never any question about…

CH:    No, she wasn’t unpredictable as far as keeping time was concerned.  Lady swung.  Her and Ella were good swingers.  They swung.  Their phrasing was different.

TP:    Would she treat material differently from one performance to the next?

CH:    Not so much as Lena would.  Lena would treat material different.  Plus, a majority of Lena’s book, her library, her repertoire was very heavily arranged.  It was really a challenge, because it was very well arranged, and we always worked with 12-to-15 piece orchestras accompanying her, whereas with Lady it was Bobby Tucker and a bass player and myself sometimes, which was cool, which really kept a free, flowing kind of thing going.  With Ella it would be the same thing, small groups.

TP:    So the singer would be more like a horn really in a situation like that.

CH:    Well, they were.  Matter of fact, one of the hippest times I can recall playing with Lady, Wardell Gray was on tenor, Hampton Hawes was on piano, Curtis Counce was on bass, and I was on drums.  And man, we swung a hole in her head!  I’ll tell you, we had a ball.  It was a happening.

TP:    So by the mid-’50s, Chico, you were working behind a lot of singers, pretty steady work…

CH:    That’s the name of the game, man, steady work.  Go ahead.

TP:    I understand.  And you came up during the Depression, when you had to have a job.  That was the first order of business.  But I’d like to talk about the development of the Chico Hamilton group in its various configurations.  Of course you’d known Buddy Collette for a good twenty years by this time.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Fred Katz.

CH:    Fred worked with us with Lena Horne.  Lena was doing a production number called “Frankie and Johnny”, and wherever we went we had to have a string section.  We were here in New York, as a matter of fact, at the Copacabana, and it was during the “Frankie and Johnny” period, which was a huge production number, with singers and things like that.  Fred Katz was the cellist in that group.  We became friendly, playing together every night and that kind of thing.  At that time I had no idea that Fred was a pianist as well.  So to make a long story short, when I left Lena I went back to California — my mother was ill.  Just playing around town, I became very disappointed in some of my old cronies who I used to play with.  I didn’t feel as though they had progressed any.  They were still playing the same old kind of way and the same old kind of things.  I got bored.

I realized that the only way for me to play and keep it halfway interesting, I had to get my own thing started — and so I did.  Originally I was going to use the French horn.  There was a French horn player by the name of John Graas.  I had met Jim Hall, and I knew Carson from the Gerry Mulligan days.  Of course, I knew Buddy from growing up; I needed a triple-threat man to play alto, clarinet, tenor, flute.  So the first rehearsal we had, unfortunately, John Graas had a heart attack, so that was the end of that.  Out of left field I get a call from Fred Katz who said he was playing for a singer named Jana Mason, and would I help them out; they needed somebody to make a couple of things with them out at one of those Hollywood places.  So I said, “yeah,” and I went on out, and I played two nights with them.  One thing led on to another, Fred wanted to know what I was doing, and I told him about my group and about John passing.  He said, “What if I come up to the rehearsal and bring my cello.”  I said, “Yeah!”  So he came over, made the rehearsal… It happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time.  That’s the bottom line to it.

TP:    Is that a sound you had in your mind before forming that group?

CH:    No, at first I had French horn in mind (there’s no similarity, but there is a similarity), using the guitar, bass, drums and the horn.  So it developed, and then it went on and became history.

TP:    When Eric Dolphy joined the band in 1958, he came to you as a player who was well known to musicians in the Los Angeles area, a master, mature, 30-year-old musician, already proficient on flute, bass clarinet and alto sax.  When were you first in touch with Eric Dolphy, in the early part of the ’50s?

CH:    Eric followed Paul Horn.  When Paul left the band, I needed another horn player, and my brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (he and Eric went to school together), recommended Eric.  I vaguely recalled Eric, but I had spent so much time out of L.A., back and forth, that I didn’t know… In the meantime I had called a very good friend of mine, the composer-arranger Gerald Wilson.  Eric was playing with Gerald at the time, and Gerald recommended him very highly.  So that was it.  Eric came on the band and read everything that we had, and sounded fantastic and played exceedingly well.  That was it.  I took him out and brought him east when we went out on tour.

It’s a funny thing.  Some people didn’t like him at first.

TP:    What was it about him that caused that reaction?

CH:    What caused that reaction was because they didn’t understand his style of playing.  Having heard the previous players in my band, people who had a straight-ahead kind of approach to melodies, Eric shook them up, which was dynamite as far as I was concerned.  I watched him grow.  I watched him grow.  I watched him develop into a tremendous player.  And next thing you know, he had a tremendous following going.  At that time I disbanded up that band in New York, and went back to California.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ Dolphy, “Gongs East (1958),” “Don’s Delight,” “Miss Movement” (1959), CH-5 (1992), “Mandrake”]

CH:    That set on touched on Chico Hamilton’s relationship through music with Eric Dolphy, three tracks, plus “Mandrake” from a recent dedication recording on Soul Note, My Panamanian Friend.  If I’m not mistaken, “Miss Movement” from 1959, was Dolphy’s first recorded composition, on which Chico Hamilton sings as well as swings throughout the recording.   On the liner notes to My Panamanian Friend, Jeff Caddick took down Chico’s recollections of Eric Dolphy, and as Chico mentioned before the music: “Every place we went all over the country, the first thing people would say was, ‘Get rid of him!’  Everybody wanted me to fire him.”  Of course you did not do that.  You told him that you needed the sound that Paul Horn and Buddy Collette provided before him, but on solos he was free to operate.  Has this always been the case with your groups that once the solo comes, it’s totally up to the individual…

CH:    You’re on your own.  You’re strictly on your own.  Any time you play music, well-arranged scores, compositions, etcetera, there has to be a certain amount of freedom of expression.  This is my way of letting players develop into what they want to be musically.  So I put no restrictions on anybody’s solo.  If you want to holler on your horn, it’s all right with me.  It’s cool.  Because at least you’re showing me hat you’re reaching for something.  This only way that you’re going to come into your very own as far as making music.  You have to be allowed, you have to be able to play what you hear, play what you feel.  There’s no problem playing notes that are written and arranged a certain way, a certain time meter, etcetera.  This is what Classical music is all about.  But to be able to have that freedom, that’s it.  This is one of the ways that Eric and all of us, in a sense, helped ourselves develop into what we are as players.

TP:    You mentioned again in the recollections in My Panamanian Friend that the second time this band went around the country, Eric Dolphy was accepted by most everyone who heard him, especially the musicians.  Everyone has a Sonny Stitt anecdote from the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and so forth, and there’s another one here involving he and Eric Dolphy, with a slightly different resolution than most of the stories you hear.

CH:    Man, let me tell you.  We were in Philadelphia, and in all the clubs in Philadelphia you had to play a 5 o’clock on Monday and Saturday as well as playing at night.  We got in town a couple of days early, and Sonny Stitt was playing.  We were following Sonny Stitt in the club.  So we went to the matinee on a Saturday afternoon.  I think we’d just gotten in that morning.  I had Eric with me.  Eric always carried his horns with me.  We were sitting at the bar, the bandstand was over the bar, and all of a sudden Sonny looks down and sees me, and we speak, we acknowledge each other, and all of a sudden on the mike he says, “Hey, Cheeks, I hear you’ve got a little bad alto player.  Tell him to come up and play something.”  I said to Eric, “Yeah, man, go up and play.”  Sonny Stitt figured he was going to blow him off the bandstand.  So Eric came up, took his horn out, the alto, went up on the bandstand, they did the ensemble, the first chorus, and Sonny Stitt starts playing, plays his thing, does half-a-dozen choruses…

TP:    Played about eight keys…

CH:    Yeah, and things like that.  Then he looked at Eric and says, “You got it.”  Right?  Man, Eric started playing.  Sonny kept looking at me, looking at me, looking at me, looking at Eric: “Where did you get this guy?  Where did you get this guy?”  Eric was something else.  He blew Sonny Stitt off the stand, really.  And that’s saying something.

TP:    In the liner notes to The Three Faces of Chico Hamilton, on which “Miss Movement” appears, there’s a nice quote where you talk about creating an individual environment for each of the tracks with the standard drum kit.  You say, “It’s difficult for a drummer to play anything different than any other average drummer, although each drummer does have his own individual styling.  I use the standard equipment I have with me whenever the quintet takes the stand — two cymbals, sock cymbal, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drums.  I don’t use tympani because I’m not a timpanist; I don’t carry them around.  I work with sticks, mallets and brushes to obtain different sound textures.”  Now, on the 1992 version of “Mandrake” you put a whole different beat and feeling on it than the original with J.C.  Moses on drums.  It was done in a more free-floating time; you use more of a funk beat and so forth.  Talk about analyzing tunes and putting your own stamp on material.

CH:    Well, the fact that Eric Dolphy had done “Mandrake” originally… Well, this album was Jeff Caddick’s idea.  He put the bug in my ear, “Hey, why don’t you do something of Eric Dolphy’s?”  The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it would be dynamite, for the simple reason that people talk about Eric Dolphy, but I haven’t heard any contemporary musician play any of his music.  I’m talking about the contemporary musicians today, the people out here today who are supposed to be reputed Jazz players.  They play Bird, they play Diz, but I haven’t heard them play any Eric Dolphy.  Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why we said, “Yeah, let’s do an album of all Eric’s music.”  Number-one, his music isn’t that easy to play.  Most guys find it problematic structurally.  So in order to put a different twist on it, I just did a different kind of rhythm approach.  As opposed to giving it a straight 4, a Bebop 4, I just put a little Funk thing underneath there, a little Rock beat or whatever you want to call it.  It makes a difference.  As a matter of fact, it was so different that Bonandrini, who owns the record label, didn’t like it at all! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there anything else you’d like to say about Eric Dolphy before we move on with the music?

CH:    Eric Dolphy was perhaps one of the nicest guys, nicest person, really… He was a gentleman, and he was totally dedicated to playing, to music, to his instruments, etcetera, etc., and he was a very nice person — very nice.  He did a lot of things for people that they don’t even know he did for them.  He was very kind to everyone.  I don’t think he had a vicious bone in his body, man.  I’m very proud to have spent some time with him.

TP:    The next band, the next period of Chico Hamilton’s career featured four musicians who made their mark on music.  Charles Lloyd on reeds, who was able to give the triple-threat, and also went to USC, as did Dolphy; Gabor Szabo on guitar; Albert Stinson on bass, who had he not died as young as he did, would undoubtedly have made a big mark; and George Bohannon on trombone (a two-horn front line).  A few words about creating different repertoires, different vocabularies, different environments for new groups of musicians.  Are you tailoring the music to the personalities or are the personalities fitting your music?

CH:    Well, Ted, the bottom line to that is that old colloquial expression about “do with what and do what with.”  That says it all.  Do you understand that?  Or is that too far-fetched…or too unfetched?

TP:    That’s clear, I think.

CH:    That’s what I do.  I don’t know what anyone else does.  I learned that from the one and only Edward Kennedy, Mr. Duke Ellington, because he did it better than anyone in regards to tailoring everything he did around the player.

TP:    Now, Ellington chose very carefully and selectively the people who would play with him, 95 percent of the time, I’d think.

CH:    Yeah, but 95 percent of the time he composed or arranged something, he had a particular player or a particular sound in mind.  He had the player in mind.  He knew the sound, but he had the player, because he knew no other player would play it like the player would play it.

TP:    And that’s why he got them.

CH:    Well, you dig?  That’s the bottom line.  In my case I did the same thing.  I would change up on groups.  After so many… It’s not that you get bored, but you use a sound, you do a sound as long as you can, and go with it, and as long as it keeps that thing happening, then it’s dynamite. When the thing begins to not start happening, when it becomes not music, when you find yourself imitating yourself, when you find, “Hey, I’m so busy trying to be Chico Hamilton that I can’t even play,” you know what I mean, then you change up.  It becomes time to change.  No one did that any better than Miles.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Miles for doing things like that.  And Art constantly had new groups.  Once you find a young player and you help them develop, they’re supposed to move on.  And every time someone moves on, I don’t expect them to play like the previous group or the previous player.  Because here again, everyone’s got their own sound.  They need their own space.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ C. Lloyd and G. Szabo, “Witchcraft”, “People”; w/ Mariano and Richardson, “Manila”, “Conquistadores”, “Jim-Jennie”]

CH:    Man, I’m hearing some of this music for the second time.  I never play it.

TP:    You never play your old music?

CH:    No.  As a matter of fact, people when they come to my house, I play everything else but me, and they say, “Hey, why don’t you play something… We want to hear something of yours.”  But I don’t know.  Only rarely do I play any of my music.

TP:    Getting into talk show territory here, what kind of things do you listen to in relaxing and putting music in your consciousness?

CH:    I listen to all kinds of music.  I listen to Classical music, I listen to Rock-and-Roll, I listen to Country-and-Western, I listen to bad music, I listen to good music.  To me, it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I mean that sincerely.  The hip thing is to listen to something and don’t critique.  Just listen to what it is and what it’s all about, and try to put yourself in maybe the player’s shoes or in his place, and if you can understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, what he’s trying to say, that’s really dynamite.

TP:    It seems like in the mid-’60s, when you did this series of recordings for Blue Note, you were listening to Spanish music, the Flamenco sound among other things.  You really start using the properties of the guitar quite a bit.

CH:    First of all, at one I time I was the only guy that used guitar.  Everyone else was using the piano and keyboards and things like that.  From the very beginning, I was the guitar player’s best friend.  I’ve always used guitar.  It’s only within the last 15 or 20 years that other people have used guitars and their usage… I’m an originator, man!

TP:    I’m talking specifically about some the devices of Spanish music…

CH:    Oh, the Latin feeling, man.  It’s part of my life.

TP:    A lot of musicians in the Southwest worked in bands dealing with Mexican music, and I asked you off-mike if that had been part of your experience.

CH:    And what did he say?

TP:    He said, “Chicano music?  I have a little of that blood in me, that’s all.”  But I didn’t say it to them.  I’d like you to be saying it.

CH:    Hey, I don’t speak English; I play conga drum, man.

TP:    Well, last time you were talking of playing trap drums as opposed to hand drums, and the distinctiveness of the trap drum set as an instrument.

CH:    Well, there’s a big difference, man; a tremendous difference.  The fact that a drummer is playing a full set of drums, meaning that he has snare drum that he plays with his hands, he has a bass drum that he plays with his feet, and he has a sock cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal that he plays with foot, with his left foot if it’s right-handed, and you have cymbals that you’re playing on, that means you’ve got all four things going as opposed to a hand drummer, who has his hands.  I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for hand drummers, because man, their hands are their sticks, their implements, their brushes, their mallets.  Whereas a sit-down drummer, playing a regular set, you have to control each one of these separate instruments which completes the set, and to play, to keep some time and to keep a good rhythm pattern going along with a hand drummer, is… It’s more than a notion.  Because hand-drumming, when they play those hand drums, they get set on a beat.  TOCKY-TI-BOOM, TOCKY-TI-BOOM — that’s set.  Well, in order to get in between there and help it to swing, you’ve got to come up with something entirely different.  But that’s got to correlate, it’s got to groove, it’s got to hit that same pocket.  You’ve got to find out where the main pulse is, whether it’s on one or whether it’s on the upbeat or whether it’s on the downbeat.  If it’s on the downbeat, that means that anything that goes down is down, anything that comes up is up.  It’s not easy for the two to really hit it off and to make it happen, but when it does happen it’s dynamite, when a sit-down drummer and conga player and timbales player can really mash.  It’s cool.  And it was a helluva challenge in the beginning to get this sort of groove going.  It turned out so well that Bob Thiele, who was producing these records at the time… That’s the reason we did a whole series of them, which was cool.

TP:    In the ’60s, you had been in New York, then gone back to California when your mother was ill, then you went from being in the studios backing singers on the West Coast to doing a lot of commercials and being part of the New York studio scene, which was a very different deal.  Talk about your parallel activities during the 1960’s, when those records for Blue Note were being issued.

CH:    Well, I was on the road.  I was virtually on the road at the time.  Because in the Impulse days I had the quartet with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson.  That’s mainly the Impulse period.

TP:    Say a few words about each of those musicians and how you recruited them.

CH:    The day that Charles graduated from USC is the day that he joined my band.  I took him on the road.  I took him out of L.A.  He couldn’t wait to get out of L.A.  He wanted to go on the road for the first time in his life.  And Gabor?  We were in Newport when Gabor first heard the group, and he was determined to play with me, play in my group.  As it came about, when I disbanded the cello group and put the word out I was going to form a new group, in some kind of way Gabor found out about it, and next thing I know I get a phone call from him.  Charles helped me to recruit Albert Stinson.  He knew Stinson from playing in Pasadena.  When Stinson first came in the band, he was only 16 years old.  He was a young genius as far as bassists are concerned.  Here again, man, I’m very fortunate.  There happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time.

TP:    A couple of other musicians of note appear in their early years on those recordings, like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    Sadao’s a big superstar now.  He’s very big over in Japan, and I guess throughout Europe.

TP:    Was he part of your working group?

CH:    Yeah.

TP:    And ditto with Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    You know, there used to be a bar here in New York, one of the hippest bars in the whole entire world.  It was on 48th Street right off of 6th Avenue between 6th and 7th, and it was called Jim and Andy’s.  If you wanted to see or find out where everybody was, you went to Jim and Andy’s, and that’s where we hung out.  As a matter of fact, A&R Studios was right above the bar.  Well, I met Arnie Lawrence at the bar at Jim and Andy’s.  I think Clark Terry introduced us. At that time he and Clark were playing in the Tonight Show band.  One word led on to another, one drink led on to another, and we started hanging out every day.  After my sessions I would hang out there.  It just happened.  I told him, hey, I’m going to start putting something together, and he said he would be interested, and we just started rehearsing and getting it together.  I knew Larry Coryell from the West Coast, and introduced Larry and Arnie both on The Dealer, and the record was a winner.

TP:    Now, in the ’60s your personal style begins to expand vocabulary-wise, and incorporate rhythms from Rock and Funk and Soul Music and Latin Music.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk about the process of assimilating these different sounds in your vocabulary.

CH:    You know, if they keep moving they can’t hit you.

TP:    Is that like “sting like a butterfly, float like a bee”?

CH:    [LAUGHS] I don’t know, man… I could give you a big story, BS you about something, but in all honesty I don’t know why.

TP:    Does it have something to do with playing commercials and studio type things where you had to play a lot of different rhythms?

CH:    No.  I was very fortunate as far as my commercial career was concerned here in New York as a producer and a player, because I composed everything.  In order to be different from my competitors, the only thing different that could be would be the rhythms, not the melodic structure of a commercial.  So the fact that I would come up with different ideas, with different rhythm patterns and use them… Hey, once I played a pattern it was mine, and I just went on to use it to enhance upon it.

TP:    What are two or three patterns that were signature Chico Hamilton patterns in the ’60s?

CH:    Well, we have a thing here on a track we’re going to play called “Guitar Willie,” which I’d say would be a typical Chico Hamilton rhythm pattern type of thing.  It’s difficult for me to say how I play.

TP:    This one features Steve Potts, who was introduced with you, Russ Andrews, Eric Gale.  Ray Nance plays violin on this date, who I guess you must have first met when you hit with Ellington that time.  This one is called The Head Hunters… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: CH w/ Potts & Gale “Guitar Willie,” “Theme For A Woman”; CH live, w/ Mark Cohen, Abercrombie, “Without A Song” (1971); w/ A. Lawrence, Alex Foster, M. Richmond, B. Finnerty “In View” (1973); w/ A. Blythe, “Sweet Dreams” (1972)]

TP:    A long set of music    by Chico Hamilton from the late ’60s and early ’70s, incorporating electronic and contemporary sounds into his drum style, never losing a beat and creating fresh and original sounds and rhythmic figures.

The final set will focus on recent configurations with young musicians getting seasoning with Chico — Eric Person on reeds, Cary De Nigris, guitar, sometimes Kenny Davis on bass and sometimes no bassist.  Let’s talk about the formation of this recent group, which has produced as strong and cohesive and individual a body of music as any group you’ve had.

CH:    First of all, Cary and Eric, I raised them more or less.  They joined me when they were very young, young guys.  I think both were very new to New York at the time.  We’ve been together eight or nine years maybe… So over a period of time we’ve grown to know each other, know each other’s strong points and weak points in regard to music.  They’ve come into their not only as fantastic players, but very good composers and very good professional musicians.

TP:    Considering the quality of the saxophones you’ve employed since the early ’50s with Buddy College, what are you looking for from your reed and woodwind players?

CH:    First of all, if I feel as if they have something to say and I can help them study, it’s dynamite.  Do you understand that?

TP:    If they have a voice and you can help bring that voice out.

CH:    Exactly.  Because in the beginning they’re not fully  developed.  They don’t even know themselves what they want to do, or they have an idea but they don’t know how to go about getting there.  And fortunately, I am able to help them find a direction.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the ability to get around the instrument is a given once a player is with you, i.e., sound, facility, technique, knowledge of theory and so forth.  But is that the quality you’re looking for?  Is that inner voice looking to break out of the shell, so to speak, or to mature and grow?  Is that the main thing for you?

CH:    Well, one of the important things is that they have a desire to want to grow.  They have a story that they want to tell.

TP:    How do you determine that when you first meet someone?

CH:    Well, it’s not easy, but you can tell.  I’m not impressed with somebody who can play his keister off right away, that kind of thing, who can play the instrument extremely well.  It’s how much music comes out of it, which is a big difference as far as I’m concerned.  I’d rather hear a young player try to do something, and if he doesn’t make it, it’s cool — but at least he tries.   Which means he’s going to really stretch and develop into his own person, his own sound.  That’s the only way music can be different, as long as someone plays himself.  Because you never know… Being a young player, just like being a young person, from a teenager to young adulthood, you mature.  And when you have an opportunity to play the way that we play, the way I structure my sound, my music, my arrangements and things like that, I give full opportunity for a player to be himself and play himself.  That’s why over a period of years all these guys eventually become fantastic soloists as well as good players.  They come out of my band and start their own bands, become good bandleaders with an individual sound.  I guess that’s about as close as I can come to it.  That’s close enough for Jazz anyway, right?

The first track on the next set is a soundtrack from a German movie.  The director was Rudolf Tomei(?), and it was my first association with him.  Since then we’ve done several films.  The most fantastic thing about this score and working with this director, he never forgot why he hired me.  Most directors, somewhere down the line, when you record, they become the composer.  But this man let me do what I thought and the way I felt about his film, which was dynamite.  As a matter of fact, the film opens up with a guy on a bicycle going to the park with his baby daughter.  It’s almost self-explanatory when you hear it.

[MUSIC: CH Movie soundtrack, CH, “Sorta New,” “Jeffrey Andrew Caddick,” “Song For Helen,” “Every Time I Smile”]

TP:    Are you always writing new music?  Does this happen whether you’re working or laying off?

CH:    Always.  It goes in spurts, though.  If everything is right and I’m thinking good, and I come up with some ideas, I’ll just concentrate on writing.  Then when it’s time to play, I’ll just play.

TP:    Do you practice a lot?  Are you past practicing at this point?

CH:    No, I practice, man.  I’d better.  There’s too many young players out there, man!  No, I try to practice every day.  As a matter of fact, I get the guilts when I’m at the keyboard, because when I’m at the keyboard something says, “Hey, man, you should be playing your drums.”  And vice-versa, that type of thing.

TP:    What’s your practice regimen?

CH:    There’s a difference between practicing and rehearsing.  I rehearse with the group, but when I practice, I practice within myself and the instrument.  I try to keep my chops, my hands and my facilities very loose so that I can play, and to have the strength to play… I’m a high energy kind of a player, and if you’re not in shape, playing with these young guys who can play… Eric Person is unbelievable, Cary De Nigris is unbelievable, and we’ve got a new little bass player by the name of Kip Reed who’s for real, man.  So I get as much from them as they probably get from me.  As a matter of fact, I probably come out winners as far as the energy aspect of it and the musical thing.  But in practicing, I practice my instrument because I’m still trying to learn how to play it.

TP:    You mentioned Sonny Greer, Jo Jones and Art Blakey as the three major influences in forming your style.  I’m interested in other drummers apart from them who you’ve admired, perhaps been influenced by, perhaps not, and the reasons why.

CH:    Well, who I consider my peers, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, people like this, I marvel at what they do, the things they have to say drumnistically and the way that they play.  It’s fantastic.  For one thing, no two drummers can play alike, no two drummers can sound alike.  It’s the physical aspect; I might have long arms and they might have short arms, and vice-versa.  This is how you approach the instrument.  They each have something different that they’re saying.  Elvin is completely different from Max Roach, his playing, his style, his whole ambiance, his thunder.  It’s dynamite.  It really drives you.  Max is a classic within himself, within the realm of his ability to do the things he does on the instrument.  And Roy Haynes, here again, he’s completely different from Max.  And I’m completely different from all three of them.  Plus the fact, I like anybody, man.  Any young drummer, anybody who strives to play, because I know what it takes to play the instrument.

TP:    Any of the young drummer who’ve particularly impressed you, or don’t you want to name names.

CH:    Yeah, if I can remember them.  Pheeroan akLaff, I’m very impressed with his playing.  There are a lot of them.   It’s just a question of not remembering their names.  I don’t make the scene too much any more.

TP:    A few words about the drums and dance.  There seems to be sort of an ongoing dance between the drummer and his kit.

CH:    That’s what it’s all about.  The tap-dance.  That’s what drumming is all about, really.

TP:    Did you ever play with any tap dancers?

CH:    Did I ever play with any tap dancers!  Quite a few, as a matter of fact.  There was a tremendous dance team by the name of the Berry Brothers, there was a tremendous team named the Nicholas Brothers.  I kept time for them.  I think I played with Baby Lawrence at one time or another.  When you were in the big bands, that’s what you did.   You played for all those dancers.  Most bands when they were on the road, they were with a show.  There was a complete show.  They would have dancers and singers and things like that.  So you had to learn to play for dancers, which is an art within itself.  But laying down taps on one of my records… The last album I did, Dancing To A Different Drummer, I simulate a tap dancer dancing.  I do a brush solo, which is the same kind of thing, same kind of groove.

[ETC.]

TP:    Chico Hamilton is a drummer who has gone through almost the full history of the music, and he’s experienced just about everything that a working drummer could, from Swing music to backing singers to tap dancers to studio dates and reading, and continued to pick up on contemporary rhythms and formulating a very distinctive and individual style to them.

CH:    I appreciate it immensely.  The chance to come into a studio like this and get to hear your music played for five hours consecutively is a privilege, in fact.  It don’t happen every day!

[MUSIC: solos, “Tap Drums,” “The Snare Drum”]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Charles Mingus, “Mysterious Blues” (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, Mosaic, 1960/19__). Charles Mingus (bass, composer); Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums)

I don’t know whether that was Roy or not. It wasn’t Sweets. It might have been Roy Eldridge. That’s either a bad recording of Bird or Sonny Stitt. I don’t know. Neither one of them? I don’t know who it is. The drummer could be Denzil Best. It’s hard for me to detect whoever’s sweeping, you know. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard this before – for one thing. [There are a few people here whom you know very well.] Was the drummer Jo Jones? Okay, that’s Jo sweeping. Is that George Duvivier? [How do you like the whole thing?] For then, it was good. It’s still good now, but it’s a little… It’s nothing I would retain. It’s just some guys blowing, as far I’m concerned. Dig? Today I’m not really into solos. I don’t care what you play in your solo. I’m more interested in the ensemble sound and things like that. So just listening to somebody blow… Hey, I’ve heard them all and I’ve played with half of them, which is cool. But I don’t know who this is. Who in the hell is that? [Charles Mingus is playing bass.] It was Mingus playing bass? See, now, Mingus and I grew up together. But I’ve never really heard him play like this. I’ve heard enough of this. I’d give it 5 stars. First of all, excuse my French, but they weren’t fucking around, man. They were playing! They were playing their hearts out. As far as the performance is concerned, that’s cool. The alto player moved like Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think Sonny was on the scene during that period. [When do you think it was recorded?] Man, it had to be recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. [It was Eric Dolphy.] That was Eric? I thought it was Eric, but I wasn’t sure. Honest to God.

2. Paul Motian Trio, “Dance” (from I Have The Room Above Her, ECM, 2005) (Motian, drums, composer; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

I’ve never heard this before. Is this Ornette Coleman? Not having heard this before and not knowing who it is – and you want to know what I think of it? It’s a form of an expression… As far as I’m concerned, it takes all kinds of music to make music. If this is where your head is and your heart is and your listening vibes are, then it sounds right. If it’s not, it’s just some guys – as far as I’m concerned – doing whatever they do. Not to say that they’re doing it well. It’s every player for himself. Now, if there’s some form to it, they know the form. They got the secret. But I haven’t been able to pick up the form. [Any thoughts on the performers?] Well, there again, I’m from the school of having a pulse. I don’t get no pulse of whoever this is who’s playing, regardless of his chops. I’ve had it. It just sounds like they’re exercising. It’s difficult for me to give it stars. One of my favorite phrases is “how’s your feelings?’ That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. If that’s the way they felt, dynamite. That’s cool. Far be it from me to say, “Man, they sound like shit.” But in my opinion, I couldn’t listen to this no more than once. I don’t even know what kind of groove they were trying to say. Who were they? The Paul Motian Trio? Lovano ain’t no Mulligan and what’s-his-name ain’t no Bill Evans, so he’s out there by himself as far as I’m concerned.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, #1″ (from Baby Dodds: Talking and Drum Solos, Folkways/Atavistic, 1946/2005) (Baby Dodds, drums)

Well, it has to be some drummer from either the ‘50s or ‘60s, because he’s just playing the straight 4/4 on his bass drum. He’s not playing any syncopation licks. Everything’s on the downbeat. A lot of guys played like that during that period. Who that is, it’s difficult to say. Basically, it’s a Gene Krupa style of playing as far as I’m concerned, from what I heard. But it’s not him. You got me. I don’t know who that is. It’s good, though. It’s a little too straight-up and down for me, but the chops were cool. But like I said, I didn’t feel any syncopation. I didn’t hear any hot licks. Everything was straight up and down. It started off as a march and it stayed a march, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give him 5 stars. He was doing he was doing. Baby Dodds! Well, I knew it was one of those guys who went way back there. That’s cool. As a matter of fact, on my solo drum album I had 10 tracks, and every last one of them was different – rhythmically different.

4.  Jason Marsalis, “Seven Ay Pocky Way” (from Music In Motion, Basin Street, 1999) (Marsalis, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto saxophone; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; Peter Harris, bass)

It’s played very well. Having the rhythm, having drummer playing on top like that is dynamite; he’s got his shit going. But I have no idea who it is. I’ve never heard this before. But it’s good. [Do you like to incorporate these kinds of beats in your playing?] Here again, I’ve got the feeling of that New Orleans style of drumming; in other words, you’re dancing, but you’re not swinging. Strutting. But whatever they’re doing, they’re doing the hell out of it. I’ll give it 5 stars, too, man.

5.  Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from The Water Is Wide, ECM, 2000) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s Charles Lloyd. I finally got one. How do I know it’s Charles Lloyd? I raised Charles Lloyd. I gave him his first job, man, when he came out of school in L.A. He was at USC. When he graduated, I took him on the road. He was playing alto then. He eventually got to tenor. I don’t know the song. Oh, it’s by Ellington? Did Duke write it or Swee’pea wrote it? Duke wrote it? Okay. The performance? It’s par for the course. How do I mean that? His treatment for this particular composition is dynamite! He couldn’t do it any better. So that’s it. Is the drummer Billy Higgins? I thought quite a bit of his playing. Billy was a good player. He’s doing probably the same thing here that I would do – or I would do the same thing he was doing. There’s only one way to play for this kind of thing, to play on this kind of rhythm. 5 stars. It’s cool.

6.   Chick Webb, “Liza” (from Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald: Savoy Ambassadors, 1936-1939, JBM, 1937/1991) (Webb, drums; Bobby Stark, trumpet; Sandy Williams, trombone)

Is this Gene Krupa? No? It’s not Buddy Rich. Either Dave Tough or somebody like that? [It’s not a white drummer.] Cozy Cole. No? Shit, well, I don’t know who it is. The tune is “Liza.” Oh, it’s Chick Webb. Why do I know it’s Chick? Because of the kind of chops he had. Buddy Rich and Gene and all those guys all sort of duplicated Chick. You can’t compare him to Baby Dodds. Baby Dodds was a different kind of player. Chick swung. Baby Dodds didn’t really swing. He was a good timekeeper. But Chick’s pushing this whole band. I’ll give it 5 stars, man. I’ll give it 8 stars! Man played his ass off.

7.   Matthew Garrison, “Unity” (from Shapeshifter, GJP, 2004) (Garrison, electric bass, keyboards, programming; Arto Tuncboyacian, percussion; Jojo Mayer, drums; Jim Beard, keyboards; Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica)

I don’t know what to say about this. Everybody’s got a different groove and different moods going, as far as sounds are concerned, and everybody’s got a concept. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind. But the ensemble playing is, in a sense… There’s a lot of shit going on. I can’t really hear one particular thing. Even with the drum solo, the rhythm solo, it’s either timbales and bongos or cowbell and… It’s cool. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had it, man. I didn’t think much of it, man. Not to say that it isn’t good, because evidently somebody must have liked it. That’s Matt Garrison? The kid? He did a couple of dates with me, man. I didn’t know that was Matt. I’m not in that bag right now. I’m not in that kind of a groove. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate it.

8. Hamid Drake, “Bindu #1 for Ed Blackwell, from Bindu to Ojas” (from Bindu, Rogueart, 2005) (Drake, drums, frame drums; Daniel Carter, Greg Ward, clarinet; Sabir Mateen, bass clarinet, Ernest Dawkins, tenor saxophone)

See, with something like this, it’s hard to maybe distinguish what the drums sound like, because they all sound the same. It’s one drummer doing all that? Overdubs? Is that a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? Here again, man, you lost me. I don’t know who that is. The rhythm is a typical rhythm. I’m not excited about it. It’s not going to make me say, “Man, what’s this dude doing.” Matter of fact, it’s really just straight up and down. You hear these horns? You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like in the music room, and the teacher walks out of the room, and all the players begin to play.

9. Gerald Wilson, “Jeri” (from In My Time, Mack Avenue, 2005) (Gerald Wilson, composer; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that a West Coast band? It sounds like a West Coast style of arranging and orchestration. Oh, it’s a New York band playing? [Why does it sound like a West Coast band?] First of all, it’s not a Gerald Wilson West Coast sound. No, I don’t think so. But it’s got that West Coast feeling. I don’t think it’s Gerald’s writing. To me, they don’t swing as hard as East Coast ensemble playing. Oh, that’s Gerald? It really didn’t sound like Gerald’s writing to me. Oh, that’s Jon Faddis there. I don’t know who the drummer is. Maybe what I don’t really think is cool is the way the drums were recorded – miked. It’s getting too much of a rickitick type of sound. It didn’t pick up his cymbal playing with the swing of the rhythm section. It would be difficult for me to say… Well, I didn’t think it was Gerald, but once you mentioned it, I heard some things. But the rhythm section didn’t sound like an East Coast rhythm section. I like Lewis Nash’s playing very much. He’s one of the young players that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ll give it 5 stars for the ensemble and all.

10.  Tony Williams, “Crystal Palace” (from Native Heart, Blue Note, 1990) (Williams, drums, composer; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller; Ira Coleman, bass)

When was this recorded? 1990? The drummer is playing his ass off. Rhythm-wise, the pianist is kind of like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Kelly. Is that Philly Joe Jones? It’s the way he’s dancing. Roy Haynes? I’m getting warm. It isn’t Elvin. Elvin is a little more thunderous. This dude is swinging as well as… He’s got nice licks, nice chops. [Does he sound like an original player?] It’s difficult for me to say who is original in this particular style. Because you’ve got half-a-dozen players who play this style. That isn’t Lewis Nash, is it? I don’t know who it is. Tony Williams!? I never even thought about Tony. But like I said, he’s playing his ass off, plus the fact that he’s swinging. My goodness. I dug the shit out of Tony. Matter of fact, he dug me, too. A strange thing. When Tony passed away, I was out of town, and when I came back, picking up my messages, Tony had left a message on my service. 5 stars. In fact, I’ll give Tony 12 stars. Beautiful player.

11.  Don Byron-Jason Moran-Jack DeJohnette, “I’ve Found A New Baby” (from Ivey-Divey, Blue Note, 2004) (Byron, clarinet; Moran, piano; DeJohnette, drums)

Well, for one thing, this turns me off. I just hate to hear a player play 4/4 on the bass drum like that. That means he isn’t really going to be playing any syncopation. Everything is straight up and down on the bass. I don’t know who these guys are. The clarinet player ain’t happening as far as I’m concerned. That was my first instrument. You hear that squeak? Is that “I Found A New Baby”? No stars. What makes you think I don’t like it?! Jack DeJohnette? Oh, shit. I’m surprised that it’s DeJohnette. It didn’t sound like his playing. It didn’t sound like his instrument. He can play his ass off. But it didn’t do anything for me.

12.   Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (from Love Letters, Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone)

I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ll tell you one thing – they’re together. The rhythm section is happening. The piano player is exceptionally good. So are the drummer and the bass player. As a rhythm section, they’re happening. But I couldn’t tell you who they were right now. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but I’d say he’s a contemporary player, a player of the day, who plays everything. 5 stars. That’s Roy? The master. Dynamite. Very good. I’ll give that 14 stars, and give Roy Haynes another car! I love Roy’s playing. As a matter of fact, Prez introduced me to Roy. We met in L.A. My man.

13.  Max Roach, “Sassy Max (Self Portrait)” (from Survivors, Soul Note, 1983) (Max Roach, drums, composer)

That sounds like some I would probably be doing. I don’t think it’s me! I work with my hands and sticks to get the clave feeling, syncopated rhythms like that. That’s all he’s doing, is working with the snare drum with the stick and his hands, and the bass drum, which is cool. [LIGHTNING PASSAGE] I do things like that. Is it Billy Higgins? I have no idea. Is that Max? Max stealing my thing? [LAUGHS] It’s good. Like I said, it sounded like something I would be doing. Hey, man, there’s only one Max. Max was the first musician I met when I came to New York City in 1947 with Lena Horne. Max Roach was the first musician I met here, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was at the Capitol Theater, and one of Max’s friends was Charlie Drayton, the bass player. He came up to see Charlie, and we were in the dressing room, and me and Max started playing on the chairs. We hit it off. Ever since, we’ve been cool. I’m sorry he’s not doing too well now. But he was original. God bless him. 15 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chico Hamilton, DownBeat, Drummer, Obituary, WKCR

R.I.P. Cedar Walton, January 17, 1934-August 19, 2013

News has already spread through our community that we lost Cedar Walton this morning. Fortunately for all of us, he was active almost up until the end. I had several opportunities to interact with Cedar during my years at WKCR, and more than several on late evenings at clubs like Bradley’s, the Vanguard, and Sweet Basil, and had the honor of writing liner notes for two of his recordings and having him to consent to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test a decade or so ago. I’m appending below the notes for Roots, a well-funded late ’90s reworking of some of his older “hits” with an all star band, and a wonderful 2009 solo date for Muse entitled Underground Memoirs. The note for Roots (Astor Place was the label) contains a fair amount of biographical information.

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Roots Liner Notes – Cedar Walton:

In the spirit of his muse, Duke Ellington, Cedar Walton doesn’t delete material.  Author of some of the most memorable tunes in the jazz lexicon, he continually refines, reinvents, recontextualizes, finds unexpected angles that provide fresh perspectives on familiar vistas.  While Composer, his successful Astor Place debut, focused primarily on new work, here the maestro revisits nine choice classics written over a 35-year span, orchestrated for a crackerjack horn section, underpinned by the first-call bassist and drummer in the world, and interpreted by three of the most prominent young improvisers of the day.

Above all else, Walton conjures melodies that stick in the brain.  On Roots, Terence Blanchard’s burnished trumpet sings a pair of them with warmth and grace.  Like Walton a composer of note, and a fellow alumnus of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blanchard comments, “My teachers told me that you can learn arranging, orchestration, how to write for strings, but nobody can show you how to write a melody.  A person with that talent is special.  Cedar’s melodies are very striking, often taking unexpected directions.  He makes difficult chord progressions sound magical.  Art Blakey’s statements always ring true in my mind, and he’d say, ‘Let the punishment fit the crime.’  That means when you play a Cedar Walton tune, the melody establishes a certain kind of vibe or tone that you deal with — they have a character all their own.  That’s what makes his tunes interesting and challenging to play.”

Walton’s voice began to flower during a three year stint with the edition of the Messengers that featured Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Curtis Fuller, the front line that recorded “Fantasy in D” (as “Ugetsu” on Live at Birdland, Riverside, 1963).  “Art demanded that we compose and arrange, and that’s the material he’d use,” the pianist recalls.  “He was a great coordinator, and when he added his final touch, it pushed the tune off the paper, added impetus and drive and presentation.  I always liked to conceive of original melodies; the Messengers allowed me an outlet, a platform, a vehicle to get my pieces played immediately by a group of fantastic players, and my arranging skills developed tremendously.”

Lewis Nash, whose precise tempos and ferociously elegant patterns are a highlight of Roots, listened exhaustively to that Messenger band.  “Cedar’s tunes with the Messengers have the defining characteristics of some of the swingingest and funkiest jazz music,” the drummer comments.  “He found a way to put the soulfulness of a great bluesy solo in his compositions, so you get the feeling that the melody is also something someone could have heard while they were playing their solo.  He’ll use a simple rhythm, repeat it and then slightly alter it so that it’s off by a half-beat or so, creating tension.  You’re allowed a lot of freedom to put in your own two cents, but the melodies and rhythms are so strong that only certain things will really work — which still gives you an infinite variety of choices.”

Nash also marvels at Walton’s cool perspective, the seemingly effortless control he maintains over the full context of every situation.  “He’s the type of musician where you know everything is in good hands,” he remarks. “No matter what’s going on up front, he knows the right thing to play.  It doesn’t seem like he’s trying; he just does it.  He knows how to set up an intro to a tune, to any standard, however many million times it’s been played, and come up with something interesting and a new twist on it.”

Cedar Walton operates intuitively at a level of craft that comes from a life devoted to music with single-minded passion.  Let’s hear the 65-year-old native of Dallas, Texas tell the story of his formative years.

“I began doodling at 6 or 7, mainly because there was a piano in the house.  My mother played from sheet music, and she taught students at our home on a regular basis.  Though she always wanted to be a pianist, she decided to teach school instead of pursuing a serious career.  She and my father were great Jazz fans, and they used to point out to me some of their favorites, who included Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Cab Calloway, all the stars of the day.  We’d hear location broadcasts from various key dance halls around the country by Duke Ellington and Earl Hines — I even heard Art Blakey from Birdland on radio.  In the ’40s there was a weekly show called Piano Playhouse that featured a Classical guy and a studio guy, who would have a Classical and a Jazz guest artist.  People like Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner would be guests, always playing solo, never using accompaniment, and that greatly inspired me.

“I played clarinet and glockenspiel in the marching band at Lincoln High School in Dallas that would play halftime of the football games.  The band director, J.K. Miller, had been in some Jazz orchestras and had played trumpet, so he had experience in the real world of music.  He was quite good, very sociable, and inspired all of us.  I was able to play by ear, and very often Mr. Miller would say, ‘Walton, show them how that goes.’  When the football season wasn’t going on, we used to play stock arrangements of charts by Dizzy Gillespie, Ellington, Basie and a lot of other people.  It was a very good period for learning and experimenting.  On a lot of my early gigs while I was in high school, Fathead Newman was the leader, and we’d jam together after I graduated.  We were Jazz musicians, but we had to play sort of a rhythm-and-blues style, the shuffle rhythm — DONT-CHA, DONT-CHA — so people would dance, but we would also play ballads, and throw in a special arrangement that was purely bebop.

“I listened to a lot of records — there wasn’t much opportunity to hear people live.  We heard the very latest recordings by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, Illinois Jacquet, Art Tatum and Nat King Cole, who was a favorite.  I got most of my influence trying to emulate what I heard, and I consider Art Tatum and Bud Powell my major influences from those years.  Bud’s recordings were among my favorites, especially his comping on records like ‘Little Willie Leaps’ with Charlie Parker playing tenor; I’d been dazzled by Hank Jones in that regard, and Bud gave me another point of view.  Bird also fascinated me, and Ellington blew me away.  Once he played at the State Fair, and he was as close as I am to you.  Ellington left an indelible impression on me with his presence, his personality, his carriage, his style, his orchestrational and conducting ability, general stage manner, devotion to his audience, and last but not least his piano playing.  I always intended to escape the environment of my home town, and in listening to the Ellington, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker records I felt confident that I had a world out there to escape to.

“Even before I went to school, I liked to ‘make up pieces,’ as my mother called it—’Are you making something up again?’  I didn’t need too much encouragement.  I arranged by trial-and-error; I’d write notes down and ask people to play them, and they’d say, ‘Well, this isn’t written right!’  After a short time at Dillard College in New Orleans, where I was in the same class as Ellis Marsalis, I enrolled in the University of Denver, where I majored in Composition.  There we were obliged to play instruments other than our own, which was very helpful later on in scoring for them.  The music department was good, and I enjoyed my studies.  My forte was harmony and theory.  I had to study much harder than some of the pianists who could play very well, but couldn’t figure out the chords.  I more or less shone in the theory class.  I played with a very good bass player named Charles Burrell, who was a member of the Denver Symphony and also had a great jazz sound.  I started playing with a local band at an after-hours place called Lil’s where people from the national bands would go to eat and sometimes sit in after they finished playing, and I met people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Richie Powell, and John Coltrane.”

Walton took the New York plunge in 1955, and began slowly to establish himself on the scene, making rehearsals, sessions and little gigs in all the boroughs.   A highlight was a brief gig in Philadelphia with trumpeter Kenny Dorham — a harmony master and sophisticated composer — who became a lasting friend.  Walton was drafted the next year.  He was posted initially to Fort Dix, where he met Wayne Shorter (then making weekend gigs with Horace Silver), then was stationed in Germany.  He worked his way into the Special Services, where bandmates included artists like Eddie Harris (yes, Walton was on the original “Freedom Jazz Dance”), Don Ellis and Don Menza.  He returned to New York in 1958, worked with Lou Donaldson and Dorham, jammed at sessions led by Babs Gonzalez at Minton’s and Monday nights at Birdland.  Trombonist J.J. Johnson, looking for a pianist to replace the departing Tommy Flanagan, heard the young aspirant at a Birdland session, and hired him to fill the chair.

He spent two revelatory years with Johnson that focused him on the primacy of melody.  “J.J.’s arranging techniques for small band were mind-boggling to me at the time when I was a sideman,” Walton recalls.  “He would play the complete arrangement in a compressed, effective way, like a condensed big band.  His compositions were outstanding and his discipline was unbelievable.  J.J. epitomizes melodic playing, and he’s a great master of improvisation and spontaneous playing as well as a more tempered and structured approach.  He was the last word in instrumentalism.  Listening to him nightly and hearing that kind of excellence was enough to convince me that I should work hard to achieve the same thing myself.”

Roots is the latest document to demonstrate emphatically that Walton attained that goal as composer, arranger and — not least — pianist.  He plays  with typical virtuosity, controlling the full instrument, spinning out long, inventive lines, in perfect synch throughout with Nash and nonpareil bassist Ron Carter, a cohort in every imaginable context since the early ’60s.  His complete, orchestrative trio concept is heavily inflected by “the vigorous richness of Nat Cole and Ahmad Jamal; you can’t get any better in terms of clarity, concept, technique, swing — everything is in there.”

Walton’s compositional process is immutably related to the piano, the voice that links him to the voices deep within.  “Usually I find myself sitting at the piano, and I search for original passages, phrases, melodies, harmonies that I haven’t heard before,” he states.  “A good composition will be interesting, have built-in pleasures for the player interpreting it, crossroads that we anticipate coming up as we proceed on our trip.  As far as form, the tunes only adhere to what comes to me as I’m writing them.  If they happen to be even, so be it, but it’s not deliberate.”

Cedar Walton is a survivor, an individualist with an instantly recognizable sound; he’s produced a remarkable corpus of recordings, all too often under less than optimal circumstances.  Roots is the first time in years he’s had a horn section to articulate his melodies, and he’s pleased with the result.  “It enhances your approach,” he says, “because it’s the utopia of a recording project if somebody asks you to bring all your own tunes, there’s enough budget to hire this kind of personnel, we use Rudy Van Gelder, and I choose who I’d like to produce it.  The ensemble gives the tunes a new wardrobe, so to speak — a new setting.”

One definition of “root” in Webster’s is “To turn over, dig up, discover and bring to light.” A second is “to have an origin or base.”  Both apply to this superb program of music.

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Underground Memoirs (High Note):

One of the most admired jazz composers of the past forty years, Cedar Walton is famous for a book of tunes marked by striking melodies, harmonic logic, bluesy soulfulness, and unpredictable forms. On Underground Memoirs, his fourth solo piano recording, he brings those qualities to 11 jazz standards and one original. For Walton, the tale’s the thing: with seemingly effortless control,  he crafts a fluent narrative arc through the subtle deployment of various keys, voicings and colors. Each tune evokes a personal experience. In short, Walton, 71, is relating a sort of autobiography of his aesthetic journey.

Here Walton works primarily with pieces that he plays frequently at home on his Steinway B. “I’m a person who likes to noodle and find original passages and phrases that I haven’t heard before,” Walton clarifies. “Hopefully, I can come up with versions that I find original to some degree.”

You’ll most often hear Walton in the context of the piano trio, a form of which he is an acknowledged master. Countless pianists have studied his methods—his resourcefulness as an orchestrator, his knack for imparting Waltonian identity to everything he touches while allowing great freedom to his collaborators, who have included such bassists as Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams and such drummers as Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash and Joe Farnsworth. Here, though, Walton himself becomes the orchestra.

“The solo form is different, but totally enjoyable,” says Walton. “Some people play with a very ornate, complicated style, like Art Tatum, who was the ultimate piano soloist. But when I first heard Ellis Larkins’ duo records with Ella Fitzgerald as a young guy in Dallas, Texas, I realized you don’t have to be a wizard like Tatum to play by yourself.”

The aforementioned sides, from the early ‘50s, were part of a Walton musical diet that included Tatum and Bud Powell, as well as Nat Cole, Erroll Garner, and Ahmad Jamal. But Walton’s references here are not purely pianistic.

For example, Miles Davis inspired Walton to perform three of the tunes contained herein. “I still find delight in the way that piece was constructed,” he says, referring to Milestones, which opens the program. John Lewis wrote it for Miles’ inaugural leader session in 1947, and Miles subsequently appropriated composer credit.

“Miles had such a distinctive a way of arranging things,” Walton explains. “Look what he did with George Shearing’s “Conception.” Amazing insight. And I was mesmerized by “Venus De Milo,” which Gerry Mulligan wrote. In that period, Miles was delightfully consumed by harmony and how to modernize the materials he dealt with.”

As for “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Walton notes, “I wanted to have a 3/4 outing. It’s a monumental recording by Miles, and I was curious to see what I’d do with it in a solo situation. It’s not one I frequently tinker with at home. I’ve found myself playing it when people call tunes and say, ‘What should we play the next set?’

“I rarely play “Green Dolphin Street” solo either, but again, Miles enters the picture. One night around 1958 he took me, Lee Morgan, Spanky DeBrest, and Tootie Heath to his flat on Tenth Avenue, told us he wanted us to hear something, and played us an acetate of it. He had a great large apartment with lots of paintings, and one of those polar bear rugs with the mouth open. I dared go over to the piano, which was a long Steinway, to try to emulate the recording, and he rushed over and put his arms around my head and kind of brushed my fingers back. I wasn’t anywhere close to what Bill Evans was doing, but that’s how stupid I was at that time of night.”

“Lost April” first appeared in 1948, on the flip-side of Nat Cole’s hit, “Nature Boy.” Cole reprised it in 1961 on Nat Cole Sings, George Shearing Plays. “It’s one of my all-time favorite songs,” says Walton, who recorded it as a sideman for Milt Jackson on Olinga in 1974.

“I used to play ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ quite often with Bags and Ray Brown as well,” he continues. “Here I went with their changes. I met Bags when I was in the Army, based in Germany, and the MJQ came through. I had a friend with a car, and we invited him to a club where people like Albert Mangelsdorff hung out. He heard me play, and we were friends from then on. We were very compatible, and had a mutual exchange of ideas. Ray Brown needed a little more grease from a piano player, but Milt always stood up for me.”

Walton got to play Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” in duo with the composer on a mid-‘80s tour. “I always liked the piece,” he says. “Once in Torino, we got this monumental piano, a 9-foot Steinway-D. That night there was considerable applause after my solo, and when he was supposed to come back in, before he put his horn up to his mouth, he said, so only I could hear it, ‘You didn’t have to play that much s___, m__f___!’ I’ll always be grateful for that compliment.”

The pianist recently decided to revisit Billy Eckstine’s “I Want To Talk About You” after hearing it on a compilation CD of the iconic baritone. “I was initially attracted to Coltrane’s version,” says Walton, who spent consequential rehearsal time with Coltrane in 1959, a year after the tenorist recorded it for Prestige. “The way the song comes out of the bridge is totally original. Some of it is simple, like a pop song, but some is very sophisticated and takes analyzing.

“I was always a big fan of Billy Eckstine. When I went to college, the gentleman in the dorm room next to me had endless 78s of his that he played all day and night on one of those little machines. Later, Art Blakey took me to Basin Street East one night and introduced me to Mr. B. His generation didn’t put on their trousers and suit coat until a second before they went out on stage, so there’d be no wrinkle. I noticed that when I was in his dressing room, and I also saw the rapport he and Art had. He seemed genuinely glad to see Art, and Art was kind of shy in his presence—if you can imagine Art being shy.”

Not long after Duke Ellington’s death, Walton responded with a memorial composition entitled “The Maestro.” Here he pays respects with a personal, highly ornamented version of “Sophisticated Lady.” “I play this a lot by myself, and I also like to do it in duo with a bass player,” he says. “Ellington was like a role model, or someone to pattern yourself after. I saw him in auditoriums in Dallas, and once at a state fair where he was right on the ground—you could almost reach out and touch the players.”

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” Walton states, “is one of my favorite solo pieces. When I arrive at a hall and it’s time for soundcheck, I usually find myself playing it to test the piano. I usually play just the first part that appears on this record, but I found it very entertaining to elongate it for this occasion.”

On this tune, as throughout the proceedings, Walton takes great liberties, but never loses sight of essences. He sustains continuity, parsing, refining, reinventing, recontextualizing, playing no excess notes, imparting an aura of inevitability to the flow.

“When I first got to New York,” he recalls, hearkening back to the middle ‘50s,  “I’d see all these great artists and how they performed and worked. I thought, ‘Well, they didn’t teach that in school.’ Not the school I went to. This was the total professional world, and I was glad to be a witness to it.”

Whether so intended or not, Walton’s words are self-descriptive. On this reflective album, itself an underground memoir, he sublimates abundant technique and theoretical acumen to storytelling imperatives. In doing so, he teaches an invaluable lesson—which they don’t teach in school—about what it means to live your music.

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Cedar Walton Blindfold Test:

1. Art Tatum, “Just A Sittin’ And a Rockin’“, The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1953 (5 stars).

That’s either Art Tatum or one of the best imitators I’ve ever heard of him.  Incredible.  For some reason, during the first part of the piece… I haven’t listened to Tatum in a while, so I was wondering whether it couldn’t be possibly somebody playing in his style.  But as the song continued, it almost has to be him.  “Sittin’ and a Rockin’,” I think is the name of it.  I’ve heard this.  You know, I used to listen to Tatum practically every day.  So I must admit I sort of had forgotten how delicious he is.  It makes you want to play it.  And according to my piano, he’s in E-natural, which is a further challenge.  [TP:  He reharmonized it?] No, he just put it in a key that’s somewhat advanced. [LAUGHS] If my piano is in tune.  [TP: You have to give each one of these a star rating.]  Oh, I do?  Well, for it being Tatum, 5 stars.  If it’s an imitator… [TP: You knew it’s Tatum.] Sure.  But guys like Markowitz and the late Jaki Byard could fool you for a while.  So if it’s Tatum I’d give it 5. [TP:  If it wasn’t Tatum, what would you give them?] Oh, man I’d give them a 7!  Jesus Christ!  To come that close and not be him.

2. Stanley Cowell, “Evidence,” Sienna (Steeplechase, 1989)  (Ron McClure, bass; Keith Copeland, drums) (4 stars).

I was so fascinated by the drums and bass.  The piano sounded like someone who decided to give a lovingly mocking version of Monk’s “Evidence.” But I could be wrong. [LAUGHS] The drums were playing a Ben Riley style.  It didn’t sound like Buster.  I kept thinking of George Mraz.  The pianist is someone I don’t hear to often.  An educated guess would give me a combination of the gentleman who used to be with Strata East, Stanley Cowell. [TP: That’s him.] That’s an educated guess, because I’m so close to the producer, Todd Barkan, who told me he had done something with Stanley.  So I am guilty of being educated on that one.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was just delightful.  The only reason it wasn’t 5 is because…well, I just gave Tatum 5!  But 4 is pretty good, too.  It was an excellent rendition, and it was so swinging, I didn’t want it to stop.  I hope all of these aren’t that good!

3. Chucho Valdes, “El Rumbon (The Party)”, Religion of The Congo (Blue Note, 1999).

I don’t know exactly who this is, but again, an educated guess, Chucho Valdes has been very popular here lately.  From what I’ve heard, he wanted to utilize the percussion in that manner, almost as if, in some instances, he was playing one tempo and they were playing another.  Which didn’t disturb me; I found it intriguing!  Of course, I can relate to somebody playing the piano with different rhythms going on at the same time.  It made me feel immediately the challenge of how to straighten it out, more or less!  Who knows, maybe that’s something that doesn’t need straightening out.  So that just goes to hopefully highlight one culture as compared with another.  If it is Chucho, it’s Cuban jazz… [TP: It is Chucho.] So from what I’ve heard of him, he’s a strong player, and that sounded like a strong player.  Based on that, I would give it 4.

4. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul,” (With Our Own Eyes, RCA, 1993).

A wonderful rendition of “Body and Soul” by a pianist who is obviously very well experienced in playing, and has just a totally what I call a full style — his or her chords are very full, utilizing some of the Coltrane approach to the song.  I don’t know who it is.  My first guess would be McCoy Tyner, but then some of the other aspects of the chordal approach suggested that it was not him, unless it was on a day when he felt like being subdued.  Then for some reason, Geri Allen came to mind… [TP: It was Mulgrew Miller.] Ah, Mulgrew!  Well, he does fit some of the first descriptions of the player, very full and experienced style.  I would give it 4 stars.

5. Bud Powell, “My Heart Stood Still” (The Bud Powell Trio Plays, Roost, 1953/1990)

That was somewhat difficult.  Of course, Bud Powell immediately comes to mind, somehow who I listened to over and over in my youth.  Then Barry Harris came along, and sometimes he’s fooled me and I thought he was Bud Powell.  Then, of course, the late Walter Davis, Jr., was even a more effective imitator of Bud when he was in the mood.  So I would have to go with Bud Powell in one of my big favorite songs, “My Heart Stood Still.”  However, if it wasn’t Bud, it might have been the other two.  I have to give it 5.  It was startlingly modern.  But I felt some of the recording equipment or technique was a little older than today’s, and that kind of gave me a clue.

6. Hank Jones/Chieck Tidiane Seck, “Hank Miri” (Sarala, Verve, 1995).

An educated guess, Monty Alexander.  But it’s not him, because it wasn’t quite Calypso-ish enough.  I couldn’t tell whether the same guy played on acoustic piano as the organ. [TP: They’re different.] It’s two different people.  So I’m afraid you got me on that one. [TP: It’s Hank Jones.] Who is the organ player? [TP: Chieck Tidiana Seck, a Malian musician who wrote the music, and it’s a Malian ensemble.] Ted, I just wonder if anybody in this modern world could have guessed that!  I enjoyed it, but I need to hear more of it.  Now that I know who it is, I can hone in and see what they’re doing.  In Mali, I don’t know that music. [TP: What did you think of the way Hank Jones sounded?] Oh, he sounded great.  I’d know him, I think.  He sounds like the way I’ve studied and tried to learn how to play.  But the other people I did not know, and perhaps that’s normal. [TP: Well, one reason I like this record is because he makes himself part of the ensemble.  It’s not like he’s playing above it.] Oh, no. [TP: He did what a lot of American musicians won’t do, which is…] Just join in. [TP: You join in, and he’s still himself, which is why I like it.] Right.  For that reason I like it to.  Star-wise, I can’t give it but 3½, though, because I’m uneducated in that area.

7. Harold Mabern, “APAB and Others” (Straight Street, DIW, 1991).

A very fine solo performance by an artist I do not exactly know.  Many artists came to mind.  McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, even John Hicks.  But I do not know who it was.  I enjoyed the composition.  For that reason, I would give it 3 stars for the composition.  I don’t know who it is. [TP: Can you give it stars without knowing who it is for the performance?] Well, I’d give it 3½. [TP: It’s Harold Mabern.] Aha!  Is it an original composition. [TP: It’s “APAB,” which I think is Ahmad, Phineas, Art and Bud.] Oh yeah, good.  Well, in that case he had a good composition going.  I love Harold.  He’s a dear friend and a very old acquaintances — probably 35 years. [TP: He took your place in the Jazztet.] He might have.  I haven’t heard him solo nearly as much as I would have liked to, and that’s why I may have missed it.

8. Ellington-Ray Brown, “Sophisticated Lady” (This One’s For Blanton, Pablo, 1972/1994).

There was a CD released recently called Some Of My Best Friends Are Piano Players.  So I suspect it might be Ray Brown and one of the pianists that he selected, but I don’t know exactly who the pianist was.  I would have to guess.  “Sophisticated Lady,” of course, has always been a classic, a big favorite of mine.  I like the song, I like Ray’s rendition.  He’s an impeccable soloist, I’d say the leading bass soloist in popular music.  Do I need to guess who the piano player is, too?  [TP: Yes.  You have to give it stars, too.] Stars I can give it.  I would give it 4 for Ray, 4 for “Sophisticated Lady.”  So 4 in all.  All around, 4.  But I do not know who the piano player was. [TP: Did you like the piano player?] Well, yes, but I’m annoyed because I don’t know who it is. [TP: It’s Duke.] Ah, Duke Ellington.  Oh, okay.  So it was not what I said it was, Some Of My Best Friends Are Piano Players.  There was a run in there that was so distinctly Duke, I said, “Wow, that’s a guy who must have studied Duke pretty well.”  So there you are.  It was somebody who had studied Duke pretty well!  So forgive me, Duke.

9. Kenny Barron, “Have You Met Miss Jones” (Lemuria-Seascape, Candid, 1991) (Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

It was a very crisp performance.  I can give it 4 stars for that alone.  Great song, “Have You Met Miss Jones.”  The pianist could be Kenny Barron, it could be Chick Corea; it could be Ben Riley, it could be Roy Haynes.  It sounded mostly to me like Kenny Barron or Chick Corea.  I feel like I’m probably wrong, but I’ll still give it 4 stars. [TP: No, you’re right.  It’s Kenny Barron, with Bulldog and Ben Riley.] It’s just excellent.  Par excellence.

10. Randy Weston, “Uncle Neemo” (Saga, Verve, 1995).

A delightful performance of probably an original piece, unless it’s a highly disguised version of a non-original piece.  I seem to have recognized Billy Higgins’ drum work, but if it was not, it was certainly one of his students, so to speak.  It reminded me of Randy Weston.  I couldn’t identify the bass player, even though he was humming while he was soloing, which should give him away, but I don’t remember anybody but Jimmy Garrison used to do that that emphatically.  But for the performance, I’d have to give it 4. [TP: It was Randy Weston, Alex Blake and Billy.] So I was close. [TP: You were on it.]  Was it one of Randy’s pieces?  It featured Billy a lot.  It was great.  4 stars.  Randy is still one of my favorite players.  He has a completely original style.  Loosely based on Monk at the beginning, but of course now he’s far away from those beginnings and he sounds like nobody but Randy.

11. David Hazeltine, “Waltz For Debby” (Waltz For Debby, Venus, 1999).

My guess is Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack deJohnette.   I’m dead-wrong, but I still enjoyed the performance.  It was a marvelous performance, even though it reminded me of those artists.  I would give it 4 stars for the performance.  I love “Waltz For Debby” by Bill Evans. [TP: It was David Hazeltine] I thought of him.

12. Ahmad Jamal & George Coleman, “The Essence” (The Essence, Verve, 1994).

[TP: First of all, Cedar said a minute into it: “Aha [LAUGHING], Ahmad Jamal and George Coleman.”  You’d heard about the record, then you inquired whether Ahmad would be comping or supporting.] Ahmad has a way of involving himself in the performance that is totally unique, I think.  It’s a very interesting record. Even though I’m not used to hearing Ahmad with the saxophone.  I thought especially the first part was very dramatic musically, and later on, too, some of the ways he dealt with sort of simple motifs that sounded like a minor motif. [TP: How has Ahmad Jamal’s style changed from when you were listening to him in the ’50s?] Well, it hasn’t changed that much.  It’s improved, if anything.  His technique is phenomenal now, but it was phenomenal then.  You know, “Poinciana” and “But Not For Me” displayed phenomenal technique, even though he had a lot more space which produced a lot of drama, I thought, and he relied heavily on his sidemen, Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, to create moods which captivated the country.   I’d have to give it 4 stars.

13. Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones, “It,” Momentum Space (Verve, 1998) 1947/1990)

[TP: Cedar said, “that didn’t have to be Cecil Taylor, but that would be who I thought it is.”] Yes.  And as far as the drummer, I couldn’t seem to figure him out.  I thought of Steve McCall and I thought of Andrew Cyrille. [TP: It was Elvin.] Elvin, I thought of him, too.  It was almost an accompaniment; there was very little of …(?)… I think I was able to guess some of the previous drummers with their accompaniment, but not in this case.  Anyway, Cecil has his own style, and I have a certain admiration for him for maintaining that style through the years.  He and I used to practice at Dave Amram’s house.  We both had keys, and Amram would go out of town, and sometimes I’d go there and discover him there, and vice-versa.  So we got to know each other.  I was working on my Bud Powell, he was working on his Cecil Taylor.  When I say “working,” that’s what I would hear him playing.  That’s how we became friends.  I still consider us friends.  We went in different musical directions.  But otherwise Cecil has had great success, and I say, for one, more power to him.  I’ll stick with 4 stars.  Cecil sounds like that, he plays like that; I wouldn’t know how to give him less or more.

14. Xavier Davis, “Old Folks” (Dance of Life, Metropolitan, 1998).

A very tasty rendition of a very old favorite, “Old Folks.”  The style contained many elements of a lot of people’s styles.  I’m guessing Tommy Flanagan.  I’m wrong.  I thought that might be wrong, because he did some things that Tommy doesn’t usually do.  So my next guess would be Barry Harris — and that’s wrong.  So I’ll have to go with I don’t know who it is, but for the rendition I’ll give it 3½. [TP: This is a young pianist, Xavier Davis.] Aha, good.  Well, bravo, Xavier.  You did a good job, and if you’re young and took an old chestnut like that and did so much with it, I think you have a very bright future.

_________________________________________________________________

I think it was a very representative collection of great pianists, and I found it very enjoyable trying to guess. I got a few right, and I knew I would get a few wrong.  The overall quality of that collection was of a very high level — first-rate.  I just think that if this level is maintained in this particular concept, if you will, which I consider Tradition, if that’s maintained, we of the Tradition community have nothing to worry about.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cedar Walton, DownBeat, Liner Notes, Obituary, Piano

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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Filed under DownBeat, Interview, Mulgrew Miller, Obituary, Piano, WKCR

Jackie McLean: b. May 17, 1931-d. March 31, 2006

In observance of the 81st birth anniversary of Jackie McLean, I’m posting the obituary I wrote for DownBeat after his death in 2006. He was one of my musical idols; in fact, he was the first jazz musician I ever heard in person, when he played a concert at my high school in the spring, I believe, of 1969, when I was 14. I think Larry Willis was on piano and Larry Ridley on bass—can’t remember who was playing drums. His sound to me was the sound of New York City. One of my great thrills  during my years at WKCR was the chance to collaborate with him on a Musician Show and a Sunday Jazz Profile — one of my to-dos over the next year or two is to dig out those cassettes and transcribe the proceedings.

Jackie McLean Obituary:

Alto saxophonist and educator John Lenwood “Jackie” McLean, whose searing tone, exuberant phrasing, questing attitude, and nurturing spirit inspired musicians and fans throughout a career spanning more than half a century, died on March 31st at his home in Hartford, Connecticut. He was 74.

More than a thousand people attended the April 7th funeral services at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where McLean had played saxophone in the choir as a teenager.

The best chronicle of McLean’s formative years appears in A.B. Spellman’s Four Jazz Lives (University of Michigan). McLean also endorsed David Rosenthal’s Hard Bop (Oxford) as an insightful source.

Born May 17, 1931, McLean, raised in Harlem, heard jazz from the cradle. His father, John McLean, played guitar with swing bands led by Tiny Bradshaw and Teddy Hill, and his stepfather, Jimmy Briggs, owned a jazz-oriented record store. Briggs bought his jazz-obsessed stepson an alto saxophone in 1946. By then, bebop was efflorescent, and McLean, an early devotee of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon, was a fast learner, as were such running buddies as Sonny Rollins, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew. In 1948,  pianist Richie Powell introduced McLean to his older brother, Bud. Already au courant with Parker’s Dial and Savoy recordings, McLean began taking weekly lessons from the master.

By 1949, McLean was sitting in with Charlie Parker and doing uptown gigs with Thelonious Monk. In 1951, Miles Davis, a friend for several years, hired him for the first bebop LP session, which included McLean’s “Dig,” a “Sweet Georgia Brown” variant that became an inner city jukebox staple. As the ‘50s progressed, McLean continued to play in the Parker style, recorded the enduring originals “Minor March” and “Dr. Jackle” on a 1955 Prestige date by Miles, served several stints with Charles Mingus (his sound is key to the Mingus Atlantic classics Pithecanthropus Erectus and Blues and Roots), and recorded five albums with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Under contract to Prestige in 1956 and 1957, he led 8 dates, and sidemanned extensively with Gene Ammons, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd and Mal Waldron.

Like many from his generation, McLean became addicted to heroin in his teens, and he remained embroiled for much of the next two decades. He often put his horn in pawn to cop, and found it difficult to practice systematically. When not gigging with Mingus and Blakey, he worked on New York’s thriving inter-borough circuit. McLean himself would disparage his own accomplishments during this period, stating on the liner notes to Destination Out, a 1963 Blue Note date, “I was very uninspired as far as playing was concerned…[I] was content to play the same things over and over again.” That being said, he struck a chord with an emerging generation of young musicians.

“The kids I grew up with in Harlem who were into jazz, all we did was listen to those records by Jackie and Arthur Taylor,” says Charles Tolliver, who would play with and compose for McLean from 1964 to 1966. “Those were our favorite people. We ate and slept that stuff.”

“Dig was one of the most popular albums among all jazz musicians,” says trombonist Grachan Moncur. “Jackie’s sound magnified what Bird was doing, like Bird in 3D. Bird played it so quickly, and you had to be more of a seasoned musician to hear what he was doing. Jackie had a very basic, bright sound that pulled you into him. He brought me closer to hearing what Bird was doing, and I could translate it to my horn.”

In 1959, McLean joined the cast of The Connection, signed with Blue Note, and embarked on a succession of recordings that began in bebop (Swing, Swang, Swingin’ and Appointment in Ghana, the latter, in Tolliver’s words, “was the culmination of II-V-I playing, before the advent of Trane and free jazz”) and moved inexorably to modality and open-ended forms (One Step Beyond, Right Now!). Until his contract expired in 1968, he would continue to explore “the big room” with such young searchers as Moncur, Tolliver, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Jack DeJohnette, and his dear friend Billy Higgins.

More than influencing the next generation’s vocabulary, McLean showed them pragmatic ways to find their path, to project a stance, an attitude, a personality through their instrument.

“He was always searching to break the Charlie Parker mold,” says Tolliver. “He would pop one of those patented Charlie Parker riffs in between things, just to remind you, ‘Hey, we’re experimenting, but not that much.’ He was able to mix things up, not turn his back on the so-called new thing, and totally control it with the REAL deal.”

“I always trusted him,” said Gary Bartz, who met McLean around 1958 on a Brooklyn session. “If he said, ‘I’m really looking into this new stuff,’ I wanted to look into it, too. What drew me to him is that he had a tenor attitude. Miles said to me once, ‘Why did you all you alto players play so sharp?’ and he was talking about Jackie. That’s how I hear and that’s how he heard.”

In 1970, McLean moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and began the second act of his career. He and his wife Dollie McLean founded the Artists Collective, a thriving Hartford interdisciplinary cultural arts center that has educated thousands of Hartford youngsters. That year, McLean also became a teaching associate at Hartt School of Music; ten years later, he founded the Department of African-American Music and subsequently established jazz studies as a degree program.

Educational obligations trumped performance, and McLean recorded sporadically, waxing several dates for Steeplechase in the early ‘70s, and one-offs with Hank Jones, McCoy Tyner  and Mal Waldron. He worked periodically with his son Rene McLean, who had studied saxophone by his father’s side since the ‘50s, and played third sets for him at Slugs during the ‘60s. In 1988, McLean gave up administrative duties at Hartt for a teaching position, went in the woodshed, and formed a group with his son and South African pianist Hotep Galeta, who brought African, Islamic, and Asian elements into the repertoire, as documented on the Triloka albums Rites of Passage and Dynasty. In the ‘90s, he played at exalted levels with crackling ensembles comprising his son and stellar Hartt alumni like trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Alan Jay Palmer, and drummer Eric McPherson, as documented on Rhythm of the Earth [Verve] and Fire and Love [Blue Note]. As had been his custom since the ‘60s, McLean performed the compositions of his sideman and infused them with his aura.

“Jackie always said, ‘Whatever you’re playing, it’s got to be in rhythm,’” recalls Jimmy Greene, who studied with McLean both at the Artists Collective and Hartt. “Grooves were prevalent on every tune. Through the ‘90s, he developed systems based on fourths or whole tones that he would juxtapose over the chord changes. But what I’ll remember most about his playing is that however fiery, intense, or harmonically adventurous, it’s got to be lyrical. So many of his solos are so singable.”

As Rene McLean notes, his father is one of the few jazz musicians who left behind a tangible institutional structure. But Jackie McLean also leaves an indelible aesthetic, summed up by Steve Davis, who relates: “Once in the dressing room before the set, Jackie said, ‘Above all else, the one thing I never, EVER want to do is play something corny. I’m so terrified of playing something corny, that on the day I have a concert, I don’t EAT corn.’”

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Filed under Jackie McLean, Obituary

R.I.P. Paul Motian, 1931-2011

When I launched this blog last May, I was looking for apropos material to post. As it happened, Paul Motian was at the Village Vanguard that week (it was one of his eight scheduled 2011 engagements) helming a  newly-configured quartet with vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and I decided to share the unedited proceedings of a Blindfold  Test we’d done in 1999.

I last saw Paul towards the end of September, when he was at the Vanguard in a marvelous unit with Greg Osby and Masabumi Kikuchi. He played with characteristic focus and creative energy, and was looking good. But when I spoke with Paul after the set, he told me that he’d been feeling poorly, that his energy was low, and that it had been difficult for him to make it through the week. So when I went onto Facebook yesterday and saw numerous posts from several dozen of the world’s most prominent improvisers, drummers and otherwise,  stating their sorrow about his passing (the cause of death was myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone-marrow disorder) and expressing their heartfelt feelings about his brilliance, it wasn’t entirely a surprise. But I’m deeply saddened.

Still, all in all, it seems like Paul Motian split on his own terms — a life in which illness precluded him from playing music may not have seemed to him like a life worth living. Furthermore, by expanding his circle over the last decade on one-offs with such luminaries in his peer group as Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Chick Corea, and a good chunk of the best and brightest of younger generations from several continents, he ensured that his spirit would continue to inform the music timeline after his body had left us.

I got to know Paul during the early ’90s when he joined me on WKCR to publicize a gig by the Electric Bebop Band at Sweet Basil in Manhattan. As the decade progressed, more radio meetings ensued, and we learned how to speak with each other.  Our last public conversation was in 2008—I’m posting the proceedings below (it appeared on http://www.jazz.com in 2009). There will follow a DownBeat feature article that I wrote about him during the week of 9/11/2001 to mark the release of the first album of his second run on ECM.

* * *

Paul Motian (WKCR, Sept. 4, 2008): (Jazz.com)

“I think rehearsing takes away from the beauty of the music,” says Paul Motian. “I’ve been playing long enough to know what I’m doing at this point of my life! I’d rather depend on my skills and intuition to play well when the time comes.”

At 77, Motian is an iconic figure, his laid-back, minimalist parsing of rhythm and timbre a fixture on the jazz landscape..

“Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in his sound,” Brian Blade observed earlier this decade. “A lot of people miss how Motian moves the music and gets inside it. He possesses an amazing lyrical looseness, but at the same time keeps a swing and pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.”

That feeling seduced a number of drummers who, like Joey Baron, came of age aesthetically in the early ‘70s, when Motian propelled Keith Jarrett’s influential trio and quartet,  more than a decade after he attained international visibility playing drums for several editions of the Bill Evans Trio between 1956 to 1963.  “At a certain point,” Baron once remarked, “I started hearing interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time, but a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove. It’s the way Paul Motian would really PLAY a ballad; he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did.”

Motian’s contemporaries feel similar enthusiasm for Motian’s clear, pellucid beats and unremittingly in-the-moment focus. “Paul always played like someone who listens and interprets what he hears immediately,” noted Lee Konitz, who first shared a bandstand with Motian more than half a century ago. “He’s an idea man as opposed to a language man,” added pianist Paul Bley, who helped Motian transition into a speculative improviser during the early ‘60s. “I hear him play one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea. It’s way beyond accompaniment per se. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.”

That quality of musical conversation permeates all of the bands that Motian leads. There’s the increasingly dense and complex Electric Bebop Band, comprised of two saxophonists (they’ve  included Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Chris Cheek, and Pietro Tonolo), two guitarists (among them Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, and Brad Shepik), an electric bassist (often Steve Swallow, and also Anders Christensen). Initially a vehicle for off-kilter blowing on core bebop repertoire by Parker, Dameron, Powell, and Monk, Motian now uses it to showcase increasingly involved arrangements of his original material.

There’s also Trio 2000, in which bassist Larry Grenadier triangulates Motian and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, a master of rubato improvising at achingly slow tempos, in a dialogue with saxophonist Potter on the 1998 recording Trio 2000 + 1 or, as on the 2007 album Trio 2000 + 2: Live at the Village Vanguard, with Potter and alto saxophonist Greg Osby, both Winter & Winter releases.

No Motian project has more deeply impacted the sound of 21st century jazz than the Paul Motian Trio, a super-group with guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who were just beginning to make their mark when they recorded It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago [ECM], the PM3 debut, in 1984. Motian no longer travels, and for the last five years or so, the trio has convened only for an annual fortnight run around Labor Day at New York’s Village Vanguard. Without soundcheck, completely in tune from the first note of this year’s run, they spun out collective improvisations of the highest order.

“Every time Paul hits the drums, he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else,” Frisell said. “We’ve been playing 25 years, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Nor does Motian. “Red Garland once told me that if you have an idea in your head, somehow it will come out on your instrument,” he told me in 2001. “That’s what I do. My eyes are closed, I play what I’m hearing, I play musical ideas, and when they come out, I find myself doing technical things on the drumset that I’ve never done before in my life. Sometimes it might be awkward; maybe if I studied what I was thinking about, I would figure out technically the best and easiest way to do it, and do it differently.”

On night three of the Trio’s Vanguard engagement, Motian joined me at New York’s WKCR to speak about its history, its two most recent recordings (I Have The Room Above Her and Time and Time Again [ECM]), and many other things.

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PM:   We did the new trio recording, plus our trio recording about two years before that, in one afternoon, five or six hours. I go in with new music, and Joe and Bill are great—they can read the stuff right away, and we make little changes now and then.

TP:    Your custom over the last decade or so, since everyone’s schedule got even busier, is to get together after a long hiatus, and just hit, even with the barest soundcheck.

PAUL:   We’ve been playing together for such a long time. Now we do two weeks every year at the Vanguard, around this time in September. I don’t think we do anything in between. We don’t rehearse. I came in with a new tune last night, “Olivia’s Dream,” that Joe had never seen before. I put up the music and he played great.

TP:   How did you assemble the group?

PAUL:   I had a gig  in Boston, and Pat Metheny was playing with me. I said, “I’m putting together a group; can you recommend some guitarists?” He told me about Bill—he mentioned another guitar player (I can’t remember his name now), but he said he thought I would like Bill. Bill came over to my apartment, and we played, and we got along great. That was in 1980, I guess. So I started with Bill, and then I think Marty Ehrlich came in, and we rehearsed as a trio for a while. Then Marc Johnson, the bass player, came by, and we rehearsed with him for a while, and then Marc recommended Joe—or maybe it was Ed Schuller. Then Joe recommended Billy Drewes. Anyway, that quintet came together in ‘81 or so, and the trio thing happened three years later.

TP:   Was it a matter of strategy or circumstance?

PAUL:   It just happened. We were playing a gig with the quintet, and at one point during one of the songs, the bass laid out, and it was just Joe and Bill and I playing, and right then, that’s what I heard. I said, “Gee, I could get away with this, guys.” Economically it made sense, plus the music was really happening. So I stayed with that.

TP:   You’ve worked with many powerful bass players. The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock and Chuck Israels. David Izenson in your own trio. Charlie Haden in the Keith Jarrett Trio and Quartet. In Oscar Pettiford’s bands in the late ‘50s. More recently in Bill Frisell’s trio with Ron Carter. Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?

PAUL:   That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. Now, it’s got to make sense to me, and it’s got to be musical. With the bass, sometimes I can almost do the same thing, but of course, the bass makes a big difference.

TP:   The Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano toured extensively in the ‘80s and into the mid ‘90s.

PAUL:   I got burned out. That’s why I don’t tour any more. It just got ridiculous.

TP:    Not just with them, though. You developed a number of groups by the end of the ‘90s.

PAUL:   Yeah, plus I was playing with other bands, other people. People would call me from Europe, and I’d go to Europe or Japan, and play with people there. It’s ridiculous.  Now it’s worse than ever, I understand, from when I talk to people now.

TP:   It’s been said that you don’t like to leave the environs of New York City, and would probably prefer not to leave Manhattan Island, if possible…

PAUL:   Well, no…

TP:   Not entirely true.

PAUL:   I mean, sometimes I’ll see a film of maybe a small town in Paris that looks really great, and I remember having a good time there, and I miss that. I played all over Italy, and I miss friends and people, and great food sometimes. Not all the time! Sometimes. But I love New York. I’ve been here forever.

TP:    But you haven’t been wanting to travel so much for the last couple of years.

PAUL:   No. It’s a hardship, man. Plus, I don’t take my drums, so I’m playing a different drumset every night, playing in a different hall every night. You don’t know what you’re going to come up with. Plus, they gave me a hard time on the airlines. When I was playing with Keith Jarrett and we toured, I would take my own drums. When I started with my own trio, with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, I would take my drums. But after a while, it got harder and harder, and they charged more and more money. People used to take basses on the plane for free! Put it on a seat and strap it in. Free, man. Now you can’t even take a bass on a plane. Then I would just take my cymbals. Then they started giving me a hard time with my cymbal. “What’s that, mister? You can’t take that on the plane.” Blah-blah-blah. So I said goodbye.

TP:   Is it important for you to play with your own drums?

PAUL:   Sure. Yeah.

TP:   Did you ever feel happy with how you played not on your own drums?

PAUL:   Very seldom. Occasionally, I would come across a good drumset.

TP:    Would the difference in quality not be discernible to anyone but you and other drummers?

PAUL:   I feel that it would be. People have told me that I still sound like me, and I’m able to play like me and sound like me no matter what the drums are. But I don’t agree!

TP:   What do you use?

PAUL:   It’s a Gretsch drumset that I bought in a drum shop here in New York about 30 years ago. I love the sound of those drums and I love to play those. I’ve been playing the cymbals that I use for quite a few years now. They’re a mish-mash of different companies. I gave my old drumset to Joe Lovano.

TP:   Tell me about playing with Thelonious Monk.

PAUL:   I played with him a couple of times—a week in Boston, and earlier at the Open Door at Lafayette and Third Street. Lou Donaldson came to the Vanguard the other day, and we were talking about that, because Lou was in Monk’s band—with Donald Byrd and I don’t remember the bass player—the first time I played with Monk. I knew Monk was playing at the Open Door with his band, and I went to hear the music. The promoter, Bob Reisner, knew I played drums—he had seen me around town. When I arrived, he said, “Paul, Arthur Taylor hasn’t showed up; if you go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk.” Man, I ran home, got my drums, and came back. Monk paid me ten dollars at the end of the night. When I told Lou Donaldson that story, he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s all he paid anybody.” Donald Byrd once told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk on that date. I’d love to see it. That had to be 1955 or 1956. Then in 1960 I played for a week with Monk in Boston with Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse.

Monk said that he liked one take, and Charlie Rouse also talked about it. If there was anything more than, say, a take-two, they would just move on, go on to the next thing. Once you’re into the second take, it’s like a copy somehow. It doesn’t sound real enough. You’re trying to correct something, man. I remember doing record dates, not my own, like just somebody called me to do a recording, and talking about take 15 and 16. That’s ridiculous.

TP:   On one of the Bill Evans Trio dates, Portrait In Jazz maybe, from 1959, you’d done a month at a club called the Showplace, finished the run on a Sunday, then went in the studio to do the session.

PAUL:   That was a club on Third Street. That’s the first record we did with Scott LaFaro.

TP:   But fifty years ago, long runs were more commonplace.

PAUL:   Oh, yeah. There was a club on 52nd Street called the Hickory House. I played in there for three months with Bill Evans, and for three months again with Joe Castro, a piano player. I remember playing 10 weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. One or two weeks or more at the original Birdland. That’s the way it was, then.

It slowed up for jazz around the mid ‘60s. I don’t think I played with Bill Evans after 1964 or so, then I started with Keith Jarrett around 1968. Those couple of years in there, I was doing commercial gigs. I played at a nightclub on 72nd Street with acts coming from Israel. I played with a Hungarian violinist and a Romanian piano player. Great shows!

TP:   Was that a valuable time for you? Did it affect the way you heard music?

PAUL:    It paid my rent. That was it.

TP:   But between ‘63 and ‘68, your personal aesthetic seems to have changed in certain ways. You played with much more radical players.

PAUL:   True. There was a wonderful piano player in Boston named Lowell Davidson, who isn’t around any more. He was very original, and played great. I used to go up to Boston just to play with this guy. There were different bass players. We did a concert of his music at a church I think in 1976, and the bass player was a guy named Jon Voigt, who was the librarian at Berklee School of Music. Lowell Davidson recorded it, and I had a ¼” reel-to-reel tape in my closet for about 20 years. Finally, I told Manfred Eicher at ECM about it, and he said, “Well, give me the tape, and maybe we can do something with it.” I was ecstatic that maybe this could finally be a record, because the music was incredible. I loved that stuff. But now Manfred tells me now that they don’t know where the tape is!

But anyway, I did things with Lowell, and played with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock at a club in the Village with Albert Ayler and John Gilmore. That was a helluva gig!

TP:    So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?

PAUL:   I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

TP:   But if my recollection is correct, you weren’t too happy with the way things were going with Bill Evans. Didn’t you leave mid-gig?

PAUL:   I left Bill Evans. We were playing at Shelley Manne’s club in California, and it seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I finally felt like I wasn’t there at all. So I said, “Bill, I’m leaving.” He begged me not to quit, but I did. I paid my own way back home. He got Larry Bunker to play drums. They went up to San Francisco, and then they went to Europe for the first time. So I wasn’t happy with the music. I just felt I wasn’t playing.

TP:   Was that because of his own direction, what he was asking you to do, or did it just seem that this was where the music was taking you?

PAUL:   I had started playing with different people in New York, and the music for me was going in a different direction—the Jazz Composers Orchestra and with Paul Bley. I wanted to be part of that. I felt like this was the way to go, and with Bill I felt I was standing still.

TP:   In the late ‘50s you were one of the busiest drummers on the scene. I’ve seen your gig book. You were working 330-340 days a year, sometimes twice in a day.

PAUL:   Yeah, I was. I missed that photo shoot of Great Day In Harlem. I had three gigs that day, man. I was told about the photo shoot, that I should go, but I couldn’t make it. I think I played a wedding, a parade, and a gig. One time I was at the Musicians Union, and I was going up the stairs and somebody was coming down. He said, “Hey, Paul! You’re the house drummer at Birdland.” I wasn’t, man, but he just had seen me there a lot.

TP:   A lot of the gigs you were doing demanded you swing and keep really good time, but not a whole lot else.

PAUL: Sometimes. I did a rehearsal with Edgar Varese that was recorded. That had to be 1955-56. There was a tape, and Teo Macero told me that he had it. I don’t know what happened to it. I had a drumstick in one hand and an iron pipe in the other, and I had music in front of me. There were staffs, but not notes. There were open-ended triangles placed in different parts of the staff, and you were supposed to play according to what you… Art Farmer was on it, Hal McKusick, Billy Butterfield, the tuba player—an 8- or 9-piece band. I don’t know how come I got the call to do that, but I did.

TP: Well, you got a lot of calls.

PAUL:   Yeah. Somehow. I don’t get it.

TP:    When did you hit the New York scene?

PAUL:   I was in the Navy during the Korean War, and for a year I was stationed at Brooklyn Receiving Station, across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had an apartment in Brooklyn. It was like going to a day job. In the morning, I’d go in to a band rehearsal, and if there was no function or no dignitary to play for or anything, I’d go home, then get my drums and find someplace to play. Go play somewhere. Every day, if I could. I got out in September 1954.

TP:   It  was such an active time. For one thing, with the G.I. Bill, a lot of musicians were studying…

PAUL:   Well, I went to Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill for a semester. Then in the middle of the second semester, I got a gig with George Wallington and Teddy Kotick at a club called the Composer Room on 58th Street off of Sixth Avenue—sort of a trio room. Teddy got me the gig; I’d met Teddy through Bill Evans, who I met pretty early on. I started falling behind in my studies, so I quit the school then.

TP:   Was your experience there valuable for you?

PAUL:   Sure. I was studying tympany and xylophone and piano and all of that.

TP:    So you learned something about theory and orchestral percussion, and it refined your skills, I guess.

PAUL:   Oh, yeah. I’d go in for a tympani lesson, and the first thing the tympani teacher would say was, “Sing A.” I never got it right!

TP:   No perfect pitch.

PAUL:   No, not me.

TP:   Do you hear the drums as a melodic instrument?

PAUL:   Yeah, definitely. It can be an orchestra, if you want to. You’ve got cymbals, you’ve got different tuned drums, you could have a string section, or whatever. But you’ve got to put that in your head. If you put it in your head, it can become real.

TP:    What drummers were your modeling yourself after?

PAUL:   Kenny Clarke, number one. I used to go the Bohemia, which opened in 1955. Charlie Parker was the first player they booked to play there, they had his name out front, but then he died. Before that, I went to the Bohemia to play jam sessions. No money. There was no band there. You’d just find some people to play with, then go to the club and say, “Is it okay if we play?” “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” Then people started to hear about it, and it became a club. Anyway, I heard Kenny Clarke playing there with Oscar Pettiford, George Wallington and different people. I was there every night.

I loved Kenny Clarke. His time, his feel. Did you ever hear the movie Miles Davis did the music for, Elevator to the Gallows? Boy, there’s some great stuff on there. Kenny Clarke’s playing brushes on snare drum, really fast tempo. Just the snare drum and brushes, man. It’s great. It’s swinging like a…I don’t want to say it, but you know what I mean?

TP:    We did a Downbeat Blindfold Test on which you also expressed your admiration for Shadow Wilson.

PAUL:   Sure, Shadow Wilson, but also Philly Joe Jones. I was at the Bohemia nightly to hear Miles Davis with Coltrane and Philly Joe. I’d also go to Birdland to see Art Blakey with his bands. Art Blakey, Philly Joe, Kenny Clarke—those were the people I was listening to, who were playing a lot. Roy Haynes wasn’t on the scene that much then. He was with Sarah Vaughan, so I didn’t get to hear him that much.

Lately, I’ve been listening to drummers from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I mean, Jimmy Crawford with the Jimmie Lunceford band, is a motherfucker, man. They used to call him Craw. Great. Manzie Campbell with Fletcher Henderson. There are drummers from that period who nobody talks about or knows about any more, but they were great drummers. I have a recording of Papa Jo Jones playing a duo with Willie the Lion Smith, and a trio with Teddy Wilson and Milt Hinton. Incredible. Simple, but just incredible music.

TP:   Were you listening to those older musicians at the time?

PAUL:   No. It’s only been lately I’ve been listening to all that.

TP:   How did you become interested in the drums in the first place?

PAUL:   There was a drummer in the neighborhood.

TP:    The neighborhood was in Providence, Rhode Island.

PAUL:   Right. I was friendly with his younger brother, who was sort of my age, and this drummer was maybe 16 or 17. He used to play in his house, and a lot of kids used to sit out front, listening to him. One day I went with my buddy to hear him play, and I fell in love with it, and asked if he would give me lessons.” I guess I was around 11. That’s how it started. He wasn’t really a teacher, though. He gave me some drumsticks and pulled out a practice pad, and he played me Gene Krupa doing “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Benny Goodman, then he gave me some sticks and told me how to play a roll or something like that.  After that I found a teacher, and went on from there.

TP:   Did you start playing in bands soon after?

PAUL:   Right after I got out of high school, I went on the road with a big band around New England, like one of those territory bands, playing Glenn Miller stuff. Perry Bourelly and his Orchestra. Also I used to play with other musicians in the neighborhood. I remember going to someone’s house and playing with an accordion player and a guitar player, playing popular songs from the ‘40s and so on.

TP:   Were you listening to records also, checking out drummers?

PAUL:  I’d hear records on the radio, and send away for them. I sent away for Count Basie records and things with Max Roach, who I also heard on broadcasts from Birdland.

TP:    You were coming of age right when when bebop was getting a lot of media attention.

PAUL:   Yes. When I was in high school, someone took me to a record store and played me a Charlie Parker record. It freaked me out. I didn’t know what was going on.

TP:   According to your gig book, you first worked the Vanguard maybe at the end of ‘56?

PAUL:   ‘57. With Lee Konitz. That was the first time I played there.  In those days, they’d have two bands. The Bill Evans Trio opposite the Miles Davis band. We played opposite Mingus. They’d have comedians—I played there with Bill Evans opposite Lenny Bruce. The place was never that full! One night with Bill and Scott LaFaro, there were only three people in the club. Now it’s packed. It’s unbelievable. It’s quiet, and they clap when you walk on stage. That never happened in those days!

TP:    Over the last few years, I’d speculate that your different bands occupy 6-7 weeks a year on the Vanguard schedule.

PAUL:   I think it turns out to be two months total. I’m going to go in there with Bill McHenry’s band at the end of this month, going into October. I think Ben Street is the bass player, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and Andrew D’Angelo on alto saxophone.  Then I’m with Trio 2000 + 2 at the Vanguard the last week of November. I’m in the Vanguard in February with the trio of Jason Moran and Chris Potter, which we did last year. Jason Moran was saying that should be recorded live, so maybe I can talk to ECM about it and see. Also, in January I’m doing a week at the Blue Note with Bill Frisell and Ron Carter in January.

TP:   Are you under contract…

PAUL:   No-no-no.

TP:   Each record is a one-off situation?

PAUL:   Right.

TP:    So ECM and Winter & Winter split your time more or less evenly?

PAUL:   Pretty much. I do whatever comes up.

TP:   Your history with ECM begins with Tribute in 1972, doesn’t it? I guess your interest in bandleading began while you were with the Keith Jarrett Quartet.

PAUL:   I was playing with Keith, maybe in Boston, in 1976, and I told Keith’s booker that I was thinking about putting together something of my own, and asked if he’d get me a gig if I put a group together. That’s when that company got me a gig in Minneapolis with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, opposite Earl Klugh. I wanted to do my own music, and I started taking piano lessons and composition lessons. That got me started.

I started playing with Keith around ‘68, coming out of that period with Paul Bley and Lowell Davidson—one thing grew into something else. We rehearsed a little bit, I remember, but not all that much. He didn’t dictate to do this or do that, or play this way or that way. It was open for everybody to play how they played, and everything fit. I left Keith when I started the trio with Charles and David. Actually, Bill Evans called me then and said, “Philly Joe Jones just quit on me; would you play with me again?” I said, “Well, I would love to, but I just started my own trio, and we’re about to do a European tour.” So that didn’t happen.

TP:   Did you get to play with him any more before his death?

PAUL:   No. After I left him in ‘64, the only time was at the Vanguard, when he was playing maybe with Eddie Gomez, and I sat in and played a couple of tunes. I felt very uncomfortable. It seemed like the music was on the edge of a mountain and we were about to fall off. It almost felt like it was speeding up or something. But it wasn’t. We ended up at the same tempo we started with. Miles Davis was in the club that night, and he drove me home, and he asked me how I felt about it. I said, ‘Man, it was okay, but the music just felt like it was speeding up.” He said, “Well, man, it’s only a trio; you got to push with a trio.”

TP:    In the ‘90s, you started developing a number of bands, the Trio+2 being one of them, and also the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band. The Bebop Band evolved from a unit with odd instrumentation that played standards into a forum for expansive arrangements of your compositions.

PAUL:   Boy, that thing keeps growing and growing. The last time I played with it at the Vanguard, a few months ago, it was like an octet plus a piano player—nine people. I guess I felt like just playing with the trio with Bill and Joe wasn’t enough somehow. Also Bill and Joe started doing a lot of their own stuff, and I felt I wasn’t busy enough. Pretty soon, I started throwing in my music. Now it’s mostly my music; it’s hardly any bebop at all. I feel like you have to keep going on, keep doing stuff, try to do better and better, and try to grow. I’m still trying to grow. I’m still learning.

TP:   You employ a lot of young musicians, people under 40, even under 30.

PAUL:   It’s usually by recommendation. Somebody plays with me, they recommend somebody, and somebody will recommend someone else. I’m not thinking about age or whether they go to school or how they learned to play. Then, when they play with me, if I hear something I’d like to play with, I give them the gig. What’s interesting is that the young players who play with me go on to become bandleaders themselves. Chris Potter started playing with me right after he left Red Rodney. I think he was 23 years old. Kurt Rosenwinkel wasn’t much more than 20 when he came to my house the first time. Now these guys have their own bands.

TP:   We’ve talked about a lot of things.

PAUL:   I’ve been around a long time, man. There’s a lot to talk about.

* * * *

Downbeat (article from 2001)

“I think rehearsing takes away from the beauty of the music,” says Paul Motian. “I’ve been playing long enough to know what I’m doing at this point of my life! I’d rather depend on my skills and intuition to play well when the time comes.”

For Motian, 70, making music is as natural and necessary as drinking water; his laid-back, minimalist parsing of rhythm and timbre is a fixture on the jazz landscape. Consider how next-generation drum-masters Brian Blade and Joey Baron regard the drum icon.

“Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in his sound,” Blade observed  several years ago. “A lot of people miss how Motian moves the music and gets inside it. He possesses an amazing lyrical looseness, but at the same time keeps a swing and pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.”

That feeling seduced a number of drummers who, like Baron, came of age aesthetically in the early ‘70s, when Motian propelled Keith Jarrett’s influential trio and quartet, more than a decade after attaining an international reputation as the drummer in the Bill Evans Trio from 1956 to 1963. “At a certain point,” says Baron, “I started hearing interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time, but a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove. It’s the way Paul Motian would really PLAY a ballad; he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did.”

Hard swingers and hardcore abstractionists alike favor the clarity of  Motian’s beats and unremittingly in-the-moment focus. Every moment is fresh. “Paul always played like someone who listens and interprets what he hears immediately,” says Lee Konitz, who first shared a bandstand with Motian 50 years ago. “Every time Paul hits the drums, he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else,” adds guitarist Bill Frisell, who received his “Miles Davis phone call” from Motian in 1980. “People say he plays like a little kid. At the same time, he’s a virtuoso, so deft and with so much technique, but the music always overshadows the instrument somehow.”

“Paul is an idea man as opposed to a language man,” says pianist Paul Bley, a partner since the early ‘60s. “I hear him play one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea. It’s way beyond accompaniment per se. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.”

Bley’s description precisely suits the ambiance of the 12 tunes that comprise I Have The Room Above Her [ECM], the [tk] album by the Paul Motian Trio with Frisell and tenor hero Joe Lovano since Motian’s previous ECM date,  It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago, from 1984. On the day after Labor Day, they convened at the Village Vanguard to begin a sold-out fortnight. They needed no soundcheck: Completely in tune from the first note of “Good Morning Heartache” – they wove collective improvisations of the highest order, springboarding off of Motian’s pellucid ideas, pristinely executed with no excess strokes.“We’ve been playing for 25 years,” Frisell says, “and every time we play, I still don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Red Garland once told me that if you have an idea in your head, somehow it will come out on your instrument,” Motian said. “That’s what I do. My eyes are closed, I play what I’m hearing, I play musical ideas, and when they come out I find myself doing technical things on the drumset that I’ve never done before in my life. Sometimes it might be awkward; maybe if I studied what I was thinking about, I would figure out technically the best and easiest way to do it, and do it differently.”

Often, it seemed, Joe Lovano took timekeeping responsibilities. “That’s true,” Motian responds. “They played some of my stuff for one drummer on a Blindfold Test, and he said, ‘That’s bullshit. Anybody could do that.’ He didn’t get it. On one record we played ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ and the pianist and bassist played the time in 3/4. I’m playing maybe double or half what they’re doing in three, or playing in four, or maybe playing completely free. But I know exactly where I am in the song. I won’t do anything that interferes with what they’re doing. I’ll just try to make some music out of it without being locked into playing a certain thing.

“I remember when I played with Scott LaFaro the first time with Bill Evans. I’d worked with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, who played straight-ahead 4/4 time, but never a bass player who played like that. All of a sudden, the time started to break up. Maybe that’s when I started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time. Maybe.”

“Paul knows how to accompany in any direction and any style,” notes Lovano, who recently matched the drum elder with Hank Jones and George Mraz on his straightahead Blue Note dates I’m All For You and Joyous Encounter. “He plays with total feeling, and creates amazing texture within the form of a tune. Paul plays with all different elements within the music. He plays like a pianist, where he’s playing the melody, the changes, the rhythm—he doesn’t have to just play a repetitive beat. He leaves a lot of spaces. A lot of counterpoint happens. He’s one of the most creative musicians in jazz.”

[BREAK]

“I wanted to try stuff, and I wanted to get it right,” Motian says of the trio’s early years. “I didn’t know if people who were going to play my music would like it. Is this music valid? What the hell am I doing? So we rehearsed a lot.”

Motian was almost exclusively a sideman until his early forties, when he acquired Keith Jarrett’s grand piano, took composition lessons, started writing tunes, made his first records, Conception Vessel and Tribute,  for ECM, and began his second career as a bandleader. “I began to realize that you could write little ideas and have people interpret them,” he says. “Manfred Eicher told me that I could record my own stuff, and that kicked my ass.”

The son of Armenian emigrants who settled in Providence, Rhode Island, Motian draws heavily on Anatolian and Persian melodies that he heard as a child.

“To some extent, Paul’s Armenian-ness comes through in his sound,” says Jarrett, who recruited Motian for his trio in 1968. “He plays like he’s on a caravan! Paul isn’t particularly jazzy, and I think he contributed a feeling of openness that wouldn’t have been there if he were a hip jazz drummer. Paul definitely was not going to play like any other drummer, nor could you force him to at gunpoint. It’s almost like he has no choice. Paul has kept the doors open. It’s as though he’s purposely eliminated stylistic sophistication in order to stay pure.”

Motian learned the tradition inside-out before setting it aside. As a Providence teenager, he rapidly developed skills on dance gigs with talented local peers and through intense study and emulation of the Savoy and Dial recordings by Charlie Parker and Max Roach. At 19, he enlisted in the Navy, and wound up in a band that joined the Admiral of the Sixth Fleet on his various postings. Posted to the Brooklyn Navy Yard after two years of sea duty, he moved to New York in 1953.

For the next few years, Motian hung out and jammed with a vengeance. “Wherever anybody played, I was there,” he relates. “Every chance I got, I’d take my drums on the subway.” At Birdland, the aspirant soaked up Art Blakey with Horace Silver and Curley Russell or Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell; at the Bohemia, he dug how Kenny Clarke “got so much music out of a little amount of equipment” with Oscar Pettiford and George Wallington. “I thought it was par for the course,” he notes dryly. “Everything was like that.”

In the fall of 1954, shortly before his discharge, Motian attended an audition held by clarinetist Jerry Wald, and was impressed by the piano player. “Someone said, ‘Oh, that’s Bill Evans from New Jersey,’” Motian recalls. “I was hoping we’d both get this gig, and we did. We toured to Puerto Rico and different places on the East Coast during 1955. Then somehow, [clarinetist] Tony Scott hired us, and we went on tour with Tony. That was the beginning.

As documented in his gig books, yellowed pocket-size calendars chronicling the names, venues, and wages that comprise his career, Motian spent the next several years swinging for the likes of Eddie Costa, Oscar Pettiford, Don Elliott, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, George Wallington, Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans.

“In those days, we played from 9 or 10 at night until 3 or 4 in the morning,” he recalls. “I didn’t see the sunlight. You never went out of town. You spent $2 in a taxi to get to a gig, it took half-an-hour to get there, and you played for 6 hours or more.”

On Thursday, November 5, 1959, Bill Evans called Motian to sub for drummer Kenny Dennis on a trio engagement at Basin Street. By the final week, Motian had the job, as did LaFaro, a new arrival from the West Coast. The trio developed their sound during a subsequent month at the Showplace, on Third Street, after which they spent 9 hours in the studio recording Portrait of Jazz, Motian’s favorite of the Bill Evans Trio recordings, on which his symbiotic connection with LaFaro is already evident. In the ensuing 18 months until the bassist’s fatal motorcycle accident in the summer of 1961, Motian began to reconceptualize his approach. “Scott played the bass like no one ever had heard or played,” Motian states. “Of course, it made a strong impression. I always play from what I hear, and I tried to incorporate what he and Bill were doing into my playing.”

Word reached Thelonious Monk, who hired Motian and LaFaro for a week at Boston’s Storyville during the second week of 1960. Otherwise, Motian committed himself to the trio even when times were less than flush. “At a lot of our gigs we didn’t have full houses and people screaming and clapping,” he says. “I remember playing in the Village Vanguard with only four people in the club, and asking Max Gordon if we could go home. He said, ‘Oh, no, you’ve still got a table of people and you’ve got to play another set.’”  Still, Motian didn’t budge when Evans fell ill in late 1960, taking sporadic gigs and drawing an unemployment check for the hefty sum of $427 for 9 weeks.

“We were pretty busy from the beginning of 1961 to the summer,” he sums up the conclusion of his first career peak. “We were hot!  Then Scott got killed. Then it went on from there.”

[BREAK]

The ascension of the Bill Evans Trio occurred against a New York backdrop of Ornette Coleman’s hellraising at the Five Spot, the ever more intense form-stretching of Charles Mingus, the politicization of Max Roach, the spiritual blossoming of John Coltrane, and the growing visibility of a cadre of young musicians with an avant-garde sensibility. LaFaro and Motian wanted Evans to test those waters, but the leader was reluctant to shift his parameters, and Motian felt the first stirrings of aesthetic restlessness.

The breaking point came during a lucrative January 1964 engagement with Evans and Chuck Israels at Shelley’s Manne Hole in sunny Los Angeles, on the heels of a 1963 itinerary that included time-keeping gigs at Manhattan’s Hickory House with Evans, Martial Solal and Joe Castro. “Every day the music was going downhill,” he remembers. “I felt like I was playing a club date. I was playing brushes, barely touching the drums, and everything I did was too loud! I got pissed off, and I quit and went home. I’d been playing in New York with Paul Bley and some other people, and music was changing. It was getting exciting.” On his return, Motian happily took a $5 a night gig with Gary Peacock, Bley and John Gilmore at Take III, a Bleecker Street coffee house.

Excitement waned during the lean years that followed. Motian became involved with Boston-based pianist Lowell Davidson, whose sound he describes as “like Cecil Taylor with a Bill Evans touch,” and with the Jazz Composers Orchestra; for rent he played floor shows at Café Sabra, a West 72nd Street Israeli nightclub. In 1966, on a Monday off-night, Tony Scott called him to play at the Dom, a club on East 8th Street. “When we walked in,” Motian recalls, “this young guy was playing ‘The Song Is You’ with Henry Grimes on bass. I said, ‘Tony, who’s the pianist? Cat sounds great!’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett. I discovered him.’ Tony always said he discovered everybody. We hooked up, and toured the country with Charles Lloyd after Jack deJohnette left the band. In late ‘68, when Keith wanted to put together his own trio, he called me and Charlie Haden; he said he’d always liked my work with Bill Evans and Charlie’s work with Ornette, and thought it would be a good combination.”

Jarrett first heard Motian with Bill Evans at Boston’s Jazz Workshop. “He looked like a businessman in his suit, sitting pretty still, using brushes,” the pianist recalls. “Then I heard a tape of him with Lowell Davidson, and what struck me is that I didn’t know who the drummer was nor who it could be. The enormity of the difference between how he played with Bill and with Lowell made me think that he was not one of those players who would decide ahead of time what he liked and what he didn’t. He doesn’t seem to have a thing about categories. Paul likes good songs; he is probably the most vivid example of a drummer who likes music above his own involvement in it. He would request that we play ballads in the early trio with Charlie! We listened to Bartok together. We’d listen to whatever was good.”

With Jarrett, Motian saw an opportunity to pursue ideas that gestated during the LaFaro-Evans years. “My first record with Bley and Gary Peacock was a turning point,” he recalls. “I started playing a little more open, a little freer. I never thought so much about sound before; I realized how much sound turns me on—I’ll do something on a drumset and that sound will make me do something else, which will grow into something else. Anyway, the way Keith played seemed perfect for me. It seemed like that was the way to go—an improvement, an evolution. Let’s play!”

* * * * * *
Thirty-seven years later, “Let’s play” remains Motian’s mantra. Burned out from decades of road work, he no longer travels, allowing the world to come to him in New York City. “I don’t go on vacation,” he says. “I go to the Vanguard!”

In June, the hallowed basement hosted Motian’s  exploratory unit Trio 2000 + 1, with Chris Potter, Larry Grenadier and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. In August he displayed his pellucid touch with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry’s quartet, including bassist Reid Anderson and guitarist Ben Monder. The latter has worked extensively with Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, which plays the Vanguard in January. Formed in 1991 with Josh Redman and Kurt Rosenwinkel, it’s a sextet with a signature configuration (two saxophones, two electric guitars, and electric bass) whose evolution from a crisp not-quite-a-cover band – the repertoire includes compositions by Monk, Parker, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Charles Mingus, Herbie Nichols, and Motian – to a creative ensemble is evident on a just-mixed ECM recording set for a 2006 release. Also new on ECM are meet-in-the-studio New York trio dates with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani.

“I trust Manfred Eicher 2000 percent, especially during the mix,” Motian says of the producer who encouraged him to begin his journey as a leader. He notes that James Farber, who engineered these records as well as I’m All For You, “is really good at getting my sound.”

“On trips to Europe, I had to deal with whatever drumset I got, although I still managed to play how I play,” Motian continues. “But the sound I really love is my own drums, and by playing and recording just here in New York I’m able to use them. It’s the way they’re tuned; the intervals between each individual drum and a kind of bottom sound that I love. It makes a lot of sense to me. It’s very musical.”

“The things people ask me and say make the stuff more important than it really is to me somehow,” concludes the man who was drummer of choice for two pianists who rank high on the influence tree of modern jazz, and whose various groups inspire several generations of improvisers. “I started playing drums at 12 years old, and I just went and took the gigs. I love to play, and I love music, and I would get involved with anything I thought was musical or great—except the commercial, but that was so I could survive and eat. Now I can play bebop, which I love, and play my music, which is open and free. I can do what I want. I’ve got the whole world right there. How good can it get?”

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