Category Archives: Piano

For Steve Kuhn’s 78th Birthday, a Verbatim Interview Conducted for the www.jazz.com Website on July 29, 2009

Best of birthdays to pianist Steve Kuhn, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’ve pasted below an unedited version of a rather lightly-edited conversation that appeared on the www.jazz.com website in the summer of 2009, when ECM released Mostly Coltrane, with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

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Steve Kuhn (July 29, 2009):

TP:   How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by Coltrane that you played and also material that you hadn’t played?

SK:   I’d never heard it either. Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland commemorating his birthday—Joe Lovano, myself, and Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and the later stuff I really had no idea about. I didn’t listen to him that much once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time…

TP:   You moved there in ‘67, I believe?

SK:   I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. But I had not been listening much to the later stuff that he did, maybe from ‘64-‘65 on. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.

Every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then last year, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged it that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet.

A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and very surprisingly, he said to me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I do for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. But he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or go into a studio in Germany right after the concert, which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and it was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it just all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008. We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs  that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “Gratitude,” which is an homage to John, of course. Manfred also asked me to do a song of mine that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo. So I just sat down and did a version of “Trance” and “With Gratitude,” and other than that, everything else—except those two standards—were Coltrane songs.

TP:   Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes…

SK:   No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs we’d play or concerts (at the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves), I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to do that, but for some reason, I don’t know… Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.

TP:   So the Birdland thing seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.

SK:   Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought to it, and no frame of reference really.

TP:   Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?

SK:   Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer, I think. The best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. So he put the sequence together. He put together one preliminary sequence, and then he spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.

TP:   How about the sonics of the record? Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the contents of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you? Then also, I’m interested in how Manfred dealt with the group sound in the final product.

SK:   For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious, for sure, and John has been a big influence on me, of course, over the years. But also, it’s been since 1960, so it’s almost fifty years ago, that I worked with him, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, really there was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. Joey Baron to me did not… It’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible, I think. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
TP:   I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?

SK:   The first I’d been aware of “free playing,” without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers… I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Probably prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, yet playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur—if that’s the word—on it as much as I can, not consciously, but playing them over a period of years. It’s a pretty wide repertoire, but just to have a specific way to approach these standards. Then there are also a bunch of originals of mine, some of which can at times reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony just is stagnant for just as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing comes into effect, more or less. With some of John’s later things, I was able just to play those kind of freer things, without any harmonic ties whatsoever, just kinds of effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums—and with Joe as well. It’s just part of the way I grew up and was influenced by a whole bunch of different kinds of musics.

TP:   I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane…

SK:   He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.

TP:   Some people in 1995 did an interview with you about your years with Coltrane that he cites in the book. I know you’ve been asked this 8 million times, but take me through how you came to join the group. We can refresh your memory, if you like, by…

SK:   No, it’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts for three weeks during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to just hang out, really. It was a three-week hang. George Russell, pass his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The MJQ was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I get to meet all these people, and “study” with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and the group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.

But that’s how I got exposed to that. Then, a month or so later, I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, which is where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior, who I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and then called the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks prior. As it turns out, Kenny Dorham was one of the people I called, and he needed a piano player, and he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano, but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time. Kenny. The bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years. The drummer was Buddy Enlow, who was passed, I believe.

TP:   That group recorded for the Time label.

SK:   Yes. That was the first recording that I did when I came to New York. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I had done as a sideman in New York when I got there.

So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, which was late 1959, I had heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put a quartet together. Now, of course, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but I got his number somehow, and I called him. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,” and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on 8th Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel, nothing was said yea or nay about working together.

Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens, take the subway where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Sayeeda, I guess. So I did that, went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same kind of thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, “Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?” Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was… But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon as far as that was concerned. So that’s how it started.

He had I believe a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, the old Jazz Gallery on the Lower East Side. So at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was so good, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.

TP:   When did you become cognizant of Coltrane?

SK:   Certainly when I was in high school. Yeah, when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought records that he was on, the early Miles quintet records… That was probably it.

TP:   They came out when you were a senior in high school.

SK:   not before then?

TP:   He did those records in 1955 and 1956.

SK:   What records did he do before 1955?

TP:   Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy, playing alto.

SK:   Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. So I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and thought he was… Even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different, and had… He just captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the stuff that he had done recording-wise up til then.

TP:   He’d been with Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Mal Waldron on some Prestige things…

SK:   Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.

TP:   What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. So the challenges for a pianist as up-to-date as you—you knew modern classical music, you’d done the time at Lenox School, and also straight-ahead jazz—dealing with this information in 1960.

SK:   I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston. The wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press when I was up there, and I came to New York sort of full of myself, which is the way it was. I was brought down pretty quickly. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t…I couldn’t resist going along with that.

But then I started to work with him, and I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more  or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like “So What,” where there was one or two harmonies through a whole song, and then there was a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for him, I would get out there with him, to try not to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him, musically speaking. That probably was not what he wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense… I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. So from night to night, one night I was more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask him periodically, “John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?” I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, “I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.” That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.

A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I really just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, when it actually came to it and he told me, I was crushed, more for my ego than anything else probably. But I had not known at the time he hired me that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, and McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of that until the time when John said to me, “I want to make a change. Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance.. If I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.

TP:   Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.

SK:   At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and John and he would hang out. Or Sonny Rollins. It was just a hive of activity of great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. What I remember, I had never experienced before, on the bandstand, was he would solo, and after his solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was just extraordinary, and just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really quite something. I’d never experienced that, up to that point certainly.

TP:   This was with Pete LaRoca and Steve Davis.

SK:   Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.

TP:   Can you describe the milieu in New York. A lot of people now are writing about 1959 for press marketing reasons, as in Miles Davis did Kind of Blue and Ornette hit New York that year, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of things were percolating in 1959 and 1960. So you arrived at a time of confluence of activity in Greenwich Village. In addition to Coltrane and Ornette, Mingus was doing all sorts of stuff, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a club before recording Waltz for Debby, and Lennie Tristano was at the Half Note, and Max Roach was doing things. All the poets, all the dancers. So many things were happening. Give me a sense of what it was like.

SK:   Every night, I remember going out to clubs, just to hang out. Occasionally, I was asked to sit in. But it was every, every single night. At the Bryant Hotel, I was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I would be in there quite a bit, going in, and they got to know who I was after a while, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people, and wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and different people throughout the years. But it was a very intense musical time, I think, in the jazz world, as you described it. It was something that no longer exists, unfortunately, for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We used to have sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft. Every night of the week there was a session there. So you could always play. You could always go up there and play, you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. Plus, wanting to play all the time, every day, when you were that age. So there were these outlets, like Jay’s loft and other places, and those, to my knowledge, don’t exist any more, and I just feel badly for the young people who come to town.

Also, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial kind of thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—which unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, but I did have some issues with that, but for the most part managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie with people who were strung out at the time, and those people hung out together, and they would get high together and all that. I was sort of on the periphery of that, although I got into it just briefly at different times. So there was a lot going on there. But I think the myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos…I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. The tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly to the listener, I would think. Over the years that has dissipated to a great extent, I’m sure.

But it was this very, very special time. And as I was living at the hotel, 54th and Broadway, I was really in the middle of the midtown activity, and then I would be in the Village a lot, too. So there was a lot of stuff going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.

TP:   Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?

SK:   It really is hard. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. But for that, I couldn’t really say… I certainly was thinking about where I was dissatisfied with John. I was working Kenny prior to that, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, and that’s where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp, and voicing chords, and just getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.

TP:   Then you were with Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.

SK:   It was two years all told, but there was an 8-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan said, “Why?” Well, it had to do with he wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, “Who do you want?” Scott said, “Roy Haynes.” So, P.S., that’s… Stan was a big fan of Stan’s anyway.

TP:   Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.

SK:   I think so, yeah. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there…

TP:   Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?

SK:   We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal in terms of rhythm things. Rhythmically, Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and he’s an incredible soloist as well. So it was different. When Stan had come back from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put a trio together—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, “if I can get the trio I want.” Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.

But working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within the parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable. But it was very enjoyable to play with them.

TP:   You used the phrase “meat and potatoes.” Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were as far as jazz. You were coming up in the ‘50s…

SK:   For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. But to this day, there’s nobody who comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. What he was able to do… His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day… Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. It was just astounding, what he was able to do. He really grabbed my attention big-time, and moreso over the years.

Fats Waller was an influence. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing, when I started studying, when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.

Bill Evans was an influence. In a way, the first time I heard Bill play… I was at Harvard at the time, and he did a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University, and that’s the first time I had heard Bill play, and I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.” That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.

TP:   Can you describe that?

SK:   It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. So it really was a combination of both. Once I got past that, when you listen to him play, it’s the heart. That for me is the bottom line to communicate music, is about touching the heart. It’s not about how fast you play or how slick you do this, or how you reharmonize that. It’s not about that at all, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powells and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing, and it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.

Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and when I came to New York he was like a big brother to me. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me… When I came, as I said earlier, I was the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was a hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.

TP:   You have to have a very thick skin.

SK:   Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you just have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name… You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.

TP:   Now, the prior ECM recording, the strings recording with Carlos Franzetti’s arrangements, got quite a bit of press at the time, and apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training as a young and being taught by Margaret Chaloff as well. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.

SK:   Sure. It’s all part of the package.

TP:   You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.

SK:   Absolutely. Apropos of that, that’s what Lewis Porter came to me for yesterday. Lewis was perplexed, because as a pianist, he can play a 7-foot piano, let’s say, but when he was exposed to play a 9-foot, concert grand piano, he was having problems. I said, “Lewis, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Wurlitzer, an upright, or a 20-foot—it’s the same approach.” Then Ia tried to go through the Russian school of technique, which is what she taught me, and it took me any number of years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. So I fed him a lot of information yesterday. But basically, what she taught was basically getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and explaining how that happens, and the genesis of all that, and then, if you understand that concept, it will enable you…in terms of how you approach it and things that you do, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and slow speed-wise, slow or fast. It’s all to do with this kind of technique, which is about relaxation… It’s too involved. I’m not qualified to teach it, but I know the general parameters. Ultimately, you get a sound on the piano, and you really don’t scuffle that much in terms of fast or slow or in between. It enables you to do all of that, if you really understand and apply what she did. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while, but it took me… I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and when I finished high school at 17, I stopped studying formally with her. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and I would spend a lot of time, when I could, at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.

TP:   Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.

SK:   Yes. But through Margaret, I met Serge, and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great education for me, musically speaking. There was never anything else involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. But he came back to Boston in those last years, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. But he was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs he got around town were just trio jobs. It was drums, piano, and baritone saxophone. Working like that, of course, I had a chance to work without a bass, which was strange, but I learned how to not overcompensate, just to forget about there not being a bass and just play. Then things he taught me harmonically, and playing a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. He had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, “No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.” I guess some people would have just wilted under it. I sort of thrived, in a way, and it was a challenge. I thought, “All right, goddammit,” and I did it.  I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I reacted the way I did. It was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from him. He was very, very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. When she passed, I guess she was in her eighties. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

TP:   You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.

SK:   I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.

TP:   You dedicated the recording with Franzetti to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?

SK:   My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was 2 or 3 years old. My father was born here. But both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was just a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.

TP:   That recording is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select…

SK:   They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. But in a way, having recorded a lot, and used… in terms of repertoire, unless I’m writing new material…and they like standards there… I’ve recorded a lot of standards. So it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and I choose from them. It makes it easier, in a way, in terms of the repertoire. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play these songs that’s interesting to me and the trio with whom I’m recording.

TP:   How long does it take to find a point of view?

SK:   Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before he’s coming to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years have been classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording I did, called Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier. There were 9 or 10 songs on there of classical themes. The second one, which is called Baubles, Bangles and Beads, which is the one I did most recently for them, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. That in itself is challenging, to try to find… He wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted.  But in standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.

TP:   But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Backward Glances, which contained of your ‘70s recordings, including your excellent solo record. These dates are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, one with the Palle Danielsson-Jon Christenson rhythm section, and then in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?

SK:   I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was sort of interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.

TP:   By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett and his first solo recitals.

SK:   I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, which was Trance, a quartet recording with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion that we did in New York. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and  I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic about it. At that time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as he was concerned.

TP:   When did you begin to compose in a serious way?

SK:   In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, “Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.” Monica got on my case as well. “You’ve got to start writing.” I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard… We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit aside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs that I wrote, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But in a period of a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point and probably since. But then I had some material.

TP:   These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.

SK:   I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.

Working with Manfred at ECM, almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day. They sit down at the piano or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes… Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that. I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there—and gradually stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous for me. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.

But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

TP:   I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. You go back to which band with Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.

SK:   Yes, I did.

TP:   He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.

SK:   I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.

In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me. Instead of the guitar, Art hired me, and it was the piano. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d met Swallow. We played in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.

TP:   There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?

SK:   I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we’ve got a very similar frame of reference in terms of growing up, listening to certain things. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I learn certainly from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. With Ron and Al, since we are of an age, it’s just common experiences that we share. In terms of the music, it’s different. Not better or worse, as I said, but it’s just a different experience. So it all works. It’s just depending upon the personnel.

TP:   A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?

SK:   Much less. When I first came to New York, every night, as I said, I was out, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs.  Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.

TP:   Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, and then you’ve since revisited…how does it strike you now… Well, first of all, in the ‘60s, the music Coltrane was playing at the time of his death, seemed radically different to people who liked Coltrane in the period when you were playing with him. That period was already classic; people’s ears had caught up by then. But the recording, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece. Do you have any general statements to make about Coltrane’s music in the broader scheme of things?

SK:   As it’s reflected on the record?

TP:   I’ll rephrase the question. Your personal involvement in Coltrane’s first wave of originality, what he was doing right after Giant Steps and during the Atlantic period, allowed to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. You didn’t listen too much to the later music. But here you are revisiting this music, after forty years of dealing with it not so much. What impression does this music make upon you now?

SK:   It’s part of my growing up. As I said, not having heard the later stuff, when playing this music now, I approach it the way I approach it. I had no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that when I worked with John, he was just a dozen years older than I was, but he could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age… You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on that, whether he may just have run the course. I remember seeing him from time to time after my time after him, running into him on the street or maybe hearing him somewhere, and I’d say, “hello,” and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.

So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.

TP:   Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?

SK:   No. I really have no desire to either. Just having played them at Birdland for the last five or six years, just to play them the way I play them. I’m really not that interested, frankly. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity ends there, pretty much. So I think what I recorded is reflective of whatever it is of John’s, of course, but it’s reflective of what I am doing these days. I brought whatever voice I have.

TP:   Do you have a new big project in the works?

SK:   What I’d like to do—ad within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a “Why don’t you?”—is to do a recording with Claus Ogerman. I’d forgotten, but I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. I don’t know if this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, “It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.” I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically, but that’s something that might happen. I don’t know. I’d like to do some original music of mine with him, and maybe some classical themes. Or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now. I just don’t know. But in recent months this has been brought to my attention, and I listen to that recording and something he did with Michael Brecker. So I’m focusing on Claus’ writing now. He did something with Bill back in the day, too.

Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.

Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from back in the day, different composers, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a helluva lot better, I think. So that night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. So we did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. I’ve been listening to this within the last week or so. I hope this happens. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.

TP:   So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.

SK:   Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music… I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last 9½ years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, “when I go, carry me off the bandstand.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.

TP:   You’ve probably led a more interesting life than many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.

SK:   It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in 50 years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and you don’t know… They have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club up there. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party of people that I’d gone to school with, and then some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was done by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely. So to reconnect with these people… Then the following night, we did this night with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but that party the night before and Sculler’s, was my 50th reunion of the class of 1959. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.

TP:   At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.

SK:   I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of… It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. The only professor I had at Harvard who accepted it and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course there called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But every other professor I had during the time I was there, I had problems with. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.

TP:   But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.

SK:   It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Jazz.com, Piano, Joey Baron, Joe Lovano, ECM

For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation and a 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

* * *

IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU


Below is the first part of Ted Panken’s extensive interview with pianist Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article. Also check out jazz.com’s Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldau tracks, and the essay“Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career.”


 

by Ted Panken

 Brad Mehldau, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.

That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose!

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.

Right.

I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music…

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early ’90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone…

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor’s note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.

Right.

That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn.t.

Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

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For Mal Waldron’s 89th birthday, A Director’s Cut of a DownBeat Piece from 2002

In recognition of the 89th birth anniversary of the late pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m posting a “directors’ cut” of an article that ran in DownBeat in 2002, with a link to the two interviews that I conducted with Mr. Waldron — one on WKCR, another on the phone — that contributed to the bulk of the piece. It was an honor to meet and interact with him.

* * *

An expatriate for roughly half his life, 77-year-old pianist Mal Waldron, New York born, finds it increasingly difficult to come home. “I don’t plan to return to the States for a while,” he noted in New York last August, two nights into a week at the Blue Note with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. “I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke on the bandstand. Having the smoke around me when I play the piano helps me to feel the mood, and feel relaxed and jazzy. That’s my ‘snoozedecker,’ like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in ‘Peanuts.'”
The image of a security blanket is a recurrent trope when Waldron discusses his musical personality, established over a career that spans half a century. “It’s support,” Waldron said, addressing the art of accompanying singers, a function he mastered on numerous gigs with Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan. “I lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!” As his long-time collaborator Steve Lacy once put it, “All the thousands of people he’s played with love Mal because he makes them sound good. And he sounds good himself. He gets a wonderful sound out of the piano, and he’s got his own style, his own angle, a vast knowledge of structure, of harmony, of rhythm, time and space. He’s an ideal partner.”
Waldron knows how to articulate essences, projecting his voice with an understated, introspective style, building powerful statements through the incremental repetition of cogent rhythmic and melodic cells. “My technique was always nil and still is nil,” Waldron says. “I only play what I hear, and usually I have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear. But other musicians hear things that I can’t play because my technique isn’t up to it.”
Be that as it may, it’s a good bet those other musicians appreciate Waldron’s memorable compositions, informed by sources as diverse as Eric Satie, Johannes Brahms, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and the blues. Structurally complex, deploying unusual time signatures and relentlessly logical chord changes, they have a dark, astringent feel, with spare melodies that penetrate your bones and stay there. Close to a thousand in number, they include repertoire classics like “Soul Eyes,” “Left Alone” and “Fire Waltz,” and more recent improvisational fodder like “Snake Out,” “The Git-Go” and “Hurray For Herbie.”
Waldron conceived the former set of pieces between 1955 and 1963, when he recorded with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, the Teddy Charles Tentet, Jackie McLean, Billie Holiday and Max Roach. He was also house pianist, arranger and composer for Prestige Records, where he imparted an organizing, cohesive quality to in-and-out-of-the-studio blowing dates led by the likes of Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean and John Coltrane.
“Composing went along with improvising, which is instant composition,” Waldron says. “I’d make my changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then write a tune over them. My life consisted of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and recording them the next day.”
By 1956, when McLean recruited Waldron to play on 1…2…3, the first of his several dozen Prestige sessions, the pianist had ample experience to draw upon. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, he had piano lessons from an early age, developing proficiency with classical repertoire. “I was forced to take piano lessons,” Waldron recalls. “I didn’t like playing classics, because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped. But if I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that. Fear is a great motivator.”
Waldron’s “mind started moving toward jazz” when he heard Coleman Hawkins play “Body And Soul.” “My first jazz experiences were on saxophone,” he says. “I bought an alto, since I couldn’t afford a tenor. I got a big, hard reed and an open lay on the mouthpiece so it would sound like a tenor, and I got the music for ‘Body And Soul’ from Down Beat, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins.”
Drafted into the Army in 1943, Waldron, stationed at West Point, spent some of his free time playing saxophone in an off-base swing band. More often, he rode the Hudson Line south to Manhattan, where he heard Art Tatum at the Cafe Society downtown, Bud Powell on 52nd Street and Thelonious Monk at Minton’s in Harlem, finally catching the early morning train to return for duty. “52nd Street was an energizing experience,” he recalls. “Minton’s had a front bar and a back room where the rhythm section would be pumping away on one tune, and the horns would solo chorus after chorus, getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another would take over. It kept going like that all night long. I heard Monk there even before I heard his records. He was a big man, austere and imposing. He looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world. His sound wasn’t immediately attractive to me; the way he hit the piano was so strange. But later it grew on me. It’s an acquired taste.”
After his discharge, Waldron matriculated at Queens College on the G.I. Bill. He pursued studies in composition and theory with Karel Radhaus, while continuing to chase the music, most frequently at a jam session run by saxman Big Nick Nicholas at the Paradiso. “I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker,” Waldron states. “But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to piano. I found my basis was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.”
Others agreed; after graduating in 1949, Waldron became a professional, doing uptown rhythm-and-blues jobs with Ike Quebec, Lucky Millinder and Tiny Grimes, simultaneously nurturing friendships with a homegrown pianist peer group that included Randy Weston, Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, to whom Waldron dedicated “Hooray For Herbie.”
“Herbie was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment,” Waldron says. “His themes were beautiful, intricate and tricky, but subtle and basic, too. His sound fit his personality. Observing him helped me decide that if you just played the way you spoke or moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound. Cecil was really out. But he was working on it, and I could see some form, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Randy was more like me, more into formal music; he didn’t step outside and play free. We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest to see who could play the best ones.”
Mingus recruited Waldron in 1954, beginning a decade-long relationship. “Mingus was like my older brother,” Waldron says. “He gave me a lot of advice and helped me develop into a mature musician. I was into imitating Bud Powell from things like ‘Bud’s Bubble,’ making Bud’s runs and so on. Mingus said, ‘Don’t copy anyone. That’s not the way. An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.’ That stuck, and I started working on my own style. Which entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change; just a group of notes could be an impetus for soloing. I learned that the piano is a percussive instrument; you beat on it. We realized that jazz is the music of people who were not satisfied with the status quo. You’d punch the piano as though you were striking somebody in your way.”
Through the ’50s, Waldron juggled Prestige sessions with demo dates for singers and gigs uptown, downtown and in the boroughs with hardcore jazzmen McLean, Art and Addison Farmer, Arthur Taylor, Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers. He even did jazz-and-poetry happenings at the Five Spot with Lacy, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg.
“We were on the outer edges of the status quo,” Waldron states of his association with ’50s Bohemia. “We were the outlaws, really, so we ganged together. There was sawdust on the floor of the Five Spot! But this is in retrospect. They were just people I worked with on a gig, I got money for it and went home and fed the family.”

“It was an accident” is Waldron’s simple explanation of how he became Billie Holiday’s pianoman in April 1957. He held that job until her death, penning the melody to her iconic swan song “Left Alone” on a plane en route to a job in San Francisco. “She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist conked out, couldn’t function any more,” Waldron relates. “She asked Bill Duffy, who wrote Lady Sings The Blues with her, Bill asked his wife Millie if she knew any musicians, Millie asked [bassist] Julian Euell, and Julian asked me. I said, ‘The buck stops here,’ and got on the train. I was a fan of her music, but had never played it. I got a crash course.
“Words were very important to me, and I discovered that words are important to music, too. You can improvise on the words; not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words. This gave me a bigger area to expand into.”
After Holiday died, Waldron and Euell joined Abbey Lincoln, whose then-husband, Max Roach, “came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady. He liked me and took me in his band. He was a real teacher for me, and he taught me about different tempos and accents.”
Waldron appeared on several memorable Roach records during these socially turbulent times, including the 1960 Candid classic Straight Ahead, on which Lincoln sang “Left Alone” in dialogue with a soaring Coleman Hawkins, and Percussion Bitter Suite (Impulse!), a dynamic date propelled by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. Waldron convened Dolphy, saxophonist Booker Ervin, Ron Carter and Charli Persip on his own 1961 breakthrough album, The Quest (New Jazz), on which for the first time he wove the various strands of his experience—Ellingtonia (“Duqility” and “Warm Canto”), modality (“Status Seeking”), quasi-serial music (“Thirteen”) and uneven time signatures (“Warp And Woof” and “Fire Waltz”)—into a distinctly Waldronesque quilt.
During a 1963 Chicago engagement with Roach, Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown on the bandstand as the result of a heroin overdose. “I couldn’t remember where I was,” he says. “I couldn’t remember anything—about the piano or anything else. I lost my coordination, and my hands were shaking all the time. I spent six-seven months in East Elmhurst Hospital, where they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind.”
Waldron had begun dabbling during a 1955 run at the Cafe Bohemia with Mingus. “At that time every jazz musician was called a junkie automatically, and after a while it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too. So I started using drugs, and it built and built. I thought I had control of this horse! I would bring him out and put him away; I thought I had him covered. All of a sudden he snuck up on me and knocked me down.”
Waldron recuperated, buckled down and began the arduous process of relearning his instrument. In 1965, director Marcel Carne asked Waldron if he wanted to write the music for the film Three Bedrooms In Manhattan in New York or in Paris. “What a choice!” Waldron laughs. “I said, ‘Paris, of course,’ and he paid my ticket. When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin. In America if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes against you. In Europe if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes for you. So I decided to go for that.”
And in Europe he remained and flourished. “The main thing that affected me in Europe is their respect for the music,” he says. “They came out and made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it. When they were done, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist. Which was not true in America.”
In Paris Waldron worked with Ben Webster and gigged at a chic expat soul food restaurant called the Chicken Shack. In 1966 he landed a steady radio gig in Rome (“lots of ‘giorna da festa’ holidays with pay; I loved it!”), then spent consequential time in Bologna and Cologne before settling in Munich, his home base for the next two decades.
During this adjustment period, Waldron resumed his association with Lacy on an impromptu duo in Italy. Thirty-five years later—a couple of dozen recordings, and hundreds of duo, quintet and sextet concerts behind them—they are one of the magical partnerships in jazz, spinning fresh variations on stories postulated by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Powell, Nichols and Mingus. “We just improvised, and it worked,” is Waldron’s pithy description of their initial European encounter. “As time went on, we each brought out our tunes and began to work out tunes by all the people we liked. Music is a language, and if you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else. If the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better. Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.”
Waldron quickly found a cadre of first-class Europe-based improvisers – expats and natives—with a good feel for that vocabulary, including trumpeters Art Farmer, Dusko Goykovich and Manfred Schoof, bassists Jimmy Woode and George Mraz, and drummers Pierre Favre and Makaya Ntshoko. “Things have advanced since I came in,” Waldron says. “Then the European musicians were at Level A, while now they’re on Level U or W, toward the end of the scale. But you can’t make generalizations. Some drummers had no concept of swing, but others could swing. There were saxophonists who had no concept of harmony, who’d thumb it all over the place, but others had a conception and played their horns well. It was a question of finding the right musicians, and they were everywhere.”
For the past decade, Waldron has lived in Brussels, Belgium, where the beer, chocolate and mussels are good, and he can smoke as many cigarettes as he likes. Having recorded close to 100 albums as a leader or co-collaborator for a variety of European and Japanese labels since 1969, his performing and recording career continues unabated.
“I hate monotony,” he declares. “To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting to new situations. I want the people opposite me to be adventurous and take risks.”
A cursory scan of his winter schedule substantiates his point. As of late February, Waldron had performed several trio recitals with Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, after returning to home base from 10 days at two Japan Blue Note clubs with Avenel and drummer John Betsch. This happened a month after he recorded an album with Lacy and Avenel for Sketch, a French label, following up on a Billie Holiday oriented duo CD with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (enja), far-flung musical conversations with David Murray (Justin Time) and vocalist Judi Silvano (Soul Note), and a never-released ’70s encounter with bassist Johnny Dyani.
Proficient in German, French and Italian, and working on his Japanese, Waldron’s musical voice speaks to cultures around the globe, and he continues to “keep all the burners going” as he did in ’50s New York. “That’s the prerequisite of staying alive,” he says. “If you can communicate to people in their own language and not struggle for words, they love you more! You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else. You have to have a repertoire.” DB

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, DownBeat, Mal Waldron, Piano, Reggie Workman, WKCR

For Geri Allen’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2010

In recognition of the birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen, here’s the text of a long piece that Jazziz gave me the opportunity to write about her in 2010.

* * *

“Music can be a lot of different things. It can be about the celebration of the intellect. It can be about the celebration of the body and movement. It can be about a quest. It can give you an inner strength, create a fertile place for peace to exist. I think that what I’ve come to want from music is to have all of those things in it.”—Geri Allen

Geri Allen’s concurrent spring 2010 releases on the Motéma label, Flying Toward The Sound and Live, her first since 2006, are works of high distinction. The former, a tour de force subtitled “A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock,” is a suite of eight original compositions on which the composer “refracts”—her terminology—the vocabularies of that distinguished troika into her own lyrical, kinetic argot, conveyed with authority and refinement. The latter, culled from a pair of concerts, is the bebopcentric debut recording of Timeline, an Allen-led unit, conceived a decade ago, with veteran bassist Kenny Davis, youngblood drummer Kasa Overall, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who propel a succession of improvisations that are a step up in intense rhythmic edge and speculative spirit from Allen’s more programmatic, curated recordings of the past decade.

Both offerings were imminent last April when Allen did a week at the Village Vanguard, and considering the context, she might well have treated the occasion as an opportunity for a preview. Instead, she convened a new quartet, with two old friends—tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Jeff Watts—and up-and-coming bassist Joe Sanders. Each contributed two compositions. She functioned as essentially a co-equal member of the ensemble, allowing interpretations to coalesce from night to night in a workshop-like manner, lightly guiding the flow.

“It’s my band, but I decided that I wanted it to be free,” Allen explained over lunch a few days before the summer solstice. “I want everybody to have this opportunity to own it together.”

“Whenever I work with Geri, it’s a family thing, like going to my cousin’s house,” Watts remarks. They met at the cusp of the ‘80s when Allen was working towards a Masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was pretty new to jazz, trying to figure things out,” he recalled. “Geri was fluent in blues and bebop, had absorbed a lot from Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and was studying world music, things about South India and Africa—what pygmies were singing and so on—and applying it to her music. She was already a professional great musician.”

This became apparent to the broader jazz public when Minor Music, a German label, issued Allen’s 1984 debut, The Printmakers, a trio date with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, and Home Grown, a 1985 solo recital. Numerous next-generation pianists took note.

“Her perspective was rooted in tradition, but simultaneously daring and experimental—a truly modern musician,” says Vijay Iyer, who soaked up Home Grown at 17. “Her music contained intense polyphony, like African drumming at the piano. Her groove was really strong, but variable and fluid, almost speechlike at times. She created vibrant colors, and she wasn’t afraid to work with technology. She never had a bag that she was playing, but sounded like herself all the time.”

Jason Moran experienced his eureka moment upon hearing Allen’s brief solo towards the end of the first song on V, a long out of print Ralph Peterson ensemble date.  “I heard phrases I’d had never heard played on piano before, more assured than Andrew Hill, freer than Herbie Nichols—firm but strange ideas that felt almost familiar and inviting, but you were unsure what it was,” he says. “I was convinced she’d made the newest mark on modern jazz piano, the next step into the future.”

It’s hard to think of any comparably prominent musicians among Allen’s ‘80s peer group who matched her willingness to engage with multiple musical dialects, to incorporate both  “inside” and “outside” approaches into her expression. “I don’t see this as a conflict,” Allen says of her comfort zone with crossing lines that most players won’t. “I see it as a right. All artists have the right to make a statement, and it’s my right to interject all my influences, to walk through different points of view, to give respect to all these musics I love while remaining grounded in jazz as my core expression, and embracing the rigors of that choice.”

Towards actualizing this aesthetic, Allen has piggybacked on “the rebel spirit” of the visionary pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, whose compositions and arrangements she most recently performed and music-directed during a three-night centennial birthday tribute at the Kennedy Center in May. Allen launched her intimate relationship with Williams’ corpus during Pittsburgh days, took it to another level when she portrayed Williams in the Robert Altman film Kansas City, and documented it on the 2005 recording Zodiac Suite: Revisited, Allen’s only recording not devoted primarily to her original music.

Most consequentially, Williams’ insistence on establishing her own terms of engagement throughout a half-century in the music business made Allen “feel entitled to try to find my voice through composition.” A further draw was “her level of fearlessness—to be so well-prepared that whatever you throw at this person, they’re going to land on their feet.” At the same time, Allen adds, “Mary represented the absolute core of jazz. She understood the power of knowing and embracing whence she came, which is where true freedom must live.”

Which is why, in 2008, when Williams’ personal manager, Father Peter O’Brien, wrote a Guggenheim Fellowship grant proposal for Allen to develop a solo piano project, she opted to draw on Hancock, Tyner and Taylor for raw materials. “I’ve been teaching a lot for the last few years, and focusing on ensembles,” she said, referencing her position as Associate Professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation Studies at the University of Michigan. “For this, I decided to create a research opportunity that could morph into focusing on the challenges of what playing the piano is.

“These musicians changed the way we think about the piano’s function in ensemble and solo contexts. Their solo language broke through and created shifts. They’re heroes who celebrate human ingenuity. They let us know that to join this continuum, you must do the formidable task of learning the tradition, but also find your voice in that.”

[BREAK]

Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson calls his first Allen sighting—a 1990 Minneapolis performance with Anthony Cox and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff—“one of the most important concerts I ever saw.”

“It was something to do with Africa, something to do with free jazz—spiritual and surreal at the same time,” says Iverson, who was then 19. “She seems to have thought about and reinterpreted each style that concerned her—Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy—in a postmodern way. She’s like a chameleon.”

“Chameleon” is an apropos descriptor for Allen’s pan-stylistic sensibility, informed by several overlapping streams of influence, not least of which emanate from Hancock, Taylor and Tyner for “the amazing power of their sound production, their approaches to touch, their attacks on the instrument,” and their projection of identity through composition. But “Chameleon” is also the title of a popular Hancock tune from 1973, when the teenage Allen was paying close attention to Hancock’s plugged-in Headhunters band. “That sound was on the cutting edge of what I was experiencing growing up,” she says. “It had a feeling that I knew from Detroit’s avant-garde scene, and it opened up my playing, my ideas on freedom, maintaining an audience’s interest through a 25-minute tune. Also, the new sonic quality of the electronica was thrilling.”

She connected to Hancock’s “world-is-my-oyster” attitude “where you could do anything you want with music.” Allen mentioned Hancock’s 2008 Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. “I don’t know if anybody else could have done it,” she said. “That’s the product of a meticulous, well-planned journey—it doesn’t just happen. Then the courage of doing Ravel in G major [“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement” from Hancock’s 1998 release, Gershwin’s World] to create a modern evolution of a piece that was etched in stone.”

Indeed, Allen mirrored Hancock’s path—both developed formidable chops through early classical piano studies, and gestated polymath interests within the pragmatic black culture ethos, particularly prevalent then in enlightened Midwest circles—of placing all musical food groups on the same plate. “It was made clear that, to be a musician, you were fortunate if you could make a living,” she says, “and to do so, you would have to be versatile and open.”

Familiar with jazz through her father’s record collection, involved in music-as-ritual both through church activity and the ferocious R&B and funk soundtrack of the day, Allen—mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who would inspire several subsequent generations of Detroit jazz musicians—embraced the notion of a jazz career not long after entering Cass Tech, Detroit’s top-shelf arts high school.

“I was ready, and once my parents got over the shock, then I was good,” Allen says. She adds that her father, an educator and the son of a minister, was initially dubious about exposing his teenage daughter to the bars and lounges where jazz was played, but relented on the counsel of his close friend Earl Lloyd, a former Fort Wayne Piston who was one of the first African-Americans to play in the NBA.

Another Detroit mentor, dancer Jackie Hillsman, ran a studio on Grand River Avenue where, among other things, dancers and musicians spontaneously improvised together. “Having Maurice Chestnut on stage with me now is directly influenced by that experience,” says Allen, who first documented her sound-in-motion concept on a single duo track with Detroit tap dancer Lloyd Storey on her second album, Open on All Sides…In The Middle. “Coming up in Detroit, we’d play bebop, and there was a generation of folk who would get up and dance,” she recalls. “I practiced having the impact of that feeling in my improvisations, whether in the solo line or the ostinatos I use, and juxtaposing it with the harmonic challenge.” She mentioned a lengthy call-and-response with Chestnut and Kassa Overall on Charlie Parker’s contrapuntal chopbuster “Ah Leu Cha” from Live, noting that Chestnut “shares our challenge to articulate Bird’s virtuosic line and improvise within the same structures.”

Most important, Allen was learning her craft in real time, in the crucible of public performance. She recalls her very first gig, playing keyboards with bassist Ralphe Armstrong at Dummy George’s Jazz Room on McNichols Avenue. “The union man walked in and asked me for my card—I immediately felt the reality of being a professional musician.” Later that evening, local hero pianist Teddy Harris “sat down and slipped me right off the piano bench because I was playing the wrong changes. That established my level of heart,  right off the bat. You learned on the bandstand, and if you were serious you had to develop a thick skin.”

[BREAK]

Allen hit New York in 1982, settling to Brooklyn, where rents were reasonable. She soon found work with Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe; calls from Art Ensemble of Chicago members Joseph Jarman and Lester Bowie soon followed. She met a cohort of best-and-brightest Kings County  peer groupers—among them Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Vernon Reid, Robin Eubanks, Terri Lyne Carrington, Lonnie Plaxico, and Mark Johnson—and they gradually formed a collective known by the acronym M-BASE, exploring ways to extrapolate mixed meters, electronic sounds, and tropes from R&B and Rock into jazz expression.

Within M-BASE, Allen found a space in which to incorporate her varied interests. “In the beginning, it was very organic,” she says. “We were all around the same age, trying to make ends meet, always out listening to music. Everybody was writing, experimenting, sight-reading hard music, challenging each other to upgrade our professionalism. We were embracing everything we liked.” The use of electronics and mixed meters, she adds, “wasn’t a new idea. We took inspiration from Tony Williams and Lifetime, from Miles and Herbie, and then refracted their music in our own way. I was dealing with mixed meters before I came to New York; the goal was to make them sound natural, so it wasn’t like the dress wearing me, but I’m wearing the dress.

“When we think of M-BASE now, it’s definitely Steve Coleman’s conception—he had very specific ideas about composition, so his tunes had an individual sound, as did everyone’s initially. Eventually, the sound became much more institutionalized, so to speak. I have a fluid way that I like to hear music and sound, which wasn’t fitting into that any more, and that’s partly why I decided to move on creatively.”

As that door closed, another opened with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and an equal-billing trio with Haden and Paul Motian that made four recordings between 1987 and 1991 on which Allen established a stylistic room of her own, spare and poetic. On Ralph Peterson’s Triangular, from 1988, documenting another trio, she brought forth a rollicking, buoyant, confident take on bebop roots.

By 1996, Allen had augmented her c.v. with three transformational associations. One was a 1993 project on which she, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette fed the fire for master bebop singer Betty Carter, who admonished Allen “to play upbeats to give momentum to the rhythm section—what I think of as the style of Red Garland.” She continues: “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about comping that way. I was hearing something darker, warmer, richer…in other words, more akin to Ellington and Monk and Herbie Nichols. Jack and Dave had played with Miles, and they understood what she was saying.”  Thus prepared, Allen recorded a ferocious date in March 1994 with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, “where I went from being an excited observer of that sound to an actual participant,” foreshadowing a subsequent decade spent assimilating Hancock’s pianistic vocabulary into her own conception, particularly on recordings by trumpeter Wallace Roney, then her husband.

There was also a heady three-year gig, including two recordings and several tours, with Haden’s one-time employer Ornette Coleman, who had last worked with a pianist more than thirty-five years before, who honored her by performing two duo selections on Eyes…In the Back Of Your Head, her final Blue Note recording, released in 1997. “Playing with Ornette shifted my conception of the piano,” Allen says. “The sound was more important than the notes, though technical prowess was important, too. It’s very much like your first try at double dutch—what not to do, how not to reduce what’s there, but contribute something to help propel the music.”

A broader lesson, which Allen seems always to have understood innately, is to be willing, when necessary, “to be told what to do” in order to meet the demands of distinguished elder artists. She recalls her early New York years: “Some concepts I was more prepared for than others, but I’d go back to the drawing board and work through the equation. If you choose to deal with your weakness in an area that’s being challenged, you grow; if not, it just gets harder the next time you have to confront it. It does not go away. This is how life is.”

[BREAK]

Even in 2010, the upper echelons of instrumental jazz remain primarily a men’s club. It’s no easier than it ever was for jazzwomen to balance the demands of their profession—the travel, the need to carve out personal space to practice and reflect—with those of parenting.  Allen’s responsibilities are nothing if not substantial—a single mother of three since her recent split from Roney, she continues to tour while also fulfilling a weekly three-day obligation in Michigan when school is in session. But nothing seems to deter Allen from moving forward creatively.

“Women in my family always worked, including my mother,” Allen says. “As I was growing up, she was a defense contract administrator for the government, high up in rank, and well respected for her work ethic and fairness. Then she came home and was a great mom. She and my father raised me to be fearless, and pray. I felt that it would be a challenge as a jazz musician, but it couldn’t be so different from any other working mom who traveled as part of their career.”

She brought her children on the road until they reached school age, and retained a mother’s helper, who remains in her employ, when her youngest daughter, now 12, was six months old. “I have never had to worry about whether my children were well cared for,” Allen says.“That idea of family has been core in my life. My church has also become core in my life. My family is spiritually based, and service to the community is an important part of our legacy. I’ve seen that from the way my father mentored students through the years. In the same way, musicians in the community shared themselves with and made room for the next generation.”

Such bedrock kept Allen’s focus on the bigger picture at “rough moments when I felt musicians really were being mean” because of gender. “Most of the musicians were coming from a place of respect for the music, trying to get to something, and so was I,” she says. “I choose to remember the life-changing experiences, the ones that are pure humanity—life lessons about connecting with  people in highly evolved ways.  I think the real power of this music is that it can transform through authentic connections with others.

“It’s amazing to take a bird’s eye view of all the connections. I’m grateful and proud to have earned my place in New York, to be part of something so important that goes way back. I wouldn’t trade any of it—each and every breakthrough, and those other moments where you wondered why you were still trying to be here. The ups and the downs. I have faith that there is a reason for both.”

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Filed under Article, Detroit, Geri Allen, M-BASE, Piano

To Mark Larry Willis’ 71st Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2006

Pianist Larry Willis — a Harlem native and alumnus of Music & Art — turns 71 today. To denote the occasion, here’s the unedited version of the Blindfold Test he did with me in 2006.

Larry Willis Blindfold Test:

1.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “The Hard One” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2002) (Rubalcaba, piano; Carlo Enriquez, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums)

I can’t quite pinpoint who this is. But whoever it is, the way he plays lines, the note ideas, he’s obviously listened a lot to Herbie. I hear a lot of that in this. Some of it might remind you a little bit of Randy Weston. But I say that rhythmically. He’s got great facility. I’m going to give this 4 stars. I like the approach. It goes everywhere. So everybody is obviously thinking about how to deal with this rhythmically. That’s the thing I like about it. I like both the rhythmic and harmonic approach. But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Boy, what a fantastic pianist he is. He’s a very welcome addition to today’s jazz piano. Besides, he’s a really nice kid. [He’s 43.] Well, he’s a kid to me. I got him by 20 years. The composition rubs me a little bit on the negative side. I honestly feel… The Cuban part I like, but it’s very difficult for me to focus in on anything. There’s just a little bit too much going on for me.

2.   Michael Weiss, “Walter Davis Ascending” (from MILESTONES, Steeplechase, 1998) (Weiss, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Jackie McLean, composer)

I don’t know who it is, but the touch is so reminiscent of Hank Jones. Maybe not so much the ideas. Maybe Lewis Nash on drums. But it sounds awfully good. I’m having difficulty trying to hinge the tune. I love the composition. The left hand is not quite in that style, but I hear Bill Evans also. Compositionally, it sounds like something that Bill might play. Is this a contemporary of mine? [No.] Older? Younger. He’s a teenager. I’m going to step out on a limb. Is this Kirk Lightsey? This is this tune written by somebody that I know very well. It’s Jackie’s tune. 3 stars. It doesn’t quite grab me. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional, as far as I’m concerned. But the performance of it is good.

3.   Chano Dominguez, “No Me Platiques, Mas” (from CON ALMA, Venus, 2003) (Dominguez, piano; George Mraz, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

It’s a nice waltz. I don’t think it’s him, but the touch and harmonic approach remind me a lot of Ray Bryant. But I don’t think this is something Ray would play. Then here again, I don’t know who could be playing. I love the sound of the trio. It’s very well-integrated, everybody’s listening to everybody, and I like the approach, the concept of what they’re doing. It’s quasi early Bill Evans trio. The bass player is playing very loose, the drummer is not playing time so strictly, and I like the approach. Could the bassist be George Mraz? Yeah, it sounds like Bounce. We call him the Bouncing Czech. Is this Richie Beirach? A lot of Bill Evans here. Could this be somebody like Denny Zeitlin? You got me. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him, but I know who he is.

4.   Denny Zeitlin, “Bemsha Swing” (from SOLO VOYAGE, MaxJazz, 2005) (Zeitlin, piano; Thelonious Monk, piano)

“Bemsha Swing.” One of the problems that I’m having is that Jazz, as far as the growth and development of the art, has reached an impasse. I’ve heard no new voices, particularly at the piano, no new schools of thought since 1968, and I think a lot of that has had to do with the way the record industry has crept into this, and basically destroyed a lot of the bands where young players could serve apprenticeship. When I came along, there was the Jazz Messengers, there was Miles’ band, there was Trane’s band, there was Horace Silver’s quintet, a lot of working bands where you could develop. But that doesn’t exist. So what I’m hearing is a lot of retread. [In this performance?] In general. This sounds like Randy to me. But here again, I don’t know who it is. I love what he’s doing. I’m going to give it 5 stars. He plays enough of the piano to let you know that he knows what he’s doing at the instrument, but the whole thing just comes off. I like the harmonic approach. The ideas are nice. I know where it’s coming from, but I can’t tell what records he’s listening to. Let’s put it that way. I like that. He’s put some thought into what he’s doing. [Older guy? Younger guy?] Maybe my age. The concept. He plays good stride. I like how he’s interpreting Monk. Understanding that music is not necessarily something that falls out of a tree. And he doesn’t play too much. Let me put it this way. The element of taste is very prevalent here. What he’s doing, everything seems to be in the right place; he does it at the right time. When he starts to stride, it adds instead of making me feel he’s doing it just to show you that he can. All this is integrated into the music. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin? Makes a lot of sense to me.

5.  Martin Wacilewski, “Plaza Real” (from TRIO, ECM, 2005) (Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

This is a nice trio. I don’t know who it is. Harmonically I love it. Also, the piano is really well-recorded. He’s listened to Bill, that’s for sure. That last little run is a Bill Evans run! He was a very influential piano player! But there’s also a lot of Herbie’s harmonic approach. Right there! I like it. 4½ stars. [AFTER] They should keep doing what they’re doing!

6.   Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

This sounds like it might be two piano players. Sure is covering a lot of ground. There are two piano players. [Who are they?] Is it Hank and Tommy? No, that’s not Hank. Or Tommy. I haven’t a clue. [Are you sure it’s two piano players?] Yes, I’m sure. Or at least somebody overdubbed something. [It’s one piano player.] Wow. [Live.] Live?! The lines are good. They’re not great. But to play that much with just two hands is doing a lot. It’s not Oscar. I haven’t a clue. 3½ stars. It just doesn’t reach out and grab me.

7.   Jason Moran, “Out Front” (from PRESENTS THE BANDWAGON, Blue Note, 2003) (Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Jaki Byard, composer)

There’s something almost Steve Kuhn-ish about this—approach, concept, touch, ideas. But I know it’s not Steve. I like it. He’s got a lot of chops, whoever he is. [Are you familiar with this tune?] No. But for some reason, the name of Jaki Byard is sticking in my head. It sounds like some music he’d play or some music coming from him. It just rubs me that way. I love the treatment. But I can’t figure out who it is! Sounds like they’ve been playing together for a minute. Sounds like a younger player—the sound of the instrument. It doesn’t sound like an older personality. I’m almost going to step out on a limb and say it’s somebody like Marcus Roberts. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of information here to decipher. [Do you like that?] Yes and no. I’ve always been one to think that less is more, and because the piano is such a complicated instrument, the 88-to-10 odds empower me to be more simplistic in my approach. I think sometimes piano players get so involved in the 88-to-10 odds that the music takes somewhat of a back seat. That’s happening here. It’s more of a show than music. 3 stars. It isn’t bad! If it gets below 3, that means I don’t like it.

8.   Edward Simon, “Abiding Unicity” (from UNICITY, CAM, 2006) (Simon piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

The bass player is great. It’s not George. It’s not Eddie Gomez. Is it Richard Davis? I’m trying to think of how many bass players have that kind of arco technique. Is the pianist from outside of the United States? [Yes. But he’s lived in the States for a long time.] I asked because of the approach to rhythm. [What part of the world is the piano player from?] He’s either from Europe or he’s from Japan. How can I put this? Because I’m an American and jazz comes from here, and I’ve been listening to it for a long time from an American perspective, the whole concept of playing inside the pulse framework is a little deeper here than I hear coming from other places, and I think… It’s not a putdown. It’s just that if you don’t grow up in a culture, it’s very difficult to assimilate the little subtleties of whatever that is into your playing if you haven’t experienced it. [That affects how you’re hearing this.] Yes. But let’s back up. It affects me in this context. What I am trying to say is not a bad thing. That’s just how it is. For example, as close as he came to being involved with an American approach to playing jazz, I still hear that difference in somebody’s playing like Joe Zawinul, for example. There’s always a tendency to… It sounds like it’s on the surface almost. The piece is okay. It started out great, and then it went someplace else that I didn’t particularly care for. If it started like what he’s doing now, then I might feel more compelled to… It just doesn’t get inside my body. 3 stars. [AFTER] Patitucci and Blade always seem to be together. I heard them with Wayne, I heard them with Herbie…

9.  Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1980/2002) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning-Orsted Pederson, bass; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I like the piano player. It’s a very nice, refreshing treatment of this song. Whoever it is, they’ve certainly paid attention to the Nat Cole Trio—or the King Cole Trio. I like this. I’m almost going to say Mulgrew. Is the guitar player Russell Malone perchance? Is the guitarist an older player? [Yes.] Older than me? [No.] Well, it’s not Cedar. It doesn’t sound like Barry Harris. Now, that sounds like Hank right there. Whoever it is, they’ve really listened to Hank’s approach to playing the instrument. Hank’s got one of the cleanest, clearest, prettiest sounds coming out of the piano in the history of this music, I feel. And whoever this is, I like very, very much. Harmonically, technically, just the general approach to playing the instrument. He’s got a great sound. 5 stars. [AFTER] [LOUD LAUGH] Okay.

10,  Bebo Valdes, “Lamento Cubano” (from EL ARTE DEL SABOR, Blue Note, 2000) (Bebo Valdes, piano; Israel “Cachao” Lopez, bass; Carlos “Patato” Valdes; congas)

An older pianist. From Cuba. Bebo Valdes. The sound, concept, touch. That’s Bebo! He’s a really unique player. First of all, as a pianist, he’s assimilated the world’s concept of playing the jazz piano and formulated it into a very unique concept of playing the piano—and playing that music, playing Cuban music. I love him, first of all, because he’s got a great sound from the piano. Then, his minimalist approach pleases me immensely. In a sense, he reminds me, if I can make an analogy, of Ahmad Jamal, for example. He shows you just enough technique to let you know that he’s got it, but the rest is focused on playing some music that will allow you to assimilate it. 5 stars. I asked Miles one time… There’s a great story about him going over and hearing Clifford Brown, and then just saying to him, “Brownie, why are you playing all of those notes? Nobody hears that.” I asked Miles about it, and he said, what it is, when you’re playing music for people other than musicians, they can’t assimilate and decipher all that information and have it come out music that touches their souls. So a lot of what you play gets wasted on just you showing off and how much technique you have. Oscar doesn’t do that, and he’s got a world of technique. Art Tatum didn’t do that, and he had a world of technique. But a lot of players play too much. Too much information. The ultimate objective of all of this is not to be the greatest… I’m not trying to be the greatest piano player in the world. I want to be the best musician I can be. Because the instrument is there for you to play music on.

11.  Chick Corea, “Celia” (from REMEMBERING BUD POWELL, 1997) (Corea, piano; Bud Powell, composer)

It sounds like Barry Harris playing “Celia.” Or somebody from that generation. [It’s someone from your generation.] They really understand the concept of bebop, the bebop school of thought as far as playing the piano is concerned. Kenny Barron? He’s listened to bebop quite a bit. He’s played it quite a bit. Hmm. From my generation? 4 stars. [AFTER] Okay. All right. Aside from the music that he’s been able to come out with and has been so successful with, there’s a bit of a chameleon in Chick as far as playing the piano. I’ve heard him play duets with Herbie, and he’s got one face there. I hear this, it’s another face. I hear what he does, for example, with Return to Forever; that’s another face. I heard him with Stan Getz; that’s another face. Yes, Armando!

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Larry Willis, Piano

For the 78th Birthday Anniversary of Bobby Timmons (1935-1974), A Liner Note and Five Interviews Conducted For It

For the 78th birthday anniversary of the late, great pianist Bobby Timmons (Dec. 19, 1935-March 1, 1974), I’m posting a liner note that I wrote for a Fantasy Records “Best Of” culled from his Riverside recordings, and interviews from an elite group of associates and friends: Albert “Tootie” Heath, Kenny Barron, Reggie Workman, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. I had fun putting this one together.

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“The Best Of Bobby Timmons,” Liner Notes:

It seems apparent, given the dearth of first person testimony in the liner notes for his numerous recordings for Riverside and Prestige, that in matters of self-description, pianist Bobby Timmons [1935-1974] held firmly to the dictum that music speaks louder than words.

Cherrypicked from seven Riverside albums between 1960 and 1963, The Best Of Bobby Timmons, if nothing else, highlights that Timmons was one of the seminal communicators of his generation. He was 24 when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to the Timmons ditties “Moanin” and “This Here,” which had debuted instrumentally on stirring albums with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet that were released in 1959. Soon thereafter, Oscar Brown’s version of “Dat Dere,” originally documented by Adderley in February 1960, made it onto jukeboxes around the country. On the strength of these hits, Timmons cut his sideman affiliations in 1961, and accepted a string of national bookings with his own trio. Much to his discomfort, “soul jazz” would be the label forever be affixed to his name.

Out of South Philadelphia, a bebop hotbed in his formative years, Timmons’ music was relentlessly earthy and primal. He was anything but primitive, but a soulful perspective was in his bones.

“Bobby’s grandfather raised him around the corner from where our family grew up,” says drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the baby brother of bassist Percy and tenor saxophonist Jimmy. “His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby played in his grandfather’s church. Later he came into jazz. We didn’t go to elementary school together, but later I saw him quite a bit. He took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who taught harmony to most of my young friends, and was an educator for a lot of people, like Lee Morgan and Jimmy Garrison. We played as a trio at dances at fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania, and were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe along with Lee and some other people who went on to get big names in jazz.

“We would imitate whatever we could from records – Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group – and we liked Ahmad Jamal. I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ahmad came to Philadelphia with Vernell and Richard Davis, and we were too young to go in the club, so we stood outside, and heard what we could whenever the door opened. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.”

In the trio, the aspirants completed the triangle with bassists like Garrison, Eddie Matthias, Spanky DeBrest, Jymie Merritt, and occasionally, Reggie Workman.

“Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling whatever the engagement called for,” recalls Workman.  “We all had to do everything, jazz clubs as well as dances, cabarets and parties. That’s where the music was heard and made. I remember Bobby  as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say. He was always an ardent dresser, neat in his music and in his personality. He was also very witty. It all turned up in his music. No matter what he was doing, he always had his personal voice. You’d know that it was Bobby Timmons doing it.”

Timmons moved to New York in 1954, honing his craft on consequential jobs with Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker. In the summer of 1958, Benny Golson, recently recruited by Art Blakey to bring a new sound to the Jazz Messengers, brought Timmons, Morgan and Merritt into the fold.

“He was inventive,” says Golson, “He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He could play bebop and he could play funky – he could play a lot of things, and I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby, who could go here or go there, rather than walking in a single corridor.”

As the Messengers hit the road, Golson noticed that Timmons frequently would “play this little funky lick in between the tunes.” He continues: “I got used to hearing it, and after he’d play it, he would say, ‘Ah, that sure is funky.’ I’d say, ‘Sure is.’ We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, and I called a rehearsal. Bobby said, ‘We’ve got everything down; why are we going to rehearse?’ I said, ‘You know that little lick you play?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, ‘No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand and compose a bridge.’ In about half-an-hour he said, ‘Come and listen,’ and then he played it. I said, ‘Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.’ He did something, and called me over in about 15 minutes and asked what I thought.  I could see he didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘That’s it. Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.’ Then I said, ‘Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ He said, ‘“Well, it sounds like moaning.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

In the fall of 1959, Timmons left the Messengers for Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, in which he, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes formed a slamming rhythm section on Live At The Jazz Workshop and Them Dirty Blues.  He returned in the spring of 1960, in time to appear on classic Messenger dates like Night In Tunisia, The Big Beat, The Freedom Rider and The Witch Doctor .

“I had to play ‘Moanin’ and ‘Dat Dere’ when I joined the Messengers,” says Cedar Walton, Timmons’ successor in the piano chair. “They were arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. I was hardcore when I got in the band, and couldn’t imagine playing them. But once I got there, I found myself enjoying them. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen, which was a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Timmons addresses with relish throughout this well-wrought compilation, consisting of six Timmons originals, each with hummable hooks and tasty changes, and seven show tunes of the torchy persuasion. Powell’s presence is everywhere. Note the fleet runs on “Old Devil Moon” and “Easy Does It,”  the stark substitutions he deploys on the brief intro to “God Bless the Child,” the voicings that pop up on “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “Goodbye,” the Dameronian flavor on the bridge of “So Tired.” As Ron Carter puts it, “Bobby wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer like, Benny Golson. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melodies and songs so that the band could tell the difference from night to night, but it would sound the same for the audience. He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.”

Although Timmons was a bandleader with a firm, distinctive point of view, he was never rigid. “He would accept input,” Carter says. “He always remembered my basslines from the other night. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before. Can we play the same idea in a different key, or play it slower, or develop another way to make the song work? I’d say, ‘Bobby, that isn’t working; can we find something else to do with that?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, what?’ If my idea worked, that would become part of the tune. Tootie would suggest something, Bobby would say, ‘I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.’ So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.”

The chronology ends in 1963, when Soul Jazz was no longer ascendent, the national circuit was drying up, and the tragic shadow that dogged so many of Timmons’ heroes began to attach itself to him. “Bobby stayed in town more,” says Carter, who recorded with Timmons as late as 1967. “We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at places like the Lion’s Head and the Needle’s Eye.”

“Bobby was a wild cat,” Walton says, and indeed, Timmons did drink himself to death, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1974. But the darkness never entered his music. As Carter notes, “I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. I’m not sure how you can call ‘Moanin’” indicative of Bobby’s giving personality or ‘Dis Here’ with the fact that he would go to the mat for you.”

“He had no ego about him,” Golson adds. “He was always upbeat, never downbeat, and he never maligned anybody unless it was in a humorous way. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, and he could PLAY funky, but he could also get into things. Of course, now is a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.”

Ted Panken

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Tootie Heath on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    In reading the program notes from Bobby Timmons’ records, only one had an interview with him, and all of them say mostly the same thing. I was talking with Reggie Workman about another subject, and Reggie told me a little. But I knew you grew up nearby and were the same age, and knew him well.

HEATH:  We kind of grew up together and we grew apart together also. After the New York days, he went in his own direction.  I didn’t see Bobby much after Art Blakey. I think our trio was before Art Blakey.

TP:    I think it was after his first time with Art. He joined in ’59 with “Moanin’” — that’s when “Moanin’” because famous. Then he went with Cannonball.

HEATH:  Right.  For a short period. A year.

TP:    Then he went back with Art for a while. That seems to be when he formed the trio.

HEATH:  Right. That’s when the trio came in. After all of that, I guess.

TP:    A number of the first records are with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, so I guess he did those when he was with Cannonball, and maybe that’s how he came to sign with Riverside. But you were part of the first working trio?

HEATH:  Yes, I think so. With Ron Carter. We even played that around Philadelphia, before we left Philly, as a trio sometimes, with Jimmy Rowser and a couple of other local bass players. Mostly Jimmy Rowser, and sometimes Eddie Matthias, Jimmy Bond, and Reggie a few times.

TP:    Can you tell me anything about his musical background?

HEATH:  All I know is that we were all on the same mission. We were all practicing and studying and listening to records and learning as much as we could about jazz.  Bobby did play in church. His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby did play in his grandfather’s church. He lived with his grandfather. Actually, his grandfather raised him around the corner from where we lived, where our family grew up. So I saw Bobby quite a bit, and he took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who was there, teaching harmony to most of my young friends and a lot of people. An educator for a lot of people.

TP:    That would have been when he had the big band in ’47 and ‘48?

HEATH:  A little after that. Because Bobby… We weren’t quite there for the big band stuff.  I mean, I was there in the house. But we were 10-11 years old during that time.  But later in life, when we were in high school or junior high school…

TP:    ‘48-’49…

HEATH:  Yeah.  ‘50, around in there. Then Jimmy was very helpful with Lee Morgan and Bobby and Jimmy Garrison and a whole lot of people. That’s who played bass with us, too, a lot — Jimmy Garrison.

TP:    Did Bobby get to know Bud Powell at all, like McCoy Tyner did?

HEATH:  I have no idea. I never knew Bud Powell in Philadelphia. I knew his brother, Richard, but I never knew Bud. Bud was gone. And they lived outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. I knew Richard from his period with Max Roach.

TP:    May I ask one or two detailed questions? What was the name of the church where his grandfather was minister?

HEATH:  I have no idea. Bobby had a sister, too, named Eleanor, who died maybe 10-15 years ago, long after him.

TP:    When did you meet him?  You were 11-12 years old?

HEATH:  Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t go to elementary school together. I don’t know what school he went to. I went to school in South Philly with some different guys, like Sam Reed and Ted Curson and guys like that. But Bobby kind of came all of a sudden, because he was playing the piano, but he was playing church music, and he came later into jazz music, into being interested in jazz — around 15 or so.

TP:    Did you play in teenage combos?

HEATH:  Yeah, we played as a trio. We played some fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania. Bobby was kind of a favorite on some of those dances. I used to do things with Bobby and Ray Bryant. We also were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe, and Lee Morgan was in that band and some other people who had gone on to be rather big-name people in jazz. But Bobby was also in the big band with us, and we played some dances, and then we played some trio stuff around in the fraternity houses. That was kind of a good thing to do as a teenager.

TP:    So when you were 16-17 years old, ‘51, ‘52, ‘53.

HEATH:  Well, in ’58 I came to New York, when I joined J.J.’s band. But I used to go back and forth to New York, and I think all of us did that for a while until we all made the final move. We had an apartment down there on the Lower East Side with Bobby and Lee Morgan and Spanky DeBrest.

TP:    You all lived  in an apartment together?

HEATH:  Yeah, we had an apartment on Fifth Street, 315 East  Fifth Street. Elvin Jones lived across the street, Ted Curson lived on that block, Jon Hendricks lived on that block, Kenny Barron’s brother Bill. A lot of musicians. I think it was between Third and Second. We used to walk around the corner to the Five Spot.

TP:    Maybe it was 215.

HEATH:  Maybe it was 215.  But it was not far from the Five Spot. We’d go right around the corner, and Ornette was there and sometimes Mingus would be playing. Actually, we never played in there because we weren’t quite there yet. We were in bands. Bobby was with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

TP:    So you were part of the Manhattan contingent. There was a big Brooklyn contingent, too.

HEATH:  Yeah.  We all lived in Manhattan. Jimmy Garrison and I got a place in Brooklyn later, which didn’t last very long, but we did have one there.

TP:    When you were playing combo at 16 or 17 around Philadelphia, what kinds of things were you playing?  Was it mostly Bobby’s arrangements?

HEATH:  Yeah, some of it was his. A lot of stuff we were just imitating recordings. We would play whatever we could from records. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group — whomever.

TP:    But were there any piano trios he was emulating or trying to get with?

HEATH:  Yeah.  We liked Ahmad Jamal. Jamal’s music was popular around that time. Ahmad had his club during that time, and that’s when his stuff was real hot, because they sat in that one club and played for five years, and that’s where they developed the sound of the Ahmad Jamal trio. We heard their music. They used to come to Philadelphia, and of course, I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ron was going in his own direction already.

TP:    In ’51 and ‘52, Ahmad had recorded, but at the time he had a trio with Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.

HEATH:  This trio that we liked and saw was with Vernell and Israel. Actually, the first one I saw was with Vernell and Richard Davis. They used to come to Philadelphia, and we were too young to go in the club, so we would kind of just stand outside, and whenever the door would open we could hear a little bit.  That’s how we got to loving Ahmad’s style of trio music. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.

TP:    That sort of organization.

HEATH:  Yeah, and the arrangements and the interesting things they used to do together.

TP:    Well, it’s a very orchestrated style. The drums would have a role and a voice and the bass…

HEATH:  That was it. Those were the guys for us.

TP:    How about pianistically? Was he modeling himself after anyone? You hear a lot of Bud in his playing. There’s some Horace Silver and…

HEATH:  He liked Horace Silver and Ahmad, and I’m sure he liked Bud, too.  But I didn’t get that part of him, the Bud Powell thing.

TP:    Do you remember him speaking to you about influences ever?

HEATH:  No.

TP:    Were you not such close friends, but just musical colleagues?

HEATH:  No, we were close.

TP:    What was he like personally?

HEATH:  That’s hard. We were young people, and being young guys.

TP:    Was he a humorous guy?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he had a great personality.  People liked him.

TP:    Do you think he maybe developed that in the church a bit, that performing for church people from a young age gave him a public personality early on?

HEATH:  I doubt it.  Because in the church, you don’t really have a voice in there. You just sit up and do what you do. I doubt if he… I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

TP:    Was he a very warm person?

HEATH:  Yes. Sure. He dressed immaculately all the time. He was very conscious about his appearance.

TP:    On all the albums, you see him in a very form-fitting suit, and he’s so skinny, he fits it well.  Was he a chukka-boot wearer?

HEATH:  He probably did. I think that’s something that everyone was doing at one time.

TP:    Was he painstaking with his arrangements?  Did he go over them with a fine-tooth comb?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He was very particular about his music.

TP:    He was particular about the way he dressed and particular about his music. What were the rehearsals like? Was he very specific about the drum parts?

HEATH:  I don’t really remember. I remember us, as part of our development, sitting down and playing, but I don’t remember a so-called rehearsal where we had something… He just accepted whatever I did, and I listened to what he was doing, and tried to fill in what I thought it should be, and he didn’t have any specific drum parts or bass parts or any of that. We developed that from playing together.

TP:    There’s a recording on Riverside of a gig at the Vanguard. Do you remember the circumstances of that recording?  Were you playing as an opening act for another band?

HEATH:  No. I think we were the only group in there.

TP:    I remember seeing old handbills, and Ahmad Jamal would be opening for Miles or something.

HEATH:  No, we weren’t a part of anything like that. We had our own week down there when we did our recording.

TP:    Were there good crowds?  Was he very popular?

HEATH:  Yeah.  He had a lot of fans.

TP:    Because of those tunes.

HEATH:  Yeah, a lot of people liked them.

TP:    Were those tunes like “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere” and “Dis Here” on jukeboxes?

HEATH:  No. I don’t remember hearing them on jukeboxes until the vocal recordings came around, with Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross and those people. When they started doing them, then it took on a whole nother character.

TP:    Would the music evolve over a week, or once the music was set, was it set?

HEATH:  No, we played together. So it changed. Whenever he did something, we would follow him. Or if we did something that he liked, he would follow us. That’s how we developed. That’s how the Miles Davis band developed.  That was the way in those days. Sitting down and having rehearsals with parts and “you do this and I…” – that wasn’t a part of it. We were a working trio, so every night was a rehearsal.

TP:    Do you happen to recall the year the trio started functioning as a working trio? Would that have been around ‘60? When he left Cannonball…

HEATH:  I would say yes. But I’m sure you can look back and get some records on it.

TP:    But you had been out on the road with J.J., and you were playing drums on a lot of sessions, particularly on Riverside, and Jimmy had a relationship with Riverside at the time as well. Is there any particular quality about him that you’d want people to know about?

HEATH:  No.  I think he was just a person, and he was a decent person, and I never saw him do anything wrong to anybody.

TP:    Any injuries he causes were to himself.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did, like we all did during those days.

TP:    But he sure paid a heavy price.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did.  He got on out of here really young.

TP:    Your relationship sort of ended around ‘63-’64?  You didn’t see much of him after that?

HEATH:  I don’t know where Bobby was, but I was traveling around in New York with different people and playing with different groups and traveling myself, and I kind of lost touch with Bobby.  I mean, I talked to him whenever I’d see him somewhere.

TP:    I think he was a victim of the way the sound of the music changed then in some ways.  Did the trio travel?

HEATH:  We did a West Coast tour.  We went to Detroit; I remember that. We went out to California and the Jazz Workshop out there. We did a lot of playing around New York and in the New York area, the Village Gate and places like that around the city. Yeah, we played quite a bit, for maybe two or three years.

TP:    How much would you say you were on the road?

HEATH:  Well, our traveling wasn’t that intense.

TP:    So it wasn’t like you’d be in a car for 30 weeks a year, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit. You didn’t do that circuit.

HEATH:  No.  Most of the times, we flew. We were flying.

TP:    Was he easy to play with?

HEATH:  Yeah. Well, I can say that I always felt that we were all in the same place in our development. I can’t say that Bobby was any greater than anybody else in the band, and neither was I, and neither was Ron Carter. We were all just kind of developing and trying to find our way.

TP:    But he was the composer. I guess that set him off.

HEATH:  He was the composer and he was the leader. He got the gigs. So that made him a little different.

TP:    Do you remember who was the manager or the agent?

HEATH:  I think Orrin did the California trip. I don’t remember who did the other stuff.

Kenny Barron on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you get to know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

BARRON:  I didn’t know him in Philly. Only from seeing him in New York.

TP:    Did you get to know him in New York?

BARRON:  Not well.

TP:    Were you checking his stuff out?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. Actually, the first time I ever heard his name is when I was in junior high school, in my music class.  One day we had a substitute teacher, and she was asking if anybody liked jazz, and a few people raised their hands. Then she said… This was a black woman. She said, ‘I have a cousin named Bobby Timmons, who plays piano with Chet Baker.” That’s the first time I heard his name.

TP:    But you never caught him around Philly.

BARRON:  No, I didn’t meet him until I moved to New York.

TP:    Did you like the trio stuff?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. I did.

TP:    Did you ever play those hits, “Dat Dere,” “Dis Here”?

BARRON:  Yeah, I’ve played them.

TP:    What are they like to play?

BARRON:  They’re fun. They’re fun to play on.

TP:    Are they tricky?  Are there things in them that go beyond the obvious? Did he put  twists and turns in his stuff?

BARRON:  They’re not unusually tricky. I wouldn’t say that.  But they’re catchy.

TP:    People still like those tunes.

BARRON:  Oh yeah. When you can have somebody write lyrics for your stuff, that means there’s something there.
Reggie Workman on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about your recollections about Bobby Timmons?

WORKMAN:  Let me turn the page.  The mental page.

TP:    I know you grew up in a different part of Philly, and you’re three years younger.  But I figure you must have crossed paths at various points.

WORKMAN:  Of course.  You know, the music community is very small — actually worldwide. No matter where you go, you always run into people who are thinking somewhat in the same direction that you are. Therefore, I ran into Bobby Timmons’ neighbors, and the Heath brothers, and Bobby Green and all the guys down in South Philadelphia often, because whatever was happening, if there was something musical happening, one of those persons would be there — and Bobby was often on the scene.  I remember him as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say.  And it always turned up in the music.

You know who reminded me of him when I first saw him a lot at the school was Carlos McKinney.  The way that Carlos McKinney is now, Bobby used to be when he was young.  He was always an ardent dresser, he was always a very neat person in his music, very neat in his personality, and very witty as far as being a person was concerned.  That always turns up in the music.  And he’s always reflected his experience in his music, no matter what he was doing.  You could hear… And he always had his personal voice, no matter what he was doing.  No matter what kind of job he was doing, you would know that was Bobby Timmons doing it.

TP:    This being in Philly before he came to New York, as well as after…

WORKMAN:  That was Bobby.  And that was the aesthetic of the music then. Back in those days, that was as much of a thing to strive for as playing music right, was to find out this voice is MINE; this is the way that I express myself, and this is the way… Therefore, anybody you hear from the era that Bobby lived, you know who they are. You can hear who they are without question when you hear their audio sound.

TP:    Were you in the Messengers at the same time as he?

WORKMAN:  No.  He was in the Messengers before I was.

TP:    I think he did it twice, in ’59, the Moanin’ session, and then he came back in ’61, before Cedar came  in.  Were you ever part of his trio?

WORKMAN:  Well, we worked around Philadelphia on occasion.

TP:    What was he like as a leader?  Was he very organized, did he have…

WORKMAN:  That I don’t recall.

TP:    Was the music stimulating to play?  Were there challenges?  Did it go beyond the basic bass function?

WORKMAN:  Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling the engagement, whatever it was calling for.  Because there are many different types of things we had to do. We didn’t come together that often, but when we came together, it was because of some situation around Philadelphia where we happened to cross paths, and instead of Eddie Matthias or instead of Spanky or instead of Garrison, I might be on the scene.  It was seldom, but it happened.

TP:    So those were the bass players he played with most often in Philly.

WORKMAN:  That I can remember.  Of course, there was Jimmy Bond, there was Jimmy Rowser, there was Jymie Merritt.  There were so many bass players from Philly that when you got a chance to cross paths with one of the musicians, you were lucky.  Of course, I was young then. I was just honing my craft, just beginning to develop, and I was from a different part of town.

TP:    At that time, would his scene be mostly in Philly’s jazz clubs, or would he be playing dances and parties…

WORKMAN:  We all had to do everything. We all had to do jazz clubs as well as dances… Dances and parties were as much a part of the… As you know about the Savoy Ballroom with Charlie Parker, they were as much a part of the arena in our community as any club or any other place. Cabarets and parties and dance clubs, and special occasions were… That’s where the music was heard. That’s where the music was made.

TP:    It was part of the community.

WORKMAN:  That’s right.

Cedar Walton on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

WALTON: Pretty well, yeah.

TP:    I’m doing a liner note for a best-of compilation. Was he in New York when you got here?

WALTON:  Probably so. I didn’t meet him until he joined the Messengers. The mother of my three children was friendly with his wife, and there was a Bobby Timmons, Jr. I think I got better acquainted with him when he was in the Messengers.  But he had gigs with Chet Baker and Kenny Baker, gigs all around.

TP:    Well, he got famous with “Moanin’” with the Messengers, then he went with Cannonball for a year, then he went with the Messengers for a bit, and then you joined the Messengers.

WALTON: Right. I replaced him.

TP:    Did he leave just because he had so many trio gigs?

WALTON: That was for him to know and me to find out. I just got the call. Where he went and what he did, I didn’t… But probably so.

TP:    What did you think of his trio at the time?

WALTON: I thought it was fine. It would be hard for me to find fault with anything. He had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, as I recall, on his first trio outing.  But it might not have been his first. It’s the first one I know.

TP:    He recorded with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb when he was with Cannonball, but when he got the trio working, it was with Tootie and Ron Carter. He grew up in Philly with Tootie. What kind of person was he?

WALTON: That’s a great question. All I know is he was the son of a minister, and moved into a building on Sterling Place in Brooklyn with Estrella and Bobby, Jr. Freddie Hubbard was a neighbor as well as Louis Hayes. But very shortly after that, Bobby made his home in the Village.

TP:    East 5th Street. Tootie said they had an apartment on East 5th Street.

WALTON: Right.  But he ended up in the West Village, hanging out at Boomer’s. His favorite bars were over on that side by the time I caught up with him.

TP:    Was he a witty guy? A friendly guy?

WALTON: Sure.  A typical Philadelphia type. I hesitate to…

TP:    What’s a typical Philadelphia type?

WALTON: Joking all the time.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

WALTON: Yeah, he did care about his wardrobe.

TP:    Did you play his tunes?

WALTON: Yeah.  I had to play “Moanin’” when I joined the Messengers, and also “Dat Dere.” I don’t think we played “Dis Here” but we played “Dat Dere.”

TP:    Did you play his arrangements?

WALTON: Yes, they were Messengers arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. You could play them, in my estimation. I remember asking Walter Davis when he joined the Messengers for a little period. I said, “Oh, man, you got to play ‘Moanin’ and all that?” I was hardcore then. I couldn’t imagine any… But then when I got there, I found myself enjoying playing it.

TP:    Did those tunes pose any challenges for you?

WALTON: Certainly. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen with them, and that was a challenge. They weren’t difficult like “Tempus Fugit” or “Un Poco Loco” or things like that. They were simple and deliberately aimed at the commercial market.

Benny Golson I think composed the bridge to “Moanin’.” We used to do that all the time without any qualms. I remember writing a bridge to “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones. I actually wrote the ending of “Naima.” Mr. Coltrane had the chords. He said, “Cedar, what would you do with this I-IV, I-IV, I-IV?” I said, “Well, you could just go right up the scale.” And he kept it in. Those kind of things were just regular things to do in those days. I’m talking about the ‘60s, not too far back – but far enough.

Bobby was a wild cat. He could drink, too.
Benny Golson on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    I’m under the impression that you recruited Bobby Timmons into the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON: Right.

TP:    How did you know him? What was your acquaintance with him in Philadelphia?

GOLSON: I wasn’t acquainted with him in Philly. But I had listened to what he had done. He was working with Chet Baker when I heard him. I didn’t really know him, but I liked what he did, and therefore, I recommended him on that basis. Well, I knew him superficially, but I didn’t really know him.

TP:    But you knew him from the Philly connection.

GOLSON: I didn’t know him from Philly. He was a different generation. He was much younger. I was gone by the time he started to make a little noise.

TP:    He was in New York by that time.

GOLSON: He was in New York, yes.

TP:    What was it about his sound that appealed to you?

GOLSON: Well, he was inventive, and he could play a lot of things. He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He was sort of, well, he could play bebop, or he could play this, he could play funky… “Moanin’,” for example.  And I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby.

TP:    Because of Art’s penchant for backbeats and shuffles, you wanted somebody who could provide that?

GOLSON: No. It was to find somebody who could go here or they could go there, rather than walking on a single corridor. I thought he was a little broader. He was on a boulevard rather than a narrow street.

TP:    I know you brought him into the band, but you weren’t in the band that much longer once he was in it

GOLSON: About a year.

TP:    So you got to know him fairly well, I’d think.

GOLSON: All of it happened within a year.

TP:    Tell me what you can tell me about him personally. People say he had a very good sense of humor, he was amiable, a good dresser…

GOLSON: Absolutely. All of those things. He was clothes-conscious, he and Lee. Every night, they had a contest going on!

TP:    Around then, it was chukkah-boot time, wasn’t it?

GOLSON: They had the boots, yeah, and the pants were cut a little high so you could see the boots. I’m telling you, they were a card, those two guys!

TP:    Two wild young men.

GOLSON:  And they used to play this little funky thing in between the tunes, this little lick, and I got used to hearing it, and he would play it and he would say, “Ah, that sure is funky,” and I’d say, “Sure is.” We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, I called a rehearsal, and I said to Bobby… We had everything down. He said, “Why are we going to rehearse.” I said, “You know that little lick you play?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, “No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand…” We were in the club. Nobody was there during the day; they were washing glasses and stuff. I said, “We’ll go sit over here and just lollygag, and you compose a bridge.” So we went over, and in about half-an-hour he said, “Come and listen,” and then he played it. I said, “Hmm, that’s not really like the …(?)… 8 bars,” Bobby.  I said, “No, this has got to be your tune, Bobby.” I said, “Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.” “Okay, all right,” and he did something, and in about 15 minutes he called me, and said, “Well, what do you think?” I could see he didn’t think much of it. He played it, and I said, “That’s it.” I said, “Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.” We learned it, and I said, “We’re going to play it tonight, and as we play it, I’m going announce it, and let the people know that this is the first time they’re hearing something that they’ve never heard before.” He didn’t have a title for it either then.  I said, “I’m going to observe the audience, and they’ll tell us whether it’s of any value or not.” I said, “Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, what does it sound like?” He said, “Well, it sounds like moaning.” I said, “Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

TP:    And it became a hit.

GOLSON: Oh, absolutely.

TP:    The audience responded to it right away?

GOLSON: Oh yeah. That and “Blues March.” Those uplifted the whole album.

TP:    If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like for him, that it wasn’t… You might think it was a natural thing from his being in the church…

GOLSON: No.

TP:    But he was thinking about bebop, and he needed to be pushed to do these kind of tunes…

GOLSON: Oh, no.  It was there. Now, he MIGHT have been feeling like that because of the church, but I don’t think that the church was the primary influence on WHAT he was playing.  Because Bobby could play funky!  Many times he did play funky. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with the church. He was just feeling that way. People say that and try to make it sound psychological.

TP:    Well, he learned to play in the church and had all that experience when he was young…

GOLSON: Well, he did it.  But Ted, it was intuitive.

TP:    On this CD, there are trio versions of “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and “So Tired” and stuff like this. Did he write those then to capitalize on…

GOLSON: Yes.

TP:    Were you around at that time or not?

GOLSON: No. That came after I was gone.

TP:    Did you continue to stay in touch after leaving the Messengers?

GOLSON: No.  Just seeing him when I happened to see him. No deep phone calls or anything like that. I’d just run into him, “Hey, how you doing?” – like that.

TP:    Do you recall any impressions you had of his trio?

GOLSON: I don’t remember much about the trio. I can’t recall as we talk the natuure of the trio. I don’t even remember who was in the trio.

TP:    He worked with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, and also with Sam Jones & Cannonball.

GOLSON: I’d forgotten all about Ron Carter.

TP:    But you brought him in from hearing him on the scene, and he seemed like good fresh blood for Art.

GOLSON: I brought him in on the basis of what I heard. It wasn’t that I knew him. It was just on the basis of what he played, his musical concept. Then I got to know him.

TP:    Can you give me any impressions about him just from that year?

GOLSON: Well, this was important to me. He had no ego about him. [LISTENED TO BENNY AND RESPECTED HIM AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR] [INAUDIBLE, BREAKS UP]
He was always upbeat. He was never downbeat. And he never maligned anybody. If he did, it would be in a humorous way, someone’s bad feet, the way he walks or something. But no, he was all right.

TP:    So his tunes reflect his personality, then.

GOLSON: Absolutely.  “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere,” that was Bobby. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, but no, he could get into things.

TP:    Well, there’s an “Old Devil Moon” where he runs off these fleet Bud Powell lines, and on another there are some Dameronian voicings.

GOLSON: I liked the way he played. Of course, it’s a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.  And I thought that he would work well with the Messengers, and he did. That “Moanin’” thing helped quite a bit. Because it was epochal, that group in 1958 with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, and me. That’s when things changed. It was because of Bobby and Lee, and my composing, and “Moanin’.” When Art used to announce the All-Star Jazz Messengers, the regular group was there, but we were like an adjunct to it, and we’d come out for the second half of the show and play with them, and when he got to me, he’d say I was the one that started it all. That was kind of confusing, because he had that group together years before I came on the scene.  But he was talking about that band from that time. Because during that time, when I joined the band, he wasn’t making any kind of money.  But when I left, he was making money, I saw he got the right bookings… Because everybody listened to me. Looking back in retrospect, why did they listen to such a green kid? [ETC.] I said, “That picture has to go on the cover,” the booking office didn’t (?) the concert in Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. “But why hasn’t he been to Europe? Send us to Europe.” “We’ve got to wear uniforms, Art.” After the band broke up, he would come to me: “What do you think I should do here?” But that has nothing to do with Bobby Timmons.

There was the spirit of the whole thing.  And those guys were exactly right for that group.

Ron Carter on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    When did you first encounter each other? How did you first break bread musically?

CARTER: It was probably on some dates for Riverside Records on which he was a sideman, earlier Riverside dates on which Orrin Keepnews as a producer. Then he put together the trio, and we flew to the Jazz Workshop down in North Beach. We rehearsed with Tootie Heath… At the time, Riverside Records had a little studio across the street from the President Hotel on West 48th Street. So we rehearsed a couple of days, to learn the library, and went out to California, to San Francisco the next day and did a week there.  Then we went to the Purple Orchid in Los Angeles, came east and did a gig in Detroit, and went to a place in Philadelphia…

TP:    So when you did Live At the Vanguard, you’d been on the road a month.  What was his attitude towards rehearsing and the sound of the group?  Was he very definite about how he wanted pieces to sound?

CARTER:  I think he trusted that… He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound of the trio. That was one of our favorite groups at the time.

TP:    He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound.

CARTER:  And he liked the sound of Red Garland’s trio with Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor. He knew Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Eventually, the sound of the trio developed as we matured, as we got more gigs, and got the kind of sound we were looking for…

TP:    So your interpretation of the material molded into what the group sound became.

CARTER:  We dealt with …[INAUDIBLE]… what the first couple of choruses of the song would sound like, and then we were on our own to develop whatever we saw fit for the remainder of the arrangement of the tune.

TP:    Did the sound change from week to week?  Was he improvising a lot within the format of the trio from one night to another? Would his solos vary?

CARTER: He always remembered my basslines from the other night. I mean, I don’t think great musicians wake up in the middle of the gig and play something that no one ever heard before. I think great players get to that zone by developing what they stumbled on the night before, or the set before, or the chorus before. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before, or an idea really sounded good, and can we play the same idea in a different key, or can we play it slower, or can we play a bridge in the ..(?)… and develop another kind of way to make the song work.

TP:    Talk a bit about the dynamics of his compositions.
CARTER: They were simple. He wrote nice tunes or some ballads. He wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer in like Benny Golson, or other composers that I could think of. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melody and song different for the band but not for the audience. The band could tell the difference from night to night in the ..(?).. of the melody, and it let us know that we had even more range to develop our melodies as the gig wore on.

TP:    Who would say were his main influences?

CARTER: Bud Powell as far playing the piano was concerned.  He was aware of Ahmad Jamal’s approach and he played block chords like Red Garland could do, but his primary infiuence would be Bud Powell.

The trio had two or three gigs after the Vanguard, and then kind of separated. Bobby was staying in town more.  We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at the Lion’s Head… He was getting sick even along the way.  The Needle’s Eye. He would play at Boomer’s.

He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

CARTER: Well, back in those days, everybody wore suits. Shoes shined, tuxes.

TP:    Would you consider his music a reflection of his personality in any palpable way?

CARTER: I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. [INAUDIBLE] I’m not sure how you can call “Moanin’” indicative of his giving personality or “Dis Here” with the fact that he would go to the mat for you. I don’t know how you can find that in his tunes.

TP:    So he knew what to do as a leader.

CARTER: Absolutely.

TP:    And he had a firm and distinctive point of view, would you say?

CARTER: Well, it wasn’t rigid.  He would accept input. I’d say, “Bobby, that ain’t working, man; can we find something else to do with that?” He’d say, “Well, what?” And if my idea worked, that would be a part of it. Or if Tootie would say, “Bobby, let’s try to do this,” and Bobby would say, “I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.” So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.

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Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Interview, Kenny Barron, Liner Notes, Piano, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter

It’s Barry Harris’ 84th Birthday: A Link to a 2011 Post of a Downbeat Article, and Several Verbatim Interviews Conducted For the Piece

It’s Barry Harris’ 84th birthday. Here’s a link to a post I uploaded on his birthday two years ago, with a “director’s cut” DownBeat feature on the maestro from 2000, and an oral history conducted by Aaron Graves for the Smithsonian, after Mr. Harris was awarded his NEA Jazz Mastership.

Below, I’ve appended the interviews that I conducted for the DownBeat piece. One contains Mr. Harris’ remarks when he joined me on WKCR in 1999; the other two are transcriptions of phoners that we did after DB assigned me the piece. There are also interviews with Tommy Flanagan, his close friend and contemporary; Leroy Williams, his drummer of choice for 18 years; Don Schlitten, his producer for 20 years or so; and Charles McPherson, one of his most distinguished students.

* * *

Barry Harris (WKCR, 4-8-99):

[MUSIC: BH/GM/LW, “I’ll Keep Loving You”]

TP:    A few words about this particular group of musicians, and what they do for you in articulating the music.  George Mraz, first of all.

HARRIS:  Well, George Mraz is a very-very special bass player.  I felt sort of privileged to play with him on this record, because he’s one of the fastest cats!  I don’t mean tempo-fast.  I’m talking about fast catching-on.  He’s a very special person.

TP:    Have you played with him much over the years.

HARRIS:  Never.

TP:    Because you’ve both done your share of playing what Cedar Walton would call the piano saloon emporiums of New York.

HARRIS:  He played mostly with Tommy Flanagan.  I never really played with him.  So this is a first meeting, and I really enjoyed it.

TP:    I’ve heard you with other drummers than Leroy Williams over the years, like Vernell Fournier for a while in the ’80s and Billy Higgins, and there are others, but it’s hard to think of Barry Harris without thinking of Leroy Williams.

HARRIS:  That’s been a union of about 30 years.  What I found out about Leroy, one time I was working at Bradley’s and I couldn’t find a bass player.  So then I decided, “Well, later on the bass player; I’ll use Leroy on drums.”  What I found out from that is that Leroy knows me the best.  Well, after all those years don’t you think he should?

TP:    What do you think it is that made him so empathetic to you in the beginning?

HARRIS:  Well, Charles McPherson said to me, “Barry, you’ve got to hear this drummer; I think you’ll like him.”  I said, “Oh, yeah?”  So that’s the way it started.

TP:    Well, he knows how to break rhythms without breaking up the flow.

HARRIS:  Well, we have a special relationship.  I’ve played with other drummers.  I like Billy Higgins, too.  Billy Higgins is a very special drummer, too.  But between Billy Higgins and Leroy I’m sort of selfish.

TP:    Do you play off the drummer?

HARRIS:  Oh yes.  That’s part of the deal.  I think it’s all a matter of heartbeats.  We have to adjust our heartbeat to each other, so I think between Billy Higgins and Leroy we do a better job than most people. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Back in the day in Detroit, before you came here, you used to play with Elvin Jones.

HARRIS:  Oh, he was special, too.  It’s years since I played with Elvin.  People come to New York and we’d end up on different tracks.  It’s weird, too, what happens to the closeness we might have had in Detroit.  When you come to New York, it’s like you go separate ways.  I used to play with Frank Gant.

TP:    He’s on your first recording, for Argo.

HARRIS:  That’s right.  He’s a Detroiter, and he’s one of the first cats I played with.  There were a few cats.  But Detroit was a very special place.  We had so many good musicians.

TP:    What was it about the climate there?  Was it because of the quality of public education, Cass Tech…

HARRIS:  I think it had something to do with the public education.  We played in the orchestras, in bands.  We had bands at school.  I mean, it’s a big drag now that whenever they cut something, they cut the music, which is the most ridiculous thing.  The thing about is, we have the instruments.  The instruments are all in a warehouse somewhere, rotting.  There’s a school on Ninth Avenue where the instruments are in the basement rotting away.  But we had music in the schools.  Most of us were too poor to have instruments of our own.  So the bass player, Ernie Farrow, he’d borrow the school bass, we’d borrow the school drums, and go to a gig on the streetcar.  That’s the way we went to the gig!  So we had music in the schools.  Plus we had good musicians around.  I can name cats you’ve never heard of.  Willie Anderson…

TP:    Piano player.

HARRIS:  [LAUGHS] That’s right.  Will Davis, piano player.  So many players.  We had Cokie, who was an alto player.  To us he was like Bird.  We had really good musicians.

TP:    Detroit was a musician’s town all the way back to the ’20s…

HARRIS:  Oh, that’s what I heard.  I heard that Art Tatum and them used to be on St. Antoine, which is a street where there were bars, and all the musicians had been there.  We must have been the carryover from that period.  Because we really learned the music.

TP:    Well, Teddy Edwards has described coming to Detroit from Jackson, Mississippi, when he was 16, and playing at a Black-owned club called the Congo Club which had elaborate floor shows, the acts would come there after their stints at the Paradise Theater.  Musicians in the band there included Howard McGhee, or Wardell Gray, Kelly Martin who was later with Jamal…

HARRIS:  A whole bunch of people who contributed to the culture.  So we had a good group to listen to.  We listened to records, too, but we had a bunch around Detroit.  I had a tenor player tell me one day, “Barry, you’d better learn how to play ‘I Got Rhythm.'”  I said, “I thought I was playing it.”  He said, “No-no, no-no.  ‘I Got Rhythm’ is not the blues.”  I was playing two choruses of the blues, then played the ‘Rhythm’ bridge, and then a chorus of the blues — which is all wrong.   But there were people there who told us how to do it right.  Plus we jammed all day, man.  We had a ball.  Donald Byrd, Sonny Red, Yusef, Kiane Zawadi, all these musicians.

TP:    So you had a felicitous blend of the oral tradition at its most practical plus quality pedagogical education.

HARRIS:  And plus, this was the Golden Era of the music.  We had Lester Young, we had Coleman Hawkins, we had Ben Webster, we had Charlie Parker, we had all these good musicians.

TP:    Now, when you were a teenager, were you listening to all the latest records by each of them and memorizing…

HARRIS:  Mostly.  I guess we were, yes.  Because we started out as teenagers.   That’s the odd thing about now.  All the people trying to learn to play jazz, they’re grown folks, 20-something years old.  Which is sort of hard.  Because when you’re a teenager and you’re home and somebody else is taking care of you, you can learn to play very well.  But when you’re a grown person and you’re going to try to learn to play music, most people have to go to work every day, so a person would have to be very special.  He would have to learn what to do in an hour, where we had eight hours to mess up, or six hours to mess up.  And not know what we were doing, but we’d learn in those six hours.  But these people nowadays have to learn in one hour.  So it’s very hard.

TP:    Now, you are well known particularly in the early part of your career for being a devotee of Bud Powell, and someone who assimilated that vocabulary into your own particular take.  But before you encountered Bud Powell, who were the pianists who struck you?

HARRIS:  It’s hard to say.  Art Tatum struck everybody!  But you know what happened with me?  I could chord.  I could chord when I was young, a teenager, maybe 13-14-15.  I didn’t solo too well.  Then I started going to the West Side of town.  See, I lived on the East Side.  I started going over to the West Side.  And the cats on the West Side could solo.  The piano players.  They couldn’t chord as good as me maybe, but they could solo.  So when I got back to the East Side and went home, I said, “Oh, Lord, I’ve got to learn how to solo.”  So I took this record by a blind girl named Bess Bonnier in Detroit… She’s got stuff out, and plays very well.  She had a record player, and this record player was very special, because you could take this record player and you could stop any place and go all the way through.  She loaned me this record, and I took this record, and that’s how I learned how to play.  So the first thing I learned how to play was “Webb City”!  Now, see, “Webb City” is Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell.  So that’s what I learned.  It just happened it wasn’t Oscar Peterson.  It just happened it was Bud Powell with Sonny Stitt.

TP:    Well, if that was contemporaneous, you would have been 17 years old or so, before Oscar Peterson emerged.

HARRIS:  Well, Oscar Peterson came out with Jazz at the Philharmonic and stuff like that.  So this probably was before him, yes.

TP:    When did it become apparent to you that you were going to be a musician, that this was going to be your career, your life, your profession?

HARRIS:  All my life.  I knew it at the age of 4.

TP:    Were you playing piano that early?

HARRIS:  That early.

TP:    Who started you?

HARRIS:  My mother.

TP:    You had a piano in the house?

HARRIS:  Oh yes.  Every house had a piano almost.  Like people nowadays have televisions?  Every house had a piano.  Somebody could play the piano in almost every house.  Because the piano was the form of entertainment then.

TP:    There wasn’t any television.

HARRIS:  There wasn’t any television.  Myself, I regret the television now, because it’s made… I look at the teenagers and I say, oh, it’s such a drag, because they all… They don’t travel, see.  But if they could go from one city to the next city, they could see that they all do the same thing.  They all dress the same way.  They all got the baggy pants…the same thing.  When I grew up, 20 miles away in Pontiac people played different.  60 miles away was Toledo, where Art Tatum came from; people played different there.  Not only did they play different, they dressed different.  See, people were different.  They were individuals. [LAUGHS] Now it’s like everybody’s got to have Nike sneakers.  To me, the only way you’ll see Tommy Hilfiger on my back is he’s going to be paying me.  I’m not going to be paying him.  He’s going to say, “Please wear this so people will buy it.”  And I would wear it.  It would be nice to make some money off of him.  But to see people walking around with stuff like that makes me mad.  Somebody bought me some sneakers and it had Nike on it, and I gave them away.

New York… I’m a transported Detroiter.  I call myself a member of the world.  Because I got tired of people saying they were from Brooklyn, or they’re from here, and Brooklyn’s much better or Queens is much better.  I’m tired of that.  Because musicians are everywhere in the world.  So I’m from the world.  I consider New York the center.  See, I don’t consider New York as the followers.  I regret that the young people here don’t see it.  We aren’t supposed to be followers.  We are leaders, and we’re supposed to act like leaders.  So that means we do not go to the front of the store and buy stuff.  We go to the back of the store, the stuff that is not in the window.

TP:    Well, it’s certainly hard to resist the power of television.

HARRIS:  Oh, of course… [END OF SIDE 1]

TP:    You began playing at 4, and it sounds to me like you were gigging and doing neighborhood things as an organic thing all the way through.

HARRIS:  Well, the way it was, you began at 4.  You began at 4 and you played church.  Most of us were church piano players.  We grew up going to church.  We grew up playing in church.  And then there comes a time when there has to come a separation.  My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person.  One day my mother said to me, “What do you want to do?  Are you going to play the church music or are you going to play the jazz?”  I said, “I’ll play jazz.”  She said, “Oh, that’s cool, then.”  So that’s where I went.  And she was cool with that.  So I played jazz.

TP:    Did you do it through really studying soloists, like Bud Powell, etcetera, or did you do through functional means, like the gigging situations you were referring to?

HARRIS:  Well, you start out a certain way.  You start out taking things off records.  We didn’t have any schools to go to.  These people have schools to go to now, which aren’t too good in the first place.  But you start out with records, and then you have people who could play around you.  See, when we were in school we played for high school dances.  We played for dances in the first place, so we had a lot of gigs.  And we played for dances, and our contemporaries danced to the music.  Probably the biggest drag for us… I remember Donald Byrd one day saying, “I don’t want to play in a bar, I don’t want to play in the dance hall; I want to play on the concert stage.”  That might have been the biggest drag thing that ever happened to us, to separate the music from dancing.  You aren’t supposed to separate the music from dancing.  If you listen to Monk, you will not hear Monk play “Round Midnight” as slow as Miles Davis played it.  I don’t know why Miles Davis played it that slow, because he sure wasn’t thinking about dancing.  But if you listen to Monk’s version of it, you will hear that it has a tempo, and it has a tempo where somebody can get up and dance to it.  See, that’s the way they played.

So we played for a lot of dances.  We had a lot of musicians who knew how to play!  I could tell about a cat, Leo Osbold(?)… See, I went to integrated schools…

TP:    Detroit was one of the few in the nation that did that in the ’40s.

HARRIS:  Oh, we had it.  Probably one of the worst things that happened was integration! [LAUGHS] Sometimes I think that’s the worst thing that happened.  I could tell you about that.  I got to think about integration.  See, when I grew up as a musician, when I went to different towns, of course we weren’t allowed to go to certain hotels, but we had black hotels in all these cities.  I can remember being in the black hotel in Cleveland, a black hotel in Philadelphia, a black hotel in New York, a black hotel in Indianapolis.  See, when integration came, we were the ones who said, “I’m going to see if they’re going to let us in,” but they didn’t say, “I’m going to see if you’re going to let us in.”  So our hotels went out of business.

So it was a different situation back then.  We had a different thing.  We played for dancers.  We had dance-halls.  We went to these dance-halls.  We had the Grand Ballroom, the Mirror Ballroom, the Graystone Ballroom — all these ballrooms.  I heard Bird in a ballroom.

TP:    And you had the Paradise Theater, too, the Black theater in Detroit.

HARRIS:  Well, every town had a theater like that.  Just about every place had a theater like that.  We had the Apollo.  The Apollo was a jazz place.  That’s where Sarah Vaughan and a lot of people got started — in the Apollo.  It’s been separated.  We separated the music from dancing.  We knew how to dance.

Why I say that is this.  Bird could play “Cherokee”… Wait, let me tell you about an incident.  There was a shake dancer.  Now, the shake dancer’s name was Baby Scruggs.  Now, Baby Scruggs would come out and she would say, ‘Play ‘Cherokee’ as fast as you can play it.’  And we played “Cherokee” fast, my brother, and if… I wish people could have seen Baby Scruggs shake-dance while we played “Cherokee” fast.  Because Baby Scruggs could do very special things.  She could make tassels move individually from different spots.  She could do so many things…

So we played for shake dancers, we played for dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues. We played all of it.  All of it was part of the deal.  Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy.  See, now, Berry Gordy…when we were in high school, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris.  We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy came to town, a cat from Georgia who came in and and went to the school.  See, because when he came, he not only played better boogie-woogie, he could improvise.  So we got Theodore Shieldy, we had Will Davis.  All these cats could improvise.  So you’d go around… What I would do, you’d go to the dance and you’d stand in back of the piano player and you’d steal a couple of chords and you’d go home and play them chords, just learn how to play them.  That’s how you’d learn how to play.

TP:    Among the people who were roughly your contemporaries, some a few years older, some a few years younger, who all came to New York around the same time, give or take a few years, were Billy Mitchell, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Frank Foster, who came to Detroit…

HARRIS:  Now, one of the best things that happened to us in Detroit was that Frank Foster came to Detroit.  See, Frank Foster learned… Pepper Adams, Bess, myself, all of the Detroit musicians, we learned a lot from Frank Foster, because Frank Foster could really play.  Frank Foster really knew a lot.  We had a music society in Detroit of 5,000 people.  We had a music society before I even heard any other jazz society.  Kenny Burrell was the first President.  It was called the World Stage.  It’s weird, because Billy Higgins has a place out in L.A., and it’s called the World Stage.  So we had a World Stage, and we had about 5,000 memberships.  Everybody played there.  Max Roach played there.  When piano players came to town, they came looking for me.  You see?  Piano players would come looking for me, because they’d heard about me, you see.

But we learned from each other, and we learned from records.  See, I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple.  Bud Powell is important to me.  Charlie Parker became very important to me.  Even more so now… Coleman Hawkins was very important to me.  I was very lucky; I played with him.  That really was a lucky period.  I played with Lester Young for a week in Detroit at the Rouge Lounge, where I was the house pianist..

TP:    What sort of place was that?

HARRIS:  Just a jazz club.  Not really in Detroit.  I guess it was in River Rouge, which was a little bit out.  I played there with Flip Phillips, I played with Lester, I played with quite a few people there.  I can’t even remember all the names.

TP:    But the people who would come through on the circuit, you’d…

HARRIS:  Yes.  But you’d be surprised.  We really tried to learn how to play.  I might have known a little bit more than the rest.  You know, there’s a book…

TP:    Were you more schooled than they were?

HARRIS:  I don’t know if I was more schooled.  I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me.  I mean, as far as playing Classical.  We did a recital together as youngsters.  It’s like… I was really into it.  Because I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat. I was the cat who was very quiet.  Wasn’t no baseball, none of that stuff; no basketball, none of that.  No sports.  I was a piano player. [LAUGHS] Down Beat Magazine in 1958 or 1957 had a yearbook (I think it’s ’58), and in this yearbook there’s a picture of Paul Chambers half the page.  On this side they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, “Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.”  See?  So what happened, my house was like a mecca.  All the musicians came to my house.  Joe Henderson came to my house and learned.  I was a cat who… I don’t know what you would call me.  I’m not the catalyst.  I’m the thing that gets set off by the catalyst.  What would you call that?

TP:    The reactive agent.

HARRIS:  Maybe that’s it.  But you know what happens with me?  A cat can say something about music, about chords or something, and then I can say, “Oh, if you’re going to do it like that, you’d better do it like this.”  Don’t ask me where that comes from.  That doesn’t come necessarily from me.  It comes through me, whatever it is.

TP:    You’re a born teacher.

HARRIS:  It’s almost like that, some kind of thing.  I know how to show you… If you come up with something, I can say, “You should do this, too, then.  If you don’t do that you should do this.”  It’s that kind of thing.  So I’ve been doing that for years, and I’m probably the oldest jazz teacher in the world.  See, I go to schools, and they don’t have me back too often because I sort of upset things a little bit in schools.  And I can upset things in schools.  There are a few schools, like Virginia Commonwealth, in Richmond, Virginia, where I go quite often.  The reason I go there quite often is because the teachers want me to come there.  In most of the schools the teachers wouldn’t want me to come back.

TP:    It’s too orthodox, and you’re anything but.

HARRIS:  I’m anything but.  I’m too unorthodox.  Plus I tell students things, and the students will go back to teachers and say, “Why didn’t you tell us that?” [LAUGHS] So I’ve got a problem.

TP:    They’re paying tuition.

HARRIS:  That’s right.

[MUSIC: “I’m Old Fashioned” & “To Walter Davis with Love”]

HARRIS:  [LYRICS FOR WD] “Who knows just when one’s life is bound to end.  Perhaps it’s written in the stars.  Some of us learn to live and cherish every breath, fulfilling dreams, bringing beauty to the scene.  Such was his life, so short but oh, so long.  He filled our hearts with a song and brought us, oh, such a joy, just with his precious gift.  It’s not goodbye, but so long.  We will meet again.  It’s not goodbye, but so long.”

TP:    We took Barry Harris through his years in Detroit, when he established his considerable reputation.  You came to New York about 1960?

HARRIS:  No, it was before that.  See, I came first and made some records with people.  I came in ’56, the year Clifford Brown and them got killed.  Donald Byrd and I joined Max Roach’s band, so we traveled with Max.  Then I went back to Detroit, because we didn’t stay with Max that long, and left out again in 1960 with Cannonball.  After that I’ve stayed mostly in New York.  I still have family in Detroit.

TP:    Cannonball was one of the people you’d played with in Detroit?

HARRIS:  Oh, no.  Well, when he came through, he knew me and I knew him.  I guess Bobby Timmons was with him, and Bobby was going out on his own to do some trio stuff, so he had me come join him.  Something like that.

TP:    So you came to New York on a gig, and that began.  Then you signed with Riverside, which was through Cannonball as well?

HARRIS:  That was through Cannonball.  I made my first record out on the West Coast, Live At the Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes while I was with Cannonball.  I had made one before that on Argo.  I went to Chicago from Detroit with Frank Gant and Will Austin, and we recorded with Sonny Stitt there.  See, what happened, we recorded with Sonny Stitt, and after that was over the cat said, “Why don’t you all make a trio record?”  I said, “Okay,” and we made a trio record.

TP:    You mentioned several musicians who played extremely important roles in your life as mentors, people you learned from, and also friends.  Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Monk.  A few words about your experiences with each of them.

HARRIS:  Well, one time Charlie Parker came to town, and his band didn’t show up on time.  He came to the Graystone Ballroom.  So what I did…me and a bunch of young musicians who were there, he let us play with him.  So when he did come to town, to the Mirror Ballroom, I sat in with him there, and we young ones, we played with him at the Graystone Ballroom when his band didn’t show up.  I played with him in this bar, which I forget the name of…

TP:    Not the Bluebird.

HARRIS:  No, not the Bluebird.  This was on Grand and River.  I can see the place, but I can’t name it now.  I was very fortunate.  I got a few chances to sit in with Charlie Parker.  Then I was in the house band, as I told you, with Lester Young.  That was luck.  Then Coleman Hawkins; that was luck.  When I came to New York, see, I went to a place, and I sat in with Coleman Hawkins, and the only thing he could say was, “Oh boy, another one of them Detroit piano players.”

TP:    He worked with Tommy Flanagan at the time.

HARRIS:  Well, he worked with Tommy Flanagan, with Roland Hanna, with Hank Jones — and that’s all Detroit!  Then here I come, and it’s another Detroit.  We really worked together until he died.

TP:    I’d like you to talk a bit more about Charlie Parker, the impact he had on you and the people of your generation, and why.

HARRIS:  Well, he had a… I couldn’t even tell you that, man.  This was like the greatest thing that ever happened in the world for us.  See, it was sort of like a breakaway from the big bands.  That’s part of what the thing is.  It allowed for a little more creativity.  With the big bands, I can see where the same background in back of you could make you maybe play the same solo over and over.  But the breakaway… Look, man.  Everybody…all the young people… We didn’t hear Charlie Parker on the radio.  They didn’t play Charlie Parker that much on the radio.  This was like an individual grapevine thing.  You could be walking down the street, and the cat over on the other side would holler and say, “They’ve got a new record by Bird!”  That kind of thing.  It was some other kind of thing.  So to us, it was the most modern… It was everything.

TP:    He was giving you the language that you wanted…

HARRIS:  Whatever it was, it was the language we wanted to hear at that time.  So we learned from it.  Sonny Stitt learned from it.  All of us learned from it.  Sonny Stitt learned from Bird, same thing, and then he became Sonny Stitt.  Fortunately, Bird and them were very correct playing people.  Correct changes.  Correct movements, I’ll say.  Because Coleman Hawkins would say, “I play movements; I don’t play chords.”  People get confused today.  Most people think you play chords.  You don’t play chords; you play movements.

TP:    Would you elaborate on that?

HARRIS:  A lot of horn players, unfortunately, they sit at the piano and they think they’ve learned how to play the piano.  So what they do is, they sit at the piano and they hit a chord and then they hit another chord and they say, “Oh, they sound good together!”  Then they proceed to say, “Ooh, I’m going to write a melody on that.”  In the first place, that’s wrong, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies.  See, the old cats, they harmonized melodies.  [LAUGHS] My illustration of that is a cat ran in one day and said, “Oh, man, I’ve got this good melody; put some chords to it for me.”  He sang […MELODY OF “WHITE CHRISTMAS”] That came first.  See, “White Christmas” came first.  The chords were put down after.  That’s why that melody is going to be remembered through history.  Melodies are remembered.  See, these cats melodize harmonies, and what happens is, you melodize harmonies and most people don’t remember a thing you played.  It’d be hard to hum what you played.  They just sort of miss the boat.  That’s all.

TP:    And everything Charlie Parker played was a melody.

HARRIS:  That’s right, just about.  It was melodic.  See, those people knew how to run correctly from one place to another.  There are only so many moves.

TP:    It’s how you put the moves together.  There’s an infinite number of ways to put them together, but there are only so many moves.

HARRIS:  That’s right.

TP:    Like the chessboard.

HARRIS:  That’s right!  All the chessboard moves have been done before.  It’s just the way the person puts them together at that time.  Shoot.  It’s all the same.  They were very special for us, every young person at that time.  And all of us played instruments.  There were at least 20 or 30 cats who played instruments.  Not that they all continued, but they all played instruments.  So we had a ball.

TP:    A few words about Bud Powell.

HARRIS:  Well, I didn’t hear Bud Powell in person until much-much later.  I came to New York around 1953.  Doug Watkins and I were working with a cat called Rudy Rutherford, and Rudy said he was going to New York for a vacation, and we said we’re going to go too.  So we saved our money, and then when the time came Rudy Rutherford couldn’t go, so we just went anyway.  So we came to New York.  We stayed with Sheila Jordan, who is a Detroiter, and with Jeannie Dawson.  Sheila Jordan almost got me killed, too.  I always tell people the story about her almost getting us killed.  We were working at a bar in Hamtramack, Michigan, which had a big Polish community.  So we’re working in this bar, and here comes Jeannie Dawson and this other girl, they come in the bar and come right over to us — “Ooh, hey!”  And boy, every eye in the bar was talkin’ about, “What’s going on here?”  I’ll tell you this.  We left that bar just in time.  A streetcar came, and we left just right to catch that streetcar before they caught up with us.   They were trying to catch us and mess with us.  So that’s how prejudice… That stuff goes way back.

See, Sheila… I learned a lot of soloing from a scatter named Skeeter.  Skeeter and Sheila and another fellow, they were the special people who could scat.  I learned something about soloing from listening to Skeeter scat.  Now, Skeeter could scat, man!  So we learned a lot from all this.

TP:    Now, 1953 was the year Bud Powell was playing at Birdland almost every week.

HARRIS:  He was playing at Birdland, yes.  So I had a chance to hear him in person.  Which is special.  Because I didn’t get too much chance to hear Bud in person, until… I heard him when Francis Paudras brought him back to New York.  Then he worked at Birdland a week.  I went there every night to hear him.  Well, that was a different kind of Bud, in a way, because he wasn’t the Bud Powell.  He was just something…

TP:    Was Bud Powell to you the pianistic equivalent of Charlie Parker?

HARRIS:  That’s right.  Exactly.  Well, you see, I’ll give you a little assignment.  You’ll have to go get some records.  This is the record you have to get.  Cootie Williams.  There’s a record of Cootie Williams with his band.  “Round Midnight” is on that record, “Cherry Red Blues” is on that record, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” is on that record.  Now, if you go and listen to that record… You have to be in some place dark, too, where sound sort of… Because underneath that record, while Cleanhead Vinson is singing “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” you’ll hear this piano player, and all he’s doing is double-timing and running minor arpeggios — the most beautiful stuff in the world.  You say, “What is this?”  But when you listen to the record, you won’t hear this.  And if you listen, Bud Powell is on this record.

So Bud Powell was with Cootie Williams; Bird was with Jay McShann.  To me, they were heading towards a summit.  I don’t think that Bud was influenced by Bird, and I don’t think that Bird was influenced by Bud.  I think that they were heading for a clash, and I think they clashed really.  I think in some way they might not have been the most compatible pair. [LAUGHS] I can understand it, too, because they both had this special something.  I’m sure Bud… [LAUGHS] I don’t know.  To me it’s a combination thing between the two of them.  I think they were heading together.  I don’t think one influenced the other that much.  I think whatever they were going to do, they were doing… Bud was with Cootie Williams doing his, and Bird was with Jay McShann doing his, and then they suddenly met, and with Dizzy… See, there are records where Diz sounds older.

TP:    By which you mean older stylistically.

HARRIS:  Older stylistically, yes.  Then there’s a Diz that sort of caught up with them.  I think that’s what happened, that Diz caught up with them.  Special people, that’s all.  We loved them.

TP:    You listened to all the Bud Powell records as they came out, the Blue Notes and Norgrans?

HARRIS:  Yes, all of those things.  We were beboppers.  That’s all.  It looked like in every city there were beboppers.  This was like a real revelation for us, a musical revelation.  And it was like a renaissance.  We were different from… You know, I went to Jaki Byard’s memorial service, and I was thinking about Jaki Byard.  Some people played a lot of Jaki Byard on the radio.  Jaki Byard could stride so good… See, Jaki Byard was born in 1922 and I was born in 1929.  Now, him being born in 1922 means that he was a teenager in the ’30s.  Me being born in 1929, I wasn’t a teenager in the ’30s.  I became a teenager in the ’40s.  So him being a teenager in the ’30s, he learned more about the Stride stuff…

TP:    Earl Hines.

HARRIS:  Yeah, he learned more about the Stride.  Art Tatum and everybody.  Whereas when we came up, when we became teenagers, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell, George Shearing, all these cats accompanying… These people were slightly different from the stride piano players, so we aren’t striders. [LAUGHS] We aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way.

TP:    Coleman Hawkins was in many ways the bridge between the two periods…

HARRIS:  I think [Hawk] he was like a chameleon.  He could adjust to anything.  I always wanted to hear him with, oh, maybe Max Roach or Bud Powell, those kind of people… Well, he did do that thing with Bud in 1960.  I always wanted to hear him in… Because he could just play, man.  See, I heard Coleman Hawkins play “All The Things You Are.”  When I think of “All The Things You Are,” I think of Bird and Diz and Bud.  But when I heard Coleman Hawkins play it I said, “Unh-uh, there’s something else, too.”

TP:    Talk about your years with him.  You were his pianist from basically 1963 until he stopped playing.

HARRIS:  I was with him until he died.  I put him in the hospital.  He didn’t want to go to the hospital, but I had to put him in.  I had gone to live with him, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around.  But being with him was one of the highlights of my life.  Because I learned more about music, a different thing… I learned about movement.  He used to say he played movements.

See, I was very fortunate.  I learned from Monk.  Monk and I…I wish somebody had taped… One day Monk said, “Come on, let’s play the piano.”  I said, “Okay.”  So Monk started playing a tune.  It was called “My Ideal.”  He played a chorus, I played a chorus.  He played a chorus, I played a chorus.  I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one.  I wish it had been recorded.  It just wasn’t.  We recorded a lot of stuff, but not that. [LAUGHS] He was a very special kind of cat.

I have the thing that Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today.  Where he was hip, Monk didn’t practice practicing.  Monk practiced playing.

TP:    Where is the difference?

HARRIS:  Oh, it’s a great deal of difference.  You could hear a piano player sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes.  That is practicing playing.  You know what happened one time?  Frank Hewitt told me this story.  He’s a New York piano player.  He’s one of the best piano players, too.  He’s never recorded.  He plays around New York.  He’s a very special cat.  He told me a story.  He said him and some cats, they went by Bud Powell’s house early one day and said, “Come on, let’s go and have a ball.”  Bud said, “No.”  So they left out and they went and did whatever they were going to do, and messed around all day, and when they went to Bud Powell’s house he was playing “Embraceable You.”  This was early in the morning.  So they went out and spent the whole day.  And when they came back that night and knocked on Bud Powell’s door and went inside, he was still playing “Embraceable You.”  That’s practicing playing.

TP:    You were saying off-mike before that you don’t really listen to your records so much, but you said that Monk did listen to his records and listened only to Monk.

HARRIS:  I think he did.

TP:    And we sort of made the point that he could distance himself, or so it seems to us, to say, “That’s Monk playing” and not “That’s me playing.”

HARRIS:  I think one probably should listen to oneself to correct whatever one doesn’t like.  See, if there’s something you don’t like, then you say, “okay, I shall correct that.”  So you correct it.  Oh, it’s hard!

TP:    Had you met Monk before coming to New York?

HARRIS:  No, he’s someone I met here.  Monk… Well, we lived together for ten years, that kind of thing.  I had a good relationship with Monk.  We were good friends.

[MUSIC: BH/KB, “Embraceable You”; BH solo, “Parker’s Mood”]

TP:    First we talked about your days in Detroit.  In the second one we touched on Detroit, and talked about getting to New York and establishing yourself here.  Here just some various things about the last few years.  First, for listeners who may not be familiar with Barry Harris’ discography, you’ve been recording with fair regularity between 1960 and about 1980.  There were some strong records for Riverside, then a lengthy relationship with Don Schlitten for both Prestige and Xanadu on which not only were you featured as a trio player and leader of groups, but as sideman supreme with your pick of the great instrumentalists of the period.  Then you’ve recorded more selectively in the last 15-20 years.  Barry Harris set up the Jazz Cultural Theater, which as we said at the beginning of the program, was only around for five years, but from its impact seems it was around for 20, and many of those relationships still hold to this day.

HARRIS:  That’s true.

TP:    Talk about the Jazz Cultural Theater, its impact, and your idea behind it.

HARRIS:  Well, there are still people who come looking for it! [LAUGHS] One time I went in the store that’s two doors down, and the cat said, “Boy, they still come and say, ‘Where is the Jazz Cultural Theater?'”  Well, it was just an idea.  Larry Ridley and myself and a couple of other people had an idea, and we opened it up.  We stayed there five years, and it was classes, and we had entertainment there on the weekends.  Looks like we started the tap dancing again, because we had the tap dancers, we had a couple of shake dancers… It was a nice little thing.  Jaki Byard’s big band used to play there every month.  Sun Ra played there.  It was really a nice little place.  So from that, like now, I give a big concert.  I started a big class.  The only reason I started a class is because occasionally we would teach for an organization, I think it was Jazz Interaction, and one day I was supposed to teach and I forgot.  I was supposed to teach at 4 o’clock, and I forgot, and at 7 o’clock I remembered.  At 7 o’clock I jumped in the cab and said, “This is ridiculous; ain’t nobody gonna be there.”  When I got there, everybody was there waiting on me from 4 o’clock.

TP:    Had you ever taught in a formal situation before that, or was it an extension of what you’ve done all your life?

HARRIS:  No, it was just an extension of what I’ve done all the time.  So what I did, I said, “Okay, I’ll keep the class going.”  So all we had to do was pay the rent.  That’s what we do right now.  I still have a class going, and I give a big concert every year.  I have a big concert coming up on May 22nd at Symphony Space.  People should remember that date.  Generally on my concerts I have about 200 little children who sing jazz, I have a big band and a string section and the adult chorus, and the adult chorus and the children’s chorus sing together.  I have tap dancers, like Tina Pratt and David Gilmore.  I generally have featured horn players.  At the last concert I featured Jimmy Heath and Charles Davis.  I feature musicians on the concert, and I do arranging for the whole thing.  So we have the whole thing arranged for 200 people, which is fun.

TP:    You’ve continued to grow and develop in a very purposeful way as a piano player, more so than the average, in that you’ve continued to study…

HARRIS:  You know what it is?  If you teach, really… See, I have a thing about teachers.  We’re the teachers, but we’re the dumbest members of the class because we’ve been in the class the longest.  So what we have to do… Then on top of that, I’ve got some young piano players who’ll be trying to overtake you.  When you have this challenge put up to you, I look at them and I say, “I’ll be doggone if I’m going to let you outplay me.”  So you’ve got to practice and you’ve got to keep going and you’ve got to keep learning things.  As a teacher you’ve got to do this.  It’s been fun.

TP:    I notice on your records and hearing you live that your sense of melody has become much more essential.  When I’d hear you even 15 years ago, you’d play a lot of notes, very fast lines, but now you get to the core of the matter on almost everything I hear you do.

HARRIS:  That’s the way we do it… I hope that’s aging properly! [LAUGHS] Because I think that’s what ends up happening.

TP:    One other thing, which is about the tune we’ll send you off with.  Every time you’d hear Barry Harris, he’d stand up at the piano and start playing this very lovely Latinish vamp, which is “Nascimento.”  The origin of “Nascimento.”

HARRIS:  Don’t ask me, man.  No, what it is, tunes just come.  You don’t know how they come.  You don’t know how a melody comes. See, it’s not chords that come; it’s melodies that come.  And this is one of those melodies that came.  I named it after a little drummer from Brazil who played the tall drum with a mallet.  He was playing with Sun Ra’s band.  I never even heard anybody play this kind of drum.  I named for him.  Most people think I named it for Milton Nascimento.  He was a nice little cat.  Couldn’t even speak English.  It just comes.

TP:    I was going to ask you about Sun Ra.  You mentioned him twice; he played at the Jazz Cultural Theater.  You’re supposed to be “conservative.”

HARRIS:  No-no-no.  Well, let me tell you, man.  One time at the Jazz Cultural Theater we had Sun Ra come in.  I was teaching there most of the time, and usually when I got through teaching I’d leave.  I wouldn’t stay for nobody’s performance.  You know what?  I stayed for Sun Ra’s performance, and that was one of the best performances… He was very in.  He was playing some Fletcher Henderson.  He had these little things he did that he called out, but he was very in.  And I loved it when he went into his thing and turned his back and played the piano like that backwards.

TP:    A real showman.

HARRIS:  A real showman.  Really-really.  One time I went into a place, and they started singing, and all of a sudden I heard my name.  They were singing, “Welcome, Barry Harris.”  The most beautiful melody.  I tried to find the melody.  We recorded it, but I never found it.  But he was a sort of special person.  So we had a special relationship.  All I can say, he was very in!  When I heard him, he was playing his Fletcher Henderson… I was so happy to hear that, because it reminded me of when I used to go to the Paradise Theater in Detroit!

First Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

TP:    When we were on the radio, you talked about playing piano from a very early age, piano lessons from your mother, and you didn’t really play jazz until you were 15 or so.

HARRIS:  I was younger than that.  But I didn’t start out playing jazz; I started out playing boogie-woogie.

TP:    But you said that what happened is that you started hanging out on the West Side of Detroit…

HARRIS:  Oh, that was later on.  See, we all took lessons from a preacher named Neptune Holloway.  He taught quite a few of us.  I saw a picture somewhere, and I think Dorothy Ashby was in that picture, myself, Harold McKinney who was another piano player from Detroit… Some of us took classical lessons from him.  I guess the hanging out on the West Side came later.

TP:    So you were taking classical lessons from the Reverend, and your mother as well?

HARRIS:  Well, no, my mother was the church thing.  Classical was with Neptune Holloway and Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home.  Then Tommy and I took from Mrs. Dillard, Gladys Dillard.  We were on a recital together one time.

TP:    So you’ve been playing piano all your life.

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

TP:    In the liner notes it says that around 1946, or so, “then I got to be hip.”

HARRIS:  Oh, that’s when I messed up in my high school. [LAUGHS] Not too much to say.  I was one of those people who was good.  My brother was always trying to get ahead of me on the honor roll, and he couldn’t do that.  But in my last year I got sort of trifling.  I changed because I was playing music, and you sort of changed a little bit!  I missed cum laude by a point or two, something like that.  But I had been on honor roll every time.

TP:    That would be the year you found Bud Powell; it’s the year “Webb City” was recorded.

HARRIS:  I don’t know; it was something like that.  Berry Gordy and I were the boogie-woogie piano players in high school together.  We both was playing pretty good until a cat named Theodore Shieldy came along.  Theodore Shieldy could not only play boogie-woogie; he could improvise, too.

TP:    So you had a two-handed thing going as a high school player.

HARRIS:  Well, see, at the high school we played for dances and stuff.

TP:    You went into a lot about the dancing on the radio.  I want to get into your starting to play professionally.  It says in ’51 or so…

HARRIS:  No, I started pretty early playing professionally.  I had to ask my mother could I go to Pontiac, and then I had to have a place to live there in order to stay there and play a couple of days.  I was pretty young then.

TP:    Who were you playing with?  Do you remember anything about that situation?

HARRIS:  There was a little girl that played drummer.  I wanted to say Barbara, but I’m not even sure.  There was a girl who played drummer and Landis Brady I think played guitar and sang.

TP:    What sort of music?

HARRIS:  We’d be playing songs…

TP:    Was it a blues type of gig, or jazz as such?

HARRIS:  It was jazz and other things, too, I guess.  We probably played some shuffle rhythm, too, and stuff like that.  But we played some jazz tunes, too, because it’s all sort of related. [MENTIONS 1958 DOWNBEAT YEARBOOK]

TP:    the note says by ’54 you were house pianist at the Bluebird.

HARRIS:  I thought I was playing before that, though.

TP:    The note says, “Barry turned fully professional in 1951.  By ’54 he had taken over as house pianist at the Bluebird Club in Detroit…”

HARRIS:  That might have been true.

TP:    “…where he worked with many famous visiting jazzmen, including a three-month stint with Miles Davis.

HARRIS:  I’m just trying to figure out when I became 21.  1950.  I celebrated my birthday in the Bluebird.  Because before that, I would come and knock on the window.  The pianist there was a fellow named Phil Hill.  The bandstand was in the window, and I’d knock on the window and Phil Hill would see me, and after they finished their song he would get down and I would run in and jump up on the piano, and play a tune, and run back out.

TP:    Because you weren’t of age.

HARRIS:  I wasn’t of age.  21 was the age thing in Detroit.  So when I became 21, I definitely celebrated my birthday in the Bluebird to let them know that I was 21! [LAUGHS] So that would be 1951.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the Bluebird.

HARRIS:  The Bluebird was a very special place, man.  You know how Marvin Gaye sings, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”?  I think there was truth to it.  The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock, and at 1:30 Sarah Vaughan would come in or Bird would come in.  And do you know what?  Before ten minutes that joint would be packed with people.  And you didn’t see people running the phones; it wasn’t even like that.  It was like some kind of grapevine or something.  Because somebody would come in there, all these people would come to the Bluebird.  Yeah, the Bluebird was a very special place.

TP:    When you were there who was the rhythm section you played with?

HARRIS:  Oh boy, don’t ask me.  Probably Beans Richardson on bass fiddle.  Who would be on drums…I couldn’t even tell you…it might have been Elvin Jones.  Well, Elvin Jones, Yusef and I, we played there, too.  It might have been Elvin, too, some of the time.  I played with Yusef and I played with Kiane Zawadi, Luther McKinney…I think I mentioned his brother Harold McKinney earlier.  Plus we went to the dances before that, and I sat in with Bird and stuff, too.  I sat in with Bird at least three or four times.

TP:    In one of these liner notes you were emphatic that you had only sat in with him for one set.  But it was more than that.

HARRIS:  Oh, no, it was more than that.  I sat with him at the Crystal Bar, so I must have been of age then.  We have to find out when Bird came through Detroit at the Crystal Bar.  Then I sat in with Bird at the Graystone Ballroom.  I think I sat in with Bird at the Mirror Ballroom.

TP:    Did you talk to him at all?

HARRIS:  He let us play with him.  His band didn’t show up one time, they were late, and so we played with him — just one song.  We played a blues in C.  I remember that.  C-blues, that’s all I can tell you.

TP:    And you heard all his records as they came out.

HARRIS:  Oh, yes.  We all were doing that.  Somebody would let us know that something new was out.  All of us, that’s what we did.  We were strictly Bebop people.  Almost strictly.

TP:    Now, for you, learning the Bebop language as a young guy, did it just come very naturally to you?  Was there anyone who was sort of a hands-on stylistic mentor?

HARRIS:  No, not really.  Really I got mine off of records.

TP:    So you learned from listening to the records how to play Bebop.  The fingerings and all…

HARRIS:  Yes.  Well, I don’t know about the fingerings and all that stuff, because you can’t see how the cat is fingering.  But that’s how I learned.  As I said before, when I went to the West Side, the people over there could solo.  I wasn’t good at soloing.  So what I did, I came home and I tried to learn how to solo.  So I was pretty lucky then.  I had this record with Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro, “Webb City,” and that sort of started me.  I can’t tell you the rest.  I can’t tell you even how it went.  It’s like you do it and then you say, “Oh, I can solo.”

TP:    Any anecdote about when you played with Charlie Parker.

HARRIS:  He was beautiful to us.  I think the best experience that I always tell people is he was playing with strings one time at the Forest Club, which was a roller rink.  It was a dance at this time, and we stood in front, and the strings started, and the most spoiling thing of all was that when he started playing chills just went all through, starting on your toes, and went on through your body, man.  It was everything imaginable.  Orgasms, everything to us.  It’s really a spoiler, because I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that.

TP:    Did Bird have a huge sound in person?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.  I remember one time when he was at the Crystal, he was at the back of the room when Lee Konitz had come in and was sitting in with him.  (?)Emperor Nero(?) was playing alto, too.   Bird was over to the side, in the back by the kitchen or something, and Bird just started playing from there.  He had a great big sound.  Gene Ammons used to do that, too.  He’d stand in the back of the Club Valley… Frank Foster, Leo Osbold(?), Billy Mitchell maybe were at the mike playing.  He was up… There was some kind of thing that went up at the top, he started playing — he had a great big sound.  He always let me sit in with him.  When I was very young, he used to make Junior Mance get up and let me sit in with him.  I always loved to see him come to town, because he was one cat really I could sit in with.

TP:    Describe what the Bluebird looked like, what sort of joint it was.

HARRIS:  A very ordinary place.

TP:    Just a bar that had a music policy.

HARRIS:  That’s all.  A bar that had a music policy.  There were a couple like that.  I played in another one that was called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, and I played there with Frankie Rosolino.  That might have been one of the first steady gigs I had, was with Frankie Rosolino.

TP:    That was in the early ’50s.

HARRIS:  yes.

TP:    So you think you might have been playing in the Bluebird before ’54, though, as the house pianist.

HARRIS:  Maybe.

TP:    How long were you house pianist there?

HARRIS:  Oh, I don’t know.  Not that long.

TP:    A number of years.

HARRIS:  Nothing like that.

TP:    Did you do a three-month stint with Miles?

HARRIS:  No.  I played  with Miles there, but it wasn’t that long.  Positively.  I think I might have been the first pianist to play “Solar.”

TP:    Then you went out in ’56 with Max Roach.  How was that experience?

HARRIS:  It was nice.  It was good working with Max.  But it was hard for Max to get over Clifford and them…

TP:    He was having a hard time.

HARRIS:  He was having a hard time.  So I stayed for him a little while, maybe two or three months, mostly on the road.

TP:    You mentioned coming to New York in ’53 with Doug Watkins and hearing Bud Powell at Birdland.

HARRIS:  That was my first time.  Then we went to another place in the Bronx and heard Art Blakey.  There used to be a joint over in the Bronx that New Yorkers could tell you about, by the overhead El, and cats played at this place.

TP:    Did you meet Bud Powell at that time, or were you just looking at him from afar?

HARRIS:  No, just looking at him from afar.  Maybe I met him later.

TP:    You met him in ’64 when he came over here with Francis Paudras.

HARRIS:  Yeah, he was over here a little while; he came over a day or two.  He was up here, then we didn’t know where he was.  We had to call the police…

TP:    I read Paudras’ book.  Is that accurate?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    So you got back to Detroit after you were on the road with Max Roach, and then you went in the Rouge Lounge.

HARRIS:  I don’t know.  I might have been at the Rouge Lounge before that.  I forget when it was.  I really don’t know.  I think it might have been the Rouge Lounge before ’55…

TP:    The liner note says in ’55 you joined Max Roach, but after only a few months on the road you decided to return home, becoming house pianist at the Rouge Lounge.

HARRIS:  Okay.  Maybe that’s the way it happened.

TP:    “There his on-the-job training included working with Lee Konitz, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster,” and you developed a theory of jazz instruction…

HARRIS:  Put Flip Phillips in there.  I don’t know about all those names you called.  I know about Lester Young and Flip Phillips.  That’s what I remember.

TP:    At the Bluebird did you play with visiting cats, or young…

HARRIS:  No, that was stuff that happened.  Cats would drop in there.

TP:    So you had a local group with young guys and people would drop in, but at the Rouge Lounge they brought in national acts.

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    Can you describe the Rouge Lounge?

HARRIS:  It was in River Rouge, Michigan, right outside Detroit, sort of like a suburb.  I can’t tell you thing about it! [LAUGHS] It had a nice stage.  I remember seeing Carmen McRae there and hearing her sing for the first time.  There was a song she sang called “Guess Who I Saw.”  Someone else sang it, but I could never appreciate anybody else singing that song except Carmen.  I was in the audience that day, and that’s all I can remember.

TP:    Were you playing for singers then, too?

HARRIS:  I did one time.  I played with Nancy Wilson at Baker’s.  The only way to be able to tell what year that was is because Nancy Wilson was pregnant.  The most beautiful pregnant woman I think I ever saw in my life.  So however old her first son is, that’s when I played with Nancy Wilson.

TP:    Did you stay at the River Rouge until you played with Cannonball, then.

HARRIS:  No.  These were all just little gigs; you’d get a gig here and get a gig there.  It might have been some other piano player who played at the Rouge Lounge.  I might have played with a few there and Tommy might have played with a few of them there.  I don’t know.  That kind of thing.

TP:    I guess Tommy came here in ’56.

HARRIS:  Yes, he came here a little earlier than I did.  We had a lot of piano players.  Will Davis.  Boo-Boo Turner.  Abe Woodley who played vibes, too.  We had Theodore Shieldy, who could play…

TP:    Was he just a boogie-woogie player, or did he play other…

HARRIS:  Oh, no.  Theodore Shieldy was one of the first cats I heard really improvise.  I really thought he was going to be the best of all of us.  But he went in the joint and went there for a long time.  I think he worked with King Porter or someone.  But he went in a long time, and he wasn’t quite the same.  I really thought he was going to be the greatest of all of us.

TP:    Just a few words as an overview of Detroit, what the music scene was like…

HARRIS:  Very special.  Because we had a lot of older musicians, and they were good.  That’s how we learned.  We had older musicians who were good musicians.  We had Cokie, we had Warren Hickey, we had Billy Mitchell, we had a whole lot of cats who could play.  Thad Jones was around there.  Frank Foster was there.  I learned more from Frank Foster than anybody.  I still have a sheet here… When Frank Foster got ready to go in the Army, I said, “Frank, can you write me out a sheet where I can know how to maybe arrange for a band?”  I’ve still got the sheet.  I would never part from that little sheet where he told me how to arrange for a band.  So there are a lot of things.

Second Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

TP:    Let’s talk about the affiliations you made when you first came to New York.  You got there after the “Jazz Workshop” date.

HARRIS:  Well, before that I’d recorded with Thad Jones on Blue Note.  And you know, I recorded with Frank Rosolino.  That might have been the second recording that I ever made.   I had a cat tell me I recorded with a cat named Willie Wells, who was a trumpet player, but I don’t remember that one.  But I recorded with Frank Rosolino.  You’ll find “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”; that’s me on piano.

TP:    Were you pretty much determined to get to New York?  Was that your aspiration?

HARRIS:  No.  I really had no plans to come to New York.  I was a scary kind of cat.

TP:    You mean you were feeling a little wary of New York?

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    You had a nice setup in Detroit, I guess.

HARRIS:  No, not really.  I was a poor son-of-a-gun! [LAUGHS] I was so poor I just sat on my foot!  No, I was very poor in Detroit.  Then I had a little daughter.  I was the cat who went to the supermarket when they had sales.

TP:    What was it like when you settled in New York.  Talk about your first being here, and the people you met, and the places you hung out in getting yourself established.

HARRIS:  Well, for one thing, I stayed downtown.  Where I stayed, if you went there now, all you’d see is big buildings.  I stayed on Broad Street.  I used to go down to the Staten Island Ferry and walk on South Street a couple of blocks, and then you’d come to Broad Street.  I stayed on Broad Street in an unheated loft.  Well, we had a coal stove.  We were lucky because around the corner was some kind of place that made stuff with wood, and so they had scrap wood all the time, so we could get that scrap wood.

TP:    Were you living with some other musicians?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.  I was there with Ira Jackson, a fellow who plays tenor and piano, who is still around New York.  Harry Whitaker stayed there.  There was a bass player whose name I can’t remember; it was almost like his pad.  There was the bass player and another fellow who ended up playing the lute.  It was Frank Ayler(?) or something like that.  Frank used to read about Greek history a lot.  Now he lives in Paris and he played the lute.  It’s real weird.  He didn’t play an instrument here, but it ended up where he played the lute.  I’ve forgotten the bass player’s name; he’s probably still around.  I wonder whatever did happen to that bass player…

TP:    But you were sharing a cold water loft with a bunch of musicians.

HARRIS:  Yes, it was a cold water loft.  So I ended up catching up pneumonia.

TP:    Did they have a piano there?

HARRIS:  No.  There wasn’t no such thing.  I used to go to Kiane Zawadi’s loft on East Broadway where they had a piano, and I used to practice at Colin Studio on 53rd Street, which is still there.

TP:    Did you start getting gigs right away?

HARRIS:  After I left Cannonball?  Yeah.  I worked with Yusef, who had a few gigs, and I started working at Junior’s, which was around the corner from Birdland on 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, right down the street, a little bar.  They had a piano in there, and it would be a duo.  I worked with Hal Dotson there.  They had a good chef who cooked good food!  I’d meet a cat (he isn’t working there now) who was one of the men who worked out in front of the Port Authority putting people in cabs and stuff, making sure the cabs do right, and this one cat would always say, “what’s his name asked about you,” and he would always say the name of this cat who… He could cook!

But see, between Junior’s and then running around to Birdland.  I might have worked a few times at Birdland, too.  The real Birdland; I’m not talking about anything else.

TP:    You already knew a good chunk of the New York musicians just through their having passed through Detroit.  It wasn’t like you were coming in as an unestablished young guy.

HARRIS:  No, it wasn’t like that.  A lot of the cats knew about me before I even knew about them.

TP:    What was your sense of the New York scene when you got there.  That was right in the middle of “the times, they are a changing” stuff going on.  Mingus was doing all that Jazz Workshop stuff, Coltrane was developing his thing, Ornette Coleman…

HARRIS:  It was a little different.  I might have heard…let’s see… Bud Powell came back.  I guess that was later.

TP:    Well, that was 1964.  When you got there, what was your sense of the scene and your relation to it.

HARRIS:  Well, the scene was entirely different, because Bird was dead, Art Tatum was dead, Prez was dead.  Coleman Hawkins was still alive.  I was lucky to end up working with Coleman Hawkins, but that was later, too…

TP:    I think the listed date is ’62.

HARRIS:  Well, see, around that time I was working with Yusef.  Yusef had a few gigs, and I worked at Junior’s.  I worked in quite a few joints.  I worked at the old Five Spot with Wes Montgomery.  I worked with Charles and Lonnie at the new Five Spot at St. Marks Place and the Bowery.  I worked at Slugs later…

TP:    You recorded with Lee Morgan, too.

HARRIS:  Yes, a couple of times.  I worked with Sonny Red, who worked at Slugs.  I had to walk out of Slugs, because Slugs had a piano where all the middle notes didn’t play.  I told Sonny Red, “Sonny, I’ll see you; I’m going to show(?).” [LAUGHS] I couldn’t make that at all.

TP:    So basically, you got to New York and you were working.  It’s not like you were getting rich, but you pretty much could hit the ground running.

HARRIS:  Yes, I was able to do it.

TP:    But could we get back to this question of how you perceived the musical scene around you.  Because when people wrote about you, the attitude that came out was you as a keeper of the flame, as it were.

HARRIS:  Well, that’s all I knew.  What I knew was Bird and them.  That’s all Coltrane knew! [LAUGHS] Coltrane decided late in life to really take care of business.  Which is what he did.  He started very late and started practicing very hard.  That caused Sonny Rollins to do the same thing; he used to go back by the bridge or something.  There was a different thing going on.

I recorded with Hank Mobley.  I had already recorded with… I don’t know when I recorded with Carmell Jones.

TP:    “Jayhawk Talk” is in ’64.

HARRIS:  [GETS OUT HIS DISCOGRAPHY] This cat in Holland, Piet Koster, did a discography that says I recorded with Willie Wells and Wild Bill Moore, Doug Watkins was on bass, and Bob Atchison on drums.  I wish I could remember that.  We recorded a thing called “Football  Boogie,” “Blue Journey,” “Bubbles”… I recorded with Frank Rosolino in September 1952.  I recorded with Donald Byrd… Oh yeah, we recorded in Detroit in 1955 with Yusef Lateef, Bernard McKinney, Frank Gant, Elvin Jones on bass.

TP:    For Transition maybe.

HARRIS:  Yeah, that’s right!  For Transition.  Then I went to New York in 1956… Well, I had gone to New York in 1955 after Clifford Brown and Richie Powell died…

TP:    Well, that was June of ’56.

HARRIS:  Oh, all right.  Well, I joined Max Roach’s band then.  So I recorded with Thad Jones in 1956 in July.  Then in July again I recorded with the Hank Mobley Quartet.  It’s weird.  The same year, July 14th, July 20th with Hank Mobley, then with Hank Mobley on July 23rd for Savoy.  I did more recordings that month than the year…

TP:    Those Hank Mobley dates and the Thad Jones dates are all ’56.  I know all those dates.

HARRIS:  There was another one, a Donald Byrd-Art Farmer thing for Prestige.  I recorded in 1958 for Argo with Sonny Stitt and my trio.  Then in 1958 with Benny Golson for Riverside.  “The Other Side of Benny Golson.”  I don’t remember that at all!

Now, let’s get up the ’60s.  I recorded with Cannonball.  That’s when I came back to New York.

TP:    You did “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” your trio record, which is very popular among younger players.  I know a couple of players who that’s their bible of trio playing.

HARRIS:  It’s a good one.  When I listen to it, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, in some kind of way.  The way I played together with Louis Hayes and Sam Jones.

TP:    Well, you were a unified rhythm section.

HARRIS:  We’d been playing together for about three months.  Then I did a trio with Joe Benjamin on bass and Elvin Jones.

TP:    Oh, “Preminado,” a very different record, and the solo record for Riverside.

HARRIS:  Right, and I did Dave Pike.  Yusef Lateef Sextet with Voices.  I don’t remember that one at all.  Then Sonny Red I did June 28, 1961.

TP:    Can I interrupt you for a minute on the discography.  When I spoke with Tommy Flanagan, he said Tatum was in Detroit a lot, and he played a lot at an after-hours club.  Did you hear him there?

HARRIS:  Tommy did.  I found out about that later.  Tommy did see him in these spots.  I didn’t.  I saw Art Tatum in person at the Rouge Lounge.  I know there’s an instance where he played at an after-hours place and Tommy had seen him.

TP:    Tommy said he had almost a house gig at Baker’s also, and the after-hour place was called Freddie Ginyard’s.

HARRIS:  Freddie Ginyard’s, that’s right.  I never went there.

TP:    Was Tatum like your first love among the piano players?

HARRIS:  I don’t think so.  Man, I don’t know really.  All I know is, I think I was… We used to play… When you think about high school and stuff… We used to have a band, and we’d play stock arrangements.  I remember playing “9:20 Special,” one of them pieces that there’s a stock arrangement on.  I think that’s our first sort of encounter with jazz.  Then I think I started hearing Bird.  I didn’t hear that much of Monk.  I don’t think I paid that much attention to Monk when I was getting started.  Monk might have sounded very hard.  I could play some boogie-woogie, and a few changes to the songs.  I learned something about changes.  Other cats could solo better on the West Side, and I’d come back… [ETC.] I heard “Webb City,” which was Sonny Stitt and Fats Navarro with Bud Powell.  That’s how I started learning how to play.

TP:    Did you listen to Tatum’s records, or study with him before?

HARRIS:  I had heard Art Tatum before.

TP:    I’m not so interested in the particulars as I am in the impressions and the essence and what you have to say about him.

HARRIS:  [LAUGHS] Art Tatum was the person that I could listen to a little while.  Because you’d end up with “Oh, my head hurts” or something.  It was sort of complicated, listening to Art Tatum.  He was so much, it was like ten piano players playing at once.

TP:    The level of complexity but also just so beautiful.

HARRIS:  Beautiful, oh yeah.  Beautiful, complex.  Oh, man, I think we all loved him.

TP:    So no matter how deep you got into Bebop… A lot of people say that everything that was ever played in Jazz was contained in Tatum.

HARRIS:  Well, that’s what they say.  It’s almost like the way you hear cats play, and individually you might say that Erroll Garner was Erroll Garner, but Art Tatum was also Erroll Garner, Art Tatum was Bud Powell, and Art Tatum was all of them… Art Tatum was Monk and Art Tatum was Duke Ellington.  All of them, in some kind of way.   That’s the one felt.

TP:    Did you ever go so far with trying to transcribe Tatum?

HARRIS:  No.  But they had books with his solos; Art Tatum, Pete Johnson, all that kind of stuff.

TP:    When you were listening to Bud Powell and “Webb City,” were you transcribing at that time, or was that more trying to correlate by ear what was happening and put that on the piano.

HARRIS:  It was by ear.  That’s the way you did it.  You had to learn by ear, slow it up and get it.  There was one piano player… Did I ever tell you about Johnny O’Neill?

TP:    The one who played with Art Blakey for a while, right?

HARRIS:  That Johnny O’Neill.  He can play so close to Art Tatum, it’s unbelievable.  I used to wonder.  One time he came over to my house, because he was in town and people told him he had to come over to my house because, like, you had to be accepted by me — or some kind of nonsense like that!  I was in Detroit.  So he came over, and I heard him play.  I heard him first play in Chicago, and I couldn’t understand it, because he sounded sort of like Art Tatum, and he was a young cat.  Not too many young cats you hear trying to sound like Art Tatum.  So he came by my house and he played, and he still sounded like Art Tatum!  I said, “Now, how the heck do you sound like Art Tatum, young as you are?”  He said when he played for church, boy, if you could hear what he played… My Lord.  If that was playing for church, my brother… You ain’t never heard nothin’ like that.  He could have played Chopin’s Left Hand Octave Concerto easy as the devil — and that’s a hard one, too! [LAUGHS]

But I asked him one day, “How in the hell did you learn how to play like Art Tatum?”  Well, he decided he wanted to play jazz, and his mother had these records, these Art Tatum records.  He said, “So what I did, I sped them up.”  I said, “You sped them up?  What the hell does that mean?”  He said, “Well, that’s what I did.  I sped them up, and then when I slowed them back down to regular, I could hear everything.”  Dig that.  He listened to them sped up, and then he’d slow them down and heard everything.  That’s the funniest thing I ever heard in my life.

TP:    Makes sense.

HARRIS:  Well, it makes sense.  But we used to do the opposite.  We slowed it down.  He sped it up!  You know, I still haven’t done that.  I’m going to do that one day.  Now I’m really going to do it, now that I’m talking to you!  I’m going to speed up one Art Tatum and see.

TP:    With Bud Powell you slowed it down, too?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.  Well, we had a machine that you could slow it down in any key.  See, they stopped making them real proper machines so that young people could really continue learning to play the music more by records than by education.  They’d be better to learn by records, I think.  This education thing is ruining the music, some kind of way.

TP:    When did you begin to relate to Monk’s music?

HARRIS:  Oh, I think I always did.

TP:    But you said early it seemed hard to you.

HARRIS:  Well, it seemed complicated.  But the pieces… You heard these beautiful songs.  Because Monk made up some of the most beautiful melodies, like “Round Midnight,” the first recording of Cootie Williams…

TP:    Then he did his own for Blue Note.  He did so many versions of it.

HARRIS:  Well, see, Bud Powell was on the first one with Cootie Williams.  The very first recordings of it were really nice.  So you gradually grew into Monk.

TP:    As far as getting into Monk’s style of playing, that didn’t begin for you until you knew him…

HARRIS:  No, if you deal with Bud Powell, you deal with part of Monk.  Bud Powell was influenced by Monk in some kind of way.  You could tell by the way Bud Powell…the whole tone scales and some things that Bud Powell would do, that he was influenced by Monk.  And you would be influenced by Monk, because Monk was odder than all the rest.  He did more unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff.  Monk played the whole-tone scales a lot.  It gave him a certain sound.  There was an East Coast sound as opposed to a West Coast sound.

TP:    Do you think that sound comes out of the stride piano legacy?

HARRIS:  I don’t know.  I know there’s a difference.  The East Coast sound is strong and very virile.  West Coast is wishy-washy.  The Midwest is dulcet. [LAUGHS]

TP:    well, not in Chicago.

HARRIS:  No, not in Chicago.  No, there you think of Albert Ammons, boogie-woogie.

TP:    I think of a shuffle rhythm when I think of Chicago.

HARRIS:  Oh, that’s right.  Well, we had to do it in Detroit, too.

TP:    But you didn’t meet Monk until you moved to New York, is that correct?

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    Was that at the Five Spot?  Do you remember when you first met him?

HARRIS:  I can remember playing at the Five Spot and Monk coming in and walking back and forth through the joint all night with his hat and coat on.   That might have been when I first met him.

TP:    Do you remember when you first talked to Monk?

HARRIS:  No, I can’t tell you that.  And you’ve got to realize, Monk didn’t talk that much.

TP:    Let me put it this way.  When you first started communicating with him.

HARRIS:  Well, we became sort of friends through the Baroness.  I think that’s what it is.  Through the Baroness we became good friends.  I went with her by his house and stuff, and we’d pick him up and we’d all three be going some place.  That kind of thing.  I think that’s how I knew him mostly.

TP:    So it began as a social relationship through your musical connections.

HARRIS:  The social more than the musical.  Social because we were musicians, but I don’t think he’d ever heard me play and I might not have heard him in person.  Or I might have heard him in person… I’m trying to think when I first heard Monk; I couldn’t tell you.

TP:    But you knew his records, though.

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    And when you met him, did his personality seem to totally correlate the music you knew?  Did he seem at one with it?

HARRIS:  yeah, he was that kind of cat.

TP:    Did you feel like you knew him already from knowing his music?

HARRIS:  Yeah, I think so.  Well, he was an odd fellow.  He didn’t talk.  He didn’t waste any conversation.  Monk never wasted words.

TP:    Or notes.

HARRIS:  Or notes.  That’s the same thing.  That’s what I’m talking about.  That was like his music.  And that’s really true, too.  He certainly didn’t.  Oh, I don’t know.  How long we been talking, man?  I’d better go.

TP:    Did you meet the Baroness in New York?

HARRIS:  Yeah.

TP:    Shortly after?

HARRIS:  Something like that.  I don’t like to talk about her too much, so let’s talk about some other subjects.  Let’s go elsewhere.

TP:    Can we say anything about her for the purposes of this story?

HARRIS:  Well, we could say that she was beautiful towards musicians.  All the musicians knew it, too.  And she probably helped us all in some kind of way.  She was a help… [LAUGHS] One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, is that it was the one time you could go to a jazz club and find a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce parked out in front of the jazz club.  I think she drew people!  I think people came to the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or who was in there with this Bentley.  They protected that car, like up in Harlem and stuff.  She never locked the trunk and she never locked the glove compartment, and the car was never touched.  Nobody ever touched that car.  If you touched that car you probably got beat up!  Nobody would let you mess with that car up in Harlem.  The only time that car got messed up was when I opened my joint at the Jazz Cultural Theater, and she parked around the corner, and somebody took a knife and went all along the top of the car.  Slashed the whole top.  Unbelievable.  In midtown.  It didn’t happen in Harlem.  It wouldn’t have happened in Harlem.  You know, it’s real weird about that kind of thing.  There was a different kind of feeling about that car.  And I think people looked out for her no matter where it was parked.  She could park any place up there.  Nobody would mess with that car.  In front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s.  Nobody would touch that car.

TP:    And she made all of those scenes.

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

TP:    It sounds like she made it her point to hear everything that was going on.

HARRIS:  Oh, she was a jazz lover.  That’s no stuff.  She was one of our assets.  She was a good one for us.

TP:    And you and Monk became…

HARRIS:  Yes, good friends because of her.

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about living with Monk, the way that was?

HARRIS:  Well, Monk was sort of sick then.  So that’s like a different thing.

TP:    So he couldn’t really communicate…

HARRIS:  He didn’t communicate much.

TP:    You did tell me that one time you sat down in a room…

HARRIS:  Oh, now, one time we played.  One time he was very clear and we sat down and played “My Ideal” over and over, maybe 100 choruses apiece.  He’d play one, I’d play one; he’d play one, I’d play one.  And we did that back and forth for a long time.

TP:    This may be impossible for you to answer, but if you could talk about how being around Monk inflected your sensibility about music, how would you describe it?

HARRIS:  Well, his songs you wanted to know.  I never transcribed particularly in later times.  I may hear something and learn it, learn the melody or something.  But there’s a lot of cats who can play a Monk piece that maybe they try to play note for note, that kind of thing.  I’ve never done that particularly.  I just learn the piece and I play it.  Learn the melody, see how it goes.  He showed me “Round Midnight” one time, parts of “Round Midnight.”  That’s why I get mad when people play “Round Midnight.”  They play the changes so wrong.  They don’t have that too good.  The way he voiced things, the way he did it, the way he…how simply he did it.  He did it much simpler than cats try to do it.  Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he just did it real simple.  Just three notes sometimes. HARRIS:  I don’t plan a record date much.  I just do it.

TP:    So for you, going into a record date is just an extension of what you’re doing at the time?

HARRIS:  That’s all.  I’m one of those people that like… My preference is the live recording.  But I also had a good time recording with Pepper and Slide Hampton, Junior Cook… I recorded with a lot of…

TP:    Well, you recorded a number of group dates, which you had done much with Riverside.

HARRIS:  No, but they did let me do it, so I did it.  I enjoyed those because I had a chance to try to arrange.  I was sort of young at arranging.  I’ve still got a sheet right now… I was showing this to somebody the other day.  Frank Foster showed me a sheet when he went into the Army.  Frank Foster went into the Army in I think 1950, and before he left (this was in Detroit) I said, “Frank, why don’t you leave me a sheet so I can learn something about arranging.”  And he left me this sheet which says stuff like… How did he say it?  I can’t even remember, but it was “MF.” [LAUGHS] And so, from that sheet that helped me tremendously.  Most of the stuff that I try to do comes from that sheet.

TP:    Was it mostly harmonic information, or things about voicings?

HARRIS:  Voicing information.  Like how to voice for the four trumpets, or how to voice for a big band, how to voice for a small group — all kind of things like that.

TP:    At the time you met Schlitten you were pretty established in your own way on the New York scene…

HARRIS:  Pretty much so.  Don was an A&R man for Prestige.  We just had this strong relationship.  No contract or nothing, just a handshake.  And I always sort of stuck to that, except I might not have stuck to it too much lately.

TP:    The way he put it was he came up with the idea for Prestige to play the “Classical repertoire of jazz,” as he put it, and he said, “there was no other choice than Barry for the piano bench.”  Then I asked him if your style dovetailed with playing the repertoire of classical music in its ’60s incarnation.  He said you knew all the tunes; everyone knew the changes, but you knew the melodies, and had a way of comping and playing the changes that inspired the guys playing… [ETC.]

Had you before this played with people like Illinois Jacquet or Dexter Gordon or James Moody in rhythm sections, or were these dates the opportunity to do that?

HARRIS:  The dates were the opportunity to do that.  Of course it was nice, because you always dug those people, so it was a nice opportunity.  I came to New York before I even lived here to record.  I recorded with Thad, I was with Benny Golson, I recorded with a lot of people… So it was an honor.  It’s not that I worked with Dexter or… I think I did one concert.  We did a concert on one of Dexter’s birthdays at Lincoln Center, and he asked me to have some singers, and we took some of his music and I arranged it for the singers and we backed him up.  Now, that was my time playing with Dexter.  I played a few things with Moody over the years; I can’t much remember them.

TP:    I’m asking you more in general than the specific about how you developed over that time.  Perhaps it’s for me to say, not you.

HARRIS:  I don’t even know how to answer such a thing as that.  I just think I was lucky.  I call it luck, because I was sort of trifling.  I was a cat who loved to go to the racetrack.  When I first came to New York, I was really a practicer.  I would go to a studio.  Riverside had a studio across from their place on 46th Street that was on the third floor, a little building that’s still there.  I had a key to that building, see, and I could go up to the third floor, and there was a piano up there (there was an old grand piano brought in there that I never played), and I would… I had a Greek cat who would give me breakfast in the morning.  He gave me breakfast in the morning, made sure I had a nice meal, and then I’d go up there and look up and it would be night.  People who knew about this kind of thing (you’d have to ask them), Joe Zawinul, Harold Mabern…a lot of people knew Barry was at that studio, because a lot of cats joined me there.  Sometimes they would join me there.  I was a cat who just practiced all the time for that little…

Then there was a trifling period where I went to the racetrack every day, or went to OTB and stuff like that.  But I was fortunate that I continued in some kind of way to learn things.  I think the reason why I started my classes and things like that was to keep me out of trouble.

TP:    To have something to do with that excess energy when you weren’t playing music.

HARRIS:  Right, besides hanging out in OTB or going to this show or this and that.  I used to see Wes Montgomery all the time.  He’d be going to the cowboy movies just like me. [LAUGHS]

TP:    It sounds to me like, say, between the trio section with Cannonball’s rhythm section or Chasin’ the Bird or Preminado and the record you did at the end of the ’60s with Ron Carter and Leroy Williams, there’s something… It’s very intangible, but you sound like a more confident player, and you sound somehow more interpretive of the material.  It may or may not, but is it possible, or is it bullshit…

HARRIS:  Well, I can’t really say.  I can say that I feel like I’ve improved. [LAUGHS] I felt like I improved.  I would say I imagine that I did improve.  Anyway, I was lucky.

TP:    Well, could that have to do with being in New York, and playing for five years with Coleman Hawkins…

HARRIS:  That was a very important part of my life.  I can remember the first time sitting in with Coleman Hawkins.  He said, “Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player.”  I think he was playing at the new Five Spot on the corner of 8th Street and 3rd Avenue, and I sat in with him.  He called some tune that, in my head, I knew the melody, and I figured I could figure out the chords, if you know what I mean.  So we played it, and all he said was, “Another Detroit piano player.” [LAUGHS] Because he went through Detroit piano players, you realize.  Hank Jones, Roland Hanna, Tommy Flanagan, me… So he had a Detroit relationship.  So I worked with him quite a while; I worked with him til he died. [MET HIM AROUND ’65]

TP:    Can you pinpoint anything that you particularly gleaned from him?

HARRIS:  There’s not too much I wouldn’t want to talk about, because he was always a beautiful cat.  I felt I was lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a little different outlook on things.  One time (I’ll never forget this) he called out “All The Things You Are,” and we played it, and after he played it I just said, “Well…”  See, what he would do is play a phrase, and… I was a cat always thinking, “What was that phrase?” and I’d be trying to get that phrase.  He’d laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase.  I wasn’t chording.  I was trying to steal his phrases!  He played so good on that, it just gave me a different kind of outlook.  It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard.  We can’t think of anybody really as the end. There’s a lot more.  Maybe the closest… It’s just a lot more, man.  We were the kids who were…the bebop boys.  That was our music.  But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played.  So one had to work at trying to reach this other level and see if one can do some of this stuff.

TP:    So he could still access that even toward the end of his life…

HARRIS:  Oh, you kiddin’?  He had a special philosophy.  For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements.  And I’m a firm believer in that; it isn’t chords, it’s movements, and how you go from one place to another.  A chord might come in there, but you’ve got to know how to go from one place to another.

TP:    So that it goes beyond the chords and becomes purely about melody.

HARRIS:  There you go.  It’s purely a melodic kind of thing.  Knowing how to go to the relative minor, knowing how to come from back the 4 to the 1 — all these different little things.  That’s what one should know, but what these young cats don’t really know nowadays.

TP:    Why do you think that is?

HARRIS:  For one thing, right now we have a lot of horn players who sit down at a piano, and they play one chord to another chord and they think that’s hip, and then they make up a melody.  And see, music is more than that.  Music is movement.  They have to play a chord that moves… We should know more about movement; then we can venture away from it.  You can’t venture away from something if you don’t know it.  Most of these people don’t know it, and these horn players will be writing these tunes and writing for these bands, and they don’t know anything about movement.  How to go from here to there.  And that’s the first thing they should be learning about.

But see, they’re messing up our young now, because they’ve got them learning these funny songs that don’t have movement.  So the young people aren’t even getting a chance to learn how to play.  And this is quite true all over the country, all over the world.  There’s some dumb stuff going on.  And it’s quite wrong, because everybody should know how to move from one place to another.  Their main thing must first be, “I must first know how to move from one place to another.”  It is a case of these horn sitting down and knowing something about chords, and they hit one chord and then they hit another chord and say, “Ooh, that sounds good.”  That ain’t right.

TP:    Let me get back to Coleman Hawkins for a second.  You took care of him for a bit.

HARRIS:  Nothing too much to say.  I moved in with him, because he wasn’t doing that well.  He was living on 97th Street.  Finally I had to put him into the hospital.  He was a recoverer.  He always recovered.  He might overdo things a little bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right.  You know what I mean?  It just happened this time he didn’t recover.

TP:    I hear he loved opera.

HARRIS:  Oh, he loved Classical, period.  That’s why he kept talking about movement and stuff.  He loved Classical.

TP:    Did that spark an interest for you in absorbing Classical, or were you already…

HARRIS:  Well, I already was into Classical music.  I was taking lessons, which I still do.  It helps me technically, and it helps musically, too.  Because these cats knew about movement.  See, there’s no jiving.

TP:    Is there a difference for you between Classical technique and Jazz technique?

HARRIS:  I don’t really understand that.  Technique is technique as far as I’m concerned.  I can’t say anything about Classical technique.

TP:    I’m thinking about in terms that Monk, say, developed a technique to play the music in his mind, which might not have been appropriate to articulate Classical repertoire.

HARRIS:  It might have been very good! [LAUGHS] I don’t think you can say that.  A lot of people assume that Monk didn’t have technique.  I can tell them that they’re lying on that issue because he really did.  I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn’t play it.  That’s one thing.  Monk danced a lot.  And he would sit behind the piano, and any note Monk wanted to hit, he hit it.  That’s the only thing I can say about him.  He suddenly threw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note.  That note was hit.  You see?  The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before!  So he was very influential.  He influenced Bud, and other cats, he influenced them some.

TP:    My favorite record of yours is Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron.

HARRIS:  That’s the one with Gene Taylor.  Personally, I like Live At The Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes.  I think it’s because it’s live.  And I think some of the engineers record better live than you do in the studio.

TP:    Live In Tokyo, where you do the Bud Powell is also wonderful.

HARRIS:  I like that one, too.  I never would stay for mixing and stuff like that.  I never could stand it.  I always felt that it didn’t sound right.  And it’s so strange, one time I did stay, and the engineer cut off my part of it and was doing something with the drums.  And what I heard coming through the drums of me, that was me.  What I heard coming through that was supposed to be me, that wasn’t me.  A run I played, I didn’t play my run staccato; I played my run legato.  Why should my run come out staccato when I played it legato.  So it’s something about engineers; one gotta really watch ‘em.

TP:    Schlitten said one reason he moved away from Rudy Van Gelder was that he recorded all piano players the same, and he wanted to get your sound the way that it was.

HARRIS:  Well, I don’t know about engineers.  I heard that Art Tatum recorded and the mike would be up towards the ceiling.  See, when we record, they put the mike inside the piano.  The mike picks up a lot of metallic stuff, and the mike picks up clicks and things from the metal or something.  Not like a piano.  I don’t think I’ve been recorded right.  I’m convinced of that.  I just haven’t heard anything that sounds right to me.

TP:    That represents your sound.

HARRIS:  That represents my sound.  I’ve heard very little.  I think that Live At The Jazz Workshop… I think some of the live things come closer.  Otherwise, it’s like engineers…I don’t know.  See, we have a bunch of engineers now who are young people who know nothing about jazz.  I mean, they know so little about jazz that you can go in, and when they have something on to test their equipment, that is the worst music you ever heard in your life — but they’re using it to test the equipment.  And then they want to record you, and you’re a jazz musician — and they know nothing about it.  Not a thing!  You can’t even trust them. Like, if you give a concert and you get somebody for the sound, you know you come in and, damn, they’re playing some Rock-and-Roll stuff!  And here you are, a jazz musician.  They don’t even know anything about jazz.  That’s what’s wrong with the advertising.  The advertising people know nothing about jazz.  That’s why no jazz is on the television too much.  Because the dumb people, all they know is this Rock Guitar sound or something.  It’s ridiculous.  They’re young and dumb.  They don’t know anything about American music.  It’s almost like they cut off… We lose a radio station that did play some old standard stuff, so you could hear it.  We had Great American Composers.  Get out of here!  To me, the worst thing that ever happened to the USA was the Beatles.  I consider them the worst thing that ever happened to us.  They messed up our whole thing, over some dumb stuff.  And they wrote a few things that were nice; that’s all right, but they messed up our thing.  It’s always England.  I’m sort of mad at England; they sort of mess up our thing all the time.  The new plays, the Phantom and stuff, they’ve got some of the ugliest music.  I’m almost convinced they don’t know a thing about music.  They’re horrible, man.  Good gracious.  It’s like they try to take us over another kind of way!

TP:    Can I get back to Tadd Dameron?

HARRIS:  Well, Tadd Dameron was very special to everybody.  There was something about Tadd Dameron, that’s why I wanted to try to learn how to…one tries to learn how to arrange like Tadd Dameron.  Because Tadd Dameron was very special at arranging.  But I think it was a special thing about Ohio.  I’ve heard other arrangers from Ohio.

TP:    The Wilberforce College influence maybe, where Horace Henderson and Benny Carter went…

HARRIS:  I think Frank Foster went there, and Joe Henderson, too.  Joe came from someplace like that when he came from Detroit — I think.  [ETC.] But there was some special stuff.  I know some arrangers you’ve never heard of.  There was an alto player named Willie Smith, not the famous one; he used to arrange for Little John, Little John and his Merrie Men, they were called, which was a nice…about four horns…a real nice sound.  Then there was another cat who came to New York whose name was Bugs Bauer; I don’t know his real first name.  They all arranged alike. There’s something very similar… There’s something about Ohio, I don’t know… And Tadd Dameron is the epitome of it.

TP:    Were you listening to him with the same avidity as Bud Powell and Bird when those records were coming out?

HARRIS:  No, I doubt that.  But I was listening to him.  Because I liked Tadd’s arrangements and stuff.  Yeah, I was listening to him pretty good.

TP:    It’s such a lyrical record.

HARRIS:  Oh, it was a special project.  It was one I wanted to do.  Because Tadd wrote a lot of beautiful songs.  So to get a chance to play his songs, that’s all.

TP:    Did you ever get to meet him, or know him before he died?

HARRIS:  Not really.  What year did he die?

TP:    1965.

HARRIS:  No, I never really met.  I never really knew him.  I can’t say I never really met him, because I might have met him and just don’t know it.  I just don’t remember, that’s all.

TP:    You did a lot of great records with Sonny Stitt as a sideman.  He’s someone who seemed to have an impact on a lot of musicians through the strength of his personality.

HARRIS:  Well, he was a special kind of cat.  And it ended up where I was… The record owner knew that I was a good influence on him…

TP:    You mean you kept him concentrating and focused.

HARRIS:  Yeah.  Towards the end, the A&R man said he may as well forget about being the A&R man; I should be the A&R man.  Because, see, Sonny, if he was messing around and wouldn’t want to do nothin’ and taking his time, I would say, “Sonny, let’s play ‘Idaho,'” and he said “okay,” and we played it.  See, I would say something like that, and he would do it.  It ended up where I was sort of a good influence on him.  He would do it!

TP:    There’s one of those dates where he plays a 10-minute “I Got Rhythm,” the first solo is on alto, then the piano solo, then a solo on tenor.

HARRIS:  Yes, that kind of thing… It really took me some time to get him started.  So we had a pretty good relationship.

TP:    You seemed to get his creative juices stirring.

HARRIS:  And he would go ahead and he would wail.  We had a good time.

TP:    You did a lot of good records with Dexter also.

HARRIS:  Yeah, we did about two or three.

TP:    Did you meet him through those projects, or had you known…

HARRIS:  I think I met him more through those projects, and just knowing he was Dexter Gordon, if you know what I mean.  Because he wasn’t here that much.

TP:    Do you remember the dynamics of working with him?

HARRIS:  Oh, he was a lot of fun.  Dexter was a lot of fun.  He played standards.  So one had a lot of fun with Dexter.  That’s all I can say.

TP:    In comping for him, was he very dominant in taking the lead, or was he interactive with you?

HARRIS:  Well, I think those cats were more interactive anyway.  It isn’t a case of anybody being dominant as it is everybody sort of blending in together or something like that.  Probably the hardest part about a record date is that there are so many heartbeats.  That’s the way I like to talk about it.  You got five cats with five different heartbeats, and what ends up happening is five different interpretations of what the tempo is.  So what has to happen is a compromise from all the individuals.  So we have to compromise, and then we can make the record.  You know what I mean?  It takes this compromising one to another.  And I think we were able to do that pretty good.

TP:    It’s kind of the magic of jazz, isn’t it.

HARRIS:   Oh yes.  It’s the magic of… I mean, it’s ceased to happen for us.  Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays.  The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money.  Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music.  What happens is that now we can’t have the jam session thing too much, because people are playing their original music.  You can’t go in the joint and the cat says, “Come on up and play with me a song.”  I could go in when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins be playing, and I could go on up there and play, because they’re going to play something I know.  They’re going to play a standard or something… There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, and you will find that you can go to Japan and play with some musicians there, you can go to Australia and play with some musicians there because of these special tunes, like “How High The Moon,” “Just You, Just Me.”  You could name off these songs, and those songs everybody should know.  The young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session.  It’s terrible.  That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going, even though it never was anything.  It never made any money, but I had a jam session every Wednesday night.  So the young people could play if they want to.

TP:    Tell me about your own writing.

HARRIS:  It’s funny.  I don’t even play my own music.  I never have.  I’ve always played Monk and Bud and Charlie Parker music.  I’m still the same.  It’s about time for me to change that.

TP:    You had a beautiful group with Clifford in the ’80s, and I remember you playing “Bean and The Boys.”

HARRIS:  Oh yes.  I loved that song with Clifford.  There were a few songs Clifford and I loved to play.  We loved to play “I Waited For You,” which was Diz’s song.

TP:    You were talking before about how when you got to New York, you were a practicer.  Talk about practicing versus live playing?

HARRIS:  Really, one should be more like when it comes to practicing.  See, what Monk did, Monk practiced playing.  He didn’t practice practicing.  He practiced playing.  So that Monk would play by himself in tempo a song, and maybe play it for half-an-hour, maybe play it for 90 minutes.  You understand?  Really, it’s hard for me to do this… I think I do most of my practicing mentally now, and I do most of my practicing through my class.  Not that I should, because I should be practicing more myself.  See, I did that when I first came to New York.  I got away from it, but yet I need to get back to it.  Because there’s just so much to learn.  I’ve got one piano player who sort of inspires me to want to practice more, because he takes the stuff that I talk about in my class and he really knows how to play it — and it’s unbelievable. TP:    When did you start teaching formally?  Have you had students since you came to New York on a formal level, or did that start with the Jazz Cultural Theater?

HARRIS:  No, it started before the Jazz Cultural Theater.  It started probably with Jazz Interaction, which was Joe and Rigmor Newman’s group.  They’d get money to have a class about once a year.  Once we were in a school on 76th or 77th Street, then another time we were at Storyville which was on 58th Street.  I think it’s from the 58th Street Storyville that the class continued.

TP:    So it’s early and mid-’70s, which is when Storyville was around.

HARRIS:  Uh-huh.  One day I was supposed to be there at 4, and I didn’t get there until 7 o’clock, and everybody was there.

TP:    Leroy Williams told me a story where you were coming back from Japan, and then you got in a cab and went right to your class.  He said, “Why are you doing that?” and you said, no, you had to go to your class.

HARRIS:  That has happened.  That’s right.

TP:    Talk about what your ideas were at that time, 25-30 years ago, about teaching jazz, and how they differed from the orthodox?

HARRIS:  Well, it differs from the orthodox in that I believe in scales. And I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people believe in a whole lot of scales.  I don’t believe in a lot of scales.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and stuff like that.  My thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  Because I figured dominant means dominating, and so if it’s supposed to dominate, then it dominates.  So I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  Then to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into is the question.  And one can apply it to just about everything one runs into.  So now I am more of the opinion that you need more than that to the students, because what they need is a little basic harmony about how to go from one place to the other.  Then to combine that basic harmony with the scales, and then I think one will be on the right track to teach.  I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.

TP:    How hands-on do you get with students?  Do you instruct privately as well as in the group?

HARRIS:  No, I don’t.  I just instruct within the group.  Every once in a while I may take somebody privately.  That’s very seldom.  I wouldn’t encourage that.  Because everybody wants a private lesson, and then I become a piano teacher for real.  That’s why I insist on having a class.  You want a lesson, come to my class.  So I’ll keep the class going.  I don’t care about making money and stuff.  I’ll keep the class going, just pay the rent, and that’s it.

TP:    Do you enjoy having relationships with younger piano players?  I’ve written liner notes and articles on several who love you a lot, like Michael Weiss, Rodney Kendrick…

HARRIS:  There are a lot of piano players who I’ve come into contact with.  I’m a person who is… I’m not the catalyst.  People are the catalyst, and I’m the one who gets set off by the catalyst.  I can come up with things that we need to learn.

TP:    So you’re the catalytic agent.

HARRIS:  Yeah, okay, like that.  I’m the agent.  That’s all it is.  So it comes from someplace.  I don’t know where it comes from.

TP:    Do you listen to a lot of the records that come out, or what younger musicians are doing?

HARRIS:  I don’t listen to records too much at all, because I don’t like too much what the younger musicians are doing.

TP:    Is there anyone you’d care to mention amongst the younger musicians who you do like?

HARRIS:  I’d hate to even say something like that, to say I like this one or that one.

TP:    Why is it that you don’t like so many of the younger players?

HARRIS:  Because I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play certain ways.  I don’t understand why they play this way, and Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  So I don’t quite understand where they come up playing like they play!

TP:    Can you describe how it is they’re playing?

HARRIS:  Well, the left hand has suddenly become the chord thing.  The last couple of weeks I went to a school, and two places I’ve run into this the last couple of weeks where the piano players play chords with their left hand.  They can’t play two-handed chords.  They think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  And whoever taught them that is full of shit, and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music, and they come up with this stuff with this chord only in the left hand, and it’s just ridiculous.  It’s not supposed to be that way.  And the music isn’t that way.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.

TP:    How are they disrespecting older musicians?

HARRIS:  Well, for one thing, they don’t show the proper respect, man.  Some of them act like they know it all.  Some of them, you have to prove that you know more than them, and then they still aren’t even hip enough to say, “I’d better check him out” — which is what they should do.  I had one of them in a class, he’s suddenly a great musician now, but I showed him some stuff he never knew existed in the music.  I’ve never seen him since.  So I judged them by that.  They don’t believe.  Even when they get the real deal, they don’t believe — and that includes all of them.

TP:    No exceptions.

HARRIS:  Hardly any exceptions.

TP:    To listen to you, it would seem that you’re very pessimistic about jazz…

HARRIS:  Well, I am.

TP:    …and yet you persevere, and it would seem the opposite of your actions which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.

HARRIS:  I am pessimistic, but I insist on being optimistic in trying to see if I can’t… Well, what it is mainly is to leave something.  I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have.  Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  And hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is the right stuff.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  They don’t know anything about a scale for chording.  And there is a scale for chording.  That means that every scale that a man plays… Every chord that a man plays comes from a scale of chords.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  See, they tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  So you should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.  And nobody can come up and say, “Oh, that’s a so-and-so with a so-and-so and a so-and-so.”  These are chords… They gave us one chord out of a scale of chords.  That’s not enough.

TP:    How did you figure it out?  Did it just sort of come to you piecemeal, by trial and error?

HARRIS:  It came piecemeal.  So don’t ask me how.

TP:    but it’s a homegrown thing.

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    You did have instruction and so forth, but you didn’t… I mean, did you study Schillinger…

HARRIS:  No.  I could show you examples of it in the playing of different musicians, where I know that in some way they do know a little bit of it.  They know a little bit of it, but they don’t know the whole deal.  What I’d like to do is line up all the piano players, the ones who are considered the best, and one time sit down and have a discussion with them and show them about this scale.  Because every one of them should know this.  It isn’t just a case of I’m doing it or a few people know it.  Every musician in the world should know about it; classical musicians, everybody should know about this.  There’s a scale that we’ve neglected, and we shouldn’t neglect.

TP:    To what extent is music to you mathematics, and to what extent is it about color, for lack of a better word?

HARRIS:  Well, of course, mathematics is endless.  The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  It’s almost like the scientists.  The more they find out about how this universe is put together… This isn’t haphazard shit!  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.

TP:    It’s a science of sound.

HARRIS:  It’s a science, man, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  And that’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

TP:    What do you think jazz has to contribute to the 21st Century, to the Millennium.  Why is it important that Jazz survive?

HARRIS:  It is important that Jazz survive because Jazz is the music.  Jazz is Classical music.  Jazz is everything.  If Beethoven and Chopin and them were alive, what would they be playing?  Where do you play original music?  They don’t play original music in symphony halls.  They play dead people’s music.  See, symphony halls play… Carnegie Hall plays dead people’s music.  Lincoln Center is the same thing.  Very seldom do they play somebody’s music living.  Every once in a while they’ll commission somebody.  But God, we have more inventors, people who can play…

TP:    When you say that, are you referring to Classical music at Lincoln Center or Jazz at Lincoln Center.

HARRIS:  Everything at Lincoln Center.  Generally it’s dead people’s music.  That’s all.

TP:    Are you saying that articulating the Ellington repertoire or Jelly Roll Morton…

HARRIS:  I’m not saying that you aren’t supposed to do that.  I’m not saying that.  I’m saying that our main thing…not so much articulating that as learning from that.  That’s the main thing, man!  Okay, so we have cats… I remember hearing one band, the band arrangements was Charlie Parker licks, and then Dizzy’s solo was part of the band arrangement.  But when they soloed, they couldn’t solo.  And yet when you learn the solo of Charlie Parker and them in an arrangement, what you’re supposed to do with that solo is learn how to solo from it.  Not how to play the solo.  Learn how to solo from the solo.

TP:    Take it as the springboard for your own invention.

HARRIS:  That’s right.  A springboard to find something.  That’s all it is mainly.  The same thing with Ellington.  What are we supposed to do with Ellington?  We’re supposed to learn from Ellington.

TP:    Among your peers, who are some of the people you really admire who you’ve shared the same time span with?  I’m not talking about Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, your mentors as it were; I’m talking about your peers.

HARRIS:  It’s hard to get away from the mentors!  Well, I like… Probably one of the best tenor players in the world is Charles Davis, who…I can’t even explain it…who knows about improvisation.  Who really knows about improvisation.  To explain what I mean by “really knows about improvisation,” I can’t even do it.  It’s hard.  Really can play.  He’s a person who really can play.  Of course he’s underrated and you don’t hear that much about him and stuff.  But man, when he puts the stuff together, it’s some of the best-put-together stuff that I’ve heard.  And he really can do it.

Tommy Flanagan.  I’m so used to Tommy Flanagan, because I like to watch his hands.  I’ve spent my life watching his hands! [LAUGHS] Watching his hands and learning from him.  Hank Jones.  These are beautiful people.

I wish that I could have a meeting with the teachers who are supposed to be teaching this music, so we could have a little discussion about how you teach this music.  I hate to go to a college and find students that can’t even play a major arpeggio, can’t even play a diminished 7th, can’t even play diminished 7ths all over their instrument, or play major arpeggios all over their instruments, all inversions.  I mean, if the people don’t know the ABC’s of the music, then how are they going to learn the music?  We’d be funny walking around here not knowing our ABC’s.  It would be a funny thing.  You have to know the ABC’s of the music, and a lot of people don’t.  You’d be surprised at these schools.  They have stage bands, and so these kids practice in bands, and they don’t know anything about music.  Now, that’s not right.  Some of the schools are terrible.  See, that’s why I don’t go back to these schools that often, because once I go, the kids know.

TP:    Within a year, about how often do you go out teaching?

HARRIS:  To schools?  Quite often.

TP:    Like 15 weeks in a year?

HARRIS:  Maybe something like that.

TP:    So maybe you spend a quarter of your year in academic situations as an artist-in-residence.

HARRIS:  As an artist, yeah, and performing, too.  There are a couple of good ones, too.

TP:    How about in your own teaching around New York?  Where do you do it?

HARRIS:  I have a class at Lincoln Neighborhood Community Center, which is on 250 West 65th Street, right in back of Lincoln Center.  I teach there every Tuesday that I’m in town.  It’s for anybody; anybody can come.  There’s a $25 registration.

TP:    How many people?

HARRIS:  It varies.  I have singing… See, my class is different.  I start out with piano players.  Then I have singers, who are the greatest number, and the piano players help me accompany the singers, so they learn about accompanying.  Then after the singers, the horns come in and we have an improvisation class, which also includes the singers who should stay and be a part of the improvisation class.  So it all works together like that.  So I don’t know actually how to say how many.  Over the years I wouldn’t even know how to estimate it.

TP:    How long have you been in this location?

HARRIS:  I haven’t been there that long; that’s just where it is now.  I was at Ry Baltimore’s music store at 48th and 7th Avenue after he closed for a long time.

TP:    What do you personally get out of teaching?

HARRIS:  I have nothing.

TP:    I don’t mean materially.

HARRIS:  That’s the whole thing about teaching; you just learn from teaching.  I have them trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  So that keeps me on my toes.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ‘em catch up to me.

* * *

Tommy Flanagan on Barry Harris:

TP:    He and I have been talking some about Detroit, and I just wanted a few memories of him within the Detroit scene and his position.  What are your first memories of him?  You had the same piano teacher?

FLANAGAN:  I don’t think we had it all the time, but I think at one point we had the same teacher.

TP:    Was that Gladys Dillard?

FLANAGAN:  Yes, that’s right.  Did he mention it?

TP:    Yes, that you both… Well, I remembered that you had studied with her, and then he mentioned that he had studied with her.

FLANAGAN:  Right.

TP:    And he said that you did a recital once together in high school?  A Classical recital?

FLANAGAN:  I forgot that one, but maybe… They did happen.

TP:    I guess he remembered it better than you did.  What are your early memories of him, and what are the nature of those memories?

FLANAGAN:  Well, he always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano, and he had a lot of confidence, too.  He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him.  That’s more confidence than I had.  I just didn’t have the nerve.

TP:    Were there any older bebop pianists in Detroit, or did you have to learn it off the records pretty much?

FLANAGAN:  We had quite a few pianists there.  They weren’t all in the bebop school, but they played very well, like from the Art Tatum school.  We had one, just a natural musician, who played about six different instruments very well, named Willie Anderson.  He was a great pianist.  He could play all kinds of styles.  Then there was Will Davis.  Will is a dynamic type pianist.  We had so many.

TP:    He said that he and Berry Gordy in high school were the two boogie-woogie players, and then a guy came to town named Theodore Shieldy…

FLANAGAN:  Oh, Ted Shieldy, yes.

TP:    He said he had high expectations for him that weren’t realized.

FLANAGAN:  Well, yes.  I can’t remember them all, but he’s one of them.

TP:    But the gist of what I’m asking is, in terms of assimilating bebop and learning the vocabulary, did that come mostly from records and memorizing solos?

FLANAGAN:  Mostly from my records.

TP:    Barry also said that he was always a natural sort of teacher.  This may or may not have had to do with you, it was probably after you left Detroit.  But that he always seemed to have a knack for finding a correct way of approaching a situation.

FLANAGAN:  Well, I know he always had that bent toward teaching. He had a lot of young prospects that really went on to become well known.  Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, guys like that.  Those were the two most outstanding.

TP:    He’s listed as having been house pianist at the Bluebird in the early ’50s, and you had some sort of residence yourself there, didn’t you.

FLANAGAN:  Yes, I did.

TP:    When was your residence?

FLANAGAN:  It was before I went in the Army.  I guess it had to be late ’50s, because I went into the Army in ’51 and came back in ’53.

TP:    That makes sense for hm.  Because he said he celebrated his 20th birthday there, which was in late ’50, and then in ’51 he sort of got that gig a little bit.

FLANAGAN:  Also there was Terry Pollard, who was a fine pianist, one of the woman pianists in town.  She had that gig for a while, too.

TP:    Did you ever play at a place called the Rouge Lounge?

FLANAGAN:  Yes.  I played there with… Sometimes they used to augment a band or look for someone to fill out a headliner that came in without a group.

TP:    From the way he described the Bluebird, it sounds almost like a Bradley’s of Detroit, like a place where everyone would gather, where all the young talent would appear.  He said things just happened there.  Could you describe it a bit from the perspective of being a musical center?

FLANAGAN:  It was on the West Side of Detroit, which was kind of the hipper side of Detroit.  There were a lot of musicians there, and their styles… Even the laymen were very hip.  And the Bluebird, being a corner bar right in the heart of that neighborhood, when they started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene.  It attracted all of the good musicians.  I mean, there were always fine musicians working in the club.  So it was more than a Bradley’s, because we had all kind of horn players who came in from out of town, like Joe Gordon, Clifford, Miles, Sonny Stitt and Wardell Gray.

TP:    Oh, I see.  They’d gig at the Bluebird.

FLANAGAN:  That’s what I’m talking about.

TP:    Oh, what I gathered from Barry was that the national acts came into the Rouge Lounge, but the Bluebird was local young bands.

FLANAGAN:  Well, no.  Also I played there a long time with Wardell and with Sonny Stitt and with Miles.  For about two months Miles was there.

TP:    Was that after the Army?

FLANAGAN:  I think so.

TP:    I think someone on a liner note confused you with him.  They listed him as playing a three-month gig with Miles.  And he told me no.

FLANAGAN:  Not in Detroit.

TP:    That’s where they thought he did it, so it must have been you.

FLANAGAN:  Right.

TP:    So the Bluebird was just a bar that had a music policy, as it were?  Did it have a music policy for a very long time?

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, it did.  But I think it really became well-known when Thad Jones and… Well, even before Thad, Philip Hill had a group there I think with Billy Mitchell.  That’s when they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell, and Frank Foster was there for a long period.  Of course, all the main Detroit musicians.

TP:    Barry said he and Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones were in there for a while.

FLANAGAN:  Oh, right.  I almost forgot Yusef.  Also that place in almost midtown; there was a place called Klein’s Show Bar.  Yusef was there, and Pepper Adams played that place a lot, and Paul Chambers.  But everyone played all over the city.

TP:    Why was the West Side of Detroit hipper than the East Side of Detroit?

FLANAGAN:  I don’t know.  It was just more collectively together.  It wasn’t spread out like… Well, it was kind of, you could say, like a Harlem, only it was… Just a part of town… Of course, I can’t say it was like a Harlem either.  There were several sections of Detroit that used to have labels on them, like the north end, the west end, the east end, the east side, the west side, and where I lived, Conant Gardens… Oh, there were several places like that.

TP:    He said he didn’t start getting hip until he started going to the West Side of Detroit where people could solo.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, that’s right. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So basically what you could say is that he always had a very dynamic style and command of the piano and that he was very confident.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, he was.  Well, he was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, more into it than anyone else on the scene then.

TP:    Before you did, huh?

FLANAGAN:  Well, about the same time.  But he took it another step.  I mean, he devoted a lot of time to it.

TP:     How was it different for you dealing with Bud Powell’s music?  Was he more obsessed with it or something?

FLANAGAN:  I wouldn’t say obsessed.  He gave it more attention than I did.  I was still dealing with Tatum and stuff like that.

TP:    Would Tatum be playing in Detroit during that time?  Did you get to see him?

FLANAGAN:  Oh yeah, I saw him a lot.  He stayed in Detroit a lot, because his home was in Toledo, which is about 60 miles away.  He almost had like a house gig at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, so he was there quite a lot.  Then I saw him some at an after-hour place called Freddie Ginyard’s.  He always loved to hang out and play late, so that was a good place to see him.

TP:    There was a place called the Congo Club that was around in the earlier ’40s and late ’30s.  Was that around later when you were coming of age?

FLANAGAN:  I know what you’re talking about.  It was the same location, but they changed the name to the Club Sudan.  That was a pretty hip little club, too.

TP:    It was owned by a gambler and everything was pretty much a first-class situation.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah.  Well, most of the clubs were run by somebody with a shady background.

* * *

Leroy Williams on Barry Harris:

TP:    When did you first meet Barry Harris?  Were you in Chicago or New York?

WILLIAMS:  No, I was in New York.  The first time I heard Barry in New York he was playing in this club with Paul Chambers, just a duo.  So I went there with a friend of mine to listen.  When I first heard Barry, I told this guy I was with, “That’s how the music is supposed to be played.”  Those were my first words that I uttered about Barry.  I said, “That’s it; that’s the way the music is supposed to be played.”  Then I went and told him that.

TP:    How so?  Can you analyze that a bit?

WILLIAMS:  Well, it was the feeling, the beauty, the touch, the depth of his music.  It was perfect to me, coming out of the Bebop period and Charlie Parker and Monk, which is the music I like.  He just sounded perfect.

Anyway, when I first had a chance to play with Barry was through Charles McPherson.  We were playing in Brooklyn somewhere, and he said, “Barry Harris sure would like the way you play.  I’m going to have a jam session at my house — come out.”  Anyway, I went out there and we played.  That was our first… We just kind of fell in love and jammed.  That was my first meeting with Barry.

TP:    When was that?

WILLIAMS:  It must have been about ’68-’69.

TP:    Was that when you came to New York, or had you been here awhile?

WILLIAMS:  I came to New York around ’67.

TP:    And you’d been in Chicago before that.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I was in Chicago.  Anyway, we played at Charles’ house, and he said, “Man, I got a record date; do you want to record with me?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So we did…

TP:    That’s Magnificent with Ron Carter.

WILLIAMS:  Exactly.  So that was my initial experience with Barry, and it was just a marriage.

TP:    Did Barry sound substantially different than other piano players at the time you heard him?  Did he stand out?

WILLIAMS:  He stood out to me.  Barry had a lot more depth to me than a lot of piano players.  A lot of musicians, really.  Barry’s deep, man.  He has the depth and he has the beauty, all those things it takes to make the music so wonderful.

TP:    Does it seem to you that he feeds off you a lot when you’re playing together?

WILLIAMS:  I think we have a special thing.  We’ve always had a visual thing together, because we can just look at each other sometimes…

TP:    And know where the thing is going.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, we have some kind of a magic going.  More so than with anybody else, when I play with other people.

TP:    It’s been thirty years.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, that’s a long time.  I think about that.

TP:    Let’s analyze a bit the components of what he does that make him so exceptional.  Is it any one of the things — his harmonic knowledge, his melodicism, his sense of rhythm.  I guess it’s the whole thing, isn’t it.

WILLIAMS:  Right, it’s all of that.  What Barry has to me that a lot of other people don’t have is the depth of his playing and the sincerity and the beauty.  He has all that.  It’s the depth, the conviction, all of those things that make him so wonderful.

TP:    Is he a man on a mission, do you think?

WILLIAMS:  Oh, yes. [LAUGHS]

TP:    What’s the mission?

WILLIAMS:  The mission is beauty.  The mission is to spread this… He believes in the music so much.  That’s why he has this class… He believes in it so much.  One time we came from Japan, and we did a two- or three-week tour over there.  We got off the plane and this jet lag and everything was on everybody.  I said, “Oh, man, I’m going home.”  Barry said, “I’ve got to go to my class.”  I said, “Are you going to your class now?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I’ve got to go to the class; I can’t miss that.”  When he said that, it’s just another thing about him; I said, “Man…”

TP:    You have to match it.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  I said, “Not today.”  He said, “Yeah, I can make it.”  But I’ll tell you, there’s another thing that makes me know how tolerant and patient Barry is.  When he had the Jazz Cultural Theater he was coaching a singer, a girl, and she was pretty bad, and I sat and watched, and when he finished I said, “She was pretty rough,” and he said, “Man, you should have heard her last week.”

TP:    He has a long-range perspective.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  I said, “Man, okay…”  So Barry is long-suffering, and he’s so dedicated.  He’s the most dedicated person I’ve ever met really.

TP:    What do you remember about when he began the Jazz Cultural Theater?

WILLIAMS:  Well, that was something he always wanted to do.  He was really up about it and he was happy about it.  He wanted to have it there for the music and for the teaching also.  It was like a dual thing.  He wanted to have the classes and he wanted to perform.  He was very adamant about not having any alcohol there.  Barry’s into that, and he believes in that.  He was very adamant.  I know sometimes the rent would be due, and I’d say, “Why don’t you get some beer in here or something to make some money?” and he said, “No, I want to keep it cool, and I want the kids to come in and make sure they’re around a positive environment.”  So that’s a part of him…

TP:    Well, I guess he’s seen just about everything there is to see.  What’s he like in recording sessions?

WILLIAMS:  Barry is very relaxed.  That’s how he plays.  That’s who he is.  He’s very relaxed, and things are pretty loose.  He’s not too structured.  The main part is the music.  Some guys record and they want everything to be just so, but the inside is really what’s happening.  But Barry is very relaxed in the studio.  He’s relaxed, he’s confident and he knows what he wants to do.

TP:    There’s an impression from people who don’t know him as being a sort of hard-assed purist.

WILLIAMS:  No.  I know what you mean, but no.  Barry loves the music of that period, and so do I.  I think it’s some of the most profound music that’s been on this planet.  So purist?  That music is deep and Barry is deep, and he realizes how great that music is.

TP:    When you were coming up, Leroy, who were your role models musically?  Were you on the Chicago music scene?

WILLIAMS:  Yes, I was there.  When I was growing up in Chicago, Johnny Griffin and all those guys were a little older than me, and those were the guys I listened to.

TP:    Well, they were on the jukeboxes and all.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, Gene Ammons and those people were around.  I met Wilbur Ware, Wilbur Campbell; all those guys were a little older than me.  Those were the guys I looked up to.  So I’m sure that’s why Barry and I… We come from the same place.

TP:    Did you go to DuSable?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I went to DuSable High School.

TP:    Any Captain Dyett anecdotes?

WILLIAMS:  Actually, I wasn’t in the band.  See, when I was in DuSable, I started taking music my second year.  You had to be in the band four years.  So when I attempted to join the band, Captain Dyett said, “Well, you have to have four years of band.”  So I didn’t play under Captain Dyett.  So he recommended a drum teacher for me named Oliver Coleman.

TP:    Who played with Oliver Coleman.  He taught Smitty Smith.  He was a teacher for a long time.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, Oliver Coleman was a great guy.  So Captain Dyett said, “You go see Oliver.”  Me and Steve McCall!  We took lessons from Oliver.

TP:    When did you start gigging?  I guess that had to be the mid and late ’50s.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, the late ’50s is when I started playing professionally?

TP:    Was it a local thing?  Did you play with people like Nicky Hill?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, pretty much.  And (?) with all the guys.  Wilbur Ware was a real influence on me.  He was kind of a mentor in Chicago.  He was a great bass player, and he kind of guided me away from things and not to things.

TP:    Were you ever involved in any of the AACM activities in Chicago?

WILLIAMS:  No, I wasn’t.  But I was at the first meeting.  I remember when it was formed, and I was at the very first meeting.  I knew Muhal and a lot of the guys, but no, I wasn’t really in there.  I was the other way.  I was more into Bebop, for lack of a better word.  I was more over there.

TP:    I think a lot of them, for whatever reason, didn’t want to pursue that direction at that particular moment.

WILLIAMS:  Well, I know Muhal was always a great musician.  Muhal was the sort of musician who could do anything he wants to.

TP:    How do you see Barry’s playing having changed over the years.  I don’t mean in terms of his physical capacity so much as the evolution of his ideas and content and so forth.

WILLIAMS:  Over the years, Barry has really grown.  I don’t know if a lot of people can see it.  I can see it and hear it.  He might not play as much, as long as he used to.  But what he plays now, he could probably put more in.  He’s probably got himself condensed down to a point where he probably doesn’t have to… When I first heard him, he played long, fast and hard all the time.  But as he’s gone on, just like anything else, you get to where “I don’t have to do all of that to say this!”  So he’s grown in that way, and I think that’s the ideal way for most people.

TP:    Do you think being around Monk had something to do with it?

WILLIAMS:  Oh yeah.  Monk was a spaceman.

TP:    Well, it seems half Barry’s personality is the spaceman and half this eminently practical, pragmatic, utilitarian person, and he seems to have the two in perfect balance.  Does that make sense?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  Because he’s both of those.  I know one time where we played a duo gig at Bradley’s, Barry and I.  Usually the duo is piano and bass.  Barry said, “Come on, man, we can do it.”  So we played a gig for a week at Bradley’s, just Barry and I, and you talk about really free… Man, I was really free.  I didn’t have to worry about no bass player… Oh, he kept going, reaching things I’d never heard him play before.  He wasn’t restricted by a bass player, and he was free to do anything he wanted to do.  It was a wonderful time.

TP:    He did that wonderful solo record, too, Bird of Red and Gold.  Would you say that was a highlight of your association with him?

WILLIAMS:  That particular gig?  Every time we play is a highlight.  Barry never ceases to amaze me.  Sometimes I play some of these old records, and I say, “Oh my God.”  Barry is just amazing.  I talk with some of his students, and they tell me, “I have this record of Barry playing Tadd Dameron,” and then I go home and listen to it, and I say, “Wow.”  It’s beautiful.  And Barry is beautiful.  He’s like Tadd Dameron in that way.  Tadd Dameron was a guy who just loved beauty, and Barry is that way.

TP:    But at the same time, he’s also a theorist of jazz.  Can you talk about the theoretical component of what he does?

WILLIAMS:  Well, Barry had something worked out that he believes in.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but he has a formula…

TP:    So he’s into the mathematics of it as well.

WILLIAMS:  Oh yes.  He’s so orderly, and yet at the same time it’s free within that order.  It’s really hard to describe in words, but when I play with him, I can hear it all.  But he has a basic thing that he believes in.

TP:    What do you think it is about the way you play that gives you such an affinity.  I always heard you as one of the modern masters of Bebop, breaking up the rhythm, Kenny Clarke type of thing, and I always assumed that he and Max were your two role models.

WILLIAMS:  Well, they were.  All those guys, Philly Joe and Art Blakey…all those guys.

TP:    But those are references I make when I…

WILLIAMS:  That’s probably true, because I was into Max in the beginning, and Kenny Clarke, but naturally you try to get out of there, but the shit is so embedded…

TP:    I guess if you’re playing with Barry, the idiomatic way to play that music… Billy Higgins is a Kenny Clarke man, too.  I guess you and Higgins are the two drummers Barry likes the best, I think.

WILLIAMS:  Well, that’s the language that we all grew up under.  Billy and I are about the same age and came around at the same time, and you know, everything was happening at the same time.  He was in California and I was in Chicago, but everything was in the air.  So we drew from the same sources.  So those are the things… Barry is a little older.  Those are the things that make the music what it is, because we all come from the same place.

TP:    Who are the pianists you played with in Chicago?

WILLIAMS:  I played with Jodie Christian, and a pianist named Don Bennett I used to play with a lot, then a girl named Judy Roberts I played with a lot.

Don Schlitten on Barry Harris:

TP:    When did you first hear Barry Harris and become aware of him?

SCHLITTEN:  Well, being involved in this music since I was 12 or 13 years old, I was very aware of who was coming to New York to play.  I don’t remember whether I saw him or heard him on record for the first time.

TP:    Well, he got here in ’60, but he had that little recording flurry in ’56 when he recorded with Hank Mobley and the Thad Jones Blue Note record…

SCHLITTEN:  Then I probably heard him at that time.  In other words, I was very involved in all the new records that were coming out, going back to 78 days.  That probably would have been my first hearing of him.  Of course, I was always a Billy Mitchell fan, so that helped that particular situation.

TP:    But he moved to New York I guess in the summer of ’60.  Is that when you can remember seeing him on a regular basis, or what clubs they were?

SCHLITTEN:  You are asking me about things that happened 40 years ago.  It’s more than likely.  I couldn’t swear to where and how, but I certainly did listen to the records, and probably saw him in various joints.

TP:    Let me reorient the questioning to how you and he started to become professionally affiliated, and what qualities in your mind at that time made him such a felicitous sideman for the sound you were trying to bring out.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, I think the first time we worked together was when we were at Prestige during my decade there, and I had… I’m trying to backtrack now.  The first session that I think we did together was Bebop Revisited with Charles McPherson, so obviously I’d heard Barry before… At this point, I’ve convinced the powers-that-be of Charles McPherson.  So obviously Barry had been heard by me, though he may have been with Riverside at the time, I don’t remember…

TP:    Well, he’d just finished with Riverside, or Riverside had just shut down at the time he did that record or was about to, and he was working with Charles and Lonnie at that time.

SCHLITTEN:  That’s right.  And I was working with Carmell Jones, and I came up with this idea to play this music, the Classical repertoire for the music, and there was no better choice than he on the piano bench.  I believe that was the first time we had worked together.

TP:    So it was with Charles McPherson and some sessions with Dexter, Moody…

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, they came on later.

TP:    Right, they came on later.  But does his style dovetail with your idea of presenting the classical repertoire of the music in its ’60s incarnation as it were?

SCHLITTEN:  Well, that’s an interesting way to put it.  He knew all the tunes.  Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies to these things.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  So therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  I always felt that that little difference that he had would inspire people who might not have been listed under the category of Bebop musicians, like Illinois Jacquet or somebody like that, but he would push that kind of thing and make those kinds of people play even better.  And it seemed to work all the way down the line.

TP:    So initially for you it was his comping and spirit.  Did that also interest you in his own concept, in terms of Luminescence and Bull’s Eye and those dates.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, yes.  Then I loved the guy and I loved the music, and I wanted to present him in every way I could.  Unfortunately, none of the people I worked with were really superstar sellers.  I’m sure you’re aware that this music is not really commercially oriented.  Some of the guys would do a little bit better than some other guys.  Barry, unfortunately, did worse than anybody.  Barry is the only artist I have ever worked with during all my years and knowledge of Prestige, which goes all the way back to 1949, that the company said, “Let’s give him the money we owe him rather than record him; his records don’t sell even that much.”

TP:    Why do you think that was?

SCHLITTEN:  I don’t know.  There’s no way to explain any of that.  You just put your heart and soul into the music and whatever it is that you’re doing, and you hope that somebody responds.  Sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t.  Who knows about that?  It’s some kind of weird magic.

TP:    When I listen back to something like Luminescence or Bull’s Eye, I think he was getting his chops together as a small group arranger, and I think the trio and solo stuff was more his forte.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, all that is possible.  But you’re talking about an attitude of jazz fans at a certain time in history, which is certainly a different attitude than was presented 20 years  before or 20 years later.  How do you figure it?  It’s weird.  It’s weird, because sometimes there are some things that you say, “Shit, this is not right,” and then all of a sudden somebody says it’s great.  Then by the same token you say, “Listen to this; this is fabulous,’ and somebody on the other hand has a long face and doesn’t hear it.

TP:    You had a really ongoing association for about 18 years, and even longer than that.  How did you see his playing grow and progress and his sensibility grow and progress through the years, whether or not it had anything to do with that steady recording and the situations he recorded in with you…

SCHLITTEN:  Well, all of that adds to it.  Life is full of experiences.  Now, I would imagine that this person would never have played with half of the people that he played with had it not been for my producing those particular artists and using him as the pianist.  I doubt very much whether he and Al Cohn would have gotten together, or he and Illinois Jacquet would have gotten together, or whatever.  Part of my job is to try to create the proper atmosphere for the best music to be played, and one of the prime important parts of that is to create the proper band to play with.  So it’s not only a musical meeting; it’s also a psychological meeting.  Most of the time I would have to say, in all humility, it worked.  Of all the things that I’ve tried to do in my lifetime, I seem to have done a pretty good job in that area.

TP:    Let me just say, as far as the way he was playing in 1967, when he did Bullseye, or ’69 when he did Magnificent, and let’s say in ’76 when he did the Japanese tour and he’s doing that great record where he plays “Poco Loco” or Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron, to me, I hear a pianist who’s increased in confidence and lyricism and is more interpretive, and I wondered if you had any comments on that.

TP:    What was his demeanor like during the sessions he did with you, particularly as a sideman?

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, he always came to play.

TP:    But how was he in relation to the other musicians?  Did he sort of take charge of those sessions?

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, no.  It would depend on the people.  That’s what jazz is all about.  It would depend.  Now, for instance, you could bring one guy in and he’s in charge of everything.  You could bring another guy in, and you’re in charge of everything.  And you could bring a third guy in, and he’s looking around for his colleagues to help him.  So everybody is different, and depending on the mix of all your elements it will all be always different.  The end result has to be that the music is cooking, that’s all.  And my job would have to be to figure all that out in front.

TP:    It seems he was adaptable to a wide range of situations and functions.

SCHLITTEN:  Oh yes, that’s the beauty of it.  That’s why we continued.  That’s why it kept going.  If at one point that didn’t work, then that was the end.  But that’s how I felt about things.  I’m painting a picture, and if the red isn’t red enough, then I’m going to go for orange or whatever it is.

TP:    Do you feel he was head and shoulders over the other pianists who were available… Well, Jaki Byard you had a similar relationship with.

SCHLITTEN:  That’s a different world.  That’s a different kind of music.

TP:    All I’m saying is that with what you were trying to do… Not that they were the only ones you used, but the two pianists who created that palette for you were Barry Harris and that very fertile period with Jaki Byard.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, for what I was trying to do, Barry was the right pianist for certain projects and Jaki was the right pianist for other projects.  I believed in both of them as talents that had been neglected, so I saw from a lot of press that Barry gets… Jaki never even got that.  My karma was to do what I can to help these people, because I really believed in what they were doing.  Other players were good players.  I worked a lot with Tommy Flanagan…

TP:    Like The Panther.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, no, before that, the very first record I ever produced… Red Rodney worked with Tommy Flanagan, and the first record I produced at Prestige, Dave Pike Plays Oliver, Tommy Flanagan was on that.  But Tommy, for whatever reason, didn’t need my help.

TP:    Well, he was on the road with Ella, steadily employed.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, whatever.  Guys would come off the road and I’d use them, and sometimes I’d wait for somebody to come off the road if I felt that was the right person for whatever it was I was doing.  But the point I was trying to make was that he didn’t need my help, whereas I felt both Jaki and Barry did need my help, and if I didn’t do what I did, who knows how their lives would have evolved.

TP:    I’d like you to talk about conceiving some of the trio projects you did with him, particularly for Xanadu, and also the MPS date that’s never been issued here.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron is probably the most popular Barry Harris record in Japan, and has been from its inception.  Now, here’s a perfect example, why the Japanese jazz people hook up onto something and never let go… It’s another story; just another one of those magical things.  But they hooked up onto this record, and it’s just been released again on CD in Japan with a new licensee that we have, and this is about the fourth or fifth time.  Every time they do it, they get the seal of approval and etcetera, etc.

Now, as far as my personal tastes are concerned, I would say that’s one of my favorites.  I do, however, like Live in Tokyo, very-very much.  A lot of that has to do with the interplay with the bass player and the drummer.  Now, the drummer is always Leroy, because Leroy is absolutely perfect.  So the bass player is the moving force really.  So depending on the bass player, that will, in its own way, turn Barry around, in, out or whatever, and also in terms of notes and also in terms of the sound of the recording.  So if you like a light bass, then you probably would like Gene Taylor more than you would George Duvivier.  So all those things are just parts of the puzzle, and they work differently.  A lot of it depends on your personal taste.

TP:    But each of those records has a certain type of narrative going on.  With Tadd Dameron it’s a rumination on a certain compositional and sound aesthetic, when he’s doing his own compositions there’s a more exploratory aesthetic going on, and Live In Tokyo is more of a jam session.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, I don’t know about that.  In Tokyo, he’s really playing Bud Powell.  So if you want to call it a recital, that’s okay, but I always think of it as Barry’s Bud Powell album.  So when you think of the albums we made, it’s Tadd, Bud, and Barry.  Or that’s how I did think of them then.

TP:    Did you think of Barry when you first heard him as a personal, idiomatic stylist unto himself, or as someone who was very indebted to other stylists, particularly Bud Powell?

SCHLITTEN:  I don’t really think he was.  That’s why I think his Riverside records are great if you love the music and you love him, but they’re not really special — because I don’t think he had found himself yet.  And I don’t think he found himself until he had dug deeper into the history of the repertoire or whatever it is, and I think that’s what was taking place in the second half of the ’60s, when we were working together.  I don’t think that was the case early on.  I remember seeing him with Yusef Lateef way back when, and I remember he recorded with Yusef Lateef in the early ’60s or late ’50s, I don’t remember, and his touch wasn’t as heavy.  He has very tiny hands.  He needed to develop a little heavier touch, and he also needed to get recorded properly.  And some of those people at Riverside and at Blue Note, especially Rudy Van Gelder, they recorded everybody the same, and every piano player has a different touch, and therefore every piano player needs to be recorded a little differently — which is why I left Rudy Van Gelder.  It wasn’t until we started working with other engineers that I felt his touch started to get better, and I think by hearing himself and hearing that, he started to get better.  Because what happens is, you turn yourself on!  When you’re playing the tune, you go listen to the take, you listen to yourself, and sometimes you inspire yourself.  Sometimes you can depress yourself, too!  But all of that adds up.  It’s life.  Those are the experiences of life.  We’re focusing down now on a piano player, but it’s really life.  It’s the different experiences — the sounds, the people, the time, how you feel.  If your foot hurts you’re not going to play as well as if your foot doesn’t hurt.  So all that comes into play.

* * *

Charles McPherson on Barry Harris:

TP:    When do you first remember encountering Barry Harris?  Was it those days as a teenager going by the Bluebird?

McPHERSON:  Yes, it was.  I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met Barry when I was about maybe 15.  I had already been introduced to jazz, and I knew that this club called the Bluebird was down the street and featured jazz music.  This was during the time when I was going down there, standing out, looking inside, looking in the window and listening outside the door.  That’s when I met Barry, because he was the house piano player who was working at the Bluebird.  I met him that way, and then I knew he lived around the corner.  One day I was walking down the street, me and another musician, and I saw where his house was, and then I spoke to him.  He told us, “Well, you guys need to learn your scale” — because he had heard us play.  We had already sat in at the club.  Because the owner let us sit in if we’d bring our parents over.  This was during the time that Miles Davis was living in Detroit for a couple of years, and Miles was actually working at the Bluebird.

TP:    Do you remember that time?  Was it late ’53-early ’54?

McPHERSON:  Oh, sure.  This is when Miles stayed in Detroit a couple of years, right then.  So we sat in, and Barry said, “Well, you guys don’t really know about theory and harmony and all that; you need to know about these things.”  So we started coming over to his house, and that’s how it started.

TP:    This was after you’d heard Charlie Parker and were serious about it.

McPHERSON:  Right.

TP:    What’s his teaching like?  Why is he so good as a teacher?

McPHERSON:  Well, I think he likes what he’s doing, and then he’s knowledgeable, and he has conceived of a certain methodology of giving the information.  It’s hard to do it without using technical terms.  But I can say that he just had a certain method in showing certain things about chord changes and how to look at them and how to think about them, and then how to use them.  It was kind of his way of… Because of how he had thought about it, and he came up with this method of teaching, pretty much like the Suzuki method, when little kids learn how to play.  It’s just a methodology of teaching, knowledge that’s being taught by other means, other ways.  But he has his little way of thinking about certain things, and he thought it facilitated the person to play better, faster.

TP:    Was it oriented towards Bebop playing?

McPHERSON:  Oh, no.  It was just music.  Dealing with improvisation.  So really, it’s about chord changes — dominant 7ths, that kind of thing.

TP:    So he had a theory of improvising that he was able to impart to young musicians.

McPHERSON:  Yes.  Or this would lead to improvising.  It’s just a way of looking at things.

TP:    What sort of manner did he have with you?

McPHERSON:  Well, he was kind of fatherly.  When I look back on it, it’s ridiculous; he was 25 years old!  But I guess maybe like a big brother or something.  What happened was that Barry’s house was kind of a hub of activity with the musicians.  A lot of musicians would come over and play.  Because he worked at night at this club, and in the daytime he was free, and he just practiced and played music all day long, then at night he’d go to work.  So in the daytime anybody might come by there.  I was over there every other day or every day, and then people would come in town… One time Coltrane came in town with Miles.  Now, this is after Miles had left and got really kind of strong out there, and then he had the band with Trane and Cannonball and all that — and one time Trane was over there.  Because traveling musicians would know to go over to Barry’s house.  There was always something happening there.

TP:    So it was like an ongoing workshop and blowing and…

McPHERSON:  Yeah.  Guys would come over and play.

TP:    Talk about some of your contemporaries, too, who were going there at that point.  Trace your development in terms of being at his house.

McPHERSON:  Well, Lonnie Hillyer, a trumpet player who eventually played with Mingus.  Paul Chambers.  Roy Brooks, the drummer who worked with Horace for a while.

TP:    And Lou Hayes was the same age about.

McPHERSON:  A few years older but essentially the same age.  It was almost everybody, almost all of the Detroit younger people that age.

TP:    So basically, that quality of his where he’s always established followings and groups of people around him begins then, basically — and even before.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, that’s true.

TP:    Do you think he’s a natural teacher?

McPHERSON:  Yeah, I think so.  And he’s a real good piano player.  You know, most piano players are very knowledgeable, and he certainly is.  I don’t know, he was always a guy who seemed to like to experiment or theorize about things, especially about harmony and so on.  And Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, those guys… It was just a scene over to his house.  Sometimes it was just talking or just hanging, but most of the time some kind of music was going on.

TP:    It seems like the Detroit guys came out professional.  If there’s one common thing, you absorbed the language and came out professional.  No nonsense.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, no-nonsense and intelligent. [LAUGHS] In other words, for sure there is a certain logic in their playing for the most part.  The improvisation is very logical, how they connect things together.  The connections.

TP:    Talk about how the relationship continued once you were both in New York.  You recorded together quite a bit from ’64 to ’76.

McPHERSON:  Well, I did start working with Mingus in 1960, and Barry was doing whatever he was doing, working with other people, so Barry and I didn’t really… Well, we saw each other and all that, but there wasn’t much going on between us.  Then maybe in the middle ’60s or late ’60s is when we started working together again.  We were in a group with George Coleman, Lonnie, myself, and different drummers coming in and out of there, and Peck Morrison on bass.

TP:    You did Live At the Five Spot in ’64, then there’s McPherson’s Mood from ’68 or so.  Those document ongoing playing, but it wasn’t necessarily a steady working group.  It was more about being kind of in parallel on the New York scene.

McPHERSON:  Well, we did work.  We didn’t work as steadily as we would want, but we did work.  We worked at Minton’s a lot in the late ’60s, before it closed.  We worked at Boomer’s on Bleecker and Christopher.  In Brooklyn we worked at the Blue Coronet.  So we worked around New York.  We did road gigs.  We did gigs in Baltimore for the Jazz Society up there…

TP:    Talk about improvising with Barry comping.

McPHERSON:  Again, there’s a certain kind of musical intelligence that a lot of Detroit piano players have, with Hank Jones and Tommy and that kind of thing.  Barry is one of those guys.  His comp is very rhythmic.  I know he tries for the symbiosis.  It’s very symbiotic with the horn players.  He’s listening.  I would say that the comp is pretty much like a drummer’s snare drum comp.  He’s very good at that actually.  There’s different ways to do it.  Some people aren’t as sympathetic or as complementary.  But he does… At least with the way that I phrase, I guess, so it works for us.

TP:    It sounds to me like his solos come organically out of what the previous soloist is doing.  He’s very ensemble oriented.

McPHERSON:  Yes, at least the first couple of bars, which is a good musical thing to do — to allude to the last soloist.

TP:    So there’s continuity.

McPHERSON:  Right.  And from there, you kind of… That’s a nice thing to do.  It’s a very good musical thing to do.

TP:    Can you say a few sentences about what he has meant to you, and his impact, and his position in the musical community?

McPHERSON:  Sure.  Well, I owe so much to him in terms of just helping me establish a real firm foundation just on a musical level, and also technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales and that kind of thing.  But also, he instituted a certain kind of musical intelligence for me in terms of taste and musicality.  I was shown also, beside all these technical things, that certain things were not to be indulged in in terms of, like, corny phrases.  You always try to be musically honest.  Don’t use technique just for the sake of using technique, but try to use the emotionality along with analysis.  Technique is just a means to an end, not the end.  All these things that are important.  Some people never learn it, don’t really know, have no concept at all.  But things like that.  Like, technique is wonderful, but it’s just a means to an end — it’s not the end.  Technique is just to facilitate your total musical thing, but it’s not like you indulge in pyrotechnics just to impress.  So the elements of good taste and musical discretion…even though subjective in some sort of way from his musical point of view, but everything is that, I guess.

Those kind of things were taught to me and I learned that, too, as well as what a C-minor-7th is.  And also he did something which has nothing to do with music, but then it does have something to do with music.  He took an interest in my schoolwork.  I would come to his home after school, and one day he saw my report card, and he saw that my card was quite average.  There was nothing spectacular about; it wasn’t bad, but kind of average.  He looked at it and he said, “Let me see your report card.  You got your card today.  Let me see what kind of marks you got.”  Then he said, “Well, that’s okay, man, but that’s some real average stuff.  You know, all your heroes, like Charlie Parker, those guys were everything but average.”  And the minute he said that, it was like…

TP:    He knew how to push your button.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, he really got… I’d never thought of that, and I never cared about really trying hard.  My whole thing at that point was just do enough to get through and, you know… But when he said that… He said, “Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but I’m gonna tell you, on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.”  Charlie Parker could sit down and talk to people about absolutely anything.  I didn’t know that.  I just knew a little bit about his music.  I didn’t know about Bird’s persona.  And that indeed was true.  Bird was a guy who could sit down and talk to people about science or anything.  He was a real self-taught, book-reader type guy.  He knew everything about modern art.  He could look at paintings and tell who painted it and all that stuff.  He was way ahead of a lot of musicians when it came to things other than music, because he was a guy that sort of read a lot.  And I didn’t know that.

So Barry really instilled in me to try… In other words, the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more you know, then the more you have to play about, the more there is to play, because you’re playing your life, your experiences.  Well, I had never thought of it like that.  Well, that changed my whole concept of school.  He said, “All those cats are brilliant, man.  You can’t be an average guy or a stupid guy playing this kind of music — not this kind of music.  There’s too much shit going on.”  You have to really become agile to play to this level.  For that level of playing music, there’s some stuff required.  You’d better tighten up your stuff.

TP:    How long has it been since you played with him?

McPHERSON:  Oh, I played a gig with him maybe a year ago.  I don’t play with him steadily, of course, but there’s always occasions.

Anyway, from that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise.  I became like an honors student overnight.  The teachers could not believe that!  They were used to seeing me just being a certain way.  I was in my home room class, and the teacher looked at the card, and she said, “Is this your card?”  I said, “Yeah.”  She said, “You got…”  I actually got all A’s.  It was easy.  From that point on, I learned how to do that without being all day doing homework, I could rip it off — it just changed my whole life.  From that point on I started reading books.  I had never read a book all the way through, but shoot, by the time I was 18 or 19 I had read all of Henry Miller’s books, I had read The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich

So Barry did more than just music for me.  He opened a whole intellectual curiosity that changed me also.  So he’s a very interesting character.

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Filed under Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, Detroit, Don Schlitten, DownBeat, Interview, Leroy Williams, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR