Category Archives: Tenor Saxophone

For Tenor Saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2003 and a WKCR Interview From 2008 that Ran on WWW.JAZZ.COM

A day late for tenor saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did in 2003 and a WKCR interview in July 2008 on the occasion of his Concord CD, Cultural Survival, that later ran on the much-missed web ‘zine jazz.com.

 

David Sanchez Blindfold Test (12-1-2003):

1. Michael Brecker, “Timbuktu” (from WIDE ANGLES, Verve, 2003) (Brecker, tenor saxophone, arrangement; Gil Goldstein, orchestration; Steve Wilson, flute; John Patitucci, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion) (4-1/2 stars)

This is a very interesting introduction. I love the instrumentation. Oh…wait a minute. The saxophone player definitely has a Mike Brecker. But until he starts playing, the blowing, I’m not going to… It definitely sounds like Mike. I love the orchestration. It’s really interesting, and I love what the flute player was playing at the beginning. He doesn’t play like how many flute players conventionally would play. In a way, I think he’s maybe not strictly a flute player, and he plays other instruments, like woodwinds. I might be wrong, but that’s how it sounds to me. Logically, the way he’s playing tells me this guy plays some other stuff. He isn’t the tenor player, though. But I’m convinced that he plays other woodwinds — saxophone, clarinet, other stuff. The saxophone player sounds a lot like Mike. If it’s not Mike, with all due respect… It just reminds me of Mike playing. I’m sure in other contexts, maybe he sounds a little more like him. But to me, right now, he’s sounding like Mike. [He is Mike.] That makes sense! It’s funny. A lot of people try to copy Mike, but when it’s Mike playing, 98% of the time I’m always right that it’s him. Because he plays certain ideas, certain intervals in a certain way that you say, “This is Mike.” With a certain attitude. That’s what I’m trying to say. He plays certain kind of intervals with a certain attitude, and he has a certain phrasing that’s very clean. So when he plays a phrase, I know when it’s him. He sounds great. I like hearing him in this type of context. It has that world music type of thing. At the beginning I think I heard some kalimba. I’d be lying if I told you I know which record it is. But it’s definitely Mike. I cannot tell you who the flute player is. Steve Wilson? Whoo! He was killing! I haven’t heard him play flute in a long time. I knew something about the ideas he was playing. Incredible. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I liked the orchestration a lot. I’ll be buying this record for sure. I was going to say something about the percussionist, and I didn’t have time. But I was going to say that it sounds like he plays a bunch of different genres, so it’s not strictly a Latin guy. You know how there’s percussionists and there’s congueros, and I was going to say this guy sounds like he’s a percussionist, but at the same time, the people playing know how to keep the feel. Of course now that makes sense — Antonio Sanchez is playing drums, Patitucci is playing bass. Patitucci has great awareness of how to put the Afro-Caribbean vibe and Latin in there, but at the same time he makes it sound open. I’ll be buying this record for sure.

2. Mario Rivera, “La Puerta” (#3) (from EL COMMANDANTE, Groovin’ High, 1993) (Rivera, tenor saxophone; Hilton Ruiz, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Alexis Diaz, congas) (3 stars)

That’s a beautiful song, “La Puerta Cesaro(?).” The first time I heard that song was by Elis Regina actually. I’ve never heard the record before, but I think I have a sense of who’s playing. I think I know, but I’m going to wait. The bass player has a very good sense of playing Latin music by the way he’s playing a bolero. It’s hard to tell who he is. The piano player reminded me of Hilton Ruiz. Ah, that makes sense! He reminded me of him because he’s him! I was going to say it’s Mario Rivera playing tenor. At the very beginning, he did something with the phrasing and his sound that made me think of Mario, but now, after I’ve heard the blowing… There’s something in the sound that reminds me a bit of Mario. It’s just the sound, but then when he plays, I’m like, “That sounds a little different.” Maybe it’s because I’ve heard Mario so many times playing songs at a pace that is not this; it’s not a bolero or anything. It’s been a long time since I heard him. Sometimes he has a tendency to play a little more, more notey, but now I’m not so sure. I liked the performance. It was Hilton on piano. The bass player could be Andy Gonzalez or… I don’t think it’s Benitez, though. Walter Booker? That makes sense, because he played sometimes with Fort Apache, and the feel he put in there shows he knows how to play the bolero. But you’ve got me on the saxophone player. At first I thought it was Mario. I’ll give it 3 stars. [AFTER] It was Mario? At least I was close. Mario is an incredible musician. He’s one of these musicians who can do anything. He can play any genre, instruments like crazy; this guy can go so many directions. And here, he was really using very well the sense of space. And he can play a lot. Because I heard him playing like incredible. I said, “No, maybe this is somebody else.” But definitely the sound reminded me of Mario.

3. Ted Nash, “Point of Arrival” (from STILL EVOLVED, Palmetto, 2002) (Nash, tenor saxophone, composer; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Ben Allison, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

It’s an interesting composition. It’s going to be a little hard to tell you who the tenor player is. I can tell right now, by listening to his blowing. I hear many influences. I hear a little bit of both Joes, Joe Henderson and Joe Lovano. I can tell you the trumpet player, though. That’s Tom Harrell. It sounds like Tom Harrell to me. No? You got me here. See, I should have listened a little longer. That trill that he did, it’s so accurate. Tom doesn’t play that. Tom plays some beautiful ideas, but accuracy is not his thing. He plays some notes that take your breath away, but accuracy is not his thing. I take that back. The tenor player, there’s no way I really could tell. I could guess, but I’m not sure because I hear so many influences. I even hear a little bit of the Mark Turner thing in the upper register. Is that Clarence Penn on drums? No? Well, at least I’m being consistent. I’m getting everything wrong! [LAUGHS] [You’re saying you have to know the record to know who’s playing.] That’s not Roy Hargrove. No. He doesn’t play like that either. At first, I thought two things. When the composition started, while the tenor player was playing, I was thinking maybe this is Tom Harrell’s record. But once he started blowing, I realized I’d made a mistake. The other name that came to mind — when I heard the head especially — was Dave Douglas. But obviously it’s not him. 3-1/2 stars. [It was Wynton. I’d like to state for the record that David is putting his head in his hands.] When he played that trill, I thought, “That’s not Tom Harrell.” I said Tom Harrell too fast because when I heard the composition… Then I thought, “Is this Greg Tardy playing tenor with Tom? It could be. So maybe this is Tom.” Then I said Tom too fast. Greg plays with Dave Douglas, too. But I was thinking more in terms of how the composition sounded and the instrumentation. But once he started blowing, he started doing some things that were very accurate. So then I knew it was definitely wasn’t Tom. But you got me. I’m very surprised it was Wynton. I would have never guessed Ted. First, I’m not familiar with his stuff. Second, he has a beautiful thing going, I like his sound a lot, but he has so many influences that I could not put it together.

4. Eric Alexander, “I’ll Be Around” (from NIGHTLIFE IN TOKYO, Milestone, 2003) (Alexander, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

That’s a nice intro. The piano player put some very nice stuff on there. It’s a beautiful song, “I’ll Be Around.” I recorded this song. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. George Coleman, man! No? I said that very loud into the tape recorder! [LAUGHS] It’s definitely not George Coleman, but he definitely has a little vibe on the top register of the horn, a George Coleman thing. It reminds me, at least. I don’t know. It’s amazing. He reminds me of that vibe. I really liked what the piano player did at the beginning. The piano player is not a younger guy, right? I know by the attitude. I like the sound. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. But I can’t help it, those notes in the top register remind me of George Coleman. The only way I could guess is go to all those guys who have some kind of influence from George. Maybe I can tell on the cadenza. You can tell it’s a newer record, because for my taste, it has a lot of compression. You can hear a lot of echo. It sounds like most records sound now. In the studio, they put on a lot of compression, the sound sounds huge, but you can tell it’s fake; they use all these effects and compression and echo, a lot of reverb. You got me, man. [AFTER] You’re going to say that I’m jiving, but I was going to say Eric, but Eric has a lot of George influence. How old is this record? I’m surprised. Often there are some ideas he plays that sound like George Coleman’s stuff, but here some of the actual sound is the same vibe — the same approach in the higher register of the horn. That’s a compliment. If somebody told me I played like George, I’d be really happy.

5. David Murray, “Aerol’s Change” (from NOW IS ANOTHER TIME, Justin Time, 2002) (Murray, second tenor saxophone solo, composer; Orlando Sanchez, first tenor saxophone solo; Tony Perez, piano; Changuito, percussion) – (3 stars)

There’s definitely a Latin vibe going on. [LAUGHS] I’ll tell you that for sure! The timbalero is not an old guy. He’s playing too many notes. It’s definitely not Manny Oquendo. It’s kind of desperate, like “let’s get this…” The tenor player is doing things that remind me of Steve Grossman! I have no clue who it is, but he did a few very subtle things like Steve Grossman. The timbal is so loud that I would think it’s his record. Why is it so loud? It’s incredible. You hear every… The nature of that instrument is that it projects. So I don’t know why it’s so upfront in the mix. This tenor player reminds me of this other guy… I hear little things by other people, but something I’m hearing in this particular moment reminds me of David Murray. Okay, so that’s what this record is. [LAUGHS] Was he playing also at the beginning? So let’s put on the record that this first guy reminded me of Steve Grossman. There was no way I was going to guess him. [AFTER] By logic, I heard that David Murray had made something with a big band, a Latin thing. He did it in Paris? Oh, in Havana. That makes sense. I’m going to be honest. There’s different ways of playing Latin jazz. There’s a way of playing just like you play when people dance, like playing in a club. In all these salsa clubs and mambo clubs, there’s one way of playing. There’s the way of playing Latin jazz exactly like you’re playing for a salsa band, and then you put a solo on top. And the other way is that, yes, you take elements from that and go with the flow at the moment, and you’re very careful in how you interact with each other. In order to do that, you have to leave a considerable amount of space to be able to listen to all the other musicians surrounding you so you can interact and find your spot. At the same time, you’re going to add all those elements in the music. Here all I’m hearing is a steady rhythm, no matter what the solo is doing, and it seems to me a little frantic, like they’re in a hurry, an urgency to say “I’m here” instead of taking your time and getting there. That’s why I said this timbal player is not one of the old guys. Maybe I’m wrong. His solo is almost as though he doesn’t have enough time; he wants to say everything at the same time. But it’s only opinion, and my opinion doesn’t really matter. To my taste, I don’t like it that much. But that’s only my taste. [And that being said…] Oh, how many stars! [LAUGHS] I’ll give it 3. [That was Changuito on timbales.] Well, let me say something. It’s contradictory, because Changuito is one of my favorite timbal players in the world. So for me, it’s weird. But you never know. Different dates do different things. So maybe the way he reacted to this particular day was like this. But Changuito is actually one of the masters. I take everything back that I said, because he’s a master. I will say that for me, for my taste, first of all, the mixing…once again, it’s the compression vibe. This is the era we live in; everything is compressed. You hear every single detail of everything. And you know that when you’re at a concert, that’s not the way you hear music. The compression kills the natural overtones of the music for me. You hear even the sticks hitting the metal. For me, if I’m in a dance club and dancing with my girlfriend or something, it’s cool. But if I’m in my house listening to a record, it could bother me. But that’s only me.

6. J.D. Allen, “Pharaoh’s Children” (from PHARAOH’S CHILDREN, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Allen, tenor saxophone, composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gene Jackson, drums) – (4 stars)

I like the atmosphere. I like the communication they get. Playing music that way is a different approach, and I like it. At first, I thought of Charles Lloyd, but then immediately I knew it wasn’t. And for a quick second, I thought of Dewey, but I immediately knew it wasn’t. [Does he sound like a guy that age?] I don’t know if I would put it that it’s this age or another age. But he did a few things that reminded me of them, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that it isn’t. I liked he was doing. He utilized a great sense of space. And I liked the piece, which helps, and his communication with the pianist was very good. They were really hooking up, and that’s what I appreciate most in any genre of music. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him. It’s a great record.

7. Dexter Gordon, “Scrapple From The Apple” (from OUR MAN IN PARIS, Blue Note 1963/2003) (Gordon, tenor saxophone; Bud Powell, piano; Pierre Michelot, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s great! You can’t go wrong with that one! You play it every day. Whoo! Mmm! It’s Dex. Big Dexter. “Scrapple From The Apple.” I’m trying to remember which record it is. But I knew him from the first note. It’s that way with all the older players The funny thing is that Coltrane sounded so many different ways throughout his career, but he always sounds like Trane. Sonny, too. Even Stan Getz. I have some really early stuff by Stan, but you always know he’s in there. This is not “Doin’ All Right.” Is this “Go”? I’m trying to remember the actual album. I haven’t listened to it for ages. Dexter’s the only guy who could do that quote and make it sound great! He plays all over the horn, great sound, great sense of time. 5 stars. Is the pianist Kenny Drew? Tootie Heath on drums? Oh, Kenny Clarke. Ah, definitely Bud Powell. The thing with Dexter is that in terms of sound he’s obviously got a lot of Prez, but you can tell that a lot of stuff came from Charlie Parker. He’s really playing the bebop shit incredible, but he has a whole other element of laidbackness that’s Prez-oriented, but also has his own vibe of the sound. That’s what makes him sound completely different, because the way he laid back is not the way Prez laid back. It’s a different thing. The real weight is in his sound. Another guy who plays a quote like [sings “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”], it’s like “come on, man!” But Dexter makes funny quotes. He has a sense of humor, and still sounds so great. Probably I wouldn’t like it so much if I tried to play those licks, Charlie Parker shit, that incredible stuff. I would sound sad! But he delivers the phrases in a certain way that make it sound so hip and so personal at the same time.

8. Papo Vasquez, “Vianda con Bacalao” (from Papo Vasquez, CARNIVAL IN SAN JUAN, Cubop, 2003) (Papo Vasquez, trombone, percussion, chorus composer; Willie Williams, tenor saxophone; Arturo O’Farrill, composer; John Benitez, bass; Horacio Hernandez, drums; Joe Gonzalez, congas; Roberto Cepeda, chorus)

Nice. This is what people call Latin Jazz, but it sounds like New York Latin Jazz. It’s got some New York shit in there. It has some New York attitude to it. It’s really hip. It has a lot of content, but at the same time the groove is there. I like this. This reminds me of Papo Vasquez’ stuff, the arrangement. He’s one of these guys who writes music, like the in Fort Apache also, and he makes very good use of the bass, contrasting motion in phrases with the percussion, and then the horns are doing something different. That was a very interesting arrangement. Did you notice that the drum was not so much in your face? The clave was a little up-front; I wish I didn’t hear it so clear. Anyway, it reminded me of Papo, but I could very well be wrong. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I knew it. He writes some really hip stuff. I think the tenor player was Willie Williams. He sounded good. But sometimes, when you put cats in a certain context, I guess the natural thing is that you change a little bit your playing, but just to that particular way of playing. Here it’s a Latin thing, but it’s a really hip Latin… It’s not like the Latin jazz where you just play for people to dance, and okay, let’s have some fun and background music. This is a really hip arrangement. You could tell the interaction was a little different also. It has that New York attitude, like I said before. But somehow, because the Latin element is there, I feel sometimes guys try to change a little bit and adjust and try to play a little bit more rhythmic and so on. And sometimes… I know Willie’s playing, and I know he’s a great player, but on this particular occasion, for my taste, I’d rather hear him play the way he really plays. Was that Negro on drums? I liked it a lot. It sounded great, and Papo wrote some beautiful music, as usual.

9. Warne Marsh, “Rhythmically Speaking” (from BACK HOME, Criss-Cross, 1986) (Marsh, tenor saxophone; Barry Harris, piano; David Williams, bass; Albert Heath, drums) – (3 stars)

That sounds like someone who is influenced by Lester Young, but the rest of the band sounds really bebop-oriented, very tradition. But the tenor player is playing kind of over the bar lines. I’m not sure I’m so much into this… Believe me, I love the bar lines. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are the two greatest people to play over the bar line to me. They could play so elastic, but then, when they came back, WHOO! Monk, too. He had a very special way of playing over the bar lines. This one has a different way of doing it. The tenor player reminded me of the Tristano school, that perhaps he had some influence from Warne Marsh, that type of playing. I like that type of playing, but you’ve got to play a certain way. I thought it was cool, but I’m not going to tell you it was great. 3 stars. [AFTER] [LAUGHS] Well, at least I was on the right track. I was never going to guess it was Barry. But the other guys were more bebop, more traditional-oriented. This is a late recording of Warne Marsh. Because he had a way of playing over the bar line which was different. This reminded me of this Tristano counterpoint type of thing. But earlier in his life it was a little more accurate. On this, it sounded like he was playing over the bar line, but then after that, what? It’s falling over anything, basically. It doesn’t have the continuity after the fact of going over the bar line. This is a late recording. It sounds like it. I’ve got a great record with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, and they play all these incredible heads. They sometimes will take a standard song and put on a whole other head with a Tristano vibe. This reminded me of him, and it was him, but it was another period of him, I guess.

10. Frank Wess, “Rockin’ Chair” (from Bill Charlap, STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) (Wess, tenor saxophone; Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums)

I hear some Ben Webster. But it’s not Ben Webster. That phrase definitely sounded like Ben. The inflection is right in there. Swing. This is a tricky one, because I know it’s not Ben. Sometimes I hear a little bit of Houston Person, but I know it’s not him. I don’t recognize the song. Is this a younger guy…not a younger guy, but definitely not the generation of Ben Webster. This is a guy who was after the generation of Ben Webster. [Is this an older recording or a newer recording?] I think it’s a newer recording. Maybe not new-new, but not even from the ’60s or ’70s. This is maybe ’80s or ’90s or something? I don’t know. Is it Scott Hamilton? Nice performance, right in the pocket. I liked the feel of the drums, the ride cymbal. It was definitely swinging, right in the middle of the beat, and the tempo was very precise. The piano player actually played very beautiful. When you play that kind of style, you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it, and I liked the way he was economical, but at the same time had some stuff going on. The tenor player has the Ben Webster thing, he has the old thing, but I know it’s none of those guys, like Gene Ammons or Ben Webster. I would give them definitely 4 stars. It was right in there and it had some beauty. I liked it. [AFTER] Oh, wow! No wonder, man. I should have guessed Frank. He plays with such a beauty. I was hearing the influences. I knew it wasn’t Ben, but at the same time what I liked is that it was very mature. I knew it had some level of maturity in the way he was playing, and I suppose I should have guessed it.

11. Wayne Shorter, “Orbits” (#8) (from ALEGRIA, Verve, 2003) (Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums) – (5 stars)

I know this record, and it’s one of my favorite records. It’s “Alegria” by Wayne Shorter. I don’t remember the name of this particular composition, but this has been my inspiration record for several months. You know how you have an inspirational record, “let’s get the day started” when you’re on the road, and it inspires you. I love anything Wayne Shorter ever did. He’s so profound. There’s so much in every single phrase he plays that it’s unreal. English is not my first language, so I don’t have enough words to describe how deeply anything he does and anything he puts into it. I know some of the orchestrations on this record are his. It’s amazing. You think the voices are going to move in a certain direction, and they move another one, completely unpredictable. The funny part about this is that a number of people, as usual… For me, it’s been like this for years. They always have missed the point with Wayne. Some guys talk about Wayne’s compositions. I think he’s one of the deepest and heaviest composers ever. EVER. This is just my opinion, and it’s only mine and it doesn’t matter. But it’s not only his compositions, but his playing is at a level… The only word that comes to me in English is eloquent. All the phrases are eloquent, with soul, with heart, but very well thought at the same time, very well executed. The ideas are very wise and warm, but at the same time with a very precise way of doing things structurally. Meaning the way he writes, the way he develops a solo… He’s completely accurate. You talk about having accuracy in playing, that’s accuracy for me. For some people, accuracy is hitting all the notes and you can hear them all clear. But for me, that’s only one way of accuracy. Mental accuracy is what he does, that he takes one idea and connects to the next one, the next one, and builds up and just comes down. It’s a very impressive way of doing that. He’s unique. When it comes to that, there’s nobody like Wayne. And this record is great. It has the structure, the very well-formed structure vibe, everything is very well-formed, but it has some sections that are completely open. It’s fascinating to hear somebody going forward with something no matter what. No matter what, we’re just going to go forward. I was in London and I heard him being interviewed, and he said he was willing…his degree of commitment is at such a level that he’ll go down with the ship. To me, that was a deep statement. If he means to go down with the ship, that’s… Are you willing to commit for the moment? I got this recording several months ago, and since then I carry it everywhere. I get inspired by people who are willing to… It has a very high degree of honesty in terms of how they interact together. Danilo is very special like that also, because he has great ears, but he commits also to listen and sing with John. Outside of the fact that John can play different genres and has an understanding of playing different ways, musicianship-wise, he also has some great ears. Anywhere you take him, he can go. And when you put him together with Danilo and Brian, who has these huge ears and plays beautiful things on the drums. He gives you the energy, but it’s like martial arts energy. He has that power, but it’s not blasting. He has power and it has some depth. That’s why I love this particular group, especially with this kind of chamber ensemble. In my book, it’s 5 stars.

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David Sanchez (WKCR, July 24, 2008):

It is hard to fathom why tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, who turns 40 next month, draws scant attention from the jazz press. It can’t be for an insufficiently distinguished pedigree. After apprenticing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie in his early twenties, Sanchez continued to be a first-call sideman with top-dog jazzfolk like Hilton Ruiz, Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, and Pat Metheny while developing a tonal personality as individualistic as any musician of his generation. Thoroughly conversant with tenor vocabulary stretching the timeline from the ‘40s (Dexter Gordon) to the hypermodern (John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter), Sanchez began to articulate his experimentalist bent—recontextualizing the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico with the harmonic and gestural tropes of jazz, and articulating them with a heroic, ravishing tone and command of dynamics at all tempos —on three Grammy-nominated recordings for Columbia/Sony (Melaza, Obsesión, and Travesía), all Grammy-nominated. He revealed himself a full-fledged master on Coral, on which arranger Carlos Franzetti framed his sextet against the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on a suite of repertoire by Latin American classical composers. Although Coral earned the 2005 Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album,” it marked the end of his 7-CD relationship with Sony.

In late July, Sanchez came to New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with his new quartet—guitarist (and 2005 Thelonious Monk Award winner) Lage Lund, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and drummer Henry Cole. He joined me on WKCR-FM to talk about it.

TP: Your new CD, Cultural Survival , is your first in four years.

SANCHEZ: It’s been a while. Sony was my only label since I started in the mid ‘90s, so it took me a minute to see what was the right fit and what direction I should take this time. I needed to feel comfortable for real to do whatever I wanted. I knew this recording would be a series of firsts—the first time recording with Concord, the first time recording with a quartet with guitar, after always using piano before. So the compositional vibe is different, both from that configuration and the fact that I’ve been checking out a lot of African music, especially southeast Cameroonian music and the Ari people from Tanzania, polyphonic music from Ethiopia, music from Mali. The essence of what I’d been doing is still there, but it does sound different.

TP: Melaza in 1998 was the first project on which you delved deeply into the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and you worked with that repertoire for the next several records. Did your study of African music emerge from your explorations in Puerto Rican idioms?

SANCHEZ: It’s sort of an extension, to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to that [African] music already since Coral. All of a sudden, everything started making a lot of sense. You often think that something is from you, where you come from. I was listening to all these pygmy communities, to something that was way before, and all of a sudden I realized, “Well, this is kind of ours, but not really.” Listening to that music gave me a bigger picture. It definitely changed my perspective. We developed it this way in the Caribbean, but then again, the roots are very strong all over Africa.

TP: Your own development has followed a path of formal saxophone training, salsa, hardcore jazz. Your first gig in the States was with Eddie Palmieri. Once you started making records, you did Latin jazz dates and hardcore jazz things, as well as exploring your own vernacular. So it’s a long, ongoing journey.

SANCHEZ: Indeed. You have to bring the New York City experience into the equation, too. In New York, if you let your mind be open to those different influences and cultural backgrounds, then it’s available for you. But you have to be open. Everything is available. Whoever plays in a unidirectional way, or thinks or hears that way, it’s because they want to. Once I came here, I was exposed to all these different people coming from different places. That helps, too. A lot.

TP: You’ve been living in Atlanta for the last few years.

SANCHEZ: For the last four years, almost.

TP: How is it not living in New York any more?

SANCHEZ: Well, it’s interesting, actually! I do miss it a little. Especially my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, which was pretty hip. Then again, I have the blessing to come here three-four-five times a year, which is a lot. Also, Atlanta has its own musical scene. The gospel thing is huge. The R&B—as you know, all the studios are there. Everyone goes there to record. The movement of underground hip-hop mixed with jazz, the real underground (the other one, too, the one that you hear on the radio) is a very strong movement there. The jazz scene is tiny. But the bottom line is that, culturally speaking, when you analyze it, Atlanta is a cultural center. It has some kind of traditional something. It might not be jazz, but it’s something else. And the Atlanta Symphony is a really decent symphony orchestra.

But New York is unique. No other city in the United States is going to be a match for it.

TP: In the past, we’re used to hearing you in a more polyrhythmic setup, with Adam Cruz or someone else playing drumkit and usually Pernell Saturnino, but occasionally someone else, playing hand drums and percussion. Is this a different concept? Is the paredown for economic reasons? Aesthetic ones?

SANCHEZ: Both. Today it’s very hard to go out there with a larger configuration. But at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity. I was a percussionist before I was a saxophonist. I was really deep into the rhythms. My brother used to play with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, with one of the masters in Rafael Cepeda. So I saw it as an opportunity to write music, as I did on Melaza, in a way that my percussion influence is very present, but you can either have the percussion or not have it. It’s going to be implied in the bass lines, or on the piano—in this case, on the guitar—and on the saxophone itself. Then you say: “What is this? This sounds different. This is not straight-ahead jazz, but this is not Latin Jazz either. What is it?”

TP: Continuing on your remarks about the multiplicity of musical languages that are available to any musician who comes to New York, and how the intersection of those languages creates exciting possibilities for R&D, it occurs to me that people like you, Danilo Perez, and Edward Simon, were in the forefront of a generation that arrived in New York from all over the world with a mastery of jazz language, which they used in elaborating their own vernaculars. Were you thinking about any of those things twenty years ago? Was it simply a matter of the gigs as best you could as they came up, and things just happened?

SANCHEZ: It was a little bit of both. As I said before, once you come to this city, the opportunities are out there. Don’t get me wrong. There are other cities in the world where the same dynamic takes place, like Paris. You meet colleagues who are roughly around the same age, a little older or a little younger, and you share ideas. You view the ideas and you think, “Wow, I never thought of this in this way.” If you have enough flexibility to accept and be receptive to those ideas, then it would help you and it would help the music to evolve in a different way, in a way that you’re no longer thinking of these categories, like: “Well, I play bebop.” “No, I’m post-bop jazz.” “No, I play free jazz—that’s my period.” “I’m a Latin Jazz guy.” “No, I’m a salsa guy who plays a little bit of jazz on top.” After a while, when you experience a city like this, all of this is irrelevant! It’s just the music, and you have all these ways of playing music, all these people coming from different parts of the world, different parts of the United States. It’s up to us as artists to take whatever we think can help us and enrich our own vocabularies.

TP: What was your path towards jazz? Coming up in Puerto Rico playing percussion, folkloric music, how did jazz enter your view?

SANCHEZ: I have to say a great part of it was because of my sister. She’s not a musician. She’s still into comparative theology and comparative literature.

TP: Serious stuff.

SANCHEZ: Serious stuff! [LAUGHS] She was open to so many different styles of music. I’m talking about not only jazz, but music from Johan Sebastian Bach, or Stravinsky, or Milton Nascimento or Elis Regina in Brazil.

TP: This is an older sister?

SANCHEZ: Yes. There’s twelve years difference. When she was a teenager, I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and all the other genres because of her, although obviously I didn’t know it back in those days. . I had a dilemma when I was 10-11-12, and I went to the performing arts school. I really wanted to study drums and percussion. You had to pass these exams, and I did, but they said that there were too many drummers. I chose saxophone because I liked the sound—it was the only other instrument I liked. Somehow, I was sitting in with the percussion and doing the saxophone classes also. But not until she brought me a recording called Basic Miles, an LP with a green jacket, which was a compilation of different periods of Miles Davis’ career… I was already playing classical foundation-oriented music; which is what they were teaching—no jazz or anything. But I immediately became curious. I was like, “Wow, this is weird, introspective, and kind of dark,” but at the same time something attracted me. Then all these questions arose. “What is that?” “Was that written?” “This is unbelievable.” Then a friend said, “No, that’s improvisation.” “Wow.” That was a turning point for me to be really serious on my instrument. My sister also brought Lady in Satin, Billie Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, her last record. That was my introduction to jazz. Weird. I was growing up in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to be honest with you—not many people were into that.

TP: For one thing, the rhythmic feel of jazz, the 4/4 swing, is pretty different than the polyrhythms you knew from folkloric music, or the time feel in classical music. A lot of people from the Caribbean say that’s the biggest adjustment they need to make in playing jazz. Was this the case for you?

SANCHEZ: There are a lot of similarities at the same time. Feeling the beat on 2 and 4 is something really basic in Caribbean music generally. In Cuban music, if you listen to the conga, or we call it bacateo, and the references when they’re dancing is 2 and 4. It subdivides into that. The triplet feel, too. That 6/8 or 12/8, however you want to call it, against four, is very present in both. When you listen to jazz, that triplet feel must be there in order to swing. If you listen to Duke or Count Basie, all those people, you hear it. It’s that really African thing, going back to that subject. The European is there also, but the rhythmic foundation… You would be amazed how many similarities.

For me, the biggest adjustment was phrasing, and that has to do with language. The way you deliver the accents, the inflections. We speak open in Spanish, and in English you utilize vowels that are more on the inside of your mouth. The same thing with the music. I found that very challenging. Just the way people from the jazz world need that downbeat thing to feel more comfortable—they find the upbeats challenging. The upbeats happen in the Brazilian world, too. Still, when you really look at it, from all the different angles, there are a lot of similarities, and that comes from the African side. It’s African roots.

TP: So many tributaries, according to the particularities of each place where African slaves were brought.

SANCHEZ: There are definitely some very strong ties. But it’s still challenging.

TP: In your formative period, how did you approach assimilating tenor saxophone vocabulary?

SANCHEZ: Back when I was growing up, especially coming out of the performing arts school that did not teach jazz at all, and then entering Rutgers, it was a little less academic. I was very enthusiastic about it. For a certain period of time I’d be checking out Charlie Parker; for another period of time I’d be checking out Dexter Gordon. It wasn’t like an assignment. It was just enthusiasm and out of love at that particular time for what Dexter was doing or what Sonny Rollins was doing. I had this strong tie with Sonny, because somewhere you feel that Caribbean experience, and his way of delivering certain phrases was very percussive. I felt, “Wow, this guy is almost playing the drums at the same time he’s playing the saxophone, too, but with an unbelievable sound.” Those were some of my heroes. I got to Joe Henderson much later. Wayne Shorter, too. When you’re ready, life takes you to where you need to go. But at first, it was enthusiasm and passion for what I was listening to. It wasn’t like a report or work. Later on, at Rutgers, of course, you needed structure, and they’d tell you to check out certain records and certain tunes, and learn harmony. I owe that to Ted Dunbar. He said, “Man, you’ve got to play the piano. You’ve got to match your ears with your technical abilities on the instrument.” He pointed out all those things to me, which were priceless lessons. Kenny Barron as well. So definitely there was a structure, but before the structure there has to be that passion and willingness to be curious about something you don’t know.

TP: You worked with Eddie Palmieri as soon as you arrived on the mainland, and you’ve maintained your relationship with him over the years. Recently, you’ve performed with him in duo, and he himself has been expanding his concept since the time you first joined him. Talk about that relationship.

SANCHEZ: Without Eddie, nothing else would have been possible. First of all, he was one of my heroes. Eddie Palmieri was huge back in the ‘70s. He did some compositions in the salsa genre that became classics. And he would not settle for this. He would move on. He clearly had the New York experience, too. So did Tito Puente. You could feel it. Okay, it’s the salsa genre, but it doesn’t sound like the conventional variety—this has something else going on. I don’t know exactly what. My relationship with Eddie from the beginning was very special, because he embraced me. Just like Dizzy, too. He embraced me in a way that he knows, “yeah, this guy has a lot of potential; he has to work on this and that.” They were aware of those things, but they still embrace you.

TP: What sorts of things did Eddie Palmieri tell you and what sorts of things did Dizzy Gillespie tell you?

SANCHEZ: For instance, at the time, Eddie would always be working on how to flow rhythmically and be open and free within the clave structure. We had a connection in there right away. It might have something to do with the fact that I was very familiar with that way of playing drums. It became like if you put a hand in a glove, and it fit. Also, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is no way I would have gotten to Dizzy if I hadn’t been playing with Eddie Palmieri. I was so blessed. I was a kid still at Rutgers University, trying to learn more music and be exposed to all these ways of playing, and here I’m already playing with Eddie Palmieri, making a little bread to go back to school and buy some books and records, which was extremely hard for me to do in Puerto Rico. Then maybe a year-and-half or so later, I had the blessing to be able to play with Dizzy.

TP: Who himself knew a lot about drums and rhythms and passed on that information to several generations of drummers.

SANCHEZ: There you go. Once again, there’s a connection. I owe a lot to my very early musical development, which had nothing to do with learning to play the piano or sounds or anything. It was just feeling the rhythm and playing the drums. It actually was an access that I didn’t know I had at the time, but it tied me to great artists like Dizzy and Eddie and helped me relate to them.

TP: Now, you toured with Pat Metheny a couple of years ago. Did that experience factor into using guitar in your groups?

SANCHEZ: He called me at the last minute to be the guest with the trio for a two-month tour. I was very flattered. It was the first time in my life that I played with a guitarist on a consistent basis. It was a great learning experience. Because it is different.

The way I approach music, I can play a solo over any comp, over anybody comping—just play all my ideas on top of it. But I’ve reached a point that, in some ways, I hate doing that. I want to be receptive and try to take a risk as to how I can relate my idea to what the person is comping behind me. I’ve found that more challenging with guitar players than with piano players. It’s funny, because with guitarists you have more space in some ways, but the strings, the textures, the sound, the sonorities can also take you elsewhere. So I find it very challenging, and I take my time. I leave the space. Some people take that as tentativeness. Some writers get a little confused by that. They think that you don’t know. But what you’re doing is, you’re waiting to have a conversation with somebody. You’re not talking all the time. You take your pauses. Or if you’re writing, you have your commas.

TP: You might spend six hours looking for the right place to put that comma.

SANCHEZ: As long as emotion is happening, that’s all that matters. It’s a collective. You’re making music. It’s a composition. The only thing is that we’re improvising, so the composition happens at the moment. When you’re writing for an orchestra, the saxophone section is not playing all the time. Maybe the trombones are doing a rhythmic figure, and then, BAM, the saxophones jump in and reply to that. The same thing with the smaller configuration. Maybe he has an idea, and if I’m not listening well to that idea, I cannot take that idea elsewhere. That’s the challenge. You can approach it so many ways. You can approach the guitar as another horn, meaning you play the head, and then he lays out and you play like a trio. Then he comes and plays his solo—you could approach it like that. You could approach it as a piano or any other harmonic instrument behind your solo. You can go on and on with different ways of approaching the instrument. It’s fantastic. As I said at earlier, there’s a lot of first-times with this recording, and that’s one—never, ever before had I had a guitar on my records.

TP: So this in some sense stems from hearing it for two months with Pat Metheny, and also your investigations into string music from different parts of Africa.

SANCHEZ: I have to say that before Pat, I listened to many recordings with the kora, and also a wooden instrument called the ieta—it looks like it’s going to be a percussion instrument, but no, it has the 7 strings—as well as an 8-string instrument called the ngombi. That had a lot to do with my decision to see what sound the strings would give me. Then when I played with Pat, it confirmed everything. I was like, wow, we’re only doubling the melody, and it sounds so full. The tenor and the guitar complement each other very well. Something about the timbre.

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, David Sanchez, Jazz.com, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For Branford Marsalis’ 55th Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

For Branford Marsalis’ 55th birthday, here’s the final cut of a DownBeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008, and a link to an uncut Blindfold Test that we did in 2002.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

“It’s important to have cats who can push you and let you express yourself through the music, to actually play anything you want,” said Branford Marsalis, the afternoon of his quartet’s first concert gig of 2008.

The saxophonist sat on his hotel room floor in White Plains, N.Y., slicing a grapefruit and an apple. Outside, the rain came down in torrents, as it had throughout the morning. Airline delays jeopardized the arrival of bassist Eric Revis, who lives in San Antonio, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who lives in North Carolina, not far from Marsalis.

Already it had been a busy day. Having arrived the night before, Marsalis practiced for an hour or so before catching a ride through the downpour to nearby SUNY-Purchase to lead an 11 a.m. master class. Striding across an open mezzanine to the music building with neither a hat nor an umbrella, he was sanguine and philosophical. The roads had not flooded, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a Brooklynite, was driving up. “We’ll play duo if we have to,” he remarked.

This circumstance would be fascinating, but unfortunate. For one thing, the quartet plays the New York area infrequently, and the Pepsico Theater, the world-class facility on campus, was almost sold out. For another, as evidenced on Braggtown (Marsalis Music), the quartet’s most recent release, it’s a singular unit, able to generate and sustain seamless, organic dialogue through an array of emotional and structural environments—affirmative blues connotations (“Jack Baker”); lyric tone poems (“Hope”) and Euro-Classic homages (“Fate” and “O Solitude”); inflamed spirit talk (“Black Elk Speaks”); kinetic, complex Afro-diasporic rhythms (“Blackzilla”).

The master class transpired in a quasi-amphitheater with a giant pipe organ, in front of which Marsalis sat on a bench and, without ceremony, asked for questions. For the next hour, he addressed a slew of topics—practice procedures, the art of record-making, current favorites, how he filters non-jazz styles into his conception. Then he sat for an interview with a student researching a thesis on Kenny Kirkland, the pianist in the quartet’s first edition, which coalesced in 1988. Marsalis responded to a series of questions about Kirkland’s idiosyncracies, musicianship, position on the piano influence tree and self-destructive habits that eventually killed him in October 1998.

Back at the hotel, Marsalis returned to the subject. “I’d heard Kenny play with Angie Bofill when I was at Berklee, and was talking about how bad he was,” he reminisced. “My next-door neighbor knew him, and I got his number and called. He answered the phone.

“‘Hey, Kenny Kirkland, my name’s Branford Marsalis. You might have heard of my brother, Wynton Marsalis, who’s in New York. We want to come play with you,’” he continued. “He laughed. I must have sounded like the biggest hick—I mean, in terms of my diction and dialect. He said, ‘Cool. I live on 30th Street, right down from the train station.’ Me, Victor Bailey, Donald Harrison, Smitty Smith, Lance Bryant, maybe a couple of other people, got on the train, went to New York and rang his doorbell.’ We had our jam session with Kenny Kirkland.”

Around this time, Marsalis, whose Berklee roommates included drummers Marvin Smitty Smith and Gene Jackson, met Jeff Watts. “A lot of people thought Tain was unorthodox, and didn’t like to play with him,” he said. “But I gravitated toward him immediately. I was listening to Lester Young and Wayne Shorter, and he had just started listening to Elvin Jones, but his sensibility came out of fusion. He knew how to play different time signatures, played ideas through them, and you always knew where the beat was. When Wynton started his band, I thought Tain would be more effective than Smitty for the music he was playing, and I told him to hire Tain. When Tain and Wynton split, I was waiting for him.

From 1988 to 1992, when Marsalis brought his troops to Los Angeles to form the core of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” house band, the quartet was the hottest band in hardcore jazz. All members possessed formidable chops, and could swing with the best, a quality less evident on their studio recordings than on a 1989 bootleg of a tradition-centric set by the quartet at the Village Vanguard. Marsalis’ personal charisma, conceptual flair and pop culture cred from proximity to Sting and Spike Lee persuaded jazz-ignorant audiences to applaud his every move, and his superb, insouciant musicianship attracted a generation of aspirants.

Comparing the ’89 Vanguard document to Braggtown’s polymath erudition testifies to Marsalis’ personal evolution after leaving Leno in 1996. He hit the shed hard, and focused on classical repertoire to increase his scope.

“At 37, I started working on the Ibert Concertino, and within the first half-hour came face to face with virtually every weakness I had,” Marsalis said. “On the first page, there were five or six notes—low E, low D, low C, low B, low B-flat and low C-sharp—that I couldn’t even play. I spent years learning to control them. Now I’ll write songs in the lower range, and I play those notes instead of subtoning. I don’t have to rely on one thing to get the job done—i.e., my strength is playing really fast, so I’ll play really fast on every song, and only play songs that allow me to play fast. We can play fast songs or slow songs; happy songs or sad songs. My possibilities are much more expansive.”

Marsalis bedrocks experimental elaborations of modernist vocabulary—Keith Jarrett’s rubato ebb-and-flow of the ‘70s; non-western and Euro-Classical repertoire; the ways in which John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins created narrative from the outer partials; the overtones and harmonics of speculative improvising—with specific tradition tropes. He deploys tension-and-release, insists that the ride cymbal not only swing, but ring, and wants a thumping bass to drive the band, notions that he assimilated while a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during the early ’80s. Watts orchestrates and propels the flow with a global array of beats and Blakeyesque force.

“The requirement is not to sound like an old man, but to use the music of the old men to get where you’re trying to go,” Marsalis said. “Then it sounds like we’re having the same conversation. Musicians use Wynton as an example of some stodgy old codger who’s criminally narrowing the definition of jazz, but we share the exact same philosophy. My band plays a style that doesn’t allow people to say that and sound intelligent at the same time. The more I listen to the old things, the more modern my music is. It’s a wealth of information. If the word is ‘neo-traditionalist,’ then I’m a neo-trad.”

As if to signify on that remark, Marsalis’ cell phone blared the fanfare of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey.” Rob Hunter, his road manager, informed him that Revis and Calderazzo had landed and were en route. Marsalis donned his overcoat, took his saxophone case and went to the lobby to await their arrival.

Watts sauntered in, soon followed by Revis and Calderazzo. After a perfunctory exchange of ritualized insults and salutations, Marsalis hustled Calderazzo and Revis into his rented car and drove through the rain to the theater for the cover photo shoot, with Watts tailgating. After the shoot, two hours ahead of hit time, they returned to the hotel and convened in Marsalis’ quarters.

“I was new to checking out jazz when I met Branford,” Watts recalled. “I played with him on some cool recitals, and we did maybe three gigs outside of school, but mostly we hung out socially. Then he moved to New York. I was walking by a pay phone on the fifth floor of the dormitory, and somebody said, ‘Jeff just walked by,’ and connected us. Branford told me, ‘You’ve got to leave school because my brother started his band, and you’re going to be in it.’”

Marsalis interjected, “He said, ‘OK, cool. Later.’”

“I was aloof in those days,” Watts said. “I moved to New York, we got on Wynton’s group, grew up as musicians and developed a vocabulary together—and separately. Since I didn’t have much vocabulary, he’d anticipate my figures and play them along with me. Trying to dodge him set me up for a portion of how I play now—I try to take melodic stuff and other ideas out of context and move them to different places, but still have them serve the function. When we got together after Wynton, it was comfortable immediately, since so much of my conception came from playing in conjunction with him and Kenny.”

“In Wynton’s band we thought it out as it happened,” Marsalis said. “We developed our philosophy, our basic premises. One idea was to play songs the way classical musicians do, where you jumble a bunch of notes, and they don’t have to be in time if the musicians all can hear it.

“There’s a drum ensemble in Bahia called Timbalada that’s like the brass bands in New Orleans,” he continued. “I loved a certain rhythm on one of their first records, so when I was in Brazil I asked them, ‘How do you count this out?’ They said, ‘We don’t understand the question.’ I said, ‘When you start this rhythm, do you count on four or on one?’ ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ After 20 minutes, they understood. ‘That’s not how we work,’ they said. ‘We’re not limited by counting. This is the first rhythm and this is the second rhythm.’ I realized that the entire thing is one long rhythm, like a conversation. It’s not counted out, not subdivided, not parsed out in bars. That’s where ‘Lykief’ came from. It’s not in a time signature. Bar lines separate the melodies, so they can understand where the target points are.”

In 1988, Revis, 20, was one of many youngsters taking notice. “They were my idols,” he said.

Marsalis pretended to vomit, and Watts uncorked a howling laugh.

“Eric’s sound is the sound of doom—big, thick, percussive,” Marsalis said. Recruited for Marsalis’ 1996 Buckshot LeFunque tour after apprenticing with Betty Carter, Revis was, Marsalis said, “raw as hell, but he won me over with his determination and desire. He had a rough time at first. All Kenny wanted was strong, solid quarter notes, not all those hip extra beats, and he went off on him. ‘Why did you hire this cat?’ I said, ‘We’ve all been where he is, but I like where he’s going.’ Right before Kenny died, he said, ‘Yeah, Revis is getting it together; he’s going to be all right.’”

Kirkland’s legacy made life complex for Calderazzo, already an established professional for 11 years when Marsalis hired him.

“Wynton came on the scene when I was 17,” Calderazzo said. “I had never heard anybody like Kenny, so he was an instant hero. I was 14 when I met Branford and Tain, visiting my brother at Berklee.”

Marsalis interjected. “Being from Louisiana, Berklee was funny then, because the whole race issue in the South had started to develop a sophistication, and up north it was different. All these black people would have a jam session in this practice room, and all the white guys would stand outside the door and look in, but never enter, like we were going to eat them or something. Tim Williams, who ran the sessions, said, ‘Let them stay out there.’ Joey saw us, and he was jumping to see in, so we saw this head going up and down. He started knocking, opened the door and said ‘Can I come in?’ ‘Yeah, come on in. What do you want to play?’ ‘Moment’s Notice’—and he burned. It didn’t take on any racial connotations in his mind. He wasn’t scared of black people.”

“I hung out in the Mount Vernon projects,” Calderazzo added. “They weren’t too far from where I grew up in New Rochelle. I hung out with all the races.”

“Until today,” Watts shot back.

“The first few weeks were rocky,” Calderazzo recalled. “In some ways, I was probably the wrong guy. We were on the road a few months ago, and I heard Kenny on some bootlegs on the Internet,” Calderazzo said. “I remember saying to Tain, ‘I’m Chick.’ That’s how I felt when Chick replaced Herbie in Miles’ band.”

Part of the problem, Calderazzo noted, is that Kirkland’s tunes, which had specific voicings, were staples of the quartet’s repertoire, and he felt ill-equipped to play them. A burning player with an encyclopedic command of harmony, who had played with Michael Brecker since 1987, he was unaccustomed to Kirkland’s predisposition, as Watts put it, “to put his energy into the ensemble to give the music a certain resonance and vibration rather than put himself on display.” An even bigger obstacle was decoding the aesthetic that governed the quartet’s gestural procedures.

“I was playing the wrong style,” Calderazzo said. “Plus, I wasn’t swinging. I’d never played anything slow. If Michael or Bob Berg or whoever it was played a blues (I’m naming white guys, but a lot of black musicians also), it was, 1-2, 1-2-3,’ and play all your shit on it. With Branford, it was ‘de … dank, de … de … dank,’ and I either played quadruple time or sounded bad at best. We were doing it one time, and Tain was laughing.”

“You played something so bad that I looked at Tain, and Tain was looking right at me at the same time,” Marsalis interrupted. “That’s what was so funny.”

“I could have just played double time,” Calderazzo injected, “which nine out of 10 guys would have done, and it would have been …”

“You’re fired,” Marsalis retorted.

“I tried to accommodate …”

“You’re fired.”

“… my lovely boss.”

“Later Joey comes up to me and says, ‘That’s fucked up; you’re laughing at me,’” Marsalis said. “I said, ‘Learn how to play it, and then can’t nobody laugh.’ Then he went on and he got it.”

“I don’t get laughed at any more,” Calderazzo said.

“You went and got it,” Marsalis repeated. “He did the work. He got the records. He didn’t go away sulking or whining. That fire comes out in the music. Sometimes we’re playing gigs, and it’s like the last tune we’re ever going to play. More lately than before.”

“This band has little to do with personal performance,” Calderazzo said. “Until a few years ago, my career was all about, ‘How did I play?’ The band could play badly, but all that mattered is I played my ass off. During the last nine years, I’ve worked harder than in my whole career at just learning and accepting and trying to get better.”

For Revis, Calderazzo’s Miles Davis analogy was entirely apropos. “When I first got into music, everybody was checking out Wynton’s band, and nobody could figure it out,” he said. “With all the time permutations on Black Codes, it was like calculus, and I was trying to navigate ii-V-I’s in a reasonable fashion. Later, I started to understand that to call it math-based is a misnomer.”

“We didn’t play based on paradigms,” Marsalis said. “Tain is a melodic player, not a rhythmic player. It isn’t theoretical. You can’t count it. He would just hear shit, and throw it in. It was like one was his enemy. It would go on and on, and if you didn’t know where you were, you were dead. Whenever drummers sit in on our band after hearing Tain, they play loud and bash, just like an American in Europe asks a question, and when they say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ they speak louder and slower, like that’s going to make everything cool.”

Marsalis parsed the distinction between technical facility and conceptual understanding.“With the proper amount of time and patience, anybody can learn how to play a bunch of runs,” he said. “But I wanted to get certain things I hear in old records. In 1941, Duke Ellington’s band was playing with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away, and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp, no mike or nothin’, That’s the sound I want. The bass player had to think about the team.”

Revis: “I’ve had this argument with several bass players. They say, ‘Why can’t we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.’”
Marsalis: “Then get a guitar!”
Revis: “This misconception that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated from anything? Does Charlie Haden? The band allowed me to actualize my own voice. I knew the earlier records, and went through a period of thinking that was the sound. Jeff and Kenny encouraged me not to try to sound like that, but to play myself. That gave me courage to interject my personality after I adapted and served the function. I’d been checking out a lot of ‘avant-garde’ music and playing gigs outside of Branford’s band, and the first time I went into my Peter Kowald or William Parker bag, Branford was like, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Marsalis: “Ottawa. That was hilarious. Joey was out with Mike, and couldn’t make the gig, so my dad played it. When Eric started playing, I was like, ‘What in the hell?’”
Revis: “This is like bragging on family, but we do things better than any band out here. We can play sensitive or go to the wall. Every record, Branford has a concept of exactly how and where he wants it done, how he wants it to sound. He works quick, so it’s two or three takes, and you’re stuck. But even if you don’t understand it in the moment, in hindsight, it always sounds great.”
Calderazzo: “Everybody in the band has something to say. We’ve learned to play together—and on a fast level—at all times. Rhythmic, harmonic and melodic information flies across the stage all night long.”
Marsalis: “But I don’t think anybody’s listening. People come to me and say, ‘I love your stuff.’ Then they’ll mention Bloomington, Trio Jeepy, Requiem. They don’t say anything about Eternal, Braggtown or Tain’s records. And it was 10 years ago when cats started saying, ‘Man, you was killin’ on Bloomington.’ Historically, this is what happens. Given that fact, just play. I’m not going to play for accolades. I’m playing for you all.”
Calderazzo: “I spent all my years, you know, wanting it. Now I don’t care! I started playing solo piano. I’ll stay home and play.”
Revis: “I’m not saying I don’t care. But it’s kind of funny that certain things are heralded and certain things aren’t.”
Marsalis: “When I was with Wynton, people said I sounded like Wayne Shorter. ‘All the badass saxophone players out there, and that’s who you want to sound like?’ Now, what are they saying? ‘Wayne is the greatest! Wayne is the man.’ This is just how it is.”
Revis: “It’s like Keith’s band 30 years ago with Dewey and Charlie and Paul Motian. Nobody gave them any love up until damn near now.”

There was no lack of love from the sold-out house when Marsalis and crew strode onstage. With neither rehearsal nor sound-check, the quartet was in game shape, slaloming through the fiendish twists and turns of seven assorted burnouts and ballads with crisp spontaneity and formal command.

Not that they had been idle: A week before the concert, Marsalis convened them in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to record a Ned Rorem composition, “Lions (A Dream),” with the North Carolina Symphony. This came several months after a San Francisco performance of “Focus,” the 1960s Eddie Sauter–Stan Getz collaboration.

“These projects force us to think differently,” Marsalis said from North Carolina Central College in Durham three weeks later. “Those musical and emotional experiences enter the repertoire. On the Rorem piece, our job was to create a dream-like sequence—it occurs in a peaceful setting, and in the middle a lion shows up and eats the people—and to give it the looseness of a jazz band playing a tune, but keep that beautiful, serene quality. Then the orchestra surrounds you and swallows you whole. You can’t just play as loud as you want, or the way Trane would play ‘I Want To Talk About You.’ You can’t start thinking about the changes. You’re thinking, ‘What is the emotional content of what I’m trying to do?’”

He related an esthetic dispute with Delfeayo Marsalis, his younger brother and long-time producer, about the orientation of his next recording, on which the quartet will interact with an orchestra. “Delf’s idea of the record was based on Charlie Parker With Strings, Clifford Brown With Strings, Wynton’s Hot House Flowers,” Marsalis said. “I heard it differently. He said, ‘Well, it’s about you.’ I said, ‘No, it’s about the group, and now the group includes 35 strings.’ I don’t want to play solos while the strings play whole notes behind us. I want to highlight the malleability of jazz. A jazz combo is like an insurgent group, and an orchestra is like a large military. We’re small, agile and mobile. They’re not. So give them the meat, and we’ll react to them, as opposed to the orchestra reacting to the jazz band.”

Asked why the quartet performs less frequently than it once did, Marsalis responded, “I have a pile of theories. For one thing, there’s a perception of us that stems from me—arrogant, cocky, thinks he’s better than everybody, thinks he knows everything, neoclassicist. Name it. That perception, combined with promoters thinking that the challenging style of music we play does not sell a lot of tickets, combined with our refusal when we go to Europe to let them record us and own the rights in perpetuity.

“Plus, with what I have to pay these guys to keep them, it’s hard to bring them into clubs, because I won’t realize any real profit,” he continued. “It’s a good investment, though, because if we want to let people know what we’re actually doing, the clubs are where we need to do it. I don’t know what good buzz is actually worth, but on our club tour in Europe a few years ago, we got more buzz within the first three days than we’d had in years. But being in clubs too much also makes it difficult to establish a clientele, because people think, ‘I’ll catch him next time; he’ll be back next month.’”

Marsalis states that Watts, Calderazzo and Revis hold the key to the quartet’s future. “I leave them an option to quit if they don’t think it’s right,” he said. “If Tain starts getting a lot of gigs with his band, and that’s what he wants, how can I fault him?”

Should that occur, Marsalis added, “Clearly, I would do something else. Play more classical music. Play with a trio. More likely, now that I’m at Central, I’d get some youngsters and start over—these church kids have endless possibilities. But ultimately, we’ll always have to find each other, because right now there are no other musical situations.” DB

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Filed under Branford Marsalis, DownBeat, Eric Revis, Jeff Watts, Joey Calderazzo, Tenor Saxophone

For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.

 

How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]

 

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Filed under Chicago, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For Bennie Wallace’s 67th Birthday, a DownBeat Article From 2000 and Three Interviews

In 2000, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on Bennie Wallace, a tenor saxophonist with a singular tonality whose tonal abandon and harmonic/melodic control began to impress me in the late ’70s, when he released a series of trio and quartet albums for Enja with New York’s finest pianists, bassists and drummers of the day. Today’s his 67th birthday, and I’m posting the “director’s cut” of the piece, incorporating much more biographical information than appeared in the print version, which was 1000 words shorter. It  reads decently, and hopefully will be of interest. I’ve also posted the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from Feb. 2000, a portion of an interview at WKCR from 1998 (Bennie came to the studio with guitarist Anthony Wilson, with whom he was closely associated at the time), and a formal interview conducted for the piece.

Bennie Wallace (Downbeat):

On a clear late winter morning, not one man-made object impedes the treetop-skimming southern view of the Long Island Sound from Bennie Wallace’s thickly carpeted second-floor home studio in suburban Connecticut.  The walls are blanketed with albums, CDs (including two Ellington-filled shelves), books on music and a sofa on which Wallace is perched; spread on a long table abutting the window are a Mac computer and mixing equipment.  Wallace is a slender, stoop-shouldered 53-year-old with an iron grip.  He speaks with courtly diction in precisely modulated tones that give away his southern roots.  Clad in a burgundy-mocha crewneck, white shirt, beige corduroys and black soft leather loafers, the tenor saxophone veteran is every inch the country gentleman, with the manner of a tenured professor at, say, the University of Tennessee, where he graduated thirty years ago as a clarinet major, or, perhaps, a Tennessee Valley Authority lawyer in Chattanooga, his home-town.

You wouldn’t recognize the bearded, bluejeaned firebrand whose idiosyncratic style — surging, torrentially arpeggiated lines marked by jagged intervals that limn the instrument’s extremes, articulated in a fat tone marked by a turbulent, almost Gothic timbral sensibility, all at the service of an architectural command of harmony and innate narrative authority — impressed devotees of hardcore jazz on a yearly succession of albums for Enja between 1978 and 1984 with the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, Eddie Moore, Dannie Richmond and Elvin Jones that still hold up for their individuality and passion.  Seasoned by moderate late ‘80s commercial success and a bittersweet tenure in Los Angeles as a film composer/music director, Wallace in 1998 cut a pair of lyric, songbook-oriented quartet albums with A-list rhythm sections — “Someone To Watch Over Me” [Enja] and “Bennie Wallace” [AudioQuest] — that bring into deep relief his elemental connection to the Coleman Hawkins branch of the tenor tree.

“Sonny Rollins was my first influence,” Wallace recalls.  “My teacher gave me a recording of ‘Sumphin,’ a medium-tempo F-blues Sonny did with Dizzy Gillespie, and told me, ‘Look, this guy really plays the blues great.  Now, don’t listen to his tone, because he sounds like a duck; you should listen to Stan Getz for tone.’  I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since.  To this day it’s the best blues tenor solo I’ve ever heard.  There was something about the notes and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that you couldn’t put on paper, and it really got me.”

As an early ‘60s high school student, Wallace dual-tracked, playing classical music on clarinet in the school orchestra well enough to win a state championship, while moonlighting in jam sessions from 11 to 4 in the morning at after-hour chitlin’ circuit joints in Chattanooga’s black section, “with people going crazy, playing the blues and bebop tunes with good players who traveled to small clubs around the country.”  He continues: “I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people; a white kid who looked 12 years old up there playing with everybody — I told my parents I was working in a hillbilly club.  The owner took me under his wing and started giving me work.  Before I was out of high school, I did a summer there as bandleader.  I did the same thing in college, in Knoxville.  Jazz became inevitable.”

Which predestined a move to New York, where Wallace arrived in 1971 with $275 in his pocket following an inglorious stint with a poppish big band in Chicago, a year of private studies with Boston reed master Joe Viola, and a few months gigging around San Francisco.  “I rented a studio in Harlem for $5 a week, and began practicing there,” Wallace recalls.  “Monty Alexander, who was stuck for a tenor player for a gig at the Riverboat, heard me, knocked on my door and asked if I wanted a gig — which was an easy answer.  I didn’t know who Monty was at that time.  He took me across the street to a rehearsal, and here were Frank Strozier, Eugene Wright, Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince.  All of a sudden I was in the band; they got me in the union and I played with them all summer, six nights a week for dancers.”

Wallace workshopped in New York’s active early ‘70s loft scene with people like singers Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, and bassists Glen Moore, Wilbur Ware and Gomez.  “Bennie had — and has — a unique sound and approach, and a very definite and clear vision of where he wanted to go with what he was doing,” states Gomez, a bold presence on numerous Wallace sessions from then to now.  “Some of our repertoire was Thelonious Monk’s music, some was original; mostly the point was to push the envelope in the improvisation.  His compositions were angular, with difficult melodies; it seemed like pure musical thought and not conceived out of any European tradition on the instrument.  He always had a fat, mature sound which was steeped in the tradition, but the content was light years ahead.  In recent years, he’s self-edited, so the explosions aren’t quite as thunderous.  But they’re just as potent.”

A devotee of the Eddie Lockjaw Davis-Red Prysock school of sax dynamics, Wallace’s attitude diverged from much of his early Baby Boom saxophone peer group, who were obsessed with perfecting the language of John Coltrane.  “In my way, I was as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics,” he states.  “The message I got from Coltrane was his diligence in making his playing better, his dedication to the instrument, and the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else.  Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation.  The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.”

Wallace honed in on Thelonious Monk, a key inspiration for his intervallic derring-do.  One day while workshopping “Blue Monk” with the bassist Jack Six, a frequent rehearsal partner, “I spontaneously thought of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths,” he reveals.  “It created the illusion of expanding the tone of the saxophone.  I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals, play fourths and fifths to put a different read on Bird’s language, and this was a more radical leap in that direction.  My initial concept for the outside edge of my playing came in school, when I played Bartok’s ‘Contrasts for Clarinet, Piano and Violin,’ and started thinking how Bartok’s lines would fit against certain jazz chords.  It opened up my mind, and led me to composers like Elliott Carter and Charles Ives, to a woodwind quintet by Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Pierre Boulez’s “Pli Selon Pli”.  The trick is to create wide intervals that aren’t academic, but make melodic sense.”

Wallace signed with Blue Note in 1985, which set off an sequence of career-shifting strange twists and left turns.  “They wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South,” he notes drolly.  “Which turned out to be a nice idea, because I met Dr. John, who became a great friend and associate.  It gave me a chance to revisit some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid in the way I fantasized about doing them.  It was the first time I got a serious dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun.  My career became about how many records you sell instead of about music.  In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got a call from someone in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in the movie ‘Bull Durham,’ for which he wanted me to write something.”

In 1991, Wallace left his dark Washington Heights apartment for a rented house with an ocean view on the Pacific Palisades, his home base for the next six years.  Wallace scored “Blaze,” and the uncompleted animated feature “Betty Boop,” music-directed “White Men Can’t Jump,” and composed the title track for Jeff Goldblum’s Oscar-nominated short film “Little Surprises,” among other projects, while attempting to sustain his performing career in the diffuse, “no-There-there” L.A. milieu.  “I felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles,” Wallace recounts. “I was very self-conscious that I would stagnate.  One day out of the blue I called Jimmy Rowles out of the phone book and asked if I could study piano with him to learn his harmonic concept and the way he approached tunes.  He told me to come on over, and he educated me, showed me outrageous stuff.  After that we became great friends.  He was restricted from emphysema and wasn’t working much, but I would pick his brain all the time.   His memory was phenomenal and his knowledge was encyclopedic.  When you’d ask him about a tune he wouldn’t just call the changes, like anybody else.  He’d say, ‘On bar 3, the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.’  Jimmy always focused on what a song means — that narrative aspect.”

Rowles’ postgraduate tutelage supplemented earlier lessons on turning notes into narrative that Wallace absorbed during the ‘70s and ‘80s from pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey at Bradley’s, the iconic Greenwich Village piano saloon.  “One of the things that I admire most about great piano players is that they are great accompanists, able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it,” notes Wallace, who has a sheaf of Rowles’ personal lead sheets, topped by “I Concentrate On You,” on the 1926 Steinway in his living room.  “Whenever I wrote for a film, I’d think, ‘Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?’, and translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for.  What fits?  What enhances it?  The term ‘film composing’ is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind.  Now, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing for orchestras and the technical aspect of the mathematics to make music fit exactly with the frames-per-second.  But in films sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes a string quartet, sometimes for musicians who can’t even read music.  I have to be able to phrase those technical things in language people can understand so that it fits with the picture.”

Two years after resettling on the East Coast, Wallace spent much of 1999 writing and recording scores for 22 episodes of “The Hoop Life,” a Showtime series about a professional basketball team with a “behind-the-scenes” perspective distilled through the lives and dilemmas of five individuals.  Operating out of Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio, Wallace recruited a who’s who of New York improvisers — including pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock, bassists Gomez, Peter Washington, Mark Helias and George Mraz, drummers Alvin Queen, Billy Drummond, Lewis Nash and Herlin Riley, percussionist Steve Kroon, vibraphonists Steve Nelson and Brian Carrott, trumpeter John D’Earth and trombonist Ray Anderson — to express their personalities in relation to the picture appearing before them on the video monitors.

“Jazz is a very personal music,” says Joe Cacaci, the show’s executive producer, explaining why he decided on hardcore jazz rather than retro pastiche or generic hip-hop as the soundtrack for the inner emotions of the characters.  “It’s very versatile, so I knew it would give us the opportunity to handle the deep drama, the absurdity, the comedy, and in some cases reckless, dangerous behavior.  I knew there would be ample opportunity for ‘source music,’ to get in hip-hop and rap and genres more endemic to the younger audiences, which would be a perfect combination.  But for the scoring, the stuff that goes according to the story line for each character, I wanted a jazz composer.  Bennie serves the material rather than the other way around.  He understands what each week’s episode is about, better than a lot of people whose business it is to understand it, and he got into the characters very deeply so that he could start to identify with what everybody was doing and express their essence musically.  I would talk emotionally about the characters, and not make suggestions about the music per se until we got in the studio.  He’s very receptive to ideas, but at the same time has a very sharp and clear idea of what he wants to do, and takes risks.  We had a great working rapport.  He got off on direction instead of thinking that it was an imposition.  I’d talk to him like I was talking to an actor or another writer.  And he also got the most out of the musicians.  He had them into the show, identifying with the characters!  It was scoring from the heart.”

Cacaci sent me cassettes of episodes 5, 17 and 18, on which the music seamlessly complements and comments on the flow.  There are piercing atonal string quartets at psychological flashpoints, a variety of minor trumpet blues counterpointing action-resolution, a thrilling drum chant to accompany a montage telescoping the course of a championship game.  Preparing Drummond, Kroon and Don Eaton for the latter at the final recording session in January. Wallace mentioned the rubato three-feel that Elvin Jones put on “Alabama,” a clear lingua franca analogy that prompted an absolutely apropos response.   Later Wallace picked up his horn, joining Anderson and d’Earth for a precisely calibrated free-for-all on the show’s concluding theme.

“The narrative is in the preparation,” Wallace reflects a few weeks later in the cozy studio.  “Before I recorded “Someone To Watch Over Me” I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every good recording to learn the words and the way great people interpreted it emotionally.  When I actually played, I didn’t think about anything, but just let it all come out.  The experience of writing for narratives in the movies is analogous to playing without thinking about it.  Technique is out the window.  It’s all about expressing the emotions and eliminating the extraneous.  That’s one of the fortunate lessons I learned when I was in Los Angeles.  Every good filmmaker is going to demand that.  You’re there to give it to them.  That’s all they care about.”

In his maturity, Wallace seems comfortable balancing the pragmatic dictates of business in the big leagues of entertainment with the call of pure aesthetics.  “I returned East because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music,” he says.  “When I went to L.A., I thought it would be worth doing if I could make enough money at this to be able to pay my musicians so everybody feels good about the gig, and not worry about pleasing a record company whether my music is going to fit the concept they want.  I did it for a few years, but didn’t get it to the point I wanted.  Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a big project I got involved in, and I decided I wouldn’t take any more tours until I could afford to.  Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t go on any longer without being back here and playing.  I spent the last two years practicing the saxophone and taking occasional gigs in Europe — getting into ‘Hoop Life’ was a happy accident.

“I did a lot of things in California that weren’t what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft.  It was always a learning experience.  I learned a lot of positive things about show business which are very helpful now that I’m back dealing with the jazz business, and things about composition that give me a wider vocabulary on the saxophone and come out in my solos.  I want to bring some of the craft I learned into my writing for albums.  Many of the things we did on ‘Hoop Life’ were just as unconventional for jazz as for film music, and I met musicians on that project who I want to record with.  I’ll never again turn down music for money.”

[-30-]

* * *

Bennie Wallace (Musician Show, 2-16-00):

[BW, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”]

TP:    …that rarity among saxophonists who came up in the ’70s and ’80s, a saxophonist with a sound completely his own, yet one related to previous masters in the most organic matter.  First let’s talk about this album and conceptualizing it.  Why a Gershwin album?  I guess it was the centennial.

WALLACE:  Actually, it was a total accident.  We went out to Los Angeles in ’98 and played a week at the Jazz Bakery, and the lady who owns it asked if we’d play a Gershwin set on the Saturday night because they were doing this Film Music Association Gershwin program.  So we put together a set literally a few minutes before each gig earlier in the week, because we weren’t playing any Gershwin at the time except for “I Was Doing All Right.”  So we put the set together and played it on Saturday night, and it was fun and it was successful, so three weeks later we recorded it.  We were supposed to make an album anyway, and rather than record the repertoire that we were thinking about, we just decided to do that.  And quite appropriately, it came out the year after the Gershwin centennial.  Couldn’t do it the regular way.

TP:    Did you choose it by tunes that fall more toward saxophonistic interpretation?  How do you cull down Gershwin repertoire for a project like this?

WALLACE:  That’s not easy.  In the three weeks before we made the record, when I was really thinking about making it an album and adding a couple of more tunes for that purpose, culling the tunes was a very difficult process.  There were a couple I really wanted to do and couldn’t do because they were too much of the same nature as the ones we were doing.  But most of the tunes on there are tunes I have some sort of history with, like the one you just heard.  I never really played it before, but I always loved Thelonious Monk’s solo recording of it.  So the tune I always identified with Monk as much as with Gershwin.  Then those ballads are some of the best ballads in the repertoire.  Each tune had its own little thing that just kind of made it natural for the band.  And also trying to stay away from “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm.”  To me, that’s been done, needless to say, so many times, and there are so many Gershwin tunes that have their own harmonic identity.  That’s what was attractive to me.  And melodic identity, too.

TP:    Are you intimate with the lyrics to all these tunes?  Do you make a point of learning lyrics on songbook material?

WALLACE:  I try to.  When I’m recording it, I’m very familiar with it.  I’ve also got a very short memory.  In fact, in thinking about these tunes for the gig next week, I’m surprised how many of the lyrics I can remember.  But Jimmy Rowles kind of got me into that, of just lyrically seeing what the tune is about, and that kind of shapes your way of approaching it.

I knew Alvin Queen mostly in Europe.  I met him in 1979, and we’ve been playing together ever since, every chance we get.  He’s kind of like family.  He’s one of the most frequent phone calls I get, even though I live in Geneva, Switzerland.  We really love playing together.  Though I must say I loved playing with Yoron on this record, too.

TP:    Let’s start with some third degree.  You’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.  What got you into music?  What impelled you to pick up a saxophone and become devoted to it?

WALLACE:  When I was in the eighth grade, we got a new teacher in our school, and he was a jazz musician, and he used to leave these jazz records around just for us to steal them.  He wouldn’t loan them to us, but they’d all be sitting around.  He started a jazz band, and we had a whole group of kids who became really enthusiastic about the music.  We were actually terrible little snobs, but we were really into Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and Count Basie and all that stuff.  It was his inspiration that did it, and he introduced me to a couple of really wonderful tenor players who happened to be in the area who took me under their wing and taught me things.  I was real lucky that way.  This was in the early ’60s.

TP:    This was at a time when segregation was strong…

WALLACE:  Racial tension was really ugly.  And I was just kind of coming of the age when I was aware of the existence of something like that.  To this teacher’s credit, through the music, he made us really aware immediately of what was right and what was wrong.  We were going down and playing in black clubs when I was a teenager.  I remember going down to this black jazz club when I was about 14, and a couple of friends and I went in, and the owner (who I got to know later because I worked for him a lot), he was like crackin’ up and let us in, let us listen to music on the jukebox and hang out.  Then we went and got our buddy, Jerry White, this guy who is now a wonderful drummer, who must have looked like he was 8 years old.  When he came in, the owner just cracked and he said, “No-no, I can’t do this!”

TP:    You’re pointing up something that’s such a cultural break between 1960 and today.  You’re talking about Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is not a metropolis, and there’s a jazz club and there’s jazz on the jukebox and there are jazz musicians who are well grounded and a scene for you to play in.

WALLACE:  Yes, it was a very small scene, but it was a scene.  I got my start playing in after-hours clubs until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and people going crazy, and playing the blues and bebop tunes and stuff like this.  It was a great experience.  And it was a great learning experience as a person  It’s like I was exposed to twice as much of the world as a lot of kids I went to school with.

TP:    I’d say three times as much!

WALLACE:  That was a little conservative.

TP:    So you’re a 16-year-old white kid in Chattanooga playing til 3-4 in the morning at after-hours clubs in the Black part of town, a normal high school upbringing.  Who were the early influences?  Were you thinking of it that way?

WALLACE:  Sonny Rollins was my first influence.  That’s because my teacher gave me this solo in the band, and there was a medium-tempo F-blues that I was supposed to play on, and he had a medium-tempo F-blues of Sonny playing with Dizzy Gillespie… I’ll never forget it.  He gave me the record and he said, “Look, this guy really plays the blues great.  Now, don’t listen to this tone, because he sounds like a duck.  You should sound like Stan Getz for a tone.”  And I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since.  I fell in love with that solo on that record.  I was also listening to Eddie Lockjaw Davis, John Coltrane, Red Prysock, Stanley Turrentine — a lot of great guys.

TP:    Did you know at that time that you were going to be a musician?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  I didn’t know if I was going to be a clarinet player or a saxophone player, because I was also playing the clarinet at that time in the orchestra and stuff like that.

TP:    So you weren’t just playing jazz and blues.  You were learning the fundamentals…

WALLACE:  I wasn’t studying the saxophone in school, but I was studying the clarinet.

TP:    So what happened then?

WALLACE:  Well, the Vietnam War came along and put everybody in college, and I went to Knoxville, to the university there, and around a similar clique of localized jazz musicians.  It was a real local scene.  I often wish I’d grown up somewhere like New York, where I could hear some of the great musicians…

TP:    You probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  Exactly.  Because I sounded awful!  But there were great opportunities.  I learned a lot.

TP:    A few words on the dynamics of Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ style.  Another tenor player mentioned seeing a video of Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin playing two tenors in tandem, and the same notes were coming out of the horn but the fingers weren’t in the same place.

WALLACE:  Right.  Well, Johnny Griffin told me that Jaws had his own… Well, I knew that Jaws had his own fingering system.  Because I remember in 1964 they let Count Basie’s band play for about 15 minutes on the “Tonight Show” one night when Jerry Lewis was running it, and they had some closeups of Jaws.  Of course, I knew my saxophone, and his fingers were going where they didn’t belong.  Ever since then, I always wanted to like find out what that was he was into.  I remember going to a club to hear him play, then I couldn’t get close, then we almost made a record together before he died, and he got too sick and couldn’t do it.  But I always wanted to know what he was doing.  I’ve tried to figure out some of it with my ear and my imagination.  But he was quite magical.  In fact, Johnny Griffin was telling me that he even had some of the keys corked down.  I’ve been thinking about that, like, which ones could you cork down that would make a difference but you could still play the saxophone.  But he was totally unique!  I think Jaws could get more colors out of the saxophone than any saxophone player in the history of the tenor.  Ben had that big, beautiful ballad sound, but Ben couldn’t scream like Jaws. Listen to Jaws play “Flight Of the Foo Bird” on that Basie Atomic record — he just comes roaring.  Ben was no effeminate tenor player, you know.  But you know what I’m saying?  Jaws just had this palette of color that was just outrageous.

[MUSIC: Jaws, “Trane Whistle” & “Flight of The Foo Birds”, Ben, “Time After Time”]

TP:    The set reflected some of Bennie’s early experiences as a gigging teenage saxophonist in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and subsequently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  So you get out of school, it’s the late ’60s, it’s the middle of counterculture — most of your peers are soaking up John Coltrane.

WALLACE:  Oh, I was too!

TP:    Talk about the things that interested you in those years.

WALLACE:  At that point I was listening to everybody, and I think I was also just about as crazy as everybody at that time.  I don’t think kids today can realize what a confusing place the world was at that time for a teenager.  I think jazz, in a sense, helped me and my friends keep our heads on straight, because there was some semblance of order there and some semblance of a level of craftsmanship to aspire toward and keep us from going completely bonkers.  It’s a very difficult question you just asked, because I was growing up in East Tennessee, and looking back on my life and all the times I’ve been to Europe and Japan and in a sense earned my livelihood abroad… In those days I never even thought of there being anything beyond New York City.  That was just the mecca.  There’s nothing after that.  I never thought about leaving the country or playing or anything.  It was just New York.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, in 1966.  It was just like the overused thing, like a kid in a toy shop.  It was amazing.    I came two or three times and visited again I moved here in ’72.  The first time I came, I went to the old Half Note, and it was a double bill.  Sonny Stitt was just playing tenor at the time with the McCoy Tyner Trio, and Roy Eldridge and Richie Kamuca were playing opposite, and I think Anita O’Day might have been singing with them, and Major Holley was playing bass.  I must have been 16-17 years old, and I looked like I was 12.  There was a great waiter down there who was famous for being able to light anybody’s cigarette from anywhere in the room before they could get their lighter out.  He was a real character.  It was a novelty to him that anybody who looked that young was in there.  He introduced me to Sonny Stitt, and Sonny came over to the table during the break and talked to me…

TP:    How many keys are on the saxophone?

WALLACE:  Actually, there was none of that, which he was famous for.  I kind of got spared because I looked so young.  He was basically telling me tricks about how to practice and just being very sweet, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to destroy Sonny’s reputation!  I enjoyed hearing Richie Kamuca, too, and Major Holley.  It was an incredible experience.

TP:    When you moved to New York, did you come knowing people, with any connections?

WALLACE:  I knew a few people and met musicians to play with.  Actually, I was very lucky.  I came with $275 in my pocket and no place to stay, and I fell into this very nice man who was a sculptor down on the Bowery, who let me stay at his place, but he said I couldn’t practice there.  So I went up to… Charles Cullen was renting these studios for $5 a week, and so I was practicing up there, and Monty Alexander heard me practicing and was stuck for a tenor player for this gig that he had, so he knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted a gig — and of course, that was an easy answer.  I didn’t know who Monty was at that time.  He took me across the street where they were having a rehearsal, and here was Eugene Wright and Frank Strozier and all these fantastic players.  All of a sudden, I was in the band, and they got me in the union, and I played with them all summer.  When Strozier couldn’t make it, he’d send George Coleman to sub, and Senator would send Bob Cranshaw.  So man, I was in heaven.  “This is my town!”  That was at the Riverboat, and we were playing six nights a week for half the summer for dancers.

TP:    Was your style similar then?  Did you have that intervallic concept and the kind of coloration you put on the horn?

WALLACE:  I think my style was pretty similar.  I think the idea of stretching the intervals out came maybe a year or two later, when I was listening to this woodwind piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen and trying to practice the parts.  Also I was going to the Vanguard and listening to Monk and hearing how he would stretch intervals out.  I remember I started doing that by first taking “Blue Monk” and instead of playing it in half-steps, playing it in minor 9ths.  I was fascinated with the fact that it would make the saxophone sound so big.  So that came just a little after.  But I think my basic concept was there. I wasn’t playing like Stan Getz or imitating anybody.

TP:    So when it came down to soloing, you had your own ideas about how to approach improvising, and you could perform the section function as well.

WALLACE:  Well, some people might argue that.  But see, when I was in school I played the clarinet, and I played in orchestras and wind ensembles and stuff like that where I had to do a lot of reading.  I used to tease my wife and tell her that while I was in high school I was the state champ on the clarinet, because we had these contests, you know, with all the high school kids. I was a real reader in those years.  I could read.

TP:    And you were the state champ?

WALLACE:  I was the state champ.  I think I played the Stravinsky “Three Pieces.” They put your through all these regimented kinds of things, like sight-reading and all this stuff.

TP:    When did you put down the clarinet?  Or did you.

WALLACE:  When I got out of college.  I basically quit practicing it… Off and on over the years, if they had a job that needed the clarinet, I would play it.  But in those days, the mouthpieces and the equipment on the instrument weren’t near as good as they are today, or I didn’t know about any of the good stuff.  And with the mouthpieces I was playing, the clarinet would really chew up your lip and make you bite.  And I wanted to get my sound real loose on the tenor, so I just got as far away from that clarinet as I could when I got out of school.

[MUSIC: BW, “I Loves You, Porgy”]

TP:    In the ’70s, apart from that initial gig, did you go around, meet a lot of people, make yourself busy on the scene?

WALLACE:  Yes.  I was a little bit timid.  I was a little bit overwhelmed with the scene.  I used to play duets with Wilbur Ware, who was another really great friend.  Wilbur had a dubious reputation, but I didn’t see that.  He was really nice to me, and I used to go over to his house and practice with him.  I remember he invited me to come up to Harlem to play with him and Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones.  I can’t remember where, but I was afraid.  I wasn’t afraid to go to Harlem.  I was afraid to go play with those guys.  When I look at it now, I think, my God, if you couldn’t play with those guys… That’s one of the stupidest things I ever did!  But I played around, and met a lot of musicians, and just kind of worked on my music and did a lot of practicing.  I worked a bit with Sheila Jordan, and that was a lot of fun.  The loft scene started up and I was a bit on the periphery of that.

TP:    I was curious about your relation to that.  You’re a musician with obvious solid grounding in blues and vernacular music and bebop, and yet you’re being influenced by Stockhausen in the way you approach your style intervallically, which is an interesting mix of influences.

WALLACE:  Well, when I was in college, I was hanging out a lot with a composer named Doug Davis, who turned me on to a lot of that kind of music and taught me a lot about how 20th Century music is put together.  I had this wild ambition to be able to improvise atonally, and so I practiced a lot of that.  I would learn 12-tone kind of melodies, but I’d always relate them to chords because that was my background.  When I came to town, I guess I was playing farther out than I’ve ever played on records.  A year or two after I’d been here, I had a radio and I started listening to Ed Beach, and Ed Beach would play Ben Webster and he would play Coleman Hawkins, and I remember he played this beautiful record of Zoot Sims playing “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” and just all of these amazing recordings.  I used to tape them.  He did a Gene Ammons show… I’m so sorry I didn’t keep the parts where he was talking, because his voice was so incredible.  But then I heard that, and then I started really hearing Duke Ellington in detail for the first time, and really getting it, listening to Ed Beach.  That’s when I decided to go back and really like build the foundation of my roots and learn the music… I remember I heard him playing Don Byas doing “Sweet Lorraine.”  He just had a way of picking the best stuff, to where you’d just never forget it.  That was kind of a conversion, like a born-again experience for me.  Since then my music has always been based on that, but that other thing I studied in school is a part of my vocabulary, or makes me think a bit differently, I think.

TP:    I interrupted you when you spoke of being on the periphery of the loft scene, such as it was.  Did you have a particular clique of musicians that you were around, or…

WALLACE:  Well, I kind of knew the guys who ran the lofts.  I knew Joe Lee Wilson, who was a great guy, and I knew the guy that ran Environ and a couple of other places.  I knew Sam Rivers a little bit.  And those guys would give me gigs from time to time.  In fact, one of the first lofts I played in was Ornette Coleman’s loft down on Prince Street.  We didn’t have any gigs, and that was just like a place to play.  Eddie Gomez and I played together in the lofts, and I played with Glen Moore, I played with Sheila Jordan, with Jay Clayton, a lot of different… There was a little bit of a clique, I guess you’d say — a little community.  People would just call me up.  Sometimes I’d play my own duet and trio concerts.  For a while I had a gig in a restaurant with just bass and tenor, which was pretty hilarious.

TP:    So you were living the life of a New York musician trying to get by week to week and do what came up.

WALLACE:  Just running blind. [LAUGHS]

TP:    We’ll hear Thelonious Monk, a track along with Stockhausen that you mentioned as two kind of poles…

WALLACE:  Well, Stockhausen just kind of came out of my head.  I was listening to a lot of 20th Century music, Elliott Carter and Charles Ives and a lot of different stuff.  But I just remember there was a Stockhausen woodwind piece, and I had the music to it.  But I used to go hear Monk at the Vanguard, which got me to kind of thinking… My ambition was always to be in his band.  Everybody else wanted to be in Miles Davis’ band, but my fantasy was to play with Monk.  When you listen to this tune, listen to what he does toward the end of the bridge with the harmony.  That inspired me in terms of ways to harmonize tunes.

[Monk, “These Foolish Things” (1953); BW, “Skippy”]

TP:    When you made Bennie Wallace Plays Monk in 1981, you’d been here almost a decade.

WALLACE:  Yeah, about 9 years.

TP:    That was about your fourth recording for Enja, so by this time…

WALLACE:  Rocket to stardom, as Lenny Bruce used to say.

TP:    But in some ways your position changes.  Whether it’s a rocket to stardom or a slow boat to China, you still become a fact in the world of jazz with records under your belt.

WALLACE:  I was really lucky.  In the late ’70s I got hooked up with Enja Records, and basically without any kind of contract or anything I was making a record every year, and they were helping me get work in Europe, and so I was touring over there.  It was some great opportunities.  I made a record with Tommy Flanagan the year before I made this one.  My feeling was, well, if I don’t have the opportunity to be in those great bands of the past as a sideman, I’ll create sideman things of my own.  So I chose to make a record with Tommy and then this record of Monk tunes, because I was always really into Monk.  It was wonderful, because Enja didn’t give me any kind of economic restrictions.  I mean, they did in terms of how much money I could spend making a record.  But it wasn’t about selling so many units, as they say today, and it wasn’t about how many records you sell and where you are on the charts or anything like that.  That was really lucky.  Because all we were thinking about was trying to make the best records we could make.

TP:    You worked with some of the most eminent lights in jazz… [ETC.] Were these part of the circle of musicians in your New York experience?

WALLACE:  I’d never met Tommy before I recorded with him.  He came to a rehearsal. I’d been down and sat in with Elvin once, so I kind of knew Elvin a little bit.  And I knew Dave because we were neighbors and we used to shed together.  And Eddie Gomez and I were good friends and played together a lot.  Chick Corea heard us playing in Paris and said, “Let’s do something sometime,” so I took him up on it and asked him to play on that record.  But I knew some of the people…

TP:    In talking to Bennie Wallace about the music for this program, Coleman Hawkins seemed to be the top.

WALLACE:  Yes.  I’ve always loved Coleman Hawkins, and the more I hear him, the more I appreciate him.  I’m stumbling over my words.  He’s known for certain things that he’s incredible at, and then there’s other things that are just… The more I get into his playing, the more subtleties I find.  But the tune I asked you to play here is a recording of “Sophisticated Lady” from 1949, which I think rivals his “Body and Soul.”  I just think it’s stunning.  I remember transcribing it, like writing it out and taking it apart and seeing how it was put together.  It’s a stunning work.  And that tone is just unbelievable!

TP:    Is Coleman Hawkins someone you can describe in three-four words to someone who doesn’t know who he is?

WALLACE:  I don’t think so.  I heard an announcer say one time that he invented the tenor saxophone.  That doesn’t do justice to what he did.  Like, 1929, he kind of defined the ballad style for me on the saxophone; he kind of invented that.  I remember once Sonny Rollins mentioned admiring Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic sophistication.  I didn’t get that for a while, and then when I got farther into Coleman Hawkins I knew what Sonny was talking about.  It’s incredibly harmonically sophisticated and refined.  I mean, Coleman Hawkins was a big opera fan.  I knew a guy who worked at Sam Goody’s, and Coleman Hawkins was one of his customers, and he said to Coleman Hawkins one day, “Why don’t you look at our jazz records?” and he said, “Oh, I make those.”  But he was always checking out the opera records.  The band that he had with Tommy Flanagan with Major Holley and Eddie Locke to me is one of the all-time classic jazz quartets.  It doesn’t get nearly the recognition and appreciation that some other bands at the time did, but that was one helluva band.

[Coleman Hawkins, “Sophisticated Lady,” “Strange Music,” “Buh-de-Dah”; BW, “The Man I Love,” Ellington-Hodges, “Prelude To A Kiss,” “Jack The Bear”]

TP:    The ’80s was a real heyday for piano emporia…

WALLACE:  Yes, the ’70s and early ’80s.  After I made the record with Tommy I got to know him, and I used to go down to Bradley’s and listen to Tommy, and Red Mitchell would come over from Sweden and play for a few weeks, and I remember he’d always play two weeks with Tommy, two weeks with Hank Jones, and two-week shots with Albert Dailey.  Man, you could just go in there and get incredible music lessons every night.  In those days you could walk in Bradley’s for free and buy a drink, and it was usually so crowded you didn’t have to buy a drink because nobody would notice you.  It was just a great scene.  In fact, Tommy and Diana introduced me to Jimmy Rowles down there, though I didn’t get to know Jimmy well until I moved to California.  But that was an amazing time.

TP:    Let’s talk about the arc of your career during the 1980’s.  It took some strange twists and left turns.  You signed a contract with Blue Note in the mid-’80s.

WALLACE:   At that time I had a manager, Christine Martin, who had a hookup with Blue Note records, and they basically gave me a deal, but they wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South.  Which turned out to be a nice idea, because it gave me a chance to go back and do some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid, and do them in the way you would kind of fantasize about doing them.  That’s when I met Mac Rebennack, or Dr. John, and he became a really great friend and associate.  It gave me good exposure, because I got to go to Japan and I got to play more in the States than I’d played before, and I played at the Town Hall and Blue Note Nights and things like that.  Also, I did two records for Denon.  Christine made this happen.  She did a deal with Denon where they were going to have musicians produce albums.  So Christine called one day and said, “Make a couple of suggestions,”  so I said, “Okay, a Lockjaw Davis record and Teddy Wilson with a singer.”  So they came back and said yes to both of them.  Unfortunately, neither one got made.  I talked to Jaws and he was into it, and we had a couple of nice phone conversations about it, but that was right toward the end when he was really ill, and he didn’t get to do it.  Then subsequently I think Teddy Wilson died shortly after that, too.  But I did make a couple of records for Denon, who were very nice people.

So that was a time when I got into some diverse directions.  It’s also the first time I really got a dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun.  I remember in the ’70s Ray Anderson and I used to have a running joke with each other, we hoped that some day we would become exploited.  And it basically ain’t all it’s cracked up to be! [LAUGHS] That’s when my career became about how many records you sell.  You’re really getting into the commercial world, whether they want to admit it or not.  It becomes about that instead of about music, unfortunately.  I started getting in with some of the agents and people like that who you always hear all these horror stories about.  They’re true!  In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got this call from some guy in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in a movie and wanted me to write something for his movie.  Like, all of a sudden I’m writing movie music, again by just a total accident.

TP:    You did music for Bull Durham.

WALLACE:  That one was Bull Durham, then I did Blaze and White Men Can’t Jump, and then some smaller films.  I did a short that Jeff Goldblum directed, and the music was kind of a tribute to Thelonious Monk, which was fun.  I did another short that was an animated piece with a jazz score.  Both scores were Oscar-nominated; they didn’t make any money, but they got a little bit of attention that way.  I did quite a number of different things.

TP:    You have a number of original compositions on those Enja records, but in that period I think of you as an improviser, a spontaneous composer on the instrument.  But you’re working in sparse groups, they’re very open-ended.  Was composing always part of your interests/

WALLACE:  I always liked the idea.  And in the early days I used to write a lot of tunes based on standard forms to give me a different perspective about learning more about those tunes.  I used to do that kind of to educate myself.  Then when I was with Enja, they always wanted me to write original music because they had publishing.  And I made a little money off the publishing, too.  But they always encouraged me to write a lot of originals, which stimulated me to do it.  Composing is a lot of fun, because it’s different from playing… It’s not as much fun as playing, but it’s a neat experience to see something formulate in your mind and take a shape and then kind of get edited down to what you’re really getting at.  I like that.  But I never trained myself to write for movies, or never really… I always wanted to play music for movies, but I always was thinking more the way Sonny Rollins did it on Alfie or the way Miles Davis did it on a few of those films he was in, where it’s more about playing and not so much about orchestrating.  It’s ironic that after several years of being out there doing that, and writing for orchestras and kind of learning the craft, I came back here to get away from it all three years ago, and then accidentally came into this TV series, where it really is about playing and watching the picture go by, and really playing jazz as a score.  That’s The Hoop Life.  I kind of got off into that because it’s a full circle thing that happened.

TP:    When did you move to L.A.?

WALLACE:  About 1990.  Came back in 1996.
[MUSIC:  Flanagan, “Bird Song”; BW/TF, “Beyond The Bluebird”]

TP:    Solo piano by Jimmy Rowles, who was a fixture at various NYC piano emporia when he was here…

WALLACE:  He was a fixture wherever he was! [LAUGHS] I met him here, but I didn’t really know him.  It was just an introduction at Bradley’s late one night.  But I met him for real when I was in L.A.  Because I really felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles.  I was very self-conscious that I was just going to stagnate.  So I called Jimmy one day out of the blue, just out of the phone book, and said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player, not a piano player, but I’d like to study piano with you to learn your harmonic concept and the way you approach tunes.”  So he said, “Come on over,” and he showed me this outrageous stuff.  I went with a list of tunes, and Jimmy talked about “Body and Soul” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” which are the two tunes I thought I knew as well as I can know a tune, and he just like educated me.  Then after that we became really great friends, and any time I got a movie date I’d figure out some way to get him on it.  Not that he wasn’t a tremendous asset, but just any excuse to be there working with him, and hearing him play and hearing him sing.  He and I are both tennis fans, so we had a telephone friendship almost daily.  Like, he would talk about music or tennis.  He was one of those rare human beings.  I loved him dearly, and I was very fortunate to be able to hang out with him and learn from him.  When I knew Jimmy, he was pretty much restricted from his emphysema, so he wasn’t working much.  I used to pick his brain all the time, and it was a chance to talk to a master almost on a daily basis and just pick a tune and start… You’d call him up and ask about a tune, and he wouldn’t just tell the changes, like anybody else.  He would talk about, “Well, bar 3 the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.”  This guy had a memory that was just phenomenal to go along with that encyclopedic knowledge of tunes that he had.

[MUSIC: Rowles, “Body and Soul”; Hank Jones, “Satin Doll”; Ella Fitzgerald, “Midnight Sun”]

TP:    We discussed the second segment of Bennie Wallace’s career scoring films [1989 it started].

WALLACE:  This thing you’ve got up now is written for string quartet, and it’s not jazz at all.  It was written for a cartoon called “The Indescribable Nth.”  This was done by a fellow named Steve Moore in Los Angeles who I met when I was out there, and we met on a film and became friends and have done several projects together.  We recorded it in Brooklyn by a wonderful string quartet in New York.  It’s Todd Reynolds on violin; Victor Schultz, second violin; Ralph Ferris, viola; and Dorothy Lawson, cello.  I met them in September when I hired them for this date on a recommendation, and since then we’ve done a couple of other things together.  We did a segment of The Hoop Life with them.
TP:    Is there a narrative component?

WALLACE:  It’s really a children’s cartoon.  It’s a story about a guy who sells snow domes, and he has a little boy, and it’s about the little boy and getting his heart broken and all that.  What I like about the story and everything is it’s almost like the kind of thing that we would have seen when we were kids.  It has a timeless quality to it.  These are a few of the cues.

[MUSIC: BW, String Quartet, “The Indescribable Nth”, BW/Dr. John, “St. Expedito”]

WALLACE:  I think Hoop Life was like a who’s-who of New York musicians.  The piano players were Mulgrew, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock (I know I’m leaving somebody else out).  The bass players were either Eddie Gomez or George Mraz or Mark Helias or Peter Washington, Rodney Whitaker did one.  Herlin Riley did a couple of them, and Alvin Queen.  A lot of my great friends.  Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibes player, played a couple, and Brian Carrott is another really great vibes player.  I met a lot of guys I didn’t know doing this.  It was a lot of fun.

TP:    How would it differ from a normal score you’d do?

WALLACE:  They’d differ from week to week.  One week we had a string quartet with a couple of jazz musicians, but quite often it would be a group like you just heard, and we would literally be watching the picture and playing.  My job was to outline the thematic material and time the scenes and set the tempo and where events are going to happen in the picture.  In cases like that, people would just play.  Then there were other things that were through-composed, and there was very little improvising.  I enjoyed this job as much as any film work I ever did.

TP:    Is it the first time you were able to do that?

WALLACE:  With that kind of freedom, yes.

TP:    You said this was your aspiration when you started scoring films.

WALLACE:  Well, long before I scored films, I always wanted to PLAY with the film, play jazz and react to the picture.  This is the first time I’ve ever really had an opportunity to do that.  A little bit out there, but never with such consistently great musicians.  It was also quite a treat to hear really wonderful jazz musicians come in and react to a picture.  Some of them I think were doing it for the first time.  I can’t think of one experience that was anything less than really a lot of fun.

TP:    Why is this the type of show that’s amenable to an improvised, as it were, score?

WALLACE:  Well, it’s a show about a professional basketball team.  But the reason it’s amenable is that the producer, Joe Cicachi, has a real creative head, and is… When he called me up he said, “I want some real cutting-edge kind of stuff.”  He knew my records probably more than my film work.  Well, I don’t know; he’d have to say that.  Quite often in film work you’ve got to cater to tastes for people who aren’t very sensitive to music at all, and quite often they’re just paranoid about whether or not their film is going to make any money.  But this guy was really very creative to work with, and let us loose.

TP:    How does the music get edited within the final cut?

WALLACE:  Oh, they never change the music.  What we do goes to the picture because it’s composed or played to the picture and for the picture.  I don’t recall them ever taking anything out.  For a few weeks we were having trouble because the people in Los Angeles who were mixing the show down at the network were dialing the music way down, and we had this great editor up in Toronto, where the show is done, and he just kept pumping the music louder and louder, and finally they gave up.  So finally, after episode 5, you could hear everything okay.

TP:    How has the film writing and the music affected your relationship to the instrument?

WALLACE:  The unfortunate thing is that when I’m really in the act of doing it, it takes me away from my horn.  The real frustrating thing about something like this is I would have all these wonderful players in the studio, and then I’d be blowing the dust off my horn and trying to remember how to finger it as we started recording, rather than being in shape as I’d like to be.  But on the other hand, again it’s taken me to some areas of music that I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise and taught me some things I wouldn’t have learned.  When we were talking earlier in the show about some of the 20th century music I’ve listened… It made me listen a lot more to Ravel and Stravinsky, and I’ve been listening a lot to Olivier Messaien, and learning different kinds of coloristic techniques, and then those start finding their way onto my horn.  So I like that.

[MUSIC: “It Ain’t Necessarily So”]

[-30-]

* * *

Bennie Wallace (3-3-00):

TP:    Are you from a musical family?

WALLACE:  No.  I had a great-uncle who was a fiddler, but that was it.  When I was 12 years old, they came in and said if you take up a musical instrument you get out of school for an hour a day, and so I went.  I wanted a trombone, but my arms were too short, so they gave me a clarinet, and that evolved into the saxophone.  I was just playing for fun.

TP:    But you took to it.  You had a sort of innate musicality, I guess.

WALLACE:  Yeah, I took to it.  But about a year or two later, Chet Hedgecoth, this incredible musician, became our teacher, and he really built a fire under everybody.  He came in with Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie records, and John Coltrane records and stuff like that, which is stuff we had never even dreamed of, and just introduced us all to a whole new world.  It was funny, because we were out there in this real kind of reactionary community, and all of a sudden there’s this pocket of young kids who are just like fanatic jazz fans!  I remember we were listening to Charles Mingus…

TP:    Chattanooga, 1962.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  And we were right there in the middle of it!

TP:    What kind of town is Chattanooga?

WALLACE:  As one of the locals once told me, “the only thing you can do in Chattanooga is work.”  There is a pocket of some of the wealthiest people in the country down there, and they kept Chattanooga for their own little private place.  It could have been Atlanta.  It was the first choice to be the big city in the South, and these rich people just totally vetoed it because they didn’t want it growing up and getting out of their control.  So the middle class and the lower class there just… There was really very little to do.  I remember when I was playing in those after-hours joints, the legal clubs could only sell beer, and they had to close at 11 at night — and we started playing at 11 at night.

TP:    Were you a middle-class family?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  My Dad worked for the phone company.  We were just a typical middle-class family.

TP:    Were you a rebellious kid?

WALLACE:  Of course.

TP:    I just want to talk about this whole after-hours thing.

WALLACE:  Well, I just totally lied to them.  It was funny, because I used to tell my mother…

TP:    What was the name the place you played?

WALLACE:  There was two of them.  One was called the Am-Vets Club, and it wasn’t an Am-Vets Club, but it had that name.  Then there was another one called the Malibu Club.  For a brief time I worked at a third place called the Stardust Lounge.  That was the only one that was rough.  That was kind of where you could go for jazz and heroin.  But the other two places were basically like older…you know, a middle-aged crowd of people who… One of the regulars there was a guy who went to high school with Jimmy Blanton. [who’d get drunk and tell him every time.] Actually, when I look back on it, it was more sophisticated than the crowds in any of the White joints down there, even the very wealthy country clubs.  And it was totally safe.  The only problem… Sometimes White people would come down there and make trouble because we were integrating.  But as far as the clientele, it was as harmless as you could imagine in a nightclub.

TP:    Was the clientele all Black?

WALLACE:  Yes.

TP:    So White people didn’t patronize the club.  It was just your group of kids from the White school would go down…

WALLACE:  Well, see, what happened is a group of us kids went down one time.  Well, I think I was about 14, and we went in just to see the place.  The owner saw how young we looked and he was kind of humoring us.  But after that, my teacher started taking me down there, and I would jam with the musicians.  There was like an underground circuit of jazz musicians who would travel around the country, but not the big-name clubs, but little small clubs.  So that was going on, and so my teacher would take me down there to jam with musicians who would come in — really good Bebop players.  Remember a guy named Fred Jackson?  I played with him when I was in high school when he was down there.  I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people, because here’s this White kid who looked like he’s 12 up there playing with everybody.  Anyway, the owner kind of took me under his wing and started giving me work.  And by the time I was out of high school, I had a summer down there that I was the bandleader.

TP:    Was it a Black band?

WALLACE:  Mostly.  Actually it was funny, because the first night we played down there it was an all-White band, guys I’d played in school with.  Then it wound up being that the guitar player was White and the bass player and the drummer were Black, so two and two.  And we had singers came in, and… There was a great singer down there who sang kind of like Joe Williams style.  Actually that summer, Lou Rawls had that big hit on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and so we played “Shadow of Your Smile” all summer.  But that was a great experience.  Then when I was in college in Knoxville, we had the same kind of thing, because we had after-hours joints up there that weren’t so safe.  Some of the joints were totally cool and some of them weren’t cool.  But they let us play whatever we wanted to play.

TP:    Did you have to keep the shuffle rhythm, or whatever you wanted to play?

WALLACE:  No, we would play everything.  Our version of commercial music at that time was Cannonball Adderley tunes, “Work Song” or “Sack of Woe,” or Horace Silver tunes… That was as commercial as it got.  But we were playing Bebop tunes, and…

TP:    You were a tenor player from the getgo as far as being a performer.

WALLACE:  yes.

TP:    But there’s a dual track for you which runs through your life, where you’re dealing with reading and…

WALLACE:  I’ve tried to eliminate that other stuff, but it always keeps coming back up on me.  I was only studying the clarinet and classical music in school, because they didn’t teach jazz down there then, and only performing on the saxophone.  Basically, I was in school to stay out of the Vietnam War, otherwise I would have been gone…

TP:    But you were state high school champion, a good sight-reader.

WALLACE:  I was a very good sight-reader.

TP:    I know you’re downplaying this stuff, but it sounds like you had a pretty immaculate technical training.

WALLACE:  Oh, the best.  I had a wonderful clarinet teacher, actually two wonderful clarinet teachers.  And I was very serious about it at the time.  When I was in high school I was really into both of them, because I had such wonderful teachers who were such great role models on both instruments.  So I was torn about it.  But when I got to college, I think… Being able to play jazz in college was frustrating, and that’s where my energy went.  The classical music was right there in front of me, and I started getting bored with it.  Had it been better classical music, I might not have gotten bored with it.  But jazz just becoming more and more important.  It was always inevitable, though.

TP:    Was it a different sides of your personality type thing?  I know you listened to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but it sounds like you started off as pretty much a gutbucket tenor player, or is that not true?

WALLACE:  Well, I think it’s somewhere in the middle.  Like I told you the other day, when I heard Sonny Rollins, that’s the first time I experienced Art, like really got into something that really touched me.  The first time I heard Coltrane, it was the same kind of thing, but it wasn’t quite as deep for me.  It’s like there was something about that Sonny Rollins solo that was something more than just the notes.  Not to say that Coltrane wasn’t.  But I mean, the first Coltrane I heard was “Giant Steps,” and when I hear it to this day… I was watching TV the other day, and they were interviewing Cornell West, and at the end he played “Spiral” from that album.  I hadn’t heard it in years, and it took me back to my childhood.  So it was a very strong impression.  But there was something about the Sonny Rollins solo that was the notes and the pitches and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that was something that you couldn’t put on paper.  That really got me.  It was an F-major blues, and they called “Sumphin'”.  That’s just an incredibly classic performance.  I mean, to this day that’s the best blues tenor solo I ever heard in my life.  And Dizzy plays great, Ray Bryant plays great on it.  It’s a magical performance.  Then there’s a fast blues right before that called “Wheatleigh Hall,” and I also really liked that one.  I’ve rarely ever listened to the other side of the record.  I’ve still got the jacket around here somewhere.  I stole my teacher’s copy of it when I was in high school.  He never gave us records; he always left the around for us to steal them.

TP:    What was he like?

WALLACE:  He was a wonderful jazz drummer.  His favorite… Well, he actually went back in the history of the music a bit.  He was into Davey Tough and Don Lamond, but he was mostly into Philly Joe Jones, and he also was a big fan of the Count Basie band with Sonny Payne.  And Max Roach.  He was really into the down-the-middle great players.

TP:    He swung.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah!

TP:    so when you were learning, you had a good swinging drummer behind you.

WALLACE:  Well, he didn’t play with us so much, but he really taught actually three really wonderful drummers just at our high school, then he taught a couple of others who went to other schools.  Then one time I’ll never forget, he brought a bass player, one of his buddies that he grew up with, and we were playing our F-blues with the band, and I’ll never forget the first time I played with a great bass player.  Who was actually… Did you ever hear of Edgar Meyer?  It was Edgar Meyer’s father, Ed Meyer.  Her came and played with us one day, and boy, what a thrill that was.  And he could walk!

TP:    What lie did you tell your parents to get to…

WALLACE:  I told them I was playing in a hillbilly club.  And the hillbilly club I told them I was playing in was a really rough joint, but they didn’t know it.  Then inevitably at some point, somebody at my Dad’s job went to that club and I wasn’t there, and… [LAUGHS]

TP:    Did you graduate from U-Tennessee?

WALLACE:  Yeah, in 1968. [degree in music]

TP:    But by then you knew you were going to go on and be a professional.  But there’s a practical side to you.  One half of you is this sort of go-for-broke wild guy and another part that seems very pragmatic.

WALLACE:  Well, that didn’t come into play until I got married.

TP:    But you graduated.

WALLACE:  I graduated because of the Vietnam War.

TP:    Maybe that made you pragmatic.

WALLACE:  That made my whole generation pragmatic.  It not only made us pragmatic, it made us innovative.  Everybody had to figure out their own way to get out of the Army, and everybody had to come up with something different, because those guys get onto it if everybody comes in with the same affliction.

TP:    The impression I got was that you spent a couple of years as a wandering musician.  You didn’t go right to New York.

WALLACE:  Right out of college, I got a job playing in a big band in Chicago.  It wasn’t a jazz band, it was like a pops orchestra.  It was a job that I was totally ill-suited for.  I was playing lead alto and flute and piccolo and alto flute and clarinet and all this stuff.  I did that off and on for the first year, and then I went to Boston and took some private saxophone lessons from Joe Viola there.  I wasn’t in school.  And I was working with a composer friend of mine who played piano there.  Then I went to San Francisco for three or four months, and then a friend introduced me to Gary Burton.  This was an older friend who was kind of worried about me because I was so crazy and seemingly without direction.  So he played Gary some of my music and introduced me to Gary, and Gary said, “Well, the way you play, you should move to New York.  You don’t belong anywhere else.”  Actually, Gary was quite nice to me.  So he made sure that I knew some people to play with.  And my friend gave me $275 to go to New York, and I did — and I’m still here!

TP:    So you got here in ’72.

WALLACE:  Yes.  That’s when I just accidentally met Monty Alexander and got that gig.

TP:    I have that story, and the story of being scared to play with Wilbur Ware, Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.

WALLACE:  I was scared to, because I figured, “I’m not ready to play with those guys.”  And like I said the other night, in retrospect, how much more easy could it be than THAT?  And those kind of guys were always so encouraging to young musicians.  That’s one thing I’ve been very lucky with through my whole career, is great musicians have always given me a chance and been encouraging.  I think it’s because great musicians, that’s just part of their nature, to hear what’s good about your playing, and I think near-great players or not-quite-great players, their inclination is to find what’s wrong with you.  I think that’s been pretty consistent through all my life.  Some of the most intimidating people in the business… I mean, Charles Mingus heard a tape of me playing and invited down to play with him, just without meeting me or anything.  That’s when Ricky Ford was in the band, and Jack Walrath, and Dannie and Walter Norris.  Practically all the really-truly great musicians I’ve met have been like that.  Great musicians have no time for jive, no time for guys who don’t do their homework and don’t play.  But I’ve always found them to be very encouraging.

TP:    One other thing that seems to mark you is, no matter how crazy you were, it always seems linked up with work.  The work ethic seems to be part of your thing from the very beginning.

WALLACE:  It was.  Literally from the very beginning.  I remember when I was in high school I’d get up at 6 in the morning to practice an hour before my parents got up.  I always practiced, even at the height of the ’60s. [LAUGHS] That’s always been there.  It’s a part of my life.  At the beginning I think it’s a discipline that great teachers instill in you, but then after a while it becomes a way of life.  I don’t time the number of hours I practice a day or anything, but when I’m conscious I’m thinking about music and I’m attracted to it, and I’m either playing my saxophone or playing the saxophone or listening to music.  It becomes a way of life.

TP:    Let me ask you a bit about the Rollins-Coltrane polarity.  I know you have other influences.  But in your generation, most people, even if they loved Sonny Rollins, were going in the Coltrane direction.  When I’m talking about your generation, who was in New York in ’72, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman…

WALLACE:  Those guys are my age.  But…

TP:    You sounded so different.  You just sounded very fresh.

WALLACE:  When I was a kid, like I told you, Lockjaw Davis was a big influence on me, and still is.  And all the guys who played with Count Basie.  Budd Johnson was a big influence on me.  I  don’t know if I told you, but I actually got to play with Budd before he died.  Frank Foster, Frank Wess, all those guys who played there… I listened to everything on all those Count Basie records.  And when you’re a kid, there’s a certain thing of what’s in fashion, and to us that was in fashion.

TP:    But to most people your age, that’s what was out of fashion.

WALLACE:  But see, I’m talking about 1960 in Chattanooga.  At that point we didn’t know about the band with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.  To us the Miles Davis band was Coltrane and Red Garland, and we’d heard that it had broken up, but… And we were very much into Count Basie and Woody Herman’s band, Sal Nistico… I listened to Sal a lot, and actually met him in those days when he came through town.  The point I was getting at is it was right after that, when I went to college, that I discovered Prez and Bird.  My teachers in high school kind of started introducing me to Charlie Parker’s movie, which I liked, but there was something that was a real hero-mentor thing about Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and also Jaws… There was something about it being the tenor.  But then in college I got into Prez and all the Prez kind of players.  I remember my teacher was a huge Stan Getz fan, and I listened to Stan Getz a lot when I was in college.

TP:    He told you to go to Sonny Rollins for playing the blues, but he sounds like a duck, go to Stan Getz for tone…

WALLACE:  That was my high school teacher.  I’m talking about my saxophone teacher, who to his death tried to play like Stan Getz.  But that was just kind of a detour for me, because I was really into these other players.

But to get back to what you’re saying about when I came to New York: In my way, I was just as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but I wasn’t into imitating him.  The thing that I always imitated about Coltrane was his diligence to making his playing better and better, his dedication to the instrument, and also the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else.  That was the message of Coltrane to me.

TP:    So the idea with you was the ethos you find with a lot of Black musicians in the ’40s and ’50s and before — finding your own sound.

WALLACE:  Exactly.  To me, the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics.  And maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but for me, that’s the way I feel as an artist.  To me, Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation.  The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.

TP:    Another thing, you seem more comfortable navigating racial tensions than a lot of your white peer group in terms of the musicians you were able to play with.  Just talking about hooking up with Monty Alexander and fitting right into that band… Do you attribute that in some way to being from the South…

WALLACE:  Well, I grew up playing with Black musicians, playing in Black clubs.  But in those days… You’ve got to remember, things were politically a lot different.  In those days, when I was a kid, crossing racial barriers was making a very strong and sometimes dangerous political statement.  Between the black and white musicians — and not only the musicians, but the people in the clubs — there was a real sense of fraternity.  Which I think goes all the way back through the history of jazz, when you look at it, up until the more recent times when the politics has gotten really, I think, stupid.  But in the days I was growing up, the sociological message with jazz was that all that separation was such bullshit.  Read anything about the history of jazz, and it’s about brotherhood and it’s about the human experience.  That’s the overbearing social evil that’s always stood in the way of jazz, and that jazz has always stood up to.  Look at Norman Granz.  And the great… This whole thing about…

TP:    That accepted, but I’m trying to get to something about your aesthetic.  Which seems to me very fundamentally different than your peer group at that time.  I think a lot of those guys were so obsessed with Coltrane, it was hard for them to get their individuality at an early age.

WALLACE:  Well, the same thing happened the generation before that of alto players who were obsessed with Bird.  But those guys seemed to find more of their own personality.  To me, Frank Strozier sounds nothing like Bird, Cannonball doesn’t sound like Bird to me — although they are heavily influenced by Bird.  I think the thing is that Coltrane’s playing was so technical that by the time those guys figured it out, they had lost the chance to find themselves.  And that’s very sad.  Except I think another thing about our whole generation is that I think there’s the potential for guys to find themselves later in life.  In the business, Jazz is a young man’s business, but as an art it’s not as much a young man’s art as it was in the earlier days, because in the earlier days the actual elements of the music were a lot more basic and there was more of an open, fertile field for new things.  Now I think the music has evolved to where there’s so much history and so many demands, I think there’s the potential for people finding themselves when they get older.   I hope!

TP:    I think that’s really a rule of thumb.  People in this generation start to sound good when they’re 40.

WALLACE:  I was playing with Ray Anderson — who I’ve known for thirty years and always loved his playing — on the television show a few weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard him for a few years.  Ray just keeps getting better and better and better.  That’s the other thing that I really loved about doing that TV show, is I got up close to a lot of my favorite musicians and got updated with them, and everybody is just getting better and better.  Look at Mulgrew.  Mulgrew’s growing by leaps and bounds, and    I think he’s really going to be the next great master piano player.

TP:    The other thing about the ’70s is the Avant Garde, free jazz, the AACM oriented thing where people were blending contemporary classical music and jazz.  You made a comment that when you got to New York, you were playing about as wild as you ever did, then listening to Ed Beach’s shows and hearing the absolute classic, purest examples of consonant jazz affected you in a profound way.

WALLACE:  Yeah, it really sobered me up and made me realize where I was coming from, and that I didn’t have enough of the foundation of that.  Since then it’s been a matter of trying to refine both polarities of… Like, the sound of my music that I really feel and hear is jazz.  It’s like that tradition.  But a lot of the notes that I play to get to that are out of the tradition of European composed music, 20th Century music.  And to varying degrees, that can be said of all the great jazz musicians.  There’s connections of Duke Ellington to European music, obviously.  Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker.  Coltrane’s got it all over his playing.

TP:    Mingus had it, too.

WALLACE:  Right.  In a sense, that’s one thing that distinguishes jazz players from blues players.  Cornell West was talking about Jazz coming out of the Blues.  Well, some Jazz does come out of the Blues, but Coleman Hawkins doesn’t come out of the Blues.  There’s a lot of great jazz that comes out of that renaissance of music that was happening in the first half of the century.  Anyway, my music  kind of comes from all those things.  As I get older… My perception of music, and I think most artists’ perception of music is constantly in a state of change.  I think a guy like Teddy Wilson who stayed the same for all of his career is really an exception. That’s not a criticism, because I love Teddy Wilson.  But I just keep hearing it in a different perspective.  The Classical elements and the Jazz elements and the Blues elements, all those things, seem to constantly have a shifting degree of importance to me.  But most of those sides have always been there, and I keep trying to learn more about those.

TP:    What are some of your extra-musical interests in the ’70s?  Were you a reader?  A film goer?

WALLACE:  No, I was more of a reader.  I think I read just about all of the Faulkner novels, which is mostly because he was so great, but partly because I’m from the South, and living out of the South, you see that experience from a different point of view.  I remember reading Celine’s novels… Mose Allison turned me on to Celine.  I read a lot of different stuff.  I’ve always been very fond of the poet John Berryman.  And I always like reading about writers.  I used to get those “Paris Review” where they’d interview writers about their work habits.  I’ve always been very interested in how artists in all fields approach their craft.

TP:    Are you very analytical about your playing?

WALLACE:  When I’m practicing I really take it apart.  I have trouble listening to myself, like, after I’ve done something.  I fight it.  I’ve got a bunch of tapes and CDs and stuff of things that I’ve done that I’ve never listened to.

TP:    What’s your favorite record you’ve done?  Always the last one?

WALLACE:  [LAUGHS] It seems I’m stealing Duke’s cliche.  But these last two I’m very happy with.

TP:    I’d like you to analyze yourself, how you’d say your playing has changed from when you were first recording?  Then you had a sort of torrential style.  Stuff was kind of pouring out of you.  Now it’s become almost classic in form, you take a few choruses, say what you have to say, almost like a short story.  That was just one set; it might have been totally different in another.

WALLACE:  Well, I hope it would.  In fact, the night before you were there we played three sets, and I really liked that night, and the thing I liked about it was each set was totally different.  That’s the thing… I won’t say I try to do it, but when I’m happiest with my playing is when each set or each night has a totally different feel to it, and that it’s as musical and spontaneous as possible.  That’s really what I try to get at.

As far as how it’s changed over the years, I think my playing has mellowed out a bit over the years… I’m really not the right person to ask that, because I don’t analyze myself.  I don’t go back and listen to those old records.

TP:    I just wanted an impressionistic answer.  “Mellowed out” is fine.  You also were saying in the interview that you were interested in composing, but you started doing it for publishing purposes.

WALLACE:  Well, I actually started writing a bit in college…

TP:    You had a friend, Doug Davis, who introduced you to 20th Century theory…

WALLACE:  Right.  And he taught me a different way of writing tunes.  Then before I met Enja Records… That first record for Enja I produced myself and sold to them.  I think there were five originals on there, and those are all tunes I just wrote because I wanted to write them.  It wasn’t because of any pressure or any ulterior motive or anything.  Then when Matthias Wincklemann heard them and we started talking about subsequent albums, he said, “Look, you’ve got to write a lot of originals, because that’s where you’ll make your money.”  Also I like the idea of writing.  It’s a different challenge.  It’s a pressure when I’ve got a record date and I need to come up with them.  But at this point in my career, I only write tunes when I feel the inspiration, or as an outgrowth of a film project I get an idea.  Now I think I can say with complete integrity that I only write… I mean, I always wrote tunes from my heart, but right now I only do it when inspiration just hits me.  I really love playing standard tunes, and I have reasons for liking to play standard tunes, and there are so many of them that I want to record and play that I never can get to.  For that reason, I have no ambition to write any more, though writing just kind of seems to happen.

TP:    I’m always trying to find some sort of metaphor for the abstraction of music in some way.  As someone who’s involved in writing a lot of programmatic music, I wonder if you see the process of taking a solo or a composition as a narrative unto itself.

WALLACE:  I think I can explain that from my point of view real simply.  When I practice and when I compose, it’s a very self-conscious process, and it’s really… Particularly when I practice.  It’s like if you were doing something consciously to expand your vocabulary, to learn more about the English language to write.  Like, I’m learning more about the musical language to play.  And when I play, I don’t think about anything.  If I’m thinking about something when I’m playing, something is wrong.  And I just let those things… I try to provide the environment to let those things come out as naturally and as unconsciously as possible.  It’s a matter of what inspiration I get from the other musicians I’m playing with, and what happens in that moment.  So in that sense playing is very different from practicing, from any kind of preparation.  When I play a solo, I try to really think about the emotion of the tune that I’m playing if I’m thinking about anything.  All right, let’s try to really get inside of it.  It’s hard to express it verbally.  It’s a communion, is what it is.  It’s a little bit of a lofty term.  It’s a communion with myself, it’s a communion among the musicians, and it’s a communion by the musicians with the audience.  At the expense of being quite pretentious, it’s really like a spiritual or religious experience when it’s right.

TP:    There’s four people or five people in real time from whatever diverse backgrounds, dealing in the same language and saying something within it.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  And saying something together.  Saturday night during the last set, we played this blues I wrote for an earlier album which is called “At Lulu White’s.”  It’s a medium-tempo blues and it’s real simple.  There’s this little phrase in there that kind or reminds of something that Jaws and Johnny Griffin might have played together.  Two bars of melody that’s got my stamp on it, then there’s this answer.  Saturday night, Mulgrew and Peter and Alvin started playing that with me, and something happened.  And with those notes that were written out that were played… It’s not like an improvised experience; it was something about just playing the head.  To me it was the highlight of the weekend.  I don’t know what those guys were doing with that, but they took it to another place.  And that’s what I’m talking about.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    Let’s talk a little more career now.  We went into not that much detail on what you did in the ’70s.  But between gigging with Monty Alexander at the Riverboat and your first Enja record in ’78, talk a bit about the network of friendships and relationships… The first record was with Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore.  How did you meet them, let’s say?

WALLACE:  Okay.  I met Eddie Gomez when I was playing with Jay Clayton.  She had a little group with her husband and Larry Karrush(?); it was a trio, and they would have guest artists for these loft concerts.  Sometimes I was the guest artist and sometimes Eddie was the guest artist, and even one concert he played one half and I played the other half — but they didn’t let us play together.  Then one day we played a concert and we all played together.  And that’s another memory I’ll never forget, is the first note that Eddie Gomez played when I was playing with him.  It was just like “My God!”  Because I’d always heard him with Bill Evans, and didn’t realize he had this other side to his playing.  It was such a big, deep, down-the-middle of the pitch sound.  Eddie and I decided that we wanted to do some things together, and he and Elliott Zigmund and I played a couple of concerts together.

Then my girlfriend at the time, who I was living with, who later became my first wife, she was a painter, and a really brilliant artist… But anyway, I was always listening to Sonny Rollins, and she didn’t like Sonny Rollins.  She just hadn’t got it yet.  Because she was usually very astute about musicians.  One night Sonny was playing at the Gate, and I was playing with Eddie Gomez I think at Rashied Ali’s place, and I said, “You go hear Sonny Rollins and see what you think.”  I said, “I think you’ll get it.”  She went and she heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “If you get a chance to go backstage, tell him I said hello, say hello for me, tell him I’m sorry I didn’t come tonight,” or something like that.  So she came back home and her eyes were just lit up, and she says, “First of all, he’s incredible.  Now I get it.  I was totally wrong.”  And she says, “But there’s something else.  I found you a drummer.”  And she had met Eddie Moore.  Now, I had never heard of Eddie Moore.  So she hooked me up with Eddie.

Then there was a guy named Gus Statiras, who was making these low-budget jazz records, and he heard me playing in Chuck Israels’ band, and Jimmy Maxwell recommended that he record me.  So Gus said, “Put together any band that you want, any rhythm section you want, and  just tell me when you’re ready to record, and we’ll make a record.”  So I called Eddie Gomez and I called Eddie Moore, and we rehearsed a bit, and we played a couple of loft concerts or gallery concert kind of things, and played a couple of gallery concert kind of things, and I called the guy and I said, “I’m ready.”  He says, “Well, the money will be here in two weeks; let’s go on and record.”  I said, “No, when the money gets here, let’s record.  But I don’t want Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore looking for me.”  So this went on for six months, and Glen Moore introduced me to David Baker, and David called Gus Statiras, and called me back and he said, “This isn’t going to happen,” then David put it together and made the first recording happen.  Then he sold it to Enja records.  So I owe David a great bit for getting me started.  Because I had no direction about a career.  I was just trying to naively learn how to play the saxophone.

TP:    Did the record sort of give you a direction?  You started doing about one a year.

WALLACE:  Well, it gave me I guess you’d say not a musical direction, but an opportunity, a palette to create from, and that was really wonderful, because there were absolutely no commercial restraints on it.  I just could make my own agenda.  The second one was “Live At The Public Theater” with Eddie and Danny Richmond.  So the next album that I made which was really a conscious decision was the first album I made with Tommy Flanagan.  I decided that I wanted to create… That’s when I made my first career choice.  I never thought about it until right now.  But I decided that I wanted to create a track record for myself of playing music that really had substance and credentials to it.  And Tommy Flanagan I just admired incredibly, so I wrote a series of original tunes based on very common standard song forms from bebop for that recording.  Then I made a record of Thelonious Monk tunes.  Thelonious Monk was always the guy I really wanted to play with.  I used to go hear him at the Vanguard . He was still living at the time…

TP:    It’s right before he retired, really.

WALLACE:  Right.  I used to hear Monk when he had… It wasn’t T.S.  It might have been Ben Riley, and it was Charlie Rouse playing tenor.  I heard him once with T.S. and Larry Ridley and Paul Jeffreys.

TP:    You said that listening to him kind of got you into your style.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  I used to hear him playing all these angular kind of things which I never really articulated enough or never really analyzed enough to say it’s this or it’s that.  But one day I was playing duets with this bassist Jack Six, who I’ve worked out a lot with, and we had been listening a lot to various 20th Century music.  I was thinking in terms of wider intervals for various reasons, and we were playing “Blue Monk” one day, and I just had this spontaneous idea of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths.  When I did it… I’ve got a tape somewhere of that rehearsal.  It was like, “Wait a minute; this makes the thing sound like something totally different.”  We just worked it out right there on the spot.  It created the illusion that the tone of the saxophone was actually bigger than it was.  I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals a little bit in his solos.  Like, where other guys would play thirds, he might play thirds and fourths or fifths or something, and put a little bit different read on Bird’s language.  So this was kind of like leaping off in that direction, but a lot more radically.

But I think the thing that inspired me to that was the composers I’d been listening to — Elliott Carter, Charles Ives and a woodwind quintet piece that Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote that had a lot of stuff like that in it.  Pierre Boulez wrote a piece called “Plies a lan Plie(?)” that’s got these incredible intervallic things in the soprano, and I used to listen to this recording a lot, and listened to this lady who was singing these incredibly wide intervals but making the m very melodic.  Also, my composer friend Doug Davis wrote with a lot of expanded kind of melodies, and he also did it and does it in a very melodic way, which makes me realize that that can really be lyrical.  To me, to this day, the trick to that is to make it melodic, to make it where it’s not just an academic wide interval but to make it where it makes melodic sense.

TP:    Do you find yourself going in and out of that style?  Does that style ever become any sort of mannerist trap?

WALLACE:  Yeah, it does.  And I’ve…with probably meager results, I try to not let that happen.  It’s kind of become a part of my language, and it can be to its detriment, yes.

TP:    I want to ask you about Bradley’s.  It seems like you’ve drawn a lot of your inspiration from piano players.  It’s like the first part of your life you were drawing it from tenor saxophonists; in the second part, a lot of it has come from pianists.

WALLACE:  Absolutely.

TP:    To that end, it seems Bradley’s was seminal, apart from the hanging.

WALLACE:  Well, I wasn’t really that much in the hanging because I wasn’t that much in the clique.  I was a little bit shy, to be quite honest about it.  But I used to go in there a lot.  The obstacle at Bradley’s was to be able to get close enough to the piano to where you could hear it over the crowd.  Although if somebody like Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones was in there, it got a lot quieter!   But there was this one place at the bar that I would always gravitate toward that was kind of close to the piano.

TP:    Front corner.

WALLACE:  You got it.  And I always used to lie for the times when Red Mitchell would be around.  He would usually come in and he would play, it seems like it was two weeks at a time, with Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey.  Those were my three favorites.  When those guys were playing, that was school.  And another guy who wasn’t a piano player who influenced me listening in those kind of situations — not at Bradley’s but in other joints — was Jim Hall.  Jim was playing a lot of duet gigs with bass players at the time, and I would go listen to him.  He played the tunes so clearly that that’s where I learned a lot of my repertoire, was listening to Jim.  Because the way he played the changes was so tasteful and so clear.  But I learned a lot from those guys.

I remember Albert Dailey would play, and one night he was playing “There Is No Greater Love,” which was one of those tunes everybody played at jam sessions, like “Oh great, here we’re going to play those changes again.”  A digression.  But an interesting thing, everybody played that tune in B-flat, but Sonny Rollins played it in E-flat, which was the same key that Billie Holiday sang it in.  If you listen to Sonny’s recording of it, maybe the only time he recorded it in the studio, and listen to Billie’s recording… I don’t know, but I’ll bet he was listening to it.  But anyway, I heard Albert… Everybody used to play it in jam sessions in the key of B-flat, and it became another one of those cliche tunes.  Then I heard Albert play it, and he did these harmonic substitutions on it.  I remember going out of there, and I was so excited, and got home, got my horn out and played through his changes to it.  Boy, all of a sudden, the tune made sense.  To this day I enjoy playing that tune because of that.  Albert also used to play these incredible cadenzas on the piano.  He was also an incredible rhythm section player.  He used to have a jam session thing in Folk City, and I went in and played with him, and it was this young bass player and drummer who I knew who didn’t have their sense of swing totally together yet, and he had those guys sounding like a major league rhythm section.

TP:    So we’re getting into the mid-’80s, about ’85, and you’re 37 years old or so, and you sign with Blue Note…

WALLACE:  Eddie Gomez introduced me to a manager, Christine Martin, who took me on.  She was hooked up with Blue Note, and she talked them into signing me.

TP:    Why did they want you to do southern themes?  Because you’re from the South?

WALLACE:  Well, record companies, for better or for worse, they need an angle.  And maybe they know what they’re doing.  That’s the subject of a whole interview.  I was working in Hollywood many years later with Bones Howe, who is a wonderful producer, and Bones said, “Let’s make a record together.  You tell me what you want to do, and then I’ll turn it into a concept to tell these people about it so they’ll give us the money to do it.”  He said, “That’s my job, is to make it one of these packages.”  Well, the southern thing is what got me in the door.  Actually, I kind of liked the idea at the time, because I’d been working with some gospel singers from Nashville on my last Enja record, and I was really kind of into that aspect of the roots at that moment.

TP:    Do you come from that type of church background in your family?

WALLACE:  Oh, no.  When I had to go, I went to this white church and the music was dreadful.  That was some pretty gruesome stuff.  But anyway, I found the idea of making a record…of going back and looking at the music that I played when I was a kid and all those… We were talking about the Black after-hours clubs, but I also played at a lot of dances, and I played a few times in roadhouses, and just to look at all of the spectrum of Southern music and then do it from a jazz musician’s point of view was a very attractive thing to me.  I enjoyed that.  Joel Dorn introduced me to Mac Rebennack.  I didn’t know Dr. John’s music at all, but he and I became fast friends, and I learned a lot of that music from him, from his world of music.

TP:    How did that add to your concept?  Did it give you a sense, say, of cutting to the chase and maybe sacrificing complexity for greater emotional impact and meaning?  Did that help you get towards film composing in some way?

WALLACE:  Well, in a very blatant way it did, because a film producer heard that album and basically dragged me into the business.

TP:    But in the pure world of aesthetics.

WALLACE:  In the pure world of aesthetics?  I don’t know if… It’s like if my next album had been an album of standards, the same thing would have probably happened in that world.  I think the real place that album took me was just really looking in more detail at the various aspects of the way that Blues approaches the music.  Because of the music on that record has some relationship to Blues, whether it… I think there’s a couple of Blues on there, but even things that aren’t Blues.  And putting me around musicians who are really great Blues players, like Bernard Purdie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Cranshaw, who I’d never recorded with although I’d played a couple of gigs with him — and particularly Mac.  When you’re playing with those guys, really in a non-verbal way it teaches you a lot about the thing that they’re really great at.  So I think that’s the thing I came away from it with.

TP:    Would you consider yourself a good blues player at that point?  You said Coleman Hawkins wasn’t coming out of the Blues particularly.  But were you coming out of that?

WALLACE:  Boy, somebody could read this and tear me apart for it.  But I think I come out of the Blues more than Coleman Hawkins does.  But as far as calling myself a great Blues player… Sonny Rollins and Lockjaw are great Blues players, Red Prysock is a great Blues player… I think the best way to put it is that my past experiences throughout my life have included quite a bit of Blues playing.  But up until that point that we’re talking about, I’d been doing less of it… When I got long-winded earlier and came down to one word and it was what you wanted… Over the course of these albums I’d been making, I’d been playing a lot of very challenging music.  This gave me the opportunity to play music that wasn’t so challenging as far as being difficult sets of chord changes and forms.  The only two tunes that were difficult on that album were “It’s True What They Say About Dixie” and “Tennessee Waltz,” where I really totally knew complex harmonies through those really mundane tunes.  But everything else is just two chords of the Blues on Twilight Time, but there was nothing really difficult in there.

TP:    What are the challenges of that?

WALLACE:  Of playing those simpler forms?  Is making music out of it.  But I think the thing that’s unique about it is, there’s not that much of a challenge to it.  You just relax and play.

TP:    So within four years, you’re writing the music for Bull Durham, which came out in ’89.

WALLACE:  I think it was ’88 that we did it.

TP:    So it’s a big change in a lot of ways.  Your lifestyle changes, because you get access to more money…

WALLACE:  Actually at that time, I didn’t get access to more money.  We got ripped really good.  It’s not uncommon.  But Mac and I went out and recorded the music that we did for Bull Durham, and we both fortunately just happened to be out that way.  We did it, then I came back home and resumed my career.  But that led to more work, so I wound up doing more movies.

TP:    I’d like to get some sort of precis of your film career, not so much a filmography as your concept of writing for films and how it evolved.

WALLACE:  As you were saying about piano players influencing my music, one of the things that I admire the most about great piano players is that in addition to being great soloists, they are also great accompanists.  Tommy Flanagan is the first name that comes to mind.  But Keith Jarrett is a great accompanist.  Herbie Hancock is a great accompanist.  There’s this thing of being able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it.  I really admire that.  Whenever I would be writing for a film, I would think, “Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?”  If you were going to translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for… Basically, it’s like what fits?  What enhances it?  The term “film composing” is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind.  Like, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing, about writing for orchestras.  Also a big part of film composing is just the technical aspect of making it fit exactly with the picture, and that’s a whole craft which I had to learn.  It’s really about mathematics and numbers and timings.

TP:    Did you learn by yourself, by trial and error?

WALLACE:  Yeah, pretty much.  It was on-the-job training.  There was kind of an old pre-computer way of doing it, with… There’s this old book of numbers that the old-timers used to use, and somebody gave me one of those books, and I just got in there and started… It’s a lot of work, but it’s not higher math or anything.  But you have to translate it from frames-per-second into music, and into something that the musicians you’re working with understand.  One of the things that’s a part of what I have done for films is, sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes I am writing for a string quartet, and sometimes I am writing for musicians who can’t even read music.  And I have to be able to put those technical things in a language that those people can understand so that it fits with the picture.

TP:    I remember one thing you said during the episode 22. You wanted Billy and Steve Kroon and the other percussion player to get a rubato Elvin Jones feel, and you mentioned one particular recording of Elvin’s.  At any rate you used a verbal analogy that was absolutely clear.  It became a lingua franca between you and them.  That’s a fairly unorthodox process in film writing…

WALLACE:  Well, I’m a fairly unorthodox film writer.  I think that’s it right there.  The first real score that I did, where I was writing the whole film score, was Blaze.  I had Dr. John, Leo Nocentelli from the Meters, and one of the Dr. John’s drummers, and I had Elvis Presley’s guitar player, and a fiddler who played with Bill Monroe, and Greg Leisz, who at that time was playing dobro and steel guitar with k.d. Lang.  Most of those people, the bluegrass players particularly, don’t read any music.  I would go out to Byron Beuerlein’s(?) garage and teach these guys the song by rote, and then figure out a way to make it fit the picture, and then figure out a way to tell them how to make it fit the picture.  Another example is when we were doing Hoop Life.  I was bringing in these jazz musicians, and sometimes the music was note-for-note right there on the paper, and sometimes it would just be an emotional direction with some way of communicating how to make it fit the picture.  It’s a lot like being a jazz bandleader, and there the great role model is Duke Ellington.  I try to bring real personal musicians into my scores and find a way to let them express that in relation to the picture, and then I come out looking good.

TP:    I noticed in the things I saw that you use atonal string quartet things for the more psychologically dramatic points, action gets minor trumpet blues… It’s interesting in this period to hear this blues type thing.  You get so inured to hip–hop beats, particularly dealing with something like basketball.  Do different musical situations, idiomatic vernacular conventions have certain resonances for you that have evolved over the years?

WALLACE:  I think so.  You’re talking about the trumpet.  John d’Earth was just an invaluable guy on that.  I’ve known John since he was 19 years old, and he was fabulous then.  John has an incredible dramatic sense in his playing.  See, that’s another thing, is finding musicians who have that talent of being able to understand the relationship with narrative pictures and music.  Again, you were talking about what’s the job about.  It’s about distilling the music into the appropriate emotion — and when you’re writing music for movies or when you’re playing music for the movies.  John is really brilliant at that.  Just about everybody I used was.  I’m proud of the musicians that I chose, but I’m also very proud of how they were able to rise to the occasion.  Because everybody can’t do it.  There’s guys who are great virtuoso jazz musicians who just don’t get that.  It’s just not part of their way of thinking.

TP:    That’s what I was getting at as well when I was asking if you have a sense of the narrative in your playing, in your musical discourse, as it were.

WALLACE:  When I’m playing jazz?  Like I say, I try not…

TP:    So those are two different entities for you.

WALLACE:  No, not really.  Because when you’re preparing, all that stuff is there.  When I’m learning the tunes, I’m learning the words, I’m listening to the way that great people have interpreted it emotionally, and that’s all part of exactly what you’re talking about.  But when I actually do it, I don’t think about that.  It’s the Zoot Sims school of playing.  I try not to think of anything.

TP:    So the narrative is in the form.  It’s almost like you’re a channel for it.

WALLACE:  The narrative is in the preparation.  Like “Someone To Watch Over Me.”  I know what that tune is about.  Before I recorded it and before I played it, I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every recording that I could find and every good one that I could find, and what emotional thing and what narrative thing that tells me about it.  But then when I play it, I just let that come out.  But when I’m writing for movies, it’s… I think the experience of writing for narratives in the movies carries over to when I play without thinking about it.  It has to.  Because when you’re playing music for movies, technique doesn’t mean anything.  The number of chords that you use, like anything that is part of the aesthetic of jazz, is out the window.  It’s all about expressing the emotions.  And that was one of the very fortunate lessons that I learned a lot about when I was out there.

TP:    Was Dr. John helpful with that, too?

WALLACE:  Absolutely.  That’s a lot of what he’s about.  I learned that mostly about him when he was producing my records, what he would… Sometimes the thing that I would think was the best part of what we were doing, he would say, “No, that’s extraneous.”  And not to say, you know, who’s right and who’s wrong, but to look at here’s a totally different point of view that’s incredibly valid.

Jimmy Rowles taught me a lot about that, because Jimmy’s a lot about what the song means.  He taught me a lot, when we would be playing a tune or working on a tune, about what that tune means — that narrative aspect.  And every good filmmaker is going to demand that.  They shouldn’t have to demand it.  But that’s what you’re there for, is to give them that… That’s all they care about.

TP:    So you were in L.A. really from only ’91 to ’96.

WALLACE:  Right.  Six or seven years.

TP:    A lot of people think you were off the scene for longer than that.  If you can give me a paragraph about the L.A. experience.

WALLACE:  I think what we just said is basically the L.A. experience.  It was about getting thrown into a craft that I had never done before, and giving myself a crash course in the rudiments of actually the craft, and learning on the job and trying to bring what I do to it, with what I do that’s different from what everyone else does.  The way I got my first real scoring job, for Blaze, was because there was nobody out there that really understood southern music.  I grew up around it.  I mean, I actually played in bluegrass bands for a short period of time when I was down South. I played with some GOOD guys.  So I knew what that was about.

TP:    You were right in the middle of bluegrass country, southeastern Tennessee.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  And of course, I had those Blues experiences… I grew up in the South, and I actually grew up in the South almost in the period of the movie.  Then what I had learned from making those two records with Dr. John gave me a preparation for doing that music that the usual suspects out there didn’t have.  Otherwise, I would never have got the job.  They would have hired one of those guys to do it.

TP:    White Men Can’t Jump, what was that score like?

WALLACE:  That was a very frustrating job, because it started out with a really great idea, and a bunch of bureaucrats pretty much stepped on it, and by the time it was over, it was nothing like what it started out to be.  But with that said, it gave me the opportunity to work with Jon Hendricks, Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, three wonderful singers, and that made me start focusing on what singers bring to music, which I carry to my music.

TP:    Is that the last major film you did?

WALLACE:  I worked on several more.  The “Betty Boop” film was the biggest film I ever did, and we never finished it because of some sort of executive squabble that really had nothing to do with the project.  The rest of them were more minor… Well, I wouldn’t say more minor, because some were among the best things I was involved with.  Working with the animator Steve Moore was probably as gratifying an experience as I had out there, and working on Hoop Life was incredibly gratifying.

TP:    You started on Hoop Life May ’99.

WALLACE:  They called me up and wanted me to write the music, and I met with them in early May.  We had an incredibly fast deadline.  We had to do the first three hours of film in just a very few weeks.  All of a sudden I was just in the middle of it.  The first five or six weeks I think is the hardest I ever worked in my life.  I’ve never been so tired.  But they were filming very fast and we were working very fast, and I was also trying to get things organized, because this was the first score I’d recorded back here on the East Coast, so I had to get hooked up with a staff, with a studio, musicians, contractors, and all the people who go into doing this — setting up shop here to do that.  So it was fast and furious there for a few weeks.  Also, I didn’t know exactly what they were going to want or how happy they were going to be with my music until we got in the studio.  Then once we got in there and saw that we were really in tune with each other, from that point it was a lot of fun and it was more relaxed, and it… I never enjoyed a job more than that one, once we got through the first part.

TP:    Apart from the notion of bringing in personalities and the notion of improvising, was there any particular overriding musical themes that span the episodes?  Did you know the arc of the narrative of that whole series at the time you started…

WALLACE:  It was more about the characters.  Since I didn’t know what was coming up and where it was going to go, I wrote music that was about the characters.  The character of Marvin was the central character.  Marvin is an older basketball player, so he was more about the Blues than he was about Hip-Hop — like me!  Also, we had some problems with executives in Showtime who wanted a commercial Hip-Hop kind of product, so that drained a lot of energy right at the beginning.  But then we got that cooled out.  I actually found a happy result of that, because I have a good friend in Holland, the tenor player Hans Dulfer, who has had a lot of success with what I call a heavy metal kind of rhythm section.  What he does, he plays like Red Prysock over one of those kind of rhythm sections, and he does it beautifully, and he’s had huge hits in Japan and in Europe.  We’re buddies, and whenever I go over there we’re hanging out, and he’d given me some of his records.  So I started applying some of his stuff to those situations, which is a lot of fun.  I always tell him I’m America’s foremost Hans Dulfer imitator.  And I found this fellow named Stephen Callow(?) who is really brilliant at those kind of things.  So we would make tracks with Stephen, then we’d bring him in and have the jazz musicians play with him.  We did a little bit of that, and it was kind of fun, because we kind of did something different with it.

But the real body of the score was about these characters, and it was really about personal stories.  There was a romance with Marvin and Paula, so I had a romantic theme for that.  And Craig, the white player who was a womanizer, I had a thematic thing that I wrote for him.  That was an interesting challenge because we had an episode where the film had that pay-for-cable soft-porn kind of feeling to it, and I wanted to give it some music that didn’t sound like what you would expect, that had some class to it.  I had Steve Nelson and Mulgrew Miller play this theme that I wrote, and my model in mind for it was Milt Jackson and John Lewis.  I remember giving the music to Steve and saying, “Think Milt Jackson when you do this.”  I started walking across the studio, and by the time I got to the other side, he and Mulgrew were playing “The Night We Called It A Day,” and they had it nailed so beautifully and so convincingly that it was just chilling.  Then when we played my thing, they let that influence their own personality.  So that thematic part of it had a lot of harmonic sophistication to it.  Then there were things that more blues-like.  t
There were things where I would use the kind of intense, almost free kind of playing we were doing back in the ’70s, like, to play anchor and play kind of intense emotions.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

TP:    Before the albums in ’98, you did two in ’93, for AudioQuest and Enja.  You mentioned, as do many, that L.A. is a frustrating place to be because of the lack of a center, the lack of a scene, there’s a lot of great musicians there but not much to do.

WALLACE:  Not active.

TP:    Was that the main source of frustration for you?  That’s why you left?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  Because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music.

TP:    Remuneratively that would be a risky decision.  Or not?

WALLACE:  Being a jazz musician!  How much more risky can you be than that?

TP:    Well, that’s what I mean.  You were doing film music and probably making more money in those three-four years than you’d made in your whole career as a musician, I would think…

WALLACE:  Probably.

TP:    You had a house on the Palisades and playing tennis and this and that.  So something in you doesn’t want to get too comfortable, obviously.

WALLACE:  Well, it’s like my purpose in my life!

TP:    Of course, here I am in this house looking out over this illusion of unspoiled territory in rural Connecticut.

WALLACE:  Well, that’s just the luck of Nature.  We could as easily be doing this in the apartment I had in Washington Heights in the ’80s.  But when I made the conscious decision to… When I found myself living there… I didn’t even quite move there; just all of a sudden I was there.  I decided to pursue that because I was really disgusted with the business of jazz.  Not with the music, but with the business.  My role model I think I told you the other day was Charlie Barnet.  I thought if I can make enough money out here doing this to where I can pay my musicians to where everybody feels good about the gig, and we can go out and not worry about any of that other stuff, and me not worrying about whether a record company likes me or whether my music is going to fit the concept that they want, and not worrying about pleasing any of those people, then it’s worth doing.  I did it for a few years, and I didn’t get it to the point that I wanted it.  Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a very big project that I got involved in, and I felt, well, that’s not fair to the promoters, it’s not fair to anybody, and so I’m not going to take any more tours until I can afford not to.  Then I reached a point about three years ago where just as a person I couldn’t go on any longer and not be back here and be playing.  I had met Anthony Wilson and Willie Jones and Danton Boller, and we’ve started playing.  I’ve finally met some young musicians who are really good and really serious about playing, and that took me over the edge of what already had been stewing inside of me for a long time.  We started playing at a club in Long Beach, and I was really feeling alive.  Then I found out that two of those guys were moving back here, and it was time for me to do it.  We came back, and then getting into Hoop Life was just a happy accident.

TP:    Well, you’d been here for two-three years.  What were you doing during those two years before Hoop Life?

WALLACE:  Practicing the saxophone, and I would occasionally go to Europe and play some gigs.

TP:    Any film or TV projects?

WALLACE:  No, I didn’t do any… I turned down a film that came along right before I made the record with Tommy Flanagan and the Gershwin album.  It was, “Okay, you can make this film and make some money or you can make your albums,” and it was an easy choice.  It was also during that period that I played on Anthony’s record.  That was exactly what I said  I was going to do when I came back, is I’m not going to turn down music for money.

TP:    You expressed your distaste for the realities of the jazz business as such.  But you were navigating with a certain aplomb something that makes the jazz business look like a Mom-and-Pop candy store.  You do seem to have a very pragmatic side.

WALLACE:  See, that’s something that I really learned from those people out there.  In the entertainment business, that’s the big league.  We’re not talking about Art… In the world of Art that’s the big league.  But in terms of the entertainment BUSINESS, jazz is… You could take the money that I wasted making White Men Can’t Jump and I could make ten great albums.  But I learned a lot, for lack of a better term, about show business out there.  A lot of positive things.  Now that I’m back concentrating on… Well, it seems like I’m doing both.  But now that I’m back dealing with the business of jazz and trying to perform on a regular basis and work with great musicians, the things that I learned out there are very helpful to me.  My disgust with the business at the end of the ’80s was not all “their fault.”  Part of it was because of things that I didn’t know about business and realities, whether I liked them or not, that I wasn’t really dealing with in the right way.  I think I could deal with them much better now.  Not to say that there wasn’t some stereotypical business stuff going on then.  But I think I know a lot more about dealing with it now, and I’m older.

TP:    That said, you’re older now.  Do you foresee yourself when you’re 60, that this is the track you want to be on?

WALLACE:  When I’m 70 I want to be playing!  What I want to do is, I want to make my music as good as it can be, whether I’m playing or whether I’m writing or whether what I’m doing is a combination of the two.  I did a lot of things when I was in California that were not what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft.  It was always a learning experience.  I could spend a lifetime out there learning the craft, but what I want to do now is take what I know about and make as good a music as I can make, whether that shows up on a movie screen or whether it shows up in an album or in a concert.

TP:    Do you think that you might start using some of the musical forms that you’re using in the films that are not vernacular jazz, as your recordings are… Do you think that might start seeing its way into…

WALLACE:  I think in a very subtle way, it already has.  But in a more concrete way, absolutely.  Just as we were saying earlier that my music is a part of those two worlds right from the very beginning, I think that what I… My experiences out there are going to enable me to take that to another level.  I mean, there are things that I learned about composition when I was out there that come out in my solos, that since I learned them, it’s, “oh, you can do that when you play the saxophone,” and all of a sudden it gives me a wider vocabulary.  But now I want to expand that into writing for albums in such a way that I’m taking some of the craft that I learned out there and bringing it to that.  Really the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is just a matter of circumstance.  I really wanted to make a couple of piano quartet albums before I did anything else, because that’s a very important part of the direction that I want to pursue.  Because I played with chordless instruments quite a bit up til the middle ’80s, and in the second half of the ’80s I was playing with guitar players a lot because of the nature of that music.  I really love the classic piano-bass-drums-and-saxophone quartet, and I’ve had an opportunity to record with a couple of the masters.  But had it not been for that, those album could have just as easily been things involving more writing, more an outgrowth of what I did out there.

See, I wrote for two films.  One was Betty Boop, which the film company didn’t finish, and I wrote four tunes for that which I really want to record.  They even have lyrics.  Then I wrote a score for another film, for this little film company, and they… How do I say this without getting myself in legal trouble.  They proved to be less than worthy of business people.  And I pulled my music out of the film, and I still own that music, and I want to record that.  Those two projects were written for a little bit larger jazz group.  Also, playing with… Many of the things we did on Hoop Life gave me ideas for albums that I would love to do, and a lot of it is very unconventional.  It’s as unconventional for jazz just as it is for film music.  I met musicians on that project who I want to record with.  So I’ve got several ideas of things I want to do.

[-30-]
TP:    Bennie Wallace, you were in Los Angeles for how long?

WALLACE:  Six or seven years I was out there.

TP:    You were doing a lot of film music.

WALLACE:  Right.  That’s the sole reason that I went out there.  Actually, my wife and I went out with a suitcase, and before we knew it, we had leased a house.  It just kind of happened.  It wasn’t a plan or anything.  God help us if it had of been.  I moved back to New York in June.

TP:    What’s your assessment of the scene in Los Angeles?  Cosigning Mr. Wilson here?

WALLACE:  Well, let me put it this way.  There’s a couple of places that are struggling to bring in really good music.  There’s a little place down in Long Beach and there’s two places in L.A.  But L.A. is just not set up for Jazz.  It’s really not set up for human habitation.  It’s just not a Jazz town.  I remember the second time I played there.  About five years ago I did a tour with my band of Europe, then we went and played a week in L.A. and a week in San Diego, and the week in L.A. was just awful.  The owner of the club was really nice, and they were trying to do something there.  But you felt like you were trying to play jazz in a Pentecostal church or something.  You just didn’t feel like you belonged there.

TP:    It’s a paradox that because of the studios so many talented musicians gravitate to L.A., and it’s the base for many others, but so few places for it to be expressed.

WALLACE:  The only positive thing I heard about L.A.: I heard a wonderful interview on the radio one time with Red Callender.  They said, “Why do so many musicians move to L.A.?”  He said, “There’s two reasons.  You don’t starve to death and you don’t freeze to death, but I can’t think of another one.”

_________________________________________________________________

Bennie Wallace on WKCR, circa 1998:

TP:    I’ll bring Bennie Wallace into the conversation.  How did you encounter Anthony Wilson and this group of dynamic young musicians in Los Angeles?

WALLACE:  I first met Anthony on that gig I was telling you about where it felt so strange.  He came up and introduced himself, and we traded numbers and kind of became friends in Los Angeles.  Then just a couple of days before he did this recording session, he called me up and said he had a tune he wanted me to play on.  So he came over to the house and showed it to me, and I went in and recorded it with the band.  We set it up that we’d record my tune right after a break so we’d save time for the band, and I’d do a microphone check while they were taking a lunch break.  So during that time we played a tune with the rhythm section.  Actually I’d had my eye on Brad Mehldau, because I knew how brilliant he is.  So we played this tune to get the mike balanced, and I’m listening to Brad first, and I’m trying to give him these left turns to see if he’s listening, and he’s right behind me everywhere I went.  Then I started checking out the way these guys were playing.

I’d just scored a short movie for Jeff Goldblum, the first thing he directed.  Jeff calls me up about a week later after this date, and said, “I need a drummer for my gig on Thursday night” — he’s an amateur jazz piano player.  I said, “Call Willie Jones, because he’s really good; you’ll like him.”  He calls me up the next day and says the bass player can’t make it.  I said, “Well, call Danton Boller; they play well together.”  He calls me the next day and says, “I got Danton; I need a guitar player.”  So I told him Anthony.  So sure enough, he called two days later, and said, “My tenor player can’t make the first set.”  “All right, Jeff, I’ll come down and do it.”  So I went down and played, we played a two-hour set, and just had a ball.

That’s when I decided to book some gigs with the rhythm section.  So I called this club in Long Beach where I knew the owner, and he gave us some gigs.  So we played down there some.  Danton, Anthony and I did a lot of shedding together right before I left L.A.  Since then Danton and Willie have moved here, and if Anthony would come to his senses he would move here.

TP:    I’d like to give you a little bit of a third degree if you’re amenable to it.  You mentioned you’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

WALLACE:  Right.

TP:    How did Jazz come into your consciousness within your background?

WALLACE:  When I was about 14 years old, a fellow named Chet Hedgecoth came to my school as the band teacher.  He was a jazz musician and a big jazz fan, and he wanted to have a jazz band with the kids.  He started this band, and he used to leave his record collection around.  He wouldn’t loan us the records, but he’d let us steal them.  So we’s steal his records and trade them around.  That’s where I heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “Wait a minute.”  It was my first real artistic experience, when I heard him play this Blues solo. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

So I started playing in some of these after-hours joints that were going around in Chattanooga.

TP:    Was Chattanooga that kind of a town?

WALLACE:  What’s not known is that a lot of those towns had an after-hours scene.  It would be in the Black clubs, and it was totally illegal.  We would start at about the time the White clubs had to close, and we would play for most of the night.  I would worry my mother to death.

TP:    Were there some good musicians in Chattanooga?

WALLACE:  There were a few.  There was an excellent tenor player down there named Ed Lehman, and there was a piano player named Jimmy Hamilton who moved away and went to Detroit — and he taught Bobby Watson and Prince at his high school.  Then there was a very good bass player and piano player named Otis Hayes who went to L.A. and is still playing around.  Occasionally a good player would come through.  I remember I got into a jam session when I was still in high school with this tenor player named Hurricane Jackson.  I can’t remember his real name [Fred Jackson], but he had a couple of Blue Note records, and he was one of those walk-the-bar blues players.  Then I met a bass player down there named Stan Conover who had played and recorded with Ike Quebec and Eddie Davis, and grew up with Gene Ammons and Wilbur Ware in Chicago.  He and I became pretty tight, and I got to play with him a lot.  He played a lot like Wilbur Ware, and it was a great experience working with him.

TP:    So it sounds like you were playing a lot of Blues, or that sort of Blues-Bop crossover within that situation.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  I was really into Bebop and the more sophisticated end of the music, but you had to play… I love playing Blues, too; don’t get me wrong.  But I remember we had to play so many Blues things per set, so many Cannonball tunes or Jimmy Smith tunes, or the people would just go… They just didn’t want to hear it.

TP:    It sounds like you were already at a certain level in high school.  Were you playing music for a while before encountering this band teacher?

WALLACE:  Yeah, I was a clarinet player.  He knew that a clarinet was similar to a saxophone, and so he gave me a saxophone to play in this band.  But basically, I just fell in love with the music.  This guy Ed Lehman gave me a couple of Coltrane records, and between that and the Sonny Rollins record, that’s the first Jazz I really knew.  That’s pretty overwhelming.

TP:    But it seems to me that apart from being involved in the sophisticated harmonic end of Bebop, you got very involved in sound.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Your sound really marks you.  And you’re one of the few players in today’s scene… You know the old cliche, hear a couple or three notes and you know it’s him.  You hear a couple of notes of Bennie Wallace, and you know it’s Bennie Wallace.  Who were some of the tenor players whose sounds really struck you.

WALLACE:  At that point in my life, when I first got into it, the guys whose sound really killed me was Sonny Rollins on the album with Dizzy Gillespie, Lockjaw (I listened to everything I could get by him), and Red Prysock.  I liked Stanley Turrentine, too.  But Red with Tiny Bradshaw and Jaws with Basie (or Jaws with anything) and Sonny, that was what started it.  From there I got into Hawk and Ben and Prez and all that stuff.

TP:    So blending the older players with the more contemporary or progressive or modernist styles has always been part of the way you’ve approached the saxophone.

WALLACE:  Well, see, I’ve always loved more traditional jazz.  There’s contemporary things that I like, but the thing I’ve always really loved is the tradition of the music.  Where I got kind of the outside edge of what I do with my playing, I was studying the clarinet when I was in school, and I started studying Bartok’s music.  I played this piece called the Contrasts for Clarinet and Piano and Violin.  My composer friend tells me I’m the only one in the world who relates this stuff to chord changes.  But I started looking at the way Bartok would write these lines, and thinking of how they’d fit against certain jazz chords, and it kind of opened up my mind, and from there I went to other composers.  But that’s what got me going in that direction.

TP:    What circumstances led you to being a professional jazz musician?  From Tennessee what were your next moves?

WALLACE:  Well, I went to college in Tennessee.  It was Vietnam time, so all good Americans went to college.  Then I convinced them that I was unfit for military duty, and headed for New York.

TP:    And then?

WALLACE:  Well, I got real lucky when I got here.  I came to New York with $275 and no place to stay.  I lucked into a loft.  A very nice artist named Bill Barrett gave me a place to stay.  But I couldn’t practice there, so I went up to Charles Cullen’s(?) and rented a studio for 10 bucks a week, which I paid from time to time.  After three weeks, Monty Alexander came in there one day, and I didn’t know him from Adam.  He says, “Do you want a gig?”  He got me in the union and got me this gig six nights a week, and the band had like Gene Wright and Frank Strozier and Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince, all these great players, and I kind of met people and made friends and kind of got on the scene a little bit.

TP:    That was about 1970?

WALLACE:  That was probably 1971.
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TP:    Bennie Wallace, I haven’t heard (not consciously anyway) the film scores you’ve done.  Is your writing related to your blowing type thing, or is it a different entity?

WALLACE:  Not a whole lot.  The first film I worked on was Bull Durham.  The guy heard one of the Blue Note records and had me write a thing, and Dr. John wrote some lyrics for it, and we recorded it together for an in title for that tune.  They used a couple of other things in that movie.  Then I did Blaze, and Mac played a lot on that, too, and it was a Southern kind of movie so it kind of drew on stuff I knew when I was a kid.  But with Hollywood movies, you get a problem, and you just try to figure out something in there you can do that will make it interesting.  Like, when I did White Men Can’t Jump I got Jon Hendricks and Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, and we put together this street band of singers, which to me was the most fascinating thing about the movie.  They were supposed to give us a couple of weeks to record it, and they turned us loose for a couple of weeks.  So I’ve got all these tapes of this group, which they didn’t use, because some commercially minded idiot decided that they should make it a big Hip-Hop hit, which it wasn’t, and it went right down the tubes because they snubbed Black radio — like real brilliant minds up there.

You’ve just got to do guerilla warfare with those things most of the time.  But occasionally you get to do something that’s a lot of fun.  With Jeff Goldblum’s project, he wanted a Monk-oriented thing, so we did kind of a little homage to Monk for his thing.  Then I did a cartoon for Disney last summer for Steve Moore, a brilliant animator out there, and we did a Jazz score which Disney wasn’t used to at all.  Once they got used to it and realized they were stuck with it, I think they liked it.  I hope so.

TP:    Are you continuing this on the East Coast?  Has that curtailed these activities?

WALLACE:  Well, I really want to concentrate on the music that I’ve spent my life working on.  I have a wonderful lady in Los Angeles who is my agent, and she’s out there looking for work for me, but I don’t intend to live there again.  I’ve learned a lot from it.  I don’t mean to sound like I’m real negative about it.  I want to be honest.  But at the same time I learned a lot about orchestra writing and a lot about music in general just from the things I was exposed to, that I wouldn’t have been.  But I really want to write and play real music, music for music’s sake, that kind of non-popular music that I’ve always spent my life on.

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TP:    Bennie Wallace, the tenor saxophone is the most vocal of instrument, some way — maybe people who play other instruments think differently.  Is that an active component of the way you think about playing and conceive your sound on the saxophone?

WALLACE:  Sure.  There’s something about the saxophone, particularly the tenor saxophone, that’s just in and of itself.  I’ve heard the expression “vocal quality” many times.  But Henry Threadgill and I were talking off the mike a few minutes ago — Lockjaw Davis epitomizes it.  There are so beautiful colors that can come out of that instrument, and he got most of them.  I heard that when I was a kid, and there’s just a fascination with it.  You can tell so many different kinds of stories with that.  Like, you can express so many different kinds of emotions, like the warmest kind of thoughts in the world and the most angry kind of thoughts.

To me, all art is about emotional expression, and when I get inspired by something that someone in another art form has done, it’s the emotion that comes from it.  Anthony and I were listening to music yesterday, and I’ll confess, we listened to George Jones and Olivier Messiaen.  Now, that pretty much covers the spectrum.  But the thing that’s common to all great artists, to me, is that emotional expression, whether there’s any intellect to it at all or a lot of intellect.  That’s a mouthful, too!

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Filed under Bennie Wallace, DownBeat, Tenor Saxophone, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

Interviews with Charles Lloyd on WKCR 1994 and 1995

ECM’s recent release  of Charles Lloyd’s first five recordings for the label, made between 1989 and 1996, made me remember a vivid encounter I had with Lloyd at WKCR in May 1994, while he was in residence during at the Blue Note supporting his then new-release (and 3rd  for ECM), titled The Call. I’m posting the full transcript of that session and a much more restrained and less discursive encounter a year later, when he was in NYC to support ECM date #4, titled All My Relations.

Charles Lloyd (Out-To-Lunch, May 11, 1994):

[MUSIC: “Brother On The Rooftop”]

TP:    Billy Hart was the drummer, on top of just about every move Charles Lloyd makes on The Call [ECM] and probably every note you’ll be playing this week, I’d say.  Yes, Charles Lloyd?

CL:    All over me like a wet blanket.

TP:    How long have you and Jabali been hooked up in this particular…

CL:    In this incarnation, what happened was that he heard that I was leaving Cannonball, and I was putting my first group together… This is Jabali telling me.  He said he that he was in Washington, D.C., playing with Shirley Horn, I think, and he said, “Oh, I want to be in that group.”  And somehow, Jack De Johnette called me at 3 in the morning and said, “I want to play with you, man.”  So somehow, Jack’s bodaciousness and… People said, “Well, don’t get Jack because he’s too loud” and stuff, but he turned out to be one of the most tasteful ever.  Jabali said that he was supposed to be in the group, and I didn’t understand the rhetoric until he and I started playing together recently in the last year or so.  It’s like they used to talk about love and stuff like that, you know…

TP:    How about the other guys in the band, Bobo Stenson and Anders Jormin?  Your hook-up with them, a few words about their musical qualities.

CL:    That’s a little strange in the sense that in the early Sixties, late Sixties, I had to go to Europe… You know, America, the beer tavern thing, and I couldn’t get the music to fit right and stuff like that, and when I was trying to play, oftentimes they thought I was too much of a cadet or something.  And I went to Europe, and the people testified, and they liked the music.  And there were these little kids in the audience in Stockholm, you know, youngsters, but they just loved the music so much.  And I didn’t realize that that was the group with Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette and Cecil McBee.  We played in Stockholm, like, non-stop, and you’d have to claw your way to get out of the place and stuff like that.  People…they were just so hungry for the music, you know.  And these little boys, years later they came around, and… We were playing at the Seed, and essentially what happened was that… You know, the Vikings came over here way before Chris Columbus, and they took their butts back home.  You know, they didn’t try to claim some stuff that people was already living on.  Those guys heard the music, and they were fearless, and they loved it, and I couldn’t… You know, I couldn’t deny the universal living room.  Bobo is for me one of the best pianists on the planet, and Anders is right there also, always selflessly serving the music.

And I always have to have an orchestra, you know, like people who are just dedicated to the full service of the music.  Because I grew up loving Mingus and Duke and Monk, you know, Lady Day and Trane, just all this beautiful music, the Five Spot, and I was out in California with Ornette and stuff, I was in Memphis with Booker Little… Phineas Newborn saw me at an amateur hour show and said, “Boy, you need lessons bad.”  So all that kind of stuff…

TP:    Well, let’s organize a bit, and…

CL:    I can’t organize!

TP:    Well, I’ll try to do it.

CL:    Oh, okay.

TP:    Maybe we can hook up.  You were talking about Memphis, and you came up in Memphis at a time when there were many special musicians all around the same age performing.  Talk about those days and those experiences a little bit.

CL:    It was very powerful, because we knew at a very young age that nobody could touch our stuff.  I don’t know what it was, but there was something in the water or something, maybe the Mississippi flowing through, and Mister Armstrong south of there, coming from there and stuff.  My father went to school with Jimmie Lunceford.  You know, Jimmie Lunceford taught at our high school before…

TP:    Which high school was that?

CL:    Manassas.  Manassas is where all the bad cats went.  Now, there was Booker Washington, where Phineas went, but that was an earlier age.  Phineas was older than us, you know.  But Manassas, man, there was… Just check.  During my time period, there was Frank Strozier, Harold Mabern, George Coleman had gone to school there, Hank Crawford had gone to school there.  There were a lot of musicians you’ve never heard of.  There was another pianist in Memphis named Charles…oh, man, why can’t I think of Charles’ name?

TP:    Charles Thomas.

CL:    Charles Thomas.  Thank you!  Anyway, he played like Bud Powell in those days.  And I keep asking Harold and James Williams about him.

TP:    He played at Bradley’s here in New York about a year ago.  James Williams set that up.

CL:    Did you hear that?

TP:    I did.

CL:    Well, man, I would like to hear him play.  Because he was beautiful, and he was tall and elegant, and he had this kind of refinement and this aggressiveness on the stuff.  He was always dropping half-steps on cats, you know, and if he didn’t like the way a cat played, he would just half-step him to death and just get him off the stage.

So we came up… George was kind of like a Santini.  Do you remember that film?

TP:    The Great Santini?

CL:    Yeah.  George was kind of like that task-master, you know.

TP:    Elaborate a little bit.

CL:    Well, George, you know, he just was like that with all of us.  There was a trombone player, I can’t remember his name, but I remember we had to learn “Cherokee” in B-flat, and then we called it and George played it in A the next time, and he’d call it in E, and you just… You’d say, “Man, just learn ‘Cherokee.’”  He’d say, “Fine, let’s play it in E right here.”  And George would play it real fast…

TP:    I think he’s still doing that to people.

CL:    Right, I know.  But quiet as it’s kept, I think that was an interesting university that he ran.  But when I go really back, earlier, I have to look at Phineas, because there I was, like, ten years old, playing on an amateur show.  Phineas Newborn comes backstage and says, “You need lessons bad,” takes me around the corner on Beale Street, sits me down at the feet of Irving Reason(?), who is a beautiful alto player, who is here in the city somewhere, or was.  They played in Bill Harvey’s orchestra, sometimes society…

I just love Mandela now.  How many of us can do 27, you know what I’m talking about, and come out with that kind of graciousness and bigness, and just say “Freedom for everyone.”  I’m still dreaming of an ideal.

But back… Phineas…playing with him as a kid… So after I took these lessons, later on Phineas had me in his father’s band.  You know, played over in West Memphis, Arkansas, at the Plantation Inn, Mister Morris Berger’s place, okay, and we’d play for dancing and stuff like that.  But amidst all of that we’d be putting stuff in.  And then there were gigs with people like B.B. King.  Bobby Blue Bland was one of the first gigs I ever had.  He was a singer.  He was not featured.  It was Roscoe Gordon’s band.  You ever heard of Roscoe Gordon?

TP:    Mmm-hmm.

CL:    Mmm-hmm.  Well, anyway, Roscoe Gordon played good, and he had some hits around there.  So you’d come hearing all this blues stuff.  My grandfather had lots of property down there.  There was a man named Mister Poon, you know, and he used to play the guitar, and my cousin and I used to hear him play a blues, the Robert Johnson kind of stuff, and we’d jump up and scream and do somersaults and stuff like that.  So I knew real early I was supposed to be a musician.

But getting back to George, he was interesting in the sense that… First of all, Phineas was very big and tolerant.  He gave us lots of love and encouragement.  George did the Santini, a hatchet-chop.  If you didn’t have the stuff together, you know… The trombone player I was about to tell you about, Harper, he was playing, and he turned around and George was putting the evil eye on him, you know, the ray.  So he turned around and looked at… He said, “What was that change right there?”  George said, “What about all those other changes you just missed?  Don’t be asking about that change.”  So George was right there, you know.

And Booker Little was my best friend, and he and I would meet at Thunderbird Pass every morning, and we’d go to school, and Booker… We’d get up at 6 o’clock and practice until about 8:30 or 9, then we’d get a permit to come to school late, and… Like that.  We just were on it.  We just loved the music.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to go on so much about Memphis.  Do you have a specific question?

TP:    Well, I think you answered it.  Why don’t you talk a little bit more about your relationship with Booker Little.

CL:    Man, could I.  See, Booker was the incarnation of… Pardon my lyrics, but he was a wise man.  He died… I think we buried him, he was 22 or 23.  I can’t think about that, it hurts so much…

See, here’s what happened.  Booker was a saint and a sage.  I mean, in the full sense of the word.  He was a holy man.  Okay?  Now, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t like the barbecue sauce, and the ladies were all over Booker.  But he had a way of… Booker just had a graciousness, and everybody wanted some of Booker.  I remember one… Anyway, I could tell you about that, but it’s not for radio play, so… I like radio, though.  It’s confessional.  And I love the city, I love the energy… Anyway.

So Booker and I were in Memphis, okay, and we were playing, you know, we heard Bird and Diz, and Dewey when he was Dewey, before he put a dress on—and we loved that music.  It just turned us on so much.  Later, Booker came to… He went to Chicago, you know, with Frank… He followed Frank and those guys to the Chicago Conservatory.  And I either was going to go to Juilliard or the University of Southern California.  I chose Southern California, because I loved Bartok’s music, for some strange reason, and they had a professor there, Halsey Stephens, who Bartok was his specialty.  And I don’t know, somehow I… A kid gets a weird kind of notion on this stuff.  So I went to school there.

But later Booker came through with Max Roach, and that was really inspiring.  In those days I was playing with Bobby Hutcherson, Ornette, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Scott LaFaro… Now, this is interesting.  In Memphis I was in the right place at the right time.  It was always pregnant with elixir and all these bad cats were just playing their buns off.  Forget Albert(?).  He’d be standing around the corner, peeping, wishing he could be a fly on some of that!  Jamil Nasser.  Jamil said that we remember him as an iceman… I was a swimmer, I used to win prizes and stuff like that, and I quit swimming because I wanted to learn to play the saxophone.  I love the saxophone!

So anyway, when I got… Then I got to California, and I wanted to learn all there is about music.  They only wanted to show me about three hundred years of Europe.  That’s cool, but what about, you know, all this other stuff?  And they didn’t have no elixir ration for that.  So I found out my tribe, you know, in these people I just mentioned.  There was the Coal Man, Ornette, and stuff like that.  He had the Studebaker that went backwards and he ran over his saxophone, and that’s why he later got the plastic one because it ran over the other one.  Sorry.

TP:    I never heard that one.

CL:    After a jam session one day, you know, he backed up… Do you remember those Studebakers?  You couldn’t tell the front from the back.  I don’t remember the years.  But some car aficionados could call in.  So pardon me, I’ll be brief here; I’m sorry about this verbal diarrhea.

What I’m trying to say is that I love the music, I’ve always loved it, I still love it.

So there in California I had all these great people I told you about.  I also played in Gerald Wilson’s Big Band.  There are a lot of people I don’t mention.  For example, I forgot to tell you about Willie Mitchell in Memphis.  I played in his band.  Do you remember Willie Mitchell?  He produced Al Green, man, and all that stuff.  I played with Rufus Thomas and all these people, too.

TP:    So you had a whole range of experience.

CL:    I had a whole range of experience.

TP:    You were playing in almost every genre of the music, with a full cultural experience.

CL:    Yes.  And in the high school band, you’ve got to come in contact with Bach and Brahms and stuff like that…

TP:    Who was your high school band teacher?

CL:    Matthew Garrett.  Matthew Garrett!  I hear this girl Dee Dee Bridgewater, that he’s her father.  Now, I can’t research all this because I’ve been in hiatus for years.  I’m not in hiatus, obviously, now.  You can check.  I’m just zooming, because you know, pshew, I’m home.  So happy to be home.  I like the woods, you know, for a minute, but I stayed too long in the woods.  You know what I’m talking about?  Like, remember that t-shirt, “heading out for the woods.”  So I had to check that out.  But that’s the way I am.  When I go into something, I just go knee deep.  Sorry.  I get drowned.

TP:    Who were you listening to in formulating your sound as a young musician?

CL:    Well, I’d stay up all night listening to Yardbird Parker, you know, Mister Parker.  I knew that he flew through the air with the greatest of ease any time he wanted to, and he lived in luxurious penthouses in Manhattan and had people driving him all over the place, you know, and anything Mister Bird wanted to do, everything was cool, you know.  So Bird was my main hero, because think about the… I mean, this stuff came up later about Superman, flying… Bird was my hero when I was a little kid.  And of course, I loved Fats Navarro.  I mean, I heard all this stuff.  And Mister Hawkins and Prez and Lady Day.  Coming up, all that just moved me so much.  I sat at the feet of Mister Hawkins here in New York.  He wasn’t so much into talking; it was just like the saint would impart something to you with just the ray, you know, just looking at me.  I’ve got a photo to this day (I’ll send you a copy of it) backstage at the Vanguard, and I’m sitting at his feet, and he’s just looking at me, and like he’s just elixiphizing me with all this stuff.

So I’m just blessed to be a part of process, you know what I’m saying?  I’m not at all any good.  I want you to know that.  I’m not the dust of the dust of their shoes.  But I love this music.  And I’ll tell you, sometimes the little stuff gets out of the way, and the music comes through, man, and I’m home.

TP:    We’re speaking with Charles Lloyd, who is laying a lot of information on us…

CL:    But let me tell you just quickly about Booker.  Then when I got to New York… Because we found in California that a pineapple hits you on the head, and another day goes by.  Well, what is that?  And you’ve got to drive about nineteen years to get to the gig or something like that, and then the gig was tired.  I played a wedding with Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, a pianist named Terry Trotter, maybe Scott LaFaro was on bass.  Anyway, we get to the gig, and we couldn’t wait to play, you know, because that’s what we loved doing.  And we said, “LA-DA-DU-DO, BALEEDLE, DA-DUT,”  [ETC.] You know what that is, “Doctor Jackyll.”  So we don’t get that far at that wedding.  The father said, “Please, please, please stop.  I’ll pay you.  Here’s the money.  Don’t play any more.  Please stop.”  You know, that’s the type of stuff we had to come up against.  So we knew we had to get to New York.  Fortunately, Ornette came to New York and was playing at the Five Spot non-stop, and that was an encouragement for all of us.  So slowly, slowly… Eric Dolphy left Chico Hamilton and joined Mingus’ group, and Eric recommended me to Chico.  I joined Chico.  I was playing with Bobby Hutcherson then.  I had a bad group with Bobby Hutcherson and Scott La Faro, and I’m trying to think of who was playing drums with us at that time.  There was a lot of great drummers in California.  Lawrence Marable.  There was…

TP:    Frank Butler maybe?

CL:    Frank Butler!  Yeah, oh, man!  Frank Butler told the judge… The judge said, “Frank, you got to do five years.”  Frank said, “I can’t do that much time, your honor.”  He said, “Just do the best you can, Frank.”  I’m sorry.  We laughed as kids.  That’s not laughable now.  But his real message was, you know, if you don’t make five, Jack…

But I don’t like a society or a system where… I want everybody to be able to rise to their full potential.  I mean, on the for-real side.  I don’t like impediments.  So we’ve got to find some way to make this thing a level playing field, where everybody… The big fault of the whole thing… See, this music is the music of freedom, okay.  It’s the music of enlightenment.  It’s the music of transformation.  It’s a music of wonder.  I don’t know what this media thing is all mis-used for.  I come to town, man… You invite me to your show, and I see nobody else wants to talk to me.  That’s cool.  I don’t want to talk to nobody anyway.  All I want to do is do the music.

However, I am a servant.  Okay?  I am a part of this process.  I sat at the feet of Mister Hawkins, the father of the modern tenor saxophone.  And they tell me, “Well, Mister Gumball and them cats don’t want to say nothin’ to your stuff because, you know, it’s not presentable,” or maybe it’s not… Well, quiet as it’s kept, man, it’s their tradition, and not only that, it’s all of our traditions.  And this music is a music of full-on uplift played by great creators.  It does something to you and for you that gets you up in the morning with the right attitude of just, “Yes, how are you,” and you be kind to each other, and you learn to love yourself and the higher principles and eternal verities — and quiet as it’s kept, change your character if you get deep off into it.  So I don’t know what this pablum is all about and all this useless information and stuff like that.  You’ve got the computer and the chip and all that stuff, and it moves faster than the speed and stuff… Well, this music has always moved faster than the speed of light.

When I got to New York, Booker was here, and I came down the first night, man, and Booker was playing with Eric and Roy Haynes and stuff at Birdland.  I went downstairs, man, and it was just… I was just home.  I knew I was home.  And Booker took me to his pad.  He was living up on East 92nd Street then, across from the Y; you know the Y up there.  Booker sat me down and he said, “Man, it’s different now.  We’ve kind of gone into different camps.  But the thing is that you’ve got to be living about truth, and you’ve got to be sincere, and you’ve got to be straight with yourself and people.  And this music, we all loved it, we’ve always loved it, but here we are.  Just keep working on your character.  Your music is great.”  And man, I was dipping and diving.  Booker was on his way out then.  His health thing was in decline.  But he was imparting this wisdom.

Well, man, I got just hit with all of that, and I am a part of that.  Please pardon my lyrics, and I’ll be quiet, because it’s about playing the music.  But I do want to say that there is something behind this music, and I live in adoration of that, because we are spirit, and this material thing… Nobody gets out of here alive, and we ought to find a way where we can all dance here.

I blew a fuse as a young man.  That’s why I went away into hiatus, because I blew a fuse.  Because I just thought… I wanted to change the world with music.  I realized I’d failed at that.  So I said, “Hey, I’d better change my character, as Booker said, straight up.”  And Mom’s love at home is real important.  That really helps kids, you know.  So I’m really for education and for the uplift of the thing.  But music, man, in our lives, we really need it, and we aren’t getting enough of it.  What you do here and what’s happening in some other places gets to us, but it’s just too little, brother, and it may be too little, too late, unfortunately.  But God bless you for what you’re doing.

TP:    Well, everybody’s got to put down only what they can put down, I think.  And I think what we should do is listen to some recent music by Charles Lloyd, then we’ll return for more conversation.

[MUSIC: “Monk In Paris”; “Imke”; “Figure In Blue (Memories of Duke)”]

TP:    Talk about your experiences in New York in the 1960’s.  How has it changed for you coming back here?

LB:    Well, I moved here in 1960 (as I said, I replaced Eric Dolphy with Chico Hamilton), and I first stayed with Booker Little, then later I stayed with Frank Strozier.  Because when you’re a young musician, you know, and haven’t heard Bird, and Bird living in the penthouse, it took a while… I didn’t have the penthouse together, so they let me sleep on their sofas, you know, for a while.  Then later… Fortunately, I was a composer, so I had some kind of publishing thing where I got an apartment at 1 Sheridan Square in the Village.  So that was good for me.  So I lived there.

And my experiences were incredible, because all my old friends from California were here.  Ornette, Eric was here, all of Ornette’s group.  Scott La Faro was here, who was my best buddy.  You know, he used to drive a car like Steve McQueen.  Looked like him, too.  Same thing, he would drive through anything.  It’s unfortunate he went out in a car accident, too.

But my experience here was very… There was just music everywhere.  Bill Lee had this Citroen, you know; we’d all pile up in that, and we’d go from Birdland down to the Jazz Gallery to hear Monk, and then we would go to the Five Spot to hear Saint Newk, and then we’d go over to the Half Note, and then we’d come back up to the Vanguard, and then we’d go back uptown.  It was kind of like that.  Harold Mabern and stuff… We’d just stay up all night and laugh, and we’d go to movies during the day, and we’d practice and we’d play.  It was just living for the music, the Holy Grail romantic notion of that.  That’s what it was like.

It was a simpler time, in a way, and I think there was also… Everybody was deep off into the study and the pursuit of the music.  There wasn’t commerce or anything like that.  It was just purely for the love.  Of course, it was a simpler world and a simpler time.

TP:    Was there a political or ideological component to what was happening in the music, or was that laid onto it by observers from the outside, would you say?

CL:    I think this music has always been (how do you say?) dealing on such a level that it encompasses everything.  So I would be remiss if I would say it was only just… The purity of the pursuit was one that made your scholastic or your scholarship thing… You had to know everything about it.  And New York does teach you that there is something indestructible in the spirit, and you’d better get to that fast.  So the question of was there a political aspect or was that laid on it… Of course, we knew that…

Shirley Horn said, “Ten cents a dance.  That’s what they pay me.  Gosh, how they hurt my toes, fat guys and sailors” — you know.  So we were kind of… I love Shirley Horn down there.  I wanted to sing my little trumpet solo with her, you know, but I just… I mean, my sax solo.  I remember Dewey used to play down there, and she would sing that “Ten Cents a Dance.”  Oh, man, it used to just make me cry in tears and stuff.

We were all optimists.  We hoped for a better world.  And for some reason… To answer your question, frankly, at a certain point, I just blew a fuse and had to go away and try to heal, you know, and to change my character to be able to… I had the indestructibility sutra down where I could live in my lifetime with that; I knew what that was about.  But I still believe that there was a way that I could transcend the madness, liberation amidst the chaos.  And with the music, I wanted to bring something of inspiration and consolation to sisters and brothers and sisterettes and brotherettes around the world.

So for me, I think that on the level that you’re speaking, when you talk about the political arena, I would say that we’d better deal with the spirit.  Because it’s a spiritual quest.  That’s what we really are here, and he who is stepping on who, or who is first and who is last, I mean, all that is misplaced thinking.  I think if we have a world… I mean, obviously… You know, I wanted to marry Lady Day when I was ten years old, and protect her and look after her.  So what can I tell you about any of this, you know?

TP:    Let me ask you about three musicians who you’ve mentioned in the course of our discussion, and who you came into contact with.  In California, you hooked up with Ornette Coleman, and knew him and heard him, and Eric Dolphy as well.  And many people, of course, saw a certain analogy between your approach and John Coltrane, who you’ve also talked about.  And indeed, you also mentioned, when we were off-mike, spending a week at the feet of the Ellington band in Antibes.  So I’d like some reflections from you on each of those musical entities.

CL:    We’re very fortunate that Ornette is still alive today.  I love him very much.  He for me was someone who was very great in my life.  I was an alto player, and when I moved to California to go to college, I was very intense…and there were lots of jam sessions around Los Angeles those days.  Incidentally, I didn’t mention Ellis Marsalis.  He was out there in the Service at El Toro Marine Base, and he would come up, and we’d jam a lot.  He had the Santini School approach to life also, as you can see from his siblings [sic]. Essentially that’s a great school to come from, because in a way…it prepares you for half-steps, you know.

Getting back to these folks you asked about.  Ornette was… I can’t put words to him, because… We used to argue a lot, because my approach and his approach… I used to say, “Ornette, you can’t read and you can’t do this,” and he said, “You know, you can play the saxophone, but that don’t have a whole lot do with music.”  So we would have approaches like that.  I was a kid, you know… One day, Ornette and I stopped arguing.  Because he walked from his house over on Jefferson over to my house over on 36th Street at S.C., and he brought his horn.  He was going to follow all of the… He actually solved the universe for me that day.  He came over… It was a very enlightening experience.  I have to tell you about Thelonious, who also gave me… Thelonious is the one who sent me away into hiatus.  Remind me if I go too far on that…

But Ornette came over to my house one day, took his alto out, didn’t say a word.  He played the lowest note on there, a low B-flat, his B-flat, which is concert D-flat or something.  (I’m not here trying to be pedantic.)  He played the lowest note on the horn, then he played the highest note.  You follow this?  Low note, the highest note.  Then he came up a half-step to the next to the lowest note, then he played the next to the highest note.  You following this?  He did this on the whole saxophone!  He compressed the instrument (you understand?) from the lowest to the highest, and he kept bringing each of them up.  But what he did was, he alternately played each.  He played the low B-flat and he played the high F, and then he played the C, and then he played the E, and he kept compressing it.  But what he did was, he did it in a nanosecond.  He said, WWHHOOMMPP!

And so, we never argued about music any more.  I just said, “Okay,” and I prostrated, and from then on we didn’t have to deal with that.  And he opened me up to something, which was the organicness of the music.  Because I had come from that school where…the Santini school from George Coleman and Ellis and stuff, about not going across the line, you know, and Ornette had blurred the line.  And it turned out that I was very entrancillated [sic] with all that.   (Pardon my lyrics.  I have to make up words.  Because I don’t think that it’s adequate for musicians, especially.)

And Eric also… Now, there’s someone who Eric comes from that’s very important who is still also alive.  That’s Buddy Collette.  I don’t know if you know him.  This is very beautiful, and I’m very touched.  I lived at this place, 1 Sheridan Square, and I’m with Chico.  Remember when Mingus had the concert at Town Hall with the big band, way back then.  Well, Buddy came to town because Buddy was his Gil Evans.  Buddy was orchestrating and doing all the stuff.  Because Mingus had that Corvette, you know, with the Confederate flag and his bass sticking out of the green Corvette, riding around the Village, and Mingus would park his Corvette anywhere, and nobody would mess with his space.  Believe me.  Nobody.  Even the dudes today, they may… I can’t speak… I can only speak in our lifetime, okay.  You can’t say what it would be, because now some other son may cut your foot off or something, or your left (?).

But anyway, Eric was very beautiful and very scholarly.  He came through Buddy, though.  Buddy is a very sweet, compassionate man.

Then when you ask about Trane, I don’t know what to tell you about him.  I loved him also so much.  He for me embodied so much.  You know, like, Bird discovered the atom train, smashed it, you know, and it was kind of like… So much beauty of tone, lyricism, swing.  I mean, you talk about it.  Trane embodied it all!  When I think about the saxophone, I start thinking about Prez and Coleman Hawkins and Big Ben and Don Byas, you know, all of that.  And I’ve just come up, and there’s so many great tenor players, Newk… But you know, Trane for me…you know, it was something very special.  Again, it was that sage, that saintly quality, you see.  Because I always hooked that up with these musicians.  For me, they were guiding us and leading us, and they were talking about it all.  I just had great adoration for him.

And when people say, well, that I sound like him or something… Man, I wish I did!  What I’m saying is I loved him so much, and I take that as a compliment.  However, time has borne out that… I think I have grown to have a sound and an approach that certainly comes from all those great masters…

But again, getting back to Trane, he profoundly affected me, as did the others.  Ornette also.

TP:    Do you remember first hearing him?  And Ornette.

CL:    Dig this.  Do you know where I first heard Trane?  This is very interesting.  I first heard him in 1955 with Dewey, and they were playing at Jazz City in Hollywood.  I had gone to California to interview for the University of Southern California.  This is interesting, because he played in starts and stops.  He would play a little bit… Then Dewey also was doing the Santini thing of sending him off the stage!  He was being hard.  You know how Lady Day…I mean, Dewey could be a nice bunch of guys… So he was sending him off the stage, and all kinds of nonsense like that.

But I just kept following him.  Then I remember they made that record, remember “Stablemates” and all that stuff, and I was listening to that, and it was like…it was so… It was so fulfilling.  You know?  It was so rich.  It was so much quality and so much beauty, and his search and his aspiration.  All I can say is that I always had that in me.  When I wasn’t good as a little kid, I still had the great search.  And that thing we definitely had in common, a great spiritual quest.  And he definitely… As I said earlier, I’m not the dust of his shoes.  But sometimes all these great masters come through and they bless me with this special benediction, and I feel really uplifted.

TP:    You asked me to remind you to say a few words about Monk, and also Ellington if we have time.

CL:    Oh, I’ll be real quick.  Okay.  The thing about Monk was, I was playing opposite him at the Village Gate, and he would kind of dance around the walls and stuff.  You know that beautiful dance he used to do?  And Nica, the Baroness, you know… By this time I was a precocious kid, you know, like youngsters can be.  I thought I knew everything.  I’m in my late twenties, I had the group with Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette and Cecil McBee.  So we were playing at the Village Gate.  So I had a special thing in my rider that I had to have fresh orange juice, no more than six hours off the tree, and that kind of nonsense, you know.  I was trying to be a brutarian or something like that.  So Monk would come in, he’d be checkin’ Junior out…

Incidentally, one other thing I have to tell you quickly is, before I joined Cannonball I had an invitation from Monk’s manager to come and play with Monk.  He called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you go to Monk’s house and play with him.”  I said, “I’d love to.”  He said, “Well, Monk wants you to play with him.”  I said, “Well, great.  Have him give me a call.”  I didn’t understand intermediaries in those days.  So somehow I didn’t get to do that.

But anyway, we were backstage at the Village Gate between sets.  So I told Nica, “Nica, when Monk comes here, please tell him not to drink the orange juice because it’s tainted tonight.”  So Monk comes in and she said, “Thelonious, Thelonious, Thelonious, Charles said don’t drink the orange juice, it’s tainted, it’s tainted!”  And he didn’t pay any attention to anybody, he’s just dancing.  So finally he gets over by the pitcher of orange juice, he picks it up, and he kind of dances over by me, and he just goes [GLUG-GLUG-GLUG…”] — he gobbled the whole thing down.  And he looked straight into my eyes and he said, “Tainted, huh.”  I was reading a book at that book called Milarepa, a hundred thousand songs from this Tibetan saint.  He would take poison and turn into soma or elixir.  So I said, “I’m not ready.”  It was getting to be time for me to leave.

The thing about Duke, I was in Antibes, and Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, they just took me to their feet, and they took me to Sidney Bechet’s gravesite over there, and they gave me an initiation that remains with me to this day.  And Duke told me that if I keep stirring the soup that one day I’d have something.  They just gave me love and conviviality, you know, and again, they transformed something.

TP:    Made you feel very connected also.

CL:    Oh, man!  And Mister Carney was…both of them were so beautiful.

* * * *

Charles Lloyd  – (5-31-95):

TP:    Last year you came up for an Out To Lunch, and we spent a long time talking about your early years in Memphis.  It was a fascinating show.  It seems to me that the title of this release and the liner notes all refer to Memphis…

CL:    That’s only because of your show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You tell some of the similar stories.  A few words about what’s behind this record and how you conceived it.  And why would you say it was because of that particular show that you’d start thinking about Memphis?

CL:    I was humoring you.

TP:    Oh, thank you.

CL:    No, Memphis, it’s in Egypt, and it was someplace that formed me and informed me.  I heard Bird, you know.  That’s so great, man.  I have to get up so early in the morning, like 8:20 in the morning, to check Bird out on the air.  That’s wonderful, to be on the airwaves.  No other city does that!

TP:    Where did you hear Bird in Memphis?

CL:    Uh…

TP:    Oh, did you say you heard Bird in Memphis, or you were hearing him this morning?

CL:    I hear him every morning.  I get up.  Even when I play at the Blue Note I’ll still get up to hear the music.  And when I was a little kid, I’d go to bed, and Bird wouldn’t come on the radio until midnight, because this kind of music wasn’t played during the daylight hours on the radios at that time.  So I’d have to stay up all night and fool my mother that I was nuts, that I was asleep, and I’d wait for Bird to come on, and I’d soar.  So it’s always been like that.

TP:    Well, you were around the music from the beginning, because I gather your mother had a rooming house…

CL:    No, she didn’t have a rooming house.  It was just one of her girlfriends, you know, worked at the theaters and knew that these musicians, these great artists, needed accommodations on a very (?) level.  So my Mom had a nice home.  So Lionel Hampton and a few people stayed there.

TP:    Well, you have vivid memories, expressed in the notes, about seeing the musicians in Lionel Hampton’s band as a youngster, and being very impressed.

CL:    Oh yeah.

TP:    And hanging out with Quincy Jones, approximately a peer of yours.

CL:    Well, he’s got a little more mileage on the chassis than me.  But we were precocious little kids, you know.

TP:    Has this been a busy year for you?  Have you been doing a lot of writing, thinking, performing?  You said you just got back from 20 concerts in Europe.

CL:    Yes, I just played 20 concerts in about a month in Europe.  So I would probably normally be a basket case.  But there’s something strange about this music.  You kind of get energized or something.  Something happens where it goes beyond the physical situation.  Because that travel and all that stuff can be quite arduous, but when you get to play the music and get people to be so touched by it, it’s always been very beautiful for me.

TP:    It’s a different band this week.

CL:    This is true.

TP:    You have Billy Childs and Santi DiBriano.  A few words about the members of the band.

CL:    Well, the tour was with a group that I’ve been recording with, with Bobo and Anders and Billy — with Jabali there.  Coming back home, there were problems in bringing the guys over this time, because two of the guys live in Sweden, and Billy lives in New York — and I’m not quite sure where my home is.

Billy Childs is someone that I’ve been observing over the years, and he makes recordings and such that I can’t quite… I think he has large talent that’s something… and in the wildness of my music I can bring something out in him.  I’m taking on a challenge here.  Santi, of course, comes from Jabali’s world, and Jabali recommended him very highly, as did Billy Childs.  But Billy I think has a very large talent.  And I like pianists, as you probably know; of course, drummers I love.  So I have always tried to develop something, some rapport there.  Billy’s instrument is normally too clean, but I think playing with me it will get a little more ragged, you know.

TP:    Well, let’s hear some more music from All My Relations.  You said that today you want to speak in more or less sound bite chunks…

CL:    Well, no.  I just thought last time I kind of probably OD’ed the airwaves with this verbiage, and I really love music, and so I thought, “Gee, Ted will probably…”  And the listeners, they want to hear music.  I got this kind of monotone on the Memphis thing…

TP:    Well, dynamics are everything, and we’ll be contrasting here.  So let’s hear a little piece from All My Relations…

CL:    You mean I’m not being rambunctious today or something?

TP:    You’re fine just the way you are.

CL:    I don’t want to control this, Ted!  You know?

TP:    Let’s hear “Little Peace,” a flute piece…

CL:    Little Peace.  That’s my dear friend, Booker Little, you know.  Booker Little Peace.

TP:    You knew him from Memphis.  A few words about him before we play it.

CL:    Great sage, great saint, beautiful soul, died at 23, or at least left the body at 23.  In Memphis we played together in various bands.  Phineas Newborn was a real focus for us, or was our big mentor, and all the other string of tradition that you already know about.  Booker had something very special.  When I first arrived in New York in ’60, I joined Chico Hamilton; Eric Dolphy had left and gone with Mingus.  I checked into Prez’ old hotel, because I have some fascination with Prez and Lady Day, as you well know.  Booker said, “no, you can’t stay there,” and he took me home up on East 92nd Street with him, and he talked to me long into the night about the eternal verities and about character building and all kinds of things that we never really talked about in Memphis.  It was like he was a wise man then and ready to… He had made his peace.  And to this day I’m still moved by my relationship with Booker Little.  Very profoundly so.  He was a real… I still hear that saintliness and that sage thing in all of this music, because obviously, you know, this mad hassle, gymnasium world that we all live in, you realize that these music-makers have brought so much great beauty into the world.  So that’s what happened for me.  And then Booker put the other thing on top of it.  He brought the spiritual value home, and was really… I also think that when he died, he was the most advanced on his instrument for me.  I loved him very much.  And it’s kind of strange that Max lost Clifford and Booker.

You know, when Booker left Memphis, he went to Chicago and he stayed at the Y, and he met Sonny Rollins there at the Y, who was doing a kind of sabbatical in Chicago at that period in time, and also he met Clifford and Max and all.  He loved Clifford so much.  And when Clifford died, Booker, who was very young then, a teenager, he said, “Why couldn’t it have been me?”  I mean, how many of us have that kind of compassion or such a big soul?

So I was touched by someone who was extremely profound.  If people sometimes ask… I remember once Freddie Hubbard asked someone, “Where is Charles Lloyd?”  He said, “Oh, don’t tell me.  I know he’s out there in the woods, meditating or something.”  But the point is, Booker and a lot of these sages, like Monk and Milarepa and all of them, sent me packing.  And I try to bring something back now.

[MUSIC: “Little Peace”, “Thelonious Theoniyus”]

TP:    I assume from the title of this album that these compositions have many layered meanings to you, and many references.  So a few words about “Thelonious Theonyus.”

CL:    But they have many layers.  I would spoil it by coming in there, putting meringue and stuff on it.

TP:    That’s true.

CL:    I like my mangos.  I still like barbecue sauce, but I put it on corn and stuff like that.  Corn on the cob, you put some barbecue sauce on it.

TP:    When was the last time you had that?

CL:    From my garden, you know, when the season is right.  I have stuff in season.  I have a nice garden.  Have you ever had really fresh mulberries off the tree?

TP:    No, never.

CL:    They’re so sweet, man, but you’ve got to get them really true.  I just love mulberries.  And you wouldn’t think of that, you know, when you think of Mulberry Street.  You wouldn’t get all extaterated, you know…

TP:    While we were on microphone, you were talking about hearing Booker Little with Eric Dolphy and Blackwell at the Five Spot.  You succeeded Eric Dolphy in Chico Hamilton’s group in the 1960’s?  Were you friends in Los Angeles?
CL:    Yes, we were.  We played in Gerald Wilson’s Big Band together.

TP:    [SILENT]

CL:    Oh!  Yeah, I’m sorry, man.  Monk was very important to me.  He had something extremely special, and I’m glad that his music lives on in the airwaves of all of our hearts.  He taught me a lot.  We used to play opposite each other at the Village Gate, and I told you about the orange juice story ages ago.

TP:    I guess you did.

CL:    And Milarepa.  But you know, he’s just so deep and so pregnantly powerful with his silent night stuff, that I just loved him very much.

What were you asking me about?

TP:    Dolphy.

CL:    Now, Dolphy… See, there’s a guy behind all of that.  Buddy Collette was, like, Dolphy’s teacher.  Now, Buddy Collette is a very special cat.  Now, Buddy Collette also was Mingus’ teacher.  Buddy Collette is a very strange individual in that he has not only persevered, but he has sort of…how do you say… He has made peace with himself in the world.  He even went and did studio work out there for years.  But what I’m trying to say is… I’m now looking at this thing that we stand on all the shoulders of all these greats.  Like Lao Tzu was hiking one day, and the guy with plague was happening, and he had all this stuff on his back, and he said to Lao Tzu, “Old man, is this all you got away with?” — and Lao Tzu was walking with his walking cane at about 80, you know.  So he said, “Yes, precisely.”  It’s like a larger nation can always… But it doesn’t work that way in politics.

You asked me about politics last time.  I thought that was such a wrinkle.  Who is not touched in their lifetime by the adversity and the strangeness of the whole mechanics of greed and all that…you know, racism’s grandmother and stuff.  So enough said on that.  I’ve dealt with it, see.

Becoming an elder, the kid in me is still… We’re all ecstatics at birth.  We have that possibility.  So what I’m trying to say is that somehow this music is always… I remember I always had this tricycle.  Like, I was maybe 3, and I’d be riding it around really hard, and I remember my Mom would yell outside, “Charles, Junior, what are you doing on the tricycle?”  I’m trying to get rid of the third wheel.  Because I wanted to leave Memphis, you know.  But I had to meet Phineas and all that kind of stuff.

But anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the ecstatic in us… There’s something about this music.  It’s a music of wonder, played by these great creators.  It’s just… I think we live in a world where people don’t get to hear… The music, it’s sort of… It’s like what happened to me when I was a kid.  I’d have to wait until midnight to hear it.  Now there’s so many layers of Pop stands and Coca-Cola refreshment places or something, that you can’t get to the real Matuki.  You know what I’m saying.

TP:    In the liner notes, you referred to a teacher named Irvin Reason.

CL:    Irving Reason.  I talked to you about him last time.  He and Don Cherry, I’d say, were together.  They met each other in the Tombs and talked about those days in Memphis.

TP:    You played a lot of blues when you were in Memphis also.

CL:    I still play the blues.

TP:    Again, I’m referring to the very informative liner notes.  If you buy All My Relations you get to hear a kind of compressed version of our show last year.

CL:    Yeah, you inspired it.  Then they said to me, “You’ve got to write a book now.”  Then this publisher ran up to me in Italy recently, and he read the liner notes, and he said, “Oh God, these are incredible.  I must have the rights in Italy.  I must have the rights.”  They over there doing programs on the indigenous people who lived over here way before these people, Columbus and these cats, came over here claiming to be discovering stuff.

Where are we, brother?

TP:    “I’m always playing the blues,” you said.  You and a lot of the musicians you came up with in Memphis really cut your teeth on those type of gigs.

CL:    Well, those were the gigs, but that wasn’t what we were really aspiring to.  You understand?  It’s sort of like a guy has to do a day job to do his thing.  I mean, nothing against the Blues, but the Blues was so… I wanted to play up in Mitchell’s Hotel with Bill Harvey’s band, with Irvin and all the cats, Louis Smith, Booker Little’s older cousin.  I did play in Phineas’ father’s band when Phineas and Calvin were in the band.  I played in all those groups.  Willie Mitchell had a big band that played like Dizzy’s big band, you know, and that was a precursor to Gerald Wilson.  Now, Gerald is from down there, around Memphis also.  So there’s something that happens.

But you see, although I am from down there, the Modern thing in New York, it filters through my song, because I came here… I always knew I had to get here.  But I had to take the detour, the pineapple hit me on the head en route to go to California, and then we all finally got here.  But that was quite wonderful when we got here… See, giants roamed the earth then.  It was a simpler time in some ways, simpler in the sense that the neighborhood and the community and the musicians, there was some real simpatico.  Ornette and Eric and I had been together in California.  Billy Higgins and I played together, and we used to love to play… You know, Billy Higgins and I still play together sometimes, man.  It’s come back after all those years, and it just makes me so thrilled.

TP:    You said you were going to be performing with him this summer, with Dave Holland on bass.

CL:    Billy Higgins and Dave Holland and myself, we’re going to play some music together.  That should be interesting.

[ETC.]

Working with you is like another chance to tell the truth, you know?

TP:    What was the Chico Hamilton experience like for you?

CL:    Why do you go there?  Why don’t you talk about my dreams?  My dreams are actually bigger than my memories, quiet as it’s kept.  If you think I’m just a memory lane cat…

TP:    No, not a bit.  I’d feel a little awkward saying “What are your dreams?”

CL:    No, I’m not going to talk about those.  But the time thing that you bring up, you see, there is no time, if you look at it from a pull-back… You know, if you pull back and look at it from a macro level, the time thing gets squashed.  The music happens, there is no time.  It’s the eternal verities and all that stuff, getting back to Booker and that.

What was it like playing with Chico?  I was a young man, and I wrote all this music, you know, and I had a place that I could play it!

TP:    A good workshop.

CL:    A good place to play it!  I got cats to play it with me and stuff like that, and Chico was very open to it, because… Like that, you know?  Then one time we were playing in Canada, and Miles came onstage in Montreal, and he said, “Here’s the cat who stole your band!” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t stolen his band!  We were having a good time.  Chico is very brilliant.  Look who he had in his group.  He had Buddy Collette, he had Eric, he had different cats in the group all the.

TP:    Gabor Szabo, Arthur Blythe.

CL:    Gabor Szabo.  People don’t understand.  Gabor had a little twang.  I liked that.  He heard the gypsies over there in Hungary when he was a kid.

Oh, man, time is ticking away, Ted.  Don’t do this to me, man!  Play some of the music.  Look, here’s what you do.  Play “Piercing The Veil,” “Hymn To The Mother,” and then you play “Evenstide.”

TP:    Well, we have to be off at 3.  So I can only do one.

CL:    Well, this is a university, so you do have your freedom.  And universities are places where you can put ideas in the air.  We all need education, we need love, we need this home thing happening, and it’s important to hear the music in spite of all those filters that go on that keep the music away from the people.

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Filed under Charles Lloyd, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

* * *

Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Michael Brecker, Tenor Saxophone