Category Archives: Tenor Saxophone

For Jimmy Heath’s 85th Birthday: A 2001 DownBeat Article, and WKCR Interviews from 1993 and 1995

To observe the 85th birthday of Jimmy Heath, a long-standing master of the tenor saxophone and the art of composition, and a keen student of human nature, I’m posting a feature that I wrote for DownBeat on the occasion of a 75th birthday concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the complete transcribed proceedings two programs on WKCR—a 1995 “Jazz Profiles” retrospective of his music, and a 1993 Musician Show with Mr. Heath and his younger brother, the master drummer, Albert “Tootie” Heath.

Jimmy Heath (DB, #1):

Over the course of 58 years as a professional jazz musician, Jimmy Heath has played with, befriended, or witnessed virtually every consequential figure in his field.  So from his perspective, the only possible title for his 75th birthday concert could be, “He Walked With Giants.” Throughout the invigorating proceedings, Heath played the tenor and soprano saxophones with authoritative command, spontaneously composing, conjuring long, lyric lines that he articulated with mellow warmth.  He demonstrated that he breathes the same rarefied air as the legends to whom he paid homage.

Benny Golson, Heath’s friend for most of those 58 years, attended the concert, and was happy to elaborate.  “What’s amazed me about Jimmy since I’ve known him is how he is able to move through chords, not scientifically, but melodically,” says Golson. “He’s got a true tenor sound, and everything that goes with it — the articulation, concept, punctuation and pacing. He doesn’t give you an endless slew of notes. He plays ideas.  It’s like a conversation, but musical, not linguistic. He has a story to tell, and it’s right in tune with those chords.”

Heath is equally adept telling stories with the pen; his oft-covered compositions, which number over 130, plumb essences with a minimum of fuss.  Many appear on a long string of classy recordings with small groups and mid-sized ensembles that balance meticulous orchestrations and soulful, lucid improvising in equal measure. He offered six during the first half of the concert, joined by an array of family (brothers Percy on bass and Albert on drums) and friends (Slide Hampton, trombone; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet) in configurations ranging from trio to nonet.  After intermission, Heath — who cut his teeth in the big band era — was in his element, conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra through a commissioned homage from Wynton Marsalis, his own arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” and four more originals.

The composer found new contexts for each one.  On “Gingerbread Boy,” which Miles Davis famously reimagined two years after its first appearance (On The Trail [Riverside]), he reharmonized the line, then set up an invigorating tenor triologue with LCJOers Victor Goines and Walter Blandings.  He set up cogent polyphony between the sections on the rich harmonies of “Gemini,” which debuted on a 1962 sextet [Triple Threat] with Freddie Hubbard and french hornist Julius Watkins, but received its most famous — and lucrative — reading on a six-digit-selling Cannonball Adderley album.  There were other highlights.  The LCJO sax section executed a luscious soli section on “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” a dedication to Coleman Hawkins excerpted from “The African-American Suite of Evolution.  And Antonio Hart — a prize Heath student during the ’90s at Queens College — took a virtuoso turn on “Like A Son,” Heath’s tribute to their exceptionally close relationship.

“Jimmy’s tunes are not complicated, but they’re not dumb either,” Golson says. “They are logical and go someplace.  His music has arms and legs.” Heath deployed those appendages effectively throughout the evening, directing the band with a dance-oriented conducting style, replete with well-timed hand swoops, shoulder dips, elbow shimmmies and leg kicks. “Jimmy reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie in front of a band,” Golson states.  “Dizzy would act like he was throwing baseballs at Yankee Stadium…all kinds of things.”
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The concluding track on Heath’s only big band recording, Little Man, Big Band [Verve, 1992, now deleted], is a brassy tour de force with an Afro-Cuban feel. He called it “Without You, No Me,” the “you” referring to Gillespie, who commissioned the piece, and is first among equals in Heath’s pantheon of giants.

“Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington,” Heath says. “He is the master musician who was my mentor and was accessible to me throughout my life.  From the time I first met him, I asked questions, and he’d give me something I could use musically. He would demonstrate chord voicings on the piano and phrasing on his trumpet.  He’d tap out rhythms and sing ideas.  He showed me how to write in 3 or 5 or 7, and still syncopate in a way that’s jazz as opposed to straight classical writing.  With his whole being he was music, and I always wanted to be just like him.”

Gillespie came of age musically in Philadelphia in the mid-’30s, while Heath and his brother Percy were growing up in a household whose soundtrack spotlighted Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan. Sometimes they heard them at the Earle Theater, Philly’s TOBA outlet.  Heath fell under the spell of Carter and Johnny Hodges, and at 14 received an alto saxophone, which his father (an auto mechanic who played clarinet in an Elks band) purchased for $90 on the installment plan.  He quickly became proficient, learning to play in the marching band at Williston High School in Wilmington, N.C., where his grandparents owned a grocery store, and through private lessons back home on summer vacations. After graduation in 1943 (the “separate but equal” school stopped at 11th grade), he played with local big bands before joining a well-regarded territory unit out of Omaha led by Nat Towles, whose alumni included Buddy Tate and Sir Charles Thompson.

Heath discovered bebop while on the road with Towles. His first epiphany came at a dance hall in Savannah, Georgia, where the band was setting up for a one-nighter. Curious about Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism,” he put a nickel in the jukebox and heard Charlie Parker for the first time. “I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, ‘Man, check THIS guy out.'” he recalls. “We all began to put the money in.”  Later with Towles, he heard the Parker-Gillespie Guild sides (“Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House”).

“I didn’t realize it was the same guy I heard on the McShann records until after I quit and came back to Philly,” Heath says.  “Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter were beginning to move into a quicker-paced way of improvising.  But I liked Charlie Parker’s lines, his phrasing, use of alternate notes and undertones in the chords. I always refer to Charlie Parker as a volcano. His playing bubbles for a while before it flows into some wonderful phrase that you can’t expect. He builds in the bottom of his horn, creating this intensity, and then pops out with something that knocks you to your knees. Charlie Parker played what you wished you’d thought of first, the perfect lick and the perfect idea in the perfect place. He was a genius!  And I don’t use that word as much as some people.”

Back in Philly, Heath and his big brother spent intensive time in the woodshed, augmented by long practice sessions with fellow altoist John Coltrane, fresh from a tour of duty in the Navy. The Hodges-Carter devotee began to zoom in on Parker’s style, becoming so adept that musicians outside of Philadelphia began referring to him as “Little Bird.”  The appellation was so evidently welcome that Heath recalls trumpeter Freddie Webster saying, “You come when they call you that, don’t you?”

The time with Towles “sold me on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it,” Heath states. He began to recruit “everybody in the city of Philly who I thought was interested in playing the music I was trying to write,” eventually assembling a tight, 17-piece bebop outfit that stayed together for two years. Personnel included such budding flowers as Golson (on fourth tenor), Coltrane, trumpeter Johnny Coles, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Nelson Boyd and drummer Specs Wright; they rehearsed the sections in Heath’s living room, where they ate food prepared by Heath’s mother, Alethia, and performed cabaret and dance functions for black audiences in West and South Philadelphia.  Heath commissioned inexpensive charts from local arrangers John Acea and Leroy Lovett, transcribed Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie recordings, and contributed his own nascent efforts.

Notorious for its blue laws, late ’40s Philadelphia nonetheless featured a vibrant nightlife, and was a frequent destination for New York musicians.  The brothers met most of them, often inviting them to 1927 Federal Street for home-cooking courtesy of Alethia Heath.

“Fats Navarro and Coleman Hawkins came to my house when they played the 421, and so did Bird, Miles, Dizzy — all of them,” Heath relates. “My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited; my parents treated them like their children or friends.  When Fats came, he took out his trumpet and played a bit.  My Mom liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles, and I know for a fact that Clifford Brown was enamored with Fats Navarro, and played something like that until he found his own style. He passed that along to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford.

“I heard Fats in Tadd Dameron’s octet in the Royal Roost opposite Dizzy when Dizzy had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo. Fats Navarro was SCREAMING on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful; Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats could play very high, with clear, warm sound. Tadd liked to have Fats play all his first trumpet parts, because he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.”

But Heath’s heart belonged to Gillespie.  Their lifelong friendship began in late 1946, when the orchestra came to Philadelphia to play a dance, and 55″Percy and I went to the ballroom where Dizzy was playing, and invited the band for dinner,” he recounts. “John Lewis came in a full-length fur coat (my sister called him ‘Fur Coat’ for the rest of her life), and that’s when I met Kenny Clarke and James Moody. Dizzy’s band extended what Charlie Parker had done, incorporating the hip bebop lines that the soloists played into the ensemble. It was more involved technically, with more notes and harmonic extensions of chords and polychords. Percy and I followed the band around with our berets and artist ties, the same as Dizzy and them were wearing. We became known as the Heath Brothers from Philly, and we’d follow the band and stand in front of it wherever they played — in Delaware, the Savoy, or 52nd Street.”

In the autumn of 1949, after a couple of years on the road with Howard McGhee, and a brief stint with Gillespie’s erstwhile collaborator Gil Fuller, Heath got the gig.  During his 18 months with Gillespie, he received a veritable post-graduate course in improvisational tactics and approaches to writing for jazz orchestra.

“When John Coltrane and I played altos in his band, we were amazed at how Dizzy improvised in a big band context,” Heath recalls. “A big band can inhibit a soloist.  Dizzy knew how to draw on the power of a big band and still get all his stuff in.  We’d listen to Dizzy play the two-bar break after the introduction on ‘I Can’t Get Started.’  Everybody has pet cliches and ideas that they rely on.  But as long as I was there, he never played the same thing; he’d make a variation or add or delete something. He was a true improviser.

“Gil Fuller helped me. He insisted on putting excitement in your music, making your introduction command attention — the introduction to ‘Things To Come’ makes everybody look around!  He said that Tadd Dameron’s songs were window-dressing, that they weren’t exciting. They were rivals, of course. I liked them both. Tadd’s music emphasized romance and beauty and feeling and soul; he was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn. George Russell wrote some very abstract things for Dizzy, and I listened to Gerald Wilson also. I also began thinking about small-group writing by hearing J.J. Johnson.  Between knowing them and listening at home to people like Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver and Benny Carter, I went through a trial-and-error period, until I came up with what I had.

Gillespie broke up the big band in 1950 for financial reasons; Heath remained with the pared-down sextet, and finally left in early 1951.  He moved back to Philadelphia and — like Coltrane — became a tenor saxophonist. “When Jimmy switched to tenor, his interpretation of music changed,” Golson states.  “The tenor demanded something else, and he came up to that.  It wasn’t like an alto player was playing the tenor saxophone.”  Heath says that part of his motivation was economic.  “After the clubs hired the rhythm section, the tenor was their instrument of choice,” he notes. “Also, it was impossible to play the alto without playing Charlie Parker licks!  I thought maybe I could find a little bit of Jimmy Heath in there.

“I had begun to like what I heard on the tenor from Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. Sonny Stitt had the execution of Charlie Parker, he was very clean and precise.  But Dexter had a big warm sound that was compelling.  Coltrane was playing like Dexter at that time, too.  We got records like ‘The Chase’ and all the songs Dexter put his name on — ‘Dexter’s Deck,’ ‘Dexter’s Minor Mad,’ ‘Dexterity.’ Dexter was in love with Dexter, but he was a charmer. And he could PLAY.”

Heath moved to New York in 1952, and spent six months working on day jobs before the union recognized his change of residence. Unfettered, he immmediately cemented his credentials as an improviser-composer-arranger with the Symphony Sid All-Stars, a group comprised of Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, whose repertoire is documented on a Davis-led 1953 Blue Note sextet that includes Heath’s “C.T.A.,” a bop classic.  During that year Heath also recorded with Kenny Dorham for Debut and with J.J. Johnson for Blue Note, the latter date marking Clifford Brown’s first recording.  He seemed poised to claim his place as the next major voice from his generation on his instrument.  Then he was arrested on a heroin charge, and went to prison for four-and-a-half years.

“I was scheduled to go with Max Roach when he started his group,” he recalls.  “I was scheduled to go with Tadd Dameron when Benny Golson got the gig.  But due to illness, I couldn’t make either one of those.  It happened to me as a result of being on the rebound of a love affair, a temptation to do something to get out of the doldrums.  Then it took on a life of its own.  It deterred my recognition as a jazz soloist; it was the time when small group jazz took hold, and I was not on the scene.  I mean, I was with Miles before Coltrane.  Being off the scene stifled my career, but it saved my life.  Most of those who were out there with me are gone.”

Heath did not squander his lost years; assigned to clerk duty, he had ample time to write and rehearse the prison band.  Upon his release, he moved home to Philadelphia, and signed — at the instigation of Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones — with Riverside Records, for which he functioned as a de facto staff arranger and led six strong, still vivid albums that reflect an increasingly personal, confident vision.  He moved back to New York in 1964, just as the label folded, and slogged through the late ’60s hardcore jazz recession, reflecting a marketplace that no longer welcomed bebop.

Eight years passed before Heath’s next recording, “The Gap Sealer,” a “variety package” on which he expanded his palette of tones and colors, incorporating soprano saxophone and flute, electric keyboards, African melodies, and funk beats.  In the interim, he took steps to move beyond the “mother wit and intuition” upon which he’d previously depended, studying with Schillinger teacher Rudolph Schramm, whose pupils included Eubie Blake, Mercer Ellington and Jimmy Jones, studying orchestration, string and vocal writing, and extended form composition. These interests began to cohere when, taking advantage of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “retirement,” he joined forces with Percy and Albert — who had played in tandem on four of his Riverside recordings — as the Heath Brothers.  Signed to Columbia in 1978, they released four strong-selling albums, including the Grammy-nominated Live At the Public Theater, supervised by Heath’s percussionist-producer son Mtume.  And in 1987, Heath took a tenured position teaching arrangement and composition on the faculty of Queens College, creating a highly regarded Jazz Studies program with such luminaries as Roland Hanna and Donald Byrd.

In an effort to provide new material for his students every semester, Heath rejuvenated his big band juices.  “My interest hasn’t waned at all,” says Heath, who recently retired, leaving him time to pursue a performing schedule that might tax a man half his age. “I have three new arrangements — on ‘The Thumper,’ on ‘New Keep,’ which I wrote for Orrin Keepnews, and one that Ray Charles did when Johnny Coles and Blue Mitchell were in the band called ‘Togetherness’ — that I’m trying to get to the copyist now.  If people have heard them before, it was as sextet music.  Whenever you return to your music and rewrite it, you add and change things, and it evolves into something quite different.”

Perhaps Heath played with more energy and stronger attack in his earlier years, but the force of his tonal personality is undiminished. “I try to sing on my instrument,” he says.  “I think all the alto players in my day aspired to leading a saxophone section, and the lead alto players then had to sustain the melodies, play them with a certain tenderness and dynamic range, which you don’t get if you just play in a small group.  If you heard Marshall Royal play lead alto with the Basie band, you know how to sing.  If you hear Benny Carter, you know how to sing a melody.  On a couple of records I did for Riverside, Cannonball Adderley played lead alto — he knew how to sing.  Johnny Hodges was the greatest singer of all time.  He could out-sing a vocalist with words!  Lester Young and Ben Webster could play a ballad with the tenderness of a singer.  Miles Davis gives me the same tingle on a ballad that a good singer does.

“You can’t just be a machine gun and play fast. The school teaches everybody to do the techniques. But there is a certain thing about a saxophone. To me, it should sound similar to a viola. That’s what Ben Webster sounds like on ‘Danny Boy.’ When I write my arrangements on my computer for the saxophone section, I use the violin sound for the altos, violas for the tenors, and the cello sound for the baritone. I love that sustaining quality.”

Heath elaborates on an aesthetic developed from section playing.  “I can get just as much reward from being in an ensemble and liking how they play something I’ve written as from having everybody clap when I play a solo,” he says.  He means it; only one album in his oeuvre, the classic Picture Of Heath [Xanadu, 1975] features him alone with a rhythm section.  “Soloing is great.  But I always wrote stuff for other people to be on the record, too.”

All well and good.  But Heath’s relaxed dance continues to compel.  “Musically, this man is Dorian Gray,” Golson concludes.  “What he does on his tenor belies 75 years.  This man has vision and he’s always moving ahead, which is good.  He makes his musical life an adventure; he goes to the same forest every day, but he doesn’t touch the same trees.  Like anything else — architecture, clothing, medicine — jazz, too, should move ahead.  Jimmy Heath is one of the forces that helps move it ahead. Jimmy Heath is an icon, and he is truly a master.”

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Jimmy Heath Profile (WKCR), 3-22-95):

[MUSIC:  “Picture Of Heath” (1975); “Basic Birks” (1991); “Without You, No Me” (1992); w/Lee Morgan “Bruh Slim” (1962)]

TP:    You’ve brought along a number of recordings, including that last date with fellow Philadelphian Lee Morgan at Birdland in 1962, which you wanted to speak about.

JH:    Well, Spanky DeBrest and Albert Heath are also Philadelphians, so there are four Philadelphians on the record, along with Barry Harris.  The other thing is that it wasn’t recorded to our knowledge,  This is a bootleg record that somebody taped off the radio and eventually put it out.  So we weren’t paid for the record at all.  Then the man asked me to do the liner notes on it, and I did those, and he paid me for that.  But I’ve never been paid for the recording.

TP:    Let’s talk about the Philadelphia days, which we’ve done on past shows, but I think we can do it again.  Music in your family, your coming-up as a musician and your beginnings in music.  How did you come to playing the reeds?  Was music in the home?  Was it there for you?

JH:    Oh, yes.  Our parents, Percy, Senior, and Alethia(?), were dedicated to our music, and had recordings in the house of all the top Black artists of that time — and White.  But they had Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Basie, Benny Carter, and other people who I heard.  They offered each one of us boys…and my sister; they offered her to play an instrument, and she took piano for a while, then stopped.  Percy took violin, and played it in the junior high school orchestra.  When they asked me what I wanted to my play (my father was a clarinet player, and my mother sang in church choir), I said I wanted to play the alto saxophone, after hearing Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.  My father bought me an alto saxophone for ninety-some bucks; it took him a year or more to pay for it…

TP:    That was during the Depression.

JH:    Yes, it was!  It was around 1939 or ’40, somewhere like that.

TP:    So you started on the cusp of being a teenager.

JH:    Yes, I was 14 when I got it.

TP:    But you’d been absorbed in music, I guess, all your life through hearing it in the home and so forth.

JH:    Yes.  My father and mother had a friend who had a record shop.  And anything new that came out, we were informed of it by our friend who ran the record shop.  One of my favorites was always Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan and people like that.  We had those records in the house, and we heard that all the time, so that’s the music I was raised hearing besides, you know, church, Gospel Music.

TP:    Were you taken to the theaters in Philadelphia to hear the bands coming through when you were young, or did that start later for you?

JH:    No, my father used to take us to hear the bands at a theater on South Street.  I can’t remember the name of it, I was so young.  Percy probably remembers better than I about this occasion, but Duke Ellington was there, and he took us to meet Duke Ellington.

TP:    Do you have any memory of the occasion?

JH:    Well, the only thing I remember is that he touched me on my head and said, “Hi, sonny.”

TP:    Did your father play professionally at all, or was it an avocation for him?

JH:    It was an avocation.  He didn’t play professionally.  He was an auto mechanic, and got his clarinet out of the pawn shop on weekends and played with the Elks marching band.  He had a few little jazz licks he used to play around the house, you know, but he wasn’t a professional.

TP:    I’d like to talk about your education on the instrument as well.  Who were the first people who gave you tuition on the saxophone?

JH:    Well, I was going to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I started when my father gave me that saxophone.  That’s where I began to play, and I began there in high school and played in the marching band, playing for all of the football games and what have you.  I used to go back to Philly in the summer and take private lessons from a couple of different people.  One man was named Terry, Mr. Terry, who was into the Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter sound.  Then I studied with another man, Paul Amati(?), who was connected in some way with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I don’t know what he played, and I don’t remember what instrument he played, but he taught me alto saxophone.

TP:    Was there a particularly good band-master at the high school you attended?  Which, by the way, was what high school?

JH:    Williston High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The band-master liked Jazz a lot, and he started a Jazz band along with the marching band.  So that was my first introduction to playing in a Jazz band, in high school.

TP:    The lessons must have stuck, because you obviously became intensely attached to music and involved with it, and by the time you were 19 or 20 you were involved in a big band of some note in the Philadelphia area.  I’d like to discuss these years of development, what you listened to, and your progress in music let’s say between 1940 and 1945.

JH:    Well, it was the big band era when I got out of high school and graduated in 1943.  I played with the big bands around Philly.  Then I got a gig with a band in Omaha, Nebraska, led by Nat Towles.  Nat Towles’ band was a territorial dance band in the Midwest, and he had arrangements by Wild Bill Davis, the organist, he had some by Sir Charles Thompson.  These people had already been in the band before me, and they left a few examples of their writings with the band.  We played a lot of stock arrangements, of course.  That’s where I met my friend who I visited yesterday, Billy Mitchell.  We were in that band together in 1945.

Leaving that band, I came back to Philadelphia, and then decided to start my own big band.

TP:    Describe the scene in Philadelphia during your last couple of years of high school, before you went out on your own as a professional musician.  Were there a number of good local big bands?

JH:    Well, there were several big bands.  The Frankie Fairfax Big Band, the one that Dizzy had played with when he was in Philly.  Jimmy Gorum(?) and Mel Melvin, there were several bands…

TP:    Talk about these people a little bit.

JH:    Well, that’s a little before my time.  I was in school when Dizzy was there.  Dizzy always said, “Do you remember?” and no, I don’t remember when he was there.  I was in school.  When I came out of school, Frankie Fairfax’s band wasn’t the leading band around town.  It was Jimmy Gorem(?).  The first band I played with after coming out of school was led by Calvin Todd, a trumpeter who played like Roy Eldridge and wanted to be like Dizzy eventually — he was a strong trumpeter.  After leaving that band, I played with Mel Melvin’s band, and then went with Nat Towles in Omaha, Nebraska.

TP:    Were there any saxophonists around town who you particularly admired?

JH:    Sure.  There were people around Philly who could play very well.  One of them is still there, and that’s Jimmy Oliver.  We called him the Satin Doll because of his beautiful black complexion.  Satin Doll is still there.  He’s a wonderful player.  Trane, Benny Golson and all of us used to go listen to him.

TP:    You, John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all born around the same time, although there are a few years in between, and the relationship remained close for many years.  Talk about the beginnings of that triangular friendship.

JH:    Well, Benny is just a little younger.  Trane and I are actually the same age.  Trane was born on September 23, 1926, and I was born on October 25, 1926, one month later.  So Benny was younger.

I came into contact with Coltrane when he came out of the Navy, and I had this band, and I asked him did he want to play in my band.  He said, “Yeah.”  We both were playing altos at that time.  Benny came in the band a little later playing tenor.  But Trane and I were hanging out and transcribing as much Charlie Parker and Dexter and the cats that we could hear.  The beboppers had come out.  After leaving Nat Towles, the Bebop Era was in full bloom.  So that’s what we were about.  That’s what my big band was about.

TP:    Had you been onto the records from the very beginning when they came out in 1945?

JH:    Yes.  When I was with Nat Towles on the road I first heard “Swingmatism” and “Hootie Blues” by Jay McShann, and then later, when I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Hot House” and that stuff, I didn’t make the connection that it was the same person until later.  But I do know that the altoist just knocked me to my knees — and that was Charlie Parker, of course.

TP:    Were you sort of waiting to hear Charlie Parker at that time?

JH:    Well, no.  Because I was satisfied with Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter!  But he was so overwhelming until he just took me and everybody along with him to follow his tradition in music.  Dizzy always said that he was a person who had it all made when he met him — he had the style.

TP:    He took you by storm.

JH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Well, I’d like to talk about your arranging, because we have cued up the earliest recorded arrangement of yours, from 1949; your first recording was with Howard McGhee in 1948, where you played some alto and baritone.  Talk about the big band you set up in Philadelphia after leaving Nat Towles.

JH:    I used to go to Earle Theater and hear big bands all the time.  I used to go hear everybody’s band.  I liked the big band sound.  I was trying to learn how to write when I was with Nat Towles, but I never wrote anything for that band, so when I got home I was sold on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it.  This particular arrangement that you’re going to play is one that I had written for my band in Philadelphia, but we never recorded.  So Gil Fuller, who was one of my teachers and helped me to edit this arrangement and get it together, put it on a record that he made.  It’s very comical.  The vocal is by Gil Fuller, because the vocalist didn’t show up at the record date, and he decided he was going to sing it.  It’s a standard called “Mean To Me.”

TP:    Before we play it, though, I want you to talk a little more about your early writing and efforts at composing.  For instance, what is the earliest composition of yours that became part of what we know as the Jimmy Heath composition book?  Can you put your finger on that?

JH:    Well, I think the first composition that would give me any recognition was probably “C.T.A.”  Before that I had written one for Howard McGhee.  It was a Blues, and I thought I had written it, but actually it was a Charlie Parker lick ended by a Fats Navarro lick on the end — so I didn’t really compose anything!

TP:    In the big band that you led in Philadelphia, were you writing your original compositions or were you doing arrangements of other material, or playing other arrangers’ material?

JH:    I was playing other arrangers’ material, plus we were all trying to transcribe Dizzy’s stuff from the big band records he put out.  I had a guy named Leroy Lovett, who was a great writer, and Johnny Acea, who played with Dizzy’s band.  He played trumpet, tenor and piano.  He was a Philadelphian who was very versatile, and an arranger.  So I was last on the totem pole as far as writing for my band!

TP:    But you were going through all this material, organizing it and getting inside of it, a very good practical education for an aspiring arranger of music.

JH:    Well, all of my arranging skills were very practical in that sense, that I learned from my peers, until later when I started to study and take lessons.

TP:    Well, let’s begin this next set of music going back about forty-five years to July 11, 1949, the Gil Fuller Big Band, with Gil Fuller singing “Mean To Me.”

JH:    Wshew!

[MUSIC:  G. Fuller/J. Heath, “Mean To Me” (1949); Miles/J. Heath, “C.T.A.” (1952); J.J./J. Heath, “Capri” (1953)]

TP:    You said that shortly after “Mean To Me” was recorded, you joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, embarking on a very intense four or five years in the center of the New York Jazz scene.

JH:    Yes.  There was some controversy between Gil Fuller and Dizzy at the time, after having written all the stuff he had written, all the things like “Things To Come”… At least he orchestrated those things with Dizzy’s ideas on a lot of occasions.  But he was a great orchestrator.  So when he and Dizzy kind of came to a parting of the ways, he started a band in competition with Dizzy’s band, and that band is the band that you heard.  He also had Moody in one of those bands after he left Dizzy.  We had a battle of music, actually, with Dizzy’s band at the Audubon Ballroom.  After that competition, or battle of the bands, or whatever you may call it, Dizzy became more interested in me, and I joined his band after that.  He knew I’d had the band in Philly, and that we were playing his arrangements and all that.  Then, when we had the competition… Trane and I both eventually got with Dizzy about a month apart in 1949, in the Fall.  I think we made that record in August.

TP:    During the years you were running the big band, 1947-48-49, so many talented young musicians were active in Philadelphia, like Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.  Talk about some of the musicians who were working around Philadelphia during that time.

JH:    Well, Red and Philly Joe were around Philadelphia playing with Jimmy Oliver, “Satin Doll,” on gigs, and with others.  So they were doing more small group things around town.  Red Rodney was there.  Johnny Coles played in my band.  Ray Bryant played piano in my band.  Nelson Boyd was my bassist.  Percy, who had just gotten out of the Service, hadn’t really become familiar enough with the bass to play in the big band, to read the charts and everything.  He had been a violinist, and then went away into the Service.  So used Nelson Boyd, who became Miles’ bass player.  So the band was full of budding flowers.

TP:    Beautifully put.  In what venues were the flowers allowed to bloom somewhat in Philadelphia?  Did the band have a fair amount of work in those couple of years?

JH:    Well, we had cabaret parties and dances to play.  That’s what presented a problem, because we were playing Bebop, and people didn’t dance so readily to that.  That’s how I met my drummer, Specs Wright, who eventually played so well that people did start to dance to my band.  See, I didn’t have Philly Joe.  I had Specs Wright playing drums.  Specs Wright was an excellent reader, and he could play… He taught Philly eventually, and he played with Cannon, and Dizzy… I got him the gig with Dizzy, too, when I got with the band.

TP:    What were the main clubs in Philadelphia where the top stars would come through town?

JH:    Well, there was the 421 Club, the Showboat, Ridge Point.  This was a little before the Blue Note and Pep’s.  There were some other clubs that are not as famous.  Pep’s and the Showboat became famous Jazz clubs, where the national artists would pass through.

TP:    So Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young would all work at the Showboat or the 421 Club.

JH:    Eventually.  But there was one in Philly that black entrepreneurs owned, called the Zanzibar.  I heard Lester there with his quartet.  I heard Coleman Hawkins and Fats Navarro together there with a quintet.  Philly Joe and Percy, when he started playing, worked at a place called the Ridge Point.  Trane played up there with them on a gig; he was switching to tenor at that time.  The tenor was the instrument of choice with a small group, not the alto.  The tenor always was the fourth voice hired after the trio.

Then there was the Down Beat Club, which was a very important club.  That’s where I heard Charlie Parker and Miles, and Duke Jordan and Max and Tommy Potter.  That was the occasion when I loaned Charlie Parker my saxophone, because his was in pawn.  He would come to Philly in the afternoon, or in time for the gig, and I would meet him at the gig and take my horn to the Down Beat Club, and let him play it all night, and then I would take it back home, because he would commute back to New York and come back the next night.  I did that for six days.  Charlie Parker playing my horn, I was like a kid in the candy store — it was a dream come true.  I would take the horn into the cellar at my family’s home in the day-time, and he would leave his Brillheart white mouthpiece on the horn and everything, and just split at night.  I would take out the horn, and try to see if some of those beautiful lines were left in the saxophone — which I found out they were not!

That went on for a week.  Then on the weekend, I had a gig with the big band, and Charlie Parker came and played with the big band — and Max.  They sat in with my band on this occasion.  It was a benefit concert for a tragedy that had happened to a kid, a streetcar accident or something, and Charlie Parker played my horn in front of my band.  This photograph is legendary, and it’s around, where Trane has a cigarette in his hand, he’s looking at Charlie Parker, and he’s about to burn his hand and his mouth is wide open.  That’s one of the main photos I show all my students, to show them that the saxophone did not start with Coltrane!  There’s somebody before him.  It’s a continuum.  That was one of the memorable occasions of my life, to have Charlie Parker play my horn for a week, and then come by and sit in with my band.

TP:    It seems to me, as inspiring as Bird was to you and Coltrane, he was also, paradoxically, a primary reason why you gave up your emphasis on the alto saxophone and switched to the tenor.

JH:    Yeah, Charlie Parker was too rough to try to follow on alto.  So we all assumed the idea that if we changed to tenor and played Bebop, it would be different.  Not realizing that if you’re playing tenor, playing Bebop, you’re playing like Sonny Stitt and Dexter — because they’re playing Charlie Parker on tenor!  So it’s still Charlie Parker all the way.

TP:    It sounds like you and Trane paid almost as much attention to Dexter Gordon at that time as you did to Bird.

JH:    Well, Dexter was the tenor saxophonist who really incorporated the Bebop style.  He and Sonny Stitt were the most prominent.  But Dexter had a little holdover of Lester, and Sonny Stitt was all Bird.  Dexter had something that we liked that was more tenor-oriented.  Sonny sounded like an alto player playing tenor, which was very good.  He was very good and smooth.  But Dexter still had some of that Lester, which was uniquely a tenor quality.

TP:    Now, at that age, 23 or 24, were you still interested in new things, let’s say, that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were coming out with?  Or did you sort of put them aside for a while in your concentration on the new music?

JH:    Well, I was very interested in that.  Now, Trane and I had gotten some transcriptions made by Howard Johnson, the lead alto player with Dizzy, of Charlie Parker’s solo on “Don’t Blame Me” and other things.  There were people who were transcribing Charlie Parker and investigating his lines and how he got to where he was.  We all had that.  We were like second-string beboppers in Philadelphia.  We were close to the Bebop scene in its infancy, and we were able to follow through on that same music.  When Dizzy and Charlie Parker started the game, they passed the ball down to us.

TP:    You were part of the sort of second phase of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band between 1949 and 1951, and having performed some of his arrangements with your big band, you were family with his book when you entered.  What was Dizzy’s manner as a bandleader and in rehearsals?

JH:    Well, Dizzy was a wide-open, gregarious kind of person.  He was a dynamic conductor, and one of the best that I had ever seen with a big band.  He sang things the way he wanted them to be phrased.  We also had the music of Tadd Dameron, who wrote on the music if he wanted us to play eighth notes in a certain fashion.  He would write, “OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA-U-DA-DO, BAM”  Dizzy and all his disciples and colleagues had crystallized the way they wanted the Bebop music to sound.  So we tried to imitate that.

The only problem I had, Melba Liston was in the band and Gerald Wilson, and Dizzy would get a little upset about attendance or something sometimes, and try to pull out music that he thought we couldn’t handle.  In one instance, we were in Little Rock, Arkansas, to play a dance; Trane and I and Paul Gonsalves I think was in the reed section also.  We hadn’t played “Things To Come” until that time.  We could have won a fight against the audience.  We outnumbered the audience with the band!  So the people would come in and say, “Well, we don’t want to hear no Bebop; why don’t you send Buddy Johnson or Count Basie down here?” — and Dizzy was upset.  So after the gig, just before we closed the gig, “Play ‘Things To Come’!”  And he pulls out this music.  Of course, Trane and I had transcribed some of that stuff, and we knew it, so we made it through.  He was quite surprised that we were able to play the arrangement the first time we ever saw it.

TP:    Personally, was this the beginning of your friendship with Dizzy?  Had you met him a few years before in Philadelphia?

JH:    Yeah, I had met him with his big band.  I had seen him on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Philadelphia, I think it was in 1946 or ’45 when they came there, Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Al Haig, Max, and either Curly Russell or Tommy Potter.  But when he got the big band, we followed the big band everywhere on the East Coast that they would go.  Percy and I would put on our berets and artist ties like the band had on, and stand in front of the band, and Dizzy would recognize us: “There’s the Heath Brothers from Philadelphia.”  Tootie was too young to follow around with us then.  But Percy and I would imitate the dress and everything.  And we got next to Dizzy, and I eventually got the gig with the band, and I got Percy a gig with the band also, after!

TP:    I guess that’s around the time when your friendship with Milt Jackson began, too.

JH:    Definitely, and James Moody also — because Moody was in the band that we followed.  And Ray Brown also, who was another 1926 guy from my year.

TP:    What a year.

JH:    Yeah, that was a great year.

TP:    Fine vintage.

JH:    Miles.  There’s a lot of good guys from that year.

So Ray and Bags and Joe Harris, the drummer, were good friends.  Joe Harris is also from the same time, and is still in Pittsburgh.  They were hanging out together.  You know, we just struck a friendship with Dizzy on kind of a platonic basis, I mean, just association, no real serious…

TP:    Interplay.

JH:    No.  Percy had met him before I did, I think while I was with Nat Towles.  Percy was just out of the Service with his Lieutenant’s clothes on.  When I came home from Nat Towles, we chanced upon Dizzy coming in town, and Dizzy said, “Hey, Lieutenant!”  He called Percy “Lieutenant” because he was a fighter pilot and a Lieutenant, and he respected that.  I said, “Man, I thought you knew Dizzy.”  I got the gig with Dizzy first, and got Percy the gig.  I thought Percy knew him, but Dizzy knew him as being one of the early fighter pilots from World War Two.

TP:    That’s when you and the other young lions of the time would gather and play sessions and small group dates around New York and other places.

JH:    Well, the sessions were a big thing, the jam sessions during that time.  Everybody, all of my peers, were trying to learn how to play Bebop.  We would go either to Johnny Coles’ house or the Heaths’ house, and gather and try to learn all the songs we heard on the records.  Ray Bryant would be there, or Dolo Coker on piano, or once in a while Red Garland would come in.  But Philly or Specs Wright and Golson, Trane, we would all go and meet together and have these tremendous jam sessions.  Our mothers were very nice people.  Johnny Coles’ mother would fix Kool-Aid and sandwiches, and my mother would do the same.  So we had like a Jazz family in Philadelphia.

TP:    But after coming to New York and joining Dizzy Gillespie, you did various small group things in New York and the surrounding area with Milt Jackson or Miles, so forth and so on.  When did that start?

JH:    Well, I wasn’t privy to the jam sessions in New York as much.  When I got to New York, I was working with a band, so I wasn’t attending so many jam sessions.  Before I got with Dizzy, I remember coming to New York to go to Minton’s, and that was an occasion.  Well, my first gig in New York was actually with Howard McGhee at the Three Deuces.  That was an occasion where Hank Jones played the piano.  Hank Jones took me to his house and played “Cherokee” through the keys after the gig, and I was floored by that, that this what we had to do to be around New York to perform.  You had to learn everything in all the keys, because the guys who could really play would clear you off the bandstand by changing keys, or playing tunes that you couldn’t play.  But since Minton’s was one of the spots where the jam sessions were going, I went up there with Leo Parker.  Max was there, and Al Lucas — I stayed at his house that night.  Monk was there, and Lockjaw.  People like that were playing in the sessions at Minton’s.

TP:    The tracks we heard in the last set of music featured people like Clifford Brown, who came from Wilmington, not far from Philadelphia, so I’m sure you knew him, or of him, and J.J. Johnson and Miles, who were all part… In 1951 there was a Birdland All-Stars tour, and you were put together in a band… Yes, no?   Tell me.

JH:    After.  We’ll talk about that after…

TP:    After a set of music?  Okay, let’s talk about that then. [ETC.] The music we’ll hear comes from Jimmy Heath’s first recording date as a leader for the Riverside label in September 1959, a sextet with Nat Adderley, cornet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.  There are five originals by Jimmy Heath on this date, some of which have been played up to this day.  Did you write this material for the date, or were these part of a backlog of compositions that you had beforehand?

JH:    I think these were written for this date.  This was my first record date, and I wrote the material.

[MUSIC: J. Heath, “For Minors Only” (1959); Jimmy Heath Tentet, “Big P” (1960); “Two Tees” (1960); w/ Nat Adderley “Chordnation” (1960); w/ Sam Jones Tentet, “Four” (1961)]

TP:    One thing that performance of “Four” brought to mind for both of us was your friendship with Miles.  You said it was an arrangement that he liked very much, and commented on to you.

JH:    Oh, yeah.  He said, [MILES] “Hey, James, that’s one of the best arrangements I ever heard on ‘Four’.”  So he liked that one.

But before these five, you played a couple of things that I wanted to comment on from the Blue Note series.  One was the Miles Davis record, and the other was the J.J. Johnson with Clifford Brown.  The Miles Davis and the J.J. Johnson date came as an offshoot of the Symphony Sid All-Stars, the touring group that we had that consisted of Kenny Clarke, Percy, Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson and Miles and myself.  It was called the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and the deejay Symphony Sid took us on the road, and was the announcer.  Out of that, Miles had a contract with Blue Note, and he used most of the people on his date.  Then J.J. did a date, and he added Clifford Brown.

When we made that date with Clifford Brown, the thing about that one in particular that sticks out in my mind is that we played the thing called “Turnpike” that has the circle of fourths in the solo structure.  J.J. had something set.  It being his date and he being a very precise person, he had some licks set that he wanted to get in, and he would fluff sometimes, and we’d have to make another take.  Every time we made a new take, Clifford Brown would come up with some incredible sequences.  At that moment, Frank Wolff, the photographer, and Al Lion, came out of the booth after the cut, each cut, saying [GERMAN ACCENT] “That Brownie, that Brownie!”  And the next thing I knew, they had Clifford in the corner, signing a contract with him.  So that was the beginning of Clifford’s career recording-wise, as a result of the J.J. Johnson record.

TP:    What were the circumstances of the Miles Davis date?

JH:    Well, the circumstances were coming out of the Symphony Sid All Stars.  He used Art Blakey on the drums on that particular date.  But it was all during that same time.  Out of that Symphony Sid All-Stars, there was Percy, Kenny Clarke and Milt.  Then right after that, or during that time, the MJQ started, too.  So a lot of things happened in that period that were kind of related, because Kenny Clarke and Milt teamed with John Lewis and Ray Brown, then eventually Percy, to form the MJQ around that same time.

TP:    Jumping ahead almost a decade, I’d like to discuss the Riverside recordings we heard.  It seems like Orrin Keepnews was using you both for recording dates under your leadership, and also as kind of a house arranger for dates by Blue Mitchell and Sam Jones and Nat Adderley and so forth.  It must have been a very active and creative period for you, because so many of your famous compositions seem to emanate from the years 1959 to about 1964.

JH:    Well, I guess I was considered like the staff arranger of a sort.  Benny Golson did some things, too, during that time, but maybe not for other people’s dates as much as his own.  I think it stemmed from the fact that after a long illness, when I came back on the scene, Cannonball was one of my chief endorsers.  I had never met the man, and he endorsed me with Orrin Keepnews, he and Philly Joe.  I had an opportunity to go with Blue Note or Riverside, and I chose Riverside.  Once I got on the label, I was considered one of the arrangers; all the cats on the label wanted me to write something for their dates, and I did some on different people’s dates at that time.  When I look back in retrospect, there’s quite a few.

TP:    I wanted to ask you about your studies in composition and arranging.  I gather that after your earlier efforts and hearing things first-hand from Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Fuller and so forth, you actually wound studying formally.

JH:    Well, Gil helped me a lot.  He always insisted that you get some excitement in your music.  He said Tadd Dameron’s music was background.  Heh-heh.  They were rivals, of course.  But Tadd Dameron’s music had a lot of heart in it, and a lot of feeling and soul, whereas Gil’s were like “Things To Come,” they were exciting.  But I liked both of them.  Also, George Russell was writing for Dizzy’s band; he was very abstract, a different kind of orchestrator.  So was Gerald Wilson.  Gerald Wilson was writing some of the things for the Dizzy Gillespie band that were very good.  Melba hadn’t started, but she was there.

So listening at home to Duke Ellington and people like that, and arrangers like Benny Carter and people like that, I just went through a trial-and-error period, where I tried things.  Then when the small groups came about, like you heard there mostly, I had already begun thinking how to write for sextet by hearing J.J. and other people who had sextets.

So then I went along with that, with mother-wit or intuition for many years, until I started to study with a man named Rudolf Schramm, who taught the Schillinger System, and taught it at Carnegie Hall, where he had a studio upstairs.  I learned quite a bit from him, how to organize what I had already experienced, and how to edit and put things together.  He also helped me in orchestrating for strings and choir and things like that, and encouraged me to write for larger ensembles and, like, suites that I have written.  A lot of them haven’t been recorded, because it costs a lot of money to record them, and they are not hit material, so the record companies are reluctant to record them.  You know, “The Afro-American Suite of Evolution” or the thing I wrote for a five-piece Jazz group and a symphony orchestra called “Three Ears”, or the “Upper-Neighbor Suite” I wrote for a Canadian 10 or 12 piece ensemble.  Some string things I’ve written.  The Kronos String Quartet recorded my version of “Naima”, and the Uptown String Quartet recorded “Naima” for Muse Records.

But I’ve been writing for all kinds of ensembles. To get back to the big-band writing, that started when I took a position at Queens College as a professor, and I teach composing and arranging there.  So I started to write for the big band, new material for every semester.  That keeps my big band music flowing.

Right here I would like to say that my entire career as a composer has been one of dedications to people that I like, my peers and family members.  Just about everything I wrote is dedicated to a human being that I find exceptional in one way or another.  “Big P” is for Percy, “Two Tees” for Albert Heath, “Mona’s Mood” is for my wife — different people.  Most recently I wrote one for Antonio Hart called “Like A Son,” because he was one of my students and he’s very close to me.  “Without You, No Me” to Dizzy.  “Trane Connections” was for Coltrane, “Forever Sonny” for Sonny Rollins.  I don’t think there’s another composer in the history of the music who has dedicated as many songs and compositions to their peers.  I have no problem with competition or ego that I can’t respect another person’s ability.

TP:    Well, one of your main sources, as you cited before, was Tadd Dameron, and the next track we’ll hear comes from a 1982 release dedicated to Tadd Dameron, featuring the group Continuum, featuring Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton, another one of this generation’s most distinguished composers and orchestrators, Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and the late Arthur Taylor on drums, who passed last week, and was a close friend of yours and is missed by everyone in the Jazz community.  We’ll hear “Nearness.”  Any comments on it, Jimmy?

JH:    Well, it’s really now a dedication to A.T., because he really liked this song, and he asked me to give him a chart on it so he could do it with his Wailers.

[MUSIC:  Continuum, “Nearness” (1982); J. Heath/KD/AT, “Nobody Else But Me” (1961); “J. Heath/Freddie/J. Watkins, “The Quota” (1962); J. Heath/Blue Mitchell Orch., “Blue On Blue” (1962)]

TP:    We’ll move out of chronology now, and concentrate on recordings made by the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy and Albert, the three great musicians who came out of the Heath family in Philadelphia.  The first selection will come from a 1975 recording for Strata-East, the first by the Heath Brothers as such.

JH:    I had worked with Percy and Albert on The Quota and on Really Big, a couple of my Riverside dates, so that was the Heath Brothers before the Heath Brothers formal title was adopted by the record companies.  Percy was always with the MJQ, for years, so that left Albert and I, and we worked together quite a bit, and Percy would work with us once in a while when he wasn’t busy with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  But I could use my brothers on recordings, and that’s what I did on those Riverside records.  Then when Percy took a hiatus from the MJQ for a few years, we started a group called the Heath Brothers.  The first record we made was made in Norway.  We were on tour over there in Oslo, and Stanley Cowell was our pianist, and he wanted to document this group on the Strata-East label.  That’s what we did.  We made this record and it was released on Strata East.

TP:    Talk about the qualities that your two brothers bring to their instruments, and their place in the music pantheon.  First your older brother, Percy.

JH:    Well, Percy can walk the bass.  He’s got an uncanny sense of time.  He was the bassist of choice around New York for a lot of recordings.  He’s been on more than I have, I’m sure — and I’ve been I guess getting close to being a hundred records, I’m sure.  But he’s been on many more.  Albert was a person that came along, nine years after myself in age, and he soon became one of the favorites in the Riverside catalogue, and he made quite a few Blue Note records, and he recorded with Trane and Sonny Rollins and everybody, too.

So I don’t know, it must be in our genes.  Our father and mother were wonderful people, and they let us pursue what we loved — music.  We weren’t forced to do anything else.  If you have an environment like that at home, where you are encouraged to play, and you have any talent, then you’re going to play.

TP:    Well, you mentioned after World War Two, when Percy came back, that the two of you spent a lot of time workshopping together, transcribing, listening, performing.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, Percy and I…that’s before Tootie came out of high school.  We even played with Howard McGhee together when I first went to Paris in 1948 in…oh, I think it was April or May in 1948.  We were both with Howard McGhee at that time.  Howard McGhee was the first person to really take us out into the big time, so-called.  He also was the person who took my big band from Philly and took it on the road, and we went to the Apollo and the Paradise in Detroit and some of the theaters.  We played a gig in Chicago, and my whole book, my repertoire got lost in the Inglewood Station in Chicago, so I never saw my big band music again!

TP:    Oh, no!

JH:    Yeah, that was unfortunate.  But we continued to work with Howard in the small-group situation anyway, and record.  He was the first person I recorded with.  And Howard was a wonderful person to be around, a nice man, and he could play real well, and he really liked me.  So that was the essence of the beginnings and being-together of the brothers, Percy and I first, and then eventually the three of us.

TP:    Now, Tootie has a very personal way of swinging as well, and gets a very distinctive sound out of the kit.  He’s very recognizable on your Riverside releases.

JH:    Well, I think he has some of his teacher’s style, and that’s Specs Wright.  All of the drummers liked Klook and Max, but Tootie was close to Specs.  Specs was a very crisp and swinging drummer also, who had excellent hands.  I think he taught Tootie to practice very slow, because Specs was so methodical.  I roomed with him with Dizzy’s band, and he would drive you nuts, because he would practice so slow all day, I mean, sit there with a practice pad and say, BOP… BOP…BOP, and then when he gets on the gig it was like WRRHOWOWO.  It was incredible.  But he knew a system of how to practice.  I think Tootie got that from him.  Also, Everybody liked what Max was doing, and he incorporated some of Max, and Philly Joe was around, and he listened…

We all learned from our predecessors, and that’s the way it should be.  I mean, you learn from the people who came before you, and then you expand into your own style.

TP:    One more question about your writing.  You said you often write people in mind as far as dedicating the compositions.  As far as the musical content, do you write for people you know will be performing it, or does it come out of more your own ideas that are percolating around at a given time?

JH:    It’s not necessarily for the people who are going to perform it, because a lot of times I was the only one to perform some of them!  The song I wrote for Sarah Vaughan, “Sassy’s Samba,” the Heath Brothers recorded it, and eventually the New York Voices recorded it.  They put their own words to it.  But it was dedicated to Sarah Vaughn.  Just like “Blue On Blue” we just heard was to Blue Mitchell.  And the thing we’re about to play, “Smilin’ Billy”, is for Billy Higgins.

So I think about the person’s personality.  You know, Ted, I write down nicknames and expressions of all my friends.  I’ve got a whole list that would be very interesting to literary people, I think, who are interested in Jazz.  Because I think about the person.  Thad’s thickness or Slide’s slickness.  Expressions that depict the person.  I mean, Slide Hampton is a very slick player and arranger.  Thad’s music was so dense, so Thad’s thickness… I’ve got a whole list of maybe about fifty or sixty people that I have coined phrases on what I visualize them or how I perceive them.

TP:    Then that triggers off some sort of musical lines and connections and progressions.

JH:    It’s all connected.

TP:    Let’s start off with part one of “The Smilin’ Billy Suite” — we don’t have time to hear the others — to lead off a set by the Heath Brothers.  In the 1970’s Jimmy had expanded his sound palette, as had everybody in the orchestra, sort of in touch with the times, and on this date you play flute, tenor and soprano saxophone; Tootie plays a double-reed on Part of the Suite, which we won’t hear, but primarily drums; Percy had begun playing the baby bass by that time; and Stanley Cowell plays piano and also Mbira on other sides here.

[MUSIC: “Smilin’ Billy Suite, Pt. 1” (1975); “A New Blue” (1978); In Motion, Brass Choir/HB, “Project S” (1979)]

TP:    It does seem that the Heath Brothers enabled you to expand your exploration of tones and colors that began working on in a series of albums for Muse and Cobblestone Records in the early 1970’s.

JH:    Well, I fell in love with the French horn when Julius Watkins started to play the way he did, and I started adding the French horn to quite a few of my albums.  Until today I still like to use the French horn.

TP:    We heard it on The Quota and Triple Threat, those early Riverside dates.

JH:    And on Swamp Seed, the one that you’re going to play with Herbie.  But even the later ones, the Landmark things, I used the French horns and tubas and those instruments.

TP:    Most recently on Old Flames, which you arranged for Sonny Rollins, there’s that brass choir situation, although you don’t appear on that.

JH:    Ah!

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll move back to the 1960’s now, and focus on Jimmy Heath’s final two dates for Riverside, and also a few collaborations with Milt Jackson, with whom you recorded a number of times between 1962 and 1967, and continue to up to recent days.

JH:    Yes.

TP:    In our conversations earlier about the Dizzy Gillespie band, you talked about first meeting Milt Jackson, and I guess you’ve recorded with him since your very first one, in 1948.  I think he was playing piano on those Howard McGhee dates.

JH:    Well, he was on some things.  He was also in that big band thing in 1949 that I did.  He was playing piano and vibes on the “Mean To Me” that we heard earlier.

TP:    Talk about your relationship with him.  It’s been of such long duration and so creatively fruitful.

JH:    Well, yeah.  Even last week Milt recorded one of my songs on his album with the young lions he’s using, Jesse Davis and Joshua Redman and Christian McBride and Benny Green.  So he asked me to write a tune for that album, and I wrote one called “Bop Again.”  I think Cedar wrote one for that date.  So Bags and I, our relationship goes…oh, man, since the late Forties, since he was with… I met him when he was with Dizzy’s band, I would imagine.  So that’s ’46-’47, something like that, until today.  There were times when the MJQ would go on the road, and I wouldn’t know they were back in town if I had depended on my brother Percy, because he would be gone fishing — and Milt would say, “oh, we got back yesterday!”  So Milt and I are like brothers.

TP:    Well, he’s a musician with as identifiable a sound as any that ever played this music.

JH:    We just played a gig with Paul West at the Henry Street Settlement with the Symphony Orchestra down there, doing Dizzy’s music.  Milt and I were on that together.  So Milt and I are very close.

TP:    We’ll hear a few tracks featuring Jimmy Heath with Milt Jackson a little later,  But coming up now is “Wall To Wall,” recorded in 1963 for Riverside on the album Swamp Seed.  This is redolent of brass, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Julius Watkins and Jim Buffington on French horns, Don Butterfield on tuba.  Herbie Hancock plays piano on this track.

JH:    “Wall To Wall” is from ear to ear.  We all had beards, and I said “We have wall-to-wall rugs.”  And I see you have one, Ted, so you’re right in there.

[MUSIC:  “Wall To Wall” (1963); “Gingerbread Boy” (1964); J. Heath/Bags “Dew ‘n Mud” (1965); J. Heath/A. Farmer, “One For Juan” (1967)]

TP:    In our next set, we’ll move to selections from a series of recordings that Jimmy Heath did in the mid-Seventies for the Cobblestone, Muse and Xanadu labels, where the common thread I guess is producer Don Schlitten, who produced all of these dates.  And back to what we said about the Heath Brothers groups, during this time you were really expanding your sonic palette compositionally.  You feature yourself on flute and soprano sax, you bring in a lot of popular rhythms, African melodies and so forth.  Talk a little about your state of mind at this time, and the dynamics that went into making these recordings.

JH:    Well, the Sixties was a turbulent time, and the music depicts what’s going on.  What we were wearing, and what we espoused as Afro-Americans was coming out in the music.  I wrote things like “Heritage Hum”, and along with my son Mtume, we were doing things like “Alkebulan,” which is called “The Land Of The Blacks.”  We were just expressing our views musically with the times, as things were happening.  You know, I came up when… I went to high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, from Philadelphia, and I’d have to get in the Colored coach and all that stuff.  When we got to Washington, D.C., you’d get out of the coach you were in on the train, and get in the Colored coach, and they had Colored water and all of that stuff.  I’m still trying to figure out what Colored water is.  But it was a time when we weren’t getting any respect as human beings, and we needed that.  I think the Bebop Era, Dizzy and Charlie Parker spoke to that in their music in a revolutionary sense, and I was following through on what was happening in the country and with us as human beings on the planet.

TP:    Well, to a lot of people in the 1960’s, your old friend John Coltrane in a certain way symbolized some of the highest aspirations of African-Americans.  I asked you off-mike if you continued to see Coltrane during the 1960’s, and you said that when you were still living in Philadelphia, where you were until 1964, he would still come by your house, and practice and eat between sets at the Showboat.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, he was playing at the Showboat, and he would play these extended sets, playing “My Favorite Things” for 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes a half-hour on one song, then they would take a break, and they would have to go back that evening to perform again.  So Trane, he would practice on all the breaks between the sets.  So the long break between… He was supposed to end at six, and he goes back at nine or something.  Well, he ended up seven or something, played overtime.  Well, my mother’s house was closer than his mother’s house in West Philly.  He had moved by that time.  He would always come down to the house.  I said, “Look, Trane, you could down to Mom; I’ll get Mom to fix something.”  And my mother would fix him something.

The last occasion he did that, he came down to the house, and we talked for a while.  My mother said, “Well, the food isn’t ready, John, because Jimmy just called me.”  He said, “Well, look, Jim, can I go upstairs and practice until she gets…”  I said, “Yeah, go ahead!” and he went upstairs and practiced until the food was ready, ate the food, went back to the club, and played some more for the rest of the evening.  Trane was like that.  He practiced all the time.  Juanita, who was named Naima later, his first wife, said he was 90 percent saxophone.  So that gives you an idea of John Coltrane’s life.

TP:    In our conversation off-mike you told me also that you moved back to New York City in 1964.  I’m sure that must have expanded your possibilities in many ways.

JH:    Well…

TP:    Or not.

JH:    Yeah, well, it did.  I was basically doing things with my own group during that time.  I went back with Miles for a little after Trane left, and I didn’t stay long.  Well, then I was free-lancing around New York until later.  I was still recording for Muse and Xanadu around that time…

TP:    Around 1970 or so.

JH:    1970.  In retrospect, the late Sixties were kind of slim pickings for Jazz.  The other music had just moved in so strongly, and everybody went, the audiences, until they were… Sarah Vaughan told me she didn’t have a recording contract for quite a while during that…

TP:    Yeah, it was a tenuous time and a transitional time, and a lot of the music in the Seventies I guess reflected wanting to get into the mainstream and make some money in terms of the type of music that was being presented.

JH:    I think so.

[MUSIC:  The Gap Sealer, “Heritage Hum” (1972); Love And Understanding, “Gemini” (1973); “The Time And The Place” (1974)]

JH:    [RE: Picture of Heath.] I didn’t write a lot of arrangements for the ensemble, you know, so it was a loose kind of a session.  Plus when the tenor is out front it’s a different ego trip.

TP:    Now, you call it an ego trip.  Why?  I assume you’re talking about being able to stretch out and play at length and take some liberties.

JH:    Well, to me sometimes it’s boring as a musician, as a listener to hear one instrument, and that instrument alone. I’ve fallen in love with orchestration and composition, and I like to hear a lot of different textures and a different sound.  Consequently there are very few records that I really stretched out on.  On the live dates I would stretch out a little more.  Perhaps that’s one of the problems I’ve had with recognition, is that I’ve been prone to let somebody else play instead of me taking the whole show.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your sound and style as a tenor saxophone player.  We talked earlier about your sources in the music, and coming out of Charlie Parker, and then listening to Dexter Gordon and transcribing solos.  I’m not sure how to frame this.  At a certain point, musicians begin to transcend their sources.  Listening back, when do you think your individual sound, your individual voice began to become clear on the tenor saxophone?

JH:    Well, I think simultaneously, with the more knowledge you get about the music and the more time you put in on an instrument, that’s when you begin to find yourself.  Earlier you are always trying to see what has been done before, and you are investigating earlier performers and listening a lot.  There were times in my career, and there are times when I don’t listen to Jazz records, because I don’t want to be influenced by everybody else and their playing.  So I think that’s a way to become your own person.  Also your individual sound has a lot to do with it.  The tone quality that you get that’s identifiable.  You know, you can hear Sonny Rollins, and you know Sonny; you hear Joe Henderson, and you know Joe.  And people who really listen, they say, “Oh, that’s Jimmy Heath” — they can identify me.  And I take pride in that fact.  But there were some times when my friend Dexter Gordon, when I would go hear his group, when I got bored as a listener because Dexter would use the same format.  He would play first on every song, and then he would let the piano player play, and then he would take fours with the drummer or the bass player.  Then the next song, Dexter first, Dexter first.  I guess that’s the way people want you to be, and I’m not in that mode.  So I let some of the other guys play first, I play second, I may… It’s an image problem…

TP:    I’d like to talk a little more about sound, and your sound.  Is there a sound that you were hearing, let’s say, in your mind’s ear around 1953 or 1960 or so, and then you worked to get to that sound, and arrived there?  Is that how it worked for you?

JH:    Yeah, I worked on the sound.  I was listening to Dexter and Lester and Bird, and I think that I kind of incorporated some of their inflections in my playing.  But tone quality, you’ve just got to practice…sound, practice tone.  Whole notes, which is boring.  And you’ve got to do that in order to get a good sound.  Once you get a sound, though, the rest of the delivery is easy!

TP:    Well, one of the hallmarks of individuality for a tenor player within this tradition is “Body and Soul,” and I know on records produced by Don Schlitten, he liked to have the artists work out on this tune.  You can hear versions on his records by almost every great saxophonist of the time.  So let’s hear Jimmy Heath’s version of “Body and Soul” on tenor and soprano from Picture Of Heath, 1975, with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins.

[MUSIC:  “Body and Soul” (1975); w/ Joe Henderson, “Steeplechase” (1988)]

TP:    We’ll move now to material from a pair of recordings by Jimmy Heath for Landmark in 1985 and 1987, respectively.  From the first, we’ll hear the title track, “New Picture.”  New Picture continues your tradition of a four-brass section.

JH:    I used the tuba and two French horns on this one, and a trombone in this particular grouping.

TP:    Do you approach each album as a project unto itself?  Is there some sort of picture you’re trying to paint with every date that you do?  Is it a function of what you’re working on at that time, and things sort of come together?  How do you go about it?

JH:    Well, I go about it in trying to do something a little different, if I can.  That’s why I have different-sized ensembles on most of the records, and not just the quartet alone.  I have sextets and various different color combinations, with the strings, the cello on some things, flute on some things.  So I just like music.  I love music, and I love all the sounds of the different instruments.  If I could really afford it, or the record companies could afford, I would like to do something with the larger ensembles, too, the symphony, that size ensemble, 40 or 50 pieces.  I just want to explore all of the sound qualities that I can find in my knowledge and concept.

TP:    So it transcends notes.  It’s really ultimately about sound.

JH:    Yeah, and the voice.  I’ve done several things using choirs, and I’m really interested in doing that at this point in my life.  I would like to do something with a group like Take Six or something like that!

[MUSIC: “New Picture” (1985); w/ Purrone, “I Waited For You.” (1987)]

TP:    There are certain musicians who can make five hours go by like an hour-and-a-half.  Jimmy Heath is one of them, and he’s been sharing the time with me and with you, the radio audience, in the studios of WKCR, giving a first-person account in this retrospective of Jimmy Heath’s 46 years of recorded music.

JH:    Pshew!

TP:    One more set to go.  But I wanted to talk a little bit about your educational activities.  Because for a number of years you have been Professor Jimmy Heath, and you’ve put together a very strong Jazz program at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.  How long has this particular gig been part of your career, and how long did you work towards that in terms of academic credentialing?

JH:    Well, I’ve been teaching privately for many years, back with Ted Curson, Jimmy Garrison, Sam Reed(?) and other people around Philadelphia.  Then coming to New York at the Jazzmobile organization, and the Housatonic College in Bridgeport, and the City College of New York on Convent Avenue with Ron Carter.  Then in ’87, after an illness, I took a position at Queens College, which is very close to my home, where I have been since 1964.  I have been working at that for many years privately.  The people there saw that I was the person that they wanted to begin the Jazz faculty as tenured people… At least I am now tenured.  When I started in 1987, I was the first one hired full time at Queens College in teaching Jazz music.  I basically got that on my reputation over the years as a performer and composer and traveling person, sort of known personality.

TP:    One thing that’s come out a lot in this past decade-and-a-half is the idea that Jazz can be taught if it’s really done right.  Your generation often had to pick up things by themselves, though not in all cases, because there were a number of formally trained musicians.  Talk about that concept and applying it to young, raw students, and what the students are like these days.

JH:    Well, at that time, like you said, the performers of the music taught at some institutions weren’t allowed to teach in those institutions probably because of lack of degrees, and this is what academia demands and expects from a person.  But somewhere along the line, they realized that some people didn’t have that opportunity, and they still are doctors of their music.  So then the institutions started hiring more people, like Kenny Barron and Rufus Reid.  Some of them have Bachelor Degrees and some of them have more.  But usually it was based on their reputation.  It’s hard to get a position in an institution on just your reputation without the formal credentials.  And I think by the performers getting in as teachers, whether credentialed or not, it has brought a new awareness into the university systems so that the people who are teaching Afro-American, Jazz music in these institutions are the people who have done it.

So the students are very fortunate that they have somebody that is performing all the time that can really pull their coats to a lot of other things that an academic cannot.  They have just studied how this chord goes and this and that, but they haven’t been performing.  They don’t know what the audience responds to… It’s the insider approach.  The students I’ve had have been…they feel honored to be there.  They come there… Donald Byrd was at my school also, and now Sir Roland Hanna is there, and Cecil Bridgewater.  So we have a faculty staff, small as it may be, of performers.  And they have degrees, too, Cecil and Roland.

But it’s just the fact that it’s a different approach to the music.  It’s a personal approach, not from a book.  This is why we have students that are finishing under our direction that are right in the music world, going right out there and performing.

TP:    Maybe fifteen years ago a lot of older musicians were somewhat pessimistic about the future of the music, and I think these fears have been put to rest as many talented and creative young musicians have emerged.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, the one icon that’s caused a lot of change in our music, to me, is Wynton Marsalis.  The image that he has presented and his dogmatic attitude of what he really thinks of our music, Afro-Americans’ music, has caused a lot of young people to follow in his direction.  They want to dress well on the stage.  They play good.  They are clean-cut guys; they don’t deal with no vices.  And a lot of them come out of school.  People like Alvin Batiste are turning out musicians, Nathan Davis in Pittsburgh, and all of this network of people who are in the institutions and qualified performers has come together.

When we were judges on a panel, Dizzy and I, on a Budd Johnson award, we saw so many good young players.  Incidentally, on this particular one, Vincent Herring was the winner.  But Dizzy looked at me and said, “The music is in good hands.”  When we heard all these young people playing the way they are… In my case, at my school, Antonio Hart.  Or I was the chairman of the judges’ panel for the Thelonious Monk Institute when we chose Joshua Redman the number-one saxophone player — and the rest is history.  So there is a coming together of youth and the old vets out there that’s very healthy in attittude, and the music is stronger than ever.

[MUSIC: J. Heath/Mulgrew/Lundy/Nash, “Ellington’s Stray Horn” (1994)]

[-30-]

* * *

Jimmy and Albert (“Tootie”) Heath (7-21-93) — Musician Show:

Q:    Jimmy Heath and I have done several shows in recent years, and we’ve talked a fair amount about your activities in Philadelphia as a young musician.  But I don’t think we’ve really spoken too much with Albert Heath about your younger years.  So I’d like to begin speaking with you, if I might.  First, you’re from such a musical family, it’s almost an inane question to ask how you got started playing the drums.  But was that your first instrument?  Was that your first interest?  And with whom did you start playing, when you did start playing?

AH:    Well, the musical influence came from my brother Jimmy, who was always sitting at the piano and studying and learning something about harmony, and he would exchange ideas with other musicians, like some names that I won’t drop right now because I want to stay on the track here… So my brother Jimmy was my main influence, and then Percy started to play much later; he came along later.  But Jimmy was the first and strongest influence in music, in terms of what was called Bebop at the time.

My father was also a major influence, as well as my mother, because she sang in the choir, and my father played clarinet in a marching band.

So I had a lot of music all the time.  There was recordings of people like Fletcher Henderson and Basie and Duke Ellington, of course, and all those big bands that we used to listen to.  My parents used to play the music of Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson.  So I got a real good foundation in the music of our culture.

Q:    Now, Jimmy Heath has talked about avidly going to hear the big bands in the theatres.  Were you able to do the same as a youngster?  I know you were younger.

AH:    Yeah.  Fortunately, I was able to see a few bands.  But it meant that I had to kind of skip school to do it.  My parents didn’t know that I was doing that, but… I saw the Ellington Orchestra, and I saw…

Q:    Who was the drummer with the Ellington Orchestra?

AH:    It was Sonny Greer at the time.  And I mean, I was overwhelmed by his appearance and all of the instruments that he was playing at that time.  You know, he had chimes and congas and tympany and bells and all kinds of instruments he had back there in the back of the orchestra.  And he was well in control of everything back there — and I was just like totally impressed by him.  And he had on white tails; I’ll never forget it.  He was, like, immaculate.  And I never forgot that.

Also, I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band with a friend of my brother Jimmy… For some reason or other… Teddy Stewart was the drummer, and he couldn’t show up for some reason, and my brother had his friend, who was just out of the Service, the military, whose name was Specs Wright, and Specs Wright came in and played Dizzy’s book as if he had sat there all the time and played it for years.  And I was like… You know, I couldn’t believe that, what I was seeing.  So I was fortunate enough to see the Gillespie band.  I saw the Basie band, and that’s about it…

Q:    Was that Shadow Wilson at that time?

AH:    No, I didn’t see Shadow Wilson at that time, but I saw Shadow Wilson at the Five Spot with Thelonious.  So I did see Shadow.

Q:    Well, it’s very important for young musicians to see the older, master musicians so that they get a correlation of motion to sound or action to sound.  And I know that’s something that at that time, with the big bands, musicians really were able to do, maybe more so than today.  You teach.  Do you…

AH:    Yes.  I’m on faculty at California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, California.  But I think it’s true today also that the younger players… Like, for instance, last night I saw the son of a friend of mine who came down to see us, and he’s a very young person — and I’m sure I’ll see some more young musicians coming down to see us.  And I think the tradition is being passed on to these young people through us.  We’re the old guys now.

Q:    Let’s get back to your younger days in the music.  What was your first gigging experience around Philadelphia?  Who were some of the people you paired off with as a young drummer, and what types of situations were you playing in?

AH:    Well, my first professional performance was done at a place called the Lincoln Post, across the street from where we used to live, which was a marching band — the American Legion is what it was.  And they had a marching band over there.  And somehow, myself and a trumpet player by the name of Ted Curson and a saxophone player by the name of Sam Reed, who were my… We were school mates.  And Sam played an alto saxophone, which he still does today, and Ted Curson played the trumpet, which he still plays today, and is functioning out in the world, playing all over the world — both of them are.  And we had an opportunity to play at this place at night — which was rare, you know, because we were all about 15 or 16 apiece, or something like that.  And some people gave us a chance to play because they’d heard us rehearsing or something.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we did get a chance to play in this place.  And they liked it.  And at the end of the night, we got seven dollars to split up among ourselves.  So that was my first professional job!  And I’ll never forget that.  And the music was horrible.

Q:    What kinds of things were you trying to play?

AH:    We were trying to play what we heard Dizzy playing, and…who else were the guys at the time…?  I think it was basically Dizzy and Charlie Parker, were the Bebop people who were our idols.

Q:    Who were you patterning yourself after?

AH:    I was trying to be Max Roach as hard as I could.  And I couldn’t even keep time.  So you know, it was like terrible.  This was probably the worst music… I don’t see how we got paid for it, I really don’t.  You know, when I reflect back on it, it had to be just awful.

Q:    But what did you think at the time?

AH:    At the time, oh… Well, we got paid.  I thought it was… Oh man, I thought we were doing something!

Q:    Then what were the steps?  Philadelphia was a thriving scene.  There were many musicians who later really made their mark in the world of music.  And I’m assuming that you took your place among them, as all young, up-and-coming musicians?  Was this the case?

AH:    I had an opportunity to play with some wonderful musicians around Philadelphia because of my brothers.  Again, they kind of laid the way for me, and they made friends, and people would come to our parents’ home, or our  home, and I would meet these people, and my brother Jimmy would say, “My brother’s studying drums” and blah-blah-blah.  And that kind of got around.  And sooner or later, after I had got serious about trying to learn something about the drums, I started to be able to play with people like a guy named Louis(?) Judge, and Jimmy Garrison was around there and Spanky DeBrest and Lee Morgan.  And you know, I was really big-time when I got to play with Coltrane, who was not famous at the time, but just one of the best players around at that time even.  I was going to say Benny Golson but Benny came later, I didn’t see… Benny was away at college, I think, when I came up.  But there were people like that.  I may be leaving some names out here, and I hope I don’t offend anybody by leaving them out, but I can’t think of any other names…

Q:    Are the years we’re talking about now, say, 1950, ’51, ’52… Jimmy made a piano thing…

AH:    Oh, a piano thing?  Oh, Ray Bryant.  He did play with Ray… Not around Philadelphia.

JH:    [OFF-MIKE] Bobby(?).

AH:    Oh, Bobby TImmons!  Oh, my God.  Yeah, Bobby Timmons was…oh, man…

JH:    How about McCoy?

AH:    McCoy, we… Yeah, McCoy…

JH:    How about Kenny?  Kenny Barron?

AH:    Kenny?  No.  Kenny was off practicing and getting to be one of the greatest piano players of our time, but he wasn’t around.  He was a little younger than us.  But McCoy, I remember going up to McCoy’s mother’s beauty parlor, and there was a piano in the back.  And we used to have what we’d call jam sessions up there at McCoy’s house — which was way out of my territory, out of my neighborhood, and it was real dangerous to go up there because…

Q:    What was your neighborhood and what was that neighborhood?

AH:    I was South Philadelphia and he was North Philadelphia, and you just don’t go up there fooling around unless you know how to do it.

So anyhow, Lee Morgan was also up there in North Philadelphia, and so were some good drummers like Eddie Campbell and Lex Humphries, and Odean Pope was around, and Donald Bailey… Oh, man, some good musicians.

Q:    So it was a real testing ground, and obviously you have to be dealing, otherwise you’re not going to be able to stick around.

AH:    Well, you fake it real good until you watch enough guys doing it and you learn how to do it, you know.  And if you just surround yourself with people who are better than you, I think you learn like that.

Q:    Did you ever have any specifically drum teachers?

AH:    Oh yeah.  I had a lot of drum teachers, yeah.  The first one that really had a strong influence on me was Specs Wright.  Now, I had teachers before Specs Wright, but it wasn’t a long-term thing.  But with Specs, it was a long-term thing.  Like, as long as I can remember, I could always call him up and go by.  We didn’t have a schedule, but I could go to his mother’s house on some Saturdays and catch him there, and then sometimes he would come down to see my brother Jimmy, and then he’d go off for 15 or 20 minutes with me and help me with what it is that I wanted to learn.  And he showed me a lot of things.  I learned a lot about playing with, you know, groups, and a lot about dynamics and technique and all of that stuff from him.

And I had some other teachers, too.  One in particular that Mickey Roker always jokes…we always have this joke about this teacher, because Mickey always says, “Hey, man, we both studied with the same guy.  But what happened to you?” — as if something’s wrong with what I do, and he’s okay!  But this guy’s name was Ellis Tolin.  And he was around in Philadelphia.  He had a place called Music City, a drum store, and in the back he would give lessons.  This guy had incredible technique.  He loved Buddy Rich, and he used to have Buddy Rich up there, and we could go up there and see Buddy Rich play all the drums you’d want to see.  Then Philly Joe used to come up there also and show off, you know, because he could play better than anybody up there, and he would come up there and just wipe everybody out.

Q:    So his position in Philadelphia was sort of as the King of…

AH:    Yeah, he wasn’t a king, but I mean, he had… Like, some of the better drummers went up there.  Now, everybody didn’t go there.  There were some other places, too, around Philly that people studied, like Granoff School of Music.  There’s a lot of guys that went there who I can’t think of right now… But the guys from South Philadelphia that I knew, like Mickey and Ronald Tucker and Specs and a few other people used to go up to Ellis Tolin’s.  That was kind of the in thing to do.  You just wanted to go through there.  Because they had sessions on Mondays or something like that, and you never knew… Whoever was playing in Philly, the drummer from the group would come up to Ellis’ place and do a little clinic.  But they weren’t called clinics at the time; they called them jam sessions.  And they would come up there and play.  And it was always something special.

Q:    You mentioned that in your youngest years you were always exposed to musicians, because Jimmy Heath was always having musicians over.  Was that involved with the big band that Jimmy had in the late 1940’s?

AH:    Yeah, Jimmy used to have… Our living room at my mother’s house was a little too small for the whole band most of the time.  So he would have like section rehearsals, and he’d have a reed section rehearsal one day, and I would come home from school and here’s these guys with all of these saxophones out, and the music all over the dining room table.  My mother would be busy in the kitchen doing whatever she’s doing.  And they would have, like, a section rehearsal.  So I got a chance to hear the music in sections.  And this is really a wonderful way to learn an arrangement.  And I had my ear cocked on all of this stuff.  At that age, you know, you could absorb and remember a lot of things.  So a lot of that stuff sticks with me right now.  I mean, it’s a part of my upbringing, is that I heard the section rehearsals.  Then I would hear the trumpets rehearse.  Then sometimes it would be the whole band, even, in the house — on some occasions.  Then I would see people like Coltrane and Benny Golson, and Johnnie Splawn and Johnny Coles…

Q:    All in your family living room.

AH:    All of these guys, yeah, would be at my mother’s house, at our mother’s house, with rehearsals by Jimmy.  So I got a chance to meet and be around all of these people, and be influenced.

Q:    Let me turn the mike over to Jimmy Heath now and ask how you got this band together, and what was the impetus for it.  It had a major impact on every musician who came through it in Philadelphia at that time.

JH:    Well, I had come out of a big band in Nebraska called Nat Towles, and I wanted to have a band myself.  So when I came back to Philadelphia…

Q:    Can I stop you for a minute?

JH:    Yes.

Q:    Nat Towles’ band was one of the famous territory bands.  How did you come to join that?  And just say a few words about Nat Towles.

JH:    Well, Nat Towles was out of Omaha, Nebraska.  And there was a trombonist from Philly, who we had been playing together with earlier bands when I first got out of high school, named Felix Leach.  And Felix Leach told the people in Nat Towles Orchestra that when a chair was vacant, or alto chair, that I would like to join the band.  So I went to Omaha, Nebraska.  Billy Mitchell was the straw boss of the band, and he had an apartment with a very small room.  Of the two people that tried out for the band… I couldn’t read as good as the other guy, but Billy Mitchell took a liking to me and said, “Keep the little guy.”  And we talk about that now, Billy Mitchell having later played with Basie and Dizzy.

But when I got back to Philadelphia after leaving that band… Before we leave that portion of it, that band had Buddy Tate before me, and Sir Charles Thompson and others.

But after I got to Philly and I wanted to start my own band… Dizzy had a band then, and I really was in love with the Bebop…the big band of Dizzy.  So I tried to pattern my band and transcribe some of Dizzy’s arrangements, and play that music.  And you know, Trane came out of the Navy, and he was around Philly, and Bill Massey and Cal Massey, who were trumpeters, and they joined my band.  Because I was trying to play Bebop with a big band, as Dizzy had laid the pattern down.

Q:    Were you transcribing off the records, basically?  Or did you get the music and do your own orchestrations?  How did it work for you?

JH:    Well, I was trying to transcribe.  And I had a couple of guys who were pros, who had been with Dizzy.  Johnny Acea had written stuff for Dizzy.  This is a guy from Philly who could play the saxophone, trumpet and piano, and he was an arranger.  So he transcribed a couple of things for me, and  a man named Leroy Lovett also transcribed a lot of the things — and I did the others.  And I was trying to write things in the Bebop style also.

Q:    Now, was the band primarily a workshop situation?  Or were you trying to make a go of it and turn it into a performing big band?  I’m assuming that you would have.  But how did it function?

JH:    Yeah.  Well, it was not just a workshop.  We were trying to gig, and we did gig.  I’ve got a poster at home that says when we played at a place called the O.V. Carter(?) Elks in Philly, Jimmy Heath and his 17-Piece Orchestra with Jimmy Thomas on vocals and John Coltrane on saxophone, and Specs Wright and all — and it cost 75 cents to get in the dance!

Q:    At this time you were primarily an alto player, yes?

JH:    Right!   Trane and I were playing alto.  He wasn’t playing tenor at that point.

Q:    And you were both disciples of Charlie Parker.  Who came before Bird for you, and how did you first get struck with Bird?

JH:    Well, before Bird one of my idols was Mister Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges, and Tab Smith.  They were the three alto players who I found the most interesting to me.  Then Charlie Parker came along and changed the rhythm and the lines of music that I found really fascinating, and I began to try to play like that.

Q:    Can you describe what the impact was on you when you first heard it, and why — again if that’s not too inane a question.

JH:    When I was with Nat Towles’ Orchestra, we went to Savannah, Georgia.  And I remember it as if it was yesterday, that when we got to the dance hall… We were going to play a dance that evening.  And we got there in the afternoon to set up the band and check the hall out.  And they had a jukebox that you put five cents in; you’d put a nickel in the jukebox to hear records.  And I put a nickel in, and I played a record by Jay McShann called “Hootie Blues.”  And right away, the alto solo struck me, and I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, “Man, check this guy out.”  And we all begun to put the money in for this Jay McShann, “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism” by Charlie Parker as soloist with McShann.  That was the beginning.

Then later in my stay with Nat Towles, I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Salt Peanuts” and that stuff, and I didn’t realize it was the same guy at that moment until after I quit and came to Philly — I said, “Oh, that’s the same guy I heard on those records with McShann.”

Q:    You described a few months ago with me hearing Bird in Philadelphia in a club.  The first time you heard him you said might have been 1948 or so?  Or am I wrong on that?

JH:    The first time I heard him was in the Academy of Music,  when they came there for the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert.  There was Al Haig and Max and Curly Russell, I think, and Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  And then came that in ’48, with the band with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter.  And at that point, when he played in the Downbeat Club, is when I loaned him my saxophone every night.  And knowing his reputation, I would stay up there the whole night and hear Bird play, and then take my horn with his mouthpiece on it, and bring it back home, and take back to him the next night.  And he would leave the mouthpiece on it, and split and come back to New York to do his business.  I would take the horn in the cellar in my pad and see if I could find some of that Bebop he’d left in there, which it was hard to get it because it went through  there!

Q:    What kind of mouthpiece did he have?

JH:    He had a white Brillheart mouthpiece that he used to leave on there.  It was amazing, because as a kid you’d say, “Wow, I heard Charlie Parker play this horn.  He played all that stuff last night.  I know some of it’s left in here.”   But my stuff would still sound the same.  Band!

Q:    It couldn’t have been that bad, because you had a bit of a reputation around Philadelphia, and broader than that by 1950 or ’51.  Anyway, we’re talking with Jimmy and Albert “Tootie” Heath, and they’re talking about the 1940’s in Philadelphia, and coming up. You mentioned Dizzy Gillespie, who had a Philadelphia connection, of course, because he lived there for a number of years, and he always drew on Philadelphia musicians, it seems, over the years.  You’ve cited Dizzy as really your main inspiration in terms of writing and musical focus.  Over the last couple of years you had a chance to work with Dizzy during that final gig at the Blue Note a year ago, and then Slide Hampton’s group earlier this year.

JH:    Mmm-hmm.

Q:    Just say a few words about Dizzy, and then we’re going to hear a tribute composition you did for him and some of the early Musicraft sides that you were listening to back then.

JH:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington.  He is the master musician that was accessible to me throughout my whole life.  He was always good to me, and I could ask him questions.  He would show me things.  And believe me, he knew so much to show you.  Any time you are with any musician that has been around Dizzy, he says it’s like being in a workshop when you’re around him, because he’s going to give you something every time you’re with him that you can use in your musical life from then on.

Q:    How would he show you?  Would it be different ways each time?  Would it be demonstrating?  A word?

JH:    He would demonstrate on piano chord voicings.  He would demonstrate on his trumpet.  He would demonstrate tapping out rhythms to you.  He would sing ideas to you.  I mean, with his whole being he was music, and that’s what I always wanted to be — just like him.

Q:    Well, you have a composition on your last release, Little Man, Big Band, with the large ensemble for Verve, called “Without You, No Me.”  So this is Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie…

[MUSIC]

We heard quite a set of music, that all is meaningful to Jimmy and Tootie Heath in that last set.  The last piece was Jimmy Heath’s first composition to be recorded.  That’s “C.T.A.,” recorded by the Miles Davis Sextet on April 20, 1953 for Blue Note.  Miles on trumpet, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Jimmy Heath on tenor sax, Gil Coggins on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Art Blakey on drums.  Preceding that we heard a 1963 session featuring a man that Jimmy Heath and John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all listening to as young musicians in the 1940’s, Dexter Gordon. That’s from Our Man In Paris, Dexter Gordon reunited with Bud Powell on piano and Pierre Michelot on bass, on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia.”  Before that we heard “Lady Bird,” a 1948 for Blue, Tadd Dameron Septet, composition and arrangement by Tadd Dameron, with Fats Navarro, trumpet, the tenors of Wardell Gray and Allan Eager, Curly Russell, bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums, Chino Pozo, bongos, and of course Tadd Dameron on piano.  Preceding that we heard two recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, the orchestra and a smaller group.  We heard “Things To Come” from 1946, and “That’s Earl, Brother” also from ’46.  “That’s Earl, Brother” was a small group that featured a litany of the greats in Jazz.  Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Ray Brown, Al Haig and, again, Kenny Clarke.  And we began the set way back with Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, “Without You, No Me.”  That’s on Jimmy Heath’s most recent release, Little Man, Big Band, on Verve. [ETC.]

That whole set of music inspired lots of conversation while we were off-mike, and many comments,  You were saying, Jimmy, how Kenny Clarke would sustain a real excitement and fire at a medium tempo, and then Tootie interjected that Buhaina, Art Blakey, did it, too — the drummers that we heard on the last selections.  So maybe we can start from there.

JH:    Well, Kenny Clarke… I played with Kenny Clarke in the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and that was Miles Davis, J.J., Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and myself, and Symphony Sid, the D.J., took us on the road, and we did several gigs, including the Apollo, and one in Cleveland, one in Atlantic City.  We didn’t have a pianist.  The groove was always there, because Klook, as he was known, was a fiery drummer at all tempos, and in particular in a walking Swing groove he could keep the fire going.  And Percy and Klook was a love affair from the first time.

Percy still considers Kenny Clarke to be the world’s great drummer ever.  They got together again… I was on a thing in Africa, in Dakar, when it was the twentieth anniversary of the independence of that country.  And I was on a thing with Dizzy and Clifford Jordan and Jimmy Owens and Sonny Fortune, I think, and Kenny Clarke came from Paris, and Percy.  And it was a love affair started all over again.  That was maybe twenty-five years after we had played with him earlier.

Another thing about Kenny Clarke is, in his book that his wife sent me recently, he said that his favorite band… I forgot… He said Sonny Stitt on alto and Jimmy Heath on tenor was his favorite band.  So that’s another reason I have always loved Kenny Clarke, because he appreciated my playing also.

Q:    Tootie Heath, a few words about both Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey.

AH:    Well, my brother has a little advantage here, because he had the pleasure of playing with these people, and I am only going by recordings and live performances.  So I can be objective, but I was never really in it, so I don’t really know the feeling.  But from my perspective, you know, as a drummer and just listening to the rhythm, or the sustenance of the rhythm is the main thing in playing drums as far as I’m concerned — and I learned that from Kenny Clarke and from Art Blakey.  It was always a smooth cushion, and then there were other little exciting things going on, very subtle, with both of those drummers, Art Blakey as well as Kenny Clarke.  But Art Blakey had a little more… His dynamic range was a little wider than Kenny.  But Kenny Clarke would play with a big band as well as with a small group, and be very dynamic also.  I don’t mean that he didn’t have the dynamics.  He definitely had dynamics.  But Art Blakey had a special group experience, I think, that Kenny Clarke didn’t have, because Art Blakey played in his own band most of the time and with his own musicians.

Q:    And he shaped all the compositions as well…

AH:    Absolutely.

Q:    …which I don’t know if you could say that about Kenny Clarke so explicitly.

AH:    Kenny had less time to deal with the material.  Usually it was on a recording session like Dexter’s, he would fly in or come in from wherever… In this instance, he was in Paris, so he would just come in and do the recording.  They didn’t have any preparation time most of the time.  And the results were amazing, I mean, for the time that they put in, with the time he put in with the music, in terms of… Well, other drummers like Max Roach had his own people that he played with for long periods of time also.  But see, Kenny Clarke didn’t have that advantage.  He was always free-lancing, other than with the Modern Jazz Quartet…

JH:    Francy Boland.

AH:    Yeah, he did that for a while.  He sure did.  That was kind of a long-term affair, with that band, and it was basically the same personnel.  And it was about eight or nine years that band stayed together.

Q:    The band Jimmy referred to is the Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke Big Band, with many of the greatest musicians in Europe through the Sixties and early Seventies.

AH:    That’s right.  But that was in a big band context, so that was a little different from the Art Blakey comparison.

Q:    Two more musicians.  We heard “C.T.A.” at the end of the set, and that was recorded as part of a Miles Davis session in 1953.  And I know that Jimmy Heath had a very close relationship with Miles Davis, who recorded a number of your pieces.  One of them, twelve years later, was “Gingerbread Boy.”  Say a few words about your relationship with Miles and your initial hook-up.

JH:    Well, I met Miles when he was with Charlie Parker, in the quintet, in 1948.  And we became friends, and we talked about harmony, and we discussed chords and sequences, and we hung out together socially.  Miles was the same age, and we had a lot in common in that respect.  But he was always a very bright musician who was very changeable.  He’s a Gemini person, and he would change.  He liked to change his music and try to come up with something new, which he would… Throughout his career he did start new trends.  He started the modal playing.  He gave that its birth.  If he didn’t start it, he is the one who gets credit for that.  And there are other phases of the music that Miles went through in his later years with the electronic support and Funk beat.  You know, Miles was always ahead.  Like the record says, “Miles Ahead.”

Q:    And he employed your son, Mtume, in some of those bands as well.

JH:    Well, I think Miles had everybody in our family to play with him at once… Tootie, didn’t you play with Miles?

AH:    Yes.

JH:    And Percy and myself — and my son.

Q:    Then before that, we heard Dexter Gordon playing “A Night In Tunisia.”  While that was playing… Jimmy Heath hadn’t heard that record before, but you were pointing out during a couple of passages in Dexter Gordon’s solo, you said, “Hear that?  Hear where Trane’s sound is coming from?”  And you said indeed that you and Benny Golson and Coltrane were all very enamored with his playing in the 1940’s — as were many other tenor players around the country.

JH:    Oh yeah.  Around the world.  You know, Dexter had that crying sound in the top register of his horn also.  He influenced Coltrane.  In the earlier Coltrane performances and back home in Philly, I knew… Trane, we all were listening to Dexter.  Because Dexter was swinging hard.  He was a Bebop player who swung hard.  He was a connection between Lester and Charlie Parker, and out of that era he found a way to play the Bebop language on the tenor that was unique — and we all wanted to be like that.  Like everybody wants to be like Mike; we wanted to be like Dexter.

Q:    Tootie, you worked sometimes in Europe with Dexter, and there’s a wonderful recording called The Apartment in particular that I can think of on Steeplechase, where you and Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Orsted-Pederson are backing him.  What was he like to play with for you as a drummer?

AH:    Well, you know, I entered in Dexter’s career at a time when his health had started to be a factor.  And it took him a while to get started, and we kind of had to compensate for Dexter’s…what do you call it…?  It was like a little delay.  So the Dexter Gordon that my brother is talking about is a different Dexter Gordon.  But it was a wonderful experience.  I mean, whenever he got started and got going, it was a wonderful experience.  But at the time, you know, his health was really playing a major role in his performance.  And unfortunately, this happened with Lester Young, too, who is another person that I had the chance to catch…

Q:    When was that, and how did that happen?

AH:    With Lester?  Well, I was locally playing around Philadelphia, and a friend of mine that was a bass player (he doesn’t play any more; his name is Jimmy Bond), he had what was called the house trio at this club called the Showboat.  And the Showboat would employ Lester Young, Max Roach, and people like that, and Dakota Staton and so forth.  And Lester would appear there maybe three times a year.  And  Jimmy Bond called me one time, and said, “Do you want to be in the house trio and play to support Lester Young?”  I said, “Man, that would be a treat.”  So I did it, and that’s how I got to be the drummer for Lester… Whenever he came to Philly and played at that club, I would be the drummer.  And I got a chance to know him, and I got a chance to learn a lot about playing time and things like that.

Q:    Did he say anything explicitly to you?  There are a number of little pearls of Lester Young quotes.  Jimmy is laughing here.

AH:    Yeah, he used to say… He said a lot of things!  A lot of things I can’t repeat, because you know, Lester had a unique way of speaking.  And I can’t say some of the things because you’re on the air, and they have some regulations about that.

Q:    One or two.

AH:    One or two, yeah.  So I’d better not say the things.  I’d have to try to rephrase things, and then they lose…

Q:    The pungency.

AH:    Yeah.  They lose the whole thing. [JH LAUGHING]  But I learned a lot from him as a man as well as a musician.  Just his way of being in the world, and seeing other people and other musicians and so forth.

Q:    While the music was playing, I think Jimmy had a quote from Prez to John Coltrane that I think is repeatable over the air.

AH:    Oh, he said he heard Lady Coltrane playing all of those snakes.  Yeah, he referred to everybody as Lady.  And I think that came from Billie Holiday being Lady Day.  And anybody that meant anything to him special, he would always refer to them as “Lady” — which was a very respectable term.  I mean, when he called you “Lady,” I mean, that was very special.  The same as they called Fats Navarro “Fat Girl”  It wasn’t a derogatory thing.  It was just something very special.  He called George Wein “Lady Moon Beams” because he had a bald head, you know…

Q:    Speaking of ladies and speaking of “Fat Girl,” we heard “Lady Bird” by Tadd Dameron performed by the Tadd Dameron Septet, featuring Fats Navarro.  Fats Navarro was one of the major figures in his brief life, and certainly affected Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, who came out of the Philly area, and Jimmy Heath was certainly very explicitly affected by Tadd Dameron’s conception of writing.

JH:    Yeah, Fats Navarro came to my house, as many of the musicians did, including Miles, Dizzy and all of them… My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited.  She would treat them as if they were their children or their friends.

Q:    What would she make for them?

JH:    Oh, she would make anything that she was cooking, whatever — fried chicken or whatever.  And we had everybody down to my house, Coleman Hawkins and Bird and everybody.  In this particular case, she would be preparing things for anybody that would be there.  Fats Navarro came there and took out his trumpet, and started to play a little bit.  And my Mom always said that she liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles.  She could hear something in his sound that she liked.  And I know for a fact that when Clifford Brown came around Philly from Wilmington, Delaware, he was enamored with Fats Navarro, that’s who his love was — and he began to play something like that until he found his own style.  And the generation passing down passed on to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford, and the people who came  along… So it was a continuum of the music.

But Fats Navarro was one of the strong voices of Bebop that didn’t last long in his life.   He just died young.  But he was a powerhouse of a trumpet player.  I heard him with the Tadd Dameron…I think it was something like an octet in the Royal Roost, and Dizzy had his big band in there at the same time.  He had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo and all that.  And Fats Navarro was screaming on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful.  But Fats was beginning to gain a lot of recognition, and while Dizzy was out…they both were… But they were different.  Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats was a very… He could play very high and clear, and with a very clear sound.  He had a warm trumpet sound.

And they all were wonderful musicians.  But Fats was really a talent at that time.  And Tadd Dameron used to like to use Fats to play all his first trumpet parts, because he could play the trumpet parts like he liked to hear them.  Because Tadd was a person whose delicacy musically…you would take him to be effeminate or something.  Because he would sing everything, LA-DEDADA…you know… And he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.  He was a person who was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn.

Q:    Tadd Dameron.

JH:    Yeah, Tadd Dameron.

Q:    Really all of his compositions were informed by that lyrical sensibility.  Did you know Tadd Dameron?  Were you ever able to sit down with him and go through things?

JH:    Oh yeah.  I knew Tadd very well.  I was supposed to be in one of the bands, but I had had…I got sick at the time and couldn’t make it — and Benny Golson made it.  That was the Dameronia band.  I was supposed to be in that band.  There were a lot of occasions where I was supposed to be in bands, and I got sick.  I had a problem during that time.  Max Roach’s first band, before Harold Land got in, I was the tenor player who Max wanted at that time.  I stayed ill for a few years, maybe four years, five years.

Q:    We’re speaking with Jimmy Heath and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, and it’s been an education over the last 45 minutes.  We wanted to play a couple of selections that feature different drummers who again had a big impact on Tootie.  But by the way, I’d like to ask you (I guess it’s sort of obvious), where did the nickname ‘Tootie’ come from?

AH:    Well, you have one.  Your name is Ted, right?

Q:    Well, yes, but…

AH:    Are you named Theodore?

Q:    Yes, I am.

AH:    There you go.  I got mine just like you got yours.

Q:    Albert…

JH:    [LAUGHING]

AH:    Well, it’s just a different name.  My grandfather gave it to me.  And where he came from with it, maybe my brother Jimmy could answer that.  Because I never got a chance to ask him before he died…

Q:    It just got put on you, this name?

AH:    Well, we all had nicknames, the whole family.  But I chose to keep mine, or… I don’t know if I chose to keep it or if it just stuck.  But I still have it, and I like it, and it suits me.  I look like Tootie now.  I don’t look like Albert.  I look like Tootie.

Q:    What was Jimmy’s nickname?

AH:    I’m not going to tell you.  I’ll let him tell you that.

JH:    [LAUGHS]  Percy’s was Percolator.  And mine was Skookum.  I don’t know where that came from, so I’ll let that one go.

Q:    The next selection we’ll hear comes from a 1953 session for Prestige under Miles Davis’ leadership.  This is a very famous session.  Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker both appear here on tenor saxophones, and Walter Bishop on piano, Percy’s on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  Now, Jimmy has a comment.

JH:    Yeah, I’ve got a definite comment.  I had that song written, the line that they call “Serpent’s Tooth,” and I was supposed to make that record, but Bob Weinstock or whoever was in charge of Prestige said, “Look, I don’t know any Jimmy Heath.  Let’s get Charlie Parker.  He wants to make a date on tenor, so let’s get him to make the date on tenor.”  So I gave this line to Miles, an untitled line, and said, “Well, Miles, I can’t make the date; would you record my piece?”  And he did, but he put his name on it, “Serpent’s Tooth,” and his name as the composer.  So that’s the way that goes.  And Sonny and Percy are the ones who are left that will tell you that is my song.  And Clark Terry knows about it because he had a big band arrangement from Phil Woods, and Phil Woods knows that that was my song.  But Miles got credit for it.

Q:    Before we play “Serpent’s Tooth,” I’d like to get a couple of comments on Philly Joe Jones by Tootie Heath, who had to come up under him in Philadelphia during those years.

AH:    Well, about Philly Joe.  He was probably one of the most amazing players that you’d ever want to…well, I’ll say musicians — because he played music on the drums.  Philly Joe was… Oh yeah, and my brother’s making the piano sign over here.  He played some serious piano, too.  Philly Joe was probably a major influence on me, as well as many others, and he made a tremendous impact on this music when he finally came to New York and started to record.  Because he was playing… The way that he was playing when he recorded with Miles, he was playing like that around Philadelphia.  If you were lucky, you could catch him playing in a group with some guys like Jimmy Oliver and Shuggie(?) Rhodes(?) and Red Garland, and… I guess that would be the basic quartet, bass, drums and piano.  And like I said, if you were lucky, you could catch him playing with these people.  And when he moved to New York finally, then the world got a chance to hear him, because he joined the Miles Davis group, and then we all know what happened after that.  They made some of the most powerful recordings together that have come about in this particular music, in this genre that we’re talking about since I can remember.   Now, this is only my personal opinion, of course, but I…

Q:    Well, that’s what the Musician Show is all about.

AH:    Well, recordings like Round Midnight, that album, and the Gil Evans series that Philly Joe did with Miles Davis and some others that I can’t think of right now.  But I heard one the other day which was Coltrane’s date, and he used Miles on trumpet, but Coltrane was the leader.  But it was the Miles Davis group… Now, the guy on the radio said this.  Now, I don’t remember whose date it was.  But they were playing some music like I had never heard, something  regular like “I Got Rhythm” or something like that.  I forgot what it was.  Are you familiar with that record?

Q:    No, I’m not.  The one that I can think of is Cannonball and Miles…

AH:    No.

Q:    …but that’s a different date.

AH:    It could have been the Miles Davis group mistakenly… You know, the DJ could have made a mistake and said it was Coltrane.  But they said Coltrane was the leader of this.  But Miles Davis played trumpet on it.  And man, Philly Joe was immaculate on it, like he was most times you’d ever catch him.  He was always…

Q:    He played with a real elegance all the time.

AH:    Man, he had a snap and a sound and a feeling that… You know, it was just big and broad.

Q:    Well, let’s hear “The Serpent’s Tooth,” and then we’ll hear a final wrap-up with Jimmy and Tootie Heath, who are appearing at the Village Vanguard this week… [ETC.]

[MUSIC]

“Daahoud” by Clifford Brown.  That’s from a 1954 session by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet with Harold Land, George Morrow and Richie Powell. [ETC.]

I’d like to thank the Heaths for their generous comments and just for really a quick cram course on some of the essentials of the legacy of the music today.  Jimmy Heath, thank you very much.

JH:    Well, Ted, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.  You’re so knowledgeable of the music, and I respect your knowledge and I’m glad to have been here.

Q:    Well, thank you.  And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Albert Heath.

AH:    Well, it was a real pleasure to do a real interview in New York City and be able to talk to all of these people… And Art Taylor, I know I left you out, but please don’t be angry.  And Elvin Jones, if you’re listening, I know I stole your stuff, too.  And all you guys that I left out, please don’t be angry with me.  Just come down to the Vanguard and we can make up.

[ETC.]

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Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, DownBeat, Interview, Jimmy Heath, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

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Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.

Yes.

Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.

Really.

When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.

Mmm-hmm.

Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…

Right.

…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!

ROLLINS:  [HEARTY LAUGH]

I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.

Right.

Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…

Intuitive.

It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.

Mmm-hmm.

It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.

Sure.

Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00):

Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.

Yes.

Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard with Michael Weiss on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and Greg Hutchinson on drums. The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I’ve interpolated a few of Von’s remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930’s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930’s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: “It Could Happen To You” (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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Filed under Chicago, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

Mark Turner Blindfold Test, Uncut

It’s New York’s gain, if the world’s loss, that Paul Motian doesn’t like to leave the island of Manhattan. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to. In the latest iteration of his ongoing residence at the Village Vanguard, Motian will perform the sideman function in a new quartet led by the immensely influential tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, with pianist David Virelles and bassist Ben Street.  For a report on what Turner’s up to lately, read this recent interview with A-list altoist Jaleel Shaw. Then scan the uncut version of the Blindold Test that I conducted with him for DownBeat about five years ago.

* * *

1.   George Coleman-Ron Blake, “Speak Low”(from Joey DeFrancesco, ORGANIC VIBES, Concord, 2006) (Coleman, Blake, tenor saxophone; DeFrancesco, organ; Byron Landham, drums)

I have an inkling of who it is, but I’m not exactly sure. But it’s very proficient playing.  I was  trying to see if I could recognize the drummer, and I wasn’t sure. It could be a few people. I’d like to hear what it is afterwards. I thought I’d figure that one out, but I’m stumped as to who it is. It’s an extremely hard tempo to play well on. But it’s well played. The rhythm section in particular was very proficient, very solid, forward-driving. That’s about it. [Anything about the lines or sound? Do you think it’s a younger player or older player?] It sounds like one of the saxophone players is older and one is younger. The first saxophone player I gathered was older (I’m not sure who it was) and the second one who soloed being younger. I’m don’t know whose record it is. Concept of sound is the first way I can tell, and the types of lines in general – without being too specific about it. Maybe to the point of the phrases, and when a given person decides to play a given phrase – and where. That was my general feeling. I don’t know whose record it is. I couldn’t quite tell. I was assuming maybe it was the organ player’s record. That was my first impression. Maybe the organ player wanted to get young and old together, or something like that, with maybe his rhythm section. Is it Joey DeFrancesco? I’m surprised I got it! But I don’t know who either saxophone player is. I think I could tell at a slower tempo, but at that tempo I can’t tell. 3 stars. [AFTER] I got it!! Well, I had an idea. As a whole, not their most individual playing.

2.   Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought” (from BLACK NARCISSUS, Milestone, 1968/1994) (Henderson, tenor saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Oh, you gave me an easy one. Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought,” with Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter. This is one of my favorite Joe records. I have it on a compilation and also on the actual record. But I used to listen to this record every day for two or three years, I was so into it, and others by Joe Henderson around that period. That was around 1989-90-91. It’s just so incredible! I think of Joe as someone who brought together quite a bit of what happened before, so he brought together, say, a certain amount of free playing, a certain amount of saxophone tradition, like bebop playing and swing before that, and players of his generation and before. Also, from a saxophone player’s standpoint, he started a certain type of tune. For example, some tunes that have free playing, and a lot of tunes that have been written since, that are kind of like some through-composed, some not, with sort of compact, condensed areas of changes. That type of tune…he’s the one who started all that, basically. In this period it’s great, because his sound is maybe somewhat lighter than earlier records. It’s incredible, because he gets a feeling of playing live in the studio, which is extremely difficult to do. It sounds like other records that are live records from around the same period. He sort of wrapped together everything that he did before and sort of looking to what’s going to happen in the future, and it’s all done in the studio in one period. It’s incredible. Also, that recording and others around that period, it’s an excellent example for him of mystery and logic and rational playing brought together. He’s the master of that of the saxophone players I’m aware of. 5 stars.

3.  Jimmy Greene, “Take Advantage”(from TRUE LIFE-STORIES, Criss-Cross, 2005) (Greene, tenor saxophone; Xavier Davis, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Harry Connick, composer)

Nice tune. Nice form. It flows very nicely, it’s very melodic, nice motion between the sections. Very well played, very swinging and very well done. Very professional-sounding. Before I heard the solos, I thought it was John Ellis as a sideman on someone else’s record.  I don’t know who else it could be. I thought maybe Jimmy Greene because of some aspects of the size of his sound in the middle register, but the lines and phrasing didn’t quite sound like what I knew to be him from when I played with him and hearing him on other people’s records. I’m less familiar with his playing recently. Maybe Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. It’s a nice performance that rests on its own terms. It didn’t sound like a standard, or if it was, it was a pretty complex and obscure one. It didn’t sound like a normal standard. I thought it was an original written in a certain style. 4 stars.

4.   David Murray, “Steps” (from 4TET & STRINGS, Justin Time, 2006) (Murray, tenor saxophone, composer; Lafayette Gilchrist, piano)

I thought it was Sam Rivers for the first few  seconds because of the sound and vibrato, but as soon as I listened a little more, I knew it wasn’t. I don’t know who it is. I especially liked the section during the piano player’s solo. Wow, that was beautiful. I really loved that. I liked especially certain sections of the arrangement with the strings. I liked the tenor player. To a certain extent I like that kind of playing over let’s say a string section or something where there’s some clear harmony written, but I’d say the soloist isn’t necessarily addressing tonality in a specific sense, maybe more like sounds and certain colors than addressing tonality. I enjoy that, because there’s a certain amount of mystery that it adds to music. I personally prefer also having that and really addressing the harmony in a specific way as well. I enjoy that even more. But I really like the mystery added, again, by that type of playing. Of course, part of the reason why I enjoyed the piano player’s solo more is because both of those elements were both in play, maybe because of the instruments played. 4 stars.

5.   Chris Byars, “The Lion of Yerevan” (from Ari Roland, SKETCHES FROM A BASSIST’S ALBUM, Smalls 2006) (Byars, tenor saxophone; Sacha Perry, piano; Ari Roland, bass; Danny Rosenfeld, drums)

I’m not sure who the saxophone player is. It sounds like Lucky Thompson, the saxophone player who did the record “Tricotism.”  There’s a tune of his that I play, too. I’m not sure if it’s him, but it sounds like he’s coming out of that tradition. I don’t think it’s him, but it sounds somewhere in that area. Otherwise, I can’t think of who it would be off the top of my head. It’s fantastic. I don’t know this recording. It sounds like it could be from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s; for example, a bass player from the late ‘30s or early ‘40s recording a record later, like maybe in the ‘50s. It’s the harmonic language and the sound of the recording. It sounds like something recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. That’s my guess. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’m not surprised. I’ve heard those guys a fair amount of times. It sounded like someone from that period who had their own original material that I didn’t know of. It’s totally fresh. It sounds like they’re completely in it, and it sounds like that music is alive and they’re in that language, as if they were living then and playing it now. It’s amazing. It’s great.

6.   James Carter, “Blue Hawaiian” (from GOLD SOUNDS, Brown Brothers, 2005) (Carter, tenor saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, keyboards; Reginald Veal, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

It sounds like James Carter. Why did it take me so long? I’m not that familiar with his playing, and in the very beginning he didn’t play that much, he was introducing the melody, and it sounded like it could be some other people from, say, the Chicago school of saxophone players, if you want to call it that – the avant-garde, more or less, to some extent. I haven’t listened to them a lot; I’m aware of them and have listened to them to some extent. I need to check them out more, but I’m just aware of it. So at first I was wondering which one, but as it went on I was aware of James, one, because it sounded like a new recording, and two, because of the amount that he was playing – as in playing a lot and not leaving any space for anyone else, really. On a good note, as far as the amount of effects and facility on the instrument, it’s amazing. There are some things he was doing with sound that were incredible, very difficult to do. There’s one thing in particular, somewhere on the horn, maybe A-flat to B-flat, something like that, back and forth, and there were some kind of harmonics with something else going on. Sound-wise, it was kind of amazing. Really interesting. That ability is fantastic, and I enjoy that part. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s the prowess on the instrument, and the sound that the rhythm section was getting together. Even though it was a vamp, the relationship between the bass and keyboard – it was nice, what they had going. There was one little interlude between the solos, right after the tenor solos, that was really nice. My reservation is sometimes a little too much playing. If there was less, it would have been more pleasurable to listen to. I liked the song. It was a vamp more or less with some little interludes to break it up. 3stars.

7.   Greg Tardy, “As the World Rejoices” (from Greg Tardy, THE TRUTH, Steeplechase, 2005) (Tardy, tenor saxophone; Helen Sung, piano; Sean Conly, bass; Jaimeo Brown, drums)

That sounds like  Greg Tardy playing saxophone. I didn’t know if this was his record, because I haven’t heard any of his records or heard him write tunes like this. But I thought it was fantastic. It sounds really beautiful. It was an excellent composition, especially the relationship between bass and melody. It’s nice, because it’s the type of tune where you can hear the harmony just with bass and melody alone. That says a lot about the composer’s understanding of harmony. Also fantastic is the way that even though it was somewhat rubato in some sections, it still had a nice rhythmic tension, which is sometimes hard to get. It was very well done. The sound was great. I think Greg is playing a Radio-Improved that he’s shown me. Totally beautiful. 4½ stars. The only reason I don’t say 5 is just because I reserve 5 for established classics.

8.   Michael Brecker, “Prince Lasha” (from Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, LOCKED & LOADED: LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE, Half-Note, 2006) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Craig McIver, drums)

I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t say I liked it very much. Wow. I think I’ve heard the piece before, but I’m not sure. But on that performance the band was…wow. I mean “wow” in the negative sense. The band performance was a bit atrocious, I have to say. The time wasn’t quite happening. I don’t know what was going on. At first I thought the tenor player was Brecker, but it’s not what I’m used to. Maybe it’s other things…I don’t know what happened. It sounds like maybe someone else who sounds like him. There are certain lines that he was playing that I’m not used to hearing him play. Also, part of it is execution. I’m used to hearing even more immaculate execution and time. But on the other hand, if he’s dealing with the drummer, whoever it was, it would be hard to deal with that maybe even for him. So I don’t know. It could be someone else who sounds a lot like him, would be my guess. I was going to say maybe Tommy Smith or… I don’t know that many people. It could be Bob Mintzer, but I’m used to hearing him sound different. Or Bob Berg, But not quite. 1 star. One thing that made me think it was Brecker was sound, and there were other things he executed that were so him, that I haven’t heard anyone else do. Even for him, dealing with that, I can see why he was – for him – not as immaculate on phrases or time or whatever as he normally would be. It sounds like he’s trying to keep everyone together.

I love Michael Brecker. I think he’s fantastic. He’s an incredible saxophone player, musician, person. Musician in an ideal sense, in terms of work ethic, reason for playing, the feeling of emotion that he puts out and gives people. It’s sad for me to hear him in that situation, because it’s pulling him way down, way below what he can do. To me, he’s just keeping them together, baby-sitting them. That’s what I think. I’ll be flat-honest about it.

In terms of recordings, there are so many great ones, but one of my favorites is Brecker with strings, a Claus Ogermann date. Man, it’s super-bad. It’s an immaculate record. [Has he influenced you?] Yeah. He’s probably influenced everybody. Maybe some people would not like to admit it. But of course. Definitely. Absolutely. Yes, in many ways. Should I say how? I don’t know how to put it… Well, specifically, like many saxophone players, when I was in early college and high school, I spent a lot of time trying to sound like him. Actually, in certain ways… I did certain transcriptions, and had books with transcriptions where he kind of, among others, taught me how to play the saxophone, and certain things he could do with it… I mean, there are certain things that he’s done with the saxophone and taking, say, the language of Coltrane and people like that, and done certain things that are characteristically him. He’s not just let’s say a disciple of Trane or whatever. Not to me. He’s really added to the canon. Anyway, so he’s influenced me and maybe others in the sense that he’s kind of stretching certain ways of playing the saxophone very specifically, certain things that he can do on the saxophone. There are certain things that I didn’t realize you could do with it until I heard him play. They’re just technical things that are also musical. It’s hard to explain it. But certain things that are very difficult to do. Certain scalar things, certain patterns very, very fast to play within a range of 2½ to 3 octaves, using the upper register is a big one. The way he plays and improvises certain lines. Also the way he uses false fingerings, certain things he did that are very difficult to do, that are his. It’s his vocabulary. Out of a certain tradition, like all of us, but it’s his thing. And when he’s in an environment not like this one, it’s incredible. [Did you keep abreast of his later records?] Yeah, somewhat. Totally incredible. In fact, another thing that’s great about him is that he’s one of those people that I would like to be like, just continuing to blossom. Just better and better. It’s just incredible. Now it’s like he has all the technique and sound, deeper and more open. It seems on his last records, he’s had more opportunity to show various things he can do and changed his own playing even more. Still evolving.

9.   Ned Goold, “In The Still Of The Night” (from THE FLOWS, Smalls, 1999/2004) (Goold, tenor saxophone; Ben Wolfe, bass; Ron Steen, drums)

It’s Ned Goold. I don’t know the tune; I haven’t played it. I don’t know who’s in the rhythm section. He’s a great saxophone player. I could tell because his lines are very intervallic, but still in the ‘40s-‘50s vernacular. So that’s how I recognized him. It’s very interesting playing. It’s difficult to do that and still play the changes well. 3½ stars.

10. Chris Potter, “Morning Bell” (from UNDERGROUND, Sunnyside, 2006) (Potter, tenor saxophone; Wayne Krantz, guitar; Craig Taborn, fender rhodes; Nate Smith, drums; Thom Yorke, composer)

It sounds like Chris Potter. I’m not familiar with this tune, but it’s a great composition. I really enjoyed that. It sounds like a Radiohead tune or influenced by it. It’s the form and the harmony. There are certain basslines or certain parts of the harmony, certain things in minor thirds that make it sound like that. I don’t remember exactly, but some other spots that are like that. [Can you take a brief tangent and discuss what about Radiohead’s make them appealing to musicians in this period?] I don’t know actually. But there are a lot who are into it, including myself. Maybe because at least a fair amount of musicians are listening to other music besides jazz, and are into various popular musics, whatever they are, and then those that are of that genre, let’s say rock-influenced or whatever. I think that because the sound on their records is so great, and also they’re pretty meticulous about sounds – getting the sounds right, the sound of the record. Plus the tunes. The songs are great. It’s really good songwriting. I think a big part of it is that. Even if you just play the song without really soloing that much, like this one, they’re just nice forms to hear, and there seems to be something close about maybe what some of us are doing and what they’re doing that may be influencing us. Maybe it’s because a fair amount of us are willing to address popular music from our generation. That includes anything from something we listened in high school on – anything from the ‘80s and ‘90s. And Radiohead, among others, seems to be a good example of that. I thought that performance was fantastic, beautiful. I can’t say anything bad about it! It’s all great, fantastic. I wish I could play that well. He’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

11.   Donny McCaslin, “Soar” (from SOAR, Sunnyside, 2006) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Shane Endsley, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone)

It’s pretty bold to start that long with percussion. It’s interesting. I like that. I’m not sure who this is, but it sounds like an Avishai Cohen tune, or something in that scene – an active section of the tune, sort of syncopated in a scalar sense. It sounds like an Israeli vibe, or sounds influenced by it. I don’t know who it is, though. It’s a great song. I can’t quite place the guitar player. Tenor player sounds fantastic. Whoo! Killing. Sounds like some people I know, but I’m not sure if it’s them. Maybe younger people who sound like them. It sounds Latin-influenced, some type of Caribbean-Latin thing. This is a nice interlude section. It’s a great tune, a great composition. It’s really well-done. Beautiful. [FINAL SECTION] This last section is really nice! Wow. What a great arrangement. Great ending, too. Just falls right off. A little arrangement of whatever those revolving changes were. 4 stars. [AFTER] I thought it was Donny, but there was something about his sound that sounded different, so to be honest, I thought it was someone who was sounding like Donny, or checked him out.

12.   Branford Marsalis, “Laughin’ and Talkin’ with Higg” (from ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Rounder, 2004) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

Sounds like Wynton and Branford. I don’t know whose record this is, and I’m not sure if I’ve heard this record. Oh, I figured it would be Branford. I’m not sure if it’s recent or not. It’s Jeff Watts, and I would imagine Eric Revis or Reginald Veal depending on how recent it is. It’s incredible playing, understanding of swing rhythm and all those things – just the obvious things. But not only a great understanding of the swing tradition, but it’s their own language they’ve created. I’ve been influenced by it. Many people have. The way that they play that maybe objectively speaking or maybe, according to some who may be against them or not like what they’re doing, who think they’re too conservative or something… It seems like they have so much control, especially over this, that it sounds like they’re playing really free. They have a lot of creative ability. They’re  really connected, and really complementary to each other, not necessarily a thing where someone will play a certain phrase and someone else will play the same thing, but actually complementing – two different melodies that work together type of thing. They do it very well. And it’s improvised. That’s another thing that’s great, is they’re really improvising, really making up lines, but still in the whole vocabulary and vernacular of the tradition. Rhythmically it’s great, Jeff Watts’ innovations and the innovations of that group of people, whether it’s Branford’s bands or Wynton’s bands, especially Wynton’s band in the ‘80s, like ‘85, like J-Mood and Black Codes From The Underground. This was right before I went to college, so everybody was listening. Not everybody, but those that wanted to play mainstream jazz were into that, and so was I.  So yes, it’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Mark Turner, Tenor Saxophone

Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard This Week

On any given evening in New York City, jazzfolk possessing sufficient determination, logistical savoir faire, and funds can select from an embarrassment of riches. Last night, for example, I might have gone to the Jazz Standard to hear James Farm, the new collective “all star” group with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland. Could’ve gone to Birdland for Bill Charlap’s inimitable trio, or to Smoke, where the great tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander was swinging with piano maestro Harold Mabern.

Instead, I stayed in downtown Manhattan. Started off at the acoustically superb theater at the Rubin Museum, sited on the premises of the old Barney’s on 17th and 7th, to hear a solo concert by pianist Craig Taborn in celebration  of his new ECM release Avenging Angel, a recital constructed by Manfred Eicher from two days of in-studio improvisations. In person, Taborn compressed, presenting 8 or 9 tabula rasa improvs that showcased both his enviable interdependence,  rhythmic precision, and an array of attacks and pedaling techniques that exploited — and reveled in the harmonics of —  the full dynamic range of the Yamaha piano. It was a good reminder that Taborn — whose public profile  has become distorted by the amount of time he’s spent over the last decade playing keyboards in bands led by Tim Berne and, more visibly, Chris Potter — is anyone’s equal on the acoustic 88s.

Later, I walked down 7th Avenue to the Village Vanguard to hear the final half-hour of the first set by Chris Potter,  with whom, for the last 8 years, Taborn has played keyboards in the “Underground Quartet.” Earlier this year, Potter presented a thrilling new band with Cuban pianist David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier, and Harland, performing original music inspired by a reading of The Odyssey. This week — the gig runs through tomorrow — Potter is working with a stringcentric quintet that features the protean guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith from the Underground group, acoustic bassist Scott Colley from his acoustic quartet of the late  ’90s and early ’00s, and electric bassist Fima Ephron, a master of texture and pulse. The music was technically challenging, but also episodic, melodic, and collectively oriented. It took me on a journey.

My last stop was the Jazz Gallery, where trumpeter Ralph Alessi led as individualistic a quartet as you could think of — Jason Moran on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, which performs on the 2010 release (though it was recorded in 20040, Cognitive Dissonance [CAM Jazz]. I was tired, and had to leave after three tunes (looks like I missed Ravi Coltrane sitting in; he was coming up the stairs with his saxophone). Wish I could have hung in there, though, as Alessi’s music is brilliant — highbrow, witty, rhythmically intoxicating — and the cats played it with such conversational sangfroid…

On the way home, though, Potter’s set stayed in my mind. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him a bit over the years, both through conducting a number of public interviews on WKCR, but also in the course of writing several pieces — a blindfold test 10-11 years ago, a 2006 feature article for Jazziz, a 2008 (I think it was) cover story for DownBeat. In the 2006 piece, Potter talked about themes that seem quite pertinent to the next step that he seems to be taking.

* * * * * *

On consecutive Fridays last June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For week number-two, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin.  Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz.  “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier], and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), until the present, everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention  when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led a dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of  the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers.  He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang ‘Yesterday,’ and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”

[BREAK]

“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar,  launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying  his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority  reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965.  Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources.  These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”

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Filed under Article, Chris Potter, Jazziz, Review, Tenor Saxophone

A Conversation with Evan Parker and Thomas Struth

To conclude this evening’s program at the Vision Fest,  the sui generis English saxophonist Evan Parker will perform in duo with pianist Matthew Shipp. They began performing together four or five years ago (see Abbey Road Duos [Treader-2007]), and present an interesting matchup. (If memory serves, they last played together in NYC during Parker’s month-long Fall 2009 residency at the Stone; it was Thelonious Monk’s birthday, and, joined by William Parker, they played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolated with other Monk fragments.)

To represent the occasion, I’d like to share an interview that I conducted with Parker and the German photographer Thomas Struth in February 2003, when Struth asked Parker to play a solo concert at the Metropolitan Museum to mark the opening of a 25-year  retrospective of his penetrating, multi-perspectival work. I pitched Jazziz on setting up a conversation with the two protagonists in an endeavor to find correspondences in their process and praxis. The conversation transpired in Struth’s suite in the Hotel Surrey, over Restaurant Boulud. I thought it was pretty wonderful, but for one reason or another, Jazziz decided not to run the piece. Eight years later, here’s the transcript.

* * * * *

Evan Parker-Thomas Struth (Ted Panken) – (Feb. 10, 2003):

TP:    Since you’re both traveling right now, and in New York, can you speak to the way that venue affects your process?—How Mr. Struth prepares either setting up the photograph or taking the picture, Mr. Parker’s preparations for the concert.

THOMAS STRUTH:  As you were talking, there was actually something else I was thinking.  The first time I heard Evan in Nimes, and what struck me most and what I see in relationship from my side listening to Evan’s music, is that it seems to me as something which is directed towards the future, or something which is using the past, in a way, and using other material or other experiences he has had, but then transforming into something which to me felt spontaneous, like a big enthusiasm or a big exhilaration of emotions in a rather charged way, which fits very well into the feeling of the moment, of this time.  If you take a stretched portion, not like today or tomorrow, but the end of the millennium… A force to go on or to find a kind of energy for tomorrow in a broader sense… That was my feeling about it.

To return to your question, it may be a little bit hard to explain.  Because in my case, as I go along and I meet certain people, then I collect impressions, I collect advice(?) or I collect phenomena that I see, not only around the world, but also in my apartment when I read the news or when I talk to friends, and say, “Have you heard that this or that happened…”  So it’s a constant experiment to get some things together which lead forward, in a way.  I mean, this may be in the most general sense: Something that you need to stay alive, or to stay actively alive, and to bring links or to link within your own world something like a network of several other people and several other places on the globe to make it feel more stable and more interesting and more energetic.

EVAN PARKER:  Several of the images in the catalogue are from New York.  Is that true?

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s true.

EVAN PARKER:  I’ve certainly seen photographs of yours in New York.  And you spent a fairly long period, a year, and have made many visits over the last twenty-five years…

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yeah, I had one stay… When I was 23 years old, I got a scholarship from the academy where I studied in Dusseldorf to study in New York for six months, and I extended it for another three months.

TP:    Where did you stay?

THOMAS STRUTH:  I stayed in various locations.  With friends on Crosby Street, and then the Hotel Arlington on 25th Street, between 6th and Broadway, at $60 a week, bullet holes in the elevator door and stuff like that.

TP:    Evan, when did you first come to New York?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, in 1962, because of these famous free flights in connection with my father’s job.  So I came in ’62 and ’63 for about two weeks each time, and never left Manhattan.  I only went to record shops, art galleries and jazz clubs — book shops a little bit.

THOMAS STRUTH:  It’s very easy never to leave Manhattan.  When I was 23, I left Manhattan for the first time after six months, but only for a day’s trip to upstate New York in upstate New York, and then I came back.

TP:    Evan, you’ve said that the only thing that really affects you is the sound.  You close your eyes, go with the sound, and it takes you on your journey.

EVAN PARKER:  Yes.  I will have to listen to these recordings to see whether there’s anything else going on.  Because when I listen back to the solo concert that I gave nine years ago in New York… If you remember the solo concert with Anthony Braxton at the Greenwich House of music, when I listen back to that, it sounds fairly manic.  There is an energy.  That famous New York energy has come in, and maybe I’m doing a lot of things at twice the speed that I would normally do them, or would normally have done those things at that time.  So it was a significantly energized performance.  When I listen to the recording of this recent concert, I may have some similar observations.  But as far as it felt at the time, it felt like, yes, the main consideration is the acoustic, and then of course the response of the audience was very warm, and so I felt at ease and unpressured, so it may be slightly different from the previous situation.

TP:    Mr. Struth, this may be a naive question.  But does your process of seeing change… Apart from considerations of light… Well, maybe that’s part of it.  But do you see things differently in Tokyo or Shanghai or New York or Dusseldorf?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Well, the way of seeing I think stays the same, except for when I am starting on a new project, or I have an idea that needs to be visualized in front of my inner eye and I don’t know yet what it might become, and then I have to see something which I haven’t seen yet.  In that respect, it happens very often to me that when I come back to a place, like my own home town or New York, where I’ve photographed already a lot, then it seems I just reject to want to see something professionally.  In New York, it’s very hard for me to make a second guess or to make a second discovery.  For example, in New York, most of the pictures in which I am in the central perspective on the streets are from ’78, and then in ’92 I tried to do one street similar to that one, which I hate.  When I looked at it, it felt like imitating.  You can’t turn the clock back there.  Then I was very happy, in a way, to do that Times Square picture, which I did in ’99, and which happened because I’d been thinking and looking at Times Square for ten years or so.  So one day I thought I just have to take a camera down there, and see what’s possible in terms of angles and lenses.  Then I found the NASDAQ building, which wasn’t like a milestone, in views of buildings, where the building is an old building, but there’s a video screen.  So I liked that kind of intersection of one more intense historical moment.  Maybe in 25 years we’ll have another one hundred video screen buildings in Manhattan.  Who knows?

TP:    I think the picture was at 6:51 in the morning.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.

TP:    Evan Parker often has to play a concert, say, in Nimes, take a train somewhere else, go into a place without knowing it and just do the concert — react instantaneously.  For example, with the Times Square photograph, did you case it the day before, go there and come back the next morning?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yes.  I went there like three or four days in a row.  I didn’t think of that location, but I was thinking of a more general Times Square view.  Which I did.  I did two or three other pictures with much more information actually in the frame and many more billboards, but they were kind of boring in the end, because they… You cannot represent the speed, in a way, in a photograph.  Even if you take something like this French photographer, Latigue, who photographed like the old racing cars in the early ’20s or so, somebody who some would say depicted speed… But you can’t do that.

TP:    Evan, is it helpful for you to know the room in which you are playing?  Does it make a difference?

EVAN PARKER:  The classic problem is that you get your chance to check the room before the audience arrives, and then when the audience is in, the sound is usually significantly different.  So unless it’s a very big, high ceiling, like a church or a cathedral or a very grand atrium somewhere…

THOMAS STRUTH:  Was it like that here, at the Met?

EVAN PARKER:  Not so much.   The bigger the space, the less obvious the effect.

THOMAS STRUTH:  For me, it was very striking sitting in the audience.  I think I’ve never heard a saxophone sound being transported to the audience with the reflection of wood… The whole side and the ceiling and the background of that stage is wood, and it has such a warm sound, almost like a woodwind instrument.

EVAN PARKER:  Yes.  It’s very funny, because when the plans were being made, I asked about what would the space be like, because if I’m not performing in the gallery situation… Which of course, would not be possible in the Metropolitan Museum.  But I didn’t know the internal arrangements there.  So I assumed it might be something like a lecture theater, such as they have at the British Museum and in different places.  I thought, well, that would be rather dry and difficult.  So I just asked, “Can I play in a resonant space?”  Then they explained that this place was rather purpose-built for music, was rather okay acoustically, and Itzhak Perlman had played there, so it should be okay.

[PAUSE FOR COFFEE AND MADELEINES FROM BOULUD DOWNSTAIRS]

TP:    I was asking Evan if he’d tailored your process in any way to meet the demands of your life as a traveling, troubadour type of musician.  I know that’s not the way it always is.  But is there any element of that?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, actually the solo music doesn’t really fit very well with the average situation where I play.  So I’m trying more and more to make sure that the places are appropriate, and not play solo in a dead room.  Because it can very quickly just… You listen to the sound of somebody working hard, but nothing happens.  Steve Lake said something about “the higher magic.”  When the higher magic comes in, then it goes to a different place.  And I would like always to be able to produce that euphoric circumstances.

THOMAS STRUTH:  Your music always makes me wonder about things like memory.  We spoke about that before, how when somebody plays like you play (and I guess I believe that you’re the only who plays like you play, as far as I know), on one side I’m always wondering, as you play, how you project what you would play, or do you have like a scheme also that you project into the future of the piece.  I always have the feeling that you don’t do that very much.

EVAN PARKER:  No.

THOMAS STRUTH:  And we talked about the memory backwards, of moving the imagination towards the next eight minutes or so, or the memory of the listener… I talked to somebody else about that after the concert, and I came to the word “surrender.”  The fascinating thing to me, listening to your music, is that the only way to really receive it is surrendering.  I talked to some other people, some people from the Goodman Gallery who I invited to come and talk about the concert, who have no idea or very little about jazz, and came.  They were all completely out of their minds.  They said, “We never heard anything like that!  This is totally great!”  They were very happy, in a way.

But the question for me would be what do you think, or what do you sort of pre-draw in your imagination as you play?

EVAN PARKER:  I don’t know what it is.  A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system, and there’s no effort to control it.  There’s no effort to think especially.  There’s only a process of entering that room again, that place where that music is.  I open the door.  I can do almost anything to open the door.  But then the door is open, I’m in the room, and I’m looking around, almost like those “ars memoria” things you’re sort of hinting at, the old medieval system of memory with placing things in different… Going into a familiar location, and you’ve placed objects in memorable places, on the table, by the window, over there on the cupboard — and so on.  Then my attention wanders until it might light on some particular place.  Then I know roughly where I am.  Then I look at it again and see: Where is this?  What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was in this place?  And I stay there until something new happens or until SOMETHING happens, and takes me somewhere else.  I’m following.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.

It’s got something to do with memory and the future.  In fact, the next ECM record, with the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, is called Memory Vision, and then there’s a subtitle, Staring Into The Time Code.  So you’re onto something with that memory thing.  But it’s like memory and anticipation.  Vision in the sense of a vision of the future.  The fact that this place now is always “where are we now”… Of course, that’s the moment where the experience happens, or focuses.  But it has no meaning unless it’s about the past, and has no prospects unless it seems to talk about the future.

THOMAS STRUTH:  I think that the improvisation of music the way you do it is very unconscious.  It’s almost like looking at the unconscious, sitting in the first row… I found that very rare.

TP:    I was sitting in the first row, and I was watching your hands.  Your left hand was doing very different things than your right hand in a patterned way.  The right hand was very fleet and virtuosic and the right hand was percussive. So I was correlating your hand movements to the multiphonic lines in a way I hadn’t had a chance to do before.  I don’t know if that translates to a question. But there seems to be something ancient in the process, as though you’re using ancient fragments in a ritualistic sense, and then building them up unconsciously in the manner Mr. Struth is referring to.

EVAN PARKER:  I find a lot of correspondences with traditional musics, especially bagpipe music.  I think somebody mentioned the Scottish tradition, but also the Launeddas tradition of Sardinia.  It’s two melody pipes and a drone, so three separate pipes.  It must be a very ancient instrument.  Some people say that’s the aeolos as depicted on Greek vases from 1000 B.C. maybe, the oldest pictures of these kinds of instruments.  There the left hand-right hand thing is very specifically separated.  There’s a pipe for each hand and then a drone.  It’s not that I’m imitating Launeddas music, because I was well-established on a path of possibilities before I heard the Launeddas music.  But I feel an affinity with that kind of stuff.

TP:    In assimilating the music, did you get an idiomatic experience with it?  Do you need an idiomatic experience with these areas before incorporating them into your vocabulary and language?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, I’m not sure whether incorporation is the appropriate way of describing it.  Because usually, these musics are very, very much tied up with the absolute specifics of the construction of the instrument.  And of course, the simpler that construction is, the truer that probably will be.  The launeddas is just made from cane and a free reed, but the hole of the reed part of the mouthpiece is in the (?) cavity, and it’s the front end, the furthest away from you… It vibrates from that end, like this.  So the whole thing is inside the mouth.  Three of those reeds.  It’s quite a thing.  So the specifics of that produce a very particular music and a very particular sound.  Then the fact that the two hands each have a pipe of their own, and they play in different keys by changing the pipe.  So each launeddas player travels with almost an archer’s…

THOMAS STRUTH:  Ted, what you mentioned in observing Evan is also what I was observing.  I had the impression that you were playing two soprano saxophones at once, and even sometimes you can link what you see and what you hear, but certain lines that are only linked with the left hand and certain lines that are only linked with your right hand…

EVAN PARKER:  That’s how it works.  It’s a way of breaking the column in different… To have the column be long, then the right hand needs to be involved, but when the right hand is involved the left hand can still break the column.  That’s the whole basis of so-called multiphonics.  But multiphonics as a classical term only refers to vertical structures; not chords really, but some can approach the quality of a chord.  In the restaurant, they played the Coltrane record “Harmonique.”  An excellent choice.  So it was a reminder that Coltrane produced several rather consonant multiphonics.  But most multiphonics, by their nature, are rather dissonant, and that harshness for me is not always appropriate.  But if you can somehow rhythmically articulate different elements of that vertical structure by breaking the column rhythmically from right to left and so on.  It’s really like taking a vertical structure and spreading it, so that it takes on these stranded characters where you can listen to movement in maybe three different registers, two different registers… Maybe if everything is going really well, you can say arguably there are four registers there.  But if it gets to that point, then it’s like the centipede and how does the centipede know how to walk.

TP:    What you’re describing in a certain sense is how you project your voice into a machine or a construction or a technology.  And no photographer can express their vision without technology.  Can you talk about the various ways in which your vision depends on technology and the ways you work with it?

THOMAS STRUTH:  I think the apparatus I use is not so important except for the fact that it’s a large format negative and a large format camera, so anything between 4″-by-5″ and 8″-by-10″, and the possibilities of shifting of the lens and the negative level towards one another, and keep the vertical lines vertical and keep the perspective vertical.  But other than that, I think just the tool, which is very normal, and not of greater significance.

For example, sometimes amateur photographers or photographers ask me what kind of film do you use or what kind of lenses do you have.  And as a technician, I really feel like an amateur, in a way, that I learn it by doing it, and not so much by learning it from a technician.

But I feel a similarity in this character, to open the unconscious or to react when I just… When you photograph, it’s as much a matter of what you don’t photograph as what you photograph.  So as long as my eyes are open during the day, there might be anything that might interest me, and the difficult task is to say “no-no, no-no, no-no,” for five months, and then eventually you open your intellect or your memory or my heart in some way to just notice when something strikes me, and then put it into a certain order that makes it useful for what I want to talk about.  So I think that’s more the question.  Because I usually don’t photograph that much.  It can happen that I don’t take a picture for seven months or so.  just when there’s nothing to say or when I don’t…

EVAN PARKER:  But these various files, or themes, as it were — the street, the family, the jungle, the flowers, the museum, the churches, the exteriors of grand buildings, the interiors of grand buildings:  Do you keep each of those as a file that can be added to at any point?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Well, some of them. I believe the street is just such a fantastic location for me, and the family as well.  I think that I will always be interested in going back to the street and going back to the family subject.  Whereas, for example, with the flowers I feel that… There are something like 75 or 76 flower pictures that I’ve published, and that’s it.  My feeling is that was just one purpose, and that gave me the energy to do it, and that’s it.  Or the Paradises.  I have the feeling it’s a kind of statement about something, and maybe I have 25 like that now; there’s only a need maybe for another one or two or three, and that’s it.  Or the museum photographs.  I think that was a particular statement, and you could read a whole set of photographs as one piece.  With the Paradise, maybe I entered a new or deeper range of reflection about how people are or how I am.

TP:    In a way, you’re talking about a personal narrative.  When you speak of the various files, it’s as though you’ve constructed an ongoing story, just as in jazz people are said to be telling a story.  Evan, to what extent does that notion of narrative exist with you?

EVAN PARKER:  All I know is that I play until I reach a sense of completion, and that may be that there’s a narrative structure involved in that.  Somehow there must be a sense of…you arrive at a sense of completion inside a particular performance, but obviously leaving scope to come back to all of those things, and revisit them the next time you need to.  Maybe it’s a little like…you could see a parallel with Thomas saying, “I’m finished with…” I can think of one specific technical thing in my life where I’ve finished with it.  It’s very easy to describe.  There was a period when I used… It sounds very primitive, but it was actually quite controlled.  I was using my teeth on the reed in order to produce very high overtones.  This was especially from the Monoceros period and some years after that.  That way I could generate different sounds in a fairly resonant room; I could get low frequency things moving around reasonably under control.  I’m not saying that those things don’t happen any more, but they don’t happen in the obsessive way that they did when I first discovered the phenomenon.  So in a sense, that series is closed, that file is closed.  So there could be parallel.

Caroline and I were talking about what is this going to be about today, and I said: “I don’t know. I’m not trying to make life difficult for Ted, but I can’t always see any connection except there is some work there.  There’s a nice guy that I’m beginning to know better than when I first met him.  I thought he was a nice guy the first time I met him. Okay, great work.  Nice work.  Let’s hope some reasonable… Okay, so we have the basis for a friendship, but what can you say best?”

Caroline said, “Well, I wonder if he’ll touch on the fact that you’re both quite obsessive?”

TP:    Are you obsessive?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, there is this business of worrying away at things until something comes out.  I think maybe Thomas has got the same thing, that you worry away at a subject, and it constantly returns to the same kind of material.  Each return illuminates the previous.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.

EVAN PARKER:  So that the more the set unfolds, then the more correspondences and reflections you see between… “Oh, this is in Dusseldorf and this is in Naples.  Very strange.”  Or ‘this is in London.”  You become an expert on, you know, London in the ’70s or Dusseldorf in the ’70s.  None of these places exist any more in that way.  Times Square doesn’t exist in that way any more.  It’s a kind of archaeology.  But the obsessive collection of all of those things reveals facets from place to place, and correspondences and differences.  I can see an obsessive quality there, and if someone said, “Well, your stuff is okay but it drives me mad,” I could also understand that.

TP:    Of course, one could incorporate both responses to you given what time of day it is.

EVAN PARKER:  We saw Part 7 of the Frederick Rzewski piece.  He has an 8-hour piece called “The Road,” and he says he was thinking about certain kinds of Classical works which are intended primarily as an experience for the player, and they’re not primarily designed to be listened to by anyone else.  They’re very much about that connection between the player and something written down, and the experience of trying to interpret that.  But I found that very interesting to listen to, and almost a privileged kind of relationship to be allowed to listen to something that was so personal.

TP:    Are your processes that personal?  Is the fact that there’s an audience almost an accident?

THOMAS STRUTH:  I feel very strongly that if I wouldn’t invest a personal interest in my work, if nobody would look at it, or there wouldn’t be the energy in the pictures… Many people say they are so “zachtlich,” very neutral, but I don’t feel like that.  I feel there is a lot of emotion, and I feel if that part wasn’t in the pictures, nobody would look at it.  I often have the feeling when I meet people who know my work and I don’t know them… I have a tendency to ask “What do you do?”.  I ask the other people because I feel a priori that I have my pants down for a long time already for a long time!  So please give me a break and let me know who you are!

But that’s a very interesting question as well.  Because I think that’s all over in every art field.  All art works survive not only when there are not only personal investments in them, but also general humanitarian aspects.  Because if they are like that, then it’s only personal art.  It’s like a drawer who does these odd drawings, but it’s just like that person’s world doesn’t reach…it doesn’t allow it to go step into the tram and ride with the person for a couple of miles.

EVAN PARKER:  Another thing that occurred to me that I think we talked about: Thomas has almost colonized certain sets of visual experience.  So now you can look at something and think, “that would make a great Struth.”  We saw that coming up, looking down into the Whitney.  There was an opening down there, and then there was a loose grid of lightbulbs and a number of heads all looking in the same direction.  Then we thought, “Yeah, it’s a Struth.”  The same thing cropped up in the discussions about Paul Haines, that there’s a strong temptation to try to use words the way Paul Haines used words in his poetry and in his letters and all that.  It’s a mark of the auteur, and Thomas certainly has that.  And I hope that I have that, so it’s possible to say, “Ah, that sounds like Evan Parker” or “That looks like Thomas Struth.”

TP:    But the most obvious visual analogy of Thomas’ work to the shape of your lines and sounds are these later pictures, like the Tokyo Crossroads or the Uffizi or the Chinese Harbor, where there’s incredible, almost fractal sense of motion, everyone is moving in all different directions but there’s a certain unity to it. Just the density of the information and the flow of imagery.  Obviously, these are ineffable qualities, but I think one can state a relation.  Has there been a distinct move on your part in the past decade towards incorporating much more information?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yes, I think so.  I was very fascinated, maybe sort of starting when I started to go to Asia, to Japan and China particularly, to include complex structures into one picture, and to increase the amount of narrative in one frame.  Sometimes also the opposite, like taking a landscape in Nevada just with a blue sky and flat rocks, sort of!  That’s the other end of the scale which interests me a lot, whether you can…even though these pictures might be, as images, pretty banal and having been seen very often, whether you can say something new about it, or whether you can transport the stillness of the imagery.  But you’re right, because there are certain…I’ve made milestone pictures for myself which are very full of information and very remplis.  It’s like a metaphor for excitement or obsession.

EVAN PARKER:  The Japanese and Chinese street scenes, not the street photographs, but the street scenes with people, activity and information.

TP:    And Tianenmen also.  Even though there aren’t that many people in it, there are so many layers of activity going on, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the social strata of the city.

EVAN PARKER:  I wanted to complete the idea of fractal replication.  The usual kind of parallels are branching forms or cloud forms or mountain forms or cliffscape forms.  These are the kind of things that we’re used to the idea of self-similarity in different levels of scale.  That’s what we think of as a fractal quality.  But when you come into those urban street scenes, especially at the level of graphics… The printed word can be six feet high, or it can be less than a millimeter high somewhere inside your wristwatch, and then on down into the detail in chips… The scale.  The fractal scaling of the urban landscape is just as evident, in a way, as in natural forms.

TP:    This may be another one of these overly general questions.  Do you see your music as an urban music?

EVAN PARKER:  Yes.  In fact, it sometimes feels rather strange to try and do it in the country for a few friends or something, which sometimes happens.  It’s not needed there.  Somehow, it’s needed in the urban situation, can do good work in the urban situation.  If you’re away from all of that, then somehow there’s no reason any more.

THOMAS STRUTH:  But what would you do then?  What would you rather do then?

EVAN PARKER:  [LAUGHS] No, I’m happy.

THOMAS STRUTH:  I look at someone like Steve Lacy, who plays solo saxophone, but has this rather slow…like sculptures and sort of rock garden, or these very slow movements… When you gave your little song, at the encore, it was so funny to hear him play…

TP:    Your wonderful landscapes and paradise photos notwithstanding, I get a feeling of you being very much a son of the city and having an unfailingly urban perspective.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.  For me, it took a long time… I was born in a city, I grew up in a city, and most of… [END OF TAPE SIDE] …it’s my feeling that the concept changed my idea of what life is about or what people are about.  So I think it’s a big perspective or reaction from cities…

TP:    I also get the sense from the files you discussed, or the broader typologies of your photographs, that there’s a constant process of learning how to be an existential human being in a city, how to deal with it, how to deal with the layers and layers within which you operate.

    A lot of musicians say that one difference between visual artists and musicians is that visual arts is a solitary experience — the artist in the studio with his canvas or in the darkroom with the negative and the print.  Music is a social experience — except, of course, when you play solo.  Is the process of music-making palpably different for you when there is company?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, especially when you’re improvising, if you’re playing with other people, then it’s a completely different activity than in playing solo.

TP:    In what way is it different?

EVAN PARKER:  Because there’s the work to find material that corresponds or interacts with those other players in an interesting way.  Playing solo, that whole issue is just not there in the work.  Then the thing becomes about, as I said, revisiting your own material and reconsidering it from trying to see stuff from a new angle or present it in a new light.  So it’s quite a different activity.

TP:    In any sense, do you think  that your most serious work is the solo work, or are they just different entities with different rules of engagement?

EVAN PARKER:  Well, I do believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, and if there’s a reason beyond the moment… If there’s a life in that relationship or in that set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue.  The idea of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  Although, of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello, I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.

TP:    In one of the essays in the catalogue, the writer says: “Struth considers the specific historical, psychological, phenomenological and social conditions that structure the appearance and representation of his subjects,” which sounds a little like knowing who it is that you’re improvising with, and that “making a photograph is mostly a process of understanding people or cities and their historical or phenomenological connections,” which also speaks to what Evan was saying in relation to freely improvising with a partner.  Any comments?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Especially with the portraits, if I don’t have an idea who I’m looking at, or who is it that I’m looking at, then it’s very hard for me to judge when I see the picture is it something or is it nothing.

EVAN PARKER:  That’s it precisely.  You have nothing to judge it by.  A recording of an improvisation between people who have never played together before, there’s no point of reference.  It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.  For example, there is a book about some photographer… I don’t know who it is.  But somebody took family photographs around the world, maybe in the past two or three years, and then there’s a big book, and you go through… There are hundreds of families in the book from all nations.  Then they are actually very much like sort of the people looking into the camera.  It’s a family group.  But for me, when you look closely at the book, they’re just looking into the lens and smile, and it’s completely without meaning, in a way, because it’s mere superficial collection of these people.  I don’t mean to be arrogant, but you don’t know what to do with it.  It’s just like saying, “Okay, you have Campari, you have champagne, you have this-and-that, but what is it for?”  And you know and you sense that the photographer could never have connections with all these people.  It’s impossible.

TP:    So in a certain way, that social context comes forth through the negatives and the prints.

THOMAS STRUTH:  The lens.  Yes, absolutely.  It comes through the attitude.

TP:    And it becomes embodied in the sound waves.

EVAN PARKER:  I think so.  Yes, you get something like… There’s been an explosion of people interested in documenting their efforts at free improvisation, and some of it now is generic…you just have to call it generic free improvisation.  There’s for the moment no reason beyond that generic for it to exist.  Okay, that’s not to dismiss the problems involved in establishing a voice or having a reason or a set of motivations to play.  But it would be very remiss for me to underestimate those problems and the work needed in order to transcend the generic.  I think that also touches on something that Thomas was saying, and talking about… You know, this superficially seems to be the same thing.  It’s a family in front of the camera.  But actually, the more you know about the work involved in doing that, then the more you can see that this doesn’t have quite the same substance.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s the thing that interests me very much.  I find it kind of a task or a challenge, that I find someone to… I mean, the thing that people would tell when they look at photographs or movies, that they would be able to read more directly the attitude or the intention which is incorporated within the image and behind the surface.  Just look at it, and you feel…you see what you see just as information, but you also see the person who did it in a photograph.  And I feel that’s very important for music as well.  Because when you start to compare saxophone players or guitarists, or you listen to several people who play in a similar genre, then you’re in this attitude or this attitude, then that attitude…

Of course, because photography is all over the place, in newspapers and magazines and everywhere, it’s also more you’re seducing… Like, I spoke to somebody a few days ago that I’m struck that you get so used to seeing the retouched faces on magazines, that sometimes I wind up in a crowd of people in the evening, I see all these faces with their scars and their mistakes and that sort of thing, and you think why do all these people have this ugly skin… But that’s normal.  You get so used to seeing these retouched images.

EVAN PARKER:  Well, that corresponds to the highly edited classical recording.  These days a typical classical recording might have an edit once every 6 seconds, on average.

TP:    With Pro Tools it’s easy to do that.

EVAN PARKER:  Well, even before Pro Tools they were.  And that time is shrinking.  I don’t know what they’re looking for with that.  Fortunately, there are other tendencies as well.  There are warts-and-all kinds of labels.  But the very high profile kind of thing.  There daren’t be any hint of a mistake.  So even when you have the most fantastic players, there’s still this high level of editing and… I don’t know, maybe Glenn Gould is supposed to have been obsessive about that.  So I’m not sure what you’re listening to when you listen to Glenn Gould.  I often wonder whether he just said that that’s what he did, and the truth is that he wasn’t such an obsessive editor of his own work.  But certainly, knowing engineers that record in the Classical field, then this figure of every 6 seconds, every 10 seconds…

THOMAS STRUTH:  It’s amazing.

EVAN PARKER:  It’s an astonishing thing, that you’re listening to something that has no basis in any physical reality, except this mosaic of fragments, each of which is perfect.  It’s an idealization, in the same way that a retouched photograph of a model is, and then you see real faces and you think, “Oh, where have all those beautiful people gone?”

TP:    Are your photographs all done in the camera?

THOMAS STRUTH:  Yes, all of them.

TP:    So this image on the front of the catalogue was done in the camera.

THOMAS STRUTH:  That’s right.

TP:    So what Evan is talking about is similar to the process that you actually follow in executing your vision and putting it out there in a big museum show.

EVAN PARKER:  These are the rewards for persistence.  He is finding some parallels.  This is very interesting.

TP:    Well, I think we can actually end.  Well-done, both of you.

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Filed under Evan Parker, Interview, Jazziz, Photography, Tenor Saxophone

The Pile (#2): Two Recent Releases by The Cream of the AACM First Wave

The Association  for the Advancement of Creative Musicians means a lot to me.  I encountered a number of the members as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle ’70s.   The Art Ensemble of Chicago had recently returned from Europe, and Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman,  Don Moye, Henry Threadgill, Ajaramu, Amina Claudine Myers, Douglas Ewart, Wallace McMillan, Pete Cosey, and a bunch of others were living in proximity to Hyde Park and playing concerts locally, including the UC campus — the New York migration had not yet begun. Critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin were on the scene.  So was Chuck Nessa. So was Lorraine Black. One time in 1974 or 1975,  Fred Anderson brought his sextet to Reynolds Club, I think, for an afternoon concert, and on my way in I heard amazing, Coltrane-in-the-gutbucket trombone lines that traversed the horn’s registral range. Turned out they were from George Lewis, who had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from Yale.

I’m a New Yorker, grew up on Bleecker and Thompson, and New York attitude bebop — Sonny Rollins, to be specific (friends used to tease me about my boast that I had all of his records—which, I’ll confess now,  I didn’t), not to mention Bud Powell and Bird and Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and ’50s Miles and Coltrane — spoke to me above all other music. I related to them, I think, because I spent so much time at the West Fourth Street basketball courts as a kid, and their music seemed like an analogue to the ballers I looked up to — among them, Billy, the fastest guard I’ve ever seen who could tomahawk at about 5’8″;  Valentino Willis from the Harlem Wizards; Butch Barbizat, who at 6’2 was the leading rebounder on  the Power Memorial team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played; Timmy, who had what I considered a superior bank shot to Sam Jones. On the musical tip, pop didn’t seem serious enough — as a wiseass Bleecker Street kid, the folkies seemed too self-satisfied, Dylan too solipsistic, Cream and the Rolling Stones too bridge-and-tunnel. I liked Motown and EW&F, and in Chicago I went to the South Side and West Side blues clubs with my friends, and checked out rootsy stuff by David Bromberg and Dan Hicks, but I couldn’t patch into funk.   Nor was I feeling out jazz then.

That afternoon at Reynolds Club,  my paradigm began to shift. New worlds opened up. Jarman did solo concerts that incorporated kabuki and Asian ritual. He performed on campus in duo with Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. George Lewis began learning how to develop improvising software, and  joined Braxton. I got into the magic of Von Freeman. I stopped believing in the sanctity of my personal taste, and began making an effort  to explore modes of expression  that fell outside of it.  I’ve never stopped loving the main-stem of jazz expression. But the aesthetics of speculative improvisation and experimental music mean every bit as much, and brought me into other areas that I once disdained from ignorance. Or, to cite one of my all-time favorite homilies, from Ellis Marsalis:  “son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”

Muhal Richard Abrams:  Duos with Fred Anderson and George Lewis: SoundDance (Pi)

There’s an old master quality to these barely-roadmapped musical conversations between Abrams—elected  NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer last year at 80—and long-time AACM colleagues Anderson, the late outcat master  tenor saxophonist and  charter member of the organization (from 2009, a year before he passed), Lewis (recorded in 2010), the polymath trombonist, electronicist, improvising software creator, and professor of music at Columbia University, who met Abrams in 1971 while on sabbatical  from undergraduate duties at Yale. There’s a call-and-response quality to the former duo, as Abrams supports Anderson’s huge-toned idea development, then spins off variations of his own; whilst the latter performance is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite, transitioning from one concept — the range spans stride piano to post-serialism — to the next without a blink, as though the music were creating itself.

The proceedings bring to mind that one of the key tropes of Lewis’ magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself (U.Chicago Press),  is the autodidactic learning path that Abrams imparted to such ’60s members as  Roscoe Mitchell,  Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Douglas Ewart, and on down the list. They also evoke an exchange I had with Abrams and Lewis in 2007, for a Downbeat piece framed around Streaming, a spontaneous triologue with  Mitchell, when I asked them about Quartet (Sackville), a 1975 encounter that marked the first recorded meeting of the three.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” asked Abrams.

    “It seems like we’re going too far back there,” Lewis said.

    “You were just talking about histories.”

    “Only in reference to coming together to perform,” Abrams explained calmly. “It’s very important to accept, if you can, how we view the basis of this. George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, what I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration. The sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

The third and most cohesive recording by Mitchell’s Note Factory project, a kind of double quartet in which Mitchell on saxophones and flute and thirty-ish trumpeter Corey Wilkes (Lester Bowie’s replacement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) interact with two pianists (Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer), two bassists (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead, who also plays cello), and two drummers (Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis). It’s dense music, and though I’ve listened twice, I’d probably need another two or three to start breaking things down.  Suffice to say that Mitchell’s bandmates are sufficiently intimate with his intense concept as to be able to engage each other in what Iyer once described as “immersive counterpoint,” generating clear, non-imitative ideas simultaneously like a Dixieland band in a parallel galaxy. Although Mitchell, who turned 70 this year, offers healthy helpings of spirit-catching circular breathing and multiphonics, what comes through most palpably is the innate soulfulness and lyricism of his songs and his instrumental sound.

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Filed under AACM, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Piano, Roscoe Mitchell, Tenor Saxophone, Trombone

The Pile (#1)

As I’ve had a bit of down time recently, I’m trying to catch up on new releases, which arrive inexorably. It’s hard to make a dent—there’s only time to listen to a couple or three 60-70 minute recordings in a day, and that’s stretching it.   Then, too, as I’ve learned by experience from writing liner notes (not to mention just plain old common sense), recordings by serious master musicians demand multiple listenings to catch the nuances, the overall arc and intention. With that in mind, it’s important to self-remind that personal taste has nothing to do with the actual quality of the artifact. I may hear something that I’m not in the mood for, but two weeks later it’s just what I want to absorb.  Or perhaps the rhythmic feel aggravates me one time, but  resonates the next. One reason why I’m very cautious about making judgments — assessments are different — when I write reviews. I’m not a musician. I haven’t spent my life working up the knowledge/experience base that went into making this recording.

In any event, this is the first of hopefully a ongoing series of “Pile” columns (the accumulated stacks of CDs that are outside of my assignment purview pile up) on some items that have recently caught my ear. Unless the offense/offender is particularly egregious, I won’t go negative. That said, don’t assume that omission means distaste.

David Gibson, END OF THE TUNNEL (Posi-Tone)

A lot of individualistic trombone virtuosos emerged during the ‘70s and ‘80s—George Lewis, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, Robin Eubanks, Conrad Herwig, Frank Lacy, Gary Valente…I could go on. But outside of Wycliffe Gordon, Clifton Anderson, Ronald Westray, and one or two others, trombone players don’t pop immediately to mind when you think of interesting slide improvisers over the last two decades. Maybe we’re in for a new wave. I’ve dug Marshall Gilkes in recent years, and Gibson has a similarly gorgeous sound and a solo conception that’s thematically cogent and also kinetic through a range of late 20th century food groups. Many dates that draw on the various mid-’60 Blue Note genres sound contrived and stale, but this one has a fresh feeling, as though the participants were recording something fresh contemporaneously — not unlike some of the bebop-oriented improvisers who’ve used Smalls as a base over the last 15 years.  In any event, Gibson dialogues throughout with the excellent alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino, his front line partner; organist Jared Gold, himself a leader on few Posi-Tone dates, combines point guard distribution duties with intelligent shot selection, laying down apropos comp and basslines but also creative solos; drummer Quincy Davis, an A-lister in my book, works the grooves with energy and taste.

James Carter, CARIBBEAN  RHAPSODY: CONCERTO FOR SAXOPHONE AND ORCHESTRA (Em-Arcy) – (composed by Roberto Sierra)

A tour de force. I can’t really review it properly without listening 3-4 more times, which I probably won’t be able to do without an assignment, but I can say that it’s one of the most synchronous collaborations I’ve heard between an orchestral (as opposed to big band…I hope I’m making myself clear) composer and improvising soloist—particularly a soloist as florid and adventurous as JC—that I can remember hearing. Sierra creates a series of felicitous environments in which Carter can soar, and soar he does, with ferocity and extraordinary craft on all the instruments.  I saw Carter at the Blue Note a few weeks ago with his organ trio, plus Nicholas Payton and Blood Ulmer, and was impressed by his complete command of his materials—the presentation and narrative arc came through as strongly as his considerable musical contents. Which can happen once a musician of Carter’s gifts and focus hits his forties and coalesces his various tributaries of expression into a clear path.

Gerald Clayton, BOND: THE PARIS SESSIONS (EmArcy)

Yes, I know, two EmArcy releases in one post…

I’ve dug Clayton for a couple of years, since  his trio was in residence for the entirety of the Perugia summer edition of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival, and I heard him play Duke Pearson’s “Is That So?” (Bradley’s denizens of old will remember that this was a John Hicks favorite) with complete idiomatic authority—he owned the language. Not long after that I heard him, at a Hank Jones festschrift concert, come out after Hank had played a few tunes, sit down with George Mraz and Willie Jones, and invent a variation on Cole Porter’s “I Love You” that I assumed had to be composed, everything was so perfectly in place and ingeniously constructed, but was told that he put it forth on the spot. That winter at Orvieto he did a series of duos with his father John Clayton that were on the very highest level of interaction and sophistication. So I know his scope.  Didn’t think he represented his breadth quite as effectively on his debut record, TWO SHADE, from 2009. BOND offers a much more complete portrait of his gifts—the beats are modern but also swinging, the trio has a one-voice flow, the new-jack originals and old-school standards interweave seamlessly. No showoffs here. In fact, it’s appropriate that he ends with John Clayton’s “Hank”; there isn’t really a discernible stylistic connection between Gerald and Hank Jones, but Gerald possesses a Hank Jones level of clarity and focus—an ability to cut to the chase and say something fresh in any environment. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I love his solo on “Nobody Else But Me”—a major league left-hand and a melodic spirit. Like James Carter, Gerald is in complete control of his materials, and at 26 or 27, he’s already recognizable as himself while engaging with the tradition on its own terms. He’s one of the very few under-30 pianists out there (Manuel Valera is another, but he’s 30) whose concept would have enabled him to fit with ease into the Bradley’s rotation.  (That’s a good thing.)

Alexis Cuadrado, NONETO IBÉRICO (BJU Records)

A well-wrought program of 8 tunes composed and arranged by bassist Alexis Cuadrado, a Barcelona-to-Brooklyn transplant, each of them built on a different rhythmic structure of the Iberian diaspora. Needs three or four listens (which I don’t have time for now) to say anything meaningful. Suffice to say that the soloing (Loren Stillman, Avishai [trumpet] Cohen, Brad Shepik, Dan Tepfer, as well as Piraña and Blas Cordoba and Tomatito) is inspired throughout, and the arrangements are fresh and cohesive, with ever shifting colors and intoxicating rhythms (Mark Ferber on drumkit and Marc Miralta on cajon and percussion lock in beautifully with Cuadrado).  Thought of in conjunction with Wynton Marsalis’ excellent VITORIA SUITE, with Chano Dominguez, it shows that Flamenco Jazz now has its drivers license—that’s to say, it’s  reached adulthood as a genre and become a mature pan-generational, trans-national idiom on the worldwide playing field.

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Filed under Alexis Cuadrado, Bass, David Gibson, Gerald Clayton, James Carter, Piano, Review, Tenor Saxophone, The Pile, Trombone