Category Archives: Tommy Flanagan

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Never.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Do you play off the drummer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Piano player.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Were you playing piano that early?

HARRIS:  That early.

TP:    Who started you?

HARRIS:  My mother.

TP:    You had a piano in the house?

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

TP:    There wasn’t any television.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of place was that?

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

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

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

TP:    Were you more schooled than they were?

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

TP:    The reactive agent.

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

TP:    You’re a born teacher.

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

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

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

TP:    They’re paying tuition.

HARRIS:  That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Not the Bluebird.

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

TP:    He worked with Tommy Flanagan at the time.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Would you elaborate on that?

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

TP:    And everything Charlie Parker played was a melody.

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

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

HARRIS:  That’s right.

TP:    Like the chessboard.

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

TP:    A few words about Bud Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    By which you mean older stylistically.

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

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

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

TP:    Earl Hines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Where is the difference?

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

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

HARRIS:  I think he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    A real showman.

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

First Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of music?

HARRIS:  We’d be playing songs…

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  That might have been true.

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

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

TP:    Because you weren’t of age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you talk to him at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did Bird have a huge sound in person?

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

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

HARRIS:  A very ordinary place.

TP:    Just a bar that had a music policy.

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

TP:    That was in the early ’50s.

HARRIS:  yes.

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

HARRIS:  Maybe.

TP:    How long were you house pianist there?

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

TP:    A number of years.

HARRIS:  Nothing like that.

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

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

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

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

TP:    He was having a hard time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    Can you describe the Rouge Lounge?

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

TP:    Were you playing for singers then, too?

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

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

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

TP:    I guess Tommy came here in ’56.

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

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

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

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

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

Second Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

TP:    Were you living with some other musicians?

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

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

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

TP:    Did they have a piano there?

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

TP:    Did you start getting gigs right away?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I think the listed date is ’62.

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

TP:    You recorded with Lee Morgan, too.

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes, I was able to do it.

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

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

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

TP:    “Jayhawk Talk” is in ’64.

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

TP:    For Transition maybe.

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

TP:    Well, that was June of ’56.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Well, you were a unified rhythm section.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  I had heard Art Tatum before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Makes sense.

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Oh, I think I always did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    well, not in Chicago.

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But you knew his records, though.

HARRIS:  Yes.

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

HARRIS:  yeah, he was that kind of cat.

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

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

TP:    Or notes.

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

TP:    Did you meet the Baroness in New York?

HARRIS:  Yeah.

TP:    Shortly after?

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

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

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

TP:    And she made all of those scenes.

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

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

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

TP:    And you and Monk became…

HARRIS:  Yes, good friends because of her.

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

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

TP:    So he couldn’t really communicate…

HARRIS:  He didn’t communicate much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Why do you think that is?

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

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

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

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

TP:    I hear he loved opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That represents your sound.

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

TP:    Can I get back to Tadd Dameron?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    It’s such a lyrical record.

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

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

HARRIS:  Not really.  What year did he die?

TP:    1965.

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

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

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

TP:    You mean you kept him concentrating and focused.

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

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

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

TP:    You seemed to get his creative juices stirring.

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

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

HARRIS:  Yeah, we did about two or three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Tell me about your own writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Uh-huh.  One day I was supposed to be there at 4, and I didn’t get there until 7 o’clock, and everybody was there.

TP:    Leroy Williams told me a story where you were coming back from Japan, and then you got in a cab and went right to your class.  He said, “Why are you doing that?” and you said, no, you had to go to your class.

HARRIS:  That has happened.  That’s right.

TP:    Talk about what your ideas were at that time, 25-30 years ago, about teaching jazz, and how they differed from the orthodox?

HARRIS:  Well, it differs from the orthodox in that I believe in scales. And I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people believe in a whole lot of scales.  I don’t believe in a lot of scales.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and stuff like that.  My thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  Because I figured dominant means dominating, and so if it’s supposed to dominate, then it dominates.  So I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  Then to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into is the question.  And one can apply it to just about everything one runs into.  So now I am more of the opinion that you need more than that to the students, because what they need is a little basic harmony about how to go from one place to the other.  Then to combine that basic harmony with the scales, and then I think one will be on the right track to teach.  I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.

TP:    How hands-on do you get with students?  Do you instruct privately as well as in the group?

HARRIS:  No, I don’t.  I just instruct within the group.  Every once in a while I may take somebody privately.  That’s very seldom.  I wouldn’t encourage that.  Because everybody wants a private lesson, and then I become a piano teacher for real.  That’s why I insist on having a class.  You want a lesson, come to my class.  So I’ll keep the class going.  I don’t care about making money and stuff.  I’ll keep the class going, just pay the rent, and that’s it.

TP:    Do you enjoy having relationships with younger piano players?  I’ve written liner notes and articles on several who love you a lot, like Michael Weiss, Rodney Kendrick…

HARRIS:  There are a lot of piano players who I’ve come into contact with.  I’m a person who is… I’m not the catalyst.  People are the catalyst, and I’m the one who gets set off by the catalyst.  I can come up with things that we need to learn.

TP:    So you’re the catalytic agent.

HARRIS:  Yeah, okay, like that.  I’m the agent.  That’s all it is.  So it comes from someplace.  I don’t know where it comes from.

TP:    Do you listen to a lot of the records that come out, or what younger musicians are doing?

HARRIS:  I don’t listen to records too much at all, because I don’t like too much what the younger musicians are doing.

TP:    Is there anyone you’d care to mention amongst the younger musicians who you do like?

HARRIS:  I’d hate to even say something like that, to say I like this one or that one.

TP:    Why is it that you don’t like so many of the younger players?

HARRIS:  Because I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play certain ways.  I don’t understand why they play this way, and Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  So I don’t quite understand where they come up playing like they play!

TP:    Can you describe how it is they’re playing?

HARRIS:  Well, the left hand has suddenly become the chord thing.  The last couple of weeks I went to a school, and two places I’ve run into this the last couple of weeks where the piano players play chords with their left hand.  They can’t play two-handed chords.  They think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  And whoever taught them that is full of shit, and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music, and they come up with this stuff with this chord only in the left hand, and it’s just ridiculous.  It’s not supposed to be that way.  And the music isn’t that way.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.

TP:    How are they disrespecting older musicians?

HARRIS:  Well, for one thing, they don’t show the proper respect, man.  Some of them act like they know it all.  Some of them, you have to prove that you know more than them, and then they still aren’t even hip enough to say, “I’d better check him out” — which is what they should do.  I had one of them in a class, he’s suddenly a great musician now, but I showed him some stuff he never knew existed in the music.  I’ve never seen him since.  So I judged them by that.  They don’t believe.  Even when they get the real deal, they don’t believe — and that includes all of them.

TP:    No exceptions.

HARRIS:  Hardly any exceptions.

TP:    To listen to you, it would seem that you’re very pessimistic about jazz…

HARRIS:  Well, I am.

TP:    …and yet you persevere, and it would seem the opposite of your actions which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.

HARRIS:  I am pessimistic, but I insist on being optimistic in trying to see if I can’t… Well, what it is mainly is to leave something.  I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have.  Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  And hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is the right stuff.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  They don’t know anything about a scale for chording.  And there is a scale for chording.  That means that every scale that a man plays… Every chord that a man plays comes from a scale of chords.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  See, they tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  So you should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.  And nobody can come up and say, “Oh, that’s a so-and-so with a so-and-so and a so-and-so.”  These are chords… They gave us one chord out of a scale of chords.  That’s not enough.

TP:    How did you figure it out?  Did it just sort of come to you piecemeal, by trial and error?

HARRIS:  It came piecemeal.  So don’t ask me how.

TP:    but it’s a homegrown thing.

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    You did have instruction and so forth, but you didn’t… I mean, did you study Schillinger…

HARRIS:  No.  I could show you examples of it in the playing of different musicians, where I know that in some way they do know a little bit of it.  They know a little bit of it, but they don’t know the whole deal.  What I’d like to do is line up all the piano players, the ones who are considered the best, and one time sit down and have a discussion with them and show them about this scale.  Because every one of them should know this.  It isn’t just a case of I’m doing it or a few people know it.  Every musician in the world should know about it; classical musicians, everybody should know about this.  There’s a scale that we’ve neglected, and we shouldn’t neglect.

TP:    To what extent is music to you mathematics, and to what extent is it about color, for lack of a better word?

HARRIS:  Well, of course, mathematics is endless.  The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  It’s almost like the scientists.  The more they find out about how this universe is put together… This isn’t haphazard shit!  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.

TP:    It’s a science of sound.

HARRIS:  It’s a science, man, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  And that’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

TP:    What do you think jazz has to contribute to the 21st Century, to the Millennium.  Why is it important that Jazz survive?

HARRIS:  It is important that Jazz survive because Jazz is the music.  Jazz is Classical music.  Jazz is everything.  If Beethoven and Chopin and them were alive, what would they be playing?  Where do you play original music?  They don’t play original music in symphony halls.  They play dead people’s music.  See, symphony halls play… Carnegie Hall plays dead people’s music.  Lincoln Center is the same thing.  Very seldom do they play somebody’s music living.  Every once in a while they’ll commission somebody.  But God, we have more inventors, people who can play…

TP:    When you say that, are you referring to Classical music at Lincoln Center or Jazz at Lincoln Center.

HARRIS:  Everything at Lincoln Center.  Generally it’s dead people’s music.  That’s all.

TP:    Are you saying that articulating the Ellington repertoire or Jelly Roll Morton…

HARRIS:  I’m not saying that you aren’t supposed to do that.  I’m not saying that.  I’m saying that our main thing…not so much articulating that as learning from that.  That’s the main thing, man!  Okay, so we have cats… I remember hearing one band, the band arrangements was Charlie Parker licks, and then Dizzy’s solo was part of the band arrangement.  But when they soloed, they couldn’t solo.  And yet when you learn the solo of Charlie Parker and them in an arrangement, what you’re supposed to do with that solo is learn how to solo from it.  Not how to play the solo.  Learn how to solo from the solo.

TP:    Take it as the springboard for your own invention.

HARRIS:  That’s right.  A springboard to find something.  That’s all it is mainly.  The same thing with Ellington.  What are we supposed to do with Ellington?  We’re supposed to learn from Ellington.

TP:    Among your peers, who are some of the people you really admire who you’ve shared the same time span with?  I’m not talking about Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, your mentors as it were; I’m talking about your peers.

HARRIS:  It’s hard to get away from the mentors!  Well, I like… Probably one of the best tenor players in the world is Charles Davis, who…I can’t even explain it…who knows about improvisation.  Who really knows about improvisation.  To explain what I mean by “really knows about improvisation,” I can’t even do it.  It’s hard.  Really can play.  He’s a person who really can play.  Of course he’s underrated and you don’t hear that much about him and stuff.  But man, when he puts the stuff together, it’s some of the best-put-together stuff that I’ve heard.  And he really can do it.

Tommy Flanagan.  I’m so used to Tommy Flanagan, because I like to watch his hands.  I’ve spent my life watching his hands! [LAUGHS] Watching his hands and learning from him.  Hank Jones.  These are beautiful people.

I wish that I could have a meeting with the teachers who are supposed to be teaching this music, so we could have a little discussion about how you teach this music.  I hate to go to a college and find students that can’t even play a major arpeggio, can’t even play a diminished 7th, can’t even play diminished 7ths all over their instrument, or play major arpeggios all over their instruments, all inversions.  I mean, if the people don’t know the ABC’s of the music, then how are they going to learn the music?  We’d be funny walking around here not knowing our ABC’s.  It would be a funny thing.  You have to know the ABC’s of the music, and a lot of people don’t.  You’d be surprised at these schools.  They have stage bands, and so these kids practice in bands, and they don’t know anything about music.  Now, that’s not right.  Some of the schools are terrible.  See, that’s why I don’t go back to these schools that often, because once I go, the kids know.

TP:    Within a year, about how often do you go out teaching?

HARRIS:  To schools?  Quite often.

TP:    Like 15 weeks in a year?

HARRIS:  Maybe something like that.

TP:    So maybe you spend a quarter of your year in academic situations as an artist-in-residence.

HARRIS:  As an artist, yeah, and performing, too.  There are a couple of good ones, too.

TP:    How about in your own teaching around New York?  Where do you do it?

HARRIS:  I have a class at Lincoln Neighborhood Community Center, which is on 250 West 65th Street, right in back of Lincoln Center.  I teach there every Tuesday that I’m in town.  It’s for anybody; anybody can come.  There’s a $25 registration.

TP:    How many people?

HARRIS:  It varies.  I have singing… See, my class is different.  I start out with piano players.  Then I have singers, who are the greatest number, and the piano players help me accompany the singers, so they learn about accompanying.  Then after the singers, the horns come in and we have an improvisation class, which also includes the singers who should stay and be a part of the improvisation class.  So it all works together like that.  So I don’t know actually how to say how many.  Over the years I wouldn’t even know how to estimate it.

TP:    How long have you been in this location?

HARRIS:  I haven’t been there that long; that’s just where it is now.  I was at Ry Baltimore’s music store at 48th and 7th Avenue after he closed for a long time.

TP:    What do you personally get out of teaching?

HARRIS:  I have nothing.

TP:    I don’t mean materially.

HARRIS:  That’s the whole thing about teaching; you just learn from teaching.  I have them trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  So that keeps me on my toes.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ’em catch up to me.

* * *

Tommy Flanagan on Barry Harris:

TP:    He and I have been talking some about Detroit, and I just wanted a few memories of him within the Detroit scene and his position.  What are your first memories of him?  You had the same piano teacher?

FLANAGAN:  I don’t think we had it all the time, but I think at one point we had the same teacher.

TP:    Was that Gladys Dillard?

FLANAGAN:  Yes, that’s right.  Did he mention it?

TP:    Yes, that you both… Well, I remembered that you had studied with her, and then he mentioned that he had studied with her.

FLANAGAN:  Right.

TP:    And he said that you did a recital once together in high school?  A Classical recital?

FLANAGAN:  I forgot that one, but maybe… They did happen.

TP:    I guess he remembered it better than you did.  What are your early memories of him, and what are the nature of those memories?

FLANAGAN:  Well, he always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano, and he had a lot of confidence, too.  He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him.  That’s more confidence than I had.  I just didn’t have the nerve.

TP:    Were there any older bebop pianists in Detroit, or did you have to learn it off the records pretty much?

FLANAGAN:  We had quite a few pianists there.  They weren’t all in the bebop school, but they played very well, like from the Art Tatum school.  We had one, just a natural musician, who played about six different instruments very well, named Willie Anderson.  He was a great pianist.  He could play all kinds of styles.  Then there was Will Davis.  Will is a dynamic type pianist.  We had so many.

TP:    He said that he and Berry Gordy in high school were the two boogie-woogie players, and then a guy came to town named Theodore Shieldy…

FLANAGAN:  Oh, Ted Shieldy, yes.

TP:    He said he had high expectations for him that weren’t realized.

FLANAGAN:  Well, yes.  I can’t remember them all, but he’s one of them.

TP:    But the gist of what I’m asking is, in terms of assimilating bebop and learning the vocabulary, did that come mostly from records and memorizing solos?

FLANAGAN:  Mostly from my records.

TP:    Barry also said that he was always a natural sort of teacher.  This may or may not have had to do with you, it was probably after you left Detroit.  But that he always seemed to have a knack for finding a correct way of approaching a situation.

FLANAGAN:  Well, I know he always had that bent toward teaching. He had a lot of young prospects that really went on to become well known.  Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, guys like that.  Those were the two most outstanding.

TP:    He’s listed as having been house pianist at the Bluebird in the early ’50s, and you had some sort of residence yourself there, didn’t you.

FLANAGAN:  Yes, I did.

TP:    When was your residence?

FLANAGAN:  It was before I went in the Army.  I guess it had to be late ’50s, because I went into the Army in ’51 and came back in ’53.

TP:    That makes sense for hm.  Because he said he celebrated his 20th birthday there, which was in late ’50, and then in ’51 he sort of got that gig a little bit.

FLANAGAN:  Also there was Terry Pollard, who was a fine pianist, one of the woman pianists in town.  She had that gig for a while, too.

TP:    Did you ever play at a place called the Rouge Lounge?

FLANAGAN:  Yes.  I played there with… Sometimes they used to augment a band or look for someone to fill out a headliner that came in without a group.

TP:    From the way he described the Bluebird, it sounds almost like a Bradley’s of Detroit, like a place where everyone would gather, where all the young talent would appear.  He said things just happened there.  Could you describe it a bit from the perspective of being a musical center?

FLANAGAN:  It was on the West Side of Detroit, which was kind of the hipper side of Detroit.  There were a lot of musicians there, and their styles… Even the laymen were very hip.  And the Bluebird, being a corner bar right in the heart of that neighborhood, when they started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene.  It attracted all of the good musicians.  I mean, there were always fine musicians working in the club.  So it was more than a Bradley’s, because we had all kind of horn players who came in from out of town, like Joe Gordon, Clifford, Miles, Sonny Stitt and Wardell Gray.

TP:    Oh, I see.  They’d gig at the Bluebird.

FLANAGAN:  That’s what I’m talking about.

TP:    Oh, what I gathered from Barry was that the national acts came into the Rouge Lounge, but the Bluebird was local young bands.

FLANAGAN:  Well, no.  Also I played there a long time with Wardell and with Sonny Stitt and with Miles.  For about two months Miles was there.

TP:    Was that after the Army?

FLANAGAN:  I think so.

TP:    I think someone on a liner note confused you with him.  They listed him as playing a three-month gig with Miles.  And he told me no.

FLANAGAN:  Not in Detroit.

TP:    That’s where they thought he did it, so it must have been you.

FLANAGAN:  Right.

TP:    So the Bluebird was just a bar that had a music policy, as it were?  Did it have a music policy for a very long time?

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, it did.  But I think it really became well-known when Thad Jones and… Well, even before Thad, Philip Hill had a group there I think with Billy Mitchell.  That’s when they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell, and Frank Foster was there for a long period.  Of course, all the main Detroit musicians.

TP:    Barry said he and Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones were in there for a while.

FLANAGAN:  Oh, right.  I almost forgot Yusef.  Also that place in almost midtown; there was a place called Klein’s Show Bar.  Yusef was there, and Pepper Adams played that place a lot, and Paul Chambers.  But everyone played all over the city.

TP:    Why was the West Side of Detroit hipper than the East Side of Detroit?

FLANAGAN:  I don’t know.  It was just more collectively together.  It wasn’t spread out like… Well, it was kind of, you could say, like a Harlem, only it was… Just a part of town… Of course, I can’t say it was like a Harlem either.  There were several sections of Detroit that used to have labels on them, like the north end, the west end, the east end, the east side, the west side, and where I lived, Conant Gardens… Oh, there were several places like that.

TP:    He said he didn’t start getting hip until he started going to the West Side of Detroit where people could solo.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, that’s right. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So basically what you could say is that he always had a very dynamic style and command of the piano and that he was very confident.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, he was.  Well, he was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, more into it than anyone else on the scene then.

TP:    Before you did, huh?

FLANAGAN:  Well, about the same time.  But he took it another step.  I mean, he devoted a lot of time to it.

TP:     How was it different for you dealing with Bud Powell’s music?  Was he more obsessed with it or something?

FLANAGAN:  I wouldn’t say obsessed.  He gave it more attention than I did.  I was still dealing with Tatum and stuff like that.

TP:    Would Tatum be playing in Detroit during that time?  Did you get to see him?

FLANAGAN:  Oh yeah, I saw him a lot.  He stayed in Detroit a lot, because his home was in Toledo, which is about 60 miles away.  He almost had like a house gig at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, so he was there quite a lot.  Then I saw him some at an after-hour place called Freddie Ginyard’s.  He always loved to hang out and play late, so that was a good place to see him.

TP:    There was a place called the Congo Club that was around in the earlier ’40s and late ’30s.  Was that around later when you were coming of age?

FLANAGAN:  I know what you’re talking about.  It was the same location, but they changed the name to the Club Sudan.  That was a pretty hip little club, too.

TP:    It was owned by a gambler and everything was pretty much a first-class situation.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah.  Well, most of the clubs were run by somebody with a shady background.

* * *

Leroy Williams on Barry Harris:

TP:    When did you first meet Barry Harris?  Were you in Chicago or New York?

WILLIAMS:  No, I was in New York.  The first time I heard Barry in New York he was playing in this club with Paul Chambers, just a duo.  So I went there with a friend of mine to listen.  When I first heard Barry, I told this guy I was with, “That’s how the music is supposed to be played.”  Those were my first words that I uttered about Barry.  I said, “That’s it; that’s the way the music is supposed to be played.”  Then I went and told him that.

TP:    How so?  Can you analyze that a bit?

WILLIAMS:  Well, it was the feeling, the beauty, the touch, the depth of his music.  It was perfect to me, coming out of the Bebop period and Charlie Parker and Monk, which is the music I like.  He just sounded perfect.

Anyway, when I first had a chance to play with Barry was through Charles McPherson.  We were playing in Brooklyn somewhere, and he said, “Barry Harris sure would like the way you play.  I’m going to have a jam session at my house — come out.”  Anyway, I went out there and we played.  That was our first… We just kind of fell in love and jammed.  That was my first meeting with Barry.

TP:    When was that?

WILLIAMS:  It must have been about ’68-’69.

TP:    Was that when you came to New York, or had you been here awhile?

WILLIAMS:  I came to New York around ’67.

TP:    And you’d been in Chicago before that.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I was in Chicago.  Anyway, we played at Charles’ house, and he said, “Man, I got a record date; do you want to record with me?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So we did…

TP:    That’s Magnificent with Ron Carter.

WILLIAMS:  Exactly.  So that was my initial experience with Barry, and it was just a marriage.

TP:    Did Barry sound substantially different than other piano players at the time you heard him?  Did he stand out?

WILLIAMS:  He stood out to me.  Barry had a lot more depth to me than a lot of piano players.  A lot of musicians, really.  Barry’s deep, man.  He has the depth and he has the beauty, all those things it takes to make the music so wonderful.

TP:    Does it seem to you that he feeds off you a lot when you’re playing together?

WILLIAMS:  I think we have a special thing.  We’ve always had a visual thing together, because we can just look at each other sometimes…

TP:    And know where the thing is going.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, we have some kind of a magic going.  More so than with anybody else, when I play with other people.

TP:    It’s been thirty years.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, that’s a long time.  I think about that.

TP:    Let’s analyze a bit the components of what he does that make him so exceptional.  Is it any one of the things — his harmonic knowledge, his melodicism, his sense of rhythm.  I guess it’s the whole thing, isn’t it.

WILLIAMS:  Right, it’s all of that.  What Barry has to me that a lot of other people don’t have is the depth of his playing and the sincerity and the beauty.  He has all that.  It’s the depth, the conviction, all of those things that make him so wonderful.

TP:    Is he a man on a mission, do you think?

WILLIAMS:  Oh, yes. [LAUGHS]

TP:    What’s the mission?

WILLIAMS:  The mission is beauty.  The mission is to spread this… He believes in the music so much.  That’s why he has this class… He believes in it so much.  One time we came from Japan, and we did a two- or three-week tour over there.  We got off the plane and this jet lag and everything was on everybody.  I said, “Oh, man, I’m going home.”  Barry said, “I’ve got to go to my class.”  I said, “Are you going to your class now?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I’ve got to go to the class; I can’t miss that.”  When he said that, it’s just another thing about him; I said, “Man…”

TP:    You have to match it.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  I said, “Not today.”  He said, “Yeah, I can make it.”  But I’ll tell you, there’s another thing that makes me know how tolerant and patient Barry is.  When he had the Jazz Cultural Theater he was coaching a singer, a girl, and she was pretty bad, and I sat and watched, and when he finished I said, “She was pretty rough,” and he said, “Man, you should have heard her last week.”

TP:    He has a long-range perspective.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  I said, “Man, okay…”  So Barry is long-suffering, and he’s so dedicated.  He’s the most dedicated person I’ve ever met really.

TP:    What do you remember about when he began the Jazz Cultural Theater?

WILLIAMS:  Well, that was something he always wanted to do.  He was really up about it and he was happy about it.  He wanted to have it there for the music and for the teaching also.  It was like a dual thing.  He wanted to have the classes and he wanted to perform.  He was very adamant about not having any alcohol there.  Barry’s into that, and he believes in that.  He was very adamant.  I know sometimes the rent would be due, and I’d say, “Why don’t you get some beer in here or something to make some money?” and he said, “No, I want to keep it cool, and I want the kids to come in and make sure they’re around a positive environment.”  So that’s a part of him…

TP:    Well, I guess he’s seen just about everything there is to see.  What’s he like in recording sessions?

WILLIAMS:  Barry is very relaxed.  That’s how he plays.  That’s who he is.  He’s very relaxed, and things are pretty loose.  He’s not too structured.  The main part is the music.  Some guys record and they want everything to be just so, but the inside is really what’s happening.  But Barry is very relaxed in the studio.  He’s relaxed, he’s confident and he knows what he wants to do.

TP:    There’s an impression from people who don’t know him as being a sort of hard-assed purist.

WILLIAMS:  No.  I know what you mean, but no.  Barry loves the music of that period, and so do I.  I think it’s some of the most profound music that’s been on this planet.  So purist?  That music is deep and Barry is deep, and he realizes how great that music is.

TP:    When you were coming up, Leroy, who were your role models musically?  Were you on the Chicago music scene?

WILLIAMS:  Yes, I was there.  When I was growing up in Chicago, Johnny Griffin and all those guys were a little older than me, and those were the guys I listened to.

TP:    Well, they were on the jukeboxes and all.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, Gene Ammons and those people were around.  I met Wilbur Ware, Wilbur Campbell; all those guys were a little older than me.  Those were the guys I looked up to.  So I’m sure that’s why Barry and I… We come from the same place.

TP:    Did you go to DuSable?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I went to DuSable High School.

TP:    Any Captain Dyett anecdotes?

WILLIAMS:  Actually, I wasn’t in the band.  See, when I was in DuSable, I started taking music my second year.  You had to be in the band four years.  So when I attempted to join the band, Captain Dyett said, “Well, you have to have four years of band.”  So I didn’t play under Captain Dyett.  So he recommended a drum teacher for me named Oliver Coleman.

TP:    Who played with Oliver Coleman.  He taught Smitty Smith.  He was a teacher for a long time.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, Oliver Coleman was a great guy.  So Captain Dyett said, “You go see Oliver.”  Me and Steve McCall!  We took lessons from Oliver.

TP:    When did you start gigging?  I guess that had to be the mid and late ’50s.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, the late ’50s is when I started playing professionally?

TP:    Was it a local thing?  Did you play with people like Nicky Hill?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, pretty much.  And (?) with all the guys.  Wilbur Ware was a real influence on me.  He was kind of a mentor in Chicago.  He was a great bass player, and he kind of guided me away from things and not to things.

TP:    Were you ever involved in any of the AACM activities in Chicago?

WILLIAMS:  No, I wasn’t.  But I was at the first meeting.  I remember when it was formed, and I was at the very first meeting.  I knew Muhal and a lot of the guys, but no, I wasn’t really in there.  I was the other way.  I was more into Bebop, for lack of a better word.  I was more over there.

TP:    I think a lot of them, for whatever reason, didn’t want to pursue that direction at that particular moment.

WILLIAMS:  Well, I know Muhal was always a great musician.  Muhal was the sort of musician who could do anything he wants to.

TP:    How do you see Barry’s playing having changed over the years.  I don’t mean in terms of his physical capacity so much as the evolution of his ideas and content and so forth.

WILLIAMS:  Over the years, Barry has really grown.  I don’t know if a lot of people can see it.  I can see it and hear it.  He might not play as much, as long as he used to.  But what he plays now, he could probably put more in.  He’s probably got himself condensed down to a point where he probably doesn’t have to… When I first heard him, he played long, fast and hard all the time.  But as he’s gone on, just like anything else, you get to where “I don’t have to do all of that to say this!”  So he’s grown in that way, and I think that’s the ideal way for most people.

TP:    Do you think being around Monk had something to do with it?

WILLIAMS:  Oh yeah.  Monk was a spaceman.

TP:    Well, it seems half Barry’s personality is the spaceman and half this eminently practical, pragmatic, utilitarian person, and he seems to have the two in perfect balance.  Does that make sense?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  Because he’s both of those.  I know one time where we played a duo gig at Bradley’s, Barry and I.  Usually the duo is piano and bass.  Barry said, “Come on, man, we can do it.”  So we played a gig for a week at Bradley’s, just Barry and I, and you talk about really free… Man, I was really free.  I didn’t have to worry about no bass player… Oh, he kept going, reaching things I’d never heard him play before.  He wasn’t restricted by a bass player, and he was free to do anything he wanted to do.  It was a wonderful time.

TP:    He did that wonderful solo record, too, Bird of Red and Gold.  Would you say that was a highlight of your association with him?

WILLIAMS:  That particular gig?  Every time we play is a highlight.  Barry never ceases to amaze me.  Sometimes I play some of these old records, and I say, “Oh my God.”  Barry is just amazing.  I talk with some of his students, and they tell me, “I have this record of Barry playing Tadd Dameron,” and then I go home and listen to it, and I say, “Wow.”  It’s beautiful.  And Barry is beautiful.  He’s like Tadd Dameron in that way.  Tadd Dameron was a guy who just loved beauty, and Barry is that way.

TP:    But at the same time, he’s also a theorist of jazz.  Can you talk about the theoretical component of what he does?

WILLIAMS:  Well, Barry had something worked out that he believes in.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but he has a formula…

TP:    So he’s into the mathematics of it as well.

WILLIAMS:  Oh yes.  He’s so orderly, and yet at the same time it’s free within that order.  It’s really hard to describe in words, but when I play with him, I can hear it all.  But he has a basic thing that he believes in.

TP:    What do you think it is about the way you play that gives you such an affinity.  I always heard you as one of the modern masters of Bebop, breaking up the rhythm, Kenny Clarke type of thing, and I always assumed that he and Max were your two role models.

WILLIAMS:  Well, they were.  All those guys, Philly Joe and Art Blakey…all those guys.

TP:    But those are references I make when I…

WILLIAMS:  That’s probably true, because I was into Max in the beginning, and Kenny Clarke, but naturally you try to get out of there, but the shit is so embedded…

TP:    I guess if you’re playing with Barry, the idiomatic way to play that music… Billy Higgins is a Kenny Clarke man, too.  I guess you and Higgins are the two drummers Barry likes the best, I think.

WILLIAMS:  Well, that’s the language that we all grew up under.  Billy and I are about the same age and came around at the same time, and you know, everything was happening at the same time.  He was in California and I was in Chicago, but everything was in the air.  So we drew from the same sources.  So those are the things… Barry is a little older.  Those are the things that make the music what it is, because we all come from the same place.

TP:    Who are the pianists you played with in Chicago?

WILLIAMS:  I played with Jodie Christian, and a pianist named Don Bennett I used to play with a lot, then a girl named Judy Roberts I played with a lot.

Don Schlitten on Barry Harris:

TP:    When did you first hear Barry Harris and become aware of him?

SCHLITTEN:  Well, being involved in this music since I was 12 or 13 years old, I was very aware of who was coming to New York to play.  I don’t remember whether I saw him or heard him on record for the first time.

TP:    Well, he got here in ’60, but he had that little recording flurry in ’56 when he recorded with Hank Mobley and the Thad Jones Blue Note record…

SCHLITTEN:  Then I probably heard him at that time.  In other words, I was very involved in all the new records that were coming out, going back to 78 days.  That probably would have been my first hearing of him.  Of course, I was always a Billy Mitchell fan, so that helped that particular situation.

TP:    But he moved to New York I guess in the summer of ’60.  Is that when you can remember seeing him on a regular basis, or what clubs they were?

SCHLITTEN:  You are asking me about things that happened 40 years ago.  It’s more than likely.  I couldn’t swear to where and how, but I certainly did listen to the records, and probably saw him in various joints.

TP:    Let me reorient the questioning to how you and he started to become professionally affiliated, and what qualities in your mind at that time made him such a felicitous sideman for the sound you were trying to bring out.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, I think the first time we worked together was when we were at Prestige during my decade there, and I had… I’m trying to backtrack now.  The first session that I think we did together was Bebop Revisited with Charles McPherson, so obviously I’d heard Barry before… At this point, I’ve convinced the powers-that-be of Charles McPherson.  So obviously Barry had been heard by me, though he may have been with Riverside at the time, I don’t remember…

TP:    Well, he’d just finished with Riverside, or Riverside had just shut down at the time he did that record or was about to, and he was working with Charles and Lonnie at that time.

SCHLITTEN:  That’s right.  And I was working with Carmell Jones, and I came up with this idea to play this music, the Classical repertoire for the music, and there was no better choice than he on the piano bench.  I believe that was the first time we had worked together.

TP:    So it was with Charles McPherson and some sessions with Dexter, Moody…

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, they came on later.

TP:    Right, they came on later.  But does his style dovetail with your idea of presenting the classical repertoire of the music in its ’60s incarnation as it were?

SCHLITTEN:  Well, that’s an interesting way to put it.  He knew all the tunes.  Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies to these things.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  So therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  I always felt that that little difference that he had would inspire people who might not have been listed under the category of Bebop musicians, like Illinois Jacquet or somebody like that, but he would push that kind of thing and make those kinds of people play even better.  And it seemed to work all the way down the line.

TP:    So initially for you it was his comping and spirit.  Did that also interest you in his own concept, in terms of Luminescence and Bull’s Eye and those dates.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, yes.  Then I loved the guy and I loved the music, and I wanted to present him in every way I could.  Unfortunately, none of the people I worked with were really superstar sellers.  I’m sure you’re aware that this music is not really commercially oriented.  Some of the guys would do a little bit better than some other guys.  Barry, unfortunately, did worse than anybody.  Barry is the only artist I have ever worked with during all my years and knowledge of Prestige, which goes all the way back to 1949, that the company said, “Let’s give him the money we owe him rather than record him; his records don’t sell even that much.”

TP:    Why do you think that was?

SCHLITTEN:  I don’t know.  There’s no way to explain any of that.  You just put your heart and soul into the music and whatever it is that you’re doing, and you hope that somebody responds.  Sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t.  Who knows about that?  It’s some kind of weird magic.

TP:    When I listen back to something like Luminescence or Bull’s Eye, I think he was getting his chops together as a small group arranger, and I think the trio and solo stuff was more his forte.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, all that is possible.  But you’re talking about an attitude of jazz fans at a certain time in history, which is certainly a different attitude than was presented 20 years  before or 20 years later.  How do you figure it?  It’s weird.  It’s weird, because sometimes there are some things that you say, “Shit, this is not right,” and then all of a sudden somebody says it’s great.  Then by the same token you say, “Listen to this; this is fabulous,’ and somebody on the other hand has a long face and doesn’t hear it.

TP:    You had a really ongoing association for about 18 years, and even longer than that.  How did you see his playing grow and progress and his sensibility grow and progress through the years, whether or not it had anything to do with that steady recording and the situations he recorded in with you…

SCHLITTEN:  Well, all of that adds to it.  Life is full of experiences.  Now, I would imagine that this person would never have played with half of the people that he played with had it not been for my producing those particular artists and using him as the pianist.  I doubt very much whether he and Al Cohn would have gotten together, or he and Illinois Jacquet would have gotten together, or whatever.  Part of my job is to try to create the proper atmosphere for the best music to be played, and one of the prime important parts of that is to create the proper band to play with.  So it’s not only a musical meeting; it’s also a psychological meeting.  Most of the time I would have to say, in all humility, it worked.  Of all the things that I’ve tried to do in my lifetime, I seem to have done a pretty good job in that area.

TP:    Let me just say, as far as the way he was playing in 1967, when he did Bullseye, or ’69 when he did Magnificent, and let’s say in ’76 when he did the Japanese tour and he’s doing that great record where he plays “Poco Loco” or Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron, to me, I hear a pianist who’s increased in confidence and lyricism and is more interpretive, and I wondered if you had any comments on that.

TP:    What was his demeanor like during the sessions he did with you, particularly as a sideman?

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, he always came to play.

TP:    But how was he in relation to the other musicians?  Did he sort of take charge of those sessions?

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, no.  It would depend on the people.  That’s what jazz is all about.  It would depend.  Now, for instance, you could bring one guy in and he’s in charge of everything.  You could bring another guy in, and you’re in charge of everything.  And you could bring a third guy in, and he’s looking around for his colleagues to help him.  So everybody is different, and depending on the mix of all your elements it will all be always different.  The end result has to be that the music is cooking, that’s all.  And my job would have to be to figure all that out in front.

TP:    It seems he was adaptable to a wide range of situations and functions.

SCHLITTEN:  Oh yes, that’s the beauty of it.  That’s why we continued.  That’s why it kept going.  If at one point that didn’t work, then that was the end.  But that’s how I felt about things.  I’m painting a picture, and if the red isn’t red enough, then I’m going to go for orange or whatever it is.

TP:    Do you feel he was head and shoulders over the other pianists who were available… Well, Jaki Byard you had a similar relationship with.

SCHLITTEN:  That’s a different world.  That’s a different kind of music.

TP:    All I’m saying is that with what you were trying to do… Not that they were the only ones you used, but the two pianists who created that palette for you were Barry Harris and that very fertile period with Jaki Byard.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, for what I was trying to do, Barry was the right pianist for certain projects and Jaki was the right pianist for other projects.  I believed in both of them as talents that had been neglected, so I saw from a lot of press that Barry gets… Jaki never even got that.  My karma was to do what I can to help these people, because I really believed in what they were doing.  Other players were good players.  I worked a lot with Tommy Flanagan…

TP:    Like The Panther.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, no, before that, the very first record I ever produced… Red Rodney worked with Tommy Flanagan, and the first record I produced at Prestige, Dave Pike Plays Oliver, Tommy Flanagan was on that.  But Tommy, for whatever reason, didn’t need my help.

TP:    Well, he was on the road with Ella, steadily employed.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, whatever.  Guys would come off the road and I’d use them, and sometimes I’d wait for somebody to come off the road if I felt that was the right person for whatever it was I was doing.  But the point I was trying to make was that he didn’t need my help, whereas I felt both Jaki and Barry did need my help, and if I didn’t do what I did, who knows how their lives would have evolved.

TP:    I’d like you to talk about conceiving some of the trio projects you did with him, particularly for Xanadu, and also the MPS date that’s never been issued here.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron is probably the most popular Barry Harris record in Japan, and has been from its inception.  Now, here’s a perfect example, why the Japanese jazz people hook up onto something and never let go… It’s another story; just another one of those magical things.  But they hooked up onto this record, and it’s just been released again on CD in Japan with a new licensee that we have, and this is about the fourth or fifth time.  Every time they do it, they get the seal of approval and etcetera, etc.

Now, as far as my personal tastes are concerned, I would say that’s one of my favorites.  I do, however, like Live in Tokyo, very-very much.  A lot of that has to do with the interplay with the bass player and the drummer.  Now, the drummer is always Leroy, because Leroy is absolutely perfect.  So the bass player is the moving force really.  So depending on the bass player, that will, in its own way, turn Barry around, in, out or whatever, and also in terms of notes and also in terms of the sound of the recording.  So if you like a light bass, then you probably would like Gene Taylor more than you would George Duvivier.  So all those things are just parts of the puzzle, and they work differently.  A lot of it depends on your personal taste.

TP:    But each of those records has a certain type of narrative going on.  With Tadd Dameron it’s a rumination on a certain compositional and sound aesthetic, when he’s doing his own compositions there’s a more exploratory aesthetic going on, and Live In Tokyo is more of a jam session.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, I don’t know about that.  In Tokyo, he’s really playing Bud Powell.  So if you want to call it a recital, that’s okay, but I always think of it as Barry’s Bud Powell album.  So when you think of the albums we made, it’s Tadd, Bud, and Barry.  Or that’s how I did think of them then.

TP:    Did you think of Barry when you first heard him as a personal, idiomatic stylist unto himself, or as someone who was very indebted to other stylists, particularly Bud Powell?

SCHLITTEN:  I don’t really think he was.  That’s why I think his Riverside records are great if you love the music and you love him, but they’re not really special — because I don’t think he had found himself yet.  And I don’t think he found himself until he had dug deeper into the history of the repertoire or whatever it is, and I think that’s what was taking place in the second half of the ’60s, when we were working together.  I don’t think that was the case early on.  I remember seeing him with Yusef Lateef way back when, and I remember he recorded with Yusef Lateef in the early ’60s or late ’50s, I don’t remember, and his touch wasn’t as heavy.  He has very tiny hands.  He needed to develop a little heavier touch, and he also needed to get recorded properly.  And some of those people at Riverside and at Blue Note, especially Rudy Van Gelder, they recorded everybody the same, and every piano player has a different touch, and therefore every piano player needs to be recorded a little differently — which is why I left Rudy Van Gelder.  It wasn’t until we started working with other engineers that I felt his touch started to get better, and I think by hearing himself and hearing that, he started to get better.  Because what happens is, you turn yourself on!  When you’re playing the tune, you go listen to the take, you listen to yourself, and sometimes you inspire yourself.  Sometimes you can depress yourself, too!  But all of that adds up.  It’s life.  Those are the experiences of life.  We’re focusing down now on a piano player, but it’s really life.  It’s the different experiences — the sounds, the people, the time, how you feel.  If your foot hurts you’re not going to play as well as if your foot doesn’t hurt.  So all that comes into play.

* * *

Charles McPherson on Barry Harris:

TP:    When do you first remember encountering Barry Harris?  Was it those days as a teenager going by the Bluebird?

McPHERSON:  Yes, it was.  I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met Barry when I was about maybe 15.  I had already been introduced to jazz, and I knew that this club called the Bluebird was down the street and featured jazz music.  This was during the time when I was going down there, standing out, looking inside, looking in the window and listening outside the door.  That’s when I met Barry, because he was the house piano player who was working at the Bluebird.  I met him that way, and then I knew he lived around the corner.  One day I was walking down the street, me and another musician, and I saw where his house was, and then I spoke to him.  He told us, “Well, you guys need to learn your scale” — because he had heard us play.  We had already sat in at the club.  Because the owner let us sit in if we’d bring our parents over.  This was during the time that Miles Davis was living in Detroit for a couple of years, and Miles was actually working at the Bluebird.

TP:    Do you remember that time?  Was it late ’53-early ’54?

McPHERSON:  Oh, sure.  This is when Miles stayed in Detroit a couple of years, right then.  So we sat in, and Barry said, “Well, you guys don’t really know about theory and harmony and all that; you need to know about these things.”  So we started coming over to his house, and that’s how it started.

TP:    This was after you’d heard Charlie Parker and were serious about it.

McPHERSON:  Right.

TP:    What’s his teaching like?  Why is he so good as a teacher?

McPHERSON:  Well, I think he likes what he’s doing, and then he’s knowledgeable, and he has conceived of a certain methodology of giving the information.  It’s hard to do it without using technical terms.  But I can say that he just had a certain method in showing certain things about chord changes and how to look at them and how to think about them, and then how to use them.  It was kind of his way of… Because of how he had thought about it, and he came up with this method of teaching, pretty much like the Suzuki method, when little kids learn how to play.  It’s just a methodology of teaching, knowledge that’s being taught by other means, other ways.  But he has his little way of thinking about certain things, and he thought it facilitated the person to play better, faster.

TP:    Was it oriented towards Bebop playing?

McPHERSON:  Oh, no.  It was just music.  Dealing with improvisation.  So really, it’s about chord changes — dominant 7ths, that kind of thing.

TP:    So he had a theory of improvising that he was able to impart to young musicians.

McPHERSON:  Yes.  Or this would lead to improvising.  It’s just a way of looking at things.

TP:    What sort of manner did he have with you?

McPHERSON:  Well, he was kind of fatherly.  When I look back on it, it’s ridiculous; he was 25 years old!  But I guess maybe like a big brother or something.  What happened was that Barry’s house was kind of a hub of activity with the musicians.  A lot of musicians would come over and play.  Because he worked at night at this club, and in the daytime he was free, and he just practiced and played music all day long, then at night he’d go to work.  So in the daytime anybody might come by there.  I was over there every other day or every day, and then people would come in town… One time Coltrane came in town with Miles.  Now, this is after Miles had left and got really kind of strong out there, and then he had the band with Trane and Cannonball and all that — and one time Trane was over there.  Because traveling musicians would know to go over to Barry’s house.  There was always something happening there.

TP:    So it was like an ongoing workshop and blowing and…

McPHERSON:  Yeah.  Guys would come over and play.

TP:    Talk about some of your contemporaries, too, who were going there at that point.  Trace your development in terms of being at his house.

McPHERSON:  Well, Lonnie Hillyer, a trumpet player who eventually played with Mingus.  Paul Chambers.  Roy Brooks, the drummer who worked with Horace for a while.

TP:    And Lou Hayes was the same age about.

McPHERSON:  A few years older but essentially the same age.  It was almost everybody, almost all of the Detroit younger people that age.

TP:    So basically, that quality of his where he’s always established followings and groups of people around him begins then, basically — and even before.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, that’s true.

TP:    Do you think he’s a natural teacher?

McPHERSON:  Yeah, I think so.  And he’s a real good piano player.  You know, most piano players are very knowledgeable, and he certainly is.  I don’t know, he was always a guy who seemed to like to experiment or theorize about things, especially about harmony and so on.  And Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, those guys… It was just a scene over to his house.  Sometimes it was just talking or just hanging, but most of the time some kind of music was going on.

TP:    It seems like the Detroit guys came out professional.  If there’s one common thing, you absorbed the language and came out professional.  No nonsense.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, no-nonsense and intelligent. [LAUGHS] In other words, for sure there is a certain logic in their playing for the most part.  The improvisation is very logical, how they connect things together.  The connections.

TP:    Talk about how the relationship continued once you were both in New York.  You recorded together quite a bit from ’64 to ’76.

McPHERSON:  Well, I did start working with Mingus in 1960, and Barry was doing whatever he was doing, working with other people, so Barry and I didn’t really… Well, we saw each other and all that, but there wasn’t much going on between us.  Then maybe in the middle ’60s or late ’60s is when we started working together again.  We were in a group with George Coleman, Lonnie, myself, and different drummers coming in and out of there, and Peck Morrison on bass.

TP:    You did Live At the Five Spot in ’64, then there’s McPherson’s Mood from ’68 or so.  Those document ongoing playing, but it wasn’t necessarily a steady working group.  It was more about being kind of in parallel on the New York scene.

McPHERSON:  Well, we did work.  We didn’t work as steadily as we would want, but we did work.  We worked at Minton’s a lot in the late ’60s, before it closed.  We worked at Boomer’s on Bleecker and Christopher.  In Brooklyn we worked at the Blue Coronet.  So we worked around New York.  We did road gigs.  We did gigs in Baltimore for the Jazz Society up there…

TP:    Talk about improvising with Barry comping.

McPHERSON:  Again, there’s a certain kind of musical intelligence that a lot of Detroit piano players have, with Hank Jones and Tommy and that kind of thing.  Barry is one of those guys.  His comp is very rhythmic.  I know he tries for the symbiosis.  It’s very symbiotic with the horn players.  He’s listening.  I would say that the comp is pretty much like a drummer’s snare drum comp.  He’s very good at that actually.  There’s different ways to do it.  Some people aren’t as sympathetic or as complementary.  But he does… At least with the way that I phrase, I guess, so it works for us.

TP:    It sounds to me like his solos come organically out of what the previous soloist is doing.  He’s very ensemble oriented.

McPHERSON:  Yes, at least the first couple of bars, which is a good musical thing to do — to allude to the last soloist.

TP:    So there’s continuity.

McPHERSON:  Right.  And from there, you kind of… That’s a nice thing to do.  It’s a very good musical thing to do.

TP:    Can you say a few sentences about what he has meant to you, and his impact, and his position in the musical community?

McPHERSON:  Sure.  Well, I owe so much to him in terms of just helping me establish a real firm foundation just on a musical level, and also technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales and that kind of thing.  But also, he instituted a certain kind of musical intelligence for me in terms of taste and musicality.  I was shown also, beside all these technical things, that certain things were not to be indulged in in terms of, like, corny phrases.  You always try to be musically honest.  Don’t use technique just for the sake of using technique, but try to use the emotionality along with analysis.  Technique is just a means to an end, not the end.  All these things that are important.  Some people never learn it, don’t really know, have no concept at all.  But things like that.  Like, technique is wonderful, but it’s just a means to an end — it’s not the end.  Technique is just to facilitate your total musical thing, but it’s not like you indulge in pyrotechnics just to impress.  So the elements of good taste and musical discretion…even though subjective in some sort of way from his musical point of view, but everything is that, I guess.

Those kind of things were taught to me and I learned that, too, as well as what a C-minor-7th is.  And also he did something which has nothing to do with music, but then it does have something to do with music.  He took an interest in my schoolwork.  I would come to his home after school, and one day he saw my report card, and he saw that my card was quite average.  There was nothing spectacular about; it wasn’t bad, but kind of average.  He looked at it and he said, “Let me see your report card.  You got your card today.  Let me see what kind of marks you got.”  Then he said, “Well, that’s okay, man, but that’s some real average stuff.  You know, all your heroes, like Charlie Parker, those guys were everything but average.”  And the minute he said that, it was like…

TP:    He knew how to push your button.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, he really got… I’d never thought of that, and I never cared about really trying hard.  My whole thing at that point was just do enough to get through and, you know… But when he said that… He said, “Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but I’m gonna tell you, on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.”  Charlie Parker could sit down and talk to people about absolutely anything.  I didn’t know that.  I just knew a little bit about his music.  I didn’t know about Bird’s persona.  And that indeed was true.  Bird was a guy who could sit down and talk to people about science or anything.  He was a real self-taught, book-reader type guy.  He knew everything about modern art.  He could look at paintings and tell who painted it and all that stuff.  He was way ahead of a lot of musicians when it came to things other than music, because he was a guy that sort of read a lot.  And I didn’t know that.

So Barry really instilled in me to try… In other words, the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more you know, then the more you have to play about, the more there is to play, because you’re playing your life, your experiences.  Well, I had never thought of it like that.  Well, that changed my whole concept of school.  He said, “All those cats are brilliant, man.  You can’t be an average guy or a stupid guy playing this kind of music — not this kind of music.  There’s too much shit going on.”  You have to really become agile to play to this level.  For that level of playing music, there’s some stuff required.  You’d better tighten up your stuff.

TP:    How long has it been since you played with him?

McPHERSON:  Oh, I played a gig with him maybe a year ago.  I don’t play with him steadily, of course, but there’s always occasions.

Anyway, from that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise.  I became like an honors student overnight.  The teachers could not believe that!  They were used to seeing me just being a certain way.  I was in my home room class, and the teacher looked at the card, and she said, “Is this your card?”  I said, “Yeah.”  She said, “You got…”  I actually got all A’s.  It was easy.  From that point on, I learned how to do that without being all day doing homework, I could rip it off — it just changed my whole life.  From that point on I started reading books.  I had never read a book all the way through, but shoot, by the time I was 18 or 19 I had read all of Henry Miller’s books, I had read The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich

So Barry did more than just music for me.  He opened a whole intellectual curiosity that changed me also.  So he’s a very interesting character.

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Filed under Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, Detroit, Don Schlitten, DownBeat, Interview, Leroy Williams, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

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

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

Bennie Wallace (Downbeat):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[-30-]

* * *

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

[BW, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I’d say three times as much!

WALLACE:  That was a little conservative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So what happened then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Oh, I was too!

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

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

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

TP:    How many keys are on the saxophone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you were the state champ?

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

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

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

[MUSIC: BW, “I Loves You, Porgy”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Just running blind. [LAUGHS]

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Yeah, about 9 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You did music for Bull Durham.

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

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

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

TP:    When did you move to L.A.?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  With that kind of freedom, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC: “It Ain’t Necessarily So”]

[-30-]

* * *

Bennie Wallace (3-3-00):

TP:    Are you from a musical family?

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

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

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

TP:    Chattanooga, 1962.

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

TP:    What kind of town is Chattanooga?

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

TP:    Were you a middle-class family?

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

TP:    Were you a rebellious kid?

WALLACE:  Of course.

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

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

TP:    What was the name the place you played?

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

TP:    Was the clientele all Black?

WALLACE:  Yes.

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

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

TP:    Was it a Black band?

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  yes.

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

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

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

WALLACE:  I was a very good sight-reader.

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

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

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

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

TP:    What was he like?

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

TP:    He swung.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah!

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you graduate from U-Tennessee?

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

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

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

TP:    But you graduated.

WALLACE:  I graduated because of the Vietnam War.

TP:    Maybe that made you pragmatic.

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

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

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

TP:    So you got here in ’72.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Those guys are my age.  But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Mingus had it, too.

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

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

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

TP:    Are you very analytical about your playing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[END OF SIDE A]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Absolutely.

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

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

TP:    Front corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But in the pure world of aesthetics.

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

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

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

TP:    What are the challenges of that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So those are two different entities for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Right.  Six or seven years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Is that the last major film you did?

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

TP:    You started on Hoop Life May ’99.

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

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

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

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

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

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

WALLACE:  Not active.

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Probably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Any film or TV projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Six or seven years I was out there.

TP:    You were doing a lot of film music.

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________________________________

Bennie Wallace on WKCR, circa 1998:

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Right.

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

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

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

TP:    Was Chattanooga that kind of a town?

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

TP:    Were there some good musicians in Chattanooga?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WALLACE:  Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And then?

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

TP:    That was about 1970?

WALLACE:  That was probably 1971.
_________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenny Barron Downbeat Article:

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

[—30—]

* * * *

Kenny Barron (March 21, 2005):

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

KENNY:   Oh, it does.

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

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

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

KENNY:   Three totally different environments. True.

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

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

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

KENNY:   No, I haven’t.

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

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

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

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

TP:   Keeping that interesting will be a challenge.

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

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

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

TP:   So you have a repertoire.

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

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

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

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

KENNY:   To a certain extent, yes.

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

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

TP:   Did you play Latin gigs?

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

TP:   Was your peer group interested in it?

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

TP:   How did it come to you?

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

TP:   Did you go to the Palladium at all?

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

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

KENNY:   Yes. I came in ‘61.

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

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

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

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

TP:   It came out in his sound, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Have you played much with John Patitucci?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   When did you start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   That would be John’s propensity.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Do you know beforehand?

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

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

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

TP:   What differentiates them?

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

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

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

TP:   Everyone else you’ve played with…

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

TP:   New repertoire?

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

TP:   Do you always recalibrate?

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

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

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

TP:   Like most young guys.

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

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

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

KENNY:   I have no idea.

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

KENNY:   It’s a trio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KENNY:   Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KENNY:   Yeah.

TP:   Who were some of the other people?

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

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

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

TP:   Did you ever meet him in Philly?

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

TP:   Did you ever meet Monk?

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

TP:   Do you mean intimidating?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   There was a fairly consequential scene going on in Brooklyn then.

KENNY:   Oh, there was a lot of music in Brooklyn. There was the Coronet, the Continental, and quite a few other places. There were also a lot of musicians. When I moved to Prospect Place, I discovered that Cedar Walton lived around the corner on Sterling Place. Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes lived around the corner in the same building on Park Place. Wynton Kelly lived around there on Lincoln Place. Cecil Payne lived nearby.  There were a lot of musicians.

TP:   Were the Brooklyn audiences different at all than the Harlem audiences?

KENNY:   I don’t think so. One of the things that was happening during that time is that the audiences for the music… If you went to the Coronet to hear music or to play, you would see the same people all the time. Neighborhood people came out to hear the music. That kind of stopped in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

TP:   Did that impart a different flavor to the way you played?

KENNY:   I don’t know if it added a different flavor.  But it was definitely inspirational.

TP:   For people in New York at the moment you arrived, you could hear the whole history of the music, people who effect the outer partials of what’s happening now, like Cecil or Ornette (whom you’ve played with), or you could hear Willie The Lion or Ellington or Coleman Hawkins. And you told me that you did.

KENNY:   Yes, I did. I remember working at the Vanguard playing with Freddie Hubbard, and we played opposite Coleman Hawkins for two weeks. Barry Harris was playing piano with him. I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I know Barry was there. That was amazing.

TP:   A lot of younger musicians in the ‘60s were perhaps not so embracing of the older forms, but it seems that even that is part of… On the Live At Bradley’s record you played Blue Skies and Sweet Lorraine, and a lot of tunes you’ll play with the trio are from that era.

KENNY:   Well, apart from bebop, I grew up listening to… Well, the first person I heard do Sweet Lorraine was Nat King Cole. And I loved it from that point. But it was a long time before I started actually playing it. But you have memories of these things, and you say, “Oh, I remember that song; let me start playing that.”
TP:   But someone born after your generation probably wouldn’t have heard Sweet Lorraine on a jukebox.

KENNY:   No, they wouldn’t have. Or Canadian Sunset. I remember hearing that on a jukebox.  Eddie Heywood. And Jug also recorded it.

TP:   Someone like me heard it because I went out looking for it. But it wouldn’t have been an organic part of my upbringing unless I was in an extremely specific house or environment.

KENNY:   Right, it was all around. You’d go into a luncheonette, and on the jukebox there you’d see John Coltrane, Blue Train or Moment’s Notice, or Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana. Any jukebox. In a luncheonette, a restaurant.

TP:   So those things come out in your sound.

KENNY:   Yes.  That stuff was all around. You’re exposed to it.  People who are younger have to search for the music. You have to look for it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear it on television…. Well, you didn’t hear it on television then either. But you have to look for it now.

Plus there were certain experiences, playing situations we were able to get as young players that aren’t available. They weren’t necessarily “jazz” gigs. I used to play dances a lot. We called them cabarets. You had to play standards. You had to play rhythm and blues. That’s what that really meant: I Got Rhythm and Blues. A lot of songs based on that. You had to play for singers. You’d have to play a show.  A singer would come up. “What key are you doing this in?” “I don’t know.” There wasn’t always a rehearsal. If you played, you’d also have to play for a comedian, tap dancers, stuff like this. You’d get to play all this…

TP:   You’d play a whole show. What was the club in Philly…

KENNY:   Oh, there were many clubs. Many. Sometimes they weren’t necessarily clubs…

TP:   The Masonic Lodge, the Elks…

KENNY:   Exactly. That kind of stuff. But I remember there was one club in particular in Philly that was called the Northwest Club. They had a lot of after-hours clubs. I remember working there one time with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker, and Arthur Harper was the bass player. But as part of the rhythm section, you had to also do this other stuff. You had to play with the singer and the comedian. That was just something you did.

TP:   That had to have been ‘59 or ‘60, if you did it with Jimmy. So you were 16 or 17.

KENNY:   Yes.

TP:   That prepared you for New York.

KENNY:   Yes.  There are certain kinds of experiences you had. You knew how to play for a show.  You knew what to do, how to end songs and things like that.

TP:   It’s a very rare musician under 45 who’s had had that experience. Although there are a few.

KENNY: There are some. But it’s rare.

TP:   What  did that do exactly?

KENNY:   Well, one thing, it taught you how to listen. It taught you how to listen, and then it helped you with the language. Musical language. It wasn’t enough just to know… Well, one thing is that you have to learn songs. We used to play for what was called shake dancers, kind of tame strip-teasers.  They would dance to Duke Ellington, Caravan… Exotic dancers. Jimmy Forrest, Night Train, a bump thing. Those are the kind of things you learn. It really prepared you to come to New York. Because it didn’t change that much once you got here. You still had to do those kind of gigs. You didn’t come here and start working at Birdland right away.

TP:   But you came here and soon started working with Dizzy.

KENNY:   Well, I came here in 1961 and started working with him in November 1962.  I graduated high school in ‘60, then I kind of laid around Philly, and came to New York in the Fall of ‘61. Then I got married in ‘62.

TP:   You grew up very young, didn’t you.

KENNY:   Well, I got married very young.

TP:   It wasn’t like a whole lot of time to “find yourself.” But maybe you did that later.

KENNY:   Well, still.

TP:   But a lot of people in that situation would take jazz as a job. You’re always very open-ended within the function stuff you do. You were a professional from 16-17-18. Music was a job, a livelihood from that age, and there are a lot of functions you have to play.  Some things must have felt rote to you. Some people would allow their imagination to be stifled in those situations, and many people have allowed their imaginations to be stifled. Others settle on one kind of sound and stayed with it—and evolved it, which is great. You’re not that way.

KENNY:   I think one of the things that helped was having an older brother who played, having friends… There was a drummer, for instance, named Jerry. I used to go over to his house. He always had the latest records. He built his own stereo system.  We would sit there and listen to the latest records. That’s the first time I heard Ornette, was over at his house. “Wow, what is that?!” So I’ve always been into listening and trying to hear new stuff.  Trying to do it, too.  That’s part of growing. I didn’t want to become stuck. I never did. I don’t know if you believe in astrology, but that’s part of being a Gemini. “Oh, let’s try this.” I think that’s part of it. Just being exposed to other things is is important.  When I came to New York, my brother Bill had been working with Cecil Taylor. He was really into avant-garde.  That was his thing. He loved that. He listened to Stockhausen and showed me 12-tone row music and stuff like that. It made me listen, too.

TP:   You did a tune, didn’t you, called Row House?

KENNY:   Yes, I did, which is a 12-tone row. So again, there’s always something to learn, something to try.

TP:   What was it like playing with Ornette?

KENNY:   It was different.

TP:   Has there ever been a situation that didn’t quite work?

KENNY:   I wouldn’t say that situation didn’t work. But there’s always hindsight. I wished I could have done this, wish I could have… But it came out okay. I was surprised that he called me. Because I think the whole idea was to recreate the group he had with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, who were both there, and Wallace Roney to take the place of Don Cherry. But one of his first groups had piano.

TP:   What I recall about the concert is that he took out his trumpet and played a chorus, and summed everything up in that chorus.

KENNY:   I enjoyed it. Probably even more memorable than the gig were the rehearsals, as he tried to explain his harmolodic concept. Which I never really got. So I just played.

TP:   Lee Konitz told me that Charlie Haden told him, “We really play changes.”

KENNY:   On some of the earlier things, the stuff is so melodic, it really sounds like they’re playing changes, or playing around changes. There’s some stuff there you can hear on The Shape Of Jazz To Come. That’s one of my favorites. Lonely Woman. You can hear harmonic structure in all of his pieces. It’s not just willy-nilly. They’re playing some stuff.

[—30—]

* * *

Kenny Barron (WKCR, September 2, 2004):

TP:    Sitting across from me, looking extremely cool and relaxed on this beautiful day, after a subway ride, is Kenny Barron. Next week, he enters the Village Vanguard with a sextet comprising Terrell Stafford, David Sanchez, Vincent Herring, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and Ben Riley. On Wednesday, he starts his semester at Juilliard. On Thursday, he starts his semester at the Manhattan School of Music. So it will be like old times for Kenny Barron, who during the Bradley’s days, would leave at 3 in the morning, and go out to Rutgers the next day at 8 or so. You’ve been doing this for a long time.

KENNY: Yes, I have.  And as you get older, you get tired faster!

TP:    Well, there are no 3 in the morning sets any more.

KENNY: Not any more. Although I kind of miss it.

TP:    That’s the thing. You want to hang out late, but then in the morning you feel sort of happy that you didn’t do it. But several years ago, when you retired from Rutgers, I recall you saying, well, you wouldn’t be teaching any more. You were going to devote your time exclusively to music, and practice…

KENNY: I did say that, didn’t I.

TP:    What happened?

KENNY: Well, I got a call from Justin DiCioccio at Manhattan School of Music, saying, “We would like you to come and teach?” and I said, “I want this amount of money,” and he said, “okay.” And I only wanted a certain number of students…

TP:    And he said okay.

KENNY: Yeah.  So it’s been working out actually.

TP:    And at Juilliard as well.

KENNY: At Juilliard as well.  Well, I guess from the beginning, I’ve only had two piano students there. So this semester, starting this week, I’ll have four.

TP:    This show is not about education. But what sort of students do you have?  You’re not teaching them the basics.

KENNY: Oh, no. They could almost teach me. I mean, some of them are so incredible, especially in terms of technique, and they really understand the language very well. Actually, it’s fun to teach them. Because they really challenge me. They’re great students. A couple of them have won some competitions.

TP:    It’s a truism by now that, given advances in jazz pedagogy and education, that the technical level and proficiency of young musicians today…they start younger and younger, and they can do more and more. What things don’t they have?  What do they need to get?

KENNY: I guess the things they need to get, they’ll only get by living. Experience.  Experience and paying dues; as Ben Riley likes to say, “having their hearts broken.” So they’ll have some stories to tell. When you’re young and everything is fine, you don’t REALLY have any stories to tell.

TP:    You yourself were 18 when you moved to New York.

KENNY: Right.  In 1961.

TP:    You moved to the East Village, I think.

KENNY: Right.

TP:    Everyone was living on East 5th Street and 6th Street.

KENNY: East 6th Street I lived on.

TP:    You were working, and then joined up with Dizzy Gillespie and got your first college education on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Subsequently, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you went back to school and got a degree…

KENNY: I did.  I went to Manhattan Community College, and got an Associate’s Degree from there.  They had a program, part of the State University of New York, called Empire State College, and I got my B.A. from there.

TP:    I don’t want to put you in the position of looking back to the good old days. But just step back to those days a bit and discuss the climate then, and the attitudes of the musicians you were running with when you came here from Philly. What was percolating? What was in the air.

KENNY: Well, there was a lot. The block I lived on was the block where there are now a lot of Indian restaurants—Curry Row, they call it.  Sixth Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. I lived at 314. I was staying with my brother for a while, and then I moved next door with a bass player named Vishnu Wood. Upstairs, for instance, lived Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams. They shared an apartment together. Across the street lived Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, and a bass player from Philly who’s passed away named Spanky DeBrest, and Reggie Workman also, and two doors up from that lived Ted Curson. It was a great neighborhood. I could walk to the original Five Spot, which was on the Bowery, and the same guys, the Termini Brothers, also owned the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks. So I could walk to all those places. All the coffee shops. I first heard Cecil Taylor, for instance, at Café Wha in the Village.

TP:    On McDougal Street.

KENNY: Yes.  I heard him in that year, ‘61. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I first heard Kenny Dorham.

TP:    Was there a lot of collegiality? Were people supportive of each other?  Was there a sort of give-and-take?

KENNY: Oh, I think there was.  I would have to say yes. Especially among the musicians from Philadelphia.  There was always a kind of brotherhood, so to speak, among the musicians from Philly.

TP:    So even if someone was from Germantown and someone was from South Philly, once they get out of Philadelphia…

KENNY: Oh, yeah.  Well, even in Philly there wasn’t any kind of neighborhood rivalry.  You were a musician. You were one of the cats.

TP:    Prior to that, had you been working a fair amount on the Philly scene?

KENNY: Some. I was doing a lot of local stuff, and occasionally I would get to work in… When I was there, Philly had two major jazz clubs, the Showboat and Pep’s. At some point I got to work there. One of the highlights, I was still in high school, and I got to work there with Jimmy Heath and Lee Morgan and Tootie and Spanky DeBrest. I was thrilled to death.

TP:    This would have been shortly before you came to New York?

KENNY: Yes, shortly before.

TP:    I seem to recall you mentioning to me that while you were in high school, you’d play jam sessions, and catch the last bus home, and get home at 4 or 5 in the morning, and then go to school. I may be overstating the story…

KENNY: Well, not a jam session… But that is true. I would be out a little late, and my mother would be very upset!

TP:    I’m sure there are exceptions, but young musicians don’t have these kinds of experiences these days.  Again, not to get you embroiled into an “our generation had these things,” but do you see it as a different quality by which the information is processed when it’s processed in such a functional situation?

KENNY: I don’t know. I guess there’s something to be said for both. There’s something to be said for going through academia, and there’s something to be said for just learning it organically, through the streets. However you learn it, it’s great. But I guess one of the things when you learn it on the street, so to speak… For me, I think it really stays with you. You get more… This is hard to explain.  There’s more spirit involved. In school, sometimes you can over-intellectualize everything, and everything becomes about scales… It becomes too intellectual.

TP:    Philadelphia may be known as the City of Brotherly Love, but I gather that doesn’t necessarily apply to the attitude of audiences when you’re not doing things as you’re supposed to.

KENNY: Oh, no.  They’d let you know. You get embarrassed a few times, and you’ll work on your stuff.

TP:    What dicta did the older musicians tell you? Would people be quick to correct you on the spot?

KENNY: Well, yes, they would. If I was interfering with what everybody else was doing, yes, they would definitely be quick to point it out to me. But if it wasn’t too bad, they would wait til after the song was over or after the set was over, and pull me aside.  But generally speaking, they were very willing to share information and to let me know: “Voice this chord this way” or “These are the right changes here.”

TP:    So when you got to New York at 18, it was that, but on an everyday basis.

KENNY: On an everyday basis.  And you might say at a higher level, too, in terms of the musicians who were here in New York.  But it was more of the same, yes.

TP:    I apologize for bringing you back 43 years on the third question. So let’s step up to the present. Kenny Barron is performing at the Village Vanguard next week with his sextet. You’re one of many musicians of different generations who express themselves through different configurations. I think you have two-three forms of sextet; there’s one that’s sort of straight-ahead hardbop, another uses strings and flutes, a Brazilian-tinged group, there’s trios, duos, the quintet that you’re working with flute and vibes… Did this also happen organically?  How did it come about that you use so many modes of expression?

KENNY: I like different things.  That’s basically it. With the Brazilian project, for instance, I used to go to this place called the Coffee Shop. [Union Square & 16th]. That’s where I first met Duduka DaFonseca, Nilson Matta and Romero Lubambo. I just happened to be passing by, heard the music, went in, introduced myself, and we talked. Then I wound up going there every Saturday just to listen to them. Eventually, I said, “Wow, I sure would like to play with these guys,” and we figured out a way to make that happen. They were there for 12 years.

TP:    Were they doing a brunch gig?

KENNY: Yes, every Saturday afternoon.

TP:    But your exposure to Bossa Nova goes back to the American involvement in the idiom with Dizzy, who picked up on it fairly quickly.

KENNY: That’s true. Actually, the group that started me really listening to Brazilian music was Sergio Mendez, Brazil ‘65. I still have that vinyl record that I bought in 1965.
TP:    I’ll assume the group this week, to use the term in a totally generic way, a more straightahead, hardbop oriented thing.

KENNY: Yes, it is more straight-ahead.

TP:    The three horns…if you were around in 1990, you’d call them young lions, but now all are established tonal personalities on their instruments. David Sanchez has been on a few of your records.

KENNY: Yes. David actually was a student of mine at Rutgers. That’s when we met. I was there when he auditioned, and I remember how nervous he was. I don’t think he graduated. He left because he actually started working. I ran into him a couple of years later at the Village Gate. They used to do Monday nights where they’d invite a jazz artist with a Latin band, and I was playing with Eddie Palmieri, and happened to turn around, and David Sanchez was playing on the band.

Although he wasn’t my student, Terrell was a student at Rutgers University. Vincent I met a long time ago, and always loved his playing.

TP:    Kiyoshi Kitagawa has frequently played bass on your gigs.

KENNY: Yes, frequently. That started at times when Ray Drummond wasn’t available, and then Ben Riley actually told me about Kiyoshi. I love the way he plays.

TP:    You and Ben Riley go back a couple of minutes, too.

[MUSIC: “Um Beiju”; “Things Unseen”]

TP:    This was Kenny’s core quintet for about a decade. Eddie Henderson and John Stubblefield, KB, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis, and Minu Cinelu… Perusing the recordings here, you’re the composer of all but two tunes on Spirit Song – 8 or 10. You’re the composer of all the tunes on Things Unseen from ‘95. On Images, the latest release, you composed 6 of the tunes. And your compositions comprise the preponderance of the material on many of your records. You’ve been composing for a long time, and some of your songs and little melodic hooks are part of the vocabulary now. You hear musicians quoting “What If,” for example. However—and I could be wrong about this—people don’t necessarily think of you first and foremost as a composer of the scope and breadth that you demonstrably are.

KENNY: Well, it’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a composer. I write tunes. It’s a work in progress. I’m still working on trying to find things to write. I’d like to try to write something for a larger group.

TP:    Aren’t you being unnecesarily modest here? Do you mean that you don’t through-write? What to you is the difference between a tunesmith and a composer?

KENNY: Maybe what I mean is, the stuff I write isn’t terribly complicated. For a lot of people, it’s not a composition unless it’s difficult.  The stuff I write is really very simple. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

TP:    Do you write for personnel?

KENNY: Generally, if I’m writing for a particular project, then I’m writing for the people in the band who I’m going to be playing with. Not necessarily for the instrumentation, but for those particular people. I kind of know what they sound like, and I think I know what they’re capable of.

TP:    Since the ‘70s, when you first recorded for Muse, your tunes incorporate a lot of exotic scales, a lot of world rhythms—Brazilian, Latin and African rhythms. You have a rather broad template, which you’ve used for at least thirty years, and perhaps even going back to your days with Dizzy.

KENNY: I enjoy listening to all kinds of music. I enjoy trying to incorporate various aspects of different cultures into the music, as much as I’m able to.

TP:    Are you trying to find new material to improvise on?  Is the goal always to find something to take off from?

KENNY: As a jazz artist, I think ultimately it’s about improvising and having a vehicle for that.  But at the same time, I would also like to get more involved in through-composing, really writing a piece all the way through. I think it would be interesting to do.

TP:    Who are your models as a composer?  Among your contemporaries are some of the major people, and you worked with Dizzy Gillespie who codified bebop composition.

KENNY: Among my contemporaries, I love Wayne Shorter’s writing. Of course, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. That goes without saying. Some of those pieces they wrote, like Blood Count, Lush Life, they’re really incredible. Bud Powell, things like Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit.

TP:    For example, this week with the sextet… You occasionally recycle or reconfigure compositions, but not too often. Usually a Kenny Barron record presents a bunch of new pieces. Are there new things in the book for the sextet next week?

KENNY: Most of the things we’ve done before. I think we’re going to try two or three new things next week?

TP:    Are you a deadline-oriented composer, or is it a matter of when the spirit moves you?

KENNY: If you give me too much time, I won’t do it! If I have three months to write something, I’ll wait until the day before…or a week before. It’s really just a question of developing a certain kind of discipline, which I have yet to do; to just sit down and… I remember sitting down with the pianist Hassan in Philadelphia, who I’d known since I was a little kid, and he told me that he wrote a tune a day.  That’s 365 songs.

TP:    You must have at least 100 copyrighted.

KENNY: Maybe a few more than that.

TP:    You haven’t exactly been a slouch… Having spoken of composition, we’ll hear some blowing by Kenny on the piano, of which there are ample recorded documents.  This trio worked frequently at the time; you could hear them every 3 or 4 months at Bradley’s. Am I exaggerating?

KENNY: No, you’re not. We were there a lot.

TP:    It’s a one-hour recital of ten tunes, and it reflects the flavor of what your sets would be like. There are tuneful originals with nice rhythmic feels, there’s a couple of Monk, a couple of great standard songbook things, some soul tunes…

[MUSIC: Sweet Lorraine, Alter Ego]

TP:    Lemuria would have done when the trio did a no-repeat week; a week at Bradley’s without playing the same tune twice. That would be 18 sets. I think it happened around ‘91… Playing this music from Bradley’s: You worked there a lot with this trio. It was a real locus for New York’s piano community for about twenty years.

KENNY: I think the first time I worked there, they had a spinet piano. The first time I went there, I heard Bobby Timmons, who was there quite frequently, and eventually I started working there. But I loved working there.  The ambiance, and like you said, it was a really great hang. The last set sometimes would be full of musicians coming by from their gigs. I remember one really memorable night. I think Tommy was working there, and Carmen McRae was working at the Blue Note, and she came by after her set, and I think she played almost the whole last set at Bradley’s. She sat at the piano and sang and played. Only at Bradley’s could you catch something like that.

TP:    What does it do to a musical community to have a gathering place like that? There hasn’t been anything quite like Bradley’s since 1996.

KENNY: For me, I felt very much at home there. I think most of the musicians did.  It was like home.  You’d go in there, you knew everybody… I never had to order a drink!  Because the bartender knew what I drank. He just put it right in front of me.

TP:    So even if you wanted to change for that night, you still had to drink it.

KENNY: Yeah! [LAUGHS] I miss it. I really do miss it.

TP:    A more general question. Is there a New York piano school? Obviously, we’re not talking about people born in New York, because the majority of musicians who make their living here come here from someplace else.  But that being said, it seems that the overall sound you’d hear at Bradley’s from one week to the next and from year to year kind of crystallizes a New York approach to piano.  But it’s unclear in my mind specifically what that approach might be. So do you think of it that way, or is that a bit too general?

KENNY: It’s a little hard for me to think of a New York school of piano playing. As you mentioned, everybody comes here from somewhere else, and all those forces come into play. You’ve got people who come from Detroit, like Tommy and Hank and Barry Harris and Kirk Lightsey. But oddly enough, there is a Detroit sound. Especially with Tommy and Hank and Barry and Roland Hanna, those guys had a particular sound. I think whatever happens is just an amalgamation of everything that’s happening around the country. Because everything comes here; everybody comes here.

TP:    The last time you can really talk about an indigenous New York sound might be the ‘50s, when you have people directly coming out of the stride pianists, and Bud Powell and Walter Davis and Walter Bishop. When you got here in the early ‘60s, what were most of the piano players listening to? At the time, you got here is the same time Herbie Hancock got here, it’s the same time Chick Corea got here… I mean, roughly.

KENNY: Yes, it was around the same time.

TP:    Keith Jarrett got here then. You all arrive in New York with diverse influences, but coming out of the same things that were in the air.

KENNY: I’m trying to think of what I was listening to when I came to New York, the people I would seek out to listen to. For me, it was Tommy and Hank, even though they were rarely in New York during that time. I think they were always busy working, so I never got a chance to hear them live that much then. People like Sonny Clark. I used to listen to Erroll Garner. I never really got a chance to hear Bud, unfortunately. I heard him one time, and he was really not himself. So it was kind of sad for me to see. And Monk; I got to hear Monk.

TP:    As one of the founding members of Sphere, you played Monk’s music extensively in the ‘80s, after he died. Did you get to know Monk?

KENNY: No, I didn’t really get to know him. When I saw him a few times earlier on, I was very young, and I was so much in awe, I would not have approached him at all. Plus, he was a very awe-inspiring looking figure. He was a very big man. I’m a kid. I said, “Wow.”

TP:    You didn’t know what he might say to you.

KENNY: Right.  But I certainly did listen to him.

TP:    And being with Dizzy Gillespie, I suppose that would be a first-hand channel into the attitudes and tales of the music of the generation before you.

KENNY: Oh, sure.

TP:    Is that something you were very curious about at the time? I’m asking in this context. For a lot of younger musicians who didn’t have a chance to experience those lifeblood artists first-hand, didn’t get to see Monk, didn’t get to see Bud Powell, maybe didn’t get to Dizzy—didn’t even get to play in those bands, a lot of them. So for them, the notion of being around New York in 1961, you’d think of it as a kind of golden age. Here’s Coleman Hawkins.  Here’s Monk. You can hear almost the whole history of jazz on any given night in New York in 1961 or 1962 or 1963.

KENNY: That’s true.

TP:    Was it that way to you at that time?

KENNY: Yes, it was.  It was that way to me at that time. I got to hear, thankfully, a lot of people. I got to hear Willie The Lion Smith.  I got to work opposite… I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the Vanguard, and we worked opposite Coleman Hawkins for a week. We played opposite Cecil Taylor for a week. I heard some incredible music.  And I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people.

TP:    Have you always had a very open attitude to music? Looking at your discography in recent years, on the Bradley’s record you play “Everybody Loves My Baby But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” a ‘20s Tin Pan Alley thing, which you play in the stride manner but in your own style.  Then with Minu Cinelu on the track we’re about to hear, you’re prerecording fragments of material, recording electric keyboard bass, using the latest technology. On another track, you explore intervals that you might associate with Cecil Taylor or Hassan. There’ s a lovely arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations.” Really, your music and musical persona seems to encompass very comfortably the whole timeline of the music in a rather organic way.

KENNY: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I love and appreciate a lot of different kinds of music. In terms of being open, I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always listened to all kinds of stuff. I’ve always wanted to play as much as I could, all different kinds of music.

TP:    We have a set of duos by Kenny Barron with different people. First is “Mystere” with Mino Cinelu. A few words on how this recording was set up.

KENNY: We did a lot of stuff that you’d call preproduction, setting up certain things—in his living room actually.  He’s a whiz at the computer, so he’d add different things with the computer. I know nothing about that stuff, other than how to get my email. He did all of that.  Then in the studio, I opened up the acoustic piano on most of it. On my solos, he added other things electronically and altered the sound on certain things with the computer. So when I heard it back, it was totally different.  On quite a few tracks he altered the sound or added things to it. But on the track you’re about to play, we did some of the stuff in his living room, we came in and I overdubbed the piano solo, and I also played keyboard bass.

[KB-Cinelu, “Mystere”; KB-Regina Carter, Fragile; KB-Roy Haynes, “Madman”]

TP:    A set of duos concluded with a few signifying drumstrokes by Roy Haynes, concluding a piece called Madman, from Wanton Spirit. Was that your tune?

KENNY: It is a tune, actually. I’ve never done it live and never recorded it since then. But I think I will start doing it.

TP:    You played Sting’s “Fragile” in duo with Regina Carter.

KENNY: My wife was working at the time, and I went to pick her up, but she wasn’t quite ready, so I went to a bar next door in Soho. I was having a drink, and they were playing Sting singing this particular song. I thought it was so beautiful! So I asked the bartender who it was. I had no idea who Sting was. So I went out and bought the record, and to my surprise, I liked the entire record, but that particular piece, I really fell in love with.

TP:    In 1996, not too many people were working with computers to create the sounds you got on Swamp Sally. And we’ve heard a very diverse selection of music, many colors and scales and cultural reference. But almost all have been done for the same label and the same two producers—earlier for Jean-Philippe Allard, and more recently Daniel Richard, who produces you for French Universal, no longer issued in the States by Verve, but currently by Sunnyside. It seems to me that there might be some connection between having a steady, familiar relationship with a receptive producer and the venturesomeness of your output.

KENNY: Fortunately, they are two producers who I really appreciate. They’ve allowed me the maximum amount of freedom in terms of what I wanted to do. “Go ahead!” Interestingly enough, the CD with Roy Haynes and Charlie  Haden, Wanton Spirit, was actually a suggestion of Jean-Philipppe Allard. Because I never would have thought of it. He said, “What do you think about recording with Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes?” I said, “Wow, that could be… Yeah.” So that’s how that one came about.

TP:    Charlie Haden has a similar relationship with him, as does Randy Weston and Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones and others. The ‘90s was a prolific, fertile for all of them in terms of albums. But a lot of musicians in your position, after more than forty years in the music business, an established bandleader for at least thirty of those years, and with a pedigree that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Stan Getz during the ‘80s… For all of that, you seem very willing to make music with almost anything good that comes your way. It’s a very egoless type of… Of course, you have your ego. And I don’t want to throw around paeans to you here.  But there’s a sort of openness to new experience that seems to inform what you do.

KENNY: Oh, I do like to try new things, yes. They may not be NEW new, but they’ll be new for me. So in that sense there’s certainly a sense of adventure about it for me.

TP:    What underlies that?  Is it as simple as just trying to keep yourself fresh so as not to repeat?

KENNY: No, I think it really is curiosity. I’m not really concerned about becoming stale or anything like that. Now, I should be! But it’s really curiosity. I get inspired by a lot of different things. I’ll go out and hear one of the cats or one of the young women playing today, and I’ll get inspired. I’ll say, ”Wow, that was incredible.” So inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and it inspires you to try a lot of different things on your own.

TP:    Having seen you on nights-off or after a set going out to hear people, I know for a fact that you do check out a lot of music. In your quintet, everyone is under 35, and most of them are under 30.

KENNY: The two young ladies, Kim and Anne, are 23. Stefon Harris is just 30. Kiyoshi is older than you’d think. I was surprised when I found out how old he was.  But still, he’s younger than me.

TP:    What is the benefit to playing with so many people? Because your sound is very identifiable always within whatever context you’re in. I’m not really going to give you to someone on a Blindfold Test, let’s say.

KENNY: Well, what I get playing with all these different people is that they make me play differently. Playing with some straight-ahead, which I love to do, that makes me play one way. Playing with a good singer makes you play another way. Playing with young people who are really energetic, that energizes me. Playing with someone whose music is a little more esoteric puts me in another thing. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether it be as a leader or as a sideperson. Sounding good is more of my concern.

TP:    So if the group sounds good, you’re sounding good.

KENNY: Essentially, yes. That’s very true.

TP:    Is that innate? Did you learn it from someone?  A little bit of both?

KENNY: Maybe a little bit of both.  It’s a team effort.

TP:    Stepping back forty years ago, you were part of Dizzy Gillespie’s group, from 18 to 22. What’s the most important lesson you learned from that, apart from learning all those great tunes from the inside-out and hearing him every night, and the stage presentation and so on.

KENNY:   Well, those are among the things. I can’t say there’s any one thing that was more important than any other.  But it’s how to save yourself, by which I mean that you don’t give up everything all at once every night. You save some stuff.  Keep some stuff in reserve. One of the things I learned is not to play everything you know. That’s it. You don’t play everything you know all the time.

TP:    Why not?

KENNY: What for?

TP:    You played a lot with Ron Carter in the ‘70s. The group was popular, lots of recordings and bookings.

KENNY: That was a really great band, with two bass players; Ron played piccolo bass and Buster Williams the full-sized bass. Ben Riley was on drums. Ron is a really good bandleader, because he knows what he wants, and he knows how to TELL you what he wants and how to get it. One thing I learned from playing with Ron is dynamics, how to use dynamics. He’s very used to not playing at one level all the time—hills and valleys in music.

TP:    How about Stan Getz? Since he passed, some amazing recordings have come out of your collaboration.

KENNY: I guess the thing Stan and I had in common was a love for lyricism. I think we fed each other in that way.  I certainly learned a lot from hearing him. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.

TP:    Is there anyone during the time we could call your apprenticeship, which was a long one… You played steadily as a sideman for thirty years, though for a chunk of that time you were a leader. Is there anyone you wish you could have played with that you didn’t get to?

KENNY: Yes, a few people. Pre electronic days, I always wanted to play with Miles.  And Sonny Rollins is someone I always wanted to play with.

TP:    With Sonny, that could still happen.

KENNY: One never knows!

TP:    After you leave here, you have a rehearsal for next week. So will this be the first rehearsal for this band for this program?

KENNY: Yes.  And unfortunately, I don’t think everybody is going to be there.  People are still out of town. So we’ll muddle through.

TP:    You mentioned that you have three new pieces. Are you a stickler for rehearsal? Your bands always have a sound of elegance and casualness that makes me think that you might be working them really hard.

KENNY: No. I rehearse because it’s necessary.  But I don’t LIKE to rehearse.

TP:    The trios with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, I’ll bet you didn’t rehearse.

KENNY: Oh, no, we rarely rehearsed.  And many of the arrangements are really just head arrangements. They evolved over the course of playing them over a period of time.

TP:    You said that your music is very simple, but it’s very distinct. What do you think is the hardest aspect of playing your compositions correctly?  Is it the phrasing?  Is there a certain attitude?

KENNY: I don’t know. Again, I don’t think it’s difficult, but if there’s anything, it’s playing with the right attitude. I certainly don’t think the music is terribly difficult. If it’s anything, I think it’s playing with the right attitude and the right feeling.

TP:    Another one of your tunes that’s gotten some broader play is New York Attitude. So maybe it’s the New York attitude. Not everyone has it.

KENNY: Could be.

* * *

Kenny Barron Musician Show (WKCR, 2-13-91);

[MUSIC: K. Barron, “New York Attitude”]
Q:    [ETC.] Kenny is from Philadelphia.  I think that’s probably the first thing anybody should know.
KB:  Right.  From North Philadelphia.
Q:    Neighborhoods are pretty important in Philly.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, there’s North Philly, South Philly, West Philly.  They’re all different, too.
Q:    You’re from quite a musical family as well.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, Bill was the oldest.  There were five of us altogether.  Bill and myself are the only ones who became professional musicians, but everyone else played the piano, two sisters and another brother.  They all played the piano.
Q:    There was one in the house?
KB:  Yes.  There was always a piano there.  My mother played also, so she was kind of the one who inspired everybody to do that.
Q:    What kind of music was played in the house?
KB:  It was usually Jazz, Rhythm-and-Blues — primarily.  And Gospel Music on Sunday.
Q:    What were your folks into?  The big bands?
KB:  It was strange, because my folks…my parents didn’t really listen to the radio, or they didn’t seem to listen to music that often, other than my mother, who as I said, listened to Gospel Music on Sunday.  But my brothers and sisters listened to lots of different kinds of music.  At the time, they had some really great radio shows, Jazz radio shows in Philly.  As I got a little older, by junior high school I was also listening to, like, Doo-Wop groups and things like that.  So I listened to all kinds of music.
Q:    You were also studying European Classical Music.
KB:  Yes, I was studying Classical piano.  I did that from the age of 6 until I was 16.
Q:    Now, what was your first exposure to the world of Jazz in Philadelphia?  Did you sneak out when you were younger and go hear groups in the neighborhood, or was it through your brother?
KB:  Actually it was through my brother.  He had a fantastic collection of old 78’s, Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro, Dizzy, people like that.  So I used to hear those things all the time.  I can remember being very affected by one tune in particular; I’m talking about when I was maybe ten years old.  That was a piece called “Sippin’ At Bells.”  I always tried to find that piece and that record, and I couldn’t remember the record label.  Somehow or other, it really got to me.
Q:    Bud Powell was on that, yes?
KB:  I believe so.
Q:    Of course, I’m sure your brother must have been practicing around the house.
KB:  Oh yeah.
Q:    It must have always been there.
KB:  Yes, there was always music.  His friends would come by.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the pianist Hassan from Philly.  Well, he and Bill were very close, so he used to come by the house quite often, and they would spend hours playing and just talking together about music.  So I would be there listening and checking them out.
Q:    Do you have any particular reminiscences about Hassan? He didn’t have a lot of visibility outside of Philadelphia, and recorded only once, albeit with Max Roach.
KB:  One record, right.  That’s right.  He was unique as a pianist.  Eccentric.   He just had a very unique style.  Kind of Monkish.  Of course, at that time, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew nothing about Monk.  But he had, like I said, a very unique style.  Later on, I found out that one of his biggest influences was Elmo Hope, and not Thelonious Monk.
Q:    One of the compositions on that record, actually is dedicated to Elmo Hope, too.
KB:  That’s right.  Actually, I plagiarized a bass line from one of his compositions from The Incredible Hassan on one of my records.  I see you’re taken aback!  It’s funny, because only a few people knew it, and they were all people from Philadelphia!
Q:    I’ll bet.  Who were some of the other people on the Philadelphia scene who were important in the 1950’s, and particularly when you were beginning to emerge and find your way?
KB:  Well, there were people… There was a saxophonist, for instance, named Jimmy Oliver, who was very influential on the Philadelphia scene at the time.  Jimmy Heath.  I had a chance to work with Jimmy while I was still in high school.  Oh, and just the guys that I came up with; there are people who probably aren’t that well known outside of Philadelphia.  A bass player named Arthur Harper…
Q:    He played with J.J. Johnson…
KB:  Exactly.
Q:    I think he’s playing with Shirley Scott now.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.   He is playing in Philadelphia.  He moved back to Philadelphia, and he’s working there.  But he was one of the guys that I came up with who had a very big influence on me.  He was a fantastic bassist.  We used to play together a lot, and talk about music.
Sonny Fortune, we came up together.  So a lot of people were around during that time.
Q:    I guess you were a little young to remember Jimmy Heath’s big band…
KB:  Yes, that was a little before my time.  But I often heard of it, because Bill played in that big band, and I often heard him talk about it.  And there were some great people in it.  I think John Coltrane…
Q:    And Benny Golson…
KB:  Benny Golson, right.
Q:    [ETC.] Now, you’re on record as saying that the first record that really grabbed you was a Miles Davis session from 1956 with Sonny Rollins and Tommy Flanagan and…
KB:  Yeah.  Max. [sic: Art Taylor]
Q:    …you were really into Miles Davis at that time.  So we have a set of Miles from that period lined up for you…
KB:  [LAUGHS]
Q:    …by the miracle of radio.  Was this one of your brother’s records, or did you hear it on the radio?
KB:  No, actually what happened, I was in junior high school, and we had an art class, and the teacher used to encourage the students to bring in music to paint by, so to speak.  So a friend of mine, a drummer, who is now an English teacher actually, he brought in this record, Collectors Items.  The tune that they were playing that got me was ” In Your Own Sweet Way.”  I stopped painting, I was listening, and I was “Who is this?  Who is that?”  Because it was just so clear, so crystal clear, and the touch was so light,  delicate.  And I just fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there.
Q:    Well, we’re going to hear that in this set.  But we’re going to start with “All Of You” performed by the Miles Davis Quintet, with two other Philly legends, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the famous recording, Round About Midnight.
[MUSIC: Miles, “All of You,” “In Your Own Sweet Way.”]
KB:  When that record came out, it had such an impact on the Jazz scene that I was coming up with… One of the things that we could do, for instance… I mean, I knew everybody’s solo on every tune.
Q:    From the Round About Midnight record.
KB:  Yes, from that record.  I mean, I could do that as you were playing it then!  I mean, that didn’t make me unique, because everybody did that then.  I mean, that was one of the ways in which you learned about improvising, was just through trying to imitate and learn solos, and find out how they did it, what they did.  It was a great… It’s still a great learning tool, just to listen.
Q:    At about the age of 14 and 15, who were the people you were following?  Obviously Red Garland.
KB:  Yeah, Red Garland.  I also was listening to Horace Silver.  I think I may have been a little younger than that when he came out with Six Pieces of Silver.   For some reason, I remember at that particular time we didn’t have a record player in the house.  There was a luncheonette about five or six blocks from the house, and they had on their jukebox “Señor Blues” and “Enchantment.”  And I went up to this luncheonette every day to play that, play those two songs.  Then when I found out that the drummer, Louis Hayes, was 18, I mean, that really gave me a lot of inspiration.
Q:    There’s hope for me yet.
KB:  Yes. [LAUGHS]
Q:    You were also listening to Ahmad Jamal at this time.
KB:  Right.  The Live At the Pershing album came out at this time.  Well, maybe a little bit later.  But that was also very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was “Music, Music, Music.”  And again, it was “Who is that?”  It was just so hip.
Q:    Just encapsulate your impressions of Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver, their contributions in retrospect, now that  you can look back at it.  They’re still doing it, actually.
KB:  Well, that’s right.  Still!  I heard Ahmad a couple of summers ago, and he’s still unbelievable.   Actually, I appreciate him even more now, now that I really know what he’s doing; not really know, but now that I kind of understand what he’s doing.
I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique.  His touch… So he has it all happening for him.
Horace was also a very big influence on my playing.  He’s completely different from Ahmad.  Horace is a much more percussive player, and you know, a little more out of the  Bebop thing, but a great pianist and an unbelievable composer.  So just about every Horace Silver record that came out, I would go and buy it, or find somebody who had it so I could listen to it.   Because I was as fascinated by his compositions as I was by his playing.
Q:    As are many musicians still.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    I think he’s one of the most popular fake-book…
KB:  Yeah, that’s true.
Q:    Were you engaged in teenage combos at this time?  Were you working at all?
KB:  Not working as such.  But yeah, I did.  I had a little trio.  We used to perform in school functions and things like that.  It was fun, and it was, again, a great learning device.  While I was in high school I met Arthur Harper.  We  happened to be… I was studying bass at the time, and we happened to be studying with the same teacher.
Q:    Who was?
KB:  I don’t even remember his name.  He was a Classical teacher.  Mr. Eaney(?).  That was his name.  Wow.  He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And I had my lesson at 10 o’clock, and Harper had his lesson at 11, so I would see him, you know, when… I never knew how good a bass player he was, and I guess he never knew that I played piano.  Until one day I happened to go to a jam session in West Philly.  I was playing bass, you know.  So one of the guys, we later became great friends (his name was Jimmy Vass, an alto player) but I had just met him this particular day.  He called “Cherokee.”  And obviously, I couldn’t make it!  [LAUGHS]
Q:    It wouldn’t seem obvious to us now.
KB:  I’m talking about on the bass, now.  I was playing bass.  Then I spotted Arthur Harper!  And I had a pleading look in my eyes.  He came up and rescued me, and I sat down and listened to him, and all I could say was “Wow!”  I mean, he was such a good bass player.  His time… He was incredible.
[MUSIC:  A. Jamal, “Music, Music, Music,” “No Greater Love,” H. Silver, “Señor Blues”]
Q:    Did you discover Bud Powell around the time you first heard Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver?
KB:  Actually I discovered Bud later.
Q:    Later.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    Monk, too.
KB:  Monk, too — later.  I guess I was so taken with Ahmad and also with Tommy Flanagan that I kind of neglected to go to the source, so to speak, which was Bud Powell.  It’s hard not to come through him for almost any pianist.  It’s very difficult for any pianist who is playing today not to have come through him, to have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly, one way or another.
[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Glass Enclosure (1953),” “Hallucinations” (1950]
Q:    We’ll move now to music emanating from Philadelphia in the late 1950’s that Kenny was involved with in one way or another as a young musician.
KB:  Well, I met Jimmy Heath: I was still in high school when I met him.  He had done this first album for Riverside [The Thumper and Really Big], for kind of a small big band, and he organized a group in Philadelphia, kind of scaled it down.  So I had a chance to play with him, and play a lot of the music from that album — and it was really a lot of fun.  A couple of times he even used the big band.
Q:    I take it he heard about you through your brother.
KB:  Through Bill, right.  And also through another saxophonist in town by the name of Sam Reed, who I think had mentioned me to Jimmy.  He was very helpful, in terms of my career, even though he may not know it.  I remember one time Yusef Lateef came to Philly, had a matinee at the Showboat, Monday, 4 o’clock, and his pianist missed the flight.  So Jimmy gave him my number, and he called me, and I went and played the matinee — and that was it.  He paid me.  Then about three months later, just after I graduated from high school, I got a call from him to come to Detroit and work ten days in a place in Detroit called the Minor Key.  It was a great experience.  First time on an airplane, first time on the road.  It was a great experience.
Q:    And Detroit was quite a scene at that time.
KB:  Yes, it was.  Yes, it was.
Q:    Did you meet most of the people then residing in Detroit?
KB:  I met some, yeah.  I met some people.  The drummer was from Philadelphia, though: his name was Ronald Tucker.  The bassist was from Detroit, I think he lives here now, or he may be back in Detroit now: he was Ray McKinney, who comes from a very musical family.  That was a great ten days.  And the music that Yusef was doing at the time was really unusual.  So it was my first time experiencing that.
Q:    Of course he later became a big part of your career, some fifteen years later, which we’ll be hearing later on in the course of the Musicians Show.  The other material we’ll hear on this set is a Philly Joe Jones date from 1960 called Philly Joe’s Beat, which is your brother’s debut on record, more or less, a wonderful recording.
KB:  Yeah, it is.  It is.
Q:    It features a lot of the Miles Davis arrangements, and other things, done Philly Joe style.  Now, did you know Philly Joe Jones at this time, or was he too much out of town…?
KB:  Well, he wasn’t in Philadelphia that often except to work.  But again, I got a chance to work with him when he came through Philadelphia.  It was the same sort of situation.  He came through Philadelphia, and his pianist wasn’t able to make it.  So I got a chance to do I think four nights with him, along with Arthur Harper, my brother Bill was there, and trumpet player Michael Downs.  We did four nights at the Showboat in Philly.  Again, it was pretty much the same music that’s on this album, Philly Joe’s Beat.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Heath 10, “Big P” (1960); Philly Joe, “Salt Peanuts” (1960); J. Heath 10, “Nails” (1960)]
Q:    Kenny participated in all of this music in one way or another around the time that the material was recorded.
KB:  That’s true.  That’s very true.  I had a chance, again, to work with Philly Joe, where we played pretty much the same music, and I had a chance to work with Jimmy Heath during that time, and played a lot of the music that was on that Really Big album.
Q:    I’d say we’ve thoroughly covered the Philadelphia period.  Now we’re in 1962, and you’ve been to Detroit with Yusef Lateef for ten days, and done some other things.  But now you join Dizzy Gillespie, and that lasts four years and really brings your name out into the wider world of Jazz.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    How did Dizzy find out about you?
KB:  Again through a recommendation.  When I first moved to New York, I…
Q:    When was that?  When did you make the move?
KB:    I moved to New York in 1961.
Q:    Right out of high school?
KB:  Well, I graduated in ’60.  So I spent about a year around Philadelphia, and then I moved over here.
Q:    What induced you to come up?
KB:  Well, just the same thing that induces everybody.  Just to be around all these musicians and to be around all this music — and to learn, you know.
But anyway, when I first moved here, I moved next door to my brother on East Sixth Street, so I used to walk to the Five Spot a lot.  James Moody happened to be working there, and I sat in — and he hired me!  We did some gigs in Brooklyn, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, and again at the Five Spot.
Anyway, about a year later, I ran into Moody on Broadway.  Moody had gone with Dizzy, and I ran into him on Broadway.  He said they were appearing at Birdland, and he said, “You know, Lalo Schifrin is leaving Dizzy; would you be interested?”  And I had just gotten married, and I needed a gig! [LAUGHS] You know?  Plus, I mean, that’s such an honor.  So I said of course I’d be interested.  So he said, “Well, come by Birdland.”  And I went by Birdland, and just talked to Dizzy.  You know, Dizzy had never heard me play, and he hired me.
Q:    Without hearing you play.
KB:  Without hearing me play.  Just on Moody’s recommendation.
Q:    Well, they have some history together.
KB:  Yes, they do! [LAUGHS]
Q:    Did you just go in cold?  You must have had a rehearsal or two.
KB:  No, actually we didn’t.  Right after Birdland, the first gig was in Cincinnati — and there was no time for rehearsal.  So I remember after checking into the hotel and going to the gig in a cab, Dizzy was running down these things to me, talking certain tunes down.  Then Chris White, who was the bassist at the time, and Rudy Collins, the drummer, they were also very helpful in pulling my coat to what was happening with each tune and… The gig wasn’t a whole week, I don’t think, maybe just a few days.  So we managed to get through it.  And by that time I felt a lot more comfortable, after playing it a few times.  So it worked out. [LAUGHS]
Q:    Apparently it did, because you did four years with Dizzy Gillespie.
KB:  Right.
Q:    A few words about Dizzy, and evaluating the experience.
KB:  Well, I mean, what can you say?  I think Dizzy’s a national treasure.  I mean, as a musician, as a human being, and his sense of humor — I mean, that’s real; that’s not just on stage.  I mean, that’s real.  He’s just a great human being, a great musician.  And I learned a lot musically, just being around him, how to save yourself… You know, one thing you do when you’re young is, you play everything; you try to play everything you know.  But that’s one of the things, listening to Dizzy, that you learn; you don’t have to do that all the time.  Save yourself for those difficult moments when you really have to do that.  And you don’t have to play everything you know at every moment.
Q:    Dynamics.
KB:  Exactly.  I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned from him.
Q:    You made several records with Dizzy, but we’re going to go back to a recording by the great big band of the 1940’s, and listen to a version of “Manteca”.
KB:  Well, this is actually one of the first things I heard.  I can remember hearing this on the radio, this big-band version of “Manteca.”  And again, I was…whoo, I loved it.  And I’ve never really liked big bands that much, but there were a couple of things that really got me, and this was one of them.
[MUSIC: Dizzy Big Band “Manteca” (1948); Monk (solo) “Blue Monk,” “Ruby My Dear” (1971); Dizzy Big Band, “Round About Midnight” (1948)]
Q:    Dizzy Gillespie and Monk are two musicians Kenny has been associated with, although in very different ways.  The public associates you very much with Monk, I imagine, through your work with Sphere, and also from recording a lot of Monk’s tunes on your albums.  But you didn’t really get into Monk, you said, until rather late.
KB:  Yes, not until much later.  Towards the end of high school I really started listening a lot to Monk, and really began to appreciate his writing and his playing.  They are almost inseparable; they are so similar.  I mean, it’s very hard to imitate him, he’s such a strong stylist and so unique.
Q:    So what do you do?
KB:  Well, you play yourself playing Monk.  That’s the best you can do.  I mean, you can do it tongue-in-cheek…
Q:    I never got that impression from you, though, that you were ever doing Monk tongue-in-cheek.
KB:  Well, there are certain things you can allude to, you know, about his playing.  The humor in his playing, the use of dissonance, his touch, the percussive touch that he had.  So you can allude to those things just for flavor, but I don’t think that it would make sense to really imitate Monk.
Q:    Well, he really developed his own fingerings and his own personal language.
KB:  Yes, as you say, his technique was very personal.  I got to see him live only a few times, and just to watch him would amaze me, looking at his fingering, how he would execute. I mean, I’d think, “Is he actually going to pull this off?”  Of course, he always would.
Q:    Walking the tightrope.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  It was just so unorthodox.  But I think his approach and the way he did things is part of the uniqueness of his music, what makes it all sound so special.
Q:    I guess “Round Midnight” was in Dizzy’s book when you were performing with him, because I know you recorded that with him on one of the Mercury albums.
KB:  Yes, it was.
Q:    [ETC.] Now we’ll take an interlude, and listen to some musical offerings by our host this evening, Kenny Barron, in quintet and trio format… [ETC.]  I wonder if you’d elaborate on your speculative title “What If?.”
KB:    Well, it’s like always looking ahead and trying to find problems, when there aren’t any.  “What if this  happens, and what if that happens?” rather than just go with what is happening.
[MUSIC: KB Quintet, “What If?”, KB Trio, “The Courtship”]
Q:    Now we’ll get back to influences, and we’ll hear something by McCoy Tyner, who had a major impact on you.
KB:  Yes, he has.  Well, on almost all players younger than him.  I met McCoy when he was still living in Philly, and his playing was quite different then.  After he joined Trane, it just really changed, and just grew and grew and grew, so that he became a major influence himself.  But his playing when he was still in Philly was a little more beboppish, a little more bebop influenced.
Q:    He’s not really that much older than you.  There’s about a five years difference.
KB:  Yeah, something like that, five or six years.
Q:    Which means a lot then, but…
KB:  Well, at that time, at that time, at that stage, yeah, it can mean a lot.
Q:    Who was he working with in Philly?
KB:  Well, he used to work with people like Odean Pope, and also he used to work with, like, Lee Morgan and people like that.  Whenever someone would come in from New York… I remember one time Kenny Dorham came in, Kenny Dorham and Jimmy Heath, and the rhythm section was McCoy and Lex Humphries, and I can’t remember who the bassist was…it might have been Jimmy Garrison, I’m not sure.  This was at a little small club that didn’t last too long in Philadelphia, so whenever someone came through Philly, McCoy would always be the pianist.
Q:    Those are some high standards on the Philadelphia scene that you had to come up under.
KB:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.
Q:    You couldn’t be messing around in Philadelphia.
KB:  No.  And there were some other good pianists there that no one ever heard of, who still live there.
Q:    Well, now they’ll hear of them.
KB:  There was a guy there named John Ellis, another pianist named Omar Duncan.  Hen Gates, who some musicians may know, is from Philadelphia.  Some others…the names escape me right now.  But there are a lot of good musicians.
[MUSIC: McCoy, “Inception” (1962)-DEFECTIVE]
Q:    Coming up will be music by Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef, and in each instance we’ll hear one of Kenny Barron’s compositions.  You joined Freddie Hubbard immediately after leaving Diz, or…?
KB:  No, it wasn’t immediately after, but maybe a year after I left Dizzy.  Freddie lived in the same neighborhood… Actually, at the time he lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn, and I started working with him.  It was a great experience, because it was totally different from working with Dizzy.  Things were very, very structured with Dizzy, but with Freddie it was a lot looser, and I was able to take a lot more chances, to be a little more adventurous.  It’s all part of the growing experience.
Q:    Which was very much in keeping with the times as well.
KB:  Exactly.  Exactly, because it was during the Sixties.  I went through several different bands with Freddie.  One was a sextet, with James Spaulding and Bennie Maupin, the late Frederick Waits, and a bassist who is now back in California, Herbie Lewis.  That was a really good band.  It was the kind of band that could shift gears.  It could play inside, outside.  Then we had another band called The Jazz Communicators, which never recorded, which was with Joe Henderson, Freddie, Louis Hayes, Herbie Lewis and myself.
Q:    Never recorded.
KB:  Never recorded.  So I’ve been through several different situations working with Freddie, and they were all great.
Q:    I can’t recollect whether you’re playing electric piano or piano on the track, but you did quite a bit of work on the electric piano over about a 10 or 12 year period.
KB:  Yeah, during that time I did quite a bit on the electric piano.
Q:    Why were people concentrating so much on the electric piano then?  Was it because clubs didn’t have pianos?  For experimentation?
KB:  No, that was primarily for recording.  I think what you have there was the very, very beginning of the fusion thing.  So a lot of record companies, when you recorded, wanted you to use electric piano to add other colors.  Because the fusion thing could go in several different directions.  It could be used kind of for more avant-garde kind of music…
Q:    Color, texture…
KB:  Yeah, texture and things like that.
Q:    Freeing things up.
KB:  Yeah.  And also it could be used percussively for more R&B kinds of things.  So a lot of companies wanted the pianists to use the electric pianos during that time.  I think one year I won a New Star Award or something from Downbeat, and I never had an electric piano.  I won the award on the electric piano, I mean; and I never owned one.  But I was using it a lot on recordings.  Not at my request, but the company’s request.
[MUSIC: Freddie, “The Black Angel” (1968); Yusef, “A Flower” (1976?)]
Q:    Now, Yusef Lateef was the first musician with whom you went out on the road, in 1960 or so, and you did five years with Yusef in the 1970’s.  How much was the group working then?
KB:  He was teaching himself at the time.  So we worked primarily during the summer.  We would either go to Europe or out West, a California tour, work our way out to California and back.  So for about four or five years that’s all we did.   And again, it was mostly during the summer, because he was teaching.  And during that time, everyone in the band also decided to go back to school, so everyone else was in school as well, studying.
Q:    That whole experience was very positive.
KB:  Yeah, he had a very positive influence.  Like I said, he influenced everyone to go back to school.  Well, he’s an amazing person.  He just has a very positive effect.  I was in one of his classes, actually, a harmony class.  I remember one of the projects, everyone had to write a large piece of music, so I wrote a string quartet.  He said, “Well, it’s nice that you wrote all this music.  How can we get to hear it?”  So everyone in the class put money together, and we hired musicians, and actually gave a concert to perform these pieces of music that we had written for our term projects.  And it really came out great.  But that’s the kind of person he was, who inspired you to do things like that.
Q:    Coming up we’ll hear the last issued record by Kenny Barron’s late brother, Bill Barron.  There’s one that’s ready for issue in the near future.  Your brother was the head of the Jazz Department at Wesleyan University at that time.
KB:  Yes..
Q:    You recorded with him on just about every record under his leadership, I think.
KB:  I believe so.  Just about every one.
Q:    You’ve mentioned, of course, your brother’s influence.  Just a few words about your older brother, Bill Barron.
KB:  Well, he was an incredible musician.  I don’t want to use the word “underrated,” but there it is, you know.  In terms of the public, I think he was.  I think musicians knew and respected his work, you know, as often I’ve heard… Especially people that he came up with.  People like Jimmy always spoke very well of Bill.   And he was a really good person, and very dedicated.  He was very dedicated to music.  I think he spent most of his waking hours involved with music one way or another, writing music, talking about music.  He was also a very good composer.  He had some unique ideas about composition, very different ideas, and it came through when he wrote.  He was just a great player and a great person.
[MUSIC: B. Barron, “This One’s For Monk” (1990)]
Q:    A few words about the quintet working at the Village Vanguard this week.
KB:  Well, I could speak volumes about them.
Q;    Then we’ll do short stories.
KB:  On trumpet is Eddie Henderson, who I think is one of the finest trumpet players around today.  He’s obviously a very intelligent person; he’s a doctor…and a funny guy, too!
I guess what I love about everyone in the band is that when it’s time to work, they really hit very hard.
John Stubblefield is, you know, from Arkansas, so he’s got a certain kind of grittiness in his sound.  At the same time, he has that certain other kind of thing that maybe Wayne Shorter…
Q;    From that AACM background, there’s another…
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  And David’s background is West Indian, but he’s been here for a very long time, and he’s worked with almost everybody.  He’s a current mainstay with Cedar Walton’s European trio, the trio that he takes to Europe quite often, sometimes with the Timeless All-Stars.  He works a lot.  He’s dependable… I’m talking about in terms of music.  I can count on him to be there, and to be imaginative, good sound, good intonation, good time.
Now, I don’t know exactly what I can say about Victor Lewis.  I mean, Victor can function in practically in any kind of circumstance.  Whatever kind of music you want to play, he can do it for you, and do it well — and enjoy doing it.
Q:    And different every time.
KB:  Yeah, different every time.  One of the things about having this band, I don’t tell them what to play; I just let them bring whatever they have, their own thing to it, and it works out better that way for me.
Q:    [ETC., THEN MUSIC]
[MUSIC: Moody/KB, “Anthropology” (1972); KB Trio, “The Only One” (1990)]
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Filed under Bradley's, Dizzy Gillespie, DownBeat, Interview, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

For Tommy Flanagan’s 83rd Birthday Anniversary, A 1994 Interview on WKCR

On the 83rd birthday anniversary of Tommy Flanagan, justly nicknamed the “Jazz Poet” in his lifetime, here’s the full transcript of an interview that I had the honor to conduct with him during a Sunday Jazz Profiles show on WKCR in November 1994.  At the time, Flanagan was in his third year leading a trio with bassist Peter Washington  and drummer Lewis Nash, one of the most creative and virtuosic groups of the ’90s; Flanagan never played anything the same way twice, often didn’t decide on set lists until the first note of the set. He was soft-spoken and witty, and is very much missed.

The text includes the selections played during the show, with dates — for further detail/info, check the Tommy Flanagan Discography Project (http://www.jazzdisco.org/tommy-flanagan/discography/)

Tommy Flanagan Profile (WKCR), 11-20-94:

[MUSIC: “Minor Perhaps” (1980); “Love You Madly” (1994); “Come Sunday” (1957); “Mainstem” (1975); “Star-Crossed Lovers/Jump For Joy” (1977); “Caravan” (1989); (w/ Hank Jones) “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (1983); “Thelonica” (solo) (1983); “Friday The Thirteenth” (1978); “Ruby My Dear” (solo) (1975); “Off Minor” (1983); “52nd Street Theme” (1975)]

TP:    I’d like to start by asking you about your beginnings in music in Detroit, which was such a fertile musical community at the time you came up.  Was there a piano in  your household?  Were you always around the piano?

TF:    Yes, I was.  There was a piano in the house, and I had an older brother, Johnson Flanagan, who I took lessons from.  He was a teacher, and he taught in a school.  The woman that he studied with first, and who I studied with also, Gladys Wade Dillard, opened a school, and he was a teacher in that school.  She just passed away last year at the age of 84 or something like that.  She was wonderful.  She was active until her death, and she taught a lot of students all over Detroit.

TP:    Did she teach privately or through the public schools?

TF:    She taught privately.  She had four children of her own, and they all studied a little bit, but they never became known.  They didn’t take it seriously like we did.

TP:    What made her a special instructor to you?

TF:    Well, she took a lot of time with me, and I guess she didn’t discourage me.  I had small hands when I was young, and a lot of people thought I wouldn’t be able to do certain things.  She never discouraged that.  She said, “Just practice, and you’ll be all right, and you’re at a growing stage anyway, so don’t worry about that.”  But she was wonderful.  She took her time with me, and gave me a nice curriculum to go by.

TP:    What sort of curriculum did she give you?

TF:    She just gave me the roots.  But she frowned on Jazz.  No, she wasn’t into Jazz.  She loved it, but she didn’t want to encourage me to go that way, because I guess she knew that there was more to playing Jazz than people give credit for.  And she knew that I had heard Art Tatum, so I guess that kind of ruins everybody.  Well, that’s Classical Music, and it’s Jazz at the same time.

TP:    Did you hear Art Tatum or other pianists on record or around the area?

TF:    I heard him on record first.  But he played in the Detroit area a lot.  He lived in Toledo, which is almost next door to Detroit.

TP:    He was in residence a number of times in Midwest cities, in Toledo, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit at various stages.

TF:    Right.  I guess he loved being in the area.  I guess his sight was a handicap for him, so he didn’t do extensive traveling.  But the man was a genius from a very young age.  He did a lot of his work in Detroit playing on radio, I guess when he was in his early twenties or maybe before.  But there are recordings of him at that time, and it seems like on Art Tatum’s first recordings he sounded just like he did at the end of his life.  He possessed that incredible, phenomenal technique and range of musicality.

TP:    Who are some of the other pianists, Jazz pianists, stylists you heard when you were young and who impressed you?

TF:    Well, first of all, it was local musicians.  We had a lot of people that could inspire you.  We had a gentleman named Willie Anderson, who was a self-taught musician, but he played with impeccable technique and taste.  He styled himself after Tatum and Nat Cole.  He had a trio kind of based on Nat Cole’s trio, with guitar and bass.  Kenny Burrell’s brother was the guitarist in that group.  He was a fine guitarist himself, Billy Burrell.

TP:    Was this in the early Forties, let’s say?

TF:    Yeah, you could say that.

TP:    You were 12, 13 years old?

TF:    Right.  When I first met Kenny, hearing Willie Anderson’s trio, we as kids had this inspiration we could hear them live, you know, hear them practice.  We had the Nat Cole recordings, and they were very close to that style.  Willie Anderson could certainly cover most of the things that Nat Cole played.  He was very original, too, even though he needed to get that inspiration of how to get through these technical things through listening to Tatum and Nat Cole.  But a beautiful musician.

Another musician who lived close by to where I lived, Earl Van Riper, is a wonderful pianist, very clean and more in the school of Teddy Wilson — clean-cut pianists.  He went on to play with Cootie Williams’ band and Cleanhead’s orchestra.  It was a good band.  He finally settled in Indianapolis.  I guess he wrote out some of the first things that Wes Montgomery did; Wes didn’t read himself, but he had someone that could write his music down and send the charts to his musicians.  When he first came to New York, he had his music, and I was fortunate enough to be on that date.  But this music being such a small circle that it is, that music came through Earl Van Riper, who I was inspired by at an early age.  He was the first kind of a professional pianist that I saw up close.

TP:    One thing that’s interesting in Jazz is how specific areas seem to engender particular styles.  In Chicago, a lot of the pianists were influenced by Earl Hines and went in that direction.  Is there anything that would characterize the pianists who came out of Detroit, some common strain that marks the way they developed musically?

TF:    I suppose from Tatum being in the area so much, a lot of the pianists were inspired…you know, the ones that could attain that, could grasp it, they were more influenced  by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.  Teddy spent a lot of time around Detroit, too.

TP:    When he first came north, before he moved to Toledo where he met Art Tatum, and then went on to Chicago.

TF:    Right.  When I got to know Teddy years later, here in New York, he used to tell me about the early days in Detroit, things I didn’t even know about.  He used to call streets, you know, that I knew as St. Antoine, he used to just say Antoine Street.  This man had been around!  But Teddy was a lot of fun to know, and he was just a master musician, as we all know.  There’s a lot of inspiration there.  Teddy inspired me a lot through records; my first meeting with him was through records.

TP:    In the biographies of you it says that your first gig was with Dexter Gordon.  How old were you when that happened?

TF:    That’s not true.  I think somebody got that mixed up.  I always think they get that mixed up with Lucky Thompson, because I played with Lucky.

TP:    Was that a teenage band?
TF:    Yes.

TP:    Describe that.  And describe the community of like-minded young musicians.  Because so many great stylists of Jazz came up out of Detroit around the same time.  Milt Jackson, Lucky Thompson, Billy Mitchell, Barry Harris, you, and the list goes on.

TF:    Yes.  Well, as a young musician, Lucky left Detroit early.  So we didn’t know him until he came back to settle in Detroit for a while.  I think he’d even been to Europe, and he did the West Coast scene with those bands out there.  When he came to Detroit, I guess I was like 17 or so.  Lucky formed a band with Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell and myself — I can’t remember all the other players.  He was a wonderful writer.  It was a seven-piece band, a septet, and he wrote some beautiful arrangements, and really got me interested in how to voice music, and got me interested in trying to arrange — although I never did get that far into it.  But he was a big inspiration, and he helped us a lot in learning how to play music on a professional level.  He certainly was in a class with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Don Byas, just a notch under them, and he certainly was cut from the same cloth.

TP:    Did you and the young musicians meet each other through school, or through hanging out, practicing and rehearsing?  Were you able to go to clubs when you were underage at all and hear music, or go in the back and hear it?

TF:    Well, a lot of us met in school, through early school, and going… All the great big bands came through Detroit on the circuit, and when they would come to town, we all would go to see them.  So we kept seeing the same people at these engagements, and it happened to turn out to be some of the guys you went to school with and from other schools, and we got to know each other.  Soon we had heard that there was a thing like jamming, jam sessions, so we used to meet in certain people’s houses, homes, in certain neighborhoods.

TP:    Whose house was a center?

TF:    It depended what side of town you were living in.  I mean, there are so many sections in Detroit.  On the West Side, Barry Harris used to have them.  In the area I was, Hugh Lawson; we used to gather there.  There was a big group of musicians who lived in that area.  We had the cream of the crop in bass players.  We had Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins right there in the neighborhood.  Not that there weren’t more, but I mean, they come to mind because they were so exceptional.  And at that time, Hugh was a young tenor player himself; he loved the tenor.  People don’t know that.  There were so many, they don’t come immediately to mind.

TF:    Right.

TP:    Did you go see all the big bands?

TF:    I saw them all.  If I was too young to go somewhere alone, my older brother would take me.

TP:    What did your brother play like?

TF:    He liked Teddy and Tatum.  He was in that school.  He had good taste, but he didn’t really develop it in… He didn’t really carry it through.  I guess he was maybe more of a teacher than a practitioner.

But as far as seeing all the big bands, he took me to see them, and I was always impressed.  I even saw Fats Waller live when I was about ten years old.  He came to the Paradise Theater, which was the main theater in Detroit, which everybody in the circuit came through.  Anybody that was anybody came to the Paradise Theater.  I saw Bird there with strings.  I saw Louis Armstrong’s big band there.  I mean, these shows were star-studded.  They’d always have a comedian, a dance act and a headliner, a big band with a powerful singer.

TP:    Would the comedian be local…?

TF:    No.

TP:    They’d be coming in on the circuit.

TF:    They’d be on the circuit.  People like Redd Foxx.  Before Redd Foxx was really a big star, he was in a team with Foxx and White, Slappy White and Redd Foxx…

TP:    Out of Chicago originally.

TF:    I guess so, or St. Louis.  There was a lot of Midwest action going on.  So all these people, the comedians and the dancers, they all knew each other and they depended on each other for support.  Oh, it was just a wonderful time.  I saw Ellington…oh, through the years.  I saw Ellington when he had two bass players; he had Oscar Pettiford and Al Lucas at one time.  I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra there, which I only saw once, but it was a wonderful orchestra.

TP:    Well, there was no television, so I guess it was very special to go see these great musicians whose records you were hearing.

TF:    Right.  I even long for it now, that it could still happen.  There’s just a few big bands left that are… Well, the names are not there any more.  But it’s just great to see that there are still a few big bands left.

TP:    Well, the time when you were beginning to organize your music is when the new trends in music were being heard, Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s records.  Were you onto that right away?

TF:    Yes, I was.

TP:    Did you get “Woody ‘n You” in 1944, or Bird’s first records?

TF:    Yeah, I had that.  I was just waiting for something new to happen.  I mean, it was in the air.  You knew something had to happen.  Then when we first heard Charlie Parker, even some of the records before he was really known in small groups, you could hear that sound in the Jay McShann band, like “Hootie Blues.”  Well, goodness, there was an alto solo in there that wasn’t like Johnny Hodges.  It was really different.  It wasn’t like something from our age or something.  We could spot someone that was a shining light to follow, which Bird was certainly, and Dizzy.

TP:    Well, when did you first hear Bud Powell?

TF:    I think I heard Bud… I wasn’t even sure it was him, but I assumed it was.  I saw Cootie Williams’ band, and the pianist played in the style that was more like what I heard coming from Charlie Parker and Dizzy.  Later on I just said, “That had to be Bud Powell” — and it was.  But that’s the first time I heard Bud, with Cootie Williams.

TP:    I know he had a big impact on the way you think about music and improvise.

TF:    He did.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

TF:    Well, like I say, he did for the piano what Bird did for the alto saxophone and what Dizzy did for trumpet.  Our spokesman for piano was Bud Powell right there.  I loved Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, but we were favoring the style of music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Bud was right there in the forefront, playing the role of the piano, the figure that you should follow.

TP:    Did you hear Monk at this time also, in the late Forties, or was that a little later?

TF:    I didn’t hear Monk.  I just heard his compositions.  I didn’t know much about him until I went to New York.  The first time I really saw Monk live was in New York.

TP:    I’m sure you were listening to Tadd Dameron’s compositions and arrangement style as well at that time.

TF:    Well, I heard him on recordings, too.  Another man out of the Midwest!  There was a lot of rich music at the time.

TP:    And tremendous creative energy that seemed to go into everything that was happening then.

TF:    Oh, fertile minds were just… It was a great time to be alive, and to be there while it was in its growing stages.

TP:    We haven’t really talked about Thad Jones in this conversation, but he’s very important to you.  You’ve just recorded a whole CD of eleven Thad Jones compositions, and his compositions mark just about every record you’ve made for the last number of years.  I thought we’d put together a set of Tommy Flanagan’s performances of Thad Jones’ music over recent years.  Before we do that, I’d like a few words about Thad Jones, your first meetings with him and his brother Elvin, and your relationship over the years.

TF:    Well, that was happening early…when I first started playing gigs around Detroit.

TP:    He was about seven years older than you.

TF:    Yes, probably seven.  Elvin’s a little older than me, too, maybe a couple of years.  Thad was really an advanced musician for his age.  The way he wrote compositions was just extraordinary, his gift for melody and ideas for orchestration.  Oh, what a trumpet player he was — and cornet player.  His talent was so apparent in writing and composing that they forget what a great trumpet player he was.  He was very individual; I mean, he had a voice that was just as distinct as any of the top trumpet players I know.  I can tell Thad immediately when I hear him, just as I can Dizzy or Roy or Clark Terry.  He’s just in the forefront of those trumpet players.

Anyway, one of my first gigs in Detroit was at the Bluebird with Thad.  It’s where I first met him.  This was like 19…late…

TP:    1949 is the date I’ve read.

TF:    Yes, I think so.

TP:    You were all of 19 years old.
TF:    Yes, I shouldn’t have been there.  Anyway, this moustache helped me out.

TP:    It got you through a lot of difficult situations!

TF:    And my receding hairline helped me, too.

TP:    Well, that’s the way to turn a disadvantage into a positive.

TF:    Anyway, I met Thad about that time.  And some of the music that we played on the collection we recorded, called Let’s, on Enja, like “Elusive” and “Zec” and “Scratch,” we were playing then.  It takes a lot of playing to play these songs the way they should be, to capture everything that’s in there, to capture all the notes!

TP:    What are the characteristics of Thad Jones’ writing that are so distinctive?

TF:    Well, it’s so rhythmic.  The melodies are kind of like Monk’s things.  They have so much syncopation in the melody.  If you play that, you’re well on your way to being able to construct your own style.  The music is so strong that it just comes through.  I mean, if you play one chorus of “Lush Life,” that’s all you actually need to play.  You don’t need to improvise on that.  It’s all in the composition.  It’s the same with Thad’s pieces, except for his more rhythmic things.  It just calls for you to play more, get into that rhythm.

[MUSIC: “Let’s” (1993); “Zec” (1956); “Like Old Times” (1986); “Elusive” (1993); “50-21” (1990)]

TP:    When we left off, Tommy was in his first residence at the Bluebird in 1949-50-51.  That was one of the main clubs in Detroit then.  Describe the ambiance in the Bluebird.   Who went through there?  How was the place configured?  Who was the house band?

TF:    Actually, it was a very small club.

TP:    Evidenced by the photograph on Beyond The Bluebird.

TF:    Yeah, there it is.  That’s the front of it, and it looked kind of like a candy store.  It was right next to a grocery store and a supermarket.

TP:    There’s a big supermarket, and on the other side of it is a collision service, an auto repair shop.

TF:    Right.  So we had our collisions inside.  There was a good kitchen in there.

TP:    What kind of food?

TF:    Soul food.

TP:    What was the specialty of the house?

TF:    Mmm… Goodness, I don’t know.  I didn’t eat there that much, because I was living at home.  Anyway, speaking of the Bluebird, there was an interesting call.  A man called and asked about Terry Pollard, and was she as good as they say she was.  I’m here to tell you that she was better than what maybe you’ve heard on records.  In fact, Terry had the gig at the Bluebird before I did.  Oddly enough, she’s a little younger than me, so I guess women can get away with it!

TP:    They mature earlier.

TF:    [LAUGHS] I’ve heard.  Yes.  But she was always a fine pianist, and advanced for her age.  She held her own.  In the last ten years or so she had a stroke that took her out of commission, it paralyzed her, both arms… She got the use of one of them back.  But the therapy was very costly, she couldn’t keep it up, so she hasn’t been back to working since then.  But she was a wonderful pianist.  The last time I heard her working with her group, she was working with Sonny Stitt, and I think once with Milt Jackson.  She played great vibes herself.  Well, she did work with Terry Gibbs for a while, and they used to do some two-vibe things together.  She held her own there on the vibes, too.  She was a masterful musician.

TP:    Was the Bluebird the place where musicians would come to play for musicians, the place where people would come to jam and so forth?

TF:    That, too.  Yes.  And a lot of people came through there after they got off their gigs.  It was kind of a forerunner of Bradley’s!  For instance, Bird would stop through the Bluebird…

TP:    He even wrote a blues in its honor, which you recorded for Timeless records.

TF:    Right.  Bird came there.  There are some bootleg recordings of Bird at the Bluebird.  Wardell was in residence there for a long time.  Miles Davis was there for about two or three months before he came here and formed that great quintet that he got together.

TP:    Is that where he met Paul Chambers?

TF:    I believe so.

TP:    So through your years at the Bluebird is really where you met the musicians with whom you made your mark on so many great recordings during the last thirty-forty years.

TF:    A lot of them, right.  I met…oh, people like Joe Gordon, Clifford Brown, Richie Powell, Harold Land on times off when they were in the city.

TP:    Where would they play when they were in Detroit?  The Baker Lounge?

TF:    It would either be Baker’s, or there was another club in River Rouge called the Rouge Lounge, where Tatum used to play — a lot of people.  I played there once with Carmen McRae, now that I think about it.  Kenny Burrell and I played there with Carmen as youngsters, before she had a group that she traveled with.

TP:    By the way, that brings up another aspect of the experience of a Jazz pianist, which is that I’m sure you were playing with many singers around the Detroit area as well, when you were 19, 20, 21 and so forth.

TF:    Well, one of my first gigs was working with a singer in Detroit, a steady gig.  I was about 19.  I shouldn’t have been on that gig either, but she used to stand really kind of close to the piano and hide me, if anybody was looking for anybody underage in there.  I was just out of high school.  But it was one of my first gigs.

TP:    Who was she?

TF:    Bobbi Casten(?).  Locally she had a big record in the area, one called “Call Me Darling.”  That’s an old tune that few people know about, “Call Me Darling,” and “God Bless The Child” was the other side — which everybody knows that.  But her big hit was the “Call Me Darling” side.  She was a deep-voiced, kind of contralto voice.  She ended up here in New York, but didn’t work any important gigs.  She ended up working some strange gigs down in the Wall Street area.  There were a couple of clubs down there in the mid-Fifties or late-Fifties.

TP:    That’s how you accumulate a repertoire, I guess, working with singers and so forth.

TF:    Yeah, it helps you.  They all have different songs they like to sing and specialize in doing.  She had hers.  All the singers do.  Of course, Ella had several…hundred.

TP:    I think you mentioned 800 on the liner notes of the recent record.

TF:    Yes, that’s when I was with her.  That was ’78 when I last worked with her.  She kept performing until just a few years ago.  I imagine her arrangement book must be near a thousand or maybe over.  And that’s not to say about the small-group arrangements.

TP:    Well, I’ve certainly noticed that if you hear several of Tommy Flanagan’s sets during a week at a club, you may never hear the same tune twice.

TF:    Yes.

TP:    Unless you’re really interested in it that week.

TF:    Right.  Then you might come there eight times in eight days, and you might hear the same program.  Which disappoints a lot of people, but I don’t look at it that way.  If I’m trying to get some material for an upcoming project, we have to live with that.

TP:    Were the older musicians very supportive of young musicians when you were coming up, when you were doing that first stint at the Bluebird, from 1949 to ’51?

TF:    Oh, yes.  Yes, they were very encouraging.  For instance, Miles would come through, coming from the West Coast, and he would relate what was happening out on the West Coast, people that I hadn’t heard.  I had never heard or seen Carl Perkins, but he described the way Carl Perkins played, like, [MILES’ VOICE] “he played like this,” like with his elbows, playing notes in the bass.  He had a very descriptive style, Miles did.  Well, it’s good to be around people like that, like him.  People have a description of him or they think that they knew him because they saw the side that he wanted to show, which was not too friendly to them.  He showed a lot of his back to people.  But he was really a loving and caring person — I found him to be.  He and Wardell Gray were very encouraging.

TP:    Say a few words about Wardell Gray.  He spent a lot of time in Detroit.

TF:    Yes, he did.  I don’t know if his brother is still alive, but he had a brother that lived there, who was a bass player, Harry Gray.  But Wardell, oh, he was a wonderful tenor player, and I guess he inspired a lot of people.  There was a style of piano playing in Detroit, and I think Wardell inspired a lot of tenor players in that area, Detroit.

TP:    Would you be a little specific about that?

TF:    Well, of course, Wardell’s style was a lot like Dexter Gordon.  When Wardell hit the scene, a lot of musicians were  patterning their style after Dexter.  Rightly so, because I guess he was like the next step between Prez and maybe Trane.  I mean, the sound and the phrasing is in Coltrane, the way I hear it.

TP:    So would you say Wardell Gray was sort of in the Prez line of descent, and let’s say Billy Mitchell and Lucky Thompson were more in the Coleman Hawkins line of descent?

TF:    Well, I think Billy is more like in that Wardell Gray… Although he’s a contemporary of Wardell, so he had his own thing.  But they had similar kind of sounds, and their styles were in the Bird school.

TP:    Well, talk about Bird coming through Detroit?  Did you have the opportunity to play behind him at all at the Bluebird?

TF:    Not at the Bluebird.  But I did play with him.  We used to do Saturdays at the Broadway Capitol theater in Detroit. It was a pretty large-sized theater, and we used to get a nice crowd.  We’d pack it in.  A well-known disk jockey named Bill Randle, who had the distinction of introducing Elvis Presley, of all people, ran these concerts.  They used to have special guests, and this particular Saturday they said, “Our surprise guest this evening is Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker.”  And we all looked at each other dumbfounded!  “What, Bird?”  This cat’s got to be kidding!  Sure enough, Bird comes out of the wings, walks by the piano, says, “Give me eight bars of Moon, G,” and I fumbled through an introduction of “How High The Moon” in G!  It was my first time to play with Bird.  He never played long choruses; he played a couple of choruses, and we stood around, like, looking to see who was going to play next.  It was Billy Mitchell’s group, he was the senior member, and of course, he had known Bird, so he played next.  And after that we felt at ease, like we had come of age.  We’d played with Bird!

He was around Detroit quite a bit, too.  He has a son that was born in Detroit, Leon.  I don’t think Leon is a musician.  But I know that Bird had a son in Detroit that looked a lot like him.  He used to come to see Bird when he was… Bird played the Neal(?) Ballroom.  That’s a ballroom where people used to really come to dance to the music.

TP:    And dance to Bebop music.

TF:    Dance to Bebop music, right.  Bird was in Detroit quite a bit with small groups, and he came there with strings also.  He played another ballroom, the Forrest(?) Ballroom, with strings, and also he played the Paradise Theater with strings.  He was a big influence on a lot of Detroiters.  All musicians, not only the pianists or saxophonists, but he was the most influential musician on anybody’s instrument, I think.

TP:    Did you meet Sonny Rollins in Detroit?  He’s someone, of course, you’ve recorded with and performed with recently as well, and the recordings go back to Saxophone Colossus.

TF:    That’s right.  I don’t know what the occasion was, but I know I knew Sonny before I came to New York.

TP:    Now, did you stay mostly in Detroit?  Did you go out on the road, or were you pretty much in Detroit working a lot?

TF:    I mostly stayed in and around Detroit until… I did a few gigs, like over in Toledo, which is really close, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Toronto — all these cities are close to Detroit.  But I spent most of my time during the Forties and the Fifties in Detroit, playing between two or three clubs.

TP:    There was more than enough work for you and a couple of other pianists, I take it.

TF:    Oh, yeah, there was a lot of work in Detroit.  There were several clubs, in every part of the city, and a lot of good pianists in every part of the city.  So nobody was lacking work.

TP:    And very hip audiences, I gather, in Detroit.

TF:    Yeah.  Rough, too.

TP:    Real critical?

TF:    Yeah.  When you weren’t up to par, like, they’d say, “hey…”  They’d call on somebody else.  “Why don’t you let so-and-so sit in, then, if you don’t know that tune?”  It’s almost like an audience at the Apollo on Amateur Night.  If you’re not there, man, you can get the hook!  But Detroit was a very musical and aware city.  I mean, in my family I had a lot of critics!  I was one of five brothers and a sister.  So they expect you to come up with something.  I mean, it hasn’t changed.  Last Sunday I played a concert in Detroit.  They’re still like, “Hey, come on!”  I had a niece who said, “Come on, let’s get busy.” [LAUGHS]

TP:    What were the events, then, that brought you to New York?  We’re talking about Tommy Flanagan’s days in Detroit, but he’s a New Yorker!

TF:    Yes.

TP:    You’ve been here for a good chunk of the last forty years, although not all of them.

TF:    Not all of them.  But I came here in ’56, and just except for a few years…

TP:    You were on the West Coast for a while.

TF:    Yes, in Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona, for a while with my family; we lived there for a couple of years.  I don’t know, I get bogged down in time…

TP:    At any rate, getting to New York.  What I gather from the biographies: You were in the Army for a couple of years, and then you and Kenny Burrell hooked up in a group… But I’m vague on all of the particulars.

TF:    Yeah.  Well, Kenny and I played a lot in Detroit.  Actually, we met as teenagers, and I’ve known Kenny since he was 12 years old.  We’re a year apart.  We’ve been off and on, you know, playing through the years, all that time.  We’ve played in Japan together, and a lot of other places.  The recording that we did, Beyond The Bluebird, was done in a studio in Holland.  Actually, Kenny wasn’t a regular member of the Bluebird band.

TP:    Who formed that band?  Who were the bass and drums?

TF:    The drummer was Elvin Jones, and the bass player was James Richardson, whose brother you might know better, Rodney Richardson, who was one of the Basie people.

TP:    What did Elvin sound like in the early 1950’s?

TF:    He was just a little rawer version of what he is now.  I mean, he’s really a polished drummer now.  He was finding his way then, but still, he had the fire and all the potential to be the drummer that he has become.  He was a joy to play with.  But you had to count, you know, when you were with Elvin.   You take those fours, you know!  He had some complex rhythms that he would play.
TP:    He was exploring them then.

TF:    Yes, he was.  Those were interesting and informative years.  I mean, it was great playing with Thad Jones and Billy Mitchell then.  Everyone seemed to be on the top of their game, or getting there.  After Billy and Thad left to join Basie’s band, I was still a member of the rhythm section.  Yusef Lateef became the tenor player there, and I forget who the trumpeter was — it might have been Donald Byrd.

TP:    In any case, let’s talk about how you got to New York.

TF:    Right.  Well, Kenny was going to New York.  I think he had in mind to settle there.  I wasn’t so sure.  But it was a free ride, so I went along with him.  Little did I know that as soon as I got there, there was work to be had!  Right away I recorded that New York-Detroit Junction album with Thad and Billy and Kenny, and that was the start of some things.  That was in February, I believe.

TP:    Why did you decide to go?  Did you just think, “Well, now I have to try my luck in New York and see what happens”?

TF:    Well, I wanted to see what was happening, because things were kind of getting…not stale, but Detroit, the city was getting tired.  The attitudes and atmosphere was not very conducive to being creative.  So yeah, I thought it was a good time to go to New York, since I knew a lot of people there by now.

TP:    They’d all played with you for the last seven years.

TF:    Yeah.  So it was a good time.  And through them, I learned more… There were a lot of sessions in New York at the time.  If you felt like you really had to play, there was a place to jam every night of the week.  All over the city there was somebody.  Up in Harlem there was a place to play almost every night.  The 125 Club, Small’s, there was Count Basie’s, there was…oh, there was no lack of places to play and people to meet, and you met a lot of young musicians, new people, they found out you were on the scene, you were available.  So a lot of work became available to me.  It was great.

TP:    You started working with Ella Fitzgerald that year, didn’t you?

TF:    The year of ’56?  Yes, in the summer.  She was on a break, and somebody introduced us.  Somebody from Detroit, I believe it was Billy Mitchell, was in Dizzy’s band, and she was working an engagement at the place that’s called…what do they call it… It went from the West Side to the East Side.  A big club.  Ralph Watkins was the manager of that club.  I can’t think of the name of the room!  A big room.  It was right between 52nd and 53rd…

TP:    You’re not talking about Birdland or the Metronome.

TF:    No, not Birdland.  Anyway, she played an engagement there with Dizzy’s big band, and she was just about ready to go on her vacation.  She usually took off for August or something.  But the month before, her pianist became ill or he left or something, and then she needed a pianist.  Billy Mitchell knew I was in town, knew I wasn’t working, so there was an opening for me.  So she called, or the office called me, and I started working with her.  I worked with her just briefly, for about a month, before she went on her break for the summer.  That was the summer of ’56.  The first time I played Newport, that was one of the important things.

TP:    I guess you’d had ample training in Detroit to prepare you for a major gig with a singer like Ella Fitzgerald.

TF:    Yeah.  Well, really, even though I thought I was prepared, it was still scary.  I mean, this was the biggest star I’d ever worked with.  You know, when you’re the pianist with a singer like that, you also become the musical director.  Now, here’s the two veterans here, the bass player and drummer, Gus Johnson, that know the book and everything better than me, and here I am all of a sudden the musical director.

TP:    I guess you had to think that if she wanted you to do it…

TF:    Yeah.  Well, I did it.  It was a good learning experience for me.

TP:    You also hooked up with J.J. Johnson that year, and that was really your first regular touring group.

TF:    Right, right.

TP:    You did several records with J.J. as well.

TF:    Right.

[MUSIC:  “Lady Be Good” (1994); “How High The Moon” (1994); “So Sorry, Please” (1957)]

TP:    We’ve been grilling Tommy about his history, his formative years as a musician, the musicians that he knew and performed with.  I’ll stay on that track for a little bit more, and then we’ll chat about the present.

Around 1959-1960, you started working with some of the older generation of musicians on a regular basis, with Harry Sweets Edison, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins.  I’d like to know a little bit about your relations with them, how those gigs came about, what you got from them, and things like that.

TF:    Well, I guess I first met Coleman Hawkins in the old Birdland.  As a matter of fact, Miles introduced me to him.  Miles has a way of introducing people.

TP:    How did he do it?

TF:    He says, [MILES] “Coleman, do you know Tommy Flanagan?”  Coleman said right away (like, I had never met him before), “Yeah, of course.”  I didn’t know him, and I was kind of taken aback.  I was glad that he said that.  I don’t know where he heard me.  I know he had an affinity for pianists from Detroit.  He loved working with…

TP:    Barry Harris.

TF:    Yes, Barry, Roland Hanna…

TP:    Maybe he heard that Teddy Wilson influence.

TF:    Whatever it is.  Anyway, you said the older generation of musicians.  Well, Coleman and I had a record date, the first one with Coleman, and he was impressed with me.  I knew his repertoire pretty well, because I’d been listening to it all my life!  He and Roy Eldridge used to play together, they were doing some things at the old Metropole on Seventh Avenue.  We worked there together, and then we went on a tour, one of the early JATP things to England for about six weeks, so we got to be a tight little group there for a while, with Major Holley and Eddie Locke and myself in the rhythm section.

I had so much admiration for Coleman Hawkins’ musicianship.  He was just a world of musical information.  The things that I would see him do!  We used to go on record dates with sheet music, and he’d just read any clef.  He was reading parts from anywhere in the score.  And these are one-take things.  I always found that tenor saxophone players are really prepared when they come to a date; they usually don’t like to play more than one take of whatever they do.  Coleman Hawkins was one of those people.  I’m sure that’s how they got “Body and Soul.”  That was probably one take.  I don’t know how you could do that twice.

TP:    I’m sure he was still playing that when you were with him.

TF:    Yeah, he played “Body and Soul” a lot.

TP:    Now, did he change it every night?  Did he play it differently?

TF:    Yeah, of course.

TP:    Did he play everything differently every night?

TF:    The thing that would be mostly the same would be the end, the coda.  [SINGS IT] I mean, that’s the only thing that would separate it from all the rest of the song.  But what a musician!  He was so open to younger musicians.  I mean, he knew that Monk was somebody to listen to and to learn from, and I guess he was one of the first people to expose Monk to a wider audience.  I love Coleman Hawkins for that; we’d have lost a lot of Thelonious Monk if hadn’t been for him.  Of course, he incorporated Dizzy and Fats Navarro and Miles and a lot of the younger musicians, and gave them a good exposure to the music.

Off the bandstand, he was kind of a model person, too.  He would teach you how to drink, how to dress. He was an impeccable dresser.  He had very good taste in liquor.  He’d show you how to hold your own when you’re holding more than one!   He was really a marvelous person.  I really learned a lot from him musically and on and off the stand.

TP:    You were a ubiquitous presence on many dates, particularly for Prestige and Moodsville during those years as well.

TF:    Yeah, that’s right.  It kind of surprises me sometimes, when I look at that roster, and see that I recorded with Buck Clayton, and also Pee Wee Russell, Coleman and Joe Thomas, some Jimmy Hamilton…

TP:    Well, you were obviously very well versed in what they had done.  I mean, you’d been checking them out since ten years old and earlier.

TF:    Yes, exactly.

TP:    Were you aware of all these musicians as a youngster, as the individual personalities who were involved in music when you were 8-9-10 years old?

TF:    Yeah, I could tell who they were just by the sound.

TP:    So you were really attuned to it from the very beginning.

TF:    I really was.  I tuned into them right away.  I mean, I knew that was the direction that my ears wanted to go.  Then I tried to get my hands to catch up to my ears, what I had remembered all that time.  Well, you never catch up to what you really think you know!  So I’ve still got a lot to learn and to play.

TP:    Staying on that track, Tommy Flanagan has put together an incredible series of recordings over the last years.  I’d like to talk to you about how you organize and select material.  I guess the composers you choose to interpret are self-evident, because they come out of your history.

TF:    Right.

TP:    But what are you looking for in the tunes you play?  I guess it’s a mix of things you’ve done on the bandstand, things that intrigue you?

TF:    Well, that.  I like to pay tribute to people because I can focus better on the material.  For a whole collection of songs, I find that the music is more revealing in terms of what I have to give to it.  Sometimes you go with nothing in mind, but just to play some tunes or something.  But if my real goal is to play the best of Thad Jones, or what I think is some of the best, well, he has so much music and I’ve recorded so much of it in the past that I’ve tried to get to some things that I haven’t done before, and not over-record certain songs.  But I find that I’m doing that more!  Not because I haven’t done my homework, just because I’ve run out of work to do.

TP:    How do arrangements take shape?

TF:    I work on them.  If I play them long enough with the group, we work it out together.  But I usually have an idea of how I want to play a tune.  Of course, with some people’s music you don’t have to go too far.

TP:    It’s self-explanatory.

TF:    Yes.

TP:    Well, you seem to like to work with very dynamic drummers.  In the last few years, Al Foster, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash.

TF:    Mmm…well, yes.

TP:    Can you talk a bit about working with a drummer, what you’re looking for from the drummer in your bands?

TF:    They’re dynamic, but I’m looking for a person that can listen, too.  I mean, I need those dynamics because the music I play uses a lot of dynamics.  It doesn’t matter who the composer is.  That’s what I want to bring to it anyway, is the dynamic part of it, especially in songs by Ellington.  I mean, there’s the soft side and the romantic side.  And strange as it seems, drummers possess all of these qualities, even though they don’t always show it on the surface.  But they have it in them musically, and I try to bring that out.  And I know it’s there.

TP:    What are you looking for in a bass player?

TF:    Oh, it’s very musical.  It’s good to have good intonation.  Steady rhythmically, and has something to offer as far as solos.  But that’s not really the necessary part.  It’s being able to work close with the drummer, and work as a team.  That’s the important part, to make a good team with the drummer and the bass.  And if I can work with the two of them, we’ve got a lot of accomplished.

TP:    I gather you don’t always tell everybody in the band what the sequence of tunes is going to be on a given night.  You sometimes like to surprise the drummer and bassist with…

TF:    Yeah, I like to surprise myself also.  I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes.  I do know what I’m doing, but I don’t know what I’m going to play at any certain time.  Because a lot of things can run through your mind at once until you weed it out at the last second, to figure out something by some of these off-the-cuff intros that I start.  It takes me different places.  Sometimes I might end up with a ballad or a fast tune from the same introduction.  So I have to be alert myself, and I’m just hoping that they’re listening to me.  And they are.  Because I can see them looking at me!  I guess I got that from hearing a lot of Erroll Garner.

TP:    Talk about that a little bit.

TF:    Well, he was the most surprising pianist I know.  If you just hear an Erroll Garner introduction, you don’t know what’s going to come next.  Not that I try to do that, but I think it’s the same kind of surprise.  He likes to surprise himself, and the music is full of surprises — and Erroll Garner certainly had it.  His teammates used to watch him very closely, because you didn’t know what to expect after those intros.  When I was very young, I heard Erroll Garner when it seemed like he was at his peak in Detroit; I saw him at very close range.  I guess it’s important sometimes to be close to a pianist, although I used to not care about it.  For example, most people play “Cherokee” in B-flat, and to be sitting close and to hear Erroll play it so effortlessly… The way he was playing it, I thought he was in B-flat, but you’re looking, and then you tune your ear, and you say, “That’s not B-Flat; that’s B.”  But he did everything in the key of B that he would play in the key of B-Flat!  Somebody that’s naturally gifted like that, it doesn’t matter what key you play in.  Art Tatum was like that.  If the piano didn’t respond, if there were broken keys, he’d play in a key that he could avoid those things.  Erroll Garner was the same way, except that he would do that on a Steinway Grand that was in perfect condition.  He was amazing that way.

TP:    What were some of the concepts that influenced you in terms of how a piano trio should sound?  You mentioned coming up in the Nat Cole piano-bass-guitar type of thing, and Ahmad Jamal was pretty much a contemporary of yours.

TF:    Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral.  He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time.  He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark.  But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner.  Tatum had another kind of style.  I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes.  He had so much to play, he never could stop himself.  But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing.  Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing.  There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.

TP:    [ETC.] How did you tackle the version of “Cherokee” that we’re about to hear on the latest release on Verve?  You were mentioning Erroll Garner, so you got yourself into it here.

TF:    Well, I played it safe, and played it in B-flat.  I don’t know how safe it is for me to play it.  It’s been explored so many ways and so many times, and so many great people have played it.  It’s a landmark for Bird, you know.  There are some things I can’t get away from — maybe quoting some of Bird.  That’s all I can say about it.  And hope for the best from “Cherokee”.
[MUSIC:  “Cherokee” (1994); w/ L. Thompson, “Happy Days Are Here Again” (1964); Trio, “St. Louis Blues” (1989); (solo) “Bean And The Boys” (1978); “Barbados” (1991); “Eclypso” (1957); TF/Mraz “Blue Twenty” (1978); Trio “Alone Too Long” (1993); (Solo) “The Very Thought of You” (1978); (solo) “Willow Weep For Me” (1989); (trio) “Woody’n You” (1977); “A Blue TIme” (1977); “Naima” (1982); (w/H. Jones) “Afternoon in Paris” (1983); “Three In One” (1993)…]

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Filed under Detroit, Interview, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR