Category Archives: trumpet

For Wynton Marsalis’ 55th birthday, an Essay-Interview Written on the Occasion of the Premiere of Blood on the Fields

For Wynton Marsalis’ 54th birthday, I’ll reclaim a piece that’s been on the internet since 2001 via the Jazz Journalist Association website. I put it together in 2005 at the instigation of  Steve Cannon and Gathering of Tribes on the occasion of the premiere performance of Blood On The Fields. It contains an essay-review, followed by a long composite interview.


The Reigning Genius of Jazz to his admirers, the Emperor With No Clothes to his debunkers, Wynton Marsalis has attracted public attention and provoked ferociously divergent responses like few musicians in the music’s history. Since his emergence in the early 1980’s as a trumpet virtuoso and composer-bandleader, the result of Marsalis’ choice and treatment of material and his penchant for salty public statements is a public persona akin to a massive lightning rod or magnet that absorbs and repels the roiling opinions and attitudes informing the contemporary Jazz zeitgeist.

A visionary revisionist, Marsalis has worked tirelessly over the last decade to build a bully pulpit from which he speaks as advocate, spokesman, teacher and musical implementor of the aesthetic notions of continuity and inclusiveness intoned by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Committed to Jazz, perceiving it lacking a functional basis in contemporary Pop culture, he preaches the necessity of a fully idiomatic assimilation and refinement of the music’s lineage all the way back to its polyphonic roots in New Orleans as the road to a rooted personal voice. Perhaps his most important achievement has been to influence many of the most talented musicians of the generation after his (Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton are a few) to follow in his path.

What kept me from jumping on the Marsalis bandwagon during the 1980’s was that the volume of his bark was often disproportionate to the bite of the music that he was producing. Marsalis was forced to experience the growing pains of apprenticeship before an ever-expanding and largely uncritical audience for whom a Wynton Marsalis record was often more a status symbol than an object of serious reflection.

Marsalis’ strengths were substantial. He was capable of spinning out solos of a logic and lyrical force reminiscent of Fats Navarro’s greatest efforts. His compositions were based on the language of the 1960’s. He blended the scintillating turnarounds and swinging odd meters concocted by James Black in the isolation of New Orleans with the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, the harmonic and structural parameters of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the modal, almost Pentecostal feeling of John Coltrane’s Quartet. But as one might expect of a prodigiously gifted young musician in the process of feeling his oats, adding and discarding, his performances too often struck me as brilliant simulacra that did not comment on their sources. When I listened to Marsalis play his music, it was frustrating that he seemed to be almost willfully holding back, restraining the passion of his individual voice, a voice which burst out in full splendor on occasions when one heard him sit in with, say, Frank Morgan at the Village Vanguard, or at a memorable engagement at the Public Theatre with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and Edward Blackwell.

Since Marsalis became the focal point of Jazz programming at Lincoln Center in 1988, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to play the music of the keystone composer-improvisers of Jazz in variously idiomatic settings, from the inside-out so to speak, to develop a relationship to their vocabularies that is both functional and poetic. As his ideas have matured and consolidated, he has found a way to conjure his omnivorous musical interests into a highly personal, detailed compositional sensibility. Recent recordings such as the 1990 soundtrack for Tune In Tomorrow and the 1991 dance score City Griot revealed an ambitious composer who already had imprinted his cosignature to Ellington’s expansive timbral palette, Jelly Roll Morton’s organizational techniques, Monk’s percussive harmonic dissonance.

Furthermore, Marsalis has dramatically increased his range as a soloist. The sometimes mechanistic harmonically and rhythmically complex solo lines spun by the Freddie Hubbard admirer of earlier years have coalesced into clear, direct shapes. Marsalis is now capable of bringing to life a spectrum of stylistic approaches — the to-the-point heavyweight tales laid down by Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown, the smooth modulations of Joe Smith and Joe Wilder, the sonic extremities of Ellington trumpets Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, the allusive modernist progressions of Booker Little and Woody Shaw.

The two March 1994 performances at Alice Tully Hall of Marsalis’ lengthy commissioned composition for large jazz orchestra, Blood On The Fields [scheduled for an early 1996 release on Columbia-Sony] upped the ante. It is the first self-contained extended piece from Marsalis that I have heard in which form and function blend seamlessly. It tells a story whose internal dynamics are about dialoguing voices, stories and songs. It is also a conversation with the history of Jazz on its highest level. No imitation of its antecedents, Blood On The Fields demonstrates Marsalis’ sophisticated reading and revision of his sources, does justice to his oft-stated, oft-derided mission of reaffirming and reclaiming the optimistic narrative thrust of African-American culture.

What most impressed me about the performances of Blood On The Fields was the rich language of its complexly metered, starkly intervalled vernacular libretto, sung with elegant fluency and finesse by Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and Jon Hendricks. Ellingtonally, Marsalis gave each musician in the orchestra a voice, and the orchestra itself a meta-voice. Call-and-response, New Orleans polyphony, shuffles, Ellingbop, dirges, parade march press-rolls, second-line struts, intricately detailed ensemble dialogues, impossible unison brass lines, idiomatic solos — even a Greek chorus! — signified and counterstated the songs. And they swung hard all night!

About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet with Marsalis twice for discussions about his music. During a week’s engagement of the Wynton Marsalis Septet at the Village Vanguard in December 1993 Marsalis visited my “Out To Lunch” program on WKCR-FM in New York and spoke on a variety of topics. The interview began with Marsalis’ brief description of each of his band members (Wessel Anderson and Victor Goines, reeds and woodwinds; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums), three of whom are from New Orleans (Veal has since left the band).

TP: Why is the New Orleans connection so important to you in terms of the musicians you perform with? It sounds like sort of a naive question, but I just would like to hear how you see it.

WM: Well, you know, it just has worked out that way. I didn’t plan it that way, really. It’s not like I went to New Orleans to find musicians, because I’ve been in New York for twelve years. But Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal with the drums and the bass, are from New Orleans, and they give us the ability to really play some New Orleans music. When you don’t have New Orleans musicians in those two positions, it’s difficult to get the authentic sound of the music. But you can always distill that sound, like the way that Duke played. He got that type of sound out of Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard. It’s just that it was transformed. It didn’t sound like the New Orleans beat.

TP: Of course Ellington got that sound out of Wellman Braud in the 1920’s.

WM: Well, he’s from New Orleans. As a matter of fact, Wellman Braud is in my family. You expect that New Orleans musicians will play like that. In Duke’s early bands, he had Sidney Bechet, he had Wellman Braud, he had Barney Bigard — he had access to New Orleans musicians. He had Bubber Miley, who even though he wasn’t from New Orleans, he was the closest thing you could find to King Oliver outside of Louis Armstrong.

TP: What type of repertoire does the band play in performance? You’ve accumulated such a diverse body of work in your recent recordings. Do you play the whole spectrum of material?

WM: We play all of it. Even the stuff we used to play, like “Black Codes From The Underground” or “Knozz-Mo-King.” We play Duke’s music, Monk, Wayne Shorter — anything really. We haven’t played that much of Wayne’s music recently, but we’ll really play pretty much anything… Some cats will play ballads. Or we try to play some of Trane’s music…

TP: Two of your band members, Wessel Anderson and Reginald Veal, studied with Alvin Batiste, who has been associated with your father for over forty years, playing contemporary and very strong music.

WM: Right.

TP: And Edward Blackwell was part of their circle, too, over forty years ago.

WM: That’s right.

TP: Did your father’s work with [drummer] James Black in the early 1960’s have an impact on some of the early things that you were doing with your group?

WM: Definitely. You know, for me, it was more that I just absorbed the music, because I was always around it. I didn’t like it when I was growing up. We were really Country. We lived in Little Fork, Louisiana, in Browbridge, in Kendall, Louisiana — and nobody I knew liked that kind of music. My Daddy and them always were kind of like outcasts. They were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans at that time. But I always loved them because of their hipness. They had the combination of the intelligence and the soul. So as a kid, that manifested itself in things like, if we were in the barber shop, my Daddy would win the argument.

TP: With anybody, huh?

WM: Yeah. Well, he just knew a wider range of things. He was a Jazz musician. He had a more sophisticated understanding of American culture.

James Black was the same way, even though he had a volatile personality. But out of the cats in my father’s band (Nat Perillat, James Black, my father), I liked James the most. He wrote a lot of tunes, like “The Magnolia Triangle.” He had the talent. But he had a volatile personality. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, and he was always ready to fight at the drop of a hat. You never knew what he was going to do; he was unpredictable. But as a boy of like, seven, six, eight, there was always something about him I liked. He also was a trumpet player. I was influenced by his music. I liked his songs, like “A Love Song,” and things that the people wouldn’t know…

They played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s that was on Ramparts Street in New Orleans, and when I got to be, like, eleven, I would hang out in the club. I would go to the club just to see the men and the women and hear what they would be talking about, not to really check the music out so much — but the ambiance had a profound effect on my understanding of how the world works. Because you’re liable to see anything in that type of club. And also in New Orleans, down in the French Quarter there’s a wide range of things going on.

TP: Human activities.

WM: Yes, human…

TP: The full range…

WM: Yes.

TP: The depth…

WM: …and levels of human intercourse taking place. As men they had a profound effect on me more than as musicians.

TP: Had you picked up the trumpet by that time? Did you know music was going to be…

WM: No.

TP: …what you were going to do then?

WM: Well, I had a trumpet. I played in Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church band when I was eight. Herlin Riley actually played trumpet in that same band, but before I was in it. I was only in the band for like six months or so, actually longer, maybe a year. We would play parades, things like “Over In The Glory Land,” “The Second Line,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Didn’t He Ramble.” Now, I had a trumpet, but I didn’t want to be a trumpet player. I wanted to be some type of athlete or in some type of scholarly activity, be a chemist or something — I had my little chemistry set, and I liked playing with it.

But the thing I always try to convey is just the feeling of that time. Because my father and them were all men struggling, they had their families, they weren’t making any money, they were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans. An album like The Monkey Puzzle, I might have heard that a million times; it’s like a New Orleans underground classic. They had a belief and an optimism, a belief in the music, a feeling that they had as men, that’s the thing that I really could relate to. Because during that time, that music really wasn’t that important.

We had a little league football team, and we used to lose almost every game. This was during real segregation, so they had like three Black teams and seven or eight White teams. The Black teams always had like the saddest equipment from the city, and our fields didn’t have hashmarks or anything. We were glad just to be playing. Because before our age, they never had Black teams. But we would lose every game. Our coach was a cat named Gus, and he had a black-and-tan car we used to call the Judge, a GTO, and he used to sit on his GTO… We’d go to the games, and we’d always lose. One game Gus didn’t show up, and my father coached. He packed all of us into this little Buick Skylark; he had like eleven of us in a Buick Skylark, man…

TP: In uniform and pads?

WM: Oh yeah, in full dress. I don’t know how we got in there. We were laying all on top of each other! And we went to the game — and that’s the only game we almost won.

TP: Why did you decide to get serious about the trumpet? What was it that inspired you?

WM: Well, then I went through puberty, and I wanted to have something that would distinguish me so that I could be able to rap to the ladies and they would have some respect for what I was saying…

TP: A lot of musicians say that about it!

WM: Oh, man, that’s a motivating factor, now. And also just the competition of being in high school; a lot of people could play. And then I actually started listening to music. I started listening to Coltrane’s music first, and then later on Clifford Brown and Miles Davis…

TP: Who turned you on to that?

WM: Well, my father always had the records sitting around. I just had never taken the time to listen to any of them. Mainly before that I was just listening to like James Brown or the Isley Brothers, whatever was popular — Earth Wind and Fire then was becoming popular. We’d go to those little house parties that they have. Once again, it was still in the country. We weren’t living in New Orleans yet.

In the summer that I was twelve, I was working, cleaning up a school. That’s when I started listening to Trane. I would come home from doing that, and then I would listen to “Giant Steps”, and then I’d listen to Clifford Brown and Max Roach On Basin Street, and then Clifford Brown With Strings, and then a Miles Davis album entitled Someday My Prince Will Come, and then a Freddie Hubbard record entitled Red Clay. That got me into Jazz.

TP: How about Jazz education? Your father, Ellis, along with Alvin Batiste, was one of the major educators in Jazz really in the country in the 1970’s.

WM: [CHUCKLES] Well, I always hear that, and it makes me laugh. At most, my father never had more than five students in a class. We had the raggediest room in the school…

TP: Look who came out of it!

WM: Well, none of us knew we were going to make it playing Jazz. We really didn’t even want to play Jazz, with the exception of me and Donald Harrison; we were really the only two who wanted to play Jazz. When my father would try to explain something to us, by the time he would leave the blackboard to come back to the piano, we’d be playing a Funk tune. Alvin Batiste was the same way. He and my father, they’re like brothers almost. You know, I would always see them struggling, trying to have workshops in the community that no one would attend, always doing stuff — never for any payment, of course. Nobody was that interested in Art.

So now my father has this big reputation of being a teacher. And he is a great teacher. You have to be around him and really get the feeling of the music from him, because that’s what he carries with him, the seriousness and the joy and the love that’s in Jazz. He teaches his students through that method. But when we were growing up and in his classroom, it was only me, Donald Harrison, Branford, Terence Blanchard — we were the only five or six in the class. He would be just experimenting with us, walking the bass lines.

TP: You must have become extremely passionate about the trumpet to have worked that hard at it throughout your teenage years.

WM: Well, I always believed in working hard. You know, I used to cut lawns. And in New Orleans it’s hot. And in Kendall they have them big…them country lawns, so you have to really cut a lawn. And my attitude toward cutting a lawn was that my lawn was gonna be even. And this is when I was ten or eleven. So however long it would take to get the job done… That’s something that my father and my great-uncle would always tell me. My great-uncle was a stone-cutter for the cemetery, and he was in his nineties. He would always say, “Learn how to work a job. Your job is your identity. You don’t work a job for somebody else. You work your job for yourself.”

So when I got to be serious about music, I started practicing, and trying to look for teachers. I was very fortunate, of course, to have my father and Alvin Batiste, even Kidd Jordan. We would go over to SUNO, Southern University in New Orleans, and play what they call Avant-Garde music. We would all just get in a big room and just play as loud and as wild as we could. Even though after a while I got tired of doing it, in a way it was hip, because it allowed us to just express whatever we felt like expressing — which wasn’t that much. But we would all laugh about it. We would play some of Alvin’s tunes, one tune called “Naningwa.”

TP: He’s written some wild tunes.

WM: Yeah. So we grew up in that type of environment. My first teacher was a guy named John Longo. He also was at Southern University in New Orleans. He had grown up in New Orleans, and attended St. Augustine High School. John Longo studied with George Janson, who was my second teacher. George Janson had studied with William Vaggiano, who became my teacher at Juilliard. George Janson was from New York, and he had moved to New Orleans, and he was one of the few teachers who would teach the Black musicians in the 1950’s.

But in New Orleans it’s not like Jazz is a form of scholarship. They were Jazz musicians, my father and them, they were struggling with the world and trying to raise their families and deal with the social situations and all of that. And we were growing up in that, and we were just a part of it. The relationships in the New Orleans musical community were a certain way. And of course, always hearing the tradition of music, even though I didn’t gravitate toward it at that time, because I always equated it with Uncle Tommin’… We were from like that other generation, with the Afros and Malcolm; all of that was popular in my age group. But still I was around the people like Teddy Riley and Ford, and earlier Danny Barker. It was a community, a very small community, and everybody knew each other. And if you were in that community, you participated in what was in it.

TP: The other aspect of music in New Orleans in the Sixties and Seventies was the vernacular music that was embedded in the cultural fabric of the city — the Neville Brothers, the Meters, all of these great bands. Was that something that you were aware of and involved with at that time as well?

WM: Well, we played Funk music at our gigs, and we knew about the Meters and the Neville Brothers, of course. Everybody in New Orleans knows about them; they have hits. But the type of music that most of the people in my age group listened to was Parliament or Earth, Wind and Fire, just like in New Orleans today most people listen to Rap music or whatever is on the radio. They don’t really listen… Most of the teenagers, the kids in our age group, they don’t really have a sense of the New Orleans tradition. At the end of every Funk gig we would play the Second Line. In New Orleans you can play a second-line any time. That’s the New Orleans classic from the traditional music. But in terms of the Meters’ songs and covering their hits or the songs they used to play, any type of historical perspective — we didn’t really possess any of that. Let alone to deal with Fats Domino or Dave Bartholomew or any of the 1950’s musicians. We were mainly just trying to be popular and current. So when a new record would come out, that’s what we would play.

[The conversation turned to clarinettist Dr. Michael White’s presentations of early jazz at Lincoln Center.]

WM: We don’t do Repertory Jazz. When you hear Sonny Rollins play “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” that’s not a piece of repertory music. If you had heard John Coltrane, when he was alive, play “I Want To Talk About You,” you wouldn’t say that was a piece of repertory music. There’s this belief that what we’re doing is transcribing things off of albums and playing them like the way that they were played a long time ago. We don’t do that, and we aren’t trying to do that. These styles are always alive, because Jazz has a ritualistic component. Its history won’t be just like Classical music. It’s just that those who write about the music don’t understand that yet, that part of the music is a continuum, and that the earliest New Orleans style is still the most Modern style of Jazz because it allows for the most freedom for more people participating. You have that polyphonic horn style, which is very difficult to play.

When Michael White comes to New York, when he comes to Lincoln Center and we present New Orleans nights, we do that because he is the foremost authority on that style of music. He breathes life into that music. A lot of times we don’t even have arrangements. I’ve played on a lot of those concerts, and all we have is like a sheet with written instructions — “One Chorus, Clarinet,” “Two Choruses, Head,” “Ensemble Improvisation.” What we are trying to do is play that style of music the way that we know how to play it. We aren’t really trying to necessarily recreate the sound of a given band, because you can’t do it.

All of the musicians, everybody who plays, learns from that type of music. If you’re a trumpet player, it teaches you how to play melodies and how to play quarter notes. If you play clarinet or if you play the trombone or the saxophone, it teaches you how to play with other musicians on horns, how to play longer-note values, when to play riffs, how to respond to something while still playing, how to address the dynamics of a group of horns playing at one time. If you play bass, it teaches you how to play that two-groove and how to stick to a basic beat feel, how to provide a good foundation. If you play piano, you learn different ways of comping, like the quarter-note comp, and it teaches you how to play with the left and the right hand, the stride style.

Now, after you learn that, you can do whatever you want with it. You can always do what Marcus Roberts does, which is something that you would never hear any of the older pianists do, play in two and three different times at once, all kind of real sophisticated syncopations and different harmonic conceptions. It’s just a matter of addressing the fundamentals so that you know the building blocks. Then you have the tools at your disposal to do whatever you wish to do with them. When we play the New Orleans music, that’s what we’re trying to do.

TP: When you came into the studio, before we went on the air, you were talking about how difficult it is to train people to play like that. Do you want to elaborate on that a little?

WM: Well, it’s just that there’s not much impetus in the culture for group improvisation. Everybody wants to solo all night. It destroys the architecture of the music. Also, we have gotten used to this form of just playing a head, and then soloing for two thousand choruses, and then playing the head out. Whereas in that New Orleans music, they played marches and waltzes. They actually played quadrilles. They played music with a wide range of forms. The forms are much more sophisticated. So you might only play eight bars, or you might only play a solo for eight bars, but you’re playing all the time. It’s very hard to get the younger musicians to understand the value of that type of expression. Also, they used Blues expression, whereas it’s very hard for today’s young musicians to learn that, not because they lack the talent or the ability or that they don’t have that aspect of their lives or that they don’t have the soul, but because the sound is not prevalent in the culture.

It’s very difficult to teach that. That’s the advantage, I think, of studying with someone like my father. He doesn’t teach you technically, but he teaches how to transmit that feeling. Now, I don’t really know what that feeling is. That’s how Art Blakey was also. There was something in his feeling that could teach you what the meaning of Jazz was. It’s that combination of intellect and soul, and a seriousness toward the music, and a desire to groove and to continue to groove, and to develop material. And to pass that on to younger musicians is really difficult.

TP: New Orleans, of course, is a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and deeply connected to the whole Caribbean region in complex ways. I’d like to ask you about the aspect of New Orleans music that Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge.” Have you been influenced in any way by the Cuban trumpet tradition, particularly in terms of the sonic aspects of it, the timbre and so forth?

WM: Well, not from that aspect. But I always liked Rafael Mendez, who was Mexican. It has always been my feeling that next to Louis Armstrong, he was the greatest trumpet player I have ever heard. Just the soul that comes through his sound. [SINGS A PHRASE] I like that kind of real bravura sound. And I think that the Cuban trumpet players I’ve heard have that. Sandoval has that, and musicians like Chocolate [Armenteros], they have that kind of thing, and even guys who are not well-known in that way, somebody like Victor Paz, who I had the opportunity to play with, he has that type of feeling in his sound. Of the younger generation of musicians, I think a guy like Charlie Sepulveda has that in his sound.

When they say the Spanish Tinge of New Orleans, it’s that BOOMP-BUM-BUM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM — the accent comes on four. And that’s how the New Orleans beat, BOOMP-BOOMP-DABOOMP-BOOM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM… So when they sing like the New Orleans music, [SINGS THAT BEAT AND CLAPS IT] — it’s that same rhythm. [SINGS THE RHYTHM] So in that way we have a lot in common with the South American and the Caribbean sounds. But of course, in the Caribbean they have a much more sophisticated version of it. In Cuban music, they have so many grooves and it’s very, very sophisticated. We don’t have that level of sophistication.

TP: I’d like to take up your previous comments on the misunderstanding about the ritualistic aspect of Jazz amongst many observers of the music. Do the words “classic” or “classicism” have a different meaning when applied to the Jazz aesthetic as opposed to, say, European Music?

WM: Well, you know, I never really know what they’re talking about. Some people say “Classic Jazz,” and they mean the 1930’s. Some say New Orleans music. Some call Coltrane’s group the classic quartet.

TP: What do you mean by it, though?

WM: Well, personally, a term like “Classic Jazz” really has never meant anything to me. You know, that’s the title that was used for the Lincoln Center series that we do in the summertime. Jazz in Lincoln Center is what I believe in.

My feeling is to call it “Real Jazz.” Because Real Jazz means that you are trying to swing. And when I say “swing,” that means that you are dealing with the rhythmic environment that allows for the thematic development, consistent thematic development, in the context of a Jazz groove. Which means that you don’t have to be going TING-TINKADING-TINKADING-TINKADING… A Jazz musician will take this same groove, DOOMP-DUM-DUM, DOOMP-DUM-DUM… That will be repeated, but all of the instruments will be improvising and the soloists will be constructing solos that develop thematically.

So it’s a matter of development, whenever you want to distinguish whether something is Jazz or not, and the range that is played on the groove. A Jazz drummer like Elvin Jones will take a groove like that, and he’ll play many different things on it. Whereas people who are not playing in the style of Jazz might take that same groove, and they will still be improvising, but what they will be playing will be more proscribed. They can improvise, too, but it will be off of the clav? or off of a certain thing that’s set, whereas a Jazz drummer also includes that into his vocabulary. Which is not to say that Jazz is more sophisticated. It’s just different. Because the other way is very, very sophisticated.

But when the horn players play and the soloists play, we deal with interaction. The key to Jazz music is the interaction of the voices. And the way you can tell whether a piece of Jazz is being played is if it’s being rendered with some Blues feeling, Blues melodies, rhythms and harmonies, in the context of some type of form. That means that you’re always addressing syncopation, some rhythms are being set up and they’re being resolved. If it has the Blues in it and also if it’s swinging, then it has that sound that we identify with Jazz.

It also becomes then a matter of percentage. For instance, if I would take a gallon of water and squeeze one lemon in it, technically you could say it’s lemonade. But it’s not. It would be like some water with some lemon in it. And we’re always concerned with the range and the precision and the degree of control of the idiomatic nuances. That really determines whether something is Jazz or not.

Jazz music has always been burdened with a tradition of writers who hang onto it, they’re paternalistic, and they always feel as though they know more than the musician knows. This is the thing that I’ve always been trying to say in public, and why a lot of times they’ve said I’m outspoken and all of this. I’m not outspoken. It’s just that these people who are supposed to be conduits between the musicians and the public don’t function in that fashion. They feel that they are above the musician or that they are above the music, and they aren’t.

These people like James Lincoln Collier, who writes these ignorant books. See, a lot of times all you can find in libraries of colleges will be James Lincoln Collier and one other book. James Lincoln Collier makes statements like, “The question is not whether Duke Ellington was a great composer, but was he a composer at all?” He’ll say Louis Armstrong, actually must have been born earlier to attempt to diminish the genius of Louis Armstrong — when in actuality Louis Armstrong was born later.

There’s always this confusion between sociology and music. When you try to teach students, you can’t teach them sociology. You have to teach them something about music. I can’t stand in front of a class and say, “Well, man, I want you to go home and stand on a corner with a chicken wing, and then come back and put some barbecue sauce on it, and come back next week, and then you will be able to play some Blues.” You have to come with something specific, which is not necessarily technical.

Like what I was saying about my father. He wouldn’t necessarily teach you technically, but he would transmit to you the feeling of Jazz, which is the combination of soul and intellect and the engagement with the consciousness, with American consciousness and with American culture. But we are burdened with a lot of the guys who write for our music because they lack the humility to really successfully communicate the feeling of the music to the public.

TP: Another aspect of learning to play the Blues or the idiomatic nuances of Jazz is just functional, practical experience. Where do young musicians get that these days?

WM: It’s very difficult. Young musicians from around the country call me all the time saying, “Man, there’s no place to play.” Nicholas Payton is one of the finest young musicians in the country. He lives in New Orleans, and a lot of times he calls me and says, “You know, I’m not playing; I don’t have anywhere to play.” So we have a lot of problems in terms of training younger musicians to play. But it’s much better than it was when I was coming up.

TP: How so? Can you elaborate on that?

WM: When I was coming up, we didn’t even know what Jazz was. I could tell what it was from being around my father and them. But what we considered Jazz, like in my band and stuff, that was like some Funk tune with somebody putting a solo on top of it. The thought of trying to learn how to play Blues, the thought of interacting with each other… Now, we would play a Blues every night and we’d play the Second Line every night, but we’d play like kind of Funk licks on top of it. We weren’t trying to get to any real profound adult level of emotion on it, like what you have to try to do when you play the Blues. We were trying to do what we heard on the radio basically.

TP: But you got to play, let’s say, with Art Blakey for a year-and-a-half, Herbie Hancock for a while, different bands around New York. Before you started your career as a leader, you still had those two or three years of functional experience with other people’s bands.

WM: But you don’t have those kind of bands up here now. Who are you going to play with?

TP: Really I’m just trying to get your reflections on the state of things as they are now. Optimistic? Pessimistic?

WM: No, I’m very optimistic. Because there are more and more people who want to play. When I was, like 17, there was me and Wallace Roney, and then Terence Blanchard was kind of coming up. But before I met Wallace Roney, I had never met another trumpet player who really wanted to play real Jazz. Wallace really wanted to play. I would hear about him, “Yeah, there’s this kid in Washington named Wallace Roney, and he knows about the tradition and swinging.” But when I would meet Clark Terry or when I would meet Sweets Edison or the guys when I was 15 or 16, they would be telling me, “Man, there’s almost nobody who wants to play.” I sat in with Sonny Stitt once when I was 15, and he was telling me, “Man, you could be great in this music, but you have to practice and be serious. And I can see that you’re going to be serious. But you have to play this music. Because I’m traveling around the country, and I don’t see any youngsters who even want to play it.”

Whereas now, when I go around the country, I see hundreds of kids who want to play. Now we have to put the systems in place to enable them to learn and prosper and develop. The kids are ready. But the systems just are not in place to support them.

For example, there are people in the Jazz community who will complain because some twenty-year-old kids have a contract. Well, to me, this is a reflection of deep ignorance. The people who have their contracts are not the young Jazz musicians, it’s all the people in Rap music or in Pop music or in all these other forms of music where the contracts are awarded — 15 and 20 contracts a day are given out. Instead of complaining against the five or ten young Jazz musicians who are at least trying to play, complain against all these other people who aren’t even trying to play music, who just want to get a hairstyle and make some money.

But what is the response of the Jazz community? It’s to cut the younger musicians down, to hold them to a standard that’s far above what their upbringing would allow them to be on. Somebody like Roy Hargrove might have been the only person in Dallas who wanted to play and really seriously swing at his age. So he can’t be compared to Miles Davis when he was 15. I mean, Clark Terry, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy Gillespie, all these great people were practicing.

TP: Well, they had the music all around them. It was the culture.

WM: This is what I’m saying. A guy like Roy Hargrove has got to be celebrated by the Jazz community. Instead of saying, “Well, he sounds too much like Lee Morgan” or “he needs to do this and he needs to do that.” Maybe all of that is true, or maybe it’s not true. But the fact is, he is trying to play. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize a man’s style. But you have to be cognizant of… Are you the Jazz community or are you not the Jazz community? You don’t shoot the only warriors you have. You don’t say, “Well, you’all are not going to be able to fight like the people fought fifty years ago, so instead of us engaging in battle, let’s just kill all of them.”

What happens in the Jazz world defies logic. It’s absurd almost. I never can really figure out if the intellectual community and the writers who surround the Jazz community are interested in the music. Like, they will say something is a new version of Jazz if a musician says he’s not playing Jazz. The latest example would be this so-called Jazz-Rap trend, where it’s just somebody rapping and somebody plays solos like we used to play in the Seventies on top of it. Then all of the people who are supposed to be dealing with Jazz jump on the bandwagon, and they’re talking about, “This is the new form of Jazz, and finally people are overcoming the conservativeness of…” This is just crazy! It’s ludicrous.

TP: Well, a lot of it is also marketing, and a lot of marketing is inherently ludicrous anyway.

WM: Well, from the record companies’ standpoint. But I think in terms of the Jazz writers, it’s a lack of intellectual integrity, how they will attempt to apply political terminology… Like they will call one group “Neoconservative” (I guess that’s what they’ve tried to put on me), when, in actuality, the true conservative position is held by them. Because they are the Establishment. So they want to assign somebody else the term “conservative,” and I guess they are avant-garde or something, and that means they’re in the front of something. Well, that’s not true. Because they’re not in the forefront of thought on Jazz. Because no kids or people who want to learn how to play are learning practicing their philosophy. And they are so stubborn and they lack humility, that they end up being detrimental…

They are an albatross. They sit on top of our music and they push it down instead of raising it up. That’s why I’m always forced to come to the public and plead with the public, “Well, look, you can’t trust these people who are supposed to be a conduit.” You have to go to the schools and try to convince the kids of the value of learning how to play.

TP: On your last few recordings, some of the ensemble pieces have utilized Ellingtonian voicings and tactics in a very creative and I think personal way. I can really hear some things coming out that were touched on and echoed in past years.

WM: Well, just trying to be a part of the tradition. This is a steady growth process for me. I try to educate myself as I go along. And I’m coming from the 1970’s, where I would never listen to a Duke Ellington album.

TP: When did you first hear Duke Ellington?

WM: I was 18 or 19. Stanley Crouch played some Duke for me. He said, “Check this Duke out.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, just some old ballroom music for people. I mean, I was so steeped in the philosophy of my generation that… Then gradually I would start to listen to it, and hear all kinds of different forms, and people playing in different times, and the harmonic sophistication coming out of the Blues. Then I got in touch with Jelly Roll Morton through the concert we did at Lincoln Center, the Jelly Roll Morton concert, and that gave me an understanding of how to construct these forms.

I mean, there’s nothing really you can say about Duke. His genius speaks for itself. I went to the Smithsonian to see his scores, and there’s walls full of large cabinets packed with Ellington’s music written in his own hand. Anybody who is ever in Washington, it’s really a great education to go in there and look at some of the volumes of music that this man wrote. The thing that’s most amazing about Ellington’s music is that when he wrote it down the first time, he really didn’t change it that much, apart from structural changes he would make. You will see pieces of music with people’s phone numbers on it, and it will be “The Harlem Suite,” and the whole suite will be written out. His conception is very, very clear, and his penmanship is very neat. He writes the notes very small. It doesn’t mean that much, but for someone who wrote that much music it’s very neat.

TP: A final question. When people write about you, one of the things that’s most often noted is your virtuosity as a trumpet player, both in the Jazz area and in European Classical music. Would you discuss the place of virtuosity in Jazz and in improvising?

WM: Well, I think that virtuosity is the first sign of morality in a musician. It means that you’re serious enough to practice. And there are many different aspects of virtuosity. Many times, when we think of virtuosity, we think only of velocity. But there is also tone, flexibility, and then the virtuosity of nuance or ability to project different types of feeling through a sound. Then there’s all the growls and smears and stuff that Sidney Bechet said that he practiced on, which is called effects.

But you find in the history of Jazz that the musicians have always been virtuosos. That’s what distinguished Louis Armstrong from other trumpeters; he could play higher, with a bigger sound, with more harmonic accuracy, would bend the notes better and with more… Art Tatum, of course. Thelonious Monk. Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins — the list is endless of people who were serious practicers. Coleman Hawkins. Paul Chambers. Mingus. All of these men were virtuosos, and all these men believed in technical competence.

That’s very, very important to being a musician in general. It’s like Paul Hindemith in the beginning of his book, The Craft Of Composition. He said he always hears about people talking about their feeling, “but must not this feeling or impulse be tiny if it can manifest itself in such little knowledge?” That’s just how I feel about technique.

After this interview aired, the editor of this magazine contacted me about printing the interview in conjunction with a brief review of Blood On The Fields. He suggested I speak again with Marsalis to flesh things out. In June 1994, three months after the concert, I visited Marsalis’ apartment for a more specific discussion of the development of his aesthetic and procedures, and of the genesis of Blood On The Fields. I began with a question about his relationship with Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, Marsalis’ intellectual mentors.

WM: I met Stanley Crouch at Mikell’s when I was 18 –I had just turned 18. He came down to the club. My father had told me earlier in the summer about having read an interview with Stanley and Imiri Baraka, where he had said that he thought that Stanley was making much more cogent points. This is when I didn’t know really who Stanley Crouch was, or even Imiri Baraka, for that matter. I had just come from New Orleans. And Crouch invited me to his house. Then I would be having to cook for myself and stuff, and I didn’t know how to cook, so I was glad to be invited to anybody’s house to eat, because that ensured that I would get a good meal.

So I went down to Stanley’s house. Stanley was living in this small apartment, but he had thousands of books and records. He reminded me of a history professor that I had in high school. His name was Diego Gonzalez, and he lived three blocks from my house on Hickory Street in New Orleans, so I would stop by his apartment sometimes on my way back home. He was a Classical Music fanatic, so he had thousands of Classical albums, and he also was the coach of the chess team.

So when I went to Crouch’s house, first just looking at the albums and the books kind of blew my mind. Because I mean, my father is a musician; he’s not a scholar. I hadn’t been in that many people’s homes which were like libraries. And Crouch, he was a writer, so it wasn’t organized; it was all over the place. So I immediately liked him because he was soulful, and he was extremely, extremely intelligent, but he also wasn’t above putting his foot in somebody’s booty if he had to do that. So I really could relate to that.

He started playing all of these albums for me, and asking me what I thought about it. Well, I had never heard any of that. He asked me what I thought about Ornette Coleman, and I said, “Well, Ornette Coleman, yeah, that’s out.” I just would say whatever I had read. I had never really listened to it. Then he put on a record and said, “What do you think about this?” And I would be saying stuff like, “Man, I didn’t know Charlie Parker played like that.” And he said, “No, man, that’s Ornette Coleman.” The first time I really listened to Duke Ellington, Crouch brought this big Duke Ellington collection over to me. He says, “Man, check this out. This is Duke Ellington.”

So just in general, he imparted a knowledge and a history of the music — and I didn’t have any of that. I mean, I had been around the music my whole life, but I had never looked at it artistically in that way. I had never studied it. I didn’t feel that it was something you had to study that way. I felt like you could play it or you couldn’t. That’s what we all thought, basically. I was so used to being the only person I knew that really was into Jazz, that to meet somebody like Crouch blew my mind really! And he had all of these books… Most of the stuff he would be talking about wouldn’t even be music! It would be stuff that I had never heard of before. It was just fascinating to me.

Then we started talking. I would call Crouch, and he would just tell me about all of these books and things to read… Still. Still today it’s that same way. I still learn a lot from him. He and I talked last night. We haven’t been talking as much recently, in the last month or two. But there was a time when me and Crouch would talk almost every day. And we never have, like, lightweight conversations. It’s always something… I’ve learned so much from him, not just about music.

TP: What were some of the books he turned you on to that were important to you?

WM: Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. Well, actually, that came from Al Murray. Al Murray told Crouch to read it, and Crouch had read it. He was telling me about the whole big lesson of a blessing being a curse, how you might get all this publicity and all this, but you also have to deal with the weight of this other thing. That goes all through Thomas Mann.

Proust. William Faulkner. I would read something, and then I could discuss it with Crouch. I would say, “What do you think about this?” He would say, well, he thought this. Then sometimes when we were talking, he would say, “Well, let’s go see Al and rap with him about this,” and then we would talk about it. Something like The Invisible Man, Crouch knows that inside and out, or Herman Melville, Moby Dick… But a lot of the homework and stuff he was giving me, I still haven’t done. The real, true level of discussion we could have about a lot of literature, we haven’t had that, because I haven’t really read all of the material like I should… I just need more time.

But there’s even more stuff. I’m leaving out a lot. All kinds of stuff on music, man. Books on music like Early Jazz by Gunther Schuller. Of course, Al’s book, Stompin’ The Blues really helped to uncover a lot. That was the first book I had ever read that addressed the expression of Jazz the way I knew it to be. It’s like I had known it to be that, but I had never really been educated in it, so I didn’t really know it. Because there was such a big breakdown… My generation was really only into Pop expression, and Pop music, and Pop thought. So even though I didn’t really want to be associated with that, you can only rise so far above everybody else that you’re around. Most of the seriousness I experienced when I was growing up really only came from me. It wasn’t like I had a group of friends who were all so serious. I was always trying to make them become more serious! And things about Afro-American culture that I maybe knew intuitively, like New Orleans music — I liked it, but I didn’t really like it. I associated it too much with Tomming, which didn’t have anything to do with the music. That was like a social thing. And I would always be confusing social science with music.

Stompin’ The Blues really helped to clarify the whole question of playing with Blues expression. We grew up playing Funk music, which has very little Blues in it. Our generation of musicians, the Funk musicians, so little of the Blues was left in that, that it’s very hard to produce a Jazz musician out of that style. When you’re playing on Funk, most of the time you’re playing with a lot of accents, and you’re only playing pentatonic scales. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff we grew up playing. Our style of music wasn’t really based on creating the melody in the context of an improvising rhythm section. Because we were playing Funk [SINGS FUNK LINE A LA KOOL AND THE GANG], so the rhythm section was going to be playing that the whole time you played, [SINGS LINE], whatever the vamp was, or whatever they were playing.

The Blues music is more continuous. You have to come up with ideas, and you develop them through the form. Whereas on Funk music, you mainly are playing on a vamp, and you’re just trying to excite the audience. You don’t really have aesthetic objectives. If you can trill a note up high and circular-breathe on it, you do that, you know…

TP: Albert Murray writes about Blues as a cultural style. How does that translate into this period?

WM: Well, what Albert Murray is writing about mainly only existed in the Church tradition. Now, in New Orleans, we had the Jazz parade and all that, but the parades we played in…well, first, everybody would be playing loud, and we wouldn’t really be playing with that type of expression he’s talking about. He’s talking about the real adult expression and also the optimism. Most of that wasn’t in the music that we played. Our music was mainly party music. The music was a background, really. It wasn’t the center or the focus of anything. Like, most of the shouts and the call-and-response that’s essential to the Blues between the musician and the audience, even in Funk gigs, you never really experience that. People would shout for you if you played something that was flashy. But you never really got that type of cosignature that goes on in a church when the preacher is… First the music would be so loud that if you said “Okay” or something, nobody in the audience would hear you. The whole dialogue in the society was different.

So when I read Stompin’ The Blues, I noticed first how Albert Murray differentiates between the Blues as such and the Blues as music. In our generation, we would say, “That’s only a Blues,” like, the Blues wasn’t really nothin’… We felt, man, “Giant Steps, that’s what’s hard to play; the Blues, anybody can play that — that’s just three chords.” We didn’t really think of the Blues as nothin’ important to learn. We would play a Blues every night on our Funk gig, because we would play the New Orleans Second Line. But we didn’t really see the Blues as being central to Afro-American expression. To us, the Funk was what was central. BOOM-BAP-DE-BOM-BAP, the backbeat, that’s what we really…

Now, when I was in high school, I kind of knew that it wasn’t the backbeat, but I didn’t know what it was. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when something is wrong with you and you know something is wrong but you really don’t know what it is. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.

TP: Another essential aspect of Albert Murray’s conception of the Blues is that the Blues is a narrative tradition, and a tradition that connects generations and spans place and time as well. That seems to be something you’ve tried to elaborate with the Lincoln Center hookup and a lot of your activity in the last decade.

WM: There are certain things that Albert Murray strongly believes are at the root of the real Afro-American and also the American experience. He doesn’t believe in the generation gap. Now, I always felt this, but I didn’t know that I felt it. Like, I never looked at the people my age as being that different from my father. Of course, my father was a Jazz musician. So I didn’t know anybody as hip as him. I never was a part of any movement when I was 15 or 16 that I felt was hipper than what my father was doing. We had our Afros and our dashikis and platform shoes, and whatever the trend of the day was, and we played Funk music. But I never had the feeling that what we were doing was as hip as what my father could do, or that we knew anything more than what he knew — or my grandfather, or my great-uncle.

Albert Murray believes in that, in the continuum. The whole question of affirming something, having a dialogue with something; counterstating it or else affirming aspects of it.

The true central proposition that I really learned from Al is optimism. Because in that way, the Afro-American expression is fundamentally different from European Art expression. A lot of European Art, especially in the Twentieth Century, is pessimistic, is tragic, has a tragic vision of what stuff is, whereas the Blues expression recognizes the tragedy but is optimistic.

When I wrote Blood on The Fields, I wanted to make it tragic the whole way through, with no redemption, just go “Okay, this is just a messed-up situation, and it’s still messed-up.” I talked with Al extensively about that, and he told me if I wanted to do it, fine. He sat down with me, and we went through all the different forms of tragedy, going all the way back to Greek tragedies, to Oedipus, The Libation Bearers and Agamemnon, how you set the tragedy up, the modes of tragedy, the complaint and plaint — we analyzed all of these things. But he said, “The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re going to make it all tragic, the expression that you will be coming from will not really be Afro-American, because that’s not in our expression.” It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that that way of looking at the world has taken over our culture, and it is not our real attitude.

I started to really contemplate what he was saying, and I came to an agreement with what he was saying. At first I was against it, but then I had to say, yeah, that is the transcendent value of the Blues and of swinging, and that is what makes Duke Ellington’s music so great in relation to something like Bartok or Stravinsky. You listen to Stravinsky’s music, and you will like it, and it will be some great music. But Duke Ellington was swinging. So you have the complexity, and you still have that optimism, where it’s saying, “Man, this is a tragic situation, but it’s gonna be cool.” And that’s a very important part of that expression, of the Jazz expression.

TP: It seems to me that you’ve effectively used the opportunities of the different presentations of Jazz at Lincoln Center to engage in a dialogue with the different genres of music in performance situations, and that you’ve assimilated the vocabularies in a very personal way.

WM: Well, that was always what I wanted to do. But that was my intention from the beginning of playing music, from my first album. Even though I didn’t know a range of music, I still would try to use Charleston rhythms, I would try to change times, use stuff with modes on it, play standards. Whatever information I knew about, I was always trying to include it. Play stuff that had, like, a New Orleans call-and-response, play standard forms like “Rhythm” changes, and try to transform them.

My thing is to not cut myself off from my own tradition. That tradition can be anything from John Philip Sousa marches to Beethoven’s symphonies, to the Blues, to whatever. Because I grew up playing all of that different type of music. I didn’t understand it, but that is what I grew up doing. I played in a waltz orchestra. I played in the marching band. I played in a Funk band. I played in a Jazz band. I played in a circus band. Played on a Broadway show. Played Salsa music. All of these musics are part of my experience as a musician. So I don’t feel that I should cut myself off from the traditions I come out of to create a narrow style that’s easily identifiable.

TP: To the contrary, I think it’s very expansive. But I think the point I was making is that it seems to me that you have assimilated everything you’ve been working on from the inside-out more or less, and that it’s coming out in your writing in a very natural way.

WM: Well, it is very natural to me. First, I only went to school for a year — to Juilliard. I went for one year. And there really was no Jazz class. I remember the first band we had, my brother had gone to Berklee, so he knew more about Jazz music, because they have all these exercises and stuff that they had done. So I would always be saying, “Man, what is this and what is that?”

A lot of what I have learned about Jazz music, I have learned from the musicians. I learned stuff from Art Blakey. I had the opportunity to play and talk with Elvin Jones, and I learned a lot from him. Sweets Edison. Clark Terry. Whenever I’m around the musicians, I’m always really checking out what they’re playing, and listening very carefully to what they are saying. Roy Eldridge taught me how to growl on the trumpet, then I started trying to learn how to do that. How to use the plunger. Joe Wilder gave me lessons on how to play with the hat. I mean, these things I just learned. To me they are all techniques that are important to know, because the expression of Jazz music is something that you have to just be familiar with.

I’m from New Orleans. My Daddy’s a Jazz musician. So even though I didn’t really necessarily understand the music, my whole life has been nothing but being around musicians and around Jazz music. I remember being around Blue Mitchell or Sonny Stitt. When they’d come to New Orleans, my father would say, “Man, go check out Blue”… Even more than being around them, I know the life of the musician from birth. Something like a New Orleans parade; I played in parades when I was eight years old. It’s just what it is. My real true feeling and affinity is for Jazz music and for swinging, and it’s always been that. Now, because the environment that I grew up in was so poor in terms of what my generation was playing, my playing suffered. But in terms of my understanding of the Jazz lifestyle and of Jazz music and the musicians, that’s never really been anything I had to study.

TP: In Blood On The Fields there are some impossible-sounding ensemble passages for horns that were executed flawlessy and totally flowed. It’s surprising that you only had one year of formal schooling to develop the technique to express the sounds you seem to be hearing in your head.

WM: Well, I just learn slowly. I get these scores of Duke Ellington, and I study them. I talk with Dave Berger. He helped me, just some basic things about the voices and about the instruments. Even in my year in school I was studying Classical trumpet; we sure didn’t study Jazz music. And even that year that I was in school, after a half-a-year I started playing with Art Blakey, so I didn’t really take that year that seriously. I really wanted to play with Art Blakey, or to play Jazz music.

It’s just a matter of slow study. Like, when Crouch brought me those Duke Ellington albums, it was twelve years ago. I remember listening to it, I said, “Man, this music is so complex; it’s impossible to even figure this out.” And I remember Crouch telling me, “Man, look. You never know what you’ll be doing in ten years.” And that was like twelve years ago.

So it’s just a matter of consistently studying and working and trying to think, to figure out how to make these colors work… As far as the ensemble passages go, or the different rhythms, mainly what I do is, I write out what I would play on the trumpet. I play a style that has a lot of multiple rhythms in it and a strange kind of chromatic way of playing through the harmony. So when I write it out for the ensemble, it sounds very strange. I turn the beat around. But I have been playing that way for ten years.

TP: The lyrics to Blood On The FIelds are extremely expressive and were sung with great elegance and interpretative nuance by Cassandra Wilson. Considering the sonic extremities and metrical complexity of the music, it was some of the most formidable singing I’ve heard.

WM: Well, Cassandra did a great job. She wanted to sing it. That’s the basic thing. She worked real, real hard on it, and it was very, very difficult to get it together. Really, she just worked on it and hooked it up. Miles Griffith also worked very hard on his parts.

Part of the story comes from a Stephen Vincent Benet story called Freedom Is A Hard-Bought Thing, which deals with the knowledge it takes to get free. There are a lot of little side stories, too, in Blood On The Fields, about a woman losing her mind, and she’s on this ship. There were a lot of different things I was trying to investigate.

Most of the words are generated from today. I used the situation of the people today, but I made them speak like they were slaves. But it’s not really about them being slaves; it’s about how people are today.

TP: So the language illustrates a broader time continuum.

WM: Yeah. The crux of it is the point where Miles sings, “Oh! Anybody, hear this plaintive song.” He’s speaking to the whole world. That’s like the position of the people, especially the position of the Afro-American people. Anybody in the world, hear this plaintive song. When you see the kind of stuff that’s going on out here today, this is the cry for help. Like the whole Rap expression and the violence and the ignorance that’s just taken to be a part of the Afro-American culture, and it’s not. It’s like a cry… When somebody does something that’s absurd, you say, “Man, they must need some assistance.” It’s anybody, hear this plaintive song.

Then it gets specific. “Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” We need help. Who wants to help their brother? And then it’s not even so much about Afro-American people; it’s just about life in general. First you address the whole world: Anybody hear me, I’m trying to exist out here. Who out of all these people will help me dance this dance? That’s life. Just to hold the dance… You dance your way through the world, through life. Dance is the first art. So it gets more specific, like a community of people. Who wants to help me dance this dance?

And then this is what I’m doing for my part. “Oh, I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.” That’s about the United States of America. That’s what the whole question of soul is in America. It’s a healing agent. That’s what soulfulness is about. A great tragedy has occurred, but that’s all right. It has forgiveness in it. It’s beautiful. It has a beauty to it. This is the thing that has been devalued. And this is why we have such a tremendous tragedy on our hands today dealing with our society, and with our culture, because we’ve lost the real meaning of soul, which is that whole redemptive thing that it has in it. It’s been confused with, like, some fried chicken or some hipness or something that has…I don’t know, with some slang or something, man. I don’t know. But the whole lyric comes down to that one thing. Who wants to help their brother dance this dance? “I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.”

TP: How did the song forms start to come out?

WM: Well, each one comes out of the experience. The first one [“Move Over”] is supposed to be on the ship, so it’s like a wave. It just goes up and down, up and down…

TP: And you had the different sections going against each other on that one.

WM: Had the sections going against each other. Like, a minor section, I’ll go into a groove. [SINGS] And the harmony goes that way. I have a whole dialogue where she’s losing her mind. She plays, and the band is like the waves pounding against the ship; it just keeps coming in. Then the harmony goes inside. She goes, “My head is spinning round and round,” [SINGS MELODY] I’m trying to use things out of the experience she’s singing about to give it that feeling.

And Cassandra heard it. She adapted to the form so quickly. Because I felt that the form would be difficult for her to grasp, but she understood it immediately. She just gravitated toward it and sang it. And when the man comes in and sings [“You Don’t Hear No Drums”], he’s singing the Blues, with the same refrain. Because he’s on the ship, but he’s not really rocking up and down too much. He’s so mad, he’s not really cognizant of any of that. He’s addressing her, saying his rage is something that he’s… So it’s like real harsh, at the top of his range; he’s screaming it out.

When they do the coffle march, she sings like a dirge. [DOM-DOM, DOM-DOM] Then he sings a march, “I’ll never be a slave.” [“I’ll never slave for any man.”] So when he comes in, the snare drum comes in. It’s like some Country people. Every song, like that chant he sings, “I sing with soul to heal,” this three-part chant; it’s a Blues, but the changes are all switched around. It’s done like in the style of the Spiritual.

So I used forms that came out of the experience of whatever that thing is.

TP: Are all the lines initiated in songs, or songs that you’re hearing? How are they generated in your mind?

WM: Well, it depends on where they are. I try to have the whole piece be integrated. I’ll just keep bringing themes back, harmonies back, progressions, lines. Something that was the harmony will become the melody of another thing, or some theme will be turned around. I have big central progressions going through the thing. The form is very difficult for me to explain, because it’s very complex. I’m trying to just connect things.

TP: You seem to have assimilated several decades of Ellington’s development in terms of the tonal palette of the ensemble, but the harmonic language sounds like very much your own.

WM: Yeah, some of it. Sometimes I use verbatim stuff I heard Duke do, or Jelly Roll — whoever I know of. I don’t really suffer from an identity crisis. so anybody’s music I’ll use. I’ll steal from anybody.

TP: Well, they say the mediocre person borrows and the top cats will steal.

WM: Yeah, I’ll steal, and I’ll admit it freely.

TP: Is this part of a connected series on African-American life or some other connected theme? That’s how I’ve heard it described.

WM: Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet. First I’m going to finish this one. It’s still not finished. I didn’t really initially plan it to have a plot that was that literal, but since it ended up being like that, the end of it is kind of messed up. It doesn’t follow clearly all the way through. So I’m going to rework that and record it in September.

I really want to do something on the Civil War. I’m thinking I’m going to wait and learn how to write for strings, and then just write one big integrated piece, like an opera or something, on the Civil War, make it long, like 20 hours or something. [Marsalis’ commisssioned composition for the March Jazz at Lincoln Center will be performed with the Center Chamber Orchestra.]

TP: The piece also used the Chorus of Greek Tragedy as a connective device.

WM: Well, I got the idea for that from Al. Well, not to use it for Blood On The Fields, but just the whole concept. As I said, we were talking about tragedy, reading Oedipus, and I got Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, and Agamemnon — I was reading that. And the whole thing of the chorus coming in, singing, and setting the stage helps you go from thing to thing, too. But I liked that, the fellows in the band sitting up there, commenting on the stuff and then playing it! It was sort of cantorial, like a call-and-response.

TP: It was very funny.

WM: It had to be funny. But I conceived of it as being funny — ironic. Like, these guys are sitting up there saying something like that, and then they play some music.

TP: In Blood On The Fields and in recent recordings, the sounds that have been coming out of your trumpet have been really extreme, evoking the “Avant-Garde” of Jazz. What is your sense of the Avant-Garde in Jazz, however you would define it?

WM: Well, I believe that the challenge of Jazz is to create coherent solos through a harmonic form, to swing at different tempos, to play with some Blues authority, and to deal with contrast. Now, there’s many different styles that they call the Avant Garde. Like, Ornette Coleman is totally different from Cecil Taylor, but they will both be lumped into the same thing.

My feeling, since I played a lot of Classical music, is that the styles are not addressing swinging, most of them, that just deal with like sounds… Like, you hear somebody playing something like… [HE PICKS UP THE TRUMPET AND PLAYS A PHRASE THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PARODY OF BILL DIXON]. I mean, that’s not Jazz to me. Rhythmically, it sounds like Classical music. People say, “Man, this is real modern.” It’s not even Modern. There are people who have been doing that for forty or fifty years.

Because you have a certain hairstyle or you talk about being from the community or whatever, all that social jargon, that doesn’t mean anything to me. Because I’m from the South, man. Railroad track South. So there’s a lot of social commentary that’s passing itself off as a badge of authenticity and all this, man…

The thing I like about some Avant-garde music is that they deal with a wide range of styles. But the thing about what they’re doing is that a lot of times the level of musicianship just is not that high, in terms of their actual ability to address harmony, really truly swinging, and playing in the time at different tempos consistently… The hard thing about swinging is not to do it for twenty measures; it’s to do it all night. Swing is a certain thing. It’s continuous. Now, when I say “swing,” I don’t mean that same groove, TING-TING-TA-TING-TA-TING-TING, but I mean a sensibility that does come out of the shuffle rhythm, and something that requires that you are continuously coordinating your ideas with the rhythm section and with other people that are playing — at different tempos. That means you’re trying to swing fast, slow, medium-tempo.

And what’s being called Avant-Garde… I think that they play in an expressive fashion, now. I will say that, in terms of the best of the Avant-Garde, like David Murray, Olu Dara. I feel that when you hear them play, they play very expressively. Archie Shepp. They play the melodies, they have the vibrato and the thing that they play with. But for me, what a lot of times was lacking was the real true degree of sophistication that’s necessary to play Jazz, just to play Jazz music, let alone to be on the forefront of Jazz.

TP: Is Jazz avant-garde in its essence?

WM: The whole of Jazz is avant-garde. Like, the conception of a group playing with no music and improvising on a form, playing all these different rhythms, playing polyphonically, and it sounding good — that’s an avant-garde conception. It’s never existed. That’s the conception we should be trying to develop. I think one of the problems in Jazz education has been too much focusing on harmony, in terms of harmony being the only way of recognizing innovation, like, “Well, they played this on this chord or that…” Most of the analyzation is harmonic analyzation. Rhythm is very important and also the dialogue is very important.

I feel that the New Orleans Jazz is still avant-garde, because you have three horn players who stand up and play and make up their own parts, and it’s coherent. Almost nobody in the world can really play that style. Maybe there are three or four people. But you will never hear three horns playing together and they sound good. This is a part of the concept of Jazz that’s very important, that we have just let go. The whole conception of arrangements, ensemble parts, key changes — all of these things are an important part of our music. And it’s all in the context of a dialogue and a desire to converse musically with other people, while still swinging. Very seldom do you hear people who want to really, truly swing hard all night.

We’re in a position now where we have to reassert what our values are going to be. Jazz musicians make a big mistake when they use the same philosophies and conceptions that helped to destroy the audience for Classical music. This whole self-absorbed concept of innovation. What if that concept is impoverished? There are certain things that are just taken to be true that have to be questioned. The whole Oedipal strain in Western thought, where everybody thinks the next person has got to devour what came before it. You don’t have to do that. I was reading a book on Picasso where the guy keeps saying that Picasso emasculated his father, because he was such a great painter. His father gave him the paint brush and said, “Well, you paint now; I’m never going to paint again.” This whole thing that runs through so much of criticism.

The continuous thing of ritual is actually important in Jazz, which is what Albert Murray always says. And that means that whole Oedipal strain of, well, you have to destroy your father and you have to create a new thing, that might just be one part of what the greatest people do. There might be another whole branch of people who play the same thing and sound great. I always think of a musician like Sonny Stitt. He represented the highest level of musicianship. Now, he wasn’t Charlie Parker in terms of that type of innovative genius and brilliance. But he represents something that is not to be disrespected on any level. And Charlie Parker respected him. We need more musicians like that.

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For Tomasz Stanko’s 73rd Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

Polish trumpet master and first-class composer Tomasz Stanko turns 73 today. To mark the occasion, here’s a “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature  I was given the opportunity to write about him in 2008.

* * *

In 1993, four years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Poland’s most prominent jazz musician, met drummer Michal Miskiewicz, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and pianist Marcin Wasilewski, teenagers who had recently convened as Simple Acoustic Trio. Recently signed with ECM, Stanko was working the international circuit with a quartet of European all-stars—pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tony Oxley. For local gigs, though, he was looking to hire less expensive, Polish musicians.

“I didn’t have a drummer,” Stanko said in May on a raw, rainy New York afternoon that evoked springtime in Warsaw. Trim at 66, a black beret covering his shaved head, circular glasses framing his gaunt, goateed oval face, he looked like a character from the pen-and-ink illustrations the Polish writer Bruno Schultz created for his short stories of the 1930s. Stanko wore a well-tailored jacket with a brown-check, pressed blue jeans and buffed brown-leather shoes. He spoke precise, thickly accented English, with idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

“Someone told me about this young drummer, the son of Henryk Miskiewicz, a good, swinging mainstream saxophone player,” he continued. “I figured he’d have a good groove, and accepted the recommendation. Then I took a risk and brought his bass player, Slawomir, also a young guy. We had a gig in some small city in the south of Poland. I arrived just an hour or two before, we rehearsed for a few minutes, then played. They were fast, like professional people—maybe don’t know too much, but played good. Good swinging. I decided to keep them. Marcin was pushing them to recommend him to me, and a few months later I took him, too.

“Bobo and Tony are two of the best European musicians, but they were also good! Only different. Fresh. Their education is different. For example, for Michal it is completely natural to have in mind Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack DeJohnette—everybody combined together. They know this from history. Not like me, step after step.”

Fifteen years later, Stanko and his quartet, an international draw since the 2001 release of The Soul Of Things, the first of their three ECM albums, were involved in another transition. Joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper the previous evening at the Museum of Modern Art, they’d performed repertoire by Polish pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931–’69) in conjunction with a summer series that included films that Komeda scored during the ’60s for the Polish filmmakers Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski.

That evening at Birdland, the trio, now headlined by Wasilewski, launched a U.S. tour in support of January, its second ECM release, before embarking on the 2008 summer festival circuit. All on the flip side of 30, after seven years of performing at least 100 concerts a year with Stanko, they were preparing to spread their wings, leave the nest and begin their own career. Himself looking to the next step, Stanko, on several occasions, interrupted the conversation to field several calls from a broker about a prospective Manhattan apartment.
Oriented by a single 45-minute soundcheck, Harper played with flair and passion throughout the concert, showing an affinity for Komeda’s Strayhorn-esque “Ballad For Bernt.” “I like that I engaged with Billy,” Stanko said. “I wanted a sax player in Komeda’s style, with the open mind to play free, but sounds like mainstream—modal—what now is typical.”

Such ideas were anything but typical 45 years ago, when, at Michal Urbaniak’s recommendation, Komeda, like Stanko a resident of Cracow, called the 22-year-old trumpeter—then deploying the freedom principle á là Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in a combo called the Jazz Darings—to join his band.

“Komeda was the top Polish musician, and his record from Knife In The Water was absolutely fantastic,” Stanko said. “I loved this music, and it was a dream to play with him. People don’t speak too much about it, but it was modern music for this time. He liked the same things as me—simplicity, lyricism and combining two things together, like predisposition to the tradition, but also open mind for free modern things.”

For sonic evidence of how in-the-zeitgeist Komeda’s modal, polytonal compositions were, consult two Youtube clips of his 1967 quartet, or, if you can find it, his 1965 quintet album Astigmatic, which can be mentioned in the same conversation with contemporaneous Blue Note dates of similar sensibility by Cherry, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers. Stanko navigates the inside-out pathways in his improvisations, deploying the multihued, vocalized, tragicomic sonic personality that remains his trademark. In 1997, at the instigation of ECM head Manfred Eicher, he reconstructed a suite of Komeda pieces on the CD Kattorna.

“Komeda’s pieces, especially from the last period, do not get older,” Stanko said.

He referred to “Requiem,” which Komeda wrote in 1967 in response to the death of John Coltrane, and which Stanko interpreted on his 1997 Komeda celebration, Litania: The Music Of Krzysztof Komeda.

“This is not exactly jazz composition,” Stanko said. “Everything is written—order of solos, these bridges. But still, it is jazz composition. With whomever I play, it sounds different. His compositions live their own lives, perfect no matter how often evaluated. Three notes only, sometimes. One small motif, and this ballad inside. A simple bridge, but it gives you a lot of power. This is what best jazz compositions have—power inside. They have their own logic, like computer program. He cared for every detail, even a half-note higher or lower.”

In Stanko’s view, Komeda developed certain characteristic syntax and themes from fulfilling the narrative imperatives of the plays and films he scored. Indeed, although he denies any programmatic intent, Stanko’s own investigations have the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.

“Many times, this angularity that I liked in Komeda’s music comes from movies,” Stanko said. “Sometimes motifs have to be longer, sometimes shorter. Sometimes he’d have to give more bars to make longer motif. Then he finds this original composer style. To me, though, music is abstraction. This abstraction means not sad, not happy. It’s music. This is the color of this art.”

However Stanko conceptualizes musical flow, his ideas gestated after the death of Stalin in Soviet Bloc Poland, where musicians and filmmakers were granted a degree of mobility and freedom of expression unavailable to the public at large. He was born to a family whose cultural mores might serve as a paradigm of the pre-war intelligentsia—his father was a judge who doubled as a professional violinist, while his mother was a librarian in a conservatory. The teenage Stanko soaked up Italian neo-realist cinema (“all the Fellini”), existential novels and tracts (Kafka, Schultz, Sartre), and regarded painters like Modigliani, Kandinsky and Klee as gurus. He decided on trumpet after seeing Dave Brubeck play in Cracow in 1957, and listened to Miles Davis (“I liked that he don’t play too much, his control of the band, the contrast between him and sax players”), Don Ellis (“he was playing and starring in Poland”), Booker Little with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln (“he was my favorite because of legatos—I love legatos”), Cherry with Coleman, and Bill Dixon with Cecil Taylor.

“I formed through art, not only through jazz,” Stanko said. “I have always predisposition for novelty, for avant-garde, something new, and I like artist-desperadoes. Because in this life, you get illumination, like Charlie Parker. Jazz musicians have this illumination. Illumination built this modern music. For example, if I was listening to Coltrane at Village Vanguard, ‘Chasin’ The Trane,’ I didn’t know it was blues. For many months, I assumed that this was free. Then I recognized, ‘This is only the blues.’ Instinct dictated to us.

“The filmmakers were influenced by jazz—especially Polanski. Jazz musicians have a big position in Poland at this time throughout the society. Like, biggest. Because we can travel. We were often in Paris. Komeda was a couple of times in Copenhagen, because we had concerts. I had a tailor, and paid a lot of money for clothes. I want to feel fashionable, good-looking, attract the ladies. Anyway, our position was high. Probably these Communist Party people were a little bit snobby for these artists. Maybe the children was into more of these different people. Probably they don’t feel danger from music, from jazz. Jazz for them was something like the same for us, a synonym of freedom.”


“In the beginning, we were focused on America, on American playing, because the Communist time had passed away,” said Wasilewski, the day after the trio that now carries his name played a sold-out set at Birdland.

“We grabbed from ECM recordings from the ’70s, like Jack DeJohnette and Jon Christensen with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek,” Miskiewicz said. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, as well as Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes From The Underground, the Branford Marsalis Quartet.”

“When I was 5 or 6, I was competing with my cousin, because we had only one Walkman,” Wasilewski said. “I heard tapes like Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny, volumes one and two of Keith Jarrett Standards Live, some of Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions. Good ECM records. I didn’t know I was listening to great music.”

Wasilewski sat between his partners at a conference table in a meeting room in ECM’s Midtown Manhattan offices. Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz were 5 when the shipyard workers of Gdansk began the nationwide strike that would lead to the development of Solidarity, the first independent labor union to exist in the Soviet Bloc. When the Berlin Wall came down, they were 14.

“What happened in Poland in the ’60s did not influence us much,” said Miskiewicz, two years their junior.

“At the same time, our generation had to respect what was before—for older musicians,” Wasilewski said. “Then in the ’90s, it became a DJ’s world, and it’s now popular to sample and mix music from the Polish Jazz label from the ’60s. This generation realized that the ’60s were important.”

In February 1995, one year after they joined Stanko, before any of them had reached 20, the Simple Acoustic Trio recorded Komeda (Gowi), a mature recital of eight Komeda tracks. Compared to now, Wasilewski’s lines have more notes, the dialogue is more florid and the transitions are less sophisticated, but the group is recognizable. In contrast to the prevailing European-ethos of eschewing blues and swing toward the end of constructing an individual tonal identity from local vernaculars, these musicians followed Stanko’s example on Komeda’s Astigmatic, engaging and responding to the building blocks of American post-bop modern jazz—McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Jarrett—on its own terms, embracing an inclusive playing field.

“It seemed like an obvious thing to do,” Wasilewski said of the repertoire. “We were listening to Komeda’s quintet recording with Tomasz. He was in the air. An older saxophone player gave us music sheets with Komeda’s compositions in a workshop. We rehearsed it, and were totally fresh to play together.”

“It was easy to play, easy to improvise,” Miskiewicz said. “After we made the recording, we started to be more interested in Komeda as a person, what his feelings might have been.”

“He was a window to explore the Polish roots we could be influenced by,” Kurkiewicz said. “But there was a big jazz scene, opposite to the system, and jazz was a synonym of freedom. It was common for jazz to be put into the movies—it wasn’t just Komeda.”

“Komeda wasn’t a virtuoso player, but it doesn’t matter,” Wasilewski said. “Thelonious Monk as well was not so technically great. But at the same time, Thelonious Monk is one of the most important composers in jazz history. With Komeda it’s the same, but unfortunately he had accident, he died much earlier than he should.”

Born in Koszalin, a medieval city on the Baltic Sea, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz met as 14-year-olds, at a music academy in Katowice, in southern Silesia. “We were really focusing on playing jazz—jazz competitions, contests, some band contests, workshops, learning jazz every summer with Polish and also American teachers from Berklee School of Music.” At a workshop in 1993, they met Miśkiewicz, then 16, and immediately joined forces.

“We want to connect the European and American ways of playing—it doesn’t matter what either one means,” Wasilewski said.

Well, it did seem to matter.

“Rubato tempo playing,” Wasilewski elaborated. “More influence from classical music. More influenced from different folk music. With the European Union, Europe is very much the same now. But Bulgarian, Romanian, French, and Norwegian folk music. Polish folk music, though we don’t like it—it’s not so inspiring. Hungarian is more entertaining, stranger, more attractive maybe for us than for Hungarian people. Jazz for me is a kind of folk music.”

“We respect the traditional way of playing, and we respect the soul of it,” Miśkiewicz said.

“From the beginning we did a lot of jazz and blues form, and it was actually our best form,” Wasilewski said. “Next we would like to work on developing forms.” He mentioned his admiration for outcats Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Brotzmann, with whom Stanko had played back in the day in the Globe Unity Orchestra.

“They use not only playing ability,” Kurkiewicz added. “They use the soul, the ghosts, the spirits. It’s important for musicians to be aware of this.”


“It seems that always, whole history of art, people think that if you are old, art is over,” Stanko said. “In our time, everything was more rich, more intense. I try to be like Miles, a little under, a little downstairs, and see what’s really going on.”

Today’s musicians don’t face official censorship, as Stanko did during his youth in Poland. Perhaps the stakes were higher then.

“My generation don’t care about money like these young people now care,” the trumpeter said. “They only care money. But this is not important. The important thing is music. Always fresh slate. For this reason, I rely on musicians I play with to give me power. Billy Harper give me power. He was fresh in this band, playing free.”

Reflecting on the Komeda compositions that had inspired Harper the night before, Stanko reflected on the Polish cultural streams that inflect both his and Komeda’s musical production. “We have a predisposition for anarchy, but also for lyricism, and that is in my music,” he said. “Maybe our weather, the same weather like today, a melancholic mood, a little depression coming from melancholic, but also an ‘agghhh’ coming from a little drinking too much.”

Drinking perhaps, but then there are the existential realities for Poles who lived first under German and then Soviet occupation. “My father had a quarter Jewish blood, and he looked also quite much like a Jew,” Stanko said. “In wartime, he was working in the administration of a Polish city. The Resistance was active, and the S.S. was taking people from the streets, and they make a line and every tenth person they shoot. Father had fast reflexes. He spoke German, and he start to speak to the Germans that he work in the city in this administration, and he’s musician—I don’t know—and then they said, ‘Go away.’ I don’t think he thought himself Jewish. I don’t either, although I am happy that I have this blood. I also don’t feel much Polish. I feel international. I feel human.”



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Filed under DownBeat, ECM, Tomasz Stanko, trumpet, Wasilewski

An Unpublished Article on Irwin Mayfield and Two Uncut Interviews from 2003

Recent reports by the distinguished journalists Jason Berry and Larry Blumenfeld on the alleged misappropriation of funds intended for the New Orleans Public Library into the coffers of trumpeter Irwin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra evoke for me my meeting with Mayfield in 2003, for an article — for reasons I can no longer remember, it wasn’t published — for Jazziz about a collaboration by Mayfield, then 25, with nonagenarian photojournalist-filmmaker-novelist-composer Gordon Parks that resulted in the CD, Blue Autumn.

Here’s the final draft that I submitted  at the time, plus  verbatim interviews with Mayfield in January and April of 2003.


Irvin Mayfield (unpublished 2003 article):

On the surface, Gordon Parks and the New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield have so little in common that to suggest the possibility of a productive artistic collaboration between them would seem a far-fetched prospect. But in this instance, appearances are deceiving.

Often described as a “Renaissance Man” in recognition of the range of media in which he operates, Parks, who turned 90 last year, is a giant of 20th century arts and letters. As the first African-American staff photographer for “Life” magazine during the ’40s and ’50s, Parks presented a gritty, unsentimental vision of the human condition in a series of photo-essays that addressed, without a touch of condescension, the lives and milieux of Harlem gangs, South Side cops, rural midwest wanderers, and the favela dwellers of Rio de Janeiro. Parallel-tracking as a high-fashion photographer for “Vogue,” he created understated images of beauty and elegance. As a film director, Parks gave the world “Shaft,” featuring the first black action hero of a Hollywood studio picture, and “Leadbelly,” a credible biopic of the blues legend. Since his 1963 novel, “The Learning Tree,” a canonic coming-of-age tale of his Kansas boyhood, Parks has written several memoirs and works of fiction, with an historical novel about J.W. Turner, the inimitable early 19th century English seascape painter, just out of the galleys. Parks is also a self-taught ear pianist, and he plays European classical music with reflective, somber elegance, often performing his own compositions, which blend pastel French impressionist harmonies with the melancholy emanations of the lowdown bordello blues, a style Parks played nightly as a scuffling teenager in Depression Minneapolis.

Parks describes his senior years as “half-past autumn,” and used the phrase to label the comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his photographs that has toured America since late 1997. Anticipating the show’s summer 2000 arrival, the New Orleans Museum of Art asked Mayfield — who had been hosting there a series of “informances” about the reciprocal relationship between the visual arts and jazz — to compose a creative response for opening night. He rose to the challenge with the “Half-Past Autumn Suite,” recorded in late 2002 and released this winter by Basin Street Records.

I caught up with Mayfield at the cocktail hour of a raw January day in the unheated front bar of Tribeca’s Knitting Factory, the first leg of a brief northeast tour in support of the “Half-Past Autumn Suite.” Just off the plane from New Orleans, sharp in a beige camelshair overcoat buttoned to the neck to ward off the chill, Mayfield sat at a small table, sipping bottled water, fixing me with laughing, hawkish eyes as he described the project’s genesis.

“I wrote the music in two weeks, and we rehearsed for three days before,” Mayfield says. “The place only seats 240, and there were a thousand unhappy people outside trying to see Gordon Parks. After we finished a blues, Gordon got up and said, ‘That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives,’ and at the end of the night he started dancing with his daughter. Later we sat, and he gave me his home number and told me to call any time. Then I realized I was going to put the music out.”

Popular around New Orleans since his teens, Mayfield, now 25, has established an international profile as co-leader of Los Hombres Calientes, a dance-oriented ensemble that articulates the styles of Cuba, Brazil and Haiti with idiomatic precision and a let-the-good-times-roll New Orleans jazz sensibility, as documented on last year’s Congo Square and the spring 2003 release Vodou Dance. But observers who know him only through that prism may not be prepared for the emotional depth of Half-Past Autumn. Like its solo predecessor, How Passion Falls, the program comprises nine challenging compositions for quintet that parse and counterstate the harmonic and rhythmic tropes laid down by New Orleans modernists Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison during Mayfield’s formative years. The musicianship throughout is informed, creative, interactive, and often inspired; Mayfield plays with virtuoso panache, crafting stories that balance bravura upper register flights with grounded excursions in a nuanced, malleable middle register. Icing the cake is a trumpet-piano duo by Mayfield and Parks on “Wind,” a Parks composition that the maestro suggested Mayfield perform.

“I chose to interpret Gordon’s modern pieces — ‘Evening,’ ‘Towards Infinity,’ ‘Moonscape,'” Mayfield said. “Gordon is very serious and warm, his music and art combine those qualities, and that’s what I wanted to capture. I could imagine myself having painted or photographed these pictures. That’s Gordon’s gift. He deals with basic fundamental themes — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.”

Mayfield evidently is not one to allow his creativity to be inhibited by Oedipal notions of slaying the father. In point of fact, he has internalized the New Orleans custom of treating the past as a living, evolving narrative to be dialogued with in a ceremonial context. Intellectually ambitious and highly disciplined, trained in century-old vernacular brass and parade band traditions and intimate with the most up-to-the-minute iterations of jazz modernism, Mayfield — whose early instruction came from his father, a former Army drill sergeant — could stand as a prototype for the 21st century New Orleans jazz musician. He cites the influence of Danny Barker, a native of the French Quarter whose long, distinguished career as a guitarist and banjoist included jobs with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. A world class raconteur with an encyclopedic memory, Barker retired to New Orleans in the latter ’60s, organizing a youth band at the Fairview Baptist Church, where, if he was so inclined, he might inform his young charges that Louis Armstrong learned his diminished chords from funky trumpeter Buddy Petit, or that the Onward Brass Band, inspired by a lead trumpeter named Kimball, who played like King Oliver, was the greatest brass band of his day.

“I played a lot with Danny Barker before he passed, and I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is,” Mayfield says. “One difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. There was never a point in time when Danny Barker wasn’t hip. Here’s a guy who was in his seventies talking about his chord structures on the guitar and about Louis Armstrong and what he did for American music, and at the same time talking about ‘bitches and ho’s.’ The older musicians always talked to you like a man. Danny Barker wasn’t not going to say ‘bitches and ho’s’ around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. ‘You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.'”

Cocksure from early proximity to elders in the Algiers Brass Band and undeniable technical proficiency, Mayfield matriculated at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts — the magnet school that famously produced Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Reginald Veal and Nicholas Payton. “I got a reality check at NOCCA,” he laughs. “These cats were traveling and working. I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ on the drums and interpret it. He had total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize them. Nicholas Payton had graduated, but he was still hanging around. The first time I heard him he was playing bass, and I said, ‘Oh, what a great bass player.’ Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounded like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. Hearing Nicholas Payton for the first time made me have to really decide.

“My father played trumpet and knew a lot of the technical aspects, but he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is very aristocratic in the sense that it’s a town of tradition, particularly the Creole tradition; if you don’t fit in, it’s hard to deal with. Coming up, I had to try to figure out which group I belonged in, which made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing. I knew it was almost an impossible task. But I decided that no matter what it took, I would do music, because I loved it so much.”

Not long after his 19th birthday, Mayfield accepted an invitation from Wynton Marsalis to crash at Marsalis’ Upper West Side apartment, and began a heady two-year stay in New York City. Situated within walking distance of Manhattan’s Museum Mile and the galleries of 57th Street, Mayfield heard the conversation of various thinkers who frequented the Marsalis manse, jammed late nights with the best and brightest of his peer group at the Blue Note, Small’s, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Home Front, and landed a gig playing after-work jazz shows at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Until I got to New York, I couldn’t appreciate visual art, but then I got my eyes open,” Mayfield relates. “I fell in love with Matisse and Cezanne, Bearden and Lawrence, and I began to study music that had been inspired by the same themes, like the use of trains in Bearden and Ellington. Then I started wondering about further connections. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art and politics? What I found out is that there is.”

After signing with Basin Street Records, Mayfield returned to New Orleans, refining his cross-genre explorations as Artist-in-Residence at Dillard University and as Artistic Director of the recently established New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. “New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home,” Mayfield says. “You go through this weird emotional thing. There isn’t prejudice about music in New Orleans. You’d play the Louis Armstrong music, and then if you wanted to play some avant-garde music with Kidd Jordan, that’s what you’d play. Then you’d play an R&B gig, or maybe horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead, or maybe some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You’re happy to be playing. You’re a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was.

“As much as I loved living in New York, I had a hard time at first because everybody thought you fit in a bag. If you’re hanging with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, not music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is really free music. That’s what Wynton and especially Terence Blanchard were trying to do. People are sometimes surprised when they hear my quintet record, and it sounds like what they would call a New Yorker. But if they hear Los Hombres, they say, ‘Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.’ I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.”

History will determine whether Mayfield’s progression during his twenties will prove half as consequential to the course of jazz as Picasso’s own third-decade transition from the Blue Period to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was to painting. But apart from his considerable chops and conceptual range, the quality that will make Mayfield a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future is a fierce individualism that allows him to imprint his iconoclastic tonal personality on deep-set cultural traditions in a way that sustains and invigorates them.

“I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and I play the New Orleans way,” he says. “I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs in the suspenders and white hats — and I follow that legacy. I challenge the concepts that Wynton puts out there by trying to redefine the concept of what jazz is and what it can be. A lot of times people get so pissed off with what someone says, that they don’t understand the importance of the dialogue. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe I’m right. Can we have a dialogue about it? During the 1960s, you had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. A lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s reflective of my generation and what we’re doing in American culture.”

Mayfield is determined to back up his brash talk with musical principles that speak louder than words. “When I was writing the music for Half Past Autumn, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like Gordon’s art, not some esoteric idea of jazz, or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that bringing scraps to your band ignites them to figure out more. Jazz is about the process of trying to be better. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.”


* * * *

Irvin Mayfield (1-30-03) at the Knitting Factory:
TP: So let’s start with some nuts and bolts questions about this project. What’s the genesis. I gather you’d been doing series of concerts at the New Orleans Museum for events such as this, and this was a commission from them, and then Gordon Parks came and heard the music, and he liked it, and voila, you had a collaboration.

MAYFIELD: Right. Well, when I first lived in New York is when I first got my eyes open to visual art. I could never appreciate art before that. In fact, it was absurd to me that people would spend their money on these pieces of visual things. When I first got my eyes open to art, I fell in love with Picasso, I fell in love with Matisse, Cezanne, Bearden, Lawrence, all these great artists. Then I started wondering if there was any connection between the periods of the arts. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art, throughout politics? And what I found out is that there is. So what I wound up doing was I went to the museum at home. Now, I guess a lot of people don’t really use the resources that are there around them. But I went to the museum at home, I started going over there just looking at art that was around. So I went there and I started talking about them saying, here, let’s try… I would like to do some conversations or some dialogue or some research on the comparisons between Ellison, Bearden and Ellington, or Monk and Lawrence and Baldwin. I started doing this research, and they were giving me all these materials. People were coming out… We started this interesting dialogue. I think a lot of the people who were in the visual arts started looking at music in a different sense, because they figured their way of how they could relate to it…

TP: Who are you talking about now? The curator of the museum funneled materials to you, and then you’d share these materials with your circle of musicians.

MAYFIELD: Right. There’s a great group at the museum at home called the Champions Group, of African-American and Caribbean artists, and they were very much looking to do something that has an educational outreach and looking for somebody to do something like this They were really glad when I came along, obviously. Because you really have to want to do something like this, rather than have somebody hire you to do it. I did it at first for no money; it was just something we were doing. And it was really a lot of fun. I was learning a lot.

TP: Let me get a few things straight. You’re how old?


TP: So you’re born in ’77.


TP: You were in New York when?

MAYFIELD: I was in New York from 19 to 21.

TP: So in ’97-’99. Were you in school and performing at the same time?

MAYFIELD: I was living with Wynton, which was like being in school. But I was crashing at his place, and I was doing some Lincoln Center Gigs. I did several records, two Live at the Blue Note and also with Wessel Anderson, “Live At The Village Vanguard,” and hitting all the jam sessions at Small’s and Cleopatra’s. That’s where I hooked up with Jaz Sawyer and Richard Johnson. There was this club that opened uptown called the Home Front, which was open for four weeks and then closed down. That’s where I met a lot of my peers, like Eric Lewis and all the other musicians. This is the New York experience. So I’d be here, and then I’d fly back home and do these things at the museum and various gigs. But I was actually prepared to move up to New York. Wynton extended a favor to me to say I could stay with him as long as I wanted. If I hadn’t gotten my record deal, that’s exactly what I would have done.

TP: Staying in that part of town, the possibilities are infinite.

MAYFIELD: Right. I’m going to MOMA every day and doing performances there at their 5 o’clock jazz shows. I would use the band Wes had; it would be me and Jaz and Steve Kirby and Xavier Davis. Then I started doing more performances once I got the record deal, and that’s when the museum gave me their first-ever commission, and a very serious commission, to say, “Hey, Gordon Parks is coming to New Orleans for the first time with his art.”

TP: So that was the first commission. You’d been doing performances at the museum…

MAYFIELD: Informances.

TP: I saw that nomenclature in the liner notes. What exactly does it mean?

MAYFIELD: An informance is you perform and you talk. You talk about each song, bring the paintings out, which is hop, and you talk about the paintings relating to the music and vice-versa.

TP: So you’ve been composing inspired by visual art since about 1999 or so…

MAYFIELD: Well, not really composing. I had been studying it. Studying music that had been inspired by the same themes. Like, Bearden and Ellington all used trains as themes. The train is a very specific theme. Everybody used the train. So I started thinking about realities, of things like that. Then they gave me this commission.

The wonderful thing about the New Orleans Museum of Art is that they give you ALL the resources you need. I mean, they gave me every book Gordon Parks ever wrote, I got the films, I got everything. They said, “This is what you need. So I literally went through all his stuff, all his books. I went through “The Learning Tree,” I went through his poetry, “Towards Infinity,” I went through his photography books, I went through “Half Past Autumn.” And it blew me away. It killed me. It almost was an impossible task to come up with a suite for a man who had been married three times and was the first significant African-American photographer, a filmmaker, writer, director… It started to become a hard task.

TP: I mean, he’s a weighty cat, and he spanned all sorts of worlds.

MAYFIELD: Right. And I started hearing his music. Then I was like, “I’m not worthy.” He can compose a suite himself. But I realized that the power of jazz is that maybe he can, but I can interpret everything he’s doing through jazz, and leave room for everybody else to engage in.

TP: So what sort of themes were you looking at to capture Gordon Parks?

MAYFIELD: Well, after I got through “Half-Past Autumn”… I read all the other books first, and I finished with this, which is appropriate. When I got through the book, I realized which pieces I would choose. I chose his modern pieces — “Evening,” “Towards Infinity,” “Moonscape.” They all represented a period of his, which is what the book is entitled, “half-past autumn,” where he feels he’s at in his life. I thought it was significant when I read that first poem… I was almost in tears when he told the story about his father, and the advice he gives him, “If in autumn you can still manage a smile after all this shit you go through…”

TP: It has a very melancholy quality. In the DVD pieces with you, his brow looks like… You know how a trumpet player when they’re 60 has a face that looks like they play the trumpet. His looks like he’s been concentrating all his life, the brow curves in like this…

MAYFIELD: Very serious. But serious and a sense of warmth. His music and his art is combining. That’s what I wanted to capture. And these pictures did that to me. When I looked at them, they looked like pictures I might possibly have painted, or taken pictures of, or things I would have concocted myself. But that’s Gordon’s gift. He can make things that seem like they already exist come to creation, and they’re warm. Because he’s dealing with the basic fundamental themes that we all know in life — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. All that loneliness; he’s got that whole thing in his family. When I wrote the songs, being from New Orleans, I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.

Another thing is, when I was writing the music, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like his paintings, not some esoteric idea of jazz or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that when you bring your band scraps, it ignites them to figure out more.

TP: So the pieces were set up collaboratively?

MAYFIELD: Not collaboratively. But they were sketches. More ideas. Like his pieces are. I want to give emotions. And it was really the first record. Which is funny to me, because I wrote the music for my last record after I wrote this music, and it came out first.

TP: So the one with you and the young lady on the cover you wrote after “Half Past Autumn.”

MAYFIELD: I wrote that music after that. So coming back to this music, I went through the artist’s thing. It’s like writing a story that’s two years old, and you put out this other big story. I said, “Damn, I don’t know…”

TP: So you’re saying you developed this music on gigs before you went into the museum?

MAYFIELD: Right. By this time, I was on the road, touring with this band and Los Hombres Calientes. And by the time we went back to record the record for Gordon, I wondered whether the music wasn’t complicated… I went through all these emotional things. Then you know what I said? I said, “Man, you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to go to the studio and I’m going to ask the cats to dig down deep.” I told them in the studio, “Man, this is about what you want to do.” I don’t know what you want me to do.”

TP: So you went in the studio and did it after you performed it for him?

MAYFIELD: No. We performed it for him at the museum…

TP: Give me the course of events. Slow down and tell the story.

MAYFIELD: I wrote the music in two weeks. [LAUGHS] I had something else to do…I don’t remember…maybe I was on the road. We rehearsed three days before, every day, and… It was packed! Man, there are so many people trying to see Gordon Parks. It only seats 240. There were a thousand people outside. So the museum was happy, but there were a lot of unhappy people who couldn’t get in to see that performance. We went through each of the songs; it was supposed to take 30 minutes, but it took an 1 hour and 15. We’re jazz musicians. We’ve got to play! And at the end of the night, Gordon Parks jumped up and started dancing with his daughter. It’s New Orleans. That’s what killed everybody. Here are these guys who are supposed to be modern jazz musicians, and here we are, doing the most fundamental thing that we do, and he got up and danced. It was a party. But the deep thing is, the people enjoyed the music. It had nothing to do with him. It was like, “Wow, the music’s great; we’re all partying and dancing.” We played a blues that night, and after we finished, Gordon got up and said, “That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives.” Everybody was just like, “Wow!”

TP: Is that the blues you did with Wynton?

MAYFIELD: Yes. His three ex-wives. It was a great night. I thought about it… After the performance, I sat with him and talked with him a little while, he gave me his home number and said, “Give me a call me any time,” and… I’m star-struck at the same time. Not only have I known his movies, but now I’ve researched him. There’s no greater thing than this guy seeing you perform and saying he liked it.

Then I realized that I was going to put that music out. And it takes a significant amount of work to get a world-renowned artist and Renaissance man like Gordon Parks to collaborate.

TP: What was your process in choosing the photographs?

MAYFIELD: I was sitting at the piano, and I’d put up the photograph and look at it. And if I felt moved by it, that would be the one.

TP: There’s one he spoke to you about on the DVD, “Flowerscape.”

MAYFIELD: When I looked at it, it reminded me of a flamenco dancer… It seemed like a woman at some level of pizzazz or some attitude. That’s kind of what I thought about it, and that’s why the music has that kind of thing.

TP: His comment on the DVD was funny. He said he wanted to get the redness within the blackness but when you use your imagination it takes you into crazy stuff; I don’t even want to try to explain it. But this is the one that got him. This one reminded him of his wives.

MAYFIELD: No, the one that reminded him of his wives is “Moonscape.” I can understand that. You know, it’s obvious! Oh, I’m sorry. It’s “Blue Dawn.”

TP: So the images correlated with musical shapes and velocities…

MAYFIELD: I think the tune “Moonscapes,” which is actually based on the image on the cover of the book, too, which is why I started the CD with that one… I tried to think about what the Moon represented to him. The Moon represented another night coming and another day passing. The guy was facing starvation, and I think he can find solitude in such simple things that we take for granted almost. That’s really what I deal with in the piece. There’s not a lot of things going on in it, but what you hear is the band coming together with a concept, and we’re laying down these textures, and I guess we’re trying to make people reminisce about things deep down inside of them. That’s what the record really is.

TP: So just to reduce it to a term, it’s programmatic music; music that’s unified around a theme or a personality or…

MAYFIELD: Oh, yeah, I’m a big theme person. There’s not a record you’ll have by me that’s not…

TP: The recent one, the love series, everybody’s got to go through their love record.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, I had to get that one out. I was so heartbroken when I did that. That was painful.

TP: But that’s another story.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, that’s another story.

TP: How many compositions do you have with your name on it, copyrighted now? Over 100?


TP: You seem like a very prolific composer. On the Los Hombres Calientes records, you do a lot of tunes in a lot of different idioms, you seem able to get to the essence of the idiom in some way…

MAYFIELD: That’s my background.

TP: But it is hard for many people to do that, to be idiomatic but personal at the same time.

MAYFIELD: See, being from New Orleans gives you a key to a lot of that stuff, because New Orleans has all that in there. It’s the northern port of the Caribbean, and you’ve got so many different peoples from so many different walks of life. I haven’t even been through all my childhood experiences in music yet. Another thing is, I want nothing more than to be a person who’s writing about music…

I’ll tell you what. When I’m putting a record together, do you know what I do? I have very few records that stay with me that I can listen to. I listen to a record one time, I can’t listen to it again. Actually, a lot of musicians I listen to who have modern-day record deals, very few of those records I like. I find I can’t get anything out of them. I’m not a person that is just give me a song because I like to tap my foot to it.

TP: There has to be a reason for the song to exist.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, some greater thing… I can even appreciate somebody like Frank Sinatra, because there’s a certain thing he’s implying when he’s doing these things, he’s representing something… I need something there. I can’t just get with a record that’s out, and the name of this record is “From This Moment On” and…

TP: But your stuff is very modern. If I were going to try to describe to someone what it sounds like, it would seem like you’re piggybacking on some things Terence and Wynton did on top of other things, with various rhythmic stuff and phrasing…

MAYFIELD: It’s interesting, because some people will say I sound more modern than Wynton and Terence. Being from New Orleans, I think people are sometimes surprised when they hear my record and it sounds like what people would call a New Yorker, and then if they hear a Los Hombres record they say, “Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.” I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.

TP: That’s not so easy for musicians to do. It’s a characteristic of what a lot of musicians are striving, to jump between a lot of different things…

MAYFIELD: Because I think musicians are striving… My only thing is that I’m just trying to develop my own personal goals. I don’t want to write any song to sound like another song.

TP: When did Los Hombres Calientes start? That’s obviously been a huge thing for you. It’s taken you around the world, it’s been a popular band, it’s obviously opened up a lot of compositional and improvisational possibilities.

MAYFIELD: It started when I was living up here. I met Chucho Valdez with Wynton the first time he came to New York. They were trying to talk, and they couldn’t talk at all, man, because Chucho didn’t speak English, and Wynton started talking… It wasn’t working out. But they started playing together. I said, “Damn, what is this connection between Cuba and New Orleans?” I always liked Cuban music, and these guys are playing together and it’s making sense. Terence made this record with Ivan Lins, the Brazilian singer. I’m thinking: Why do I like Reggae music? What is the connection with Brazilian music? Then I came home and decided I was going to put together a band that dealt with all those connections. And the connection was that all that music is dance music, but the level of integrity is very high, whether it’s Reggae or whether it’s Brazilian music.
So I called up Bill, who I called “Mister Sommers” then. He had just moved to New Orleans. I’d gone to school with Jason Marsalis. And I decided I’d put this band together. We were just going to do a couple of gigs. It was going to be a thing where we got together maybe twice or three times a year. I wanted to be funny. Because people always say jazz musicians are so uptight, I named it after a rap group, “the hot boys.”: Then we did this gig, and more people wrote about the gig before it started than probably any band I’ve ever known in New Orleans.

From there, the project led me and it led Bill — it molded us. Then Jason left the band. Then I think we solidified the concept after Jason left. Jason was more into interpretative things. He’s more like Gordon Parks. That’s interpretative. When you’re dealing with the music of Los Hombres, it’s not as interpretive; it’s about laying down the foundation of what it is — the essence of it. I think that’s always the balance between the two groups. One is about essence, one is about interpretation.

TP: Take me back a bit, to how you found the trumpet or how the trumpet found you.

MAYFIELD: I only started playing trumpet because my best friend, Jeffrey, played trumpet. He doesn’t play any more! But he made good grades, straight A’s, the girls liked him — I wanted to be like Jeffrey. So I wanted to get a trumpet. Then my Dad said, “Well, you know, if you get this trumpet…” My Dad used to be a drill sergeant in the Army. He said, “If you get this trumpet, you have to play it til you get to college.” I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, I want to get the trumpet.” Then I found out later he knew how to play the trumpet somewhat, so he started giving me lessons. Man, i tried to quit at least 10-11 times, but he wasn’t going for that. He wasn’t on that program. He’d spent his money on the horn, and he was going to get his money’s worth.

Then I fell in love with it. It was shocking. At some point, I decided… I think he had ambitions of me being a physicist or a mathematician or something like that…

TP: It backfired on him!

MAYFIELD: Yeah, it backfired. But I fell in love with the trumpet. But being from New Orleans… Man, I remember being on my street and seeing second line bands pass down the street outside.

TP: Did you ever do the second line thing as a kid?

MAYFIELD: Of course. I was the youngest member of the Algiers Brass Band, which was a traditional brass band that played all the old tunes. And I played with Danny Barker.

TP: Oh, you got to play with him before he passed.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. I played with him a lot before he passed. I learned a lot of stuff with him. I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is. I think one difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. You talk about a cat like Danny Barker, man he was hip when he was old. There was never no point in time when he wasn’t hip. And he would talk about…

TP: Hipness is not a state of mind; it’s a fact of life.

MAYFIELD: He’d sit down and he… Here’s a guy who was in his sixties talking about “bitches and hos” and at the same time he’s talking about his chord structures on the guitar, and Louis Armstrong, what he did for American music. This is the scope of a conversation in New Orleans.

TP: For a teenager, that’s quite a scope of conversation.

MAYFIELD: The other thing about the older musicians, they always talked to you like a man. He wasn’t not going to say “bitches and hos” around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.

TP: So that probably paved the way for you to relate to someone like Gordon Parks.

MAYFIELD: Clearly. Exactly. Not so much relate to him as much as respect the shit out of him.

TP: But to do a suite about someone who’s 90 years old, you have to have the empathy to get under their skin and have the confidence you can project those things.

MAYFIELD: But he writes so well… I don’t know, man. He writes so well… A great writer like Hemingway and Faulkner, they can do something to you. It seems like you know them personally. He had that Hemingwayesque approach of writing. You know how you read Hemingway and you start getting hungry because he’s always talking about food? You don’t even know what food it is necessarily, but it sounds mighty tasty by the time he gets finished describing how he ate it. And Gordon’s the same way. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. It’s things we all know. We all go through them. We know that look before we’re about to get our ass whipped, and we all know that look before we’re about to consummate our relationship with a woman or a mate. That I got to know from musicians, appreciating them stories. I’ve never laughed as much as I laughed when I hung out with Danny Barker.

TP: So do those stories correlate to the way you think about music and framing a solo and writing a phrase?

MAYFIELD: The band is always laughing at songs I write. Because there are some songs that they all know what they’re about. Some are clearly about anger, some are about love, some are about sex. So when we’re in the studio, they’re all…

TP: There’s a subtext.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. Then they start making words to the songs! I think that’s realistically… Look, I’m a 25-year-old and I’m approaching it my way. Wynton’s way is his way, and that’s 20 years before, what they did.

TP: So you were in the brass band, and then you wound up at NOCCA.

MAYFIELD: That was a real reality check. Because see, being in a brass band, hanging around these older musicians, I was quite cocky to be so young, because I was better than everybody.

TP: You could play the instrument.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, I could play the instrument and I knew these old cats, and I had a certain level of sophistication that everybody didn’t. Until I got to know better, and then I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the drums and interpret it. He had that total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize it. He was a monster. And Nicholas Payton (he was 29, but he was still hanging around) walks in, and he’s playing bass the first time I heard him. I said, “Oh, what a great bass player.” Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounds like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. And that made me have to really decide, hearing Nicholas Payton for the first. There’s a lot of cats. Adonis Rose. And the thing is, these cats were working. These cats had gigs. They were like 14 and 15, traveling and working… It was a different experience.

I didn’t really come from a musical family, because even though my father knew a lot of the technical aspects, he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is a town of tradition. It’s very aristocratic in that sense. And you deal with a lot of the Creole tradition. Tradition plays a big role. So a lot of times, if you’re not fitting in, in some way it’s hard to deal with. I think I went through a lot of that when I was coming up, trying to figure out which group I belonged in, or I didn’t have any of those things. So I think it essentially made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing.

TP: So when you were in high school, what were you thinking defined what you wanted to be doing?

MAYFIELD: In high school, I think I was always dissatisfied with what I was doing. That was the biggest important thing I knew in high school. I knew I was not where I wanted to be, and I knew it was going to take a lot of work and it was almost an impossible task. But I made a decision that no matter what it took, I would do it, because I loved it so much. I really love music, and not just jazz. Jazz is one of the mediums in which I lay out what I do, but it’s art. I love literature, I love visual arts, I love theater, I love dance — I love people communicating.

TP: Did that start at NOCCA? I know it’s a multidisciplinary arts high school.

MAYFIELD: It started at NOCCA. When I got to New York, New York seriously nurtured it.

TP: Did you go straight up to New York from NOCCA?

MAYFIELD: I went to UNO. I studied with Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr… I’ve been mentored by damn near every trumpet player out of New Orleans.

TP: Were you listening to other trumpet players historically?

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. In New Orleans, man, Louis Armstrong’s music was very vibrant and alive.

TP: So you had to play that music too.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah.

TP: That’s a thing that trumpet players outside New Orleans don’t really have to do.

MAYFIELD: Well, see, in New Orleans, not only do you have to play all that. Then you’ve got to go on the R&B gig. See, ain’t no prejudice about music in New Orleans. I never knew anything about period playing until I got to New York, because here cats talk about what type of jazz they play. I never heard that shit. When I was in New Orleans, if you wanted to do a gig with Kidd Jordan and play some avant-garde music, that’s what you played. Happily. You were happy to be playing. Then you went and played an R&B gig, or maybe you played some horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead. Or maybe you’d go and play some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You are a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was. People start defining it after you do it. I had a hard time when I first got here because of that. Because everybody thought you fit in a bag. Well, if you’re hang with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, and you don’t like to play music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is actually non-structural — it’s really free music. That’s what Wynton and them were trying to do, ironically enough, especially Terence Blanchard. People want you to stay the same.

So when I think about what molded me, growing up in New Orleans is a… It’s a great thing, but then it’s a bad thing, because at the same time, nobody in New Orleans appreciates what you’re doing, because everybody is a musician. Everybody is an artist. Everybody cooks. You’re not special. “Yeah, so what? The cook plays trumpet. His grandson plays trumpet.” We have a lineage of people who play trumpet who are all great who never did anything. “So what about you?”

TP: That’s a great environment to develop what you do, because you just have to do it, but then you have to get out to make it…

MAYFIELD: New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re really a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home. So you go through this emotional thing. It’s weird. But being up here in New York, when I first got here, at that point it was so different from New Orleans, it was the only place I said, “I could live here and never go back home.” Because it was so much!

TP: Donald Harrison tried it. Terence tried it. I don’t think Nicholas tried it. But most of the people…

MAYFIELD: Well, Nicholas went on the road. He was up here hanging for a second. But what I realized is being here after two or two-and-a-half years, man, it wears on you. You have to know how to cleanse yourself if you’re going to be up here. But I guess that’s the thing I liked about it. I felt proud every day I made another day in New York. Because everybody’s trying to make it up here.

TP: Has the music for the “Half-Past Autumn Suite” changed or evolved since you wrote it?

MAYFIELD: Man, I’m on the stage with four guys who are determined to play something different every night. And it’s a hard process, because when you write music, you intend on it staying the same way, but it just ain’t happening! They take over. You may be the bandleader, but whoever is playing the most music per song is the bandleader. So you’ve got to follow them. So yeah, it changes, and depending on the night, it is what it is. One night everything is a certain way, and another night, you know… The thing I’ve noticed about the response to the music is that most… See, I would assume that this record wouldn’t have gotten as many reviews artistically… I knew people would say, “It’s nice Gordon Parks and you have collaborated,” but I don’t think people would have appreciated it as much as my last record. But what I guess I’ve found — and I’ve learned my lesson through this record — is that sometimes less is more. I guess I started I’ve started to understand more what Miles Davis really did through his reductions down to simplicity in music. He really reduced things down to those fundamental assets of what’s really required. It’s an interesting experience. I’ll tell you one thing. when you’re playing music like that, you’ve got to really trust the musicians. Because, man, you’ve got some musicians who can’t carry that off… It’s all about the musicians at that point.

TP: Are these guys from New Orleans.

MAYFIELD: No. Aaron Fletcher is from Tipino, Louisiana. It’s New Orleans, but he’s a country bumpkin, man. Victor Atkins is from Selma, Alabama, so he’s a product of the Civil Rights movement. Jaz Sawyer is from the Bay Area. Jaz is like my soulmate. Me and Aaron are like brothers, because we play so well together, but me and Jaz are like… We’ve played and worked together so much.

TP: He’s a very accomplished drummer.

MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. He is really… I would say if there are any new innovations, they really come from the drums. He’s the kind of guy who just refuses to do anything anybody else does. He’s his own person. You know he’s going to show up late to the show. I just wish I could expose everybody to the band, because the band is so crazy. It’s young guys, but…

Neal Caine is a wild man! [Benny Green, Harry, Elvin] Don’t leave your girlfriend around if Neal Caine is around. He’s a wild man.

TP: Did you do that?

MAYFIELD: Hell, no! I learned from experience! Aaron is a nice guy. Aaron will cook for everybody, make breakfast. He’s country. But Neil and Jaz, I don’t know what’s going to happen. On the stage, we’ll be playing songs, and they’ll start yelling words from other songs…

TP: The music isn’t local any more.

MAYFIELD: Well, you’ve got to go with the guys who can really deliver what you need. Like, Aaron is living in L.A. right now.

TP: Is that because Terence is out in L.A. a lot?

MAYFIELD: Well, he’s not in Terence’s band any more. But I think he wanted to find a different… Everybody goes through that. I did New York and he wants to do L.A. I’m not a big L.A. fan necessarily.

TP: Tell me about Gordon Parks’ music.

MAYFIELD: The first time I heard Gordon Parks’ music, I was watching an HBO documentary. I was like, “Damn, this music is killing; who did the soundtrack?” The name of Gordon Parks came up. Then I was about fed up at that point! Does the guy have to do everything and be successful? You feel insignificant inferior next to a cat like this.

You know that Gordon can’t read any music, so he came up with his own notation system. Can you imagine coming up with a whole nother written language? His music is beautiful. It’s very melancholy, like you said. When I asked him to play on the record… He said, “I think there’s this piece you may want to check out. I wanted to do it for Leontyne Price, and it deals with the sentiments of September 11th.” He played it for me. I said, “Well, Gordon, why can’t we play it together. You play it.” He said, “No, you should get your piano player to play it.” I said, “No, you should play it.” He said, “I’ve never done a recording session before. I’ve never been in the studio and played on a record.” I said, “But you’re Gordon Parks!” Do you know, he practiced for three days and came to the studio. The studio was packed.

TP: He’s got some left hand.

MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. Everybody asked me, “Who’s that on piano? Do you have a classical pianist on there?” He’s amazing. And the title of the song is “Wind Song.” I was extremely nervous playing that song, because I knew I doing something that very few people get an opportunity to do in life.

TP: But you’d listened to his recordings. Are they all within the rubric of classical?

MAYFIELD: Well, you know, he used to play blues in juke joints and all that stuff. But he has that kind of blues interpretation to it. Yet at the same, it’s a very French…

TP: Is it like a deeply harmonized blues?

MAYFIELD: You can hear all the elements. You can hear that honky-tonk piano. You can also hear the influence of France — Debussy and Ravel. You can hear that shit all up in his stuff. You can hear the interpretation of… His sound is still American, despite the fact that it’s very heavily influenced by French composers. And it still sounds like Negro music. That’s Gordon Parks.
TP: That’s a beautiful piece.

MAYFIELD: I like it, too. I can put it on, it’s a nice day, I put it on at home… My mother likes it a lot.

TP: Obviously, Gordon Parks is a holistic personality, with all his activities integrated with one another. Talk about your impressions of the ways in which his music and his photography are linked.

MAYFIELD: I think his music and his photography are linked in the sense that he loves to function in… See, the thing about music is that it’s the only art form that is in the same space as emotion. He understands that completely, and he tries to transcend that with his art. Because his photographs… But then the photographs become visual art. They’re not just photographs. They’re paintings… I’ve asked him and he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking of.” It’s like asking Miles Davis, “What were you thinking when you were doing…” And I know I’ve made a lot of comparisons between Gordon and Miles. But there’s a lot of comparisons to be made. Because I think that’s true, exceptional genius, is when you can take something, which is anything, and reduce down to its fundamental level, and exude beauty from it. The guy is a master.

And it’s hard for me to detach myself from how amazing it is. Because you have to realize, when I’m writing these pieces, I’m digging down so deep inside myself and what I’m capable of, because I’m amazed at what he’s able to do. His pieces are all different. Some artists, they make one piece, and another piece it’s like, “Ah, you can tell it’s him.” Gordon Parks’ shit is not like that. Every piece is distinctly different. You don’t know what he uses. He don’t even know what he uses. And he’s challenging himself. You know what Gordon Parks’ art is like? It’s like being on the edge of the abyss, looking out and then jumping off. That’s his art. Each one of his pieces.

TP: Whether it’s music, whether it’s photography…

MAYFIELD: I mean, even to come up and make a black action hero! That was absurd, man! To be the first to really say, “I’m going to make a black action hero.” Then they said, “Well, damn, why don’t you direct it?” So then he directs it. Then he decides what music he wants. And tell me that music didn’t become the definitive music of the era. I think a lot of people don’t… You have to realize, no Gordon Parks, no Curtis Mayfield. No Gordon Parks, you miss out on that whole aspect of what people define as black music during the ’70s. Much as people don’t want to admit it, because I know a lot of people think that he didn’t take enough of a stand throughout the ’60 and ’70s — but that is a stand. I was in an argument not too long ago with a guy who was saying the same thing about a musician like Miles Davis. I can’t say he took a serious stand like James Brown. But that’s what art is. Art is a stand. That’s what we’re doing out here, is making a stand. And Gordon Parks’ art makes a stand, a stand towards humanity, not towards political achievement. When you look at his art, it transcends all that.

It’s like Louis Armstrong. You’ve got more people around the world trying to imitate Louis Armstrong and singing his songs than anyone else. He’s the one singer…the most performed artist all over the place, more than Michael Jackson. Why is that? Because he’s challenging on a humanity level, not on a political front and not on a specific genre and not on an American front. Actually, the concept he really deals with… This is what we mean by the concept of jazz being democracy, is that the concept outgrows the people who create it. And Gordon Parks’ art does that. It outgrows him. So a lot of times I know why he doesn’t want to explain any of the shit he’s doing, because it’s bigger than him.

TP: Right. I understand. He channels it.

MAYFIELD: Yeah. And it’s the same thing with me… You know, people ask me, “How did you write all this?” I can’t respond to that. It’s because I’m just following what’s out there.

TP: You really got a lot out of living at Wynton’s house. Sounds like it was a higher education for you.

MAYFIELD: Oh, the arguments, man. I wouldn’t argue with him. But I’d see some great debates go down.

TP: Stanley would be there?

MAYFIELD: Oh my God, the greatest debater of all time, whether he’s wrong or right. And that’s the idea. That’s why I got Stanley to do the liner notes. I said, “Well, whether he’s wrong or whether he’s right, he’s going to make some point for people to engage in a dialogue about it.” I think that’s what people miss about jazz. Jazz is about the dialogue. It’s about the process. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It’s about the process of trying to be better. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.

TP: Well, it’s great that there are still people who want to do that, because it certainly isn’t the zeitgeist in terms of the mass.

MAYFIELD: I think we live in sad times, with sad movies and sad things that take up a lot of what’s going on. And even in the jazz realm. A lot of what people call jazz, I would consider to be sad music. I can’t say I’m really impressed with a lot of artists who are around right now.

TP: Who do you like these days?

MAYFIELD: Do you want me to be honest? [LAUGHS] I like Brad Mehldau. I like his conception, because I like how he’s a master of form. He’s very specific on forms. I like Abbey Lincoln. But out of the young cats, I can’t say I’m too enthralled by a lot of the others. I like Roy Hargrove’s trumpet playing, but I’m not impressed by his records. They’re two different worlds. Because hey, when Roy walks in the room, everybody starts playing. Even me. I love Roy. That don’t mean when I pick up his records…

I think that’s part of the challenge of where we’re at right now. I take my records very seriously. I try to make records that I want to listen to, and there’s a lot of records I don’t want to listen to.

TP: What’s your current project now? Some author you’re reading a lot of? Some filmmaker…

MAYFIELD: There’s a lot of stuff. Reading list: Ralph Ellison. Faulkner. I’m actually trying to finish every Faulkner book. I’ve read about 7.

TP: You have 15 to go. Have you read the Trilogy yet?

MAYFIELD: I haven’t read the trilogy. Absalom, Absalom, The Sound And The Fury. Hemingway, the same thing. I’m trying to complete him by next year. I’m trying to complete Faulkner in two years. I’m trying to complete Ellison in the next eight months.

TP: Who do you talk to about it?

MAYFIELD: Well, I’m the director of the Institute of Jazz (?) at Dillard.

TP: So you talk to the faculty at Dillard.

MAYFIELD: Oh yeah, man. The eminent scholars over there are wonderful, and I engage in conversations with them. People disagree with me a lot. And that’s fine. It’s about of the process. But for me, Ralph Ellison embodies that person I go back to as far as literature. Picasso is that person in Art — and Bearden. They’re the two people. But Picasso is really my guy. Alvin Ailey blew me away not too long ago with the new pieces that Judith Jameson is doing. In theater, you can’t ever get away from Shakespeare. I’m trying to deal with actually reading some more Shakespeare. So I’m starting with the poems and some shorter versions of the plays. There’s a lot of the stuff, because at the same time…

TP: You’re doing a lot of things. Plus trumpet is an instrument you have to practice.

MAYFIELD: Have to practice. And then we just started this jazz orchestra in New Orleans. So now I’ve got four of the guys in the trumpet section all out for blood, so I really have to practice now! Really, mostly I’m thinking of the bigger picture as far as tying all these things together and start engaging in dialogues about how these things are related.


* * *

Irvin Mayfield (4-19-03):
TP: One thing I wanted to address with you is the attitude with which you approach Los Hombres Calientes. There’s a certain level of showmanship and presentation involved in it. It’s a very effective live band.

MAYFIELD: I don’t really think that Los Hombres’ presentation is necessarily different from my quintet. It’s more that the music to lends itself that maybe people who are not familiar with the music might have a different outlook on it. But when I play quintet… One thing the band was saying the last time we were in New York is that we felt the audience was very stiff, and it was strange for us. Even when I play quintet, I still play some of the…


TP: You said that the last time you played in New York, the guys in the band thought the audience was stiff.

MAYFIELD: Yes. I guess in New Orleans people have jazz as part of the culture, as a cultural thing, and people react very differently to jazz. It has a different meaning to people in New Orleans than it does to people everywhere else, and sometimes we get spoiled by that.

TP: How does it have a different meaning?

MAYFIELD: Well, meaning that it’s ceremonial. Meaning that if I play the music that I was playing for the Gordon Parks suite for a bunch of kids in New Orleans who go to public schools and are from impoverished areas, they would be reacting to the music, screaming and enjoying themselves, because they’re used to reacting like that. They’re used to going to the second-lines and the funerals. They know all the traditional New Orleans jazz songs, such as “Saints” and “High Society” and “Flee As a Bird.” So it has a different meaning to them. So when I’m playing, they’re interacting with the music. It’s an interactive thing. When we leave New Orleans, it’s kind of like we’re playing for foreigners. They’re enjoying it, but they’re enjoying it by just listening and watching.

TP: That’s both bands, both ways of playing.

MAYFIELD: Well, Los Hombres is a little more successful because the music lends itself…

TP: It’s dance music.

MAYFIELD: Right, it’s very specific dance music. But the thing about Los Hombres is… Of course, you could argue that the rhythms are danceable. It’s not as interpretive as the music that I do with my quintet, of course. But Los Hombres is pretty much a jazz group. We’re just showing people that it’s okay to interact with jazz. If you’d seen some of the performances that we’ve done with the quintet where people interact, it’s not too much of a different reaction.

TP: In what way is Los Hombres Calientes a jazz band? Is it as flexible and fluid and improvisational as your quintet music? That’s pretty complex music, after all.

MAYFIELD: Well, they’re pretty much on the same level of complexity. I think the difference is that the quintet music is more interpretive. Meaning that a jazz musician, when we’re playing music, we’re not dealing with the indigenous part of it. Except when we play certain… [LAUGHS] It gets real complex. Really what’s happening is that on one level it’s more interpretive. Once you get the music, the interpretation sets in for the jazz musician, because the genre you’re playing is jazz. So there’s more flexibility in interpretation of all kinds of things. The functionality of things can change easier than they can when we’re playing Los Hombres. For instance, if Bill wants to play a certain rhythm, then Ricky has to play that same style of rhythm. Well, in the quintet, we don’t have that problem, because there’s only one drummer. Neal Caine is interpreting the bass part and Jaz is interpreting his Brazilian music that we played on the Gordon Parks record, as opposed to when Bill and Ricky play the Brazilian songs — they’re playing the specific samba rhythm.

TP: And is Edwin Livingston playing the same rhythm also? He’s interlocking with them.

MAYFIELD: Exactly. But the interesting thing that happens is that the more you understand the rules, the more you can break them. Like, if you listen to our first record, which was light years behind where we are now, you hear less interpretation. Now, when you listen to our records, we’re doing many things. We’re keeping with the vibe of what the music really is, but we interpret and take more chances and really develop the motifs more than we have been doing in the past.

TP: Do you have any particular group in Los Hombres Calientes? I’m thinking the Fort Apache Band might be an antecedent…

MAYFIELD: What we’re doing with Los Hombres has never been done before.

TP: Why? Because the rhythmic template is so broad?

MAYFIELD: It’s so broad and it’s so indigenous. The level of study we’ve done, it would take… This is a band that’s been five years of study. It would take a long time for people to really get that together. Another thing is that it’s very hard for Latin musicians to play swing and to play blues.

TP: I’m saying this for the point of argument, but I’m wondering if bands like Fort Apache Band set a template for you in conceptualizing this or if it’s a purely home-grown thing.

MAYFIELD: The difference between a band like Los Hombres and Fort Apache is that Los Hombres is a New Orleans band, and a New Orleans musician has more flexibility than any other musician from anywhere else. Meaning that a New Orleans musician… With some very rare exceptions. Jaz Sawyer is a very rare exception, but where is he living right now? New Orleans. A New Orleans musician can play the Brazilian styles and the Cuban styles and the New Orleans styles. When Horacio — El Negro — was in the band… And don’t get me wrong. With Horacio, you’re talking about the foremost influential Cuban drummer in the world today. He is the top cat, the top-number-one guy from Cuba playing the drums. But as far as the flexibility of playing funk music and New Orleans music, it was good and he did his best, but it’s not as strong as, for instance, when Ricky plays it. Because it’s very hard to get the New Orleans type of feel if you’re not in New Orleans. It’s an American approach, and it gives you a different outlook as far as jazz and how all those things relate to each other.

TP: You’re talking about the entrepot aspect of New Orleans as a Gulf City.

MAYFIELD: Exactly. One thing people have to realize is that we’re including New Orleans in there, and the reason it gets to be complicated is because New Orleans music is jazz. You have New Orleans music that gets to be less jazz, it gets to be more jazz-influenced, like the Neville Brothers or Bo Dollis and Wild Magnolias and the Mardi Gras Indian type of things. But what we’ve clearly stated on our records is we’ve even shown to a certain extent that all those musics really are just a hybrid. They’re the foundation that laid the palette for what Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and all those people started to do.

TP: One record I thought was very radical when it came out was Donald Harrison’s “Indian Blues,” which came out a couple of years after the first really complete Fort Apache records. Did Donald’s return to New Orleans in the early ’90s have an impact, or the things Wynton was doing with the Septet?

MAYFIELD: What really influenced me… I think Wynton even credits me for being ahead of him, as far as him really wanting to get a good hold on the whole indigenous music of the Caribbean and the African diaspora. What really influenced me was actually that when I heard this music, I always heard the connections, even when I was a kid. And when I lived in New York, Chucho Valdez came and met Wynton, and I got to hear them play together. It worked. It made sense to me. See, Wallace Roney playing with Chucho Valdez does not mean the same thing as Wynton playing. Not to take anything… A lot of people think, being New Orleans, that we’re trying to talk shit on people…
TP: Yes, they do!

MAYFIELD: But it’s not really that, man. If you don’t live there, you just don’t know. Here’s Donald Harrison. Here’s a motherfucker who puts on a fuckin’ Indian headdress and can function… When he’s playing with them, he doesn’t sound like Donald Harrison. For instance, Wallace Roney, everything he does sounds like Wallace Roney. Donald Harrison! You can put on a fuckin’ Eddie Palmieri record, you’d be like “Who the hell is that?” “That’s Donald.” “Oh, okay.” Nicholas Payton is the same way. Here’s a guy who can play many different styles many different ways. I’ll tell you, that’s been part of the problem for many New Orleans musicians.

TP: That’s a problem.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, because the fuckin’ major markets have no idea how to expand upon that. That’s hard for them. Nicholas Payton runs into that problem all the time. What is he? A traditional New Orleans musician? That’s what he got his Grammies for. They want to lock him into what he’s doing with Doc Cheatham. And in New Orleans you have so many different indigenous types of musicians. The Mardi Gras Indians shit that Donald does and the traditional shit that Nicholas is so versed in are two completely different things. Then, if you want to start getting with the gospel element that happens in New Orleans music, that’s a whole other thing. But they all co-influence each other.

I think that’s really what we’re trying to say with Los Hombres, is that we try to exhaust these different elements of music from the Caribbean. And don’t get me wrong. This record, Volume 4, could very easily have been a New Orleans record. I didn’t exhaust anything. I gave a little snippet just to try to give people an idea that they have entertain New Orleans in a different fashion from what they have been.

TP: Los Hombres sounds like it’s going to be a perpetual work in progress so long as you and Sommers both have the energy to do the fieldwork.
MAYFIELD: One day we would like to take a band of 80 musicians on the road, where we would have three or four musicians from a country.

TP: Did you say 80?


TP: Sort of like Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations concept extrapolated…

MAYFIELD: If you really want to know, I’m really taking the bench from where Dizzy left it. I’m really taking his mark, and we’re taking it into the new millennium. No one has done that. Dizzy’s shit was groundbreaking. And he was interested in African shit. People don’t understand that the easiest place to get to Africa is Cuba. That’s Africa. People look at it as just some Spanish shit. There ain’t shit Spanish about that music except for the words. Matter of fact, really Latin…

TP: A lot of the Spanish music is African, too. North African.

MAYFIELD: The term “Latin” is a European term. When you think of Latin, you think of the Pope, you think… When you hear Horacio or Cha-Cha, or you hear these guys singing in Yoruba, and you see these guys beating on drums, I’m sorry, that’s just some African shit. You know what the whole Volume 4 of Los Hombres is about? There is no such thing called Latin music. That shit does not exist. And we’ve been trying to dispel that for a long time.

TP: Stephen Bernstein a few years ago did a record called “Diaspora Soul,” where he put Afro-Cuban rhythms on Jewish cantorial melodies, which have a North African component to them, and in his notes he was calling it a Gulf sound.

MAYFIELD: Even that kind of doesn’t work. Really what is, is the concept of the African diaspora? As it gets to certain places, it survives and mutates in different ways. When it got to Cuba, it was one thing; when it got to Haiti, it was one thing; when it got to Brazil, it was one thing. But when it got to New Orleans, a very interesting thing happened. I think in New Orleans, our music is the true representation of democracy, and the concept of music and the concept of Democracy is much greater than the men who created it. I think it’s one of those rare things. That’s how it happened. You look at the legacy and the magnitude of Louis Armstrong’s music, it was much greater than he was as a man. I think that’s the same thing with Los Hombres. It’s a concept that’s so large and so big, it’s much bigger than Bill and I. We’re trying to do the best we can to keep our arms around it and keep moving forward.

It’s very hard to define this shit in words, because the music defines it. That’s what we really try to do. We can sit up here and say there’s no such thing as Latin music and get controversial, which we haven’t really taken that stand in the press yet, because we take it with the records. And if people check out the record, it is what it is. Here are the Mardi Gras Indians. They have their own specific rhythms, their own specific things, and all this music is ceremonial.

TP: In New Orleans, it sounds like you have, for the most part, a ceremonial context in which to perform the music.

MAYFIELD: That’s what I mean is the difference between when we play in New Orleans as opposed to when we play in New York. Because of the ceremonial aspects, because it has to do with celebration of life and different things, when we play in different places it doesn’t really transfer to people that same exact way as far as how they react to it. It does transfer to them as far as how they feel, obviously. That’s why I feel that New Orleans musicians have always been at the top tier of the people who tour and represent the music. Even when you talk about the legacy of Miles Davis or the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie, it still doesn’t have the same magnitude as the legacy of Louis Armstrong because his music was so celebratory. It has to do with that same thing that happened when Dizzy started working with Chano Pozo. You know, they play rhumba at ceremonial parties. It’s a religious thing!
TP: It’s pretty secular stuff, like courtship rituals for dock-workers.

MAYFIELD: Well, the same thing happened with jazz. All the jazz songs before 1900 were religious songs. That’s point-blank, and people don’t really understand it. Without the New Orleans funeral, there would be no jazz. Field hollers come from the gospel, from the spirituals.

TP: It always seemed to me that the reason why African music traveled so well is that rhythm and timbre were language, and it couldn’t be quenched. That’s how I read Wynton’s meaning by “black codes from the underground,” and it’s why rhythmic innovation is so key in jazz, because that language is coming through in different iterations, no matter how conscious the person who’s producing those develops is of the context. There’s still that metaphorical quality.

MAYFIELD: I agree with you 100%. You are right on the concept. The amazing thing about Los Hombres is that the band gives you that ceremonial experience.

TP: In terms of your identity as a trumpet player, how does it fit into the ceremonial context? What you’re talking about is something that’s collective. But then there’s the tonal personality that someone associates with your name, which is going to happen more and more, because I’d be 95% sure that by the time you’re 40 you’re going to have a certain impact on the way this music is going. So where does your individuality fit into this? In America, imperatives of individualism stand for more than they do in Cuba or in Trinidad or in Haiti.

MAYFIELD: The first thing is that I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and that’s a very individualistic thing. That means that my approach and how I play is very specific. I play the New Orleans approach. I play the New Orleans way. I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs with the suspenders and the white hats — and I follow that legacy. The second thing is that I challenge the concept of what Wynton puts out there by redefining the concept of what jazz is and what it can be.
TP: What is the concept and how are you challenging it?

MAYFIELD: Meaning the concept of the records he’s put out versus the type of records that I’ve put out.

TP: Is that what Albert Murray means by “counterstatement”?

MAYFIELD: Exactly. That’s that important thing of a dialogue. I think a lot of times people get so pissed off with what people say, that they don’t understand that the dialogue is what’s so important. It’s not who’s wrong or right. A lot of times it gets into who’s wrong or right. Can we just get some interesting dialogue! Maybe I am wrong! Maybe I am right. Can we have a dialogue about it. I think that’s what the Los Hombres records are about versus my own solo records. That’s why I think it’s important to bring out these two records — Gordon Parks and Los Hombres — close to one another. It’s two very different concepts dealing with two very big-ass issues that are not being addressed right now. In my generation now, if you had to ask Joshua Redman what visual artist of his age group is his counterpart right now, he couldn’t tell you.

TP: You asked him?


TP: And he couldn’t tell you?

MAYFIELD: No. Or if you ask Nicholas Payton. Not only couldn’t tell me, but he don’t really give a damn.

TP: Joshua would give a damn, but Nicholas wouldn’t.

MAYFIELD: That’s Nicholas’ personality. And that’s a jazz musician. That’s a guy who’s open to this shit. Don’t even ask the visual artist! That’s the type of collaboration that used to go on in the 1960s. You had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. And a lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s part of my generation and reflective of what we’re doing in American culture right now.

TP: Do you think that music governed by the aesthetic you bring to it can penetrate the corporate media? Do you see yourself having a consequential impact on the global aesthetic?

MAYFIELD: It does impact. I go all over the country, all over the world, and people have my records. I’m not selling millions of records, but people understand the concept of what we’re doing, and every time we play more and more people are interested. What people don’t really notice is the true impact that bands have. When we play New York or Boston and young guys come out, and we go to the universities or colleges or high schools, and they see a band like my quintet where they hear Jaz, this young guy playing all that shit he’s playing, and being serious and really playing his style… Jaz is a very conceptual player. In my opinion, he is probably the top drummer in country now for the approach he’s playing, really expanding upon what Max Roach and Billy Higgins and Roy Haynes and those guys did — not playing like them, doing something different.

TP: Talking swing drums.

MAYFIELD: Exactly! You got it. When they see a band like Los Hombres, here you’ve got those young guys like Leon Brown and Devon and Stephen Walker. Here are New Orleans musicians, these young guys, and they’re supposed to be the traditionalists! They’re supposed to be this thing that everybody’s so afraid that Wynton has instilled in everyone, and here these guys are playing shit from Woody Shaw on, trying to expand what they’re dealing with constantly all the time, and at the same time shakin’ their ass and partying and having a good time. That’s Los Hombres. That’s the type of concept I don’t just have with Los Hombres. Even though Los Hombres is very specific as far as the type of project we’re doing, we know we’re going to travel and bring all these cultures in, I’m still the same guy with both groups. It’s just that I’m using different resources with each of them. That’s really the difference. The resource on my record with Gordon Parks was, “Shit, I got Gordon Parks, so I can do all kinds of shit with him.” There my musicians are interpretive guys. When I’m in Los Hombres, I’ve got Bill. I can do a different thing. I’ve got more people.

TP: It’s holistic for you.

MAYFIELD: It is. It’s all part of that one thing.


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Filed under Article, New Orleans, trumpet, Wynton Marsalis

For Olu Dara’s Birthday, An Uncut 2002 Blindfold Test

Back in 2002, when he was recording for Atlantic Records, trumpeter Olu Dara, who turned 73 today, sat with me at Atlantic’s offices for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. Here are the unedited proceedings.

Olu Dara Blindfold Test:

1.    Louis Armstrong, “You Go To My Head” (from LOUIS ARMSTRONG MEETS OSCAR PETERSON, Verve, 1956) (5 stars)

From the first couple of notes, although he has a cup mute, if it’s not Satch, it’s someone who’s been living with him all his life in the back room somewhere. [AFTER] Of course that was Louis Armstrong.  A lot of the trumpet players from that era had a certain sound, it was a staccato, but you know it’s Satch with the vibrato at the end of his phrases.  That’s how you can really tell.  And the tone.  I usually prefer Satch playing other type of songs, not these conventional standard type songs.  It’s a strange thing for me.  It’s like a hybrid of something… Knowing where he came from, New Orleans, the Southern thing, him doing this is like a Chinese singing a Puerto Rican song.  You know what I mean?  It’s hard to describe.  Now, the piano player sounds exactly like something McCoy Tyner played, almost note for note.  I don’t know who came first, this piano player or McCoy, but it’s an exact duplicate of the way McCoy played behind Coltrane on “Ballads.” [This piano player came first?]  Who is he?  Oscar Peterson?  Amazing.  In instrumental music there’s a lot of…it’s not copying, but they almost cookie-cutter each other.  It’s amazing how that happens, especially in jazz music.  Anyway, just because it’s Satch, I would give him everything.  5 stars, 6 or 7.  Because I know he can do that laying on his back.

2.    Leo Smith, “Anoa’s Prophecy” (#8) (from DREAMS AND SECRETS, Anonym, 2000) (5 stars)

It sounds like a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer trying to play funk.  But that is Miles Davis…or someone close to him.  No? [LAUGHS] That’s deep!  Keep playing it!  Is that the trumpet player who writes in film? [Not Mark Isham.] It’s not Mark Isham. [AFTER A HINT] Oh, that’s Leo Smith.  It’s funny about horn players from… I didn’t know who the other people were, but I do recognize horn players close to the Mississippi River.  There are certain things we do…we can do a lot of things, and that’s one of the things we can do.  We can go that way, we can do the Satchmo thing, we can do the Miles Davis thing, we can do the Clark Terry thing, we can do the avant-garde thing.  You’ll find that most trumpeters from this area, where we’re from, we’re documented playing all types of music.  This is close.  That’s why I thought it was Miles at first, because the sound is so real.  It’s authentic, his sound.  The concept also.  Now, the rhythm section is another story.  I’ll give this five stars because of Leo’s conceptual ability to play any type of trumpet style and really play it authentically, like it should be played.  I would say he’s one of the most creative musicians I’ve met, especially on the trumpet.  Period.

3.    Tremé Brass Band, “Gimme My Money Back” (from GIMME MY MONEY BACK, Arhoolie, 1995) (Kermit Ruffins, tp.) (3 stars)

I’ve heard this live in New Orleans.  The Dirty Dozen.  It’s not the Dirty Dozen?  [There are people in this band from the Dirty Dozen, but it’s not the Dirty Dozen.] That makes a difference.  That’s not Brass Fantasy, is it?  The saxophonist sounds like Maceo Parker.  The trumpet player sounds like Gregory Williams who plays with the Dirty Dozen.  I can’t identify the horns.  The horns sound like conventional trumpeters.  It’s hard to play anything other than conventional type trumpet on this type of beat.  So I’m sure I won’t be able to identify the trumpet player. [AFTER] That did sound like the Dirty Dozen, but not the real Dirty Dozen.  Some of the Dirty Dozen you could feel in there.  I couldn’t identify the horn player.  I know the tuba player, Kirk Joseph.  He’s one of the finest tuba players I’ve heard.  I couldn’t identify the trumpet player, because as I said, it’s hard on that type of beat…a trumpet player would have to be extraordinary to be able to create something on that kind of beat other than what trumpet players create on that beat.  But I’m quite sure I may know the trumpet players. [Kermit Ruffins] Oh, I’ve never heard his music.  For being able to play that music in this day and time, I give them 3 stars for just the idea of keeping it around.

4.    David Murray, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” (from SPEAKING IN TONGUES, Just In Time, 1997) (Hugh Ragin, tp.; Fontella Bass, vocals) (3 stars)

I don’t know who it is, but it’s…I don’t know what you can call it.  It’s “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”.  I know it wasn’t produced in the South.  They wouldn’t do that with that beat on it, and especially playing a lot of notes on the solo, since it’s a lament.  So it seems like a strange way to do that.  I’m quite sure they’re young musicians, but were young musicians doing it.  Let me see what else you got there.  Right now the introduction was too long, so I didn’t want to hear more.  Sounds like Mavis Staples singing.  But it’s not Mavis.  I can’t identify anybody.  I can’t really feel it.  That’s David Murray right there.  [AFTER] Fontella Bass.  I was in the ballgame!  I didn’t know who the trumpet player was.  But he didn’t grow up in that environment with that kind of music.  But you could clearly hear David.  David has a very distinctive concept and tone.  I didn’t know Fontella, because I hadn’t heard her since “Rescue Me.”  That’s been a jillion years ago.  She reminded me of Mavis in a way.  Just for the idea itself, once we got past the introduction [LAUGHS] and got to Fontella and David’s solo, then it made sense.  I’ll give it 3 stars for all of that.

5.    Fred McDowell, “Going Down The River” (from THE FIRST RECORDINGS, Rounder, 1959/1997) (5 stars)

[TO HIS SON] We may have it at home, but I probably haven’t listened to it.  I know it’s out of Mississippi.  That’s one of our people.  But it could be anybody.  I don’t listen to a lot of CDs as it is.  But I know he’s from Mississippi.  But there are hundreds of us who can sing like that down there.  So I wouldn’t be able to identify this man at all.  That’s creative music right there.  That’s where a lot of jazz comes from.  If you listen closely, you can hear a saxophone solo in the guitar work.  You can hear Monk in this man’s voice, you can hear big band arrangements, everything right here.  You can hear Miles Davis, “Freddie Freeloader” — BANH-BAM, it was the same note.  A good band!  Sounds very Mississippi.  Very.  But I don’t know who he is.  Mmm!  I probably know who he is and don’t know who he is at the same time. [AFTER] That was beautiful music of the best kind.  Who he was… Fred McDowell.  I have heard him before, but I didn’t recognize him.  That’s a 5-star for the whole outfit, from the drummer, guitar players — extraordinary music.  Like I said, you can hear all types of music from right there.  You can hear Duke’s band, you can hear Monk, you can hear Louis, you can hear everybody with that one song.

6.    Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In The Dark” (from THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT, Blue Note, 1962/1994) (3 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Is that Duke Ellington?  It sounds like Clark Terry playing the trumpet.  Sounds like Duke’s band.  Mingus?  Okay..  Duke or Mingus, because they had a tendency to use arbitrary notes in their ensemble playing.  That’s what I heard.  They were one of the few bands that would use just arbitrary notes.  They’re called arbitrary notes by some, but to me it’s proof that all notes go together if they’re done with the right people playing them and the right attitude.  It’s not the kind of music I like to listen to, but I would give it 3 stars for being able to make instrumental music sound real soulful.

7.    Chocolate Armenteros, “Choco’s Guajira” (from GRUPO FOLKLORICO EXPERIMENTAL NUEVOYORQUINO: CONCEPTS IN UNITY, Evidence, 1975/1994) (5 stars)

Is that Cuban music?  Is it Sandoval on trumpet?  I love this kind of groove.  when I first heard this kind of sound, I was in Cuba many years ago. [TO HIS SON] The vocalists sound Puerto Rican.  It’s hard for me to identify a Spanish-speaking band, very difficult because I don’t speak the language.  I can’t identify the soloists at all.  They have a certain solo style that’s kind of similar, which is why it’s hard for me to identify the musicians.  But they have a Congolese-Cuban kind of feeling to it.  Sounds like they’re making music in New York City.  I can tell because of the claves and the conga drums.  Because the Cubans and the Congolese have a much heavier congo sound, but here they use timbales.  The claves are a central instrument.  But I have no idea who they are. [AFTER] Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are excellent musicians.  Not only do they play the music of their people, but they can give a feeling of Cubano and also the jazz music.  They know how to do very good mixes on music here.  I liked the trumpet player.  Was he Jerry?  Oh, Chocolate.  I don’t know if he’s from Cuba or not.  But I could recognize that pure Cuban trumpet style.  That’s why I said Cuban in the beginning. [Do you feel a connection to that style?] Yeah, there’s a connection.  Armstrong had that style, and early trumpeters had that style, and I feel that style is still in me.  I feel a connection with the Cuban trumpet style or Hugh Masakela.  Those styles are not spoken about much, but they are not as easy to play as people think they are.  You have to have a real feeling for it to play that trumpet style.  5 stars all the way.

8.    Blue Mitchell, “Hootie Blues” (from A SURE THING, Riverside, 1960/1994) (Jimmy Heath, ts., arranger) (3 stars) (Wynton Kelly, piano; Jimmy Heath, arr.)

Sounds like Wynton Kelly on the piano, which makes it a stronger blues.  The blues was kind of lightweight with the head and everything.  Wynton Kelly is one of the few pianists who plays contemporary jazz that could be identified not only by musicians, but the masses, so to speak — the listeners, the non-musicians, whatever.  He had a certain signature.  The trumpeter came in with a Miles Davis lick, but I’m quite sure it’s not Miles!  He came in with a Miles Davis lick that civilians know! [LAUGHS] I wouldn’t have done that.  Now, who could that be?  Sounds like Blue Mitchell. [AFTER] I don’t really like the tune that much.  It’s a lightweight blues head.  The recording isn’t that good because I can’t hear Wynton’s real sound, nor Blue’s.  But it shows you how great they were.  With that thin recorded sound, you still can identify Blue  Mitchell and Wynton Kelly.  I’ll give it 3 stars for them.  Without Wynton and Blue, I don’t think I could have listened to it.

9.    Sidney DeParis, “The Call Of The Blues” (#16) (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, 1944/1998) (5 stars) (Jimmy Shirley, guitar; Ed Hall, clarinet; Vic Dickenson, tb.)

Cootie Williams?  Bubber Miley?  It’s a very interesting concept he has, the trumpet player.  He didn’t play the lick form, which is very unusual.  Charlie Christian?  Is this the ’40s?  It’s really difficult for me to identify any of these people because I was only a mere child, and then I didn’t listen… The rhythmic concept is unusual, because there’s a boogie-woogie beat, there’s a straight jazz beat, and there’s a rhythm-and-blues beat mixed up in it.  An old jazz sound coming from…now they mixed that with a Dixieland sound.  So it has multiple concepts in it.  The way they do the solos is not conventional, not as conventional as famous people who will solo?  Is the trombonist Trummy Young?  Dickie Wills?  I would never guess the trombone player.  Not Al Gray?  Not Vic Dickenson?  Okay.  Sounds like somebody Clark Terry might have listened to.  Did this trumpet player ever play with Duke’s band? [Yes.] It’s not Artie Whetsol.  It’s not Cat Anderson!  Ray Nance?  Sounded like Hot Lips or Red Allen for a while.  Guy’s great, whoever he is.  Just right.  But I never heard him, ever.  But that was a beautiful record.  That’s when creative music I thought was at its best.  The horn players really played.  Everybody played what should be played, nothing more and nothing less.  5 stars.

10.    Wynton Marsalis, “Sunflowers” (#13) (from THE MARCIAC SUITE, Columbia, 1999) (3 stars)

Are all these guys under 40?  I can hear the youth.  They sound like college players.  In the tones, yeah.  Sounds like they all went to the same institution, either college or music school.  You can tell by the tone.  The tones sound  similar.  You don’t hear any individual tone.  You’d have to know them personally to know their tone.  And there’s not much space in the music.  That’s another way you can tell.  Then they have the pianissimo things, the forte things, so I can tell they’re university or music school.  Then they’ve got that Miles Davis “All Blues” thing hidden in there somewhere!  But I don’t know who they are.  There are a lot of glissandos and triplets.  They don’t sound relaxed.  They’re young, under 40.  That’s enough of that one. [AFTER] I don’t know who they are, but I would give them 3 stars just for wanting to be musicians.

11.    Craig Harris, “Harlem” (#5) (from ISTANBUL, Double Moon, 1998) (Carla Cook, vocals; Craig Harris, tb., arr.) (3 stars)

Sounds like Craig Harris on trombone.  That’s one of his licks.  I probably know the singer personally, but I don’t recognize her.  I know Carla Cook, I’ve ever worked with her, but on the CD I didn’t recognize her voice.  I don’t know what they were doing.  I live in Harlem, too, so I understand what they were saying.  It’s nice.  I’d give them 3 stars for trying to do what they were trying to do. [What were they trying to do?] I don’t know yet! [LAUGHS]

12.    Cootie Williams, “Dooji Wooji” (from THE DUKE’S MEN, VOL.2, Columbia, 1939/1993) (5 stars) (Johnny Hodges, as)

Is that Duke Ellington?  It’s part of his group.  Somebody has broken away, Johnny Hodges or somebody.  But who?  Could it be Cootie?  It sounds like Cootie’s band away from the Duke, with Duke on the piano.  It’s excellent.  This is top-grade, high-quality stuff.  I had never heard Cootie’s group, but you  could just feel it!  I hear Johnny Hodges there.  This is excellent.  That’s what I mean you can tell between the old heads and the young heads.  There’s a certain feeling.  You can dance to this.  You can get images of people, not  just men, but women, children, food and drink.  You can hear church and nightclub.  It takes you there.  Really, to me it’s all about tone.  The tone has to have that real feeling, and not just academic.  That’s beautiful.  5 stars.  You know that.  That’s it!  That’s the stuff right there.  It doesn’t even exist any more.  It’s not here any more..

13.    Neville Marcano, “Senorita Panchita” (from THE GROWLING TIGER OF CALYPSO, Rounder, 1962/1998) (5 stars)

Sounds South American.  But then it sounds Cuban also.  I’m especially attracted to this kind of music because it has so many mixtures in it.  To me, this is one of the first multicultural musics.  I hear many cultures in it.  Spanish, the island people, the African, the Cape Verdean people I hear.  Now, who this is, I have no idea.  Sounds raw.  The bass almost sounds like he’s playing a tub.  I’m sure it’s a real bass, but just the way he hits it.  And how loose the rhythm is, but still in rhythm.  It sounds like a neighborhood band.  I like that sound also!  And this type of vocalization is excellent.  It’s what the young people are doing now.  I like to vocalize like this also.  Free form vocalization is beautiful.  There’s a musician named Garth something from England.  He’s a singer-rapper.  He’s very popular now.  He’s got a vocal style that’s just exactly like him.  This kid must be 21-22 years old.  He has a moustache, like that.  He’s from England and he’s a rapper.  He’s talking about being at his girlfriend’s house and his parents don’t know he’s there, he don’t mean any harm.  He wears a little white kufi.  This is old, right?  Ah, ’60s.  This is excellent stuff.  Because the kids are using it now. [Any idea where he’s from?] It sounds like Martinique…not Martinique or Surinam or somewhere like that. [KUFI:  It sounds like from the islands.] It’s an island sound.  To me it  sounds like Cuba.  Trinidad?  That’s definitely 5 stars.  The vocal alone, just the style of it alone.  The looseness of it is beautiful.

14.    Art Blakey & Jazz Messengers, “Afrique” (from THE WITCH DOCTOR, Blue Note, 1961/1999) (Lee Morgan, trumpet) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Lee Morgan!  The greatest!!  This is a man who’s an unsung hero in the history of jazz.  There’s none like him.  They talk about Dizzy, Miles, a lot of them.  But this man here, he’s the only trumpet player I know, back in the day, who had direct fans, people who SCREAMED when he came on.  Just the average man on the street liked Lee Morgan.  He’s the only trumpet player I know in the history of the music that the common man on the street liked, the man who was not a jazz fan.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes.  Now, who Lee Morgan is with I have no idea.  Is that Billy Higgins on drums?  Wait a minute.  Is the tenor player Billy Harper?  Not Frank Mitchell?  Whoo, who is this?  John Gilmore?  Oh, Wayne Shorter!  I got it now! [LAUGHS] Wayne threw me off for a minute because Wayne is so… I’m talking about in the past.  It sounded like Wayne in the past, when he played more street; he had a street sound to him.  Tenor saxophone.  No soprano.  Beautiful.  This dude right here brought a lot of young people into jazz music.  Is that Buhaina? [You didn’t recognize Buhaina right away.] Well, because I was listening for something else.  When they came in, it was an unusual gathering of the musical instruments together doing something they didn’t normally do.  So I didn’t listen for Bu until they got to the solos.  Drummers don’t play that beat.  These are the guys who brought people of my generation into jazz who may not have wanted to go into jazz.  The tone of Lee Morgan — impeccable.  He was straight-out.  He didn’t try to do anything else but play straight out.  He didn’t try to fool you with anything or try to be different or even try to be intellectual.  To me, he was intellectual and street-wise at the same time.  A brilliant man.  The whole group.  Is that Timmons on piano?  The whole group.  Philadelphia bass player.  Jymie Merritt.  For jazz in that era, that was it.  Five stars.  Of course!  All the way.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Olu Dara, trumpet

A 1992 WKCR Interview with Ira Sullivan, Who Turned 82 Yesterday

Just noticed that yesterday was the 82nd birthday of Ira Sullivan, the magnificent multi-instrumentalist who has inspired several generations of South Florida musicians since moving there from Chicago more than 40 years ago. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR in June 1992 while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard with a quartet, and am presenting the transcript below.

* * * *

Q:    It’s my pleasure to introduce a musician who is really beyond category, a virtuosic instrumentalist on trumpet, fluegelhorn, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute…and what am I missing?

IS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I play some drums if I have to.

Q:    Did you ever do a record as the whole band?

IS:    I’ve been asked…

Q:    You once did a record where you played all of the instruments.

IS:    Yeah, I have never heard that.  I have heard about it.  But I have been asked to do that, but I haven’t planned anything yet.  The only time I think I did any overdubbing was on that Bernie Brightman Stash record with Hank Jones and Duffy Jackson.  We went in, and we had seven hours; we did seven tunes in seven hours.  I went back another couple of hours.  I left the holes open, you know, so I could go in the next day and overdub the fluegelhorn parts.

Q:    And there are some sections where you do exchanges with yourself as well.

IS:    Right, right.  That was interesting.

Q:    Anyway, we haven’t even introduced you.  The person I am talking about, as many of you may already know, is Ira Sullivan, and he is appearing at the Village Vanguard at the helm of a quartet this week, featuring pianist Reuben Brown, bassist David Williams, and drummer Steve Bagby.  When was the last time you led a group in New York playing your music with this type of a band?

IS:    Well, I always feel I’m the leader, because I only have myself to contend with, you know.  I have never believed that man needed a leader.  I have always thought that to be starting so young, the leader was Christ.  Jesus is the leader to me, and everything else is just superfluous.  I mean, we just do…we bring all our talents to what we do, and do it.  I never think of pecking order, you know.
I play with different people so much.  See, growing up in Chicago, when I’d get a job for a quartet, I’d get calls from 12 or 18 musicians saying, “Hey, I hear you got a job this Friday night.  I’m available.”  Well, you can only hire three other guys.  So I always had this wonderful wellspring of great musicians to choose from, that’s what I’ve done all my life.  I’ve never really kept a band together for a long time.

Q:    When did you start performing professionally in Chicago?  How old were you and…

IS:    I was 16 when I started playing at the jam sessions.

Q:    Was that about 1948?

IS:    No.  I was still in high school then.  I think 1948 is when I got out of high school.

Q:    What was the situation that led up to you performing?  You’ve been playing since you were three or four years old.

IS:    I started when I was 3-1/2, yes.

Q:    On a record you did for Horizon, there’s a picture that shows you playing the trumpet, and the trumpet literally is almost as big as you are.  Was that your first instrument?

IS:    Actually, as you notice, I’m almost resting it against my knee there.  The trumpet was my first instrument, yeah.  I never picked up anything else until I was in high school and I had to for the school band.  I became a trouble-shooter.  You know, when somebody was absent, I got the call.  My father had a record by Clyde McCoy called “Sugar Blues” that I wanted to play.  I wanted to work the wah-wah mute, the little Harmon mute on the end that makes it sound like a baby’s cry.  So he got me one of the little short German cornets, a little fat cornet that you’ve probably seen some guys in the early bands play.  I think Joe Thomas used to play one in Basie’s sextet.  And so I could work that wah-wah mute.  But the trumpet you saw was a long, full-sized trumpet, and that was my first instrument and it remained my first instrument until high school.

Q:    You grew up in what part of Chicago?

IS:    The North Side of Chicago, and then later the South Side.

Q:    And your father I gather was an avid listener to music and collector of instruments.

IS:    My father was from a family of fourteen children, and they all played instruments.  One uncle was with Souza’s band, and another was in what I guess they called Ragtime at that time — you know, free Dixieland.  He was an improviser.  He was the first one who taught me about playing Free, actually, way before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and all those fellows.  He taught me about playing impressionistic music when I was ten years old.

Q:    What was his name?

IS:    Tom Sullivan.  Thomas Sullivan.

Q:    Did he play professionally?

IS:    Yes.  He was in the Jazz band I talked about.  I had never heard him, but he was an improviser.  My Dad played.  He had beautiful chops and a very good tone, and he just played for relaxation when he came home from his business.  He was like a Charlie Spivak, Harry James, very clean, you know, straight melody — he didn’t improvise.  In fact, when I was five and six and we used to play together he always would turn to me and ask me, “Ira, where are you getting all of those extra notes?”   See, because I’d be putting little obbligatos in and stuff.

Q:    And was that coming from your imagination at that time?

IS:    Yes.

Q:    So there was always music around you, from the very earliest part of your life.

IS:    Always.  Always.  Our family reunions were meals, the women cooked all day and then we had dinner about 4:30, and then we played the rest of the night.  All the neighbors would come in.  Every one of my aunts played.  One played violin.  One just played a snare drum.  She had a snare drum with brushes, and she would come in and keep time.  And the gentlemen all played, and another aunt played piano.  So we had quite nice family sessions then.

Q:    Were there records in the house also?

IS:    Oh, sure.  I was firmly steeped in the music of Harry James before he was a popular bandleader.  He was quite a Jazz player, you know.  I had that record of him with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, you know, playing Boogie-Woogie, and I was fascinated, because I had only heard Harry with the big bands.  I listened to Basie, and really just to every kind of music.  I discovered Classical on my own, because we had it around the house.  But nobody forced me, and said, “Oh, listen to this, listen to this — this is what you should listen to.”  I was given complete freedom.

Q:    Did your parents take you to hear music, the big bands at the theatres or anything like that in the 1930’s and 1940’s?

IS:    Yeah, after I asked them.  Yeah, later on, I’m sure… Well, see, that was a beautiful thing about Chicago.  When you went to see a movie in Downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing.  It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, or even just a dance band.  But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened.  And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with.  That was really a very exciting time in my life.  It was common then.  Now it’s hard to find big bands, you know.

Q:    And in these years (we’re talking about, I imagine the years before high school and the early years of high school), which instrumentalists really impressed you?  You mentioned Harry James.  Who apart from he?

IS:    Well, remember I was only a five-year-old child!  Well, I grew on Harry James.  There was Clyde McCoy and Henry Busey, and Muggsy… I heard Dixieland players; I didn’t know what they called it.  I didn’t ever hear the word Jazz until I was 16 and in high school.  To me it was music.  I didn’t call it Swing or Funk or whatever labels they put on.  Then when I got in high school, a senior in high school introduced me to some records I had never heard before, such as Coleman Hawkins on Commodore with young Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet [sic], then we moved from that into Dexter Gordon and Allen Eager, Charlie Parker — which all gave me another musical direction.  I was definitely intrigued.

Q:    So that turned your head.

IS:    It certainly did, yeah.  And as I say, it set me off in a new direction.  I wanted to learn that language, that Bebop language.

Q:    What sort of musical education was available to you in high school in Chicago?  I know you were already a proficient musician.  But I think it was much more prominent in the schools then than it is today.

IS:    Oh yes.  Yes, that’s the bane of my existence, to go around and talk to these poor musical directors in the schools the people who are trying to promote music, and realize they have trouble actually getting a little band together, whether it’s a stage band to play modern arrangements or just a concert band.  When I was in sixth grade, I had a 90-piece orchestra, 90 to 135 pieces, depending on how many children were graduating and moved out of the school.  So it’s quite thrilling to play with an orchestra when you’re that young, you know, and hear violins and clarinets and everything.  And they weren’t that badly  out of tune.  We had a very good director, as I remember.

And then when I went to high school, I moved right into the concert band in my freshman year, and had certainly enough music… I had two periods of band every day, and I was playing trumpet, and two days of the week I went upstairs to the orchestra room, and got to play with the orchestra.  So it was quite nice.  And of course, I also had a double period of Art.

And it breaks your heart.  Because when I see schools in Florida that can’t even get a music program started, and I realize how kids respond… We did clinics at this Pennsylvania festival.  We start Friday night, and then Saturday morning we do clinics with the high school kids around there.  And we had a young boy who was about 10 years old, Jonathan, and he’s in sixth grade — and you should have heard him play alto.  He went out and played with the high school band.  He’s very precocious now.  When you see children like that, it’s great if they have an outlet in school.  I mean, imagine little children who grow up and they already love, say, poetry or creative art and music. And then the teachers find them falling behind in their other subjects.  Education has lost the idea that if you give a child something that his little heart desires, his spirit is bursting to produce, it might straighten out the rest of his or her’s mental outlook towards the process of education.

Because God, I think, He imbues us each with a unique spirit.  We don’t all love the same things, the same foods.  And what we want to do with our life I think a lot of us know very young.  As I say, I went from crib to the trumpet.  I never asked for anything else in my life to do.  I was quite happy, as long as I could play music.

Q:    [ETC.] We’ll create a set of you performing on trumpet.  We’ll hear “That’s Earl, Brother,” which I imagine you heard at the time you were first introduced to Bebop.

IS:    Actually the first time I heard it, it was by Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt with a rhythm section, and then later I heard it with Dizzy’s big band.

[MUSIC:  “That’s Earl, Brother (1977),” “Angel Eyes (1968),” “Everything Happens To Me,” “Our Delight”]

“Angel Eyes” comes from Horizons, which was issued in the Eighties on Discovery, featuring I guess the band you worked with in Miami at the time, shortly after you moved there from Chicago in the 1960’s.

IS:    Yes, it was.  1968 that recording was originally done.

Q:    Tell me about your early experiences with Bebop.  Did you hear it on records, or hearing musicians that came through Chicago?

IS:    Well, I started hearing musicians coming through Chicago, as you say.  You were asking earlier about concerts.  I remember when I was 16, my Dad did take me to see… We went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, one of those early ones at the Chicago Opera House.  That was quite exciting.  Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town, and that’s when I met Red Rodney, who was the featured trumpet soloist.  Charlie Ventura was still in that band.

Then, as I say, in high school, I met this gentleman who turned me…had some Dexter Gordon records.  He was a Jazz collector; he had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with “Salt Peanuts.”  It threw me for a loop, because I had always been able to, as they do in college now, transcribe solos.  Now the fellows sit around and transcribe the solos off the record, write them down, and then play them.  But I didn’t use this process.  I just memorized the solos, and would try to recreate the phrasing and the breathing that I heard from Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton or any of the Jazz trumpet players.  Again, reminding you I didn’t know they called it Jazz.  It was just music.  So I just tried to reproduce what I heard.

But then when I heard the Bebop idiom, I could not get near to that at all.  The rhythmic concept, the syncopation, the fast triplets…


…or the writers that this will never last, a bunch of silly symphonies, and it’s not going to be around long, and then 20 years later it was so assimilated into the culture, I heard Bebop licks coming out of Lawrence Welk’s horn section, because these young arrangers had grown up and were slyly sneaking some of it in — you know, it was wonderful to see it become part of our culture.

Q:    Of course, you were one of many young musicians in Chicago who were assimilating and developing very individual artistic statements out of the Bebop idiom.  When did you begin to interact with that broader Chicago community of musicians?

IS:    In the jam sessions.  By the time I was 18, I had met a lot of the… Lou Levy, who we used to know as Count Levy in those days, who played with Stan Getz and Peggy Lee, and he’s one of the finest young… I still call him a young player.  He still is, because he was 19 when I met him.  I was out playing with these fellows, and then I finally sort of built a little reputation.  But I noticed they always called me for the jam sessions and not enough for the gigs, see.  So then I had to change that a little bit.

Q:    Now, when did you start incorporating the saxophones into your repertoire?  Were you doing that at this time as well?

IS:    Through being a trouble-shooter with the band.  Well, I didn’t mention my mother also played piano and alto saxophone.  So I always had a saxophone around the house, but I never was really interested in them.  Then in the high school band, as I say, we had 19 trumpets.  So we lost our baritone horn player; he graduated.  So I said, “Well, let me try the baritone horn.”  I started playing on that, and then I took it out to a couple of sessions.  A month or so later, we had a Father’s Night concert, as they called it, in the auditorium.  We had 35 clarinet players and only two tenor saxophone players, and one of them got a cold and was absent.  The band director said, “I don’t what we’re going to do; we need a replacement.”  I said, “I think if you let me take that tenor home, I can handle the part.”  Because tenor saxophones in a concert band, they have nothing to do but long tones, you know.  I took that tenor home, and I sat down, put my Lester Young record on, you know, sat down and just played one… You know how Lester would just get one note, DI-DA-DU-DAH-DOOT… I said, “Gee, I think I can do that.”  So I sat there with my one note all day long, phrasing, getting the rhythm phrasing.

Then I fell in love with the tenor.  I said, “This is quite a horn.”  I started fooling around with it.  It was just nice to be holding a tenor, because now I’d been listening to… I knew they called it Jazz now, and I had been listening to Allen Eager and Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young and fellows around.  So the tenor became fascinating.

And then, when I was about 18 or 19 and started working in Chicago, I couldn’t get a job with a trumpet with a quartet.  You’ve got to remember, now, Chicago is a tenor town.  They had Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon was around, Sonny Rollins spent some time there, Sonny Stitt, and you had Tom Archia, Melvin Scott — great tenor players all over the place.  Don Lanphere was there.  He was one of my early heroes.  I mean, he could play faster on a tenor sax than anybody I’ve ever known.  Kenny Mann was around there.  So it was a tenor town.

So I took that tenor, that borrowed tenor from school, and I started getting in the shed, as they say, and practicing on it — and I learned three tunes.  I learned the Blues, and I learned “I Got Rhythm,” and my fast tune was “Fine and Dandy.”  That way I got a gig.  Once I got a gig…

Q:    “I Got Rhythm” will get you through a lot of jam sessions.

IS:    Get you through a lot of jam sessions.  And the Blues will, too; I mean, you learn them in two or three different keys.  And then I went out, and like I say, we got a job with a quartet.  But then, when I pulled my trumpet out, the club-owner was quite impressed.  He’d say, “Hey, I’ve got a triple-threat man.”  But I could not get hired with a trumpet and a rhythm section.

Q:    Well, how about your history on the alto saxophone?

IS:    Well, as I say, my mother had an alto saxophone at home, so then I started… Well, once I fell in love with Bird’s sound, that naturally would make you curious about the alto.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird?

IS:    I think the first recording would be… I remember the intro: [SINGS REFRAIN]

Q:    “Now’s The Time.”

IS:    “Now Is The Time,” right.  And the other side was “Billie’s Bounce” probably.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird live?

IS:    That would have been at the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Q:    Now, Bird was frequently in Chicago.  Did you get to know him at all, or play alongside him?

IS:    I got to know him after we played together at the Beehive in ’55, actually, which was the year of his demise.

Q:    That was only a couple of weeks before he passed away, I think.

IS:    About a month.  Because he had asked me to come to New York.  He wanted to send for me and bring me to New York.  So I was considering the possibilities of that.  But at the time I could see he was also quite ill.  Not so you’d know it, but I mean, when you’d hang out and talk to him, there were things happening in his life.  His daughter had passed away a year before, and I think that still was taking its toll.

Q:    So you met him at a low ebb.  But musically, what was the experience like?

IS:    Oh, musically it was great.  He had found a doctor who was taking care of him a little bit, and getting him to feel a little better, and giving him the proper medication.  I think they got him full of Vitamin B-12, and sort of… I remember he came in the second night, and he had his usual libation, and he looked at me bright-eyed after the second set, he says, “Strange, I can’t get drunk.”  But he was feeling good, you know, and he was playing good — and we had a really nice time there.

Q:    Who was that band?

IS:    I was just going to say.  I think Norman Simmons was on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Bruz Freeman on the drums — Von Freeman’s brother.

Q:    Another tenor player who was prominent in Chicago.

IS:    Oh, Von was another one that I got to play with in the early days.  So it was like growing up with Bird.  It’s like they say, you reveal from one spirit that God had, and when you’re in Jazz, you find that the spirits are one.  We all have individual statements, we’re all trying to get our own voice on our instruments, but the common bond…. For instance, I was just reading some of these liner notes on my albums which I’ve never seen, and I talk about going over in Europe, meeting people over there, they don’t speak the language, but once you sit together in a session, you just mention a tune and you’re off and running.  So that’s one universal language we know that never fails us.

Q:    Well, Chicago in the 1950’s is almost universally described by musicians as one big workshop, where everybody could get their creative self together, so to speak.

IS:    Exactly.

Q:    Just describe the scene a little bit.  There was music on almost every major crosswalk on the South Side, I know.

IS:    Well, yes, and on the North Side, too, as I said before.  We spoke about those big bands.  I mean, you’d go down and see a movie, and you got an hour-and-a-half movie, but you also got a stage show with a great band, and maybe singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, whatever — but my focal point was always the bands and the musicians.  And there were a lot of clubs to jam in, different clubs where trios were playing.

You had a lot of clubs in downtown Chicago, little bars where there would be a single piano player or a duo or a trio or a quartet.  Downtown, I remember there was a place called the Brass Rail upstairs and the Downbeat Room downstairs.  Henry “Red” Allen had a band there with J.C. Higgenbotham.  Red Saunders was the drummer.  The trumpet player Sonny Cohn was there.  It was really interesting.

As a youngster, I would go downtown, at 16, 17… I remember I’d wear my Jazz coat, and one night I painted a false moustache on with my mother’s eyebrow pencil, you know, so I’d look older.  Naturally, I couldn’t get in; they spotted me right away.  But I went downstairs.  There was a fellow that had worked at my father’s restaurant, and he was now working at the Downbeat room.  So he opened the fire door, and through the fire door, in the mirror there, I could see Henry “Red” Allen and Higgenbotham up there, and I could just catch the two of them.  He let me stand up there, but he said, “Now, if anybody comes by, close that door and get out of here!’  So there I was with my phony moustache and my tweed coat down there, soaking up the Jazz.

Q:    I’d like to ask you about a couple of the musicians in Chicago who have somewhat passed into the realm of legend because they were insufficiently recorded.  Did you ever have a chance to play with the drummer Ike Day behind you?

IS:    Oh, yes.

Q:    Can you describe his style a little bit?

IS:    You’d have to hear Guy Vivaros, who is a gentleman who is quite alive, travels with me a lot, does concerts with me.  Guy was Ike’s second nature.  I mean, that’s all Guy did.  Guy and I have known each other since we were about 17.  Guy got together with Ike Day, and Ike loved Guy, and Guy loved Ike, and Guy had given all his time, just like many teachers do now with young students, and they hung out together, and they just were inseparable.  And he gave Guy as much as he could of his stuff, this phenomenal and quite unusual method of drumming.  I mean, drummers certainly can appreciate it.  You say it to the average person, they wouldn’t tell one drummer from another.  But Ike had something that nobody else had, and Guy is the closest living representative I know who plays something like Ike.  But nobody can duplicate what it is.

Q:    Do you have words to describe what was special about Ike Day’s style?

IS:    Well, see, I played some funny sessions… You were asking me about the scene around Chicago.  I mean, a lot of us, we’d go jamming the blues clubs if there were no Jazz clubs open that night.  We just wanted to play.  So once in a while there would be a session after the Blues band had finished playing, and the Jazz fellows would go in, and we’d set up.  And Ike, one time I saw him play, he had literally a pie pan for a cymbal, and another gold cymbal that had a big chunk broken out of it, and no sock cymbal, and a hat box for a snare drum that he’d play with the brush, and then a regular tom-tom, and then a big bass drum with a Hawaiian scene painted on it, a waterfall scene from Hawaii painted on it.  And he played that set, and at no time did you know that there wasn’t anything… It could have been a brand-new set of Slingerland drums behind you.  So that was some of his magic.

Q:    I’ve heard that from a couple of drummers who had heard him, that he could play magically musically in tune with the band with almost anything, or a minimum of equipment.

IS:    Yes.

Q:    Others say that Buddy Rich actually used him briefly as a second drummer.

IS:    Yeah.  He also used Philly Joe Jones as a second drummer.  You’d have to hear Ike to know.  They say, “You’ve seen one drummer, you’ve seen them all,” but when you heard that inside magic that Ike had…
Ike used to play without his shoe, take his shoe off so he could get the feel of the wheel a little better.  One night he was playing at a long… In those days at the sessions there may be ten or twelve horn players on the stand, tenor players, maybe there would be one or two trumpet players, a couple alto players, all waiting in line to play — and the tunes would go on interminably.  I’ve actually seen a bass player where there was a phone the bar, pick up the phone and dial another cat, stop playing under a chorus, and say, “Hey, you want to come down here and get some of this?”  He’d been playing thirty-five minutes on the same tune, probably “I Got Rhythm,” and call another guy that was in the neighborhood to come over and relieve him.    Well, Ike took his sock off one night and played a tom-tom solo with his toes.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.  He just put his foot up on the tom-tom, and you could hear his…

Q:    Well, that’s really some independent coordination.

IS:    That’s some coordination I don’t think many drummers have tried yet.  But I wish Ike had been recorded just a little bit.  I think he is on a record, Tom Archia…

Q:    He is on a record, Tom Archia and Gene Ammons…

IS:    But not well…

Q:    It’s submerged to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable.

IS:    Right.

Q:    Would you say a few words about Wilbur Ware?

IS:    Oh, he was another one.  You know, the symphony players from the Chicago Symphony used to come to hear Wilbur when we played out at the Beehive, which was the going Jazz club then, where a lot of us worked in and out of.  I was always sort of brought in as the extra added attraction.  They’d have a quartet with Wardell Gray, and I got to play with the late Wardell Gray there, or Roy Eldridge and Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt, and so they’d bring me in as a trumpet player.

And one of the outstanding musical experiences of my life was playing with Wilbur Ware.  Wilbur Ware had… He told that his father had made his first bass out of an orange crate and thick inner tubes cut to different sizes of the strings and they played on the street and stuff like that.  But he had a touch unlike any other I’ve heard.  Very light.  He didn’t play heavy… Of course, the bass players of today sound heavy because they now have amplifiers.  Wilbur just played a wooden acoustic bass.  But he had this gorgeous, beautiful tone, just like with a feather touching the bass, and the sound that came out was wonderful.  I think a good example is that Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard, where there is no piano, and you can really hear Wilbur outstanding.

And I used to watch these symphony players come down and be fascinated and watch him, because he had this almost legitimate technique — but he was definitely a self-taught musician.

Q:    Also, he often was not on what you’d call even close to a first-rate instrument…

IS:    Oh, no.

Q:    …and was yet able to elicit a tone.

IS:    Right.  He’d get up in the morning… We’d be rooming on the road, and he’d get up in the morning, at maybe 11 o’clock after the gig, and pick up his bass, before he’d even taken his pajamas off or brushed his teeth or had a cup of coffee; he’d pick up his bass and start playing “Cherokee” at a breakneck speed, you know, and just play… And he wouldn’t disturb anybody in the hotel.  You couldn’t hear him beyond the room.  Just… [SINGS RAPID WILBUR WARE LINE SOFTLY]  He’d just be working off the little patterns and everything.  It was wonderful, the love that he had for the instrument.

Q:    What were the circumstances that led to Art Blakey calling you and Wilbur Ware to join the Messengers in 1956?

IS:    Well, I guess because, as I say, I was always around jamming with everybody in Chicago, and when he’d come in, if I had a chance I’d get up with Art.  We had met, and everybody met, and so he’d call me, “Come on up and sit in, Ira.”  Then one day he just called me, and asked me if I’d want to go with the band, and brought Wilbur and I up at the same time.  Kenny Drew, Senior, was the piano player then.  I have to say Senior, because his son is around and performing.  He’s been up in Sarasota, Florida, for quite a while.  So Kenny Drew was in the band, Donald Byrd was the trumpet player — so I originally went in to play trumpet and tenor.  That’s when that terrible tragedy happened with Clifford, and Donald Byrd was given the call from Max to come in and replace Clifford Brown in the Max Roach-Sonny Rollins Quintet — the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet actually they called it.  So then the next young trumpet to come in the band, after we went through Philadelphia, was Lee Morgan, who was 17 years old at the time — and I was playing tenor then.  Then a gentleman who was in last night to see me at the Vanguard, Danny Moore, was on trumpet for a while with that group when we left, because Lee was, I think, still in school, hadn’t quite graduated yet.  So we left Philadelphia and we got Danny Moore…

Q:    Lee Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie at the end of that year, I think.

IS:    Yes.  As soon as he was out of high school.  Then Idrees Sulieman came in the band, which was quite interesting to most people, because as we got announced, it was very hard for them to tell the difference between the names — Ira Sullivan on tenor, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet.

Q:    Did you play exclusively tenor with the Messengers, or would you get into trumpet battles?

IS:    Well, I played some trumpet, but I always had to be careful with sensitive souls who… And I’d feel a little sensitive, too, because I felt like I had an act together or something.  You know, when I’m on my own and I can make my own choices, and pick up a trumpet or a flute or a saxophone when I want to, it’s something else.  But it’s not quite fair to a trumpet player, no matter how they good they are, to come in the band, and here I am playing tenor and trumpet.  Well, now, immediately you’re going to garner some attention.  So I sort of opted to just play tenor in the band, and Art Blakey and I talked about it, so…

Q:    Will you be playing a lot of trumpet and fluegelhorn this week?

IS:    As much as I can handle, yes.  It all depends on what my face can do on that particular night.  I have to always consult my face first.

[MUSIC: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Sprint.”]

IS:    A lot has changed around us.  We used to read about pioneers, but in a way we’re pioneers, too, because our mores, our society is changing, even as we speak around us, you know.  So you always have to figure it’s an exciting time that you live in, mainly because you’re breathing in and out.

Q:    Well, you certainly seem to be a musician or personality or spirit that creates excitement around you wherever you bring your instruments.

IS:    I don’t know whether I create it or just sort of nudge.  Somebody says, “You’re a wonderful inspiration.”  I say, “No, I’m sort of a nudge.”  I just open up and let these young people play, and let their natural talent come out.  I think a lot if it is, even as in school, when we teach, overcoming that temerity, to realize, “Hey, man, you can do it; just get out there and do it.”  Most of them have the talent and they’re ready.  You just have to give them a little nudge.

Q:    Which of your instruments do you have this week?

IS:    Well, the tenor, trumpet and flugelhorn, which I always carry, and alto flute and soprano sax, which is enough to keep me busy.  People ask why I play long sets, and I say, man, it takes me at least three hours to get each horn in a proper playing shape, and as I say, get my face to play them all.

Q:    It seems unimaginable to many musicians that you can actually pull off a set because of the different embouchures and musculatures involved.  What do you do?

IS:    Well, you just do.  You have at it.  You keep going for it.  You have problems every night.  Every musician who plays just one horn knows it’s not the same every night.  You always have the physical problems to overcome where your musculature is and your mouth that day, or your face.  As I say, it’s not easy.  But the more I do it… It’s easier when I play six nights a week, constantly, as I was doing in Florida.  Several clubs I played in, I’d stay there two or three or four, five years.  And that six nights a week, that regularity makes it a lot easier.  Now I play festivals on the weekend, then I may not play for three or four days, and then I get in a setting like this where I’m playing six days, and it takes a little time to do it.  But I keep doing it until I get it right.  And sometimes it comes off.

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Filed under Chicago, Interview, Ira Sullivan, trumpet, WKCR

For Freddie Hubbard’s 75th Birth Anniversary, A DownBeat Piece From 2001

In 2001, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the late Freddie Hubbard for a DownBeat profile. It took a bit of negotiating, but Freddie met me at the appointed hour, and spoke at length about his life and times. In this case, I have to depart from the  “raw and uncut” policy I’ve followed for the most part on the blog, and will decline to print the verbatim conversation—it’s a bit too real and profane, and he named names. But I was able to distil from it for print what I thought was a reasonably compelling first-person account, which I offer on the occasion of his 75th birth anniversary.

* * *

During his lengthy prime, Freddie Hubbard embodied excellence  in trumpet playing.  He had a big sound, dark and warm, almost operatic.  His breathtaking facility allowed him to play long, melodic lines of saxophonistic complexity; depending on the situation, he’d cover all the changes or navigate lucid paths through soundscapes comprising the most abstract shapes and timbres.  In every situation, Hubbard projected the persona of trumpeter-as-gladiator, an image of strength, force and self-assurance that told several generations of aspirants, “I’m Freddie Hubbard and you’re not.”

Hubbard blew out his upper lip in 1992, and has since lived through a hell-on-earth that might make Dante pause and reflect.  The recent recording “New Colors” [Hip Bop] — Hubbard on flugelhorn fronts the New Jazz Composers Octet through well-crafted David Weiss arrangements of seven choice Hubbard originals — makes the problem clear in the most poignant way.  Hubbard’s ideas sparkle, but he plays tentatively, with a palpable lack of confidence, and has trouble sustaining his sound for any duration.

At a conversation in the coffee shop of New York’s Mayflower Hotel last May, Hubbard retrospected candidly on his life and times.

* * *

My sister played trumpet, and I picked it up as a competitive thing. I followed her to Jordan Conservatory, and studied privately with Max Woodbury, who played first trumpet with the Indianapolis Symphony. I wanted to play like Rafael Mendez, able to triple-tongue and so on. My brother played piano just like Bud Powell. He had all the records, the Dial Charlie Parkers and so on, and he got me interested in this music. The record that really turned me around was Bird’s “Au Privave.”

Wes Montgomery lived two blocks from me, across the railroad tracks, and to get to the conservatory I had to pass by his house. I’d hear Wes and his brothers rehearsing, and one day I stopped and went in. At the time, everything I knew was reading, and it amazed me how they were making up the music — intricate arrangements, not jam stuff — as they went along. After that, I was at his house every day, and then Wes started inviting me to a Saturday jam session in Speedway City. The Montgomery brothers didn’t care about keys. At home I was practicing in F or B-flat, but at the jam session they’d play in E and A — the funny keys. Practicing in those keys opened me up, made me a little better than most of the cats.

My brother had the records by Mulligan and Chet Baker, and we played the solos that were transcribed in the books. That motivated me. Then I heard “Musings Of Miles,” with Philly Joe Jones, Oscar Pettiford and Red Garland. That record made me start skipping school. Miles’ style was melodic and simple, and I could hear it. Then I started listening to Fat Girl (Fats Navarro) and Dizzy, which was quite a contrast. Then Clifford Brown. Clifford was a conservatory type of cat, and I tried to play like him. I’d sit with James Spaulding, who lived up the street, and transcribe Clifford’s solos and play Charlie Parker’s tunes.

Indianapolis was a bebop town. It was a filler job for guys on their way to Chicago. Charlie Parker might come through, or James Moody, or Kenny Dorham. I invited a lot of musicians to my house, had my mother wash their clothes and and give them a good home-cooked meal. We had a nice house. My father worked hard in the foundries, and everybody was clothed and clean and had money. Whatever I wanted, my mother tried to get for me. She took me to the music store in downtown Indianapolis for a trumpet. I said, ‘Mama, we’ve got no money for this.’  She said, ‘No!’  She told the guy, ‘Let him take it home and practice on it.’  She was a very strong lady; they KNEW that they would eventually get their money.

While I was going to Jordan Conservatory, Spaulding and Larry Ridley and I formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked gigs all over town, all the weddings and concerts, until I got busted on suspicion of burglary. I was on a date with this white girl, a nice girl — we were just friends. I’d been aiming to be a teacher, but I had to leave school. Hearing Clifford’s music kept me going. It made me say, “Forget it. I can’t let this stop me. The music is forever.”

A friend named Lenny Benjamin, who was from the Bronx and wrote for the “Indianapolis Star,” told me he was going back to New York, and offered me a ride and a place to stay. I’ll never forget coming into the Bronx. It was July, and it was hot. It was like “The Blackboard Jungle.”  I’d never seen so many brothers and different people in the street.  For the first five days I didn’t come out of the house, I was so scared. I just looked out the window. I saw anything imaginable — robberies, cutups, shootups, a couple of attempted rapes.

After a while, I moved into a small pad Slide Hampton had in back of the Apollo Theater. I used to follow everyone backstage — James Brown, Wilson Pickett, even Moms Mabley! — and hang out. At the time Slide was working with Maynard Ferguson. I would watch him write out arrangements without a piano; it helped my reading. Then he got enough money to buy a house on Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, and I moved there with him. The house was like a conservatory. Eric Dolphy was in there blowing on his horns; also [trumpeter] Hobart Dotson, and “Prophet” Jennings, a painter.

I was in California with Sonny Rollins when I first met Eric. He was working with Chico Hamilton. He sounded like Cannonball then; it surprised me in Brooklyn how much he changed his style. Maybe he wanted to play like that all the time; in California he invited me to his house, and the music was so weird his mother made him practice in the garage!  Eric could play some Funk and get deep down and play some Blues, but he didn’t want to. He really wanted to get into Ornette’s thing. He was a better musician than Ornette, but he didn’t have that swing that communicates. Some stuff he wrote sounded square, like kindergarten music. But the way he would play it!  He was such a jubilant, happy guy. I liked his spirit. A lot of people wouldn’t give Eric gigs. They thought he was trying to be weird on purpose.

Sonny had heard me at Turbo Village, at Reed and Halsey in Bedford Stuyvesant, where I started playing four nights a week shortly after I came here. Philly Joe Jones lived in Brooklyn; he’d come by the club to play, and he started inviting everyone to come listen to me. One night he brought Bud Powell to sit in; the next thing I know, Sonny was coming by. I stayed there about a year and a half, I met all the other musicians — Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, Walter Davis. Those were the beboppers, and by me liking bebop so much, we hooked up.

Sonny called me right before he quit. He didn’t have a piano, and he was still playing songs like “Ee-Yah” real fast; he played “April In Paris,” which sounds weird without a piano, and I had to learn the chords. I learned so much about being on my own, playing by myself. Sonny’s way of playing is rhythmic. He would practice by going over and over his ideas, and he taught me how to do that — make it stronger. He brought my chops up. Coltrane’s concept was more linear. I’d take the subway to Trane’s house every day he was in town. I had a headache when I left there because he was practicing so much.

I thought trumpet players weren’t able to express themselves as freely as saxophone players. Playing like a saxophone is harder on the chops, but it opens you up; saxophone isn’t so brassy and doesn’t attack your ear. I figured if I could mix it up, it would make me sound different from Dizzy and Miles. I was expecting Newk and Coltrane to play Charlie Parker’s stuff, but they’d learned that, and they were studying books like Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales,” which Coltrane introduced me to. You can’t compare them. They had strength in different ways. But for some reason, I leaned more towards Sonny.

Philly Joe was the first one who hired me to work at Birdland. It was a Monday night session, and we were playing “Two Bass Hit.” I had copied Miles’ solo note-for-note. When I opened my eyes, I saw him sitting down at the front of the stage. I almost had a heart attack!  I knew he was thinking, “Who is this motherfucker playing my solo?”  Anyway, he saw me make up my own ideas, and right there in Birdland he told Alfred Lion to give me a contract. Sure enough the next day, Ike Quebec called me.

I’m the only one from VSOP who wrote a song for Miles — “One Of Another Kind.”  Miles was one of the strangest, most arrogant individuals, but so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything black that pretty. He glowed. That’s the way his sound was to me. He wouldn’t speak to me for a while, but after he heard me with Sonny, we became tight. I’d go by his house, and sometimes he’d let me in and sometimes he wouldn’t. I think he liked me in a funny, uncanny way, even though he started messing with me. Did you ever read that article in Downbeat, ‘Freddie Who?’  When I asked him about it, he’d say, “Do you believe everything you read?”  It was like he wanted to keep me at a distance. Which I can understand. I mean, the man’s been great so long, then comes along a young whippersnapper and all of a sudden he’s going to jump?

When Booker Little came to New York, we started hanging out. He was a nice, clean-cut cat with nothing bad to say about anyone. I’d met him at jam sessions in Chicago around 1956-57 when Spaulding and I would drive up from Indianapolis to sit in. After I heard him play, I said, “I’d better go in and practice before I mess with that.”  He was like a machine. I mean, he had a way of playing so FAST, man. I used to try to play out of the books with him, but I never could play those duets. I wasn’t that advanced!  We ended up working together around town with Slide Hampton’s Octet. Every night it was good to go to work because there was going to be a challenge. We’d try to kick each other’s behind, but we liked each other.

Same thing with Lee Morgan. Lee was ahead of both of us, because he had been with Dizzy, played with Coltrane and Clifford Brown. That boy could play. He had a bigger name, he was from Philadelphia, and he was cocky. I could relate to Lee better than Booker, because we had more of a street thing. Lee knew how to SWING; Booker never got to the swing like Lee. When you’re young and up-and-coming, people start comparing you, and there was a competitive thing between me, Booker and Lee at that time around New York. After a while I thought: Why am I beating my brains up trying to out-do Lee Morgan?  Let me work on MY thing. I took some of Sonny’s stuff, some of Trane’s stuff, put it into my style and made myself different.

I’d go to Birdland every night to hear Lee and Wayne Shorter with Art Blakey. They were blowing so hard that when Art asked me to join, I wondered if I was ready. Art took a lot of younger trumpeters out; the harder you played, the harder he played. Art taught me about uniformity, that the group must be presented as a GROUP. It was like old show business. And he made us all write something. He’s a Messenger, a Muslim, and he said, “Here’s what your message is.”  We’d rehearse a piece, he’d listen and then come up with a drum feel hipper than what you can think of. He knew dynamics from playing in all those big bands. The difference between Art and other drummers is that he could go down and come up. A lot of people think Art was crazy. I mean, he had his periods. But almost everybody I know that worked with that man became a leader. I’m still a Messenger.

One of my dreams was to play with Max Roach. Like I said, my main influence was Clifford Brown; I carried the records he made with Max anywhere I went. I wanted to play like Clifford Brown played with him, stuff like “Gertrude’s Bounce,” but I guess Max didn’t want to play no more of that. Max got me into a thing where I stopped liking white people. I’m basically a country cat, and I think everybody’s nice until they fuck with me. But going back to what had happened in Indiana, I was getting ready to explode!  I was hanging out with the Muslims, and I almost joined the Nation. Being with Max — reading the books he suggested, meeting people like Nina Simone and Maya Angelou at Abbey and Max’s place — gave me a consciousness. We were the guys who were not trying to say that we aren’t aware of what’s happening to us as a race. Max enlightened me as far as life. But I couldn’t work with him because he was too intense. Art could get intense and get loose. He was down to earth, and he knew all the same things; he’d been hit on the head, too, on racial stuff.

I did a lot of avant-garde stuff with Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill and guys like that. They were kind of militant, too, trying to voice their protest. There was a whole movement in the Village. I was a mainstream cat, trying to make some money and get famous. But when they talked to me, I went over to see what was going on. Me coming from Indiana, I knew what they were talking about, and it was a chance to voice my opinion. It was good musically, although I knew some of that stuff wouldn’t work — I don’t care how good they played it. There was no form. I had met Ornette and Cherry in California with Sonny Rollins, before they came to New York. I had no idea where they were going, but their music didn’t seem that avant-garde to me. I could hear melody and form. When Ornette did “Free Jazz,” I think that’s when he wanted to break out. Free. No bar lines, nothing set except what he and Cherry knew. I went to Ornette’s house to practice. The first thing he did when I came in was play all of Bird’s licks. And he had that Bird sound.

I put two tunes on “Breaking Point” in the style of Ornette, and one funk tune that got radio play. I’d brought Spaulding and Larry Ridley to New York, and recruited Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan, and we practiced for about six months until we went out. We went to this club in Cincinnati, and the place was packed. Like a dummy, I opened with a free thing. The people got up and started RUNNING, not even walking toward the exit. I said, “Is there a fire in here?”  I don’t think we got any money for the week. We kept that group together, but made the music more mainstream.

Atlantic was my funky period. That’s when a lot of people got confused with me. One minute I want to do one thing, then I want to jump over and do something else. Then Creed Taylor brought me to CTI. Creed got my recorded sound to my liking, made it stand out. I’ve had people who know nothing about jazz tell me how pretty and clear my sound is on ‘First Light.’  Creed made me more popular to the masses, but I got a lot of flack from the musicians because I jumped out and started thinking about making some money.

I got even more flack when I started making records at CBS. A couple of them sold, “Windjammer” and that stuff. I was at the Roxy, and playing venues in New York that no jazz cats ever played. The money went way up. I was getting ready to get a divorce from my first wife, and she was messing with me, coming to clubs. I decided to move to California. People said, “Man, Hubbard, don’t go out there. Ain’t no Jazz out there. You’ll get fat and die.”  I think it was a mistake. Ever since then, my playing went down. But I was doing movies, making record dates with Elton John, earning good money and living the way I wanted to live, up in Hollywood Hills with my new wife. We’re still together.

During the ’70s Herbie, Tony, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Chick Corea all moved to California. Everybody was trying to include Pop and Fusion. In California, everybody’s spread out; you get projects and see each other in the airport. In New York, you’re close, you can go to somebody’s house. When I went to California, it was party time, and I got hung up in that. Which was cool. I wanted to hang. But it had nothing do with maintaining embouchure and playing good.

In the ’80s, I had together whatever I was going to do. It had become a Freddie Hubbard sound. I was a free agent, sinking or swimming, doing a lot of singles, making dates where I’d play 16 bars and get 3500 bucks. I was making ten a week just myself. I was so busy recording in the studio that I wasn’t practicing as much as I should, and I started playing licks, not trying to come up with no new shit. I thought it was automatic, that I didn’t have to warm up, like when I was young. Though I started thinking like that, I was still trying to play all the high stuff and play real hard. By the late ’80s, I was going to Europe and Japan every month by myself for some all-star group or clinic. I was doing too many different things. I was switching styles so much, one time I woke up and said, “What am I going to play today?”  Keeping that schedule, plus going out to hang — it waxed me!

I saw it coming, but I decided I’d continue and make as much money I could. I should have stopped and got some rest, worked on some new ideas. But if you were getting $3500 for an hour’s work two or three times a week, what would you do?

I was playing so long and so hard that my chops got numb!  They didn’t vibrate. It got so bad that I didn’t think I would ever play again. Now I’m beginning to get the vibe back to want to play. I’m beginning to get a feel. Whenever I pick it up, I’ve got to get over the feeling aspect of it. Is it going to hurt like it did before?  It gets progressively better.

If you want to play like Freddie Hubbard, I don’t know what to tell you. It took me about ten years of hanging out with the people I hung out with, picking up certain ideas and putting it into my thing, to develop that style of playing. Young people will never get a chance to do that. They’re able to jump right in behind a certain style, but they weren’t here when the styles had to be developed. I used to have gigs with Maynard. I’d be trying to blow high notes, acting a fool, and luck up, and hit them!  How would a young cat know what I know from hanging out with Maynard?  Who you going to get to fuck with Maynard?  Clifford?  Miles?  Dizzy?  They were so strong!  Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell were right here, too. Woody Shaw went through it. He was so worried about me, he finally had to break down and say, “Fuck Freddie Hubbard; I’m going to go and do my thing.” I spent half my life trying to develop something to make it me.

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Filed under DownBeat, Freddie Hubbard, Interview, trumpet

On Hugh Masekela’s Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009

In celebration of the 74th birthday of South African trumpeter, flugelhorn, and cornet master (and singer) Hugh Masekela, I’m offering the uncut transcript of a DownBeat Blindfold Test I had the privilege of conducting with him in 2009.

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1. Max Roach-Booker Little, “Tears for Johannesburg” (from WE INSIST: FREEDOM NOW SUITE, Candid, 1960) (Roach, drums, composer; Booker Little, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Walter Benton, tenor saxophone; Abbey Lincoln, voice; James Schenk, bass)

I really liked that. I have no idea who it could be. But it reminds me a lot of the kind of things that Max Roach was doing in the late ‘60s, and it sounded… He had a group with Booker Little. But he did some things where he got guys like Chief Bey to come and play. I think it was Max’s era, when he was really into African activism. Yeah. But I loved it, man. I don’t know who it is. It could have been Charles Tolliver on trumpet, or Booker Little, or Cecil Bridgewater. But I’m not good at guessing. 5 stars. I really loved it. [AFTER] I went to school with Booker Little, you know, at Manhattan School of Music. I was very close to Max and Abbey. I’m very happy that I guess it right. The last time I did this test was with Leonard Feather in 1967, and I got everything wrong. This is the first time I passed anything in this test!

2. Mongezi Feza, “Diamond Express” (from Dudu Pukwana, DIAMOND EXPRESS, Arista, 1975) (Mongezi Feza, trumpet; Dudu Pukwana, alto saxophone; Frank Roberts, keyboards;  Lucky Ranko, guitar; Ernest Othole, electric bass; Louis Moholo, drums)

I’m going to guess here. I don’t know when it would have been, but it sounds very much like Dudu Pukwana on saxophone, and it could be either when they were with Chris McGregor and then when they were the Blue Notes, or maybe later on the Brotherhood of Breath. The guitar player sounded like Lucky Ranko, and it sounded like those guys when they were in London. I don’t know whether Johnny Dyani was on bass, and Mongezi Feza on trumpet probably. But that definitely was Dudu Pukwana. I was a great friend of Dudu’s, and we did a great album together that’s still a collector’s item called Home Is Where the Music Is. I loved Dudu. He was one of the most beautiful players. I was really heartbroken when he went away. But that’s a wonderful South African groove. I wish that the South African musicians could be listening to stuff like this. It definitely starts to bring back… But it’s beautiful. 5 stars. [AFTER] They came over to England… This was the second group after we formed the Jazz Epistles with Abdullah Ibrahim (who was Dollar Brand then), and Johnny Gertze (bass), and Makhaya Ntshoko on drums, and Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, and Kippie Moeketsi on saxophone. We were a group called the Jazz Epistles, and we did the first long-playing record by an African group in South Africa in 1959. It’s still a collector’s item. Then I left, and Jonas went to… Well, we broke up because after the Sharpeville massacre, gatherings of more than ten people were not allowed, and we were just about to go… We had just broken out, we were about to go on a national tour of South Africa, and we would have been the first instrumental group to be able to do that, and we had to break up. But then a year or two later, the Blue Notes, formed by Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana, came out of South Africa, and they came out to, like, Switzerland, and they did extremely well. They really took Europe by storm. Louis Moholo was on drums, and he’s the only one alive of them. All of them died. Dudu died. Mongezi Feza, the trumpet player, died. Johnny Dyani on bass died. Chris McGregor also passed away. Whenever I see Louis Moholo, he goes, “One man standing!” [LAUGHS] But I loved those guys. They were fantastic musicians. I’m crazy about that album. I’m going to get that album for myself, if I can find it.

3. Wynton Marsalis, “Place Congo” (from CONGO SQUARE, JALC, 2008) (Marsalis, composer; Soloists: Andre Haywood, trombone; James Zollar, trumpet; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone; Yacub Addy, master drum)

Wow, that’s beautiful. I really enjoyed that. You have to make me a copy of all these records! That sounded like something from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Max Roach started this whole interest in African music, and at the same time, it sounded very much like something…if Duke Ellington wanted to write an African suite, he would have done an arrangement like that. So I suspected at one time that it was him. But I really have no idea who it was. I keep hearing people like Chief Bey playing in the drum section. But it was really a beautiful African kind of suite, a la Duke Ellington. I don’t know if somebody was trying to imitate him. Five stars. It’s really beautiful. I really don’t know who it was. I thought I heard Eric Dolphy or somebody somewhere there. [AFTER] Wynton Marsalis! Really. He didn’t play a solo.  I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard that he’s done. It’s a great collaboration. It’s definitely Duke Ellington-esque. Something that, like I said, Duke would have done—the voicings, the solos, and some of the contemporary stuff. It’s very beautiful.  Five stars.

4. Jerry Gonzalez, “To Wisdom The Prize” (from MOLIENDO CAFÉ, Sunnyside, 1991) (Jerry Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Carter Jefferson, tenor saxophone; Joe Ford, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, composer, piano; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Steve Berrios, percussion)

I have no idea who that might be. For a time there, the piano player sounded like Larry Willis, who I started playing with… My first group was with Larry Willis. It sounded maybe like it could be one of Larry’s records. I’m not sure. The piano solos and the voicings and all that; Larry did pretty nice stuff like that. If the guy isn’t Larry Willis, then he tries to play like him—or he influenced Larry Willis, one of the two. The trumpet player with the beautiful fat tone, I don’t know who it might be. Maybe Eddie Henderson. I have no idea. But I liked that very much. Four stars. I have no idea who it was. [AFTER] Who’s playing trumpet? Jerry? Fantastic. I liked it very much.

5. Amir El-Saffar, “Flood” (from TWO RIVERS, Pi, 2007) (Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, arranger; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Zaafer Tawil: violin, oud, dumbek; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq, frame drum; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums)

I got very thirsty on that one. It was very sort of Middle Eastern jazz or Arabic jazz, or maybe Saharan jazz. I had pictures of camels and a lot of sand and sandstorms, and I was dying for an oasis. I have no idea who it is. But thematically, I enjoyed it very much, because obviously it had a Saharan-Middle Eastern thing.  I don’t know who it is. I’m not a critic of people who play. But I would give it three stars. [AFTER] Well, I wasn’t too off when I said it was Arabic-Saharan jazz.

6. Charles Tolliver, “Chedlike” (from EMPEROR MARCH, Half Note, 2009) (Tolliver, trumpet s solo, composer, arranger; Cameron Johnson, Michael Williams, Keyon Harrold, David Weiss, trumpets; Mike Dease, Jason Jackson, Stafford Hunter, Ernest Stewart, Aaron Johnson,  trombones; Bill Saxton, Bruce Williams, Todd Bashore, Billy Harper, Marcus Strickland, Jason Marshall, saxophones, woodwinds; Anthony Wonsey. piano; Reginald Workman, bass; Gene Jackson, drums)

I loved it. It sounded like somebody trying to imitate Gil Evans. If it wasn’t the Gil Evans band, then it was somebody who is a big fan of Gil Evans. The drummer reminded me a lot of Elvin Jones. I don’t know anybody else who played like that. If it’s not Elvin Jones, it’s a great fan of Elvin Jones. I was crazy about both of them. The first night I came to New York, in 1960, I saw Elvin Jones with John Coltrane, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, and I’d never seen a drummer play like that. This reminded me of that night in September 1960. All the work Gil Evans did with Miles Davis was just phenomenal. I have all his stuff. I loved that very much. I don’t know who the trumpet player was. It could have been Johnny Coles. I’m not sure. Johnny Coles played much more mellow. So I’ll give it four stars. [AFTER] So Charles must have been a great fan of Gil Evans. Or Gil Evans must have been a great fan of Charles Tolliver. I don’t know who came first. The arrangement was very Gil Evansish. I know Charles a long time.

7. Brecker Brothers, “Wakaria (What’s Up?)” (from RETURN OF THE BRECKER BROTHERS, GRP, 1992) (Randy Brecker, trumpet and flugelhorn; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone, composer, arranger; Armand Sabal-Lecco, bass, piccolo bass, drums, percussion, vocals, arranger; Max Risenhoover, snare programming & ride cymbal; George Whitty, keyboards; Dennis Chambers, drums

Very nice. I don’t know who that is. I have no idea who that is. But I loved the arrangement. It sounded like a recent recording (I might be wrong). I really enjoyed it. 4½ stars. I have no idea who it is. I really loved it. The trumpet sounded like it was played through some kind of electronic… I’ll tell you something. To a great extent, after the ‘60s, after Miles and Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, all those guys from that time, and of course Louis before that…you could always tell who was playing. But later on, it became very technical, and people became very technically proficient. You couldn’t really tell who they were. They were technically unbelievable, but you just couldn’t say there is so-and-so. I guess also having been away from the States for over 18 years, I haven’t followed any of the new developments. But it was technically very, very proficient. I loved the arrangement. In fact, I’m still remembering the melody. It’s a very nice children’s song kind of thing. I don’t know     it was. [AFTER] The Breckers. I didn’t know their work very well. I loved Michael’s playing a lot. Again, for me, even though they’re techincally proficient, I could never say that’s Michael… After Coltrane, after the guys from the ‘50s and ‘60s, everybody else seemed to imitate them in one way or the other, and I never could put my finger on them and say it’s so-and-so. Because it seemed like after that, there was nowhere to go. Fusion came in, and all kinds of things. {How did you deal with that yourself?] Well, I came here as a bebopper, and my story is that I had hoped to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, because that was like the college of everybody. But everybody said, “Form your own group. You come from Africa. Let’s see what… You should be teaching us stuff. You shouldn’t be imitating us. As a result, I reverted back to the township dance bands that I came from, and my thing became sort of a hybrid between that and jazz. I went back to the township. I think that’s what makes me stand out, not to sound like other people.

8. Dizzy Gillespie, “Africana” (from GILLESPIANA, Verve, 1961) (Soloists: Gillespie, trumpet; Leo Wright, flute; Lalo Schifrin, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass; Chuck Lampkin, drums)

That sounded like somebody trying to imitate Dizzy Gillespie—or Dizzy himself. The flute a little bit sounded like it might have been James Moody. I don’t know how long ago it was done. If it wasn’t Dizzy, it could have been Jon Faddis. But it felt to me like Dizzy Gillespie. I loved the piece. It sounded like something Dizzy would have done. It’s very Dizzy-esque. I don’t know who might have arranged it or when it was done. I remember a time when he was doing a lot of work with Quincy Jones, but that sounds like something maybe much later. But I loved it very much. 5 stars. [AFTER] Beautiful. Well, Dizzy was the Svengali and god of the trumpet. So many people came from him. Harmonically, he was so amazing. He could do soft things. He did beautiful things on the Harmon mute. He played Harmon mute on that. He and Miles were like the… When they played the Harmon mute, I threw mine away. I stopped playing the mute when I heard Dizzy and Miles play. Dizzy used to play it on “Con Alma,” on… but he was a god.

Dizzy was also the most beautiful person I ever met. For me, he was like a foster dad. He bought me my first winter coat when I came to the States. He sent me records in South Africa long before I came. I met him through Miriam, who he really loved and looked after. She introduced me to him by letter. We didn’t have phones at that time. The first night I came to New York, Dizzy was playing at the Jazz Gallery, opposite Monk, and he had insisted that as soon as I land I have to call him and come see him wherever he was—and he happened to be at the Jazz Gallery. He introduced me to Monk when he came off the set. He had that band. He had Leo Wright and Chris White and Rudy Collins and Lalo Schiffrin on piano. They’d just come back from South America, and he was playing “Desafinado” and “Con Alma” and all those Brazilian songs. Then he introduced me to Monk and said, “Thel, Thel, this is that little trumpet player I was telling you about who was coming from Africa,” and Monk stuck out his hand, a limp hand, and he went, ‘NEIGHHH…,” heh-heh-heh, and walked away. Dizzy’s like, “Oh, Thel, you was born dead.” Then he said, “Listen, Max wants to meet you.” Max was playing around the corner with Booker Little and Eric Dolphy was on saxophone, opposite the Mingus band. He took me there and introduced me to Max. At the time Max was with Abbey, and really into the anti-apartheid movement. Members, Don’t Be Weary, right? I had just come off the plane from England. When I came back to the Jazz Gallery, he said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I have to go and sleep, man—I’m going home.” He said, “No-no-no, you can’t sleep; you can’t go home. I told Coltrane that you were coming to see him. He’s waiting for you. You’ve got to go to the Half Note. So I went to the Half Note, and I stayed there til 4 in the morning. When I got out of the Half Note, I got out of the cab, and I Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and Reggie Workman were waiting on the sidewalk for me. Dizzy had told them, “This guy is coming.” So Dizzy introduced me to everybody. In one night, I saw him, I saw Monk, I saw Max, I saw Charlie Mingus, and I saw Trane. And I left the Half Note at 4 in the morning. 5½ stars for Dizzy. 7 stars!

9.  Jon Hassell, “Northline” (#9) (from LAST NIGHT THE MOON CAME DROPPING ITS CLOTHES IN THE STREET, ECM, 2009) (Hassell, trumpet; Peter Freeman, bass; Jan Bang, live sampling; Elvind Aarset, guitar; Helge Norbakken, drums)

I don’t know who it is. But I think only Miles was able to play in those dark, sleepy moods, and still keep you up. This one was too foggy and misty for me. 2 stars. It sounded like a soundtrack, an effect for something. It could have been a soundtrack. I don’t knock anybody. A fantastic lower register technique, a beautiful tone, but it didn’t go anywhere, didn’t take me anywhere. [AFTER] I wasn’t too far off. It was a mood compositional kind of thing. It sounded like something for a movie where the murder is hiding in the fog.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, trumpet