Category Archives: trumpet

For Steven Bernstein’s 55th Birthday, a 2001 DownBeat Feature, an Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musicians Show From 2001 and the Proceedings of a WKCR interview in 1999

For arranging maestro and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s 55th birthday, here’s documentation of several encounters, including an uncut Blindfold Test from 2009 (Steven’s responses were so detailed, that the printed version only had room for 5), an uncut Downbeat feature from 2001, and WKCR interviews from 2001 (a far-ranging Musicians Show) and 1999.


Steven Bernstein Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Wynton Marsalis, “School Boy” (from HE AND SHE, Blue Note, 2009) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Sounds like Wynton to me. Sounds just like him. I love this. First of all, 5 stars for a guy who has a totally recognizable sound even when he’s playing in an older style, because he’s just the greatest trumpet player. There was a little arco bass thing in I think the second 8 bars before the saxophone came in, a beautiful, tiny little counter-melody. That’s one of the things that made me think it’s him, because he’s such a good arranger. It’s beautiful. It almost sounds like  it’s a cello, it’s so high up there. That to me makes the whole arrangement. That’s it for me. Once you do that, you win me over. Something like that… See, I’m always into specifics. The more speciic an arrangement is… Like, don’t waste an opportunity. That’s my feeling. I always tell arrangers, “Don’t waste an opportunity.” I love that. Is this his new piano player? He’s good. Wynton’s been playing this kind of music for a long time, and he has a real unique way of doing it that’s his. A lot of it has to do with phrasing and dynamics. You know me. I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. [TRUMPET SOLO] It’s interesting. Even when he plays this style…when he plays eighth notes, you can hear still the way he played when he played with Art Blakey. There’s a certain phrasing he developed. He knows how to get house, get those little…waits to the very end to do the flutter notes. He’s a smart musician, man. What can you say about a guy who built a multi-million dollar jazz place? [PIANO SOLO] Wow, that guy’s a good piano player. What can you say? Ends on a major-VII. I always feel that if something sounds just like a person, then who am I to say it’s not great? Even if it’s not exactly the way I would do something, that is totally… Is that one of the things from Jack Johnson? That’s great writing, too. The guy has his world, and he trains his musician to play like him. It’s very interesting, the piano player really is an extension of him, and he’s done a great job surrounding himself with people who populate his vision. That’s what a musician is supposed to do.

One thing that’s interesting about Wynton is that he has incorporated so many techniques. Every time he splits a note… Everything he does, to me… In the old days, when people split notes, it’s because they miss notes. But Wynton took that and made it part of the jazz technique, and he has it… It’s one of the things you can always tell it’s him, because where he puts his split note…it’s just one of the many techniques he has. The man has integrated so many different techniques for the trumpet, and that’s a real interesting thing he’s done, which is taking the split note, and controlling it so it’s part of his technique.

2.  Lenny White, “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from MILES IN INDIA, Times Square, 2008) (White, drums, Wallace Roney, trumpet; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Adam Holzman, keyboards; A. Sivamani, percussion; Vikku Vinayakram, ghalam)

It sounds great? Is this Wallace Roney? All techniques basically are old techniques now, so it’s all fair game, whether you’re talking about Miles from Jack Johnson or dealing with Louis Armstrong in 1928. These are all basically ancient techniques from a different era that people have been able to incorporate. Wallace, of course, has done an incredible job of taking Miles’ and making it his own. Wallace is another master trumpeter. Anyone who’s a master, I have to give 5 stars to, because they’re masters. I heard Wallace playing with Art Blakey, and he was a master then, when he was musical director of that band. And the sound is so good. Both records you’ve played me sound so good in so many different ways. Both are modern reflections of incredible  music that is now seen through the prism of modern living musicians. These guys are contemporaries of mine. I met Wynton when I was 17. I heard Wallace on probably his first gig with Art Blakey when he was subbing for Wynton at Grant’s Tomb, probably in ‘81 or ‘82. See, he doesn’t sound like Miles. He sounds like Wallace. There’s things he does that are so Wallace. But it’s like that particular part of Miles’ technique became Wallace. That’s how he hears music. That’s him. What can you say about him? He’s incredible. Beautiful sound, too. To me, all environments are the same, whether you’re dealing with an environment that’s related to 1920, with modern technology, or an arrangement like this that’s related to more like 1972 but with modern recording technique. It’s just good arranging. There’s plenty of room. Every soundscape needs its own balance, and it’s really well-balanced, well-mixed. The trumpet sits really nice in it. Sometimes it’s hard to put a trumpet in this kind of sound and not make it sound corny, because the trumpet is such a knocking-down-the-walls-of-Jericho type of instrument. But it fits in really nice to the mix. Who’s the guitar player? [You tell me.] Good guitar, man. Nice. It reminds me of Pete Cosey. Really? That’s why it reminds me of Pete Cosey. I didn’t know he recorded with Wallace. I guess he did. Well, good work, Wallace! You got the man! Oh, is this the Miles in India thing? Wow. Cool. No wonder it sounds so good, because Bob Belden is really good at arranging records. Not that Wallace isn’t good at arranging records, too, but it’s a really wide soundscape. I will say that I was surprised that the tablas weren’t mixed louder. I’m surprised they didn’t have the higher tabla sound running in…but I don’t have the rest of the record. It took me a long time to figure out… I didn’t immediately go, “Oh, it’s Miles In India.” I jusrt figured it’s a Wallace Roney record. I didn’t hear it in the context of the whole record. There were so many low tones, I was surprised they didn’t have that really high tabla running through there. 5 stars. But again, what can you say? Pete Cosey is a master, Wallace Roney is a master. Great-sounding track.

3.  Satoko Fujii, “Sanrei” (from Orchestra Nagoya, SANREI, Polystar, 2007) (Satoko Fujii, conductor; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet solo; Tsutomo Watanabe, Takahiro Tsulita, Misaki Ishiwata, trumpet; Shingo Takeda, Akihiko Yoshimaru:alto sax; Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor sax, Yoshihiro Hanawa, tenor sax; Yoshiyuki Hirao, baritone sax; Tomoyuki Mihira, trombone; Toshinori Terukina, trombone, euphonium; Tatsuki Yoshino, tuba; Yosuhiro Usui, guitar; Atsutomo Ishigaki, bass; Hisamine Kondo, drums)

There’s two trumpets on this. Sounds like Satoko Fujii’s music, which is funny. I’m on her records. It is? Then it’s her Japanese band. That’s a pretty unique way of writing, so it would make sense that it’s her. She writes a lot of different stuff. Every record I’ve made with her is different. Sometimes she’ll have a lot of harmonic information and sometimes there’s no harmonic information. I don’t think it was Nats on trumpet. Nats usually plays beyond the trumpet. To me, that trumpet solo was good, it was ok, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, because… Nats usually plays more sound-oriented stuff. [DON’T USE THIS] What I like about her writing is that it leaves a lot of room for individual voices, which is a really important part of the jazz way of writing, not just writing something that is allowing the musicians’ individual tonation to come out. I’m into the word “tonation” these days. Not “intonation,” but “tonation.” They don’t use it in education any more. I don’t know if they ever did. But you hear all the musicians talk about it.

4.  Terence Blanchard, “Levee” (from A TALE OF GOD’S WILL, Blue Note, 2007) (Blanchard, trumpet, composer; Brice Winston, tenor saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; The Northwest Sinfonia, orchestra)

[IMMEDIATELY] Terence. Can I give him 6 stars? I think Terence is so great. His sound is so immediately recognizable. It’s interesting, being a writer, when I hear the string thing in the beginning, I’m like, “That’s cool, I like it, I wouldn’t have done anything quite like that, but…” It’s a little classical, the way it’s played. I like things where there’s a little more roughness in it. But then, of course, when Terence’s sound comes up against it, it makes a nice foil. He probably recorded it in L.A. with studio musicians. Well, it’s an orchestral piece. At the beginning, you don’t know if it’s a jazz piece or what. But it’s orchestral. Ok, that’s why they play it that way. They’re orchestral musicians. Oh, this is from that big piece from New Orleans, that beautiful piece he wrote. I saw the TV show that it was a soundtrack for. Most musicians are afraid to speak about politics, because everyone is so afraid to say anything controversial in this post-Reagan world. But it was great on that TV show to have Terence speak the truth. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. I was weeping during that TV show. Hearing this music makes me want to weep, because you could feel the pain—it’s so beautiful. He’s taken the trumpet and really made it his own instrument. He plays one of these very heavy trumpets that these guys play now. Wow, man! In general, I don’t particularly like what those trumpets do, but Terence…What I love about Terence is he wears his heart on his sleeve, his scope is huge, he has a great working band…  It’s very interesting, because you’ve played me three guys who are my age, came to town, joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and have all done really different things with their lives. They all played kind of similar when they were young. Anyway, each one of has not just a distinct sound, but it’s a distinct style. As great as Wynton is, he would never do what Terence just did… Not never. But I’ve never heard him just blow so hard that you don’t even know what’s going to come out of the trumpet. He’s more controlled, even when he’s not playing… That’s not his vision to music, to me. Of course, this is a very emotional piece. But also, on a trumpet level, both Wynton and Terence, and also a lot of these young guys, play a very thick trumpet, made of heavy metal… See, THAT phrase right there, that comes from the style that he and Wynton share. If you’re not a trumpet player, you can’t even understand it, because it didn’t exist before those guys. It’s something that they worked out. Here you can hear the Miles thing coming out. I tend not to like those… Well, not that I don’t like them. I’m a fan of older trumpet styles, so there’s a certain thing that can’t happen when the metal is that big. There’s a certain vibration that physically is not going to happen. But with Terence I don’t miss it. And Terence also…his history also brings in Lester Bowie, which not many trumpet players have done. That’s part of his vocabulary, too. I don’t know if he purposefully does it, but a lot of those things he does, before Lester… Well, not no one did it before Lester. Rex Stewart did that stuff. But Lester brought it back into the lexicon.

5.   Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Malachi” (from NON-COGNITIVE ASPECTS OF THE CITY: LIVE AT IRIDIUM, Pi, 2006) (Corey Wilkes, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, tenor saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell, reeds, percussion; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion)

It sounds like the Art Ensemble without Lester.  So this is Corey Wilkes. I met Corey. We had some nice drinks in Italy, at the Balsamo Festival. Nice guy. Now I get to hear how he plays. But you hear Malachi… How many bass players can you say you can hear them in four notes? Malachi you can hear in four notes, man. I hear four notes and… Is it Malachi or is it Jaribu? I thought it was Malachi, but it could just be that it’s Don and Roscoe made me think it’s Malachi. Now, here’s a guy who listened to Lester. A lot of fire. I like fire. I don’t know if it is Malachi. It might be Jaribu. It just sounds stronger than Malachi would be at this age. At the beginning, it sounded like Malachi, but at the end Malachi couldn’t play like this, at this tempo. But when you hear that kind of bassline and you hear Don Moye, it’s just that he really felt like Malachi at the beginning. During the melody, it really felt like Malachi. [Well, the piece is called “Malachi.”] The piece is called “Malachi.” There you go. Well-written piece. By Roscoe, I assume. Powerful trumpet player, man. Very powerful. I wasn’t going to give him five stars… Oh, it’s live. That’s why it sounds like this. It’s a live gig, so he’s not close enough to the mic. But you know what? That’s such a great solo that he doesn’t deserve five stars yet, but I’ll give him 4½—he’s not a master. I’ll be interested to see what happens to someone like him… The way he’s playing trumpet is very physical, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Is he going to keep it at this heavy level? Will he smooth it out? I haven’t seen him play live… It’s a live gig, and you’re really hearing him go for it. It’s amazing. He’s not a master yet, he’s a young man, but he’s playing great. I grew up listening to the Art Ensemble. I’ve been hearing them live since I was 14 or 15 years old, when I met them. How many people can you tell from their composition? How long did I listen to that? 5 seconds, and two of the original guys were gone. It’s like some Ellington thing. You don’t even need the original guys, because it’s such… Well, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would be like that. You heard a Messengers tune, it didn’t matter who was in the Messengers. It was the Jazz Messengers.  Don Moye deserves a lot of credit. No one talks about him, but talk about a guy who created a unique style of drumming. I heard one guy somewhere… You know who did? Dave King of the Bad Plus. He played somewhere and I said, “Hey, man, you’ve got some Don Moye in you.”

6.  David Berger, “Serenade in Blue” (from I HAD THE CRAZIEST DREAM: THE MUSIC OF HARRY WARREN, Such Sweet Thunder, 2008) (Berger, arranger, Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, trumpet; Harry Allen, Joe Temperley, Matt Hong, reeds; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Isaac Ben Ayala, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums)

Wow!  Beautiful trumpet tone. It’s interesting, you hear a lot of Clifford Brown and you hear a lot of Clark Terry in it. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I’ll wait til the solo. It’s a young guy? It really has that Clark Terry vibrato. It’s obviously not Clark. But let me keep listening. This is great. The arrangement’s great, too. Nicholas can play like this, but I don’t think it’s Nicholas. This is someone who really-really knows the jazz tradition. The arrangement is great, too. It’s not Warren Vache. It’s someone who’s played with a lot of older musicians. That’s the way the vibrato is. When you play with the vibrato like that, to me it’s someone who’s been around. It has so much truth in the way they’re playing. The arrangement even has some Gil Evans type things going on. I don’t know who it is, but someone who can really play and understand music. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Brian for years. I was on David Berger’s band. It’s interesting, because Brian would be someone who understands Clifford and Clark Terry. Someone who really knows how to arrange. That’s Dave. Someone who’s really played a lot of swing music. That’s Brian. When I first heard it, I said, “I know who this is.” Because I’ve sat right next to Brian when he plays like that, except I never think of listening to Brian on a CD.

7.  Bobby Bradford, “Compulsion” (from Nels Cline, NEW MONASTERY: A VIEW INTO THE MUSIC OF ANDREW HILL, Cryptogrammophone, 2006) (Bradford, cornet; Cline, guitar, effects, Ben Goldberg, clarinets; Andrea Parkins, accordion, effects; Devon Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums; Alex Cline, percussion)

[AT BEGINNING] You can hardly hear the trumpet in the mix. [SOLO] Sounds like Leo. Oh, it’s not Leo. I was thinking it could be the Yo Miles thing. Sorry, Leo, it’s definitely not you. It’s an interesting piece of music. Interesting construction. Not haphazard at all. A lot of nice compositional elements. I like it. I don’t know who the trumpeter is. I could guess, but what’s the point. It almost sounded like a cornet player to me. I liked it. It was good. Ah, there was a little bit of Don Cherry flavor in there. I liked that. It’s blowing like it’s a cornet—a very fuzzy sound. Cornet makes me think it could be Rob Mazurek, but it’s not. But it might not be a cornet; it might be the way the guy is blowing. It’s interesting, because the person is using the lower register of the horn a lot, and it doesn’t sound like someone who is so much a traditional musician, but more like this is really the comfort zone. It doesn’t sound like a guy who plays contemporary classical or anything like that. I like it. Good solo. Short. Good flow of ideas. Obviously coming from the Don Cherry type of thing. I’ve got no idea. 4 stars. It’s a little less defined than some of the other music we’ve heard, so it’s hard, when you’ve heard all this very defined music, to hear this music that’s much more open. Some good things going on in there for sure. [AFTER] Cornet! I said cornet. So it was Nels Cline on guitar! I was going to say Nels. Man, I should’ve said it. I should’ve known it was Bobby Bradford. I did say cornet, though. I wasn’t thinking, man. I’m getting tired. I should have put 2 and 2 together. So is it Ben Goldberg on bass clarinet.

Addendum to Bobby Bradford. It was a short solo, so it was hard for me to tell. At Bobby’s age, it’s a different thing… You hear all these solos by these young musicians, and they’ve got a lot of power to come through and play these long solos. But when I think back to what Bobby played, of course, it was a total Bobby Bradford solo, but so much shorter and so much more concise than the other guys—because at his age, you can’t play the cornet that much. Brass is very physical. So he does what he can with his physicality. When you think about it like that, it’s like Brian Pareschi, who is 40 years old and plays Broadway for a living—he has a lot of power, he can play an incredible trumpet solo. For Bobby Bradford as a musician, 5 stars. For that particular solo, in this context, I didn’t hear all the power I’m used to hearing on the trumpet. He’s a master.

8.  Olu Dara, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (from James Newton, AFRICAN FLOWER, Blue Note, 1985) (Dara, cornet; James Newton, flute, arrangement; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; Sir Roland Hanna, piano; Rick Rozie, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

Modern “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This is Olu and James Newton. 5 stars. I remember this well. I love this. This was a groundbreaking record, and sometimes I’m sorry that music didn’t go more in this direction, because this is a very exciting direction to me. It’s Roland Hanna on piano, and Billy Hart on drums, and Rick Rozie on bass, and Olu. The idea of mixing all these different musicians and showing each other mutual respect and making the most out of the tradition… I think James Newton is a towering figure in this music (I don’t mean just physically, because he’s a big guy, too). He’s one of the few people I’ve never worked with whom I’d really like to work with. This particular solo by Olu influenced me a lot, I must say. I was like, “Wow, you can play trumpet like this. Why not?” So many people take a vocabulary and they pick this and this, but I think, “No, your vocabulary can be everything. Your vocabulary can be as large as you want it to be.” What Olu has done with this, he’s taken some vocabulary from an early-early way of playing trumpet and made it modern by the fact that it’s him. I think it’s an incredible recording. 5 stars for the whole record.

9.  Nicholas Payton, “Fleur de Lis” (from INTO THE BLUE, Nonesuch, 2008) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, fender rhodes; Vicente Archer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Christian Scott? I thought it was him from the mixture of those chords…from the bass and the drum part and the chords. Oh, it’s Nicholas. What trumpet player records with percussion? Nicholas does. All he’s played so far is whole notes, and I couldn’t tell from the whole notes. But I knew from the orchestration it was him. I know Danny Sadownick, the tambourine player, really well. So I was listening to the tambourine, and I noticed it was Danny. Nicholas is another one of these guys who’s such a master… He’s as talented as any musician I’ve ever met. For him as a musician, 5 stars. I’m not crazy about this track, because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s a little just 6/8, you know.

10.  Masada, “Ash-nah” (from MASADA: 50th ANNIVERSARY, #7, Tzadik, 2003) (John Zorn, alto saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums)

See, this is good. This has mystery. I have to figure out who’s doing what. Sounds like something Dave Douglas would do right there. I don’t know if it’s Dave. It’s interesting to hear things that remind you of yourself… Oh, it’s Zorn and Dave. See, it’s interesting. When Dave did those sounds…Dave wouldn’t play that on his own record. He played that on Zorn’s record. I was thinking who the alto player was, then I was listening, and I realized it was Zorn on alto. That’s why Dave did that, because, as any great musician, you serve your leader. He’s a great sideman, too. He doesn’t like to be a sideman that much, but he’s a great sideman. Again, these are master musicians and Zorn is a master organizer. When it first came on, I said, “It’s a mystery.” I didn’t know what I was hearing. I have to give this band 5 stars, because I’ve heard so much and it’s consistently invigorating, and even if they play a song you don’t like, you know the next song you’re going to love. What I like about a band like this, and what I didn’t like about the last piece, is this is four equal voices. That’s why Zorn is such a great organizer, and he gets these great musicians. Each person’s voice carries its own weight. I think that always makes a pleasing musical experience. But it’s funny that I said it sounds like me, too. Because there is that Masada thing… What influenced Masada also influenced me. Not that my music sounds like Masada, but certain elements of Masada… Well, it’s also a way of writing without using piano. Using two horns and bass and drums, I do that all the time. So how do you write for these instruments? How do you organize for these instruments, make the most of harmony and melody and rhythm? Dave’s another guy who’s really created his own… A very non-traditional virtuosic trumpeter. Not a classical trumpeter. Very much a jazz triumpet player. He created his own technique. That’s the thing about the old-style jazz virtuosos, was they were JAZZ virtuosos. They created their own technique that didn’t exist before. This is an objective look at it. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying the idea of creating your own technique and taking that to virtuosic levels is different than having classical technique and being a jazz virtuoso. He has both. But once you’re a classical virtuoso, you can’t not be a classical virtuoso. It’s just what you are. He’s both. But he’s a new thing. That didn’t exist before. No one did that before him. The closest is like Doc Severinson. But Doc couldn’t play jazz like Wynton. He could play a solo. But he wasn’t like Wynton. He couldn’t sit there with Art Blakey. No offense. 5 stars for middle-aged masters. Old masters in Greg Cohen’s case.

11.  Taylor Ho-Bynum, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from THE MIDDLE PICTURE, Firehouse 12, 2005) (Bynum, cornet; Matt Bauder, tenor saxophone; Mary Halvorsen, Evan O’Reilly, electric guitar; Jessica Pavone, electric bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums)

Odd. I don’t know what it is. But I love this. Oh, it’s Ornette on trumpet!  Take that back. It’s definitely not Ornette on trumpet! Is that me? I don’t remember making this record. I’m laughing. I love this arrangement. This is the happiest arrangement I’ve heard so far. I’ve never heard them… It could be Kneebody. But I’ve never heard them. I heard a couple of things on the radio that were Shane, and every time I thought, “who is this great trumpeter?”—it was Shane. Finally a big band hit. First big band hit we’ve had the whole time! Nice. The reason I thought it was Shane is that he uses a lot of mutes, and there’s a lot of mutes in here. So somebody who knows how to use a mute. 5 stars for the tune, and since there’s no trumpet solo, I don’t know who it is. Five stars for the arrangement. [AFTER] So it was Mary on guitar. I should have guessed that. He loves Ellington. He loves Rex, but he doesn’t sound like him.

12.  Duke Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (from THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: 1927-1962: Vol.1) (Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, trumpets;

This is Basie. Oh, that jumped out of my mouth without thinking. No, it’s Duke. Ah, this is Rex. I’m sorry. It was swinging so hard, I was like Basie! It’s a total Count Basie introduction. I’ve heard this song so many times, so when it comes on, I’m like “Yeah.” I don’t even know what it’s called. I’ve had this track since I was in 11th grade. The very beginning was swinging pretty hard. I said Basie, then I heard this song, like, “Wait…” But it sounded like an old aircheck. That’s Rex. That’s Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Is this a live version? A studio recording? It’s a good mastering. I’ve never heard it on CD. It’s interesting hearing something on CD; it’s different. Sounds like a radio broadcast—it’s brighter.




Steven Bernstein (Downbeat article, 2001):

On a recent Friday afternoon, Steven Bernstein was driving home to Rockland County from Lou Reed’s Greenwich Village apartment, having presented seven horn charts to frame Reed’s interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe stories for a forthcoming Hal Willner-produced album.   After grabbing dinner and putting his kids to bed, he’d return to Manhattan for a midnight show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic, a dimly-lit, art-brut venue where he has appeared the preponderance of Friday wee hours since 1998 with one of the three bands he leads.  MTO is a nine-piece unit with rotating personnel devoted to executing 35 charts – the repertoire includes 25 reefer songs — that Bernstein has transcribed from his voluminous collection of recordings by obscure black orchestras of the ’20s and ’30s; guided by Bernstein’s in-the-moment conduction, they construct statements that have the feel of Don Redman encountering Donny Hathaway encountering Sun Ra.

Another of Bernstein’s bands is the tentet Diaspora Soul, which had performed at Tonic the previous night.  During a lull in the second set, Bernstein told the sparse crowd about the on-stage antics of Courtney Love at a Monday benefit where, on Willner’s recommendation, he led the horn section.  He revealed how at a post-show hang at the Russian Tea Room he charmed the diva with a gift of a t-shirt fronted with the logo of Sex Mob, his most popular band.  He added that Ms. Love had pulled down the top of her dress and donned the one-size-fits-all girlie-tee with effusive thanks.  “It looked great!” he exclaimed.

Bernstein was working a wedding when he came up with the inspired conceit for the self-titled recording [Tzadik] that marked Diaspora Soul’s debut.  He transcribed a dozen soulful Jewish songs from various old cantorial albums, and orchestrated them with the unison sax grooves of ’50s New Orleans rhythm-and-blues (think R&B guru Dave Bartholomew), with clave rhythms, with a touch of keyboard skronk a la psychedelic Dr. John by way of Eddie Palmieri, and with his own impassioned trumpet declamations.  He spontaneously arranges each performance, and as the second set proceeded, the sax (Peter Apfelbaum, Michael Blake, Paul  Shapiro and Briggan Krauss) and percussion (Johnny Almendra, Willie Rodriguez and Robert Rodriguez) sections locked into gear and built an irresistible momentum.  Like a vintage 8-cylinder Cadillac, the machine appeared to drive itself, but Bernstein — wisecracking, shouting out chords and rhythmic figures, tweaking the dynamics with emphatic hand gestures — firmly steered the ship, the master of the game.

“I’m Neil Hefti with an earring,” Bernstein joked over his cell phone.  The comment was revealing: Old-school to the core, he mixes as comfortably with musical elders as with his post-jazz peers.  For example, playing “button trumpet” at a recent concert with an Art Baron-led sextet before a tough audience at a Duke Ellington Society concert, he crafted a remarkable solo on “Perdido,” using shapes and phrases to build an idiomatic, structurally cogent statement that went beyond the notes.  He spent large chunks of 1998 and 1999 as fourth trumpet in arranger David Berger’s “Harlem Nutcracker” big band, rubbing shoulders with Ellington veterans Baron, Britt Woodman and Marcus Belgrave, and grizzled modernists like Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion; on the cast album.  On the cast album [Such Sweet Thunder] his peppery open horn solo on “Dance of the Floreadores” channels the jaunty spikiness of Ray Nance, while his plunger solo on “Swingin’ At Club Sweets” reveals a command of timbre and keen timing evocative of Cootie Williams’ heirs in the Ellington canon.

Bernstein is fascinated with the tropes of early jazz, and he conceptualized Sex Mob (Briggan Krauss, saxophones; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums) as a vehicle for his slide trumpet, on which he projects a sound completely his own, wild and gritty, deploying a pronounced vibrato reminiscent of such ‘20s and ‘30s blues-function brassmen as Sidney DeParis, Lee Collins, and Punch Miller.  He uses the slide to elicit tiny increments in pitch that produce vocalized sounds of the sort that Ellington signifier Rex Stewart got through his half-valving techniques in the ’30s and ’40s.  The context is wholly modern, informed by a global world-view akin to that of the late avant-pop guru Lester Bowie, an early role model.   He’s owned the instrument since 1977, and began playing  it seriously about a decade ago on gigs with Spanish Fly, an open form trio with tubist Marcus Rojas and slide guitarist David Tronzo devoted to a repertoire as Bernstein puts it, of “songs everyone knows.”

That’s Bernstein’s operative model for Sex Mob, which has worked hundreds of times since it assembled six years ago for Thursday night hits at the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar.  It’s a virtuoso unit, and their modus operandi is incessant collective improvisation; the band book comprises some 150 songs, which they are prepared to blow gleefully to smithereens and rebuild from the ground up.  The sound is Sophisticated Primitive, and the range is kaleidoscopic, jumping from “new standards” (Kurt Cobain’s “About A Girl”) to “classic jazz” (Theater and Dance, a privately produced CD that Bernstein sells at gigs, is a Bernstein-arranged suite of Ellingtonia commissioned by choreographer Donald Byrd) and Blues (Leadbelly) to such neo-kitsch as a suite of music from James Bond films due for fall release on Rope-A-Dope.

“I see Sex Mob as a return to the earliest roots of jazz,” says Bernstein, who named his son Rex Louie.  “People took pop songs of the time and improvised on them in new styles, with different rhythms and dynamics, in the way they felt like playing them.  Jazz was louder than any music of its time; it was played on a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville or minstrel song.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.

“With music that doesn’t have much harmonic structure, you must arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  You can’t play ‘Raspberry Beret’ the same way you play ‘My Funny Valentine’ — it’s that simple.  When the band started, I’d sit on the subway and write a bare-bones chart of whatever song I’d been listening to, throw the chart in front of them on the gig, rehearse in front of the audience, and play it.  I grew up playing free improvisation as well as standards, and free improvisation is about creating instant arrangements.  I still do that on the stage in Sex Mob.  The tunes evolve through an audience’s reaction.  People tend to overwrite, but you don’t need to give great musicians too much information.  It’s not the amount of elements you put in; it’s how good the elements are.”

Bernstein was just your normal teenage “total jazz snob” as an adolescent and teenager in the polyglot milileu of ‘70s Berkeley, California, where avant-garde, vernacular and traditional streams converged comfortably.  He began playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardymon, the teacher who jump-started present-day luminaries like Craig Handy, Josh Redman and Benny Green.  In sixth grade formed what would become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership with Peter Apfelbaum, later the leader of the multikulti Hieroglyphics Ensemble.  The youngsters went to shows by Eddie Harris, Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw at the Keystone Korner, and a series of solo concerts by Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Baikida Carroll.  “Finally,” Bernstein relates, “we went to see our heroes, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at the Great American Music Hall.  Peter and I went backstage and played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they invited us in.  Mr. Hardymon always told us we had to learn to play the changes better before we got involved in that kind of music.  He was right.  But it was in the air, and we wanted to play it.”

In eleventh grade, Bernstein looked up John Coppolla, a respected trumpet teacher who had played with Woody Herman, Billy May and Stan Kenton.  “When I came to my first lesson, I was being a snotty kid,” Bernstein recalls.  “I said, ‘Man, I’m into Lester Bowie!’  Mr. Coppolla was a middle-aged Italian gentleman.  He said, ‘Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex Stewart was doing back in the ’40s.’ He threw on ‘Menelik, Lion of Judah.’  That changed my life.  I started listening to Ellington’s 1940 band, with Rex and Cootie together in the trumpet section, and I knew it was the greatest music that ever existed. I still listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.”

Throughout high school Bernstein and Apfelbaum worked steadily on a 360-degree range of Bay Area gigs.  Somehow he maintained his grades, and he matriculated at Columbia University in 1979 intending to continue his work-study parallel track. Within two years, music won out.  Perhaps in response to an encounter with Wynton Marsalis in a Paul Jeffrey rehearsal band (“I thought everyone in New York had to be that good when they get here”), Bernstein avoided his hardcore jazz peer group  (“I was bored with those hangs socially; I wanted to be around girls and young people”) and religiously attended concerts by Defunkt — the seminal Avant Funk unit with Joe Bowie, Kelvin Bell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronnie Burrage — at the Squat Theater on West 23rd Street.

“That band changed my life again,” Bernstein recalls.  “In Berkeley, no one approached music with that hard an edge.  You either played free or you played R&B.  My dream was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix; they made it clear that you could put these approaches together.”

Bernstein found a West 109th Street apartment for $300 a month.  He enrolled at NYU, became a protege of the iconic lead trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, and spent the ’80s apprenticing in a slew of rehearsal bands, in Haitian and Latin units, in “eight million” obscure Lower East Side bands that featured original music, in art music bands like Kamikaze Ground Crew, and in Spanish Fly, which became a point of entry into Bernstein’s music for John Lurie and Hal Willner, the trumpeter’s two great patrons of the ’90s.

“The original idea of Spanish Fly was what Sex Mob is — to play songs everyone knows,” Bernstein notes.  “I played trumpet like an arranger.  Instead of soloing, I might play an equivalent of a Freddie Stone guitar part or a second alto part from an Ellington type of thing, with the trumpet as the vehicle.  It taught me to think on my feet, and I developed my mute vocabulary.  And it taught me about presentation; Spanish Fly was a collective, but I was always the emcee.”

In 1990, Lurie recruited Bernstein for a new edition of the Lounge Lizards; he remained a band-member throughout the decade.  Bernstein credits Lurie as a mentor.  “John would trust his intuition in putting music together, and I saw that it worked,” Bernstein states.  “He’d tell you to add one part, then another, then he’d listen to us play it, suggest another approach — and a piece would be made.  John organizes shows theatrically; the sets have a long arc, like a movie, as opposed to your typical jazz show.  He’d would send me tapes from Costa Rica of him playing, say, soprano sax or his little Casio, and I’d transcribe it.”

While Bernstein’s tenure with the Lounge Lizards brought increasing visibility, his ’90s work on a variety of Willner-generated projects have made him au courant in the high-stakes worlds of film and Hipster Pop.  They became close when Willner produced Spanish Fly’s first album, Rags to Britches [1994], a process that involved editing 12 hours of tape into a record, Teo Macero style.  “A lot of people don’t want to listen to 12 hours of music,” Bernstein says.  “I like doing that.  So does Hal.  We’d meet and make notes, and it turned out that we liked all the same stuff.”

In 1994, Willner called Bernstein to research songs and help assemble musicians for Robert Altman’s Kansas City.  Willner sent “boxes of tapes” of music apropos to 1934, when the narrative takes place, and Bernstein spent several months absorbing it.  Once on the set, when it became apparent that the promised “arrangements” in the film’s library were useless stocks, Willner put Bernstein to work writing arrangements on almost a nightly basis.

“I still haven’t recovered from that,” exclaims Bernstein, who had just transcribed a 1928 Chocolate Dandies recording for MTO.  “The orchestrated music from that period moves me.  Every phrase has a direct relation to the beat.  I love the attention to sound, to detail, how organized everything is — loose and bluesy, but with a specific framework, because you only had three minutes.  Nothing was wasted.”

The drudgery paid off.  “John Zorn used to ask, ‘Why are you always doing that work for Lurie and Willner?'” Bernstein laughs.  “But that’s how I learned to be an arranger.”   He’s experienced too many ups and downs to let brushes with celebrity go to his head, sustaining the “it’s all good” attitude of a seasoned New York professional.

“I’m a good trumpet player,” he states.  “I do a lot of studio work.  Ask me to play something, and I can play it.  It’s all about balance.  I’m raising a family, and you’ve got to make money where you can.  Playing weddings and barmitzvahs teaches you a lot about improvisation.  Everyone knows ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder.  But you might not know what key it’s in when they start it.  There’s no music in front of you, but all the stuff is in your ear, and you’ve got to translate it into your horn and play the right notes.  That is a challenge.

“Doing those jobs makes you more grateful for the chances you have to play your own music.  I don’t take my midnight gig at Tonic as just another gig.  I’m going to write a new chart and present something good.  It all means something to me.”



Steven Bernstein (Musician Show, 2-28-01):

[Sex Mob, “Holiday of Briggan”]

TP:    Steve Bernstein, aside from being the guiding intelligence of the group Sex Mob, having produced the record Diaspora Soul, and being a ubiquitous and ebullient presence on the New York scene, is also a connoisseur of traditional trumpet styles, particularly those with blues connotations.  He’s brought by my request a bunch of Kansas City material, Lee Collins, ’50s arrangers, and we’re prepared to go in many different directions.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, and into the future.  We’ve got some of the goodold-goodolds from the latter part of the century, as radio guys say who try to be witty.  The latter part of the century as opposed to the first part..

TP:    We’ll begin with Hot Lips Page from the Spirituals to Swing concert, 62 years ago.

BERNSTEIN:  Something like that.  But this is when he was reunited with the Count Basie band, which he had been the star trumpet player of, but by the time they recorded he was not in the band any more.  Anyway, he wanted to have his own career and blah-blah-blah…

TP:    You’re almost 40, and you came up in the Bay Area playing a lot of modern, future-oriented music.

BERNSTEIN:  I brought a bunch of that.  Early Hieroglyphics music and stuff from growing up in Berkeley.  You could hear Frank Lowe play in Berkeley, and the Art Ensemble was there all the time… Sun Ra was there.  We had people into the African drumming thing.  After the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band broke up, there were still elements of that in the Bay Area — Julian Priester had his own band, Eddie Henderson had his own band.  It was a pretty far-out time.  I hate to say “far out” on the radio, but I did.

TP:    That said, how did you become such a connoisseur of older trumpet styles?  A lot of your generational peer group isn’t interested in anything that happened before World War 2.

BERNSTEIN:  It was my trumpet teacher.  See, I was really lucky.  There were so many great musicians out there.  There was a guy named Warren Gale, who I started studying with in the ninth grade.  He was a totally modern trumpet player, and I was just a little kid, and we were playing Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Lee Morgan.  That was his thing.  So at that age I was totally exposed to that whole world of trumpet playing.   So I’m this kid, I’m buying every Blue Note record I can get my hands on.  Of course, I don’t understand the harmony at all, but I can understand the music.

The next trumpet player was a guy named John Coppola.  Now, John and Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion all came together, and he was part of that world.  I have one quick story.  Like most high school kids would, I tried to be really cool.  I get to my first lesson, and at that point I figure… He’s an older musician, in his early fifties.  I say, “I’m really into modern trumpet, I’m really into Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble.”  I don’t even know this guy.  He just looks at me and goes, “Oh yeah, Lester Bowie.  I like the kid.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He does the Rex Stewart thing.”  And then he just puts on this record, which I also brought, and he plays me this Rex Stewart solo, which I guess we’ll listen to second.  I realized he was totally non-judgmental.  He wasn’t saying, “Oh, man, I don’t like that music.”  He was saying, “Yeah, that’s part of the music tradition.”  So basically, he got me hip to Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams.  He’d talk about Dud Bascomb.  He’d talk about Bill Harris.  This is a man who was on the road with Bill Harris for years.  He sat in the second with Conrad Gozzo.  He played with Dizzy.

TP:    Apart from the harmonic innovation that happened after World War Two, how would you characterize the prewar trumpet players in terms of sound quality and aesthetic intent vis-a-vis the subsequent generation?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s obviously more sonically and rhythmically oriented.  Definitely more sonically oriented.  Because the longer you hold out a note, the more the sound becomes apparent.  If you’re moving eighth notes, the sound is actually really optional.  The velocity and the movement of those eighth notes is what’s creating the movement in the solo.  With Louis Armstrong, people always talk about the vibrato.  It was a timed vibrato, which a lot of people don’t know about.  The timed vibrato means that the vibrato was actually in time with the music.  They said, “How does Louis Armstrong do it?  He holds the note but he pushes the band.”  Well, because while he’s holding that note, that vibrato is actually right on top of the beat, and it’s pushing the whole band with just the intensity of the air.  There’s a great Sidney deParis solo that I brought from the ’20s… The sound of what these people were playing is so incredible.  That I think is the main thing.  Because music’s music.  I mean, it’s different styles for different beats.

[MUSIC: Hot Lips Page, “Blues For Lips”; Rex Stewart, “Menelik, the Lion of Judah”;  Archie Shepp, “Keep Your Heart Right”; Ellington, “The Flaming Sword”]

TP:    People have done variations on the half-valving technique, but no one did like Rex.

BERNSTEIN:  No.  From what I heard from my trumpet teacher, back in the days when everyone knew each other, there would be parties at his house where guys would come over after shows, he was very interested that both Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan could sing along with all the Rex Stewart solos on the ’78s.  There are guys who were real Modernists who listen to Rex.  He was definitely a special musician, and people were aware of it… He was self-taught.

TP:    It’s interesting in the period after Cootie Williams left the band to join Benny Goodman, while Ray Nance was getting his feet wet, so there are a number of recordings and airchecks where you hear playing the Cootie Williams part.  He was a total trumpet player.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yes.  And he was a firebrand, too.  I have a jam session with Rex and Charlie Shavers where everyone obviously is in their cups.  But Charlie  Shavers lays down this incredible stuff that would be impossible to play on the trumpet, and Rex tries to play it right back, but  using his own fingerings and stuff like that, so it sounds a little different than Charlie Shavers.  But I think Rex made his living as a guy people know… My Dad knows who he was.  “Oh yeah, we used to go see Rex Stewart.”  He was something special.

“Keep Your Heart Right” is by Roswell, and that piece kind of is what made me create Sex Mob.  The great thing about it, it sounds like jazz when you hear it.  Man, they’re swinging!  It’s like jazz.  But when you actually hear what they’re doing form-wise, it’s not like jazz, like with your eight-bar form or whatever.  It’s so much more free.  I think those times were very free.  I think people didn’t want to hear 8 bars.  That’s why they went to hear the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.  Their minds were expanding.  So if you heard things come to 8 bars, you’d go, “Man, this is square.”  Even if it’s so hip, you’re immediately going to say it’s square.  But with Archie and Roswell it was so free that people could really get into it, and meanwhile it had that jazz feeling.

TP:    Maybe so.  Also, a paraphrase could be the term “beyond category.”  What we’re about to hear is a section from an as-yet unreleased suite of Ellingtonia arranged by you for the Donald Byrd Dance Company.

BERNSTEIN:  We were actually supposed to perform this piece at Lincoln Center.  The original concept, which would have been beautiful, was to have Eric Reed do the piano trio stuff from Piano Reflections, and then my idea was to do the second movement, and the third movement being the Lincoln Center Orchestra.  I had worked with Donald on the Harlem Nutcracker for three or four years, and it was obvious we were kind of birds of a feather; we’d been around the same areas of New York at the same time, seen some things.  I knew he had worked with Vernon Reid and Geri Allen, and I said, “Oh, do you know them, they’re friends of mine,” blah-blah-blah.  We started talking about music and things we liked, and then  we started talking about Ellington and I was saying how I think it’s very interesting that there was this side of Ellington that’s a very carnal side… Of course, everyone makes an icon out of somebody, like they want to present this…the whole Ellington shtick.  But he was a human being, and he was a pretty funky guy.
TP:    What he called himself in his book was the master bullshitter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, he was a pretty funky guy!  He had a dark side, too.  And I said, “It would be nice to celebrate that part of the music, instead of always presenting it so immaculately done.  Because to be honest, that band also didn’t sound immaculate.  I remember once talking to Al Porcino, and there were certain guys who were great musicians and maybe couldn’t appreciate the Ellington thing, because they were around during the ’50s, and they were probably like that Kenton sense of everything’s in tune and hits together, and that thing with the trumpet shakes, and you might hear the Ellington band, especially at certain periods, and say, “man, that doesn’t sound that good.”  So the idea of the funkiness of the Ellington band, that it could be a very funky band, it wasn’t all spit-and-polish.

TP:    Well, the band was traveling 250-300 days a year, and you can’t humanly  be in the sort of form you’re talking about.  Different circumstances, different sounds, venues…

BERNSTEIN:  That was just a tangent.

TP:    It was.  But anyway, was this eventually realized?

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  It happened at the Joyce Theater for a week.  But then the idea was to present it later in the summer but record the music.  He couldn’t afford to have us do it at the Joyce.

TP:    And it didn’t get performed at Lincoln Center because of the carnal nature at the core…

BERNSTEIN:  The reason it didn’t get done is that this music had gotten so carnal that he had it worked out that the dancers all come out, and at one point the males and females both have enormous breasts and enormous phalluses.  Each is just for one movement… Well, for each one there was a matching phallus and breast.  Like, they could be in zebra-colored or psychedelic-colored, or a tie-dye set, or a polkadot set…

TP:    And thus it didn’t make it to Lincoln Center.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  It shouldn’t have been.  It was supposed to be for Lincoln Center Outdoors.  You can’t have people bring their children to see it.  It was not appropriate.  But that’s what happened.

[Sex Mob, “Black and Tan Fantasy”]

TP:    That song has such a strong character and defined identity that people who tackle it rarely break it up and mess with it as enthusiastically as you did.  You’ve done a lot of work in rearranging and reformulating the music of the ’30s and ’40s, on Kansas City, this project, many things.  Did your arranging develop in parallel to playing the trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s one of those things in being a professional musician, having someone go, “Can you make an arrangement?” and you go, “Yeah, how much does it pay?”  I talked to Manny Albam who did these arrangements called “Three Dimensional,” where it was three different bands playing three melodies, like the way Mingus did “Exactly Like You” and “A Train,” and finding one more song.  He had three different ensembles, and he had it in Trivision Stereo or something.  I called him and asked “How did you arrange that?”  He said, “Oh, I was in Wingy Manone’s band, and Wingy said, ‘Hey, Manny, can you make me an arrangement?'”  He said yeah.

That’s kind of how it happened, how it started — doing Haitian music.  “Hey, Steve, can you make an arrangement?”  Then I started working with John Lurie.  There were things in between…

TP:    You started working in Haitian bands when you came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  Pretty early on.  That’s one of the first gigs I had that was kind of…

TP:    You got here?


TP:    You were 18, right out of high school.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.

TP:    You get here and try to make your way in the fray.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s a funny story because I get here.  Me and Wynton are the same age, and he was going to Juilliard and I was going to Columbia.  I made it there a few years.  Lifestyle’s too hard, man.  I couldn’t keep up with the druggies at Columbia!  I had to quit!  I’m not really made of that kind of stuff.  I don’t have those kinds of genetics.

TP:    No one here does that these days, you know.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, but that was a long time ago.  Anyway, growing up I had been a professional musician, I thought I was good, all these things, and I move to New York and think “Oh, man, I’m going to play.”  So I get there and I meet another trumpet player at rehearsal band.  See, I’m really good at rehearsal bands.  Paul Jeffrey’s rehearsal band.  I’ve been in town for three days, and this young trumpet player from New Orleans, obviously my age, big Afro, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  And man, he played so good.  And I kept hearing him.  And see, I thought that’s how good you had to be.  I thought man, everyone in New York has to be that good when they get here.  And that was Wynton, you know.

TP:    that was discouraging for you?

BERNSTEIN:  Whoo!  To hear a guy play the trumpet like that?  At that age?  So for a second, I just kind of hung out.  Then I kind of got more into it again.

TP:    But you started to work professionally while you were an undergraduate.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah, I started doing gigs immediately.  But I meant the whole… I had done this record when…

TP:    How did you get networked into those gigs?  Who did you know?

BERNSTEIN:  I met people.  I knew Butch Morris from the Bay Area.  He gave me my first recording session.  I’d been to the East Coast before, and some people knew me.  I had some trumpet teachers, and they’d say, “oh, go to this rehearsal band” or “do this Latin gig for me.”  I knew Jimmy Owens.  I knew Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu.  I took lessons with all those guys.

But what I wanted to play like… What I was doing was checking out Defunkt.  That’s what I did when I first moved to New York.  Every weekend I was at the Squat Theater.  That was my band.  I think that really changed my life.  Because in Berkeley no one had really approached the music that hard-edged.  Where I’m from, the music was so much softer.  It was good, but suddenly you’d hear Defunkt, man, and Joe Bowie was playing so much trombone… Melvin Gibbs, Kelvin Bell, Ronnie Burrage.  It was this great band, and I’d never heard anything like it.  It was my dream, was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix and all this music I loved.  I said, “Yeah, man, you could just play them together.”

TP:    And at the same time you’re playing with people who are very well versed in the bebop and postbop vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah,  but that was never what I wanted to do.

TP:    So the ’80s proceed, you fade away from Columbia and settle into the life of a professional musician, doing Haitian gigs, Funk gigs, various gigs.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  And I was in every East Village band.  Tons of band.  When I got there, now a lot of guys were into that kind of music… I could really well.  If people gave me a chart, I could play it.  Because I come from playing big bands and having teachers who were really serious about playing the trumpet.  Trumpet is a hard instrument.  There are great self-taught trumpet players, but man, it’s hard enough even if you’re well-taught.  I mean, these guys really knew how to play the trumpet.  They taught me about playing in time.  I really believe in playing in time.  I mean, I love playing out of time, too.  But time is very specific, and there’s a lot of ways to approach it.  My trumpet teachers were Jimmy Maxwell.  John Coppola, who sat next to Gozzo.  I mean, that’s a certain concept of where the time should be, which I think is very important.  When I moved to New York, I found a lot of people didn’t feel time  that way.  They felt that much more bright type of time, on top of the beat, and that also was not attractive to me.  I appreciate that modern style of big band, but it doesn’t really interest me that much.  I’ll do anything as a job, but…

TP:    So you started doing arrangements for Haitian bands, and you learned more or less by trial-and-error.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, you’d just figure out… But I always had a natural affinity for it. I could hear the range of the horns in my ear.  Anyway, John Lurie was starting to get to be more high-profile, then Hal Wilner asked me to do stuff, and now I have my own band.  So I’m just writing all the time.

TP:    We’re going to Mezz it up!  This isn’t coming from a CD of the session nor from an LP compilation.  It’s from a Blue Note LP 33-1/3 Microgroove 10″, 7027!  “Mezzerola Blues.”

BERNSTEIN:  Lee Collins.  You can say his name again!

[Lee Collins/Mezz, “Mezzerola Blues”; Charlie Johnson/Sidney DeParis, “The Boy In The Boat”; Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In the Dark”]

BERNSTEIN:  Trumpeters.  Great trumpeters.  Lee Collins I didn’t know about until very recently.  I was on the road in Portland with Kenny Wolleson, and he brings me Lee Collins’ autobiography from Powell’s.  I’m reading about him, and I said, “Man, this sounds incredible.”  Because this guy was a contemporary of Armstrong, a little bit younger than him, but that’s who he grows up listening to.  He comes to Chicago, but he’s his own trumpeter, but Armstrong’s the guy from his town who’s a couple of years older than him.  I found this record in my collection which I hadn’t really checked out, and I put it on and heard it, and realized that to me the beauty of it was that he’s playing in the style of Armstrong in the ’20s, but then developing on that.  Most guys, when they use some Armstrong and put it in their playing, use the ’40s thing,  more obvious, more stated, everything was more tongue.  This almost sounds like Armstrong’s cornet style, a little more sliding around.

TP:    Let’s take a tangent.  Your observations on the evolution of Louis Armstrong’s style.

BERNSTEIN:  When you hear him with King Oliver, he’s playing lower in the register.  Then you hear him play in Fletcher Henderson and the Hot Fives, and he’s starting what became known as the solo style.  He’s playing these beautiful melodies that he just knew.  Musicians know this about Armstrong, but if you’re not a musician you might not be that aware of it.  I don’t think he ever played a note out of the chord.  And chords are not simple on those old songs.  You hear a lot of blues musicians play New Orleans music, and they play a basic diatonic blues over it.  It doesn’t always work, because you have what are called three-chord… You have chords where there’s notes that are actually very clearly outside of the blues scale.

Well, Louis Armstrong always hit those notes perfectly and musically, and led to them.  It was always there.  So he started playing in this softer style.  With Fletcher Henderson I guess he switched to the trumpet and was using more of the upper register.  The more instruments are below you on the trumpet, the easier it is to play in the upper register.  If you’re just playing with two other horns, they can’t really support your note up there.  If you start playing with the big band… Then he had his big band, and that’s when his style became this really super-virtuosic style, that whole thing with “Swing That Music” and you play 40 high Cs and you end on a double high-F, and he’s doing it every night, six shows a night, then doing recordings in the afternoon.

Then when he started going back to play with the All Stars, now he’s mixing the two styles together.  That’s the style of New Orleans trumpet playing most guys use from Louis’ All-Stars.  It’s up in the register.  It comes from that big band playing.  He’s playing really high and he’s stating the beat very directly.  With the early stuff, there’s more mystery in there.

TP:    Now back to Lee Collins.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  He’s mystery.  When you hear him, there’s just a lot of mystery, and it sounds great.

TP:    Sidney De Paris.

BERNSTEIN:  Don’t know much about him.  Him and his brother had a band and were called the New Orleans Jazz Band. [Blue Note and Atlantic] His brother played with Duke Ellington.  He was just another great trumpeter.  Obviously could really play.  Whether it’s his hand or his plunger, however he’s doing, that solo is unbelievable to me.  It’s one of those gems.  When I heard it, I just went back and listened to it over and over again.  Punch Miller was a guy from that same era.  When you listen to the guys of that era when they were young… Trumpet is a hard instrument.  So obviously, when you heard Punch Miller or Sidney deParis in the ’60s, it’s a lot different.  They didn’t have the physicality to keep playing that way.  But when they were young, man, they sounded amazing!

TP:    On the last track we heard the great Clark Terry, who seems to subsume just about everything that ever happened in the history of trumpet in his own style.

BERNSTEIN:  And he’s the greatest guy in the world.  I’ve known him for a long time.  I hung with him this summer.  He’s such an inspiration.  I read an interview with him where he said he keeps his horn by his bed, and sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll just get up and play a few notes.  That’s when I just kind of realized how serious playing the trumpet is.  If you really want to be a trumpet player… I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and some days I’ll skip practicing — or I did, up until three or four months ago.  Then I decided, “You know what?”  I’m never going to skip aa day of practice.  Trumpet is serious.  It’s a really heavy instrument, with the amount of dedication it takes to make your lips work properly on the trumpet.  And Clark is one of those guys… He’s almost blind, he can barely walk, he’s diabetic, and every time he puts his horn to his face, man, beauty comes out.  You cannot believe how incredible he sounds.  He’s an inspiration.  And the greatest person in the world.   And hilarious.  I was hanging out with him and Alan Smith, who is in his seventies, and a 91-year-old drummer, and Roger Glenn, the son of Tyree Glenn, who lives in Oakland.  It was so funny!  The drummer was Eddie Alley, the brother of Vernon Alley, the bass player who lived in San Francisco.  He’s not doing so much playing.  He said maybe he’s going to stick to contracting, because he’s 90 and he’s not been working that much.

TP:    On Diaspora Soul Steven put traditional cantorial music to New Orleans beats.

BERNSTEIN:  It was more like traditional songs to beats… Well, the beats are really a lot of Afro-Cuban beats and Cha-Cha beats.  They’re actually not New Orleans beats.  But the bass parts and piano parts are coming from that tradition of music. The beats actually were mixing like mambos and cha-chas.  But on this I just got right down to the rhythm.  This is with a Rumba rhythm.  I took it from a Polish cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, originally written in 1921.  It’s an Ashkenazi piece, but it sounds very Sephardic, just the tonality.  But it’s not.

[“Habet Mishomayem”]

TP:    We’ll hear a track by Yusef Lateef from The Symphonic Blues Suite, another take on the blues, and another way of articulating the blues.

BERNSTEIN:  Growing up, those Atlantic records were very important to me, the whole thing with Yusef and Eddie Harris and Fathead and Rahsaan… See, it’s Rahsaan who brought us into this.  Rahsaan ruled the Bay Area.  I saw Rahsaan about ten times in high school.

TP:    You were a Keystone Korner guy.

BERNSTEIN:  Me and Peter Apfelbaum were in the front… We’d get there early.  And we were slick.  We had a thing where I’d get a Coca-Cola in  Chinatown and stick it in our pocket, and we’d order water as soon as we sat down, drink the water, save the ice, and pour the Coke in real fast, and I had the can again, and it looked like they had brought us Coke for the minimum.  We were criminals, hard-core.

But we’d go see Rahsaan, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I think about music this way.  Those Atlantic productions, you’d get these records, and it seemed like you were entering this world where each record was a brand-new world.  Like, Blackness.  Do you remember Natural Black Inventions, where it’s just him?  We’re kids and looking at this and saying, “wow, this is so great.”  It wasn’t the idea that records was a bunch of guys getting together to play. It was like each record was a world you could enter.  Yusef made some great… The Search, which I wish I still had.  Me and Peter would just sit around and practice and play records.  It’s part of my history.

[Yusef, “Minuet, Hybrid-Atonal”; Gil Evans-Johnny Coles, “Davenport Blues”; Rahsaan-Quincy, “Charade”]

TP:    Quincy Jones did a lot of amazing arrangements in the ’60s, and the dynamic range and precision, but it’s never like a machine…

BERNSTEIN:  It’s never bad.   I’ve been thinking about it.  Quincy is kind of like Mingus with a little TV added to it.  It’s like that good.  I really feel Quincy is that good.  It’s so full of life, so exploratory, celebratory… The fact that he would have Roland Kirk playing the solo.  Who else would love music that much?

TP:    Rahsaan was under contract to Mercury at the time.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but check this out.  Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Jimmy Maxwell, Osie Johnson and Milt Hinton.  I meet drummers all the time, and they don’t know who Osie Johnson is — or Gus Johnson.  Those guys were so great, and their time was so great, and there was a certain level f musicianship… Look, the world changes.  It’s always different.  But at that period of time, man, the level of musicianship was so high, because everyone was playing every day, they’d all been on the road for years, they had all that skill under their belts of having played three sets a night for years.  Then you go into this high quality recording, and people are playing at night… When I hear music like we just heard, I just love this music.

TP:    Before that we heard Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Davenport Blues” with Johnny Coles playing the Bix role, from the great Gil Evans for Pacific Jazz where he arranged all the standards.

BERNSTEIN:  I was probably in tenth grade when I heard this for the first time, and it was just like… That’s one of those solos that’s so pure to me.  When I heard that, I just couldn’t believe it.  It’s so sympathetic, the arranging.  Gil Evans is a whole nother kind of arranger.  That kind of arranging is so beyond me.  It’s so unique.  The interesting thing is that Jimmy Maxwell and Gil Evans grew up together.  They had a high school band in Tracy, which later became the Skinny Ennis Band.  Maxwell told me that Gil would babysit his kids sometimes.  He left the house and go see a movie with his wife or something, and Gil’s sitting at the piano with Maxwell’s son, David, and he’s sitting there playing a chord, and David’s sitting next to him on the piano.  They get back three hours later, David is in the same place and Gil’s still playing the same chord.  That’s the way he was.  It seems to me he really thought so much about every single interval.

Another interesting thing about Gil Evans, he always talked about unison.  People asked him later on, in Sweet Basil, why he wasn’t writing these big orchestrations like we just heard.  And he said, you know, trying to get the band to make unison… I didn’t understand what he said.  But lately I think what he was talking about was that Basie thing of the unison.  Because as I’ve been doing more and more writing, I realize it’s much easier for a band to play harmony than to play unison.

TP:    Why is that?  Because you have to breathe as one?

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  Because the harmony, if it’s a little bit off, the beauty and strength of the harmony can carry you.  But if it’s unison, it’s really got to  be played with this feeling.  It’s really powerful, but it’s much harder to get to.  Maybe there’s a science to unison, but I’d say it’s kind of almost a magic thing that you have to reach out to through time.  You can’t learn it.  You have to spend time to get it.  And you have to start with something else.

I think it’s easier to mess with something with a strong melody.  The stronger the melody is, the more it can withhold.  It’s like a really strong  building.  If it’s a really strong frame, you can hit it with as many hammers as you want and it’s going to hold up.  I’m trying to hit it with many hammers.

[Sex Mob, “The Mooche”]

TP:    Steven was talking about unisons.  When you talk about unisons and breathing-together, you’re talking about riffs.  And nobody ever did the riff function better than the Count Basie Orchestra, at least not on record.

BERNSTEIN:  This is true.  This was always in the air around me, but when I went on the Kansas City film, my job there started off kind of being the research guy.  Hal Wilner, every two days or so I’d get a big box of tapes to listen to, and my daughter had just been born… I swear to God, I think this is why she’s the way she is, which is really special, but the first couple of months all she heard was music from 1928 to 1938.  That was it.  That’s all I listened to in the house.   It kind of seeped into my body, it seeps into one’s body when you listen to it… What do you call that process?

TP:    Osmosis.

BERNSTEIN:  Thank you.  Gesundheit.  It kind of started a disease with me, because now after listening to so much of that music, it’s like I can’t stop listening to it.  And my daughter is 6, so that was 6 years ago.

TP:    There’s a bunch of Basie airchecks from the late ’30s and early ’40s, and apart from the greatness of the band, one of the pleasures is to hear Lester Young play a bunch of choruses.

BERNSTEIN:  And on this one Jo Jones has woodblocks and cowbells… It’s really good.  It’s also before the band had four trombones.  It’s three trombones.

TP:    Here it’s the Basie band playing for dancers at either the Savoy or the Meadowbrook Lounge in 1937.

[Basie, “I Got Rhythm”; Benny Moten, “Toby”; KC-6, “Countless Blues”]

TP:    Talk about organizing that style for a group of modern musicians, whose approach to making music is different than musicians 60 years before, developing that organic feeling.

BERNSTEIN:  When we did it for the movie?  Man, these musicians are all so great that it was easy, because they all knew what to do.  It really freed me up, because for some things it could be really skeletal and they could put it together.  Riff music continues to be the music of our generation.  It’s just changed harmonically and rhythmically.  But all Popular music is riff music.  The concept of unisons, as a lot of jazz has strayed from that, has gone to Pop music.  One thing about James Brown is the unisons.  You hear great unisons in a lot R&B music and a lot of dance music.  That’s why it makes people want to dance.  It’s the power of all that happening together.  You hear that in African music a lot.  There’s unisons and there’s… Obviously, the rhythms are different, but a lot of people in unison in different rhythms often.

The band Spanish Fly had… I remember Frank Perowsky, who is the father of a friend of mine and a great saxophone player, came to one of our gigs.  This was a band with trumpet, slide guitar and tuba.  He’s really a modern jazz guy.  He said, “Steve, as I’m listening to this, I’m wondering what is this that they’re playing.”  And I realize it’s unison.  Because if you hear a slide guitar, a trumpet and a tuba playing unison, that’s a very specific kind of unison.  Every unison is different.  So there’s a whole world of unison out there.  You hear it in Parliament-Funkadelic.  You hear a lot of good unison out there.

Obviously, you don’t hear arranging.  Actual arranging has gotten away from that.  Because people are much more into putting a lot of things on top, a lot of different moving lines.  But for dancing, of course, it really moves people.

TP:    We’ll move to music now by the trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, who was a primary mentor for Steven when he came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  It was just a miracle.  I went to NYU, and he was there teaching.  You had a choice of trumpet teachers, and I’d been hearing about him.  When I moved to New York, a lot of people studied with Jimmy Maxwell, so I had a lot of opportunity to study with him.  He really took me under his wing.  I’d take lessons at his house, and he’d send me home with tapes and records, and books about Zen, and food.  I’d spend all day there, he’d cook a huge breakfast, we’d take a walk, we’d play, we’d cook… He taught me about cooking.  It was one of those things where someone talks to you about things.  And he’d just seen so much in his life.  Here’s a guy who was 17 years old on the road with Skinny Ennis, then he replaced Harry James basically in Benny Goodman’s band when he was 18 years old.  18 years old, and he joins the most popular band in the United States of America…
TP:    Replacing the most popular trumpeter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  It was big news back then.  It as if someone had replaced John in the Beatles or something like that.  What he saw living that life was  really amazing, and being able to pass some of that on to me was great.  He’s a very spiritual guy.  The lessons were much more than just music.

The first piece starts with solo trumpet, and it’s a great chance to hear his sound.  One of the things Jimmy taught me about was timed vibrato.  When I first started playing gigs after taking lessons with him, other trumpeters were looking at me like I was crazy, because I’d be playing these parts with this really pronounced vibrato, which of course is not the way you play in modern music.  But when you’re young and studying with someone, you’re trying to emulate what they teach you, and sometimes that might not be the right thing to do in a certain situation.  But eventually, the vibrato has brought me a lot of good things.

[Jimmy Maxwell, “Estrelita,” “The Trolley Song”]

TP:    Now some live Ellington.  Hearing live Ellington airchecks and recorded performances is one of the great pleasures of jazz collecting.  You have them going back to the early ’30s and all through his career.  These come from 1948-49, when Ben Webster joined the band.

BERNSTEIN:  Right.  These are just trumpet features.  This is “Tooting Through the Roof,” which he wrote for Rex and Cootie.  It’s pretty impossible to play.

TP:    This is where the Ellington band would be that precision instrument

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly. “Braggin’ In Brass” is more rhythmically difficult.  “Tootin’ Through the Roof” is just…as far as the range, it goes all through the trumpet to the very top.  This is when he had Al Killian in the band, who was a great lead trumpet who people don’t talk about so much.

TP:    Talk about lead trumpet versus the soloistic approach.  I did a liner note for someone who’s a protege of Clark Terry, and he spoke of Clark Terry embodying that ideal of playing trumpet with the lead trumpet type technique with the feeling…

BERNSTEIN:  Right, of a jazz player, which is difficult.  Most people… It’s the natural thing that would happen when you’re trying to play things consistently and the same all the time.  We’re talking about balance.  That could shift the balance from being able to be really spontaneous and pulling things in different directions.  That’s a really hard thing to do, and that’s what we heard Maxwell do.  He was a very lead style trumpet player.  The Ellington style was a little more… He told me that he didn’t like Chet Baker when he heard him, and then he saw a written-out Chet Baker solo and played it, and then he liked.  I heard him play the Chet Baker solo.  But he’s not playing it like Chet Baker would play it; he’s playing the notes and interpreting it his own way.  Then he could appreciate the rhythmic and melodic beauty of it.  But for him, the way  Chet played wasn’t the way the trumpet should sound.  He comes from another school.  He doesn’t play any more, but when I studied with him he was still playing all the time.  He was playing every night and sounding incredible.

He’s the person who taught me about all these trumpet players.  He talked about Billy Butterfield all the time.  Who talks about Billy Butterfield.  But when he was doing sections, he was telling me that in Mildred Bailey’s show the trumpet section was him, Billy Butterfield and Roy Eldridge.  Now, think about that.

TP:    The different sounds, for one thing.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but also the level of playing of those three guys.  Billy Butterfield was a great trumpet player, a great lead and jazz stylist.  Jimmy always described him as having the best intervals in the  business; his intervals were perfect.  And Shorty Baker, who is the lower of the two lower tessitore trumpet players in this next piece, a trumpet player from St. Louis, has a beautiful sound.  It sounds like he really influenced Clark Terry.  Beautiful tone.  Didn’t Miles talk about Shorty Baker?  Trumpet players know about him, but now everyone will.

[Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (Killian-Baker); “Boy Meets Horn”; Teagarden & Ben, “St. James Infirmary”]

TP:    This “Boy Meets Horn” may be the ultimate of all the “Boy Meets Horns” I’ve heard, which are two or three.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s why I played it.  At the end there’s a cadenza that Rex would always play.  By the way, my son is named Rex.  But that was a set piece, and this is the extended version.  Here Ellington plays piano behind him, and it’s neat, the backup line he plays — a little counter-melody.

TP:    And from 1948 we heard “Tootin’ Through the Roof.” on an Italian collectors label called Raretone.

BERNSTEIN:  At the end, Al Killian and Shorty Baker don’t really make the end the way Cootie and Rex did; they articulated so much stronger on the recording.

TP:    Before the next set, I’d like to speak about Sex Mob.  Each of your ensembles has had a general vibration or sound or signature.  How did this band come to be?

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob came about as a vehicle to explore the slide trumpet.  I only play slide trumpet in Sex Mob, and I’d been playing it in different groups… I bought a slide trumpet in 1977 and I’ve been playing it since then, but never that seriously until about eight years ago, when I decided to really start practicing it.  It’s a really difficult instrument.  So when I originally played it, I would just play in a few keys I could kind of get around in, and it would just be something I could pick up and play.  But then Dave Douglas suggested I practice it.  Smart man.

So I wondered I could take the instrument if I had a band where this was the only instrument I’m taking to the gig.  I just figured let’s see what kind of repertoire I could develop that I could play on this instrument.  And this is a great band.  We’ve pretty much had regular gigs in New  York for five years.  We play usually Friday nights at midnight at Tonic.  It’s Tony Scherr on the bass, Kenny Wolleson on the drums, and my partner in sonic crime, Briggan Krauss, on alto.

TP:    What does the slide trumpet give you that the valve trumpet doesn’t?

BERNSTEIN:  One thing it does is, it frees me.  It frees me from the history of the trumpet.  Most trumpet players feel this… There’s a weight on your shoulders in a sense, an obligation to all those who came before us.  Especially when you grow up like I did, really listening to a lot of trumpets… I listened a lot.  So you listen to Clifford, you listen to Lee, you listen to Booker Little, to Roy Eldridge and Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, etc., Louis Armstrong, obviously… You have all these people you’re thinking about.  I used to see Dizzy all the time.  I should have brought that thing where Dizzy plays just like… Dizzy got so many things from Rex Stewart.  Dizzy is the one who plays like Rex, not Clark Terry.  In fact, Dizzy was on that aircheck of Rex we just played.  Taft Jordan was another great trumpet player that people don’t talk about.

So it allows me to play an instrument… I manipulate it the way I play the trumpet.  I use my airstream in the same way.  But it’s a whole nother instrument.  It allows me to explore other avenues.  The other thing is, funlike the buttons… When you press a button down, you get this approximate pitch as the button shoots air through the trumpet.  But with the slide, you’re just moving the slide back and forth, and it gets all these tiny increments in pitch.  If you want to play below the pitch a little, you can hold it there, or above the pitch — all these different places.  It’s much easier to get there.  Much easier to play like a voice.   Much easier to play like Otis Redding.  Much easier to play like a slide guitar.  Much easier to play other sounds you might be hearing in your head.  So it allows me to express other sounds.  And it’s loud.  And it’s quiet.  That’s really good.  There’s something about the instrument…

TP:    Why don’t more people play it?

BERNSTEIN:  Because it’s really hard.

TP:    You mean controlling those increments of pitch?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s really difficult to get.  I’ve developed a style based on being out of tune, so I have an excuse.  I’m not trying to play like J.J. Johnson on it.  That’s not what I’m going for.  But even the way I play it, it’s really hard.  And eventually, probably someone will come up and figure out how to play like that.

TP:    So as opposed to the trombone it’s out of what the just proportion would be for it to be in-tune….

BERNSTEIN:  No, it’s the same proportion.  but if a trombone has an inch between each half-pitch, I would have half-an-inch.  If you’re a little bit off on trombone, most people can’t hear it.  But if you’re that same physical distance off on the slide trumpet, everyone can hear it.  The second grade music teacher can hear it.  Everyone is checking it out.  It’s one of those long and strong instruments, without a doubt.

[Sex Mob, “Harlem”]

TP:    That was the concluding piece on the CD, so obviously the concluding section of the dance.  All the arrangements kept the essence of Ellington with a contemporary rhythmic connotation, timbre and attack.

BERNSTEIN:  I listen to a lot of modern music.  Most of my inspiration for producing sound comes from what people call the Pre-War period.  But then, I love what it feels like to be alive today, so this is why I play as though I were a living person.

TP:    We’ll enter the here-and-now in the last half-hour, though you were a toddler when Mama Too Tight was recorded.  A mono LP!

BERNSTEIN:  I was 13 the first time I heard this.  This is another record I remember hearing the first time and thinking… Another story going back to Jimmy Maxwell and Archie Shepp.  He taught lessons in a little studio in the Charles Collin studios on 53rd-54th Street, and he told me one day he was giving a lesson, and suddenly he heard something that sounded more like Duke Ellington’s band than anything he’d ever heard.  He ran out of his rehearsal studio, ran into the next, and it was Archie Shepp playing his arrangements of Ellington.  I thought it was very interesting for someone who grew up listening to Ellington to say that.

[Shepp, “Mama, Too Tight”; Apfelbaum, “Chant 49”; Codona, “Coleman Wonder”]

BERNSTEIN:  We have pictures of Peter, Jeff Crestman and Peter in sixth grade, playing gigs — after school.  We were into it, man.

TP:    What is it about Berkeley that produces all these open-minded musicians?

BERNSTEIN:  And it’s funny.  The later they were born, the more money they make!

TP:    Were you a product of that particular teacher?

BERNSTEIN:  Yes Phil Hardymon.  Phil Hardymon, Dick Winnington, a piano player, and Herb Wong, the educator and noted humanist who started the program around 1970.  I got there the second year of it.  I got to Berkeley the first time in ’69, so it must have been in ’72.  Hardymon was incredible.  He was a no bullshit kind of person.  He basically said, “Look, this is good music, this is bad music,” and he would not tolerate us listening to bad music.

TP:    What was bad music?

BERNSTEIN:  You know, bad big band music.  You know…

TP:    Brassy, peppy…

BERNSTEIN:  Well, that’s not necessarily bad.  Brassy doesn’t mean bad.  You know what’s bad?  Out of time.  Out of tune.  Not swinging.  That’s what’s bad.  Those are the elements of jazz that you need to have, is it needs to be in time, it needs that element of melody that makes it jazz.  Whether we’re talking about somebody like Chet Baker, or you’re talking about Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis in the ’60s, with all very different tones and styles of trumpet, but they’re all real, they all have whatever those essential elements are.  And of course, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and Woody Shaw.  Hardymon would take us to gigs… Mr. Hardymon.  We always just called him Hardymon.  He had this little Karman-Ghia, he’d drive us to Keystone Korner.  He took us to see the Art Ensemble the first time.  And he’d put up with it.  I know at first he couldn’t quite get why we were listening to the Art Ensemble, but when he heard them live he figured it out.  He always told us, “Man, you guys got to learn to play the changes better before you start doing all this.”  He was right.  But that was the music that was in the air.  We wanted to play it.  I saw Lester Bowie play a solo in Berkeley.  I saw Baikida play a solo, I saw Oliver Lake play a solo.  These people were all coming through town when I was growing up.

TP:    Well, the Art Ensemble spent a lot of time out there.

BERNSTEIN:  Right, and they had friends they’d hang with.  I still remember once we went to see Lester solo, and the next day we went to play a Reno Jazz Festival.  We used to get up in the Reno Jazz Festival and play free jazz.  Everyone else was playing Bill Holman…well, Bill Holman is hip… Like, Sammy Nestico, those kind of real typical high school arrangements.

Coming up is some music I heard, real Berkeley-style — recorded in New York.

[Lowe-J/L Bowie, “Play Some Blues”]

BERNSTEIN:  Beaver Harris is someone who was really influential on me and Peter.  He was a good friend of ours.

TP:    We’ll conclude with a track that I noticed is on the top of the Knitting Factory charts…

BERNSTEIN:  I have Sex Mob, I have the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and Diaspora Soul.  I’ll have records by all three out in the Fall.

[Sex Mob, “About a Girl” (Kurt Cobain)]



Steven Bernstein (WKCR, 6-3-99):

BERNSTEIN:  I’m the world tallest slide trumpet player.  You got a problem with that?

TP:    Is that documented in the Guinness Book of World Records?  I want to see documentation.

On the cover of Steven’s new record, Den of Iniquity, is a very fine likeness of Steven with red horns on his head and some red outline around him that looks like a shadow cape.  Looks like you’re channeling something there.

BERNSTEIN:  It was all stream of consciousness, and no Biblical aspirations.  Some people saw some anti-Semitic undercurrent in there, but it was all completely done…

TP:    With innocence.

BERNSTEIN:  Innocence and inspiration.

TP:    it was more of a Zap Comix vibe, I would say, than…

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  I would say more Zap Comix than Michelangelo.  Is that the one who did the Moses with the horns?

TP:    There’s a good segue.  Because one thing not everyone might know about you, given your extremely contemporary persona, is your devotion to the old guys in the music — and your intense study of the older forms of the music.  You’re a virtual encyclopedia of ’30s big bands and jump music, and I guess al that inflects what you do with Sex Mob.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m trying to.  I see Sex Mob hopefully as a return to what I feel is the earliest roots of jazz.  After it came out of New Orleans and moved to Chicago, you had basically a blank slate of new music where people were taking pop songs of the time and playing them in new styles.  They were playing them with different rhythms, they were playing them with different dynamics, and they were playing them with improvisations.  That’s what Bud Freeman and all those guys heard when they would go to the Royal Gardens.  It was this music where people basically took pop songs and played them in the way they felt like playing them.  These people were young, brash geniuses.  This music was louder than any music of its time.  This music was certainly being played on let’s say a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville song or minstrel song would have been played.

TP:    And accompanied by some pretty psychedelic liquor, too.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  Exactly!  Guys were getting out there.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.  People talk about the problem of having an audience for jazz.  And so many people are scared of jazz.  Because when they hear it, they have no familiarity with the songs.  The last real popular era of jazz you had Miles Davis.  Miles did the same songs.  Miles did “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella By Starlight,” songs that everybody knew.

TP:    The songs of the day..

BERNSTEIN:  Songs of the day.  Even Coltrane did “Inchworm” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and all that stuff.  So that’s what I’m trying to do.  On my last record I do a piece by the Cardigans, I do “Live and Let Die,” I do a piece by Prince, I do a tune by Duke, Leadbelly — songs that everyone knows.

TP:    A lot of improvisers are trying to incorporate “the new standard,” one of two pieces from the ’60s or ’70s that they do some rearrangement of.  How do those tunes hold up as vehicles for improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  In my opinion, it matters how well you arrange them.  I won’t say who I saw, but I saw one person, an amazing musician, doing a concert of that kind of music and the arrangements weren’t suiting the music.  So when you’re talking about music that doesn’t have a lot of harmonic structure,  it’s very important that you arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  Because what’s happened in Pop music is there’s been a digression of harmonic material over the last 50 years, where it went from the long form of the march, which had an intro and had the opening strains and the second strains and the third strains, all these different parts; and then we got down to the Tin Pan Alley form of music, which has the verse and the chorus with the bridge; and then you got to the point where you just had songs which were AABA form; and then we got to kind of doo-wop songs which were the same AABA form, but now we’re just having a I-VI-II-V harmonic form instead of going into a lot of different keys, and still usually going to the IV chord no the bridge; and then people let go to the bridge, and that’s when you got some early music of Sly Stone and James Brown, where you just had a I-VI-II-V; then pretty soon it got the point where you had one single melodic bassline which became the entire harmony for the song; then you got the ’80s where you just had a synthesized bass riff; and then you had Public Enemy where it wasn’t even about any harmony at all, but a sample suddenly became your harmonic basis for the song.

So with this new music it’s very important to realize we’re dealing with arrangement, and you’ve got to create interest in the arrangement.  You asked how they will hold up.  As long as the arrangement allows interest and allows growth, and then you have great improvisers, it’s going to be fine.  You can’t play “Raspberry Beret” by Prince the same way you play “My Funny Valentine.”  It’s that simple.

TP:    In your career as a musician has Pop music and jazz music always existed on an equal plane for you in terms of your study and interest?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  When I was a kid I was a total jazz snob.  I started playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardeman in Berkeley, California, who started us playing jazz… We had improvisation in fifth grade.  Phil died last year, and a lot of people came from under his tutelage — Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Josh Redman, etc.  He believed in taste.  He believed everyone should play in taste.  We weren’t really big into  playing a lot of music over the changes.  More into melodies.  He was into playing us ’50s Miles and Chet Baker and of course Duke.  Then Peter Apfelbaum and I started getting into other types of music.  The first concert Peter took me to, we saw Eddie Harris at Keystone Korner.  We were in seventh grade.  Then later on in seventh grade we went to see Sam Rivers Trio with Sonny Fortune opening.  That was the second concert we went to.   Then we finally got to see our heros, the Art Ensemble.  The Art Ensemble has known me and Peter since we were 13 years old.  We’re talking about 1975 is the first time I saw them, at the Great American Music Hall.  Roscoe had taken a sabbatical, and it was just Joseph and Lester.  It was unbelievable.  We went backstage.  We had learned some of their songs, and we played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they came out and see these two little kids banging on the wall, and they invited us in.

Berkeley was amazing.  Not only did I get to get to hear Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon at Keystone Korner, there was also a series of solo concerts at a place called Mapenzi, and I heard Leo Smith solo, Lester Bowie solo, Oliver Lake solo, Baikida Carroll.  We heard a lot.  Plus my trumpet teacher was a guy named John Coppola, who is now in his early ’70s, and he played with Woody and Billy May and Kenton, and he’s the guy who introduced me to Cootie and Rex.  I was being a snotty kid and I came to my first lesson, we were talking and I said to him, “Man, I’m into Lester Bowie.”  I’m talking to this older Italian gentleman.  He said to me, “Oh yeah!  Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex was doing back in the ’40s.  And he throws on this record.  I go, “Oh, man, this is the same thing!”  So I started listening to Cootie and Rex in 11th grade, and that really changed my life.  When I heard Ellington’s ’40s band, with Jimmy Blanton, with Rex and Cootie in the section together, and Ben Webster, I knew that was the greatest music that ever existed in the world.  That was it.  And it still is for me.  I listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.

I love talking about music.  I was talking to Joe Wilder yesterday for about an hour.  We were talking about Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Billy Butterfield, Dud Bascomb.  Do you know Dud Bascomb?  Both Miles and Dizzy appropriated his licks from the “Tuxedo Junction” solo, and played them in later solos.  Dud Bascomb was one of the important links between Swing music and bebop.  But people don’t talk about him.

TP:    Now we’ll move into the “new standard” aspect with Sex Mob’s arrangement of a tune by Prince.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s “Sign of The Times,” our arrangement, with the help of our great friend and engineer Scott Harding, who also works with Wu Tang Clan and Prince Paul and who I think is as much responsible for this arrangement as we are.

[Sex Mob, “Sign of The Times”; “Rock of Ages”]

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob has played at least once a week every night for the last year.  We have a steady night at Tonic.  We do midnight shows, and they’ve been getting wilder and wilder.  People have been making me CDs, and there’s a great one with Eyvard Kang from Bill Frisell’s band sitting in and Wayne Goodman from the LCJO playing together.  Trombone and violin is an incredible orchestrational device that has not been used enough.  There’s always special guests.  The next one will be Thursday the 10th at midnight, and then on Friday the 25 Sex Mob plays the music of Little Richard with special guest Brian Mitchell.

TP:    Tell me about the evolution of the band, the personnel, what it takes to play with you.

BERNSTEIN:  The bass player Tony Scherr is responsible for this.  We were playing what we might call almost a freebop kind of gig at MOMA with Michael Blake.  Ben Allison, the regular bass player, couldn’t make it, and Tony Scherr came.  I’d never played with him.  He has this very muscular way of approaching the bass, where he holds it away from his body.  I looked at this guy, and I was scared.  I was scared to play with him.  I told Michael, “I’m not good enough to play with this guy.”  Anyway, he turns out to be a great guy, we start talking, and he loved the slide trumpet.  He said to me, “Man, I love that slide trumpet.”  I said, “One day when I get better I’m going to put together a band where I only play the slide trumpet.”  Tony said, “You’re ready to do that now.”  I said, “You really think so?”  Now, Tony’s a guy who’s been through all the big bands, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Woody, blah-blah..  He’s a heavy hitter.  So he gave me the courage to say, “Okay, if this guy thinks I can really play this instrument…”

So I called up Briggan Krauss, whom I’d met in Seattle, who is a virtuoso alto player but not a virtuoso in the sense… Most virtuoso alto players play a kind of traditional alto style.  He plays a very modern, expressive style, working with styles, but he can read anything, play anything, play any tempo, play any sort of pitch, and in his own style.  Kenny Wolleson, who I’ve known since he was a kid in California — another person able to play with anybody.  And Tony.  We started playing originally with Dom Falzone on bass, because Tony was always busy.  We did Thursday nights at 11 at the Knitting Factory tap bar.  We did that for two years.  After about four months Tony joined us.  And we just developed a repertoire.

Most bands either have no arrangements or else they rehearse.  But we had one rehearsal.  After that, every night I’d bring down whatever song I’d been listening to, I’d sit on the subway and write a chart out, I’d get to the gig, and throw the chart in front of them, and we’d do it.  I still try to do that at every gig.  I try to bring a song they’ve never played before with a real bare-bones chart, I rehearse it in front of the audience, and we play it.  We have a repertoire of over 100 songs.

TP:    Each tune evolves through performance.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  And it evolves through an audience’s reaction.  Which again is something that jazz used to do more.  But lately I think jazz has developed in a bubble, where you have songs developing under the guidance of a producer in a studio or at home, in some guy’s little house.  But actually, our entire repertoire is evolved in front of an audience.

TP:    I think in jazz there’s always been a studio aspect to generating tunes, but people used to have long residencies.  A band would be at the Vanguard for three weeks, or at the Village Gate for two weeks, or the Five Spot for a month, and the things would happen.

BERNSTEIN:  You listen to band that actually had arrangements… One of the great bands people don’t talk about was the original Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams with Duke Pearson doing the arrangements.  That was a band that worked and had… Arrangements are important to me.  I’m an arrangement type of guy.  We were talking about Shorty Rogers before.

TP:    Steven left a message asking when he was coming, and said “Listen to this arrangement, bye,” and it was a Shorty Rogers arrangement of “Un Poco Loco.”

BERNSTEIN:  I had thought Shorty Rogers was a shtick of guy, and it turned out to be this amazing… I don’t think you could find people who would be physically able to play this stuff.

TP:    Did your interest in arranging start with your discovery of older jazz nd Ellington, shaping the course of improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  But it also comes from growing up playing free improvisation as well as standards.

TP:    You were doing both.  Parallel track for you.

BERNSTEIN:  Parallel track.  Obviously you can tell I spent more time playing free improvisation than standards.  But when you play free improvisation, it’s about instant arranging.  It’s creating instant arrangements.  That’s kind of what I do on the stage in Sex Mob.  Then when you actually write arrangements, you have the power with your pencil and your brain to envision these arrangements and then have them come to life.

Another band that influenced me was Archie Shepp’s band with Roswell and the two basses, which was interesting because it was a real swinging jazz band, but it didn’t follow jazz forms, as far as the 8-bar form of a song.  But it had the feel of a jazz band…and they wore suits.

[Sex Mob, “Roswell,” “Come Sunday”]

TP:    Tell me about the slide trumpet and why that’s your medium.

BERNSTEIN:  I’ve had one since 1977.  Peter Apfelbaum and I were up at the Creative Music Studio, and we stopped by this little guitar store and saw these two slide trumpets on the wall.  The guy wanted $25 each for them.  So we both bought one.  And I’ve always had one.  A couple of things I could play  naturally in it, and I used to play it with Spanish Fly on a few tunes, and I’d notice the audience reaction whenever I played it… You could just feel it.  It was very visceral.  One time, I was playing at a festival in Austria, and Dave Douglas was there with Tiny Bell, he was listening to the Fly, and he said to me afterwards, “Man, that instrument is so incredible, why don’t you practice it the same way you practice the trumpet?”  And Dave is such a brilliant guy… Maybe I’m just dumb.  But I’d never thought about that.  I’d never thought about practicing it… In trumpet we have this whole series of books.  We do the Arbins(?) book and the Clark book, these traditional trumpet studies.  I’d never done that stuff on the instrument.  I’d never actually gone and played the classical type of trumpet playing.  So I started practicing it.  I mean, I still make my living as what I call a button trumpeter, but with Sex Mob it’s interesting that this is the first band of the many I’ve done that’s really gotten out into the world and people are really reacting to, and part of it is the slide trumpet.

TP:    What is it about the dynamics of its sound?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s as much… Well, the instrument can do anything. . The instrument can approximate a voice much easier than a button trumpet can, because you can move the slide wherever you want as far as pitch.  With a button trumpet, basically you push down a button and then you have that amount of tubing to go through and  you’re stuck with very close to what that  pitch is.  A slide trumpet is just much more expressive.  Also personally, I’ve always felt a little laden down by the tradition of the trumpet.  Because you listen to Clifford Brown… I’ll never be able to play… If I practice every day for the rest of my life, I’d  never be able to play as good as Clifford Brown.  I’d never be able to play as good as Wynton Marsalis, that’s for sure, even if I practiced every day of my life.  But certainly, you can go back to Clifford, you can go back to Booker Little, you can go back to Lee Morgan — these giants of bebop.

TP:    So there’s a tradition of virtuosity on the instrument.

BERNSTEIN:  And these guys, they staked it out, as far as I’m concerned.  Clifford alone, man, and Freddie.  I used to go see Woody Shaw a lot, and Woody was the last guy, man…  Woody wrote all that music.

TP:    Who really extended the vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  And not only that.  He wrote songs that featured his style of playing.  So he would play these songs, a lot of them he wrote when he was 19 or 20, songs like “The Moontrane,” and he continued to play, where it set up a sort of harmony where he felt very comfortable and where he could, within that harmony, keep extending it, as opposed to playing other people’s songs or playing standards, when he would play his own songs that he had written to feature his harmonic vocabulary.

With a slide trumpet, I feel like there’s no one to compare it to, I just play the way I want to play it.  Then, of course, it gave me this whole other tradition to explore.  Because I’d always felt like I’ve been as much a student of music as a professional musician, and suddenly here I am, and every day I go home and boom,” Dickie Wells, J.C. Higgenbotham, Tricky Sam, all these incredible trombone players.  The slide is its own world.  There’s a world of the slide, where the slide gives you the vocabulary.

TP:    Are there any antecedents in jazz of improvisers who played the slide trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  There’s a picture of Louis Armstrong playing one with King Oliver’s band.  There’s no recordings.  There’s two great slide whistle solos which I transcribed.  One is from “Froggy Moore.”  I don’t remember the other one.  There’s a picture of Freddie Keppard holding one, that pre King Oliver trumpet, kind of that era between March and Jazz.  There was a guy who played it with Kenton’s band.  I’m spacing on his name, but one of those guys who was with Kenton and Woody in the ’50s.  Joe Wilder’s trumpet teacher played it in the style of the time, the ’30s and ’40s.  I don’t know if it was quite jazz.  But I’ve found no recordings of anyone playing it.

TP:    Who were some of your trumpet mentors after coming to New York?  Apart from whatever lessons you may or may not have taken, I know you’ve cultivated relationships with older musicians.

BERNSTEIN:  Well, the main one has been Jimmy Maxwell.  When Jimmy 18 or maybe 20 he joined Benny Goodman’s band replacing Harry James, and he sat next to Cootie Williams.  After that he went on to become probably the greatest studio and lead trumpet player in New York City for 30 or 40 years.  He’s a giant of a man.  When I say “giant,” this is one of the biggest people you will ever see in your life.  He’s old school.  He’s 6’5″ and he looks like a very large grizzly bear.  The trumpet was a toy to him.  Here’s a guy who sat next to Cootie, so when he would show me plunger, he would show me the way Cootie showed him, and he would show me things about vibrato… These are things that people just don’t know any more.  He showed me things about time.  He is also a very brilliant man who taught himself Japanese and Chinese and was one of the first people in the United States who studied Zen philosophy.

We would take these 10-hour long lessons at his house.  I would come to his house, we’d eat an enormous breakfast.  The first thing he’d say to me, “How many eggs do you want?  Six or eight?”  That was my choice.  Then he’d expect you to eat like four bagels and a half-slab of bacon, then we’d walk along the beach and talk about music and he’d tell me stories,  then we’d play for a few hours, and then we’d cook, and he’d play me more Ellington music, and we’d tape it, and he’d always send me home with really obscure Ellington tapes of Rex and Cootie and other players, and also would always send me home with a book of Zen philosophy and leftovers.

TP:    Leftovers and Zen.  There’s a title.

BERNSTEIN:  He explained to me, if you want to be a professional trumpet player you should learn to cook.  Because it’s going to take a while to figure out how to make money.  So learn to cook at home and feed yourself.  Because you have to be strong to play the trumpet.  It’s a very physically demanding instrument.  Then he explained to me, “If you do this kind of session, here’s what you should eat before.”  It’s about always being physically prepared to play.

He was my main older inspiration.  When I was younger I studied with Jimmy Owens, who helped me a lot, and Kamau Adalifu (Charles Sullivan).  To be honest, most of the other ones have been my contemporaries.

TP:    You’ve also been active in recent years in film music and programmatic music.  “Get Shorty,” etc… Some of it must come out of working with John Lurie in the Lounge Lizards.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s funny, because my first movie scoring came from working with Hal Wilner, who produced the first Spanish Fly record and has been a big-big supporter of me.  He brought me out and we did Kansas City.  So my film career started with hanging with Robert Altman, doing Kansas City, being on the set every day.  The next film I did was Get Shorty, which was with John Lurie.  It’s all been downhill from there.  How can you get any bigger than a Robert Altman film and then basically the biggest film of the year, the biggest soundtrack of the year.  I’ve done three other soundtracks with John Lurie.  Also that same summer I wrote a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet, for Spanish Fly, called Fly By Night, for Christopher Debase(?), who is an amazing choreographer.  I’ve done three movies with John Lurie and I’ve done two movies of independent films with my own scores, and I’ve done a couple of TV jingles.  It’s all music to me.

TP:    Are you a self-taught writer?

BERNSTEIN:  Completely.

TP:    Did this start from transcribing older material, or functional things?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, I shouldn’t say I’m totally self-taught.  I took a semester or two of arranging in college.  But I was pretty out of it most of the time.  But when I’d write an arrangement, I’d always just hear it in my head first, and then I’d just write it out, and what I wrote was basically the same thing that was in my head.  So I realized I had a gift for that.  The way I study writing is I listen, and I try to identify what’s happening.  Writing is a science.  It’s very physical.  The feeling you get from hearing music is emotional, but it’s all physical elements that create those emotions.  So I listen to things and try to identify what physically is happening there, and if it’s something good, I try to steal it the best I can — and since I never get it quite right, it sounds like me.

The next track is arranged in the style of Dave Bartholomew, who’s     still alive, a trumpet player from New Orleans who was the musical director for Fats Domino, did most of the sessions for Little Richard.  This was written for trumpet, three tenors and baritone. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “Mazeltov,” “Mack The Knife”]

TP:    Is Spanish Fly still running parallel to Sex Mob, or is Sex Mob it for you now?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, basically Spanish Fly is no longer.  We were together for a long time, and it’s a group that was based on improvisation and communication… It’s the thing where everyone’s life changed and people had different ideas about music, and we weren’t able to play the kind of music we had originally played, so it was kind of silly to keep doing it.

TP:    So it came to an organic and amicable…

BERNSTEIN:  An organic end.  It was like it composted itself.

TP:    We were speaking off mike about sources and antecedents, and you’re taking yours very explicitly from the older swing, or I’d call them more blues trumpet players, like Rex Stewart and Hot Lips Page and Cootie Williams and Dud Bascomb…

BERNSTEIN:  That’s a good word to call them.

TP:    …and also the polished approach to lead trumpet that developed in that period, and free improvisation.  But though you’ve talked about admiring bebop trumpet players, it doesn’t seem an area you’re as interested in exploring.

BERNSTEIN:  As we said before, I always felt that hearing Clifford Brown… It was a real epiphany one time.  I was listening to that Tadd Dameron big band record with Idris Sulieman and Clifford Brown.  It literally sounds as if it was a Star Trek episode… The band is good, but it’s kind of ragged.  It sounds like everyone is a little out of it and the arrangements weren’t that polished.  But whenever Clifford solos, it sounds like a weird Star Trek thing where someone had been transported from the future.  He’s just like a laser light!  Every note is impeccable.  At that point, I was practicing ten hours a day, I was in my early twenties, and I realized, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  I called up Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu, and I said, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  He said, “Yeah, that’s right; the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can be at peace with it.”

That’s not really the reason I don’t play bebop, but it certainly helps.  As I also mentioned, other people my age who are phenomenal technicians which allows them to navigate chord changes in rapid tempos.  But also, part of learning bebop… You were mentioning the concept of apprenticeship.  I don’t know if you want to say a few words about that.

TP:    Well, there are very proficient players who are dealing with bebop and postbop vocabularies who put in very serious apprenticeships within those situations, learning the language, who come up with a sound of their own.  It amazes me how fresh the vocabulary remains, among all the other things that are going on.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s true.  But something I never wanted to do (and this goes all the way back to when I was a kid) was I never wanted to play other people’s licks.  It was not something I wanted to do with music.  I don’t know what brought that about.  I don’t know if it was being exposed so early to people like the Art Ensemble where you’re hearing this very fresh music not coming necessarily from a harmonic base.  But I never felt comfortable going in and playing other people’s licks over chord changes, which is something you really need to do get to that next level.  So it wasn’t where I put my energy.  And again, as far as listening goes, because I am so arrangement-oriented, it’s not as interesting for me as something I want to put my stamp on for people to listen to.  Because the whole concept of the head, the multiple solos, and another head with no backgrounds is just not something I’m interested in.  I’m much more interested in earlier music that has very extensive arrangements.  If you go to Louis Armstrong’s big bands or Jelly Roll Morton’s small groups, or things as modern as Tricky and Bjork and Porno for Pyros, where you have these very incredible sonic arrangements, that’s what fascinates me.

TP:    You said that coming to New York is when you started to understand Pop music.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  Also, when I went to college at Columbia… I’d been living in Berkeley, which for me was reality, but for the rest of the United States it’s another world.  And so suddenly I’m with all these white people, and what do they listen to?  They all listen to Rock-and-Roll.  So I’m hanging out with these guys, trying to be fit in, be one of the guys, and this is 1979.  I’m trying to dig Popular Couture, and at that time it was James White and the blacks and Defunkt.  These guys were the bridge for me, especially Defunkt.  That was the bridge.  Because it took all the energy of New York Modern Downtown Punk music, which was coming from Rock-and-Roll, which is coming not so much from an Afro-American tradition of music; and mixing that energy with the Avant-Garde music, Joe’s incredible trombone playing; and then taking Hendrix’s sonic kind of music with the electric guitars and Joe’s overblowing, and that was kind of… I started to understand…

TP:    Plus the horn band concept of Black acts in the ’50s and ’60s.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  That showmanship thing.  That, and then just being at these clubs… I kind of became a person of the times, and I felt much more comfortable going to a club like the Mudd Club or Danceteria than walking into Sweet Basil or the Vanguard, where I’d walk in and feel like I was some guy from outer space.  And as I’d hang out in these clubs, you would hear the music they were playing and you were living that life, and as you’re living that life and hearing that music, being in the club, being one of those people of the time just started to make sense to me.  I started to explore more of that music coming through — the early rap music.  And as my ears opened up, I heard more and more music.  I never even knew what the Grateful Dead was.  It was…

TP:    And you’re from the Bay Area.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m from the Bay Area.  But I’d hear it so much, I just thought it was a style of music.  I thought it was like hippies playing country music.  I didn’t know that was the Grateful Dead.  You’d hear it coming from people’s VWs.  It sounded like Country music with the harmonies sung wrong!  The time was really bad and they’d sing the harmonies out of key.  But I just figured it was a style of music.

TP:    When did the hanging-out aspect start to morph into your being a musician on the scene and becoming actively involved in creating the life that people were going to hang out to hear?

BERNSTEIN:  It had all started pretty early.  It was my first summer in New York.  I’d known Butch Morris since I was a kid living in Berkeley, and I went down to hear Sahib Sarbib’s band at some pier that isn’t there any more on the West Side.  And this blew my mind, because this is something I could relate to.  It kind of was like the music Peter Apfelbaum had been writing for the Hieroglyphics, but it had Sunny Murray on drums, and everyone in the East Village was there.  I said, “You know what?  I can play this music.  I can play this music as good as any of these guys and I can relate to this music.”  I dug the people on stage and I dug the scene.  So I called up Butch, who was playing, and I said, “Hey, man, can I meet this Sahib Sarbib?  Can you send me to a rehearsal?”  And Butch, being the way he is, says ,”Well, you know what?  They have a recording on Wednesday, and I haven’t been playing my cornet.  Why don’t you just show up?”

So here I am, I’m 19 years old, and I just show up at this recording, and at this recording is basically most of the people on the scene.  There’s Jameel Moondoc and Paul Shapiro and Booker T and Lee Rozi and Roy Campbell, Ahmad Abdullah, Dave Sewelson, Dave Hofstra, all these guys.  We did this recording for three days, and then Dave Sewelson says to me, “Hey, man, why don’t you come down Sunday morning at the Ear Inn and sit in?”  So here I am 19 years old, I show up Sunday morning at the Ear Inn, and it’s the Microscopic Septet, which also at that time also included John Zorn.  So here I am meeting Phillip Johnston, John Zorn, at that time John Hagen was in the band, Dave Sewelson, and sitting in was Elliott Sharp, hanging out was Bobby Previte, Wayne Horwitz — I met all these guys.

So within four days I met everyone in the East Village, and here’s this relatively fresh-faced, bleary-eyed, 19-year-old trumpet player willing to do anything.  And there weren’t many trumpet players on the scene back then.  I  had certain skills that were pretty useful. I was a good reader, I had good ears, and I was really enthusiastic.  If John Zorn said “I’m doing a Sonny Clark concert,” I said, “Oh cool,” because I knew not tons of Sonny Clark tunes, but I knew four or five Sonny Clark tunes, and I’d come and sit in.  But I loved the music of the time, more noise-oriented music, shall we say.

TP:    And here we are with Sex Mob playing Friday and off and around New York. [ETC.] This is from a tribute to James Brown…

BERNSTEIN:  Like I do anything, I don’t know if it’s from my Talmudic background…

TP:    By the way…

BERNSTEIN:  No, I don’t have a Talmudic background at all.  It’s kind of a joke.

TP:    I was wondering about the Radical Jewish culture thing, and its resonance for you.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m just very Jewish.  Socially I’m about as… My name is Bernstein.  I’m a Jewish guy.  There’s not much you can say.  It’s pretty obvious when you meet me.

TP:    And proud of it.

BERNSTEIN:  And proud of it.  That’s right, man.  Say it loud.  So anyway, they said, “Do you want to do this James Brown compilation?”  I already had tons of James Brown, but then I was like, “Man, I’m gonna get all the James Brown,” so I could hear everything.  I had always dug “Please, Please, Please” off a record called Hell, which I’d had since I was in 11th grade.  It’s a Dave Matthews arrangement with cowbells, sort of salsa-style, and he sings it.  Then I went and found… I said, “Well, that’s the tune I want to do,” because I always loved this tune, not knowing this was James Brown’s first hit.  Then I found live version from the year when Bootsy was in the band, and they do it really fast.  Then I went back to the very first version which is called the Fabulous Flames, not even James Brown — that’s a gospel quartet.  So what I did, I transcribed the original version, and I’m playing what he sang on the slide trumpet, then we do a segue to the Bootsy version for the outro to the song, and the original version of “Turn Me On” is somewhere in my head.  That’s what it is.

[MUSIC: “Please, Please, Please”, “Live and Let Die.”]

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Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, Steven Bernstein, trumpet, WKCR

It Isn’t Stefano Bollani’s Birthday, but it is the Final Day of Umbria Jazz Summer 2016, so here’s an Uncut Blindfold Test Done Live in Perugia in 2008 with Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava, in Addition to a Long Downbeat Feature on Bollani Done in Barcelona in 2012 and a Long Interview for Jazz.Com Taken at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Jan. 2009

For the final day of this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, here’s the uncut proceedings of a live Blindfold Test I conducted there with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani, who were playing duo. It consisted entirely of trumpet-piano duo recordings. Following it are two long pieces on Bollani, which I may repost separately at some future date — one is a DownBeat feature on Bollani reported in Barcelona in 2012; following it is a long interview, conducted in Orvieto in 2009, that ran on the no-longer-accessible website


Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Blindfold Test, Perugia, July 2008 (Raw):
1. Oscar Peterson-Dizzy Gillespie, “Caravan” (OSCAR PETERSON & DIZZY GILLESPIE, Pablo, 1975) (Gillespie, trumpet; Peterson, piano; Juan Tizol, composer)


Rava: We’ve got it. [IN ITALIAN] [SHTICK] Dizzy Gillespie.
Bollani: And Oscar Peterson. I would say that Oscar Peterson was my favorite piano player when I started listening to jazz music. I had this recording. He was playing “My Blue Heaven.” And I was sure, because I couldn’t read the liner notes in English (I was only 10 years old), that it was two piano players playing together. So when my father told me that it was just one, it wasn’t Oscar and Peterson, but it was Oscar Peterson, I started studying seriously, because I understood that you really had to practice a lot if you want to play jazz music. I love all the records he did with trumpet players. But my favorite one is the one with Clark Terry, the one where he is singing.
TP: Dizzy for Enrico Rava.
Rava: [IN ITALIAN] [THEN IN ENGLISH] Dizzy…what can I say about Dizzy? Dizzy is one of the main musicians in jazz. Of course, he is unbelievable. He brought the trumpet ahead twenty years when he started. Although in the very beginning, when he was a kid, he sounded EXACTLY like Roy Eldridge. Dizzy played in a big band when he was a kid, and he was very …(?)… Anyway, I saw him in my home town, Turino, in the ‘50s with the beautiful band he had with Leo Wright, Les Spann, Lex Humphries… To talk about Dizzy doesn’t make any sense, because he is so great he deserves more than words. Words cannot describe him. I can say that the art of Dizzy is enormous. The technique of Dizzy is so extraordinary and unique. He invented a way of playing. He has little tricks with the fingering. Something that I learned from Dusko Goykovich, another good friend. Although I always say that, of course, Clifford Brown, Miles, Chet, the people that I love, I know what they are doing. If I stay a hundred years practicing, every day, I might do the same thing. But Dizzy, I really don’t understand how he got those things. He’s something that’s too much. Dizzy is too much.

2. Paul Bley-Chet Baker, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from DIANE, Steeplechase, 1985) (Baker, trumpet; Bley, piano)

Rava: I feel sure that the trumpet player is Chet Baker. It could be Paul Bley, because I know they did the record together, but I’m not sure if this is him. We’ll wait til the solo. [SOLO BEGINS]
Bollani: It sounds like the pianist is Paul Bley, but it’s not that record with Paul Bley. I don’t know who is this piano player. For me, it could be (?-12:54). For Chet Baker, one million stars. But I am not in love with this piano player.
Rava: For me, 2 million stars for Chet.
TP: Paul Bley is the piano player. You probably were thrown off by the sound of the piano through this system.
Bollani: [translator: The trumpet players, it’s easier, because they have a personal sound, but the piano, they’re just touching something mechanical.
Rava: I did a duo with Paul Bley, and I know how he plays. I know him very well. So this is why I said, “Maybe it’s not…” Although I was almost sure that it was Paul Bley, because I know the record, but I don’t remember exactly.
Bollani: This is the Steeplechase record, Diane. It’s strange because I have the record…
Rava: They did it for Enja.
Bollani: No, Steeplechase. But I have this record, and I didn’t recognize the sound. To me, it sounded better in my home.
Rava: I love Chet. Chet for me, after Miles, is the one I love more than anybody else. I am very close to his way of thinking and playing melodies. I love his sound. Besides that, the first modern jazz… I am a jazz fan since I was 6 years old, and I love Bix and everybody else. But the first modern jazz I really heard was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, and I think that was some of the best trumpet playing I’d heard. So I fell in love with Chet then, and I became a very good friend of Chet. When I bought a trumpet, I was about 18. One year after, he came to live in my home town, at the house of one of my best friends, so I would be all day with Chet, bringing the trumpet, asking him things he couldn’t answer because he was totally …(?—16:59), so he couldn’t give any advice. But I was almost… I couldn’t speak with him, because it was like to be near the sun. He was so strong for me. I was very young then. Then I got to play with him many times, and we were friends. I think he was one of the most beautiful musicians.
Bollani: It’s easier for me to talk about Chet Baker, because he’s one of my idols, even as a singer. It’s not easy for me to talk about Paul Bley, because I am not a big fan of Paul Bley. I don’t know him so well. Actually, I also have to say that in talking about Chet Baker in duo with a piano player, I would rather prefer the record with Enrico Pieranunzi. I think he was much more close to Chet’s feeling, so the final result of the recording is better.

3. Martial Solal-Dave Douglas, “34 Bar Blues” (from RUE DE SEINE, CamJazz, 2006) (Solal, piano, composer; Douglas, trumpet)

Rava: I think that that’s Don Ellis.
TP: No.
Rava: Okay. It sounds like Don Ellis. I have no idea.
TP: It’s recent. Contemporary.
Rava: Maybe Herb Robertson.
TP: No.
Rava: If it’s not Don Ellis, it’s someone I don’t know at all.
Bollani: Me either. I have no idea of the piano player. At the beginning, the vocabulary sounded like Martial Solal, the French piano player. But I’m not sure it’s him because of the kind of phrasing. And I wouldn’t know who’s the trumpet player, actually. But I really like this piano player, but I don’t know who he is.
TP: You’re right. It is Martial Solal.
TP: The trumpet player is Dave Douglas, and it’s on the Italian label CamJazz.
Bollani: He said Dave Douglas. He told me, “Maybe it’s Dave Douglas with Uri Caine,” and I said, “this is not Uri Caine.”
Rava: But then, to me, he sounded really Don Ellis at the beginning. I love Dave Douglas. I know him pretty well. But he didn’t sound like Dave Douglas to me; he sounded like Don Ellis. I would give it 4 stars. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think it’s wonderful.
Bollani: Actually, I really like it. This is my second Blindfold Test ever. I did it once in France. I only liked two ones. One of them was also Martial Solal. So I really like him. Now it’s the same. I told you, I like this piano player, but I’m not sure of who he is. To me, Martial Solal is the greatest piano player alive, technically and mentally speaking. Maybe you can compare other piano players, as listeners. But as a piano player not as a listener, I am amazed at what he can do. He’s always thinking what you’re not expecting he is going to do.
Rava: You mean as a piano player?
Bollani: Yes.

4. Wynton Marsalis-Eric Lewis, “King Porter Stomp” (from MR. JELLY LORD, Columbia, 1999) (Marsalis, trumpet; Lewis, piano)

Rava: Very nice. 5 stars.
TP: Would you like to know who it was?
Bollani: We were talking about the trumpet player, and we said that probably it’s the same period of Roy Eldridge, but not before…
Rava: I think it could be. I am doing a very stupid thing, but it could be maybe Rex Stewart. I’ll tell you why. I know that Rex Stewart was a great fan of Bix Beiderbecke, and this trumpet player did things that reminded me of Bix, but it was not at all that kind of trumpet player. But it sounded to me maybe like Rex.
TP: So you think it’s an old recording?cheche
Rava: Uh… No. I think it’s very new. [LAUGHTER]
Bollani: We were talking about the piano player. I don’t think he’s one of the greatest piano players of jazz history, people like Earl Hines or Teddy Wilson or whomever. He sounds like a modern piano player trying to pretend he’s in the ‘30s. I guess he’s American, but he’s got something which is not exactly in that style, and he sounds more modern. So I guess he’s trying to do these kind of things, but probably he doesn’t do these kind of things all the time. He’s not an expert of that kind of jazz. This is a very precise style, so you can immediately understand if it’s a pianist who was born today or is from that period. He played stride piano, but he didn’t really come off completely; a few things told me that it wasn’t an old pianist.
Rava: I have no idea.
TP: It was Wynton Marsalis and Eric Lewis, who played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several years.
Carlo: It was too much technique.
Rava: It really sounded like a guy from the late ‘30s.
Bollani: Actually, I thought the trumpet player was an old one, with a young piano player trying to play in that style. So I couldn’t guess who it was.
TP: So Wynton did what he intended to do.
Bollani: Yeah, exactly.
Rava: I had for a moment, if he’s not… But he sounded so much like an old trumpet player. Anyway, five stars.
Bollani: I am not giving 5 stars, because I loved Wynton, but not so much the piano player. 3 stars. His way of comping was not… 5 for Wynton.

5. Lester Bowie-John Hicks, “Hello, Dolly” (from AMERICAN GUMBO, 32 Jazz, 1974/1999) (Bowie, trumpet; Hicks, piano)

Rava: To me, that’s Lester Bowie.
Bollani: Lester Bowie. The problem with this piano player, it sounds like the opposite of the other one. It sounds like he’s not one of the musicians involved in the free movement, but he’s older, so he sounds older than Lester Bowie. Maybe he wants to sound modern. But he sounds like a very good piano player from the ‘60s.
TP: Actually, he was the same age as Lester Bowie, and also from St. Louis. John Hicks.
Rava: I’ll give 5 stars to Lester. 3 stars for this piece, because to me it’s too much… I always loved Lester, and this very ironical… But this I think was really too much. He still is great. He was a good friend. So 5 stars. Maybe even 10.
Bollani: I liked very much the piano player.
TP: One thing that was interesting about John Hicks musically is that he was very comfortable playing outside or inside. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He played anything, and played it great.
Bollani: Another one that I really love is Jaki Byard—he could do that, too, very well, He could play stride piano, then he was playing modern things, and it was perfect.

6. Dick Hyman-Randy Sandke, “Slow River” (from NOW AND AGAIN, Arbors, 2005) (Hyman, piano; Sandke, trumpet)

Rava: To me, it sounds like Ruby Braff.
TP: Good guess, but not.
Rava: Merde.
TP: The trumpet player is alive.
Bollani: I really like it. But I’m not sure about the piano player, because he sounded once again like Oscar, but it’s so much cooler than Oscar Peterson that I wouldn’t say it’s him. I would say once again that he’s not a very famous one probably. I don’t know him so well.
TP: He’s the same age as Oscar Peterson, and both he and Oscar Peterson were influenced by Art Tatum.
Rava: Could it be that white trumpet player that used to…Warren Vache?
TP: Not Warren Vache, but that’s also close.
Rava: Anyway, it really sounded like Ruby Braff to me. Anyway, I give 4 stars.
Bollani: Same age as Oscar Peterson? He’s cooler than Oscar. He’s playing less notes. But he’s alive.
TP: The trumpet is Randy Sandke.
Rava: I don’t know him. I’ve heard his name, but only several times. His playing was very good. But he really sounded like Ruby Braff to me.

7. Kenny Wheeler-John Taylor, “Summer Night” (WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn; Taylor, piano)

Bollani: We both recognize the trumpet player, and we think it’s Kenny Wheeler. I think the piano player could be John Taylor.
Rava: We know the trumpet, or flugelhorn…it was a flugelhorn. I’ll give it 2 stars. Do I have to give stars? I’ll give 3 stars. I must say I did not get that much from it.
Bollani: Sometimes it sounded like Kenny Wheeler’s composition.
TP: It’s a standard called “Summer Night,” by Harry Warren.
Bollani: It had something in the chorus at the end of the tune which made me think about Kenny Wheeler’s composing, things like “Everybody’s Song But My Own.” These kind of compositions, the long ones that go the ‘70s.

8. Nicholas Payton-Anthony Wonsey, “Weather Bird” (from GUMBO NOUVEAU, Verve, 1996)

Rava: What I can tell you is, first, whoever it is, there is a time problem, with the piano speeding up. The trumpet player, whoever it is, sounded good, but he played licks of everybody else. I heard some Dizzy licks, some Bobby Hackett licks… I mean, it was like an encyclopedia for trumpet. So I didn’t really like it. I’ll give it 2½ stars, maybe 3 for the technique and the ability. They are very good players, but I didn’t see any magic or any voice or something like that.

Bollani: Once again, I will start saying that probably they are not two very-very-very famous jazz musicians, because I really don’t recognize the… The same as the trumpet player . I don’t recognize the style of the piano player, because it sounds like a good piano player but not really a special one, a personal one. But still, I think that what Enrico said was true about the timing problem, but I think the piano player is the problem, not the trumpet player. He’s doing things, and he’s not very creative.

The problem with the records, the duo recordings with trumpet and piano is that the most famous jazz musicians, except maybe Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, didn’t do this kind of formula. Except for the Oscar Peterson albums… You can count them. But if you talk about the greatest players in the world… Miles, for example, never did one. So a lot of the greatest jazz musicians never made…

TP: It was Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Anthony Wonsey on piano playing “Weather Bird.”

Rava: Sorry, I recognized “Weather Bird,” of course.

Bollani: They are alive. So they are going to read the Downbeats and kill me.

Rava: I like Nicholas Payton most of the time. But I did not recognize him on this tune, probably because he wanted to make a kind of tribute to Louis Armstrong. But he didn’t sound like Nicholas Payton to me at all.

Bollani: I have to say, I’ve never heard even the name of the piano player. Never.

9. Earl Hines-Harry “Sweets” Edison, “Mean To Me” (from JUST YOU, JUST ME, Black and Blue, 1978) (Hines, piano; Edison, trumpet)

Bollani: We know the period, of course, but we’re not so sure about the musicians. I would say that this piano player, maybe it’s not him, but now he’s sounding like Willie The Lion Smith, but I don’t know if he recorded something…
Rava: To me the trumpet player sounded a lot like Harry Edison.
Rava: Who is the piano player?
Bollani: It could be Earl Hines.
Rava: I love Harry Edison. This is, for sure, not one of his best performances. If you compare this to the solo he played with Lester Young on “Sunday” which is a total masterpiece, this… But I don’t mind.
TP: He was 22 years older when he did this.
Rava: Not everyone is like you. Getting older, I feel better.
Bollani: Anyway, what can I say about Earl Hines? His nickname was “Fatha,” so this means that he is considered the father of the modern piano players. So I won’t say anything. He’s one of the piano players I always loved not only for the piano playing, but because of his attitude. Often people say that I’m too much entertaining or I’m too much funny or smiling or whatever. But people like Dizzy, Fats Waller, Earl Hines…
Rava: Armstrong.
Bollani: Armstrong. These were people who were playing great and also entertaining people. I have a record with Earl Hines singing and imitating the trombone, which is fantastic. I think he was a great performer. Smiling all the time.
Rava: Hines’ style. For Harry Edison and Earl Hines, I’m not particularly fond of this record, but I’ll give it 1000 stars. All the stars in the universe.



Stefano Bollani Article (Barcelona, 2012) –  (#1):

Stefano Bollani does not do soundchecks. “I always try not to have a sound in my head before playing,” the 39-year-old pianist explained in his room at Barcelona’s El Gran Havana Hotel, a few hours before hit time for a solo recital at Luz de Gas, the final event of Umbria Jazz Festival’s week at last November’s edition of the Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz. “I don’t want to know how the sound is on stage or in the place. So I don’t go to the theater before the concert. I just go on stage and play.”

He elaborated the point. “Being alone at the soundcheck is so sad,” he joked. “That’s one reason, but also I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know that the piano has a problem or a good characteristic, because then you think, ‘Wow, this piano is playing well, but only when you play it softer, so let’s make a list of how I can play softly all night.’

“Usually I am telling a joke or talking about some other subject—not thinking about the music—until the moment I begin. Then I forget everything. That’s free time. My phone is off. Nobody is asking me questions or proposing things. Nobody is interviewing me. I am doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a child. I have two kids. I am never home, so I feel guilty because they don’t have a normal father. But when I’m playing, I know it’s my job, so I’m cool. I’m in the right place at the right moment. People are buying a ticket for me, I’m playing for them. I chose to come here. You chose to listen to me. It’s perfect.”

It was time to go. Dressed in an untucked black shirt, jeans and sneakers, his matted, gray-flecked hair tied back, a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, Bollani picked up his backpack and walked briskly to the elevator, passing several open rooms in which several Umbrian representatives sat in their undershirts, glued to CNN, hoping to catch the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Later, at Luz de Gas, after Bollani had finished two tunes, an audience member called out that the deed was done. “This is going to be a very special night,” Bollani said, “because as you know, we have very sad news. We’ll just have to go on without him.”

Bollani instantly stated the melody of “If I Should Lose You.” He launched his improvisation at jet tempo, a la Conlon Nancarrow, crisply articulating every note. He transitioned to a rubato section, abstracting the harmony to its limits before working back into the theme. Suddenly, he chugged out a relentless walking bass line in the Jaki Byard-Dave McKenna manner, supporting high-velocity Bud Powellish “horn-like” lines that included an “I Found A New Baby” quote. He offered a pluck-the-strings sidebar, crossing the hands (variations by the left; bass figures by the right), executing Cecil Taylorisms with extravagant gestures. Some repeated treble notes coalesced into a portentious, impressionistic melody that gradually morphed into “For Once In My Life,” upon which he built a rollicking, swinging statement that transpired over another pendulum-steady bassline.

The “Adios Berlusconi” theme continued when, after a pause, Bollani abstracted “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” limning the melody with the right hand juxtaposed with with more laugh-provoking atonal harmonics on the strings. This morphed into “Angel Eyes,” on which, after a rumbly, low-end climax, he decrescendoed to a gentle theme statement, returning to the strings for the last chorus. Bollani played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” medium up, repeating “she was more like a beauty queen” in different voices, counterstating with Powell-Tatum references. Pretending to forget the lyric, he fixated on “the kid is not my son” section, which he addressed as an aria. He interpolated the lyrics of “Old Devil Moon” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” then laid out a series of reharmonized permutations that concluded with “Blackbird.”

After two more songs—“After You’ve Gone,” done as an old-school saloon stomp, and “Kingston Town,” treated as a gentle waltz—Bollani took requests, which included “Cavaquinho,” “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Tico Tico,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Für Elise.” He cogitated over his list, and developed an ingenious, structurally connected collage, at various points singing in a French accent and emulating a flamenco singer. Then, after an ovation, he filleted Berlusconi one more time with “There Will Never Be Another You,” propelling his variations—to which he scatted a falsetto counter-melody—with yet another surging bassline.

“Every jazz musician will say to any interviewer that you’ve got to tell your own story,” Bollani had said earlier in the day. “But I love when the story is full of things. Our lives are full of nice moments and sad moments—there’s a funny situation, then one of us is dying on the floor so it’s suddenly tragic, then you call the police but they aren’t coming, so it’s funny again. Life is changing all the time. Some jazz music today is like the Sea of Tranquility, trying to develop the same feeling for sixty minutes. My life is not like that; I cannot tell this kind of story.”

Bollani’s communicative flair, his penchant for addressing serious improvisation as quasi-populist performance art, is the primary source of his high Q-score in Europe, the reason why, since 2007, he’s hosted the much-listened-to Il Dottore Djembe on Italy’s NPR equivalent, Rai-3, and, more recently, a TV spinoff. This quality comes through on his solo concerts and more recent piano duos with Martial Solal, Antonello Salis, and Chick Corea, where he generates an erudite flow that is at once hilarious and poignant, buffo and nuanced, elemental and complex. Some might see Bollani’s predisposition to skip from one reality to the next as bespeaking superficial clownishness, but it’s more accurate to say that it denotes an exhaustive breadth of reference.

“Stefano doesn’t make a distinction of ‘there’s one world here, and another there,’” said drummer Jeff Ballard, who has performed on several Bollani projects since 2009. “He has an incredible command of styles—everything is available at once, and out it comes. His thought process moves at incredible velocity, whether he’s performing or just hanging out. When I was touring with him, he’d sing one Italian song after another in the dressing rooms, saying, ‘Check out the harmony of this; see how this goes.’ He’s a natural performer and a virtuoso.”

“Comedians are usually very well-prepared,” Bollani had said earlier of his modus operandi. “But I am not preparing the funny part. It’s something I feel at the moment. If I have somebody with me, I am using musicians on the stage. Otherwise, I am using the audience. A lot of listeners, not necessarily jazz fans, tell me they get a feeling that I am having joy and want to share it. Jazz can be a kind of magic circle that some people feel they cannot enter. That’s not good for jazz music, or any kind of art.”

As jokes were the topic, Bollani mentioned that, on Dottor Djembe, he and co-host Mirko Guerrini pre-record fake music to present to their guests, mostly Italian musicians, with whom they perform live and discuss contemporary jazz, some of it by one or another of the numerous “fake musicians” of their invention—composers, pop singers, instrumentalists—whose biographies appear in a book-CD (Lo zibaldone del Dottor Djembe).

“If you don’t know what you’re listening to, you might think we’re talking seriously—until somebody starts laughing,” Bollani said. “There’s a scat singer called Tex Plosion, and on our recording he scats until he explodes—it’s a point of departure to talk about how dangerous jazz can be and not to play too many notes. We have a contemporary French-German composer named Jean-France Camenberg who did a seven-hour opera in Berlin called Sisyphus and Tantalus. For the whole time, Sisyphus sings ‘I am pushing the stone’ and Tantalus sings ‘I need the water.’ The moment Tantalus reaches the water is exactly the moment when Sisyphus is able to throw the stone, which hits Tantalus on the head and kills him, ending the opera.

“I have Duck Ellington, a guy who found a female duck that he uses to sing all the Duke Ellington repertoire. It’s very stupid, so stupid that the guest isn’t expecting it. Most of our guests said, ‘I can’t say anything about that.’ ‘Why? Didn’t you like it? Don’t you like jazz music?’ ‘I do, but…’ Very funny.”


Bollani related that he and Chick Corea “did lots of jokes” at the free-flowing duo concert at Umbria Jazz Winter, 2009, that produced Orvieto [ECM]—he described it as “feeling like one piano player with four hands.” However, they do not appear on the recording. “I’m not mad about humor on records,” Bollani said. “A good piece of music works when you listen to it forever, but not a joke.”

Indeed, humor is not a prominent component of Bollani’s eclectic discography, which includes several solo piano solo recitals, a dozen encounters (including two duos) with trumpeter Enrico Rava, six standards dates for the Japanese market, and presentations of his original music by three different trios, a quintet, and a 40-piece orchestra. The jokes are also tamped down on Carioca [Universal], Bollani’s learned exploration of a broad array of Brazilian flavors; on the 50,000 unit-seller Rhapsody in Blue [Decca Classics], on which Bollani and conductor Ricardo Chailly present a vivid interpretation of the Gershwin classic; and on Big Band! [EmArcy], a 2011 project on which the NDR Big Band—with Bollani on piano—performs Norwegian arranger Geir Lysne’s reworkings of five Bollani compositions from the early ‘00s.

“Geir chose the pieces, and I came in after the band had learned them,” Bollani said. “I didn’t recognize them. I love that everything sounded new, that he used them to build different atmospheres. I use my compositions to build something different each night, which is how music keeps herself alive.” He quoted Surrealist philosopher Andre Breton’s bon mot, “Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.”

He continued: “You take different things, shake them, and see what comes out—the postmodern idea. That’s what I like in jazz. Take a melody by the Beach Boys and place a chord from a Prokofiev sonata; start with a standard, “My Funny Valentine” or ragtime, and go some other place. It’s playing with language, like working with characters in a novel.

“On some of my own compositions, the principle is funny—we miss a bar or jump to another key, and that’s clear. A lot of people did this, from Raymond Scott to Frank Zappa. But lots of them are not funny until I play them; the pianist Bollani is funnier than the composer Bollani. Actually, I am a tremendously serious composer. The pieces are never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars—always 43. There’s a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one that wants to be original. He is saying, ‘Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put in a bar more.’ I’m so serious that I would write only ballads, if I could. I have to force myself to write something light.”

Born in Milan and raised in Florence, Bollani internalized his everything-is-grist-for-the-mill approach early on, playing the piano along with the Fats Domino-Nat King Cole-Jerry Lee Lewis portion of his father’s extensive collection of ‘50s pop, from which he also assimilated the lyrics of the Great American Songbook. He learned Italian musica legere (light music) as well, through recordings by Renato Carosone and Celentano. At 11, the aspiring young singer enrolled in Florence’s prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory (he would graduate with honors in 1993) and also encountered local pianists Luca Flores and Mauro Grossi, who gave him hands-on instruction in the codes of jazz and blues. At 12, he fell hard for Art Blakey’s Night At Birdland album and joined what he describes as “the Taliban of Hard Bop.” As his teens progressed, Bollani expanded his horizons, absorbing “the real masters”—Martial Solal, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines.

“Ragtime and stride piano is the sound of joy to me,” he said. “Even the ballads, except for things like ‘Lotus Blossom’ by Strayhorn.” He sang the melody. “In fact, as soon as they get melancholic, they sound European, in a way. But I love the joyful part of jazz, which is probably coming from Africa.”

Apart from the ebullient feel of the earlier styles, Bollani cited the technical derring-do required to play them. “These guys had amazing character,” he said. “When Teddy Wilson played with Gene Krupa or Nat Cole with Buddy Rich, they had no bass, and they often had no amplification—they had strong hands, big hands. When Bud Powell started playing mainly as a horn player with the right hand and no chords on the left hand, that became the book. But I discovered a lot of people in jazz history, before and after Bud Powell, who think of the piano as an orchestra, which it is. I can play 50 notes at the same time if I want. So why should I force myself to solo only with the right hand? It’s ok, it’s an idea, but that’s ONE thing you can do. But as a piano player, you can’t only practice on that. A lot of people study Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, without considering that they are not points of departure in piano history, but points of arrival. If that’s how you start, you miss their process in getting to that point, and you’ll be an imitation of them.”

Bollani’s strongly typed tonal identity is fully apparent on Orvieto, a trans-stylistic tour de force on which he and Corea improvise interactively through American and Brazilian Songbook and jazz standards, a blues, and several scratch inventions. “I immediately knew that I could go anywhere with Chick,” Bollani recalled. “Usually one person solos and the other comps, and vice-versa, but here no one is driving—no roles are played for more than a few bars, then we start over. I told myself to be careful about quoting him, but it didn’t feel like the Chick Corea I knew in my youth. It’s just music.”

Trumpeter Enrico Rava, who hired Bollani in 1996, was a key figure in helping him gain the confidence to develop his mature conception. “When I was a teenager playing in clubs and theaters with my trio, people were silent, listening,” Bollani recalled. “This meant that I was developing a music that was closer to Art than entertainment. In 1995, when I’d been mostly playing keyboards with [Italian pop singers] Irene Grandi and Jovanotti, Rava joined our trio as a guest. Later he told me that if I turned down a long tour with Jovanotti, he could find gigs for us that summer. It was maybe seven concerts, but that was enough.

“After the first set on my first concert with him, he asked, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ ‘I’m playing.’ ‘No, you’re playing a little of what you can do—maybe you are shy.’ ‘Well, it’s you, it’s Aldo Romano, so I leave the space.’ ‘No. I called you because you have to fill the space.’ Enrico always tried to get from me what I wanted to do.”

Whatever Bollani chooses to do in the future, being funny will remain in the mix. “If I like you, I can joke with you; I can play with you,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll probably be more serious, because I cannot be free to laugh. I’m not iconoclastic, though probably people feel I am. I’m not laughing against something. Usually, I like the persons I’m making fun of. Serious fun is important. If you take yourself too seriously, you should die. Why play the piano after Keith Jarrett and Martha Argerich? Just jump from the window. Why make children? Why make love? You know you’re going to suffer about that in a few hours, a few days. One member of a couple is going to die first. You can’t do anything if you think negatively. I cannot imagine a life without self-irony. Otherwise I couldn’t stand myself.

“But I am very serious about music. I can’t do anything else. I’ve never worked. I’m not a practical man. I am really saved by the music.”


Stefano Bollani (Orvieto, Jan. 4, 2009):

Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this winter’s Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvieto, a small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millennium, pianist Stefano Bollani, digesting what he described as his first real meal in days, sipped pear juice in the salon of his hotel. He was looking forward to a well-earned nap: Called five days earlier to replace bossa nova legend João Gilberto, the festival’s headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, the 18th century opera house that is one of Orvieto’s many architectural wonders, Bollani had been hustling to fulfill the task, and had executed his duties with aplomb.

After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet, while on Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohen, herself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvieto’s central square. After his nap, he would sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by bassist Roberto Gatto.

An obscure figure to American audiences, who know him primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and in March will release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release Piano Solo, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy, where, in addition to his eclectic musical production, he is a television and radio personality as well as a published author of both children’s books and experimental novels.

Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, where he graduated with honors, Bollani was also a teenage bebop acolyte. His solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of kaleidscopic repertoire—Italian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originals—in which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable digital dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.

During the course of his Thursday duos, he displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, Bollani sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partner’s solo episode) and with Solal, who maintained a Buster Keaton deadpan as he went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play “musical piano benches,” and riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TP: What you’re doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, you’re called to replace João Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets, half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, you’re seamlessly occupying the flow and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it’s not.

BOLLANI: Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second night—we played what we play. Of course, we didn’t know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didn’t want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No “Desafinados” in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque. So it wasn’t just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.

I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of music—of course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.

TP: How many groups are you working with now?

BOLLANI: I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.

TP: What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group that you primarily compose for?

BOLLANI: Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.

TP: Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?

BOLLANI: I would say that EVERYTHING has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, “This is coming from Italian music” or “this is coming from Brazilian music,” etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, “Ah, it’s joy.” C-minor—“Ooh, something happened.” Symphonic orchestra—“Ooh, it’s classical music.” The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.

Q: You do that when you do those encores.

BOLLANI: Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didn’t see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. “This is Chopin,” then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes… I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isn’t that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, it’s like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.

TP: This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you can’t…

BOLLANI: Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesn’t expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I don’t do. They do this on purpose—they are waiting for me to do this. But if I don’t know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I don’t know, and I said, “Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one.” [ENGINE SOUNDS] That’s what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, “This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.”

TP: You’re 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.

BOLLANI: A lot of old songs. Usually it’s better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neal Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.

TP: You’ve been working since you were 15. Did you learn all these songs as a working musician?

BOLLANI: Not, not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentano—old stuff. I’m sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what I’m looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I don’t find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever…

TP: You’re talking about Bjork, Radiohead, those people…

BOLLANI: I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world—the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what I’m talking about, “Musica legere,” “light music.” It shouldn’t be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record or Mahler or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesn’t mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.

TP: You also play with language when you compose and write..

BOLLANI: I do. In almost any of my compositions, it’s never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. It’s always 43. You miss something or there’s something more. That’s why my musicians hate me.

TP: Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?

BOLLANI: I’m not sure, but I think it’s deliberate. I pretend it happens.

TP: Why is it deliberate?

BOLLANI: [CRADLES BELLY WITH HANDS] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one which wants to be original. He is saying, “Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put a bar more.” I feel it’s natural, but I’m not sure it is.

TP: It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?

BOLLANI: Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old til 16—I only listened to Hard Bop, Horace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock or Free Jazz. I was playing THE shit, like the Taliban of Hard Bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones—I’d been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernova—I got into rock music. The most intellectual ones maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles…

TP: The songwriters.

BOLLANI: The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speaking — Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didn’t really like it. I was studying the technique. I didn’t really like Beethoven at that moment.

TP: But the way you use the pedal and your touch, it’s obvious…

BOLLANI: Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini or Ricardo Muti, for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like BAPPP. So very serious. And he didn’t know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, “Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; he’s going to throw me out.” But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, “Okay, I discovered you’re playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.” Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he HATED it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and he just said, “Okay, let’s go on.” I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now he’s happy about me, about my playing; even if he doesn’t like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.

TP: Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.

BOLLANI: A little-little bit. I don’t like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composers—but I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you don’t know the music, it’s interesting because the character is so interesting. That’s what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who I’m quite interested in as well—the technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, it’s enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.

TP: So it’s a challenge, an additive thing.

BOLLANI: Yes, I would say so. It’s not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think it’s good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.

TP: How about the jazz avant garde in the ‘70s?

BOLLANI: Almost the same.

TP: You were speaking of the Taliban of hardbop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to Neoclassicism and Art Blakey Young Lions editions of the Jazz Messengers and so on.

BOLLANI: Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people don’t understand what you’re doing—there is the Avant Garde Party and there’s the Hardbop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans don’t understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hardbop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. I’m trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. I’m waiting for that.

TP: That’s the opposite of my impression from outside. For example, I’ve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. I don’t want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own music—they just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords, you learn the RIGHT thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.

But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each other—which is why it’s hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably it’s this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I don’t know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.

TP: I haven’t heard you deal so much with Italian materials.

BOLLANI: Not so much.

TP: It seems to be pop.

BOLLANI: Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kind of things, but it’s a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar… Some songwriters from the ‘20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and he’s older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello. So it’s his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. It’s really different.

TP: So it’s hard to speak of Italian jazz because it’s so…

BOLLANI: I think it’s big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But it’s actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the world—it’s like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.

What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think they’re islands.

Antonello Salis is a genius, and he’s an autodidact. He doesn’t read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. He’s coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesn’t have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, we’ve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. That’s what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.

Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad… For example, Denmark. That’s the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, “Okay, now you can play whatever you want…” “Whatever I want? Okay, let’s play a blues.” “Ah, okay, let’s play a blues.” Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You don’t have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.

The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, they’re wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But it’s dangerous if you think THAT’s the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still TRYING to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whatever—they never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. “Okay, they told me what music is.” It’s not like that.

TP: Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?

BOLLANI: Actually, I do think it’s changing over time, but it’s hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I don’t know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to do—trying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz music, hardbop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whatever, was a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I don’t know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.

TP: You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.

BOLLANI: Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldn’t sit down and think, “I should go in this direction.” I don’t want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, “Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line…”

TP: You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock…

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasn’t interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian—we rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. That’s quite interesting to do as practice. It’s not interesting at all when you do it on stage.

To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. It’s just I’m playing… Then I listen back, and I say, “Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.” But then after a minute, I see where I’m doing something different, so ok. Whew. It’s ok. Good. Because I don’t really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I don’t recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that it’s an external thing coming into my music, that I’m adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I don’t even recognize because it’s part of my language.

TP: You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?

BOLLANI: I was talking about compositions, I don’t like compositions.

TP: Why not?

BOLLANI: Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I don’t like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. Elena e Il Suo Violino,” for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, “I have enough.” But I don’t have enough of playing “There Will Never Be Another You” or “Cheek To Cheek.”

TP: Not so dissimilar to Solal.

BOLLANI: I would say so. He is a composer, but you are never listening to his compositions.

TP: Because he returns to the same songs all the time.


TP: What about those songs allows you to do that? Is it about the music, or the signification?

BOLLANI: Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kind of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. It’s nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.

TP: That’s interesting, too, because you’re speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet you’re simultaneously loving both things.

BOLLANI: But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because it’s anachronistic. That’s why it’s interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.

TP: I’m fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. You’re in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and it’s beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. You’re from Florence, the home of Dante…

BOLLANI: Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.

TP: The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?

BOLLANI: I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think it’s a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.

TP: The church was an instrument of political power.

BOLLANI: Exactly. But it’s not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. That’s good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and we our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politics—if you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. It’s not the ego thing. It’s the idea of the world. It’s the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable…

TP: You’re pointing to your brain.

BOLLANI: Exactly. It’s much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.

TP: So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is…

BOLLANI: Absolutely. It’s coming from that.

TP: You seem to have a very young audience.

BOLLANI: I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacs—the Hardbop Taliban! But I’m not missing them too much. I don’t understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I don’t feel I’m strange. I understand I’m a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thing—I mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller, or in Europe Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, it’s always, like, “Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.”

TP: As though you’re not quite serious.

BOLLANI: Yeah, exactly. I am not enough serious.

TP: It’s interesting, because face to face, you’re…

BOLLANI: More serious.

TP: It seems that when you make jokes, it’s very serious fun.


TP: It seems more like performance art than comedy.

BOLLANI: Actually, I don’t know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello, everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I don’t know where they are coming from.

TP: You couldn’t be more serious. But there’s a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.

BOLLANI: No-no-no, actually not. Maybe I’m serious with you because I’m speaking in English, or because I’m tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. It’s not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing that—but THAT was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out… When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.

TP: How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?

BOLLANI: Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.

TP: The French ones are very serious.

BOLLANI: Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.

TP: Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava, because if you have a musical mentor it would seem to be he, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.

BOLLANI: Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I don’t remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.

So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I don’t think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We don’t really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. It’s something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or João Gilberto—a way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we don’t talk about music.

TP: He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didn’t. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?

BOLLANI: I never thought about it.

TP: You were working the whole time, I guess.

BOLLANI: Yes. I’ve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. I’ve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, “oh, I would like to be Chick Corea” or whatever. I really like what I’m doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I don’t really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, I’m hanging around, I like the atmosphere, I’m going to concerts, I’m going to buy records, whatever—but then I’m going home. I’m not really mad for big cities. It’s not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I don’t really like it.

TP: When you met Rava, there’s a story that he told you, “You don’t have to play pop music if you don’t like it, you’re young, you don’t have responsibilities, you can do this.” Just so I’m straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanatti, which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.

BOLLANI: I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.

TP: But it wasn’t that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz.

BOLLANI: I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995 when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasn’t playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Rome—that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decide—because it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didn’t bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, “Actually it’s February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,” which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, “I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.” Then we started playing. It wasn’t a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.

TP: And you found enough other work to…

BOLLANI: Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasn’t earning SO much money from the Pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasn’t that much.

TP: But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.

BOLLANI: Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever…

TP: I saw a Youtube where you do that.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.

But talking about the Pop thing, I don’t know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but that’s what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so much—I was playing chords. I thought, “wow, why doesn’t he like that?” But that music doesn’t need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.

TP: You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading, your writing filter into your performance attitude?

BOLLANI: I’m reading a lot of novels.

TP: All Italian?

BOLLANI: No-no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. I’m in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the let’s call them young ones, who are in their forties. I’m reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. It’s a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending they’re building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American ones, Cortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosa, where you pretend you’re living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you it’s a novel. I really like to know that I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it because after three pages, for example, there s a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, “wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.” When you read Calvino or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think it’s real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside… A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. “If on a winter night, a reader…” I don’t know the title in English.

Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [SINGS OPENING 12 BARS]. This is a perfect world. It’s a guy. Then there’s a note, [SINGS SECOND REFRAIN] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.

TP: There’s also a structural quality. You can read Cortazar’s Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice metaphor for your performances

BOLLANI: That’s what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. That’s what I would love people to say about my records. “Oh, it’s so poetic, he’s improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,” and then, “Just a minute; that’s the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; that’s the same chord structure. He’s working on that. He’s not simply chasing birds.”

TP: Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?

BOLLANI: Yes, I think so.

TP: How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?

BOLLANI: I don’t know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swing—but nobody can explain that, so I won’t try. I don’t know. But you can get really far away, I think.

TP: Is there anything about your aesthetic that’s influenced by Surrealism?

BOLLANI: Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. That’s what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, “I would love to be on 52nd Street in the ‘50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.” Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst…That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing… Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.

TP: I suppose there’s a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.

BOLLANI: Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and the idea of Breton, or of Beauty. He said to L’Autremont, the French writer, that “beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.” Which meant you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and that’s beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and I’m going to paint that. That’s what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. That’s what I like. That’s what jazz is about, because you take “Yesterday” by the Beatles and you put weird chords. That’s what Frank Zappa is about, even if he’s doing that with his own compositions. He’s taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. There’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.

TP: When you talk about the Taliban of Hard Bop, it’s a clever phrase, but it also refers to a music that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. Blues developed from an American context in the ‘20s-‘30s-‘40s-‘50s, so does dance music, then it evolves into an art music, and takes its course. It’s an interesting parallel.

BOLLANI: Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand that’s a culture, but it’s not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, “Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!” Maybe I did it, too. It’s the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because it’s a kind of comment. It means that I’m saying “I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now I’m doing another thing.” In a way, it’s a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and it’s like, “This is so weird, it’s coming from the ‘40s. Please, be serious.”

TP: You wouldn’t think that if you played a phrase from Webern’s piano…

BOLLANI: Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that… Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If I’m playing a ragtime phrase, it’s nice. But it’s even better if you heard about ragtime and know that I’m quoting a style. If you don’t know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in Antonia which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but it’s not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert, because you understand that we are playing with the history. That’s postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing “The Wrong Note Rag” for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [SINGS IT], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone… What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the “Wrong Note Rag,” and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.

TP: Does your intimacy with so many languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on “Do You Know What It Means” on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.

BOLLANI: Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.

TP: The word “idiomatic” would cover it.

BOLLANI: Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think it’s really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. It’s not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell it’s a game, or a style thing. For example, Promenade is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and that’s it. But it’s extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but it’s also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts I’ve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. That’s a weird idea, but it helps me.

TP: So sometimes you’re postmodern and sometimes you’re modern.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet and João Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to João for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with João. I can go to a desert island with João’s Live In Tokyo. I love it. It’s fresh, even if it’s the same melody. I couldn’t do that, because after a while I’d get bored for myself. But I don’t get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. “Girl From Ipanema,” six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. That’s unbelievable for me. Because it’s an idea of perfection—the idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melody—that I have as a listener, but I don’t have while I’m playing.

TP: Solal talks about having to practice every day.

BOLLANI: I do not. I never practice. I am a disaster. I would love to practice. I have no time to do that. I am practicing at soundcheck, which is always not enough.

TP: Is practice important to you?

BOLLANI: I’ve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so much—and I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.

You have to remember that I absolutely don’t remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really don’t remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess it’s peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to IMAGINE myself doing something else.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Enrico Rava, Italy, Piano, Stefano Bollani, 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.

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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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