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For the 91st Birth Anniversary of Trombonist Benny Powell (March 1, 1930-June 26, 2010), the Proceedings Of a WKCR Musician Show on October 13, 1993

Benny Powell Musician Show, Oct. 13, 1993:

[MUSIC: B. Powell, “Pow-Wee”; Randy Weston-Benny, “Volcano”; “Harvard Blues”; “In Memory Of”; Benny Powell, “We Small Hours of the Morning”; Frank Foster, “Alternative” (from No Count–1956]

TP: Benny Powell and I both had subway rides from hell today, but we’re here now, and we’ll swing ourselves out of it.

BENNY: Thanks. I’m glad I got here.

TP: You’ve selected a wide array that reflects the breadth of your interests, but mostly we’ll be hearing music you heard as a young trombonist and the trombone players who inspired you — J.J. Johnson I think most prominently, Bennie Green, Bill Harris, we’ll go back to Lawrence Brown. But tell me what you were thinking about in organizing the show.

BENNY: I’ve been looking forward to this really, because music is always about listening, and just to hear all these things again that I haven’t heard in a very long time, and just to think about them, is very nice. So I’m really looking forward to this show. This is sort of like “This Is Your Life.” I’ve been around for a very long time, and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked and recorded with a lot of people, especially on the recording side. I was surprised at how many different kinds of bands I’d played with, and different atmospheres and different times. It’s really nice to be part of all of that.

TP: The first repertoire we’ll hear touches on Benny Powell’s experiences in the Count Basie Band. There must be 50-60 records…

BENNY: Maybe more than that. I was there 12 years, so during the course of that time…

TP: We’ll take you through the Verve days, the Roulette days, and focus on a couple of specially selected solos. When you joined me here a few months ago, I asked you how much spontaneity there was from performance to performance? Was it the same set from night to night, or were there variances? Did you have set solos, or did that change?

BENNY: No, everything was pretty well set. It was highly professional. But there was a spark that used to go through the band sometimes, most of the time. It was a highly spiritual band. But I think we had a pride in playing good every night, and seeing if we could play better tonight than we did last night.

So far as set solos, that was funny, because in those days, with arrangements, they were written very much different than these days. A trombone solo might have been just 8 bars in those days. Now it’s kind of stretched out. So each thing had its own purpose.

TP: When you joined Basie, it was the end of the 78 era, when people were getting used to recordings lasting more than 3-4 minutes. The people you’d listened to were making their statements in a short range of time.

BENNY: A very short range. Later I learned to appreciate that, to appreciate a three-minute record. At the time that we were doing it, I didn’t really see what a concise form it was. I think one time I was doing the Merv Griffin Show, and Ray Charles was being interviewed, and he made me aware of that. He said, “A book has 300-some-odd pages to tell its story; we have 3 minutes.” I thought about that. At that time, 3 minutes was a long time.

TP: At the time you came into the band, you’ve described yourself as “a stone bebopper,” and the Basie band was doing something a little bit different. A lot of the band members were young… Was there any conflict between what you really wanted to be doing and what the function required?

BENNY: Not really. I think anybody who came up during the time I did wanted to play with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, wanted to play with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and so forth. But there was not really a conflict. In retrospect… I talk to Randy Weston about this very much. We saw the tail end of an era, that was the big bands and so forth, and the beginning of bebop, and that was a very important period in American history, because bebop was turning the music completely around to where it is today, and we can sort of see it from that point.

TP: It was also turning attitudes around as well as music.

BENNY: Bebop restructured the whole thing.

TP: What were some of the ways it did that for you. You came up in New Orleans, which has many musical cross-currents roiling around, and you were part of a small clique of musicians focusing on bebop.

BENNY: In the 40s there was a musician named Emory Thompson, who spent a little time in New York in the early 40s. So he came back to New Orleans with pictures of Charlie Parker and the horn-rimmed glasses and the whole bebop thing.At this time, I was an impressionable kid of about 12 or 13. So I latched onto it at that age. So for a while, until I was into my 20s, I didn’t want to hear about anything. And bebop was so pervasive during those days. It was really the beginning period, and those people who felt a fervor for it really felt strongly about it being a music of worth, and we were ready to go to war.

TP: New Orleans is famous for the way that music has been integrated into the culture of the city, into the fabric of everyday life through the marching bands and various other functions. The trombone has a rich legacy in the brass bands, of course. Were you second-lining at all?

BENNY: Well, the Second Line is actually not the players. The second line is the audience that walks along the sidewalk; the players walk in the middle of the street. So sidelining, as I knew it, was just the people who marched along, and they danced along, I should say. In fact, they would sort of choreograph things. The band would play…it was sort of like call-and-response. The band would play something, and it was sort of like, DUH-DAH-DEEEE-TT… YEAH! They had little breaks and so forth. But DUH-DAH-DEEEE-TT was the trumpet player and YEAH! was the audience. So it was really like a big party. The Second Line never walked down the street. They sort of sashayed or paraded down the street, and they had all sorts of props. One was an umbrella. I don’t know where the umbrella tradition comes from in the New Orleans parade, but the Grand Marshal always has this elaborate umbrella. But also, there were dances that people could do with handkerchiefs and so forth, and the sideline had their own choreography. But mainly it was like a cheerleading type thing.

TP: How did the older musicians in New Orleans respond to the young whippersnappers who were coming up playing this different music?

BENNY: Musicians are always tolerant of each other, no matter whether you like a guy’s style of not. First of all, older musicians judge you by your tone. If you’ve got a nice tone and you can get over the horn… Now, there were some older guys who I guess were known for their particular style. There was a certain style of tenor player who was kind of more a showboater. Now, bebop was a threat to him, first of all, because he couldn’t play it. Then secondly, it made him feel inferior. So the resistance perhaps came more from a guy like that than… I really don’t know what the older musicians’ attitude was towards us.

TP: But you never caught any particular flack.

BENNY: Well, I was fortunate, because I was with a very young band in New Orleans. I guess I was 15 and the other guys… But we did very well. So the older musicians were rather proud of us. But musicians at that time didn’t have all those different factions. If you all lived in the same town, some… I imagine some of the older guys who were really into maybe Dixieland era did have some not too good words to say about it, but that’s part of any growth.

TP: Let’s get into music from the Basie years. The first selection is one of the most famous Basie-associated pieces, “April in Paris.”

BENNY: I have a funny thing about that. The whole time I was with Basie’s band, the critics were very kind to me. Sometimes when we would play at Newport, the band would get reviewed. The only solo I might have played in this concert was that little part in “April in Paris” — at the end of the review, the guy would say, “Outstanding solos were Frank Wess, Joe Newman, Benny Powell…” — that always did tickle me. That was my claim to fame for many years.

TP: Thad played that little line that was much…

BENNY: Thad hated that. He was a very creative musician, and to have to play the same thing every night was like putting a racehorse in a matchbox and saying, “don’t move.” You’ll hear it on this. He quotes from “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Now, this was nice to him in the studio; that’s what he felt at the time. But that began to be part of the record, so he had to play that every night.

TP: And Basie would say “One more time.”

BENNY: Well, he didn’t mind that. That was Basie’s thing. But to play “Pop Goes The Weasel” every night was too much.

[MUSIC: Basie, “April in Paris”; Sarah Vaughan-Basie, “Until I Met You”; Basie, “Misunderstood Blues”; Joe Williams-Basie, “Roll ‘Em Pete”; Basie-Jimmy Rushing, “Lazy Lady Blues”-1946]

POWELL: Basie’s whole alliance with singers was very interesting. When I joined the band in 1951, prior to that Basie had a small group with Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco…I think about six pieces — Jimmy Lewis was in that group. Then he organized a big band again to start to play on weekends. We’d go to Richmond, Virginia, just for the weekend. It went on like that for a little while. Then I think Billy Eckstine started doing tours with us. Billy Eckstine was still very popular during those days. I can remember playing some concerts with him as part of the Birdland tour.

But then, when Joe Williams joined the band and Joe had such a big hit with “Every Day I Have The Blues,” this sort of boosted Basie onto a wider market than he had been reaching before. Then after we toured with many singers… The band was a fine band, so singers liked to work with the band. Sarah Vaughan was almost like a sister to the band. Every time we were in California, she would invite the whole band to her house for dinner, and so forth.

In later days, Basie always did present singers and always did give singers an opportunity…

TP: He was under contract to Roulette for a while, so he paired off with Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and others as well through the 60s.

BENNY: Right. Well, as I said, it was such a good band that… Sinatra did a lot of recordings with the band.

TP: There’s something so vocal about the sound of the trombone; it’s often used in conjunction with singers or for playing obbligatos.

BENNY: I think that’s what I liked so much about this trombone solo that just played. This was Count Basie’s band, with Jimmy Rushing singing, but it was done by a trombone player who wasn’t too very well known, named George Matthews. I don’t know if he ever recorded anything but this. One of the things I like about it is his expressiveness — how expressive he was. But trombones have a tradition with voices and so forth, tracing back to Bessie Smith [and Big Green] — the trombone and voice are sort of a natural marriage.

TP: You gave a double take when “Roll ‘Em Pete” came on.

BENNY: Yes. Well, it startled me because I remember all of those nights… In fact, I asked you to play it because I used to play an obbligato on trombone behind Joe Williams’ vocals. It was a nice little marriage. I thought I played rather well in the cracks and so forth. But this is what I was listening for. I think this particular version was done in concert, and by that time… We were speaking about things would become parts of the arrangement. By this time, the saxophones had harmonized the little riffs I played. Again, once you started playing that, you had to play it every night. So I was expecting to hear just myself, and I heard this whole saxophone section playing what was my solo originally. I brought the record in, and I was like, “Whose record is that?!” But in latter years, a lot of things were done… There’s a lot on the market now, Count Basie and live performances. So a lot of times on live performances there would be a different version from the recorded studio version, because by the time we had played it, it was very loose and a lot of things might be completely changed.

TP: Before that was “The Misunderstood Blues” by Frank Foster, from a Basie album on Roulette called Easin’ It, which consists of all Frank Foster arrangements. You brought it in.

BENNY: Well, just because I feel such a closeness with Frank Foster. Basie had taught us all that we had a family, and we still do feel like a family. After all of these years playing with Frank Wess, maybe two years ago I heard a radio broadcast he did with Jamil Nasser. It’s very hard for somebody you’ve known for 25 years to impress you, but he impressed me so much I had to call him and tell him. He’s one of my very favorite people on earth, a very astute man.

I guess when I hear Basie’s band, everybody was such an individual, I can almost see a face for each solo. It really brings back such pleasant memories, because I was there for 12 years of my life, and it was the formative years. I think I joined him when I was 21 and left when I was 33. So I more or less grew up in the band. The reason I asked you to play the song by Sarah Vaughan (“Until I Met You”), which was a Freddie Green composition. Many people don’t realize how many tunes Freddie Green wrote.

But the good thing about the whole Basie band is it was like a university on wheels. We spent much time traveling. As you’re traveling, just sitting on the bus, nobody wants an idle moment. Who wants to just stare out the window? So actually, guys were studying things. Everybody had their heads in a book. I remember when Freddie Green first bought this book on arranging, he more or less taught himself to arrange. All of the guys were really like eggheads. Everybody who got in… At this time Eddie Jones was into calculus. He was into computers before many other people.

TP: As you said, such individual personalities, and yet functioning as such a finely honed unit.

BENNY: That’s what was so amazing. When we were on the bandstand, we acted as one. When we got off the bandstand, we ran in 25 different…like a bunch of ants. Everybody had a strong personality. Billy Mitchell at the time was studying hypnosis in regards to dentistry and childbirth. You’d walk up and down the aisle and just see… It was a very productive atmosphere. You could get a good, intelligent conversation from anybody you sat next to.

TP: What was Basie’s attitude? Whatever you do is cool as long as it sounds right on the stand?

BENNY: Somehow he had a way of disciplining without actually being a disciplinarian. Somehow you knew that your shoes should be shined, you knew you should have a clean shirt on, your suit should be pressed, and you should be reasonably sober. In fact, it was very funny, because… He didn’t really say very much. He was a man of action. There were a couple of heavy drinkers in the band. Budd Johnson was one of them, and I say it in the most loving way, but sometimes Budd would hang out all night and then come to the gig after not having slept for 24 hours, and maybe wasted. What Basie would do was call all of his features. He had to stand up in front and play long solos, and then he’d call another one, and let the poor guy just suffer out there. That was his way. He never said a word to the guys.

TP: I think I’ve heard about Ellington doing that to inebriated band-members.

BENNY: That was a whole psychological study. It would take three psychologists to study the Ellington band. I wasn’t a member of that band, but it seemed like they, too, were individuals. Of course, they were strong individuals, because that’s the way he was able to get all of that good music out of them. But off the bandstand… I don’t know how Duke controlled them. I’m sure it was out-slicking them.

For the last couple of years I’ve traveled places and I’ll inherit a rhythm section in whatever city or country it might be in, and I’d have to work with that. There are fine musicians all over the world, and that’s fine. But in the last year I decided I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to have a more organized presentation. So I wrote and produced an album, arranged the kind of presentation I want to have. It’s working now. We’re going to play this coming Saturday, October 16, at La Cave on First Avenue and 62nd Street. I’m very pleased and proud of my guys. I’m the oldest in the group. Jessie Hamin, II, is my drummer; he also owns the label that put out my album.

TP: Inspire Records, Why Don’t You Say Yes Sometime.

BENNY: Then there’s Donald Smith; he’s a pianist and singer. I can’t say enough about him. A sweet guy. I told you, I’ve been traveling around, inheriting rhythm sections, and it works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. I was in France, and I’d inherited a rhythm section of younger guys, and they didn’t know any tunes past Miles Davis. So each night I’d have to tell them what we’re going to play the next night so they could go home and study it out of their books of that day. Well, that’s ok, and we make it work, but that was no pleasure for me. Most of the times, you have to just make do with bigger rehearsals.

Anyway, when I started rehearsing this particular group, we were at rehearsal, and almost everybody, for cosmetic sake or whatever, had somewhere to go within two hours. I mean, you do that to make yourself look important. So I asked, “What time do you guys have to leave, so I’ll know what I have to work with?” They told me, “When we get the music together, we’ll leave.” Now, that was the first time in all my travels everywhere that guys had that attitude. As I said, when I go the clubs I inherit what’s there, and most times those guys are there because they haven’t really put in their time to get to New York! They are not New York class. But these guys have been beautiful in that regard. There’s a new young guy playing bass, Eric Lemon, along with the guy who is up front with me, Talib Kibwe. He and I have been working with Randy Weston for the last five or six years. Quite a strong player.

TP: He played with Abdullah Ibrahim for a while during the earlier part of the 80s.

BENNY: Yes. He’s gaining popularity, spending half his time in the U.S. and half in Paris and Africa. So he’s made a name for himself in other parts, and it’s growing here as well. Anyway, they’re really sweet guys to play with.

TP: Let’s move to some of the trombonists who had an impact on you early. We’ll hear Trummy Young with the Lunceford band, and Lawence Brown and Bill Harris. Before we get into it, I’d like to know about the way you heard these people. Were you able to hear the Lunceford band in the theater? Or through records?

BENNY: My first exposure was through radio. Because during these days, the early 40s, radio broadcasts of many performances of big bands. In fact, that’s how many big bands gained the popularity they did. Radio really helped us. Television let us down. (That’s a little aside.)

I was a kid, about 12 years old, and I was listening to children’s programs. There was a program called Let’s Pretend. That would come on about 11:30. The bands were broadcast from the Pompton turnpike. I can’t remember the name of the ballroom. But Duke Ellington’s band, many bands… Every Saturday there was a band broadcast. So I got a chance to hear Lawrence Brown with Duke Ellington during those days; certainly Trummy Young. Trummy Young had a hit record during those days. It was one of the only records that really featured a trombone solo. It was called “Margie,” and it made quite an impact.

The history of trombones and soloists is quite interesting. It seems like during the history, a couple of guys have made a little dent, but trombone en masse has not. Some of us are still struggling to make our little dents, but we haven’t been accepted. We’re sort of like a stepchild. It seems the major solo instruments are trumpets and tenor saxophones.

TP: I guess in the standard histories, the brass instruments were more prominent in the solo function during the 1920s, and there were great trombonists during the Swing Era in the 30s. Then as the histories go, during bebop there was a certain technical adaptation involved in adapting bebop to the trombone that made it more difficult to project a sound.

BENNY: You’re quite right about that. I was thinking that in earlier years, trombonists did have more prominence because of the way the music was written. A lot of times there would be contrapuntal lines between the trumpet and trombone. Louis Armstrong and his trombonist, or even back earlier than that. Trombones served as a real voice and as part of the ensemble. But still then, there’s nothing comparable on trombone to Louis Armstrong, certainly — but nothing comparable on anything else!

TP: No individual comparable. Also during the 20s and early 30s, a lot of bands didn’t record, territory bands or carnival bands, and particularly I’d think in carnival bands the trombone would have been quite prominent. I’ve read oral histories where people talk about trombonists who could just sight-read a whole book, but no one ever knew about them.

BENNY: Yeah, it’s kind of a mystery instrument.

TP: How did you come to pick it up?

BENNY: It was quite by accident. I was at an uncle’s house, and I was sitting on the sofa, and you know how kids turn around on the sofa and face backwards. That’s what I did. As I looked behind it, I saw this case. I was curious to know what it was. So I asked my uncle about it. He said it was a trombone that he had bought for one of his sons, who decided he would rather do sports. So he asked if I wanted to see it, and he let me see it, and I showed interest in it, so he let me take it home and he let me study. So it was through a quirk of fate. But I had been playing drums prior to this, just a little parade drums. In fact, Vernell Fournier and I were in grammar school playing drums together.Wilbur Hogan a little later was in the same band. Joseph A Craig Grammar School.

TP: We’re about to hear the aforementioned “Margie” by the Jimmie Lunceford band featuring Trummy Young. Did you see the Lunceford band in person? You mentioned hearing them on radio.

BENNY: Yes, I saw them in person. Every Sunday night there would be a dance in New Orleans. I remember it was across the railroad tracks in the warehouse district. I guess maybe they rented warehouses. I remember you had to cross…

TP: I think Danny Barker confirms that in his memoir.

BENNY: He probably named it. He was there from day one. But that was a very good experience for us, because the younger musicians used to get there early when the bus arrived, and we’d ask the older musicians to let us carry their instruments into the hall. They would, and they would talk to us. I remember Art Blakey met Vernell during those days, when he was a little kid. He called him Frenchy; then he called him Frenchy when he saw him. But it was a great way for us to meet older musicians, and find out what the road was like and so forth. I remember asking…I can’t remember exactly what trombonist it was…asking a question about the trombone, Sunday night, when I’d see him at the dance. And this guy told me, “Well, if you really want to know, the bus is leaving tomorrow at noontime; be in hotel room at 11 o’clock.” Certainly he would meet you there and tell you so much stuff. My head was reeling by the time I left. Because I’m a little impressionable kid, and here he is telling me about what the real deal is. So it was fascinating. I’m still fascinated with older musicians. I am the biggest fan of Doc Cheatham, because he exemplifies the true jazz spirit to me. He’s open, and he plays beautifully, he lives beautifully, and he wants to spread happiness — and he does spread happiness. Doc Cheatham is 88 years old, and still hitting high Ds!

[MUSIC: Lunceford-Trummy Young, “Margie”; Elllington-Lawrence Brown, “On A Turqoise Cloud”–1947]

TP: Lawrence Brown’s solo moved you profoundly then, and again just now.

BENNY: I love that solo. It sounds like it comes from out of the heavens. When I was a kid and listening to the bands on the radio, I just could imagine them in the most elegant places. Because I was a kid. I had no frame of reference. I didn’t know what it looked like at the Pompton turnpike, but it just sounded like heaven. Then all of that pretty much… You were talking about the corelation between the voice and the trombone, and there it’s used to optimal advantage. They just complemented each other so much. It’s almost uncanny what they really do for each other.

The trombone solo before that by Trummy Young on “Margie,” was again a fantastic solo because when he comes in, he comes in strong, and it’s really like a whole new character. He sort of took charge of that…

[END OF SIDE 2]

BENNY: >..bebop era. As a matter of fact, there are some things that he’s on with Charlie Parker. He was right in the middle. He was a contemporary until he died. I had the good fortune of interviewing in Hawaii in about 1982. At this time, I asked how did he keep… Oh, he was telling me about Ornette Coleman and all of the… He said, “Every morning, I go walking with my little Walkman, and I get the cassettes, I have somebody send them, and I keep up.” His conversation was very contemporary. Oh, it’s a beautiful tape, because it was done outside in Hawaii and you can hear the birds behind him. He was talking about how he made it. He said what to do is to latch on to somebody else, somebody who has a name. He said Jimmie Lunceford had a big name from having broadcast, so when he joined the Lunceford band he was very fortunate to latch on to somebody who had a name, so he made a name for himself. Anyway, he had good words of advice for survival. But I think the main thing that he said was just, “Leave yourself open for all musical experiences; don’t cancel anything – if it’s not particularly your cup of tea, you can always walk away from it, and maybe try and get back and check it out the second time. If it still is not your cup of tea…well, there’s another cup of tea that you will enjoy.

TP: Lawrence Brown, another of the great trombone virtuosos, who in the Ellington band covered every function, from that incredible buttery sound that we heard on “On a Turqoise Cloud” to something as rapid-fire as “Rose Of the Rio Grande.”

BENNY: I had to grow up to the Ellington band, too. I listened to them in the early 40s, and then when bebop hit I didn’t want to hear anything but Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and J.J. Johnson and Monk and those… So it was a while before I got back to Ellington, and was able to listen to orchestral music and see all the beauty in that writing. But I’m telling you, bebop just hit everybody over the head like a sledgehammer.

TP: We’ll hear a set of trombone players identified with the bebop period, beginning with Bill Harris and Bennie Green. We’ll hear something by Bill Harris from 1945 for Keynote Records, a septet with some Hermanites and the superb Chicago drummer who played with Earl Hines for a number of years, Alvin Burroughs. It’s a feature for Bill Harris. Also Pete Candoli, Flip Philips, Ralph Burns (piano and arrangement), Billy Bauer, Chubby Jackson.

BENNY: What I loved about Bill Harris was his sense of humor. I understand he wasn’t a very learned musician in the formal sense. He did everything his way. I think he perhaps taught himself. But he was one of those rare individuals who can really come up with something strong and individual. So his playing was like nobody else’s I had heard before. And what really got me was his sense of humor.

[MUSIC: Bill Harris, “Mean To Me”; Bennie Green, “Whirl-A-Licks” (1951); Bennie Green-Gene Ammons, “That’s All” (1958)]

TP: Bennie Green performing with his high school classmate Gene Ammons, identified on this Blue Note recording, I guess for contractual reasons, by his nickname, “Jug,” which I guess would have hipped everyone to who was playing. Soul Stirring. “Whirl-A-Licks” also had Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Art Blakey… Hearing those two back-to-back gives you a sense of Bennie Green’s range.

BENNY: He was a strong influence on trombone players. He still incorporated some of Trummy Young, but he was beginning to push trombone a little farther. The tempo that he picked was one that most trombone players… It’s difficult to play trombone that fast. There’s no valves on it. It’s much easier to press a little valve down than it is to slide it into another position. The way we articulate is tonguing and so forth, and your tongue is not really that fast. Trumpet and saxophones don’t really have to tongue everything. They can do it with the keys. But we don’t have any, so it’s kind of difficult. So most guys play in slower tempos, or heretofore had played it at slower tempos. But Bennie raised the tempo and started everybody to playing a little faster. Of course, J.J. also. J.J. started playing like a trumpet. He had amazing facilities and could play very fast.

TP: When you think of J.J. Johnson, it’s someone extrapolating vocabularly from another instrument to the trombone?

BENNY: to me, J.J. is like an architect. His solos, every brick is in the proper place, none are sticking out. He’s a very precise man. I think he developed the techniques, because it is possible to play on trombone but you have to really study very much for alternate positions and so forth. It’s difficult, and you have to put in really a lot of time with it — I think J.J. did.

TP: I’m sure you did, too.

BENNY: Well, yeah. In order to keep up with everybody else, we used to practice. I was with Lionel Hampton’s band when I was a kid, and Jimmy Cleveland was my roommate. We’d get up and practice ALL day. When we got to work that night, we could play faster than the trumpets, and we took delight in it. But we had to practice all day to achieve that, because that’s what you’ve got to do. Jimmy Cleveland had amazing facility, amazing chops, and beautiful ideas. As a matter of fact, in Lionel Hampton’s band, the trombone section at one time contained Al Gray, Jimmy Cleveland and myself.

In fact, I was just thinking that we haven’t said enough about Al Gray and his influence on my life. I’ve been playing along with Al Gray since the late 40s with Lionel Hampton. I’m sure he’s been a big influence on my life, maybe more than I realize. Because playing with him every night, I certainly got a chance to hear him a lot. He’s a great, aggressive trombonist. As a matter of fact, most of the times he got the lion’s share of the solos with Count Basie’s band and Lionel Hampton’s band, because he was an amazing soloist, very strong and very assertive.

I’ll tell you a story about when he first joined the band. Tom MacIntosh, the writer, is a trombonist as well. The Basie Band was going to Europe in about 2 weeks, but before we were going to play Pep’s Show Bar in Philadelphia. It was in the wintertime, and as we got there everybody got the flu. Anyway, Tommy McIntosh was one of the guys, and he had to stay home from work one night. Philadelphia is Al Gray’s home town. Al just happened to be in the audience, and somebody asked him to go and get his horn. He came back and played. We were going to England the next week, and Basie certainly needed a strong soloist like Al. Needless to say, there went Tommy MacIntosh’s gig. I remember, because Tom was so hurt. When we were going to Philadelphia, I was sitting next to him on the train, and he was just ecstatic about joining Count Basie’s band. Oh, he was just so happy! He left Juilliard about 6 months before he was to get his degree to go with Basie. As we were going down to Philadelphia, I was trying to pull his coat. I said, “Man, it’s nice to be happy about coming with Count Basie, but if you don’t shut up about how happy you are, Count Basie’s going to want you to pay him.” Anyway, I kind of took him under my wing.

But as I said, he lost his gig. Anyway, when we came back, he wanted to show me a kindness for having been kind to him, and I remember he invited me over to his house for dinner. Only that night his wife had to work late, so he prepared the dinner. I don’t know too much about cooking, but I think he roasted a chicken that’s supposed to be stewed. Anyway, we sat down and he started to try to carve his chicken! Oh, man, the funniest thing you ever saw. Because by this time it was like rubber. It was bouncing all over the place. Tommy MacIntosh was a sweet soul.

But I have very fond memories of so many musicians. It’s really been a delight. Being in the musical field, it’s great; you meet all of these great minds and all of these quirky ways of thinking — and it’s fun. I love it.

I was surprised more than anybody when John Carter called me, because I knew he and Bobby Bradford had this avant-garde duo. Since I was not for coming from the swing era and swing bands, when John called I was very surprised. And when I heard the music, I was even more surprised, because as you’ll hear, it’s a complete departure from the music I’d been associated.

TP: Without further ado, let’s get into J.J. Johnson, who you described as the great architect. It’s amazing how, at these incredible tempos, he seems to be sitting there watching the flow move around him like a chess player thinking 10 moves ahead. This is “Coppin’ The Bop” from 1946 for Savoy, with Cecil Payne, Bud Powell, Leonard Gaskin and Max Roach.

[MUSIC: J.J. Johnson, “Coppin’ the Bop”-1946; J.J., “Pennies From Heaven”-1955]

TP: We hear J.J. Johnson’s style already fully formed on “Coppin’ The Bop”.

BENNY: It’s amazing how he’s always sounded contemporary, no matter what year. These things from 1946. Look how long ago that was. And it sounds contemporary today.

TP: Younger trombonists are still trying to incorporate that level of elegance and phrasing and dynamics into their vocabulary.

BENNY: All of us are. Include me in that!

TP: Another characteristic of J.J. Johnson’s style is to rearrange standards, and always put little twists on things, which he did on “Pennies From Heaven” on Blue Note, 1955 – Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clarke.

BENNY: He’s a fine arranger. I think that accounts for the fact that everything is in its correct place. Guys who play instruments and who are good arrangers, too, have one-up on most players. They know how not to play everything they know in one bar and have nothing left over for the next bar. They know how to spread their ideas out. He’s certainly one of the finest. I’ve worked with him in a lot of idioms, from small groups… As a matter of fact, we had something called The Toledo Trombones, Herb Alpert… I’ve worked with him from that kind of group to… He wrote a lot of television shows in Los Angeles while we both still lived there, and I was always so pleased whenever he would hire me for anything. To be hired by J.J. is like sort of being endorsed by Duncan Hines or God!

TP: We’ll hear a piece featuring you from John Carter’s Castles Of Ghana.

BENNY: Before that, we’ll hear a poem I wrote… I started producing my own albums in the late 70s or 80s because I wanted to do things without having somebody to tell me, “Yes, you can do this” or “no, you can’t do that.” At this time, I was studying to be an actor, so I wanted to incorporate that into my musical presentation. So I wrote this poem, and at this time I thought it was really a heavy poem. When I listen to it now, it’s nice, but it reminds me of a certain romantic period in my life. I guess everybody is a poet for 5 minutes.This was my mine.

Anyway, I started producing my own things, and then I got a chance to really break away completely from the style of music that I had played previously, with John Carter, since it was a complete departure. John Carter’s music was very interesting, because half of it was written, the other half was verbal. We did an anthology tracing African Americans from Africa to the New World. He would tell us… I remember one piece, “Run, Juba, Run.” he said, “Now, picture yourself just getting off a ship,” and I don’t mean a cruise or anything – a slave ship. “You’ve been taken away from your home and brought to this new place. So this particular time that we want to record about now, is you’re standing in the water, maybe in South Carolina, and all the loneliness… Anyway, he would set up emotional scenes for you to play, and he wanted all of this in his music. On the surface, it sounds very…well, I can’t say discordant. It sounds experimental. But if you know the stories that these things are supposed to be depicting, it was really a good departure.”

[MUSIC: Benny Powell, “Let me Sing You My song”; John Carter, “The Fallen Prince”-1986]

TP: Talk about your thoughts on putting together this new CD, which comprises 3 sessions from 1991.

BENNY: To me, trombone has to be showcased exactly right. It itself is a mellow instrument, and it can really put you to sleep if it’s done too mellow. So I try different types of tunes. Some are sambas, some are waltzes, some are just straight-ahead swing. But I tried to showcase myself in the most interesting manner to me. It was fun putting it all together, because I wrote about five of the tunes, and I didn’t consider myself a serious writer, but I know that when you produce your own album it makes sense to have some of your own tunes. Who knows? You might write another “Body and Soul” and be able to retire for life. But I wrote about five of these tunes, and when I took them in to rehearsal and the musicians played them, when they played it back to me, after they added their own ideas to it, it sounded much better than the thing I had originally wrote. As a matter of fact, I said, “Wow, did I write that?” It was the input of Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hopkins, Talib Kibwe, John Stubblefield, Jerome Richardson – all of them had a great deal in making suggestions.

One thing I wanted to do was make it a happy, fun album. When I was Basie’s band, there were a lot of housewives who used to always say, “I can put on this music and do my housework by it because it’s kind of up and bright.” Well, that’s the kind of music I like. I like happy music and I like music that makes people feel good. So that’s what I was aiming for.

[MUSIC: Benny Powell, “Dance of the Nile” (by Talib Kibwe, Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hopkins, Carl Allen]

TP: Cued up is something Benny recorded with the Metropole Orchestra.

BENNY: When I left Basie’s band I got a chance to do some guest appearances with orchestras in Europe. This is one of them. It was recorded in Hilversum, Holland, with the radio band. Very seldom do I get a chance to play with strings in the United States. It costs too much money to hire all of those strings. But in Europe, it’s possible sometimes. This is why musicians sometimes like to go to Europe and out of the country, because it gives you the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t normally do here. This is one of my favorite tunes, by Thad Jones – “A Child Is Born.”

[MUSIC]

TP: To conclude, we’ll hear you playing Horace Silver’s “Fingerpoppin’”.

BP: Horace Silver is one of my favorite writers. I hope sometime to be able to do a whole album of Horace Silver tunes. I think he rates with the all-time arrangers. He’s still alive and kicking and I think he should be acknowledged much more, especially for his writing. He was responsible for a whole period of music, and for turning the music back to the church for a little bit, if you will.

[MUSIC: Benny Powell 5, “Finger-Poppin’”]

TP: We didn’t have a chance to listen to much of the music you brought, including the non-trombonists who you felt were essential to your development – the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band…

BP: Lester Young.

TP: We didn’t hear “Castle Rock,” which is a favorite.

BP: Lockjaw.

TP: Trummy Young and Bird.

BP: Yes, or even some of the contemporary trombonists like Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks, Jamal Haynes… There’s some good guys on the horizon.

TP: Coming up is a composition of yours.

BP: I wrote this for Vernell Fournier. We went to grammar school together, as I told you. So we got a chance to record together, which was a sort of life-long dream, because it’s something we talked about when we were kids in high school. It’s called “Lifelong Dream.”

[Benny-Metropole Orchestra, “Lifelong Dream”-1985]

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For Von Freeman’s 97th birth anniversary, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR, a 1991 Interview with Von and Pianist “Young” John Young; and a 1994 Interview on WKCR

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

How did you get into music?

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

How old were you?

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

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

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

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

Oh, there’s quite a few.

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

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

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

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

Griff was after you, though.

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

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

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

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

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

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

Was your dad a musician?

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

Amazing you even touched it.

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

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

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

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

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

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

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

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

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

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

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

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

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes. I still do.

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

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

That was your first professional job?

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

Who was in the band?

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

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

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

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

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

You were in a band with them?

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

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

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

From Chicago.

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

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

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That serious Prez bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

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

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

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

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

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

How so?

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

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

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

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

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

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

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

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

And playing the music of the times.

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

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

********************

Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991

copyright © 1991, 1999, Ted Panken


Q: Von Freeman and John Young were both born in 1922, and both went to DuSable High School. When did the two of you first meet?

VF: Well, I remember John from a long time ago. Let’s just put it that way. For a long time.

Q: Was it in school?

VF: Oh, I don’t know. I . . .

Q: Was it in a musical situation?

VF: Well, I knew about him long before I really knew him. I always admired his playing, way-way-way back.

JY: I remember, Von, when we first played together, when was it, 1971, at . . . What was the name of that place?

VF: The New Apartment Lounge?

JY: At the New Apartment Lounge, yes. The other piano player, Jodie Christian, couldn’t make it. So Von called me to work with him, and we’ve been working with each other on and off ever since that time.

Q: But you had known each other back in high school undoubtedly.

JY: Well, I knew him, but our paths didn’t cross. He had his family band, his brother on drums and another brother playing guitar, and he played tenor saxophone, and I think he had Chris [Anderson?] . . . Anyway, he was using other piano players at the time. I was working with a dude named Dick Davis.

Q: So this was in the 1940’s, after the War.

VF: After the War, uh-huh.

JY: Or the 1950’s, I think it was.

Q: Both of you studied under Walter Dyett, and I believe John Young was in one of the first classes at DuSable High School as well. Didn’t it open around that year?

JY: Well, I was in the second year. What happened was, in ’34 they attempted to extend the old Wendell Phillips High School. It was called the new Wendell Phillips High School. But then they decided not to tear down old Wendell Phillips; they decided to keep it, and changed the name to DuSable. So it started off in 1934 as the new Wendell Phillips High School. They had to go into that stone and change the name to DuSable.

Q: There were a number of very talented young piano players in your class at that time.

JY: Well, I was in there with Dorothy Donegan and a fellow named Dempsey Travis, who wrote that book (he was playing the piano then, at that time), and Marbetha Davis. Nat Cole had just graduated not too long before that. Nat Cole and somebody else, I can’t think of him. Those were the piano players. We used to do what they called the Hi-Jinx at DuSable High School.

Q: The Hi-Jinx was a show band type . . .

JY: Yeah, it was a show to raise money. It was a fundraiser. And I was in the Hi-Jinx with these dudes, as a matter of fact, Redd Foxx was in one of those Hi-Jinx, a tramp band. But that was one of our fundraisers.

Q: So there was really tremendous musical talent all concentrated in this one high school, and there continued to be for many, many years.

JY: That’s right. Captain Dyett was at the root of it all. He’d cuss us out and make us do better than we did the previous time. He’d throw us out of the band, and if we came back the next day and didn’t make that same mistake, he’d pretend like he didn’t notice that we came back. He’d let us stay. [Von laughs]

Q: John Young, how long had you been playing piano at the time you entered high school? Had you already developed your musicality?

JY: Yes. I had my first lesson when I was about eight, I think it was. I had a private teacher for about ten years. Two, because I had one lady for five and then a gentleman for the other five. The lady didn’t want me to play jazz; she said, “That old devil jazz.” She wanted me to be a classical artiste. But I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Basie, and I said, “Well, that’s me.”

Q: You could be an artiste of another sort. But this was all music that was really part of the Chicago scene when you were a youngster coming up.

JY: Yes, that’s right.

Q: I don’t know how much first-hand exposure you were able to get as a teen and pre-teen. But give us a little flavor of what things were like in Chicago when your consciousness about music was starting to emerge.

JY: Well, if you want to know what things were like in Chicago, I’d better let Von . . .

Q: Von Freeman, I’ve been neglecting you.

VF: No, it’s fine. John is doing fine. [John laughs] But I really don’t remember.

Q: You don’t remember?

VF: No, man. Listen . . .

JY: It’s just like “Stardust,” huh?

VF: Yeah, listen.

JY: “Oh, but that was long ago . . . “

VF: See, because things were so groovy then that you had a tendency not to even realize how good it was. For instance, John was talking about Art Tatum before; of course, anybody with any musical sense at all loved that man’s piano playing. And I was lucky to have the fellow who first told me about him playing in a group of mine. His name was Prentice McCarey. Prentice was just like John. He loved him. He was a great piano player himself. Every time Coleman Hawkins would come through town . . . And this was way back, before I went to the War, so it was in the ’30s. See, I lived over Prentice McCarey. I used to listen to him practice on the piano. He was playing a place called the Golden Lily on 55th Street with one of my idols, which of course was Coleman Hawkins. And later on, I happened to have acquired a job at this same club on 55th Street on the south side of Chicago, upstairs. And it was funny . . . We were playing there, and Prentice said to me, “Man, guess who I’m gonna bring by your club tonight?” Well, I couldn’t guess. I thought he meant Prez, because he knew I loved Lester — Lester Young. But it was Art Tatum.

I’ll never forget that night, because when we got through playing, he went somewhere and picked up Art, and brought Art back. Let’s see, we got off at about one; it must have been about 2 o’clock in the morning. And Art played for about four or five hours just on the piano. And the piano wasn’t that great; a couple of keys were broken. He just missed them all night long. And that’s one of the high evenings of my lifetime. I had just gotten married, I think I was 23 years old or something like that. I didn’t realize how great that was.

The reason why I brought that up is that’s the way Chicago was. It was so good and there were so many big people in town . . . Like 63rd Street was full of musicians, full of clubs. 64th Street, the great Pershing Lounge up there. They would bring everybody in . . .

Q: But in the ’30s, when you were a teenager . . .

VF: Oh, that’s when it started. That’s when all that got started, and it really lasted until just about to the end of the ’40s . It started really dying out around 1950.

Q: For instance, as teenagers, were you able to go, say, to the Grand Terrace and hear Earl Hines, or was that off-limits to you?

VF: No, I never went. I was too young for that.

JY: Well, they broadcast from there, so we . . .

VF: But we heard that, though.

JY: We heard it on the radio.

Q: And was this what you were trying to come in under? Was Earl Hines the band that you admired? Von, when you were a young saxophonist, who were some of your models?

VF: Well, one of the persons is still living. What’s his name, John? He plays at Andy’s a lot now. On Mondays. He plays clarinet and tenor . . . Sort of a red looking fellow. He was on there with Budd Johnson. Oh, his name is Franz Jackson.

But see, during that era, Earl was just one of the many bands. Like, Count Basie was out here and all those big bands. Because that was the big band era. And of course, Earl had one of the better bands, and it just happened that he was based in Chicago. But then when Earl left, King Kolax brought a band in (do you remember that, John?) for a while.

JY: Yeah.

VF: He was a great trumpet player around town. And of course, he had Bennie Green with him, Gene Ammons . . . In fact, Billy Eckstine took some guys out of his band. Gene Ammons was in the Kolax band.

It was so good, and there were so many different personalities coming in from around the country. Now when you look back, when there’s nobody coming in on the south side, hardly, you think about how good it really was. That’s the reason why it’s hard to remember, because you should have been writing down all that stuff, really, but you didn’t. You had a tendency to think to think it was going to last forever, and of course it didn’t.

[MUSIC: Von and Chico Freeman, “Mercy, Mercy Me”; Gene Ammons, “My Way”]

Q: John Young joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy as a pianist in the early 1940’s.

JY: That’s right.

Q: What was your progression from high school to the point where Andy Kirk was calling you to join his band?

JY: Andy Kirk was on the road and needed a piano player, so he called the Harry Gray, the President of the Musicians Union, to send him a piano player, and he recommended me for the gig. Harry Gray was the type of fellow that has a big voice and talks loud; he was one of those kind of guys that believes in talking loud on the phone to get his point over. He calls me up on the telephone, and he says: “Mister Young!” He scared me half to death because I was young; I was only 19 or 20 years old. “Young! We have a job for you. It’s with Andy Kirk. Can you make it?” Hey-hey! I didn’t know what to say, you know what I mean. I said, “Uh-unh-uh-unh . . . ” He said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” So he called me back . . . I had to talk about it with my mother because I wasn’t 21 years old yet, see. So I had to tell my mother about it, and beg her to let me go. So anyway, he called me back, and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Gray. I’ll make it.” So he said, “Yes, well, okay then, I’ll call Andy.” So that’s how I got with Andy Kirk.

Q: Were you familiar with the band from records before that?

JY: No. All this was completely new. Mary Lou Williams had left the band, and the piano player who replaced her had just recorded “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail.” “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail” was getting over. So I had to take the record home and learn it off the record. [sings theme] So I took it home and laid my ear on it, and got back and played it as close as I could to the way the record sounded.

Q: Were you working in Chicago after high school?

JY: Yes!

Q: What were you doing in the interim? Tell us a little about your activities, John Young.

JY: Well, after I left high school, a fellow called me up and he took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I worked with him. I forget his name. But my earliest recollection of working in Chicago was some striptease joints. So I enjoyed that.

VF: [laughs] Look out, John!

Q: Was it solo piano?

JY: No-no . . .

Q: Did they have a little band?

JY: No, no, they had a group. It was a striptease joint downtown on . . . I think it’s called Clark Street — at a striptease joint down there. And then I worked in a place called Calumet City. What they would do . . .

Q: The notorious Calumet City. [Von: loud laugh]

JY: They would hang some drapes, some see-through drapes in front of the band, because they didn’t want the customers to think that the musicians were too familiar with the striptease artists, you know what I mean? So we played . . . Some of these striptease artists had some very difficult music while they was out there taking clothes off. And you’d be mad, because they got you there, and you’re back there sweating, and all they’re doing is just walking, traipsing around and taking a piece off here and there. And you’re back there sweating, trying to play the “Rhapsody In Blue” while they’d be walking around. But that’s what they liked. That’s what the striptease person wanted. And they’d want you to play that music. So I did . . . [sings ‘Rhapsody In Blue’] . . . and they’d just walk around, taking a little piece off here and there.

So that was my first gig before I really made a living. You know, you always make gigs here and there. But the first gigs that I remember where I really made a living was them striptease joints.

Q: Were you playing a lot of blues then, too?

JY: Oh, yeah. Well, you had to play that.

Q: Just talk about the piano styles in Chicago that you’d have to be going through.

JY: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. You had to play a little boogie here and there, and a little . . . Anyway, you had to know a little bit about most styles. Play a little of what they called stride, and you had to play a little boogie, and you had to play a little oom-pah, oom-chunk, oom-chunk-chunk — “boom-chink,” you would call it. You had to do a little bit of everything in order to try to make a living at it — which is the same thing I’m doing now. In order to make a living, you’ve got know a little bit about all of this.

Q: Well, subsequently (and we’ll talk about this later), you played with quite a few singers.

JY: Yes.

Q: Von, what were your earliest gigs after high school? Or were you also working during high school, outside?

VF: Well, you know, it was just about the same.

Q: You worked in the same strip joints.

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

Q: Well, I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

VF: Oh! Well, see, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody.

Q: No more, no less!

VF: And the melody. And man, when I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. And I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old.

Q: Were you playing tenor then?

VF: Oh, C-melody.

Q: C-melody was your first instrument.

VF: Yeah, my first one. And that really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there! Like John said, you played a lot of hard music, and you essentially played the melody out there. You had to learn the melody to tunes.

And so right today, I try never to forget the melody. Because I’ve found out that the people don’t forget the melody. So no matter how carried away I get, I try to remember the melody. All this stuff that you learned early in your career, you come to find out most of the things . . . Like, I wasn’t that crazy about Walter Dyett’s teaching. He was . . .

Q: Too authoritarian?

VF: . . . a disciplinarian and whatnot. But see, as you go along, and especially when you start getting in those 60s and closer to 70, see, you learn . . . One lesson is that most of the people who patted you on the back all the time and said, “Blow!” didn’t really mean it. The folks that you really think about are the ones that said, “Hey, man, that doesn’t sound good” or “Hey, that’s wrong.” They don’t really mean that it’s wrong. It’s incorrect; let’s put it that way. But you learn and you look back, you say, “Hey, they were trying to help me.”

Q: Von, let me get back to your career. When did you graduate from C-melody to the tenor?

VF: Well, I was playing dances. See, there was a famous lady named Sadie Bruce, and she gave me my first job. I must have been about . . . My first local job on the south side of Chicago was in her dance room. Because see, I used to tap dance.

JY: Yeah?

VF: Yes. So she asked me one day, “Somebody told me that you play an instrument.” I said, “Well, yes, Mrs. Bruce, I do.” She said, “Well, have you got a little old band? Because I’m planning to start some socials in my basement.” I said, “Well, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to play for that.” She said, “Well, I heard you on one of these back porches; you sound pretty good to me.” We used to do a lot of back porch clowning and playing.

But the interesting thing about that was that I had James Craig with me. Now, you may have never heard of James Craig, but he’s the piano player on Gene Ammons’ “Red Top” that did that little thing that’s kind of got . . . When you play “Red Top,” you have to play that little thing that he put in that song. He was a very good pianist. I had a vibe player named Norris from out of DuSable, and then I had Marvin Cates on drums. And that was my little group. I guess I was about 15. And it was the first job I played on the south side of Chicago, although I had been working in Gary and working downtown in the strip places.

So you know, my history is similar to John’s and almost everybody around Chicago. Because most of the jobbing was done in strip places in Calumet City and Hammond . . .

Q: Did those gigs get set up through the union?

VF: No-no-no. In fact, the union didn’t know anything about it.

Q: So those were things to avoid . . .

VF: Well, you worked eight hours for ten dollars. The union would have had a fit.

JY: Yeah, they were strict about that.

VF: It was like . . . the mines, we used to call them. But you could earn a living.

JY: That’s right.

Q: And learn a lot of music.

VF: Oh, listen! Now, when I look back, what you learned was invaluable. Because you learned discipline. You’d sit there playing the melody of the songs all night long . . .

Q: And I guess ten dollars went a long way in 1937.

VF: Oh, man, you dig? And it helped my lung power a whole lot, too.

Q: Smoke-filled rooms and all.

VF: Listen, you learned how to put that air in that horn there. Piano players learned how to really get a touch.

Q: I know that later Captain Dyett would form bands of his students and join them in the union, and they’d play gigs around that town? Was he doing that when you were there?

VF: Well, that was the one band that he called . . . See, we were all out of school, our high school called DuSable, and he called his band the DuSableites. He kept it for a while. He started it about two years before I went into the service, and then I came out of the service, then went back into it and stayed until about ’46 — about two more years. So he had that group from about 1941 until maybe ’47 or ’48.

Q: The years after World War II, from 1945 and ’46, were thriving years musically in Chicago. Von Freeman, you and your brothers — George, the great guitar player, and Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer — had the house band at one of the most prestigious rooms in Chicago, the Pershing Ballroom. What were the circumstances behind that? And talk a bit about the geography of the Jazz scene in Chicago in that particular time and around that area.

VF: Oh, man, that’s when it was buzzing. From 31st Street all the way on up to let’s say 64th Street — well, 66th — Chicago was the place to be. John Young was at the Q Lounge, Dick Davis — everybody was in town and had a gig. It was right after the War, and the town was booming . . . They had a great promoter around town named McKie Fitzhugh. This guy came out of DuSable, and he was promoting. And he called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in maybe getting your two brothers . . . ” See, because my brother George was very popular around that time.

Q: Had he been in Chicago during the war?

VF: Yes. You see, he didn’t go to the war; he was too young. He stayed around Chicago, man, and his name was buzzing. So he said, “Hey, why don’t you get together with your two brothers and get a piano player and a bass player? I’ve got an idea; I want to book a lot of names into the Pershing.”

Q: He likes to pick with a silver dollar, your brother.

VF: Right. That’s what he does now, yeah. So I said, “Okay, that will be fine.” So there was a fellow named Chris Anderson, a little blind pianist, and I had Leroy Jackson on bass (Leroy has since passed), and Alfred . . . What was Alfred’s last name, John? Do you remember Alfred?

JY: White.

VF: Alfred White. I was using two bassists at the time, concurrently, you know. So we went in, man, and that’s where I met Diz and Bird, Billie Holiday — everybody came down there.

Q: What sort of room was that? That was part of a complex of clubs . . .

VF: Oh, that was the ballroom itself. See, but the Pershing Lounge was beautiful, too. I played that later on. But at that time I was playing the ballroom.

Q: How was it set up? The national musicians would come in, and there would be dances?

VF: Yeah, dances. Dances Fridays and Saturdays.

Q: So people would be dancing to Bird, dancing to Diz . . .

VF: That’s right.

Q: Dancing to the people who would come in with you.

VF: Well, around that time things had changed a lot. They would stand around the bandstand, and there wasn’t that much dancing going on any more. And we used to play, man. I used to have a ball just playing with the stars, listening to them or whatever. I’m very lucky to have gotten chosen for that particular job.

Q: So who came through? We’re talking about the major stars in music at that time?

VF: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge — you name them. He brought everybody to Chicago, man. And he was paying so nice for those times. What he’d do is, he’d bring them in, and they would come in with no music, no nothing, and you were expected to know the tunes. And I had this little genius at the piano who knew everybody’s tunes. So we were very fortunate. We were able to play behind them.

Q: You’re referring to Chris Anderson.

VF: Yes.

Q: Von said that you, John Young, were working at the Q Lounge during this time.

JY: The Quality Lounge.

Q: The Quality Lounge. A high-quality joint, was it?

JY: Ah-ha-ha . . .

Q: I see.

JY: I was only in two shootings.

VF: At least! [laughs]

Q: Where was it? Which street was it on?

JY: The Quality Lounge was on 43rd Street. So if you know anything about 43rd Street, you know it wasn’t on the uppity-uppity-uppity-up. The Quality Lounge, I was in there with a fellow named Dick Davis who played tenor saxophone. I was the piano player, the drummer’s name was Buddy Smith, Eddie Calhoun was on bass. And I was singing . . .

Q: Singing, too.

JY: But at that time I had laryngitis. When (?) asked me to sing, I suddenly developed a case of laryngitis. All three of them called it “lyingitis” — because it was a gitis that never left. But the Q was cool . . . Like I say, it was a relaxed joint. You could come in there with tennis shoes on if you wanted to. It wasn’t nothin’ uppity, you know. And it was on 43rd Street. We had a good time in there for a number of years, the Quality Lounge on 43rd Street. I lost my point . . .

Q: Oh, I was talking to you about working in Chicago in the late 1940’s and late ’50s. When did you start working with a lot of singers?

JY: Well, a piano player always has a hundred singers around, you know.

Q: But you later became an accompanist for some major singers.

JY: Well, I was with Nancy Wilson for a hot minute in the ’60s. See, John Levy, the booking agent, he was a bass player around Chicago, so he just about knew everybody that he thought would fit with this or that person. So he thought that I would be a perfect fit for Nancy Wilson. He didn’t know that I was really into jazz, and that I wanted to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be out front. You know what I mean? I won’t say out front, but I wanted to receive some of the same recognition that soloists receive rather than accompanists. But anyway, he hooked me up with Nancy Wilson, and I stayed with Nancy for a short spell.

And I had to write him a letter to explain to him why I didn’t stay. He thought that I should have stayed with her, because he gone to the trouble of booking me with Nancy Wilson, he felt that we were a perfect match, some kind of match anyway — and Nancy had struggled with me to try to get me to play here things like she liked them. So he thought I was going to be with Nancy Wilson for life. And I explained to him that, no, that ain’t what I had in mind.

When the piano player is a singer’s right arm, as they say, there are certain limitations to what he can do and what he . . . I’ve seen piano players be accompanists for life with certain singers or performers, and they stay in a rut for a long time. There’s only so much you can do as an accompanist. When you get thrown out there where you have to play the melody or have to carry the load, you’re lost.

Q: Well, we can get back to that in a minute. But I’d like to return to someone Von was talking about: Chris Anderson, who had a great impact really on the piano players in Chicago.

VF: Oh, man, he’s unsung. When I first met him, I met him in a big arena that we used to play on the south side, on 63rd Street and King Drive. I forget who I had on piano this time, but whoever he was, wasn’t making it. Chris happened to be sitting there, and he walked up and whispered in my ear, “I think I could play that.” I kind of looked at him, because I’d had people at different times to do that, say things like “Hey, man, I think I can do it a little better than what so-and-so is doing; I think I’ll feed you a little more” and blah-blah-blah. I generally don’t even listen. But for some reason or another, I said, “Oh, really?” Because this cat didn’t know the tune. I had asked him if he knew it, and he said, “Yeah,” and then when I got to playing the tune, he didn’t really know the tune.

So meanwhile, I guess the piano player heard Chris, and he said, “Hey, man, if you can play it, play it.” So he played it. And I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” And I noticed he was a little short fellow, you know . . . I said, “Hey, man, you stay there. I’ll pay both of you.” I told the other guy, “I’ll pay you, man, not to play.” So that’s how we began.

Chris heard a lot of things, just naturally, that I was trying to hear. And he was a very nice person about his knowledge. So I’d ask him, “Chris, where did you go there?” And he’d say so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so. So I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had been using Ahmad Jamal. And then Ahmad . . . He had a guitar player, I forget where this fellow was from, I think from Pittsburgh, where Ahmad was from. [Ray Crawford] So Ahmad had told me that he was giving me a two-week notice, that he was going to form his own trio. He’d stayed with me, I think, about two years, and then he formed his own trio. And then he started hanging with Chris, too. And I really noticed a big difference in his playing after he had been around Chris. Almost anybody who had been around him, it kind of opened them up a little bit — because he was very advanced for those times. In fact, I still think he is.

Q: So do a lot of other musicians around New York.

VF: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But his influence seems to go through a couple of generations in Chicago.

VF: Yeah, well, I think . . .

Q: Was Andrew Hill checking out Chris? Herbie Hancock?

VF: Well, Andrew worked with me a long time, too, you know. But Andrew was more or less into bebop at that time. But Chris to me wasn’t a bebop player, he wasn’t a swing player, he didn’t play like Art Tatum. To me, he was . . .

JY: He had his own thing.

VF: Yeah, he had his own thing. He was a conglomeration of all of that. And he didn’t flaunt his knowledge or anything. Maybe being blind helped him a lot, I don’t know. But he could hear a lot of things that I had always heard, and that I think everybody eventually wanted to hear. He was advanced for that time. See, now I’m speaking about 40 years ago.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple of the other great musicians who were working around Chicago a lot at that time? I’d like to ask you both about Ike Day, and if you both came into contact with him, played with him?

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

Q: Did you know Ike well enough for him to tell you about the drummers he was paying attention to as a young drummer?

VF: I know he liked Chick Webb. He never really mentioned anyone to me other than Chick Webb. And he liked Bird’s drummer . . . .

Q: Oh, Max Roach.

VF: Yeah.

Q: And I know Max Roach liked Ike Day, because he’s said so publicly on a number of occasions.

VF: Right.

Q: He was also a very versatile drummer, is what I gather. He would play big- band, piano trio combos. He was a totally versatile drummer, with great ears, a great listening drummer and so forth. Does that jibe with your recollection?

VF: I never heard him play with a big band. But I know he played in the combos. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer.

Ike to me was well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time.

Q: It’s very valuable to know this, because there is only one recording of Ike Day I think that exists at all, and the drums are almost buried . . .

VF: Oh, with Gene Ammons?

Q: With Gene Ammons, a Chess date.

VF: Oh yeah, that’s the same band.

Q: John Young, what are your memories of Ike Day? Did you play with Ike Day? Did you work with him?

JY: I might have played one or two tunes with Ike, but I don’t remember playing very much with Ike. I liked his work.

Q: Who were the drummers you mostly used on your gigs in Chicago at that time?

JY: Well, a fellow named Phil Thomas. I used him more than I did anybody else. And I started off with a drummer named Larry Jackson. Larry Jackson, Phil Thomas, Vernell Fournier. Phil is the one I used most. Strong drummer. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m about to forget the one that I’m using now, and that’s George Hughes. George has worked around New York and a number of places with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie uses him. George Hughes is his name. He’s the last drummer that I’ve used to any extent, more than once. Some drummers you use on certain gigs, just for that one time — there’s a number of those. But the ones that I’ve used over a period of time have to be George Hughes, Phil Thomas, and somebody else and somebody else . . .

Q: Von, I’d like to ask you about Gene Ammons, who I know you were friends with. He came several years after you at DuSable High School.

VF: Oh, well, Jug, man . . . Of course, I called him Ams. But it’s really interesting. His mother taught me my first chorus. He had a beautiful mother. And she was like a classical pianist. There’s very few people who know that. And I used to go to Jug’s house, and we’d practice together, and things like that. He was always one of my favorites. In fact, my brother was in the band that . . . See, George played with Jug. Probably the last nine years of his life Jug formed a group, and George was in the group. One of Jug’s last hits was called “The Black Cat,” which my brother George wrote.

So Jug and I had . . . We were very close. During my formative years, when I came out of the service, Jug used to hire me in his place, because he was getting so popular. So when he’d work a club, and he’d have to go out of town, he’d always get me to take his place. And a lot of people say I play like Jug. Which I wish I did! But I don’t know, he’s just one of my favorites.

[MUSIC: “Lost In A Fog” and “No. 7”; John Young departs]

Q: On the last segment, Von, I was asking you about some of the great figures who were active in Chicago in the post-World War II era. I know you used to work with Sun Ra’s rehearsal bands and had some contact with Sun Ra in the late 1940s and 1950s.

VF: Oh yes!

Q: What was he into at that point? What was his music sounding like and what was he doing around Chicago at that time?

VF: Oh, his music was sounding beautiful. But you know, one of the things that’s really different about him, he had two different concepts altogether. See, he was playing all this new-sounding music and different-sounding music with his own group — and of course I was a part of that. And then, he was over at a famous club on the south side of Chicago, the Club De Lisa, and he was writing show music for that band, which was Red Saunders’ band.

Q: Tell us a little about that band, too. It was a major band at a major venue.

VF: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the band that Sonny Cohn came out of. And of course, for those who don’t know Sonny Cohn, he was with Count Basie for years and years and years. A trumpeter, a great young trumpeter. And of course, Red Saunders was a premier drummer around Chicago for show bands, all . . .

Q: And he had that band for about 17-18 years.

VF: Well, actually I think it was about 27. And he was right there at the Club DeLisa. And all the younger drummers used to go around to see Red to learn how to play shows. Because that’s another art of drumming. You know, show drumming: how to catch the performers and catch the singers. Every time they move, the drummer does something. And he did it so tastefully.

Q: Of course, there’s a tradition of that in Chicago that really goes back to the silent movie days in the 1920s.

VF: It certainly does.

Q: The great black orchestras that performed at the different big movie theatres.

VF: That’s right.

Q: There was Erskine Tate and Doc Cooke and a couple of others.

VF: That’s right.

Q: A lot of great musicians got their real polish in those show bands.

VF: That’s very, very true.

Q: Do you remember hearing those bands as a little boy?

VF: Oh, surely. And then I ended up playing at the Regal Theatre in the pit for different things.

Q: Oh, when was that?

VF: Oh, that was way back. I was in high school.

Q: The Regal was perhaps the equivalent in Chicago to the Apollo in some ways. Is that accurate?

VF: Yes, it was. Of course, no place would be like the Apollo, naturally. But the Regal was Chicago’s Apollo, let’s put it that way.

Q: We’re juggling a number of different things at once. So let’s get back to what Sun Ra was doing.

VF: Well, Sun Ra . . .

Q: He was writing show music for Red Saunders at the Club De Lisa.

VF: And I found it very interesting that he could write this show music, which was essentially this do, du, do-du, do-du-do, and then his thing, where he had all these different voices going and his music was very complicated at the time. But it swung — in Sun Ra’s unique way. Because he had two great saxophone players with him. He had, of course, Pat Patrick, who is sort of ill these days around Chicago. And of course, he had John Gilmore. He kept great players in his group. And of course, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot by being in his band.

Q: Now, when exactly were you in his band?

VF: I was in his band during let’s say ’48, ’49 . . .

Q: Was that a working band or a rehearsal band?

VF: Oh, yeah. He played.

Q: What type of gigs would he do?

VF: He played dances. He really did, yeah. And he had like his own ballroom. I can’t think of the name of the ballroom. It was on the east side of 63rd Street, and we played at this ballroom. And Sun Ra was never into whether there was anybody in the ballroom or not. He simply tried to play what he felt.

Q: Would that music be recognizable to people who know Sun Ra today? Did it . . . ?

VF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now, he went back in recent years, and was playing some of Fletcher Henderson’s type of music and whatnot. But he’s still playing with that unique Sun Ra thing.

Q: Well, he covers the whole spectrum, really.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: He plays different things for different occasions.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: Didn’t Red Holloway also work briefly with Sun Ra? Is that true or not?

VF: I know that Red took a band into the Club De Lisa for six months when Red Saunders took off. Because I was in that band, playing alto, and I know that Sun Ra was writing the show music at the time. But whether or not he ever played in one of Sun Ra’s original bands, I do not know. You’d have to ask Red.

Q: Who were some of the other people in that Sun Ra band from the late 1940’s?

VF: Well, Julian Priester for one.

Q: That early, in the late 1940’s?

VF: No, Julian came along later. But in the ’40s . . . I’m trying to think. Oh, man . . . See, he had different people, and I really can’t remember who was in those bands..

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Club De Lisa. They were famous for their breakfast dances . . .

VF: Yes.

Q: We played a selection before by your son dedicated to Andrew Hill, who was 15 years old when he made his first record with you.

VF: Oh, yes, Andrew is a beautiful pianist. Of course, his style has evolved. At that time he was more or less playing bebop, and as he got younger he went on into free-form and whatnot. But he did it honestly. He feels it. And I like what he’s doing.

Q: Von, we’re going to hear now something from a Groove Holmes’ 1967-’68 record The Groover, featuring your brother George on his composition, “The Walrus,” some variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown” . . .

VF: Well, I think that’s what that is. I’ll have to hear it. But that sounds right to me.

Q: We’ll make no commitments.

VF: Well, back during that era we all used to take standard tunes and then write little originals and whatnot.

[MUSIC: “The Walrus,” “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Von solo)]

Q: Von, you had said to me that “How Deep Is The Ocean” is one you particularly wanted to have presented on this show, that you were very proud of it.

VF: Oh, man, to me that’s one of my greatest moments. In fact, that is the greatest moment I have enjoyed recording. It just happened. The lady who has the label said, “Hey, why don’t you play something slow?” I said, “Oh, I don’t feel like.” But she’s so beautiful, she asked again, and she said, “Well, please play something.” So how can you refuse a lady? So just off the top of my head, she said, “We’re rolling,” and I didn’t even have any idea what I wanted to play — I just went into that tune. And that’s the way it happened. And to me it’s the greatest thing I have ever done on record. I really felt that I did the tune justice; you know, for the way I was feeling. As a rule, I don’t care much for my recordings.

Q: Do you do that during your performances, Von? Are you going to be doing any a cappella this week at Condon’s?

VF: Oh, you know, last night I played several tunes. Of course, I didn’t do it like I did on the album, but I have a tendency . . .

Q: You always do long cadenzas . . .

VF: Yeah. And I have a tendency sometimes just to cut the band and play for a chorus or two. I’ve always done that, though.

Q: Von, you’ve stated in print that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were really your two primary influences in terms of how to approach the saxophone, and you see your style as a melding of the two.

VF: That’s true.

Q: You mentioned hearing Coleman Hawkins in the 1930’s in Chicago. Did you study his records in the 1930’s? Did you study Prez’s records?

VF: Well, actually, yes. See, Hawk was a good friend of my father’s.

Q: How was that? Your father was a musician?

VF: No, not really. Actually he was a Chicago policeman. But he loved music, and he loved to hang around the guys, you know. So my Dad, he always kept a record collection from as far back as I can remember. So naturally, I had an affinity for music from right him, actually.

But Lester Young, see, used to come to the Regal Theatre all the time with Count Basie’s band, and all us little guys loved Lester, and we used to go and sit down in the front, you know, and try to play his solos. I had some of his earliest records, like “Every Tub” and all those, and I used to practice those. In fact, I got so I could play those note for note. And I could play Hawk’s “Body and Soul” note for note. So those two . . . Well, just like probably all the rest of the Chicago saxophone players. We were a conglomeration of Hawk and Prez.

Q: Gene Ammons, certainly.

VF: Oh yeah. Well, of course. And Dex and me — almost all of them.

Q: What was your first reaction to Charlie Parker when you heard his music the first time?

VF: Now, that takes me back. Because my Dad gave me the first music I ever heard of Charlie Parker. He gave me “The Hootie Blues.” He brought it, and he said, “Hi, hot-shot, you think you’re so hot because you got Lester Young down.” He says, “Try out this guy.” I said, “Oh, what’s this, Pop. Who did you bring . . . ?” Man, he put that thing on, and it knocked me out. Because see, to me Bird was playing Prez on alto — to me. And it was just more advanced. It’s like when I first heard Trane; I heard Prez and Bird. And I guess whoever follows, whoever the next saxophone player will be, it will be, you know, Prez and Bird and Trane and Getz and Zoot. All the good saxophone players have a tendency to be on the same line. Like just some of them followed; they play more Hawkins than Prez. But I hear lately most people are getting the two together. Because that makes what you’d almost call the perfect saxophone player. Because Hawk had so many things . . . He had all that power and drive, and Prez could float and just sail along. I would say Hawk just played straight up and down, and Prez played sideways. So if you get them, you’ve got the whole thing together.

And I think it didn’t take saxophone players too long to learn this, especially tenor saxophone players. I think I was with you on the program a few years back, and I was telling you about that tenor. That tenor presents a different type of problem for the simple reason that the ladies like the sound of the saxophone. And ladies are very dominant in your crowd. So you’ve got to learn how to play sweet, and for the men you got to learn how to holler — you can’t just sit up and play ballads all night. So there’s so much to get together on that tenor. And I like to always think of a trombone . . .

Q: In your playing?

VF: Yeah, man. Because a trombone sounds . . . Like, I call great trombone players like tenor saxophone players. You’ve got two of them here. Curtis Fuller, who did all those records with the Jazz Messengers, he just sounded like one of the real good tenor players. And the other cat who’s the Indian, what’s his name, who plays shells . . . ?

Q: You’re talking about Steve Turre.

VF: Yeah, Turre! Man, to me, man, those two cats when I hear them, I say, “Oh, man, if I could get a sound like that!” Because see, the tenor and the trombone, with Dickie Wells, remember him . . . ? All these cats had that haunting quality that saxophone players get. And as strange as it may sound, to me Miles sounds something like a tenor player. Although I always think that the trumpet is the dominant instrument, because who can do it better than a great trumpet player? Because you’ve got everything coming right out of the bell of that horn. When I hear Wynton play I think of a saxophone player. Now, that’s coming at it from a saxophone player’s view, of course.

[MUSIC: Coleman Hawkins: “The Man I Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things,” “I Got Rhythm”]

Q: “I Got Rhythm” is one of the basic bedrock tunes in all of Jazz.

VF: Man, listen. I can play a job playing “I Got Rhythm”! I’m telling you. Give me a few blues tunes and “I Got Rhythm” and I can make the gig. I’m telling you. Beautiful, man.

Q: “These Foolish Things” I can remember from my time living in Chicago as the most popular ballad in that town.

VF: Right.

Q: That may or may not be true . . .

VF: It still is!

Q: People in Chicago have long memories about the music.

VF: Well, see, just about all the tenor players made their name around there. You know, whether they were from Chicago or not, during the late ’30s and the ’40s and the early ’50s, all the great saxophonists were around Chicago playing. So you’d sort of feel like they’re from Chicago, although of course they’re not.

I talk on shows, dropping names here, dropping names there, but I’d just like to go on the record saying how much I’ve gotten from some of the current cats, cats who are still living. Like Benny Golson, man. Benny Golson wouldn’t even remember me. I was working at the Pershing Ballroom, or actually I’d moved up to the lounge, and Benny came by and jammed with me all morning, all morning at the Pershing Lounge — and I just fell in love with Benny Golson. Now, this is back in ’53 or ’54.

Q: He would have been on the road with one of the rhythm-and-nlues bands.

VF: I forget when he came to town, but it was just shortly before. . . Bird passed in ’55. It was about ’53 or ’54 or something like that.

Well, Benny Golson, and I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter. And then [John] Stubblefield used to be around Chicago; he used to come around to me a lot. And of course, Joe Lovano, I’ve been listening to him lately. Of course, Junior Cook wouldn’t remember the first time I played with him, down in Miami. I was traveling with the Al Smith Band, and ran into Junior Cook down in Miami, and he knocked me out. And of course Jimmy Heath I’ve always loved. Because Jimmy, man . . . Who plays more horn than Jimmy Heath? He’s beautiful. And Clifford Jordan has been around with me at different times. In fact, I came up here once and worked a gig with Clifford Jordan . . .

Q: That was at the Irving Plaza on 15th Street, with Chris Anderson and Victor Sproles on that date.

VF: Right! Surely! Yeah! And then of course, Sonny Rollins. I’ve always loved Sonny. And I ran into him once, I had a group I think in Holland or something, and he was on the concert, and they gave him a birthday party — and we hung out and talked for hours. Of course, Dewey Redman. I’ve always loved Dewey Redman, because he’s a beautiful cat. And young Branford Marsalis. I remember when we first cut this concept album, he was beautiful. And of course, Mike Brecker. I ran into him once at the Montreux Festival over in Europe, in Switzerland. And of course, Illinois Jacquet, I saw him recently at I think it was . . . Well, he had this big band at this thing in Holland.

So man, it’s . . . Of course, when you name names you always leave out some names. But these are some of the cats I’ve always probably copied a lot of things that they’ve done. And I’m glad to see that all these cats are still living.

Q: Von, one thing that has always impressed me and many people who have heard you is your proclivity for going inside and outside, but always remaining within the framework of the piece — the freedom of your playing in some ways.

VF: Well, it comes from my hobby, I guess. See, my hobby is music, and of course, I sit up all day and all night long sometimes, studying progressions. It’s just something that I like to do. I’m not trying to prove anything by it. I don’t even know whether it helps my playing or hurts it. But it gives me an outlet to experiment with things that I like, that I’m hearing inside. And I practice so much, even today I practice a couple of hours, three to four hours a day . . . In fact, I run my Mom, who I fortunately still have with me, I run her nuts sometimes. She says, “Man, put that horn down.” And I’m just trying to hear things. It’s just an inside thing, which I’m trying to hear things that please me.

And of course sometimes I do get carried away. I admit that. Sometimes I say, “Hey, come back!” Because I’m running sometimes progressions that I’ve been practicing and hearing, and sometimes I lose track of where the melody is and everything because I’m so extended out there. So it works both ways. And sometimes I’m rather pleased with what I do. But as a rule, I say, “Ah, let me discard that.”

So it’s just something to keep me interested in what I’m doing. And it’s more or less a personal thing.

[MUSIC: Von Freeman-Sam Jones, “Sweet and Lovely,” Von, “I Remember You.”]

Q: I know Sonny Stitt is someone you were close to and had tremendous respect for, along with Gene Ammons.

VF: Oh, I loved him, yeah. We played a lot together.

Q: One of the amazing saxophonists, maybe a little under-appreciated in New York more so than in the Midwest and the South.

VF: Well, I’ll tell you what had to happen with Sonny Stitt, man. You had to get on the bandstand and play with him to really appreciate him. See, Sonny Stitt was mean, man. Sonny Stitt could play so many different things. And he was just as mean on tenor as he was on alto. In fact, he had another style altogether on tenor. And he played baritone! He played it proficiently. The man was a great saxophone player.

Q: And a much more creative player than I think people commonly gave him credit for.

VF: Oh, man. The man could just play anything he wanted to play. Sonny to me was amazing. I loved him. And we used to play a lot around in Gary and Evanston and things like that when he’d come in town. Because he loved to battle, you know, and he loved to get you up on that stage and wear you out. And if you wasn’t together, brother, he would wear you out! But he was a beautiful cat.

Q: Well, Chicago is famous for the tenor battles . . .

VF: Oh, man! You got to have plenty of wind back in those days, I’m telling you.

Q: Your son started out as a trumpet player.

VF: Yes. Well, see, I played trumpet for about 25 years.

Q: You played it on gigs, too?

VF: Yeah. But I had retired the trumpet, and Chico went down to the basement and found it when he was very young. And I thought he was going to be a trumpet player. Well, I had an alto that I had retired down in the basement, too. See, in the era I came up, you played everything you could get your hands on, whether it was the harmonica, I don’t care what it was — you tried to play it. And I had a number of these strange instruments down in the basement. And they went down there and found them. Chico was about 10 and my other son, Markm about 9. And one day I heard all this noise coming out of the basement, and I said, “What is that?” And they were down there playing. Out of the two, I really felt Mark would be the one who could play. But Chico has got one thing that is very important. He has durability! — and stick-to- itiveness. So he stuck with it.

But he actually began playing trumpet, and went to school playing trumpet. In fact, he went to Northwestern playing trumpet. But he ended up on saxophone. And every time I hear him, he’s trying to grow.

Q: We’ll hear “Lord Riff and Me.”

VF: Well, that’s the moniker I was given back in high school . . .

Q: By Captain Dyett.

VF: Yes.

Q: It sounds like a compliment.

VF: Well, actually, see, the way my career began, I used to riff all the time. [sings a riff] I could play any riff you ever heard on a horn. I was good at riffing, see. I didn’t know too much about progressions or harmonics, but I could riff. And that’s where that came from.

You know, Chico did some real strange . . . Like, I’ve always played at the piano. And at the end of one of those albums he has me playing the piano.

Q: Would you like us to end with that?

VF: Yes. Because a lot of people don’t know that actually I play the piano. I like to say play at the piano.

*******************

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For Von Freeman’s 97th Birth Anniversary, a 1991 WKCR Interview with Von and pianist John

Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991, WKCR

copyright © 1991, 1999, Ted Panken


Q: Von Freeman and John Young were both born in 1922, and both went to DuSable High School. When did the two of you first meet?

VF: Well, I remember John from a long time ago. Let’s just put it that way. For a long time.

Q: Was it in school?

VF: Oh, I don’t know. I . . .

Q: Was it in a musical situation?

VF: Well, I knew about him long before I really knew him. I always admired his playing, way-way-way back.

JY: I remember, Von, when we first played together, when was it, 1971, at . . . What was the name of that place?

VF: The New Apartment Lounge?

JY: At the New Apartment Lounge, yes. The other piano player, Jodie Christian, couldn’t make it. So Von called me to work with him, and we’ve been working with each other on and off ever since that time.

Q: But you had known each other back in high school undoubtedly.

JY: Well, I knew him, but our paths didn’t cross. He had his family band, his brother on drums and another brother playing guitar, and he played tenor saxophone, and I think he had Chris [Anderson?] . . . Anyway, he was using other piano players at the time. I was working with a dude named Dick Davis.

Q: So this was in the 1940’s, after the War.

VF: After the War, uh-huh.

JY: Or the 1950’s, I think it was.

Q: Both of you studied under Walter Dyett, and I believe John Young was in one of the first classes at DuSable High School as well. Didn’t it open around that year?

JY: Well, I was in the second year. What happened was, in ’34 they attempted to extend the old Wendell Phillips High School. It was called the new Wendell Phillips High School. But then they decided not to tear down old Wendell Phillips; they decided to keep it, and changed the name to DuSable. So it started off in 1934 as the new Wendell Phillips High School. They had to go into that stone and change the name to DuSable.

Q: There were a number of very talented young piano players in your class at that time.

JY: Well, I was in there with Dorothy Donegan and a fellow named Dempsey Travis, who wrote that book (he was playing the piano then, at that time), and Marbetha Davis. Nat Cole had just graduated not too long before that. Nat Cole and somebody else, I can’t think of him. Those were the piano players. We used to do what they called the Hi-Jinx at DuSable High School.

Q: The Hi-Jinx was a show band type . . .

JY: Yeah, it was a show to raise money. It was a fundraiser. And I was in the Hi-Jinx with these dudes, as a matter of fact, Redd Foxx was in one of those Hi-Jinx, a tramp band. But that was one of our fundraisers.

Q: So there was really tremendous musical talent all concentrated in this one high school, and there continued to be for many, many years.

JY: That’s right. Captain Dyett was at the root of it all. He’d cuss us out and make us do better than we did the previous time. He’d throw us out of the band, and if we came back the next day and didn’t make that same mistake, he’d pretend like he didn’t notice that we came back. He’d let us stay. [Von laughs]

Q: John Young, how long had you been playing piano at the time you entered high school? Had you already developed your musicality?

JY: Yes. I had my first lesson when I was about eight, I think it was. I had a private teacher for about ten years. Two, because I had one lady for five and then a gentleman for the other five. The lady didn’t want me to play jazz; she said, “That old devil jazz.” She wanted me to be a classical artiste. But I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Basie, and I said, “Well, that’s me.”

Q: You could be an artiste of another sort. But this was all music that was really part of the Chicago scene when you were a youngster coming up.

JY: Yes, that’s right.

Q: I don’t know how much first-hand exposure you were able to get as a teen and pre-teen. But give us a little flavor of what things were like in Chicago when your consciousness about music was starting to emerge.

JY: Well, if you want to know what things were like in Chicago, I’d better let Von . . .

Q: Von Freeman, I’ve been neglecting you.

VF: No, it’s fine. John is doing fine. [John laughs] But I really don’t remember.

Q: You don’t remember?

VF: No, man. Listen . . .

JY: It’s just like “Stardust,” huh?

VF: Yeah, listen.

JY: “Oh, but that was long ago . . . “

VF: See, because things were so groovy then that you had a tendency not to even realize how good it was. For instance, John was talking about Art Tatum before; of course, anybody with any musical sense at all loved that man’s piano playing. And I was lucky to have the fellow who first told me about him playing in a group of mine. His name was Prentice McCarey. Prentice was just like John. He loved him. He was a great piano player himself. Every time Coleman Hawkins would come through town . . . And this was way back, before I went to the War, so it was in the ’30s. See, I lived over Prentice McCarey. I used to listen to him practice on the piano. He was playing a place called the Golden Lily on 55th Street with one of my idols, which of course was Coleman Hawkins. And later on, I happened to have acquired a job at this same club on 55th Street on the south side of Chicago, upstairs. And it was funny . . . We were playing there, and Prentice said to me, “Man, guess who I’m gonna bring by your club tonight?” Well, I couldn’t guess. I thought he meant Prez, because he knew I loved Lester — Lester Young. But it was Art Tatum.

I’ll never forget that night, because when we got through playing, he went somewhere and picked up Art, and brought Art back. Let’s see, we got off at about one; it must have been about 2 o’clock in the morning. And Art played for about four or five hours just on the piano. And the piano wasn’t that great; a couple of keys were broken. He just missed them all night long. And that’s one of the high evenings of my lifetime. I had just gotten married, I think I was 23 years old or something like that. I didn’t realize how great that was.

The reason why I brought that up is that’s the way Chicago was. It was so good and there were so many big people in town . . . Like 63rd Street was full of musicians, full of clubs. 64th Street, the great Pershing Lounge up there. They would bring everybody in . . .

Q: But in the ’30s, when you were a teenager . . .

VF: Oh, that’s when it started. That’s when all that got started, and it really lasted until just about to the end of the ’40s . It started really dying out around 1950.

Q: For instance, as teenagers, were you able to go, say, to the Grand Terrace and hear Earl Hines, or was that off-limits to you?

VF: No, I never went. I was too young for that.

JY: Well, they broadcast from there, so we . . .

VF: But we heard that, though.

JY: We heard it on the radio.

Q: And was this what you were trying to come in under? Was Earl Hines the band that you admired? Von, when you were a young saxophonist, who were some of your models?

VF: Well, one of the persons is still living. What’s his name, John? He plays at Andy’s a lot now. On Mondays. He plays clarinet and tenor . . . Sort of a red looking fellow. He was on there with Budd Johnson. Oh, his name is Franz Jackson.

But see, during that era, Earl was just one of the many bands. Like, Count Basie was out here and all those big bands. Because that was the big band era. And of course, Earl had one of the better bands, and it just happened that he was based in Chicago. But then when Earl left, King Kolax brought a band in (do you remember that, John?) for a while.

JY: Yeah.

VF: He was a great trumpet player around town. And of course, he had Bennie Green with him, Gene Ammons . . . In fact, Billy Eckstine took some guys out of his band. Gene Ammons was in the Kolax band.

It was so good, and there were so many different personalities coming in from around the country. Now when you look back, when there’s nobody coming in on the south side, hardly, you think about how good it really was. That’s the reason why it’s hard to remember, because you should have been writing down all that stuff, really, but you didn’t. You had a tendency to think to think it was going to last forever, and of course it didn’t.

[MUSIC: Von and Chico Freeman, “Mercy, Mercy Me”; Gene Ammons, “My Way”]

Q: John Young joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy as a pianist in the early 1940’s.

JY: That’s right.

Q: What was your progression from high school to the point where Andy Kirk was calling you to join his band?

JY: Andy Kirk was on the road and needed a piano player, so he called the Harry Gray, the President of the Musicians Union, to send him a piano player, and he recommended me for the gig. Harry Gray was the type of fellow that has a big voice and talks loud; he was one of those kind of guys that believes in talking loud on the phone to get his point over. He calls me up on the telephone, and he says: “Mister Young!” He scared me half to death because I was young; I was only 19 or 20 years old. “Young! We have a job for you. It’s with Andy Kirk. Can you make it?” Hey-hey! I didn’t know what to say, you know what I mean. I said, “Uh-unh-uh-unh . . . ” He said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” So he called me back . . . I had to talk about it with my mother because I wasn’t 21 years old yet, see. So I had to tell my mother about it, and beg her to let me go. So anyway, he called me back, and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Gray. I’ll make it.” So he said, “Yes, well, okay then, I’ll call Andy.” So that’s how I got with Andy Kirk.

Q: Were you familiar with the band from records before that?

JY: No. All this was completely new. Mary Lou Williams had left the band, and the piano player who replaced her had just recorded “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail.” “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail” was getting over. So I had to take the record home and learn it off the record. [sings theme] So I took it home and laid my ear on it, and got back and played it as close as I could to the way the record sounded.

Q: Were you working in Chicago after high school?

JY: Yes!

Q: What were you doing in the interim? Tell us a little about your activities, John Young.

JY: Well, after I left high school, a fellow called me up and he took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I worked with him. I forget his name. But my earliest recollection of working in Chicago was some striptease joints. So I enjoyed that.

VF: [laughs] Look out, John!

Q: Was it solo piano?

JY: No-no . . .

Q: Did they have a little band?

JY: No, no, they had a group. It was a striptease joint downtown on . . . I think it’s called Clark Street — at a striptease joint down there. And then I worked in a place called Calumet City. What they would do . . .

Q: The notorious Calumet City. [Von: loud laugh]

JY: They would hang some drapes, some see-through drapes in front of the band, because they didn’t want the customers to think that the musicians were too familiar with the striptease artists, you know what I mean? So we played . . . Some of these striptease artists had some very difficult music while they was out there taking clothes off. And you’d be mad, because they got you there, and you’re back there sweating, and all they’re doing is just walking, traipsing around and taking a piece off here and there. And you’re back there sweating, trying to play the “Rhapsody In Blue” while they’d be walking around. But that’s what they liked. That’s what the striptease person wanted. And they’d want you to play that music. So I did . . . [sings ‘Rhapsody In Blue’] . . . and they’d just walk around, taking a little piece off here and there.

So that was my first gig before I really made a living. You know, you always make gigs here and there. But the first gigs that I remember where I really made a living was them striptease joints.

Q: Were you playing a lot of blues then, too?

JY: Oh, yeah. Well, you had to play that.

Q: Just talk about the piano styles in Chicago that you’d have to be going through.

JY: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. You had to play a little boogie here and there, and a little . . . Anyway, you had to know a little bit about most styles. Play a little of what they called stride, and you had to play a little boogie, and you had to play a little oom-pah, oom-chunk, oom-chunk-chunk — “boom-chink,” you would call it. You had to do a little bit of everything in order to try to make a living at it — which is the same thing I’m doing now. In order to make a living, you’ve got know a little bit about all of this.

Q: Well, subsequently (and we’ll talk about this later), you played with quite a few singers.

JY: Yes.

Q: Von, what were your earliest gigs after high school? Or were you also working during high school, outside?

VF: Well, you know, it was just about the same.

Q: You worked in the same strip joints.

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

Q: Well, I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

VF: Oh! Well, see, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody.

Q: No more, no less!

VF: And the melody. And man, when I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. And I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old.

Q: Were you playing tenor then?

VF: Oh, C-melody.

Q: C-melody was your first instrument.

VF: Yeah, my first one. And that really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there! Like John said, you played a lot of hard music, and you essentially played the melody out there. You had to learn the melody to tunes.

And so right today, I try never to forget the melody. Because I’ve found out that the people don’t forget the melody. So no matter how carried away I get, I try to remember the melody. All this stuff that you learned early in your career, you come to find out most of the things . . . Like, I wasn’t that crazy about Walter Dyett’s teaching. He was . . .

Q: Too authoritarian?

VF: . . . a disciplinarian and whatnot. But see, as you go along, and especially when you start getting in those 60s and closer to 70, see, you learn . . . One lesson is that most of the people who patted you on the back all the time and said, “Blow!” didn’t really mean it. The folks that you really think about are the ones that said, “Hey, man, that doesn’t sound good” or “Hey, that’s wrong.” They don’t really mean that it’s wrong. It’s incorrect; let’s put it that way. But you learn and you look back, you say, “Hey, they were trying to help me.”

Q: Von, let me get back to your career. When did you graduate from C-melody to the tenor?

VF: Well, I was playing dances. See, there was a famous lady named Sadie Bruce, and she gave me my first job. I must have been about . . . My first local job on the south side of Chicago was in her dance room. Because see, I used to tap dance.

JY: Yeah?

VF: Yes. So she asked me one day, “Somebody told me that you play an instrument.” I said, “Well, yes, Mrs. Bruce, I do.” She said, “Well, have you got a little old band? Because I’m planning to start some socials in my basement.” I said, “Well, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to play for that.” She said, “Well, I heard you on one of these back porches; you sound pretty good to me.” We used to do a lot of back porch clowning and playing.

But the interesting thing about that was that I had James Craig with me. Now, you may have never heard of James Craig, but he’s the piano player on Gene Ammons’ “Red Top” that did that little thing that’s kind of got . . . When you play “Red Top,” you have to play that little thing that he put in that song. He was a very good pianist. I had a vibe player named Norris from out of DuSable, and then I had Marvin Cates on drums. And that was my little group. I guess I was about 15. And it was the first job I played on the south side of Chicago, although I had been working in Gary and working downtown in the strip places.

So you know, my history is similar to John’s and almost everybody around Chicago. Because most of the jobbing was done in strip places in Calumet City and Hammond . . .

Q: Did those gigs get set up through the union?

VF: No-no-no. In fact, the union didn’t know anything about it.

Q: So those were things to avoid . . .

VF: Well, you worked eight hours for ten dollars. The union would have had a fit.

JY: Yeah, they were strict about that.

VF: It was like . . . the mines, we used to call them. But you could earn a living.

JY: That’s right.

Q: And learn a lot of music.

VF: Oh, listen! Now, when I look back, what you learned was invaluable. Because you learned discipline. You’d sit there playing the melody of the songs all night long . . .

Q: And I guess ten dollars went a long way in 1937.

VF: Oh, man, you dig? And it helped my lung power a whole lot, too.

Q: Smoke-filled rooms and all.

VF: Listen, you learned how to put that air in that horn there. Piano players learned how to really get a touch.

Q: I know that later Captain Dyett would form bands of his students and join them in the union, and they’d play gigs around that town? Was he doing that when you were there?

VF: Well, that was the one band that he called . . . See, we were all out of school, our high school called DuSable, and he called his band the DuSableites. He kept it for a while. He started it about two years before I went into the service, and then I came out of the service, then went back into it and stayed until about ’46 — about two more years. So he had that group from about 1941 until maybe ’47 or ’48.

Q: The years after World War II, from 1945 and ’46, were thriving years musically in Chicago. Von Freeman, you and your brothers — George, the great guitar player, and Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer — had the house band at one of the most prestigious rooms in Chicago, the Pershing Ballroom. What were the circumstances behind that? And talk a bit about the geography of the Jazz scene in Chicago in that particular time and around that area.

VF: Oh, man, that’s when it was buzzing. From 31st Street all the way on up to let’s say 64th Street — well, 66th — Chicago was the place to be. John Young was at the Q Lounge, Dick Davis — everybody was in town and had a gig. It was right after the War, and the town was booming . . . They had a great promoter around town named McKie Fitzhugh. This guy came out of DuSable, and he was promoting. And he called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in maybe getting your two brothers . . . ” See, because my brother George was very popular around that time.

Q: Had he been in Chicago during the war?

VF: Yes. You see, he didn’t go to the war; he was too young. He stayed around Chicago, man, and his name was buzzing. So he said, “Hey, why don’t you get together with your two brothers and get a piano player and a bass player? I’ve got an idea; I want to book a lot of names into the Pershing.”

Q: He likes to pick with a silver dollar, your brother.

VF: Right. That’s what he does now, yeah. So I said, “Okay, that will be fine.” So there was a fellow named Chris Anderson, a little blind pianist, and I had Leroy Jackson on bass (Leroy has since passed), and Alfred . . . What was Alfred’s last name, John? Do you remember Alfred?

JY: White.

VF: Alfred White. I was using two bassists at the time, concurrently, you know. So we went in, man, and that’s where I met Diz and Bird, Billie Holiday — everybody came down there.

Q: What sort of room was that? That was part of a complex of clubs . . .

VF: Oh, that was the ballroom itself. See, but the Pershing Lounge was beautiful, too. I played that later on. But at that time I was playing the ballroom.

Q: How was it set up? The national musicians would come in, and there would be dances?

VF: Yeah, dances. Dances Fridays and Saturdays.

Q: So people would be dancing to Bird, dancing to Diz . . .

VF: That’s right.

Q: Dancing to the people who would come in with you.

VF: Well, around that time things had changed a lot. They would stand around the bandstand, and there wasn’t that much dancing going on any more. And we used to play, man. I used to have a ball just playing with the stars, listening to them or whatever. I’m very lucky to have gotten chosen for that particular job.

Q: So who came through? We’re talking about the major stars in music at that time?

VF: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge — you name them. He brought everybody to Chicago, man. And he was paying so nice for those times. What he’d do is, he’d bring them in, and they would come in with no music, no nothing, and you were expected to know the tunes. And I had this little genius at the piano who knew everybody’s tunes. So we were very fortunate. We were able to play behind them.

Q: You’re referring to Chris Anderson.

VF: Yes.

Q: Von said that you, John Young, were working at the Q Lounge during this time.

JY: The Quality Lounge.

Q: The Quality Lounge. A high-quality joint, was it?

JY: Ah-ha-ha . . .

Q: I see.

JY: I was only in two shootings.

VF: At least! [laughs]

Q: Where was it? Which street was it on?

JY: The Quality Lounge was on 43rd Street. So if you know anything about 43rd Street, you know it wasn’t on the uppity-uppity-uppity-up. The Quality Lounge, I was in there with a fellow named Dick Davis who played tenor saxophone. I was the piano player, the drummer’s name was Buddy Smith, Eddie Calhoun was on bass. And I was singing . . .

Q: Singing, too.

JY: But at that time I had laryngitis. When (?) asked me to sing, I suddenly developed a case of laryngitis. All three of them called it “lyingitis” — because it was a gitis that never left. But the Q was cool . . . Like I say, it was a relaxed joint. You could come in there with tennis shoes on if you wanted to. It wasn’t nothin’ uppity, you know. And it was on 43rd Street. We had a good time in there for a number of years, the Quality Lounge on 43rd Street. I lost my point . . .

Q: Oh, I was talking to you about working in Chicago in the late 1940’s and late ’50s. When did you start working with a lot of singers?

JY: Well, a piano player always has a hundred singers around, you know.

Q: But you later became an accompanist for some major singers.

JY: Well, I was with Nancy Wilson for a hot minute in the ’60s. See, John Levy, the booking agent, he was a bass player around Chicago, so he just about knew everybody that he thought would fit with this or that person. So he thought that I would be a perfect fit for Nancy Wilson. He didn’t know that I was really into jazz, and that I wanted to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be out front. You know what I mean? I won’t say out front, but I wanted to receive some of the same recognition that soloists receive rather than accompanists. But anyway, he hooked me up with Nancy Wilson, and I stayed with Nancy for a short spell.

And I had to write him a letter to explain to him why I didn’t stay. He thought that I should have stayed with her, because he gone to the trouble of booking me with Nancy Wilson, he felt that we were a perfect match, some kind of match anyway — and Nancy had struggled with me to try to get me to play here things like she liked them. So he thought I was going to be with Nancy Wilson for life. And I explained to him that, no, that ain’t what I had in mind.

When the piano player is a singer’s right arm, as they say, there are certain limitations to what he can do and what he . . . I’ve seen piano players be accompanists for life with certain singers or performers, and they stay in a rut for a long time. There’s only so much you can do as an accompanist. When you get thrown out there where you have to play the melody or have to carry the load, you’re lost.

Q: Well, we can get back to that in a minute. But I’d like to return to someone Von was talking about: Chris Anderson, who had a great impact really on the piano players in Chicago.

VF: Oh, man, he’s unsung. When I first met him, I met him in a big arena that we used to play on the south side, on 63rd Street and King Drive. I forget who I had on piano this time, but whoever he was, wasn’t making it. Chris happened to be sitting there, and he walked up and whispered in my ear, “I think I could play that.” I kind of looked at him, because I’d had people at different times to do that, say things like “Hey, man, I think I can do it a little better than what so-and-so is doing; I think I’ll feed you a little more” and blah-blah-blah. I generally don’t even listen. But for some reason or another, I said, “Oh, really?” Because this cat didn’t know the tune. I had asked him if he knew it, and he said, “Yeah,” and then when I got to playing the tune, he didn’t really know the tune.

So meanwhile, I guess the piano player heard Chris, and he said, “Hey, man, if you can play it, play it.” So he played it. And I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” And I noticed he was a little short fellow, you know . . . I said, “Hey, man, you stay there. I’ll pay both of you.” I told the other guy, “I’ll pay you, man, not to play.” So that’s how we began.

Chris heard a lot of things, just naturally, that I was trying to hear. And he was a very nice person about his knowledge. So I’d ask him, “Chris, where did you go there?” And he’d say so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so. So I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had been using Ahmad Jamal. And then Ahmad . . . He had a guitar player, I forget where this fellow was from, I think from Pittsburgh, where Ahmad was from. [Ray Crawford] So Ahmad had told me that he was giving me a two-week notice, that he was going to form his own trio. He’d stayed with me, I think, about two years, and then he formed his own trio. And then he started hanging with Chris, too. And I really noticed a big difference in his playing after he had been around Chris. Almost anybody who had been around him, it kind of opened them up a little bit — because he was very advanced for those times. In fact, I still think he is.

Q: So do a lot of other musicians around New York.

VF: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But his influence seems to go through a couple of generations in Chicago.

VF: Yeah, well, I think . . .

Q: Was Andrew Hill checking out Chris? Herbie Hancock?

VF: Well, Andrew worked with me a long time, too, you know. But Andrew was more or less into bebop at that time. But Chris to me wasn’t a bebop player, he wasn’t a swing player, he didn’t play like Art Tatum. To me, he was . . .

JY: He had his own thing.

VF: Yeah, he had his own thing. He was a conglomeration of all of that. And he didn’t flaunt his knowledge or anything. Maybe being blind helped him a lot, I don’t know. But he could hear a lot of things that I had always heard, and that I think everybody eventually wanted to hear. He was advanced for that time. See, now I’m speaking about 40 years ago.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple of the other great musicians who were working around Chicago a lot at that time? I’d like to ask you both about Ike Day, and if you both came into contact with him, played with him?

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

Q: Did you know Ike well enough for him to tell you about the drummers he was paying attention to as a young drummer?

VF: I know he liked Chick Webb. He never really mentioned anyone to me other than Chick Webb. And he liked Bird’s drummer . . . .

Q: Oh, Max Roach.

VF: Yeah.

Q: And I know Max Roach liked Ike Day, because he’s said so publicly on a number of occasions.

VF: Right.

Q: He was also a very versatile drummer, is what I gather. He would play big- band, piano trio combos. He was a totally versatile drummer, with great ears, a great listening drummer and so forth. Does that jibe with your recollection?

VF: I never heard him play with a big band. But I know he played in the combos. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer.

Ike to me was well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time.

Q: It’s very valuable to know this, because there is only one recording of Ike Day I think that exists at all, and the drums are almost buried . . .

VF: Oh, with Gene Ammons?

Q: With Gene Ammons, a Chess date.

VF: Oh yeah, that’s the same band.

Q: John Young, what are your memories of Ike Day? Did you play with Ike Day? Did you work with him?

JY: I might have played one or two tunes with Ike, but I don’t remember playing very much with Ike. I liked his work.

Q: Who were the drummers you mostly used on your gigs in Chicago at that time?

JY: Well, a fellow named Phil Thomas. I used him more than I did anybody else. And I started off with a drummer named Larry Jackson. Larry Jackson, Phil Thomas, Vernell Fournier. Phil is the one I used most. Strong drummer. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m about to forget the one that I’m using now, and that’s George Hughes. George has worked around New York and a number of places with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie uses him. George Hughes is his name. He’s the last drummer that I’ve used to any extent, more than once. Some drummers you use on certain gigs, just for that one time — there’s a number of those. But the ones that I’ve used over a period of time have to be George Hughes, Phil Thomas, and somebody else and somebody else . . .

Q: Von, I’d like to ask you about Gene Ammons, who I know you were friends with. He came several years after you at DuSable High School.

VF: Oh, well, Jug, man . . . Of course, I called him Ams. But it’s really interesting. His mother taught me my first chorus. He had a beautiful mother. And she was like a classical pianist. There’s very few people who know that. And I used to go to Jug’s house, and we’d practice together, and things like that. He was always one of my favorites. In fact, my brother was in the band that . . . See, George played with Jug. Probably the last nine years of his life Jug formed a group, and George was in the group. One of Jug’s last hits was called “The Black Cat,” which my brother George wrote.

So Jug and I had . . . We were very close. During my formative years, when I came out of the service, Jug used to hire me in his place, because he was getting so popular. So when he’d work a club, and he’d have to go out of town, he’d always get me to take his place. And a lot of people say I play like Jug. Which I wish I did! But I don’t know, he’s just one of my favorites.

[MUSIC: “Lost In A Fog” and “No. 7”; John Young departs]

Q: On the last segment, Von, I was asking you about some of the great figures who were active in Chicago in the post-World War II era. I know you used to work with Sun Ra’s rehearsal bands and had some contact with Sun Ra in the late 1940s and 1950s.

VF: Oh yes!

Q: What was he into at that point? What was his music sounding like and what was he doing around Chicago at that time?

VF: Oh, his music was sounding beautiful. But you know, one of the things that’s really different about him, he had two different concepts altogether. See, he was playing all this new-sounding music and different-sounding music with his own group — and of course I was a part of that. And then, he was over at a famous club on the south side of Chicago, the Club De Lisa, and he was writing show music for that band, which was Red Saunders’ band.

Q: Tell us a little about that band, too. It was a major band at a major venue.

VF: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the band that Sonny Cohn came out of. And of course, for those who don’t know Sonny Cohn, he was with Count Basie for years and years and years. A trumpeter, a great young trumpeter. And of course, Red Saunders was a premier drummer around Chicago for show bands, all . . .

Q: And he had that band for about 17-18 years.

VF: Well, actually I think it was about 27. And he was right there at the Club DeLisa. And all the younger drummers used to go around to see Red to learn how to play shows. Because that’s another art of drumming. You know, show drumming: how to catch the performers and catch the singers. Every time they move, the drummer does something. And he did it so tastefully.

Q: Of course, there’s a tradition of that in Chicago that really goes back to the silent movie days in the 1920s.

VF: It certainly does.

Q: The great black orchestras that performed at the different big movie theatres.

VF: That’s right.

Q: There was Erskine Tate and Doc Cooke and a couple of others.

VF: That’s right.

Q: A lot of great musicians got their real polish in those show bands.

VF: That’s very, very true.

Q: Do you remember hearing those bands as a little boy?

VF: Oh, surely. And then I ended up playing at the Regal Theatre in the pit for different things.

Q: Oh, when was that?

VF: Oh, that was way back. I was in high school.

Q: The Regal was perhaps the equivalent in Chicago to the Apollo in some ways. Is that accurate?

VF: Yes, it was. Of course, no place would be like the Apollo, naturally. But the Regal was Chicago’s Apollo, let’s put it that way.

Q: We’re juggling a number of different things at once. So let’s get back to what Sun Ra was doing.

VF: Well, Sun Ra . . .

Q: He was writing show music for Red Saunders at the Club De Lisa.

VF: And I found it very interesting that he could write this show music, which was essentially this do, du, do-du, do-du-do, and then his thing, where he had all these different voices going and his music was very complicated at the time. But it swung — in Sun Ra’s unique way. Because he had two great saxophone players with him. He had, of course, Pat Patrick, who is sort of ill these days around Chicago. And of course, he had John Gilmore. He kept great players in his group. And of course, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot by being in his band.

Q: Now, when exactly were you in his band?

VF: I was in his band during let’s say ’48, ’49 . . .

Q: Was that a working band or a rehearsal band?

VF: Oh, yeah. He played.

Q: What type of gigs would he do?

VF: He played dances. He really did, yeah. And he had like his own ballroom. I can’t think of the name of the ballroom. It was on the east side of 63rd Street, and we played at this ballroom. And Sun Ra was never into whether there was anybody in the ballroom or not. He simply tried to play what he felt.

Q: Would that music be recognizable to people who know Sun Ra today? Did it . . . ?

VF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now, he went back in recent years, and was playing some of Fletcher Henderson’s type of music and whatnot. But he’s still playing with that unique Sun Ra thing.

Q: Well, he covers the whole spectrum, really.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: He plays different things for different occasions.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: Didn’t Red Holloway also work briefly with Sun Ra? Is that true or not?

VF: I know that Red took a band into the Club De Lisa for six months when Red Saunders took off. Because I was in that band, playing alto, and I know that Sun Ra was writing the show music at the time. But whether or not he ever played in one of Sun Ra’s original bands, I do not know. You’d have to ask Red.

Q: Who were some of the other people in that Sun Ra band from the late 1940’s?

VF: Well, Julian Priester for one.

Q: That early, in the late 1940’s?

VF: No, Julian came along later. But in the ’40s . . . I’m trying to think. Oh, man . . . See, he had different people, and I really can’t remember who was in those bands..

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Club De Lisa. They were famous for their breakfast dances . . .

VF: Yes.

Q: We played a selection before by your son dedicated to Andrew Hill, who was 15 years old when he made his first record with you.

VF: Oh, yes, Andrew is a beautiful pianist. Of course, his style has evolved. At that time he was more or less playing bebop, and as he got younger he went on into free-form and whatnot. But he did it honestly. He feels it. And I like what he’s doing.

Q: Von, we’re going to hear now something from a Groove Holmes’ 1967-’68 record The Groover, featuring your brother George on his composition, “The Walrus,” some variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown” . . .

VF: Well, I think that’s what that is. I’ll have to hear it. But that sounds right to me.

Q: We’ll make no commitments.

VF: Well, back during that era we all used to take standard tunes and then write little originals and whatnot.

[MUSIC: “The Walrus,” “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Von solo)]

Q: Von, you had said to me that “How Deep Is The Ocean” is one you particularly wanted to have presented on this show, that you were very proud of it.

VF: Oh, man, to me that’s one of my greatest moments. In fact, that is the greatest moment I have enjoyed recording. It just happened. The lady who has the label said, “Hey, why don’t you play something slow?” I said, “Oh, I don’t feel like.” But she’s so beautiful, she asked again, and she said, “Well, please play something.” So how can you refuse a lady? So just off the top of my head, she said, “We’re rolling,” and I didn’t even have any idea what I wanted to play — I just went into that tune. And that’s the way it happened. And to me it’s the greatest thing I have ever done on record. I really felt that I did the tune justice; you know, for the way I was feeling. As a rule, I don’t care much for my recordings.

Q: Do you do that during your performances, Von? Are you going to be doing any a cappella this week at Condon’s?

VF: Oh, you know, last night I played several tunes. Of course, I didn’t do it like I did on the album, but I have a tendency . . .

Q: You always do long cadenzas . . .

VF: Yeah. And I have a tendency sometimes just to cut the band and play for a chorus or two. I’ve always done that, though.

Q: Von, you’ve stated in print that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were really your two primary influences in terms of how to approach the saxophone, and you see your style as a melding of the two.

VF: That’s true.

Q: You mentioned hearing Coleman Hawkins in the 1930’s in Chicago. Did you study his records in the 1930’s? Did you study Prez’s records?

VF: Well, actually, yes. See, Hawk was a good friend of my father’s.

Q: How was that? Your father was a musician?

VF: No, not really. Actually he was a Chicago policeman. But he loved music, and he loved to hang around the guys, you know. So my Dad, he always kept a record collection from as far back as I can remember. So naturally, I had an affinity for music from right him, actually.

But Lester Young, see, used to come to the Regal Theatre all the time with Count Basie’s band, and all us little guys loved Lester, and we used to go and sit down in the front, you know, and try to play his solos. I had some of his earliest records, like “Every Tub” and all those, and I used to practice those. In fact, I got so I could play those note for note. And I could play Hawk’s “Body and Soul” note for note. So those two . . . Well, just like probably all the rest of the Chicago saxophone players. We were a conglomeration of Hawk and Prez.

Q: Gene Ammons, certainly.

VF: Oh yeah. Well, of course. And Dex and me — almost all of them.

Q: What was your first reaction to Charlie Parker when you heard his music the first time?

VF: Now, that takes me back. Because my Dad gave me the first music I ever heard of Charlie Parker. He gave me “The Hootie Blues.” He brought it, and he said, “Hi, hot-shot, you think you’re so hot because you got Lester Young down.” He says, “Try out this guy.” I said, “Oh, what’s this, Pop. Who did you bring . . . ?” Man, he put that thing on, and it knocked me out. Because see, to me Bird was playing Prez on alto — to me. And it was just more advanced. It’s like when I first heard Trane; I heard Prez and Bird. And I guess whoever follows, whoever the next saxophone player will be, it will be, you know, Prez and Bird and Trane and Getz and Zoot. All the good saxophone players have a tendency to be on the same line. Like just some of them followed; they play more Hawkins than Prez. But I hear lately most people are getting the two together. Because that makes what you’d almost call the perfect saxophone player. Because Hawk had so many things . . . He had all that power and drive, and Prez could float and just sail along. I would say Hawk just played straight up and down, and Prez played sideways. So if you get them, you’ve got the whole thing together.

And I think it didn’t take saxophone players too long to learn this, especially tenor saxophone players. I think I was with you on the program a few years back, and I was telling you about that tenor. That tenor presents a different type of problem for the simple reason that the ladies like the sound of the saxophone. And ladies are very dominant in your crowd. So you’ve got to learn how to play sweet, and for the men you got to learn how to holler — you can’t just sit up and play ballads all night. So there’s so much to get together on that tenor. And I like to always think of a trombone . . .

Q: In your playing?

VF: Yeah, man. Because a trombone sounds . . . Like, I call great trombone players like tenor saxophone players. You’ve got two of them here. Curtis Fuller, who did all those records with the Jazz Messengers, he just sounded like one of the real good tenor players. And the other cat who’s the Indian, what’s his name, who plays shells . . . ?

Q: You’re talking about Steve Turre.

VF: Yeah, Turre! Man, to me, man, those two cats when I hear them, I say, “Oh, man, if I could get a sound like that!” Because see, the tenor and the trombone, with Dickie Wells, remember him . . . ? All these cats had that haunting quality that saxophone players get. And as strange as it may sound, to me Miles sounds something like a tenor player. Although I always think that the trumpet is the dominant instrument, because who can do it better than a great trumpet player? Because you’ve got everything coming right out of the bell of that horn. When I hear Wynton play I think of a saxophone player. Now, that’s coming at it from a saxophone player’s view, of course.

[MUSIC: Coleman Hawkins: “The Man I Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things,” “I Got Rhythm”]

Q: “I Got Rhythm” is one of the basic bedrock tunes in all of Jazz.

VF: Man, listen. I can play a job playing “I Got Rhythm”! I’m telling you. Give me a few blues tunes and “I Got Rhythm” and I can make the gig. I’m telling you. Beautiful, man.

Q: “These Foolish Things” I can remember from my time living in Chicago as the most popular ballad in that town.

VF: Right.

Q: That may or may not be true . . .

VF: It still is!

Q: People in Chicago have long memories about the music.

VF: Well, see, just about all the tenor players made their name around there. You know, whether they were from Chicago or not, during the late ’30s and the ’40s and the early ’50s, all the great saxophonists were around Chicago playing. So you’d sort of feel like they’re from Chicago, although of course they’re not.

I talk on shows, dropping names here, dropping names there, but I’d just like to go on the record saying how much I’ve gotten from some of the current cats, cats who are still living. Like Benny Golson, man. Benny Golson wouldn’t even remember me. I was working at the Pershing Ballroom, or actually I’d moved up to the lounge, and Benny came by and jammed with me all morning, all morning at the Pershing Lounge — and I just fell in love with Benny Golson. Now, this is back in ’53 or ’54.

Q: He would have been on the road with one of the rhythm-and-nlues bands.

VF: I forget when he came to town, but it was just shortly before. . . Bird passed in ’55. It was about ’53 or ’54 or something like that.

Well, Benny Golson, and I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter. And then [John] Stubblefield used to be around Chicago; he used to come around to me a lot. And of course, Joe Lovano, I’ve been listening to him lately. Of course, Junior Cook wouldn’t remember the first time I played with him, down in Miami. I was traveling with the Al Smith Band, and ran into Junior Cook down in Miami, and he knocked me out. And of course Jimmy Heath I’ve always loved. Because Jimmy, man . . . Who plays more horn than Jimmy Heath? He’s beautiful. And Clifford Jordan has been around with me at different times. In fact, I came up here once and worked a gig with Clifford Jordan . . .

Q: That was at the Irving Plaza on 15th Street, with Chris Anderson and Victor Sproles on that date.

VF: Right! Surely! Yeah! And then of course, Sonny Rollins. I’ve always loved Sonny. And I ran into him once, I had a group I think in Holland or something, and he was on the concert, and they gave him a birthday party — and we hung out and talked for hours. Of course, Dewey Redman. I’ve always loved Dewey Redman, because he’s a beautiful cat. And young Branford Marsalis. I remember when we first cut this concept album, he was beautiful. And of course, Mike Brecker. I ran into him once at the Montreux Festival over in Europe, in Switzerland. And of course, Illinois Jacquet, I saw him recently at I think it was . . . Well, he had this big band at this thing in Holland.

So man, it’s . . . Of course, when you name names you always leave out some names. But these are some of the cats I’ve always probably copied a lot of things that they’ve done. And I’m glad to see that all these cats are still living.

Q: Von, one thing that has always impressed me and many people who have heard you is your proclivity for going inside and outside, but always remaining within the framework of the piece — the freedom of your playing in some ways.

VF: Well, it comes from my hobby, I guess. See, my hobby is music, and of course, I sit up all day and all night long sometimes, studying progressions. It’s just something that I like to do. I’m not trying to prove anything by it. I don’t even know whether it helps my playing or hurts it. But it gives me an outlet to experiment with things that I like, that I’m hearing inside. And I practice so much, even today I practice a couple of hours, three to four hours a day . . . In fact, I run my Mom, who I fortunately still have with me, I run her nuts sometimes. She says, “Man, put that horn down.” And I’m just trying to hear things. It’s just an inside thing, which I’m trying to hear things that please me.

And of course sometimes I do get carried away. I admit that. Sometimes I say, “Hey, come back!” Because I’m running sometimes progressions that I’ve been practicing and hearing, and sometimes I lose track of where the melody is and everything because I’m so extended out there. So it works both ways. And sometimes I’m rather pleased with what I do. But as a rule, I say, “Ah, let me discard that.”

So it’s just something to keep me interested in what I’m doing. And it’s more or less a personal thing.

[MUSIC: Von Freeman-Sam Jones, “Sweet and Lovely,” Von, “I Remember You.”]

Q: I know Sonny Stitt is someone you were close to and had tremendous respect for, along with Gene Ammons.

VF: Oh, I loved him, yeah. We played a lot together.

Q: One of the amazing saxophonists, maybe a little under-appreciated in New York more so than in the Midwest and the South.

VF: Well, I’ll tell you what had to happen with Sonny Stitt, man. You had to get on the bandstand and play with him to really appreciate him. See, Sonny Stitt was mean, man. Sonny Stitt could play so many different things. And he was just as mean on tenor as he was on alto. In fact, he had another style altogether on tenor. And he played baritone! He played it proficiently. The man was a great saxophone player.

Q: And a much more creative player than I think people commonly gave him credit for.

VF: Oh, man. The man could just play anything he wanted to play. Sonny to me was amazing. I loved him. And we used to play a lot around in Gary and Evanston and things like that when he’d come in town. Because he loved to battle, you know, and he loved to get you up on that stage and wear you out. And if you wasn’t together, brother, he would wear you out! But he was a beautiful cat.

Q: Well, Chicago is famous for the tenor battles . . .

VF: Oh, man! You got to have plenty of wind back in those days, I’m telling you.

Q: Your son started out as a trumpet player.

VF: Yes. Well, see, I played trumpet for about 25 years.

Q: You played it on gigs, too?

VF: Yeah. But I had retired the trumpet, and Chico went down to the basement and found it when he was very young. And I thought he was going to be a trumpet player. Well, I had an alto that I had retired down in the basement, too. See, in the era I came up, you played everything you could get your hands on, whether it was the harmonica, I don’t care what it was — you tried to play it. And I had a number of these strange instruments down in the basement. And they went down there and found them. Chico was about 10 and my other son, Markm about 9. And one day I heard all this noise coming out of the basement, and I said, “What is that?” And they were down there playing. Out of the two, I really felt Mark would be the one who could play. But Chico has got one thing that is very important. He has durability! — and stick-to- itiveness. So he stuck with it.

But he actually began playing trumpet, and went to school playing trumpet. In fact, he went to Northwestern playing trumpet. But he ended up on saxophone. And every time I hear him, he’s trying to grow.

Q: We’ll hear “Lord Riff and Me.”

VF: Well, that’s the moniker I was given back in high school . . .

Q: By Captain Dyett.

VF: Yes.

Q: It sounds like a compliment.

VF: Well, actually, see, the way my career began, I used to riff all the time. [sings a riff] I could play any riff you ever heard on a horn. I was good at riffing, see. I didn’t know too much about progressions or harmonics, but I could riff. And that’s where that came from.

You know, Chico did some real strange . . . Like, I’ve always played at the piano. And at the end of one of those albums he has me playing the piano.

Q: Would you like us to end with that?

VF: Yes. Because a lot of people don’t know that actually I play the piano. I like to say play at the piano.

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For George Coleman’s 85th birthday, a 2016 Downbeat Interview and interviews on WKCR from 1994 and 1995

To honor the 85th birthday of tenor saxophone maestro George Coleman, here are three interviews — most recently, a long one conducted in 2016 for a shortish Downbeat “Beat” section article on the occasion of his SmokeSessions album A Master Speaks (his son, drummer George Coleman, Jr., was also present) ; then WKCR interviews in 1994 and 1995, pegged to club appearances.   Several years ago, I posted a 1995 WKCR interview that I did with Mr. Coleman and the great drummer Idris Muhammad, a frequent bandmate,

 

George Coleman (Feb. 8, 2016):

TP: This is your first recording as a leader in 18 years. Tell me how it developed.

GC: Basically, Eric Alexander conceived the idea. He said he wanted to produce a CD with me.  He discussed it with Paul Stache, and Paul thought it was a good idea, too. He selected the personnel, too, which is excellent—Bob Cranshaw and Mike LeDonne, and Junior playing drums, of course. I didn’t need control. They said they wanted to produce the record, and I said, “Go ahead.” There was no conflict.

TP: From what you just told me, doing records has not been your forte.

GC: No.

TP: By which I think you really meant that you haven’t been offered terms satisfactory to you on too many occasions over the years.

GC: That is true. And the record scene out there with a lot of young people doing records just to be doing them… That was one reason… I didn’t want to just do a record to be doing a record. A lot of times when you do records, they just sit on the shelf and collect dust. Some of the record producers…once they get the money that they invested, they’re not too particularly interested any more. At least that’s the way I’ve always felt.

TP: You were saying that you inaugurated Smoke in 1989.

GC: Yes, that’s right. Sometimes when these things happen, I’m really not aware of them. But I’m constantly reminded that I was the founder.

TP: you told me that Joe Farnsworth called you, who used to play at Augie’s a lot…

GC: That’s right. And the late, great Junior Cook. They used to play there quite a bit. Several other good players. James Farnsworth, who I didn’t know and never met, who passed away at a very early age. He was a baritone sax player who I heard was very talented. The Farnsworth family is a talented family. John playing trombone and saxophone now. Great.

TP: I’d think that your agreeing to do this recording after an 18-year gap for the reasons stated denotes a certain respect for and trust of Paul and Frank Christopher and the club.

GC: Yes. Sometimes things are not about money. They’re about integrity. It’s about people really interested in your product, and feel able to put it out in a commercial atmosphere, where you might get some record play. Something that people may have wanted to hear from you. There have been so many times over the course of these 18 years when people said, “Man, when are you going to make a record?”

TP: There was recording in 2002 of a collective group, The Four Generations of Miles recording.

GC: Then I did a thing with the Saxophone Masters, with Joe Henderson and Billy Pierce.

TP: that was the early 1990s, though.

GC: Also Live at Yoshi’s. Danger: High Voltage with the octet in the ‘90s, maybe 1996.

TP: The last one was I Could Write A Book on Telarc, with several things in odd-meters…

GC: There was one thing in 7/4, on “Lover,” just a little tempo change.

TP: So since then, there’s the Four Generations of Miles recording and I guess you played on one of Joey DeFrancesco’s records.

GC: I did some recording with Joey and did some gigs with him. Fantastic player.

TP: I didn’t get everything you told me about playing with Mike, and how it differed for you from playing with Harold, who you’ve played with for so long.

GC: Mike adopted some of the harmonic things that he heard us do. He’d be in the audience, listening to Harold when I’m playing with Harold. So he had a sense…he knew what to do harmonically for me, and he knew what I liked. Of course, I would always tell him about certain harmonic things that I wanted him to do, but he already knew that, because he knew we were inventive when we were up there. We were always trying to invent a different harmonic pattern, or something a little bit…not really unusual, but not done too much in this age, especially by young players.

TP: What’s not done too much? Not working out new harmonic patterns on the bandstand?

GC: Well, not even playing some of the old ones! There’s a lot in the old ones. Back in the dawning of the bebop era, there were so many harmonic things that were happening during that time that people have forgotten about. They don’t even do them now. You can play a standard and inject these kind of things. They’re oftentimes illustrated in original music, too.

I’ve always liked playing different tempos, key changes. That was really my motto. I guess probably a lot of record producers weren’t interested in that concept, because it went into the so-called fusion, rock, funk, jazz, whatever they’d like to call it. So I really wasn’t interested in that. I had some aspirations maybe to do a string album or something. Then I had one of my students from years ago who became a very good string writer, and started writing for Hollywood and California. He told me, “Man, I sure would like to do a string album for you.” But we couldn’t get the money together.” So it’s a lot of different things. A lot of things interject and interfere with certain projects you might feel you want to do. It mostly boils down to money.

TP: Did you do a big with this band before going into the studio?

GC: No.

TP: you didn’t do like two nights at Smoke or something like that?

GC: Well, I guess we did. Didn’t we?

GEORGE JR.: We played with Bob, myself, Big George and Mabern at the Disability Pride thing, but that was a year ago. That was the closest the band was to playing together. But I’ve actually worked a lot with Mike up at Smoke. He’s hired me a lot of times. So I was always very comfortable playing with him. But really, this particular band, we never really played before. The first time we got together was when we were in the studio.

TP: You didn’t even rehearse before you went in the studio.

GEORGE JR.: I came over here a couple of times…

GC: We had a little rundown over here.

GEORGE JR.: Just me, George and Mike, but not with Bob.

GC: Bob was a little under the weather, and it was cool, because he knows…

TP: His ears are amazing. With Sonny Rollins for 55 years.

GC: You don’t need to rehearse with him. That guy! Of course, he was at Sesame Street for over thirty years, right?

TP: On one of these radio shows we did… Remember I was telling you that you brought Idris to the station once in 1995. Here’s what he said: “George is special to me because he’s always working at new things.” He said that the night before you came to the station, you “were playing some stuff, and my left hand was going crazy, and I was trying to play what George was playing in my left hand and keep the rest of the things going, and it was pulling me, and I said, ‘No, I’d better stop myself,’ because I happened to stop my cymbal ride and my bass drum beat, because it’s a challenge to play with him.” He said, “George is a fellow who’s always working on something new and he’s always progressing, and for me to play with him, one of the greatest things is just watching George play, and hear him always reaching for things, new things. When I play with George in the band, it’s always something new. Every time I play with him, he’s always progressed.” Is that still the way you think about things? Are you still trying to find challenges?

GC: Well, not consciously maybe. The things just happen. I just let things happen. But I am trying to think academically when it comes to music. I am always looking at other alternatives. So in that sense…

TP: Would analytically be the word?

GC: Well, somewhat… Things just happen. Sometimes especially with my type of playing, a lot of things are not planned, but we have certain things that we know that we can do. We’re playing “I Got Rhythm,” we’re playing the blues, we have some alternatives that we can do, and we invent those sometimes into the program when we’re playing. We do that. So it keeps things interesting for us. Modulations, so to speak. Because some people shy away from modulations. They said, “Well, you play it in this key. “No, I’m used to playing it in A-flat” or “I’m used to playing it in B-flat” or whatever key. So they don’t want to go to another tonality, but I do. I do. I might take a tune and maybe go to three or four keys. That’s the things I like. That stimulates my mind, my thinking about the harmony and stuff. So what Idris was talking about was probably along that line.

TP: He’s far from the only one.

GEORGE, JR.: What I would say, the interesting thing about… It kind of pisses me off, too. The things that George and Mabern have developed over the years in terms of their ability to take a standard tune with standard changes, and really just reinvent it and look at it in a completely different way harmonically, but not doing it where they’re beating you over the head, like, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing”… It’s just kind of a natural progression and a flow of the great musicality that they have. Part of it, of course, they’ve played these standards a million times, so they want it to be interesting for themselves. But they also want them to be interesting for the musicians they play with and for the people who listen to them. Many times people are like, “Well, these guys are still doing what they did 50 years ago.” But not really. Sure, they might be playing a lot of the same standards, but their harmonic approach to it is different every time. To me, as a person either in the band or experiencing it, it amazes me. I never feel like… I’m not saying this because he’s my father, or Mabern… It just seems always fresh and it’s always interesting, and it’s something you don’t hear from a lot of musicians, even great ones. It’s not something that’s easy to do. They make it look so easy and sound so easy, I think a lot of people think it’s easy to do. But it is not.

TP: Otherwise more people would be doing it, as they say. They also noted that you and Mike played duets at a party celebrating your selection as an NEA Jazz Master at Smoke, and that put the finishing touch on the notion that you’d do a record.

GC: Yes, they had a little press party for me, sort of a little celebration at Smoke. Maxine Gordon organized it. She went to Paul to tell him, “Yeah, we’ll just have a little thing.” A few of my friends came by, musicians and people who had helped me through the years, like Jim Harrison and Matt White and people like that, who had been producers of jazz for many years. So it was a nice little celebration. I enjoyed it, and a number of musicians came by. My son made a nice speech for me, and recognition for the NEA Award and everything. It was nice.

TP: How did you feel about that award? Did it mean something?

GC: It meant something, sort of. But I looked at all the years before, and I saw a lot of other people who I thought deserved as much or more than me, who hadn’t received it. Like Harold Mabern. He’s been over there at William Patterson teaching for over thirty years, and he’s been playing for over fifty years with various artists throughout his history. Wes Montgomery. He was Joe Williams’ musical director. So he has an extensive repertoire.

TP: He played with J.J. for a while.

GC: J.J. A lot of people. I said, “Well, I’m getting it, but Mabern deserves it just as much or more than I do.”

TP: That being said… As we discussed, your discography as a leader is shockingly low for someone of your stature and the respect you’re held…

GC: Well, my personal discography.

TP: Not as a sideman, of course.

GC: There was a French guy who wrote a book about my discography. I’ve got it around here somewhere. But as far as recording with other people, I’ve recorded almost with everybody. There are so many people I’ve recorded with. There’s a lot of material out here, and a lot of material that I don’t even know about that people call me to tell me. “Man, I heard this fantastic recording of you where you were in Italy, you were in Germany, you were in Switzerland…”

TP: There’s a great youtube clip of you in Vittoria with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins. If I could use the word “killing”…

GC: That’s what George says. On that, I played “Dolphin Dance” from that Maiden Voyage thing; I hadn’t played it since the recording.

TP: Let’s talk about the repertoire on  A Master Speaks. As far as I can tell, you’ve only recorded one of these before—“Blondie’s Waltz” on Amsterdam After Dark. Maybe you’ve performed some of these pieces, but they aren’t cited on the online discography I consulted. Was that a deliberate choice?

GC: It was just some tunes we selected that I wanted to do. I figured that it would be good as far as repertoire. That’s how that came about. There was no special thing. I got rushed, because they wanted some original music, and I haven’t written original music in some time. So I had to come up with this original music in a week or so.

GEORGE, JR.: Great stuff, too.

GC: So the stuff I came up with was pretty spontaneous. Nothing really complex. I said, “I’ll just put something together that we can do real quick.”

TP: I think the complexity comes in the interpretation.

GC: That’s just it.

TP: A couple of the tunes made me think of some signposts. Perhaps in discussing them we can touch back on your personal history. “Blues For B.B.”—I guess B.B. King passed around the time you recorded it.

GC: That’s it. Pretty much.

TP: I know you played with him from 1953-55, and I think George, Jr., posted the youtube clip “Woke Up This Morning” on Facebook.

GC: That was his first hit, and probably the first R&B Latin beat, too.

TP: It sounded like a tango in the “St. Louis Blues” tradition.

GC: It was sort of like that, a rumba, whatever you want to call it.

TP: What was B.B. King like before he was B.B. King, so to speak.

GC: Oh, he was a great guy. B.B. was easygoing and very entertaining. He liked the idea of our little jazz concept that we had before he would come on the program. Of course, the people would be asking for him. We’d be playing these jazz tunes. We had a great arranger-composer during that time in Memphis, a guy by the name of Onzie Horne, who later became Isaac Hayes’ musical director.

TP: You’ve also mentioned a guy named Robert Talley, who helped you learn harmony and…

GC: Great piano player and arranger, too.

TP: You said he’d show you things on the piano.

GC: Yes. He’d show you some things that you might learn at Berklee, the chords they call half-diminished chords that he’d call minor 7s or flatted 5s, which is the same thing. That’s the way I learned it back in that day. I didn’t know anything about half-diminished with the slash over the zero. Just minor 7, flat 5, which is a half-diminished.

TP: Did you play piano?

GC: I learned arranging piano, and that’s basically what I do now. But I do know harmony somewhat on the piano.

TP: So when you were learning the saxophone, more or less self-taught…

GC: Same thing with the piano. I was a self-taught pianist. But I was around people during that time when I just started playing, about two years into playing. I was around people who were very learned, and they showed me things. They didn’t sit me down and say, ‘here’s a lesson; we’re going to have a lesson.” I would just sit and… I’d be around them, and if I sat down at a piano with Bob Talley, he would say, “Well, this is such-and-such-such.” So those guys were my teachers during that time. I was teaching, too, during that time. With everything I would learn, I’d show them. Like with Mabern. He wanted to know the changes of “All The Things You Are.” He’d be playing boogie-woogie during that time. This is during the early stages of his development. So I would show them whatever I knew. That’s where my teaching experience expanded to pretty much through my entire career. I was teaching what I was learning.

TP: You mentioned that you transcribed all the Charlie Parker solos you could get your hands on from the 78 records.

GC: Yeah, we did that. Not only me. There were a lot of other people doing that back in that time.

TP: In Memphis?

GC: Yeah. There were some guys in Memphis who did that. But this was all over the U.S.?

TP: Sonny Criss had already split by the time you were playing, right?

GC: Yes. But I met him years later in Paris, when he had moved to Paris. We had a nice relationship. Great player.

TP: But all the saxophone aspirants of your generation and younger were listening to Charlie Parker and forming a style.

GC: Everybody was listening to Charlie Parker. Piano players as well.

TP: And you were initially an alto player.

GC: Yes.

TP: B.B. King bought you your first tenor?

GC: That’s right. It was one of those things where it was a switch. That’s when the switch was made. Prior to that, I was just playing alto.

TP: In an interview I read, you said you had gone on the road with B.B. King and had your first airplane flight when Charlie Parker died.

GC: That’s right. From Memphis to Houston. I arrived in Houston and heard the sad news that Bird had passed away.

TP: Do you feel your approach to tenor is influenced by having played alto so much early on?

GC: Maybe. Probably. The transposition is a fifth. But it’s the same keys. 12 keys is 12 keys. If you’re playing tenor in the key of C, that’s G for the alto. It’s a different sound; it’s a different key from what you’re playing—the two together. It’s like a fifth. Ok. It’s a fifth. Of course, there’s a different embouchure you have to consider when you’re playing alto, and even with the soprano. You’ve got to have chops for all these instruments that you play, if you’re doubling. But since I was pretty well versed in keys, the switch was not that difficult to me.

TP: Keys came pretty naturally to you it sounds like. Obviously you worked hard, but it doesn’t seem to have been that big of a struggle.

GC: Well, one of the things was, we played in these country places where these pianos were out of tune. Terribly out of tune. So sometimes we had to play in the other key. If you were playing in C, you might have to play C-sharp, one of those abnormal keys…I won’t say abnormal, but it was abnormal because…

TP: Unusual maybe.

GC: Unusual. That’s the term. So through that, transposition and tonalities and things like were introduced to me at a very early age through that.

TP: Do you have perfect pitch?

GC: No, I don’t. But sometimes I can hear keys. Right now, I keep a tuning fork right near my bed, and when I hear something on Music Choice on the television I’ll test my pitch to see if I… I’m between 75%-85%.

TP: In those R&B bands when you were a young guy, the musicianship was very high.

GC: All those guys…a lot of those guys could write, and they were writing for some of the R&B people. Like…

TP: Floyd Newman.

GC: Floyd was in the band with me. He was the baritone player. Me and him are the last ones out of those 35-40 people, including the bus drivers, the people doing the booking during that time—all those people from B.B. King’s band, 1955, are gone.

TP: You might have been the youngest player in the band when you joined in 1953?

GC: Maybe the youngest. I’m not sure. I was probably 18 when I did “Woke Up This Morning.” That was the first actual recording I ever did, period, R&B or jazz.

TP: Did you solo on any other B.B. King recording?

GC: No, that’s the only one.

TP: You moved to Chicago in 1956, though. What precipitated your move to Chicago?

GC: It was a rich environment in Chicago. All the great players were there. Gene Ammons. Johnny Griffin. Sonny Stitt would come in from time to time. Of course, Bob Cranshaw. Muhal Richard Abrams.

TP: You played with the MJT+2 for a while.

GC: Walter Perkins’ group.

TP: Muhal was the pianist before Mabern joined.

GC: He was the first one. He was the original.

TP: Wasn’t Nicky Hill the first tenor saxophonist?

GC: Yes, he was. Nicky Hill. He was a great player, too.

TP: But what made you want to go to Chicago? Did you know it would be like that? Did someone suggest it? I think you told me that Chicago was the second stop.

GC: Yeah. From Memphis to Chicago, and from Chicago to New York. That was the geographic transition. The great thing about Chicago, and the great thing about Memphis, too… When I left Memphis, I was fairly equipped to be ready for Chicago. When we came into Chicago, the three of us, me and Mabern and Frank Strozier, they said, “Damn, them guys from Memphis, man…” So we were the rave during that time. All the Chicago musicians said, “Where did these guys come from?” So we were respected. Because we could play a little bit. But we learned a lot from people like Griff and Gene Ammons, all of them. Those were the great talents on the saxophone during those years. Clifford Jordan was there, too, though he’d left before I arrived. I met him later in New York. I think he left probably around the early 1950s, maybe ’53 or something. I got there in 1956 and he’d left.

TP: You had a gig at Budland next to the Pershing. It started at 6 in the morning, with Prentice McCrary on organ.

GC: that’s right. Chicago was 24 hours. There was a place called the Cotton Club that was open… It was Cotton Club first, and then they called it Swingland. They would have a bass on the stand and a set of drums, and guys would come in at all hours of the morning and night to sit in and play. That was the atmosphere in Chicago. The gig on Saturday started at 11 o’clock p.m. and went to 5:30-6 a.m. After that you had a gig that started at 6, or 9. In the Club DeLisa, on 55th and State, all the show people came to the breakfast dance. I’m trying to think of the drummer’s name.

TP: Red Saunders.

GC: Red Saunders had the band there. It was a great scene, man. It was 24 hours of music, polish sausages and barbecue.

TP: All those things that are bad for you.

GC: But it was good for you, too, because the music was so enlightening and rewarding. It was great. I feel very good about that transition I made from Memphis to Chicago. I might have made it from Memphis to New York, too. But that’s not what happened. The Chicago atmosphere prepared me for anything else I might have had to encounter in the New York scene. That in itself was a great experience for me.

TP: Did you have offers to record while you lived in Chicago? I’m asking because John Jenkins recorded for Blue Note, Clifford recorded for Blue Note, Ira Sullivan…

GC: Well, Lee Morgan heard me. He came through and heard me, and he wanted me to come to New York and record with him, which I did.

TP: On City Lights.

GC: Yeah, that was my first recording, along with House Party and all that stuff. All those things were recorded together. I did House Party with Jimmy Smith, and I did City Lights with Lee Morgan. I played alto and tenor.

TP: Are those representative of the way you sounded then?

GC: Heh-heh. I didn’t think I did too well on them. But I got through enough. I just got through. I wasn’t happy with any of the solos that I did. But I was experienced. I could look at a sheet of chord progressions and know how to improvise on that. That’s what happened. Then in the latter years, what I did with Herbie, it was the same thing that happened. On Maiden Voyage we went to the studio, Lynn Oliver’s on Broadway and 70-something, in that area. That’s where all the guys used to go rehearse for Blue Note—two hours. Next day, over to Rudy Van Gelder’s. Pickup at the Empire Hotel and to Rudy Van Gelder’s.

GEORGE, JR.: You told me an interesting story about that record. The first day of the recording, the drummer was different. It was Stu Martin?

GC: Yes. Stu Martin was pretty much under the impression that he was going to do the date. I think there was a little bit of politics involved in this. Herbie had promised him. He said, ‘Ok, Stu, you got…” Stu wasn’t bad, but, you know, he wasn’t Tony. So Alfred Lion, he was very opinionated about the music. “It doesn’t schwing. We can’t do that; it doesn’t schwing.” And if it didn’t swing, shit, he’d cancel the debt, pay everybody off—and that’s what he did on a couple of occasions.

TP: Quality control.

GC: Yeah. If he didn’t like it…ok, you’re finished.

GEORGE, JR.: So you guys just went back to Rudy’s the next day?

GC: We went back to Rudy’s the next day. Stu didn’t even know that he wasn’t on it. There is a cut with Stu playing “Maiden Voyage.” But I can’t remember any other takes on that stuff we did. Once we did the first take, that was it. “Dolphin Dance,” first time. Had to read the changes, because I wasn’t familiar with that harmonic thing. So that’s what happened. Now, “Maiden Voyage” was very simple, but “Dolphin Dance” was not so simple. He had different harmonic structures there that were… To this day… It’s an intricate little tune.

TP: Hard to tell you hadn’t played the stuff before. Sounds like you’d been playing it forever.

GC: I think we got lucky a little bit. What it is, is experience. Freddie hadn’t played this stuff either. We did a two-hour rehearsal, and we rehearsed all the stuff we did on the record. But it’s just two hours. You haven’t had time for that stuff to soak in so that you can really feel you’re in a positive improvisational situation. You’re thinking, “Well, I’ve got to read these chords; I’ve got to play this line.” But it came off ok. If you’ve got a little bit of experience… I didn’t have a helluva lot of experience in recording, but I knew what I could do, and…

TP: You did it.

GC: Yeah.

TP: Max Roach brought you out of Chicago?

GC: Yes, he came through when I was workign with the MJT+2. We were at the Blue Note. Frank Holzfiend was the owner.

TP: Max hired you and Booker Little together. You were very close to Booker Little, like a kind of older brother.

GC: Yes. Well, see, when I joined Max’s band, it was Kenny Dorham in there. When Kenny left, that’s when he got Booker. He called Booker in.

TP: How long were you with Max?

GC: Only about a year.

TP: you’re on 7 recordings with him between April 1958 and January 1959.

GC: Yes.

TP: You’ve called that a “finishing touch” kind of gig. Playing at tempos, odd meters…

GC: Oh yes, that was a really great experience for me. Then with the Slide Hampton Octet was another great experience. These are pianoless groups. But you still had to know your harmony. You still had to know what the chords were. We were playing chords. There was no piano, but we were playing chords. There was a bass there, and the drummer and no one else. So how could you go wrong. Nelson Boyd and Art Davis—great bass players.

TP: Mabern has told me about discovering Ahmad Jamal through Bill Lee.

GC: When I arrived, Ahmad was there. The king of Chicago. It was in a place called Pershing Lounge, right next to Budland, the place I used to start at 6 in the morning.

TP: I’m asking about Ahmad Jamal because you made that wonderful record with him.

GC: Oh, yeah. It was always mutual respect there. I didn’t know him that well, but I knew him somewhat. And he knew about us—meaning the guys from Memphis. Frank Strozier recorded one of his things, a big band thing. He played flute and…

TP: How did that recording with Ahmad Jamal in the ’90s come about? And what was it like playing with someone who comps behind you like an orchestra?

GC: I didn’t get in his way, so to speak. I just laid back and let him dictate. That was the thing when we made the tour. It was just like that. He’d come in and do his thing, then he’d bring me on. I always wanted to stay out of his way. I didn’t want to play while he was doing his trio stuff. But he would call me up, and then we had some special things that we would do with the quartet after he’d call me up. But his thing was… It would have been too complex to try to play with the stuff that he played. Because it was so unusual. Even when I would do those recordings, it wasn’t just straight time patterns… If it was a 32-bar pattern, he might put a tag in there for about 16 bars or so. So it was never anything that was strict. So I had to be listening for all of this stuff. I think that’s one of the things he likes about me, because he knew I could hear all this stuff he was doing.

TP: I guess the last piece here, “Time To Get Down,” a Rhythm piece, has an Ammons-Stitt feel to it.

GC: Yes.

TP: “These Foolish Things,” which you did in duo with LeDonne, makes me think of Ammons, of course, and it also made me think that two of my favorite recordings of yours are tenor-piano duos with Tete Montoliu, on Timeless, and with Richie Beirach on Triloka. Can you talk to me about playing when the drummer isn’t there.

GC: Tete Montoliu was just a fantastic guy. He was blind, but all he had to do was hear something, and then he had it. I don’t care what it was. It was fantastic. He could be all up with the minor third stuff, “Giant Steps” progressions; he could hear that. He could play that. It was remarkable how he would do that. All the double diminished stuff that people play today, he could hear that and play all of that. He was phenomenal. Tete Montoliu was one of the great musicians that I had the great pleasure of playing with.

Richie was great, too. Richie wrote these arrangements for me, for soprano and tenor, and we rehearsed them at his house on Spring Street, and we went to the studio and did them. There was no problem, because we had gone through them somewhat. He had 2 or 3 originals. Then we had a couple of standards that we did, I think. Then we had “Infant Eyes” that I had never played. Wayne Shorter tune. Great tune. I had never heard that.

TP: When you’re playing duo, do you approach things differently when there isn’t a drummer? I guess I could also ask if you play differently when there isn’t a chordal instrument? Those are challenging situations for you?

GC: It’s always challenges. The thing that helped me so much is the fact that, when I used to practice, I’d just pick up my horn, pat my foot, and play like I had a drum there, or everything was in time, in tempo. That’s the way I used to practice. So when it came to playing duos, before I had played solos, nobody but me. I would practice tunes like “All The Things you Are,” with the right tempo, playing all the changes in them. “Cherokee” I would practice with up-tempo, the same tempo, with the changes. So when I got with Max, you know, Max was right there with the time. You didn’t have to worry about the time. He’d bring you back, bring you in and take it out. His sound was impeccable. So you didn’t have to worry about that. In the case of Slide Hampton, of course, he had the octet there. It was six horns that would play backgrounds. So in a sense, you had a bit of harmonic lift there; you had a pianistic accompaniment. He’d play some written backgrounds behind you. But a lot of times, you played the with just bass and drums.

TP: I guess with Elvin Jones, there was no chordal instrument either.

GC: Same thing. Me and Frank Foster had a wonderful time. I had the gig with him in 1968, 1969. I went with Lee Morgan in the early 1970s. Elvin was another great musician. I’ve had an opportunity to be with the greatest!

TP: Well, with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins, you’re not doing too badly.

GC: That’s the top! For me to come up in that, people like Tony Williams…I mean, that wasn’t no problem. Tony Williams was great, too. But I had been with all of those guys, man. Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Billy Higgins! So time… I was always conscious of time, and they had such a great beat, each one of them, that you could float on their beats. By that I mean they swung so much, to use a better word, the swinging is like a pulse you get from playing the music.

TP: You were never with the Messengers, though.

GC: I was never with the Messengers. But I liked Art Blakey. I think I might have played just one gig with him. Not his gig. We were just on a gig. This was a day when he didn’t have no sticks, so he had to play with a coat hanger.

TP: there’s a tune called “Sonny’s Playground.” Is that Sonny Rollins?

GC: That’s Sonny Stitt. That was one of his signature things, which is a very difficult key to play the blues in—D-flat, concert. Of course, back in the old days, guys…that’s an old thing. “Woodchopper’s Ball,” that was in D-flat, and guys were playing tenor solos. But Sonny Stitt had another plateau with the D-flat blues. He was so technically efficient. That’s what you have to be to play that way in the key D-flat, which is transposed E-flat for the tenor saxophone. But Coleman Hawkins and those guys, like, in that classic “Body and Soul,” that’s D-flat. So D-flat is a key that’s a challenge for any saxophone player, and probably a pianist, too, or any other instrument. That’s why “Sonny’s Playground.” That was his thing. D-flat, fast tempo, very technically involved when it comes to fingering.

TP: There’s a youtube clip of an interview by Brian Pace, I think, where you talk about sitting in with Ammons and Stitt in Chicago, and making sure they knew you could hang with them.

GC: I was on the stand with him and Gene, and I was playing with them, and he tried to trip me up. He went over to Andrew Hill to change the key, and Andrew said, “that ain’t gonna bother him!” So after that, Sonny said, “Ok, look, man, you sit this one out. Me and Gene got it.” That’s the way it was.

TP: After that, you were best friends forever or something like that.

GC: Well, George’s mother used to play with Stitt. She played bass with him and organ. But he couldn’t quite place me. He didn’t know that this is Gloria’s husband. He just thought, “Who is this guy who always comes around and wants to sit in?” But I did one thing with him one night, but he was ok with it.

TP: “Darn That Dream” is another one of those classic ballads that it’s hard to believe you never recorded before. Is “You’ll Never Know What You Mean To Me” your…

GC: That’s LeDonne’s tune. I came and sat in with him one night, and they were playing it, so I heard it from the audience. I said, “Let me try a chorus of this.” So I grabbed Eric’s horn, and the first time I start playing it. He said, “Haven’t you heard this?” I said, “Yeah.” But it wasn’t that hard. [SHOWS ME THE TENOR PART]

TP: To me, it looks hard.

GC: But it’s not! It’s not really that difficult. But it’s got changes in it, and it’s a nice little tune, with a tag on it. But that’s LeDonne’s tune. That was a great little tune.

TP: Has “Shadow Of Your Smile” been part of your repertoire for a while?

GC: Well, back in the old days I used to play it.

TP: But you never recorded it.

GC: No. But Paul Stache mentioned it. He said, “Why don’t you do ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile.’‘ I said, “Ok, sure.”

TP: You’re easy! People think you’re difficult, but you’re easy.

GC: No, I don’t have no problems, man.

TP: “Invitation.”

GC: “Invitation” was something I wanted to play. My wife loved that, God rest her soul—Carol Hollister. So in memory of her I brought a thing out to play it. It’s a good tune.

GEORGE, JR.: It was the last tune we did on the date.

TP: It’s the first tune on the mix on the sequence that I received. I can’t do this piece and not ask you about your time with Miles.

GC: Make that as a conclusion.

TP: You mentioned that apart from Charlie Parker, Coltrane was a big influence on your concept and that Sonny Rollins was someone you were also checking out, but though you listened to many people, there weren’t really other influences.

GC: Strangely enough, I had influences back to the time when I started. People like the R&B players, like Louis Jordan. I think Sonny Rollins mentioned him, too. Louis Jordan influenced me, because I was playing alto during that time, and Louis Jordan was an alto player. There was Earl Bostic, of course, from that era. Tab Smith.

TP: All the lead alto players.

GC: Lead alto players, but great soloists.

TP: Did you hear Hank O’Day, the guy Hank Crawford took his name from, and Sonny Criss dug?

GC: Oh, yeah. I knew him. He was a nice guy. Helluva pool shark, too. He could play all bank, man. Those guys down there, they weren’t playing black ball or rotation. They were playing the whole thing. And five rails in the corner. They could take a ball here, and it would be sitting here, they’d say, “Ok, four rails in the corner.” The ball goes, BING, BOMP, BING, BING, and back, and hit that ball and knock it in, and wouldn’t scratch. Those guys…so they could do more… Slim Waters, my adopted father, who was a trumpet player, he was a pool shark, too. Then there was a guy who was in the barber shop. It was right across the street from the pool hall. I’d be sitting around, looking at them, and then I’d go back to Mitchell’s Hotel and practice. Your horn would be on the bed. It probably never was in the case. I’d take it out of the case and it would be there.

TP: So you were living at the Mitchell Hotel.

GC: I was staying in the Mitchell’s Hotel.

TP: Did you grow up in Memphis proper?

GC: I grew up on the north side of Memphis. Manassas High School.

TP: You had a teacher named Miss Thomas who would play you the Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to analyze it.

GC: See, I had basic elementary music education. I knew what the great staff was. I knew bass clef, treble clef, I knew what the lines and spaces were, and the names. I knew all of this stuff. Because that’s what they taught you in your first elementary education. Then we had music appreciation, where she would play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to identify it. What is this? All the basic stuff—whole note, quartet note.

TP: You had a thorough bedrock for a self-taught musician to build on. Then it was up to you.

GC: That’s right. I wasn’t even playing a saxophone during that time when she was teaching basic music, like the lines and spaces and clefs. I was playing a little bit. I could read a little bit. I was playing in the concert ball and also playing football.

TP: Were you a good football player?

GC: Not that great. I could tackle, and I had pretty good hands. Of course, I missed a pass one time that was right in my hands and broke my finger. It’s still bent. [SHOWS ME] I never bothered to have it straightened. I’ve worked with it all these years.

TP: Back to Miles. You sat in with the quintet, I guess, with Wynton Kelly, Coltrane, PC and Philly Joe, and they called something real fast…

GC: I called it. They asked me what I wanted to play, and I called “Lover.” So when they heard me play “Lover,” I think it probably convinced Miles. It was up.

TP: Did Miles or Coltrane know you from Chicago?

GC: No, I don’t think they knew me from Adam, as a matter of fact.

TP: Well, could just anybody sit in with Miles and Coltrane at the Bohemia?

GC: Well, I was there, and I heard them, and I asked to sit in. I didn’t have no horn, so Coltrane gave me his horn and I went up and played. I think they knew a little something about me.

TP: From Max maybe?

GC: Well, maybe. First of all, I think Trane was getting ready to leave, so he needed a replacement. So he recommended me. I never knew that.

TP: But Hank Mobley and Stitt came before you.

GC: I replaced Hank Mobley.

TP: This is what you told me a few years ago, and you fleshed it out more in an interview with a guy called Dan Miller for All About Jazz. The gist is that you were cramping their style because they wanted to mess with the form…

GC: You’re talking about Herbie, Ron and Tony.

TP: Yes. You said to Miller that you’d be out front because Miles would go to the bar for 10-15 minutes, it was cramping their style and it would drive them crazy, and then one night you decided to take your solo outside, and that calmed them down for a while.

GC: Yes. After they heard that, they knew that I could play that shit if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.

TP: Why didn’t you want to at the time?

GC: Because I was playing the repertoire of the leader, Miles Davis. He was playing his solos and stuff, but we were still playing the standards. We were playing “Autumn Leaves.” We were playing “Walkin’”. All that stuff. But they wanted to take that concept somewhere else when they were on the stand without him. I wanted to continue playing… First of all, as I said (and this is true), people thought I was Miles. When he wasn’t there, they thought I was Miles. Did you know that?

TP: I didn’t know it until I read your remark about that.

GC: Yeah, man, they thought I was Miles. People would come to me at the end of the set and say, “Oh, Mr. Davis, such wonderful music. Really. Thank you so much. Can I have your autograph?” It was something I didn’t like. I didn’t want to be out there trying to be him. First of all, the stature was different. I am 250 pounds, and Miles Davis was maybe, wet, 150 or 160. So they just didn’t know! He wasn’t there. During that time, he was in considerable pain with his hip. And some nights, I guess he didn’t really want to play. He would come in the Vanguard and play one set. After the first set, he’d be gone. So the second set, we’d have to play. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams.

GEORGE, JR.: He had hip and back problems back in those days?

GC: Well, he had a bad hip, and it would pain him. He was in extreme pain. So a lot of nights he wouldn’t make it. Strange thing about it, though, is the next night when he would come in… The first night, when he wouldn’t show up, there would be lines of people waiting for him. But we’d be in the club, and we wouldn’t show. So the club owner would say, “you guys go up and play tonight, and I’ll tell them that he’ll be here tomorrow night.” So when tomorrow came and he was there, there were still lines of people, probably a longer line than there was originally.

TP: Part of it is, “will he show up or night?” People thought like that then.

GC: Yes, they’d think like that. They said, “I’m going to get there, because I wonder if he’s going to show.” Because he’s like, you know, the high priest. That’s why I decided I couldn’t deal with it no more. Too much friction between them and me. That wasn’t the case off the bandstand. Oh, they were great pals with me off the bandstand, because I would have the girls. See, after the gig was over I’d always have me a girl, you know, a girl who would come to the room, and then they’d be coming, knocking on my door. “Hey, let us in, man.” So it was all pals. But when it came to the bandstand, it was another story. But it was a great experience. Wallace Roney told me (and they all know this), “Man, Miles didn’t want you to leave.” I do remember that day when he called me. “Are you coming back, man? Come on.” I said, “No, Miles.” “Why don’t you come back, man?” I said, ‘you know…” And he knew I was having problems with them. They were trying to get me fired anyway. They wanted to hire Sam Rivers, and after that they got Wayne Shorter.

TP: I guess Sam was Tony’s mentor in Boston, so they were very close.

GC: Exactly.

TP: And then Wayne, I’ve heard, had talked to Miles while he was still with Art Blakey, so politics were afoot in that situation as well.

GC: Sure.

TP: Do you think you’ll record again for Smoke Sessions?

GC: That’s a possibility.

TP: this one is coming out around your 81st birthday. I hope we can have one for your 82nd.

GC: Well, maybe. We’ll see. If this one goes good, and it just might… It might be ok. I’m not crazy about it, and that’s why I’ve been reluctant to listen to it.

TP: Do you have a favorite record?

GC: Some of the live stuff that I did with Wynton Kelly, I think with Ron McClure and Jimmy Cobb in Baltimore, at the Left Bank. Jimmy Heath came over to the house one night, and this guy sent me the transcribed solo of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”—my solo. I looked at it and I said, “what?” This stuff looked like a classical selection from Stravinsky. It had all kinds of different weird… Jimmy came here, I said, “Jimmy, check this out.” he put the whole sheet on the floor. It was almost ten pages. So we put the record on and he started looking at it, and he said, “man, it looks pretty good to me.” But it was crazy. It was like groupings of 7th with one beast, 5s, 7s… Weird. Did I give you that transcribed…

GEORGE, JR.: No. You showed it to me and I took a look at it.

GC: I’ve got to find it for you so you can have it for the archives.

TP: george, why don’t you tell me what you said about your father at the NEA Party at Smoke, or synopsize it?

GC: Did you record it?

GEORGE, JR.: I didn’t. I don’t know if anybody did. But basically what I said was… This is echoed by anybody who knows George. Besides being…we don’t like to say “unsung,” because there’s plenty of people who love George Coleman. One of the funny things is, I have Facebook… George is not a big social media guy, so I handle all that for him. I remember as soon as I got on, I started getting all these requests, and I’m like, “Who are these people? I don’t know who all these people are.” Then I started getting notes from them, like, “Mr. Coleman, I love your solo on ‘My Funny Valentine’ and I saw you in Italy…”

GC: They thought it was him.

GEORGE, JR.: They thought me was him. I never went to “Junior” or anything. It was “little George” or something like that within the family. So it was interesting to me to see all of these people from all around the world who were touched by what George had done musically, and in most cases didn’t know him, and in some cases they may have saw him live somewhere in Europe or Asia or whatever. So that was really interesting for me.

But the thing I spoke to at the NEA thing was the concept of my dad being a wonderful human being. He’s helped so many people. I don’t know how many times George has had students come over and not taken money from them, basically wanting to share all this great knowledge, or people who were down-and-out and needed help, and George lent a helping hand. I also think that’s a testament to his great playing, that he’s also a great human being. People who don’t know George don’t know that about him. But I think that’s one positive aspect in terms of why he’s always been great with crowds. He’s a very giving person, and he wants the people who listen to music to enjoy themselves and feel like they were really special and part of something, because they are. I feel a lot of the approaches to music these days are less focused on the interests of the people who are actually attending the concert and more about the interesting things that the musicians are doing for themselves on stage, and that’s not what George is about, and that’s the lesson I’ve always gotten.

GC: Whatever you play, you’ve got to entertain.

GEORGE, JR.: You’ve got to entertain. Somebody told me one day “it’s not called ‘show art.’ It’s called ‘show business’ for a reason.” That’s the other thing about George. That doesn’t mean you diminish the sophistication or complexity of what it is that you do musically. It’s just something that you keep in mind. It could be something as simple as feeling the crowd out and maybe wanting to call one particular tune, which I’ve seen George do many times, where we’ll be in the back…I’ll have an opportunity to play with him, I’ll be in the back, and he’ll say, “here’s the set list,” and then we get onstage and we don’t do any of those tunes, because at the moment George feels this crowd just seems different, so this will work better. So it wasn’t like we played any lesser music. We just felt the vibe of the crowd, or he felt the vibe of the crowd…

TP: But he’s describing a very art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, but then there’s another side that probably comes from playing for people…

GC: Miles Davis liked to play for people, too. All those guys. All the successful guys. Now, you’ve got people like Herbie and Chick Corea…they basically play for themselves. In a lot of instances, the stuff they play is for themselves. That’s their signature. But it might not be palatable to the ears of some people. Now, the staunch JAZZ people…you could take a nickel or a quarter and scratch it on some glass, and people say, “Oh, that’s great jazz.” But for people who really want to hear the people swing and want to hear some nice melody and nice rhythm and things like that…this is what some of the professionals I’ve come into contact with… I’ve been with some of the great professionals, like Lionel Hampton. Now, he was a showman, too. That’s what made them successful.

TP: Talent and showmanship.

GC: Yeah. Not necessarily showmanship… They would play stuff that the people would want to hear, play music the people would want to hear.

GEORGE, JR.: I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been at concerts, especially some of the clubs where a lot of tourists come, not necessarily regular jazz fans or people who live in New York, and they come up to me or come up to George and they say, “I’m not really a jazz fan, I don’t really like jazz, but I love what you guys are doing.”

GC: Yeah, that’s right.

GEORGE, JR.: that says to us that we did our job.

GC: I’ve been with a lot of people in showbiz. Even Max… All the guys I worked with, they played stuff. Max knew the people like “Valse Hot,” and they liked to hear him play 3/4. They knew things… I’m sure when Brownie was in the band and Harold Land, they played stuff that people were anxious to hear. “Daahoud” and all that stuff they recorded, they played that stuff, man, and they swung and it sounded so good, and it was up-tempo stuff. When Sonny was in the band… People liked to hear that. This is back in the day, though, Ted. The ears today, the youthful ears… I think they are somewhat deprived, because they don’t realize what it used to be like.

 

 

George Coleman (WKCR, 4-27-94):

TP: You’ve played so long with Harold Mabern and Jamil Nasser. You must go back at least forty years.
GC: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve been together for quite some time now, and it’s always a great experience playing with these guys.
TP: When did you first meet Mabern? Was it back in Memphis?
GC: Well, we were in high school together. I graduated a little ahead of them — well, him. Jamil was over at Booker T. Washington. We were going to Manassas High, which was on the North Side, and Booker T. Washington was on the south side of the city. Of course, the two schools were rivals. They were the top black high schools in Memphis during that time.
TP: Did they have good band programs?
GC: Yes, they had very good band programs, both of them. Both schools had nice marching bands. Of course, their forte was basically, though, I would say probably athletics. But there were some good musical programs.
TP: There also was probably a lot of work in Memphis for a talented young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties.
GC: Well…sort of. You had the R&B thing during that time. That was the popular music of that day. But of course, there was some Jazz there, too, also.
TP: A few words about some of these early working experiences. A lot of bands either would come through Memphis and would be based in Memphis, and it was a center of a certain aspect of the recording industry.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, during that time we’re talking about the early Fifties, late Forties. We had people like Count Basie’s band coming through. The guys would always come to this little place, which then was known as Mitchell’s Hotel. It’s long gone now. It was right on the corner of Beale and Hernando, and the proprietor was a guy by the name of Andrew Mitchell, affectionately known as Sunbeam. He just recently died, a couple of years ago. But he was very generous to musicians coming through during that time. A lot of times guys would be stranded, and they could always get a meal and a bed.
A lot of guys were coming through during that time. A lot of the R&B bands would come up and sit in. There was just a session. There was always a session there.
TP: It seems to me that having so many musicians come through, you’d learn very quickly how to edit your playing and how to approach soloing and so forth.
GC: Yes. I feel that we did have an advantage coming up in that time period, all the musicians who came up during that time, because there was a lot of exposure to the music — and everybody was trying to get involved with this great music. There was a lot happening. There was a lot happening for young musicians. Not so much today, because you’ve got to search high and wide to try to find a session, a jam session, whereas during that time, man, there was always somebody playing somewhere, or rehearsing some music, some original music or whatnot.
TP: Even so, it must be quite gratifying for an older musician from Memphis to see the talent that’s continued to emerge from there, or the hundred mile area, particularly the great group of pianists.
GC: Yes, there has been quite a talented array of pianists coming from Memphis — Mulgrew Miller, of course Mabern, the late, great Phineas Newborn, James Williams, Donald Brown. So it’s a pianist’s city. There’s another pianist named Charles Thomas who is also from Memphis. And there’s always some younger guys coming up.
TP: Often at the Vanguard you’ve worked with Billy Higgins or Carl Allen, sometimes Idris Muhammad, but I can’t remember you working with Jimmy Lovelace at the Vanguard.
GC: Well, Jimmy, affectionately known as Lace, has been a great drummer for many years. He goes back to that period of the Fifties. He’s always been an excellent player. And although he doesn’t get a chance to play as much, whenever he sits down on the drums, he really gives account of himself. He’s always there swinging and playing with taste and good chops, too. I don’t know how he does it, because he doesn’t play that much. Well, I think he’s playing a little bit more now. Anyway, we’re very happy to have him.
TP: A few words about the two others in the band with whom you’ve been playing for so long, Jamil Nasser and Harold Mabern.
GC: Well, they’re always excellent. They just know what to do at the right time, and their repertoire is always extensive. They know just hundreds of songs, and we have quite a few harmonic devices that we use. We always listen to each other, and that’s how we formulate and really get a groove going, because we listen to each other rather than just close your eyes and just be playing. We’re always listening for something that will help us to communicate.
TP: Will all three of your horns be in evidence this week?
GC: Well, yes, I’ve been trying some new stuff, you know, and hopefully it will work out pretty good. But those are tricky instruments, the alto and the soprano.
TP: Well, you started off as an alto saxophonist, didn’t you?
GC: Oh, yeah. That was my original instrument.
TP: How did the switch to the tenor come about? Because of the function of rhythm-and-blues gigs, you had to play tenor?
GC: Yes, that story was when I went to join B.B. King. That was when I switched to tenor. Because he had an alto player. He didn’t need a tenor player. So I started playing tenor then. That was circa 1955, somewhere around there.
TP: We have a few tracks cued up from recent recordings that you appear on. One is with Hilton Ruiz. There is a partnership there over the years as well.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, Hilton and I have been on tours together. As a matter of fact, he was the pianist on my first European tour as a leader, with a quartet, going back to around ’76 or ’77,.
TP: That was documented on Timeless, an LP called Amsterdam After Dark.
GC: That’s right. Billy Higgins was the drummer on the tour, but Sam Jones wasn’t with us. He was playing with Cedar during that time.
TP: According to the liner notes, you brought this piece in for Hilton’s last date for Novus, A Moment’s Notice, a piece called “Strange” featuring you and Hilton Ruiz as the primary soloists, also Andy Gonzalez on bass and Steve Berrios on drums, dueno and timbales as well.
GC: It’s an old song that a lot of people don’t know about. It was recorded many years ago by Nat King Cole. He was the first artist that I had heard perform the tune. I always liked it. I liked it harmonically, and it had a nice kind of little Latin thing to it. So I thought that would be quite appropriate for Hilton’s date. So I did introduce it, and he decided that he wanted to record it.
[MUSIC: Ruiz-Coleman, “Strange” (1993); Beirach-Coleman, “Flamenco Sketches” (1992); Coleman-Henderson-Pierce-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: Are we to assume that “Lo-Joe” is a dedication to your partner on that date, Joe Henderson?
GC: That’s correct, yes, yes.
TP: I was just asking you 30 seconds how long it took everyone to nail that down.
GC: Well, they got it pretty quick, I must say. Of course, when we play it now, we play it very fast. We play it up-tempo.
TP: That wasn’t up-tempo?
GC: No, that wasn’t really as fast as we play it. We use it like for a chaser when we’re coming off. Heh-heh.
TP: People who want to sit in, beware, because George will probably put that one on you and change the key three or four times as well! Preceding that was a duo with pianist Richie Beirach on “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. That’s from a date I enjoyed very much that didn’t get distributed as widely as it might have, on the Triloka label, Richie Beirach and George Coleman, Convergence. That brings to mind another duo date you did in the 1970’s with Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu. And another thing it brings to mind is that George Coleman spent a couple of years with Miles Davis. So I’ll have to ask a question that brings all of that into play. You said that the song itself was new to you when Richie presented it to you.
GC: Yeah, I had no idea of what it really was. I just looked at the chord progressions and just improvised from that. Of course, I’m assuming that that’s basically… The way it sounds, the way I remember it, I might have heard it maybe once, the rendition of Miles Davis. When I heard it, that’s basically what it was. I didn’t hear any kind of profound melody. It was just something that seemed to be a slow ballad-type thing with just changes and free improvisation. That’s what it sounded like to me.
TP: So this one didn’t get played when you were part of the Miles Davis group.
GC: No, that wasn’t a part of the repertoire at the time.
TP: Since we’re on the subject, what were the circumstances that led you to joining Miles.
GC: Well, strangely enough, I think I found out much later that it was John Coltrane who recommended me for the job.
TP: How long had you known John Coltrane?
GC: Well, I didn’t really know him that well. I had met him a couple of times. He was a very, very beautiful guy, always there, very humble, and was just a sweetheart of a person, always there to help you. I remember one time I came down and sat in with the band. This is at the old Bohemia down on Barrow Street. This is many years ago. This is when I first arrived in New York. I was with Max during that time, I think. Anyway, he let me play his horn, mouthpiece and everything. So I sat in and played with Miles, and I guess evidently I had made some kind of an impression on him. Because when Trane got ready to leave, or when he asked him about people, he recommended me.
TP: That must have been an interesting band to play with. Was it different every night? Were the tunes treated in a different way?
GC: Yes. Well, a lot of people oft-times comment about that, wondering if we really rehearsed those things we were doing, or if the rhythm section really rehearsed. No, this was pretty much spontaneous, everything… We had a format, though, of course. I would play counter-lines behind him or some little harmonies, and these were set things. But as far as into the guts of the tune, all kind of things might be happening. There would be tempo changes, or 3/4 in a section which if it was a 4/4 tune it would do. They were very inventive, I must say. The rhythm section was very… They were young guys, and they were interested in doing new, different things. As a matter of fact, I was probably considered the old man, heh, the old post-Bebop player! I was trying to adhere to basic rules of Jazz playing, and they were on another plateau. They were moving out. They were getting ready to do some different things, which they did.
TP: Can you elaborate on that a little more?
GC: Well, yeah. There were times when they felt I was kind of cramping them. Because I was always pretty much a straight player. But one night I stretched out and played a little free something for them, and they were all amazed. All of them including Miles, because he had left the bandstand, and when he heard what was going on and said, “What was that?!” Of course, Herbie and Tony and Ron, they were all very I guess pleasantly surprised — because that was that one night. But I didn’t do it any more after that.
TP: You figured you’d made your point.
GC: I just wanted to show them it wasn’t impossible for me to do that.
[END OF SIDE]
I would love to do something with maybe Ahmad Jamal one of these days.
TP: Were you checking him out when you were living in Chicago in the mid-1950’s?
GC: Oh yeah. He was the house band at the Pershing Lounge for many years. So we would always go there and hear the trio with Vernell Fournier and Ahmad and Israel Crosby, a great bass player. Every night, man, they were there hitting. They were there hitting right in the lounge of the Pershing Hotel, and he was there playing so magnificently every night.
Chicago was such a great place during that time, man. I mean, you had music twenty-four hours a day. I tell people that.
TP: And they say, “What do you mean, twenty-four hours a day?”
GC: Yeah! Well, actually I had a gig that started at six o’clock in the morning at a place called Budland that was adjacent to the Pershing Hotel. They had a little place there, and we used to start at six in the morning. Then there was another place up on State Street…
TP: Who was your band?
GC: There was a guy named Prentice McCrary. Johnny Griffin would know who that is. Most people would not know this guy. But he was the organist, a very good keyboard player. I can’t remember who the drummer was.
TP: What type of people would be going to these six in the morning gigs?
GC: Well, people who have late gigs or early morning. Bartenders and waitresses and people like that, they would be up that early time, at that time of the morning! Just like the after-hour joints that used to be here in New York!
TP: It’s hard these days to conceive of an actual gig that hits at six in the morning.
GC: Well, they had something called the Breakfast Show at the Club De Lisa during that time, the famous Club De Lisa on State Street in Chicago. That started at like 8 o’clock in the morning. Nice show, beautiful show, dancers and singers and whatnot. This guy Red Saunders was the bandleader there for many years. He was a drummer, and he had that gig sewed up for many years.
There was a lot of excitement there in Chicago during that time, a lot of excitement and a lot of opportunities for young musicians to learn the music. There was another place where Johnny Griffin used to play all the time, a place called Swingland on Cottage Grove. He had bands in there. The music was continuous in there. After the regular gig was through, there were instruments on the stand, drums and bass, and people would come in at all times of morning or night. It just never ended.
TP: You had had a lot of experience playing the Blues in Memphis, so I guess Chicago must have been a place where you were able to get gigs and further develop yourself.
GC: Yes, that was a second stage. I had had some experience in Memphis playing with bands and doing a little bit of reading and a little bit of arranging and whatnot. But when I got to Chicago, that really opened up a different thing for me. That really gave me some very good opportunities to learn the music and to continue to develop. And meeting up with Johnny Griffin was one of those inspirational things.
TP: It’s a jam session town, and a tenor player’s town, and it was filled with great tenor players in the 1950’s.
GC: Oh, there was guys there… Also Gene Ammons was there during that time when I was there, and he’s such a wonderful player, and a nice guy, too. Of course, Sonny Stitt would come through from time to time. It was just great. There were a couple of other guys around there that nobody really knows too much about. There was a guy named Nicky Hill, who was an excellent saxophonist, a guy named John Jenkins, who just recently passed, an altoist — he was from Chicago. There was quite a few guys there, lesser-known people, but still great players.
TP: George Coleman is a musician who every time you think he’s topped himself, well, he tops himself the next time, and you can hear him with people he’s been playing with for years at the Village Vanguard this week, Harold Mabern on piano, Jamil Nasser on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums. The next track we’ll hear is from My Horns Of Plenty which you did for Verve a couple of years ago with Mabern, Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, where you showcase your alto and soprano saxophone.
GC: I like playing these instruments if I can get a comfortable situation with the right kind of acoustical setting. If the mikes are right or if the sound is good, then I feel good about these instruments. But without these things it can be somewhat of a problem, as most people who play these instruments can tell you, especially a soprano. But I’m giving it a try this weekend at the Vanguard. I haven’t been playing them for a while, but I’m going to try to see what I can do this weekend.
TP: We’ll hear “You Mean So Much To Me.”
GC: This is something that I had conceived some years ago, when I was touring with the band that I told you about, with Hilton Ruiz and Billy Higgins and Ray. So I would always be messing around on the piano, trying to figure out what I was going to do with it. So I finally put it together, and thusly that’s what it is. I came up with a title. And Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, wrote some lyrics to it. It could be a singer’s tune.
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “You Mean So Much To Me” (1989)]
[-30-]

 

**************

George Coleman (WKCR, 7-26-95):

[MUSIC: G. Coleman-A. Queen, “Soul Eyes” (1987); Coleman-Pierce-Henderson-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: You’ve been bringing in different drummers to these Vanguard weeks. Billy Higgins has been in there, last time Idris Muhammad, and this week Alvin Queen. A few words about Alvin Queen, and how you relate to different drummers, how they affect the way you play.
GC: I always try to get the best that’s available, and sometimes that can be difficult because the real good drummers are working. We’ve had Lewis Nash, we’ve had, of course, Billy Higgins, we’ve had Idris Muhammad, Carl Allen — and this week we’re having Alvin Queen, which is a blessing.
TP: How far back do you go with Alvin Queen?
GC: Alvin and I go back a bit. I first became really acquainted with him, so to speak, when I was in Europe touring in the 1970’s, like in 1975, and he came up to sit in with us in Rome. Prior to that, I was not really hip to how well he played. I knew he was a good drummer, but you never know until you play with people and really find out the finer points of what they can do.
TP: What are you looking for in your drummer when you’re playing? Is there a hierarchy of qualities?
GC: Well, there are several things. One of the basic things is keeping time, and then after that, imagination, taste and things of that sort. That goes into being a good drummer. You know, taste is the thing where a drummer can hear you do something, and he’ll dress it up for you. That’s in the vernacular of Billy Higgins and drummers of those dimensions. Of course, Idris Muhammad is excellent for that. But I’ll tell you, the real great drummers tend to be rare. There are a few nice young ones. You have Billy Drummond and people like that (who I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with that much). But the drum chair is a very critical chair. It motivates the structure of everything that’s happening, especially in a quartet situation.
TP: The drummer has to hold it all together.
GC: Oh yeah.
TP: Now, Harold Mabern is known for his very percussive and rhythmic style.
GC: Well, he definitely adds to the rhythmic portion of the band. He sort of anchors everything along with the drummer. He enhances the drummer.
TP: And a great harmonic knowledge as well.
GC: Of course. That’s another one of his fortes.
TP: Has that been there ever since you’ve known him? — I guess going back forty years plus.
GC: Yes, he’s always been interested in doing different things harmonically. And we have sort of a connection there, all of us, including Jamil, whereas we like to do different things harmonically. And sometimes these things turn out to be spontaneous, too; they’re not pre-planned. But that’s the way we think.
TP: Who were some of the good drummers you played with going back to your early days in music, in Memphis, some of the exceptional, strong ones?
GC: Well, there weren’t too many great drummers back there in Memphis during that time. There was a guy named Charles Crosby, who is deceased, who was one of the young drummers during that time who were… There just weren’t that many in Memphis during that time.
TP: I guess they had to keep time pretty well, because they had to play on the Blues circuit and so forth.
GC: Yes. Well, that’s what they were basically involved in. There weren’t many jazz-orientated drummers down there during that time. Only a few, and nobody would know who they are.
TP: Did you start getting involved with big-time, major league drummers when you moved to Chicago?
GC: Yes. Now, that’s when things started happening, because there were quite a few great drummers there during that time. Unfortunately, I missed Ike Day. He was that legendary drummer that Max and Art Blakey and all of the great drummers used to talk about. He was really something. I never got a chance to meet him or play with him. All of the great drummers, Max and Art Blakey and probably even Klook, they knew about him. He was just an exceptional percussionist.
TP: Who were some of the drummers that you did work with? Because when you came out of Chicago, you came out with Max Roach!
GC: Well, I was fortunate enough to have the cream of the crop, see. That was ultimate. And through him, my technique developed, because we were playing fast all night; most of the times, everything we played was fast.
TP: So it’s different dynamics on fast.
GC: Oh, yeah. The emphasis was on fast, really, with him. And of course, he was a pioneer in developing 3/4 in its association with Jazz. Max was the first guy to play 3/4.
TP: How did he link up with you? You must have joined the band in late ’57 or early ’58.
GC: Yes. Well, what happened was, I was playing with a group called the MJT+3 in Chicago during that time, featuring Walter Perkins and Bob Cranshaw, Muhal Richard Abrams, and a trumpet player by the name of Paul Serrano. We were playing a club on the North Side of Chicago called the Blue Note. Max came in one night, and he heard us, and he was very impressed. Then after that he heard Booker Little. As a matter of fact, I think that particular night he heard Paul Serrano, but he was very much impressed with Booker Little, because Booker Little was like what he was looking for in a trumpet player.
TP: What was that? What were those qualities?
GC: Well, he was looking for great technique and an innovative ability, and youth, too. And when Kenny Dorham left the band, that’s when Booker joined. He snatched Booker right away.
TP: You knew Booker Little about as well as anyone.
GC: Oh yeah. We grew up back in Memphis. I was amazed at his talent even when he was just a kid. He had transcribed a Miles Davis solo on “Star Eyes” note for note, and I was very impressed with that. Of course, he was just a phenomenal player.
TP: Can you tell the audience a little bit about Booker Little’s background and what you remember about his first forays into Jazz?
GC: Well, he was sort of like a protege of mine, in a sense, because he was a little bit younger than me, and I was, in a sense, like a teacher to most of the younger players there, like Frank Strozier… Not really a teacher, but I was a sort of a…
TP: …role model.
GC: Yeah, a role model, and I would put them in a catalystic direction as far as Jazz was concerned. I would tell them what to do, and what it was all about, and how to improvise, and what this chord was. And I was still learning, too, during this time. But I have been a teacher… Even during the time when I was learning, I have been a teacher. I am happy to say that and I’m very proud of that…
TP: It probably helped you learn.
GC: Oh, it did. Most certainly. And it has transcended through all the years that I have been involved with music.
TP: But did Booker Little have that incredible sound that we can always identify him with from his early years?
GC: Oh, yes. He always had a great sound, reminiscent of Clifford Brown — very mellow, you know. It’s almost a flugelhorn like sound on a trumpet. He never did have the blare. Even when he would go up to maybe a high D, the note was so mellow. It was not screechy. Of course, that’s a very high note on a trumpet. But he could play up there. He could play high F’s and it would sound so mellow.
GC: Who were the trumpet players that he was really paying close attention to? You mentioned him transcribing Miles’ solo on “Star Eyes.”
GC: Oh, yeah. Well, of course, Miles and Dizzy and Fat Girl and all the great trumpet players, Clifford Brown, that’s the people he was listening to. But he was not copying not one note from any of them! It was amazing, because he was a stylist at a very early age. He was playing like nobody but himself. Which was amazing, you know. If you listen to him, you don’t really hear… I mean, you hear little nuances maybe from different people. But his ideas were his own.
[MUSIC: Max Roach-K. Dorham-G. Coleman, “Parker’s Mood” (1958)]
TP: Right before you came on we heard a track called “Lo-Joe.” You’ve been a student of the tenor saxophone and of other tenor saxophonists for many years. When you came up in the 1950’s, when you started emerging on the scene, who were some of your contemporaries who you were really enthusiastic about at that time?
GC: There were quite a few. Of course, when I arrived in Chicago there was Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons. Those were really the two that I was most impressed with during that time. Of course, Sonny Stitt would pop in from time to time. There was just quite an array of saxophonists on the scene at that time.
TP: How did listening to them shape your style, if at all? For instance, Gene Ammons.
GC: Well, my style was basically shaped through listening to Charlie Parker. He was the man for me, Charlie Parker. Then later came John Coltrane. But then there were so many others. There was Hank Mobley, of course Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Lucky Thompson, and Don Byas and some of the older players that I was very impressed with — technique and originality.
TP: Did you study their records, check them out live, transcribe solos, things like that?
GC: No, I’ll tell you. Those guys, the solos they played were very difficult to transcribe, man!
TP: Why is that?
GC: Because they were so unique. The stuff that they were playing was really… You’d say, “Man, that stuff’s not even on the horn, what these guys are playing.” Because they were so individual. They knew how to bend a note. I mean, you couldn’t even notate the stuff that they played. Even if you could write the notes, you wouldn’t be able to notate it because of the way they played notes — the way they slurred, the way they would bend the note, the way they would finger. There’s no prescribed way of doing that. Eddie Lockjaw Davis is a prime example of that. He’d hit a note, and it just would sound like it wasn’t even on the tenor, the way he played it. Of course, he was one of my idols, too. I loved the way he played, because he was so unique.
It’s been said in this modern day and age that there are so many young players out there, and they all sound the same. But during that era, everybody sounded different. You had Paul Gonsalves, you know. They were coming from different schools, like maybe Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, but they sounded different! All of them sounded different. They played different ideas. Some of them had a tendency to have somewhat of the same kind of sound, so to speak, but even that was different. There was just so much difference in players. It was a challenge for you to come up in that era and not sound like those people. But I never would rely on anybody else’s licks. I would listen to it and analyze it. Like some of the diminished things that Coltrane used to play, all the saxophone players was playing those. And I loved the licks! But I would always turn it around and play it a different way. It would be the same kind of diminished sequence, but I would just maybe invert or do something else with it.
I think all of us have come from somebody. Like, the emphasis of a lot of players, especially the so-called avant-garde ones, they’re saying, “Oh, I don’t want to sound like nobody.” But you know, they don’t sound like nothin’! Most of them don’t sound like anything. They’re not musical. Now, that’s a harsh statement to make, but it’s true in a sense. Because saxophone playing is something that has dated back many years, and the expertise has been handed down through all of these great players. For somebody to just get up and just play meaningless notes without connecting is… But you know, you have the critics, they say, “Oh yes, he’s creative, he’s this and he’s that and he’s that.” That kind of irks me, in a sense. It disturbs me, because they don’t really know. They don’t really know. When I first started playing, I could make a sound, I could make a strange sound on the saxophone. But to put notes in order and to have them mean something, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically, that’s something that requires study, expertise and God-given talent.
TP: In the Fifties, it seems to me you were doing a lot of doubling, alto-tenor. There are a number of recordings with you on alto saxophone at that time. What was the primary reason why you went pretty much exclusively with the tenor saxophone?
GC: Well, I changed to tenor back in 1955, after playing alto maybe four years, because it was an economic necessity. I went with B.B. King, and he already had an alto player; he needed a tenor. So that’s how that came about. The rest is history. But alto was my forte, and was my first instrument. That was the instrument that I first began to play.
TP: What’s the difference between the two instruments for you?
GC: They have different characteristics, you know. Alto is a control instrument. Of course it’s a different pitch. Alto a sixth from Concert and the tenor is like a major Ninth or just a step away from Concert. But transposition-wise, that never bothered me, because I would play in all the keys anyway, even as as kid when I was coming up. So the keys was never a thing that… The transition from one key to another was never any problem with me, because I practiced all the keys on both instruments.
TP: Do you find yourself shaping solos differently on the tenor saxophone because of the different sound?
GC: Yes, that is a possibility that enters into the picture. When you’re playing alto there’s a couple of little things that you might think differently on alto than you do on tenor — and even soprano. They all have their own different characteristics, and it sort of influences as far as what you might play on each one.
TP: Are you playing only tenor this week?
GC: No, I’m struggling with the three! And if I can get some good reeds, that’s going to facilitate my performance a little bit better. But last night I had a terrible time with reeds.
TP: I’ll bet nobody knew but you.
GC: Well, sometimes that’s the case. But if there are musicians in the audience who know, and know about this problem, they can acknowledge the fact when things like that are happening.
[MUSIC: George Coleman, “Father” (1987)]
TP: Are you working on any recording projects right now? Any ideas in mind at the moment?
GC: Well, I am pursuing in my mind… This is something that I have been thinking about for a while. I would really like to do some strings stuff, maybe an album with strings and voices. This is something I would like to do.
TP: What’s the appeal of strings and voices? It seems like every strong jazz musicians wants to do at least one record with strings and voices.
GC: Yeah. Well, with a full orchestra behind you, there’s so much excitement and inspiration, in my mind, that I think I could probably do some things that maybe I haven’t attempted to do before, if I could have that kind of an ensemble, so to speak, behind me, with voices and strings. Because I’ve always liked that. I have some equipment at home now that I just recently set up. I have the music-writing stuff, the Finale and the Encore, and it’s all hooked up to the MacIntosh, and now I have this Roland Synthesizer, and just through that I’ve been hearing some different sounds. It’s inspired me to realize the potential of maybe being involved in a project like that. So that’s what I’m really thinking about doing. I don’t know who is going to help me do it, but…
TP: I’m sure there’s a big pool of arrangers and composers out there to actualize it if the money is there.
GC: Yeah. I’d like to maybe give a stab at doing one myself. That would give me a little more of something different from my octet writing.
TP: How about the Octet? A lot of people miss that group.
GC: Well, we’re going to revive it. Of course, the personnel is different. There’s a lot of younger musicians in it now.
TP: Who would be some of the young musicians you’d use if it were coming down to that.
GC: Of course, there’s Ned Otter, who is one of my students. Adam Brenner, who is another. Of course, Gary Smulyan, an excellent baritone saxophone player; he’s in the band, too. Of course, George, Junior, my son; he’s playing drums. Clint Houston has been playing bass. Of course, Harold Mabern is the pianist. And Bill Mobley from Memphis is the trumpet, another young man who is a great arranger and a great trumpet player. So with all of these ingredients, I think we can really do something. We’re going to start some rehearsals in the near future.
TP: We’ll conclude with George’s interpretation of “Good Morning Heartache,” composed by Irene Higgenbotham and sung by Billie Holiday. I’m sure you heard this one often as a kid.
GC: Well, I had only heard it through the rendition of Diana Ross. That’s the first time I had really heard that tune, and I was impressed with it. The first few bars are kind of strange, you know, but if you adhere to the melody you can get through it and interpret it. But it’s kind of strange. It’s kind of funny in the beginning of that tune!
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “Good Morning Heartache” (1987)]

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For Russell Malone’s 55th Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2016 and a Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2005

For master guitarist Russell Malone’s 55th birthday, here’s a feature profile that I wrote about him in the fall 2016 issue of Jazziz, and the proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2004.

Russell Malone, Jazziz, 2016:

Before settling into the formalities of an interview in the kitchen of his Jersey City row house, Russell Malone, Southerner that he is, decided to feed his guest. First he prepared ginger lemonade, a 20-minute procedure that included eight squeezed lemons, a lot of ginger, and agave for sweetener. Then Malone shaved daikon, cooked sushi rice infused with butter, fixed a ponzu sauce, seared some pea-shoot greens with garlic and, finally, broiled two slabs of salmon.

Malone worked methodically, washing and drying the dishes and utensils after each stage of the process. He was dressed well — cream-colored linen slacks; a forest green shirt from Thailand with gold brocading, untucked — but didn’t wear an apron. We spoke as he cooked, and continued to speak as we ate lunch, trading opinions and scurrilous gossip, discussing family and mutual acquaintances. Ninety minutes later, it almost seemed a shame to turn on the digital voice recorder.

The subject at hand was Malone’s spring release, All About Melody (High Note), on which the 53-year-old guitarist and his quartet — pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III — address an American Songbook ballad; two American Soulbook torch songs; a spiritual; and originals by jazz icons Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Heath, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Lee and Sonny Rollins. Malone also presents his own ballad, “Message to Jim Hall,” directly followed by a brief voicemail from the late iconic guitarist.

Neither notions of high concept nor narrative arc inform the program, Malone says, not even his decision to follow his dedication to Hall, who famously played on several early-’60s recordings by Rollins, with Rollins’ “Nice Lady,” which Malone learned while touring with the saxophonist in 2010. “Those songs are fun to play,” he says. “When I make a record, I want the songs to flow naturally, to hold your attention, just like playing a set in a club.” He affirmed his close friendship with Hall. “Jim would call to tell you how he felt about you,” Malone says. “He was big on taking the time, effort and thought to write a letter, get the stamp, put it on the envelope, and mail it. I have a stack of his handwritten letters. I didn’t get around to writing Jim a letter, but I did get around to writing that tune for him.”

For a unifying thread, Malone suggested the title, edited from HighNote proprietor Joe Fields’ suggestion, “It’s All About the Melody,” which, he says, seemed too preachy and dogmatic.“This could have titled any of my other records, because that’s always been my attitude,” Malone says, before fleshing out the core aesthetic principle that infuses his previous 11 leader recordings since 1992 and numerous sideman or collaborative appearances with — to name a roughly chronological short list — Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick, Diana Krall, Benny Green and Christian McBride, Ray Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ron Carter and Rollins.

“I’m as influenced by singers as by instrumentalists, and whenever I learn a song, particularly a standard or a ballad, I listen to a vocalist’s rendition,” he says. “I want to learn not just the harmonic structure, but the story, the lyrics — everything. Those things go through my head when I play them. I try to sing through my instrument.”

In that regard, Malone mentions his unaccompanied reading of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he heard growing up in Albany, Georgia. “If you noticed, I only played the melody,” he says. “Sometimes a strong melody, good changes and a good story is enough. That’s my thing these days.”

Malone adhered unstintingly to this stated criteria for song selection and play-your-feelings interpretation on both All About Melody and its 2014 HighNote predecessor, Love Looks Good On You. The latter date transpired four years after Triple Play, a trio recital that was Malone’s only studio recording during a six-year, four-CD run with MaxJazz, a fine boutique label that ceased operations after the death of its owner, Richard McDonnell.

“I was working so much, it wasn’t a priority to do a record if nobody would get behind it,” Malone explains. Several labels suggested he join their roster, but none followed up. “My attitude was: Your loss; if you ignore me, I’ll keep forging ahead. Then Joe Fields contacted me. People who’ve worked with him told me he’d support the records. Joe seemed to be the only guy interested in someone who plays like I do.”

He referenced the phrase “interview music,” coined by pianist Mulgrew Miller, Malone’s dear friend and colleague from before the guitarist moved to New York from Atlanta in the late ’80s until Miller died in 2013. “Certain musicians talk a good game, and sound deep and interesting, and it gets over,” Malone says. “But writers don’t consider people who play like me as cutting edge. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective — devoid of melody, swinging, blues and, heaven forbid, any black elements — are described as pushing the music forward. That’s complete bullshit to me.”

He recalled a brunch gig with organist Trudy Pitts in Philadelphia around 1990, playing tunes for “older people who wanted to hear some melodies.” One of Malone’s core influences, Kenny Burrell, working in town, was in the house. So were a group of college students. “Whenever I played something a little outside or rebellious to what was going on, these kids went, ‘Yeah, man — whoo-oo!’ Instead of thinking about the music, I started to think about impressing them with my crazy, dissonant shit.”

After the set, the admirers offered compliments: “Yeah, you were really pushing the envelope; you’re taking it out.” Malone thanked them, proceeded to Burrell’s table, and sat down. Malone recounts: “I had the nerve to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Burrell, you hear what I’m working on?’ He put his arm around me, and started chastising me like I was his son. He told me that what I’d played may have worked well in another situation, but it didn’t work here. You have to play what the situation calls for, which means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Any time you’re playing to prove something, it’s not honest. I never forgot that. And I never did that again.”

[BREAK]

“I am flexible,” Malone says. “I take pride on being open enough to play with anybody.” He’s played “Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” with Andy Williams on The Mike Huckabee Show. He’s shared stages with B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole; channeled the pioneering electric guitarist Eddie Durham in Robert Altman’s Kansas City; played the blues with Clarence Carter and raised a joyful noise with the Gospel Keynotes. He’s played high-level chamber jazz with Ron Carter and supported Dianne Reeves in a two-guitar format with Romero Lubambo. He’s rehearsed outcat projects with Bill Frisell and James “Blood” Ulmer. He visited Ornette Coleman’s loft once for a marathon of shedding.

Malone grew up in a Pentecostal church, where he discovered the guitar. He traces his openness to the experience of playing it there from age 6 to 18. “It fascinated me how these church mothers singing spirituals would move people to tears, or to get the Holy Ghost and shout in response,” he says. “That’s when I started to really listen — the singers might start singing in any key, and not always at the same time, so I learned to be flexible throughout the guitar neck.”

As he entered his teens, Malone memorized his first guitar solo from Howard Carroll of the Dixie Hummingbirds, had “epiphanies” from B.B. King and from “country” guitarists like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis on Glen Campbell’s TV show. In 1975, “on a school night when I should have been in bed,” he saw George Benson play “incredible things” on “Seven Comes Eleven” on a PBS homage to John Hammond “that let me know there was a whole other level to aspire to.” Malone soon purchased The George Benson Cookbook and the double-LP Benson Burner. “A gentleman in my church who played guitar noticed that I was trying to play this stuff,” he continues. “He liked Wes Montgomery, and he laid Smokin’ At the Half Note and Boss Guitar on me. Those four records set me on a course that I have not deviated from.”

That course followed autodidactic pathways. “I had enough sense to know that something triggered George Benson’s interest in playing guitar like that,” Malone says. “I read that George was influenced by Charlie Christian, then that Charlie Christian was influenced by Eddie Durham and Lester Young, and had influenced Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and so on. I didn’t have skills to write anything down, and I never transcribed a solo. I like the way I learned because I trust my ears. I’d pick things up and remember them.” He sought advice from lesser players who understood theory, as, for example, when he saw “Misty” in the Real Book, spotted an E-flat-major-VII chord, and asked a roommate to play it. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been playing all along.’ From there, I learned how to identify what I saw on paper. I still ask questions.”

After garnering experience on chitlin’ circuit revues that included Bobby Rush and Johnnie Taylor, Malone spent much of 1983 in Houston with Hammond B3 practitioner Al Rylander. In 1985, just before he turned 22, he moved to Atlanta, where he quickly established bona fides on transitory engagements with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Little Anthony, Peabo Bryson and O.C. Smith. In 1986, he joined Freddy Cole, who offered a master class in the nuances of blending with a singer before firing Malone after several months because, the guitarist recalls, “I wasn’t there yet.”

Malone first visited New York in 1985. He promptly received a lecture on the virtues of sonic individualism from bassist Lonnie Plaxico after they played “Stablemates” at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater. “I respected Lonnie, because he’d played with Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon,” Malone says. “He asked where I was from. He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got good tone, good feeling, and you really hear those changes.’ Then he said, ‘I hear that you like Wes and George and all those guys. You might be able to get away with playing like them in Atlanta, but not here. Those guys were able to break through because they didn’t come here trying to sound like somebody else. They had their own thing, and people eventually caught on.’”

Two years later, Jimmy Smith took an Atlanta engagement, and invited the local hero to sit in for a blues, “The Sermon.” “After the head, I played all my pet licks and generated some superficial excitement,” Malone says. “Then Jimmy went into a ballad, ‘Laura,’ which I didn’t know. You can’t just hear your way through it, because it moves harmonically, with a lot of twists and turns. That’s when I found out I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought. After he’d finished embarrassing me, Jimmy got on the microphone and said, ‘Whenever youngsters sit in with us, we like to make sure they learn something.’ He looked at me. ‘Now, did you learn something, young man?’”

After that set, Malone approached Smith at the bar to thank him for the opportunity. Smith, a black belt, turned and stuck his index finger in Malone’s solar plexus. “Let me tell you something,” Smith said, finger still in place. “I knew all those guys you’re trying to play like, and I also taught them. Don’t ever get on my bandstand with that bullshit again.” Then he invited Malone to his hotel room to play for him, telling the youngster about his life and experiences until 6:30 in morning. A year later, Smith hired Malone for his Southern and Midwestern tours.

“I’ve been around a lot of the older guys,” Malone says, reflecting on a cohort of associations that includes Smith, Rollins, Hall and Ron Carter. Another mentor was guitarist John Collins, who replaced Oscar Moore with the Nat King Cole Trio after quality time with, among others, Fletcher Henderson and Art Tatum. “John saw Andrés Segovia when he was a serviceman in World War Two, and remembered that he played the whole guitar, compared to young guitar players who focus on single lines like a horn player,” Malone says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re selling the instrument short. In the right hands, it can function as an orchestra. I never forgot that.”

He cited an encomium from Benny Carter, who was 94 when he heard Malone play his “All About You” on Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz. “Benny told me he liked the way I treated ballads and my own songs because I respect the melody and don’t treat them like blowing vehicles,” Malone says. Dr. Billy Taylor — who himself sat at the feet of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum during formative years — learned Malone had been spending quality time with Carter. He said: “You’ve been around the real guys, doing it the right way, the way we did it coming up. You know what’s up. Nobody can come along and bullshit you.”

Perhaps the accumulated weight of these validations helps Malone sustain philosophical equanimity in processing the inequities he discerns as he approaches his own elder statesman years. “I meant what I said about critics who have racist agendas and jump on things that are devoid of ethnic elements,” he says. “But my attitude now is that what anyone decides to play ain’t my damn business. I’m just trying to play good music, what feels right, and at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for what I do. When I hung out with Ornette and Blood, I wasn’t concerned about trying to push the envelope. I was looking for a different musical experience. I’m not going to change who I am. I don’t classify my favorite musicians, like Hank Jones, as ‘modern.’ I steer away from that word. I see them as timeless. That’s how I want to be.”

SIDEBAR

“It’s all in the hands,” is all Russell Malone will say about his plush, full-bodied, instantly recognizable tone. “Everybody hears their sound in their head, no matter how old they are. I just heard a recording of me with a gospel group when I was 16. It sounds like me — the feel and everything else. You refine the nuances and subtleties over time, but it’s going to still sound like you.”

He points to a Gibson Super-400 standing by an armchair in his living room. “Kenny is the reason I play that guitar,” he says. “Just before I joined Jimmy Smith, he did a concert in Atlanta. He needed a Twin amplifier, and I had an old one, so I brought it for him to play his Super 400 through. I decided that if I ever made some money, I’d get one.

“I modeled my sound after him, Jim Hall and Mundell Lowe. They get this big, beautiful, round sound, where you can still hear the wood. Kenny picks great notes, plays great tunes. He also sings. Great composer. Master musician.”

Malone continues: “What attracted me to George Benson was the drive in his playing. He showed us that you can be a great musician and still be successful. That whole thing about being a starving artist never worked for him. It never worked for me either. I think we all sound better when our bills are paid and when our bellies are full. A lot of people have disparaged George for ‘selling out.’ That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. The way I look at it, he cashed in on his talent.”

On a previous occasion, Malone had offered a list of guitar heroes that also included Chet Atkins, George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery. “I love everyone on that list, but Wes really sets my soul on fire,” he says. “I’ve loved every record I’ve heard by Wes Montgomery. He never played a bad note. Always got a good sound, good taste, and swung all the time.” —TP

 

Russell Malone Blindfold Test, Downbeat, 2004:

1. Ted Dunbar & Kevin Eubanks, “Fried Pies” (from Project G-7: A Tribute To Wes Montgomery, Vol. 1, Evidence, 1993) (Dunbar, Eubanks, guitars; Rufus Reid, bass; Akira Tana, drums; Wes Montgomery, composer)

This is a Wes Montgomery tune, Fried Pies. It’s two guitar players. This guitar player, whoever he is, is playing with his thumb, and he doesn’t seem to have good control. It would lay in the pocket better if he played it with a pick, I think. I have no idea who this is. I mean, this is just okay. It’s funny when you play a tune like this, that’s already been done right once. I almost never play songs by my heroes, because unless you can bring something to the table that’s equally as good or better than, what’s the point of playing it. Now the second guitarist is playing it. He sounds good. He seems to be more in the pocket than the other player. He’s got some fire, too. I like the bass player and the drummer; they’re locking up very nicely. Is that Kevin Eubanks? Ah!!! Ha-ha! Yeah! Now, that makes sense. This record was done about ten years ago, right? Was that other guitar player William Ash? I have no idea who the other player was, but I recognized Kevin immediately. There’s a certain way he attacks the notes. He’s not playing with the pick, he’s playing with his fingers, but he has a certain attack. That’s the reason why I was able to distinguish him. He plays very nicely. 4 stars for the bass player and drummer, because they really locked in well. Hell, 5 stars for Kevin. The other guitar player played nicely enough, but I would have liked it more if he’d been in the pocket. 3 stars for him. I’ll give the piece 3 stars. [AFTER] That was Ted Dunbar? Wow! I loved Ted. I never got to meet him. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times. I heard Ted play before, and he could definitely play better than this.

2. Jonathan Kreisberg, “Gone With the Wind” (from New For Now, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Kreisberg, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Mark Ferber, drums)

This is nice. Is that John Abercrombie? I have no idea who it is, but he plays very nicely. He has a nice touch. The sound of the organ threw me in the beginning, because it sounded like one of those cute Farfisas or Wurlitzer, but now it sounds rich. Boy, this guitar player is killing! Oh, that’s Jonathan Kreisberg! So that must be Gary Versace on organ. I can’t remember the drummer’s name, but I think he plays with Jonathan every week. Jonathan’s a good friend of mine. Wonderful player. I’ve gone to see him a few times and listened to him, and once you become familiar with a person, you become accustomed to what they sound like. Everybody has a sound. Jonathan is younger than I am; I think he’s in his early thirties. I hear a lot of people talk about young guys don’t have a sound, which I think is total bullshit. Everybody has a sound, everybody has a voice; it just depends on how familiar you are with that person. If you listen to a person enough, then you will be able to distinguish it. That’s how I was able to distinguish Kevin on the previous thing you played me, and this is how I was able to distinguish Jonathan. There are certain things you key in on. Here it’s Jonathan’s sound and the ideas that he plays, and his touch. I love this tune, Gone With the Wind. I like that they took an old standard, and did something different with it. It sounds like they’re playing it in 6/4. Jonathan has chops in abundance, and one thing I like about his solo is that he really took his time and said something beautiful on the tune. Guys with that kind of ability to play whatever they want on the instrument sometimes have a tendency to overstate. But he didn’t do that, and I appreciate that approach. 4 stars for Jonathan.

3. Joel Harrison, “Folsom Prison Blues” (from Free Country. ACT. 2003) (Harrison, guitar; David Binney, alto sax; Rob Thomas, violin; Sean Conly, bass; Allison Miller, drums)

Man, this sounds like some of the sanctified music that I grew up hearing in my church. Oh, this is grooving. Is it Derek Trucks? Wow! I LIKE this cat, whoever he is. See, this is one of the things that guitar can do. It can bend notes, it can wail, it can cry. Whoo, man! Now, this was fine until the horn player started to play. He’s probably a bad cat, but he’s not really adding anything to this performance. Is it Bill Frisell? Oh, this is Folsom Prison Blues? The Johnny Cash tune. I didn’t recognize it without the lyrics. The guitar player, whoever he is, he just got right to the heart of the matter. But the horn player, though he’s probably a great musician, listening to him play is kind of like eating crabs. You’ve got to go through so much to get so little. He’s not really doing it for me. But the guitar player got right to the heart of the matter. Mark Ribot! It’s not Mark Ribot? Dammit. I give up. Joel Harrison? I’ve never heard of him. I’m going to go out and get some Joel Harrison records, man. That’s one of the ways I like to hear guitar played. Because the guitar is such an expressive instrument. It can do so many things, man. That’s going into the CD collection. Joel Harrison. 5 stars. I loved him. I’ve seen Dave Binney’s name, but I don’t know him. I like the bass player and the drummer. I like the whole band. Oh, I know Allison Miller. She’s great!

4. Rodney Jones, “Summertime” (from Soul Manifesto Live!, Savant, 2003) (Jones, guitar; Will Boulware, Hammond B3; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Kenwood Dennard, drums)

Whoever this is, I hear a very strong George Benson influence. The tune is Summertime. Rodney Jones. Which record is this from? Soul Manifesto Live? Okay. This is just okay. I’d like to have heard him pay closer attention to the melody. This is a personal thing with me. What he’s playing is great. That tune has such a beautiful melody. I’d like to hear a little less embellishment of the melody. It’s a little bit too much guitar for me. Now, Rodney’s bad. I’ve heard him play a lot more musically than this. It doesn’t do it for me. I love Rodney; he’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite guitarists, but I don’t feel this. I’ve heard him play a lot better. 2½ stars.

5. Jim Hall-Geoff Keezer, “End The Beguine” (from Free Association, Artists Share, 2005) (Hall, guitar, composer; Keezer, piano)

Mike Stern? No? Okay. Oh, I like the dissonance. The guitarist sounds like he’s picking close to the bridge. It sounds like he’s playing one of those solid body guitars. That’s cool. That doesn’t offend me at all. Mick Goodrick. It’s not Mick Goodrick? Ah, that’s Jim Hall. [LAUGHS] Yeah, go ahead, Jim! That’s Geoff Keezer. I heard them play this tune at the Vanguard when they played there a couple of years ago. These are two of my favorite musicians. Geoff Keezer is one of the greatest piano players walking the planet today. He can do anything; he’s so versatile. What can you say about Jim? He’s a magician. He’s like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat! Wouldn’t that be something to go see a magician, and then the rabbit pulls him out of the hat. That’s the way I see Jim. He’s such a quirky, unorthodox kind of guy, but he’s always musical. Never anything for the sake of being different. Everything that he plays and does has a purpose. One of my favorite things about him is that there’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein, and that’s okay to do, too. But Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too. 5 stars. Give Jim Hall the Milky Way. In the beginning I said Mike Stern and Mick Goodrick, but even though I was wrong I wasn’t too far off-base, because I know Jim Hall has influenced both of those players. What threw me in the beginning was that Jim was picking towards the bridge, and when you do that, it makes the tone of the guitar thinner, more brittle, and that’s not how I’m used to hearing Jim. But what gave it away was just the touch and the ideas.

6. Nguyen Lê, “Walking On The Tiger’s Tail” (from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail, Nonesuch, 2005) (Lê , guitars; Paul McCandless, oboe; Art Lande, piano; Jamey Haddad, percussion)

I like this. Really thick harmony. Thick chords. Is that a bass clarinet? Is it Adam Holdsworth? Nels Cline? Oh, wait a minute. Dave Fiuczynski. No? Okay. Damn. Whoever he is, he’s a heck of a player. I like it. Whoo! Ben Monder. Not Ben? It sounds spacious. It’s out there, but there’s a groove. I mean, you can pat your foot. It sounds good and it feels good. Is he European? [Yes.] This is good. I think I would appreciate this better if I was listening to these guys play live. After a while, it all starts to sound the same. There was some stuff that moved in certain spots, but now it’s going on and on and on. It doesn’t really do anything for me. But I liked what led up to this. I have no idea who the guitarist is. 3 stars. There’s no denying the ability. Everybody can play. That cannot be denied. Nguyen Le? I’ve heard him. He’s good! I’ve been meaning to check out more of him. I have nothing but respect for him, but as far as this performance, I’d appreciate it more if I was sitting there listening to them. I have some homework to do. There’s so much stuff out there. I’ve seen this guy’s name, and I have heard him play and I liked what I heard. What I heard by him was acoustic, and it was beautiful.

7. Bill Frisell, “My Man’s Gone Now” (from East-West, Nonesuch, 2005) (Frisell, guitar; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums)

I like this. He’s getting some very beautiful colors out of the instrument. Nice voicings. Is that Ben Monder? No. I like Ben. “My Man’s Gone Now,” a Gershwin tune. This is really pretty. Is that Paul Motian on drums? Is this Frisell? Aha. He does a lot of different things. He does a lot of things with swells and he uses effects. You never know what kind of bag he’s going to come out of. Oh, yeah! He’s a very wonderful musician, and he’s a very nice guy, too. I have to be honest with you. For a while, I had a problem with listening to guys like Bill Frisell and Metheny and Scofield, a lot of the white players. Not because they were bad musicians. It’s just that whenever white writers would write about these guys, I always got the feeling that they were making them out to be superior to a lot of the black players. So for a long time, I didn’t listen to these kinds of players, but after having met them, I found out that they don’t think like that at all. These are very nice men and they’re great musicians. 3 stars. This was very good. I like listening to things like this, but after a while I like to hear some time. I like to hear guys deal with time. But Frisell is great. He’s a wonderful musician. But for a while I didn’t want to hear guys like that, because of the way certain writers would write about them. But having met them, I know that they don’t think like that at all. These are very soulful guys. They’re just about the music.

8. Calvin Newborn, “Newborn Blues” (from New Born, Yellow Dog, 2005) (Newborn, guitar; Charlie Wood, organ; Renardo Ward, drums)

I like this. This is home here. This is where I live. Whoever this guy is, he likes B.B. King. That’s not B.B., is it? But he likes B.B., whoever he is. I know some critics might look upon this kind of thing as being dated and predictable and not pushing the music forward and whatever, but I NEVER get tired of this, man. The blues, man. To me, jazz needs that. I have no idea who this guy is, but give him the Milky Way, too, whoever the hell he is. I love this. I love the band. I love the way they’re locking in together. This is great. He’s not playing anything slick or fancy, but it makes sense, it works, and it sounds great. Oh, yes, yes, YES! Oh, yeah. Cornell Dupree? Calvin Newborn! Know how I knew? The touch! That’s what I’m talking about. All the stars in the universe. I’m very suspicious… You’ve played some great stuff today. But I read about a lot of players who the critics write about as players who are pushing the envelope or players who are breaking away from the tradition. I’m very suspicious about players who are described that way, because to me, all it means is that they deleted all of the ethnic elements out of the music—or the black elements out of the music. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective seem to be the ones who are described as pushing the music forward. I mean, I know the music has to move forward and everything, but come on, man. If you don’t have this, you got nothing. You might have something else, but you need those ethnic elements to have jazz, man. Some people may disagree with me, but that’s just the way I feel. Right on, Calvin Newborn. Bend those notes. Play that blues. [LAUGHS] Yeah! That’s how I feel about that one. Listening to him… I got the same feeling as I got when Joel Harrison played. I don’t care what color he is. I’m sure he’s white. But he is not afraid to acknowledge the blues, those black elements. He’s a brave white man who is not afraid to acknowledge that in his playing. My hat’s off to him.

9. Baden Powell, “Samba Triste” (from Live A Bruxelles, Sunnyside, 1999/2005 (Powell, guitar, composer)

This is just okay. Whenever I hear people play solo guitar, especially on the nylon string, I like to hear a lot less sloppiness. I don’t mean to sound like I’m nitpicking. I know it sounds like I am. But I have to tell you how I feel. This is a little sloppy for my taste. This doesn’t really go anywhere. If there is a melody, it’s damn near nonexistent. The tune is weak and I think it’s poorly played. I have no idea who this is. Whoever he is, it’s probably a legend. But this is a pretty poor performance. Is it Barney Kessel? Well, I don’t know if he did anything on the nylon string anyway. Bad guess. Bill Harris? He’s a guitarist who lived in D.C. who did some things on the nylon string guitar. No, this is not good. 1star. That’s Baden Powell? That’s surprising, because I’ve heard him play. I feel really bad that I don’t like this, because I love Baden Powell. He’s a monster player. I love the way he plays. But this is not a good performance. I’ve heard him play on other things, and the touch is a little more delicate than this.

10. Paul Bollenback, “Too High”(from Soul Grooves, Challenge, 1999) (Bollenback, guitar, arranger; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Jeff Watts, drums; Broto Roy, tabla; Stevie Wonder, composer)

This is a catchy tune. The band is swinging. Is this Too High? Yeah. That’s a Stevie Wonder tune. This is nice. They put a lot of thought into this. I have no idea who the guitar player is. Now, the guitar player has got some chops. Once again, a very strong Benson influence. George is all over the place. Is it Paul Bollenback? Okay. [LAUGHS] I know his ideas and his touch. Very nice arrangement. He put some thought into this. It’s very well played. Is that Joey on organ? Byron Landham on drums? Billy Hart? Whoever he is, he’s really locking in, man. He’s swinging, laying that pocket down. That’s Tain? Whoa! That doesn’t surprise me. He played on my all-ballad record, Heartstrings, and Tain, man… He’s got the whole history of the drums. There are a lot of young drummers coming up nowadays who are influenced by him, but I don’t think they’ve really checked out what makes Jeff Watts, Jeff Watts. He’s got Kenny Clarke, he’s got Baby Dodds, he’s got Elvin, he’s got Tony—he’s got everything. And he’s incorporated all of these influences and came up with his own thing. Yeah! 4 stars. With Tain, swinging is not an afterthought. Whatever wild and crazy things he does, it’s all rooted in swing. It’s all about that groove. It’s never an afterthought for him.

11. Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Brooklyn Sometimes”(from Deep Song, Verve, 2005) (Rosenwinkel, guitar, composer; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Kurt Rosenwinkel. That’s Kurt! He’ s a great musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s always very musical. I have quite a few of his records around here. He’s a wonderful musician. Plays the piano. Knows the instrument and the history of the music. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a phenomenal player. That’s his latest release on Verve, Deep Song. I have it. That’s the beauty of being in New York. You have so many different types of musicians here. So many different types of music to take advantage of. I always tell young players when they come here, don’t just get locked into one thing. You may have your taste and your preferences, but go out and hear all kinds of different things. Go out and hear these different kinds of players, because you may find something you’re able to use. That’s why I love being in the city, because I get to hear all kinds of players on any given night. 4 stars.

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For Dave Liebman’s Birthday, a Jazziz Article from 2019, a Downbeat Article from 2010, an Uncut Blindfold Test, and a Conversation from the Jazz.Com ‘Zine

Best of birthdays to the master saxophonist-composer-improviser-educator-author Dave Liebman, who turns 70 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article I had an opportunity to write about him in 2010 (see a .pdf here), most of the raw proceedings of a Blindfold Test we did in 2013, and a 2006 WKCR conversation that ran on the late, lamented jazz.com website in 2008.

 

Jazziz Article, 2019:

During the last week of February, Dave Liebman, two nights into a Tuesday-Saturday run at Birdland with the Saxophone Summit sextet, was easing into his day in the “sitting room” of the midtown time-share suite he occupies when he gigs, teaches, or does business in New York. The group was convening for the first time since a summer 2017 tour of Europe that generated their fifth album, Street Talk (Enja), comprised of six originals by the personnel that provided the raw materials for a firebreathing opening night first set. Flanked to the right by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, an original member, and to the left by alto saxophonist Greg Osby, a recent addition, Liebman, 72, played soprano saxophone in the jab-and-thrust style of his one-time employer, Miles Davis, projecting searing, intervallically daring lines in a constant dance with a provocative, proactive rhythm section — pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and the shamanistic mind-reading drummer Billy Hart.

Liebman plucked Street Talk from a pile of CDs atop a glass coffee table. “I started Saxophone Summit because of my relationship with Michael Brecker,” he said, noting that the iconic tenor saxophonist had been integral to the group’s identity until his death in 2007. Liebman added that during the early ’70s, when he was entering the international jazz conversation via consecutive long-haul gigs with Elvin Jones and Miles, Brecker inherited his $125-a-month fourth-floor loft space at 138 W. 19th Street, a no-elevator building into which Liebman moved with pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa in January 1969. By year’s end, Chick Corea and Dave Holland, then famously in Miles’ employ, each had their own floor.

“I had the key on a string; cats would ring the bell and I’d lower it out the window,” Liebman recalled, not mentioning that, for him, walking has been a complicated proposition since he contracted polio at age 3. At the ensuing jam sessions that transpired, John Coltrane’s late career vocabulary — “chaotic, loud, cacophony, and deep as hell” — was their lodestar and lingua franca. That’s why, in 1998, after a Coltrane tribute concert in Japan, Liebman told his old friend: “It’s time for us to put this back on the map; if we don’t do this, who will? It’s our debt to Trane.”

“Joe was the obvious pick for third saxophone, and Michael trusted me to pick the rhythm section,” he continued. “I wanted to get him on the free jazz thing again, the way we did it in our youth. I wanted free jazz to be understood — and during the late ’90s it wasn’t being done. Big statement. We put a couple of years into playing like that.”

Liebman, whose website discography cites 500+ leader, co-leader or sideman titles, returned to the pile, and grabbed Eternal Voices (CMP), his forthcoming 50th or so collaboration with pianist Richie Beirach. They celebrate a half century of friendship and mutual investigation with a series of open improvisations of redactions of the slow movements of Bartok’s string quartets, and works by Schoenberg, Scriabin, Mompou and Faure. Below it was Chi (Rare Noise), an intense, flowing concert with drummers Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake — it echoes the spirit of Coltrane’s Meditations Suite, which Liebman has performed at five-year intervals since the 1980s.

Then came the last two installments of four extended works intended, as Liebman, put it, “to musically depict the natural elements that surround us.” The third “elements suite,” Fire (Jazzline), is a programmatic six-part work, beginning with “Flash!” and ending with “Ashes”; Liebman, Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Ken Werner interpret each stage with unrelenting energy and rhythmic verve. Performing the final suite, Earth (Whaling City) is the current edition of the Dave Liebman Group, which, on its fifth record, authoritatively interprets Liebman’s intervallically complex, sonically extravagant compositions. Except for veteran bassist Tony Marino, who first recorded with Liebman in 1992, it’s a youngish quintet — Bobby Avey on piano and Matt Vashlishan on EWI, both one-time mentees of Liebman and Phil Woods in the Delaware Water Gap area where Liebman resides, and drummer Alex Ritz, an Oberlin student of Hart and drum-master Jamey Haddad, who himself played on 11 Liebman recordings during the 1990s.

Finally, Liebman glanced at Petite Fleur (Origin), a melody-drenched duo with guitarist John Stowell — their second — devoted to the oeuvre of soprano saxophone pioneer Sidney Bechet, and On The Corner, Live! (Ear Up), named for the famously funky 1972 Miles Davis album that Liebman launched with a soprano saxophone solo, on which he covers repertoire from Miles’ plugged-in era with saxophonist Jeff Coffin, electric bassist Victor Wooten and ex-Weather Report drummer Chester Thompson.

“As this pile demonstrates, I am prolific, thankfully, and very eclectic,” Liebman said. “It’s important to record. It makes me think about what I’d want to hear if I was listening to Dave Liebman, and whether it would come across. I want to do something for my posterity, that satisfies my interests at that moment — hopefully somebody else will want to get on the train. I’m a big finisher. Once you record something, you can forget about it, and move on to the next thing.”

[BREAK]

However many projects Liebman finishes and moves on from, he consistently acknowledges his teachers and his roots. The same imperatives that moved him to urge Brecker to embark on Saxophone Summit inspired the conception and execution of his solo recital To My Masters, perhaps the most personal of the CDs on the coffee table. Each piece portrays, in Liebman’s words, “a person who had a direct influence on my playing — who affected my vision, made me what I am artistically, and, in some cases, even more so, what I am as a person.”

As an example, “The Guide” is a shout-out to drummer Rakalam Bob Moses, who met Liebman in 1962, and served a Sybil-esque function for Liebman’s Aeneas by revealing pathways into the hardcore jazz wars that lay ahead. “The Jazzman” is Charles Lloyd, who was on the cusp of stardom in 1966, when, on Moses’ recommendation, Liebman pigeonholed him at the Half Note bar after a set with Cannonball Adderley and asked for lessons — which, as it turned out, would be more observational and experiential than technical. “The Intellectual” is Beirach, Liebman’s mentor on the of 20th century harmony, which, he says, “was a definite void in my education — we’ve tried to play the way the 20th century composers wrote, pretty far away from the key center.”

An earlier teacher was renowned woodwind pedagogue Joe Allard, referenced in “The Sound Guru (Overtone Improvisation).” Liebman entered Allard’s orbit at 16, already a three-year veteran of Catskills gigs in a group led by future David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson. “We made $15 a week,” Liebman says. “It made me feel important, different, unique — ‘Hey, man, I’m ahead of you.’ I was in charge of the yearly high school show and the prom. Of course, my parents encouraged that, because the whole schematic was that I’d go to medical school and be an orthopedic surgeon. Medical school was within reach then; if you worked and saved your pennies, you could go.”

Liebman’s paradigm began to shift in February 1962, when he took a date to hear John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy at Birdland. Soon thereafter, feeling he could do better than his three-hour Saturday morning lesson with Mr. Shapiro, Liebman heeded his mother’s advice to look in the Yellow Pages under “Saxophone Instruction.” He made some calls, and thought that Allard “seemed to be the nicest on the phone.”

Allard told the aspirant that lessons at his Carnegie Hall studio — half-an-hour on the subway from his Flatbush neighborhood — were $25 for a 50-minute to one-hour session. “My mother said, ‘Carnegie Hall Studios. Wow, he must be quite impressive.’ His point was that to blow is to breathe is to sing is to speak. In other words, it’s all coming from the vocal cords. Since you don’t feel your vocal cords, this was a little hard to follow. After six weeks or so I said to my mom, ‘This guy is very famous, it seems, and I know it’s Carnegie Hall and everything, but I’m not doing any books — I don’t know what I’m doing.’ She said, ‘Wait a bit.’ Then eventually, of course, it all clicked in. Joe opened the door. Now I’ve written a book on it, which is kind of the text on how to do this stuff.”

Liebman attributes much of his educational focus and can-do attitude to Leo and Frances Liebman, evoked in the “The Parents,” a gentle, resolute tenor saxophone incantation that opens the proceedings. They were Brooklyn-based schoolteachers — and assistant principals — in a pre-union era when teachers “were not treated with great generosity by the city.” During the school year his father ran an after-school community center; summers, he did counseling at a Catskills camp where his mother taught arts and crafts.

“I was sick a lot after I had polio,” Liebman said. “My life was about who is the next doctor that’s going to cure you, who would give me the magic bullet to be able to walk more normally. So of course, there was a lot of attention and a lot of sacrifice on their part.”

His mother didn’t sugar-coat his disability. “She was pragmatic — straight-ahead, without any attitude,” he says. “In the situation I was in — having to go to doctors, have operations, break my leg a couple of times on top of it, break it on ice — there was nothing to do but just deliver the information. When you’re 4 years old, you don’t know you’re sick. You have nothing to compare it to. Now, you’ve got to make a relationship with pain as part of the game, which I have done. That’s something that will keep you awake and make you realize what’s pragmatic and what’s not pragmatic. In those days they kept you in the hospital, and I was the star — the young kid who was very good with anything.

“So already I felt a certain independence because I could stand the pain and the situation. I made up for it. Of course, I’m serious Type A. I played ball anyway. I would bat, and the cat would run for me from behind the plate. I was a good third baseman, because I dove on the ground (because of course, you have to learn to do that when you have a bad leg), and I had a good arm, so I could throw to first base. Also, I had a certain streak of leadership, which I knew pretty early. Even as a kid, I could organize and put people together. We had a group called The Rebels, because we were make-believe gangsters, and I was president of the club, etc. That’s what I’m still doing.”

Liebman’s relationship with his parents reached a “low end” after he graduated NYU. Instead of “getting a job the day after,” he rented a cabin in the Catskills, practiced 24/7, returned to New York, and — again on Moses’ recommendation — found his loft. “I had to play to get better, and I wasn’t cut out for club dates or studio work,” he said. “I got a teaching license and subbed in schools two days a week, and I was playing in the Village. My parents were saying, ‘What are you going to do in life, David? How are you going to live when you can’t walk? I said, ‘I don’t know. I hope I can do this, because I’m going to do it for a few years.’ Then the breaks came, and the rest is history, so to speak. We had our scenes. But after I played Carnegie Hall with Miles in 1974, the concert that became Dark Magus, my mother said, “you must be good; you’re at Carnegie Hall.”

Frances Liebman wasn’t there to see her son receive his NEA Jazz Master Award in 2010, proffered not only in recognition of his prodigious accomplishments as a performer and composer, but to honor his stature in the jazz education world, denoted by the seven much-read pedagogical books available on his website and his service as artistic director and founder of the International Association of Schools of Jazz, whose thirtieth annual meeting convenes this summer in Zagreb. Indeed, Liebman’s relentless work ethic so palpably denotes inherent optimism that it surprised me when, in a 2010 conversation, he acknowledged reality with the remark, “It’s inevitable that I will not be walking so easily in ten years or so…but I’m riding the horse as long as it goes.”

Still resolute in 2019, Liebman intends to sustain the ride. “By the time you get in your seventies, if you don’t have something fucked up, you’re REALLY lucky. It’s not worth talking about. But it’s disturbing. I hope I can make the next gig. I’m concerned about making a living and being able to do it. If I don’t show, we don’t get paid. We don’t get severance pay. I’m not trying to be paranoid, but I’m aware of my circumstances. Others are worse, so I don’t complain about it in that respect.

“I’m amazed I can still keep doing it. I feel good about it. But how many cover records can I do, and how many of my tunes can I record? How can I keep the spark alive? I want to do Stephen Sondheim. I want to do a record of Jewish chants, what they sing at Yom Kippur. I’d love to do some more duos. When I look at this pile at this table, I go, ‘So far, it doesn’t seem to be a problem.’”

[SIDEBAR]

“That’s a very good observation of my personality,” Liebman said, to a suggestion that his views run optimistic and pessimistic in equal measure. “When things are fair, they should be 50-50, whatever game you’re playing. Yin and yang.”

He applied this perspective when asked his thoughts on the state of 21st century jazz. “It’s the most interesting the music’s ever been,” Liebman said. “Couldn’t be better. Because of Youtube, you can be in the Thailand jungle and see Coltrane play in your pajamas, and if you’re interested you’ll end up transcribing it, even though you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Having yinned, Liebman yanged. “I can’t have optimism about the business,” he said. “It’s in terrible shape and it’s going to get worse, and business controls a lot of what we do in this world, so I’m not happy about it. You get a review, and you’ve won the game. The schools have done a great job, but we’ve also cut ourselves off at the legs because we created this monster of all this talent with nowhere to go. These kids come out, they’ve spent a couple of hundred thousand going to school, debts up the gazoo, and they’ll play one night at 11 and 1 o’clock in the band at Smalls — and they’ll play great. Outside New York, there isn’t anywhere to do anything. It’s not just jazz — it’s photography, art, poetry, theater, journalism. Everything that has to do with the human spirit is being slowly squeezed.”

What motivates him to persevere? “I believe in this shit. Jazz is a special music. It unites people, put them together in a working situation, like a corporation, like a business, like building a car. You’ve got to make sure you put the tire on right, or the next guy is going to get hurt. We have that in jazz, every minute we’re playing together. Tonight we’re going to do 2 or 3 hours of it. It’s a great communion.”

Downbeat Article, 2010:
Right after the Dave Liebman Group’s first set at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village on the third Friday of September, the leader stepped to the bar and ordered a shot of Stoli, water back. Coffee might have been a more predictable beverage of choice—Liebman had just arrived from Boston after a seven-hour crawl along I-95, with only a quick bite and shave before hit time. He observed that at 64 his famously kinetic personality remains Type A. “It’s the reverse of most people—coffee slows me down,” Liebman said.

Liebman was supporting a new DLG release, Turnaround: The Music Of Ornette Coleman (Jazz Werkstadt), which earned a German Jazz Journalists’ Best Record of 2010 award, but on this evening he offered no Coleman repertoire, instead presenting a plugged-in set comprising originals by guitarist Vic Juris, electric bassist Tony Marino, and himself, from an 80-tune book accrued over two decades as a unit. The tunes were heavy on sonic texture, straight eighths and odd meters, stroked declaratively by drummer Marko Marcinko; playing only soprano saxophone, Liebman darted through them like a trumpeter, placing his phrases carefully, surefootedly inserting polyrhythms into his line, projecting an array of tonal attacks while retaining precise pitch however extreme the register or interval.

Liebman remarked that the previous evening’s program, at Sculler’s, before “an older audience, not quite suit-and-tie” who had paid a $20 cover ($58 with dinner) for the privilege, contained three Coleman tunes. “This is a $150 door gig,” he said, noting the 55 Bar’s $10 admission and narrow confines. “I’m going to play whatever the fuck I want.” He fleshed out that sentiment over the phone 36 hours later, refreshed from sleeping in after a third consecutive one-nighter, also a door gig, at the Falcon in Piermont, New York, 25 miles up the Hudson River.

“The audience at a place like Sculler’s knows me from Lookout Farm or Elvin Jones,” Liebman said, referencing his popular mid ‘70s ensemble and the 1971-72 sideman gig that launched his name into the international jazz conversation. “I’m not going to hit them with our strongest, most obscure stuff—you don’t gather that many more people over the years unless you have a machine, which I don’t. The Ornette tunes are a hook and there’s a certain cache to getting that prize, but we’re done with it. The truth is that nobody knows the record, and nobody ever will.”

It was observed that Liebman, a 2011 NEA Jazz Master and, as of December 2009, Officier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters, had gone to considerable pains to play a pair of door gigs.

“It’s below me,” he acknowledged. “But I can’t get this group a five-night gig in a New York club because they think we won’t do enough business. I believe in longevity—loyalty to the guys, and vice-versa, loyalty to me as a leader. To keep them together, I’ve got to keep them busy and interested, which means music that keeps them challenged. At 55 Bar we played a new regime of music I settled on three months ago when I saw the next bunch of work coming.”

Four days hence, piggybacking on the NEA honorific, Liebman and crew would embark on a nine-day, six-gig San Diego to Portland van trip—no door gigs—to be followed by a final East Coast leg comprising a celebratory concert at the Deer Head Inn, a few miles from his eastern Pennsylvania home, and weekend one-offs in Vermont and Maine. Between then and December, when the Group was booked for several weeks in Europe, Liebman, who had spent the summer participating in various master class workshops and 20th anniversary festivities for the International Association of Jazz Schools, which he co-founded and artistic-directs, would resume his position at Manhattan School of Music, where he teaches chromatic harmony. Midway through October, backed by MSM’s Chamber Jazz Ensemble, he’d perform original music composed for the concert attendant to his Officier designation, sandwiched by two appearances by the Dave Liebman Big Band in support of As Always (MAMA), a 2010 release on which he fronts an ensemble of various New York best-and-brightests, playing their charts of tunes that span his entire timeline as a professional musician.

These events comprised only a small portion of an exceptionally prolific period of musical production in which Liebman intersects primarily with associates of long acquaintance. “I’m pretty good at adapting myself in a lot of situations,” Liebman remarked. “If I can do something once every 18 months to two years, there’s continuity.” He could now retrospect on a post Labor Day week at Birdland playing tunes with an “all-star” quartet—pianist Steve Kuhn, electric bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Billy Drummond. He’d return in February, beginning the month with Saxophone Summit, the collective sextet in which he, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, propelled by pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, refract repertoire from the various stages of John Coltrane’s career; ending it with Quest, the collective, open-ended quartet that Liebman describes as “Miles and Coltrane—the ‘60s, basically, distilled down,” with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart, that began a fruitful second run in 2005, after a fifteen-year hiatus.

Four encounters with Beirach (“our relationship is probably the closest I’ve ever had in my life,” Liebman says) figure prominently in a suite of just-issued or imminent additions to his voluminous discography. including an inspired Quest radio concert titled Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (Out Note), and Quest for Freedom (Sunnyside), in which Liebman and Beirach, supported by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, navigate a suite of Jim McNeely’s ingenious constructions. Also on Out Note are Unspoken, an 11-tune Liebman-Beirach recital that exemplifies their expansive harmonic simpatico, and Knowing-Lee, a melody-centric triologue with Lee Konitz.

Coltrane is the explicit subject of Compassion, a forthcoming RKM release of a high-energy 2007 BBC concert by Liebman and Lovano with the Saxophone Summit rhythm section, and of Liebman Plays Coltrane Blues (Daybreak), on which Liebman blows with a Flemish bassist and drummer. He’s the implicit subject of Relevance (Toucan), documenting two extended improvisations by lifelong Coltranephiles Liebman and Evan Parker, prodded by drummer Tony Bianco, and of Air [Finetunes], a solo saxophone-plus-effects recital that Liebman calls “my solo kind of out shit.”

Liebman, Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum achieve equilateral triangle interplay on We Three, still label-less, following their excellent 2006 session Three For All [Challenge]. On 2010’s Five In One [Pirouet], Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marc Copland, Drew Gress, and Billy Hart navigate repertoire by the members, while 2009’s Something Sentimental (KindofBlue) is a “B-flat” standards date with Liebman, Abercrombie, Nussbaum, and bassist Jay Anderson.

“I like the challenge of playing in different situations,” Liebman said. “Your musical DNA is what it is; how I hear harmonically and rhythmically will permeate the context. All my basic currents of development were on my first record, Lookout Farm, and my records are basically the same thing over and over. I also like a menu with a lot of different things. My wife once said, ‘It’s like you see music as a big picture show.’ That’s true. I conceive my sets as a voyage—up-down, left-right, thick-thin, dissonant-consonant, happy-sad. If a listener hears a funk tune, and then a beautiful tune with chord changes, and then a free energetic tune, they’re going to like one of them.

“I don’t have a contract, so I don’t do one thing a year for a record label, and I travel, so I find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys something else. From the business side, there’s always the difficulty of having too much product competing against your other product, which the labels hate. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people who are listeners will hear more music that you’re part of. If I can find a way to express myself and someone is interested, I’ll do it. If it’s crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?”

[BREAK]

Liebman describes himself as “pessimistic by nature,” and it is tempting to attribute the fatalistic, glass-half-full and half-empty assessments of his protean activity that are a frequent trope of his conversation to what the Flatbush native describes as his “Jewish shit.” In addition to such morphological signifiers as Liebman’s facial profile, and pattern baldness, not to mention his Brooklyn accent, there’s also the admixture of pedagogic rigor (he graduated from NYU in 1968 with a B.A. in American History, and cites 22 published works on his website) and the spiritual, pipeline-to-the-Creator intention that marks his most personal music.

That “Jewish shit” may also inflect Liebman’s ambivalence about Ornette Coleman’s compositions. “Ornette was nowhere near Trane or Sonny or Wayne as a saxophone player,” Liebman said. “Apart from his melodicism, his music never got to me emotionally. It’s so joie de vivre; even when he plays sad, it’s kind of happy and life-giving. For me, that’s not enough! Coltrane is the complete opposite. Even when he plays a major tune, there’s a sense of melancholy. It’s his sound.”

Liebman also projects identity through his soprano saxophone tone, which, without being too essentialist about it, often projects the keening, ululating quality of a shofer. “I love the tenor, and I’ll probably always play it to one extent or another, but in the end I’ve found my voice with the soprano,” he said. “It’s something about my Bedouin, Semitic desert roots. I don’t feel that on tenor. On tenor, it’s Trane, it’s Sonny, it’s Wayne. It’s jazz! The soprano is a world instrument for me. It’s a vocalist, a singer. It’s Miles. It’s Indian. It’s ethnic. It’s the On The Corner screeching shit. It’s got everything. It’s made my personality. Thank God I found it. The tenor would have been me hitting that nail I can’t get in the wall, because there were too many great people ahead of me. After Trane, there ain’t nothin’ else to play on that instrument.”

Ergonomic considerations also influence Liebman’s instrumental preference. “I’m not a big guy,” he said, adding that the weight of the tenor around his neck was “like towing a truck,” whereas the soprano “fits my physique better—it’s like my toothbrush; it feels like an extension of my arm.” In speaking of physical limitations, he inferred another source of his pessimism and also his constant determination to transcend it.

Stricken with polio at 3, Liebman walks with a pronounced limp. “Going to the doctor was like going to see Moses,” he said. “My mother kept taking me to the next guy who was going to fix my leg and get me out of this shit. It definitely gets in your way. I can’t run. I have trouble walking now. But it builds a character that otherwise you probably wouldn’t have. You’re not given a choice but to build an inner core of strength and compensate if you don’t want to die and crawl into the hole. That’s maybe where the extra shit comes from.”

It is Liebman’s opinion that Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, who both received considerable flak for hiring him during an era of deep black-on-white racial mistrust, took notice. “I can’t tell you that the leg didn’t have something to do with it,” he said. “Guys like that listened to the way you play, of course, but they also knew about character, and about lack of character, and I guess they thought, ‘He’s got what it’s supposed to be.’ I can’t tell you that everything was lovely with Miles. If you look at videos of Miles’ band on youtube, you see the Black Panther flag—the three stripes—on the equipment, and I’m there, the saxophone player…like, not that happy. But Miles was very clear about it. This was during the period when his legs were screwed up. He said, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do. You carry three horns, nothing stops you.’

“Certainly, Elvin and Miles addressed everything they did with complete seriousness. Before and after the bandstand, everything could be completely out—and sometimes was. But when the horn is in your mouth, it’s the most important thing in the world. It is business. You owe it to the music, to the tradition, let alone your audience. And DO NOT fuck around, and do not treat it with anything less than total, 100 percent seriousness. Being in that culture helped me be who I am, and I’m very proud that I was able to do it. I had been sitting at Coltrane’s feet, and now I’m playing with his engine, and then with the guy who hired him and made him famous, and then hired Wayne Shorter. With the weight of the tradition and how good these guys were, how could you not be self-conscious and a little uptight? I wasn’t THAT good, man. I was ok, I guess, and I was like, ‘How can I be here?’”

Like many of his saxophonist contemporaries, Joe Lovano—who listened intently to Liebman and Steve Grossman on the 1972 Elvin Jones recording, Live at the Lighthouse—considered Liebman well beyond ok. “The energy and attitude that they played with was so strong and real,” Lovano said. “It felt like my generation. It was clear that here were two incredible, inspired players, and I had to reach for that level of energy and sound. After that, the way Dave channeled his ideas into that real electronic period of Miles’ music was amazing—he was the sound Miles needed at the time.”

Indeed, by the end of 1974, when he launched Lookout Farm with Beirach, bassist Frank Tusa, drummer Jeff Williams, and tabla player Badal Roy, Liebman was, as he puts it, “on the front line of the first younger post-Coltrane generation,” a highly influential figure. By 1980, he recalls, “I became cognizant that guys were copying me and Steve copying Trane. Elvin and Miles put us in the sun, and that’s how we played. We didn’t think about it. What else were we going to do?”

[BREAK]

A few hours before hit time on his final day at Birdland with Kuhn, Swallow, and Drummond, Liebman sat on the balcony of a 21st floor suite in the midtown time-share building that he purchased several years ago in order to sustain a New York presence, and reflected on the implications of an early Baby Boomer joining the pantheon of NEA Jazz Masters.

“It’s significant in that I’m able to tour, but it’s also a personal thrill to be in the same company as my idols and mentors,” he said. “It’s the old adage that if you’re on line long enough, eventually your time comes to get whatever rewards there are. It’s interesting I’m getting the award with Wynton Marsalis, who embodies the opinion that the ‘70s was the time when we lost our way. Perhaps the Establishment is finally recognizing that the ‘70s wasn’t such a waste. It will always be called the Fusion Era, and rightfully so. But that shouldn’t be a black mark, because it was a great period.”

“To me, ‘fusion’ doesn’t mean a rock beat or an Indian drum. It’s a technical word which means to put together. The word ‘eclecticism,’ which also used to be a dirty word but is now completely kosher, definitely represents my generation; we had easy access to so many idioms and styles in the ‘60s, our teenage years, and our interests were spread very wide. We were of a type sociologically—mostly white guys, middle class (we didn’t have to do this), formally educated. And we had rock-and-roll—James Brown, Sly, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. Of course, all music is a fusion. But this was an acknowledged mixture of styles that seemed incompatible or unlikely. Before that, jazz was a blues, a standard, II-V-I, with more or less a common vocabulary that existed from Armstrong to Coltrane, played by musicians who came up in the same root. Now, of course, it’s commonplace to put together styles; everybody does this every day.”

As Liebman intends to do at full tilt for the foreseeable future. “I’m going to keep this energy going until the gas runs out,” he said. “In my case, it’s inevitable that I will not be walking so easily in ten years or so. I know it will not go on forever. I mean, Roy Haynes is unbelievable. Sonny, too. But they’re rarities. Most guys don’t. Maybe I will. But I don’t count on that.”

*-*-*-

Dave Liebman Blindfold Test (Raw) — 2014:

The Cookers, “Believe, For It Is True”  (Believe, Motema, 2012) (Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Eddie Henderson, trumpet (solo); David Weiss, trumpet; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; George Cables, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

First of all, it sounds like Billy on drums. It sounds like Jabali. I’ve been with him all week, and I recognize these rolls across the drums. An admirable job on keeping the rhythmical hits in place during the solo. From the standpoint of the tune, a long head, a little involved. Nice. It’s kind of a convoluted Lee Morgan type of head, with a “Maiden Voyage”-type harmonic thing going on in the background. Really nice. A little long for me, but… Then the fact that they keep the figure going so long… I would have abandoned it by now, or asked the rhythm section to go into something a little smoother. But the tenor played very well on it, got a really good bottom register, full-throated. That’s the kind of playing that’s like…I don’t know, what’s a good word… Full-throated. All out, all the time. The tune kind of demanded that, but I would have to hear this gentleman or lady, whoever it is, on another track to see. But it’s that kind of playing where it’s… I don’t want to say “double forte” all the time. It’s like that movie, Full Metal Jacket, like go the jugular right away. Not much nuance in that respect. But again, it could be the nature of the tune, but it also could be the style of this particular player. I think of somebody… Who’s like that? Azar is like that. Maybe Billy Harper to a certain extent. They just go for it all the time. I’m sure on the ballads, not quite the same. It’s a certain way of playing. But nice playing, and he played kind of in the changes and out of the changes, nice rhythmic ideas, and he played off of the vamp which was pretty tricky. So whoever that is gets definite support from me. I don’t think the trumpet player is Lee Morgan, but it’s got a vibe like those guys. Excellent player. Trumpet’s on another level. He’s up a level, the way he’s playing. But they keep that vamp going; I guess that’s the way the tune is. This is a good trumpet player. A very good track. I can’t tell what 5 stars is until I know what 3 is. Maybe I’ll go back later for judgments, because everything’s relative. But that’s a nice track. I definitely like it. [AFTER] So it’s Eddie Henderson. Oh, he sounds good. I worked with him in San Francisco, and always enjoyed his playing. He knows the tradition and he’s well-versed in everything. It’s nice to hear him. I had never heard the Cookers live. So that’s Cecil, too. That’s half of Saxophone Summit right there. I enjoyed it. I’d hope I get Billy Hart after 25 years, hearing him take a roll across the drums. 5 stars.

George Coleman-Richie Beirach, “Flamenco Sketches”  (Convergence, Triloka, 1990) (Coleman, tenor saxophone; Beirach, piano)

I think that’s Richie and George Coleman, their duo record. It’s in the recesses of my mind; it must be 20 years ago. Is that “Flamenco Sketches.” Of course, you have my main man there. Richie has a way of… At this tempo, in this mood, he’s one of the kings of establishing an ambiance, harmonically and rhythmically. This is one of his big strengths. George sounds so melodic and so great. He’s always great. I think George got much maligned by this whole thing with Miles, and that supposedly…again, this is myth, I don’t know…he was practicing too much in the room or something, and Tony told Miles, and Miles canned him for Wayne. I don’t know if this is all true. But George is a very melodic player, very good technician. He tends to play patterny sometimes, and let the fingers do the walking. I caution students… You’ll be hearing me say a lot of this, because the way I teach is a reflection of my aesthetic. I caution students not to have “fingeritis” and let the fingers do the walking before they’re really doing the talking, so to speak. George can sometimes be a little mechanical like that. And he’s a little sharp, a little out of tune here, but that’s part of playing in the upper register in the tenor sometimes. But he sounds great. He’s very melodic, and he’s great to hear with Richie. They had a short relationships. Of course, it was last year or the year before that George came down and sat in. I know he’s a little ill now, or not well, but he came backstage and I had a nice time talking to him, too. Total respect for him. He’s a complete master. And he has a certain sound that’s… Talk about different from Billy Harper. It’s almost the opposite. It’s light, airy, towards the high side. Probably not a very large mouthpiece, or if it is, it’s a small opening with a hard reed. He’s got a lot of agility, a lot of technique, and I think the mouthpiece enables him to do that. I would have to ask what his setup is. But he’s got a real smooth thing, a buttery, watery kind of thing, and he’s been consistently like that since the ‘60s, or since the time with Miles. Just to reiterate, Four and More is a classic for a variety of reasons, but George’s playing on it is masterful. I don’t know what happened, I don’t know why he didn’t stay, I don’t know what happened with being aced out of the band, but he was great with Miles. This is on the top. 5 stars. These guys know what they were doing. The way I look at things is, if what they do, they pull off,  then they’re good at it. Whether it’s my taste or not is a separate story.

Branford Marsalis, “Pursuance/Psalm”  (Footsteps Of Our Fathers, Marsalis Music, 2002) (Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

I think that’s from the Bimhuis, live from Amsterdam. Oh, they did a video there maybe. I remember hearing this, or maybe I saw the video. So the video is different than this, a different performance. [Yes.] This is studio. Pretty good for studio, because they had a lot of energy. I mean, it’s a tour de force, no question about it. They all play full-throttle. I can’t tell the bass from the way we’re listening, but Joey and Branford, of course, and Tain—they’re killing. They’re burning it up, playing in the Trane thing, keeping almost the curve of Trane’s solo, except a little bit longer, maybe more like the Antibes version that Trane did after the original recording of Love Supreme. Having played with Joey and having enjoyed him over the years… He’s got impeccable time. He burns from getgo. Pretty much, that’s what he does. Branford, of course, has a lot of facets to his playing and he sounds good. It’s a great track. There’s nothing missing. They played great. They keep the time going; they keep the energy going.

One specific thing. When you’re playing in that, again, fast, fingers-type style, pentatonicky, chromaticky, and so forth, I still miss sometimes the sense of a melodic motif. I think two or three choruses he went up in the higher register, which is where you would most likely do the repeated note, maybe ornament that note, play a motif around that note, repeat it over the length of 2 or 3 choruses. He sort of did that. Playing at that tempo, with that kind of energy, is pretty hard to pull off, but it’s a real art to be able to be somehow melodic besides…what’s the word…harmonic. I don’t know what to say. I mean, he covers his bases, but I miss that little sense of sometimes a melody coming out of that. But you have to have real control to be able to do that, and you’ve got to do it every night, too. That notwithstanding, it’s a great track. They played their ass off. They played great on it. [Anything to say about playing this sort of repertoire?]

I remember when I first heard it… I’m not sure if I heard this version or the Bimhuis version, which is why I asked. I wasn’t that happy with it, and I thought it was a little…what’s the word…I don’t want to say disrespectful, but taking that on and doing it is a little ballsy. But that’s the way he is. But hearing this, either I didn’t hear it right or I’m hearing another version… But this is definitely on fire. I mean, they’re burning. You can’t contest that. And to do that in the studio at that tempo is difficult. That’s not easy, with headphones on and distance, you’re not on top of each other. To get that kind of power in the studio for that length of time is an accomplishment. I can tell you it’s hard to do that in studio. Live, you do it because you do it, and if it’s taped and it’s happening, fantastic. But I have a lot of admiration for what they did.

To my taste, Jeff Watts is a overplaying a little bit. He’s really drumming-out, and a lot of toms and flow stuff, and it’s great—and he’s great, of course. Maybe I’m stuck on Trane, that rhythm section. But the sense of fire, yes. Building, yes. Action, yes. But there has to be some leveling off to allow the stuff to breathe a little bit, and then you can rise. I call it plateau playing, where you go up, you level off; you go up, you level off. There’s a lot of curves in playing. The Miles Quintet was peaks and valleys, hills and mountains, and other groups go up, down, in the middle, whatever. But Trane’s thing, when they really burned on “Impressions” or something like this, there would be plateau. I miss that here in the sense not that the energy goes down, but there comes a chorus or two where it’s just time without a lot of action. It allows the ear to rest, it allows the listener to rest, and it allows the artist not to rest, but to re-collect and then yet go further. This just was on a path of upward trajectory, as upward as they could go for that long, and that’s not as interesting to me. That’s why I asked for the melodic thing that I discussed, or a leveling-off of the rhythm section to enable Branford maybe to be more melodic instead of having to kind of, I don’t want to say catch-up…to either catch-up or leave…but to keep that energy going… That sometimes is a liability, I think, to the artistic-ness of the project. To the playing, it’s great. Wow, look at the technique and the energy, and it’s astounding and all that shit—that’s definitely true. And I think maybe Tain playing the way he did is… But again, if it’s in the studio and he did, that’s amazing. They were definitely young cats hitting hard. That’s for sure. 5 stars. They played their ass off.

Anthony Braxton, “Composition 40 (O)”  (Dortmund (Quartet) 1976, Hat Art, 1991) (Braxton, soprano saxophone, contrabass saxophone; George Lewis, trombone; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums)

If it’s not Anthony Braxton, I don’t know who it is. And that’s maybe George Lewis? Only because I don’t know who else… Steve Swell plays like that. These guys are masters of this shit. That head! It’s absurd, how much practice they must have done to get that head together. It reminds me of Lee and Warne 80 years later, how much Lee and Warne Marsh must have worked on their heads. This has to be similar. I mean, they’re amazingly together. Then the bass joins in. It’s unbelievable. And the rhythms, the choice of notes… From a saxophone standpoint, the articulation that Anthony is capable of, single-tonguing…it appears to be single-tonguing… I can’t speak that fast, let alone play that fast. I can’t say tatatatata as far as he was doing. Of course, he went from I guess soprano or sopranino, some weird thing, to that contra-contra, whatever the hell bass-something-or-other that he got. Then they go into the texture stuff, with the mutes, with the trombone, and then all the farting and shmooching and stuff that’s going on… These are guys are experts at sound sources, at colors, at wide intervals, difficult intervals, and odd rhythm…I don’t mean odd rhythm in the sense of the modern guys…I mean, odd, up-and-down, weird, amazing stuff.

I totally supported and was part of the decision to give Anthony the NEA. I was so glad that he was there. He did talk a lot at the ceremony… But he is a great guy, and definitely has made a contribution. There’s no question about it. Once we had a repartee at the Banff Institute when he was a guest, and he said to me, “Would you tell me how you play on ‘Impressions?’” Because I’m like post-Coltrane stuff and everything. So we had a little session. I usually play drums and then I talk about what you’re playing, etc., etc. Then he said, in that scholarly way, in the way he has of speaking, and the expression on his face was classic… He said: “You know, we had the same problem. The same challenge. We’re from the same generation.” I said, “What was that, Anthony?” He said, “John Coltrane. And we handled it in two very distinctly different ways. I went to Stockhausen and you went more inside it. Very curious. Very interesting.” I’ll never forget that, because it’s absolutely true. Being from that generation and having grown up in the ‘60s and heard Trane, seen Trane, tasted Trane, you had to deal with him if you played anything close to that instrument, let alone music, just like they had to deal with Charlie Parker. So that was very interesting.

One last thing is, once I remember he gave me a list of what he called “sound sources” on the saxophone, and 75 things from attacks to delays. Some I had no idea what he was talking about. But it goes to show his immersion in using the many woodwinds he plays in, let’s say, extra-musical ways—meaning as sound sources. Things that would not have been thought of. Now, of course, you’ve got to go back to the original avant-garde, the ‘60s, Archie and of course Albert, to find the sources of using the instrument in ways that were not orthodox. But Anthony definitely took it to another level, and he’s been doing it for 40 years. I give it to him. This is 5 stars because of the way they played, man. They played unbelievable. [Were you listening to this when it was happening?] No. I was aware of it, and I’m aware of him, but I can’t say… He’s very prolific. Like in my case, he does so much, you don’t know what years… But it’s live, too. It’s unbelievable. It’s live. [This is 1976.] That’s at the height of this stuff. That was the second-generation free guys. By the ‘70s, it had been distilled down to…the basic elements were already present by then. They were being experimented with from Cecil and Ornette on, and of course with Trane, late Trane and his inclusion of everybody on Ascension. But by the time we get to the ‘70s… The ‘80s is a different story. Then you have the next generation distilling it even further.

The other thing about this is that composition becomes equally prevalent to the improvisation. Which now is very much on the map. Oh, everybody writes long heads; boy, oh, boy, it’s composition. But this is 1976, and those guys are playing the heads that go on for 2-3-4 minutes, and it stays on track and sounds so TOGETHER, man! And it’s live. You would say it was edited. But it’s live. It’s unbelievable. I love it. Was that Dave Holland? Barry? Nice. [George and Dave Holland have said that Braxton would write 50 pages and present it at the soundcheck.] Well, they did their job. They could all read and play great. I really enjoyed the way they played, and where they went group-wise and how they went into different areas. Again, the color. Color as an element of music. Look, it starts from the first aboriginal guy. There’s a color. He’s hitting on the ground. But the use of color as a device for composition, let alone improvisation, is basically something that is a 20th century phenomenon. The color of an orchestra in the 1700s and 1800s, and Bach on an organ…yes, of course. But the use of color as color, like Varese and Stockhausen, just that…we’re going to go to that texture and use that… That’s what Anthony copped. He copped, “We can make color.” Just the mute in the trombone and the staccato in the soprano is a color, even beyond what they’re playing. It becomes the prevalent thing you hear. You’re not hearing harmony. You’re not hearing melody. You’re hearing rhythm to a certain degree, of course. Everything is rhythm, if it’s two notes. But you’re really hearing color as an absolute, on-the-map, top… Melody-harmony-rhythm, it’s a great triumvirate. Color, right up there. These guys know how to do that.

I’ll tell you one last story about Anthony. When Bob Moses and I tried to form a cooperative, because we felt it was time for us to get out of the lofts and play for people (this was 1970), we called a meeting of all the cats who had been hanging at my loft and his loft. Among them was Michael Brecker and Bob Berg…there were 30 guys sitting on the floor of my loft on 19th Street. Moses invited Anthony to come up and talk to us, and Leroy Jenkins—two different occasions. Leroy came at 7 o’clock, and Anthony came at 10 o’clock. Leroy was on the verge of racist. He was like, “You have to have grass roots and meaning…” I don’t know what the hell he came up there for, to basically say, “You can’t do it because you don’t have a raison d’etre. You don’t have no political…” Remember, this is ‘70, this is the height of the shit. Then Anthony comes up at 10 o’clock, peace-and-love, do-your-thing, go-for-it… I’ll never forget. He was so positive. We’re all 22 years old, basically trying to get our lives together and find a way to play in a very bad period of jazz, which was the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, as you know, before the fusion thing hits. Business is bad, and here we are playing that kind of stuff, or trying to. And Anthony is completely supportive. I’ll never forget that from him. We reminisced at the NEA about these things. I’m very glad he got the award.

Charles Lloyd, “Ruby My Dear” (Mirror, ECM, 2010) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums)

Charles Lloyd. One of my great influences, of course, because he was my teacher for a year, in 1966. I don’t know all his records. I know he has a million records on ECM. I can’t believe the piano is Bobo, because the piano playing is a little…not… I have some comments on the piano playing. That could be Anders Jormin, who is incredible. That would then be Billy. I’m not sure, because Charles had so many rhythm sections, and I’m not sure if it’s Jason Moran or Bobo or who the heck it is. But in any case, Charles, who I just saw last April, I believe, in Helsinki or somewhere in Finland, for the first time since 1966. I went down for dinner, and he was sitting there with his wife, and he said, “Dave?” We had a wonderful 2 hours together. The next night I went to hear him; sat on the side of the stage and went to hear him. We had a wonderful time together. It was great to see him. He’s in great shape. He looks the same basically, and he plays the same basically. That’s not necessarily a derogatory or a criticism. He plays the way he plays. He basically played the same way that he played in the ‘60s.

Of course, Charles’ thing is that water thing. I still have a little bit of that in my playing. There was a time when I really had a lot of it, because I was affected by him. His thing is, he took early Trane… We all took a different aspect of Trane and developed it. He took early Trane (kind of Benny Golson did also, but in a different way) those flurries and fast runs, and he put that kind of airy, almost Stan Getz sound to it. It’s like we do. When you try to find something that’s you, you see it coming from different angles and you mix it together in a bouillabaise that only you would mix because of your seasoning and your taste. So he’s got a Stan Getzish, light sound, a Paul Desmondy, even Warne Marshy sound on the tenor, with a kind of Trane sheets-of-soundy type thing. Not quite that deep, I wouldn’t give it that, but happening. Usually a little out of tune. That’s just the way he is. He’s got a Conn tenor that he still has, and it has a certain kind of distinct sound to it, a certain thing.

Charles got over, man… Besides that, he took a 20-year break or whatever he did. It’s incredible that he just came back and became a hit. I’m sometimes a little mystified, but I must say, he does evoke the hippie time. He evokes that spirit in his playing, when LSD was basically a nightly experience, and for that I give him a lot of credit. He is who he is, and look, he’s had obviously a successful life. He was a real estate mogul, from what I understand, on the West Coast, and the Beegees and Petrucciani and so forth—it’s all that. But just seeing him last year and hearing him, it was like memory lane for me, because he was obviously a big influence.

The reason I went to Charles Lloyd in 1966 was, Bob Moses, again, who was my first true friend who knew more than me, who knew the stuff… I said, “It’s time for me to go to somebody and get some lessons.” I was seeking in those lessons in those days, and nobody was teaching. “Who sounds the most like Trane?” I didn’t really have my history together at that time. He said, “Go see Charles Lloyd; he’s with Cannonball.” I went to the Half Note. He was dressed in a tie and suit. They were dressed so well. They were doing Fiddler on the Roof. I went up to him in the break at the Half Note. Where I’d been. Of course, I’d seen Trane, so I knew the scene there. I said, “Hello, Mr. Lloyd, do you teach?” He said, “No.” Then he looked at me over those spectacles, he looked at me deeply, and he said, “But you can come over tomorrow; here’s where I live.” Actually, it was across the street from Blue Note, above the firehouse.

I spent the next year, literally, almost every, if not every Sunday from noon til 8, if not later, with him, in his bed watching the Giants or the Yankees, probably smoking a joint or whatever, more…I don’t remember. But I was around a true jazz musician. He taught me very little. He didn’t really teach. He had some comments, which is another discussion. But just being around the real deal… He was just about the cover… I remember I walked in one day, he said, “Look, I’m on the cover of ‘Deadbeat.’” (As we do this interview.) He had a sardonic kind of humor. He was a very interesting guy. And he was an intellectual, really. He was a teacher. You could see he was another kind of level. And he figured the hippie thing out, and the good-looking suits and everything, and of course, he stole Miles’… Not stole. But he would start everybody, and Miles would take them. Because Charles was fashionable. He was on the scene. He was kind of a fashion-plate. He was playing that Forest Flower thing. This is before anybody knew who Keith and Jack were, and of course (here we go), Ron McClure, my bass player this week, playing with Charles.

I went to him and I spent that year with him, and the highlight was when he asked me to take Keith, Cecil and Jack to the Newport Festival. Because I had a car, in those days of bigger cars. He said, “would you drive my guys up there?” I said, “All right.” I picked them all up in the morning, different parts of Manhattan, drove for 6 hours, got to Newport, there was a line of cars. They got out and walked. They didn’t know me. I had my girlfriend with me; they didn’t owe me anything. But I remember hearing them, and then seeing Trane, which now just finally got release, live at Newport in ‘66… Seeing him in the afternoon.

So I was like his go-fer. He played a lot at Slugs. He had Tony Williams in the band. He had Gabor, of course. Sometimes he had Herbie. He had Ron Carter. He had Albert Stinson. He was the kind of hot cat on the scene in the mid ‘60s in New York, and I was attached to him. He was my idol. It was great to see him again.

This particular “Ruby” is a little drawn out. The piano player, I don’t know, it’s kind of a reharm but not really, and it’s the chords… I get a little disturbed as the piano solo is progressing, and then Charles comes in and he’s kind of floating. I’m not sure the performance is the greatest one. I don’t know if it’s live or in the studio. But Charles has that kind of casual manner about him that sometimes can be a little disconcerting, I think, musically. I must say, when I saw him and he went into a spiritual rap, he had a whole 10-minute rap, I just went and said, “Boy, it’s 1966 again, man; it’s unbelievable.” We all represent something, because we’re all part of history. But that’s his little slice. But I love the guy; he’s a great guy. 4 stars. Maybe 3.

Evan Parker-Matthew Shipp, “Rex 2”  (Rex, Wrecks & XXX, RogueArt, 2011) (Parker, tenor saxophone; Shipp, piano)

That could probably keep going. I have no idea how long that will go on. One thing about these guys (same with Anthony), they’ve got stamina. I’ll tell you that! They stay on course, and they will stay there, and I bet they can go on for another three hours. Very nice little conversation between the piano and the saxophone. I have no idea who it is. It sounds like it was done in their home or living room. It sounds like they were feeling no pain. The piano player is excellent. I like him. A lot of ideas. The saxophone player was pretty quick at picking things up when he was thrown a bone by the piano player, meaning the piano player would do something and leave a space, and give the saxophone player a chance to respond.

This kind of duet conversing, again coming out of…again, back to the avant-garde… It’s interesting up to a point, and then it loses… I don’t know. It sounds like guys just playing. If you’re in that mood, that’s the kind of thing, you go right in the zone. It’s like Cecil stuff, and you go right in there and stay there. Bukt there’s no up-and-down, there’s no curve. It’s just, again, one unidynamic…it’s mono-dynamic… It stays the same. It gets little busier and less busy; as they go on, probably more busy. Maybe by the end, they get less busy because they’re ending the tune or whatever they feel like is enough. But playing like this (which I’ve done quite a bit of, of course) is very good for your playing, because you do things you wouldn’t normally do if you’re playing in a more contained environment. On the other hand, it’s music for musicians only, basically, and people who are in that zone, and if you’re in that zone you probably had a great smoke or something, because this will definitely help that ride. [LAUGHS]

But it’s a great way to play to really get the kinks out of your horn, in a way. I like doing this, because you wouldn’t play that way in another situation. Initially I thought it was Archie Shepp, and then I thought it might be David Ware. It’s one of those kind of tenor players. I don’t think it’s a young guy. I think it’s someone who’s been doing this for a long time. It could be one of the Chicago guys, Roscoe… I can’t name who it is stylistically. If it was Archie, he would been in the upper register a little more, he would have done those kind of things he does with sound. He has a very particular style. He sounds like himself. And David Ware, when I saw him, he did, too. But I was premature in thinking it was Archie, because he has a tone and sound you’ll know pretty quickly. As far as this guy goes, I won’t say it’s generic. I don’t want to be derogatory or condescending. But it’s another free tenor player from, I would imagine, that era. If it’s a young guy, one of these cats like an Ivo Perelman or somebody that I don’t really know their style. Who is it? [AFTER] Oh, it’s Evan. I don’t know Evan on tenor that well. The piano is Matthew Shipp. I enjoyed him. I just did notes for Ivo and Matthew last year, that Ivo asked me to write. I’ve seen Matthew play, and as I said, he’s excellent. I always identify Evan more on soprano. He’s like revolutionary on soprano. He’s very good on tenor. I don’t know enough about it to know the distinct style… We did a live recording at the Vortex in London with a drummer. I don’t know if he played tenor. Maybe he did, and I don’t remember. [Why is he revolutionary on soprano?] He really set the ground for an avant-gardy type thing. Another guy is John Butcher, who is unbelievable. But I recently heard this guy, Michel Donato. Send me your address, and I’ll make a copy of this. Somebody came up to me in New Haven a few months ago. He was a producer; I don’t know his name. He said, “there’s a soprano player from Europe; maybe you don’t know him, but I’m soliciting remarks from soprano players; would you listen and give me a statement?” I never heard a cat play the horn like this. It’s WAY out there. As I’m doing research, in fact… Dalachinsky came last night, and he’s going to find his contact. I want to contact this guy and just say how much I enjoyed him. He lives in south of France. He’s like our age. He’s made a million records. He’s completely underground. But Evan has made a great contribution on soprano. But I must say these other guys are hot on his tail.

[Isn’t he coming out of Coltrane also?] In his own way, he is. But Archie did and Pharaoh did and Albert… I put them all in one place. They all extended the way the tenor was played in the ‘60s, coming from Coltrane or leading to Coltrane, or Coltrane followed him. I think Coltrane had his ears open and he was listening to them. I think Albert was a big influence on Coltrane. I think it would be, like, “I need to use some of that in my playing.” I would imagine. Of course, Coltrane also had that he could play “Giant Steps,” which separated him from the pack. When you heard Coltrane play late Coltrane, it still made incredible sense. I mean, it made harmonic sense. He didn’t just go… I can’t say this makes harmonic sense. This is about texture. We’re back to color for color sake. And here, rhythm. Absolutely, because of Matthew. Because remember, piano is a percussion instrument. When you play it this way, you’re being true to its percussive nature. Is Bill Evans a percussive player? Not really. I mean, you could call it playing cymbals if you want. But this is really using piano that way, which has been in front of everybody since the invention of the piano. And these guys, coming from Cecil. Cecil is responsible. Unless he might have heard some guy do it that we don’t know about. But Cecil made it a percussion instrument, almost to the extent that it’s not anything else. There’s no real melody, there’s no real harmony; it’s texture and it’s rhythm. For that, I give them 5 stars for what they do, because that is what these guys do. They do it well, too.

Pharoah Sanders, “Crescent”  (Crescent With Love, Venus/Evidence, 1994) (Sanders, tenor saxophone; William Henderson, piano; Charles Fambrough, bass; Sherman Ferguson, drums)

You can’t have Dave “happy man” all the time. You’ve got to have “Dave dark.” So far I’ve been very positive.

Wayne Shorter Quartet, “Orbits”  (Without A Net, Blue Note, 2013) (Shorter, soprano saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s Wayne, of course, live. The thing that’s great about it is the interaction. They’re a live group that’s now ten-years-plus old, that a whole generation can see, that’s successful, playing the big gigs, that’s really improvising. That’s my bottom line for this group. They really improvise. Wayne sounds fantastic on soprano. The runs are great. The high notes are fantastic. He sounds a little more exuberant than he sometimes does. It’s a good take in that respect. There can be a tendency in this group for overplaying. Possibly, maybe the up-and-down-ness of Brian’s playing can be sometimes a little disconcerting, and Danilo can get a little caught in banging on the piano a little bit. But it’s the nature of the rhythmic thing that they do. Part of my aesthetic as we talked about before, and we said it with “Pursuance,” I like the leveling-off not because of looking to die down, but because contrast is so important to me, and that the story line keeps the tension-and-release going. It doesn’t just stay in tension, or, equally, in release. I miss that sometimes with this group. I mean, they can do it, and then they go from very soft sometimes, very quiescent, to burning right away. There’s not a lot of middle ground with this group. They don’t cover that live at least. Of course, writing-wise, Wayne… My bottom line on Wayne is always this. Wayne is an example (and there aren’t many in jazz; Horace was, Monk was—piano is a little easier) of composer as improviser. Most of us are improviser-composers. We take “Donna Lee” because we would have played what we wrote. “Impressions” is what we would have played. But Wayne writes, and then plays from the writing, and he keeps a compositional context to whatever he does. Not particularly on this particular track, but in general he thinks of space, thinks of tension-and-release, and really has it together. I just recorded two weeks ago, with my big band, Wayne Shorter, ten tunes from the ‘60s. A Swedish arranger. It’s going to come out on that same label I did my last one—Summit Records. Of course, this is “Infant Eyes” and “Nefertiti” and “Speak, No Evil,” “Iris,” all the stuff from the ‘60s—all those great tunes. Of course, those tunes are pristine, because they are so clearly what they are of what I’m talking about—his up-and-down, his tension-and-release, his choice of chords, his melodies. He was a guy who was an architect and then improvised. That’s not the normal thing in jazz. Again, Monk is also a great example of that, where you have a structure and a compositional view that is so ensconced that, when you improvise, you sound like you’re writing. That’s not true in much jazz, and for me, Wayne is the most important writer of the last 50 years, because he contributed that. Plus, harmonically (with Herbie, of course), he suggested chords that in the ‘60s were not being played in the ‘60s to improvise over, and made us, my generation, have to really reexamine how we improvise on chord changes. What we were used to was the II-V cycle and Bird and Bebop—basically Blakey and the whole thing like that. Here comes a guy with different chord qualities and places that modulated, that made you not able to use your cliched shit. Even though you would see the bar, you’d see a II-V, his II-V was going somewhere distant. You couldn’t go in with your little thing you’d learned from so-and-so and put it into that context. It didn’t sound right. You couldn’t play it. You had to play more horizontal. In that respect, Wayne is very Lester Young-oriented, because he really brought horizontal in, whereas Trane is much more vertical, more up-and-down. Coleman Hawkins and Prez is the same dichotomy, and basically you’re either one or the other. Basically. But that group…that’s 5 stars, of course. They’re improvising, man! They’re without a net! Well-put. Good title.

One last thing is that at the beginning, he plays something… I thought it was an avant-garde guy again. I was going to say to you, “Well, Ted, it looks like we’re in that direction today.” Because the beginning was really some free, crazy shit. I thought, “oh, here we go with another one of these tracks. I’ll have to see who this is. Is this Lol Coxhill or one of those guys?” Then they start, and it’s Wayne, and I didn’t know it. I forgot that little intro. That intro was the seed of something they don’t do that much. Am I right? That little free intro. The way he’s playing, they’re playing very, very free. So that particular episode in the beginning made me think of… That introduction…I would like to hear Wayne do more of that, because that’s definitely different than his usual m.o.

Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman, “South Side”  (Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman, YAL, 19920 (Lateef and Freeman, tenor saxophones; John Young, piano; John Whitfield, bass; Terry Morrisette, drums)

I have no idea. It could be old cats trying to play like new cats. It could be some neo guys. I don’t know. A lot of patterns. Nothing that interesting to me. Both of them had this old sound vibrato at the end of the note that makes you think they definitely listened to or are older cats. It’s like older cats trying to play avant-garde, in a way, trying to be… They have language and they’re playing, but it’s kind of misplaced in a way. The time is kind of scattered. And the sound…it sounds like they’re shaking a lot. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s that way of playing saxophone where your embouchure is just so loose that everything is kind of shaking. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a particular way of playing… Again, I couldn’t tell if these are avant-garde guys playing inside or inside guys playing avant-garde, or old cats with young cats (the drums and piano, not much happening). It’s a blues with a bridge. The way they handled the bridge was a little more modal. It shows that they weren’t really, to me, that adept at that kind of playing, which places it as a little bit older style. In other words, guys playing on modal things who come from the bebop period, you can usually tell they’re not like the… It’s like me playing on “Donna Lee” rather than playing on “Impressions.” That’s not my strength. I do it, but it’s not my strength. This is like the reverse of that. I always tell a story of when I was with Elvin. When Joe Farrell left, and before Steve Grossman came in the band, it was either Clifford Jordan, Frank Foster or George Coleman. Elvin liked two saxophones. It was interesting to hear these guys play when we did modal material. Because some of Elvin’s material was A-minor—go. They would try to play like a II-V-I progression, and it was, like, misplaced. This made me really see that what era you come from, in a way, is one of the biggest determinants, at least in this music, of your modus operandi. You can’t deny that. You may change and evolve. But you come, like Charles does, like Branford does, like I do…you come from that period, and that period is, like, they see D-minor-VII, that’s going to G-VII, brother. They don’t see D-minor-VII lasting them 16 bars, like “So What.” That’s why “So What” was such a revolutionary thing, because they didn’t have cadences. They had only that one chord, that one scale. In any case, I’m not sure who these guys are or what they were doing. But it was a little strange. It sounded like a jam session or some festival they put together, cats at the end to play together, like one of these Bruckner House type things in Europe. [AFTER] Von is the first guy? [Second guy. Yusef was the first.] Von always had some little experimental stuff in him. But Von… Now, you’re not allowed to talk like, but there’s a lot of finger stuff going on. Patterny. A little bit “Giant Step-y” there, the II-V-I, like a mini-scale… The things we all learn as saxophone players. We’re so guilty of this “fingeritis.” We’re all guilty of it. Because the saxophone is a pretty easy instrument to move your fingers. And you do. If you can, you do. That’s Yusef? I don’t know. I’m a little puzzled. I can’t tell you that I heard Yusef much in the past 20-30 years. I just know all the recordings, the oboe, the flute, of course when he was with Cannonball. He was a really solid player and a great blues influence. This to me, sounds a little hackneyed and a little bit…not staged… As I said, they’re like old cats playing modern. Or trying to play modern. Though the piano player was not really modern. It suggested to me guys trying to stretch out with the language that they learned basically from Coltrane. But their sound is a giveaway that they’re older, unless it’s some young cat playing like that. Which is possible. That’s the neo shit. But in this case, it sounded like older cats playing modern, or trying to play modern, which is admirable and all that. But when you hear somebody like Wayne Shorter, it kind of puts the rest to dust, in a way. Because he’s 81 years old. He’s not supposed to play modern. You know what I mean? He’s one of the most modern players of all time still. That means it can be done. By some. That’s the point.

Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music”  (In All Languages, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987/1997) (Coleman, tenor saxophone; Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

I don’t know who it is. But it’s so Ornette-ed out, it’s amazing. Even to the sense of the trumpet missing notes like Don would. It’s to the tee. Of course, the tenor is a little Dewey-ish, of course (Dewey Redman). But what’s missing is a real personality from the tenor player. I didn’t feel any up-and-down, not much use of nuances, and, in a certain way, the solo was kind of flat to me. It went just like in a straight line. It didn’t go anywhere. It could be the rhythm section, which sounded a little dead. It could be the mix; I’m not getting the drums that good sound-wise. But I didn’t hear much. The bassist was doing his job. It’s an Ornette type thing. But the thing about Ornette that you have to always understand, it’s just like with Trane… If you’re going to do classic stuff, you’ve got to get somehow to the spirit and then make it yours. In this, the spirit of Ornette is buoyancy. Not uplifting; I’m not going to go spiritual. It’s uplifting… A revival meeting. It’s Texas, man! It’s just up. Even when he plays “Lonely Woman,” it’s up. The guys evokes a period. Like, Lovano plays good like that, because Lovano has that in him. It’s a certain thing it’s a joie de vivre that you hear in the cat’s playing that I don’t hear in this saxophone playing. So therefore, playing that style, which I can’t help but say it’s going to ignite a certain thing in me, because stylistically, I’m sorry, it sounds like Ornette. So you’re gonna go there? Well, ok. Then we need something of that spirit. Or we completely transform it. Do it completely different, which they didn’t. Which is absolutely valid. But to take something and play in the style of, and not get somewhere near the spirit of the original or something akin to it, to me is… I don’t know why you even do it. [AFTER] It was Ornette? On tenor? Don’t like it. Sorry. I’m completely wrong. Is that when they came back and played again? Old Dreams. He didn’t sound comfortable on the tenor. I’ve got to tell. Certainly nowhere near the alto. I’m sorry. It’s not Ornette. The sound is a little dull. I don’t get it, even with that. That’s Blackwell? Billy Higgins? But it’s the nuance. I don’t want to say he’s not familiar with the instrument, but it’s not his voice—now that you tell me it’s Ornette. But even without saying it’s Ornette, I don’t feel that the tenor was the player’s voice. Maybe you should play another instrument. It’s not coming across. Well, I’m completely wrong, and I will go down in history for accusing Ornette of not being Ornette. I’m embarrassed, because I said, “how could it be Ornette?” and it fucking ends up being the motherfucker. I’m sorry, but in any case, you get my point. I just don’t get it. This is when they… [They reunited for a tour, and they recorded this and they recorded Prime Time.] I must say on the side here… Maybe Quest is guilty of this, too. But this getting-together-again thing presents a bag of problems that are insurmountable. It’s based on history. It’s just not 1975 any more, or 1965, or 1985. [Or 1960, for that matter.] Well, in this case. It’s great to see the cats together. It’s great to evoke the memory of the great period in history. Usually, these little reunion things fall a little flat. I try with Quest. We play once a year, so it’s no big deal. I’m on it with Richie, and we’re very vigilant to try not to…we play the same material, but to try to be in present time. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m not sure we’re successful at it. That would be the listener’s judgment. But when you do come together, you have the danger of it’s not what it was because it is not what it is. It’s just history. We’re older. Older is not the point. We’re just different. It’s a different time. Tomorrow is different. But this is REALLY different. 40 years’ different. Sometimes… I can’t tell about when the Modern Jazz Quartet got together, or VSOP because they had Freddie instead of Miles. Some of that was great. But somehow… I guess it’s also in the ears of the beholder. You remember when it was fresh and really happening, and then you go, “Well, it’s not that.” So maybe it’s a little prejudiced because you were so hooked on it, and now they come back and they go, “Well, it’s not as good.” [He did write new music for this project. On the record, both the quartet and Prime Time play the same tunes, so the context is quite fresh.] I liked it. In fact, when I came on, I thought this is an attractive thing, that Ornetteish thing he does so well, which is great melodies, man. He’s the melody-maker of of all time! He will go down in history as the greatest melodic player-composer in the history…maybe in music. You want a little 6-bar melody? Nobody does it better. Triadic, memorable, you can sing it, you walk away remembering it. Forget about the improvising and the rhythm and what they do, the way they mix it up. His melodies stay in your head. That’s what makes Ornette, Ornette. And he plays like that, when he plays. But I’m used to the alto, and the tenor sounded kind of flat. [Did you hear Ornette on Tenor when it came out in the ‘60s?] Yes, and I liked it. It’s a great record. I think it had a lot of life to it. And it sounded like alto. This didn’t sound like alto to me. I did a record with Lee and Richie. The third track, “Universal Mind,” soprano, I never heard anybody play another instrument and sound more like his main instrument. I mean, the soprano sounds like an alto. That was the case on Ornette On Tenor, I believe. But not on this particular track for me.

Sonny Rollins, “More Than You Know”  (Road Tales: Volume 1, EmArcy-Doxy, 2008) (Rollins, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Bobby Broom, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Victor Lewis, drums; Kimati Dinizulu, percussion)

That sounds like an older cat who’s got a real personality. That’s a personality. That’s the thing about saxophone, man. They’re so individual. You get 50 guys and 50 different ways of playing. It’s amazing. We’ve heard a lot of them today. It’s a little similar to the one with Yusef and Von. An older cat, it would appear, coming a little bit out of the Ben and Coleman Hawkins thing with that sound, full-blast all the time, like that first thing you did with the Cookers, Billy Harper… It’s full-throttle, even on a ballad. Tenor. Deep. But he plays all over the horn. And he’s got some good lines. He plays very well. The guitar player, when he double-timed, was really great. It was very accurate and really good going. Bass and drums sounded a little sleepy. But again, it’s a ballad and it sounds like it’s late at night. It sounds like it’s the last set. But the tenor player will not give it up. He’s going straight for it. He’s going to put his shit on the table, and he’s very forthright about it. Again, not… Much of today, many of the guys… One general comment I’ve been making (Wayne is one of the few we’ve heard who breaks the rules) is of nuances, and of personal expression that makes the conversation alive. It’s like speaking. You don’t speak in the same tone of voice. You do accents and dynamics. You talk. You speak. It’s speaking. Sometimes guys just blow. Blowing is one thing. Speaking is another thing. Coming out of the voice and coming out of the way you would talk, let alone if you would sing. Then this guy, he’s just going straight through. He’s got that one sound, and he’s going to keep doing it, and it’s very predictable. To me, it takes away a little bit of magic when things are so predictable, that you know he’s going to play in a certain way. Your ear says, “oh, I’m used to that…oh, ok, that.” That shuts off part of the mystery. I like hear to somebody with more nuance. It’s like the way Herbie plays piano. Nuances on an instrument. This guy was pretty straightforward. I don’t have any idea who that its. [AFTER]

As far as I’m concerned, ‘60s Sonny, everything from Alfie to live at Ronnie Scott’s, to the live with Alan Dawson… From ‘60-‘61 to ‘67-‘68, nobody has ever played the saxophone like that. It’s even beyond Coltrane as far as the saxophone playing goes—what he does. Of course, the material is standards, so no problem. That’s a little bit what it is. But the way he plays it is great. He just never had a rhythm section, except Our Man In Jazz and Herbie with Standard Sonny Rollins, that would enable him to have more to say. What’s the point of a rhythm section for a saxophone player, for a horn player? In general, my feeling is, a guy of that amazing talent and vocabulary, if he would play with good guys on a steady level, guys that he lets them go, his game would have been raised. But Tristano was the same way. He didn’t want the bass and drums doing anything but keeping time and pulse. Dexter did it. Sonny. Stan Getz… Talk to Billy. Stan Getz had the best drummers in the world and he would handcuff them, because “it’s my show; I’m the soloist, you support me.” Dexter never said anything, but you played straight behind Dexter. You just did the job. That was that era. Those guys did the job. That’s a given, that they’re going to swing. We know they’re not going to get lost in the blues. But there’s more to it than that. That’s not enough, not by 1965-1970. Miles made that very clear. When Miles got the quintet… Even with Philly Joe, he was already doing shit, with Philly and Red doing those kicks and stuff like that. Miles was smart enough to realize, “I am more if the rhythm section is doing stuff. I sound better. I can rely on them. I can leave a space, and something beautiful and amazing and creative is going to happen, and give me something to do.” Instead of me being responsible. I always say, “Are you such a genius that you can carry 20 choruses in a row and come up with good shit? I’m not that good. Are you that good? Don’t you want some help from your friends? Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”

But since you played Wayne, there’s a guy who, everything I’m talking about, he does, in his playing. I’m not talking about the group. I’m not talking about the compositions. In his own playing, there’s nuance, there’s stop-and-go, there’s ideas, there’s color and texture and harmony and melody. He covers the gamut. And a lot of the guys I heard today don’t cover the gamut. That’s all. They’re individualists, they have a particular thing they say, and on that level it’s absolutely valid and they’re all 5 stars. Everybody is 5 stars, because they are who they are. But as far as variety of using the language in a wide scope, I didn’t hear too much of that today.

*-*-*-

In Conversation with Dave Liebman (www.jazz.com):

In September 2006, Dave Liebman, the saxophonist-educator, celebrated his sixtieth birthday musician-style, with a four-night residency at Manhattan’s Birdland, intending to represent, as Liebman put it, “a wide spectrum from among the things I’ve enjoyed doing over the last ten years.” Towards this end, Liebman presented a different band each night, all but one of them documented by a contemporaneous recording, and each navigating a distinct sonic environment.

Night one featured a to-the-outer-partials two-tenor quartet with Ellery Eskelin, a Liebman student during the ‘80s (Renewal, Different But the Same [Hatology]), while on night two, Liebman led his working quartet of the past decade with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino, and drummer Marko Marcinko (Blues All Ways [Omnitone] and Further Conversations–Live [True Azul]). On night three, Liebman presented his big band music, and on night four he performed the music of Miles Davis, his one-time employer, and John Coltrane, his seminal inspiration, with an all-star sextet comprising trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

Although the program provided a consequential snapshot of Liebman’s intense activity as he approached his seventh decade, it only captured a fragment of his total musical production. To wit, during the months preceding the festivities, his itinerary included duo concerts with Markowitz and pianist Marc Copland; trios with Nussbaum and electric bassist Steve Swallow (Three For All) [Challenge], a week at Yoshi’s in Oakland with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis; a week at Manhattan’s Blue Note with McCoy Tyner. There were also European tours with a quartet from the Continent (Roberto Tarenzi, Pablo Bendettin, Tony Arco—Dream of Nite, Negative Space [Verve]); with the collective all-star quartet Quest, with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart (Redemption,  Quest Live in Europe [Hat Hut]), recently reconvened after a two-decade hiatus; and with Saxophone Summit (Seraphic Light [Telarc]), a Liebman-organized unit in which he, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltrane—who replaced Michael Brecker after Brecker contracted his fatal illness—played music composed by or vibrationally akin to the spirit of John Coltrane.

Which meant that Liebman, as articulate with the English language as the language of notes and tones, had much to speak of while visiting WKCR to publicize his birthday run.
Am I mistaken that you’ve been emphasizing tenor saxophone more in the last few years than you had in years previous?

DL: Yes. It’s back in the arsenal since 1996, after a fifteen-year hiatus.

What was the reason for that hiatus?

DL: To get really good on one instrument rather than be ok on a few. The soprano was the choice for a few reasons. One was that I felt a little bit closer to it as far as individuality. Also in 1980, as far as the water-under-the-bridge aspect of how many people had left a voice on the instrument, there weren’t that many at the time—now it’s a little more crowded. Those two reasons made me think that it was time to put down the flute and the tenor, and concentrate on the soprano, and get it to a higher level. It took me 10-15 years to get it up to wherever it is now. It’s a hard one. But just when I was approaching 50, I decided it was time to bring back the father horn and own up to it, and to try to find a way to play it that made sense to me. I felt that I didn’t want to go so much into the Coltrane thing, all my roots that I had played so much, and to find another way of playing it.

Someone remarked that your approach to tenor saxophone is almost like an electric guitar, to which you responded that if you hadn’t heard Coltrane at 15, you might indeed have played electric guitar.

DL: I might have, yes, because of the expressive possibilities. Of course, I loved Jimi Hendrix. Those were all around the same time. But sometimes I hear… Especially on soprano, sometimes I think like that, even moreso than the tenor, because of its lightness and speed. But the way I play both instruments is marked with a certain kind of intensity, and there’s an immediacy that may be reminiscent of the way electric guitar is played.

Hearing Coltrane when you were 15 would place you in 1961, when he signed with Impulse and was starting to elaborate and extend his concept. Can you describe that first hearing?

DL: That first hearing was Birdland, and it was the second or third time I’d gone there. I’d gone with some of the older people in my school. I went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn.

Sandy Koufax’s alma mater.

DL: Yes, and Larry King.

 Joe Torre and John Franco. Bensonhurst.

DL: Well, first of all, six thousand people in the school, and my class, being 1946, was 2500 people. It was quite a large school. Anyway, I went to Birdland, and I didn’t know really who Coltrane was. It was the Bill Evans Trio opposite. Coltrane was with Eric Dolphy, as it ended up, and they played “My Favorite Things,” which I couldn’t believe. I said, “How can they play a song from The Sound of Music’? This is not possible.” In any case, I was compelled to go back every time I could, dozens of times until his death. That’s the main experience of my life, really. Outside of anything personal or family oriented that has happened to me, to see that group live was the big event. It was beyond words, the way they communicated, the way they played, their attitude, the atmosphere, the way it sounded. I was a teenager just starting to fool around a little bit, but I had no idea of the depth of this music, or what it could be—or what MUSIC could be, let’s put it that way. Nothing had ever gotten to me like that at that point. It made me see that there’s something in this music that I didn’t know.

You were playing saxophone by that point?

DL: Yeah, I was playing piano and clarinet.

So you had the music bug.

DL: I liked music, and I was trying to play jazz and pop and so forth. The first music I loved was rock-and-roll, ‘50s rock. I was an Elvis Presley freak. I loved the tenor in rock-and-roll, which is how I got to the tenor. I took music lessons like a high school student does—you’re in the dance band, you do shows, it’s an activity. I enjoyed it. But when I saw Coltrane, and then subsequently Miles…all the different people… I would go see jazz every weekend, and they made me see this as a very serious thing. Of course, in my case, getting a chance to play with Elvin and Miles eventually opened the door, and then, of course, it went to another level. But I had no idea of that in my teenage years—just that it was very, very strong music.

When did you start to get involved in the New York scene? There was a group of people about your age, a little older, a little younger, who started a loft movement before loft jazz, in ‘67, ‘68. How did those attachments start to form?

DL: [Drummer] Bob Moses was my very close friend when I was 16. In fact, we went to the Catskills and played a hotel there. I actually ambushed him for a gig. We played merengues and such. I was in the lofts already at 16 years old, trying to play. That part of whatever the scene was… The amount of musicians in New York was very small. There were dozens, maybe, as compared to hundreds. So you kind of knew everybody. Say, you could see Hank Mobley, and he might know you because he knew your face, because you’d been around and you were hanging. It was a small community. It was easy to go into a club, you had a beer, you sat at the bar, and you could go night after night. By the time I got to college age, and was on my own at NYU in Greenwich Village, I was there a lot. We had quite a scene, a loft scene back in ‘69-‘70…

You moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

DL: Yeah. When I was done from high school.

In those days, that was a big move.

DL: You were going to another country. But of course, I had been familiar with Manhattan, and I had been playing already—club dates, but also trying to play jazz as much as a young person could in those days. Looking for jazz on Bleecker Street with my horn. Seriously going out in the street and thinking there were sessions in the middle of the street! This was what I thought. But we actually organized in the late ‘60s. We put together an organization called Free Life Communication, which I was the head of, and Moses and Chick Corea and Holland, Mike and Randy Brecker, Lenny White, a lot of guys. We put on about 300 or 400 concerts in the first year. We saw that this was a thing we had to do on our own, because jazz actually was pretty low-down in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as far as places to play and opportunities. So we decided to take matters into our own hands, and got funding from the New York State Council of the Arts, and so forth. So there was some organization and some activity, but we were basically playing free jazz. The avant-garde movement was very strong in New York in the late ‘60s, and that was all that young cats like me wanted to play. Our model was Ascension. We never even played a tune or a blues or anything straight-ahead.

So were you also involved in listening to Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp…

DL: This was our favorite stuff. That’s what you saw. You’d be on the Lower East Side, and that’s what was happening. It was the current thing, and it seemed to be exciting, and it seemed to be something that you could do—get up and just start playing, basically. There were no schools then. Remember, there was no formal schooling. Some guys went to Berklee, but I didn’t, and we didn’t learn in any kind of formal way. We all learned from each other, from watching and listening and hearing and asking questions, and just hanging out.

Was it 1970 that you joined Elvin Jones?

DL: I was with Elvin in ‘71-‘72, and then ‘73-‘74 with Miles.

Seminal relationships, obviously, and very exciting. How did it happen?

DL: Gene Perla was the bassist with Elvin, and he got the gig in late ‘70 or early ‘71. He was part of our community. That was a big thing for us, because we saw one of our own, so to speak, getting with a heavyweight—a real heavyweight. He said, “I’m going to get you in the band and then I’m going to get Steve Grossman in the band—I’m telling you now.” Sure enough, slowly, Joe Farrell, who’d been with Elvin for those years, the late ‘60s, eventually was leaving, and I took his place, and then within 4-5 months Steve was in the band. That was the unit that recorded Live at the Lighthouse and so forth. It went on for that two-year period. We had a wonderful time. First it was the quartet, and Don Alias was with us for about a year with the congas.

How had Elvin Jones’ playing evolved from the time he stopped playing with Coltrane until then?

DL: I’ll be honest with you. Of course, having seen it so many times and knowing Elvin’s playing intimately, I was hoping and expecting and thinking that it would be like Coltrane. Of course, the one big thing that was missing is that I’m not Coltrane! That took a minute to realize. But in essence, Elvin was much more controlled. His timing was much different. He played soft for many, many choruses. He played a lot of brushes. He basically orchestrated the energy, which wasn’t true in Coltrane’s case, where it was Elvin and Coltrane and McCoy, all at the same time. But in this case, it was Elvin’s band, he had young guys with him, and he basically orchestrated the whole thing—without saying anything. When he went up, you went up. When he went down, you had to go down. I spent the first few months with my neck bulging, playing intensity, and he’s playing brushes and saying, “Where are you going? What are you doing there?” The vibe was I’m pushing. He knew that. I was a young guy, I was excited, and that’s what I wanted to try to do. But he matured me slowly, and he was in great control of his drums.

The other thing was that he took a major solo every set, and a long solo. You got to hear a long, expansive drum solo, which you didn’t hear so much with Coltrane.

During those years, how interested were you in changes playing? You were incredibly into Coltrane. Were you as into Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson…

DL: Oh, definitely. The two were always Sonny and Trane. For our generation, they always coexisted, always the half-and-half. Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson were on the second line. Those four were the main influences. Then Pharaoh and Archie Shepp, and the people kind of on the fringe who had a particular thing that you liked. We always had these debates. You’d go up to guys on the street and say, “Trane or Sonny?”—this ongoing joke. It meant, “Who’s your strongest influence? Where’s the real deal?” In a way, I was caught between both, because if I played a certain kind of tune, I’d be in Trane’s bag; if I played a certain Sonny kind of tune, I’d be in Sonny’s bag.” That ended up to be a little bit of a challenge to get over.

But with Elvin, we played a combination of chord change tunes, regular standards, and, of course, modal type tunes. There was no piano, so it was very open—just trio, really, with the other horn. I was able to explore both things at the same time, sort of. When I got to Miles, Miles was completely one chord. It was just rock-and-roll, one pedal, E-flat for 45 minutes, let’s say. There it was completely modal. So between those two leaders during those four years, I was able to go harmonically and non-harmonically—or, let’s say, chord changes and also modal and pedal point. Which of course, ended up being what I do. That set the stage for me.

Under what circumstances did you join Miles Davis?

DL: Well, I did On The Corner, and Miles asked me to join, and I said no, because I wanted to be with Elvin.

You were contracted to do On The Corner? You weren’t part of the band.

DL: My mother found me at a doctor’s office in Brooklyn and said, “Teo Macero, whoever he is, said ‘Come NOW’ to 52nd Street and Madison”—I knew exactly where it was. I got in and played on “Black Satin,” the first track, and I did another overdub maybe. Then Miles said, “Join my band,” something like that, kind of offhand. I don’t know if he meant it or what. I said, “I’m with Elvin, and Elvin’s Daddy,” that was my vibe. He didn’t say anything. Then six months later, in January of ‘73, we were playing the Vanguard, and he came down Tuesday night and Wednesday, and by Thursday he was on my case big-time to join. I told him, “You’ve got to talk to Elvin.” And he did. He called me in the middle of the night and he said, “Elvin said you’re fine, and tomorrow night you play with me at the Fillmore, then you go back and finish the week with him and go to the Workshop next week, and then you’re with me.” That was one night where I played with both, actually. January 12, 1973. It was amazing. I played at the re-opening of the Fillmore, which had been closed for a year, and only was open that one night for Miles and Paul Winter, and then closed and never opened again! That was 8 o’clock, and by 10 o’clock I was back playing “Three Card Molly” with Elvin and Steve at the Vanguard. I will never forget that night musically. Of course, it also felt good. But the music was from the 21st century to…well, I walked into the Vanguard, got down the steps, and they were playing a blues, something with that feel, the complete opposite from Miles’ thing, which was all-electric. I couldn’t hear a note I played. That morning I had just had holes put in my horn to put a pickup in. I had no idea what he was playing. Anyway, this was the beginning of that stage, and that went on for about 18 months with Miles.

What was new for you in that?

DL: It wasn’t the rock-and-roll, which I was familiar with—or whatever you want to call it…funk. It was the volume and intensity. It was a loud band. Miles, of course, was playing electric trumpet and wah-wah pedal, and there were no real heads. There were no chord changes. You had to watch him for everything. He pointed to you, he cut you out, he cut the band down—you’ve seen the tapes from there. It was his band all the way. He didn’t want anybody else’s tunes. You didn’t bring anything to the plate. You just were there. The main thing with Miles was the chance to be next to him and hear him play every night. Regardless of the style, the way he played was classic Miles. To be able to hear it from five feet away is different than being on the other side, listening from the audience or listening on a recording. You can’t really get it until you stand next to somebody. That was a big lesson in phrasing. Of course, the way he led the band. The way he nuanced everything, the way he brought the energies to him, and the way he controlled the rhythm section in a music that wasn’t necessarily a give-and-take rhythm section like the jazz era. This was a background. They played more or less the same thing. But the way he controlled things was, of course, a major lesson.

So it was a spontaneous orchestration every night.

DL: Very much so. I mean, it got into patterns, because we did night after night, but it was really on him, what he wanted to do. Of course, he was playing keyboard then. At first there were keyboard players, but he fired them eventually, and then it was just him on the keyboard. He’d play weird voicings with his elbow, and I’d play the alto flute, not knowing what key we’re in! We had some good fun. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed him. He was a complex person. In a lot of ways he was a Jekyll-Hyde personality, it’s true, and he had a lot of drug problems at that time, and a lot of physical problems. But in his heart of hearts, music was everything. It was all music.

Your subsequent career seems marked by an interesting approach to eclecticism. You’re pragmatic, you keep working, and you also put yourself in creatively stimulating situations.

DL: I enjoy a lot of kinds of music. I certainly enjoy my band most, but we play about five different kinds of music in the band. I like the challenge. You are who you are, and the idea is you within a context—you being whatever your style is and how you hear. I hear harmonically a certain way, rhythmically a certain way, etcetera, and that will permeate, whether it’s Puccini or Coltrane or my own tunes. To me, that’s an obvious thing. Of course, I come from this era, the ‘60s, which was the beginning of widespread eclecticism. Now, there were certainly eclectics before, but by the ‘60s you could hear a lot of musics much more readily. It was not unlikely that a listening session could be Bartok, Ravi Shankar, the Bulgarian Girls’ Choir, and then Coltrane or Cecil Taylor or something like that. There could be four or five hours of listening and hanging. All those things affected me—rock-and-roll, world music, classical, especially 20th century classical. I enjoy all of it. On the pragmatic side, I don’t have a contract, so I don’t do one thing a year for a record label. I’ve done a little travel, so you find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys another thing, and so on. I like that.

Lee Konitz has been doing that for about forty years now.

DL: Paul Bley. David Murray. Steve Lacy. It’s not unheard of. From the business side, there’s always the difficulty of selling, because you have too much product competing against your other product, and the labels hate it when you do that. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people hear more music that you like, that you’re a part of. I’m really thinking about people who are listeners. Selling is not going to happen anyway, in this day and age. So to me, if I can find a way to express myself and somebody is interested, I’m going to do it, and if it’s crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?

You were saying that you’ve concentrated more on the tenor saxophone over the last decade, since you hit 50.

DL: It has come back in, yes.

What other things have you been working on?

DL: Outside of a little envelope when I had a band with John Scofield for four-five years in the late ‘70s, much of my work after Miles was with Richie Beirach in Quest and Lookout Farm and Duo. My relationship with Richie was based on heavily on harmony, and the tradition coming out of Miles and Coltrane. He took care of the rhythm section and I was the soloist. That was our thing. By 1990, I’d had enough of that, and I really wanted to explore rhythm, to get myself more sophisticated rhythmically. Of course, rhythm is the main thing that’s on everybody’s plate in the last 10-15 years. I’m about to go to Manhattan School of Music and start my course, which is based on my book, A Thematic Approach to Harmony and Melody. But of course, it’s so arcane. It means nothing now, because nobody really uses harmony any more. What we have is a world of rhythm; everything’s not in four any more. In 1991, I felt there was a need for me to get familiar with it. Hence, I hired Jamey Haddad as my drummer, who is an expert on hand drums and an expert on rhythm. That was the band’s focus. Also synthesizer—Phil Markowitz played a lot of synthesizer. And I had Vic Juris there. I wanted more color and more written material than I had with Quest. Quest was really an improvising band. It was four master guys who could play. Not that these guys can’t. But in Quest, we were all from the same generation.

But now, in the last five years or so, I’ve been getting back to harmony, playing with Marc Copland or playing duo with Markowitz. Also, Quest was been reawakened, for our first tour in fifteen years. What happens as you get older, in a certain way, you really don’t care about what anybody thinks (if you ever did), you don’t care about categories, and it really doesn’t matter, because you do what you have to do. Also, time is limited. I’m not being morbid, but 60 is not 40. I’m just going to keep going until I can’t.

You were describing your sense at the top of the ‘90s that nobody plays in four any more…

DL: I’m exaggerating.

But the beginning of the ‘90s is when that approach started to become more mainstream instead of an exotic thing.

DL: Yes.

You’ve been an educator over those years. Could you give us a bird’s eye view of what’s transpired over this period?

DL: Well, it’s the computer. It’s world music. The influence of odd rhythm has permeated the West. That’s what it comes down to. Which it should have. It’s been there for thousands of years. Playing odd rhythms puts you in a situation where you’re not playing the same thing. You can’t phrase the same way. The generation that came up in the ‘80s, or certainly in the ‘90s, heard everything from the past played so well from the past. How could they find something fresh? We’re graduating so many students from these places who are so well-equipped, are such good musicians, that doing things in odd meter is one way to make things different—at least at the surface. At least you start with a different premise than if you’re playing 4/4 and playing rhythm changes. I think the odd meters have become endemic. It’s everywhere. My students don’t write anything in 4/4! Which is fine. It’s very interesting. The dust is already beginning to settle a little bit, and things will get to where the distinctions are not so… It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

As far as education, the last ten or fifteen years are an amazing period, with hundreds of students who make my generation look like we couldn’t play at all at that age. I certainly can’t compare myself at 21 or 22 years old to these guys. They’re unbelievable. I mean, they’re not mature men and women yet, but they know everything. They know tunes. Their tools are just ridiculous. What we teach them at Manhattan School of Music and what they have to do is so high-level—I tell you, I can’t believe what they turn into. I’m very impressed. What they’re going to do with it, how they’re going to make out, that’s another story. In some ways, the music is as healthy as it’s ever been because of this influx from all over the world. Business-wise, it’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s a complete dichotomy.

I guess there’s a mix between fresh new repertoire and playing… Well, it’s hard to say that playing “Peace on Earth” and “Meditations Suite” is dealing with older forms, but this is music that’s forty years old.

DL: Yes. That’s a very fair comment. First of all, there’s such a wealth of material. Just in general, because something was played once doesn’t mean it can’t be touched again and redone. Everybody knows that, and that’s why they go back and do it, and do it in ways that aren’t recognizable—“deranging” tunes, as it’s called now. An iota of “My Funny Valentine,” they call it “My Funny Valentine,” but it has nothing to do with it. It’s very interesting in a lot of ways. The students don’t really know past-present. They have so much material. With the iPod, they have hundreds of years of music right in their hands. History doesn’t mean the same to them as it does to us. So the little that we can do, somebody of my generation…

It’s all information. Decontextualized information.

DL: Yes. And it’s hard to find a way into it. As somebody who has a link to this, through my roots in Trane and Elvin and Miles, which was my school of learning, I feel a responsibility to play the older material. Not only, not exclusively, but to play it and reinterpret it and make it present. It’s part of what we’re supposed to do. This is the tradition. I believe in it. I don’t have Lincoln Center as a soapbox, but I believe exactly the way Wynton Marsalis does in that respect. We have a strong tradition. I’m very proud to be part of it. I feel like we have to continue it. I think it’s a good thing for somebody to see somebody in my position playing it—mixed with my own material, of course.

You mentioned recording for many different labels in recent years. Organizing all that activity and keeping the contexts separate must also be a bit of a challenge.

DL: I’m also an educator, and writing books. I can only say I’m very happy that some people enjoy and respect what I do. There’s no real money in it. In fact, in some cases, recording you ends up costing people. To me, records always have been basically a calling card. It’s a means for you to classify your material, and then once you do it, and it’s on the shelf, you can move on. From an artistic standpoint, it’s a necessity, if you can, to close the door on a certain music, or a certain tune, or a certain idiom, or whatever. Also, it’s a way for people to know you’re around. To me, it’s a way for those people who enjoy my music, for fans (I have a couple here and there, not thousands) to know I’m still active, still going. I’m always inspired by older musicians who continue to evolve. When you have 30-40-50 years under the bridge, it’s not easy to find new ways of doing things. For the first ten or twenty, you’re supposed to find new stuff. But when you get past 20-25 years, you’ve done a lot, heard a lot, been inspired a lot, you’ve written those amazing tunes based on your experiences and all that stuff. You’ve had your political awakening, your love awakening, your social awakening. Not that it ends, but you can’t repeat what you’ve done. Being creative… It’s one thing to die early, but it’s another thing to keep going! I got to tell you, it’s not easy, man, to keep going and be creative and have self-respect. It’s a matter of having respect for yourself. If other people see it that way, that’s their business. But I know I need to feel good about what I do. So I need to not repeat, if I can help it, and try to move on—and it’s not easy.

You made a classical music duo recording not long ago, called Vienna Dialogues [Zoho]. Has that been more of a preoccupation over the last decade?

DL: Not really. I’ve always been interested in 20th century classical music because of the harmonic content, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been less interested in pre-20th century. I was doing something in Vienna, where the tradition is very strong, and I was inspired by the songs—just piano and voice (or in this case, soprano). I found a young pianist, Bobby Avey, who was willing to put in the time to help me find the tunes and arrange them. This is a very straightforward, lyrical recording of songs by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, celebrating the great European tradition. I didn’t take the songs apart, or change too much—we just played on the songs. That music is what forms the basis of the harmonic music of our time. These are the guys who laid it down.

In the program notes you wrote: “There are several unique challenges. Accuracy of pitch, of course, is crucial, but more important from the aesthetic side, the challenge is to convey an emotional attitude culled from the written music while infusing it with one’s own personal set of inflections, guided above all by good taste. The balance between too little and too much is very precarious.”

DL: Yes. It’s one thing to take a Duke Ellington tune, as on a gig I did at Yoshi’s in 2006 with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, where we played “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” every set, and then phrase it and work with it the way you want At least to me, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But with Chopin and Schubert and Schumann, you have to watch yourself that you don’t go overboard—and I definitely can easily go overboard. One thing I’ve been guilty of has been in excess. I know that. That’s part of my M.O. But when you play a delicate, lyrical song with piano and soprano, it’s important to have good judgment and good taste—to try to be underneath rather than over. That objective-subjective line is an interesting thing. How much of me is in it? How much of It is it? When do you detach yourself from the art? When is the art strong enough that it conveys itself by you being the messenger? All these questions are posed when you are interpreting classic…not just classical, but the classic material. How much is you? How much do you let the music take itself? Etcetera. Of course, every man and woman has a different view on those questions, from a listening standpoint, But from a performance standpoint, you do have to take an interpretive stance. That’s what that paragraph is about.

What do you want to be doing in ten years?

DL: Keep doing it, man. Getting on that plane is getting tough. I’ve got to figure out what to do, because it’s getting harder and harder to get to where you’ve got to get. I’m not even taking the horns. I bring my mouthpiece. But I’m afraid I’m going to get to an airport and they’ll say, “Put the soprano underneath.” That’s the end of that. Things like that are happening. But I hope to continue doing what I’m doing and continue with the music.
Interview notes: Dave Liebman was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on September 7, 2006

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For Craig Taborn’s Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2008

The magnificent pianist/keyboardist/soundshaper Craig Taborn turned 46 yesterday. For the occasion, I’m posting a Downbeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008.

* * * *

Home in Brooklyn during the first days of spring, Craig Taborn was engaged in research and development. Among Taborn’s various self-imposed tasks was to memorize 10 new Tim Berne compositions in preparation for a three-week April tour in Europe with Berne’s Science Friction group, to which, during the winter, Taborn had contributed—as he had done with David Torn’s Presenz, which enfolds Berne’s band—slamming grooves and an orchestral array of sounds from keyboards, synths and home-brewed “junk” electronics.

“With Science Friction, there’s a lot of electronics and reading,” said Taborn, pointing across his living room to a concert upright Bechstein piano on which Berne’s scores shared space with piano music by Arnold Schoenberg. “Sometimes I’ll want to do a particular part on one keyboard, another part here, then another there. It would be a real problem to read music and also think about all the knobs and dials, or to look at a computer screen and problem-solve while the part is coming.”

Taborn’s penchant for sustaining creative fluency through a 360-degree span of stylistic taxonomies, in contexts “inside” and “outside,” acoustic or electronic, makes him a singular figure among improvisers of his generation. But at this moment, his keyboard wizardry was posing a peculiar problem. “I’m still deciding what to bring,” he said. He wasn’t talking about clothes.

A half-full fiberglass camera case, neatly stacked in two tiers, lay at his feet. “Flights in Europe have been strict on overweight,” he said. He added that during his winter travels he had drastically exceeded the 20-kilo limit beyond which a 10 Euros per kilo fee is imposed.

“Now, this case is actually light for its kind,” he said. “Nothing happens to it—it’s waterproof and you can throw it down the stairs. But it’s 7 kilos empty, and there’s no way to avoid the overweight. So now I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to deal with? What do I need and how much do I want to take?’”

A possible option would be to place the contents of the case into the square bag that sat across the room, transforming it into an unprotected, carry-on satchel. “You get on these little connecting flights and they want to hand-check your stuff,” he said, nixing the notion. “So you’re giving $1500 worth of stuff to somebody in Italy, and God knows what happens once it’s out of your sight. You get to the gig, and it’s just gone.”

Taborn would bring a laptop with a hard-drive loaded with software emulations of all the instruments he plays, and a contract rider stipulated that each venue would provide an acoustic piano, a Rhodes, and a virtual Hammond organ. “I’ve been trying to phase out my laptop thing, because it takes me out of improvising,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but I find I get more mileage out of one or two nice things that do something.”

Deciding upon those “nice things” was therefore the task at hand. One essential was a coil of high-grade electrical cord in a corner of the case. “This is the thing that makes the weight,” he said ruefully. Below the cord was a Line 6 Delay pedal, for echoes, and a Berenger mixer with two stereo and two mono lines.

“A lot of people send everything to the house soundman, but I like to mix myself,” he said. “I’ll plug in the Rhodes and the organ and a couple of synths, then send all the lines to my own amp, and have them mike the amp. That gives me complete control over my sound.”

Taborn considered a keyboard and a wood-trimmed, knob-loaded Creamware Pro-12 ASB synthesizer, built to capture the essence of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, a popular synth at the cusp of the ’80s.

“I’m an improviser, and I don’t know exactly what sound I want to make until I hear what’s going on,” he said. “During the ’70s into the ’80s, as synthesizers became refined, the emphasis was put on programmability and keeping presets—you designed your sounds at home with the luxury of time and silence, and then could call them up with, say, button No. 1 at a specific spot in the music. It’s like tuning your TV to your favorite channels. You always know that exact sound will be there, balanced the way you want in the environment.

“I’m interested in the process of making and designing the sound as part of the improvisation,” he continued. ‘I come more out of Sun Ra, who approached synthesizers by turning the knobs, playing in real time, and figuring it out as he went along. Those instruments were new, so people didn’t know them, and they weren’t designed to be pre-programmed, so you couldn’t call up a sound. Throughout the ’90s, hardcore musicians from hip-hop, techno and electronica were buying those older synthesizers to be able to personalize and improvise in real time. The marketplace went way up, and now it’s hard to find things that don’t have knobs and switches.”

Taborn continued to ponder the issue of weight. “I have this whole rig inside my laptop,” he said, referring to his Macbook Pro. “I could plug it into the system, and use a little controller to do all this. I could even emulate the knobs. I always take the laptop with me, and I’ve used it a lot in the last couple of years—although I like to have things dedicated, and I prefer the real thing, I don’t prefer it to carrying all that stuff around. I do hear qualitative differences in the sound. Also, if your entire setup is on the laptop and it crashes, then what do you do? If I run one thing, for instance, it will probably be OK. But if, to emulate a sound I get in real time, I layer a software version of a Prophet-5 and then a software version of a delay, the processors have trouble handling it. It takes a lot of number-crunching in the computer to program things that have the subtle play of an analog oscillator or analog filter, and their imperfections, such as going out of tune a bit when it heats up. For what I do, a lot of real-time manipulation, turning knobs frantically, the Sun Ra kind of thing, the computers will freeze up.”

Offering to demonstrate the virtual gear, Taborn transitioned to his studio, a converted second bedroom. Among other things, it contained a Mac Power desktop, Event 2020 reference-quality speakers, a Mackie 1202-VLZ3 mixer, a MOTU-2408 interface, a Kurzweil K-2500 synthesizer, an Oxygen-2 mini-keyboard, and a model 240B Wurlitzer electric piano from the early ’70s with a broken speaker. A larger wood-body 140B from 1962 was in the closet. His personal Rhodes was parked at his parents’ home in Minneapolis.

Taborn turned on the Mac, clicked Applications, pulled up his Prophet-5 knockoff, a Native Instruments Pro-53, and waited. The response was sluggish. “Something weird is going on,” he said. “If I were live and it started doing this it would be a drag.”

He opened the B-4 Hammond organ sample and uncorked a grooving line on the QWERTY keys. “I don’t play the keyboard computer like that, but that’s how it’s mapped,” he said. He switched the setting from “Funky Kingston” to an idiomatic Joey DeFrancesco-generated B-3 sound.

The computer was balking, so Taborn went to the closet. He pulled out a bright-red keyboard-synth labeled Yamaha PSS-470, the kind musicians once used, in Taborn’s words, “to play a cheesy samba.” Its wiring and circuitry were transformed into random pathways and patterns by Taborn’s friend Ryan Olcott. “You can’t emulate this on a computer,” he said. “I have two of these. You could get them in pawn shops for $50–$100, and then go inside it. Ryan is into these real improvising machines. This one came out in the ’80s, and it has a WHAM! sound, like George Michael, in its original functionality.”

He played a skronky, distorted line. “It can do something like this almost immediately, and when you turn on the switches it gets you into some abstract areas. The mentality is avant-garde; it’s made to be random, so you don’t know what it’s going to do. That’s why I like improvising with it—responding to the sounds and dealing with them is endless.”
As if to emphasize his affinity for radical esthetics, Taborn turned to a pile of books on a shelf, topped by the anthology Film Theory And Criticism. “Film, dance and music all deal with time, and how these events unfold in time is very influential for me,” he said. It was observed that, like experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, well-represented in that text, or, for that matter, such formative musical heroes as Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, Taborn thinks like a Modernist, focused on the purity and elaboration of a particular idea, rather than translating styles into ironic cultural signifiers in the Postmodern manner. You’re not likely to hear David Torn play hardbop chordal lines as Taborn did with James Carter during the ‘90s, or Berne to limn the melody of Ellington’s “Stevedore Serenade” in an idiomatic manner, as Taborn did with Carter some years ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. But Taborn seems not to recognize hierarchical distinctions between the idioms. He’s as committed to generating fresh ideas in one environment as the other.

After his April tour with Berne, Taborn would return to Europe for the first three weeks of May with Scott Colley and Brian Blade in David Binney’s quartet, interpreting Binney’s harmonically dense, long-form jazz compositions on acoustic piano. Over the previous six months on continent-hopping long hauls with Chris Potter’s Underground, he had donned his Fender Rhodes hat, juxtaposing crisp, surging odd-meter bass lines with simultaneously improvised melodic variations, supporting the proceedings with informed, tasteful comp. Briefer trips and local one-offs—with Roscoe Mitchell, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Drew Gress and Susie Ibarra—augmented Taborn’s mix, as did a September 2007 acoustic trio engagement at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan.

A broadcast of the latter performance documents a six-tune, 55-minute suite marked by fresh ideas and unending musical conversation. It fills a gap—although Taborn, 38, has a large enough backlog of solo, trio, electronic, and ensemble material to fill several CDs, his last acoustic recording appeared in 2001 on Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear), while his most recent leader date is 2004’s Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear), a seven-track suite on which Taborn convened violinist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and The Bad Plus drummer Dave King to investigate themes executed with various circuitry and computerized synthesis.

“I’ve postponed my leader thing,” Taborn said with a shrug. “Because of finances, I take the tours as they come, then everything fills up.”

Taborn’s employers state unequivocally that his incessant sidemanning in no way inhibits his ability to project his sonic personality.

“It takes a lot of confidence not to go along with the crowd,” Berne said. “If Craig wanted to, he could eliminate all this other stuff and impress everyone with his piano trio. But he based all his decisions on his interest in the music he plays, not only his career or being seen as the great pianist he is.

“I wanted to do away with guitar and bass, but somehow have the power and range of both instruments,” Berne continued, explaining why he first recruited Taborn around 2000. “I didn’t want synthesizers, and I didn’t want somebody to play like a keyboard player, so to speak. I wanted somebody who just played music on the keyboard.”

“Craig is an idiosyncratic genius, which is a word I don’t use lightly,” Torn said. “He’s not a chameleon in the studio sense of the word; he has strong conceptual ideas about what he’s doing in any context. But with the exception of his acoustic playing, which is remarkable, he’s incapable of pinning himself down to an idiom or particular sound. He’s the rare musician who takes the approach, ‘what can I do with this instrument?’ rather than playing through its book of techniques. Regardless of its organic or electronic nature, every instrument is an expression of technology; Craig is able to eschew the technological aspect in order to get out the sounds that he feels are suitanble for the music he’s playing.”

Furthermore, as Berne noted, Taborn directs his speculative investigations towards the function of the moment. “Even playing something complicated, Craig simplifies it to its fundamental components,” Berne said. “He won’t do anything just to show he can; if one note does it, that’s what he’ll play. He also has the guts to lay out, to not play, when most people would feel obligated to. He’ll always take the opposing view. He’ll pose another question or look at things in a way you didn’t consider.”

Potter noted that Taborn’s experimentalism stems less from a contrarian sensibility than a desire to explore the ramifications of the multiple vocabularies that comprise his frame of reference. “Craig has spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the lessons of past masters in the jazz tradition—and other traditions, too,” he said. “When he improvises, he keeps the essence of what makes his influences work musically but takes care not to copy what they did. Perhaps he’ll introduce elements from other sources. He’s intellectually thorough enough to take his own angle.”

Particularly when deploying electronics, Taborn hews to textural imperatives not dissimilar to those that impelled Mitchell and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—an early Taborn influence—to incorporate “little instruments” into the sonic flow 40 years ago.

“I’m always aware of sound,” Taborn said. “I approach the acoustic piano somewhat as a sound device, which it is, but my relationship to it contains a lot of pianism. I learn the Rhodes, the Hammond, the Wurlitzer, the electronics, so that I can use them as devices to work with ideas, but I don’t practice them like I practice piano. Electronic music isn’t playing certain scales over certain chords, or working over a particular form. You might play with the delay, or the rate of an echo, or modify the reverb. It’s less about technique on an instrument, which a lot of jazz is, and more related to visual and conceptual art.”

But it’s also about being able to execute almost any idea he thinks of—Taborn possesses a surfeit of technique. He doesn’t use it, as he puts it, “play in one bag and then shift to another.” Rather, Taborn prefers to borrow fluently rendered vocabulary from the diverse musical languages he commands to create contextual gestures that support and augment the flow. The architecture trumps the facade.

“Prescribing notions of the parameters of bebop or hardbop or avant-garde is to posit a sort of fixed thing that was never fixed anywhere,” he said. “It’s useful as a model to construct and look at things, but it doesn’t have much bearing on the creative process. I draw specific influence from Frank Zappa, Blood Ulmer and Wayne Shorter, not the note choices or harmony, but in phrasing and sound. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t translate to piano or keyboards at all, but comes out sounding like something else.” DB

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For Eddie Henderson’s 75th Birthday, An Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2006 and a Liner Note from 2000

A day after the 75th birthday of the master trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2006, and a long liner note that I had the opportunity to write for his 2000 recording Reemergence.

———–

Eddie Henderson Blindfold Test:

1. Jimmy Owens, “Birdsong” (from ONE MORE: MUSIC OF THAD JONES, THE SUMMARY, IPO, 2006) (Owens, trumpet; Frank Wess, flute; James Moody, tenor saxophone; hank Jones piano; Thad Jones, composer; Mike Patterson, arranger)

First of all, I enjoyed the tune on this first cut. I have no idea who it is. My first impression is that some younger musicians who have studied and listened to records from the past. I heard the trumpet during his solo, he tried to…he was influenced… He heard Dizzy Gillespie—some of the runs he heard. Fats Navarro. Probably Howard McGhee. The flute player and the saxophone player, well-schooled. I don’t know who they are. The rhythm section, I have no idea. I didn’t hear any particular personalities. One thing that struck me musically is I didn’t hear any dynamics through the solos. It just sounded like a monotone, like everybody was playing the changes. They played them well. But from the place where I came up in the older days, everybody had a signature with their sound, the way they phrased. These musicians on this cut, they studied well, but it takes time to get your own character together. 3 stars. Jimmy Owens? That makes sense. Because he was influenced by Dizzy and Fat Girl. I haven’t heard him that much lately. Frank Wess? Wow. Moody? Wow. How long ago was that recorded? Last year? I’m shocked. Very competent musicians, all of them. It was a rhythm changes form; I recognized that. Obviously, everybody on the date is well versed with that idiom, and they come from that generation. No wonder they play it so well. I’ll give it 4 stars for the people on it. But musically, I would have wanted to hear more dynamics. They played the heads well, and I can tell they rehearsed it. It wasn’t just some put-together thing. A

2. Nicholas Payton, “Teru” (from MYSTERIOUS SHORTER, Chesky, 2006) (Payton, trumpet; Sam Yahel, organ; John Hart, guitar; Billy Drummond, drums)

I have a couple of impressions. First I was going to say, “Damn, when did I make that?” A lot of the things on trumpet sound like me, things harmonically like I hear. The trumpet player was excellent harmonically, and I like the trumpet player. Sounds like Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ as my first impression, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and I’ll say the trumpet player—since I know this person plays with Dr. Lonnie Smith and harmonically sounds like that—is Ingrid Jenson. No? Joe Magnarelli? No? Then I’m dead in the water. The performance was great. I liked the composition. It sounded Tom Harrelish harmonically, though it wasn’t Tom Harrell. Beautiful ballad, interpreted well. 4 stars. Nicholas. How long ago was this done? Last year? I met Nicholas when he was 15 years old and I played with him a couple of times. He’s evolved so quickly, I don’t know where he’s at, and I’m not THAT familiar with his playing. Of course, he’s a master at harmony; he plays the piano so well, and the bass. He knows what he’s doing. His sound is impeccable, his virtuosity on the trumpet, his ideas I love, but I’m not that familiar with his personality. Sam Yahel! My first impression was Dr. Lonnie Smith because of the dynamics and the inner sanctum he puts in the chords that makes it real mysterious. Sam can do that, too, but I’m more familiar with Dr. Lonnie Smith.

3. Dizzy Reece “Plantation Bag” (from Andrew Hill, PASSING SHIPS, Blue Note, 1969/2006) (Hill, piano, composer; Reece (solo), Woody Shaw, trumpets; Joe Farrell, tenor saxophone solo)

This cut was obviously influenced by Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” I get recollections and reflections of that, when Miles did it. The one thing that jarred me during all the solos was the background horns when they came in. It tended to make things a little stiff. It felt like it was arbitrary, rather than coming at a time when the solos reached a peak. I don’t know anybody on the date. The saxophonist was an excellent player, very creative ideas, but when the backgrounds came in, it took away from his solo. The trumpet player was obviously influenced by Woody Shaw. I should know him; he’s an excellent trumpet player. [It’s an older record. 1969] The rhythm section sounds like a jazz rhythm section trying to play funk. You wouldn’t get Sam Jones, Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton to play one of James Brown’s tunes. It sounds like a jazz rhythm trying to play funky. It was done in 1969. Maybe that might help. It sounds Woody Shaw-ish. Maybe Randy Brecker? I have no idea. 3½ stars. Dizzy Reece? I’ve only heard him play once in my life. I’m not familiar with him. Ron Carter, Lenny White and ANDREW HILL playing funk!?? The rhythm section just didn’t lock. It sounded like everybody was well versed in bebop or almost approaching the avant-garde genre. But there was so much happening, it didn’t really lock. A lot of information. Too much. I remember Miles Davis told me one time, “Whatever tune you’re playing, play it within the context of the tune.” I heard a lot of different directions going on all at once.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Martin Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums)

First of all, I liked the composition very much because it had surprises, it was mysterious, it really took you on a trip. My guess for the trumpet player would be Jeremy Pelt? It’s not Jeremy? I know he composes like that. Well, whoever it was, I’m glad they play the trumpet. I liked it very much because of the way he takes his time in his solos, and he’s so relaxed, and he never forces anything. The trumpet player was very expressive. Before I find out who it was, I’d like to say that the composition is the kind of thing I like. It’s not so nailed down in terms of structure. It’s open-ended, and if the chemistry is right in the band, which it was in this particular band, the music can jump off the music paper and things take place. I could tell everybody’s intuitive and listening to each other, so it leaves the possibility for things to happen. I enjoyed everybody in the band. The piano player was obviously influenced by Herbie. I don’t know who he was. Excellent comping behind the soloist, and a very nice feeling. He’s listening and he never forced anything preconceived. The bass player was excellent. He fulfilled his job. He never got in the way, he wasn’t playing too much. Everybody was on the same trip together. The chemistry of the band was excellent. The drummer was very supportive and interesting. It sounded like a band, rather than a bunch of guys put together. 4½ stars. I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never heard him play. He’s excellent. I just got back from Poland and I heard about him so much. I heard he was great, and he is.

5. Brian Lynch, “Jazz Impromptu” (from SIMPÁTICO, Artist Share, 2006) (Lynch, trumpet, composer; Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Eddie Palmieri, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Robby Ameen, drums; Pedro Martinez, congas)

I liked that tune very much. It was reminiscent of Horace Silver’s sound, like “Silver’s Serenade”-ish. The band had a nice feel on the melodies. On the in-melody, for some reason I didn’t hear it, but on the out-melody I heard it… I liked the dynamics going out. The band came down at the middle part. Maybe there’s some reason; I’m not familiar with the tune. But the band played very well together. The trumpet player is a good one, well-schooled and very soulful; I liked him very much. I can’t place who it is. The alto player and trumpet player play together very well—a nice blend. The alto player is excellent, well-versed in the Charlie Parker tradition. I liked the bass player because he never got in the way. He fulfilled his function in the rhythm section. Played the bottom. Didn’t get in the way. Whenever I like a bass player, I don’t notice him! The conga player sometimes was a little obtrusive. He stuck out in terms of the genre of the swing. I’m not used to hearing that kind of beat. He’s a good player, but it didn’t seem appropriate for this kind of tune. Maybe for the last part of the tune, when it went into a Latinish thing. But when it went into swing, it seemed a little inappropriate to me. The piano player was good. 4 stars.

6. Randy Sandke, “Monk’s Mood” (from TRUMPET AFTER DARK: JAZZ IN A MEDITATIVE MOOD, Evening Star, 2005) (Sandke, trumpet; Bill Charlap, piano)

Very nice. I forgot the name, but it’s a Monk tune. It sounded like Kenny Barron to me, but the touch wasn’t as soft as Kenny’s. I know Kenny likes Monk very much, and on the piano player’s solo I heard that kind of stride thing—but something was different. The trumpet player: Good intonation, good sound, very interpretive on the melody. Who was it? Just a duo. A Monk tune. I know I’m probably wrong. Jimmy Owens or Terrell Stafford. I didn’t think so. For the composition, for the way they interpreted it… I can’t say anything wrong about it. 5 stars. You know, I never heard Bill Charlap in person, but I hear he’s an excellent player. I just met him in Uruguay, and he knows a lot of music. I came to find out his father wrote “I Got A Crow” from Peter Pan, and ironically, I used to figure skate, and I skated to that. He was shocked that I knew the words and everything. That’s a pleasant surprise. It was excellent. I enjoyed it.

7. Sean Jones, “In Her Honor” (from GEMINI, Mack Avenue, 2006) (Jones, trumpet, composer; Tia Fuller, alto saxophone; Mulgew Miller, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums)

I liked that tune very much. It was a very contemporary sound. It had nice elements in the melody and also in the form of the tune. It had swing elements and it had Latin elements. A nice fusion of the two, the way they blended together and went from one section to another. I really like the way the alto and the trumpet played the melodies together. The drummer was very fiery and appropriate. He listened and responded well to the soloists. The bass player was very good. It sounded like a band, that they play together a lot. The piano player was exciting. The trumpet player was good. In terms of who he was, I’m going to take an educated guess, and say Jeremy Pelt, because I heard his group at Cleopatra’s Needle when he had an alto player, Julius Tolentino. Oh, it’s neither/nor or any. [Is the trumpet player younger or older?] Not that young any more, if I’m thinking of the right person. In his thirties, I’d say. Roy? Then I don’t know. 4 stars. Oh, Sean! See, I’ve only heard him play once in the Gerald Wilson Big Band. I was standing next to him. He’s a great trumpet player! I said Jeremy, but I knew the sound was different. Sean’s composition.

8. Dave Douglas, “Hollywood” (from KEYSTONE, (Greenleaf, 2005) (Douglas, composer, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jamie Saft, Wurlitzer; Gene Lake, drums; Brad Jones, bass; DJ Olive, turntables)

I liked that. The composition itself had an Eastern sound or a Bitches Brew-influenced sound from Miles or Zawinul. Nice harmonies. I liked it because it was very sparse and all the synthesizer work. It sounded like Wayne Shorterish writing. The saxophone player was very mature and obviously Wayne-inspired. I like the synthesizer work. The trumpet player is influenced by Miles Davis. I never heard the trumpet player I’m thinking about—Wallace Roney— play in this genre before. But I don’t think it’s Wallace. Other than that, I don’t know any of the personnel. But I like the context of the tune, the feeling was nice—it took you on a trip. It was definitely inspired by that generation of music. 4 stars. Dave is an excellent trumpet player. I’ve only heard him once in person, at the Vanguard. It’s hard when you write a tune in the Bitches Brew genre not to sound like Miles Davis, because that sound is so stylized. That’s why I said Wallace, because I heard a couple of Miles Davis characteristic runs on the trumpet that are identifiable. I knew it wasn’t Miles Davis, and it didn’t sound like Wallace, to tell you the truth. I’m not that familiar with Dave. But it was excellent.

9. Terrell Stafford, “Tenderly” (from Matt Wilson, SCENIC ROUTE, Palmetto, 2006) (Stafford, trumpet; Gary Versace, organ; Dennis Irwin, bass; Wilson, drums)

If nothing else, I will get the name of this tune correct because that was the first song I ever learned in my life! You won’t believe who taught it to me. Satchmo. He was my first teacher. My mother had been in the Cotton Club… You know the story. I like the trumpet player because the way he interpreted the melody had Satchmo influences. That struck a bell with me right away. The organ player during the trumpet solo was a little overbearing for my taste. He wouldn’t let the trumpet player relax to express himself. Since it was just the organ and trumpet, it could have been a little more sensitive, for my taste, especially playing a ballad like that. 3 stars. I would never have guessed Terrell in a million years.

10. Charles Tolliver, “Rejoicin’” (from WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Tolliver, trumpet, composer, arranger; Todd Bashore, alto saxophone; Robert Glasper, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I loved the big band. It was an excellent big band. It was a nice melody. However, there was so much movement going on and too much up in your face all the time. There was so much melodic movement going on, I didn’t feel dynamics in the composition, when there could have been. I didn’t write it, so it’s really not for me to say. But to me, it was too much in your face and it needed more dynamics. It was a very difficult tune. It sounded like Charles Tolliver’s big band. Bingo! Just from the trumpet solo, I recognized… Charles writes some of the most difficult music. I remember seeing Charles Tolliver way back in 1964, when he’d always take gigs that Freddie Hubbard couldn’t take. I recognized his sound and his ideas. He has a phenomenal mind. Was the alto player James Spaulding? At first I thought the pianist might have been John Hicks, but it sounded more like Stanley Cowell, with his virtuosity. Neither of them? Robert Glasper? I’ve never heard him. He’s a young player? No kidding. I thought it was somebody much more mature, with his virtuosity…but these days… But for the composition and the venturesomeness of doing something like that, 4½ stars.

11: Wynton Marsalis, “J Mood” (from Branford Marsalis, ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Marsalis Music, 2003) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

This last tune was absolutely lovely. I enjoyed the trumpet player because he took his time and told a story during a solo. It reminds me of when I was with Art Blakey when I was much younger, and Art Blakey always made the young musicians who came through tell a story when you play a solo. This trumpet player was very soulful, an excellent trumpet player. I especially liked the rhythm section because the time was wonderful, so supportive. The main thing I noticed about the drummer and bass player was their hookup. The ride cymbal and the pulse of the bass was the life support system of the whole group. They never sped up and started rushing, they never slowed down. Even when the saxophone player was playing a lot of notes, they held their ground and kept it steady, which is the mark of true artistry on a tune like this. I don’t know who the saxophone player is, but great ideas, great musician. The trumpet player played so superb. I don’t know anybody who plays the trumpet so well like that and, as I said, tells a story; you don’t learn that in books and school, you have to have on-the-job training. I’ll have to say Wynton Marsalis. 5 stars. That’s Branford’s date. 2003? It sounds like from a while ago. Wynton sounds very, very mature. Branford sounds great—great ideas, great musician—but didn’t sound to me as mature in the context of the tune that they were playing. He was trying to exhibit a lot of notes, and this tune doesn’t call for that. But I’ll give it 5 stars. I enjoyed it.

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Eddie Henderson Quintet (Reemergence):
Discussing “Dreams,” an original composition recorded by artists as diverse as Kenny Barron, Norman Connors and Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson remarks: “It sounds different every time you play, depending on the personnel, or even if it’s the same personnel. It’s just like a dream; it’s not the same every time. It lends itself to interpretation. That’s the way I like to play.”

Henderson sings the ethereal refrain. “I wrote it in London in 1973, while I was with Art Blakey, just after I left Herbie Hancock,” he recalls. “I was practicing, came up with this, and decided to try to put it together as a sketch. That’s how Miles Davis wrote. Let the band members finish it, and make it a collective portrait rather than just my self-portrait. That’s how I tend to write, more as a sketch of things, and let the musicians fill in the interpretive aspects. Like a collective painting. The collective effort far supersedes any individual effort.”

That’s a pretty good description of what happens on Reemergence, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Henderson’s achievement. Yes, the top-shelf quintet — a working unit for five years that sounds like it — is in glistening form throughout, imparting a breathe-as-one quality. But the 58-year-old trumpeter is in peak form, addressing the bottom, middle and top of the horn with equal resonance, able to execute any idea that comes to mind and resolve it into an organic, cliche-free line. Every solo is a living entity, drenched in emotion, personality and flair. No trumpet player on the scene is saying more.

Henderson says, “I think this album is a conglomeration of where I came from, where I’m at now, and hopefully where I want to go. In the last few years I’ve been able to put in quite a bit of time on the trumpet every day, which I hadn’t done since I was with Herbie Hancock. I think I’m just coming into my own and trying to find my own sound and my own voice.” Henderson stamps his musical signature on the above-cited original, a pair of big-room ’60s tunes from Wayne Shorter and Woody Shaw, an original by Joe Locke, and four Gershwin classics that are fundamental to the jazz canon.

Which is Henderson’s by birthright. His blood father, Edward Jackson, sang with Billy Williams and the Charioteers, a popular Black singing group of the 1940’s; his mother, Vivian, was a dancer with the Cotton Club Girls, whose alumni included her friends Lucille Armstrong and Lorraine Gillespie. “I started playing trumpet in the fifth grade, in 1949,” Henderson recalls, “and after I’d been playing about six months, my mother took me to the Apollo Theater to hear Louis Armstrong. I was sitting in the loge seats with my mother on one side and Sarah Vaughan on the other. I remember Louis Armstrong warming up behind the curtain while Lucky Thompson’s big band was playing, and how his sound projected over and above the whole big band. Then my mother took me backstage to meet Satchmo, I played a couple of notes on his horn, and he laughed and gave me some pointers.

“I began taking private lessons with an excellent teacher who taught in a music studio near where I lived in the Bronx, and nine months later my mother took me back to see Satchmo. He said, ‘Well, little Eddie, you’re still playing? Let me see your horn.’ I played ‘Flight Of the Bumblebee.’ He fell out laughing, backwards, and fell off the chair — I’ll never forget this. He grabbed me and said, ‘That’s some of the baddest shit I’ve ever heard in my life!’ He gave me a book of ten of his solos transcribed, and wrote at the top of it, ‘To Little Eddie: You sound beautiful. Keep playing. This is to warm your chops up by. Love, Satchmo.'”

Henderson followed Armstrong’s admonition; he never stopped playing, continuing private studies at the San Francisco Convervatory with symphonic trumpeter Edward Haug after his mother remarried and moved west. His stepfather, Dr. Herbert Henderson, “was a doctor to all the musicians who came through.” One was Miles Davis, who was the Hendersons’ house guest during a residence at the Blackhawk in 1958. Miles drove 18-year-old Eddie, full of beans, to the gig. “On the way home,” Henderson continues, “I said, ‘You know, my parents told me you play trumpet, but you don’t play correct.’ All of a sudden the car stopped and he said, ‘Well, by the way, what do you play?’ I said, ‘I play trumpet.’ There was about a 9-second delay. When I looked back at him, he looked at me deadpan straight in my eye, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet you play the trumpet!’

“He came back about nine months later, and in the interim I found out who he was, and so I practiced with Sketches of Spain. When he came in the door again, I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to hear this.’ He sat down very patiently, because he was in my parents’ house. I put the record on, played with the record, didn’t miss a note! I said, ‘Well, how do you like that, Miles?’ He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, ‘You sound good. But that’s ME.’ It was like a baseball bat hitting me in my head, a revelation — Aha, you can emulate but don’t copy.

“Miles was my first big influence. From the time Louis Armstrong gave me that book and subsequently in the Conservatory, it was more or less mechanical to me, with no emotional or spiritual impact. But after hearing Miles, I realized that I wanted to play jazz music. I listened to all his records, learned all his solos ‘verbatim’ by ear, though I didn’t know what I was doing. I took a hiatus while I was in the Air Force, and when I came back in 1961 I’d go to hear all the bands that came through. After the gigs, people like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan would sit in at after-hours sessions at Bop City. I enrolled at UC-Berkeley as a pre-med student, and began gigging locally around the city while I was going to college. My first professional gig of any stature was with John Handy’s Nonet in 1962 or ’63.”

“Between 1964 and 1968 I attended Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. I played in the big band at the Howard Theater behind all the Motown groups. The medical school was about 10 blocks away. The movie for the first show was at 2, it was over at 3:15, then they did the stage show. I’d play the stage show, run back to school for the next lecture, then run back and do the stage show until 11 or 12 at night. While the movie was going, I’d study. I was always busy. I had no time to get bored.

“During ’67 and ’68, my last two years in D.C., I had the house band at the Bohemian Caverns, where all the national bands came through. I came up to New York every weekend to study. I’d be at Freddie Hubbard’s house on Saturday morning, and at Lee Morgan’s house on Sunday morning. Freddie showed me little motifs, little licks, little exercise techniques that would facilitate my playing in the long run, if I worked it out in every key. But he left the burden on my shoulders to work it out or not. Once he said to me, ‘Just like Gabriel in the Bible, he played trumpet; you get this one together, that’s the baddest of all.’ The Messenger of Truth, and that’s what Gabriel played.

“Lee would pull out the duet book and we’d play duets together, actually touching shoulders. I realized that Lee Morgan was going out of his way to blend with me! It was thrilling. He stopped and we laughed and he said, ‘You understand how to do that? Always go out of your way to make music, so it sounds like one voice.'”

Henderson returned to California to fulfull his internship and residency requirements, but joined Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in 1970, several months before finishing. “I knew Herbie when he was with Miles, and I’d been listening to him all along; I knew all the tunes. Johnny Coles, his regular trumpet player at that time, was on consignment with Ray Charles when Herbie came through San Francisco, and he called me to fill in. After we hit the first night, he said, ‘If you want to join the band, you’ve got it.’ That’s all I wanted to hear. It changed my life forever. That sextet changed my framework of improvising. It became like one big, grand composition, a collective portrait. There were solos, but everyone was free to do anything they wanted. Sometimes we’d play one tune for a whole night, from 9:30 to 2. The best bandleaders, I think, allow that freedom. That’s how the music evolves.”

Art Blakey gave him a quick lesson in bandstand concision. “The first tune, my first hit with Art Blakey, I played for about 20 minutes,” Henderson laughs. “I thought I was cutting it short. He jumped up and ran off the stage after me in the middle of the set and started choking me by the throat! So I kind of got the message: When you’re in Rome, do as Caesar says. At first I resisted. I said, ‘Man, if you don’t feel like playing, stay home.’ But then I learned. He said, ‘Eddie, if you start up there, screaming and honking, you have nowhere to go but down. Tell a story. It’s like opening a book. There’s a beginning, then you climax, then the end — get out of there.'”

Henderson pursues that inside-outside paradigm on Wayne Shorter’s set-opening “This is For Albert,” originally performed by the Messengers. “I dedicated it to a gentleman who passed last year, a music-lover, a friend of all musicians who used to go to Bradley’s and the Vanguard,” he reveals. “It’s a traditional AABA, but open-ended, not like a bebop kind of tune. I think my forte is really those open sky type of things, which leave a lot of latitude for self-expression.” Henderson grabs every bit of it on his darting solo.

“Sweet Love Of Mine” is a direct tip to Woody Shaw, who wrote it. Of his friend and rehearsal partner whom he met in 1964, Henderson says: “Woody was very precocious in terms of his maturity, and he had his own definite sound. He liked long jumps of intervals, which on the trumpet is mucho difficult, but was just the natural way he played — his soul. I used to play with Woody on the bandstand when he lived in San Francisco in the early ’70s, and was working with Bobby Hutcherson.”

Actually, Henderson and front-line partner Joe Locke evoke the distinctive edgy-romantic cut Shaw and Hutcherson achieved in the ’70s. “The timbre of the vibes and trumpet is very close, and Joe and I come from the same musical roots and influences,” Henderson comments. “We phrase like each other, and it’s a pleasure to actually touch somebody’s soul through the medium of sound.” Locke contributes the movie-themish “Saturn’s Child” — “You don’t even have to solo, the melody is such a mood.” And their trumpephone blend is crucial to the impact of the leader’s concluding vignette, “Natsuko-San,” dedicated to his wife — “It was a statement I wanted to make; no solos, just a beautiful statement which reflected her.”

The band’s collective flights on Gershwin raise Reemergence to timeless status. After Henderson’s almost rubato reading of the melody to “The Man I Love,” followed by pithy, harmonically rich solos by Locke and pianist Hays, there’s a trumpet solo that’s all rhapsodic, yearning sound. Joe Locke suggested the 6/8 treatment of “Summertime”; Henderson’s restless solo over Billy Drummond’s authoritative funk beat evokes the mood of ’60s long, hot summers. Hays wrote out the phrasing of the subtly building “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; his two architectural solos are the essence of brevity, morphing into flowing comp that spurs Henderson and Locke to heights of melodic invention over Howard’s grounded bass lines and Drummond’s crisp brushwork.

“In jazz,” Henderson concludes, “it’s about personal expression, identity. The mark of a true artist is when you can play one note and it’s identifiable — everyone around the world says ‘That’s so-and-so’ from that one note. Once many years ago I was at a jam session trying to play changes, and Miles came and heard me. He said, ‘Eddie, why don’t you stop trying to play the trumpet and play music?’ Bingo. He was trying to register something very important. Don’t play the instrument. The instrument is only there as a vehicle through which you can convey your soul.”

Which Henderson does throughout. His reemergence during the ’90s to the top of the trumpet tree isn’t exactly a well-kept secret, but this is the clearest picture yet of how far he’s come.

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For Victor Goines’ 54th Birthday, An Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2002 2002

In honor of Victor Goines’ 54th birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that I conducted with him in 2002, in his office at Juilliard School of Music, where he was then directing the jazz studies program. Below that, I’ve appended the first of two liner notes I’ve written for VG—in this case, for the 2005 Criss-Cross CD, New Adventures. It contains a fair amount of biographical information  on this master reed and woodwind player and excellent arranger-composer, a mainstay of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra since 1991.

 

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1. Jimmy Hamilton, “Mr. Good Blues” (from CAN’T HELP SWINGIN’, Prestige, 1961/1999) (Hamilton, ts, cl; Clark Terry, tp; Britt Woodman, tb; Tommy Flanagan, p; Wendell Marshall, b; Mel Lewis, d) – (4-1/2 stars)

Well, you’ve got me stumped already. It’s in that ’60s vibe. Some Ben Webster up in there definitely. That’s Ben Webster. [No.] Mmm! Now, I know we’re in the school of Texas tenor playing, so then next it makes me think of somebody like Arnett Cobb. Now, that sounds like C.T. I’m not sure who the trombone player is. C.T.’s killing. His sound jumps out at me already in the first couple of notes. I did a gig with him this past weekend. It was that exact sound; you can hear it immediately. Now you’re telling me it’s some kind of Ellington all-stars or something. I had a feeling you’d throw some clarinet players in there! [LAUGHS] Is this Jimmy? [Now all you have to do is guess who the tenor player is.] Yeah! It’s not that syrupy Paul Gonsalves sound, so it’s somebody like Ashby. Who played tenor in Duke’s band? Was that Britt playing trombone? I don’t have the pianist down yet. You got me on the rest of them. Only to reserve something for the greatest of the greatest, I give it a 4-1/2. They were playing the essence of the blues, and everything that came out of them, the feeling was completely relaxed. Some of the greatest players in the history of jazz music, led by C.T. on the top floor. An extraordinary recording. Swinging from start to finish. I heard different aspects. I heard the Texas tenor sound, and I heard things that were indicative of Ben’s way of playing. It’s somebody who actually checked out Ben, of course, but all of them checked each other out during that time period. It’s not like now; we’re spread out all over the place. But I can’t remember who played tenor with that particular set of people. [AFTER] I wouldn’t have figured it out. So he doubled on it. [Like you.] He was a great tenor player, but I haven’t heard a whole lot of his tenor in Duke’s band. Flanagan makes sense. I wouldn’t have guessed the bass and drummer, but I can hear Tommy. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. But Jimmy playing tenor! Great. Cool. Fantastic.

2. Alvin Batiste, “Reflections” (#5) (from THE VILLAGE, Impulse!, 1997) (Batiste, cl; Henry Butler, p, comp.); Ron Carter, b; Jack De Johnette, d) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Alvin Batiste. Mr. Fourths. He has a sound like nobody else. I grew up with that sound. I can remember hearing Alvin when I was in 9th grade. It’s fantastic. He’s one who always did a lot with the groove. He really understood how to deal with the grooves and plays the clarinet in a very unique way, but at the same time understands the tradition of the instrument. Is Herman Jackson playing drums? He obviously is coming out of that Coltrane tradition of playing the groove and the vamp. Is that Ron Carter playing bass? So that’s his album “Imp and Perry.” I don’t think that’s “Imp and Perry,” though. But Ron played on that one. Somebody who studied McCoy on the piano, if not McCoy. That’s not Henry Butler? [LAUGHS] Okay. I’ve got three of them. Henry’s a fabulous player. A great educator, too. I envy the fact that he moved back down to New Orleans. Now, who’s playing drums? Just in the style of all the rest of the musicians, he’s checked out Elvin Jones. But his beat is too tight to be Elvin. Elvin would play a whole lot looser than that. He plays the cymbals in a unique way; he has a different sound from most cymbals, too. They’re tight. They don’t reverberate like most of them. It almost sounds like it’s got some James Black influence in there. Because James always played tight in terms of his concept of the rhythm. I got to play with him about two or three years with Ellis, even though he was much more technical than this particular person. But I can’t figure out who it is, unfortunately. I don’t know this particular recording. I don’t recall the melody enough to figure out the composer. But it’s the kind of music that Bat would write, with those open fourths. It’s not his composition, though. I don’t think Herlin ever recorded with Bat. It’s typical Alvin Batiste, in terms of the influence John Coltrane’s music had on him, and being a clarinet player, he definitely approaches it in a much different way. Clarinet players tend to avoid those fourthy type of intervals, but Bat embraces it in every possible way, and it leads to a very unique way of playing the clarinet and the sound of the instrument. He has a voice all his own. It took about two or three notes, as you said, for me to really immediately know that it was Bat playing on that particular piece. I like what they were dealing with. I’d give them a 4-1/2, too. I’m going to save my 5 for something that’s going to be great. I know you’ve got something laying back for me.

3. Artie Shaw, “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” (from SELF-PORTRAIT, RCA, 1954/2001) (Shaw, cl; Hank Jones, p; Joe Roland, vb; Tal Farlow, g; Tommy Potter b; Irv Kluger, d) – (4 stars)

One of my fears was that you were going to pull out some of these clarinet players, and my study of the history of the clarinet is not as in-depth as my study of the history of the tenor saxophone. But I’m getting there. But we’re going to work on this particular clarinet player. Is that Buddy? It’s somebody who’s checked out Lester Young. I thought about Lester, but Lester wouldn’t play that many notes, and his sound would be a whole lot lighter, like his tenor playing. Obviously there’s not a lot of recordings of him playing clarinet. But I know that wasn’t him. It was somebody who was coming out of there. It’s also someone, I think, who played the saxophone, because he doesn’t go into the upper register of the clarinet at the original statement of his solo. Now, you’ve got the guitar and the vibes in there. That’s unique. I think the time period is in the ’40s. Great block chords in the piano. It’s the kind of stuff George Shearing would do. The other reason why I say this person plays saxophone, while their technique is really great, just the pure clarinet sound is lacking. The thing that a clarinet player would hear. It sounds like he’s really dealt with the instrument in terms of… He gets all over it, too. It’s a quartet without the drums. Fabulous piece. Very, very melodic in the way they all played. The balance of everything was even throughout. It was one of those, like we used to say, three-minute masterpieces. So obviously, that dates it as well, that the recording is not ten minutes long. I can’t tell you who the musicians were. I’d be shooting out in the dark. I have no idea who the clarinet player is. [AFTER] All the Artie I heard was always exploiting the mere fact that he was all over the place, and I haven’t heard any of his music that was as lyrical as that and just purely melodic. I liked the group as a whole. I would give this one a 4, though. But I thought it was great in terms of the citing of the ballad melodically and the way he developed it. It obviously speaks about the music in a way that has kind of become a lost art form in terms of people always keeping the melody inside of what’s going on in the solo. It was clearly stated at all times.

4. Ken Peplowski-Marty Ehrlich, “The Soul In The Wood” (from GRENADILLA, Concord, 1998) (Peplowski, cl; Ehrlich, b.cl, comp; Ben Aronov, p; Greg Cohen, b; Chuck Reed, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

Did the person overdub the clarinets? No? They play a lot like each other, though, interestingly enough. Sounds like some Easley or something like that. Was this recorded in the ’80s? The way and the what they’re playing tells me about the ’80s. I knew it wasn’t the ’70s. It wasn’t about the fusion era. There’s another guy named Bud Revels who used to live in New York, but he used to play kind of open fourths. It kind of reminded me a little bit of Bud, but not so. I find it more difficult to really identify who these people are because I’m not a product of the fusion of funk and jazz too much. So their personalities, for me, don’t come out in their sound as easily as Clark Terry’s did at the sighting of three notes, or Alvin Batiste. Even the piano player. Its’ not that they don’t have command of their instruments. It’s just much more difficult for me to hear the personality inside of their sound. It sounds something like Joe Temperley playing bass clarinet on some of this. He deals with a certain vibrato that Joe has. But Joe would be swinging, though. That’s the only thing that’s different about it. Like, you didn’t throw my bandmate Ted Nash’s music in here, huh? This piece reminds me of cats who are coming together trying to work on some new ideas and whatnot, with some different ensemble approaches in terms of grooves and different ways of playing on the drums and bass and piano, along with two clarinets, which is a very unusual instrumentation in and of itself. I give it a 3-1/2. It sounds good. I’m not opposed to that music. But I’d just like to hear them swinging. Then I’d really be able to hear their personalities coming out in their sounds — in my ears anyway.

5. Benny Golson, “The Man I Love” (from Ron Carter, STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) (Golson, ts; Carter, b; Roland Hanna, b; Lenny White, d.) – (4-1/2 stars)

You can’t miss a tune like “The Man I Love.” I know the tenor player’s sound, first of all; I’m trying to remember the player in my mind. Again, it sounds like Ron is playing bass. That smear there is a Ron Carter trademark. I can see the tenor player’s embouchure. That’s the strange thing about it. I can see his embouchure in my mind. I’m going to work out the tenor player; give me a minute. I’m listening to the drummer and the piano now. This is Ron’s record. Immediately after the tenor solo player came the bass solo. This is another ’80s recording or so, no? Initially, I thought the ’60s, but technology… The drummer is young. Because he started turning the hi-hat around. He’s not older than fortyish. He has enough tradition in his sound, but he has enough creativity to deal with what stood before him in these times. The tenor player is confusing me because he’s really disciplined to deal with the melody. Most people in modern times will want to be so creative and improvise something on the melody. It’s really refreshing to hear them play just what the melody is. I can see the embouchure of this person in my mind, but I cannot figure him out. And I have no clue who’s playing the piano. See, the tenor player’s eighth notes were on the straighter side of things, you might say. But he played with a certain history that says he’s an elder statesman — in my mind anyway. So who is still playing out there in that particular format? In interest of time, we should probably move on. 4-1/2 stars [AFTER] Oh! Aggh! I can see the embouchure. Sorry, Benny. I love your playing, I really do, so I do apologize. I have all kinds of records of yours, so forgive me. Just the attention to detail in the tune is amazing, and it’s a tribute to Ron and Benny. It’s just what they’re all about.

6. Joe Lovano, “Soltanto a Tte (Only To You) (from VIVA CARUSO, Blue Note, 2002) (Lovano, ts; Byron Olson, cond.) – (4-1/2 stars)

First off, the composition and the counterpoint they’ve written is extraordinary. It’s so well written that it pulls me to all kind of instruments back and forth. I try to concentrate on the saxophone player, then I hear the flutes. So the composition thus far has been great. Go ahead, Joe Lovano! Again, that’s what I was speaking about in terms of the personality of the sound. Even as a tenor player, his sound is so personal. It has a mixture of the baritone and the tenor to me. I had questions originally. The thickness of it kind of told me it was bari, but the range… I was hearing the exact notes, saying it was tenor, but then immediately when he got to the signature type of melodic riffs and motifs, it’s undoubtedly Joe Lovano. If I remember correctly, this might be arranged by this guy who’s out of Cleveland, Ohio. His “52nd Street Themes” record was arranged by this guy. Not this one? But he’s been managing to put himself in contact with great arrangers now, and they not only have taken his strong playing that he does even in a quartet setting, or even in trio, for that matter, but it has put Joe in a whole nother vibe and level in terms of what he’s been able to voice from his instrument. I love his playing. What’s the tune? I heard the accordion, or accordion type instrument in the background. But I don’t really hear it. Again, it’s another way that Joe has been creative in terms of picking the ensemble he’s dealing with these days. I like his choices. I give him a 4-1/2. Definitely an outstanding musician. I got to play a gig with Joe at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Having stood next to him, it really gives you an opportunity to get inside of his sound, truly, in every possible way. He’s a great, great musician.

7. Buddy deFranco, “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me” (from DO NOTHING TIL YOU HEAR FROM US!, Concord, 1999) (DeFranco, cl; Dave McKenna, p; Joe Cohn, g) – (4 stars)

Now I’m going to try to go back to my Buddy DeFranco thing? Is it him? I met his wife, and she mentioned his involvement in the bebop era on the clarinet, and that’s immediately what I was hearing there. Just the way he played, he exhibited the sense of the virtuosity of the clarinet, in terms of dealing with the complete register, not limiting himself to an octave-and-a-half. As I reflect back on Buddy’s solo, while I’m listening to the piano solo, he was dealing with some pretty modern things for the time, in every way. No matter when he was playing, he was always superimposing different harmonies and whatnot. This is not too long ago for him, it sounds like. He was dealing with his fourths also! I’m going to give this one a 4. I’m not sure who the pianist and guitarist are, but I like their respect for the tradition of the music. The guitar player deals with Freddie Green’s style of playing, and the piano is recognizing his Erroll Garner style of playing as well. It’s one of those things where you can’t hear everybody. But fine players all across the board.

8. Louis Sclavis, “Contre, Contre” (from L’AFFRONTEMENT DES PRETENDANTS, ECM, 2001) (Sclavis, cl; Jean-Luc Capozzo, tp; Vincent Courtois, cello; Bruno Chevillon, b; Francois Merville, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

That’s Alvin again, playing clarinet. No? Particularly the way he plays with still(?) tones, too. I just went purely on the content of the sound, not even the melodic ideas. But he does play some of the same ideas. Now, I’m just going to go out on a limb, and say that because of the kind of technique I know the person has… I haven’t listened to a lot of their music. But I have to start breaking down players. I’m used to somebody who… This wasn’t recorded too long ago, right? Don Byron has all kinds of technique to get up and down the horn. This is one of those recordings I’m going to come up not knowing all the musicians on it. I can this about it, though. It’s not a road I’ve traveled, but I like some of the things they’ve done so far on it, and just the way the clarinet is played will make me go out and get this recording to explore it a little bit more. They do their experimentation within the groove, and that’s truly, I think, one of the definite elements of jazz music. It takes it out of that realm of being potentially “avant-garde” or “free jazz,” as they call it. Interesting intervals on the melody, the way the trumpet player and the clarinet player interact. He’s playing bass clarinet now, but he took the solo on B-flat clarinet. Just because I want to hear some more of what they do, I’ll give them a 3-1/2. But I definitely will go out and buy that, and check it out to see where they’re coming from completely.

9. Sidney Bechet, “Weary Blues” (from JAZZ CLASSICS IN DIGITAL STEREO: SIDNEY BECHET, 1924-1938, ABC, 1938/1989) (Bechet, Mezz Mezzrow, cl; Tommy Ladnier, tp; Cliff Jackson, p; Teddy Bunn, g; Elmer James, b; Manzie Johnson, d)

[IMMEDIATELY] Sidney. [I have to throw you a softball here.] I appreciate it. The hardballs were all over the place! So every once in a while I like a pitch I can really hit. I can tell you I don’t know the name of the tune. Unfortunately, the titles escape me on that. It’s a blues! [LAUGHS] Oh, I do know this tune. I don’t know the name of it. [SINGS] We’ve played this!! Oh, wow. I don’t know the title, but I know the tune. Sidney was just a bundle of intensity in every possible way — rhythmically, melodically, harmonically. Again, he’s one of those people who you can hear the personality right off the bat. He played just as they say he was, with a lot of fire. Everything about him. I’m working on the trumpeter. Everybody checked out Pops at that time. I can’t hear enough of the other clarinet player to really distinguish who he is. You don’t hear many recordings of Sidney on clarinet, because obviously the soprano became his life. But as a clarinet player, he really dealt with the whole of the instrument. He left no stones unturned. He understood everything about the instrument and what it could do. Again, he had no limitations. Unfortunately, we didn’t get enough recordings of him on the clarinet. 4-1/2 stars. I’m sure you still have one ultimate.

10. Ivo Papasov, “Mladeshki Dance” (from BALAKONOLOGY, Hannibal, 1991) (Papasov, cl; Youri Younakov, sax; Neshko Neshev, acc; Andrei Kamzamalov, g; Radi Kazakov, b; Stefan Angelov, d) – (2 stars)

You should feel confident that I haven’t heard this one before, Ted! I’m just going to sit through all of it and check it out, though. [AFTER] We can start out by saying confidently that I don’t know anyone — to my knowledge — on this recording. I don’t recognize them anyway. But we’ll have to see afterwards. But they obviously feel passionate about what they do, because I figure that any time someone documents something in a long-lasting format, they definitely have a certain passion for what they do. But in terms of how I critique things, the great John Lewis once told me that the three elements of jazz are… He actually put it in terms of swing, which I consider in a more general term to mean the groove. He said the element of surprise, which I call syncopation… First, which I’m actually mentioning last, is the groove. So while it had a groove in it (one was a funk groove and I don’t have a term for the other one), it definitely had no element of the blues in it for me, and it had no element of syncopation in it, the element of surprise. For those reasons alone, I’ll give it a 2. While they are playing the instruments in ways that reflect what they’ve listened to, I’d like to hear more of the command that reflects not just how they can manipulate the instrument, but the original or true sounds of the instrument as well. Then it would give it a reference, so to speak. Because those people who play out, if they never play in, then Out becomes In and In becomes Out. So it’s difficult sometimes to grab hold of that because they don’t really state it in a term that I necessarily relate to. [Where do you think they were from?] Well, they’re dealing with an Eastern European type of sound. But they’re probably American, though! Where are they from? Bulgaria? Obviously, he feels passionate about what he’s dealing with. [Well, that music is syncopated for the people in the Balkans hear the dance.] You’re right. It has its references of syncopation. [And he puts a lot of interesting double-reed effects on the clarinet that I thought you’d find interesting.] Well, i can hear some of the shakes and trills he’s dealing with. He’s got something of his own he’s dealing with, and again, I do respect that. Yeah, in the world’s view.

11. Paquito d’Rivera, “Birks Works” (from HABANERA, Enja, 2000) (d’Rivera, cl; Kenny Drew, p; Michael Formanek, b; Clarence Penn, d; Mino Cinelu, perc; Dizzy Gillespie, comp.) (4-1/2 stars)

[AT SOLO] So we’ve got Paquito. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind when he started. I just wanted to get into what he was dealing with from a melodic point of view. He’s definitely one of my favorite players and people. He’s full of life. Life comes out in his music in every possible way. I don’t want to undermine any of the rhythm section players, because they’re completely important to every solo there is that ever has taken place in the history of jazz music. Unfortunately, I haven’t put a recognition with their names, but I want to say it publicly so that they will know that a soloist is not out there by themselves without a rhythm section, but it’s that interaction that we all know and love and support and NEED from the rhythm section to make us do what we do in front of the band. So while I may not be able to recognize any of these guys with Paquito on this particular recording… I’m not sure if it’s Paquito’s band. When the tune comes back around, I’ll tell you what it is. Oh yeah, it’s Dizzy’s tunes. And Paquito played with Dizzy, obviously; they had a great love and mutual respect for each other. I like the fact that the percussionist is not overbearing with all the things around him. He’s playing with brushes in a very relaxed form. He’s got his special percussion around him, too. Interesting. There’s no bass in it. I hear the pianist dealing with the harmony. He was playing the “Manteca” theme up in there, too. This is “Birks’ Works,” right? Paquito’s way of phrasing is just Paquito. It’s just like I was saying about Joe Lovano and his uniqueness. It’s just Paquito. He’s personalizing what he does. And then he’s a true virtuoso, just all over the place. 4-1/2 stars.

12. Michael Moore, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” (#8) (from BERING, Ramboy, 1999) (Moore, cl; Fred Hersch, p; Mark Helias, b; John Lewis, comp.) (3-1/2 stars)

I don’t know if I’ve played this tune, but Wess Anderson always plays melodies that sound like this tune. But the one thing I do like about the melody is that it’s one you can walk away whistling. For me, that’s always the sound of a great melody. That’s recorded recently, right? It sounds like someone around my age, one of my colleagues. Is someone like Ben Wolfe playing bass? I haven’t got the clarinet player together yet. But he’s doing fine! I like what he did! Again, he brought that element of the blues back in. So that was great. [AFTER] Ted, I don’t know about that one, now. You caught me on every one of them, and that’s right in my pocket with all that swing that was taking place. 3-1/2 stars. I like what they were doing. They sounded great. I like the element of the blues and the relaxation they had, and the fact that they were doing it without having to have that drummer. We love the drummers, but it’s good to play sometimes without them, so when we get them, we appreciate them. Unfortunately, I do not know the musicians on this one at all. Nor the tune.

13. Don Byron, “One Finger Snap” (from ROMANCE WITH THE UNSEEN, Blue Note, 1999) (Byron, cl; Bill Frisell, g; Drew Gress, b; Jack DeJohnette, d; Herbie Hancock, comp.) – (4 stars)

There’s obviously indications of “One Finger Snap” in there. It’s hip how they came from that out thing and then got into their groove that was going on. I don’t know many guitar sounds; this sounds like Scofield or somebody like that. I like that the clarinet player has a lot of patience. Obviously, he can play the instrument, because he’s up and down the horn, and a great thought process without playing fast. But I don’t have any idea yet who he is. I like how the clarinet keeps interacting inside the guitar solo every once in a while, just a little pedal tone, so to speak, up in there. Who’s the cat that Joe Lovano used to come out with in his trio, with guitar, tenor and drums? It’s out of that Paul Motian drive. Ah, the guitarist is Frisell. Okay. [AFTER] All I know is that it was “One Finger Snap” and it was Bill playing guitar. I don’t have the clarinet player down. I’ll give them a 4. I like the creativity they had happening in there. They started way out west and came back. That was Don! The thing I liked is that Don didn’t necessarily make his trademark of being able to play the clarinet. He dealt with the music. I like that. He didn’t have to demonstrate all his technical ability. But it was obvious to me where he was at in the ranges of the instrument and things of that nature.

14. Dr. Michael White, “A Song for George Lewis” (from A SONG FOR GEORGE LEWIS, Basin Street, 2000) (White, cl; p; Rickie Monie, p; Detroit Brooks, g; Kerry Lewis, b) – (4 stars)

Is that some Bob Wilber? This is a recent recording. My first instinct is to say my homeboy, Michael White, just from the way he deals with the spirit… His phrasing, for one, and his articulation. And that smear says Michael White actually. [LAUGHS] I don’t think Don Vappie is playing banjo with him these days. Oh, that’s Detroit Brooks! He usually plays guitar. That’s why I didn’t recognize him. Is that his brother Mark Brooks playing bass? Kerry is a former student of mine! Right on, Kerry. We were talking for a long time about getting into the tradition of the music. So obviously, he decided to check it out. Michael is the epitome of having checked out all the great clarinetists in New Orleans. He’s a great spokesman for the music. He understands the history of it. And he can play. He comes out of the George Lewis tradition. I’m not so familiar with it, because my man was Omar Simeon. I really like what Omar was dealing with, more or less. But from what I know about George Lewis’ music, it was blues-based in every possible way. Simeon played very technical and all up and down the instrument, but he had a lot of little smears and the blues was a heavy part of everything that he did play. [Simeon came out of a similar school to Jimmie Noone and George Lewis was more in the Johnny Dodds line.] Exactly. 4 stars.

What’s interesting about this is that Michael has taken the New Orleans tradition and modernized it in terms of a quartet situation. Because the clarinet in New Orleans music always had to deal with the polyphonic interplay with the trombone and the trumpet, obviously, with a few exceptions, like when Sidney Bechet was featured on “Petite Fleur” or something like that. So he managed to take the music and make it fit his needs without having to be refined or restricted by the other two instruments in New Orleans music, the trombone and trumpet. And at the same time, he maintains the spirit of the music inside of what he’s dealing with. From the musical content and stating the melody, I like the way he deals with it in terms of the majestic vibe he keeps on the clarinet at all times. It has that history in it, but it has that modern aspect. The beginning, if I remember, has that same kind of cadenza Sidney Bechet played on “Dear Old Southland.” I like the way the rhythm section is dealing with the discipline of the groove, because that’s something that’s lost in modern music. Everyone is so busy trying to set their own sound that being able to have the discipline just to deal with one vibe at any one time has become a challenge for younger musicians. The function of your particular instrument inside of the band. The bass player is no way trying to imply that he is a soloist or a lead instrument in this. There’s the blues or George Lewis right there, in the bending that Michael was doing. It’s good to see Detroit in that scene, because I knew him from playing the rhythm-and-blues scene. Kerry Lewis is a young player who came up under Leroy Jones from Harry Connick’s band. Shannon Powell is one of the great New Orleans drummers, without a doubt. I went to junior high school with Shannon. Even in junior high school, he was playing on Bourbon Street. So he has great tradition inside what he does as well. It’s great the way Michael has taken something that’s an original tune of his and made it sound very much like something George Lewis would have wrote.

 

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Victor Goines (Notes for New Adventures):

“It was instilled in me early on that you should never get on a bandstand with anyone you’re not willing to get into a foxhole with,” Victor Goines remarked a few years ago, in an acute moment of self-description. “You have to believe that the person next to you is going to try to make you sound better at all costs. I’ve never been an ‘all for me’ kind of person. I’ve been an ‘all for one’ kind of person.”

An unwavering team player, whose capacity for sustained work rivals and perhaps surpasses that of Wynton Marsalis, his kindergarten classmate and employer in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis Septet since 1993, Goines often submerges his own tonal personality to LCJO band responsibilities, which involve playing Marsalis’ notoriously difficult scores on tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet, and a variety of flutes, as well as music copying and score-vetting. Adding to his duties, in 2000 he took on the task of building the Jazz Studies Program at Juilliard School.

In fact, Goines’ busy schedule at Juilliard eats up much time that he might otherwise devote to doing projects as a leader, so New Adventures, his Criss Cross leader debut, is a welcome event. Spurred by an A-list rhythm section (pianist Peter Martin and Greg Hutchinson from singer Diane Reeves’ rhythm section, and LCJO bass stalwart Carlos Henriquez), Goines displays world-class improvisational skills, performing three selections on clarinet, two on soprano saxophone, and four on tenor, and playing each instrument with authority and an individualized voice. It follows two Goines-led dates with combos comprised of Juilliard faculty, and three late ‘90s combo sessions with such LCJO all-stars as Herlin Riley, Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, and Eric Reed for his imprint label, Rosemary Joseph Records.

Goines blossomed in the ‘80s under the mentorship of Ellis Marsalis, who first met the youngster as a teenage friend of his oldest sons, Branford and Wynton. “On one fateful day when we were about 14, I was hanging out with Wynton at his parents’ home, and he played to a recording of John Coltrane’s Countdown,” Goines recalls. “I remember it like yesterday, hearing someone my age be able to play this particular solo—a saxophone solo on the trumpet—so well. Then Branford started exposing me to people like Stanley Turrentine. They turned me on to all kinds of recordings from Ellis’ collection, and I was infected by all of it, checking out as much as I could.”

He applied the lessons in the St. Augustine High School jazz band, taught by Carl Blouin, his clarinet and mathematics teacher and a consequential role model. He played in local jazz bands and in honors ensembles around Louisiana, and matriculated at Loyola University in 1980 as a Music Education major, where he avidly attended all the jazz courses he could find. Three years later he asked Wynton Marsalis, in town on break, “What do I need to do to get to the next level of playing?” “You need to study with my Dad,” Marsalis responded.

After a year of lessons, Ellis Marsalis recruited Goines to join a new quartet with bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Noel Kendricks. They worked steadily, Goines supplementing income with a day job as a mathematics instructor at St. Augustine until 1987. That year he followed Marsalis to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he earned a Masters in Music. In 1988 he moved to a New Jersey suburb of New York City, found employment at a local supermarket, and spent nights networking in the jazz capital. Saxophonist Steve Wilson, a Virginia native, recommended him to clarinetist Bud Revels, who was subbing for sax-clarinet doubling maestro Bill Easley on the Broadway show Black and Blue, and needed a replacement. Over the ensuing year on the show, Goines soaked up information from the likes of Easley, Jerome Richardson, Roland Hanna, and Al McKibbon. He also began a long-standing association with singer Ruth Brown.

“With Ruth’s band, I learned about how to play the blues,” Goines says. “You had to understand what the gig was about. When you play rhythm-and-blues, you can’t play blues in a bebop style. For one, you won’t get 12 choruses to get to your climax. You might get two. Then you have to play stylistically inside the framework of the blues as a rhythm-and-blues musician, not so much as a jazz tenor player playing swing music.”

In 1989, Goines returned to New Orleans to work as a saxophone instructor at Loyola. The following year, relishing an opportunity “to put my mark on something from the outset,” and “to grow both as a musician and to the next level of education,” he moved to the University of New Orleans, which had hired Ellis Marsalis to reinvigorate their Jazz Studies program.

“I believe that the one way to realize how well you know what it is that you’re doing is to teach,” Goines says, explaining his commitment to education. “Also, I had great teachers, and I wanted to give something back to the education field. I always tell people I stepped into education; I didn’t fall back on it. That’s how I still approach it.”

In February 1993, on Wessel Anderson’s recommendation, Wynton Marsalis called Goines to play bass clarinet and baritone saxophone on the dance piece 6 Syncopated Movments. “Unbeknownst to Wynton, I’d never played bass clarinet,” Goines reveals. “But the opportunity being what it was and as hungry as I am, I said, ‘I’d love to do it; send the music.’ He said, ‘Look, it’s very difficult.’ I said, ‘I can play it.” I called Ellis Marsalis, who had just acquired a brand new Yamaha bass clarinet, and asked if I could borrow it. Ellis said, ‘It’s broken.’ I told him I’d have it fixed. The part was very difficult, but it worked out great. When I got home, I bought my own bass clarinet—I always say that if you don’t invest in yourself, nobody else should.”

With Ellis Marsalis’ blessing, Goines joined the Septet the following October. He covered the existed tenor and soprano saxophone parts for Todd Williams, while his formidable clarinet technique allowed the leader to let his imagination run rampant, much as Jimmy Hamilton, an antecedent clarinet-tenor doubler, had done for Ellington.

“Before I joined Wynton, I felt I had studied so much clarinet that I could play whatever I was hired to do better than the average tenor player,” says Goines. “But in the Septet, I had to practice clarinet again because Wynton’s book makes extraordinary demands upon it. My skills were not up to its demands, particularly from an improvisational point of view, and I had no intention of going home.

“Wynton’s music is what I had been practicing for all along. I felt it was where I was destined to be, because I understood—in my mind anyway—the logic of the music. I knew everything he and Branford had recorded up to that time, and I understood how they extended the New Orleans style of collective improvisation between trombone, clarinet and trumpet. Branford was willing to respond to the trumpet as opposed to feeling like he had to compete with it, so to speak, but also was able to express himself individually as a soloist at the appropriate time. With the Septet, Reginald Veal gave Wynton a stable bass chair, and you could hear Ellington’s influence start to take hold in the way he used the grooves. The stability of personnel allowed Wynton to write for the individual personalities, I made a point of telling him, ‘My learning curve has not peaked yet. Write whatever you want. Don’t pigeonhole me.’”

On New Adventures, Goines follows that admonition with a diverse, ambitious set.

Hutchinson’s crispy snap-crackle enlivens “Stop ‘N Go,” a 32-bar song that opens with a stop-start motif over a drone before bursting into straight-ahead swing based on rhythm changes. The drone, says Goines, whose sound here is reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa “The Eternal Triangle,” “is a vehicle to allow us to have more harmonic space, so the soloists could play inside the changes or go way outside them along the way.”

“Pres’ New Clarinet” is a Goines original intended, as the title would suggest, “to capture the spirit of Lester Young; I wanted something light, without playing it exactly as Prez would, but with that relaxed feel.” Within a delightfully tippin’ groove, Goines—who cites Omer Simeon, the Chicago-based clarinetist who played on Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘20s ensemble recordings and was a mainstay of the Earl Hines Orchestra in the ‘30s, as a primary role model—develops the melody, which bears hints of Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

“It’s one of my favorite ballads,” Goines says of “The Nearness of You,” the Hoagy Carmichael standard that Sarah Vaughan immortalized in the late ‘40s and which Norah Jones cosigned on her 2002 best-seller Come Away With Me. Over Hutchinson’s nuanced rubato sound-painting, Goines lays on the romantic vibrato in the best boudoir tenor tradition of Ben Webster and Lucky Thompson, the latter a Goines favorite since the early ‘80s when Ellis Marsalis suggested he analyze Thompson’s recordings.

Originally composed as a trombone-clarinet vehicle for Wycliffe Gordon, “Eternal Devotion” features Goines on soprano saxophone. Framed by Hutchinson’s assertive Nouveau Swing groove, he displays characteristic thematic logic, telling his story with restraint and pellucid tone. “It’s in two parts, with the soprano having the lead in the first and the piano in the second part,” Goines says. “That comes from being involved in so many big band arrangements. Each instrument is a character, and if you listen for that, it can make the music less technical and more something we deal with on a daily basis.”

Switching back to tenor, the leader animates the slick changes of “Cochise,” an Alvin Batiste composition based on the harmonic structure of “Cherokee.” Batiste performed it on clarinet on a 1956 quartet date with Ellis Marsalis and Ed Blackwell.

Goines introduced “Waltz Beneath the Weeping Willow” on To Those We Love so Dearly, a remarkable 1999 session on which he played the entire clarinet family. Though New Adventures transpired before the catastrophic flood of August 29th, 2005, the piece, suffused with a relaxed, nostalgic ache, has the feel of a blues requiem. “It’s my impression of any place in New Orleans which has willow trees and the threads which hang off the branches,” Goines says. “Like a lot of my tunes, it’s kind of strange because it doesn’t climax at the top of phrases, but in the middle.”

Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” entered Goines’ repertoire during an Alvin Batiste-sponsored series on clarinet players from New Orleans. “I wanted to perform the ‘modern’ style of playing, but at the same time play some traditional New Orleans music,” Goines says. “It’s a great melody, and I was thinking about the way Branford plays Ornette Coleman’s version of “Lonely Woman,” the type of soul you can draw out of the long notes of a melody. I think that playing ballads very slow is a great art form. That comes from listening to Shirley Horn—for example, her recording of “It Had To Be You” with Branford Marsalis. I tell my students to play ballads like you’re dancing with somebody and you do not want the music to end.”

Of the kinetic title track, highlighted by a sweet Goines melody, the leader states: “The drum part is always the most difficult thing for a non-percussionist to put together, but Greg jumped in on it like he knew exactly what I was hearing. I wanted to maintain the 6/8 groove throughout the entire piece, to freely improvise without returning to the swing groove.”

The proceedings conclude affirmatively with “As We Mature, We Learn To Take Our Time,” a Wayne Shorteresque rolling blues that unfolds over an Elvin Jones triplet feel. Goines first recorded it in 1996 on Joe’s Blues. “Every record should have at least one blues on it,” Goines states. “Blues is the fundamental form of jazz music, and this was an opportunity to play inside a groove, and go into some hot swing at a medium tempo, with altered changes at the end of the form.”

“It’s difficult not to be influenced by a band with so many great players,” Goines concludes. “I drew from LCJO, and from the influences that Wynton drew from Ellington—and sometimes went directly to Ellington as well. So many people of my generation are trying to identify something ‘new.’ That’s going come about via historical exploration. You can’t dictate where innovation will go. If you’re creative, ultimately it will come out, but it comes about from studying what’s happened before you.”

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In Response To The Passing of Bob Belden (Oct. 31, 1956-May 20, 2015) a WKCR Musician Show Interview From 1999, an Interview for the Press Bio I Wrote for “Black Dahlia” from 2000, and an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2002

Bob Belden, a renaissance man who functioned as a brilliant arranger-composer-conceptualist, a fine saxophonist, a skilled producer, encyclopedic historian, and a keen student of human nature, passed away earlier today, at 58, after suffering a massive heart attack on Sunday. I got to know Bob during the mid-’90s when he was  Director of A&R for Blue Note, while also finding time to arrange some of the decade’s seminal dates, including Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard. I became friendly with him after he left that position in the late ’90s. Bob even once put me to work for him as a co-“producer” of a Carmen McRae “Round Midnight” CD, which involved culling and sequencing 14 selections from her Decca ouput of the ’50s.  We weren’t close buddies, but always cordial, and I learned a great deal every time we spoke, as did anyone who had an opportunity to hear him expound in any situation or to read his erudite, exhaustive, insider liner notes to the various editions of Columbia’s massive Miles Davis reissue project during the aughts. In February, he played in Iran with his group, Animation, the first U.S. band to play there in 35 years. It’s very sad, very disheartening; Bob had so much more to share with us.

There will be informed obituaries and memoirs from Bob’s many friends. I will contribute with two long interviews we did in 1999 and 2000, successively. The first contains the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show in April 1999. The second was conducted for the press bio for his amazing orchestral suite, Black Dahlia, which won a Grammy. After those, you’ll find his uncut responses to 14 selections presented to him for a DownBeat Blindfold Test in 2002.

 

Bob Belden (Musician Show, 4-14-99):

[MUSIC: BB, “Psalm #1 (For the Heavens)” – (1990)]

TP: A few words about this particular project. You said some road dues imparted a perfect edge to this date.

BELDEN: Generally, there’s always a perfect schedule, and there’s always the one they give you prior to leaving. Then they tend to change things. In this case, we thought we had a day off between the gig and another gig, because we were partying the night after (?), partying — just hanging, you know. Then we had to get up. Everybody sort of got onto the train, went to Paris, then we found out the hotel was an hour on the other side. You want to get in the hotel, you want to do your soundcheck, you want to go back to the hotel and then you want to do the gig. We were supposed to open, and then the other artist said, “Oh, I want to open.”

TP: Was this a somewhat regular ensemble of musicians playing your music?

BELDEN: It was oddly irregular. We started in ’89 in February, and we did a few significant gigs that year, then in 1990 we played a lot more. By ’92 we were history.

TP: Bob Belden is well known in the jazz community as a man who, to use a cliche, wears many hats, as a tenor and soprano saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer (he’s the man who put together the various Miles Davis packages on Columbia, the Complete Herbie Hancock, etc.). It’s hard to represent it within one three-hour show, but we’ll do our best. A little of the third degree. You’re a South Carolina native.

BELDEN: Yes. I’m from Goose Creek, South Carolina.

TP: A jazz hotbed.

BELDEN: Well, if you consider bludgeons jazz instruments, it’s a swinging spot.

TP: Is your family musical?

BELDEN: We had a piano, and at 3 I started playing piano. My brother and sister play piano. My mother used to sing in church; she used to sing for the ballgames. I had a friend of the family, Mrs. Martin, who taught me boogie-woogie at 4. That was at a period of time when being into music was considered part of being a civilized person. Goose Creek was great because I grew up in a very idyllic, carefree environment. The place was an old Southern plantation that had been converted into a golf course, so nobody lived there who couldn’t afford to live there. We had golf, and we had all kinds of adventures in the woods. It made just develop as a human.

My brother had a garage band, so we used to play with him all the time. “96 Tears” was my big keyboard solo. One thing led to another. I got in the high school band; I was a band nerd. It was amazing.

TP: Was the high school band where jazz started entering the picture for you?

BELDEN: Strangely enough, not really. We had a private music school called the Leonard School of Music, and they had the Sammy Nestico Swingphonic Series band, which was a jazz group with woodwinds. It was a studio band, and we used to play that. I was in the all-state trombone section from the Newberry Jazz Festival.

TP: Trombone section?

BELDEN: Yes. I played all the instruments in high school. I learned everybody’s instrument just to annoy them. So I did this concert on trombone. Our big feature was “Cotton Fields.” 1972, South Carolina. We had bowties. We looked really stupid! But I got out of there as far as I could and went to North Texas State.

TP: When did saxophone become the instrument of choice?

BELDEN: Boots Randolph without a doubt, because he was the most audible of all saxophone players in the south. And then when Rock-and-Roll came along, we had Walter Perezeder(?) from Chicago and Fred Lipsius from Blood, Sweat and Tears. I played alto in high school. Tenor I didn’t get into until I got to college.

TP: There are many musicians who aren’t that engaged in the history and arcana and pedagogy of the music, and you’re certainly an exception to that. You’re a detail freak in a lot of ways, as to who did what take on what day at what particular time. Was that always evident?

BELDEN: When I was a kid, I used to memorize almanacs and sports statistics. Track-and-field statistics; who ran the best 100 that year. Then I used to try to memorize encyclopedias, much to the chagrin of anybody trying to take a bath. Then I just got into this thing of trying to retain as much trivial information as possible. My mother used to complain that I knew too much trivia, which I informed her that was a small town in Alabama — she didn’t think that was funny. But I always felt you need to exercise your brain, because it’s easy to forget. Now I don’t write anything down as far as my daily plans or anything like that; I have to remember it.

TP: So in high school you’re playing all the instruments. You settled into the tenor sax…

BELDEN: Well, I was an alto player. I was technically the First Alto player in the band. I played tuba, percussion, bass guitar, regular guitar, clarinet (which I hated), flute, trombone (which I loved — my brother had one).

TP: So you came naturally for arranging and composition for large ensembles. A good prerequisite is playing all the instruments.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. I was always attracted to that disciplined color. In our band program… The marching band was the rigamarole, the horse and burnished brass, marching trumpets au lait. But in concert band… I played in the Goose Creek High School Band, the Berkeley All-County Band, the All-State Band, and then we had a region band, and then I had a private band. So I was playing throughout the year in five concert bands. We would just play a lot of music. Clifton Williams, Alfred Reed, Vittorio Gianini, transcriptions of classics like Shostokovich’s Fifth Symphony. I went to Brevard Music Camp in the summer of ’72, and we must have read maybe 200 classic band pieces that summer. Modern stuff. Paul Yoder. Private pieces written for that band. So by the time I left high school I had a lot of reading skills and a concept of what music is supposed to be about.

TP: Then you landed in North Texas State one year early.

BELDEN: Yes. I figured that my tenure in South Carolina was going to…that I had just done my highlight. So I pretty much applied as a history major, because you didn’t have to audition to North Texas to be a history major, and they accepted some odd credits I had in Sixth Grade… Because in Texas you only have to have 16 high school credits to go to college, and in South Carolina it’s 18. So they accepted a typing credit from my Sixth Grade year, and I got into college. It was wonderful. I had a private room, I had a bank account, I was 16, and there were all these…how would you say…bad influence wouldn’t be the right word, but it would be the most understandable.

TP: Hardcore jazz veterans of 20 in the early ’70s.

BELDEN: Yeah! I’ll tell you, these guys were hipsters.

TP: Let’s talk about the North Texas State experience as it affected you. You seem to be a particularly enthusiastic alumni.

BELDEN: Yes. Because my entire musical… The fact is that I can do anything, any kind of orchestration job, arranging job, producing job, analysis, dealing with copying music, running sessions. It all came out as a result of what you thought you had to get together before you left the school. See, part of college is illusion. It’s this illusion that things are going to go well for you because you’ve got a college degree. I didn’t buy into that illusion, because i could measure talent pretty easily, and I knew who was doing it and I knew who was not doing it. I just followed the guys who are doing it.

TP: From what it sounds like, what we call hardcore jazz doesn’t really enter the picture for you until you get to North Texas State.

BELDEN: Yes.

TP: Talk about psychically how that affected you as a musician.

BELDEN: Well, as plain as day I remember the moment things changed. I had gone down to the record store, and trying to prove how hip I am, I bought a Dave Brubeck record, Together Again For the First Time, with Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, and I showed it to my neighbor, a guy named Mike Winter, who was from Ohio, and he was very slick — a wise guy. And he takes the record and he throws it out the window like a frisbee, and he takes me over to his room and he plays Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue. He said, “If you don’t figure this out by the time you leave here, you’re an idiot.” And I bought it. I used to hang out with the better players, because they could play records for you. So I used to hang out with Sam Riney a lot, who was in the One O’Clock Band. My best friend was the youngest member of the One O’Clock Band at that time, and we were just complete renegades. I mean, I never went to class, but I got a 3.3 grade point average. But I never really spent much time as a student in the practical sense.

TP: What did you spend your time doing?

BELDEN: Playing, hanging out, partying. Texas was cheap. $4 a credit hour for school. So you could spend 50 bucks and get a full load. You rent a house for $300 a month max.

TP:  So it sounds like you were gigging on a pretty functional level for most of this time. No? Yes?

BELDEN: Well, yeah. You have your horn band gigs, and you’d have an occasional… Very rarely any jazz gigs, because the pecking order there was so stringent. We had what we called a dorm circuit, and it took you a minute to get onto the dorm circuit. That’s where all the reputations got made — playing in the dormitories for the musicians?

TP: Is there a guiding aesthetic, as it were, to the musical philosophy that North Texas State imparts to you as opposed to other institutions?

BELDEN: The highest level of professionalism. Probably up there with Eastman. What they demanded was that you actually know what you’re talking about. Because a lot of the students who went there were kind of on the edge of having anything together. Mom and Dad footed the bill, they couldn’t get into podiatry, so they would go to school. And there were a lot of people who couldn’t really function in the music world. But it put you around musicians, and you met so many cats, and it was constant music. People were just hanging. You’d go to this guy’s house, you’d go to that guy’s house. Constant. There wasn’t time for school.

TP: Was there a particular area of composition and arranging that the faculty was interested in? Talk about the pedagogy.

BELDEN: I was the Composition Major. So my entire class load was spent essentially in private instruction with the senior faculty members. I mean, I had Martin Mehlman(?), and he only had 3 undergraduate students — and he was the only teacher who took undergrad students. Michael Daugherty I’m sure you’ve heard of; he’s a composer of opera and orchestra music. Kevin Mayfield, who could listen to something once and write it out. It was uncanny. He was also completely anti-social, and a perfect-pitch-playing trombonist, which is a nightmare. And a guy named Christopher Pierson. He let me write jazz and pop oriented stuff, and Elliott Carter material, and Stravinsky-esque stuff. All he wanted us to be was creative. But not petty. Not just like, “Oh, I can do this.”

That’s the problem with jazz avant-garde, is that in my college that would be considered student pieces. A lot of the stuff that I hear would be considered student pieces in college, because that was the tail-end of the real intense avant-garde period, where guys wrote densely and thought densely, and had to tie it all back to Schoenberg and Mahler. So in jazz, they think that what they’re doing is modern, but it’s really not. It’s when you’re exposed to it and how it’s explained to you.

TP: This is also the attitude of a lot of musicians who were in dance bands in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, like the Boyd Raeburn band, Johnny Richards, a lot of the Kenton arrangers, and Woody Herman arrangers as well. And your first professional jazz experience was with Woody Herman.

BELDEN: Well, Woody was a real jazz band. When I was in the band, it was a very strange period. We were coming out of fusion, and he was coming back into his Nostalgia-Reagan Era kind of thing. In our band, our drummer played like Jack DeJohnette our bass player played like Dave Holland, and they played loud and they played unrelenting. These guys had this pulse [CLAPS] which is like the Miles Davis Quintet, which we used to listen to a lot. People wouldn’t dance to it. They used to dock us money. It was an incredible experience because I got to see what it was like being on the road. Roy Hargrove made a comment, “Yeah, we worked over 200 gigs a year.” My first year on the road, of the 365 days of the year, we worked 300-and-something days.

TP: What does that do for a band?

BELDEN: It makes it have an uncanny sense of phrasing. Woody’s band is just like Duke. The phrasing was passed down from generation to generation. So when you came on the band you couldn’t just read the notes. You had to listen, and eventually you just got into listening. And guys would change things every now and then. You don’t need the music. I mean, Smulyan memorized his book in a couple of days.

TP: A lot of talented improvisers who emerged in the ’80s came out of that band.

BELDEN: That was the jazz-rock period. As far as writers are concerned, Alan Broadbent really came out well. He’s just a brilliant musician. Of course, Lyle Mays, who actually did some interesting arrangements for the band that weren’t pursued as far as recording. Dennis Dotson, who is one of the most beautifully melodic trumpet players in jazz. In the late ’60s and early ’70s you had Ed Soph on drums, who was one of the smartest musicians I’ve ever met in my life — just cutting intelligence. Joe Lovano. That’s who I replaced, which was a trip. He actually came out and did a gig, and it was me, Lovano, Smulyan and Dick Mitchell. That was fun. He was the first real cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician. And the difference between him and almost everybody was that he had it in his blood from childhood because his dad was so supportive of this strange business. So to me, Joe was always Jazz. He was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz.

TP: Did that experience transform you into someone whose essence is jazz?

BELDEN: Yeah. I knew I couldn’t deal with… Because I’m very sensitive. I’m one of these guys, you know, a flower child; everything’s got to be beautiful and perfect. And a lot of the jazz business is pretty…

TP: You need a thick skin.

BELDEN: Well, you don’t need a thick skin. You just need to understand that there are some people who were raised by wolves. I just don’t like being around these kind of cats. When I first came up, I had a thicker skin. But now I don’t need to be around them. Life is beautiful, man!

TP: You brought along a tape of the Woody Herman band at the Hotel Catamaran, San Diego, May 28, 1979.

BELDEN: Frank Tiberi will play the first tenor solo, who is a completely unique saxophone player. He’s a combination of Al Cohn and Coltrane. That was supposed to be a dance, and we got there and the people didn’t dance. They didn’t want to. So we played pretty full-out. We had some disasters at dances.

[MUSIC: Woody, “Reunion At Newport” (Broadbent)]

BELDEN: I always felt that big bands had a sense of excitement in the way they can come across which you can’t get out of a five-piece band. With Woody it was unrelenting excitement. He believed in a hot band. He’s always had it. If you heard the band from the ’40s, it’s ridiculous. It’s the highest level of musicianship, execution, intonation, the arrangements were custom-fit for the soloists, and it’s a great organization. And you followed into that tradition — as much as Ellington’s tradition. Duke and Woody were very close, and Woody was Dukish in a way that he didn’t want to fire anybody who he really liked, and he would let us play. I mean, we played a lot. This was not a dance band.

TP: Was band material organized to personalities in a similar way that Ellington would set up his material? Was it Dukish in that way as well?

BELDEN: Yes. Well, when you had a chart written for a certain person, it only lasted as long as that cat was in the band, and then it got passed on. Sal Nistico had an arrangement done for him of “Easy Living” by Nat Pierce, and that went all the way through to Joe Lovano, and then Smulyan got it when I joined the band, and it got changed to a baritone feature.

TP: Did you get very much into the lore of the Woody Herman band, in terms of playing the old arrangements? Was it a very informing experience for you?

BELDEN: There were a lot of arrangement that were functional, because we did have to appeal to survival tactics, like Steely Dan stuff and Carole King’s “Corazon.” But you’d have charts that really reflected the high point of the Herman Herd. Especially Ralph Burns, “Summer Sequence.” I mean, “Four Brothers” was a lot of fun to play. One of the bouncy, chubby bebop tunes. We used to see a lot of the alumni. We’d run into Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond all the time. Everybody would come out. He was amazingly revered by professionals.

TP: Inspired loyalty.

BELDEN: There’s more people coming out of Woody’s band who made a career as a professional musician than any other band. You wouldn’t believe it. Go to Los Angeles, and whoa, half of the town had spent time with Woody. Even Bill Watrous played with Woody.

TP: Your tenure with Woody Herman is ’79…

BELDEN: ’79 to ’80. Then I freelanced around. I moved officially to New York in ’83. I did a lot of television work, a lot of ESPN arranging. I was an arranger for their company, doing sports themes.

TP: Do you get royalties, I hope?

BELDEN: Oh, no. But I got even, because I used to interpolate ABC News Show themes into the second theme of all the sports themes.

TP: Would you hum one of the sports themes?

BELDEN: Gee, I can’t remember. But I can hum the second themes I put in there [SINGS ABC NEWS REFRAIN] But yeah, I had a lot of fun doing that. Then I ended up doing a gig in Visiones, and got a couple of record deals.

TP: Was it basically New York is the mecca; you need to be here?

BELDEN: Oh, no. It was frightening. There wasn’t any real work. This was right before the jazz renaissance, and there were no CDs. You don’t make a living playing jazz, you know. I fortunately found a cheap pad, and I just stuck it out. I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of TV movies. Farrah-Fawcett stuff, and Jackie Cooper, Paul Lemat. I would play keyboards a lot and I would do some mild arranging. I would do Country songs for Country shows, and Pop songs and stuff.

TP: Did your jazz affiliation emanate from your North Texas State and Woody Herman experience, people who’d come to New York who you knew?

BELDEN: Well, what was great was I knew a lot of people from Woody’s band, and when I started doing commercial work I would hire the cats for sessions. So I never was perceived as a threat to other saxophone players, which is why I know so many of them and get along pretty well with them. I never was taking their gigs. I was always hiring them for sessions and stuff. And when you pay guys money, they tend to think of you a little bit differently until you stop paying them money.

TP: Tell me about this gig at Visiones you’re speaking of. Because it would appear you were writing music for local workshop type ensembles…

BELDEN: No-no-no. About half of the ensemble music I had done…we had done some recording in 1985 with Wallace Roney. See, when I was doing ESPN stuff, I was taking the studio time that I was bringing to the studio and getting free time in the studio. So if we did about ten ESPN dates, I’d get a full day in the studio for nothing. Joe Chambers and I did a record, I did an ensemble record, I did two records with Wallace Roney, then a New Age kind of record, and some odd stuff for free. Because all I think about is the studio. I’m not interested in anything else. This is right after the Cabaret Law got beaten down by Paul Chevigny, and Visiones was going to have big bands, and Marc Copland handed them a tape and they called me up — February 6, 1989. I remember it very well, because after the first set Francois Zalacain came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set, Matt Pierson, who was at Blue Note, came up…

TP: And said, “We must record”?

BELDEN: Yes, pretty much.

TP: We’ll hear music from Turandot.

BELDEN: Turandot was sort of a misguided effort by me to make a good record, based on something that goes beyond just chords and changes and stuff like that. They gave me a lot of money, and we came in right at budget. I wanted to capture… It’s what I always feel is important, this overbearing kind of emotional context that big bands can get. I tried to kill the trumpet players because I believe in trumpet masochism.

TP: You mean you tried to kill their chops.

BELDEN: Yeah. Because the context of the piece is the princess during this ancient time is one cold woman. So she has people beheaded for not answering her enigmatic questions. But in this aria she comes to the realization that she is just totally messed up. She is completely cold, she has no emotion. And so… [END OF SIDE A] …the most perfectly in-tune playing you can imagine from these players. I mean, they are impeccable. And we did it at Capitol Studios, and it just has this incredible ambiance.

[MUSIC: Belden, “In Questa Reggia”]

TP: This was never issued in the States.

BELDEN: One of the most litigious companies was recording through their subsidiary, Herndon Music, and they just sue-sue-sue — “We refuse to allow a jazz version of an opera.” And under U.S. copyright law, shows that are dramatic in nature enjoy an extra level of protection that people who just write melodies don’t enjoy.

TP: Bob was talking about the intonation and in-tuneness of the trumpet section, and that was an amazing feature for Wallace Roney.

BELDEN: You have to have a voice to write for, and if you don’t have a voice that has some context, clarity and idea behind it — a sound — then you’re just making a high school band chart.

TP: In this next segment, I’d like to talk to you more about your compositional influences in jazz. I guess the most obvious name in terms of tone color, mood and so on, has got to be Gil Evans. You have cued up an unissued performance of “Dolores.” Did your Miles Davis obsession begin at North Texas State, when this fellow turned you on to Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. Because you could buy the records for $1.99 at the stores, and I just went down and bought them all. I figured, “This is it.” Miles Smiles always had a strong place in my heart, because it’s just the perfect record. And “Nefertiti,” once I remember discovering it was a drum solo at my sister’s apartment in Charleston, it just became revelatory. See, there’s so much detail in Miles Davis’ work, and especially in small group stuff, that when you go to a school that encourages analysis you get into the details. We were trained to try to understand everything on every level — every detail.

TP: Did studying Miles Davis or the Kenton arrangers dovetail with the classical music you were listening to in a very natural way?

BELDEN: At that time we were all kind of college geeks, and we were doing the Elliott Carter trip, and generally music you’ll never get performed again and nobody will like, because it was about density and contours and tone clusters. People used to write without actually listening to music; they’d write mathematically. We had all kinds of people. Guys who would write only in C. People who would do these kind of like what Zorn would have been doing the collage cut-and-paste kind of mentality. I figured that anybody who can’t swing has a problem. Because swinging is the eternal rhythm of jazz. As much as people make it an issue whether you’re in the club or not, it still is the eternal clock in jazz. And there are a lot of people who couldn’t get it. They just couldn’t get the feeling. Because to me, it’s always about the feeling.

TP: In that regard, talk about Gil Evans’ work and his salient characteristics through the filter of Bob Belden.

BELDEN: Well, I listened to a lot of Gil’s stuff. The Cannonball record, Great Jazz Standards, is an incredible album. What Gil did best was capture the essence of the soloist in an environment that made him completely positive, and it also provided challenges to the artist, and it put him in an environment that he never-ever would experience again. Because nobody wrote like Gil. Nobody thought like Gil. Gil was coming from another planet as far as arranging is concerned. I only kind or am influenced by the slower stuff that he did, the tone poems. But his lighter writing, the Birth of the Cool and the Cannonball record… I mean, the Cannonball record is one of the greatest big band records — period. Of course, it’s out of print. But Gil had a way of capturing who he was writing for, and sometimes the talent wasn’t quite up to it and sometimes it was Miles Davis. I never really got into any of the later stuff, because I just think that he didn’t care per se.

TP: You’re talking about the electric bands post-’72.

BELDEN: Yeah. I mean, the guys didn’t seem to care in some cases. Because when I went to see them at Sweet Basil it was like, “What is going on here?”

TP: It could get a little sloppy.

BELDEN: Yeah. But see, Gil lived in the neighborhood, and I’d run into him every now and then. He just wanted a place to go and be around musicians. I understand that. Because he’s already done Miles Ahead. He’s already done Sketches of Spain. He’s already done those things. So why make the guy sweat and then say it’s not as good as the original. He had a good life.

TP: Give us some context for the Miles Davis track.

BELDEN: I figured that since I’m associated with Miles, I should play something from the underground. Because this is an incredibly rare track. It was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1967, and it just shows the band playing a tune they recorded in the studio but aren’t known for playing live.

TP: Any personnel variations?

BELDEN: Albert Stinson is on bass.

[MUSIC: Miles, “Dolores” (1967); Gil-Wayne, “Nothing Like You”]

TP: We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Bob Belden is in the middle of producing a mammoth Miles Davis retrospective with full discographical detail of his Columbia work. The full collaborations with Gil Evans are out, the complete Bitches Brew, the complete Miles and Coltrane. Talk about the salient characteristics about Miles Davis filtered through you.

BELDEN: From a musician’s standpoint it’s like listening to Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. There’s just so much detail in the work that you have a lifetime to listen to it. He’s one of the few artists that I can listen to over and over and over. Sometimes I’ll get into these obsessions. There’s a bootleg CD from Sinfingelden, and they do “No Blues,” and it’s just swinging-swinging-swinging. So I’ll listen to that for days on days, and only that.

TP: Is this band, Miles-Wayne-Herbie-Tony, the one that sparks you, or all of them in different ways?

BELDEN: Well, overall, because they were more classically oriented in terms of Romantic tendencies and form. They really concentrated on improvising complex forms. The band with Chick, Dave and Jack was just high energy, like a Rock-and-Roll band. And I like the Agartha bands, because again, we were talking about blocks of sound, how dynamics become the composition. It’s loud. You play loud. Then you play soft.

TP: There are people who will play Stockhausen and the Miles Agartha band side-by-side, so that comes through.

BELDEN: Well, Stockhausen can’t swing. He’s just improvising in their context. You have to notice Miles Davis, who if he wanted to could sit down and play “Royal Garden Blues” and really make you feel that he has a connection to something that goes deeper.

TP: So you’re saying that they’re classically informed, you’re referring either to their ability or interest in playing over more complex, longer forms, extended structures.

BELDEN: Yes, more disciplined structures. Because again, free jazz, or what people call free jazz, sometimes is not very free at all. It just has an attitude, and a lot of it is just the people who are buying it don’t know. Miles Davis once said, “White people will buy anything.” In a sense, a lot of artists are… They’re not successful. I don’t know anybody who makes abstract music and really is successful with the exception of Ornette Coleman, and he’s mellowed lately. But it’s very unusual to see guys develop a level of financial security in playing non-romantic music. Maybe after hearing what the show was prior to this one, that may change. But I think that…

TP: When you say “successful,” do you mean aesthetically successful?

BELDEN: I think the whole point is to get your music across to as many people as possible. It’s not about money. It’s not about a fancy house. It’s about having people who you’ve never met make comments in positive ways about your music. When people say it affects them, it has some effect. To me, it’s that they actually bought a CD of mine. That always throws me for a loop. I’m not involved in the entertainment side of my business. If somebody buys one of my CDs, I’m flabbergasted. Out of all the CDs in the store, you went and bought mine. To my dying day, I’ll never lose sight of that innocence about having people get your stuff.

TP: Talk about Miles Davis in his different periods. Because apart from a lifetime of immersing yourself in this music as a fan and student, you’re now immersing yourself in the music from the perspective of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on an entire corpus of work.

BELDEN: Well, we do a lot of that detail work just to eliminate mistakes in future research. Because musicians especially have a right to know what went down, so they can make a decision. The general public who happens to buy it will be overwhelmed by the information. It really won’t make much sense. But musicians (that’s all I think about) generally gain so much from these sets. Because they lay a story on them. We tell a story as much as we can. And not the information that the guy had a problem with something or his ex-wife or something. We don’t get into that too much. we get into the music. We get into the players, their perspectives. Unlike a lot of the reissue companies, we deal with the musicians straight-up. They get paid for bonus tracks. They get paid for unissued material that comes out. And they’re willing to work with us. It’s great to be able to call Dave Holland or Jack De Johnette to discuss an event, or ask Ron Carter to look over what you’ve done to make sure you haven’t said anything stupid. For us, that’s… We treat Miles like Classical people treat Bernstein or Rubinstein.

TP: After the complete ’50s Quintet and Sextet comes out, I believe there’s to be a collection of a lot of the live-unissued material?

BELDEN: Oh, that’s an interesting rumor. No, our plan is that after… These plans are subject to whim. So after the Coltrane box, which is a 6-CD set with a lot of bonus tracks (stereo alternates to Milestones; it’s pretty good), then we have three choices. We have the Jack Johnson sessions. We have In A Silent Way, which is assembled but not mastered. Then we have a period called Seven Steps To Berlin, which is the Hollywood ’63 sessions up to Berlin ’64.

TP: Again, if you’re willing, I’d like you to talk about Miles the musician in his different periods.

BELDEN: Well, Miles Davis has some different periods, definitely. To me, his most powerful period in terms of communicating to a listening audience, as well as musicians, was ’57-’58-’59-’60-’61. On the Milestones date, the alternate takes, Miles plays these perfectly constructed solos that swing hard, and every note is perfect. Every note is right. There’s no extraneous baggage on it. So he was striving, I think, to create real highly constructed melodic solos — because then his other guys would just go nuts. But his contrast to that was playing these perfectly melodic solos. And it peaked to me with the “Blues #2” with Philly Joe, which is coming out on Someday My Prince Will Come. I have that solo memorized. I can play it on saxophone. He plays “Royal Garden Blues” as a quote. You can hear how he can always take his music back to that time. There’s a bootleg where he quotes “St. Louis Blues” very abstractly. But you can tell he really liked the older stuff.

TP: Well, he himself did talk about Louis Armstrong as fundamental in his conception even if the connection wasn’t transparently apparent in his music.

BELDEN: He liked Bobby Hackett a lot. He liked pretty players, people who had control over their instrument. A lot of the white guys had this Harry James thing to deal with, so they couldn’t play raucous; they had to play pretty and melodic. I think Miles liked that, because Miles gravitated towards sophisticated music and music that gave an air of sophistication. Which is why he didn’t keep playing Hardbop. His band with Wynton and P.C. and Jimmy Cobb was funky, and it was beautiful, swinging, melodic. Happy. You just felt happy listening to it. I think he really wanted to get there.

TP: You think that’s part of why that rhythm section was so successful for him, that it conveyed that mood.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. You’ve got to smile every time you hear those guys. I mean, Wynton Kelly, for some reason, God gave him the talent to make people smile when he played.

TP: Now, you’ve talked fairly extensively with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter about the formation of the band that’s called the classic band. Talk about how you see Miles’ intentions at the beginning of that band and how it panned out in ways he may or may not have foreseen.

BELDEN: I think Miles had tried to get Wayne for a couple of years, and the guys in the band finally said, “Hey.” Sam Rivers didn’t work out, and George Coleman, whom I love dearly, apparently he left the band. He wasn’t interested. He wanted to do his own thing. He was already formed when he joined Miles’ band. And Miles used to pick on him. I mean, I have tapes from a session where Miles was just picking on the guy. This is a funny story. They’re in Los Angeles and they’re playing “So Near, So Far.” Apparently, the arrangement had a coda written into it as part of the solo, and Miles didn’t make it. Right? So the band breaks down, and Miles goes, “What happened?” Victor Feldman said, “Miles, you didn’t take the coda.” Miles says, “What coda? What coda?” George apparently goes to the stand and points at it, and then says to Miles, “I’ll nod my head when it’s your turn to come in.” And Miles stops for a second and looks at George and goes, “You’ll nod your head? What is that George? Method thinking?” Because they’re out in Los Angeles. George goes, “Hey, man, back off.” Miles says, “You ain’t in New York any more, George.” George says something to the effect of “Why are you bugging me?” and Miles said, essentially, “Because I want to.” George goes, “You don’t pick on Ron” and Miles says, “Because Ron has three degrees.”

So there was some element of Miles just sort of wanting to get through all this stuff at the time. He was definitely in a bored period during ’62-’63. I think Wayne changed the band, because it gave him a complete unit. See, Tony and Herbie were already stretching when George was in the band, and it just seemed to go from Miles getting involved to George forcing himself to get involved, and then Herbie coming in. Herbie to me is the greatest jazz pianist.

TP: Let me pick up on two comments. Wayne Shorter changing the band; Herbie Hancock is the greatest jazz pianist.

BELDEN: Well, Wayne changed the band, and he brought music in eventually, but he had this kind of casual way of approaching stuff. What he does technically on the saxophone is pretty intense. His articulation is right on it. He was able to tongue every note. So he could get real intense articulations going, and he had this humorous side, which he used to play for Miles and get Miles to crack up on stage. He had this old Gene Ammons kind of tenor throw he would put in. You could hear him; he sounds like he was drinking a lot. That’s what Miles really liked. He liked that history.

TP: That Midwest thing that he came from.

BELDEN: Well, Miles played with Coleman Hawkins, so he was very accustomed to big-tone tenors.

TP: Well, he played with the Eckstine band with Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon.

BELDEN: I always describe Wayne as somebody who’s squeezing the cat. You got a cat and you’re holding him around the neck, squeezing, and the thing is squiggling and stuff, going RRROWWWRR…

TP: A wonderful image, Bob.

BELDEN: Well, I described one musician as his playing sounds like he’s molesting a child.

TP: The second part. Your intense admiration for Herbie Hancock.

BELDEN: Well, to me, I like hip. There’s something about somebody who is quintessentially and consistently hip. And Herbie is hip. He is able to make every context he does hip, much hipper than it would have been without him. And I am a big student of his commercial sideman dates. I mean, I have every one of them. There is something he brings to a recording session that, as a producer and arranger…he’s a genius. Everyone who worked with him in the ’60s said he would come into the session and bring life to the band. Mel Lewis said that he was always creating, he was always pushing forward. He did a lot of commercial dates where his solos were not commercial. They were very hip.

TP: We’ll move to the subject of Stan Kenton and some of the arrangers who informed you in various ways.

BELDEN: When we were in school, we had the Kenton library. He donated his library to North Texas. So I played almost 200 Kenton arrangers.

TP: He was close to the founder of the North Texas jazz program, Dr. Gene Hall. No?

BELDEN: Well, not as close as he was to Leon Breeden. Breeden was a big Stan Kenton fan. The Ken Burns documentary is coming out, and they were talking about the guy who runs the Jurassic Center Orchestra is bringing jazz education into the schools. I looked at the woman who made that statement and said, “Obviously, you’ve never heard of Stan Kenton.” As much controversy as people have about Stan not being particularly kind to Colored musician, as the common misnomer, and not allowing pot smokers in the band, I mean, he did have a vision and he had a sense of professionalism that overrode everything else. And he would hire the best arrangers and have great bands and make highly emotional music. Highly emotional music. Because he came out of the Germanic tradition. At North Texas we played a lot of the material, and we had to understand it. A lot of Bill Holman’s stuff, a lot of Bill Russo, and then we had guys who were writing for Kenton’s band from our school. That was the time of the stage band clinics that were started… Donald Byrd was involved. Stan Kenton was involved. Leon Breeden was involved. More musicians came out of that than any other single movement in jazz. Especially good musicians. Every year in Los Angeles they have this big Kenton-Fest, and it’s like cultish.

TP: So the general overall aesthetic comes out of a Germanic orientation.

BELDEN: Oh yeah. Again, he came from a period of time… He lived in Los Angeles, he lived in California, and Hollywood films were heavily blown… Especially in his early period, it was like a bad film noir kind of thing; wild, flailing bongo drums and brass. You’ve seen those ’50s TV shows where they’re trying to show the demented person in a small apartment in New York, and they play loud, Latin-oriented jazz. To me, that always created…

TP: Sweat pouring down the face.

BELDEN: Edward Dmytryk. So you get this real intense visual image, and then that translates to your heart and you become emotionally involved with the music. I always liked that about him. He had a dark side to him.

[MUSIC: Kenton, “Vida Prada”; Mel Lewis, “Interloper”]

BELDEN: Thad Jones was literally a genius, in the sense that he never used a piano to write his arrangements. He would just write the parts out. Sometimes he would do five or six charts the night before the session. “Interloper” was one of them. He had this uncanny ability to just write and not worry about it. It was second nature. His language, his phrasing were all completely personal. I mean, he was just a complete-complete arranger and musician. That tune, “Interloper” was done in the later period, and he started putting emotion, a romantic kind of emotion into his music. That piece is very sad. That’s what I find attractive about musicians, is when you get past the brassy, extroverted kind of thing, you find guys who cry. I cry at Flintstones weddings. So for me, I search out musicians and charts, especially arrangements, that have an emotion to it. Also, I played in that band at that period of time, and to play that particular chart, you just were carried along on this ride, unlike almost any charts they had in there. The band just kept going and kept going. And they loved playing it. We all did. It’s a great tenor solo.

TP: Talk about the difference of playing in that band vis-a-vis with, say, Woody Herman a few years before. You were speaking about the difference in phrasing, how every band has its own personality.

BELDEN: Oh, this band, with Earl Gardner and John Mosca, they’re phraseologists. They constantly change stuff up and they have little background figures. They communicate to themselves, and they create interesting things — the sound of surprise. When Thad was there, they’d create backgrounds… He was great at riff backgrounds, and they just kept chugging along and making things exciting. I’ve seen Thad when Thad was directing the band a few times. A very great, exciting band.

With Woody the phrases would be subtle. We had an arrangement of “Laura” where the written part is like… [SINGS REFRAIN], and we did it completely rephrased, out-of-time, and we all nailed it — because eventually we had to learn it. So Woody’s band I think was really into laying back phrases big time, and Thad was into changing phrases all the time.

TP: Albeit that Thad Jones was a sui generis composer-arranger, who were his influences, as you see it?

BELDEN: Well, he liked all innovative… They all loved Fletcher Henderson’s writing, they all loved Jimmy Mundy; they were all influenced by the great writers of the time — Ralph Burns. Geez, there are so many cats from that period, the older guys. Not so much… I mean, Gil was really influenced by the older guys, because that’s the music of his childhood. But I think Thad was not really influenced by anybody, because his harmonic language was unique, completely unique, and his orchestration was unique. He always used dense chords in his voicings, and he’d always write the sections opposed to one another. So in the ’40s and ’50s, the chord would be based on block harmony, and they’d just move it in parallel. Eventually they got tired of that because everything sounded the same. I mean, Thad had no real method, even though there’s a book that tries to analyze it. He just wrote what he felt like. And you you play with those players, everything sounds good.

TP: Not unlike Ellington, Thad Jones (correct me if I’m wrong) would use that band as kind of a workshop. Pieces weren’t set it stone with him, and they would change and evolve, as befits a band that’s playing at least once a week for 30 years.

BELDEN: Well, I think Thad didn’t do anything until the date, and then he came in with five or six new charts. Then they’d edit it at rehearsal, and they’d go and record them. Sometimes the charts are a little different than what was recorded; little arrows going here and there. But he was such a genius. Literally. That mind. You just can’t see too many people with that kind of intelligence.

TP: And did you discover Thad Jones, again, at North Texas State, or…

BELDEN: Oh yeah. You automatically had to go down and buy the records. I mean, they were on Solid State, the charts were published, and we used to play them a lot. I mean, “Cherry Juice” was a big college favorite. They used to play it so fast. We’d be chugging and not making it.

TP: A New York tempo versus a Texas tempo, huh.

BELDEN: Well, North Texas liked to play fast. They just were a little stiff. They never approached the rhythm section from a jazz standpoint; they approached it from an ensemble standpoint.

TP: So in the mid-’80s, you’re doing this commercial work, you’re playing the Monday nights or various workshop type big bands and filling in, and you’re embarking on your personal writing and developing a cadre of musicians to play your music as well. All this is going on in the 1980’s.

BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s… There was a period from about ’82-’83 to about 1991 when I must have written a couple of hundred pieces. I had just gotten a synthesizer, and I had enough work to pay the rent and pay the bills, and plenty of free time. So rather than get into a life of decadence, I just sat home and wrote a lot of music. Because of the clarity of synthesizers, you can create chord structures that are very precise and clear, and that pushes you on to other things — intervals of fifths, spread-out fifth intervals. I would translate that kind of gothic approach on synthesizers to big bands.

TP: So there’s a very specific instance of how technology influences artistic creation.

BELDEN: Oh, synthesizers to me are the most under-utilized instrument in what we call jazz — because nobody can play. There’s one guy who is truly a synthesist — Scott Kinsey. Because he goes beyond the mindset of most synthesists, who are just playing paths and stuff. He will take a sound, and he will play a solo and he’ll edit the sound during his solo, so that the solo has a different level. It has the harmonic level, and then it has this kind of sonic thing. Things will pop in and out, noises and samples, and it’s incredible. Because his mind is so fast, he can improvise and set up… He plays an edit mode, so any time he touches the keyboard, he can change anything. And nobody is out there doing that. I’ve used him exclusively since 1993. I mean, I fly him out for any session I do under my own name. There are no really any-good synthesizer players in New York.

TP: We have cued up a track from the Ellington band in the ’50s that’s somewhat obscure…

BELDEN: I like “Jeep’s Blues” and so on, but I like this because it’s commercial — at the time. It’s like an Alan Freed kind of vibe. But listen to how hip the band plays. Incredibly hip. It’s got one of the greatest shout choruses in jazz.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Rock City Rock”; Belden-Denise Jannah, “I Didn’t Know About You”]

BELDEN: We had a Pop record to do of Prince’s music, and I got a huge budget, and I decided, “Well, I’m just going to go in the studio and record.” We did about 30 sessions over a period of like five months. I did the Pop record, and I went in and did a bunch of some originals and then all these Prince songs.

TP: There are several dynamics of Pop music translating into jazz. One is that jazz musicians sound like they’re slumming when they’re playing Pop music, and the stuff sounds sort of trite. That’s one of the pitfalls. I’m falling into the Bob Belden trap of A&R’ing here. Another is that you often lose the lyric content, which in Contemporary Pop music is crucial to the meaning of a song. And it’s said that Pop material is much more simplified now than 30-40-50 years ago, and so there’s less protein for the improviser to build on.

BELDEN: Have you ever heard the original version of “Body and Soul”? It’s pretty hokey. Jazz musicians are able to transfer Pop music, sometimes very successfully and sometimes very unsuccessfully, into a new appreciation for whatever melody there is. I mean, they used to write real melodies. On the Prince record, we did a thing called “Electric Chair,” which doesn’t really have a melody. We just made the drums real loud and made it a groove.

TP: What makes Prince’s music particularly suitable for this type of rearrangement and reinterpretation?

BELDEN: Because I can do anything I want to it. I don’t get into this argument of should you do it for jazz or not. Nobody tells me what to do.

TP: I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what are the dynamics of his music that make it suitable for rearrangement. Is it just because you choose to do it, and therefore you do it?

BELDEN: Well, a lot of the tunes I wanted to do. The Pop stuff was pretty obvious. But the ones I wanted to shift into jazz mode, I got a lot off of bootlegs. There was a tune called “In A Large Room With No Light” which was phenomenal, but he had a fight with Wendy and Lisa and wouldn’t let me do it. And this song that we’re going to play called “Power Fantastic” was never issued. It was on a couple of these bootlegs; they thought it was Miles. I recorded it three times. The first time I sent it to Prince, nah; the second time I sent it to Prince, nah — because the versions were modest. And then we went into the studio and hit, and really made it powerful, and we sent it to him and he said, “Okay.” He put out “Power Fantastic” on his Greatest Hits, and that allowed us to get a mechanical license.

TP: So this was done in collaboration of some sort with Prince.

BELDEN: Well, not collaboration. Just “Can we do this tune?” Because he’s a composer, and why would he let somebody record his tune for the first time when (a) there’s no money in it for him, and we’re just some lowly jazz guys. But he’s into good musicians.

TP: But I still want to know why, in this particular case, Prince?

BELDEN: Because it’s a Pop record. We covered Prince in a Pop kind of context for Japanese — huge-selling records. I’d just finished the Sting record and I’d established some strange sort of… But the record did great in Japan and terrible in the United States because of unfocused company policies. But in Japan, huge sales — it really did well. Again, I’m one of these guys who, when I’m in the studio, I don’t waste time and I record a lot of stuff, a lot of my material. So I got a lot of stuff done on this.

This track just jumped off the page. It really has some power. It’s heavily electric, but it has a lot of emotion to it. If you can take anybody’s music and make it happen emotionally, it doesn’t matter. Nobody knows this melody. But it’s a beautiful, simple song. It’s something any jazz guy could do.

[MUSIC: Belden/Prince, “Power Fantastic”]

TP: Coming up is an interesting segue, from Prince to Herbie Hancock’s ’70s fusion music. Bob Belden was the arranger of The New Standard

BELDEN: Verve demotes me all the time.

TP: One way or another, you’ve been heavily involved in reinterpreting the popular music of the last 20-25 years in jazz contexts. You were talking about Herbie Hancock’s creativity on commercial dates.

BELDEN: Manchild was one of Herbie’s finest records, because it involves groove and it involves pretty serious electric playing, but it also involves orchestration. Herbie always colored his records in very Gil Evansish… That record and Sunlight has so much interesting stuff in terms of backgrounds. And nobody understands those records, they don’t listen to them… Only a handful of fans. But they show that Herbie can meld commercial music and art music better than almost anybody I know. His music is about feel. So if it feels good, the general public likes it and then he throws in some pretty intense… I mean, if you listen to this track, “Sun Touch,” you hear this bass clarinet-flugelhorn kind of ensemble, and compositionally it has this little bass line that they repeat, actual proof, where they lock into that bass line occasionally. It’s really a beautiful tune.

[MUSIC: Herbie, “Sun Touch”]

BELDEN: That’s commercial music and it still has intensity about jazz. We were talking about jazz musicians don’t improvise. For the most part, if you’re a bebopper, you’re not improvising. You’re playing things you’ve practiced all day and all night. The improvisation may be considered how you string them all together. But very few people are… Keith Jarrett comes to mind as somebody who can really improvise. But to me, a lot of people, they just play what they know, and they focus in on a sound that they know and they stick with it. Because you have to look at improvisation as something that’s totally free and open, something that’s very spiritual, or something that’s constructed into what you’re trying to express.

TP: Well, improvisation is supposed to be the essence of jazz expression.

BELDEN: Yeah-yeah-yeah… I hate the bromides, because they never really apply, and they often are used to keep people out of the scene. Like, “He ain’t swingin’.” “He doesn’t have the tradition.” There are all these cliches, and it really doesn’t matter. Once you get away from having to deal with jazz on a level where your daily bread comes from that… Because I’m doing a lot more Pop-oriented stuff.

TP: To throw the epigrammatic question at you: What constitutes Jazz for you? If improvisation isn’t necessarily it, swinging isn’t necessarily it… Bob is giving me a disgusted look.

BELDEN: Jazz is an attitude. That’s all it is. If you seem like a Jazz guy, you are a jazz guy. Let me ask you this. Have you ever met Rodney Kendrick?

TP: Yes.

BELDEN: He’s a jazz guy! No matter if he works with Wu Tang Clan or he works with Abbey Lincoln, he’s a jazz guy. It doesn’t matter what he does. He’s a jazz guy. You can tell a difference in how people play. Jazz musicians have confidence. Good jazz musicians can play anything. They can walk in any circumstance and sound good. True jazz musicians. A lot of players, they’re just so open and fresh, and they have the attitude, and they’re humorous and they’re fun to be around.

TP: Isn’t that improvising?

BELDEN: Well, in a contextual element. But if you’re talking about notes, very few people really improvise everything they play. But to give an emotional element to music is very spontaneous.

TP: Well, to project your personality I think is what you’re talking about, and to project that personality into any given situation that you may find yourself…

BELDEN: Well, that’s not improvisation. That’s having a style. If you have a style, you can project it over anything. I think that’s what’s sadly lacking today, is nobody wants to have a style. I get tapes in the mail, and I get records from other companies, and for the most part they’re terribly imitating records that have gone down in the past.

TP: Why do you think this is, in this particular time?

BELDEN: Laziness. It’s laziness, lack of a good musical education, and no vision. I mean, I can imitate Miles Davis as well as anybody, as you will hear from this next track. But it’s like, “Do we want to put this out?” Do we want people to think, “Oh, this is our stuff”? And generally, I don’t put the imitative stuff out. Even if people don’t like what we do. Again, almost all the things I’ve done in the last few years have been Hip-Hop, Rap, Drum-and-Bass and R&B, and I get to put my personality on that music.

TP: Why are you choosing those areas as opposed to what we might call “hardcore jazz”?

BELDEN: Well, we do play hardcore jazz. The Tim Hagans record is hardcore jazz. It’s coming out of Freddie Hubbard. It’s coming out of playing the trumpet at the highest possible level, in perfect time, with an unrelenting sense of direction. I did a Hip-Hop version of “When Doves Cry” with Cassandra Wilson that’s one of the most popular licensee tracks. I mean, 45 compilations have pulled that track. Because it has a jazz attitude. It’s dark as hell. It’s dark and it’s very mysterious, and for some reason people like it because it’s jazzy. I have a difficult time with going straight commercially because I’m an old-school guy, so I tend to like real instruments played by real people. But for the most part, it’s really the personality of the individual. And we don’t have that many personalities now. Guys play, the image you get from them is a Berklee classroom.

TP: Does this have to do with the institutionalization of jazz education, and taking it off of the street or the road? Is it a little too reductive?

BELDEN: Younger guys don’t have older guys yelling at them. They haven’t been screamed at. They haven’t been completely dressed-down publicly. So there’s a lot of confidence the younger guys have that their stuff is happening. I’ve worked with a few of the younger guys, and they’re all beautiful, serious musicians, but they’re having a difficult time really coming to grips with the next ten years. I mean, the hardest thing to make it in the jazz business is past-40. You get forgotten. Your music is marginalized. Most guys get dropped around that time. That’s a stigma that’s really a terrible thing in our business.

Coming up… Again, we were doing the Tapestry record, our paean to Smooth Jazz. At that time, I was the A&R director of Blue Note, so I said, “Hey, we’re just going to record; I don’t care what it costs. I’m going to slap my own wrists.” So we spent six sessions just recording, and I recorded a lot of my material and we recorded the Tapestry stuff. Tony had just passed away, and I wrote this thing for him, and it’s like a Wayne Shorter, mid-late-’60s Miles. It’s funny because it has a mood, and that’s the way we sound when we feel like playing that way.

[MUSIC: Belden, “No Title” & “Winter I (Vivaldi)”]

TP: Bob Belden’s rearrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Jazz and the Classics, with flautist Patrick Gaulois, Kevin Hays on piano, Ira Coleman on bass, Billy Kilson on drums. Another Belden project not available here.

BELDEN: We recorded it for Deutsche Gramophone through Verve, and typically it’s too progressive for Verve. They just wouldn’t put it out. They demoted me on some projects and dropped me from stuff. It was terrible. But again, it’s my theory that musicians have lost control of the business.

TP: And when did musicians have control of the business?

BELDEN: Oh, in the ’50s and ’60s for sure, and in the ’70s, which was the last time when musicians had influence over what people bought. But since then it’s all marketing people and promotion people. They look at you as a musician like you’re some kind of weird guy. I did a lot of reissues for a company, and I pick things from what sounds good musically, not historically, because that whole historical view is crap. It’s all revisionist anyway, because unless you know the people and you actually play and understand the nuances of what real music is all about, you’re just guessing. And we don’t guess.

TP: At the time you recorded this, or shortly thereafter, you then came under the employ of Blue Note as the A&R director, and were right in the belly of the beast, as it were, in the attitudes you’re referring to…

BELDEN: Everybody in record companies now is an A&R guy. The marketing guy, the radio guy, the assistant A&R guy, the President of the company, the General Manager… Everybody is an A&R guy except the A&R guy. Again, I’m not the kind of person who takes suggestions. Because I know what I’m doing. I don’t need help. I don’t need anybody telling me, “We should sign this guy” or “we should sign this guy” or “what do you think about this.” I know the musician scene so well that I know about cats far in advance of record companies. Because the word on the street comes around, “so-and-so is hittin’,” “so-and-so is shucking.” And the process is, they eliminate the element of musical taste and judgment from the mix. It’s all about marketing, the image of the artist.

The other day a guy complained, he said that Omer Avital’s record, the tracks were too long — nobody would play it on the radio. Then one of their strong radio-oriented jazz records got number-one for a couple of weeks and sold 5,000 copies. That’s it. Kevin Hays had a trio record that was #1 on the Gavin charts for 3½-4 weeks and he sold less than 1,000 copies.

TP: With Omer Avital’s record, you’re referring to something that was ready-to-go and packaged, and got dropped when Polygram merged…

BELDEN: Yes. It got Verved. Again, they’re making a business decision. But I think eventually musicians are going to become more business oriented, and not follow the trap of a company.

TP: In A&R there is room for different aesthetics or different ways of presenting a sound image imprint for your company. Bob Belden may have different taste than someone at another label, and it doesn’t become quite that absolutely a matter of musical taste. Or does it?

BELDEN: Well, if you’re given control, which I was never going to be given any kind of control… Yeah, I’m intelligent enough to make decisions and stick with them and follow through. But I just can’t deal with people who can’t sit down and talk to me about the music. Because it’s about the artist and what they play.

TP: Is there a self-marketing aspect in musicians and their choices? In the Pop projects you’re doing, say, are you thinking about the commerciality of the material?

BELDEN: Sure. What’s the point of making a commercial record. I mean, what’s the point? If you’re going to make a record that’s not going to sell, why waste people’s time and energy and money? Because right now we’re flooded by records that are not going to sell by artists who are not artists.

TP: Why does a record sell? Why does a record not sell?

BELDEN: According to most companies, what they want it to sell and what it actually sells are oftentimes wide apart. You just have to know how few you’re going to sell. Gerry Teekens knows he’s going to sell a couple of thousand records, and that’s all he cares about. But Verve everything they do has to sell a lot of records, and that’s a tremendous amount of pressure. There’s no challenge in what they’re doing, because they’ve signed all these artists who actually have reputations. I don’t think they can break a creative artist, or somebody who is kind of left-of-center. They dropped Geri Allen after one or two records. They dropped Jason Lindner. They dropped Omer Avital. Didn’t even tell them. It’s kind of a shame, because if they have a bad year, it’s going to be even worse up there. The Herbie Hancock record I don’t think is going to make any money for the except maybe over a long period of time. But at Blue Note, three months, they make an evaluation, and that’s it.

TP: Let’s give our audience a blindfold test. One clue.

BELDEN: Yes. He was 13 years old when he made this record. The other thing is, if you listen to how professional these guys were. The arranger is Ernie Wilkins.

[MUSIC: Stevie Wonder, “Get Happy” (1963)]

BELDEN: See, guys who are Pop-oriented are much easier to work with. The whole business side, Smooth Jazz and R&B. Especially independent labels. They’re enthusiastic about the music. They really like what they hear, and they go to the bat for you. There’s not like some jazz tradition you’ve missed out. I see it a lot in the business, how they marginalize talented musicians, especially musicians who have a high level of musicianship — and they tend to go to a fashion. Again, for a non-musician, they look at a person and notice what they’re wearing and what the color of their skin is, and they make decisions based on that. And it has nothing to do with the notes, which are the real deal going down. So when I deal with all the kind of Pop-oriented labels, they are just much more professional about what they want to do. They tell you what they want and they do it, and they pay you the money. And they don’t sit down and talk about, “Well, what market is this going for?” They are trying to sell it. Because they don’t know about the Jazz tradition, and frankly, they don’t care.

I mean, the Jazz tradition is strangling our music. Why should a trumpet player have anything to do with New Orleans parade music? Why should all these guys imitate cats who passed away, and a lot of them lived in obscurity and poverty? Why can’t you live in modern times? Miles said, “You drive a modern car, you watch a modern TV, you live in a modern apartment.” Why be…

TP: I will say that some of the people who play the parade music did play that music coming up if they grew up in New Orleans. There are people who played Second Line, for whom that resonates.

BELDEN: Woody Herman was King of the Zulus in 1980 in New Orleans. They brought the whole band down. We had Afro wigs, blackface, grass skirts, the whole routine. We played the Heritage Hall with Wynton’s Dad and Nicholas Payton’s dad, and we did two nights at Al Hirt’s. The Zulu’s Ball. It was nothing. It was those guys who were locals. And they were modern players. They were playing like Cannonball stuff and Miles stuff, and then all of a sudden… I think it’s a tourist and cultural thing. They created this funeral music image. I don’t like old-fashioned music.

TP: You were talking about that before. You were saying that pre-Bebop players don’t really appeal to you.

BELDEN: Well, first of all, if you think about what that music meant at that time, that was some hard dues. And those guys basically played in smoky clubs and they had really no chance. Many of them had to retire… There are so many — in the ’50s — ex-musicians that had day jobs or taught schools and so forth. There wasn’t any real prejudice against white musicians back then, so you had a comfortable intermingling among musicians. There’s Mexican bebop players and there’s Puerto Rican bebop players, and they used to interact deeply back then. Now musicians have managers and agents and they have this kind of hi-falutin’ look of what their contributions to jazz are. I know as a writer, if I really wanted to, you could go and minimize what people think their contributions are. It’s so easy to imitate the past. It’s so easy to copy somebody else’s record. The hardest thing is to not put it out. I hear modern stuff occasionally, and it’s lifeless to me. There’s no adventure because nobody is buying those records. They’ve made the audience so traditional-oriented. They’ve tried to define jazz as a certain kind of music that has a certain kind of look. That’s why Smooth Jazz is primarily Caucasian.

TP: Well, the look you’re talking about is very much about marketing and has to do with the function of media. Everything is branded, and that look becomes the brand of the music.

BELDEN: See, I don’t agree with that. I think most jazz musicians are horribly ugly. They’re just not appealing physically. Because they never strived in their early years to do their face up and get their hair cut. Smooth jazz is a very visual well-to-do Yuppie kind of music, but a lot of those guys do pretty well. And the audience is so much more enthusiastic than jazz audiences. Jazz audiences tend to hoot and holler, and they like to go to hear picnic jazz, festival jazz. But the real serious Hardcore Jazz has sort of been banished from the planet. None of the companies want to take any chances with creative music at a certain level. If you’re fashionable, they’ll give you a shot. But they won’t come to the conclusion that they have to diversify completely and follow through with it.

The last time jazz was popular in America was when the fusion era was around. Now they’re talking 1.9% of sales. That’s like nonexistent. They sell more bootlegs than they sell that. But in the ’70s, it was 7%-8%, because of Fusion. Then in the ’80s they just dissed Fusion and Electric Jazz to the point where somebody reading a modern jazz magazine comes to the impression that there’s only the guys at Lincoln Center and only the guys who could play with Art Blakey and there’s nothing else. And there’s the Downtown scene, which has about 7 or 8 good musicians and a bunch of posers, people latching on to a scene — because it’s a social thing. But the main guys… If you deal with Zorn, Zorn is a very-very evocative conceptualist, and he takes care of business. He’s one of the strongest entities in the jazz business because he doesn’t need it to survive. And Bobby Previte, Dave Douglas…they’re all dedicated and very serious about what they’re doing. Yet they’re going to really sell mainstream numbers. If you’ve ever sold 50,000 to 60,000 records, you know what it feels like to see sales. In my Japanese records, sometimes I make a tremendous amount of royalties because the records sell.

TP: And it’s 9 o’clock. The next show must go on.

BELDEN: I love to poke fun at Verve. You have to understand.

TP: Well, Bob, you have many idiosyncracies, and many of them have come out on this program.

BELDEN: I’ll get nasty letters from people.

TP: And phone calls hopefully.

[-30-]

* * *

Bob Belden (for bio) – (9-13-2000):

TP: I think we should talk in as much detail as possible about the form of this piece, the events surrounding the piece, and the various associations you have to the piece. Will all this be described in the liner notes?

BELDEN: To some degree, yes.

TP: I have a lot of stuff from the Musician Show on your bio. I assume you want things like, “The Goose Creek, South Carolina, native, started playing music as a toddler, and did blah-blah-blah and did this in the school band, and went to North Texas State and did this and that, and from North Texas State went to Woody Herman and did this and that, and came to New York in 1980 and did this and that, and wrote the ESPN theme…

BELDEN: No, I didn’t write the ESPN theme. I arranged many themes.

TP: But all of that is in this interview we did. So if you want that stuff in the bio I have all of it to draw on. When we first were speaking, you said you wanted a thorough document, because you didn’t feel that you had an adequate bio.

BELDEN: Well, I’m sure you saw them.

TP: No. They didn’t send them to me.

BELDEN: They probably didn’t want to be embarrassed. Most of the bios are sort of for morons.

TP: Let’s talk about the piece. I won’t worry about the liner note. You’ve done a number of extended suites before. Before we talk about the personal circumstances that led to the work, let’s talk about the work formally in terms of the progression-of or the line of composition that you’ve done for large ensembles and suites.

BELDEN: The first thing I ever did as a suite was a piece called “World of the Past,” which is kind of science fiction jazz, which I wrote in 1981, and I had it performed in Denton, Texas, by the One O’Clock Band in 1987. It was essentially a piece of music about a dead world and about just intensity… It’s a very intense piece, non-stop. It was a three-movement piece that was continuous. When I was in school, we had a lot of encouragement to create pieces that went beyond just a chart, because we came out of a tradition of composition for large ensemble. It’s unlike anything you will find today, with the exception of maybe Miami University at one time. But Eastman School of Music and North Texas are probably the two places where composition for a large “jazz ensemble” is still taken seriously. Then in 1985 I started work ona piece that eventually became part of Treasure Island, which was originally for a quintet. The completed piece was commissioned by the Atlanta Arts Festival, and we performed it in 1987. Then I expanded it for a large ensemble, which I performed in April 1989 at Visiones, with my band at that time. And I had performed in February 1989 at Visiones for the first time with a band under my own name, and I so impressed Francois Zalacain that he gave me a record contract.

TP: You said that after the first set Francois came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set Matt Pierson came up and said, “We must record.”

BELDEN: Yes. And then for the second gig, Matt brought Lundvall down. I thought, “Wow, this is easy.” But I had never played a gig under my own name in New York City until I was 32 years old. That was the first gig I ever played as a bandleader. Because I had pretty much not been interested in the jazz world in the ’80s, since they were reinventing the past, and I did not want to put together a band to imitate Miles Davis or Art Blakey or anybody, which seemed to be the de rigueur of the moment. Which I still have strong feelings about that whole thing. I felt that jazz musicians at that time looked at serious composition as a form of frustrated abstract expressionism. They hid behind the intense nature of abstract jazz to feign seriousness, when in reality I felt that there was very little beauty. In Treasure Island I tried to create a bridge between the two, between the intense abstractness and beauty. It was also the first piece that expressed my feelings about the search for eternal love, and how jazz music comes out of a tradition of romantic music that was first proffered by Romantic composers from the 19th Century. And I can’t deny the fact that I am influenced profoundly by Western music, and will not lay claim to any part of African-American culture, and will not coopt that… I never wanted to lay claim to the cliche of African-American culture.

TP: A cliche?

BELDEN: Yes, it’s a cliche in the sense that people wrap their aesthetic around without really understanding what jazz really is. Nobody can define jazz except in the most analytical sense of the word or a historical sense of the word. I define it as a feeling. That it’s one of the few forms of music (using the word “form” in a loose sense) that allows you to go deep into your heart for no other reason than to say what you have to say. That you can express yourself deeply without having to think of any kind of commercialness. Because it’s the most unpopular music in the world.

TP: People are terrified of it.

BELDEN: They really are. It’s getting worse and worse, simply because people don’t care any more. They have to go to movies to cry. They can’t cry because they think about things. People only cry when they are surrounded by a tragedy. But I am surrounded by sadness all the time. I see it in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they act, the way they feel, the way they talk. “Love” is an abstract word that’s become commercialized. Miles Davis loved songs. It’s the same music, but it’s in a package. People say, “Oh, love; oh, Valentine’s Day; oh, makeout music.”

With Treasure Island I just decided, “Okay, what do I want to express about the idea of being in love.” And the idea of being in love has many implications. But to me there’s true love and eternal love. And to some people, love is a form of possession. So I wrote this piece…

TP: You addressed this in the earlier interview. But it sounds to me like the core of your ability to articulate your inner self as a writer of music really stems from your experiences at North Texas State.

BELDEN: No. I learned the tools from that. But I learned how to express myself from living in this place, in New York City, being alone for so many years…

TP: So North Texas State gave you the most thorough apprenticeship and training, and then you honed this living in New York in the ’80s through your various navigations of the sharkpit.

BELDEN: Well, I went on the road with Woody Herman, and that introduced me to the real life, the real world of jazz. It gave me experience going around the world and playing in every state in the United States and Europe and South America. I got to see things that… I looked for things. I felt things. And I realized that music was a viable way to make a living, even though the rest of our culture tends to dismiss it because for some reason they feel that their inadequacies as human beings prevent them from dedicating their life to something like this. So New York City brought everything good and bad in the world here, in front of your face every day, all the time. So having lived alone for a long time in New York City, my social circle was mostly musicians, and it was hard to develop any kind of meaningful relationship with a woman because my intensity scared them. So I said, “Hey, I’m better off just thinking about it rather than dealing with it.” So Treasure Island was a real just crying-out to say, “Hey, I have a soul; I’m a sensitive person; I have dreams about these things, but I can only express them in music.”

TP: So it’s 1989, and you do Treasure Island and you record for Francois, and then Bruce Lundvall hears you.

BELDEN: Well, actually, right after I recorded Treasure Island, which was in August, I was in the studio for Blue Note in December working on the Sting record. Which was just one of those moments of inspiration. I had met Sting at the David Sanborn show and invited him to sit in with my big band, and then said, “Well, geez, if I invited him, I might as well write some music.” And I just listened to some of his music and said, “You know, there’s something there,” and went to Matt Pierson and said, “This is what I want to do,” and six minutes later I had a record deal with Blue Note.

TP: I don’t think I ever heard it.

BELDEN: Like most records today they go out of print faster than… Their out of print life is greater than their on-the-shelf life.

Then I recorded in October 1990 in Paris at La Cigalle, and there was a piece on there called “Psalm #1.” In 1984 and 1985 I had a bunch of free time, because I was doing all this stuff for ESPN and I was bringing this work to the studio, and they gave me free time. So I used it as a lab to record music. I did a couple of records with Wallace Roney, and one of them was half of an album with this ensemble. It was an intense piece that was a Valentine’s gift for someone, which was totally misunderstood. I played it on a gig, because I wanted to at least have it on record.

But then I did the Sting record, which went from a straight-ahead record to a commercial record, because Matt Pierson sort of… I just wanted it out. I wanted to have a record out on Blue Note, because I’m a big Blue Note nut. It’s a dream come true.

Then I did Turandot, and that changed my life. Turandot was an extension of finding a way to express deeper emotional feelings in music, and the subject matter and the melodic nature of Turandot were exactly what I wanted to deal with. It was about love, as most tragic operas are, and it was about the quest for unrequited love and eternal love set against a society and a social backdrop that put obstacles in the way. For instance, if you’re a musician, a very creative musician who is sensitive, who is into romantic music, into music that carries a sense of like sadness in it, which is essentially the melancholia, it’s hard to relate that to a female, especially when you haven’t quite gotten to yourself as an artist, simply because society has a prejudice against artists because they never make any money — the starving artist kind of syndrome. In reality, what we are…some people are really the heart and the essence of the tenderness of the human heart. I did this record because it was…you know, nobody had ever done it before — covering an opera. And I did it in such a way that I was able to transform the musicians who were involved on the record into following the personalities of the characters in the opera. It started out with Tim Hagans playing a certain role, and it ended up with Jim Powell playing that same role but having been affected by falling in love. Because Jim Powell was a very sensitive, very romantic player, and Hagans was a very confident player. I had Wallace Roney play the part of this Princess, a cold, heartless Princess, and I told Wallace to play it that way, and he played it just perfectly — just a very detached kind of lonely, searching kind of thing. He was the only one who could do that. I had Lovano play and Migliore play, the two main Italian Tenor operas, because they’re Italian, and coming from their upbringing, they understood that.

TP: It sounds in a certain way like Black Dahlia is the next step from Turandot.

BELDEN: Well, what happened was that Turandot was suppressed by the publisher because of some prejudice that the Classical Music Establishment has against all forms of music that come from human suffering, as opposed to the aristocracy. It put me into a state of artistic depression that you would not believe. Because I felt I could not express myself any more than that record at that time. And I stopped writing music. I started doing arrangements, mostly arranging and producing for other people. What I would do was take well-known material and twist it, so it sounded like Turandot or Treasure Island, so you will hear in all of these records I did, the records on Prince’s music and Carole King and the Beatles record… I would twist these things, so that I was able to maintain my skills and my sound, and further develop my sound using other people’s music. Because that way I wouldn’t have to deal with… The fact that Treasure Island is still in print is only because everything on Sunnyside will stay in print because Francois Zalacain owns the company, and he loves music, and he’s not interested in sales, he’s interested in having stuff available.

TP: Talk formally about how your sound developed between Turandot and now, in terms of what you were looking to develop and hearing it evolve.

BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s, when I was doing commercial music, I was doing a lot of television and film. I would finish all this work and I would stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning almost every night writing music. I had a group with Smulyan and Powell and Hirschfield and Jay Anderson and Marc Copland, and we would rehearse every Wednesday. I would write for sextet, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with it because from a standpoint of harmony you can do things, but from a standpoint of orchestration, you couldn’t. When I bought the Yamaha DX-7, it allowed me to hear a certain kind of harmony that you couldn’t really hear on the piano, and I started developing a sound, a (?) of how chords should sound, and I started being attracted to certain kinds of chords, really dark minor chords, minor chords in like C-sharp-minor or E-flat-minor or A-flat-minor — dark, very dark, and they have a certain sound. I got away from writing in guitar keys, which are sharp keys, or string keys, which are sharp keys, because they are brighter. I really was gravitating towards darkness. I just felt it. There’s a Gil Evans arrangement of “The Barber’s Song” from The Individualism of Gil Evans which was profoundly affecting me, not only in the fact that it was dark, but the tempo was dark. It was just surrounded in this kind of darkness. Which is what New York was to me. Because I used to hang out at night all the time. I used to walk around at night. And you feel that even though there is sunshine, there is intensity here. There is a lot of evil here, a lot of evil in this city, and there is a difference between Good and Evil. I’ve been there.

So I developed a sound, the sounds of chords. I don’t write music that’s happy, like Kenny G or any smooth jazz per se. When I did Carole King, I turned her record into darkness. I found the sadness beneath the surface, and I exploited that. The record started kind of light and smooth, and it went further and further into abstract darkness, where you lead way over yonder. And at the same time I was developing a sound with three keyboards, because I couldn’t afford to go on the road with a big band, I couldn’t afford… I got frustrated. With Turandot that was like 26 musicians on one session, 64 total involved in the project. On Shades of Red, Shades of Blue, 104 musicians were involved in the project. I managed to arrange these Blue Note tunes and to twist them into the way I heard them. “Song For My Father” I totally twisted around to make it sound like my tune. And I got players who I thought could get the sound. In 1995 I did a piece for Deutsche Grammophone based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and I twisted that into my thing. You can hear stuff from Treasure Island and Turandot in that. They rejected that completely because it scared them. Because they see the word “jazz,” and they think, “Light, happy, bouncy, peppy dance music.” Then when you come out of… I was heavily influenced by Alban Berg, heavily influenced by music that accompanied noir pictures. Chinatown to me is one of the greatest movies for music. So I was just essentially writing arrangements, and… I just wanted to see if I could make a million dollars in five years. And I did. I mean, it all went to the Federal Government, for the most part, because we live in a state that’s a welfare state.

TP: So it’s ’97 or so.

BELDEN: In ’97, I read an article in the Village Voice which totally, totally freaked me out. Because I realized that something was wrong with me. I became the A&R director at Blue Note during that time, in the summer of ’97. On the one hand, it was a dream come true, and on the other hand it was terribly disappointing. Because I had learned how to produce records and I had learned how to conceptualize records, and I had learned how to take musicians and put them into environments where they sounded better than they did on their own records. Because I knew how to recognize strengths and weaknesses in players. I would study them. I would check them out. When I started working for Blue Note, musicians there who I was dealing with were essentially… It was a foretelling of the situation we have today in that musicians will not let their egos down enough to make a good record. Miles Davis trusted Gil Evans and he trusted the people at his record company to put him in an environment on the odd occasion that would take his music and sound into another world. That’s why those records, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead, will last forever, and will define a certain kind of ultimate expression in jazz. And there are only a few musicians who would ever trust me enough to do that, one of them being Tim Hagans, and another one being Gary Smulyan, who unfortunately was not on Blue Note at the time. But certain musicians, a guy like Joe Lovano, would let me work with them on certain things and just allow me to do my thing.

But I realized I was fighting a losing battle, because cats these days want to produce their own record because they want to say, “I’m a producer.” But most people produce records that are basically average. They are the same record that they’ve recorded a month ago, or two months ago, or two years ago. And Blue Note was in a period where they were signing certain guys who had no conception of how to make a record, nor did they want to know, because they were having peer pressure, they wanted the New York Times to love them, and they felt that they had to make records that sounded a certain way as opposed to finding out who they were.

TP: But just to hold off for a second, this stuff won’t be in the bio.

BELDEN: But it’s going to lead to it. So I got frustrated, and then I found out that I was not well. That was in October 1997. And it was such a shock that I said, “I can’t do this any more. I have to write my own music again. I can’t be a producer who is just there to tell musicians how good they sound. I’m not a babysitter.” So that’s when I started writing Black Dahlia. Because the subject material was something that I found just totally intriguing.

TP: Let’s address the subject material, then.

BELDEN: You’ll get the information, then you’ll come up with it, then you’ll figure it out. See, the web-site is irrelevant. There’s three levels to the Black Dahlia. One is the legend. Number two is the crime. And number three is the human being. You’ll find out all about the legend on the website, and there was a TV movie, and James Ellroy wrote a book. The crime is a real thing. The crime was a crime of murder. But the story is of a human being who is born innocent into an indifferent world, a world filled with sadness and desperation. This girl, Elizabeth Short, had dreams, and like most kids from her generation, had to escape the drudgery of the Depression. And society created this dream world called motion pictures, and she became totally involved in this fantasy world of falling in love and being famous and being rich and happy. She had one of these childhoods that was dreadful in that there was no hope, so she moved to different places, and eventually settled and resettled in Los Angeles in order for herself to find love and find happiness, to free her spirit. Because that’s essentially what she was. But the problem is, when you move to a place like Los Angeles, the exterior of it is very misleading. Palm trees, sunshine, beautiful people, Hollywood. But at the same time, it’s still the wild, wild West. It’s a place where people move to to escape, and they brought themselves with them. So Hollywood, on the one hand… If you read any of the books about Hollywood, like City of Nets by Otto Friedrich being one, Hollywood was a horrible town. Hollywood was a place that was essentially greedy, selfish, narcissistic people surrounded by defense workers and servicemen and Oakies. So on one hand you had the glamour of Hollywood and you were surrounded by trash, you were surrounded by essentially kind of a low-level experience — no sophistication.

Hollywood was all fake. And I think she found how fake it really was. But by then it was too late. For her, it was becoming a nightmare instead of a dream. If you think about people who get caught up in the dream world of New York, and it slowly becomes a nightmare. Woody Shaw. Miles Davis got caught up in it. You know, Miles Davis almost killed himself, out of loneliness and desperation, in 1979. People come here with dreams. They can be shattered. Others have their dreams fulfilled. I saw this. I read about her in this book called Severed by John Gilmore. It talked about her, and it talked about the crime, and it talked about the real environment around her. And I read City of Nets by Otto Friedrich. And I got a feeling for how a human being can get trapped in this world. Because I was trapped. I lived in a dream world here, because I was totally focused on music and being a musician and being an artist, somebody who expressed their innermost feelings in music. It took me into the hardest part of New York City, the darkest part of the city.

In ’97 I realized that I had to write this music. And little by little, as my health deteriorated, I got focused more and more on the music, and I would write little bits here and there, little bits and pieces, and I would rewrite it and rewrite it. This is what I had to do, was eliminate the idea that these would just be little pieces that had no connection. And I had to create a theme that would be running throughout the music, which is the theme of her life. And I had to create themes that would capture episodes, moments in her life. That’s how the piece is. Every theme is exploited, just like Wagner. The piece starts at the moment of death, and it’s a flashback. It’s her life. She’s reliving her life. “Genesis” is the point of birth — death and birth. And the melody that enters is this lonely trumpet sound, and it’s the sound of one soul being born against this solo piano, which is the backdrop, just the simplest essence of creation. Then it develops into a full-blown orchestrated theme, which is how people’s lives develop. Then there is this little section which transitions to the solo, which is essentially the love theme. The harmonic basis of “Danza D’Amour” is right there. Then it goes into “In Flight,” which is when she is desperate to leave. “Genesis” ends with this triumphant kind of screaming-out, like “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m a human being.” Then the last three phrases are, “But I must cry, I must sigh, and I must die.” Because those chords that end “Genesis” are the chords of Death that follow her throughout the piece.

On “In Flight” she’s leaving, trying to escape the world she was born into. In “Dawn,” she’s at dawn and she’s overlooking this misty kind of valley and she has no idea what lies ahead. Then “City of Angels” is the moment when the city is revealed, and this artificial world, beautiful, a kind of a gauze, a golden gauze that holds over the city, and she looks around and sees movie stars, mansions, people who are just everything she ever fantasized about. She was there. Hollywood. California. Yet at the end of the piece you hear the essence of evil striking out, this moment of like uncertainty. But then she blows it off and just starts, you know, “I believe that I will see; when I believe, I will see.” She just accepts this as her world. Then “Dream World” is the world where she becomes an adventurer in a dream world.

TP: That’s where you enter.

BELDEN: That’s where I play the saxophone.

TP: And Hagans is playing most of the trumpet up to there. You play the soprano saxophone solos?

BELDEN: There’s no soprano saxophone solos. That’s English horn. Charlie Pillow. “Dream World” is the world she’s in at that moment, the fantasy world of California. “Prelude to Love” is the moment she stops and thinks, “What is it I’m missing? What is it I really want? I want to be in love.”

In “Danza D’Amour,” Joe Lovano plays the character of the potential suitors, the different men in her life that she fell in love with but who never could love her. And it ends tragically. The theme starts out very nostalgic, very period in some way. And it dances in and out of little harmonic cells which constantly modulate and change, and gets more intense and more intense until it kind of dwindles out. Because when you fall in and out of love, the feeling just peters out, you know. And it goes back into the theme again. But it ends incredibly tragic, and that’s the end of what her life was as Elizabeth Short. She could never fall in love because she did not have the capacity to fall in love, like the Princess in Turandot or like the characters in Treasure Island.

TP: Didn’t she specifically have…

BELDEN: That was irrelevant. Because love has nothing to do with sex. She wanted to find somebody who loved her because of all of her situations. So then “Zanzibar” is when she sort of starts hanging out in the nightlife, becoming a night creature. And “Black Dahlia” is the moment she becomes this person who transforms herself into someone who will draw people to her. In other words, she knew she could not fall in love with a man; she had to have men fall in love with her.

TP: Or desire her.

BELDEN: Well, pretty much one and the same. And she can control it. She became the Black Dahlia. And there’s a phrase that’s basically one of the melody phrases, which is “When your day becomes your night” in the beginning, and then at the end it’s “when your night becomes your day.”

Then there’s this piece called “Edge of Forever.” It’s her last night at the Hacienda Club. The Hacienda Club was a dance hall, and I envisioned it being a proto Kenton-Dizzy Gillespie band, these wild, extreme trumpets. Each soloist becomes a different phase of…

TP: The trombone soloist is Conrad Herwig?

BELDEN: Yes, it’s Conrad. Migliore on alto and Lou Soloff. At the end, there’s the famous Gene Krupa-Harry James kind of maddening trumpet-drum thing, where we wanted to get to this frenzy. There’s kind of a cliche… Like, if you’ve ever watched the Twilight Zone episode with Richard Conte; it’s really like this wild, crazy… I described it to Tom Evered as “bongo madness.” Just an intense bongo kind of driven piece that evokes the Afro-Cuban kind of dark, evil, sinister thing that they used that music for in movies. And it was her last night on earth. Then there is the piece called “Freeway (101 North),” which is the Hollywood Freeway. She was using that, heading toward the mountains. The way that was written, it was improvised, but I told Kevin Hays to imitate traffic, visualizing driving half out of your mind, desperate to leave, to get somewhere. I don’t even know if she drove, but in a car, going somewhere, and seeing lights…you know, being distorted in the headlights, headlights being distorted in the windshield, and creating this kind of illusion and this intensity, cars zooming by, horns honking, and just like total paranoia.

Then “Elegy” is basically in four parts. On “City Lights” she’s on top of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the city of Los Angeles, wondering what has gone wrong with her life. It’s late at night, she overlooking the valley, and she’s wondering what has gone wrong with her life. Why is she in this position? Because in her real life, she had been involved with criminals, people like robbing houses, and she was a setup for robbing houses. She’d become a petty thief. She knew too much, and she probably was going to turn people in. She wanted to get out of that life and she wanted to have those people put away so she could be safe. So she’s up on the mountain, looking over the city, seeing all these little street-lights, and thinking, “For every light that I see in Los Angeles, that means their soul has died and gone to heaven to become a star in the night sky.” Then she prays, “God, if there is a heaven, then that’s where I want to be. I want my soul to live forever, for all eternity.”

Then as in most tragic operas, she starts walking to her destiny, to the moment… She knows she is going to die, and she accepts that. And she is going to walk to the place where she is going to meet the person who is going to kill her. And she starts thinking about how sad her life has been, and trying to glimpse into her mind the moments of happiness. When you hear the strings score up, she starts crying, crying like, “Why? Why? God Almighty, why do I deserve this? What have I done?” Then when the trumpets come in screaming her theme, she is back to the moment, like, “I started out innocent, and now my life is just intertwined with Evil and bad people.” Then those last moments, it’s like the emotion overwhelms her, to where she’s face-to-face with Jack the Ripper, the personification of Jack the Ripper, who begins cutting her up. Then there’s this big tympany roll, and then she screams — the last sound she ever utters. A scream. But it wasn’t a scream that anybody heard but her, in her mind.

Then you hear this like little low note, and then you hear a string note, and it’s like the very beginning. The trumpet comes in. And she looks down upon the crime scene, this vacant lot, and sees her body, and sees a little kid come up and see it and go and run. Then she sees the kid’s mother. Then the police come. It’s like dissolving from one to the other, happening, like floating… The time is like speeding up. It’s no longer like slow in real time. It’s like getting faster. She’s in Purgatory. She doesn’t know whether she’s going to ascend to heaven or if her soul will spend eternity in Purgatory. She is suddenly bathed in a light, and she looks up and sees this light just enveloping her soul, and she hears a voice and it says, “Please come to me, my little child.” That’s the voice of God inviting her to Heaven. So you can hear it go into tempo, and it just starts getting more intense, and the strings start playing a little higher and higher and higher. She’s ascending into Heaven, going higher and higher, until she breaks above the boundaries of the earth into this beautiful…like what people dream Heaven is. It’s a clear blue sky, the most beautiful blue. It’s Heaven. And the clouds is the cushion beneath you. She knows she’s made it, she’s done it. Her one dream, to live forever, will be achieved. Then the light intensifies and intensifies, and it becomes so bright to where it disappears into total blackness. Then suddenly a star appears in Heaven, and then a light appears in the City of Los Angeles, and then the Sun comes up over the mountains. Then you hear those three chords saying, “The Black Dahlia will live forever.” And that’s the story.

TP: You mentioned a few times Gil Evans. He seems a primary inspiration for the way you think about music. Not so directly tied into the sounds on this. But for instance, you said no one had done an opera, but he reimagined a different type of opera. Other things as well. Maybe this is a totally fallacious line of questioning, but I want to talk to you about tangible landmarks in your intellectual journey.

BELDEN: Well, simply: Alban Berg, Lulu. Puccini, Turandot. Wagner, Tristan and Isolde. And Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown. This record has nothing to do with Gil Evans. I talked to Gil. Gil and Miles were thinking of doing Tosca, and I asked him once, “How come you didn’t do it?” He said, “There wasn’t enough there.” But see, Gil could never conceptualize a unified work on his own, because he never thought like that. Basically, Gil could deal with one voice effectively, which was Miles. He could wrap Miles around in something. But he could not really deal with the idea of putting together…to create a work that told a story.

TP: That said, you spoke of what happened to you psychically after Treasure Island and Turandot, which was more a reimagination of the opera than a rearrangement, so we can call them creative works… Do you see this as in line with a late 20th century opera? How would you describe…

BELDEN: How about an early 21st Century opera? Well, it has the elements of opera and it has the elements of tone poems, which is like Richard Strauss — “Das Sprach Zarathustra,” “Der Eulenspiegel.” It’s a tone poem. It’s a work that tells a story, that’s based on themes. It comes from that tradition.

TP: But it deals with improvisers as the voices.

BELDEN: It deals with people who can improvise emotion, who can improvise feeling. Because there’s not a lot of improvisation in there. Because it’s about telling a story. It’s about telling a melody. It’s saying that melodies can become human characters.

TP: Lovano has a phrase, “tonal personality.”

BELDEN: Yeah. But I don’t even know if I’d call it that. Because I create the personality that the musicians will… I have to put that musician into a point where they can instinctively play that. Before we played the first piece, “Genesis,” I turned to Tim Hagans and said, “Do you remember how I felt last year?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Play like that.” He knew what I meant. And he played like that. He played like somebody who thought they were going to die. You never heard Hagans play like that. I got Lawrence Feldman to play that alto solo on “Black Dahlia” because I knew he would play exactly what I had written. We talked about that. I had him come over to my apartment in August 1999 and go over that with me, and I told him, “This is what I want you to do. I am writing this for you because I know you know what I want.” His solo was written out.

TP: What voice are you when you’re playing saxophone?

BELDEN: I’m just one of the characters… In “Dream World,” I am basically her as an existing human being in a situation. And when I am playing the last piece, I am like her watching herself die, which is when I watched myself slowly die. Because this shit is not your normal record, man. This has things in it that are so deep to me, and stuff that I really can’t talk about, because people won’t understand. They have to know that this purely emotion. This has nothing to do with the jazz tradition as people think of it. It has to do with the tradition of Germanic music. It goes beyond just a jazz record. Like, Keith Jarrett’s solo piano record. You can hear how bad he felt when he was trying to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, trying to get over an illness that was sapping his life out from under him. When you are at a point in your life when you can’t do anything, you have no strength to do anything, and your mind is like completely left to just ponder your fate, it’s terrible.

* * *

Bob Belden Blindfold Test (11-15-02):

1. Oliver Nelson, “Blues O’Mighty” (from MORE BLUES & THE ABSTRACT TRUTH, Impulse!, 1964/1997) (Oliver Nelson, arr.; Thad Jones, cornet; Phil Woods, as; Pepper Adams, bs; Roger Kellaway, p) – (4 stars)

The pianist sounded like it came from a deep source, like he has everything in it. And the bass player, the only guy who can play like that is Richard Davis, so it has to be Roland Hanna. It sounds like a Thad Jones tune. The baritone is a very, very different kind of Pepper — if it were Pepper. Outside of that, a funny reverb on everything. That’s as close as I can come. In terms of rating, it sounds like a basic record date, a blues, but if it’s those guys, they’re always quality musicians, so I would say four stars. If it were somebody else, I would say 2 stars for imitating.

2. Daniel Schnyder, “With the Devil On The Backseat” (from TARANTULA, Enja, 1996) (Schnyder, comp., ts; Hubert Laws, fl.) (3 stars)

I guess the drummer was out getting high or something. That’s a very intriguing way of dealing with that kind of cluster voicing that Brookmeyer and Gil Evans use so well. The flute player was great. There’s very few flute players who can have that tone. It could be Lew Tabackin. So it could be Toshiko’s band. Tabackin has that kind of tone. It’s a big tone and it’s uniform throughout the register. Jazz flute is kind of a dying art form. The saxophone player I couldn’t really tell, because the changes were kind of tricky for him, and it didn’t sound like it was something written specifically for that person’s phrasing technology, so to speak. But the arrangement is interesting, and it has certain intellectual qualities which are apparent. But it’s just all right. It’s okay. You know? If it’s Toshiko’s band, it has to be Frank Wess. But if it’s not, it could be Kenny Wheeler; he writes like that a little bit. Kenny Werner writes like that. I don’t know if Maria… She can, she has the potential to write like that. All these people kind of write in the same similar thing, where the music is more based on how much ensemble they can manipulate in between solos. My philosophy has always been the drama created from the hero, the antagonism between the hero and the society, as opposed to everybody being a communal player. And that music was framed around little solo vignettes for the soloists, but there was no emotional focus or where they were going to end up. It just sort of was a piece, something like you would write in college. For the concept, four stars. For the emotional thing that hit me, 2 stars. So three stars.

[AFTER] I wouldn’t have thought Hubert Laws, because he’s been kind of off the scene. But he has that big tone like Lew, a classical tone. I know who Daniel Schnyder is, but I don’t really follow his music that much. I get stuff in the mail from him. I know he wrote for Lee Konitz a couple of years ago. But I’m into just intense maniac stuff. I’m not into this kind of thing.

3. Cindy Blackman, “Green” (from CODE RED, Muse, 1990) (Cindy Blackman, d, comp; Wallace Roney, tp; Steve Coleman, as; Kenny Barron, p; Lonnie Plaxico, b) – (5 stars)

Okay, I think I know who that is. Cindy Blackman had to be the drummer, and probably Mulgrew Miller on piano, which means the bass player could have been… It’s a Muse date. I can tell by the fact that the recording quality has a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But the trumpet player can be nobody else but my man Wallace Roney, and anything Wallace plays is 5 stars. The Muse dates were kind of like the Prestige dates. You could tell that if they had just focused on this tune and another two tunes for a session, they could have gotten what Wallace really wanted. But it’s Wallace, and it’s killin’. I can tell by the articulation. [Any guesses on the saxophone player?] I know who it is, but I can’t remember. There’s this whole line of alto players who come out of Spaulding in a way, this angular kind of Spaulding thing. There’s Kenny Garrett… This might have been an early Kenny Garrett, because they were a tandem for a moment there. But I could be wrong again. [Whose date was it?] Well, I’m not sure. These days there’s no… It’s kind of not really a Wallace Roney kind of tune. It’s a Cindy Blackman date probably. It’s the drummer’s date, because the tune was written around the drummer. I could be wrong again. But there would be more space if it were a Wallace Roney date. Five stars for Wallace. The record, because of the way jazz records are made, I’d say is not 100% of what they could have done with the people they had. But under the circumstances, that’s all they could get out of it. But I’ll give Wallace five stars for anything he plays. Cindy Blackman deserves a four star record, but she could have done a five-star record if it was her record… So four stars.

[AFTER] I remember Steve Coleman mostly as an alto player on Thad Jones & Mel Lewis’ band, and next thing you know, he’s got this system of music out in Brooklyn. I was going to say Osby, but it was too bebop for Osby. Greg has refined that whole concept, I think; has distilled the art of deception to an incredible length. But I guess he is severely influenced by Coleman.

4. John Patitucci, “Isabella” (from COMMUNION, Concord, 2001) (Patitucci, 6-string-electric bass, comp; Chris Potter, ss; Ed Simon, p.) – (2-1/2 stars)

Is that Michael Brecker on soprano saxophone? Oh, man! I said Brecker first, but it sounds Liebmanish. Dave Liebman has a conception on the soprano saxophone. It’s hard to say. I only liked the last 30 seconds. The melody is quasi-Weather Report, quasi-quasi, but the last one, they just stayed on that groove, the low pedal, and just stayed there, kept what sounded to be like a berimbau or something of that nature in there. That was cool at the very end. Had that been a Miles Davis date, Teo would have just looped the last end for about 20 minutes. On a record date like that, the vamps are when all the shit happens, because people are over all the agony of having to play the tune, and by the finish of the tune, they’ve already had an orgasm, and now it’s kind of like they’re relaxing and mellowing out, like lighting up the cigarette, and the music is just going into another world. I think that when people play, they should just let the thing run out, even if it’s a 20-minute ending. Because you can always edit it. But you get amazing things from the finish of tunes. And that tune had a great finish. I have no earthly idea who it is. The recording quality is pretty miserable, too. Everything is dark and muddy. So it could be the bass player’s record. The only guy who’s like approaching that stuff is…like, Richard Bona has a worldly approach. But it’s hard to say. The cliche of Fusion, as Zawinul once said to me, is that everything has got arrangements. That tune there was so many different tunes within the tune. Just the vamp could have been tune. Just the melody. You could have just played around with that melody, like “Nefertiti,” and not ever played a solo, and just let the melody breathe. Sometimes you don’t have to develop things. Sometimes you don’t have to make an issue out of things. But then, it’s their record, not mine. 2-1/2 stars for the last 30 or 40 seconds of the piece. The soprano player was nice, but again, there’s all these things in there. It’s all Coltrane-based. Very Coltrane-based. I mean, anybody who plays the saxophone can do that without thinking about it. And I think he should send at least $1.40 to Coltrane’s family.

[AFTER] Chris Potter, my man! But yeah, the bag is you get into those Middle Eastern kind of grooves, and the tendency is go on to Coltrane, and the thing is that you’ve got a slash mark that says whatever the tonal center… Say it’s A-concert, and that’s an open string for the bass, so he’s able to jump off and do all kinds of interesting stuff. But for a horn player, you’ve got this one note, and you’ve got to have everybody on the same wavelength, and then you can play melodies to it instead of playing the Slonimsky kind of stuff. But it’s just basically the kind of thing where he wrote a tune… They all write tunes, and they’re tunes, and it’s not really about the actual music that happens on the tune. Just the arrangement happens. Patitucci is a guy who comes from that area. All his influences are evident in that kind of thing. But record companies put pressures on guys to write tunes as opposed to letting the music just happen. Personally, I’d have just let them go for a half-an-hour on that little vamp, and got the Sonic Solutions out. But again, those guys are all 100% musicians. It’s just they’re making records, as opposed to making momentary snapshots of the way they feel about life that day. It’s a very abstract way of making music. But to me, it’s the only way of making music that is a true testament to how you feel about life. Otherwise, you’re just making a date with a bunch of all-stars.

5. Brecker Brothers, “Slang” (from OUT OF THE LOOP, GRP, 1994) (Michael Brecker, ts, comp.; Randy Brecker, tp.; George Whitty, keyboards, arr.; Dean Brown, g; James Genus, b; Steve Jordan, d; Steve Thornton, perc.) – (3-1/2 stars)
Right there’s another one, man. They get into it on the fade. The back end of the tune is killing. They get into a groove. It’s like it’s all focused on that. What I heard is two different record covers. It’s almost like a hip Saturday Night Live band. The first part is all Brecker Brothers, the voicings, the Hindemith descending fourths, very early Miles-’80s, the muted trumpet, bebop licks… It’s just a lot of stuff in there. And at the very end, it gets into this kind of groove, and kind of very Pop, and then they fade out. It’s a tune that’s five tunes in one. You’re on an emotional roller-coaster ride there. Like, where are you going? It’s again about two stars! Because that’s all I ever want to hear it. I don’t want to ever hear it again. I don’t need to hear it again. It will stick in my mind forever because it was getting nice towards the end, and I’ll probably steal a few voicings. But outside of that, wow. Who was it?

[AFTER] Man, the Brecker Brothers! Yeah. I was thinking that if it was somebody STEALING the Brecker Brothers, then it should be 2 stars. But that’s George Whitty. See, I was going to say George Whitty. But they’re the only guys that are doing that stuff. It’s totally Brecker Brothers language. Now that it’s a Brecker Brothers record, it’s 5 stars. No, you have to understand. If it’s an imitator, then it’s definitely 2 stars, because there’s groups out there that imitate very well. I’m thinking, my God, a band has come out, and they’re copying the Brecker Brothers note for note. Because that’s George Whitty and that’s Robbie Kilgore doing the programming. I know the record, but since the car accident, my memory has just gone. But I knew that was the Breckers, because Randy is the only guy who does that. And I knew it was Michael. But then again, there are so many people who imitate Michael Brecker note for note, to the point where it’s scary. And I dare venture a guess, and I’d rather make a hip remark about somebody imitating them than to give them… Because this kind of music is so easy to imitate, because it’s note for note transcription. It’s an arrangement. It’s something that starts and finishes with endings and beginnings. And the kind of music that’s more difficult to imitate is the music that…to imitate or capture the feeling that went into making the music in the original. That was Dennis Chambers on drums, right? I saw that band live. Barry Finnerty was on guitar. It wasn’t Dennis Chambers. Oh, Steve Jordan. But Dennis Chambers did the live shows. But yeah, that had to be… I knew that was Randy Brecker. Nobody does what he does. But again, I don’t think it’s the best example of their band. The best stuff they ever did was in the ’70s on Arista. That was ridiculous. And nobody has imitated that. Well, actually they have. I take that back. I heard a group at the Blue Note one night, but it was fake Brecker Brothers from the ’70s. But it’s hard. Michael is the kind of guy… I feel bad for Michael, because he’s the first guy that synthesized Stanley Turrentine and Coltrane, and he made the connection because Turrentine dug Coltrane, and they all came out of Gene Ammons, and they all came out of the big tenor tone — Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. Michael Brecker just took that and made it his own thing, and then everybody…even Chris Potter can sound like that if he wants. So I have a difficult time even distinguishing him sometimes. Which is why when you played the thing with Patitucci, I thought that was Brecker on soprano. I thought somebody was giving him a break, and having him play soprano. Because there were so many lines there, patterns that saxophone players play, and articulation. It’s very gender-specific. It’s like a code. I can tell somebody who’s… I know the record collection. I know the record they got it from. On the one hand, it’s great. But when you put it out on your record as being your thing, then it’s kind of disingenuous, because the guys who made the music in the original to begin with suffered enough.

For Randy Brecker, five stars. For Michael Brecker, 5 stars. For the track, 2 stars. There is a distinction. They are 100% artists making a 50% album. I’ll make it easy. 3-1/2 stars, with 5 for the Breckers, for Randy, and for the conception, 2 for the tune, and average it out for the fact that everybody steals from them and they don’t pay them any money.

6. Benny Carter, “Blue Star” (from FURTHER DEFINITIONS, 1961/1997) (Carter, as, comp, arr.; Coleman Hawkins, ts) – (5 stars)

I’m going to make a stab. Marshall Royal. No? I mean, that’s a really tight saxophone section. It could be Bobby Plater. It’s very bizarre. Like, the old-school vibrato, reverby room… Wow, that is so out there. Because there’s a record with the Count Basie sax section and Coleman Hawkins, and Marshall has that kind of sound. But I’m trying to think… [Do you know the tune?] [SINGS REFRAIN] Yeah. The bebop tune that’s based on “How High The Moon.” Yeah. I have no earthly idea. It’s from the ancient days. [You think you recognized Coleman Hawkins, though.] No, there’s a record called “Coleman Hawkins and The Big Sax Section.” It’s with the Basie Sax Section and Coleman Hawkins… [A Savoy record.] A Savoy record, yeah. But no, there’s only a handful of these kind of sax ensemble records that exist in this old-school stuff. Earl Bostic… Benny Carter. Yeah. I’m not familiar with the recording, but I’m thinking who plays like that? There’s only a handful of guys who can play like that, and it’s an elegant kind of thing. I knew it wasn’t Woody Herman. He’s the other guy who plays that style. It’s a touch of Johnny Hodges, but what Johnny Hodges brings to it is a skilled… It’s very elegant. Everything was very precise. The vibrato was very precise. It was a lot wider than Hodges. Why I say Marshall Royal is because Marshall is from L.A. and was profoundly influenced by Benny Carter, and Marshall plays exactly like Benny Carter when he solos. So I don’t think I was too far astray. But yeah, Benny Carter, and I can’t venture to say who was in the section. But if the readers could hear it, the tenor players, when they played their ensembles, they played it perfectly in the same…no vibrato. I knew it wasn’t any of the Ellington guys, because the pitch would have been all over the place and the vibrato would have been all over the place, so you’d have had that fuzz. This was done by meticulously trained musicians…who were probably sober at the date. [But you think the tenor player was Coleman Hawkins.] I couldn’t tell. [Well, it was.] Okay. [Do you want to know who the other saxophone players were, just for professional curiosity? The other tenor player was Charlie Rouse and the other alto player were Phil Woods.] See, I told you, man. They played like not on the road, playing the same music every night. You could tell when the tenor counterline came in, they were playing the same vibrato and the same phrase. Benny Carter, 5 stars. The arrangement, 5 stars. It’s a very specific kind of writing. There are six saxophones… [Four.] So there’s not a trumpet in there. I guess I’m hearing the reverb… Oh, the guitar. So the guitar is playing some of the notes, too. But it sounds a lot bigger than it is, and that’s a testament to his writing. It’s also a testament to the reverb.

7. Jack de Johnette, “Where Or Wayne” (from EARTH WALK, Blue Note, 1991) (de Johnette, drums, comp; Gary Thomas, ts; Greg Osby, as; Michael Cain, keyboards; Lonnie Plaxico, b)

A black hole. That’s the only rating I can give this. Do you know what I mean by that? There are no stars in a black hole. It sucks out all the light. The only guy I can think of would be Gary Thomas on tenor saxophone, or Billy Harper, because of that certain kind of sound. But I just didn’t like it at all. I guess this is what happens when you go to Berklee. Again, for the composer, for the people who are making the music at that moment, to have an arrangement and to have the structure and to have polychords in little spots for the soloists to work out all the things they work out… It lacks any sense of spontaneity, and it’s derivative of almost every inner city fusion record of the ’70s and early ’80s. I have no idea who it is. I probably know them, and they’ll probably smack me in the face. But it’s very Downtown. Very Downtown New York. Again, something like this, it’s hard to say. They’re going for something. It’s jazz guys trying to play fusion music. It’s like a burgeoning thing. And forgetting that fusion music in itself was a natural evolution of a certain kind of playing of hard-bop. So where do you take it? What is Fusion of today? The fusion of today is far more electronica than groove-oriented, than beat-oriented, than backbeat-oriented, than repetitive chord sequences. [When did it sound like it was made?] Definitely in the ’80s and ’90s because of the string synths. It’s hard to say.

8. Bill Holman, “I Didn’t Ask” (#5) (from A VIEW FROM THE SIDE, JVC, 1995) (Holman, comp.; Ron Stout, tp.; Pete Christlieb, ts) – (5 stars)

Is this the Vanguard Orchestra? Holy shit. That’s a sound. The only guy sick enough to write this is Bob Brookmeyer. It’s not Brookmeyer? He’s the only other guy I know who’d be sick enough to write something like this. [Besides who?] Thad Jones. Jim McNeely… [You’re thinking of the wrong clique.] But see, it’s the same sound. It all comes from Brookmeyer’s tune, “ABC Blues,” and Thad Jones, from his first record. That’s a Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band tune. It’s a Basie and Gerry Mulligan. [You’re in the wrong clique.] In the wrong clique. It’s bizarre. It’s a good… I don’t know this specific album. But that’s definitely not a… [It’s lineally connected to all the people you’re talking about.] So it’s very current, right? [It’s a recent recording.] That’s what I’m saying. It has to be a radio band in Europe or something. They’re the only other ones who can rehearse that well. No? Who is it? I’m dumbfounded. I’m not up on what goes on… Well, the composition style is basically an imitation of the first Thad Jones-Mel Lewis record, of “ABC Blues,” which came out of the Concert Jazz Band, which was like a combination of Gary MacFarland and Gerry Mulligan, and they had this kind of conception. But Thad Jones had that kind of Basie pop thing, so there’s these interrelated rhythms going on in between. so it’s a guy who’s amalgamated those particular kinds of sounds. Or it might be a woman. It might be Maria, and Julie Cavadini did a record — she’s pretty much into the Brookmeyer kind of thing. But it’s hard to say, because it’s such an identifiable… [It’s a cousin of Brookmeyer.] Manny Albam? No? [Or maybe an uncle.] An uncle. Not Gil. No, of course not. Who is it? [You’re not only in the wrong clique; you’re on the wrong coast.] A West Coast guy, a cousin of Bob Brookmeyer. Bill Holman! That makes total sense, but I would not have guessed it, because I know the source. The source comes out of Gerry Mulligan. I’m one of these guys who goes back to the source of it. Gerry Mulligan comes out of Lester Young, and that goes back to Count Basie, and you know where that comes from. And it’s the blues. But all of these things you’re playing me, not one person has played anything that remotely resembles anything to do with the Blues in any of their playing or any of their tunes. There’s nothing that has that essence of it. Just the Brecker Brothers tune had a moment of it, I think. And the deJohnette tune had just a moment of it… The Oliver Nelson tune was a straight blues. But everything else, the fusion stuff, is all devoid of that feeling. So it becomes like a guessing game. With Oliver Nelson, I could pretty much tell who the main stars were, but it wasn’t their best playing. For Bill Holman and the fact that it’s an L.A. band, the miracle of that coming out of L.A. is five stars alone. Bill Holman is a genius, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve compared him to Bob Brookmeyer and the Gerry Mulligan Jazz Band at all, because that’s the sound he’s fighting for. He wrote a chart for Mel’s band called “Just Friends,” which is the art of taking Tristano’s idea and bringing it to a big band. He’s truly a brilliant musician who, unfortunately to us, lives on the West Coast and doesn’t hang out here where it’s cold and damp. Five stars. It was a great performance. It was very cool in terms of big band writing… The soloists I didn’t particularly find fascinating, because what could you possibly play after that writing? With Miles and Gil, Miles played written out solos on a lot of the stuff, especially the “Miles Ahead,” because what could you possibly think of, improvise off the top of your head that will follow what you’ve just heard from the mind of somebody like Bill Holman?

9. Jeremy Pelt, “Madness” (from INSIGHT, Criss-Cross, 2002) (Pelt, tp.; Jimmy Greene, ts; Myron Walden, as) – (4 stars)

To play that tune that way, which was “Madness,” a Herbie Hancock tune, it’s like playing Vivaldi with electric violins. See, I have the alternate take of that. There’s an alternate version of the way they approach the melody, and Miles just says, “Well, let’s just play a feel.” They also recorded that in the summertime. They played differently. Miles played differently in the summertime than he did in the wintertime. If you listen to all those Miles records from the summer, which is “Nefertiti” and “Sorcerer” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way”… If you listen to “Bitches Brew,” “Nefertiti,” “Sorcerer,” “Filles De Kilmanjaro,” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way” and the stuff from the early “Jack Johnson” sessions, you hear the difference in the way guys play summer and winter. And the feeling on that tune, “Madness,” is about getting to a point or a place. And these guys… It’s Jeremy Pelt, right? He’s one of the few young guys out there looking at this kind of music like Wynton did in the early ’80s. But it’s not doing the tunes, because the tunes were just captured in the studio by Miles at that day, and if they ever played them again, they probably appeared in quotations of other tunes, as they did on the Plugged Nickel, where you hear Wayne go into a tune from “The All Seeing Eye” or you hear on some of these live tapes where they go into “Prince of Darkness” and actually play “Dolores” on the gig. So musicians tend to go by the recording, and extant bootlegs of certain things, and they base that on how they approach this kind of music as opposed to using a particular kind of method to it. Of the younger cats out there in the city, he’s one of the most serious guys about playing the instrument and being involved in the music, and I’m on his case all the time about just this thing, about dealing with this kind of music in a way where you just do it privately, and publicly, you try to create an image of yourself as a musician who is on top of everything that’s going on in the world around you. Because to play that kind of music, you’ve got to recreate the environment. That tune sounds great in a big studio like the 30th Street Studio in Columbia, where the ride cymbal can ring out into the room, and you’ve got a great classical engineer like Fred Plath, who made the most of it. But I think this was a Fresh Sound recording, or a Criss Cross recording… Criss Cross. So it’s from Systems II, and the drums bleed into everybody. Was that Ralph Peterson? This record was a long time coming for Jeremy. I met him a few years ago, hanging out at this club, Assault(?), where all the up-and-coming young hard boppers would play. I see him all the time, and we talk all the time. Was the tenor player Mark Turner? Oh, Jimmy Greene. My man. All these guys are having to deal with things that they didn’t think they’d have to deal with, which is what to do with their sound and where to put it and place it in the modern world, not in the world of the mythology of jazz. In the world I live in, we recreate the… On Legacy or Blue Note, when we do these reissues, we can set a tone for a style of music, and it can come back to haunt you, where people are imitating the records you put out as reissues. If guys lose themselves so much into somebody else’s identity, they will eventually lose themselves in the identity of the world, because it’s getting bigger and bigger for us as musicians. And by being bigger and bigger, it’s harder and harder to show yourself as distinguishable from somebody else. The amount of pressure on guys like Jeremy and Jimmy Greene is something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Four stars for Jeremy Pelt. He could do better, and he knows it, and he… The conditions for making Criss-Cross records are like the old days, where you have to go in, and a lot of times the guys don’t go in with working bands, they go in with all-star bands, or guys go in with rhythm sections that are dovetailing from another session. These guys played the music, but they didn’t work on the music for this record intensely. Horace Silver said that he would work on his music for months with his band, and he would invite Alfred Lion down to hear the music, and Alfred would say, “Yeah, that’s great, all this is great, this one maybe not,” and then he’d go into the studio, and boom. And you’d get the feeling like they’d have it down. What Jeremy wants to get is a group telepathy thing going, and it’s hard to get it going on a record date where you’re going in to make a whole record in one session. The guy that he is aspiring to be…the feeling of this track… That was done with one or two other tunes in a three-hour session in the middle of June or July in 1967. They weren’t thinking of making a record. They were just in recording, of how they felt that day, and they were working at the Village Gate that night. So the conditions of making recordings today are so inverse of the way they used to be, and yet, they’re expected to have the same visceral effects as the recordings of yesteryear.

10. Bob Brookmeyer, “Seesaw” (from WALTZING WITH ZOE, Challenge, 2001) (Brookmeyer, comp.; John Hollenbeck, d.) – (4-1/2 stars)

Man, that’s an amazing arrangement, because the arranger made 8 minutes seem like 20. I daresay who could possibly be. But whoever it is doesn’t play solos for a living. They like to write. It’s a lot of ensemble writing, and it was hard for me to discern a melody that anything could be based on. Like most of the things you played for me, the ones where people are trying to become complex, they don’t establish any kind of groundwork, anything that says “this is the thing that I want this moment, that we’re forcing you to listen to, to be.” Especially with ensemble writing, the tendency is to get carried away, and to just write-write-write, and instead of going, “Well, man, let the tenor player open up, let the trumpet player open up, let things open up and be free…” Some bands are like that, mostly the European bands. But I couldn’t venture to guess. Maria could potentially write something that complex, but… For the arrangement, I would say like a 4.5-4.75 arrangement. That’s a serious arrangement! But it was just an arrangement. It was a tour de force, so to speak, for the arranger. So I’d say 4 stars. It was really good. You can’t say there’s anything bad about it. It’s a matter of an aesthetic opinion, a difference. But still it’s a stellar, an amazing performance.

[AFTER] Brookmeyer is the only one who could play like that. Bob is in that phase where he’s not like into just opening up and blowing all the time. I mean, he is into having the form structured and stuff like that. The beauty of that music is it’s composition. It’s not really about soloing. And I’m lazy. I’m a Southerner. And I just like to write slash marks out for cats to play, and I like to write whole note melodies. Bob is much more developed in terms of composition. In his modern day writing there’s no… This tune wasn’t a long-form melodic thing. It was gestural writing. He had phrases, he had a recapitulation. But I thought it was a little too happy to be Bob Brookmeyer. But he told me he was thinking of moving to Canada, so maybe this was his “I’m moving to Canada” piece. But 4-1/2 stars. Bob Brookmeyer is one of the best in the world. But again, my concept of having fun with a big band is road trips, hanging out with them, and letting them all play long, boring solos. But he likes to write music. I went to a college where that’s what we did all the time, so I left school to be a Bohemian. And he was a Bohemian, and now he’s really a composer. But he’s the only guy who could play the trombone solo like that.

11. Marcus Miller, “Visions” (from TALES, Dreyfus, 1995) Miller, bass clarinet, bass guitar; keyboards, rhythm programming, sound programming; Michael “Patches” Stewart, tp.; Kenny Garrett, as; Poogie Bell, d.) (5 stars)

Kenny Garrett. Of course. Five stars for Kenny Garrett. The tune was really nice. I vaguely recognize it. It’s a pop tune. [Is it a new standard?] I don’t know. But it’s Kenny Garrett, and that’s all that matters. Because he has a SOUND. When you hear it, you know it’s him. That’s the beauty of Kenny Garrett. It doesn’t matter what he plays. He has yet to make his ultimate record, I think. [Was it Kenny’s record?] Uh…no. No. Could that have been a Don Byron record or something? There was a bass clarinet player. Was that Marcus Miller? Yeah, Marcus Miller. [END OF SIDE] …”In A Silent Way” sequence. But Kenny Garrett and Marcus, they’re coming out of the way “Tutu” derived from the “In A Silent Way” thing. You can tell, because there’s more blues in that. There’s more of that darkness in the Marcus way of doing it. Because they think that way all the time. And that’s why I can hear that thing, just sort of that floating down and letting it slip out every now and then. Where some cats, they don’t let it slip at all. Jazz comes from basically the deepest feeling of all, the feeling of sadness. And you can hear it from Kenny’s playing, you can hear it in the way he plays every note. He’s one of my favorite musicians, just to hear him play. “Tutu” to me wasn’t a jazz album; it was an ambient album with Miles Davis involved. It was a textural, ambient record. That’s what I have to say.

12. George Garzone-Joe Lovano, “The Mingus I Knew” (from FOUR’S AND TWO’S) (Garzone & Lovano, ts; Joey Calderazzo, p; John Lockwood, b; Bill Stewart, d) (3 stars)

First I said Joe Lovano, because the first phrases the tenor player played were like pure Lovano. Then I realized Mark Turner, and I thought this has got to be a Criss-Cross date. So it’s got to be like Orrin Evans? [You’re getting cold.] But it is a Criss-Cross date. It’s not a Criss Cross date. It sounds like a Criss-Cross date. But it’s just sort of a jazz date. The tenor players were both young modernists… Well, one guy seemed to have a little older phrasing in him, but it just didn’t…it was just sort of there. It was just a tune. 3 stars for Jason Koransky. Now, on the composition end of it, it had the schizophrenia of a Mingus composition, the bipolar nature of a tune, and the spirit of it was that kind of thing. It’s like when guys do faux Ornette tunes; like, they all copy “Lonely Woman.” When people copy a Miles tune, they do something that sounds like “Madness” or they write their own “Nefertiti.” Everybody’s an homage. I guess that’s the whole thing. Because it’s very difficult to come up with something unique or to be brave enough to let people hear it. [So at first you thought it was Lovano…] Well, the phrasing… Modern saxophone players, in my opinion, who are being recorded on a regular basis… This does not include college players or part-time players. But the guys who are disseminated in the recording world, the younger guys have an influence… Like, Chris Potter is seriously influenced by Joe Lovano, as is Mark Turner, as is Joshua Redman. Joe gets it from Dewey Redman, and Dewey gets it from basically living in Texas. But there’s this kind of flow, and it’s a phraseology kind of thing. If you keep up with guys… There are guys like Seamus Blake and Mark Turner who will probably acknowledge their many influences, and Joe being one of them, not only for the fact of the way he plays, but that he’s accessible as an artist and they’re able to deal with him as a real-time jazz musician. He’s been on the scene. So I would say that the presence of Joe Lovano is within the saxophone players. [It was Joe Lovano and George Garzone.] Wow. I got it. The first one I knew had to be Lovano. The second one was the one I wasn’t sure of. Because that’s why I mentioned Mark Turner. But again, I don’t know. Because all these guys sound like Lovano. But I would rather say who I think it really is, and then say, “But these other guys copy his stuff.” It’s like with Brecker. So to me, it’s always a dilemma, because I’m very precise on the notes. I can tell you what note somebody steals from somebody. It’s that sick. Like, Lewis Nash…it sounded like Lewis was the drummer. Bill Stewart? Wow, he was pretty straight-ahead there. Wow, Bill! I would never have guessed the bass player, but Calderazzo I might have guessed because of the sudden shift into a more modernistic approach on the bridge of his solo when he got a chance to burn. It’s not the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard any of those guys do, especially Lovano. I’ve heard some of the most ridiculous stuff. 3 stars.

13. Ellington, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (from DUKE ELLINGTON: THE REPRISE STUDIO SESSIONS, Mosaic, 1966/2000) (5 stars)

Duke Ellington selling out. That’s just amazing. The only other hip version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is Grant Green’s version, with Hank Mobley and Larry Young. But Duke Ellington did a track, it’s very obscure, called “Rock City Rock,” from 1957. It’s the best Rock-and-Roll tune performance ever done! And at heart, he was really a Rock-and-Roll musician. As you can tell, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to do it. But that’s Johnny Hodges playing that little break there, and I think that’s… Around that time, Basie did a Beatles album as well. Everybody likes those melodies, because you know it right away, and I found from rearranging standards of popular music that you can do anything you want, anything artistically, once you establish the fact that you’re doing somebody else’s well-known song. All they have to know implanted in their mind on this end is “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” And you can hear it. So they know it’s that, and so they’ll follow along with it, as long as you make it interesting. It’s kind of an illusion that clever arrangers use. You’re a magician. What you hear is a popular song, but what you’re actually hearing and seeing is something totally different. I’d say for the sheer balls of it all, five stars for Duke Ellington, and five stars for the A&R guy who got drunk and had him do it.

14. Ben Webster, “There Is No Greater Love” (from MUSIC FOR LOVING: BEN WEBSTER WITH STRINGS, Verve, 1955/1995) (Ben Webster, ts; Ralph Burns, arr.)

Isham Jones, “There Is No Greater Love.” The saxophone player has a direct connection with Benny Carter. You can hear it in the phrasing. Because they grew up around the same time. The way they ended their phrasing… It’s like those romantic violin players in restaurants, when we see the cliched gypsy violin, how they do the phrasing, and they put tremolo on it, and they dovetail their phrasing. That’s from doing vaudeville shows and being involved in all kinds of other-world kind of music. He always wanted to do a string album, and he did it, and people put him down for it. He was like one of the first jazz guys to really adapt well to this kind of string environment. Am I correct? [Who did you say it was?] I said he and Benny Carter were contemporaries, more or less. Although this particular saxophonist started his early years with a blues singer. And he used to get on his knees and play, and he also used to play clarinet with her. Then he became probably the most famous jazz virtuoso in all the world. [If you’re saying it’s Coleman Hawkins, it wasn’t.] There’s only two people who play like that. Victor Goines… Well, Joe Zawinul would kill me. It’s the king of the boudoir saxophone, Ben Webster. [I knew you’d know that. I wonder what you thought of the arrangement.] For a musician, they all have a soft spot, especially saxophone players…not necessarily exclusively. But they all want to get over with women. And Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins especially… Coleman made a string record that was widely criticized by the jazz purists because it was commercial, but probably for him, it allowed him to make quite much ado with the young ladies who frequented the jazz spots he performed in.

But with the arrangement, it’s like you were replacing a vocalist. That’s how the vocalist arrangements… Strings were orchestrated in an upper range as to not allow them to interfere with the range of the tenor. It’s as though he were Mario Lanza in the midst of all this, just going freely throughout this, and it’s a very Puccini-esque orchestration, the strings glittering up high. The way they do it is they basically keep a lot of violins, and then they just double the melody line with a viola, and it gets this rich texture, and then in the middle you have the saxophonist flying all through it. It’s a very simple arrangement, obviously for the jukebox, obviously to facilitate a more commercial approach to his sound. The Boudoir Tenor is a very romantic kind of thing, a very affected playing. [Any sense of who the arranger might be?]

Well, to do a Ben Webster date, it’s not going to be… It could have been Quincy, it could have been… Well, with Quincy you never know either, because he farmed it out. But Ernie Wilkins could write like that, and Ralph Burns could write that style. But that kind of arranging, that was the style. It’s like a particular kind of voicing. It was Ralph Burns! I couldn’t tell the pianist… [Teddy Wilson] I was going to say Teddy Wilson. He had that Nat Cole touch. That was about the only guy I would say. Again, you’re talking about recording sessions, and a lot of guys are great soloists, but on a recording date, they go in and they freeze. They can’t play. And certain guys, they nailed sessions. They were just the consummate professionals. Teddy Wilson could read music. He could comprehend the form and the texture of an arrangement. But the only two guys who could adapt to a jazz soloists effectively in that style were Ernie Wilkins… He did a record with Stevie Wonder, and he got that sound. But Ralph Burns. It wasn’t Nelson Riddle, because Capitol would not have let Nelson do a record like that.

A lot of these records, you can hear the business involved. You can hear the effect of being on top of a trend, or the pressure to get a record done in six hours because the guy is too cheap to pay for two extra hours of a rehearsal. And you can hear that in the rushed tempos, in the uncertainty of… Everything is getting put into one thing. [In this date you can feel that?] On this date, no. This was a commercial date, where they probably ran it down once or twice and they nailed it. Norman Granz wasn’t a spendthrift in the studios, but he was professional and the sound was good.

Overall, the pieces like Brookmeyer’s piece require lots of rehearsal and lots of patience. That’s probably a European orchestra. The Bill Holman piece, he has a rehearsal band, and they are very dedicated to his music. That’s what it takes to make that kind of music. And it replaces the environment of the touring bands. But the small group jazz people always have the ghost of the past haunting them. It’s caused a quandary within the industrial circles as to what to do with those pesky hard-boppers.

 

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