Category Archives: WKCR

For the 79th Birth Anniversary of Lester Bowie, Transcripts of Two Musician Show Shows on WKCR in 1994 and 1998

During my 23 years as a host on WKCR, I had the honor of hosting trumpeter Lester Bowie on several occasions, including separate in-studio interviews with him and Art Ensemble of Chicago bandmates Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, which I first posted in 2011. (

Here for the first time I’m posting the proceedings of WKCR Musician Shows that I did with Lester in 1994 and 1998, respectively.

Lester Bowie – Musician Show, WKCR, May 18, 1994:

[MUSIC: Lester Bowie, “Rope A Dope”-1975; Brass Fantasy, “Da Butt”; Brass Fantasy, “For Louis (by Philip Wilson)]”; Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Charlie M”]

TP: With me in the studio after an arduous… It seems to be a tough day for interborough traffic. How are you doing.

LB: Doing pretty good.

TP: When we were discussing the show, you gave me a long list. We’ll start with a pairing that seems as unexpected as you might hear at a Brass Fantasy concert — Bullmoose Jackson and Kenny Dorham. Bullmoose Jackson “Sneaky Pete” with Lucky Millinder, 1947.

LB: Bullmoose Jackson was kind of the music I listened to as I was growing up. I listened to a lot of R&B. Kenny Dorham represents the record that really turned me into jazz. That one, the record you’ll hear after “Sneaky Pete,” is the one record that really made me want to be a jazz musician. “Sneaky Pete” is sort of my background. This is what I came up hearing in the house.

TP: You said your mother liked this.

LB: My mother liked “Sneaky Pete.” She liked Bullmoose Jackson.

TP: You had a lot of rhythm-and-blues 78s in the house.

LB: A lot of 78s in the house. A lot of all kinds. We had Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Earl Bostic, a lot of that…

TP: Your father was a band director. Did he know the musicians? Did you get to meet them as a kid when they’d come through St. Louis?

LB: No. Actually my father wasn’t a jazz musician. He was a classical musician. He was a guy who would have been with one of the symphonies, had there been Blacks being hired or had there been some Black symphonies.

TP: What was his instrument?

LB: His instrument was trumpet, and he taught high school bands. He was a high school band director for 30 years in St. Louis.

TP: Was he your teacher on the trumpet?

LB: He was my first teacher, of course.

TP: How old were you?

LB: You know, the first time somebody asked me that, the first time I did an interview, I didn’t know. So I had to call my Daddy! I had to call back home, “Hey, when did I start playing?” Because I don’t remember. So he said he was giving me the mouthpiece in the crib. So we just the official age at 5, because he said I’ve been playing longer… I have no knowledge. I don’t even remember picking up the trumpet.

TP: So you don’t remember a time when you weren’t playing trumpet?

LB: No, I don’t remember any time when I wasn’t playing trumpet.

[MUSIC: Bullmoose Jackson, “Sneaky Pete”-1947; KD & Jazz Messengers, “Soft Winds”-1955]

TP: That Kenny Dorham solo on “Soft Winds” inspired Lester Bowie.

LB: That was a great period. We wanted to look like Art Blakey. We used to go around trying to look like the Jazz Messengers and everything. It was a great period.

TP: By “we” you’re talking about you and some like-minded teenagers in St. Louis in the 1950s, I take it.

LB: Yes. John Hicks and Oliver Lake and Philip Wilson and I were all in high school together, along with guys like Dick Gregory and Grace Bumphrey. We were really into that sort of sound in the 50s. We were all teenagers in the 50s. So that was the thing that was really hip.

TP: What did that sound mean to you at the time?

LB: It just meant something hip. Art Blakey and them were HIP. You dig? They had their thing, and it was just hip…and that means whatever that means. That was happening. They were hip. The people who were into that sort of thing were hip. Everything involved with that whole Art Blakey bag was hip.

TP: At this point were you trying to play this music? Did you have teenage bands? Were you working this stuff out?

LB: Actually, that’s why I chose this next selection. We always wanted to be jazz musicians. But at the time, in the 50s, I didn’t think it was possible. Everything was against me trying to be a musician. We weren’t encouraged to be professional musicians. Even though I had been a professional since 1955, I didn’t believe that I was going to be one for the rest of my life. So Art Blakey was sort of a dream. We wanted to be like that. That dream continued for many years afterwards. We wanted to play jazz, but the reality was that if we wanted to be around later to play jazz, we had to learn how to become professional musicians, and in doing that… The reality of the life of the music is what’s coming up next. This is Little Milton’s band. I think it was me playing, either me or Paul Serrano. I’ve played this solo so many times, I do believe it’s me.

TP: Was this from the 1960s?

LB: Yes, it must be early 60s, 1963 maybe, or 1962?

TP: When did you start going between St. Louis and Chicago? What were some of your early gigs as a trumpeter, “within the reality of the life in music,” as you say?

LB: I used to go down to Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, with Little Milton.

TP: How did he hook up with you?

LB: Well, Little Milton was in St. Louis. St. Louis had a quite active blues scene. Albert King was there. Oliver Sain was the other… These were the three big bands, and there were other smaller bands. Ike Turner was there. So there were a lot of gigs, Ike and Tina and… Just a lot of gigs around town for musicians. And all the jazz cats worked with these bands. Albert King, you should have heard his band before Albert came out. Man, Albert King’s band was smoking. “Cooking at the Continental.” All of this Art Blakey wannabe song thing we were doing as blues musicians. But we were doing blues gigs.

TP: I guess that was the case for a lot of R&B bands in the 50s. Ray Charles had David Fathead Newman, Marcus Belgrave, Ed Blackwell…

LB: Well, you had to learn that first. When students ask me, “How do you become a jazz musician?” I say, “The first thing you’ve got to become is a pro and learn how to feed yourself with the instrument,” and then in doing that I was doing a lot of blues.

TP: So, “We’re Going To Make It” featuring Lester Bowie’s first recorded solo?

LB: I don’t know if it’s the first. But it’s an early one, believe me.

[Little Milton, “We’re Going To Make It”]

TP: Lester now thinks it may have been another tune by Little Milton that he took that solo on.

LB: It was something on that album, but I forget which one. We used to play it all the time. It’s representative. There used to be fights actually every night. We would do that tune last. By then everyone was drunk, and they’d say, “Well, we ain’t got a cent to pay the rent, but we gonna make it,” and the shooting would start. It would start with that one.

TP: A provocation.

LB: Yes, it was very emotional.

TP: Was Little Milton working a lot? One night stands or week-long gigs?

LB: no, we only did one night stands. We played in the South. Most of the winter we played Mississippi and Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia, Florida, and during the summer months we’d do more Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, northern Arkansas, places like that.

TP: was Little Milton the only band, or were you hooked up with Oliver Sain as well?

LB: Actually I was with Little Milton for a while. Oliver Sain was with Little Milton. Then Oliver Sain and Fontella, who was my first wife… I met her with Little Milton initially. They developed a band, the Oliver Sain Revue, and I went with them. Albert King was another band I was playing off and on with a lot.

TP: All the top St. Louis blues bands. What would you say your experiences in those bands meant to you in your later development as an improviser on the trumpet?

LB: I learned how to vamp my ass off! Boy, I know a lot of vamps. But actually, I learned a lot about show business, mostly about show business, and a lot about trumpet technically as far as playing for a long period of time. Like I said, those vamps, sometimes…like the end of that one we just played, “We’re Gonna Make It,” that might go on for 20 minutes. 20 minutes of doing that. So I really learned a lot about pacing, and I learned a lot about show business, both in the blues circuit and on the carnival, circus type thing.

TP: Did Little Milton was play the carnival circuit?

LB: We didn’t play those gigs. That was another circuit. There used to be some Negro revues. There was the Silas Green revue…

TP: That goes back a long ways, to the 1920s and early 1930s…

LB: Yes. I was with Leon Claxton. Leon Claxton had a Harlem and Havana Revue.

TP: What was the nature of that type of gig? What you’re talking about is a shared experience that a lot of black musicians went through before you in their formative years.

LB: I was really lucky. I came in at the tail end of a lot. The cats were really very nice to each other. We had a lot of communication between musicians. When I first came to New York, I was hanging out with Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell, Johnny Coles. The tail end of that whole chitlin’ circuit. I was very fortunate to come along at the very end of segregation. You see, in 1955 I was almost 15 years old. So I was right at the end of segregation and the whole chitlin’ circuit. I got to play the Apollo and the Royal Theater… It was a great time.

TP: The black hotels.

LB: All the hotels. All that sort of thing, yes. The circus, like I said, was a traveling road-show. We traveled all over the Midwest, the upper Midwest, and up into Canada.

TP: Was that one of your earlier gigs out of high school?

LB: When I was in high school I had a band, and we played a lot of parties and dances and radio shows and things like that when I was in high school. After I got out of high school, I went into the military, and in the military I started playing with blues bands a lot. Then after I got out of the military of course I continued…

TP: In the military, did you also do Army marching bands and stuff?

LB: no-no. I was a policeman.

TP: You were a policeman. Amiable cop.

LB: I’ll tell you what happened. When I got in the Service, the guy said there were no openings in the band. He said I could be in the bugle corps. But I had come up… I guess I’d been in concert bands, and I didn’t think bugle corps were that hip, so I didn’t want to be in the bugle corps. So I had the choice of being in the bugle corps, a radio operator, or a policeman. So I went for the one that carried the gun. That was the policeman. Sounded like fun to me?

TP: Did you ever have to use it?

LB: No, I never had to use it. Well, actually I was on a pistol team for two years. I was a pretty good shot. But I never got to shoot anyone.

TP: St. Louis, of course, is a city with a rich trumpet tradition, a tradition of brass instruments and teachers of brass instruments, and the trumpet players who came out of there are legion, from Dewey Jackson and Charlie Creath to Clark Terry and Miles Davis (from East St. Louis). Were you very aware of this tradition coming up in St. Louis?

LB: Well, you knew there were a lot of bad cats around that played, some really excellent musicians. You really had to have kind of an individual style. You had to be able to play a common language of tunes, but you had to have an individual style after that. You had to have your own sound to really be respected in St. Louis. There was a very diverse trumpet style. So we were very aware of that. We were aware of guys like Clark Terry who just come in and kill everybody. There were so many stories about Clark and about Miles as we were coming up that were just fantastic.

TP: Since we just spoke about Miles Davis, let’s play his “Bye, Bye Blackbird” from the 50s.

LB: Miles probably made more impact on me than anyone. I not only had a lot of respect for Miles’ playing, but just his whole ATTITUDE, the way he looked. I remember I saw this ad with My Funny Valentine, that polka-dot tie he had on… I went out and bought me a tie. As soon as I saw the album, I got me a tie just like that to wear to the gig that night. I was really into Miles.

I always say Kenny Dorham is what really turned me out into jazz, and his influence really turned me out to be a jazz musician, but Miles’ influence really made me an original. The things that I learned from him and through his music really made me want to become my own voice and really showed me how to become my own voice.

[Miles Davis Quintet, “Bye Bye Blackbird”-1956; Clifford Brown-Max, “Donna Lee”-1956]

TP: That’s Clifford Brown on what might have been his last public performance…

LB: Oh, it’s that one. Oh.

TP: That’s from Philadelphia, the night before they drove to Chicago and crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From The Beginning and the End, Columbia Records. [ETC.]

LB: Clifford’s articulation and his sense of time and his sense of melody… I guess his everything was just fantastic. If he had lived, there’s no telling what might have happened.

TP: We’ll now hear something from a forthcoming release by one of the many groups Lester works with. One thing I admire very much about Lester Bowie is your ability to keep 4-5 projects going almost simultaneously, which a professional — as you implied — has to do in contemporary music. We have the Leaders, Brass Fantasy, the Organ ensemble, various improvisational projects, the Art Ensemble of Chicago of course. Say a bit about the Leaders.

LB: The Leaders is a group that’s basically an extension of the bag that we’re playing just now. This is our impression of the Miles Davis and the Clifford Brown and the John Coltrane. This is our interpretation. Of course, we can’t do it like they did it. We don’t try to. What we try to do is to add how we relate to this idiom and update it.

TP: One thing that’s interesting about the band is that all the musicians, as befits the name “Leaders,” have worked in many different areas. How does the material get selected? Is there a musical director? Is it a collaborative situation?

LB: No, we don’t have a director. We just bring in music. Guys bring in music, we play it, we like it, and we just play it. Because the Leaders is the kind of group that you can trust damn near anything anyone does. If Kirk Lightsey brings in a song, it’s going to be a good song, and it’s going to be played well because we’ve got the people to play it well. So we don’t have too much of a problem selecting music. It’s just about getting some gigs!

This is a piece by Cecil McBee, who is one of the great unsung composers of our time. There are so many musicians who have so much talent that just isn’t heard, and Cecil is one musician who’s one hell of a writer. This tune is called “Slipping and Sliding.” It’s a real slow blues.

[The Leaders-“Slipping and Sliding”;

TP: Some material that anyone outside your inner circle hasn’t heard befor.

LB: They haven’t heard it. That was at the Winter Olympics this last year in Norway, and that was a concert that featured my quartet, which consisted of Amina Claudine Myers, Famoudou Don Moye and David Peaston, the vocalist you just heard; the Brass Brothers, which is a Norwegian brass band; and also a 65-piece choir. Singing is in David’s blood. He’s my first wife’s youngest brother. He’s Fontella Bass’ youngest brother. He’s the son of Martha Bass. So he’s been a great singer since he was a kid. I’ve been knowing him since he was 5 or 6 years old, and he was always a great singer.

TP: The Leaders hasn’t done a New York gig now for two years now, something like that.

LB: No one has asked us. We always play when we’re asked, but we’re not often asked to play.

TP: Speaking of the Leaders and the group we just heard, Lester became famous throughout the world as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose way of living, whose way of carrying themselves musically really served as an inspiration for several generations of musicians. In this next section, we’ll explore the antecedents of the Art Ensemble. We’ll hear music by Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, and the music of the “avant-garde” of the early 1960s. What was your exposure to that? When did you first hear Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Ayler, and so on?

LB: I started hearing about Ornette when I went to North Texas State, which was in 1961 or 1962. This was after the Army. That record he made in 1959 I started to hear in the early 60s. Just to say a word about Don Cherry: He is another one of the unsung heroes of the trumpet. Don has probably got more music in his big toe than most people have throughout their entire careers. He’s a consummate musician. He is music. He is a very musical person. And his style opened up not only myself but a whole generation of other players. He was the cat after Miles, the guy who came up with something different to say after Miles had said what he had to say.

TP: You responded to him right away? It immediately hit with you?

LB: At first, no. “What is this? This cat can’t play.” But then again, I said the same thing about Miles when I first heard Miles. “Oh, man, what is this? What kind of tone is that?” Then upon closer examination, and me maturing myself, I realized what happened. Same thing with Don. I think I first heard Don when I saw him. He came to St. Louis with Sonny Rollins. Then when I saw him, I got a good appreciation for him. Then I went back and listened some more, and it really opened me up. It just opened up all the possibilities of what could happen.

TP: You came to Chicago in 1965-66.

LB: I came to Chicago in 1965, after the Watts Riots.

TP: But apart from the AACM, there was a community of like-minded musicians in St. Louis. Were you linking up with them? Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake…

LB: As I said, I was in high school with Oliver. A lot of us were hanging around…we were the St. Louis bunch. Floyd LeFlore, Philip Wilson, John Hicks, Jerome Harris, Leonard Smith…a lot of musicians who were together. These musicians were later to become B.A.G., the Black Artists Group, just as in Chicago the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, which started in 1961, was later to become the AACM. Well, B.A.G., upon seeing what we were doing in Chicago, formed an organization which was very similar.

TP: Were these musicians inspired by the same… Were you pushing the envelope?

LB: We’d been pushing the envelope for a long time, even before that. We’d been pushing the envelope really all the time we were playing. What you play as to what you work is one thing, but what you did for fun… Hemphill and I and Oliver, we used to go out in the park and just play. This is long before I came to Chicago. We would go out and play. I first met Hemphill at Lincoln University in Missouri. We were playing some pretty advanced things then. We were always trying to play these sort of things, because we were pretty up to date, because the tradition that we grew up with was that you had to be up to date. You had to be able to say something different. It wasn’t enough just to be able to say something, even if you said it nearly as well as someone else did; you had to really be saying different to get some real respect. So we were always looking for other things. And once we found what they were doing in Chicago, it kind of confirmed the feelings we’d had all the time — Oh yeah, we’re not the only ones.

TP: When did you first find out about that?

LB: When I found out about the guys in Chicago… I moved to Chicago in 1965, and I did mostly studio work — jingles and blues sessions and a lot of bootleg R&B sessions. But I was getting kind of bored. I played with big bands, dance band type things and situations. A guy named Delbert Hill took me by Muhal’s rehearsal. And when I walked in that room and saw, like, about 25 of the weirdest cats you can imagine in one room, I thought, “This must be home.” Muhal told me to take a solo, and I took a solo, and everybody took my number. By the time I got back home, the phone was ringing. It was Roscoe. “Do you want to start a band?”

TP: What was your first experience with Roscoe Mitchell like?

LB: It was great. The first time we played this tune, “Afternoon In Paris.” I just remember how well Roscoe played this tune, but it was different! He played it really differently but really hip, but in a completely different way. He had all the changes and everything, but just a different way. So immediately I got a lot of respect for what they were trying to do. Because all these guys were really good musicians. They all had some different things happening.

TP: Let’s talk about the AACM from, say, 1966 to 1969, when the Art Ensemble packed up, went to Europe, and established itself. Were you playing primarily with Roscoe Mitchell? A lot of people in the AACM?

LB: I was playing with Roscoe. That was the base group. But I was also playing with the Experimental Band, and we were playing in a lot of different combinations. At one time, the AACM…we were putting on concerts every night, 6 nights a week. We were also doing festivals where we had other groups come in. We were doing festivals that would last 2 or 3 days — really like long festivals. We had one that was 72 hours long; I mean continuously 72 hours. So we were doing a lot of advanced musical concepts in a lot of different combinations. I played with Braxton, with Kalaparusha, with Muhal, in just about every combination possible. Because we wanted to play, so we got us a place and we presented ourselves 6 nights a week. There was so much music that was lost, it was unbelievable.

TP: It was an incredibly fertile. One of the principles was that everybody had to bring in new music, original music, creative music.

LB: Right. That was part of the requirements of being in the AACM, is to be a creative musician. That’s what it was about. It was an association for the advancement of creative musicians.

TP: But most of the musicians were doing other things professionally, as you were in the studio, or Ajaramu with Gene Ammons, or Muhal with Eddie Harris…

LB: Yes. But you had your dream of what you want to do, and then you have the reality of who you are and what you are doing presently — and if you want to continue to play music, you need a gig. I would be with the Art Ensemble one day and be with Jackie Wilson the next.

TP: This question may be too broad to answer. But what do you think it was about Chicago that enabled something like the AACM to exist? Other cites like St. Louis had strong organizations, but none of them lasted and held together the way the AACM did.

LB: Chicago is hip. I’ll tell you, even today, I think our most advanced audience, the place I think I’m best appreciated is Chicago. It’s the one place I can really relax and play damn near anything that comes to my mind, and it will be listened to. Chicago is a very advanced audience. I don’t know if it’s that they were trained that way. But we always had that kind of support, of some people who were very interested. Not necessarily by the thousands. There weren’t a lot of them. But the people who had a very deep interest in what we were doing, and we had an interest in having it happen.

TP: Was it having an audience and not having to play in a vacuum? Did it have anything to do with the way people accumulated musical information in Chicago?

LB: you have these circumstances which are provided by fate. You just have a certain amount of guys, certain type of personalities were brought together by Jesus, I guess you could say. And the music was strong enough in that it could survive. Because you don’t survive unless there is some strength in what you’re doing. Your music isn’t around, you aren’t around as a musician if you don’t have something to say. You just aren’t around in this business 20-30-40 years as a fluke. It takes a lot of concentration, and the music has to be able to withstand the test of time.

TP: Originally the Art Ensemble was you, Malachi Favors and Alvin Favors…

LB: Yes, and Kalaparusha. Roscoe had a sextet when I met him. He had a band already. But after I met him, the pressure got to be a little bit more. We started traveling. We started rehearsing every day. So the guys who couldn’t rehearse every day started to kind of drop by the wayside. Guys who had other jobs couldn’t really hang with us, because we got busy. We would take off and go to California, stay 2 and 3 months, and just rehearse 12-14 hours a day. So the personnel pared down. We went down to 3 guys. That’s when some of my boys from St. Louis started coming up. Leonard Smith came up, Philip came up, and then they got with us. That’s how it began.

TP: Joseph Jarman joined the group after Christopher Gaddy and Charles Clark, his very close friends and collaborators, died within 6 months or a year of each other.

LB: Yes, they both died and Joseph joined us. Joseph also had a very nice group with Christopher and Billy Brimfield, Fred Anderson. He was the other group. So we were sort of rivals, Joseph’s group and Roscoe’s group.

TP: Did you all hit it off immediately with Joseph Jarman?

LB: Oh yeah. You see, the AACM, everything just fit like a puzzle. We had guys from different persuasions, guys who played different things, guys who’d been with Gene Ammons to Jarman who’d done things with John Cage. We had all of this. But we all respected each other’s expertise in their field. You have to understand that all you can do in music is be you. You can only do your thing. You can’t really do anyone else’s thing. As much as I love Miles, I can never be a Miles Davis, or a Kenny Dorham — or anyone. I can’t be anyone! I can’t even be a Wynton Marsalis. I can’t be that. I can only be myself. And the only way that people can understand that is through listening to these aspects of the musicians’ personality.

TP: Let’s hear some music that relates to the Art Ensemble and some material that most people haven’t heard from the Art Ensemble. We’ll hear Don Cherry through his association with Albert Ayler, from the 1964 recording in Copenhagan, Vibrations, for Freedom Records initially. They recorded two versions of “Ghosts” on that session — we’ll hear one of them. Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. Lester subsequently recorded “Ghosts” with a very different beat on another record.

LB: Yes.

[MUSIC: Albert Ayler-Don Cherry, “Ghosts”-1964; AEC-1968, “Carefree” and “Tatos-Matos”; John Coltrane-Wilbur Hardin; AEC and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonik in Bremen, 1993 – Charlie M]

TP: That symphonic collaboration is one of a number of monumental projects AEC has done with large ensemble…

LB: My latest project is Lester Bowie’s Hiphop Feelharmonic…

TP: Lester said that his playing during the 1967-68 period documented in the Nessa box was impacted by Wilbur Hardin.

LB: Every time I picked up the flugelhorn, I would feel this Wilbur Hardin thing. I always liked Wilbur Hardin. Actually, when we were playing “Carefree,” it reminded me of that. That’s when we decided to play the Wilbur Hardin piece. But Wilbur Hardin and Johnnie Splawn, who was another Philadelphia trumpet player…I really liked the way they played.

TP: In the 1970s, Lester spent time in Jamaica and in Nigeria, and broadened his musical palette.

LB: It not only broadened my sense of music; it broadened my whole sense of life. I went to Jamaica. When I got there and was in my hotel room, I had five dollars to my name and I didn’t know anyone in town. But I stayed two years, so it was a great experience. The Skatalites, a band I got to play some with in Jamaica… By the way, I’m going to make a record with them next week. So this whole concept of going around the world and playing with other musicians always was very appealing to me. Finally I decided just to one day go. No one was ever inviting me. You know, I never get invited anywhere. I never get invited… They have the kings of the trumpet, it had every trumpet player in town but me. They don’t invite me to festivals. I’m not invited to anything. So a lot of things, I just decided that if I really want to do them, I go myself. I went to Europe myself, I went to the Caribbean myself, I went to Africa myself — with little or no money.

TP: And a trumpet.

LB: And a trumpet. It helped. Because if I hadn’t had that trumpet, I’d have been long dead by now, I’ll tell you.

TP: Did you go to Jamaica for the express purpose of checking out the music and becoming involved in it?

LB: Naturally, when I go places, I always try to get involved with the musicians who are there. That is the entire reason for going. But there’s always a voice in my head. This voice kept saying, “Jamaica, Jamaica, go to the Jamaica.” I wanted to go to Jamaica. I didn’t see just being a starving jazz musician on the Lower East Side. I said, “If I’m going to starve, I just want to be on the beach.”

TP: How about your experience in Nigeria, and particularly with Fela?

LB: I also went there with no money. The Art Ensemble had just finished doing a European tour, and I took my money and bought a one-way ticket to Lagos. I had about $100 when I got there, enough money for one day in the hotel. I didn’t know anyone. A waiter in the restaurant suggested that I go to see Fela. I said, “How do you get there?” He said, “Just get in the cab; he’ll take you to Fela’s.” So I got in the cab. He took me to Fela’s. I pulled up in the courtyard of this hotel which he had taken over, because the authorities had burned his house down. A little guy runs up to me as I got out the cab. He says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Lester Bowie.” “Where are you from?” I said, “New York.” He saw the horn in my hand. He said, “Are you a musician?” I said, “Yes. I’m from New York.” “You play jazz?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, you must be heavy, then.” I said, “Well, you know, a little bit.” “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” “Why is that?” He said, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.” From then on I was just home. I went in and met Fela, and Fela said, “This guy is moving in with me.” So I was with Fela as his honored guest for the next 6 months.”

Fela was a very political musician. He has very strong political beliefs. He taught me what it would be like to be an African musician. It’s like being a chief. Fela had 8 wives when I was with him, and he eventually went up to 27 wives, and there were a lot of people… It was really quite an experience! I’d never experienced anything like it before. I came back and married one woman. That was it for me. Before, I always thought, “Yeah, I’m an African man; I’m gonna get me 2-3 wives, keep one on the road, one at home.” I went to Africa, stayed with Fela, saw all the problems he had with those women. I came back, I got married to one woman — I’ve been married to her ever since.

TP: That was the main lesson.

LB: Yes, the main experience!

TP: Any insights into the African way of music-making that are applicable to what you do?

LB: Well, the African way of music-making is the same way we make music. You just get together and you start playing. You start making up music. Basically, that’s it. You just get together and start playing and making stuff up. If somebody comes in and says, “Play this,” you play that. When I was there, I got to play with Fela, and I got to play with King Sunny Ade — I played with a lot of the Nigerian bands. It was a matter of “Just play.” It wasn’t a big thing, “ok, man, we’re going to get this part here, we’re going to do this…” It was just, like: Ok, you got your horn with you, man? Ok, try this, play this. That’s the way it is.

Same way with the art Ensemble or anyone else. People ask me about the Art Ensemble, “How do you rehearse?’ I say, “Like everybody else; we just go over and over until we get it right.” It’s the same as everyone uses.

TP: Let’s hear the Skatalites. This is “Dick Tracy”.

LB: Yeah, “Dick Tracy.” This is Tommy McCook and all the Jamaican guys. There are some killing Jamaican musicians. You had the indigenous Jamaican music, but you had this big hotel industry that had a lot of great musicians. Dizzy Reece is a great trumpet player who lives here in New York who’s Jamaican. Sonny Gray is another great trumpet player who was Jamaican. So I really learned a lot when I was in Jamaica.

[Skatalites, “Dick Tracy”; Lester Bowie Feelharmonic]

LB: That’s the first time on radio. It’s just for you, Ted. You and WKCR who have done so much fine work over the many years. You guys have hung in there, and we appreciate it.

TP: Well, you and your partners in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and so many musicians have been hanging in there for a lifetime, and we’re hearing the distillation of a lifetime of experience on the Musician’s Show, particularly with someone who encompasses as many musical idioms and ways pathways of self-expression of Lester Bowie, with a consummate sense of practical reality. I guess we have to answer a question from several listeners… When can people next hear you in New York?

LB: Actually, no one has asked to hear me again in New York. I don’t really know. As soon as someone asks, I’ll be glad to play in New York. I just finished at Sweet Basil’s, and they usually ask me every two years. So it possibly could be another 2 or 3 years before…

TP: It looked like they had a good week, though.

LB: They had a great week. They always do have great weeks. We always have great crowds. It’s not about that, because we draw well all over the world.

TP: Let’s enumerate your bands. How many entities is Lester Bowie part of at this point?

LB: We’ve got the Art Ensemble, Brass Fantasy, the New York Organ Ensemble, From the Root To the Source (which we still work occasionally). We work Brass Fantasy along with Root To The Source, which is the gospel singers with Brass Fantasy. The Leaders. The latest is the Hip-Hip Feel Harmonic. Next will be 500-piece orchestra. After that, 2,000. After that, 10, then 20, and then 100,000 musicians. At least.

TP: Will this be done in conjunction with an Anthony Braxton solar system piece?

LB: I think it will be done in conjunction with my retirement.

TP: Finally, and I can’t resist this. Mr. Bowie, is jazz as we know it… Never mind.

LB: Well, it all depends…if we know anything.

TP: How about the Art Ensemble and Brass Fantasy productions on DIW. Are those ongoing? Will a stream of recordings be flowing to your public?

LB: No. We did 9 of those records. They were mostly released in Japan. Whether or not they will get over here, I don’t know. The guy who was our connection with DIW is no longer with the company, and neither are we.

[Brass Fantasy, “The Great Pretender” – 1992]



Lester Bowie (Musicians Show, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1998) – Sides 1-2:

[AEC, “Imaginary Situations”- 1989, DIW; Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, “Old”-1967; AEC, “Galactic Landscape” from Naked-1987; “Illistrum”–Fanfare-1973]

TP: Lester, you’ve been involved with Roscoe Mitchell musically since 1966. We’ve done shows on various topics, but never specifically on the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

LB: Almost 33 years.

TP: There’s a oft-told story by you of first encountering the AACM at a re hearsal of the AACM Big Band, and seeing 30 people in the same as “crazy” as you were, is how you’ve put it. Is that when you first met Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors?

LB: That’s when I met all the members of the AACM. I’d been living in Chicago since late 1964, and I’d been doing gigs with Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, and doing commercials and studio gigs — and I was pretty bored. There was this guy, Delbert Hill, who said, “Well, if you’re bored, let me take you over to Richard Abrams’ rehearsal. You won’t be bored there.” And I wasn’t. I went there and to meet so many… When you’re a musician, like myself, there’s usually a small group of you that always run together, that travel around and barnstorm the country and hang out and all of these things — 4 or 5 guys. But when I went in the Richard Abrams rehearsal, there was 30 guys, and all these guys are like berserk! These are like bizarre, eccentric personalities. But at the same time, they were working collectively for the collectively good.

TP: At the time, you were let’s say 25 years old, and already had a lot of experience. You’d been in the Army, you’d been on the road with various rhythm-and-blues bands, circus bands. You came up in St. Louis where your father was a distinguished music educator. You were immersed in jazz and different trumpet styles. What aspects of your backgrounded prepared you for the music you heard when you entered that room? Had you been hearing Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry?

LB: I’d been listening to everything, especially Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Trane, Miles… When I came up in the music, we always assumed that we had to learn everything that had existed, and at the same time create something else, something of our own. I think I read once that Jo Jones used to say that you couldn’t belong to the throng unless you sing your own song.

TP: I’ve heard that attributed to Prez.

LB: Prez? Someone said that. And that idea is what we kind of came up with. That’s why we came up with what we did. We had to come up with something different than Miles and Trane, and something different from Ornette and Cecil. So we came up with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

TP: How would you describe what it was you did that was different?

LB: Technically, I think we infused different forms. Our freedom was not so much in the freedom of what people think of as free jazz. When we thought of free jazz, it meant we were free to play anything we felt like playing. So therefore, we were able to mix tempos, to mix timbre, to mix everything. To be able to associate or to relate to any form of music. To play one form behind another form, and to mix them both, to play them both at the same time, to play one backwards and to play one forwards. I mean, we were just into experimenting with everything that was laid before us. We were experimenting with all the music of Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but at the same time we were infusing the music of Africa and India.

There’s my wife. She brought me here!

TP: the early records with Roscoe Mitchell…were you composing at the time, or was it mostly you fitting into his ideas about the shape of a performance?

LB: As far as composing, any improviser is a composer – so I’d been composing for years before that. Matter of fact, some of the tunes that I got famous with the Art Ensemble, some of the famous Art Ensemble tunes that I recorded were tunes that I composed when I was playing with Little Milton. You take tunes like “Zero”; it’s one I did when I was with Little Milton. It was an Art Blakey type takeoff, that sort of thing.

But at the same time, when I met Roscoe, I was playing everything I could. I just did everything I could. I was playing jingles. I was playing theater. I was going on the road. I was doing record sessions. I was doing blues gigs — and at the same time, doing AACM gigs. I’d be with the Art Ensemble one night and Jackie Wilson the next night. So I was just at that time playing as much music as I could, just to get as much experience and put as much in the memory banks as possible.

TP: When did you start to make that turn towards having the Art Ensemble approach to music being what you were going to do?

LB: Well, we already had that approach to music…

TP: What I mean to say is, as opposed to doing the gig with Jackie Wilson and doing all that eclectic activity, to make THAT be your commitment.

LB: I always wanted to be a jazz musician. Always. From the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a jazz musician. I never wanted to work Broadway or do commercials. I always wanted to be a jazz musician. But I understood at a very young age, that you had to be a professional musician first, and then if you’re lucky you can specialize. So I was being a professional musician. I was doing every gig I could. Man, I auditioned for James Brown three times. You know, I saw James on the plane. He came and shook my hand. I told him, “Man, I auditioned for your band three times.”

But I did every kind of gig I could. At the time with the AACM… You know, Hemphill and Oliver Lake and I had been hanging out for years before that in St. Louis, and as far as that concept or that way of playing, we had been doing that all the time. The way we play I believe is a natural outgrowth of the way you play after everything else has been played and you’re looking for something else.

TP: But there came a point when you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors, packed up, left Chicago, went to Paris, and laid down roots to function as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I’m interested in the path from that apprenticeship process you’re talking about to a commitment to that entity.

LB: Once I met Roscoe and Malachi, that was it. We knew that that was it, I mean immediately, from the first time. The first time I met the Experimental Band… After I left that rehearsal, my phone was ringing by the time I got home, and Roscoe was on the phone. He said, “Ok, man, let’s get a band and let’s start rehearsing tomorrow.” I was in there rehearsing. That was the whole thing. We just rehearsed every day. We didn’t need a gig. We didn’t need a contract. We just rehearsed every day because we needed the music. And once we met each other and then saw what kind of music we had together, and saw that we had a unique form, we saw that this was the opportunity to fully devote ourselves to it. So you could say that when we left to go to Europe was when we fully devoted ourselves to playing the music of the Art Ensemble and nothing else. Before that, guys were working in hotels or whatever they could to make ends meet. But from that moment we went there, that was it.

TP: We’ll hear music from a forthcoming album by the AEC on Atlantic-Warner.

LB: This will be out in a few months, by the Fall. It’s a record we recorded in Jamaica. We had the recording project. We just had to spend this winter in Jamaica. That winter you had the big snow here in New York…well, we were in Jamaica making this record. It’s a rough job but somebody had to do it.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Via Tiamo,” “Grape Escape,” “Jamaica Farewell”]

TP: When we spoke before that set of music, we brought the Art Ensemble to France, where you joined a very dynamic cultural community, and you stayed there for almost two years, and things exploded for you. You must have made a dozen recordings.

LB: Yeah, we worked a lot. We were working 4 times a year in the States before we left, and we left for France, and when we arrived in France, after we were there 3 days we were working 6 nights a week. We had an entire theater at our disposal, called the Lucinaire, in Paris. That was our base, and from there we worked all over France and all over the rest of Europe.

TP: Do you recall the proprietor?

LB: I don’t remember. But the Lucinaire was a small theater that was just getting started also, and they were very much into creative music. When they heard us, they gave us the gig, 6 nights a week. We’d developed some sort of reputation before we got to Europe. It wasn’t like we just went to Europe and no one had heard of us. Joseph had made several records, I had made a record. Roscoe had made records — 5 or 6 records had been released before we got there. When we got there, we immediately were offered this job at the Lucinaire, and in three days we were working every night.

TP: Were you playing just as the Art Ensemble, or were you performing in conjunction with dancers, theater, and so forth?

LB: Eventually we did do things. We did a lot of projects with dancers, drummers, a lot of different people. But this was all the Art Ensemble. This was the Art Ensemble 6 nights a week.

TP: Talk in some detail about the larger picture in Paris at the time. There were so many musicians there at that particular moment, as documented on the BYG label, on America Records and so on…

LB: Paris was jumping, man. Paris was on fire – in more ways than one. I remember one time I was at this sidewalk café with my wife and a couple of kids, and this whole big van of police just exploded, and it went up in this ball of flames. I threw the kids in the truck, and we had to tear up two cars in the parking space getting out of the parking space, so we got away from there. But there was a lot happening. A lot of happening with students revolting, and a lot happening with the music. There was music all over Paris, and there were guys in Paris who had never been together before in the States. I mean, I never got the chance to hang out with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley! These were my heroes. You’ve got guys like Philly Joe Jones and Sunny Murray, and you’ve got Cecil Taylor and Dave Burrell, and you’ve got Kenny Clarke, and you’ve got Memphis Slim. And you’ve got Max and Archie. There were just a lot of musicians over there, and we were doing a lot of projects together. It was really a very exciting time.

TP: The last few times you were up here, you came up once with Malachi Favors and once with Don Moye, and when you were here with Favors, the subject of your common military background… Except Moye, everyone in the Art Ensemble, had served a certain amount of time in the Army, and you treated the process of performing as a band with that kind of focus and discipline.

LB: Because of our military experience is the only reason we’ve even survived all these years, because we really know how to survive in the wild. We lived in sleeping bags and in tents for an entire summer in Europe. We had been thrown out of France, and we roamed Europe in tents, like gypsies, for four months or so.

But because of our military training, we were able to… We all had a common way of achieving an objective. The military teaches you, you want to move something, you put a man on each end of whatever it is you’re moving, and 1-2-3-lift, and you move it. You get things done. It really gives you a direct method of dealing with things. That’s what kind of fortitude and discipline it takes to really survive in this music, especially if you’re in the creative area of the music.

TP: What do you mean by the “creative area of the music”?

LB: Well, nobody likes you! It’s hard to find gigs. Everybody says you can’t play or you’re crazy or something, and what you’re playing… People don’t really have an understanding of what you’re doing, so you’re always in a kind of fight. It’s almost a military campaign just to survive. You pool your resources and you get these collective objectives, and you try to do these things. If we hadn’t had this sort of training, and we weren’t able to live the way we’ve lived… I don’t know many musicians who would even be able to survive in the conditions that we have survived in. I mean, we’ve lived in barns, man. We’ve lived in parked cars. We’ve lived in buses. I mean, LIVED there.

TP: You’ve gone years with no gigs.

LB: YEARS with no gigs.

TP: You said you got kicked out of France. I never heard that story before.

LB: Oh, you never heard that one. Well, we weren’t actually kicked out. The ultimatum was actually we should leave or we would be escorted to the frontier

TP: By the gendarmes?

LB: By the gendarmes. We had been in France about a year, and then this Radio Luxembourg did a program about us. We were not there. It was just a program about this. They said “These guys are revolutionaries, and these are the Black Panthers of the music, and they’re out to rape your daughters and take over your government.” They did this whole thing about the Art Ensemble being these big revolutionaries. The next day, we heard the dogs barking. The police were at the gate. What happened is, at the end of the show they say, “Yes…and by the way, these guys live in Saint-Leu- la – Forêt, which is this little town outside of Paris. So whoever the prince or duke of that particular fiefdom…when he heard we were living in…

TP: The Intendant as they said…

LB: “You mean they’re living here in Saint-Leu- la – Forêt? Get them out of here!” So the police were at the gates the next day. Our dogs had them, though. They could only get to the gates. And we’ve got military training. They only got the gates. They didn’t get to the house.

So we heard the dogs barking. They were at the gate. Then they came in and they explained that we had to leave, and if we didn’t leave they would escort us to the frontier. We said, “Well, we just happen to be leaving anyway,” which we had happen, because we knew the heat was on and we were ready to pull out. So we left in the next couple of days.

TP: I gather you had a bus, and that became your base…

LB: Well, we were the first mobile musicians in Europe – the mobile jazz guys, let’s say. We were totally independent of any of the jazz musicians. The rest of the jazz musicians, you had to have interpreters leading them by the hand, and taking them here, putting them on trains and putting them in planes. But we could speak the languages, and we had 4 trucks. We could travel anywhere we wanted to. If things didn’t suit us one place, we’d go someplace else. We were the Great Black Music Army.

TP: One challenge of doing a 3-hour on the Art Ensemble Show is that a favorite track might be 23 minutes or 14 minutes, and we don’t have time.

LB: Right.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Jackson in Your House”-1969; “The Key–Theme de Celine”; “Variations On A Theme of Monteverdi, First Variation”]

TP: That was the merest, sketchiest of representations of their actual output while in Paris. We’ll now move back in time a bit, and hear a track from an album that turned a lot of heads when it came out — Sound by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet. It’s hard for me to think about this kind of music being made on the East Coast at this time. Maybe I’m projecting backwards, but it seems to me that a certain Midwest sensibility is involved. Can you shed any light on what that might be, or how you different, if at all, from what the people on the East Coast were doing then?

LB: Well, the East Coast, New York, is a marketplace. Not so much music is created here. Most of the musicians who have become famous came from somewhere else.

TP: It must be said that with Bird, Miles and Monk, a lot of that music was created here, uptown.

LB: You could say that. But usually, when music is perceived by critics to have been created in a certain place, it’s usually been created years before by these individuals. I’m sure Charlie Parker didn’t start playing like that when he came to New York. Same way with Miles Davis. We have to realize, music is created in a lot of places simultaneously. The whole story about the music moving up the river from New Orleans to Memphis to Chicago is mostly a fairy-tale. Music was being played in Spokane, Washington. It was being played in South Dakota. It was being played in Springfield, Missouri. Joplin, Missouri. Memphis, Tennessee. Kentucky. It was being played in Iowa. It was being played in Arizona.

One time the Leaders were doing a tour through Missouri, and we saw this old restaurant that looked like it might have been a country restaurant, so we figured we’d get some nice biscuits or something over there. So we went over there to get it, and this old farmer came up to us and he said, “You boys play jazz?” We said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, hell. You all know Duke Ellington?” We said, “Yeah, we know Duke Ellington.” He said, “He used to come through here all the time.”

So the music used to be in a lot of places. It was just sold in certain places. There were certain centers, publishing centers, recording centers, where it was sold. For instance, even in our particular instance, Hemphill and I were playing that music before AACM and BAG.

TP: When did you start playing with Hemphill?

LB: Hemphill and I went to school together. We were in Lincoln University together. I just went to Lincoln for a year. Hemphill had been going there for 8 or 9 years. He was one of those cats who was going to school for a long time. But we started hanging the. The next year, after I left Lincoln (Hemphill’s from Fort Worth), I went to North Texas State. Hemphill and another guy named Tom Reese were good friends of mine in Fort Worth. This was a long time ago.This was 1961, 1962, long before I went to Chicago.

TP: How does your analysis of New York being a marketplace, and other places not, apply to the music we hear on Sound, which sounds so distinctive and different from anything else that was happening then.

LB: Well, see, we in the Midwest, we really BELIEVED in the music. We were attracted to the music because of some sort of spiritual belief. I mean, we really believed in it. We believed in the POWER of the music. We didn’t care if we didn’t get paid. We didn’t care if we didn’t get any gigs. New York, you come and you’ve got to work. The rent is high. You’ve got to work. You can live in Chicago. You can live in St. Louis. You can live in Cleveland. And you can create music. You can find other people that really believe in it and that really do it. I think that’s the real difference. You have an economic pressure here in New York that you don’t have in other places. You don’t have the recording companies or the TV stations or the radio stations in Kansas City or in Springfield or Peoria. So you don’t have that sort of pressure. You’re kind of free to just create music.

When the Art Ensemble first started, we just went down in the basement and we rehearsed every day. Every day it would be 8 hours of rehearsal. No gigs in sight. But we rehearsed every day. It was just because of the belief that we had in the music.

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, “Little Suite”

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Pete “LaRoca” Sims (1938-2012): A WKCR Musician Show from 1993 and a WKCR Out To Lunch Encounter From 1998

As part of my ongoing pandemic project to digitize and transcribe as many of my previously un-transcribed WKCR shows as possible during my tenure there from 1985 through 2008, here are the transcripts of two encounters with the great drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims, who between 1957 and 1967, appeared on some of the most consequential recordings of the time, before a long hiatus — he earned a law degree and became a practicing lawyer — that ended during the early 1990s.


Pete LaRoca Sims (Musician Show, Nov. 2, 1993) (Side 1 &2); OTL (June 11, 1998):

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins-Wilbur Ware-Pete LaRoca, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”-Live At The Village Vanguard-1957]

TP: Pete LaRoca Sims has been playing every Sunday night at Yardbird Suite with various musicians comprising a sextet. Most of the best-known selections from that date, with the exception of “Night in Tunisia” from the original album, featured Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Did Sonny spontaneously set up the other configuration?

PLR: I was called in, and did my part, and Elvin was there. It seemed to be that it had been preconceived. I didn’t get the impression that it was impromptu, but it may well have been.

TP: You said that this was your first gig out of the neighborhood.

PLR: That’s true. The first major jazz artist who I’d gotten a chance to work with. Previously, I had worked with my contemporaries. We had a dance band that did a good bit of work in and around the city, Harlem, the Bronx, etc. By something of a fluke, having sat in at a place in Brooklyn called Turbo Village, where Max Roach was working during the week… I sat in on a Monday night and I broke quite a few of his drumheads, and I called him up to apologize and offered to pay. He said, “That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You might be interested to know that Sonny Rollins is looking for a drummer.” So needless to say, I called Sonny Rollins and was fortunate enough to get that job from which that record resulted.

TP: That led to a several-year relationship, on and off, with Sonny. You toured with him in Europe in 1959, which has been documented on a bootleg on the Dragon label.

PLR: There were just a few concerts actually. I don’t think there was another week’s work or anything of that sort anywhere, except that we did go to Europe for three weeks. All of it was quite enjoyable. There could have been more, for my money.

TP: On the Musician Show we create a virtual biography of the musician through the music they’ve listened to and the people they’ve played with. Since that was your first major gig, let’s talk about the events that led you to being on the bandstand – your history as a drummer and some of the experiences you had. How did drums enter your life? Banging on pots and pans as a kid?

PLR: Not quite pots and pans. But various parts of pieces of furniture around the house and things of that sort. I came from a very musical household, with a stepfather who played trumpet and an uncle who was something of an investor in jazz at the time and had a fine record collection that I pretty well exhausted, I think.

My first actual playing was in the New York school system, beginning in junior high school. It was a primarily symphonic orchestra that actually toured a little bit and went to I guess a couple of other junior high schools to play concerts. That continued through Music and Art here in New York, and City College, where I was in the orchestra, and a brief period at Manhattan School of Music, though I didn’t complete that.

TP: Any particular teachers you’d mention helping you a great deal, or was it from watching drummers on gigs?

PLR: Well, it was mainly from being around the music just about all the time, at least with regard to jazz. But since you mentioned teachers, there was one gentleman, David Greitzer, who was instrumental just in the way he spread his great joy in music and his love for the music in such a way as to enthuse the entire orchestra that he was teaching at junior high school. We all got kind of fired up. He had previously taught at Music & Art, as a matter of fact, and prepped us for the entrance exam there, and I think at least half our junior high school orchestra then went on to Music & Art, as a body just about.

Not too many other teachers. There was a Fred Albright who I was assigned briefly at Manhattan – a grand old man of drums he was when I came to him. Just working with him for a semester, doing exercises and things like that, was indeed quite memorable. But that’s the only part of formal training that I think leads to anything like the jazz work that I’ve been doing since.

TP: I take it you start working professionally, or least for money on local gigs, as a teenager? Or when did that start, and what was that like, and who were some of the people that you played with? And where?

PLR: We worked primarily dances, Friday and Saturday nights. One guy who might be known from that band…there are a couple… George Braith, who is a saxophonist, was in that band at one time…

TP: He plays together and he also plays that welded-together…

PLR: He designed his own horn. Braithophone I think he calls it. Barry Rogers, who became very well known as a trombonist in the Latin bands, was also in that band. Some other guys who I know still work in music, like Arthur Jenkins, a pianist; John Mayer, a pianist who I saw last week when he came into Sweet Basil. I don’t know remember all the guys. Phil Newsome… If you’re into Latin music and you were around during that period, you’d probably remember that period, you’d probably remember him. We all called him Cowbell Phil because he did that so well.

We were about 15-16-17 was about the time that… I guess it went on through the time that I went to Sonny. If that was 1957, then I was about 19 at that time. So I guess it continued until then. It was sort of broken up into two pieces. Hugo Dickens actually originated or established the band, and I came along and emphasized the Latin side, and we had a sort of dual situation going on where he was responsible for the swing side and I was responsible for the Latin. This was a time when I was primarily a timbale player. I didn’t play a set of drums at all. It was primarily standards. We did transcriptions from records, and got sheet music on for the Latin music, etc. We got a lot of work. It was a good band.

TP: You were also hanging out, I’d think, and checking out various drummers of the upper echelon…?

PLR: I think it was mostly records at that time. First off, I was playing a lot, so I wasn’t going around to listen a lot. Those were school years, and homework and things took over much of the rest of the time. I didn’t get really that close to traps until I think I was 17, and there was a band that was going to work in the Catskills to do a show. I said, “That’s great, but I don’t happen to have a set of traps.” They said, “We’ll get some for you.” I think the virtue that they found in me was that I could read music, and therefore I could probably cut the show – and indeed, that’s what actually happened. It was from that time I got familiar with a set of traps and then got some other work playing jazz type music, etc. But there really wasn’t a lot of it. I’m sure I played for 6 or 7 years before I ever seriously sat down to play a set of traps.

TP: The first track you’ve selected is an amazing solo album by Baby Dodds on Folkways. I take it you’d heard him through your stepfather’s collection…

PLR: my uncle’s collection, yes. At that time, it was a 10″ 78 that was just drums on both sides. In my experience, that was quite an anomaly. I haven’t come across that before or since. And I loved it. I loved his whole collection, but that was one thing that really struck me in particular. That was before I even played drums at all. That was before even junior high school.

TP: I believe you said that it sounded like a tap dancer.

PLR: I brought a tape of Baby Dodds playing a version of “Tea For Two,” with just him and a piano player who I can’t identify, unfortunately. But in that, it’s mainly drum solo, and what he plays in there is…you can hear – it sounds like a tap dancer dancing.

TP: Also, you’ve mentioned Tito Puente as your main influence on timbales. Were you going out to dances and hearing Tito Puente and so forth…

PLR: Yes, and Tito Rodriguez at that time was around and had a great band. I was mainly interested in timbales at the time, and that’s what I was doing. Puente was a great influence primarily in the way that he strung ideas together. The next idea that he would play would be built upon the last idea that he had played, and he constantly strung it out that way. Which was something that didn’t happen a lot in drums. Drums being a non-pitched instrument, we do different things. There are many familiar rhythms that are in the vernacular, both the Latin vernacular and the jazz vernacular. But that particular way of stringing ideas together was really unique with Puente, and I glommed onto it and have been using it ever since, without a doubt.

[MUSIC: Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums”; Baby Dodds-Bechet, “Save It Pretty Mama”; Dodds-pianist, “Tea For Two”; Tito Puente, “El Rey Del Timbal”]

TP: Within the course of 15 minutes, we’ve outlined some of the sources of Pete La Roca Sims’ aesthetic on drums and timbales. You mentioned that Baby Dodds eschewed the sock cymbal, didn’t use it on these recordings. On timbales, that would also be the case. In both cases, we have drummers creating a broad dynamic range within a limited palette, so to speak.

PLR: Somewhat. Although I think the color…the metallic sound of the timbales actually adds color, so that you’ve got that to play with even though you don’t have something like the sock cymbal. And, as I was mentioning to you when we were off the air, Baby Dodds uses the press roll as a sort of…I don’t know whether he intended it as a substitute for the sock cymbal, but it does pretty much the same job of emphasizing the second and fourth beats, etc. – which I think is interesting.

TP: How much of an adjustment was it for you to operate on the trap drums? Did you pick it up quickly? Was it complicated?

PLR: As I said, the first thing I got a chance to do was a job in the Catskills, and it was an entire summer cutting a show. That will get you in shape. You’re playing for dancing and then you’re playing for dancers, including strippers, and you’re doing rim-shots and ka-boom-chas, as they said today, for comedians, etc. It’s a bit of everything, and quite a bit of experience.

TP: How long did you that?

PLR: Just the summer. It was the better part of 3 months.

TP: Pete Sims is leading a group Sunday nights at Yardbird Suite on Cooper Square. Also, in the last few years, we’ve had a chance to hear you with Mal Waldron’s group. It’s been exciting to see you developing a stronger presence on the jazz scene.

The first source you mentioned as far as jazz drums was Kenny Clarke.

PLR: It’s the question of time and how time is kept, etc. Kenny also I think de-emphasized the sock cymbal to some extent and instead put the emphasis on the ride cymbal. I think he was one of the first to truly do that. If you listen to Baby Dodds, the beat-by-beat emphasis is in the bass drum. Then, of course, there’s the press roll on the snare drum, emphasizing the off-beats. Klook, by putting it in the ride hand on the ride cymbal, I think sort of smoothed it out. Prior to that time, drummers and rhythm sections were playing pretty much like the Basie rhythm section wit the rhythm guitar and CHUNK-CHUNK, CHUNK-CHUNK, beat-by-beat. By putting it in the cymbal it just got smoother because of the bit of continuity of sound that a cymbal gives you. I loved it and adopted that immediately, and never did anything else.

TP: Did you ever see him in person?

PLR: I only saw him in person, as a matter of fact, the job with Sonny Rollins in Europe.

TP: There’s another bootleg recording from that period in which Kenny Clarke plays with Sonny, in a cathedral in Aix.

PLR: I haven’t heard it but I’d love to.

TP: We’ll hear a set of recordings featuring Kenny Clarke in the early 1950s. This one is from Kenny Clarke’s 2nd MJQ date from April 1952…

[MUSIC: MJQ, “True Blues”; Miles-Bags-Monk, “The Man I Love”-Take 2, 1954]

TP: I think that was my first Miles Davis album, and you mentioned it’s one that you listened to many times.

PLR: That and Miles Ahead were the two first Miles Davis albums that I had.

TP: You mentioned off-mike that your stepfather had played in bands with Monk before bebop, perhaps in the late 1930s, or around there.

PLR: Somewhere around there. I was mentioning that he was a difficult person to keep employed, because he wasn’t yet Thelonious Monk, bebop hadn’t yet quite happened, and the kind of shenanigans that he was into at the time were not appreciated by leaders of the dance bands that they were working in. The reason why you mentioned that particular take as having a little bit of hilarity to it is because of the lapse, the dropout in Monk’s solo, where Miles plays him a fanfare to get him going again.

TP: He plays “You’ve Got To Wake Up In The Morning.”

PLR: Right! [LAUGHS] There were a number of scenes like that, as I understand it, just from having listened to my stepfather talk about it

TP: You had a chance to play with many of the greats of the period, but you never had a chance to play with Monk.

PLR: Never had Monk and never Miles. I missed the opportunities. I had a lot of opportunities, so I can’t complain, but I sure would have liked to have had those guys, too.

TP: Among the trumpeters you’ve been using at Yardbird Suite are Jimmy Owens and Claudio Roditi; you’ve had Dave Liebman and David Sanchez; George Cables and Joanne Brackeen; other people as well…

PLR: Other people of like caliber.

TP: Next in the chronology will be Max Roach. You mentioned that the thing that most impressed you about Max apart from your overall appreciation was his working outside of 4/4 time, particularly the material in 3/4 that he explored in 1956. He did a recording for EmArcy that was all in that time signature.

PLR: Right. Plus, the main thing for me with Max is that he established so much of the bebop drum vernacular. He made it quite a bit looser, taking it away from just the timekeeping function that drums had pretty much before that, and dropping – as were called – “bombs,” which really has to do with punctuating what else is happening in the band, etc. And the way that it was done… First off, the front line, people like Bird and Diz and Miles, were playing new ideas that called for I think something new from the rhythm section, and Max was very much up to the job and did things that I think every drummer has borrowed a big portion of, if you play jazz.

TP: Were you able to check him out, observe him in the flesh early on? How important is it to see musicians in the flesh?

PLR: It makes a difference. I got to get good jobs working opposite some of these guys early on, so that I wasn’t so much going out and hanging out in the clubs just for the purpose of hanging out. If I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work opposite them, I’m sure I would have been hanging out in the clubs. But as it happened, I was there. Yes, it’s important to see them in the sense that especially if you know the musician and there’s something that you really do want to borrow, a device you think you can use… Sometimes you have to see how it’s done; you can’t really tell it all by just listening. But I think the bulk of it was really from records. Jazz music was at that time the popular music… The dance music of that time was derived from jazz. The swing era was still going on. There were still big dance bands going around. So major stations here in New York, like certainly WNEW and I think maybe WOR, were having jazz just about 24 hours a day. There was a show on Sunday afternoon that had Frank Sinatra, for instance, for 4 to 6 hours or something like that. So to get to hear the music at that time was very easy. Today you have to seek it out a little bit and guys don’t play as often as you might like, so you have to get them when they’re there. But then it was really all over the place.

TP: The selection we’ll play to represent Max Roach is “Valse Hot,” from March 1956.

[MUSIC: Rollins-Brown-Roach, “Valse Hot”-1956]

TP: On the next session we’ll hear some sessions that Pete Sims played on as “Au Privave.”

[MUSIC: George Russell, “Au Privave”; Pete LaRoca, “Lazy Afternoon”-Basra; Sonny Trio-Grimes-LaRoca, “I’ve Told Every Little Star”-1959]

TP: I’d think the surname quandary of “LaRoca” and “Sims” is a constant source of confusion.

PLR: I’m afraid so. But I answer to both. It just doesn’t matter.

TP: In these next couple of sets, we’ll hear two drummers who meant a great deal to you when you started to be a professional jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones and Arthur Taylor. A few words about what Philly Joe Jones meant to you, and his special niche on the drums.

PLR: Swing. Summed up quite neatly, it’s just plain swing. For my taste, no one ever swung like that before or since. It’s full-bodied, it’s full-out. No messin’ around. All of his cuts are crisp, and he knew quite a few of them. He obviously did some big band drumming, and he brings that over to Miles’ band, especially on “Two Bass Hit,” where along with Red Garland, who was also a big band piano player, it just makes for a dynamite rhythm section. I think that every drummer around was very much impressed by Philly when things were being made.

TP: Did you get to know Philly, watch him check him out in person?

PLR: Some. We were friends. Drummers never work in the same band, and I was working a lot. I didn’t work opposite Philly that I can remember. He was one guy that I had to go hang out in clubs in order to get to hear him. Of course, since I was working, that wasn’t a big deal because you sort of had entree to most of the clubs. But I had to go catch him. They were working at places like Café Bohemia, Birdland, etc. It was mainly just the propulsion, the non-stop, strong as it could possibly be form of swing that apparently Miles at the time was just lapping up, because song after song after song called for it, and the rhythm section that he had at the time – which of course included Paul Chambers – was giving it to him.

[MUSIC: Miles-Philly Joe, “Two Bass Hit,” – [END OF SIDE 2]“Gone, Gone, Gone”]Pete Sims, Out To Lunch, June 11, 1998:

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca Sims, “Amanda’s Song”]

TP: That was Chick Corea’s “Amanda’s Song,” from Swing Time, featuring Dave Liebman and Lance Bryant on soprano saxophones, Ricky Ford on tenor sax, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, George cables, piano, Santi DeBriano, bass.

Many of you know Pete LaRoca Sims from his middle name – he appeared on many recordings of the late 1950s and into the 1960s as Pete LaRoca. His two leader CDs from then are both in print – Basra on Blue Note and Turkish Woman At the Bath, for Douglas, reissued by 32Jazz. There’s a 30-year hiatus between recordings, and Swing Time comes next. The band is part of a rotating group of top-shelf New York musicians who’ve been recording with Pete since 1993, and the current version is appearing this week at Sweet Basil – Joe Ford on soprano sax, Don Braden on tenor; Jimmy Owens on trumpet; Steve Kuhn on piano; Santi DiBriano, bass. There’s a variety of arrangements, all sparked by Pete’s unique and original and unpredictable drumming.

Let’s talk about the origin of this group. You were one of the most active and respected drummers in jazz. The business became a bit too much for you to deal with in some ways. You became a lawyer. And you began playing actively again – although I gather you never stopped – in the early 90s with this band.

PLR: I got a few too many strong requests to do Fusion, which I was not interested in doing, and it was happening that many of the main jazz stars were going that way. It seemed to be the trend at the time. At the same time I was trying to get work for the band that did Basra, and without very much success. The missing link that people usually overlook when they tell that story is that between the time when I was getting a lot of work as a jazz sideman and the time I went back to school, I drove a cab for five years. It was after five years of cab driving that I figured out, “Hey, something has got to change here,” and then went back to academics. Then in 1993, as you say, I got the good fortune to collect a bunch of guys, all great players, mainly resident in New York or just across the river in New Jersey. We did months of Sunday nights and Monday nights at various clubs, and sort of teased the book into good shape. Working one night a week you can’t keep a steady group, so that’s where the rotating roster of musicians came in. Fortunately for me, a lot of great musicians around New York know my book. So usually, if I’ve got to get a band together, it turns out to be a pretty good one, like now.

TP: Let’s talk about this band, and a few words about each of the players. Maybe the overriding theme can be what it take to play in a band led by Pete Sims?

PLR: I’ve been told by the guys that the book is difficult. That’s number one. There have been occasions when guys have come aboard and stumbled there at having to read. If you’re not familiar with the book, you’re going to have to read, and that has been a stumbling block for a few fellas. So the main thing is that they wish to and can play freely when we finally get to solos, and they can content with the monster book, is what it’s called.

With regard to these guys: Jimmy Owens and I are actually both Music & Art, though not at the same time, and he has a lot of orchestral experience, which is what you do at places like Music & Art. He brings a lot of lore. He didn’t have the 30 years off, so he’s been in a lot of great bands and he brings a lot of lore and experience with him, and it’s a pleasure to have him.

Santi DiBriano has been in the group off and on since 1993. He comes from a Latin background. Along the way, before I ever played drums, I was a timbale player. So there’s a certain relationship there with regard to things that happen in time.

Steve Kuhn is playing piano this time around. He and I go back. We were together in the first Coltrane group. We subsequently worked together with Art Farmer and Stan Getz. So we have a history. He also has symphonic training, orchestral training, and he brings that lore.

Joe Ford is the guy you get when you’ve absolutely got to swing. There’s got to be one guy who you know you’ll give it to him and he’s going to swing with it. Don Braden is a new fellow; this is his first time in the group. He’s doing famously, brings a different color, a different style, so to speak, as most good jazz players do, and fills it out for us. A great ensemble sound he brings also.

TP: The record has three originals by you, Dave Liebman has one, there’s the Chick Corea tune and some standards. Who arranged the “Four In One” that you played last night?

PLR: That’s Hall Overton’s, from the big band album with Monk. It’s a wild thing to do, with that 2-chorus ensemble of Monk’s piano solo orchestrated out. That’s why guys say it’s a hard book!

TP: You have a sheaf of Chick Corea compositions, which I know are manna for drummers.

PLR: They are – Chick himself being a drummer. And he was good enough, at a time that we were talking about material to arrange, he said, “I’ll send you some stuff,” and about a week later I got a 2″ thick package of tunes he hadn’t recorded, snippets he hadn’t finished working on… It’s just a gold mine, and the first thing that’s come out of it is “Amanda Song,” which is for a singer.

TP: You’re writing. On “Basra,” from 1965, there are three of your pieces. The next track we’ll play is an updated version of a song that appears on Basra. How far back does writing and band-leading go for you?

PLR: Well, in my mid-teens there was a fellow up in Harlem named Hugo Dickinson, who had a group. I was then at Music & Art, and I had heard about him. Somebody said he was looking for a drummer. He and I met, and it developed into a situation where we had a sort of dual leadership. Latin music, the Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha were quite popular then, and sort of at the beginning of their popularity – this is that far back. So he was doing the jazz side, and I, then, being a timbale player, was doing the Latin side. That’s when I started bringing in arrangements for the band. Some were simply sheet music that you could buy in places like the Music Exchange. Others were transcriptions. We heard a nice arrangement and we liked it, so I’d take it off the record. And some were original compositions that I wrote for the band. It was a big band, a 13-piece band or something.

We got a lot of dance work. It was really a dance band. We got a lot of work, mainly in Harlem, but some places in the Bronx or Brooklyn – wherever the gig was. Hugo was quite good at getting jobs. It was enough to keep the band together. A lot of great musicians came out of that band. Barry Rogers, for instance, who went over to the Latin world later, started out… That was one of his first big hits. George Braith. John Mayer, who is now on the West Coast, a piano player. A lot of guys came out of that band.

TP: Talk about the transition from timbales to trap drums.

PLR: Actually I started as a kettle drummer at Music & Art, and actually earlier at Stitt Junior High School. The transition from that to timbales was not that great, in the sense that the technique is the same. They both use what drummers call matched-grip, meaning that each hand holds the stick in the same way, as opposed to military style where you have that rotating motion in the left hand. So that wasn’t a big hump at all.

But then I sort of shied away from playing jazz. Jazz ran through my house all my childhood. My Uncle, Kenneth Bright, was involved in Circle Records, which originally recorded the Jelly Roll Morton… They were six 12″-78 albums where he is a raconteur and tells stories and plays bits to exemplify what he’s talking about. That was first released by Circle, which is the company my uncle was involved in. He was enough involved in the jazz scene that he would throw a party, and Fats Waller would come by the house and play piano. I’m sure that Fats would go anywhere and play piano, but our house was one of the places that he went.

I loved it so much, and it looked quite complicated and quite different from matched grip, playing kettle drums and timbales, that I shied away from it for a very long. Finally… I remember it was my 17th summer, because I couldn’t drink legally, and some guys I didn’t know, but who knew my name and knew I could read, had a summer-long job in the Catskills – a show band. They wanted me to play the drums. I said, “Hey, I’d love to do it, but I don’t even happen to have drums. I play timbales.” They said, “We’ll get you some drums,” which they did. I had something like 10 weeks at a place called the Kentucky Club up in the Catskills, cutting shows and playing for dancers, etc. That was my first real experience playing traps. It wasn’t even really a jazz band.

TP: Sounds like a trial and error thing for you?

PLR: I knew about it.

TP: What were the biggest demands about going from clave to swing?

PLR: The first big problem is coordination. Because you’ve got all 4 limbs going. You’ll see a lot of young drummers sort of staring into the middle distance as they try to figure out, “Now, which comes next?” Ultimately, when you really start playing, when you know you’re playing reasonably well, is when that stuff becomes second nature and you stop thinking about it.

TP: Was there a drum sound in your mind’s ear when you start playing jazz on trapset? Were there drummers you’d absorbed and wanted to sound like in some way or other?

PLR: Plenty of drummers. Not a drum sound as such. But plenty of drummers. Baby Dodds was a first major influence. In my uncle’s huge jazz record collection, there was a 78 (and again, this is back there) of Baby Dodds, just Baby Dodds, playing solo drums on both sides.

TP: Incredible record.

PLR: Absolutely incredible! One of those that I wore out. A major influence. I find that he’s an influence still, having listened to that. It’s not straight bebop. Certainly it predates bebop. It was a guy really playing impressionistically in a very early style on a set of drums – a BIG set of drums with temple blocks and all kinds of things like that.

Other major influences? Max was a major influence, and what he did at the inception of bebop with Bird and Dizzy – that’s fundamental jazz vernacular for drums.

TP: You were up on all of this?

PLR: I had heard it all. My stepfather was a trumpeter, and he played jazz. Jazz was always going on in the house. And it was a time at which jazz was extremely popular. It was the foundation for the swing bands, the dance bands. That hadn’t quite died yet, although I think it really did take a turn to a different direction with Bird, because he with his wonderful contribution sort of turned the music into ear candy, ear music, and not so much dancing music. That’s when we started having not dance halls, but cabarets, nightclubs without even a dance floor, where people just came and listened to the music. Once again, when the people stopped dancing to jazz, we lost a lot of public. Because really and truly, people want to be the show. They don’t want to go and sit and watch somebody else – be a spectator. But nevertheless, with regard to the music, loving jazz as much as I do, I’m glad Bird did what he did!

Kenny Clarke was a major influence because of the way that he smoothed out, to my perception, the beat. Guys were putting a lot of emphasis in their hands on the second and fourth beat, along with the sock cymbal playing on the second and fourth beat. He kind of had the sock cymbal going but smoothed out that right hand. To me, that was a revelation, and I play like that today.

Philly Joe Jones for the musicality. He played bebop and he played it hard, but he always played something appropriate for what was happening in the band.

These are the guys. You learn from them. You learn things to do. I still find quite a bit of Philly in my own playing, because some of the things he did are just the best way and the easiest way to get from one place to another.

TP: Were you a kid who went out to hear these drummers? Were you listening on records?

PLR: Pretty much. It really started with my going out to hear Latin bands. As I was sort of coming of age and allowed to go out at night by myself, that’s the stage at which I was playing timbales. But when it switched over, actually I was playing quite a bit. So once I started playing jazz, which was the job at the Village Vanguard with Sonny Rollins when I was 19…once that happened, I was in clubs where there were usually two bands then. So I would be in one band I’d really hear these guys in the other band, which in many ways is the best way to hear them – it was really intense.

TP: So at the time of Night at the Village Vanguard you hadn’t had that much listening to jazz experience?

PLR: I hadn’t had that much playing jazz experience. I’d only played with my contemporaries in the neighborhood, the guys in Hugo’s band, when we were… After the summer in the Catskills. That gives me about two years of playing traps.

TP: Who were some of the hand drummers or Latin drummers you found particularly stimulating, who might enter the way you sound today?

PLR: Tito Puente as a great timbale player, and from whom I stole a concept that I still use today. I haven’t found a better one. The drums not having the advantage of harmony and melody, one way to sort of make your solo playing coherent is to take the last part of one musical idea, one rhythmic idea, and make it the first part of the next rhythmic idea. That comes from Tito Puente. And it works.

TP: Worked then. Works now. Anyone else?

PLR: Direct lifts? Not so much.

TP: I don’t mean direct lifts, but just general influences.

PLR: Everybody is an influence. Sure. You listen to everybody. In the rare case you listen to some guys for what not to do. But everybody is an influence. You let it all filter through.

TP: But when we cite the people you’ve played with, it’s a roster of pivotal figures in the development of jazz – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, on and on. Let’s hear some music and talk about some of those people when we get back.

“Candu” was first recorded on Basra, Pete’s 1965 Blue Note recording. This version is on Swingtime…

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca, “Candu”; Sonny Rollins-Pete, “Oleo”-Stockholm-1959]

TP: Let me read a list of some of the highlights of your c.v. between 1957 and 1964-65. Sonny Rollins. Tony Scott. The Slide Hampton Octet and I imagine other configurations – a significant band not so well known these days. John Coltrane’s first attempt to organize a quartet, which he eventually settled on later with results we know. Art Farmer. You played with Joe Henderson in your own band and other situations. Chick Corea became part of your working band for a while. An incredible roster, on the cutting edge of the time.

You referred to “missing link” in regard to someone before. Some people think of you as a kind of missing link because of your absence over 3 decades in the development of modern jazz drumming. A number of drummers have said this to me.

In any event, let’s talk about your experience with Sonny Rollins, who’s been known to be tough on drummers, though maybe not on you.

PLR: I didn’t find him to be tough on drummers and such. At the time, it seemed to me that he was not so much band-oriented. I’m coming out of symphonic background, and my first real work playing traps was in a show band, where you’re really expected to do certain things. Sonny really wanted to, at that time, follow his own nose, meaning he might change key in mid tune, he might change a tune in mid-tune. He would change the tempo in mid-tune. And he really just expected whoever was in the band to follow him, wherever he happened to go. If that’s what you mean… I didn’t think of it as being rough on drummers. He’s a very strong player, and when he set out to go from one place to another, it was kind of obvious what he was doing and not that difficult to follow along.

TP: Did this 1959 engagement end your association? He entered his hiatus following that.

PLR: There was really only the Vanguard, which was a one-week job, and I think the tour with him in Europe that included the Stockholm recording was 10 days-2 weeks, something like that. Other than that, there were really just a few concerts here and there. I think I might have had a half-dozen other nights playing with him at most over that whole two-year period.

TP: I’m sure the Vanguard gig opened eyes around New York. Did it open up work opportunities playing jazz for you?

PLR: I’m certain that it did. I think the next good job I got was for a longer period of time, with Tony Scott, who had a quartet at the time, a very nice quartet for a good period of that time, with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. We worked for about 2 months solid at a place called the Showplace in Greenwich Village, which is no longer there. He had other people as well. It wasn’t all that.. It was just that two months with those two particular musicians. But it included a concert with Langston Hughes at Carnegie Hall for instance.

There was work. I was getting lots of work. Given the Sonny Rollins recording, which was Blue note, and the Jackie McLean recording…

TP: New Soil.

PLR: Yes, which was also Blue Note. I kind of fell into favor, as it were, with Alfred Lion of Blue Note, and he would often recommend me for records and the musicians would accept me. The same was true with Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. He’d very often bring just a horn player to town and pick up a local rhythm section… Well, a local rhythm section in New York City, you’re not doing too bad. Max would often recommend me for some of those jobs. So I got to work a lot, and I think that’s how I got to play with so many fine musicians.

TP: Your experience playing with John Coltrane in 1959 and 1960.

PLR: Obviously a great experience. It was a great job in the sense that it started with 10 weeks on the same bandstand at the Jazz Gallery. Now, that’s unheard of today, but that’s… If you want to start a band, that’s a great way to go at it. We did 10 weeks, two weeks each opposite Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton, Count Basie (the big band…it was really a great job) and Max Roach also. It was kind of fierce.

I think what had happened is that he had always intended, I think, to have the band that he ultimately ended up with. But all the guys he wanted weren’t available at the time that he got his opportunity to start. So I just had really the good fortune to get those first…it was probably 4 or 5 months, because we did those 10 weeks and then a tour around the Eastern Seaboard.

TP: What were the dynamics, the special demands of playing with John Coltrane.

PLR: A lot of energy. [LAUGHS] It’s kind of contrary, in a way, to my sort of natural bent. I’m not exactly a soft drummer. But I do like…or what I’ve developed into liking over time is to have my peaks of energy and then to come back down. Hopefully that allows a horn player to get his breath and think about it again; you don’t keep him at the top of his lungs constantly. But with John, that’s the way John played. He was always not so much necessarily at the top of his lungs, but certainly at the top of his energy. He never let that part come down. So it really was not natural, in a way, for me – but it sure was fun to do.


TP: …the material he recorded for Atlantic around that time, or was he looking for other things?

PLR: It started with the material from Atlantic, “Giant Steps,” etc. I think there might have been some earlier recordings for another label. “Equinox” I think preceded some of that music, the Atlantic period. “Mr. Syms,” I think, which people thought was me, but actually it was a barber of his in Philadelphia. During the period that I was there, he branched out into “My Favorite Things,” “Chasin’ The Trane”…

TP: He was playing “Chasin’ The Trane” in 1960, then.

PLR: He was playing the tune, yeah. And “Impressions,” that he did the long extended solo on. And “Inchworm.”

TP: So he was playing extended solos when you were playing with him.

PLR: Yes. Not so much a whole 20 minutes worth necessarily. But they were getting there. They were on their way to that. And he was getting to modal, as opposed to “Giant Steps.” In fact, we had a conversation about that. I really didn’t like the “Giant Steps” type stuff very much at all. Certainly for me, and I think for most drummers, our main device is harmonic rhythm. Meaning we go for the places where there are harmonic changes, where the chords sit down. In something like “Giant Steps,” the chords are just about note-for-note. So almost every drummer is going to play that the same way. BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TI-BASH, BANG BANG. It’s going to happen every time.

TP: If they can.

PLR: Right. Well, ok, but it’s just a natural. And I’m not too partial to things where I sound like any other drummer! I just don’t like to do things that way. So the things where the harmonic rhythm was more disparate, more interesting, were the things that I preferred. I loved “Equinox.” I loved “Body and Soul,” his great arrangement of “Body and Soul” that I have since orchestrated to put into my own group, etc.

TP: Perfect segue. That arrangement of “Body and Soul” appears on Swingtime, and let’s get to it.

[MUSIC: Pete, “Body and Soul”; w/Chick-Gilmore-Booker, “Bliss”]

TP: I’m one of many people who initially thought it was either Chick Corea’s or John Gilmore’s recording, as I’ve seen both incarnations.

PLR: Interesting.

TP: Actually your entire output as a leader is currently in print – Basra for Blue Note, Turkish Women At The Baths, and most recently, Swingtime, which is the name of his current ensemble, which is performing this week at Sweet Basil.

When we were speaking before that set of music, Pete, you made a comment that you don’t like to do things the way other people do – it’s not your policy. Has that been an ongoing character trait – the principle of individualism.

PLR: I don’t know that it was a guiding light, but it turned out to be the turn that I took on a number of different occasions. I was asked recently by an interviewer, “What was the first influence that caused you to go out, outside?” I said, “Nobody ever asked me that before,” and it took me a few minutes to think. The one person who I came up with was Moondog, who is called a street drummer. He’s a very unusual character who I used to see around on the street both in Midtown and in Harlem. He’d be standing on the street wearing Army blankets, sandals, and carrying a long staff. And he happened to be a drummer, and wrote music – and I think he played the flute also.

TP: He has a record out recently.

PLR: It’s a reissue. He also did a concert at the YMHA that I went to, and he had a beautiful triangular drum, about 6 feet long, sat on the floor, and he straddled it. There was a head on one end and the other end open, and he played on the head with a maraca and on the wooden side with a clave – and played the most marvelous things. I think that kind of led my ear to know that things can be done differently and still be quite musical. Drums being what they are, a very repetitive instrument. We hold the beat down. We end up with the backbeat, which I’ve avoided like the plague because it’s just so repetitive and boring – though people love it. People are comfortable with it. It’s obvious. You can feel it. But I just tended toward those things that were more like Moondog, and you know, the great drummers who played things that were interesting, that you’d never heard before, and that made it exciting.

TP: I guess stretching out over 10 weeks with John Coltrane would have given you food for thought.

PLR: It really developed into following the lead from whoever was up front. That started with Sonny, though of course it was pertinent to Coltrane as well. I still do that. It’s not so much that I have a pattern in mind. That goes back to the issue of having to maintain coordination. If you’re really working at it, then there are certain things, licks that you would play that you’re going to be comfortable with and you know how to do. My approach I hope is different in the sense that I prefer to listen to what the soloist mainly is doing and do something that complements whatever it is that he’s into. How should I play the time behind a soloist who is playing that particular kind of phrase up front. That leads you. Because they’re always playing something different, so that leaves me to always be playing something different, and I always liked that combination.

TP: You also became involved in studying Indian music during the 60s, according to the liner notes.

PLR: Yes. Though it was more a general period of Eastern studies. I was also investigating yoga and Zen, etc., as many people were at the time – and Indian music, which was a big part of it.

TP: Did the rhythmic structures of Indian music have an effect on your concept of drumming?

PLR: Not very much. It came across as intensely beautiful but also intensely complex, and I couldn’t find a way to carry it along. Actually I’ve had a similar experience recently with Native American music. Many of the tunes that I’ve written are drawn from other folk musics, not necessarily jazz. I was looking for something that would be from the Native American vernacular. Once again, I love what I hear, but I haven’t found anything that I can take to make it swing. It’s been done. Jim Pepper did “Witchi-tai-to,” which was great. So I know there’s probably something out there, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s very difficult. They don’t use time in so regular a fashion. Some of the time, meter signs – if there were one – seem to be irregular. They’re not circular like a 3/4 or 4/4 even or 5/4. They seem to change, to my ear, in large part, based upon their language. In other words, they’re singing a phrase, and whatever music or rhythm they’re going to do takes the shape of that phrase, as if it were spoken. That’s the rhythm of the music. It doesn’t have to be circular. Nobody is going to improvise. It doesn’t need to be a recognizable pattern. I’ve found that in many folk musics. I may be mistaken, but I think in Greek folk music I’ve also heard that, where they use wild meter signs. But it seems to follow the spoken phrase, not necessarily conducive to something that you want to swing.

TP: You started off in Latin music, and much of the roots therein are Yoruba-Cuban music. Have you continued exploring those feels and does it inflect the way you play?

PLR: Not much directly. I would go a little further back than Yoruba-Cuban to just plain African. When I was a kid, I lived in Harlem, and I was going to Music & Art, which was then at 135th Street, and the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library was at 136th and Lenox Avenue. So these things were close by, and I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Collection, listening to their records. That’s where I picked up the African elements of my playing. Then I got a chance to use them, of course, was I was playing timbales.

TP: When we break down Pete LaRoca’s influences, it sounds very complex, which it is, but there’s nothing daunting when you hear Pete LaRoca play. It’s endless swing, as the band’s apropos title, Swingtime, would indicate.

PLR: I wrote this for my daughter when she was 4 or 5, which is 25 or more years ago.

[MUSIC: Pete Sims, “Susan’s Waltz”]
[MUSIC: Miles, “Two Bass Hit”; Miles, “Gone”; Miles-PC-PJJ, “Billy Boy”]

TP: Next we’ll focus on Arthur Taylor, who you saw quite frequently during the late 50s.

PLR: Yes, late 50s-early 60s, and picked up a tip from him, actually, regarding the sock cymbal, which previously I had only seen played in only a rock-the-foot-heel-to-toe-and-back fashion. A.T. did it with just his toe, which bounced up and down, so to speak, on beat, and the heel never touched the pedal. That for me was a true find. It allowed a lot of flexibility as to how to use the sock cymbal. Or, perhaps what I should say is, it avoided the sort of locked-in motion of heel-to-toe, which is one of those things you can see drummers concentrating on getting it coordinated, and as long as you’re concentrating on getting it coordinated you’re not going to play anything that’s very loose. So it was a freeing-up device to learn from A.T. that, they, you can do it with just the toe, and there are then different things that involve balance and you get loose – for which I am forever grateful to A.T. It would be a pleasure to hear him play something.

[MUSIC: A.T.’s Delight, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”-1960]

TP: On the next segment we’ll hear a number of tracks from dates on which Pete LaRoca appeared. Alfred Lion called you fairly frequently. You played on several Joe Henderson records, including Page One, which debuted “Blue Bossa.” There are several Jackie McLean sides, Walter Davis, Jr., Sonny Clark…

PLR: Kenny Dorham.

TP: How did the relationship with Blue Note begin?

PLR: It was the Sonny Rollins date, which of course was the first thing I did. The next thing was Jackie’s New Soil, with “Minor Apprehension.” I guess Alfred was happy with the results, and I got into quite a few dates, including my date Basra.

[MUSIC: Art Farmer-PLR, “Tears”–Sing Me Softly Of the Blues; Jackie McLean, “Minor Apprehension”-1959; Joe Henderson-Andrew Hill, “Our Thing”-1963]

PLR: …when I was asked my name, and I said, “Peter,” I’d get a lot of “Ha,” etc., and I finally started making what I thought was a clever connection at the time – Peter meaning “rock” and LaRoca meaning “rock.” I sort of allowed myself to get stuck with it, and that’s how that name came about.

TP: It’s a catchy, recognizable name. You say “Pete LaRoca,” and it sticks in your mind.

PLR: The name has done its work well. People do not forget the name! If I had to choose, I did well with that one. Sims is my given name, and I’m just trying to be known as who I am without the 13-year-old cleverness…

TP: Sometimes the best inspirations…

PLR: Are when you’re 13 years old?

TP: This gentleman’s second question was: Where has he been since Night of the Cookers?

PLR: Right here, dealing with the vagaries of the jazz music business and the impossibility of getting the opportunity to work and be heard by people like your interested caller. I drove a cab for a while in order to survive. I’ve become a lawyer in order both to survive and to keep myself interested in life, etc. And now, at this particular juncture, I have this marvelous opportunity to have a band working and to indulge in music in a number of different ways again.

TP: Now we’ll get back to some other drummers, both from recordings with Thelonious. Roy Haynes is one of the masters in the pantheon; and also Frankie Dunlop.

PLR: Again, drummers don’t get to play with each other, so it’s only as a listener. With regard to Roy Haynes, I’ve always been fascinated by most particularly his left-hand technique, the very intricate and sometimes delicate things that he does on snare drum with his left hand, that I think are among the drumming marvels in jazz. The devices that he uses have a sort of military sound, which I think may be how he got his nickname “Sarge.”

Frankie Dunlap is a drummer I only heard in one context, and that was with Monk. I heard a number of other drummers with Monk, but there was something about Frankie Dunlap that has caused me to always think that he was just the ideal drummer for Monk. Monk was a little angular in his compositions and in his playing, and Frankie was a little angular in his drumming, and they seemed to go together quite well.

TP: It seems to me that your sense of the essential of being a drummer are boiled down into one word, which begins with an “s” and ends with a “g” – swing.

PLR: Yes.

TP: Talk about what comprises swing with a drummer. There are so many ways to do it. What’s that fine line? Is it something definable?

PLR: I personally would go back to Baby Dodds. I call it today CHANK-A-DANG. He wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think. But if you listen to his playing, that sense of TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A is there. CHANK-A-DANG is the same thing on a cymbal that has an extended sound, so it’s smoothed out a bit, as I’ve been talking about smoothing things out. To me, that’s the essence. I think that’s what Duke Ellington was talking about when he said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” We didn’t have all the other versions and varieties and extensions of swing when he said that. So to me, CHANK-A-DANG is the heart of it. And there are then many questions as to on what part of the drums it’s actually done; one’s touch in doing it. The drums being such a forceful instrument, discretion in playing drums is always significant, and being able to play, for instance, soft and still keep the drive going. All of these things are the things that really, to me, comprise swing, and that’s what swing is about.

People have done other things, and other things are interesting. They are logically sound, or they may be commercially viable, or whatever the case may be. But they are not necessarily swing. A person can say that the absence of something is a form of that thing. That may be a nice, logical argument, like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But it doesn’t come down to making that other thing, or that non-thing the thing itself, in my estimation, at least not when we’re talking about swing. There’s one thing. It’s CHANK-A-DANG. It goes right up the middle, and all the trimmings that you can add to it are great. But it never changes its own identity.

TP: During your younger days you played a lot for dancers on those Latin gigs, and I’m sure that imparted a whole sense of what sort of feeling to have on the drums, though that was on timbales at the time.

PLR: Yes. And I think everything I’ve done since that time has been in an effort to stay away from music for dancers because, though it may swing…

TP: It sounds a little contradictory, on the face of it, to say that.

PLR: It may. But a drummer has a function. In addition to the aesthetics of it, and the music of it, and the expression, a drummer has the function of setting down the time. And the closer you get to dancers, the more firmly you are locked into that function and the less you do anything else, to today where most of today’s popular dance music also derived from jazz is based on the hand-clap, or, as a drummer would call it, the backbeat. Well, you don’t need a drummer to clap hands. There’s a contradiction in terms there. Basically, that’s what it comes down to. It’s swing, and I don’t think there’s that much doubt about it, though people raise many questions as to what it is.

[MUSIC: Monk-Roy Haynes-Griffin, “In Walked Bud”-1958; Monk-Rouse-Dunlap, “Rhythm-A-Ning”]

TP: [re “Bliss”]

PLR: That album began with a cover. I was given the painting, Turkish Women At the Bath, by Ingres, and asked to write some music for it. I thought it was a little outrageous, but one doesn’t say no when somebody offers you a record date. So I did, and this set of songs resulted, and “Bliss” is one of those.

[Pete LaRoca,” “Bliss” and “Basra”]

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Filed under Drummer, Pete LaRoca, WKCR

Hamiet Bluiett (1940-2018): Two WKCR Interviews — Out to Lunch in 1993; a Musician Show in 1994

Here are the transcripts of a pair of WKCR interviews that it was my honor to conduct with the master baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett in 1993 and 1994 — the 1994 encounter was a Musician Show, where Bluiett played and talked about the music that influenced him. The July 21, 1993 show was intended to publicize a club appearance by the World Saxophone Quartet, which was about to welcome James Spaulding into the mix. Bluiett was with me from noon to 1:30; Spaulding came up for the second half, the transcript of which appears in a recent post.


Hamiet Bluiett, Out To Lunch, WKCR, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: WSQ, “Masai Warriors Dance” (by Bluiett), Metamorphosis, 1993]

TP: I’m pleased to welcome to WKCR the great baritone saxophonist, Hamiet Bluiett, who also plays various clarinets and other woodwinds, who is appearing with the World Saxophone Quartet and African Drums this week at Sweet Basil. Welcome.

HB: Ok, thank you.

TP: Three members of the World Saxophone Quartet have been working together now for 17 years. After Julius Hemphill left, Arthur Blythe held that chair for a few years; it’s now held by James Spaulding, who will join us later on. How does the presence of a new member affect what the band does, and the approach. How do you work someone in? And how was he chosen?

HB: So far, the band has been very fortunate in that…by having Julius… Then, when it was time for Julius to leave, we were able to get Arthur. Then Spaulding. Each one was a person that we had in mind for doing the particular chair. Because Arthur brought in a needed ingredient that was needed at the time, and James brings in another needed ingredient that’s needed at this time. The basis and the nucleus of it, we have it. So we’ve used quite a few people, and we have some more people in mind who we’re going to get to. In terms of the group now, Sam Rivers, Branford marsalis, John Stubblefield, John Purcell, Kidd Jordan, and I’m missing somebody… Julius, Spaulding, Arthur, and there’s two other saxophone players that I’m missing who have been… Henry Threadgill and Sam Rivers. These are people who at one time or another within our 17 year existence — besides myself, David Murray, and Oliver Lake — have appeared with the group in one kind of way or other. John Purcell is the only one who has covered everyone’s chair, including mine. He’s played all of the parts.

It’s a lot of people. But we have… Spaulding, because of the homespun blues and the other sort of ingredients, and the effervescence, brought another kind of thing, which is good.

TP: He also has a broad range on the flute, which I think fits in very well with African percussion and African melodies.

HB: It’s all of that. Everything. The whole bean. We don’t try to replace a person. We learned that from Duke. The music has to fit around whoever it is that you’re dealing with. So we’re constantly doing new things. At the club now, instead of having Mor Thiam and Mar Gue, with Chief Bey, we have Chief Bey, Okeryema Asante from Ghana, and Kahil el-Zabar from Chicago. So the configuration with the African drums now is something totally different from what it was before, but like I said, we don’t try to get another Mor Thiam because that won’t happen no way. It’s that singular.

TP: You’ve been associated with Okeryema Asante in a number of situations over the years, particularly on your most recent release on Tutu Records, If You Have To Ask – and isn’t he on your old Chiaroscuro recording?

HB: No, he’s not on that. Chief Bey has been with me all the time. He’s on Nali Kola with me. But on the Chiaroscuro, it’s Chief Bey, Ladji Kamara and Michael Carvin. That’s a little bit different setup.

TP: What was the impetus for World Saxophone Quartet to start bringing drums and the African drum ensemble into its orbit? You were solely a saxophone quartet for many years.

HB: Well, after Julius, who was basically a composer, then it was time for us to do something else. I had really grown tired of just a saxophone quartet configuration. Because… You can just reinvent some kind of way. For me, after so many years, it was time to do something else, and African drum was a good way to still bring out the saxophones, and in my mind, moving ahead to the next level of rhythm section, if you want to call it that. So we decided to go forward or go backwards, both at the same time.

TP: And the group does do both at the same time. There are numbers on which the four saxophones play together in ensemble or different solos, and pieces on which the rhythm comes in. Everyone in the WSQ has their own thriving solo career, and everyone is internationally known as a leader. How often does the group work in a given year?

HB: Well, it constantly changes every year. So far this year, we’ve gone on a European tour that last 28 days. We played in Atlanta, Georgia, with the drums. We’ve hit in Boston. We’re on our way to do a record date in Milano at the first of September with Spaulding. I can’t think of everything. It’s not a whole lot, but it does wind up being enough. After being together for so many years, being creative, you have to do a lot of other things just to come up with some different ideas. We have an LP in the can coming out now that will feature Fontella Bass and some totally different kind of stuff.

So the group is growing in other ways. The quartet is not just a quartet. The quartet is a whole…how can I put it…lifestyle, identity, base, umbrella. You understand? We’re planning to get to some things where we use piano, maybe piano…not necessarily piano choirs, but different configurations to go along with us to show the saxophone in a sort of different light as the nucleus of music, as opposed to being somebody else as the base.

TP: The members of the WSQ are all based in the New York area, but everybody is originally from the Midwest or the West Coast. Is there any way in which where you’re from affects the type of music that you play or the musical approach you’re talking about?

HB: Of course. Let me put it one kind of way. You’ve got the Mississippi River joining up with the Missouri River, and everybody that’s in the path of the river is going through that kind of trouble. People that live in Colorado are not bothered with that, or if you live in upstate New York. So the land that you’re in has a lot to do… For instance, me, I have a certain sort of accent when I talk that is Midwestern as opposed to Southern. So there’s a regional dialect that goes along with what you do. In the Midwest, the music a lot wilder, but not necessarily free, because there’s a lot of wide-open spaces. Whereas here, in New York, in the city, things are much more… Like, you’ve got [(?)208th Street(?)]. [(?)208th Street(?)] for me is a cornfield. If you take the same distance and go somewhere from my house, you… I’m in the middle of wide-open spaces. So the way of looking at a lot of things because of that… I’m trying to take everything to be verbal, and experience…

David Murray is from California. People are a lot cooler, a lot more laid-back. There’s a whole lot of other stuff. Now they’re going through some other kind of things, but… And plus, from Texas. Oliver is from St. Louis, from Mississippi. Stuff like that.

I know for me, I’m heavily blues-based. Spaulding is from Indianapolis, Naptown, heavy blues-based — so it’s a different kind of thing. As opposed to being East Coast. But then again, you’re all in one piece of land, so it’s all similar, too.

TP: Did you come up playing a lot of those type of blues gigs as a young musician?

HB: No.

TP: What were you doing as a young musician?

HB: Trying to learn how to play music.

TP: What instrument did you start on, and about how old were you?

HB: I started on piano when I was about 4, and learned how to basically read music and what I was looking at. I’m still being basic now. When the hands started going two different ways, I said, “No, this is not the instrument for me.” I tried to do trumpet. That didn’t happen. Then finally I wound up on clarinet in maybe about the fourth grade or something like that. I’ve been playing it ever since. But I wanted a saxophone. But the saxophone I wanted, that I saw, that made me excited, was a baritone saxophone.

TP: Why was that?

HB: I don’t know. I just looked at it and liked it.

TP: Were you big enough to play it?

HB: No. It was about my size at the time. But it was just that kind of excitement. Now, why? I don’t even care why, because I wound up with it. You understand? So that was just the instrument for me, regardless of what anybody say. So I saw it at that age. I don’t even remember the age now. I didn’t necessarily like the way the guys who played it, played it, because I thought the horn was too big to have such a small sound. I always thought the sound should be…it’s a bigger horn… I’m from marching band country, and I’m used to hearing sousaphone players hit as hard as any trumpet player on the planet, with enormous, fat…you know, fat-man sound, not no little sound — and big. And trombone players. The horns with the sounds getting bigger, according to the size of the instrument. With saxophones, the thing kind of went the other way. So I said, “There’s a problem here.” So that’s been one of the problems of trying to deal with it. Until I ran into Harry Carney. Then I said, “Oh! Ok. I was right.” But I said, “Oh, I got a lot of work.”

TP: Did you run into Harry Carney on a record or did you hear the Ellington band…

HB: I’m talking about in person.

TP: Where did you hear him? Do you remember when?

HB: 20-something. 25, maybe something like that. It was outside of Boston. I was in the Navy at the time, stationed in Boston at South Annex. So we’re talking about maybe 1965, 1964. I had heard the band before that. But what I mean by heard the band… I have a way of talking where words mean whatever I want them to mean. But what I meant, I HEARD the band, meaning it really got to me, I was in a club, and I was about as far from him as I am from here to you. For those who don’t know, we’re talking about 5 or 6 feet. But then the band was angled in another way, but I was right up on top of him. I was the first person that you got to. The band hit. And I sat there, petrified. It was a music thing, though, because I loved it, but I said “Whoa!” because it put so much distance in between what was going on and what wasn’t going on, that I said, “Whoa!” I said, “Damn, Duke’s got two bands; he’s got a big band and Harry Carney.” That’s what it sounded like. It sounded like his band and Harry Carney, who sounded like a whole band by himself. Everybody in the band had these tremendous sounds, but he was like…

Then I said, “Whoa, it’s the horn.” I mean, it’s him, but… So I started really thinking about the instrument. Instead of wondering, then I knew. So I said, “Ok, let me get to work on coming from another perspective. It’s a completely different instrument. Most people play it like it’s a tenor. They’re still running over it. And it can run, but it also goes through stuff. So it’s an altogether different instrument.

TP: When you got out Navy, is that when you started on music as your profession, your avocation?

HB: Chronologically, it was like ’66, January. I was supposed to come out four years earlier, but I got extended for the Vietnam draft. So instead of me coming out in September, everybody after a certain date had to… Which was cool, because I bought a car and the same instrument I’ve got now. Things were real cheap. I was a musician in Service. Actually, that’s why I went. Because I got tired of not playing.

TP: A fair number of musicians did that.

HB: Yeah, some of them. You had to volunteer to be in the Navy anyway, and I didn’t want to get drafted. Because that was coming at the time. It was one of those times when to keep from going into the draft, you could go your own way – but you still had to do some kind of service. And I was not in school or anything. So I said, well, rather than be in the foxhole… So I took an audition, and they said I was good enough to be in the band. As long as you get through basic service, then you’re a musician. So I was already set up to go that way, so I made it on through. Which worked out real good, since I had to do some kind of service at the time.

TP: What other music were you listening to at the time you were entering the service and coming out of it that was pleasing to your ear and that you wanted to be getting with?

HB: Well, I always was listening to what you call jazz. So if we’re talking about that time in the 60s, I was listening to John Coltrane and a lot of other people — at that particular time. I remember listening to a lot of those things when he was heavily criticized, and Miles was criticized for having him, and a lot of people that jump up and down now, praising his name, talked about him like a dog. I always heard something in his playing that satisfied me. Not necessarily technically, because I’m not into that sort of mindset. Something has to satisfy me inside of my body some kind of way. I heard Miles say that. It’s really kind of true.

TP: You’re both from the same part of the country.

HB: Yeah, we’re from the same part of the world. So we’ve got another kind of way of feeling it. My way of looking at music is sort of like spiritual decadence. It’s spiritual, but I can’t get away from whatever is going on. So they both seem to coexist without me being in control, since I don’t run the world, no way.

TP: But maybe you do run the baritone saxophone. Let’s hear a few examples from recent recordings by Hamiet Bluiett, and then we’ll be back for further conversation.

HB: This is called “Children At Play.” I wrote it for Mama Geri at a child development center at City College. My grand-daughter was going to this child development center, which you would call like a daycare…what they call them. But the concept was Afrocentric, and it was children from everywhere, but the sort of freedom that they had in being able to do what they did always inspired me. Because I watched the way they would play, and they don’t play military, like everybody got to step. They go! It all works out! Everybody is GO! But they weren’t destructive. They just took off and did what they had to do. So I looked at it a lot, and I said, “let me write a tune,” and I wrote a little tune for it.

TP: This features Fred Hopkins on bass and Michael Carvin on drums, with percussionist Okeryema Asante, who is appearing with WSQ this week. The CD is You Don’t Need To Know If You Have To Ask, and it’s on Tutu.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Children at Play”; “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”-You don’t Need To Know…]

TP: I think when the general public first became aware of Hamiet Bluiett was via stints with Charles Mingus during the early 1970s. Where did Mingus hear you? What circumstances led you to Mingus?

HB: It was between Paul Jeffreys and Roy Brooks. Because Mingus’ love of Ellington… He had a big band at the time, and he needed a baritone saxophonist. He was having a problem finding anybody with a sound, and he was starting to even write some tunes. So fortunately, I had been playing with Sam Rivers, Olatunji and some other people… I got here in 1969. I hooked up with Mingus I think in 1972. By then, most of the musicians knew me and I knew most of them.

So I started in with the big band. Jon Faddis was in it; he was real young. A lot of guys. Real good band. Then later on, I came back and played with him… I might have been in the big band in 1971, but I came and started really working with him in 1972. That’s what it was. Yeah, something like that.

Mingus was like, for me… At the time I came in with Mingus, he was always being talked about real bad, being crazy and all that other stuff. So I had to go through all that, which was a problem, because it’s hard to work with somebody when everybody else has a paranoia or fear about him. Even though you may not feel that way, after you get through fighting it for a while, then it succumbs to you. I’ve seen people walk to him and do some horrible things, like put their finger in his mouth. Just a whole bunch of crazy, stupid type stuff. He would tell musicians things that he wanted to do, and they wouldn’t understand what he was saying. I think because they didn’t want to hear it. To me, he was ahead of where the cats were talking about. But whatever kind of problems he had with them before I got there, I can’t even speak about. You know what I mean?

And I had been sort of weaned on Mingus’ music, because my cousin turned me on to him years ago, and I went to “Better Get It In Your Soul” and a whole lot of stuff. I listened to his tone poems. I was one of them kind of musicians, coming up as a kid, that went to the music store and would browse and get all the stuff they was about to throw away and give away and whatever, and take them home and play it — and I found a lot of interesting music that way. Mingus’ music, as far as I’m concerned…or his direction of music… More guys are writing off of it now by opening things up, and things of that nature, the way he dealt with the paper and all that kind of stuff, than probably any musician. Which is why, after he’s dead, he’s getting all these accolades. Because that’s really true. A lot of cats are off of Miles, and everybody has their regimen. But Mingus has a whole lot, especially in the avant-garde type feeling things of this nature, and people who do a multi-media and all those kinds of things. Mingus’ music is extremely powerful as a progenitor, and one of the people who set up that whole idiom.

Now, therefore, saying all that, that means you’re working with somebody who got a lot of problems because they’re trying to do things that people don’t know what you’re trying to tell them and they can’t hear it no way. And you kind of hear, though, what they’re talking about, where he would take 2 or 3 melodies and play it at the same time. He would take two tunes and play them at the same time. So now, when we decide to run one line against another line, it makes much more sense because he’s already done that. A lot of people have. But it’s just the timing of it.

So it was like a blessing, in a way, and a curse. Because I needed someone to helpme get out and be known other than someone playing… See, with the baritone sax it’s an enormous problem, because all people want you to do is be in a supporting role – like the grandfather. “Go get your old Chevrolet and I’ll have a sports car.” Stuff like that. Or “Oh, Daddy, go back home; you don’t need to be out now.” So the baritone saxophone sort of is relegated to that role. It’s not a Billy Dee Williams, if you want to put a type of instrument… The women are looking for something different. Everybody’s listening for something different. So I beg to differ with all that. I know better. So the horn needed to be put out, and I wanted it put out in another way, and I didn’t see any sense in trying to go over the past music. It’s already been done.

The thing that I learned about… I’ve put all the musicians together at one time that I felt greatly, which was a lot of them! And one thing I’ve come out with is that they all did what they want to do and they all were original. So I said, “I need to do what I want to do, and be original.” So I want to emulate them, instead of imitating their notes and trying to steal their styles. I took it in that direction.

TP: a lot of musicians with that type of mindset were coming to New York in the mid 1970s, and you hooked up with three of them, and it became the World Saxophone Quartet. Can you tell me a bit about…

HB: How that got started?

TP: How that got started, and your early encounters with Oliver Lake, David Murray…

HB: Well, see, I knew Oliver Lake from St. Louis. I also knew Julius Hemphill. Because we started a group called the Black Artists Group. At the time period when I came out of the Service, everybody was playing piano, basses and drums and organs and all this. Being a baritone, again, I wanted to play every day. So we got hooked up in St. Louis, and this is going into… After I came out of the Service in 1966. So from 1966 into 1969, I’m talking about two-and-a-half years. I said, “I want to play.” So we got hooked up with this organization, and we started playing every day, regardless to who showed up. So that means you might not have nobody but one saxophone, two saxophones, three people, four people, and most of them were like instruments and drums. Bobo was part of it and all that. We did that a lot. Then if the drummer didn’t show up, we started playing by ourself.

This brought about another kind of music. I didn’t have a bass to adhere to, nor did I have a piano. Mingus and the cats…Gerry Mulligan and all them, had already broke the group down (Max and everybody) to drums and bass. We stripped away the bass, and just had drums alone. People would do this… Max had done his solos with Clifford Brown. But it’s not for an album. It’s just for part of a texture. We’re talking about this is the whole unit. So now we’ve got a different kind of configuration. We started doing that, and I found out that for the way I was hearing, I heard more. Because something of the old fashion of playing with a piano…I had never been… I can do it but it’s not my expertise. I don’t call it that way. That’s not where I really thrive. Then, if the drummer didn’t show up, we would play anyway. So we worked up… It’s a different kind of thing. Some people try to act like it isn’t. But it is. It’s totally different. Every situation has a different…it opens up to different mysteries and different beauties.

Then, later, when I came to New York… I was the first one out of the bunch to come. I came in 1969. The Art Ensemble went to France earlier, and I said “later – let me go to New York.” I said, “If I go to Europe, I’ve got to come back anyway. If I go to Chicago, I’ve got to go to New York.” So I kept looking at the equation. I still had to come back Dexter came back. Everybody comes back. I said, “Let me just go to New York.” So that’s what I did. I talked to Oliver Nelson. I asked him. He said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Wait a minute. Before you answer. If you want to make money, get all your doubles and triples, bassoon, oboe, all the saxophones, all the flutes, all the clarinets, get all your horns together and go to California.” I said, “I want to play.” He said, “Ok, go to New York.” That was basically it. I went here.

TP: You knew Oliver Nelson also from St. Louis?

HB: Yes, he was from St. Louis also. So I asked him for some advice on what to do, to give me some sort of perspective. He gave me a perspective of what was happening on the two coasts. New York is about playing. I said, “Ok, good.” It’s more like a creative mecca. It really is.

TP: What was your impression of the scene when you got here?

HB: It was horrible, I felt. It had highs and lows. Uptown, the Club Barron was still here, going down bad. Count Basie’s, going down. Minton’s, going down. They were still in existence, but just a shadow of their grandeur, you understand, if you take it back to the players. I had come to New York to visit in the 60s, and just a shadow of THAT. Yeah, it was kind of bad, man.

Downtown, the only thing…. The Five Spot was going down. The Vanguard made it on through everything. Boomer’s was up and down. The scene was bad. Dexter and all the cats were going to Europe, Johnny Griffin, everybody. So I came in on a downward arc…

TP: But during this time, new musicians were coming, revitalizing the scene, finding new places to play.

HB: They were coming all along. But the thing about it, we started to come in and do some music in a different kind of way at the same time. Because there was this big split here between the so-called “straight-ahead” and the so-called “avant-garde.” It was real out at the time I got here. Which actually made it better, because it was wide-open spaces. I told you — 203rd Street for me is a cornfield. It was wide-open, so it made it much better for us.

After I played with Mingus and got out of the band, I sat around for a year and didn’t do nothin’. Then I said, “No, I want to start playing every day again.” Some of the cats were coming around, like Bobo and all of them; I think the Art Ensemble had come back from Europe. So we’re getting to about 1975 now. They worked at the Five Spot, which had revived itself and was on the Lower East Side. I said, “Ok, it’s time to go back.” That blended in to David Murray coming to town. Then the so-called “Loft scene,” which they gave a name to, hit. Because we were playing in lofts a lot, and that built a whole nother venue.

Now, the beauty, to me, of that music was it was a… I used to call it like trench warfare or front-line. Sometimes we would have rehearsals and concerts on the same day. Henry Threadgill, a lot of cats would do some massive and sometimes very intricate stuff right on the spot, and have to do it one time and one time only. That to me was very thrilling and very exciting. So people started coming from out of nowhere and everywhere to see this creativity happening in front of their face, because it’s very exciting. It’s very exciting when you see music go down like that. You’re watching it and it’s going down as you’re watching. You know it’s only for you, and that’s your flower. You can take it with you forever, because it won’t happen no more.

So this was going on a lot. Rashied Ali had his place, which I think now is what, Greene Street?

TP: 77 Greene Street.

HB: There was a lot of activity. Sam Rivers opened up a place, Joe Lee Wilson, the Tin Palace. So the whole scene was being revived…

TP: And it was all within 6-10 blocks of each other.

HB: George Coleman was coming out, finally getting a chance to get some work and get his recognition. So things were happening from a lot of different directions at one time. Eddie Jefferson was around a lot. There was a lot of stuff. Of course, Art Blakey and people like that never quit. They kept coming right on through.

TP: So within this ferment of activity, how does this lead to the saxophone quartet idea.

HB: Ok. During that time when these loft things were jumping off, Julius was here, I was here, Oliver was here, and David Murray. Ed Kidd Jordan came up from New Orleans on a sabbatical because he wanted to hit! He came in the middle of it, the summer of 1976, and it was the bicentennial summer. We were hittin’! We were going all the way through the summer, all the way through August. August had been a down month with nothing happening in the music. So now, quite naturally… You have all these festivals now; that’s totally changed.


…which the Dirty Dozen came out of. After they heard us, they formed their group. They wanted to do something different in the music. So they wanted for him to either come and get Sun Ra or Ornette. Luckiiy for us, neither one of them was formulated. So after coming and playing with us, he said, “Why don’t the four of you guys come down to New Orleans and hit with me?” So we went down, and we started this group that we called the New York Saxophone Quartet and played with a rhythm section. The place was packed, including Wynton and Branford, Donald Harrison, all these guys was like little kids. All of them were there, and old people up to 80 years. Mainly a 90% black audience, but with a lot of children, babies, old people all at one time. We started playing, and the kids started running through the audience like a wagon train. You know how they circle? So they had an aisle on both sides, and in the front and in the back, and the kids just started running. It was the coolest thing ever, because none of the parents acted like a fool and told them to stop. And none of the kids got hurt. And they ran and ran, and the people just sat there and dug the concert, liked what was happening, let us know that it was really going on, and the kids were energized, which is the way that they do — music makes them run.

So I said, “Whoa, look at this.” I went away and I said, “Look, we got something like this; we ought to keep this together.” I really can’t take credit for putting it together. But it was born that way.

TP: You have to grab the idea when it comes to you.

HB: Well, it worked so well, and we had been doing it anyway. So then we went and played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s on the same weekend, still in New Orleans. The first concert we did was with a bass and a drum — London Branch on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums. Then we went and played in a club. Then we got to New York, and someone approached us about playing in the Tin Palace, and so we did that. We called ourselves by this time the Real New York Saxophone Quartet, because we heard about a group… We didn’t even know there was a New York Saxophone Quartet, to be truthful. So we changed it to… Wait, the letter for that came later, after the writeup when we played at the Tin Palace. But the reaction to that was still real good. So we’re seeing how these people are frozen in their seat, and watching and looking and liking what we do. We never tried to get a job; all the jobs kept coming to us.

Then we were at Oliver Lake’s house one day, doing something. We were rehearsing, getting ready to go to the Tin Palace, and they called from Moers, Germany. Some group decided not to show up, and they needed a group. We were in the house rehearsing. They say, “Yo, what about the World Saxophone Quartet?” They say, “Ok, good, we’ll take them.” So we worked for them and we did a slight tour. It just kept growing and growing and growing. The four of us got together. It’s almost as if the spirits are saying “Stay together.” So it kind of worked like that.

TP: We’ll hear some of Bluiett’s music from another very recent release, recorded last October on Soul Note, titled Sankofa, Rear Guard, which I’ll bet refers to your remarks about the position of the baritone player in the band.

HB: Yes, it’s got something to do with it. It’s got to do with a lot of things, really. The avant-garde is the one that’s supposed to be in front, and my position is like to be actually behind, so as to push everything. Also sankofa is a way of looking back. So I am constantly going ahead, but I am also now collecting from what I’ve done. So I want to enjoy some of the things I’ve done as opposed to run away and not keep them. That means melodies in music, harmonies, time… There’s a lot of things I’m talking about anything.

TP: Ted Dunbar is on guitar, Clint Houston on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Why this particular group; how did it hook up?

HB: I wanted to play with a guitar for a while, and I wanted a guitar player that was very knowledgeable and steeped in the blues — and Ted’s from Texas, so that’s no problem. Whenever you just quit thinking, he’s already into the blues. Clint Houston is a virtuoso on bass. So he and Ted can chase each other with these chord changes and things. Ben Riley because Ben never ceases to swing. That’s the thing, and the music should do that. Right? So it was time for me to get a rhythm section that when I say “let’s go,” they go. So it was that kind of idea. Then that’s the kind of support that I thought the instrument needed, because all these guys are such great musicians that they would be able to do whatever needs to be done. You get a lot when you get people of that caliber.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Nuttin’ Special”;
[MUSIC: WSQ, “The Holy Men” by Bluiett, from Metamorphosis; James Spaulding, “Song of Courage”]


Hamiet Bluiett, Musician Show, WKCR, Feb. 9, 1994:

[WSQ: “Nuttin’ Special”-1992, Sankofa: Rear Guard]

TP: What were your thoughts in organizing the music we’ll hear this evening.

HB: Let’s go back to the beginning. You talked to me some months ago about doing this show, and I think I spoke about, “What about baritone saxophone?” Then in the last couple of weeks,we’ve narrowed it down to about 100…

TP: We have about a 48-hour show. We can hole up with potato chips and coffee.

HB: [LAUGHS[ Yes, we have a 48-hour show. Hopefully tonight, what will happen is, you’ll get a chance to see the baritone saxophone from my perspective, with Harry Carney being the boss of the horn for me – chronologically as well as everything. But not everything. Then these other people, some that are main influences. During the time, when I was coming up trying to listen to the baritone sax, there was not much available. So I had to hunt. You could find a lot of tenor, trumpet, things of that nature.

TP: What sort of things were you listening to then anyway?

HB: Anything I could get my hands hold of. There was a lot of stuff with Gerry Mulligan during that time period for me, because of Columbia records, and I was living in the Midwest, in a small town outside of St. Louis, Missouri. So I’d have to go look for Gene Ammons or other… I mean, they could be found; I’m not saying that. But not as readily as I could do the Columbia Record Club or whatever.

TP: How about the jukeboxes?

HB: The jukeboxes were nice. They had things… “Tempus Fugit” was on the jukebox. Miles on that Cannonball recording, Something Else — that whole thing was on the jukebox. A lot of things with Gene Ammons, with Nat Adderley and people like that. Eddie Harris had a hit…

TP: “Exodus”?

HB: Right. Or something like that… “Exodus,” right, he had a hit with that – you’re right. Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” and Bobby Timmons’ songs. A lot of those things were jukebox hits. So I had a chance to hear a lot of music, now that I’m thinking about it.

TP: There were a lot of instrumentals in Rhythm-and-Blues at the time a specific saxophone sound.

HB: That’s true. There’s always been specific sounds to certain eras; whatever is most prominent, everybody jumps on it, shows them where they’ve got to go.

TP: When you started playing, what sort of gigs were you doing? Who were some of the first people you aligned yourself with, or the type of music you started playing?

HB: When I first tried to play in terms of being on a bandstand or whatever, I was playing what you would call rhythm-and-blues, and doing a horrible job at it on the clarinet, and was glad that the people didn’t shoot me within the 9 months or so when I was working on this instrument. So I started out playing rhythm and blues on clarinet, believe it or not, and playing with what we called hillbilly bands at the time, or different, when I went to the baritone… So it was on one end of the block, which was about a half-a-mile block – that was just a rhythm-and-blues band. On the other end was this hillbilly band. I played with both of them, with the baritone sax, which I wanted to play since I was 10 years old.

TP: What made you want to play it?

HB: I just looked at the horn and liked it. It was as simple as that.

TP: Because of the heft of it?

HB: Everything. I just looked at one and that was it. No other horn affected me like that. I left the trumpet and all that stuff, and got kind of excited. But when I saw a baritone, I almost went, you know, OUT. I said, “Whoa!” It put an indelible impression. I never forgot the instrument. It was years later before I saw another or become close to it, other than seeing one from a distance, in the movies or something.

TP: When did you seriously begin to start playing jazz, improvising? In your teens, a local situation, or after you’d moved on to other things?

HB: Well, it’s kind of what you call, what you call… I’ve been trying to do improvising all along. But I guess maybe by the time I was 18, 17 – sort of late on the track, if you look at it in terms of how things can be done now. But it was hard for me to get any of that kind of knowledge, or even be steered in that direction. So it took me a while trying to do things the so-called correct way, but fighting these internal feelings while doing it.

TP: How so? What were you fighting?

HB: I could play things, but emotionally I would be off. Something’s supposed to be cool, and here I am getting ready to jump and run. So emotionally, I’m in the wrong spot. I’ll give you an example. I took an exam to get…it’s like an audition to get a scholarship on clarinet. I played some classical composition, I don’t remember right now. Anyway, when I played it, I got all carried away and I felt real good, and I was just, you know what I mean, BURNING, I thought. When I got through the guy said, “That was sort of rambunctious of you.” So I had gone the wrong direction in terms of the whole temperament of the music. I said, “Wait a minute – but I felt it; so therefore, if I felt it, I’m not going to let it be wrong.” But I was wrong. So I said: “Wait a minute; that’s the end of that.”

So it taught me a lesson in terms of… I had the wrong temperament. So I waited all those years to try… Even trying to play jazz, it’s the same sort of problem – for me – to be put in the same sort of structure. The horn doesn’t let me do that. It doesn’t let me flow the same as a violin or a piano. I’ve got more sonic blast and going through stuff… It’s a different picture, you understand, in my head or how I see the instrument or feel it coming through my body. So… For a long time. Let’s put it that way.

TP: You stated that Harry Carney is the king of the baritone sax for you, and it begins really, in a lot of ways, with Harry Carney. When did you discover him, and when did you first hear him (a) on record and (b) in the flesh?

HB: Well, I’d been hearing him all my life. My mother was a Duke Ellington fan, a big fan, and my father was a Count Basie big fan. So all my life I’ve been hearing all this music. It’s not a thing… I don’t even remember. I can sort of remember a first time for Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and some other people, but for him I really don’t. Because chronologically the age…like Louis Armstrong, I don’t remember not…

TP: Not hearing him. Part 2: You’ve mentioned there’s a big difference between listening to recorded music and hearing music in person. You said it was so striking, you even stopped listening to records for a long time.

HB: Well, music has a thing where it does something to the wavelengths of even what’s in the air, the room you’re in. So a lot of stuff is changed up. So it’s another kind of feeling. It can be eerie, you can like it, not like it – but it puts a whole nother thing on you. I found that to be missing. Also what I found to be missing… Maybe that’s it. The feeling of the person to really be missing in what I was listening for at the time. I found that the volumes would be… Some guys will have a large tone; the record made them seem smaller. Etcetera. Or singers or whoever.

TP: I believe you also mentioned hearing the Ellington band in the flesh and the impression that it made on you.

HB: Oh yeah. When I heard it in the flesh, then that was a different matter. I’d heard it before, but it was from a distance. This time I was in a small club outside of…in the Cape area, outside of Boston. I was sitting as far from Harry Carney like from me to you, so we’re talking 4-5 feet, 6 at the moment, but on the side of the band. Duke was on the other side of the band. So it was Duke on one side, Harry on the other, and everybody else was in the middle. The band sounded like two bands – it was a big band and Harry Carney. His sound was equal to the sound of the whole band, including the drums, Duke and everybody else. That froze me in place. In one way it was terrifying, but not as a musician. I don’t mean the term like the icepick murder is coming after you. I mean, it’s like WHOA – overwhelming. Maybe that was the word. Everybody had been soloing all night. Paul Gonsalves and the rest of the people. The band was superlative. I mean, it was BAD. So I’m sitting there, and the guys are playing their instruments, and this guy came out toward the end of the night, took a solo, played ONE NOTE – the whole place stopped. Nobody moved. The waiter. Everybody. BRRMMM… He went down, hit that bottom note, pop, and held that, and that was the end of it. Everybody started back to doing what they were doing. That was very impressive to me. Not only was it the note, it was just that it froze everybody.

I had that same experience happen, and they were all with Duke Ellington people. The next time it happened was with Jimmy Hamilton… No, the third time. The next time was Cat Anderson. Cat Anderson playing with Mingus. We did a tour in Europe. It was Mingus with Joe Gardner playing trumpet, I was on baritone, Roy Brooks on drums, and John Foster on piano. Cat Anderson. He did it. He played a note that was so soft and you could still hear it. It froze the place.

Jimmy Hamilton. We were in the Northsea, on a rooftop, playing with the Clarinet Summit and John Carter, and I was taking David Murray’s place on bass clarinet. He took a solo and did the same thing. Now, here’s people doing three different things, but both of them where everybody stopped at one time. Nobody moved. No waiters or nothing. And when they stopped playing and ended the solo, we were back to reality.

TP: One quality about Harry Carney that I think is applicable to your work is his role in the Ellington saxophone section in terms of defining the sound of the section. You’ve of course been the anchor of the World Saxophone Quartet since its inception almost 20 years ago. The first selection showcases the Ellington sax section. It comes from a 1946 recording on Musicraft. The saxophone-woodwinds section is Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope. Johnny Hodges, Al Sears and Harry Carney. This one is “Jam-a-Ditty”.

[MUSIC: Ellington-“Jam-A-Ditty”-1946; Ellington, “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Ellington, “Work Song”-1944, Carnegie Hall]

TP: Harry Carney was featured towards the beginning of “Work Song,” but that really was a showcase for the trombone of Joe Nanton.

HB: I know, but it still shows an important function of how the instrument was used, and I wanted that to be highlighted as well. Harry Carney did more section work than he did soloing. That’s the other thing about up to when it came in to see how well the horn was incorporated in the harmonies. Because a lot of times, to me, it seems as if it was more melody than harmony in terms of the placement of the parts.

TP: He also played a fair amount of bass clarinet and also clarinet in the Ellington band.

HB: But the reason I’m focusing on baritone is because he seemed… I think maybe he started playing in 1919, so he’s one of the first people to even play it consistently. So that automatically gave him first place, for doing it longer than anybody. It kind of set the definitive tone of that particular idiom of dealing with the instrument – because they’re all idioms of their own.

TP: In the middle was one of probably thousands of versions of “Sophisticated Lady” featuring Harry Carney, one night in Carrolltown, PA., in June 1957. He showcased his circular breathing technique in particular.

The next baritone player in the pantheon is Basie’s baritonist of the 30s, Jack Washington.

HB: I didn’t learn about Jack until later, at least I was grown – 20-something. Then when I started going back and doing a lot of investigation and having to get my hands… Maybe I wasn’t quite that old. But it was somewhere in there, when I was in school or something. I got a chance to start investigating older Basie things that I’d heard but I didn’t realize who was on them. I’d heard a lot of Basie from a child, but didn’t know who was doing what at the time.

TP: What qualities make Jack Washington a special player for you?

HB: Sound. Execution. Another sort of pre-bop, if you want to call it, in terms of the years, sort of… Another way of getting around the instrument. He was just an excellent musician. It’s kind of hard for me to do the labeling, even though I did it a little bit.

TP: He recorded very few solos on Basie’s commercial recordings, but a number of airchecks feature his very strong soloing, and we’ll hear two such from 1938 — “Yeah, Man” from the Fletcher Henderson book, from Oct. 1938, with first solo by JackWashington, followed by Buck Clayton and Lester Young; then “Indiana” from September 1938, with solo order of Buck Clayton, Jack Washington, Dickie Wells, Basie, and Lester Young plays a clarinet solo.

[MUSIC: Basie, “Yeah, Man”-Oct. 1938; “Indiana”-Sept. 1938]

TP: We’ll now hear music by Gerry Mulligan.

HB: Like I told you, I heard a lot of Mulligan. It was easier for me to get. I heard Harry Carney, Charlie Fowlkes, and now we’ll get to Mulligan. Then Pepper Adams, who was on a lot of things by Gene Ammons and a lot of things that were available to me.


HB: …I liked it. I had a very strong attraction. I didn’t start playing it until I was about 19. And I never heard anyone play it that I liked until I got to Harry Carney. It was something about the sound that never satisfied me. Because I come from drum-and-bugle corps country, where trumpets had big sounds, trombones had bigger sounds, and sousaphones had bigger sounds than that. So it didn’t make sense to me why this biggest saxophone had a smaller sound than the smaller ones. I couldn’t understand it. It was kind of weird. And everybody I heard until Harry Carney sort of was like that. If it wasn’t real small, they were playing it like a tenor, so the sound was trimmed down to be more sleek. That’s just the particular instrument that I heard doing everything that I needed to hear it do. I hear more than just saxophone in terms of playing. I also think graphically and a lot of other stuff. Like the kind of sounds you get in electronics and whale noises and all that. I hear all those kind of things, and I see those possibilities in the instrument.

I’ve taken a little bit from everybody. The thing I noticed about Mulligan is that he plays the baritone saxophone very akin to the way Lester Young played tenor. It’s in that sort of vein. That’s still playing the baritone like a tenor.

TP: How is that so? As opposed to playing it with emphasis on the properties of the baritone?

HB: Well, who are you imitating? If you’re imitating Lester Young, who played tenor, then you’re playing the horn like a tenor, whether you’re playing trumpet or whatever it is. Because he got another thing out of the instrument. It’s sort of that approach, but it’s a different instrument. It’s like once-removed from there. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because that within itself is great. You’ve got to be a genius to be able to do that. I don’t hear it that way. So that always kind of disturbed me. It took me up until maybe a few years ago to realize what it was that I personally didn’t care for, to be able to put a name to it and say this is basically what it is. And the way that the instrument is treated most of the time being a support. Maybe the closest thing we can get to would be a Clydesdale.

TP: Although these days, I have to say, there are some people that size who can move.

HB: I’m talking about even a way of movement. See, that’s what I mean. You have to move like a big person as opposed to try to be a big person moving like a small one. There is a difference. You can just see people. One comes along who is 6’5″ or whatever and big, as opposed to somebody walking down the street who’s 5’0″. They move totally different. They don’t move the same way. That just doesn’t work. So I’ll see the instruments that way, too. I don’t try to move like a tenor. That’s very rapid.

TP: How about when you play clarinet? How do you try to move then?

HB: That’s why I don’t play clarinet no more! I had to quit playing clarinet unless I play the low instruments. I found out… It took me a long time to find out that what was happening with me was my concept of pitch was lowering. So I really hear bass clef. I’m talking about personal notes that are inside of me, come from the bass clef and go up. But they have to be there. So when I was playing instruments that didn’t give me that, I had problems with it.

TP: The Gerry Mulligan session comes from a pianoless session from 1957, with Mulligan and Paul Desmond on the front line, with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Dave Bailey.

[MUSIC: Mulligan-Desmond, “Line For Lyons”-1957; Mulligan-Bob Brookmeyer, “That Old Feeling”-1956 (Crow-Bailey)]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Diane” – Sankofa-Rear Guard]

TP: A few words about your experiences with Mingus.

HB: I first joined the big band in 1972. He’d always been looking for a baritone player with a sound, so I was able to fill that void for him. It was an incredible experience, because there was no other vehicle for me to be like that anyway. No one else was using the horn. If they were using it, they were using it only in big ensembles. So I started out with the big band, then worked down to the sextet, then wound up with a quintet. I was in and out a couple of times.

TP: How did he find out about you?

HB: I’m not sure if it was Paul Jeffrey or Roy Brooks. At the time I was playing with Roy Brooks’ Artistic Truth as well as dealing with Paul Jeffrey, and both of them were with Mingus. I’m not sure which one. Plus I was playing with Sam Rivers’ Big Band, so along with me came Bob Stewart, Joe Gardner…that I can remember. And some more people. We’ve all… There wasn’t that much to do doing that time period, basically. There was a lot happening, but not many things; just a lot going on among a few.

TP: Did Mingus express strong preferences in how he wanted his solos shaped?

HB: no, the only thing he ever said to anybody was “The solo belongs to you, but the melody and all that stuff belongs to me.” So he wanted you to play whatever you had on the paper, exactly like he said he wanted it, and do whatever it had to be, then when it came time to solo that was your problem. The only thing he expressed maybe in the time we were together was try to get used to the New York long solos.

TP: What do you mean by “New York long solos”?

HB: Well, the horn players in New York, by the time they get to New York, by the time they get to New York, they’re not playing… They want to PLAY, really play. So guys take what I call long solos. They’re long for me. I don’t say necessarily for them. But maybe that’s the nature of the instrument I’m playing. Which makes me like beg away and do something else, and cool it for a second or something. But that’s why I just said New York long solos. You hear more of that here than any other place. It’s not bad. I’m not saying that. Except for me. It makes me put out more effort.

TP: The next baritone player is Leo Parker, who you greatly appreciate.

HB: Yeah, because Leo did some other things on the instrument. I thought he made the horn romp and really jump. He had an effervescent quality in his playing. He swung real hard, so that endeared him to me. But I didn’t really get to him until later, actually. I’d already been with Mulligan, Pepper Adams and maybe a lot of other people, whoever they are, in different bands, or Stan Kenton or Maynard Ferguson, Basie, whoever was around at the time. But it took me a while. And I was shocked when I saw this material and how good he was. But it did a lot in terms of saying, “Yeah, ok, I need all of it” – that this was part of it, too.

TP: This piece is Leo Parker in a sextet situation circa 1961 called Let me Tell You About It. Bill Swindell on tenor saxophone, John Burks, trumpet, Yusef Salim, piano, Stan Conover, bass and Purnell Rice on drums along with Leo Parker on baritone sax.

[MUSIC: Leo Parker, “Blue Leo”; “Goin’ To Minton’s”-Leo Parker-Fats Navarro, Jan. 1947]

TP: That leaping solo by Leo Parker really illustrated your remark about his making the horn jump and dance.

HB: Yeah, make it dance, that’s right. That was Pepper. We’re trying to run through this thing now. I’m basically trying to go through the people who were most influential in those formative years of listening to and being…

TP: one of the strongest and most respected baritone players from the beginning of his recorded career in the mid-1950s was Pepper Adams, who I know had a big effect on you.

HB: Oh yeah, I used to listen to Pepper over and over and over and OVER, on whatever recording I could, and I heard things that Gene Ammons had done that he was on also. So you know, he was rough company and taking care of business, so I had a lot of respect for his prowess on the instrument. Hard core.

TP: This one comes from a 1969 release on Prestige called Encounter, where Pepper Adams and Zoot Sims share the front line on baritone and tenor, with a Detroit-based rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, playing Thad Jones’ “Elusive.”

[MUSIC: Pepper Adams, “Elusive”; “I’ve Just Seen Her”-Encounter-1969]

TP: the next baritone player to step up will be Serge Chaloff.

HB: I don’t remember when I heard these, but I guess I was in my teenage years…maybe. I only got a chance to hear one record; maybe later on I heard another one. I was very impressed when I heard it. To me, he had sort of taken the so-called bop style; he played it more like an alto as opposed to a baritone, the way I heard it, because of his fleetness and the way that he ran over the instrument. Plus with a great sound from what I can remember. That was very impressive to me also at the time. I was thirsty for hearing anything. It was hard. I was going on this baritone sax search, I guess you would call it, without even calling it that at the time. By the time I heard it, he’d already passed.

[MUSIC: Serge Chaloff, “I’ve got The World On A String”-March 1956, Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones; Basie-Charlie Fowlkes, “Counterblock”-1959]

TP: You mentioned that you listened a lot to Basie recordings with Charlie Fowlkes…

HB: I also got a chance to hear the band in person to hear how crackerjack he was on precision on playing parts, and had the sort of sound to do what it did to the ensemble. This was a great lesson for me, too, because that’s the definitive big band I guess you would call it kind of playing… That’s the definitive way of doing it. That’s the reason for bringing it in, because I didn’t want to omit the people who have played this instrument so many years, whether they’ve been featured as soloists or not. Because some of them have taken support role type jobs, and this is a master of that particular discipline.

TP: It’s hard to find a solo by Charlie Fowlkes in the Basie discography. Folks who know the discography better than I do call us at the station for Charlie Fowlkes solo flights.

We’ll take you to the hour with a track featuring baritone saxophonist Charles Davis, who is also well known for his tenor playing and alto playing, out of Chicago, who played with Sun Ra and did some two-baritone features with Pat Patrick on some of mid-50s recordings. Bluiett’s choice is from a Kenny Dorham recording for Time from 1960 with Steve Kuhn, Jimmy Garrison and Buddy Enlow.

HB: Charles I know personally. I met him after I moved to New York, and had only heard a few things up until that time. But when I talked to him, he spoke highly and most favorably of Leo Parker. That seemed to be his biggest influence, I guess, from being around New York and seeing him play a lot. I didn’t get that opportunity. But listening to Leo Parker, I can hear the extension of the influence that is in his playing. But he seemed to have given up baritone and moved on to tenor. But I think his lines and things seem to be better suited for that particular instrument anyway, the particular voice that he comes up with. But I like some of the things that I’ve heard in the past, and this is the record I used to listen to quite a bit because of the tenderness and character, which is something special, to me, to listen to.

[K.D.-Charles Davis, “Monk’s Mood”]

TP: Up to 1958-1959, Charles Davis had played extensively with Sun Ra in Chicago, and was paired off not infrequently with Pat Patrick. Were you aware of those two-baritone Sun Ra recordings when they were happening, or did you discover them later?

HB: I think I discovered them later. Because Sun Ra’s stuff is so extensive, I just heard what I heard. By the time I met Charles, I think he was in New York. This was what era?

TP: 1956. A lot of the Saturn LPs didn’t include personnel, but now the Evidence label has released 15 CDs thus far in an ongoing reissue project of the Saturn with complete discographies. The piece we’ll hear is “Reflections in Blue” from Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth.

[Sun Ra, “Reflections in Blue”-1956, Art Hoyle-Charles Davis-Pat Patrick, John Gilmore; “Pleasure”-Pat Patrick]

HB: Let’s make a comment on the telephone call we got. Tell them what it was.

TP: One caller, who said he’s a pianist who had played and jammed with Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff suggested I convey to Hamiet his suggestion that he listen to Ernie Caceres, whom he favored for his dark, woody tone on the baritone because he has a unique sound.

HB: I’m glad his name is mentioned, because his name was overlooked, as will be many other people in a 3-hour segment. We have enough material to do a whole spotlight, like the 40-some hour showcase…

TP: Apart from that, the purpose of this show is for the musician to present a personal statement about things they’ve heard and been influenced by. We’ll hear now the baritone sound of another extraordinary multi-reed player, Nick Brignola, who on the release we’ll hear I think plays 10 different instrument — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute and piccolo. This is from Time, a drummerless date with Kenny Barron on piano and Dave Holland on bass.

HB: I think everything you said was true, so let’s just go and listen t o it.

[MUSIC: Nick Brignola-Barron-Holland, “Speak Low”; Cecil Payne, “Slide Hampton”-1972; Sahib Shihab, “”-Jazz Sahib-1957]

HB: I left quite a few people out, but ones I like: Danny Bank for the hundreds of records I listened to him on in different configurations, like a lot of things with Oliver Nelson. Tony Scott, who is known more for clarinet, but I heard him…he used to play baritone for a while – it was real wild. That affected me, too. I was trying to get to “Cuber Libre,” which I couldn’t, and stuff I heard do Jay Cameron do with Slide Hampton when Slide had his octet.

TP: “Cuber Libre” is a Ronnie Cuber release from the mid 70s.

HB: Yes. Howard Johnson. Gary Smulyan is one of the newer, younger… John Surman. So there’s quite a few other people. The horn seems to have taken on another kind of significance that it didn’t have in the past. There’s more people soloing on it now maybe than was in the past, and not just playing support roles.

TP: I think Hamiet Bluiett is one person who’s raised a lot of people’s consciousness about the baritone sax with his own recordings over the last 20 years and with the WSQ.

Coming up, something by Charles Tyler, who played baritone and alto with great proficiency.

HB: He was a formidable baritone saxophonist. I thought he was more original on that instrument than he was on alto. Original in his style and the way he approached the horn, and the things that he did. Immense sound. Sound for days. That’s the thing I remember, and the amount of power, and what he brought to the instrument. I was sad to hear of his passing and stuff of that nature. But I’m glad that these few things are left.

TP: You recorded a solo baritone album around the time this one was done for India Navigation. This recital by Charles Tyler was recorded at WBAI, and issued by the Adelphi Jazz Line.

[MUSIC: Charles Tyler, “From St. Louis To Kansas City By Way of Chicago”-60 Minute Man]

TP: We’ll conclude a track featuring the musicians Bluiett will be performing with at the Village Vanguard next week, who are Ted Dunbar, guitar; Clint Houston, bass; and Ben Riley on drums. They play on a 1992 Soul Note recording, titled Sankofa: Rear Guard.

When we were discussing the show, you said it wasn’t just baritone players who influenced you. You mentioned Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis and John Coltrane as great influences on the way you play and why you play the way the way you play. A few words about those non-baritone players in your conception of the horn.

HB: I was influenced by a lot of different people. Count Basie for the way he drove the band. Duke Ellington for the kind of colors that he used. Some vocalists. I listen more to the musicians than anything else. Lockjaw because of the uncanny way in which he played saxophone. No one outplayed him, I thought. No one. He had a band with Johnny Griffin, and it was just awesome. He just kept raising the ante, every tune. And Griffin… It was just awesome. It was unbelievable.

John Coltrane for the sort of spirituality in the way he played. I could dig into the music and stay into it like an hour or so at a time. It really would be focused all that length. It was overwhelming to see to see the band take the whole audience and everybody with them at the same time. And his harmonic sensibility. Just everything about him. It was amazing.

I’ve always liked people with big sounds, big wind and big-throated. Not that I didn’t like the others, but I just favored those in comparison.

Gene Ammons for the kind of knockout punch that he had. His first note, that was it. After that, everything was gravy, but the first note would always just kill. Everybody else that even existed before he got there for his first note, that was like ho-hum.

I was always amazed at the abilities of these people to just command — demand and command so much with an instrument.

Like I said, for Carney, Harry Carney… I heard a lot of these people at different times. I’m going back more to listening to them in person. Because the records provided one thing, but the in-person feeling of what I heard was more important to me. The Basie band – the whole band. And hear the band with Ella and hear her sing, it would be just as powerful or more powerful than a whole big band, when they would do the things where she was scatting and the band would come in with the riffs. It’s just unbelievable. A lot of gospel music, listening to that kind of thing. The blues. Quite a bit. The more I think about it, the more I start digging up.

This first piece is called “John.” It’s dedicated to John Coltrane. It has a simple melody. And it was going through the era of Coltrane…it’s sort of a modal period. It conjures him up in my brain.

[MUSIC: Hamiet Bluiett 4, “John”]

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Hamiet Bluiett, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Bobby Hutcherson from 1999

Here’s another of my newly-digitized interviews from my WKCR years — with vibraphone immortal Bobby Hutcherson (January 27, 1941 – August 15, 2016), who was playing at Iridium that week with an all-star band of thirty-somethings. It’s a remarkably candid interview — no filter.


Bobby Hutcherson, Out To Lunch, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1999:

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Pomponio”]

TP: “Pomponio” is from Skyline, Bobby Hutcherson’s new release on Verve. It features Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Christian McBride and Al Foster, a band that six months ago or so did a week at Birdland in preparation for this date. This week Bobby is in residence at Iridium through Sunday with a quintet. He’s playing this music with Kenny Garrett, Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

Skyline is your first release on Verve, though you’ve done some guest appearance on Verve albums in recent years. There are strong liner notes by Stanley Crouch that position you firmly in the vibraphone pantheon and explain why you hold the status that you do. But probably because of space considerations, he didn’t go into some of your biographical particulars. So if you don’t mind…

BH: Sure.

TP: One point he makes is that the vibraphone is an instrument whose vocabulary was very much invented in jazz, and in the jazz lineage. It wasn’t that common when you were coming up. Why was it the vibraphone for you? What circumstances led you to it, and what qualities attracted you?

BH: As I was growing up, first… My mom was bedridden for the first four years of my life, so I was always… As a toddler, instead of going out and playing, I was always inside the house, listening to a lot of stuff. I had an older brother who passed away, but he was a schoolmate with Dexter Gordon. They went to Jefferson High School.

TP: They had the famous bandmaster, Samuel Browne?

BH: Yes. Dexter was in the marching band and my brother was a cheerleader at the school. After school they’d come over to the house and they would play records. I’m a young toddler… I have an older sister, and my sister started singing, and she used to sing… This is before I even started playing. She was singing in her trio, and in her trio was Sonny Clark. One time she gave a concert, I remember, in Pasadena, where I grew up, at John Muir High School, and playing bass was Oscar Pettiford. I remember Oscar Pettiford walking up to me before I was playing and saying, “don’t you want my autograph?” — and I said, “Yes, I do.” I didn’t even know who it was! I was still young. Then later on, my sister started dating Eric Dolphy, and Eric Dolphy was a good friend of the family’s — again, before I started playing. Then later, she started going out with Billy Mitchell, who was playing tenor saxophone in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

TP: Jazz is a family experience for you.

BH: It was a family experience. There was always a piano in the house, and I used to sit around and play piano for my own enjoyment. Then one day when I guess I was 13 years old, I was walking down the street in Pasadena. It was summertime. I walked past a record store. This is when they used to play the music, so that when you walked by outside, on the speakers you could hear what record was being played. It was the Giants of Jazz with Miles and Milt and Monk, Kenny Clarke and Percy Heath — and “Bemsha Swing” was on. I just turned right around, and walked right in, got the record, and went home and wore it out. I said, “this is how I’m walking; this DAY.” I said, “This is what I want to do.”

Well, I had grown up with Herbie Lewis. We were in the same grade, going to Washington Junior High School. All the schools that Jackie Robinson went to. As kids, you either tried to be in sports and do what Jackie Robinson was doing, because when you walked in the gym, here was all his records; or you tried to get into music. Herbie said, “If you get some vibes, you can play in my trio, and we can play school dances.” I said, “Oh, great.”

I worked for my dad, who was a bricklayer, and saved my money that summer, and I bought a set of vibes. At the end of the summer, I got the set of vibes. I went and showed Herbie, “Hey, I got a set of vibes.” Herbie says, “Great – because we’ve got a concert in two weeks.” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t know anything about the keyboard.” He said, “don’t worry; we’ll play around three songs.” I said, “Three songs? How can I do this?” We’re playing a concert. Bobby Troup was the emcee.

We took a black felt pencil. He said, “Here’s what we’ll do. Since you don’t know what the bars are, we’ll take a number for the next bar that you hit.” Well, if we’re doing three songs, it got like 318, 319, starting from #1, and it had all these numbers all over the vibes. But we practiced so much, I got pretty good, looking for which note to hit next, looking for the number on the bars. Well, came the night of this concert, the first time I’m going to play, and the stage manager and he says to us, “Ok, kids, it’s time for you to go on. Oh, by the way, Bobby, I saw some marks all over your bars, so I took a nice wet towel and I wiped everything off — I know you’re glad I did that.” He says, “Now, you kids go out there and have a great time.” I said, “Oh, no. You didn’t.” He said, “Yes, I did.”

So we went out, and all my family, my mom and dad, they’re sitting out there, ready to be all proud for me, and the kids going to school… I hit about the first three notes, and then after that they started throwing rotten fruit at me. At that point, I realized, “You’re going to have to study; you’re going to have to know what you’re doing.”

TP: It’s not paint by the numbers.

BH: no, you can’t play the numbers. But I still keep the numbers… No. [LAUGHS] But that’s how it all started.

TP: Well, you obviously weren’t discouraged.

BH: No. We used to have these jam sessions at my house as I was growing up, with Herbie, myself… And there was a young man named Terry Trotter who used to come over all the time. Terry became Margaret Whiting’s pianist. Charles Lloyd used to come over all the time. H.B. Barnum, who did all the arranging for Aretha Franklin, he used to come over and he would play tenor saxophone, alto, trumpet, he would play a little vibes, he would play some drums. Everybody in Pasadena would come and park their cars in front of the garage, and we’d open up the doors and we’d play all afternoon. It became like a school. After school, go over to Bobby’s house and listen to the music. There would be all these musicians… Walter Benton used to come over. An awful lot of musicians would come over and play. That happened until…oh gosh, until someone set my garage on fire, and all the instruments burned up.

TP: That happened during high school?

BH: Yeah. I think somebody really didn’t like…

TP: Resorted to drastic measures.

BH: Somebody burnt my garage down. You know what was the thing? All the instruments were in there, the vibes, the bass, drums and piano. I remember… I looked out the door the evening when the fire started, and I remember seeing the fire and trying to call the Fire Department, and the telephone line is burning down. I remember running out to the garage and thinking, “Maybe I can pull my vibraphone out.” And the door was too small! I got the small end out, and I got the big end into the door and I’m trying to get it out the door, and this big wall of flames just came and said, “Get out the way; you can’t do it.” The vibes, the drums, Herbie’s bass, the piano – everything burned up in the fire.

TP: Then what happened?

BH: Whoo, how about me telling my father that the garage burned down? He was at a party that night. He came back, he and my mom, and I said, “Dad, the garage has burned down.” He says, “don’t worry. Did you lose everything?” I said, “Yeah.” He just held me. I thought he was going to be really upset and be mad, but he just held me. He says, “That’s ok. I have insurance. So we’ll go through the things in the fire and find every nut and bolt that’s in there, and we’ll claim it. We’ll get you another set of vibes, we’ll get Herbie another bass…”

TP: Several things are coming out here. One is that you were in an incredibly supportive environment, both in the community (except for the people who burned down the garage) with your parents and fellow musicians, and that music was in the air, almost as though you couldn’t help but absorb the essence.

BH: Yes. I think that fire instigated us to play all the more. As I think back… I haven’t talked about that fire too much. Sometimes I push that back in my mind, because it was real traumatic. Some of the kids were really… I always felt it was some of the kids at school who had done it. I felt that because of what we were doing… Everybody was coming over and listening to the music, and it was like…

TP: It was a positive thing, some people felt excluded…

BH: Yeah.

TP: It seems that Los Angeles… Should I play some more music, and then we resume a little later.

BH: Sure.

TP: We’ll hear “Tres Palabras” from Skyline, on which you play marimba.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Tres Palabras”; Bobby-Abbey Lincoln-Marc Cary, “Another World”]

TP: We were speaking about your early years. One quality about Bobby Hutcherson’s improvising that grabs me every time is the total honesty, spontaneity and transparency. People often hold back on the radio, but Bobby was discussing a very traumatic event of his youth – the fire that burned down his garage and destroyed his instrument. We’ll put the fire behind us…

BH: Put the fire behind us.

TP: Let’s talk about your path towards becoming a professional musician, getting on the road, and coming to New York City, where you participated in so much history on numerous dates for Blue Note.

BH: What happened was, going back to my sister going out with Billy Mitchell… Billy Mitchell and Al Gray had just left the Count Basie Orchestra and formed their own sextet. After I’d started playing, Billy asked could I join the group, and play 4 mallets, and comp and solo, and take the place of Gene Keys, and go up to San Francisco and work opposite Charlie Mingus. I had never played 4 mallets before, but I said, “Of course I can – yes.” In the group was Doug Watkins, and Doug took me under his wing and showed me things to do. He was wonderful. I really loved Doug Watkins.

Anyway, we played two weeks at the Jazz Workshop, and then came back to Los Angeles. Billy came back here to New York, and Al and Doug stayed in Los Angeles. A couple of days later I got a call from Billy Mitchell, and Billy said, “How would you like to come to New York and open at Birdland? We will play opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” I was also in college at the time. I asked my mom. She said, “I want you to graduate from college; it’s very important.” I said, “Mom, I’ve got a chance to go to New York and play at Birdland.” She said, “Oh! Well, forget college. Go on to New York.” She said, “I have this dream that you’re going to go to New York – go ahead.”

So we drove here in Doug Watkins’ car, the car he was killed in when he went back out to California – in his black Peugeot. We drove here. We started out with a steak dinner, and by the time we got to the Lincoln Tunnel we didn’t have enough money to pay to get through. We were eating potato chips when we came through…

TP: Sounds like the old days of travel…

BH: I remember in part of the trip, Doug’s windshield wipers stopped working, and we were in a snowstorm in New Mexico. He had to reach around, put his arm around and work the windshield wipers to keep the snow off as he was driving. It was bitter cold! Oh, gosh…

TP: The vibraphone, the bass, everything is in the car.

BH: Yeah. We come to New York, and we open at Birdland. First thing is, that afternoon I’m setting up, and Pee Wee Marquette was… I’d heard him on records, but I didn’t know he was a midget. Pee Wee Marquette saw me setting up, I was just by myself. So he walks up to me and blows a big puff of smoke in my face, and he says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Bobby Hutcherson.” “What are you doing here?” “I’m going to play vibes with Al Gray and Billy Mitchell.” He says, “We don’t need you. Pack up your vibes and go.” I said, “Oh, Lord, is this what I heard about what New York is?” He said, “You heard me. Go.” I just waited for him to walk back out the door, and I kept setting up.

That night… In those days you heard that Pee Wee could make or break you. So it went like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet, blah-blah, and with Bubba Hutchkins on vibes.” I said, “Oh, no!” Every night he would do this. But we had two weeks there. So on pay night, everybody would go over to the Alvin Hotel, which was across the street (it’s a parking lot now, I think). I’m in Al Gray’s room, and there’s a knock on the door, and I open the door, and a big puff of cigar smoke arrives. There’s Pee Wee. He says, “Say, Papa, you got something for me?” I said, “I don’t have anything for you, the way you’ve been announcing my name all week.” Al Gray says, “give him five dollars.” I said, “I’m not giving him a thing.” Al goes, “Give him five dollars.” So I gave him five dollars.

So the next week goes like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, 52nd and Broadway, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet with Billy Mitchell, Al Gray, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes” – because I gave him that five dollars. So everything started to change right there.

We went on from there and worked the Apollo Theater. Besides playing the regular show, we played the talent night where they had to drop this cheese-cloth, and they’d throw all the rotten fruit at the entertainers who would come out. I had heard about that. That was unbelievable! I’d never seen people get fruit thrown at them. This was unbelievable. And the people were screaming, going crazy.

I think the next gig, we went on to Chicago, the Sutherland Lounge, and we worked opposite Redd Foxx. They would not let me in the club while Redd Foxx performed, because I would go crazy. It got to the point where I didn’t have to hear the joke. All I had to do was hear the sound of his voice, and I would be on the floor.

Anyway, after about a year-and-a-half, the group disbanded. I didn’t really know that many musicians. So I started driving a taxi.

TP: So they worked steadily, around the country, touring for 18 months, and then you move to New York.

BH: Yes.

TP: Quick question before we resume the narrative. There aren’t that many stylistic antecedents for a vibraphone player, but a few great ones. You heard Milt Jackson first, there’s Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, some others. Who were your models? All vibraphonists, or other instrumentalists as well?

BH: I’m going to tell you…I think I’ve told Tommy this. I really started listening to Tommy Flanagan. I think Tommy Flanagan… Tommy, if you’re listening, I love you. I just want you to know that I started listening to you to try to find another avenue, another way to come through the instrument.

TP: If you can, is it possible to describe the sound you were trying to achieve…

BH: I wasn’t really sure. I was just trying different things. I was just trying to be a part of. It was a situation, as I said, where I’m driving a cab. Herbie Lewis had moved to New York and he’s playing bass with the Jazztet. Grachan Moncur was in the Jazztet. So I started going over to their house and playing jam sessions as I was driving a cab. Now Grachan says to me, “I want Jackie McLean to hear you.” Jackie comes and says, “Oh, I like this.” He says, “I just met a new drummer in Boston; his name is Tony Williams. I’m going to bring him down, and we’re going to play at this club, the Coronet.” It was Grachan, Tony, Jackie, and Eddie Khan. We came in there. Everybody had heard about all these young kids playing at the Coronet Club in Brooklyn with Jackie. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note Records, came in and says, “I want to record this; Jackie, I’ve got to record this.” After being at the studio, at Rudy’s studio, Alfred Lion came up to me after the first song that we recorded, and he walked up to me and said, “Bobby, how would you like to sign a record contract?” I said, “Whoa! Am I in the right place and the right time.”


TP: Jackie McLean was incorporating the sounds and ideas that you and Grachan Moncur were working with to get into what he calls “the big room” area of improvising.

BH: Yes.

TP: Had you been workshopping a lot of new ideas, experimental ideas in Los Angeles?

BH: You know how you can have your own personality, but if you get with someone else, another personality seems to come out of you and someone else… Well, that’s what started to happen. It got all of us together… We would be so silly — and be serious at the same time. But silly. I mean, we used to have comic books in our back pockets as we would come to rehearsals. So it would be really serious, but at the same time we’d be looking real serious, we’d be like, “this is the most ridiculous…”

What happened, besides doing those records then with Jackie, Grachan did a record with the same group – Evolution. In fact, this next cut you’re going to play, “The Coaster,” Grachan replaced Jackie with Lee Morgan, and Lee Morgan really played different on the original recording of Evolution and on “The Coaster.” I guess that’s really why when I did this last record with Verve, I wanted to remember those days.

[Bobby Hutcherson, “The Coaster” – from Skyline; “Little B’s Poem”-Components]

BH: Not a bad group.

TP: That recording featured four pieces by you and four by Joe Chambers; another album, Dialogue, comprised entirely compositions by Joe Chambers and Andrew Hill. It’s interesting that these Blue Note recordings became a forum for the ideas of other composers.

BH: The Dialogue album was my first album for Blue Note, and it was at a point where I wasn’t writing. All I was doing was working with other people. I was just trying to complete the circle. I didn’t really understand the situation, that in order to complete the circle (or complete the sphere), playing, and playing with other people, practicing, working on soloing…theories and stuff like that… You really start to complete the circle of music, or the sphere of music, by writing. Because then you’re really writing in your diary. This is what happened to me; this is how I feel today; this is the recipe for what happened today; this is the recipe for how this day went for me. Along with the routines that I went through to try to enrich my life.

TP: Did the recordings you did for Blue Note during the period when you were living in New York… Because then you moved back to California and formed a working quintet with Harold Land which was amply documented. Does it reflect the work that you were doing in New York as well? The performance situations, the gigs. Or do the albums more reflect a for-the-studio situation?

BH: I think it really reflected what was going on in New York. When I first came to New York, I’ll say a lot of my writing on the first album had to do with my still ties with Pasadena. This greenery, the relaxation type situations. Joe Chambers coming, as we met each other and started doing things together, it became a situation of looking into the sculpture of new things developing along with the renaissance that was going on, and the new people going on, and along with the fight for the Black people in the country. It was very common for me in those days to get in a cab and I’d be going to a rehearsal, and I’d be coming from 165th Street and Woodcrest, where I was living in the Bronx, and come past 125th Street and come past the Lenox Hotel, and Malcolm X would be on the steps in front giving a speech, and thousands of people would be standing there. The cab would stop at the red light, and even though I only had another 15-20 minutes to get where I was going, I’d tell the cab driver, I have to get out here; I’ve got to go listen to Malcolm X for a moment. I’d go over and listen and then get back in another cab, and then go on to rehearsal. It was a situation of that cabaret card, that police card that you had to have, which stopped an awful lot of musicians from working in nightclubs, and all the people playing in lofts in those days where you could hear all this writing. Everybody was writing music.

TP: So the recordings you did with Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill or Freddie Hubbard also reflected gigs that were happening at the time.

BH: Yes, a lot of it. Then, at the same time, I renewed acquaintances with Eric Dolphy, who was back here at the time, and we started rehearsing and doing things. I started doing gigs, playing here, at Brooklyn College, or we would go to Pittsburgh…Crawford’s Grill, on the Hill in Pittsburgh and play…

TP: Playing the type of music that was on Iron Man and Out To Lunch?

BH: Exactly. Going to Washington, D.C., and playing the Bohemian Caverns.

TP: Then you returned to the West Coast and formed a well-regarded group with Harold Land, who I guess you knew from your younger days in Los Angeles.

BH: Yes.

TP: Can you speak a bit about that band and your musical production during the 70s? I hear it as you blending the experimentation of the 60s with a look back to the fundamentals you’d come up with.

BH: When I went back to the West Coast… I got busted for some grass here. They took my hack license, my taxi license away; they took my cabaret card away – and scared me half to death. I decided to go back to the West Coast for a second and just regroup. So I went back and started working with Harold Land, and then I started getting calls: “Bobby, are you going to come back?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to come back again and play.” The Slugs thing was starting to happen…no, it wasn’t starting; it had BEEN happening – but I wanted to come back. I always loved playing in Slugs. So I told Harold… There were some things happening over in Europe. I said, “Let’s form a group, come back to New York; I’ll call Joe Chambers and we’ll get a group together and we’ll start playing some music.”

At that time, it seems to me as though we stopped playing linear type things, and started playing a lot of intervals of 4ths and 5ths and 2nds, and tunes that went into that category. That was a change. That caused… Different combinations cause different things to happen. So that was a change in the sound, because of…solo-wise… A lot of the solos were constructed in 2nds and 5ths and 4ths and neighboring tones. I don’t want to get too technical. But that’s what started happening, and started the sound to change.

TP: With Woody Shaw there’s another evolution…

BH: Woody, yeah. Woody was playing different intervals. Woody was playing a lot of 6-intervals. Woody was playing more pentatonic scales. Our group was using pentatonic scales, but using different intervals, and Woody was using more of the pentatonic scales with a lot of the major VI in his. I didn’t use too much of the major VI.

TP: That was a very fruitful partnership, and you did a lot of records, though not all of them are around these days.

BH: Yeah. I used to go over to Woody’s house all the time, and we would start talking about what we were working on. Woody was always talking about the pentatonic scale that he was working on. It’s funny how all of a sudden there’s a style of playing that starts blossoming out of that.

TP: You’ve been at the center of several transitions. Then around 1980 or so, it seems you begin to go out as a solo voice with groups that elaborate your conception, and the co-led groups fade away. It seems for the last 15-20 years, it’s been Bobby Hutcherson’s sound. Is that more or less accurate?

BH: I went through another transition of the theories that I was working on. For a while, I started working on a lot of piling chords together, right next to each other, so it would be like a cluster, and it would become really hard to figure out what was the scale. I used to think a lot of times when I used to work with Eric Dolphy… He would say: “Now, Bobby, on this tune, this scale in this tune doesn’t end until it runs for 2 octaves, and every note is different.” I said, “Oh my goodness, what…” It was really different.

TP: You seem to have incorporated everything you learned, but also stepping back into the tradition in a personally meaningful way.

BH: Yes. It’s like taking some things, throwing them away, bringing them back. It’s just like sitting there and making something. I might say, “Ok, I want to make an old-fashioned apple pie. Do I get these new modern ingredients?” No. You have to use just some plain old apples and some sugar…

TP: Food is always the best metaphor.

BH: [LAUGHS] If that’s what you want, that’s what you’re going to have to put in there. It’s a great reservoir, if you can look and say, “Ok, on this I have to do this; and on this one, I’m going to try this.” To reach back and say, “Ok, this time…” Situations like not only that, but to say, “On this one, I have to play behind the beat; on this one I have to play on top of the beat.” If you want this situation to happen, you have to go from playing on top of the beat and slide into playing behind the beat, to get this feeling. And to think about those things as you’re playing is… It’s tough!

TP: Are you thinking about that consciously now, or is it a more organic thing?

BH: Exactly. You want it to be like it’s just a natural thing to happen, instead of it being a technical, mechanical situation. You want it to be just part of breathing. It’s almost a situation of there is no tempo. There is only feeling. There is only action and reaction. There is only You.

TP: On that note, let’s Bobby Hutcherson play “I Only Have Eyes For You” from his new Verve release, Skyline.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “I Only Have Eyes For You”]

TP: This Verve recording is one of the first in some time where you’ve had a decent budget and preparation time. A few ideas about your intents and purposes in putting it together.

BH: A lot of thought about each person. A lot of thought about music is not the image; it’s the reflection – and the images are the people involved and the love and friendship for them.

TP: We’ll conclude with a track from 30 years ago that you spoke off mic. You talked about trying to transcribe it some years later, and being in a totally different head space. This is it. It’s called “Visions,” originally from the 1968 date Spiral, which came out about ten years later, with Harold Land, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Johnson, Joe Chambers.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Visions”]

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Filed under Bobby Hutcherson, Vibraphone, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Han Bennink From 2000

A few weeks ago, I began a project of converting as many of the interviews I did during my 1985-2008 tenure on WKCR from cassettes to digital format, adding to the 100 or so I’d transcribed over the years. This 2-1/2 hour interview with Han Bennink came from a week where the Dutch master was playing in quartet with Dave Douglas at Iridium — a lot of information contained therein.


Han Bennink (Out To Lunch, WKCR, Sept. 23, 2000):

[MUSIC: Bennink-Dave Douglas, “Cherokee”-Serpentine-1996]

TP: Dave Douglas was the trumpeter, and Han Bennink on trapset and…

HB: No. I only played snare drum and clogs. No hi-hat, no bass. Only snare drum, brushes and clogs.

TP: Han Bennink and I are here for hopefully 3 hours. We have a wide array of music that brings us from 1964 to the present. Han Bennink is performing at Iridium with the Dave Douglas Quartet this week, with Misha Mengelberg on piano and Brad Jones on bass.

You were just describing to me your first visit to New York, which was 40 years ago.

HB: It was in 1960. I worked on a ship called the Maasdom(?—6:01) to play commercial or dance music for the passengers. Then we were about 5 days in Hoboken. At that time, I went to the Village Gate. I saw the John Coltrane Quartet. He was totally obsessed with “My Favorite Things.” The second set was Aretha Franklin playing an upright piano and a microphone in between her legs – and a drummer. It was just fantastic. Opposite the street was a joint called Caffe Ruffio, and I saw Steve Lacy there for the first time live. We’re now very good friends.

TP: You’ve recorded with him on a number of occasions.

HB: Yes, but he lives in Paris, as you probably know, and I see him often… Well, I actually saw him and his wife in Chicago on the 3rd of September.

TP: How does New York now impress you vis-a-vis 40 years ago?

HB: I am not a big city guy. I live very sort of lonely, like a monk, in a stable in Holland, like this sort of ivory tower. Here, somebody gave me a flat to live in, and it’s very nice for me. It’s opposite Central Park, so I can go bird-watching. After this enormous rain, the park was so fresh; it was really beautiful to be there. But for the rest, I am not a big fan of big cities. But most of my concerts are in big cities, and I’ve been traveling now for 3 weeks. I actually do 24 gigs in 27 gigs. I am so proud of that. But I have to travel for that a lot. And the last week is just fine; now I can go walking to Iridium. It’s only 45 blocks. That’s nothing for me. I like to walk. And back also in the night. So that’s cool.

TP: Forty years when you came here, you were playing on a ship, dance music. That’s how you started professionally as a drummer, isn’t it, playing swing music, dance music.

HB: Yes, my father was a studio drummer. Rein Bennink. He also played clarinet in Benny Goodman’s style, and very good tenor in sort of Coleman Hawkins’ style. So the first drummer I ever heard was Gene Krupa, playing with Benny Goodman, “sing, Sing, Sing.” My father also had a band where he played for the Army. I refused to go in the Army (but that’s another thing), but I still played for them when I was like 17 years old. So I started doing these gigs with my father. But besides the band, we had singers, acrobats, and sometimes a nude show or whatever. So I’ve been doing all that sort of shit, really.

TP: Who were the drummers you patterned yourself after? By the 1950s, Kenny Clarke had moved to Europe…

HB: Kenny is my absolutely favorite. I saw him a couple of times in Holland, because he was working with Pim Jacobs Trio with a female singer, Rita Reys. Rita Reys was sort of well known. She recorded in New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I think it must have been around 1957. Then I was sort of teaching at the conservatory later, and I invited Kenny to do a master class. So I really did know him and his wife, who came from Rotterdam – she was Dutch. They lived in Montreuil, in Paris. Kenny set…it’s a black premier(?—10:42) still on the music school there. He was an amazing drummer.

TP: Say some more about his qualities and his place in the pantheon.

HB: The first time I saw him was in the Concertgebouw. The Phineas Newborn Trio was playing there, and Kenny was playing, Oscar Pettiford was playing there. Lee Konitz was playing there. The Concertgebouw is actually built for classical music, so it’s very boomy. When I saw Kenny playing for the first time, it was a shock for me. I was listening to a very tiny little radio at 12 o’clock under my blankets. We had Willis Conover from Luxembourg, and he had a jazz program. So I listened to music always fearing to control the button… But when you see the guys playing live, that’s another thing. It just sounded so amazing. And his brushes playing! I loved his brushes playing. And the feeling for the rhythm. It’s so light. It’s so up. It’s always dancing. It’s never draggy. It’s amazing.

TP: Who were other jazz drummers you paid attention to during your formative period?

HB: I’ve seen Philly [Joe Jones] a couple of times. Beautiful.

TP: Did he come over with Miles Davis and you heard him then?

HB: Yeah, and I saw him later with the group Dameronia that he was leading. An amazing drummer.

TP: But that was later.

HB: Yes.

TP: You were already a professional.

HB: Oh, yeah, professional. I am never a…

TP: Well, you certainly are. Over 40 years…

HB: Yeah, yeah, but it’s just such a heavy word.

TP: Anyway, describe his impact on you.

HB: It is hard to say. Enormous control. I was sort of aping the American drummers. But I come from Europe. It’s a completely different cultural background also. But part of the background, of course, is this jazz music. When we were young, we were listening either to Little Richard, Bill Haley, or jazz music – and that was about it. But now it’s hip-hop or rap or whatever.

But it’s very hard to say what it actually meant to me. For example, seeing Elvin live… And later on when I was playing in the Gato Barbieri band in Europe, we were traveling all over Europe, and it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Gato Barbieri group (I was in that group with Lonnie Liston Smith and Mtume and me on drums), and the other group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So I met them all.

TP: You’ve been playing drums, I’d guess, since you could pick up a pair of drumsticks, given your father’s profession.

HB: yes, more or less.

TP: So I’d guess that seeing these great drummers and the different ways they got sound from the instrument, you’d be a quick mimic – see what they did and get that feeling.

HB: Yes, trying to get that feeling.

TP: You had a reputation among American musicians.

HB: Well, in 1962, it went like very quick with me. I started playing with Rene Thomas, but later on with Johnny Griffin, of course, and Don Byas, and Ben Webster lived in Amsterdam, and Dexter of course, and Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry and all those cats.

TP: They’d come through, you’d be the drummer, and they liked you because you could swing.

HB: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: When did you and Misha Mengelberg meet?

HB: I know Misha since 1960.

TP: What were the circumstances?

HB: Misha had a trio, and he was very much into material by Thelonious Monk to play. It was sort of strange in Holland; they were more interested in a fluid style like, say, Oscar Peterson or that thing. If you did Monk, that was really outrageous. At that time, I was at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, and I brought all those records to our lessons, like “Misterioso” and all those pieces. So it happened to be that Misha was looking for a drummer, and it was in Utrecht in a jazz club called Persepolis. I played with him, and since we’ve been playing all the time. It’s an incredibly long…

TP: 40 years.

HB: Yes. Amazing. So strange. I think the only people who could say that in the music were Duke Ellington and Harry Carney.

TP: Maybe John Lewis and Connie Kay… There are a few people, but not many.

HB: Yes, it’s amazing. And in daily life, I practically NEVER see Misha. Maybe I’ve been at his place a couple of times, but not for food.

TP: So you don’t socialize. You just play.

HB: Not so much.

TP: I’ve read in press clippings his describing a famously love-hate relationship.

HB: Yes, but Misha is a big liar also.

TP: He’s a big liar?

HB: Yeah-yeah-yeah.

TP: What does he lie about?

HB: About everything. But on a very high level.

TP: Perhaps we can hear how that manifests at Iridium this week as the Dave Douglas Quartet performs.

HB: It’s a brilliant quartet. It sounds very good. I am very happy to play. Especially with Brad. It’s for me the first time to work with him… Because we’ve been playing with Dave in a trio and I’ve played a couple of duo gigs with him. I played last year in Italia, in the Dolomites 1,800 meters high. So I know Dave. But to be with Brad is really nice.

TP: We have cued up a duo between Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink from ICP 031, I think.

HB: It’s old, maybe 9 years or something like that.

TP: It’s an improvised duo?

HB: Of course.

TP: We’ll probably have to cut out, because it lasts 33 minutes and 42 seconds…

HB: It’s beautiful, but it goes much too long.

TP: I’ll fade out when Han Bennink tells me to.

HB: Cool.

[MUSIC: Han-Misha Excerpt-1991; Dexter Gordon 4 with Han, “Scrapple From the Apple”-Feb. 5, 1969-Amsterdam Club Paradiso]

TP: You couldn’t have a better aural illustration of Han Bennink’s scope and the history that he encompasses in his tonal personality. I’d like to speak a bit about your experiences during the 60s with some of the American jazz musicians you mentioned – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster. How long did you play with Dexter Gordon?

HB: I played a couple of years with him. Not years… he lived in Copenhagen and he came on and off to Holland for tours, like for 14 days. I used to do gigs with him, and I loved playing with him. He was also a very, very good singer. But at a certain time, he was working for an amount of money and I was working also for a certain amount of money, but my money was so less that I asked the promoter if he could pay me a little bit more. That was not possible at that particular time, so I left actually. It had also to do with the fact that at that time I was playing with Willem Breuker and Misha and Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker. So I was still doing time gigs, time playing, and trying to swing as hard as I can, but also the other improvisation stuff that doesn’t have to be time. It can be but it doesn’t have to. So my real interest at that particular time was already on the other side.

TP: I’d like to talk more with you about that evolution. But you also played with Ben Webster, you played with Sonny Rollins…

HB: Sonny Rollins – fantastic! He’s my still living big example. What a guy. Amazing. I talked about Pim Jacobs already. He actually died. But he had a television jazz program, what was called Jazz Scene. Because he had the money and the power to invite people to come from America. Like, Donald Byrd played there, and Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Griffin – but also there was one thing with Sonny. Pim was not playing at all. It was his brother, Ruud Jacobs, who was playing the bass. So it was actually my favorite setup, like Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware, or Pete LaRoca. So we did play maybe for a week or so. It was just amazing. Amazing. I recently received a letter from him while he was performing in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too busy and all that. I was very emotional, like, hearing him… But two days later, there was a big letter from him on my doormat. I am very proud of it. My big wish is to play once with him again, really.

TP: As you said, you were playing time gigs, swinging gigs, and also with the nascent…

HB: But now I am doing exactly the same with the Dave Douglas Quartet. We have let’s call it places in the rough, like with golf, but we have also straight gigs, or time – but that has to swing. There was a time with the so-called “new music” or “free music”… “Free” is such an incredibly weird title. “Free music.” Does it mean that you have to pay for it? Or what is free? Anyway, if a drummer is playing more a pulse than a meter… After a while, I found it to be boring. Because when I like to hear something interesting, you can also put your drumkit in a hailstorm and you can hear all sorts of sounds. But when it comes to tempo, I like to play rhythms as a drummer. I think that’s actually what a drum is made for – to play rhythm and to swing the band, rather than this plink-ploink stuff. I do that, too, but not all the time. I have a short counterpoint for that. Not too long. I also like a meter. And when it is a meter, it should swing – or at least trying to swing, like Kenny or Philly Joe or Roy Haynes.

TP: So Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes are in the back of your mind regardless of what the situation is.

HB: That’s all history. Right? Or Baby Dodds, or Zutty Singleton, or Ray Bauduc. All those people. Fantastic.

TP: When did the notion start to form of playing in different, or playing just with sounds if you wanted to just play with sounds?

HB: When I was just coming from the art school I started to listen to Albert Ayler. I saw the Albert Ayler Quartet in Hilversum with Sunny Murray. I borrowed my drumkit to Sunny Murray. Gary Peacock and Don…

TP: You loaned Sunny Murray your drumkit for that record with Albert Ayler.

HB: Yes. I saw Don there, and sometimes I played with Don with the Peter Brotzmann Trio. But that was like a shock, to see that in 1964. It was amazing.

TP: You were oriented to swing and bebop. How did it strike you when you first heard that music?

HB: Of course, I wanted to do that, too, and I started listening to the New York Art Quartet with Milford Graves and Roswell and John. So I got very much into that, and by the time I recorded with Willem Breuker for our own label, the New Acoustic Swing Duo, I was playing and was interested in playing tablas, mringdam, balafons and gongs. I had a whole van full of that shit. Really! Bells from everywhere. It was like a little museum. I needed so much space on the stage that it was a bit odd for Misha. Misha was sitting all the time in the corner and I was banging around. Now I am reducing myself tremendously. I just like to go like Marcel Duchamp, only use a couple of sticks, or a matchbox with two matches, and still play the shit out of it.

TP: Do you see analogies between Duchamp’s approach and the way you approach music?

HB: Actually, I am an artist and a painter, and I come from the art school. So I am still looking and looking. I don’t have much time to paint or to do art, because my heart and my desire is in playing music and I have to travel so much for that, so by the time I’m home I really have to rest before I start to do another drawing, I like to practice very, very long. There is less time. I have my diary and I make even the new record sleeves, something like that…or CD sleeve – sorry.

[MUSIC: Misha Mengelberg solo, “Ik Hab Een Turqoise…I have a Turquoise Cap”-Buzz Records; Misha-Han duo-1992; ICP Orch, 1997, from Jubilee Varia]

TP: That duo entered more orchestral sections. The ICP Orchestra has been existence in one form or another for over 30 years, as is the label ICP – Instant Composers Pool.

We’ve heard Han Bennink with Dexter Gordon, in duos with Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas over the first hour. The next segment will present music by the Clusone Trio, a group which I guess gave you in your late forties or early fifties…gave Americans their first consequential exposure to Han Bennink, who had been highly visible to an international audiences for many decades. Clusone emanates from ICP Orchestra. I’d like to step back to the 1960s, and discuss the gathering-together of like-minded musicians looking for new ways to express themselves, to shape form, to find their own voices within a European context.

HB: Well, you had in Germany Peter Brotzmann. He started his own label, actually a half-year before ICP started. ICP was at that time Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and myself. In England, people like Evan were very busy, and Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey of course, and Steve Beresford…

TP: In the 60s, Steve Beresford…

HB: Yeah, yeah…

TP: John Stevens was doing it then.

HB: Yeah, of course. John was playing, and Trevor Watts.

TP: How did you find each other?

HB: It comes by playing on a festival or whatever. You just meet somehow. There’s no special reason for it. For example, I am not the type at all who comes out of his house or say, “Now I go to London to see what’s happening there.” No-no…

TP: You’re a working musician, and in the course of your work you encounter people and make associations.

HB: Yeah, that’s right. Peter Brotzmann had a bit more facilities in Germany – because Germany is simply bigger than Holland is. He invited Evan Parker and Derek and Paul Rutherford, and then it started working.

TP: I think my earliest document of ICP is a record John Tchicai did with you around 1970.

HB: Yes, that’s ICP 004. It’s called Fragment. It was Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Misha and myself.

TP: I should have brought the LP>

HB: Wow. Well, you brought so many already.

TP: All CDs. But let’s talk about ideas evolved. It seems people from each country developed different ways of organizing sound, and developed distinctive personalities that merge when the individual musicians come together.

HB: Mmm. We always were sort of compared to the other European countries a bit tasteless. We were doing everything… Like, for example, in England in improvised music at that particular time it was absolutely forbidden to go into a blues or a march or whatever. We were absolutely tasteless in that sense. We took everything. That has a lot to do with Willem, of course, as a composer, and of course Misha. They were both writing for bigger groups. We were doing theater pieces, musical theater — still in 1974. Then Willem Breuker went his own direction and Misha stayed like ICP.

TP: How would you describe the difference?

HB: Still I love to play with Willem as an improviser, but I don’t like to play like a fixed program, in a way. It was a bit too static, in a way, probably for me. But nevertheless, I admire Willem tremendously, and all our work, all our CDs are coming via BVHaast, and distribution is done, and we have the same fantastic manager in ICP and Willem Breuker in the sense of Susanna von Canon, who has been doing this wonderful work for us. So it’s nothing like enemies at all.

TP: I was trying to get to the aesthetic direction more.

HB: Willem liked to have a band and travel with a band, and the feeling of those… ICP, for example, our band now is Mary Oliver on viola, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Ernst Glerum on bass, and we have Ab Baars for reeds, Michael Moore for reeds, Wolter Wierbos for trombone, Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Misha and me. All of those people personally can fulfill a one-hour solo program. So in the end, they are all solo players. But somehow, the chemistry in this band is so well. They like to work for each other, and that is amazing. So the setting is already different, compared to Willem. We have, of course, a lot of material, but Misha just makes a program like, say, 5 minutes before the show, and then we’re waiting, looking for the sheets… I can’t read notes, so for me it’s very easy. I have it all in the head. Sometimes it happens that I am the only one who knows about all tunes by Misha — I can sing them. “How was that going?”

TP: Are some of the things ICP plays now thing Misha wrote in the 60s?

HB: For example, in the group with Dave for this week we play many old compositions from Misha. But also Herbie Nichols material, which is of course very nice, and some Monk pieces.

TP: Even Ellington. I think you were playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” to conclude a set at Tonic recently.

HB: Yes, with the ICP Band. But I am very quick moving from the Quartet to ICP.

TP: Sorry. You were talking about Dave Douglas; I was talking about ICP. Talk about what in the broader cultural milieu of Holland in the 60s influenced you towards incorporating theater and absurdism in your presentation. Misha Mengelberg has talked about being influenced by the Fluxus movement.

HB: Yes, absolutely.

TP: John Cage, Nam June Paik – those kind of people.

HB: Misha is, of course, older than I am, and he was doing some Fluxus movements. For me, I was very interested and reading about it, but I was in the art school… I met later on Wolf Vostell via Brotzmann, because Brotzmann was also a Fluxus member, and then we had a very good friend and Fluxus member, Thomas Schmidt, in Berlin. I met Josef Beuys and I played at his opening. So it’s not so much to say. It just happened.

TP: It was part of the milieu in which you existed and functioned.

HB: Absolutely, too, when we played in 1969 in Berlin, we played for the heavy left-wing student movement – Rudi Dutschke and all those cats. Peter was very much into that. I am not interested in politics at all. I can play for all parties, but I don’t like to play for fascists and rednecks. But for the rest I am very flexible.

TP: Was Misha political in the 60s?

HB: You should ask him. Yeah, I think he was, but not so heavy than all the other…

TP: Less so than in England or Germany with many of the musicians. Let’s talk about the affinities by which Clusone Trio was established out of the ICP Orchestra.

HB: The Clusone Trio…actually we had an invitation to play in Clusone. Clusone is in the north of Italia, near Bergamo. At the time we were invited to play, it was a quartet. There was no name for it. The quartet was Michael Moore, Ernst Reijsiger, the cello player, Guus Janssen, and me. Those are all fantastic players. But somehow it was set-up…actually thesame set-up that I work in this week… It was a jazz set-up. But Ernst was dealing with the cello, so there was no bass. But it was a real jazz quartet. I like actually a bit more space. I love to play with Guus Janssen duet. He’s most of the time playing with his own brother. But I love to play with him. He’s a very good composer and a very skilled piano player.

So Guus went out and we carried on as a trio, the Clusone Trio, and it became very, very successful. We traveled to Australia. We were playing in Vietnam. We were playing in China. We were playing in Burkina-Faso. We were playing in Mali, and all over Europe. It was really very nice. I know Ernst since he was 12 years old, and then he came to me already. So I had a relationship with him. Ernst was sort of responsible for getting Michael to Europe, so that was cool. And Michael’s interest in pieces and…

TP: He comes from a background not so dissimilar to yours, with a father who is a music teacher…

HB: Yes, his father is Jerry and he’s a very high-rated teacher in Eureka, California.

TP: So I guess it was a superb chemistry.

HB: Yes.

TP: And I guess the group disbanded maybe two years ago.

HB: Something like that.

[MUSIC: Clusone 3, Irving Berlin repertoire]

TP: We were speaking of the ICP Orchestra as it developed during the 80s, when it, as one of the clippings I read from Misha Mengelberg put it, it began exploring repertory, and specifically repertory by the composers who were his great influences in the 1950s, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Had did this transition happen, from the raucous, more open-ended, theatre-composition from before.

HB: I think Misha actually is more interested to write his own material, but somehow I think he had an invitation for the radio to do a whole Herbie Nichols set-up. Because we always have to a little bit force him in the direction to put up or to come or play this older material. I think it was an invitation from a radio station, and it was the ICP Orchestra plus George Lewis and Steve Lacy.

TP: George Lewis was exploring electronic music and AI in Amsterdam at the time.

HB: Right. He was busy with his improvising robot. But of course, with us he played the trombone, thank goodness.

TP: The track we’ll hear features another trombonist, also appearing in town this week with Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Grachan Moncur at the Jazz Standard. It’s Roswell Rudd, from a record titled Regeneration from 1982 on the Soul Note label, with Steve Lacy – both were involved with the music of Herbie Nichols and Monk during their formative years in New York. Also Misha Mengelberg on piano, Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink. What do you recollect about the album?

HB: This record was also an idea by our friend Filipo Bianchi, and of course, we knew that Roswell played with Nichols and there are more compositions of Herbie Nichols also, so we brought it together.

TP: On Herbie Nichols’ original recordings, the drummers were Max Roach and Art Blakey – also Dannie Richmond. Did you hear those recordings when they were out?

HB: Of course. I have them all. I particularly like them with Art Blakey. I have two 10″ he actually made for Blue Note, and a bigger one, a normal one with Max. But I prefer the ones with Art Blakey. Maybe it’s with the type of his piano playing… Personal taste.

TP: Herbie Nichols in his writing orchestrated for the drums.

HB: Yes.

TP: The feeling of the drums, and sometimes the parts were specific. In your interpretations, do you hew to that?

HB: Of course I hew to that. On one album for Blue Note, he wrote these fantastic liner notes. Of course, Misha, who brought me the whole idea of Herbie Nichols… When you play that stuff, I think you have to stay as close to what’s actually meant with the particular music at that time. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.

TP: For you it’s all an aural process? Do you have the sort of memory where you hear something and it imprints itself… Do you hear like that?

HB: Oh, no-no. I can’t tell you nothing what I am doing. I cannot do that, because it’s music and it’s no words. When it was music, if it was language, so I could write a book and you could go from page to page what I am actually doing. But it is not. So I have to do it tonight again, and hopefully tomorrow again, and after tomorrow. But there are no words for that to me. I cannot declare my music.

TP: I wasn’t trying to break down your technique. I was thinking of the way music enters your mind and comes out.

HB: Yeah, but it’s completely abstract how that works. I can tell you nothing about it.

TP: So it’s as organic as language.

HB: Yes, I guess.

TP: I guess you’ve been doing it since you start learning language, so it’s organic as language.

HB: Yes. Well, you dive in the middle of a swimming pool and you try to reach the sides, and there’s nothing more to tell. I throw myself into a musical situation, and I have to…

TP: If you’ll use the analogy of being thrown in the swimming pool, then hopefully you’ve learned how to swim.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: You’re not diving in without a thorough background.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink, “Blue Chopsticks”; ICP Orchestra, “Spinning Song”]

HB: Dutch Masters was made in an awful little studio in Milano, really, with a terrible drumkit, and I had to sit in a drum booth that was horrible. Horrible circumstances.

TP: Sometimes beautiful pearls emerge from the ugliest surroundings.

HB: Oh, yes. For example, listen to Bird at St. Nick’s. It’s one of my favorite albums, and the circumstances there must have been horrible – so much noise.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Bennink, “Hornin’ In”; ICP Orchestra, “Bospaadje Konijnehol”; “Mooche Mix”]

HB: Many people are not playing in our band any more. Our band has been changing all the time. I think now we have the best band there ever was.

TP: Why is that?

HB: It’s so well balanced. I’ve been learning a lot, so… I have a name that I can play sort of loud. But in the ICP Orchestra I have to behave, because now I cannot play louder than, for example, Mary Oliver who is playing violin, and in pieces where the sections are playing things, has to be heard. So I am reduced to lots of brushes work. That makes you a good brushes player.

TP: You said “reduced.”

HB: Yeah, sure. My English is sometimes a bit short.

TP: Now the ICP Orchestra has been performing the repertoire it has for 20 years; it’s an established fact, and a few generations of musicians have come up hearing it, some of whom are playing in the band. How does that affect their approach to the music once they’re in the band?

HB: It’s not easy to play in that band. Well, it’s Misha’s band. Misha is writing for it. But I am also responsible to bring in new people. Because I play with a big variety of people, so I actually brought everybody in except Thomas Heberer, the German trumpet player – he came via Misha. But for the rest, I brought in all. There’s nothing more to say about it; it just functions fantastic. We all love to play in that band. We do a lot music-wise. It’s not an ego thing at all. We just go for it in a positive sense.

TP: I’ll raise a question that we were discussing when the music was on? Does ICP play much in Holland?

HB: We never play in Holland. We play, say, 5 or 6 times a year in Holland. We’d love to play more. But it’s expensive to have 9 people on the road, and then the possibilities in Holland… Everybody from abroad thinks, “Wow, Holland is a mecca of improvised music.” It probably is, but the possibilities for us to play are very small. Also, we live in a very small country. In that country’s network, say like 15 clubs where you can perform, and maybe we can perform in 7 of those clubs. When you do that round once or twice a year, you’re done. You have to go to Germany or france or England or America. But then you must have a name that people like to have you as well.

TP: And you have to establish a tonal personality that people recognize and want to hear.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: Which Han Bennink has been doing all his life.

HB: I do my best.

TP: you travel around the world, more than ever.

HB: More than ever.

TP: You know musicians everywhere, and you cover every area of music. A lot of older musicians now, from different ends of the spectrum, James Moody to Andrew Hill, say that the quality of musicianship among young players now is the highest it’s ever been. They’ve never seen it quite like this in terms of what they can do and their openness to many times of music. What’s your sense of that.

HB: If you think in the sense of instrumentalists, a skilled player, there are many, many skilled players, and not only in our music but also in classical music. When I was performing in the Lincoln Center, I was passing by Juilliard School of Music, and I was surprised at how many people from Asia were carrying a violin and coming out of that school. So I think there’s a hell of a lot of competition in certain musics, and probably also in ours. I train myself a lot, more than ever. But I think exactly what Kenny Clarke said to me. “Well, you must have enough technique to explore yourself so you can make yourself…” Like, having lots of technique like a Buddy Rich, or other technique like, I don’t know, Roy Haynes or someone like that – those people have their personal touch and personal tuning for drums, and personal sounds. So it comes to a person rather than to an overall technique. But they are very skilled. Nowadays people can play… And standing on their head, for example. Well, I’ve seen it once. Don Byas standing on his head, playing saxophone, “Body and Soul”, upside-down, also backwards.

TP: He played the tune backwards and was standing on his head.

HB: Yes, and standing on his head. In a bathroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was a party. The Dizzy Gillespie band was there, and Don came from Amsterdam (because he was based in Amsterdam) to see that. He did all those sort of tricks. He was an amazing player.

TP: There’s a certain component to what you do that’s lost on a CD. You have a visual aspect. You’ll play the telephone…

HB: That might be true, but you don’t miss it in the music.

TP: I sometimes have to close my eyes when I see you play, so that I can focus on the musicality of what’s going on. The visual stuff can be distracting.

HB: Yes, but it is still based on the music and the musical possibilities – what’s going on at that particular moment in the band. When there’s nothing happening, there is for me no reason to leave the drum chair and play in the hall, because it means nothing. But when there’s a musical tension between Misha and me on stage, then I can leave him alone and I can leave him PERFECTLY alone, because he can take care of himself probably better than I do in music live. So then it is a reason for me to do something else. But when the music is not happening, I can’t do it. It’s sort of static. For example, when I have to play in a club like where we play tonight, that is more like a jazz club set-up – when you’re behind the drums, you are behind the drums. You can hardly move because of the little space. I like actually for myself halls not too big, but a space on stage where you can move a bit. Because for me, playing on the floor, on a wooden floor, or not even on a wood floor, is exactly the same for me as playing on a drumkit. Some drummers stay…or they want a 50″ bass drum rather than that high. I don’t have belongings in that at all. I am just pleased with two sticks, and that’s it. I like to make the best and the weirdest music out of that. That is my goal.

TP: Doesn’t matter what the drumkit is.

HB: Doesn’t matter. I’ve been playing on pizza boxes, carton boxes, pieces of wood, drumkits falling apart, broken drumheads, broken drumsticks – all sorts of stuff.

TP: You do that in your sculpture as well, no?

HB: Yes.

TP: A lot of it is with found objects.

HB: Yes, objets trouvees.

TP: We have two more duos before you leave. This is the most recent of many duo collaborations you’ve done with Derek Bailey over the years. I guess it goes back to about 1968 or so. On Incus?

HB: No. I did the first thing with Derek on ICP. It’s ICP 004. I think it must be 1969.

TP: Again, Derek Bailey’s vocabulary is now an established fact of the music, over 30 years. Back then…I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t totally new; there’s nothing totally new. But in some sense it was, because of its electronic nature. Again, how does that familiarity with your partner’s vocabulary change the nature of the interaction? And this is not a live encounter. Here, you’d tape something, send it to the other…

HB: Yes.

TP: …tape a response, send it back, a response gets taped, and so forth and so on.

HB: Right.

TP: Just to use the word “free’ in the commonly accepted sense of free improvising, these people are all shaping utterly personal vocabularies that no one else is using. How does that familiarity then shape the responses?

HB: I don’t like it for myself when it’s static or fixed. And I know exactly what you mean. I was playing in Tonic not long ago, and Derek was staying there for a whole month, and I saw a concert he did with Blood Ulmer. I have to say, when you hear the guitar sound you recognize Derek immediately. I think that’s an incredible pro. You recognize Miles. You recognize Thelonious Monk. All great players. Also Derek. But in a way, it’s already done… “Oh, that’s Derek then.” But I’ve been recording now with a Punk guitar player from the Ex, Terrie Ex. His real name is Terrie Hessels. He is not into certain technique or overtones or this thing at all. He just starts moving. He’s more like an action painting, in a way. The sounds that’s coming from this sounded to me different from Derek in a way… Well, you can’t say from Derek that it’s not fresh, because he plays always fresh. But you know that sound now. So for me, it was fresh to hear the other approach from Terrie coming to it. Because when you play with Derek, you never know what he is playing, but you know that particular sound. But the other… That’s different with Terrie. So in a sense, when you play longer and longer, you have to run, otherwise the time is eating you. You know? And there’s not much time. The grave is yawning, as we say in Holland. So you have to keep running. That’s why I’d like to leave the studio and walk it off.

[MUSIC: Bennink-Bailey- “Duo#3”–Fragile (Incus 34); Bennink-Eskelin, “Let’s Cool One” from Dissonant Characters]

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For the 83rd Birthday of Maestro Saxophonist-Flutist James Spaulding, Two WKCR Interviews from 1995 and 1993

I’ve been digitizing and transcribing interviews from a number of radio shows that I did on WKCR during the 80s, 90s and early 00s. Here are the proceedings of a pair of shows with the singular alto saxophonist and flutist James Spaulding, an Indianapolis native who was a fixture on some of the more venturesome Blue Note recordings of the 1960s and on several of Sun Ra’s late 50s Saturns, who made a terrific series of CDs for Muse records between 1988 and 1994. At the top is a Musician Show from August 1995; it’s followed by a briefer appearance on Out to Lunch in July 1993.

James Spaulding, Musician Show, August 9, 1995 and Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Song of Courage,” “Public Eye”]

TP: Before we move back in time, let’s talk about the present. There are a few engagements coming up in the next few weeks.

JS: This will be the Jazz Legacy group, Larry Ridley’s organization of musicians – Charles Davis, Virgil Jones, Frank Gant on drums, and myself. That’s the 21st of August at Jazzmobile on 122nd Street here in Harlem. Also, on the 27th of August a tribute to Bird at Tompkins Square Park – Lester Young’s birthday. Also, I’ll have my own quartet at Visiones on the 18th and 19th, plus a few Mondays with the David Murray Big Band.

TP: Anyone who’s ever heard James Spaulding play would conclude that you listened seriously and with much intensity to Charlie Parker as a kid, and on our first segment we’ll focus on some compositions of Bird. But first, let’s take it back. You were born in 1937 in Indianapolis. So you were coming of age at the time when bebop hit. Tell me about your intro to music. Your father was a guitar player.

JS: My father was a professional guitarist. He actually started the Original Brown Buddies orchestra in the 1920s, the late 20s, and he formed a small group that traveled around playing college concerts, dances mostly. Later on, Bob Womack, his friend, a drummer…they put the two groups together and later called the group Bob and the Bobcats. This carried on through the 30s, and I was born in 1937, so I came through the Swing Era.

TP: It was mainly a regional band around Indianapolis.

JS: Yes, just a regional band, and the first integrated band actually that began to have white musicians and black musicians play together – to start doing that at that time. 1937, on to the 40s and the 50s, and my father stopped playing quite early, because more children were coming on the scene… I was the third of seven. Large family, and economics weren’t that good, so he had to stop playing and take something steady.

TP: What was his name?

JS: James Spaulding. The 2nd actually. I’m the 3rd.

TP: Was he an improviser?

JS: Yes, he improvised and sang also. He did a little singing, and he booked the gigs. He did a lot of the business things that were happening for the band. Did a little traveling upstate. I think he told me he went to Troy, NY with the band when they traveled around. He never did come to New York. He always wanted to come here.

TP: is he the one who gave you the early musical training?

JS: He’s the one who brought the records home. He said, “Listen.” He brought home the Charlie Parker records. “Shaw Nuff” was one of the early ones. ‘Mohawk” with Dizzy and Bird. I was 10 years old when I heard Cab Calloway. I told you about that one. Then Charlie Parker came on the scene when I was 10 years old – listening to those recordings. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Man, the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

TP: These inspired you to play?

JS: Yes, the Charlie Parker record, “Shaw Nuff,” really inspired me to play.

TP: When were you able to start hearing music live?

JS: Well, he used to take me around to bands that would come over in our neighborhood and set up right out there in the park and play. He would take us to concerts where guys were playing at the Indiana Theater. I saw Billie Holiday at this theater, and Lester Young. George Shearing was there. I believe it was called the Indiana Roof. I don’t think it’s open any more. He exposed me to music. He also wanted me to be a prize-fighter. He used to take me to the gym to work out. Which I didn’t have eyes for having my chops get mashed in. But he was a fight fan. He loved boxing.

TP: When did you start doing the little gigs? I take it alto was the instrument.

JS: Alto was the one. I got some gigs. I learned how to read in high school. I was able to develop my eyes so I could get through some of those charts, and I was reading quite… Actually I was reading before I got into high school, in grade school. I taught myself how to read through the charts. He would take me over to some of the older musicians around town and let me sit in and read some of the arrangements. I remember I got hired for a gig, and my father went with me to kind of chaperone me – because I was 10, 11 or 12, something like that.

TP: Indianapolis had a thriving musical community. A lot of great musicians from there. J.J. Johnson, the Montgomerys, Slide Hampton.

JS: Man, it was something.

TP: You were a little younger than them, though.

JS: Right. Leroy Vinnegar. Carl Perkins.

TP: Were they around?

JS: No. As you say, I was quite younger. Slide, Wes, all the brothers. Freddie and I had a chance to sit in with that group when they were working at a club called the Turf Club in Indianapolis.

TP: That’s Freddie Hubbard, who’s a year younger than you, and who you worked quite a bit with over the years.

JS: Yes. Freddie and I started off learning Charlie Parker tunes. I’d go over to his house, and he would come out to where I was stationed in the Army, out at Fort Harrison Army Base out there when I was in the band, and he’d come out and sit in with the band. He was playing then! He was up on his instrument. He was an executionist. At that age, at 17, which is how old he was when I first met him at a jam session.

TP: So you hooked up after high school.

JS: Yes. I was in the Army and Freddie was still going to high school. He was about ready to graduate from Arsenal Technical High School there in Indianapolis. He graduated, and came on out with us when Larry Ridley formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked around Indianapolis at George’s Bar and the Cotton Club… Larry booked a lot of these gigs. He had that business sense about him to take care of these things, while we just enjoyed the music.

Yeah, Indianapolis was happening, man. Clubs all up and down Indiana Avenue. You could just walk in one club and out into another club. Just take your instrument. If the guys knew you, they would ask you to come up and play something with them.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians who were in Indianapolis? Slide Hampton talks about a piano player named Earl Grandy.

JS: Earl Grandy! Yes, he was fantastic. He just passed not too long ago, I heard. He was blind, and he was an inspiration to a lot of the musicians. He would show them changes and different things on the instrument. He played right up to his passing. It’s a great loss.

Jimmy Coe is still there, and there’s Pookie Johnson, a tenor player. There are a few more musicians there. But it’s no work there now. Nothing is happening there at all practically. I think they have one club, and it’s called the Jazz Kitchen. Wallace Roney and his brother performed there not too long ago. They said they had standing room in there. Two shows, two sets, and it was packed. I’m working on going down there with a group perhaps.

TP: Slide also talked about a ballroom run by the Ferguson Brothers, who booked a lot of big bands, so that bands would start their tour in Indianapolis. Was that still happening when you were coming of age?

JS: These brothers had real estate, they had a little money, so they were able to set up these places and get musicians come in through Indianapolis. Charlie Parker came through there once, I remember. I was too young to go see him. I remember seeing the posters on the lightposts, “Charlie Parker’s in town.” He was down at the Sunset Lounge, Sunset Café at the time. You could go down and try to listen through the door in the back, but it was very hard to hear. Yeah, I remember when he came into Indianapolis, man. It was quite a day.

TP: I guess it was whenever Bird came to whichever town it was.

JS: Wherever anybody flocked, man. Everybody loved him so much. He was such an inspiration to so many musicians.

TP: Bird was really your first inspiration, then? You hadn’t been checking out, say, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter, and then changed. You heard Bird and it just hit you.

JS: Yeah, it just hit me. I listened to the rest, but with Bird playing, it was just…I never quite recovered.

[MUSIC: Bird, “KoKo”; “Mohawk”; JATP (Bird-Prez-Roy) w/Ella, “How High The Moon”-1949]

TP: You remember hearing that “How High The Moon” record when you were 13 or so.

JS: Yes, I was about 13.

TP: Before “KoKo” had records like “Red Cross” and the Jay McShann records come to Indianapolis? Were they popular?

JS: They were, yes. “Red Cross” and “Buzzy” and “Donna Lee.”

TP: I take it you checked out everything as it came along.

JS: Yes, as much as I could. My father would bring those records. I’m so glad he did, man. I would have missed them.

On “Mohawk,” I just love that melody. I just asked Dad, “Play that over again.” That and “Shaw Nuff” were my favorites to listen to.

TP: Charlie Parker wasn’t the only saxophonist you were paying attention to. As a musician in school bands, you weren’t going to be able to play Charlie Parker’s language. Was there any tension between the requirement of playing “legitimate” or needing rudiments, and then the flights of fancy that would come to mind from hearing Bird?

JS: I was very fortunate to have a music teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where I attended – my first year of high school. He was into jazz, and he would ask musicians if they would want to stay after school. He would stay there with us and work with us to learn to read these syncopated bebop tunes, like “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” Count Basie’s things they had these stock arrangements on. We formed a little group called the Monarch Combo with Melvin Rhyne. I think Virgil Jones was in the band. There was Curly Hampton, a cousin of Slide Hampton. We just learned how to phrase and how to play that music the way it was coming over on the record. We tried not to copy, but tried to stylize our playing as much as possible with that. And Mr. Brown (Russell Brown), he would stay there with us and work with us. I don’t if any other high school teacher was like that.

TP: So Russell Brown was the bandmaster at Crispus Attucks H.S.?

JS: Right. He was the bandmaster. And like I said, I had taught myself how to read good enough to get into the freshman band and the senior band, and then I got into the orchestra my first year of high school with Mr. Newsome, and I played the flute. I taught myself how to play the flute well enough to get into the string orchestra at school. That got me into the woodwind quintet. I played flute with that group, and we played concerts and…

TP: Is that the classical repertoire you were playing?

JS: Yes, we played classical repertoire, European pieces. We had played the dances around Indianapolis with this Monarch Combo group, which we would rehearse after school, and Mr. Brown would be our guide and our teacher. We sort of developed out of that, and we stayed around Indianapolis doing a lot of background playing for singers that would come into town, like Bull Moose Jackson (you remember him?), the tenor saxophone.

TP: Playing the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson.

JS: Yeah! He was something else, man.

TP: So you’re playing wind quintets on the flute, the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson, playing Charlie Parker tunes in the woodshed, doing all this…

JS: Yeah, all this music. All this happening. You start growing more and more, until I went into the Army in 1954. I got out in 1957, and went to Chicago.

TP: You mentioned that Tab Smith’s “Because Of You,” recorded in 1951, was the first solo you memorized.

JS: The first solo I ever memorized was “Because Of You.”

TP: He projected a different tone or timbral quality than Bird. Talk a bit about your sound on the alto, and developing it.

JS: I just tried to… I kept hearing Bird all the time, and I wanted to try to get as close to that sound as possible. Then I heard Tab Smith with his sound; he had a sweet, nice alto sound. And Johnny Hodges also…I listened to him a little bit, too, and was inspired by his playing. But Tab was right there and the music was right there, so I just said, “Let me just learn how to play this piece.” That was the first piece I ever played without reading the music.

TP: That became your feature…

JS: That became my little feature piece.

I first heard Illinois Jacquet at JATP, doing “Flying Home,” that exciting piece. Louis Jordan, “Open The Door, Richard” was one… Oh, he played so many pieces. He used to have me knocked out, man. It was so beautiful to hear this music played. And it still is. It’s still fresh to me every time I hear it. It’s a stone gift.

TP: Tab Smith, “Because of You,” with a Chicago-based band – Sonny Cohn on trumpet, Leon Washington (formerly with Earl Hines) on tenor sax, Lavern Dillon or Teddy Brannon, piano; Wilfred Middlebroks, bass; Walter Johnson, drums.

[MUSIC: Tab Smith, “Because of You”-1951; Louis Jordan, “Buzz Me”-1945; Illinois Jacquet, “Jet Propulsion”-1947]

TP In this first hour, we’ve taken James through learning the alto saxophone and flute and your experience at Crispus Attucks High School with Russell Brown, and playing a wide range of music during those years. You were also influenced by big bands, which, as we mentioned before, came through Indianapolis with some frequency.

JS: Oh yeah. There would be big bands that came through a lot, that would come in our neighborhoods and play right out there in our playground – set up a community thing. Like the earlier Jazzmobile. They got fed and the whole thing…

TP: Were there local big bands?

JS: Yes, we had the local big bands, they also…and bands that would come through and work at a major club there, and then come over and donate the music to the community.

TP: Where did the bands stay when they came through Indianapolis? It was a pretty segregated city, I take it.

JS: Yes, it was. They would stay at the Y. And a lot of the musicians would stay with musicians who were in Indianapolis – they would spend the night or whatever, stay there with the families. In fact, Teddy Wilson would come by my house and jam with my father and some more musicians who would come to town.

TP: So you met Teddy Wilson, had dinner with him and so forth?

JS: Yes, he would sit there, and the guys would be jamming and we’d sit there and listen to them. It was quite exciting.

TP: You mentioned that your father brought home a lot of records – Ellington’s records, Cb Calloway. So you were hearing big band music from an early age, both live and on records.

JS: Yes.

TP: Did you know how to pick out the different soloists? As a kid, did you identify the sounds of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney…

JS: Yes. I’d get to learn their sounds, to identify their sounds as well in the context. But those records, man, that was it. I’m so glad. My mother, too. She was very supportive, a very spiritual, church-going person. In fact, she just turned 84 this past June, and she’s going strong. She would always encourage me to keep playing and practice. She was very encouraging.

TP: Did she play music herself?

JS: No. She just sang in the church. A very spiritual lady.

TP: Let’s hear a short set of big band music, then we’ll review James Spaulding’s experience during the latter 50s as a working musician in the Chicago area. Unless there’s something else you’d like to say about Indianapolis.

JS: There was the Camp Atterbury, an Army base there, and the guys from the base would come in and support the music, and go from club to club at that time. That was one of many things that were going on up and down Indiana Avenue, as they called it. That was a strip. Like 52nd Street compared to that…but not quite… We had quite a bit of turnover; there was quite a bit of action going on during that period. There was a place called the Cotton Club, and there was a Savoy, and I told you the Sunset Café where Bird played. There was the temple, where John Coltrane played one of his last concerts, I believe.

So from 1954… I was in the Army band, and I did a lot of big band stuff there and combos. I was in Special Services actually at the time, so I got a chance to just play in the marching band, the dance band, they had a jazz band and had a little jazz combo. We’d play on campus and I would go off-campus… That’s how I met Freddie Hubbard, at this jam session at the Cotton Club.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Take the A-Train”; “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Calloway, “Minnie The Moocher”; Basie, “L’il Darlin”]

TP: After your got out of the Army, you went to Chicago, but first talk about your Army experiences.

JS: I was in Special Services. I had that set up before I even went in. My father had it arranged. I had to take these tests; I had to pass the exams. As I said, it was a good thing that I’d learned how to read. It was so vital. You had to sight-read some parts. So I got the gig in the Army! From there, after I finished basic training… Six weeks, I was in Fort Linwood, Missouri, then they shipped me to Fort Ord, California, and I continued band training out there. This was 1954, 8 weeks out there, then I came to Indianapolis to Fort Harrison, which is a few miles outside of Indianapolis. I was able to commute back and forth.

TP: What sort of functions did you do in the Army band?

JS: There was the Army Finance Center, which was not too far away from where we were stationed, where we had our housing. We would do our regular thing of marching…what do you call that thing before closing down… Anyway, we’d play over at the Army Finance Center, work there during the day with the jazz band. Then at night, sometimes we would go to the NCO club and play music for the non-commissioned officers there. We had some good musicians in that band, and we would jam and play charts and play arrangements. Going back to my being able to read, that also really helped me to continue to play.

TP: A lot of musicians found the Army a great finishing school, because you’d play all the time.

JS: Oh yeah. It was a great help to a lot of guys. A lot of them just in there 20 more years, and got a retirement thing. I wanted to get out. I wanted to go to Chicago and go to New York. I wanted to venture out some more.

TP: You mentioned meeting Freddie Hubbard when you were stationed outside Indianapolis.

JS: Yes. I went to one of these jam sessions that they’d have every Saturday afternoon, I think it was, and there I met. We just got together and started rehearsing tunes. I went out to his house and met his mom. Man, she could cook. Oh God, could she cook! He’d come by my house. And we’d go out to the Army base and play with the Army band members. Slide Hampton would come out there, too, bring his arrangements and test them with some of the guys out there.

TP: At that time, he’d just joined Buddy Johnson (55-56), and then on his way to the Lionel Hampton band. He was here last week, so I’m up on Slide’s career.

JS: He’s such a tremendous musician. He’d bring his arrangements out there for us to play, and that was always a treat every time. We’d go over to the Army Finance Center and play, and we’d give him a few dollars to come out there.

TP: What was Freddie Hubbard playing like at 17-18 years old?

JS: He was definitely influenced by…he was listening to Clifford Brown and Miles mostly. Those were the two trumpet players he’d really taken to. We’d work out learning Charlie Parker tunes, so we could go out and play together. Especially with Wes Montgomery and Buddy and all those guys, you had to be up on some tunes!

TP: Were the Montgomerys still around Indianapolis at this time?

JS: Yes. They were playing regularly at a club called the Turf Club. They’d have jam sessions every Saturday afternoon also. We’d run out there and jam with them. Then we’d run back into town to the Cotton Club and jam at George’s Bar; that would last from 5 until about 9, when the regular band would come on. We did a lot of playing.

TP: Was Wes Montgomery’s style fully formed by the mid 1950s?

JS: Oh, definitely. He went on to record with Cannonball. Was it Cannonball who brought him in…

TP: His first recordings were for Pacific Jazz.

JS: Pacific Jazz. I recorded with them. I did one of my first recordings on an album with Larry Rice.

TP: Let’s bring you to Chicago, which was a big center for jazz during the 50s, with a lot of great musicians – a self-contained scene unto itself.

JS: Definitely.

TP: Talk about what drew you to Chicago.

JS: What drew me to Chicago was Johnny Griffin – his records. When I first hear his record, I was in the Army, and I said, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” I had to go to Chicago and hear this man. His speed and his dexterity. God! He played the tenor like you play the alto. He did play the alto at one time.

TP: But made it sound like a tenor.

JS: Yes. I went to Chicago and I finally met him. I met his mother. I was working a day job there that my cousin had gotten me. And I met his mother there. She told me where he’d be, and I went to see him at this club called the Flame. I saw Lester Young there, too. It was off 63rd and Cottage Grove.

TP: There was a strip of clubs there.

JS: Yes. McKie’s Lounge, and the Cotton Club right across the street, and around the corner, down the street (I think it was Cottage Grove), there was the Flame. Later it burned down.

TP: Went up in flames.

JS: Yeah, it was strange. But I saw Lester Young! Johnny Griffin was there first. I went down to see him, I met him, and told him I’d like to come by and just talk to him. He said, “Ok,” and gave me his phone number. So I got a chance to hang with him for a few times.

TP: In Chicago, you affiliated with Sun Ra, and the records you’re on by him are much prized. How did that come about?

JS: It was a jam session at the Pershing Lounge, at a place where you’d play until 10 o’clock in the morning. You’d go down there and just jam. I was jamming, and I met Pat Patrick and John Gilmore, and Pat approached me and asked if I would like to make a rehearsal, that Sun Ra liked the way I played. I said, “Ok.” That’s how it started. I went to this rehearsal, and Sun Ra wrote out a piece right in front of me – wrote out my part and gave it to me.

TP: What did the part seem like to you? Was it congruent with your style?

JS: I was able to read it enough to get the gig. But it was so different from everything else I had been trying to play or learning to play. Especially the improvisational aspect of it. He asked me to play. I didn’t see any chord changes. That’s what made me see there was something else happening beyond what’s on the paper. Pat would say, “Don’t worry about that; just play.” That started some other wheels spinning. I stayed with him off and on for a while, and we went on some… We went to Indianapolis, as a matter, with the band! We went on a couple of concert tours around Chicago and different places. But we mainly stayed there at Pershing Lounge. That was like a home base for most of the musicians.

TP: The Pershing Lounge had a long pedigree in Chicago, as a place where Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins played in the 40s and early 50s in the ballroom. Ahmad Jamal played downstairs…

JS: Downstairs, in the basement. So we were down in the basement, kinda like, with this breakfast jam, they called it, and we’d go down there and stay until 10 the next morning. Guys would straggle out. We’d go and have breakfast and talk. There was a lot happening.

TP: The next track features Sonny Stitt, who was very popular in Chicago as well.

JS: Oh, yes. He and Gene Ammons used to get together and lock horns. I saw them together in Chicago once. It was very exciting. It was like a shootout corral. The guys would come in the door, and look at each other, stop and pull out their instruments. The crowd was already there, waiting, so it was like a big drama thing. So when they got on the stage, Sonny had his fans and Gene Ammons had his fans on one side, and it was like back and forth, and they would solo and do the fours… It was tremendous, man.

[MUSIC: Sonny Stitt, “My Melancholy Baby” (Hank-Freddie Green-w. Marshall-Shadow Wilson-1956; Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling”; Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset”; Coltrane, “Dexterity”; Sun Ra, “Hours After”-from Jazz In Silhouette]

TP: We’ll now move into some of James Spaulding’s more far-reaching recordings of the 1960s, when he became a favorite of New York’s hip audience, some of whom are calling and sharing their memories. You returned to Indianapolis from Chicago for a bit, and moved to New York in 1962. Anything else to say about Chicago apart from your experiences with Sun Ra?

JS: I forgot to mention Jerry Butler, the Iceman, that was one of the first recordings I did before Sun Ra. I played a flute solo on one of his pieces, called “Lost.” I just remember that. That was back in the 60s.

But Chicago was…everybody was going to New York, I guess, before the end of 1959.

TP: George Coleman and Booker Little had left, Frank Strozier…

JS: Everyone was moving on to New York. But Chicago was very helpful, very inspiring, to go there and… I’m glad I went to Chicago instead of going to New York. Everybody said I should have come to New York first, but I think I made a better choice.

TP: Because it was more relaxed, you could get certain things together?

JS: Yeah, I could relax. Plus I could use my G.I. Bill to go to the school there, the Cosmopolitan School of Music on Wabash Avenue. It was down the street from Roosevelt University, upstairs there. Frank Strozier graduated from there. Bobby Bryant, the trumpet player, he graduated from there. I studied with Bobby Bryant. He helped me out a lot with the chord changes and stuff. He’s out in California now.

TP: Then your path to New York.

JS: Well, I went home and charged my batteries. Michael Ridley, Larry’s brother…we both came to New York together with 50 cents between us, in his car. We landed here, and I called up Freddie, and he called his brother Larry, and I’ve been here since.

TP: What were your first affiliations in New York?

JS: Actually, I just stayed with Freddie. I was trying to find some work, trying to find a place to live – that whole thing. Making these little gigs. Worked in the Time-Life Building as a messenger. Until Freddie called me for this Hub-Tones date. In 1963 I got married. Then things started opening up for me. I have two grown daughters now.

But Freddie called me in 1963. He was working with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and they were traveling. In fact, when I was up in Canada, when I met Cab Calloway, I was telling you…

TP: That happened a little later.

JS: We worked in this huge place, right across from the Notre Dame, in that area. Cab was up there singing “Hi-de hi-de ho,” and I went backstage to meet him and talk to him about his experiences. That was about a week. My wife and I had a little honeymoon there. That was the first experience with him. I told him how I’d listened to his records when I was 5 years old. He was laughing; he enjoyed that.

TP: you’re on quite a few of these Blue Note recordings, some of the most venturesome of the 1960s, like The All Seeing Eye, Wayne Shorter; Bobby Hutcherson’s Components

JS: Yeah, right after Hub-Tones, which was the first date I did. Right after that, I was getting calls to come in and record with everybody. Duke Pearson was the A&R man during that time.

TP: Right. You’re on Sweet Honey Bee.

JS: Yeah, he was the A&R man, bringing in a lot of cats.

TP: If you’re working on a Blue Note record by Freddie Hubbard or Wayne Shorter or Bobby Hutcherson, did that mean you were also gigging with them? Were these working groups or set up for the studio?

JS: Freddie’s was the group that I began to work with after he left Art Blakey, and we started working with Joe Chambers, Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan on bass – a quintet. It was Freddie’s first working band. We did a few gigs around… We never did go out of the country. We kind of stayed around the area. We did a few things in Philadelphia, went up to Boston and did a couple of things. It wasn’t working that much, but at least we had a chance to tighten up before we did that Breaking Point album.

TP: We’ve been listening to jump bands, bebop, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin playing very straight ahead. But we listened to John Coltrane’s “Dexterity,” which you said had a big impact on you, as did Coltrane’s music in general.

JS: When I first heard Trane, it was in Chicago on that recording. It was a different label. But that “Dexterity” inspired me a lot when I first heard it, when I heard John Coltrane. I’d never heard of him before. I heard Johnny Griffin. But when I heard John Coltrane, that took me into a whole nother thing. His structure, his whole phraseology, his whole approach to the music was so unique and so HIM. You could identify him so well – his individuality. It stood out so profound.

TP: Had you heard Coltrane by the time you were Sun Ra?

JS: No, not yet. It was before I left, right around the end, around 1958 or 59, I heard that record. Then I had to hear him again. I came to New York and he was at the old Five Spot. It was so crowded that night, I was standing on my toes trying to see him. Freddie Hubbard brought me down there that night. And Birdland. That’s when I saw Dexter Gordon on one of those Monday night jam sessions they had. Lee Morgan was conducting the jam sessions, with Dexter up there cooking and Curtis Fuller. Freddie took me to that session also. I was a little nervous about coming to New York anyway. Freddie had to kind of pull me. “Come on, man, get your horn out and play some.” I said, “No, not yet.” He’d encourage me. “Come on, play, man.” He was a great inspiration to me. He still is. Everything looked like… All the clubs were closing down at that period. From 1963 on down to 67 or 68, clubs were closing, everything was changing. The scene was changing quite a bit.

TP: The music was changing, too.

JS: Yes, it was. Quite a bit. It was maintaining… It’s still here. Everything is still here. We listen to all these old cuts; all this music, when I hear it now, it still sounds fresh. There’s just so much that we can get from it. When you listen to it and you understand where it’s coming from, I think you appreciate it more. Know its origins, and reaching back and doing some research on it, and I’ve been studying and reading more books about the music and about the different artists who made those contributions, and those who weren’t as well known as others that made contributions but never got the recognition or the financial thing. It’s all out there. It’s all here with us, and I’m just happy to be part of it. I’m very proud to be part of this music. I look forward to doing some more writing for the big band with David Murray; I’m writing some stuff now for his band, and I’m hoping to rehearse it down there on Monday nights at the Knitting Factory.

It’s all connected. The name of my group is Linkage.

TP: One thing we can say about the music of the 60s is that the protagonists were all rooted in the sort of music we’ve been hearing on this evening’s show. Coming up are a few highlights from James Spaulding’s recordings for Blue Note during the 60s.

[MUSIC: Spaulding-Freddie, “Hub Tones”; Freddie-Spaulding-Mobley, “Outer Forces”; Wayne-Spaulding, “Chaos”; Bobby Hutcherson-Spaulding, “Little B’s Poem”]

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Bold Steps”-1988]

TP: Any memories from any of the Blue Note dates we heard? How about The All Seeing Eye? Any memories, or is it vague to you?

JS: It’s sort of vague. I just remember the music, Wayne’s writing on that date, and the excitement of having this material, beginning to get into our own and be able to express ourselves in the way we were doing in that time, in the 60s, when so much stuff was happening, so much energy was circulating. Going to the studio, we just couldn’t wait. Everybody couldn’t wait to get there and set up and do what we had to do. It was a wonderful time.

TP: One question someone asked you over the phone, and which I was asked to ask you by a guest earlier today: With all the recordings that you contributed to as a sideman, were you ever offered to record by Alfred Lion?

JS: Yes, he asked me to record. He wanted me to get into a commercial vein of the music. With all respects to Lou Donaldson, who I love and enjoy his playing… He wanted me to do some stuff that Lou was doing, the Alligator Boogaloo kind of thing… He wanted me to put some stuff out there on the jukebox that would push records, and I didn’t have any material like that. I wanted to play some bebop. I wanted to play some straight-ahead music at the time. I was working with Freddie and time went by, and we never did come to any agreement on that.

TP: You spoke of the impact Coltrane had on you during the 60s…

JS: All the saxophone players are influenced by Trane, I’m sure – they still are at this time. Every time you hear him it’s always something new. If you play it once, you have to play it twice, and then you have to play it again. Because each time you’ll hear something fresh and new. His own personal approach is what made it stand out so much.

TP: Did you know Coltrane at all?

JS: I saw Trane in Chicago at McKie’s Lounge. Elvin was on the gig. Jack deJohnette was also on that gig. I walked up to him, just met him and talked and said hello. He was waiting for Elvin to come in and start the set. The place was packed. The second time I saw him was in New York at the Vanguard. I talked to him after the gig, and got his phone number, and he invited me out to his house. We were going to get together. I wanted him to show me some things. He was such a nice cat. Such a beautiful individual.

TP: It’s a common story among musicians that you could approach John Coltrane and he’d invite you to his hotel room or to his house, and spend time with you.

JS: He was just a regular person and very approachable, and you could ask him questions and he’s talk to you and make you feel comfortable.

TP: Did you have any aspirations to play the tenor sax?

JS: I played the tenor sax in Chicago for a while, and I played tenor sax in the Army for a while. I had some gigs, but carrying the alto…I had the alto and the flute… You know how Sonny Stitt would carry all his instruments. I tried to do that, but it got a little heavy.

TP: Being a triple threat was a little too threatening.

JS: Playing one instrument is a job!

TP: We’ll hear “Hipsippy Blues,” something you requested by Hank Mobley, who was another associate of yours. You were on Slice Of The Top with him, and he was on Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirit date.

JS: Hank was a beautiful cat. I can’t say enough about his musicianship. He was an incredible musician. He gave you all he had. He really was involved and committed, and you could hear it in his instrument, in his writing. He wrote so MUCH stuff. I want to do a tribute to him on one of my next record sessions. I was trying to get Joe Fields and Don Sickler to set something up for that, pick out some of his unknown cuts to record. He had such a tremendous contribution to this music and to the alto saxohone.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Hipsippy Blues” and “Down With It”]


James Spaulding on Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

TP: How did you come to be the latest member of World Saxophone Quartet? You’ve been working with David Murray’s Octet for a number of years now.

JS: Yes, it was David Murray who told me about the possibilities of becoming a member of WSQ, and Hamiet Bluiett was instrumental in calling me for an engagement out in Albuquerque, NM, with Jayne Cortez and Bill Cole. After that, they called me about a gig in Boston. It was December 11, up in Boston, the first day after we had that horrible rainstorm. That was my first engagement with the African drums also.

TP: Your experience on flute I’d think would fit in very well with the African drums. Last night you were playing wooden flute as well as regular flute.

JS: Yeah, we were definitely going back to the ancients in terms of sound and instrumentation, reaching back to the ancestral connections with roots, and basically being inspired by the great music that’s still coming through from the great continent of Africa, and different parts of it, from the time when great civilizations were born, jumped out – so instruments and music also followed. Here we are today, extended from that.

TP: In your early career, you recorded with Sun Ra, who was so involved in bringing out that kind of material, including one of his most famous albums, Jazz In Silhouette. How did it come about? You were originally from Indianapolis.

JS: Right. I got out of the Army… I had three years in the Armed Services, with the Army bands, doing marches and concerts. I got out in 1957, and I decided to go to Chicago and go to school on the G.I. Bill – Cosmopolitan School of Music. It was a great school. They introduced jazz and different studies outside of the normal curriculum. One day I was going out jamming. Jam sessions were happening all over Chicago. I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, and at the jam session they heard me play, and they said, “Listen, man, how would you like to make a rehearsal with Sun Ra?” I said, “Sun Ra. Sure. I’ll be there.

TP: Did you know who Sun Ra was?

JS: No, not really. I just heard his name mentioned a couple of times. So I made it to this rehearsal, and there was Sun Ra, sitting at the keyboard, writing out arrangements, giving parts out. That’s the first thing that amazed me. I said, “Wow, this is terrific.” So we ran down the parts, and he told me to play. I said, “Play? Play what?” I didn’t see any chord changes or anything. He said “Just play! Don’t worry about it.” So I played, and Sun Ra said, “Ok.” He liked what I was doing. I was quite nervous, of course. He started calling me for gigs in the Pershing Hotel. At the time we were playing in the basement for what were called breakfast shows. We’d stay there until 7-10 in the morning, playing. People would come down from their jobs, gigs and have breakfast, and musicians would come in and sit in. Sun Ra would have this tremendous book of music. Oh, God, all kinds of music, from dance music to concert stuff. He was complete. I’ve never seen a musician with so much energy and so much imagination.

TP: Were you rehearsing 6-10 hours a day, every day, as a number of the musicians have said?

JS: Yes, we’d rehearse quite a bit. He was serious. It could get hot. It could get quite hot in there sometimes.

TP: That was a very talented group of young musicians who’d been well-school through high school and/or the Army, like yourself, which I think is a characteristic of your generation. Very well-schooled either through the education system or the Armed Services or whatever, but with a real hunger for new horizons, new dimensions in music.

JS: Man, this was a whole new experience for me to play in this band. It opened up my sense of direction in terms of playing free, getting rid of the barlines, and the structural, scientific parts of it. I said, “Yeah, that’s it” later on. It took me a long time to digest this. Here, I’m coming out of Charlie Parker and thinking swing, and the structure things that were already mapped out. Being with this band, it just opened up another area. “Oh yeah, this works.” So as I developed with that band, I started incorporating that information with my information, and I started expanding that knowledge. I was starting to see where a lot of the free playing of this music was coming from. Improvisation! The raw improvisation that was coming, and it was the most natural! I said, “Yeah, this works.” So Sun Ra was very instrumental for inspiring me, and there’s nothing but good things I can say about this man and his inspiration to all of us.

TP: Could you say a few words about your upbringing in Indianapolis, where the scene was thriving at the time you were coming up? Was saxophone or clarinet your first instrument? And when did you start playing?

JS: Actually, the trumpet was – the bugle. My father bought me a little bugle, and I was around the house blowing with that. Then I picked up a little trumpet in grade school, and I was messing with that for a while. Then my father would bring home all these records. He was a musician himself; he was a professional. Guitar. He was manager of the Original Brown Buddies of the 1920s to 1940s. Another organization took over. But he formulated that band actually. He would bring home all these records – King Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, everybody. I was only 5, and I would listen to this music, and it just got into my system right away.

The wonderful part about it is that my father was able to let me listen and make up my own mind about the music. He didn’t force it on me. He didn’t make me practice. He saw that I was going to get into the saxophone. Now, when I heard Charlie Parker, I said, “Yeah, Dad, I want a saxophone; I want an alto. Charlie Parker. I got to do this. This is the greatest thing I ever heard in the world.”

TP: Do you remember the first Charlie Parker record?

JS: It was “Mohawk” with Diz. Now, “Shaw Nuff” was the one I really liked the most on this 78. Later I listened to more and more, and I said, “Yeah, this is great.” At the time I was with a band, a young group of musicians in Indianapolis who called ourselves the Monarch Combo. We’d play all the teenage dances around Indianapolis. Bull Moose Jackson would come to town; we’d play behind him. Johnny Ace – we played behind him. We played for all the dances. Man, a lot of things were happening in Indianapolis. Clubs. We’d go and sit in. We’d go out and sit in with Wes Montgomery and his brothers out at another club. Freddie Hubbard and I got together at a jam session. That’s how I met Freddie, at a place called the Cotton Club in Indianapolis, at a jam session. I was in the Army at the same time, see. I was stationed at Fort Harrison in Indiana at the time. It was like a job. I had a car; I was driving back and forth from the base back to Indianapolis. So I used to bring Freddie with me out to the Army base, and he would sit in with the Army band. We’d do concerts at the Army Finance Center. It was a lot of music and activity. It was incredible.

TP: The 50s is called a conservative time in histories of jazz, but on the grass roots level it was one of the most open times ever, because musicians were able to glean experience in almost every area they’d need to access to make their way later on as independent-thinking musicians.

JS: Yeah, and you could take instruments home. Now you can’t take the instruments home, I heard, I found out. I asked this little kid next door, “Where’s your instrument? You said you play the trumpet – where is it?” “It’s in school.” I said, “School is closed. You don’t have an instrument?” He said, “No.” I always brought my instrument home. I’d go in the band room, sign out a flute. I taught myself the flute by signing out the instrument. I could bring it home and practice it. I brought it back in good shape. The instruments weren’t that good. I had an old raggedy, beat-up clarinet that I learned the clarinet on. We had those kind of opportunities. We had places to go. We could go to the Y; we could go swimming, play ping-pong, all kinds of activity at one time. All this is gone now! Today in Indianapolis there’s no place for youngsters to go where they can be supervised by people who are paid to do these jobs. So we see all these kids now standing on corners. There’s nothing to do. There’s no space. No places to go. So the music is being deliberately cut off.

TP: Did you enter the Army as a musician?

JS: Yes. I went to Special Services. My father made sure of that. This was 1954, right after the Korean War conflict. I went out to California… First I went to Fort Linwood, Missouri, for basic training for 8 weeks, and then went out to California, Fort Ord, for band training, and I was out there with the band. You had to prove yourself to be able to read. If you weren’t able to read they would put you in clerk-typist school or some other occupation. I had to bone up and get ready, because these guys, everybody could read – marches and the concert pieces you had to do. Learn how to march in formation and a lot of other stuff.

TP: That’s another rather common experience of musicians from your time, that experience in the Army bands and really getting their music together in that environment.

JS: Yes, it was very important to have that knowledge. The discipline, first of all, to be able to read. I had that discipline, fortunately, from my father, who was very gung-ho on all of us. I came from a family of 7. There were 7 of us. We had to be on our toes. My fathe was very strict, and my mother was very… She was in our corner. She’s a very spiritual woman, who was into the church. She kept us aware of our integrity, our values, kept us closely together. And we’re still together, except for one brother who was killed in an automobile accident in California. He was only 40. That shook everything up for a minute. I lost my father in 1975, when he was 70. Everything continues. Everything keeps moving on, and you keep learning, you keep growing.

TP: You have a series of records for Muse, all very different programmatically in terms of personnel. Let’s now hear a selection of songs from these first two. The first is a dedication to Thelonious Monk, titled Brilliant Corners, with a mix of young and veteran musicians — Wallace Roney, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Carter and Kenny Washington.

JS: On the first record I did a tribute to Duke Ellington. I had the same idea for Monk. The musicians took care of business on the dates. I was very pleased with it. Monk? What can I say?

TP: Did you hear Monk on records in the 50s?

JS: I heard Monk on records, right, in Indianapolis. Then I came to New York and met all these people, Max Roach and all these people. It was a whole beginning for me. The inspiration was unlimited.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “I Mean You”; “Caravan

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Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR, and a 2017 Downbeat Feature

n 1995, I had the opportunity to interview the master saxophonist/woodwindist/composer Roscoe Mitchell on two separate occasions on WKCR. Although the transcripts have been up for a number of years on the Jazz Journalists Association website,, the occasion of Roscoe’s 71st birthday on August 3rd offered a good excuse to post the proceedings here as well. On the first session, he came to the station with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, his friend since the mid-’60s; he came solo six months later. Ahead of these in the sequence below is the final draft that I submitted to Downbeat of a feature piece on the maestro in 2017.


Roscoe Mitchell, DB Article, Final Draft:

In spring 2014, not long after Roscoe Mitchell received a $225,000 Doris Duke Artist Award, ECM founder Manfred Eicher wrote a congratulatory letter to the iconic woodwindist-composer. Eicher proposed to Mitchell, then represented on ECM by three albums under his leadership since 1999, and by four with the Art Ensemble of Chicago since 1978, that they should start thinking about their next project.

Not long thereafter, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art invited Mitchell to present an on-site concert in September, in conjunction with its second-half-of-2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments In Art and Music, 1965 to Now, mounted to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of which Mitchell was an original member. Beyond the realm of notes and tones, Mitchell contributed several paintings and his percussion cage, a “sculpture-instrument” comprised of dozens of globally-sourced bells, gongs, hand drums, mallet instruments, rattles, horns, woodblocks and sirens that CMOCA positioned on an installed stage alongside the percussion setups of AEC colleagues Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. It was Mitchell’s second AACM-related event in Chicago during 2015, following a March concert with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Vincent Davis documented on Celebrating Fred Anderson, on Nessa Records, whose catalog tracks Mitchell’s evolution since 1967.

Although Mitchell “didn’t even have an idea what music I would do” for the CMOCA event, he nonetheless contacted ECM. The end result is Bells For the South Side, a double CD featuring four separate trios embodying a 40-year timeline of Mitchell’s musical production—James Fei on woodwinds and electronics and William Winant on percussionist; Craig Taborn on piano and electronics and Kikanju Baku on drums and percussion; Jaribu Shahid on bass and Tani Tabbal on drums; Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, trombone, piano and percussion cage. On some of the ten compositions, the units function autonomously; on others, some with Mitchell performing and some not, he assembles them in configurations ranging from quartet to full ensemble.

Mitchell, 76, sat amidst half-packed suitcases in his downtown Brooklyn hotel room, a few blocks from Roulette Intermedium, where, the night before, he’d performed with a new edition of trio SPACE, a unit whose initial iteration, between 1979 and 1992, featured multi-woodwindist Gerald Oshita and vocalist Thomas Buckner. Joining Mitchell and Buckner was Scott Robinson, whose arsenal included such bespoke items as reed trumpet with two-bells, a slide sopranino saxophone, a contrabass saxophone, and a barbell. Robinson elicited authoritative lines from each instrument, complementing and contrasting Mitchell’s own sometimes circularly-breathed postulations on sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, intoned with precision along a spectrum ranging from airiest subtone to loudest bellow. Buckner triangulated with micronically calibrated wordless shapes, timbres and pitches.

Mitchell’s next stop was Bologna, Italy, where, four days hence, he’d participate in the latest instantiation of the ongoing concert project, Conversations For Orchestra. The title references the transcriptions and orchestrations of improvisations that Mitchell, Taborn and Baku uncorked on some of the 21 pieces contained on Conversations I and Conversations II (Wide Hive), from 2013. As an example, Mitchell broke down two treatments of “They Rode For Them,” originally rendered as a bass saxophone-drums duet. “I took myself off bass saxophone and reinserted myself as an improviser on soprano saxophone,” he said. “I used Kikanju’s very complex drum part, giving one percussionist his hands and the other percussionist his feet. In New York, I took the bass saxophone part and featured bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck as an improviser.”

On site in Bologna would be one-time Mitchell student Christopher Luna-Mega, who transcribed and orchestrated the improvisations on “Splatter,” and current student John Ivers, who, on “Distant Radio Transmission,” in Mitchell’s words, “transcribed the air sounds the soprano is making with these gradual shifts of pitch, and then the real notes involved in that, and then transcribed those for strings, and orchestrated it for the string section.” The interchange not only satisfies Mitchell’s predisposition “to put my students in the same space I’m in when I’m working,” but is congruent with Mitchell’s “studies of the relationships between composition and improvisation.” He continued: “It’s a new source to generate compositions from. I have these transcriptions and can do what I want with them, so it removes the element of ‘What am I going to write?’”

A similarly pragmatic attitude towards the creative process informed Mitchell’s approach towards generating material for Bells For The South Side. He referenced the Note Factory, an ongoing project that debuted on the 1993 Black Saint sextet recording This Dance Is For Steve McCall, and scaled-up to octet and nonet on Nine To Get Ready (ECM-1997), Song For My Sister (Pi-2002) and Far Side (ECM-2007). “Because the Note Factory was big and didn’t work all the time, I’d keep working with different elements of it—a quintet concert here, a trio there,” Mitchell said. “That keeps everybody engaged with the music, so it’s easier when I get the opportunity to put together the larger group. I enjoy long-lasting musical relationships with people. It takes time to develop certain musical concepts.”

Few musicians have known Mitchell longer than Shahid and Tabbal, with whom Mitchell founded the Detroit-based Creative Music Collective along AACM principles after he relocated from Chicago to a Michigan farm near East Lansing in 1974. Colorado-based Ragin joined them in Mitchell’s Sound Ensemble a few years later; Taborn entered Mitchell’s orbit on a mid-’90s tour playing piano with James Carter opposite the Art Ensemble. The Fei-Winant trio coalesced after Mitchell joined them on the Mills College faculty in 2007 as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition; neighborly proximity has allowed ample rehearsal opportunities, as is evident in the uncanny mutual intuition they display on Mitchell’s epic For Trio: Angel City (RogueArt).

Baku, a Londoner who plays in noise bands with names like Bollock Swine, had contacted Mitchell before a January 2013 engagement at London’s Café Oto with Tabbal and bassist John Edwards. After inviting Baku to sit in on the second night, Mitchell decided to pair him with Taborn for the Conversations sessions 10 months later. About a year earlier, Mitchell first played with Sorey (whose teachers include Mitchell’s AACM peers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis) when he was invited to play duo with the younger musician at a Berkeley house concert. “He sounded so amazing playing solo, I thought, ‘Now, what am I supposed to do with him?’” Mitchell recalled. The answer came that July, when Wide Hive recorded a Mitchell-Sorey duo encounter, with Ragin augmenting the flow on several numbers.

Three years later, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mitchell assigned Sorey to perform in the percussion cage on “Bells For The South Side,” while having Baku open the proceedings by dancing with Favors’ sleigh bells and ankle bells. The journey continued via the following sonic roadmap, tracing a route along vocabulary signposts Mitchell had heard each musician deploy: “Kikanju is joined by interjections of the hanging wind chimes found on the blue rack of Joseph Jarman’s percussion setup, then is joined by short bursts of rolls on the piccolo snare drum, gradually adding cast iron bells whose pitch will be used to construct a melody for piccolo trumpet being played at the far end of the exhibition space. This melody should develop gradually, starting with long tones, with silence in between the melody consisting of more than one tone. This section should end with a cued gong attack that should be marked, ‘Let Ring.’ Inside each of our percussion setups, we have bells of all different sizes that we can swing, and they will continue to swing and ring on their own. They start very small, and gradually build up to the great big bells. Then the sound of the trumpet, and at the end, under my percussion setup, you hear this huge school-bell with a handle on it.”

“Prelude to the Card Game,” a Mitchell-Shahid-Tabbal trio, is the latest in a series of card compositions Mitchell first developed during the 1970s. In them, he provides material on a set of six cards that fit together to be configured in different ways, whether overlapped, side-by-side, or out of numbered sequence. The intention, Mitchell said, is to help inexperienced classically trained improvisers “to avoid making the same mistakes—that is, following, or being behind on a written piece of music.”

He continued: “Each time the information comes up, it’s done a different way. If you play something I like, I can store that and bring it back, say, when I’m running out of information. By then, you’re in another space. Suddenly, we have an important element—a musical composition. That’s counterpoint. I can take your idea and put my own take on it and bring it in another way. Where we had one thing going on, now we have two. If what I’m doing registers to you and you want to put a different take on that, then we’ve brought three different things.

“Every moment is different. If I can remain aware of what’s happening in the moment, it’s helpful in constructing an improvisation. For instance, I might have done something really good last night, but if I try to do the same thing the next night, it might not work. An improvisation should never be a situation where there’s only one option. To me, improvisation is trying to improve your skills so you can make these on-point compositional decisions. That takes practice.”

“Panoply,” which “deals with different sound textures,” features Fei on alto saxophone, Winant on xylophone, Ragin on trumpet, and Baku, Sorey and Tabbal on drumsets. It is also the title of the Mitchell painting on the back cover of the booklet jacket.

“The art came from my mother’s side of the family and the music came from my father’s side,” said Mitchell, whose father sang professionally until he developed problems with his vocal cords. “When I was growing up, one of my uncles created a kind of comic book structure of myself and my sisters and our friends, where we met all these different people from different planets. He used a crayon and ink, and then he’d put the crayon on the paper and then scrape it and mix colors. My other maternal uncle made a lot of my toys and stuff growing up.”

Asked if his creative process involved synesthetic elements, Mitchell responded: “If you’re an artist, sometimes you just make a choice which way you want to go. You’re using the same thought patterns that create painting and music and writing.” In this regard, Mitchell mentioned early AACM colleague Lester Lashley, who played cello and trombone on Sound, the 1966 Delmark recording that vaulted Mitchell into international consciousness. And he mentioned Muhal Richard Abrams, whose paintings were also on display at the 2015 CMOCA exhibition, as were Anthony Braxton’s graphic scores. Mitchell met Abrams in 1961, not long after he returned to Chicago from a three-year stint as an Army musician during which he developed from acolyte to well-trained practitioner prepared to follow Abrams’ dictum of self-education..

“Muhal was painting then, and we talked about painting a lot,” Mitchell said. “Even now, when we get together, we may go to a museum. We always had a sketch-pad with us. I enjoyed sitting in front of the canvas and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I still try to keep something going on. I do a lot of drawing, and right now I’m working on a sculpture out of pieces of trees that were cut down at Mills—this thing I call the Cat. It’s a two-faced sculpture—one side, to me, has a male image, and then, when you flip the head around, it’s more of a female image. I made glasses for it, so you can display it in several different ways.”

It was time for Mitchell to finish packing, check out, and catch his flight to Bologna, but he took one more question: Considering the time he devotes to teaching, composing, traveling and art-making, how does he sustain his gargantuan chops on the array of instruments on which he continues to perform as a virtuoso?

“I’m not doing so well with that right now,” he said. “I’m longing to get back to practicing six-seven hours a day, like the old days, when all I did was play and I had a real embouchure. There’s an old phrase, ‘catting on the pass.’‘Oh, you got red together, so here’s red, here’s red, here’s red.’ I’m trying to get out of that. I want to get past the point of practicing just to get my embouchure back together. I need to practice consistently until I can get to a point where I can start learning.

“As we live longer, people don’t want to be categorized. I think the best thing, what I always encourage my students to do, is to study music, not categories, so that you can seek in any musical situation you’re in. Certainly be aware of everything that has happened in music, and study that. But strive to study the big picture, which is music.”


Roscoe Mitchell & Amina Claudine Myers (WKCR, 6-13-95):

[MUSIC: RM/M. Favors “Englewood H.S.” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “Oh, the Sun Comes Up, Up In the Morning”]

Roscoe, having just heard the two recent releases, a few words about each of them, the continuity of the ensembles, the ideas behind each CD.

ROSCOE:  The New Chamber Ensemble, Pilgrimage is dedicated to Gerald Oshita, who was a member of our original trio, which was Space.  The New Chamber Ensemble, you could say, is a continuation of that work.  Gerald passed, and we dedicated this record to him.  On this record there is also a composition by Henry Threadgill with a text by Thulani Davis entitled “He Didn’t Give Up; He was Taken.”  For the pieces that we’re going to be doing Saturday we’ll have joining us also two members of this ensemble.  Thomas Buckner will be performing with the S.E.M. Ensemble, which is an 11-piece chamber orchestra, in a piece that I wrote entitled “Memoirs Of A Dying Parachutist,” a poem by Daniel Moore.  We’ll also be doing a trio piece for piano, saxophone and baritone voice, with the members of this particular ensemble.

In the 1980’s, apart from your work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, you were working concurrently with the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble and the Roscoe Mitchell Space Ensemble, and sometimes combining the two.  Would you talk a little bit about your concepts for each of these groups in terms of the words “sound” and “space” as separate and converging intents.

ROSCOE:  If you’ll remember, back in 1966 my first record to come out on Delmark was titled Sound.  This is the where the name for the Sound Ensemble came up.  Over the years, though, we’ve worked in different combinations with both of the groups, either doing large pieces, which you will find on that CD on Black Saint, Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles.  Sometimes we would tour with both of these groups, and we would do pieces with one group and pieces with the other group, and then combine pieces.

If I could talk about your question on the scope of the music, I don’t really see that much difference from one to the other.  I’ve always tried to work in lots of different areas with both groups.

In the Sixties, when Sound came out, Amina, were you… I know Roscoe played in some of Amina’s ensembles in Chicago in the 1960’s.  At that point had the two of you met?

ROSCOE:  Yes, we had.

AMINA:  Yes.  Actually I played… Roscoe did an all Duke Ellington concert, and had me doing vocals, and he did another concert where I played and sang.  But he never played in any of the groups that I had organized.

ROSCOE:  Except the group we had at the Hungry Eye.

AMINA:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.  That organ group!

ROSCOE:  We had a hot group at the Hungry Eye.  The first time we had Gene Dinwiddie with us…

AMINA:  That’s right.  Kalaparusha, Lester Bowie…

ROSCOE:  …and Lester Bowie, and then we went to Kalaparusha and Lester Bowie and Ajaramu.  I mean, we had one of the hottest organ groups that you wanted to hear back in those days.

AMINA:  That’s right.

ROSCOE:  That’s when they had the music up and down Wells Street, the Plugged Nickel, the Hungry Eye, and so forth.  All those clubs were there.  It was like a miniature New York or something.

AMINA:  That’s right.

What was your impression of Amina’s music when you first heard it, Roscoe?  Do you remember the circumstances?

ROSCOE:  I was always knocked out by Amina’s music.  At that time, in Chicago, the organ was starting to gain more presence on the scene.  Jimmy Smith had come out with that record, The Champ, and so on.  And in Chicago there were a lot of organ players then.  Baby Face Willette was there, Eddie Buster… So in Chicago at that time, there was music almost every night.  So I always knew where to go.  You could go out every night and play with somebody if you wanted to, and this is what I did.

Where were some of the places you’d go out to play?  Would they be on the South Side?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, a lot of them were on the South Side.  There was the Wonder Inn…,

AMINA:  McKie’s.

ROSCOE:  …McKie’s, and then there were clubs that were further over toward the lake.  I can’t remember the names of all of them…

AMINA:  The Coral(?) Club.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, and then that club they had down on Stony Island…

AMINA:  Oh, yes.

ROSCOE:  …and one on 71st Street.  There was a lot of… See, I came from that kind of a thing.  I mean, when I grew up in Chicago, not only did I listen to the same music that my parents listened to; I could go right outside of my house and go down the street, and they’d be playing there.  My parents and all of us, we all listened to the same music.

What was that?

ROSCOE:  That was a wide variety of music.  Whatever was popular was on all the jukeboxes.  I mean, those were the days where you could go to a jukebox and there was some variety in the music on the jukebox.  I mean, now you go to a jukebox and it’s all the same thing.  But whoever was popular.  I mean, when Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams had that hit out, that was on there.  James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was on there.  I mean, just to give you… It was jazz pieces, popular pieces; whatever was popular at that time was out.

Were these clubs hospitable to young saxophonists coming in to sit in?  In other words, were there jam sessions at a lot of clubs?  Were you able to get gigs at some of these clubs with the local musicians?

ROSCOE:  Well, that was my musical upbringing.  I always went out and sat in with people, so I got to know different people.  Like I said, I could go out and play every night.  Then it was also at that time when the licensing for the clubs was getting changed.  If you had a trio there, it was one price for a license.  If you had anything bigger than a trio, then it was a bigger price for a license.  So a lot of house bands were working, and people would come and sit in and stuff like that.  Because it was right on the verge of the era where people were starting not to have as much live music, and the disk jockeys were starting to become popular in the clubs.

Were you playing alto saxophone all this time?  Was that your main instrument back as a teenager?

ROSCOE:   I started on clarinet, then in high school I played baritone saxophone.  Then later on I went to alto, and so on and so on.

A lot of the musicians in Chicago who came to prominence went to DuSable High School with Walter Dyett, but you went to Englewood High School.  Tell me about the music program there.

ROSCOE:   Well, that’s where comes this next CD.  I was very fortunate in Englewood High School to have met Donald Myrick, who is a founding member of the AACM.  He is also a founding member of Phil Cohran’s group he headed, the Afro-Arts Theater, which later on became the Pharaohs, which they did also record under that name, and then after that became members of Earth, Wind and Fire.  Now, like I said, I know that DuSable had Captain Dyett, but we had Donald Myrick at Englewood High School.  And I was fortunate to meet him at that time, because he was already playing the instrument in high school, and he kind of like took me under his wing and, you know, started to show me about music.

I’d like to talk a bit about your gradual transition from being let’s say a talented apprentice on the instrument to becoming a person for whom music was a life.  Did you always see music as your life?  Do you recollect when that started to happen?

ROSCOE:   Well, I know I’ve always loved music, and like I said, it was always in my family.  Through an older brother, I got really introduced and really very interested in Jazz, because he had all of those old 78’s, and we’d spend a lot of time just listening to them.  “Hey, come over here, sit down, let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.”  So yeah, music has always been in my life.

Then, when I was in the Army, I started to function as a professional musician twenty-four hours a day, and I was in the Army for three years.  So when I came out of there, yeah, I was pretty much on the track to being a musician.

I gather that you were exposed to a lot of interesting music when you were in the Army, stationed in Europe.  If I’m not mistaken, I recollect hearing you talk about hearing Albert Ayler play in Germany maybe…?

ROSCOE:   I was in the band in Heidelberg, Germany.  Sometimes we would go to Berlin along with the band from Berlin and the band from Orleans, France, and Albert Ayler was a member of that band.  We’d come together and do these big parades in Berlin.  But at that time, when all the musicians got together, there were a lot of sessions and different things.  So when I first heard Albert at that time, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, but I did know that he had an enormous sound on the tenor.  I remember that once someone called a blues or something at the session, and I think that for the first couple of choruses Albert Ayler played the blues straight, and then when he started to go away from that, then I started to really kind of understand what he was doing.

But I have to say that, as a musician, when I was in the Army, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I didn’t really fully understand what he was doing.  When I got back to Chicago and met Joseph Jarman, he was already more advanced than I was in terms of listening to Eric Dolphy… As a matter of fact, it was John Coltrane who brought me back into that music with his record Coltrane, which has “Out of This World” on it.  That was when Coltrane started to go away from the regular chordal pattern and use a sort of a modal approach to the music.  When I started to hear that, I said, “Wait, I’d better go back and listen to Eric,” and then I said, “I’d better go back and listen to Ornette,” and then I started to fully understand.  That was like about two years as a musician being able to understand that music.

Talk about the beginnings of your relationship with Joseph Jarman.  I gather that you and he and Malachi Favors were all at Wilson Junior College, now called Kennedy-King.

ROSCOE:   Yeah, it was Wilson Junior College.  Also Jack De Johnette was there, because we played a lot in those early days.  Jack was known around town as a pianist, but he always played drums, too, because he was very talented.

Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

ROSCOE:   In Jack’s trio?  I don’t remember at that time.  I know it was Scotty Holt.  Steve might have done some things with him.  But it was Scotty Holt, the bass player.  So we were all there together, and that’s where we first met.  And of course, Muhal was always the person who brought everybody together.  He had his big band rehearsals down at a place called the C&C every Monday night, and we all started to want to go down there and be a part of that.  This is what brought everybody together to where people started talking about, “Oh, yeah, let’s put together an organization where we can kind of control our destinies a little bit more” and so on and so forth, and this is where the thoughts for the AACM originated.

What was your first contact with Muhal like?  What was your impression?

ROSCOE:   Well, Muhal always impressed me… Now, he was a guy who would always help out anybody who needed help, and everybody would always come over to his house, and at the end of the week he would still have a piece for the big band!  I don’t know how he did that, but he did it! [LAUGHS] For a while, all I did was, I’d go to school, and then after school then I would go over to Muhal’s house.  Sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 9 or 10 o’clock at night or something like that.  And that’s what a lot of us did in that period.

Amina, you weren’t originally from Chicago.  You came there from Arkansas.  But when did you get to Chicago?

AMINA:   In 1963.

Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

AMINA:  No.  I went there to teach school.  I taught Seventh and Eighth Grade music.  I really wasn’t thinking about playing.  And I went out with a young man one time, he was a photographer… He was really a photographer, but he liked to play the hand drums.  Unfortunately, he had no rhythm, none.  But he would go up on the West Side and sit in, and I went there with him one night and played the organ, and the leader of the group fired his organ player and hired me.  Then I went from there, and started working with a guy named Cozy Eggleston.  While working with Cozy, Ajaramu, the drummer, heard me, and we formed a group together.  He was the one that brought me into the AACM.

Talk about your background in Arkansas.  Had you been playing piano and organ since very young, and in church?

AMINA:  Well, I started playing the piano… I was taking European Classical music around 7, and then I started playing in the church, leading choirs and co-leaders of several gospel groups in my pre-teens, all the way up through college.  Then the organ was introduced in the early Sixties.  I was playing the piano in a club, then the organs came in, and then I started playing in the churches, playing church organ.

So you were playing both in the church and jazz as well?

AMINA:  Yes, I was.

Talk about your early exposure to Jazz.  Who were the pianists who inspired you in the type of music you were trying to play?

AMINA:  Well, first of all, I was doing Rhythm-and-Blues and everything.  And a young lady when I was in college came up to me and she said, “I have a job for you, but it’s playing in a nightclub.”  I’ve told this story so many times.  I wasn’t even thinking about playing in a nightclub.  I said, “Girl, I can’t play no nightclub.”  She said, “Yes, you can.  It pays five dollars a night.”  And as I have said so often, we called her “the black Elizabeth Taylor,” because she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor.

So I went down there and got this job playing.  I copied all of the… Because I was singing.  I always sang and played at the same time.  I copied all of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Stomping At The Savoy,” note for note.  But like Roscoe was saying, the jukebox there had Ornette Coleman, Lou Donaldson, and Ornette’s music was very popular.  I always liked it.  It sounded strange, but I liked it.

But a lot of the piano players from Memphis, Tennessee, used to come to this hotel which had a room in it…  The club was in the hotel.  So I picked up a lot of things on piano from the pianists that would stay at the hotel.  They played at the white country clubs in Little Rock.

Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

AMINA:  Charles Thomas.  He’s in Memphis now.

He played a week at Bradley’s in New York a few months ago.

AMINA:  Oh, a few months ago.  I heard that he had been this way, but I didn’t know when.  A young man that’s passed away now, Eddie Collins.  There’s a young guy that’s on the scene now, his father is… I can’t think of his name.  He’s from Little Rock now.  He’s very popular.

So this is how I learned.  I started picking up things on the piano, trying to learn how to play “So What” and things like that.  But mainly I was copying Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald.

What was early impression of the AACM after you got to Chicago?  What was your first experience like?

AMINA:  Well, I was very apprehensive.  Because Muhal had those charts!  I thought they was… I said, “Oh, my goodness.”  There were about two or three piano players on the scene, and I was hoping I wouldn’t be called!  Because reading the music, it looked so, so difficult.  I was more or less shy.  Believe it or not, I was.  I was hoping I wouldn’t be called to play.  I would worry all while I was up there at the piano!  I was worried about playing the wrong note.  Because the music looked very difficult to me, and it can be.  But Muhal was very patient and very encouraging.

Then when we started organizing smaller groups, we all did things.  Like, Roscoe and all of them were inspiring.  I never felt… You know, I felt that I belonged and that I was, and I realized that I could write, and that I had something to say.  Because you know, Roscoe used to walk around with this big tall top hat, it was about five feet high tall!  He was painting, Muhal was painting.  They were doing all these things.  It was very, very creative.  So it was like a beehive of activity, and I was inspired.

It sounds like Chicago was a place where you could really actualize anything that came to mind through the work you were doing and put it out there, and it would generate new activity, and it just kept going and going.

ROSCOE:  That’s true.  Because we were very fortunate to be in a spot where there were so many people that were thinking the same way.  It was also very inspiring.  Because I remember going to different people’s concerts, and then the way I would feel, I’d be so excited that I felt that I wanted to go home and try to really work hard for my next concert.  And so on and so on.  You would always be inspired… it was just a great time, a great learning time for music, and you didn’t have to be quite as rushed as, like, for instance, if you had been in New York at that time, where everybody is over here and over there, you know, trying to do this and do that to make some money or whatever.  I’m not saying anything about New York.  I’m just saying that it was easier to get a bunch of people together there, at that time, then it would have been in New York.

AMINA:  Mmm-hmm.  It was.  It was.

Well, New York seems a much more competitive, cut-throat type of place in many ways.  Considering the AACM has stayed together and the relationships have remained over thirty-plus years, it’s testimony to the bonds that formed during that time.

AMINA:  Right.  Because of our foundation there.  I don’t think it could have happened here because it’s too spread out.  There’s too much… You have to work so hard to survive here.  It was much more relaxed in Chicago.

But I don’t exactly get the sense that in Chicago it was so economically wonderful for the musicians in the AACM, but I guess it was maybe a little easier to live.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, that, and then… Well, we’re an example to the world of what musicians can do if they put their resources together.  I mean, not only did the AACM exist.  I mean, of course, we started it off… The way we got things going was, we paid dues, and we saved our money, and we had our programs for the children in the community, and then we would do our concerts.

AMINA:  We had a training program.

ROSCOE:  Yes.  Then we also went on to an idea beyond that.  We thought, like, “Hmm, well, why don’t we encourage people in other cities to do a similar type thing, and then have exchange concerts and things like that.”  I mean, we also created work for musicians, in a way.  We’d have musicians come up from Detroit, which later became the B.A.G, the Black Artists Group…

AMINA:  St. Louis.

ROSCOE:  I mean, St. Louis.  Sorry.

You were going back and forth to Detroit also, I guess.

ROSCOE:  Well, Michigan is where I started the C.A.C., which is the Creative Music Collective.  We followed the same format that we had laid out in the AACM.  I mean, we did our concerts, and then we’d bring different people in to play.  It was like creating employment.

Roscoe, it sounds like you and Malachi Favors formed an instant bond from those days in junior college.  And he was a member of your original ensemble, even before the first Delmark recording.  A few words about that relationship.

ROSCOE:  Well, he was also at Wilson Junior College with us.  It was Threadgill, Malachi, Jack De Johnette, Joseph, John Powell, and a bunch of other folks.  Yes, Malachi was in some of my earliest groups, that’s true.  We did form an immediate bond.  Although we don’t always agree on everything, we do at least agree on music, you know!  So that’s kept us together through all of these years.

Talk about your earliest groups, before The Sound was recorded.  Were you basically working toward the areas that you explored on Sound in those groups in ’64 and ’65?

ROSCOE:  Well, like we were talking about before we went on the air here, we’ve got a record way back there with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, who is a trumpet player that used to play with us, Malachi and myself, which is a very good record which we might release sometime.  But then even before that, Gene Dinwiddie, who I don’t know how many people know of him now, but he went on to be a member of Paul Butterfield’s band for a while; and then Kalaparusha was playing with us a lot in those days.  The other night I was playing in Chicago at the Hot House, and a guy came by with some photographs from that period, thirty years ago, with Lester Lashley on there playing cello, and this other drummer that we worked with out of St. Louis — at that time his name was Leonard Smith, and now his name is Fela(?).

In those days, that’s all we did, was play.  I mean, we rehearsed every day.  When it was warm, we went to the park and played every day.  I mean, Chicago was that kind of place.  When I was growing up there, if you went to the park, you could always find Curley out there, a saxophonist, playing.  And a lot of guys that were really trying to learn how to play and stuff, they would go out there and hang around him.  So these groups and the AACM, I mean, they all evolved out of this kind of philosophy.

Amina, what did having musicians available like Roscoe and Kalaparusha and many others do for your writing with your various groups, Amina and Company, in the mid-1960’s?

AMINA:  Well, everybody has a different style and approach.  For instance, Kalaparusha was playing with us for quite a while.  We traveled together.  I had this little electric piano, and I would watch how he voiced his chords with the clusters and things.  And just observing the scores and hearing the music, I saw that the mind was free to create whatever you wanted to create, and that it would work, you know, if you believed in it, and it would have a meaning to it.  I noticed this with all the music, with Muhal… Everyone was different, but yet they were unique within their own.  Of course, my background was mostly just Gospel.  I never studied technically.  So basically, mine was I guess a little bit more simple.  I didn’t know anything about chords or anything like that really.  I just had some of the basic things.  So I just had to observe and listen and watch.  I’d see what Muhal would do… I just picked up what I could.

I guess later, when you worked with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, the chords probably came into play a little more.

AMINA:  Yes.  They didn’t believe in having music.  Sonny Stitt would rehearse something, and then three months later he would call it.


AMINA:  I remember “Autumn in New York,” he rehearsed that, and then I forgot all about the song.  But he said, “‘Autumn In New York,'” and just started playing it before…!  They didn’t… So it was like you had this on your mind.  See, I didn’t know anything about going to the stores and buying sheet music.  I was very naive, believe it not; very naive.  In doing Gospel music, we never used any music.  We picked up all the songs off the radio.  There was no such thing as buying music.  You know, I was from a little village on the highway, and the quartet singers would come through, so I mean, we never saw music — you just picked it up from what you heard.

So therefore, with Sonny and Jug… Jug did have a few little tunes he wrote on the chord changes on occasion.  But basically, they wanted you to hear it up here.  You had to hear it.  They said, “Use your ears.”  Especially Sonny Stitt.  He would always say, “Use your ears.”

Roscoe, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons are really synonymous, in a way, with a certain sound of Chicago.  Were they a big part of your early experience as a saxophonist?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, of course.  And Nicky Hill was also a big part.  I mean, a lot of folks don’t know about Nicky Hill.  He was also a great saxophonist in Chicago.  There were so many people!  I mean, Clarence Wheeler was a great saxophonist.  There was a guy when I was growing up named George Fullalove(?), who was a great saxophonist.  And this guy that I just told you about, Curly; I mean, he’d go out in the park and he’d be out there six-eight hours a day, standing up there, running scales and arpeggios all day, all day long.  We’d just go out there and sit and listen to him, and he’d tell us about this and tell us about that, and show us different things and stuff like that.

Chicago has a very rich tradition in music. I mean, there are so many people that you don’t even hear about that are totally great.

And it’s been that way since the turn of the century, since the Pekin Theater was built on 27th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1905.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.

A center of show business and black artists.

[MUSIC: Amina, “Jumping In The Sugar Bowl” (1986); Roscoe, “Walking In The Moonlight” (1994)]

“Walking In The Moonlight” was a composition by Roscoe Mitchell, Senior.  Was your father a musician, a working musician?  Obviously he was a lover of music.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, he was a lover of music.  He was a singer, you know.  Not only was it the jazz artists who were real popular in those days, but the Popular singer was also very popular; Nat King Cole, of course, comes to mind…

Did your father know him from his younger days in Chicago?

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.  My mother went to school with Nat King Cole.  They remember him always going to the church to practice the piano and stuff all the time.

Nat Cole’s father was a minister…

ROSCOE:  Yes.  And… Oh, what was I saying…?

I interrupted you.  Sorry.


Your father was a singer…

ROSCOE:  Yes, my father was a singer, and he was one… I guess you could group him into the group of singers that they call crooners.  He also used to do a thing where he would imitate instruments, you

Would you say you picked up your earliest musical inspiration from him?  Did he get you your first instrument?

ROSCOE:  Well, I would say that my father always wanted me to be a singer, you know, because that was his first love.  I think my brother is the one who got me interested in the instrument.  I always loved music.

Well, you have that rich baritone.  I’d imagine you could have gone somewhere with it!

ROSCOE:  Yeah.  But it was my brother who was largely responsible for me starting to know about people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and so forth.

A number of the older musicians in Chicago who people might not necessarily think of as being involved in the AACM were early members, like Jodie Christian, the pianist on Hey Donald.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he was.  Jodie was my idol when I was in high school.  I mean, I remember Lester telling a story about Jodie and a group he had with I think Bunky Green and Paul Serrano, and it might have been Victor Sproles or somebody on bass — I don’t remember.  He remembered they came down to St. Louis, and they were so great that the people just said, “Oh, they’ve got to stay a few more days,” so they cancelled their whole program and kept them down there.  All those people were just a great inspiration to me.  Like I said, in Chicago you could just go out and see these kind of people, like, all the time.  So there was always something to keep you thinking about something.

Eddie Harris, who is working at Sweet Basil…he and Richard Abrams were actually partnering on a workshop orchestra that eventually became the Experimental Band.

ROSCOE:  That’s correct.

Muhal, of course, worked with Eddie Harris’ groups in the late 1960’s and early Seventies.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.

Now, Eddie Harris is someone who was very much concerned with sound and explorations in sound in similar ways to what you have been doing.

ROSCOE:  Of course he is.  I mean, Eddie Harris is the only guy that I really know that really has ever done anything with the electric saxophone and all of these different kinds of things.  He has always been right on the edge of creativity all the time, I mean, with all the different things that he invented, and his books, and he’s got the ability to be extremely experimental or just walk over here or something and get a big hit — as a Jazz musician!  You remember when he came out with “Exodus,” I’m sure.  He was always a great inspiration to all of us.  I was just in St. Louis, I don’t know, a few months ago, and I was very lucky that Eddie Harris was playing at the hotel that I was staying in, so I got to see him and listen to his music again.

Amina, in Little Rock, where you settled I guess as a young adult, there was a thriving musical community as well.  Two musicians prominent on the scene today who come to mind, although I don’t know if you were there exactly when they were there, are Pharaoh Sanders and John Stubblefield.

AMINA:  Well, when I was in college I met Stubblefield.  His group came over to play.  We had originally hired Arthur Porter I believe is his name.  His son, Art Porter, Jr., is now very popular on the scene.  Art Porter couldn’t make it so, he sent Stubblefield’s band.  We clashed the first night, but we’ve been very good friends ever since then.  Pharaoh wasn’t there.  He had moved by the time I got there.

Tell me about the music that you’ve composed for the concert on June 18th.  It’s original music commissioned for this concert.

AMINA:  Well, I’ve been commissioned to write a composition for a chamber orchestra of 12 pieces, the S.E.M. Ensemble, directed by Petr Kotik.  Then Roscoe and I will be doing a duet, along with other duets he’s doing.  This will be original music also.

Roscoe, you mentioned that your Army experience sort of catapulted you into being a professional musician.  In the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I think everybody but Moye spent some time in the Army.  It seems to me that that experience must have had a big impact on the Art Ensemble’s being able to forge their path during the difficult days of the late Sixties.

ROSCOE:  Well, you learn how to survive in the Army, that’s for sure.  And it’s true, I met great people in the Army.  Like, another guy out of Chicago, Reuben Cooper, was in the Army with me at that time.  Lucious White, who is Joseph Jarman’s cousin, who is an excellent alto saxophonist and bassoonist.  When I was in Heidelberg, Germany, Nathaniel Davis’s group had won the All-Army competition, so they came and stayed with us for almost about a month or so.  I would go around with him and he’d be playing… I remember one time we were down at the Cave 54 in Heidelberg, Germany.  There was a great Danish saxophonist there who was in Germany at that time, Bent Jadik, and he’d always be down there kind of running over everybody, and then when Nathaniel Davis came down there that night [LAUGHS], we saw Bent Jadik kind of perk up a little bit!

Like I said, a lot of really talented musicians that were willing to share some time with me and show me different things like that.  Some people may have had a bad experience in the Army.  Mine wasn’t that bad.  I mean, I actually came out of there knowing something about music.

Talk a little about that three-year sojourn in Europe with the Art Ensemble.  What was your impetus for going over there?

ROSCOE:  Well, we had been all over the States.  We were very adventurous, you know.  And I think that we’re responsible for a lot of people that go over there now.  Because people weren’t really going over there, you know.  We went over there and carried the banner of the AACM.  We started playing at this club, it was a small theater really, in Montparnesse, called the Luciniere(?) Theater.  We played there four nights a week, and sometimes we’d have enough at the end of the gig to go get ourselves a cheese sandwich and a beer.  But people started to know about us.  And this is how people became interested in us in Europe.

Also Steve McCall was over there at that time, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith was there.  But not only them, there were all these people from New York.  I mean, Paris was alive with music then.  I’ve never seen Paris like that as I saw it in the late Sixties.  There was always music all the time.  This guy who put out all those records, Jean-George Caracas(?), did this big festival.  He was supposed to have it in Paris, and at the last moment they wouldn’t let him have it at the Mall de Mutualité, so he had to change everything around, and he had it in Amiges(?), Belgium.  This was like a grand festival, with a whole week, two different stages, one shut down and the next one kicked right up, and so on.  He had all kinds of music there.

Then after that was that whole rich time when we did all those different recordings.  I got a chance to record with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur and Sunny Murray and so on and so forth.  I mean, there were concerts almost every night.  Every day everybody was at the American Center, playing all the time.  I’ve never seen Paris like that.

Well, the records bear that out.  There’s a real sort of fire burning through all of them collectively.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.  I mean, Cal Massey was there.  I was hanging out with Hank Mobley, Don Byas, so on… I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a richer experience as a young musician at that time.

One musician who both you and Amina have both mentioned as being right there, and who was at the beginning of Roscoe’s musical explorations, is Henry Threadgill.  In the next set we’ll hear compositions by him on which Amina and Roscoe perform.  In Amina’s case, she’s featured on organ on a song entitled “Song Out Of My Trees,” the title track of a 1994 release on Black Saint, with Ed Cherry on guitar, Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums.  Then from Roscoe Mitchell’s new release on Lovely Music, Pilgrimage, the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, we’ll hear “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken”, music by Henry Threadgill and poetry by Thulani Davis.  This is a quartet for baritone voice, Thomas Buckner; violin, Vartan Manoogian; alto saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell, piano, Joseph Kubera.

Amina, a few words about the piece we’re about to hear.

AMINA:  Well, on this particular piece, Henry started hearing things for organ.  He’s always coming up with various combinations of instrumentation.  And it seems like the organ started coming back on the scene again, so I was glad to see that.  It was very interesting playing this particular composition with Henry.

ROSCOE:  I’ll have to say about Henry, he’s a great musician and a great inspiration.  I’d like to start off by saying that.  Because Henry was also there back in Wilson Junior College Days.  My admiration of him as a composer… I mean, he just completely overwhelms me every time I hear something by him, because I’m always inspired by what he’s actually writing.  This piece that we do on this record is a text of Thulani Davis about a guy who was homeless, but despite all of that he didn’t give up, he went on, he was taken, he had a purpose.  This piece grew out of a concert that happened in New York at Town Hall, where we had the New Chamber Ensemble and Henry Threadgill’s group both doing separate pieces and combined pieces.  So he wrote this piece for the New Chamber Ensemble at that time.

[MUSIC: Threadgill-Amina-Nicholson-Cherry, “Song Out of My Trees” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1995)]

In summing things up, I’d like to talk about current events, current projects.  Roscoe, you’ve been living in Madison, Wisconsin, and using it as your base.  How many groups are you working with now? Are you  teaching…

ROSCOE:  For the moment I’m not teaching.  The different groups that I’m playing with right now:  Of course, the Art Ensemble is one.  The Note Factory is another.  The New Chamber Ensemble is another.  Then, I do different variations of different things.  I had a concert in Chicago last Saturday with Matthew Shipp, Spencer Barefield (who is a member of the original Sound Ensemble), Malachi Favors, Gerald Cleaver, who is the new drummer (and an excellent drummer, I might add) that I’ve been working with out of Detroit, and of course myself on woodwinds.

I’m a composer also, so depending upon what someone is asking for, the size of the ensemble or whatever, I’ll write for that also.  Then of course, don’t let me forget, we just had the record come out with the quartet with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors and Albert Tootie Heath.

You also appear on a recent recording on Delmark with Jodie Christian, a couple of very strong pieces.


TP:    You’ve always incorporated extended techniques on the different saxophones, but it seems that your use of circular breathing has really been entering your compositional formats in the last decade.  Can you talk about the aesthetics of circular breathing, what it allows you to do?

ROSCOE:  Well, if I look at Frank Wright, for instance, and the kinds of things that he was doing in the early Sixties, which I was very impressed by, what I can do now is go back and reflect not only on that situation, but other situations musically.  Just his approach to the sound, for instance, I’ve studied that, and now I can extend that through circular breathing.  That’s what it allows you to be able to do.  It also gives me the opportunity to be able to put more, longer phrases together, and the opportunity to explore when notes really come at you very fast and continuous for a long time.

With me, it’s an experiment.  Everything is an experiment.  So when I’m out with one of my groups, it takes us at least a week or so playing every night before we really start to get up there, and then it gets so exciting that after a concert is over you can never sleep at night.  So sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine and it will calm me down.

But to me, it’s all an experiment.  The fun for me is going out and having the opportunity to explore these different ideas that I have in my head.

Of course, I listened to Roland Kirk all the time when he was alive, and I was totally amazed by what he did, because not only did he circular breathe; he was able to play several instruments, you know, out of his mouth and some out of his nose, and so on and so forth.  Now, there’s a guy who really had control over that.  If you think about circular breathing, it’s a very old tradition.  I mean, the aborigines used it, the Egyptian musicians used it a long time ago. I became interested in it through Roland Kirk, and I had to think about it for about a year before I was able to do it.

In regard to everything being an experiment, the Art Ensemble of Chicago must have been an ideal vehicle for workshopping ideas on a consistent basis, night after night, week after week, year after year.

ROSCOE:  Of course. I mean, I think that’s the thing that keeps people going, is the opportunity to explore music.  I could never be one of those musicians that just plays the same thing all the time, because that’s never been my interest with music.  The thing that’s always fascinated me about music is there’s so much to learn, and I like to try to keep myself as much as I can in the forefront of that learning process.

Amina, same question to you as I posed to Roscoe: The different situations you’re working in, current projects, etcetera.

AMINA:  Well, right now I’m doing a lot of Blues, Gospel, Jazz and extended forms of music solo piano.  Hopefully, I’m trying to organize pipe organ work in Europe, various parts of Europe.  They have expressed interest in that.

Talk about the dynamics of that vis-a-vis working with the Hammond or various electric organs.

AMINA:  Well, of course, with the electric everything is right there, right at the touch.  With the pipe organ you’re dealing with the air.  The sound is so vast, it’s like… You work at it more, but the rewards are so much greater with the pipe organ, because there’s phenomenal combinations, and the size of the pipes, you get all the different kinds of sounds.  You can’t beat it.  I mean, the Hammond, I would say, would be, as far as electric organ, I would prefer that.  If I had to play the electric organ, it would be the Hammond B-3.  But pipe organ, there’s just no comparison really.  It’s very thrilling to be able to play that.  I would like to do more with that.

Originally I had done some work with voice choir with the pipe organ, so hopefully I can continue to do that.  I’m just working now on Gospel, writing Gospel tunes for the solo performances.

So it’s primarily solo.  You don’t really have a working band…?

AMINA:  Oh, yes, I have a trio.  Well, I do a lot of trio work.  Right now I’m getting calls for a lot of Bessie Smith material and the trio format.  The solo piano and trio formats.

On the next set we’ll hear separate duos by each of you with Muhal Richard Abrams, who has been such a great inspiration for both of you.  I know I asked you for some words about him before, but maybe we can conclude with some comments about you, the AACM, and your relations with Muhal Richard Abrams over the years.  Roscoe?

ROSCOE:  Well, like I said before, Muhal has like always been a mentor, not only to me but so many other musicians in Chicago.  I think it was through his efforts of keeping that Experimental Band going where all these people could get together; it provided a place where all these ideas could come out.  Like I said, this was where the ideas for putting the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about.  We were interested in controlling our own destinies, because we’d read the books and seen what happened to people who were out there on their own.  I think they didn’t really treat Charlie Parker that well, or Coltrane.  I think Charlie Parker had maybe one European tour or something in his life; I don’t know what it was.  But those kinds of things made us want to reassess the situation and try to band together, so that we could create self-employment for ourselves, sponsor each other in concerts of our own original music, maintain a training program for young, inspired musicians.  These are the kinds of things that have kept us going throughout the years.

AMINA:  Muhal is really my spiritual brother.  I think we must have known each other in a past life.  You see, Muhal, he never stops creating.  He constantly inspires me.  He’ll push without pushing.  He’ll say, “Okay, Amina, you need to do this, you need…”  So he’ll always find ways to encourage me to write and to create and to do things.  He’ll bring up some ideas.  Because he knows the things that I can do sometimes that I don’t even think about doing.  So I mean, he’s very inspiring to me.  I didn’t know that he was coming to New York; I don’t know if he knew that I was coming.  But we have been in close contact since being here.  As I said, he’s my spiritual brother, and I appreciate all the things that he has done to encourage me.  He still does that.  Not that I depend on him, but I can look to Muhal for any type of assistance, musically or whatever.  And he has inspired a lot of people, and people love him because of that.  I certainly do.


[MUSIC: Muhal-Amina, “Dance From The East” (1981); Roscoe-Muhal, “Ode To the Imagination” (1990)]

Roscoe Mitchell (Ted Panken) – (12-5-95):

[MUSIC: “Songs In The Wind, 1&2”]

I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the Roscoe Mitchell Chamber Ensemble.  You and Tom Buckner have been at least recording together since the late 1970’s, and you’ve known each other now for at least thirty years, I gather.

Yes, that’s true.  We met in California in the late Sixties.  That’s when we first met.  We started performing together when we put our group together, Space, with Gerald Oshita.

Tom Buckner was up here a few days ago, and described hearing the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, I believe it was, several times in the Bay Area in the mid-1960’s.  What were your first impressions of Tom Buckner?  What was he into at the time you were out there?

Well, let’s just say that when this group came together, I was putting focus on composition and improvisation.  And Thomas Buckner interested me because he was an improviser when I met him.  I don’t know if you recall any of his earlier recordings with Ghost Opera, but it was a group that was from the West Coast that used improvisation in their music.

I first met Gerald Oshita when I was in California in 1967.  He was playing in a group with Oliver Johnson and Donald Raphael Garrett.

All of these people were improvisers at that time, and this group came together to study improvisation and composition as they relate to each other, and that tradition continues today.

When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?

I met Vartan at a concert of Joan Wildman at the University of Wisconsin.  We were playing together on a composition by Joan Wildman.  I think we struck a chord from that very beginning, and we decided that we would go on and try to do some work together.  I think our first performance was on a concert of Vartan’s at the Eldon(?) Museum in Madison, where we performed the composition, the duet for alto saxophone and violin entitled “Night Star.”

You’ve been involved in maybe four or five simultaneous ongoing projects over the last number of years, it would seem to me.  This ensemble, with Joseph Kubera, Vartan Manoogian and Thomas Bucker, that’s performing Thursday; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which has been a primary interest for a quarter-century and more; the Sound Ensemble; the Note Factory.  Are compositions written or structured for specific musical units, or are they mutable, adaptable to different performance situations?

Well, certainly you can transpose a composition so that it will fit, you know, any situation you want it to fit.  Usually how I start off on a composition is first I have an idea, and then I figure out how to get that idea down.  Then a lot of times you are given the size ensemble that will perform the work that you’re writing.  So it’s determined by lots of things.  One composition, “Nonaah,” started off as a solo piece, and has ended up being played by larger ensembles, quartets, trios, so on and so forth.

We could probably do a nice 90-minute presentation on various examples of how “Nonaah” has been formulated.

Yeah, people have done that.  There’s a young woman in Madison, whose name slips my mind right now, who did her dissertation on that piece, along with some works by Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, I believe.

When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?

In the early Seventies, as a solo piece, like I said.

Putting together a solo piece, does it come from your explorations of the instrument?  Does it come from a more conceptual framework…?

Well, let’s look at it.  One part of “Nonaah” is set up so that it has wide intervals.  One of the thoughts that I had when I was composing it, I wanted to have a piece that was played as a solo instrument that would give the illusion of being two instruments, and with the wide intervals like that, you can get that, because the instrument sounds different in the lower range and the mid range and the high range, and then there’s also the altissimo range, of course, which sounds different from any of those other registers.  So if you construct a melody that moves in that way, in taking advantage of the intervals, then you will achieve that goal at the end.  And that was one of the thoughts that I had when I was constructing the composition.

But then, of course, after that, you use that same basic formula to structure other movements of the piece.  So for me, I guess, I am at the point now where if I needed to do anything in that particular system of music, I could do it, I feel like I could do it, because I have built the vocabulary related to that structure.

I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago perform in Chicago on December 1st, and you were performing on soprano, alto, tenor sax, and you had the bass saxophone as well, although I don’t think you got to play it…

No, I didn’t play it, actually.  I just brought it along, because it was going off to Jamaica where we’re going to be for the next month, and I guess I just kind of forgot to play it.  I mean, a lot of times I don’t really get to instruments, but I like to have them there if I’m moving in that direction.

What determines which instruments you’re playing at a particular time?  Your main concentration over the last number of years seems to be with the soprano and the alto saxophone.  It doesn’t seem like we get to hear you always on the tenor, but when we do, it seems like you’ve really been putting a lot of work or thought into a particular area.  Has that been happening lately?

Well, I mean, what determines what sounds I get to is, like, a lot of times I’m trying to just move different sounds around, and then whatever I hear that can add on to the structure I’m working on, I’ll select the instrument based on that.  So this is how these things get determined.  Unless, of course, there’s a specific composition which calls for a specific instrument.  Then that would be played on that instrument.

How long has multi-instrumentalism as a way of getting to the plethora of sounds that are at your disposal been a major preoccupation of yours?  Did that begin with your exposure to the AACM and that group of musicians?

Well, I think that, like, in the late Sixties I wanted to explore other sounds.  But then, if you notice, in the history of the music, before the Bebop era, in the larger bands, a lot of the woodwind players doubled.


Yeah.  If you see some of those pictures, they had quite a variety of instruments that they played.  I think the music at some point moved to where it was a one person, one instrument type focus.

With smaller combos, sure.  I mean, Harry Carney played baritone sax, bass clarinet and clarinet, and Jimmy Hamilton…

And so on, yeah, sure.

But in terms of your preoccupation, you weren’t really coming up in Chicago in an environment where that sort of multi-instrumentalism was a common thing as such.

That’s true.  But I think my fascination with sounds drew me toward that.  For instance, the Art Ensemble is an outgrowth of a quartet of myself and Malachi Favors and Philip Wilson and Lester Bowie.  When Philip left the group, we were drawn more to percussion sounds.  That was because we didn’t really have anyone that we thought could come into the group and function in his place in terms of the type of melodic structure that he dealt with.  So that drew us more into percussion.

It just kind of added on to my fascination with the exploration of sounds.  I mean, sometimes I don’t really hear like a scale per se.  I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle, or a whistle with kind of a wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell.  There are so many different possibilities to explore.

When did your obsession with the saxophone begin?  When did it become evident to you that music was going to be your life?

Well, I guess I kind of knew that in high school.  And I was fortunate enough… If you remember the record, Hey, Donald!, that’s dedicated to my friend Donald Myrick, who went on to help establish Earth, Wind and Fire.  Donald Myrick was an excellent musician when I met him in Chicago, and he was a big motivation for me — you know, to see someone, one of my peers actually doing that.  So I guess I kind of knew it then.  And I had an older brother who had many, many 78 records, and he would get me to sit down and listen to them, and that really…

What kind of records were they?

Oh, you know, all of the old ones — J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker.  Everything was on 78 then.  Billie Holiday…

In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s?


Who were the people who really caught your ear first as far as stylists, specifically as saxophone stylists?

That’s hard to say, because I liked different stylists from different records.  If I were to look at the tenor saxophone, I’d look at like our history of many styles.  And this is how the tenor is represented in my mind.  And then I always listened to, you know, the same music that my mother and father listened to.  So it was a wide variety of music.

What were they listening to?

Oh, everybody listened to everything that was popular then.  It could be a popular song or… Oh, and it was always on the jukeboxes, too.  The jukeboxes actually had a variety of things that you could select from.  For instance, when James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was popular, everybody listened to that, not just a select group of people from here or a select group of people from there.  Everybody knew about that.  Everyone knew of that duet with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams.  You know, whatever, whether it was a song by Nat King Cole, or even when Johnnie Ray had his hit, “Cry.”  All of these different things were common knowledge.  So for me, I had a wide variety of music to select from.

Did your choice to pick up a saxophone at an early age… How old were you when you first began playing?

Oh, I was a late starter on saxophone. I mean, I started clarinet first when I was 11 years old.  That’s late-starting.

How was that inspired?  Through your family or through school?

I guess mostly through my older brother, Norman.  I was always interested in music, and I used to sing a lot when I was younger.  But I guess mostly influenced by him to want to go on and actually pursue an instrument.

What was your first more or less formal tuition?  Was that in high school or in the elementary schools?

That was in high school. I started clarinet in Milwaukee, at I think it was West Division High School.  I don’t remember the teacher.

Did you further that in high school in Chicago?

Yes, at Englewood High School.

I’m sorry to keep putting you all the way back in the Fifties, but there are some things I’ve been curious about for a long time, so I’m taking the opportunity.  Were you playing in a lot of teenage combo situations, gigs for money and so forth then, in high school…?

Well, no, not that much.  I mean, we had our regular obligations that we did in high school, with the concert band, and I was also a member of the dance band.  I think that I started to function probably more as a professional musician when I was in the Army, from 1958, I believe it was, to 1961.  So by the time I got out of the Army, it was pretty much solidified that I was going to be a musician.

I gather that the Army was a real mind-bending experience for you musically, and you were exposed to many different ways of playing music.  I think one account I’ve read has you encountering Albert Ayler in Germany in the early Sixties.

That was a big influence on me.  Because at that time, I was aware of Ornette Coleman’s music, but I have to say, even as a musician at that time, I didn’t fully understand what Ornette was doing.  The thing about Albert Ayler, when I first met him, one thing I knew about him, I knew basically what was happening with the saxophone, and I knew he had a tremendous sound on the instrument, and that lured me in to want to try to figure out what it is that he was doing on the saxophone.  I remember once there was a session.  They were all playing the Blues, and Albert Ayler, he played the Blues straight, like for two or three choruses, and then started to stretch it out.  And that really helped me.  That was kind of a major mark for me musically, just to be able to see that that could really be done.

Again, referring to interviews, you’ve described being impressed at that time by Sonny Rollins, by Hank Mobley, by Wayne Shorter — I think those are the three names that come to mind in terms of playing in a style.  Were you playing tenor, alto…?

I was playing alto.  I mean, in the dance bands I played baritone.

So the multi-instrumentalism started there.

Well, you could say so.  I mean, my first encounter with the saxophone was baritone in high school.  The guy who was playing baritone in the dance band graduated, and I was moved up to that position of playing the baritone.  But I think the alto was the saxophone that really caught my interest.

Describe the ambiance of being in an Army band in Germany, in 1959, 1960, 1961.  The regimen, the musicians, and the off-base scene that was happening in Europe at that time.

Well, that was a really good time to be where I was in Germany.  I was in Heidelberg, Germany, which is the place of the famous Cave 54.  Now, that was a club where most of the local musicians would play in, and everybody that was coming from out of town would play there.  There were a lot of sessions there.  Some of the people that you’ll know now were there.  Karl Berger was there, Albert Mangelsdorff was there, Bent Jadik (who when I was in Denmark at this time I didn’t see him, but I was talking to the guy at the music store, and I asked about him, and he said he was still around).  Many things happened there.  Then Nathaniel Davis stayed in our barracks.  He was in a quartet that won the All-Army competition, and they stayed with us for a while, and they were going around Europe playing.  And then names that you don’t know.  Joseph Stevenson, who was a Sergeant, who now I’ve heard is a Warrant Officer, was a great musician, an alto saxophonist and composer.  Many, many people.  William Romero.  Just a lot of people that made influences on me.  I mean, there was a guy there, Sergeant Mitchell.  Palmer Jenkins, a tenor saxophonist.  So there was a lot of music and a lot of opportunity to learn.

I gather in the Art Ensemble, you, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, all had Army experience.  Lester has stated that that experience helped you survive as a unit on your travels and travails particularly in Europe in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and in the years before that in the States.

Well, that’s very true.  I mean, no one has ever done anything for us.  We’ve always done everything for ourselves, in a way, so far as the Art Ensemble is concerned.  I don’t think the Art Ensemble gets any recognition now.  And we’re still going on, and still doing concerts, and still filling houses, and everybody tries to act like we’re not doing that.  So yeah, I guess our Army training did help us get to this point.

A lot of discipline entailed that I’m sure was retained and is retained in the way the Art Ensemble functions.

Yes, that’s true.

When you got back to Chicago after the Army, what sort of scene did you find?

Well, that was when Muhal had the Experimental Band there… In ’61 Muhal Richard Abrams had the Experimental Band.  It met once a week, and it was a great opportunity to go down and meet all these great musicians, and get a chance to really be in a big band that was rehearsing.  This year at the Chicago Jazz Fest Muhal put together that band as closely as he could for a performance there.  It would be great to do more things with that band.  After I had been in Israel and heard everybody sounding the same, and then got back and I was in a band where everybody sounded like themselves, it was a very interesting phenomenon.

You’re talking now about 1961?

I’m talking about Muhal’s big band.  Everybody in there sounds like themselves.  They don’t sound like anybody else.  They all have distinguishable sounds, their ways of phrasing, their different ideas about music… I think this is one of the things that stimulated me over the years, to be fortunate enough to be associated with people like that.  So that was a great experience.  That band was rehearsing every Monday night, and I would have to say that that band was the place where started the thought, you know, of the AACM — to actually put together an organization that would function in promoting its members and concerts of their own original music and maintain an educational program for younger, inspired musicians.  These things we carried on from there, as you know.  Like, when the Art Ensemble went to Paris and we carried the banner of the AACM.

At that time also you encountered a number of musicians with whom the relationships have maintained for three decades and more.  Malachi Favors at Wilson Junior College at the time, Jarman, I think Henry Threadgill was around then…

Threadgill.  Jack De Johnette was there.

Braxton before he went in the Army.


And Jack De Johnette at that time I gather had a piano trio with Steve McCall on the drums.

Yeah, he did.  But he was starting to play drums then.  Because he and I used to play drums and saxophone all the time.

So was there a lot of interplay and experimentation and workshopping amongst you, working with different ideas and so forth?

Well, you could say that Muhal’s place was like the meeting place for people.  We’d kind of all show up over there, and then Muhal would be bothered with us, you know, for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.  Amazing.

So Muhal’s place was really sort of the clearing house where all these ideas could come together and be formulated.

That’s right.  And we studied music, art, poetry, whatever.  It was like a school.  It was a school.

Talk a little bit about how your first band that recorded, which recording I believe will be issued for the first time on Nessa… A 1964 recording which I think you mentioned last time…

Yeah, I did mention that.  I still don’t have a release date on that record.  That was an early quartet with Alvin Fielder, Fred Berry, Malachi Favors and myself.

Was that quartet performing all original music by you, or was it a more collectively oriented thing?

The music was mostly by me.  I remember on that one tape there’s a piece by Fred Berry also.

Are there any pieces that you wrote at that time that you still perform to this day, that have lasted?

Oh, certainly.  There’s many.  We still perform “Ornette.”  I still perform “Mister Freddie,” which was recorded on a recent Jodie Christian disk.  We intend to perform “Sound” again.  To me, any music that you do is just a kind of work in progress, so to speak.  So you can at any time go back to that work and extend it or… As for me, I mean, some things that I did with “Sound,” for instance, become more interesting to me now that I could apply maybe circular breathing to those situations, and do something, I don’t want to say more, but do something different with it in the way of expanding it.  So to me, it’s a work in progress.

The Art Ensemble’s Friday night Chicago concert concluded with Malachi Favors’ “Magg Zelma,” but before that you performed “Ornette,” if I’m not mistaken.

“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.

At any rate, I’ve given Roscoe Mitchell the third degree now for about half an hour, so we’ll give him a break right now and play some music.

I thought it was a talk show!
[MUSIC: Pilgrimage, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1994); R. Mitchell Quartet, “Hey, Donald,” “The El” (1994); Art Ensemble of Chicago, “The Alternate Express” (1990).

The next set of music focuses on Roscoe Mitchell with some musicians who played a very important role in his music of the 1980’s, Detroit-based Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, Hugh Ragin was part of some of your quintet music, and Michael Mossman is another trumpeter who was involved with you.  I’d like to talk about that aspect of your music-making in the 1980’s with Michigan- and Wisconsin-based musicians.

If you look at Michigan, there we had the CAC, which is the Creative Arts Collective, which is a group that followed the same basic fundamentals as the AACM in its structure.  It was a group of musicians that came together; you know, we did our own concerts, we had our small groups and things inside of that larger group and we had concerts for them.  We also brought in musicians from Chicago and New York to do concerts.  We had the help of the Abrams Planetarium on the Michigan State University campus; they let us use their hall for concerts…

This was in the Sixties, the Seventies…?

In the Seventies it was, yes.  So this is another ongoing work in progress, my work with the Detroit musicians.

Do you recollect your earlier meetings with Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal?

I was living in Michigan at that time, and that’s where we met.  Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal weren’t there at that time.  It was Spencer Barefield, one of the musicians who I saw the other night at the AACM 30th Anniversary, Dushan Moseley was there, and other Michigan musicians, William Townley… Guys who…we had put together an organization that, like I was saying, was similar in philosophy to the AACM — for that purpose.

I guess interplay between the AACM and the Detroit-based musicians goes back to concert exchanges in the 1960’s, when Chicago musicians would go to Detroit to present concerts and vice-versa.

That’s true, but that was largely due to John Sinclair, who at that time was the leader of the Detroit…God, what was it… It wasn’t the White Panther Party then.  It was another name.  Then he went on to be the leader of the Rainbow People in Ann Arbor.  But they had their own newspaper in there, and they had like maybe a whole city block there, where they had places for performances, for musicians or artists to come and be involved in the program that they had there.

This group developed in some very interesting ways, and I guess was the kernel for several offshoot groups — the Note Ensemble and various editions of the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble.  I’ll repeat a question I asked earlier:  In working with these particular groups, what are the dynamics of each of them that impact your writing or arranging or structuring of sound for either the musicians or the overall ensemble?

Well, I’m hearing different things for different situations.  Like you said, those groups can be broken down, because I’ve worked with different varieties of those groups.  But the Note Factory is getting closer to I guess this grande sound that I’m hearing.  That’s why we have like the two basses and the two drums and piano and myself as the bare bones of it.  Eventually we’d probably like to have two pianos, and then I’ve thought of a couple of other horn players to go with that sound — it would probably be Hugh Ragin and George Lewis.

You recently were on a record of George Lewis, in acoustic duos and interactions with the Voyager computer program.

That’s true.  We also did a concert at IRCAM this last summer in June, which was a concert at IRCAM for the Voyager program.

[MUSIC: Mitchell/Ragin/Tabbal, “Fanfare For Talib” (1981); Note Factory “Uptown Strut” (1987); Bergman/Buckner/Mitchell “Looking Around” (1995); Mitchell (solo) “Sound Pictures #3: Solo For Winds and Percussion” (1995)]

Our thanks to Roscoe Mitchell.  One final question about solo performance.  Your solo work on record goes back to the 1960’s, and continues to this day, I gather, with some frequency.

Yes, that’s true.  I’ve always been interested in solo playing as one of the options.

What’s attractive to you about solo playing?

Well, one thing I can say about solo playing, if you’re listening to me, and I sound like an orchestra and not a saxophone, then I’m successful to some degree.  When you’re playing with someone else, I guess you can always blame them for messing up.  But if you’re playing with yourself, then you have to blame your own self.  So it’s a challenge, of course… Well, it’s a challenge playing with someone else, too.  So to me, I just see it as one of the parts that make up the whole picture.

Is there a process of trying to transcend the saxophone, whatever limitations there are in performing it?

Well, I think everybody does that when they are really successful at whatever it is that they are doing.  You actually do transform the instrument that you’re playing.  I mean, the instrument is just the vehicle by which you are able to transmit the sounds.

[MUSIC: RM (solo) “Nonaah” (1976)]


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For the 75th Birth Anniversary of Peter Kowald (1944-2002), A Memorial Piece For The Village Voice, A WKCR Interview in September 2002, An Interview Conducted at the 2002 Vision Festival, and a Review of Several Kowald CDs for Downbeat in 2002

I was very fortunate to have had an opportunity to speak with and write about the great German outcat bassist Peter Kowald during 2002, the year he passed away in New York City. For Kowald’s 75th birth anniversary yesterday, I’m posting an obituary that I wrote for the Village Voice in their jazz issue of 2003, the transcript of a WKCR encounter conversation I had with Kowald and saxophonist Assif Tsahar in Sept. 2002, nine days before Kowald’s death, and a review column of Kowald CDs that I did for Downbeat earlier in 2002. At the bottom is an interview that I conducted with Kowald at the Vision Festival in May 2002 — it was for a prospective radio piece on the “avant garde” intended for Studio 360 for which I also interviewed Derek Bailey, Fred Anderson, and others.


Peter Kowald Obituary, Village Voice, 2002:

“I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one.” – Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002.

In the mid-‘90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald-–a man Butch Morris says “could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas”–spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was “to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body.” He kept his car parked, and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a “conduction” ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road, and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.

Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald’s musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-a-terre to solidify his base.

The final week of this robust 58-year-old’s life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.

After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired of a massive heart attack.

Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical ‘60s German culture.

At last year’s Vision Festival, Kowald worked the food stand, constructing two-dollar cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grass-roots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brötzmann, to which Kowald had contributed mightly for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.

Acutely aware that New York’s outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first Sound Unity Festival, settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck’s money, Sound Unity spent $1000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to packed houses every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the Knitting Factory Festival the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the Vision Festival.

“Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable,” Parker says. “Especially black musicians, it seems you’re fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you’re not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went.”

Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine Basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald’s formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic studio was a half-hour’s train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal’s own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik’s first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik’s assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brötzmann urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik’s liberating dictum: “the space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas–everything is possible.” They began to play on a nightly basis in Brötzmann’s basement studio.

During our WKCR encounter last September, Kowald spoke frankly about the no-holds-barred milieu that framed his formative years. “The mood was, `Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning; there is a movement, we are not alone,’” he said. “Then you take a saxophone or bass, and do what you want–don’t worry what the teachers told you. I learned bass autodidactically until I was 26. We played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke, this famous student revolutionary, was in the second row. Grand times. I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in this climate, and that we always knew our enemies.”

Like most German radicals born in the aftermath of World War II, Brötzmann and Kowald came from educated, middle-class families in deep denial about the recent Nazi past. Brötzmann remembers that Kowald’s father had flown in the Luftwaffe and was an educator of the deaf, and that his mother was a housewife.

“Peter’s mother never forgave me for leading her son on the wrong path,” Brötzmann says. “But after the war we never got answers for the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ We had to look for our own answers and raise our own questions. We in Germany had problems with our fathers’ generation, and that’s why our rebellion was so strong and why our early music was such violent stuff, much more violent than in other European countries.”

Spurred by solitary investigations, encouraging encounters with passing-through expats like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, and a few months on the road with Carla Bley, the young firebrands deployed American out jazz as a symbolic weapon, in Kowald’s words, to kill their fathers. Then they tried to kill the stepfathers, who proved to be unconquerable.

“Growing up in the `40s and `50s, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because it always carried this smell of Fascism,” Kowald said. “I saw that blues musicians and Jewish musicians related to their own tradition positively. My Greek wife loved her songs. But I never used my own culture in my music. I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and I took it all from there. When we started to improvise, our stuff clearly came from from jazz. But later we decided to do it the European way–not play Classical European music, but also not copy American jazz. Of course, looking back, I have to say we took a lot from saxophonists Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and bass players like Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman.”

Lacking the virtuosity of early influences like Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, and Maarten Altena, or the force-of-nature blues anima of Fred Hopkins and Parker, Kowald functioned as a self-described chameleon, as comfortable playing in blood-and-guts trios with Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali or Floros Floridis and Gunter “Baby” Sommer as conducting extemporaneous musical dialogues with Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, body artist Ellen Z, or dancers Kazuo Ohno, Min Tanaka, and Jean Sasportes. His time wasn’t great, and he focused more on process than content. Nor was his vocabulary cliché-free; as he perfected his own novel techniques–like detuning his E-string and chanting low, gutteral tones over long drones in the Mongolian manner, or sticking the bow in the strings and rocking it to elicit seesaw overtones–he tended to use them regardless of context.

Somehow Kowald made his collaborations work. “Peter was looking to be a universal world musician,” Parker says. “He had what I call the X-factor, an ability to infuse the tradition of jazz bass in his playing and personalize it. He wasn’t coming out of jazz, so to speak, but he could play in all the styles, and added his idea of sound to the bands he played with. He always talked about wanting to play the blues, and I’d tell him, ‘You don’t have to be bothered with that; you are who you are, and whatever blues is there, it’s there.’ There was restlessness about him, and it seemed on all his journeys he was searching for something. I don’t know exactly what.”

There was something archetypally German about Kowald’s wanderlust. He was a nomad, a road warrior, a wanderer between the worlds–he hit the road not to escape his contradictions, but to confront them. “Peter was very social,” says Morris. “He wasn’t afraid to talk to anybody. If you said, ‘Hey, Peter, let’s go to Morocco and walk to South Africa,’ he’d say, ‘let’s do it.’ The adventures and the information he could get were right in line with his searching. Just to be on the way someplace satisfied him deeply. He could see that this music belongs everywhere.”


Peter Kowald-Assif Tsahar (WKCR, 9-12-02):

TP: Peter Kowald is one of the avatars of European improvisation, beginning in the early 1960s. You and Peter Brotzmann came up in Wuppertal, a city which also serves as the home of the Pina Bausch Dance Company. As you’ve told me, Nam June Paik was living there, and you came under his influence. Since then, Mr. Kowald has created a staggering vocabulary of extended techniques and ways of attacking the bass and creating dialogue out of those techniques. He’s one of the giants of that way of making music.


TP: Assif Tsahar is a generation younger, 33 years old, from Jaffa and grew up in Tel Aviv in Israel, and has been resident here for ten years. Peter Kowald is now a part-time New York resident, and has been for how long now?

KOWALD: A year-and-a-half. I found a place here now, and I’m going back and forth.

TP: Peter Kowald made an impact on New York as far back as the mid-1980s, when the Sound Unity Festival happened on 2nd Avenue and Houston, when you helped bring together what was a somewhat fractious community of improvisers into an extremely successful festival. It seems to me that this laid the seeds in some ways for the Vision Fest. So this is not New York’s first experience with Peter.

The two of you have developed a close musical simpatico over recent years. Deals, Ideas and Ideals is from 1999. How did you meet?

TSAHAR: Peter came to town, and he was staying with William Parker, who is his very close friend. Back then I was working on the Vision Festival maybe, the first year or so…

KOWALD: We met earlier, before.

TSAHAR: Yes, before. It was the Improvisers’ Collective. So we met there, and then I asked Peter if he had the time to play, to do a session. We played, we had a very good time. He was very supportive. One of Peter’s best qualities is that he has very good insights into the music; he’s very supportive in that way. That was the beginning. We played in the first Vision Festival. He played in the group I was playing in with William Parker and Susie Ibarra, and we’ve kept it up since then.

TP: This goes back to when? ’95 or so?

KOWALD: Somewhere around then.

TP: Assif, as a saxophonist coming up in Israel, how aware were you of the stream of music that developed in the ’60s in Europe…

TSAHAR: I was aware of the musicians. I was aware of some of the music. Growing up in Israel, more depended on what we could get, and those were very hard to records to get there. I knew of Globe Unity, so I knew of Peter from there — and Brotzmann. But I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about everything that happened there. I had more knowledge of what was happening here, just because that’s what we could get in the record stores. So I knew of all the things like Cecil Taylor… When I got to New York, I didn’t really know what was happening. I knew William Parker because of what he did with Cecil, but I didn’t know all the current things happening at the time in New York.

TP: But it’s the ’80s when you’re forming your musical aesthetic and sensibility. Was there a community of out players in Israel at that time, or were you operating in isolation? Are you operating with a peer group?

TSAHAR: It was pretty much in isolation. A very good friend was a piano player, Daniel (?). He came with me here. We were working together. Basically, we were almost it, along with a few others. A drummer, Egal (?), who also lives here now. We were kind of working together. There were five, maybe six people, and that’s it. Now it’s growing, I think. There’s a lot more awareness of it now in Israel.

TP: How frequently does this configuration play, the trio or augmented, of Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar, and Hamid Drake, the drummer from Chicago?

KOWALD: We actually do play quite a lot in Europe rather than here in America, and we have a couple of tours. Like, every two months we have a tour or a couple of gigs together. So we’ve played quite a lot in the last one-and-a-half years, in fact. We had a tour in Israel last year…

TP: 50-60 performances in the last couple of years?

KOWALD: Maybe somewhere in there.

TP: That would seem to be a situation that would generate a lot of new music and a lot of ideas and new directions. How has the band evolved from the first meeting?

KOWALD: The trio is more organized that way, that we just improvise, and we don’t really use, or only rarely, any thematic material. But the quartet with Hugh uses the pieces. But then, the quartet doesn’t work that often. Only a couple of big festivals when they invite us. And we have rehearsals for the pieces. So the music is a little different between the trio and the quartet. the quartet sounds more like the structure of you have a theme, and then you have the solos and you go back to the theme, and the trio is completely open.

TP: Do you find in trios like that you tend to create compositions from a blank canvas? How do you sustain freshness in a situation like that?

KOWALD: I would say there are a lot of routines in a positive way, like things we bring… Like, we have a bag on shoulders, and in the beginning of the evening we pull out things, things we know, things we have in a similar way done before. But then also, new stuff is happening each night. Especially I find that the relationship with Hamid and myself has really developed over the time. It’s interesting, because he likes to go into rhythmical things, and I like that, too, but then I kind of seem to be the person who always takes him out of there again to go somewhere else. Then Assif is using the two instruments, the saxophone but also the bass clarinet, so we have different textures in the horn section. And then the bass is the bow and the plucked, like the pizz stuff, so it’s a different thing… The pizz stuff with Hamid is more of a free rhythmical thing, and then the bows goes to the bass clarinet. So there’s a lot of songs coming from different parts. Hamid sings, he plays the hand drum, and we have pieces where I sing and he sings. So there’s a lot of different textures.

TSAHAR: I think the group is interesting. When we were touring in Israel, because of Peter being from Germany and Hamid being a Sufi, who have a strong connection also to Islam, and myself being Jewish, it was very interesting. I think that comes off in the music. We come from different places but have a very strong meeting place. What comes together is actually very strong, but we all come from like different direction, but really meet in the middle. I think that interestingly works… It’s also socially like that. It also works out in the music like this.

TP: A number of Israeli musicians who have made an impact in New York, but in less open form situations, have all had quite a bit of exposure to North African and Arabic music. It’s part of their vernacular growing up. It’s unavoidable.

TSAHAR: Yes. It’s actually the stronger… It’s actually what we listen to. People think about Klezmer music when you think about Jewish, and actually when you listen to Israeli music, Arabic music is a much stronger influence.

TP: Now, what do you think that imparts to you that allows you to intersect with the broader realm of improvising, whether within jazz or a pan-improvisational manner? Is it that you’ve internalized these very complex rhythmic signatures, or certain scales that correlate to melodies…

TSAHAR: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.

KOWALD: I would say for myself that in many ways I am playing a traditional European instrument. But I learned it autodidactically before I studied it. I played with Brotzmann ten years before I started to study the bass. I was autodidactic in the early years. Between 16 and 26, I was autodidactic. Then I studied classical European music, but it was kind of schizophrenic, because all the things I had to study in the day, I didn’t want to do at night. A lot of the things I did at night were forbidden in the day. So it was a real parallel thing, and the influences I had were rather not the classical European music, and the bel canto sound, as I used to call it, for the bass, and the classical European sound… I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to go into other aesthetics, and I took from all kinds of music. I tried to copy singers from Tuva and Mongolia and African music, and of course, it never worked on the bass, but then what came out was something… I was closer to the aesthetics of “world music” than of European aesthetics. That broadened the techniques, too. I had to find a way to put my finger on the instruments so it would make these kinds of sound I wanted to have.

TP: All the time. Have it not be an accident, but a systematic vocabulary.

KOWALD: Yes. And then I really tried to transform sounds and aesthetics of the pygmies onto the bass, and some of it worked, but of course, it’s not pygmy music. But suddenly I found out that the bass harmonics in a certain position with the hands do certain things which nobody does except me — but I got it from the pygmies.

TP: Can you relate what you were doing to the cultural milieu during the 1960s, the arc of the culture up to ’68 and the aftermath of that? Baader-Meinhof is happening…

KOWALD: Oh, yes. I can actually go back a little earlier. Because when I grew up in the ’40s as a little boy, and in the ’50s in Germany, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because everything had been used by Fascism and Hitler. So we didn’t sing our songs. It was very difficult. So I saw that every blues musician or every Jewish musician somehow related to his own tradition in a positive way. I used to have a Greek wife, and she loved her Greek songs, but I didn’t love my German songs. Then I became a traveler somehow. So I tried to be… I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and so I took it all from there. I became somehow a traveler from the beginning. But I didn’t ever use my own culture into my own music. Of course, there was Brecht and Weill and Eisler who were relatively modern people out of the last century, but in a way, their music was a bit of a tradition to me — or it became a bit of a tradition. But it was very difficult to sing a German song because it had always this smell of Fascism in it.

TP: It would seem that with Brecht and Weill and Eisler there’s a certain attitude or sensibility toward the material that becomes correlated through the years to what you were doing.

KOWALD: Well, the ’60s came… That was your question. Then the whole political movement came, and then there were two Germanies, East Germany and West Germany, and then we had all the sympathy for the East because Brecht was there, and things were discussed in a very different way — and some of them were not discussed, of course. But we were all left wing people, and we were part of this revolutionary thing that started in the mid-’60s, and then we had ’68 in Berlin and Paris and here in America, too, and in Italy and Japan… Many people don’t know that in Japan there was a very political thing happening in the late ’60s. We said, “Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning — let’s go.” I was a little younger then. Brotzmann is three years older, and he was so confident when he was very young, in his early twenties. He knew what he wanted. He knew what he didn’t want. So I was kind of following him a little bit, in his shadow. So we played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke was in the second row, this famous German student revolutionary. So that was all part of it, yes. It was great. It was wonderful. Grand times. And I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in all this climate and always knew our enemies, so to speak.

TP: But you’ve mentioned to me that you were sort of imparted the notion that anything is allowable by Nam June Paik, who came out of the Fluxus movement, which in and of itself was an apolitical entity…

KOWALD: Well, it was not apolitical at all. But it was very open in terms of material, yes. Peter when he was only 20 was an assistant for Nam June Paik, certainly projects he did in Wuppertal, because we had this fantastic gallery all the time that would invite all these people in the early ’60s. Peter was a great painter and artist all the time also. He was much more advanced as an artist when he was in his early twenties than as a saxophone player. But then he decided for the saxophone. And I think he discussed a lot with Paik about these questions, about what is art today and what does it mean, what can we do in Art. I remember Peter saying that Paik told him, “Now, don’t worry about anything; you can do anything you want to do; the space is completely open; you can use any material, you can use any ideas — everything is possible; don’t worry about nothing; do what you want to do.” So that was the ’60s, which had all this air about this whole thing, and “okay, now we change the world tomorrow, we can do anything, we are able, there is a power there, there is a movement there, we are not alone” — and then take a saxophone, take a bass, and do what you want to do, and don’t worry about what the teachers have been telling you. [LAUGHS]

TP: Taking this broader political and cultural theme and applying it to the area you’re involved in, which is a specific way of translating sounds into vocabulary and narrative and creating this pan-national dialogue: How do you start reaching out and finding your peer group throughout the European Continent, which is sort of developing in parallel. While you and Brotzmann are talking to Paik, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker are developing what they’re doing in England, and Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg are doing what they’re doing in Holland, and people are dealing with different things in France and Italy. And eventually, the Globe Unity Orchestra forms, which seems to be an effort to incorporate these strands. Talk about your initial forays towards finding this peer group and embracing it.

KOWALD: Well, in a way we were very local in the beginning. We started to play together in ’62, I think. But I was 17, and had to be home… I had to go to school in the morning, so I had to be home early at night. [LAUGHS] My parents were pretty strict about that. Then we just started to play, and we had this little basement place which was a club, and sometimes on the weekend bands played. Gunter Hampel came by, I remember. Different people. But we during the week, we just came played for ourselves with different drummers at the time. Every Tuesday and every Friday we went, and then after one-and-a-half years, the first person came to listen. Nobody wanted to listen to us. They said, “Brotzmann can’t play, and why do you play with this guy, he can’t play — you have to learn other things.” After one-and-a-half years, the first person came.” We felt quite isolated in the beginning.

Then in the mid-’60s, Carla Bley came, Paul Bley came, Mingus came with Dolphy, Coltrane was there with the quartet in this club in Cologne. So we could see different people. But I think very important for us was when Carla came, and we sat in that night. She had a quintet with Steve Lacy and Mike Mantler and Aldo Romano and Kent Carter, and then she left…

TP: You and Brotzmann sat in.

KOWALD: We sat in on night. I think there’s still a tape of that.

TP: How did that feel?

KOWALD: Well, I was a little boy who was over-impressed by everything, and Brotzmann was much more “Let’s go into it and do it.” Carla liked him very much, and Steve also actually, and Steve encouraged us, and said, “Go ahead; this is good what you are trying to do there.”

TP: What was Brotzmann trying to do?

KOWALD: Well, he played alto… The drummers we had, they were always still playing time. Then I think Aldo Romano in this constellation, and maybe a few months earlier, when the Paul Bley Trio came, I think it was Barry Altschul… They were the first drummers who didn’t use time, who used more of an open pulse or free…

TP: This is ’65 and ’66.

KOWALD: ’65 and ’66, right. Then these records came out on Dutch Fontana, and then of course, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity came over on ESP Records. That was about the time when Carla was around, and then she asked us for a tour…she asked actually Peter to play a tour with her the last year, and she had planned to bring Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, but somehow it didn’t work out with them, and then Peter was actually very nice and said “I’ll only do the tour if Peter Kowald is coming also.” Then I was 22 years old, and I did a three-month tour with that group. That was a big experience for me in many kinds of ways. I did a lot of mistakes in all kinds of ways, but still…

TP: Were you playing her compositions on that tour?

KOWALD: We had compositions, but…

TP: And then taking them completely apart every night.

KOWALD: Yes. But the context was more like a free context. We had the compositions in the beginning, but then all the improvisations were free, and without changes, without time.

TP: Were you ever involved in situations as a younger player where you needed to deal with form all the way through your improvisations and were satisfied with that course? Did you come across those experiences, or were you always wanting to shatter form, as it were, within every performance?

KOWALD: Well, in the early years with Brotzmann, we still played compositions. We played Ornette Coleman compositions, we played Mingus stuff, we played Coltrane stuff…

TP: That’s what you cut your teeth on.

KOWALD: Yes. But we didn’t really use the changes any more. We freed ourselves and never really stuck to the changes and stuck to the bars, the whole clear form. But then, on the other hand, I did very strict things. I played the tuba also at the time, and I played with Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and we recorded Cage pieces… There’s a record of this. So I did a certain amount of stuff of reading Contemporary Music and notation. That was the most formal thing I, in fact, did. It was very interesting, because they were themselves there. Earle Brown was conducting his own pieces and Morton Feldman was conducting his pieces. That was really interesting. But that was the most formal thing in fact I did while I improvised freely. We basically went to free improvisation.

And I think after the Carla tour was exactly the time when Globe Unity started to be. But Alex didn’t know us, because we were about 40 miles away from Cologne where they were, Manfred Schoof and Alex Schlippenbach. But then they heard us one night, and it was just when Alex was writing his composition “Globe Unity,” and he included the whole trio into his Globe Unity Orchestra. Finally there were two bass players and two drummers, and Peter was added.

TSAHAR: One thing I’d like to add, and see if Peter agrees with me or not. The free improvisation, there is something very natural about it that almost every musician goes through. Then, when they go to school, it almost makes you feel like they’re taken out of it. My first experience of music was free improvisation, was taking the instrument and playing, and then doing it with a friend of mine. I think there is something about that that’s very natural. It’s probably also what they were trying to do, without so much of the thinking that this is a revolution.

KOWALD: Well, I have to say that in Europe it was clearly forgotten. Improvisation wasn’t used at all any more. If you go back to Bach and Mozart, they could do it, and people like Messaien could do it, but in Europe as a method of working for music it was forgotten. But then Stockhausen came back and said, “Okay.” He gave a little advice, “Hear what you want to play and then play it.” He had very open pieces. But that was the same time we started to improvise, but our stuff came from Black American music, very clearly. It came from jazz. But then there was maybe a little step which I would call a healthy way of killing our fathers. I mean, I love jazz. I still love it. It’s the main music I’ve been listening to in all my life. In some way, I’m proud of it now, over these years. But we had a point in Europe where we said, “Okay, let’s do it the European way.” We don’t want to copy American jazz any more. We don’t want to play Classical European music, but we don’t want to copy American jazz.” Like, a lot of bebop players in Europe had done that for years. But looking back on it, I still have to say we took a lot. We took a lot from Albert Ayler, we took a lot from Pharaoh Sanders, talking about saxophone players, and I took a lot from all the bass players, from Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman. I will play a bass duo on the 15th November with Reggie Workman at Roulette, and I am very happy that he agreed to it. It’s part of a bass duo thing I’ve been doing with European bass players. There are 3 CDs out now, but more are coming. We are planning for one with William Parker to come out, and the concert with Reggie Workman will be recorded also.

TP: There are different attitudes to the form question. Someone like Dave Holland, a contemporary of yours, in the 1960s was playing with Derek Bailey and John Stevens and spent the ’70s playing totally free music with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton’s structural music, and then he made a decision that he didn’t want to exclude closed form, that he liked both of them. He felt that without structured forms you couldn’t necessarily springboard to the next step, that they contributed to his creative development. So you’re coming from a similar milieu, albeit he’s English and he’s German, but reaching two very different conclusions. That’s not to make a value judgment, just to show how two very different ways of approaching an instrument and an aesthetic can emerge from similar set of circumstances.

KOWALD: Well, I would say that the (?), of course, is quite a different one. But what I find is that the music we have been doing found a form, too, but it is as a very organic, natural form. I am very interested in… When I work with younger people it is always my theme: How clear can the music be? How clear can improvisation be? Is it just this process of what I call a cold spaghetti music, where everything just glues and sticks to each other and goes on and goes on? Or is it possible to have a more intuitive, formal consciousness about when you improvise? I am very interested in people who play with a formal consciousness. Maybe that is the European mind a little bit related to the mind over here. But I find that a certain element of being clear and making decisions also, which is somehow a formal thing, is very important to me. I think, in a way, I feel that I am respected over here, too, because I have that. Even when I play a solo, I mean, it’s completely open, but I have formal sections. I have sections in there, and people understand that. People understand that a formal background without it (?) so much from. But the difference from Dave Holland is that it is not a pre-given form. The form is coming while you do it. And Dave Holland and many other people like to work with pre-given forms. That’s just the difference.

TP: Peter Kowald has also contributed to the stream of out jazz through working with drummers like Rashied Ali, through working with drummers like Hamid Drake, working with saxophonists like Charles Gayle and Assif… There is now and has been for at least 20 years that component to what you do.

KOWALD: I would say, yes, the saxophone trio with a saxophone trio and a drummer…

TP: Where the bass functions as a bass.

KOWALD: Well, that’s one side of the extreme. And then to play completely European, free improvised music with the young people, where you sometimes don’t make a sound for minutes and think all the time, I like that, too. That’s the other extreme. My whole pendulum has been those two. I love to do the more jazz quality stuff, like we do with Assif and Hamid, but I also like to have that improvisation. Then also I work with Sanko, the Siberian singer, who gave me a completely new value since the early ’90s because her voice is from this Tuvan Shamanist breath and overtone harmonic music section. I went to Tuva with her twice on the Trans-Siberian train. So that is another leg I am trying to stand on.

TP: Assif, you’ve played with a number of bass players. What are the qualities that Peter Kowald brings to this real-time encounter, this collective improvisation that distinguishes his instrumental personality from his peer group?

TSAHAR: Well, it’s exactly what he said now, because his pendulum is so vast. So we don’t get locked so much into one thing, one area, which is very common to do. So it’s very easy when we’re playing with Peter. It’s both ways. He keeps it as a compositional thought from beginning to end, and also keeps the variety going. Because it’s very easy, let’s say… I mean, I love those Sam Rivers records; it’s a good example. But in some ways, it always stays within that jazz vein. But in some ways, when I play with Peter, even though if we go there, and go somewhere that’s in the jazz vein and in the swinging tradition, it will always go out of it and go into different places, and always have the possibility of going back into it. That’s why I love the experience of playing with Peter.

TP: Peter Kowald is leaving for Italy. The life of an improviser. You’re going to Italy for maybe one night, two nights…

KOWALD: I play two days in (?).

TP: Come back here.

KOWALD: Come back Monday.

TP: Come back Monday, do a recording, play this gig at Triad, do some other gigs during the week… I’ve been watching you create a schedule, and is Einhoven on the way from Frankfurt… The troubadours.

KOWALD: Yes. The everyday life of a traveler who just goes there and plays for the people, and opens his hand, gets some money and comes back home, and goes to the next one.

TP: Very much in the medieval European tradition of the traveling troupes, the caravans. The modern-day troubadours.

KOWALD: Well, in fact, Botticini(?), the great bass player, he had a bass that he could take the neck off, so in the horse coaches he could travel, and then he did the gigs at the clubs!

TP: We don’t have time to go in tremendous depth into recent work… We have cued up a CD called “Aphorisms: 26 Looks On a Situation” with saxophonist Floris Floridis, and drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer…

KOWALD: He’s from East Germany. We were not allowed to play together for a couple of years, but we played secretly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But in the early ’70s we were not allowed to play together.


KOWALD: [after Kowald-Barry Guy duo] …It means “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overvalued.”

TP: And why is it overvalued?

KOWALD: Well, it is something that Josef Beuys said. Josef Beuys was an artist of the area where I grew up. I really liked him in my early years, and he was very influential to me. Just to say it in short, he not only did his artwork for which people know him over here, but he also tried to put art in a social context in a new way again — again, something as a result of the ’60s also. He was very out there in the ’60s for us.

TP: Something that was antithetical to Marcel Duchamp, the idea of putting a context on anything.

KOWALD: He did a project which he called “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp has Been Overvalued,” and I thought it was really interesting because I liked Marcel Duchamp so much, too. Then Beuys said, “Okay, but let’s look what does it mean. Do we take certain things too seriously? Don’t we have to act in another direction now?” The ’60s again. Right? Actually, the Barry Guy record has all titles which are related to Art, which are actually sentences. Paintings used to be on the record, on one side, on the other side four pieces which are related to certain artists. Barry likes art very much. Then he decided for I think… Anyway, I decided for Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.

TP: The previous piece was a duet between you and Sanko, the Tuvan throat singer to whom you referred. An incredible sound. It catches your attention. Even Peter Kowald, who’ve heard this record and played with her hundreds of times, is sitting across from me… If you can visualize a totally attentive expression where no motion is possible for a moment until they reach the next moment.

KOWALD: These aspects… We are talking about Josef Beuys now, who on the one hand is an artist who comes very much out of my context, but he also has worked on the Celtic stuff. Or the Cayuta(?) piece, when he came to America, where he didn’t touch American ground, but was carried off the airplane and carried with an ambulance into a gallery so he wouldn’t touch American ground, and then spent a week with the Cayuta(?) (they didn’t know each other, and they became friends during this week), and then Beuys left again without touching American ground. It’s very interesting, because he worked with very old cultures, and he includes… When he came the first time to America, he wanted to talk about the old America, and the Cayuta(?) was the symbol for that. Then Seinko carries in her voice a thousand years — and maybe more — of musical knowledge that hasn’t changed much in that area. In Tuva and Mongolia, the music has remained similar. Then she carries that thousand-years-old knowledge and puts it into a contemporary context. This is wonderful and very interesting to me.

TP: This actually would connect you with a strain of European modernism that goes back to James Joyce and Ezra Pound and Picasso. Pound would use pre-Biblical language, Joyce recontextualizes Homeric myth, Picasso deals with African sculptural forms. And here you are using a similar process in this manner of making music. If there’s a narrative in the music you make, what would be the closest analog? Would it be vocabulary? Would it be the visual arts? Is it shapes? Is it colors? Because the words “narrative” and “vocabulary” are often used by musicians, but it’s obviously an abstract vocabulary.

KOWALD: I believe that artists and the way that we play music is a very similar process in many ways. I think a beautiful thing in the music (and some of my artist friends sometimes express jealousy about this) is that we do it in groups often, most of the time, and the artist is most of the time alone in a studio…

TP: You mean that music is a social even a social process.

KOWALD: Yes. Well, art is a social process, too. But then the artist usually works alone in the studio, while we work in a group on stage and in a direct way. The music is going out, and it’s right there. The artist works for months maybe, until the product is ready. But I believe certain questions are very similar, certain questions of how do you free your language, how do you work with form. I talk a lot with artists about this question of form and how to change… Once you have been doing it for years, the change gets smaller. When I was young, I thought every month something new came into the music. Now it is changing much less. Artists have very similar problems. That is classic with them. And artists sometimes have a more, like, formal consciousness, because they work on form for months; when they do a painting, for months they work on the form of the painting. Our form kind of develops organically and it’s right there when it’s just been developed.

But then you come also back to the question of form with Seinko from Tuva, the singer. What is interesting about her is she brings all the qualities of her culture, of her voice, all the Shamanistic breath techniques, all the overtones and all of that, but she left what I call the local song. She doesn’t bring her local song any more. She says, “I don’t sing my song any more. I put my stuff into an open context, so I can play with you or I can play with Evan Parker or Ned Rothenberg,” whomever she plays with. So she left the local song. But she still brings all that knowledge and all the thousand years with her. That’s a beautiful thing. Then suddenly, because the pre-given form, the local form is not there any more, the form is completely open, and we just all can work together. People from China, from Africa, from Tuva, from Israel, from Germany, we can work together instantly without even discussing the matters. That’s really good. That’s really what I call the Global Village. I have this group called The Last Global Village. We are actually playing at CB’s Gallery on the 22nd. We are playing with… [LISTS PERSONNEL] We don’t prepare the music. We don’t rehearse it. We just get together. And most of the people don’t know each other, have never played with each other. And it works, because we don’t arrive with a pre-given form.

TP: That brings me to another question. What do you observe your audience to be? And how has that audience evolved over the forty years you’ve been playing? Who do you find coming to the concerts? How do you think they’re receiving it? Are they involved-enthralled in the process of the music-making? My main response to hearing this kind of music is watching the interplay as it occurs from moment to moment. It’s not so much what’s being played as how I am perceiving taking shape in real time. Other people may have a different perspective. How do you perceive the process with your audience?

KOWALD: Well, the audience has been the same in many ways. There are little festivals in Europe where the same people come together every year to listen to basically the same musicians — the big family. That’s fine. But then, in the last few years, I see many young people coming. Also I play for a lot of artists, like for the art openings, and then you have an audience which has never heard this music. So what I tell in these workshops sometimes, the young people, what for me is important… We’ve talked about form now three times already in this little hour here. We talk about the believing and the love of it. This is important to me. I’m sometimes a little critical about some European players who do it so cold, in a way, with so much thinking and so much formal consciousness. I don’t mind the form at all, and I said that before. But I also believe that you need the love. You need to believe in what you are doing. If I don’t believe in the moment what I play, how can the people down there believe it? That’s what I try to tell the young people. Don’t just think about material. Just do that. Practice, check out the forms and do the work, but also try to come in contact with yourself. This is an esoteric term you read all over the place.

I remember this very young dancer of Pina Bausch who lived across the street, and we used to meet in the coffee house in the afternoon sometimes. He was 22, a French guy, Francois Durer(?), a fantastic virtuoso dancer, and Pina let him do all these little solos in the pieces. And then one afternoon he told me, “Listen, I know I’m a good dancer, but I haven’t found it in HERE yet.” And then he pointed to his chest. I found it really wonderful that a 22-year-old virtuoso dancer, a great artist already, understood that still he had to look for something inside. This is what I’m talking about. “If you don’t believe what you are doing,” I tell young people all the time, “how can they believe it? How can the audience believe it?”

That’s what you were asking about the audience. The audience believes it if you believe what you are doing, if you are in it, if you open your soul, if you open your heart. That’s the aspect people don’t talk about enough sometimes. I think in Black America people talk about it much more than in Europe. That’s I think an important point also to the question where I said I have this pendulum between, let’s say, Black American Jazz and very formal European improvised music. I think the music meets the heart.

TP: Assif, you’re from a generation for whom playing free music is almost another option for vocabulary. Last year I went to Cecil Taylor’s orchestra workshop at Turtle Bay Music School, and there were people who could play the music extremely well and lucidly. But in talking to some of these people, they might play bebop here, and here we’ll play this way, and here we’ll play a dance gig. There were all these options, and free music is one part of the craft of being a musician in 2001. It seems generational, that people with that attitude can embrace this music with extended vocabularies and extended techniques and tabula rasa playing as a genre of equal value to others. Maybe it has to do with the way education is presented now. Not to ask you to speak for your generation, but for you is this an operative thing?

TSAHAR: Well, it exists. Things are more formalized and more clear, and there’s more awareness that one is using certain techniques in a certain genre. Also, I grew up playing actually bebop on guitar, not on saxophone, so I had an experience of growing up and then being freed out of it. Because everything was done, there’s more awareness of what are the things that we’re doing. But in the end, the difference is of being a musician or being an artist, I guess. So for me, I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying just to think about where I am, how I play, where do I find myself, and not think about playing like… If I find myself thinking about, “oh, I sound like…” Which was always with me. I think, “Oh, if I sound like Coltrane,” that’s not a positive thing. That’s a negative thing. That’s…

TP: Well, for a while you want to emulate a sound, and then move away from it, no?

TSAHAR: Well, I think that’s from the beginning, a certain awareness. I might have enjoyed it more in my earlier years, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” But I was always aware this is not what I want to do, this is not where I want to go. I want to feel like I have no shadows chasing after me. Because all these thoughts of style and mentors, which could be like living mentors or dead mentors, are kind of shadows covering what I really want to do. So I’m trying to surpass them and not really… They only will get in the way, in a way. So being within a style thing of, “Oh, I’m playing free” or “I’m playing inside,” all those things, in a way, interfere with what I want to do.

But it is all there, because it’s all part of what I listen to, what I grew up with… You asked in the beginning how does Arabic music influence my music, and a lot of people ask me about Jewish music, and I say that for me I play Jewish-Israeli music if I want or if I don’t want. It’s like what I grew up listening to. It’s in my sound even if I don’t like it. A certain type of Arabic singing… Like, playing out of tune for me was the easiest thing ever…

TP: Microtonal.

TSAHAR: Or microtonal, if you want to be more intellectual about it. But it’s the way I heard people singing. The tone, the pitch always shifts and moves. It’s never like a very specific thing. That’s how I hear. That’s how I play. Because that’s what I heard growing up.

TP: Peter, you said before we went on mike that you could discuss some of the extended techniques you use on bass in the duos, say, with Barry Guy. And it’s interesting, because in some sense there’s a creative tension between the elaboration of these very specific techniques that comprise your sonic identity, and transmitting the heart and love and soul that is your ideal, the imperative for why you do it.

KOWALD: Well, there are different steps. On this CD here is Barre Phillips, who was a little bit my teacher in the ’60s when he came to Europe. He had studied with Fred Zimmerman here in New York. I met Barry Guy later, but then when I went to London in the ’80s, often I stayed at his house. We would drink until early in the morning, and then he would go to a studio and record this Mozart symphony which he hadn’t looked at. He went completely unprepared to the studio, and he could do them, and they all got these awards. So he is a fantastic classical player, too.

But now I want to talk about the third person, Martin Aaltena, who did something to me which really helped me a lot. He broke his arm in the ’70s, and he had it in plaster, so he knew he wouldn’t be able to play for two months. Then he put the bass neck into plaster, too, and then he started to play concerts like that. There’s a record out where there’s a photograph of the bass neck in plaster and his arm in plaster. I thought he had a courage which I don’t know if I’d have had to really go out and say, “I have to forget everything I’ve ever learned and do something completely new.” So he started to stick bows into the strings and made all this sound. The sounds he made were completely sounds that didn’t have to do at all with bass techniques he knew. He just wanted to spend the two months playing the bass, even with his arm broken, and he did that way. But also, all the sounds which came out really freed him from everything he had learned, and it helped to free me. Because I was kind of theoretically… I didn’t want to break my arm to do the same thing, but okay, let’s try really to put the hand on the bass in a way like I’ve never done it before. Then all these sounds come out which you don’t know where they come from. Then you have to combine. You have to combine your aesthetic will, maybe, something you have in your head and something which comes through the music you listen to, to combine with this how to put your hand on the instrument. If those two aspects get into a balance, then I think it’s really interesting.

TP: I’d like to pick up one other trope of this conversation, which is the relationship between your musical expression and the visual arts. So much of your music seems to be generated, performed, and perhaps even done in that context. You’re contemporaneous with German painters like A.R. Penck, Baselitz, Kiefer, painters who made an international impact in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not trying to suggest any affiliation, but merely to note that their work was operating in parallel to you. Were there convergences?

KOWALD: I always like to hang out with the guys and discuss everything, and with the artists you often hang out and discuss… With the musicians, too. But then we discuss the methods, and discuss how does this function and how does this work. Well, artists don’t have an instrument. They have a very open way to use material. I have a bass. Of course, I could do other things, and now all the young guys do this electronic stuff, in order to have maybe a more free equipment to work with. But I was always quite a purist. I wanted to do all these things just on the bass. But then, artists have a lot of freedom. Many people do videos, installations… I just saw a documentary a couple of weeks ago in Germany. They are very free in terms of material. I think musicians can learn from that. That’s one thing I definitely have to say. But then our social thing is…I really don’t want to miss it. To go with Assif and Hamid on stage, and the three of us, and that smile, and then we just go, and we don’t know what the next minute will bring us. That’s the most wonderful thing to do.


Peter Kowald Review Column (2002):

“I sometimes like to be like a chameleon,” Peter Kowald said last May, five months before his death. “I like to change color related to the person or the group I play with. And it means that I don’t have a function any more. I am just a bass player, which means that I make sounds on the bass like other people do on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa.”

Born and based in Wuppertal, in Germany’s Ruhr Basin, Kowald brought that fluid aesthetic to innumerable extemporaneous encounters with a global cohort of speculative improvisers. Deploying a vivid, original tonal personality that blended tropes from jazz, Euro-Classical, and Mongolian and Pygmy folk traditions, he was as comfortable navigating discursively conversational duos as the complex terrain of hardcore free-improvised jazz.

Kowald is both chameleon and functional bassist on APHORISMS (Ano Kato 2015, 44:17, 4 stars). True to the title, Kowald, Greek reeds and woodwind virtuoso Floris Floridos, and innovative Dresden-born drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer improvise 26 pithy vignettes from a veritable lexicon of extended techniques, parsing essences with precision and nuance, merging singular vocabularies into a collective sound that transcends instrumental gymnastics. Outcat trombonist Conrad Bauer, a multiphonics maestro who like Sommer was a pioneer of jazz in the GDR, joins Kowald and Sommer on BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (Intakt 079, 52:46, 4 stars); they perform eight brief narrations with similar rigor and timbral scope, before stretching out for two vigorous extended blowout improvs that sustain compositional thought and variety from beginning to end on a minimum of thematic material.

Theme-solo-theme structures spur the intense interplay of OPEN SYSTEMS (Marge 28, 72:42, 3-1/2 stars), a sprawling, ritualistic recital by a first-time-out quartet of Kowald, post-Ayler saxophonist Assif Tsahar, bravura trumpeter Hugh Ragin, and drummer Hamid Drake. Convened in Paris in the spring of 2001, the unit only occasionally meanders, blowing with heat and wit through Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and four Tsahar vehicles that conjure up the apocalyptic feel of 1969 BYG record by, say, Archie Shepp or the Reverend Frank Wright. Kowald chants low, gutteral tones in counterpoint to Drake’s muezzin’s call on “Heart’s Remembrance,” an open improv, and presents an idiomatic Ayler homage entitled “Fathers and Mothers.”

Kowald once noted that he and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann – his mentor in early ‘60s Wuppertal — deployed radical jazz as a symbolic weapon to kill their fathers. After encouraging mid-‘60s encounters with expat American avatars like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and Carla Bley, the young Germans set to work at eliminating the stepfathers; in Kowald’s words, “to do it the European way.” FOR ADOLPHE SAX (Archive-FMP Edition 230, 50:25, 3 stars) reissues a rawboned, to-the-barricades 1967 trio album on which Brötzmann blows with primal violence, Kowald bows resourcefully and dynamically, and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johanssen jabs and pummels ametric texture out of the drumkit, setting an expressionist template for several subsequent generations of the young and restless on both continents. Dutch energy pianist Fred Van Hove, Brötzmann’s cusp-of-the-‘70s partner in a trio with Han Bennink, joins the unit for a strong, though predictable disk-concluding track recorded at Radio Bremen.


Kowald at Vision-Fest (5-27-02) – (Peter Kowald):


PETER KOWALD: …it’s about making a castle against the poor people. Like, America is a castle, and then Europe is another castle now. I guess in Asia there are castles, too. So it’s like a castle to defend certain things, certain standards.

TP: I know what you’re talking about. [ETC.] We’re in the boiler room of the St. Patrick’s Church Community Center, where the Vision Festival is being held… [ETC.] Peter Kowald, bass player, master of extended techniques…

What is your sense of the term “avant-garde” and how does it apply to what you do, to the projection of your musical personality?

[45:18] KOWALD: Well, the first thing I have to say: In Europe we don’t use that term so much. And it has been used in the last century…well, at the beginning of the century for artistic movements like Dadaism, Surrealism and stuff. Actually, it is a military term. As we know, the group in front. The group in front which may be in the most dangerous place, the most risky place, and also which can make decisions — or does make decisions which the people in the back don’t do. So that has been modified for art movements in the last century. The way we use it, or the way it’s used here in New York about this music we all are playing, it’s a way we wouldn’t use that any more. Somehow, the term smells a little bit in Europe. It’s a little old-fashioned.

TP: That leads to a question I was going to ask. If there’s a difference between the conception of the avant-garde in Europe and the American notion of what the avant-garde is.

[46:24] KOWALD: So I believe what it meant and what it means is that there’s a movement or a group of artists who do something new, something different from what has been before. And I guess in the ’60s the term came up for this music very strongly, and there has been a lot of breaking up of traditional matters. And so, it has been used now 50 years later…no, 40 years… Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” came out in ’62, no?

TP: ’60.

[47:04] KOWALD: Okay. 40 years later. I would say that’s a good moment, Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” which was definitely what at the time people would call avant-garde. It was breaking many, many rules, and trying to really open up the whole question of form. That’s what we maybe have to say first. Breaking up the form was what the whole goal was. Because all traditional musics, all over the world, they have a form. The Inuit singers or Indian Raga or African drum music, all this has form, however open or tight it might be. And I think the ’60s movement, what we relate to the term “avant-garde” now to what we are playing has completely opened up the form, which was not only the case in this music but also in contemporary art and… Remember Nam June Paik, the Fluxus artist, he came to Wuppertal in the early ’60s, and Brotzmann was his assistant for a moment, and Paik had said, “Now you can do anything. It’s completely open. Anything is possible now. Don’t worry about any tradition; don’t worry about any traditional form — anything is possible.” And that was maybe for us Europeans to think, “Okay, now the free…what does the free mean?” It basically means, in the first place, free of a pre-given traditional form, like bebop was and like a raga is or any other music has these forms. Free of a form. But of course, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach and the black musicians in America meant it also in another connotation of, well, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were around at the same time.

TP: Now, the Inuit musicians and the musics of India and the drum music of Africa, you don’t see this pattern of breaking up the form in this manner. These days it’s more that you see people who have mastered these forms intersecting with other people, creating this giant hybrid of vernaculars and cultural expressions. Why was the notion of breaking form so appealing to you at that moment?

[49:20] KOWALD: Well, I have been thinking about this a lot, in fact. What we might see in the ’60s…it started, and now it’s really obvious: That you could go all over the world in a plane in 24 hours, which means in one-night-and-day unit. Or you could have a CD or record at the time from any music of the world. I mean, there might have been very remote corners where you wouldn’t have something, but now everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. And at that time, at that exactly at this moment when this happened technologically, basically, that happened. The form broke open. So the traditional forms… They are still there, of course, and they are still very strong and they will stay. But exactly at that moment, the question came up: What does traditional form mean? Because traditional form is always a local form. But going around with a plane in a one-day unit means that the question of local has changed. And I believe that it’s very much connected, what I’m talking about now, that we can have information about all parts of the world, about all cultures, about all musics, about all art forms. We can have that now. We can discuss it. We meet people who play instruments who come from very different… Like, I play with Sanko from Tuva, and Tuva in the ’60s wasn’t even…nobody really knew about it here in the West, and now everybody talks about Tuva and the music there. So, so much has happened in these forty years. Which means that the local forms are still there, but they don’t have their importance any more. Or, they have it for the people who live locally. We all live locally, we have to say, too. But at the same time, there is a big exchange of all cultural values and traditions and all that is there. People call that the Postmodern maybe. I don’t know if I would like to use that term, in fact. But everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. We can use everything.

[51:30] So breaking up the form in terms of avant-garde, it meant — and Cage has said — that we can use any noise, and any noise is valued. And a saxophone player in New York, he would play saxophone in a way that would make certain screams, as we know, and certain noises. So noise has been with instrumental improvisers included, too. Noise was not excluded. So as Nam June Paik has said, anything is possible. We can include anything.

TP: You mentioned Nam June Paik twice, and in doing so you’ve touched on the next question. To what extent did artistic forms, cultural forms other than music — or politics — inflect the musical personality you’ve come to evolve?

[52:30] KOWALD: I mean, I grew up in Germany, and that’s why I talk about it. And I met Paik when I was 20. So he was very influential to me, in a way, through Brotzmann somehow. But also I was closer to the visual arts at the time, because I played the bass, and I played with Brotzmann, and I was 17 when I started to play with him, etc. But we didn’t grow up with the music like people here did. I was not Albert Ayler’s bass player at the time. What happened here, we watched really what came out here, the records when they came over here later — ESP and all of that. We really watched that and listened to it. But we were not here. We were in Wuppertal, Germany, which is a little town, and we were the only two people playing that kind of music at the time — or trying to. So we didn’t grow up with the music. So our connection with other art forms was more natural at the time. It was usually visual art, and then Fluxus was very important; it started in ’62-’63. Which again, the movement of Fluxus was about everything is open and everybody can what he or she wants to do.

So transporting this or transforming it to the question of playing the music: We tried to say, okay, we don’t want any tradition. We reject our own tradition in the sense of not playing Classical music, Classical European music, not even contemporary music in a sense, which is something which follows the classical music in the 20th Century. But then again, not what many Europeans had done before, learned the jazz licks and learned jazz and tried to copy or being with American jazz… We said, “We don’t want to do that either.” So that was our way to say, “Okay, we play a completely free, improvised music now.” And somehow, of course, Albert Ayler and Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette helped us to make these steps, and they were actually very influential to us in the beginning. But then also, we thought, okay, now we’ll try to have some European music which is just coming out of improvisation and no pre-given form.

TP: In the process, the most committed, adept improvisers developed specific identifiable vocabularies. Someone can tell you from William Parker from Barry Guy and so forth and so on. And you’ve evolved these vocabularies over many years. Has a music which was born from the idea of there being no form or the abolition of form become a formal entity unto itself, and how then does the music develop and advance within such a situation?

[55:36] KOWALD: Well, the pre-given form… Of course, in what we call now the avant-garde of this jazz music or post-jazz music…sometimes it has form and makes forms. But what I call the free improvisation doesn’t have a form — or a pre-given form. But each piece, of course, which is improvised, as a solo, as a trio, as a quintet, will have a form when it’s finished — has a form when it’s finished. Form is not something pre-given, but form is something which turns out to be in the process of playing. But this is basically a situation which is very open, open in the sense, too, that… And that’s what I love to talk about, too. I have played with a lot of people from different cultures. We all have. But I always looked for the question what the other cultures have to say. So from Sanko to Charles Gayle, or from a Japanese koto player…a Chinese koto player is in my group now, ..(?).., who is in my group in Germany now. to Pamela Z(?) from San Francisco, who uses body contact mikes. I like to play in other spectra. But that’s also part of the openness, too.

In a way, I sometimes like to be, as a bass player…like to be like a chameleon, which means I like to change color related to the person I play with or to the group I play with. Which means as a bass player I don’t have a function any more, like, up until the ’60s the bass player had. And still, sometimes, in a groups with saxophones, drums and bass, of course, I still use the function…I have the function of a bass player in that group, too, when I play with Rashied Ali. But in other times, I don’t have a function as a bass player. I am just a bass player, which means that I make the sounds on the bass like other people make it on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa. And that means we are all individuals now. The openness is there. The openness… As I said, we can travel in one day to any part of the world. We can have music from everywhere we can listen to, and we can play with people who also live behind the local forms and just say, “Okay, we are open now, too.” We still use our aesthetics. Sanko, the singer, is an example I like to use often, because she is so obvious. She’s using the shamanistic breath techniques, and she is doing the overtones like in Tuva, but she opened up the form and she doesn’t sing the local song any more. And when we do that, then we can play together immediately, without any discussion. We don’t have to prepare anything.

TP: This is a very radical idea.

[58:45] KOWALD: Well, it’s an idea which sometimes… I don’t want to exaggerate, but sometimes I feel it could be a beautiful little model for how this world could function. Because of course, the forms… We need form, and that’s why many people also sometimes come back to it more than in the ’60s. Many musicians have gone back to pre-given forms — to compositions and to playing time and to playing chords sometimes. But all that is possible. All that can be included. We don’t want to exclude anything any more. Not the noise, but also not the sound. So we can include everything. And that’s nice. Because I believe if you look at it socially, politically, psychologically, everything that is excluded will be a problem later on. So we can include everything. Then when everything is on the table, then we can make our choice and say, “Today I eat the apple” and tomorrow the orange and then the day after the grapes. We can make the choice when everything is on the table. But everything has to come on the table first. And when it’s on the table, then we can make the choice.

TP: Now, this attitude, it doesn’t seem to me, was possible 40 years or, or 30 years ago, even. But now it seems a commonplace to say this. Why do you think that is?

[1.00.16] KOWALD: Well, that has to do with that the world got smaller, in fact, of course, and it has to do with attitudes of… We all travel more than we did in the ’60s. In the ’60s we had an old car, and went from Germany to Belgium, which was five hours. Of course, some musicians traveled at the time, too, but they were much less. And now everybody travels all the time to play concerts wherever in the world. Wherever people ask me to play, I go. Or if I were to invite a musician from wherever, I ask them to come.

So that’s part of that. But also the information has gone… I don’t look at television any more, but what they give you on television at least it’s a sign what could be possible of what we see from other cultures, what we see from other parts of the world. Television in Germany and in America and in the Western world don’t use that. But there are so many possibilities to get information. But then there’s so much information that we have to make choices again. We have to make choices all the time, because it’s too much. And then, okay, we made the choice to make free improvised music with a network of people between Asia and… Maybe there are people in Africa coming soon. I played with people in Africa who understood what I was talking about. Because they wanted to teach me their rhythms, which as a German I never would be able to learn, even as much as I would try. Then at some point, they said, “Oh, you play what you play and we play what we play,” and so we played together. That was a step into… Still people who were very related to their traditional form said, okay, you can do what you do and we’ll do what we do. That’s a step into that freedom you’re talking about.

[1.02.35] TP: You were saying just before that you will travel wherever anybody asks you to play, and you’ve been doing something like this for about 40 years in one form or another, and you’re 58 years old. How have you sustained your intensity and commitment?

[1.03.10] KOWALD: Of course, I have sometimes a longing for being in one place more. Now I have two places, because I am in Germany, as I used to be, and I have a place in New York now, too. So basically I have two legs I’m standing on now. Well, I don’t like so much to teach. I do these workshops sometimes, and I like to talk to younger people about this music, and maybe give away something I’ve learned over the years. But basically, I love to play. So I don’t want to be really a professor at a university and stay in one place. My family…my children are big and have children themselves, so I am completely free to travel. And that’s what I love to do — travel and play. Just play with anybody… Traveling is the biggest thing…it’s a little hard. But to play with as many people as I like to play with and who like to play with me.

TP: Derek Bailey kind of rejects the notion of performance as artistic activity. He refers to it as playing, which implies a workaday attitude. That he is a musical artisan, in a certain sense. If you were to use that general typology of what it is you do, would you characterize yourself as an artist? An artisan? Both?

KOWALD: Well, I would say that at the moment I play, I mean, this hour or two hours of a concert on a stage… Usually it is on a stage. But I prefer the little cafe, the corner of a little cafe; that’s my favorite place, where there are 50 people and everybody is in reach, really. That is my favorite. But this hour of music for me is a special moment, I have to say. I wouldn’t call it a holy moment, but a moment of great concentration. All I can give to the world is that hour, the music in that hour. So when I play with people in a situation where people listen to this music, and not just at home or in a rehearsal space or in any place, just playing… It’s a different thing, playing for the public, I feel, and playing for non-musicians. This is a special moment, and this is still what… I don’t care if you really call it art, but I believe it’s my art, yes.

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For Drum Master Ben Riley’s 84th Birthday, a WKCR Interview/Musician’s Show From 1994

Master drummer Ben Riley, wh0se credits include the Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sphere, turns 84 today. For the occasion, here’s a transcript of a lively Musician’s Show that we did on WKCR on April 13, 1994.


Ben Riley Musician Show, WKCR (4-13-94):

TP: Let’s talk about your beginnings in the music.  You’re originally from Savannah, Georgia, and your family came up to New York when?

BR: I was four when they came.  I had already had an interest in music, but I think my desire when I got older, around the teenage area, I wanted to become an athlete — I was a real basketball fanatic.

TP: Were you playing organized ball?

BR: Yeah, I played in school.

TP: Where was that?

BR: I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, and I finally made the Junior Varsity one year, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to complete it.  I played, like, the P.A.L. and the C.Y.O. and the Y…

TP: Were you a guard, a forward?

BR: A guard.  In those days you played both positions, because we weren’t that tall.  I think Ray Felix… When they came around, that’s when the height started shooting up.  Because 6’6″, 6’7″ were really gigantic guys when I was younger.

TP: Now we’re talking about the latter part of the 1940’s?

BR: Yeah, and Fifties.

TP: But drums became serious for you around this time, then?

BR: Well, I think it was acually in junior high school.  I had an uncle who played saxophone, who was studying with Cecil Scott, and he lived right across the street from the high school I went to.  So I would go over there in the afternoons, and sit in with the rehearsal band — and he also would teach me.  So I had a chance to go down to the Savoy and sit in with his band on a Sunday afternoon.  The love was there, but after seeing so many bad things happening in the business with the guys, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of it at that time.  I thought the athletic part of my life was going to be the strongest.

TP: Healthier!

BR: Yes.  But when I went into the Service I injured my back parachuting…

TP: You were a paratrooper?

BR: I was a paratrooper, yeah.  I was in the last of the Black battalions.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.

TP: Was that a situation where you were able to play music?

BR: Actually what happened there, we were bivouacked into the field area.  We weren’t on the main post with the buildings.  We were over into the Second World War barracks.  Now, we had to march every weekend up to the main area for the parade for General showing off his troops.  So I suggested to the Captain that we should have a drum-and-bugle corps, so either we’d be trucked or march up there calling cadence.  He said that was a very good idea.  We went and canvassed the area, and found guys who played horns and drums, and we formed our own little drum and bugle corps, and so we would march up to the main course for our parade.  When the Army became integrated, they reached down and said, “Okay, you had training in school and whatnot, so we’re putting you in the band.”  So I became a member of the band, which lasted less than six months, because then they shipped me off to Japan to go to Korea!

TP: Were you able to function as a musician at all?

BR: Yeah, when I got to Japan.  That’s where I met a lot of musicians from different parts of Tokyo and whatnot.  We used to jam.  And everywhere I was stationed, I’d finally find some guys who were playing.  This worked out to be pretty good for me, because after I got injured I couldn’t run and jump like I could any more, so I had to do something.  The music was there all along for me, so I really became deeply involved in that.

TP: But you understood what the music was supposed to sound like from a very early age.

BR: Well, yes, because I was very fortunate to grow up uptown, on so-called Sugar Hill, and you had Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Jackie McLean — everybody was uptown. So I had a chance to sit and listen, and then sit in with them, so I had a real good knowledge of what was going on with the music.

TP: What was the first time you got to sit in on a major-league type of situation?

BR: We used to have a little bar on 148th Street and Broadway called the L-Bar.  On Sunday afternoons, a drummer named Doc Cosey used to run these jam sessions.  So you’d never know who was going to come in.  Any given Sunday afternoon, well, Roy Haynes might come over, because he lived at 149th Street for a short period of time — so he may come over and play.  Tina Brooks used to be a regular there all the time, and he and I played a great deal together on those Sunday afternoons.

TP: So you come out of the Army, and music becomes your…

BR: Not right away.  When I came out of the Army, I went to work because I got married, and I was expecting a child.  So I got a job.  I was working for WPIX, and I was learning film editing.  It was really boring, but it was a job, and I had a child on the way, and we were paying the rent.  So my wife said to me, “you know, you should really give yourself at least two years at music, and then if you don’t make it, then you know you’ve given it a good shot.”  So she really kind of helped me step off.  I probably would have stepped off anyway, but she kind of put the nice pushing on it for me.

TP: The validation.

BR: Right.

TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…

BR: Oh, yes.

TP: …like Art Blakey or Kenny Clarke or Philly Joe Jones?

BR: Yes.  We had a fellow named Phil Wright.  He was a drummer, and also a teacher.  That’s when I met Jimmy Cobb, Khalil Madi(?) and Art Taylor.  We all used to go to his house, and we’d have the music there, and we’d all get on drum-pads and play together.  Any band that any one of these guys was getting ready to join, he’d break down what was happening in the bands for us, so that when we did go to hear these other different groups we had an understanding of what was going on before we got there.

TP: But in terms of the great style masters of the drums, there was a situation where everybody was playing in clubs and you could go see them, talk to them and so forth.

BR: Right. In those days everybody was an individual, or looking to be an individual.  So when I came up, there was already an Art Blakey playing his style, there was already a Max Roach playing his way, Kenny Clarke, Roy and Shadow — they all had definite directions that they were in.  So everywhere you went, even if it was five clubs in one block, you’d never hear the same music when you walked into these different clubs, because everybody had their different  direction that they wanted to go into.  For me it was great, because now I could hear all of these different great drummers, and I could take a piece from each.  I didn’t have to say, “This is…”  Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated.  But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this.  This is a little bit too difficult.  I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.”  It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke.   “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.”  I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table.  Between he playing these subtle things and dropping these little things, and Shadow with his tremendous time and his tremendous beat, I tried to absorb both of them.

TP: Let’s hear one of the hundreds of recordings that Kenny Clarke made in the 1950’s, and almost every one of those dates is swinging like…

BR: Nobody’s business!

TP: You said you went off to work on this date, “Walkin'” by Miles Davis for Prestige in 1954.

BR: Right.  This is the record I played every evening on that way out to work to give me that feeling when I went to work every night.  Usually that was going down to Minton’s!

[MUSIC:  Miles Davis, “Walkin'” (1954); Monk/Coltrane/S. Wilson, “Trinkle-Tinkle” (1957); Max/Clifford/Sonny, “Kiss and Run” (1956)]

TP: Ben Riley and I were discussing a lot of things during that set, and one of the last things he said to me was that each of those drummers, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke, expressed their individuality through their cymbal beat.

BR: That’s right.  It’s so important that one gets a cymbal sound, a good sound that can be used to uplift the soloists.  You have three different styles here.  You have Klook, who played softer and tighter than the other two.  He played his things, and he’d play maybe four 8-bar phrases, and he’d change one cymbal beat.  So the cymbal beat never became boring to anyone listening to anyone he was playing behind.

TP: But it’s very subtle.

BR: But it’s subtle, very subtle, and it changes just like it was a subtle goose.  That’s putting it crudely, but that’s what it would be.  It just pumped you up. Now, Shadow had a big beat, a wider beat.  What amazed me about Shadow was, see, this man hardly played too much with the left hand, but I never missed it.  The time was always so full that you very rarely even missed that he wasn’t playing a lot with his left hand.  This always fascinated me, and I think between the two of them I tried to incorporate those things.  I still haven’t been able to get to playing less with the left hand, but I have been able to try to find a way to be tight when I want to be tight and wider when I want to be wider with my cymbal beat. With Max, technically, he has everything set up for certain things that he wanted to do.  So his beat was really very technically efficient.  He just drove very forcefully, because I think he played much harder than the other two.

TP: All these drummers are also involved in creating an ensemble sound.

BR: A sound.  That’s so important.  I think that’s what I enjoyed most of all with Thelonious, and then when we got Sphere together, is that we had an ensemble sound.  An ensemble sound takes care of mostly all the rest of… It makes gravy for the soloists,  Because when you have an ensemble sound, the soloist is just riding on top of the cake, because everything else is easy for him.

TP: You said that you actually enjoy accompanying more than soloing.

BR: Yeah.  When I first started playing, I guess like everyone else, I tried to play all the things that I’d heard all the great artists do and all the great drummers do.  But I found myself saying, “I can’t do all these things, and I’m not going to put that kind of time in to do all these kinds of things to solo.  Now I want to try to see what I can do to set up things.”  And I find now, I can play very interesting solos, because now I’m musically more evolved and ensemble-wise more evolved, so when I’m thinking of playing something, then I’m thinking of a song that we’re playing at this particular time.  So when I do play a solo, I come right in on whatever I’m playing, with what the music makes me want to go, where it takes me. But I find now that I’ve developed a sound such that I can usually play on almost any cymbal and get my sound.  Because now I know what I want to hear.  It’s a matter of me trying to reach it now, because I have the sound in my head.

TP: You were saying that forty years ago you’d hear Kenny Clarke or whoever, who had the sound so focused that…

BR: Yeah.  Because any set that they sat on, you could be standing outside, and you’d go, “Oh, Klook is playing,” and you’d go inside — because he had his sound.  Or Shadow, Max, or Art — they all had their sound.  So if you walked down 52nd Street or anywhere else there was five-six joints, every one of those drummers, you could tell before going inside who they were, because they each had their own sound.

TP: Well, you’re talking about walking around a certain area, and there are four or five or six places where everybody’s playing.  Of course, that’s a whole different climate than what you have now.

BR: To what you have today, yeah.

TP: Of course, you’d be checking out each one of them.

BR: Each one of them.

TP: Talk a bit about the scene.

BR: Well, in those days you had a chance to really understand what the music was developing into.  Because each group had a definite idea of what they had to do and how they wanted to express what they were doing.  So when you got to listen to all of these… Then you were working from 9 to 4, and then the after-hour joints from four-until.  So what happens is, you have a chance to go make maybe two or three, maybe four clubs — four sets you may catch.  Then you go to the after-hour club, and now all these things in your mind are still fresh, so you’d go in and you’d try to work them out sitting in with whoever you were working or playing with there.

TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.

BR: Right.  So now what you’re doing is going to classes and then going back and practicing from what you listened to from the class.

TP: Speaking of workshopping and finding solutions, we were listening to “Trinkle-Tinkle” with John Coltrane, and you said that Coltrane told you that performing with Monk just opened him up, because…

BR: Opened him up.  The expression that he used is, “it was like opening the door, stepping into the room, and there was no floor.”  [LAUGHS] He left all of this for you to fill up.  He framed the door for you.  When you open it now, you’re there; do what you’re supposed to do.  You find the things that you want to fit into this room.

TP: You were also talking about Shadow Wilson’s contribution on this date and how difficult it is to play so simply.

BR: Well, the way Shadow thought, because he played a lot of big bands and played a lot of shows… In those days, when I first started playing, when you worked in a club you played for a shake dancer, a singer, maybe tap dancing, then you played a couple of tunes for dancing, and then maybe a couple of tunes for just listeners.  So you had the full scope.  You had to do like a vaudeville show plus.  I played Latin music with Latin groups, because Willie Bobo and I used to hang out…

TP: Talk about those experiences.

BR: Well, Bobo at the time was a young man from the Bronx, and he liked to play the regular drums, and I was interested in timbales, so we kind of showed each other different little things, and then we’d hang out together and go listen to different people.  This was all educational.  Like Sonny Rollins said to me one day, “When you’re humming walking down the street, you’re practicing.”  So you never really stop practicing if you’re still thinking music all the time, so that means you’re always practicing.

TP: You were also talking about the value of playing quietly, and yet swinging with intensity.

BR: In those days, the best jobs that were consistent were supper clubs, so you’d be in there five weeks or six weeks.  In order to get those jobs, you had to develop a touch, or they wouldn’t let you in the room because of the diners there.  Today you can play in different rooms with diners, and they will get annoyed, but it wouldn’t be the same situation.  When I came around, you couldn’t work in the room if you were loud.  They wouldn’t even allow you to work in the room.  So I had to develop a touch with… Actually, I started with Mary Lou Williams playing brushes and sock cymbal.  That’s all she would let me bring to the gig.  So I had to develop what I could out of those brushes and that sock cymbal.  Then eventually she let me bring the drums in, so now it was determined that I was going to play with sticks.  There were only two drummers that were allowed to play with sticks in that room, and Ed Thigpen was one and Ed Shaughnessy…not Ed Shaughnessy… Oh, boy, I’m looking at his face and I can’t call his name.  He played with Woody Herman, too.  Well, it will come back to me.

TP: Which room was this?

BR: This was a room called the Composer.  And you had to really get a touch to play with sticks in this room.  I was determined that I had to play with sticks, so that’s why I developed the technique I did with cymbals; because I was determined that I was going to play with sticks in that room.

TP: You mentioned, Ben Riley, that 1956 was the year you started working professionally.

BR: Yes, more or less.  Because I took jobs, where I took people’s places.  Guys would call me, or say, “could you work an hour for me on one set?” or do this, and I’d do that.  But professionally I started in ’56.  The job was at the Composer with Randy Weston.  And then I worked at Cy Coleman’s club down the street.  So I was making that circuit…

TP: So you were working the supper club circuit first.

BR: The supper club thing, yeah.  And the Hotel Astor had a lounge where I worked with a trio, and we’d play all the Broadway show music.  That’s where I got the knowledge of a lot of different songs, because we had to play them for all these matinees.

TP: And all the time you’re playing on the weekends in a Latin band, and after-hours the hard swing, doing the whole thing.

BR: Yeah.  Just hanging and learning and going to different places, watching different people — just learning.

TP: The next set begins with Art Blakey, and I know you have a few things to say about Buhaina.

BR: Oh, Bu and I…

TP: Well, I know you can’t repeat most of them, but we can figure out something to say.

BR: [LAUGHS]  Oh, yes.  Well, Bu was marvelous.  He was always encouraging.  He was the type guy that he would always come around, and you would know whether you were on it or not because he would say something to let you know.  Papa Jo Jones was the same way.  Papa Jo Jones would never say nothin’ when you came off the bandstand.  He’d just stand there, and you’d stand there and thank him for coming.  He’d say, “Oh, okay, I have to run now,” and he’d put a  dime next to you and run out.”  That means, “Call me.”  [LAUGHS] Yeah, and then I’ll tell you what I have to tell you on the phone.

TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.

BR: Always.  Always.

[MUSIC: Jazz Messengers, “Witch Doctor” (1960); Philly Joe, “Stablemates” (1959)]

TP: What are you going to say about Philly Joe Jones, Ben Riley?

BR: Well, what I used to say is Kenny Clarke with more technique.

TP: Explain.

BR: He lived with Kenny for a long time, so some of his earlier things, if you listen to them, are set up like Klook, and then he just extended.  Like, he took his Wilcoxsen book, and with his great knack for doing… I guess over time he took some stuff from Buddy Rich, too, that he incorporated.  Because Philly just was a multi-talented person.  He understood so many different things and so many different styles of life, and it all comes out in his playing.  What I really loved about him were the surprises.  Just when you thought you had him pinned down, another surprise.  Like Art.  Art was… Boy, I don’t know how to describe Art.  Whatever music that you brought to him, it sounded like he helped you write it.

TP: People say he had the type of memory where he’d hear something once through…

BR: One time.

TP: …and then he’d interpret it…

BR: Interpret it, right.  Then he’d make it bigger than maybe what the writer thought about doing with it.

TP: Well, a lot of tunes certainly sound different when done with the Messengers than…

BR: In other bands, right.  Because of his character and what he felt about what was going on.  Art just had the knack of really knowing where to be at the right time.

TP: It seems to me that another thing about Art Blakey is that he would always play something different behind every soloist, and it would always be appropriate.

BR: That’s right.

TP: You were mentioning this in terms of Kenny Clarke as well.BR: Well, if you really listen to most of the…all of the great drummers, each of the soloists coming up, there’s always a change.  It’s subtle, and if you’re not really listening, you don’t hear it.  But all of the great drummers did that.  And all of the great bands had that kind of situation.  As I was saying when Art was playing, he could have been the greatest Rock drummer in the world if that’s what he wanted to be.  Because that’s the type of person he was.  Whatever he jumped on, it was going to be great, and you knew it was going to be great.  But his band, or all of those bands, the ensemble was so important!  They made sure that those things worked.  Never mind the individualism.  They made sure that the band sounded good.  That’s why these records today sound like they were recorded this week.

TP: You mentioned big bands, but we’ve been playing all small groups.

BR: Small groups.

TP: That’s primarily the material we’ll be playing.  Were you influenced by big band drums?  Were you interested in that?

BR: Oh, yes.  Well, the first guy was Sonny Greer.  I was really impressed with him because I had never seen anybody with chimes and tympanies and white tuxedo, down at the theater… That just knocked me out, because my mind couldn’t even grasp all of this.  I started listening to Duke, and what he was doing, and then to Basie’s band because of Papa Jo…

TP: And then Shadow Wilson.

BR: Then Shadow, right.  Well, Shadow between Basie and Woody’s band.  I played with Woody’s band for a short span of time, and Woody said to me that one of the best drummers that ever played with his band was Shadow.  But Shadow, Osie Johnson, all of those guys understood the nuances of accompanying.  And until you really understand that, I don’t think you step off as fast as you want to, because there’s something missing.  Because you have to learn how to help before you can go out and do it all on your own, you know.  I think a couple of bands today are beginning to get that sound.   As I think we discussed this before, all those bands we’ve listened to made people want to dance, whereas today not many bands make you want to get up and dance.  That’s what’s missing in our so-called Jazz music.  They don’t make you want to dance, whereas Disco and Rock music have people dancing.  That’s what we were doing when I started up, man.  People would get up and actually dance.  So we’re kind of missing that a little bit, making the people want to dance.

TP: Well, when you were playing with Thelonious Monk I’m sure you saw him do a dance or two…

BR: Yeah, everybody wanted to dance!  I’ve seen people get up and dance.  Because we struck some grooves some nights that I wanted to get up and dance!

TP: In the next set we’ll hear the beginning of Ben Riley’s recorded career, and your rather long association with one of the great tenor pairings ever, Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.  How did that come about for you?

BR: I met Griff at Newport. I was playing with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley and Ray Bryant.  John was doing a solo, and they said, “Look, you guys play with Griffin on this next set.”  So we all frowned because we didn’t want to play “Cherokee,” nobody wanted to play “Cherokee,” and it was like 99 in the shade out there in Newport.  Griffin said, “Oh, no, we’re not going to play anything fast; we’re just going in to play…”  He started off very well, we played three songs, and it was beautiful — and then we got it!  “Cherokee” for the fourth and final song. So all of this led up to he and I talking.  And I never knew that he really was listening to me that closely, so I just assumed that we’d see each other somewhere along down the way.  When Lockaw and Griff formed this band, they had Victor Sproles, Norman Simmons and a young drummer from Boston, Clifford Jarvis, a beautiful drummer.  Whatever happened, I don’t know, I can’t remember offhand, but Griffin called me and said, “Look, we have a band.  Come on down.  We’re rehearsing down at Riverside Rehearsal Halls.”  So I said, “Okay.”   So I came down, and it was very strange, because Lockjaw and I didn’t hit it off at first at all.  We didn’t hit it off at all.  For some reason he was just cold.  I said, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m going to make this band.”  Griff was enthusiastic, but Lockjaw wasn’t.  So we made the rehearsal, and then we went into Birdland.  It was strange, because the first night we played… Maybe I might have been a little timid; I’m sure I must have been, because it was new for me.  And I had just left Nina Simone, so I was working with a singer.  So Griffin put this Art Blakey record on.  At 5 o’clock in the morning he calls up and said, “This is how it goes.”  He put the phone to this record, and it’s Art playing CHUNG-CHUNG-CHUNG, and the hi-hat is CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA.  I said, “You want CHUNG, huh?”,  and so I hung up on him, and the next night I came in — boy, I was blistering.  So boy, we played “Funky Fluke,” and I was CHUNG-CHUNKA-CHUNG-CHUNKA.  So he said, “Okay, okay, all right.”  I said, “I’ll give you CHUNG if you want CHUNG.”  So that’s when I really started…

TP: You got the mood.

BR: I got the mood, right.  Then after that, the next thing I know, Lock acted like he was my father, like he’s discovering me.  And we had a beautiful relationship, he and I and Griffin.  It was a great band.  I really enjoyed that band.

TP: A few words about Eddie Lockjaw Davis.  He seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians…

BR: Yeah, because he played differently.  As most guys used to say, he played backwards.

TP: What do they mean by that?

BR: Well, you would phrase it one way, he would just do it the opposite.  And he had that Ben Webster sound.  Well, he and Ben were great friends anyway, so I think Ben was one of his influences.  He just had a different way of expressing himself on the bandstand and off the bandstand.  If you didn’t know him, he would give you this rough exterior.  He was really a nice guy underneath, but he gave you this rough exterior all the time.  When I got to know him, I understood exactly where he was coming from.  You know, I found that with a lot of the older musicians that I got in close contact with were very shy people.  I never understood it, because for all this force and beauty they put out on the bandstand, when they came off, they just withdrew — or some of them.  It was strange to see these two different characters, you know.

TP: It was an interesting band in terms of the material as well.

BR: Yeah.

TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.

BR: Right.

TP: So you played a lot of Monk tunes.  He and Junior Mance were from Chicago, so there were a lot of shuffles and blues in the band…

BR: Well, Lock liked that, too, because he had the organ trio, and they played a lot of those things, too, with Shirley Scott and the drummer Arthur Edgehill.  It was a helluva trio that he had.  We played a lot of Lockjaw “Cookbook” things that were set up for the organ trio.  So we just switched it around and did it with the quintet.  Well, there was so much material to work with, that kept the band even more interesting.

TP: It was a very, very popular band.

BR: Right.

TP: And there were four LPs released from Minton’s.  Which brings up another point in the development of the music.  In the Fifties and Sixties, when you’d bring your band into Harlem, Detroit or Chicago, the audience would be…

BR: Chase you out!

TP: I’m sure that never happened with Lockjaw and Griffin.

BR: No.  We became real favorites at Minton’s.  I remember that big snowstorm in ’64 or something like that, my wife said, “No sense going to work tonight, because there’s this big blizzard.”  I said, “Look, I’m going to take the subway there and just stick my head in the door; if nothing’s happening, I can always come back on the subway.”  So I rode down on the subway, and I walked over, and when I opened the door I couldn’t see!  The place was filled.  So I had to call my wife up.  I said, “Don’t look for me back.  I can’t hardly get in the club!”  It was loaded.  We just had fun with the audience, the audience had fun — it was a fun band.  And the music we played, you wanted to dance.  We had some intricate things, but mostly it made you want to get up and dance.  And that happy feeling is what really made those bands of that day.  Horace had those kind of things that made you want to get up and dance.  The Messengers, dance music.  It was still slick, but it was dancing slick.

TP: The first track by Lockjaw and Griffin is from the Minton’s series, The Midnight Show.  How late did you go?  Four or five sets?

BR: Four o’clock.

TP: Last set ended at 4.

BR: Yeah.  Teddy Hill used to say, “Start on time and end on time, and whatever you do in the middle is your business.” [LAUGHS]

TP: 9 to 4.

BR: Yes.

TP: Were there still after-hour sessions at that point?

BR: Yes.

TP: Where were some of those?

BR: Well, one was right downstairs.  Then there was another down a couple of blocks.  So there was always somewhere to play.  Uptown they had turned one floor of a parking garage into an after-hours spot.  So you had somewhere to go all the time.

[MUSIC: Griff-Lockjaw, “In Walked Bud” (1961), “Funky Fluke” (1961); Griff, “The Last Of The Fat Pants” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “John S” (1962)]

TP: Ben Riley tells us that the group saw “John S” in the studio on the day of the session, and ran it down.  And that was a complicated piece!  You said it drove people crazy trying to count it.

BR: Yeah, because of the odd measures in the end.  It kind of threw everybody, as well as it threw us off for a moment — but it worked.

TP: It certainly sounded comfortable for you, but I’m sure you made it sound that way.

BR: Well, you know, what happens is, when you’re working with guys that are really up on what they’re doing, your job becomes a little easier, because now you only have to worry about yourself, and not worry about anyone else.

TP: “John S” was from The Bridge.  Preceding that we heard a Johnny Griffin composition “Last of The Fat Pants” from a 1961 Riverside date with Bill Lee and Larry Gales on basses, and Ben Riley on drums.  You were featured on the mallets, a particular pattern.  What do you remember about that record?  I know you hadn’t heard it for a while.

BR: Nothing. [LAUGHS] Well, John and Lock did some different things.  I didn’t bring that other album…

TP: The Kerry Dancers.

BR: Yeah, The Kerry Dancers, and then Lockjaw did Afro-Jaws, and we did one other thing.  So it was like another band within the band.  Griff wanted to try these other little things, so this was the result of some of the things that we did with him.  I forget where he got the idea to use the two basses, but it was a very interesting date.

TP: A very prolific period for Griffin, who did about eight records for Riverside, plus all the two-tenor sessions.

BR: That’s right.

TP: Speaking of the two-tenor duo, we heard “Funky Fluke,” a Benny Green composition that was just roaring!

BR: Roaring!

TP: You said that was slower than what you played in the club, but that’s hard to believe.

BR: I don’t remember playing faster with anyone else than this band.  This band played so fast sometimes it was unbelievable.

TP: How do you swing at a tempo like that?  That’s hard to do.

BR: What I did, I never watched my hands.  I always tried to keep in touch with the guys playing.  I would never look at what I was doing, because it was just, to me, insane trying to play this fast.  But it worked.

TP: I guess having a very percussive pianist like Junior Mance…

BR: Made it easier, yeah.  There again we get to the same thing.  When you’re matched up with peers that are your peers and better, it’s much easier on you, because now you have to take care of yourself, and everyone else is taking care of themself plus adding to what each other is doing.  I think that’s one of the beauties of music for me, is to be able to help enhance someone else’s idea and someone else’s creativity.

TP: Well, no one does that better than Ben Riley.  The bassist in that group is someone you associated with for years.

BR: For years.

TP: Because he was with Thelonious Monk, was he not, at the time when you joined the band.

BR: No, no.  I hired him.

TP: Well, let’s be chronological.  You went from the Lockjaw-Griffin band to Sonny Rollins.

BR: Yes.  I had known Sonny, not socially, but we knew each other from being in the neighborhood.  But he never associated me with playing, because he had never heard me or never seen me play.  All he remembered was me playing basketball or seeing me out on the street.  Jim Hall and he were working down at a club in Brooklyn, the Baby Grand, and I was in the theater with, strangely enough, Aretha Franklin and Cleanhead Vinson.  Miles was on that gig, but I was working with Aretha and Cleanhead.  Jim came down to the theater to catch one of the shows, and he said, “Look, I’m working down the street.  When you get off, come down and sit in with us.”  So I said, “Okay, I’ll be down.  I don’t know about sitting in, but I’ll be down.”  I came down, and Jim said, “Sonny, this is Ben Riley.”  Sonny looked at me and said, “I know who he is, but I never associated you as being Ben Riley the drummer.”  So he said, “Come over and play.”  I said, “Okay.”  So we went up and we played.  So he says, “I’m doing a recording, and I’d like you to come and finish the date with me tomorrow.”  He said, “Do you think Lock would mind?”  I said, “I really don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I’ll call him.”  So he called Lock and told him that we were doing this session. So I got down to RCA, and we started running over some of the music and recording.  When we halfway finished, he said, “Look, I’m going to California, and I would like for you to go.”  I said, “Well, we’re due in Washington or Baltimore to do a show.”  He said, “Well, do you think Lock would let you go after you finish the gig in Philly?” — or wherever it was.  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ll ask him.”  He said, “Let me call.”  So he called, and Lock said, “Okay,” and Griffin loved it, he said it was wonderful.  But Lock didn’t like that too well!  But I still made the gig, and I worked almost a year with Sonny.

TP: What was it like being on the road with Sonny Rollins back there.  It was shortly after he had come back from his hiatus.

BR: Right.  And we were doing The Bridge; the title song became “The Bridge.”  Actually, what it turned out was like a fanfare into a solo, and it was working so well that he kept it in, and it became the bridge.  What was interesting, we went to California by train.  It was the first time they had the sleeping quarters.  So we rehearsed going out to California in one of the sleeping quarters every day.  That kept it from being boring, plus it got the band much tighter together.  By the time we got to California, we really had a good idea of what we wanted to do.

TP: It must have been a great reception for the band, with Sonny Rollins emerging from retirement.

BR: Oh yeah, it was wonderful.  It was really great, because we had three sets and we had three changes.  So we had a suit, sports outfit and tuxedos.  We’d open in tuxedos, and by the end of the night we’d have a sports ensemble on.  So every night we had three changes.

TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!

BR: I guess it made the music wonderful, too, because every time you came in, even if we played the same song, we looked different!

TP: Well, Sonny Rollins was exploring all sorts of musical ideas and configurations at that time…

BR: Yes, he was.  Because at the time we got to San Francisco, Don Cherry had joined us toward the end of the engagement, and he didn’t come directly back east with us, but he had played with us out there.  I think this is when Sonny was getting ready to touch that part of the music.  I left when we got back, which was almost a year, and then Billy Higgins and Don Cherry joined the band after that.

TP: That became the band where Sonny really stretched the form to its limits, just about.

BR: That’s right, yeah.

TP: What happens then between you leaving Sonny Rollins in early 1963 maybe, and then joining Thelonious Monk?

BR: Well, what happened is, I went to California with somebody like Paul Winter.  I met Cannonball in San Francisco.  He said, “What are you doing here?”  I said, “I’m playing with…” whoever it was at the time.  He said, “Miles has been trying to locate you; he wanted you in the band.”  I said, “No kidding!”  So I called my wife, and she said, “Some guy with a scruffy voice called here, and I was getting ready to tell him where you were, and he hung up on me.”  So I imagine that had to be Miles.  I wasn’t home at the time when he called, so he hung up.   I got back to New York, and I went to work with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior at the Five Spot, opposite Thelonious.  So I was in there like six weeks opposite Monk.  Every night Monk would come in, and he’d look, and he’d see me, and he’d keep walking.  So the sixth week, when I was in there with the third group, he came by that night and looked up and said, “Who are you, the house drummer?” — and kept going.  That was the first two words he had spoken to me through the whole engagement. We closed on a Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rings, and it’s Bobby Colomby…not Bobby, but Jules…not Jules…Harry Colomby.  He says, “I’m representing Thelonious, and we’re at Columbia doing a record date; we’re going to finish the date, and I’d like for you to come in.” I hung up, because I thought it was somebody with a joke.  So they called back and said, “No, this is serious; we’re here waiting.”  So I got in a cab and went down.  He still didn’t speak to me.  So I set up the drums, and as soon as he did that, he just started playing.  So when the date was over, I’m packing up, he says, “Do you need any money?”  I said, “No, I can wait for the check.”  He said, “I don’t want anybody in my band being broke.”  He says, “Do you have your passport?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Well, we’re leaving Friday; I suggest you go get it.:

TP: That was it?

BR: I was in the band!

TP: Those were your first words with him, or did you know him before?

BR: Well, I never spoke to him before.  We nodded, because I was in all these places that he was working, but we never spoke.

TP: Do you remember when you first heard Monk play?

BR: A record.  I had “Carolina Moon” with Max Roach.  It fascinated me so much, I used to play it all the time.  And it was the first record that my mother came in and said, “Now, I like that.”

TP: Did you hear Monk in person?  Did you go to the Five-Spot?

BR: Yeah, I went to the Five-Spot.

TP: So you dug the music and…

BR: Oh yeah.  When I first heard “Carolina Moon”… Actually, when I was working opposite him, it just dawned on me, I said, “This is my next band.”  I just felt that that was going to be it for me.  Then when Frankie left, I was there.

TP: I guess throughout the 1960’s you were in the bands of two of the great New York born imitators, Sonny Rollins and Monk!

BR: Well, Monk was from North Carolina, now.

TP: Okay.  And you’re from Savannah, but all right, thank you.  We’ll talk more about Thelonious Monk with Ben Riley after we play a set of music carefully hand-picked by Ben Riley.  We’ll begin with “Shuffle Boil” from It’s Monk’s Time on Columbia.  You said this is a piece that drives bass players crazy, because it’s such a strange line that he has to play.

BR: Oh, it drove us crazy.  This is my first recording with him also.

TP: This is the one that he called you to?

BR: Yes.  Is Butch Warren the bassist?

TP: Butch Warren.

BR: Butch Warren, right, and Monk and Charlie.  See, I knew Charles when he had Julius Watkins had a band.  I knew Charles from uptown, Charles knew who I was, you know.  We had been friends for a while. After this particular job, we went to Europe.  There was like 4500 people in this little theater we worked in, and the first tune he played was “Don’t Blame Me,” unaccompanied by himself, and then he got up from the piano and said “Drum solo.”  So I’m trapped here.  I have to play a drum solo.  But I had been playing in the supper clubs with brushes for all those years.  So when he said, “Drum solo,” I just immediately played the song with the brushes.  So as we were going to the dressing room, he walked alongside of me and said, “How many people do you know who would have been able to do that?”  That was the first test that I had to go through.  I didn’t know I was going through all these tests, and that was my first.  I passed that one by being able to play “Don’t Blame Me” with brushes.

TP: Playing quietly in the sup per clubs paid off.

BR: Yeah, I started out in supper clubs doing that, so it was much easier than I thought it would have been.  It took the edge off for me, because now I was more comfortable and more relaxed when that happened.

TP: Would Monk spring new tunes on you or would he give you a chance to rehearse?

BR: That was the beauty of it.  He would only play what he thought you could handle.  Then once he was assured that you could handle that, he would move on.  But he never would try to embarrass you.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Shuffle Boil” (1964), “Oska T” (1963), “We See” (1967)]

TP: You can hear Ben was much more relaxed with Monk in 1967, playing more fills and so forth.

BR: Well, what happens is that you get used to the time.  He deals greatly with time, so you have to learn spacing and where to put things.  I always wanted to make things move as smoothly as possible, so I would be sparing until I felt I could interject something that wouldn’t disrupt what was happening.

TP: Had you been checking out Frankie Dunlop with Monk in the years previous?

BR: Well, if you’ll notice, the first record I kind of played a little like Frankie, because I wasn’t really sure of what to do, so I kind of tried to use Frankie as a framework for what I was doing.  Then after that I moved away from Frankie’s style of playing.

TP: What you mentioned on “Oska T” was that Frankie Dunlop was out-Monking Monk.

BR: Yeah.

TP: What did you mean by that?

BR: Frankie got so inside Thelonious that he could anticipate what Thelonious was going to play before Thelonious played it.  So he would play it first sometimes.  It was really something to see the both of them in action.  It was a great thrill for me all the time to watch and listen to them.

TP: What was distinct about Monk as a pianist you had to accompany on drums?

BR: He left things out that normally people would play.  He wouldn’t play them, and he’d leave it there for you to deal with.  Either you use the space or you put something in there.  I developed like a little sense of humor playing the time.  I tried to do little cute things to make up for maybe three beats that I wouldn’t acknowledge in certain instances.  Learning from him how to incorporate those things has made it so that I think I have some sense of humor in my playing now.

TP: Monk was building really on the basics of African-American music, a lot of shuffles…

BR: Shuffles, right.

TP: …and church type of things.  Talk a bit about his sources.

BR: Well, you know, he used to play for an evangelist, so he played the tents and all those kind of things.  He played the houses that they gave the rent parties in.  He played all those things.  So he had great knowledge of how to be a soloist, and then he incorporated all that in with the other three people.  So this is what you get from him.  You get a whole history of different things.  He would never say “Stride,” but it even sounded like Stride piano in some instances.

TP: I take it he would not play it the same way two nights in a row ever.

BR: Not the same tempo.  That’s what made his music so interesting all the time.  Because every time you’d think you had it, he would change the tempo, so now you had to figure out another way to do the thing that you did the night before, because that won’t fit tonight — not at that tempo.  He was a great one for playing in between meters.  He once said to me, “Most people can only play three tempos, slow, fast, medium and fast.”  He played in between all of those!

TP: That gig lasted how long?

BR: Almost five years.

TP: From 1964 to 1969…

BR: I want to apologize, because I had all of these drummers that I wanted to… Roy, Elvin, Billy Higgins, all these people that have come through some of the things that I came through who I wanted to present today.  When I come back, I’ll start from that, so we can get all these fine people in.

TP: Next is a Freddie Redd recording for Uptown called Lonely City, featuring the late Clifford Jordan and C. Sharp.

BR: That’s one of the reasons why I brought that, because I hadn’t had a chance to really listen to it, but it was such a wonderful day to be with those two gentlemen, and I felt that I should play that.  And George Duvivier, one of my most favorite bass players.  This is tricky music.

[MUSIC: Freddie Redd, “After The Show” (1985); Red Garland, Strike Up The Band “Receipt, Please” (1979)]

TP: Say a few words about recent activities.  You and Kenny Barron have had an ongoing association since the formation of Sphere, and last night you did a recording session with Roberta Flack.

BR: With Roberta Flack last night, yes.  We did three tunes on her album yet to be named or finished.  Also we’re doing a series of concerts.  We’re doing one Sunday with Ravi Coltrane, and then next week we go to Buffalo for three days, and then we go to Europe for ten days.

[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]


Filed under Ben Riley, Drummer, WKCR

For Master Composer-Drummer (and Trombonist-Pianist) Tyshawn Sorey’s 37th Birthday, two interviews from 2007, a DownBeat Players Article from that Year, and a Blindfold Test from 2014

Since 2007, when I spoke with Tyshawn Sorey on WKCR and then had a more comprehensive discussion for a DownBeat “Players” piece, the master composer-drummer (and trombonist-pianist) has grown into an international force in creative music, not to mention a Ph.D and a new appointment as Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University. This post, in honor of Sorey’s 37th birthday, contains the two interviews, the “directors’ cut” Players piece that stemmed from the interviews, and an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2014.


Tyshawn Sorey (Downbeat Players Article):

Last May, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, playing with a quartet led by Muhal Richard Abrams, orchestrated the flow with utter self-assurance and, without really trying to do so, stole the show. After an opening salvo in which Sorey propelled tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and bassist Brad Jones with ferocious dialogical rubato, Abrams entered the mix, mimicking and morphing Sorey’s rhythms, then warp-gearing into an intervallically ambitious solo. A powerful crescendoing Abrams-Sorey duo ensued—Sorey hit a freebop groove, placing texturally contrasting accents on the toms and snare, while stating a a crisp 4/4 on the ride cymbal. Abrams gave way, and Sorey wound down to stillness, bowed his cymbals to extract harmonics, stopped, deliberately took apart his crash cymbal and reassembled it so that the concave bottoms faced outward, elicited more harmonics, transformed his body and the floor into percussion instruments, then reestablished a tempo with sturm und drang on the bass and snare drums.

It was only Sorey’s second engagement with Abrams, who thereby joined a distinguished list of speculative composer-bandleaders—among them, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill—eager to deploy the 27-year-old drummer’s unique skill sets.

“He reminded me of Art Tatum right away,” said Coleman, recalling his first formal encounter with Sorey at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery several years ago. “Very prodigy-like.”

Tatum is not a reference often applied even to the immortal musicians of the timeline, much less a drummer just out of college, so Coleman elaborated.

“Tyshawn is an ultra-quick learner,” he said. “Usually people who read that well don’t have great memories, and vice-versa, but he has both. He’s very well-schooled, but doesn’t have a schooled sound. Very individual player. Few cliches. He knows traditional stuff, but he’s unpredictable. When he came to the band, he was talking about Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Axium writings, the Schillinger system, Muhal,  and Stockhausen. He’s the opposite of the Young Lion image, more like a guy who would fit in during the loft scene days, but with much more command of structure than most guys who were psychologically on that thing. He can handle any structure I ever could dream up, nail any rhythm and make it fit, and at the same time get wild on it. Sometimes he goes overboard, like snow rolling down a hill that becomes an avalanche; if a top was spinning on a table, he’d tilt the table to upset the equilibrium. You have to know you’re getting that when you hire him.”

Iyer, who recruited Sorey for his group Fieldwork in 2002, cosigned the Tatum comparison. “He has perfect pitch and seemingly total recall,” he said. “My first session with him, we were trying a new piece with stuff that even I couldn’t really execute. He looked at the page for a half-minute and gave it back. Because he hears at that level, he can be creative in any situation, and he never holds back. He can engage with anybody and spin it all into gold.”

“Steve gives very specific rhythmic instructions, and I try to be creative with that information,” said Sorey, who toured with Coleman last summer in a two-drumset ensemble with fellow wunderkind Marcus Gilmore, and played with Iyer at this year’s Vision Festival. “For example, I’ll use my hands to play a rhythm that was initially assigned to my feet, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something completely away from that rhythm, figure it out metrically, and do whatever I want. I’m interested in sound itself, not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage. I want to hear the sound of the rhythm on the drumset and feel its beauty. I want to transcend the instrument. That keeps it interesting to me and the listener—and the musicians.”

Out of Newark, New Jersey, Sorey in his teens was gigging in club bands and units associated with various ministries in the vicinity of his home town when he discovered Abrams’ 1968 Delmark recording Levels and Degrees of Light.

“That turned my world upside-down,” said Sorey, whose polymath influence tree includes John Bonham, Michael Shreve, and Mitch Mitchell; Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modaliste; Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams; Kenny Washington, Jeff Watts, Joey Baron and Jim Black. “I play piano, trombone, and mallet instruments, and the concept of multi-instrumentalism intrigued me. I checked out electronic music and music by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage—through Cage, I eventually stretched to the point where pretty much anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I listened to the sounds Andrew Cyrille experimented with on recordings with Cecil Taylor, also the direction the AACM guys took with form, Coltrane’s later music with Rashied Ali, recordings of Albert Ayler, even the music from Buddhist sermons. I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation, what it means to have a relationship with the musicians and how this manifests through the music itself.”

These days, Sorey tries “to find my own terms”on those ideas while composing for several ensembles, including a quartet that recorded in May for Firehouse 12.

“I want to keep the audience guessing,  and not label me as some free jazz guy, or some textural guy, or some guy who is crazy and can do all these things,” he said. “No matter what style of music I’m playing I want people to say, ‘That’s Tyshawn Sorey.’ That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.”


Tyshawn Sorey (WKCR, April 26, 2007):

TP: You mentioned that Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light was an important signpost for you, as were other AACM recordings in developing musical ideas and strategies. How did you come to them? Many people your age would have had neither access to nor awareness of that music. I find it interesting that you’re a guy who went through the jazz conservatory system and learned a broad timeline of jazz drumming, and also has these non-idiomatic interests.

SOREY: In fact, a lot of the jazz language I studied myself coming up. Even before high school, I learned how to improvise. This is when I was maybe 12 years old. One of the first tunes I learned actually growing up was Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”; it’s one of the first things I learned how to improvise on. My teacher exposed me at that time to all kinds of different music—the music of Miles Davis and the music of John Coltrane.  Much of my jazz influence comes from them.

TP:   This was as a kid in Newark?

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Who was this teacher?

SOREY:   He passed away some time ago. His name was Michael Cupolo, and he was a jazz-blues type of saxophonist coming up. I guess all of my curiosity spread from there, and checking out a lot of things by Max Roach…because Max Roach was one of the very first people I checked out at all in this music. It intrigued me from the moment I started listening to his music, and listening to Drums Unlimited and things like that. Around the age of 16 or 17, I started becoming curious about other facets of jazz music. It’s funny, because when I was younger, I started out listening to a lot of early jazz—like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Freddie Keppard, all this type of stuff. So I was into checking out a lot of the experimental music. I wasn’t necessarily interested in focusing on one particular facet of jazz music. So that was one problem I wanted to conquer, and the way to do that was to listen to other musics from other composers and other musicians and other facets of the music that brought my playing level to where it is today.

In checking out Muhal’s recording, that was one of the earliest awakenings for me. That was one of the first experimental records I’ve gotten to check out. It opened the door for me towards expanding my sound source, going beyond just the drumset. I am also a multi-instrumentalist. I play piano as well as trombone and mallet instruments. The concept of multi-instrumentalism is what really intrigued me, and it really made me want to explore that more in my music.

So I became a composer at around 14, and then around the time I checked out Muhal’s record, my whole world turned upside-down basically, and then also through studying out of different books about the AACM and on the AACM, and things which mentioned…

TP:   Which books?

SOREY:   I don’t remember the names of the books. This was ten years ago.

TP:   There aren’t that many.

SOREY:   Yes, not that many at all. In fact, I was checking out more music… That’s how I learned more about the AACM, was through checking out liner notes. Checking out a lot of John Coltrane from his later period at this point, things like Ascension and Meditations and Expression and things like that.

TP:   The things that Rashied Ali was playing drums on.

SOREY:   Right. Checking out mostly that. It got me to become a lot more open to what I was listening to at that time. Because at that time, I was very much wanting to play jazz and then do the experimental thing on the side, or something like that. I was very naive.

TP:   You were compartmentalizing the different approaches.

SOREY:   Right. I was very naive about that. Now it’s to the point where pretty much everything I do, no matter what genre of music I play, it’s going to show anyway, the nature of what I like to do.

TP:   But you do play different genres. You play with musicians who use very specific beat structures that are out of the sphere of mainstream jazz. Vijay Iyer uses extended cycles, and so on. Then you play this rubato, texture, open improvisation as well. Is it all the same to you? Is it a holistic concept? Do you enter different areas of thought process in dealing with the different demands?

SOREY:   Never. In fact, in any type of music that I’m playing, no matter who the composer is or anything like that, I always try to put as much of myself into that art as I can. Now, within reason, of course—within the context. But if I’m playing Vijay’s music or Steve Coleman’s music, or if I’m playing in a straight-ahead context, or if I’m doing anything, I generally want to express my individuality as much as possible, and therefore, everything…all of the influence carried out by their work… Therefore, all of that becomes one thing to me. I never try to compartmentalize anything, whenever I’m playing any type of music.

TP:   Are you composing from the perspective of a drummer, or sometimes as a drummer and sometimes more theoretically? How does it play out?

SOREY:   It’s more theoretical than anything. As I told you, I play piano and trombone. Whenever I’m writing my music, especially now, I’m writing for those instruments and I’m writing for the people who I happen to be working with. I never try to  write from a drummer’s perspective, just because for me, the tendency to write with that kind of perspective would be to write something that’s around something that I know how to do already, and I like having the ability to challenge myself as an improviser as a constant challenge. No matter what type of music I play, I strictly try to challenge myself based on whatever I write, whether it’s open or whether it’s metrical or whatever it is. I’m not necessarily writing anything to be difficult or anything to be simple or anything like that. I’m just interested in writing good music that expresses my life experience, and hopefully that will uplift others. That’s my interest. So I don’t really write with the kind of thought process a normal musician probably would. For example, if I were to write something in some kind of meter that I know how to play and I can do all kinds of things on, I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’d rather get more into my own approach and into my playing, and not necessarily into information that I already know about. I don’t really want to do that.

This next track is from my most recent project, Oblique, which ended on January 31, 2007. This concert dates from July 2005 at the now-defunct CB’s Lounge. This band features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brian Klachner on guitar, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Russ Lossing on keyboards, and myself on drums.

TP:   In speaking of drum influences, you mentioned Rashied Ali, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Let’s discuss more how you’ve assimilated drum influences into your sound and what those influences mean to you at this point.

SOREY:   Basically, any drummer who is willing to push the envelope and is willing to push himself and his values as an improviser, I am interested in listening to. Elvin and Rashied, of course, are two of those people. Also a great drummer who I have admired for the last 2½-3 years is John McLellan, who plays in a lot of ensembles led by Mat Maneri and different people like that. It’s amazing to me, as much as I hear about him, I don’t ever get to see him perform live. I only got to see him perform live once at the 55 Bar with Ben Gerstein. He’s not a drummer, in my opinion…

TP:   Are you mostly interested in drummers who are “not drummers”?

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   What is a drummer who isn’t a drummer?

SOREY:   A drummer who isn’t a drummer, in my opinion, is one who transcends the instrument into something else he wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. As I said, I’m a piano player as well, so whenever I play drums I try to think of another instrument besides a drum or tapping out a rhythm. Again, this is dealing in context rather than just as one thing. I could approach it as a pianist, because I’ve listened to a lot of pianists, a lot of piano players and a lot of piano music coming up. So in checking all that out, it carried over into everything I do now on the drums. Even when I’m playing rhythmic things, I try to think like a pianist, and try to think about something other than the drums. Because if I think about the drums, it’s going to sound a little too…I don’t want to say “normal,” but it will sound very typical. It’s a very typical way of thinking in the music today, and right now we have many younger musicians who are trying to transcend their instruments into something else. That’s what makes their music so fascinating to me, is the fact that they are able to do that. John McClellan, of course, in my opinion, is not really, like, a drummer per se, not one who plays the normal role. For me, I’m not really interested in playing any one particular role at all, no matter what music I do.

TP:   Let me ask about some of the musicians you’ve worked with. Vijay Iyer, for example. How did working with those structures affect your thinking? What were the challenges of that gig?

SOREY: Interestingly, I’d been studying South Indian concepts, a lot of different rhythmic concepts based on mathematics and different forms of creating rhythm, before I met Vijay, and getting into the so-called “odd time signatures” and things like that. This was years before I met Vijay.

TP:   So grappling with those structures in itself wasn’t such a challenging thing.

SOREY:   It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was a challenge on my values as an improviser.

TP:   Why?

SOREY:   For several reasons, one being ensemble interplay, which I think… Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to some early recordings that I did with them before we recorded the album Blood Sutra, some four years ago, and I was listening to things we’d done before then… I felt the need to really mature in my work, and to know what I want out of music, as opposed to just playing the music and sounding killing and this and that. I wasn’t necessarily interested in that…

TP:   Come on. You want to sound killing!

SOREY:   [LAUGHS] There’s some truth to that. But in fact, that wasn’t really my goal, that wasn’t really my purpose for making music. I was more interested in why am I doing this, why do I want to go in this direction, what brings me to this direction, why am I here? These are the kinds of things I was asking myself.

TP:   Working out those issues with music.

SOREY:   Exactly. It came from life experience, and that was the answer for me.

TP:   So performing in that band helped you along that path. How about performing in conductions with Butch Morris?

SOREY:   Butch is actually one of the first people to take me to Europe. I was very honored to have been a part of that.  Working with Butch, again, made me question my overall value in music and what I want to get out of music, rather than what I want to present—what I can get out of it for myself. Working with Butch has led me to think very differently as an improviser in having many different vocabularies attached to my playing. It was a growing period for me. At that time, when I was listening to music and when I was playing all of this music, I would play in I guess you would say so-called “free jazz” situations where I felt something was missing from my playing. I felt that there were a lot of strong points that I had within me that needed to be expressed, and the way that started getting expressed was from working with Butch—different vocabularies and different ways of improvising as opposed to just one way all the time. If you hear a saxophone player play a certain figure, you don’t necessarily have to follow that figure. Which now I don’t really like the whole call-and-response thing (or the cat-and-mouse thing) so much now. It was working with Butch, for example, that led me to start thinking about these different ways of improvising.

TP:   Now, call-and-response is one of the fundamental vocabulary tropes of jazz.

SOREY:   That’s right.

TP:   What’s unsatisfactory about it?

SOREY:   It’s not so much about what is unsatisfactory, but more or less what I am interested in. I am interested in all kinds of principles in music. Opposition…

TP:   So that, or not-that.

SOREY:   Exactly.

TP:   How about playing with Steve Coleman, who’s involved in ritual rhythms, where you’d need to extrapolate those ideas onto the drumset. In all three cases, you’re dealing with musicians for whom the interpretation of their music requires a great deal of discipline. Their music can’t be called free jazz…

SOREY: Exactly. Well, for me, all music has discipline. Whether it’s mine or if I’m playing an improvisation or whatever, all music has discipline in it.

Steve Coleman’s music has given me a great deal of discipline. Even working with Dave Douglas has given me a great deal of discipline to work with. I remember having lunch with Dave, and we were discussing my approach to solos and my approach to the band, and he asked me, “What do you want from this? What do you want from the music?” What I want from the music is a further understanding of myself through all the different ways possible. In working with Steve, not only rhythmically has it helped me become more advanced in terms of my drummer’s vocabulary in terms of so-called “independence” and “coordination” and things like that, but it’s also helped me to become interested in the study of other music, and appreciating the sound of whatever it is that he wrote out for the drumset. For example, if he were to give me a part with I-Ching symbols on it, and I were to interpret it, I would like to hear the sound of that now, as opposed to getting away from it and doing my own thing. I really want to hear the sound of it all and to feel the beauty of that, and what that sounds like. That’s one of the key things that’s helped me to focus my vocabulary a lot more on the rhythmic concept.

TP:   Do you play other percussion instruments? Do you incorporate them into your drumkit or your sound?

SOREY:   No. Usually I incorporate everything else that’s in the room! But I try not to bring any extra parts or anything like that.

TP:   No tambourine here, or castanets there…

SOREY:   Just a strict, regular type of drumset.

TP:   How many different projects are you leading now?

SOREY:   Three. Oblique is the one I’ve ended. There’s the Tysawn Sorey Quartet, which will be playing tonight. The Soto Velez Band, which premiered at the venue Clemente Soto Velez; we’ve premiered some work there. Another group is a quintet that I’m right now forming, doing a lot of my early work as a composer as well as later stuff.

TP:   How do they differ in content?

SOREY:   The quartet focuses on a lot of composed music as well as a lot of free improvisation. The Soto Velez Band is not as compositionally intense, but there’s a lot more improvisation in that than there is in the quartet. The quintet I’m forming right now deals with a lot of things based on chord structures and meters and so on.

TP:   Three very different fields of activity.

SOREY:   Yes.

TP:   Two-three years out, how do you see your activity divided up between your own projects, projects with other people, etc.?

SOREY:   Ultimately, I’d be interested in doing my own projects exclusively; that is, getting more opportunities to present my work. Which fortunately, at least for this half of the year, I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to present my music. I hope more will come my way, and I hope more of my work as a multifaceted composer and musician becomes recognizable.


Tyshawn Sorey (May 17, 2007):

TP:   I want to start with this concert you played with Muhal. Was it the first time you played with him?

TYSHAWN:   Just this past Friday? No.

TP:   How long have you been playing with him?

TYSHAWN:   This is the second concert we’ve done. I’d say it must have been… I guess we closed the last concert series, and now we’ve started this concert series. So four months or so.

TP:   So this year you started playing Muhal’s quartet music. Did Muhal find out about you through Aaron?

TYSHAWN:   He found out about me through Aaron k[Stewart]. Like I said in the other interview, Aaron was one of the first people who ever really exposed me to New York, exposed me to the scene. He basically took me in and was like a big brother to me. He introduced me to some of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I already knew something about, but he got me even more interested in the music. I met Muhal actually in Venice, when he and Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis were doing a concert. I met them at the Venice Biennale Festival in 2003 for the first time.

TP:   Who you’d known about since high school.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Are there any dynamics to playing with Muhal that were unique, or bring you out of… I realize that you don’t have a lot of habits, and you try hard to break any you might find yourself falling into. You asserted your  personality very strongly, but Muhal’s stuff is so strong that it was very ensemble-oriented anyway. He seemed to be orchestrating around you, in a sense. So it was a very interesting concert.

TYSHAWN:   I had a lot of fun. It  was a great experience for me. There’s something special about playing his music. While he lets the individual be himself in the music, there’s also an element of discipline, as I’ve said, in his music that’s very apparent, and it comes out very strongly just in terms of the players who I play with. I have the utmost respect for people like Aaron and Brad Jones and Muhal. For me, this is something that I was always interested in exploring, in terms of the ensemble interplay and the level of interplay we’ve gotten into. I’ve always been interested in that, and I was glad to be able to fit within it. I was surprised actually that I got the second call from Muhal. The first gig, which was a quintet project with Aaron, Howard Johnson, a bass player named Sadi(?), Muhal and myself… I was actually surprised that I got the second call, because I felt very bad about my contribution. But at the same time, I rethought about it before I got the second call, and I thought it was the perfect environment for me to be in, especially with people whom I really respect on that level.

TP:   Over the years you’ve played with a number of the older musicians who’ve been involved in speculative improvising for years and years, but also a lot of your peer group. As a general question, can you talk about the ways in which the older musicians’ attitudes towards music… Do you see any generational difference in the way they think about things?

TYSHAWN:   Oh, there’s a big difference. Since I was young… I was 14 years old when I got involved in a group. Up until now, I was always the youngest person in the group. I would sit in with blues bands and so on, with older musicians, and play a lot of jazz group situations and a lot of multi-genre settings close to where I lived. These people really helped me grow, not only on a musical level, but on a personal level as well.

TP:   The older musicians. This was in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   This was in Newark, Irvington, places like that. But primarily around Newark. I was in high school when this was going on—of course, I was underage. There’s a place close to the center of downtown Newark where they had blues jam sessions and things like that, and I remember walking in one night, just seeing a drummer set up. I had no idea what was going on. I just happened to walk in, and he was setting up some stuff, and he asked me to sit in with this blues band. This was around ‘96-‘97. He asked me to sit in and play, and I played, and he said I sounded good. But he was telling me also some different life experiences that he went through as an artist and also as a person, and these things I guess somehow crept into my music—all of these experiences.

TP:   How so?

TYSHAWN: Well, the thought process.  It basically altered my thought process, how I can go about pacing… These older musicians took me in and made me realize some aspects of my playing that I could work through discussing life experiences…

TP:   Pacing was one of them.

TYSHAWN:   Pacing was very important.

TP:   By pacing, you mean not throwing out all your ideas every second.

TYSHAWN:   Not throwing out all your ideas, yeah. That was my biggest problem, especially when I first came to New York. Because I felt very pressured to please everyone, or I felt very pressured to be “the workingest person in New York City.” I guess after a certain point, I became disinterested in that. I became more interested in drawing back from my experience when I was younger, and applying that to my musical output now.

TP:   When did you first start hitting the New York scene?

TYSHAWN:   Around 2002.

TP:   Was that when you hit with Butch Morris at the Bowery Poetry Workshop?

TYSHAWN:   Right.  In that period. Before that, I had played with Vijay. Aaron also introduced me to Vijay on February 2, 2002 (or February 4th), where Fieldwork was doing a concert, and Aaron told me about Vijay at that time, and he asked me to come to the concert. So I did, and Vijay introduced himself, and we discussed some things, and Aaron was talking about me to Vijay. I met Butch through Michele Rosewoman, who was also one of the first people I’ve worked with. In fact, the first person who actually took me to Europe. I met Butch through her at a party that we had. I had no idea that Butch would ever call me for everything, and in June, all of a sudden, I received a phone call from Butch asking me to participate in his conduction. Right away, when I walked in there, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I didn’t know anything about what was going on when I walked in there, and dealing with his conduction vocabulary… It was kind of like a shock factor I was in, because I wasn’t really that experienced in improvising on such a level where I had to be completely disciplined. That was one of the first opportunities I had to do that. It was a hell of an experience. It was five weeks we had in July 2002, and I learned quite a bit. Again, I was the youngest person in the group—still! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Let me take you back. Are you born in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   I was born in Newark. Born and raised.

TP:   You’re from downtown, urban Newark.

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. Right in the center.

TP:   Did you have musicians in the family?


TP:   What things drew you to music and the drums?

TYSHAWN:   I didn’t really have musicians in my family. I have a cousin who plays keyboards and stuff like that professionally. But that wasn’t really what drew me to music, because it was always inherent from the getgo. Since I was 2 years old, I knew I wanted to do this. Through my father and different people exposing me to recordings, my uncle exposing me to different jazz recordings… Back then, I was more of a purist. I would only listen to jazz.

TP:   Back when? When you were 2?

TYSHAWN:   No. When I was maybe 5 or 6, I decided that I only wanted to listen to just jazz and things that were closely related to it.

TP:   You were 5 or 6? How did you know about it? Where did you hear it?

TYSHAWN:   It was all music to me.

TP:   But where…

TYSHAWN:   I heard it at home.

TP:   Your parents had jazz records.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father especially. My mother was more of an R&B type person and stuff like that, because that’s what she was exposed to. My father was a very open-minded person about music and different things. Sometimes, even today, I’ll play him recordings of the most extreme, the most abstract stuff, and he’d be very open.

TP:   He’s into it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. So he owned a lot of different records from different genres and things like that.

TP:   So he’s a jazz fan. He’d probably be a link to some of the people you play with.

TYSHAWN:   Right. He had all kinds of different records, all kinds of different genres, and I would listen to all of them. I didn’t really view it as listening to jazz per se, or anything like that. It was all the same to me. But then, when I became I guess around 5 or 6 years old, I decided that I just wanted to stick with one genre, and that was jazz. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that, because I think my vocabulary would be even more broad than it is today given that.

TP:   Well, you were 5 or 6.

TYSHAWN:   Right. I didn’t know what I was doing! Essentially, my father, some two years later, had taken me to Newark Symphony Hall to meet Dizzy Gillespie at a concert he was doing. I had a couple of records by Dizzy already on my own. My uncle would always take me record-shopping, and he’d let me pick 2 or 3 different records at a time, every time we went record-shopping. So I had two records of Dizzy already, and I was excited, I really wanted to meet him. I had no idea he was still alive. I saw no biography or nothing like that. When I went over there to meet him, Dizzy was one of the sweetest people that I could ever… I had no idea I would ever meet him, first of all.

TP:   How did your uncle know him?

TYSHAWN:   We didn’t know him at all.

TP:   He just brought you back. “Here’s my little boy…”

TYSHAWN:   Yeah! And that I was interested in playing music. He let me mess with his valves and mess with the trumpet and stuff like that. Actually, I have a picture at home of him when I was doing that. I was around 7 years old at the time. The concert was great, I remember.

TP:   That’s when he had the United Nations Band.

TYSHAWN:   Yes, exactly. It was killing. Then a year later, my uncle took me to see two different jazz groups, Miles Davis and the group Hiroshima—around ‘88 or ‘89. I didn’t get to meet Miles, but I was just blown away by everything that was going on at the time. Then I realized how purist I was in my approach to listening to music and things like that.

TP:   Were you playing drums by that time?

TYSHAWN:   No. I was just banging around on boxes and pots, pans…

TP:   Were you playing piano or trombone by then?

TYSHAWN:   I was playing piano and trombone by then.

TP:   Was that in the schools in Newark?

TYSHAWN:   No. That was self-taught. I was largely self-taught in everything I do. The trombone I picked up out of interest. I remember seeing a television commercial or something like that with somebody playing trombone. I couldn’t pick drums in my school because they didn’t have that instrument there. I mean, they had a snare drum or something, but they didn’t really have a full drumkit for me to explore the instrument. So the only thing I did was I said, “Okay, I’ll just pick trombone.” I didn’t want to pick saxophone because I thought it would be very difficult to play.”

TP:   As opposed to trombone!

TYSHAWN:   As opposed to trombone! Ironically, that’s the hardest… So I took trombone, and took classes and how to read and improved my reading. But mostly what I did at the time was by ear.

TP:   Trombone and piano. You’d listen to records and try to play along…

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, that kind of thing.

TP:   When did you start playing drums?

TYSHAWN:   I started playing a real drumset (I’ll put it that way) by the time I was 14 or 15.

TP:   Before that were you playing rhythms?

TYSHAWN:   I was just playing rhythms and tapping with my hands and stuff. I kind of intuitively had an idea on how to play the instrument, because I would watch videos of people doing it. So I had an intuitive idea on how the instrument worked. I just didn’t have much idea about coordination and technique and all that stuff.

TP:   I’m sure you had good time.

TYSHAWN:   Time was pretty decent. I could keep a nice groove and things like that. But until that I point, I would borrow drumsets, or I would practice like at church,  or wherever I had the opportunity to get on a drumset.

TP:   Was church a place where you could play?

TYSHAWN:   Not necessarily. I wasn’t even part of the ministry. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t allow me to play with the ministry.

TP:   You listened to a lot of records, so you probably know a lot more than most people who were 14 in 1994 about the music’s history and who the personalities are. Were there particular drummers at that point who were interesting to you?

TYSHAWN:   Well, several different genres. Again, it came out of a more broad perspective, as opposed to jazz drummers or something like that. But I listened to people like Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham, and then I would listen to Elvin and Tony, then I would listen to John Robinson or somebody… All kinds of different people from different genres, and some international music as well—a lot of Spanish music, some folkloric Cuban music.

TP:   Were you the type of kid who would hear Tony Williams with Miles and you’d try to break down what Tony was doing…

TYSHAWN:   Exactly.

TP:   You would try to emulate these guys.

TYSHAWN:   Try to emulate these guys.

TP:   Who were the main guys you’d try to emulate? You’d use trial and error, I assume, because there wasn’t youtube at the time.

TYSHAWN:   Right! It all started by checking out the movie Woodstock and listening to Carlos Santana’s group play, and Michael Shreve, who back then was 17 or 18 years old, and watching him take a solo… Sometimes I would try to copy things from there. I also listened to a lot of Max Roach, who at the time really drew me to the music. When I was 2 years old, Max Roach was one of the first people I listened to.

TP:   You heard him at 2 and you can remember it.

TYSHAWN:   Yes. My father told me. We had Charlie Parker records all over the world. So we had a lot of stuff. I still have those records, too. That’s how I remember. Elvin Jones I’ve checked out a bunch. He’s the reason why I’m still playing today.

TP:   Why?

TYSHAWN:   Because of what he brings to the music and the creative element that he has. His improvisation. Him and Tony both, in terms of their approach to improvisation and what it means to really explore oneself. Tony Williams I checked out. There was no way I could play any of that information, but I’ve checked it out anyway and I’ve tried to dissect as much of it as I could through transcription and through literally copying things that they’ve done—tuning drums like them, sitting just like them, similar hand techniques that they use. Literally trying to emulate what they’ve done.

TP:   But you seem always… Well, maybe it’s from being exposed to all this. But your tastes are very broad. I don’t know if that’s something to address or not.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. Definitely it is.

TP:   Do you think that’s a generational thing?

TYSHAWN:   It could be a generational thing. A lot of the people in my age area…I mean, they were only interested in hip-hop, and that’s all they would listen to. Since I was 6 years old and going to the barber shop with my dad, he would take me to get my hair cut… Going to the barber shop has always been an experience I looked forward to. Because the barber who cut my hair owned all of these recordings, all of these R&B artists and things like that. He also helped expose me to different things, checking out people like Millie Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and he would give me all of these 45s every time I would come to the barber shop, and I’d go home and listen to them all night.

TP:   You’re the second guy I talked to in a last couple of weeks who said that they had this sort of learning experience at the barber shop. But it sounds like you got your playing together pretty quick. Then you started playing neighborhood gigs type of thing…

TYSHAWN:   I pretty much came out of the church, I guess you could say. Playing in the church. I played in several different churches. As I said, I couldn’t play in my home church ministry, but I have played as part of other ministries before, getting back to where my cousin, who plays keyboards professionally… He actually got me hooked up with those opportunities to play in those churches.

TP:   These are churches in Newark and the surrounding…


TP:   What sort of music? Shuffle rhythm type music?

TYSHAWN:   Yeah, more that kind of stuff, or gospel music that has an R&B edge to it. That kind of stuff. I grew up doing that.

TP:   That must have been good training as far as time and pacing and keeping people interested…

TYSHAWN:   It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget, we were playing the church service in Montclair, it was an evening service, and there was a fill that I tried to do that sounded…as I remember now, it’s very advanced. You don’t really hear a lot of gospel drummers play these type of fills or anything. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I did do a lot of subdivisions of beats and things like that while I played. He turned and looked at me and he said, “Don’t do that.” That was one of the first experiences I had in terms of learning discipline and how to really lock in and really groove with people, and how to make people feel while I’m playing the music.

TP:   It doesn’t seem there are a whole lot of gigs that can help you swing as much as doing a church gig when you’re 14-15-16 years old.

TYSHAWN:   Right. Although the local band that I participated in, the first group, we played a lot of jazz tunes. We played stuff by Horace Silver. We played things by…

TP:   In church?

TYSHAWN:   No, this is completely different. We played things by Marvin Gaye, we played stuff by Smokey Robinson, we’d play something by… There was just all kinds of different music we did, and I’m thankful to have had that experience, because all of that is pretty much a part of what I do.

TP:   During those years, were you aware that the newer jazz tradition, James Moody and Wayne Shorter and Sarah Vaughan and Larry Young and Woody Shaw and Hank Mobley and all that… I know WBGO was very active during those years, so among other things, it would have helped to keep that consciousness going. But I’m wondering if that was important to you as a young guy.

TYSHAWN:   It was. In fact, I listened a lot more to WKCR than I did to WBGO. A lot of what WBGO was playing…it sounded like they were playing the same music a lot, and I looked for a different source to get to music, and I found WKCR. On that station, you hear a lot of Charlie Parker a lot of stuff that you can’t get out here these days. There was one time when I would get a whole bunch of blank tapes and record stuff from WKCR. I used to have this collection of cassette tapes where I would pull stuff from the radio program—like the delta blues programs they used to have, a lot of early jazz programs, Charlie Parker programs—and document it. I’ve done a lot of documentation. I did a lot of CD shopping, record shopping, and things like that during that period.  But WKCR I would say was and still is my main source for getting the information I’m interested in.

TP:   But the reason I was mentioning WBGO is the role it plays in the cultural infrastructure of Newark, and if they had any impact in your consciousness of the musicians I mentioned and the history of Newark jazz music. Or Savoy Records, or Amiri Baraka…

TYSHAWN:   I learned a lot about my culture in Newark while listening to WBGO as well. WKCR wasn’t exactly my only source, but it was my main source of information. Listening to WBGO helped me to understand the history of Newark, and what musicians came out of there, and what they felt for the music. I had no idea Wayne Shorter was from Newark until I graduated high school. He went to my alma mater, Arts High School. Sarah went there, so did Woody Shaw, Ike Quebec, some other people. Then they had Savoy Records, which wasn’t too far from where I lived, right in downtown Newark. So I knew about jazz heritage in Newark, and then when I checked out WKCR I learned about the New York scene and what was going on here.

TP:   As you say, everybody was into hip-hop. Were you able to get along with your peer group, or were you sort of an outcast type of…

TYSHAWN:   No! I was very much an outcast. In fact, the bus attendant who… I always took the bus to school until I was around 11 or 12 years old. I needed to have music around me all the time, or else… It was a big thing for me. I was listening to so much music at that point, to the point that people looked at me as pretty weird. I was listening to the country music that WKCR would play at 6-7 o’clock in the morning on the weekends, and I would record that stuff, and then I’d bring it with me. I had a tape recorder with speakers and I had a headset. My bus attendant said, “You can’t get on the bus with this music.” “I enjoy it, I like it.” It got the point where she gave me a break and said, “All right, you can listen to it, but just put the headset on.” So I was listening to all kinds of music on the bus, that I’d taped from the nights before. So I was very much a person who was looked at as very strange, number one, for listening to country music on a school bus in front of a bunch of hip-hop kids, you know what I mean… I guess I was always viewed as different in school because of the music I checked out and what my interests were.

TP:   Lucky for you that you had the church community, with people who would accept you for what you are.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   When did the notion of speculative improvising take hold, taking it outside, the area you find yourself in… You went to William Patterson, and you couldn’t really be playing that way when James Williams was teaching a class, even if James was tight with Joe McPhee. Or Harold Mabern… If you were playing with them, you had to play…

TYSHAWN:   Right. Very straight-ahead.

TP:   I’m sure you could hold down that type of gig if such a thing came along.

TYSHAWN:   Right.

TP:   Now, most people your age… This is a different time than the ‘60s. It’s hard to live the starving artist life because things are just too expensive. There’s no safety net. You can’t live in a cold water flat in the East Village for $100 a month. That pragmatism is one reason why people…

TYSHAWN:   Shy away.

TP:   …shy away from that. What was moving you in that direction?

TYSHAWN:   It’s when I started listening to Coltrane’s music, and then later on the music of Jackie McLean. Some other people also. People like Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, people like that. I investigated more into what they were doing, and saw that it was very individualistic at the time they came up. That’s when my attention to Muhal Richard Abrams came about. Because I had no idea who this man was. I was just reading a book about what transpired during the ‘60s, and Muhal’s name was in the book. I said, “Who is that?” I tried to find out who he is. I couldn’t find Levels and Degrees of Light at all. I looked all over for that record, and I could not find it for a long time until I saw a CD copy of it, and then I picked it up and checked it out. I said, “Whoa, what are these guys…”

TP:   So you dug that right away?

TYSHAWN:   Uh-huh.

TP:   Can you recall what you dug about it? You weren’t playing anything in that vibe at the time, were you?

TYSHAWN:   No. What I dug was the realization and understanding of form on such a level where it was totally advanced from what was going on at that time. Me, myself, through listening to Wayne Shorter and people like that, and seeing how many different ways form can take, the standard song form and things like that, looking at all these different ways of defining the form of a song and things like that, and I’m seeing what the AACM guys are doing, and they’re taking it in a completely different direction than what I’d known. So what captivated me most was how they demonstrated that.

TP:   Describe from your perspective what it is they did that was outside the norm.

TYSHAWN:   Well, the improvisation… They were improvising, and it felt very natural to me.

TP:   But when you say it was different from what you’d known, do you mean different from the Ascension and Interstellar Space type of thing, or do you mean…

TYSHAWN:   It was different from that, in the way that they were playing with each other. It didn’t sound like a typical jazz ensemble at all. Even though you have people who play those instruments, saxophones and piano, it still was very different for me. There would be points where the piano didn’t play, sometimes there would be one or two instruments playing, and then there would be another point where the whole group is playing, and then another… That’s what really sparked the interest further than that. Because I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but as I got more into the music, especially of the AACM, I started to understand more about the discipline of improvisation and about what it means to have a relationship, not only musically but also personally, with the musicians and how it manifests through the music itself.

TP:   Was this a solitary pursuit during that time? Did you find people with whom you could start working on these ideas?

TYSHAWN:   No. Not at all..

TP:   This was before you went to college.

TYSHAWN:   This was in high school.

TP:   What happened in college? Was that a good experience for you?

TYSHAWN:   In college I was very much still a straight-ahead player, but I would also have the ability to be able to play so-called “free forms” of music and things like that. My composition also had advanced by that point. My forms became more “weird.” They became more interesting. People would say, “Yeah, you’re drawing a lot from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington” and so on, but then over time in college, it progressed into a thing where it is right now, to a point where I’m basically trying to find my own terms when it comes writing music or investigation of material.

TP:   Who were your main instructors at William Patterson?

TYSHAWN:   John Riley, a great big band drummer and a great teacher. I asked him several questions about many different traditional musics and forms of jazz, and he was very receptive to discussing those things with me. I thank him for that. Bill Goodwin. Kevin Norton. I studied with them over my whole course there.

TP:   I’d imagine the impact of the latter two was less on drum techniques than helping you find your way conceptually.

TYSHAWN:   Exactly. With Kevin it was that way. We be in a situation in our lesson where we’d play together, he’d play vibraphone and I’d play drums. After we were done playing, he’d always ask me, “What were you thinking about during this? Were you thinking compositionally? Were you thinking the opposite of what I was doing? Were you thinking the same texturally as what I was doing?” He made me start thinking more about these things, which drew me back to my first listening to Muhal’s record. That’s the thing that I needed to understand, was all these ways of improvisation that do not necessarily fall into this confined state where everybody follows each other. It really made me start to think differently about how I would play with other musicians, whether it’s duo or large group. It made me think of all these things when it came to free playing or more conceptual type stuff.

TP:   I assume you started gigging in this regard once you were in college.

TYSHAWN:   Once I was in college, yeah, I started gigging more. I started doing a lot of club dates where we played bebop standards and that type of stuff. I did a lot of that actually for about 3 years.

TP:   When you play bebop, who do you sound like?

TYSHAWN:   Myself still, but… I guess it’s like a cross between Elvin, Max and myself, all kind of mixed in together, in that I do a lot of rhythmic variation in my solos, a lot of different subdivisions. I still throw that in sometimes, which was my element…

TP:   You swung a little with Muhal. Got out of it pretty quick, though.

TYSHAWN:   Definitely. I love doing those kind of dates. I wish I could do it more often, but I’m known for I guess doing some of the most extreme…

TP:   Well, you are known as a very extreme drummer. Do you feel like you’re being…

TYSHAWN:   I feel like I’m being pigeonholed, in a sense. Not a lot of people know I can do that, except for close friends or people who actually have done club dates with me. For example, in the next month I’ll be going out to D.C., to Twins Jazz Club, which is a very straight-ahead type of place, and I’ll be playing 3 club dates there—2 with a saxophone player named Anthony Nelson, and another who I’m waiting to hear from. But the two gigs I’m doing with Anthony are confirmed. He’s very much a straight-ahead bebop type player, and we’ve been working together for the last close to ten years.

TP:   So that’s satisfying for you, too.

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah. To be able to do that…

TP:   You haven’t turned your… Well, again, maybe that’s a generational thing, too. For a lot of the older players, the decision not to play that way was very firm – “I’m NOT going to play like that” at all costs. In 2001 I covered a workshop Cecil Taylor did at Turtle Bay Music School, and a lot of the players could play bebop or they could play… Maybe it’s because of music schools, or the Internet…

TYSHAWN:   Well, there’s so much more access now than there was when I grew up, to the point where musicians are becoming a lot more proficient very quickly. It’s now at the point where we have the Internet, we have youtube, we have line-wire, all these different things we’re drawing information from. That’s why I think the musicians are more proficient now.

TP:   Aaron Stewart was the guy who brought you into the NY scene. Did you meet him at William Patterson? How did it happen?

TYSHAWN:   It’s an interesting story. This guitar player… The first time I came to New York and played in front of real professional musicians…not to say that Mr. Nelson wasn’t a professional at the time… But I say that because people with the profile of Gene Jackson, Mark Helias, Michele Rosewoman, Steve Wilson… In college, I went to a concert of there. This was after 9/11. I said, “I’m not going to go to New York for at least a year.” I was terrified at what happened. But around November, they were doing a concert at the Up Over Jazz Café. It was Mark Shim… I’d known Michele for three years at that point; she’d been teaching at Montclair State University Summer Jazz Camp. She wrote me an email saying, “I’d like to see how you sound these days, because I haven’t heard you in a while; won’t you come down to Up Over and check out the concert.” So I went there to check out the concert, but when I got in the door I didn’t expect that she was going to ask me to sit in. When I walked in the door, she said, “I’m going to have you play on a couple of things.” I was scared. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people like Gene Jackson, who I think is one of the greatest drummers out here today. I wanted to make sure I was ready. She caught me totally off-guard. So I went to the stage, and we played a couple of tunes. Mark Helias. Mark Shim was on the gig, and he found out about me through her. After the set was over, after I’d played the tunes with them, he said, “Man, you should be out here working right now. You’re very talented…” and this and that… “and here’s my phone number,” and this-and-that. Then he gave Jonathan Kreisberg, the guitar player, my telephone number, and I worked with him on this gig with Shim. Then Shim arranged… There was a rehearsal with Kreisberg, and Shim said, “Can you stay a little later.” I said, “Sure, I can stay…” I didn’t think I was going to stay in New York. But I said, “Okay, I’ll stay.” Shim said, “I have a friend coming over,” and that was Aaron. This was in 2001.

TP:   You did this tour with Butch and then you played with Vijay… Other gigs, too. Michelle was into working with a lot of diasporic and Afro-Cuban rhythms. You were incorporating those, too?

TYSHAWN:   Yes. Also working with her helped me to understand what it means to actually play that material, and how it relates to several different religions. I didn’t know anything about some of these African religions or the Yoruba music…the ritual music.

TP:   After Muhal’s gig the other night, I went to Vijay’s hit with Marcus Gilmore, and Vijay said, “I wish I’d gone to see that; what did Tyshawn do?”


TP:   I said, “It was very focused, very compositional.” I mentioned that you’d taken things apart, put them back together, playing them… He said that one time you played with him, you’d actually hit the drum so hard that you punctured the head. 


TP:   I’d like you to talk about putting your individuality into all those different contexts.

TYSHAWN:   I try to work within whatever the context is. Working with Muhal, like I said, allows me to be myself within the context of what he does and within the context of his music. He’s a very open person. It’s very rare to play with people like him, and to be around someone like him. On the other hand, to play with someone like Anthony Nelson or to play at the jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle is completely different. But I like to apply some aspect of my individuality into whatever music I’m doing, and I try to play within the context of the song but I also try to think to myself, “what is the listener going to gather?” I don’t want to sound like any one person. For example, if I were to play some rock tune or something like that, I don’t want somebody to tell me, “Well, you sound like Vinnie Colaiuta” or “You sound like this or that.” I don’t want that to happen. If they heard a recording and they didn’t see  a concert or anything, l want them to be able to say, “That’s Tyshawn Sorey playing.”  I want that individuality to come through in whatever I’m playing.

TP:   So you don’t necessarily have to deconstruct the kit on a bebop gig to claim your individual sound.

TYSHAWN:   Not at all.

TP:   For your own music, is any one component more… You seem very interested in textural exploration of the kit, and trying to put together compositionally as many sounds as you can either within metric flow or not. Is that just one aspect of your creative individual interests? Does it also interest you to do rhythmic subdivisions, or to swing or not-swing…

TYSHAWN:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Would you say that now you’re in a phase of your exploration?

TYSHAWN:   I feel like that, yes. As I said, the exploration phase never stops. It’s never apparent.

TP:   Particularly the textural things you’re doing.

TYSHAWN:   Right now, it’s just as important to me to discover textures on the instruments that I know already and some I do not know already. It’s better for me to do that than just go wild on the drumkit for an hour. Because I’m missing the beauty of everything that could happen, or missing the beauty of possibility—or lack of it, in some cases. But I feel like this is a very important phase for me, because now it helps me to discover my individuality a lot more than I was used to. I’m interested in sound as itself; not necessarily as part of any one particular lineage, but I’m interested in the sound of the instrument itself.  For me, it’s about the instrument and it’s about what you can do to enhance the music on such a level where it doesn’t follow the cliches that are involved in improvisation.

Music for me is all the same. I like to get involved with my instrument as much as possible, to the point where, like I said, I’m going to keep the audience guessing, and not label me as some free jazz guy or some textural guy or some guy who is crazy and he can do all of these things… I don’t want to be labeled as such. I want people to be able to identify me no matter what style of music I’m playing. That’s where I’m at right now, and where I hope to continue to be.

TP:   What sort of gigs would you like to be doing that you’re not doing now?

TYSHAWN:   A hip-hop gig, or some straight-ahead type situation—but where I could still express myself, of course. Basically, everything that became part of my musical makeup, which is pretty much all the music I’ve listened to. Classical music, classical contemporary music, R&B, Funk, jazz, avant-garde, experimental music, electronic music. Everything. I’d like to be part of all of it.

TP:   You were speaking of iconic drummers. But for people your age, people like Tain and Lewis Nash were also important. Were you paying attention to any of them?

TYSHAWN:   Kenny Washington especially. I don’t know if we discussed this on WKCR, but I took part of NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program, and he was the drum teacher there, and he really nailed me! It was some of the most profound teaching I’ve ever experienced. He was telling me to check out this, check out that, gave me a list of things I needed to check out and listen to. He was actually one of the people I started listening to when I was as young as 9 years old.

TP:   He was still with Flanagan then.

TYSHAWN:   Right. There’s a record on Telarc, To Bird With Love, with him and Lewis Nash, and I was really floored with their technical brilliance, and how disciplined they were in playing the music, and how much life they brought into it.

TP:   Serious bebop playing. 

TYSHAWN:   Yeah. For me, that stuff was killing. It’s really great. I’ve listened to Tain, of course. Before I left high school, I was checking out a lot of Tain. I was interested in Branford’s music, and I heard about the direction that music started to take. There were days when I tried to emulate him as well in college. I set up my drums like him, and I would have almost the same exact cymbal setup he would have, and all this stuff. I would try to emulate as much stuff as I’ve checked out as possible. I was listening to people like Jim Black at the time, and I tried to emulate his style. I tried to do Joey Baron. I’ve checked out a lot of those people as well.

TP:   What’s your kit like? Your setup.

TYSHAWN:   I use a regular traditional four-piece setup that most jazz drummers use. A flat ride cymbal on my left, ride cymbal on my right, crash cymbal on my far right, and a pair of hi-hats. That’s all I use. Almost every gig I do, that’s it.

TP:   Are you particular about the tuning?

TYSHAWN:   I’m very particular about my tuning, yes. I mean to say, I don’t want anything to sound like what someone else’s tuning could be like. But at the same time, you can’t avoid that, because there are so many people out here. I try to tune my drums as articulately as possible while sustaining kind of a low pitch. So I try to have some kind of body to the sound that I’m producing, even though there’s a lot of articulation there as well.

Aaron pretty much is the source of a lot of what I do today. The first Jazz Gallery concert I ever did was with Vijay, and he came to the first night, and my drums were tuned just the way I normally tune them, sort of how Tain would tune his drums, a very dark, round kind of sound. Aaron came up to me and said, “You sounded fine; I can hear the cymbals, but I can’t really hear the articulation of the drums, and I can’t hear a lot of what your ideas are. The next day I went personally out to Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey (they didn’t have one in my area at the time, though now they do), and bought a bunch of drum heads, some drum sticks, some drum keys, all kinds of stuff that I would never have done otherwise. I bought all this new stuff, and I got to the Jazz Gallery around 5:30 or 6 the next night,  took everything apart and retuned it, cranked things up a little more, and everything was very bright-sounding, and everything all of a sudden was more articulate. The night of that concert, it seemed my ideas came out so much better than it did the first night. I even set up differently. I set my cymbals up differently. I sat differently. I had to use a different hand technique because of the way I set everything up. I could see that my ideas were flowing so much better, and became a lot more clearer. Even Vijay noticed that on the second concert. He said, “Did you fix your drumset, or did you change the way you hit it?” I said, “Yeah. Completely!” A complete change.

TP:   You’re going to Europe with Steve Coleman in a month or so. He’s extremely specific about rhythm, about certain metrical things. Have you found it a very rewarding experience?

TYSHAWN:   It was a very rewarding experience, in that I can appreciate the beauty of whatever it is he writes. But again, like with Muhal, he lets me express myself as an individual within the context of whatever is going on. For example, the way Steve looks at music is very different than the way I used to look at it—which is still kind of the same. Whenever I play his music, he has very specific instructions regarding what rhythms I should play. Sometimes I try to figure out what I can do to make it creative and to be creative with that specific information. I’ll  change the relationship of whatever rhythms he would give me between my hands and feet; play one rhythm that was on my feet to my hands, and then vice-versa. Sometimes I’ll play something that’s completely away from it, and try to metrically figure out what it actually is, and I’ll just play that and just play myself, whatever I want to. It’s a great experience for me to be as creative as possible with very specific information like that.

But I didn’t want it to sound too rigid either. I don’t want it to sound like, “Well, this is what the groove is.”  I  want to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener—and for the musicians.

TP:   You said that you think people tend to pigeonhole, and people who think historically might think of you as a modern-day Sunny Murray or Rashied or Andrew and so on, and there are certainly elements there.

TYSHAWN:   That’s right.

TP:   Have those drummers given you any feedback as well?

TYSHAWN:   I ran into Andrew last week at the New School, and we talked for a bit. I’m interested in studying with him. I’m going to try to get a couple of lessons to even go further beyond what I have going now. We actually met in Ulrichsberg, Austria, some two years ago. Fieldwork played and Marilyn Crispell, Henry Grimes, and Andrew were playing the next night. I went to that concert, and it was the first time I’d seen Andrew in a live performance setting. I remember Andrew taking this solo, he just took the snare drum off the stand and was doing things with the drum with his feet, and creating different rhythmic things using that. His whole solo was based on that, and then he started using the whole kit and doing a bunch of different stuff with that. The solo must have been 5 or 10 minutes. After he was done, I was just in tears, because I couldn’t believe how much sound he was able to get out of a traditional setup—like I have. He didn’t have a bunch of bells or gongs or toys or none of that. He had sticks…

TP:   He used to play the wall, and his chest…

TYSHAWN:   He was playing his face, too, I remember!

TP:   How long have you been taking the kit apart?

TYSHAWN:   Five-six years.

TP:   Playing the wall, these dramatic textural contrasts you like to do…

TYSHAWN:   This is when I was checking out a lot of electronic music and music by classical contemporary composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Cage… Actually, John Cage interested me more into stretching my sound source, to the point where it pretty much became that anything in the room could constitute some sound element. I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but when I started checking that stuff out, it really opened up my whole sound world. Also checking out Cyrille’s recordings with Cecil Taylor, and listening to the sounds he would experiment with. Also the AACM guys. When I was listening to the AACM, I wanted to get into this whole sound world that I didn’t know about. Because of my curiosity, I wanted to get into that. That’s when I started checking out Cecil Taylor, and when I started checking out Coltrane’s later music with Rashied, and recordings of Albert Ayler, and then listening to other music as well. Like, sometimes, listening to Buddhist sermons, which might have music in it as well.

TP:   Do you think long term? Do you think of what you’d like to be doing when you’re 35? Where you’d like your music, your career to be?

TYSHAWN:   I don’t see it as a goal that you reach at a certain point or a goal that you reach at the end.  It’s more about the search for myself dealing with whatever sound world I’m interested in. It’s more about that than the actual finding of something. I don’t want to put any particular pressure on myself to fulfill a certain goal, but I can only say that wherever my career takes me is where I’ll be happy, because I’ll get to still be myself. If I’m successful at that, that’s great; if I’m not as successful as the next person, then that’s also fine. But I know within myself that I’m doing what I want to do.

TP:   Apart from music, you’re teaching?

TYSHAWN:   I’m teaching, yes, at the New School—private students. I learn a lot from them as well. It’s been a special experience. A lot of students I taught there… For me, it’s not really about, “Okay, I’m going to give you lessons and that’s it.”  I try to develop relationships with them and try to make sure that they are following the path they want to go. I’m interested in that as well, and I’m the type of person who puts that kind of thing on myself. I tell all my students I don’t want them to feel pigeonholed, like they’re a rock guy or they’re a jazz guy or they’re a free guy. I think they’re a musician, and that’s all that matters really. Everybody is different. It’s will just have to come out in whatever music you play.



Tyshawn Sorey (BFT—Final Edit):

Steve Coleman, who does not dispense compliments lightly, once compared Tyshawn Sorey’s drumkit and percussion skills to the legendary mega-virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. But for the 34-year drummer-trombonist-pianist-composer, who recently released his fourth album, Alloy [Pi], it’s less about chops than about “feeling the beauty of the sound of rhythm on the drumset, rather than any one particular lineage.”

Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet
“Lake Ontario” (The Great Lakes Suites, TUM, 2014) (Smith, trumpet; Henry Threadgill, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Barry Altschul has such a distinctive sound, with the flat ride cymbal and tightly tuned drum setup. It’s not him? I like the economical setup, that he’s dealing in the music so honestly without a lot of extended accessories. I’m thinking Pheeroan Aklaff, too, with that big sound, which I gravitate to. The composition was beautifully played and well-executed; no matter how loud the solo, the drummer played with tremendous clarity and stayed out of the way, never bombastic. A giving way of playing, which I hear in many older drummers. 5 stars.

Steve Wilson-Lewis Nash Duo
“Jitterbug Waltz” (Duologue, MCGJazz, 2014) (Nash, drums; Wilson, soprano saxophone)

The time feels internalized, which I especially like. It’s clear that the drummer is playing in 3/4, but it’s more implied than heard. I especially appreciate that he’s keeping time with the entire drumkit. The drums are clean, articulate, very well-tuned, resonant. The touch is light, but full. He’s not interested in playing a whole bunch of drums; he’s playing for the song. It reminds me of Lewis Nash. I’ve listened to him extensively. One of our most valuable drummers. He has such control and mastery; he can play anything and still be there. 5 stars is not enough.

The Whammies
“The Kiss (for Maurice Ravel)” (Play The Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 3: Live, Driff, 2014) (Han Bennink, drums; Jorrit Dijkstra, lyricon; Mary Oliver, violin; Jason Roebke, bass; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Jeb Bishop, trombone)

I’m thinking of things like Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms and Milton Babbitt’s works with instruments and electronics behaving together. It’s gorgeous—violin, synthesizer and bass. The drummer reminds me of Han Bennink. Is this ICP? No? Wolter Wierbos on trombone? Han’s playing is so dynamic and powerful, and his touch is identifiable—his brushwork and pressure techniques he applies to the snare. He incorporates everything into the music. I appreciate hearing a drummer in his seventies who still takes so many chances, is open to fostering collaborative relationships, whose goal is to bring out the best in a lot of musicians. There are times when what he does can be a little much for me, but that’s my problem. It’s not his. 5 stars.

Paul Lytton-Agustí Fernández-Barry Guy
“In Praise Of Shadows” (Topos, Maya, 2007) (Fernández, piano; Guy, bass; Lytton, drums)

Agusti Fernández, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, who is at the forefront of contemporary drumming today. He’s immediately identifiable. A lot of what he does reminds me of electronics. He gets such a clear, articulate sound, while doing many things in a non-traditional way. He sounds like a composer who is thinking of numerous sonic possibilities within the drumkit by doing different things with his hands or mounting found objects, like little cymbals that dampen the sound of the drum (and at the same time create a higher pitch attack so that you hear a drier sound), or using brushes to get crackling sounds. Everyone moved together in terms of density, but also listened together and maximized the possibilities in each respective instrument. 5 stars is not enough.

Mike Clark
“Past Lives” (Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 1, Talking House, 2006) (Clark, drums; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Christian Scott, trumpet; Jed Levy, tenor saxophone; Christian McBride, bass)

The drums are mixed so high, it’s obvious that the drummer led the session. Bright sound. I dig that. Beautiful song. The drummer was highly active, but was also thinking compositionally, playing differently behind each soloist while maintaining the high energy and forward motion and using the entire drumkit. The tempo didn’t fluctuate one bit. 5 stars.

Albert “Tootie” Heath
“It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (#10) (Tootie’s Tempo, Sunnyside, 2013) (Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

The drums are flowing, developing its own space even before the piano and bass develop all the melodic stuff—as though the two things are developing at once. I like that he barely used any cymbals. You get a sense he’s working with a language in playing the groove, which feels very natural, and the way he accents the pattern is dynamic. I also like the tuning—very melodic, not drowning anything out. 5 stars. [after] That rendition conveyed the sense of flow in Paul Motian’s music.

Doug Hammond
“It’s Now” (Rose: Doug Hammond Tentet Live, Idibib, 2011) (Hammond, drums; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Wendell Harrison, clarinet; Stéphane Payen, Román Filiú, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Dick Griffin, trombone; Kirk Lightsey, piano; Aaron James, bass)

Hard to guess. It’s someone from an older generation, playing an accompanying role, not getting in the way of the soloists, who are strong. Is it the drummer’s composition? There’s a high degree of counterpoint in certain places, which is beautiful. It reminds me of Max Roach’s writing. I like the use of cowbell and toms, broken up in a very nice groove. I hear it not just as a cool pattern, but a melody, a composed part that serves as an axis, the glue that holds it all together. 5 stars for the composition and 5 the drumming. [after] Doug Hammond is one of my main influences. I know his earlier things with Abdul Wadud and Steve Coleman where he’d compose grooves as a way of determining form, not his writing for larger groups. He’s responsible for much of what’s happening in drumming today.

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