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For Donald Harrison’s 55th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2002

Best of birthdays to the magnificent alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, who turns 55 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2002. (The restaurant, unfortunately, went out of business a few years ago.)

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The alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is particular — make that very particular — about his gumbo. After two decades in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill district, the 41-year-old son of New Orleans had never found a decent local version of his hometown delicacy, and a new spot on Fulton Street called Restaurant New Orleans has piqued his curiosity. There we sit on a crisp December afternoon, and as we wait for our bowls, he discusses Congo Nation, a smallish Mardi Gras Indian krewe of musicians that he founded a year ago and represents as Big Chief. Adorned in elaborately detailed, brilliantly colored regalia, this year’s edition — including iconic Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad, masking for the first time at 60 — will parade, sing and dance through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities on February 12th. Harrison has been shopping for Muhammad’s costume, and will begin to sew it when he returns home to New Orleans a few weeks hence.

Black New Orleanians began to mask as American Indians in the 19th century, and the ritual chants and steps of this tradition descend in a more or less uninterrupted line to Congo Square, where African slaves were allowed to congregate and play the drums on Sundays. Harrison learned both the moves of the game and its cultural context from his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., himself a widely respected Big Chief of several tribes, including Creole Wild West, the Wild Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Mr. Harrison passed away in 1998, carrying with him a comprehensive knowledge of Mardi Gras Indian folklore, a keen sense of its African origins, and a clear vision of what it might contribute to contemporary culture. Erudite and charismatic, he not only walked the walk but talked the talk, able to communicate his message as effectively to the man on the street as in the halls of academe.

He imprinted the message on his son, for whom the spectacle of Mardi Gras Indian ceremonial is part and parcel of earliest memory. “I see it in the back of my head,” Harrison says as the gumbo arrives. “I was in my outfit, and I could see the other Indians running and their feathers moving up and down fast; I remember hearing the music and the singing. I grew up in it, and I know the inside stuff — how to sew, how to dance, how to sing, how to meet another chief, what to say, what to do. For me it’s the same sort of mindset as a jazz band, because you’re supposed to take the whole thing and sow your own fruit, tell your story within the context of your tribe. I’ve been in what we call a circle, and that takes you to another level. You’re in touch with all those elements — spiritual, warrior, the music, the art, the dancing, the fear, the courage. Every emotion is right there, and they’re all present at the same time. It ties together what you know now with things that were happening at the inception of everything.”

This having been said, Harrison digs into his gumbo, a savory roux infused with crab and shrimp. “I can relate to this,” he smiles. As we eat, let’s bring his story up to date.

Mr. Harrison bought Donald his first saxophone in elementary school. The aspirant tried it, liked it, put it away, then became serious for keeps at 14, learning second-line and traditional repertoire in Doc Paulin’s brass band and finding work in local funk bands. “Donald had a good feel for music from being around the Indians,” recalls outcat saxophonist-educator Kidd Jordan, his primary instructor during those years. “When he was playing by ear, before his technique was straight and he learned about changes, I thought he was going to come up with something in the style of Ornette Coleman. He was hearing some real creative things. I could hear a rawness that knocked me out.”

A few years later, Mr. Harrison put Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and “Kind of Blue” on the turntable, and converted his son to hardcore jazz religion. He enrolled at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), where such faculty as Jordan, Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste taught such students as Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kent Jordan, and the slightly younger Terence Blanchard.

“The first time I heard Donald, I was amazed at his level of maturity,” recalls Blanchard, a 15-year-old sophomore when Harrison was a senior. “He never had a problem getting around his instrument or with chord changes. You didn’t hear any young guys in the city playing like that on the alto.”

Several distinctive characteristics marked the Harrison sound when he arrived at Berklee School of Music — by way of Batiste’s program at Southern University — in 1979. His technique featured a seamless five-octave range and fluid fingering, as though the saxophone were an extension of his arm, while his style blended the grand harmonic partials of John Coltrane, the soulful oomph and precise articulation of Cannonball Adderley, and phrasing that recalled the fleet rhythmic displacements of Charlie Parker. “Donald had a freeness to his playing that was beyond the bebop thing,” says Blanchard. “He had so much ability to go in different directions that you could hear him changing his mind in the middle of his solo.”

Spending as much time in New York as Boston, Harrison sat in at every opportunity, landing a gig with Roy Haynes and — at Miles Davis’ instigation — buffaloing a Fat Tuesday’s bandstand occupied by Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Elders and peers took notice; in 1982, Branford Marsalis recommended his homie to Art Blakey for the Jazz Messengers sax chair. Until 1986, Harrison and Blanchard — who in 1982 released New York Second Line [Concord], debuting Harrison’s penchant for framing modern jazz with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms — played alongside each other in a dynamic Messengers unit. When it was time to cut the cord, the tandem combined their surnames and signed a three-album contract with Columbia.

“Unless you’ve done something, you won’t think of it,” Harrison remarks, gently daubing hot sauce over a second course of lightly fried catfish. “I can tell a story from being an Indian. I hear guys doing second-line music who were totally against it initially, so I know our music influenced them or turned them around to think differently.”

New York Second Line sounded delightfully strange to me when I was in high school,’ says pianist Eric Reed, 31, who produced and performed on much of Real Life Stories [Nagel-Heyer], one of three Harrison-led recordings due for 2002 release. “It became apparent to me that a new sound was taking place. The way Donald and Terence were interpreting their New Orleans influence was profound and amazing; on Nascence [Columbia] the way they had Ralph Peterson incorporate the second line into an updated backbeat, syncopated-offbeat feeling was nothing short of genius. They did everything that Wynton’s group was doing with Branford and Tain, except, again, they made the New Orleans core of it so hip! — and they were doing it before Wynton had decided it was hip to do. The music was accessible and felt great because the groove was so strong. There was nothing pretentious about it, just two young guys who were playing their experience, saying whatever it was they needed to say through their instruments, and they didn’t feel a need to intellectualize or over-explain the process.”

“Donald functioned wonderfully in Art Blakey’s band, but you could hear he wanted to do his own thing,” Blanchard says. “Our band seemed to be more of a perfect fit for him, because it was truly a workshop, and he could work on his concepts. He was always trying to mix things, compounding different rhythms on top of each other or playing in different registers simultaneously in a pianistic manner, with a melody in one register and an accompaniment in another. He had a big influence on my sound.”

In 1989 Blanchard — then developing a new embouchure and finding opportunities to write film music — left the partnership, a circumstance Harrison describes as “messy, but no hard feelings.” Partly for financial reasons, the altoist retreated to New Orleans, and soon was masking with his father’s tribe. Fortified by experiences garnered from a decade traveling the world and invigorated from immersion in the ’80s Brooklyn scene, where Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Haitian, Salsa, Go-Go, Hip-Hop and various African musical and dance styles coexisted and intermingled, Harrison reconnected with his roots from a mature perspective.

“I went out with my father and the Indians at Mardi Gras, and a light switch went on inside my brain,” Harrison says. “I started hearing the swing ride cymbal pattern that Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones played inside of the African rhythms that the tambourines and drums were playing. Mixing the Indian rhythms with the swing beat led me to put funk and reggae rhythms with the swing beat, which I call Nouveau Swing.”

Joined by his father, Dr. John, Indian percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and jazz youngbloods Carl Allen and Cyrus Chestnut from the second iteration of Harrison-Blanchard, Harrison presented his hybrid concept on Indian Blues [Candid], a 1991 classic that links “Two Way Pocky Way” to “Cherokee.” The following year, trumpeter Brian Lynch, a close friend and fellow Messenger alumnus, recruited Harrison into Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa-Jazz ensemble.

“Eddie plays from a dance perspective, he knows how to write rhythms so everything is in place, and listening to that music every night deepened my understanding,” Harrison states. “I had to develop techniques to make slides and smears on the saxophone, and learn to play the rhythms in the right clave. The rhythms were natural for me; I always knew how to dip and dive into them even if I didn’t know the specifics. But Eddie helped me to be able to speak in that music, and it carries over to what I write and play now.

“If I’m writing, say, a second line song, I know the dance, what my feet and shoulders are doing to lock up to the different rhythms of the drums. If you listen to the drummers of the Samba and look at the feet, you know it’s matching up. Certain things interlock in Classical music, too. Miles Davis told me, ‘You hear something; to make it yours, just change it up a little bit.’ It is a language, and you can change the language and add different words. I hear the kids in Brooklyn adding new words to the English language all the time! ‘Whattup, Ma?’ They’re saying hello to a woman. They keep changing, and always know what they’re saying. You can change the music, too; the traditional part is making sure everything matches up. When you write from that perspective, it’s always locked in.”

Harrison demonstrates his point on Real Life Stories,” his fourth melody-rich document of Nouveau Swing since 1996. He’s worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lampkin — both “young guys who understand the modern texture and can play it in the context either of a jazz band or a dance band” — for several years, and each is intimate with Harrison’s fine-tuned, elegantly worked-out grooves. The altoist plays with relaxed abandon and perfect time, soaring soulfully through the attractive, gospelized “Confirmation” changes of “Keep The Faith,” spinning a sinewy statement over a funky Latin feel on “Night In Tunisia,” playing with the harmonic contours of “Oleo” as though engaging in advanced mathematics. There’s a tinge of barely restrained wildness in his tone, evoking memories of ’80s flights that distinguished Harrison’s tonal personality from his peer group.

“I used to get dogged by the critics and some musicians,” Harrison recollects. “I wasn’t inside enough for the mainstream players and I wasn’t out enough for people who liked avant-garde. But I know my peer group listened to the records with Buhaina and Terence; a lot of young saxophonists then were quoting my solos without even realizing it. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now; I’m getting back to the way I thought when I was 19, before I began to listen to people and worry about what they said. Once I started listening to Bird, I took the approach that this music is evolutionary, which means that in order to understand it and be a master, you have to study the whole history.”

Harrison spears a final forkful of catfish. “Each person is unique,” he concludes. “The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people. That’s why I say it’s all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it’s all said and done, what do you feel?

“I was never trying to be the greatest. I always felt that if you could be one of the cats, you did a great job, because the cats were so great. We do the best we can and keep moving on. Like Art Blakey used to say, ‘Light your candle and hope that somebody will see it.'”

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Filed under Donald Harrison, DownBeat, Eddie Palmieri, Idris Muhammad, Kidd Jordan, New Orleans

A 2007 DownBeat Article on Phil Woods for his 80th Birthday

For Phil Woods’ 80th birthday, here’s a DownBeat cover story from 2007.

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Like all his fellow 2007 NEA Jazz Masters, Phil Woods worked hard at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference in January. On the final afternoon, after three days of luncheons, dinners, panels and receptions, Woods engaged in a spirited public conversation with Nat Hentoff, an old friend, in a packed ballroom at the New York Sheraton Hotel. Barrel-chested and moustached, wearing his trademark captain’s cap, Woods was avuncular, charming, and amusing, spinning yarns and speaking his mind with declarative, salty language. After the interview he greeted a line of admirers for a half-hour, giving each his full attention; he did the same for assorted friends and fans as he made his way to the exit.

Trailed by his wife, Jill Goodwin, Woods entered the elevator. The door closed, and he allowed his face to go slack. He took deep, measured gulps. With deliberate steps, he exited the hotel and crossed 53rd Street to the Hilton, stopping twice to catch his breath before reaching his room. Once inside, he removed his hat and coat and shirt, turned on a portable oxygen machine, sat in an armchair, inserted a tube in his nose, and breathed deeply. In four hours he was due to perform three tunes with alto saxophonist George Robert, one of his many proteges. It would be his final IAJE obligation, and it was hard to see how he was going to fulfill it.

“There’s nothing wrong with my lungs,” Woods insisted, referring to the corrosive effects of emphysema, which caught up to him in 2001, when, for good measure, his prostate flared up and he had all his teeth extracted. “It’s the blood-gas ratio that makes me tired. If I stoke up before the gig, as I’m doing, I’ll be fine. I’m not so debilitated that I can’t perform. Don’t get me wrong. If I hadn’t been a saxophone player, I could be really in trouble.”

As he has done on a gazillion recorded solos for more than a half-a-century, Woods shifted to another gear and cut to the chase. “I smoked two packs a day from 15,” he said. “And did a lot of blow, smoked a lot of grass and drank a lot of booze. I’ve had fuckin’ fun! I never thought life was a lemon to be squeezed dry. You’ve got to live it, man. I don’t eat anything organic. Give me some butter still!”

Backed by Robert’s band a few hours later before another packed ballroom at IAJE, Woods uncorked theme-and-development solos that were models of melodic logic, incorporating wicked runs and subtle quotes, projecting a soaring tone instantly recognizable as his. It was no anomaly: a series of strong 21st century albums attests to Woods’ undiminished abilities on his instrument.

The most recent one is American Songbook, a beautifully played 2002 studio date for Vertical by the Phil Woods Quintet that disappeared after the label, as Woods puts it, “went horizontal,” but came out last year on Kind of Blue. On the weekend following IAJE, Woods convened the group at the Deerhead Inn in his home town of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., in the Poconos, to play two Saturday night sets as a quasi-rehearsal for a followup songbook session. Restricted by post-9/11 jazz economics and the leader’s dependence on his oxygen machine, the band hadn’t played together for many months, and hadn’t seen the music, but at the afternoon runthrough they coalesced as though it were the 1980s, when the Phil Woods Quintet was a constant force on the international scene.

As the players examined the sheet music for “Careless,” a bouncy theme song for ’40s band singer Eddy Howard, Woods said, “I’m hearing Kirby,” referring to the John Kirby Sextet, known for the precision of its ensemble playing during Woods’ formative years. Trumpeter Brian Lynch responded, “That means a cup mute.” Nothing more was said.

On break in the studio the next day after the Quintet had wrapped “Careless” in a single pristine, soulful take, Woods rested in a recliner, and sipped mineral water. Pianist Bill Charlap’s harmonic cogitations on the next number came softly over the speakers, and bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, Woods’ partners since 1974, when he formed the quintet, sat with Lynch at a table laden with trays of focaccia pizza, eggplant parm, and chicken cacciatore that a fan had brought from a store in New Jersey’s “Sopranos” district.

“I might have given Brian a sparse sentence on that—like ‘just put a little grease on that motherfucker,’” Woods said. “This front line knows exactly when to put the chitlins in the piece, and when to play it straight.” As an example of the latter, Woods referred to his elegant introduction for “I’ll Take Romance.” “It’s kind of a classical thing, and we played it without vibrato. If it’s funky, we’ll put some bends in it. It’s instinctive; we barely even discuss it.”

Lynch spoke up. “It may surprise you to see us work so efficiently and do tunes on one take, but on the last edition of this series we sight-read the whole thing,” he said. “This band has no fear of that. Each of us can look at a piece of music and almost instantaneously, as the sound starts happening, figure out how to play it and what it should sound like—to understand the style of a piece of paper. With Phil, you get to the artistry as quick as you can.”

“Brian and Bill could do that when they first started playing together in the quintet,” Goodwin said.

“If you’ve played with Horace Silver and Art Blakey, you get that shit,” Woods retorted, referring to Lynch’s c.v. “That’s the school, man. Any musician worth his salt from my generation could do that.”

Woods formed a working group not long after making Musique Du Bois, a combo date that reunited the famous Prestige-of-the-60s rhythm section of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson. Some consider it a classic, but he was dissatisfied. “It’s a good record, but I wanted more from the band,” Woods said. “I only see the seams.” After that date, Woods took gigs as a single, including one in Hartford “with some young kids who had their Real Books. I was tired of telling them what tune to play so they could look it up, and I carefully delineated the bridge to ‘Body and Soul,’ every harmonic nuance and melodic thing, and then I gave the downbeat for the melody. They all looked at me like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I ran into Bill and said, ‘We’ve got to get a band.’”

So he did. On the strength of Musique Du Bois, high visibility solos on Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” and Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu,” and featured status on Michel Legrand’s “Images,” Woods won the first of his 22 DownBeat Critics Poll awards for best alto saxophonist in 1975, and the first of 29 Readers Poll wins in 1976. In 1977 he garnered the first of three Grammys for Best Jazz Performance by a Group for Live From The Showboat, with a band comprised of Poconos musicians (guitarist Harry Leahey and pianist Mike Melillo joining Gilmore and Goodwin). By 1981, Hal Galper was the regular pianist, and by 1983 trumpeter Tom Harrell was sharing the front line.

“I needed at least one other horn to get into the compositional thing I wanted,” Woods said. “I like to utilize the bass and piano and drums as instruments, as part of the arrangement, not just read the chord symbols and chug along with the front line only playing the melody. I wanted to get some orchestral colors that I think haven’t been used yet by most small groups. We continue that to this day. My piano player has to really know what the fuck is going on. It’s really a five-piece band, not a rhythm section backup to a horn player.

“When we were really hot and working a lot, we’d do 12 sets a week, all different,” he continued. “The book is huge. That’s how you keep a quintet together for 30 years. When the rhythm section starts to sing your chorus along with you, it’s time to get a new bag, baby! I always bring in new tunes. To this day, I think we stand for something more than ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ and bashing and thrashing. But I also love a band that knows exactly what they’re doing every second, but it doesn’t sound forced and it isn’t stylized. I have the ability to make an arrangement right on the spot. It’s still fresh, because they’re great improvisers. These guys don’t need to look at the Real Book. They’re trained in the trenches. They know every song I know.”


Among the more entertaining documents of Woods’ recent discography are encounters with Lee Konitz—already famous as the “cool” voice of the alto saxophone when Woods was establishing his white-heat tonal personality in the ’50s—from the 2003 Umbria Jazz Festival, on which Mister Cool and Mister Hot dialogue on repertoire by Konitz, Woods and Enrico Rava. They appear on Philology, the Italian label that bears Woods’ name. So does a profound two-disk navigation of Gershwin by Woods and pianist Franco D’Andrea.

“We both came into that invitation with trepidation,” Konitz recalled. “Phil is a superb player and logician, while I’m coming at it more from scratch, so there was potential for a head-on conflict. But he made me very comfortable. Back in the ’50s, Phil was one of the guys who made me realize how flexible an instrument the alto saxophone is. I wondered how in hell you can play it with the kind of pizzazz and skill and accuracy he’s always displayed. Even now, with the emphysema, he can fill up a hall without a microphone.”

Woods embraces the ethos of the soup-to-nuts musician, and he displays all his wares on This Is How I Feel About Quincy (Jazzed Media), from 2004, performing dearth arrangements of Quincy Jones charts with a nine-piece, six-horn “little big band” (he augments his quintet—trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Steve Gilmore, drummer Bill Goodwin—with two saxes and two brass). One of the pleasures of the associated DVD, A Life In E-Flat: Portrait Of A Jazz Legend, which juxtaposes scenes of the proceedings with Woods’ account of his turbulent life and times, is the opportunity to observe him playing lead alto saxophone with almost reverential concentration and craft, as he did on the original recordings of this repertoire between 1956 and the mid ’60s. In fact, as Jones recounts in his autobiography, Q, he recruited Woods to play lead alto on Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary 1956 State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East, the gig that launched Woods to the status of New York’s first-call session alto saxophonist, a function he fulfilled over the ensuing decade on dozens of dates by the likes of Oliver Nelson, Gary McFarland, Gil Evans, John Lewis and George Russell.

“I was a fine musician,” Woods said without false modesty. “I could read flyshit and interpret it. There wasn’t many of me. I was the first-generation jazzer that actually went through the conservatory. The music became more complicated, and it required a better level of musicianship from the section players. Writers like Gil and Quincy, John Carisi, Billy Byers, Al Cohn, Elliot Lawrence, Manny Albam and Bill Potts had to get younger players, because the older guys were not doing justice to the new bebop time feel. I was well-equipped to handle all that.

“At that point, the music, commercial or not, was always an ensemble,” he continued. “It wasn’t done by three idiots with EWIs. You had at least four or five horns, then you did four or five tunes in a three-hour session. Quincy used to change his charts on the fly, and he’d sing the new part—you had to hear it and transpose and be able to execute. So only people that knew their onions!”

What differentiates Woods from the pack, Charlap opined, is his ability to excel—a la Hank Jones, Clark Terry and Milt Hinton—“as both a master section player and a master improviser with a complete personality on the instrument.”

“He has the blues, a raw edge, but he’s also very sophisticated,” Charlap continued “There’s the tough side, but also a tender side. When Phil plays a ballad like “Goodbye, Mr. Evans,” he reminds me of a great operatic tenor, less like Carmen McRae than Pavarotti. His mind is like a computer, and it sure seems like he can execute anything that comes into it. He also has an incredible ability to reach out beyond the bandstand and grab the audience right away. He’s a star, and it’s beyond being a great player. It has to do with charisma and communication.”

Lynch honed in on Woods’ meticulousness and attention to detail. “Every aspect of what he does is at the highest level,” he said. “Some people do some things well, but don’t take care of others. Phil has taken care of everything. A lot of people’s styles are based on artfully disguising their weaknesses. Phil’s style is based on artful presentation of his strengths, not on a limitation, but abundance.”


While Woods’ solos are marvels of spontaneous construction, he has a rotation of anecdotes which he accesses and repeats verbatim at a moment’s notice with the panache of a lecture circuit veteran. One such addresses a series of “field trips” to New York City with teen chum Hal Serra for lessons with Lennie Tristano during the summer preceding Woods’ senior year of high school in Springfield, Mass., his home town. Already a member of the local musicians union, he was  jamming with such luminaries-to-be as Joe Morello, Sal Salvador and Teddy Charles.

“There was a tenor player named Bob Rich, and we took down all of the Tristano-Warne Marsh-Lee Konitz stuff and played it just before I moved to New York,” Woods recalled. “After the lesson, we’d go to 52nd Street. They knew Hal, and gave us the seat by the drums, not the choicest acoustical spot, but nobody bugged us, and we had a Coca-Cola and sat all night. I remember hearing Tatum and Dizzy’s big band, and Milt Jackson’s Quintet and Howard McGhee. They closed at 4 a.m. and we strolled down to 42nd Street and jumped on our 5 a.m. bus for Springfield.

“After one lesson Tristano said, ‘Are you going to 52nd Street tonight? I’m opening for Charlie Parker, and I thought you kids would like to meet him,’” he continued. “We held back on the pasta and the records so we could buy two Coca-Colas, showed up early at Three Deuces, and got our usual spot by the drums. Tristano’s trio played the first set, and then somebody took us backstage—well, it was a papier mache curtain and a small space behind the bandstand—and there was Charlie Parker sitting on the floor with a cherry pie. He said, ‘Hi, kids! Would you like a piece of cherry pie?’ ‘Oh, Mr. Parker, cherry is my favorite flavor.’ We sat on the floor with Bird, and he pulled out his knife, cut us a big slab. We wolfed it down and talked about music. Then we went back and listened to the genius of the world play the saxophone.”

In 1949, Woods matriculated at Juilliard as a clarinet major, and joined New York’s young fraternity of card-carrying beboppers. “In Springfield we listened to records and jammed all the time, but the only Bird solo I ever copied was ‘Koko,’ although I would cop licks and analyze,” he recalled. “Sal Salvador was the first cat among us to go to New York, and he had a pad in a big old brownstone on Riverside Drive and 93rd Street. Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney were in that building, too, and Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, John Collins and Billy Bauer came to jam sessions. There I finally understood what bebop was. I was still into a diatonic approach, more a swing approach to improvising. That’s when I started understanding the use of all 12 tones, those in-between notes.”

During his four years at Juilliard, then located in Morningside Heights, Woods heard Ussachevsky’s early taped experiments and musique concrete and attended John Cage lectures. He heard new work at the Composers Forum, and attended the rehearsals of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” at the Metropolitan Opera with a score in hand. For his final thesis, he analyzed Bartók’s “Music For Percussion, Celeste And Strings.”

“I’d listened to Stravinsky and Schoenberg in high school because I knew Bird liked it, but I was not equipped to play classical music when I got there,” Woods said. “My first couple of years I spent hours each night at the record library, trying to catch up to violinists who played Beethoven. By the same token, for my first year keyboard harmony placement test, I played a Bud Powell solo, and was put into the third-year class.”

In stark contrast to such highbrow influences, Woods, who had started a family and moved to Brighton Beach, in southern Brooklyn, made rent money on club jobs around the boroughs and dance band gigs, most notably with Charlie Barnet. In 1953, he joined Barnet on a tour that concluded at the Apollo Theater, coinciding with Woods’ final recital.

“Between shows I’d leave the Apollo, where I was playing for Pigmeat Markham and Honi Coles and the sword swallowers, and run over to Juilliard to play Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky,” he recalled. “Or I’d practice them unaccompanied between shows, and then stash the clarinet in what I thought was a good place. Like a fool, I left it there overnight the day before my exams. Somebody stole it. When I told my teacher, he said, ‘You were doing fine until you started sticking that needle into your arm.’ I was scuffling, and it was not a joyous time. I said, ‘Fuck you,’ went back to the Apollo, did the six shows for the day, and never looked back.”

Soon after, Woods had a steady gig with drummer Nick “Fabulous” Stabulas, trumpeter Jon Eardley and bassist Teddy Kotick, all boppers, at the Nut Club, a strip joint on Sheridan Square. Gil Evans and other friends came by; a gallon of wine on the bandstand alleviated the boredom.

“I was going through this agonizing youthful angst,” Woods said, launching another oft-told episode. “I went to Juilliard, played with a couple of bands, and all I’m doing is playing ‘Harlem Nocturne’ for strippers. I don’t like the mouthpiece, or the reed, or the horn, or even the strap. I’m not making progress. I’ve got to get some new equipment, and break this mold I’m in.”

One night a report came in that Charlie Parker was jamming across the street at Arthur’s Tavern, still extant, at Seventh Avenue and Grove. “There was a three-octave piano and a 90-year-old guy playing it, and his father was on drums, which consisted of a couple of pie plates and a 10-inch snare,” Woods said. “Bird was playing on Larry Rivers’ baritone sax, and I could tell he was having trouble. I said, ‘Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to use my alto’—the one that I figure is not very good and I’ve got to get a new one and all that shit. I retrieved my horn for him, and he played ‘Long Ago and Far Away.’ Then he handed it to me and said, ‘Now you play.’ I played my imitation of a master, all the masters I had listened to and loved, and he leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Sounds real good, Phil.’ I can still hear him saying it. I levitated back across Seventh Avenue and played the shit out of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’ I stopped looking for the magic reed, the magic mouthpiece, and started to practice—stop the maudlin Irish horseshit and just get on about your career. It was a great musical lesson.”

Woods took the lesson to heart. While remaining in Barnet’s employ, he worked with bop pianist George Wallington, hit Monday nights at Birdland with arranger Neil Hefti and drummer Jim Chapin, and recorded as a sideman with all of them. Another sideman date, with Jimmy Raney for Prestige in 1954, led to three well-received Woods-led quintet sessions for the label. In 1956 Birdland owner Morris Levy paid Woods $400 a week, big money then, to play on a 10-week “Birdland All-Stars” tour as an opening act (with Al Cohn, Kenny Dorham and Conte Candoli) for a lineup including the Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young and Bud Powell.

“Al Cohn and I took the seat over the wheel, right behind Bud and Prez,” Woods said. “They didn’t talk for 10 weeks. Bud stared out the window, and Prez rolled joints and shot dice with Basie in the back seat. Al and I would play two tunes, and get the rest of the night off, and we’d play gin rummy and sip from a pint of scotch; Bud always came by in hopes that we’d give him a drink. Once the Basie cats got their itinerary, they knew exactly what their existence would be like for the next ten weeks, which amazed me. ‘We’ll stay with Annie Mae here, and have some collard greens, we’ll eat this here, get a reefer here, get some good corn liquor there.’ When we got south of Baltimore, the black cats had to go to a different hotel, and I became an irate white guy. I said, ‘I’m going to go stay with you guys.’ They said, ‘Phil, it don’t go like that. We don’t want you in our hotel; it’s just going to put heat on us.’ I had to learn all about that.

“The black cats viewed the world with a certain street-wise sophistication,” he continued. “You’re playing music; this is important shit. You look right, you be right. They had to exhibit a certain level of professionalism to rise above the position that white society put them in. ‘We do shit that you cats can’t possibly touch.’ But if you’re an ofay and you can cut the mustard, man, they’re going to share with you.”

Although Woods earned respect—and gigs—from such tough-to-please black elders and peers as Gillespie, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk, the skin game worked against his reputation as a hardcore jazz musician in the racially charged environment in which jazz operated from the late 1950s through the ’60s. It didn’t help that Woods was making a name as an heir to Charlie Parker’s throne, most visibly in a battling saxes combo with white altoist Gene Quill. To add fuel to the fire, in 1957 Woods married Chan Parker, the mother of two of Charlie Parker’s children, drawing accusations on the level of Art Pepper’s subsequent shit-sling, “Phil Woods loved Charlie Parker so much, he married his wife.”

“I could feel the buzz,” said Woods, who in A Life In E-Flat recounts a night at the Five Spot when Charles Mingus, noticing that Woods was blowing on Parker’s old King alto, glared balefully at him from the foot of the bandstand. “But most cats were pretty cool—I was with Dizzy’s band, and you didn’t mess with Dizzy’s guys. And Miles was a dear friend; he never gave me any crap. I knew I was good, but I wasn’t sure I had it. I was aware that it’s a black art form, and had the self-doubts of a white guy coming up, but Dizzy and Art Blakey said, ‘Get yourself together; you can play!’ That was the end of that shit. So I was ensconced in a level of musicianship that, ‘OK, he married Bird’s widow, but I don’t think we should mess with him.’ People who knew me knew I was not exploiting the issue, that I was genuinely in love with Chan and I was taking care of the family. Even Mingus knew that. He wouldn’t mess with me! Chan would have killed him.

“The first music I studied was Benny Carter, and I hear more of Benny than Bird in my work early on,” he continued. “I was trying to become my own man, and when I listen to the early records, I think I was already finding my voice. I sounded pretty damn good. I never tried to sound like Charlie Parker. As Lee Konitz said, it was too hard. Or as Gene Quill said, ‘Here, YOU imitate Charlie Parker.’ When I heard Bird’s recording of ‘KoKo’ at 14, that’s all she wrote—no pun intended. It was my epiphany. Within 8 bars I understood that I wanted to be a jazz musician. ‘KoKo’ was the only solo I transcribed, but I learned all the tunes, of course. If I heard a phrase I liked, I’d steal it. That’s how you learn music—or writing or painting. It’s a noble tradition.”

Unlike many Parker acolytes among his peer group, Woods did not succumb to heroin. “People tried to get me to do it, but I never related to it,” he stated. “I snorted some once in Florida because I didn’t know any connection, and wouldn’t be able to get it again. I hated it. I’m an uppers guy. When I was a kid, I’d break down benzedrine inhalers, put them in a Coca-Cola and then listen to Charlie Parker for six hours straight.”

The drinking got worse, as Woods, feeling increasingly trapped in the New York studios as the ’60s progressed, binged after sessions and spent more and more nights in the city. It’s not hard to see why: of the hundred or so sessions comprising Woods’ discography between 1960 and 1968, he led only two—the Hentoff-produced Rights Of Swing (1961) and a novelty album called Greek Cooking (1966).

“My jazz credentials were not quite what I thought they should be,” Woods said. “I was known in New York, but I wasn’t getting out of town much unless it was with somebody else’s band. By 1968, the jazz scene was dying down, and although I was busy-busy-busy, it was mostly jingles. Most of the work was television, selling Coca-Cola and Buick cars, and I wasn’t playing any music. I decided to move to Europe.”

Within six months, Woods noted with some irony, he was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival with the European Rhythm Machine, his first-ever working group, comprising either Gordon Beck or George Gruntz on piano, Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. Based in the farming village of Champotteux for the next three years, he spent much time in Paris, shed his blue gig suit, grew his hair long and sprouted a moustache, experimented with electronic sax and piano, and took his music to a Woodsian version of the outer partials. In the process, he finally became an international jazz star.

“I sounded like I was let out of jail,” Woods said of his European tonal personality, which incorporated, among other things, intervallic ideas postulated earlier in the ’60s by Eric Dolphy, who Woods got to know well in the John Lewis-led Orchestra, USA. “We were a hot band. We weren’t playing what I’d call free jazz, but it wasn’t your father’s jazz either. You were expected to be an artist and to experiment in Europe. In America they want to put you in a box, but Europe didn’t play that game so much. They take their jazz very seriously, and I thrived on it.”

During these years, Woods commingled with such radical Paris-based musicians as Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “Strangely enough, Braxton told me that listening to my records with Oliver Nelson kept him sane when he was in the military,” said Woods, whose tune ‘HUK2E’ is a put-on of Braxton’s ’70s titles. “As with Cage, I like Braxton’s philosophy more than his music. I like the idea of tearing down the walls, and I appreciate an artist who affects the world. Braxton has affected the world. Still, I find that approach rather limiting. How many ways mathematically are you going to divide things? If you’re such a great artist, why do you need a system? Why don’t you just make the melodies?”


A man as many-sided as Woods may never find inner peace and harmony, but he has, in his seventies, brought the “maudlin horseshit” under control. “I had joneses, and I’ve had to deal with them,” he said bluntly. As an example, he recalled an early morning 50 years ago when, after dropping a couple of sleeping pills on top of the wine over the course of a night of “Harlem Nocturne” at the Nut Club, he raced down the platform of the West 4th Street subway station to catch the Brighton Beach train, tripped, fell on the tracks, and landed a few feet short of the front car.

“Dumb high, but you got loaded,” he said. “After coming so close to biting the bullet, I said, ‘I don’t think I should do that any more’—and I never did. Another time, the early quartet, with Mike Melillo, was working Hoppers, and I got so juiced that I had to give the money back. It was $700. The next day I said to myself, ‘You wanted to be a jazz musician all your life, you’ve got a good band, you’re working—you can’t play and you have to give the money back? You dummy!’ Music first. Not drugs first. Not booze first. So I developed a discipline—play the gig and then drink. I thought I was cool, but then I would drink too much; eventually, that didn’t work either. I never woke up with the shakes or anything. I just drank too much. I stopped. I’ve tried AA and that doesn’t work for me. I’ve been an independent motherfucker doing it my way for as long as I can remember, so I couldn’t adjust to that. Now it’s only the music and my family. And coffee. The last jones. I have a big espresso machine.”

Sober and sage in his golden years, Woods commands as loyal and intense a fan base as any musician in the business. Even so, he still seems to consider himself ever so slightly misunderstood and underappreciated.

“Sometimes I think my artist credentials are suspect,” he said. “Somebody in the band ran across a young saxophone player who mentioned my name, and the cat said, ‘Oh, the technical guy’.” He shook his head disbelievingly. “The technical guy. Yeah, right.

“And there are still people in France who think you can’t possibly play if you’re white. A black writer once rapped the Phil Woods Quartet, saying, ‘Phil Woods used to work with Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, and took all our music, and now he doesn’t hire any black people.’ Now, you’ve got to realize that the band began when I was staying at Bill Goodwin’s house in the Poconos, which is a lily-white part of the world, and Steve Gilmore and Mike Melillo lived there. There were no black cats. I would prefer to have a salt-and-pepper band, but I’m not going to go out of my way to find one.”

These things being said, Woods has no apologies.“I’m not an innovator,” he said. “I just play songs, man. I play bebop. I’m influenced by Harold Arlen and Charlie Parker and Jerome Kern and Thelonious Monk. I don’t consider myself in those ranks creatively, though. I keep the flame going. I’m very happy to be a good player. A pro. I’ve sometimes referred to myself as ‘a soldier for jazz.’ Sometimes I’d like to change persona and make up a whole new self. But it doesn’t seem to work. It’s too late to change.”


Filed under Alto Saxophone, Article, DownBeat, Phil Woods

It’s Gary Bartz’s 71st Birthday: Three WKCR Interviews From the ’90s

Below are the proceedings of several interviews I conducted with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz — who turns 71 today — on WKCR on different occasions during the ’90s.  The first, from February 1997, captures his remarks during a 5-hour restrospective of his musical production; following it is a composite interview drawn from encounters in 1990  and 1995 (one of them—can’t remember which—was a Musician’s Show). There’s some repetition of anecdotes and analyses, but they’re different enough that it seems worth it to offer both.

Gary Bartz Profile (2-9-97):

[MUSIC: “Tico-Tico” (1994), “Impressions”]

The conjunction of hearing you perform music by Charlie Parker and the ever-present influence of John Coltrane in your sound gives me a good starting point for the interview — to talk about your initial exposure to their music, the impact of that music on you. I know you had contact with Coltrane.  Did you ever see Charlie Parker in the flesh as a youngster?

Actually, one of his last performances in ’55, he came to a club in Baltimore called the Club Tijuana, which happened to be right around the corner from where I grew up.  Unfortunately, I was around 14 years old and couldn’t get in there, and nobody could take me, so I sneaked out of the house every night — even though I was going to school — and went around, and tried to wait outside, hoping he would come out.  I met a lot of the musicians when they came out on a break.  I met Johnny Hodges, I met Lockjaw Davis, I met a lot of people like that.  I could hear him because there was a french fry place right next door attached to the club which had swinging doors whenever the waitress would come in, but the bandstand was situated so I couldn’t see him.  So I never really saw him, but I heard him live.

Well, you’d assimilated a lot of his recordings and studied them as an aspiring saxophonist.  Do you remember your first consciousness of his music and where you were in your development?

The first time I heard Bird I was 6 years old, and I didn’t even know what a saxophone was.  I didn’t know that’s what he was doing.  If someone had told me, “That’s a piano,” I would have thought that’s what it was.  But I knew right then that I wanted to do that.  Whatever it was he was doing, it just caught me.  So it was at an early age, at 6.  I didn’t get a saxophone until I was 11.  But in retrospect, I realize that I listened through those five years before I got the horn.  So I was actually studying the music before I got the instrument.  Which is why I always say a lot of people who say, “Well, I used to play” or “I don’t play an instrument”…a lot of people are musicians who just don’t play an instrument.  I mean, their ears are just as keen as a musician’s, and sometimes even better than a lot of musicians’ ears.  They just never worked on learning an instrument.  So when you’re playing music for a lot of people, especially the more knowledgeable fans, I consider them as musicians also.

Your having the opportunity to hear the Charlie Parker record so young implies that your parents were aware of him and playing the music around the house, and I gather your mother was a pianist as well.

Well, she played in church.  But actually, yes, they did have a lot of the music around the house.  We had almost everything Nat King Cole did, and a lot of things like that. My uncle, who was my father’s youngest brother, he was the real Bebop fan.  He had the Charlie Parker records and the Dizzy Gillespie records.  He used to come to New York and shop for clothes.  He had a nickname.  He was so sharp, they called him Sharp Bartz, because he would always come back from New York with the slickest stuff, the latest records and stories about musicians.

Baltimore was part of what was known as the around-the-world circuit on the Eastern Seaboard for Black performers.  It would be Boston-Washington-Baltimore-New York.  Would you go to hear a lot of the acts that came through?

Yes.  The first time I can remember really seeing live music was at the Royal Theater.  To this day, that for me is where music should be presented, is in a theater.  Nightclubs are close to the public, but you don’t really have people’s undivided attention.  There are other things that are really more important when you’re working in a nightclub.

You were coming up at sort of the tail end of the big band period.  What’s a sampling of who you’d see?

Louis Jordan.  I was a big Louis Jordan fan.  I actually think I may have heard Louis Jordan before I heard Charlie Parker.  His humor attracted me, and the alto  playing and the swing attracted me also.  So I remember definitely seeing Louis Jordan.  He had a revue.  He had a chorus of beautiful women dancing — a big show.  I saw Duke Ellington there.  The house was also a good band.  That’s the first time I ever saw Albert Dailey.  He was in that band.  I remember sitting there watching a show, and I saw this young kid come in and ease the older guy off of the piano bench, and he took over.  I said, “Wow.  My hero.” [LAUGHS] Then I met Albert and we struck up a great friendship, musically and otherwise.

Does this imply that as a teenager, let’s say, when I’m assuming this happened, you started playing with various like-minded peers, or even for small-change type of gigs around Baltimore?

Yeah.  Actually, my first solo was in church.  I played “I Believe.”  That was actually the real beginning.  Then I played a few solos in school, the same “I Believe.”  That became my signature tune, so to speak.  Then we formed a dance band from the high school band I was in (City College High School), and from that dance band there were various factions who would play dances and parties and different functions.  So that’s how it started.  Then I started meeting other people.  I started going out to the clubs.  My father used to take me out to the jam sessions.  That’s how I met John Coltrane and Benny Golson.  I met them both together.  They were in town with Earl Bostic, and I met them at a jam session.  Benny said he and John went back to New York saying, “Man, there’s this young kid in Baltimore” — unbeknownst to me, because I didn’t think I was doing anything.  But I started meeting musicians by going out to clubs like that.

You were able to sit in, even, at a certain point?

My father, he was pushy… One time we went down to see Sonny Stitt, of all people (because I love Sonny Stitt), so my father went back and spoke to him and that I played and that my horn was out in the trunk.  So of course, Sonny Stitt made me get up… I really didn’t want to get up there, but he made me get up and play a Blues.  I’m just about 14 years old.  He took me through all the keys on a Blues.  Fortunately, I didn’t know one chord from the other, they were all the same to me, so I was just going strictly by ear — so I played all of the keys. [LAUGHS] He liked that.  So we struck up a friendship which lasted also.

Any other sitting-in experiences that come to mind as memorable?

Well, that’s actually how I met Max.  I went down and sat in with Max.  Again, my father — “Yeah, he’s good.”  So Max said, “I want to hear this kid.”  They’re trying to show you’re not that good.  So I went up and Max played “Cherokee”.

A classic strategy to defeat a neophyte.

Yeah.  But Bird was my man, and I knew “Cherokee.”  That’s when I met Clifford Jordan, who became a lifelong friend.  I think Julian Priester was in that band.  And Max also said when and if I came to New York to look him up, gave me his number, and when I came about three years later I did look him up, and he and Abbey looked after me and helped to raise me, really, in my formative years in New York, and finally asked me to join the band.  That was the first professional band I was ever in.

You came up in a time when the boundaries were less strictly defined or stratified between the Art aspect of Jazz and the popular function of jazz.  It seems to me that’s had a big impact on the way you’ve approached music through your career as a musician.

I don’t know if you mean during the early years, when things were more segregated.  And Baltimore was a segregated city right straight down the line.  We had Black high schools, we had White high schools.  In the public park we had a Black swimming pool, we had a White swimming pool.  Everything was totally divided.  My mother couldn’t try on clothes in the department store.  I didn’t realize what this was a kid; that’s just the way things are, you know.  But I know I used to wonder, “I wonder why she’s not trying that on.”  Later I found that out.

But when I started coming out into the club scene, it seemed like it was the end of an era where… The theater brought people together.  You would have on the same bill a jazz group, an R&B group, a comedian, a dancer, a singer –you would have a complete thing.

And at a pretty high level.

For sure.  Consequently, they had to travel together going from town to town.  They’d spend six months out of the year together traveling sometimes.  So there was a community, is what I’m trying to say.  There was a definite community.  Because it was segregated, we couldn’t stay in certain hotels.  You had to always stay in the Black hotels.  When you went to Chicago you stayed in the Hotel Evans, at the Dunbar when you went to Washington, uptown at the Theresa in New York, in Philly.  So there was a good sense of community.  That has eroded.  We don’t even know each other now.  The actors don’t know the dancers; they don’t know the musicians.  The rappers don’t know the singers.

It’s very segmented.

Very segmented.  And I think that’s to our detriment, to everyone’s detriment.

In asking the question (and I think your answer was very thought-provoking) I was also thinking more in terms of the pure aesthetics of the music.  The jukeboxes would mix let’s say Nat Cole and Louis Jordan and Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter’s “Wrinkles” or something like this.  Styles were more mixed.  Can you address it from that end?

Well, I think that still goes on, the deeper you get into the Black community.  That still happens.  There are certain clubs in different cities that I go into, and you’ll have Billy Eckstine with maybe Babyface.  You’ll have a Charlie Parker, you’ll have a Dinah Washington, you’ll have Aretha Franklin, you’ll have Michael Jackson.  See, we don’t think like that, as segmented…to segment things out.  I’m sure a lot of people are like that.  But if you look through my record collection, you’ll see everything.  I don’t know whether I’m a good example.  But if you look through a lot of people’s record collection or CD collection, I think it’s varied.  They might not tell you that they listen to some of that stuff! [LAUGHS]

Your record album, The Blues Chronicles on Atlantic, brings to mind a lot of the work you did in the 1970’s with the NTU Troop and the various recordings that many of your fans are quite familiar with, and which they’re probably waiting to hear us play.  Part of what I was leading to with that question was your interest in narratives and using music to present a broader picture than just a purely musical experience in a very conscious way.

Early on also, in studying musicians and composers, I ran across something about Beethoven, who happened to be one of my heroes.  Talking about his symphonies, he said he would write a light symphony and then he would write a heavy symphony.  He would mix it up.  He wouldn’t do everything heavy-heavy-heavy or everything light-light-light.  He would write the Eroica and follow that with the Pastorale.  I thought that was a good way to go.  So I’ve tried to do that with my recording career.  I started out with Libra, which was to introduce me to the record-buying public.  Then my second album was very heavy (for me anyway), called Another Earth, about Life — Life everywhere to Infinity.  If it’s about Life, it’s about Death, so it’s about everything.  Then I followed that with a lighter album, then a heavy album, then back and forth, back and forth.

What has happened, though, even the light albums now are more or less concept albums.  Because when I think of an album, I no longer think of just putting some songs together.  There has to be a reason to do that.  So the songs have to connect in some kind of a way.  So I guess every album that I do lately has been a concept album.

[Bartz, “The Five Dollar Theory” (1996); “Rise” (1969); “Parted”; “Celestial Blues”]

There are so many questions raised listening to the music in a set like that.  I’d like to get more into biography, talk to you about your coming to New York, the connections you made here, and your emergence as a professional musician in the jazz community.  I gather you came to New York to go to school.

Yes.  I came to New York in 1958, and went to Juilliard for about two years, and met a lot of musicians — Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard.

You didn’t meet them at Juilliard, I take it.  Or did you?

No, I didn’t meet Freddie.  I met Lee at Juilliard, though.  Addison Farmer, Andrew Cyrille, Grachan Moncur, Bobby Thomas, Roland Hanna — all were going to Juilliard at the time.

What was the curriculum like at that time?

I was actually an extension student, so I wasn’t going full time.  But full-time, they were taking English classes, History, all that.  All I wanted to work on was music, so that’s what I opted for.  But it was a full curriculum.  They also had the dance wing.  It was extensive.

What was climate like, say, in 1958 in an institution like Juilliard for someone who was interested in playing Jazz?

[LAUGHS] Jazz was like… We talked about in the corners.  You didn’t talk about it in class.  But that’s really where I learned chords, harmony and theory, was from the musicians.  Grachan Moncur in particular kind of guided me as far as that’s concerned.  Then we’d go out and night and play.  There were a lot of jam sessions going on.  Count Basie’s.  You could go up to Branker’s up where the 155th Street Bridge is.  Babs Gonzales had a room over top of Branker’s in Harlem called Babs’ Insane Asylum, which lasted for a few years, and we worked up there and had jam sessions.  The Bronx.  You could go to Brooklyn, the Blue Coronet, the Baby Grand.  There were so many places to go.  So whatever neighborhood you lived in, there was someplace to go.  You had the Continental in Brooklyn, and the Turbo Village.

Speaking of sitting in, things that come to mind:  One night at Turbo Village, I noticed this man… We were sitting, waiting for the next set to go up and play, to jam, and I noticed this man was staring at me, this very intense stare.  I got up and moved, and I realized he was still staring at the same spot; he wasn’t really staring at me.  But when we went up to perform, I realized that was Bud Powell.  So I actually played two songs with Bud Powell in my life [LAUGHS], which was something — I’m telling you.  I still remember it.  I know we played “Bud’s Bubble” and I can’t remember what the other song was, probably a blues.  But that was a unique experience.

It sounds like an incredibly exciting time to be a young musician in New York City.

Yeah, I think it was.  It was the end of an era, the tail end of the Bebop Era.  Bird had passed three years previous, and things were just beginning to change.  Rock-and-Roll was beginning to take over a lot of venues.  But still there were many more clubs open and many more places to play.  Being the end of the era, it was still happening.  So I feel fortunate that I did come at that time.

Some of the things that happened around then were the emergence of Ornette Coleman during his Five Spot gig, John Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps” and those discoveries, Max Roach was doing things like the Freedom Now Suite and Percussion Bitter Sweet, Mingus was really extending his music.  Were you apprised of all these developments and the new things that were happening in Jazz at that time?

Oh, yes.  Actually, I met Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk performing with Charlie Mingus down at the Village Gate.  He had this big band jazz workshop, an improvised big band, so we’d go down.  The sax section was being led by Eric, but Rahsaan… I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I remember that.  This was ’58 or ’59.  Charles would just come over to each section leader and hum what he wanted you to play, and then cue you, and then we’d play it.  It was a totally improvised big band setting, and that was exciting.

I remember when Ornette came to town.  That was the talk of the town.  I mean, everybody… I think I was in there almost every night, whether I was in there or outside.  Miles came in one night, Dizzy came and sat in with him, Philly Joe sat in one night.  Just everybody was coming down and wanted to see, “What is this new music?”  So that was just a very exciting period.

Then you could go up to Count Basie’s and jam up there.  Anybody might come up there.  I remember many a night coming home on the subway with Freddie Hubbard and Andrew.  They lived in Brooklyn.  I lived uptown, in Washington Heights, but I would spend a lot of time in Brooklyn.  So I eventually moved to Brooklyn. [LAUGHS] All my friends were in Brooklyn.  Just everywhere you went.

How about as far as beginning to work with other people’s bands or starting to formulate your own sound and aesthetic?  You’ve mentioned some of your earlier associations.  How does that start coalescing into a career?

I remember my first gigs in New York were out at Far Rockaway with just an R&B band.  That’s a long ride on the subway.  I’d go out to Far Rockaway, and we’d do these gigs every weekend.  So that was really my first gigs.  Then a few gigs here and there, and things happened.  Turbo Village, I did that one week, with Andrew Cyrille and Grachan Moncur.  Then Max called me in 1964, and that was my first really being in a professional band.

So you’re 23 years old, and joining Max Roach.  Since your experience at 15 or 16 playing at presumably some supersonic tempo by Max Roach, you had kept in touch with him, you mentioned before.

Right.  We never lost touch from that time period.

On the next segment, we’ll hear earlier recordings, beginning with Gary Bartz with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — an uncredited composition, nor is Gary credited on the back of the jacket.

That was actually my first recording.

How did you come to join the Messengers?

Oh, that’s a good story.  Actually, they were working at my father’s club in Baltimore.  My mother and father had a nightclub for about five years, from 1960 to 1965, called the North End Lounge, primarily so that I’d have a place to play.  I mean, that was a big sacrifice, even though my father liked doing that.

So were you commuting back and forth from New York to Baltimore?

Yes, I’d do the reverse commute from New York to Baltimore on the weekends, and come back to New York during the week.  John Hicks was in the band, and Charles Tolliver, who was not in the band…Lee Morgan was actually in the band, but Lee wouldn’t show up a lot of nights.  So Charles would follow the band around sometimes, and in case Lee wouldn’t show up then Charles would make the gig.  They knew John Gilmore was about to leave, so we all being friends, Charles and John and I (and we had groups together around that period), they encouraged Art, “Call this guy, Gary Bartz.”  My father said, “Yeah, you’ve got to…”  There he goes again!  My agent.  He would have been a good agent.  So my father called me and said, “Well, look, Art is going to need a saxophone player, so why don’t you come down here and sit in with the band, let him hear you” — which I did.  As John says, Lee cosigned it, because Art would have never hired someone without Lee’s okay.  But they liked what they heard, and I joined the band right there in my father’s club.

The track we’ll hear is “Freedom Monday” which is credited to Art Blakey, but it’s Gary’s composition!  This is from Soulfinger on Limelight…

It has Freddie and Lee.  Like I say, Lee might not show up, so Art, to cover all bases, asked Freddie to come down just in case Lee didn’t show up.  Lee showed up, so we have Lee and Freddie both on this record.

[MUSIC: GB w/Blakey, “Freedom Monday” (1964); GB w/Max, “Libra” (1965); GB w/McCoy, “Smitty’s Place” (1969); Bartz, “Disjunction” (1968)]


…Jack de Johnette, who was on drums, that wasn’t electric.  Miles was electric, Keith was electric.  Dave Holland was playing bass when I joined the band, and he was playing acoustic and electric both, at different points.  It was so loud sometimes that I’d get so frustrated.  I would feel like “nobody can hear me, what am I doing here?”  I had never really been in a group with that much electricity associated with it.  The speakers would sometimes be 12 feet tall!  They’d put two 6-foot speakers on each side of the stage.  It was loud.

You were playing arenas and even stadiums occasionally.

Sure.  Most of the time we were playing big, big venues.  So like I said, I didn’t think I would last too long.  But I guess he liked what he heard.  So finally I said, “Miles, I can’t hear.  It’s too loud.”  He said, “Well, tell the sound man!” [LAUGHS] So I told the sound man, and I never had a problem.  He made sure I could hear myself.  So I began to learn how to deal with sound and being loud or being heard, or how to play, or how to deal with different contexts.  If I’m playing in a loud group, you can’t play the same way as you would play in a more acoustic group.  So you begin to learn how to play in different settings.  That was very helpful to me.

What had been your interaction with Miles Davis before joining the band?

Well, I used to see him all the time.  I used to see him at Birdland.  We would speak, say hello, just from seeing each other so much.  And I guess he knew who I was, because he would go out a lot to listen to music.  In the early days he would never hire a musician unless he had heard him in different circumstances, and unless that musician had served apprenticeships in other groups.  You were well-seasoned by the time you got to Miles.

But one memorable occasion was the Count Basie engagement, which was the famous… I was working with Max.  We did ten days at Count Basie’s in Harlem.  The bill was Max Roach and Miles Davis.  You couldn’t get near the place.  I mean, literally, you could not get near that place.  Cars, people crowded right on that corner.  So that was the first time that I really knew that Miles knew who I was.  One night he came in to see me with McCoy, and that next week he called me to join the band.  I don’t think he came in to see me with McCoy, but he came to see somebody with McCoy.  I won’t mention who it was, but he was thinking about using them in the band.  He came in and heard me in the band, and he ended up calling me.  When he called me, I didn’t think it was really him.  Because friends tease each other, so we would call each other up and, [MILES WHISPER] “how you doin’?  This is Miles.”  “No, this isn’t Miles; I know who this is.”  So when it really happened, I thought it was a friend just teasing me.  And it took a couple of minutes to realize, “Unh-oh, this is the real thing.”

Joining the band did you just come in cold?  Did you go in and hit and had to find your way as you went along?  Was there any orientation?

Well, there was a little orientation.  We rehearsed.  Miles rehearsed the band.

What was the band when you came in?

Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea both.  Chick hadn’t left the band when I first joined.  So when I joined it was Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Airto Moreira, and Dave Holland.

Now, you were a very well-seasoned player by this time and had covered a lot of different types of music, but as far as I know you hadn’t played in any situation quite like this before.


What did you have to do to function in that ensemble?

Actually, just solo was the main thing.  If I remember, the first few concerts we hadn’t really rehearsed.  We just went in and Miles would tell me when to play, and I would play.  Later we rehearsed, especially when he was hiring Michael Henderson, because Michael needed to learn the music — he knew nothing about that music.  So we had a lot of rehearsing around that time.  But other than that, all I had to do was just play solos, play the Blues. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC:  GB w/Miles, “Sanctuary” (1970-Vienna); GB, “Black Maybe”; GB/Miles, “What I Say?” (1971)]

We’ll move now to more NTU Troop material from the early ’70. These bands had quite a contemporaneous, but haven’t been in print for many years.  Talk a bit about how you conceptualized NTU Troop after leaving Miles Davis.

As you probably heard on the “Black Maybe” cut, I was using a wah-wah pedal on the saxophone, which was a direct result of having worked with Miles Davis and watched him use that wah-wah pedal.  But it’s funny, because the whole time I was with Miles I never used any electronic equipment, other than the microphones.  But after I left the band, I started experimenting on my own time and everything, and I used the wah-wah pedal for about five years in various settings.  Originally, the idea of NTU Troop was to synthesize all of the musics from Africa, whether it be R&B, Rock-and-Roll, whether it be Jazz, whether it be Blues, Latin, Afro-Cuban…

The continuum of Transafrican music, as it were.

Yes.  Most people seemed to either…it was a Bebop band, it was a swing band, it was this kind of band.  I loved all of the musics, and still do love all types of music, and don’t want to be pigeonholed into playing one certain thing.  Because this is what I hear.  And when you listen to a jazz musician, you should be hearing the music from that man’s or that woman’s mind.  I don’t really consider a true Jazz musician who only performs or records what a producer hears for him.  That’s not Jazz.  That’s Pop.  That’s what the record industry wants.  But Jazz has never… You would never go to Duke Ellington and say, “I don’t want to record the Sacred Concert, but why don’t you just do some Gospel tunes?”  I mean, you can’t do that to a Jazz musician!  But I’ve been seeing it more and more in these days, which is unfortunate.  But a true jazz musician has to go his or her own way, and whether it be bad or whether it be good, you have to follow that path and see where it leads.

One of the things that distinguished NTU Troop was your use of spoken word and poetry, blending black narratives with black music.

I’ve always loved poetry.  Poetry and songs are the same for me.  Poetry might not have the music setting, even though you can hear it.  So I started adapting a lot of poems of some of my favorite poets.  “I’ve Known Rivers” is an adaption of “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which Langston Hughes wrote.  I did a Countee Cullen poem called “Incident.”  Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  I still read a lot of poetry, and have ideas to adapt different writers.  So that was one thing, the poetry.

Then also, I realized that music without words is the purest form of language.  But it can be misunderstood by a lot of people who are maybe not following it or don’t understand music so well.  So I felt a need to use more words to explain some things and directions that we were going in.

This is a time when jazz clubs were disappearing in Black communities around the country, much fewer than a decade before.  I’d imagine the idea of wanting to reach people with this music was very much on your mind at this point.

Yes, that played a part, for sure.

[MUSIC: GB, “I’ve Known Rivers” (1973); GB/JMac, “Ode To Super” (1974)]

We’ll stay in the ’70s with music by the Norman Connors group with whom you recorded numerous times.

Eight or nine albums we did.  That was a very good relationship.  One of Norman’s good qualities is that he knows how to put a band together and knows how to put musicians together.  He’s a good producer.  Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, all good people.  I don’t think he ever had a bad record.  So it was always a good occasion.  We didn’t have a copy of that You Are My Starship album, which actually was a gold album, but that’s when I met Phyllis Hyman.  That was Phyllis’ debut on records, and she went on to be big in the industry, and of course we all miss her.  Norman brought out a lot of people.

The date with Jackie McLean brings me back into personal anecdote and recollection.  I gather he was one of the musicians who you admired for many years going back to teenage years.

Oh, sure.  I had met Jackie early on, when I first moved to New York.  At least by 1960 I know I had met Jackie, and had loved him always before I even moved from Baltimore, before I came to New York, had all of his records, listened to him, followed him.  While I was going to Juilliard, Grachan Moncur started working with Jackie and started doing recordings, so I used to go hang out with him and sat in with Jackie a few times.  We became friends and have maintained that friendship.

He’s a musician who shares your interest in narratives and adding to the purely instrumental context words and dramatic situations.  Some words about other saxophonists who were influential on you.  You’ve made no bones about your allegiance to Sonny Rollins, the great tenor player.

Yes, indeed.  That’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and one of my favorite people.  A lot of people say, “Oh, you look like Sonny,” and I started wearing a goatee and trying to look like Sonny for a while.  This was when I was a teenager, of course.  But I go back with Sonny from the beginning.

You mentioned once in an interview that you used to go hear him, and one thing you liked was that from night to night you never knew what sound you were going to hear.

You never knew which Sonny.  I know when he was at the Vanguard I was down there every night, and he was there for like two weeks.  One night you might hear him play all Lester Young songs all night, “Three Little Words,” “Tickletoe,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” all songs associated with Prez, and he would actually a lot of times play note-for-note Prez’ solos, which was very impressive to me, because I realized that he knew all of these solos.  I  didn’t know a lot of those solos, but after hearing him play them it made me really want to go listen to Prez even more.  Another night he would play all songs associated with Coleman Hawkins — “Stuffy,” “Cottontail,” “Body and Soul.”  He would again play Coleman’s solos note-for-note before he would play his solo.  I mean, he would play maybe a chorus or two of the recorded solos that they made famous.  Then another night he’d be Sonny.  Another night he’d be in a Calypso bag.  So I’m paying attention to everything.  He wasn’t limited.  You don’t come in and play the same thing every night, or even play in the same way every night.

So that impressed me, and when I formed a group… Actually, the first band… This is even going back further.  But the first band I ever led was in 1958.  I’ve been a bandleader since 1958!  Grachan Moncur and I took a band on the road.  We took a band to Pittsburgh, to Crawford’s Grill.  So that was my initiation.  Jeff Jefferson was on bass.  Arthur Stanley Trotman, a young drum whiz who would have been one of the great drummers had he lived, he died at a very early age, very tragic.  He OD’ed in a doorway in Brooklyn.  They found him.  He was no more than 17 or 18 at the time.  We had become real good friends, and he’d stayed at my house in Baltimore.  But we went on the road, and he was in that band. Grachan, Arthur, Jeff Jefferson, the bass player from Baltimore, and the pianist was a friend of Grachan’s from Newark, New Jersey, and I can’t remember his full name, but his nickname was Hip (we called him Hip) — so Hip played piano.  Hip was like a Monkish-Randy Weston-Herbie Nichols kind of player.  He was really hip.  The stuff he did for musicians was hip.  The layman might not have thought he was too hip because they might not have understood what he was doing.  I don’t know whatever happened to him.

You mentioned meeting John Coltrane around 1954, but I gather you knew him and stayed in touch with him throughout your time in New York City.

Sure.  If he was somewhere close by, I was there.  I never really got too close to John because I was in such awe of him.  It was like whenever I was around him, I felt stupid. [LAUGHS] Some people affect you like that.  Two people in my life have affected me like that, Malcolm X and John Coltrane.  There was nothing I could say that could make me sound like I was really saying something to them.  So I didn’t say anything much.

When would you be in proximity to Malcolm X?

I used to see Malcolm every day because I used to eat in the Shabazz Restaurant off of 116th and Lenox, and he would come in every day about that time from the Muhammad Speaks office where he would work doing the newspaper.  He would come in and have dinner and shoot the breeze.  Sometimes I’d follow him.  He would walk through the neighborhoods and talk to the brothers and sisters.  He would see the prostitutes and see the drug addicts, and he wouldn’t reprimand them; he would just give a warm greeting and say, “Brother, you know that’s not the way; you could do better,” or tell the sisters, “You can do better than that; don’t let this happen to you.”  And they loved him.  So that was good.  I would also see him in Louis Michaux’s bookstore across from the Theresa Hotel near that diamond store there (I forget what that store was).  He would be in the back sometimes, debating or discussing things with Mr. Michaux, Black history or politics or something.  And where we weren’t privy to go back in the back unless we were invited, we could still hear the conversation, so we would stand around and listen.  Sometimes we were even invited back there and he’d say, “What do you think about this?”  He wanted to know the young person’s opinion.  Also in Michaux’s bookstore, whenever you went in there, you didn’t have to buy anything, which is my idea of a real bookstore.  He would have certain books open each day or each week, and things highlighted and things for you to read and just see.  It was a very interesting bookstore.  If I ever had a bookstore, that’s the way I’d run it.

Those are all part of the dynamics of what made the music of that time what it was in many ways as well.

I think so.

The quality of hearing Sonny Rollins over a week in a club playing in a different way all the time, is that… How do you approach a week in a club?  How do you set yourself up to play something dynamic and fresh and different every night, when you might be playing the same material for the four thousandth time or whatever?

Well, there’s lots of ways.  For instance, when I worked with Miles, for two years we played the same show every night, without too much variation — changing a song here, maybe “Sanctuary” a little earlier.  But basically it was that same order every night.  And most bands end up doing that, because you go with what is working.  If it worked the first few nights, it’s going to work most nights.  It would get to the point I’d say, “Oh, man, I hope we do something different tonight,” and we never would.  But what would happen every so often, Miles would play the songs differently, and take them into an altogether different area or different direction which opened it up for everybody else, which  made me realize, “Okay, we’re playing the same thing every night, but I don’t have to play the same thing. I’m a soloist.  I can take it in any direction I want to.”  So that freed me as far as playing the same music.

Also in acting and comedy, which are two of my pet loves.  I like to do comedy, and I like people like Redd Foxx and Henny Youngman and Bob Hope and people like that, who come out and tell jokes, and they tell them the same way every night.  That is not me.  I’m an improviser.  Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, people like that, Eddie Murphy even (who comes from Bruce and Richard) showed me how to deal with that.  And in acting, where you have to say the same lines every night is parallel to playing the same songs every night.  But I’ve done a few plays.  I even played a lead in one play.  I found out that if you read the lines different, you get different reactions.  So there are different ways of reading the same lines which will give a whole new meaning.

So there is no end to… You should never get bored doing the same thing, because it’s not the same thing.  First of all, it’s a different audience.  Secondly, you’re different each night.  I might be in a different kind of mood, so I’m not going to play the same way I did the night before.  And listening to Sonny and listening to the different musicians, listening to Trane… Now, Trane approached it in another way.  Trane worked hard.  Every night… He had practiced all day long during the day, so when he came to work each night he had something new and fresh to play.  Even if it was the same song, he could take in a whole new direction on something that he had worked on earlier that day.

So I try to use all of these things.

To me, when I hear Gary Bartz play in 1997, or the last decade, you seem to have arrived at a style (I’m going to speak in gross layman terms) that kind of blends the language of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in a very distinctive way.  I wonder if you have any comments about the way of improvising you’ve arrived at.  It’s been many years now, and you’re playing in different situations than you did 20-25 years ago.

To me, it’s just a synthesis of everything that has led up to this particular time.  I’ve been influenced by many people outside of music, which if you know those people you could hear me play the influence that they had given me, even though they never thought about being a musician or whatever.  It might be a little phrase that someone says that catches me, and I incorporate it into the music.  Just like a writer or just like any artist, you’re influenced by life, not just music and not just by musicians.  Life is the big influence.

[MUSIC: GB w/N. Connors, “Butterfly Dreams”; GB, “Music Is My Sanctuary”; GB, “Singerella”]

We’ll hear music from The Blues Chronicles, which dovetails quite well… I think the last three hours of programming is a good introduction to anyone who wants to hear what life and career experiences of Gary Bartz buttress The Blues Chronicles.

Actually it just grew.  It was not originally going to be such a big project.  It was going to be an album — you know?  As I started formulating it I thought, “I’m going to do a blues album,” and as I started putting the songs together for the Blues album I thought, “Do I really want to do an album like a Blues player?  If you want to hear that, you can go listen to B.B. King or Albert King or Bobby Blue Bland or any of the great Blues singers.”  I said, “I think I want to give my interpretation of what I think the Blues are.”  And I do hear the Blues in many places that a lot of people might not hear them.  For instance, some people thought it was a stretch for me to include “Miss Otis Regrets,” which is a Cole Porter tune and not a 12-bar blues by any stretch of the imagination.  But the sentiments involved are Blues, where the woman, who happens to be a rich lady, so this can go to all social strata…

That’s what the Blues is supposed to do.

That’s what it’s supposed to do.  And she finds out that her boyfriend, her lover is messing around, and she goes down and shoots him.  They put her in jail.  The line keeps going when her friend comes to see her…she has a tea appointment, a lunch appointment; the butler opens the door and says, “Sorry, Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today; see, she shot her husband.”  To me, you can’t get any more bluesy than that.  Blues is not, as most people think, just a 12-bar form.  There’s a 5-bar blues on the album, “Makes Me Want To Moan,” there’s a 20-bar Blues; they’re in all different contexts.  A lot of people don’t realize also that the original blues singers and players, you probably never really heard them, because they never felt a need to conform to a 12-bar form.  They might do a 12½-bar form one chorus, the next chorus maybe 14 bars.  And because that began to be a problem… If you were going to have a band, you have to have some kind of criteria.  So if you’re doing a 12-bar blues form, each time it’s going to be 12 bars, so everybody will know where they are.  But the early guys, they might do an 8-bar chorus one time, in the same song the next chorus might be 11 bars or 14½.  In researching a lot of Blues players and listening to them, I realized that a 12-bar blues form is just the most popular form.  So I was trying to show the different areas.  And also the Bob Marley; that to me is Blues.  Flamenco music in Spain is very Blues oriented. Ceseria Evora from St. Verde Islands, that’s Blues to me.  I hear it everywhere.  I hear the Blues in Ravi Shankar.  I heard it in a recording of some Pygmies from deep in the bush.  They had never been out of the bush, out of their forest.  They sang a line which I have heard B.B. King, I have heard Blind Lemon Jefferson, I have heard many musicians over the years do the same phrase that I heard these pygmies do.  Therefore, you know where it comes from.  But I’m sure B.B. never heard those pygmies.  Well, I don’t know; he may have heard them.  But a lot of people who have never heard those recordings of the pygmies or Africans singing in the bush still do it because it’s part of you.  So that’s basically what the album is about.

[MUSIC: GB: “Hustler’s Holler 1-3”; “Passage: Song of The Street””]

Those were the segues that hold the album together.  “Hustler’s Holler” was basically from my childhood in Baltimore.  We had a tradition called Arabbing, where people, young men usually (or older men, too; I’ve seen them in all ages), rent or buy or own a wagon, and they rent or buy or own a horse, and they attach the horse to the wagon, and they’d go around the streets of Baltimore selling products — vegetables, fish, whatever they can get and sell.  They each had a cry, and you could hear them from blocks away coming down the street so you’d know which person it was.  If it was the one that you’d bought from, then you’d go out and buy the goods.  So that’s kind of where that came from.

In thinking about it, everybody’s got a hustle.  Everybody is hustling something, whether it be church, you’re hustling souls, you’re trying to get people to go to church, or whether you’re selling records! [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: GB, “Song Of Loving Kindness”]

My band has    been together for about two years, so it’s a real band.  Greg Bandy and I go back to the ’70s when he first came to New York, and he worked with Roy Ayres, with Pharaoh Sanders, with Betty Carter, Arthur Prysock and many other people.  We’ve always been friends and band-mates through the years.

George Colligan is a young pianist who is going to make a big name for himself, I think.  Every time I’d go to Baltimore and I’d need a rhythm section and would hire George, every time I’d hear him I’d see so much growth… That’s one thing that really impresses musicians, when you can actually hear and see the growth from one gig to the next.  So I when I had a chance to form a band, I definitely had him in mind.  So he’s been with me for a couple of years.  The same thing applies to James King, who is originally from Houston, Texas, but resides now in Maryland.  Like I say, we’ve been together for quite a while.  We’ve traveled all over the world, and hope to continue to be a band.

[MUSIC: GB w/R. Drummond, “Poor Butterfly”]

* * * *

Gary Bartz (WKCR, 10-24-90/1-18-95):

[MUSIC: “Uncle Bubba”] [With George Cables and Ira Coleman at Bradley’s.]

You’ve been thoroughly grounded in Jazz from the beginning.

My mother played piano, and my parents had a lot of records, but my uncle, my father’s youngest brother, the youngest one of all, actually had the records that really got my ear.  They called my uncle Sharp Bartz, because he liked to dress.  He would come up to New York and buy the slickest clothes, and come back, so he’d really be slick in Baltimore — because Baltimore was kind of country, you know.  But he was into the music.  My uncle had the Louis Jordan records; he had the Charlie Parker records.  The first time I heard Louis Jordan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and you name it, was at my uncle’s.  My uncle was friends with Dizzy Gillespie, and he was very good friends with Dinah Washington and a lot of the musicians.  So I would hear him telling stories, and I would always ask.  So it was in my background, I guess.  I used to go by my grandmother’s house, and that was the one thing I looked forward to.  Not even the food or the company.  I wanted to hear the records!  And that’s what got me started.

Were you listening to a lot of radio, too, as a child?

Oh, yes.  I’m a product of radio, really, because TV’s were not in households when I was small.  I can remember our first TV was… I mean, it stood on the floor, and the speaker part was, like, probably up to your waist, and then there was the cabinet with the screen, but the screen was like 12 inches or 10 inches!   It was this big box and this little TV screen.  Now it’s the other way around.  You have big TV screens… Well, big boxes, too, but it’s all the screen.  But yeah, I listened to a lot of radio.

Now, you came up in Baltimore?

Baltimore, Maryland, yes.

Now, your parents actually were in the Jazz business, as club owners?

Well, they got into it.  They weren’t into it until the Sixties.  My father more or less bought the club for me to have some way to work, which is unbelievable! It lasted for about five years, and it was called the North End Lounge.  A lot of people worked there.  Max Roach.  I worked there with Max.  I joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from there.  They were working at my father’s club.

Were there musicians in your family?

No.  Not that I know of.

So listening to this music inspired you to pick up the  horn, or were you doing it…

No.  When I was 6 years old I heard Charlie Parker, and I didn’t know what this was.  I didn’t know what instrument, I didn’t know anything.  At six years old you can’t know that much.  It could have been an organ for all I knew.  But I liked the sound of it, and I knew that I wanted to do that.  Whatever this was, I said “I have got to do that,” which is weird, because at six… That just shows you how open a mind is at that age, and if the mind is subjected to something as positive as that, there’s no telling what might happen.

Well, did they put you on the alto saxophone right away?

No. It took me five years to really convince them that I really wanted to do this. [LAUGHS] So I didn’t really get a horn until I was 11.

Was it an alto?

It was an alto, yes.

So you’ve been playing the alto sax for a very long time.

Quite a while.  Are you trying to get my age?

No, that’s a matter of public record.

It sure is!

Anyway, we’re about to start off the music segment of the show with Lester Young’s “Tickletoe.”  I’d like to know when you first became aware of Prez.

Actually, I had always been aware of Prez.  But when I was younger, because I was into Bird so much, you know, Prez was kind of old-time to me.  As I studied Bird more and more, I heard Bird loved Prez and that’s where Bird came through, so I said, “Well, as much as I love Bird, I’ve got to go back and see where he came from.”  And that’s when I really got into Prez.  It really wasn’t until after he had died, too, which was a shame — because I never saw Prez play live.

Early on I heard a story that Prez, whenever he played a song, before he’d count it off, or rather than count it off, he’d hum the whole first chorus, or sing the whole first chorus, you know — and then you went into the song.  Art Blakey knew the lyrics to all the songs.  Miles, Dizzy, they all knew the lyrics.  Sonny, Coleman Hawkins.  So I realized that’s important.  I started learning the lyrics to the songs, and by learning the lyrics, then I could sing the song.  Because that’s actually what we are.  We are singers in the purest sense of the word, because we don’t even use a language.  We use the language of music — pitch.   So it’s very important.

[MUSIC: Lester Young, “Tickletoe” (1939); “Let’s Fall In Love” (1951); “All Of Me” (1956); “Sometimes I’m Happy” (1943)]

Next up are some songs by Louis Jordan.

Every Sunday, like I said, when I went by my grandmother’s, I had to hear “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”  I know it by heart.  And I’m not alone.  A lot of my contemporaries know that, and also “Beware.”  I used to go to the Royal Theater in Baltimore, which was part of the circuit (you know, with the Apollo and the Howard in Washington), and hear him sing these songs.

Was the Royal Theater the place where all of the big bands would go through?

Yes. I heard everybody from Louis Jordan to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — because I saw them…they were there, too.  Because I was so young, my father would take me, and that’s the first place I ever saw live music, was in a theater.  To this day I think it’s best presented in a theater.

You probably don’t have quite as much opportunity as you’d like…

No.  But more so in Europe.  There are nice theaters over there.

[MUSIC: Louis Jordan, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, “Beware”]

“Saturday Night Fish Fry” contains philosophical lessons that I’m sure you’ve put to good use.

Oh yes.  I mean, what did he say?   He said, “You don’t have to pay the usual admission if you is a cook, a waiter, or a good musician.”  I liked Louis Jordan because he was funny.  As a kid, like, 5-6 years, I’d hear “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and I liked because it was such a funny thing.  It was almost Rap, what he was doing.  I’m highly influenced by Louis Jordan, too, because I love comedy.

We’ve been listening to Lester Young and Louis Jordan.  Now it’s time for Bird.

I had the 78’s of “In The Still of The Night” and “Old Folks.”  Every time Bird came out with a record, I was the first one at the store, or among the first anyway.  This particular record was a 78 of “In The Still Of The Night” backed with “Old Folks” — and I wore several of them out.   Then, “Repetition” and “Just Friends” with the strings.  I love to hear Bird play with strings in the big band situations.  I mean, I loved all the situations, but these were more off of the norm, so they kind of stuck out.

[MUSIC:  Bird, “In The Still Of The Night”, “Old Folks”, “Just Friends,” “Repetition,”]

This material, and indeed just about everything we’ve heard in this first hour of tonight’s program is material that was on the jukeboxes throughout black communities at the time it was released. It was the popular music of the time.

Of the day, yes.  It sure was.  It got to a point at my folks’ club, that they were beginning to phase those records out when Pop Music was beginning to come in, and it got harder and harder to find the Jazz records to put on the jukebox.  So that’s a part of Americana that’s disappeared.

While were playing “In The Still of The Night,” you mentioned you had the 78 of it, and you could see a spot on  it, where you practicing the phrase, that you had worn it out.  I take it that as a young saxophonist, you were avidly studying Charlie Parker and trying to play all his… Is that how it went?

Yes.  I tried to play him note for note…if possible.

Did you have any teachers in this regard, who were giving you tips, instruction…?

No, not at that time.  It was mostly the records.  I learned from the records, until I got into senior high school, in ninth, tenth through the twelfth grade.  Then I had teachers.  I started taking private lessons, which did help.  My first teacher was a man by the name of Mr. Albert Holloway.  I credit him with starting me in the right direction as far as technique is concerned.  He concentrated on solely technique and reading.  From him I learned that you don’t learn everything from any one person.  You have to have many teachers along the way.  And each one, if they can give you something, then they’ve done their job.

What kinds of things did he start you off with?  Was it always an alto?

It was always alto, yes.  Well, he taught me how to read, first of all, which was important.  Then he would jot down songs.  I would say, “Well, write this out for me,” when I would hear a song that I wanted to learn, and he would write it out, and I would learn it and phrase it, and we would go over it.  Nothing involving chords, because I don’t even know whether he was into that.  But as far as learning how to read and playing, getting over the entire board of the horn, he taught me that.

When did actual playing come into your world, playing with little combos, playing jazz or whatever with other musicians?

Probably when I was about 13 or 14. I would say about ’52 or ’53.  See, I had been listening to the music since I was  5 or 6, so it was in my head.  I knew the chords, I knew what I wanted to do from listening for so long, so that when I got the horn, as soon as I could make sounds, I would start to… Like, I would play along with Charlie Parker.  I would play along with Earl Bostic.  I would play along with Tiny Bradshaw, because Red Prysock was  in the Tiny Bradshaw band.  They had a lot of hits.  One I remember is “Heavy Juice.”  It was an instrumental, but it was hot, man.  So I learned the whole thing, Red Prysock’s solo, and tried to sound like him.  So I was initially trying to sound like a tenor.  I always heard tenor, even though I loved Bird.

Does the tenor concept lay naturally on the alto sound?

For me, because the alto is a very funny instrument.  I think it’s the hardest of all the saxophones.

Why is that?

Because of the sound.  It’s such an individual sound; the alto is more of an individual sound.  Most people can pick up a tenor and immediately have a decent sound.  But you can’t do that with the alto.  You can do it with a soprano, if you can get a sound — it’s a decent sound.  But on the alto, it just takes many years to get a sound, and it’s more of an individual type thing, you know.  So that’s why I think it’s the hardest.  I’m sure that’s debatable, but that’s how…

I’ve heard other alto players say that as well!

Well, I’ve heard tenor players say it, too.  And there are a lot of tenor players who started out on alto, and I guess were not satisfied with their sound, and the sound they got playing tenor was more pleasing to them.  But it just takes so long to get a sound on the alto, many years.  And it’s always developing.

When you were 12, 13, 14, were you seeing musicians who came through Baltimore from out of town?

GB:    Oh yeah. Because I was into the music, me and my partner in high school… There were two of us who were into Jazz in elementary school, he was an artist (he’s a painter)…and myself.  So we would go downtown, buy the records and buy the albums, and buy the concerts.  And my father would take me to the major concerts and to the clubs, you know, whenever they came to New York — which they came to New York a lot.  I used to go down to Birdland…

Oh, by this time you’d moved to New York?

No, I hadn’t moved… I didn’t move to New York until 1958.  But they would come up periodically, especially in  the summertime, and take me to Birdland, because that’s the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, is come to  Birdland.

And they had a balcony where kids…

The Peanut Gallery, they called it, where they had no drinking.  They should have that in every club.  If they can have a non-smoking section… They need to have that, too, but that’s another story.

But I was just around the music.  I saw Art Tatum in Baltimore.  I saw Sonny Rollins, who was one of my idols, and went up there and got his autograph, petrified… Just a little kid!  I stood outside of a club around the corner from where I grew up, waiting for Charlie Parker every night, because he was in there.  I heard him, you know, but I was too young to go in.  Most of the musicians would come outside the club for a smoke, or to get some fresh air — and he never came out.  But I peeped in there every night.  That was a few months before he passed.

You also mentioned that in your teens, musicians sometimes would invite you to come on the bandstand.

Oh yeah.

You mentioned one such experience with Sonny Stitt.

[LAUGHS] Well, again, my father was always taking me around, because I couldn’t get in the clubs by myself, being so young.  When I was 14, I went to see Sonny Stitt at a club in Baltimore called the Comedy Club.  I happened to have my saxophone with me.  I must have been somewhere else, you know, because I used to go to the jam sessions, too, and sometimes they’d let me play!  But this particular time, my father goes up to Sonny Stitt and says, “Yes, my son plays,” and so on.  And if you know Stitt, that’s like, “We’ve got to get him up here.”  He got me up, dragged me up on the stage, and had the nerve, at 14, to take me through the keys on the Blues!  At that age, I knew nothing about chords, but I could hear.  It didn’t make no difference.  C-Sharp was the same as C to me, because I didn’t know what it was.  I didn’t know it was supposed to be hard.  So I did it.  And I’ve known him ever since; we were friends ever since then.

By the way, a man named Mickey Fields, who lived in Baltimore, was one of my heroes.  He was just a natural musician.  He could play whatever he heard.  And that influenced me, because I started out, as most musicians do, or as most musicians did, as an ear musician.  I don’t know whether they still do, because they have schools nowadays.  But we had to start out by ear, as ear musicians.  I think that is a thing that a lot of musicians have lost, or lose as they get older.  The more that you know, the less you begin to rely on your ear.  You stop trusting your ear because you trust the notes.  You know, if the chords are written and you’ve memorized them, then you know they are right.  If you’re going by your ear, maybe you might hear something that might not be there — but that’s okay.  So I stress that: Don’t lose your ears.

Is that something you have to constantly remind yourself of?

No, I always work on that.  But there was a time when I had gotten away from it a little bit, and yeah, then I had to remind myself.

In a conversation we had off-mike you said to me that you’re writing a lot of music now so that you can work on things that give you difficulty, that you don’t know so well.

Yes.  Well, actually that’s what Trane was doing when  he wrote a lot of his songs.  If he was having trouble with something, he’d write a song, and that enabled him to work on it.   So that gave me the idea, and I’ve been doing that on a lot of things that I have done.  I mean, why play things that you know?  I mean, that’s for me.  Some people, that’s okay, you know, if that’s what you want to do.  But for me, I need to push myself.  I like to work on things.  I’m always working on something.  So that’s the way my compositions are going nowadays.

How so?  Which way is that?

Towards there should be a reason, you know, for it.  Even if I write a Blues, I’m looking for a key that I don’t play it in often, so then I can work on that key.  But I mean, I’ve played in B-Flat so many times that… It’s so comfortable, you know, sometimes you could get lazy.  I’m not saying that you do, but it’s a possibility.  But if you play a Blues in B, you don’t have time to be lazy.

Back to your teenage days in Baltimore, I take it that the Jazz scene was strong enough that everybody would come through at one time or another.


So you must have had a taste of everything that was going on in the 1950’s.

Yeah, I saw everybody.  Oscar Pettiford.  I saw Art Tatum.  I saw Miles with Trane, Philly Joe, Red Garland and Paul Chambers, saw that band.  Max Roach.  I didn’t see Clifford [Brown], but I understand he was around Baltimore a lot. But you know, I wasn’t out on the scene so much.  You know, I could only go out like once every so often.  Bird spent time in Baltimore.  A lot of people.  It was really a  fertile music town..

We’ve been talking about how Jazz could be heard readily on jukeboxes when you were coming up, and the next track is a particular favorite of yours.

GB:    This track was Part 1 and Part 2.  I hope it’s the full version. I think it was Wayne Shorter’s second record date, but I think it was the first one that came out.  The album is called Kelly Great; it’s Wynton Kelly’s album.  This was a big hit in the Black neighborhoods.  It’s called “Wrinkles,” and if you know what wrinkles are… They’re chitlins.  That’s the slang word for chitlins, “wrinkles.”

[MUSIC: W. Kelly/L. Morgan/Shorter, “Wrinkles” (1960)]

The great Lee Morgan on trumpet.  Lee Morgan was only 21 when he did this record! And did you hear that?

It seems like you could make a great four-hour show on the things Lee Morgan did before the age of 22.

Right?!   You know?  I mean, it’s unbelievable.  This is around the time that I met Lee.  He was working with Dizzy Gillespie when I met him.  Of course, he was a hero, because he was about my age; I think Lee was about two years older than I was.  I was like 18, 19, you know, and here he was, like, the same age and doing, you know, what I wanted to do.  So I followed him around.  That’s how I met Wayne, too, because he took me to New Jersey one night and said, “I want you to hear a saxophone player.”  And I’ve been a Wayne Shorter fan ever since, too.

That track also was with, of course, Wynton Kelly (it’s Wynton Kelly’s album), Philly Joe Jones, who is another one of my heroes, and Paul Chambers, who is the same thing, another hero.

[MUSIC: Miles Davis, “Tadd’s Delight” (1958); Messengers with Bartz, “Soulfinger” (1964)]

That was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers doing a composition called “Soulfinger.”  That happened to be my recording debut.  It featured, of course,  Art Blakey, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, Victor Sproles, John Hicks and myself.  This was a collaboration of everybody, because we needed one more song to finish out the record — so we came up with this.  And Lee was a big James Bond fan…

Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.

No?  [LAUGHS] So he was a big James Bond fan.  So Goldfinger the movie was out, so we called this “Soulfinger.”  I remember around this time we were in San Francisco, and he took me to a… He said, “Come on, Bartz, I want to show you something.”  We walked downtown somewhere, and we go in this store, and he’s looking around, and he says, “There it is, there it is!”  It’s a case of guns.  I said, “What?”  He said, “That’s the P.K. Walter.  That’s the gun that James Bond uses.”  That’s how I got into James Bond.

You also mentioned that you have a fascination with soundtrack music.

Yeah, I do.  I love soundtracks.  That’s why I moved to Los Angeles.  I was going to break into the movie industry!  But little did I know!

Anyway, this Jazz Messengers session was your first recording date.  How did you come to join the Jazz Messengers?  What was the process?

Well, as I said earlier, Art was working in my father’s club, the Jazz Messengers, and John Gilmore was in the band, but John Gilmore was leaving.  John Hicks and I had been friends for, you know, years, and Charles Tolliver was also on the gig, because he was taking Lee’s place whenever Lee didn’t show up.  So they called me.  They said, “Gary, come on down.”  I was living in New York at the time, because I’d moved to New York in ’58 — but this was in ’65.  So they said, “Come on down, because Art’s going to need a horn player, a saxophone player.”  So I came down and played, and I joined the band from there.

Actually, the next gig was with John Gilmore and myself.  We came up and did the Half-Note.  And Lee Morgan.  Lee rejoined the band.

John Hicks was then the piano player?


Was he the music director?  Or was there one at that time?

It was between Lee and John.  Lee wasn’t on all the gigs, because he wasn’t showing up a lot…you know, sometimes… So whoever was there.  But it was between those two.

Just briefly, your comments on your experience with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Oh, that’s a university there.  That’s really a university.  Go get your Masters.  When you leave Art, you really know how to build a solo.  I mean, Art builds the solo for you.  He shows you how to contour a solo.  That’s how I learned dynamics.  Art teaches you dynamics.  He teaches you so many things.  I learned how to speak on a microphone working with Art.  One night he just gave me the mike, and said, “Now make the announcements.”  I couldn’t even think of anybody’s name!  I couldn’t think of Art Blakey.  It’s endless, the things I learned with Art.

How long was your tenure with the Messengers?

GB:    Well, the first time was a year, and then I went back and was in other bands of his, of the Messengers.

You mentioned in another conversation, “Once a Messenger, always a Messenger.”

Always a Messenger.  That’s right.  I think I was talking to one of the younger Messengers about this, telling them how Hicks and I found out we’d lost the gig one time.  We heard them advertising on the radio, “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the Jazzmobile today.”  So we called each other and I said, “Have you heard from Art?”  He said, “No.”  He said, “We’re working tonight, right?”  He said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Well, let’s go together.”  So we went uptown to the gig, and there was a whole new group on the stage!  That’s how we lost the gig.  But later on he called us back, and we came back and did other stints with the band.  So it just dawned on me, you know?  I was always a Messenger.

[MUSIC: Messengers, “A La Mode”, Mobley/Blakey, “Remember”]

Soul Station is my favorite Hank Mobley album.  He once gave me an ultimate compliment, because he wrote a song for me — which I never heard.

We’ll move now to another of your favorites, who you met after moving to New York in 1958.  That must have been a big step for you musically and I guess in many other ways.

Well, I think that’s why musicians and other artists come to New York.  I think in the last century, Vienna was where you had to go, if you were a musician, to learn and to prove yourself.  In this century, you come to New York.  So I couldn’t wait to come out of high school so I could come to New York and learn.

And in ’58, September, to be exact, of ’58, I moved to New York.  I met a lot of people.  Freddie Hubbard had moved to New York in August of ’58.  So there was a lot of people around.  I met Andrew Cyrille, I met Grachan Moncur at Juilliard.  Lee Morgan was in and out of there.  Addison Farmer, Art Farmer’s twin brother.  Roland Hanna was going there.  Bobby Thomas.  A lot of people were going there.  A lot of great dancers who went on to Broadway fame and to win Tony’s and stuff, they were going to Juilliard.  Juilliard was up on 120th and Claremont then, where Manhattan School of Music is now.  They were just in the talking stages of moving down to Lincoln Center then.  So that’s where I was.

So you were combining the academic experience, I assume, with the fairly vigorous nightlife available in New York…

I think you’ve got it backwards.  The academic part was the nightlife.

Actually, I went there with the intention… I said, “Well, I’m going to learn my chords.”  Because I was playing totally by ear.  They didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked them to explain chords to me.  So I ended up learning chords from the musicians that I met there, and from hanging out at night.  That was my real learning experience.

Later on, I was better able to use the things that I learned at school.  But at the time, I was not into Mozart and Beethoven and people like that.  I was into Bird and Diz and Miles!  And Juilliard was a strictly Classical-oriented school.  So I had a bit of a problem adjusting to it.

Well, talk about the academics of the nightlife, then, and some of your professors, as it were.   What were some of the spots you would go to?

Count Basie’s.  I know we used to jam at Count Basie’s with Freddie Hubbard and Andrew Cyrille.  I used to go to a place called the Speakeasy down on Bleecker Street.  That’s where I met Pharaoh Sanders, and we started hanging out.  They had a lot of people down there.  Trane used to come in there all the time.

We used to go to George Braith’s place, his loft, which was over on Spring Street down in the basement.  He had the most beautiful loft.  You’d go down there, and instead of… There was no alcohol, you know; it was whatever you’d bring.  And he had chairs hanging from the ceiling, beautiful hard-wood floors, sofas… I mean, the most comfortable chairs!   And what would happen, people would come down there, listen to the music and fall asleep, heh-heh; they’d wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning.  And it was cool.  We’d still be playing.

We used to go to Kiane Zawadi’s loft and play, you know, for days on end.  We’d go up there and buy food, chip in and buy food, sleep there, and play whenever we got up, and just have marathon sessions… It was always a learning experience.  I remember one time Grachan Moncur found all of these lead sheets of Monk’s music, all of his music.  So we went down to Kiane’s loft down on Allen Street, and we stayed there for about three or four days until we’d played every song he found — every Monk song.  Different rhythm sections would come in, and spell each other.  That was fun.

Self-generated education.  Talk about the vibration in New York 30-35 years ago vis-a-vis today. Can a young musician replicate that kind of experience now?

Oh, I think so.  Yeah.  I mean, I think that the need to learn and the urge to learn does that.  I mean, we wanted to learn this music so bad, we would do anything to learn it.  Actors are the same way.  Artists are like that, painters, and writers — if you want to learn something, you will find a way.  And we found it however we could, and we just worked hard, and then we took what we learned from each other home, and worked on that.

I’d also like to talk about the spiritual dimension of  music at this time.  This was a period when just cataclysmic upheavals were happening in society, and they were certainly reflected in the way the music presented itself.


You came to New York as, I’m assuming, a young guy really into Bird, within ten years you were involved with the Ntu Troop projects, extended structures and so forth… Talk a little bit about how your attitudes towards music changed in that time, if they did change.

I don’t think they have changed.  What happened was, you know, you start meeting other people, and exchanging philosophies, exchanging outlooks on life, and talking… For instance, I used to go up to Micheaux’s Bookstore on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, and I used to see this tall guy, red-headed guy in there; he would be in the back sometimes talking to Mr. Micheaux, and they would be debating about Black history.  It turned out that was Malcolm X.  So I was around him a lot, and listening to what he said, and listening to Micheaux talk about African-American history, and buying the books.  Because when you went in his store, he would have books open to certain pages every day and things underlined that were important, and you’d come in and you’d read them, you know.  So I took that back to Baltimore with me when I would go back, and exchange ideas… It was just a growing thing.  I would talk about things with people that I would meet from everywhere here in New York.  Then I started working with Max Roach, who was very socially conscious and was a friend of Malcolm’s.  And I met Adam Clayton Powell, and a lot of people like that.

So that had a lot to do with me starting the Ntu Troop, because the Ntu Troop was a social commentary group.  I mean, we could have fun, we could party, too; like, “People Dance,” that was a party song.  But also we did things like “Uhuru Sasa,” you know.  So it was just like everything… It’s the whole gamut, and it goes the whole way.

The next set of music features another one of my buddies.  This is Jackie McLean.  When I met Jackie, Grachan Moncur was working with him, Grachan introduced me to Jackie, and we have been friends ever since.  Now, I’d loved Jackie’s playing for years, ever since “Dig.”  So that’s back to the beginning. Thjis one is called “Bluesnik.”

[MUSIC: JayMac, “Bluesnik” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “Blues For Philly Joe:” (1958), with Max, “Gertrude’s Bounce” (1956)]

Sonny Rollins I know has been a major person for you throughout your musical career.

Yes, he has.  I had a chance to meet him… Like I said, my father had a club, and he also used to promote concerts.  He promoted a concert with Sonny at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, and I was the opening act, so that’s when I met Sonny.  So I have known Sonny since the early Sixties.

Did he use a local band for that?

No, he brought his own band, but I don’t remember who was in the band.

Did you?

Did I use a local band?  Yeah, I did.  It might have been John Hicks, Mickey Bass, Joe Chambers. That’s who was working at the club with me down there.  Joe Chambers….

Are there any existing documents of what you were doing at that time?  Tapes?

Probably some tapes somewhere.  I don’t know where they are, though.

At any rate, you were familiar with Sonny’s records, as you said before, going back to “Dig.”

Oh yeah. I can’t remember the first time I heard Sonny.  I think it was… It probably was the Dig album.  And I fell in love with him, and I used to see him all the time here in New York.  What impressed me and helped me was, if he was working at the Vanguard, say, I would see him one night, and that night would be like Prez night; Sonny would play like Prez all night, and would play Prez’s songs, “Three Little Words” and things that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note before he would go off into his solo.  The next night, maybe Coleman Hawkins, and he would do the same thing.  Then the next night would be Sonny.  So I used to go every night, as you see!

We have cued up music by John Coltrane.

I met John and Benny Golson together when I was about 14 years old, at a session in Baltimore. They were actually working with an R&B band with Bull Moose Jackson.  Some of you might be familiar them.  “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?” which was his big hit.  I met them, and so I had been following both of them, Benny and John, through the years.

But you know, the first time I heard Trane on record, I didn’t care too much for him.  The first record I heard was the one on the Transition label, out of Detroit, wasn’t it…?  And he was a little different.  I mean, I’ve since, of course, made up for that, because I have everything he ever did, and would be up under him as much as I could.

John Coltrane was known to be very encouraging and supportive to young musicians…

Oh, he was.

…and would have people come up sometimes to play.

Yes.  I could have, but I wouldn’t dare.  I was learning enough just listening.  After he finished, what was I going to do?  I wasn’t a masochist.  John was so intense.  I mean, his need to learn and his will to get the music out impressed me.  And for me, that’s the way I wanted to be, was to  be such a hard worker like that.  Because really, this music is a lonely thing.  You see us out in the clubs, you know, and that’s like party time when we’re playing, when we’re performing — or you know, at concerts.  But our work is really done at home, and no one sees that.  You know the legends of how hard John worked.  He would practice sometimes 23 hours a day, you know.  So that impressed me.

In researching things, you find out that Bird did the same thing… There’s no other way.  You just don’t play this music or do anything at that level without putting the time in.  And it might have looked like Bird didn’t work that hard, but believe me, he worked just as hard.  He might had other things that made it easier for him, like photographic memory.  I mean, that’s a big help!  Perfect pitch.  Those things are big helps if you’re a musician, or if you’re an actor or something.

So you just have to put in the time, and that’s what John showed me.

[MUSIC: Coltrane/Pharaoh, “The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost (1966),” “Nancy With The Laughing Face” (1963)]

By the time Meditations came out, Gary, you had already begun recording.  You had worked with Max Roach, and about a year after Meditations you did your first record for Milestone. You recorded several records for Milestone up to around 1970.  Then you began working with Miles Davis, and the music started to change.  The choices many musicians were making began to differ around that time, and there were many reasons for it.

Yes.  I remember when I joined Miles, I was really not into electronic music at that time, and I was the only one in the band who was not electrified.  And I had many problems, you know, those first gigs, because everything was so loud! — and here I am with just a saxophone.  They had amps and speakers and pedals and fuzz-boxes and everything, and I’m just trying to deal with it.  But I did grow to understand electronics.  I mean, a microphone is really the beginning of electronics!  I mean, if you’re using the mike, you’re already electrified.  So I guess there wasn’t a big step.

I think Jimi Hendrix probably was a transitional figure for a lot of musicians.  I guess Jimi was really a Jazz musician playing Rock.  I know Miles loved Jimi, and that made me listen to him — because I was not listening to him before that.  I always loved, as you heard earlier, the R&B with Louis Jordan, and I loved James Brown, I love…

When you asked me who did I see at the Royal, I was thinking more of Jazz, but who I really saw more were people like James Brown, Little Richard many times, I saw Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino — you can name them in that idiom.  I saw everybody.  And I always loved that music, because it’s the same music!  I mean, it’s the same experience.  Had they been the same age and in the same city at the same time, John Coltrane could have gone to school and graduated with James Brown, but yet they both would have played the same thing, knowing each other, being friends, but yet one playing one kind of music, or what we think is one kind of music… It’s really all the same music to me.  Like Duke Ellington said, “There’s only two kinds of music, good and bad,” and that’s the way I… That’s my philosophy.

So making the jump…it wasn’t really making a jump.  It was making a jump to people in the business or maybe critics or people like that, but it wasn’t making a jump to me.

Now I just love this song.  I think this is a funky song.  And it is.  And it i-yiz.  This is Bootsy, and this is a song they called “Hollywood Squares.”

[MUSIC: Bootsy, “Hollywood Squares,” Parliament, “P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up”]

Well, all right!  Ha-ha, make my… Okay.  That was George Clinton doing “P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up.”  I just saw, that was Tiki Fulwood on drums, who has passed away.  He worked with Miles for about a month; we worked together.  That’s how I ended up meeting all of the Merry Funksters.  Before that you heard “Hollywood Squares” by Bootsy Collins, and that was also produced by George Clinton. What an innovator he is  I mean, he started a lot of things.  Actually these were all the same bands, but they were different record labels and different names and different monies.  But it was the same band.  You know, he started that.  Prince is a big fan of George Clinton.

George, if you go to see his concerts, you’re going to really hear some music.  And you won’t hear tapes… When  I say you’ll really hear some music, you’ll really hear musicians playing.   Which is kind of rare nowadays, because most of the Pop artists bring tapes, because they can’t emulate what they do on the records.

They’re so produced also, those records.

Yeah, it’s so produced, but even the ones that are not produced, they can’t… I mean, it takes them a long time.  They do, like, take after take until they get it right.   That’s one thing about Jazz which makes the initial investment kind of low, because we can go in and give it to them in one or two takes.  These guys go in, and they’ll work on a song for like a month.  One song! But George can go do it in one take, too.  I mean, they sound better… A lot of times in person it sounds better than the records.

Well, turning to your recordings, Gary, you always seem to approach sessions as kind of an extended drama or narrative within the music.


The music sort of bears codes within it that tell a larger story.

To me, albums are a musician’s version of books.  They are books for musicians.  So just like you have mystery novels, you have fiction, you have biographical novels, autobiographical, comedy… It runs the gamut.  From probably my first album, I have been into concept albums.  Why am I doing the album?  What’s the purpose of the album?  Is it just to do some originals?  Is it to show what your arrangements are on standards.  Or it goes deeper than that, like Another Earth, which was an album dedicated to Life, you know, and the Universe.  So it goes everywhere.

I read something where Beethoven, when he would write his symphonies or when he would write music, each one… He went from a light symphony, like Pastorale, to a heavy symphony like Eroica.  So he would go back and forth, from light to heavy, light to heavy.   So I’ve kind of kept that in mind, and tried to do that sometimes.

This sort of raises a question of extra-musical influence, as it were, the other phenomena of life that impact upon your concept of music-making.  Your albums are full of references.  Have movies, books, inspired your ideas about music from your beginnings as a musician?

Oh, sure.  Artists, I think, are inspired by everything and everyone they come in contact with.  Just like you may have a certain inflection on a little thing that you do that I may interpret into the music.  So that means you influenced me.  So I can be influenced by… I walk down the street and see somebody, and I say, “I like that,” and I may end up interpreting…you know, putting that in the music.

Well, you’ve been in the music really from…

GB:    Day One!  [LAUGHS] Seems like it.

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Filed under Gary Bartz, Interview, Uncategorized, WKCR

Lou Donaldson: Blindfold Test, 2006, Uncut

In a thread that arose last week in response to a  Facebook recounting by Russell Malone of hearing Lou Donaldson play the alto saxophone at Birdland  (I didn’t get to go, but, by several accounts, he was in magisterial form), several folks cited choice “insult humor” bon mots of the type that Donaldson is famous for  — “Jazz is not recommended for fusion and confusion musicians!”  “If you want to play outside, then play outside the club.” And so on.

Donaldson displayed a certain restraint in his remarks on the 12 selections I played for him in a Blindfold  Test in 2006, not long before his 80th birthday.  But he pulled no punches. What follows is the verbatim, uncut transcript of an interesting session.

* * *

1.  Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane, “Sweet and Lovely” (from Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Blue Note, 1957/2005) (Monk, piano; Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums)

That sounded like John Coltrane. It’s a concert somewhere. Piano player really didn’t sound like Monk, but I guess he was copying Monk. If it was Monk, he was in good shape that night. Heh-heh-heh. The drums and bass, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. Probably Frankie Dunlop or somebody. The performance was great. That’s a great rendition of “Sweet and Lovely.” Really top-shelf. This type of music was kind of advanced at that period of time, and they had been working together a long time at the Five Spot, so they had whatever they were playing really together. It sounded like an organized group; it didn’t sound like a session or anything like that. [When you recorded with Monk, had you been playing with him for any amount of time?] No, I never played with him. I just did the record. I worked a couple of weeks with him at the Famous Door in the late ‘50s. That was a great band. Max Roach, Kenny Dorham , and Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be the bass player, but he broke his leg and they brought Mingus in. Monk didn’t like to play with Mingus too well, and he didn’t really play that well that week. I met him at Blue Note, at the company. It was kind of interesting to play with him, because he never wrote anything out. He would sketch a little stuff out now and then, but you were kind of on your own for playing. It was pretty interesting. Kenny Dorham was a good friend of mine, so we had a good time. And Max. Wilbur Ware came and sat in. He played much better with Wilbur, because he liked Wilbur. [Anything to say about Monk’s playing or Coltrane’s playing?] Well, at that period of time, Coltrane was just beginning to start playing the way he eventually ended up playing. He’d been playing more swing-type saxophone up until then. But once he got with Monk, that was a different thing altogether. He would go down and rehearse during the break. You’d hear him in the basement rehearsing, getting stuff together. Because actually, the stuff with Monk was kind of hard to play. Unless you’re used to playing that way, it’s kind of difficult to play that kind of music. I was a young guy, and it was very interesting to me. I liked it. That’s a great record there. I’d give it 4 stars at least. Great record. Great performance. [AFTER] Even now it’s very interesting. At first I thought the drummer was Frankie Dunlop, but it was Shadow Wilson. Shadow was actually the most reliable drummer during that time period. I’m not going to tell you why other guys weren’t too reliable. But guys play and live like they want to live. It’s not my business; it’s their business. But he was the most reliable drummer and the steadiest drummer, especially for a guy like Monk. Or even Trane. He was great.

2.  Vincent Herring, “You Leave Me Breathless” (from Mr. Wizard, High Note, 2004) (Herring, alto saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I don’t think you got me on that one. That’s Vincent Herring. He’s great. He did his homework. He’s got his stuff together. Tremendous. That’s a nice song, too – “You Leave Me Breathless.” Bass player I’m not familiar with. Is that a recent record? He sounds a lot like Cannonball. We’ve got a lot of young saxophonists playing real good. But it seems that the only people getting recognition are Kenny G and Najee, people like that. 4 stars. That’s nice. Vincent’s a great player. I hope he continues on. Actually, somebody has to continue this type of music, or otherwise we’re in trouble, because it’s a concerted effort by the media and a lot of other people to sneak that other kind of music in. It’s what they call cool jazz. It’s all right. It’s good music, too, but it’s not what we would say authentic jazz music. Whereas this music is more like a jazz musician would play it. He’s improvising. But he’s got a lot of stuff together, too. You can add and take away, add and take away. That’s what makes the music so viable. It lasts so long, because you can add and take away. Sometimes you’ll catch a cat, he’s not playing exactly that way. Still playing the same song. He’s upholding the tradition, especially for the alto saxophone.

3.  Donald Harrison, “Third Plane” (from New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note, Half Note, 2005) (Harrison, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass, composer; Billy Cobham, drums)

That’s one of the younger players. I’m trying to listen to it and digest and see who it might be. It’s one of the younger guys who I haven’t heard that much. Maybe Donald Harrison or Kenny Garrett, somebody like that. They’re playing progressive but they’re playing with a bluesy type feeling. You know how that goes. You want to play up-to-date contemporary, but you still want to retain the essence of the jazz soul. You can play interesting and play a lot of stuff, but you still want to maintain that. It could be somebody else. But the younger players I haven’t heard that much. The older guys I would know a little better. The performance is good. Nice groove. It’s at a concert, so I guess the guys have got into a nice groove. It’s a little adventurous for public consumption. They didn’t have a defining melody, something that would actually stick to the people, make the people be humming and singing it. But it’s creative jazz. What can I tell you? The drummer sounds interesting. Pretty good concert there. 3 stars. It’s a groove tune. A tricky little melody there. [AFTER] Ron Carter’s tune? I don’t know it. Billy Cobham? Oh, that’s an old record, then. It was Donald? Good, I guessed that! I told you anybody that I’ve ever heard over a period of time, I’ll know. Some of the newer guys I don’t know. You couldn’t trick me if you played somebody old. I research all the saxophone players. That’s my business. I have to understand what they’re playing so I know what to play. You stay a little bit ahead of them! That’s a nice groove to that record, but it’s not 100% like the type of stuff we play. All the musicians play a little different style.

4.  David Sanborn, “Tin Tin Deo” (from Closer, Verve, 2005) (Sanborn, alto saxophone; Gil Goldstein, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Christian McBride, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s David Sanborn. I can tell by his sound. I’ve researched all of the older guys. Even the funk guys, I can tell some of them. Some of them sound the same. But this guy has got a wonderful feeling. Jazz, I don’t know about that, but he’s got the feeling, and he knows how to make records. There’s a trick to making records. I mean, records that will sell. A lot of people can play a lot of stuff, but when you try to make records to sell, it’s a different situation. It’s a good treatment of the song. But see, the way they have it set up, they have a good presence in the studio where they played. They sound beautiful. What they do that other more up to date jazz cats don’t do… They don’t have this kind of rhythm. They don’t play against a background like this. There’s more going on. But actually, I know why they do it this way – because they’re trying to sell the record. Which makes a lot of sense. You don’t play for nothing. You can play the greatest solo in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you’re just wasting time. The background is perfect for what he’s playing. He’s a very interesting guy. You can tell at one time he must have tried to play a lot of jazz music. He told me himself that he always liked Hank Crawford. In fact, he came to see me one time, and we talked a long time. I didn’t know he was from St. Louis, but he’s from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working out there and he came by. It’s hard to make stars for a commercial record that you’re trying to sell it. But give them 3 stars.

5.  Lee Konitz-Ted Brown, (“317 E. 32nd”) (from Dig-It, Steeplechase, 1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Brown, tenor saxophone; Ron McClure, bass; Jeff Williams, drums)

Lee Konitz, without a doubt. Sounds like two saxophones on there. Has he got an echo chamber? Lee kind of lays back on the rhythm when he plays. He made a good record called Relaxin’ With Lee. That’s not it, but that’s the way he plays – relaxing while he plays. A lot of guys force the rhythm. They’re right on the rhythm and they force it. But he doesn’t do that. I don’t know exactly who the tenor player is, but I’d say Warne Marsh? No? I know Lee and Warne used to play a lot. Oh, it’s a late record? It’s not my cup of tea. But they did some different stuff with the kind of style that originally was played during the ‘50s. Lennie Tristano and all of them had a little bit different approach. That’s what makes jazz creative, is a little different approach to what is being played. Actually, I wouldn’t play that way. I always have to have a piano to begin with. When I think of playing without a piano, it’s suspect. Piano always plays a certain sequence of chords and changes, and if you don’t play on those changes, you’re doing something else. BS’ing. Most of the time. Not this, though. This is actually the way he conceives what he wants to play. But I’ve heard many records where we have one sequence going on with the piano, but the horns are not playing the same thing. They’re not following that sequence. It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re not going to follow the sequence, there’s no need to have a piano or bass or whatever you’ve got underneath. What we call background. But he’s got his own identity, I’m telling you. You strive for that the whole time you play music, for that I.D., because that’s what determines that people know what it is and who it is. Actually now, the way they have these jazz schools and colleges, a lot of musicians come out playing just about the same way. It’s hard to determine who’s who. When I was coming up, everybody had an I.D. Two or three notes, I could tell you exactly who it is. You can’t do that today, because a lot of musicians are trained in just about the same way. It seems like they’ve got the same instructors. See, in the old days, when you came from California, you sounded a different way; if you came from Texas or came from Chicago… You could tell from the way guys played what section of the country they were from. Can’t do that any more. That’s gone. That’s “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear it. That’s what I’m saying, there’s a certain chord pattern you can hear most of the time. Lee’s got a lot of stuff he does on weird songs. But that’s his concept; that’s how he plays. We’ll give it 3 stars.

6.  Phil Woods, “I’m So Scared of Girls When They’re Good-Looking” (from The Rev and I, Blue Note, 1998) (Woods, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That must be a new record. Sounds like Phil Woods to me. I haven’t heard this record, but it sounds like Phil. A very consistent player and always a good performer. He’s got it together, what can I tell you? It’s a nice arrangement, too, whatever that is. It’s hard to maintain that consistency over a long period of time. He’s got pulmonary problems. I’m getting it now. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll probably have to stop playing a lot. I never smoked or did anything, but just working in clubs… I’m asthmatic, so it’s a little different. I was always careful. I didn’t get myself exposed to a lot of stuff, which he did. He had some other things going for a while. But it didn’t really slow him down. Bird was impossible. I’ve been asthmatic all my life, but I avoid certain things. I never thought I’d be able to play a saxophone as long as I have. [Did you start to play saxophone as a way of dealing with asthma?] That’s right. The clarinet. I started using the clarinet, and the diaphragm breathing helped me a lot. But now it’s catching up with me. It took a long time. I’m almost 80. In few months, I’ll be 80. Music is a funny thing, man. It will keep you alive. Because while you’re doing that, you don’t think about anything else, so you ignore a lot of other problems. It’s hard to tell who the rhythm section because they’re just playing background. Playing well, though. I’ll give that a 4, man. That’s nice.

7.  Charles McPherson, “Blue and Boogie” (from Manhattan Nocturne, Arabesque, 1998) (McPherson, alto sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I’ll make a guess on this one. It sounds like Charles McPherson, but I’m not sure. [Good guess.] The rhythm section, I couldn’t tell you. Piano player sounds a bit like Mulgrew. Oh, I guessed that, too? [LAUGHS]     The drummer I wouldn’t know, nor the bass player, but they’re really cooking. I’ve got to give a 5 for this one. See, I’m a bebop player myself, and that’s what this is. I like this kind of groove and I like this kind of tempo. I like Charles, too, but I couldn’t recognize him then. His phrasing made me guess it was him, though. His resolutions keep going in and out, in and out, and he’s a bebop player, and that’s the way we play. If you listen to Charles or Sonny Stitt or Cannonball, they play that way. They play right on the beat, right on the meter, don’t lay back – right on it. It’s a great record. Carrying on the tradition. Great.

8.  Kenny Garrett, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (from Bobby Hutcherson, Skyline, Verve, 2001) (Hutcherson, vibraphone; Garrett, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Al Foster, drums)

It sounds like Kenny Garrett. But he hasn’t played anything yet. I have to wait until he plays something. He kind of lays back on it when he plays. A lot of the younger guys I haven’t heard that much, but I’ve heard a little bit of them. I’ll listen to see who it is. Yeah, that’s him. I got it. The vibes I don’t know. I never saw him playing with no vibes. Bass and drums I couldn’t tell you; they’re probably some younger guys who I don’t know. The performance is interesting. He’s doing a little searching, but it’s interesting. See, the younger musicians have a tendency to do that. I guess they’re taught that they have to go a little outside when they improvise. But actually, you don’t have to do it. You can stay right in the chord structure and still improvise a lot. But a lot of the younger guys like to try to go out a little, play a little what we call different kind of changes. Not exactly the original. Substitute is all right if it’s compatible with the way the sequence is going. But the only problem with the substitute, if you don’t substitute something that’s compatible with the sequence, you’re not really playing the song any more. You’re playing something else. Which is possible to do, because you can practice and study a lot of stuff, and play almost opposite to where the chord changes are going. The vibraphonist sounds like Milt. But I don’t know. You’ve got me there. See, it went way outside there! It’s coming in the door backwards. But most of the young players have a tendency to do that. I guess when they teach them, they tell them they have to play that way – they’ll be creating something. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. 3 stars. Nice little arrangement.

9.  Ornette Coleman, “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Verve/Harmolodic, 1987) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

You can take that off right away. [LAUGHS] That’s not jazz, that’s Yazz!! [LAUGHS] Any similarity between that and jazz music is purely accidental. [Why is that?] That’s not what jazz is all about. You’ve got to play with a blues feeling on a groove, and a melodic line – none of that is there. It’s music. It’s probably great music. But it’s not jazz music. [Any idea who the drummer is?] Is this a recent record? I don’t know. It would be hard for me to tell you. Billy Higgins was the original drummer with that group. I used to see the group every night at the Five Spot. [What was that like?] It was interesting. But I have to go along with Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx came down and when he came out they asked him “What about that music?” He said, “They tell me that’s the music of tomorrow. That’s what I hear tomorrow. Tonight I want to hear some music of today!” [LAUGHS] No, it’s interesting music. I’m just joking around with you. It’s interesting music, but it’s not what we’d call real jazz music. [What anything it is interesting to you?] Well, it’s different. What can I tell you? It’s different. Everything that’s different interests me. I listen to it, to see what it is. A lot of those little things he plays, I like! But I wouldn’t consider that jazz music. See, you got to realize, I came up listening to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, people like that. There’s a certain way a saxophone is a supposed to sound. If it doesn’t sound that way, then I… [Ornette Coleman came up playing in those type of bands…] No, he never did. I went to his home in Fort Worth, and they told me they never let him play around because he was always too weird. Of course, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to play that way, good! [David Fathead Newman said that when they were teenager, Ornette played the Charlie Parker tunes, and then he veered off into other areas. As teenagers they’d learn the tunes, play them in their own sessions, and then he went in his own direction.] I don’t  want to disagree with Fathead, who’s a good friend of mine, but I talked with a lot of guys who were down there who said that wasn’t the case. They said he never could play the bebop stuff. I asked a lot of people. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he wants to play. Good for him. Stars? [LAUGHS] Stars fell on Alabama. Look, you can’t beat around the bush with music. You either play it or you don’t. You try to do too much sometimes, it ends up doing nothing. It’s like everything else. You got to be careful of what you do. Jazz had a certain tempo or certain groove that was there, and that’s what made it sound different from other music. Now, offhand, listening to that, if you want me to categorize it, I would say it’s Folk music. Which is good, too. That’s good music, too. But jazz? Unh-uh. Nada. I like Ornette. Ornette’s a good friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the way he wants to play. So be it.

10.  Jim Snidero, “Prisoner Of Love” (from Close-Up, Milestone, 2004) (Snidero, alto saxophone; David Hazeltine, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Nice. Very beautiful. Beautiful tone and everything, but I don’t know who it is. “Prisoner of Love.” At first I thought it was Vincent Herring, but you already played him for me. You’re trying to trick me, see? But you couldn’t do it, could you. [LAUGHS] That sounds like him, but what can I tell you. The only person I know who even plays that way is George Coleman. He plays sort of like that. But whoever it is is somebody I don’t know. I like it, but I don’t know who that is. 4 stars. See, that’s the way I play ballads. I can’t say it’s me, because it’s not. [Did this person listen to you?] Of course. If he’s not as old as I am, he had to: That’s the way I play them.

11.  Gary Bartz-Sphere, “Hornin’ In” (from Sphere, Verve, 1998) (Bartz, alto saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

You might think I’m crazy, but that sounds like Clifford Jordan. I used to play this tune with Monk, but I didn’t record it with him. See, that’s a Chicago-type player. Charles Davis… Who would play that way? [He’s not from Chicago and he’s not from Philadelphia?] He’s from New York? [Wasn’t born in New York, but been here a long time.] That sounds like an old record. Late ‘90s? That’s a good Monk tune. It’s a recreation of a good Monk tune. What can I tell you? They played it well, whoever it was. The saxophonist sounded all right. What can I tell you? Sounded like they were reading music to me. 2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t sound like them at all. I heard that group many times. Sorry about that, Gary.

12.   Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts” (from Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown, 2005) (Parker, alto saxophone; Gillespie, trumpet, composer; Al Haig, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums)

Syphilis Sid. That’s Joe Harris on drums. Well, let me listen a little more. Sounds like Al Haig on piano. I can tell you that. That kind of stuff you won’t hear any more. That’s gone. It’s amazing music. For that time period, that was amazing music. It’s still amazing, but that time period it was earthshaking! [Do you know this recording?] No, I don’t know it. It sounds like it was recorded at probably Carnegie Hall. Town Hall? The recording sounds very good. That’s a great record there. That’s a 5 there. No doubt about it.

The best records that Dizzy and Charlie Parker made, Sidney Catlett played the drums. The best records they ever made. Sidney Catlett, Slam Stewart on bass, and the piano player was… Oh God, I’m getting senile. But that’s the best record they ever made. This piano player, I never heard him on another record, but he played on that one. Great record. Sid Catlett was a great drummer, because he never got in the way. A lot of drummers can get in the way and disrupt what’s being played. But he never did. Listen to him. You don’t know a drum is being played; all you do is feel the rhythm. And they loved him, too. When I first came, I was all about all these musicians, and I used to study them. Everywhere they played, I would go. I would be right there. I came to New York in 1948,  but I came to stay in 1950. I used to go everywhere. I’d go down to 52nd Street, all the places, and check them out. I made a study of them, and made a study of all the guys who were kind of inhibited by some substance, and I found out that a lot of them, if they didn’t have great musical talent, it didn’t help the performance. You know what I’m saying? Actually, what happened to me, I went to see Dizzy one night… I can’t remember the club. But anyway, Charlie Parker didn’t come, so they used Don Byas. I kept going for three nights because I wanted to see Charlie Parker, and actually, when Charlie Parker came back, the band sounded better to me with Don Byas. Don Byas was a tremendous saxophonist. He never really got the credit he deserved. Same with Lucky Thompson. But as history goes, they write about who they want to write and they build up who they want to build up. Don Byas did leave early, but he came back a couple of times on special occasions. But music is a funny thing.

Like I said, that music has got the feeling, the rhythm and everything right in it, whereas in later forms of that same music, musicians kind of overdid it. They learned what they were doing, then they tried to supplement it and put other stuff in there, and kind of overdid it. Consequently, they ran a lot of people away from the music, because they were trying to overdo it a little bit. [Were you able to play bebop on gigs in New York?] Yeah. I played anything I wanted to play, because I always played something that I knew the people would understand and like at the beginning of the set. Then the last tune, if I played “Cherokee” or something, they wouldn’t mind. They’re satisfied. But a lot of cats make a bad mistake by trying to play too intricate at the beginning of the set. See, back then, people had a tendency to want to dance to the music, too, so you had to be careful, especially if you were working on a steady job. [You were working a lot uptown, not so much midtown or downtown in the early ‘50s, right?] No, wasn’t nothing in Midtown but Birdland. When I came they had other clubs, but they were closed.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’d like to thank all my fans for many years of support, and I hope I haven’t offended anybody with this interview!


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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lou Donaldson