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.
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 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.