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For Lou Donaldson’s 86th Birthday, the Complete Transcript of A June 2012 Conversation For the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project

To mark Lou Donaldson’s 88th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a two-day interview that I conducted with him for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project on June 20 & 21, 2012, shortly after he was designated an NEA Jazz Master. If I may say so, it’s a fairly comprehensive conversation. Many thanks to Ken Kimery for giving me the assignment. I’m also linking to a 2011 post of the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Lou did with me in 2006.

 

 

Lou Donaldson Oral History for Smithsonian (June 20-21, 2012):

LOU DONALDSON
NEA Jazz Master (2012)

Interviewee:        Louis Andrew “Lou” Donaldson (November 1, 1926-)
Interviewer:        Ted Panken
Dates:            June 20 and 21, 2012
Depository:        Archives Center, National Music of American History,
Smithsonian Institution.
Description:        Transcript. 81 pp.

[June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken. It’s June 20, 2012, and it’s day one of an interview with Lou Donaldson for the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Jazz Project. I’d like to start by putting on the record, Mr. Donaldson, your full name and your parents’ names, your mother and father.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Louis Andrew Donaldson, Jr. My father, Louis Andrew Donaldson, Sr. My mother was Lucy Wallace Donaldson.

Panken:   You grew up in Badin, North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Badin. That’s right. Badin, North Carolina.

Panken:   What kind of town is it?

Donaldson:   It’s a town where they had nothing but the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Everybody in that town, unless they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or something, worked in the plant.

Panken:   So it was a company town.

Donaldson:   Company town.

Panken:   Were you parents from there, or had they migrated there?

Donaldson:   No-no. They migrated.

Panken:   Where were they from?

Donaldson: My mother was from Virginia. My father was   from Tennessee. But he came to North Carolina to go to college.

Panken:   Which college did he go to?

Donaldson:   The college he went to was the oldest black college… I’m trying to think of it now. But Olds-heimers has got me. Not Alzheimers. Oldsheimer’s. It was in Salisbury, North Carolina. What was that college… Can’t think of it.

Panken:   We can look it up.

Donaldson:   You don’t have to look it up. I’ve got all that information in a book.

Panken:   Maybe we can get at it tomorrow. But in any event, how old were your parents? When were they born?

Donaldson:   They were old. What can I tell you?

Panken:   You don’t know the birthdates?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know the birthdates. I’ve got all of that. If you need that. But they moved to Badin… My mother was a teacher. She went to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, and she came back to this town and was a first grade teacher and music teacher, and choral director, band director, everything with music. My father was an AME Zion Methodist preacher and an insurance salesman. So we had a pretty stable family.

Panken:   You had two siblings, I think?

Donaldson:   Me?

Panken:   Yes. Did you have brothers and sisters?

Donaldson:   Yes, I have two sisters and one brother.

Panken:   Would you mind stating their names?

Donaldson:   Yes. My brother’s named William—William Donaldson. My older sister is Elouise Donaldson. My younger sister was Pauline.

Panken:   Did they all play music?

Donaldson:   Yup. All played music. All went into education. All are now retired and rich.

Panken:   Was your mother the main teacher?

Donaldson:   Not really. I mean, she started them out, but they originally went to college…all of them went to college.

Panken:   Now, socially, what was Badin, North Carolina like in the 1930s when you were growing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t too much…

Panken:   Was it segregated? Well, it was the South.

Donaldson:   You KNOW it was segregated.

Panken:   But was it a bad town, were there ways…

Donaldson:   No, it was segregated. It wasn’t a bad town because all of them worked together. Blacks and whites worked together in the aluminum plant. 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to wear these suits like space suits, and sometimes that ore would pop out and get on that suit, go right through the suit and right to their arms. It was a tough job. What they did, they separated the bauxite from… They got the bauxite from South Africa, and they’d process it and get the aluminum out of there, and it would flow out into some vats. It was a tough job.

Panken:   What was your entry into music? I think I’ve read that you started out playing clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I started playing clarinet. I didn’t want to play piano, because when she’d give lessons she had a switch, and when you’d miss a note she’d hit you across the fingers. So I said, “No-no, not me.” I was a baseball player. So that’s all I did, play baseball. But I used to go around the house humming, like the Bach Etudes and Haydn and all that, because I heard it when they played it on the piano. She got me one day and said, “Louis, you’ve got more music talent than anybody in this family; you can remember tunes and everything.” She said, “You need to start playing piano.” I said, “Not me.” She said, “All right, all right.” So she went across town and got a clarinet from the Alcoa Aluminum bandmaster. They had a band, all-white, of course. He gave her a clarinet. I mean, he sold her a clarinet. She brought it back. She didn’t know anything about a clarinet. But he had a book, and we studied the book, and I just learned how to play it.

Panken:   You studied yourself out of the book?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had a quick learning curve.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Obviously, you were meant to play music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, evidently.

Panken:   As a kid… You said you graduated high school when you were 15 and were the school valedictorian.

Donaldson: Yeah, right.

Panken:   So you must have had other interests besides music and sports. Or, if you weren’t that interested in school, it must have come fairly easily.

Donaldson:   Well, I was…what you call it…a precocious guy. I checked everything out. I could tell you right now New York Yankees in 1936.

Panken:   You mean the lineup?

Donaldson:   The whole lineup. I was a paper boy, and I used to deliver papers in the morning. I’d get up about 6 o’clock and deliver my papers, and about 7:30 I’d be finished with my papers, so I’d just sit on the front porch and read the sports. Way back.

Panken:   I know myself, box scores were a nice window into arithmetic and mathematics.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   But what were some of your other academic interests.

Donaldson:   Nothing really. I just…

Panken:   You just did well.

Donaldson:   I did well with anything, you know.

Panken:   So you graduated at 15. That’s 1941-42…

Donaldson:   ‘42.

Panken:   You were playing baseball, and you went directly to college?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Where did you go…

Donaldson: North Carolina A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. Greensboro, North Carolina.

Panken:   How far away is Greensboro from Badin?

Donaldson:   From my home town, 64 miles north.

Panken:   What was that school like?

Donaldson:   Well, it was an agricultural and technical school. They didn’t have a music department. I mean, they had a music department, but they didn’t have a music degree. But I got into the band, and got to play in it, so I was all right.

Panken:   What sorts of things did you play in that band, and what sorts of things were you used to playing…

Donaldson:   Marching bands and little semi-classical tunes.

Panken:   Where I’m going with this is, were you performing at all as a kid in Badin?

Donaldson:   No, no-no, no-no. Nothing in Badin. Nobody performed there but Country-and-Western. Roy Acuff. Hank Williams. People like that. They didn’t have no jazz.

Panken:   No black bands were coming through.

Donaldson:   No, no-no. We had a big station, WBT, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had one guy there named Grady Cole. Grady Cole had one record by Louis Armstrong, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on one side, “St. James Infirmary” on the other side, and he played it every… He loved it. I got to hear Louis singing and stuff. So that created my interest in jazz.

Panken:   Hearing Louis Armstrong on that record.

Donaldson:   That’s right. On that record.

Panken:   When you got to Greensboro, did jazz start to enter the picture more?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Because see, back then you couldn’t play jazz in college. If they caught you practicing jazz in the practice room, you couldn’t practice any more. They didn’t like jazz. They didn’t like nothing but classical and band music—the teachers. But what happened to me, a guy came from Seattle, Washington, named Billy Tolles, and he had been around all the musicians, and he had his saxophone. He could play. Excellent player. He knew Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and he knew Lester Young’s “Just You, Just Me,” and used to play those things. He was way ahead of all of us country boys. We didn’t know anything like that. So we kind of idolized him and started to learn him. Whenever he went back for a break, we’d give him $2 or $3 to bring us back some jazz records, and he would do it.

Panken:   So you got into jazz, it sounds like, by memorizing solos…

Donaldson:   Well, not exactly memorizing. I sent for the music.  I got Benny Goodman’s records, “Let’s Dance,” and Artie Shaw’s record, “Summit Ridge Drive.” I got the music. He’d bring the music back, and I’d practice…I’d learn them.

Panken:   You learned the solos off the transcriptions.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   When did you start to transition from clarinet to alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s a funny story. In 1945 I was drafted into the U.S. Navy. I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. And I went to Great Lakes. When you go to Great Lakes, you have a pool, say, of about 200 musicians. Anybody who says they’re a musician, they put them in the pool. A lot of them wasn’t that good. But I went in that pool, and I never went down to take an audition, because a lot of guys were there and they had this hair with the stuff in it…

Panken:   Pomade.

Donaldson:   They had the slick hair, and they’d walk with a hump in their back, and they brought their horn, their instrument. I didn’t take an instrument. I’d be talking to them and they said, “Yeah, I worked with Count Basie…” So I was there with my friend, Carl Foster. We came from A&T. I said, “Carl, no need for us to try out. We can’t compete with these guys. This guy has been with Lionel Hampton’s band.” They were lying, of course, heh-heh-heh. So we didn’t even take the test.

One day I went by the band room, and I heard a clarinet squeaking in there, SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK. So I just stuck my head in the door, like in the Navy, you know, “Who the fuck is making all that noise in there with that clarinet?” The bandmaster was in there giving somebody a lesson. He said, “Oh, you think you can do better?” I said, “Yeah, give me that thing.” So he gave me the clarinet, and I ran it up. So he put up some music and I played it. I knew it anyway. Then he put up some hard music. I played that, too. He said, “You’re the best clarinet player around here. Do you play saxophone, too?” I said, “Yeah.” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t touched the saxophone! But what he did, he gave me a clarinet, which then was like an Army issue. Everything was metal. The clarinet was metal and the saxophone was metal. He gave me and said, “Take that back to the barracks, and come back two weeks later.” So I took it back to the barracks and I started practicing. By the end of the two weeks, I could play the saxophone, enough to read the music.

I woke up one morning, they had a sign up there that said, “Donaldson, report to the band.” Man, these other cats were looking sad! So as I was making my bags I’d walk by where they were, and I’d say, “You jive…” Neither one of them got in the band. Neither one of them. I told my friend, Foster, and he went down there and auditioned and he got in right away, because he could play trumpet and piano—he was an excellent musician. That’s how is started paying saxophone?

Panken:   Were you drafted in 1944 or 1945?

Donaldson:   1945.

Panken:   Ok. I’d read 1944 somewhere. There were a lot of musicians who were legitimate musicians at Great Lakes.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Some of the names I have are Willie Smith, great alto player.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Clark Terry.

Donaldson:   Yeah, right.

Panken:   Ernie Wilkins.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Major Holley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Jimmy Nottingham.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Wendell Culley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Luther Henderson.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Talk a bit about how the band were set up, the types of things they played, the functions they played.

Donaldson:   What they did, after they broke down the bands, they had about ten bands. Now, these guys you’re talking about were a little older than me. They played in a band they called the A-band.  Then they had another band. The guys were a little older. The B band. I was in the C band, because I was 18, and most of the guys in the band where I was were 18 years old. We were young people. But at the end of all the rehearsals and everything during the day, they’d have jam sessions, so we’d go and sneak on in, and play with the big boys…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

Donaldson:   It was great. A great set-up.

Panken:   What sorts of things were they playing then?

Donaldson:   Whatever was happening during that day. “Take The A Train,” “Satin Doll,” stuff like that. “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” A lot of stuff.

Panken:   I also read that you had some leaves in Chicago, and you saw Charlie Parker for the first time in Chicago with Billy Eckstine.

Donaldson:   Yes, with Billy  Eckstine.

Panken:   Did you spend much time in Chicago, or did you go in every…

Donaldson:   I went in there every… Well, Chicago is not but 40 miles from Waukegan.

Panken:   So talk a bit about that scene, and the places you went.

Donaldson:   Well, I went in Chicago every weekend. I’d go down to the Crown Propellor and see Pete Brown. Pete Brown was down there. I’d go to another place to see a Dixieland band. I can’t remember the band right now, the names of them… Then I’d go down to the DeLisa Club. There was a guy named Red Saunders.

Panken:   He had the big band there. A drummer.

Donaldson:   That’s right. It was at 55th Street and State. Black people couldn’t go past there. You go past there… They’d shoot a black cat if he went past there. That was the end of the line. But they had a great show and a great band. Chicago was great.

But I went down there because the guys in the Navy had been telling me about Charlie Parker. I had never heard him, and I went down to see him in Billy Eckstine’s Band. When I saw him, it was very depressing, because he looked like he hadn’t had a bath in years, and his suit was hanging. I said, “Is that him?” But once he started playing, it was a different situation. I never heard anything like that. I said, “Man, what the hell is he doing?” Boy, he was PLAYING some saxophone.

Panken:   I’ve also heard that he was an extraordinary lead alto player? That he made the section phrase like him…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Do you have any recollection of that?

Donaldson:   No, I don’t have any recollection of that. Because the night I went down there, he was so high, he couldn’t play the lead. Budd Johnson had switched from tenor to alto, and he was playing the head in the band the night I saw him.

Panken:   Was Gene Ammons in Eckstine’s band then?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. A lot of people were in there.

Panken:   By this time, were you listening more regularly to records…

Donaldson:   Well, they didn’t have many records. They had but one or two records, “Jumpin’ The Blues” by Jay McShann…

Panken:   But in general, not just…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’d listen to anything that I figured was jazz. But I wasn’t a record addict, because I didn’t really want to hear anything but what he was playing, and once I heard him…

Panken:   So based on “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Charlie Parker with McShann, it changed your…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that changed everything. Not me. Everybody.

Panken:   Talk about how it changed you. What did it do?

Donaldson:   Well, it made me want to pursue music as a profession. Because actually, when I went to college, as I told you, I was an honor roll—I was planning to go on to probably pre law school or something. My parents wanted me to do something else. Because I was asthmatic, and they figured that playing a horn is the latest thing they’d want you to do. But they were wrong, because playing the horn actually made me survive. The diaphragm, breathing, and stuff like that; it made my lungs much stronger than weaker. That’s what it made for me.

Panken:   Listening to you now, it’s obvious how influential Charlie Parker was, but you’ve also talked about listening to a lot of alto saxophonists who were active then…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I heard them.

Panken:   Eddie Vinson.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Tab Smith.

Donaldson:   Right. Louis Jordan.

Panken:   Earl Bostic.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Earl Bostic.

Panken:   Talk about those people, and how you assimilated…

Donaldson:   Well, those people were so great. Every one of those people had a different style. See, not like it is today when everybody plays the same way. But back then, they had a different style. Earl Bostic was the greatest technician I’ve ever heard on a saxophone. He could play three octaves. I eventually got to talk to him, and he told me what mouthpiece I should use, and reed, and I’ve been using them ever 1957.

Panken:   What kind of those?

Donaldson:   Meyer #6 mouthpiece, #2½ reed. Now I’m down to 1½ because old age has caught up with me, so…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 3]

Panken:   We just took a short break, and Lou found a sheet of paper with information that perhaps can supplement some of the things we’ve spoken about. What have you got?

Donaldson:   Not what you want. This is not it

Panken:   Well, you know what we can do? Perhaps we can find it and go over that material tomorrow, and interpolate that later.

Donaldson:   yes, this is another thing here. It’s a family reunion schedule of all my people. But anyway, it was Livingstone College. That’s the name of the college that my father went to.

Panken:   We were just discussing alto saxophonists. You mentioned Earl Bostic. But could you talk a bit about each of the people I mentioned, and how they affected you? Let’s say, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Donaldson:   Well, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson affected me because he was a good blues player. That’s the way I play, you know. I used to see him all the time in Cootie Williams’ band. He was great in Cootie Williams’ band. Then he started doing solo, and I got to see him. He sang a little bit, too, which I’m doing now.

Panken:   You’ve been doing that for 20 years or so.

Donaldson:   Yes. Eddie was a good songwriter, too. He wrote a couple of songs that Miles stole and put his name on.

Panken:   “Four” was one of them, right?

Donaldson:   “Four.” Ha-ha. You know about it, yeah.

Panken:   “Tune-Up” maybe?

Donaldson:   “Tune-Up,” yup. Yeah, you know about it. That’s what was happening back then. It’s a different world.

Panken:   So you did see Cootie Williams coming through…

Donaldson:   Greensboro.

Panken:   This was once you got back from the Army.

Donaldson:   Yeah. From the Navy.

Panken:   But when you were there, were you checking Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter

Donaldson:   Right. I used to play all of Johnny Hodges’ solos. Benny Carter came through and wrote an arrangement for our college band. We played that. There were some nice cats. Tab Smith came through. At that time, Tab was playing with Count Basie’s band. But he was from Wilson, North Carolina, so he was a North Carolinian.

Panken:   When were you discharged from the Navy?

Donaldson:   I don’t know…it was the summer of ‘45.

Panken:   So you were only in for a few months.

Donaldson:   11 months, yes.

Panken:   So you went back to Greensboro after that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I went back to A&T. A&T College.

Panken:   At this point, were you starting to be a professional musician?

Donaldson:   No, not at that point. When I went back, it was the middle of the semester, and I didn’t stay on the campus. I had to get me a room out in the town. I was still making up some courses that I had lost during those 11 months.  After I got the courses made up, I started actually to play a little commercial music in a club called the Mombassa Club. The guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, he had the band. Nipsey Russell was the comedian. First job Nipsey ever played. Nipsey was a Lieutenant in the Army, and he was a very smart guy, as you know, if you watch him on TV. He came to Greensboro, and settled, and started working as an emcee in this club.

Panken:   The spelling?

Donaldson:   M-o-m-b-a-s-s-a.

Panken:   Did I read somewhere that Ellington came through?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Ellington came down there. He came down to the club, and brought all the musicians. We met them, talked to them. Russell Procope…

Panken:   The band played an engagement there?

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played a dance.

Panken:   What was it like hearing the Ellington band?

Donaldson:   Oh, it was great. It was much different than the other bands. Ellington actually had a different type of band. But I had heard about all the guys and read about them, so I just wanted to see them—like Taft Jordan and Cootie Williams, then he brought Jimmy Hamilton in… He had a great band. Russell Procope. It was a great band.

Panken:   What other bands came through Greensboro?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, all of them came through there. Jay McShann. Andy Kirk. Erskine Hawkins. Lionel Hampton, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Louis Jordan. Several other bands—I can’t think of all of them.

Panken:   So this was all during that year or two after you were discharged from the Navy.

Donaldson:   Right. From the Navy. Right.

Panken:   They were all coming through Greensboro on their southern tours.

Donaldson:   Yeah. They had 60 one-nighters from New York to Florida.

Panken:   Who did? Each of the different bands…

Donaldson:   No, it was a tour down there they called the Weinberg Tour. A guy named Weinberg used to book them. He bought all the dance halls from New York to Florida, and he’d send the bands down there, and they played. Dizzy’s band came through there.

Panken:   What did the Mombassa Club look like? How was it set up?

Donaldson:   Ah, just a club. Kind of dark in there. It was an exotic looking club. Heh-heh. For the South.

Panken:   Did you get something different from all these bands? Did you like all of them? Did you have favorites?

Donaldson:   I liked all of them. I used to go to see all the bands. Because, see, we were in college, and we could go down and get in the dance hall before the customers got in there. They let us in there because they knew us, and we’d meet the musicians and talk to them. A funny story I had, I went down there, and… Luis Russell came through there. I went down there, and I saw this young kid back there setting up the drums. I said, “Oh, that must be Luis Russell’s son.” He set up the drums and everything, and started playing a little bit on them. I said, “Oh yeah, he can play a little drums, too.” Then eventually, all the band members came. And he went and put on a coat, just like the band members. I said, “Oh, he got a coat, too.” I never knew who he was. So finally, Luis Russell came in, and the kid was playing. I said, “Why is he playing? The drummer didn’t come?” The guy said, “He is the drummer.” I said, “What is his name?” “Roy Haynes.” Roy Haynes. Roy told me he was about 17 years old then. Every time I see him, he cracks up.

Panken:   Any other good anecdotes about the bands? Memorable experiences seeing them…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. When I came back from the Navy, they had an Army base in Greensboro, the O.R.D., Overseas Replacement Depot. I was back at the cottage, and the guys from the Army band used to come over and play with the other band. They hadn’t seen me. Then I came back, and I’m playing bebop. I’m not playing like the guys around Greensboro. The guy said, “Who is this guy? Is this guy from New York?” They said, “No, he’s from here.” They said, “Oh, no, he can’t be from here playing like that.” But see, I had been in the Navy.  When I found out who was there—James Moody, Dave Burns, a saxophone player named Joe Gale, Linton Garner (Errroll’s brother), Walter Fuller (Dizzy’s arranger), all of them were right in that band. It was a great band, and then I started going, playing with them. I got to meet them, play with them. It was nice.

Panken:   Talk about how for you the Ellington band was different.

Donaldson:   Well, they had Harry Carney.  Anybody with Harry Carney, the saxophone section is going to sound different, because he was a great, GREAT baritone player. Big sound and everything. And Johnny Hodges, the way he played. It was a special band. You couldn’t… Duke had picked them just right. He wrote his arrangements very compatible with the guys who were playing them. Ray Nance run out with his trumpet… It was a different kind of band. It wasn’t just a jazz band. See, critics got carried away hollering about a jazz band, but they played a whole lot more stuff than jazz.

Panken:   You’ve been talking each of the alto saxophone players you liked—and I suppose on tenor and baritone, too—all having an individual sound, a stamp…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played different.

Panken:   An “I.D.,” you’ve called it before.

Donaldson:   All of them played their I.D. Right. They had their I.D.

Panken:   How did that start to develop for you? Was it something you were consciously striving for?

Donaldson:   No, not really.

Panken:   Was it something that happened as a result…

Donaldson:   Not really. I wanted to play nothing but bebop. That’s all I wanted to play. But after I got married and had two daughters going to college, and I’m trying to pay our house mortgage, I had to play some other type of gigs. So I had to kind of temper my music to the people I was playing for. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re not playing jazz no more.” But I was playing exactly what I had to play to keep those jobs.

Panken:   I want to talk about that. But what I’m trying to focus on now are these developmental years, before you get married, before you move to New York, when you’re still in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I didn’t…

Panken:   Were you think about that sort of individuality at the time?

Donaldson:   No, nothing but bebop back then. I wasn’t thinking about nothing individual.

Panken:   Was learning bebop a matter of getting all the Charlie Parker records and learning the solos…

Donaldson:   That’s right. Learning the solos and learning the standards that they came from. Most of those tunes came from standards. They just put another figure on the chords, and that’s how they played them. In fact, I wrote a thesis down there at North Carolina A&T, for my graduation thesis, and they took it and book-binded it and made it a book, and now all the students who go through the college have to study my book.

Panken:   What’s the name of the thesis?

Donaldson:   The Transition From Swing To Bebop.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Is it a musicological analysis?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. I got illustrations and chords, broke down the chords and everything. 1947.

Panken:   So you were extremely analytical.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. And critical. Analytical and critical.  So I was in good shape.

Panken:   I gather that you made your first visit to New York in 1948?

Donaldson:   1947. ‘47…or ‘48.

Panken:   Whatever the case, let’s talk about that experience.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, our band came to play halftime at the New York Giants’ game.

Panken:   Ah, the North Carolina A&T…

Donaldson:   The North Carolina A&T band, One of our players, a guy named Stonewall Jackson [Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson] , was signed by the Giants, and we came up and played the halftime ceremonies.

Panken:   So he would have been one of the first African-American NFL players.

Donaldson:   That’s right. I got to meet all the guys. Frank Gifford. Emlen Tunnell was there. He was (?—13:17). But it was great. Then I went down to 52nd Street, of course, because I had been reading about it. We had a shortwave radio. We could pick up music from New York once in a while. It faded out, but you could pick it up. Bands from New York. Like, when they had the Benny Goodman Hour, the Chesterfield, and Harry James… We could pick up those bands, and we could hear that on shortwave down in North Carolina. And when we were there, I went over down to 52nd Street, and went to see Dizzy and… It was supposed to be Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett and them, but Charlie Parker wasn’t there as usual, you know, and they had this little short guy playing saxophone. Ray Brown was in the band. So I asked Ray, “Ray, who is that guy? He sounds almost as good as Charlie Parker.” Ray said, “He sounds better than Charlie Parker.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What’s his name?” He said, “Don Byas.” And sure enough, I went back the next night to hear the band, and the band sounded much better with Don Byas than it did with Charlie Parker. Because Charlie was all messed-up and couldn’t half-play, but Don Byas was great. He was great.

Panken:   Had you known about him before? Had you heard the records he did with Dizzy?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him.

Panken:   I think “Anthropology” was one of them…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him. And he made this record with Slam Stewart, Slam Stewart and Don Byas, just two instruments. He was great. He was a great player.

Panken:   What else did you do that first visit to New York?

Donaldson:   I went by the Onyx Club, too, to see my favorites. And very depressing. Heh-heh. The Onyx Club. That was on 52nd Street, too. They had J.J. and Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Miles, and every one of them was all messed up. It was terrible. Very depressing.

Panken:   Were they playing well?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, they played good, but I said, “Man, I can’t… I don’t think I can handle this.”

Panken:   So this discouraged any ideas you might have had about coming up to New York right away…

Donaldson:   I mean, and playing with them.  It didn’t discourage me about coming to New York. But playing in that scene, I couldn’t do that, because it was too hazardous.

Panken:   Did you check out the scene in Harlem the first time you went to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I came to Harlem, I went through Harlem. I saw the scenes. I saw the scenes in Harlem.

Panken:   Was it overwhelming to be in New York?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. It was overwhelming to be in New York. You got to see all the musicians. It was great. I went to the Baby Grand. By that time, Nipsey had moved to New York, and he brought me around to the Baby Grand. I got to meet all the musicians. It was great.

Panken:   Who’d you meet?

Donaldson:   Well, I met everybody who was playing in there. A guy named…I can’t think of his name…a bass player… It was a long time. But then I went on down the street, and I met other people, like Percy France, and I met another guy down there… Lockjaw was in Minton’s. Big Nick was over at the Paradise, and Willis Jackson was in Smalls. So I got to see all of those guys.

Panken:   That was a heady visit. A great preparation.

Donaldson:   A great visit. I couldn’t keep myself away from New York then.

Panken:   Well, it must have let you know that you belonged here, or that you’d be able to deal with the scene when you got here. It must have been a very good gauge for your own progress.

Donaldson:   Yeah, because the bands used to come through North Carolina, and I used to sit in with the bands. Like Dizzy and Illinois Jacquet, all of them used to say, “Man, what you doing down here? You should be in New York.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” They’d say, “You need to be in New York, man. You’re wasting time down here.” So finally I just decided to come on to New York. So I came over to New York.

Panken:   Before we bring you here permanently, you played semipro baseball for a couple of years.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played down there. Played baseball.

Panken:   You were a third baseman?

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What sort of player were you?

Donaldson:   I was the best. Nobody better.

Panken:   Nobody better at third base, or nobody better…

Donaldson:   Nobody better. Nobody better. If black people had been able to get into the majors then, I’d have been somewhere. Or maybe in the minors. I don’t know if I could have made the majors.

Panken:   So you were the best in North Carolina…

Donaldson:   Well, I was one of the best. We had some good players, but I was one of the best. I could have easily made it. I was a player sort of like Eddie Stanky. That kind of player.

Panken:   Scrappy player.

Donaldson:   Scrappy. I could bunt.

Panken:   Contact hitters. All the fundamentals. Intelligent.

Donaldson:   I could bunt. You couldn’t strike me out.  They called me “Deadeye,” because they couldn’t strike me out. In fact, I’d be in school, and somebody would be pitching a no-hitter out on the ball-field, and they’d come and get me out of the room, to go out and break it up. I was tough! And I had a glove, man. I could wipe up a ball.

Panken:   You had good hands.

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I could wipe up a ball. I used to be the mascot for the senior team when I was a little kid, and after they did it, I’d take infield practice with them, and then they’d bet dollars that the guys couldn’t hit a ball past me. They’d try to hit a ball past me. They couldn’t get it past me. Anything I could reach, I got.

Panken:   Eddie Stanky was a winning ballplayer, that’s for sure. His teams won.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. He was a nuisance.

Panken:   Is that how you would describe yourself?

Donaldson:   Yeah, sort of like that. Sort of like that.

Panken:   So the fall of 1945, you come back to Greensboro from the Navy, and you get your degree from North Carolina AT&T. You’re playing semi-pro baseball. I think I read that you broke a pinky, and that ended your career…

Donaldson:   Well, it didn’t end my career. I just stopped playing, because I couldn’t play my clarinet once it puffed up.

Panken:   You’re continuing to develop your facility and artistry on your instrument, and you’re getting validation from people like Dizzy Gillespie and the cats in his band…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   …and people like Illinois Jacquet…

Donaldson:   Jacquet, right.

Panken:   …and they’re telling you to come to New York—and you spend some time in New York. So finally, in 1950,  was it…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   You make the move. Talk about the circumstances. I gather that you followed your future wife, who moved here.

Donaldson:   Yes, I followed my future wife. Because she came up as like a work-in maid or whatever it was. You know, they used to get girls from the South, bring them to New York, and they’d work. She came up here, then I said, “Well, I got to go,” and I came on up. I had a good set-up, because I didn’t have to do any work, because I was a G.I. So I went to the Darrow Institute of Music.

Panken:   On the G.I. Bill?

Donaldson:   Yeah, on the G.I. Bill.

Panken:   Where was Darrow Institute of Music?

Donaldson:   58th-59th and Broadway.

Panken:   What sort of school was it?

Donaldson:   You know, a music school. A lot of musicians. Right next to it was the Hartnett Studio, and they had big bands all day, so I could go over and sit in the section and practice.

Panken:   At this point, you’re playing primarily alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Alto saxophone.

Panken:   Clarinet is a doubling instrument by now.

Donaldson:   Yeah, doubling. I was about to throw that away.

Panken:   So you’re a full-fledged alto saxophonist.

Donaldson:   Yes, alto saxophone.

Panken:    By the way, what your late wife’s name?

Donaldson:   Maker. Maker Donaldson.

Panken:   Talk a bit about getting settled in New York, and acclimated to New York. Where did you live when you came here?

Donaldson:   I lived with my brother-in-law, ex-brother-in-law. He had an apartment up on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street. So I didn’t have to pay any rent.

Panken:   Near the Polo Grounds.

Donaldson:   Right across from the Polo Grounds. I used to go out and stand on the bridge out there with binoculars and see the whole game. I couldn’t see the catcher and the batter, but I could see the pitcher and everything. When they hit a ball, you could tell where it was going by where the outfielders went. Eventually, I got enough money to start going to the Polo Grounds. $1.75 for the bleachers. One day I was sitting out there, and I see this big fat cat come up, weighed about 400 pounds. He sat by me and said, “Yeah, Lou, what you doing out here?” It’s Bob Weinstock. I said, “Man! What you doing out here in the bleachers?” He said, “I can see the game better from here.” He was right, because we were sitting out there in 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit that home run. In the Polo Grounds, seat 7… The game started about 1 p.m., so it was about 4:30, and there always was a haze over the stadium. He hit the ball, and we couldn’t see where it went, but we saw all the people jump up in that Section 21, and once we saw the people jump up in Section 21, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese turned their heads down and started walking back towards the outfield, because that’s where we were, sitting right out there…

Panken:   The dressing rooms were in center field, by the bleachers.

Donaldson:   Right by the bleachers. They started walking back. So we knew the game was over. Eddie Stanky runs down and jumps up in Leo Durocher’s arms. Leo was coaching third base that day. So I got to see all of that.

Panken:   By then, you’d been in New York about a year and a half.

Donaldson:   Two or three years.

Panken:   Well, if you got there in 1950, and his was 1951…

Donaldson:   Seemed like I’d been there longer.

Panken:   So you’re going to music school, and I assume that you start to make the rounds and establish contacts.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Right.

Panken:   Let’s go into some detail about that. Who some of the first people were that you played with, and…

Donaldson:   Well, the funniest thing about it, when I got there and I got to playing, and the guys said, “Yeah, man, you play good, but you’d better get a tenor, because alto players can’t work in New York.” I said, “Oh, no?” So one night I took my alto, I went around to every club on ‘25th Street and down on ‘16th Street, and I sat in with all the bands, and I came back the next day and I was laughing. They said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I don’t know whether it’s alto or tenor, but any job there I can get, because the guys there can’t play anything.”

Panken:   Why did you say that?

Donaldson:   Well, that’s just the way they talked. “You’ve got to play tenor.” Because then, see, everybody was walking the bar, playing “Flying Home” and stuff like that. But I got to working with a club where they had singers.

Panken:   Which club was that?

Donaldson:   The Top Club, and some gigs at the Baby Grand, and some gigs at Smalls Paradise. They used to have entertainers. I got to playing in these clubs, and eventually I got to working with Dud Bascomb’s band, the trumpet player with Erskine Hawkins. He got a band, and we started working out in New Jersey, not too far from the prison out there, at a place called the Chicken Shack.

Panken:   In Jersey.

Donaldson:   In Jersey. That was my regular gig, I could play that, but I could take off any time I wanted to if I got another gig. I was set up pretty good.

Panken:   So you were interested in bebop, but on these gigs you weren’t playing bebop.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played bebop when I took a solo. I played the music, but I played bebop when I took a solo.

Panken:   Who were some of the singers you played behind in those clubs?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I played with great singers. A woman named Lady Hallocue [PHONETIC] [spelling?—26:46] She could sing. She had some weird songs. You really had to be up on your p’s and q’s. I played with a female impersonator, a guy named Phil Black. Best-looking man I ever saw in my life! He put on his dresses… He had the best clothes. I’ve never seen a woman with clothes that good! Every night, somebody was hugging and kissing him, and trying to take him home with them! That was good. It was good down there.

But it was good. I played behind Johnny Hartman. And Arthur Prysock. There were a lot of good singers around.

Panken:   So these clubs all had shows still at the time.

Donaldson:   They had shows.

Panken:   They had, like, a little chorus line maybe?

Donaldson:   Well, not a chorus line. They’d have one woman who was supposed to be an interpretive dancer, but she was…

Panken:   Shake dancer?

Donaldson:   …nothing but a strip. She wasn’t nothin’ but a striptease dancer.

Panken:   Exotic dancer, as they might say.

Donaldson:   That’s right. But she wasn’t no interpretive… Didn’t interpret nothin’ but stripping off them clothes. But that was good. See, the only thing about that, you didn’t get to play but one song. You’d bring on the show with the one song, and from then on you’re playing background.

Panken:   So there’d be a dancer, there’d be a singer, there’d be a comedian…

Donaldson:   A comedian, right.

Panken:   One instrumental act?

Donaldson:   Or one instrumental tune. The rest of them would be backup until you played the closing song.

Panken:   How big was the band?

Donaldson:   Usually three or four pieces.

Panken:   So who were you playing with? Were you the leader by this time?

Donaldson:   Oh, no, I wasn’t the leader of a lot of the bands. I played with a lot of bands. A lot of bands. I played with a guy named Charlie Singleton. He made a lot of background records for singers, and I got that, too. That was a little extra money. It was great.

Panken:   So no wonder you were learning all the tunes, had so many tunes in your bag.

Donaldson:   I knew all the tunes. Knew all the music, all the tunes, and I was just assimilating them and cataloguing them.

Panken:   So this is what you’re doing in 1950 and 1951… How long did you go to Darrow Institute?

Donaldson:   I went there until I guess about ‘52.

Panken:   ‘52 happens to be the year that you start your long relationship with Blue Note Records and make your first sessions with Blue Note? But before we get there, I have just a couple of other questions. Did you ever play in any territory bands?

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   Was Dud Bascomb’s  band a big band?

Donaldson:   Oh, we went out. We played…

Panken:   So you did play in some big bands?

Donaldson:   Yes, right.

Panken:   Was that a good experience, playing in big bands?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Good bands.

Panken:   Talk about why.

Donaldson:   Well, because you got to travel. You got to go to towns. You got to see people.

Panken:   And they got to see you, I guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah. And you got to know the grinds of music. Because there was a certain grind you have to really go through before you get indoctrinated into the music business. Because, see, the bandleaders are always… I worked with Lionel Hampton for a while. The bandleaders always drive off to the Hilton Hotel, and stop the bus. Then you had to get out, and we had to walk down the street and find a Y, because they wasn’t payin’ no money, so we had to get the YMCA, $2 or $3 a night room. We didn’t make any money.

Panken:   Were there boarding houses, too? Did you stay in people’s private houses?

Donaldson:   Yeah, boarding houses.

Panken:   How did that work? Did they differ in quality, where some were nice, some weren’t nice?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Some were nice and some weren’t nice.

Panken:   They’d feed you breakfast?

Donaldson:   Yeah, most of them would feed you breakfast.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking just a few other things about Harlem, circa 1950-51? Were there restaurants where musicians liked to eat after the gig?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   What were some of those restaurants.

Donaldson:   Well, the only place I ate was the Sheffield Café. That was on 126th and 8th Avenue. But most of the musicians used to go up to Wells, and have chicken-and-waffles. Wells Café. That was a famous restaurant.

Panken:   What sort of food did they have at the Sheffield Café?

Donaldson:   Well, they had breakfast food. Bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits.

Panken:   So breakfast after the gig.

Donaldson:   Yeah. $1.25. That’s all you had to pay.

Panken:   What was the schedule like at the clubs? 10 to 5?

Donaldson:   10 to 4 a.m. in New York and about 10 to 5 in Brooklyn.

Panken:   How many sets would that be?

Donaldson:   Well, what would happen was this. We’d hit at 10. We’d play 2 or 3 sets, and then we’d try to stretch it. But eventually, what would happen, about 3 or 4 o’clock, the pimps would come in with their women. They’d got the money. They’d come in and set up the bar, and the man said, “Well, they set up the bar; you’ve got to play a little extra.” So we ended up playing til 5 o’clock.

Panken:   Would they tip?

Donaldson: Joe Louis would come in there, and then everybody’d see him and then run to Joe, and Joe, you know how he was: “Give everybody a drink!” So the man said, “You’ve got to play a little set for Joe.”

Panken:   So you were playing for a full spectrum of society.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Who would be there earlier in the night, and how would it…

Donaldson:   Oh, they had all kind of people coming in there. It’s hard to say now. I knew all of them. Adam Clayton Powell…

Panken:   This is Smalls you’re talking about?

Donaldson:   No, this is Minton’s. Malcolm X used to stick his head in the door, but he didn’t come in there. The big gangsters, Bumpy Johnson, all those people, they used to come in. Another guy named Red Dillon. He was… Phew! Dangerous man. But he used to come in there. See, they had a cook in there named Adele, and everybody loved her cooking.

Panken:   This was at Minton’s.

Donaldson:   At Minton’s. So they’d come in and eat.

Panken:   What were her specialties?

Donaldson:   Fish and chicken. She could cook. She was a good cook.

Panken:   Were meals on the house, or did you have to pay for them?

Donaldson:   No, we had to pay for them! Wasn’t no meals on the house.

Panken:   I’m actually surprised. Don’t know why, but…

Donaldson:   No meals on the house then.

Panken:   Another question. As a musician, you had to be sharp. You had to dress well. Were there particular tailors that the musicians went to, that you went to?

Donaldson:   No. I’d be working at Minton’s, and the boosters would come by.

Panken:   Oh, I see. Off the rack from the…

Donaldson:   They’d come by and look at you. “42-short.” Every time, I’d know what they’re going to say. He’d pull out a nice one. I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I like that.” He said, “Yeah? Well, $100.” They always do that. But I say, “All right. I’ll talk to you later.” But I’d wait until the end of the night, and when I see him on the corner he’s still got that suit. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, here’s $25—give me that suit!] [LOUD LAUGH] And he gave me the suit. I saw a guy… One night, a guy had a brand-new cello. I don’t know where he stole it. He must have gone down to the Philharmonic or somewhere. He was outside the door. When I came out, he said, “Hey, Lou, here’s a cello.” I looked at it and I said, “Man, where did you get that cello from?” He said, “Man, don’t worry about that. $700.” I said, “Man, here. I got $75. Give me that cello. Because the police are going to come down here and ask you to play it, and you’re…” [DISSOLVES WITH LAUGHTER] If I’m taking it, they won’t say nothing to me, because they know I’m a musician, but you walking around the street with that cello…” I took it and gave it to my daughter. My daughter played cello.

Panken:   But this is probably a little later in the ‘50s. Earlier in the ‘50s, who was your contact person to bring you into Blue Note?

Donaldson:   Oh, nobody. They came up… Alfred Lion came up to Minton’s. He might have had Ike Quebec with him.

Panken:   I thought Ike Quebec was his talent scout.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that was later on. But then, I don’t really know whether Ike was with him or not. But he came up to me and said, “Oh, do you want to record for Blue Note?” Well, you know I’m going to tell him “yeah.” He said, “But you’ve got to play like Charlie Parker. Can you play like Charlie Parker?” I thought, “No, I can’t play like Charlie Parker, but I won’t tell him.” I said, “Yeah, I can play like Charlie Parker.” Heh-heh. And I got the date.

Panken:   But before you did that date, you made a sideman date with Milt Jackson and a very interesting date with Thelonious Monk, with three horns.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Do you have pretty thorough memories of those dates?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGIN, June 20th, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Back from a quick break. We were just getting to Lou’s Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson on April 7, 1952. This was shortly after Alfred Lion approached you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Yeah, shortly…

Panken:   Who was your band at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   I don’t know who I had then. I’m sorry. I can’t remember the musicians. But what happened, I knew this fighter, Art Woods…

Panken:   Oh, he used to work at Dayton’s Records on 12th and Broadway.

Donaldson:   Yeah, he worked in a record shop. We used to train all the time. He’d come to me… There was a place called Newman’s Studio down there on 116th Street. After I’d practice… I’d give the guy 50 cents to practice, and I’d practice about an hour, then he’d bring his gloves and we’d work out.

Panken:   So you boxed, too.

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I would box.

Panken:   What was your weight?

Donaldson:   Featherweight. I was a good boxer. What I wanted to do, in case somebody bothered me, I’d knock them out. But I didn’t have nothing to worry about, because all those guys were junkies. You know what I mean? They couldn’t fight.

He told me, “Lou, let me tell you something. You go around here, you show up to the gigs on time, and you wear your black suit with your black tie, and you don’t drink no liquor, you don’t have no tab—you ain’t gonna make it in this business.” I said, “What you talkin’ about?” He said, “Man, you got to go around and act like you’re high, and buy up some liquor. Even though you don’t drink it yourself, give it to somebody else.” Man, I took his solution, and I haven’t been out of a gig since!

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   I’m telling you! I meet people every day who tell me, “Lou, you sure look good since you straightened up.” I say, “Straightened up from what? I don’t even drink a small Miller beer.” [LAUGHS] “No, man, I know I used to see you down there with Bird; you’all was gettin’ high!” I said, “No, you didn’t see me down there with Bird.”  I used to hang around with him, but I wasn’t doing what they were doing.

Panken:   Did you hang out with Charlie Parker at all? Did you get to know him?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I finally got to know him when I came to New York and stayed for a while, and I got to see him a lot.

Panken:   After 1950.

Donaldson:   Yeah, after 1950.

Panken:   Did you talk to him? Did you spend time with him?

Donaldson:   Yes, a lot of time spent…

Panken:   Can you describe the relationship?

Donaldson:   Well, he was a brilliant guy. We talked about politics…and a lot of things. He was a smart guy. But he had that bad habit.

Panken:   Did he show that habit around you, or did he keep it from you?

Donaldson:   No, he didn’t show it too much around me.

Panken:   I gather that certain people he might not show it to at all. They might not even know that he got high, unless they’d know what to look for.

Donaldson:   Well, he knew I knew he got high, but he didn’t really exaggerate it around me.

Panken:   Do you recall the particulars of any of your conversations? Any one or two encounters that stand out?

Donaldson:   Not really. Because he was like the rest of the people who were drug addicts. They worked 24 hours a day to get money for the next hit. That was their daily procedure.  A lot of times when I’d see him, I’d go to the other side of the street because…

Panken:   So you wouldn’t give him money.

Donaldson:   I didn’t have anything to give him.

Panken:   So part of your interaction was he would want to get a little money.

Donaldson:   Of course. Money was always… But he talked to me. We talked.

Panken:   Did you ever sit in with him?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. What happened, one night in the Paradise I was there, and he came in, and I was sitting in with Big Nick Nicholas, and when Charlie Parker came in, there were about ten saxophone players on the stand, and all of them ran, you know, like a rattlesnake was coming in there. I was getting ready to get off the stand, too, and he said, “No, you play with me.” I said, “Man, I’m not playing with you.” He said, “Yeah. If you don’t play, I’m not going to play.” So the manager comes by and says, “Man, you’ve got to play now, because Bird says he’s not going to play if you don’t play.” I said, “Ok.” So we played a couple of tunes, “I Got Rhythm” or something. I played, and he leaned over to me and said, “Man, what was that you played on that thing? That was some nice stuff” It was stuff I had copied off one of his records. So I said to myself, “Is he pulling my leg, or is he really sincere?” That’s when I realized the guy was a genius. He didn’t really remember.

Panken:   You mean, he’d invented it, but he hadn’t memorized it.

Donaldson:   He couldn’t remember it.

Panken:   But you were analytical. You’d written a thesis about the musicological transition from swing to bebop.

Donaldson:   Right. The change to bebop. The change to the alternate chords.

Panken:   How did that work when you were improvised? Did you have set solos, were you…

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t have no set solos, but I had set chord changes. I’d change up the chords a little. Not really a set solo.

Panken:   Again, before Blue Note, did you ever… I think I read on a liner note for one of your recordings that you were in a session or two with Bud Powell.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

Panken:   What was that like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. With Bud, you know… When I came to New York, Bud was going nuts, going bananas. He was hard to deal with.

Panken:   Were you on an actual gig with him?

Donaldson:   I played some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   His band?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Where?

Donaldson:    Oh, all around town. A place called Bowman’s up on 155th and St. Nicholas Place, and another club up in there…I can’t think of it… But I played a few gigs with him.

Panken:   So you played his music.

Donaldson:   Some of it.

Panken:   What did you think of his tunes?

Donaldson:   I was crazy about them. Crazy about them. But he was bad with the money. Because he’d get the money, and by the time you got ready to get your pay, he’s gone.

Panken:   Let’s move to these early Blue Note sessions. So Alfred Lion approaches you at Minton’s, or maybe Ike Quebec, we’re not quite clear… But one way or the other, you go in the studio for the first time, at least as recorded in the discographies, on April 7, 1952, with Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, and…

Donaldson:   Percy Heath.

Panken:   Percy Heath on bass.  What was that date like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. I didn’t particularly like John Lewis. But it was nice.

Panken:   Were you nervous to be in the studio?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So by this time, you belong. You’re part of the thing.

Donaldson:   Right. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Panken:   Any specific memories of the date?

Donaldson:   Not really. All I know is I liked Milt. Milt was a good friend of mine.

Panken:   The date with Monk, then. I’ve read a quote from you that you hadn’t worked with Monk before that; that you had to go in and basically read the music down…

Donaldson:   Yeah, try to.

Panken:   Maybe there was a rehearsal before.

Donaldson:   Try to read it. He didn’t write it out like he wanted it played. You had to rehearse it a couple of times. But it ended up fine.

Panken:   There were a couple of tricky tunes on that session.

Donaldson:   Yes, sir.

Panken:    “Skippy” for one.

Donaldson:   “Skippy” is tough. “Carolina Moon” is tough. Tough tune.

Panken:   How did the session go? He’d present the tune, you’d run through it a few times, and then…

Donaldson:   And then we recorded it.

Panken:   How did he express his intentions? Would he be singing it to you?

Donaldson:   He played it on the piano, you know…

Panken:   Had you known Monk before that?

Donaldson:   Yes, I knew him.

Panken:   Because he spent a lot of time at Minton’s, I would think, among other places…

Donaldson:   Not at Minton’s. He was at Blue Note. Every time I went down there, Monk and his wife would be down there, at the company, down there in back of Bloomingdale’s. They’d be down there all the time.

Panken:   What was the office like?

Donaldson:   Wasn’t nothing but just a little place. Wasn’t really an office.

Panken:   Were you a fan of Monk’s compositions, of his music, his musicianship?

Donaldson:   Not really.  I couldn’t use them on my job, because if I played them, I’d be fired. See, back then people hadn’t…they wasn’t compatible with Monk. It took a long time before they got compatible with Monk.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, they wouldn’t buy his records.

Panken:   Oh, you mean before people got used to his music and the sound of it.

Donaldson:   Yes. And the big companies wouldn’t record him. Like Capitol, Columbia, even Savoy—they wouldn’t record him.

Panken:   No, he was on Blue Note, then he went to Prestige…

Donaldson:   Prestige, right.

Panken:   …and then the Riverside things brought his name out… I guess this would be pushing to the future a bit. I read in one interview that you later on worked with Monk in a club with Kenny Dorham, Oscar Pettiford maybe…

Donaldson:   No, Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be there, but they brought Mingus in there.  Max Roach on drums.

Panken:   Where was that?

Donaldson:   The Open Door. No, the Famous Door.

Panken:   I think it would be the Open Door. The Famous Door was long closed…

Donaldson:   Bob Reisner.

Panken:   Yeah, that’s the Open Door. Was it a different experience working with him for a week or two?

Donaldson: Oh yeah, much different.

Panken:   Any memories of that?

Donaldson:   [LAUGHS] Only bad memories.

Panken:   Any bandstand memories? Anything positive you can say about the music…

Donaldson:   Well, what happened the first night, see, he was expecting Oscar Pettiford, and they brought Mingus in there, and he didn’t like Mingus, and he played ensembles, but he never took a solo. And about the second set, I was asking Kenny Dorham, I said, “when is he going to play?” He said, “He’s not. He don’t like Mingus.” I was a low guy on the totem pole. I didn’t have much to say either. So finally, Wilbur Ware staggers in there, and Bob Reisner takes him around the corner and gives him some vitamins…and he comes back. He don’t say nothin’; he just goes up and takes the bass from Mingus and started playing. Monk started to play.

Panken:   Well, he loved Wilbur Ware, yeah.

Donaldson:   Loved Wilbur Ware.

Panken:   I guess you did three 10-inch recordings…or two—one in 1952, one in 1954. The first one is with Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Blue Mitchell, and Gene Ramey.

Donaldson:   It wasn’t Art Blakey. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Were these guys you were working with?

Donaldson:   Yeah, basically.

Panken:   How did the session get set up?

Donaldson:   I set it up myself. We just went down and played them.

Panken:   These are things you’d been playing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no great stretch to play them.

Panken:   Do you remember…were you working that week?

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Tell me about Blue Mitchell. That was one of his very first recordings.

Donaldson:   Great trumpet player.

Panken:   How did you meet him?

Donaldson:   I met him…he was working with Lloyd Price’s band, and I heard him, and he sounded so beautiful. I said, “Man, I got to get you a date.” So he came on over to the Blue Note. See, a lot of people don’t know, I brought Horace over there, too.

Panken:   I was about to ask you.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I brought Horace. Horace was working…was practicing down at the studio where we used to go and train for boxing, Newman’s Studio down on ‘16th Street. I used to hear him playing piano. So one day I knocked on the door. I said, “Are you a piano player?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You want some gigs? Can you play a blues?” He said, “Yeah.” So I took him on a couple of gigs. He couldn’t play no blues. I said, “Man, you’re going to have to start playing blues.” Then I used to call him the “old Portuguese piano player.” I said, “Man, you got to go to Harlem and eat you some chitlin’s, some black-eyed peas and rice, and get some feeling.” [LAUGHS] So finally, he started playing kind of bluesy. And you know the rest. He made 15 hit records.

Panken:   So you met him in New York.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had Horace Silver and Blue Mitchell on the date. Had you been working with Arthur Taylor?

Donaldson:   Yes. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Well, that’s a helluva band to be working with. Were they with you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Actually, we had a band with Kenny Dorham, but Kenny got busted or something. He couldn’t make the date. We had a band with Kenny Dorham and Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.

Panken:   You were pretty close to Kenny Dorham.

Donaldson:   Yeah. We had a band together.

Panken:   I guess you recorded a sextet thing in 1954. How did the relationship start?

Donaldson:   Well, it was just a matter that I had to do a record date, and I needed some musicians I thought could make it.

Panken:   Had you been playing with him before that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’d been playing with him a little.

Panken:   What kind of guy was he?

Donaldson:   Nice guy. Very nice guy. Very intelligent. But he had a lip problem, you know. Chops problem. But all of them did, Miles and all of them. Chops problem. I don’t know what it was. Probably they didn’t learn how to play correct. The best trumpet player around New York during those times was a guy named Idrees Sulieman. He could play better than any of those guys. But he knew he wasn’t going to get no gigs because all the promoters and all the club owners were Jewish, so he just packed up and went overseas.

Panken:   They didn’t want a guy with a Muslim name, an Islamic name.

Donaldson:   No. Muslim was out. Back then, the Muslims was out.

Panken:   I guess Sahib Shihab had that problem, too.

Donaldson:   Sahib Shihab, right.

Panken:   During the first part of the ‘50s, when you played New York, were you mostly playing in Harlem, or were you playing downtown?

Donaldson:   I was playing in Harlem.

Panken:   Was there a circuit in Harlem? Describe it a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, Harlem was a place where you had to play for the people 100% if you wanted a return engagement. You had to kind of do a little swing. So I got a chance to play at all these clubs. There was a woman around there named Hilda, and she worked… I guess she worked for the Mob—I guess. But she had the inside on all the clubs. So any time I wanted a job, I just called her. I got it right away.

Panken:   How many different clubs were you…

Donaldson:   About ten different clubs.

Panken:   So Smalls, Minton’s…

Donaldson:   Small places, too.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, what would you make for a week in one of these clubs at the time?

Donaldson:   Oh, I don’t know. Not much. Maybe 125 bucks, something like that.

Panken:   That you’d clear, and then you’d pay the guys in your band what, $75 or something…

Donaldson:   Whatever they’d make. $50. Some of them didn’t make any money at all.

Panken:   You also did a very famous session for Blue Note with Elmo Hope and Clifford Brown in 1953.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In the past, you’ve stated, as everyone has, the most laudatory things about Clifford Brown. Had you known him before that session?

Donaldson:   No, not really. I was working with Elmo. Elmo worked in Dud Bascomb’s band, and I saw him every night—you know, when he showed up. I had heard about Clifford Brown. In fact, all the musicians knew about him. But, like, you know, Max and Art, they wasn’t going to bring him to New York, because they’re looking out for theirself, which is I guess…it’s what you do when you’re a junkie. You live from day to day, trying to cop. So it’s a disastrous situation, but that’s the way it is. I knew he was working with Chris Powell, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames, which was a funk group. So I saw he was working in the park down in Harlem, so I went down there to see him, and he wasn’t working, because he was playing piano—because he’d broken his shoulder or something. He was accident-prone. Every time I saw him, he’d had some kind of accident. I told him I wanted him to make this date with me because I’d heard he was a great trumpet player. So he took the trumpet and laid up on the fence, and held it. That’s the only way he could play it. We played, you know, “Confirmation,” two or three tunes. I said, “that’s all right; that’s good.” I said, “Now, as soon as your shoulder gets better, call me.” And when his shoulder got better, he called me. He made the date.

Panken:   Then the following year, the Live at Birdland date with Art Blakey. Had you been playing with Art Blakey for a while?

Donaldson:   No-no, no-no. I wouldn’t trust Art Blakey around the corner.

Panken:   How did… Sorry to ask so many details about so many gigs, but…

Donaldson:   What happened, the company wanted to do a date. Originally, there was Kenny Dorham, Gene Ramey, Art Taylor, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson. You can tell by the material, Horace and I got all that material together. Art was in California. He’d got busted out there. He couldn’t even get back to New York. But what he did, he saw a bass player out there and told this bass player that if he drove him back to New York in his car, he was going to be his bass player. So I see him one day, and he stops on the street, and he says, “Yeah, Lou, I want you to meet my bass player.” I had to hide my head to keep from laughing. I said, “What the hell are you doing with a bass player with all these bass players in New York who aren’t working?”

So finally, Alfred Lion evidently… Evidently, Alfred Lion was giving him money to get him back to New York, and I go down there and Alfred said, “Well, Art is going to be on the date, and Curley Russell,” which was all right with me, because they could play. The second night after we hit, after Clifford Brown was such a sensation, people were going crazy. Art gets up on the microphone, “Yeah, I want to get these guys together, these young guys…” Me and Horace was looking at each other, saying, “What the hell was he talking about?” The company date was gone. Art Blakey had taken over the date. Alfred Lion was afraid of him, or else he owed Alfred so much money, he made him the leader where he’d get his money back. A lot of people think that was… And then he talked about the Messengers. That wasn’t no Messengers. Art Blakey had a band called the Messengers year before…

Panken:   That was a big band.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Out in Brooklyn. Actually, Ray Copeland was working in that band. There was Art… Idrees Sulieman played trumpet in that band. Colbert Hopkins(?—23:26), Ray Abrams played saxophone… Sahib Shihab played baritone in that band, because Cecil Payne was the baritone player but he left and went on the road with Illinois Jacquet. And this guy, Howard Johnson, who played with Dizzy, played the lead, and the other boy, Ernie Henry, played the third alto. I saw the band. That was the Messengers. But the critics, see, they didn’t know. They said, “Oh, Art got the Messengers.” That was no Messengers band. Art was a con man.

Panken:   Great drummer, though.

Donaldson:   He was a great drummer—when he wanted to be. People ask me that all the time. I say, “Yeah, Art was great when he wanted to be.”

Panken:   What do you mean by that?

Donaldson:   Well, sometimes, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Art played so good you wanted to go back there and kiss him. But on the weekend, a lot of people came, especially if a woman comes up there and crosses her legs and pulls the dress up over her knees, the arrangement changed, everything changed…heh-heh. You got to know who the bandleader is, and you know ….(?—24:48)…. were drums. You’re supposed to play two choruses. You play one chorus, and you’d hear Art back there, “I got it, I got it, I got it.” [LAUGHS] He’d take over the… You had to let him have it, because he’d drop the tsunami on you back there! An earthquake. A volcanic eruption! I told him one night, “Art, man, you’re the greatest drummer in the world—sometimes.” And he just laughed. [LAUGHED] Any time a good-looking woman comes up there, she definitely has got to know who the bandleader is. She don’t have to ask no questions of nobody. She can tell right away who the leader is. Heh-heh…

Panken:   So that date was a week at Birdland.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   It wasn’t a one-night thing.

Donaldson:   It was a week, a whole week.

Panken:   Was that the only time for that particular band, or did you do further engagements?

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s the only time.

Panken:   I read an interview in which you talked about the difference between bebop and hardbop, and presented that recording as a paradigm-setter for what hardbop was. There was a specific sense of the difference. Can you describe that?

Donaldson:   Well, that was hard bop. It was hard swinging. See, when you accelerate the energy and the sound, you’re playing hard bop. It’s hard to do that. And the way I play, if he upped the sound, you had to up your playing, and that made you press a little more, so you’re playing like hard bop.

Panken:   Was it  a matter of volume or a matter of where the beat was being placed?

Donaldson:    Well, it’s the volume and the beat. Volume and the beat.

Panken:   What about the beat was different between bebop and hardbop?

Donaldson:   Well, it was louder. Art probably was high. He got too high, and in his ears he couldn’t hear how loud he was playing. Evidently. I don’t know. What can I tell you.

Panken:   Did you gig with Max Roach much?

Donaldson:   I did some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   Was he playing hard bop or bebop?

Donaldson:   He was playing more like bebop.

Panken:   Again, was that a matter of volume? He wasn’t playing as loud…

Donaldson:   And pressing. Press down. When you bear down, it’s a little different than when you just play. You can play, but then you bear down…when you bear down…

Panken:   Then, between swing and bebop, is it a rhythmic difference, a harmonic difference…

Donaldson:   It’s a harmonic difference between that, and swing is steadier, a steadier rhythm, like the Count Basie mode.

Panken:   Like, say, the way Papa Jo Jones played vis-a-vis the way Max Roach played with displacements and so on.

Donaldson:   Yes, of course.

Panken:   So by 1954, when you’re making these dates, you’ve been primarily a leader for a couple of years, but you’re doing some sessions with other people. And you took a couple of years hiatus from recording, say from mid-1954 until early 1957, when you do the first in a long series of recordings for Blue Note, plus things with Jimmy Smith.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you describe what you were doing during those years?

Donaldson:   I really shouldn’t tell you this, because I’m going to put it in my book. I got mad at Blue Note Records. Angry. Because I went out to do a session one time at Rudy’s house, and we played a couple of tunes, and then some guy came by with some vitamins, and all of them went in the bathroom—Rudy, too. I’m not saying he was doing nothing, but… But he went in there with them, and when they came out, you’re talking about some bad stumblin’ and fumblin’. So I went to Alfred. I said, “Look, Alfred, that’s it. I’m not going to record another record with a junkie. Forget it.” So for two years I didn’t do a record.

So he finally called me back, “You’ve got to do a date.” I said, “I’ll do it, but you’re not going to pick none of the musicians. I’m going to pick them.” And you can see the date, Blues Walk. I had Herman Foster, who was a religious singer, him and his wife—they sang religious music. But I had been going up to Connie’s, a place where they’d jam, and I had been playing with him, and he sounded so good, and we were compatible with our playing.

I went and got Dave Bailey, drummer. Now, Dave was a liquor salesman up on Boston Road. But I used to work at a place called the Apollo Bar up on Boston Road, and he used to come by and sit in—and he played good. I said, “Yeah, this guy is good.” Ok, so I got Herman Foster; I got Dave Bailey.

And then, I got Peck Morrison, bass player, who lived with me in the project. We were in the project. I got him on the date. Then I got Ray Barretto to steady down the rhythm…

Panken:   To play congas.

Donaldson:   Yes. I was working at Showman’s. I was the first band to work at Showman’s.

Panken:   Showman’s Lounge.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Showman’s was right down next to the Apollo Theater then, about 1956 or 1957. I’m working in there, and Ray used to come by and play. I said, “now, look, I don’t want no Puerto Rican drums. I want swing.” He said, “that’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to learn how to swing.” And he had his friend with him, a little alto player who had a hump in his back, a guy named Chuck Eubanks. They used to come by all the time. I used to let him sit in.

Panken:   Chuck Eubanks.

Donaldson:   Chuck Eubanks and Ray. So when I finally got ready to make the date, that’s who I had. Herman Foster, Peck Morrison, all these guys. Alfred Lion didn’t know any of them. So he comes there. “I don’t know these guys.” I said, “Alfred, I told you; I’m not going to record with no more junkies.” Because Alfred by then… Now, Alfred was nice at first. But by then, Alfred had a belief … [PAUSE AT 33:09 AS VOICEMAIL PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]

Anyway, Alfred Lion’s jaws puffed way out. “I don’t know…” See, at that time, Alfred Lion just didn’t believe that nobody couldn’t play unless they was high. He just got… Like the rest of the record companies. They want to see a guy nod, they go, “Oh, he’s great.” So he finally said, “All right, I’m going to take a chance on this; I know I’m going to lose money.” Man, we made that Blues Walk—let me tell you something. Symphony Sid started to playing it. Spider Burke started to playing it in St. Louis. Daddy-O Dailey started to playing it in Chicago. And this guy in Detroit started… That record was a hit. The first record… They don’t tell you that. The first record that Blue Note ever put out that all the distributors took it, from New York to California, and put it on the jukebox.

Panken:   So the date for Blues Walk that I have is July 28, 1958.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   But you had made three records before that, and Herman Foster was on two of those. The first one in the discography is Wailing With Lou, from January 1957. I’ve got Swingin’ Soul, which is from June 1957. Both are with those groups—Donald Byrd played with on Wailing With Lou. Then there’s a date that a lot of people like, called Lou Takes Off, which is a sextet with Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd and Sonny Clark…

Donaldson:   And Jamil Nasser.

Panken:   Jamil Nasser and Arthur Taylor as well. Did you and Alfred Lion then reach an understanding?

Donaldson:   There was no understanding. He knew that he didn’t know what was on and I did. When the records started selling. And “The Masquerade Is Over” on the other side.

Panken:   Because you were traveling so much, you must have had a very good feel for what the public wanted to hear.

Donaldson:   That’s the key. I tell that at all my seminars. Every seminar, when I’m talking to young musicians, I say, “Feel out the audience. You try this kind of tune, that kind of tune, the other kind of tune—whatever you like, that’s where you lay.” You lay there with your setup.

Panken:   Now, in ‘55 and ‘56, even though you weren’t recording, you were working.

Donaldson:    Yeah, I worked.

Panken:   Were you starting to tour the country, go outside New York by that time?

Donaldson:   Right. I had my own tour.

Panken:   When did that start happening?

Donaldson:   I don’t know exactly the date, but I got my own tour from New York to California.

Panken:   Who was booking you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, I was booking a lot of the gigs, but another guy named Warren Stevens, who used to work for Ruth Bowen Booking Agency… He’s a guitar player himself. He was a good friend of mine from Columbus, Ohio. He starts booking it.

Panken:   Describe the circuit a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, it was the greatest circuit in the world. I’m the only one that did it—first. Then McDuff and Groove Holmes and Jimmy McGriff and all of them came in later. We started in Rochester at a place called the Pythodd. Jon Hendricks’ brother owned it—Stewart Hendricks. Then we’d go from there to Buffalo, to the Pine Grill. Or another place up there was the Bon Ton. We had about four clubs we could work. Then we’d go to Pittsburgh, play Crawford’s Grill. Then we’d segue into Cleveland. Now, all these places were short jumps. So we didn’t have no transportation problems or nothin’. We’d go to Cleveland. We’d play Leo’s Casino.

Panken:   You’d be a week in each town?

Donaldson:   A week in each town. Sometimes two weeks. Leo’s Casino. Leo’s was on 55th and Central at that time, but he died, and his son took it over and put it on Euclid Avenue. His son is named Leo, too, but this was the original Leo.

Then we’d leave Cleveland, and we’d go to Columbus, Ohio. Now, Warren had a club there himself, right down in town, and he had an unsegregated club, way back then.

Panken:   Were they called black-and-tan then?

Donaldson:   No, this club was called the Sacred Mushroom. But it was integrated. Because somebody threw a bomb in there one night, a stink bomb.

Panken:   This was in Columbus.

Donaldson:   Columbus, Ohio. Then I go down to Dayton, Ohio, a place called the Lavender Lounge. I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d play down there, then we’d go to Louisville, Kentucky, and play a place called the Idle Hour. Some rich guy down there had some money, and he let us play the club. We’d go down there and play, free food and everything. We were on a budget. Then what we’d do…

Did I say Cincinnati? We played Cincinnati, too. We played Cincinnati. Babe Baker’s in Cincinnati. He was like the guy at Minton’s. He wanted nothing but a jazz club. In fact, one day, a disk jockey came in and put some James Brown records or something on the jukebox. He threw them out the window. He said, “don’t bring nothing in here but jazz.”

Then we’d go…from Louisville, we’d go on Highway 50, go into St. Louis. Played the Gaslight Square, sort of like the Village—a lot of clubs down there. A lot of people hang out. Then we’d play over in East St. Louis, which is just 7 miles across the river, right by the Dome, right past the Dome. And we’d go from there to Kansas City, which ain’t but 240 miles. From Kansas City, then we’d go to Wichita, Kansas. I had this all set up. We’d go to Dallas, Texas. We’d go to Houston, Texas. Sometimes, if we could work it out, we’d play one-nighters in small towns, like Port Arthur and Belmont, Corpus Christi—we’d play one-nighters. Then we’d get set and head for California. Get Route 66, we’re gone, all the way to Los Angeles. Played the It Club.

I knew all these guys. All these guys were hustlers, so I knew them. If I didn’t know them, I’d call them two or three weeks in advance and set it up. I was a lucky guy back then. Didn’t make a whole lot of money, but we worked all the time.

Then I’d work San Francisco, and Oakland, a place called M Major’s.  He’s dead now. But we worked in those clubs. Then we’d come on back. We’d bypass Utah, because we knew what was there, and we’d come on into Denver. Then we’d come on back into Omaha. We had a schedule. 500 more miles, we’re in Chicago. Joe Segal—he had two or three clubs. Then we’d leave there, we’d go to Detroit. Sure enough, before we got back, they wanted us so bad, we’d go right on back into Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and then come home.

Panken:   We’re not talking about ‘55 and ‘56, now. We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Donaldson:   We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Panken:   But in ‘55 and ‘56, you were starting to go out of town?

Donaldson:   Yes, I was starting to go out of town.

Panken:   Who were you taking with you? Was Herman Foster with you yet?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Herman was with me.

Panken:   So by the time you’d made those first records, you’d been working with him for a year or more.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Herman Foster, Peck. Morrison, and Jimmy Wormworth was the drummer. We went up to Buffalo, and hit some of the same clubs. But we had it set up…

Panken:   That’s when you started establishing that circuit and those relationships.

Donaldson:   Yes. Well, the reason I used an organ was because a lot of times we’d go into a place, and they didn’t have a piano—and renting a piano, that’s out of the question. People want a thousand dollars to rent a piano. Shit, a thousand dollars, we weren’t even making that much for the gig. So we decided we’d buy an organ, and we’ll get a bass player and a piano player at the same time. All we need is a U-Haul truck and a hitch. So I put a hitch on the back of my station wagon, and we’d pull it. We’d save money and made money.

Panken:   But if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t start touring with an organ until about 1960 or so?

Donaldson:   It was in the ‘60s somewhere.

Panken:   I’d like to stay in the ‘50s for now, if we can. What did you do when the piano was crap or a club didn’t have a piano?

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play the gig!

Panken:   So you wouldn’t play a gig without a piano.

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play it, no. So what happened then… You see, the funk groups were coming out, and the funk groups had these synthesizers and electric bass. We didn’t have that.

Panken:   You did so many gigs with Jimmy Smith in 1957 and 1958. People still treasure those recordings and play them, they’re a firm part of the history. When did you start establishing a performing relationship with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   ‘57, ‘58, somewhere in there…

Panken:   Where I’m going is, was it set up by the record company? Was it your initiative?

Donaldson:   No. Babs Gonzalez set that up. He brought Jimmy to New York and told Alfred he should record him. So Babs was in the middle of that.

Panken:   So Jimmy Smith got the date, and then you got the call to do the record?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Were those satisfying engagements?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. The Sermon is one of the greatest records ever made. It’s a great record.

Panken:   What do you think was the key to your simpatico with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   We were compatible. He liked me. The organ sound and the alto sound is beautiful. Yeah, he liked me, because I played the blues, and that’s what he played.

Panken:   Can you describe personally what he was like during those sessions?

Donaldson:   Jimmy? Jimmy was carefree. Nice guy. In his latter years they said he was something else, but I didn’t know him then. I hadn’t seen him in a while.  But back then, he was just a carefree guy.

Panken:   Had you heard before he played organ, when he was a piano player?

Donaldson:   No, I hadn’t heard him when he was piano player. The first I heard him was a record he made down in Wilmington. That’s where I heard that record, and it was so dynamic. With Thornell Schwartz. That was a great record.

Panken:   Had you been playing with organ players before that?

Donaldson:   Not too many. I played with John Patton.

Panken:   Before Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I played with John Patton, Baby Face Willette, a couple of guys.

Panken:   The records with John Patton are around 1960, with Baby Face Willette around 1961. I wanted you to tell us about the Jimmy Smith recordings just because the records are so great…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they’re great.

Panken:   So whatever insight you can give us into how they were set up, or how…

Donaldson:   Jimmy was a musical genius. He can play. He was just like Art Tatum at the piano. It’s hard to play anything that he hasn’t played.

Panken:   Did that give you a feeling of freedom, that you could…

Donaldson:   Uh…yeah, freedom. Inspiration. Because he had good basslines. He could kick it.

Panken:   I’d like to ask about some of the alto saxophonists who were roughly your contemporaries who came into prominence in the ‘50s. Sonny Stitt is someone you’ve often been compared to stylistically.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Cannonball Adderley hit the scene in 1955. I’m sure you were aware of him quite quickly. Jackie McLean was a local hero in New York, and a protégé of Charlie Parker. Phil Woods was coming into his own during those years. Were those all people you were touching base with in one way or another?

Donaldson:   Yeah, in one way or another.

Panken:   Can we say a few things about each of them? Sonny Stitt, for instance.

Donaldson:   Well, Sonny Stitt for me was the number-two man behind Charlie Parker. I always thought that. Sonny Stitt. But Sonny Stitt was a guy who knew the saxophone so well, he could get anything out of it. But…like, Charlie Parker was the only one I know that play that way and still play the blues in all of his playing. Sonny Stitt was more technical, but he was great. Great guy.

Panken:   How about Cannonball Adderley? Did you become aware…

Donaldson:   Cannonball didn’t even come to New York until after Charlie Parker was dead. So he was a big thing. But he’d have come while Charlie Parker was alive, he wouldn’t have been anything like that. But he could play. He was nice. He was a nice guy as far as I know. He played a little Country-and-Western. Sometimes he sounded like a hillbilly, but…

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   I mean, he played corny. You know what “corny” is, don’t you?

Panken:   I do.

Donaldson:   All right. He played corny. But he knew the saxophone. He knew it. In fact, Miles asked me to play with him two or three times when he had Coltrane there, but I wouldn’t play with Miles, because Miles wasn’t reliable with money, and I couldn’t afford to play a week without bringing in some kind of income.

Panken:   Were you tempted?

Donaldson:   No. No way. Because I didn’t want to do what you have to do to people like that. Because he was an icon, people liked him, and I wouldn’t want nobody to see me hit him upside the head with a baseball bat or something.

Panken:   Were you a fan of his music?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I was a fan of his musicians. Red Garland I loved. Paul Chambers. And Philly.

Panken:   Did you get to know Coltrane?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew him. Coltrane’s from North Carolina.

Panken:   I was going to ask you about that. Monk as well had roots in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yes, Monk’s from Wilson, North Carolina. I knew Coltrane real well. He was a hard-working guy. But most of his stuff was drug-related.

Panken:   What do you mean?

Donaldson:   He’d get high, go in a room and play eight hours, you know, without coming out. Drugs. They don’t tell people that when they’re talking about him.

Panken:   What was your practice routine like?

Donaldson:   Oh, practice…

Panken:   I’m talking about then, the ‘40s, the ‘50s…

Donaldson:   I was working a lot then. I didn’t have no practice routine. When I started playing a lot, I never practiced, because I’d just go to work. If I got tired of playing a song, I just played it another key or something like that. Keep myself fresh. It made me think about what I’m doing.

Panken:   Back to alto players, did you get to know Jackie McLean well?

Donaldson:   I knew Jackie McLean well. He was like a brother.

Panken:   When did you meet him? When you got to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I lived up there. I lived on 155th. He lived on 158th. Sonny Rollins lived around the corner. Edgecombe Avenue. I’d see all of them. But these guys were junkies. They were junkies. Sorry to say, but I had no use for no junkies. Because I thought it would just be my luck to be talking to one of them and the police run up and get us—get everybody.

Panken:   You thought you’d be caught in the same net, you mean?

Donaldson:   You got it. Because all they did was hustle every day to try to get money, to get high. They had some musical talent. But they’re characters that I wouldn’t recommend.

Panken:   Now, people did change and get over their habits.

Donaldson:   I don’t know. I doubt it.

Panken:   When did you first meet someone who was strung out on drugs?

Donaldson:   When did I first MEET someone?

Panken:   Yeah. In North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Oh, no. No drugs in North Carolina. They’d give you thirty years for smoking weed down there. They didn’t have no junkies in North Carolina, not when I was there. When I got to New York, I saw plenty of junkies.

Panken:   So your attitude towards people who were abusing drugs was more based on self-preservation, it sounds like, than anything else…

Donaldson:   Well, actually, none of them played as well as they thought they was playing when they was high. I could have got somebody sober to play better. Because everybody was following Trane. But Trane jumped the track, and they jumped it right behind him. Now all of them are unemployed. I call that “unemployment music.” And they still play it. Disk jockeys and record companies are so stupid.  They don’t even acknowledge it because they’re stupid.

Panken:   Elaborate.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s a style of music that you can’t play in Atlanta.  Charlotte, North Carolina.  Birmingham. Big cities. St. Louis. You can’t play a steady gig there playing that.  Kansas City. All the big cities. You can play it in New York, maybe one joint in Chicago—although Joe Segal has now started mixing up his entertainment. Nowhere in California can you play it, not on a steady gig. And that’s very counter-productive.

Panken:   Back to alto players. Phil Woods was the fourth name I wrote down here. Were you and he friends in the ‘50s?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I like Phil. I like Phil very well, because Phil was one of the few white guys that, when he got famous, he didn’t forget the black guys. A lot of the white guys, once they got famous, made a couple of records and ran all off with the white bands. But Phil always kept some brothers around. Well, I guess he wanted the feeling in his band.

Panken:   Another alto player I can think of in the ‘50s who had his own sound was Lee Konitz. I recall when we did the DownBeat Blindfold Test, I gave you a track by him, and you had some interesting things to say.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know Lee Konitz. Lee Konitz is a sax-o-phon-ist. I wouldn’t call him exactly a great jazz player, but he’s a good saxophone player. Him and Paul Desmond, too. They sound like they’re playing clarinets. They don’t even have the sound.

Panken:   So for you, it’s very important to have…

Donaldson:   I mean, a SOUND. A bluesy sound. They don’t have it. They can’t play the blues, unfortunately. They play what they’re playing. But the blues, a different thing. And if you can’t play blues, you can’t play jazz, period. Now, if you can play it and don’t play it, you’re still not playing jazz—period. I listen to all the stuff Coltrane’s playing. No blues. In fact, I did a survey… I didn’t do a survey. Mark Elf, guitar player. I had him to monitor the public commercial radio stations. He got the best tune that was hot, something by 50 Cents or somebody, and he monitored that tune for a week. You know how much airplay they got?

Panken:   How much?

Donaldson:   715 times. And I had to monitor Coltrane and see how much airplay he got on a commercial station. You know how many he got?

Panken:   How many?

Donaldson:   [RAISES HAND WITH INDEX FINGER AND THUMB IN A CIRCLE, AND THREE FINGERS OUTSTRETCHED]

Panken:   That’s three. Oh, it’s zero.

Donaldson:   That’s zero! Not one. Now, that’s no good. You can’t even stay in business like that. Because you know, and anybody else knows, that years and years and years, we got a lot of play on commercial stations with Duke Ellington’s tunes and Count Basie, “April in Paris” and all that kind of stuff. We got play on commercial stations. But now jazz…kiss it goodbye. TV? I haven’t seen a jazz show since Tony Bennett was on there years ago, and brought Count Basie on there.

Panken:   I’m going to move into another area. You were one of the first jazz group leaders to use a conga player, as you were describing with Ray Barretto on those Blue Note dates from 1957. I think you used the phrase just now, “straighten out the rhythm.” What exactly did you mean by that, and what…

Donaldson:   Actually, I meant control. Now you can see today you’ve got these guys like Poncho Sanchez and a couple of more Latino musicians making a lot of money, because they put that beat with jazz. Because there’s no such thing as Latin Jazz. You can kiss that goodbye. That’s a misnomer. It’s jazz with Latin rhythm. That’s all it is. And when they keep that rhythm, which is the heart of the thinking in their music, they can sell the records. We could have done it ourselves if we’d kept our rhythm, with Kenny Clarke and Max… Those guys were shooting a little cocaine…shooting a little heroin and snorting a little cocaine—they didn’t want to swing any more. They wanted to take a solo. Most of the time, when somebody else is soloing. That’s what the problem is. That’s how they’re losing out.

Panken:   But what was the value for you of having the conga player?

Donaldson:   To steady down the rhythm. That’s all.

Panken:   You had done a date in 1955 with Gene Ammons. It’s the one sideman recording with you that I know of from that period. I know that he also liked to use the congas.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He used it a lot. Were you friendly with him?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   There’s something about your records in the ‘50s and his records…a very similar vibration.

Donaldson:   Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s a groove. A groove record. It’s a swing record. Groove records. It’s hard to say, but that’s what jazz is all about. If jazz was played the way they’re playing now, there would have never been any jazz. In fact, people have played like Coltrane and… Well, I don’t want to, you know, beat on a dead horse, but it sounds like he’s playing a concerto! He states a theme, and then he [SINGS WILD SCALE]. That’s not jazz. A lot of times, when you play the theme, you’re playing the jazz. You take a guy like Louis Armstrong. He played the same way until he died. He never changed one thing. And when he was an old man, he started making hit records. “Hello, Dolly” and this other one…” [SINGS REFRAIN OF “MACK THE KNIFE”] Now, the way he’s playing it, he’s playing jazz in the melody. That’s what makes it. Like George Shearing. You hear him play “I Got Rhythm.” George played [SINGS IMPRESSION OF SHEARING PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”]. Louis Armstrong doesn’t play it like that. He said, [SINGS IMPRESSION OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”] Man, he’s playing jazz in the melody.

A lot of people forgot that, and they go to these high-priced schools, they learn how to play music. They’re great musician. I mean, a lot of young saxophone players, they can really get over a saxophone. But they couldn’t play “Tea For Two.” I say, “Do you know ‘Tea For Two’?” “Oh, no, how does that go?” So I say, “How in the world can you play ‘Giant Steps’ and you can’t play the melody for ‘Tea For Two’?” there’s something wrong somewhere. That doesn’t make any sense.

Panken:   I think now we should stop for today, and we’ll get together tomorrow and bring this to the present.

Donaldson:   I hope so. Because we’re getting into some deep things about music now. I’m going to tell you why they should set Monk up in a different category. I’ll tell you exactly why he should be in a different category.

[END OF June 20, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken at Lou Donaldson’s house for day two of the Smithsonian Oral History Project interview. It’s June 21, 2012. Nice to see you again, Lou.

Donaldson:   Nice to see you.

Panken:   I’d like to return to what we started off with yesterday, and speak a bit more about your family. You had some information you were going to think of. For one thing, I’m not sure whether we got on tape what college your father went to.

Donaldson:   Livingstone College.

Panken:   He was a minister. Was that a theological college? A seminary?

Donaldson:   No… I don’t know. It might have been. But he was one of the first black students there. It was the oldest black college. I don’t know exactly what they taught there.

Panken:   You said your whole family were educators.

Donaldson:   Yup.

Panken:   Except you.

Donaldson:   Me, too. I’m the most educated. No, what I was saying was most of them had doctorates. I got a Bachelors, but they got…

Panken:   I said educators, not educated.

Donaldson:   Oh, educators. Oh, yeah. All of them were educators, right. All of them went into education. Schoolteachers and people like that.

Panken:   Can you talk about what kind of person your father was? Was he very strict.

Donaldson:   Ah, he was… It’s hard for me to say. He was just a father.  He wasn’t that strict because I never did anything to make him angry. He was a preacher and an insurance salesman, and every Sunday I had my duties and the regular stuff I had to do. But other than that, he was ok. Heh-heh.

Panken:   And your mother? You stated that she was a music teacher, and you didn’t want to take piano because of the threat of the strap, but…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   But what else can you tell us about your mother?

Donaldson:   Well, my mother had to be the greatest woman that ever lived. She was like, uh, the black mayor of Badin. Anything you had to do know once you crossed the tracks, they came to her to get the information. She was a powerful woman. Actually, she was a first grade teacher, so she knew all of the people in the town, because she taught them. She was a music teacher and she was choir director, and the church organist. So she did everything. She did everything in the town.  All the social activities. She just about (?—3:27) them. She sent all of us to college. We were the first kids from the town to really go to college. First black kids really to go to college. There were four of us.

Panken:   And they all played music, too?

Donaldson:   Yes, they played music.

Panken:   What did they play?

Donaldson:   They played piano.

Panken:   So European classical music?

Donaldson:   Not really. Just piano. Except my brother, he was a bandmaster. He played classics. He ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the director of the bands for years.

Panken:   High school?

Donaldson:   He was a high school teacher.

Panken:   That’s what I meant. He was director of high school bands.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, high school bands. Right.

Panken:   I can’t remember if I asked you this yesterday. Coming up as a kid in Badin, did you have any instructors other than your mother? You taught yourself, I guess you said.

Donaldson:   Oh, to play the clarinet?

Panken:   Yes, to play the clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I taught myself. And my mother…

Panken:   Your mother could help you a little bit.

Donaldson:   With the music and the notes. Keys. Signatures on the music and all that.  She didn’t know much about the clarinet, but I just read the book and found out about that.

Panken:   And you figured out the embouchure and all the details…

Donaldson:   Oh, yes. I figured all that out.

Panken:   Did you perform at all before you went to Greensboro?

Donaldson:   No!

Panken:   Did you play at home…

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I’d play at home, and I’d play down… I’d go down in the middle of town and play like marches and things that I’d learned. All the kids would come around, because I was the only one playing music in the town. They’d come out, and they would listen to me. I used to tell them, “One day you’re going to have to pay to see me play.” And now, every time one of them comes to see me play, I act like I don’t know ‘em. [LAUGHS]

Panken: You don’t really do that.

Donaldson:   Yes, I do.

Panken:   Do you?

Donaldson:   Yes, I do. I was at the Club Barron one night, and this guy, Arthur Merriweather… I played with him at North Carolina A&T, in the band. He was a great trumpet player. We had a jazz orchestra and everything. What happened, they caught me playing in the band room some Benny Goodman solos, and they took away my privileges. So I didn’t have anywhere to practice. So in the middle of the day, when everybody else was at class, I’d go into the shower room and practice. He used to come by and say, “Oh, you’re the shithouse clarinet player.” I used to tell him, “All right, one of these days you’re going to have…”

When I was at the Club Barron, the guy said, “A guy is at the door from A&T that knows you who says he wants to get in.” So I went out and I saw him. I said, “I don’t know him.” Ha-ha. “Don’t let him in; I don’t know him.” After I finished playing a couple of tunes, I saw him sitting in there. He’d gone out to the car and got a picture of the band from A&T, and brought it back to the door and showed the guy. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   That was very enterprising.

Donaldson:   I was sitting right by him in the band. [LAUGHS] I cracked up.

Panken:   Did you acknowledge his existence at that point?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. Of course. Of course. He was a great guy.

Panken:   So playing on a bandstand for people started when you were in college.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   First couple of years.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   The implication I got from the story you told about Great Lakes, where you peeked in and the bandmaster discovered you could play clarinet well… I’m interested in how you went from being a student to the idea that you were going to be a professional musician, how that crystallized in you.

Donaldson:   Well, once I heard the band at Great Lakes, I wanted to be a professional musician. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Panken:   So that made you think “this is what I want to do.”

Donaldson:   Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. After I heard Charlie Parker, that really solidified.

Panken:   But before that, you were talking about practicing the Benny Goodman solos.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Did you practice to a lot of clarinet players when you were 14-15-16?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no, no-no. It was just me. I’d send to New York and get his music…

Panken:   The transcribed solos.

Donaldson:   Transcribed. And Artie Shaw. People like that.

Panken:   But had you listened to Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw by that time?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I listened to them. I listened to them on radio. I told you we had a short-wave radio. We could pick it up late at night down in the South. We’d pick them up. When they got to 12 o’clock, we couldn’t…

Panken:   I wasn’t sure of the timeline, whether that was before the war or after the war that you were able to do that.

Donaldson:   that was during the war.

Panken:   Of course. You were 15 when the war started. But what I meant to say was, before you were drafted.

Donaldson: No, that wasn’t before then.

Panken:   Are you more like one of your parents than the other?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’m more like my mother.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, because she was a very passionate person, and she helped a lot of people. I tried to pattern myself after her. Actually, she just about controlled the black neighborhood in our town. Because many times, people would get into trouble, and she’d go over and talk to the sheriff—he’d let them go.

Panken:   So she knew how to approach the powers that be.

Donaldson:   She knew everything. Because she worked as a schoolteacher from September to June, and then she worked in the country club in the white section of town, which was a lot of big officials from the Alcoa Aluminum plant who lived in the country club. She was almost like an assistant to the woman that owned the club. She used to make me real angry. Because I told you she was just a passionate, nice person. Because somebody wouldn’t make up a room, like, she’d go in there and make it up herself. “Now, you’re not supposed to be doing that!” [LAUGHS] But she would, and had no thoughts about it. And you couldn’t say anything about race at the table, or else she’d pull out that switch.

Panken:   You mean say anything about race as far as saying anything about white people?

Donaldson:   As far as about white people. You couldn’t say nothing about white people. She loved white people. [LAUGHS] She loved the white people. Because we used to be mumbling stuff under the table, you know… Sometimes the sheriff would come over and, you know, shoot somebody or something. You know how it is down…

Panken:   The South, yeah.

Donaldson:   You couldn’t say anything about it. She wouldn’t let you do it. I never heard her say a bad word about anybody. Now, of course, that’s different from me. That’s one characteristic I didn’t pick up. Heh-heh…

Panken:   Was she a very religious woman?

Donaldson:   Of course. Religious. Very religious. She went to church four times every Sunday.

Panken:   Did you have to go to church?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I had to go to church. And once I got away from there, I haven’t been to another one.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   That’s right. I told my father, once I get away from here, that’s it.

Panken:   How much music was there in the church apart from your father’s playing organ?

Donaldson:   All kind of music. My mother knew more music than anybody I ever met in my life. When I was a little kid, I was singing a lot of stuff that people started singing later on.

[BRIEF PAUSE AT 13:05 FOR PHONE]

Panken:   We were talking about church. Let’s start from the top. She was an organist, you went to church with her, and she knew all kinds of music.

Donaldson:   Yes. All kinds of music. When I was a little kid, I was singing songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I knew James Weldon Johnson—I knew about him. FMI(?—13:37), and all that stuff. “Precious Lord” and all those songs that the black composers wrote. I knew all about it. I knew all about Sojourner Truth and Highland Rebels, and all of them…black people after reconstruction. She taught us all of that.

Panken:   So you learned about black history.

Donaldson: She told us all about black history before I was 5 or 6 years old. We knew all about it.

Panken:   So her attitude about what you could talk about and couldn’t talk about at the table didn’t correspond to not giving you information about heritage.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I got the information. She gave me information about everything.

Panken:   Do you feel that those experiences… This is kind of an obvious question; I’m sure I know the answer. But do you feel that your musical experiences in church as a boy and a teenager have an impact on who you are now as a musician?

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Talk about that.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, we used to have these things down there they called sanctified meetings, where all the people would go to the church, and they’d start a beat [CLAPS THE BEAT], and they wouldn’t stop that beat for two or three hours. They’d be singing the spirituals. And after about two or three hours, the most dramatic stuff you ever saw in your life. People that had canes and had walkers and had wheelchairs would be up in the floor shouting. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] They used to have the sanctified meetings. It was amazing.

Panken:   And your father was leading the sermon?

Donaldson:   Well, not in that. That was something separate. He would preach on Sunday. But that was like in a special service in the middle of the week or something. And there would be a lot of preachers there.  A lot of preachers would come in from everywhere for that meeting, and everybody would have to testify and do all that kind of stuff.

Panken:   What was your father’s style of preaching?

Donaldson:   My father was a kind of in-between.

Panken:   In between what?

Donaldson:   In between intellect and… He would moderate his preaching to where the people could understand what he was talking about. But he was a real educated man. And back then, they didn’t like educated preachers. They liked preachers that used to yell and scream and… A lot of those preachers couldn’t even read the Bible. They’d have like a kid, a young kid reading the script, and they’d quote it after… It’s amazing. It’s a lot of stuff.

Panken:   So all those things factor into the voice you have on your instrument.

Donaldson:   Of course. The time, the tempo, the rhythm, the building up of like a solo—all of that goes into it.  And such wonderful singers. You never heard such wonderful singers in all of your life.

Panken:   Do you try to emulate that singing quality when you play the saxophone in any way?

Donaldson:   Actually, I was trying to emulate Johnny Hodges and those kind of people. I wasn’t really trying to emulate the church. Because I knew all of the… Like, Pete Brown, and another saxophone player I was very…I’d go to see him all the time…a cat who worked with Red Allen named Don Stovall. He had a beautiful sound. And he played like a ROUGH saxophone, and I tried to play stuff like him sometimes.

Panken:   Just stepping back again, was there any blues in town as a kid?

Donaldson:   In my town? Yeah, people would sing blues.

Panken:   Were you checking that out as a kid, or were you sheltered from it?

Donaldson:   Not really. Not really, because they’d be drunk when they started doing it, and I’d get away from there quick, because I’d know eventually what was going to happen. There would be some fracases. So I’d get away. Because they lived a tough life. They was working in this Alcoa Aluminum factory at 222 degrees Fahrenheit, and on the weekend everybody was drunk. And now that I’m old and I look back, I can see exactly why. That was tough work. Tough work. Because you worked ten years breathing those fumes and things, you had to be well messed up.

Panken:   You described the extraction process yesterday.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   And there was no EPA at that time.

Donaldson:   No-no.

Panken:   Just a little bit more about when you made the transition from clarinet to alto saxophone. Johnny Hodges was the prime first influence, and then Bird came into the picture? Is that kind of…

Donaldson:   Well, not really. All of them came into the picture about the same time. I heard Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington. In fact, he was the first saxophone player I got to see. Somebody had a video… We went to a town, I think it was Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a much larger town than mine, and I put a nickel… I saw Duke Ellington, so I put a nickel in the nickelodeon, because that’s all it cost to play a record, and they had a video of the band that came up while they were playing, and I got to see Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, all of those type guys.

Panken:   So he made a quick impression.

Donaldson:   A big impression. I wanted to play like that.

Panken:   I’ve asked a few people from your generation how they felt and what the experience was like when they listened to Charlie Parker for the first time. You’ve told me that you heard “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Jay McShann…

Donaldson:   Yeah, “Jumpin’ the Blues.”

Panken:   …and you saw Bird in Chicago…it had to be 1944, because that’s when he was with Eckstine. Can you describe for me the impact he had on you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, he was different. He was just different. The sound was different. The way he played was different, the way he would drive when he played, the power behind his phrases. Just different. And everything was swinging. Just different from anybody else. You actually would have to live back during that era to understand it. Nobody else was playing that way, but him.

Panken:   So it made you want to find out what he was doing…

Donaldson:   Find out what he was doing and play the same way. Play it the same way, if possible.

Panken:   How did you measure yourself in that regard? Did you just listen to the records over and over and over, and wear them out until you…

Donaldson:   That’s what I did. Listened to the record. I’d wind the record down to the aluminum base. They had an aluminum base. I’d cut it down. And when I couldn’t get the phrases, I’d put it down to 33-1/3 speed. It would be in another key, but you could still get the phrases. If you cut it down, he sounded like Lester Young—if you cut down the speed.

Panken:   How did you get the records?

Donaldson:   I got them from the guys in Chicago. See, some guys in my band came from Chicago, and they brought the records out to the base, and they’d be playing them?

Panken: Which records at the time? The Guild records with Dizzy Gillespie and Sid Catlett?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no.

Panken:   “Red Cross”? Or before that.

Donaldson:   No. Way before that. Wasn’t nothing like that out.

Panken:   Well, he made those dates in 1945, but I don’t know if they were out at the time.

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t hear that until later.

Panken:   But apart from “Jumpin’ Blues,” what other Charlie Parker solos did you learn…

Donaldson:   “Jumpin’ the Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” with McShann. A couple of more tunes. But all of them were with McShann.

Panken:   Everything with McShann. So your experience with Charlie Parker…

Donaldson:   Was with McShann.

Panken: After you got out of the Army, did you stay up on all of Charlie Parker’s records, the Dials and the Savoys?

Donaldson:   Of course. Stayed on everything.

Panken:   Did you do the same thing with those?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Copied everything. Played everything. Played the solos.

Panken:   How did you learn what to do with that information as a performer?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, the tunes that he did then were just variations of other tunes. So I’d learn the original tune, and compare that with what he was playing, and that gave you something to work on. It was nice.

Panken:   So you could use your imagination and creativity that way, by finding out the connections.

Donaldson:   Of course. Once I learned to resolve chords, go from one chord to another, I’d just buy the sheet music and I could see where the chords went.

Panken:   Now, I’m unclear from our conversation yesterday whether this was a solitary activity or whether you had people in Greensboro who were similarly interested in bebop and the new music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. Everybody in Greensboro was interested in it. My good friend, Carl Foster. This other guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, who was a great saxophonist.

Panken:   Billy Tolles was from Seattle, right?

Donaldson:   Seattle, Washington.  He was a great saxophone player. He could play all that kind of stuff when he came down to North Carolina.

Panken:   Now, the people you played with in Greensboro… Were you moonlighting outside of school? Did you ever do three-four days out on the road with a blues singer, or go to a dance…

Donaldson:   No, we played in clubs. And we played bebop. We played a regular show, then we’d play bebop. You had to play a regular show first. Then we’d play some bebop tunes.

Panken:   You mean at the end of the show.

Donaldson:   At the end of the show.

Panken:   Now, you said that’s been your m.o. ever since.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:    You play during the regular show things that will communicate to the average man and woman, and then you…

Donaldson:   Once you get them in your corner, then you play whatever you want to play. One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me (I don’t know whether I told you this before) is that when I came back from the Service, I didn’t have a saxophone…

Panken:   You didn’t tell me that.

Donaldson:   I had to go to the music shop to buy a saxophone. I didn’t tell you that?

Panken:   No.

Donaldson:   I was in there, so I started to play the… [SINGS REFRAIN OF “GROOVIN’ HIGH”] All of a sudden, I hear this guitar player over there playing the same thing I was playing. I looked around the corner at him, and it’s a white boy. He had all this paint over his clothes and paint on his face. He looked like a painted Indian. He was a sign painter. And I said, “Man, how you know that?” He said, “Well, I’m trying to learn all the bebop I can learn.” I said, “I’m glad I saw you. So there’s one person in this town…” He said, “Can I come down to the Cottage?” I said, “yeah, you can come down every time.” So he started coming down there every weekend, and we’d play. And you’d never guess who it was.

Panken:   I think I might know. Let me try one guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Tal Farlow?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow. He was from Greensboro. He’d come right down, and we played. We was integrating everything. Nobody said a word. They loved it. That was great.

Panken:   I got so involved in talking about your musical path, but I wanted to pick up on a couple of things you were mentioning just before we sat down and the tape went on about your extended family. I think you mentioned your grandfather, or was it an uncle, who was a stone-mason and built…

Donaldson:   Oh, my great-grandfather. He built St. Paul University. He built the buildings. He was a mason and a carpenter.

Panken:   Was that during Reconstruction times?

Donaldson:   It had to be in the 1920s.

Panken:   Your great-grandfather?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He would have been elderly at the time…

Donaldson:   Well, maybe my grandfather. My mother’s father. That’s who it was. My grandfather. A lot of my mother’s sisters taught in the college.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, and tell me if you do, how far back can you trace your lineage?

Donaldson:   Way back.

Panken:   Talk about that a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, I had the paper to show you, but my sister-in-law absconded with it, so… I didn’t know these people myself.  My mother told me all this. I never saw these people. I saw her sisters. See, my grandfather had three wives, three sets of children, and she was in the first set.  There were some younger ones.

Panken:   At the same time, or serially?

Donaldson:   Yeah, at the same time. He was… I guess he was a playboy, whatever he was. Bigamist. Whatever he was. He had three sets of children.

Panken:   Hard-working man. Where was he from?

Donaldson:   I guess he’s from Virginia. St. Paul, Virginia. I guess.

Panken:   Perhaps if you do find that sheet of paper, the Smithsonian can get a copy, and it can be entered into the record of the transcript later.

Donaldson:   Yes. Maybe I can find it.

Panken:   Let’s jump, then. Our conversation yesterday took us to about 1960, give or take, around the time when you make the transition from carrying a pianist in your band to starting to carry organ players, and when, apart from Jimmy Smith, you record with Big John Patton, you record with Baby Face Willette, projects like this. But first, I’d like to talk a bit more about the bands you recorded with in the late ‘50s. Some had Bill Hardman on the front line with you; some didn’t. Herman Foster or Horace Parlan were the pianists…

Donaldson:   George Tucker and Al Harewood.

Panken:   Also Peck Morrison and Dave Bailey.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   In general, what qualities did those musicians have in common?

Donaldson:   Well, for me, they weren’t junkies. That’s why I used them. Because like I told you, I told Alfred Lion junkies had to go.

Panken:   But how about as far as what they did musically?

Donaldson:   Well, we played around New York together. I’d see them all the time. We had two or three places we played, and then we had one place we’d play every night called Connie’s. That was at 134th and 7th Avenue. We played in Connie’s… After the rest of the clubs was closed, we’d go up there and play from about 5 til about 10 in the morning.

Panken:   You mean the breakfast session.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Was that all week, or just Monday?

Donaldson:   Every night. Right across the street was Roy Campanella’s liquor store. Any time some famous ballplayer would come over there, they’d run across the street and tell us, and we’d go over there and meet them. Don Newcombe, Hank Thompson… In fact, Leo Durocher was over there one time. We got to meet all the ballplayers.

Panken:   I guess the New York Giants were Harlem’s team.

Donaldson:   Of course. The New York Giants. And the Brooklyn Dodgers. They loved the Dodgers, too. I was there the night Campanella got hurt. [January 27, 1958] What happened… This is an amazing story. I was in Small’s Paradise. Wilt Chamberlain owned it at that time. I was over there talking to Wilt, and Campanella came in there because once… He closed up about 1 o’clock, and Wilt stayed open til about 4. There was a girl, a barmaid that Roy liked, so he came over, but it was snowing a little bit, not much… He sat there until about 4 o’clock. By that time, the snow was getting deep, real deep, and I started talking to him.  I said, “Roy, I know you’re not trying to go home in this snow.” He said, “No, I think I’m going to go down the street to the motel and stay there the rest of the night,” because there were some bad curves getting back to Brooklyn. I said, “Ok.” I never will forget it, because when I got in my car, I came up Bruckner Boulevard, which was a two-lane street then but they were making it a four-lane, and they had dug these trenches, and if you slid in one of those trenches you never could get your car out. So I drove my car in low gear from Harlem all the way right to this house in the Bronx. When I got in, I was so late… My wife said, “What in the world are you doing coming in so late?” I told her I couldn’t drive fast, because if the car got stuck I had no way to get it out. I drove right in the middle of the road because there was no other traffic out there.”

I got into bed, and she came in at about 12 o’clock and said, “Roy Campanella had an accident.” I said, “What you mean, accident?” He told me was going to the hotel. He wasn’t even going to try to go home.” She said, “Well, he did, and when he went around some curve, he got injured, and he’s paralyzed.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. When I finally saw him 3 or 4 months later, he told me, “I didn’t listen to what you told me. You told me not to do that.” I said, “Because it was too dangerous.” I went up Bruckner because that’s a straight line. Wasn’t no hills or nothin’ up there, just straight up the street. If I had to go down some curves, I wouldn’t have any gone anywhere either. That’s amazing. Amazing story.

Panken:   So you were really around and in direct contact with the elite of a lot of different worlds.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Everybody.

Panken:   In the black community mostly, but some in the white community, too.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. I could be called an historian. I met everybody, and I was out every night.

Panken:   Working.

Donaldson:   Working or looking. When I wasn’t working, I was looking. I met everybody. Everybody you probably can name, I met them.

Panken:   Wilt Chamberlain bought his interest in Smalls when? 1961? 1962?

Donaldson:   Something like that. I don’t know exactly. He had a lot of money.

Panken:   So you were working for him.

Donaldson:   Sometimes. Not all the time.

Panken:   You worked at Smalls. You worked the breakfast thing at Connie’s. Where else did you work in Harlem?

Donaldson:   I worked at the Club Barron. I worked at Count Basie’s.  He had a club. I worked down at the Baby Grand sometimes. Another place called the Top Club.

Panken:   About how many days a week would you say you were working from 1955 to the late ‘60s? 300 days a year?

Donaldson:   No, not that much. I wouldn’t work that much. There was three or four clubs out in Long Island I worked, too. Bop City and two more clubs out there I used to work.

Panken:   Brooklyn, too, I would think.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Brooklyn… I used to work the Baby Grand over there, and I used to work Scotty’s Club over there, and that other club on Fulton and Nostrand.

Panken:   Oh, not the Blue Coronet…

Donaldson:   The Blue Coronet. That was a tough club.

Panken:   Tough in terms of the clientele?

Donaldson:   That’s right. You had a few fights now and then.

Panken:   Again, talking about the band, do the Blue Note recordings from 1957-1958-1959, like Blues Walk or Sunny Side Up reflect what your band was playing in those clubs?

Donaldson:   No. Because I used all that on those things… I wasn’t even playing organ in those clubs.

Panken:   On Sunny Side Up you used piano. Horace Parlan.

Donaldson:   Oh, ok. Maybe I did. I went on the road with that group, Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Al Harewood, and I had Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   So the records were not a direct reflection of what you would do in the club.

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   How would it be different?

Donaldson:   Well, when they wanted a date, I’d just figure out something to do to make it. I’d change the personnel according to what I was playing at that time. What I used to do, I used to play… If I was going to make a date, two weeks before I made it, I’d play the tunes in the club to see what kind of response I got, and the ones I didn’t get a response to, I didn’t record, and I was home free. Because everything I made during that time, sold.

Panken:   Probably a lot of ‘78s also at that time.

Donaldson:   Many ‘78s.

Panken:   For the jukebox trade.

Donaldson:   Yeah, many ‘78s.

Panken:   When you started carrying an organ, it’s about 1960…

Donaldson:   Yeah, something like that.

Panken:   The first organist you traveled with extensively was John Patton, although you’d been doing some gigs with Jimmy Smith before that.

Donaldson:   Yeah, John Patton was the first one I took on the road.

Panken:   How did you meet?

Donaldson:   I don’t know how I met John. It was in New York. I met John Patton, Ben Dixon and Grant Green. We had a nice group. Nice group. I met Grant in East St. Louis, Illinois. In fact, I’m the one who brought him to New York.

Panken:   What was he like?

Donaldson:   He was a junkie.

Panken:   Can you separate your assessment of his personality from that, or does that define it for you?

Donaldson:   Yeah, he had no personality. A junkie got no personality. Junkie works 24 hours a day trying to get money to get a fix. That’s that personality.

Panken:   But you must have really liked his playing…

Donaldson:   I loved his playing.

Panken:   You had a group with him for several years.

Donaldson:   But I didn’t take him on the road.

Panken:   Oh, you didn’t.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I never took him once on the road. Because they got the ten-year Mann Act. You cross the line with some drugs, goodbye—you’re gone. I never took him with him me. I didn’t take that chance.

Panken:   Who did you take on guitar with you at that time?

Donaldson:   I didn’t have a guitar. I took Bill Hardman on trumpet. Then I took Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   How did you meet Bill Hardman?

Donaldson:   I met him in Cleveland.

Panken:   Where he was from, where he grew up.

Donaldson:   That’s where he was from, yeah. He came by to sit in, and I liked him, so I hired him.

Panken:   I’d like to ask you a general question about balancing your creative impulses with the function of doing the gig, and how you satisfy your creativity within the dictates of making a living?

Donaldson:   What we did, we had one set we would play in a new place where we worked, called a “feel ‘em out set.” We played blues, then we’d play a little fast one, then we’d do some swing, then we’d play some other stuff, and whichever way the people went, that’s where we stayed. Stayed. That’s the secret. Most musicians who have work, they know it. They know how to do that. That’s still… Like I told you, we’d play exactly what they wanted to hear for the first set. Second set, they’re getting drunk. Third set, they’re real drunk. So we would play “Cherokee” or anything then. They didn’t know what it was. Because they’re drunk!

Panken:   One thing I’ve noticed seeing you in person however many times it’s been, is that you play everything as though you were playing it the first time, which is what Illinois Jacquet and what I’m sure most of the saxophonists who were your role models did. How do you do that? Do you play tricks with yourself? Is it a natural thing…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s what it is. You try to make yourself play different. It’s hard to do, but you try to do that while you’re playing the same songs all the time. Hard to do it, but you have to do it.

Panken:   What tricks do you play on yourself? If you’re not giving away trade secrets…

Donaldson:   No, ain’t no trade secrets. No tricks. We just play different phrases, different things on the same changes. We play on what we call chords and resolutions. Now, sometimes when I used to play on the road, we’d play the song so much because the people were requesting it, so I’d just start playing it in another key. It made me think about what I was playing. Because I played them in one key so long, I didn’t even think about it. I just went up there and played it. But if I had to play it in another key, I’d have to think. So that kept my mind sharp.

Panken:   For instance, every time I hear you go into whatever blues you’re presenting at that time, singing it, or other things you play that I can’t think of right now, there’s a certain conviction to it, a freshness. It’s the way James Moody would do his signature tune, or Jacquet would play “Flying Home.”

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   That’s difficult to do?

Donaldson:    No, not really. You build up to it. You play a variety of tunes, and when you get to that one, you’re ready. You’re ready to play it.

Panken:   You moved into the house we’re conducting this interview in, in 1963, was it?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In 1964, you start a couple of years recording for the Cadet label. What precipitated that, and what was it like functioning on Cadet?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, Esmond Edwards, who was the A&R man at Prestige, went over to Argo, and he went over there and they gave him a lot of money, so he paid us 3 or 4 times what we were making at Blue Note. So I went over and made a couple of tunes. That’s the only reason.

Panken:   It sounds like you were functioning mostly as your own producer for Blue Note after you came back in 1957. Was that the case at Cadet, or were those more produced?

Donaldson:   I produced them. Just about everything you see on a record is produced by me.

Panken:   One of the records on Cadet, if I’m remembering correctly, is the first one I can think of where you’re working in a larger ensemble, like maybe 8 pieces, with arrangements behind you… Did you approach the Cadet dates any differently than Blue Note?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Same thing.

Panken:   The date I mentioned is Roughhouse Blues. Oliver Nelson did the arrangements.

Donaldson:   Oliver Nelson, yeah.

Panken:   That’s the first one I can think of (I may be wrong) where you functioned with an arranger. Everything before that was a combo date.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Why didn’t you do more larger dates before? Why was everything a combo?

Donaldson:   Because the other stuff was selling. We didn’t want to rock the boat. Next thing I did was the one with Duke Pearson, Lush Life.

Panken:   That was in 1967. Which I have to say, personally, is one or my 2 or 3 favorites of yours.

Donaldson:   That’s a beautiful record. A couple of records I made myself, and then George Butler added two or three pieces on it, but it wasn’t really me.

Panken:   Would those be the early ‘70s things on Blue Note…

Donaldson:   Yeah. They overdubbed them. Messed them up actually. But it doesn’t matter.

Panken:   I want to ask about the way you developed your group sound in the ‘60s. Alligator Boogaloo or Midnight Creeper are a very different sound and approach than, well, Lush Life, but also the records with Big John Patton four-five years before.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you speak about evolving towards that way of thinking about making records and your sound, and how it reflected the audiences you were playing for and what was going on around in the music, which was changing in the ‘60s…

Donaldson:   I met Earl Bostic in ‘57, and he told me… I was playing a Brilhart mouthpiece, and he told me, “Get rid of that and get a Meyer.” He said a Meyer is better for the Selmer saxophone. He was right, and I got a different sound. Much clearer. I got the new sound, so I started playing slightly different. Not much. Slightly different.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, I started making a lot of groove records. The groove records depend on the groove. You don’t have to worry about anything else really but the groove. Because if you’ve got the right tempo, and everything is hitting where it’s supposed to hit, you’re in business. You can play variations on it, do anything on it, but if the groove is there, you’re in business.

Panken:   Are you saying you started to do that in ‘57-‘58, after you got…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Those earlier records seem to be a mixture of those sorts of tunes, and bebop tunes and popular tunes and blueses…

Donaldson:   Yeah. It was a mixture of bebop and swing.  That was the formula we used. And all those records were selling, too.

Panken:   But in the ‘60s, after you’d been touring with an organ for a while, and you pick up Lonnie Smith and George Benson and Leo Morris, also known as Idris Muhammad…the sound of those records is very different than the sound of the records by the previous bands.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that’s Rudy. Rudy got some new equipment, some new Telefunken equipment. Plus, that’s a great band you’re talking about.

Panken:   I’d like to know how the band came together.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, John Hammond fired George.

Panken:   In 1966.

Donaldson:   George was with Columbia. John Hammond fired him, and George… I knew it. I used to see George all the time. So I said, “Well, you ought to come and make a record with me if he fired you.” And he did. Lonnie was in his band so I got both of them at the same time.

Panken:   Anything else you’d care to say about how you addressed things with this band?

Donaldson:   Well, no. See, he had a great band. He had Ronnie Cuber… He had a great band himself. That told me right there that John Hammond didn’t know the first thing about talent. Because he wouldn’t know it, and the people listening to this or reading this are going to be surprised, because John Hammond fired George Benson (I mean, not fired him—let him go), Aretha Franklin, and Eddie Harris, and the next record each one of them made, you know what happened? A hit record. The next record they made, a hit record. Eddie Harris made Exodus. Aretha Franklin, I don’t know what she made, but you know what happened with her—everything she made was a hit. And George, the next record he made with me, which was a hit, and then he went on to CTI, started singing, and that was a hit. John Hammond missed all three of those people. They were right on the label.

Panken:   You were touring with them in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What was band like live? Were you following the same format or stretching out more?

Donaldson:   We stretched out a little more on the “Impressions”(?—53:36) stuff.

Panken:   Now, your relationship with Lonnie Smith has been ongoing ever since…

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   …and it’s one of the great partnerships in this music. Can you talk about your interplay?

Donaldson:   We were so compatible, we just made records for years—15-20 years.

Panken:   Thirty.

Donaldson:   All of them were selling. That’s another thing. A lot of people say, “Well, you made all those records.” I say, “Yeah, but you got to understand; if you make a record for a company and it doesn’t sell, that’s your last record.” What we did, we’re going to sell some records, even if it’s not a hit. It’s going to sell some records, enough to keep us on the label. It worked that way.

Panken:   Working with Idris Muhammad put a completely different framework on what you were doing.

Donaldson:   He’s a great drummer. Great drummer.

Panken:   Did he come as kind of a package deal with George Benson and Lonnie Smith?

Donaldson:   No-no. I saw him down in New Orleans, and I got him from there. He was down there. I got him from down there. He’s a great drummer. Great beat.

Panken:   it was a somewhat different beat than you’d been working with.

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Can you talk about that a bit?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to talk about. It was just a different beat. He used to, like, ruffle on the drums, RRRPPP, DUH-DUHT-DUH-DUHT, RRRPPP. He had a different thing, that he was sliding on the drums. Other drummers hadn’t picked that up, and that was a big hit.

Panken:   Those beats in still in common parlance. They’re being sampled…

Donaldson:   Yeah, but they don’t sound like him. Unfortunately.

Panken:   I’m asking about these sides because they’re still resonating with deejays, samples, in popular music… As you were describing earlier, though perhaps not this piece, Madonna had sampled a beat from one your sides, and you got a big check; Mary J. Blige has used these beats; and so on… Which is why I’m interested in what you were thinking about then in modifying your group sound in the latter part of the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no special effect. It was just that we were playing, and everybody played well together. That’s what made it sound like that.

Panken:   So it had to do with everyone expressing their personalities on their instruments…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   How would you say the audiences changed in the late ‘60s, or did the circuit change…

Donaldson:   Maybe a little, but not much. Maybe a little, but not much. See, at that time you had a lot of organ groups going around. Groove Holmes. McDuff. Don Patterson. Jimmy McGriff. A lot of organ players going around. We had a little circuit that we played, which I told you about, and we just went around it. We kept going around and around.

Panken:   So the slump that of jazz musicians encountered at this time didn’t really affect you…

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   …because you were able to stay on your circuit.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   How long did that last? Did things ever slow down, or did it stick…

Donaldson:   It didn’t really slow down. I just stopped making it when I got to making a little bit of money. A lot of places we played couldn’t pay. Because we played some of those places at a bare minimum. But it didn’t matter because we played consecutively. Sometimes I’d be at a club, and I knew I was going to be there for two weeks. So I’d just call around to the next down, and make a deal with somebody there, and we’d go over there and play. I was booking myself.

Panken:   You were traveling so much… I’d like to move onto a completely different tack. You were married for 56 years.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   And you were traveling half the time.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   It sounds like a very strong marriage.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. My wife was from close to my hometown. I knew her many years before we got married. She saved every penny, heh-heh…

Panken:   So you sent it home.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I sent money orders. Every week I’d send money orders. She raised the kids and put both of them through college. Both of them went on to get doctorates.

Panken:   What are your kids’ names?

Donaldson:   One of them, this one up here [POINTS TO PHOTOGRAPH BEHIND HIM] died. Lydia.

Panken:   With the violin?

Donaldson:   No, that’s Tracy. That’s my granddaughter. See, they moved…they changed the house around, so I don’t even know what’s up there any more.

Panken:   How many kids did you have?

Donaldson:   I had two.

Panken:   Lydia was one.

Donaldson:   And Carol.

Panken:   They both got doctorates.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:  In what, if I may ask?

Donaldson:   Carol’s is in psychology, and Lydia’s was in education. Some kind of… I don’t remember exactly what it was. In other words, she was a procurer for teachers down in Broward County.

Panken:   Oh, in Florida.

Donaldson:   Yes. She traveled all over the United States to the Black colleges, and tests the students and see if they were qualified to come back down there and teach.

Panken:   Was your wife working during those years?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So you were able to support a family of four and send them to college as a constantly working musician, playing live, recordings… Did you ever do other sorts of sessions? New York had a huge studio scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s…

Donaldson:   All I did was background. I did background sometimes with Charlie Singleton’s band. Background for singers. We did backgrounds. But they always stole the material, so it didn’t matter.

Panken:   With your skill sets, reading and technique, it sounds like you would have done very well in the studios. For example, Phil Woods nailed a lot of those kind of gigs. I don’t know how much racial politics entered the equation… But was it ever a temptation for you to try to do the studio thing?

Donaldson:   Too confining. Too confining, and I wanted to be, not free, but have flexibility.

[END OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Before we paused, I was asking about the New York studio scene in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and whether that had tempted you at all. You stated it was too confining. Where I want to go from that is, when did you know you wanted to be the leader of a group? You haven’t done a whole of sideman things for 55 years or so.

Donaldson:   I knew I wanted to be a leader when I started working for guys that were junkies. Because they wouldn’t pay you. Rather than to beat them up, guys that I liked, I just said, “Well, I’ll get my own stuff.” Because I was tempted many times to go to work, heh-heh…

Panken:   Take matters into your own hands, so to speak?

Donaldson:   Go to work. One time Buhaina didn’t pay me. I said, “Buhaina, you’re a big rough guy, but you’re a junkie and I’m sober. All I got to do is wait for you to start nodding, and I’ll pull out my baseball bat…,” heh-heh-heh…

Panken:   To which he responded?

Donaldson:   “I bet you would do that.” I said, “Yeah, I would. I’m not gonna fight you fair!” [LAUGHS] But actually, it was so sad… But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And most people who are interested in jazz…

One time I played down in Washington, in the park, sort of like a Jazzmobile. It was on a Saturday. It was from 5 to 8. So I’m playing, and at the end, it was still light and everything, and I said, “Man, let’s drive back through Baltimore and catch Miles,” because Miles was at a place called the Wagon Wheel, down on Pennsylvania Avenue. So we drove, we went from about 30 miles from Washington to Baltimore, and when we get to the club, Philly Joe, Red, and Paul are sitting out on the curb, the drums out there and the bass out there. I said, “What you all doing out here?” They said, “the guy wouldn’t give us any money.” I said, “What you mean he wouldn’t give you your money? You’re working, aren’t you?” They said, “Yeah, but Miles drew out the money last night. He said he was going to New York and he was coming back—and he didn’t come back.” Heh-heh-heh… The guy was angry. It was a wonder the guy hadn’t beat ‘em up.

I said, “Well, I can’t take you to New York.” But I had my station wagon and I had my organ back in the U-Haul, and I didn’t really have any luggage or anything in the station wagon because I hadn’t intended to stay over at night. So all of them crammed back in there, put the bass and everything back in my wagon, and I drove over to Philadelphia, which wasn’t but about 50 miles. When I get to the outskirts of town, I pull into the gas station. They thought I was going to get some gas. But I said, “This is it.” They said, “What do you mean, man? We’re not in Philly yet. We can’t…” I said, “You don’t think I’m going to drive into Philadelphia with you guys, and all you guys are junkies.” Because they had a guy over there named Rizzo.

Panken:   Yes. Frank Rizzo.

Donaldson:   Frank Rizzo. I knew you’ve heard of him! Every time somebody would come over there, he’d pick, them up, especially Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. That was his favorite duo. I said, “No way. I’m not driving into town.” So they had to call, they had to call and call. So they finally got somebody to come out there and get them. I said, “Ok, I’ll see you.”

So I came home to New York. When I was here for a week, Red called me. He said, “Man, we quit Miles, we quit Miles. Miles would never come up with…” I said, “Red, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” I said, “You guys are the greatest; you’ve the greatest rhythm section in the world.” I said, “I’m going to rent the Audubon Ballroom,” the place up there where Malcolm X got shot. So I went up and rented it for a month, and I played it every Sunday from 5 to 9, Lou Donaldson and the Red Garland Trio. Now, every week, Miles came up—about three times. So they’re hugging, and I know where they’re going to get some vitamins once they got that money…

The business got so good, we hired Betty Carter as a vocalist. I was raking in money! Philly Joe didn’t like Betty Carter, because Betty Carter was young then, and beautiful, singing straight-ahead, you know. She wasn’t doing her crazy stuff.  Every time she’d sing “Perdido,” she’d put her hips up in the air, and the people would go crazy. So he’d drop a bomb or do something. She came to me and said, “Hey, Lou, you got to stop that. Every time I start doing my song, Philly Joe messes it up.” So I went and I said, “Joe, listen. You can’t do that. The girl is trying to get over. Give her a break.” “All right, all right, all right.” But then, when the crowd started really screaming again, he said, “YAAAHHH.” He couldn’t stand it. Put another bomb in there. Finally, Jack Whittemore came up there and had a couple of gigs for Miles, and Miles guaranteed he was going to pay them, so they went back with Miles. But see, a lot of people don’t know that. [LAUGHS] I said to myself, “Man, I might as well get me a group and go out on the road,” and that’s what I did. I got me a group and went out on the road. And it worked out fine. Wonderful.

Panken:   You were able to be friendly with people whose personal behavior you disapproved or you felt would damage you.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   You could separate your feelings in that regard.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’m an amazing guy, because I’m the only guy… Say, like, a guy like Miles… Miles did some bad things to people. He never did it to me. Any time I talked to him, he’d come up and we’d talk.

Monk. Monk would hardly talk to people. People asked Monk, said, “How you doing, Monk?” He’d just look at them. He wouldn’t say a word. Every time I saw him, we’d talk. We’d talk a long time. We were very friendly. In fact, I used to really feel sorry for Monk, because back then, his music wasn’t compatible. I started to say I’d take Monk on a couple of gigs, but I knew I’d get fired, not because of the way he played, but the way he acted. Because he’d sit up there and smoke a cigarette, wouldn’t say anything to anybody. You can’t do that in a ghetto club. You’ve got to be friendly with the people, or somebody will start bothering you.

I used to work with Elmo Hope. He used to work in the band with me with Dud Bascomb. We worked over in Jersey. I used to pick him up every night. What happened, the reason I stopped picking him up is that Ron Jefferson, the drummer, went down to a Cadillac place down there on 10th Street and bought him a Cadillac, and he was coming back home, and just before he got to Central Park, he picked up Freddie Redd, and they started home. People were standing out there waiting for him to come with the car. They had a party going on in there… Shit, he never even got through the park. The police got him. And Freddie Redd had some drugs. They took the car, put him in jail, and he never even reached home with his car. I said, “My God!”  So I told Elmo, “Look, Elmo, what I want you to do is to go down to the Holland Tunnel…there’s a subway stop right there, just before you go in the tunnel.” I said, “I’ll pick you up there every night.” So I’d pick him up right there, go through the tunnel, we’d work in Jersey, and come back, and I’d put him out right back there. I said, “I’m not driving through town with you in my car.”

Because junkies are hazardous people. Real hazardous. I remember one night I was coming up to 110th Street, Central Park, and I stopped at a light. They said, “Wait a minute. I got to get out, I got to get out.” So I thought he was going out there to take a leak or something. So he comes back and opens the back door, and I hear this noise back there, CLING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING. So I took back there. Four hubcaps. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, are you crazy?! Not only… You weren’t out there but a few seconds. Where did you get four hubcaps?” You know what he had? He had a can opener.

Panken:   That was a resourceful way to do that.

Donaldson:   I said, “Man, you ought to be… You could get away from the FBI.” [LAUGHS] They were some crazy people. Crazy people.

See, I got away from all of that by getting me a band with no junkies. Didn’t make much money, but we had a nice time.

Panken:   You mentioned yesterday that you hired Cecil Taylor to do some gigs. That must have been the middle ‘50s.

Donaldson:   I didn’t actually hire him. I had Freddie Redd. And when I came to work, Cecil was sitting…you know, bifocals. I said, “Who is that?” Didn’t nobody really know his name. So I started to playing, and he started playing. And he club-owner… Now, this guy…

Panken:   Which club was this, by the way?

Donaldson:   Showman’s Bar. Right next to the Apollo Theater. That’s where it was located then. This guy was a Jewish guy named Willie. Willie knew everything about music, at least he thought he did, but he didn’t know anything about it… But what happened, he came by there and he said, “Lou, who is this guy?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, if you want this job, he better not play any more. See, if he plays any more, that’s the end of it.” I said, “What?” So I went over there and I told Cecil. I said, “Cecil, you’ll have to stroll a little bit,” you know, lay out this chorus. He said, “How many choruses?” I said, “For the rest of the night.” [LAUGHS] For the rest of the night! And he did it. He did it, too.

Panken:   Let me ask you this. As objectively as you can, talk to me about how you were responding to some of the ideas that percolating in 1959 and 1960, when Coltrane was moving towards what he went to, and Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot. Without invective… Because when we did the Blindfold Test a few years ago, you said some very interesting things about Ornette Coleman. I’m interested in how you processed that when it was coming out.

Donaldson:   Well, I’m telling you. The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, we were… I was working in the Five Spot before he came there. Before Monk came there, too. It was groups like mine that kept the place open, because we didn’t make any money—$15-$20. First time I heard him, I said, “Man, they say this guy is a genius…” I said, “I didn’t know I was a genius; that’s the way I sounded the first day I got my horn before I learned where the notes were. That’s the way I played. So if he’s a genius, I’m a genius and I don’t know it.”

And Coltrane… See, Coltrane used to come down and play with Monk, and he’d run down in the basement after every set, rehearsing his songs and things that he had to play with Monk. Then he’d come back up and play them. It was strange music. Real strange music. It’s like overplaying music. Because you can give a person so much, but then you got to stop. Because if you overplay the music, that’s it. It’s all over.

Panken:   Did you listen to Coltrane’s records later in the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   I listen to everything. I keep up with all music.

Panken:   Talk about that some.

Donaldson:   Well, he started to get worse and worse, when he started making his stuff like “Ascension” and all that kind of stuff. It’s really some out music.

Panken:   Did you like records like “Ballads” or the record he did with Duke Ellington or things like that?

Donaldson:   No. I like nothing he did. To me he’s an amateur saxophone player. He plays the tenor like an alto. He never gets the pure tone out of a tenor, like a tenor saxophone player. In fact, they played a record by him the other day. I was listening to Sirius. And right behind that they played a record by Ike Quebec. Such a difference. Such a difference, I’m telling you. For me, I don’t understand why the critics don’t see that, but they don’t.

Panken:   That brings me to a whole other question, which is the way you’re received by writers, critics, the broad discourse about the music? Do you feel you’re properly understand? Insufficiently understood? Misinterpreted? Overlooked?

Donaldson:   Well, I don’t know. I’m a different kind of… See, I’m a guy that tries to play the traditional stuff, and I’ll stretch out a little—sometimes, but not much. They wanted to say I wasn’t playing jazz when I went to play on these funk records. But actually they’re not funk records. They’re swing records. The records are swinging more than… Because I changed the beat of the drums. See, my records, you don’t hear the same drum-beat. Like Eddie Harris. You don’t hear the same beat. Different kind of records, and they sell like mad. That’s why I did it, because I knew they would sell. See, because Coltrane with Elvin in there, he was never going in there.

Panken:   Well, he did sell a lot of records. You don’t agree?

Donaldson:   Ah…I don’t know about a lot of records. I mean, you hear them on the jazz station. He didn’t sell no records.

Panken:   We don’t have enough time to debate it, but A Love Supreme sold a lot of records.

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Oh, you think that’s exaggerated?

Donaldson:   Yeah. That’s just a lot of BS. Herb Alpert had ten straight one-million-dollar record-sellers. Did he do that?

Panken:   Now, is that the criteria?

Donaldson:   If you’re talking about selling records. Selling records is selling records.

Panken:   In your opinion, why do you think Coltrane struck such a chord with a lot of people in the jazz public, younger people particularly, during the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Well, he’s a junkie. Any time you see a junkie, and people like that. They like that. He used to play one chorus for an hour. That’s not no… And he played a lot of harmonics and technical things. Got nothing to do with jazz. Jazz, you can play one or two notes on a tune. You don’t think so, you listen to Gene Ammons. I used to see Gene and Sonny. Sonny used to eat Gene up playing stuff. Sonny was a technician. Gene played two or three notes. People didn’t even want to hear Sonny any more.

Panken:   You did both, kind of.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   You’re kind of a cross between Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s what I said. I’m one of the in-between musicians. I try both sides. See, Trane… I listened to Trane… I took one of the old saxophone players, Wild Bill Moore. Now, he used to rock-and-roll, walking the bar, all that kind of saxophone playing. I let him hear “Ascension.” So he listened to it. I said, “What you think?” He said, “He sounds like a wounded rhinoceros that somebody shot and left out in the woods and died.”

Panken:   How did you feel about Sonny Rollins’ playing in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Not much. ‘50s good. ‘60s not-good. Sonny Rollins was a great saxophone player in the ‘50s. But once he went onto that bridge… It was reported that a cross-tie fell on his head while he was on…

Panken:   That’s not nice…

Donaldson:   That’s what they tell me. A cross-tie fell on his head. Just to see him now, it’s sad. Very sad. He looks like Santa Claus.

Panken:   Do you feel that you’ve been somewhat overlooked by people who write about the music? Not the public.

Donaldson:   Not really… Oh yeah. By the people who write. Yeah, of course. Of course. Of course. I told you I just went to Europe, and every place was sold out.

Panken:   Now, when did you start going to Europe regularly?

Donaldson:   The ‘70s and ‘80s.

Panken:   Is it different playing for a European audience than let’s say an inner city…

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Do you do the same thing, or do you take a different presentation?

Donaldson:   I play the same thing. Same thing. Same thing. This guy Wim Wigt started booking me.

Panken:   Hence, you started recording for Timeless and other…

Donaldson:   Timeless, yeah. He even made an album called The Forgotten Man. He said, “People forgot about you.” I said, “they didn’t really forget about me, because I started working, and I wasn’t in town.” I was working like on the road. And the jazz critics, people, they don’t get around that much.

Cut that off for a minute.

[PAUSE AT 22:42]

Panken:   [22:49] We were talking about critics, the press you received, and being perhaps misunderstood or improperly evaluated.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, evidently, there are some people that are not too knowledgeable about what jazz really is, and when they see somebody trying to play straight-ahead, they probably say they’re not keeping up with the trends, you know. Because you take people like Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks, or this other guy who used to work with Bill Doggett… All these young saxophone players around New York…

Panken:   In the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Donaldson:   …when they would get stuck, they’d come to me and learn the changes to the songs. I read a book about hardbop in the ‘60s, and the guy didn’t say a thing about me. I was talking about Percy France, was another one.

Panken:   You have that book in your bookshelf. [Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, by David Rosenthal]

Donaldson:   Yeah.  Percy France. Percy France and all of these people. I read it. I said, “I don’t know how he could have figured that out.” Hard for me to say. At one time, I used to work down at the place down there on…not the 5-Spot, what’s the other place down there…

Panken:   Sweet Basil?

Donaldson:   Sweet Basil. I was the house band there. I played all the time. The place was full of people every night. Never got a writeup.

Panken:   When was that? In the ‘80s?

Donaldson:   The ‘80s.

Panken:   Mostly with Herman Foster.

Donaldson:   Herman Foster most of the time.

Panken:   You linked up with him again for a long time in the ‘80s before you went back to the organ format.

Donaldson: They never said a thing about Herman, and Herman was a genius. Herman was a guy… Sometimes we’d play a year and never have a rehearsal. He knew everything. He was a genius. We played a concert once in Belgium. The guy had Dave Brubeck on there. I went and told the promoter, “You’d better let us play last, because if we play before Dave Brubeck, people are going to leave.” He said, “No-no-no, this is Dave Brubeck.” So Herman got to doing his stuff. Shee… Dave Brubeck came on, and everybody was outside trying to get Herman’s autograph.

Panken:   Now, in the ‘80s, it seems like the climate changed somewhat because of the infusion of young musicians who were interested in playing the music…who paid attention to the hardcore jazz tradition. It got more acoustic in some ways. Wynton Marsalis had something to do with it, but also Art Blakey brought all these guys into the Jazz Messengers. And you’ve kept track of the young alto players who emerged during that time, like Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What’s your impression of that… Well, they’re not young any more; they’re middle-aged, in their forties and fifties. But your impression of that particular period and how things played out with that group of alto players. Your sense of the state of the alto saxophone these days.

Donaldson:   Well, back in those days, see, Art Blakey had those Messengers… That was like a scam band. He did that so he could keep his habit going. He wasn’t interested in promoting no musicians. He talked it all the time, but he wasn’t. Because the reason all of them quit was as soon as one of them would ask him about the money, he’d get another one. [LAUGHS] See, I know that, but the critics don’t know that.

Panken:   Nonetheless, it did wind up being probably beneficial in the long run for these guys to have the chance to do that.

Donaldson:   For some of those musicians. Yeah, Wynton got famous with that. Wynton got famous with that, and he’s still famous.

Panken:   But apart from that band, just your sense of this group of musicians who started to emerge then? Was it a healthy thing for the music? Did it change the climate?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s always healthy when somebody new comes in. Because it’s like new blood. It’s always healthy. But what happens is that you get so many people… Lee Morgan was one of them, too. You get so many people until you can’t…you got a whole lot of chiefs and no Indians.  Because when they leave Art, they want to get a band. So what you got is a lot of bands, but no musicians, and no real definite sound. Now, you notice that nobody, even now, is dominant. What’s the alto saxophone player that’s dominant? I mean, other than Kenny G. David Sanborn. No jazz alto saxophone player is dominant.

Panken:   What do you make of that? Too many chiefs, no Indians, or…

Donaldson:   Well, not necessarily that. It’s because all of them come through the same thing, and they’re not playing anything, because all of them are playing the same.

Panken:   Is that because of the way jazz education is now? Coming up in conservatories and not bands?

Donaldson:   Well, partly. Partly. Partly. But anybody who comes through school and learns all the basics, they got to know that everybody is not supposed to sound the same. If you go through the school and learn the basics, you know that.

Panken:   Well, they have to sound a little different. When we did the Blindfold Test, you told them all apart. You could pinpoint who Donald Harrison was, and who Kenny Garrett was, and who Vincent Herring was…

Donaldson:   Yeah. Well, still you got to… Right now, I don’t know. Nobody is dominant. We did a survey, which the critics don’t know about. A cat bet me $100 that… I bet him $100 to $500 that I could stand down at the Apollo Theater and pool the people when they came by, and it would be ten times more people that knew Kenny G than knew Sonny Rollins. You know how it came up? We didn’t even have to stay there but about a half-hour. Everybody he asked about Sonny Rollins said, “Oh, yeah, I know him; he plays with the Boston Celtics. He’s with the Giants.” Not a living ass knew who Sonny Rollins was. Then he started asking people about Kenny G. Everybody he asked knew Kenny G. In fact, a lot of the people who came by there knew me. “Hey, Lou, what you doing out here?” But I told him, “I’m famous in Harlem; I used to live right on 127th and 8th Avenue. I know all about Harlem.”

But that’s just the way it is. It’s a sad situation. Sad situation.

Panken:   I’m going to ask one final question. I asked you about feeling…whether you’ve been overlooked, underrated somewhat. And you’re now in receipt of an NEA Jazz Masters Award. It hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be by the time this comes out. Does that mean something to you? How are you reacting to it?

Donaldson:   It’s a prestigious award. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m 86 years old…85 years old. It doesn’t mean a thing to me. Because I figure I should have had an award 25-30 years ago.

Panken:   I wouldn’t disagree.

Donaldson:   In fact, I could have had it if I’d wanted to. They invited me to the first or second or third time they gave out the award, but I was on the road and I couldn’t get back to New York to go to the meeting. I’m pretty sure I would have got it then. But it doesn’t bother me, because I’m very fortunate. I’m one of the horses who got out the stall. A lot of these guys get blocked in, and they’re down for years. Not me. I was lucky.

Panken:   Well, you know what Branch Rickey said.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   “Luck is the residue of design.”

Donaldson:   Yup. Yup. But, see, music… Let me tell you something about music before you cut this off. You talk about Wynton. Now, Wynton did something that is very hard to do. He brought this music back and got back the dignity, the stuff that people used to have in the music before the junkie era. Because I remember when I was a kid, musicians used to come through Greensboro and get stranded, and people would let them come to their house and stay, and they’d feed them and everything, until they got another job. But not during the junkie era. But he brought this back, and he does a wonderful job. Wonderful job. I wish all the best for him. He’s a nice guy.

Not my favorite trumpet player, you know… Because you can see that I worked with Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham… I worked with guys who really knew how to play a trumpet. Idrees Sulieman, a great trumpet player. Great trumpet player. Donald Byrd. I worked with these guys. Tommy Turrentine. But he did what he did, what he had to do, and he did it. More power to him. Only thing now…that he does now, he just tries for more of his type of artist than other artists, which is… Maybe he’s just doing it because he’s got a chance to do it. But you’ve got to spread it around.

Panken:   It’s complicated, because he’s trying to function as a composer also…

Donaldson:    Yes, and a musician.

Panken:   So he brings in people who play his sound, what he hears.

Donaldson:   And a musician. I just heard a record the night. It shook me up. I was listening to Sirius, and they played his concert, and he played “Blues Walk,” featuring Sherman.

Panken:   Sherman Irby.

Donaldson: Yeah, he’s a good saxophone player. I didn’t know that. So I called him and left a message. He didn’t call me back. I told him thanks. But he did a good job. And his father before him. I used to travel down through the South, way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his father had a progressive group then, down in New Orleans, which is almost unheard-of. Because you got too much competition here—all that Dixieland. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, all those guys, they had everything sewed up. But Ellis also had his band.

Panken:   I think Ellis was working with Al Hirt for a while, too.

Donaldson:   Yes. He worked hard. He worked hard. He kept it going.

Panken:   Any final comments, wrap-up comments?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to say. The NEA is doing a good job. A good job. It’s very rewarding to receive this reward. And… What can I tell you? I started to send it back, but then I thought about it. I said, “I’ll take it.”

Panken:   You mean because it had been so long coming, and it should have been before.

Donaldson:   So long coming. Plus, I don’t need the money. I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable. So just one of my… I’m a Scorpio, so sometimes I think first… But now, since I got to be old, I think before I act. [LAUGHS] But I’m not…

It doesn’t bother me that I was not recognized. You know, they haven’t had my name in the alto poll for over twenty years.  My name has not even been listed. And I was working over in Europe every day, and they have people in the poll that don’t even work any more, or couldn’t work. That bugged me for a while, because Eddie Harris used to come in… It bugged him, too. Because he had… Well, Eddie had a lot of hit records, so Eddie made a lot of money. He said, “Why we can’t get in the poll?” But we figured it out. We figured it out. And you’d be surprised what we figured out. If you don’t play with Miles, you don’t get in there.

Panken:   Critically…

Donaldson:   If you don’t play with Miles. Look at all these people that are in there. They played with Miles. Except Norman Granz’s people, but that’s years ago. Because you know, with Norman Granz, he had Jazz at the Philharmonic, all his people always won the polls. Oscar Paterson. Ray Brown. Jo Jones. Roy Eldridge. Dizzy. Charlie Parker. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. Who was the trombone player with Woody Herman?

Panken:   Bill Harris.

Donaldson:   Bill Harris. J.J. I saw that for years. Because I’m up on it. I watch it.

Panken:   So you haven’t stopped working since you were 20 years old.

Donaldson:   No, not really. But I was lucky, because I got a circuit to work. It was a tough one, because most of the guys that owned the clubs, the ghetto clubs, were like hustlers.

Panken:   Tough guys. Hustlers.

Donaldson:   Number writers, dope sellers, and whatever else they did. I didn’t never get really tight with any of them because I couldn’t afford to go to jail—you know, my family and stuff. But I even worked a club for Don King.

Panken:   Cleveland, must have been.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Corner Tavern. He had a club called the Corner Tavern. He won’t admit it, but I worked there. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   Mr. Donaldson, thank you very, very much for this very candid two days of interviewing.

Donaldson:   All right. I hope you got a little material to interest the people.

Panken:   Can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be interested.

Donaldson:   I can’t tell you my ending, because it’s X-rated, so I wouldn’t put it on there.

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For the 78th Birthday Anniversary of Bobby Timmons (1935-1974), A Liner Note and Five Interviews Conducted For It

For the 78th birthday anniversary of the late, great pianist Bobby Timmons (Dec. 19, 1935-March 1, 1974), I’m posting a liner note that I wrote for a Fantasy Records “Best Of” culled from his Riverside recordings, and interviews from an elite group of associates and friends: Albert “Tootie” Heath, Kenny Barron, Reggie Workman, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. I had fun putting this one together.

* * * *

“The Best Of Bobby Timmons,” Liner Notes:

It seems apparent, given the dearth of first person testimony in the liner notes for his numerous recordings for Riverside and Prestige, that in matters of self-description, pianist Bobby Timmons [1935-1974] held firmly to the dictum that music speaks louder than words.

Cherrypicked from seven Riverside albums between 1960 and 1963, The Best Of Bobby Timmons, if nothing else, highlights that Timmons was one of the seminal communicators of his generation. He was 24 when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to the Timmons ditties “Moanin” and “This Here,” which had debuted instrumentally on stirring albums with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet that were released in 1959. Soon thereafter, Oscar Brown’s version of “Dat Dere,” originally documented by Adderley in February 1960, made it onto jukeboxes around the country. On the strength of these hits, Timmons cut his sideman affiliations in 1961, and accepted a string of national bookings with his own trio. Much to his discomfort, “soul jazz” would be the label forever be affixed to his name.

Out of South Philadelphia, a bebop hotbed in his formative years, Timmons’ music was relentlessly earthy and primal. He was anything but primitive, but a soulful perspective was in his bones.

“Bobby’s grandfather raised him around the corner from where our family grew up,” says drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the baby brother of bassist Percy and tenor saxophonist Jimmy. “His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby played in his grandfather’s church. Later he came into jazz. We didn’t go to elementary school together, but later I saw him quite a bit. He took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who taught harmony to most of my young friends, and was an educator for a lot of people, like Lee Morgan and Jimmy Garrison. We played as a trio at dances at fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania, and were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe along with Lee and some other people who went on to get big names in jazz.

“We would imitate whatever we could from records – Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group – and we liked Ahmad Jamal. I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ahmad came to Philadelphia with Vernell and Richard Davis, and we were too young to go in the club, so we stood outside, and heard what we could whenever the door opened. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.”

In the trio, the aspirants completed the triangle with bassists like Garrison, Eddie Matthias, Spanky DeBrest, Jymie Merritt, and occasionally, Reggie Workman.

“Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling whatever the engagement called for,” recalls Workman.  “We all had to do everything, jazz clubs as well as dances, cabarets and parties. That’s where the music was heard and made. I remember Bobby  as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say. He was always an ardent dresser, neat in his music and in his personality. He was also very witty. It all turned up in his music. No matter what he was doing, he always had his personal voice. You’d know that it was Bobby Timmons doing it.”

Timmons moved to New York in 1954, honing his craft on consequential jobs with Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker. In the summer of 1958, Benny Golson, recently recruited by Art Blakey to bring a new sound to the Jazz Messengers, brought Timmons, Morgan and Merritt into the fold.

“He was inventive,” says Golson, “He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He could play bebop and he could play funky – he could play a lot of things, and I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby, who could go here or go there, rather than walking in a single corridor.”

As the Messengers hit the road, Golson noticed that Timmons frequently would “play this little funky lick in between the tunes.” He continues: “I got used to hearing it, and after he’d play it, he would say, ‘Ah, that sure is funky.’ I’d say, ‘Sure is.’ We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, and I called a rehearsal. Bobby said, ‘We’ve got everything down; why are we going to rehearse?’ I said, ‘You know that little lick you play?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, ‘No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand and compose a bridge.’ In about half-an-hour he said, ‘Come and listen,’ and then he played it. I said, ‘Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.’ He did something, and called me over in about 15 minutes and asked what I thought.  I could see he didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘That’s it. Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.’ Then I said, ‘Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ He said, ‘“Well, it sounds like moaning.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

In the fall of 1959, Timmons left the Messengers for Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, in which he, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes formed a slamming rhythm section on Live At The Jazz Workshop and Them Dirty Blues.  He returned in the spring of 1960, in time to appear on classic Messenger dates like Night In Tunisia, The Big Beat, The Freedom Rider and The Witch Doctor .

“I had to play ‘Moanin’ and ‘Dat Dere’ when I joined the Messengers,” says Cedar Walton, Timmons’ successor in the piano chair. “They were arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. I was hardcore when I got in the band, and couldn’t imagine playing them. But once I got there, I found myself enjoying them. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen, which was a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Timmons addresses with relish throughout this well-wrought compilation, consisting of six Timmons originals, each with hummable hooks and tasty changes, and seven show tunes of the torchy persuasion. Powell’s presence is everywhere. Note the fleet runs on “Old Devil Moon” and “Easy Does It,”  the stark substitutions he deploys on the brief intro to “God Bless the Child,” the voicings that pop up on “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “Goodbye,” the Dameronian flavor on the bridge of “So Tired.” As Ron Carter puts it, “Bobby wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer like, Benny Golson. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melodies and songs so that the band could tell the difference from night to night, but it would sound the same for the audience. He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.”

Although Timmons was a bandleader with a firm, distinctive point of view, he was never rigid. “He would accept input,” Carter says. “He always remembered my basslines from the other night. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before. Can we play the same idea in a different key, or play it slower, or develop another way to make the song work? I’d say, ‘Bobby, that isn’t working; can we find something else to do with that?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, what?’ If my idea worked, that would become part of the tune. Tootie would suggest something, Bobby would say, ‘I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.’ So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.”

The chronology ends in 1963, when Soul Jazz was no longer ascendent, the national circuit was drying up, and the tragic shadow that dogged so many of Timmons’ heroes began to attach itself to him. “Bobby stayed in town more,” says Carter, who recorded with Timmons as late as 1967. “We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at places like the Lion’s Head and the Needle’s Eye.”

“Bobby was a wild cat,” Walton says, and indeed, Timmons did drink himself to death, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1974. But the darkness never entered his music. As Carter notes, “I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. I’m not sure how you can call ‘Moanin’” indicative of Bobby’s giving personality or ‘Dis Here’ with the fact that he would go to the mat for you.”

“He had no ego about him,” Golson adds. “He was always upbeat, never downbeat, and he never maligned anybody unless it was in a humorous way. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, and he could PLAY funky, but he could also get into things. Of course, now is a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Tootie Heath on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    In reading the program notes from Bobby Timmons’ records, only one had an interview with him, and all of them say mostly the same thing. I was talking with Reggie Workman about another subject, and Reggie told me a little. But I knew you grew up nearby and were the same age, and knew him well.

HEATH:  We kind of grew up together and we grew apart together also. After the New York days, he went in his own direction.  I didn’t see Bobby much after Art Blakey. I think our trio was before Art Blakey.

TP:    I think it was after his first time with Art. He joined in ’59 with “Moanin’” — that’s when “Moanin’” because famous. Then he went with Cannonball.

HEATH:  Right.  For a short period. A year.

TP:    Then he went back with Art for a while. That seems to be when he formed the trio.

HEATH:  Right. That’s when the trio came in. After all of that, I guess.

TP:    A number of the first records are with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, so I guess he did those when he was with Cannonball, and maybe that’s how he came to sign with Riverside. But you were part of the first working trio?

HEATH:  Yes, I think so. With Ron Carter. We even played that around Philadelphia, before we left Philly, as a trio sometimes, with Jimmy Rowser and a couple of other local bass players. Mostly Jimmy Rowser, and sometimes Eddie Matthias, Jimmy Bond, and Reggie a few times.

TP:    Can you tell me anything about his musical background?

HEATH:  All I know is that we were all on the same mission. We were all practicing and studying and listening to records and learning as much as we could about jazz.  Bobby did play in church. His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby did play in his grandfather’s church. He lived with his grandfather. Actually, his grandfather raised him around the corner from where we lived, where our family grew up. So I saw Bobby quite a bit, and he took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who was there, teaching harmony to most of my young friends and a lot of people. An educator for a lot of people.

TP:    That would have been when he had the big band in ’47 and ‘48?

HEATH:  A little after that. Because Bobby… We weren’t quite there for the big band stuff.  I mean, I was there in the house. But we were 10-11 years old during that time.  But later in life, when we were in high school or junior high school…

TP:    ‘48-’49…

HEATH:  Yeah.  ‘50, around in there. Then Jimmy was very helpful with Lee Morgan and Bobby and Jimmy Garrison and a whole lot of people. That’s who played bass with us, too, a lot — Jimmy Garrison.

TP:    Did Bobby get to know Bud Powell at all, like McCoy Tyner did?

HEATH:  I have no idea. I never knew Bud Powell in Philadelphia. I knew his brother, Richard, but I never knew Bud. Bud was gone. And they lived outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. I knew Richard from his period with Max Roach.

TP:    May I ask one or two detailed questions? What was the name of the church where his grandfather was minister?

HEATH:  I have no idea. Bobby had a sister, too, named Eleanor, who died maybe 10-15 years ago, long after him.

TP:    When did you meet him?  You were 11-12 years old?

HEATH:  Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t go to elementary school together. I don’t know what school he went to. I went to school in South Philly with some different guys, like Sam Reed and Ted Curson and guys like that. But Bobby kind of came all of a sudden, because he was playing the piano, but he was playing church music, and he came later into jazz music, into being interested in jazz — around 15 or so.

TP:    Did you play in teenage combos?

HEATH:  Yeah, we played as a trio. We played some fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania. Bobby was kind of a favorite on some of those dances. I used to do things with Bobby and Ray Bryant. We also were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe, and Lee Morgan was in that band and some other people who had gone on to be rather big-name people in jazz. But Bobby was also in the big band with us, and we played some dances, and then we played some trio stuff around in the fraternity houses. That was kind of a good thing to do as a teenager.

TP:    So when you were 16-17 years old, ‘51, ‘52, ‘53.

HEATH:  Well, in ’58 I came to New York, when I joined J.J.’s band. But I used to go back and forth to New York, and I think all of us did that for a while until we all made the final move. We had an apartment down there on the Lower East Side with Bobby and Lee Morgan and Spanky DeBrest.

TP:    You all lived  in an apartment together?

HEATH:  Yeah, we had an apartment on Fifth Street, 315 East  Fifth Street. Elvin Jones lived across the street, Ted Curson lived on that block, Jon Hendricks lived on that block, Kenny Barron’s brother Bill. A lot of musicians. I think it was between Third and Second. We used to walk around the corner to the Five Spot.

TP:    Maybe it was 215.

HEATH:  Maybe it was 215.  But it was not far from the Five Spot. We’d go right around the corner, and Ornette was there and sometimes Mingus would be playing. Actually, we never played in there because we weren’t quite there yet. We were in bands. Bobby was with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

TP:    So you were part of the Manhattan contingent. There was a big Brooklyn contingent, too.

HEATH:  Yeah.  We all lived in Manhattan. Jimmy Garrison and I got a place in Brooklyn later, which didn’t last very long, but we did have one there.

TP:    When you were playing combo at 16 or 17 around Philadelphia, what kinds of things were you playing?  Was it mostly Bobby’s arrangements?

HEATH:  Yeah, some of it was his. A lot of stuff we were just imitating recordings. We would play whatever we could from records. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group — whomever.

TP:    But were there any piano trios he was emulating or trying to get with?

HEATH:  Yeah.  We liked Ahmad Jamal. Jamal’s music was popular around that time. Ahmad had his club during that time, and that’s when his stuff was real hot, because they sat in that one club and played for five years, and that’s where they developed the sound of the Ahmad Jamal trio. We heard their music. They used to come to Philadelphia, and of course, I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ron was going in his own direction already.

TP:    In ’51 and ‘52, Ahmad had recorded, but at the time he had a trio with Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.

HEATH:  This trio that we liked and saw was with Vernell and Israel. Actually, the first one I saw was with Vernell and Richard Davis. They used to come to Philadelphia, and we were too young to go in the club, so we would kind of just stand outside, and whenever the door would open we could hear a little bit.  That’s how we got to loving Ahmad’s style of trio music. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.

TP:    That sort of organization.

HEATH:  Yeah, and the arrangements and the interesting things they used to do together.

TP:    Well, it’s a very orchestrated style. The drums would have a role and a voice and the bass…

HEATH:  That was it. Those were the guys for us.

TP:    How about pianistically? Was he modeling himself after anyone? You hear a lot of Bud in his playing. There’s some Horace Silver and…

HEATH:  He liked Horace Silver and Ahmad, and I’m sure he liked Bud, too.  But I didn’t get that part of him, the Bud Powell thing.

TP:    Do you remember him speaking to you about influences ever?

HEATH:  No.

TP:    Were you not such close friends, but just musical colleagues?

HEATH:  No, we were close.

TP:    What was he like personally?

HEATH:  That’s hard. We were young people, and being young guys.

TP:    Was he a humorous guy?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he had a great personality.  People liked him.

TP:    Do you think he maybe developed that in the church a bit, that performing for church people from a young age gave him a public personality early on?

HEATH:  I doubt it.  Because in the church, you don’t really have a voice in there. You just sit up and do what you do. I doubt if he… I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

TP:    Was he a very warm person?

HEATH:  Yes. Sure. He dressed immaculately all the time. He was very conscious about his appearance.

TP:    On all the albums, you see him in a very form-fitting suit, and he’s so skinny, he fits it well.  Was he a chukka-boot wearer?

HEATH:  He probably did. I think that’s something that everyone was doing at one time.

TP:    Was he painstaking with his arrangements?  Did he go over them with a fine-tooth comb?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He was very particular about his music.

TP:    He was particular about the way he dressed and particular about his music. What were the rehearsals like? Was he very specific about the drum parts?

HEATH:  I don’t really remember. I remember us, as part of our development, sitting down and playing, but I don’t remember a so-called rehearsal where we had something… He just accepted whatever I did, and I listened to what he was doing, and tried to fill in what I thought it should be, and he didn’t have any specific drum parts or bass parts or any of that. We developed that from playing together.

TP:    There’s a recording on Riverside of a gig at the Vanguard. Do you remember the circumstances of that recording?  Were you playing as an opening act for another band?

HEATH:  No. I think we were the only group in there.

TP:    I remember seeing old handbills, and Ahmad Jamal would be opening for Miles or something.

HEATH:  No, we weren’t a part of anything like that. We had our own week down there when we did our recording.

TP:    Were there good crowds?  Was he very popular?

HEATH:  Yeah.  He had a lot of fans.

TP:    Because of those tunes.

HEATH:  Yeah, a lot of people liked them.

TP:    Were those tunes like “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere” and “Dis Here” on jukeboxes?

HEATH:  No. I don’t remember hearing them on jukeboxes until the vocal recordings came around, with Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross and those people. When they started doing them, then it took on a whole nother character.

TP:    Would the music evolve over a week, or once the music was set, was it set?

HEATH:  No, we played together. So it changed. Whenever he did something, we would follow him. Or if we did something that he liked, he would follow us. That’s how we developed. That’s how the Miles Davis band developed.  That was the way in those days. Sitting down and having rehearsals with parts and “you do this and I…” – that wasn’t a part of it. We were a working trio, so every night was a rehearsal.

TP:    Do you happen to recall the year the trio started functioning as a working trio? Would that have been around ‘60? When he left Cannonball…

HEATH:  I would say yes. But I’m sure you can look back and get some records on it.

TP:    But you had been out on the road with J.J., and you were playing drums on a lot of sessions, particularly on Riverside, and Jimmy had a relationship with Riverside at the time as well. Is there any particular quality about him that you’d want people to know about?

HEATH:  No.  I think he was just a person, and he was a decent person, and I never saw him do anything wrong to anybody.

TP:    Any injuries he causes were to himself.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did, like we all did during those days.

TP:    But he sure paid a heavy price.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did.  He got on out of here really young.

TP:    Your relationship sort of ended around ‘63-’64?  You didn’t see much of him after that?

HEATH:  I don’t know where Bobby was, but I was traveling around in New York with different people and playing with different groups and traveling myself, and I kind of lost touch with Bobby.  I mean, I talked to him whenever I’d see him somewhere.

TP:    I think he was a victim of the way the sound of the music changed then in some ways.  Did the trio travel?

HEATH:  We did a West Coast tour.  We went to Detroit; I remember that. We went out to California and the Jazz Workshop out there. We did a lot of playing around New York and in the New York area, the Village Gate and places like that around the city. Yeah, we played quite a bit, for maybe two or three years.

TP:    How much would you say you were on the road?

HEATH:  Well, our traveling wasn’t that intense.

TP:    So it wasn’t like you’d be in a car for 30 weeks a year, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit. You didn’t do that circuit.

HEATH:  No.  Most of the times, we flew. We were flying.

TP:    Was he easy to play with?

HEATH:  Yeah. Well, I can say that I always felt that we were all in the same place in our development. I can’t say that Bobby was any greater than anybody else in the band, and neither was I, and neither was Ron Carter. We were all just kind of developing and trying to find our way.

TP:    But he was the composer. I guess that set him off.

HEATH:  He was the composer and he was the leader. He got the gigs. So that made him a little different.

TP:    Do you remember who was the manager or the agent?

HEATH:  I think Orrin did the California trip. I don’t remember who did the other stuff.

Kenny Barron on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you get to know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

BARRON:  I didn’t know him in Philly. Only from seeing him in New York.

TP:    Did you get to know him in New York?

BARRON:  Not well.

TP:    Were you checking his stuff out?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. Actually, the first time I ever heard his name is when I was in junior high school, in my music class.  One day we had a substitute teacher, and she was asking if anybody liked jazz, and a few people raised their hands. Then she said… This was a black woman. She said, ‘I have a cousin named Bobby Timmons, who plays piano with Chet Baker.” That’s the first time I heard his name.

TP:    But you never caught him around Philly.

BARRON:  No, I didn’t meet him until I moved to New York.

TP:    Did you like the trio stuff?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. I did.

TP:    Did you ever play those hits, “Dat Dere,” “Dis Here”?

BARRON:  Yeah, I’ve played them.

TP:    What are they like to play?

BARRON:  They’re fun. They’re fun to play on.

TP:    Are they tricky?  Are there things in them that go beyond the obvious? Did he put  twists and turns in his stuff?

BARRON:  They’re not unusually tricky. I wouldn’t say that.  But they’re catchy.

TP:    People still like those tunes.

BARRON:  Oh yeah. When you can have somebody write lyrics for your stuff, that means there’s something there.
Reggie Workman on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about your recollections about Bobby Timmons?

WORKMAN:  Let me turn the page.  The mental page.

TP:    I know you grew up in a different part of Philly, and you’re three years younger.  But I figure you must have crossed paths at various points.

WORKMAN:  Of course.  You know, the music community is very small — actually worldwide. No matter where you go, you always run into people who are thinking somewhat in the same direction that you are. Therefore, I ran into Bobby Timmons’ neighbors, and the Heath brothers, and Bobby Green and all the guys down in South Philadelphia often, because whatever was happening, if there was something musical happening, one of those persons would be there — and Bobby was often on the scene.  I remember him as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say.  And it always turned up in the music.

You know who reminded me of him when I first saw him a lot at the school was Carlos McKinney.  The way that Carlos McKinney is now, Bobby used to be when he was young.  He was always an ardent dresser, he was always a very neat person in his music, very neat in his personality, and very witty as far as being a person was concerned.  That always turns up in the music.  And he’s always reflected his experience in his music, no matter what he was doing.  You could hear… And he always had his personal voice, no matter what he was doing.  No matter what kind of job he was doing, you would know that was Bobby Timmons doing it.

TP:    This being in Philly before he came to New York, as well as after…

WORKMAN:  That was Bobby.  And that was the aesthetic of the music then. Back in those days, that was as much of a thing to strive for as playing music right, was to find out this voice is MINE; this is the way that I express myself, and this is the way… Therefore, anybody you hear from the era that Bobby lived, you know who they are. You can hear who they are without question when you hear their audio sound.

TP:    Were you in the Messengers at the same time as he?

WORKMAN:  No.  He was in the Messengers before I was.

TP:    I think he did it twice, in ’59, the Moanin’ session, and then he came back in ’61, before Cedar came  in.  Were you ever part of his trio?

WORKMAN:  Well, we worked around Philadelphia on occasion.

TP:    What was he like as a leader?  Was he very organized, did he have…

WORKMAN:  That I don’t recall.

TP:    Was the music stimulating to play?  Were there challenges?  Did it go beyond the basic bass function?

WORKMAN:  Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling the engagement, whatever it was calling for.  Because there are many different types of things we had to do. We didn’t come together that often, but when we came together, it was because of some situation around Philadelphia where we happened to cross paths, and instead of Eddie Matthias or instead of Spanky or instead of Garrison, I might be on the scene.  It was seldom, but it happened.

TP:    So those were the bass players he played with most often in Philly.

WORKMAN:  That I can remember.  Of course, there was Jimmy Bond, there was Jimmy Rowser, there was Jymie Merritt.  There were so many bass players from Philly that when you got a chance to cross paths with one of the musicians, you were lucky.  Of course, I was young then. I was just honing my craft, just beginning to develop, and I was from a different part of town.

TP:    At that time, would his scene be mostly in Philly’s jazz clubs, or would he be playing dances and parties…

WORKMAN:  We all had to do everything. We all had to do jazz clubs as well as dances… Dances and parties were as much a part of the… As you know about the Savoy Ballroom with Charlie Parker, they were as much a part of the arena in our community as any club or any other place. Cabarets and parties and dance clubs, and special occasions were… That’s where the music was heard. That’s where the music was made.

TP:    It was part of the community.

WORKMAN:  That’s right.

Cedar Walton on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

WALTON: Pretty well, yeah.

TP:    I’m doing a liner note for a best-of compilation. Was he in New York when you got here?

WALTON:  Probably so. I didn’t meet him until he joined the Messengers. The mother of my three children was friendly with his wife, and there was a Bobby Timmons, Jr. I think I got better acquainted with him when he was in the Messengers.  But he had gigs with Chet Baker and Kenny Baker, gigs all around.

TP:    Well, he got famous with “Moanin’” with the Messengers, then he went with Cannonball for a year, then he went with the Messengers for a bit, and then you joined the Messengers.

WALTON: Right. I replaced him.

TP:    Did he leave just because he had so many trio gigs?

WALTON: That was for him to know and me to find out. I just got the call. Where he went and what he did, I didn’t… But probably so.

TP:    What did you think of his trio at the time?

WALTON: I thought it was fine. It would be hard for me to find fault with anything. He had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, as I recall, on his first trio outing.  But it might not have been his first. It’s the first one I know.

TP:    He recorded with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb when he was with Cannonball, but when he got the trio working, it was with Tootie and Ron Carter. He grew up in Philly with Tootie. What kind of person was he?

WALTON: That’s a great question. All I know is he was the son of a minister, and moved into a building on Sterling Place in Brooklyn with Estrella and Bobby, Jr. Freddie Hubbard was a neighbor as well as Louis Hayes. But very shortly after that, Bobby made his home in the Village.

TP:    East 5th Street. Tootie said they had an apartment on East 5th Street.

WALTON: Right.  But he ended up in the West Village, hanging out at Boomer’s. His favorite bars were over on that side by the time I caught up with him.

TP:    Was he a witty guy? A friendly guy?

WALTON: Sure.  A typical Philadelphia type. I hesitate to…

TP:    What’s a typical Philadelphia type?

WALTON: Joking all the time.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

WALTON: Yeah, he did care about his wardrobe.

TP:    Did you play his tunes?

WALTON: Yeah.  I had to play “Moanin’” when I joined the Messengers, and also “Dat Dere.” I don’t think we played “Dis Here” but we played “Dat Dere.”

TP:    Did you play his arrangements?

WALTON: Yes, they were Messengers arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. You could play them, in my estimation. I remember asking Walter Davis when he joined the Messengers for a little period. I said, “Oh, man, you got to play ‘Moanin’ and all that?” I was hardcore then. I couldn’t imagine any… But then when I got there, I found myself enjoying playing it.

TP:    Did those tunes pose any challenges for you?

WALTON: Certainly. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen with them, and that was a challenge. They weren’t difficult like “Tempus Fugit” or “Un Poco Loco” or things like that. They were simple and deliberately aimed at the commercial market.

Benny Golson I think composed the bridge to “Moanin’.” We used to do that all the time without any qualms. I remember writing a bridge to “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones. I actually wrote the ending of “Naima.” Mr. Coltrane had the chords. He said, “Cedar, what would you do with this I-IV, I-IV, I-IV?” I said, “Well, you could just go right up the scale.” And he kept it in. Those kind of things were just regular things to do in those days. I’m talking about the ‘60s, not too far back – but far enough.

Bobby was a wild cat. He could drink, too.
Benny Golson on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    I’m under the impression that you recruited Bobby Timmons into the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON: Right.

TP:    How did you know him? What was your acquaintance with him in Philadelphia?

GOLSON: I wasn’t acquainted with him in Philly. But I had listened to what he had done. He was working with Chet Baker when I heard him. I didn’t really know him, but I liked what he did, and therefore, I recommended him on that basis. Well, I knew him superficially, but I didn’t really know him.

TP:    But you knew him from the Philly connection.

GOLSON: I didn’t know him from Philly. He was a different generation. He was much younger. I was gone by the time he started to make a little noise.

TP:    He was in New York by that time.

GOLSON: He was in New York, yes.

TP:    What was it about his sound that appealed to you?

GOLSON: Well, he was inventive, and he could play a lot of things. He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He was sort of, well, he could play bebop, or he could play this, he could play funky… “Moanin’,” for example.  And I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby.

TP:    Because of Art’s penchant for backbeats and shuffles, you wanted somebody who could provide that?

GOLSON: No. It was to find somebody who could go here or they could go there, rather than walking on a single corridor. I thought he was a little broader. He was on a boulevard rather than a narrow street.

TP:    I know you brought him into the band, but you weren’t in the band that much longer once he was in it

GOLSON: About a year.

TP:    So you got to know him fairly well, I’d think.

GOLSON: All of it happened within a year.

TP:    Tell me what you can tell me about him personally. People say he had a very good sense of humor, he was amiable, a good dresser…

GOLSON: Absolutely. All of those things. He was clothes-conscious, he and Lee. Every night, they had a contest going on!

TP:    Around then, it was chukkah-boot time, wasn’t it?

GOLSON: They had the boots, yeah, and the pants were cut a little high so you could see the boots. I’m telling you, they were a card, those two guys!

TP:    Two wild young men.

GOLSON:  And they used to play this little funky thing in between the tunes, this little lick, and I got used to hearing it, and he would play it and he would say, “Ah, that sure is funky,” and I’d say, “Sure is.” We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, I called a rehearsal, and I said to Bobby… We had everything down. He said, “Why are we going to rehearse.” I said, “You know that little lick you play?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, “No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand…” We were in the club. Nobody was there during the day; they were washing glasses and stuff. I said, “We’ll go sit over here and just lollygag, and you compose a bridge.” So we went over, and in about half-an-hour he said, “Come and listen,” and then he played it. I said, “Hmm, that’s not really like the …(?)… 8 bars,” Bobby.  I said, “No, this has got to be your tune, Bobby.” I said, “Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.” “Okay, all right,” and he did something, and in about 15 minutes he called me, and said, “Well, what do you think?” I could see he didn’t think much of it. He played it, and I said, “That’s it.” I said, “Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.” We learned it, and I said, “We’re going to play it tonight, and as we play it, I’m going announce it, and let the people know that this is the first time they’re hearing something that they’ve never heard before.” He didn’t have a title for it either then.  I said, “I’m going to observe the audience, and they’ll tell us whether it’s of any value or not.” I said, “Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, what does it sound like?” He said, “Well, it sounds like moaning.” I said, “Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

TP:    And it became a hit.

GOLSON: Oh, absolutely.

TP:    The audience responded to it right away?

GOLSON: Oh yeah. That and “Blues March.” Those uplifted the whole album.

TP:    If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like for him, that it wasn’t… You might think it was a natural thing from his being in the church…

GOLSON: No.

TP:    But he was thinking about bebop, and he needed to be pushed to do these kind of tunes…

GOLSON: Oh, no.  It was there. Now, he MIGHT have been feeling like that because of the church, but I don’t think that the church was the primary influence on WHAT he was playing.  Because Bobby could play funky!  Many times he did play funky. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with the church. He was just feeling that way. People say that and try to make it sound psychological.

TP:    Well, he learned to play in the church and had all that experience when he was young…

GOLSON: Well, he did it.  But Ted, it was intuitive.

TP:    On this CD, there are trio versions of “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and “So Tired” and stuff like this. Did he write those then to capitalize on…

GOLSON: Yes.

TP:    Were you around at that time or not?

GOLSON: No. That came after I was gone.

TP:    Did you continue to stay in touch after leaving the Messengers?

GOLSON: No.  Just seeing him when I happened to see him. No deep phone calls or anything like that. I’d just run into him, “Hey, how you doing?” – like that.

TP:    Do you recall any impressions you had of his trio?

GOLSON: I don’t remember much about the trio. I can’t recall as we talk the natuure of the trio. I don’t even remember who was in the trio.

TP:    He worked with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, and also with Sam Jones & Cannonball.

GOLSON: I’d forgotten all about Ron Carter.

TP:    But you brought him in from hearing him on the scene, and he seemed like good fresh blood for Art.

GOLSON: I brought him in on the basis of what I heard. It wasn’t that I knew him. It was just on the basis of what he played, his musical concept. Then I got to know him.

TP:    Can you give me any impressions about him just from that year?

GOLSON: Well, this was important to me. He had no ego about him. [LISTENED TO BENNY AND RESPECTED HIM AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR] [INAUDIBLE, BREAKS UP]
He was always upbeat. He was never downbeat. And he never maligned anybody. If he did, it would be in a humorous way, someone’s bad feet, the way he walks or something. But no, he was all right.

TP:    So his tunes reflect his personality, then.

GOLSON: Absolutely.  “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere,” that was Bobby. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, but no, he could get into things.

TP:    Well, there’s an “Old Devil Moon” where he runs off these fleet Bud Powell lines, and on another there are some Dameronian voicings.

GOLSON: I liked the way he played. Of course, it’s a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.  And I thought that he would work well with the Messengers, and he did. That “Moanin’” thing helped quite a bit. Because it was epochal, that group in 1958 with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, and me. That’s when things changed. It was because of Bobby and Lee, and my composing, and “Moanin’.” When Art used to announce the All-Star Jazz Messengers, the regular group was there, but we were like an adjunct to it, and we’d come out for the second half of the show and play with them, and when he got to me, he’d say I was the one that started it all. That was kind of confusing, because he had that group together years before I came on the scene.  But he was talking about that band from that time. Because during that time, when I joined the band, he wasn’t making any kind of money.  But when I left, he was making money, I saw he got the right bookings… Because everybody listened to me. Looking back in retrospect, why did they listen to such a green kid? [ETC.] I said, “That picture has to go on the cover,” the booking office didn’t (?) the concert in Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. “But why hasn’t he been to Europe? Send us to Europe.” “We’ve got to wear uniforms, Art.” After the band broke up, he would come to me: “What do you think I should do here?” But that has nothing to do with Bobby Timmons.

There was the spirit of the whole thing.  And those guys were exactly right for that group.

Ron Carter on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    When did you first encounter each other? How did you first break bread musically?

CARTER: It was probably on some dates for Riverside Records on which he was a sideman, earlier Riverside dates on which Orrin Keepnews as a producer. Then he put together the trio, and we flew to the Jazz Workshop down in North Beach. We rehearsed with Tootie Heath… At the time, Riverside Records had a little studio across the street from the President Hotel on West 48th Street. So we rehearsed a couple of days, to learn the library, and went out to California, to San Francisco the next day and did a week there.  Then we went to the Purple Orchid in Los Angeles, came east and did a gig in Detroit, and went to a place in Philadelphia…

TP:    So when you did Live At the Vanguard, you’d been on the road a month.  What was his attitude towards rehearsing and the sound of the group?  Was he very definite about how he wanted pieces to sound?

CARTER:  I think he trusted that… He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound of the trio. That was one of our favorite groups at the time.

TP:    He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound.

CARTER:  And he liked the sound of Red Garland’s trio with Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor. He knew Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Eventually, the sound of the trio developed as we matured, as we got more gigs, and got the kind of sound we were looking for…

TP:    So your interpretation of the material molded into what the group sound became.

CARTER:  We dealt with …[INAUDIBLE]… what the first couple of choruses of the song would sound like, and then we were on our own to develop whatever we saw fit for the remainder of the arrangement of the tune.

TP:    Did the sound change from week to week?  Was he improvising a lot within the format of the trio from one night to another? Would his solos vary?

CARTER: He always remembered my basslines from the other night. I mean, I don’t think great musicians wake up in the middle of the gig and play something that no one ever heard before. I think great players get to that zone by developing what they stumbled on the night before, or the set before, or the chorus before. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before, or an idea really sounded good, and can we play the same idea in a different key, or can we play it slower, or can we play a bridge in the ..(?)… and develop another kind of way to make the song work.

TP:    Talk a bit about the dynamics of his compositions.
CARTER: They were simple. He wrote nice tunes or some ballads. He wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer in like Benny Golson, or other composers that I could think of. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melody and song different for the band but not for the audience. The band could tell the difference from night to night in the ..(?).. of the melody, and it let us know that we had even more range to develop our melodies as the gig wore on.

TP:    Who would say were his main influences?

CARTER: Bud Powell as far playing the piano was concerned.  He was aware of Ahmad Jamal’s approach and he played block chords like Red Garland could do, but his primary infiuence would be Bud Powell.

The trio had two or three gigs after the Vanguard, and then kind of separated. Bobby was staying in town more.  We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at the Lion’s Head… He was getting sick even along the way.  The Needle’s Eye. He would play at Boomer’s.

He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

CARTER: Well, back in those days, everybody wore suits. Shoes shined, tuxes.

TP:    Would you consider his music a reflection of his personality in any palpable way?

CARTER: I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. [INAUDIBLE] I’m not sure how you can call “Moanin’” indicative of his giving personality or “Dis Here” with the fact that he would go to the mat for you. I don’t know how you can find that in his tunes.

TP:    So he knew what to do as a leader.

CARTER: Absolutely.

TP:    And he had a firm and distinctive point of view, would you say?

CARTER: Well, it wasn’t rigid.  He would accept input. I’d say, “Bobby, that ain’t working, man; can we find something else to do with that?” He’d say, “Well, what?” And if my idea worked, that would be a part of it. Or if Tootie would say, “Bobby, let’s try to do this,” and Bobby would say, “I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.” So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.

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Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Interview, Kenny Barron, Liner Notes, Piano, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter

On Buddy DeFranco’s 89th Birthday, a 1999 Downbeat article, plus Interview

Clarinet maestro Buddy DeFranco turns 89 today. I had the honor of writing about him during the latter ’90s, once for a publicity bio for a Concord date with pianist Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn, and subsequently for a DownBeat Profile. I’m appending below the final draft of the article and the interview that I conducted  for it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a digital copy of our interview for the publicity bio.

Buddy DeFranco:

Named for a pope, a king and the supreme artist-scientist of the Renaissance, the clarinetist Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo “Buddy” DeFranco came to maturity during the golden age of jazz.  Now 76, he’s the supreme jazz virtuoso of his instrument, an innovator who defies category — and time.

“I had about six careers during the last 60 years,” the 20-time Downbeat Poll winner reflects.  “Periodically I’ll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite.  I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing; that is, the idea of swing and a fundamental approach, especially in stating a melody.”  Nurtured on the driving arpeggiations of Benny Goodman and the sophisticated line of Artie Shaw, DeFranco viewed them through a lens cut and polished by Charlie Parker’s liquid phrasing and harmonic extensions, forging a unique sound and approach.  Known as the first bebop clarinet player, he’s no ideologue about vocabulary.  “I had a wide range of experience in all facets of music,” DeFranco remarks, “and my playing reflects the gamut.  We brain-pick as many people as we can, and make our own voice from what we’ve heard and studied.”

DeFranco draws on resources garnered through six decades on the road in inspired dialogue with piano wizard Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn on “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us” (Concord), a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated 1997 DeFranco-McKenna duo “You Must Believe in Swing.”  On both recordings he takes chances, playing crisply executed lines with impeccable intonation, unfettered imagination and a fiery edge, never losing the arc of conversation.  In short, he conjures the kind of “unedited” improvisations that have been his goal from the very beginning.

Raised in south Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing clarinet at 8, after several years of ear instruction on mandolin from his father, a blind man who played guitar and earned his living as a piano tuner.  “Then I wanted to play saxophone,” he continues.  “My Dad knew many good musicians, who suggested I start clarinet first, and he took the advice and bought me one for $25, which was a lot of money — our family was very poor.  I attended Mastbaum School of Music, a vocational school with a great music course, where I got my basic training and developed my clarinet skills.  I once heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti play at a music store in my neighborhood, and I was overwhelmed by records like Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ and Art Tatum’s ‘Elegie’ and ‘Yesterdays.’  My Dad and uncle loved the big bands, and they bought every record they could by Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb, and took us to hear them.  That’s how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz.

“I decided to play jazz clarinet after listening to Johnny Mince with Tommy Dorsey.  My brother, Leonard, had a good ear, and he and a friend took big band arrangements from the records, like Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Marie’ and ‘Don’t Be That Way,’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’  When I was 13 we organized a big swing band, which played in a South Philadelphia ballroom every Sunday night.  We also had a kiddie band on a Sunday morning children’s hour.  South Philadelphia had an Italian section, a Jewish section and a Black section — we were all friends.  It was very common for kids of all the races to go to somebody’s basement and jam.  There were two jam clubs, one owned by Billy Kretchmer, a terrific jazz clarinet player, and the Downbeat, owned by Nat Segal.  As teenagers, we’d sneak into either club and hear Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, or guys from Benny Goodman’s band coming from the Earle Theater to sit in.  Once in a while on slow nights Billy Kretchmer allowed us to play with the rhythm section he had there.

“Hearing Benny Goodman capped the whole idea of jazz playing — the feeling, the swing idea on clarinet, plus his great technique.  Then I heard Artie Shaw, who was way ahead of his time harmonically, and had the technique and ability to express what he wanted without editing, which is what I expect from someone who handles the clarinet.  His fluency was like a fine violinist; he could navigate all the chord progressions and make them flow.  I liked Buster Bailey, who could have been a great symphony clarinetist, except that he was black, so he couldn’t get a break.  I listened to him because of the purity of his tone and his execution, whereas many other noted clarinetists then were slightly too primitive in their approach to suit me.  I had the so-called “legitimate” background, which is the only way you can play the clarinet correctly.  There’s still a prevalent notion that the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  I disagree with that.”

After graduating from Mastbaum in 1939, DeFranco embarked on a field work apprenticeship in elite dance bands, playing challenging music day-in and day-out for a decade.  While touring with Charlie Barnet’s crackerjack unit around 1943, he heard Charlie Parker’s seminal recordings with Jay McShann.  Only 20 years old, he’d already spent four years with trumpeter Johnny “Scat” Davis (“Hooray For Hollywood”) and Gene Krupa.  With Krupa he met Roy Eldridge, then Krupa’s featured soloist, who DeFranco regards as “at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.  He was a musician’s musician, a creative player with feeling and emotion.  He was a good influence, and I gleaned a lot from him.

“I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating harmonically towards a different way of playing at the same time Dizzy Gillespie was.  I was led by Artie Shaw, while Dizzy was moving to a more modern approach — it wasn’t bebop — out of the Roy Eldridge style, as you can tell from his records then.  It wasn’t until Bird came along that both Dizzy and I said, ‘He wrote the new study book; this is it.’  No horn player at that time used as many alternate chords or that kind of articulation.  I decided to play the clarinet like Bird articulated on the sax.  It wasn’t so easy to imitate Artie Shaw, and even more difficult to copy Bird, because the clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.  Bird was the first almost completely unedited modern jazz player; he had a great embouchure and perfect fingers.  I align Art Tatum with Bird in that regard.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  He and Charlie Parker were the best, on a genius level.  From that point on, we talk about all the other guys who are really good.”

DeFranco’s solo on “Opus One” during the first of three tumultuous stints with Tommy Dorsey led to a Downbeat award in 1945.  “Dorsey was a strict disciplinarian, but one of the greatest musicians ever, possibly the best trombonist I’ve heard,” DeFranco says.  “He was unequaled at playing even a simple melody and making it meaningful, which almost every musician will tell you is the most difficult thing to do.  Technique is something else.  Practice enough and you’ll get a technique.  I learned the feeling of playing a melody and playing long phrases from Tommy Dorsey.”

In 1947 he played with Boyd Raeburn’s adventurous orchestra.  “It was one of the first outside bands I ever heard,” DeFranco recalls.  “It was intellectually unbelievable, like going to a conservatory.  You could play exactly the way you wanted and the writers could write any way they wanted.  We played off-the-wall, space charts by George Handy and Johnny Richards, and a couple by Bob Graettinger; a very difficult, technically challenging library which took great skill to play.  We could empty a room in two minutes.  Announcers used to say, ‘From the Planet Mars, here’s Boyd Raeburn.'”

DeFranco settled in New York in 1948, and joined the 52nd Street mix.  “I played in sessions at the Royal Roost and the Clique Club before it was Birdland.  Once I worked at the Clique with the George Shearing Trio, where Sarah Vaughan was the headliner, opposite the Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, which included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach and Bud Powell.  George Shearing got me a New York union card and a police card, which you needed in those days.  So I got a chance to hear and work with these guys in the very beginning.  In fact, I had Bud Powell and Max Roach in my group for a while.  When Bud was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  It was dazzling.  But when he was strung out or something, he’d get evil.  You’d suffer for a whole set.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could throw you off.  You’d shift with Bud’s emotions.

“By then I was fairly well-known.  I’d started winning polls, and was picked to do Metronome All-Star dates, which is when I really got to know Bird, and we became friends.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was very gregarious and always gracious; he’d talk about philosophies and attitudes toward life.  He seemed to read people quite well, and he was knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  I remember once he told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown — things out of the blue.  Charlie Parker invented the modern concept of playing; I was there when it happened.  There’s something of his influence in all jazz music today, which cannot be said of any other jazz player.  All the guys that got well-known afterward branched off from Bird, but we all live in Bird’s shadow.”

DeFranco’s career was taking off.  After several modernist sides with big band and sextet for Capitol in 1949, he joined the Count Basie Octet in 1950-51.  “Working with them was an education in the idea of swing,” DeFranco emphasizes.  “I’d never realized how much Bill Basie influenced the sound of the band from the piano.  I became more relaxed, more cognizant of a time feeling.”  DeFranco had met Norman Granz by this time, and went out periodically on Jazz at the Philharmonic.  In 1951, a nadir for big bands, he formed his own, following the path of idols Goodman and Shaw — it dissolved in under a year.  During the rest of the ’50s he recorded prolifically for Granz, including numerous dates with Oscar Peterson and documents of a touring quartet between 1952 and 1955 comprising pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, bassists Gene Wright, and drummers Art Blakey and Bobby White.

“I learned more about the idea of rhythm and swing with Art Blakey than any other drummer in my career,” DeFranco states.  “Sometimes when I was really tired and whipped (we were on the road a lot; the band was pretty hot at that time), I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.’  And Art would say, ‘I’ll make you play.’  He meant that.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn, as the saying goes.  Sometimes we’d get static from the ‘civilians’ about having a mixed group; I was the only white guy with three black guys.  Other than that, we had a great time together; we had a terrific relationship.

“The only thing I can say about Black and White is that during those days the black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you, you felt it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions.  The white bands were maybe a little more polished; they’d try to simulate that swing, but never really got it.  Not to belittle the white bands; it’s a simple fact of life.  Tommy Dorsey was aware of that, and once in a while he’d say, ‘We don’t have a swing band; if you want one, go listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does — that’s a swing band.’  I had an affinity with the black bands, because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  That’s the feeling I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I play.”

DeFranco’s interaction with Parker, Basie and Blakey helped him come into his mature sound, a process enhanced by rigorous self-examination.  “I’m from humble circumstances,” DeFranco says, “I was riddled with insecurities; my only security was my playing.  When that was satisfactory, I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and perform and emcee on the microphone, it was painful.  I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, a trumpet player, and decided that when I was in New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.  Frankly, both therapies — Reich and Blakey — brought out in me something that was lacking in my playing and demeanor.”

As DeFranco blossomed, the bebop business withered, and he moved to California in search of work.  He led a succession of cream-of-the-crop combos and worked in studio orchestras led by Nelson Riddle.  In 1956, Norman Granz offered DeFranco the ultimate improvitorial challenge, pairing him with Art Tatum for a recording.  “Tatum made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats,” DeFranco laughs.  “Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything; even when you soloed, you accompanied Art Tatum.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was gratified.  It was fun to him.  Even the highly technical things were kind of a game, and he’d show off.  Now, showing off is part of playing jazz.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  On the stage you show what you can do.  A lot of people scoff at that.  They said, ‘Well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.’  Well, of course he was!  It was his inner voice.”

Accessing his own inner voice is the quest that’s sustained DeFranco through good times and bad.  A quixotic project with Polytones, a quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina that “focused on polychordal music which we learned from the old masters — Prokofiev, Shostakovich and the movie writers, like David Raksin,” was a creative peak and a financial disaster.  DeFranco led the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 to 1974, and even stopped playing by around 1970.  He resumed his jazz career in 1975, and he’s maintained a dual track of working steadily with small units and presenting numerous clinics, many in conjunction with Yamaha, his clarinet-maker.  He recently published “Hand In Hand With Hanon,” an acclaimed study book for woodwind players.

Our third conversation finds DeFranco off the road from a 10-day Swedish tour with clarinetist Putte Wickman, followed by four days at Hilton Head, S.C. with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, a frequent partner of the last two decades.  “Over the years people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music — or myself — too seriously,” DeFranco confesses.  “With your own group, there’s a certain tension because everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  Terry is funny and clever, and the attitude — not the music — is lighter.  The sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton connotation, and we manage to play pretty much what we want when we solo.

“All the players who contributed to the idea of jazz are analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something different, however minimal, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, ‘That’s who it is.’  That’s Bird.  That’s Art Tatum.  That’s Oscar Peterson.  That’s Buddy.”

[-30-]

* * * *

DEFRANCO:  Then the thing is this.  I’ll just briefly tell you that my recent history in the past couple of years has been one of the most interesting of my careers…

TP:    you said you had about six of them.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I’m starting another one.

TP:    You’ll have to tell me exactly which six they are.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I can’t really tell.  They go up and down.  I guess that’s nothing unusual with people in the music business.  Phil Woods gets discovered every three years.

TP:    Oh, when you say you’ve had six careers, you mean you keep getting rediscovered.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, rediscovered.  Fall down and go broke, and sometimes…and then back again.  That’s happened quite a bit.

[PAUSE]

DEFRANCO:  I’ve done a lot of music festivals and also music clinics, mostly for Yamaha.  They make a great clarinet.  I’ve played it for about 25 years. What I find appealing about the Yamaha is it suits my needs almost to a T, as they say.  It’s a very classical instrument.  It has a nice tone quality… Of course you have to produce that.  But built in is a good tone quality, and a very exact scale, even scale.  It also affords a flexibility that I need to play jazz.

TP:    What are the dynamics of the instrument that do this?  You went into some description of this in our interview.

DEFRANCO:  I did.  Yes, not too many clarinets are flexible enough to where you could play as close to what they used to call “legitimate”…I hate to use the term, but “legitimate,” symphonic music.  Then you use the same instrument to feel the freedom of playing jazz, the flexibility.  Yamaha does that for me.

Also, toward the mid-’50s, when Rock-and-Roll got very big and jazz was really pushed out of the picture, almost totally… The only guys who were really popular were Miles Davis, the top guys, Stan Getz… They were still making money and doing very well.  They were really the stars of the jazz world.  Everybody else kind of fell apart.  And I was bemoaning my fate to Stan Kenton one time, and Stan Kenton said, “Instead of crying, let’s get together.  I’ve started a program with Dr. Gene Hall of North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, Texas.”  He said, “Gene Hall is the first guy to let the students obtain credits for jazz in a college or university.  He said, “We’re doing clinics, and we’re doing them all over the country; in fact, all over the world.  We get the young people.”  He said that the tie-in was the band directors who remember the big bands and jazz, who have a stage band (so-called; it’s really a swing band).  He said that we go in and we impart as much knowledge as we can, and keep the idea of swing bands and jazz alive, and the band directors respond to this because they remember when.  He said, “That way we get to the youngsters, because we cannot get to the youngsters through television or radio now” [at that time he was speaking] or recording.”  So there were very few jazz recordings being made.

So he said, “Try that,” and I did.  It was the best advice I think I’d had in many years, because I found out that the youngsters in the bands respond to what you’re doing, but the band directors are the ones who kept jazz alive, underground, all these years.  Not too many people acknowledge that fact.  It’s guys like Gene Hall and Matt Benton and Stan Kenton, the band directors through all the high schools and universities and colleges who have kept jazz going, even though in the public eye it was finished.  So that’s a very important thing, and I am still doing those clinics.

TP:    This was still in the ’50s, when you started?

DEFRANCO:  Around ’54, somewhere…

TP:    So this dovetails with when you moved to California.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I actually moved to California because I thought maybe with some friends I could get some work there.  Which I did.  I got the studio work from Nelson Riddle.

TP:    Oh, just playing in the section.

DEFRANCO:  Just clarinet, but playing behind, you know, TV shows.  I did all the segments of “Route 66” and I did “Profiles In Courage” and all those things where Nelson Riddle wrote the scores…

TP:    Oh, were on the Sinatra sessions.

DEFRANCO:  “Oceans 11.”  And I was on two Sinatra sessions.

TP:    Do you remember which ones?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t remember. [LAUGHS] Also, last September Yamaha and I got together, and we did the first Buddy De Franco-Yamaha Jazz Festival in Panama City, Florida.

TP:    Is that on your web-site?

DEFRANCO:  I think so.

TP:    Did you have any input into the specifics of making this clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  No.  None whatever.

TP:    Do a lot of other jazz clarinetists use it?

DEFRANCO:  They have.  I don’t know if they still do.  I know Eddie Daniels used it for a time, but he’s now using another clarinet that he says functions the same way — Blanc(?), I believe.  But a lot of professional clarinet players have used it.

TP:    Do you keep up with the current state of the clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  I have to.  I listen to them all.

TP:    Who are some of the people you like these days?

DEFRANCO:  I like Eddie Daniels.  I like Ronnie Eldridge.  He’s a periodontist, and a fine clarinet player.  I like Putte Wickman.  I’ll be playing with Putte in Sweden.  We leave tomorrow.  We’ll do 11 concerts and a CD in Sweden.  Putte Wickman is one of the best.

TP:    Ken Peplowski?

DEFRANCO:  He’s a good player.

TP:    Alvin Batiste?

DEFRANCO:  Well… I’ll pass.

TP:    I was just wondering about your current taste.

DEFRANCO:  When I talk about clarinet players, I must include the fact that they are more than just competent players, because if you go along with the competent players, you’ve got a big list.

TP:    Did you like John Carter, by the way?

DEFRANCO:  No, I did not.  See, as a clarinetist, I’m pretty critical.  There are two aspects of playing the clarinet, as in all jazz; two diametrically opposed fields and schools of thought in jazz.  On the one hand, people say, “Don’t study too much because it will ruin your jazz playing.”  In fact, years ago it was an old story.  The band director said, “Can you read music?” and he said, “not enough to hurt my playing.”

TP:    Most of the great players I’ve talked to wouldn’t think that was much of a notion, I think.

DEFRANCO:  Well, that’s still prevalent in jazz where the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  And I disagree with that.  I’ll give you a good example in the piano world.  One of my favorites of all time, of course, has been Oscar Peterson, mainly because of what he plays and how he plays it, the dexterity he has.  He has such a great technique.  So I’ve kind of aligned myself with him because I had a technique.  I love his playing, as opposed to, say, Thelonious Monk, who had no technique… I’ll quote Oscar Levant.  “He played piano with arthritic abandon.”  That’s not to say that he doesn’t play jazz.  He was a force in jazz.

TP:    Did you like Monk?

DEFRANCO:  I liked what he was getting at and I liked his songs.  I couldn’t play with him and I did not like his playing, because it lacked the proficiency that I am used to hearing.  Then there’s for instance the later Miles Davis as opposed to Freddie Hubbard.  My bet would go with Freddie Hubbard, see.  Because he’s a trumpet player and a jazz player and a more than competent execution in his playing.

But there are two schools.  Years ago in clarinet, everybody said Benny Goodman was the greatest, Artie Shaw was the greatest; and the other school of thought, like in the Thelonious Monk camp, would be Pee Wee Russell.  There are people who swear by him.  They think he’s the greatest clarinet player who ever lived.  And I pass on that.

TP:    Well, you made the comment in our interview that you liked… I asked you if you’d listened to Jimmie Noone and Johnny Dodds and those guys, and you said no, because of your technique, but you loved Buster Bailey.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, he had an excellent technique.  He was a fine clarinetist.

TP:    I’d like you to talk more about Charlie Parker.  We can relate this to the technique question.  You said that he was the first unedited player, that his technique enabled him to be an unedited player.

DEFRANCO:  I’ll qualify that.  Modern jazz player.  Because Art Tatum was that.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his recordings and you hear different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  So I align he with Bird.

TP:    Tell me what you remember about the session you did with Art Tatum.  I know you said you were sick and that you weren’t at your best.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Norman Granz wanted to know if I wanted to cancel, and I did not cancel because I knew that would be the only time I would ever get to play with Art Tatum.  I just had to do it.  I’m not sorry I did, because a lot of it came out good.  But if I were feeling better and if it were later in my career I could have played substantially better.

TP:    You’d feel more equipped to have played with Tatum, say, 20 years later just because of general knowledge and…

DEFRANCO:  Right.  I’ll give you a good example of my thinking.  Somebody said to me, “Who’s the best?”  Well, that’s silly because, in a way… I’ll quote Eddie Daniels.  If you go into an art gallery and you see Van Gogh, and then you stop and you see Gauguin, and then you’ll see Da Vinci, who is going to say who is the best?  It depends on what you derive from that particular thing.  They’re all good.  They’re all genius.  So if somebody said to me, “Who is the best?” it’s hard to say.

However, when you talk about what I consider the best, on a genius level, I’d have to say Art Tatum and Charlie Parker.  Immediately.  That’s it.  From that point on, then we talk about all the other guys who are really good.

TP:    Do you remember anything about Tatum’s demeanor during that session or the process of putting it together?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats.  It was very difficult, very hard.  He sometimes would suggest a strange key to play the tune in.  Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything, so that when you played with Art Tatum it was his ballgame.  You were there almost accompanying him, even when you were playing your solos.  But I expected that, and I didn’t care because I just admired him so much.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was very gratified with that.

He was terrific.  It was fun to him.  His attitude was great.  Even on the highly technical things, it was kind of a game to him, and he’d show off.  But there again, that’s part of playing jazz — showing off.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  What you do on a stage is show off.  You show what you can do.  That’s part of playing jazz.  And a lot of people scoff at it.  They say, “Oh, well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.”  Well, of course he is!  Just like Oscar Peterson.

TP:    Well, I guess he just internalized it.  He didn’t get all that technique separate from his inner voice.  That was his inner voice.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  It was his inner voice, that’s for sure.

TP:    You said that you first heard “Hootie Blues.”  Can you put a date on it?  You said 1941, so you must have been with Johnny “Scat” Davis?

DEFRANCO:  Or Charlie Barnet’s band.

TP:    The encyclopedias say that you joined Charlie Barnet in ’43.

DEFRANCO:  That can’t be.

TP:    That’s not true?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t think so.  They might be right because my recall isn’t… But in ’43, it seems to me, I was in Tommy Dorsey’s band.

TP:    I’ll read you what the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz says.  “Scat Davis in late ’39.  Gene Krupa ’41-’42.  Ted Fiorito, who is a new one on me, in ’42.  Charlie Barnet ’43 and ’44.  Tommy Dorsey ’44 and ’46.  You settled in California.  Boyd Raeburn.  Return to Dorsey ’47-’48.  Then you go to New York, small combos in New York and Chicago and I guess traveling.  Count Basie Septet in ’50.  Big band in ’51. Then you start with the quartet from ’52 to ’55 or so.

DEFRANCO:  That’s pretty close to it, except that in the early years… I have a feeling that in the latter part of ’41 and part of ’42 I was with Barnet, and then in ’43 I was with Tommy Dorsey.  It seems to me that I was with Tommy Dorsey from ’43 to ’48 three times.

TP:    Three times in that period.  I’m not interested in splitting all the hairs.  But in terms of the Charlie Parker thing, when you say you heard Charlie Parker’s “Hootie Blues” when you were with Charlie Barnet, what impact did that make on you?  Did it sound like anything you had heard before?

DEFRANCO:  No.

TP:    Why?

DEFRANCO:  Well, by virtue of the fact that the articulation of what he was doing was completely different, and the chord progressions that he used, even at the very beginning…the substitute chords were different than most people were using, with the exception of Art Tatum.  But no horn player used at that time as many alternate chords, and no horn player used that kind of articulation.  It had never been done before.  So in my humble opinion, Bird wrote the book.

TP:    So you were well-schooled enough to hear what Charlie Parker was doing because of the high quality of education you’d had at Mastbaum.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, I would say that.  Not only that, I was playing… I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating towards more modern playing while I was with Charlie Barnet at the same time that Dizzy was.  Dizzy grew out of the Roy Eldridge style.  But when you listen to some of his stuff during that time, he was gravitating toward a more modern approach to playing.  It was not Bebop.  And my case was the same way.  Harmonically I was gravitating towards something else, in a way.  But it wasn’t until Bird came along that both of us said, “He wrote the book; this is it; this is the new study book.”

TP:    I guess Dizzy got that close-up proximity to Charlie Parker with Earl Hines…

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  He got hold of Bird, listened to that, and it was immediate.

TP:    Dizzy had some other qualities, particularly his assimilation of rhythm and being able to codify Latin rhythms into…

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  He was the first I can remember playing modern jazz like that…

TP:    But if Dizzy came out of Roy Eldridge doing that, was your assimilation of Benny Goodman leading you in that direction?

DEFRANCO:  It was Artie Shaw leading me.

TP:    Talk more about Artie Shaw, who obviously had a profound influence on you.

DEFRANCO:  Well, I would say the way he executed the clarinet, and harmonically he was way ahead of his time.  His approach to playing, the fluency that he had was like a fine violinist.  That impressed me.  If you listen to his early records with his bands, when he played, he played more modern than the whole band, than anyone in the band.  Also, when he started playing, he changed the color of the band just by playing, so that the concept was much more advanced.  Then when he stopped playing, the band would seem to go back to its old symmetrical and angular way of playing.  So I always admired Artie, the way he made all those chord progressions that he did and made it flow.

TP:    Then I guess you could also say that Coleman Hawkins was implying the modern style as well.

DEFRANCO:  yes, absolutely.  No question about that.

TP:    Were you influenced by saxophonists as well as clarinets?  You did say that your concept of clarinet was playing the clarinet but thinking saxophone.

DEFRANCO:  Thinking saxophone.  But no, my major influences were more than likely piano players.

TP:    Primarily Tatum or other piano players?

DEFRANCO:  All of them.  Teddy Wilson and Dodo Marmarosa.

TP:    We didn’t discuss Dodo Marmarosa in the previous interview, and I know you were very close to him.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, We lived together in California for about a year, and we played in about five different bands together.  He was a great influence in my playing.

TP:    You played together with Dorsey.

DEFRANCO:  Well, we played in Johnny Scat Davis’ band together, Gene Krupa’s band, Charlie Barnet’s band, Ted Fiorito’s band, and then Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    So you really hung together.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He was also in the same kind of state of flux that I was, playing.  We wanted a more modern approach to playing, and he played his piano in a more advanced modern way, but did not play bebop at that time.  We both heard Bird together, and we both decided this is the way it’s going to be.

TP:    So when you heard “Hootie Blues” you were with Dodo Marmarosa.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Well, more than “Hootie Blues,” but all the stuff that he played.

TP:    If it was in 1941, then “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Blues,” “Swingmatism,” the only records he was featured on.  But when did you first meet Charlie Parker?

DEFRANCO:  ’42.  End of ’42, beginning of ’43, somewhere in there.

TP:    Was he with Earl Hines?

DEFRANCO:  No, he had left Earl Hines.

TP:    Did you hear the Earl Hines band with Bird and Diz?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah.  I thought it was the forerunner, or one of the forerunners of the big swing band idea.  They were ahead of their time — at the time.  Very few bands were playing with anything that resembled the modern concept.  Earl Hines did.  Jay McShann.

TP:    Did you hear McShann live?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.

TP:    With the White big bands, would your paths intersect with the Black big bands?

DEFRANCO:  Well, you see, the White… I hate to talk about Black and White because they’ve been intermingled for so long that you can’t say this… But the only thing I can say about Black and White is during those days the Black bands had a feeling, a swing feeling that would…I don’t know, that would grip you.  You could feel it in your hips, the depth of your emotions — the swing.  The Black bands had the swing, and the White bands had maybe a little more polish, but they tried to simulate that swing, but never got it.  They never really got it.  And Tommy Dorsey was one who was aware of that, and he used to say once in a while, “We don’t have a swing band; if you want to have a swing band go and listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does, because that’s a swing band.”  Glenn Miller had the same thing.  He said, “I have a commercial band; I don’t have a swing band.  Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the swing bands.”

TP:    Jimmy Crawford and Jo Jones.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, boy.  Jimmy Crawford was marvelous.

TP:    So you really loved the big bands.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, of course.  Well, mainly because my Dad, who was blind, he and his brother, my uncle, loved the big bands.  When they caught on, they bought every record that they could.  They especially liked Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie and Chick Webb — those bands.  Well, there again, they had the feeling.  This is not to belittle the White bands.  It’s a simple fact of life.  Black bands had the feeling there.

TP:    Of a lot of the prominent White improvisers who came up when you came up, I can’t think of another one who worked as seamlessly with Black musicians as you did.  People have told me that Art Blakey would speak glowingly about you.  Now, he didn’t do that about everybody!

DEFRANCO:  No.

TP:    So it seems as though you were very much truly accepted by the black musicians, who didn’t necessarily open their arms to everyone who was coming along.

DEFRANCO:  That’s true.  I simply had an affinity with those swing bands.  Because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  They were swinging.  That’s the feeling that I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I played.  And playing with different people through the years, like Jimmy Jones and Sid Catlett on drums, or John Simmons, these kind of players years ago, playing with them when I was a kid…

TP:    When did you play with Sid Catlett?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I sat in with him many times.  There’s a good example of a feeling, a rhythmic feeling and concept opening the door for you.  When I played with Sid Catlett and a few other drummers during my career, and of course Art Blakey… I can quote Art Blakey.  Sometimes when I was really tired and beat (we were on the road a lot, the band was pretty hot at that time — a lot of recording), I’d say, “Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.”  And Art would say, “I’ll make you play.”  He meant that.  He did.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn as they said.

TP:    Let’s get back to Charlie Parker.  Talk about the relationship you had with him.

DEFRANCO:  Well, when I first met him, Dodo and I were just overwhelmed at what he did.  It was a very brief meeting.  But then later on, he got very popular, then I got fairly well known as a jazz clarinetist and started winning polls, and so we were both picked to do the Metronome All-Star dates (I think we did two together), and that’s the point in time when I really got to know Bird.  From that point on we were friends, and every chance I got, I went to hear him.  Sometimes if I would play somewhere and he would be in the same town at another club or even in a nearby city, I would go to hear him.  And we got friendly.  So we spent some time together.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was like Art Tatum.  He was very gregarious.  Knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  And was always-always-always gracious.

TP:    It sounds like he showed different sides of his personality to different people.  I mean, there were certain people he would not be around when he was strung out, and there were people he did that with.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that’s true.  Also, he was well aware of being victimized by that drug.

TP:    He talked about it?

DEFRANCO:  He talked about it, and he told young people to stay away from it.  “Don’t even start.”  I can remember that distinctly when Bird… He’d almost get hostile.  “Don’t even start.  Don’t think about starting it.”

TP:    And a number of the younger musicians who did get strung out said he would treat them with no mercy once that happened to them.

DEFRANCO:  Well, they got started because they thought he’s the guy who…

TP:    Well, we don’t have to talk about that aspect of Bird.  But apparently he had many interests and much knowledge of matters outside of jazz as well.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.

TP:    Do you remember what sort of things he’d talk about?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he’d talk about certain philosophies of life and attitudes of life.  He had a good perception of people.  He could seem to read people quite well.  I remember him telling me one time… I don’t know what the circumstances were.  He told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown.  Things just out of the blue.  I guess I told the story about “Skinning Rabbits.”  Those were the type of thing…

And another time, coming home from some town outside of New York on a train with Bird.  It was a Sunday morning.  We had played and then hung out all night or something.  Sunday morning we got a train back to New York.  It was a time when you could move the seat back and forth and face the other way.  We had a Sunday paper, and he read through the whole paper.  Then a guy came in, and I don’t know if he was a workman or a farmer or something, kind of a little cardboard suitcase, what we would call in those days a real square…

TP:    A hayseed.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, a hayseed.  But Bird said hello to him, and started talking with him, and “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”  Then finally Bird said, “Come on, sit with us,” and he got up and moved his seat, the other seat, so that we faced each other.  He began telling this guy about the record date that he’s planning with strings.  He was telling me as well, because I didn’t know that he was going to do a date with strings.  He told me that Mitch Miller was going to be the A&R guy.  The funny thing is that he said several times to me, “And Buddy Rich is on drums.”  I said, “yeah.”  And he repeated it like I didn’t hear him.  “Buddy Rich is on the drums, and I’m going to do it with strings.”  And he started talking about how eager he was to work with strings.  He liked the idea.

That was a strange session because it wasn’t the greatest string section, and not the greatest rhythm section really.  But Bird was like a shining star.  He just made the whole thing come together with his playing.

TP:    Did you play on the same bill with him on 52nd Street?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I had my group and he had his group.  Sometimes, even in the summertime…two times I remember that Bird liked my rhythm section a little better than he had.  Who knows why?  And he’d come down with his horn and sit in with me.

TP:    Well, that’s because you had Bud Powell, Max Roach… This was after Max Roach left him, right?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I had Max Roach and Bud Powell; I had a lot of guys.

TP:    So you had Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Max Roach as your rhythm section.  What was that like for you?  You were talking about the technical difficulties of the clarinet.  Was there a volume problem?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I could project.  I needed a microphone because these were heavy players.  But I could project most of the time.  And also, Bud Powell was interesting, because when he was feeling okay and when he was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  He was just fantastic.  There was no question about it.  It was just dazzling.  Smashing, as they say.  As opposed to when he was strung out or something, and he’d be getting nasty.  Then it was hopeless.  You really suffered for a whole set.  Because he’d get evil.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could get you off.

TP:    He’s try to mess with you.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah.  It wasn’t only me.  It was anybody.  He tried it once with Bird, and Bird almost hit him with the horn.

TP:    Tell me about your time with Count Basie.

DEFRANCO:  There again, working with Basie and that group was really an education and a lesson — a lesson in the idea of swing.  I didn’t realize before that how much feeling comes from Bill Basie at the piano.  Not only Freddie Green, but Bill Basie at the piano, the way he played — for the group, for the soloists — was just superb.  And the feeling… There again I got… It was an eye-opener.  Another door opener.

TP:    So you were playing with some of the greatest, Max Roach, who was young…

DEFRANCO:  Oh, the list of guys I played with.  I had a group in California with Victor Feldman on vibes, Carl Perkins on piano, Billy Higgins (he must have been 11 years old), and Leroy Vinnegar, and Howard Roberts I believe on guitar.  We played East Los Angeles.  Never recorded.  What a great group.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    Talk about what you learned about what playing with Max Roach, Art Blakey, or Basie did for your rhythmic concept.

DEFRANCO:  That’s hard to put into words.  I always hesitate to describe at a clinic rhythm.  I don’t do it in my clinics, in fact.  When it comes to rhythm, I tell the students, “Find the most swinging or find the best player that you can in your area, play with them, and it will either come to you or it won’t.”  There’s no way you describe technically what happens.  Harmony you can, in terms of execution on your instrument you can.  But when it comes to swing feeling, two cliches: Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got it; and if you don’t know what it is, forget it.  Because if you can’t feel it, it’s not going to happen.

TP:    I’d like to see if you can pinpoint a couple of things for me from way back.  You said you got your clarinet when you were about 8, and you joined the Sympathy Youth Club, and your Dad bought records of Django Reinhardt and Art Tatum and you were overwhelmed by them, and you were about 10 years old, so it’s got to be about ’33.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Well, the things Django did were “Nuages” and those things, and Art Tatum’s “Elegie” and “Yesterdays.”

TP:    Also, you said that your brother would take big-band arrangements off of records, and you had a swing band.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly the clarinet.  We took a couple of Tommy Dorsey arrangements, like “Marie” and “Don’t Be That Way”, and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”

TP:    On your website you said you had won a contest that was a jumping off point for you or an incentive to play when you were a teenager.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that was in Philadelphia, in 1939 I believe.

TP:    You said you were wearing short pants.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  At the Earle Theater in Philadelphia there was a Tommy Dorsey swing contest, a weekly contest out of various cities every week in a theater, and it was broadcast nationally.  There were four contestants.  I was fortunate enough to win that.  I think I won $75, and a little plaque of some kind.

TP:    Good money in 1939.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, it was great.  And I was a hero in my neighborhood the next day.  But it didn’t make the papers.  I did have a youth group at the same time that played different jobs, and every Sunday night a ballroom in South Philadelphia with a big band.  We also played the Horn & Hardhardt’s children’s hour, of which Stan Lee Broza was the emcee, and his son was Elliott Lawrence.  He played tenor sax in those days with the band.  We had what was called the Band Busters. That was broadcast every Sunday morning.

Anyway, there were four contestants in this contest, and I managed to win almost by default, because I didn’t play that great.  Even for a youngster, I wasn’t that good — at that time anyway.  But I was a young kid, and my teacher advised me to wear short pants.  He said, “The audience will love it.”  He showed me how to play one note on the clarinet with one hand, and he said, “This is what you’ll do at the end of your solo.”  And it worked.  I mean, those other guys didn’t have a chance.

TP:    Showmanship.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, showmanship plus the fact that I was a little kid.

TP:    So there’s Johnny Scat Davis, you go on the road with him, and then you join Krupa for a while.  Do you have any memories of Krupa?

DEFRANCO:  All fond memories.  Because Gene Krupa was one of the nicest persons I ever worked for.  A delightful guy.  And he gave us every opportunity to play.  All the soloists.  Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge… He featured everyone who could play.

TP:    Oh, you were in the band that Roy Eldridge was in, so you got to know him a little.

DEFRANCO:  Oh my gosh, yes.  He was at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.

TP:    Even Pops.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, I’m afraid so.  Pops had done great and he was a great influence, but he concentrated I guess more on his commercial playing and singing, and Roy was a musician’s musician at that time in terms of jazz.  A real creative player.  Feeling, emotion.  He was tough.  He was number one at that time.  And the whole band used to love to hear him play a solo.

TP:    Did he influence your improvising approach?

DEFRANCO:  Yes, quite a bit.  Roy was a good influence.  I gleaned a lot of things from Roy.

TP:    So it sounds like you really developed your technique and conception in the big bands, polishing off the technical foundation you got at Mastbaum.  It was your laboratory.

DEFRANCO:  Right.

TP:    here’s what I want to ask you about when you get back.  A little more detail on Charlie Barnet, a little more on Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and the big bands you were with and the personalities…

We should discuss what you think are the salient points, and come up with a happy medium.

TP:    May I ask you a little more about your father, and the way your aesthetic developed?  Was he born here or in Italy?

DEFRANCO:  He was born here.  His parents came from Italy, from an area called Foggia, which is central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea.

TP:    I read Whitney Balliett’s article on you.  Before he was blind he was a musician?

DEFRANCO:  He was a guitarist.  But he was an amateur guitar player.

TP:    But did he come from a family that had an artistic bent, or was there sort of an artistic craft tradition in his family?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Both sides had musicians.  I don’t know exactly what they played, but I know that both my parents had musicians in the background in Italy, and it’s almost an axiom that they loved the opera.  They were very musical.  That augured well for me, because they could tell whether I was playing well or out of tune or missed the beat or did something.  Unfortunately, too many youngsters who are playing today, their parents really don’t know.  So that was kind of a good thing.

My Dad had a terrible, terrible life.  It’s a long story; I don’t think I can go into it.  But it would make a book.  You just wouldn’t believe the tragic things that occurred in his life, and how he rose above most of it.  He was just incredible.  He was always in good humor and good wit, and kept us interested in music.  Never failed to play for us or have us play with him in the little band that he had which I told you about.  Once in a while, when we first started, he’d let us sit in with his group.  That’s where it started.  It was a whole musical background, experience… Everything was music in our family.

TP:    So basically there was never anything for you other than… Did you ever consider that you were going to do something else?

DEFRANCO:  No, I never did.  Mainly because that seemed to be all I was interested in.  Though I did later, on my own, read extensively, and I got interested in psychology, and read Adler, Freud and Jung, and I became a Wilhelm Reich disciple for a while, and I went into therapy for three years in New York.  Every time I came to New York I went to therapy with Dr. Pelletier, who was a Reichian therapist.  Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done.

TP:    Why was that?  How did that affect you musically, would you say?

DEFRANCO:  Being from somewhat humble circumstances, I was somewhat insecure in life.  The only security I had was my playing.  When that was good (when it was satisfactory, I can’t say good), I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and be somewhat of an actor on the stage and speak in a microphone and emcee, since I was beginning to have my own groups, it was painful.  It was painful for me to even say anything on a microphone.  I was riddled with insecurities.  So I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, who was originally a trumpet player who played in my big band and played on a lot of my recordings, and he played with a lot of different bands — Jerry Jerome and Georgie Auld and Boyd Raeburn.  He was interested in a lot of different things, like religion and philosophy and psychology.  We spent a lot of time together, and he introduced me to Reich.  I bought some books and I began avidly reading those books.  I decided when I got back to New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.

TP:    Was this around the time you started the quartet that toured?

DEFRANCO:  No, it was actually before that.  It was when I had my big band.

TP:    Which was the year before.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  But I really got into going for therapy when I had a small group.  It was easier, and I worked in New York quite a bit, so I could go for my therapy sessions.

TP:    So you were getting one type of therapy from Art Blakey and another type of therapy from the Reichians!

DEFRANCO:  That’s the idea.  And frankly, both therapies brought out in me something that I was kind of lacking in my playing and my demeanor.

TP:    Am I correct in emphasizing the impact of being with Art Blakey for a couple of years?  Because the other articles I’ve read haven’t gone into that so much, and I was concerned I was doing too much amateur psychologizing.

DEFRANCO:  The effect that Blakey had on me was obvious musically.  I think it goes hand in hand with the effect that Tommy Dorsey had, that Art Tatum had, that Bird had, and that Count Basie had.  Count Basie had a tremendous effect on me.

TP:    You went into that a little bit.  Would you say a bit more about Basie’s impact?

DEFRANCO:  Well, let me see.  It’s tantamount to the Blakey experience.  First of all, I never realized how dynamic Count Basie was at the keyboard, playing.  I never realized how much influence he had from the keyboard to manipulate the sound of the band, and it was his personality and his playing, that he could get any 15 musicians who were capable, and within a couple of hours they would sound like Basie’s band, partly because they wanted to and mostly because of Bill, because of the way he accompanied people and the little nuances in the way he played.  A dynamic force.  He and Freddie Green were just unbelievable, the feeling they could get.  And Gus Johnson had the same kind of feeling when he played.  So the rhythm section for Basie always sounded pretty much the same.  Even though there were different types of personalities and different types of players playing from time to time in Basie’s rhythm section, generally they sounded the same because of Bill Basie, his dynamic way of playing.

TP:    What did it do for your playing?  Did it make it more relaxed?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  Absolutely.  No question about it.  More relaxed and more cognizant of a time feeling.

TP:    Would you talk a little more about Dorsey for me?  He seems to have been immensely important to you, and it seems to have been a very complex relationship.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  First off, he was important to everyone who worked for him.  He influenced everyone who worked for him.  Everyone who worked for him would say the same thing.  It was incredible, the influence he had.  We were all somewhat seasoned players (we weren’t brand-new into the business) and somewhat sophisticated.  Yet, Tommy Dorsey could play just a simple melody and the band would applaud.  You could hate him at the same time, but what came out of the trombone was great — unequalled, I think.  So everybody got a feeling of playing and breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    Did he ever give you any hands-on instruction about the breathing technique, or was it just something you’d watch and pick up?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly something we watched.  Though from time to time he would give us some tips.  Most people thought that he employed that circular breathing, but that was not true.  He had a way of taking in air in the corner of his mouth, and not having his mouth or embrochure leave the mouthpiece, as opposed to circular breathing.  Circular breathing means that you take the air through your nose while you’re blowing at the same time.  Tommy didn’t do that.  He got a tremendous amount of air through the corner of his mouth, never taking the mouthpiece away from it, but also, filling up the abdomen, filling up his lungs.  He knew how to spin a note.  He used to call it “spin a note.”  He knew how to play very soft on the instrument, but you could hear it in the room.  You could hear it in the far corners of the room.  It’s a combination of physical and mental mechanism, so that you could play, or he would… He was a master at it.  He could play very soft, and everyone could hear what he was playing.  And he could play as loud as the whole band.  It was incredible.

TP:    Did you feel restrained in these big bands of the ’40s?  Were you sort of chomping at the bit to play what you really wanted, or was it a satisfactory musical experience?

DEFRANCO:  No, all the soloists felt restrained, because the big bands were dance bands.  They were not ostensibly the show bands and a showcase for soloists.  So the only chance we got to show off was in the theater.  But we were playing the one-nighters in ballrooms.  I mean, you played maybe 16 bars of a solo, then maybe you wouldn’t play a solo for two sets or a set.  Nothing extended.

TP:    So it wasn’t like the Ellington band playing a ballroom where the solo function would be integrated into the dance experience, as it were.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  This was strictly a big band… Even Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw played for dancing.  That was one of the gripes Artie had about the whole idea.  He wanted himself and his band to be more concertizing.  In fact, if he were operating now with his big band, it would be a perfect setting for him, because he could do all these concerts, he could do festivals, and play exactly the way he wanted to play, and not conform to the dance.  You’re too young to remember this, but Artie Shaw one time walked off the stage in the face of, I don’t know, a million dollars of contracts that he had.  He walked off the stage and announced that all the jitterbugs were idiots — which made the front lines of the papers.  But he also doubled his attendance.  He called them idiots and he said, “We love you.”

TP:    Prefiguring Miles Davis.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, Miles Davis, exactly.

TP:    When you left Dorsey in ’48 and came right to New York, had you been knowing all of your contemporaries who were involved in Bebop?  Is that one reason why you fit in so comfortably with them?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  We knew that New York was the hub at that time.  At the same time, there was the beginning of the Cool School, although ironically enough, most of the cool guys, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper…all those guys were from New York.  That was ironic.  But they lived in California.  They kind of generated this Cool School of playing.  But the kind of playing that I was engaged in was, as Lennie Tristano would say, “obvious swing,” which he detested. [LAUGHS] Oh, we used to argue for hours.  Lennie Tristano I think approached genius.  He was incredible.  His technique, his musical prowess and his ability to do some things that were at that time phenomenal on the piano and with his group.  He didn’t like the idea of the swing feeling projected into music.  He liked the idea of rhythm, of course.  But he used to say to me that he couldn’t understand why I played with the obvious swing.  It was ridiculous, you know.

TP:    Why did he think it was ridiculous?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he just didn’t feel that was necessary, and he didn’t feel that creative jazz needed that.  Well, I did.  I go back to the school of Basie or Blakey where if it’s not swinging, it doesn’t mean too much — or that’s only half the picture.

TP:    So no matter how intellectually challenging the thing may be, Ellington’s dictum is still the operative principle.

DEFRANCO:  Swing’s the thing.

TP:    Can you tell me a little bit about playing with Boyd Raeburn’s band.  It sounds as though that was the place where you could really expand your horizons intellectually in terms of music.

DEFRANCO:  You could.  You could play exactly the way you wanted to play, which was why he hired me and the other guys in the band.  And the writers could write any way they wanted to write.  So consequently, we got some pretty spacy music.  But it was intellectually unbelievable and very difficult.  It took great skill to play that library.  Probably one of the most difficult, technically challenging libraries in the business.  The guys were George Handy and Bob Graettinger and Johnny Richards.  Johnny Richards was a phenomenal writer, although I thought he was ponderous in many ways and overwritten — but still a great writer.

TP:    Was your own big band a cross between the Artie Shaw concept and the Raeburn concept?

DEFRANCO:  Maybe.  I didn’t try to get that outside with it.  But the concept was the big Benny Goodman-Artie Shaw… You can lump them all together and that’s what I had.  I wound up with zero.

TP:    It wasn’t entirely your fault.  I mean, it was not a great time to be starting a big band.

DEFRANCO:  No, it was the wrong time.  But I could sense when we played… I thought I mapped out everything, so to speak, so that we could play our music in a dance tempo and still make it a jazz-worthy project.  But I realized that that didn’t work.  That did work with what I had in the audience.  So you give it up and go on to other things.  Then I got the small group, and that did work.  That was hot for about a year-and-a-half or two years.

TP:    Then you had to move out to California.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Well, the jazz (?) died completely.

TP:    By the way, when did you leave Philadelphia for good?

DEFRANCO:  1939.

TP:    were you coming back to Philly after that?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, sure.  I’d come back to see my family and friends.  Once in a while I’d play in Philadelphia.

TP:    But you were basically a citizen of the road.

DEFRANCO:  That’s it.

TP:    And you’d come home and touch base with your family.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  For a while I established a home in New York, got an apartment and played out of New York, then gave that up and got a place in California.  But the same kind of thing.  I’ve been actually ostensibly on the road for sixty years.  These past few years have been more of a home base operation.  I’ve spent more time here in Florida and more time in Whitefish, Montana, than I have out playing.

TP:    I think you’re entitled.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah!  I really feel entitled.

TP:    Can you tell me about your relationship with Terry Gibbs.  That seems to be your longest standing association of this particular period anyway.

DEFRANCO:  We’ve been working together several times a year.  We link up and work with a local rhythm section or a rhythm section in Europe, or we get a rhythm section from New York or California.  We work together well and it’s a lot of fun.  I take those jobs because Terry and I enjoy each other’s playing, and it’s fun.  There’s not the kind of tension you would imagine when you go out, for instance, with your own group.  There’s a certain amount of tension where you’re being tested; your group is being tested, you are being tested, and everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  This is kind of a different aspect of playing what we want.  Terry, first of all, is great to work with because he’s funny and very clever, and the attitude is lighter.  Not the music, but the attitude is lighter.

TP:    So he lets you lighten up a little bit.

DEFRANCO:  I think so.  I would tend to get pretty grim in my music.  Sometimes people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music too seriously, or myself too seriously.  And through the years that has been true.  It took the Reichian therapy for me to realize that my music was not the center of the universe.

TP:    Even of your universe.

DEFRANCO:  Even my universe, yes.

TP:    Even with Terry Gibbs, it lets you operate in a specific instrumental tradition.  Because having the clarinet and the vibes together is going to bring up associations for people.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  And the sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton thing, because they started that particular sound.  Which is great for us, because in a way, we manage to play pretty much what we want to do when we play solos.  People hear that sound, and they identify with Benny Goodman and Lionel, so they like it.

TP:    Could I ask you a couple of specific things about your bands from the ’50s until the Glenn Miller thing?  I think I have conflicting information.  I think Balliett had some inaccuracies because he conflicts with Gitler’s note on the Mosaic box.  Was the group with Tommy Gumina only a quartet?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.

TP:    And that came after you played with Victor Feldman and Carl Perkins and Billy Higgins.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  That was another interesting experience for me working with Tommy.  He was a magnificent musician.  We did five albums together, which people don’t realize — one for Decca and four for Mercury.

I had Scott LaFaro and Victor Feldman in New York.

TP:    Let me ask you something philosophically about the craft and the art of making music, coming back to the question of whether art was the family craft, as it were.  Do you see yourself as analogous to artists in other traditions and other media?

DEFRANCO:  All of the jazz players who amounted to something, who contributed to the idea of jazz, I think are all analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something…however minimal, something different, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, “That’s who it is.”  That’s Bird.  That’s Art.  That’s Oscar.  That’s Buddy.  That’s what I wanted.  You can copy.  For some period of time, I copied Benny Goodman.  Now, of course, it’s too hard to copy Benny Goodman, because you can refer to your basic studies.  The Klosee method or the Behrman method, basic studies of arpeggiated forms, Benny used in his jazz.  That was the focal point of his jazz clarinet playing.  So it was kind of easy to do that, as opposed to, say, not so easy to imitate Artie Shaw who at the same time was involved in linear playing, making lines, or, even more difficult, Bird.  So it was tough enough to play sort of in the Bird tradition on any instrument, but doubly difficult on the clarinet because clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.

TP:    But you don’t seem to be a vocabulary quoter.  I don’t pretend to have heard every one of your records.  But even when you’re playing bebop things, I don’t hear you quoting Bird.  It’s very much your personal vocabulary.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, there are a few quotes I maintain.  But most of the quotes in my playing are my own quotes.  Sometimes when I’ve been criticized for being repetitive, my answer to that is, “I’m allowed to be, since it’s my stuff.”  I mixed that with some quotes from the Bebop era, but not… Also, I tried not to directly quote.  Just like there are some things I’ve gotten from, oh, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Nelson Riddle, Bill Finnegan, David Raksin, where I used it in my jazz playing.  But I didn’t quote them exactly.  It’s just an inference of what they did.

TP:    Let me take you back again for a second.  In the ’30s when you were a kid, you talked about jamming at these clubs.  There were two different clubs, right?

DEFRANCO:  Two different clubs.  Billy Kretchmer is still alive.  He lives in Margate, New Jersey, and up until just a couple of years ago he was still playing.  At that time, in the ’30s, he was neck and neck with Benny and Artie.  He was quite a jazz player.  He just played in his own group in his club, and he played in the pit theater at the Earle, next to my teacher, Willy Di Simone.

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A Downbeat Profile On Benny Golson and Several Interviews, On His 83rd Birthday

To  honor Benny Golson’s 83rd birthday, I’ve posted a DownBeat feature piece that I had the opportunity to write in 2000, and the proceedings of three  mid-’90s encounters on WKCR — two 6-hour Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show from 1995, on which Mr. Golson was present and chose the selections, and a Musician Show from the following year, on which he played recordings by his heroes and contemporaries, and spoke about them in his inimitable manner.

Benny Golson (Downbeat):

The first question to decide in an account of Benny Golson is the proper sequence of his job title.  To wit: Is he a tenor saxophonist-composer or a composer-tenor saxophonist?

Either description works; Golson, now 71, is an icon in both arenas.  Several dozen of his tunes — he holds full copyright on most — are essential signposts of modern jazz.  During the ’70s he broached the mainstream, writing scores for shows like “M.A.S.H.”, “Room 222,” “The Partridge Family” and “The Mod Squad,” for numerous made-for-TV movies, and for a host of national advertising spots.  Instrumentally, Golson’s sound — an immense tone, by turns airy and burly, informed by a harmonic knowledge wide as the heavens that grounds stories replete with lyric detail and operatic flourish — is singular on the tenor tree.

Golson is an avuncular, erudite conversationalist, whose narrative deploys polysyllabic words in correct context.  He continues to carry himself with the seemingly unflappable aplomb and no-nonsense professionalism that allowed him to flourish and keep focus through a half-century of music business encounters high and low.  He’s seen chitlin’ circuit juke joints, tobacco warehouses, TOBA theaters and inner city lounges that defined “funky” before the word became a musical category; moved comfortably in sophisticated nightclubs and posh concert halls in the capitals of the world; performed his famous requiem “I’ll Remember Clifford” on an enormous organ in the aerie of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach served as kapellmeister 300 years ago.  But even Golson’s cool was challenged when Howard University, where he matriculated from 1947 to 1950, called a few years back to inform him that they were instituting a scholarship in his name.

“This was unreal,” Golson exclaimed during a late-December conversation in the living room of his well-appointed Upper West Side highrise.  “I almost cried.  During my third year at Howard, I became a rebel, and took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.   Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want?  Why must the dominant always go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back came one day in class when the teacher played our composition assignments on the piano.  When she got to mine, after the first chord resolved to the second, that red pencil made a big X, then she made another red X at the next resolution.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  She didn’t get to the end.  She looked at me, almost disgusted, and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?’  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt.  I stood up with my hands in my pocket, and rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to, put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, ‘That’s the way I heard it.’  I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and drove off into the sunset.”

As we speak, Golson is conceptualizing separate commissions for March festschrifts in Switzerland and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a symphonic piece commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation.  He’s just finished mixing his fifth album for Arkadia Records, “One Day Forever,” which is distinct in his oeuvre, tempering the longueurs of nostalgic retrospection with the spiritual imperative of relentless inquiry.  It includes a lively 1996 session with the front line of the Jazztet (Golson’s musical soulmate Art Farmer, who died in 1999, and trombonist Curtis Fuller), the well-wrought band that established Golson as a leader at the cusp of the ’60s, and relaunched his performing career in the ’80s.  Shirley Horn oozes sophisticated weltschmerz on Golson’s world-weary lyrics to the title track and “Sad To Say.”  The date ends with a crystalline performance by the classical pianist Lara Downes of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings,” a melodically redolent opus that evokes the ambiance of Chopin and the 19th Century masters who fueled Golson’s imagination as a pre-teen piano aspirant in Depression-era Philadelphia.

No matter how mean times got, Golson’s mother — a “country girl” from Mobile, Alabama who came to Philadelphia in her teens — kept an upright piano in the house; two of his uncles played it with regularity, and the youngster became fascinated with it as he emerged from toddler years.  Eventually she hired a piano teacher, one Jay Walker Freeman, for the then-substantial fee of 75 cents a week.

“After a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Golson recalls.  “Of course, that was aberrational in my neighborhood.  All you heard there was the Blues!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea, and got very good at it.  My mother used to buy records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d say, ‘How can she listen to that horrible music?’  I was somewhere else with the European music.

“I changed after I heard Lionel Hampton’s band at the Earle Theater.  The curtain swung open, the lights came up, the bandstand rolled dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody was dressed alike, the lights played on the instruments, and the sound of the music live came forth.  The icing on the cake came when Arnett Cobb stepped to the microphone and played that solo on ‘Flying Home.’  From that moment, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, the saxophone took over.”

Golson’s mother supported his new obsession with alacrity, buying him a saxophone as a birthday present when the family was “two years off welfare.”  She even took a singing job (“I’ll Get By,” “Evil Gal Blues”) with him and childhood friends Ray and Tommy Bryant.  Golson listened to records by Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller (“one of my favorite bands in the war years, with the clarinet on top”), by Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller; he memorized Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” Ben Webster’s solo on “Raincheck” and Lester Young’s solo on “D.B. Blues.”

Then, Golson relates, “Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.  I couldn’t believe the velocity with which he moved over that horn, and his huge sound was overwhelming — so natural, not strained or manufactured.  Don’s articulation was amazing.  He played wide intervals, jumping over the notes like skipping up or down a pair of steps.”

One day Golson speculated ten cents (“I figured I couldn’t lose anything”) on a fresh-from-the-jukebox Savoy disk with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce.”  “It was the strangest music,” he recalls.  “Had I wasted my dime?  But the more I played it, the more I began to like it.”  Soon after, Golson went with his friends John Coltrane and Ray Bryant to a concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music by a sextet featuring Byas, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig on piano, Slam Stewart on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.

“My life’s first beginning was when I was born of my mother and father; the second was after that concert,” Golson declares.  “Charlie Parker was wearing a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him, like he was going to explode!  When he bent over to make that 4-bar break in ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ John and I were grabbing at each other; we almost fell out of the balcony!  He was playing alto then like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to play like Arnett Cobb.  This wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  What was it all about?  How could we get close to it?  When the concert was over we went backstage and got all the autographs.

“Then we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and onto Broad Street.  He was walking to the Downbeat to play with a local rhythm section — Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.  John carried his horn for the four blocks, and I asked him what kind of horn he played, his reed and mouthpiece — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us.  We were too young to go inside, so we stood outside the club all night, dreaming; when they finished, we walked all the way home to North Philadelphia.”

By the time Golson entered Howard, he was, as he puts it, “trying for all I was worth to play bebop.”  He gigged on the vibrant D.C. scene, violating the school’s curfew (“I had a agreement with the door monitor to let me back in; when the door was locked, I jumped over the wall, which wasn’t too high”), and frequently made the three-hour drive to Philadelphia for weekend jobs.

After his dramatic departure from school, Golson returned to Philadelphia, and some months later, on Ray Bryant’s recommendation, landed a gig with the guitarist Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders in Atlantic City.  “It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer,” Golson says.  “So I took the cup of tea.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it.  On the first night I put on my kilts, and I had to walk the bar.  All the ladies were pulling up my kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on, but nobody told me I had to wear a bathing suit until after the fact.”

It wasn’t all fun-and-games; Grimes, who had been Art Tatum’s guitarist for the first part of the ’40s, took from that experience a penchant for playing any tune, without warning, in any key, keeping everyone on their toes.  And although Golson spent the first half of the fifties playing a succession of similarly functional jobs, he gleaned consequential information from each of them.

“I saw John Coltrane stepping over drinks on the bar,” he relates.  “We all did it.  But none of it was a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  You function according to the situation; if the situation changes, then you change to meet the situation.  No sesquipedalian words in the Rhythm-and-Blues!”

Golson dates his interest in composition to the realization that his home-grown symbology for transcribing solos was insufficient.  “I became pretty good at writing down what they were playing, and realized that if I could do this, then maybe I could write music other people could play,” he says.  Duke Ellington was an early hero; so was Tadd Dameron, whose arrangements Golson played as a teenage member of a well-drilled 17-piece orchestra in Philadelphia led by the young Jimmy Heath.  Later, during 21 months on the road with the popular R&B singer Bull Moose Jackson, Golson became close to Dameron, the band’s pianist; soon he was allowed to recruit serious Philly brethren like trumpeter Johnny Coles, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

“We started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits,” Golson relates.  “Moose enjoyed playing these pieces more than the things he was making his money at, although we never recorded any of them.

“Tadd showed me everything he knew.  Once he was doing an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and let me copy it, which I did for nothing, because I was able to eviscerate what he did, lay it bare, and look at its component parts.  He taught me to be a dearth writer.  He didn’t make two horns simulate a large band, but it didn’t sound abbreviated either.  With two or three horns, you draw upon each instrument’s outstanding characteristics.  The trapset has the bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal; the piano is really three instruments — the high end, the mid-range and the low.  You have to be selective about notes, and pick the two outstanding ones.”

In June 1953, Dameron hired Golson for an extended summer engagement in Atlantic City with his Dameronia nonet.  Then Golson briefly worked with a Lionel Hampton unit that included Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, and Jimmy Cleveland.  He toured with Johnny Hodges (Coltrane and Richie Powell were in the band), then joined alto saxophone virtuoso Earl Bostic (“the technician of all technicians”) from August 1954 until June 1956.  Bostic afforded Golson many opportunities to write, including a kaleidoscopic modernist arrangement of “All The Things You Are” that the leader so enjoyed digging into that he doubled Golson’s fee.  During this time Golson penned tunes like “Out Of The Past” and “Whisper Not,” distributing lead sheets “all over the country” to general indifference.  Then he moved to New York.

“I hadn’t recorded anything, but I was no stranger,” Golson states.  “When I was in high school, one of my uncles was a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I visited him a lot!  Teddy Hill would let me in because I was his nephew.  And the various Rhythm-and-Blues groups I played with always came through New York, whether to play the Apollo or meet for rehearsals.  I’d stay over, see the bands, get to know musicians.  But New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  When I moved, things started to pick up.”

Specifically, John Coltrane presented Miles Davis with “Stablemates,” Davis recorded it, and, as Golson puts it, “people retrieved my tunes from under the rug or out of the trash, and started recording my stuff.”  Meanwhile, Golson, who was “getting restless” with the tedium of Bostic’s repertoire, took to detuning the leader’s electric guitar on Delta and Panhandle gigs, escalating the mischief until one night in Seattle, during a Bostic clarinet solo, he raced to the front of the stage, tenor in hand, and pretended to hurl it into the crowd.  A week after Bostic let him go, Dizzy Gillespie hired him to replace the departing saxophonist-arranger Ernie Wilkins, another Golson influence.

“People associate Dizzy Gillespie with the high notes and fast velocities, the force and the power — but he was a compassionate trumpet player,” Golson emphasizes.  “He and Art Farmer were unique in being able to play unexpected notes that were so beautiful and fit so well that your heart intuitively would say, ‘Yes, yes!’  It’s always good to know for whom you’re writing; the rewards are so much better if you write for personalities, as Duke Ellington did or Count Basie’s arrangers.  You know they’re going to do your music justice, and often enhance what you’ve written, which is one of the real rewards.”

In 1958-59, Golson worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where he found a perfect template on which to stamp his sensibility.  He recruited Philly heroes Lee Morgan (from Dizzy Gillespie’s band), Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit, and incorporated Blakey’s extraordinary four-limb independence and command of drumkit sonics in new compositions like “Blues March,” “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real?”  He established the orchestrational sound that defined every subsequent iteration of the Messengers.

Conversely, playing with Blakey irrevocably altered Golson’s attitude towards his instrument.  “One thing that Art taught me to do — painfully — was to project,” Golson notes.  “During my early gigs with him, he might play one of those drum rolls he was famous for four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along, so loud that it drowned me out, and I would stand there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  One night he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done, and then, to make doubly sure I got it, he screamed across the bandstand to me, ‘Get up out of that hole!’  Then it all sort of came together, and I started trying to play more forcefully.

“One night during my first week with Art at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in.  When I came off the bandstand, he said to me, ‘You play too perfect.’  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  Art Blakey was standing on the side, snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said, ‘You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.’  I thought about that.  The next night I came in, and played like a man taking leave of his senses, trying to get away from the well-worn patterns I’d fashioned for myself, like mathematics — and music is anything but that.  I was jumping off cliffs and bridges, standing in front of trains!  That started to move me out of where I was before — ‘mellifluous,’ ‘sweet.’  ‘charming’ are words people used.  I wanted more fire and articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, where your tongue doesn’t touch the reed much, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue also has to work, to define, to separate notes and ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.”

In 1959, Golson decided it was time to venture on his own, and formed the Jazztet with Art Farmer, a companion on numerous ’50s projects.  “What attracted me to Benny was the warmth of his ensemble writing,” Farmer recalled in a 1994 interview on WKCR.  “He writes melodies that sing and stay in your head once you hear them, and constructs a harmonic framework that the improviser feels very comfortable with — not that it’s always easy — to construct their own melodies during their improvisation.  I don’t know where I would be without his tunes.”

Piggybacking off a high-visibility debut at Manhattan’s Five Spot opposite Ornette Coleman’s quartet in its first New York appearance, the Jazztet had a successful four-year run, playing numerous engagements and making six records before it disbanded in 1962.  With a young family to raise, Golson became more involved in New York’s commercial scene; in 1967, at the urging of Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones, he moved to Hollywood, shed “tenor saxophonist” from his c.v., and after a humbling initial rough patch became a profitably busy studio freelancer.

“For seven or eight years I didn’t play my horn at all,” he says.  “I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.  I did not like my sound or my style, what I was playing wasn’t reaching my heart, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I was studying composition privately, I wanted to do some things I hadn’t done before in composition; once I moved I put all my energy into that, and the playing fell aside.  But the thinking process was working the whole time, and when I finally picked up the horn again in the late ’70s, I sounded different, although it took about ten years before I felt comfortable again.  I had to get my imagination oiled up.”

Golson emerged from improvisational hibernation in 1980 fully committed to hardcore jazz.  “I take more chances now,” he says.  “I don’t know if I can jump over the hurdle, but I’ll feel compelled to try.  To move ahead you have to take chances, otherwise, you’ll level off, and time, in its indefatigable forward course, will relegate you to history.  ”

Golson and Farmer hewed to the freedom principle when they reconstituted the Jazztet in 1983, and that spirit underlies every Golson album and performance from then until “One Day Forever.”  “We used less written music the second time around,” Golson says.  “Let’s allow the personalities to express their inner thoughts rather than see how they can play as an ensemble what I’ve written.  Jazz is all about improvisation.  Nobody comes to hear the melody chorus after chorus.”

Speaking of melody, Golson has tickets for a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore,” and our conversation is winding down.  Before we part, he offers a few final words of wisdom.

“Schools teach the rules, and we should know them,” he says.  “But I concern myself with ‘Why?’  And ‘Why not?’  ‘You can’t because the rule says you can’t.’  ‘Why not?!’  I do what I do because I want to do it.  And at this late date, I want to get better at what I do.  I’m not a young man any more.  But why should I be satisfied with what I’m doing?  I’ll never be satisfied.

“I often use young players.  Many of them are innovative, and are ascendant when they join me.  Hearing them keeps my mind sharp; I don’t get jaded with the music that surrounds me.  That helps me retain the spirit of adventure that all jazz musicians should have — walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown, waiting for things to jump out at you, to free things from the confines of your imagination, things sometimes you didn’t even know are there.  After I left Howard, I drove a furniture truck.  Jazz is so much better!”

[-30-]

Benny Golson Profile (10-15-95):

[MUSIC:  Messengers, “Are You Real” (1958-Olympia)]

TP:    I’d like to start with the third degree right away and take you back to Philadelphia and your early days in music.  You were born in Philadelphia in 1929.  Was music always part of your background?  Was your family musical?  Was it something you took to right away?

GOLSON:  No, I didn’t take to it right away.  I had two uncles who played piano, and at that time I fancied that they were absolutely extraordinary.  But as time went on, I realized that they weren’t very good at all.  What used to amaze me… It seemed like we always had an upright piano wherever we were, and before school, pre-school age (I guess  I was 3 or 4 or something like that), I used to hear them play this piano, and when they would finish I would go over and look at the keys and wonder how did they get those keys to say all of the things that they were saying musically.  As I got older, I decided that I would try to see what I could do.  I think I was even worse than they were.  But I kept at it; it fascinated me.  Finally, my mother asked me, “Would you like to take piano lessons?”  Well, I’d never thought of that.  And I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”  Well, that was quite an investment during those days.  I mean, the piano teacher would come to the house, like they did during those times, 75 cents a week for the lesson.  Which was quite an investment.  I mean, at that time things were a little mean.

I really got into the piano, so much so that after a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist.  Of course, that was quite an aberration in the area I lived.  All you heard was the Blues there!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea…

TP:    So your reading skills were well developed as a child, I’d take it, if you were going in a Classical direction.

GOLSON:  Oh, yes.  I’ll tell you about that in a minute.  My teacher used to give piano recitals.  This was the time to show off all the students and let the parents know that they’re not wasting their money.  I was scared to death every time these things came up, once a year.  But I got very good at it…until I heard Lionel Hampton’s band, live at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, and a fellow named Arnett Cobb came out to the microphone and played that solo on “Flying Home.”  And from that moment on, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, because she wanted me to learn to play the piano and play the organ in church, and I had agreed to all this because it sounded okay at the time.  But she let me off the hook.  The piano just sort of fell by the wayside, and the saxophone took over.

TP:    I guess the hormones were starting to rise, and the saxophone was a more charismatic instrument.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, I was into it by then.

TP:    Had you had any experience with wind instruments prior to hearing Arnett Cobb?

GOLSON:  Absolutely not.  That was all foreign to me.  It was all piano as far as I was concerned.

TP:    The name of your piano teacher.

GOLSON:  Jay Walker Freeman.  Nobody ever asks me that.  He left me after about five years, I guess, and he went to teach at a university.  By the time I got to college, though, I didn’t really want to pursue the piano.  I wanted to pursue the saxophone, but piano was mandatory for the first two years — so I’d had a little head start.

TP:    As a kid, what sort of repertoire did he have you playing?  I take it you were at a point where you were able to play certain pieces in the repertoire.  What interested you and what were you performing?

GOLSON:  I remember, I guess at the height of my brief career as a pianist, on one of the recitals that I’d rehearsed quite… Everything we had to commit to memory for the recitals.  There was a piece called “The Bumblebee.”  Not “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” but it was certainly reminiscent of it, and it moved along quite swiftly.  The night of the concert… Sometimes when you hear your name called, it strikes fear in your heart.  “And now, Benny Golson.”  And at that moment, I forgot everything.  I couldn’t even remember how it started!  And as I was walking up to the stage, I was thinking, “So this is how it ends.”  I couldn’t even remember what note it started with.  It was incredible!  But as soon as I got to the piano, I put my hands over the piano, and it was sort of automatic.  I was so scared that I played that piece faster than I have ever played it.  And my teacher marvelled at it.  That was my high point.  Then after that I took a dive.

TP:    Concurrently, playing Classical piano, were you listening to Jazz and vernacular music on the radio or records or whatever?  Was that part of your experience?

GOLSON:  I used to hear the Blues.  My mother used to buy these records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy and things like that, and I used to say, “How can she listen to that horrible music?”  No, I wasn’t there.  I was somewhere else with the European music.  I changed later.

TP:    After hearing Arnett Cobb, I guess, or around that time.

GOLSON:  Yes.

TP:    What brought you to the Earle Theater to hear Lionel Hampton if you were so exclusively interested in Classical music?

GOLSON:  Young curiosity.  That was it.  I mean, Earl Bostic was in that band at that time, the technician of all technicians.  He came out and he played, as we said, snakes.  He played everything playable on that darn alto saxophone.  And I just sat there and listened.  But when Arnett Cobb came out… See, I wasn’t prepared for any of this.  The whole thing got me.  Watching the curtain swing open, the lights come up, the bandstand roll dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody dressed alike, the lights playing on the instruments, and the sound of the music coming live… I’d never seen anything like this.  I was overwhelmed by it.  And the icing on the cake was Arnett Cobb coming out playing that solo.  I became a groupie.

TP:    On Arnett Cobb, huh?

GOLSON:  Sort of, yeah. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So did that then start taking you into studying other tenor saxophonists, the major stylists of the time?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Let’s talk about the process of your development as a tenor saxophonist.

GOLSON:  Arnett Cobb was my first influence.  He was the one responsible for my going in that direction.  Quite naturally, being an aspiring saxophone player, you start buying saxophone records.  Believe it or not, I listened to Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller, and that was one of my favorite bands at that time, and Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller, and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  But somehow, Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.

TP:    Which of his performances did you hear that affected you?  Perhaps you could go into detail, taking yourself out of being an aspiring 14-15-year-old saxophone player, and talk about Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and what they were doing in the 1940’s.

GOLSON:  Well, I heard Coleman Hawkins before I heard Don Byas, his classic solo on “Body and Soul.”  It was so popular that it was on all the jukeboxes in our neighborhood — and it was a Black neighborhood.  You could walk down the street any day and hear Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul,” which is quite unusual today, to go to neighborhoods and hear anything like that.  But eventually, I heard Don Byas play on a recording with Dizzy Gillespie, “52nd Street Theme.”  I couldn’t believe it, the way he got over that horn.  He became my idol at that moment.  Of course, I continued to like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but Don Byas to me had something a little special.  His sound and the velocity that he had when he moved over the horn.  It didn’t sound strained or manufactured.  It sounded quite natural, the way he did it, and I was straining like I don’t know what to try to do that.  I was a neophyte then.

TP:    Were you going around to hear a lot of bands at that time?  When the big bands would come along with a tenor player, would you try to catch them in person?

GOLSON:  I was a little too young to go to the clubs.

TP:    But at the Earle Theater you’d go to hear bands?

GOLSON:  Oh, yeah, whenever I could.

TP:    So did you get to see Don Byas with Count Basie, let’s say, coming through?

GOLSON:  No.  By the time I got to see him live, I got to know him as a friend… No, during that time I didn’t, unfortunately.

TP:    I heard a story from Jackie McLean where Charlie Parker had come back from Europe, Jackie McLean was maybe 19, he said, “How was it there?” and Bird said, “I had a wonderful saxophone lesson over there.”  Jackie McLean thought it might be Marcel Mule, the great Classical saxophonist, but Charlie Parker said, “No, it was Don Byas.”

GOLSON:  Absolutely.

TP:    Did this interest you very much then in Bebop and the new music coming up in the 1940’s?

GOLSON:  Oh, definitely.  It changed my life.  Dizzy Gillespie changed my life.  My life had two beginnings, Ted.  When I was born of my mother and father and when I heard Dizzy Gillespie.

TP:    When was that?

GOLSON:  1945.

TP:    Earle Theater?

GOLSON:  No, it was Academy of Music, a concert.  Elliot Lawrence’s band was there, featuring a young new trumpet player at that same concert, 17 years old, named Red Rodney.  Don Byas was there with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Slam Stewart on bass, Al Haig, I’m not sure who the drummer was.  But the rhythm section hadn’t really caught up to what Charlie Parker and Diz were doing.  John Coltrane and I and Ray Bryant were there, and when we heard them play this music we just couldn’t believe it.  John was playing alto like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to sound like Arnett Cobb, which is completely different.  Ray Bryant was sounding somewhat like Eddie Heywood and other piano players of the time, I guess.  When we heard them play, for example, a song that was so strange, it was quite aberrational to us then, John looked at me and said, “It sounds like snake charmer’s music.”  I looked at him and agreed, “Yes, it does!”  It was “A Night In Tunisia.”  We’d never heard any Jazz like that.  It was foreign!  They played an interlude, and Charlie Parker made the 4-bar break where he doubles up.  We almost fell out of the balcony!  We’d never heard anything like that.  It wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  I mean, our blood must have been boiling in the veins, we were so effervescent.  We were so taken by all of this, that when the concert was over we went backstage (and of course, as kids; I think I was 16 and John was 18) and got all the autographs.

But we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and into the street.  Now, Don Byas was my idol.  But what Charlie Parker was doing that night was so completely different than I had ever heard, I had to try to find out what it was about.  So we proceeded to walk up… He was on his way over to another club about four blocks away called the Downbeat, where the local rhythm section was going to be playing with him.  The rhythm section was Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.

TP:    In 1945?

GOLSON:  Right.  They were just a little older than us, and they had a jump on us.  While we were walking on Broad Street, John asked him could he carry his horn, so he was carrying his horn for him, and I was asking him what kind of horn did he play, and what kind of reed, and what number reed, and what did he do — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us! [LAUGHS] And when we got to the club, we were too young to go up there.  The club was on the second floor.  So we just stood outside all night, until they finished, dreaming, “What if?  Suppose.”  When it was over… We were in South Philadelphia, where the club was. We never had any money.  So we walked from South Philadelphia back to North Philadelphia.

TP:    A dangerous walk sometimes.

GOLSON:  Oh, it wasn’t dangerous at that time.  We weren’t aware of anything but the music that we had been hearing that night, and we were dreaming, forecasting… We were trying to be some kind of harbingers.  We wanted to be a part of what this was.  And we didn’t know what it was, and we didn’t know how to even start.

John called me a little bit later, and he said, “Did you try any of that stuff that Mr. Parker was telling us?”  I said, “yeah,” like what kind of horn and the reed and the mouthpiece.  He said, “Did anything happen?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Me either.”  We didn’t even realize it wasn’t those physical things; it was what the man had in his mind, his concept!

TP:    I take it you subsequently took every possible opportunity to hear Charlie Parker play, when he’d come through Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  Not only Charlie Parker.  Whoever it was.  Whoever it was, I figured it could help me, as it were, to climb another rung in the ladder, to wherever.  And we didn’t know wherever we were going, but wherever it was, we wanted to try to go anyway, and find our way along the way — searching.

TP:    What was your studying process?  Would you listen to his records, transcribe the solos, or did you have a teacher in high school?

GOLSON:  You bet.  All of the above.  I had a teacher.  We would listen to the records.  In fact, that’s how I got interested in writing.  Writing the solos out.  I had my own crude way of doing it, because I didn’t know the syncopation, so each note that they played, I just made a circle, a goose-egg.  So I had the right notes, but I was the only one who could play it.  I was the only one who knew the syncopation to it.  But I realized later that that wasn’t good enough; I had to actually learn how to write it the way they were playing.  Then I got pretty good at that, and then I realized, “My goodness, if I can do this, then maybe I can write music so other people can play it, and groups of people can play together.”  That’s when I started to become interested in arranging.

TP:    This gives me an opportunity to combine two questions, your arranging and your contemporaries and peers in Philadelphia.  You just mentioned some very heavy names, John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Philly Joe Jones, Nelson Boyd, Red Garland I guess had come to Philadelphia after his time in the Army… Talk about your coterie, your circle of friends, the types of situations you performed in, and where you were musically at the time.  Well, you told us that you were into Bebop.

GOLSON:  I was trying to get into it, but it was quite hard for us.  It wasn’t like it is today where the musicians from my time period try to encourage the young ones coming along.  It was just the antithesis of that.  When I was coming up, the older musicians who played the other style, the other style being the style before Bebop…I hate that name, but before that style…tried to discourage us.  They would make very disparaging remarks, like:  “Where is the beat?”  “Where is the bass drum?”  “Where is the melody?”  “You guys sound like you’re playing with a mouth-full of hot rice.”  They didn’t understand.  They put us down.  And the more they put us down, the harder we tried to find out what it was all about.  Jimmy Heath, he was there; he was playing alto at the time…

TP:    He and John Coltrane were a few years older than you?

GOLSON:  John was two or three years older than me, and Jimmy about the same.  Percy Heath wasn’t even a musician then.  He was a pilot in the Air Force, I think, he came home, and he learned how to play quickly.  It was amazing how quickly he learned how to play.  Then he became a part of the scene.  Then other musicians you probably wouldn’t know about, if I mentioned.

TP:    Well, name some names.

GOLSON:  Calvin Todd was a trumpet player there who had a big band.  He was young, a teenager or in his early twenties, and he had a big band that was pretty good.  Jimmy Heath had a big band, and John and I were in that band.  Nelson Boyd ended up being the bass player, Specs Wright…

TP:    That’s the band that tried to play a lot of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangements.

GOLSON:  You bet.

TP:    That’s very advanced for a group of teenagers.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  All the seats in that band were coveted.  I’ll tell you, everybody wanted to be in that band.  But John Coltrane and I were fortunate enough to be in it, somehow, and we were so happy about it.  And it wasn’t about the money.  We weren’t making any money.  But we were having a lot of fun, and then we were learning as we were going along.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the band because he liked the idea that these kids were trying to do something of value, trying to move ahead.  Another arranger named Johnny Acea wrote some things for us.  Leroy Lovett.  These were all professional arrangers.  Then Jimmy was trying to write some things, I was trying to write some things.  So they helped us.  It was like giving birth.  Every time you’d write something, you had a chance for somebody to play it, and you’d sit there hoping that the baby turned out to be normal.

And our parents encouraged us.  We’d go down to Jimmy’s house, and his parents were so sweet and loving… We would push the furniture to the side, and make enough room for 15 guys, and have a big band rehearsal.  We’d rehearse during the summertime, the windows were up, and the whole neighborhood would sit out on the steps and listen to the band.  And the same thing at my house.  Just move the furniture out, move everything into the kitchen.  We couldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the support of our parents.

TP:    A lot of your contemporaries playing saxophone were captivated by Lester Young, and their styles went in that direction, and you haven’t mentioned him in your list of influences.  Did you admire him at that time?

GOLSON:  I loved Lester Young and I love Lester Young.  But I can’t be two people at the same time, so I had to make a choice.  And it had to be the school that I chose — Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, and later Dexter Gordon.  Lester Young was fantastic, but I chose not to go in that direction.  Unfortunately, people overlook Lester Young, I guess because he was laid back the things he played.  But I heard him play things that were fast!  Incredible.  He knew what he was doing.

TP:     You entered Howard University at age 18, which would have been 1947?

GOLSON:  It was ’47.

TP:    Did you go there as a music major, with the intention of developing your musicality in the academic environment?

GOLSON:  Yes, with those things that you mentioned.  But the curriculum that I found myself in was one wherein I would wind up being a teacher.  Which was a little discouraging.  Because I stepped back and looked at it, and I said to myself, “These teachers had someone teach them what they’re teaching me.  They’re going to teach me what they have been taught, and I in turn will teach someone else what I have learned from them, and they will teach someone…”  I said, “When am I going to get a chance to use it?”  There were a lot of rules, you know.

My third year there, I became a rebel.  They would say things like “the fifth, the dominant has got to resolve to the tonic, this note has got to resolve here,” and I thought to myself, “Well, suppose it resolves somewhere else instead of there?”  “No, no, no, you can’t do that.”  That discouraged me a little bit.

So I took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could do them.  Why do them any other way.  I remember the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I went to class one day, and she put the assignments on the piano and played them.  The classes were small, maybe 10 or 12 of us in the class, and she’d play.  “Ah, Neapolitan 6th, Mrs. Brown.”  “Oh yes, deceptive cadence here; oh, very good.”  Then she’d play the next one.  “Oh yes, I see you’ve done this.  Oh, very nice.  But you must not use fifths.  Ah, no parallel…”  Then she got to mine, and she played the first chord.  But the first chord had to resolve to the second chord, and that red pencil made a big X, then she went to the next one and she made another red X.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  Finally, she didn’t get to the end of it.  She turned around, almost disgusted, I guess, and looked at me and said, “Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?”  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt. So I stood up and my hands in my pocket and I sort of rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to do, and put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, “That’s the way I heard it.”

TP:    To which she responded?

GOLSON:  I didn’t go over big at all. I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and left — drove off into the sunset.  No, I wanted to do something else.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.  Why should you do everything always the same.  Music is an adventure.  It should be an adventure!  It’s not just something that happens when you walk down a corridor of time.  You want to find doors when you walk down that corridor.  You want to open those doors and find some surprises.

TP:    Well, before we send you off into the sunset, I want to find out what Washington was like for you, because there was a very strong musical community there.

GOLSON:  Oh, it was great.  Absolutely.

TP:    Were you gigging after classes, on the side, let’s say?

GOLSON:  Yeah, and that was a no-no.  But I had a agreement with the monitor on the door at night.  He would let me in.  And when the door was locked, the wall wasn’t too high; I’d come over the wall.  I was even going to Philly doing gigs on weekends.  I was playing at a club about six blocks from campus called Little Harlem that was frequented by a lot of people.  I came up to do a set, and there was one of the theory teachers sitting on the front table.  We’re not supposed to be doing that!  I said, “Oh, man, this is a drag.  They’re going to kick me out.”  It was over.  I had to play.  And he sat there.  He was cool.  Sterling Thomas; I’ll never forget his name.  After the set was over, he said, “Can I see you a minute?”  I said, “Yeah, this is it.”  I went over, and he said, “That was a nice set.” [LAUGHS] That was it.

TP:    What sort of music were you playing?  Was it a Bebop set?

GOLSON:  I was trying for all I was worth to play Bebop.

TP:    Who were you playing with?

GOLSON:  A trumpet who’s dead now, from Cleveland, Ohio — Carl Fields.  A piano player who later became Billie Holiday’s pianist, Carl Drinkard.  Fats Clarke was the drummer.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  But we were trying as hard as we could to do that.  Whatever the risk was, I had to do it.

TP:    Also in Washington at that time… Well, John Malachi had left Billy Eckstine and not gone back out…

GOLSON:  He was there during that time.  And subsequent to that he went out to play with Al Hibbler.  Leo Parker was still around, in and out of town during that time.  Charlie Rouse was there.  We looked up to him, because he had sort of “made it.”  Wesley Anderson, the trombone player, he was pretty good; he was in and out of town.  There was a tremendous saxophone player there named Carrington Visor(?).  He lives in Los Angeles now.  Oh, that guy could play.

There were a lot of good musicians there, and there were a lot of clubs.  During that same time, there were a lot of clubs in Philadelphia.  It was like they’d found a new way to life as far as Jazz was concerned.  Then unfortunately, they died.

TP:    Also in Washington and Philadelphia you had the theaters, and still throughout the ’40s the bands were coming in; in Philly, the Earle Theater and Academy of Music, and in Washington primarily the Howard Theater.

GOLSON:  Well, there was more than that in Philadelphia.  There was a theater out in West Philadelphia that was called The Fay’s, then they later changed the name to the Fans for whatever reason.  The Earle Theater was the main one; that lasted the longest.  But earlier on, there was one called the Nixon Grand, which was only three blocks from my house. Duke Ellington came there, as did Slim and Slam; those are the only two I remember seeing there.

TP:    Were you simultaneously a fan of any of the big bands that were coming through, or were you more exclusively into the Bebop combo aesthetic.  I’m talking about apart from Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Did Duke Ellington thrill you as a 20-year-old, or the Basie band, or the other top bands  of the time?

GOLSON:  Ted, you have to understand.  I was young, I was aspiring and therefore I was highly eclectic.  I was trying to get it wherever I could.  Fats Waller came there with a band, and yes, I went to hear Fats Waller with Al Casey on guitar.  I never saw Duke Ellington’s band there.  He was there, but I didn’t see it; I was too young to know what it was all about, I guess.  There was a local band, Jan Savitt, who played there.  Georgie Auld came through there.  I’m trying to think of some of the other bands.  But I went to see a lot of them.  Some of the music I didn’t particularly like, but I thought I should know what it was about, so I could be broad enough what this thing called music, and Jazz in particular, was all about.  So I listened to lots of people and lots of music.  As I told you, during the war years one of my favorite bands was Glenn Miller, with the clarinet on top, and the way Tex Beneke used to sing and the way he played.  That appealed to me at that time.  I didn’t try to play like that.  But I loved it.

TP:    So in 1949-50, you’re driving off into the sunset from Washington, and where did you land?

GOLSON:  I landed back in Philadelphia, on my feet, thank goodness.  Right after that, the fellow that used to play with Art Tatum, Tiny Grimes, the guitar player, had a group.  Ray Bryant was already in that group.  Now, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer.  So I took the cup of tea, and went out with Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it, the whole thing.  I remember the first night with them, we were playing Atlantic City, and I put my kilts on.  Nobody told me anything.  And I had to go step out on the bar and walk the bar.

TP:    In kilts.

GOLSON:  In kilts.  I wasn’t prepared for what happened.  And all the ladies were pulling up my skirt, this kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on.  Nobody told me.  And the guys were laughing.  I think they purposely didn’t tell me.  But then they said, “Benny, you’ve got to wear a bathing suit under it.”  I said, “Well, thanks for telling me after the fact!”  I mean, I could hardly play.  It was incredible.

TP:    Well, it sounds like you played some very entertaining venues during your formative years.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    Any others that are particularly memorable you’d like to speak of?

GOLSON:  Well, I did some other gigs like that.  I worked with Bullmoose Jackson.  Now, you might laugh and think what a waste of time, but none of it was a waste of time.  You have no idea how those jobs helped to broaden you and help to spread your appreciation for the whole scope of what jazz was about.  I played gigs where I had to sway from side to side with funny-looking ties on, and singing “Rag Mop” and things like that.  We all did it.  I walked in one day and saw John walking on the bar and stepping over drinks.  We all did it.  We had to survive.  But it wasn’t a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  Even the Gospel stuff.

TP:    In relation to what you’re saying, I gather that in the Bullmoose Jackson band, Tadd Dameron was briefly apart of that, Philly Joe Jones as well… Very strong musicians.  Was there any working out of let’s say higher musical ideas off-hours, on the road?  Talk a bit about the climate within the band, the attitudes and interactions.

GOLSON:  Okay, I’ll tell you about it.  Tadd Dameron was there, and it was a complete aberration, an anomaly.  Tadd Dameron and Bullmoose Jackson, whose name was Benjamin, were both from Cleveland, Ohio, and they knew each other as kids growing up in Cleveland.  Bullmoose ran into Tadd one day in New York and just happened to say, “Are you working?”  Tadd said, “No, I’m not working right now.”  He said, “Look, I need a piano player, and I know this is really not your kind of thing, but come down, make a few gigs and make some money with me, and when you’re ready to leave, you can leave.”  Tadd thought about it and said, “Well, okay.”  I’m so happy he did that, because when I joined the band he was the piano player.  Oh, you have no idea!  Because he was one of my idols as far as the pen is concerned.

Now, someone told Bullmoose Jackson about me, and he approached me about joining the band.  He happened to be Philadelphia with his group, and he’d been asking about tenor players in town.  I might have taken Frank Wess’ place.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, Bullmoose and the road manager, who was also the alto saxophone player, wanted me to come to their hotel room to play some music with them — they wanted to see if I could read music.  So I went down, and we did, and they liked it, and they said, “Hmm, do you happen to know of any trumpet player who might want to play who can read?” — because they had a lot of written music.  I said, “Yeah, I know one.  He’s an excellent reader.  Johnny Coles.”  They approached John, who didn’t have to take a test because they took my word for it; he could read really well.  They said, “Do you know a bass player?”  I guess he was revamping the whole band.  So I recommended Jymie Merritt.  Fine.  And they wanted a drummer.  I said, “Okay.”  “Has he got any experience playing this kind of music?”  “Yeah, he used to play with Joe Morris; he’s played a lot of rhythm-and-blues dates.” (That was before Rock-and-Roll.)  That was Philly Joe Jones.  Philly could play anything.  We used to have a gig locally, and Philly used to be the singer!  You never heard him sing, but he sang great.  And he played bass, and he played piano, and he was a comedian, too…

[END OF SIDE A]

We had some arrangements that he had written that belied the sound of the rhythm-and-blues band we were a part of.  Then Tadd had showed so many of his things to me that I began writing some things sounding like Tadd.  He would pull my leg a little bit and say, “It’s really a drag; people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was a great arrangement you did on such-and-such, Tadd,” — and it was an arrangement I had done.  He said, “what a drag.”  But he didn’t really mean that.

TP:    Would he sit down with you first-hand and show you how he was constructing things?

GOLSON:  Absolutely, he showed me.  This guy was great.

TP:    What were some of the devices that made Tadd Dameron specific for musicians out there that were the trademarks of his style?

GOLSON:  He taught me how to be selective about notes.  When you are a dearth writer… A dearth writer is when you are writing for a small number of instruments.  It’s much easier to write for a larger array of instruments.  Not easy, but easier.  Because you don’t have to approximate, you don’t have to simulate, you don’t have to try to sound like something — you’ve got the sound there. But when you’ve got two horns, you’re not going to sound like a 15-piece group with 15 musicians.  So you have to try to simulate, you have to try to give the impression.  Then doing that, you have to draw upon all the outstanding characteristics of all the instruments — really.  The bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal, the piano — which is really three instruments, the high part of it, the mid-range and the low.  And picking the best sounding notes.  If you’ve got two horns, you’re only going to pick two.  You’ve got to pick the two outstanding ones.

I learned those kinds of things from him, and I went on to develop my own kinds of things, too.  But he gave me a jumping-off point.  I remember while he was in the band he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and he let me copy it.  I copied it for nothing, because I got a chance to sort of eviscerate what he had done, and lay it bare, and look at it in its component parts there, and that was helpful.  I did that, Quincy did, we all did those things.  We would get arrangements by people we liked, and look at the score, and tear it apart, and see how did they arrive at this.  We had already heard the recording; “so this is how they got that sound — mmm-hmm,” and you file it away.

Then you come up with your own things, too.  Walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown is healthy, because in doing so you will always discover things awaiting your discovery of them.  They’re there.  You just have to find them.  And when you find some of these things, you can make them your own.  You don’t always have to be eclectic and copy other people’s things.  That’s a beginning.  But as you advance, you come up with things of your own.  And the next thing you know, people are trying to find what you’re doing.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron/Clifford/BG, “Theme of No Repeat” (1953); Dizzy Gillespie, “Birks Works” (1957), DG Octet, “Blues After Dark” (1958), DG/E. Wilkins, “Left Hand Corner” (1958), DG Octet, “Out of the Past” (1958), Diz BB, “Whisper Not” & “Stablemates” (1957), Diz BB at Newport, “I Remember Clifford” (1957)]

TP:    Listening to those right now, what’s your assessment of these recordings?

GOLSON:  I am reminded all over again what a genius Dizzy Gillespie was.  I mean, he plays with such compassion.  On the opening of “Stablemates” he played that melody with such compassion that one might have thought, if they didn’t know the melody, that it was another kind of song.  When people think of Dizzy Gillespie they usually think of the high notes and all the fast notes, and the force and the power — but he’s a compassionate trumpet player.  And the thing about him (Art Farmer has it, too) that’s so unique, they’re able to play what I call other notes when they play.  Some people play and they play predictable notes.  But trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer are able to play other notes, unexpected notes.  That does something to you emotionally.  The notes they play are so beautiful and they fit into the scheme of things so well that your heart is intuitively saying, “Yes, yes.”

TP:    I’d also imagine that, as a composer and arranger, it spurs you to fresh thinking when you hear such imaginative soloists interpreting your work.

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I’ve always contended that as a writer… I don’t like to use the word “arranger,” because an arranger as such does more; he composes and all of these things.  I call them a writer.  When people write, it’s always good to know for whom you’re writing, if possible.  The rewards are so much better if you write for personality.  Duke Ellington did it for his band.  Whoever did Count Basie’s arrangements knew who the personnel was at the time.  They didn’t come and go too quickly, so you could plan things around certain people, and you know what to expect before you write it.  Otherwise, you’re writing vague and hoping that things come off.  But if you write certain things with people in mind, you know that they’re going to do your music justice, and many times even enhance what you’ve written — and that’s one of the real rewards.  Dizzy was like that.  Art Farmer is like that.  John Coltrane was like that.  They bring so much to it that it helps to elevate what you’ve already done, to make the spotlight a little brighter.

TP:    Well, it was a long road from 1953 and your Rhythm-and-Blues experiences up to joining the Dizzy Gillespie band in 1956, and in this conversational segment we’ll seek to explore some of those pathways.  Someone called shortly after we began the music in that set, and asked me to ask Benny Golson about Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, which he said John Coltrane also played with.  He wondered about your memories of that situation.

GOLSON:  Now, whoever made that call is somebody that really knows something.  They’ve got the inside track on it.  I don’t think I would have mentioned that group by name.  But yes, Daisy Mae and the Hepcats were from Philadelphia, and John Coltrane was a part of that group.  They used to wear these funny kind of clothes, the funny ties and rock from side to side and sing things, and the little cocktail drums with the foot pedal that hits up underneath of it, and the singing… It was an entertaining group; that’s what it was.  But like I said, the rent-man didn’t care about aesthetics.  All he wanted was his rent.

TP:    What were the rooms like you’d play in with those bands, the milieu and the layout?

GOLSON:  People came there to drink and to be entertained.  A group coming in there to play some fantastic jazz wouldn’t have made it.  They had to have an entertaining group.  People were buying the drinks and clicking the glasses, and not only did they want to feel good from what they were drinking; they wanted to feel good according to what they were hearing.  And I worked in places like that, too.  The same person might remember Jimmy Preston, who was an alto player, and he sang — and it was an entertaining group.  We worked every weekend in Lawnside, New Jersey, at a nice place, indirect lighting, state-of-the-art furniture — and we came there to entertain the people.  That’s exactly what we did.  Jimmy used to get off the bandstand and walk around, and while he was playing with one hand he would take the other hand and drink anybody’s drink.  They didn’t know that he was serious about that.  That really wasn’t part of the act; he liked to do that! [LAUGHS] That’s what we did. We must have stayed at that place two or three years.

I’m just driving a point here.  There were many groups strictly to entertain the people.  What’s interesting is that what entertainers do is second-guess the public.  In other words, they do what they think the people want to hear.  Now, there is nothing wrong with being an entertainer.  But the primary difference between an entertainer and an artist is that an entertainer’s first  obligation is to play what he thinks the people want to hear.  On the other hand, an artist’s first obligation is to do what he feels in his heart.  Not annoy the audience, but hoping that they like it.  But he has to answer that thing inside of himself first, and that’s the primary difference.

TP:    It’s interesting, because let’s say twenty years before that there wouldn’t have been such a distinction between entertainment and art where instrumental jazz was concerned.  No?  The big bands, the dance bands were playing very creative music, and it was the popular music of the time.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  But they pulled apart somewhere.  After Dizzy Gillespie came on the scene, the road sort of divided, and they got further and further apart.  But each music is still consequential.  There is nothing wrong with the music that’s played when people are entertained.  That’s a certain kind of music, and who is to say that kind of music shouldn’t exist.  It should.

TP:    And it does.

GOLSON:  [LAUGHS] And it does.  Absolutely.  No one should decry anybody’s efforts when it comes to creativity.  Creativity is a global phenomenon.  It doesn’t belong to any one person or people, and we all share in it on one level or another, whether it’s taking a safety pin when you lost your button and fastening something or building a rocket that goes to the moon.  We all share in creativity.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some other stops along your developmental path.  You and John Coltrane both worked with, at one time or another (and I’m not sure if it was at the same time), Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.  Discuss the circumstances and the personalities of both those incredible alto saxophonists as leaders.

GOLSON:  I think John played with Earl Bostic first.  He was the one who told me, although I sort of intuitively knew by things I’d heard Earl do in person with Lionel Hampton… He told me what a technician Earl Bostic was.  I didn’t join right after him, but when I came in a few saxophone players later, I discovered that Earl Bostic is probably one of the best technicians I have ever heard on the alto saxophone.  There were others who are very good.  Al Galadora, Rudy Wiedoft, Marcel Mule in Paris, Dick Stabile is another one… These names are popping into my mind as I talk.  Great.  But none of them could best Earl Bostic.  This guy was incredible, like a machine.  I was in awe of his technique.  I’m not talking about style, now.  I’m talking about raw technique and ability to get over the horn and do things.  He was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody who’s gone beyond him technically, not even John — because John used to rave about him.

TP:    Just another question about Bostic as a leader.  Was there ever room for, say, creative and modern jazz within his set, let’s say on late sets and whatnot?  Was he interested in that?  Was he up on the new music of the early 1950’s?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  He afforded me many opportunities to write.  I remember I wrote an arrangement one time on “All The Things You Are.”  It changed keys, it did all kinds of things, and he loved it.  One night in particular he really got into it, and it was just fantastic.  He was so taken by it… I remember after it was over I knew he was taken by it, because he came to me, reached in his pocket and said, “How much did I pay you for that arrangement?”  Whatever it was, I quoted the price.  He said, “Well, here’s some more,” and he gave some more money — and I don’t remember the amount either.

Oh yeah, he liked other kinds of music.  We played Baltimore once, and we had to play a matinee.  During the course of playing a matinee, he showed up on the bandstand with his clarinet, and he played fantastic clarinet.  We played “Cherokee” or some tune like that, and we played it through the keys — and he chewed it up.  Chewed it up.  He was a fantastic musician.  I asked him, “Earl, do you have just natural talent?  What happened?  How did you come to put all this together?”  He said, “When I was Oklahoma [I think he was from Tulsa], I knew I was coming to New York, and I had to get ready.  So what I did, for years I went to work.  At 8 in the morning I started playing, I took a lunch break, and I stopped at 5.”  He said, “I did that every day.”  And he when he came to New York, believe me, he was ready.  Because people like Sweets Edison, Don Byas, they told me when he came, boy, he was awesome.  He didn’t have to apologize to anybody.

Now, you asked about Johnny Hodges and John Coltrane.  When I first met John, he was playing alto, and his idol was Johnny Hodges.  One of my high school chums, who also played alto, told me about a new person who had moved into the projects, and it was John Coltrane.  He said, “He’s fantastic.  He plays just like Johnny Hodges.”  I said, “What?!”  This was before Bird and Diz.  The music was somewhere else.  If I can meet somebody who plays like Johnny Hodges, this will be fantastic.  And he’s our age, 18… So he said, “Well, I’ll bring him by your house tomorrow.”  So he did.  The doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and there was Howard, and standing down on the sidewalk was John, sort of like a country bumpkin, biting the side of his thumb.  He came in the house, and we just sort of stood there.  Kids are so stupid.  He was standing there by the couch with his horn in his hand, and his hat and coat on — [LAUGHS] and I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Play something!”  He was waiting for it.  He took his hat and coat off, whipped his horn out, and went into “Sunny Side of the Street.”  Well, my mother happened to be upstairs, and after he finished playing she said, “Who was that?”  I said, “It’s a new fellow I met named John Coltrane.”  After a while we started having sessions at my house, and sometime during that session she would holler down, “Is John down there yet?”  He would say, “Yes, Mrs. Golson.”  And we knew what that met.  We would have to stop and let John play “On The Sunny Side of The Street.”

TP:    A small price to pay for rehearsal space.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.  I was a little embarrassed by it, so I said to her one day, “Mother, it’s kind of a drag.  We try to get together and do some things, learn some new things, and you holler down for these requests, mainly on ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’…” She didn’t let me finish.  She said, “This is my house; I’ll ask for what I want.”  I guess she was right.

But it turns out that John Coltrane later joined his former idol, Johnny Hodges.  He was playing tenor then.  I asked him, “Did you ever tell him that at one point he was your idol?”  He said, “No, I never said anything about it.”  It was like Charlie Parker.  He was playing somewhere, and Charlie Parker came in.  John was still playing alto at the time, and he was playing so much, Bird said to somebody, “who is this guy?”  Of course it was John Coltrane.  I heard the story, and when John came back to Philly, I said, “But did you tell him we were the two kids who were walking down Broad Street with him?”  He said, “No.”  Well, he wouldn’t have remembered anyway.

TP:    What was it like being on the road with Johnny Hodges in his own group?  Was it all a vehicle for him, or…

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  He gave other people a chance to play.  You know, as you’re coming along and you meet people, that’s one thing.  But when you meet them and then you play with them or in their group, it’s like little dreams coming true.  And here I was with Johnny Hodges.  I used to listen to him with Duke play all these great things, one of which was “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and then I’m in his band.  But how I got there is, John was already there, and they were enlarging the band to go on a special tour with Billy Eckstine and Ruth Brown and a group called the Clovers.  So they needed to enlarge the band.  Johnny wanted another saxophone player, and he asked John, “Do you know of any saxophone players?”  He said, “Oh yeah,” and he told them to get me, and that’s what happened.  So I got there.  So I did this tour with him.

TP:    Was it mostly blues and ballads and things he was famous for?

GOLSON:  That kind of thing, yeah.  Billy Eckstine sang his ballad, and Johnny did “Castle Rock,” and he had other things he played, and we played the Clovers’ music, and we played “Mama, Treat Your Daughter Mean” with Ruth Brown, and those kind of things.  It was a show.,

TP:    So you’re in your mid-twenties, traveling around the country on the Black theater circuit primarily and in the clubs, garnering a really broad range of functional experience.  When your first recordings came out, you were not known to the broader public, but you developed a range of contacts around the United States within the jazz community basically.  Fair to say?

GOLSON:  True.

TP:    The events that led you into Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

GOLSON:  Fortuitous.  I was with Earl Bostic, and we were out in Seattle… Well, let me back up a little bit before that.  Because something was happening to me, my mental state I guess you could call it.  We were playing the same tunes every night, and for the large part they featured Earl.  We played on certain tunes, but the tapestry really was Earl Bostic.  I sort of got tired.  I wanted to do something else.  But I had a job, I was making money.  When we went down South, he would bring this electric guitar of his on the scene, and he would play things that people liked in Texas and Mississippi and Oklahoma and wherever.  I did some terrible things.  During the intermission I would tighten one string and loosen another string, and tighten another string.  Now, when he came up, he never did re-tune it.  He would just pick it up, turn around and call the number, and kick it off and start playing.  I did that one night, and he started to play, and it sounded just terrible — and it was trying to tune it while he was playing it.  I guess he didn’t know what happened.  It would have been all right if I had let it alone, but I did it again some other night.  He started to suspect something.  But he still didn’t know it was me, see.

Another night we were playing somewhere.  I was getting restless.  I guess I wanted to be fired or something.  We were playing somewhere, and boy, he really had the crowd… He really knew how to get the crowds.  Some of the people were dancing, but most of the people were standing at the foot of the stage.  He really had them going.  I remember seeing Illinois Jacquet do something with his horn, and I thought that I would do it while Earl was playing his solo.  This is what got me fired.  He was playing his solo, and he got the crowd going.  I went to the back of the stage, behind the drummer, and I took the saxophone loose from my strap, and I came running from to the front of the stage with my horn back like I was going to throw it, then I flung my horn forward like I was going to release the horn — and the whole audience ducked.  They ducked down.  It was distracting.  That bothered him.  Well, I guess he had every right to be bothered.  And after the show, he said… He called everybody Partner, “Part-noh.”  He said, “Part-noh, I think I’m gonna have to let-cha go.”  Well, that was in Seattle.  He said, “I think you’ve had your time here.”

I understood, and I guess I was kind of happy.  But it came at the right time.  Because Ernie Wilkins, who was writing for Dizzy’s band and had been playing saxophone, was leaving that same week, and somebody mentioned me, and they said, “Well, I think he’s with Earl Bostic, but give him a call anyway.”  I had come back to New York, and they called me, and I was home — and I got the gig.  I’m glad I got fired!

TP:    You said you’d moved to New York by this time.

GOLSON:  Oh yes, I’d moved to New York.

TP:    When did you come to New York?

GOLSON:  I came to New York around ’55.

TP:    Had you making regular trips to New York?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, definitely.

TP:    Did you go to 52nd Street, let’s say?

GOLSON:  No, that was before my time.  But my uncle used to be a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I would come over to visit him.  Oh, I visited him a lot. [LAUGHS] And he would take me around.  Because I was his nephew, I could go in there.  I mean, they don’t allow kids in there, but Teddy Hill would let me in.

TP:    This was in the ’40s?

GOLSON:  It was before I got out of high school.  The mid-’40s, I guess.  I was a kid.

TP:    What are your memories of Minton’s?

GOLSON:  Well, when you came in, there was a place where the bar was in the front room, like, and I can’t remember if you went up some steps to where the band was playing, or you went down or it was on the same level.  It seems to me like you walked up some steps.  But this is where the bandstand was, and it was a little more intense back there than it was out at the front bar.  This is where the musicians were, and this is where the people came to really hear the music.  The people that sat out in the front I guess were just concerned with having conversation and drinking, which is fine if they made the distinction, because otherwise they’d be going on concurrently with the other people who were interested.  So it worked out all right.

,    And I got on that bandstand once.  Eventually I did.  I can’t remember that tenor saxophone player’s name… Jackie McLean called his name a couple of years ago, and I’d forgotten it.  When he called the name, I jumped up.  I don’t think he ever recorded, but boy, this guy could play.  Anyway, I played there once.  Gildo Mahones I remember was there; Joe Guy, a trumpet player, Lockjaw… I can’t remember all the different people there.  Some of them, I didn’t know who they were as a kid.  I just knew this guy was a trumpet player, or this guy was a saxophone player; I didn’t know their name.  But later I found out how famous the place was, after the fact.

TP:    Did you continue to see Charlie Parker play, or go out of your way to do it when he was around?

GOLSON:  I didn’t know Charlie, didn’t get to know him personally, unfortunately.  But I got to know just about everybody else.  Sometimes people escape you knowing them.  Once I said to somebody who we all know (I can’t remember who it was), “Why is it that we never met?”  Just circumstances weren’t that way.  But mostly everybody else, I did.  All the pictures that I had, all the photographs I had down at the foot of my bed on the wall as a teenager growing up, all those idols… Max Roach and I laughed.  I said, “Look, you occupied a very prominent place on my wall at the foot of my bed for years!” [LAUGHS] As did Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie.  You lay in bed, you look at their pictures and you dream.

TP:    Then you play with Dizzy Gillespie and arrange a piece for Coleman Hawkins and…

GOLSON:  Yeah, you get to know them all.  Don Byas gave me a box of reeds after I got to know him, and it said, “To my man Benny, from Don.”  I kept that box until it was falling apart because it was from him.

TP:    When you got to New York, a number of your contemporaries were living here, such as Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Tadd Dameron.  So I imagine it wasn’t huge adjustment for you on settling here to begin establishing yourself amongst the very elite group of New York musicians.  Or was it?

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  I was no stranger.  Because when I was playing with various Rhythm-and-Blues groups, we would always come through New York.  We would play the Apollo, we would meet here for rehearsals or whatever it was, and I’d stay over, I’d go see bands, and I got to know musicians, so I wasn’t really a stranger.  But I was a stranger at the same time to the scene, certainly to the recording scene.  I hadn’t recorded anything.  But I had to be here.  New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  So I decided I should move here, and I did — and things started to pick up.  When you’re here, people pick up the phone, and you’re wherever they want you in 15 minutes or whatever it is.  You don’t have to get a bus or a train.  You’re here.  And that worked to my advantage, I think.

TP:    Was this when your real heavy period of writing began?  A lot of compositions from this period, ’55-’56-’57, you’ve performed ever since in various ways?

GOLSON:  Actually, the heavy period of my writing began before anybody knew about me.  But it’s a strange thing about talent.  Talent in and of itself doesn’t mean anything unless you have opportunity.  You can be the most talented guy, but you might be stuck out in Wacannomock(?), Wisconsin, and nobody ever knows about you.  You do need the opportunity, and I didn’t have the opportunity.  When I was traveling with these bands, Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, I was passing out lead sheets like they were calling cards.  Nothing ever happened.  I think James Moody recorded one of my things, a blues, and there was a long period before anything else happened.

John Coltrane was playing so great, and Hank Mobley was leaving Miles Davis.  Philly Joe had already left, gone to join Miles, and Miles asked him, “Do you know of any tenor saxophone players?”  Philly said, “Yeah, yeah.”  Miles said, “Can he play?”  Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He said, “Yeah, he can play.”  As though, “Well, I guess, you know…”  So Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “John Coltrane.”  “Well, see if he wants to join the band.”  We found out about it, because we’d been rehearsing and playing jobs together and playing in various bands, and we used to be together all the time, almost every day.  So we all found out that John was going to join Miles Davis, and vicariously we all took the trip with him.

I saw him about two weeks later on one of the main streets in north Philadelphia, where we lived, Columbia Avenue, and I said, “John, how is it going?”  He said, “Oh, it’s great.  But you know, Miles needs some new tunes.  Do you have any tunes?”  I thought to myself, “Do I have any tunes?!”  But if you give people too many, it becomes confusing.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  So I didn’t send a whole lot of tunes.  I sent one tune.  And I didn’t think any more about it, because I’d been giving tunes out half my life, it seemed, and nothing happened.  I ran into him about a month later, and I said, “Well, how is it going now?”  He said, “It’s going great.  You know that tune you gave me?”  “Yeah.”  “Miles recorded it.”  I said, “What?!  He recorded my tune?”  He said, “Yeah.  Man, he dug it.”  That was “Stablemates.”

Now, a strange thing happened.  All these lead sheets I’d been passing out all over the country, people must have heard the tune, seen my name on it and said, “Wait a minute; is this the same guy that gave me such-and-such?”, and maybe they went and got it wherever it was, from under the rug or in the trash.  They started recording my stuff.  That’s what got me started.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane are responsible for getting me started as a writer.  If it hadn’t happened that way, it might have happened some other way, or maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all.  You need opportunity, Ted.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie certainly provided an opportunity to record a number of your tunes in the big band situation, like “Whisper Not” and “Stablemates” and “I Remember Clifford”, to be specific.

GOLSON:  That came later, though.

TP:    In ’57.  But I was going to try to get to…

GOLSON:  Lead in, huh? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Yeah, you know how it is.  But I wanted to talk to you about the experience of being part of the Dizzy Gillespie band and how he functioned as a bandleader with you, and some of the personalities you encountered in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956-1957 big band?

GOLSON:  Mmm-hmm.  You want to know it now?

TP:    Right now.

GOLSON:  Yeah, I can tell you.  Dizzy gave all of his men so much room to express themselves, those who were soloists.  Of course, we didn’t express ourselves individually when we came to play.    We had to become a composite person as it were.  We were given a greater expression as a group, so we had to strive for that, of course, but when it came to soloing and things like that… Now, Lee Morgan was in the band at the time, 18 years old, young upstart, and yet Dizzy featured him.  Some of the songs that he used to play, he gave to Lee to play.  He let him play on “Night In Tunisia.”  You have to take pride, insecurity and all that stuff, and throw it aside.  Apparently, Diz wasn’t affected by those things.  He recognized talent when he saw it, when he heard it, and he gave Lee free rein.  And he never tried to tell us how to play or what to play.  We were our own person when it came to playing the solos.  And we had many opportunities.  After he broke up the big band, for example, he formed a sextet, and lo and behold he chose me.  I thought he was going to pick Billy Mitchell, because Billy had more of the solos, but he chose me and a trombone player from Atlanta named Silly Willie.  We did that for just a little bit, then that was the end of it.

He was good, and he was fair.  Now, we didn’t make a lot of money.  But I learned so much.  Diz was one of those didactic kind of people.  He was a natural teacher, especially when it came to rhythms.  Boy, he had that rhythm down!

TP:    For instance, in the arrangements we heard earlier of “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not,  were Charlie Persip’s drum patterns Dizzy’s idea or something Charlie Persip worked out?

GOLSON:  No, that was Charlie.  But other things, like “Tin Tin Deo” and “Night In Tunisia” and “Begin The Beguine”, he told them how to play it, the beats, how to do it.  Charlie admitted that.  We learned a lot from Dizzy, from the way he played, and just listening to him talk and recalling things that had happened.  You pick up a lot like that, you know.

TP:    Well, the band was also a clearing house for some very talented arrangers apart from yourself, like Ernie Wilkins, who I know you wanted to say some things about, Quincy Jones, and some others.

GOLSON:  I learned so much music from Ernie Wilkins as far as big band writing.  It’s too bad that people like Ernie don’t get the credit that they deserve.  This was one of the finest arrangers on the scene.  He happens to be ill at the moment, and he’ll probably never be himself again.  His time is probably limited now, unfortunately, his wife told me.  But when he was going, boy, this guy’s music…his voicings was like plugging in to an electric outlet.  It was electrifying, almost physical sometimes, the sound, as though you could close your eyes and reach up and touch it and grab it and hold it.  That’s the way the music was.  And it was fresh.  His concept wasn’t dated, even though he was a little older than me.  He wasn’t afraid to take chances.  He had multiple things going on sometimes.  If you looked on paper you’d say, “Hmm, that might not work,” but it worked.  I learned a lot from him.  I’m sure Quincy did, too.

TP:    He seems to be one person who can work effectively in what might at first glance seem like different genres, such as the Basie band… Well, in your mind, in the 1950’s how distinct was the Dizzy Gillespie big band concept from what Basie was doing at the time?

GOLSON:  Different, but not necessarily better.  Just different.  I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that just because we were having so much fun, and it was modern, and it was so hitting and forceful and electrifying that it was better than anything else.  It was just different.  It was different than Basie.  It was different than Ellington.  It was different than the late Jimmie Lunceford.  Yet each one of those names I mentioned was consequential, and they could stand side by side with one another, and exist and give pleasure to a lot of people.  Good music.

[MUSIC:  Lee Morgan, “Domingo” (1957); BG, “Whisper Not” (1958); J. Cleveland, “All This and Heaven, Too”; BG, “You’re Mine, You”; BG 6, “Out Of the Past”]

TP:    The next segment will focus on the relationship that in a sense catapulted you from your initial prominence coming to New York and also catapulted Art Blakey from being a well-known drummer to the leader of the Jazz Messengers.  Benny Golson had only a year-long relationship with the Messengers, from spring 1958.  I’ve heard you tell the story many times, but like Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” it’s endlessly entertaining…

GOLSON:  Boy, I’ve told it so many times.  I had just come to New York, and I decided that I didn’t want to travel at that particular time.  This was after Earl Bostic, after Bullmoose Jackson, after Dizzy Gillespie.  I wanted to stay in town a little bit so I could establish myself.  You’re peripatetic, you’re running around, you can’t get any roots.  You’re ubiquitous.  You’re everywhere at the same time.

TP:    Parenthetically, did the “New York Scene” and the early Riverside recordings from late ’57 happen before or after you left Dizzy?

GOLSON:  After.

TP:    So you’re starting to record and get your stuff out there.

GOLSON:  Right.  But this is even prior to that.  I got a call one evening from Art Blakey himself, asking me could I come down to sub at the now-defunct Cafe Bohemia.  I said, okay, I’d come down.  I went down, and we played.  They didn’t have a lot of things that were difficult as far as arrangements; it was just a little better than a jam session.  At the end of the night he asked me could he come the next night, because he was still having problems with whomever it was, something…a police car or something.  I enjoyed the first night so much that I said, “Yeah, I’ll play the second night.”  When I played the second night, he asked me, “Do you think you could make some gigs with us?” — which meant that I would have to go out of town.  I told him, no, I was sorry, I wanted to stay in New York and be kind of settled.  He said, “Okay, but can you finish out the week?”  That was my mistake.  I said, “Yes.”

I finished out the week.  But during the week, I had the occasion to sit down with him.  I knew during that time, he wasn’t making as much money as he should have been.  I don’t know how I found that out.  I said to him, “Art, you should be world-famous.  Have you been to Europe?”  He said, “No.”  I said, “You should have been to Europe many times.  You should be making a lot of money.  Your name in the jazz annals should be a household word!”

At any rate, at the end of that week he said, “I’m playing Pittsburgh next week.  It’s just one week, just six days; can you make it there?  I won’t keep you away too long.”  Well, now, I’ve already played a week with him.  Now I’m of a different mind than I was before because I’ve got a taste of him.  So I wanted a little bit more, intuitively, I think, because I said, “Yes.”  I must have.  So I went to Pittsburgh.  And as we neared the end of the week, he said to me, “Now, next week we’re in Washington; do you think you could make that with us?”  Now I’ve had two weeks of him and now I’m really digging it.  I’m really not speaking with the same mind now, because I said, “Yes!” again.  Besides, I went to college there; it was like my second home.  And after that I  never said anything about not wanting to leave New York again.  I became a member of the Jazz Messengers.

TP:    Who was the band?

GOLSON:  Bill Hardman on trumpet, John Houston from Philadelphia on piano, Spanky deBrest and Buhaina.  So we talked some more about the band. I said, “Art, you really should be in a different place than you are musically.”  and he looked at me with those big, sad cow-eyes, and said… I never expected this, really, because nobody knew who I was.  I was a young upstart in town.  He said, “Can you help me?”  My goodness, I never expected that from Art Blakey.  And I never expected what I said in return.  I said, “Yes, if you do exactly what I tell you.” [LAUGHS] I mean, I can’t imagine… The nerve of me!

TP:    Well, you’d seen maybe a thing or two during your years on the road with these various groups.

GOLSON:  A thing or two.  Not more.  And he said, “Okay.  What do I do?”  I said, “Art, you need a new band.”  He said, “Okay, tell them they’re fired.”  I said, “You tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  Anyway, I don’t know who told them, but he said, “Who are we going to get if we get rid of this band?”  I said, “Well, I know a young trumpet player.  He plays pretty good.  He was with Dizzy.  He said, “Who is he?”  “Lee Morgan.”  “Can he play?”  I said, “Yeah.’  He said, “How old is he?”  I said, “He’s 19 now, I think.”  “19!?  Well, can he really play?  Can he come up to what we’re trying…”  I said, “Believe me, we can.”  And I added that he was from Philadelphia; I don’t want to leave that out.

“Okay, who can we get on piano?”  “There was a guy who used to play with Chet Baker and various other people.  He plays nice piano.  His name is Bobby Timmons.”  “Do you think he could do this?”  I said, “Yes.”  “Where is he from?”  “He’s from Philly.”

“What about the bass player?”  “Oh, there’s a guy who played with us with Bullmoose Jackson.  He also played with B.B. King.”  “Wait a minute.  Wait a minute!  We’re not playing that kind of…”  I said, “Trust me, Art.  This guy can play.”  “What’s his name?”  “His name is Jymie Merritt.”  “Where is he from?”  “From Philly.”  He said, “Wait a minute!  What is this Philadelphia shit?!”  So I said, “No, they all just happen to be from Philly and I know them, but you won’t be disappointed.”  So I called each one of them in turn, and they said, yes, they’d like to be part of the band.  We put the band together and I wrote some things for them…

TP:    Did you have a sound for the band in mind?  The band on Moanin’ has a distinctive aesthetic, where you take advantage of his ability to do a shuffle  and put his own imprint on that, or a march, or various styles.  It had a cohesion that may not have been evident in earlier versions of the Messengers from the past couple of years.  Did you have that sound in mind when you were writing the book, or did it just come out that way?

GOLSON:  I’m going to be monosyllabic to what you just said.  No.  I didn’t have anything in mind other than the music.  It just happened to turn out like that, fortunately.  But what I did say to him was, “Art, you need something that really features you.  I’ve heard you play, and you’re just like any other drummer.  After everybody else has played and said what they have to say, they leave the trimmings for you at the end.  You need something where you start playing at the very beginning.”  Then we were sitting there, thinking.  I said, “Now, what could you do?”  Then I thought about that introduction he played on “Straight, No Chaser,” where he showed his independence, two hands, two feet doing something entirely independent.  I said, “You’ve played everything there is to play, Art,” and I started to play.  “Except the march.”  Oh, how we both started laughing.  I said, “Wait a minute.”   And he said, “No!  You’re kidding!”  I said, “No, I’ve got an idea.  I’m not talking about the military.  I’m talking about with a little funk and soul in it, like Grambling College.  You know how they play, how they jazz up things and make it funky and syncopate.”  He said, “No, man, this is a jazz band.  We can’t play a march!”  I said, “Trust me.”  Somehow I used to say that to him all the time — “trust me.”  I couldn’t even trust myself.  I said, “Let me go home tonight and see what I can come up with.”

So I went home and came up with this thing and called it “Blues March,” because it’s a blues and it’s a march.  So we got to the rehearsal, and he said, “Okay, how do we start it?”  I said, “You start it.”  He said, “What do I do?”  I said, “Play like you used to play when you were in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Just play some rudiments.”  “How long should I play?”  “Play as long as you like.”  “How are you all going to know when to come in?”  I said, “Play the roll off?”  “What do you mean?”  “JUMP-DUMP, JUMP-DUMP, DURRRRHHH-RUMP-DUMP.”  When you do that, we know we’re supposed to come in.”  He said, “Oh, man, I don’t think this is going to work.”  I said, “Let’s try it.”  So he did it and he gave us the roll-off and we came in.  The structure of the melody is a little different than just the ordinary blues.  but don’t worry about that.  After we play the melody, we’ll go to the regular blues.”  So we did.  And it kind of worked out nice, and he put kind of a shuffle feeling in it.  He said, “Yeah!  Maybe it might work.  And it did.  The rest is history.

[MUSIC: Art Blakey, “Blues March,” “Just By Myself,” “Drum Thunder Suite,” “Along Came Betty”]

TP:    I’d like to discuss your style as a tenor saxophonist and the evolution of your style.  In the liner notes to the St. Germain CD from 1958 you say that the experience of playing that one year with Art Blakey had a huge impact on your approach to the tenor.

GOLSON:  Yes, it did.  Before I joined Art, I didn’t have much articulation.  On some of the things, it’s still not as much there as it is now.  But one of the things that he taught me to do, painfully, was to project, to play a little more forcefully.  When I went in to sub that night with him at the Cafe Bohemia, and some of the weeks that followed, he would play some of those drum rolls that he was famous for.  It might be four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along.  Well, right in the middle of that drum roll, it would get so loud that it would drown me out, and I would just be standing there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  I guess he thought I didn’t get it.  He did that a couple of weeks, and one night he did the same thing again, but he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done before that.  And to make doubly sure that I got it, he uttered some words.  He screamed across the bandstand to me, “Get up out of that hole!”  And when I heard the words, it all sort of came together and I thought to myself, “Maybe I am in somewhat of a hole.”  Because when he does those drum rolls, I just disappear, as if I’m in a hole.  So I started trying to play more forcefully.

And someone else helped me.  While we were there, when I was subbing that week at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in one night, and after the set… If you knew Monk, you would appreciate this story more.  But let me try to describe it to you.  He was standing, when I came off the bandstand, with his hands behind him, and rocking from side to side slightly.  He said to me, “You play too perfect” — sort of dry like that.  When he included the word… You’ve heard people say, “You play perfect” or something similar.  But when you hear the word “too,” that means an exaggeration, a caricature, superfluous, or whatever.  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  And while I was standing there, stewing, Art Blakey was standing on the side (he knew Monk so well, I guess he knew what he was talking about), snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for about 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said to me, “You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.”
I thought about that.  Mmm, bingo!  The next night I came in, Ted, I was playing like a man taking leave of his senses.  I was playing so crazy, trying to get away from that well-worn that I’d fashioned for myself, knowing that this works and that works, and I can do this here and do that there, like mathematics (and music is anything but that).  I decided to take chances.  I was jumping off of cliffs (metaphorically, of course) and jumping off bridges, standing in front of trains!  I was doing some crazy stuff.  But that started to move me out of where I was before; that was the beginning of it.  Of course, I stopped for a while.  But over the years, I’m of the conviction that you have to take chances if you want to move ahead.  Otherwise, you’ll just sort of level off.  And time, in its indefatigable course, moving always forward, has a way of relegating you to history.  You know?

TP:    I have to say that listening to things you recorded before Art Blakey, you sound like a very dynamic tenor player with a modern vocabulary, a distinctive approach for people among your generation for your assimilation of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins.  But you in your liner notes were describing your sound as “smooth and syrupy.”  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Are you being overly self-critical, or is that an objective way of describe how you played pre-Art Blakey?

GOLSON:  That’s the way I felt.  Other adjectives.  “Mellifluous.”  “Saccharine.”  “Sweet.”  “Charming,” some people have said.  But after a while, I wasn’t satisfied with that.  I wanted a little fire into it and get more articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, your tongue doesn’t touch the reed too much, the notes just kind of flow on your fingers, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue has to do some work sometimes, too, to define, to separate things and separate notes and separate ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.

TP:    It sounds like you had an impact on Art Blakey’s conception of himself as a drummer-bandleader.  Because it sounds like your compositions oriented him to focusing on certain sonic components of the trap drum set, and that you got him into presenting his different techniques on the drumset as part of the whole performance rather than just the straight-ahead, more unformatted playing than  before.  As evidenced particularly on “Drum Thunder Suite,” on which you said to him, as you were telling me off-mike, “don’t pick up the sticks.”

GOLSON:  Right. [LAUGHS] I wanted him to use the mallets.  I said, “You use the sticks and the brushes all the time.  Let people know what you can do.”  Let them know that you can play mallets, that you can play no your tom-toms.  Do other things.  Don’t always just do the same thing.  Of course, the mallets are not tools you’re going to use all the time.  Sticks are what you use most of the time.  But it’s good to color with other things sometimes.

You can’t do the same thing all the time.  People want to hear “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe” and “Blues March” and those things, and I appreciate it.  But you can’t just keep doing that.  I have a new thing I’ve written called “Lenox Avenue Soundcheck.”  When I first moved to New York, I lived one block from Lenox Avenue, on 7th Avenue.  But when I was going to take the IRT, I used to have to walk down to Lenox Avenue.  So I was down there a lot.  And being on Lenox Avenue, you’d hear certain music coming out of different places, the jukebox, and you’d hear people saying different things, some nice, some not so nice, and the police sirens… You’d just hear a multiplicity of things.

TP:    Urban sounds.

GOLSON:  There you go.  And I decided to write a tune dedicated to all of that.

TP:    Next up is a version of “Stablemates” on United Artists from Benny Golson With the Philadelphians with your old friend Philly Joe Jones, who you recorded with a number of times.  You mentioned hearing him as far back as 1945 in the clubs of Philadelphia.

[MUSIC: “Stablemates”, “Blues On My Mind” (1958)]

TP:    You mentioned that after you left the Messengers it was hard for you to play with another drummer for a while.

GOLSON:  Absolutely true.

TP:    You’ve played with great ones.

GOLSON:  You can get used to playing with people, just like you can get used to wearing your favorite suit, or go to the Chinese restaurant and order the same thing all the time because you like it.  It sort of grows on you.  You’re not aware of it until it’s not there any more.  That’s what happened to me.  Art Blakey is one of those drummers, Kenny Clarke is another… In fact, both played with us at a concert in Paris.  But Art Blakey swings so…how can I put it… His sounds don’t only reach your ear.  They reach your heart as well.  His style is motivational.  What he does makes you do things that perhaps you wouldn’t normally do because of the impetus… He said, “You stand out there and play, and if you’re not doing something, I’ll give you the bass drum.”  “What does that mean?”  “Every time you hit that bass drum, you’ll grab your rear end and say, ‘Oooh!!'”  But it’s that kind of thing.

It’s more than the bass drum, of course.  It’s the whole kit that he plays, and the way that he plays it.  He’s able to reach inside of your emotions.  There’s nothing cursory about him.  There’s no wasted effort.  There’s nothing wasted about him when he plays.  It’s meaningful, it’s logical, it’s reasonable, and it sounds fantastic.  And when you get used to playing with this kind of a drummer, even though you play with other kinds of drummers, and they might have even been great drummers, his style was such that you didn’t want to hear any other style.  I’m trying to make this up as I go along, because I’ve never had to formalize it into words; it was just feelings before.  when you hear him play, that’s it.  That’s the epitome of SWINGING.  What is there?  You’re already in heaven.  Where are you going after that?  So when you play with another drummer, it’s not that that you’re hearing.  Not that the other drummers are not good, but you’re not hearing what you’re used to hearing.  And that was the problem.

I happened to mention this to Freddie Hubbard, just in passing, as an aside.  And he looked at me and said, “You too?”  He had the same problem.  I found myself turning around, looking at drummers, which is very  unprofessional, and I don’t like doing that.  But it was almost irritating.  It was almost like the drummers were tuning up, preparing to play all night.  Because I wanted to hear them go into what Art used to go to!  But of course, I got out of it. [LAUGHS] I can play with other drummers.

TP:    One thing you mentioned in a liner note is the way Art Blakey would shape your solos, and the way his accompaniment behind you would almost make your statement take a logical course of its own with him.

GOLSON:  Very logical.  You’re very observant.  Absolutely true.  That’s why I said it.  He’s motivational!

TP:    And he’d set up something different for everyone in the band.  I remember a number of years ago he was forming a new band, and he had a big band at Sweet Basil that was being pared down.  You’d hear him set up behind everybody a different solo, and as the week went on, you could hear him settling into what he was going to do behind each person.  More about Philly Joe Jones and his inimitable style, the great precision and expoobidence with which he would boot you.

GOLSON:  Highly inventive, courageous and daring.  He would do things that were unexpected.  He would do unorthodox things.  We were playing once, and he played paradiddles between the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbal, rather than play them with the hands and the sticks on the snare drum.  I mean, he did all kinds of things.  One thing I liked about Philly, he was a listener.  Some drummers will close their eyes, turn their head sideways ride that cymbal, and it’s all about how they feel about what they’re doing at the moment.  But Joe would listen.  You would play a phrase, and leave a little breathing space, take a little breath before you set up the next phrase, and he might play a drum ruff — FRPPHHH!  Just that.  It’s perfect, and it sets up the next phrase.  Or he might go, BANH-BANHH-BAM-BAMM!  Or whatever it is.  It’s so logical, so right.  And these things just carry along.  It’s like flying a plane.  You just put your seat back and relax.  You can lean on that kind of a drummer.

TP:    Take us back to the 1940s.  You may not be able to recollect this specifically because you were so young at the time.  But you recollect Philly Joe performing in 1945-46, when you were 16 and 17.  What can you tell us about his sound then.  Had he assimilated Kenny Clarke and Max Roach by then?

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you that, Ted.  It was too early in my development.  I don’t know what I was listening to.  I just know I like what he did.  I couldn’t define it and break it down into its component parts.  All I knew is that I liked it.  I didn’t have enough experience.  That came later.

TP:    The great eye for detail that marks his compositions also marks his story-telling.  He’s been writing liner notes for some young tenor players, like Dan Faulk and David Sanchez, which are worth reading for an education in aesthetics and spinning a narrative.  Let’s move now to a couple of wild card tracks, one featuring an Benny Golson with Eric Dolphy, alto sax, Gunther Schuller, french horn, Herb Pomeroy, trumpet, on John Lewis’ composition “Afternoon in Paris” from an Atlantic release entitled “The Wonderful World of Jazz,” from 1960.

[MUSIC: w/ John Lewis, “Afternoon in Paris” (1959); w/ Betty Carter, “Isle of May”]

TP:    We’ll hear some collaborations between Benny Golson and Art Farmer for United Artists between 1958 and 1959.  Your comment about him is that he plays with tremendous integrity and sound selection and intent, concentrated consciousness… It sounds as though he’s the ideal improviser for you.

GOLSON:  Quintessential.

TP:    A couple of words to describe his improvisational personality.

GOLSON:  He’s a bright person, first of all.  He’s one of the thinkers.  He cogitates.  He does the same thing when he plays.  He thinks about what he’s going to play.  But he doesn’t think so much about it that it becomes an intellectual encounter with the music.  No.  He thinks enough to give it meaning and direction, and coupled with experience, he usually comes up with a nice bill of fare musically for what he’s doing.

TP:    That sounds like a textbook recipe for what is an improvisation.  How about for yourself?  Over the years you’ve made very conscious changes in your style and approach in your sound on the tenor that you want to project for  yourself.  I was complimenting your solo on “Afternoon In Paris,” which was reminiscent of the way Coleman Hawkins played in one of my favorite periods for him, and you said, “Ted, I don’t play that way any more; that’s in the past; we must move forward.”  What is that mixture of forethought, intent, intellect… I guess bringing to bear the intellect on improvisation and the direct flow of thoughts that make a successful one?  How do you assess that balance in your own process?

GOLSON:  Well, we all have to think to a certain extent when we play.  Some players think more than others.  Some players don’t quite know how to think.  You have to know what to think about when you’re playing.

TP:    What do you think about?

GOLSON:  I think about whatever satisfies my needs.  When we think, we should think about what satisfies our needs.  What is it that we need at the moment?  Do I need something for my sound?  Do I need something for my melodic concept?  Do I need something for my rhythmic perception of things?  Or do I need them all?  And if you do, you’ve got a lot of thinking to do.  But experience makes it easier as you go along.  The more you do a thing, the easier it gets as it goes along.  Mind you, I didn’t say “easy.”  The easier it gets.  And me, I feel that I have certain needs.  I have a lot of them.  Beginning with my sound.  I am so critical about my sound.  I am going through a phase right now where I am talking with the reed manufacturer, and they are making special reeds for me, and when I go back out to the Coast in December I am going to meet with them again.  It’s getting close.  But there’s just one  element I want to get out.  That’s me.  People say, “Oh, it sounds great to me.”  And that’s fine. But I have to satisfy myself first.

TP:    You may never get satisfied.  It may be that’s what keeps you going and searching for new challenges.

GOLSON:  You know, that’s what Sonny Rollins.  He said, “No musician ever dies who is completely satisfied with himself.”  And I believe that.  If I get to like my sound, it might be something else that I’m not happy with.  That’s the way it is.

TP:    Some musicians will set themselves a challenge on a given night, like a particular tenor player will say, “I’m going to be Lester Young,” and then another night will try to be Coleman Hawkins, or taking it farther… Setting up that type of challenge to spur interest and play something different night after night.  Did that have anything to do with your approach?  Or was it purely about developing musical ideas?

GOLSON:  That was never part of me and it never will be.  I don’t set out to sound like anybody.  I’m struggling hard enough to try to sound like what I want to sound like.  Why would I waste time trying to sound like somebody else and put banners up for them?  That’s testimonial to them!  I’m not trying to set a testimonial for myself, but I am trying to play things that at least satisfy me and my needs.  I can’t waste… I use that word advisedly.  I can’t take time trying to sound like Lester or somebody else.  There’s enough of that going on now.  So many people sound like John Coltrane.  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  That should be left where it is.  Who is going to best John Coltrane?  Maybe the next century.  But we should spend more time trying to sound what we want to sound like, expressing our own feelings and revealing our own musical personalities.  We don’t need any carpet paper around.  We should try to sound like ourselves.  And the litmus test is applying ourselves, trying to find out what it is that we want to do, and trying to optimize whatever it is we’re trying to do at whatever opportunity we have.  Rather than to walk through anything (I don’t think anybody does that nowadays), we should put forth our best effort, like our lives are on the line.

Case in point.  Tom MacIntosh had a group called the New York Jazz Sextet, trumpet, tenor, trombone and rhythm section.  At one point, Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player.  I hadn’t thought much about it.  But every time we had a rehearsal, when it came time for Freddie to play his solo, he played like he was at Carnegie Hall at 8 p.m. on a Friday night with a full auditorium.  That’s the way he played.  Me, before that, I would just kind of walk through the changes.  This is just a rehearsal.  I used to laugh and say, “Hey, it’s only a rehearsal.”  But he played like his reputation was at stake.  He really did.  And I learned something from that.  You do the best you can whenever you get a chance to do it.  And if you do that, it can become a part of you.  But if you spend part of the time minimizing it and throwing it away, then that is time taken away from a good effort that you could be applying to yourself in the direction that you want to go.

[MUSIC: Golson-Farmer, “Fair Weather,” “Like Someone In Love,” “Five Spot After Dark,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” “Minor Vamp”][MUSIC: “Blues March” (1983)]

TP:    We have to cover about 35 years of music, so compression is of the essence.  We ended the last show with one of your most famous compositions, and one which took crossover context, “Killer Joe,” performed by the Jazztet, a group that lasted in its first iteration from 1959 to 1962.  Let’s talk about the formation of this group and the early personnel.  It got you together with Art Farmer, for one thing, on a somewhat permanent basis after several years of musical flirtation, as it were.

GOLSON:  That’s absolutely true.  Art and I met in the summer of 1953, right after Tadd Dameron’s band broke up in Atlantic City, which included Clifford Brown and Gigi Gryce.  They went on to join Lionel Hampton, and the condition that we could all leave was that I would stay  there and make sure that whoever was coming in to replace us would play the music right.  So they left and I stayed.  Then a few weeks later, I joined them in South Carolina.  In the band at that time was Art Farmer.  In fact, that’s where I met him.  Quincy Jones was in the band.  That’s where I met him.  Monk Montgomery was there, Jimmy Cleveland, and of course Gigi Gryce came along from Atlantic City, and Clifford Brown, who was also there with us.  There’s no else I can think of right now who people would readily know.

That’s when Art and I began our relationship, and when we went our separate ways from Lionel Hampton, we wound up in New York doing different things, making ends meet, and we were thrown together many times — radio commercials, TV commercials, jingles, various record dates for different people.  Although we already knew each other, we got to know each other even better because we saw each other in between socially many times.  So I guess it was inevitable that we would want to do something else, and it just so happened that we decided we wanted to do something different at the same time, without either having knowledge of the other.

So I picked up the phone one day and called him.  I said, “Art, I’m thinking about putting together a sextet.”  Not a quintet.  So many other people had quintets.  A sextet with that other horn would make it just a bit different; there are not so many sextets around today.  He started laughing.  I said, “Why are you laughing?  Is this idea that absurd?”  He said, “No.  You know, I was thinking about putting a sextet together, and I was going to call you later today.’  I said, “Well, why don’t you come by, and we could talk about it.”  And he did.  He picked two of the personnel and I picked two.  He picked his twin brother, Addison Farmer, who was alive at that time, for bass, and he picked Dave Bailey, who now heads Jazzmobile here in town, as the drummer, because they had worked together with Gerry Mulligan.  I picked Curtis Fuller.  Well, there was no disagreement there.  But when I came up with the name McCoy Tyner, he said, “I’ve never heard of him.  How is he?  Can he play?”  I said, “Oh yes, he can play.”

TP:    Before you continue, how did you know about McCoy Tyner?  Now, there’s an obvious Philadelphia connection.  Were you keeping the ties to Philadelphia?

GOLSON:  Keeping the ties had nothing to do with it.  It was the talent.  But the important thing is that I met him in Philadelphia.  I went to do one of those Sunday afternoon concerts, and the rhythm section was there, awaiting my arrival.  He played so well!  So I said, “Let me see what he can really do.”  So I played something in a strange key, and he just romped through it.  He was only 19 years old!  So I kept that in the back of my mind, not knowing if anything was going to happen or if I was going to do anything where he was involved.  But the Jazztet came up, and obviously he was the first person in mind.

TP:    Were the germs of McCoy Tyner’s mature style present when you first heard him at 19 or 20 or in the Jazztet?

GOLSON:  Oh, sure.  That’s what appealed to me.  Of course, after that he built on it.  He didn’t just stay here.  He migrated ahead to other things, which is logical for a truly creative person.  But it was interesting, so funny because when I approached him about the job on the telephone, it was like he had been awaiting my call.  “Yes!”  But then I reminded him that Philadelphia was 90 miles from New York, 180 miles round trip every day.  “McCoy, can you do this?  Are you up to it?”  He said, “Well, I really want to move to New York; I’ve been thinking about it.”  So as it turned out, to make a long story short, Art and I found an apartment for him and got it.  So he and his wife were on their way over, and a friend was bringing them over in a car, and the car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He called me.  He said, “Benny, we’ve broken down; can you come out and pick me up.”  I said, “McCoy, I don’t have a car.  Call me back in an hour and let me explore and see what I can do.”  So I found a friend who had a car, and we went out and picked him up, sure enough, and loaded him into this person’s car, and we took off.  I don’t know what happened to the person who was bringing him there.  It was terrible.  I guess we drove off and left.  I don’t quite remember what happened.  But as it turned out, the person who took me out to pick him up was John Coltrane, because he lived just a couple of blocks from me!  And about a year or so later, McCoy joined his band.  So the next time I saw John, I said to him (I knew him very well, of course), “A fine friend you turned out to be.  You stole my piano player!”

TP:    I’ve heard the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that McCoy Tyner at an early age told John Coltrane he wanted to play with him.  And he was friends with Lee Morgan, a young colleague of yours from Philly.

GOLSON:  I don’t know if the story is apocryphal, but it’s probably not.  At 18 or whatever age that he approached John, he probably did want to play with him, and he let it be known that he did.  But I’ll tell you, in the intervening time between when he asked him that (if he did in fact ask him that) and when he joined him, he wasn’t sitting still.  He was moving forward in high gear.

TP:    I’m sure the challenging compositions and arrangements and the high degree of professionalism required within the Jazztet had a lot to do with McCoy Tyner’s development during that interim period.

GOLSON:  It might have had some.  But I think he developed more with John.  John was going in a better direction for where McCoy’s concept was.  I have to be honest about that.

TP:    I was just trying to give you a nice segue to talk about the Jazztet.  Talk about what you wanted to achieve with this group.  It immediately took on a very distinctive identity.

GOLSON:  That’s it exactly.  That’s the first word.  I figured we had to have an identity.  Otherwise, we were just another sextet thrown together to do various musical things.  To give it that identity, I tried to bring complete organization to what we were doing.  Of course, later I abandoned that, because I thought it was too much organization, and the second time we got together it was much looser.  It was just a bit too organized the first time out.  Too preconceived.  I felt we needed to be a bit looser.  And for me, and I think for Art too, it worked a lot better when it was looser.

TP:    What I gather is that your initial performance was at the Five Spot opposite the Ornette Coleman Quartet in their New York debut.  Which sounds to me like quite a scene.  So I’ll ask you to use your considerable descriptive powers to give your first-hand impression of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959 at the Five Spot.

GOLSON:  I’ll never forget it.  Ornette had created quite a controversy about himself and about his music.  He had a lot of supporters, people like Leonard Bernstein and John Lewis, even Dizzy Gillespie.  Well, Dizzy Gillespie had perspicacity anyway.  He was able to look ahead, and he probably saw this music going in another direction that had some validity to it.  But not everyone really felt like that, and it was a big question mark.  So it was like someone going to a new restaurant.  Here you had two new groups, two bills of fare, so to so speak, under the same roof, and the place was jammed.

TP:    Very different approaches to music as well.  Were you familiar with his early recordings that preceded his New York appearance?

GOLSON:  Yes, I had heard some.

TP:    But you were somewhat familiar with the compositions and the group.  What did you think?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t sure.  Later, as I got to know Ornette, I called him up and sort of made an appointment, if you will, and I went down, and we talked about it.  I wanted to find out what he was doing before I had… I figured I had no right to an opinion until I actually knew what he was doing.  So I made it a point to go find out what he was doing.  Interesting.  Right after that, we started… In fact, the Jazztet played one of his songs; I can’t remember one.  We tried to interpret it the way he was interpreting it.  And it worked out okay.

Everyone has a right to speak and to have his own voice.  No one should be deprived for what they do.  Whether we choose to like it or not is up to us.  But everyone should have the privilege of speaking.  Voltaire said, “I disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”  That’s how I feel.  No matter how this person or that person who even I feel about it in a negative way, they have the right to do it, and they should go ahead.  That’s the way we move ahead.  Otherwise, everything stays the same, and it becomes more predictable and more predictable.

TP:    But there you were at the Five Spot with a kind of factionalized audience, two new groups, a packed house every night…for how long?

GOLSON:  Both of us stayed there for two weeks, I think it was.  Or a month.  I can’t remember.  But it was longer than a week.  It was interesting.  We had all kinds of people coming in there.  I mean, Leonard Bernstein himself came in.  I don’t think Dizzy came.  John Lewis might have come.  And some other people would have given him support, I guess, by the nature of who they were themselves, showing up there.  And we had people come to see us, too.  It was great.

[MUSIC: Jazztet, “Park Avenue Petite,” “Round Midnight,” “Bean Bag”]

TP:    Coming up are more albums by Benny Golson from 1961 and 1962 while the Jazztet was still working.  The band had a fair amount of success during their couple of years.  I imagine you were booked quite a bit and did a fair amount of travel.  Talk about the course of the group.

GOLSON:  Yeah, in the beginning we did have quite a few bookings, because, honestly, we were new, and with the albums coming out at the time, people were able to hear us, and if they really liked what they heard, then they wanted to see us also.  So we were booked in quite a few places around the States.  We never did go to Europe, though.  But with any group that’s ongoing, things happen indigenously [sic], and it brings about changes sometimes from within the group.  For whatever reason.  It’s inevitable, most of the time.  And we had a change of our trombone player, we changed bass players, drummers and piano players.  The only two that didn’t change were Art Farmer and Benny Golson, I guess!  But everything else around us changed for a certain period of time.

TP:    Did the band begin to open up somewhat?  Certainly on the live album we can hear the format opening up and freeing up some?

GOLSON:  Yeah, it was a bit looser, and Art and I felt a little better.  It was just too organized the first time.  It was all right, and it made its mark, I guess, because it was organized and it was different, and hopefully, it was consequential enough that people thought we had something to say that they wanted to listen to.  But then, you know how it is.  You get used to hearing the same thing, and you feel that you have to make a change.  Everything should never creatively always be the same.

TP:    Is this a conscious thing for you?

GOLSON:  Yes!

TP:    Do you see yourself getting into a rut and say, “I’m going to do something different.”

GOLSON:  Yes.  Not just for the sake of just being different, but for the sake of fulfilling a need within me.  If you just change to change, that’s arbitrary.  But if the change comes about, it should come about in a natural, creative way, just as the substance of what you’re doing comes about in a natural way.  So the changes come about likewise, or the desire for a change comes about in the same natural way.  That’s usually what happens with creative people.  You don’t wear a blue suit one day, and then the next day it’s, “I think I’ll wear a red suit just to attract attention.”  You’ll buy a brown suit because you’re tired of the blue one all the time — that kind of a thing.

TP:    What do you remember about the circumstances of Take A Number From 1 to 10?

GOLSON:  Wondering whether or not the idea was going to come off.  It wasn’t my idea.  It was someone else’s idea.  And yet, I thought it might have possibilities, which is why I did it.  After we finished it, I thought it was consequential enough to have been recorded and to put it out for the public to hear.  It was okay.  I don’t know if I’d do it again.

TP:    Well, it seems like an ideal vehicle for someone whose interests lie so strongly in the areas of composition and arrangement, and who is so serious about your personal sound on the saxophone.

GOLSON:  You’re right.  Starting out with myself, just playing unaccompanied, the spotlight is purely on me, and eventually it lines up to the other part of me, that is, the writing.

TP:    In my brief acquaintance with Benny Golson he’s never expressed any real satisfaction with his tenor saxophone sound, and I’d like to read a comment you made to Nat Hentoff in 1961 from the liner notes.  It may sound familiar to you 35 years later in its sentiment.  You say, “We all go through stages.  There are, after all, so many roads to take.  Now I’m on the right track for myself.  I know what I want to do.  I’ve been working hard during the past year, for example, on an even bigger tone, with more roundness and warmth, even in the extreme high register.  I want to make the whole horn sound warm.  I also want to play melodically instead of just running over the horn, as I was at one time, but I’d still like to have a command of velocity at my fingertips when I need it.  I feel very much better about my playing these days.  At one time I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but I guess it was necessary to try different ways to be sure of my own.”  It sounds like you’ve been consistent in your sentiments over time.

GOLSON:  How long ago was that?

TP:    It’s a 1961 recording.

GOLSON:  I mentioned something about being on the right road.  But you know, roads have a way of wearing thin.  Roads can become a rut.  Really.   I’ve found that out since then!  So even if you’re on the right road one day, you might want to get on another road another day.  And we have to remember, too that today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  So things have to change.  So I said that then, but I wouldn’t say it now!

[MUSIC: From Take A Number From 1 to 10, “The Touch,” “Time”]

TP:    Benny Golson expressed about as enthusiastic a comment as I’ve heard from him on “Time” — that doesn’t sound too bad.  You said you hadn’t listened to it for 25 years.  We’ll hear some quartets from 1961-62.  At this point, in addition to the Jazztet, were you doing a lot of singles, either with a working rhythm section or travelling around the country with pickups?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t doing too much.  We were primarily concentrating on the Jazztet.  But when we signed with Mercury, they signed the Jazztet, and then they signed Art and they signed me as individual artists.  I don’t remember how  many albums we did with the Jazztet, but in addition to that we each did one or two albums — I’m not sure.  One of the notable things about Turning Point is that the rhythm section with me was Miles Davis’ rhythm section at the time, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.  I felt I was stealing just a bit!

TP:    How was it different for you to play as a solo voice than in the more arranged format?  Do you approach your improvisations differently?  Is it simply a matter of having more time to stretch out?

GOLSON:  You hit it right on the head.  If I’m playing with a quartet (not even with a trumpet, which would be a quintet), much more freedom abounds.  If I’m not playing with an arrangement of other instruments around me where I have to fit into slots here and there, if I don’t have backgrounds that have to stay out of the way of me, or I have to rise above them, then I have complete  freedom.  And in a quartet I do.  I can play a melody any way I want to.  If you play it with another instrument, then you both have to play it the same.  So you have to decide how you’re going to play it.  When I’m playing by myself, I might play it this way tonight, I might play it that way tomorrow night.  I might add a little something to it one night… Just complete freedom.  That’s one thing I enjoy about the quartet.  Within reason! [LAUGHS] Provided you’re up to it.

TP:    On Turning Point you have the sublime rhythm section of this period, which brings me to the question of what you’re looking for from the different members of the rhythm section.  In a piano player what are the ideal qualities?

GOLSON:  It’s different things, because individuals have different things to offer.  It’s a matter of what you want to hear.  Do you want to hear what this one is offering.  Do you want to hear what that one is offering?  It’s a terrible thing when you hire a person and you tell them you want them to sound like somebody else.  You hire him because you want to hear what he does.  Either it’s something that you have in mind and he meets your needs, or he has something that appeals to you that you feel you would like to have.  So when you hire them, you hire them with these kinds of things in mind — intuitively. It’s not anything you have to go home and turn off the radio and pull the windows down and think about.  Intuitively, you know these things.

First in a piano player, I am concerned about his feeling for the piano.  A piano is not one instrument.  Literally it is.  But it can function as three different instruments.  It has a distinct sound at the top.  It has a distinct sound in the middle, where most piano players are.  And it has an even more distinct sound at the bottom end.  That bottom end of the piano cannot be duplicated by any of the other instruments in the repertoire of instruments.  He’s down there.  He’s got that to himself.  Solitary air space.  Now, a good piano player knows how to use all of that according to what’s happening at the moment, and can make you feel good and can urge you on to try to best yourself — that’s the kind of piano player you want.

When he’s functioning in these different areas of the keyboard, he has something to say that’s going to not only support you, but encourage you because it sounds so good to you.  I just had that last week.  We were down at Sweet Basil.  These three guys, they had something to say.  And I’ve got to tell you, I felt like playing every night, every set.  That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time.  Because I had three guys who knew what to do.  They knew what to do as individuals.  They knew what to do as a group.  I mean, the things that they did together was as though they had gone out and rehearsed without me, and decided what they were going to do to support me.  It was so together, it was incredible what was happening up there.  And if you can get this, if you can find these kinds of qualities in individuals that you select to be your rhythm section… And the things that I said for the piano basically are the same for the bass and the drums.  It’s just different instruments.  But it’s a matter of having affinity for the instrument, having affinity for each other as a rhythm section, and having affinity for the soloist who is out front.  And if you can get all those things to spark and jibe, if you can get that kind of potential to cross paths with reality, then you’ve got something that’s really noteworthy.

We’re going back in time now.  This rhythm section to me was quintessential.  It was the best, the essence of what one would expect in a jazz rhythm section.  That’s why I chose them.  And Miles had no objection, I must say.  Very nice.  Because he knew what I was going to do!

[MUSIC: “Turning Point,” “Little Karin,” “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over,” “The Best Thing For You Is Me,” “Shades of Stein”]

TP:    “Shades of Stein” refers to Gertrude Stein, and in your conversation we hear many references to philosophy and literature.  Is there any direct relationship you can discuss in terms of your reading vis-a-vis your playing?  Your liner notes are eloquent and very much to the point.

GOLSON:  I’m not an avid reader.  Actually, my wife Bobbie reads more than I do.  Anything that comes from what I read is just casual.  Gertrude Stein happened to appeal to me because of the way she took a phrase and used it over and over, “a rose is a rose…”  I tried to capture that in the melody, because you hear the melody over and over.  It got a little boring.  To make sure it didn’t get too boring, to break away from it, I made the bridge as far out as I could that time.  You could hear where it was going, like up a flight of steps, and the chords were going along with it, and it was a little difficult to play on.  But I think we needed a contrast from that Gertrude Stein influence in the beginning to sort of let it stand out by itself.  The more you do a thing, the less it means, so I broke away from it.

TP:    Is there any implied narrative or story in your compositions, or are they just musical ideas?

GOLSON:  Most of them are just musical ideas.  But what I do try to capture is a meaning in my titles.  I think the title should give one who is about to listen privy to what it is going to be about.  Now, with few exceptions, I’ve done that.  A few times I fell on my face.  I can write a song maybe in a day or two, or in a week, whatever, but I agonize over a title sometimes for two or three weeks or a month, trying to come up with the appropriate title.  When you hear a title, it should be more than a title.  You should be able to step inside, just a little bit — if not into the house, at least into the vestibule, to get out of the cold.

TP:    Improvisers seek their individual voice, and of course the common phrase is to tell your own story, and your antecedents on the tenor saxophone all had their various ways of telling their story.

GOLSON:  Playing your own ideas.  Most of us play our own ideas as best we can.  The reason I say that is because sometimes, intuitively, and depending on where we are in our development and how much we are influenced by the things that surround us… Intuitively many times we will play things that “belong to other people.”  It’s their kind of thing.  It might be a lick.  It might the way something is played, a certain inflection.  The way Sweets Edison takes a note like he’s milking a cow, the half-valve kind of thing.  That’s associated with him.  And the moaning and groaning that he does with the horn.  When I hear it, the first person I think of is Sweets Edison.  But for the most part, most people, with a few exceptions, try to play their own thing.

TP:    Another aspect of this is that for many years (I guess it’s still true, although the way information gets passed along has changed so much) is oral tradition, of listening to people you admire and trying to grapple with their ideas and coming up with your own conclusions based on that, a continuing, ongoing narrative, many voices converging.  You described your process of learning as similar, that you would take solos off records, and study and transcribe.  So I wondered if there were any analogies we could draw between the verbal and musical arts of storytelling.

GOLSON:  It’s very much like storytelling.  Sometimes the words differ, but the essence or meaning is usually the same.  Sometimes extra little words creep in so that the story begins to enlarge and unfold in a different way, so that down the road maybe it doesn’t even resemble the first or the original story.  We do that in our playing sometimes.  Sometimes we modify things that we’ve heard.  Sometimes what we come up with are mutations, if you will, of what we’ve heard.  And sometimes they are merely jumping-off points.  I wouldn’t like to think that people stay there.  The only exception I hear to that now is some tenor players.  John Coltrane has really gotten into their blood, and we don’t always hear their personal voice — we hear shades of John Coltrane.  That’s a great testimony to John Coltrane, but it doesn’t say much for their own development and for their own possible or potential voice.  I think that’s regrettable.  Because it takes away what they would be as a creative source.  We all have something to say, and we say it differently.  And it should be different.  We don’t walk the same, we don’t eat the same kinds of food.  Our habits are different.  The life is different.  So why should we try to clone or become a clone of someone else when we pick up the instrument?  And when we talk about John Coltrane at this point… My goodness, who at this point is going to best John Coltrane, who had years in which to do it?  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  Sit back, listen to it and enjoy it.  Why try to become John Coltrane?  The time could be spent in a better way.

TP:    These quartets mark the last performances by Benny Golson as a solo saxophonist, apart from a few cameos, that we hear from about 1963 to 1980.  It was a real loss to the jazz world not to be able to hear your voice and your story through almost two decades of writing and orchestrating and establishing yourself as a very busy and commercially viable writer and arranger.  The next two tracks show more of the expansion of what you were doing then.  This is called Pop Plus Jazz Equals Swing, and it’s a sort of stereo gimmick album arranged and orchestrated and conducted by Benny Golson from about 1960.

GOLSON:  It was originally recorded on Audiofidelity, which was a label that prided itself in coming up with things that sounded authentic.  They would come up with versions of sounds of trains passing by, glasses breaking, people hammering nails, somebody tap-dancing, firecrackers, those kinds of things.  And a fellow named Tom Wilson, who had the Transition label in Boston, eventually gave it up and settled in New York, and began to produce for different companies, and at the time when we did this, he came into the fold of Audiofidelity.  Stereo had just come out then.  So he came up with a gimmick whereby the stereo could be optimized, and helped people to see really what it was.  And he decided that it would be a good thing to use jazz to do it.  So the way he figured it out, the rhythm section would always sound in the middle, which meant that it was a little each to the right and the left; on the right side it was little to the left and on the left it was a little to the right side.  So it sounded in the middle.  On the right side, I think, he would have a jazz group, and on the left side he would have what’s called a “legit” group with french horns and flutes and a few strings and things like that.  What we would do was come up with standard tunes to be played by the group with the strings and flutes on the left, and on the right side the jazz group would play the figures that had been written on it.  On the song “Whispering,” the legit group would play [SINGS ORIGINAL MELODY] but on the right side, the jazz group was playing “Groovin’ High.”

TP:    A subversive way to hip people to the mechanics of bebop as well.

GOLSON:  Exactly.  He showed what stereo was and how tunes are based on standard.  Same thing with “How High The Moon” with the legit group, and “Ornithology” on the right.  “Moten Swing” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”.  “Out of Nowhere” and “Nostalgia.”  With “Stella By Starlight” we gave a different treatment on the left and the right, but the same song.  We did a blues with the jazz group and “St. Louis Blues” for the legit.  It worked out.  It was an adventure; it worked out.

[MUSIC: “Groovin’ High”/”Whispering”; “Stockholm Serenade,” “Swedish Villa,” “Out of This World,” “Stockholm Sojourn”]

TP:    Here we’ve come from your early arrangements with Dizzy Gillespie to these very involved, multi-layered arrangements for a 23-piece orchestra.  Would you talk about your studies in composition in the eight-year interim?  Was it all pragmatic?  Was it all empirical?  Or did you do some formal study at this time?

GOLSON:  I set out to do some formal study when I went to college, and I was all geared and revved up for it.  But when I got there, it was a little  disappointing for me, because I saw what the students who had gone before me were doing, and I was saying to myself, “Gee, that’s not really what I had in mind.”  I think I mentioned to you last week that when I get to my third year, I had become somewhat of a rebel.  Because when I was studying, we learned all the rules.  All the rules!  The dominant has to go to the tonic.  And I’m saying to myself, “Why?  Why?”  When I did “Killer Joe,” that wasn’t it.  So I started to do things that I knew were wrong.  I’d get the assignment, and I’d break all the rules and take the stuff in — and boy, they’d pull out the whip like Zorro, and just X my assignments in front of the class.  I was belligerent then.  I’d stand up and simply say, “That’s the way I heard it.”  It’s amazing how things can happen like that.  And I have to question: Why does it always have to be the same?  Why can’t it be different?  Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want to?  Why does the dominant always have to go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I mean, I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

TP:    These are the kinds of questions that could only someone who had assimilated the lessons rather well would be inclined to ask.

GOLSON:  So a lot of it was empirical.  I’ll tell you, I got absolutely nothing from there that you would hear in my writing.  It was all empirical, trial-and-error, a priori, from observation, things like that.  Now, I’ll tell you, I had some good teachers.  I listened to people like Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington, and doing more…

TP:    How was Duke Ellington a teacher?

GOLSON:  Oh, the voicings.  Voicing those chords.  Take that baritone off the bottom and put him up at the top there, you get a different sonority.  People think of the baritone as low.  It doesn’t always have to be low.  You can do aberrational things with instruments if you’re familiar with individual sounds and familiar with blend of sounds.  You can get all kinds of things.  Then there are things that you try sometimes that might seem crazy, but you try them anyway.  All you can do is fall on your face.  I mean, no one is going to kill you.  So hopefully, you’ll have a chance to do that again.  Well, I fouled up that time, but the next time… The ballplayer loses the game.  Wait til the next time.  Every day we open our eyes as creative people.  We have to think, “I’ve got another shot at it today.”

TP:    What qualities did Tadd Dameron impart to you?  Of course, you knew him rather well from roadlife with Bullmoose Jackson.

GOLSON:  He was a great dearth writer.  He knew how to use few instruments and get the most out of them to maximize whatever it was they were doing.  With Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse… I said, “How can he get two horns to sound so full like that?”  He got them to sound full because he maximized the instruments who were playing with them, the piano, himself, how he voiced the chords.  Making use of the full drum set.  Not just TINK, TINK-A-TING on the cymbal and the bass drum here and there, but using all of the set.  Because the drums are functional enough to accomplish many things.  The tom-toms accomplish one thing, the snare drum, the hi-hat the ride cymbal, the sticks, the brushes — all of these things make a difference.  The bass.  All these things work.  Then I finally got a chance to meet him, and this guy was an open book.  He didn’t hide anything, and he shared what he knew.  I remember he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington once, and he let me copy it.  I didn’t charge him anything.  Because I was getting a lesson!  As I was copying, I was taking information in.  Well, what did he do here with the third alto?  Or how did he use the baritone?  Well, how did he use the reed section with the brass section?  And how did he voice the trumpets with…? Hey, this was a learning process for me.  So I did a lot of listening.  I eviscerated some things.  I took them apart, laid them out, looked at the component parts.  Why do they work?

And another one that helped me a great deal (he wasn’t even aware of it) was Ernie Wilkins.  This man knew what to do with a big band.  I kid you not. The people don’t know about Ernie Wilkins.  I ran into him in Aarhus, Norway, a few years ago, when he had 12 pieces — he called it his Almost Big Band.  We were on the same bill.  We went to the hotel and we were in the corridor, and I said, “I should let him know this,” and I told him that, and he was astounded.  He said, “Really?”  I said, “Yes, indeed.”  I said, “You have no idea of the times that I took your scores, and looked at them and broke them down.”  This is how you learn.  I didn’t learn it in college.  Today it’s possible.  But during the time I was coming along, it just wasn’t possible.

TP:    Did you take apart the scores of European composers at that time?

GOLSON:  Of course.  It was nothing that would change the cosmic balance of the universe.  But they did know… Everybody talks about Verdi when you talk about opera.  But Giacomo Puccini, he was a much better orchestrator, for my money.  And besides, I found out just a couple of years ago, he used to go around to some of the jazz clubs, so you know he had to be all right!  His orchestrations had much more involved sonorities.  The concept of how he’s using the orchestra.  Background for some of the things, but strong backgrounds.  Verdi was a little flowery for me.  But Puccini sort of rolled his sleeves up and took that pencil up very seriously when he went to work.  Good orchestrations.  They’re using a lot of chords, I-III-V, VI maybe sometimes, minor VIs.  But the way they used them and the sound they got when they used them, you see… When we got to jazz, we just built on things like that.

TP:    Your fondness for opera is something you share with your stylistic mentor, Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  Well, I’ll tell you, I used to hate it until I met my wife, Bobbie.  I really learned to appreciate it through her, as I did ballet and some of the other things.  It’s beautiful.  Some is more beautiful than others.

TP:    What’s becoming apparent is that the musical components that comprise the totality of what you do range from the most functional music that you played for years on the R&B circuit and with Earl Bostic to the very progressive music of the ’40s and ’50s to classical music — all in the pot.

GOLSON:  It gives you insight.  You listen to something like “La Traviata,” and they can almost make you cry, they’re so beautiful, when you hear those voices.  You go from there to rhythm-and-blues to jazz.  She taught me to appreciate Country-and-Western.  Those Country-and-Western tunes will make you get on your knees and cry!

TP:    Well, this is what makes music the magical entity it is, that it can evoke that range of emotion.

GOLSON:  Thank goodness.  Thank goodness that it’s open-ended.  It goes on and on and on.

TP:    But for all those years, you applied all those skills to very functional purposes, in Hollywood and the studio.  You didn’t bring any of the music from this time…

GOLSON:  I thought it would be too boring!  Really.  Episodic music.

TP:    But you were quite successful at it.  You wrote for most of the top Pop singers of the ’60s and ’70s.  The EOJ of the ’70s says you wrote for Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis, Diana Ross, O.C. Smith, for M.A.S.H. and other television shows.  Is there some separation?  How do you go about writing something for these very specific, project-oriented assignments?

GOLSON:  I guess there is a line of definition there.  But sometimes, if you’re adventurous enough, you can blur the line.  You can cross over.  That can be exciting.  We were doing a show once at Universal, maybe It Takes A Thief or Run For Your Life or something.  Tom Scott was in the orchestra; the contractor had called him.  I took the melody of “Stablemates” and I just permutated it a bit, gave it another harmony and lingered on certain notes, and if you didn’t know “Stablemates,” you wouldn’t know what it was.  After the take, Tom was laughing, because he knew “Stablemates”!  You can get away with it.  Music is music.  It doesn’t always have to be the same.

TP:    What’s some of the music that emerged from that which you’re proud of?

GOLSON:   They publish the things, so you don’t come away with them.  I wrote a lot of songs when I was out there, and Universal published them or 20th Century published them.

TP:    You were on salary and they owned the rights…

GOLSON:  No, I wasn’t on salary.  I was for-hire.  I came in and I did the job.  But it was a known fact that they would publish it.  You never discussed it.  the only two people who published their own material were Earl Hagen, who did I Spy, Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, and Henry Mancini.  They were the only two that kept their publishing.  To this day, I don’t know how it happened.  But if I had come out there as a newcomer with my foot in the door, talking about I wanted my publishing…out of town.

TP:    What chain of events led you to Hollywood and putting the saxophone away for as long as you did?

GOLSON:  Quincy Jones.  My ex-roommate in Dizzy Gillespie’s band.  He went out there first, and he told me that Henry Mancini had been trying to make the way open for him.  Then he left.  (We used to live in the same building.)  After he got out there, eventually he called and said, “Well, this is happening, that’s happening, you ought to come out.”  His agent was Peter Faith, who was the son of Percy Faith.  I wasn’t sure.  I took a trip out there,, my wife and I went out, and looked around to see what was going on.  I think we stayed about a week or ten days.  It looked pretty good.  So I came back, and packed up myself, and went out there.  I wanted to be very sure before I pulled up roots here.  I got a little studio apartment.  And I went to work right away!

I got a call from the Goldwyn Studios.  Alex North was doing The Devil’s Brigade with William Holden, and he wanted someone to do some source music.  Alex had called my teacher who had been teaching me weekends, who was at Bennington College, and wanted him to do the source music.  He told him he couldn’t do it, but that one of his students had just moved out there.  That was me.  He wanted me to write some period music.  The source music is not the underscoring for the picture, but if somebody puts a record on, or if there’s a band playing in the place when people come into the club or the restaurant.  That’s period music, but not the underscoring for the action and emotions and drama of the film.  So there was quite a bit of period music.  I think I wrote a gavotte; for some reason, it went back that far.  I had to do a Dixieland thing.  And I did a George Shearing type thing and some other things.  This was known as source music.  And many times, depending upon the stature of the composer, he will assign the source music to other composers and just concentrate on the music for the film.  Well, I had just gotten out there.  What could I demand?  No, I don’t want source music; I want a feature film!  This was a way of getting people to know you and know your work, and so I did it.

Eventually, through Quincy, I got into Universal.  As a matter of fact, I got the same agent, Peter Faith.  He was really in at Universal, so Universal is the first studio I began to work at.  At the time I got there they had just put together a new show with Robert Wagner called It Takes A Thief.  Now, Dave Grusin was already there, and he had written the theme for the show, but he was busy doing some other things, and they needed someone to write the music for the show.  He had done the first one, which they premiered, and I started on the second show.  And it worked out all right.  They said, “Do you want another one?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So I did the third show… It went on like that.

TP:    It keeps building up.

GOLSON:  Yes.  Eventually I went out to 20th Century Fox, who had a new show starting out.  Jerry Goldsmith, who became a good friend, had written the theme for it, and they didn’t have anybody to do the show.  They asked me if I wanted to do it.  So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  So I did Room 222.  And Johnny Mandel had already done the theme for M.A.S.H.  Now, they had had some composers from before, but they wanted something a little different.  I was out there with Room 222, so…

TP:    So you were a new sound, which was why producers wanted your services.

GOLSON:  Maybe so.  Anyway, I went to work also on M.A.S.H.  I did Room 222 for two-three years, and M.A.S.H.  I did for three years.  That was a great show.  And I got to know the people on the show, like Alan Alda.  They’re real people.  So it was really nice working out there.  They didn’t put any pressure on me.  At Universal, the pressure was always  on.  I was beginning to feel like a humpback in the back room, working from early morning until late at night.  You’d get to the middle of the show, and they’d call you: “Do you have Reel 3 done yet?”  You’re on Reel 2, you haven’t gotten to Reel 3.  “But we need it.”  The pressure was always on.

TP:    Why did you put down the horn?  Or did you entirely put it down?

GOLSON:  Yes, I did.

TP:    you didn’t play it at all.

GOLSON:  I didn’t play it at all.  I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.

TP:    It must have hurt you.

GOLSON:  No, it didn’t.  Because at that time I did not like the way I was sounding on it.  So it wasn’t too hard for me to put it down.  But a strange thing happened.  In those 7-8 years I didn’t play it, the thinking process was working, and strangely enough, when I did finally pick it up again, I did not sound the way I sounded when I put it down, though I had not actually been playing it.  So the thinking process does help sometimes, along with the practice of playing, of course.

TP:    What caused you to pick it up again?  We’ll hear records from 1980-81.

GOLSON:  That’s around when I picked it up again.  It was a little frustrating, though, because I picked it up and I didn’t sound the way I sounded before, but I did not know how I wanted to sound then — not entirely.

TP:    Had you been listening a lot to music in the previous decade?

GOLSON:  Constantly.

TP:    And what was your impression of the music in the ’70s?

GOLSON:  Interesting.  Interesting and moving forward.  It should always move forward.  Because we had new blood coming.  We had people who you never heard before, coming out from Wokonomac, Wisconsin, and from Iron Mountain, Michigan, places you never heard of, coming onto the scene, and they had their own voices and things to say.  And some of them represented great potential.  Since that time, many of them have gone to become big names in jazz.  This was all happening.  It was fertile.

TP:    What impressed you of the electric music, the fusion of the period?

GOLSON:  Some of the things impressed me.  But all in all, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.  But I didn’t decry it.  I didn’t put it down.  I didn’t vilify any of the players.  It just wasn’t for me.  Some of the things were interesting.  To this day, I like some of the things.  I like some of the Rock-and-Roll, some of the Rhythm-and-Blues.  Oh yeah.  Consequential things.

[MUSIC: BG-Fuller, “California Message”; w/ Bu, “City Bound,” “Just By Myself,” “I Remember Clifford”]

TP:    Do you remember when you first heard Clifford Brown?

GOLSON:  Yeah.  It was in a club in south Philadelphia, Broad and Lombard Street.  I remember the name of the hotel above the club — the Douglas Hotel.  I don’t remember the name of the club, but I remember one of its features.  It began with a matinee on Monday, 4 to 7.  You opened with a matinee, and then you played that night from 9 until 1, four sets.  I heard him there with an entertaining group, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames.  They sang these little songs and had their choreography, even if it was only moving from side to side and the music had a beat that kind of appealed to the people — it wasn’t a swing kind of thing.  The aberration was Clifford Brown.  He joined in, he was a part of all this, but when he started to play his solo, he stepped out there in solitary air space by himself.  High above the circle of the earth; that’s where he was.  It was so distinct and it was so good, even the people who liked the entertaining quality of the group were aware that this fellow had special ability.  And he did.

TP:    How would you reconstruct his sound of the time?

GOLSON:  Like Fats Navarro, but more Clifford Brown.  I mean, he wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of Fats Navarro, but he was out of that school.  It was more than Fats; it was different.  He had a fat sound.  He was maybe a bit more fiery and a bit more daring because he came after Fats, so some of the things he did were based on newer things, and he was searching for things in the chords and how to put things together.  So it was very exciting to hear him play.  What eventually happened with that group, not only did people come to hear Chris Powell sing those songs and what it was that they did; they came to wait for these solos by Clifford Brown.  That’s when he started to be known, while he was with Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames.  It was a complete anomaly, his being with that group.  That’s how he began to be known, with that group.  Of course, he soon left after that.

He lived 30 miles from Philadelphia, in Wilmington, Delaware.  So we weren’t together, oh, every day and through the week like John and I were.  But he would come to Philadelphia quite often, because compared with Wilmington, Philadelphia was the place to be.  South of Wilmington, the next place further than Philadelphia, was Baltimore and then Washington.  So Philadelphia was a lot closer, and there was actually more happening in Philadelphia.  So he was there quite often for the jam sessions and gigs and whatnot, and we got to know each other pretty well.  Later, of course, in 1953, we both joined Tadd Dameron’s band in Atlantic City, and we were together almost every day there.

TP:    Was he consistently creative player from night after night?

GOLSON:  I’m sure in his own mind he had his inconsistencies.  But as a listener, yes, he was consistent!

TP:    You’ve told the story of your friendship with John Coltrane in many places, and two weeks ago you spoke of meeting him in 1945.

GOLSON:  I was 16.  He had just gotten out of the Navy.

TP:    You spoke of hearing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas in one of the Philly theaters in 1945, and he brought “Stablemates” to Miles Davis in 1955.  But This is For You, John is a tribute recording, and in the liner notes you relate some telling anecdotes about his practice habits, about his passion for the horn.  You recollect the first time you heard play saxophone, on a job with Eddie Vinson where the tenor player walked off…

GOLSON:  Eddie Vinson had come to town, and he was working the Eastern Seaboard — New York (and probably Chicago), Washington, Baltimore, maybe even Philadelphia.  At that time, he decided he would get a band from the East Coast.  John was one of the players playing alto saxophone.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player.  I can’t remember who else was in that band.  But they were all from Philadelphia.  They were playing a job in Philadelphia or Delaware or someplace like that, and Louis Judge, the tenor player he’d hired, had an argument with Eddie.  He was pretty fiery.  Right after the argument, they went on intermission, the half-hour intermission.  Then it was time to come back (it was a dance type of thing), and Louis, pouting, did not come back.  He wasn’t going to come back right away; he was going to punish Eddie.  And all of the musicians left their horns laying on the chair when they went out.  They came back, John picked his alto up, and Louis was nowhere to be found.  So they began without him.  Eddie had this particular song that had a tenor solo.  Eddie played alto himself and John played alto; the only tenor player in the group was Louis.  And for some reason, he wanted the tenor solo!   The tenor solo was coming up, and still no Louis.  So Eddie looked over to John and said, “Play Louis’ horn.”  John was a little reticent about doing that.  Eddie said, “No, play his horn; I want a tenor solo.”  So John picked the horn up (this was the first time he’d ever played tenor, you know) and he began to play.  Strangely enough, he didn’t sound like an alto player.  He sounded like Dexter Gordon, or from that school.  And it sounded so good, he was playing so much stuff, wherever Louis was, he came running to the bandstand.  “Give me my horn!”  He didn’t want anybody playing like that!  He would really lose the gig!

And John liked it.  I remember he told me,  “I tried it, I liked it,” and the next thing you know, he had gone and bought a tenor saxophone.  The tenor sax was kind of a novelty to him.  He ended up working with a former member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, from Philadelphia also, named Johnny Lynch, a trumpet player, and they were working at a skating rink every week in South Philadelphia on Broad Street.  It might have been the E-Lite(?) Ballroom.  It was a three-hour concert every Sunday afternoon.  John would bring the tenor, and he might play one number on it.  He was primarily an alto player.  Then as time went by, he was playing more numbers on it.  And after a while, he was playing tenor and lot equally.  As time went further on, he was playing more on the tenor and less on the alto.  And finally, he sold the alto.  He was a tenor  player.  He loved the sound of the tenor saxophone.  So that’s how it got started.

He went through phases, just as Picasso went through his periods of squares and cubes… He went through phases on the saxophone, trying to find out who he wanted to be, what he wanted to sound like.  So Dexter disappeared.  I ran into him when he was working with a fellow named Gay Crosse out in Cleveland, Ohio.  I was with another rhythm-and-blues band, and I went by the hotel room where he and Specs Wright were playing.  Specs was practicing on the practice pad, keeping the rhythm, and he was playing his horn.  I noticed he sounded a little different.  Each time I heard him, he was a little different.  Because he was finding himself on the tenor saxophone.  I think he was constantly doing that, right up until the end.  At the same time, he was putting all these things together, the chords and… He was a person who practiced all the time, that Spartan-like practice, like a person who had no talent — and he had an abundance of talent.  So you hook that up, a person who had an abundance of talent and who practiced all the time, you’re going to get something pretty redoubtable!  And he was.  And he became that.  As I heard him, boy, he was awesome.

One thing led to another, and eventually, Philly Joe left town to join Miles, and Hank Mobley was leaving at the time, and Miles asked Philly did he know any tenor players in Philly.  Philly told him, yes, he knew a tenor player, and Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “His name is John Coltrane.”  Of course, Miles had never heard of him, so he asked him (he wanted to be sure) “Can he play?”  And Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He nonchalantly said, “Yeah, he can play.”  John joined the band, and… Did I tell this two weeks ago?  Anyway, he eventually brought “Stablemates” to him and Miles recorded it.

TP:    Let me take a detour here, and ask about your good friendship with Jimmy Heath in the 1940s.  He was perhaps the most advanced of you in the 1940’s, with the big band.

GOLSON:  He was, definitely.  Jimmy was only 19 years old and I was about 16, John was 18.  And this guy, Jimmy Heath, had the ability to play chords.  We were still struggling, still spelling, A, B, C… He had the ability to play chords.  Until this day, I don’t think I’ve heard Jimmy Heath play a wrong chord.  He is fantastic with those chords!  Anyway, he was into it!  And John came to town, and he heard about Jimmy, because they were both playing alto at that time.  John was sounding like Johnny Hodges.  Jimmy had heard Charlie Parker, and he was trying to sound like that.  John eventually met him, and when he came to my house again he said, “Oh, I met Jimmy Heath; boy, he’s a crazy cat” — which meant he was all right, he was really on it!  Eventually, Jimmy formed a big band, a 15-piece band.  Boy, I’ve got to tell you, those seats were coveted.  But somehow, John and I made it. [LAUGHS] Because we weren’t playing that great.  We finally made it.  I was playing fourth tenor.  A fellow named Sax Young was playing second tenor.  He had most of the solos.  I was coming along.  John was playing third alto, and a fellow named Duke Joiner was playing lead alto.  I forget who was playing baritone sax.  Then we had some other guys in the band.  Jimmy was writing some of the music, then I started trying to write and John started trying to write.  Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  Hen Gates (James Forman) was playing piano.  Specs Wright was playing drums.  It was really sounding great.  Everybody wanted to be in that band.  We were so happy because we were in the band.  To this day I call Jimmy “boss” whenever I see him, because of that band.  Whenever I call him, I say, “Hey, boss!”  We were talking about that the other day.  I called him on his birthday, as a matter of fact, about three or four days ago.

We rehearsed a lot.  We had a vocalist.  But we didn’t work too often.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the group.  Because these were young kids, and the band was sounding good.  Johnny Acea, who was an arranger living in New York, was from Philly, and he wrote some things, and there was another arranger from Philly named Leroy Lovett, big-time arranger, writing stuff for Nat Cole and everything, and he was writing things and giving it to us.  We were in a privileged position.  But the band never really took off.  We were trying to get a booking agent like Shaw or ABC or Glazer or somebody to take us, but it never happened.  I guess people just didn’t have faith in these kids.  Eventually the band broke up.  But it was a good experience.

TP:    Had we another hour or two past 7, I’d quiz him more about Philadelphia in the ’50s, but we don’t.  The next recording pairs him with Pharaoh Sanders.  This is the only “tenor battle” I can think of.

GOLSON:  I’ll tell you how this came about.  I knew John at the beginning.  At the very beginning, we became good friends.  Now, Pharaoh met him later along, when he became the John Coltrane.  And for me, Pharaoh is the one who comes closest to what John Coltrane was all about.  We’re not talking about the velocity and running all over the horn.  I’m talking about the sound and the way he projected and the way he could play one note, like John, and lay you out.  One note!  I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a tribute to John, play a couple of the tunes that he played, with me as one who knew him early on, and Pharaoh, who knew him later in his development.  We put the date together, and we came up with This is For You, John.

[MUSIC: BG-Pharaoh, “Times Past: This Is For You, John”]

TP:    Were you listening to John Coltrane’s music throughout the ’60s?  Did you keep up with everything he did before he died?

GOLSON:  Well, not everything.  But I listened to him, of course.  He had a lot to say.  We had to listen to him.

TP:    Did you keep in touch personally throughout?

GOLSON:  From time to time.  Not as much as we did earlier, of course, because our paths were going in different directions and our music wasn’t the same either.  But we did see each other from time to time.  We would always recall some of the things that happened earlier-on as young teenagers.  He came down to see me at the Five Spot.  We were on intermission.  I saw him coming across the street, and he had this cigar, and he’d put on a little weight.  I said, “Wow!”  He said, “Man, I’m taking Metrecal but nothing is happening.”  I didn’t think much of it.  Then finally I said, “Well, how are you taking it?”  He said, “Well, I eat my meal and then I drink a Metrecal.”  I started laughing!  No weight loss.

TP:    We’ll hear recordings from 1986 and 1988, one for a studio date with Freddie Hubbard and one with the reconfigured Jazztet.  You mentioned earlier that for the second incarnation of the Jazztet, you made the arrangements less restrictive, more freedom for the soloists.  Did this inspire new writing for you?  Was it a project you could devote new energies to?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I came to appreciate that less means more.  Or, to look at it from another view, the more you do a thing, the less it means.  So that’s what I did, and we felt better about it.  Writing evolves just like playing does, or any other creative thing.  My writing started to take a turn.  I did a thing on one of those sessions called “Vas Simeon,” which had no form to it at all, no form whatsoever, but yet we had to blow on it.  So for the blowing part, I constructed a little area of chords that we would blow on, and once that was over, we went back to this nondescript kind of thing as far as form was concerned.  It was so different than what I had written theretofore, that the piano player, Mickey Tucker, said to me, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”

[MUSIC: BG-Freddie, “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing”; Jazztet, “Vas Simeon,” C. Fuller 5, “Love, Your Spell Is Everywhere”]

TP:    The next recording is a special project, based on the Brandenberg Concertos.

GOLSON:  I didn’t defile Bach at all.  I have to say that.  Because the solos are not based on things he wrote; those things were added.  It’s another project that wasn’t my idea, but a very interesting one.  When they proposed it, it seemed like a challenge, which I accepted.  I had heard Bach all of my life.  But this time I had to eviscerate him.  I had to really look at what he was doing.  Because I knew I had to come up with things in addition to what he had written, and yet these things couldn’t sound arbitrary, like they were just picked up and tacked on to it.  They had to sound like part of the whole tapestry.  So it had to be in the style or concept or feeling that he had.  When I wrote these things, I remember, for the first person I played it to, it went into a section I had written, and they mentioned Bach, as though he had written it.  That let me know that I was on the right track.  I said, “No, that’s mine.”  But it had to be that way, otherwise it would be neither fish nor fowl.

Now, he had a certain number of instruments when he did the Brandenberg Concerti.  This CD represents about half of them.  I added some horns he didn’t have, and I added some female voices which he didn’t have.  So I had to write original parts for the voices that would go with his things, and I had to assign these additional instruments things to play, and it had to be in keeping with what he had done, and the transitions going into the jazz had to work, too.  So all these things represented a challenge.

[MUSIC: Brandenberg #1 w/ Mulgrew, Art Farmer, Rufus Reid, Smitty]

TP:    Here’s another selection from the private archive, dedicated to Bessie Smith.

GOLSON:  This is from last April.  NPR called me and asked me to compose a composition in tribute to Bessie Smith for her 100th birthday.  It didn’t have to be too long, and for solo piano.  I told them I thought I could do it.  After about a week I came up with this.  We hired Bill Mays, who was my pianist while we were in California, to do this.  They played it, and they sent me a copy.  The voice you hear will be Odetta, who narrated it.

TP:    You mentioned last week that you listened to a lot of blues as a kid, that it was played in the house a lot, and that some of your earliest experiences may have been listening to Bessie Smith and the classic blues.

GOLSON:  I had no choice.  And two of my uncles played piano similar to what you’re going to do here.  Not quite as well, though. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC:  “Bessie and Me”]

TP:    Now some selections for the Benny Golson Quintet for Dreyfus, an in-studio date with new arrangements of previously recorded material.  I’d like to talk about reprising and reworking older material.

GOLSON:  “Domingo” is what we’ll hear.  I wrote it for a date for Lee Morgan, maybe his first or second.  It’s one of those tunes that was recorded and never even played again; it continued to live on the album.  Many years went by, and I never thought about the tune any more.  Many years later, Phineas Newborn recorded it.  Geoff Keezer played it for me, and I went, “Hey, how about that,” but I still didn’t think about it.  Then Mulgrew Miller knew about it and he said, “Hey, you ought to start playing this tune again.”  Then James Williams said the same thing.  I said, “Well, maybe I should!”  The style didn’t change too much.  The concept, the solos may be a bit different because time has moved on.

TP:    Is that how it is with most of your older material.  You have so many classics of the jazz lexicon, so I’d imagine just to keep yourself interested… Do you try to put little twists and turns in and update arrangements, or do you hew to the older version?

GOLSON:  No.  Even as a composer, they’re not sacrosanct.  I feel compelled to do something a little different.  I’m of the opinion that things should not always remain exactly the same.  In classical music they do, and the only difference is the quality of the performance, the conductor and the tempos.  But jazz is different.  We can express the same thing in so many different ways.  It’s a real adventure, and I’m privileged to be a part of it!

[MUSIC: “Domingo”]

TP:    A woman called as that was playing and asked me to ask you: If you were listening to yourself blind over the air, how would you know it’s your tune?  What are the distinctive characteristics by which you recognize your compositions?

GOLSON:  I don’t know if she meant if I’m playing it or if it’s just my composition?  If I’m playing it, it’s just like hearing my own voice.  I know my style.  But if it’s my composition and someone else is playing it, there are lots of parallels.  It’s like hearing your mate’s voice.  When you hear that voice, you know it’s his or hers in a crowd.  You can pick it out.  Sometimes you even know the smell of your mate.  He or she can cough in a crowd, and you can identify them by the cough.  You can see a bunch of children playing, and they’re making lots of noise, they’re rambunctious, and yet, with your back turned you can tell whether or not your kid is there if he’s joining in with his voice.  There are lots of parallels.  You can tell the way a person walks from the rear that it’s him or her, if you know them really well.

It’s the same thing with music. The structure, as you said.  Yes, you know the structure.  You know the very nature of the song.  You don’t even have to hear the melody.  Before they get back to the melody again, you know it’s yours.  It might sound complicated, but it’s extremely easy.

TP:    I think an implication of the question is, what are some of the salient aspects of the Benny Golson writing style and, perhaps also, the improvisational style, since you function as a composer-improviser?

GOLSON:  Saliently, it would be the structure, the very nature of the tune.  What chord follows what chord.  Which determines the structure or the concept of the tune.  The melody is the same thing.  You have one note, you have nothing.  You have nothing of any consequence until you get the second note.  You’ve got the beginning of a melody.  The first note doesn’t mean a thing.

TP:    So it’s how you get from Point A to Point B that makes Benny Golson Benny Golson.  Do you see your identities as composer and improviser as separate, as related, as sometimes separate and sometimes… Certainly, there’s sometimes an element of spontaneous composition in the act of improvising.

GOLSON:  Always separate for me.  When I’m playing, I don’t think about the writing.  When I’m writing, conversely, I don’t think about the playing.  The two never meet.

TP:    Do you have to clear your head, or is that just the way it is?

GOLSON:  No, it’s just natural.  I pour myself into each aspect, totally.

I got a Guggenheim fellowship last year, and under their aegis I will be writing another symphony, a second symphony.  The first was a combination of the jazz thing and this, but this will be straight-out classical.  Don’t know where I’m going.  I have my premise, I’ve done my research, and all I have to do is translate these things into music.  Haven’t written a note, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading a lot of books, and when I get ready to put pen to paper, hopefully things will happen.  And I’ve been commissioned to write a new ballet by a ballet company in Columbus called Ballet-Met.  I’ve been out there, I’ve talked with them, they have great facilities.  They’ve got two studios that look like airplane hangars.  It’s incredible.  Their facility takes up a whole block.  People in New York would kill for that. [ETC.]

[-30-]

Benny Golson Musician Show (2-7-96):

TP:    When we started running down the musicians on whom we wanted to focus, the first you mentioned was Lucky Thompson.  Most of this show will be devoted to tenor players from the Coleman Hawkins school – Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Hawkins — who are the people who pulled you in when you were beginning and feeling your oats on the tenor.

GOLSON:  Lucky sort of grew out of Don Byas, that school of thought Don seemed to come up with, a former alto player.  Lucky’s approach was even smoother.  He tended to flow one thing into another.  He would come at melodies from different angles; he had a good knowledge of chords.  Though he’s still alive, I have to say “had,” because he is no longer playing.  What we’re about to play is one of the last things he recorded before he bowed out  It was so good, it’s one of the best things I ever heard from him.  I heard it a few months ago, a friend had it, and I was taken aback.

TP:    When did you first hear him play, become aware of him?

GOLSON:  It had to be ’53, or something like that.  I heard him after I heard Don Byas.  And although the styles were similar, oxymoronically, they were different at the same time.  He says some of the same things that Don used to say, but in a slightly different way.  They’re from the same musical neighborhood and concept, so to speak.

TP:    You referred to Don Byas a converted alto saxophonist.  Do you feel that his having played alto saxophone first had a significant impact on his style as a tenor saxophonist?

GOLSON:  I’m not sure, but I suspect that he did.  He sings in his melodies when he plays like a lead alto.  If you listen closely on his ballads, he sings those melodies like Charlie Parker used to sing the melodies.  Singing in the sense that he’s pouring out his heart, almost vocally, through the saxophone, through the sound of the saxophone.  That’s what we used to call “singing.”  That’s the way Don played his melodies.  Now, Lucky didn’t play his melodies quite the same.  If you played them back to back, you might be able to hear that.

TP:    Eddie Lockjaw Davis said in an interview that Don Byas was able to incorporate the ideas that Art Tatum was playing in his left hand on the saxophone, and was one of the very few who had the technique to be able to realize that.  What do you make of that?  We know he was very influenced by Tatum and had tons of Tatum records?

GOLSON:  Well, I’d have to say he was ambidextrously talented, because he not only played what he played in the left hand, he played quite a bit of what he played in the right hand, too.

TP:    Well, it’s a literal quote.  But he did have prodigious technique, and was a saxophonist from the ’30s who was really respected by the young generation who came up after World War II.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Let me tell you, I happened to be talking about him with Harry Sweets Edison, and Sweets said to me, “When Chu Berry was in town we used to have jam sessions, and Chu would always want to get with Don.”  I said, “What was the outcome when they’d get together?”  I can’t repeat verbatim, but he said Don did him in each time.  And Earl Bostic used to tell me about him; he would go to the sessions, and nobody could keep up with him, I guess other than Earl Bostic himself, who was really quite the technician.  Oh yeah, he could play.

TP:    And also in 1944, when Dizzy Gillespie went on 52nd Street and Charlie Parker was in Kansas City, he hired Don Byas for the front line.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    When did you first hear Don Byas?  I believe you saw Dizzy and Bird in  person for the first time in ’45 in Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  It was ’45, yes.  We were sort of getting into that… When I say “we,” we who were aspiring professionals.  Ray Bryant was at that concert.  John Coltrane and I went together.  I think Jimmy Heath was there in the first row with some other piano player from Philly, locally.  When we heard this concert, it literally changed our lives.  We could feel something happening to us inside that we’d never felt before.  Because not only were we hearing a fantastic performance, we were hearing a kind of music that we had never, ever heard before.  You have to imagine the impact on 16- and 18-year kids.  That’s what we were.  All the way home, we were “supposing” and “if.”  We were looking into the future.  We wanted to know what that music was all about, really.  And I am still trying to find out what it’s all about.  Because music is open-ended.  You never really complete it.  You never finish it.  It’s malleable, you reshape it and you put it here and you put it over there and you add something to it, and it continues to grow.  Even the styles… How can I say it?  Today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  That’s because Jazz in particular has such a forward motion to it, it’s always evolving out of itself and it’s moving forward, so that the styles that are great today might be a little dated tomorrow, but it doesn’t go into obscurity.  You just move it over on the shelf and make room for the newer things.

TP:    And the day after tomorrow, it may be fresh again.

GOLSON:  Well, the future is always a second away or so.  So as we move forward in the stream of time, and making time our confederate, we indefatigably move ahead with it — if we are truly creative.  And that’s what we do.  No musician that I know of is ever completely satisfied.  I mean, I’ve heard Dizzy play, and Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane.  And when you’d talk to them, you’d always hear, “I think I could do it better if I had done so-and-so.”  And you’re saying, “What?”  It’s a relative thing.  No matter where we are, what strata, what level we’re at in ability, we’re always stretching.  We’re never satisfied.  We’re always reaching.  That’s part of the adventure.

[MUSIC:  Lucky Thompson, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Blue and Boogie” (1970)]

GOLSON:  Unfortunately, on “Blue and Boogie,” the sound was not quite right.  He must have been a little disappointed with that.  But the performance was good, what he was playing was fine, but the sound was a little constricted.  That wasn’t really his sound.  I know his sound.  It’s one of those things that’s happened to me; it’s happened to many of us from time to time.

I guess the next thing you’re going to play is “52nd Street Theme” with Dizzy and Don Byas.  When I heard this, during that time the saxophone players were playing kind of smooth and mellow and flowing.  The tongue didn’t touch the reed too often.  It was just the style.  So here comes Don, with great articulation… You notice the way he plays, especially when he goes into the bridge, and you notice that he’s playing wide intervals.  The notes are far apart.  He’s not going smoothly, like going up a pair of steps or down a pair of steps.  It’s tantamount to skipping steps, jumping down steps, jumping up steps, over the notes.  He knew his horn that well, you’ll notice, as he plays what he does.

[MUSIC: Byas-Diz, “52nd Street Theme”; Byas, “Candy,” “How High The Moon”]

TP:    That reflected in many ways what was happening on 52nd Street at the time, the mixture of musicians of different sensibilities and eras, and playing a song that was the anthem of the young beboppers… Benny pointed out that he wanted to hear Don Byas’ break when he went into the bridge.

GOLSON:  That “52nd Street Theme” is notable because it epitomized what was happening musically at that time.  You’ll notice, as you listen to some of those things, the rhythm was kind of boom-changy, which was sort of a reflection from the past.  Keep in mind that when this music started…oh, whenever they started… I’m not sure exactly when it started but I heard it in 1945.  When I say “they,” I’m referring to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  And when we first heard them in Philadelphia live, we weren’t even sure who Charlie Parker was when they first started to play.  But they had Slam Stewart on bass, I think Big Sid Catlett was on drums and Al Haig was playing piano.  We didn’t realize then that the rhythm section hadn’t caught up with what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing.  On some of those early things, Bird and Diz were hitting it hard, in this new direction, but the rhythm section was lagging a little bit behind.  Later on they got with it, with Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and some of the others.

TP:    What exactly were they lacking?

GOLSON:  they were lacking the spirit of the new concept that Bird and Diz had come up with.  Of course, jazz had existed before Bird and Diz were playing what they played, so they were playing  what they knew best, what they used to play before Diz and Bird came on the scene with this epochal music.

TP:    What did they add rhythmically?

GOLSON:  Well, on that tune you hear the bass drum on every beat.  BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  That doesn’t happen so much now.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  Now when the bass drum is played, it’s played a little lightly, and when you accent certain things, then it means something.  But if you have it BOOM-BOOM’ing all the time, then you really  have to hit it hard, and it would be overwhelming.  Things like that.  The bass selection of notes, the notes then on the bass were thumps, THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.  You played them, and they died immediately.  I call it the rubber band sound.  You hear Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Rufus Reid, they play those notes like they don’t want to die.  They ring fully until the finger touches the string to play the next note.  They ring.  They fill up.  It gives you a different feeling when you’re playing with these kind of players, too.  And it makes the music sound different.

TP:    Now, when you were a kid, listening to this for the first time, going to the Earle Theater to hear Bird and Dizzy, what kind of records  were you listening to and assimilating?

GOLSON:  I was listening to Lionel Hampton.  Arnett Cobb, he was my hero.  He was the one that was responsible for me picking up the tenor saxophone.  That’s where we were.  If anyone knows about the Lionel Hampton groove on “Flyin’ Home,” to me, that was the epitome of saxophone playing.  That was the epitome of what a big band could do other than Duke Ellington.  I didn’t understand everything he was doing, but I knew it was something unusual, and I liked it.  But I liked Lionel Hampton better at that time.  It just had a certain spirit for me.  I was coming into it not really knowing much about jazz, and it was one of the things that first struck my fancy.

TP:    How did you pick up on the new bebop records?  Was it word-of-mouth among your peer group?  You heard it on jukeboxes?  On the radio?  How did you become aware of it?

GOLSON:  It was the strangest thing.  By accident, really, there was a place in Philadelphia that sold used records, records which had been played on the jukeboxes.  It was 78’s.  Though they were only 37 cents brand-new, you could go and buy these used records for a dime apiece!  I saw this thing, the very first one was “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time.”  I’d never heard of Miles Davis.  I’d never heard of this fellow called Charlie Parker.  Only 10 cents!  I figured, after all, I couldn’t lose anything.  So I bought it.  And I took it home, and I put it on, and I listened to it — and it was the strangest music.  Had I wasted my dime?  It was quite unlike the things I had been hearing before.  But the more I played it, the more I began to like, not really understanding what it was all about.  So in the middle of all of this, I got a chance to hear Bird and Diz, not even really knowing who Bird was.  This guy dressed in a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him — it looked like he was going to explode in it!  And when he bent over to make that 4-bar break in “A Night In Tunisia,” I almost fell out of the balcony.  John and I were grabbing at each other.  We’d never heard anybody play like that before.

TP:    Did he have a big-big sound, Charlie Parker?

GOLSON:  Yes, he had a big sound.  And the things that he played… John Coltrane was playing alto at that time.  He was into Johnny Hodges!  That’s where he was.  I was into Arnett Cobb.  And to hear Charlie Parker come out and play that 4-bar break by himself… Man, we were going crazy!  What was this all about?  How could we get close to this music?

But there was another fellow who came along.  I had been into Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster and Arnett Cobb.  He was such an aberration.  He was so different  that he drove me out of my mind, too, and it was the next recording you’re going to play by Diz — “Blue and Boogie.”  When I heard him play…I’m repeating myself.  Inside I was going crazy, my emotions.  Because it sounded so great, so good to me… it’s like meeting the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life or something like that.  It got me, and it started to change my concept about the saxophone.  It helped me to move on.  I told him that once.  He laughed.  I said, “It’s true!”

TP:    Talk about the advances that Dexter Gordon brought to the tenor saxophone vocabulary.

GOLSON:  It was just his approach to it.  Actions speak louder than words… If you just put it on and let the audience hear it… Some will already remember it anyway.  But they will hear that what we’ve just played is totally different.  He’s going in another direction, and I wanted to go along with it.

[MUSIC: Diz-Dex, “Blue and Boogie”; Bird-Diz, “Dizzy Atmosphere”; Bird-Diz-Byas, “Sweet Georgia Brown”]

GOLSON:  When Dexter Gordon came along with that style… Oh, it doesn’t amaze me about him any more, so much has happened since then.  But at that time, no one had played like that before him.  So it had quite an impact, first of all on the musicians, and maybe even some of the people who listened to it.  But it affected so many musicians… Let me tell you what happened.  John was playing alto, and he had begun to play like Charlie Parker after that concert I told you about, in which he and Dizzy were playing together.  He was playing I think in Eddie Vinson’s band.  In that band, there was a tenor player.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player, because Eddie had come to the East Coast for a string of dates up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and he used all Philadelphia musicians to do these jobs with him.  The tenor player and Eddie had a falling-out, so when the time came for intermission, he laid his horn on the chair (as all of us did for the half-hour intermission), and when it was time to come back, everybody came back except the tenor player, who I guess was pouting.  Nobody knew where he was.  Well, Eddie had to go on playing, so they played whatever this tune was, and in this tune was a tenor solo coming up, so Eddie told John to pick up Louis’ horn.  John was a little reluctant.  He said, “No, pick it up and play it!”  So John picked it up.  And when he picked it up and started to play, who do you think he sounded like?  He sounded like Dexter Gordon.  Not Charlie Parker.  He adopted a new mental attitude for the tenor saxophone.  It sounded so good… I wasn’t there, but Johnny Coles told me about it.  Wherever Louis Judge was, he came running up to the bandstand.  He felt that his career and his job was in jeopardy, and he said, “Give me my horn!”  But John had had a taste of it, and that’s what prompted him to buy a tenor saxophone.  That’s how it happened.  And he started playing tenor saxophone sort of as a novelty, and then what eventually happened, the alto began to fade into the background and he became a tenor player.  Like with lots of other alto players — Jimmy Heath, Don Byas, George Coleman; many of them were alto players.

But Charlie Parker, I have to go back to him again.  Although he was an alto player, and on that concert where I first heard him, my idol was on that concert, Don Byas… But when the concert was over, and after John and I went back and got the autographs (you know how kids are), we found ourselves following Charlie Parker up the street.  We followed him for blocks.  And John was carrying his horn on the left and I was on his right, like kids.  “Mister Parker, how do you do this?” and “What is this?” and “What is..>”  I guess we drove the man crazy, until he got where he was going; he was on his way to the Downbeat club, which was about four blocks from the concert hall, and we were too young to get into the club, so he left us there — maybe he was glad too get away from us!  “Okay, kids, keep up the good work.”  It was up on the second floor.  And we spent the rest of the night just standing outside, listening to this new music being played by Charlie Parker, who was being featured with the local rhythm section, who was Red Garland, Philly Joe and Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  We didn’t know any of them at the time.

TP:    In 1945.

GOLSON:  Yeah, we were kids.  They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them.  We wanted to know them, though.  And we stayed there all night until it was over.  Certainly Charlie Parker influenced John’s playing as an alto player.  But I think he influenced many of us.  Til this day.  Barry Harris sounds like Charlie Parker playing piano!  But he helped take us on our voyage to nowhere, because we didn’t know where we were going.  We didn’t know whether we were going to be successful or not.  But we didn’t care.  We were compelled to do what we were trying to do.  And each day we woke up, it was great to open our eyes, because we knew we had another shot at what we were trying to do.  So we used to have lots of jam sessions.  We used to get together.  And when I heard this playing here, and you could hear the bass drum playing this 1-2-3-4 heavy THUMP… Around that time, the rhythm sections hadn’t really caught up to what Bird and Diz were doing.  As I said, they did later, and it really began to smooth out, and everybody began to go in a similar direction in their development.  But this is what we were living, those of us in Philadelphia at the time.  I didn’t know anything about Chicago or New York or anyplace else, just what happened in Philadelphia.  This is where we were, and these were the kinds of things that were helping to move us forward — all of us.  Jimmy Heath, Nelson Boyd, Percy Heath, Philly Joe.  We were all trying to get into this new music, and eventually we did.  Some of us were successful enough to leave Philadelphia and come to Mecca, New York City, and go to various places around the world, and some weren’t.  I feel, as many of us do, that we were privileged to be a part of that and develop it to a point that we could go out and show our wares, as it were, to people all around the world, and they would appreciate it in varying degrees.

TP:    In the decade before you were able to come and settle in New York, you undertook a comprehensive, extended apprenticeship in many different bands and many situations, playing music for many different functions.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Lots of rhythm-and-blues.  We didn’t always play jazz.  None of us.  Because at that time… When we started, it was hard for us, because the older and well-established musicians would ridicule us.  They would say, “Where is the melody?  Where is the bass drum?”  Or “You play like you’ve got a mouthful of hot rice.”  It wasn’t like the musicians today who are older, who encourage the younger ones who come behind them.  I think it’s great when I see the younger ones come on the scene.  I think I and many of the others, probably all of them, try to encourage them.  We got no encouragement at all.  They were always trying to put us down.  Until so many of us came on the scene, that the scene changed!  Time marches on.  But it was a troublesome period for us.  You didn’t get called for many gigs, and we had to take some gigs that we didn’t like.  Gigs where you had to get up on the bar and walk the bar and step over drinks.  I did it.  John did it.  We all did it.  We were trying to survive.

TP:    You spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, and I know you spent a fair amount of time sneaking out.  But tell me a bit about the Washington scene, which was very active, dynamic and proficient.

GOLSON:  It was during that time.  But then, so was Philadelphia.  Somewhere along the way, they both died.  But during that time they were alive.  They were vital.  It was fertile, both cities.  I thought it was going to stay like that forever.  I was so happy about it all.  Music was everywhere.  There were groups playing everywhere — trios, quartets, quintets — in Philadelphia and Washington.  I suppose, to a large extent, they were happening in other cities, too, in Chicago and Detroit, probably in Los Angeles, New Orleans, wherever.  It was a happy time for us, because more and more people were beginning not only to play the music, but to understand it.  So people were buying records.  People were plunking their money down to come and see the groups that came to appear in the clubs and in the theaters.  Because a lot of the theaters were still open then.  The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Alhambra in Los Angeles, the Roosevelt in Pittsburgh.   There were many places where groups and orchestras were still appearing live.  It was great!

TP:    That was also a time when there was a circuit of black entertainers, so it wouldn’t just be the bands coming into these theaters, but a whole show would be coming in.

GOLSON:  A whole show with some of them.  Oh yes, we had to play those shows.  Sometimes it was a drag.  But when you find yourself in a situation, rather than let the situation get you down… Charlie Parker had a way of existing, and his personality always came through, no matter where he was.  He said that everyone had something to say.  They might say it a little differently than you or him, but he had something to say, something of value.  So when we found ourselves in situations, we made the best of it.  We tried to maximize that situation.  Because we were still going through a learning process.  So when we down to the chitlin circuit, when we went through Mississippi and Georgia and we played those tobacco warehouses and so on, it helped us to get our soul together and to find out what feeling was all about.  So it wasn’t wasted time.  It was a part of our education.

TP:    What were some of the bands you played that circuit with?

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson.

TP:    Describe it.  Within that band were the seeds of some of the most consequential music of the 1950’s.

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson was a player who had played with Lucky Millinder.  He got the name Bullmoose because his appendages were long, he had thick fingers, big feet, a long face, his lips were very thick, his head was long.  They gave him that name.  But he had a beautiful voice, and that’s what helped to get him started in his own group.  He had a 7-piece group.  Frank Wess, I think, started out with him.  He had become successful to an extent, as far as it was possible during that time, and he had many recordings out.  When I met him, he was in the process of changing the band around.  So he asked me would I like to join the band.  I had an audition.  I had to come to the hotel room.  The manager of the group was also the alto saxophone player.  They gave me some things to read, and I played it with them.  They said, “Well, you’re not wearing glasses for nothing.  Do you know of a good trumpet player we could use?”  He wanted to change the band around completely.  So I mentioned Johnny Coles, who was an excellent reader.  Then he wanted a drummer.  As I told you, we didn’t always play jazz.  The drummer turned out to be Philly Joe Jones.  Well, he wanted a bass player.  Jymie Merritt was the bass player.  So we had a nice group.  When I got to the group, the only one that he didn’t let go was his manager, who played alto, and the piano player, who was his friend (also from Cleveland, where he was from) who happened to be Tadd Dameron, who wasn’t working that much at the time, so Moose said, “Why don’t you come out and play with me until you decide you want to do something else.”  So when I got there, Tadd was there.  So we had this plethora of new blood, new musicians, and we started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits.  Then he got me to write things, and at the same time I was picking Tadd’s brains to find out how he arrived at certain things.  And the man was so friendly, he showed me everything he knew, which helped propel me along in the direction I wanted to go.  So I began to write things, and Moose enjoyed playing those kinds of things more than the things he was making his money at.  The group got so good and so diverse, that I remember, when we played a club in St. Louis, I can’t remember the name…

TP:    The Riviera?

GOLSON:  No, that was a large one.  This wasn’t quite that large.  But I remember the Riviera.  But it turned out we had two audiences, the people who came to hear Moose sing those songs, and people who came to know what the group was about.  Now, we never recorded any of those things, but by word of mouth, people began to talk about this band that had Tadd in it, and Philly Joe and so forth.  And we would play his hits, and then we would do our thing.  It was great.  It made it tolerable, because we had a chance to do the things that we really wanted to do in that band, and the leader loved it, too.
So it was great…until it ended.

TP:    The tenor player who as much as Bird affected the sensibilities of many young tenor aspirants performing in the aesthetic Benny Golson is talking about is Lester Young, and the music he cut after World War, after his supposed decline, were hits on jukeboxes in black neighborhoods around the country.  You were checking Prez out a lot, and the next selection is “D.B. Blues,” done right after he got out of the Army.

GOLSON:  It was so popular, that I had to learn how to play what you’re about to play note for note.  When we played locally at the dances… We didn’t play at the clubs then.  We weren’t that great.  But we used to play these local dances, and the younger people would come to the dances, and they always wanted to hear this tune.  My claim to fame was playing this next tune, “D.B. Blues.”  I had no identity of my own!

[MUSIC: Prez, “D.B. Blues”]

GOLSON:  You see what I was talking about.  The rhythm section still had not quite come up to where it is today.  I guess that’s a lot to ask, to come up to where it is today.  But they eventually caught on to what was going on, the spirit of it, and the rhythm did change.  It wasn’t so much hi-hat cymbal as it was then, you know.

But your speaking about jukeboxes in the black neighborhoods before brought things to my mind.  And Coleman Hawkins comes to my mind.  In my neighborhood (they used to call them tap rooms), there was a bar, a saloon, a block from where we lived.  I remember walking by that saloon and hearing this beautiful saxophone playing this tune.  Well, I wasn’t playing then.  I hadn’t begun to play at all then.  I was still playing piano (playing at it anyway).  I later found out that tune was “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  And everybody liked it!  It’s not like today, where most of the people like Rock-and-Roll or Rap or whatnot.  Everybody in the neighborhood loved “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  Later, when I started to play the saxophone, somebody transcribed it.  Like I said, I was so eclectic then, and we really didn’t have a voice of our own.  We used to play these things at high school and go visit other high schools.  I got this transcription of “Body and Soul” with every note that Coleman Hawkins played.  I played the notes.  Sad to say, it didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins.  But I would do that.  And as I got older and more mature, I realized what this man was really doing in that song.  And I never played it.  I recorded that song last week with Branford Marsalis; we shared it together.  I looked back and wondered to myself why I had never recorded it.  I don’t think I ever played it.  Rarely did I play it.  I think it’s because Coleman Hawkins did so much with it.  It’s so beautiful, what else could I add to it?  It was just that way.  It was such a classic thing he did.  What else could I add to it?

[MUSIC: Hawk, “Body and Soul”]

TP:    Could you comment on the contrasting styles by the two founders of the main branches of the tenor tree, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  If you noticed, when Coleman Hawkins was playing, he was playing like many of the other tenor saxophones during the day, and that was using vibrato.  During that time they used a wide vibrato.  That was acceptable, because that’s what was happening.  Prez came on the scene, and he used no vibrato.  And they said, “What is this guy doing?  He’s not using any vibrato.”  But he set a new approach to the sound of the saxophone.  Nobody uses the wide vibrato any more.  Many of us play with no vibrato — or, when we choose to use it.  But the wide vibrato is gone.

TP:    Why?

GOLSON:  Well, it fell out of style.  It was out of date.  Style moved on to something else.  We’re not wearing spats any more.  Things progress and go forward.  Well, call it forward or backward.  But it changed.  Everything changes.  Nothing stays the same.  We didn’t look like this twenty years ago.  Did we? [LAUGHS] Yeah, time is corrosive.  Time moves on.  But I think it was for the better.  The wide vibrato was all right then.  I like it better without the vibrato.  However, I like this version of “Body and Soul.”  I am transported back in time, so in my own mind I guess I accept the vibrato because of the way he played, the feeling, the creativity that he evinced in this version of “Body and Soul.”

Prez was a minimalist.  A lot of people thought that Prez couldn’t double up and play double-time on the fast things, or he could just groove.  I was talking to someone about this the other night.  I said, “You know, Prez could double up and run all over the horn.  I heard him do it!”  But he chose to take this approach.  He liked to lay back in that groove and find a pocket.  And it worked.  He was a minimalist.  He made his notes count.  What was it Sweets said about some saxophone player who played a lot of notes? [LAUGHS] Oh, he said, referring to this person… I don’t remember who he was, but he’d play all up and down the horn constantly.  He said, “If he got paid by the note, he could retire early.”  Sweets is a minimalist.  They choose the notes well, and they make them work, and they play the notes with feeling.  When you play a lot of notes, you don’t get a chance to linger on each note and get a full feeling from each note.  It’s only when you slow down on the ballad and you slow down for an appreciable amount of time that you get a chance to emote.  You know what I’m saying?  When you start moving fast, that’s gone.

TP:    Describing phrasing a note that way makes me think of Ben Webster, who we’ll hear on a track from his younger days before he became famous for ballads done in that manner.  Hearing Ben Webster performing “Raincheck,” from 1941, brings us to another aspect of Benny Golson’s work which we haven’t yet addressed, which is the seed of writing and your career as a composer.  The impact of Ben Webster and the Ellington Orchestra.

GOLSON:  Well, writing didn’t take me over yet.  I didn’t have enough knowledge to realize what writing was about at that time.  But I remember when my mother brought the saxophone home to me.  As bad as I wanted the saxophone, when I opened it, I felt terrible, because I didn’t even know how to put it together.  So she packed the saxophone up and we both went around to the neighborhood we used to live in, about three or four blocks away, to a the house of a fellow named Tony Mitchell.  Now, he played the saxophone.  So we went in, and I wanted to know, “Well, how do I put this together?”  He took it out and showed me how to put the neck on the top of the horn, and how to put the mouthpiece off, and how to put the ligature off and put the reed on and put the ligature back on and tighten it, and put the strap around my neck.  “Oh, I didn’t know it had a strap.”  “Yeah, it hangs on the strap.”  And I put it no the strap, and he said, “Okay, now you put it in your mouth and play something.”  Well, I’m like a mule being led to slaughter.  I couldn’t play anything.  I was discouraged again.  I didn’t know what the learning process would be like.  He said, “Wait, let me show you.”  So he put his saxophone together, and he put on this next record that you’re about to play, and he played with it, the way I used to play with  “D.B. Blues” and some of the other things.  It was Ben Webster.  The tune was “Raincheck.”  This is when I first started to become of aware of where I had to go and what I had to do — not being aware of how long it was going to take either!

[MUSIC: Duke-Ben, “Raincheck,” “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin'”]

TP:    Ellington and Tadd Dameron seem to be the two primary inspirations of your formative years as a composer.

GOLSON:  Duke Ellington first, yeah.  Because this song you just played, I was just delighted with the way Ben Webster played.  But then I noticed the periphery that was going on around him, and that helped to even highlight him more.  Then I started listening to the chords and the clarinet… I’d only heard Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, then I heard how this clarinet, how he worked it in.  I’ll tell you, I haven’t heard this in a long time, but to me it’s like Dom Perignon wine.  It gets better with age.  It sounds better and better.  And music can sound like that sometimes.  Which means that you develop a deeper appreciation for it as time goes on, because there are other things that come into your life that helps to highlight the value of music like this.  It’s like on outdoor elevator.  The higher you go, the more you see.  And going higher is like developing a keen appreciation, more knowledge.  That’s what I liken it to.

TP:    One question before we move to the music of Tadd Dameron.  Ellington’s music was performed for dancers and in concerts and really beautifully produced revues…and for dances.  You, of course, played for many dances in your various journeys.  Talk about the impact of an audience on what you’re doing, and a dancing audience that’s in a particular tempo or a particular groove.

GOLSON:  Well, jazz today doesn’t lend itself to dancing per se.  It can make you pat your foot and do things like that, but it’s not as danceable, I think, as the music we heard by Duke Ellington.  Yet these things are classic things.  His music can be compared with Stravinsky or Beethoven or anybody else.  His music had a lot to say.  There’s a lot going on there compositionally.  His music is not something that you can get too easy as a writer.  He had a certain way of doing things — using the baritone saxophone, for example — that is not easy always to comprehend.  When you heard this music, you always knew it was Duke Ellington.  There was no question about it.  You didn’t confuse him with Jimmie Lunceford or Larry Clinton or anybody.  You always knew it was Duke Ellington.  So he had a certain way of writing that identified him.  It served two purposes — for people to dance by and for people to sit down and enjoy.  In a cerebral way, if you wanted to.  It was that deep.  He accomplished a lot with his music.  It was melodic, it was rhythmic, it was memorable, it was cerebral.  All of these things at the same time.

TP:    An aspect of that pertains to the dynamics of improvising, which is that Ellington comprised that sound out of the sound of the instrumentalists that he brought into his band.  I’d still like you to address the question of how playing for a dancing audience impacted you as a performer, but also bringing the individual personality into one’s own compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I don’t play for dancing audiences, but when I did, it was a different situation, so you approached it in a different way.  People were there to be entertained, and then you did what you did.  I guess a little bit of the entertainment thing came into your playing because you wanted the people to enjoy what you did, so you had to be in whatever spirit the music was in.  Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.  If you were playing a Mississippi kind of blues, to try to play bebop on it wouldn’t work.  You know what I mean?  The people wouldn’t appreciate it.  So you had to get into the spirit of what was going on.  And once you let yourself do that, even though you were playing music that might ordinarily be an anomaly or an aberration to what you normally did, you could enjoy it, because you threw yourself into the spirit of the moment.  Oh, we used to play these things with the guitars and everything, and believe me, when I got into it so much, when we would go down South (there was no bebop on the jukeboxes), I found myself plunking nickels on “Miss Cornshucks” and B.B. King and you name it, and I was enjoying it.  Although I didn’t want to play it.  It wasn’t my kind of music.  It sort of took me over.  You can get into the music so much.

TP:    Let’s move to today, and the question of weaving the improvisational personalities of your musicians into your compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you how valuable that is.  That’s a luxury that isn’t always afforded us, though.  Duke did it because he had the orchestra.  When he wrote, he knew that Paul Gonsalves or Ben Webster or Ray Nance or Lawrence Brown or whoever it was…he knew they were there.  It was sort of like the couture tailors, when it’s made for the person.  That’s the way his music was.  It accommodated not necessarily the instrument (which it did), but the personality behind the instrument.  Certain people did certain things.  He used that to his advantage, and it made the music really vital.  Now, I do that when I can.  But since I don’t have a big band traveling around and musicians at my fingertips, not even a quartet at my fingertips (it changes so much), I try to do things so it makes sense for whatever setting I’m in and whatever group of musicians I happen to be using.  If I had a group with certain men in it all the time, then… Oh, I’m sorry.

There was one situation, the Jazztet, where we did have certain men.  We had a pianist, Mickey Tucker, who was so well-equipped… I mean, he ad-libbed, he played classical piano, he was a composer himself, he could read anything that I wrote — and I took advantage of that.  I wrote things for him and incorporated it into the group that I would never have written for anybody else.  I remember one night we had to get a sub.  We had a sub for Art when he had to have an operation.  We had a sub a few times for Curtis.  Clifford Jordan and subbed for me.  We had a sub on the drums, the bass.  It worked out okay.  But we got the sub for the piano, it was a catastrophe.  That music was so hard.  And the piano player took it home!  But when he came back, it wasn’t like Mickey.  You know, I would bring things in, and when I was writing I would look at it and say, “My goodness, I’m glad I don’t play piano.”  We’d go to the rehearsal, and the music would be sitting there on the piano, and we’d get ready to start, and he’d say, “Just a minute,” and he would sort of look at it, like looking at the headlines, then he’d sit back and say, “Okay.”  And that was that.  It was incredible.

Now, if you’ve got musicians like that, and we did… The musicians in the Jazztet were like that, and I was able to write things with them in mind.  Toward the end of the Jazztet, I was writing things for the bass, beginning with the bass, rather than having them at the end with some solo — start out with the bass.  And some of these things were difficult.  They were challenges, really; things we never recorded.  We broke up before we did that.  We might go back and record them one day…maybe.  I wrote one thing and took it in.  It had no form, no form at all, except when you got to the solos, when it had to have some sort of form.  When we first played that thing, I remember Mickey Tucker said to me after we started rehearsing it, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”  It was so different.  But I’m of the mind: Why must everything always be the same?  Why must everything sound the same?  If a person is truly creative, it shouldn’t.  We don’t drive around in 1929 Fords any more.  We don’t wear spats.  Time moves on.  Music is no different.  It has to move on, too.  That’s part of the adventure, too — doing things different.  Some people might not like them, but that’s the way it is.  Those of us who choose to do it, have to do it.  I’ll put that word in quotes — “have to.”  We have no choice.  We have to do that, lest we become counterfeit to ourselves.

TP:    Some reminiscing about Tadd Dameron.  Last time you noted that he was a master of maximizing resources, of making a small band sound huge.

GOLSON:  Yes.  He was a dearth writer, dearth meaning dealing with a small number of instruments.  He was a master of it.  You have to listen to it.  He had a certain way of writing that made it sound bigger and more important than it really was.  That’s what amazed me about him.  But he used everything.  He maximized everything.  He knew what to do with the piano.  He knew how to use the bass and the drums and the two horns.  He knew what harmonies to use, and the rhythms and things like that.  You can hear it in “Our Delight,” which is one of the first things that caught my attention.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron, “Our Delight,” “Focus”; Diz, “Night In Tunisia” (1946)]

TP:    You had a few comments about J.C. Heard’s drumming.  He played a different pattern behind each soloist on “Night In Tunisia,” and you noted how that affected the total sound of the band.

GOLSON:  I thought it was a different rhythm section, because it sounded different.  He was up on the ride cymbal.  I said, “See?  Now the rhythm section has come along; they’ve evolved.”  And you mentioned it’s the same rhythm section as “52nd Street Theme.”  I said, “That’s odd.” Then the next chorus he’s back on the hi-hat cymbal, which they did a lot then — closed.  Next chorus was the hi-hat slightly opened.  You mentioned that maybe Diz told him to play on the ride cymbal.  I thought, “Diz told the rhythm section a lot of things.”  I said, “You are probably right.”  Then I just reflected years before, it was always the hi-hat cymbal [SINGS TIME ON RIDE]; they only used the ride cymbal to crash!  And when Kenny Clarke left the hi-hat cymbal and went up on the ride cymbal to play tempos, it bugged them to death!  They thought he had lost his mind.  Just like when Prez refused to use the wide vibrato, and things began to happen.  Now, the ride cymbal is what you use when you really want to swing, not the hi-hat.  I mean, the hi-hat hasn’t lost its function.  It still has its place, and it’s great.  But when you really want to swing, you have to get on that ride cymbal.

TP:    How much do you pay attention to what the drums and bass are doing in the composition, particularly in the improvisational sections?

GOLSON:  A lot.  I have to feel comfortable.  If I am going to play, I have to feel comfortable.  And when I listen to other people, of course, they do what they want to do.  But basically, I’ll want to swing.  That’s what it’s all about.  It’s not just notes.  Notes must have spirit, lest they become merely notes, documentations of pitch — and we want to go way beyond that.  We want the music to have some feeling.  We want it to swing when it’s supposed to swing.  We want it to do other things when it’s supposed to do other things.  On a ballad when you go to the brushes, then that has a certain feeling.  If it’s got a little raunch to it, then you might play a shuffle.  Art Blakey was one of the few drummers who could make the shuffle swing.  Incredible!

TP:    The next set will focus on musicians who relate to the music we’re discussing, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, who preceded Benny in the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON:  John had an insatiable thirst for moving ahead.  Even as young teenagers, he was always two steps ahead of the rest of us.  I remember when he started talking about augmented chords, and we said, “What?”  Then when we came to comprehend what augmented chords were about, he was somewhere else.  It turned out that wherever we wanted to go, he had been there before we were there, and gone somewhere else.  He used to employ Spartan-like practice; especially as he got better, he practiced more, believe it or not.  As some of the rest of us got better, we practiced less.  But he practiced… We used to live two blocks apart in New York.  When you went to his house, if his wife wasn’t home, you couldn’t get in, because he wouldn’t stop playing.  He would play all day, and when he went to the gig at night, he would get on stage and play.  And during intermission, he would practice the whole intermission in the men’s room, and then come back.  McCoy said he practiced like a person who had no talent.  But we know he had so much talent.  And with that kind of practice and being as exceedingly talented as he was, we could see why he was able to soar above the circle of the earth in unoccupied air space.  And that’s where he was.

He went through phases, just like Picasso did.  The pointillism, the Cubism, the Blue period and so forth.  He went through periods on his saxophone.  I remember them.  When he first picked up the tenor, he sounded somewhat like Dexter, as I mentioned.  But then he went to a style, when we were playing together with Johnny Hodges, around ’54… I don’t know how to describe it.  Sort of a hopping-skipping style.  I don’t think he recorded when he was playing that way.  Then we weren’t so close as we were, because we went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him quite as often.  But I would hear him from time to time.  I remember he came by my apartment once in New York, and I hadn’t heard him in a long time.  I had heard one or two things Ornette Coleman was doing, and I said to him, “It sounds like maybe you’re doing some of the same things Ornette is doing.”  And he quickly said, “Oh, no.”  He didn’t want to be linked there.  And as it turned out, he wasn’t.  He was doing  something completely different.  Each time I’d hear him, he was doing something different.  And all of it was exciting.  He had an extremely large whatever, a voluminous bag that he could reach into and pull out all sorts of things.  It was bottomless.  Because until the time he died, he was always bringing new things into his life via the horn.  Not all of us can say we can do that.  We might change a little here and there.  But I’ve heard him make major changes, change directions.  And most of it was exciting.  Some of it I didn’t understand.  But not all of us understand everything that goes on.

I remember when he started to change, some of the things he was doing were raw.  When he was with Miles, I remember I went to see him once at the Blue Note in Philadelphia.  He had been talking to a trumpet player called Calvin Folks, and Calvin was trying to explain something to him.  In this guy’s mind… He was so open to everything, he wanted to absorb everything and distil it, use what he could and whatnot.  So he was playing with Miles, and right in the middle of a solo… Oh, I have to say this.  The trumpet player was sitting right at the bar, and the bandstand was in the middle of the bar.  So he was looking right down at the trumpet player.  He took his horn out while the band was swinging, and he said to him, “Do you mean like that?” [LAUGHS] I guess he nodded his head or whatever, and then he continued on playing.  But he was always learning.  And he listened constantly.  He didn’t just listen to himself.

TP:    Sounds like he made every performance situation as much a laboratory…

GOLSON:  That’s a good analogy.  You’re absolutely right.  On this, just notice.  This is not one of those complicated tunes.  Things don’t always have to be complicated to be meaningful.  Notice what he does with just a simple structured tune.

[MUSIC: Coltrane, “Good Bait”]

GOLSON:  You heard what he did with that simple tune.  He made it his own.  I mean, he had his signature all over it.  But now, one doesn’t have to play an abundance of notes for it to be meaningful.  I’ve said that about Sweets and some other people, and I think about another saxophone player.  This fellow was probably one of the most melodic saxophone players on the jazz scene.  He wasn’t known for running all over his horn, though he could.  I’m speaking about Hank Mobley.  I remember, I took some music to a recording session.  This guy was such a natural and had such a great ear.  He could read changes and things like that.  I took this tune (I don’t remember what it was) to Rudy Van Gelder’s, and they were reading the melody down, because they were unfamiliar with it.  When it came time for a solo, I said, “I guess he’s really going to scrutinize the chart now.”  He closed his eyes and reared back.  He never looked at the music.  He just heard what was going on, and played his feelings.  He was playing from the heart.  What more can you ask for?

TP:    He was also a prolific composer.  Maybe they were ditties, but they were all distinctive melodies and structures.

GOLSON:  Yes.  I don’t usually like ditties.  But Monk was a profound writer of ditties, and so was Hank.  He had a tune, “This I Dig Of You,”  Listen to what he does on it.  He doesn’t run all over the horn.  You don’t have to.  Some of the profoundest things that are said, are said with fewer notes — or fewer words, if you will.

[MUSIC: Hank Mobley, “This I Dig Of You”; Benny Golson, “Turning Point”]

TP:    In the liner notes it says you met Jimmy Cobb when you were at Howard in 1948.

GOLSON:  Yes, we played a gig with a guitar player who was later to become the guitar player with the Clovers — “One Mint Julep.”  That’s where we met, at this gig at a nightclub called the Liberty, in northwest D.C.

TP:    We’ll hear Joe Henderson, from the next generation back of Benny, who was already an accomplished professional with vast experience by the time he arrived in New York at 25 years old in 1962.

GOLSON:  You’d better believe it.  He was sounding good to me the first time I heard him.  Kenny Dorham told me about him.  He’s from Lima, Ohio.  I tease him about that, because it smells like sulfur there all the time.  But the first time I heard him, he sounded great!  He had it together.  That was a long time ago.

TP:    He and Wayne Shorter are the two saxophonists after John Coltrane who had a huge impact on subsequent generations.  Would you talk about the dynamics of his style?

GOLSON:  Like some other saxophone players, Joe is not afraid to take chances.  And he has enough facility to carry out the things that enter his mind.  He’ll be going in one direction, and all of a sudden he’ll dart and do something.  It might sound crazy, but it fits into the scheme of things, the overall tapestry of what he’s doing, and composing.  To a large extent, that’s what people who are playing solos do.  They are composing; composers of a sort.  Extemporaneously.  They don’t get a chance to go back and hone it like someone who is writing a song.  And sometimes that’s even more difficult, to come up with a concept, an overall concept of something that you’re doing that makes sense, and you don’t have time to edit it.  So sometimes things go by that have little mistakes in them, but you don’t look at the mistakes.  You stand back and look at the whole tapestry.  And Joe, it seems to me, has always been able to paint a picture, a picture that made sense from beginning to the end.  And it seemed like he always was going somewhere.  It wasn’t just a solo.  It always had direction.  It was going somewhere and building.

[MUSIC: Joe Henderson, “Invitation” (1968)]

TP:    An example of transcendent technique that never obscures the necessities of the moment, and the poetic drive of his solos.

GOLSON:  Aren’t you profound!  That’s great.

TP:    We’ll hear music by Branford Marsalis and Dan Faulk.

GOLSON:  You’ll notice the tenor players we’ve played today, as soon as you hear them, you know who they are.  They have distinctive personality.  You know the sound of their horns.  Unfortunately, today, many tenor saxophone players get caught up in one style, and it’s hard to tell  many of them when you hear them play.  They can play the heck out of the horns, but the styles aren’t as distinctive today as they were in times gone by.  That’s not a derogatory statement, because they can play the keys off the horn.  But the ones I’ve selected today really have their own personalities, as does Branford Marsalis — who is extremely broad, you know.  He can play bebop, he can play Rock-and-Roll, he can play the New Orleans thing, when he was with Sting he was doing something else.  It takes a lot of ability to do that.  And Dan, who is ascendant; he’s still coming, he has his own style, he’s consequential, he has something to say.

[MUSIC: Branford, “Just One Of Those Things”; Dan Faulk, “Barry’s Tune”]

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