Tag Archives: Art Tatum

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Paul Bley, Around 2002

I’m not sure exactly what year Paul Bley agreed to sit with me for the DownBeat Blindfold Test, but given the track datings, it was probably 2002. He was playing the Blue Note, staying in an apartment on W. 9th Street with a questionable sound system. We’d become acquainted not long before, when he and Gary Peacock joined me together for a few hours on WKCR, which is a show I have retrieve and transcribe some day. Anyway, it was fun to do, and hopefully the transcript will be both entertaining and illuminating.

* * * *

I have something to say as a little preamble.  Mike Zwerin, a number of years ago, invited me to review records, thinking since I was so poor at the time that I might be able to make a little pocket money.  He was living in New York in New York at the time, so you know how long ago that was.  He handed me a giant stack of LPs, maybe 20 LPs, and I said, “Wow, this is going to be fun; I’m looking forward to it.”  So I got home, put on LP-1, listened to it, and by about 10 LPs… He was sitting with me actually.  I had nothing to say.  He said, “You’ve heard all these LPs and you haven’t said anything.”  I said, “there was nothing worth talking about.”  That was the end of my disk jockey career.  I think I gave him one paragraph.  By that time he was playing the organ trios, the Prestiges… [LAUGHS] How am I going to talk if you bring records that don’t require any talk?  So I hope this is not going to be the same situation.

1.    Ornette Coleman “Mob Job” (from SOUND MUSEUM: HIDDEN MAN, Verve/Harmolodic, 1996) (Coleman, as; Geri Allen, p; Charnett Moffett, b; Denardo Coleman, d) – (5 stars)

Well, I’m not a fan of tempo medleys.  It started at one tempo and proceeded to another.  There was no reason not to have the written material be in the same tempo as the track was going to be in. [ALTO SAX ENTERS] Definitely Ornette Coleman, of course.  Well, it’s a waste of time with the pianist.  There’s a good reason he doesn’t use piano.  See, the horn player can make the transitions to wherever he wants to go at any time, but the piano player actually has to change their mindset to get rid of the key center. [Any idea who the pianist might have been?] I don’t care. [Did you think the pianist worked as successfully as possible under the circumstances?] I’m not really concerned about the pianist. [How many stars?] Stars! [LAUGHS] Anything with Coleman deserves 6 stars. [When do you think it was from?] It sounded like a home recording.

That was fun!  I had my own label.  But I couldn’t afford myself.

2.    Ahmad Jamal, “Aftermath” (from OLYMPIA 2000, Dreyfus, 2001) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, b; Idris Muhammad, d) – (5 stars)

Wonderful trio, very exciting, they played really well together.  My comments are not really about this trio.  Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of what we’re talking about.  Music is language.  It’s conversation.  If it’s language and conversation, it should not be repetitive..repetitive..repetitive..repetitive.  You got it the first time I said that word.  The next three times I said it was adding to a level of redundancy…redundancy… Now, we’re not talking about profundity.  We’re talking about language, and aspiring to be ideas.  Not profundity.  We haven’t gotten anywhere near that.  That’s not even on the table.  So if it’s language, let’s remove all repetition, because it’s insulting to the listener…insulting to the listener.  You get my drift?  Anything you play twice is once too much. I loved it.  I loved the drummer.  I loved the bass player.  I loved everything.  It was on a very high level. 5 stars. Ahmad Jamal would be my guess.  He’s come a long way.  He’s a good friend, by the way, but I don’t really know his recent work.  But we’re very close, because we have been in hotel rooms all night in Bologna, Italy, etcetera, etc.

I’ll tell you a funny story, which may or may not be included.  It was 5 in the morning in a hotel in Bologna, and Ahmad had just got off the phone.  I said, “Ahmad, you’ve been on the phone a very long time.”  He said, “Yeah, I just blew the amount of money I earned tonight on the phone.” I said, “Well, Ahmad, doesn’t that indicate it might be time to go home to Chicago and do it in person instead of on the phone?”

3.    Tommy Flanagan, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from SEA CHANGES,  Evidence, 1997) (Flanagan, p; Peter Washington, b; Lewis Nash, d) (no rating)

May I have this dance?  The last time I asked somebody to dance was the opening night of Ornette at the Five Spot, playing opposite Benny Golson and Art Farmer.  They sounded really good, and they played the first set, and it’s a wonderful band and way out there.  And then Ornette went in and did his first New York set ever.  And I thought, “Wow, everybody’s completely blown away.”  But then Art Farmer and Benny Golson went back on the stage and did the second set, and I asked the bartender to dance. Today is the second time I’ve ever asked anyone to dance.  Ornette had turned Benny Golson into the orchestra at the roof of the Taft Hotel on 7th Avenue and 51st Street overnight.  A single set. [Unlike most of the people in the room, you knew what you were in for.]

4.    Keith Jarrett, “Prelude To A Kiss” (from WHISPER NOT, ECM, 2000) (Jarrett, p; Gary Peacock, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (5 stars)

What is the real meaning of the initials NEC?  I’ve had a lot of fun with that at the school. Oh, what’s the real meaning of ECM?  Do you know that?  Easily Castrated Musicians.  We can do this all day, Ted. [You're good at it.] Thank you. I collect them.  Poor Duke. [You're tough.  Unlike most musicians, you are not imprisoned by tact.] Poor Duke. [LAUGHS] [Do you play Ellington's tunes?] I know all of Ellington’s tunes.  I knew them all when I was in short pants.  But when a musician dies, it’s time to give other guys a chance. [But you still play older things from the songbook.] Oh, if you pay me, I will play… [So if I paid you whatever your fee was, you would do an Ellington...] Absolutely.  Of course.  We aim to please, as they say in the bathroom urinals.

The problem with the recording of bass  is it’s the least accessible instrument to listen to.  God forbid somebody in the audience coughs, or there goes the solo.  You ask yourself why is the bass so possible in that standard format, that trio format.  The trio format is flawed.  If you’re going to put three musicians, it should be because they’re three musicians, and the fact that one plays the trombone and the other plays whatever is not the point.  You’re hiring individuals.  Any format is already dead.  Big band, string quartet, piano trio.  The fact that it already preexists the occasion means that everything is uphill.  Because it’s not an original format.  So you talk about lack of originality. [Doesn't the logic of that lead that you eventually run out of formats, and nothing will be original?] There are no formats.  There’s only great players. [It's only the individual.] A collection of great players.  We’re in a new century now.  It’s time to give all the old ideas a rest.  They’re no longer valid just because the century changed.  Your time is up.  It’s expired.

You know, if a 7-year-old played only white notes, they could sound this good.  It’s called modal.  The Aeolian mode, in particular.  Ah, a modulation.  It’s very nice, and she will go to bed with you.  Whoever you’re listening to this with. [Is it recent?  Older?  Older musician?  Younger musician?] First of all, all eighth notes are not created equal.  It’s a little too simplistic rhythmically.  He’s doing a very good job.  He’s a very fine pianist, and it’s a very nice track and so forth. But it’s not worth discussing.  I’m looking to be offended. [It seems the things that offend you are things like this.] No-no, I mean offended in a good way. [LAUGHS] I think it was very well done.  I’d give it 5 stars.  For what was attempted, it was a big success. [No idea who it was?]  No. It could have been anybody working on 8th Street. [It was Keith Jarrett.] Oh.  Well, I’m sorry to hear that. [It's his post-illness record.] Well, he certainly has bounced back recently, kicking ass with the trio.  Boy!  He has my 1964 date, “Turning Point” on Improvising Artists, the one with Gary and Gilmore… He’s got that down pat with Gary!  He took over that.  That’s a big step for him.  He went out of standards all the way to 1964.  And who knows, we’re looking forward to 1974.

5.    Kenny Barron, “Beneath It All” (from SWAMP SALLY, Verve, 1995) (Barron, p., keyboards; Minu Cinelu, percussion) – (5 stars)

I love this recording.  This is the first new information you’ve brought me today.  The town crier in the old days used to stand in the town square, and say, “Hear ye!  Hear ye!  I’ve come to inform you.”  And if he had nothing to say or said something that the town already knew, they would get upset, because he summoned them into the town square and told them something they already knew.  It’s wonderful!  The piano player did not need the rest of the band.  But they were great, the way they went into what I call a second CD’s worth of music.  We’re really talking about two separate issues.  The piano player did not need help.  It engaged everybody in their curiosity minimally, and there was no way to predict where he was going to go.  And the fact that we happen to have this wonderful band hit and do great things was just a wonderful plus.  But I personally could have stood a lot… I could have heard a CD worth of the piano player, and I probably wouldn’t have interrupted it with this conversation.  I loved it, and I loved the second part.  It just goes to show that you’re going to have to go to a foreign country to get some fresh input in jazz.  You need foreigners.  You need people who speak a second language to be added to the stream of music.  It’s such a wonderful situation now, where the world has sent everybody… Airline tickets are so cheap, that you can hire a band where every player comes from a different continent, a different city, and they can play together at the drop of a hat — and they all live in Brooklyn Heights.  It’s just a wonderful situation!  When anyone talks about jazz not in a great period, it’s just that they’re not widely enough informed. [So you thought that the piano player was not American?] Well, certainly the band didn’t play this good off of being a bebop band.  So I assume that he comes from the same country as the rest of the players.  So I cannot guess who this is. [Well, it was only two musicians.] Ah.  [It was Kenny Barron and Mino Cinelu.] Wow! [And Kenny was playing piano and synth.] [LAUGHS] Wrong!  Wrong like a mother!  No wonder Kenny is as loved as he is.  A monster!  Kenny’s a monster!  Six stars. [LAUGHS] Fuck you, Kenny Barron! I hate him.  I’m going to tell him that next time I see him, too.

6.    Hampton Hawes, “Soul Sign Eight” (from HAMPTON HAWES AT THE PIANO, Contemporary, 1976) (Hawes, p; Ray Brown, b; Shelley Manne, d) (5 stars)

There’s no need to go any more.  It’s beautifully done, well-played, etcetera, etc., but it’s nothing that harmonically and rhythmically wasn’t done in the ’50s.  If you’re going to redo something, redo a style where your triads are quite simple, you’re staying within a key, you’re not adding anything to the literature of the music… I mean, the purpose of making a record is not to redo your own stuff or somebody else’s stuff.  The purpose of making a record is to add to the literature of the music, which means you’re bringing in some elements that are not widely available, and you’re indicating to other musicians that following along the suggestions that you’re making with this recording of yours might be of some interest and it might be of some utility to somebody who is playing.  If the record is already in existence… My rule is that if it’s already for sale at Tower Records, buy it.  Don’t make it up. [And you have no idea from the sound or the touch or the style who this might be.] First level players.  It could be one of a number of people.  And I was very happy for them.  It’s nicely recorded.  But, my first record on Wing Records in 1953, contained this information.  I outgrew it, and I hope this pianist does the same. [AFTER] [One reason I played this is because it was a person who developed his own sound and was doing it in the '50s, and so the sound, therefore, from my impression, would be unto him.] For Hampton Hawes, it’s a big accomplishment.  This is a big accomplishment.  It’s the best Hampton Hawes I’ve ever heard — by far.  Still containing no new information, but well-played.  5 stars.  It a big accomplishment.  I love Shelley Manne in rhythm sections.  The rhythm section was nice, man.  “Way Out West,” Shelley Manne?  Wow.  What an imaginative drummer.  I worked with him.  We played the Antibes Festival in France.  But I’d rather let that track rest.

7.    Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Oren” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2001) (Rubalcaba, piano, keyboards; Carlos Henriquez, b; Ignacio Berroa, d)

You know, it’s a similar situation here to when someone wants to tell you a joke.  You start before they start the joke with an open mind and a positive frame of mind, willing to accept the premise of the story and looking for the punchline at the end, and so forth.  But as the story keeps going on like the beginning, just continuously, time is the enemy of the joke.  Because you’re waiting for the punchline.  It’s called the suspension of disbelief.  I’m sure you know the term in poetry.  It was suspended.  I enjoyed the high production values.  The pianist had a very nice touch.  The fact that it had only one chord in it was a little abrasive, and that that method was going to run out of time even faster than it would normally.  Because one chord is one chord is one chord, etcetera.  As the country-western musician said, “Three chords and the truth is the definition of country music.”  I thought that was nicely coined.  But this one only had one chord!  And it wasn’t even Country-and-Western.  I prefer to wait for the movie. [Any guesses?] I’ll have to see the film and be reinterviewed.  It certainly wasn’t worth listening to without a film accompanying it.  Well played.  No disrespect to the musicians.  And a pretty melody, by the way. An original melody.  It’s like the organ trios.  The only question is why. [Pleasing the people.] [LAUGHS] Oh, by the way, pleasing the people is the exact wrong premise for young musicians… [I've heard you say this.] Thank you.  You know all my rants. [I think you have your contradictions.  Would you care to bestow stars?] Stars.  As I said, when I see the film and listen to this film score, I’ll be happy to rate it at that time.  [Well, I need to play it a little more, because I can't print anything you've said if you won't give it stars.] [LAUGHS] You may not have brought enough records.  If you had brought a real package of records, we could have done this and been out of here in 40 minutes.  I could have said, “Forget it, keep it…” [Can't you just please me and give some stars here?  You can even give it a pro forma five stars.] No-no, five I can’t give.  You need a star system that says “I have nothing to say.” [Then you can say "for the way it was played, such-and-such stars."] But how about unrated?  They do that in porn movies.  Unrated it. [This isn't a porn movie.] Well, it gives you a license to make an escape without… [Not according to my editor.] Oh, he wants stars, huh? [He wants stars.] Have we run out of alternatives.  Is that the problem?  It’s not possible for me to deal with this level of… I’m very loathe to give somebody a very low rating.  Which is why you need to be able to interviewee a pass.

8.    Vijay Iyer, “Atlantean Tropes” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, p; Stephan Crump, b; Derrek Phelps, d) – (5 stars)

I’ll give it 5 stars. The plusses far outweigh the minuses. The plusses are of no use to the musicians.  When somebody comes up to you at the end of the set and says, “That was great,” there’s no new information.  We know that was great.  That’s why we played it.  Let’s talk about the minuses.  I always prefer to couch profundity in humor.  Someone was interviewing Albert Einstein, and they were trying to impress Einstein with their insights.  Einstein, who was a violinist, turned and said, “that’s very profound, but not very funny.”  So you need to be more than profound.

Now, this is definitely one of the top things you played today, and there’s nothing I can say negative.  I just have a small facetious aside to make.  And I admonish musicians with these facetious asides.  This one is: If you use up all your eighth notes in your youth, you won’t have any left to play in your old age.  Doesn’t matter what the instrument.  I’m not supposed to know what you’re doing.  If I know what you do, I don’t like it.  So you’re constantly supposed to elude me.  It was incredibly well-composed, well-played, the horn player was great, there was unity through the whole track, exercise of the imagination, beautiful use of chords — the list goes on.  It’s almost a masterpiece.  I might say it was a masterpiece.  Today it was definitely a masterpiece, based on what else I’ve heard! [LAUGHS] But remember, we’re in the post-Albert Ayler-Paul Motian-Sunny Murray period.  You can’t get away with meter any more, certainly as an entry level artist and a new artist.  You can’t get away with meter.  I gave my metronome away when I was at Juilliard. I broke mine.  They need to be smashed.  Because breathing is not metronome.  Breathing is circular.  Up and down phrases, rushing through… [What about the heartbeat?] The heartbeat is also not metrical.  It’s PAH-BOOM, PAH-BOOM.  And you can’t measure it exactly right.  If you’re walking around the room, it’s definitely not metrical.  And remember, you’re in a new century.  It’s such an exciting time.  This is the perfect time to wipe the blackboard clean and start with a fresh page.

9.    Brad Mehldau, “Quit” (from TRIO PROGRESSION, Warner Brothers, 2001) (Mehldau, p; Larry Grenadier, b; Jorge Rossy, d) – (5 stars)

Are you going to continue to play Keith Jarrett for me all day today?  It’s no small accomplishment to play Keith Jarrett.  The problem is, he was there first.  It’s who you avoid that’s more important than who you support.  It’s not hard to draw up a roadmap of who to avoid.  Just check the “Downbeat” Readers’ Poll.  If it’s already been recorded, it’s not a good idea to try to improve on it. It’s a magical track, by the way.  These players are all great players, and a masterful track, and very worthwhile doing it — and if I owned the label, I would support the production.  But I fear for the pianist. [Why do you fear for the pianist?] Because when you are born into a world of giants, you have to be an iconoclast.  There’s no way to treat them on their own terms, because you lean to their sensibility.  You’re at risk.  So you can’t work through them.  You have to destroy the icon. [So you're postulating the Oedipal theory of music history.] Well, I don’t know if I’d put it exactly in that slant.  But what I’m saying is that it’s who you hate that’s more important than who you love.  And if you hate somebody, then I won’t recognize who you hate. But if you love somebody, it’s going to defeat the whole purpose, see, because you always get hurt by the one you love.  That’s a nice turn of phrase. [I've heard it.] Thank you.  Unfortunately I’ve heard it before! [Was that an older or younger player?] It was a masterful player, whatever age.  Way on top of it.  Certainly I much prefer somebody who is that developed than somebody who had less to offer.  There was certainly a lot to listen to.

You know, the trouble with being a bass player is that if the piano player can play faster than you, you should go home. Why would you want to play with somebody who can’t move through the music, move notes at least as fast as a pianist, which would be the reason to not ever play with a pianist.  See, if I play with you, without any other value judgments, we want to be equals.  We want to play equally. So the way the trio in this case solves that problem is either the other players play down, play less than they can, to be polite and accommodate the less facile musician.  Just as at a dinner conversation, if you’re the young person at the table who can’t keep up with the conversation, it’s the responsibility of the other people to speak slower and leave a lot of silences, and invite the other person to air their side of the conversation.  Playing in a trio, for the piano player to be running at the mouth and… If you have Gary Peacock on the bandstand, that’s not a problem.  But if you’re going to play with a player who is really a time player, you have to really… The whole date would be about making this person equal to the other players.  That’s the whole premise of the date.  You can’t go past somebody.  You have to take them with.  The audience judges the band by its weakest player. Not by the accomplishment of the best player, but by the difficulties. [AFTER] It’s too late for him.  If there was no Keith Jarrett, there would be room for a Brad Mehldau.

10.    Sonny Clark, “Tadd’s Delight” (from SONNY CLARK TRIO, Blue Note, 1957/2001) (Clark, p; Paul Chambers, b; Philly Joe Jones. d) – (5 stars)

Hey, Tadd Dameron!  Beautiful.  A very nice sentimental tune, very well played, very enjoyable, well written.  I did know the composer, I think — Tadd Dameron.  It was perfect of its generation.  It was beautifully played.  The piano player sounded good.  Somebody like Hank Jones would be perfect playing this material. I was amazed how good he sounded, Hank Jones, and this pianist equally well.  So who is it? [Do you think it was of the time?] Oh, very much so.  The way the recording sounded, too. Six stars. [AFTER] I don’t know his work.  I know of him, of course.  I was in California for two-plus years, and worked every night for two-plus years.  We had one night off.  So Sonny must have come by the Hillcrest Club and maybe said hello or something. But I was too busy to socialize.

11.    Wayne Shorter, “Atlantis” (from FOOTPRINTS LIVE, Verve, 2002) (Shorter, ts; Danilo Perez, p; John Patitucci, b; Brian Blade, d) – (5 stars)

I love it.  It’s really beautiful.  But please, don’t bring a concert audience into my bedroom.  The fact that the concert audience liked it was reason enough to discourage me.  It’s not a commercial.  So don’t tell me somebody else liked it.  I’m the person who’s supposed to like it.  By the same token, don’t grunt and groan on the bandstand.  Let the audience do it.  In a live performance they’re supposed to do the grunting and groaning as a result of your playing, and enjoying themselves.  The problem is that when you write a tune, you’ve pretty much told the players that you’re going to be at this place on the map at this hour, playing this hour, playing this harmony, and then when the bars continue at this place in time you’re going to be at this place harmonically, and that’s called ornamentation.  Ornamentation is not improvising.  Ornamentation is a pre-set set of changes in which you play those changes as prescribed.  Now, to try and create melodies with all this information that’s fixed and given is almost impossible.

So they did a beautiful job.  But once again, I mention it’s 2002 now.  It’s too late to tell the players what notes come where.  It has some beautiful augmented harmonies in it.  The joke about augmented is that the player had an diminished sensibility and an augmented ego.  That’s the joke.  You’re not supposed to tell me that it’s all augmented chords.  I’m not supposed to guess that.  You’re supposed to keep it from me.  The same with electronic jazz.  If I can tell what the setting is on a synth player, then I don’t like it.  The idea is to design something that tricks me and fools me, and I have to go find the guy and say, “What was it?  It’s wonderful!”

So it was very well played, and beautifully done, and for what it was, it was a great accomplishment.  Now, once again, you may have brought the Latin world into it; it’s 5/4 and all that. I think there’s a Spanish name here with the piano player.  I could say…not Rubalcaba… There’s two guys; they both work for my agent. It wasn’t the one who played simplistic track… Danilo Perez.  Danilo is a good friend. [I know that a lot of the Spanish players have listened to you a lot.] Which is strange, because the album that I really wanted to make, the Spanish album that I wanted to make, having spent some time in Florida with some of my best friends in that part of the world, I have really only been able to suggest in my earlier playing the possibilities of what that leads to. [Any idea who the tenor player was?] No.  But very nice use of space.  Great use of space.  Very sensitive.  I’m impressed with your tracks.  It’s been illuminating, the things you’ve played for me today.  As a matter of fact, when you come up to me on a tour and you show me a really good photograph you’ve taken of the band, I take the photograph! I say, “You make yourself another copy.  I’m taking this!”  There’s definitely three keepers so far.  You’re going to have a lot of trouble leaving the room with it under your arm. [AFTER] Wow. Amazingly sparse playing for Wayne.  Wow. Wonderful.  Very good.  It really turned me on.  Five stars.

12.    Cecil Taylor, “Looking, Second Part” (from LOOKING (Berlin Version), THE FEEL TRIO, FMP, 1990) (Taylor, p.; William Parker, b; Tony Oxley, d) – (5 stars)

I can’t listen to any more of this, because it’s too influenced by Cecil. [But it is Cecil.] Of course.  If you play trumpet and sound exactly like Louis Armstrong, you’d better be Louis Armstrong.  But what more is there to say?  It’s Louis Armstrong.  Cecil is to be avoided like the plague if you’re a pianist.  If you’re a drummer, it’s not a problem. [Why do you have to avoid him if you're a pianist?] Because he did it before you were out of knickers. [But not before you were out of knickers.]  I’m very fond of Cecil, which is why I’m trying to protect him from his imitators.  At one point, we thought that we’d do… We’ve played on the same bill, at the same festivals and all that, and at one point I thought that he would do the ballads and I would do the fast, frantic stuff.  But then, brilliant as he is, he went on and did the ballads himself!  Cecil is wonderful.  He’s one of these wonderful, wonderful musicians who are much more than just musicians or instrumentalists.  Their personalities color life itself.  It’s been a blessing to be in his presence.  End of story.

I remember in the ’50s he played with Steve Lacy.  He was a wonderful combination with Steve, like hot knives with butter.  A perfect antidote.  That was one of the great combinations, like Roswell Rudd with John Tchicai.  The Jazz Composers Guild had these wonderful ensembles that were perfectly framed, and Cecil, of course, belonged to that period.  Whenever you’re in the presence of giants, be very… If you’re a professional musician who is responsible for the life of that instrument that you play, when you’re in the presence of giants… You would think that would be a good thing, like you paid a lot of money, great expectations — most probably you’re going to be even more than satisfied.  So everything seems positive.  But if you are a good musician, you have a lot of problems, unless it happens to be the Count Basie Orchestra with Joe Williams or something and it’s not about anything except having a good time… If you like it too much, you’re at risk.

It’s not a recent recording.  It doesn’t sound like it was done in the last year or the year before.  1990?  That’s old Cecil.  Six stars.

13.    Matthew Shipp, “Paradox X” (from NEW ORBIT, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Shipp, prepared piano; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (5 stars)

With your permission, I’d just like to make a one-line joke.  I wasn’t prepared to hear this.  That’s the funniest thing I can come up with.  5 stars. I loved it.  It’s very nice.  It was a drummer’s tune.  It was set up for the mallet player, who did a beautiful job.  It’s amazing how it engaged you.  I liked it.  But I prefer my joke. [AFTER] I’ve met Matthew in airports.

14.    Art Tatum, “Cherokee” (from THE COMPLETE ART TATUM SOLO MASTERPIECES, Pablo, 1954/1991) (Tatum, piano) – (5 stars)

Saved the best for last! [LAUGHS] Well, I think the interview is over.  The art of playing piano.  Wonderful!  I’ve been having a problem with the tunes that are very popular — looping them.  The very fact that the tunes are 32 bars, repeated over and over and over again, somehow that lingers beyond the performance, and I might be playing “Cherokee” for three days and nights.  That’s a serious problem with looping. Because if you do anything twice, you may have set me in motion to an infinite repeat. [Are you saying that hearing something like that might trigger something in you...] No, it’s not a need.  It might actually loop… The 32 bars may continue repeating even after the gig is over or the CD is off.  The tune may go on ad infinitem for hours or even days.  So I prefer to only listen to unfamiliar things that I can’t identify, which is good.  It’s not possible to loop.  I call it looping.

When Tatum died, the rest of the world said “thank goodness he’s gone!” You couldn’t be a pianist and be on the same planet with Tatum.  And it’s amazing, because the content was almost nil.  I mean, it’s how he played it.  It’s the fact that he could play everything so well that was great.  It wasn’t what he played.  I mean, there are guitar players, like Tiny Bradshaw, who played an equivalent intellectually.  But this is a perfect case of ornamentation to the Nth degree.  Which means you can do a bad thing great… A bad thing done in a great way is better than a great thing done in a bad way!  You can play with that sentence and look for meaning.  But all the rules can be broken by somebody like Art Tatum.  Because if you’re looking for linear creativity in terms of improvisation in this period, that’s a minor accomplishment compared to the fact that he can make that instrument sound like no one has ever played it before.  When this guy was on the planet, he threatened every living pianist, Classical or Jazz.  When you’ve got a giant roaming the planet, you know, with the trees rumbling and the dinosaurs hiding in the bushes and so forth, well, that’s a very bad time for an aspiring musician.  You have to wait until this guy passes before there’s even room to THINK about what you want to do.  Jazz history is full of giants on particular instruments that have… I mean, if you were an aspiring tenor saxophone player that didn’t wear a hat, Lester Young defeated your purpose.  Each instrument has its nemesis.  That’s the word I’m looking for, is “nemesis.”  You’re supposed to be the first one to recognize that there is a nemesis, and it can affect you greatly and threaten your existence if not your livelihood.  So it’s serious business, attempting to be the 11th person to play this instrument or the fortieth person to play this genre or the hundredth person, and so forth… A serious business.  You can’t go in there without a thought in your head, looking for an “inspiration.”  It’s not going to happen.  Six stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Paul Bley, Piano, Uncategorized

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 embrochure 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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For Bud Powell’s 87th Birthday, A 2004 Bud Powell Homage in Jazziz

In 2004, Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write an homage to Bud Powell, who is my “first among equals” favorite, my main man of all the jazzfolk on the timeline. For Bud’s 87th birth anniversary, here it is.

[For further info on Bud, keep your eyes out for Wail, a soon-to-be-released ebook biography  by Peter Pullman -- a link to Pullman's blog here and for the book here].

[And spend some time with Ethan Iverson's exhaustive, four-part post on Bud on his essential blog, Do The Math.]

* * * *

Early in August of 1964, Earl “Bud” Powell, accompanied by his friend and caretaker, Francis Paudras, flew to New York City from Paris, Powell’s residence since 1959, for a 10-week billing at Birdland, Powell’s primary venue during the previous decade, when bebop was in vogue.

Eager to soak up the master, New York’s musicians flocked to the club for opening night. In the liner notes of Return To Birdland, ‘64 [Mythic Sound], Paudras described the scene as he and the pianist arrived.

“There were two rows of men, face to face, on each side of the door. I recognized immediately many familiar faces. To the right in the front line, his face shining with joy, there was Bobby Timmons; next to him, Wynton Kelly, then Barry Harris, Kenny Dorham, Walter Davis, Walter Bishop, McCoy Tyner, Charles McPherson, Erroll Garner, Sam Jones, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Lonnie Hillyer…there were others, but my memory fails me. Bud stopped short, and at that moment, we could hear discreet applause. Then he started walking toward the stairway, and at that precise instant, Bobby Timmons took his hand and kissed it discreetly. He was at once imitated by his neighbor and all the others with a kind of frenzied devotion… We went down the stairs escorted by this wonderful guard.”

A spontaneous 17-minute standing ovation ensued as Powell approached the bandstand, and the engagement began its roller-coaster path.  Ensconced in a hotel around the corner, Powell touched base with such old friends and colleagues as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and Babs Gonzalez. He also met a more recent arrival who had changed the scene in his absence.

“One morning we were about to go out for breakfast when the doorbell rang,” Paudras wrote in Dance Of The Infidels [DaCapo], which documents the ups and downs of his five-year relationship with Powell. “I opened it to find a young man standing there. His face looked familiar but I couldn’t place him at that moment. ‘Is Mr. Powell in, please?’ ‘Yes, of course. Your name?’  ‘Ornette Coleman.’ I called Bud and Ornette introduced himself. ‘Good morning, Mr. Powell. My name is Ornette Coleman. I’m a saxophonist and all my music is based on the intervals and changes of the sevenths in your left hand.’”

Perhaps the anecdote is apocryphal or mistranslated; Coleman was not available to confirm its authenticity. But the encomium illuminates the breadth of Powell’s impact on the sound of modern jazz. As is well documented in the history books, Powell extrapolated the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano and interpreted them with his own singular stamp, incorporating the rhythmic self-sufficiency and harmonic ambition of stride maestros like Willie The Lion Smith and James P. Johnson; the fluent linearity of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Billy Kyle; and the aesthetic of virtuosity embodied by Art Tatum. Such next-generation stylistic signifiers as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Cedar Walton used Powell’s “blowing piano” style, a staccato attack that evoked the dynamism of a horn, as the primary building block for their own approaches.

If a musician’s music bespeaks a personal narrative, Powell’s biography tells volumes about his art.  In early 1945, either a Georgia cracker, a Philadelphia cop or—citing Miles Davis’ autobiography—a Savoy Ballroom bouncer smashed the high-spirited youngster in the head, triggering the massive headaches and a pattern of impulsively aggressive and self-abusive behavior that found  him confined more often than not in mental hospitals. Heavy use of alcohol and narcotics destabilized Powell’s personality;  repeated electroshock treatments dulled his reflexes and acuity. Yet, between 1946 and 1953,  he played magnificently and made his greatest recordings, for Roost, Blue Note, and Norgran, including original compositions with titles like “Glass Enclosure,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Hallucinations,” “Oblivion,” “The Fruit” and “Dance of the Infidels.”

As the titles suggest, a turbulent, sometimes demonic lucidity permeates Powell’s music. It grabs you by the throat, connecting you to the processes by which various polarities of the human condition—wretchedness and grace, madness and genius, the profane and the sacred—can play out in real time. Sometimes Powell projects the oceanic emotions of 19th century Romanticism through a prism molded by the hard-boiled, warp-speed ambiance of New York City after World War Two. Sometimes the template is not unlike the the piercing novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Chester Himes and Hubert Selby, all fellow masters at conjuring vivid, unsparing chronicles of the lacerating consequences of mortal foible.

Born in 1924, Powell honed his jazz sensibility as a teenager,  jamming on bandstands around Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, and, most consequentially, in Harlem, his home turf. At Minton’s Playhouse, he met Thelonious Monk, the house pianist, who was working out the chords and intervals that became the foundation of the music known as bebop. Monk took the youngster under his wing, and, according to drummer Kenny Clarke, his Minton’s partner, he wrote many of his now iconic tunes with Powell in mind, on the notion that he was the only pianist who could play them. You can hear Monk’s influence on several of the 18 sides Powell recorded with Ellington veteran Cootie Williams in 1944, specifically in a tumbling solo on “Honeysuckle Rose” and his jagged comping on “My Old Flame.” Pianist Barry Harris, 15 at the time, remarks on Powell’s finesse, how deftly he “double-timed and ran the most beautiful minor arpeggios” underneath Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s vocal on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” But Powell’s two fleet, elegant choruses on “Blue Garden Blues” show he’d been listening to someone else as well.

“When I met Bud, he was playing pretty much what you would call prebop,” says Billy Taylor, who moved to New York in 1944. “I used to see him uptown a lot, and we hung out. He was light-hearted then, didn’t take himself all that seriously, and was fun to be around. He liked Fats Waller and some other things I liked, and we’d jam together, just playing stride. I have enjoyable memories. We used to argue a lot, because I was very much into Art Tatum, while Bud said, ‘I want to make the piano sound as much like Charlie Parker as I can.’ I said, ‘That’s cool, but that doesn’t use all of the piano. Tatum has some pianistic things that any pianist should try to get into. Check it out.’ He said, ‘I have checked it out, and I know what Tatum plays. But that’s not where I’m going. You work your way and I’ll work my way.’ By 1950, he was making the piano sound just like Charlie Parker. Those lines that he played were long and complicated and very well played. He dominated that instrument. He had all the nuances pianistically under control as he played.”

“All of Bud’s vocabulary—extensive use of arpeggios and arpeggios with chord tone alterations, and playing altered dominant chords in such a way that they resolve to the next chord—comes straight out of Bird,” says David Hazeltine. “But the way he adapted it to the piano was very interesting. Piano is a difficult instrument, and it presents problems for playing linearly that the saxophone or trumpet do not. On saxophone, all the fingers stay on the same keys all the time; it’s a matter of coordinating different combinations of keys, like octave leaps and different positions. On piano, the distance is represented on the keyboard and you need to execute physically exactly what you’re playing—cross over and cross under and so on. Bud’s arpeggios are effortless; he  made his language very playable. It’s bebop and melodic playing without a bunch of acrobatic pianistic tricks.”

A child prodigy, Powell developed his technique through intense study of the European tradition. “Bud was very heavily influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach, and also by the Romantics—Debussy and Chopin,” says Eric Reed, whose information on the subject comes from Bertha Hope, the widow of pianist Elmo Hope, Powell’s childhood friend and himself a musician of brilliance. “He and Elmo Hope practiced the inventions when they were kids. When Bud’s mother would leave for church, they’d start getting into some jazz stuff, and when she came back, they’d be practicing Bach, because they didn’t want to get in trouble. You can hear a connection to Baroque music in the contour and construction of Bud Powell’s improvised lines—the way it moves, the succession of notes, in the complexity of the lines. Bach’s music has a similar rhythmic propulsion, a continuity that’s very similar to bebop.”

Perhaps the most astonishing component of Powell’s tonal personality is how he deployed his technique to conjure fresh, viscerally primal stories at volcanic emotional heat. “Bud never played the same thing twice,” Powell’s long-time drummer Arthur Taylor told me in 1992. “He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song.” He always elaborated a point of view. As Bill Charlap notes, “Bud dealt with thought and idea and structure and architecture, using the piano to tell you what he thought about music.”

“Bud wasn’t just throwing licks around,” agrees Vijay Iyer, a pianist born almost a decade after Powell’s death in 1966. “You hear him make decisions in real time and act on them. There’s a thought process made audible. That’s what that music was about.   There’s so much at stake in that moment when you’re creating in real time, and to be able to come up with something in spite of all the obstacles and constraints he faced is an inspiring story.”

There are naysayers. A number of musicians, most vociferously Oscar Peterson, consider Powell an incompletely pianistic pianist. “Granted, he could swing,” Peterson wrote in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey. “But I never regarded him as a member of the central dynasty of piano defined by such great players as Tatum, [Teddy] Wilson and Hank Jones. Bud was a linear group player, who could comp like mad for bebop horns and could certainly produce cooking lines that had tremendous articulation, but for my taste there was too much that he didn’t do with the instrument. He lacked Hank’s broad, spacious touch on ballads, and he failed to finish his ideas too often for comfort and satisfaction. Despite his strength of linear invention, in fact, he had a technique problem: although other musicians and I could intuit where those unfinished lines were going, an unschooled audience was left to play a guessing game, having to make do with grunts of tension in place of delivered ideas. It took a long time for players like Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and me to get pupils to realize that the linear approach is not enough on its own. Bud may have symbolized an era, but not true piano mastery.”

Billy Taylor indirectly references this criticism with the following anecdote. “Mary Lou Williams came to Monk and Bud and said, ‘You guys are too good not to have the kind of piano sound you should.’ She brought them to her house, fed them and hung out with them for a while, and literally changed their sound at the piano. I don’t recall the exact date, but each was recording for Blue Note at the time. If you listen to some things from maybe two years later, you’ll hear the difference.”

Today’s jazz people learn touch and everything else in a less homegrown manner, and perhaps the evolution of jazz vocabulary has led younger aspirants to consign Powell to the outer branches of the piano tree. “Bud Powell exemplifies the language of bebop, and he’s the starting point for contemporary jazz piano, so you have to check him out,” says Edward Simon. That being said, Simon sees Powell’s position on the timeline as specialized. “Bud’s harmonic concept was modern at the time,” he says. “But most people today draw on later pianists for harmony. I think his contribution was more in the way he breathed his lines, and connected the notes smoothly, in a legato style, which isn’t easy to do on a piano.”

“They’re the more developed pianists,” says Hazeltine of Hancock, Tyner and Chick Corea. “It’s more impressive at a first listening. Bud’s music isn’t as polished and smooth and slick as, say, the classically schooled Herbie Hancock. I know Bud played Bach and referred to classical music, but that’s not where he’s coming from.”

Hancock is on record that “every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from him,” a point which Eric Reed elaborates. “Bebop is useful under certain circumstances, but if that’s where you stop, you’ll be limited,” he says. “I think many piano players, great as they think Bud Powell is, try to use that vocabulary in their own way. Listen to Herbie’s solo on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ with Miles Davis. It’s in the bebop style in his phrasing and the way he runs the lines, although the notes and harmonies are very different.”

“Bud Powell is definitely in the top ten of the greatest jazz pianists that ever lived,” Reed continues, and numerous pianists, young and old, still regard Powell as the sine qua non. “Most of the younger pianists that I’ve heard, even Chick and Herbie, don’t attempt to get Bud’s rhythmic power,” Billy Taylor says. “Younger pianists play very well, and technically much cleaner in some respects. But I don’t hear that physical will to make the piano do certain things—Willie The Lion used to call it making the piano roar. I don’t think they have the point of reference. Most of them don’t want to spend that much time to get Bud when they don’t think the end result is what they’re looking for.”

Still, Charlap notes, 21st century pianists have much to learn from Powell. “His solos have no loose or wasted notes, and every note clearly relates to the bassline and underlining harmonies,” he begins. “But he also was so free with the rhythm, and created such rhythmic nuance within the line, like playing drums on the piano. It’s not like playing a perfectly even Mozartian scale.  But you have to be able to play those notes very evenly to be able to make the choice of how to make the rhythms pop the way that he did. A Bud Powell solo will deal with all manner of rhythmic devices; he had them at his disposal all the time and would rest on any place of the beat. His solos aren’t just the notes, but the attitude and the way the notes speak—like trying to get wind behind the notes. Bud made that all come through at the piano. I can see how someone who is approaching the piano from Chopin through Liszt may be more dismissive of using the piano to do vocal or drum-oriented things. But before they’re dismissive of it, I’d like to hear them sit down and do it.  It’s a different way of approaching the instrument.  I tell students, ‘It looks the same, but as a jazz musician this isn’t the same instrument that you play Chopin on.’”

“I tend to think of him as a tragic genius, which is found in all the arts,” Moran says. Tormented and impoverished, Powell died in Brooklyn, not long after his 42nd birthday. But his search for truth and beauty at all costs will resonate as long as musicians seek apotheosis in the act of musical creation. Barry Harris recalls a revelatory conversation with New York pianist of his acquaintance. “He said him and some cats went by Bud’s house early one morning,” Harris relates. “He was playing ‘Embraceable You.’ They said, ‘Come on, let’s go and have a ball.’ Bud said, ‘No.’ So they left and did whatever they were going to do, messed around all day, and when they returned that night, and knocked on Bud’s door and went inside, he was still playing ‘Embraceable You.’”

As Harris puts it, Powell practiced playing, and he wasn’t doing it for a school assignment. It was the most serious thing in life.  “A lot of us take this for granted, but they were actually CREATING bebop on such a high level,” Moran says. “It was like a science, and they put a lot of time and experimentation into their process. That’s what makes this music so revered, and everybody HAS to refer to it. Some people can’t stop referring to it.”

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Brad Mehldau’s Blindfold Test From 2000 (Uncut) — He Turned 41 Yesterday

Eleven years ago, I had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Brad Mehldau, then 30, and in residence at the Village Vanguard for a week-long engagement. It was conducted in Mehldau’s hotel room on the Upper West Side; if memory serves, he listened to the selections through headphones on a Sony Diskman…or maybe it was an Aiwa. In any event, here’s the pre-edit version.

Brad Mehldau (Blindfold Test) – (9-21-00):

1.    Art Tatum-Red Callendar-Jo Jones, “Just One Of Those Thing,”  THE COMPLETE ART TATUM GROUP RECORDINGS (#1) (1956/199_) (5 stars)

Tatum.  “Just One Of Those Things.”  I guess I know it’s Tatum from his melodic concept on here, because he’s not playing solo, which then you can really hear it in all his voice leading.  Just aesthetically, I prefer his solo playing.  With the rhythm section… I don’t know who this is.  Is this Slam Stewart? [No.] I’m hearing the drum solo now that he’s playing four-to-the-floor.  I have a feeling I should know this drummer from his style on the brushes.  I can’t put a name with it.  But he sounds great.  The bass player, too. [you've haven't heard this before.] No. [Is Tatum someone you've listened to a lot?] More his solo stuff, like the Pablo reissue of his solo albums, where it’s just one standard after another and these incredible things.  But this is really something I want to check out. [AFTER] Jo Jones!  Unbelievable.  Definitely 5 stars.  His whole melodic approach to lines, the way he’s playing over changes is so much not-informed by bebop.  It’s so fresh to hear that.  But very unto itself, really dealing with the changes.  He’s also using the whole instrument.  Even though he’s not playing solo, he’s really getting down there.  Amazing.

2.    Chick Corea, “Monk’s Dream,”SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS (Concord, 2000). [solo piano] (4 stars)

I really don’t know that person’s style.  I wouldn’t even know who to guess.  It’s “Monk’s Dream.”  I would give it 4 stars, because it’s really creative and interesting harmonically.  This kind of feel for me is a little jagged.  As a performance, it left me feeling a little unsettled rhythmically, just for my own taste.  But really creative, interesting harmonic things he’s doing, using the upper register there and different melodies going on at the same time in some places. [AFTER] Really?  It’s a live performance, huh?  Nice recorded sound, too.  You can hear a lot of the room in there, which I also like.

3.    Christian McBride, “Lullaby For A Ladybug,”  SCI-FI (Verve 2000). [Herbie Hancock, piano; Diane Reeves, vocal.] (4 stars)

It’s a beautiful composition.  I don’t know the vocalist.  I don’t feel like I know anyone.  The piano player is somebody who’s been influenced by Herbie Hancock, but I’m not sure whether it’s Herbie himself.  It’s a tough call. [Why is it hard to tell?] That’s a good question.  There are some spots where the piano player is playing a lot, maybe more than sometimes Herbie does — but sometimes Herbie plays a lot, too.  That would probably be my only criticism, is that on the actual piano solo itself it’s a little out of context to what’s going on around the whole thing, and sometimes he’s jumping on the vocalist a little with some of the things that he’s reacting to.  But just my taste; that’s a taste thing.  But the track is beautiful.  The composition itself, and the recorded sound is great. [So do you think it's Herbie or not?] I’d probably guess Herbie.  [LAUGHS] I got a couple of them right here.  Diane Reeves?  I don’t know who the composer was. [AFTER] No kidding?  I didn’t even recognize Christian, because he’s so unobtrusive.  Wow, I’m going to have to get this record.  Who is the drummer?  He’s great.  4 stars.

4.    Hank Jones-Dave Holland-Billy Higgins, “Yesterdays,” THE ORACLE (Emarcy, 1989). (4 stars)

That’s got to be Billy Higgins on drums.  It’s kind of tough to tell the piano player.  I’m not sure about the bassist.  Maybe Ron Carter?  The piano player, there’s a feel there that’s kind of like the feel I associate with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, but I’m not sure whether it’s one of them.  I really don’t know.  It was a little aimless in some parts of the arrangement, but it felt great.  I liked how it started out in D-minor, I think, and then modulated down, and I liked that little bass thing.  4 stars.  Every record Billy Higgins is on is just going to feel great.  I’ve played with him a few times with Charles Lloyd.  The experience of playing with him is like nothing else; it’s like being taken for a ride.  I should have just guessed Hank!

5.    Geoff Keezer, “Maple Sugar Rays,”  ZERO ONE (GMN, 2000). [solo] (3-1/2 stars)

Maybe Mulgrew on some solo record I don’t know? [You're warm.] I don’t want to make a generalization, but for me the style was a little too much of the same thing for the whole thing.  It’s kind of predictable after a while.  Really inside the harmony, and a certain kind of melodic vocabulary that sort of sounds like a vocabulary already.  So after a while I’m not too interested listening to this.  Also, dynamically it’s always pretty loud, which after a  while gets on my nerves.  There were some spots in the arrangement that were nice, where he was doing some harmonic stuff that made it interesting, but for the rest of it I felt like he was kind of running stuff.  It got to be a little of the same after a while.  3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] That’s interesting, because I have this but I’ve only listened to it once.  Was this an original?  Some of the pieces on here were really different, where he’s treating the piano.  That makes sense, because it’s a certain style… It’s more of an aesthetic thing than an actual qualitative thing, because that’s a whole school of piano playing that I haven’t gravitated towards too much, like Harold Mabern and some of those guys.  It’s not my taste.

6.    Bill Charlap, “All Through The Night,”  ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Criss-Cross, 1997). [Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums] (4-1/2 stars)

I really enjoyed it.  It was tough, because the solo introduction was sort of in a different style than what it turned into with the trio.  I was thinking about the trio as it went along… Maybe Ahmad Jamal.  I don’t know who it is, then, but I really loved the performance.  I thought this arrangement where they kept going back to that theme reminded me of something Ahmad might do.  But the melodic concept was… You could hear some of a bebop kind of  thing in there.  Also, we were just listening to Tatum.  There are some triple-time things he was doing, but very original, though, in his or her own right, with the lines, doing some different, creative, fresh melodic things that really were fun to listen to.  I really liked it.  A great, swinging trio thing.  It was really locked-up.  Not 5 stars, because I could have done without the intro, a lot of flashy stuff.  4-1/2 stars.  Cole Porter really has a specific sound as a composer.  Sometimes it reminded me of “From This Moment On,” sort of the way his harmonic movement is.  But Bill put in some great changes on his own, too, that really were nice, the way they worked with the melody under it.

7.    Earl Hines, “Prelude To A Kiss,”  PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON (New World, 1974/1997) [solo piano] (5 stars)

Wow!  I don’t know the performance, but I think it’s Monk.  It’s not Monk?  It’s “Prelude To A Kiss.”  Whoever it is, I’ll have to give it five stars.  It’s so deep harmonically, what he’s doing inside the chords, the way it builds up as an arrangement throughout.  He starts from something and just develops out of it organically, and it gets more and more dense.  The other thing that’s great is once the time starts it’s really right there.  You can always hear the quarter-note no matter what’s going on.  I don’t know Monk’s solo playing too much; that’s why I might have guessed him. [Monk would tend to be sparer.] A little more spare, yes.  Because I did hear, again, some of those Tatumesque runs in there.  That seems to be a theme of a lot of what we’re listening to. [Do you think it was a more contemporary player or an older player?] I’m going to guess older because of the nature of the recording quality and the piano horribly out of tune!  But I just don’t know.  I’m disappointed in myself. [AFTER] [In your learning process, were you into older piano players?] Not as much.  It’s more just because I haven’t gotten around to them yet.  But the ones that I really know are some Tatum and some Duke.

8.    Ahmad Jamal, “I Love You,”  BIG BYRD (Verve, 1996). [James Cammack, ass; Idris Muhammad, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion] (4-1/2 stars)

I’m going to guess Ahmad again.  That’s a great arrangement.  Now it’s staying on this vamp and… I don’t know his later records too much, but I’ve had the chance to hear him live a lot, and there’s still that great way of taking “I Love You” and making these vamps throughout it which make it a different kind of compositional thing.  And he plays so compositionally, too.  He plays with that arrangement.  The tune is almost incidental a lot of the time, which is what’s so great about it.  I definitely checked out “Live At The Pershing” and “Awakening,” the one that he did “Dolphin Dance,” explored the oeuvre of Herbie and Bill Evans.  The drummer has a really fat groove.  4-1/2 stars.

9.    John Hicks, “Passing Through,” AN ERROLL GARNER SONGBOOK (High Note, 1997). [solo piano] (3-1/2 stars).

I have no guesses on this one.  I’m coming up short here.  [AFTER] Again, that’s sort of not my aesthetic.  My thought was that this is someone who probably plays more in groups regularly, and solo piano is sort of a departure for him.  What I noticed is that… Maybe it’s because I’m a piano player.  I feel that his rhythmic thing is almost reacting to an invisible band that’s not there.  So as a solo performance, I wanted a little more of what the bass and drums would typically supply somehow, no matter how abstractly that might be.  It felt like there was this hole.  The composition was kind of normal for my taste.  It didn’t particularly get me too much.  3-1/2 stars.  Nice recorded sound.

10.    Kenny Kirkland, “Ana Maria,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) [Andy Gonzalez, bass; Jerry Gonzalez, congas; Steve Berrios, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer]

I love the composition, but I can’t pick out which one it is.  The shape of the melody sounds familiar.  Is it a Wayne tune?  I love the way the piano player states the melody, nice and rhapsodically through the bar-line, with a nice texture building up.  During the blowing the piano player has a nice, crisp technique in the right hand which I always enjoy hearing.  The kind of crispness I associate with Wynton Kelly, a really articulate thing which is nice in the double-time stuff.  I thought it could have been maybe a chorus shorter, because after a while you hear certain melodic shapes repeating themselves over and over again.  As a group performance, I felt like there was a piano player, then there was this percussion thing that was reacting with the piano a little rhythmically in the double-time stuff, and the bass and drums were sort of in the background.  It could have been the mix.  I have no clue who it would be.  4 stars. [AFTER] Kenny Kirkland is another one I haven’t gotten to.  I kind of missed him.  I was so involved in my own listening pattern in the early ’90s and late ’80s.  I was really into guys like Sonny Clark and Mal Waldron — a lot of compers.  I loved Mal Waldron, and the stuff he did with Steve Lacy; the minimalism he uses appealed to me.

11.    Denny Zeitlin, “Cousin Mary,”  AS LONG AS THERE’S MUSIC (32 Jazz, 1997/2000). [Buster Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums] (5 stars)

That got me off the most out of anything you’ve played thus far.  It felt great.  I don’t know the piano player, but I might know the bass and drums.  Maybe it’s not them, but it sounds a little like Ben Riley and Buster Williams, that kind of feel.  Oh, it is Buster.  The drummer has that great tipping feel; it feels so good.  I love the piano player.  I never hear any vocabulary.   First of all, the arrangement of “Cousin Mary” is really great.  You would think, “What can you do with that tune?”—but he finds another harmonic thing that really is also referring to the original, with the strange, different chords for the blues.  You get the feeling that he’s blowing on that, but at a certain point he’s just getting away from what roots should be, and he’s sort of making up different forms of the blues — one thing, one thing, one thing, and then… Again, these 12-bar things.  Which I love. [Does he remind you of anybody?] You can hear a lot of the history of piano playing in there.  I’m probably going to be really embarrassed that I should have known him.  5 stars. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin!  Wow.  I’ve never heard him.  Charlie Haden always tells me to check this guy out.  Really inspiring.  A great trio performance.  For me the piano is a little high in the mix, but it still doesn’t detract.  It’s still really great.

12.    Martial Solal, “Round Midnight,”  BALLADE DU DIX MARS (Black Saint, 1998) [Paul Motian, drums; Marc Johnson, bass] (4 stars)

The tune is “Round Midnight,” but you’ve got me stumped on the player.  Because I just heard Paul Motian play duo with Frisell in Monterrey, some of the brushwork in this kind of approach where there’s not a leader was reminding me of Motian.  I could do a deductive thing and say maybe it’s Paul Bley.  No?  Now, when I just Paul with Bill, one thing I liked is that within a rhythmic context they were following each other a lot, phrasing together.  With this, one criticism would be that the piano player was going and the other guys were following his phrasing.  So after a while it got to be a little too much of that, and not so much interaction.  It gets kind of noodly, I guess — for me.  Within all that, there were flashes of harmonic things sticking out there in between.  So it might be the kind of thing I could listen to more and start to enjoy more.  It’s definitely a brilliant performance.  I like how the bass player, too, was finding certain notes in there to ground it.  4 stars

13.    Ornette Coleman-Joachim Kuhn, “Passion Cultures,” COLORS (Verve-Harmolodic, 1997) (5 stars)

It’s beautiful.  I think it’s Ornette and Joachim Kuhn.  Beautiful!  I have another record of them that was made in the studio which is much different than this.  Somebody gave it to me in France.  It’s so great to hear a real kind of tonal thing, for the most part, taking place, these modal sections with Ornette’s beautiful melodic thing over it, and then the way Joachim Kuhn found his way out of the harmony slowly, with Ornette.  It’s a wonderful process.  A nice composition that really stands up, the whole thing.  There’s this sort of urgency or sort of mortality feeling to that melody, something haunting that Ornette has the ability to evoke so well.  They’re really together on that.  5 stars.  Definitely a great performance.  Nothing wrong with that.  I checked out mainly the early Atlantic stuff with the quartet, with Don Cherry and Charlie, like Change of The Century, This is Our Music. [Does his late '60s stuff or the '70s harmolodics appeal to you?] That stuff I haven’t checked out as much.  Actually, just in the last couple of months while I was on the road, Larry Grenadier was playing me a few things I’d never heard by Prime Time.  So that’s all another “yet” to me.  A lot of times with that quartet, I hear changes.  I’ve talked to Charlie Haden, and he’s like, “Hey, man, we were just making up changes.”  But there’s still definitely a harmonic component going on.

15.    Ruben Gonzalez, “Almendra,”  INTRODUCING RUBEN GONZALEZ (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 1996) (4-1/2 stars)

It’s a great rhythm section.  It sounds Cuban from the beat.  I’m not too familiar with the players, so I really wouldn’t know who to guess.  But I love the bass player and the Latin rhythm section; they’re so locked in.  The arrangement is cool, because they’re just blowing over this… You hear the beginning, the head, and it’s a V-chord.  So it’s suspended on this pedal thing for the whole blowing, because he’s just staying there.  And the piano player is rhythmically free of that and he’s sort of just playing over everything, extemporizing over that, which at first is interesting, but I guess after a while it sort of drags on a little. The content was interesting.  I found myself being reminded of Duke sometimes, actually, in the spaciousness of the way he plays melodies sometimes 2 or 3 octaves apart and leaves this wide-open space in the middle and gets in the lower end or upper register, and using those parts of the piano — and some of the voicings, too.  I thought it was really interesting, the chromatic things he was doing.  4-1/2 stars.

_________
It’s really interesting.  It’s difficult after the fifth one.  You find yourself swamped with information and it gets hard to be objective.  But you never are objective, really.  You’re listening, and then it would be nice to listen to it again.  Then your opinion might change.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, DownBeat

Dr. Billy Taylor, 90th birthday anniversary: Interview, Oct. 14, 1999

For the ninetieth birthday anniversary of Dr. Billy Taylor, who passed away last December 28th, I’m posting an interview from October 1999, for the liner notes of a CD documenting a live performance at Manhattan’s Blue Note. For various reasons, the CD was never issued, and the transcript appears here for the first time. The opening section is specific to the recording, but the conversation evolved in interesting directions.

For more, see this video by Bret Primack.

* * * * *

How do you approach a live situation, albeit knowing it’s being recorded, versus a studio situation?

TAYLOR:  I actually prefer doing things like that outside the studio anyway.  I normally record everything I do.  I didn’t have my own soundman at this particular gig for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with the gig, but unfortunately he wasn’t available to me.  So I didn’t record other nights of this particular gig, and I’m sorry I didn’t because I had better nights than the night we actually recorded.

What is it for you that constitutes it being better?

TAYLOR:  Well, a lot of different things.  Basically, I’m talking about my work, what I do, but secondary is the way the trio comes together with each guy pushing everybody else into something else that they might not normally do.  We did a lot of that during this particular engagement, because that’s why I took the gig.  It wasn’t meant to be a clean performance, and so a lot of times I’d reach for something and paint myself into a corner, and just say, “Oh, well, okay,” and go somewhere else.

I kind of like that.

TAYLOR:  Well, I don’t.  The optimum thing is to paint yourself into a corner and get out, and I’ve been able to do that on some occasions.

Tell me about the band.

TAYLOR:  Chip Jackson has been with me for about five years.  One of the reasons I hired him is because I was looking… I had two musicians who had been with me for — I guess between them — more than 20 years.  So they knew me very well and there were no surprises.  I was about to enter into a project, and I really wanted to go into some other directions.  And it wasn’t about them, they’re wonderful musicians, both of them, and I really regretted that I couldn’t do with them what I wanted to do — but I realized that I just needed to hear something else.  So I looked around, and among the… I must have listened to maybe 25 or 50 bass players and rehearsed with them and auditioned them, did all kinds of things, just to hear them play, and then came back to… I didn’t audition Chip.  I mean, I had played with him with my former drummer, Bobby Thomas, and I liked his work.  So I knew what he did and I knew the caliber of his work.  So when I couldn’t find anyone among the people that had been suggested to me that I was looking at, I thought, “hey, let me go check this guy out,” because I remembered him in a very favorable light.  I checked him out and he was perfect, just what I was looking for at that particular moment.  The thing I like about Chip is that he comes to play.  This is a guy who has had a lot of different kinds of experiences, big band, small band; he’s always looking to challenge himself, and every time we sit down to play something he’s going to try to do something that just… He’s like a cheerleader.  he’s going to make it happen.

Good time, big sound, good harmony.

TAYLOR:  Yes.  But more than that, I have a setup… We didn’t use the setup at the Blue Note, and it bothered me a little bit because I’m accustomed to it.  I’m accustomed to having him right in my ear.  So he’s usually right on my left ear.  So that’s something that I work off of.  This was a little different setup.  This was a more normal setup where the bass player is in the bowl of the piano and the drummer is down at the other end of the piano.  I don’t like that.  I’d rather be closer physically to the other two musicians.

At the Blue Note you’re about 20 feet away from the drummer.

TAYLOR:  Right.  And that’s not the way I work.  But it was two groups on a bill, and so I had to be flexible on that.  I mean, it wasn’t impossible to do, so I didn’t…

You’ve probably been in worse situations at one time or another.

TAYLOR:  Well, absolutely, with worse pianos and worse PA systems and worse everything you can think of.  But for a recording I like things pretty optimum, and so I really want everything else to be in perfect shape so that I can fall back on that if I have to.

A few words about Winard.

TAYLOR:  Winard is a guy I’ve admired for a long time.  I mean, when he had his own group with his brother, I thought he was just terrific.  When he was with Betty Carter I heard him in a different setting.  He’s really creative in the sense of being very musical.  He uses the tonal qualities of his various drums in a very imaginative way.  He is the kind of person who, even in a situation where he doesn’t have a clue as to where he is going, after a few bars will hear something and will come up with something very musical to fit the situation.

Going into the Blue Note, did you know you were doing this record during the sets that were recorded?

TAYLOR:  Oh yeah.

Tell me about setting up the repertoire, then.  I suppose I should ask you if you’ve decided what the actual CD sequence is going to be.

TAYLOR:  No, I haven’t yet.  I’ve been listening to it.  But it will be a combination of the two sets as opposed to one set or the other.  I haven’t really listened to it sufficiently.

But obviously, one set is primarily compositions, with one exception, and the other set is, with one exception, standards and tunes you have very intimate and long-term associations with.

TAYLOR:  You know, I didn’t plan it that way.  It just happened that way.  I really was torn between two things, knowing that… I deliberately didn’t rehearse for this gig.  I wanted to go in, and… I knew I was going to play some things that had particular arrangements, but I wanted to see what Winard would do when he heard it.  Maybe he’d come up with something different.  And he did on each occasion.

“Theme And Variations” was a piece that evolved out of a composition that I wrote many years ago.  I was asked to do something for the National Symphony, and I took that particular theme and wrote variations on it for the orchestra.  Then I went back to it a few years ago and said, “I’m going to play it as a tune again.”  So this was the first time we had done that.  It’s never been recorded as “Theme and Variations.”  It had another title.  But the melody and the way we approach it is evolving.  Because I want to do something different with it as a trio.  Which is why I started it off in a semi-contrapuntal fashion.  I was really just figuring what are some of the things that I might want to do with this.  So I just kind of fooled around with it to get started, then I played a little introduction, and we went into it.

“His Name Was Martin.”  I guess I know who that’s about.

TAYLOR:  Yeah, right.  That was the second movement of a long work that I did for a symphony orchestra called “Peaceful Warrior.”  Of the three movements, it’s the one that I like the best, because it really is a simple theme, and when I do it right it really works.  I wasn’t particularly happy with my performance on this one.  I’ve done better performances of it.  It had nothing to do with anything.  It’s just that, you know, I didn’t say what I wanted to say.

Was it written in the ’60s or afterwards?

TAYLOR:  No, it was written way after.  I’m terrible on dates.  I was actually commissioned to write it by the Atlanta Symphony. I was the first American composer that they asked to do something with the orchestra in a series of commissions for American composers.

At what point in your career did you begin writing for large orchestras?

TAYLOR:  I was on the National Council On The Arts back in the ’60s, and I was asked by Maurice Abravanel… He heard me play at a party, and he said, “That was delightful; could you write something like that for the symphony.”  It was a party.  So I said, “Sure.”  I didn’t think any more about it.  A few days later he was back home and he called me from Salt Lake City and said, “I was serious.  I really like what you did, and I’d like for you to write something and come out and play it with the orchestra in the Mormon Tabernacle.”  I said, “Beg your pardon?” [LAUGHS] So to make a long story short, I wrote a piece, and he sort of nursed me through it.  Because he programmed it as Mahler, Bartok and Taylor, just those three on the program.  And I don’t often get stage fright, but boy, I was a bundle of nerves that night.  But it turned out really well.  I mean, it was a wonderful audience and they received it well.  I was surprised.  I really was.  That particular piece was from “Suite For Jazz Piano and Orchestra.”  I didn’t play anything from that.

“Soul Sister” is a blues that I wrote many years ago.  I was playing at a club in Harlem, the Prelude, on upper Broadway, and I wrote it, played it there on several occasions, actually recorded it around that time, and it’s been in my repertoire ever since.  I started playing it when Chip came in the band.  I had been playing with Ramsay Lewis, so I had taken it out of my trio repertoire, but I started playing it with Chip because he has a really good feeling for the blues.  He really gets into some serious things, and he takes it somewhere else every time he plays it.  So that’s one of the things that I play with him a lot.

“Titoro,” apart from your inventions, is Winard Harper’s first set drum feature.  Does that go back to your days with Machito?

TAYLOR:  No.  Actually, I went to Haiti. This was before I went into Birdland.  I was a co-leader of a band that played at a Latin festival down there many years ago.  We were invited and we stayed in Haiti for a month.  There was a drummer there whose name was Tiroro, so I wrote this piece to be played by him and by the young man who was playing with me in those days, whose name was Charlie Smith, who like Winard was a very imaginative and very musical drummer, and I just thought that this would make a good combination.  I didn’t know what I was getting Charlie into.  Drummers take that challenge thing very seriously.  So they really kind of went at each other whenever I played it.  It’s been in my repertoire ever since.  It got the title “Titoro” because Tito Puente recorded it, and his record company thought he wrote it, so they said, “Well, let’s not call it ‘Tiroro,’ let’s call it ‘Titoro.’  Well, he sold a lot of records, so I didn’t change the title.

Can you tell me a bit about your time with Machito?  You’re one of the earliest African-American musicians to blend with Latin bands in a somewhat different way than Dizzy Gillespie did it even.

TAYLOR:  Well, I was influenced by the same man who sort of indoctrinated Dizzy — that was Mario Bauza.  Mario was the musical director of the Machito band, and he was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met.  I mean, he was just wonderful.  A fine teacher, a very inspirational mentor.  He just picked me… I was working in the relief band, and their piano player, Joe Loco, was drafted, and Mario picked me to play in the band until they could get another pianist up from Cuba.  They had a guy they wanted to bring because they knew Joe was going to be drafted, but evidently he was called up before they were ready and they couldn’t get this guy up.  So I got a chance to play with the band until he arrived.

How long was that?

TAYLOR:  Not very long.  It was at an engagement at a place on Broadway called La Conga.  In those days were several Latin clubs right on Broadway.  Noro Morales was playing around the corner from us.

Was it a dance club or a sit-down club?

TAYLOR:  It was a club.  We had to play a show.  And they had dancing.  Nearly all of those clubs had dancing.  But there was a show, and it featured people singing and dancing and doing comedy and so forth.  It was just a regular Broadway type club show.

Was playing in clave a big adjustment for you at that time?  Did it seem strange?  Was it natural?

TAYLOR:  I didn’t have a CLUE as to what that was about until I joined that band.  It was really an education.  Mario explained to me that playing out of clave was like in jazz clapping your hands on the 1 and 3 instead of the 2 and 4.  Well, that’s pretty clear. [LAUGHS] I don’t want to do that.  Mario was a wonderful jazz musician.  He’d played with Chick Webb and Calloway.  So he really knew how to give jazz phrasing without fighting the clave, and that was really amazing.

Have you continued to be absorbed in clave and Latin music through the years?  Has it been a continuing preoccupation for you?

TAYLOR:  Oh, yes.  It’s something that is an important part of my style.  I wrote a book, “How To Play The Bombo” and some little piano books back in those years.  Whenever I play there’s always something Latin in it.  It’s just something that’s part of the way I like to play.

It would be great to hear you again with an idiomatic Latin band.

TAYLOR:  But over the years they’ve gotten closer and closer to what we do, so I’m not careful with the clave as I used to be, because you don’t have to be.

The next original is “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which you did on one of your recent records on Arkadia.  It’s one of your anthems.

TAYLOR:  Mmm-hmm.  This is a totally different version of it, though.  This is more extensive, and I’m playing things in it to test different reactions that I’m getting from Winard in particular.  It was fun.  I enjoyed playing it.  That turned out very interesting.  I played many things that I don’t normally play when I play it, and then I played some things that I always play.  It felt good.

When did you wrote it?

TAYLOR:  I wrote it in the ’60s.  I wrote it for my daughter.

Then we get to this wonderful suite of standards.  “The Man I Love” is a real highlight for me. I don’t see it on any of the recent recordings.

TAYLOR:  I’ve never recorded it. I wish it had been recorded the night before, because it was a much better performance.  It’s something that I’ve been doing in concerts for a while.  I even have better tapes on it.  I’m nitpicking.  It was a good performance. It’s one of those pieces that really defines Gershwin for me.  What he does with harmony there, and what he does with that very simple melody just knocks me out.  I really like it, and I’m going to keep on working on it til I get it right!

It occurred to me for some reason that all the standards seem to be associated with things Coleman Hawkins was playing around the time when you came to New York and got onto 52nd Street.  He recorded “The Man I Love” in ’43, “Night and Day” in ’44, “Yesterdays” I think he did around that time, and also “S’Wonderful.”

TAYLOR:  Well, it might be subliminal.  Coleman Hawkins is someone I’ve admired, looked up to and been influenced by since I first heard him in 1939, when he first came back from Europe.  And to get an opportunity to play with him when I finally came to New York was just a wonderful experience.  So I’m sure that had something to do with it.  However, “Night and Day” is on the very first record I ever made; it’s always been one of my favorites.  And I recently re-recorded it.  I had forgotten all about it, and for some reason I was thinking about Earl Hines.  (I’ll be doing a project on Earl Hines in a couple of weeks.)  But back then, which was a couple of years ago, when I made the Ten Fingers, One Mind record, I was thinking about Earl Hines, and that’s what prompted me to play it.  It had nothing to do with either my first record or Coleman Hawkins.

Teddy Wilson played on his version.

TAYLOR:  Yeah, I remember the one with Teddy, but none of that had anything to do with it!  I was thinking of Earl Hines.  I was working with Eddie South, and Earl Hines played the tune on… We did a concert together in Washington, D.C., my home town.  That was the first time I had ever played opposite Earl Hines.  I did several times later, but that was the first time I’d ever played opposite him.  And he was one of those guys who I looked up to when I was a child, man.  I used to listen to him on the radio and see him when he had the great bands that he would bring to D.C., including the band that had Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.  I just couldn’t believe I was on the same bill with him.  So that night when he played “Night And Day,” I was all ears, because I had never heard him play that.  I heard him play stuff with bands, you know.  And he just wiped me out.  It was just beautiful.  After all these years, I’m sure there’s nothing on there that I played that I got from him.  But just the memory of him doing it inspired me to do it.

Within these, your Tatum reference is evident all the time because of your two-handed orchestral thing, but the Bud Powell vocabulary is so prominent in the voicings.

TAYLOR:  Well, Bud was influenced by Tatum, and so some of the things that are similar in our work, we both got from Tatum — or our take on what Tatum did.  I had a very difficult time making the changeover from some of the things that I loved in the style that I like to call Prebop.  It was beyond swing, but it was the kind of thing that Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins and Ike Quebec and Budd Johnson and Lester Young… A lot of musicians played in this style that was not yet Bebop.  They could play fast like the Beboppers, they could use very intricate harmonies and make all kinds of melodies using that harmony, but they didn’t have the rhythmmic change that came with Bebop yet.  Some of them did later, but at that time they didn’t.  So I was trying to come to grips with all these things that I loved in music, and I wanted to make the change to it.  I didn’t want to lose something just to gain something.  So it was a very difficult time for me.

When would you say that you formed the style that we associate with Billy Taylor?

TAYLOR:  I would say when I was with Don Redman, when I was in Europe, when I finally… I was away from the scene, and I really began to think about the things that I knew and the things that I wanted to say musically, and so it began to come together then.

In forming your style, you had a rather extensive musical training, and from what I know about you, always played music, had a lot of lessons, had always a facility for the piano, were talked into making it your life’s work by a teacher at Virginia State University…

TAYLOR:  I think you did your homework.

When did you start being cognizant of pianists with styles, with individual voices coming through the piano, and who were the first people you emulated?

TAYLOR:  My uncle was the first one.  He played different from anyone in my family.  Everyone in the family played European Classical Music.  And my uncle Robert played Stride piano.  I thought in those days, because I hadn’t heard a lot of pianists that he sounded like Fats Waller, because I had heard Fats Waller on the radio.  I realized later, when I began to hear the difference between Eubie Blake and Fats Waller and some of the other stride piano players, that he sounded more like Willie “The Lion” Smith.  He had kind of the lope that I associate with Willie, although he was kind of melodic in that sense.  It was a little different from Fats; it was melodic in a different sense.  But Fats Waller really was the first stylist that captured me.  I just thought that was wonderful, and that was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to play like that.  Then I heard Teddy Wilson, I heard Art Tatum.

Did your folks take you out to hear music.

TAYLOR:  No-no, oh, no…

Did you go to theaters?

TAYLOR:  I went to theaters.  Every week in Washington, D.C., there was a different band at the Howard Theater.  I got to hear all the great bands.  I heard Ellington, I heard Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson; you name them, I heard them, every week.  Jazz was the popular music of my childhood.  When I was growing up, you could turn on the radio and hear in the afternoon, “And now from the Savoy Ballroom the Chick Webb Band with Ella Fitzgerald” and all that kind of stuff.

When did you first start working?  Did you do little gigs as a teenager around Washington?

TAYLOR:  Yeah, when I was 13.

What sort of gigs?

TAYLOR:  Dance band.  That and parties were the only things around.  Every now and then somebody would ask me to play a party or something like that, which was sort of semiprofessional.  But the professional things, I’d get a chance to substitute for a real professional piano player in a real band, which was terrific!

So really for 65 years you’ve been playing in public.  A few words about your association with “The Man I Love.”

TAYLOR:  Well, Gershwin is one of my favorite composers.  I play a lot of Gershwin.  And I learned a lot about him from people like Willie The Lion Smith and some of the older piano players, who actually knew him and who hung out with him, and they talked about when he would come up to Harlem and some of the things they would do, and the tricks they’d play on him and vice-versa.  They had all these tales about him and other composers who came to Harlem to kind of listen to what was going on.  I realized that one of the reasons why jazz musicians play the musicians of the ’20s and ’30s so much is because those composers really hung out with the jazz musicians of the time, and so the things that they were writing were commingling.  I mean, everybody was influencing everybody else.

A few words about your association to “Yesterdays.”

TAYLOR:  That’s Jerome Kern, and that’s always been… The first time I saw the sheet music to that, I just loved the piece.  I fooled around with it and fooled around with it; I’ve been playing it for many years.  I always find something different in it.  It’s a wonderful composition.  That and “All The Things You Are” are two of the most interesting compositions in the American Pop-Broadway kind of repertoire for me.

Are you a lyrics man?  Do you know lyrics for all the standards that you play?

TAYLOR:  No, I’m just different from most of my friends who learn lyrics to these things.  I don’t even remember my own lyrics, the ones that I write to pieces.  I just don’t have a memory for words like that.  I don’t know why.  I guess because I don’t sing enough.  But I think lyrically.  In terms of anything I write, I sort of in the back of my mind figure, “One day I’m going to write a lyric to that.”  So I think melodically in that sense.

Who are some of the Classical composers who inflect the way you think about improvising?

TAYLOR:  Bach, Chopin, Debussy.  They’re probably the biggest influences.   But there are things there that go back to Mozart, go back to some Beethoven things that are embedded somewhere in my mind.

Have you continued to make Classical music part of your practice repertoire over the years?

TAYLOR:  No.  I really found that there was so much that I wanted to do in jazz that I’ve really focused on that, even in my writing.  All the pieces that I’ve written are jazz pieces.  Because since jazz is America’s classical music, I wanted to do what Duke Ellington did.  He wrote for everything.  I mean, he wrote for Broadway, sacred pieces, he wrote for movies, he wrote for nightclubs, he wrote for vaudeville — he did it all.  And I’m saying, well, if the music is that flexible, I’d like to try to get into as many areas as I can.  So I’ve written for dance, for television, I’ve written commercials and things for “Sesame Street.”  “Homage” is actually a string quartet with a rhythm section.  So I try to do things that are true to jazz, but in the same spirit that people like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington have done before me.  They wrote with…even though they may have used a form that was associated with Mozart or with somebody else, the form didn’t dictate the content.

Could you, as Dr. Billy Taylor, evaluate the position of Billy Taylor the pianist in American music and in jazz lineage?

TAYLOR:  Well, that’s difficult for me.  I mean, I have influenced a lot of people, but it’s not obvious, and unless they acknowledge it I don’t… Or maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I’m hearing things…

Apart from the influence, what is your contribution?

TAYLOR:  I wrote the first book on how to play Bebop.  So a lot of people got the idea of the fact that Bebop was serious music and that it could be studied and so forth, based on this book I wrote back in 1948 or 1949 entitled Basic Bebop Instruction.  So I guess one of the things that I have really focused on for most of my life is to try to develop my own…to say what I had to say musically to as broad an audience as I could, and show through my own work that jazz was serious music…that it was all the things that I think it is.

So it’s to communicate without dumbing-down.

TAYLOR:  Yeah, that’s exactly correct.  I resent the things like in the ’70s where everybody said, “Let’s do Jazz-Rock so we can win over the young people.”  We didn’t win over a soul.  That was just a terrible time in terms of people delivering misinformation.  Yet at the same time, while all this misinformation was going on, there were people who were coming from jazz and coming from R&B, and really doing things that were exceptional, that have become a part of the music.  But the record people and the music business people are too stupid to know what that is.

Let me ask you about the three Ellington tunes that comprise a kind of suite.  I think I read a story that a friend of yours called Billy White in high school turned you on to “Sentimental Mood” back in the day.  “Caravan” seems to be a thing you use as a drum feature for a while.

TAYLOR:  Mmm-hmm.

And you’ve done that arrangement, that slowed down “Take The A Train,” which forgive me, but I seem to remember Coleman Hawkins doing on that 1962 Impulse record…

TAYLOR:  Really?

Oh, maybe that was “Cherokee” he did it with.

TAYLOR:  Yes, it was “Cherokee.”

I have Coleman Hawkins on the brain.

TAYLOR:  Hey, listen, you can’t do too much better than that.  Actually, there’s a story behind that.  I actually had been playing…not always in public… I started playing it at Billy Strayhorn’s funeral.  I was asked by Reverend John Gensel to play at the funeral, and I did.  This is when he had a church up on Broadway.  So I was up in the choir loft, playing.  While I was playing, during the service, Ray Nance came up and said, “Reverend Gensel said I could play something.”  I said, “Okay, what do you want to play?”  He said, “A Train.”  Well, I thought he was going to play it fast, because that’s the way I’d always played it.  So he said, “Let me start it.”  I said, “Okay.”  So he played a little cadenza and then started it as a ballad.  And I never until that moment realized how beautiful the melody was!  So I said, “Hey!”  So I started to play it like that, and I’ve continued to play it like that ever since.

A few words about the dynamics of the “Sentimental Mood” that make it so attractive to you.

TAYLOR:  Well, Duke Ellington was a master at doing a lot with a little.  He took a very simple harmonic device (and that’s what I do in the very opening of my introduction to the melody) where he plays a minor chord and then he lowers the tonic a half-step, then another half-step.  It’s a device that’s used by many people.  It was used harmonically in the tune “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin.  It was used in “My Funny Valentine” by Rodgers & Hart.  It’s a really common device.  But he uses it so beautifully, and he’s so original.  He comes up with a melody you just wouldn’t expect from that combination of chords.

The impression I always get of you is that you’re perpetually looking forward to the next project, forward-looking,  and amazingly youthful.  A recording like this, and particularly the second set is such a beautiful dialogue with the past.  One of the things I love about jazz is that constant interplay of past and present.

TAYLOR:  Well, for me, in many cases, the past is the present.  I realize that what’s happening now, jazz is going through a period of reevaluation.  People like Wynton Marsalis and other talented young people are looking back, as I did when I was their age, and saying, “Here are some things that were done by mentors and by predecessors, and I want to really look carefully at that, because I want to build something… I don’t want to do what they did, but I want to build something on it.”  I hear so much of that now, I’m really excited by it.  It’s something that many people of my generation have done, but we do it from a different perspective.  So it’s just delightful to hear some of the young players now, trombone players and trumpet players using a mute to wah-wah kind of thing that Duke Ellington did.  They hadn’t done that in years.  And to hear some of the pianists utilizing two-handed playing, whether it’s stride or some other form of two-handed playing.  It’s really very refreshing to realize that it’s not just some of the things that one has heard other pianists do, Bill Evans or… They’re doing some different things.

One of the great things about jazz is that it seems self-regenerating within its forms.  When we talk about it as “classical music,” we’re not talking about it as a museum, but as a living entity.

TAYLOR:  Many people misunderstand what I’m saying when I say jazz is classical music.  When they think of classical music, they only think of European classical music.  But they refuse to recognize that there’s Chinese classical music and there is Indian classical music, both of which have things which are similar to jazz in terms of improvisatory aspects within the forms that they generate and things that are unique to the moment in both of those types of classical music.  So classical music doesn’t have to come to the conclusions that European classical music came to.  European classical music, unfortunately, in the ’60s or ’50s began to go into an area which excluded the audience.  It became so intellectual that the audience was excluded and the audience rejected it.  So now, many of the composers who were trained in that form are looking to other means of expression.  I was reading a review or something of Bill Bolcom the other day, an opera he’s just written, and it was a good review, so evidently he’s reaching out to the critics as well as the audience.  I hope that’s a trend which will continue.  Because there have always been people who wrote in the European tradition, like Leonard Bernstein, who was put down heavily because he was reaching audiences.  Everybody said, “How good could it be?  The audience understands it.”  And it was ridiculous, because here was a man who was a genius, and who really did wonders with the things that he learned and respected from Mahler and from all the great writers, and yet he was just as good…

[END OF SIDE OF FIRST TAPE]

Leonard Bernstein was to me one of the great musicians of the century.  He was a wonderful pianist, a wonderful composer, a wonderful conductor, and one of our great teachers.  I look at him as one of the directions that European Classical Music could go in, because he was very American in what he did, even though he was steeped in the European tradition.

One final question, which is a sort of silly one.  Do you have a most exciting bandstand moment that you can single out over the years?

TAYLOR:  Well, there are so many of them.  I’ve been playing a long time.  And every time someone asks that question I say, “Well, this was terrific, that was terrific” — any number of things.  In nightclubs, one of the great moments for me was when I played opposite the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Birdland.  It was a solo performance.  It was opening night, and Duke Ellington had just brought the house down with Louis Bellson’s drum solo, and just… I mean, the place was literally screaming; the people were just yelling and screaming and standing up.  It was bedlam in the place, you know.  Instead of taking his bow and thanking them profusely and walking off, he thanked them, and he stood there, and he thanked them again, and then he began to say, “Louis Bellson loves you madly, Johnny Hodges loves you madly,” and he began to go through the individual names of all the members of the band.  As he was saying that, the whole sound in the room lowered so that they could hear what he was saying.  And when it was sufficiently quiet, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a young man from my home town who is going to play the piano for you.  I want to hear him.  So I’d like you to join me in listening to Mr. Billy Taylor.”  Well, I’ll never forget that.

Do you see your sound as transcending style?  As Ellington might say, as being beyond category?

TAYLOR:  Well, I hope so.  Because I try to include… He was a big influence on me, Tatum was an influence, Don Redman was an influence, Don Byas was an influence.  I have so many things.  Coleman Hawkins.  When I worked with Coleman Hawkins, I knew the solo in “Body and Soul,” and he didn’t — because he never learned that solo.  It was an improvisation.

Did he always improvise “Body and Soul”?

TAYLOR:  Yeah.  He would never play that solo.  People would come in every night and ask for it.  He’d play “Body and Soul” but he’d never play that solo.

All the musicians knew it but he didn’t.

TAYLOR:  That’s right.  Everybody in the band knew it, but him.  I made several records with him, but the one that I remember was with Papa Jo Jones.

’54, right?

TAYLOR:  That’s right.

You play “Cheek To Cheek”…

TAYLOR:  That’s correct.  That’s the one.

…and “Jitterbug Waltz.”

TAYLOR:  For me, that was one of those dates that if I never made another record, I’d say, “Well, thank you.” [LAUGHS] Just to be with those guys on that occasion.

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Filed under Dr. Billy Taylor, Interview, Piano