Tag Archives: Ben Webster

For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For David Murray’s 57th Birthday, a Jazziz Article From 2007 and a DownBeat Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

David Murray turned 57 a few days ago; he’ll be in NYC next week to present his latest project, a big band collaboration with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a partner on various projects over the last 35 years. I’ve appended a feature piece that I wrote about Murray in 2008 for Jazziz, framed around the release of Banished, and also a Blindfold Test from the early ’00s.

* * *
“I’ve always been around poets,” said David Murray, in New York City in January to play the Knitting Factory with his quartet. “They bare their soul so much. When I get my hands on a good poem, I can see the music jumping off the page. The word is powerful.”

Recently arrived from his home in Paris, Murray was having a pre-gig dinner at Chez Josephine. The walls of the West 42nd Street bistro are festooned with photographs and memorabilia of Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer-chanteuse out of St. Louis, who sailed to Paris in 1925, at 18, and transformed herself into a staple of French popular culture. After the second world war, she adopted a dozen impoverished French orphans, one of them the proprietor, who reinforces a tone of soulful Francophilia, both with the menu — fried chicken and collard greens share pride of place with snails and bouillabaisse — and the entertainment, provided by an elderly black woman in her Sunday best singing to her own piano accompaniment and a woman of similar vintage blowing melodies and obbligatos on trumpet.

Murray and his pianist, Lafayette Gilchrist, sat near the piano, facing Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife and manager, and Jim West, who runs Justin Time Records, which recently issued Sacred Ground, Murray’s 10th release for the label. On Sacred Ground, Murray and his Black Saint Quartet stretch out on seven songs — on two, Cassandra Wilson sings lyrics by Ishmael Reed — that the leader wrote for the soundtrack of Banished. The PBS documentary film, which premiered in February, examines three towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas from which residents of African descent were forceably removed during the years after Reconstruction, and which remain lily-white today.

Banished is the most recently realized of an ambitious series of projects, all touching on Afro-diasporic themes, that Murray, 52, launched after he migrated from New York City to the City of Light in 1996 to join Malot, with whom he has two children. It follows Pushkin, a fully-staged quasi-opera, as yet unrecorded, on which Murray wrote a suite of songs to French, English, Creole, and Bantu translations of texts by the immortal Russian poet, himself the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince. During his dozen years of self-imposed exile, Murray, among other things, has composed big band and string music for Cuban ensembles, and created repertoire for bands comprised of musicians from Guadeloupe (CreoleYonn-de, and Gwotet, Senegal (Fo Deuk Revue), and the Black American Church (Speaking in Tongues). Later that evening at the Knitting Factory, he intended to touch base with poet Amiri Baraka, the librettist of “Sisyphus Syndrome,” scheduled to open on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, for which Murray had as yet completed only five of 15 songs. In two days, he would fly to Cuba, to audition a string ensemble to perform as-yet-to-be written arrangements for a proposed celebration of Nat “King” Cole with Cassandra Wilson.

After ordering the fried chicken, Murray took his glass of vin rouge to a quieter spot at the front of the bar. “Next week I’m going to be writing like crazy,” he said. “But the deadlines keep me motivated. It’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘If I want to get something finished, all I need is a deadline.’ But between Banished and Sisyphus, I have music to play with my quartet for the next two years.”

In the summer of 2006, Banished director Marco Williams, a Murray fan since the saxophonist’s New York glory days in the ’80s, contacted Malot about Murray’s availability and sent a two-hour rough cut to Paris. “He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to use me, but I forced myself upon him,” Murray said. “I stopped everything else I was doing, didn’t wait for nobody to give me no money, started writing songs, and had Valerie tape them and send them to him over the Internet.”

“It was a challenging process,” Williams relates. “David is not someone who’s going to write notes that hit a certain cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether the music was going to work or not. But I wanted a collaborator, not someone just to score the film. And it was completely evident that David got the movie, it meant something to him, and he wanted to express something. The music was so beautiful, so evocative. I told my editors, ‘We’ll just get all the stems, and cut down as needed.’”

“Basically, this is ethnic cleansing,” Murray elaborated. “You see that monster, you got to cut the head off. My way of trying to cut the head off was to send him tunes.”

Without much prodding, Murray revealed that the film’s particulars resonated with his own family’s experience.

“Most black people who know their family history talk about how they got ran off,” he said. “We don’t know the terms ‘banished’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We say, ‘We got ran off.’ When a town decides it don’t need you no more, that’s just how it is.” Murray cited his maternal grandfather, George Hackett, a sharecropper who went to Midland, Texas, and struck oil. “They ran him off the property, but he managed to sell his oil rights, and moved to California,” he said. “He was very enterprising. He went north to the Bay Area, but that was too far. A black man at that time couldn’t do nothing with the sea. Then he remembered he’d seen cotton in Fresno. He knew cotton, so he turned around to go where the produce was. He bought a block in Fresno, called Hackett Flats. It still has that name, and I own property on that plot.”

By Murray’s account, his paternal grandfather, a Nebraskan, was less fortunate, leaving his wife six months pregnant with Murray’s father when he fell from a scaffold in a gusting wind. Born in 1925 and full-grown in 1940, David Murray, Sr. hopped a train from Nebraska to Los Angeles, started a body and fender shop near Central Avenue, sent for his mother and older brother, and at 17, lied about his age and joined the Navy. Decommissioned in 1946, he moved to the Bay Area, tried out for the San Francisco 49ers, even joined the circus as an acrobat, but then returned to body-and-fender work, raised his family, and played guitar at church in a band with his wife, sons, and two nephews. Murray played bongos, but for one evening’s gathering, having just received an alto saxophone from his junior high school band director, Phil Hardiman, he brought his new possession.

“I didn’t know jack-shit, just squeaked and squawked,” he says. “I probably sounded a little like I do now, but now I actually know what I’m doing. It was like, ‘Wow, that young Murray is exuberant. He’s got a lot of energy.’ Then a couple of weeks later, ‘He’s starting to learn the songs now. Oh, yeah!’ I knew the melodies because my mother was always playing them. You can say that I am an on-the-job training type of guy.”

Physically mature like his father during high school, Murray, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, starred as a football tailback, got good grades, and earned money playing music. “I was always a leader,” he said. “From 13, I was bringing money home to give to my dad. We won a youth contest to play all the Shakey’s pizza parlors in the Bay Area. We had a gig every weekend for three years. We’d do any song, like ‘A Taste of Honey,’ and I’d improvise, not even knowing that I was playing jazz. Then I began to learn it. I’d heard Sonny Rollins play a solo saxophone concert at the Greek Theater, and he was a mighty influence. That’s when I started playing tenor. Later I had a funk group called the Notations of Soul, one of the tight bands in town. We played all the dances and proms. We played a lot of James Brown, of course. They started calling me ‘Murray-O,’ after Maceo Parker.”

During Murray’s teens, post-bop titans like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw settled in the Bay Area, but Murray — who was slowing down Coleman Hawkins LPs to 16 r.p.m to analyze his solos — opted for the freedom principle, particularly the high-intensity post-Coltrane direction emblemized by Albert Ayler, himself a son of the sanctified church with early R&B experience. On a tip from trombonist Ray Anderson, whom he met during a successful audition for a horn section, Murray matriculated at the University of California-Claremont, and spent the next few years refining his craft with the likes of Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Butch Morris, all regulars at informal sessions at the house of Stanley Crouch, then a playwright, poet, and professor on the Claremont faculty, and a  drummer under the sway of Sunny Murray.

In 1975, Murray moved to New York City, sharing a loft with Crouch over the Tin Palace, an ultra-hip bar on the Bowery.

“All my Dad said was, ‘Just go out there and make some money — you’ll get good,’” Murray said. He followed that advice, performing as a peer of such A-list outcat elders as Sunny Murray, Don Pullen, and Lester Bowie, as well as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett, his future partners in the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1979, he assembled an octet, hiring the likes of Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Henry Threadgill. As the ’80s progressed he gigged frequently with two quartets, one a boisterous harmolodic unit with Blood Ulmer, the other a quartet with hardcore jazz masters like pianist John Hicks, bassists Fred Hopkins and Ray Drummond, and the iconic drummers Edward Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille. He also led ad hoc encounters with Randy Weston, Jack DeJohnette, and Milford Graves, and conceived elaborate homages to such heroes as Hawkins and Paul Gonsalves.

“I figured out that I could actually call the best musicians in the world and they’d show up, that I’d have one of the best bands just by hiring the best rhythm sections,” Murray said. “They taught me how to play. But I became a man in the World Saxophone Quartet. I’d be saying too much about myself if I said I was their equal when we began. But after five years, my sound started getting bigger. Finally, I became their contemporary — and they let me know it.”

Murray attracted a worldwide fan base through the lyric swagger and raw edge of his tonal personality. He drew criticism from many ’80s “young lions,” who attacked him as a poseur, suggesting that his predisposition to blast off to the outer partials stemmed less from an independent aesthetic decision than insufficient grounding in the tropes of tradition. As Crouch, who had championed Murray during the ’70s, joined forces with Wynton Marsalis to establish the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut, Murray was unceremoniously deleted from the mainstream conversation. He recorded ever more prolifically, for multiple labels, and toured regularly with his various ensembles, but he was falling into a rut, and his rambunctious lifestyle was beginning to take a toll.

“I was troubled, and I needed to leave,” Murray recalls. “I had Paris in my sights.” For one thing, Paris was a magnet for African musicians. For another, Malot, who grew up in North Africa and whose sister’s husband, Klod Klavue, is a master Gwo-Ka drummer from Guadeloupe, understood — and through her booking and production experience was in a position to actualize — Murray’s desire “to get closer to my African roots and do a little personal research” on them by traveling to and performing with “groups of people in Senegal, in Ghana, in South Africa, in Cuba I’d met that I could relate to.”

“Jazz has the primal feeling of African drums and the sophistication of the city,” Murray says. “A primal force, like [drummer] Dudu Ndiaye Rose, brings very complex rhythms. I bring the harmonies and melodies. It  makes me want to play and sweat, like praising the Lord, going into a trance and getting back to roots. I’m trying to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

Today, Murray is less enamored with Paris than he once was. (“[The French] have an attitude that gets on your nerves.”) Nonetheless, Murray finds family life a sanctuary that provides space to think and focus, to work more systematically than the distractions of the New York City allowed.

“I used to put out five albums a year; now I put one out every year or 18 months,” he says. “I worked all the time and took pretty much any gig; now I take select gigs, maybe 120 concerts a year. I’m in Paris half the time, moving around the other half.  I’m not aligning myself with the avant-garde or the bebop, I’m just David Murray. I take my kids to school at 8:30, then I exercise, and I’m home at 9:30. I write until noon, and practice the rest of the day till 6, going through my books, trying to keep my chops up and my mind open. When a project comes up, I get very serious, and don’t study nobody else’s shit but mine. That will last for three months, and then there’s no project. Then I go back to my little everyday shit.”

He’s restless, though, and perhaps another journey is imminent.“One year I’m going to take my saxophone and go around the world myself,” he said. “I’ve got to do it soon, before I’m 55. What kind of music do people make in Tibet? What are people doing in India? I want to play with them.”

* * *

David Murray Blindfold Test:

1.    Charles Mingus, “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” (from “Live at Antibes,” Atlantic, 1960/1994), Mingus, bass, composer; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Ted Curson, tp.; Dannie Richmond, d. (5 stars)

That’s Mingus.  “Better Get It In Your Soul.”  I just love… I heard this on the radio in Paris the other day.  We were in a car.  Everybody said, “Who’s that guy back there?”  I said, “That’s Mingus.  He’s pushing the band on.”  He’s saying all kind of stuff.  We need people like this guy.  We need more people like him.  Is the trumpet player Lonnie Hillyer?  [It’s not Lonnie Hillyer.]  Who’s that bald-headed guy, that trumpet player?  [Ted Curson.] That’s Ted!  I could be wrong, but I get the Clifford Jordan vibe from the tenor player. [No.] So it’s Ted Curson, Eric and…goddamn, who is it?  [Well, how did you like the saxophone player?] I loved him.  It wasn’t a long solo.  He was kind of breaking up there at the top, but I liked him.  And definitely it’s before the period when George came into the band.  It couldn’t have been him.  I’m trying to think of who was in that band, because I’ve never seen that band… [Should I tell you?] No, not yet.  Because I might come up with it.  [How would you describe his sound?] What’s the characteristic of his sound?  [Warm.  A little brittle at the top.  [Do you get a sense of where he’s from?  Could you locate him geographically by his sound?] Texas. [You got it.] Texas.  I’m just trying to think who the heck it is.  What’s that tenor player…Red Conner? [No.  But this guy was under Red Conner.] Under Red Conner. [He heard that when he was young.  People say he sounded very close to Red Conner.] That’s a very good hint.  Under Red Conner.  And this guy is still around. [No, he died.] Oh, boy.  Texas.  Who’s from Texas.  He sounds like a few different people to me.  That’s why I thought it might have been Clifford, because of the way he started that solo.  Because Clifford always had that restraint, then you’d wait for him to bust it, then he finally busts it at the end.  To me, that’s Clifford.  When I was playing with the Mingus All Star Big Band on that record we did in Paris, I was sitting between Clifford and…who’s that alto player, that guy who’s riding on the horse… He did like one of them slick tunes.  I can’t remember his name.  He teaches at University of San Francisco. [Not John Handy.] Handy.  I was sitting between Clifford and Handy.  Damn, this guy is dead, huh? [For many years.] From Texas.  The only guy he sounds like to me… [AFTER] Goddammit.  I love Booker.  Man, I love him.  I should have got that. {How about the Mingus band?  Did it have an impact on you?] I heard that a lot.  In fact, that… [Your octet reminds me of that sort of feeling.] Sure, of course.  Because I love Mingus’ music.  My son is named Mingus!  That kind of explains things, too.  Just having those three horns or however many horns he’s got, and me having five horns, you get a balance… You could go many ways, especially if you have at least five horns up there.  It could go so many different ways.  Mingus taught me that, how you could try to make a small or middle sized band sound sometimes like a big band, sometimes like a small group, have that flexibility.  Booker Ervin, what a beautiful player. [You have to give stars.] On a recording like this, it’s stood the test of time.  It’s got to be a 5.  Of course.

2.    Charles Lloyd, “Homage” (from “Voice In The Night,” ECM, 1998), Lloyd, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. (4 stars)

He’s got that Trane thing happening.  Coltrane influenced a lot of people, man.  The guitar, that’s interesting.  I wasn’t expecting the guitar.  Man, there was like a budding genius… I forget his name.  He played tenor and guitar and piano.  Remember that guy?  He died. [Arthur Rhames.] Arthur Rhames. [It’s not him, though.] But he had Trane down, though.  Is tenor his only instrument? [He plays flute, soprano, but primarily tenor.] Wow.  [He was very well known thirty years ago.] Is he still alive? [He’s still alive.  This is a recent record.] This guy did an album of Billy Strayhorn… [Oh, Joe Henderson.  It’s not Joe.] It don’t sound like Joe. You got me on this Bay Area thing, though.  Who the hell was this… I got out of the Bay Area so fast.  As soon as I got out of high school, I was gone. [Should I tell you?] No, let me hear it out. [You might want to think about who the drummer is, too.] [MIMICKING THE STROKES] Sounds like Billy Higgins.  [It’s a studio band, though they did tour.] He just loved Coltrane, whoever the hell he is!  But everybody loved Coltrane when I was growing up. [Where does he sound like he’s from?] Is this guy really old? [Not really old? [Not really old.  The generation right before us.] Who’s this tenor player, he plays a lot in the studio… He had the same piano teacher who I studied with.  He’s from the Bay Area, but he wouldn’t be the next generation before us.  He would be 25 years before me.  But he doesn’t sound like him.  Tell me. [AFTER] Charles Lloyd!  That’s Charles.  He had that Trane thing down.  I love Charles Lloyd. I guess he was in the Bay Area, but I always thought he was hanging out in L.A.  Yeah, that’s the second time I’ve been stumped by Charles Lloyd.  They played a piece for me in Japan one time, and all I could think of was John Coltrane.  But that lets you know how well he absorbed the Coltrane legacy.  He doesn’t necessarily sound like Coltrane that much now.  But during that period he was certainly all over. [Well, that was the one piece on the album that was in Coltrane’s style.  How many stars?] I’d have to give it at least 4 stars, because Billy’s back there playing and boppin’, and I’ll leave off one for creativity perhaps.  How can I say it… Coltrane is such a large figure that… Can’t nobody do it like Coltrane.  I don’t care who you are.  That’s why, in my explorations of Coltrane, I tried to stay away from trying to sound like him, because that’s too easy.  All the notes are written somewhere.  When he studied Coltrane, I’m sure he absorbed it mostly from the records.  In old times, you could slow it down and put it on 16 and get the solo, and then speed it back up.  But now you’ve got all these Coltrane transcriptions.  I have a book over here with all of the different versions of “Giant Steps,” transcriptions of just “Giant Steps”…

3.    Michael Brecker, “Freedom of Expression” (from Milton Cardona, “Cambucha,” American Clave, 1999), Michael Brecker, ts; Milton Cardona, shekeres, doo-wop vocals; Sergio Cardona, percussion (bells). (3½ stars)

Doo-wop with like the shekere, an African kind of thing — that’s nice!  That’s creative.  I want the tenor player to play more.  When was the recording made? [’99.] My first reaction would be… I know it’s not James Carter.  What’s that guy?  Who are some of the new guys… Whoever it is, they like me.  I mean, I don’t know if they LIKE me, but they’re influenced by me. [That’s questionable.] Well, I hear it.  [This guy is older than us.] Well, then it is questionable. [And he was very prominent when you came to New York.  Although in a different area.  Do you know who the shekere player was?] He’s an old guy.  Chief Bey. It sounds like him on those shiko drums, that low drum.  Can you play it again for me? It was so sparse, I could never get a fluidity thing. [I think that was in the arrangement.] Probably so. [Because it wasn’t his arrangement.  He was playing someone else’s concept.  I’ll give you a hint.  This is a Kip Hanrahan project, and Milton Cardona is playing shekere.] Oh, Milton, yeah!  He has a strident kind of tone; maybe it’s the recording.  Is this guy alive? [Oh yeah.] [AFTER] I would have never got that.  I like Michael Brecker.  He can play his ass off.  But it’s not something that I listen to often. [I was playing that because you’ve done so many things with African rhythms.] It’s interesting.  I like the doo-wop part of it.  He always comes up with good ideas. [It was Milton Cardona’s project, and they used him.] I’ve never consciously listened to Michael other than I used to hear him play sometimes at Seventh Avenue South through the wall, because I used to live through the wall there.  I like him, but I would never have named him.  3½ stars.

4.    Von Freeman, “Solitude” (from “Never Let Me Go,” Steeplechase, 1992), Freeman, ts.; Jodie Christian, piano; Eddie DeHaas, bass; Wilbur Campbell, drums. (5 stars)

Ah, this is “Solitude.”  He has a nice touch.  Is he from Chicago? [Yes, he is.] Sounds like Von to me.  You know, that motherfucker is so bad.  I was in a bar… He plays at the Apartment Lounge I think every Tuesday night or whichever night of the week.  But whenever I’m there, it’s a must to go hear Von, because he’s one of the last great tenor players.  See, I have a problem in general with… Certain people’s sounds stick in your head, because it really is their own.  That’s probably why I got this one and didn’t get the others.  I hear parts of people in other people’s sounds, but I hear pure Von.  That’s him, man.  He’s great.  It’s just the way that people from Chicago play.  When you hear Johnny Griffin, there’s a certain kind of distinctiveness between the beat.  He’s going to fit as many notes, but it’s the way he lands that makes you know it’s him. [SINGS SUPERSONIC GRIFFIN PHRASE] Damn!  How’d you get all those notes in that couple of beats there.  Incredible.  I’ll give that 5 stars for being Von, for all of the things he’s done and all of the people he has influenced, including his son, who is also great.

5.    Charles Gayle, “Touchin’ on Trane, Part B” (from “Touchin’ on Trane,” FMP, 1991), Gayle, ts.; William Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums.

Sounds like Frank Wright.  Is it that guy who used to play with Cecil?  You know the guy who does those festivals… [William Parker.] Is that William?  [Yes, that’s William.] [AFTER RAISING HIS EYES] I keep making these facial expressions because… Maybe it’s David Ware or somebody.  I don’t know.  [Not David Ware.] I don’t want to be negative, but I… Let me not be negative. [Be constructive.] What’s that guy that used to be homeless? [Charles Gayle.  That’s who it is.] He wears a clown suit sometimes.  In Europe, Sunny Murray did a gig with him, and he said he was wearing a clown suit.  There’s a struggle that you can do when you play with your horn.  When it’s not really relaxed, it sounds like you’re fighting your horn or something like that.  That’s why I keep grimacing, is because I’m not hearing the fluidity.  But what I do hear, I like the mood of the piece.  I like what William Parker is doing.  Let me think about who the drummer is now.  It’s somebody I played with.  That’s Andrew, it sounds like. [No.] I don’t know. [It’s Rashied Ali.] Rashied, okay.  It’s hard to tell who’s playing when they play brushes.  He knows how to play the brushes.  I’ve got to give it 3 stars.

6.    Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge” (from “Ben Webster with Strings,” Verve, 1954/1995), Ben Webster, ts; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arr.) (5 stars)

That beautiful string arrangement that Billy did.  You know, I did a string arrangement kind of based on his string arrangements when I did the Ellington thing this past summer.  We had a big band, plus we had 20 strings with 2 harps.  So I kind of listened to what Billy had done with the arrangement he did for Ben. It’s beautiful, so I took that and tried to add to it.  I had 20 strings.  He only had a couple.  But it sounded like a lot of strings; it sounded great.  That’s the way the saxophone is supposed to be played.  There’s no struggle.  It’s like he’s having a conversation with you.  Now, in the Billy Strayhorn book, he said that Ben was kind of proud of Billy, and he kind of took care of him like a little… I can see that happening, because he LOVED him, because he knew how great he was.  They appreciated one another for their music.  That’s what I aspire to be. [LAUGHS] I want to be just like that when I grow up.  Shit, man, this is pure music.  And it’s not the genre even.  No, it’s not the genre.  Like, the last thing… Well, I don’t want to go back.  They could have been playing anything.  But it’s just the way that you hold that horn, the way you use it as your form of expression, it’s almost like you love it… Do you love it, or is it just a piece, a thing that you use to spit through?  Do you love it?  He loves that horn!  Shit.  I don’t know if you were around when I did that string concert at the Public Theater years ago.  I did all ballads.  I think I had 14 strings.  That was one of my most successful concerts, because people were actually weeping in the concert.  I wasn’t weeping, but I had a little funny reaction, and then a couple of years after that this family comes up to me on the street and there’s this little baby, and they said, “You know, we have to thank you, because our son was conceived that night you played this concert; it made us really fall in love.”  I did my job!  To me that was the highest compliment that anybody ever paid.  And Ben and Bird with Strings… Every saxophone player has to realize his potential in playing in front of the strings.  I think it’s a wonderful. [So I don’t need to ask you how many stars for that.] Oh, man, if they could give more stars, they could give him the tip-top.  That one stood the test of time, jack!

7.    Eric Alexander, “Straight Street” (from “Solid,” Milestone, 1998), Alexander, ts; John Hicks, piano; George Mraz, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. (4 stars)

This is a classic recording.  This is the one, right?  Oh, it’s a remake of it!  Oh, they got my piano player.  That’s John Hicks, for sure.  It sounds like Ray, too.  Wait.  No, that’s not Ray.  Hell, no.  He’d kill me!  Let me put my thinking cap on.  I like this one. [LAUGHS] Is that Curtis Lundy? [No.] I like his sound.  He sounds a younger guy, but with that old sound.  Whoever it is, he’s got it down.  I can’t say I know who he is.  I could take a wild guess, though.  When was this recording made? [’98.] Who are some younger tenor players?  I don’t really know who’s around. [AFTER] He sounds really good.  He sounds excellent.  I’d give it 4 stars, because it’s a remake of a legend.  I’d give it 5 if it were the real thing.  But John Hicks gets 5 stars for just being John Hicks, man!

8.    Sonny Rollins, “Cabin In The Sky” (from, “Plus 3,” Milestone, 1995),  Rollins, ts; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, el. bass; Jack deJohnette, drums. 3½ stars.

I know this guy.  I don’t want to be stupid too soon.  I think I have a good idea already who it is.  It’s not who I thought it was at first.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but he is a contemporary of mine, this guy… No? [He’s older than you by a fair piece.] Is he living? [He is living.] It’s Sonny Rollins when he was going through his teeth problems.  That’s  what it sounds like.  He’s going through his teeth problem.  Because it ain’t CLASSIC Sonny.  Ah, how can I say this without being negative to Sonny.  It just sounds like he’s dealing with serious dental problems.  Let’s talk about it.  Let me say something different.  Sonny Rollins, but… Let’s just say it’s not the period of Sonny Rollins that I really, really am fond of.  I think Sonny Rollins… Sonny is such a… That’s why I was grimacing during that.  Because when you play tenor, when it’s a struggle to play certain notes for somebody that great, you know there’s something physical going on.  You can tell.  Because some of the notes that he was struggling with, somebody with regular dental work wouldn’t have.  So it probably was during the period of time when something like that was happening.  Well, I loved it!  It’s Sonny Rollins.  I love Sonny Rollins.  I mean, I love him for being Sonny Rollins.  That’s not one of his best recordings, I would say.  3½ stars.  He’s going to kill me.

9.    Sam Rivers/Tony Hymas, “Glimpse” (from “Winter Garden,” NATO, 1998), Rivers, tenor sax; Hymas, piano. (5 stars)

Whoever this is, they have a very nice sound.  You know, the saxophone is the kind of instrument, when it buzzes, you know you’ve got something.  When you don’t hear that buzz, you get a flat sound.  It’s too straight.  This horn has got a buzz.  It’s alive.  He knows his horn.  Now let me figure out who it is.  Is he from this continent? [Yes.] I like the tune.  It’s beautiful. [The saxophone player wrote it.] It’s great.  He’s a good writer.  It’s got that real international kind of sound.  I’m not quite sure who it is. [He was also very prominent in your scene when you got to New York, and he was already in it.] Oh.  In my scene.  [Or parallel.  And he’s old enough to be your father.] Okay. [And you’ll kick yourself if you don’t know who it is.] I will kick myself.  Who’s the brother who teaches in upstate New York… [Not him.] Play me a little more.  I don’t want to be kicked by myself.  I love it.  Whoever it is, I really dig it. [PLAY “Impulse”] My father is almost 75 years. [That’s how old he was when he made this.] Incredible.  Is it Sam Rivers?  He’s the only guy it could be!  Sam Rivers is such a great person.  He gave me my first gig in New York.  It sounded like somebody who just knew… He’s probably forgotten more shit than most people know.  It sounded like somebody like that.  It really helped this other tune.  I may have never gotten it with just that ballad.  That’s a beautiful song.  You know when you hear a song and it sounds like it doesn’t matter what year it was made… [It’s like Classical music.] Yeah, it’s like Classical music.  It’s always going on.  You could sing it in a different language, and it will still work. [Why did you ask if the saxophone player was from this continent?] Because at first it sounded like somebody from Brazil, like what somebody Ivo Perelman might do.  I like Ivo.  But then as it went on, it sounded like somebody more mature who has been through generations.  And when you said he was old enough to be my father and you put on the faster song, I could hear Sam’s rhythms.  Rhythmically, Sam has a different kind of expression because he’s been through so much, I guess.  His rhythm is not like Sonny Rollins, where it’s like BOM-BOM, right on your head, the way he attacks.  He’s snake-like; he kind of slides through.  But he’s got that sound.  God bless Sam Rivers, man.  I hope he lives to be 100.  I’d give that tune 5 stars.

10.    David Sanchez, “Lamento Borincano” (from “Obsesión,” Columbia, 1998), Sanchez, tenor sax; Edsel Gomez, piano; John Benitez, bass; Adam Cruz, drums; Richie flores, Pernell Saturnino, percussion.  (4 stars).

Is it a recent recording? [Yes.] Everybody loves Coltrane, man!  He’s probably the most quoted tenor player since Bird, I guess.  I take it these are Spanish musicians. [Hispanic-American, U.S.-based.  But mostly from Puerto Rico.] I’ll just take a guess that it’s David Sanchez or somebody like that.  One time this guy had a funny idea to do a Three Davids —  David Murray, David Sanchez and  Fathead! It was funny, man.  People run out of themes sometimes.  So we did this thing.  And it was nice.  We did it with an organ player.  I kind of remember his sound from there.  I kind of like David Sanchez.  He’s still young.  He’s got a ways to go.  But he’s going to be one of the great ones.  I think in about two years he’ll be where he wants to be.  It takes time to be… You’re thrown in there, and there’s this big fray in New York, and they expect you to be great already.  And I’m sorry, it just doesn’t… I didn’t get my own sound til I was about 28, and I feel like I got it early. [So you feel you didn’t get your own sound until about ’83-’84.] Something like that.  I had to absorb all this stuff around me, people saying this about me, they’re writing about, “Oh yeah, you’re the next blah-blah-blah.”  What the hell, I don’t know, man.  I’m trying to play my horn.  So David Sanchez, he’s getting a lot of recognition, but at the same time, this is a young man.  Give the guy a chance to develop.  He’ll be good.  I’ll give it 4 stars.

11.    Paul Gonsalves/Sonny Stitt, “Perdido” (from “Salt and Pepper,” Impulse, 1963/1997) Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt ts; Hank Jones, p.; Milt Hinton, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. (4½ stars)

It’s two tenor players.  Paul sounds different than before he really got plastered! [You think this is before or after?] This is before.  When he gets really plastered… Here I am going negative again.  But before he’s really libated…he slips and slides even more when he… Before that, he sounds more like a normal tenor player.  You know what I’m saying?  when he plays his little figures.  But when he gets plastered, he sounds like he’s in his own zone.  And I hate to say it for the youngsters, but the guy sounds good when he’s plastered! [LAUGHS] I don’t know!  It’s like no abandon, just pure… I love Paul.  He’s my favorite tenor player, man.  This is definitely pre.  He seems pretty sober here. [Then you have to figure out the other one.] Let me see who’s in the right here.  Paul is in the left.  This is like a separate recording from an Ellington project.  This is not an Ellington project at all.  They both sound wonderful.  That’s all I know.  He’s not an Ellington tenor player. [No.] Not at all. [Not at all.] This is from a whole nother zone. [He had his career as a hired gun.] Okay!  With the correctness of the way he plays, it sounds like it could only be Sonny Stitt.  What comes to mind is the Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt thing with Dizzy where they both play their ass off, then Dizzy ends up smokin’ them both!  You’re not going to find two better tenor players on the planet anywhere than Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Stitt. [Any idea who the piano player is?] Let me hone in.  Is he alive? {The piano player is alive.  He’s an elderly guy now, but this was 40 years ago.] [AFTER] I couldn’t really get his left hand, but I should have figured that was Hank Jones.  I played with Hank once in a tenor battle in 1978 at the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Hague.  It was Archie Shepp, Lockjaw, Fathead.  Hank Mobley got sick and I took his place.  Illinois Jacquet was running the session.  Hank Jones was on piano and Max Roach on drums and Wilbur Little on bass.  That’s when everybody in Europe recognized me and said I hung pretty good with the old guys.  So that was my moment.  I’d say 4½ stars for this, only because I’ve heard Paul play better, I guess maybe for the reasons I mentioned!  I don’t know why.  But it passed the test of time again.

12.    Branford Marsalis, “Attainment” (from Jeff Watts, “Citizen Tain,” Columbia, 1998), Marsalis, ts; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Watts, drums. (5 stars)

Is it one drummer?  I like the tone of the sax player.  I’m waiting for them to get into it.  It’s nice how they got into it finally, like a lilt kind of.  [4 minutes.] I’m not quite sure who this is, but the spirituality of it is something that I can sort of relate to.  Is this a young player, or an older one? [A little younger than you; not too much.] Sounds good, though. [He’s someone you have encountered over the years.  You’ve had a dialogue.] A word dialogue? [I just mean a dialogue.] Oh, a dialogue.  That sounds good to me.  You mean we played together. [I’m just going to say you had a dialogue!] Okay, man.  I’m trying to figure out… It sounds familiar.  Somebody that I know.  Geez… It’s not Chico.  [Okay, you played together.] I’m trying to think what tenor players I played with.  A tenor player that I played with and is younger than me.  [Not that much younger, but definitely affiliated with a different generation than you.] Branford Marsalis.  He sounds good, man.  The spirituality comes through.  It sounds good! [So you can probably figure who the other guys were.] I guess with his band perhaps.  Jeff Tain and the brother who just passed away, Kenny Kirkland.  It was a very nice piece.  I’m impressed.  We encounter one another in Europe all the time.  He’s playing a lot of soprano.  He don’t play tenor that much on the gig.  But I admire him.  He’s a great player.  I’ll give that 5 stars because the spirituality is there, and you feel something. [That was Tain’s record, not Branford..] Tain did a good record, then.  God bless him.

13.    Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth” (from “From The Soul,” Blue Note, 1991), Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. (4 stars)

It kind of sounds like Dewey. [Dewey’s influenced an aspect of his playing.] Dewey’s son. [No, it’s not Joshua.] Okay.  He definitely likes Dewey.  But he sounds good.  I like the composition… [Who’s the drummer?] I wasn’t even listening for that.  Give me a few more minutes, a little glimpse of the drummer.  I’ll play you the one before, a duo. [PLAY “Modern Man.”] It’s definitely not Dewey now.  He sounds completely different now to me. Is it a recent recording? [1991] I think I need a clue. [The saxophone player has become very prominent in this decade.  This was a sort of breakthrough recording for him.  And he’s a year or two older than you.] Oh, that’s great.  Gee.  A year or two older than me.  It’s not Don Braden or someone like that.  I don’t know who it is. [AFTER] Oh, I know Joe.  I should have known that.  I don’t really know his sound.  He sounds good, though.  I’ve seen him over in Holland; we were hanging out in Amsterdam.  I don’t really know his sound, so I probably would have never guessed that. [Who’s the drummer?  Do you know?] [AFTER] That’s Blackwell?  No shit.  4 stars.

14.    Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (“In All Languages,” Verve, 1987/1997).  Coleman, tenor sax; Don Cherry, tp.; Charlie Haden, b.; Billy Higgins, drums.

It sounds like they’re out of the Ornette Coleman school.  Which is a great school.  Sounds like Dewey to me.  Is that Dewey? [No.] That’s Ornette on tenor!  No wonder it’s out of the Ornette school! [LAUGHS] There’s one note Ornette always play when he plays tenor.  He plays like he’s playing alto, and it just hits that note!  I think he can play any saxophone.  But I’d like to hear him play baritone one day.  He probably could play the shit out of that, too.  People have to recognize that there are… If we’re lucky enough while we’re here, we’ll come across maybe 3 or 4 geniuses whose music really is something that has a lot of influence, and Ornette is one of them.  There aren’t many of them out here now left that their concept was maybe the strongest thing… The concept supersedes even the playing itself.  That’s what brings his genius into it.  That’s why you can hear his… When he did this thing at Lincoln Center, I heard about it.  I heard it was wonderful.  I want to hear some recordings from it.  But those kinds of things Ornette is brilliant on.  We need to hear him more.  He gets 5 stars for all the abuse they’ve given him over the years

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, Blindfold Test, David Murray, DownBeat, Jazziz

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I’ve interpolated a few of Von’s remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930’s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930’s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: “It Could Happen To You” (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

1 Comment

Filed under Chicago, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR