Six or seven months after I began broadcasting on WKCR, Eustis Guillemet, a bass player from New Orleans, asked if I’d be interested in interviewing the iconic drummer Ed Blackwell (October 10, 1929 – October 7, 1992) on the Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show, a six-hour slot that affords an opportunity for in-depth investigation of an artist’s work. I’d done a program with Eustis not long before — I have to find the cassette, and I hope it’s still workable — in which he spoke at length about the musical culture of New Orleans in the ’40s and ’50s, and he was interested in finding an outlet to propagate this history to the NYC radio audience. Needless to say, I was more than enthusiastic at the opportunity to talk with Blackwell, then extremely active and visible with Old and New Dreams, various projects with David Murray and Mal Waldron, and the occasional leader project of his own. Eustis facilitated the proceedings; the appearance midway through the show of the English journalist Valerie Wilmer — an old friend of Blackwell’s and author of the seminal book As Serious As Your Life, which contains an eloquent chapter on the maestro — was also a wonderful surprise.
What follows is the transcribed proceedings of our conversation, presented publicly for the first time.
* * *
Eustis, how far back do you and Blackwell go?
EG: Well, I remember around 1954, when I was in school, that’s when I was working at Xavier University, in the Music Department, and they came back and introduced themselves…
Who came back?
EG: Well, Edward Blackwell, Ellis Marsalis and Nat Perillat. And I’ve been a part of them ever since. Actually, they kidnapped me really.
They kidnapped you.
EG: Edward said, “You’re the bass player…”
EB: Yeah, he was the bass drummer in the band.
The bass drummer?
EB: Yeah, the bass drum in the marching band. So we thought that we had to get that drum off his neck and put a fiddle in his hand.
Let’s start from first sources with Mister Blackwell. Now, I have two conflicting birthdates for you, not the date, but the year—1927 and 1929.
EB: It’s 10-10-29.
10-10-29. And from New Orleans from the start?
EB: New Orleans, that’s right. Born and raised.
Tell us how you came to the drums.
EB: Well, that’s a funny thing. I just came to the drums naturally because of the fact that I had musicians in my family. My brother and sister were tap dancers, and they traveled with a show that they used to call the Brown’s Mannequins, which was a Black vaudeville act. And as a result, I would always be tapping around with pots and pans, and always trying to play some type of rhythm, because of the way they practiced tapping. So just as a natural thing, I was influenced by the drums.
And when did you get your first set of traps?
EB: My first set of traps were bought by my sister’s husband. It was an old 26-inch bass drum, a set that was used by a chick who played with a group called the Sweethearts of Rhythm. And he bought this set for me, and I converted it into a Jazz set as best as I could…
Did you play on the Second Line at all? Were you active in that…?
EB: Well, I was active in that only in the fact of traveling behind the musicians, which was called the Second Line. But I never played any of that Second Line music.
Let me ask you this. The type of music that you were listening to, was that the big bands off the radio, or stuff that was happening vocally…?
EB: Right. Well, I had… My older brother used to go to a lot of dances that the bands would come through, like Cab Calloway or Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. He was a big fan of those bands, and he would buy the records and bring them back and play them — and I would listen to them.
I’d like to know who were some of the drummers in the 1930′s and early Forties who turned you on, who gave you some sense of the approach you wanted to take to the drums.
EB: Well, the main drummer I remember was the drummer called Wilbur Hogan. He was one of our biggest influences. Wilbur was about three grades ahead of me in school. And when I went to high school, he had been there for three years — and I wanted to play in the band, but I couldn’t read. But he volunteered to teach me to read the music. So the teacher accepted me as a drummer in the high school band. That’s how I was able to make the high school band. But Wilbur was the one that first taught me about the rudiments and the paradiddles and all of the basics of the drums.
He did a hell of a job.
EB: Heh-heh, yes he did.
Tell me the name of the high school that you went to.
EB: Booker T. Washington.
EG: You know, in New Orleans, all the gifted players and the ones who really are saying something musically, be it drums or horns in high school, you hear about it — the word gets out. So Booker T. Washington had a very good band, and especially the drumming section. And you would hear about Wilbur Hogan and you would hear about Edward Blackwell. So I heard about Blackwell before I saw him; you know, much longer before I saw him. But they had a certain rhythm. And during football games, everybody was as much attracted to the band and the rhythm sections as they were to the football team. So they had a good football team, but they had an excellent marching band.
Good brass players also in that band?
EG: They had good brass players. I don’t recall who the brass players were, because the drummers were really the ones who set the rhythm at halftime, and Blackwell was one that they said he had a lot of rhythm, you know.
EB: And there was another school that we used to be in competition with called Gilbert Academy, which was more or less a private school that used to compete with our band. When we played them at the football games, it was always this big competitive thing with the groups. Gilbert Academy used to come out on top of us because they had a very hip drum major they used to call Pounds…
EG: Yeah, that was his nickname, now. We can’t place nicknames. But we just know it’s there.
EB: He was such a beautiful marcher!
EG: Now, when Ed Blackwell stated that I was playing a bass drum, I was at Xavier University as a bass major. But during the football season, I played the bass drum in the band — and this is where he saw me. And also, I got a shot at being the drum major, but Pounds was too much. [BLACKWELL LAUGHS]
When did you start to gig with groups, and what types of things were you playing?
EB: Well, the first group I gigged with was a group called the Johnson Brothers. I got this gig because of the fact that the original drummer had been drafted into the Navy, and they needed a drummer. And there was a girlfriend I was going with, her stepfather was their uncle, and she told him about me playing the drums, and he introduced me to these brothers. They auditioned me for the job, and I got the job. And that was my first gig with the group.
What type of music was it? A rhythm-and-blues band?
EB: Rhythm-and-blues, right.
And your name got around?
EB: Well, yeah, somewhat, because of the group… We got very popular, that group, the Johnson Brothers. But my name individually didn’t get around very much until after I left them.
EG: Well, you might recognize one of the names of the Johnson Brothers as Plas Johnson. Is that correct?
EB: Right. Plas, and the other was Raymond…
EG: Raymond, right. But they had, like, the most popular group. They’d play before all the big shows that come in town, and around the area. Drums in New Orleans always was like number one. You always had a good rhythm section. Whether in a street parade or marching bands funerals, or anything, drums always gave the basic rhythms and feeling.
And the approach to the drums is passed down, more or less?
EB: Yes. It’s always… It’s just like in the culture. It’s a cultural thing.
Let me ask you something. For instance, I listen to your music and I listen to the Baby Dodds solo record or Baby Dodds on this or that, and I hear lots of affinities between you and Baby Dodds. Had you ever been able to listen to Baby Dodds, or is that simply coincidental, through the culture?
EB: That’s really coincidental. Because I haven’t really… I only heard one record by Baby Dodds in my life, and I don’t think he did very much recordings. But I have a record now that one of my friends made for me… But I think it’s very coincidental. But like I say, the drums are…the culture is so strong, it just comes down naturally.
EG: It’s like it’s in the air, you know. Like, the message is sent through the drums. Like, you had Paul Barbarin and all… And we listened to all these guys, man. They played well. I had an opportunity to play with Paul Barbarin on Bourbon Street, which was a real gift — because I’d heard of him. But the feeling and the rhythm and the direction is there, you know. Whoever is in tune, they sort of fit right into the mold of things.
After the Johnson Brothers… I’m sorry, what years are we talking about?
EB: This is 1949.
1949. Isn’t that the time Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans?
EB: Right. Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans with a rhythm-and-blues band, Clarence Samuels…
Where he got stranded.
EB: Well, it was a friend of ours that he lived with named Melvin Lastie. He was a good friend of Ornette. And he decided to leave the band and stay in New Orleans for a couple of days. He wasn’t really stranded. He just left the band.
I see. That’s Melvin Lastie, the cornet player.
EB: Yeah, the late Melvin Lastie.
Tell us something about him. I know he was a very well-known figure around New Orleans.
EB: Right. See, Melvin and I were in the same band together in Booker T. Washington. In fact, Melvin graduated one year before I did. After that, we got to play quite a bit together in jam sessions around New Orleans with different people like Harold Battiste and people like that. Melvin was trying to establish himself as a feature player, too, and he had little different groups playing around New Orleans, with this drummer named Honeyboy and other players like that.
EG: Melvin had a basic New Orleans feeling. Like, he played street parades, and… He was known as partly like the soul man, if you had a band, to really lay down the rhythm and the feelings. Like, I worked with him… We did a tour with Shirley and Lee, and Jo Jones, who maybe talked too much…you know, we did a tour. Usually Melvin directed the whole situation. Then later, when he moved to New York, he joined King Curtis, and he was like the backbone into that. And then he made “I Know,” I think, made a famous solo that’s still history.
EB: Right. In fact, Harold Battiste wrote that solo note-for-note.
EG: That piece was by Barbara…I’ve forgotten her name. It was a hit on the AFM label that was made… Was that for the AFM label… AFO or AFM in New Orleans.
Let me ask you about a few of the other people you were associated with in New Orleans — or, I should say, whether or not you were associated with them. Alvin Batiste, the great clarinetist.
EB: Well, Alvin and I practically grew up together. We lived about two blocks from one another as a kid, and we went to the same grammar schools, and then to the same… I don’t know if Alvin went to Booker T. or to Gilbert, but I know we were always playing together, especially after he got in… He went to Southern University. And he and I and Ellis and Harold Battiste, we were all, like, from kids; even before we were established as musicians, we played together, you know.
EG: I’d like to make the statement that the time that Alvin Batiste, Marsalis, Blackwell and myself… It was like everybody else had seemingly come from the streets, but this next set or group were either coming from high school or colleges. It was the new approach from that level. We all knew of each other, because each school had some player, either horn player or rhythm player. And we all knew each other, and that’s how the word got around, and eventually that’s how we got together.
[MUSIC: A TAPE FROM BLACKWELL'S COLLECTION OF ORNETTE COLEMAN, DEWEY REDMAN, DAVID IZENSON AND BLACKWELL, TORONTO, 1972]
EG: Right before the tape ended, we were talking about the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and I stated that it was one of the most popular street sort of marching bands that came “commercial.” I spoke to the drummer about a week ago, and I found out that they all… Like, Edward has kids, I have kids; they were the kids from that section. And they came from the section around the Caledonia, which was really a soulful area; I mean, real nightlife street people. But it always produced some strong rhythms and feelings. Each section of New Orleans produced a different feeling. Like, if you were on the Ninth Ward, you had a certain thing going on there, or from the Sixth Ward… Each produced groups or players. The overall feeling was New Orleans, but everybody had their section of town that they played with.
What was the section of town did you came out of, Mister Blackwell?
EB: Well, I was from the section that you called the Garden District. New Orleans was separated into different sections like front-of-town, back-of-town, Downtown and Uptown, instead of North, South, East and West. And my section was called the Garden District.
But meanwhile, the most popular nightclub at that time was called the Dew-Drop Inn. And we used to play there quite a bit, but we also played for we called, like, vaudeville acts. In fact, the drummer… We would have to play for tap dancers, belly dancers, fire dancers, vocalists, shake dancers — and that was my schooling of experience.
Quite a schooling, because you have to be very flexible for all the different individuals.
EB: Exactly. Right. I remember reading an article where Max was saying that was one of his greatest experiences, playing with these kind of activities for dancers, you know, different dancers like shake dancers and tap dancers and fire dancers and all these type of… Because you have to really adapt your experience to what they were doing. And it was a real learning experience.
Were a lot of groups coming in from out of town at this time? Were you able to hear the famous Jazz musicians of the day?
EB: Well, there were quite a few groups coming at this time. But at that time, they were mostly like rhythm-and-blues groups, like B.B. King and Muddy Waters and Ray Charles and those type of groups. Later on during our experience, Eustis and I with Nat Perillat and Ellis were all working more with our own type of music, the contemporary thing; we began to see more and more Jazz type musicians coming through New Orleans, and we would engage them in deliberate jam sessions, you know.
But in 1950, say, or 1951, would you have had a chance to see Charlie Parker in person, or Max Roach?
EB: No, no, not at that time. Not down in that area. The only time I got to hear Charlie Parker in person was in ‘54, in Los Angeles, California.
EG: The university started bringing some of the Jazz players down. I remember a tour, but this was the late Fifties, when Stan Kenton had a tour, and that was the first time…
1954, that was.
EG: ‘54, right. Well, that was a good time. ‘54, that period began a whole new era. Charlie Parker came down with a tour with Stan Kenton and Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck, and they were out at Loyola University. Earlier, like, you were playing for the different acts and groups; you had the Palace Theatre, you had the Lincoln Theatre, you had these places where all the different acts would come.
But the Dew Drop incorporated all of this. Like, if you were playing for the house band there, within a month you were going through a shake dance, a fire-eater, Big Joe Turner. Sam Cooke…
EG: You know, a variety.
Were you able to play Modern Jazz, so-called?
EB: Not really.
EG: Not per se.
EB: No, not per se. Because see, that’s what made us such rebels, Eustis, myself and Ellis. Because after we began to play strictly Modern Jazz, we started refusing all rhythm-and-blues gigs…
EG: And then we found out there was a separation of the musicians.
EG: Like there was a battleground. During this time we used to have matinee Jazz concerts at a club called Mason’s, or even the Dew Drop.
EB: Right. But we had to sponsor ourselves. We would produce ourselves, and play for…play the music, you know. Because that was the only… Nobody else wanted to sponsor this type of music. So in order to get it to the audience, what we’d do, we would produce these concerts on our own.
Now, Blackwell was known as a great technician and as a devotee of Max Roach. Is that correct?
So you got that off of the records, then.
Mostly, yeah. That was my schooling, listening to the early Charlie Parker records. “Dewey Square,” all these records on Dial, I used to hear. I went to this music…a drum shop. The owner of this drum shop, he had a… He used to order these records directly from New York for me whenever they would come out. Even before they got to New Orleans on the radio, I would get them privately.
Now, there are other things that you incorporate in your music that are very African-influenced. Again, was this something that was out of the culture or something that you studied after learning your rudiments…?
EB: That came… That was out of the culture. And the reason I… When I began to realize it was when I made the trip to Africa in ‘66 with Randy Weston, and I began to notice the similarities of the culture that had been in New Orleans, how they had preserved, kept so much of this African culture. And when I got to Africa, I would see all these scenes that reminded me of childhood scenes in New Orleans. It was something… It was phenomenal! I just couldn’t get over it. And after coming back… We’d made a three-month trip. But after coming back, you know, I began to try to retain some of the different rhythms that I’d heard, but there were so many, it was difficult to retain. So I just had some, you know. And I began to incorporate them as much as I could in my… Then I went back to Africa for a second time, which helped very much, because I was able to really understand more of the…
A more formal study, was that?
EB: A more formal study, yeah.
Where was that?
EB: This was all through Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ouagoudougou, Upper Volta, Lower Volta. Then we spent… We lived in Morocco for three years. We played for a hotel chain called Diafa, that had hotels all over Morocco, and up in the mountains, in the Berber countries. So we had a chance to really hear the different cultures like the Gnawans and the Berbers, all up in ….(?)…. And it was a gratifying experience.
During those years, were you performing on stage with local musicians?
EB: We did. We did quite a bit. In fact, they would have sessions, what they would call jam sessions. They would play all night. Oh, man! I mean, they have so much energy, these musicians; it was phenomenal.
Of course, a lot of people know about Ornette Coleman’s playing with the Joujoukan musicians there in 1972.
Did he get hip to them through you?
EB: No. I think he got to those musicians after he went to Nigeria. I think he got hip to those from some of the musicians he met in Nigeria.
Next we’ll hear music that was coming from Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis in 1956. Now, you say that you were turning down all rhythm-and-blues gigs. This was a very fertile time for rhythm-and-blues in New Orleans. It was almost a seminal sound, a sound of the future that was happening in New Orleans, the Dave Bartholomew contracted groups and so forth. So you must have made some significant sacrifices if you were…
EG: Believe it.
EB: Well, it was… See, Ellis and Harold and Eustis, they were all in college and living with their parents anyway, and I was living with my parents, so it wasn’t necessary for us to really have a job to survive. So we could really sit down and be choicy about the type of music we wanted to engage in.
EG: And just concentrate on, you know, particular… Because we used to go out to Ellis Marsalis’s house. I think the last time I was here, we spoke about Marsalis Mansion, which was one of the first real Jazz clubs, but it was in Jefferson Parish, and all the big-time acts used to stay out there and they used to play. Ellis had a piano, and we used to come to his house in the morning and come back at night, and during the day we’d be practicing and jamming and eating. You know, we were protected.
This recording was made after Ed Blackwell had been in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and then returned to New Orleans.
Why did you decide to go out to L.A., and when was it?
EB: I went to L.A. in ‘51 with an aunt of mine. My aunt was a postal clerk, and she went… I think what she really wanted me out there for was to get a job and help her buy a house. But when I got out there, all I wanted to do was play music. So she was very disappointed. But I stayed out there for about five years. And Ornette had been there before then, and he came back in ‘53, and we hooked up together again and started… Finally, we got a job. We started living together. In order to survive, we worked at two different department stores. I was the stock clerk and Ornette was the elevator operator. So that’s the way we would survive in order to pay the rent and just play every day. It was May’s and Bullock’s, two different department stores.
By the way, I know that a lot of musicians from New Orleans traditionally had a trade — you know, a cigar-maker, tailor…
Was this the case with you? Were you trained for something other…
EB: Well, when I was in school, I was supposed to be trained to be a bricklayer, but I couldn’t get with that.
[ MUSIC: American Jazz Quintet" "Capetown," "Morocco," “Chatterbox": Harold Battiste, tenor sax; Alvin Batiste, clarinet; Ellis Marsalis, piano; William Swanson, bass; Edward Blackwell, drums]
Let’s take “Chatterbox,” that last piece, as a springboard for the next segment of conversation.
EB: Yes. The Chatterbox was the name of the place where Alvin, Ellis, Nat and myself and I think it was Chuck Beatty… Were you on this?
EG: No, I was in the Army during that time
EB: It was Chuck Beatty. Chuck Beatty was playing bass then. That’s why Alvin gave it this title, “Chatterbox,” because this was one of the few places where we could work and play our music.
What kind of joint was it?
EB: It was nice. Very open. It was a little club, a small club, you know. And the owner, I think he was a real music enthusiast, because he put up with us for almost about a month. And we hardly drew any crowd, but we played a lot of music.
So you and Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste really go back a good thirty-five years? How often have you been able to play together since you left New Orleans?
The first time since I left New Orleans that I played with Ellis was when I went back in ‘76. We had a job together for a weekend in a joint called Lu and Charlie’s, and it was Alvin Batiste, Ellis, and one of Ellis’s students on bass, and Wynton Marsalis, who was 16 at the time. I went back again in ‘81 for the Heritage Festival, and I played again with Ellis and Alvin. Then the last time I played with them was here in the Public Theatre in 1982.
We’ll hear now a selection from the aforementioned concert at the Public Theatre from August 21, 1982. There were two nights at the Public, two sets each night, and the group was Alvin Batiste on clarinet, Ellis Marsalis on piano, Branford Marsalis on tenor saxophone, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Mark Helias on bass, Edward Blackwell on drums. This did get professionally taped, and courtesy of Mr. Blackwell, we are going to hear an original by Alvin Batiste, a very involved one with many different rhythms and modulations, “Ayala Suite.”
While researching for the show, I read that you had built your own set of drums. Is that right?
Well, I didn’t really build them. What I did was, I converted some… I had a 16-inch military snare that I converted to a bass drum, and put some wooden hoops on, and then I used a tenor drum and I put legs on it to convert it to a floor tom-tom, and a regular snare out of a 9″-by-13″ tom-tom.
How long did you have that set of drums?
Oh, man, I took it to California with me, in fact. I had it up until I went back to New Orleans in ‘56. And when I left in ‘60, I left it with my uncle and them, but they got rid of it, heh-heh.
What were the skins made out of?
EB: Calfskin. Regular calfskin, yes..
Now we’ll discuss the events leading up to the time when Ornette Coleman called and Ed Blackwell left for New York City. Just to recap, you had met Ornette Coleman for the first time in 1949, when came through New Orleans, was staying at the house of cornetist Melvin Lastie. You had been out to Los Angeles in the mid-1950′s, and both worked in department stores to sustain yourselves while you were working on the music. Tell me something about your approach to the drums before and after Ornette in just the most general way.
EB: Well, in a general way, my approach to the drums before Ornette was the regular way of playing, the 32 bars or 12 bars or 16 bars, and make the turnaround, and then you start over again. But when Ornette and I started playing together, there was a difference, because Ornette didn’t play with that type of mode. Ornette would play more or less phrases. He wouldn’t play 8, AABA, that type of thing; he would just play. And he would use phrases. And his turnaround sometimes would extend for maybe 11-1/2 bars or whatever, and I had to listen for that in order to make turnaround with him. So I developed a new way of listening to Ornette play…
But it wasn’t any problem for you to adapt the forms that you had been working with before to that style.
EB: No, it wasn’t any problem at all. In fact, it was quite a learning experience, because it was something different… I had never been able to approach the drums, and I had never conceived of approaching the drums in that manner, as far as playing the music. But with Ornette’s style of music, it was a different approach to the drums completely.
So this was happening as early as 1950 and ‘51?
EB: This was happening from ‘53. From ‘53 up until ‘56 when I went back to New Orleans. Well, first I went back in ‘55, and I came back again from New Orleans to L.A. with Ellis and Harold in late ‘55. And then Ellis’ father got ill, so he had to leave, and I stayed over with Ornette up until ‘56, the early part of ‘56. Then I left and went back to New Orleans. Then he got a contract with Contemporary to make his first album, Something Else! He sent me a ticket to come and make this album with him, but I was having so much fun with Ellis and them that I sent the ticket back, because I didn’t want to leave then! He used Billy Higgins.
So things were really popping, then, in New Orleans.
EB: Yes, very much so. We were building up a great following, because we were working at a place called… What was this place upstairs?
EB: There was a Foster’s Hotel, and we had a little club upstairs that we would play every weekend. Then we had to be at another job that started at 6 o’clock in the morning, an after-hour jam session down in the French Quarter. So there was quite a lot of playing going on. I didn’t want to leave that.
Didn’t you also spend some time with Ray Charles?
EB: Yes. I left… I went with Ray Charles for year in ‘57. That happened because of the trumpet player that was a cousin of the Johnson Brothers, he had been the straw boss in Ray’s band, and Ray needed a drummer. So he knew of my capabilities, so he hit on me about playing with Ray. I gave it quite a lot of thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy it. But he said, whatever conditions you want, you know, he would agree with. So I said, “Okay, if he’ll buy me a new set of drums, I’ll play with him.” So he bought me a new set of drums, so I played with him for a year.
But playing with Ray, he had the same program every night. Wherever we played, it was always this program. The pieces would be played in the same order, the same places every night. And after a month of that, you know, after working with Nat and playing such exciting music, this began to be boring. So I was able to stretch it out for a year, then I left. He was very disappointed. He called me quite a lot, but I didn’t want to go back to that.
Was it ever open so that you could in a set play something that satisfied you?
EB: Not really, no. The only time that would happen is, like, before he would come on the stand, the band would have a little freedom for about 15 minutes before his showcase would start. Then we were able to play maybe one or two, you know, three tunes. Sometimes he would come up and play with the band… Because he played alto also, and he would come up and join in the tune. But once he started singing, we would go into his program.
Eustis, how would you compare Blackwell with the other great New Orleans drummers who were contemporaries, like Earl Palmer, people who went into the Rhythm-and-Blues direction?
EG: Well, most of the drummers, you know, if they had just let themselves go, could play almost anything. But Blackwell sort of personified the Free movement. And I recall we were working a job at the Dew Drop, and we were playing a ballad, you know, “How Deep Is The Ocean” or whatever it was, and Blackwell took a solo on the ballad — and that turned everything around, because it hadn’t been known during that time. Earl Palmer sort of set a precedent so far as swinging and playing, and also going out to California and breaking into the studios. That was one of his big contributions. But Blackwell was about experimenting and bringing the drums more freedom in playing. The drummers in New Orleans have a good beat, a good feeling, but a lot of times they’re locked in. They even used to call Blackwell to play some of the Rhythm-and-Blues sessions. He’d make one or two, and they knew…that was it. Just ilke with Ray Charles, everybody thought he was crazy to refuse…
EG: You know, it wasn’t about really work. Because the concentration, you know, when Blackwell would be practicing and rehearsing, going through things, and his mind was really 100 percent. And that’s what really amazed…
How many hours a day would you practice?
EB: Usually, I… Let me see. I was living with my parents, and they would leave at 8 o’clock. I lived with my father, my uncle and my sister, and they would all work. They would leave the house at 8 in the morning and would not return… The earliest one would return at about 5:30 that evening. Up until…all that time I had the time to practice.
Was that by yourself?
EB: By myself, usually until… Because Eustis and them were in school all day. As soon as they got home at evening, we’d be together. But during the day, the early part of the day, it was strictly solo.
Did you practice to records?
EB: Yeah. I practiced to Charlie Parker all the time. Charlie Parker.
Also, you’re renowned as a master of drum timbre, of tuning the drums. Is this also the time when you developed your methods of getting different sounds out of the drums?
EB: Well, I guess so. But that came about just as a natural result of wanting to get a certain sound with the drums. And those drums I told you I converted, I was able to get the real sound that I wanted. And as a result, it carried over to other sets, you know. And people began to notice that I…for some reason or another, my drums would always be in tune with one another, with whatever I was playing. So that’s how that repetition became…
On your first LP with Ornette Coleman, he wrote the liner notes, and here is what he said about Edward Blackwell: “Ed Blackwell, the drummer, has to my ears, one of the most musical ears of playing rhythm of anyone I have heard. This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other’s places.” That’s what Ornette Coleman said about Edward Blackwell, and we’re going to hear a couple of pieces from the first sessions that they made together in July of 1960. We’ll hear a piece called “Humpty-Dumpty” from This Is Our Music and then from a collection that came out subsequently in the late Sixties of unissued material, we’ll hear “A Fifth Of Beethoven.” Then we’ll talk about Blackwell and the Ornette Coleman Quartet.
You had a terrific situation in New Orleans. What happened? What made you finally decide to cut the cord and go?
EB: Well, what happened was a very personal problem that went down, a very negative thing in my life that caused me to readily accept Ornette’s offer at this time to come to New York. Especially since he had called, and he was in such dire straits, because he was already working and Billy Higgins was unable to get a secure cabaret card, which meant that he could no longer continue to work, and he was without a drummer. So he really needed a drummer. So I was very happy to accommodate him.
By the way, had you known Billy Higgins in Los Angeles when he was a young, nascent drummer?
EB: Well, Ornette and I met Billy Higgins and Don Cherry… We met them at the same time. Because they were living up in a place called Watts up in…Compton; not Watts, in Compton. And they had a friend of theirs, George Newman, that had this big garage, with a piano…set up like a studio. And I was always looking for somewhere to play. So we went up there, and we started going up there every day to play together. Billy and Cherry and George would sit around and listen at us play. That’s how we really met Billy Higgins.
I think I’ve read (and this could be wrong or apocryphal) that he was studying with you somewhat, or that you were giving him tips or whatever.
EB: Well, yes, we did. He used to sit in… Naturally, I let him sit in, and there were some things about the music that he didn’t really understand, so I had to really explain it to him, about ways of listening to Ornette, to play with him, ways of playing… See, Billy had come out of the same school that I did, that old school of AB, AABA, you know, and Ornette didn’t play in that school. So he had to adjust as much as I did. So it was easier for me to explain it to him since I had been through that already.
Was he a basketball player in high school or something?
EB: Billy? Well, what I hear from Don Cherry… See, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins met in what was like a boys home, where they put wayward teenagers. Because Billy, obviously, and Don Cherry were what they call delinquents. So they met together in this school. But I don’t think he was a basketball player.
Well, that’s just something I heard, and when I hear these things I ask people who know.
So when you got to New York, you found yourself in the midst of the scene that was shaking New York’s art community to the core.
EB: Right. Well, I’ll tell you. The day I got a taxi to the front of the Five Spot. We went into the Five Spot, and Ornette pulled out his horn, and Don Cherry, we ran over our tunes, and he said, “Fine.” We went home and changed clothes and came back to work that night. And we worked there steadily for seven months, six nights a week straight.
Six nights a week will sure make a band tight.
EB: That’s right! We were doing quite a lot of recordings, you know. And he was writing quite frequently; he was writing a lot of the tunes.
Describe the way sets went down at the Five Spot. Were the pieces similar length to the records? Did you stretch out more?
EB: During this time most of the clubs were featuring two bands a night. There would be four sets. Ornette would play two sets and the visiting band would play two sets. This was going on for like six nights a week. We had a chance really to stretch out during our sets. Sometimes Ornette would stretch out our set, and sometimes he would just cut them a little shorter, depending on what mood he was in. But it was always intense. A lot of times we would rehearse all day and then come to work that night, and everybody was always geared up to play. The energy that flowed through that band was phenomenal.
Did people ever sit in?
EB: No. No, not too many people were sitting in with the band. [LAUGHS]
When did Bobby Bradford come to town? Didn’t he come to town briefly and take his place with the group?
EB: Well, Bobby and Moffett came to town together. That was the time after Don Cherry and I decided to leave the group for a while. And Bobby Bradford and Moffett came to town to work with Ornette. Then I went with Eric and Booker Little to play…
And that famous session, Live at the Five Spot came about.
EB: Right, right.
Eustis, were you in New York at that time? Were you hearing that band?
What impression did it make on you? Especially since you knew Blackwell.
EG: Well, it sort of put everything in place. Seriously. You know, when Blackwell was in New Orleans, we knew that he had new music in him. So when I came to New York and saw him performing with Don Cherry and Ornette, there it was. What we felt before was really right in front. Now, the Five Spot used to bring all the new groups. It was the newest group, and it was one of the hippest clubs for the new music and for, you know, not only lay people, but a lot of writers… Artists who were trying to free themselves. Because music is always the front-runner. You know Leroi Jones was always down there. The other group that was popular at the Five Spot was Thelonious Monk, which had quite a few good recordings. And it was the place for the people with new ideas. I was there every night. You know, after Blackwell left, about six months later, here I came up. And a lot of the people who were fighting the free form, you know, they’d come in and try to listen and try to find their place in the new musical history, you know. It was fun for me, because having some prior knowledge of Ed Blackwell, I would just sit on the side and laugh. Because I knew all they had to do was throw the ego away and say, “Well, what is this?” That’s what I liked about John Coltrane. He did approach Ornette. He wanted Ornette’s tapes, he wanted to find out as much as he could about the new music. That’s why he was a great player.
EB: A funny thing, I used to have people come to me and tell me, “Man, I like the way you play, but I don’t know how you can play with that cat. He’s crazy. He don’t know what he’s doing.” And really, they were serious! They couldn’t understand why I could enjoy playing with Ornette so much. I’d say, “Well, if you like what I’m playing, you should like what he’s playing, because that’s what I’m playing — what he’s playing. And they couldn’t understand. They’d look at me like I was strange, heh-heh, and he’d say, “No, that’s not the same!”
EG: I think they were a little brainwashed, in thinking in forms
In 1965 and 1966 you made several recordings with Donald Cherry for Blue Note.
Talk about your activities in the mid-Sixties. I know you were traveling in Europe and Africa…
EB: Right. I went to Africa in ‘66 with Randy Weston. That was my first trip out of America. But before that, Don Cherry…in ‘65 we recorded a lot of these albums for Blue Note — Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn, and all those…
Those were in 1965 and ‘66.
EB: ‘65 and the early part of ‘66, right. Then after being with Randy and coming back in ‘67, I rejoined Ornette at the Village Gate. Then we began working, traveling to Europe every year after that. Every year we’d go to Europe, and we’d make this tour of Italy, Paris and Germany and all around for about a month. Most of my European traveling… In fact, there’s only a number of people I ever went to Europe with. Ornette Coleman was one, and Old and New Dreams was another, and David Murray. Because you know, there’s not very many people I enjoy going to Europe with. I want to be sure the money’s going to be right!
The piece we’ll hear, “Buddah Blues,” features two bassists who were seminal in Ornette’s music, David Izenson and Charlie Haden. It’s from a concert in Rome, in 1967, issued without authorization, on an Italian label. It was recorded in Rome in 1967.
EB: There’s also a couple of Bologna that were illegally recorded that he didn’t get paid for. But the music should be heard, since it’s there.
[MUSIC: "Buddah Blues," followed by "Reminiscence," Paris, 1971, Ornette Coleman, violin; Charlie Haden, bass; Blackwell, drums; Kenny Clarke, m.c.]
What’s the genesis of Old and New Dreams, and how did that get started? Obviously everybody had been associated with each other for many, many years. What was the specific motivating thing behind that?
EB: Money. Well, the most motivating thing was that we wanted to extend the music of Ornette Coleman. And since Ornette was not active with the group any more, we decided that maybe we should get together and extend the music, because it was music that we thought should be heard more prolifically. And the fact that while Ornette was doing it, it was not accepted as when we started doing it. The audience seemed to accept it more, even though it was the same music… But we had a better acceptance from the audience as a result. That’s when the group got together to do it.
When did you last perform with Ornette?
EB: The last time I performed with Ornette was in ‘72.
And that’s the year you recorded Science Fiction and Skies of America the sides for Columbia…
EB: Yes. And the tour through Europe.
Old and Dreams fuinctions as a collaborative, fully collective group?
I know that you can’t get into the head of an audience. But why do you think that audiences would accept what you do without Ornette Coleman?
EB: Well, that’s strange to this day, too. But I don’t know… It seems that because we have a younger listening audience now than when Ornette was playing the music… The audience that we perform for now is a more knowledgeable audience. Like, a lot of kids in universities and everything, who have heard of the music before, and they never heard it live. So when we began playing it, that was their only chance to really hear it done in the live atmosphere. They wanted to hear it and they accepted it.
It hasn’t only been Old and New Dreams. There have been many duet situations, and you have appeared with Mal Waldron and David Murray in the last five or six years. You’re also situated at Wesleyan College…
[END OF TAPE SIDE]
EB: …gamelan orchestra. We also have the Indian Mrdingam drumming, and all type of Indian drumming. It’s a vast program. A lot of very good music. It’s very active.We have what we call the faculty of the Afro-American… See, I’m affiliated with the Afro-American Jazz Department of the music. And that department consists of Bill Barron, an Associate Professor, and Bill Lowe and Fred Simmons, the pianist, myself, and we also have a bassist, one of the graduate students that’s been around, Wes Brown, who plays quite frequently. I usually perform two faculty concert a year, one each semester.
[Music: Old and New Dreams. “Togo” (Blackwell’s arrangement of a Ghanaian traditional song) and “Handwoven,” an Ornette Coleman composition]
About half-an-hour ago Valerie Wilmer, the British journalist and author, arrived in the studio. She’s written about Blackwell on several occasions. Those of you who have her book As Serious As Your Life will remember her chapter on Edward Blackwell. [ETC.]
You have some very interesting stories on how you met.
VW: We first met in London, I think it was in ‘66 or ‘67; there seems to be some debate on when it was. I knew about Blackwell, and he was like sort of legendary figure. So I was very much into tracking down legendary figures, especially drummers, because I had always liked drumming, and Blackwell was one of the greats. Even then I knew about him. So I called him up, and asked him if I could come and interview him. And I think he was a bit surprised that anybody wanted to interview him in those days. Is that right?
EB: Yes. Yes, especially Valerie Wilmer!
VW: Oh, well…
EB: Because I had been reading contributions to DownBeat, and I never expected that Valerie Wilmer would call me to do an interview.
VW: You want to watch that, Blackwell. You’re making it sound like I’m older than you. But I remember that when we were doing the interview, you were shy and modest, as usual.
VW: And you drummed on your thigh with your mallets all through the interview.
EB: Yes. That was my way of relaxing, to be able to… That’s why I carry these little mallets around with me, because whenever I get uptight, I just pull them out and start drumming it on my knee, and that will release the stress.
VW: Well, and a man full of music and full of rhythms all the time. There was another occasion, I don’t think it was that first time but it was also in London, when we went off to have a meal together. We went to eat in an Indian restaurant. And at this time I had sort of decided that I might want to play drums, so I was talking to Blackwell about some drum patterns. So we finished eating, and he said, “Let me show you something.” And he took out a felt-tipped pen, and he started drawing these drum patterns all over the tablecloth. It was a beautiful linen tablecloth in a very nice Indian restaurant, and the waiters were looking on aghast as sort of paradiddles and whatever was drawn all over the tablecloth. We should have saved that and framed it for posterity and given it to the New Orleans Jazz Museum or something.
Incidentally, that particular anecdote appears in Valerie Wilmer’s book, As Serious As Your Life…
VW: There’s another one, too. This is my favorite story about Blackwell, and it’s not in that book, but it may be in a forthcoming one — and I don’t know if he even remembers it himself. We were in Morocco together at one stage, when Randy Weston was there, and Blackwell, you were there with Frances, your wife, and your family. We were all staying in the same house. And the day I arrived in Rabat, you had a motorcycle accident.
VW: Remember that?
EB: Right. I had a broken shoulder-blade.
VW: Right. And all your chest was encased in a cast, wasn’t it.
EB: Right. A body cast.
VW: It was hot, and ants got down inside it, and he was scratching inside the cast with a drumstick… It was something else, wasn’t it.
EB: Yeah. And then I had to play this concert.
VW: Well, I’m going to tell this story about that. Let me tell this story. The story was that Randy’s son, Azzedin, was going to play because you couldn’t play. Right?
VW: But you put your tuxedo on and went to the concert anyway, and when it got to the last minute you said, “I’m going to play anyway.” Right? So he got up, and in front of an audience of Moroccans and I think a few Americans and other visiting people, he played this amazing solo, this really incredible drum solo, one hand and two feet. And I was sitting next to Frances, Blackwell’s wife, and at the end of it I looked at her, and she had tears in her eyes because of the applause. Everybody stood up and applauded. I said, “Oh, that was something.” She said to me, “Man, Blackwell normally sounds like four men; tonight it just sounded like three.”
Edward Blackwell has brought a tape of a performance of him and Don Cherry in Verona, Italy, February 11, 1982, that he says is smoking. [ETC.] He told me on the telephone, “This is better than any of those records!”
EB: Right. It is.
Edward Blackwell and Donald Cherry go back about thirty years. And it seems that on almost every record I’ve pulled to do this show, Donald Cherry is there, whether it’s the Ornette Coleman records or the duets or Old and New Dreams. He’s ubiquitous in the recorded musical career of Ed Blackwell. So you met in Los Angeles at the time you went out in ‘56, is what you were saying.
EB: Well, when I met Donald, he was about 17 or 18 years old. This is when Ornette and I were going to the jam sessions together, and he was hanging out with some of the local musicians playing. But we didn’t have any friendship with him until we started going to this garage in Compton and played with him. He was still very young.
What was his sound like at the time?
EB: He was very active and very energetic and searching; he was very searching for his sound. He was playing the regular-sized trumpet at the time.
Q: [ETC.] Next up is a selection from Rhythm X, an LP in Strata East, by Charles Brackeen, who has been a colleague of Blackwell’s over the years. He appears on an aborted LP of Blackwell’s, by a group that I heard a few times at the Tin Palace around 1980, which had Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet, Charles Brackeen and Mark Helias. You specifically requested we play this.
EB: Yes. I think this particular record was one of Charles’ greatest efforts. He had just arrived here from California, and he was a big devotee of Ornette Coleman. In fact, he came to New York especially to be near Ornette Coleman, with his own family. And we got together, he and I, and we got these tunes…he was writing these tunes — and we got a chance to put them on Strata East.
[MUSIC: “Rhythm X,” then "Bemsha Swing" from Coltrane, The Avant Garde, 1961]
That was “Bemsha Swing,” interpreted by John Coltrane, Donald Cherry, Percy Heath and Edward Blackwell from The Avant Garde. A couple of things came to light during the break. First of all, Blackwell did play once with Thelonious Monk in 1972.
EB: I’ll tell you what happened with Monk. During the course of the gig, after about a week… He used to give me a lot of solos. Then one night we were playing, and he gave me a solo, and I played, you know, and after he came off the stand he come over to me and he said, “You know, you ain’t no Max Roach.” [LAUGHS] And I don’t know why he told me that! He just danced away. Wilbur Ware was in that group also.
I remember a story Art Taylor told me about Monk. He was playing with Monk in Chicago, and Monk had stopped letting him solo. So during the course of intermission, he came over, and A.T. said, “You know, you cut off my solos, man. You used to give me little solos. Why don’t you let me play?” So he said when they went back up to the set, Monk went to the mike and said, “We will now hear a solo by our drummer.” And that was it!
You played with Wilbur Ware quite often during the ’70s.
EB: Playing with Wilbur was a real learning experience playing with Wilbur, because Wilbur had such an acute sense of time, and it was fantastic to behold and listen to it. And he also played a lot of little drums. He used to sit down on the drums, too…
He actually worked as a drummer in Chicago in the late Forties…
And he was a tap dancer as well..
EB: A tap dancer as well. That’s right. It was a real pleasure to work with Wilbur, I’m gonna tell you. He had a unique sense of timing.
Charlie Rouse was the tenor player, and you’ve been working with Rouse lately in Mal Waldron’s group in various gigs at the Vanguard.
EB: That’s right.
Some among our radio audience may have heard the Nu Quintet play at SOB’s this past winter. It’s Donald Cherry, Carlos Ward, Nana Vasconcelos, Mark Helias and Blackwell. How long have you known Nana Vasconcelos?
EB: I’ve known about Nana for a number of years now. In fact, the first time I played with him was at the Public Theatre with Don Cherry in about ‘76, ‘77, something like that. I never worked with him again until we got together in this group, the Nu Quintet. It’s been a real pleasure with Nana, because I’ve always admired his sounds. I’ve always been fascinated by the Brazilian rhythms, and Nana epitomizes that.
You’ve appeared with David Murray quite a bit over the last four or five years and recorded with the quartet, and I can recall hearing you play with the octet at Sweet Basil once or twice…
EB: Right. And also with the string group, a couple of concerts with the string group. I was at the old Five Spot on St. Mark’s Place with Don Cherry when David first came into town from California. He used to come over and sit in and play with us quite a bit. So we were aware of each other. Then he drifted off into his thing, beginning building a career. And when he decided to get a group together, he called me and wanted to find out if I was interested in working with him. And yeah, I was, because he was playing the type of music, the new music that I enjoy playing. So we’ve been working together, that’s been five or six years, and we’ve been playing together off and on. I went to Europe with him twice, and we’re getting ready to do a tour around the States in June. Then we’ll be playing together at a festival in July.
[MUSIC: Ornette Coleman, "Law Years" and "The Jungle Is A Skyscraper"]
EB: Eustis is helping me recall quite a bit of the history that I’ve forgotten. He’s been reminding me of quite a lot of things, bringing to mind those days that we played together. Because Eustis and I used to play together as a duo quite a bit in New Orleans during the time we were residing in New Orleans. In fact, it was always either Eustis and I, or maybe Ellis and I, Nat and I; there was always two of us, or just a whole group. We were always just playing every day. That was the main thing. We were obsessed with playing and perfecting our instruments.