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A 2002 Downbeat Profile of Frank Wess for his 90th birthday

Due to a foulup by my provider, my Internet has been down for the last week, a refreshing if frustrating lifestyle change. Today, though, it’s incumbent to observe Frank Wess’ 90th birthday, Jan. 4th, by posting a profile that I wrote about him ten years ago for DownBeat. A magnificent musician.

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Not long before his 80th birthday, Frank Wess, in the studio with the Bill Charlap Trio, unfurled a tenor saxophone solo on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” that stands with the classics of the canon. Over a relentless camelwalk groove, Wess leaps in from the top, dissecting the melody with minimum embellishment and maximum soulfulness, spinning out lucid theme-and-variations with a burnished candlelight tone that contains just the right amount of vibrato. Poetic and functional, he conjures the spirits of such old-school storytellers as Lester Young and Chu Berry, who set the standards when Wess was cutting his teeth as a teenager in Washington, D.C.

Wess was full of stories in June at his compact mid-Manhattan apartment, chock-a-block with a top-shelf audio system, instruments, sheet music, tapes, albums, photographs and correspondence. Just back from a Seattle weekend, he was gearing up to fulfill a ten-day itinerary that would tax a man half his age—two concerts with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, successive one-nighters with tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and with Charlap’s trio, and a week’s residence at the Blue Note with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Orchestra.

“When I heard Lester Young, that was that,” Wess says, leaping back to 1937. An Oklahoma native who had moved to D.C. two years before, he took early stylistic cues from such big sound heartland tenormen as Don Byas (he met him while summering with his mother in Langston, Okla., in 1932), Dick Wilson and Ben Webster. “Basie came through town for a dance at the Lincoln Colonnades; I couldn’t even sleep that first night. They were waving those hats, doo-wah, doo-wah. Prez and Herschel Evans were in the band, and Eddie Durham was playing guitar. The band was hot!

“Prez was staying at a three-story rooming house, and a friend of ours brought us there. Prez came out in his pajamas, with his horn in his arm and a little powder-box full of joints. He offered everybody a joint! We asked him how he made all those funny sounds, and he showed us.”

Sixteen years later, Wess became an integral component of the Basie mystique. From 1953 until 1964, he served as a triple threat tenor saxophonist, alto saxophonist and flutist, almost single-handedly creating a modern jazz vocabulary for the latter instrument. Within Basie’s distinctive environment, operating on the principle “less is more” as opposed to “bigger is better” and never—for all the compositional sophistication of such hardcore modernist colleagues as Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Ernie Wilkins—going over anyone’s head, Wess blended the varying strands of his epoch into a style that might define the term “mainstream.”

Wess speaks of his employer with unsentimental fondness. “I hadn’t been with Basie long, and we were in Atlanta,” [he recalls]. “Next door to the hotel was an upstairs club, and I was drinking, feeling good and acting crazy. Basie saw me, and when I went back in, one of the valets said, ‘Chief wants to see you.’ I knock on the door and come in; he’s sitting on the side of one bed and I sit across from him. He started talking about the transportation was eating him up, and all the humiliation he had to go through. He went through a whole lot of shit with me. I didn’t say nothin’. I didn’t nod my head one way or the other. I just looked at him. And he started through his story the second time, and I still didn’t say nothin’. He’s crying the blues; he was in debt. Then he started through his story the third time. I said, ‘You know what I think? I just want to know why you ever hired Jimmy Rushing, the way you can cry the blues.’ He was trying to talk me out of my salary. That’s the last time he ever did that.

“You had to understand Basie. We used to go to the track together; he loved to gamble and couldn’t gamble—not one lick. So everything was beautiful as long as you didn’t ask him for the money. Then you got stories for days. When we went to England the first time, he wouldn’t carry the music. He said, ‘I’m not gonna pay all of that overweight. You all don’t look at it no-way; you’re always looking out in the audience at some chick!’ So we went to England, and we did two weeks with no music. Blew them people’s minds! They invited us back to do a command performance the same year.”

Basie himself had learned the techniques of blowing people’s minds with swinging riff-based music as a late ’20s member of the Oklahoma City-based Blue Devils, the territory band that spawned the southwest sound. Wess lived a few hundred miles down Route 66 in Sapulpa, an oiltown of 20,000. Guitarist Barney Kessel and future Basie lead altoist Marshall Royal had grown up there, and Wess recalls childhood games of marbles with trumpeter Howard McGhee, a few years his senior. Wess’ mother taught school in town; his father, raised on Lake Seneca in upstate New York, taught 30 miles down the road in Okmulgee, the hometown of Oscar Pettiford. There wasn’t much to do in Sapulpa but practice, and Wess—who picked up the alto saxophone at 10—progressed quickly.

Relocated to Washington, Wess enrolled at Dunbar High School, studying theory with orchestra teacher Henry Grant, a friend of James Reese Europe who had taught Duke Ellington. Away from the classroom, the precocious cohort—they included pianist Billy Taylor and saxophonists Julius Pogue, Billy White, Paul Jones and Charlie Parker soundalike Oswald Gibson— soaked up information from local mentors like guitarists Samuel Wood and Biddy Fleet (the latter would soon show Parker how to execute the augmented and diminished chord extensions that became the DNA of bebop).

Wess graduated high school at 15 and enrolled at Howard University, attending classes by day and working a succession of increasingly remunerative jobs at night. He ascended the ladder, graduating from the dance bands of Bill Baldwin and Tommy Miles to a $35-a-week [position] in the Howard Theater pit band. Blanche Calloway took over the band and brought Wess on the road in 1940 for double the pay. After various adventures involving Lionel Hampton, union bookers and a tragicomic Boston run-in with Bojangles Bill Robinson, Wess enlisted in the Army, sponsored by his ROTC bandleader, John J. Brice, for a spot in the Special Services. Sent to Africa in 1942, he honed his skills as assistant bandleader of a 17-piece unit that accompanied Josephine Baker on a 1943 tour of North Africa.

A few months after his discharge, Wess joined [young firebrands] Gene Ammons, Fats Navarro and Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s bebop orchestra. A proponent of the gangsta esthetic half-a-century before hip-hop, the dapper, silken-voiced Eckstine commanded tremendous respect for his well-documented willingness to beat crackers and hoodlums at their own game at various points along the road. “B didn’t take no shit,” Wess agrees, launching into another saga. “People would come up and say, ‘Hey, B!’ and slap him on the back. ‘How you doin’?’ He’d say, ‘I’m fine!’ and then he’d smack them in the stomach.

“We lost a job nine days before Christmas in 1946 in Boston. The stage is about two feet higher than the floor, this couple is sitting ringside, and while he’s doing his act the woman keeps hollering, ‘Sing it, honey chile,’ a whole lot of bullshit. B kept doing his act. When he finished, instead of going off backstage, he went off front, walked down to this table and said, ‘Now, listen. When I’m doing my act, you don’t be hollering up on me. You crazy bitch, what’s wrong with you?’ Then he told her husband, ‘Man, you’re a silly son-of-a-bitch for being out with a dumb bitch like this.’ So her husband gets up. When her husband stood up, B knocked him down and went to get on top of him, but he kicked B in the mouth. B is going for his hunting knife. The cat gets up. Art Blakey is standing right up over him on the dance floor with a chair, comes down with it on his head, and back down he went. At the same time, two of them big Irish cops are standing in the back of the club. They ain’t moving. Then the boss comes out there saying, ‘Get that goddamn band out of here.’ He was a crazy man. Good cat to work for.”

Eckstine disbanded in February 1947. With a young family, Wess settled in Washington, supplementing local jobs through road work with Eddie Heywood, Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson. “After I’d been South with Moose for the third time in one year, I gave it up,” Wess says. He enrolled in D.C.’s Modern School of Music on the G.I. Bill to study flute. “Mr. Grant had given me one when I was 14, but I realized that I couldn’t do it myself, and I couldn’t afford a teacher then. So I put it on the back-burner until I had a chance to do it.”

After several years of scaling down, Basie began to reassemble his “New Testament” band in 1951, and Eckstine recommended he snare Wess. “Basie had been calling for a couple of years, but even once I graduated school, I wasn’t thinking about going on the road,” Wess says. “Then Basie said, ‘Frank, I can give you more exposure than you’ve had.’”

At this point, according to Wess, the band was nowhere close to the sleek polished powerhouse it would become. “It wasn’t sounding too good,” he says. “There wasn’t much music and the brass wasn’t too strong, though the reed section was pretty good. Things started tightening up after our first tour south, when Joe Williams and Sonny Payne came in. I knew Snooky Young from 1940, when I was in Boston with Blanche Calloway, and in ’57 I talked him in. That really did it.”

Congenial and sharp, Wess had a keen eye for talent that would fit. “Basie didn’t know anybody. I told him to get Al Aarons and Thad Jones. I knew Thad from ’51, when I did a whole summer in Atlantic City in the front bar at Club Harlem, working with a quartet and a singer, and Thad was in the back room with Jimmy Tyler’s nine-piece band, making it sound like a million dollars. Later I I brought in Eric Dixon and Sonny Cohn, and early on, I recommended Eddie Jones to play bass. When Basie said they were getting four trombones, I recommended Bill Hughes, who lived across the street from me in Washington.”

Wess would frame his flute with those four trombones on one of several mid-’50s albums that built on the popularity of his fluid, blues-drenched sound on Basie charts like “Perdido,” “The Midgets” and “Cute.” “Don Redman had heard me play flute on jobs around Washington, and asked Basie if he’d heard me,” Wess says. Then he describes some of the secrets of the Basie sound.

“Basie never fired nobody. That’s where he was smart. Everybody got to know each other—for good or bad—and we knew what to expect and how to work together. He never rehearsed us. Everybody in the band had been playing forever, and we knew how the music should go. The reeds were a fraction behind the trumpets, and the trombones were a fraction behind the reeds, but it was consistent, so when you heard the BAM!, it sounded like one thing. And the band laid back til the last split second to hit a note. That’s the way the music said it should be played. Basie would let you know what he wanted in his own way. He’d say, ‘I want something like this,’ and you’re supposed to know what he’s talking about.”

By 1964, Wess figured he’d been in the game long enough. “The band changed,” Wess says. “It wasn’t as good as before. Snooky and Eddie Jones left the same day. When I told Basie, he said, ‘When do you want to go?’ ‘Sunday.’ ‘No, I’ve got something important coming up. Don’t go now.’ He went through that for about a month. Then we were in Chicago and I told him, ‘Base, I’ve got to go home. Tomorrow.’ ‘Who am I going to get?’ ‘Get Sonny Stitt or somebody.’ ‘He can’t read.’ ‘Well, I don’t care who you get. I’ve been listening to all that for a month. I’m gone.’ ‘When you coming back?’ I said, ‘I’ll be back in ten days.’ I came home and I got everything straightened out for doing Golden Boy with Sammy Davis. I went out and got paid with Basie one Thursday; the next Thursday I got paid for Golden Boy. I never missed a payment.”

Since then, Wess has made his blues turn green as a first-call New York freelancer, putting his kids through college on a mix of jingle sessions, sinecures in TV bands and Broadway pit orchestras, and occasional combo and sideman work, including the New York Jazz Quartet, a “Two Franks” quintet with Frank Foster, and a quintet with trumpeter Johnny Coles. Since 1984, when he left “Sugar Babies,” Wess has stuck strictly with jazz, leading and guest-starring in a variety of what he terms “trendy necrophiliac ensembles” and doing sessions with such younger New York mainstreamers as Bryan Stripling (Wess plays up a storm on Bryan … Get One Free ), Bill Charlap (Stardust), Joe Cohn and Michael Weiss.

A witness to seven decades of jazz history, Wess ruminates on the changing mores of[the scene. “When I was coming up, jazz was a dirty word,” he says. “At Howard, they’d put us out of school if they caught us playing jazz. Now it’s in the schools and you can get a degree, which doesn’t always mean something, but still you can get it.

“And the kids don’t dissipate as much as they did. I remember a time when it was just pitiful. Almost everybody was messed up. I drank, but I never was in that other clique. I was lucky when I was 17, in the pit band. One of the trumpet players, who’d been with Lunceford, was the first junkie I knew. We hung out together, and he was a helluva nice cat. He used to tell me, ‘Look, kid, you keep on drinking your whiskey; don’t ever bother with this stuff.’ We’d go to rehearsal Friday morning at 8, and he’d come in with a mouthpiece. I’d have to borrow one of my friend’s horns for him to make the gig.

“What’s funny is that when I was in B’s band, wasn’t nobody in there messed up. Maybe smoking some pot or something, but nothing more. Miles Davis was smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca-Cola. Jug wasn’t messed up until he went with Woody Herman. Fats Navarro wasn’t messed up. Dizzy used to sit in with B’s band to play with Fats; both were playing in the same idiom, but Fats had a little Spanish tinge to his thing and his sound was so much bigger. He’d hit a high G and A, and it enveloped the whole band. After the band broke up, I was playing the Apollo with Eddie Heywood, and I was walking down 126th Street. Somebody called, ‘Hey, Flank.’ That’s what Fats used to call me. I looked around, and man, he was just a skeleton. I almost cried. Just that quick.”

Then Wess jerks himself into the present tense, and offers a closing thought [on the futility of nostalgia.] “Ellington never did a whole concert of nobody’s music. Neither did Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. Ain’t nobody that we revere and know ever did that! There’s 24 hours in the day. If you spend all your time looking back, how in the hell you going anywhere?” DB

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A 1994 WKCR Interview with Ed Thigpen, (Dec. 28, 1930-Jan. 13, 2010 )

In observance of master drummer Ed Thigpen’s birthday, I’m posting the proceedings of an interview that we did on WKCR a few weeks before his 64th birthday, when he  was in NYC to play a week at Bradley’s with the late Memphis piano master Charles Thomas and bassist Ray Drummond.

(Some eight years later, he offered his memories of Ray Brown.)

Ed Thigpen (WKCR, 12-14-94):

[MUSIC: Thigpen Trio: “Gingerbread Boy,” “Denise”]

Q:    Ed Thigpen is in residence at Bradley’s this week with top-shelf trio that features pianist Charles Thomas from Memphis, Tennessee, and bassist Ray Drummond, gracing the small space with a mind-boggling variety of sounds and textures and rhythms from his drum kit. Let’s talk about your recent CD, Mister Taste, on Just In Time, which received five stars in Downbeat.  You’re joined on it by a bassist you’ve worked with frequently since moving to Europe twenty-odd years ago…

ET:    Yes, 22 years ago, as a matter of fact.  Mads Vinding, who is probably one of the finest bassists you’ll ever hear.  Denmark has a penchant for putting out good bass players, Niels-Henning, and we have another young man named Jesper Lundgard, who is also fine — but Mads is special.  And bringing Tony Purrone and Mads together, it was pure magic.

Q:    You comment in the liner notes on particularly the resonance and nuance of the sound Mads Vinding brings to the bass.

ET:  Well, for one, he’s so in tune, and quite inventive.  I am particularly pleased with the interplay between he and Tony — well, the whole group, actually.  Like I said, it was magic.  It was one of those magical dates that came together.  We had done a television show, and like many Jazz endeavors that come about, you don’t have too much time to rehearse.  I brought some tunes in, and it was just… The only thing I can say is that it was like magic, the things that happened, their response, and it was so open…

So when I heard it, I said, “I have to record it.”  So we went into the studio.  We had another one-nighter in Copenhagen, and then a day off.  So we laid down about seven tracks, and I used it as a demo.  Then Just-In-Time was interested in putting it out.  So I brought them back over again, and went into the studio another evening or two, and had a couple of rehearsals — and that’s the result of it.

Q:    Ed Thigpen’s father was one of the  prominent drummers of his period, really, in defining what’s called the Southwest Sound and that way of playing drums.

ET:    Well, a Swing drummer, yeah.  He was great.  Swing.  Swing, that was Ben Thigpen.

Q:    Ben Thigpen, who played with Andy Kirk for many years.  And your birthplace is Chicago.  Did you live there for a number of years, or…?

ET:    No.  Actually the band was on the road, and that’s where I was born.  But the band was actually stationed out of Kansas City.  So I guess when I was old enough to travel, we traveled to Kansas City, and then my mother took me to California, where I was raised from 1935.

Q:    Tell me about your musical tuition.  Was your father your first teacher, or how did it happen?

ET:    No, he wasn’t my first teacher.  Actually, I started in grade school.  You know, all the kids… We had church choir, tap dance lessons, some piano lessons, and we had rhythm groups, and a little orchestra in grade school!  Then in junior high school I did my first drum contest.  We had people like Buddy Redd, who was Elvira Redd’s brother, a young man named Jimmy O’Brien.  Then naturally, the concert band.  Then getting into high school with the swing band, which I think sort of kicked things off, because that band came out of Jefferson High School.  Art Farmer was in the band, and Addison, Chico Hamilton had come out of the band, Dexter had gone to that school as well — so it was quite rich.

Q:    And the band-master at Thomas Jefferson High School was Samuel Browne, a famous teacher.

ET:    Samuel Browne.

Q:    Describe him a little bit, his methods…

ET:    Well, complete openness as far as exposure.  All styles of music.  We had arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, by whoever was popular — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Boyd Raeburn.  Dizzy Gillespie, they had charts from that band.

Q:    At that time.

ET:    Oh, yes.  Oh, yes.

Q:     So he was fully open-minded.

ET:    Oh, totally.  And you were allowed to go as far as you could.  It was totally open.  We had great arrangers in the band, wonderful singers.  Mister Browne was just very encouraging to all of us.  He was a very dedicated man.

Q:    Were you basically a born drummer?  I mean, is that your first instrument?  Or were you studying other instruments…

ET:    No, I’ve worked hard at it.  I still do.

Q:    I don’t mean that it was a natural talent.  I mean, was that the first instrument that you…

ET:    Gravitated towards?

Q:    Yes.

ET:    In some senses.  Actually, it was the piano at first, but the piano lessons, instead of… I think in the old days it was, like, I used to get stomach-aches because I didn’t know about this fourth finger being tied, and the concentration on being a concert pianist, and I didn’t have the facility for that.  I sort of wish… Now when I teach, I teach young people to enjoy the music.  It’s not about being Horowitz.  It’s about enjoying the music.  But now I’m studying again!

But it was piano and dance.  We took dance; we did tap dancing.  And singing in the choir and stuff like that.

Q:    You went to school with and were roughly a contemporary of a number of musicians who became very well known in the Jazz world.  Were you performing outside of school in teenage groups, ensembles?   If so, what sort of things were you playing, and what was the ambiance like?

ET:    Well, no, I wasn’t playing outside of school until I became a senior.  I just had graduated from high school.  My first professional gig was with Buddy Collette, as a matter of fact.  He hired me to do a gig.  We’d have dances, you know, at the YMCA and the YWCA.   Then the Swing band, of course, we did a lot of touring around the city.  We played all the high schools and so forth.

Q:    The Jefferson High School band.

ET:    That was Jefferson High School, but we played other high schools in concert.  We had… Well, who else had a Swing band?  I think Dorsey(?) may have had a band.  But our band was quite known, so we traveled all over the city, doing concerts and so forth.

Q:    As far as emulating a style, I guess your father would have been an obvious example to you.  But who were the drummers you were trying to model yourself after?  Was it by records?  Were you able to go to the theaters, hear big bands coming through, and hear those drummers first-hand?

ET:    As I said before, we had drummers who came through who were there.  Chico Hamilton was quite helpful to me.  As a matter of fact, he taught me how to play paradiddles.  I enjoyed his colors.  Then, like all kids at that time, Gene Krupa was a… You know, you went to the movies and watched Gene Krupa for the show business and all that stuff.  Then I started hearing records, and when I heard Dizzy, it was little subtle things that I liked very much.  “Ow!” was a big influence, that particular piece.  I found out later it wasn’t Kenny, but it was Joe Harris.  But also Max Roach, Art Blakey — all of the masters playing.  Just people who played well.

Then, later, after I had moved to St. Louis, I had the opportunity to see Jo Jones, Papa Jo, as they call him now.  Once I saw him, that was it.  He was a symphony on drums for me.

Q:    What was the event?

ET:    Well, actually I was in St. Louis, and I was going to see Buddy Rich at the Jazz at the Philharmonic, but Buddy didn’t make the show, and there was Jo Jones.  Well, I hadn’t seen him before, and I was just mesmerized.  I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Just everything that he did was so musical, and the touch and the swing — and from there on, that was it for me.  That was the one who I more or less patterned a lot of my work from.

Q:    Did you speak with him then?

ET:    Oh yes.  He and father were very close, and I obviously spoke to him, but it wasn’t about drums.  We talked about tennis, as a matter of fact.  When he came to L.A., when I first him, he didn’t even know I played drums.  I introduced myself, and he knew my Dad, of course, and we were out on the tennis court together.  But that was it.

Q:    What was his tennis game like?

ET:    Fine!  He was a good tennis player.  Yeah, he was fine.

Q:    Talk about the elements of his style that you were able to incorporate, coming from another generation and dealing with somewhat different demands that were placed on a drummer.

ET:    Well, what I liked first of all was the swing.  You know, you popped your fingers.  It was his cymbal beat, his hi-hat patterns.  Then when I saw him pick up brushes, which I hadn’t used before really… And his touch.  It was the musicality of his approach to playing.  It was the instrument… It wasn’t just drums when he played.  He used to tell me later, after I got to know him, that the hi-hat became his brass section.  He was one of the first ones I saw utilizing a certain amount of independence, subtle independence, and colors and things of that nature.  It just floored me.  So I think it was the overall musicality of the swing, the epitome of swing.

Q:    Were you working professionally right after graduating high school?

ET:    Oh, yes.  I started working with a group called the Jackson Brothers.  It was sort of a show group. It was Pee Wee Crayton, you know, Rhythm-and-Blues.  Most of us started with Rhythm-and-Blues.  Then when I moved to St. Louis, it was Peanuts Whalum.  Miles came home one time, I had a gig with him.  And then I went on the road with (we had territorial bands) a gentleman by the name of Candy Johnson.  In that band was Jack McDuff, believe it or not, and Freeman Lee and James Glover.  So you traveled around the Midwest and the South.  Then I wound up in New York, and my first job here was at the Savoy Ballroom.

Q:    Was the Candy Johnson band dealing mostly with jump band things, rhythm-and-blues, or was it a wide repertoire?

ET:    No, it was Swing.  It was a wide repertoire.  I think the closest… Candy played tenor, alto, clarinet, baritone; he played a lot of baritone at that time.  Jack was playing piano.  We weren’t playing organ; playing piano.  There was some Bebop, there was some Swing, we had a lot of stuff Charlie Ventura type with that group that he had with Bennie Green.  It was just good music, just swing.  Basie charts.  The standard things.  He was a wonderful player.

Q:    So you really had a ton of experience by the time you came to New York, working in all sorts of situations, I guess.

ET:    I would say so.  Then when I got here, you know, it started again, working with Cootie Williams.  That band was my first exposure to doing the tobacco warehouses doing what they call the Chitlin’ Circuit.  We traveled with people like the Ravens, the Dominos, the first Doo-Wop groups, the Orioles, then with Dinah Washington — it was wonderful.  That’s when I met Keeter Betts and Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly.  That was the rhythm she had.  Then, when I saw Jimmy Cobb, that floored me again.

Q:    Talk about that little bit.

ET:    Well, I have to go back before Jimmy.  I mean, when I first came to New York in late 1950 or early 1951, the first person I looked up was Max Roach.  He was playing at a place called the Palm Garden, I think, down the street from the Apollo Theater.  I had heard Max on record.  He, again, was so musical.  You could just follow the melodies when he soloed.  I couldn’t believe someone like that.  And his descriptive playing, total… Again, he had a great influence in the sense… I didn’t have the technique that he did, but it was the musicality of the drums.  That was the thing that really got to me.  I met him, asked questions and so forth.

Q:    Max Roach, of course, was tremendously influenced as well by Papa Jo Jones.

ET:    I think everyone who came up had to be influenced by him.  He was a great innovator, let’s face it.
But anyway, when we were out on the road with Cootie, we were traveling with Dinah Washington, and as I said, they had Wynton Kelly and Keeter Betts and then Jimmy Cobb.  Then I was really flabbergasted, because here was a guy who was sort of like out of Max, but his solos and time, and he swung so hard… He had such great technique, too.  I just said, “Wow!”

All these guys were nice.  That’s the beauty, for me, of the business, is the camaraderie of the men who are involved in the music.  They’re all such great men, such wonderful people.  So from that, you just try to make your little niche and participate in this wonderful music.

Q:    You worked with Bud Powell and Billy Taylor, I guess, in the mid-1950’s.

ET:    Yes.  Well, I went into the Army from Cootie Williams.  When I came out of the Army, I was discharged in Chicago.

Q:    I’m sure you were in a band in the Army?

ET:    Yes.  I was at Ford Ord, California, for almost the first year.  I was the instructor in the Army band.  I really got the gig as an instructor because I could play a good Samba, and my Master Sergeant had a band outside of the regular duties, and he wanted me to play with him, so they stationed me there.
Then I went to Korea, and I was in the Sixth Army Band, Maxwell Taylor, you know, the Armed Guard Band.

Then when I came out, I got out in Chicago.  Cootie had another drummer, and the guy who was his road manager said, “I don’t think you’re going to get this gig back.”  Anyway, Keeter Betts told me that Dinah (he called her the Queen)… he had heard that the drum chair was open.  So I spoke with her.  She was coming into St. Louis two weeks after I was discharged.  I went down to the dance, played with them, and she said, “Why don’t you come and go to Kansas City?”  So the next thing I know, two weeks after the Army, I’m with Dinah.  And from Dinah, I’m back to New York, and then it’s Birdland — and you’re exposed to here.  Then my whole thing began again.

Q:    Began to blossom.

ET:    Yes.

Q:    Talk about playing with Bud Powell.

ET:    Oh!  Playing with Bud Powell.  Again, that was a thrill.

Q:    Did he have on nights, off nights?  Was he fairly consistently?

ET:    Well, some people say he wasn’t… You know, he had been ill for so long, so there would be evenings when I guess those who knew him when he was at his peak would say it was off.  But for me it was always on, because again, he played so much music.  I wasn’t real…with the sticks… Like, I said, I could swing and I was good with brushes, and he liked what I did with the brushes.  So just playing with him, just being on the stand with him was wonderful.  And all of that obviously came in.  I tried to find ways to accompany him.

Q:    Would he have pretty much set arrangements?  Did you have any input into the shape of his performances…

ET:    Oh, no-no-no.  At that point there was no actual conversation going on.  Everything conversationally was done musically.  He’d look over and smile, and he would just play.  So you know, the ears had to have it.

Q:    And then you worked for several years also with Billy Taylor’s trio, which was a popular trio.

ET:    Oh, that was a delight.  That was my introduction to… oh, to so many things.  Billy introduced me to so many things.  Number one, he’s such a fine person.  Again, he gave me total freedom.  With Billy I think prepared me to work with Oscar, in a strange way.  The appreciation of a ballad.  No one plays a ballad like that for me.  Then, I was able to experiment with him.  We used to talk about the story-line of a piece, “Titoro,” or what we wanted to get out of it.  That was also my introduction to general Jazz education.  He’s so knowledgeable.  We used to go out and do a lot of freebies, and do clinics and workshops.  I gained a great deal from Billy.  Still do, as a matter of fact!

Q:    We’re in a straight line here, and I guess that will lead us to your joining Oscar Peterson.

ET:    Oh, 1959.   Yes, January, 1959.

Q:    That was six years?

ET:    Six-and-a-half years.  ’59 to ’65.

Q:    Ed Thigpen will select a set of favorite performances over the years with Oscar Peterson, and we’ll be back with him for more conversation.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: OP/Milt Jackson “Green Dolphin Street” (1962), “Tin Tin Deo” (1963) “Thag’s Dance” (1962)]

Q:    In the previous segment we were encapsulating Ed Thigpen’s life up to joining the Oscar Peterson Trio.  I’d now like to ask you a little bit about your years with that group, and the demands of playing with a trio of such incredible musicians, both as improvisers and in terms of their general musicality.  Talk about playing next to Ray Brown for six years.

ET:    Oh, a total delight.  Ray was a big brother to me, in many ways.  You know, we almost lived together on the road for about six years, and rehearsing every day, playing time, playing golf…just having a good time.  It was a delightful experience in most ways; it really was.

Q:    He has one of the most distinctive sounds in Jazz.  He’s one of these people, one note, you pretty much know it’s him.

ET:    Oh, yes.  Well, I used to like to have him just lay down a groove.  Nobody lays down a groove like him.

Q:    I’m going to ask you a bit about the strategies of the group.  Were the performances intricately worked out beforehand?  How much improvising went on on the bandstand in terms of shaping the arrangements, apart from within the arrangements?

ET:    Well, as you can see, they were highly arranged as far as the compositional things.  Oscar was a genius in how he wanted things to be; after he had shaped the outside parts, how he wanted… Except when it came to things where we’d just play things spontaneous, like when we did eleven albums in two weeks of that whole song-book series, with no short takes.  Well, those things are just spontaneous, you know, doing the melody, the groove, have little interludes, and you had to be quick and just make it happen.  Of course, as you know, with Jazz music, so much of it is improvisation, so the skills have to be there.

But with the group, we would have rehearsals, and we’d learn the pieces in sections.  When it came to things like West Side Story, which was probably one of the most difficult ones for me at that time, because some of the things were quite intricate, you had to put blinders on, not  sing somebody else’s part, and play yours.  It was quite intricate.

I just enjoyed listening to the trio.  I felt every night I was at a concert.  I wasn’t just participating.  I was also part of the audience, listening to them play.  But outside of that, I think one of the biggest things I got out of that whole thing was the idea about being consistent, keeping at a very high level.  That was his credo.  We were supposed to sound better than just about anybody on our worst night.  That was the whole idea, was that you never cheated.  I mean, every song was an opener and a closer, whether it’s a ballad or whatever.  You just went out and go for broke, the whole thing.

Q:    Well, it’s certainly a group which gave new meaning to the phrase “split second timing.”

ET:    Oh, yes.  It was something else.

Q:    Was the reason for leaving that six years on the road was too much, or…

ET:    No, it was time.  Oscar was hearing other things.  I began to hear other things.  I think in any type of situation like that… You know, you watch Miles’ groups, he changed.  There comes a time when that period of whatever you’re going through, has to end, and you move on to other things.

Q:    Well, he certainly put the drummer in a situation where I guess just about every possible sound you could out of a drum kit would be incorporated within at least several performances by the group.

ET:    Well, I wouldn’t say… To be honest, not every sound.  Because that’s why you move on.  You know, you’re working for and with a person who is a very strong personality, who is a stylist as well.  He has ideas about how he wants things to go, and they are absolutely right.  It would be the same if you were working with Erroll Garner as a stylist, or someone else.  There would be certain things that… When you’re working with one particular group over a long period of time, and it’s almost exclusively with that group, there are many things you don’t get a chance to play, you know, a lot of repertoire — you can’t cover everything.  There were things I would do with Billy that I didn’t do with him.  There were things I did with Tommy that you didn’t do with Billy or you didn’t do with someone else.  Over the years, you find yourself in other situations, and each individual, or each group that you work with will give you other areas of your personality… You know, you continue to grow, so you experiment.  It’s constantly evolving.  You’re not really one-dimensional.  I guess that’s the best way I could put it.

Q:    I guess the next major gig for you was several years with Ella Fitzgerald, in the late 1960’s.

ET:    Yes.  That was another thrill.

Q:    Which has a whole other set of demands for accompanying a singer, and as formidable a stylist as Ella Fitzgerald.

ET:    Well, she was a total orchestra.  You know, you have some soloists… Her voice was the instrument, let’s face it.  And she instinctively… When she sang it was orchestration.  It almost commanded that you do certain things.  You find certain soloists… Benny Carter is another person who plays that way.  When they play, it’s like an orchestration.  It leads you to something.  So it’s not really as difficult to play with them, because they know so much about what they want, and what they’re going to do without even saying it.  It comes right out.  If you react to that, then it’s almost automatic.  It’s just a big thrill to be in that situation.

Q:    Our next set of music will focus on an aspect of Ed  Thigpen’s European experience, which has been ongoing for twenty-two years.  You live in Copenhagen.  Has that been your residence since moving to Europe?

ET:    Oh, yes.  I was married and we had children, and I stayed there and raised my kids.  And Copenhagen was a nice place to be at the time.  For a period there, we had Dexter, Thad, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan, Idrees Sulieman, Sahib Shihab, Richard Boone — it was a nice community.

[MUSIC: Ernie Wilkins Big Band “Sebastian”; Thad Jones, “Three In One” (1984)]

Q:    Ed Thigpen is working this week at Bradley’s in a trio featuring the strong Memphis-based pianist Charles Thomas, who has influenced several generations of Memphis piano players, and bassist Ray Drummond.  Is this your first time playing with Charles Thomas?

ET:    The first time.  James Williams called me, the wonderful pianist, and said, “I have someone I would really like you to play with.  He would like to play with you.”  Because Charles had been a big fan of Oscar, myself, and so forth.  He said, “You’re really going to like him.  He taught a lot of us from Memphis.”  Meanwhile, I spoke with Billy Higgins, and he raved about him too.  Charles is a wonderful pianist, a wonderful musician.  People really should come down.

Q:    You were mentioning the breadth of his repertoire.

ET:    Oh, the scope of his repertoire.  He knows… We’re playing everything from Christmas carols to the height of Bebop, so tunes that you don’t hear, some compositions I’m beginning to learn right on the bandstand.  It’s pure magic.  Again, one of those situations when you have someone who plays so well and knows the music so thoroughly, and it’s just a treat to be there with him.

Q:    He’s a very elegant and incisive soloist.  He never plays too long, and always with a little different twist to what you might expect.

ET:    Well, I like his harmonics.  He swings his head off.  We went into some Blues last night, and it was deep.  It was really something!  So I am looking forward to every night.  You know, it’s a long gig when you do 10-to-3 in the morning, but doesn’t seem long to me, because you know, Ray is playing so beautifully… When you’re playing with great guys like this, and the music is so interesting, and the treatment of the music is nice, so it’s stimulating for both the audience and for us as players.  So it’s a nice place to be.

Q:    We heard you backing Thad Jones.  You mentioned that you played with him quite frequently over about a seven-eight year period…

ET:    Well, seven years anyway.  The last seven years of his life, really, or until he went with Basie, I was doing a lot of work with Thad.   I hooked onto him when he came over.  Because this man, just coming out of a rehearsal under him made me a better father, the way he handled people and he was encouraging to everybody…

Q:    An anecdote?

ET:    Just love.  Love, love and perfection, and just creativity, a lot of it — and caring.  This was a man who cared about his musicians.  I think the thing that I gained most was that working with Thad… Other musicians attest to the same.  What he wanted was you to be the best you you could be.  It wasn’t a matter about comparing.  It was the idea about individuality and being the best you, and he would just encourage you to be the best you that you could be.

Q:    Talk a little bit about what’s distinctive about his compositions for a drummer.

ET:    Well, for me, again, we’re talking about total musicality.  Orchestrating the rhythmic aspect of his music was perfect.   Tommy used to tell me, “It’s simple.”  He would start at odd places, but once you got into it, it was just so logical; it was so logical you wouldn’t even think about it.  It’s just right.  Unique.

Q:    Talk about some of the other musicians you’ve had close associations with.  Mads Vinding, obviously, is your partner on bass.

ET:    Jesper Lundgaard.  We have a couple of pianists now in Denmark who are wonderful.  Now I have this new association with a sort of American-German-European, but sort of like more esoteric and descriptive, but wonderful.  I’m having a ball with this new group, After Storm, with John Lindberg and Albert Mangelsdorff and Eric Watson.  We all come from different backgrounds, one Classical, two of us Jazz, older and younger men, this mixture of young and old, and mixing some Classical aspects to the improvisational things that we’re doing, so some of it is like descriptive music, but you know, with a beat behind it.  Just interesting to play.  Free.

What’s happening now, you may not be playing just the Blues, but it will have the feel of it, you know.  You might not be playing just “Rhythm” changes, but it all has rhythm.  All music has rhythm.  Breathing, walking, everything has  rhythm to it.  As I said before, it’s not a matter of being in a box.  I call it descriptive.  It’s an opportunity to… Maybe you want to paint a picture.  You might depict rustling leaves, for instance.  So it can be very theatrical. It’s like theater music, in some ways.  Descriptive music is the best way I can put it.

Q:    Do you paint pictures for yourself while you’re playing, regardless of the situation?

ET:    Yes.  I try to relate to some type of story form, an idea you’re trying to communicate, a feeling, a picture, a story, whether it be the ocean, or whether it be something lyrical.  You try to be… It is a matter of communication, you know, telling a story.

[MUSIC:  Thigpen Trio, “E.T.P.” (1991), Thigpen Group, “Heritage” (1966); Thigpen/ Mangelsdorff/Lindberg/Watson, “Punchin’ aPaich Patch”]

Q:    You said that the Mangelsdorff/Lindberg/Watson group has some tours set up for next year.

ET:    Yeah, we have a couple.  We have a short one when we record again in February, and in March we have a tour.  So I’m looking forward to it.

Q:    That’s the type of group that if you were feeling a little stale or in a rut, it seems like you would never have any problem finding fresh ideas.

ET:    No.  It’s very stimulating.  I enjoy it very much.  As I said, it’s descriptive.  I enjoy descriptive music.  And they’re interesting to play with it.  I really enjoy it.

Q:    When you came to Europe one thing that was either a cliche or not is that it was hard to find good rhythm section.  So of course, if a strong drummer arrived, there would presumably be a lot of work.  Was that the case with European rhythm sections?  If so, how has that evolved over the years?

ET:    I think that’s changed now, obviously.  Jazz is a world music now.  It’s always been.  It’s encompassed it, because this country represents the world.  I think you have to be here, you have the… There’s something unique about this experience in the United States that figures in everything.  It is a United States art form made up of all the peoples and cultures in the world.

But we have some wonderful players over in Europe, really.  As far as… I used to hear about… I understand it was that way at one time about rhythm sections, because you know, the essence of the music is here.  It’s like, if you’re going to deal with Opera, you have to deal with Italy.  Everybody has to have something, right?!

Q:    Conversely, how has your European experience shaped you, and made you a more, let’s say, expansive improviser or given you a more expansive palette?

ET:    Not necessarily.  These are the things that I’ve always been interested in.  As I said, a lot of people don’t realize how diverse the United States is.  There is a very interesting article quoting Max.  Every time I think of something, he’s already said it.  He’s so observant!  And the fact that this country represents…brings in cultures.  You know, it’s a mixture of various cultures.  So most of us are exposed to all types of things here.  I mean, you turn on the radio… Well, it’s different now, in some ways.  But I was introduced to Brazilian music when I was ten years old in Los Angeles.  I play good Country-and-Western music.  So it’s all here.

Q:    You said you got in the Army band because you played a good Samba for your Sergeant.

ET:    That’s right.  If there is a difference in Europe, I don’t think the European fan is as fickle.  Everything is marketing here, and it’s like what’s new rather than necessarily what is classic.  We don’t really honor…it’s even about honor, but just even respect our own uniqueness sometimes.  Sometimes I have a problem if people don’t realize that we do have a very rich heritage.  I just wish they would support it more.

Q:    I think that the stretching boundaries and “experimentation” was represented on the middle track, which is from your first album as a leader, Ed Thigpen’s Out of the Storm from 1966, on Verve.  That one featured Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Ed Thigpen.  That track featured your pedal tom-tom.

ET:    Well, it was a pedal miazi(?), pedal tom-tom, an Italian drum.  It works somewhat similar to a tympany.  I was actually able to do melodies on that drum.
Q:    And sing.

ET:    Oh yeah, that was another thing.

Q:    The call-and-response effect you were able to get there.

ET:    Yes, between that and toms and so forth.  You know, years ago, we had one of the first what I guess you would call Avant groups with Gil Mellé, who was very advanced.  We were doing things on…like, he was very much into Bartok, you know.  But it’s just playing music, man, making you feel good and having a good time!


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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Filed under Article, Bud Powell, Jazziz, New York, Piano

Modern Jazz in Greenwich Village

Yesterday morning,  I received an invitation to join a Facebook group comprised of people who grew up in Greenwich Village, many of them from my elementary school alma mater, P.S. 41, on 11th Street and 6th Avenue, and my junior high school, I.S. 70., on 17th Street between 8th and 9th Aves. In going through the many threads, it’s fascinating to take in the testimony of such a diverse group of people who share the experience of having grown up and come of age during the 1960s and early ’70s in this singular, culturally influential community.

As a jazz guy, I couldn’t help but notice that, on a thread asking people to talk about the music that shook their world, not one respondent — except me, of course, ever the oddball –made a single mention of jazz. The  one exception is a woman who heard Miles at the Fillmore and also the Gaslight circa 1969 or 1970, when she would have been 15 or 16. Which is natural, since so many of the musicians who shaped the course of rock and pop were living and performing in the Village (one thread related that  Hendrix, then residing on W. 12th St., would practice with his amp by an open window; another gentleman posted a photograph of himself and his brother, barely 10, playing banjo on the grass in Washington Square Park next to a smiling, embarrassed Bob Dylan).

Six years ago, on the occasion of the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, I wrote a feature piece for DownBeat on the halcyon years of jazz in the Village, which  waned—though the scene was by no means dormant—as the ’60s progressed. Unfortunately, for space reasons, DB had to excise much  of the third section. I’m running my own final cut below.

* * *

On a frigid afternoon in January, a few weeks before the seventieth anniversary festivities of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor, sat in the triangular basement for a chat. The heating unit was off, and she was fighting a cold. Wearing a sweater and down jacket, she stayed close to a lukewarm radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.

Gordon looked across to the bar, and recalled a moment more than 60 years ago, when she sat there with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club as Leadbelly sing the blues from the Vanguard stage. “Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We had a couple of beers and passed them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”

The “little man” was Max Gordon, the owner. Some years later, Lorraine married him. When he died in 1989, she took over the business.

As she spoke, the ice machine spewed out a load of cubes.

“The ice revue!” she laughed. “We need a big facelift, but I don’t want to do it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max Gordon’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability.”

Lorraine Gordon wasn’t joking. The Vanguard, which under her guidance  follows a booking policy as progressive as any New York venue, operates on principles opposite to modern notions of hospitality management. They don’t take credit cards and don’t serve food. The tables are tiny. The red banquettes are less than plush. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. [note: The Vanguard began to take credit cards last year.]

Gordon evoked another incident, perhaps in 1949 or 1950. “I brought Thelonious Monk here before he had any public at all,” she said. “Only some musicians knew him. Monk gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’  He laid a big egg. Max was furious with me. ‘What kind of announcement is that?’ he said. ‘You’re ruining my business. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.’ Some years later, when Max brought him back, he told  people, ‘Hey, I want you to hear this genius.’”

“I was playing a gig with a singer for Max when Lorraine brought Monk in,”  pianist Billy Taylor corroborates. “Lorraine was pretty, and anything she told him, he was buying. At that particular time, it was the most unlikely thing he would have done.”

During the Vanguard’s first two decades, Max Gordon regarded jazz as a minor option on his entertainment menu. But as the ‘50s progressed, Gordon, sensing that television would soon outbid him for his artists, decided to make a move.

“In 1955 Max told me he was thinking of switching to a jazz policy,” says veteran producer Orrin Keepnews. “‘Stick with what you’ve got,’ I said, ‘and don’t give yourself a lot of trouble.’ Subsequently we talked about how fortunate it was that he paid me no attention.”

Fortunate indeed. Gordon signed on for the jazz wars at the precise moment when Greenwich Village was replacing 52nd Street and Harlem as the turf on which such efflorescent modernists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans established the vocabulary that continues to bedrock today’s sound. He shared the territory with clubs like the Café Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Jazz Showplace, and the Half Note, environments that now exist only in the memories of witnesses and through iconic location recordings. Those venues withered. The Vanguard flourished. Now, it’s the last survivor of the era.

* * * *
From today’s perspective, it seems odd that in 1955 the Village Vanguard and such venerable Greenwich Village establishments as Nick’s Tavern and Eddie Condon’s were inhospitable to modern developments in jazz. Yet, forward-thinking young musicians and a new generation of artists, writers, poets and theater people were settling in the Village, augmented by a flood of G.I. Bill sponsored students at New York University and numerous middle-class professionals moving into old brownstones and new highrises. All were looking for something different, and their soundtrack was modern jazz. But they could only hear it at informal sessions in lofts, storefront back rooms,  local restaurants, strip clubs (Phil Woods held court for several years at the Nut Club, a Sheridan Square boite in a space now occupied by The Garage), and saloons, like a raunchy East Fourth Street bar called the Open Door, where Robert Reisner booked jazz on Sunday afternoons.

In late 1954, Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, moved from a MacDougal Street tenement into a barely heated Barrow Street flat, a five-minute walk from the Vanguard. Often boarding with him was Charlie Parker, his marriage shattered and health failing. Bird began to gravitate to the Bohemia, a former strip joint across the street at 15 Barrow—a decade before, the premises, known as the Pied Piper, boasted a house band with Wilbur DeParis and James P. Johnson—to drink and jam. James Garofalo, the manager, decided to reinstate the music policy, and hired Bird to kick things off.

Parker died on March 12, 1955, and never made the gig. Garofalo hired bassist Oscar Pettiford, who composed the anthemic “Bohemia After Dark” and attracted the best and brightest of Parker’s acolytes and contemporaries to hear him. Cannonball Adderley famously debuted there in June, sitting in on a Pettiford gig with Kenny Clarke. George Wallington recorded at the Bohemia that September for Progressive with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. In October, Blue Note recorded the Art Blakey-Horace Silver edition of the Jazz Messengers, and in December Charles Mingus and Max Roach did the same for Debut. Among the intermission pianists were Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Bobby Scott.

In October 1955, Miles Davis, just signed to Columbia, entered the Bohemia with a new quintet comprised of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

“The Bohemia’s audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention,” states George Avakian, who signed Miles to the label and coordinated the publicity campaign that transformed his image. “They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted, oh, a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.”

“It was a hip place,” adds Billy Taylor, “more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street.  People who lived or worked in or frequented the Village considered themselves a lot hipper than other people in town. In many cases, they were!”

“The Village was a section of acceptance for anything—any form of art, any form of people,” says Sheila Jordan, who sang during these years Monday nights at the Page Three, a gay bar on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street where Herbie Nichols played piano for a motley array of performers, including Tiny Tim. “Live your life. Play what you play. Paint what you paint. Dance what you dance. They accepted it.”

“Because of the mixed audience, people came from all over and did different things,” remarks Randy Weston, who performed in 1943 with guitarist Huey Long at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street. “In Harlem and Brooklyn the black audiences were very critical. You better feel the blues and swing or else! It was more flexible in the Village.”

The music at the Bohemia satisfied on both levels. “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way,” says Roswell Rudd. “The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down. They couldn’t believe anybody would challenge himself that way.”

Villager Bob Brookmeyer worked opposite Miles in 1956 on a Bohemia job with Gerry Mulligan, and again in 1958 as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall. “We had 8 weeks,” he recalls, “including two opposite Wynton Kelly’s Trio, another two opposite the Wilbur Ware Quartet, and Miles and Coltrane the last two weeks. I thought we’d get killed, that the Birdland crowd would come down, talk through us and listen to Miles. But the opposite happened. Miles asked me why. I said, ‘We play quiet, so they have to listen.’”

“A tough little Italian-American cat,” in Weston’s words, Garofalo would not tolerate inattentive patrons. “Garofalo was an old-school Village bartender-proprietor and a real jazz fan,” says David Amram, who beelined to the Bohemia directly after arriving in New York in September 1955. A few weeks later, Mingus hired him to play french horn on a Bohemia gig “If a customer had a bad attitude, he might jump over the bar and attack them.”

At the beginning of 1957, Amram took an 11-week engagement across town at the Five Spot, a Skid Row saloon at Fourth Street and the Bowery with sawdust on the floor. Artists were starting to gravitate there from the already touristy Cedar Tavern on University Place.

“In the summer of ‘56, I scored a documentary film about the Third Avenue Elevated line, which had been torn down the year before, and persuaded Cecil Taylor to play on the soundtrack,” Amram relates. “I was around the Bowery every day. Joan Mitchell, a painter I knew, told me I had to come to this bar called the Five Spot, where she, Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning were bringing their friends. Don Shoemaker, who was a merchant seaman, played this wretched, beat-up old piano, and Dale Wales, who was a bass trumpet player and a chef, were playing there for kicks. All the painters knew me, and I sat in. Then I told Cecil to come down. He sat in, played his stuff, and broke about five keys. The proprietor, Joe Termini, said, ‘Get him out of here; he’s ruining my piano!’ But the painters said, ‘This guy is a genius. If you don’t bring him back, we’re not coming any more.’ So Joe hired Cecil for five weeks, with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles. Then I went in. All these different poets came to read with me, and so did Jack Kerouac. It was like a Renaissance.”

“The first time I met Steve Lacy, we did jazz and poetry at the Five Spot, with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg,” pianist Mal Waldron told me in 2001. “All these people ganged together because we were on the outer edges of the status quo. We were the outlaws!”

“There were painters, sculptors, derelicts staggering in completely drunk,” says Randy Weston, who followed Amram that spring with a trio. In June, he ceded the bandstand to Thelonious Monk’s newly-formed quartet, featuring John Coltrane, whom Miles Davis had recently fired, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. In honor of the event, which quickly entered the annals of jazz legend, the Terminis replaced the upright piano with a mini grand.

“The place was packed every night, and it was utter joy,” says Weston. Joyful, perhaps, but not hygienic. “The place was not clean at all,” he continues. “Sometimes when the toilet door opened, you would smell pee, and this guy made funky hamburgers in a little bitty kitchen.”

“We’d be back there eating them,” says Roy Haynes, who worked for most of the summer of 1958 at the Five Spot with Monk and Johnny Griffin, and “sat in once or twice” with the Monk and Coltrane the previous year. Naima Coltrane taped one session, which Blue Note issued a few years ago. “I didn’t care about the dirt. A lot of places were dirty. Playing with Monk at the Five Spot, there was no money made at all. But I loved to go to work. That’s when the word beatnik became popular and the look of the audiences started changing. We wore suits and ties when I worked the Five Spot with Monk. Sooner or later, that stopped. I couldn’t wait to take off a tie and play drums!”

“The place was small and dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness—sort of,” says Jim Hall. Hall notes that the personality of the proprietors set the tone. “When I was a kid, all the club owners were guys with the broken nose and cigars,” he notes. “But the Termini Brothers seemed like they’d be good neighbors or could run a grocery store.”

“The place had a certain warmth,” Weston acknowledges. “You can feel the bonhomie on Weston’s live Five Spot recording with Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham from October 26, 1959. The other band was the Ornette Coleman Quartet, with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, in week three of Coleman’s explosive New York debut engagement.

“Hearing Ornette was a new experience in music,” says Weston. “I had the same impression when I heard Dizzy and Bird. What are these guys playing?! I didn’t know it was great. I just knew it was different.”

“Ornette immediately antiquated three-quarters of the musicians in New York,” says Bley, for whom Coleman had sidemanned in Los Angeles. “A lot of them proceeded to ask me what was going on, and I tried to help. I talked about microtonality—every kind of explanation, all at the same time. Ornette threatened almost everybody, including all the famous players.”

“I’d heard about Ornette through Neshui Ertegun, who had recorded him in California, and Neshui asked me to join him on opening night,” Avakian recalls. “It was electric. Word had gotten out, and the place was jammed. Ornette played the first set for about two hours, only three compositions, and virtually no solos. It was an ensemble feel from start to finish. Later it became more orthodox with individual solos. But that was the first impact, and it was very powerful.”

During the final month of Coleman’s initial Five Spot run, Bill Evans was firming up a new trio at the Jazz Showplace, on Third Street, near the current Blue Note. The bassist was a recent arrival from the West Coast named Scott LaFaro and the drummer was Paul Motian, an established young veteran on the New York scene. “Bill started with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis at Basin Street East in November, and they quit on him,” says Motian. “I was working a rock-and-roll gig in New Jersey when he called me. Then Scott sat in with us, and that was it.” Evans brought the trio into the Showplace on Tuesday, December 1st, and left on Sunday, December 27th. That night they went the studio to record the iconic trio album Portrait In Jazz.

Prior to joining Bill Evans, Motian worked most of August 1959 with Lennie Tristano at the Showplace. But his home away from home for much of the preceding year was the Half Note, two blocks north of the Holland Tunnel at Hudson and Spring, across from the loft building that houses today’s Jazz Gallery. Run by the Cantarino family, it was an old-style Village Italian restaurant, with red-and-white tablecloths, that inaugurated a jazz policy in September 1957, with an appearance by Randy Weston.

According to Motian’s detailed gig books, he played the Half Note in June 1958 with Lee Konitz, and spent August through October on a 13-week run with Lennie Tristano. After three weeks in January 1959 with the bibulous tenor tandem of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and four with Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh (the front line, with Evans in the piano chair, is in fine form on LIVE AT THE HALF-NOTE [Verve]), he joined Cohn and Sims again for April, and spent three weeks in June with pianist-vibraphonist Eddie Costa.

The area now has an active nightlife, but in 1960, Brookmeyer notes, “the only other thing there was a rough gay bar two blocks over on the river. You had to really want to go. But people came, because the food and atmosphere and music were so good. They had a regular music clientele, and we built up our own audiences. For example, Clark Terry and I were there four times a year, and John Coltrane played there often.”

“You couldn’t stumble out and go into another club, like on 52nd Street,” states Jimmy Heath, who worked there in the mid ’60s with Art Farmer, a frequent Half Note artist. Nor was it a good idea to stumble on the bandstand, a raised platform within the oval bar, facing diners in the front. “Zoot and Al learned to catch shots that the bartender would throw up to them in shot glasses,” says Mark Murphy. “They’d down them, and throw back the glasses.”

One attraction was Al the Waiter, a.k.a. “The Torch,” who wore a tuxedo and never allowed a cigarette to go unlit. “Wherever you were,” says Steve Swallow, “he would streak across the room, grabbing at his belt where he kept a pack of matches affixed, and in one smooth motion, like a gunslinger, he’d reach down, grab a cardboard match, strike it, and have it at the point of your cigarette in less than a second.”

“Once I walked in when Coltrane and Elvin were late in the set, doing a tenor and drums duo,” relates Bley of a moment when sparks of a different connotation flew. “When I opened the door there were purple lights flashing all over the club—and I wasn’t smoking. There was such a frenzy that it changed not only the atmosphere, but one’s vision.”

* * * * *
In his recent memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan recalls singing “The Water Is Wide” at “a creepy but convenient little coffeehouse on Bleecker Street near Thompson” in early 1961. Playing piano was Cecil Taylor. “I also played with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins there,” Dylan adds.

Dylan paints a vivid portrait of the louche, carnival atmosphere that prevailed in the coffeehouses, Italian restaurants, and saloons that lined Bleecker, MacDougal, Thompson and West Third Streets in this period. They serviced a mix of college students, bridge-and-tunnel slummers, art-oriented Villagers, Italian-American tough guys, Washington Square Park strollers, and the alcoholics, drug addicts and other lost souls who populated the Mills Hotel, an imposing 1400-unit flophouse that occupied an entire Bleecker Street block.

“I didn’t book Dylan,” says Art D’Lugoff, who ran the Village Gate, a three-tiered space below the Mills. “He was too much like Woody Guthrie. I knew a lot about Woody Guthrie, because I was a folkie before I got involved with other things.”

In 1955, D’Lugoff, an NYU alumnus, promoted concerts by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand and Earl Robinson at the Circle In The Square Theater, opposite the Mills. He opened the Gate—the premises had housed a commercial laundry—in 1958. Initially, he booked folk and blues acts, and even musical theater, moving into jazz in a big way in 1960, and remaining staunchly in the game until 1996, when he lost his lease.

“We were the first to bring minor or major entertainment to Bleecker Street,” D’Lugoff states in a staccato Brooklyn accent. “At first, the coffeehouses were primarily places to hang out, pick up, meet people, and so on. The coffee was the attraction. Traffic began to develop along MacDougal, and then people made the curve to Bleecker. Then things began to open up.”

As Amram relates, all streams converged at the circular fountain in the center of Washington Square Park. “Gigantic crowds would gather in the summer,” he says. “Every 4 feet, somebody was playing a boom-box, somebody else a radio, someone would be screaming about overthrowing the government, and then a banjo player from the south was singing songs about whiskey and tobacco, then some old blues player, then somebody wailing some post-Charlie Parker free style all by themselves for an hour—a different genre of music, all of it at the same time. Somehow, it all fit into this wonderful kind of great Greenwich Village-New York-American sound.”

Although the coffee houses presented primarily folk music, enterprising jazz experimentalists were able to slip through the cracks. Consider the Phase Two, a coffee house at Bleecker and Seventh Avenue, best known as the spot where, in 1963, poet Paul Haines recorded a recital of Monk compositions by Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd.

“It was totally open.” says Rudd, noting that the group first performed publicly in the basement of an Armenian restaurant called Harut’s on Waverly Place, and subsequently played “at least half-a-dozen rooms along MacDougal and Bleecker.” “There were no lawyers, no money, no agencies, no management. If you had the energy, or the need to get exposure, you would find a way to do it through one of these places, and pass the hat.”

In early 1960, bassist Steve Swallow, 20 and fresh from Yale, began to play with Bley and trumpeter Don Ellis Saturday afternoons at the Phase Two. After Ellis left, Bley and Swallow remained there for many months as a piano-bass duo. “It paid $5 and a lot of coffee,” says Swallow, who notes that he paid 15 cents for a subway ride and $45 rent on his spacious Flower District loft. “It was a sitting-in situation. Al Foster lugged his drums over now and then. Albert Ayler a couple of times. Bill Dixon. The usual cast of characters. I even remember Lamonte Young coming by to play.”

“A pianist and bassist won’t upset anybody, so we didn’t make an impression,” says Bley. “The performers were the wallpaper. But at coffeehouses you had a license to do whatever you wanted.”

In early 1961 Bley brought Swallow into the Jimmy Giuffre Three, which made two pathbreaking recordings for Verve that spring. The following winter, they accepted an engagement at the Take Three, located above the Bitter End about a half-mile east down Bleecker Street. For second sets, Swallow played bass-vocal duos with Sheila Jordan; Ornette Coleman came out to hear them.

“We played several weeks for the door,” Swallow says. “On one particular night we’d made less than a dollar each—and Wilbur Ware had stopped by, so I didn’t even have that. After the gig we went to a late night eatery called the Hip Bagel, which named bagels after Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and decided we’d better bag it, that it wasn’t working. The music was glorious, but it seemed futile to continue.”

Foreshadowing the British Invasion, the South Village milieu shifted from Beat to Pop in a flash.

“One singular event perfectly encapsulates the very swift change that blew through Bleecker Street,” says Swallow, referring to a jazz-and-poetry gig at the Bitter End with a straight-looking poet named Hugh Romney, who subsequently changed his name to Wavy Gravy and became the symbol of ‘60s commune culture with the Hog Farm. “One night management told us that there was another act, two guys with a guitar and a girl. After we finished our set, we encountered them in the kitchen before they were about to go on, and the two guys were arguing about the third of the four chords in the piece they were about to play, and they had a repertoire of five or six tunes. We were utterly contemptuous. A little concerned, too. Something did seem to be in the air. Within a couple of weeks, we were gone, and they were carrying on. They were Peter, Paul and Mary.”

* * * * *
“Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy here,” says Lorraine Gordon. “Plenty of slow times. Who knew if Max was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how. He was a very tenacious man.”

Thousands of musical explosions have transpired on the Vanguard bandstand since 1957, when Gordon started to “use a provocative mixture of the greatest in modern jazz, from Chico Hamilton and Stan Getz to J.J. Johnson interspersed with verbal entertainment by performers who…were hip enough or sufficiently jazz-associated to please the audiences who had come primarily to inspect the music.” The words are Leonard Feather’s, from the liner notes to Live At The Village Vanguard, a Sonny Rollins classic from that year. It’s the first in a succession of legend-building location recordings by—the list merely scratches the surface—Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Earl Hines, Albert Ayler, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Motian, Josh Redman, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, and Jim Hall.

“For some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard,” says Hall, who was married during a Vanguard engagement in 1965. “The sinkhole! I mean that in a good way. You go down there, and you’re in an environment. I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there with Slam Stewart. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over. I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and also in a duet opposite Miles’ group with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Hank Mobley. Professor Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, too. Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.”

But when asked to recall the years when modern jazz stamped the Vanguard’s identity, most musicians don’t speak about the music. Instead, they talk about Max Gordon.

Ironic and philosophical, Gordon never mired himself in the status quo, and sustained equanimity whether the house was full or empty. “Max had a great sense of humor and resilience,” says Nat Hentoff. “He often had to deal with fractious personalities, but he always stayed calm, and he was a decent guy. You could trust him.”

In point of fact, as Keepnews states, “A tremendous variety of people, some of whom can’t stand each other, have very fond recollections of Max. If you were to take a poll—though you can’t because most of the people are dead by now—this is easily the best-liked club owner there ever was.”


Filed under Article, DownBeat