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For the 81st Anniversary of David “Fathead” Newman’s birth, A 1998 DownBeat Interview with him and Hank Crawford and a Liner Note

Today is the 81st anniversary of the birth of David “Fathead” Newman, a master practitioner of the saxophone family and the flute, whose sound helped stamp Ray Charles’ various units during the ’60s and ’70s and whose own leader career is documented on three dozen or so recordings. I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for one of those dates, Keep The Spirit Singing, and to interview Mr. Newman both on WKCR and for my first-ever DownBeat feature, a joint interview with him and his long-time saxophone partner Hank Crawford in 1998. I’ve posted the liner notes and the unedited transcript of the interview.

David Newman (Notes for Keep The Spirit Singing):

In the exciting times directly following World War II, when David Newman was a young man in Dallas, Texas, interstates, jet planes, mall culture and television did not exist.  People from different regions did things their own way.  For black tenor saxophone players from the wide open spaces, that meant cultivating the larger than life sound of the kind projected by luminaries like Herschel Evans, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and John Hardee on the popular recordings by big bands and jump bands of the day.  As much Newman and his peer group — Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Booker Ervin, Dewey Redman — absorbed the startling modernist postulations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during those years, they never strayed far from the elemental principle that the horn is an analog for the human voice.  The sound was of the essence.

Then, musicians learned by jumping into the fray.  Initially an alto saxophonist, Newman attended high school with future luminaries like Cedar Walton and James Clay and jammed on up-to-the-minute bebop with a teenage Ornette Coleman.  He played in bands led by a pair of little-recorded legends, the alto saxophonist Buster Smith, who was Charlie Parker’s earliest and primary influence from Kansas City days, and the tenor saxophonist Red Connor, who Coleman cites as a primary mentor.  We’ll digress with Newman’s comments on both.

“Red Connor was a very fine musician with a sound somewhere in between Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, or Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, with a little Don Byas or Chu Berry in there,” he recalls.  “Booker Ervin listened quite a bit to him, as you can hear in Booker’s playing.  I don’t know of any other players that had Red’s particular style and his sound; he was very much his own person and  didn’t particularly pattern himself on any of the forerunner tenor players.  Red knew all the Bebop tunes, he was playing Bebop always, and I got a thorough training by playing with the Red Connor band when I was in high school.

“At that time Buster Smith had moved back to Dallas, and he had one of the best big bands in the city.  One night I sneaked into a club to hear his band play, and he gave me a chance to sit in, which was a very big thing for me; soon I started to play with him.  Buster had an advanced approach, different from most musicians of his era.  He had a huge sound on the alto, and his execution was superb; he could get over the instrument really fast — he knew it backwards.  His phrasing and harmonic concept were modern, ahead of its time.  He was a self-taught musician with perfect pitch, and he could sit and write arrangements while we were riding up and down the highways — he wouldn’t have to be anywhere near a piano.  He would write out full arrangements, and on a jump blues that he wanted to extend he would set up different riffs for the saxophones, then someone in the brass section would set the riffs for the trumpets and trombones.  They called Buster ‘Prof,’ short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.

“Buster put together small combos for the road or to back up people like T-Bone Walker and others who came through Dallas.  Around 1951-52, Buster organized a group with Leroy Cooper and myself to do a tour with Ray Charles, who was singing and playing the alto.  We played mostly the southern states out to California.  I had met Ray a little earlier, when I was playing with Lloyd Glenn, a piano player with a hit record called ‘Chickaboo,’ and Ray was with Lowell Fulsom, who featured him playing piano and singing.  We were traveling on the road at black theaters and dance halls with a package that also included Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.  Sometimes Ray sounded similar to Charles Brown, sometimes he sounded like King Cole, even sometimes like T-Bone Walker, but you could hear his thing starting to come out.  I think Ray’s recording of ‘I Got A Woman,’ when he started to inject a Gospel feel, is where the real Ray Charles started to emerge.”

Newman blossomed as a star sideman with Charles’ brilliant small band from 1954 to 1964, but he’s never felt aesthetically encumbered by his past.  “Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation,” Newman told “Downbeat” a few years back.  “Before I encountered Ray, my only real love was jazz and bebop.  With Ray I learned how to respect and admire and love all other forms of music.  This music is an incredible gift.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me, put my stamp on it, my feeling, and see what comes out.  I want to explore other areas, bridge the generations.  You can’t close yourself off as music moves on.”

Now 67, Newman sustains that attitude of freshness and exploration throughout Keep The Spirit Singing.  Performing on flute and tenor and alto saxophones, he sculpts his sound with refined nuance through a broad matrix of emotion and rhythm-timbre, enhanced by an ensemble of creative veteran improvisers who know the Old Master well enough not to have to waste time getting acquainted in the studio.

Pianist John Hicks spent his formative years in St. Louis and Atlanta, and knows intimately the language of blues and church forms; his distinctive voicings and ebullient beat fit Newman like a custom-made suit.  “I’ve known John a long time, and he’s been one of my favorite pianists for many years,” Newman says.  “He knows where I’m going, and we blend as a very good combination.”

On three selections Newman pairs off with trombonist Steve Turre, a fellow Charles alumnus who coaxed the master into playing four tunes on his recently issued In The Spur of The Moment [Telarc].  “I like the blend of the tenor saxophone and trombone,” Newman says.  “Ray’s standard instrumentation was two trumpets and three reeds, but in the ’50s when we played the Apollo and the Howard Theater, he would use the trombone.  I wanted Steve because he gets that wide-open, full sound.”

Newman first met Turre and bassist Steve Novosel when both were working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another devotee of extracting a full sonic palette from an array of horns.  “I first met Rahsaan in Chicago, when I was playing with Ray,” Newman digresses.  “Rahsaan was just getting his start, and had come over to Atlantic Records.  He would hang out at the Sutherland Hotel, where we stayed quite often in Chicago.”

Returning to the subject at hand, he continues: “Steve Novosel is a solid, great player.  I depend on him a lot for his ability to carry the melody.”

Like Novosel, trapsetter Winard Harper works frequently with Newman.  The relationship began when Harper hired Newman for a record date a few years back; the in-demand 38-year drummer plays with idiomatic precision and imaginative flair throughout. Joining him for several tunes is percussion wizard Steve Kroon, who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s with customary panache.

Guitarist O’Donnell Levy composed and arranged the Caribbean-flavored title track and the samba-esque “Asia Beat,” which frame the session, while Turre offers the pungent “Mellow-D For Mr. C.”  “I like the way the changes move in the tune,” Newman says of the latter, which refers to Ray Charles.  Does the Caribbean beat relate to the 12/8 feel Newman played over 45 years ago?  “Yes, it does.  It’s a very natural feeling.  A lot of people today seem to like that feel, and I am one of those people.”

Newman’s “Cousin Esau” showcases his vocalized flute sound.  “I adapted some of the things that Eddie Harris and Les McCann used to do with this particular beat,” Newman says.  “No one has a name for it, but I call it the Listen-Here beat.  Most drummers that I ask know what I mean.  It’s a four-beat rim-shot figure played on the snare drum; most people can groove to it.  I thought of the flute when writing this tune.  Through the years I’ve tried to get an identifiable flute sound, and somehow it’s starting to come together.  It’s a very earthy, open sound.  When I was a kid I used to blow across a Dr. Pepper or R.C. Cola soda bottle to get a sound; after I started playing the flute, I found it was a good way to get a good open sound.”

Newman wrote “Karen, My Love” for his wife; his bravura performance comes right out of the Gene Ammons tradition of heart-on-the-sleeve balladry using only the choicest notes.  “John Hicks helped me flesh this out,” Newman reveals.  “I knew exactly what I wanted, but John could put meaning to what I had in mind.”

Newman reprises “Willow Weep For Me,” which he recorded years ago for Atlantic, taking it here with a 3/4 feel.  It’s a showcase for his bright, declamatory alto saxophone style, and shows that his early experience with Buster Smith “has stuck with me all through the years.”

John Hicks composed “Life,” one of his many lovely waltzes, with Newman’s flute in mind.  “It has a natural feel,” Newman says.  “John wanted me to play it as I felt it fit me.”

Newman is no stranger to the Latin sound that inflects much of the proceedings.  “I guested many times with Machito’s band, and later on with other Latin groups, and that gave me the feel of the Latin beat as well as some things coming out of Cuba,” he notes.  “The jazz feel with the African-Latin influence and the European influence is part of what jazz is all about, especially these days — it’s all come together.”

Pushing the envelope remains the animating imperative for Newman, a musician who can retrospect on a career that spans a half-century — 45 years in the spotlight.

“You don’t want to get yourself into a dated position,” says the man whose sound defines soul tenor for several generations.  “I like to incorporate the modern approach I hear from the younger players in playing the changes, and I still include some of the things that I played and learned from the veteran musicians when I was young.  You take what you have and ride with it, put it all together, and keep moving with the feeling, keep going forward.”

Hank Crawford-David Newman – (3-3-98):

TP:    The first question I’ll address to you both is when you were first aware of the other?  Hank Crawford, did you first meet David Newman when you came into the Ray Charles band?

HC:    Yes, I first met him when I went in Ray’s band.  But I was aware of his playing from some records I had heard, solo things he had done with Ray Charles.  But the first time we met I’d just joined the band actually.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you, Hank, about your path into the Ray Charles band, and I guess we should start from your early years as a musician.  When did you start playing music?

HC:    I started playing at the age of 9.  I started on piano.  Piano was my first instrument.  I studied three years of private lessons; I guess that must have been at about the age of 6 when I started taking music lessons, and from there I went to the saxophone.

TP:    Why did you go to the saxophone from the piano?

HC:    My father was in the Service, and when he came back, he’d bought a saxophone with him, which was a C-melody — actually it was a C-melody saxophone.  I think he was sort of a frustrated saxophone player himself, but he never did go into it.  But he brought the horn, and I was studying piano and still in elementary school.  So I still had, I guess, 6th, 7th and 8th grade to go.  And once I entered high school in 9th Grade, naturally I wanted to be in the high school band, and piano was a bit much to march with.  So I just went to the closet and picked out the horn.  I’m self-taught saxophone.  I just got a book actually in Ninth Grade and taught myself after I learned the fingering, because I already had a slight knowledge of music from taking piano lessons.

TP:    You could read probably, and knew some chords.

HC:    Right.  And I started playing saxophone in Ninth grade.  Then after I taught myself the fingering and stuff, I just kept playing.  Later I had lessons on the saxophone, too, but that was in college.  That’s when I entered college.

TP:    What sort of music program did you have in high school?

HC:    Well, it was basically the marching band, a concert band, and a dance band which we called the Rhythm Bombers.  It was a 16-piece high school band.  Our band director in high school was a trumpet player by the name of Matthew Garrett, who is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father.  Actually, Dee Dee’s given name is Denise Garrett.  Her father was Matthew Garrett, and he was my high school band director.  We used to play a lot of Woody Herman charts and Count Basie charts, just big band stuff.

TP:    Did he have you working outside the high school, like Walter Dyett did in Chicago, got his guys in the union?

HC:    Oh yeah.  We played a lot of Monday night things, usually on campus.  And then we played some things off-campus, which was in local clubs.  But even in high school, we were playing major functions.

TP:    Had you always been listening to records and other saxophonists?

HC:    Yes.

TP:    And when did the alto become the horn of choice, or the horn that suited your ear.  From the influences that you describe on your bios, you mention Bird, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, later Cannonball, they’re all alto players.  So I assume that was the primary voice that you heard.

HC:    During that period I heard a lot of saxophone players, from Bird to Bostic, Tab Smith, and on up through to Ammons, Sonny Stitt, you know… So really, I can’t say just one more than the other inspired me the most.  Because I love to hear musicians play, all saxophone players.  I got a bit from each one.  But I always liked the sound of the alto, although I did play a little tenor or baritone.  But I could express myself more on alto.  That seemed to be my voice.

TP:    You also mentioned your church experience as being very important for you.

HC:    Oh yes.

TP:    And it seems to me that the alto saxophone is the sound that’s more commonly inspirational in the church.

HC:    Oh yes.  I think the alto is very voice-like.  I approach the horn vocally, as if I was going to sing.  I guess that comes across because of my early beginnings or early roots in the church.  That’s where I started when I was playing piano.  I used to play for the junior choirs, the senior choirs, prayer meetings.  My whole family was really involved in church a lot.  If they didn’t play, they were singing.  So all my life I was involved in spiritual music.

TP:    What was the name of the church you belonged to in Memphis?

HC:    Originally, Springdale.  Springdale Baptist Church.

TP:    That’s where you had your piano lessons, or played piano.

HC:    Yes, right there.

TP:    Well, we’ll stop with Hank in high school playing with the 16-piece band in high school with Matthew Garrett as the band director, and go through the same process with David Newman.  Your path on the saxophone.  When you started playing, what the circumstances were, etcetera.

DN:    You mean right from the very beginning.

TP:    When did you first put a horn in your mouth.

DN:    Well, it was the mid-Forties when I first picked up the alto.  Like Hank, I started out with the piano.  I had a few piano lessons at first, but I didn’t stay with the piano as long as he did.  I only had a few lessons, and then right away my friends started calling me a little sissy, so I wanted to pick up a more masculine instrument.  So I asked my Mom to get a horn, and I didn’t know exactly what kind of horn.  But then I heard Louis Jordan play the alto saxophone, and it just blew me away, and right away I chose the alto — that’s what my Mom bought me.  I was still in elementary school, and started taking private lessons from my music instructor, J.K. Miller, who was the band director at Lincoln High School.  He taught Cedar Walton and James Clay, alike from Dallas.  We called him Uncle Dud.  When I started high school I went directly into the band.  Uncle Dud was the one that gave me the name “Fathead.”  He wanted me to read the music instead of memorizing music like what I was doing, and he called me a fathead in class, and that’s been my nickname until this day.

TP:    Unapropos.

DN:    [LAUGHS] Unapropos, but nonetheless that’s the way it was, and it’s a trademark by now.  I don’t get offended by the name at all, because it goes so far back, and it’s just a nickname anyway.

TP:    What sort of music program did he have.  Hank Crawford’s describing playing contemporary Basie and Woody Herman charts, a 16-piece band.  Did you have something similar to that in high school?

DN:    We had something similar to that for the jazz band, some Basie charts, some arrangements by Buster Smith, who was a local alto saxophone player and arranger and composer from Dallas, and also some stock arrangements, which were published orchestrations.  I was playing alto for many years, and after about my second year in high school, a friend of mine introduced me to Bird.  He brought along a Charlie Parker record, a 78 on Savoy Records, and Bird was playing “Koko,” which was “Cherokee.”  I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I was thinking that there was no other player that could play any faster or better than Earl Bostic.  Earl Bostic was the man at that time.  And when I heard Charlie Parker it just blew my mind away.

From that point on, I fell into the Bebop bag, and I started listening to all the Bebop tunes as they came out.  And during that particular time, it was very easy to keep up with all the new tunes that came out, because there weren’t that many.  So I would listen to J.J., Diz, Bird, Fats Navarro, Dexter, all the players.

TP:    What a lot of people describe is that when these records would come out, their whole little clique of musicians would get together, memorize the solos, and then…

DN:    Exactly.

TP:    Was that your experience, too, Hank?

HC:    yes.

TP:    Do you remember your first Bird record?

HC:    Maybe not by name, but I can say this.  Like David was saying, at that particular time it was the Bebop era that we both came through, you know, and some of the same people he named I really admire.  I love Bostic for power.  He was a power player.  But we all came through all phases of music, from the Blues, Gospel and Jazz… Actually, I was speaking about the spiritual side of music, but we were also playing Bebop.  That was the era that we really come through.  We always tried to play Bird’s solos, and did play them, note for note!

TP:    So you memorized your Bird solos also.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

TP:    I’m going to ask you each about your contemporaries, because you each came up with a small group of distinguished cohorts.  In David’s case, you came up with James Clay, Cedar Walton and Ornette Coleman.  You’ve mentioned a good story about Ornette, playing in the park.

DN:    There was a park in Fort Worth (I forget the name) where we would all gather around the gazebo and play there.  I was playing with an older musician there named Red Connor, a very good saxophone player.  He never was that well-known because I don’t think he left Texas that much, but at the time he was the leading saxophonist in that area.  His sound was more or less between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and even maybe Don Byas.  He was a Bebop player, and he knew all the Bebop tunes.  I was playing in Red’s band, and Ornette would come and play.  I was playing the alto and Ornette was playing the tenor saxophone when I first met him.  We would play all of Bird’s tunes, and we both knew his solos, as well as Sonny Criss and the other alto players.  We’d learn these solos note for note, then after we finished playing whatever Bird had played, then it came time to do the individual thing, and this is when Ornette would go Ornette.  Then we could hear come in after he would run out of Bird’s solos, then he would go to Ornette! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Ornette as we know him today.

DN:    Ornette as we know him.  It was Ornette.  He wasn’t calling it harmolodics at the time, but that’s the direction that he would go into.  He would not conform to the chord structure.  He would just go completely different, because he had his own conception.  His concept was entirely different.  We knew he was on his way to being something different.  We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was a different thing happening with Ornette.

TP:    Hank Crawford, I can think of two pretty fair saxophonists in your age group, George Coleman and Frank Strozier.  Were you all acquainted?

HC:    Yes, we were all in high school together.  In fact, George and I were in the same class.  Frank was a few years behind us, but we were all in the same band.  Speaking of local saxophone players, at that time the guy who impressed me the most was a tenor player named Ben Branch, who sounded a lot like Gene Ammons — and I always liked Ammons’ playing.  There was a guy who played alto in Memphis who I got my name from, an older man named Hank O’Day — really Hank, not Henry.  He was playing in a big band that was led by Al Jackson, who was the father of the drummer Al Jackson from the Stax scene.   There was George, and then a few years behind us was Charles Lloyd.  There was another guy who played saxophone who sounded very much like Bird… At that time, George Coleman was the king.  He was playing all of the Bird stuff.

During that era, we were studying a lot of Bebop.  That’s why we went from house to house, to learn all these bad tunes.  But basically, our primary function when we would go out to play was the Blues.  We’d practice the Bebop all day at each other’s house, but when we had to go out and play, we’d play a lot of Blues, Memphis being the home of the Blues, they say.  I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.

I remember listening to Johnny Hodges, and I remember Tab Smith played on “Because of You” that floored me.  I like melodies.  I really like ballads, and I think I’m most expressive on ballads.  I guess that comes from being around vocal music a lot.

TP:    You mentioned that starting in the church as well.  You mentioned that in your trademark horn arrangements, the horns are the backup singers, you’re the lead singer with the alto.

HC:    Yes.  I found that to be true when I joined Ray Charles’ band.  I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was at least eight pieces, from 8 to 16 pieces, five horns at least.  Big bands was a favorite of mine, too; I loved big bands.  I even had the opportunity to meet some of the great big band leaders later on in my career.

TP:    Lunceford was from Memphis from originally.

HC:    Yes, and Gerald Wilson.  And later, when I went to school at Tennessee State in Nashville, I had a chance to meet Ellington and Dizzy.  They would come and play the homecoming campus gig every year.  There would always be a big name.  I had an opportunity to meet Charlie Parker three months before he passed in Nashville.  I was a senior at Tennessee State, and Bird came through on a show with Stan Kenton, June Christy, Nat Cole.  There was a tenor player in Nashville named Thurman Green. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re laughing.

HC:    Well, he was funny.  He was funny just as a human being and then he was funny as a player.  We used to laugh at his playing.  He just played funny, man.  He knew Charlie Parker personally.  And Bird came through at that particular time with that show we were talking about, and he came down to a little place that I was playing called the El Morocco.  I was playing an off-campus gig, and Bird came down there, just hanging out.  He didn’t play anything; came with Thurman, his friend.  He sat there, and for about two hours, man, after we finished, I had a chance to sit next to him and talk.  I don’t know what we were talking about.  Just fun things.  This was like in December, and he passed in March.  That’s about three months.

TP:    It sounds to me that the thing you both share is you had thorough high school educations.  You got a thorough musical preparation in a lot of ways in high school, and then you were playing functionally on these type of gigs and getting professional experience from a fairly young age.  How old were you when you did your first professional gig, whatever amount of money it was?

HC:    Actually in high school we were getting paid.  Because at that time, at 14 and 15, we were going out playing the dances.  The senior players, they were out, too.  But at that time, Memphis was full of great musicians, man.  Phineas Newborn was there.  He was playing at that age, man, and he was just out of sight.  So we played all of the R&B gigs and all of the jazz gigs and so forth.

TP:    There wasn’t a differentiation between Jazz and other forms of music.  It was all one big pot, kind of?

HC:    Right.  Well, playing Bebop, that was our classroom.  That was the study period, you know.  But Blues just came as a natural if you were from that part of the country.

TP:    I take it that Dallas, Texas wasn’t so dissimilar in terms of the requirements for playing in public, am I right?

DN:    My experience in that area was we’d play Bebop in jam sessions, and maybe there was one club or two where we would play together for the door, which wouldn’t be very much money, like the Log Cabin in South Dallas.  But you couldn’t earn a living playing Bebop because the people, especially in the Dallas area, they weren’t that interested in Bebop.

TP:    What would happen if you might throw that into your playing?  Would they be very verbal and vociferous and clear in their displeasure?

DN:    Well, the younger people would dance to anything that we played.  They were receptive.  But the older generations, from the thirties on, they didn’t take too much to Bebop.  They would listen for the beat and that sound which they were accustomed to.  If it wasn’t Swing from the Big Band area, then it had to be something like Blues or Rhythm-and-Blues, something from a beat there, and the Blues, bluesy tunes.  So you had to play the Blues.  In order to make any kind of money playing music around the Dallas area and Texas, you had to play the Blues.  T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and I would play gigs and go on gigs.  Whenever T-Bone would come through town, I would go on gigs, because Buster Smith usually put bands together to back up T-Bone.  Lowell Fulsom lived in Fort Worth, and I’d work with him.

TP:    Would you go out with them or just play gigs?

DN:    I would go out.  My first outing from Dallas was with a piano player named Lloyd Glenn, who had a hit record out called “Chickaboo.”  They would have packages on the shows.  It would be Lloyd Glenn’s band, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and I was playing with Lloyd Glenn. That was my first outing other than going out backing up T-Bone Walker playing in Buster’s band.  But my first outing on the road professionally was with Lloyd Glenn.

TP:    Tell me a little bit about Buster Smith, the master of riff arranging.  How did you come to meet him?

DN:    Well, Buster was well-known.  Buster had left Dallas, and he was living in Kansas City.  He’d played in the Blue Devils, which was from Oklahoma City, and then with Bennie Moten, and then Basie, and then came back to Texas for various reasons in the ’40s.  He was very good arranger and he had control of the alto saxophone.  His execution was very good.  He was very fast.  This is how Bird came to listen.  When Bird was very young and later when he was playing with Jay McShann, he’d come over to hear Buster play, because Buster was really getting over the instrument.  Buster was a main influence on Charlie Parker more than most people realize.

TP:    What were your personal experiences with Buster Smith?

DN:    I played many engagements with Buster.  He was a very gifted musician.  I think he was a self-taught musician.  He had perfect pitch.  We’d ride up and down the road, and Buster would just sit in the car with his cigar in his mouth.  He wasn’t a drinker; he just had a cigar.  As a matter of fact, they used to call Buster “Prof,” short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.  But he taught himself music, really, and he had this wonderful gift.  He could arrange and write without being around any kind of instrument at all from having perfect pitch.  I learned so much from Buster.

TP:    I don’t know if you recall this from our last encounter, but I showed you a transcript of an interview Buster Smith did for the Oral History Project at the Institute of Jazz Studies, and he said that he had a sextet with you and Leroy Cooper, and that Ray Charles used that band in the very early Fifties, and that was your first encounter with him.

DN:    That’s true.  Leroy Cooper and I were both from Dallas, and Leroy had been to the Army and was back.  When I came to Lincoln High School, Leroy had graduated and was going to a college called Sam Houston, and from there he went to the Army.  Buster had a small combo together.  He usually kept a big band, but for putting together bands for the road or when people like Ray Charles would come through, Buster would put together these little small groups, and that’s how Leroy Cooper and I came to playing together.  Leroy and I also played together behind a guitarist called Zuzu Bollin, who had a record out called “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night” that Leroy and I played on.  Yeah, we played on this record, “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night.”  Then after that, Leroy left and went out with Ernie Fields’ Big Band, and when he came back… See, Leroy was playing alto.  He was originally an alto player.  But when he went out with Ernie Fields, Ernie Fields needed a baritone player, and Leroy started playing baritone.  When he came back from Ernie Fields’ band, he was playing the baritone.  When he was playing alto, he just literally ripped the keys off the alto because he was so fast.

TP:    But do you recall the specifics of the linkup between Buster Smith and Ray Charles?

DN:    Well, Buster was probably recommended to Ray.  Because Ray needed a band to back him up when he came through, and Buster was the man around Dallas.  I don’t know what the connection was, who brought them together, but Buster was probably recommended.

TP:    What was Ray Charles’ style like at that time insofar as you mentioned.

DN:    He sang like Nat Cole, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown.  He hadn’t found his own identity yet; he was still searching.  He could sound like probably anyone, but his favorite people were people like Nat Cole, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker.

TP:    I’ll ask Hank Crawford now to talk about your college experiences and your beginnings as a professional musician, which were in college, but entering the fray from that.

HC:    Well, as I think about it, there was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands were covering at that time.  They all came through Memphis, and they used to play at places like the Palace Theater, amateur shows (we called them midnight rambles).  There was the Hippodrome, and there was Club Handy which was at that time in Mitchell’s Hotel.  They would all come through Memphis.  We didn’t have to really go too far to see these people.  That was one of the good things about that era.  We got a chance to see a lot of the people that we later got to know.  A lot of singers would come through town, like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too.  We got a chance to see these people.  Sometimes they’d come through maybe with not the full band and pick up locals, and we would always be the ones that would play for these certain entertainers, whether it be… Really, man, it was an era of everything going on.  You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers — shows.  We played shows.

TP:    And you’d play the whole show.

HC:    the whole show.

TP:    You’d be playing for the shake dancer, for the tap dancer, for the singer, for the comedians act.

HC:    Yeah, for all of it, before the Apollo even entered my mind, you know.  That all was happening.  It’s a long story; I could think of a million things.  But that was part of it in Memphis, among a whole lot of other things.  When I left Memphis…

TP:    When did you first go out on the road?  Do you recollect?

HC:    Really, really go out on the road?

TP:    Was that at that time, or after?

HC:    Most of that time I was basically in Memphis.  When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents, and we would play locally, and as far as we would get would be Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then we’d get up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill.  This was all while I was still in school, so we’d go out during the summer months and play for the summer, that southern route, New Orleans, St. Louis and stuff like that.  I was basically a student most of the time, but I had a chance to meet all of these people, because they would come in the locale that we were all based, really.

I had some great teachers at Tennessee State.  W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he’s a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the “hundred steps, 8 to 5…”

TP:    Oh, that’s when they started that?

HC:    Yes.  When that started, FAMU and Tennessee State, you’d just be running down the field almost.  Anciel Francisco was my reed teacher.  I didn’t start studying saxophones and clarinets and reeds until I got in college.

I played around Nashville, and I met a lot of people.  I met Roland Kirk in Nashville, and Leon Thomas, and man, you could go on and on.

But really, I guess my big real-real going out on the road was when Brother Ray came.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that happened, for about only the three hundredth time you’ve told the story.

HC:    Well, I was still in school, and like I say, I’d heard Ray — “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Drowning In My Own Tears”   were some of the first things I heard.  I remember I heard something about David.  One of the first things I heard him play was the solo he did on “Ain’t That Love.”  It knocked me out, man.  Actually, I had a couple of buddies who had already joined Ray’s band.  There was a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville.  Anyway, Ray came through Nashville.  I think Leroy Cooper, “the Hog,” he had taken a leave of absence, and he was out for a minute, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part.  I never played baritone in my life.  Never.  You know, just around the band-rooms fooling around with the instrument.

DN:    I took the same route.  I came in the band playing baritone.

TP:    Well, I think music before it was anything else was functional for you.  This was how you were earning your livings basically from the age of 14-15-16 years old.

HC:    Yeah, from day one.  I never did anything else.

DN:    We were both reed players, so we played the reeds.

HC:    I happened to be the Student Director on campus.  I had a big band at Tennessee State; I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band — I was writing then.  I was impressed by the sound of Ray’s small band.  Actually, in Memphis, we always had eight pieces, and always had that kind of Gospel type of sound.  So I kind of knew the feeling.  But getting into Ray’s band, it just made it much more better, because I fell into the same kind of groove that I had been raised up with.

So anyway, I went down, didn’t even audition.  I don’t think we had a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice.  I went to the campus band-room, I talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed, and I took it down to the Club Baron where they were playing.  I sat in and played the gig that night, and that was the end of that.  Three months later, I got a call from R.C. — or his manager, Jeff Brown at the time — and he asked me if I wanted the job.

I never thought I’d stay as long as I did.  I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world.  Ray was getting into his thing.  He was really beginning to blossom at that time.  The period that I’m talking about, when I joined the band…

TP:    Do you mean blossom musically or blossom in terms of the breadth of his audience?

HC:    The fans.  He was really going… I got in the band at a great period, man.  I really came in the band at a great period.

TP:    Let’s hold that, and I’ll talk to David about his route to Ray Charles so you can catch up to each other on the time line.

DN:    Well, I met Ray in ’51, when he was featured with Lowell Fulsom, singing and playing.  He had recorded a few singles, and he said that he was going to get his own band.  We became friends right away, and I asked him, when he formed his own band to let me know, and that I would love to come play with him.  And sure enough, he called me when he formed his band in ’54.  We’d played together in ’52 when he was touring around, and we played with Buster, backing him.  But when he formed his band in ’54, he called me, and I stayed with the band until 1964.

TP:    How did the band evolve from ’54 until Hank joined?

DN:    Well, the band just    blossomed right away.  I started out playing baritone, and Donald Wilkerson was on the tenor.  There was a trumpet player from Houston by the name of Joseph Bridgewater, and he knew John Hunt, and Ray needed a second trumpet, so Joseph Bridgewater called John Hunt into the band, and John Hunt in turn called Milt Turner from the band, who was from Nashville.  That was the Nashville connection.  Then we came through Nashville and there were already musicians in the band who knew Hank, so that was the connection.

But I stayed with Ray from ’54 to ’64, then by ’66 I came to New York and first played some gigs with Kenny Dorham and then later played a few gigs with Lee Morgan and did a couple of recordings with him.

TP:    Now, you switched to tenor while you were in the band, and it seemed like that was a great meeting of the minds and ears when you started playing tenor with Ray Charles.

DN:    Donald Wilkerson left the band for a minute.  Now, the tenor player was getting all the solos.  During all my time playing baritone I think I got one solo, and that was a tune called “Greenback Dollar Bill.”  I took a solo on that, because that was my one and only solo.  I wanted to stretch out, so I asked Ray could I take the tenor chair.  He didn’t have any particular tenor player in mind, so he said yeah, if I could get a tenor saxophone.  So I went out and got myself a tenor saxophone, and from that time on I started playing the tenor.  I had never played tenor before.  I had played baritone and alto, but not tenor.

TP:    How was the switch for you?  Natural, I would assume.

DN:    Oh, it was natural.  I was just eager to make the switch anyway, and I was eager to play.  I knew the book pretty well anyway; it was just a matter of switching from an E-flat to a B-flat instrument.

TP:    How do you see the differences between the two?  Are they different voices for you the way you play now.

DN:    I have a different approach on each instrument.  Whatever instrument I pick up, I tend to have a different approach.  It’s a different flow; I just feel them differently.  I can’t say exactly what it is.  I just know that I have a different voice on each one.

TP:    Now, you came in as the baritone player.  Was Ray Charles playing alto and piano in the years before Hank joined?

DN:    When we’d begin, the first half-hour or so before Ray would come in to do his singing and performing on piano, we would play these five-horn jazz arrangements Ray had written, and Ray would play the alto part.

TP:    Then Hank eventually took the alto chair. Clarify that for me.

HC:    See, I went in the band in ’58, and I played baritone 1958 to 1960, for two years.  I didn’t think I was going to be playing baritone that long, but for some reason Leroy didn’t come right back — it was a period of two years.

TP:    Did you get a solo?

HC:    Yeah.  In fact, I was playing baritone on Ray Charles At Newport, but I was called Bennie, my real name.  A lot of people ask me, “Now, who is Bennie Crawford?  Whatever happened to him?”  I say, “Well, he’s still around.”  Anyway, I played for two years on baritone.  And like Newman was saying, I was shocked.  One night, however it happened, here comes Ray Charles with his alto saxophone… See, that was one of the good things about that band, too.  It was educational, because everything we did was on paper.  We did a few head things, but even they sounded like arrangements.  We were just that kind of band.  In 1960 Ray graduated from the small band.  He had big band eyes.  I think that’s when he did “Let The Good Times Roll” and that big thing, which is on The Genius, one of my favorites.

DN:    Excuse me, but Hank played baritone when Ray Charles presented me to Atlantic and we did Ray Charles Presents.  He had solos on that and he did some of the arranging.

TP:    I was about to ask Hank about your arranging activities with the Ray Charles and the dynamics of it, the type of feeling you were trying to convey and what he was asking you to do.

HC:    When I joined the band with Ray, that was an avenue for me to do a lot of things.  Like I said, I had been writing for small bands a little bit in Memphis.  To be honest about it, Ray and I kind of clicked right away.  We became section buddies and we always communicated, and I think he might have had something with me, because I even got the job as music director when Ray got the big band.  I was directing the small band.  Even in the small band, when I was playing baritone, when Ray was not on the bandstand, that’s the first time that we introduced the electric piano.  There’s only two people I know who were playing electric piano at that time, and that was Joe Zawinul with Cannonball and Ray Charles.  Ray liked the sound.  I remember he bought a blond Wurlitzer.  I got a chance to kind of use my piano chops, because Ray wasn’t on the bandstand, so we only had bass and drums.

TP:    You play piano on a couple of the albums that are on the CD.

HC:    Whatever I could do on it, you know. [LAUGHS] When through whatever channels things went through, I was asked if I wanted to take the job as music director, naturally I agreed, because I just dug the whole scene.  And I kept that post for three years.  That’s when I got a chance to do a lot of writing.  I did most of the writing in the small band.

But back to your point.  As the thing grew, Ray started playing alto and he started writing more charts for the small band, which featured him a lot on alto.  And he was quite a fine alto player.

TP:    Who were some of the influences for you and Ray Charles as arrangers?

HC:    Well, I liked Quincy, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster…

TP:    So the Basie-Dizzy Gillespie type charts of the mid-Fifties when you were in school.

HC:    Yeah, and the Ellington things.

TP:    Had you taken those apart and analyzed them and studied them in a really exhaustive way, or were you just taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and applying it as appropriate?

HC:    I would take a little bit from each arranger.  But basically, I was sort of being myself.  I think even after listening to all the saxophone players that we talked about, I found my own voice.  Even when I play now, I try to play like Hank, but you will find yourself playing a bit of this guy and a bit of that.  I’ve always been a melodic player, I’ve played in all sets, but like I said, I found my voice.  And being in Ray’s band is such a long story, but it was quite an experience.  I went to alto when the big band was organized.

TP:    You were playing together how many nights a year during that time?  250?  300?

HC:    Oh, man, we were busy.  We played the theater circuit, dance halls, clubs, whatever.  It was something else.

TP:    That gives the band the type of tightness that you can’t get in any other way, doesn’t it.

HC:    And the thing, too, about it, there were some great musicians in the band.  There was Fathead, Cooper, Marcus Belgrave, John Hunt, and there later came to be Bruno Carr and Philip Guilbeau — and all of these guys were dynamite players.  So it was a learning experience.  We all had knowledge of music, and we could play together well.  Whether we were playing outside or inside, whatever we played, the musicianship was so good that it happened automatically.  So everybody felt comfortable even in that setting, whatever we played.

Before Ray, I guess the band that really knocked me as a small unit was James Moody’s Octet.  Even before I went into RC’s band, Moody did some of the first small band records that I heard, and I loved the sound of Moody with an octet.  I’ve always loved the sound of a band.

TP:    That’s the sound you put on the recent record, Tight, five horns and rhythm.

HC:    I’ve always used horns on my records, except for a few I’ve used just a quartet.  I like the sound, and when I joined RC I studied his formula for it, how he’d take tenor, alto and baritone and two trumpets to come out sounding like a big band.  I found out there wasn’t that much really involved. It’s basically I, III, V, VII and IX.  I don’t think we ever played anything in that small band that had anything above a IX chord in it.

TP:    David, I think Hank’s looking at you to answer a question.

DN:    What’s that?

HC:    I was just talking about the simplicity of the music we played, and how it wasn’t complex, but it came off as the sound of a big band.  I was just saying I don’t think we ever played anything chord-wise in terms of the structure of a horn that was over I-III-V-VII-IX.  We didn’t get into the flatted chords and extensions.  Everything was basic.

DN:    With the five-horn arrangements and two trumpets, it really gave the sound effect of a big band, because of the brassy sound.  Ray preferred two trumpets to trombone.  His voicing for the five horns was very unique.

HC:    It’s like a vocal group.  You have soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.  Those are your five major voices.  Anything over that, you’re doubling.  When you get into IX or XI, you’re only doubling the third or whatever you played before.  When you take a VII-chord, man, and it’s voiced right, five horns can sound like ten.  It’s when it’s distorted that makes it sound less.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

TP:    Hank, the first time you met David?

HC:    Actually, it was in Nashville when I joined the band for that one night.  The band bus pulled up in front of Brown’s Hotel.  At that time it was called a Wiener.  Red-and-white, long airport style.  I was standing outside, and they pulled up, and I remember David getting out with this grin on his face.  I’d heard him, as I said.  He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back.  I’m meeting David, you know.  It was just that simple.  That was the first time I actually saw him.

TP:    David, let’s talk about some of the productions on the record, inasmuch as you remember, starting with the first one, Ray Charles Presents David Newman.  First, how much input did you have into the material on these records.  Do you feel that these are a good expression of who you were in that period.

DN:    Well, yes.  My only tune    on here was a tune called “Fathead,” and that was my contribution to the arrangements.  Hank Crawford knew Paul Mitchell from Atlanta, and he introduced me to the tune “Hard Times,”  which he arranged.  Hank also arranged “Bill For Bennie,” and “Sweet Eyes” and “Weird Beard.”  Ray’s arranged “Mean To Me” and “Willow Weep For Me.”

TP:    Did this record evolve organically out of things you were doing in the band, plus your own interests?  Also, how were the records set up in terms of choosing material, personnel and so forth?

DN:    I had no idea that I was going to become an Atlantic recording artist.  Ray had just said that he was going to feature me.  I really didn’t know that he would be presenting me as such, and that I was going to become an Atlantic artist myself.  Because Ray was recording for Atlantic.  I just thought we were really doing an instrumental, and Ray was just going to feature me.  But what he did is, he set it up.  It was called Ray Charles Presents Fathead.  It was like setting me up.  And hence, from that recording on, I became an Atlantic artist, and I signed a contract then.

We did some of these tunes when we were on the road playing.  Like I say, Hank had introduced “Hard Times” to me.  I thought it was a helluva tune when he first played it, and I immediately asked him where he’d gotten it.  Then when Ray said this was going to be my introduction and he was going to present me on this recording, we started to think about tunes that we could play.  So Ray did the arranging on “Mean To Me,” he spent a lot of time on that, and then “Willow Weep For Me.”  Then Hank arranged most of the other compositions that we played, like  “Tin Tin Deo” and “Hard Times”…

TP:    What do you remember about Straight Ahead, with the slick New York rhythm section?

DN:    Oh, Straight Ahead was a wonderful date, because I particularly wanted to record with Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, I knew Charlie Persip, and I asked him how he felt about playing with Wynton and Paul, and he said that he would love it because he’d never recorded with them before. It turned out to be a wonderful date for me.  It was the first time I’d recorded on the flute.

TP:    Does this reflect what you were able to do on the set with Ray Charles before he would come out?  You’d be playing Jazz for two-three-four tunes, and then the show would start?

DN:    On Fathead, not Straight Ahead.  Straight Ahead was later on, a separate thing.  Because I had been spending time living in New York when I did Straight Ahead.  In fact, I wasn’t even in Ray’s band at all when I recorded Straight Ahead.  That was done around ’65 or ’66. [THIS IS INCORRECT]  I was still playing with Ray when I did Fathead Comes On.  That was the second recording.

TP:    I know you probably want to get out of the Atlantics and talk about recent things you’ve done.  You did two very strong records with Herbie Mann, a former Atlantic recording artist, and his now-defunct Kokopelli label, both with strings, a smaller group on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool, and then more lush arrangements on Under A Woodstock Moon.

DN:    Bob Friedman did the arranging on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool , which was a tribute to Duke, with all Duke Ellington tunes.  Bob had played baritone for a brief spell with the Duke Ellington band and was familiar with the Ellington compositions.  I think the original concept about doing a tribute to Duke came from Herbie Mann.

TP:    Was it all material that was meaningful to you as a young musician?

DN:    Some of it was, and then some of the tunes, like “Azure” and “Almost Cried,” even at the time I started to work on the project.  My parents had all of the records by the swing bands of the Big Band era like Ellington and Armstrong.  Johnny Hodges was one of my favorite alto players, and I’d listen to him play “Jeep’s Blues,” a tune that I always loved, “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”  I had heard “Prelude To A Kiss,” but I’d never played it before.

The second recording, which was Under A Woodstock Moon, was my outing as a producer.  I always wanted to do strings, and I’d had strings on an album entitled Bigger and Better for Atlantic, with Bill Fischer arranging in the late Sixties.  Kokopelli couldn’t afford to do a whole string section, so we did a string ensemble thing with a string quartet, which was as much as they would allow me to do.  Bob Friedman did the arrangements.  I had just moved to Woodstock, and this was a tribute to Mother Nature.  One of my compositions was “Under A Woodstock Moon” and another called “Amandla.”

TP:    It’s a very mellow, melodic record, with a lot of variety of color and texture.

DN:    The other tunes were a tribute to Nature, like “Up Jumped Spring,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Autumn In New York,” and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”  I have another composition on there called “Amandla,” which is an African name for freedom.

TP:    Let me ask you one or two things that the editor wants me to ask you.  What do you think was the impact of the Ray Charles Band you were in on contemporary music, in terms of the way the grooves and the feeling has permeated it?

DN:    I don’t know about the impact.  I would say that there is definitely an influence on the music from the Ray Charles feel and what was happening musically with Ray.  Ray Charles certainly influenced my playing and Hank’s playing jazz-wise and in terms of music as a whole.  Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation.  Before my encounter with Ray, I really didn’t have any kind of concept about music appreciation.  I only liked to play jazz and bebop.  That was my only real love.  But after meeting Ray and playing with Ray, I learned how to appreciate all other forms of music also, like the Blues, Spirituals, Gospel, and even Country-and-Western.

TP:    To play the whole range of music with conviction and soul.

DN:    Right.  And to have the respect and to really admire and to love the music.  So it was a lesson in music appreciation that I think we got from Ray.  I don’t know about the impact, but there was definitely an impact.

TP:    That’s a beautiful answer.  You’ve really stretched out a lot on your recent recordings, taken chances, worked with progressive musicians.  Is that your true heart in the music?

DN:    Well, yes.  Because this music is a gift, it’s an incredible gift.  What happens is the music doesn’t really come from me or from us; this music comes through us.  So I want to explore what I can do in all the different areas of music.  I don’t necessarily want to stick to a certain form insofar as the music goes.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me and as I feel it.  I really like to bridge the generations, so to speak, when it comes to the music that I’m playing, because this music is moving as the time moves on, but we still have these feelings about music.  So I want to explore and to play in other areas, even see how my music fits into the Rap situation — I mean, poetically.  I don’t really see anything wrong with Rap.  It’s just the content in Rap that’s a little offensive sometimes.  But the Rap music itself is really an extension of the music, coming from Louis Armstrong.

TP:    Do they use samples of your solos ever that you know about?

DN:    Not that I’ve heard.  Nothing that I’ve heard so far.  But I’ve become interested in this, just listening.  I was listening to Quincy Jones speak the other day about the music.  Jesse Jackson asked him why would he be interested in Rap, and Quincy said the same thing, that the music comes not from him, but through him.  That’s the same way I feel about this music.  It comes through me, and what you do is, you put your particular touch onto the music and what you feel.  You put your stamp on it, your feeling, let the music come through you and see what comes out.  You can’t close yourself off from the different forms of music as music moves on.

TP:    You also have access to so many sounds and colors from being a multi-instrumentalist.  How do you keep your chops up on all the instruments?

DN:    Well, I manage to keep my chops up, especially since I have moved to Woodstock now.  I get a chance to work on the different instruments.  I still have a soprano, I have an alto and a tenor and my flute.  I get quite a few calls to do studio work to record with various musicians, and I manage to stay halfway busy to keep myself going.  Of course, I know that to keep my chops up and play, I have got to pick the instruments up and play them.

TP:    People say it’s a struggle to keep one instrument up, and you’re keeping up four!  You’re doing pretty good.

DN:    Well, it’s a labor of love, that’s what it is.  I love the music.  I think I’ll always… It’s not about practicing, but I just pick up the instruments and play.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Equipment from David Newman.

DN:    I have a Selmer alto.  My mouthpiece is a hard rubber Otto Link.  I used to play the Meyer mouthpiece, but now I have Otto Link hard rubber.

TP:    Why?

DN:    I like the Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece.  I don’t play the metal mouthpiece any more, because I have dentures now, and I’m a little more flexible on the hard rubber.  I like the Otto Link because I like the sound, especially the old Otto Links.  I use that on my alto and my tenor.  I have a Selmer soprano also, and I used a Meyer mouthpiece on the soprano.  I have a Selmer Mark-VI tenor that was made in the ’60s.  It was made in about ’60 or ’61, a very good time for Selmer tenors.  Any of the Selmer saxophones made in less than 100,000 would be really good quality material that they were putting into the instruments.  They still make very good instruments, but the newer instruments these days… That’s the reason why so many musicians try to get a Mark VI.  The Mark VI was really one of the classic saxophones.

I have a Germeinhardt flute.

TP:    Anything you want to say about why you use these instruments, or have you said your fill?

DN:    Well, my first flute was…when I first became interested in the flute… We were traveling in Ray’s band, and we came through Orlando, Florida, and we had a few off-days.  I passed by this pawn shop, and in this pawn shop they had two wooden ebony Haynes flutes, very good and expensive flutes.  Some guy there who had played with the symphony had these instruments, and the pawnshop owner let me have it for little or nothing.  He had a C-flute and an alto flute, and I think I gave the guy $25 for the C-flute, which had an E-flat trill on it.  I should have bought the alto flute also.  I brought this flute back, and the guys in the band asked me, “Do you know what you got there?”  I said, “It’s a flute.”  They said, “Man, you’ve got a Haynes wooden flute, and this is a very expensive instrument.”  And I started teaching myself to play the flute, and listened to other flute players, particularly James Moody and Frank Wess, and I eventually started trying to get a sound on the flute.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I, we both maybe started on the flute around the same time.  I was a couple of years older than him, so I might have started earlier.  Eventually, the flute was stolen from me, I lost it, and then I started playing other C-flutes, of course.  But my first flute was a Haynes flute, and the flute I have now is a Gemeinhardt.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David has left, and Hank and I are here together.  A few words about the recordings on Memphis, Ray and A Touch Of Moody.  What do you remember about More Soul, the first one you did?

HC:    Actually, that was my first recording as a leader.  I wrote some of the arrangements in Nashville, maybe a couple in Memphis, and the rest I wrote while I was in Ray’s small band.  But we played these arrangements in Ray’s small band.  We used to go 45 minutes or an hour before he would come on to sing — the band had it.  When we recorded that, we were playing at the Apollo Theater, doing a show, and we finished the late show.  We were doing five or six shows a day.  We finished at about midnight, and we went directly to Atlantic Recording Studio.  We got there I guess by 12:30, and we started recording at 1, and we didn’t stop until we’d completed it, which was 7 or 8 o’clock the following morning.  Most of the musicians and the music we were playing in the small band of Ray Charles.

That’s when I got the opportunity to start writing, because after I had been in there for a while, R.C. found out I that I was doing some arranging and liked to write, so he just kind of hinted, said, “You know, if you want to do some writing…” Plus I found it a good place to be, because I was very interested and very much into writing and arranging, and being in that band, since he liked to write and I had written for bands that size… See, I was familiar with the size of that band.  I just didn’t have the venues or the musicians to play the music.  I was still young and hadn’t been that far.  So that gave me an opportunity to write, when he found out I was writing a little bit.

TP:    The writing started in high school for you.

HC:    Yeah, I’ve been writing since then.

TP:    There are two Moody tunes, “The Story” and “Boo’s Tune.”

HC:    I did the arrangement on everything except “The Story,”  which Ray Charles did.  I told Ray I was doing the date and asked him if he would do a tune for me, and he did “The Story.”

TP:    So Moody’s band was very influential in a lot of ways that aren’t well known.

HC:    I loved him as a player and I liked the sound of the band.  I think Johnny Acea was writing for that band at the time.  I always loved the octet sound.  Moody’s was one of the first bands I heard that small that really knocked me out.  Of course, before that I was listening to Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, which is just like five pieces.  But Moody’s band was like an octet, and I loved the sound of the band.

TP:    I have to tell you, when I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to the reincarnation of Earl Bostic, in a certain way, just in the way you approach a melody and the sound.

HC:    Well, Earl was a power player.  In fact, I play strong myself.  I’m naturally a power player.  That was the thing that I like about Earl, plus he was playing a lot of ballads and standard tunes.  At that time, you know, I was hearing a lot of Bostic, so he was just automatically one of my first influences.

TP:    And I’m sure it affected people when you played like that, just because of the way the sound is.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Anyway, the second record, From The Heart, sounds more like what I’d expect to hear from you later, more range, lush textures and so forth.

HC:    Well, From the Heart was completely mine.  Nobody did any arrangements on that.  At this time I had really found my way of writing.  I was kind of comfortable with what I was doing on From The Heart.  It was basically the same band, because I was still with Ray.  But I was getting the opportunity to play these tunes before he would come out.  Once I got the job as music director, he pretty much just gave it up, and gave it to me.  So I used that, man, and I did a lot of writing, and the music got exposed because we were going everywhere, playing concerts.  It just gave me a chance to expand on what I wanted to do earlier anyway, being in that group.

TP:    Then there’s a strings album on this.

HC:    Ah, yes.  I asked to be recorded with strings, and I was surprised when I got a yes on it from Neshui Ertegun at Atlantic Records.  He agreed, to my surprise, and asked me who did I want to do the arrangements, and I said Marty Paich.  I had heard Marty Paich’s small band arrangements when he was writing for Shorty Rogers and Stan Kenton, the West Coast scene, and I liked the way he voiced the strings.  I found out the secret; he used french horns with strings to get that real melancholy sound.  So Neshui agreed, and we went to California to record the record.  I selected all the tunes except one, which really turned out to be sort of a signature tune for me, which was “Whispering Grass.”  Marty Paich suggested that.

TP:    You have quite a memory.

HC:    Oh yeah, I try to remember these things.  I mean, it stayed with me, man, because it was such an experience.  I heard Marty do a string session with Gloria Lynne, “I Wish You Love” and all those things, and I thought it was beautiful work.  To be honest about it, when Ray wanted to do his first thing with strings, around the time of The Genius, by me being close to him, I suggested Marty Paich to him, and he used it.

I was with Ray Charles 24-7, because I was the music director.  He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate.  So I was always busy.

TP:    So you have as much of an insight as anyone into the inner workings of his creative mind.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Well, after a while, he noticed how I was writing.  He’s an individualist, you know; he’s the only one.  Like, there are certain saxophone players, certain musicians there’s only one.  Like, I haven’t found anybody that has my sound yet, and I don’t think David… We all have our distinctive sounds.

TP:    That was the ethos of the time.  Everybody had to have their sound when you were coming up.

HC:    That’s the secret of survival in this business, is identity.  You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play — I mean, young and old.  But nobody knows who they are.  And people buy identity.  You put on Miles Davis now, and automatically somebody goes, “That’s Miles.”  Then you put on Dizzy, and they know him.  But once they don’t know who you are, you don’t really sell.  Like, Louis Armstrong; they know Pops.  That’s what people buy.  When they go into a record shop, they say, “I want this guy.”  They’re not going there to listen to fifty other guys just to buy a record.  They know basically who they want when they go in.  So that’s what to me sells, is identity.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David just came in to mention to make sure I mention that he and Ron Carter were the two senior cast members on the 2 CDs for Kansas City.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Your comments on identity were a tangent from talking about Ray Charles.  You said you were with him 24-7, and the type of insights that gave you into the way his mind works.  Some general comments on his approach to music and the impact he had on you.

HC:    Well, see, it was so real for me to be there, because being around him and his background… There’s only like a four year difference in age between us.  So we are all from the same era, and we basically had the same experience with music, which was Gospel and the Blues and Jazz.  We’re all from that era.  So I heard the same things that he heard, and whoever was around at that time.  It just so happened that when I joined Ray, that was a period when things were happening within that unit that eventually went to the Moon.  Anyway, that’s what made it so easy for me to understand.  Because when he would dictate to me, writing his own charts… See, he wrote his own charts; he just didn’t put them on paper.  I was the one who was doing all the notating.  So when he found out that I had a background in arranging and composing and voicing chords and stuff like that, after a while, he would come in and make his initial statement about what he wanted, and he would write it, and then he would say, “You got it.”  So really I studied him.  It was another teacher, but it was not that much difference in how we felt about the feeling of music, because we all had the same type of background.

TP:    You were almost his alter-ego.

HC:    Yeah.  So I really understood where he was coming from.  I studied that, and I found out that, hey, I have some of the same kind of thoughts about this music, which made it easier for he and I to relate.

TP:    Is it harder for you to find people who have that sort of unspoken communication and empathy in the projects you do now?

HC:    Yeah, because you don’t have the association with musicians like you had at that time.  I mean, it was a community.  The Jazz community was great.  We were friends, man.  We hung out together and studied together, broke a lot of bread together.  We had venues to play.  There aren’t any venues now like there used to be, and the community is divided.  We don’t see each other as we once did.

TP:    You don’t cross paths in the same way.

HC:    Man, right here in New York City we used to walk down Broadway and go to 52nd Street or 50th Street, and stand right there on the corner — every day, 24 hours a day — and you would meet friends.  And we didn’t only play together.  We discussed music.  That whole era was a learning period from everybody.  But now, man you almost walk out like… You can’t find anybody.  Everybody’s moved out or they just don’t come out any more.  You know what I’m saying?  There’s just not the community like it used to be.  There’s no association, just, “Hey, how you doing, I’ll see you next time.”

TP:    But how does that affect your performing or recording projects, or the way you deal with bands right now.  I guess you have to dot a lot more i’s and cross a lot more t’s.

HC:    I’m not one of the type of players that’s concerned a lot about changing with what’s in.  No, I found my sound, and I think I’m going to stick to my guns.  I think that’s what destroys a lot of players.  Instead of being themselves, they try to be like others.  And in this business, there’s only one of one.  Like, there’s only one Bird, there’s only one Coltrane, and there’s only one whoever.  But what happens with a lot of musicians, I think, they’ll be inspired by somebody when they are learning, and they grew up trying to play like that person.

TP:    A lot of the young players.  Because they don’t have so many places to play.  They’re in school, and that’s the way they’re educated.

HC:    That’s it, man.  Like I said earlier, I’ve played in all settings, Jazz, Blues and everything.  I’ve had an association with all kinds of music, man, and with some great people.  I think I have established myself and my sound and what kind of player I am really, although I might play Jazz, I might play this, I might play that.  Like I said, I approach the horn as a vocalist.  I try to sing through the instrument, and play melodies, not a lot of technical things.  I think if I would lose that identity that I’ve established myself and that people know me by, and go into something just for the sake of saying, “Well, I can do this just as well as that person,” I think I’d lose my identity.  I could probably get away with trying to play some Coltrane for maybe a couple of tunes, and then your fans or your audience is going to say, “Hey, you’re trying to play like so-and-so; get back to yourself.”

TP:    That raises a question.  What you play on the surface is very simple, basic.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Is it deceptively simple?  How complex is it really to do what you do?

HC:    For some people it’s hard.  For me, playing simple is almost a natural.

TP:    Because you’re a very sophisticated, educated musician.

HC:    I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to it.  The technical things… I’ve studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard Bebop.  But that’s not just me naturally.  I just play what I feel naturally.  And I’ve been into some great sets with some great players, you know, but it ends up that I’m better being myself.

TP:    George Coleman played all the notes.

HC:    Yes, in all the keys!  We studied that, too.  I tried that.  I said, “Well, you know, I can do a little bit of this, but that’s just not where I’m from; that’s just not me.”  So I chose to do what I do best.  Because if you’re going to survive in this business, man, you’ve got to have your own identity.  Nobody’s going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That’s the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.

TP:    Your name is your sound.

HC:    Right.  And once you lose that, I think you’ve destroyed everything.  You can turn on the radio, man, and you can hear this trumpet player or this saxophone player, and man, they’re playing!  But there’s something that don’t register with you if he doesn’t have a certain sound or play a certain style of phrasing.  If you can’t recognize that in a player, then you’re just listening to somebody and all you can say about it is, “Ooh, who is that?  He sure plays good!”

TP:    Are there any good young players, saxophone or any instrument, who you think have a sound?

HC:    Well, there’s a tenor player who’s young compared to a lot of people… I think Joshua Redman has his own sound.

TP:    That’s probably why he’s so popular.

HC:    That’s part of it.  There are a few others; I can’t think of them now.  But there are so many youngsters, man, that I hear and they sound good, they’re playing!  But that’s what’s missing.  And I’ll even go so far as to say this.  As far as the man walking on the street, who knows nothing about music, but knows it when he hears it, and he knows whether the player is playing or jiving, or he knows when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.  All these people on the street, man, they know when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.

There are so many players like… I just want to use a major influence on young musicians, and I mean nothing by this because I have a lot of respect for him.  That’s Wynton Marsalis.  What I’m going to say that is when I was talking about identity…

[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

TP:    Now you know it’s him when you hear him play.

HC:    The man has all the facilities in the world.  I mean, he’s a good trumpet player, he’s a good educator, he’s a good everything — I have to give it to him.  But the average layman, I’ll bet you, man, 75 out of 100 would identify a Freddie Hubbard or a Dizzy or a Miles faster than they would identify Wynton — as far as identity.  I mean, if you don’t really know, if you’re not a musician… And not only Wynton, but anybody.  If you don’t really know him and know the techniques of playing because you are a musician or a good listener, you would not be able to identify this bad cat, whoever it is.   It’s just like Count Basie.  One note.  You know the tag he plays, BOP-BOP-BOP?  I can go the piano and do it (it’s only three fingers) you could do it, I could teach my kids, anybody.  BOP-BOP-BOP, it’s all in one place.  But nobody sounds like when Basie hits it.  Same notes.  But when Basie strikes it, there is something else that comes out of the note.  You know what I mean?  And Oscar Peterson or somebody like that can go right behind and play the same thing, and you know how great Oscar is, but Basie has a stamp.  When he hits it, you automatically know it.

TP:    Do drummers today get the tempos they were in the Fifties and Sixties?

HC:    I like drummers.  A drummer is very important to me.  Because everything I play is basically to the root.  I don’t go outside too much.  A lot of musicians find that hard to do.  The simplest things can be the hardest sometimes.

TP:    The more you know, the harder it is not to go into everything that you know.

HC:    Right, man.  The drummer is very important.  You’ve got to learn how to be able to do what’s necessary for you to do in playing in a band.  In the drummer’s case, it might be necessary for him to just keep time.  It’s not necessary for him to play a solo.  Or anybody in there, but especially drummers.  Some guys felt like that was not enough just to keep time and complement the man out front, the front line.  It was a drag to a lot of people just to keep time until you get that give-the-drummer-some, that one solo a night.  Otherwise, he’s playing time.  And a lot of guys don’t like to do that because they like to do other things, but it’s not necessary for you to do nothing but keep time here — and that’s hard.

TP:    And tune to the drum to the sound of the band…

HC:    Right, and do that every night!  Every note.  It’s got to be this way every time you play it.  Certain music.  Certain music you just don’t explore on, man.

TP:    I need your equipment.

HC:    I’m just playing the Selmer Super-Action 80.  That’s what I’m playing now.  The mouthpiece is Barrett.  It’s really like a stock mouthpiece.  I never played anything other than stocks.

TP:    What is it about the Selmer alto?

HC:    It’s like the Rolls Royce of saxophones.  You ain’t got a Selmer… It’s just like having a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  It’s the king.  It’s a good horn, and most professionals play it.  There’s a lot of other horns, Bushes, Conns, all of them, but the Selmer is it for me.  The body, it’s got good weight, feels good, and it responds.  To me, it’s just the best horn.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Hank has some thoughts on Fathead.

HC:    Well, we go back to almost the beginning of my professional career, and we’ve been more than just musicians, section buddies.  We have a little friendship.  I respect him as a man, and we kind of have that respect as men — and I respect his playing.  I broke a lot of bread with David.  The thing I like about him is whatever he plays, for me, I can understand it, I can feel it, how he expresses himself.  He’s just the kind of player that I like, and there are many others, but David is one that I had the experience of being around a lot, so I know him from A to Z!  He’s a very soulful man, and he can play in almost every setting.  I think that’s what we all learned coming up through that period.  He’s just one of my favorites… He’s on most of my recordings.  Every time I use a small band, I always use David.  He has a beautiful sound, a warm sound, and he always finds the blue notes.  He’s a stylist, and I think that’s true of most of the musicians from our era.  We’re stylists.  We all style whatever we play; we put our tag on it.  That’s just the way it is.  And I like all music, man.  I’m not trying to put down anybody.  I have respect for anybody who gets involved in the business because it’s so competitive.  But when I hear a guy that can cross all bridges, and comfortable playing in each setting, that’s what I admire — and don’t feel guilty playing it.

I don’t feel guilty playing “Steel Guitar Rag” if I’m called to play it.  You know what I mean?  I heard that when I was coming up as a kid, man, at 6 o’clock in the morning.  Down South, that’s the first thing you’d hear on your radio, is Country & Western and Gospel music.  That’s what you wake up on, C&W and Gospel!  I spent many days listening to Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow and all of those people.  And we all liked it!  Even Jazz musicians, they can’t say they didn’t grow up listening to these people.  So I played it as a youngster, and I don’t feel offended by it.  I just do my best in it.  So it’s music to me.  I don’t mind being square because I play this tune.  In fact, it’s a blessing to be able to play in all the styles.  That’s when your phone keeps ringing!

TP:    Well, it’s like what David said about Ray Charles.  He said it was like music appreciation.  He learned to play with soul, from the heart in every different situation.

HC:    Look at Cannonball, man.  His biggest hits were Soul music, “Mercy, Mercy” and stuff.  And Cannon was one of the greatest saxophone players in the world to me.

[-30-]

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Filed under Article, Buster Smith, Cedar Walton, David "Fathead" Newman, DownBeat, Hank Crawford, Liner Notes, Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Uncategorized

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

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

* * * *

“The Best Of Bobby Timmons,” Liner Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Messengers hit the road, Golson noticed that Timmons frequently would “play this little funky lick in between the tunes.” He continues: “I got used to hearing it, and after he’d play it, he would say, ‘Ah, that sure is funky.’ I’d say, ‘Sure is.’ We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, and I called a rehearsal. Bobby said, ‘We’ve got everything down; why are we going to rehearse?’ I said, ‘You know that little lick you play?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, ‘No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand and compose a bridge.’ In about half-an-hour he said, ‘Come and listen,’ and then he played it. I said, ‘Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.’ He did something, and called me over in about 15 minutes and asked what I thought.  I could see he didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘That’s it. Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.’ Then I said, ‘Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ He said, ‘“Well, it sounds like moaning.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

In the fall of 1959, Timmons left the Messengers for Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, in which he, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes formed a slamming rhythm section on Live At The Jazz Workshop and Them Dirty Blues.  He returned in the spring of 1960, in time to appear on classic Messenger dates like Night In Tunisia, The Big Beat, The Freedom Rider and The Witch Doctor .

“I had to play ‘Moanin’ and ‘Dat Dere’ when I joined the Messengers,” says Cedar Walton, Timmons’ successor in the piano chair. “They were arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. I was hardcore when I got in the band, and couldn’t imagine playing them. But once I got there, I found myself enjoying them. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen, which was a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Timmons addresses with relish throughout this well-wrought compilation, consisting of six Timmons originals, each with hummable hooks and tasty changes, and seven show tunes of the torchy persuasion. Powell’s presence is everywhere. Note the fleet runs on “Old Devil Moon” and “Easy Does It,”  the stark substitutions he deploys on the brief intro to “God Bless the Child,” the voicings that pop up on “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “Goodbye,” the Dameronian flavor on the bridge of “So Tired.” As Ron Carter puts it, “Bobby wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer like, Benny Golson. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melodies and songs so that the band could tell the difference from night to night, but it would sound the same for the audience. He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.”

Although Timmons was a bandleader with a firm, distinctive point of view, he was never rigid. “He would accept input,” Carter says. “He always remembered my basslines from the other night. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before. Can we play the same idea in a different key, or play it slower, or develop another way to make the song work? I’d say, ‘Bobby, that isn’t working; can we find something else to do with that?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, what?’ If my idea worked, that would become part of the tune. Tootie would suggest something, Bobby would say, ‘I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.’ So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.”

The chronology ends in 1963, when Soul Jazz was no longer ascendent, the national circuit was drying up, and the tragic shadow that dogged so many of Timmons’ heroes began to attach itself to him. “Bobby stayed in town more,” says Carter, who recorded with Timmons as late as 1967. “We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at places like the Lion’s Head and the Needle’s Eye.”

“Bobby was a wild cat,” Walton says, and indeed, Timmons did drink himself to death, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1974. But the darkness never entered his music. As Carter notes, “I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. I’m not sure how you can call ‘Moanin’” indicative of Bobby’s giving personality or ‘Dis Here’ with the fact that he would go to the mat for you.”

“He had no ego about him,” Golson adds. “He was always upbeat, never downbeat, and he never maligned anybody unless it was in a humorous way. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, and he could PLAY funky, but he could also get into things. Of course, now is a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Tootie Heath on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    In reading the program notes from Bobby Timmons’ records, only one had an interview with him, and all of them say mostly the same thing. I was talking with Reggie Workman about another subject, and Reggie told me a little. But I knew you grew up nearby and were the same age, and knew him well.

HEATH:  We kind of grew up together and we grew apart together also. After the New York days, he went in his own direction.  I didn’t see Bobby much after Art Blakey. I think our trio was before Art Blakey.

TP:    I think it was after his first time with Art. He joined in ’59 with “Moanin’” — that’s when “Moanin’” because famous. Then he went with Cannonball.

HEATH:  Right.  For a short period. A year.

TP:    Then he went back with Art for a while. That seems to be when he formed the trio.

HEATH:  Right. That’s when the trio came in. After all of that, I guess.

TP:    A number of the first records are with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, so I guess he did those when he was with Cannonball, and maybe that’s how he came to sign with Riverside. But you were part of the first working trio?

HEATH:  Yes, I think so. With Ron Carter. We even played that around Philadelphia, before we left Philly, as a trio sometimes, with Jimmy Rowser and a couple of other local bass players. Mostly Jimmy Rowser, and sometimes Eddie Matthias, Jimmy Bond, and Reggie a few times.

TP:    Can you tell me anything about his musical background?

HEATH:  All I know is that we were all on the same mission. We were all practicing and studying and listening to records and learning as much as we could about jazz.  Bobby did play in church. His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby did play in his grandfather’s church. He lived with his grandfather. Actually, his grandfather raised him around the corner from where we lived, where our family grew up. So I saw Bobby quite a bit, and he took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who was there, teaching harmony to most of my young friends and a lot of people. An educator for a lot of people.

TP:    That would have been when he had the big band in ’47 and ‘48?

HEATH:  A little after that. Because Bobby… We weren’t quite there for the big band stuff.  I mean, I was there in the house. But we were 10-11 years old during that time.  But later in life, when we were in high school or junior high school…

TP:    ‘48-’49…

HEATH:  Yeah.  ‘50, around in there. Then Jimmy was very helpful with Lee Morgan and Bobby and Jimmy Garrison and a whole lot of people. That’s who played bass with us, too, a lot — Jimmy Garrison.

TP:    Did Bobby get to know Bud Powell at all, like McCoy Tyner did?

HEATH:  I have no idea. I never knew Bud Powell in Philadelphia. I knew his brother, Richard, but I never knew Bud. Bud was gone. And they lived outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. I knew Richard from his period with Max Roach.

TP:    May I ask one or two detailed questions? What was the name of the church where his grandfather was minister?

HEATH:  I have no idea. Bobby had a sister, too, named Eleanor, who died maybe 10-15 years ago, long after him.

TP:    When did you meet him?  You were 11-12 years old?

HEATH:  Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t go to elementary school together. I don’t know what school he went to. I went to school in South Philly with some different guys, like Sam Reed and Ted Curson and guys like that. But Bobby kind of came all of a sudden, because he was playing the piano, but he was playing church music, and he came later into jazz music, into being interested in jazz — around 15 or so.

TP:    Did you play in teenage combos?

HEATH:  Yeah, we played as a trio. We played some fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania. Bobby was kind of a favorite on some of those dances. I used to do things with Bobby and Ray Bryant. We also were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe, and Lee Morgan was in that band and some other people who had gone on to be rather big-name people in jazz. But Bobby was also in the big band with us, and we played some dances, and then we played some trio stuff around in the fraternity houses. That was kind of a good thing to do as a teenager.

TP:    So when you were 16-17 years old, ‘51, ‘52, ‘53.

HEATH:  Well, in ’58 I came to New York, when I joined J.J.’s band. But I used to go back and forth to New York, and I think all of us did that for a while until we all made the final move. We had an apartment down there on the Lower East Side with Bobby and Lee Morgan and Spanky DeBrest.

TP:    You all lived  in an apartment together?

HEATH:  Yeah, we had an apartment on Fifth Street, 315 East  Fifth Street. Elvin Jones lived across the street, Ted Curson lived on that block, Jon Hendricks lived on that block, Kenny Barron’s brother Bill. A lot of musicians. I think it was between Third and Second. We used to walk around the corner to the Five Spot.

TP:    Maybe it was 215.

HEATH:  Maybe it was 215.  But it was not far from the Five Spot. We’d go right around the corner, and Ornette was there and sometimes Mingus would be playing. Actually, we never played in there because we weren’t quite there yet. We were in bands. Bobby was with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

TP:    So you were part of the Manhattan contingent. There was a big Brooklyn contingent, too.

HEATH:  Yeah.  We all lived in Manhattan. Jimmy Garrison and I got a place in Brooklyn later, which didn’t last very long, but we did have one there.

TP:    When you were playing combo at 16 or 17 around Philadelphia, what kinds of things were you playing?  Was it mostly Bobby’s arrangements?

HEATH:  Yeah, some of it was his. A lot of stuff we were just imitating recordings. We would play whatever we could from records. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group — whomever.

TP:    But were there any piano trios he was emulating or trying to get with?

HEATH:  Yeah.  We liked Ahmad Jamal. Jamal’s music was popular around that time. Ahmad had his club during that time, and that’s when his stuff was real hot, because they sat in that one club and played for five years, and that’s where they developed the sound of the Ahmad Jamal trio. We heard their music. They used to come to Philadelphia, and of course, I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ron was going in his own direction already.

TP:    In ’51 and ‘52, Ahmad had recorded, but at the time he had a trio with Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.

HEATH:  This trio that we liked and saw was with Vernell and Israel. Actually, the first one I saw was with Vernell and Richard Davis. They used to come to Philadelphia, and we were too young to go in the club, so we would kind of just stand outside, and whenever the door would open we could hear a little bit.  That’s how we got to loving Ahmad’s style of trio music. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.

TP:    That sort of organization.

HEATH:  Yeah, and the arrangements and the interesting things they used to do together.

TP:    Well, it’s a very orchestrated style. The drums would have a role and a voice and the bass…

HEATH:  That was it. Those were the guys for us.

TP:    How about pianistically? Was he modeling himself after anyone? You hear a lot of Bud in his playing. There’s some Horace Silver and…

HEATH:  He liked Horace Silver and Ahmad, and I’m sure he liked Bud, too.  But I didn’t get that part of him, the Bud Powell thing.

TP:    Do you remember him speaking to you about influences ever?

HEATH:  No.

TP:    Were you not such close friends, but just musical colleagues?

HEATH:  No, we were close.

TP:    What was he like personally?

HEATH:  That’s hard. We were young people, and being young guys.

TP:    Was he a humorous guy?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he had a great personality.  People liked him.

TP:    Do you think he maybe developed that in the church a bit, that performing for church people from a young age gave him a public personality early on?

HEATH:  I doubt it.  Because in the church, you don’t really have a voice in there. You just sit up and do what you do. I doubt if he… I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

TP:    Was he a very warm person?

HEATH:  Yes. Sure. He dressed immaculately all the time. He was very conscious about his appearance.

TP:    On all the albums, you see him in a very form-fitting suit, and he’s so skinny, he fits it well.  Was he a chukka-boot wearer?

HEATH:  He probably did. I think that’s something that everyone was doing at one time.

TP:    Was he painstaking with his arrangements?  Did he go over them with a fine-tooth comb?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He was very particular about his music.

TP:    He was particular about the way he dressed and particular about his music. What were the rehearsals like? Was he very specific about the drum parts?

HEATH:  I don’t really remember. I remember us, as part of our development, sitting down and playing, but I don’t remember a so-called rehearsal where we had something… He just accepted whatever I did, and I listened to what he was doing, and tried to fill in what I thought it should be, and he didn’t have any specific drum parts or bass parts or any of that. We developed that from playing together.

TP:    There’s a recording on Riverside of a gig at the Vanguard. Do you remember the circumstances of that recording?  Were you playing as an opening act for another band?

HEATH:  No. I think we were the only group in there.

TP:    I remember seeing old handbills, and Ahmad Jamal would be opening for Miles or something.

HEATH:  No, we weren’t a part of anything like that. We had our own week down there when we did our recording.

TP:    Were there good crowds?  Was he very popular?

HEATH:  Yeah.  He had a lot of fans.

TP:    Because of those tunes.

HEATH:  Yeah, a lot of people liked them.

TP:    Were those tunes like “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere” and “Dis Here” on jukeboxes?

HEATH:  No. I don’t remember hearing them on jukeboxes until the vocal recordings came around, with Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross and those people. When they started doing them, then it took on a whole nother character.

TP:    Would the music evolve over a week, or once the music was set, was it set?

HEATH:  No, we played together. So it changed. Whenever he did something, we would follow him. Or if we did something that he liked, he would follow us. That’s how we developed. That’s how the Miles Davis band developed.  That was the way in those days. Sitting down and having rehearsals with parts and “you do this and I…” – that wasn’t a part of it. We were a working trio, so every night was a rehearsal.

TP:    Do you happen to recall the year the trio started functioning as a working trio? Would that have been around ‘60? When he left Cannonball…

HEATH:  I would say yes. But I’m sure you can look back and get some records on it.

TP:    But you had been out on the road with J.J., and you were playing drums on a lot of sessions, particularly on Riverside, and Jimmy had a relationship with Riverside at the time as well. Is there any particular quality about him that you’d want people to know about?

HEATH:  No.  I think he was just a person, and he was a decent person, and I never saw him do anything wrong to anybody.

TP:    Any injuries he causes were to himself.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did, like we all did during those days.

TP:    But he sure paid a heavy price.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did.  He got on out of here really young.

TP:    Your relationship sort of ended around ‘63-’64?  You didn’t see much of him after that?

HEATH:  I don’t know where Bobby was, but I was traveling around in New York with different people and playing with different groups and traveling myself, and I kind of lost touch with Bobby.  I mean, I talked to him whenever I’d see him somewhere.

TP:    I think he was a victim of the way the sound of the music changed then in some ways.  Did the trio travel?

HEATH:  We did a West Coast tour.  We went to Detroit; I remember that. We went out to California and the Jazz Workshop out there. We did a lot of playing around New York and in the New York area, the Village Gate and places like that around the city. Yeah, we played quite a bit, for maybe two or three years.

TP:    How much would you say you were on the road?

HEATH:  Well, our traveling wasn’t that intense.

TP:    So it wasn’t like you’d be in a car for 30 weeks a year, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit. You didn’t do that circuit.

HEATH:  No.  Most of the times, we flew. We were flying.

TP:    Was he easy to play with?

HEATH:  Yeah. Well, I can say that I always felt that we were all in the same place in our development. I can’t say that Bobby was any greater than anybody else in the band, and neither was I, and neither was Ron Carter. We were all just kind of developing and trying to find our way.

TP:    But he was the composer. I guess that set him off.

HEATH:  He was the composer and he was the leader. He got the gigs. So that made him a little different.

TP:    Do you remember who was the manager or the agent?

HEATH:  I think Orrin did the California trip. I don’t remember who did the other stuff.

Kenny Barron on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you get to know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

BARRON:  I didn’t know him in Philly. Only from seeing him in New York.

TP:    Did you get to know him in New York?

BARRON:  Not well.

TP:    Were you checking his stuff out?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. Actually, the first time I ever heard his name is when I was in junior high school, in my music class.  One day we had a substitute teacher, and she was asking if anybody liked jazz, and a few people raised their hands. Then she said… This was a black woman. She said, ‘I have a cousin named Bobby Timmons, who plays piano with Chet Baker.” That’s the first time I heard his name.

TP:    But you never caught him around Philly.

BARRON:  No, I didn’t meet him until I moved to New York.

TP:    Did you like the trio stuff?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. I did.

TP:    Did you ever play those hits, “Dat Dere,” “Dis Here”?

BARRON:  Yeah, I’ve played them.

TP:    What are they like to play?

BARRON:  They’re fun. They’re fun to play on.

TP:    Are they tricky?  Are there things in them that go beyond the obvious? Did he put  twists and turns in his stuff?

BARRON:  They’re not unusually tricky. I wouldn’t say that.  But they’re catchy.

TP:    People still like those tunes.

BARRON:  Oh yeah. When you can have somebody write lyrics for your stuff, that means there’s something there.
Reggie Workman on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about your recollections about Bobby Timmons?

WORKMAN:  Let me turn the page.  The mental page.

TP:    I know you grew up in a different part of Philly, and you’re three years younger.  But I figure you must have crossed paths at various points.

WORKMAN:  Of course.  You know, the music community is very small — actually worldwide. No matter where you go, you always run into people who are thinking somewhat in the same direction that you are. Therefore, I ran into Bobby Timmons’ neighbors, and the Heath brothers, and Bobby Green and all the guys down in South Philadelphia often, because whatever was happening, if there was something musical happening, one of those persons would be there — and Bobby was often on the scene.  I remember him as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say.  And it always turned up in the music.

You know who reminded me of him when I first saw him a lot at the school was Carlos McKinney.  The way that Carlos McKinney is now, Bobby used to be when he was young.  He was always an ardent dresser, he was always a very neat person in his music, very neat in his personality, and very witty as far as being a person was concerned.  That always turns up in the music.  And he’s always reflected his experience in his music, no matter what he was doing.  You could hear… And he always had his personal voice, no matter what he was doing.  No matter what kind of job he was doing, you would know that was Bobby Timmons doing it.

TP:    This being in Philly before he came to New York, as well as after…

WORKMAN:  That was Bobby.  And that was the aesthetic of the music then. Back in those days, that was as much of a thing to strive for as playing music right, was to find out this voice is MINE; this is the way that I express myself, and this is the way… Therefore, anybody you hear from the era that Bobby lived, you know who they are. You can hear who they are without question when you hear their audio sound.

TP:    Were you in the Messengers at the same time as he?

WORKMAN:  No.  He was in the Messengers before I was.

TP:    I think he did it twice, in ’59, the Moanin’ session, and then he came back in ’61, before Cedar came  in.  Were you ever part of his trio?

WORKMAN:  Well, we worked around Philadelphia on occasion.

TP:    What was he like as a leader?  Was he very organized, did he have…

WORKMAN:  That I don’t recall.

TP:    Was the music stimulating to play?  Were there challenges?  Did it go beyond the basic bass function?

WORKMAN:  Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling the engagement, whatever it was calling for.  Because there are many different types of things we had to do. We didn’t come together that often, but when we came together, it was because of some situation around Philadelphia where we happened to cross paths, and instead of Eddie Matthias or instead of Spanky or instead of Garrison, I might be on the scene.  It was seldom, but it happened.

TP:    So those were the bass players he played with most often in Philly.

WORKMAN:  That I can remember.  Of course, there was Jimmy Bond, there was Jimmy Rowser, there was Jymie Merritt.  There were so many bass players from Philly that when you got a chance to cross paths with one of the musicians, you were lucky.  Of course, I was young then. I was just honing my craft, just beginning to develop, and I was from a different part of town.

TP:    At that time, would his scene be mostly in Philly’s jazz clubs, or would he be playing dances and parties…

WORKMAN:  We all had to do everything. We all had to do jazz clubs as well as dances… Dances and parties were as much a part of the… As you know about the Savoy Ballroom with Charlie Parker, they were as much a part of the arena in our community as any club or any other place. Cabarets and parties and dance clubs, and special occasions were… That’s where the music was heard. That’s where the music was made.

TP:    It was part of the community.

WORKMAN:  That’s right.

Cedar Walton on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

WALTON: Pretty well, yeah.

TP:    I’m doing a liner note for a best-of compilation. Was he in New York when you got here?

WALTON:  Probably so. I didn’t meet him until he joined the Messengers. The mother of my three children was friendly with his wife, and there was a Bobby Timmons, Jr. I think I got better acquainted with him when he was in the Messengers.  But he had gigs with Chet Baker and Kenny Baker, gigs all around.

TP:    Well, he got famous with “Moanin’” with the Messengers, then he went with Cannonball for a year, then he went with the Messengers for a bit, and then you joined the Messengers.

WALTON: Right. I replaced him.

TP:    Did he leave just because he had so many trio gigs?

WALTON: That was for him to know and me to find out. I just got the call. Where he went and what he did, I didn’t… But probably so.

TP:    What did you think of his trio at the time?

WALTON: I thought it was fine. It would be hard for me to find fault with anything. He had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, as I recall, on his first trio outing.  But it might not have been his first. It’s the first one I know.

TP:    He recorded with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb when he was with Cannonball, but when he got the trio working, it was with Tootie and Ron Carter. He grew up in Philly with Tootie. What kind of person was he?

WALTON: That’s a great question. All I know is he was the son of a minister, and moved into a building on Sterling Place in Brooklyn with Estrella and Bobby, Jr. Freddie Hubbard was a neighbor as well as Louis Hayes. But very shortly after that, Bobby made his home in the Village.

TP:    East 5th Street. Tootie said they had an apartment on East 5th Street.

WALTON: Right.  But he ended up in the West Village, hanging out at Boomer’s. His favorite bars were over on that side by the time I caught up with him.

TP:    Was he a witty guy? A friendly guy?

WALTON: Sure.  A typical Philadelphia type. I hesitate to…

TP:    What’s a typical Philadelphia type?

WALTON: Joking all the time.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

WALTON: Yeah, he did care about his wardrobe.

TP:    Did you play his tunes?

WALTON: Yeah.  I had to play “Moanin’” when I joined the Messengers, and also “Dat Dere.” I don’t think we played “Dis Here” but we played “Dat Dere.”

TP:    Did you play his arrangements?

WALTON: Yes, they were Messengers arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. You could play them, in my estimation. I remember asking Walter Davis when he joined the Messengers for a little period. I said, “Oh, man, you got to play ‘Moanin’ and all that?” I was hardcore then. I couldn’t imagine any… But then when I got there, I found myself enjoying playing it.

TP:    Did those tunes pose any challenges for you?

WALTON: Certainly. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen with them, and that was a challenge. They weren’t difficult like “Tempus Fugit” or “Un Poco Loco” or things like that. They were simple and deliberately aimed at the commercial market.

Benny Golson I think composed the bridge to “Moanin’.” We used to do that all the time without any qualms. I remember writing a bridge to “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones. I actually wrote the ending of “Naima.” Mr. Coltrane had the chords. He said, “Cedar, what would you do with this I-IV, I-IV, I-IV?” I said, “Well, you could just go right up the scale.” And he kept it in. Those kind of things were just regular things to do in those days. I’m talking about the ‘60s, not too far back – but far enough.

Bobby was a wild cat. He could drink, too.
Benny Golson on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    I’m under the impression that you recruited Bobby Timmons into the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON: Right.

TP:    How did you know him? What was your acquaintance with him in Philadelphia?

GOLSON: I wasn’t acquainted with him in Philly. But I had listened to what he had done. He was working with Chet Baker when I heard him. I didn’t really know him, but I liked what he did, and therefore, I recommended him on that basis. Well, I knew him superficially, but I didn’t really know him.

TP:    But you knew him from the Philly connection.

GOLSON: I didn’t know him from Philly. He was a different generation. He was much younger. I was gone by the time he started to make a little noise.

TP:    He was in New York by that time.

GOLSON: He was in New York, yes.

TP:    What was it about his sound that appealed to you?

GOLSON: Well, he was inventive, and he could play a lot of things. He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He was sort of, well, he could play bebop, or he could play this, he could play funky… “Moanin’,” for example.  And I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby.

TP:    Because of Art’s penchant for backbeats and shuffles, you wanted somebody who could provide that?

GOLSON: No. It was to find somebody who could go here or they could go there, rather than walking on a single corridor. I thought he was a little broader. He was on a boulevard rather than a narrow street.

TP:    I know you brought him into the band, but you weren’t in the band that much longer once he was in it

GOLSON: About a year.

TP:    So you got to know him fairly well, I’d think.

GOLSON: All of it happened within a year.

TP:    Tell me what you can tell me about him personally. People say he had a very good sense of humor, he was amiable, a good dresser…

GOLSON: Absolutely. All of those things. He was clothes-conscious, he and Lee. Every night, they had a contest going on!

TP:    Around then, it was chukkah-boot time, wasn’t it?

GOLSON: They had the boots, yeah, and the pants were cut a little high so you could see the boots. I’m telling you, they were a card, those two guys!

TP:    Two wild young men.

GOLSON:  And they used to play this little funky thing in between the tunes, this little lick, and I got used to hearing it, and he would play it and he would say, “Ah, that sure is funky,” and I’d say, “Sure is.” We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, I called a rehearsal, and I said to Bobby… We had everything down. He said, “Why are we going to rehearse.” I said, “You know that little lick you play?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, “No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand…” We were in the club. Nobody was there during the day; they were washing glasses and stuff. I said, “We’ll go sit over here and just lollygag, and you compose a bridge.” So we went over, and in about half-an-hour he said, “Come and listen,” and then he played it. I said, “Hmm, that’s not really like the …(?)… 8 bars,” Bobby.  I said, “No, this has got to be your tune, Bobby.” I said, “Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.” “Okay, all right,” and he did something, and in about 15 minutes he called me, and said, “Well, what do you think?” I could see he didn’t think much of it. He played it, and I said, “That’s it.” I said, “Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.” We learned it, and I said, “We’re going to play it tonight, and as we play it, I’m going announce it, and let the people know that this is the first time they’re hearing something that they’ve never heard before.” He didn’t have a title for it either then.  I said, “I’m going to observe the audience, and they’ll tell us whether it’s of any value or not.” I said, “Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, what does it sound like?” He said, “Well, it sounds like moaning.” I said, “Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

TP:    And it became a hit.

GOLSON: Oh, absolutely.

TP:    The audience responded to it right away?

GOLSON: Oh yeah. That and “Blues March.” Those uplifted the whole album.

TP:    If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like for him, that it wasn’t… You might think it was a natural thing from his being in the church…

GOLSON: No.

TP:    But he was thinking about bebop, and he needed to be pushed to do these kind of tunes…

GOLSON: Oh, no.  It was there. Now, he MIGHT have been feeling like that because of the church, but I don’t think that the church was the primary influence on WHAT he was playing.  Because Bobby could play funky!  Many times he did play funky. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with the church. He was just feeling that way. People say that and try to make it sound psychological.

TP:    Well, he learned to play in the church and had all that experience when he was young…

GOLSON: Well, he did it.  But Ted, it was intuitive.

TP:    On this CD, there are trio versions of “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and “So Tired” and stuff like this. Did he write those then to capitalize on…

GOLSON: Yes.

TP:    Were you around at that time or not?

GOLSON: No. That came after I was gone.

TP:    Did you continue to stay in touch after leaving the Messengers?

GOLSON: No.  Just seeing him when I happened to see him. No deep phone calls or anything like that. I’d just run into him, “Hey, how you doing?” – like that.

TP:    Do you recall any impressions you had of his trio?

GOLSON: I don’t remember much about the trio. I can’t recall as we talk the natuure of the trio. I don’t even remember who was in the trio.

TP:    He worked with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, and also with Sam Jones & Cannonball.

GOLSON: I’d forgotten all about Ron Carter.

TP:    But you brought him in from hearing him on the scene, and he seemed like good fresh blood for Art.

GOLSON: I brought him in on the basis of what I heard. It wasn’t that I knew him. It was just on the basis of what he played, his musical concept. Then I got to know him.

TP:    Can you give me any impressions about him just from that year?

GOLSON: Well, this was important to me. He had no ego about him. [LISTENED TO BENNY AND RESPECTED HIM AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR] [INAUDIBLE, BREAKS UP]
He was always upbeat. He was never downbeat. And he never maligned anybody. If he did, it would be in a humorous way, someone’s bad feet, the way he walks or something. But no, he was all right.

TP:    So his tunes reflect his personality, then.

GOLSON: Absolutely.  “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere,” that was Bobby. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, but no, he could get into things.

TP:    Well, there’s an “Old Devil Moon” where he runs off these fleet Bud Powell lines, and on another there are some Dameronian voicings.

GOLSON: I liked the way he played. Of course, it’s a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.  And I thought that he would work well with the Messengers, and he did. That “Moanin’” thing helped quite a bit. Because it was epochal, that group in 1958 with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, and me. That’s when things changed. It was because of Bobby and Lee, and my composing, and “Moanin’.” When Art used to announce the All-Star Jazz Messengers, the regular group was there, but we were like an adjunct to it, and we’d come out for the second half of the show and play with them, and when he got to me, he’d say I was the one that started it all. That was kind of confusing, because he had that group together years before I came on the scene.  But he was talking about that band from that time. Because during that time, when I joined the band, he wasn’t making any kind of money.  But when I left, he was making money, I saw he got the right bookings… Because everybody listened to me. Looking back in retrospect, why did they listen to such a green kid? [ETC.] I said, “That picture has to go on the cover,” the booking office didn’t (?) the concert in Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. “But why hasn’t he been to Europe? Send us to Europe.” “We’ve got to wear uniforms, Art.” After the band broke up, he would come to me: “What do you think I should do here?” But that has nothing to do with Bobby Timmons.

There was the spirit of the whole thing.  And those guys were exactly right for that group.

Ron Carter on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    When did you first encounter each other? How did you first break bread musically?

CARTER: It was probably on some dates for Riverside Records on which he was a sideman, earlier Riverside dates on which Orrin Keepnews as a producer. Then he put together the trio, and we flew to the Jazz Workshop down in North Beach. We rehearsed with Tootie Heath… At the time, Riverside Records had a little studio across the street from the President Hotel on West 48th Street. So we rehearsed a couple of days, to learn the library, and went out to California, to San Francisco the next day and did a week there.  Then we went to the Purple Orchid in Los Angeles, came east and did a gig in Detroit, and went to a place in Philadelphia…

TP:    So when you did Live At the Vanguard, you’d been on the road a month.  What was his attitude towards rehearsing and the sound of the group?  Was he very definite about how he wanted pieces to sound?

CARTER:  I think he trusted that… He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound of the trio. That was one of our favorite groups at the time.

TP:    He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound.

CARTER:  And he liked the sound of Red Garland’s trio with Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor. He knew Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Eventually, the sound of the trio developed as we matured, as we got more gigs, and got the kind of sound we were looking for…

TP:    So your interpretation of the material molded into what the group sound became.

CARTER:  We dealt with …[INAUDIBLE]… what the first couple of choruses of the song would sound like, and then we were on our own to develop whatever we saw fit for the remainder of the arrangement of the tune.

TP:    Did the sound change from week to week?  Was he improvising a lot within the format of the trio from one night to another? Would his solos vary?

CARTER: He always remembered my basslines from the other night. I mean, I don’t think great musicians wake up in the middle of the gig and play something that no one ever heard before. I think great players get to that zone by developing what they stumbled on the night before, or the set before, or the chorus before. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before, or an idea really sounded good, and can we play the same idea in a different key, or can we play it slower, or can we play a bridge in the ..(?)… and develop another kind of way to make the song work.

TP:    Talk a bit about the dynamics of his compositions.
CARTER: They were simple. He wrote nice tunes or some ballads. He wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer in like Benny Golson, or other composers that I could think of. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melody and song different for the band but not for the audience. The band could tell the difference from night to night in the ..(?).. of the melody, and it let us know that we had even more range to develop our melodies as the gig wore on.

TP:    Who would say were his main influences?

CARTER: Bud Powell as far playing the piano was concerned.  He was aware of Ahmad Jamal’s approach and he played block chords like Red Garland could do, but his primary infiuence would be Bud Powell.

The trio had two or three gigs after the Vanguard, and then kind of separated. Bobby was staying in town more.  We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at the Lion’s Head… He was getting sick even along the way.  The Needle’s Eye. He would play at Boomer’s.

He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

CARTER: Well, back in those days, everybody wore suits. Shoes shined, tuxes.

TP:    Would you consider his music a reflection of his personality in any palpable way?

CARTER: I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. [INAUDIBLE] I’m not sure how you can call “Moanin’” indicative of his giving personality or “Dis Here” with the fact that he would go to the mat for you. I don’t know how you can find that in his tunes.

TP:    So he knew what to do as a leader.

CARTER: Absolutely.

TP:    And he had a firm and distinctive point of view, would you say?

CARTER: Well, it wasn’t rigid.  He would accept input. I’d say, “Bobby, that ain’t working, man; can we find something else to do with that?” He’d say, “Well, what?” And if my idea worked, that would be a part of it. Or if Tootie would say, “Bobby, let’s try to do this,” and Bobby would say, “I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.” So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.

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Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Interview, Kenny Barron, Liner Notes, Piano, Reggie Workman

R.I.P. Cedar Walton, January 17, 1934-August 19, 2013

News has already spread through our community that we lost Cedar Walton this morning. Fortunately for all of us, he was active almost up until the end. I had several opportunities to interact with Cedar during my years at WKCR, and more than several on late evenings at clubs like Bradley’s, the Vanguard, and Sweet Basil, and had the honor of writing liner notes for two of his recordings and having him to consent to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test a decade or so ago. I’m appending below the notes for Roots, a well-funded late ’90s reworking of some of his older “hits” with an all star band, and a wonderful 2009 solo date for Muse entitled Underground Memoirs. The note for Roots (Astor Place was the label) contains a fair amount of biographical information.

* * * *

Roots Liner Notes – Cedar Walton:

In the spirit of his muse, Duke Ellington, Cedar Walton doesn’t delete material.  Author of some of the most memorable tunes in the jazz lexicon, he continually refines, reinvents, recontextualizes, finds unexpected angles that provide fresh perspectives on familiar vistas.  While Composer, his successful Astor Place debut, focused primarily on new work, here the maestro revisits nine choice classics written over a 35-year span, orchestrated for a crackerjack horn section, underpinned by the first-call bassist and drummer in the world, and interpreted by three of the most prominent young improvisers of the day.

Above all else, Walton conjures melodies that stick in the brain.  On Roots, Terence Blanchard’s burnished trumpet sings a pair of them with warmth and grace.  Like Walton a composer of note, and a fellow alumnus of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blanchard comments, “My teachers told me that you can learn arranging, orchestration, how to write for strings, but nobody can show you how to write a melody.  A person with that talent is special.  Cedar’s melodies are very striking, often taking unexpected directions.  He makes difficult chord progressions sound magical.  Art Blakey’s statements always ring true in my mind, and he’d say, ‘Let the punishment fit the crime.’  That means when you play a Cedar Walton tune, the melody establishes a certain kind of vibe or tone that you deal with — they have a character all their own.  That’s what makes his tunes interesting and challenging to play.”

Walton’s voice began to flower during a three year stint with the edition of the Messengers that featured Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Curtis Fuller, the front line that recorded “Fantasy in D” (as “Ugetsu” on Live at Birdland, Riverside, 1963).  “Art demanded that we compose and arrange, and that’s the material he’d use,” the pianist recalls.  “He was a great coordinator, and when he added his final touch, it pushed the tune off the paper, added impetus and drive and presentation.  I always liked to conceive of original melodies; the Messengers allowed me an outlet, a platform, a vehicle to get my pieces played immediately by a group of fantastic players, and my arranging skills developed tremendously.”

Lewis Nash, whose precise tempos and ferociously elegant patterns are a highlight of Roots, listened exhaustively to that Messenger band.  “Cedar’s tunes with the Messengers have the defining characteristics of some of the swingingest and funkiest jazz music,” the drummer comments.  “He found a way to put the soulfulness of a great bluesy solo in his compositions, so you get the feeling that the melody is also something someone could have heard while they were playing their solo.  He’ll use a simple rhythm, repeat it and then slightly alter it so that it’s off by a half-beat or so, creating tension.  You’re allowed a lot of freedom to put in your own two cents, but the melodies and rhythms are so strong that only certain things will really work — which still gives you an infinite variety of choices.”

Nash also marvels at Walton’s cool perspective, the seemingly effortless control he maintains over the full context of every situation.  “He’s the type of musician where you know everything is in good hands,” he remarks. “No matter what’s going on up front, he knows the right thing to play.  It doesn’t seem like he’s trying; he just does it.  He knows how to set up an intro to a tune, to any standard, however many million times it’s been played, and come up with something interesting and a new twist on it.”

Cedar Walton operates intuitively at a level of craft that comes from a life devoted to music with single-minded passion.  Let’s hear the 65-year-old native of Dallas, Texas tell the story of his formative years.

“I began doodling at 6 or 7, mainly because there was a piano in the house.  My mother played from sheet music, and she taught students at our home on a regular basis.  Though she always wanted to be a pianist, she decided to teach school instead of pursuing a serious career.  She and my father were great Jazz fans, and they used to point out to me some of their favorites, who included Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Cab Calloway, all the stars of the day.  We’d hear location broadcasts from various key dance halls around the country by Duke Ellington and Earl Hines — I even heard Art Blakey from Birdland on radio.  In the ’40s there was a weekly show called Piano Playhouse that featured a Classical guy and a studio guy, who would have a Classical and a Jazz guest artist.  People like Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner would be guests, always playing solo, never using accompaniment, and that greatly inspired me.

“I played clarinet and glockenspiel in the marching band at Lincoln High School in Dallas that would play halftime of the football games.  The band director, J.K. Miller, had been in some Jazz orchestras and had played trumpet, so he had experience in the real world of music.  He was quite good, very sociable, and inspired all of us.  I was able to play by ear, and very often Mr. Miller would say, ‘Walton, show them how that goes.’  When the football season wasn’t going on, we used to play stock arrangements of charts by Dizzy Gillespie, Ellington, Basie and a lot of other people.  It was a very good period for learning and experimenting.  On a lot of my early gigs while I was in high school, Fathead Newman was the leader, and we’d jam together after I graduated.  We were Jazz musicians, but we had to play sort of a rhythm-and-blues style, the shuffle rhythm — DONT-CHA, DONT-CHA — so people would dance, but we would also play ballads, and throw in a special arrangement that was purely bebop.

“I listened to a lot of records — there wasn’t much opportunity to hear people live.  We heard the very latest recordings by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, Illinois Jacquet, Art Tatum and Nat King Cole, who was a favorite.  I got most of my influence trying to emulate what I heard, and I consider Art Tatum and Bud Powell my major influences from those years.  Bud’s recordings were among my favorites, especially his comping on records like ‘Little Willie Leaps’ with Charlie Parker playing tenor; I’d been dazzled by Hank Jones in that regard, and Bud gave me another point of view.  Bird also fascinated me, and Ellington blew me away.  Once he played at the State Fair, and he was as close as I am to you.  Ellington left an indelible impression on me with his presence, his personality, his carriage, his style, his orchestrational and conducting ability, general stage manner, devotion to his audience, and last but not least his piano playing.  I always intended to escape the environment of my home town, and in listening to the Ellington, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker records I felt confident that I had a world out there to escape to.

“Even before I went to school, I liked to ‘make up pieces,’ as my mother called it—’Are you making something up again?’  I didn’t need too much encouragement.  I arranged by trial-and-error; I’d write notes down and ask people to play them, and they’d say, ‘Well, this isn’t written right!’  After a short time at Dillard College in New Orleans, where I was in the same class as Ellis Marsalis, I enrolled in the University of Denver, where I majored in Composition.  There we were obliged to play instruments other than our own, which was very helpful later on in scoring for them.  The music department was good, and I enjoyed my studies.  My forte was harmony and theory.  I had to study much harder than some of the pianists who could play very well, but couldn’t figure out the chords.  I more or less shone in the theory class.  I played with a very good bass player named Charles Burrell, who was a member of the Denver Symphony and also had a great jazz sound.  I started playing with a local band at an after-hours place called Lil’s where people from the national bands would go to eat and sometimes sit in after they finished playing, and I met people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Richie Powell, and John Coltrane.”

Walton took the New York plunge in 1955, and began slowly to establish himself on the scene, making rehearsals, sessions and little gigs in all the boroughs.   A highlight was a brief gig in Philadelphia with trumpeter Kenny Dorham — a harmony master and sophisticated composer — who became a lasting friend.  Walton was drafted the next year.  He was posted initially to Fort Dix, where he met Wayne Shorter (then making weekend gigs with Horace Silver), then was stationed in Germany.  He worked his way into the Special Services, where bandmates included artists like Eddie Harris (yes, Walton was on the original “Freedom Jazz Dance”), Don Ellis and Don Menza.  He returned to New York in 1958, worked with Lou Donaldson and Dorham, jammed at sessions led by Babs Gonzalez at Minton’s and Monday nights at Birdland.  Trombonist J.J. Johnson, looking for a pianist to replace the departing Tommy Flanagan, heard the young aspirant at a Birdland session, and hired him to fill the chair.

He spent two revelatory years with Johnson that focused him on the primacy of melody.  “J.J.’s arranging techniques for small band were mind-boggling to me at the time when I was a sideman,” Walton recalls.  “He would play the complete arrangement in a compressed, effective way, like a condensed big band.  His compositions were outstanding and his discipline was unbelievable.  J.J. epitomizes melodic playing, and he’s a great master of improvisation and spontaneous playing as well as a more tempered and structured approach.  He was the last word in instrumentalism.  Listening to him nightly and hearing that kind of excellence was enough to convince me that I should work hard to achieve the same thing myself.”

Roots is the latest document to demonstrate emphatically that Walton attained that goal as composer, arranger and — not least — pianist.  He plays  with typical virtuosity, controlling the full instrument, spinning out long, inventive lines, in perfect synch throughout with Nash and nonpareil bassist Ron Carter, a cohort in every imaginable context since the early ’60s.  His complete, orchestrative trio concept is heavily inflected by “the vigorous richness of Nat Cole and Ahmad Jamal; you can’t get any better in terms of clarity, concept, technique, swing — everything is in there.”

Walton’s compositional process is immutably related to the piano, the voice that links him to the voices deep within.  “Usually I find myself sitting at the piano, and I search for original passages, phrases, melodies, harmonies that I haven’t heard before,” he states.  “A good composition will be interesting, have built-in pleasures for the player interpreting it, crossroads that we anticipate coming up as we proceed on our trip.  As far as form, the tunes only adhere to what comes to me as I’m writing them.  If they happen to be even, so be it, but it’s not deliberate.”

Cedar Walton is a survivor, an individualist with an instantly recognizable sound; he’s produced a remarkable corpus of recordings, all too often under less than optimal circumstances.  Roots is the first time in years he’s had a horn section to articulate his melodies, and he’s pleased with the result.  “It enhances your approach,” he says, “because it’s the utopia of a recording project if somebody asks you to bring all your own tunes, there’s enough budget to hire this kind of personnel, we use Rudy Van Gelder, and I choose who I’d like to produce it.  The ensemble gives the tunes a new wardrobe, so to speak — a new setting.”

One definition of “root” in Webster’s is “To turn over, dig up, discover and bring to light.” A second is “to have an origin or base.”  Both apply to this superb program of music.

* * * *

Underground Memoirs (High Note):

One of the most admired jazz composers of the past forty years, Cedar Walton is famous for a book of tunes marked by striking melodies, harmonic logic, bluesy soulfulness, and unpredictable forms. On Underground Memoirs, his fourth solo piano recording, he brings those qualities to 11 jazz standards and one original. For Walton, the tale’s the thing: with seemingly effortless control,  he crafts a fluent narrative arc through the subtle deployment of various keys, voicings and colors. Each tune evokes a personal experience. In short, Walton, 71, is relating a sort of autobiography of his aesthetic journey.

Here Walton works primarily with pieces that he plays frequently at home on his Steinway B. “I’m a person who likes to noodle and find original passages and phrases that I haven’t heard before,” Walton clarifies. “Hopefully, I can come up with versions that I find original to some degree.”

You’ll most often hear Walton in the context of the piano trio, a form of which he is an acknowledged master. Countless pianists have studied his methods—his resourcefulness as an orchestrator, his knack for imparting Waltonian identity to everything he touches while allowing great freedom to his collaborators, who have included such bassists as Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams and such drummers as Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash and Joe Farnsworth. Here, though, Walton himself becomes the orchestra.

“The solo form is different, but totally enjoyable,” says Walton. “Some people play with a very ornate, complicated style, like Art Tatum, who was the ultimate piano soloist. But when I first heard Ellis Larkins’ duo records with Ella Fitzgerald as a young guy in Dallas, Texas, I realized you don’t have to be a wizard like Tatum to play by yourself.”

The aforementioned sides, from the early ‘50s, were part of a Walton musical diet that included Tatum and Bud Powell, as well as Nat Cole, Erroll Garner, and Ahmad Jamal. But Walton’s references here are not purely pianistic.

For example, Miles Davis inspired Walton to perform three of the tunes contained herein. “I still find delight in the way that piece was constructed,” he says, referring to Milestones, which opens the program. John Lewis wrote it for Miles’ inaugural leader session in 1947, and Miles subsequently appropriated composer credit.

“Miles had such a distinctive a way of arranging things,” Walton explains. “Look what he did with George Shearing’s “Conception.” Amazing insight. And I was mesmerized by “Venus De Milo,” which Gerry Mulligan wrote. In that period, Miles was delightfully consumed by harmony and how to modernize the materials he dealt with.”

As for “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Walton notes, “I wanted to have a 3/4 outing. It’s a monumental recording by Miles, and I was curious to see what I’d do with it in a solo situation. It’s not one I frequently tinker with at home. I’ve found myself playing it when people call tunes and say, ‘What should we play the next set?’

“I rarely play “Green Dolphin Street” solo either, but again, Miles enters the picture. One night around 1958 he took me, Lee Morgan, Spanky DeBrest, and Tootie Heath to his flat on Tenth Avenue, told us he wanted us to hear something, and played us an acetate of it. He had a great large apartment with lots of paintings, and one of those polar bear rugs with the mouth open. I dared go over to the piano, which was a long Steinway, to try to emulate the recording, and he rushed over and put his arms around my head and kind of brushed my fingers back. I wasn’t anywhere close to what Bill Evans was doing, but that’s how stupid I was at that time of night.”

“Lost April” first appeared in 1948, on the flip-side of Nat Cole’s hit, “Nature Boy.” Cole reprised it in 1961 on Nat Cole Sings, George Shearing Plays. “It’s one of my all-time favorite songs,” says Walton, who recorded it as a sideman for Milt Jackson on Olinga in 1974.

“I used to play ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ quite often with Bags and Ray Brown as well,” he continues. “Here I went with their changes. I met Bags when I was in the Army, based in Germany, and the MJQ came through. I had a friend with a car, and we invited him to a club where people like Albert Mangelsdorff hung out. He heard me play, and we were friends from then on. We were very compatible, and had a mutual exchange of ideas. Ray Brown needed a little more grease from a piano player, but Milt always stood up for me.”

Walton got to play Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” in duo with the composer on a mid-‘80s tour. “I always liked the piece,” he says. “Once in Torino, we got this monumental piano, a 9-foot Steinway-D. That night there was considerable applause after my solo, and when he was supposed to come back in, before he put his horn up to his mouth, he said, so only I could hear it, ‘You didn’t have to play that much s___, m__f___!’ I’ll always be grateful for that compliment.”

The pianist recently decided to revisit Billy Eckstine’s “I Want To Talk About You” after hearing it on a compilation CD of the iconic baritone. “I was initially attracted to Coltrane’s version,” says Walton, who spent consequential rehearsal time with Coltrane in 1959, a year after the tenorist recorded it for Prestige. “The way the song comes out of the bridge is totally original. Some of it is simple, like a pop song, but some is very sophisticated and takes analyzing.

“I was always a big fan of Billy Eckstine. When I went to college, the gentleman in the dorm room next to me had endless 78s of his that he played all day and night on one of those little machines. Later, Art Blakey took me to Basin Street East one night and introduced me to Mr. B. His generation didn’t put on their trousers and suit coat until a second before they went out on stage, so there’d be no wrinkle. I noticed that when I was in his dressing room, and I also saw the rapport he and Art had. He seemed genuinely glad to see Art, and Art was kind of shy in his presence—if you can imagine Art being shy.”

Not long after Duke Ellington’s death, Walton responded with a memorial composition entitled “The Maestro.” Here he pays respects with a personal, highly ornamented version of “Sophisticated Lady.” “I play this a lot by myself, and I also like to do it in duo with a bass player,” he says. “Ellington was like a role model, or someone to pattern yourself after. I saw him in auditoriums in Dallas, and once at a state fair where he was right on the ground—you could almost reach out and touch the players.”

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” Walton states, “is one of my favorite solo pieces. When I arrive at a hall and it’s time for soundcheck, I usually find myself playing it to test the piano. I usually play just the first part that appears on this record, but I found it very entertaining to elongate it for this occasion.”

On this tune, as throughout the proceedings, Walton takes great liberties, but never loses sight of essences. He sustains continuity, parsing, refining, reinventing, recontextualizing, playing no excess notes, imparting an aura of inevitability to the flow.

“When I first got to New York,” he recalls, hearkening back to the middle ‘50s,  “I’d see all these great artists and how they performed and worked. I thought, ‘Well, they didn’t teach that in school.’ Not the school I went to. This was the total professional world, and I was glad to be a witness to it.”

Whether so intended or not, Walton’s words are self-descriptive. On this reflective album, itself an underground memoir, he sublimates abundant technique and theoretical acumen to storytelling imperatives. In doing so, he teaches an invaluable lesson—which they don’t teach in school—about what it means to live your music.

* * * *

Cedar Walton Blindfold Test:

1. Art Tatum, “Just A Sittin’ And a Rockin’“, The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1953 (5 stars).

That’s either Art Tatum or one of the best imitators I’ve ever heard of him.  Incredible.  For some reason, during the first part of the piece… I haven’t listened to Tatum in a while, so I was wondering whether it couldn’t be possibly somebody playing in his style.  But as the song continued, it almost has to be him.  “Sittin’ and a Rockin’,” I think is the name of it.  I’ve heard this.  You know, I used to listen to Tatum practically every day.  So I must admit I sort of had forgotten how delicious he is.  It makes you want to play it.  And according to my piano, he’s in E-natural, which is a further challenge.  [TP:  He reharmonized it?] No, he just put it in a key that’s somewhat advanced. [LAUGHS] If my piano is in tune.  [TP: You have to give each one of these a star rating.]  Oh, I do?  Well, for it being Tatum, 5 stars.  If it’s an imitator… [TP: You knew it's Tatum.] Sure.  But guys like Markowitz and the late Jaki Byard could fool you for a while.  So if it’s Tatum I’d give it 5. [TP:  If it wasn't Tatum, what would you give them?] Oh, man I’d give them a 7!  Jesus Christ!  To come that close and not be him.

2. Stanley Cowell, “Evidence,” Sienna (Steeplechase, 1989)  (Ron McClure, bass; Keith Copeland, drums) (4 stars).

I was so fascinated by the drums and bass.  The piano sounded like someone who decided to give a lovingly mocking version of Monk’s “Evidence.” But I could be wrong. [LAUGHS] The drums were playing a Ben Riley style.  It didn’t sound like Buster.  I kept thinking of George Mraz.  The pianist is someone I don’t hear to often.  An educated guess would give me a combination of the gentleman who used to be with Strata East, Stanley Cowell. [TP: That's him.] That’s an educated guess, because I’m so close to the producer, Todd Barkan, who told me he had done something with Stanley.  So I am guilty of being educated on that one.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was just delightful.  The only reason it wasn’t 5 is because…well, I just gave Tatum 5!  But 4 is pretty good, too.  It was an excellent rendition, and it was so swinging, I didn’t want it to stop.  I hope all of these aren’t that good!

3. Chucho Valdes, “El Rumbon (The Party)”, Religion of The Congo (Blue Note, 1999).

I don’t know exactly who this is, but again, an educated guess, Chucho Valdes has been very popular here lately.  From what I’ve heard, he wanted to utilize the percussion in that manner, almost as if, in some instances, he was playing one tempo and they were playing another.  Which didn’t disturb me; I found it intriguing!  Of course, I can relate to somebody playing the piano with different rhythms going on at the same time.  It made me feel immediately the challenge of how to straighten it out, more or less!  Who knows, maybe that’s something that doesn’t need straightening out.  So that just goes to hopefully highlight one culture as compared with another.  If it is Chucho, it’s Cuban jazz… [TP: It is Chucho.] So from what I’ve heard of him, he’s a strong player, and that sounded like a strong player.  Based on that, I would give it 4.

4. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul,” (With Our Own Eyes, RCA, 1993).

A wonderful rendition of “Body and Soul” by a pianist who is obviously very well experienced in playing, and has just a totally what I call a full style — his or her chords are very full, utilizing some of the Coltrane approach to the song.  I don’t know who it is.  My first guess would be McCoy Tyner, but then some of the other aspects of the chordal approach suggested that it was not him, unless it was on a day when he felt like being subdued.  Then for some reason, Geri Allen came to mind… [TP: It was Mulgrew Miller.] Ah, Mulgrew!  Well, he does fit some of the first descriptions of the player, very full and experienced style.  I would give it 4 stars.

5. Bud Powell, “My Heart Stood Still” (The Bud Powell Trio Plays, Roost, 1953/1990)

That was somewhat difficult.  Of course, Bud Powell immediately comes to mind, somehow who I listened to over and over in my youth.  Then Barry Harris came along, and sometimes he’s fooled me and I thought he was Bud Powell.  Then, of course, the late Walter Davis, Jr., was even a more effective imitator of Bud when he was in the mood.  So I would have to go with Bud Powell in one of my big favorite songs, “My Heart Stood Still.”  However, if it wasn’t Bud, it might have been the other two.  I have to give it 5.  It was startlingly modern.  But I felt some of the recording equipment or technique was a little older than today’s, and that kind of gave me a clue.

6. Hank Jones/Chieck Tidiane Seck, “Hank Miri” (Sarala, Verve, 1995).

An educated guess, Monty Alexander.  But it’s not him, because it wasn’t quite Calypso-ish enough.  I couldn’t tell whether the same guy played on acoustic piano as the organ. [TP: They're different.] It’s two different people.  So I’m afraid you got me on that one. [TP: It's Hank Jones.] Who is the organ player? [TP: Chieck Tidiana Seck, a Malian musician who wrote the music, and it's a Malian ensemble.] Ted, I just wonder if anybody in this modern world could have guessed that!  I enjoyed it, but I need to hear more of it.  Now that I know who it is, I can hone in and see what they’re doing.  In Mali, I don’t know that music. [TP: What did you think of the way Hank Jones sounded?] Oh, he sounded great.  I’d know him, I think.  He sounds like the way I’ve studied and tried to learn how to play.  But the other people I did not know, and perhaps that’s normal. [TP: Well, one reason I like this record is because he makes himself part of the ensemble.  It's not like he's playing above it.] Oh, no. [TP: He did what a lot of American musicians won't do, which is...] Just join in. [TP: You join in, and he's still himself, which is why I like it.] Right.  For that reason I like it to.  Star-wise, I can’t give it but 3½, though, because I’m uneducated in that area.

7. Harold Mabern, “APAB and Others” (Straight Street, DIW, 1991).

A very fine solo performance by an artist I do not exactly know.  Many artists came to mind.  McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, even John Hicks.  But I do not know who it was.  I enjoyed the composition.  For that reason, I would give it 3 stars for the composition.  I don’t know who it is. [TP: Can you give it stars without knowing who it is for the performance?] Well, I’d give it 3½. [TP: It's Harold Mabern.] Aha!  Is it an original composition. [TP: It's "APAB," which I think is Ahmad, Phineas, Art and Bud.] Oh yeah, good.  Well, in that case he had a good composition going.  I love Harold.  He’s a dear friend and a very old acquaintances — probably 35 years. [TP: He took your place in the Jazztet.] He might have.  I haven’t heard him solo nearly as much as I would have liked to, and that’s why I may have missed it.

8. Ellington-Ray Brown, “Sophisticated Lady” (This One’s For Blanton, Pablo, 1972/1994).

There was a CD released recently called Some Of My Best Friends Are Piano Players.  So I suspect it might be Ray Brown and one of the pianists that he selected, but I don’t know exactly who the pianist was.  I would have to guess.  “Sophisticated Lady,” of course, has always been a classic, a big favorite of mine.  I like the song, I like Ray’s rendition.  He’s an impeccable soloist, I’d say the leading bass soloist in popular music.  Do I need to guess who the piano player is, too?  [TP: Yes.  You have to give it stars, too.] Stars I can give it.  I would give it 4 for Ray, 4 for “Sophisticated Lady.”  So 4 in all.  All around, 4.  But I do not know who the piano player was. [TP: Did you like the piano player?] Well, yes, but I’m annoyed because I don’t know who it is. [TP: It's Duke.] Ah, Duke Ellington.  Oh, okay.  So it was not what I said it was, Some Of My Best Friends Are Piano Players.  There was a run in there that was so distinctly Duke, I said, “Wow, that’s a guy who must have studied Duke pretty well.”  So there you are.  It was somebody who had studied Duke pretty well!  So forgive me, Duke.

9. Kenny Barron, “Have You Met Miss Jones” (Lemuria-Seascape, Candid, 1991) (Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

It was a very crisp performance.  I can give it 4 stars for that alone.  Great song, “Have You Met Miss Jones.”  The pianist could be Kenny Barron, it could be Chick Corea; it could be Ben Riley, it could be Roy Haynes.  It sounded mostly to me like Kenny Barron or Chick Corea.  I feel like I’m probably wrong, but I’ll still give it 4 stars. [TP: No, you're right.  It's Kenny Barron, with Bulldog and Ben Riley.] It’s just excellent.  Par excellence.

10. Randy Weston, “Uncle Neemo” (Saga, Verve, 1995).

A delightful performance of probably an original piece, unless it’s a highly disguised version of a non-original piece.  I seem to have recognized Billy Higgins’ drum work, but if it was not, it was certainly one of his students, so to speak.  It reminded me of Randy Weston.  I couldn’t identify the bass player, even though he was humming while he was soloing, which should give him away, but I don’t remember anybody but Jimmy Garrison used to do that that emphatically.  But for the performance, I’d have to give it 4. [TP: It was Randy Weston, Alex Blake and Billy.] So I was close. [TP: You were on it.]  Was it one of Randy’s pieces?  It featured Billy a lot.  It was great.  4 stars.  Randy is still one of my favorite players.  He has a completely original style.  Loosely based on Monk at the beginning, but of course now he’s far away from those beginnings and he sounds like nobody but Randy.

11. David Hazeltine, “Waltz For Debby” (Waltz For Debby, Venus, 1999).

My guess is Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack deJohnette.   I’m dead-wrong, but I still enjoyed the performance.  It was a marvelous performance, even though it reminded me of those artists.  I would give it 4 stars for the performance.  I love “Waltz For Debby” by Bill Evans. [TP: It was David Hazeltine] I thought of him.

12. Ahmad Jamal & George Coleman, “The Essence” (The Essence, Verve, 1994).

[TP: First of all, Cedar said a minute into it: "Aha [LAUGHING], Ahmad Jamal and George Coleman.”  You’d heard about the record, then you inquired whether Ahmad would be comping or supporting.] Ahmad has a way of involving himself in the performance that is totally unique, I think.  It’s a very interesting record. Even though I’m not used to hearing Ahmad with the saxophone.  I thought especially the first part was very dramatic musically, and later on, too, some of the ways he dealt with sort of simple motifs that sounded like a minor motif. [TP: How has Ahmad Jamal's style changed from when you were listening to him in the '50s?] Well, it hasn’t changed that much.  It’s improved, if anything.  His technique is phenomenal now, but it was phenomenal then.  You know, “Poinciana” and “But Not For Me” displayed phenomenal technique, even though he had a lot more space which produced a lot of drama, I thought, and he relied heavily on his sidemen, Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, to create moods which captivated the country.   I’d have to give it 4 stars.

13. Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones, “It,” Momentum Space (Verve, 1998) 1947/1990)

[TP: Cedar said, "that didn't have to be Cecil Taylor, but that would be who I thought it is."] Yes.  And as far as the drummer, I couldn’t seem to figure him out.  I thought of Steve McCall and I thought of Andrew Cyrille. [TP: It was Elvin.] Elvin, I thought of him, too.  It was almost an accompaniment; there was very little of …(?)… I think I was able to guess some of the previous drummers with their accompaniment, but not in this case.  Anyway, Cecil has his own style, and I have a certain admiration for him for maintaining that style through the years.  He and I used to practice at Dave Amram’s house.  We both had keys, and Amram would go out of town, and sometimes I’d go there and discover him there, and vice-versa.  So we got to know each other.  I was working on my Bud Powell, he was working on his Cecil Taylor.  When I say “working,” that’s what I would hear him playing.  That’s how we became friends.  I still consider us friends.  We went in different musical directions.  But otherwise Cecil has had great success, and I say, for one, more power to him.  I’ll stick with 4 stars.  Cecil sounds like that, he plays like that; I wouldn’t know how to give him less or more.

14. Xavier Davis, “Old Folks” (Dance of Life, Metropolitan, 1998).

A very tasty rendition of a very old favorite, “Old Folks.”  The style contained many elements of a lot of people’s styles.  I’m guessing Tommy Flanagan.  I’m wrong.  I thought that might be wrong, because he did some things that Tommy doesn’t usually do.  So my next guess would be Barry Harris — and that’s wrong.  So I’ll have to go with I don’t know who it is, but for the rendition I’ll give it 3½. [TP: This is a young pianist, Xavier Davis.] Aha, good.  Well, bravo, Xavier.  You did a good job, and if you’re young and took an old chestnut like that and did so much with it, I think you have a very bright future.

_________________________________________________________________

I think it was a very representative collection of great pianists, and I found it very enjoyable trying to guess. I got a few right, and I knew I would get a few wrong.  The overall quality of that collection was of a very high level — first-rate.  I just think that if this level is maintained in this particular concept, if you will, which I consider Tradition, if that’s maintained, we of the Tradition community have nothing to worry about.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cedar Walton, DownBeat, Liner Notes, Obituary, Piano

Raw Copy of Benny Green’s Blindfold Test from Around 2000—He’s 49 Today

It’s the 49th birthday of Benny Green, one of my favorite pianists for many years. I’m appending below the unedited complete DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me more than a decade ago.

* * *

Benny Green Blindfold Test:

1.    James Weidman, “Bean and the Boys” (from ALL ABOUT TIME, Contour, 1999) (Weidman, piano; Ed Howard, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums) – (5 stars)

It sounded like Lewis Nash on drums. It wasn’t?  Wow!  Who is the drummer?  I was positive it was Lewis Nash, by the ride cymbal, the way he was comping on the snare, the way he coordinated his bass drum with his ride cymbal.  I’m actually surprised it’s not Lewis.  The song is a Coleman Hawkins melody called “Bean and The Boys,” which is based on “Lover, Come Back To Me.”  It was an original treatment with a Latin feel, and I enjoyed it.  I liked the way everyone was playing.  By the time of the last bridge, on the final melody chorus, the whole group really loosened up, and that was my favorite part of the song.  But I enjoyed the whole performance.  It felt like the three players were really comfortable with each other and trusted each other, and it was an honest performance.  I have no idea who the pianist was.  It was musical and had a good feel, but I have no idea who it was.  I’m personally not comfortable with the star system, but 5 stars.  It was an excellent performance. [AFTER] All respects to Marcus, who’s a great musician, but I thought he might have absorbed some things from Lewis.  Like, the very first bar coming out of the melody, the way he played the accent on 1 and 2 on both the ride cymbal and the bass drum, that’s like signature Lewis.  I guess that just goes to show, although I still think of Lewis (he’s just a few years older than I) as a young person, that he’s really having an influence on the current scene.  Obviously, I thought it was Lewis, and I’ve played with Lewis, so Marcus has absorbed from him.  And that’s good. It means he’s absorbing from one of the greatest of today.  I should have recognized Ed.  I’ve done a lot of playing with him.  He’s a great musician.

2.    George Cables, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (from BY GEORGE: GEORGE CABLES PLAYS THE MUSIC OF GEORGE GERSHWIN, Contemporary, 1987) (Cables, piano; John Heard, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (5 stars)

I think it’s George Cables.  I love George’s playing.  I love his personality and it comes through in his playing.  He’s a very sweet and gentle soul, a very warm person, and clearly the man knows so much music and he utilizes all this knowledge just to paint a beautiful picture when he plays.  My father used to take me to see Dexter Gordon back in the mid-’70s, when George was his pianist.  We always knew George was going to be playing piano, because when
we would arrive at the venue, before the musicians came out on stage, there would be a phone book on the piano bench.  George used to use one; there probably weren’t so many adjustable benches back then.  That was a great reading of Gershwin’s melody, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from “Porgy and Bess.”  I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish.  don’t know who the bassist and drummer were, but it felt like everyone really worked together well.  They were very supportive of him. 5 stars. I thought it was gorgeous.  [AFTER] I’ve never had the pleasure of working with John, even though I’ve met him.  He’s a pro from way, way back, and I’ve always admired his work.  I have had the pleasure of playing with Ralph, especially quite a bit with Freddie Hubbard.  He has played with everyone who’s been alive in the course of his lifetime.  He’s worked with all of them, and it comes through in his playing. He’s a great listener, and his conception is wide open.

3.    Cedar Walton, “Latin America” (from LATIN TINGE, High Note, 2002) (Walton, piano; Cucho Martinez, bass; Ray Mantilla, percussion) (5 stars)

That was really hip.  The pianist had a beautiful touch, and by the pianistic language, it had to be one of two people, either the man whose language it is, Cedar Walton, or the man who’s the greatest practitioner of Cedar’s pianistic language, Mike LeDonne.  Ah, it’s the man himself.  Well, all respects to Mr. Walton.  Mike LeDonne has absorbed so much of his language, that one — at least this one — has to question sometimes which is which.  But it felt like the source, so if it was Michael, it would have been a great tribute to who he absorbed it from.  It’s really refreshing.  I enjoyed the instrumentation, using the congas instead of a drumset.  It’s nice sometimes to hear music played rhythmically without cymbals, like the opening credit music for the new movie “Catch Me If You Can.”  It’s nice on the ears.  Oh my gosh, Cedar is just one of the hippest ever.  The way he touches the piano is completely himself.  he has a lot of influence, as do all the masters, but also, as is the case with all the great masters of the music, all those influences serve the end of his own voice.  And when you hear him, you know who it is.  That piece was beautiful.  For many, many years, Cedar has been one of the hippest arrangers as well as pianists.  And everything he plays, when he’s improvising, when he’s comping, is an arrangement.  It paints a picture.  It tells a story.  He’s one of the finest of all time.  So tasteful, so musical.  It’s an infectious feeling.  Loved the tune.  It sounded like it could have been a standard.  Definitely 5 stars.

4.    George Shearing-Jim Hall, “Street Of Dreams” (from FIRST EDITION, Concord, 1981) (Shearing, piano; Hall, guitar) (5 stars)

I love this song, “Street of Dreams.”  It was a beautiful rendition.  A really telling moment in the performance for me was when the bassist dropped out during the guitar solo, and the pianist walked the bass line in his left hand.  Because the pianist’s time feel was so strong with that left hand, it was clearly someone who has done a lot of solo playing.  I know very few people that have that relaxed a time feeling when it comes to playing a bass line in their left hand.  So I’m going to take a wild guess at who it might have been, based on the fact that he played the bass line so well.  One of the only people I can think of who is that adept at playing a left-hand bass line is Dave McKenna. [By the way, there's no bass player.] I love it!  See, it felt like there was a bass throughout.  There again, an incredible left hand. I’m clueless as to who it was if it wasn’t Dave McKenna, but clearly someone who’s very masterful at using their left hand for time playing.  The guitarist’s sound was very familiar to me, but I was never able to pinpoint it.  To be honest, of the guitarists who are out there today, there’s only a small handful who I’m well aware of.  So it could have been someone who’s outside of my realm of familiarity.  But of the people I know of, the one it sounded closest to was Howard Alden. 5 stars. [AFTER] Well, that explains the left hand.  Yet I didn’t recognize George by the lines he played in his right hand at all.  Beautiful!  George has one of the finest touches, and it’s been that way throughout his career.  I would have especially recognized him when it comes to playing a solo ballad.  I’m a huge fan of his ballad work.  He’s really one of my favorites when it comes to playing solo unaccompanied ballads.  Honestly, I haven’t really investigated as much of his time playing as I have listened to him playing the ballads.  And Jim’s sound has gone through several stages of evolution over the years.  To be honest, I’d probably be more familiar hearing one of his older recordings sound-wise, like “The Bridge.”  But he’s a great master of music.  I’m always thankful to hear a good melody played with a good feeling like that.

5.    Roland Hanna, “Afternoon in Paris” (from MILANO, PARIS, NEW YORK: FINDING JOHN LEWIS, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

If that wasn’t Lewis Nash, then I don’t know what.  And I thought it was George Mraz on bass.  If it’s Lewis Nash and George Mraz, that would suggest that, since a lot of what I heard from the piano made me think of Tommy Flanagan, and that’s a Tommy Flanagan rhythm section, it wouldn’t be that far off to think it’s him.  But there some clusters in the left hand that weren’t Tommy’s. But it sounded like someone who had something in common, either had absorbed from Tommy, listened to him a lot, or maybe a fellow Detroit pianist.  None of the other Detroit pianists that I’m aware of ring true with who it could have been.  But there are definitely some Flanaganisms in the phrasing.  But moving on, it was a great tune, a jazz standard, John Lewis’ “Afternoon In Paris.”  I especially enjoyed a lot of what Lewis was doing behind the bass solo.  He played something of Philly Joe Jones’ during the bass’ first bridge, and then during the last eight of the bass solo he was listening so closely to what the pianist was doing.  They played some nice things together.  But gosh, I don’t have a clue who the pianist was. 5 stars. [AFTER] So it was a Detroit guy!  Well, they had so much in common.  Roland Hanna’s passing is a tremendous loss.  He knew so much music, plus he got such a beautiful sound from the instrument.  I remember going to see “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway when Roland Hanna was playing, and the feeling and sound he got from the piano… I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to hearing Duke in person.”  He so captured that spirit. The solo piano record he made at Maybeck is a real gem.

Tommy Flanagan had such a wry sense of humor.  One of the first conversations I ever had with Tommy Flanagan, I told him that I thought I heard a kinship between he and a couple of other Detroit pianists, Hank Jones and Barry Harris.  And he sort of looked at me blankly, and said, “No, I wouldn’t say there’s anything to that.”  He was pulling my leg.  He had a great sense of humor.  That was a magnificent performance.

6.    McCoy Tyner, “Blues For Fatha” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano)  (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure that was my very first pianistic hero, McCoy Tyner.  By the time I was 13, I owned every McCoy Tyner record.  He was the first pianist I heard who I really wanted to play like.  It took me years to realize you can never learn to play like anybody else.  But he’s one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice that, in this case, you could tell who it was before he even finished that first chorus of blues. There’s very few people you can recognize in a very few notes like that.  I want to get this recording, because it’s beautiful to hear the way he gets dynamic contrast from the piano using the pedals, and he brings so much sound, so much color.  When I started playing with Art Blakey, one thing I didn’t realize until I was on the bandstand with him was that from the outside looking in, you’re aware of all the power, which is the case with McCoy Tyner; but when you’re actually up on the bandstand who has that much depth, you realize that part of what brings the effect of the power are the dynamics at play.  It’s not that everything is big or everything is loud, but there’s a lot of shape to the music.  It’s really beautiful to hear McCoy in a solo setting, and it’s so very exposed — all the beautiful color he’s able to bring from the instrument.  Any time I’ve ever heard McCoy Tyner play, any recording, any performance, there is never the slightest air in the expression that he’s thinking about record sales or what kind of review he’s going to get, or competing with someone.  It’s such a spiritual offering from McCoy. Every note he plays, he’s playing straight from his heart, and through this honest offering, you can understand that without even knowing the human being.  He allows you to feel who he is.  And I feel that’s the greatest thing that any musician has to offer, beyond technical ability or style, is to know who you are, away from the arena of music, and then to bring that to your music, as McCoy does. 5 stars.

7.    Hank Jones, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (from ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM, Concord, 1977) (Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jimmie Smith, drums) (5 stars)

I hope I’m right about this one.  I’m pretty sure that’s from the record with Hank Jones and Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith.  Thank God.  I wouldn’t want to get those guys wrong.  What was interesting is that’s actually a record I own, and hadn’t listened to for a while, and I was listening from a whole different perspective, rather than from the onset putting it on, knowing who I was hearing.  So it was very interesting how I gradually actually realized who it was.  I wouldn’t have been able to recognize Jimmie Smith specifically, but once I thought it was Hank and Ray, I remembered that they’d played this.  First of all, Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is such a great song.  Now I can remember having heard it when I originally listened to the record, and at the time I appreciated the authenticity with which Hank played Duke’s harmonies on the melody.  But I swear, I was listening from a whole different place this time.  It was very interesting.  I didn’t recognize Ray until he played his bass solo, and at the time he played the bass solo… When you’ve around someone that much… For four-and-a-half years he stood 2 feet away from my left ear.  So that’s a sound and feeling that’s entered my body.  So I thought, well, if this isn’t Ray Brown… It’s like when I heard Cedar Walton earlier and thought of Mike LeDonne.  I said, “Well, the greatest practitioner of Ray’s language is John Clayton, so it’s got to be one of these two guys.”  But I still wasn’t sure until I thought about it.  Then I thought, “Man, this just reeks of Ray Brown’s DNA, so it’s got to be him.”  Then I realized what record it is.

Anyway, it’s beautiful.  Actually, the first thing that reached me about the music was the drums.  Such a beautiful and relaxed quarter-note from Jimmie Smith, when he was playing on the hi-hat, when he played the ride cymbal.  Very rare to hear that, especially today.  This recording is about 25 years old now.  Beautiful music.  Again, with Hank Jones, I didn’t recognize him at first, but the pieces started to fit together.  And the first thing that reached me that made me think of Hank was his left hand — the voicings and the rhythmic placement, and the way he actually connects one chord to the next.  Hank is one of the greatest masters of the pedals in history, and he uses those pedals to get the widest palette of sound of different colors from the instrument I’ve ever heard, and also just to make connections smoothly.  In fact, to me, that’s what technique is, moreso than the ability to play fast.  Technique is the ability to play smoothly.  And Hank’s the greatest, as Oscar Peterson would attest. 5 stars.

8.    Donald Brown, “The Sequel” (from SEND ONE YOUR LOVE, Muse, 1992) (Brown, piano; Charnett Moffett, b; Louis Hayes, drums; Mulgrew Miller, composer) (5 stars)

The melody was so beautiful.  You know something that made this really pleasurable to listen to for me was the way the three musicians worked together.  It’s so refreshing to hear the pianist and drummer were not afraid to take a lot of chances.  The bassist supported them.  The bassist had their back all throughout.  So there were a lot of times when the time feel could have gone haywire potentially if the bassist had stopped supporting them.  But he didn’t.  He had their back throughout.  So it was really nice to hear the pianist and drummer really going for things, and you had the sense that they didn’t necessarily even know where it was going to lead, but they were playing as they felt in the moment, and that made the performance a joy to hear.  It felt like it was a bit of an adventure.  The melody seemed rather familiar, but I don’t know specifically what it was.  I’ve heard the melody before.  Sounds like a pianist could have written it, because of the orchestral nature.  The only person who would come to mind as a composer…it has a quality that reminds me of Ahmad Jamal, but I don’t know who actually wrote it. Help me out.  Oh, it’s Mulgrew’s song.  I didn’t recognize any of the players, but I enjoyed them. 5 stars.

9.    Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 1998) (Hancock, piano)

Definitely Herbie.  That’s another one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice.  This is probably from the Gershwin album.  “Embraceable You.”  5 stars.  Beautiful song.  Herbie Hancock is someone I have to be very selective about going to hear in live performance, because if I have a show coming up in close proximity, he can give me nightmares.  What he does is so beautiful, yet for a pianist, it can be almost overwhelming to experience that in person — the expansiveness of Herbie’s imagination and just the freedom and abandon that he brings to his genius.  He puts so much thought and soul into every note he plays.  He’s a true inspiration to all of us.  He’s one of those rare individuals who comes along and opens music up for all the generations to come.  I’m very grateful for what he’s done for music.  It’s a rare treat to hear a solo piano performance from Herbie.  Boy, if I had any say in the matter, I’d love to hear him record an entire solo album sometime in the future, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that wish.  It would be so beautiful to listen to and learn from for all time.  He’s one of the geniuses in our midst.  We’ve lost so many great masters in the past few years, and it’s wonderful that we have Herbie Hancock with us.

10.    Teddy Wilson, “My Heart Stood Still” (from THREE LITTLE WORDS, Black & Blue, 1976) (Wilson, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) (5 stars)

That was beautiful!  I love that song, “My Heart Stood Still.”  I could tell it was an old-timer right off the bat, because clearly the pianist knew the melody so well.  He sounded like someone who grew up with the song, not someone who learned it after the fact; someone who grew up with the song as a pop tune during that generation.  Another way I could tell it was an older player is I felt so much life and humor in the performance.  Clearly, this is someone who has done a lot of living.  I’m not sure who it was.  The only element of vocabulary that I recognized was that it sounded like someone who enjoyed Teddy Wilson. But outside of that, I definitely don’t know who it was. The bass and drummer are great. The drummer is a master; he’s very responsible with the time at that bright tempo.  5 stars. [AFTER] Okay!  Well, I would say Teddy Wilson enjoys Teddy Wilson.  This must have been a later performance.  Teddy’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t listened to a lot of his later work.  I’ve mostly heard his earlier recordings.  He’s one of the people that really brought what had come before his generation pianistically into a more contemporary kind of focus through his use of subtlety and touch and pedaling.  Both Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole were largely influenced by Earl Fatha Hines, but each took that influence and personalized it, and became two of the formative voices of modern piano.  All the greats we know today, people like Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, owe a great deal to Teddy Wilson along with Nat Cole and Art Tatum, for laying the foundations of modern jazz piano.

11.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino” (from PLAYS CARLA BLEY, Steeplechase, 1991) (Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums; Carla Bley, composer) – (5 stars)

I enjoyed that.  That was a different kind of painting!  That’s a very pretty melody.  I’ve heard it before.  Is it a pop song? From the simplicity of the melody, it sounded like something that would have words to it — like it was a poem.  Gosh, I don’t know who wrote it.  “Ida Lupino”?   I’ve heard it before.  I don’t know who the musicians were.  The drummer had the most familiar sound of the three musicians.  But they worked together so well, I wonder how much discussion there was about an approach or direction to the song, or if they just let it happen.  There was this mood, this dark feeling from the very beginning, and they really stayed with it.  At first, it was a beautiful sort of suggestion of a sort of undefined mood.  But they stayed with that train of thought and let the idea sort of blossom throughout the whole performance. 5 stars because it was an honest performance. By “honest” I mean that I felt the humanity of the musicians coming through. It was lovely.

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“The Bradley’s Hang” (DownBeat 2006): For the 86th Birthday Anniversary of Bradley Cunningham

In observation of the 86th birthday anniversary of Bradley Cunningham, the founder and animating spirit of Bradley’s, New York’s premier piano saloon from 1969, when he launched it, until October 20, 1996, when his widow, Wendy Cunningham, closed its doors, I’m posting a piece I wrote about the room—where I spent many memorable late-nights, including the one cited in the first paragraph—in 2006 for DownBeat.

The Bradley’s Hang
……
By Ted Panken

On a sleety Wednesday in February 1992, there wasn’t a large turnout for the 2 a.m. set at Bradley’s. The room’s soft amber lighting revealed perhaps 20 patrons on the barstools and in the armchairs surrounding the tables in the dining area at the rear. Halfway down the rectangular room, a Baldwin grand piano stood in an alcove along the wood-paneled south wall, positioned directly underneath a photo-realist painting of Charles Mingus and a caricature by pianist Jimmy Rowles of a devilish Bradley Cunningham, the room’s late proprietor.

Pianist Stephen Scott, then 22, could not have asked for more seasoned partners to help him navigate his first Bradley’s leader week than bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley. Nor could he have hoped for more discerning—or demanding—listeners, who on this evening numbered fellow pianists Tommy Flanagan, Kirk Lightsey, Ronnie Matthews, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor.

Fourteen years later, Scott “vaguely” recalls the evening. “Maybe I blanked it out of my memory,” he said. “In 1992 it would have been overwhelming to have all those wonderful people in the audience. But it wasn’t unusual for the older masters to come out and show support. There’s a fundamental understanding of jazz and its history that comes from being in the trenches, and having to come up with the music at 2 a.m. because Tommy Flanagan and Kirk Lightsey are sitting in front of you and want to hear some music.”

For week after week from the early 1970s, when Cunningham, with Cedar Walton as his consultant, purchased the room’s first acoustic piano, a Baldwin spinet, until October 1996, when Cunningham’s widow, Wendy, faced with insurmountable debt, closed Bradley’s for good, “the world’s most elite and classic piano players,” in Larry Willis’ phrase, fulfilled Scott’s prescription. One of them was Lightsey, a regular since 1977, who, joined by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and bassist Cecil McBee, had propelled the festivities during the Monday-to-Saturday previous to Scott’s engagement. Following him on Sunday night was a trio led by John Hicks—who first worked Bradley’s in 1976 in duo with bassist Walter Booker—with Booker and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, then fresh on the scene.

“When you played at Bradley’s, you had to come up to a brilliance or they’d make so much noise you couldn’t be heard,” said Lightsey, whose 2004 release, Nights Of Bradley’s (Sunnyside), culled from three January 1985 duo nights with Rufus Reid, captures the room’s ambiance. “But when you were on, they were on your every note, sound and emotion. It was always a real charge to know that you were accepted by the people who might have been ahead of you in the pecking order of pianists in New York.”

Like all the pianists in the regular Bradley’s rotation, Lightsey thrived on the bacchanalian atmosphere of the 2 a.m. show, when basses were parked in all the corners and anybody—Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo, Joni Mitchell, Phil Spector, Arthur Herzog, Alec Wilder—might come in for a snack and a sip before going home. Writers and media types had Elaine’s, artists had the Odeon, punkers had CBGB, and the pop and fashion bourgeoisie had Studio 54 and Nell’s. For jazzfolk and hipsters, there was Bradley’s.

“Everybody would leave the Vanguard or the Blue Note and gather at Bradley’s,” Lightsey said. “If you’d been out of town, you’d go just to check in, and tell everybody you’re there. This was the meeting place, and somebody might be looking for you for a record date or a rehearsal.”

“It was like business and pleasure at the same time,” said Riley, who sees Bradley’s as a cross between such gray flannel suit East Side supper clubs of the 1950s and ‘60s as the Embers and the Composers, the creative attitude of the Village Vanguard, and such back-in-the-day Harlem musician haunts as Connie’s, the 125 Club, the Hotel Theresa Lounge and Minton’s Playhouse.

“It was an office,” saxophonist Gary Bartz affirmed. “When I first moved to New York, the hang was Beefsteak Charlie’s on 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue—although it was more a daytime hang. Everybody came there—I saw Billy Strayhorn. Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Tadd Dameron—and bands would gather there to go on the road. You’d meet there to get paid. Bradley’s became that sort of place night-wise. I’d do a gig somewhere else, and if the money hadn’t come through, I’d say, ‘Just drop it off at Bradley’s; I’ll pick it up one night.’”

Other sorts of business took place as well. “You could buy a house in the men’s room,” Lightsey said, whimsically.

“We took a lot of substances back in those days,” recalled Roger Kellaway, who played Bradley’s on a yearly basis between 1984 and 1992, and hung out there during its early years. “I remember playing with Red Mitchell in 1986, when I was no longer doing drugs, and I called the midnight set the neosenephrin set, because I could feel the vibe. People I knew would come in who I thought were coming to hear me, and they’d walk right by the piano to the back, be there for 10 or 15 minutes, and leave.”

Mostly people came to listen and socialize, and as spirits took effect, animated conversations ensued. “At Bradley’s, everybody drank, sometimes people sat in, sometimes people argued, sometimes people had interesting debates on the right chord change [of] a tune,” said Fred Hersch, a fixture between 1978 and 1989. “It was democratic—you were mixing it up as a young kid with the legends of the business, some of them not on their best behavior, but all of them with something to say.”

Despite an official “quiet policy,” the resulting cacophony challenged performers, as Mulgrew Miller put it, “to test your powers to bring an audience in.”

“The louder they talked, the softer I played,” said Larry Willis. “I learned that from Hank Jones. I would not let the crowd frustrate me. Pretty soon, I’d get everybody’s attention, and the room would get quiet.”

To keep it quiet, pianists played music with which everyone could identify, and tunesmithing was de rigueur. “You wouldn’t play ‘Out To Lunch,’” said George Cables. “You could play originals, but basically it was bebop songs and show tunes—chestnuts, standards, some obscure songs. Repertoire that maybe Art Tatum played, songs you could hear Ella or Sarah sing.”

Veterans were not shy about offering advice on how to address such material. “Sometimes they would give you directions as you played,” Danilo Pérez said. “‘Yeah, go, Danilo. Go there. That’s the way. Right there. No-no, not that chord, the other one.’ On a ballad, ‘Keep it there, keep it there.’ You would come out all bruised, but there was something special about having the older guys tutor you. They did it sometimes directly, sometimes not very nice, but it didn’t matter—you were in a class, but you were not in a classroom. I started picking up unusual standards like ‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘Time On My Hands.’ Sometimes I didn’t learn the bridge correctly, or played one note that wasn’t part of the melody. Then somebody like Ronnie Matthews would say, ‘That was good, but on the bridge, the melody goes like this.’ On my first gig there, I was 10 minutes late. Kenny Barron was sitting at the table right next to me at the piano. He touched my back and said, ‘Look, man, you were late. You don’t leave the cats waiting here.’”

Young horn players would frequently receive impromptu bandstand tutorials. “Once I played ‘Delilah’ with Junior Cook, and after I played the melody I forgot the bridge, so I started improvising over the chords,” said Roy Hargrove, who played his first New York gigs at Bradley’s in 1989, closed it in 1996 and convened some of his veteran mentors there to play on the 1995 CD Family (Verve). “That’s where the tenor plays the melody, so I was stepping into Junior’s spot. He went off on me: ‘If you don’t know it, then don’t play!’ I usually felt challenged when I played Bradley’s, because I was aware of who was listening. There’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar. ‘OK, what am I going to play?’”

Even seasoned pros might receive admonishment, as Lightsey did from Flanagan for his treatment of Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born. ” “It keeps progressing until you get to the turnaround at the end,” said Lightsey of the form, “which to me stops the song’s forward motion. I’m sure Thad had a reason for doing that, but I had my reason for taking out two bars. Tommy Flanagan came in when I was playing it, and he focused and he listened. When we finished the set, he rushed over to me. I called him ‘Father,’ so he called me ‘Son.’ He said, ‘Son, you owe me two bars.’ I don’t think he ever collected the two bars.”

The late set also encouraged the time-honored function of sitting in. “When Hank Jones played, all the pianists came out, and he’d have everybody come up,” Walton recalled. “It would go past 4 a.m. because 10 or 12 people were sitting in.”

Such occasions could turn competitive. Several witnesses describe an evening when George Coleman, at the end of a Cables gig, asked Cables to play “Body And Soul.” “I told him sure,” Cables recalled.“We usually do it in D-flat, but at the last minute George said, ‘In D-major, Trane changes.’ I said, ‘I’m game.’ But I’d never played it in that key, and I was tripping over these chords and notes, trying to work it out, especially in the bridge. I was ticked off, because it was my set and I’d let him embarrass me, and I was mouthing off.”

A physical altercation ensued.

The spirit of the cutting contest was also rampant on an evening when Dorothy Donegan, in her 70s, came in with an entourage near the end of Miller’s final set. “Out of respect, I called her up,” Miller recalled. “Man, she played the whole history of the piano. She wowed the audience so much that they didn’t want her to get up—on my gig. Finally she went back to her table, and I heard her say to her friends, ‘Did I get him?’”

On other nights, batons were passed, as on Pérez’s first Bradley’s performance. “Barry Harris was playing with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and someone introduced me to Barry,” Pérez remembered. “He said, ‘Tonight we have in the house supposedly a young talent.’ He played ‘Cherokee,’ burned it, and then called me to perform. I was so nervous. Everybody at Bradley’s was like, ‘Da-nilo! Da-nilo!’ But I got up, and guess what he did? He played a tune I didn’t know, a tune of his. I followed. After a while he followed, and said, ‘Yeah, you got some great ears, man; I like that.’ I played a little, then he’d play, and we hung out all night.”

“Bradley’s was like home,” said Barron, whose exalted status in the piano rotation is the point of Live At Bradley’s and The Perfect Set (Sunnyside), which document three nights with Drummond and Riley in April 1996. “If I was working in Boston or Philadelphia, soon as I finished the gig at midnight, I got in the car and I wanted to get to Bradley’s for the last set. I’d only hear maybe a couple of tunes, but I was still there to hang.”

The Bradley’s hang became an institution that outlasted the lifespan of its founder, whose outsized personality and Rabelasian habits matched his 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound frame. Raised in California, as a Marine Cunningham worked in combat intelligence and became sufficiently conversant in Japanese to convince remnant troops on Saipan Island to emerge from their caves at the conclusion of World War II. In the early ’60s he bought the 55 Bar on Christopher Street, and he opened Bradley’s in June 1969. He launched a music policy five months later with an electric Wurlitzer that had belonged to singer Roy Kral.

During his first two years on University Place, Cunningham primarily hired pianist Bobby Timmons and guitarist Joe Beck, interpolating one-shots to such fusionists as Larry Coryell, Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Hermeto Pascoal and Don Preston. The writer Frank Conroy (Stop-Time) played Monday nights. By the middle of 1973, with the Baldwin spinet in place, the booking esthetic moved toward mainstream duos. Walton and Sam Jones, known familiarly as Homes, appeared at regular intervals, Al Haig played Sunday nights, and Flanagan made his Bradley’s debut that Thanksgiving week with bassist Wilbur Little. Two weeks into 1974 Jaki Byard became the regular Sunday pianist. That June, the Los Angeles-based pianist Rowles, who had begun hanging out at Bradley’s while in residence for two months at Barney’s Josephson’s Cookery, moved up the block for a three-week run. A month later he embarked on a four-month residency and inaugurated Bradley’s golden era.

“I came to town in November ’77, and my first job was playing duo for a week with Jimmy Rowles,” Drummond recalled. “Sam Jones called me, and said, ‘I want you to go in.’ ‘Who are you sending me in to work with?’ I had seen Bradley and been introduced, but that was it. He always would give me this scowl; this perpetual scowl that Bradley had. On the first night, I’m unpacking the bass, and Bradley wandered around, looking at me, like, ‘What is this about?’ Didn’t say a word. Then Rowles comes in, and we play. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m playing with Jimmy Rowles.’ He knows all 10 million tunes in the world, tunes that were cut out of previews of shows. He was kind to me; everything he played, I knew.

“It was obvious that Homes hadn’t told Bradley that I was going to sub for him one night, let alone the whole week—but he figured it out. At the end of the second set, he walked by me. He looked me dead in the eye without changing the facial expression. He said, ‘You know, kid? You’re all right.’ Then he walked away. That was my initiation.”

Drummond adds, “Of course, after coming to New York, you determined quickly that Bradley’s was where you want to go, because everyone playing is a guy you want to hear.”

By the end of 1977, “everyone” included pianists Barry Harris (then nearing the end of a two-year run as Sunday night house pianist), Walton, Barron, Walter Bishop, Walter Norris, Roland Hanna, Dave McKenna, Dick Wellstood, Bob Dorough, Cables, Hersch, guitarist Jimmy Raney, and bassists Jones, George Mraz, Michael Moore, Major Holley and Buster Williams. There were several appearances by Hank Jones, who had retired from his New York studio sinecure in 1975, and frequent ones by Flanagan. All were playing on a Baldwin grand piano bequeathed to Bradley by Paul Desmond, who died May 30, 1977.

“It should be on Bradley’s tombstone, ‘He tuned his piano every day of the year,’” says Wendy Cunningham. “The piano tuner would have fits about the condition of the piano he’d seen just 24 hours before. So he who broke too many strings wasn’t usually encouraged to come back. It wasn’t just a piano. It came from his best friend.”

“Bradley didn’t like people who pounded the piano, which is why his two favorite musicians were Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan.” said Stanley Crouch, a newbie at the Village Voice, whose offices were across the street from Bradley at 11th and University, when older colleague Jack Newfield, the political journalist, brought him there for lunch in 1975. “I saw Mingus’ picture on the wall and all of that, and that was the beginning. Bradley’s was a place where one could be guaranteed to get the feeling that people like in jazz. Not a style, but a certain feeling. Bradley appreciated people who had a wide repertoire of tunes with different harmonic and rhythmic identities.”

“It was extraordinary to meet all those guys, to be playing late at night with whoever was playing a horn, relaxed, sitting on a chair, nothing to prove,” Hersch said. “I remember a Sunday night when Jimmy was playing duo with Bob Cranshaw. He started to play a ballad, and when he got to the end, he segued to the melody of another ballad, then got to the end of the second one and he segued to the melody of a third. I was 21 or whatever, sitting at the front table, and Jimmy could tell that I was waiting for the jazz. He leaned over the table, because I was within earshot, and he said, in that gravel voice, ‘Sometimes I just like to play melodies.’ It was an eye-opener for a young guy that sometimes it’s enough to play a song, and not do anything with it.”

Hersch recalls an after the morning moment, perhaps in 1979, when he, Mraz and Cunningham, relaxing after a gig, heard a knock on the door from Flanagan and Rowles. “They decided that they were going to play Stump the Piano Player with each other,” Hersch said. “For the next hour-and–a-half, maybe two, they called and played these obscure tunes. Jimmy and Tommy had played with every singer known to man and could play them in any key. I can’t remember who stumped who. I wish I’d written down the titles on a napkin.”

Indeed, Bradley Cunningham liked to play “Stump the Pianist” himself. A self-described “sandlot pianist,” he locked the doors after 4 a.m., moved the patrons off the bar, sat at the piano bench and traded songs and conversation while imbibing until daylight and beyond with fellow night-owls like Mingus, who then lived around the corner on West 10th Street.

“Charles and Bradley were two potentially volatile people, and when one volcano is sitting across from another, it tends to keep the other one from erupting, because you know your match is waiting,” Wendy Cunningham said. “Mingus was generous about helping Bradley with his piano playing. I sat with him once when Bradley was playing, and I said, ‘Charles, this is the fourth tune he’s done, and they all sound alike.’ He said, ‘I know, but let’s encourage him.’”

Crouch recalled another after-hours occasion with Flanagan when Cunningham demonstrated that he was no musical dilettante. “Bradley came through with a tall one in one hand, smoking a cigarette,” Crouch recalled. “He looked like one of those comic figures that W.C. Fields played who went out to play golf, with all the alcohol in the golf cart. Flanagan was there, and Bradley sat down and said, ‘Tommy, I always thought that Thelonious Monk could have been an architect whose slogan would have been “we build better bridges.”’ Then he sat down and he started playing a number of Monk’s tunes, and played the bridges on each one.”

Cunningham was also not averse to displaying his inner Paul Bunyon when dealing with obstreperous patrons. Late one night in the early ’70s, Wendy Cunningham, walking towards the club, saw her husband “tussling with somebody” under the club’s canopy. “Suddenly, this figure goes flying across the sidewalk and lands on the hood of a car like a sack of potatoes, and Bradley was wiping his hands as if to say, ‘Well, that dirty work is done,” she said. “He had thrown out Miles Davis. Miles could be serious bad news in those years, and he also felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends and that he should not be obligated to pay for any of it. He fast learned he wasn’t going to do that again.”

On another evening, Elvin Jones,“seriously 86ed” for two to three years for volatile behavior, showed up on the Sept. 9 birthday he shared with Bradley. “Bradley got up, and met him midway at the bar,” Cunningham recounted. “When he wanted to look impressive, somehow he could swell up. Elvin was determined to get past him and Bradley was determined that he wasn’t going to, and it was coming to physical and loud verbal stuff. One of the bartenders got scared, because he knew these two had a history, and he called the cops. Three cops dragged Bradley out. Elvin’s still turning the place over, Bradley’s pleading, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy,’ and meanwhile the cops are trying to put the cuffs on Bradley out on the sidewalk. That took a minute to get straightened out.”

After three stints in rehab for alcohol and substance abuse, Cunningham was diagnosed with cancer in May 1988. He died five months later, on Thanksgiving weekend, at the age of 63, leaving his wife and teenage son with a mountain of business and personal debt.

“His brains were starting to go scrambled, and I was spending way too much time on Tuesday correcting what he’d messed up on Monday,” Wendy Cunningham said. “He would double-book, and then there would be a week blank—starting tomorrow. Even before he died, my lawyer and accountant both told me that I probably was going to have no choice but to sell the place. Bradley never looked at a book; he lost the 55 Bar due to sales tax, and still owed money on it. It was the same at Bradley’s. The interest and penalties compounded hourly, and it became monumental. And it took me until 1993 to finish paying his medical bills. I wanted to keep the place going, but that seemed like a fantasy, so my focus was to be able to stay open, build up the business and take care of the debt to the point where I could sell it and not have to hand all of it over to Uncle Sam or the bank.”

If Bradley’s finances were a shambles, the roster was as strong and diverse as ever when he died. As the ’80s progressed Hank Jones and Flanagan appeared frequently, often with bassist Mitchell. Hicks, Willis, Ray Bryant, Joanne Brackeen, James Williams, Harold Mabern, Richie Beirach, Hilton Ruiz, Walter Davis Jr., Stanley Cowell, Bill Mays and Jack Wilson augmented the roster. In 1987, so did tenor saxophonist George Coleman, who, after three Sunday trios that spring with either Ruiz, Hicks or Willis and Ray Drummond, played the first-ever trio week at Bradley’s on Labor Day, and returned for another three such engagements and several Sunday nights before Bradley’s death. Over that 12-month span, he booked another dozen drummerless horn-led trios.

It was possible for Cunningham to try these experiments because, in 1986, New York’s Musicians Union won a suit intended to strike down the city’s Cabaret Laws, passed in 1926 to clamp down on social dancing in Harlem’s interracial cabarets. These statutes made it illegal for an unlicensed venue serving food and drink to present music by more than three persons—who could not be horn players or drummers—in an area not zoned for that activity, and was amended in 1978 to stipulate the presence of sprinklers and other provisions as a precondition for that license.

Cunningham was eager to take advantage of the new playing field and to bring in horns and drums. “Bradley was a piano-and-bass guy, and he was fearful that the Cabaret Laws might go out the window, and he might be forced to have to deal with trios,” she said. “I wanted to broaden the format. I intended to keep the tradition of quality, and to continue to bring in a lot of musicians who had played there before, but it was unfair for people to assume that things would be the same.”

In truth, things were pretty much the same during 1989. But during the month of June, Cunningham presented the New York debuts of 19-year-old trumpeter Hargrove, on the back end of a week by Hicks and Booker, and 18-year-old Geoffrey Keezer, helming a trio with Booker and Jimmy Cobb. The press paid attention, and over the next few years Cunningham wove Keezer and Hargrove into the regular mix, along with such young talent as Mark Whitfield, Pérez, Jacky Terrasson and Cyrus Chestnut and veterans like Bartz, Donald Brown, Belgrave, Chris Anderson, Andy Bey and Eddie Henderson. She booked a series of piano duos, brought in drummers like Riley, Billy Higgins, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and Billy Drummond on a regular basis and encouraged experimentation beyond the “$50 tunes” favored by her husband.

Reaction was mixed. For one thing, many missed the duo focus. “The drums and horns took the room to a whole other space—not necessarily a bad space, but different,” Miller said. “Bradley’s was a piano duo room where I heard most of the pianists at their best. Something about the duo experience afforded you the opportunity to do all the pianistic things you might not do in another group setting.”

“The introduction of horns and drums changed the character of the performances and the dynamic between the musicians and audience in a subtle way,” said Ray Drummond, whose counsel Cunningham cites as key in helping her through the transition. “We had differences of opinion about it, not artist-specific, but conceptual. I thought young pianists and bassists were missing a certain apprenticeship experience; when they played duo, the drummer was in their mind—but that’s precisely what you didn’t hear back in the day. There’s an understanding about the time and the beat, not just where it is, but the deep groove that doesn’t need a drummer.”

With a woman at the helm, it was inevitable that sexism would rear its ugly head. “Bradley’s tight friends seemed not to like ‘the widow,’ as they called her,” Lightsey said. “When Bradley died and they saw that she was going to run the place, they didn’t help her. They stopped coming. But the musicians owed it to Bradley to help her try to run this place properly, because it was our home. We told her about people who were available, or who could be with other people, and advised her on certain policies. She was amenable, but she learned good, she had her own idea about things, and she was the owner of the place.”

The differences seemed picayune as Bradley’s moved inexorably to insolvency, its fate sealed after a kitchen grease fire forced a four-month closure in the middle of 1995. “I was starting to see my way to sunlight,” Cunningham recalls. “But the building was built in the 1880s, and now it had to accommodate 1995 building codes. There was a domino effect. The reconstruction costs were enormous, I had no cash flow for four months and I had creditors. All I could do was try to get the place in shape to be able to sell it. More than 50 percent of the mortgage payment came from Bradley’s, so we were unable to make mortgage payments when we were closed. But instead of trying to help us find a way out and stick with us, the bank just foreclosed on the property, and I had to find a buyer immediately. I was unable to sell Bradley’s. I had to close it.”

It can be painful for former Bradley’s habitues to walk past 70 University Place, where a pool table sits in the spot of Paul Desmond’s Baldwin, now housed at the Jazz Gallery, and several televisions show sports. Conspiracy theories abound as to why Cunningham did not sell to various purported sugar daddies—a Japanese mega-millionaire recruited by a cocaine dealer; a Swiss tycoon pulled in by James Williams—who would have preserved the room’s character.

“I was talking seriously with two men from England, who were legitimate, which nobody is aware of,” Cunningham said. “The rest is rumor. The truth is not known, and it ain’t nobody’s business but mine. This was my mess.”

Still, a decade after its closing fortnight—which began with an epic week by Chucho Valdés, and ended with a penultimate three-night Hargrove-led extravaganza, and a final tasty quartet evening with Scott, Joe Locke, Ed Howard and Victor Lewis—people not normally prone to sentiment or nostalgia feel a pang when it’s time to leave the Vanguard at half past midnight. The deaths in 2006 of Hicks and Booker compound the feeling that there is no place to go for that last set, that nothing has come along to take the place of Bradley’s.

Which is why under-40 pianists like Scott, Pérez and Keezer all count their blessings for having sat up-close-and-personal with the lineage.

“How can you play jazz piano and not acknowledge Hank Jones and his touch?” Scott says. “How can you play jazz and not acknowledge the subtle fire that Tommy Flanagan played with?”

“Learning first-hand through a teacher-student relationship has incredible value,” Pérez says. “Nothing compares to being in an environment where the people who are listening to you are the masters, who have lived the music, and are passing along that experience first-hand. To learn to listen, not to think that I have the answers to things, to learn to play with humility, because anybody can come and kick your ass on rhythm changes. What a challenge it was to play there. You heard Tommy Flanagan last week playing all these incredible things, and now you’re sitting in that chair. I miss it.”

So does everyone else. Last May, Hicks expressed his sentiments in a poem composed for Cunningham on the occasion of a surprise 60th birthday party that she was not able to attend. Three days later, he was dead.

WENDY:

THERE WAS A PLACE … University
Just Enough Space with … Diversity
THO’ ne’er intended, That song has Ended
FROM HEARTS Through Fingers
The Melody, still Lingers.

J.H.
In Love

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