Tag Archives: Charlie Parker

For Lou Donaldson’s 86th Birthday, the Complete Transcript of A June 2012 Conversation For the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project

To mark Lou Donaldson’s 88th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a two-day interview that I conducted with him for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project on June 20 & 21, 2012, shortly after he was designated an NEA Jazz Master. If I may say so, it’s a fairly comprehensive conversation. Many thanks to Ken Kimery for giving me the assignment. I’m also linking to a 2011 post of the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Lou did with me in 2006.



Lou Donaldson Oral History for Smithsonian (June 20-21, 2012):

NEA Jazz Master (2012)

Interviewee:        Louis Andrew “Lou” Donaldson (November 1, 1926-)
Interviewer:        Ted Panken
Dates:            June 20 and 21, 2012
Depository:        Archives Center, National Music of American History,
Smithsonian Institution.
Description:        Transcript. 81 pp.

[June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken. It’s June 20, 2012, and it’s day one of an interview with Lou Donaldson for the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Jazz Project. I’d like to start by putting on the record, Mr. Donaldson, your full name and your parents’ names, your mother and father.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Louis Andrew Donaldson, Jr. My father, Louis Andrew Donaldson, Sr. My mother was Lucy Wallace Donaldson.

Panken:   You grew up in Badin, North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Badin. That’s right. Badin, North Carolina.

Panken:   What kind of town is it?

Donaldson:   It’s a town where they had nothing but the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Everybody in that town, unless they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or something, worked in the plant.

Panken:   So it was a company town.

Donaldson:   Company town.

Panken:   Were you parents from there, or had they migrated there?

Donaldson:   No-no. They migrated.

Panken:   Where were they from?

Donaldson: My mother was from Virginia. My father was   from Tennessee. But he came to North Carolina to go to college.

Panken:   Which college did he go to?

Donaldson:   The college he went to was the oldest black college… I’m trying to think of it now. But Olds-heimers has got me. Not Alzheimers. Oldsheimer’s. It was in Salisbury, North Carolina. What was that college… Can’t think of it.

Panken:   We can look it up.

Donaldson:   You don’t have to look it up. I’ve got all that information in a book.

Panken:   Maybe we can get at it tomorrow. But in any event, how old were your parents? When were they born?

Donaldson:   They were old. What can I tell you?

Panken:   You don’t know the birthdates?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know the birthdates. I’ve got all of that. If you need that. But they moved to Badin… My mother was a teacher. She went to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, and she came back to this town and was a first grade teacher and music teacher, and choral director, band director, everything with music. My father was an AME Zion Methodist preacher and an insurance salesman. So we had a pretty stable family.

Panken:   You had two siblings, I think?

Donaldson:   Me?

Panken:   Yes. Did you have brothers and sisters?

Donaldson:   Yes, I have two sisters and one brother.

Panken:   Would you mind stating their names?

Donaldson:   Yes. My brother’s named William—William Donaldson. My older sister is Elouise Donaldson. My younger sister was Pauline.

Panken:   Did they all play music?

Donaldson:   Yup. All played music. All went into education. All are now retired and rich.

Panken:   Was your mother the main teacher?

Donaldson:   Not really. I mean, she started them out, but they originally went to college…all of them went to college.

Panken:   Now, socially, what was Badin, North Carolina like in the 1930s when you were growing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t too much…

Panken:   Was it segregated? Well, it was the South.

Donaldson:   You KNOW it was segregated.

Panken:   But was it a bad town, were there ways…

Donaldson:   No, it was segregated. It wasn’t a bad town because all of them worked together. Blacks and whites worked together in the aluminum plant. 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to wear these suits like space suits, and sometimes that ore would pop out and get on that suit, go right through the suit and right to their arms. It was a tough job. What they did, they separated the bauxite from… They got the bauxite from South Africa, and they’d process it and get the aluminum out of there, and it would flow out into some vats. It was a tough job.

Panken:   What was your entry into music? I think I’ve read that you started out playing clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I started playing clarinet. I didn’t want to play piano, because when she’d give lessons she had a switch, and when you’d miss a note she’d hit you across the fingers. So I said, “No-no, not me.” I was a baseball player. So that’s all I did, play baseball. But I used to go around the house humming, like the Bach Etudes and Haydn and all that, because I heard it when they played it on the piano. She got me one day and said, “Louis, you’ve got more music talent than anybody in this family; you can remember tunes and everything.” She said, “You need to start playing piano.” I said, “Not me.” She said, “All right, all right.” So she went across town and got a clarinet from the Alcoa Aluminum bandmaster. They had a band, all-white, of course. He gave her a clarinet. I mean, he sold her a clarinet. She brought it back. She didn’t know anything about a clarinet. But he had a book, and we studied the book, and I just learned how to play it.

Panken:   You studied yourself out of the book?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had a quick learning curve.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Obviously, you were meant to play music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, evidently.

Panken:   As a kid… You said you graduated high school when you were 15 and were the school valedictorian.

Donaldson: Yeah, right.

Panken:   So you must have had other interests besides music and sports. Or, if you weren’t that interested in school, it must have come fairly easily.

Donaldson:   Well, I was…what you call it…a precocious guy. I checked everything out. I could tell you right now New York Yankees in 1936.

Panken:   You mean the lineup?

Donaldson:   The whole lineup. I was a paper boy, and I used to deliver papers in the morning. I’d get up about 6 o’clock and deliver my papers, and about 7:30 I’d be finished with my papers, so I’d just sit on the front porch and read the sports. Way back.

Panken:   I know myself, box scores were a nice window into arithmetic and mathematics.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   But what were some of your other academic interests.

Donaldson:   Nothing really. I just…

Panken:   You just did well.

Donaldson:   I did well with anything, you know.

Panken:   So you graduated at 15. That’s 1941-42…

Donaldson:   ‘42.

Panken:   You were playing baseball, and you went directly to college?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Where did you go…

Donaldson: North Carolina A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. Greensboro, North Carolina.

Panken:   How far away is Greensboro from Badin?

Donaldson:   From my home town, 64 miles north.

Panken:   What was that school like?

Donaldson:   Well, it was an agricultural and technical school. They didn’t have a music department. I mean, they had a music department, but they didn’t have a music degree. But I got into the band, and got to play in it, so I was all right.

Panken:   What sorts of things did you play in that band, and what sorts of things were you used to playing…

Donaldson:   Marching bands and little semi-classical tunes.

Panken:   Where I’m going with this is, were you performing at all as a kid in Badin?

Donaldson:   No, no-no, no-no. Nothing in Badin. Nobody performed there but Country-and-Western. Roy Acuff. Hank Williams. People like that. They didn’t have no jazz.

Panken:   No black bands were coming through.

Donaldson:   No, no-no. We had a big station, WBT, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had one guy there named Grady Cole. Grady Cole had one record by Louis Armstrong, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on one side, “St. James Infirmary” on the other side, and he played it every… He loved it. I got to hear Louis singing and stuff. So that created my interest in jazz.

Panken:   Hearing Louis Armstrong on that record.

Donaldson:   That’s right. On that record.

Panken:   When you got to Greensboro, did jazz start to enter the picture more?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Because see, back then you couldn’t play jazz in college. If they caught you practicing jazz in the practice room, you couldn’t practice any more. They didn’t like jazz. They didn’t like nothing but classical and band music—the teachers. But what happened to me, a guy came from Seattle, Washington, named Billy Tolles, and he had been around all the musicians, and he had his saxophone. He could play. Excellent player. He knew Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and he knew Lester Young’s “Just You, Just Me,” and used to play those things. He was way ahead of all of us country boys. We didn’t know anything like that. So we kind of idolized him and started to learn him. Whenever he went back for a break, we’d give him $2 or $3 to bring us back some jazz records, and he would do it.

Panken:   So you got into jazz, it sounds like, by memorizing solos…

Donaldson:   Well, not exactly memorizing. I sent for the music.  I got Benny Goodman’s records, “Let’s Dance,” and Artie Shaw’s record, “Summit Ridge Drive.” I got the music. He’d bring the music back, and I’d practice…I’d learn them.

Panken:   You learned the solos off the transcriptions.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   When did you start to transition from clarinet to alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s a funny story. In 1945 I was drafted into the U.S. Navy. I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. And I went to Great Lakes. When you go to Great Lakes, you have a pool, say, of about 200 musicians. Anybody who says they’re a musician, they put them in the pool. A lot of them wasn’t that good. But I went in that pool, and I never went down to take an audition, because a lot of guys were there and they had this hair with the stuff in it…

Panken:   Pomade.

Donaldson:   They had the slick hair, and they’d walk with a hump in their back, and they brought their horn, their instrument. I didn’t take an instrument. I’d be talking to them and they said, “Yeah, I worked with Count Basie…” So I was there with my friend, Carl Foster. We came from A&T. I said, “Carl, no need for us to try out. We can’t compete with these guys. This guy has been with Lionel Hampton’s band.” They were lying, of course, heh-heh-heh. So we didn’t even take the test.

One day I went by the band room, and I heard a clarinet squeaking in there, SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK. So I just stuck my head in the door, like in the Navy, you know, “Who the fuck is making all that noise in there with that clarinet?” The bandmaster was in there giving somebody a lesson. He said, “Oh, you think you can do better?” I said, “Yeah, give me that thing.” So he gave me the clarinet, and I ran it up. So he put up some music and I played it. I knew it anyway. Then he put up some hard music. I played that, too. He said, “You’re the best clarinet player around here. Do you play saxophone, too?” I said, “Yeah.” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t touched the saxophone! But what he did, he gave me a clarinet, which then was like an Army issue. Everything was metal. The clarinet was metal and the saxophone was metal. He gave me and said, “Take that back to the barracks, and come back two weeks later.” So I took it back to the barracks and I started practicing. By the end of the two weeks, I could play the saxophone, enough to read the music.

I woke up one morning, they had a sign up there that said, “Donaldson, report to the band.” Man, these other cats were looking sad! So as I was making my bags I’d walk by where they were, and I’d say, “You jive…” Neither one of them got in the band. Neither one of them. I told my friend, Foster, and he went down there and auditioned and he got in right away, because he could play trumpet and piano—he was an excellent musician. That’s how is started paying saxophone?

Panken:   Were you drafted in 1944 or 1945?

Donaldson:   1945.

Panken:   Ok. I’d read 1944 somewhere. There were a lot of musicians who were legitimate musicians at Great Lakes.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Some of the names I have are Willie Smith, great alto player.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Clark Terry.

Donaldson:   Yeah, right.

Panken:   Ernie Wilkins.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Major Holley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Jimmy Nottingham.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Wendell Culley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Luther Henderson.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Talk a bit about how the band were set up, the types of things they played, the functions they played.

Donaldson:   What they did, after they broke down the bands, they had about ten bands. Now, these guys you’re talking about were a little older than me. They played in a band they called the A-band.  Then they had another band. The guys were a little older. The B band. I was in the C band, because I was 18, and most of the guys in the band where I was were 18 years old. We were young people. But at the end of all the rehearsals and everything during the day, they’d have jam sessions, so we’d go and sneak on in, and play with the big boys…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]


Donaldson:   It was great. A great set-up.

Panken:   What sorts of things were they playing then?

Donaldson:   Whatever was happening during that day. “Take The A Train,” “Satin Doll,” stuff like that. “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” A lot of stuff.

Panken:   I also read that you had some leaves in Chicago, and you saw Charlie Parker for the first time in Chicago with Billy Eckstine.

Donaldson:   Yes, with Billy  Eckstine.

Panken:   Did you spend much time in Chicago, or did you go in every…

Donaldson:   I went in there every… Well, Chicago is not but 40 miles from Waukegan.

Panken:   So talk a bit about that scene, and the places you went.

Donaldson:   Well, I went in Chicago every weekend. I’d go down to the Crown Propellor and see Pete Brown. Pete Brown was down there. I’d go to another place to see a Dixieland band. I can’t remember the band right now, the names of them… Then I’d go down to the DeLisa Club. There was a guy named Red Saunders.

Panken:   He had the big band there. A drummer.

Donaldson:   That’s right. It was at 55th Street and State. Black people couldn’t go past there. You go past there… They’d shoot a black cat if he went past there. That was the end of the line. But they had a great show and a great band. Chicago was great.

But I went down there because the guys in the Navy had been telling me about Charlie Parker. I had never heard him, and I went down to see him in Billy Eckstine’s Band. When I saw him, it was very depressing, because he looked like he hadn’t had a bath in years, and his suit was hanging. I said, “Is that him?” But once he started playing, it was a different situation. I never heard anything like that. I said, “Man, what the hell is he doing?” Boy, he was PLAYING some saxophone.

Panken:   I’ve also heard that he was an extraordinary lead alto player? That he made the section phrase like him…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Do you have any recollection of that?

Donaldson:   No, I don’t have any recollection of that. Because the night I went down there, he was so high, he couldn’t play the lead. Budd Johnson had switched from tenor to alto, and he was playing the head in the band the night I saw him.

Panken:   Was Gene Ammons in Eckstine’s band then?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. A lot of people were in there.

Panken:   By this time, were you listening more regularly to records…

Donaldson:   Well, they didn’t have many records. They had but one or two records, “Jumpin’ The Blues” by Jay McShann…

Panken:   But in general, not just…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’d listen to anything that I figured was jazz. But I wasn’t a record addict, because I didn’t really want to hear anything but what he was playing, and once I heard him…

Panken:   So based on “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Charlie Parker with McShann, it changed your…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that changed everything. Not me. Everybody.

Panken:   Talk about how it changed you. What did it do?

Donaldson:   Well, it made me want to pursue music as a profession. Because actually, when I went to college, as I told you, I was an honor roll—I was planning to go on to probably pre law school or something. My parents wanted me to do something else. Because I was asthmatic, and they figured that playing a horn is the latest thing they’d want you to do. But they were wrong, because playing the horn actually made me survive. The diaphragm, breathing, and stuff like that; it made my lungs much stronger than weaker. That’s what it made for me.

Panken:   Listening to you now, it’s obvious how influential Charlie Parker was, but you’ve also talked about listening to a lot of alto saxophonists who were active then…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I heard them.

Panken:   Eddie Vinson.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Tab Smith.

Donaldson:   Right. Louis Jordan.

Panken:   Earl Bostic.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Earl Bostic.

Panken:   Talk about those people, and how you assimilated…

Donaldson:   Well, those people were so great. Every one of those people had a different style. See, not like it is today when everybody plays the same way. But back then, they had a different style. Earl Bostic was the greatest technician I’ve ever heard on a saxophone. He could play three octaves. I eventually got to talk to him, and he told me what mouthpiece I should use, and reed, and I’ve been using them ever 1957.

Panken:   What kind of those?

Donaldson:   Meyer #6 mouthpiece, #2½ reed. Now I’m down to 1½ because old age has caught up with me, so…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]


Panken:   We just took a short break, and Lou found a sheet of paper with information that perhaps can supplement some of the things we’ve spoken about. What have you got?

Donaldson:   Not what you want. This is not it

Panken:   Well, you know what we can do? Perhaps we can find it and go over that material tomorrow, and interpolate that later.

Donaldson:   yes, this is another thing here. It’s a family reunion schedule of all my people. But anyway, it was Livingstone College. That’s the name of the college that my father went to.

Panken:   We were just discussing alto saxophonists. You mentioned Earl Bostic. But could you talk a bit about each of the people I mentioned, and how they affected you? Let’s say, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Donaldson:   Well, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson affected me because he was a good blues player. That’s the way I play, you know. I used to see him all the time in Cootie Williams’ band. He was great in Cootie Williams’ band. Then he started doing solo, and I got to see him. He sang a little bit, too, which I’m doing now.

Panken:   You’ve been doing that for 20 years or so.

Donaldson:   Yes. Eddie was a good songwriter, too. He wrote a couple of songs that Miles stole and put his name on.

Panken:   “Four” was one of them, right?

Donaldson:   “Four.” Ha-ha. You know about it, yeah.

Panken:   “Tune-Up” maybe?

Donaldson:   “Tune-Up,” yup. Yeah, you know about it. That’s what was happening back then. It’s a different world.

Panken:   So you did see Cootie Williams coming through…

Donaldson:   Greensboro.

Panken:   This was once you got back from the Army.

Donaldson:   Yeah. From the Navy.

Panken:   But when you were there, were you checking Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter

Donaldson:   Right. I used to play all of Johnny Hodges’ solos. Benny Carter came through and wrote an arrangement for our college band. We played that. There were some nice cats. Tab Smith came through. At that time, Tab was playing with Count Basie’s band. But he was from Wilson, North Carolina, so he was a North Carolinian.

Panken:   When were you discharged from the Navy?

Donaldson:   I don’t know…it was the summer of ‘45.

Panken:   So you were only in for a few months.

Donaldson:   11 months, yes.

Panken:   So you went back to Greensboro after that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I went back to A&T. A&T College.

Panken:   At this point, were you starting to be a professional musician?

Donaldson:   No, not at that point. When I went back, it was the middle of the semester, and I didn’t stay on the campus. I had to get me a room out in the town. I was still making up some courses that I had lost during those 11 months.  After I got the courses made up, I started actually to play a little commercial music in a club called the Mombassa Club. The guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, he had the band. Nipsey Russell was the comedian. First job Nipsey ever played. Nipsey was a Lieutenant in the Army, and he was a very smart guy, as you know, if you watch him on TV. He came to Greensboro, and settled, and started working as an emcee in this club.

Panken:   The spelling?

Donaldson:   M-o-m-b-a-s-s-a.

Panken:   Did I read somewhere that Ellington came through?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Ellington came down there. He came down to the club, and brought all the musicians. We met them, talked to them. Russell Procope…

Panken:   The band played an engagement there?

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played a dance.

Panken:   What was it like hearing the Ellington band?

Donaldson:   Oh, it was great. It was much different than the other bands. Ellington actually had a different type of band. But I had heard about all the guys and read about them, so I just wanted to see them—like Taft Jordan and Cootie Williams, then he brought Jimmy Hamilton in… He had a great band. Russell Procope. It was a great band.

Panken:   What other bands came through Greensboro?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, all of them came through there. Jay McShann. Andy Kirk. Erskine Hawkins. Lionel Hampton, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Louis Jordan. Several other bands—I can’t think of all of them.

Panken:   So this was all during that year or two after you were discharged from the Navy.

Donaldson:   Right. From the Navy. Right.

Panken:   They were all coming through Greensboro on their southern tours.

Donaldson:   Yeah. They had 60 one-nighters from New York to Florida.

Panken:   Who did? Each of the different bands…

Donaldson:   No, it was a tour down there they called the Weinberg Tour. A guy named Weinberg used to book them. He bought all the dance halls from New York to Florida, and he’d send the bands down there, and they played. Dizzy’s band came through there.

Panken:   What did the Mombassa Club look like? How was it set up?

Donaldson:   Ah, just a club. Kind of dark in there. It was an exotic looking club. Heh-heh. For the South.

Panken:   Did you get something different from all these bands? Did you like all of them? Did you have favorites?

Donaldson:   I liked all of them. I used to go to see all the bands. Because, see, we were in college, and we could go down and get in the dance hall before the customers got in there. They let us in there because they knew us, and we’d meet the musicians and talk to them. A funny story I had, I went down there, and… Luis Russell came through there. I went down there, and I saw this young kid back there setting up the drums. I said, “Oh, that must be Luis Russell’s son.” He set up the drums and everything, and started playing a little bit on them. I said, “Oh yeah, he can play a little drums, too.” Then eventually, all the band members came. And he went and put on a coat, just like the band members. I said, “Oh, he got a coat, too.” I never knew who he was. So finally, Luis Russell came in, and the kid was playing. I said, “Why is he playing? The drummer didn’t come?” The guy said, “He is the drummer.” I said, “What is his name?” “Roy Haynes.” Roy Haynes. Roy told me he was about 17 years old then. Every time I see him, he cracks up.

Panken:   Any other good anecdotes about the bands? Memorable experiences seeing them…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. When I came back from the Navy, they had an Army base in Greensboro, the O.R.D., Overseas Replacement Depot. I was back at the cottage, and the guys from the Army band used to come over and play with the other band. They hadn’t seen me. Then I came back, and I’m playing bebop. I’m not playing like the guys around Greensboro. The guy said, “Who is this guy? Is this guy from New York?” They said, “No, he’s from here.” They said, “Oh, no, he can’t be from here playing like that.” But see, I had been in the Navy.  When I found out who was there—James Moody, Dave Burns, a saxophone player named Joe Gale, Linton Garner (Errroll’s brother), Walter Fuller (Dizzy’s arranger), all of them were right in that band. It was a great band, and then I started going, playing with them. I got to meet them, play with them. It was nice.

Panken:   Talk about how for you the Ellington band was different.

Donaldson:   Well, they had Harry Carney.  Anybody with Harry Carney, the saxophone section is going to sound different, because he was a great, GREAT baritone player. Big sound and everything. And Johnny Hodges, the way he played. It was a special band. You couldn’t… Duke had picked them just right. He wrote his arrangements very compatible with the guys who were playing them. Ray Nance run out with his trumpet… It was a different kind of band. It wasn’t just a jazz band. See, critics got carried away hollering about a jazz band, but they played a whole lot more stuff than jazz.

Panken:   You’ve been talking each of the alto saxophone players you liked—and I suppose on tenor and baritone, too—all having an individual sound, a stamp…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played different.

Panken:   An “I.D.,” you’ve called it before.

Donaldson:   All of them played their I.D. Right. They had their I.D.

Panken:   How did that start to develop for you? Was it something you were consciously striving for?

Donaldson:   No, not really.

Panken:   Was it something that happened as a result…

Donaldson:   Not really. I wanted to play nothing but bebop. That’s all I wanted to play. But after I got married and had two daughters going to college, and I’m trying to pay our house mortgage, I had to play some other type of gigs. So I had to kind of temper my music to the people I was playing for. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re not playing jazz no more.” But I was playing exactly what I had to play to keep those jobs.

Panken:   I want to talk about that. But what I’m trying to focus on now are these developmental years, before you get married, before you move to New York, when you’re still in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I didn’t…

Panken:   Were you think about that sort of individuality at the time?

Donaldson:   No, nothing but bebop back then. I wasn’t thinking about nothing individual.

Panken:   Was learning bebop a matter of getting all the Charlie Parker records and learning the solos…

Donaldson:   That’s right. Learning the solos and learning the standards that they came from. Most of those tunes came from standards. They just put another figure on the chords, and that’s how they played them. In fact, I wrote a thesis down there at North Carolina A&T, for my graduation thesis, and they took it and book-binded it and made it a book, and now all the students who go through the college have to study my book.

Panken:   What’s the name of the thesis?

Donaldson:   The Transition From Swing To Bebop.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Is it a musicological analysis?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. I got illustrations and chords, broke down the chords and everything. 1947.

Panken:   So you were extremely analytical.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. And critical. Analytical and critical.  So I was in good shape.

Panken:   I gather that you made your first visit to New York in 1948?

Donaldson:   1947. ‘47…or ‘48.

Panken:   Whatever the case, let’s talk about that experience.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, our band came to play halftime at the New York Giants’ game.

Panken:   Ah, the North Carolina A&T…

Donaldson:   The North Carolina A&T band, One of our players, a guy named Stonewall Jackson [Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson] , was signed by the Giants, and we came up and played the halftime ceremonies.

Panken:   So he would have been one of the first African-American NFL players.

Donaldson:   That’s right. I got to meet all the guys. Frank Gifford. Emlen Tunnell was there. He was (?—13:17). But it was great. Then I went down to 52nd Street, of course, because I had been reading about it. We had a shortwave radio. We could pick up music from New York once in a while. It faded out, but you could pick it up. Bands from New York. Like, when they had the Benny Goodman Hour, the Chesterfield, and Harry James… We could pick up those bands, and we could hear that on shortwave down in North Carolina. And when we were there, I went over down to 52nd Street, and went to see Dizzy and… It was supposed to be Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett and them, but Charlie Parker wasn’t there as usual, you know, and they had this little short guy playing saxophone. Ray Brown was in the band. So I asked Ray, “Ray, who is that guy? He sounds almost as good as Charlie Parker.” Ray said, “He sounds better than Charlie Parker.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What’s his name?” He said, “Don Byas.” And sure enough, I went back the next night to hear the band, and the band sounded much better with Don Byas than it did with Charlie Parker. Because Charlie was all messed-up and couldn’t half-play, but Don Byas was great. He was great.

Panken:   Had you known about him before? Had you heard the records he did with Dizzy?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him.

Panken:   I think “Anthropology” was one of them…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him. And he made this record with Slam Stewart, Slam Stewart and Don Byas, just two instruments. He was great. He was a great player.

Panken:   What else did you do that first visit to New York?

Donaldson:   I went by the Onyx Club, too, to see my favorites. And very depressing. Heh-heh. The Onyx Club. That was on 52nd Street, too. They had J.J. and Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Miles, and every one of them was all messed up. It was terrible. Very depressing.

Panken:   Were they playing well?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, they played good, but I said, “Man, I can’t… I don’t think I can handle this.”

Panken:   So this discouraged any ideas you might have had about coming up to New York right away…

Donaldson:   I mean, and playing with them.  It didn’t discourage me about coming to New York. But playing in that scene, I couldn’t do that, because it was too hazardous.

Panken:   Did you check out the scene in Harlem the first time you went to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I came to Harlem, I went through Harlem. I saw the scenes. I saw the scenes in Harlem.

Panken:   Was it overwhelming to be in New York?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. It was overwhelming to be in New York. You got to see all the musicians. It was great. I went to the Baby Grand. By that time, Nipsey had moved to New York, and he brought me around to the Baby Grand. I got to meet all the musicians. It was great.

Panken:   Who’d you meet?

Donaldson:   Well, I met everybody who was playing in there. A guy named…I can’t think of his name…a bass player… It was a long time. But then I went on down the street, and I met other people, like Percy France, and I met another guy down there… Lockjaw was in Minton’s. Big Nick was over at the Paradise, and Willis Jackson was in Smalls. So I got to see all of those guys.

Panken:   That was a heady visit. A great preparation.

Donaldson:   A great visit. I couldn’t keep myself away from New York then.

Panken:   Well, it must have let you know that you belonged here, or that you’d be able to deal with the scene when you got here. It must have been a very good gauge for your own progress.

Donaldson:   Yeah, because the bands used to come through North Carolina, and I used to sit in with the bands. Like Dizzy and Illinois Jacquet, all of them used to say, “Man, what you doing down here? You should be in New York.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” They’d say, “You need to be in New York, man. You’re wasting time down here.” So finally I just decided to come on to New York. So I came over to New York.

Panken:   Before we bring you here permanently, you played semipro baseball for a couple of years.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played down there. Played baseball.

Panken:   You were a third baseman?

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What sort of player were you?

Donaldson:   I was the best. Nobody better.

Panken:   Nobody better at third base, or nobody better…

Donaldson:   Nobody better. Nobody better. If black people had been able to get into the majors then, I’d have been somewhere. Or maybe in the minors. I don’t know if I could have made the majors.

Panken:   So you were the best in North Carolina…

Donaldson:   Well, I was one of the best. We had some good players, but I was one of the best. I could have easily made it. I was a player sort of like Eddie Stanky. That kind of player.

Panken:   Scrappy player.

Donaldson:   Scrappy. I could bunt.

Panken:   Contact hitters. All the fundamentals. Intelligent.

Donaldson:   I could bunt. You couldn’t strike me out.  They called me “Deadeye,” because they couldn’t strike me out. In fact, I’d be in school, and somebody would be pitching a no-hitter out on the ball-field, and they’d come and get me out of the room, to go out and break it up. I was tough! And I had a glove, man. I could wipe up a ball.

Panken:   You had good hands.

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I could wipe up a ball. I used to be the mascot for the senior team when I was a little kid, and after they did it, I’d take infield practice with them, and then they’d bet dollars that the guys couldn’t hit a ball past me. They’d try to hit a ball past me. They couldn’t get it past me. Anything I could reach, I got.

Panken:   Eddie Stanky was a winning ballplayer, that’s for sure. His teams won.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. He was a nuisance.

Panken:   Is that how you would describe yourself?

Donaldson:   Yeah, sort of like that. Sort of like that.

Panken:   So the fall of 1945, you come back to Greensboro from the Navy, and you get your degree from North Carolina AT&T. You’re playing semi-pro baseball. I think I read that you broke a pinky, and that ended your career…

Donaldson:   Well, it didn’t end my career. I just stopped playing, because I couldn’t play my clarinet once it puffed up.

Panken:   You’re continuing to develop your facility and artistry on your instrument, and you’re getting validation from people like Dizzy Gillespie and the cats in his band…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   …and people like Illinois Jacquet…

Donaldson:   Jacquet, right.

Panken:   …and they’re telling you to come to New York—and you spend some time in New York. So finally, in 1950,  was it…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   You make the move. Talk about the circumstances. I gather that you followed your future wife, who moved here.

Donaldson:   Yes, I followed my future wife. Because she came up as like a work-in maid or whatever it was. You know, they used to get girls from the South, bring them to New York, and they’d work. She came up here, then I said, “Well, I got to go,” and I came on up. I had a good set-up, because I didn’t have to do any work, because I was a G.I. So I went to the Darrow Institute of Music.

Panken:   On the G.I. Bill?

Donaldson:   Yeah, on the G.I. Bill.

Panken:   Where was Darrow Institute of Music?

Donaldson:   58th-59th and Broadway.

Panken:   What sort of school was it?

Donaldson:   You know, a music school. A lot of musicians. Right next to it was the Hartnett Studio, and they had big bands all day, so I could go over and sit in the section and practice.

Panken:   At this point, you’re playing primarily alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Alto saxophone.

Panken:   Clarinet is a doubling instrument by now.

Donaldson:   Yeah, doubling. I was about to throw that away.

Panken:   So you’re a full-fledged alto saxophonist.

Donaldson:   Yes, alto saxophone.

Panken:    By the way, what your late wife’s name?

Donaldson:   Maker. Maker Donaldson.

Panken:   Talk a bit about getting settled in New York, and acclimated to New York. Where did you live when you came here?

Donaldson:   I lived with my brother-in-law, ex-brother-in-law. He had an apartment up on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street. So I didn’t have to pay any rent.

Panken:   Near the Polo Grounds.

Donaldson:   Right across from the Polo Grounds. I used to go out and stand on the bridge out there with binoculars and see the whole game. I couldn’t see the catcher and the batter, but I could see the pitcher and everything. When they hit a ball, you could tell where it was going by where the outfielders went. Eventually, I got enough money to start going to the Polo Grounds. $1.75 for the bleachers. One day I was sitting out there, and I see this big fat cat come up, weighed about 400 pounds. He sat by me and said, “Yeah, Lou, what you doing out here?” It’s Bob Weinstock. I said, “Man! What you doing out here in the bleachers?” He said, “I can see the game better from here.” He was right, because we were sitting out there in 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit that home run. In the Polo Grounds, seat 7… The game started about 1 p.m., so it was about 4:30, and there always was a haze over the stadium. He hit the ball, and we couldn’t see where it went, but we saw all the people jump up in that Section 21, and once we saw the people jump up in Section 21, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese turned their heads down and started walking back towards the outfield, because that’s where we were, sitting right out there…

Panken:   The dressing rooms were in center field, by the bleachers.

Donaldson:   Right by the bleachers. They started walking back. So we knew the game was over. Eddie Stanky runs down and jumps up in Leo Durocher’s arms. Leo was coaching third base that day. So I got to see all of that.

Panken:   By then, you’d been in New York about a year and a half.

Donaldson:   Two or three years.

Panken:   Well, if you got there in 1950, and his was 1951…

Donaldson:   Seemed like I’d been there longer.

Panken:   So you’re going to music school, and I assume that you start to make the rounds and establish contacts.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Right.

Panken:   Let’s go into some detail about that. Who some of the first people were that you played with, and…

Donaldson:   Well, the funniest thing about it, when I got there and I got to playing, and the guys said, “Yeah, man, you play good, but you’d better get a tenor, because alto players can’t work in New York.” I said, “Oh, no?” So one night I took my alto, I went around to every club on ‘25th Street and down on ‘16th Street, and I sat in with all the bands, and I came back the next day and I was laughing. They said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I don’t know whether it’s alto or tenor, but any job there I can get, because the guys there can’t play anything.”

Panken:   Why did you say that?

Donaldson:   Well, that’s just the way they talked. “You’ve got to play tenor.” Because then, see, everybody was walking the bar, playing “Flying Home” and stuff like that. But I got to working with a club where they had singers.

Panken:   Which club was that?

Donaldson:   The Top Club, and some gigs at the Baby Grand, and some gigs at Smalls Paradise. They used to have entertainers. I got to playing in these clubs, and eventually I got to working with Dud Bascomb’s band, the trumpet player with Erskine Hawkins. He got a band, and we started working out in New Jersey, not too far from the prison out there, at a place called the Chicken Shack.

Panken:   In Jersey.

Donaldson:   In Jersey. That was my regular gig, I could play that, but I could take off any time I wanted to if I got another gig. I was set up pretty good.

Panken:   So you were interested in bebop, but on these gigs you weren’t playing bebop.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played bebop when I took a solo. I played the music, but I played bebop when I took a solo.

Panken:   Who were some of the singers you played behind in those clubs?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I played with great singers. A woman named Lady Hallocue [PHONETIC] [spelling?—26:46] She could sing. She had some weird songs. You really had to be up on your p’s and q’s. I played with a female impersonator, a guy named Phil Black. Best-looking man I ever saw in my life! He put on his dresses… He had the best clothes. I’ve never seen a woman with clothes that good! Every night, somebody was hugging and kissing him, and trying to take him home with them! That was good. It was good down there.

But it was good. I played behind Johnny Hartman. And Arthur Prysock. There were a lot of good singers around.

Panken:   So these clubs all had shows still at the time.

Donaldson:   They had shows.

Panken:   They had, like, a little chorus line maybe?

Donaldson:   Well, not a chorus line. They’d have one woman who was supposed to be an interpretive dancer, but she was…

Panken:   Shake dancer?

Donaldson:   …nothing but a strip. She wasn’t nothin’ but a striptease dancer.

Panken:   Exotic dancer, as they might say.

Donaldson:   That’s right. But she wasn’t no interpretive… Didn’t interpret nothin’ but stripping off them clothes. But that was good. See, the only thing about that, you didn’t get to play but one song. You’d bring on the show with the one song, and from then on you’re playing background.

Panken:   So there’d be a dancer, there’d be a singer, there’d be a comedian…

Donaldson:   A comedian, right.

Panken:   One instrumental act?

Donaldson:   Or one instrumental tune. The rest of them would be backup until you played the closing song.

Panken:   How big was the band?

Donaldson:   Usually three or four pieces.

Panken:   So who were you playing with? Were you the leader by this time?

Donaldson:   Oh, no, I wasn’t the leader of a lot of the bands. I played with a lot of bands. A lot of bands. I played with a guy named Charlie Singleton. He made a lot of background records for singers, and I got that, too. That was a little extra money. It was great.

Panken:   So no wonder you were learning all the tunes, had so many tunes in your bag.

Donaldson:   I knew all the tunes. Knew all the music, all the tunes, and I was just assimilating them and cataloguing them.

Panken:   So this is what you’re doing in 1950 and 1951… How long did you go to Darrow Institute?

Donaldson:   I went there until I guess about ‘52.

Panken:   ‘52 happens to be the year that you start your long relationship with Blue Note Records and make your first sessions with Blue Note? But before we get there, I have just a couple of other questions. Did you ever play in any territory bands?

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   Was Dud Bascomb’s  band a big band?

Donaldson:   Oh, we went out. We played…

Panken:   So you did play in some big bands?

Donaldson:   Yes, right.

Panken:   Was that a good experience, playing in big bands?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Good bands.

Panken:   Talk about why.

Donaldson:   Well, because you got to travel. You got to go to towns. You got to see people.

Panken:   And they got to see you, I guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah. And you got to know the grinds of music. Because there was a certain grind you have to really go through before you get indoctrinated into the music business. Because, see, the bandleaders are always… I worked with Lionel Hampton for a while. The bandleaders always drive off to the Hilton Hotel, and stop the bus. Then you had to get out, and we had to walk down the street and find a Y, because they wasn’t payin’ no money, so we had to get the YMCA, $2 or $3 a night room. We didn’t make any money.

Panken:   Were there boarding houses, too? Did you stay in people’s private houses?

Donaldson:   Yeah, boarding houses.

Panken:   How did that work? Did they differ in quality, where some were nice, some weren’t nice?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Some were nice and some weren’t nice.

Panken:   They’d feed you breakfast?

Donaldson:   Yeah, most of them would feed you breakfast.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking just a few other things about Harlem, circa 1950-51? Were there restaurants where musicians liked to eat after the gig?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   What were some of those restaurants.

Donaldson:   Well, the only place I ate was the Sheffield Café. That was on 126th and 8th Avenue. But most of the musicians used to go up to Wells, and have chicken-and-waffles. Wells Café. That was a famous restaurant.

Panken:   What sort of food did they have at the Sheffield Café?

Donaldson:   Well, they had breakfast food. Bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits.

Panken:   So breakfast after the gig.

Donaldson:   Yeah. $1.25. That’s all you had to pay.

Panken:   What was the schedule like at the clubs? 10 to 5?

Donaldson:   10 to 4 a.m. in New York and about 10 to 5 in Brooklyn.

Panken:   How many sets would that be?

Donaldson:   Well, what would happen was this. We’d hit at 10. We’d play 2 or 3 sets, and then we’d try to stretch it. But eventually, what would happen, about 3 or 4 o’clock, the pimps would come in with their women. They’d got the money. They’d come in and set up the bar, and the man said, “Well, they set up the bar; you’ve got to play a little extra.” So we ended up playing til 5 o’clock.

Panken:   Would they tip?

Donaldson: Joe Louis would come in there, and then everybody’d see him and then run to Joe, and Joe, you know how he was: “Give everybody a drink!” So the man said, “You’ve got to play a little set for Joe.”

Panken:   So you were playing for a full spectrum of society.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Who would be there earlier in the night, and how would it…

Donaldson:   Oh, they had all kind of people coming in there. It’s hard to say now. I knew all of them. Adam Clayton Powell…

Panken:   This is Smalls you’re talking about?

Donaldson:   No, this is Minton’s. Malcolm X used to stick his head in the door, but he didn’t come in there. The big gangsters, Bumpy Johnson, all those people, they used to come in. Another guy named Red Dillon. He was… Phew! Dangerous man. But he used to come in there. See, they had a cook in there named Adele, and everybody loved her cooking.

Panken:   This was at Minton’s.

Donaldson:   At Minton’s. So they’d come in and eat.

Panken:   What were her specialties?

Donaldson:   Fish and chicken. She could cook. She was a good cook.

Panken:   Were meals on the house, or did you have to pay for them?

Donaldson:   No, we had to pay for them! Wasn’t no meals on the house.

Panken:   I’m actually surprised. Don’t know why, but…

Donaldson:   No meals on the house then.

Panken:   Another question. As a musician, you had to be sharp. You had to dress well. Were there particular tailors that the musicians went to, that you went to?

Donaldson:   No. I’d be working at Minton’s, and the boosters would come by.

Panken:   Oh, I see. Off the rack from the…

Donaldson:   They’d come by and look at you. “42-short.” Every time, I’d know what they’re going to say. He’d pull out a nice one. I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I like that.” He said, “Yeah? Well, $100.” They always do that. But I say, “All right. I’ll talk to you later.” But I’d wait until the end of the night, and when I see him on the corner he’s still got that suit. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, here’s $25—give me that suit!] [LOUD LAUGH] And he gave me the suit. I saw a guy… One night, a guy had a brand-new cello. I don’t know where he stole it. He must have gone down to the Philharmonic or somewhere. He was outside the door. When I came out, he said, “Hey, Lou, here’s a cello.” I looked at it and I said, “Man, where did you get that cello from?” He said, “Man, don’t worry about that. $700.” I said, “Man, here. I got $75. Give me that cello. Because the police are going to come down here and ask you to play it, and you’re…” [DISSOLVES WITH LAUGHTER] If I’m taking it, they won’t say nothing to me, because they know I’m a musician, but you walking around the street with that cello…” I took it and gave it to my daughter. My daughter played cello.

Panken:   But this is probably a little later in the ‘50s. Earlier in the ‘50s, who was your contact person to bring you into Blue Note?

Donaldson:   Oh, nobody. They came up… Alfred Lion came up to Minton’s. He might have had Ike Quebec with him.

Panken:   I thought Ike Quebec was his talent scout.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that was later on. But then, I don’t really know whether Ike was with him or not. But he came up to me and said, “Oh, do you want to record for Blue Note?” Well, you know I’m going to tell him “yeah.” He said, “But you’ve got to play like Charlie Parker. Can you play like Charlie Parker?” I thought, “No, I can’t play like Charlie Parker, but I won’t tell him.” I said, “Yeah, I can play like Charlie Parker.” Heh-heh. And I got the date.

Panken:   But before you did that date, you made a sideman date with Milt Jackson and a very interesting date with Thelonious Monk, with three horns.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Do you have pretty thorough memories of those dates?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGIN, June 20th, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Back from a quick break. We were just getting to Lou’s Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson on April 7, 1952. This was shortly after Alfred Lion approached you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Yeah, shortly…

Panken:   Who was your band at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   I don’t know who I had then. I’m sorry. I can’t remember the musicians. But what happened, I knew this fighter, Art Woods…

Panken:   Oh, he used to work at Dayton’s Records on 12th and Broadway.

Donaldson:   Yeah, he worked in a record shop. We used to train all the time. He’d come to me… There was a place called Newman’s Studio down there on 116th Street. After I’d practice… I’d give the guy 50 cents to practice, and I’d practice about an hour, then he’d bring his gloves and we’d work out.

Panken:   So you boxed, too.

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I would box.

Panken:   What was your weight?

Donaldson:   Featherweight. I was a good boxer. What I wanted to do, in case somebody bothered me, I’d knock them out. But I didn’t have nothing to worry about, because all those guys were junkies. You know what I mean? They couldn’t fight.

He told me, “Lou, let me tell you something. You go around here, you show up to the gigs on time, and you wear your black suit with your black tie, and you don’t drink no liquor, you don’t have no tab—you ain’t gonna make it in this business.” I said, “What you talkin’ about?” He said, “Man, you got to go around and act like you’re high, and buy up some liquor. Even though you don’t drink it yourself, give it to somebody else.” Man, I took his solution, and I haven’t been out of a gig since!

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   I’m telling you! I meet people every day who tell me, “Lou, you sure look good since you straightened up.” I say, “Straightened up from what? I don’t even drink a small Miller beer.” [LAUGHS] “No, man, I know I used to see you down there with Bird; you’all was gettin’ high!” I said, “No, you didn’t see me down there with Bird.”  I used to hang around with him, but I wasn’t doing what they were doing.

Panken:   Did you hang out with Charlie Parker at all? Did you get to know him?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I finally got to know him when I came to New York and stayed for a while, and I got to see him a lot.

Panken:   After 1950.

Donaldson:   Yeah, after 1950.

Panken:   Did you talk to him? Did you spend time with him?

Donaldson:   Yes, a lot of time spent…

Panken:   Can you describe the relationship?

Donaldson:   Well, he was a brilliant guy. We talked about politics…and a lot of things. He was a smart guy. But he had that bad habit.

Panken:   Did he show that habit around you, or did he keep it from you?

Donaldson:   No, he didn’t show it too much around me.

Panken:   I gather that certain people he might not show it to at all. They might not even know that he got high, unless they’d know what to look for.

Donaldson:   Well, he knew I knew he got high, but he didn’t really exaggerate it around me.

Panken:   Do you recall the particulars of any of your conversations? Any one or two encounters that stand out?

Donaldson:   Not really. Because he was like the rest of the people who were drug addicts. They worked 24 hours a day to get money for the next hit. That was their daily procedure.  A lot of times when I’d see him, I’d go to the other side of the street because…

Panken:   So you wouldn’t give him money.

Donaldson:   I didn’t have anything to give him.

Panken:   So part of your interaction was he would want to get a little money.

Donaldson:   Of course. Money was always… But he talked to me. We talked.

Panken:   Did you ever sit in with him?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. What happened, one night in the Paradise I was there, and he came in, and I was sitting in with Big Nick Nicholas, and when Charlie Parker came in, there were about ten saxophone players on the stand, and all of them ran, you know, like a rattlesnake was coming in there. I was getting ready to get off the stand, too, and he said, “No, you play with me.” I said, “Man, I’m not playing with you.” He said, “Yeah. If you don’t play, I’m not going to play.” So the manager comes by and says, “Man, you’ve got to play now, because Bird says he’s not going to play if you don’t play.” I said, “Ok.” So we played a couple of tunes, “I Got Rhythm” or something. I played, and he leaned over to me and said, “Man, what was that you played on that thing? That was some nice stuff” It was stuff I had copied off one of his records. So I said to myself, “Is he pulling my leg, or is he really sincere?” That’s when I realized the guy was a genius. He didn’t really remember.

Panken:   You mean, he’d invented it, but he hadn’t memorized it.

Donaldson:   He couldn’t remember it.

Panken:   But you were analytical. You’d written a thesis about the musicological transition from swing to bebop.

Donaldson:   Right. The change to bebop. The change to the alternate chords.

Panken:   How did that work when you were improvised? Did you have set solos, were you…

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t have no set solos, but I had set chord changes. I’d change up the chords a little. Not really a set solo.

Panken:   Again, before Blue Note, did you ever… I think I read on a liner note for one of your recordings that you were in a session or two with Bud Powell.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

Panken:   What was that like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. With Bud, you know… When I came to New York, Bud was going nuts, going bananas. He was hard to deal with.

Panken:   Were you on an actual gig with him?

Donaldson:   I played some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   His band?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Where?

Donaldson:    Oh, all around town. A place called Bowman’s up on 155th and St. Nicholas Place, and another club up in there…I can’t think of it… But I played a few gigs with him.

Panken:   So you played his music.

Donaldson:   Some of it.

Panken:   What did you think of his tunes?

Donaldson:   I was crazy about them. Crazy about them. But he was bad with the money. Because he’d get the money, and by the time you got ready to get your pay, he’s gone.

Panken:   Let’s move to these early Blue Note sessions. So Alfred Lion approaches you at Minton’s, or maybe Ike Quebec, we’re not quite clear… But one way or the other, you go in the studio for the first time, at least as recorded in the discographies, on April 7, 1952, with Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, and…

Donaldson:   Percy Heath.

Panken:   Percy Heath on bass.  What was that date like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. I didn’t particularly like John Lewis. But it was nice.

Panken:   Were you nervous to be in the studio?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So by this time, you belong. You’re part of the thing.

Donaldson:   Right. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Panken:   Any specific memories of the date?

Donaldson:   Not really. All I know is I liked Milt. Milt was a good friend of mine.

Panken:   The date with Monk, then. I’ve read a quote from you that you hadn’t worked with Monk before that; that you had to go in and basically read the music down…

Donaldson:   Yeah, try to.

Panken:   Maybe there was a rehearsal before.

Donaldson:   Try to read it. He didn’t write it out like he wanted it played. You had to rehearse it a couple of times. But it ended up fine.

Panken:   There were a couple of tricky tunes on that session.

Donaldson:   Yes, sir.

Panken:    “Skippy” for one.

Donaldson:   “Skippy” is tough. “Carolina Moon” is tough. Tough tune.

Panken:   How did the session go? He’d present the tune, you’d run through it a few times, and then…

Donaldson:   And then we recorded it.

Panken:   How did he express his intentions? Would he be singing it to you?

Donaldson:   He played it on the piano, you know…

Panken:   Had you known Monk before that?

Donaldson:   Yes, I knew him.

Panken:   Because he spent a lot of time at Minton’s, I would think, among other places…

Donaldson:   Not at Minton’s. He was at Blue Note. Every time I went down there, Monk and his wife would be down there, at the company, down there in back of Bloomingdale’s. They’d be down there all the time.

Panken:   What was the office like?

Donaldson:   Wasn’t nothing but just a little place. Wasn’t really an office.

Panken:   Were you a fan of Monk’s compositions, of his music, his musicianship?

Donaldson:   Not really.  I couldn’t use them on my job, because if I played them, I’d be fired. See, back then people hadn’t…they wasn’t compatible with Monk. It took a long time before they got compatible with Monk.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, they wouldn’t buy his records.

Panken:   Oh, you mean before people got used to his music and the sound of it.

Donaldson:   Yes. And the big companies wouldn’t record him. Like Capitol, Columbia, even Savoy—they wouldn’t record him.

Panken:   No, he was on Blue Note, then he went to Prestige…

Donaldson:   Prestige, right.

Panken:   …and then the Riverside things brought his name out… I guess this would be pushing to the future a bit. I read in one interview that you later on worked with Monk in a club with Kenny Dorham, Oscar Pettiford maybe…

Donaldson:   No, Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be there, but they brought Mingus in there.  Max Roach on drums.

Panken:   Where was that?

Donaldson:   The Open Door. No, the Famous Door.

Panken:   I think it would be the Open Door. The Famous Door was long closed…

Donaldson:   Bob Reisner.

Panken:   Yeah, that’s the Open Door. Was it a different experience working with him for a week or two?

Donaldson: Oh yeah, much different.

Panken:   Any memories of that?

Donaldson:   [LAUGHS] Only bad memories.

Panken:   Any bandstand memories? Anything positive you can say about the music…

Donaldson:   Well, what happened the first night, see, he was expecting Oscar Pettiford, and they brought Mingus in there, and he didn’t like Mingus, and he played ensembles, but he never took a solo. And about the second set, I was asking Kenny Dorham, I said, “when is he going to play?” He said, “He’s not. He don’t like Mingus.” I was a low guy on the totem pole. I didn’t have much to say either. So finally, Wilbur Ware staggers in there, and Bob Reisner takes him around the corner and gives him some vitamins…and he comes back. He don’t say nothin’; he just goes up and takes the bass from Mingus and started playing. Monk started to play.

Panken:   Well, he loved Wilbur Ware, yeah.

Donaldson:   Loved Wilbur Ware.

Panken:   I guess you did three 10-inch recordings…or two—one in 1952, one in 1954. The first one is with Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Blue Mitchell, and Gene Ramey.

Donaldson:   It wasn’t Art Blakey. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Were these guys you were working with?

Donaldson:   Yeah, basically.

Panken:   How did the session get set up?

Donaldson:   I set it up myself. We just went down and played them.

Panken:   These are things you’d been playing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no great stretch to play them.

Panken:   Do you remember…were you working that week?

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Tell me about Blue Mitchell. That was one of his very first recordings.

Donaldson:   Great trumpet player.

Panken:   How did you meet him?

Donaldson:   I met him…he was working with Lloyd Price’s band, and I heard him, and he sounded so beautiful. I said, “Man, I got to get you a date.” So he came on over to the Blue Note. See, a lot of people don’t know, I brought Horace over there, too.

Panken:   I was about to ask you.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I brought Horace. Horace was working…was practicing down at the studio where we used to go and train for boxing, Newman’s Studio down on ‘16th Street. I used to hear him playing piano. So one day I knocked on the door. I said, “Are you a piano player?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You want some gigs? Can you play a blues?” He said, “Yeah.” So I took him on a couple of gigs. He couldn’t play no blues. I said, “Man, you’re going to have to start playing blues.” Then I used to call him the “old Portuguese piano player.” I said, “Man, you got to go to Harlem and eat you some chitlin’s, some black-eyed peas and rice, and get some feeling.” [LAUGHS] So finally, he started playing kind of bluesy. And you know the rest. He made 15 hit records.

Panken:   So you met him in New York.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had Horace Silver and Blue Mitchell on the date. Had you been working with Arthur Taylor?

Donaldson:   Yes. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Well, that’s a helluva band to be working with. Were they with you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Actually, we had a band with Kenny Dorham, but Kenny got busted or something. He couldn’t make the date. We had a band with Kenny Dorham and Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.

Panken:   You were pretty close to Kenny Dorham.

Donaldson:   Yeah. We had a band together.

Panken:   I guess you recorded a sextet thing in 1954. How did the relationship start?

Donaldson:   Well, it was just a matter that I had to do a record date, and I needed some musicians I thought could make it.

Panken:   Had you been playing with him before that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’d been playing with him a little.

Panken:   What kind of guy was he?

Donaldson:   Nice guy. Very nice guy. Very intelligent. But he had a lip problem, you know. Chops problem. But all of them did, Miles and all of them. Chops problem. I don’t know what it was. Probably they didn’t learn how to play correct. The best trumpet player around New York during those times was a guy named Idrees Sulieman. He could play better than any of those guys. But he knew he wasn’t going to get no gigs because all the promoters and all the club owners were Jewish, so he just packed up and went overseas.

Panken:   They didn’t want a guy with a Muslim name, an Islamic name.

Donaldson:   No. Muslim was out. Back then, the Muslims was out.

Panken:   I guess Sahib Shihab had that problem, too.

Donaldson:   Sahib Shihab, right.

Panken:   During the first part of the ‘50s, when you played New York, were you mostly playing in Harlem, or were you playing downtown?

Donaldson:   I was playing in Harlem.

Panken:   Was there a circuit in Harlem? Describe it a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, Harlem was a place where you had to play for the people 100% if you wanted a return engagement. You had to kind of do a little swing. So I got a chance to play at all these clubs. There was a woman around there named Hilda, and she worked… I guess she worked for the Mob—I guess. But she had the inside on all the clubs. So any time I wanted a job, I just called her. I got it right away.

Panken:   How many different clubs were you…

Donaldson:   About ten different clubs.

Panken:   So Smalls, Minton’s…

Donaldson:   Small places, too.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, what would you make for a week in one of these clubs at the time?

Donaldson:   Oh, I don’t know. Not much. Maybe 125 bucks, something like that.

Panken:   That you’d clear, and then you’d pay the guys in your band what, $75 or something…

Donaldson:   Whatever they’d make. $50. Some of them didn’t make any money at all.

Panken:   You also did a very famous session for Blue Note with Elmo Hope and Clifford Brown in 1953.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In the past, you’ve stated, as everyone has, the most laudatory things about Clifford Brown. Had you known him before that session?

Donaldson:   No, not really. I was working with Elmo. Elmo worked in Dud Bascomb’s band, and I saw him every night—you know, when he showed up. I had heard about Clifford Brown. In fact, all the musicians knew about him. But, like, you know, Max and Art, they wasn’t going to bring him to New York, because they’re looking out for theirself, which is I guess…it’s what you do when you’re a junkie. You live from day to day, trying to cop. So it’s a disastrous situation, but that’s the way it is. I knew he was working with Chris Powell, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames, which was a funk group. So I saw he was working in the park down in Harlem, so I went down there to see him, and he wasn’t working, because he was playing piano—because he’d broken his shoulder or something. He was accident-prone. Every time I saw him, he’d had some kind of accident. I told him I wanted him to make this date with me because I’d heard he was a great trumpet player. So he took the trumpet and laid up on the fence, and held it. That’s the only way he could play it. We played, you know, “Confirmation,” two or three tunes. I said, “that’s all right; that’s good.” I said, “Now, as soon as your shoulder gets better, call me.” And when his shoulder got better, he called me. He made the date.

Panken:   Then the following year, the Live at Birdland date with Art Blakey. Had you been playing with Art Blakey for a while?

Donaldson:   No-no, no-no. I wouldn’t trust Art Blakey around the corner.

Panken:   How did… Sorry to ask so many details about so many gigs, but…

Donaldson:   What happened, the company wanted to do a date. Originally, there was Kenny Dorham, Gene Ramey, Art Taylor, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson. You can tell by the material, Horace and I got all that material together. Art was in California. He’d got busted out there. He couldn’t even get back to New York. But what he did, he saw a bass player out there and told this bass player that if he drove him back to New York in his car, he was going to be his bass player. So I see him one day, and he stops on the street, and he says, “Yeah, Lou, I want you to meet my bass player.” I had to hide my head to keep from laughing. I said, “What the hell are you doing with a bass player with all these bass players in New York who aren’t working?”

So finally, Alfred Lion evidently… Evidently, Alfred Lion was giving him money to get him back to New York, and I go down there and Alfred said, “Well, Art is going to be on the date, and Curley Russell,” which was all right with me, because they could play. The second night after we hit, after Clifford Brown was such a sensation, people were going crazy. Art gets up on the microphone, “Yeah, I want to get these guys together, these young guys…” Me and Horace was looking at each other, saying, “What the hell was he talking about?” The company date was gone. Art Blakey had taken over the date. Alfred Lion was afraid of him, or else he owed Alfred so much money, he made him the leader where he’d get his money back. A lot of people think that was… And then he talked about the Messengers. That wasn’t no Messengers. Art Blakey had a band called the Messengers year before…

Panken:   That was a big band.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Out in Brooklyn. Actually, Ray Copeland was working in that band. There was Art… Idrees Sulieman played trumpet in that band. Colbert Hopkins(?—23:26), Ray Abrams played saxophone… Sahib Shihab played baritone in that band, because Cecil Payne was the baritone player but he left and went on the road with Illinois Jacquet. And this guy, Howard Johnson, who played with Dizzy, played the lead, and the other boy, Ernie Henry, played the third alto. I saw the band. That was the Messengers. But the critics, see, they didn’t know. They said, “Oh, Art got the Messengers.” That was no Messengers band. Art was a con man.

Panken:   Great drummer, though.

Donaldson:   He was a great drummer—when he wanted to be. People ask me that all the time. I say, “Yeah, Art was great when he wanted to be.”

Panken:   What do you mean by that?

Donaldson:   Well, sometimes, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Art played so good you wanted to go back there and kiss him. But on the weekend, a lot of people came, especially if a woman comes up there and crosses her legs and pulls the dress up over her knees, the arrangement changed, everything changed…heh-heh. You got to know who the bandleader is, and you know ….(?—24:48)…. were drums. You’re supposed to play two choruses. You play one chorus, and you’d hear Art back there, “I got it, I got it, I got it.” [LAUGHS] He’d take over the… You had to let him have it, because he’d drop the tsunami on you back there! An earthquake. A volcanic eruption! I told him one night, “Art, man, you’re the greatest drummer in the world—sometimes.” And he just laughed. [LAUGHED] Any time a good-looking woman comes up there, she definitely has got to know who the bandleader is. She don’t have to ask no questions of nobody. She can tell right away who the leader is. Heh-heh…

Panken:   So that date was a week at Birdland.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   It wasn’t a one-night thing.

Donaldson:   It was a week, a whole week.

Panken:   Was that the only time for that particular band, or did you do further engagements?

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s the only time.

Panken:   I read an interview in which you talked about the difference between bebop and hardbop, and presented that recording as a paradigm-setter for what hardbop was. There was a specific sense of the difference. Can you describe that?

Donaldson:   Well, that was hard bop. It was hard swinging. See, when you accelerate the energy and the sound, you’re playing hard bop. It’s hard to do that. And the way I play, if he upped the sound, you had to up your playing, and that made you press a little more, so you’re playing like hard bop.

Panken:   Was it  a matter of volume or a matter of where the beat was being placed?

Donaldson:    Well, it’s the volume and the beat. Volume and the beat.

Panken:   What about the beat was different between bebop and hardbop?

Donaldson:   Well, it was louder. Art probably was high. He got too high, and in his ears he couldn’t hear how loud he was playing. Evidently. I don’t know. What can I tell you.

Panken:   Did you gig with Max Roach much?

Donaldson:   I did some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   Was he playing hard bop or bebop?

Donaldson:   He was playing more like bebop.

Panken:   Again, was that a matter of volume? He wasn’t playing as loud…

Donaldson:   And pressing. Press down. When you bear down, it’s a little different than when you just play. You can play, but then you bear down…when you bear down…

Panken:   Then, between swing and bebop, is it a rhythmic difference, a harmonic difference…

Donaldson:   It’s a harmonic difference between that, and swing is steadier, a steadier rhythm, like the Count Basie mode.

Panken:   Like, say, the way Papa Jo Jones played vis-a-vis the way Max Roach played with displacements and so on.

Donaldson:   Yes, of course.

Panken:   So by 1954, when you’re making these dates, you’ve been primarily a leader for a couple of years, but you’re doing some sessions with other people. And you took a couple of years hiatus from recording, say from mid-1954 until early 1957, when you do the first in a long series of recordings for Blue Note, plus things with Jimmy Smith.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you describe what you were doing during those years?

Donaldson:   I really shouldn’t tell you this, because I’m going to put it in my book. I got mad at Blue Note Records. Angry. Because I went out to do a session one time at Rudy’s house, and we played a couple of tunes, and then some guy came by with some vitamins, and all of them went in the bathroom—Rudy, too. I’m not saying he was doing nothing, but… But he went in there with them, and when they came out, you’re talking about some bad stumblin’ and fumblin’. So I went to Alfred. I said, “Look, Alfred, that’s it. I’m not going to record another record with a junkie. Forget it.” So for two years I didn’t do a record.

So he finally called me back, “You’ve got to do a date.” I said, “I’ll do it, but you’re not going to pick none of the musicians. I’m going to pick them.” And you can see the date, Blues Walk. I had Herman Foster, who was a religious singer, him and his wife—they sang religious music. But I had been going up to Connie’s, a place where they’d jam, and I had been playing with him, and he sounded so good, and we were compatible with our playing.

I went and got Dave Bailey, drummer. Now, Dave was a liquor salesman up on Boston Road. But I used to work at a place called the Apollo Bar up on Boston Road, and he used to come by and sit in—and he played good. I said, “Yeah, this guy is good.” Ok, so I got Herman Foster; I got Dave Bailey.

And then, I got Peck Morrison, bass player, who lived with me in the project. We were in the project. I got him on the date. Then I got Ray Barretto to steady down the rhythm…

Panken:   To play congas.

Donaldson:   Yes. I was working at Showman’s. I was the first band to work at Showman’s.

Panken:   Showman’s Lounge.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Showman’s was right down next to the Apollo Theater then, about 1956 or 1957. I’m working in there, and Ray used to come by and play. I said, “now, look, I don’t want no Puerto Rican drums. I want swing.” He said, “that’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to learn how to swing.” And he had his friend with him, a little alto player who had a hump in his back, a guy named Chuck Eubanks. They used to come by all the time. I used to let him sit in.

Panken:   Chuck Eubanks.

Donaldson:   Chuck Eubanks and Ray. So when I finally got ready to make the date, that’s who I had. Herman Foster, Peck Morrison, all these guys. Alfred Lion didn’t know any of them. So he comes there. “I don’t know these guys.” I said, “Alfred, I told you; I’m not going to record with no more junkies.” Because Alfred by then… Now, Alfred was nice at first. But by then, Alfred had a belief … [PAUSE AT 33:09 AS VOICEMAIL PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]

Anyway, Alfred Lion’s jaws puffed way out. “I don’t know…” See, at that time, Alfred Lion just didn’t believe that nobody couldn’t play unless they was high. He just got… Like the rest of the record companies. They want to see a guy nod, they go, “Oh, he’s great.” So he finally said, “All right, I’m going to take a chance on this; I know I’m going to lose money.” Man, we made that Blues Walk—let me tell you something. Symphony Sid started to playing it. Spider Burke started to playing it in St. Louis. Daddy-O Dailey started to playing it in Chicago. And this guy in Detroit started… That record was a hit. The first record… They don’t tell you that. The first record that Blue Note ever put out that all the distributors took it, from New York to California, and put it on the jukebox.

Panken:   So the date for Blues Walk that I have is July 28, 1958.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   But you had made three records before that, and Herman Foster was on two of those. The first one in the discography is Wailing With Lou, from January 1957. I’ve got Swingin’ Soul, which is from June 1957. Both are with those groups—Donald Byrd played with on Wailing With Lou. Then there’s a date that a lot of people like, called Lou Takes Off, which is a sextet with Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd and Sonny Clark…

Donaldson:   And Jamil Nasser.

Panken:   Jamil Nasser and Arthur Taylor as well. Did you and Alfred Lion then reach an understanding?

Donaldson:   There was no understanding. He knew that he didn’t know what was on and I did. When the records started selling. And “The Masquerade Is Over” on the other side.

Panken:   Because you were traveling so much, you must have had a very good feel for what the public wanted to hear.

Donaldson:   That’s the key. I tell that at all my seminars. Every seminar, when I’m talking to young musicians, I say, “Feel out the audience. You try this kind of tune, that kind of tune, the other kind of tune—whatever you like, that’s where you lay.” You lay there with your setup.

Panken:   Now, in ‘55 and ‘56, even though you weren’t recording, you were working.

Donaldson:    Yeah, I worked.

Panken:   Were you starting to tour the country, go outside New York by that time?

Donaldson:   Right. I had my own tour.

Panken:   When did that start happening?

Donaldson:   I don’t know exactly the date, but I got my own tour from New York to California.

Panken:   Who was booking you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, I was booking a lot of the gigs, but another guy named Warren Stevens, who used to work for Ruth Bowen Booking Agency… He’s a guitar player himself. He was a good friend of mine from Columbus, Ohio. He starts booking it.

Panken:   Describe the circuit a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, it was the greatest circuit in the world. I’m the only one that did it—first. Then McDuff and Groove Holmes and Jimmy McGriff and all of them came in later. We started in Rochester at a place called the Pythodd. Jon Hendricks’ brother owned it—Stewart Hendricks. Then we’d go from there to Buffalo, to the Pine Grill. Or another place up there was the Bon Ton. We had about four clubs we could work. Then we’d go to Pittsburgh, play Crawford’s Grill. Then we’d segue into Cleveland. Now, all these places were short jumps. So we didn’t have no transportation problems or nothin’. We’d go to Cleveland. We’d play Leo’s Casino.

Panken:   You’d be a week in each town?

Donaldson:   A week in each town. Sometimes two weeks. Leo’s Casino. Leo’s was on 55th and Central at that time, but he died, and his son took it over and put it on Euclid Avenue. His son is named Leo, too, but this was the original Leo.

Then we’d leave Cleveland, and we’d go to Columbus, Ohio. Now, Warren had a club there himself, right down in town, and he had an unsegregated club, way back then.

Panken:   Were they called black-and-tan then?

Donaldson:   No, this club was called the Sacred Mushroom. But it was integrated. Because somebody threw a bomb in there one night, a stink bomb.

Panken:   This was in Columbus.

Donaldson:   Columbus, Ohio. Then I go down to Dayton, Ohio, a place called the Lavender Lounge. I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d play down there, then we’d go to Louisville, Kentucky, and play a place called the Idle Hour. Some rich guy down there had some money, and he let us play the club. We’d go down there and play, free food and everything. We were on a budget. Then what we’d do…

Did I say Cincinnati? We played Cincinnati, too. We played Cincinnati. Babe Baker’s in Cincinnati. He was like the guy at Minton’s. He wanted nothing but a jazz club. In fact, one day, a disk jockey came in and put some James Brown records or something on the jukebox. He threw them out the window. He said, “don’t bring nothing in here but jazz.”

Then we’d go…from Louisville, we’d go on Highway 50, go into St. Louis. Played the Gaslight Square, sort of like the Village—a lot of clubs down there. A lot of people hang out. Then we’d play over in East St. Louis, which is just 7 miles across the river, right by the Dome, right past the Dome. And we’d go from there to Kansas City, which ain’t but 240 miles. From Kansas City, then we’d go to Wichita, Kansas. I had this all set up. We’d go to Dallas, Texas. We’d go to Houston, Texas. Sometimes, if we could work it out, we’d play one-nighters in small towns, like Port Arthur and Belmont, Corpus Christi—we’d play one-nighters. Then we’d get set and head for California. Get Route 66, we’re gone, all the way to Los Angeles. Played the It Club.

I knew all these guys. All these guys were hustlers, so I knew them. If I didn’t know them, I’d call them two or three weeks in advance and set it up. I was a lucky guy back then. Didn’t make a whole lot of money, but we worked all the time.

Then I’d work San Francisco, and Oakland, a place called M Major’s.  He’s dead now. But we worked in those clubs. Then we’d come on back. We’d bypass Utah, because we knew what was there, and we’d come on into Denver. Then we’d come on back into Omaha. We had a schedule. 500 more miles, we’re in Chicago. Joe Segal—he had two or three clubs. Then we’d leave there, we’d go to Detroit. Sure enough, before we got back, they wanted us so bad, we’d go right on back into Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and then come home.

Panken:   We’re not talking about ‘55 and ‘56, now. We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Donaldson:   We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Panken:   But in ‘55 and ‘56, you were starting to go out of town?

Donaldson:   Yes, I was starting to go out of town.

Panken:   Who were you taking with you? Was Herman Foster with you yet?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Herman was with me.

Panken:   So by the time you’d made those first records, you’d been working with him for a year or more.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Herman Foster, Peck. Morrison, and Jimmy Wormworth was the drummer. We went up to Buffalo, and hit some of the same clubs. But we had it set up…

Panken:   That’s when you started establishing that circuit and those relationships.

Donaldson:   Yes. Well, the reason I used an organ was because a lot of times we’d go into a place, and they didn’t have a piano—and renting a piano, that’s out of the question. People want a thousand dollars to rent a piano. Shit, a thousand dollars, we weren’t even making that much for the gig. So we decided we’d buy an organ, and we’ll get a bass player and a piano player at the same time. All we need is a U-Haul truck and a hitch. So I put a hitch on the back of my station wagon, and we’d pull it. We’d save money and made money.

Panken:   But if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t start touring with an organ until about 1960 or so?

Donaldson:   It was in the ‘60s somewhere.

Panken:   I’d like to stay in the ‘50s for now, if we can. What did you do when the piano was crap or a club didn’t have a piano?

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play the gig!

Panken:   So you wouldn’t play a gig without a piano.

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play it, no. So what happened then… You see, the funk groups were coming out, and the funk groups had these synthesizers and electric bass. We didn’t have that.

Panken:   You did so many gigs with Jimmy Smith in 1957 and 1958. People still treasure those recordings and play them, they’re a firm part of the history. When did you start establishing a performing relationship with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   ‘57, ‘58, somewhere in there…

Panken:   Where I’m going is, was it set up by the record company? Was it your initiative?

Donaldson:   No. Babs Gonzalez set that up. He brought Jimmy to New York and told Alfred he should record him. So Babs was in the middle of that.

Panken:   So Jimmy Smith got the date, and then you got the call to do the record?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Were those satisfying engagements?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. The Sermon is one of the greatest records ever made. It’s a great record.

Panken:   What do you think was the key to your simpatico with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   We were compatible. He liked me. The organ sound and the alto sound is beautiful. Yeah, he liked me, because I played the blues, and that’s what he played.

Panken:   Can you describe personally what he was like during those sessions?

Donaldson:   Jimmy? Jimmy was carefree. Nice guy. In his latter years they said he was something else, but I didn’t know him then. I hadn’t seen him in a while.  But back then, he was just a carefree guy.

Panken:   Had you heard before he played organ, when he was a piano player?

Donaldson:   No, I hadn’t heard him when he was piano player. The first I heard him was a record he made down in Wilmington. That’s where I heard that record, and it was so dynamic. With Thornell Schwartz. That was a great record.

Panken:   Had you been playing with organ players before that?

Donaldson:   Not too many. I played with John Patton.

Panken:   Before Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I played with John Patton, Baby Face Willette, a couple of guys.

Panken:   The records with John Patton are around 1960, with Baby Face Willette around 1961. I wanted you to tell us about the Jimmy Smith recordings just because the records are so great…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they’re great.

Panken:   So whatever insight you can give us into how they were set up, or how…

Donaldson:   Jimmy was a musical genius. He can play. He was just like Art Tatum at the piano. It’s hard to play anything that he hasn’t played.

Panken:   Did that give you a feeling of freedom, that you could…

Donaldson:   Uh…yeah, freedom. Inspiration. Because he had good basslines. He could kick it.

Panken:   I’d like to ask about some of the alto saxophonists who were roughly your contemporaries who came into prominence in the ‘50s. Sonny Stitt is someone you’ve often been compared to stylistically.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Cannonball Adderley hit the scene in 1955. I’m sure you were aware of him quite quickly. Jackie McLean was a local hero in New York, and a protégé of Charlie Parker. Phil Woods was coming into his own during those years. Were those all people you were touching base with in one way or another?

Donaldson:   Yeah, in one way or another.

Panken:   Can we say a few things about each of them? Sonny Stitt, for instance.

Donaldson:   Well, Sonny Stitt for me was the number-two man behind Charlie Parker. I always thought that. Sonny Stitt. But Sonny Stitt was a guy who knew the saxophone so well, he could get anything out of it. But…like, Charlie Parker was the only one I know that play that way and still play the blues in all of his playing. Sonny Stitt was more technical, but he was great. Great guy.

Panken:   How about Cannonball Adderley? Did you become aware…

Donaldson:   Cannonball didn’t even come to New York until after Charlie Parker was dead. So he was a big thing. But he’d have come while Charlie Parker was alive, he wouldn’t have been anything like that. But he could play. He was nice. He was a nice guy as far as I know. He played a little Country-and-Western. Sometimes he sounded like a hillbilly, but…

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   I mean, he played corny. You know what “corny” is, don’t you?

Panken:   I do.

Donaldson:   All right. He played corny. But he knew the saxophone. He knew it. In fact, Miles asked me to play with him two or three times when he had Coltrane there, but I wouldn’t play with Miles, because Miles wasn’t reliable with money, and I couldn’t afford to play a week without bringing in some kind of income.

Panken:   Were you tempted?

Donaldson:   No. No way. Because I didn’t want to do what you have to do to people like that. Because he was an icon, people liked him, and I wouldn’t want nobody to see me hit him upside the head with a baseball bat or something.

Panken:   Were you a fan of his music?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I was a fan of his musicians. Red Garland I loved. Paul Chambers. And Philly.

Panken:   Did you get to know Coltrane?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew him. Coltrane’s from North Carolina.

Panken:   I was going to ask you about that. Monk as well had roots in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yes, Monk’s from Wilson, North Carolina. I knew Coltrane real well. He was a hard-working guy. But most of his stuff was drug-related.

Panken:   What do you mean?

Donaldson:   He’d get high, go in a room and play eight hours, you know, without coming out. Drugs. They don’t tell people that when they’re talking about him.

Panken:   What was your practice routine like?

Donaldson:   Oh, practice…

Panken:   I’m talking about then, the ‘40s, the ‘50s…

Donaldson:   I was working a lot then. I didn’t have no practice routine. When I started playing a lot, I never practiced, because I’d just go to work. If I got tired of playing a song, I just played it another key or something like that. Keep myself fresh. It made me think about what I’m doing.

Panken:   Back to alto players, did you get to know Jackie McLean well?

Donaldson:   I knew Jackie McLean well. He was like a brother.

Panken:   When did you meet him? When you got to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I lived up there. I lived on 155th. He lived on 158th. Sonny Rollins lived around the corner. Edgecombe Avenue. I’d see all of them. But these guys were junkies. They were junkies. Sorry to say, but I had no use for no junkies. Because I thought it would just be my luck to be talking to one of them and the police run up and get us—get everybody.

Panken:   You thought you’d be caught in the same net, you mean?

Donaldson:   You got it. Because all they did was hustle every day to try to get money, to get high. They had some musical talent. But they’re characters that I wouldn’t recommend.

Panken:   Now, people did change and get over their habits.

Donaldson:   I don’t know. I doubt it.

Panken:   When did you first meet someone who was strung out on drugs?

Donaldson:   When did I first MEET someone?

Panken:   Yeah. In North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Oh, no. No drugs in North Carolina. They’d give you thirty years for smoking weed down there. They didn’t have no junkies in North Carolina, not when I was there. When I got to New York, I saw plenty of junkies.

Panken:   So your attitude towards people who were abusing drugs was more based on self-preservation, it sounds like, than anything else…

Donaldson:   Well, actually, none of them played as well as they thought they was playing when they was high. I could have got somebody sober to play better. Because everybody was following Trane. But Trane jumped the track, and they jumped it right behind him. Now all of them are unemployed. I call that “unemployment music.” And they still play it. Disk jockeys and record companies are so stupid.  They don’t even acknowledge it because they’re stupid.

Panken:   Elaborate.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s a style of music that you can’t play in Atlanta.  Charlotte, North Carolina.  Birmingham. Big cities. St. Louis. You can’t play a steady gig there playing that.  Kansas City. All the big cities. You can play it in New York, maybe one joint in Chicago—although Joe Segal has now started mixing up his entertainment. Nowhere in California can you play it, not on a steady gig. And that’s very counter-productive.

Panken:   Back to alto players. Phil Woods was the fourth name I wrote down here. Were you and he friends in the ‘50s?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I like Phil. I like Phil very well, because Phil was one of the few white guys that, when he got famous, he didn’t forget the black guys. A lot of the white guys, once they got famous, made a couple of records and ran all off with the white bands. But Phil always kept some brothers around. Well, I guess he wanted the feeling in his band.

Panken:   Another alto player I can think of in the ‘50s who had his own sound was Lee Konitz. I recall when we did the DownBeat Blindfold Test, I gave you a track by him, and you had some interesting things to say.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know Lee Konitz. Lee Konitz is a sax-o-phon-ist. I wouldn’t call him exactly a great jazz player, but he’s a good saxophone player. Him and Paul Desmond, too. They sound like they’re playing clarinets. They don’t even have the sound.

Panken:   So for you, it’s very important to have…

Donaldson:   I mean, a SOUND. A bluesy sound. They don’t have it. They can’t play the blues, unfortunately. They play what they’re playing. But the blues, a different thing. And if you can’t play blues, you can’t play jazz, period. Now, if you can play it and don’t play it, you’re still not playing jazz—period. I listen to all the stuff Coltrane’s playing. No blues. In fact, I did a survey… I didn’t do a survey. Mark Elf, guitar player. I had him to monitor the public commercial radio stations. He got the best tune that was hot, something by 50 Cents or somebody, and he monitored that tune for a week. You know how much airplay they got?

Panken:   How much?

Donaldson:   715 times. And I had to monitor Coltrane and see how much airplay he got on a commercial station. You know how many he got?

Panken:   How many?


Panken:   That’s three. Oh, it’s zero.

Donaldson:   That’s zero! Not one. Now, that’s no good. You can’t even stay in business like that. Because you know, and anybody else knows, that years and years and years, we got a lot of play on commercial stations with Duke Ellington’s tunes and Count Basie, “April in Paris” and all that kind of stuff. We got play on commercial stations. But now jazz…kiss it goodbye. TV? I haven’t seen a jazz show since Tony Bennett was on there years ago, and brought Count Basie on there.

Panken:   I’m going to move into another area. You were one of the first jazz group leaders to use a conga player, as you were describing with Ray Barretto on those Blue Note dates from 1957. I think you used the phrase just now, “straighten out the rhythm.” What exactly did you mean by that, and what…

Donaldson:   Actually, I meant control. Now you can see today you’ve got these guys like Poncho Sanchez and a couple of more Latino musicians making a lot of money, because they put that beat with jazz. Because there’s no such thing as Latin Jazz. You can kiss that goodbye. That’s a misnomer. It’s jazz with Latin rhythm. That’s all it is. And when they keep that rhythm, which is the heart of the thinking in their music, they can sell the records. We could have done it ourselves if we’d kept our rhythm, with Kenny Clarke and Max… Those guys were shooting a little cocaine…shooting a little heroin and snorting a little cocaine—they didn’t want to swing any more. They wanted to take a solo. Most of the time, when somebody else is soloing. That’s what the problem is. That’s how they’re losing out.

Panken:   But what was the value for you of having the conga player?

Donaldson:   To steady down the rhythm. That’s all.

Panken:   You had done a date in 1955 with Gene Ammons. It’s the one sideman recording with you that I know of from that period. I know that he also liked to use the congas.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He used it a lot. Were you friendly with him?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   There’s something about your records in the ‘50s and his records…a very similar vibration.

Donaldson:   Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s a groove. A groove record. It’s a swing record. Groove records. It’s hard to say, but that’s what jazz is all about. If jazz was played the way they’re playing now, there would have never been any jazz. In fact, people have played like Coltrane and… Well, I don’t want to, you know, beat on a dead horse, but it sounds like he’s playing a concerto! He states a theme, and then he [SINGS WILD SCALE]. That’s not jazz. A lot of times, when you play the theme, you’re playing the jazz. You take a guy like Louis Armstrong. He played the same way until he died. He never changed one thing. And when he was an old man, he started making hit records. “Hello, Dolly” and this other one…” [SINGS REFRAIN OF “MACK THE KNIFE”] Now, the way he’s playing it, he’s playing jazz in the melody. That’s what makes it. Like George Shearing. You hear him play “I Got Rhythm.” George played [SINGS IMPRESSION OF SHEARING PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”]. Louis Armstrong doesn’t play it like that. He said, [SINGS IMPRESSION OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”] Man, he’s playing jazz in the melody.

A lot of people forgot that, and they go to these high-priced schools, they learn how to play music. They’re great musician. I mean, a lot of young saxophone players, they can really get over a saxophone. But they couldn’t play “Tea For Two.” I say, “Do you know ‘Tea For Two’?” “Oh, no, how does that go?” So I say, “How in the world can you play ‘Giant Steps’ and you can’t play the melody for ‘Tea For Two’?” there’s something wrong somewhere. That doesn’t make any sense.

Panken:   I think now we should stop for today, and we’ll get together tomorrow and bring this to the present.

Donaldson:   I hope so. Because we’re getting into some deep things about music now. I’m going to tell you why they should set Monk up in a different category. I’ll tell you exactly why he should be in a different category.

[END OF June 20, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken at Lou Donaldson’s house for day two of the Smithsonian Oral History Project interview. It’s June 21, 2012. Nice to see you again, Lou.

Donaldson:   Nice to see you.

Panken:   I’d like to return to what we started off with yesterday, and speak a bit more about your family. You had some information you were going to think of. For one thing, I’m not sure whether we got on tape what college your father went to.

Donaldson:   Livingstone College.

Panken:   He was a minister. Was that a theological college? A seminary?

Donaldson:   No… I don’t know. It might have been. But he was one of the first black students there. It was the oldest black college. I don’t know exactly what they taught there.

Panken:   You said your whole family were educators.

Donaldson:   Yup.

Panken:   Except you.

Donaldson:   Me, too. I’m the most educated. No, what I was saying was most of them had doctorates. I got a Bachelors, but they got…

Panken:   I said educators, not educated.

Donaldson:   Oh, educators. Oh, yeah. All of them were educators, right. All of them went into education. Schoolteachers and people like that.

Panken:   Can you talk about what kind of person your father was? Was he very strict.

Donaldson:   Ah, he was… It’s hard for me to say. He was just a father.  He wasn’t that strict because I never did anything to make him angry. He was a preacher and an insurance salesman, and every Sunday I had my duties and the regular stuff I had to do. But other than that, he was ok. Heh-heh.

Panken:   And your mother? You stated that she was a music teacher, and you didn’t want to take piano because of the threat of the strap, but…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   But what else can you tell us about your mother?

Donaldson:   Well, my mother had to be the greatest woman that ever lived. She was like, uh, the black mayor of Badin. Anything you had to do know once you crossed the tracks, they came to her to get the information. She was a powerful woman. Actually, she was a first grade teacher, so she knew all of the people in the town, because she taught them. She was a music teacher and she was choir director, and the church organist. So she did everything. She did everything in the town.  All the social activities. She just about (?—3:27) them. She sent all of us to college. We were the first kids from the town to really go to college. First black kids really to go to college. There were four of us.

Panken:   And they all played music, too?

Donaldson:   Yes, they played music.

Panken:   What did they play?

Donaldson:   They played piano.

Panken:   So European classical music?

Donaldson:   Not really. Just piano. Except my brother, he was a bandmaster. He played classics. He ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the director of the bands for years.

Panken:   High school?

Donaldson:   He was a high school teacher.

Panken:   That’s what I meant. He was director of high school bands.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, high school bands. Right.

Panken:   I can’t remember if I asked you this yesterday. Coming up as a kid in Badin, did you have any instructors other than your mother? You taught yourself, I guess you said.

Donaldson:   Oh, to play the clarinet?

Panken:   Yes, to play the clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I taught myself. And my mother…

Panken:   Your mother could help you a little bit.

Donaldson:   With the music and the notes. Keys. Signatures on the music and all that.  She didn’t know much about the clarinet, but I just read the book and found out about that.

Panken:   And you figured out the embouchure and all the details…

Donaldson:   Oh, yes. I figured all that out.

Panken:   Did you perform at all before you went to Greensboro?

Donaldson:   No!

Panken:   Did you play at home…

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I’d play at home, and I’d play down… I’d go down in the middle of town and play like marches and things that I’d learned. All the kids would come around, because I was the only one playing music in the town. They’d come out, and they would listen to me. I used to tell them, “One day you’re going to have to pay to see me play.” And now, every time one of them comes to see me play, I act like I don’t know ‘em. [LAUGHS]

Panken: You don’t really do that.

Donaldson:   Yes, I do.

Panken:   Do you?

Donaldson:   Yes, I do. I was at the Club Barron one night, and this guy, Arthur Merriweather… I played with him at North Carolina A&T, in the band. He was a great trumpet player. We had a jazz orchestra and everything. What happened, they caught me playing in the band room some Benny Goodman solos, and they took away my privileges. So I didn’t have anywhere to practice. So in the middle of the day, when everybody else was at class, I’d go into the shower room and practice. He used to come by and say, “Oh, you’re the shithouse clarinet player.” I used to tell him, “All right, one of these days you’re going to have…”

When I was at the Club Barron, the guy said, “A guy is at the door from A&T that knows you who says he wants to get in.” So I went out and I saw him. I said, “I don’t know him.” Ha-ha. “Don’t let him in; I don’t know him.” After I finished playing a couple of tunes, I saw him sitting in there. He’d gone out to the car and got a picture of the band from A&T, and brought it back to the door and showed the guy. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   That was very enterprising.

Donaldson:   I was sitting right by him in the band. [LAUGHS] I cracked up.

Panken:   Did you acknowledge his existence at that point?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. Of course. Of course. He was a great guy.

Panken:   So playing on a bandstand for people started when you were in college.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   First couple of years.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   The implication I got from the story you told about Great Lakes, where you peeked in and the bandmaster discovered you could play clarinet well… I’m interested in how you went from being a student to the idea that you were going to be a professional musician, how that crystallized in you.

Donaldson:   Well, once I heard the band at Great Lakes, I wanted to be a professional musician. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Panken:   So that made you think “this is what I want to do.”

Donaldson:   Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. After I heard Charlie Parker, that really solidified.

Panken:   But before that, you were talking about practicing the Benny Goodman solos.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Did you practice to a lot of clarinet players when you were 14-15-16?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no, no-no. It was just me. I’d send to New York and get his music…

Panken:   The transcribed solos.

Donaldson:   Transcribed. And Artie Shaw. People like that.

Panken:   But had you listened to Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw by that time?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I listened to them. I listened to them on radio. I told you we had a short-wave radio. We could pick it up late at night down in the South. We’d pick them up. When they got to 12 o’clock, we couldn’t…

Panken:   I wasn’t sure of the timeline, whether that was before the war or after the war that you were able to do that.

Donaldson:   that was during the war.

Panken:   Of course. You were 15 when the war started. But what I meant to say was, before you were drafted.

Donaldson: No, that wasn’t before then.

Panken:   Are you more like one of your parents than the other?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’m more like my mother.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, because she was a very passionate person, and she helped a lot of people. I tried to pattern myself after her. Actually, she just about controlled the black neighborhood in our town. Because many times, people would get into trouble, and she’d go over and talk to the sheriff—he’d let them go.

Panken:   So she knew how to approach the powers that be.

Donaldson:   She knew everything. Because she worked as a schoolteacher from September to June, and then she worked in the country club in the white section of town, which was a lot of big officials from the Alcoa Aluminum plant who lived in the country club. She was almost like an assistant to the woman that owned the club. She used to make me real angry. Because I told you she was just a passionate, nice person. Because somebody wouldn’t make up a room, like, she’d go in there and make it up herself. “Now, you’re not supposed to be doing that!” [LAUGHS] But she would, and had no thoughts about it. And you couldn’t say anything about race at the table, or else she’d pull out that switch.

Panken:   You mean say anything about race as far as saying anything about white people?

Donaldson:   As far as about white people. You couldn’t say nothing about white people. She loved white people. [LAUGHS] She loved the white people. Because we used to be mumbling stuff under the table, you know… Sometimes the sheriff would come over and, you know, shoot somebody or something. You know how it is down…

Panken:   The South, yeah.

Donaldson:   You couldn’t say anything about it. She wouldn’t let you do it. I never heard her say a bad word about anybody. Now, of course, that’s different from me. That’s one characteristic I didn’t pick up. Heh-heh…

Panken:   Was she a very religious woman?

Donaldson:   Of course. Religious. Very religious. She went to church four times every Sunday.

Panken:   Did you have to go to church?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I had to go to church. And once I got away from there, I haven’t been to another one.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   That’s right. I told my father, once I get away from here, that’s it.

Panken:   How much music was there in the church apart from your father’s playing organ?

Donaldson:   All kind of music. My mother knew more music than anybody I ever met in my life. When I was a little kid, I was singing a lot of stuff that people started singing later on.


Panken:   We were talking about church. Let’s start from the top. She was an organist, you went to church with her, and she knew all kinds of music.

Donaldson:   Yes. All kinds of music. When I was a little kid, I was singing songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I knew James Weldon Johnson—I knew about him. FMI(?—13:37), and all that stuff. “Precious Lord” and all those songs that the black composers wrote. I knew all about it. I knew all about Sojourner Truth and Highland Rebels, and all of them…black people after reconstruction. She taught us all of that.

Panken:   So you learned about black history.

Donaldson: She told us all about black history before I was 5 or 6 years old. We knew all about it.

Panken:   So her attitude about what you could talk about and couldn’t talk about at the table didn’t correspond to not giving you information about heritage.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I got the information. She gave me information about everything.

Panken:   Do you feel that those experiences… This is kind of an obvious question; I’m sure I know the answer. But do you feel that your musical experiences in church as a boy and a teenager have an impact on who you are now as a musician?

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Talk about that.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, we used to have these things down there they called sanctified meetings, where all the people would go to the church, and they’d start a beat [CLAPS THE BEAT], and they wouldn’t stop that beat for two or three hours. They’d be singing the spirituals. And after about two or three hours, the most dramatic stuff you ever saw in your life. People that had canes and had walkers and had wheelchairs would be up in the floor shouting. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] They used to have the sanctified meetings. It was amazing.

Panken:   And your father was leading the sermon?

Donaldson:   Well, not in that. That was something separate. He would preach on Sunday. But that was like in a special service in the middle of the week or something. And there would be a lot of preachers there.  A lot of preachers would come in from everywhere for that meeting, and everybody would have to testify and do all that kind of stuff.

Panken:   What was your father’s style of preaching?

Donaldson:   My father was a kind of in-between.

Panken:   In between what?

Donaldson:   In between intellect and… He would moderate his preaching to where the people could understand what he was talking about. But he was a real educated man. And back then, they didn’t like educated preachers. They liked preachers that used to yell and scream and… A lot of those preachers couldn’t even read the Bible. They’d have like a kid, a young kid reading the script, and they’d quote it after… It’s amazing. It’s a lot of stuff.

Panken:   So all those things factor into the voice you have on your instrument.

Donaldson:   Of course. The time, the tempo, the rhythm, the building up of like a solo—all of that goes into it.  And such wonderful singers. You never heard such wonderful singers in all of your life.

Panken:   Do you try to emulate that singing quality when you play the saxophone in any way?

Donaldson:   Actually, I was trying to emulate Johnny Hodges and those kind of people. I wasn’t really trying to emulate the church. Because I knew all of the… Like, Pete Brown, and another saxophone player I was very…I’d go to see him all the time…a cat who worked with Red Allen named Don Stovall. He had a beautiful sound. And he played like a ROUGH saxophone, and I tried to play stuff like him sometimes.

Panken:   Just stepping back again, was there any blues in town as a kid?

Donaldson:   In my town? Yeah, people would sing blues.

Panken:   Were you checking that out as a kid, or were you sheltered from it?

Donaldson:   Not really. Not really, because they’d be drunk when they started doing it, and I’d get away from there quick, because I’d know eventually what was going to happen. There would be some fracases. So I’d get away. Because they lived a tough life. They was working in this Alcoa Aluminum factory at 222 degrees Fahrenheit, and on the weekend everybody was drunk. And now that I’m old and I look back, I can see exactly why. That was tough work. Tough work. Because you worked ten years breathing those fumes and things, you had to be well messed up.

Panken:   You described the extraction process yesterday.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   And there was no EPA at that time.

Donaldson:   No-no.

Panken:   Just a little bit more about when you made the transition from clarinet to alto saxophone. Johnny Hodges was the prime first influence, and then Bird came into the picture? Is that kind of…

Donaldson:   Well, not really. All of them came into the picture about the same time. I heard Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington. In fact, he was the first saxophone player I got to see. Somebody had a video… We went to a town, I think it was Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a much larger town than mine, and I put a nickel… I saw Duke Ellington, so I put a nickel in the nickelodeon, because that’s all it cost to play a record, and they had a video of the band that came up while they were playing, and I got to see Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, all of those type guys.

Panken:   So he made a quick impression.

Donaldson:   A big impression. I wanted to play like that.

Panken:   I’ve asked a few people from your generation how they felt and what the experience was like when they listened to Charlie Parker for the first time. You’ve told me that you heard “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Jay McShann…

Donaldson:   Yeah, “Jumpin’ the Blues.”

Panken:   …and you saw Bird in Chicago…it had to be 1944, because that’s when he was with Eckstine. Can you describe for me the impact he had on you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, he was different. He was just different. The sound was different. The way he played was different, the way he would drive when he played, the power behind his phrases. Just different. And everything was swinging. Just different from anybody else. You actually would have to live back during that era to understand it. Nobody else was playing that way, but him.

Panken:   So it made you want to find out what he was doing…

Donaldson:   Find out what he was doing and play the same way. Play it the same way, if possible.

Panken:   How did you measure yourself in that regard? Did you just listen to the records over and over and over, and wear them out until you…

Donaldson:   That’s what I did. Listened to the record. I’d wind the record down to the aluminum base. They had an aluminum base. I’d cut it down. And when I couldn’t get the phrases, I’d put it down to 33-1/3 speed. It would be in another key, but you could still get the phrases. If you cut it down, he sounded like Lester Young—if you cut down the speed.

Panken:   How did you get the records?

Donaldson:   I got them from the guys in Chicago. See, some guys in my band came from Chicago, and they brought the records out to the base, and they’d be playing them?

Panken: Which records at the time? The Guild records with Dizzy Gillespie and Sid Catlett?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no.

Panken:   “Red Cross”? Or before that.

Donaldson:   No. Way before that. Wasn’t nothing like that out.

Panken:   Well, he made those dates in 1945, but I don’t know if they were out at the time.

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t hear that until later.

Panken:   But apart from “Jumpin’ Blues,” what other Charlie Parker solos did you learn…

Donaldson:   “Jumpin’ the Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” with McShann. A couple of more tunes. But all of them were with McShann.

Panken:   Everything with McShann. So your experience with Charlie Parker…

Donaldson:   Was with McShann.

Panken: After you got out of the Army, did you stay up on all of Charlie Parker’s records, the Dials and the Savoys?

Donaldson:   Of course. Stayed on everything.

Panken:   Did you do the same thing with those?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Copied everything. Played everything. Played the solos.

Panken:   How did you learn what to do with that information as a performer?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, the tunes that he did then were just variations of other tunes. So I’d learn the original tune, and compare that with what he was playing, and that gave you something to work on. It was nice.

Panken:   So you could use your imagination and creativity that way, by finding out the connections.

Donaldson:   Of course. Once I learned to resolve chords, go from one chord to another, I’d just buy the sheet music and I could see where the chords went.

Panken:   Now, I’m unclear from our conversation yesterday whether this was a solitary activity or whether you had people in Greensboro who were similarly interested in bebop and the new music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. Everybody in Greensboro was interested in it. My good friend, Carl Foster. This other guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, who was a great saxophonist.

Panken:   Billy Tolles was from Seattle, right?

Donaldson:   Seattle, Washington.  He was a great saxophone player. He could play all that kind of stuff when he came down to North Carolina.

Panken:   Now, the people you played with in Greensboro… Were you moonlighting outside of school? Did you ever do three-four days out on the road with a blues singer, or go to a dance…

Donaldson:   No, we played in clubs. And we played bebop. We played a regular show, then we’d play bebop. You had to play a regular show first. Then we’d play some bebop tunes.

Panken:   You mean at the end of the show.

Donaldson:   At the end of the show.

Panken:   Now, you said that’s been your m.o. ever since.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:    You play during the regular show things that will communicate to the average man and woman, and then you…

Donaldson:   Once you get them in your corner, then you play whatever you want to play. One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me (I don’t know whether I told you this before) is that when I came back from the Service, I didn’t have a saxophone…

Panken:   You didn’t tell me that.

Donaldson:   I had to go to the music shop to buy a saxophone. I didn’t tell you that?

Panken:   No.

Donaldson:   I was in there, so I started to play the… [SINGS REFRAIN OF “GROOVIN’ HIGH”] All of a sudden, I hear this guitar player over there playing the same thing I was playing. I looked around the corner at him, and it’s a white boy. He had all this paint over his clothes and paint on his face. He looked like a painted Indian. He was a sign painter. And I said, “Man, how you know that?” He said, “Well, I’m trying to learn all the bebop I can learn.” I said, “I’m glad I saw you. So there’s one person in this town…” He said, “Can I come down to the Cottage?” I said, “yeah, you can come down every time.” So he started coming down there every weekend, and we’d play. And you’d never guess who it was.

Panken:   I think I might know. Let me try one guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Tal Farlow?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow. He was from Greensboro. He’d come right down, and we played. We was integrating everything. Nobody said a word. They loved it. That was great.

Panken:   I got so involved in talking about your musical path, but I wanted to pick up on a couple of things you were mentioning just before we sat down and the tape went on about your extended family. I think you mentioned your grandfather, or was it an uncle, who was a stone-mason and built…

Donaldson:   Oh, my great-grandfather. He built St. Paul University. He built the buildings. He was a mason and a carpenter.

Panken:   Was that during Reconstruction times?

Donaldson:   It had to be in the 1920s.

Panken:   Your great-grandfather?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He would have been elderly at the time…

Donaldson:   Well, maybe my grandfather. My mother’s father. That’s who it was. My grandfather. A lot of my mother’s sisters taught in the college.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, and tell me if you do, how far back can you trace your lineage?

Donaldson:   Way back.

Panken:   Talk about that a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, I had the paper to show you, but my sister-in-law absconded with it, so… I didn’t know these people myself.  My mother told me all this. I never saw these people. I saw her sisters. See, my grandfather had three wives, three sets of children, and she was in the first set.  There were some younger ones.

Panken:   At the same time, or serially?

Donaldson:   Yeah, at the same time. He was… I guess he was a playboy, whatever he was. Bigamist. Whatever he was. He had three sets of children.

Panken:   Hard-working man. Where was he from?

Donaldson:   I guess he’s from Virginia. St. Paul, Virginia. I guess.

Panken:   Perhaps if you do find that sheet of paper, the Smithsonian can get a copy, and it can be entered into the record of the transcript later.

Donaldson:   Yes. Maybe I can find it.

Panken:   Let’s jump, then. Our conversation yesterday took us to about 1960, give or take, around the time when you make the transition from carrying a pianist in your band to starting to carry organ players, and when, apart from Jimmy Smith, you record with Big John Patton, you record with Baby Face Willette, projects like this. But first, I’d like to talk a bit more about the bands you recorded with in the late ‘50s. Some had Bill Hardman on the front line with you; some didn’t. Herman Foster or Horace Parlan were the pianists…

Donaldson:   George Tucker and Al Harewood.

Panken:   Also Peck Morrison and Dave Bailey.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   In general, what qualities did those musicians have in common?

Donaldson:   Well, for me, they weren’t junkies. That’s why I used them. Because like I told you, I told Alfred Lion junkies had to go.

Panken:   But how about as far as what they did musically?

Donaldson:   Well, we played around New York together. I’d see them all the time. We had two or three places we played, and then we had one place we’d play every night called Connie’s. That was at 134th and 7th Avenue. We played in Connie’s… After the rest of the clubs was closed, we’d go up there and play from about 5 til about 10 in the morning.

Panken:   You mean the breakfast session.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Was that all week, or just Monday?

Donaldson:   Every night. Right across the street was Roy Campanella’s liquor store. Any time some famous ballplayer would come over there, they’d run across the street and tell us, and we’d go over there and meet them. Don Newcombe, Hank Thompson… In fact, Leo Durocher was over there one time. We got to meet all the ballplayers.

Panken:   I guess the New York Giants were Harlem’s team.

Donaldson:   Of course. The New York Giants. And the Brooklyn Dodgers. They loved the Dodgers, too. I was there the night Campanella got hurt. [January 27, 1958] What happened… This is an amazing story. I was in Small’s Paradise. Wilt Chamberlain owned it at that time. I was over there talking to Wilt, and Campanella came in there because once… He closed up about 1 o’clock, and Wilt stayed open til about 4. There was a girl, a barmaid that Roy liked, so he came over, but it was snowing a little bit, not much… He sat there until about 4 o’clock. By that time, the snow was getting deep, real deep, and I started talking to him.  I said, “Roy, I know you’re not trying to go home in this snow.” He said, “No, I think I’m going to go down the street to the motel and stay there the rest of the night,” because there were some bad curves getting back to Brooklyn. I said, “Ok.” I never will forget it, because when I got in my car, I came up Bruckner Boulevard, which was a two-lane street then but they were making it a four-lane, and they had dug these trenches, and if you slid in one of those trenches you never could get your car out. So I drove my car in low gear from Harlem all the way right to this house in the Bronx. When I got in, I was so late… My wife said, “What in the world are you doing coming in so late?” I told her I couldn’t drive fast, because if the car got stuck I had no way to get it out. I drove right in the middle of the road because there was no other traffic out there.”

I got into bed, and she came in at about 12 o’clock and said, “Roy Campanella had an accident.” I said, “What you mean, accident?” He told me was going to the hotel. He wasn’t even going to try to go home.” She said, “Well, he did, and when he went around some curve, he got injured, and he’s paralyzed.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. When I finally saw him 3 or 4 months later, he told me, “I didn’t listen to what you told me. You told me not to do that.” I said, “Because it was too dangerous.” I went up Bruckner because that’s a straight line. Wasn’t no hills or nothin’ up there, just straight up the street. If I had to go down some curves, I wouldn’t have any gone anywhere either. That’s amazing. Amazing story.

Panken:   So you were really around and in direct contact with the elite of a lot of different worlds.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Everybody.

Panken:   In the black community mostly, but some in the white community, too.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. I could be called an historian. I met everybody, and I was out every night.

Panken:   Working.

Donaldson:   Working or looking. When I wasn’t working, I was looking. I met everybody. Everybody you probably can name, I met them.

Panken:   Wilt Chamberlain bought his interest in Smalls when? 1961? 1962?

Donaldson:   Something like that. I don’t know exactly. He had a lot of money.

Panken:   So you were working for him.

Donaldson:   Sometimes. Not all the time.

Panken:   You worked at Smalls. You worked the breakfast thing at Connie’s. Where else did you work in Harlem?

Donaldson:   I worked at the Club Barron. I worked at Count Basie’s.  He had a club. I worked down at the Baby Grand sometimes. Another place called the Top Club.

Panken:   About how many days a week would you say you were working from 1955 to the late ‘60s? 300 days a year?

Donaldson:   No, not that much. I wouldn’t work that much. There was three or four clubs out in Long Island I worked, too. Bop City and two more clubs out there I used to work.

Panken:   Brooklyn, too, I would think.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Brooklyn… I used to work the Baby Grand over there, and I used to work Scotty’s Club over there, and that other club on Fulton and Nostrand.

Panken:   Oh, not the Blue Coronet…

Donaldson:   The Blue Coronet. That was a tough club.

Panken:   Tough in terms of the clientele?

Donaldson:   That’s right. You had a few fights now and then.

Panken:   Again, talking about the band, do the Blue Note recordings from 1957-1958-1959, like Blues Walk or Sunny Side Up reflect what your band was playing in those clubs?

Donaldson:   No. Because I used all that on those things… I wasn’t even playing organ in those clubs.

Panken:   On Sunny Side Up you used piano. Horace Parlan.

Donaldson:   Oh, ok. Maybe I did. I went on the road with that group, Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Al Harewood, and I had Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   So the records were not a direct reflection of what you would do in the club.

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   How would it be different?

Donaldson:   Well, when they wanted a date, I’d just figure out something to do to make it. I’d change the personnel according to what I was playing at that time. What I used to do, I used to play… If I was going to make a date, two weeks before I made it, I’d play the tunes in the club to see what kind of response I got, and the ones I didn’t get a response to, I didn’t record, and I was home free. Because everything I made during that time, sold.

Panken:   Probably a lot of ‘78s also at that time.

Donaldson:   Many ‘78s.

Panken:   For the jukebox trade.

Donaldson:   Yeah, many ‘78s.

Panken:   When you started carrying an organ, it’s about 1960…

Donaldson:   Yeah, something like that.

Panken:   The first organist you traveled with extensively was John Patton, although you’d been doing some gigs with Jimmy Smith before that.

Donaldson:   Yeah, John Patton was the first one I took on the road.

Panken:   How did you meet?

Donaldson:   I don’t know how I met John. It was in New York. I met John Patton, Ben Dixon and Grant Green. We had a nice group. Nice group. I met Grant in East St. Louis, Illinois. In fact, I’m the one who brought him to New York.

Panken:   What was he like?

Donaldson:   He was a junkie.

Panken:   Can you separate your assessment of his personality from that, or does that define it for you?

Donaldson:   Yeah, he had no personality. A junkie got no personality. Junkie works 24 hours a day trying to get money to get a fix. That’s that personality.

Panken:   But you must have really liked his playing…

Donaldson:   I loved his playing.

Panken:   You had a group with him for several years.

Donaldson:   But I didn’t take him on the road.

Panken:   Oh, you didn’t.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I never took him once on the road. Because they got the ten-year Mann Act. You cross the line with some drugs, goodbye—you’re gone. I never took him with him me. I didn’t take that chance.

Panken:   Who did you take on guitar with you at that time?

Donaldson:   I didn’t have a guitar. I took Bill Hardman on trumpet. Then I took Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   How did you meet Bill Hardman?

Donaldson:   I met him in Cleveland.

Panken:   Where he was from, where he grew up.

Donaldson:   That’s where he was from, yeah. He came by to sit in, and I liked him, so I hired him.

Panken:   I’d like to ask you a general question about balancing your creative impulses with the function of doing the gig, and how you satisfy your creativity within the dictates of making a living?

Donaldson:   What we did, we had one set we would play in a new place where we worked, called a “feel ‘em out set.” We played blues, then we’d play a little fast one, then we’d do some swing, then we’d play some other stuff, and whichever way the people went, that’s where we stayed. Stayed. That’s the secret. Most musicians who have work, they know it. They know how to do that. That’s still… Like I told you, we’d play exactly what they wanted to hear for the first set. Second set, they’re getting drunk. Third set, they’re real drunk. So we would play “Cherokee” or anything then. They didn’t know what it was. Because they’re drunk!

Panken:   One thing I’ve noticed seeing you in person however many times it’s been, is that you play everything as though you were playing it the first time, which is what Illinois Jacquet and what I’m sure most of the saxophonists who were your role models did. How do you do that? Do you play tricks with yourself? Is it a natural thing…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s what it is. You try to make yourself play different. It’s hard to do, but you try to do that while you’re playing the same songs all the time. Hard to do it, but you have to do it.

Panken:   What tricks do you play on yourself? If you’re not giving away trade secrets…

Donaldson:   No, ain’t no trade secrets. No tricks. We just play different phrases, different things on the same changes. We play on what we call chords and resolutions. Now, sometimes when I used to play on the road, we’d play the song so much because the people were requesting it, so I’d just start playing it in another key. It made me think about what I was playing. Because I played them in one key so long, I didn’t even think about it. I just went up there and played it. But if I had to play it in another key, I’d have to think. So that kept my mind sharp.

Panken:   For instance, every time I hear you go into whatever blues you’re presenting at that time, singing it, or other things you play that I can’t think of right now, there’s a certain conviction to it, a freshness. It’s the way James Moody would do his signature tune, or Jacquet would play “Flying Home.”

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   That’s difficult to do?

Donaldson:    No, not really. You build up to it. You play a variety of tunes, and when you get to that one, you’re ready. You’re ready to play it.

Panken:   You moved into the house we’re conducting this interview in, in 1963, was it?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In 1964, you start a couple of years recording for the Cadet label. What precipitated that, and what was it like functioning on Cadet?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, Esmond Edwards, who was the A&R man at Prestige, went over to Argo, and he went over there and they gave him a lot of money, so he paid us 3 or 4 times what we were making at Blue Note. So I went over and made a couple of tunes. That’s the only reason.

Panken:   It sounds like you were functioning mostly as your own producer for Blue Note after you came back in 1957. Was that the case at Cadet, or were those more produced?

Donaldson:   I produced them. Just about everything you see on a record is produced by me.

Panken:   One of the records on Cadet, if I’m remembering correctly, is the first one I can think of where you’re working in a larger ensemble, like maybe 8 pieces, with arrangements behind you… Did you approach the Cadet dates any differently than Blue Note?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Same thing.

Panken:   The date I mentioned is Roughhouse Blues. Oliver Nelson did the arrangements.

Donaldson:   Oliver Nelson, yeah.

Panken:   That’s the first one I can think of (I may be wrong) where you functioned with an arranger. Everything before that was a combo date.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Why didn’t you do more larger dates before? Why was everything a combo?

Donaldson:   Because the other stuff was selling. We didn’t want to rock the boat. Next thing I did was the one with Duke Pearson, Lush Life.

Panken:   That was in 1967. Which I have to say, personally, is one or my 2 or 3 favorites of yours.

Donaldson:   That’s a beautiful record. A couple of records I made myself, and then George Butler added two or three pieces on it, but it wasn’t really me.

Panken:   Would those be the early ‘70s things on Blue Note…

Donaldson:   Yeah. They overdubbed them. Messed them up actually. But it doesn’t matter.

Panken:   I want to ask about the way you developed your group sound in the ‘60s. Alligator Boogaloo or Midnight Creeper are a very different sound and approach than, well, Lush Life, but also the records with Big John Patton four-five years before.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you speak about evolving towards that way of thinking about making records and your sound, and how it reflected the audiences you were playing for and what was going on around in the music, which was changing in the ‘60s…

Donaldson:   I met Earl Bostic in ‘57, and he told me… I was playing a Brilhart mouthpiece, and he told me, “Get rid of that and get a Meyer.” He said a Meyer is better for the Selmer saxophone. He was right, and I got a different sound. Much clearer. I got the new sound, so I started playing slightly different. Not much. Slightly different.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, I started making a lot of groove records. The groove records depend on the groove. You don’t have to worry about anything else really but the groove. Because if you’ve got the right tempo, and everything is hitting where it’s supposed to hit, you’re in business. You can play variations on it, do anything on it, but if the groove is there, you’re in business.

Panken:   Are you saying you started to do that in ‘57-‘58, after you got…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Those earlier records seem to be a mixture of those sorts of tunes, and bebop tunes and popular tunes and blueses…

Donaldson:   Yeah. It was a mixture of bebop and swing.  That was the formula we used. And all those records were selling, too.

Panken:   But in the ‘60s, after you’d been touring with an organ for a while, and you pick up Lonnie Smith and George Benson and Leo Morris, also known as Idris Muhammad…the sound of those records is very different than the sound of the records by the previous bands.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that’s Rudy. Rudy got some new equipment, some new Telefunken equipment. Plus, that’s a great band you’re talking about.

Panken:   I’d like to know how the band came together.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, John Hammond fired George.

Panken:   In 1966.

Donaldson:   George was with Columbia. John Hammond fired him, and George… I knew it. I used to see George all the time. So I said, “Well, you ought to come and make a record with me if he fired you.” And he did. Lonnie was in his band so I got both of them at the same time.

Panken:   Anything else you’d care to say about how you addressed things with this band?

Donaldson:   Well, no. See, he had a great band. He had Ronnie Cuber… He had a great band himself. That told me right there that John Hammond didn’t know the first thing about talent. Because he wouldn’t know it, and the people listening to this or reading this are going to be surprised, because John Hammond fired George Benson (I mean, not fired him—let him go), Aretha Franklin, and Eddie Harris, and the next record each one of them made, you know what happened? A hit record. The next record they made, a hit record. Eddie Harris made Exodus. Aretha Franklin, I don’t know what she made, but you know what happened with her—everything she made was a hit. And George, the next record he made with me, which was a hit, and then he went on to CTI, started singing, and that was a hit. John Hammond missed all three of those people. They were right on the label.

Panken:   You were touring with them in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What was band like live? Were you following the same format or stretching out more?

Donaldson:   We stretched out a little more on the “Impressions”(?—53:36) stuff.

Panken:   Now, your relationship with Lonnie Smith has been ongoing ever since…

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   …and it’s one of the great partnerships in this music. Can you talk about your interplay?

Donaldson:   We were so compatible, we just made records for years—15-20 years.

Panken:   Thirty.

Donaldson:   All of them were selling. That’s another thing. A lot of people say, “Well, you made all those records.” I say, “Yeah, but you got to understand; if you make a record for a company and it doesn’t sell, that’s your last record.” What we did, we’re going to sell some records, even if it’s not a hit. It’s going to sell some records, enough to keep us on the label. It worked that way.

Panken:   Working with Idris Muhammad put a completely different framework on what you were doing.

Donaldson:   He’s a great drummer. Great drummer.

Panken:   Did he come as kind of a package deal with George Benson and Lonnie Smith?

Donaldson:   No-no. I saw him down in New Orleans, and I got him from there. He was down there. I got him from down there. He’s a great drummer. Great beat.

Panken:   it was a somewhat different beat than you’d been working with.

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Can you talk about that a bit?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to talk about. It was just a different beat. He used to, like, ruffle on the drums, RRRPPP, DUH-DUHT-DUH-DUHT, RRRPPP. He had a different thing, that he was sliding on the drums. Other drummers hadn’t picked that up, and that was a big hit.

Panken:   Those beats in still in common parlance. They’re being sampled…

Donaldson:   Yeah, but they don’t sound like him. Unfortunately.

Panken:   I’m asking about these sides because they’re still resonating with deejays, samples, in popular music… As you were describing earlier, though perhaps not this piece, Madonna had sampled a beat from one your sides, and you got a big check; Mary J. Blige has used these beats; and so on… Which is why I’m interested in what you were thinking about then in modifying your group sound in the latter part of the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no special effect. It was just that we were playing, and everybody played well together. That’s what made it sound like that.

Panken:   So it had to do with everyone expressing their personalities on their instruments…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   How would you say the audiences changed in the late ‘60s, or did the circuit change…

Donaldson:   Maybe a little, but not much. Maybe a little, but not much. See, at that time you had a lot of organ groups going around. Groove Holmes. McDuff. Don Patterson. Jimmy McGriff. A lot of organ players going around. We had a little circuit that we played, which I told you about, and we just went around it. We kept going around and around.

Panken:   So the slump that of jazz musicians encountered at this time didn’t really affect you…

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   …because you were able to stay on your circuit.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   How long did that last? Did things ever slow down, or did it stick…

Donaldson:   It didn’t really slow down. I just stopped making it when I got to making a little bit of money. A lot of places we played couldn’t pay. Because we played some of those places at a bare minimum. But it didn’t matter because we played consecutively. Sometimes I’d be at a club, and I knew I was going to be there for two weeks. So I’d just call around to the next down, and make a deal with somebody there, and we’d go over there and play. I was booking myself.

Panken:   You were traveling so much… I’d like to move onto a completely different tack. You were married for 56 years.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   And you were traveling half the time.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   It sounds like a very strong marriage.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. My wife was from close to my hometown. I knew her many years before we got married. She saved every penny, heh-heh…

Panken:   So you sent it home.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I sent money orders. Every week I’d send money orders. She raised the kids and put both of them through college. Both of them went on to get doctorates.

Panken:   What are your kids’ names?

Donaldson:   One of them, this one up here [POINTS TO PHOTOGRAPH BEHIND HIM] died. Lydia.

Panken:   With the violin?

Donaldson:   No, that’s Tracy. That’s my granddaughter. See, they moved…they changed the house around, so I don’t even know what’s up there any more.

Panken:   How many kids did you have?

Donaldson:   I had two.

Panken:   Lydia was one.

Donaldson:   And Carol.

Panken:   They both got doctorates.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:  In what, if I may ask?

Donaldson:   Carol’s is in psychology, and Lydia’s was in education. Some kind of… I don’t remember exactly what it was. In other words, she was a procurer for teachers down in Broward County.

Panken:   Oh, in Florida.

Donaldson:   Yes. She traveled all over the United States to the Black colleges, and tests the students and see if they were qualified to come back down there and teach.

Panken:   Was your wife working during those years?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So you were able to support a family of four and send them to college as a constantly working musician, playing live, recordings… Did you ever do other sorts of sessions? New York had a huge studio scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s…

Donaldson:   All I did was background. I did background sometimes with Charlie Singleton’s band. Background for singers. We did backgrounds. But they always stole the material, so it didn’t matter.

Panken:   With your skill sets, reading and technique, it sounds like you would have done very well in the studios. For example, Phil Woods nailed a lot of those kind of gigs. I don’t know how much racial politics entered the equation… But was it ever a temptation for you to try to do the studio thing?

Donaldson:   Too confining. Too confining, and I wanted to be, not free, but have flexibility.

[END OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Before we paused, I was asking about the New York studio scene in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and whether that had tempted you at all. You stated it was too confining. Where I want to go from that is, when did you know you wanted to be the leader of a group? You haven’t done a whole of sideman things for 55 years or so.

Donaldson:   I knew I wanted to be a leader when I started working for guys that were junkies. Because they wouldn’t pay you. Rather than to beat them up, guys that I liked, I just said, “Well, I’ll get my own stuff.” Because I was tempted many times to go to work, heh-heh…

Panken:   Take matters into your own hands, so to speak?

Donaldson:   Go to work. One time Buhaina didn’t pay me. I said, “Buhaina, you’re a big rough guy, but you’re a junkie and I’m sober. All I got to do is wait for you to start nodding, and I’ll pull out my baseball bat…,” heh-heh-heh…

Panken:   To which he responded?

Donaldson:   “I bet you would do that.” I said, “Yeah, I would. I’m not gonna fight you fair!” [LAUGHS] But actually, it was so sad… But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And most people who are interested in jazz…

One time I played down in Washington, in the park, sort of like a Jazzmobile. It was on a Saturday. It was from 5 to 8. So I’m playing, and at the end, it was still light and everything, and I said, “Man, let’s drive back through Baltimore and catch Miles,” because Miles was at a place called the Wagon Wheel, down on Pennsylvania Avenue. So we drove, we went from about 30 miles from Washington to Baltimore, and when we get to the club, Philly Joe, Red, and Paul are sitting out on the curb, the drums out there and the bass out there. I said, “What you all doing out here?” They said, “the guy wouldn’t give us any money.” I said, “What you mean he wouldn’t give you your money? You’re working, aren’t you?” They said, “Yeah, but Miles drew out the money last night. He said he was going to New York and he was coming back—and he didn’t come back.” Heh-heh-heh… The guy was angry. It was a wonder the guy hadn’t beat ‘em up.

I said, “Well, I can’t take you to New York.” But I had my station wagon and I had my organ back in the U-Haul, and I didn’t really have any luggage or anything in the station wagon because I hadn’t intended to stay over at night. So all of them crammed back in there, put the bass and everything back in my wagon, and I drove over to Philadelphia, which wasn’t but about 50 miles. When I get to the outskirts of town, I pull into the gas station. They thought I was going to get some gas. But I said, “This is it.” They said, “What do you mean, man? We’re not in Philly yet. We can’t…” I said, “You don’t think I’m going to drive into Philadelphia with you guys, and all you guys are junkies.” Because they had a guy over there named Rizzo.

Panken:   Yes. Frank Rizzo.

Donaldson:   Frank Rizzo. I knew you’ve heard of him! Every time somebody would come over there, he’d pick, them up, especially Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. That was his favorite duo. I said, “No way. I’m not driving into town.” So they had to call, they had to call and call. So they finally got somebody to come out there and get them. I said, “Ok, I’ll see you.”

So I came home to New York. When I was here for a week, Red called me. He said, “Man, we quit Miles, we quit Miles. Miles would never come up with…” I said, “Red, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” I said, “You guys are the greatest; you’ve the greatest rhythm section in the world.” I said, “I’m going to rent the Audubon Ballroom,” the place up there where Malcolm X got shot. So I went up and rented it for a month, and I played it every Sunday from 5 to 9, Lou Donaldson and the Red Garland Trio. Now, every week, Miles came up—about three times. So they’re hugging, and I know where they’re going to get some vitamins once they got that money…

The business got so good, we hired Betty Carter as a vocalist. I was raking in money! Philly Joe didn’t like Betty Carter, because Betty Carter was young then, and beautiful, singing straight-ahead, you know. She wasn’t doing her crazy stuff.  Every time she’d sing “Perdido,” she’d put her hips up in the air, and the people would go crazy. So he’d drop a bomb or do something. She came to me and said, “Hey, Lou, you got to stop that. Every time I start doing my song, Philly Joe messes it up.” So I went and I said, “Joe, listen. You can’t do that. The girl is trying to get over. Give her a break.” “All right, all right, all right.” But then, when the crowd started really screaming again, he said, “YAAAHHH.” He couldn’t stand it. Put another bomb in there. Finally, Jack Whittemore came up there and had a couple of gigs for Miles, and Miles guaranteed he was going to pay them, so they went back with Miles. But see, a lot of people don’t know that. [LAUGHS] I said to myself, “Man, I might as well get me a group and go out on the road,” and that’s what I did. I got me a group and went out on the road. And it worked out fine. Wonderful.

Panken:   You were able to be friendly with people whose personal behavior you disapproved or you felt would damage you.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   You could separate your feelings in that regard.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’m an amazing guy, because I’m the only guy… Say, like, a guy like Miles… Miles did some bad things to people. He never did it to me. Any time I talked to him, he’d come up and we’d talk.

Monk. Monk would hardly talk to people. People asked Monk, said, “How you doing, Monk?” He’d just look at them. He wouldn’t say a word. Every time I saw him, we’d talk. We’d talk a long time. We were very friendly. In fact, I used to really feel sorry for Monk, because back then, his music wasn’t compatible. I started to say I’d take Monk on a couple of gigs, but I knew I’d get fired, not because of the way he played, but the way he acted. Because he’d sit up there and smoke a cigarette, wouldn’t say anything to anybody. You can’t do that in a ghetto club. You’ve got to be friendly with the people, or somebody will start bothering you.

I used to work with Elmo Hope. He used to work in the band with me with Dud Bascomb. We worked over in Jersey. I used to pick him up every night. What happened, the reason I stopped picking him up is that Ron Jefferson, the drummer, went down to a Cadillac place down there on 10th Street and bought him a Cadillac, and he was coming back home, and just before he got to Central Park, he picked up Freddie Redd, and they started home. People were standing out there waiting for him to come with the car. They had a party going on in there… Shit, he never even got through the park. The police got him. And Freddie Redd had some drugs. They took the car, put him in jail, and he never even reached home with his car. I said, “My God!”  So I told Elmo, “Look, Elmo, what I want you to do is to go down to the Holland Tunnel…there’s a subway stop right there, just before you go in the tunnel.” I said, “I’ll pick you up there every night.” So I’d pick him up right there, go through the tunnel, we’d work in Jersey, and come back, and I’d put him out right back there. I said, “I’m not driving through town with you in my car.”

Because junkies are hazardous people. Real hazardous. I remember one night I was coming up to 110th Street, Central Park, and I stopped at a light. They said, “Wait a minute. I got to get out, I got to get out.” So I thought he was going out there to take a leak or something. So he comes back and opens the back door, and I hear this noise back there, CLING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING. So I took back there. Four hubcaps. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, are you crazy?! Not only… You weren’t out there but a few seconds. Where did you get four hubcaps?” You know what he had? He had a can opener.

Panken:   That was a resourceful way to do that.

Donaldson:   I said, “Man, you ought to be… You could get away from the FBI.” [LAUGHS] They were some crazy people. Crazy people.

See, I got away from all of that by getting me a band with no junkies. Didn’t make much money, but we had a nice time.

Panken:   You mentioned yesterday that you hired Cecil Taylor to do some gigs. That must have been the middle ‘50s.

Donaldson:   I didn’t actually hire him. I had Freddie Redd. And when I came to work, Cecil was sitting…you know, bifocals. I said, “Who is that?” Didn’t nobody really know his name. So I started to playing, and he started playing. And he club-owner… Now, this guy…

Panken:   Which club was this, by the way?

Donaldson:   Showman’s Bar. Right next to the Apollo Theater. That’s where it was located then. This guy was a Jewish guy named Willie. Willie knew everything about music, at least he thought he did, but he didn’t know anything about it… But what happened, he came by there and he said, “Lou, who is this guy?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, if you want this job, he better not play any more. See, if he plays any more, that’s the end of it.” I said, “What?” So I went over there and I told Cecil. I said, “Cecil, you’ll have to stroll a little bit,” you know, lay out this chorus. He said, “How many choruses?” I said, “For the rest of the night.” [LAUGHS] For the rest of the night! And he did it. He did it, too.

Panken:   Let me ask you this. As objectively as you can, talk to me about how you were responding to some of the ideas that percolating in 1959 and 1960, when Coltrane was moving towards what he went to, and Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot. Without invective… Because when we did the Blindfold Test a few years ago, you said some very interesting things about Ornette Coleman. I’m interested in how you processed that when it was coming out.

Donaldson:   Well, I’m telling you. The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, we were… I was working in the Five Spot before he came there. Before Monk came there, too. It was groups like mine that kept the place open, because we didn’t make any money—$15-$20. First time I heard him, I said, “Man, they say this guy is a genius…” I said, “I didn’t know I was a genius; that’s the way I sounded the first day I got my horn before I learned where the notes were. That’s the way I played. So if he’s a genius, I’m a genius and I don’t know it.”

And Coltrane… See, Coltrane used to come down and play with Monk, and he’d run down in the basement after every set, rehearsing his songs and things that he had to play with Monk. Then he’d come back up and play them. It was strange music. Real strange music. It’s like overplaying music. Because you can give a person so much, but then you got to stop. Because if you overplay the music, that’s it. It’s all over.

Panken:   Did you listen to Coltrane’s records later in the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   I listen to everything. I keep up with all music.

Panken:   Talk about that some.

Donaldson:   Well, he started to get worse and worse, when he started making his stuff like “Ascension” and all that kind of stuff. It’s really some out music.

Panken:   Did you like records like “Ballads” or the record he did with Duke Ellington or things like that?

Donaldson:   No. I like nothing he did. To me he’s an amateur saxophone player. He plays the tenor like an alto. He never gets the pure tone out of a tenor, like a tenor saxophone player. In fact, they played a record by him the other day. I was listening to Sirius. And right behind that they played a record by Ike Quebec. Such a difference. Such a difference, I’m telling you. For me, I don’t understand why the critics don’t see that, but they don’t.

Panken:   That brings me to a whole other question, which is the way you’re received by writers, critics, the broad discourse about the music? Do you feel you’re properly understand? Insufficiently understood? Misinterpreted? Overlooked?

Donaldson:   Well, I don’t know. I’m a different kind of… See, I’m a guy that tries to play the traditional stuff, and I’ll stretch out a little—sometimes, but not much. They wanted to say I wasn’t playing jazz when I went to play on these funk records. But actually they’re not funk records. They’re swing records. The records are swinging more than… Because I changed the beat of the drums. See, my records, you don’t hear the same drum-beat. Like Eddie Harris. You don’t hear the same beat. Different kind of records, and they sell like mad. That’s why I did it, because I knew they would sell. See, because Coltrane with Elvin in there, he was never going in there.

Panken:   Well, he did sell a lot of records. You don’t agree?

Donaldson:   Ah…I don’t know about a lot of records. I mean, you hear them on the jazz station. He didn’t sell no records.

Panken:   We don’t have enough time to debate it, but A Love Supreme sold a lot of records.

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Oh, you think that’s exaggerated?

Donaldson:   Yeah. That’s just a lot of BS. Herb Alpert had ten straight one-million-dollar record-sellers. Did he do that?

Panken:   Now, is that the criteria?

Donaldson:   If you’re talking about selling records. Selling records is selling records.

Panken:   In your opinion, why do you think Coltrane struck such a chord with a lot of people in the jazz public, younger people particularly, during the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Well, he’s a junkie. Any time you see a junkie, and people like that. They like that. He used to play one chorus for an hour. That’s not no… And he played a lot of harmonics and technical things. Got nothing to do with jazz. Jazz, you can play one or two notes on a tune. You don’t think so, you listen to Gene Ammons. I used to see Gene and Sonny. Sonny used to eat Gene up playing stuff. Sonny was a technician. Gene played two or three notes. People didn’t even want to hear Sonny any more.

Panken:   You did both, kind of.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   You’re kind of a cross between Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s what I said. I’m one of the in-between musicians. I try both sides. See, Trane… I listened to Trane… I took one of the old saxophone players, Wild Bill Moore. Now, he used to rock-and-roll, walking the bar, all that kind of saxophone playing. I let him hear “Ascension.” So he listened to it. I said, “What you think?” He said, “He sounds like a wounded rhinoceros that somebody shot and left out in the woods and died.”

Panken:   How did you feel about Sonny Rollins’ playing in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Not much. ‘50s good. ‘60s not-good. Sonny Rollins was a great saxophone player in the ‘50s. But once he went onto that bridge… It was reported that a cross-tie fell on his head while he was on…

Panken:   That’s not nice…

Donaldson:   That’s what they tell me. A cross-tie fell on his head. Just to see him now, it’s sad. Very sad. He looks like Santa Claus.

Panken:   Do you feel that you’ve been somewhat overlooked by people who write about the music? Not the public.

Donaldson:   Not really… Oh yeah. By the people who write. Yeah, of course. Of course. Of course. I told you I just went to Europe, and every place was sold out.

Panken:   Now, when did you start going to Europe regularly?

Donaldson:   The ‘70s and ‘80s.

Panken:   Is it different playing for a European audience than let’s say an inner city…

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Do you do the same thing, or do you take a different presentation?

Donaldson:   I play the same thing. Same thing. Same thing. This guy Wim Wigt started booking me.

Panken:   Hence, you started recording for Timeless and other…

Donaldson:   Timeless, yeah. He even made an album called The Forgotten Man. He said, “People forgot about you.” I said, “they didn’t really forget about me, because I started working, and I wasn’t in town.” I was working like on the road. And the jazz critics, people, they don’t get around that much.

Cut that off for a minute.

[PAUSE AT 22:42]

Panken:   [22:49] We were talking about critics, the press you received, and being perhaps misunderstood or improperly evaluated.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, evidently, there are some people that are not too knowledgeable about what jazz really is, and when they see somebody trying to play straight-ahead, they probably say they’re not keeping up with the trends, you know. Because you take people like Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks, or this other guy who used to work with Bill Doggett… All these young saxophone players around New York…

Panken:   In the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Donaldson:   …when they would get stuck, they’d come to me and learn the changes to the songs. I read a book about hardbop in the ‘60s, and the guy didn’t say a thing about me. I was talking about Percy France, was another one.

Panken:   You have that book in your bookshelf. [Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, by David Rosenthal]

Donaldson:   Yeah.  Percy France. Percy France and all of these people. I read it. I said, “I don’t know how he could have figured that out.” Hard for me to say. At one time, I used to work down at the place down there on…not the 5-Spot, what’s the other place down there…

Panken:   Sweet Basil?

Donaldson:   Sweet Basil. I was the house band there. I played all the time. The place was full of people every night. Never got a writeup.

Panken:   When was that? In the ‘80s?

Donaldson:   The ‘80s.

Panken:   Mostly with Herman Foster.

Donaldson:   Herman Foster most of the time.

Panken:   You linked up with him again for a long time in the ‘80s before you went back to the organ format.

Donaldson: They never said a thing about Herman, and Herman was a genius. Herman was a guy… Sometimes we’d play a year and never have a rehearsal. He knew everything. He was a genius. We played a concert once in Belgium. The guy had Dave Brubeck on there. I went and told the promoter, “You’d better let us play last, because if we play before Dave Brubeck, people are going to leave.” He said, “No-no-no, this is Dave Brubeck.” So Herman got to doing his stuff. Shee… Dave Brubeck came on, and everybody was outside trying to get Herman’s autograph.

Panken:   Now, in the ‘80s, it seems like the climate changed somewhat because of the infusion of young musicians who were interested in playing the music…who paid attention to the hardcore jazz tradition. It got more acoustic in some ways. Wynton Marsalis had something to do with it, but also Art Blakey brought all these guys into the Jazz Messengers. And you’ve kept track of the young alto players who emerged during that time, like Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What’s your impression of that… Well, they’re not young any more; they’re middle-aged, in their forties and fifties. But your impression of that particular period and how things played out with that group of alto players. Your sense of the state of the alto saxophone these days.

Donaldson:   Well, back in those days, see, Art Blakey had those Messengers… That was like a scam band. He did that so he could keep his habit going. He wasn’t interested in promoting no musicians. He talked it all the time, but he wasn’t. Because the reason all of them quit was as soon as one of them would ask him about the money, he’d get another one. [LAUGHS] See, I know that, but the critics don’t know that.

Panken:   Nonetheless, it did wind up being probably beneficial in the long run for these guys to have the chance to do that.

Donaldson:   For some of those musicians. Yeah, Wynton got famous with that. Wynton got famous with that, and he’s still famous.

Panken:   But apart from that band, just your sense of this group of musicians who started to emerge then? Was it a healthy thing for the music? Did it change the climate?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s always healthy when somebody new comes in. Because it’s like new blood. It’s always healthy. But what happens is that you get so many people… Lee Morgan was one of them, too. You get so many people until you can’t…you got a whole lot of chiefs and no Indians.  Because when they leave Art, they want to get a band. So what you got is a lot of bands, but no musicians, and no real definite sound. Now, you notice that nobody, even now, is dominant. What’s the alto saxophone player that’s dominant? I mean, other than Kenny G. David Sanborn. No jazz alto saxophone player is dominant.

Panken:   What do you make of that? Too many chiefs, no Indians, or…

Donaldson:   Well, not necessarily that. It’s because all of them come through the same thing, and they’re not playing anything, because all of them are playing the same.

Panken:   Is that because of the way jazz education is now? Coming up in conservatories and not bands?

Donaldson:   Well, partly. Partly. Partly. But anybody who comes through school and learns all the basics, they got to know that everybody is not supposed to sound the same. If you go through the school and learn the basics, you know that.

Panken:   Well, they have to sound a little different. When we did the Blindfold Test, you told them all apart. You could pinpoint who Donald Harrison was, and who Kenny Garrett was, and who Vincent Herring was…

Donaldson:   Yeah. Well, still you got to… Right now, I don’t know. Nobody is dominant. We did a survey, which the critics don’t know about. A cat bet me $100 that… I bet him $100 to $500 that I could stand down at the Apollo Theater and pool the people when they came by, and it would be ten times more people that knew Kenny G than knew Sonny Rollins. You know how it came up? We didn’t even have to stay there but about a half-hour. Everybody he asked about Sonny Rollins said, “Oh, yeah, I know him; he plays with the Boston Celtics. He’s with the Giants.” Not a living ass knew who Sonny Rollins was. Then he started asking people about Kenny G. Everybody he asked knew Kenny G. In fact, a lot of the people who came by there knew me. “Hey, Lou, what you doing out here?” But I told him, “I’m famous in Harlem; I used to live right on 127th and 8th Avenue. I know all about Harlem.”

But that’s just the way it is. It’s a sad situation. Sad situation.

Panken:   I’m going to ask one final question. I asked you about feeling…whether you’ve been overlooked, underrated somewhat. And you’re now in receipt of an NEA Jazz Masters Award. It hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be by the time this comes out. Does that mean something to you? How are you reacting to it?

Donaldson:   It’s a prestigious award. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m 86 years old…85 years old. It doesn’t mean a thing to me. Because I figure I should have had an award 25-30 years ago.

Panken:   I wouldn’t disagree.

Donaldson:   In fact, I could have had it if I’d wanted to. They invited me to the first or second or third time they gave out the award, but I was on the road and I couldn’t get back to New York to go to the meeting. I’m pretty sure I would have got it then. But it doesn’t bother me, because I’m very fortunate. I’m one of the horses who got out the stall. A lot of these guys get blocked in, and they’re down for years. Not me. I was lucky.

Panken:   Well, you know what Branch Rickey said.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   “Luck is the residue of design.”

Donaldson:   Yup. Yup. But, see, music… Let me tell you something about music before you cut this off. You talk about Wynton. Now, Wynton did something that is very hard to do. He brought this music back and got back the dignity, the stuff that people used to have in the music before the junkie era. Because I remember when I was a kid, musicians used to come through Greensboro and get stranded, and people would let them come to their house and stay, and they’d feed them and everything, until they got another job. But not during the junkie era. But he brought this back, and he does a wonderful job. Wonderful job. I wish all the best for him. He’s a nice guy.

Not my favorite trumpet player, you know… Because you can see that I worked with Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham… I worked with guys who really knew how to play a trumpet. Idrees Sulieman, a great trumpet player. Great trumpet player. Donald Byrd. I worked with these guys. Tommy Turrentine. But he did what he did, what he had to do, and he did it. More power to him. Only thing now…that he does now, he just tries for more of his type of artist than other artists, which is… Maybe he’s just doing it because he’s got a chance to do it. But you’ve got to spread it around.

Panken:   It’s complicated, because he’s trying to function as a composer also…

Donaldson:    Yes, and a musician.

Panken:   So he brings in people who play his sound, what he hears.

Donaldson:   And a musician. I just heard a record the night. It shook me up. I was listening to Sirius, and they played his concert, and he played “Blues Walk,” featuring Sherman.

Panken:   Sherman Irby.

Donaldson: Yeah, he’s a good saxophone player. I didn’t know that. So I called him and left a message. He didn’t call me back. I told him thanks. But he did a good job. And his father before him. I used to travel down through the South, way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his father had a progressive group then, down in New Orleans, which is almost unheard-of. Because you got too much competition here—all that Dixieland. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, all those guys, they had everything sewed up. But Ellis also had his band.

Panken:   I think Ellis was working with Al Hirt for a while, too.

Donaldson:   Yes. He worked hard. He worked hard. He kept it going.

Panken:   Any final comments, wrap-up comments?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to say. The NEA is doing a good job. A good job. It’s very rewarding to receive this reward. And… What can I tell you? I started to send it back, but then I thought about it. I said, “I’ll take it.”

Panken:   You mean because it had been so long coming, and it should have been before.

Donaldson:   So long coming. Plus, I don’t need the money. I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable. So just one of my… I’m a Scorpio, so sometimes I think first… But now, since I got to be old, I think before I act. [LAUGHS] But I’m not…

It doesn’t bother me that I was not recognized. You know, they haven’t had my name in the alto poll for over twenty years.  My name has not even been listed. And I was working over in Europe every day, and they have people in the poll that don’t even work any more, or couldn’t work. That bugged me for a while, because Eddie Harris used to come in… It bugged him, too. Because he had… Well, Eddie had a lot of hit records, so Eddie made a lot of money. He said, “Why we can’t get in the poll?” But we figured it out. We figured it out. And you’d be surprised what we figured out. If you don’t play with Miles, you don’t get in there.

Panken:   Critically…

Donaldson:   If you don’t play with Miles. Look at all these people that are in there. They played with Miles. Except Norman Granz’s people, but that’s years ago. Because you know, with Norman Granz, he had Jazz at the Philharmonic, all his people always won the polls. Oscar Paterson. Ray Brown. Jo Jones. Roy Eldridge. Dizzy. Charlie Parker. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. Who was the trombone player with Woody Herman?

Panken:   Bill Harris.

Donaldson:   Bill Harris. J.J. I saw that for years. Because I’m up on it. I watch it.

Panken:   So you haven’t stopped working since you were 20 years old.

Donaldson:   No, not really. But I was lucky, because I got a circuit to work. It was a tough one, because most of the guys that owned the clubs, the ghetto clubs, were like hustlers.

Panken:   Tough guys. Hustlers.

Donaldson:   Number writers, dope sellers, and whatever else they did. I didn’t never get really tight with any of them because I couldn’t afford to go to jail—you know, my family and stuff. But I even worked a club for Don King.

Panken:   Cleveland, must have been.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Corner Tavern. He had a club called the Corner Tavern. He won’t admit it, but I worked there. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   Mr. Donaldson, thank you very, very much for this very candid two days of interviewing.

Donaldson:   All right. I hope you got a little material to interest the people.

Panken:   Can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be interested.

Donaldson:   I can’t tell you my ending, because it’s X-rated, so I wouldn’t put it on there.

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For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.


How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?


You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]


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Filed under Chicago, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

A 1992 WKCR Interview with Ira Sullivan, Who Turned 82 Yesterday

Just noticed that yesterday was the 82nd birthday of Ira Sullivan, the magnificent multi-instrumentalist who has inspired several generations of South Florida musicians since moving there from Chicago more than 40 years ago. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR in June 1992 while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard with a quartet, and am presenting the transcript below.

* * * *

Q:    It’s my pleasure to introduce a musician who is really beyond category, a virtuosic instrumentalist on trumpet, fluegelhorn, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute…and what am I missing?

IS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I play some drums if I have to.

Q:    Did you ever do a record as the whole band?

IS:    I’ve been asked…

Q:    You once did a record where you played all of the instruments.

IS:    Yeah, I have never heard that.  I have heard about it.  But I have been asked to do that, but I haven’t planned anything yet.  The only time I think I did any overdubbing was on that Bernie Brightman Stash record with Hank Jones and Duffy Jackson.  We went in, and we had seven hours; we did seven tunes in seven hours.  I went back another couple of hours.  I left the holes open, you know, so I could go in the next day and overdub the fluegelhorn parts.

Q:    And there are some sections where you do exchanges with yourself as well.

IS:    Right, right.  That was interesting.

Q:    Anyway, we haven’t even introduced you.  The person I am talking about, as many of you may already know, is Ira Sullivan, and he is appearing at the Village Vanguard at the helm of a quartet this week, featuring pianist Reuben Brown, bassist David Williams, and drummer Steve Bagby.  When was the last time you led a group in New York playing your music with this type of a band?

IS:    Well, I always feel I’m the leader, because I only have myself to contend with, you know.  I have never believed that man needed a leader.  I have always thought that to be starting so young, the leader was Christ.  Jesus is the leader to me, and everything else is just superfluous.  I mean, we just do…we bring all our talents to what we do, and do it.  I never think of pecking order, you know.
I play with different people so much.  See, growing up in Chicago, when I’d get a job for a quartet, I’d get calls from 12 or 18 musicians saying, “Hey, I hear you got a job this Friday night.  I’m available.”  Well, you can only hire three other guys.  So I always had this wonderful wellspring of great musicians to choose from, that’s what I’ve done all my life.  I’ve never really kept a band together for a long time.

Q:    When did you start performing professionally in Chicago?  How old were you and…

IS:    I was 16 when I started playing at the jam sessions.

Q:    Was that about 1948?

IS:    No.  I was still in high school then.  I think 1948 is when I got out of high school.

Q:    What was the situation that led up to you performing?  You’ve been playing since you were three or four years old.

IS:    I started when I was 3-1/2, yes.

Q:    On a record you did for Horizon, there’s a picture that shows you playing the trumpet, and the trumpet literally is almost as big as you are.  Was that your first instrument?

IS:    Actually, as you notice, I’m almost resting it against my knee there.  The trumpet was my first instrument, yeah.  I never picked up anything else until I was in high school and I had to for the school band.  I became a trouble-shooter.  You know, when somebody was absent, I got the call.  My father had a record by Clyde McCoy called “Sugar Blues” that I wanted to play.  I wanted to work the wah-wah mute, the little Harmon mute on the end that makes it sound like a baby’s cry.  So he got me one of the little short German cornets, a little fat cornet that you’ve probably seen some guys in the early bands play.  I think Joe Thomas used to play one in Basie’s sextet.  And so I could work that wah-wah mute.  But the trumpet you saw was a long, full-sized trumpet, and that was my first instrument and it remained my first instrument until high school.

Q:    You grew up in what part of Chicago?

IS:    The North Side of Chicago, and then later the South Side.

Q:    And your father I gather was an avid listener to music and collector of instruments.

IS:    My father was from a family of fourteen children, and they all played instruments.  One uncle was with Souza’s band, and another was in what I guess they called Ragtime at that time — you know, free Dixieland.  He was an improviser.  He was the first one who taught me about playing Free, actually, way before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and all those fellows.  He taught me about playing impressionistic music when I was ten years old.

Q:    What was his name?

IS:    Tom Sullivan.  Thomas Sullivan.

Q:    Did he play professionally?

IS:    Yes.  He was in the Jazz band I talked about.  I had never heard him, but he was an improviser.  My Dad played.  He had beautiful chops and a very good tone, and he just played for relaxation when he came home from his business.  He was like a Charlie Spivak, Harry James, very clean, you know, straight melody — he didn’t improvise.  In fact, when I was five and six and we used to play together he always would turn to me and ask me, “Ira, where are you getting all of those extra notes?”   See, because I’d be putting little obbligatos in and stuff.

Q:    And was that coming from your imagination at that time?

IS:    Yes.

Q:    So there was always music around you, from the very earliest part of your life.

IS:    Always.  Always.  Our family reunions were meals, the women cooked all day and then we had dinner about 4:30, and then we played the rest of the night.  All the neighbors would come in.  Every one of my aunts played.  One played violin.  One just played a snare drum.  She had a snare drum with brushes, and she would come in and keep time.  And the gentlemen all played, and another aunt played piano.  So we had quite nice family sessions then.

Q:    Were there records in the house also?

IS:    Oh, sure.  I was firmly steeped in the music of Harry James before he was a popular bandleader.  He was quite a Jazz player, you know.  I had that record of him with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, you know, playing Boogie-Woogie, and I was fascinated, because I had only heard Harry with the big bands.  I listened to Basie, and really just to every kind of music.  I discovered Classical on my own, because we had it around the house.  But nobody forced me, and said, “Oh, listen to this, listen to this — this is what you should listen to.”  I was given complete freedom.

Q:    Did your parents take you to hear music, the big bands at the theatres or anything like that in the 1930’s and 1940’s?

IS:    Yeah, after I asked them.  Yeah, later on, I’m sure… Well, see, that was a beautiful thing about Chicago.  When you went to see a movie in Downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing.  It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, or even just a dance band.  But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened.  And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with.  That was really a very exciting time in my life.  It was common then.  Now it’s hard to find big bands, you know.

Q:    And in these years (we’re talking about, I imagine the years before high school and the early years of high school), which instrumentalists really impressed you?  You mentioned Harry James.  Who apart from he?

IS:    Well, remember I was only a five-year-old child!  Well, I grew on Harry James.  There was Clyde McCoy and Henry Busey, and Muggsy… I heard Dixieland players; I didn’t know what they called it.  I didn’t ever hear the word Jazz until I was 16 and in high school.  To me it was music.  I didn’t call it Swing or Funk or whatever labels they put on.  Then when I got in high school, a senior in high school introduced me to some records I had never heard before, such as Coleman Hawkins on Commodore with young Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet [sic], then we moved from that into Dexter Gordon and Allen Eager, Charlie Parker — which all gave me another musical direction.  I was definitely intrigued.

Q:    So that turned your head.

IS:    It certainly did, yeah.  And as I say, it set me off in a new direction.  I wanted to learn that language, that Bebop language.

Q:    What sort of musical education was available to you in high school in Chicago?  I know you were already a proficient musician.  But I think it was much more prominent in the schools then than it is today.

IS:    Oh yes.  Yes, that’s the bane of my existence, to go around and talk to these poor musical directors in the schools the people who are trying to promote music, and realize they have trouble actually getting a little band together, whether it’s a stage band to play modern arrangements or just a concert band.  When I was in sixth grade, I had a 90-piece orchestra, 90 to 135 pieces, depending on how many children were graduating and moved out of the school.  So it’s quite thrilling to play with an orchestra when you’re that young, you know, and hear violins and clarinets and everything.  And they weren’t that badly  out of tune.  We had a very good director, as I remember.

And then when I went to high school, I moved right into the concert band in my freshman year, and had certainly enough music… I had two periods of band every day, and I was playing trumpet, and two days of the week I went upstairs to the orchestra room, and got to play with the orchestra.  So it was quite nice.  And of course, I also had a double period of Art.

And it breaks your heart.  Because when I see schools in Florida that can’t even get a music program started, and I realize how kids respond… We did clinics at this Pennsylvania festival.  We start Friday night, and then Saturday morning we do clinics with the high school kids around there.  And we had a young boy who was about 10 years old, Jonathan, and he’s in sixth grade — and you should have heard him play alto.  He went out and played with the high school band.  He’s very precocious now.  When you see children like that, it’s great if they have an outlet in school.  I mean, imagine little children who grow up and they already love, say, poetry or creative art and music. And then the teachers find them falling behind in their other subjects.  Education has lost the idea that if you give a child something that his little heart desires, his spirit is bursting to produce, it might straighten out the rest of his or her’s mental outlook towards the process of education.

Because God, I think, He imbues us each with a unique spirit.  We don’t all love the same things, the same foods.  And what we want to do with our life I think a lot of us know very young.  As I say, I went from crib to the trumpet.  I never asked for anything else in my life to do.  I was quite happy, as long as I could play music.

Q:    [ETC.] We’ll create a set of you performing on trumpet.  We’ll hear “That’s Earl, Brother,” which I imagine you heard at the time you were first introduced to Bebop.

IS:    Actually the first time I heard it, it was by Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt with a rhythm section, and then later I heard it with Dizzy’s big band.

[MUSIC:  “That’s Earl, Brother (1977),” “Angel Eyes (1968),” “Everything Happens To Me,” “Our Delight”]

“Angel Eyes” comes from Horizons, which was issued in the Eighties on Discovery, featuring I guess the band you worked with in Miami at the time, shortly after you moved there from Chicago in the 1960’s.

IS:    Yes, it was.  1968 that recording was originally done.

Q:    Tell me about your early experiences with Bebop.  Did you hear it on records, or hearing musicians that came through Chicago?

IS:    Well, I started hearing musicians coming through Chicago, as you say.  You were asking earlier about concerts.  I remember when I was 16, my Dad did take me to see… We went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, one of those early ones at the Chicago Opera House.  That was quite exciting.  Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town, and that’s when I met Red Rodney, who was the featured trumpet soloist.  Charlie Ventura was still in that band.

Then, as I say, in high school, I met this gentleman who turned me…had some Dexter Gordon records.  He was a Jazz collector; he had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with “Salt Peanuts.”  It threw me for a loop, because I had always been able to, as they do in college now, transcribe solos.  Now the fellows sit around and transcribe the solos off the record, write them down, and then play them.  But I didn’t use this process.  I just memorized the solos, and would try to recreate the phrasing and the breathing that I heard from Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton or any of the Jazz trumpet players.  Again, reminding you I didn’t know they called it Jazz.  It was just music.  So I just tried to reproduce what I heard.

But then when I heard the Bebop idiom, I could not get near to that at all.  The rhythmic concept, the syncopation, the fast triplets…


…or the writers that this will never last, a bunch of silly symphonies, and it’s not going to be around long, and then 20 years later it was so assimilated into the culture, I heard Bebop licks coming out of Lawrence Welk’s horn section, because these young arrangers had grown up and were slyly sneaking some of it in — you know, it was wonderful to see it become part of our culture.

Q:    Of course, you were one of many young musicians in Chicago who were assimilating and developing very individual artistic statements out of the Bebop idiom.  When did you begin to interact with that broader Chicago community of musicians?

IS:    In the jam sessions.  By the time I was 18, I had met a lot of the… Lou Levy, who we used to know as Count Levy in those days, who played with Stan Getz and Peggy Lee, and he’s one of the finest young… I still call him a young player.  He still is, because he was 19 when I met him.  I was out playing with these fellows, and then I finally sort of built a little reputation.  But I noticed they always called me for the jam sessions and not enough for the gigs, see.  So then I had to change that a little bit.

Q:    Now, when did you start incorporating the saxophones into your repertoire?  Were you doing that at this time as well?

IS:    Through being a trouble-shooter with the band.  Well, I didn’t mention my mother also played piano and alto saxophone.  So I always had a saxophone around the house, but I never was really interested in them.  Then in the high school band, as I say, we had 19 trumpets.  So we lost our baritone horn player; he graduated.  So I said, “Well, let me try the baritone horn.”  I started playing on that, and then I took it out to a couple of sessions.  A month or so later, we had a Father’s Night concert, as they called it, in the auditorium.  We had 35 clarinet players and only two tenor saxophone players, and one of them got a cold and was absent.  The band director said, “I don’t what we’re going to do; we need a replacement.”  I said, “I think if you let me take that tenor home, I can handle the part.”  Because tenor saxophones in a concert band, they have nothing to do but long tones, you know.  I took that tenor home, and I sat down, put my Lester Young record on, you know, sat down and just played one… You know how Lester would just get one note, DI-DA-DU-DAH-DOOT… I said, “Gee, I think I can do that.”  So I sat there with my one note all day long, phrasing, getting the rhythm phrasing.

Then I fell in love with the tenor.  I said, “This is quite a horn.”  I started fooling around with it.  It was just nice to be holding a tenor, because now I’d been listening to… I knew they called it Jazz now, and I had been listening to Allen Eager and Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young and fellows around.  So the tenor became fascinating.

And then, when I was about 18 or 19 and started working in Chicago, I couldn’t get a job with a trumpet with a quartet.  You’ve got to remember, now, Chicago is a tenor town.  They had Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon was around, Sonny Rollins spent some time there, Sonny Stitt, and you had Tom Archia, Melvin Scott — great tenor players all over the place.  Don Lanphere was there.  He was one of my early heroes.  I mean, he could play faster on a tenor sax than anybody I’ve ever known.  Kenny Mann was around there.  So it was a tenor town.

So I took that tenor, that borrowed tenor from school, and I started getting in the shed, as they say, and practicing on it — and I learned three tunes.  I learned the Blues, and I learned “I Got Rhythm,” and my fast tune was “Fine and Dandy.”  That way I got a gig.  Once I got a gig…

Q:    “I Got Rhythm” will get you through a lot of jam sessions.

IS:    Get you through a lot of jam sessions.  And the Blues will, too; I mean, you learn them in two or three different keys.  And then I went out, and like I say, we got a job with a quartet.  But then, when I pulled my trumpet out, the club-owner was quite impressed.  He’d say, “Hey, I’ve got a triple-threat man.”  But I could not get hired with a trumpet and a rhythm section.

Q:    Well, how about your history on the alto saxophone?

IS:    Well, as I say, my mother had an alto saxophone at home, so then I started… Well, once I fell in love with Bird’s sound, that naturally would make you curious about the alto.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird?

IS:    I think the first recording would be… I remember the intro: [SINGS REFRAIN]

Q:    “Now’s The Time.”

IS:    “Now Is The Time,” right.  And the other side was “Billie’s Bounce” probably.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird live?

IS:    That would have been at the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Q:    Now, Bird was frequently in Chicago.  Did you get to know him at all, or play alongside him?

IS:    I got to know him after we played together at the Beehive in ’55, actually, which was the year of his demise.

Q:    That was only a couple of weeks before he passed away, I think.

IS:    About a month.  Because he had asked me to come to New York.  He wanted to send for me and bring me to New York.  So I was considering the possibilities of that.  But at the time I could see he was also quite ill.  Not so you’d know it, but I mean, when you’d hang out and talk to him, there were things happening in his life.  His daughter had passed away a year before, and I think that still was taking its toll.

Q:    So you met him at a low ebb.  But musically, what was the experience like?

IS:    Oh, musically it was great.  He had found a doctor who was taking care of him a little bit, and getting him to feel a little better, and giving him the proper medication.  I think they got him full of Vitamin B-12, and sort of… I remember he came in the second night, and he had his usual libation, and he looked at me bright-eyed after the second set, he says, “Strange, I can’t get drunk.”  But he was feeling good, you know, and he was playing good — and we had a really nice time there.

Q:    Who was that band?

IS:    I was just going to say.  I think Norman Simmons was on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Bruz Freeman on the drums — Von Freeman’s brother.

Q:    Another tenor player who was prominent in Chicago.

IS:    Oh, Von was another one that I got to play with in the early days.  So it was like growing up with Bird.  It’s like they say, you reveal from one spirit that God had, and when you’re in Jazz, you find that the spirits are one.  We all have individual statements, we’re all trying to get our own voice on our instruments, but the common bond…. For instance, I was just reading some of these liner notes on my albums which I’ve never seen, and I talk about going over in Europe, meeting people over there, they don’t speak the language, but once you sit together in a session, you just mention a tune and you’re off and running.  So that’s one universal language we know that never fails us.

Q:    Well, Chicago in the 1950’s is almost universally described by musicians as one big workshop, where everybody could get their creative self together, so to speak.

IS:    Exactly.

Q:    Just describe the scene a little bit.  There was music on almost every major crosswalk on the South Side, I know.

IS:    Well, yes, and on the North Side, too, as I said before.  We spoke about those big bands.  I mean, you’d go down and see a movie, and you got an hour-and-a-half movie, but you also got a stage show with a great band, and maybe singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, whatever — but my focal point was always the bands and the musicians.  And there were a lot of clubs to jam in, different clubs where trios were playing.

You had a lot of clubs in downtown Chicago, little bars where there would be a single piano player or a duo or a trio or a quartet.  Downtown, I remember there was a place called the Brass Rail upstairs and the Downbeat Room downstairs.  Henry “Red” Allen had a band there with J.C. Higgenbotham.  Red Saunders was the drummer.  The trumpet player Sonny Cohn was there.  It was really interesting.

As a youngster, I would go downtown, at 16, 17… I remember I’d wear my Jazz coat, and one night I painted a false moustache on with my mother’s eyebrow pencil, you know, so I’d look older.  Naturally, I couldn’t get in; they spotted me right away.  But I went downstairs.  There was a fellow that had worked at my father’s restaurant, and he was now working at the Downbeat room.  So he opened the fire door, and through the fire door, in the mirror there, I could see Henry “Red” Allen and Higgenbotham up there, and I could just catch the two of them.  He let me stand up there, but he said, “Now, if anybody comes by, close that door and get out of here!’  So there I was with my phony moustache and my tweed coat down there, soaking up the Jazz.

Q:    I’d like to ask you about a couple of the musicians in Chicago who have somewhat passed into the realm of legend because they were insufficiently recorded.  Did you ever have a chance to play with the drummer Ike Day behind you?

IS:    Oh, yes.

Q:    Can you describe his style a little bit?

IS:    You’d have to hear Guy Vivaros, who is a gentleman who is quite alive, travels with me a lot, does concerts with me.  Guy was Ike’s second nature.  I mean, that’s all Guy did.  Guy and I have known each other since we were about 17.  Guy got together with Ike Day, and Ike loved Guy, and Guy loved Ike, and Guy had given all his time, just like many teachers do now with young students, and they hung out together, and they just were inseparable.  And he gave Guy as much as he could of his stuff, this phenomenal and quite unusual method of drumming.  I mean, drummers certainly can appreciate it.  You say it to the average person, they wouldn’t tell one drummer from another.  But Ike had something that nobody else had, and Guy is the closest living representative I know who plays something like Ike.  But nobody can duplicate what it is.

Q:    Do you have words to describe what was special about Ike Day’s style?

IS:    Well, see, I played some funny sessions… You were asking me about the scene around Chicago.  I mean, a lot of us, we’d go jamming the blues clubs if there were no Jazz clubs open that night.  We just wanted to play.  So once in a while there would be a session after the Blues band had finished playing, and the Jazz fellows would go in, and we’d set up.  And Ike, one time I saw him play, he had literally a pie pan for a cymbal, and another gold cymbal that had a big chunk broken out of it, and no sock cymbal, and a hat box for a snare drum that he’d play with the brush, and then a regular tom-tom, and then a big bass drum with a Hawaiian scene painted on it, a waterfall scene from Hawaii painted on it.  And he played that set, and at no time did you know that there wasn’t anything… It could have been a brand-new set of Slingerland drums behind you.  So that was some of his magic.

Q:    I’ve heard that from a couple of drummers who had heard him, that he could play magically musically in tune with the band with almost anything, or a minimum of equipment.

IS:    Yes.

Q:    Others say that Buddy Rich actually used him briefly as a second drummer.

IS:    Yeah.  He also used Philly Joe Jones as a second drummer.  You’d have to hear Ike to know.  They say, “You’ve seen one drummer, you’ve seen them all,” but when you heard that inside magic that Ike had…
Ike used to play without his shoe, take his shoe off so he could get the feel of the wheel a little better.  One night he was playing at a long… In those days at the sessions there may be ten or twelve horn players on the stand, tenor players, maybe there would be one or two trumpet players, a couple alto players, all waiting in line to play — and the tunes would go on interminably.  I’ve actually seen a bass player where there was a phone the bar, pick up the phone and dial another cat, stop playing under a chorus, and say, “Hey, you want to come down here and get some of this?”  He’d been playing thirty-five minutes on the same tune, probably “I Got Rhythm,” and call another guy that was in the neighborhood to come over and relieve him.    Well, Ike took his sock off one night and played a tom-tom solo with his toes.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.  He just put his foot up on the tom-tom, and you could hear his…

Q:    Well, that’s really some independent coordination.

IS:    That’s some coordination I don’t think many drummers have tried yet.  But I wish Ike had been recorded just a little bit.  I think he is on a record, Tom Archia…

Q:    He is on a record, Tom Archia and Gene Ammons…

IS:    But not well…

Q:    It’s submerged to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable.

IS:    Right.

Q:    Would you say a few words about Wilbur Ware?

IS:    Oh, he was another one.  You know, the symphony players from the Chicago Symphony used to come to hear Wilbur when we played out at the Beehive, which was the going Jazz club then, where a lot of us worked in and out of.  I was always sort of brought in as the extra added attraction.  They’d have a quartet with Wardell Gray, and I got to play with the late Wardell Gray there, or Roy Eldridge and Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt, and so they’d bring me in as a trumpet player.

And one of the outstanding musical experiences of my life was playing with Wilbur Ware.  Wilbur Ware had… He told that his father had made his first bass out of an orange crate and thick inner tubes cut to different sizes of the strings and they played on the street and stuff like that.  But he had a touch unlike any other I’ve heard.  Very light.  He didn’t play heavy… Of course, the bass players of today sound heavy because they now have amplifiers.  Wilbur just played a wooden acoustic bass.  But he had this gorgeous, beautiful tone, just like with a feather touching the bass, and the sound that came out was wonderful.  I think a good example is that Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard, where there is no piano, and you can really hear Wilbur outstanding.

And I used to watch these symphony players come down and be fascinated and watch him, because he had this almost legitimate technique — but he was definitely a self-taught musician.

Q:    Also, he often was not on what you’d call even close to a first-rate instrument…

IS:    Oh, no.

Q:    …and was yet able to elicit a tone.

IS:    Right.  He’d get up in the morning… We’d be rooming on the road, and he’d get up in the morning, at maybe 11 o’clock after the gig, and pick up his bass, before he’d even taken his pajamas off or brushed his teeth or had a cup of coffee; he’d pick up his bass and start playing “Cherokee” at a breakneck speed, you know, and just play… And he wouldn’t disturb anybody in the hotel.  You couldn’t hear him beyond the room.  Just… [SINGS RAPID WILBUR WARE LINE SOFTLY]  He’d just be working off the little patterns and everything.  It was wonderful, the love that he had for the instrument.

Q:    What were the circumstances that led to Art Blakey calling you and Wilbur Ware to join the Messengers in 1956?

IS:    Well, I guess because, as I say, I was always around jamming with everybody in Chicago, and when he’d come in, if I had a chance I’d get up with Art.  We had met, and everybody met, and so he’d call me, “Come on up and sit in, Ira.”  Then one day he just called me, and asked me if I’d want to go with the band, and brought Wilbur and I up at the same time.  Kenny Drew, Senior, was the piano player then.  I have to say Senior, because his son is around and performing.  He’s been up in Sarasota, Florida, for quite a while.  So Kenny Drew was in the band, Donald Byrd was the trumpet player — so I originally went in to play trumpet and tenor.  That’s when that terrible tragedy happened with Clifford, and Donald Byrd was given the call from Max to come in and replace Clifford Brown in the Max Roach-Sonny Rollins Quintet — the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet actually they called it.  So then the next young trumpet to come in the band, after we went through Philadelphia, was Lee Morgan, who was 17 years old at the time — and I was playing tenor then.  Then a gentleman who was in last night to see me at the Vanguard, Danny Moore, was on trumpet for a while with that group when we left, because Lee was, I think, still in school, hadn’t quite graduated yet.  So we left Philadelphia and we got Danny Moore…

Q:    Lee Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie at the end of that year, I think.

IS:    Yes.  As soon as he was out of high school.  Then Idrees Sulieman came in the band, which was quite interesting to most people, because as we got announced, it was very hard for them to tell the difference between the names — Ira Sullivan on tenor, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet.

Q:    Did you play exclusively tenor with the Messengers, or would you get into trumpet battles?

IS:    Well, I played some trumpet, but I always had to be careful with sensitive souls who… And I’d feel a little sensitive, too, because I felt like I had an act together or something.  You know, when I’m on my own and I can make my own choices, and pick up a trumpet or a flute or a saxophone when I want to, it’s something else.  But it’s not quite fair to a trumpet player, no matter how they good they are, to come in the band, and here I am playing tenor and trumpet.  Well, now, immediately you’re going to garner some attention.  So I sort of opted to just play tenor in the band, and Art Blakey and I talked about it, so…

Q:    Will you be playing a lot of trumpet and fluegelhorn this week?

IS:    As much as I can handle, yes.  It all depends on what my face can do on that particular night.  I have to always consult my face first.

[MUSIC: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Sprint.”]

IS:    A lot has changed around us.  We used to read about pioneers, but in a way we’re pioneers, too, because our mores, our society is changing, even as we speak around us, you know.  So you always have to figure it’s an exciting time that you live in, mainly because you’re breathing in and out.

Q:    Well, you certainly seem to be a musician or personality or spirit that creates excitement around you wherever you bring your instruments.

IS:    I don’t know whether I create it or just sort of nudge.  Somebody says, “You’re a wonderful inspiration.”  I say, “No, I’m sort of a nudge.”  I just open up and let these young people play, and let their natural talent come out.  I think a lot if it is, even as in school, when we teach, overcoming that temerity, to realize, “Hey, man, you can do it; just get out there and do it.”  Most of them have the talent and they’re ready.  You just have to give them a little nudge.

Q:    Which of your instruments do you have this week?

IS:    Well, the tenor, trumpet and flugelhorn, which I always carry, and alto flute and soprano sax, which is enough to keep me busy.  People ask why I play long sets, and I say, man, it takes me at least three hours to get each horn in a proper playing shape, and as I say, get my face to play them all.

Q:    It seems unimaginable to many musicians that you can actually pull off a set because of the different embouchures and musculatures involved.  What do you do?

IS:    Well, you just do.  You have at it.  You keep going for it.  You have problems every night.  Every musician who plays just one horn knows it’s not the same every night.  You always have the physical problems to overcome where your musculature is and your mouth that day, or your face.  As I say, it’s not easy.  But the more I do it… It’s easier when I play six nights a week, constantly, as I was doing in Florida.  Several clubs I played in, I’d stay there two or three or four, five years.  And that six nights a week, that regularity makes it a lot easier.  Now I play festivals on the weekend, then I may not play for three or four days, and then I get in a setting like this where I’m playing six days, and it takes a little time to do it.  But I keep doing it until I get it right.  And sometimes it comes off.

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Filed under Chicago, Interview, Ira Sullivan, trumpet, WKCR

Two Interviews with Pianist Chris Anderson from 1986 on his 87th Birthday Anniversary

A few months after I joined WKCR for what would be a 23-year run, I made it my business to interview pianist Chris Anderson, who, despite the dual handicap of being both sightless and brittle-boned, made an enormous, underground impact on piano vocabulary as a person who famously influenced, among others, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and Denny Zeitlin as young pianists on the Chicago scene. You could still hear Chris play at this time, and he continued to have it together, as evidenced not only by the duo album with Charlie Haden titled None But The Lonely Heart, but also a terrific trio date for DIW titled Blues One with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins that followed a memorable week at Bradley’s in 1991, which was also documented on a 1994 date on Alsut.

Chris and I had two long conversations. The first took place in his apartment; the second  comes from an in-person “Musician Show” at WKCR. In honor of the 87th anniversary of his birth I’m appending the complete transcripts below.

* * * * *

Chris Anderson (3-16-86):

TP:    Chris, let’s start with the basic facts.  Are you originally from Chicago, Illinois?

CA:    Yes, I was born there.

TP:    What year was that?

CA:    1926.

TP:    Tell me about your beginnings in music.  How old were you when you first played the piano?

CA:    It would be easier probably… I loved music, and I listened to a lot of it on the radio, the standard fare of the day, on the Jazz station — it was called Black Music or Race Music in those days.  But I found myself trying to pick out… I found that I could pick out melodies on piano.  And the harmony that goes with it, I knew in my head…I knew what it was — if I could just find it on the piano.  It’s like taking off boxing gloves.  I knew it would take a minute.  Because I knew I had an ear for harmony and melody, particularly harmony.  So I always knew from the get-go that I was going to play, was going to be a musician.

TP:    Who did you hear on the radio?

CA:    Oh, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, but mostly, oh, the popular singers of the day — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, all of them.

TP:    And they’d be on the radio, and that’s how you…

CA:    Yeah.

TP:    Did you ever get out to hear live music in Chicago when you were a youngster?

CA:    When I was a kid, no.  When I was really a kid… What got me into going places was when I got involved in music, got playing music, and then it forced me to meet people to play some kind of… I knew some people… They used to have things called tramp bands, with a guitar, bass, stuff like that.  The bass fiddle would be a washtub with a stick and a rope nailed up to it.  You’d turn the tub upside-down on the ground, and you’d nail a stick to it vertically from the ground up, and then you’d pass the stick up around the top, and you’d tie a big knot in the end of the string, and with the hole in the center of the tub, you’d pull it through that tub from the underside, you know, exerting tension on it — like a saw, the same you’d play a saw.  And you had your bass fiddle.

I got to know these people, and some of these people graduated into being professional musicians.  A professional bass player, a professional guitarist, stuff like that.  And they told me about places where music was played.  They said, “If you’re interested in music, you ought to go and hear some people play.”  And they took me.

TP:    Do you remember where they took you?

CA:    Oh!  That’s when I started learning about the… What’s the name of the place that Earl Hines played…?

TP:    The Grand Terrace.

CA:    Yes, the Grand Terrace, places like that.  A place called Old-Timers on 47th and Cottage Grove.  I don’t think there were too many.  Oh, and of course on the West Side.

TP:    What did you remember about Earl Hines’ band in the 1930’s and early Forties?

CA:    Well, see, as far as Earl Hines is concerned, I didn’t get to know a lot about Earl Hines then.  And Swing, as far as black people were concerned, was on its last legs.  Bebop was getting ready to be born.  The Grand Terrace closed for  a while, and that was Earl Hines’ stomping grounds.  And the War, World War Two closed down so many big bands because they couldn’t afford it any more.  Everybody was going away, going into the Service.  Everybody was putting together small combos.

That’s the only thing that gave me a shot at music.  I remember asking my harmony teacher in high school if I could play professionally, and he said, “No, not unless you surround yourself with musicians who can get the jobs.”  But being just a teacher and not a musician, he didn’t understand that the big band… The people in the sections had to read, but reading wasn’t necessarily going to be the most important thing for a while.  So a lot of people got to learn and so forth.

TP:    By the way, I didn’t hear where it was that you went to high school and primary school.

CA:    I went to Douglas Grammar School in Chicago, and I went to Philips High School for a while, and then I also went to Marshall High School.

TP:    Who was the bandmaster at Phillips High School.  I know that’s where Walter Dyett had taught before he went to DuSable.

CA:    Yeah!

TP:    But who was there when you were there?

CA:    Let me see… I don’t remember his name.  He was German.  He was a German teacher.  He was a character, too; he was a real character.  I can’t remember… The (?) was in the band, but I couldn’t remember his name.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

CA:    I graduated from grammar school in ’41, now that I think about it.  So ’41 to…

TP:    Then when you first played professionally, were you still in high school or was that after you graduated from high school?

CA:    I didn’t graduate from high school.  Now, I had one more semester to go, and I got a chance to go on the road with a guitarist named Leo Blevins, who was very much a part of the Chicago scene.  You having talked to a lot of people, people could have told you about him.  He introduced a lot of people to a lot of other people.  Anyway, I got a chance to go to Denver, Colorado, with Leo.. Well, it wasn’t his job.  It was a bass player named Louis Phillips.  And he had a chance to go to Denver.

No, my first gig actually was in Chicago at a place  called the Hurricane on 55th Street, next to the Rhumboogie.  I remember one of my first gigs, next door, a great guitarist who used to play with… I can’t remember his name either.  He used to play with (?)Billy Slack(?), who had a very popular national hit — Billy Slack.  A Blues guitar player…

Anyway, that was my first gig.  Then after that, I went to Denver, Colorado for about two weeks.  We were supposed to be gone longer than that, but the bass player got very ill, an illness that he never recovered from.  I came home.  Leo stayed a few weeks longer, until the bass player’s family could come get him home.

In fact, one of the reasons I left Denver to go back, couldn’t stay out there, I decided, “Well, I’ll go back and finish my last semester of school.”  I got back the first of September, got home, and started over, and decided not to go back.  I decided pretty much that music was going to be my livelihood, and you don’t need any education but music.  [CHUCKLES] You understand?  So I didn’t finish.

TP:    What kind of music were playing in that band when you went to Denver?  Was it Jump band type music?

CA:    Yes…

TP:    Was it sort of precursors to Bop?

CA:    Well, from Jump to Bop… It was quite a thing from there.  It was not like people in New York were doing, see. Because all the musically literate people were in New York, people that really were studying.  Everybody else was just like playing cafes, or parties, or played strip joints.  Just Jump and the Blues.  And most of these people didn’t know many tunes.  They just knew seventeen different types of Blues, and make it sound different, or some “Rhythm” changes, and they knew a few standard tunes — the people that I met in Chicago anyway.  There were a lot of old standards.  There were a lot of old-timers who knew a lot of real old tunes.  These were the ones who knew a lot, the ones who were a lot older and had been around a lot longer, so they were the ones who were more likely to have been locked in the style of the late Twenties and Thirties, see.

That’s why I say making that jump, the music… In Chicago making that jump into Bebop was quite a thing.  The young Turks coming along were… Well, they weren’t quite in the music, just on their way into the music.

TP:    In Chicago in 1943, Earl Hines did have Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, although I know they were traveling and Chicago was just the base.  But did you ever get to hear that band?

CA:    Unh-uh.

TP:    No.

CA:    I was just beginning to get into music then.  I didn’t know anything about Charlie Parker.  I didn’t know anything about Bebop!  I didn’t know anything about anything.  And I hope the point of your question is not “What do you know now?” because I’d have to say I don’t know very much!

See, with Earl Hines… The thing is, the advantage of the big band, you could solo a little bit and you could kind of make it, but the big thing is that all you had to do was learn the discipline of reading, being professional, and they just took care of the business for you.  And the exceptional people that would come along, like Charlie Parker, who were going to make an art in their generation, make a new art form, out of a solo style that doesn’t need… In fact, a big band would get in their way most of the time.  Even Satchmo, as much of an innovator as he was in his time, didn’t play enough notes to get in the big band’s way.  Not that Charlie Parker would get in a big band’s way now.  He’d play across it.  He could play right across it.  But it’s kind of… It was a different thing.  People were beginning to look… Plus, the war years had gotten people used to listening to something else besides the big bands, so soloists had to do more as part of their playing and part of what they wanted to do, too!

I didn’t get a chance to hear any of that… Before 1945?  No.

TP:    When you got back from that ill-fated trip to Denver, Chris, did you begin to gig around Chicago?  What was your process from that to working somewhat regularly?

CA:    Well, the process was cementing relationships, developing relationships.  I knew what I was going to do, or at least I didn’t have anything else to do.  I found myself being with musicians for a good part of my time.  That’s how you make contacts, and if you’re a go-getter and you hustle and do all these things (I never was a great hustler), then sometimes you just …(?)…

Music was developing, people were hearing about Bebop.  The music was beginning to come alive in Chicago.  For instance, there was a place in Chicago on 29th and Indiana called The Hole.  And that’s where everybody would meet, experimenting with this new music.  It was an after-hours joint, and it opened at 12, from 12 until about 7.  So everybody who was interested in music would be there, you know.  And that was where we began to find out about this music.  We already had a feeling before we were there.  But the thing is, with everybody in the same spot, you got to know everybody!  See?

TP:    Who were some of the people that you remember getting to know at that time?

CA:    Well, I had heard of Wilbur Ware, a young bass player who I’d heard around.  This fellow Leo Blevins, that I was telling you about, told me about Wilbur Ware.  Leo introduced me to so many people and introduced other people to so many people.  He was the kind of person who if he would walk in here now and tell me that the most unlikely person that I could imagine was a good player, I’d have to believe it.  It seems that at that time, right then and there, Wilbur was in Milwaukee with Little Jazz; he wouldn’t be in town for another week.  And I waited, and looked forward to it — and he was a person that was part of Chicago, one of the people I was most impressed with all of my life.  That started it.  I’d see many of the people who were going to be the mainstays, people who you’d look up to just as part of the music.

Shortly after that, Sonny Stitt came to town.  He lived there for a while.  I got to know him.  He worked around.  As good as he was, as great as he was… Well, he was one of the pioneers; a pioneer, you know, in Bird’s footsteps.  But there was another fellow there named Henry Prior, and he was great, too, but he met a very untimely death, very early — about 1945 or ’46 maybe.

Anyway, the first gig I ever really had… I worked with Sonny Stitt with other people, in other people’s bands there.  The first gig I had with Sonny Stitt was on an Easter, about ’47, I think.  It was the Bird at the Pershing Ballroom.  And that’s how I got to meet Bird.  I worked with Bird a total of three times.  And that was amazing.

Well, actually, it was Leo who introduced me to Sonny Stitt.  We worked at another gig at a place called the…it was on the West Side…

TP:    You and Sonny Stitt worked a gig on the West Side before you went into the Pershing?

CA:    Yes.  As part of his rhythm section.  It was a famous club, I think on 47th and Western or something.  We worked opposite Jackie Cain and Roy Kral.  I remember that.

TP:    Were you working with a regular rhythm section at the time, and you’d accompany people?

CA:    No, we’d just put the rhythm section together for that particular gig.  It was just two weekend gigs.

TP:    And shortly thereafter you went into the Pershing?

CA:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    I’ve read that you were part of the house rhythm section at the Pershing Ballroom, and you played there with Bruz Freeman and Leroy Jackson, that you were the standing rhythm section to back up the soloists.

CA:    Standing… Try sitting.  Because it just worked out.  You could say that.  People get strange… There were a couple of… The last two appearances I made at the Pershing with Bird, one was with Von Freeman’s group — Von, Bruz and Leroy and so forth.  The other was with a tenor player who used to be there named Claude McLin.

The one with Von wasn’t Von’s gig.  I don’t remember how it came about.  The pianist on the gig was named Prentice McCrary.  I happened to come in, and they let me sit in.  And somebody recorded it.  They had a wire recorder.  In fact, the way they recorded this thing, they had a back room behind the bandstand at the Pershing, and they had a speaker on the wall back there.  They recorded this off the speaker.  And they put this out on a record.  And doing the research for this record, the people were going back in their memory, because this wasn’t… They didn’t try to get the documentation and stuff together.  This was in the Seventies!  They went to Bruz Freeman and a few other people, and they told them I was on the gig.  I was not on the gig!  I just happened to be sitting in.  See?

So what I’m getting at is the information concerning this, because being part of the expanding house band… It was the luck of the draw.  Let me show you how much it is a luck of the draw, things can happen to you.  The third time, the last time I worked there with Claude McLin, this session was recorded, too.  In fact, it was put out in about 1975 or something like that.

I was raised in a foster home.  And I went to school with some kids who became close friends of mine, about three or four of them.  They kicked around in foster homes, too.  And they were brothers.  So for a time we lived together in different spots.  And we figured out… Like, the oldest brother that looked after them, he said, “Okay, I’m working; I’m going to take care of this aspect.  Chris, I want you to take care of his cultural needs.”  They knew I was a musician and so forth, and knew a few things in terms of Black culture, or whatever else there is to learn at that particular time.  They wanted to keep him out of trouble.  You know what I mean?

So this Sunday we were sitting around, we haven’t got any money, and I wanted to go hear Bird so bad!  And I wanted to take him to hear Bird, because he hadn’t heard Bird.  He had listened to his records.  He was a sensitive(?) kid, bright, and liked good music.  He just  liked to move his foot.  He liked to stomp his foot to music.  So anyway, I’m really disappointed, because I told him I would like to hear Bird, and he would like it… It didn’t annoy him that much.  But it annoyed me.  I was getting pretty depressed about it.  And he was trying to make conversation with me, and I’m not listening.

We were living in a rooming house.  So someone came and knocked on the door and told me there was a phone call for me.  I went to the phone, and it’s this guy Claude McLin, who said, “Look, what you doing?”  He said, “Look, my piano player can’t make it.  I’ve got this gig here with Bird…” [LAUGHS]

So that’s how I got on that one.  You know?  There was no standing rhythm section.  They didn’t have no standing… A lot of times you’d work there with different people, then they’d call you standing.  It’s not like the owner of the Pershing would say, “Well, you work every week with this guy and this guy,” you know.

But the people who worked there were people like Von Freeman (he worked there quite often) Claude McLin (he worked there sometimes) and a few other people.  And there not a lot of pianists there!  So that increased your chances.  See?  So everybody was getting a lot of the same events.   You see what I mean?

TP:    Another person you were associated with who was very prominent at the time and not that widely known about, one was the great drummer Ike Day.

CA:    Yes.  The first thing… You’ve heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I won’t be redundant…

TP:    Well, I’ll tell you something.  I haven’t heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I don’t think anything that you say about him will be redundant.  I’ve heard a little bit about Ike Day.

CA:    Okay.  First, Chicago in the Forties, as I told you, before Bebop everything was Blues Swing… Before they called it Rhythm-and-Blues, it was just Blues — Supper Blues, Steak(?) Blues, whatever you wanted to call it.

This had to be about 1943.  I had to still be in school — yes, of course; I was still in school.  And I joined the big band… Because it was like the way… Just take a bunch of musicians in any high school in this land, whether it’s the Music Department, they learn to read, and somewhere in the high school or on the fringes of the high school, someone puts together a swing band.  These musicians aren’t very good.  And then they had this big band that most of the kids would end up in.  A lot of the kids made it out of Phillips High School in the school band and so forth.

We worked a few places, like in community centers and stuff like that.  I remember the first gig I had at the community center; I got paid a whole fifty cents!  One night we got a gig called the Apex out in Robbins, Illinois. It  happened to be Ike’s home base; Ike and his mother lived out there.  And we went into this club.  On the way we heard a strange noise.  “What’s that?”  We heard a drop(?).  “What the hell is this?  What’s going on?”  We’d never heard anything like this before.  The first thing that comes into our head, what’s wrong with these guys… Well, we’re late in the first place.  We’d never been out there before.  The driver didn’t know where we were going.  We were late.  So I said, “Oh, they hired another band.”

We walk in the other door, it’s no other band — just Ike Day.  It turns out they had been running… They had a floor show there, and on this floor show they had this Blues guitar player named Johnny Shines.  He was like Muddy Waters to me.  Pure Blues, you understand?  They had a shake dancer, and for music they had Ike Day playing.  But the thing is, they were all separate acts.  They thought so much of Ike Day out there, and Ike Day was so great, that Ike Day came in there and worked, just playing drums!  And he used to have to play a little solo for about twenty minutes, then he was through for the night.  He might play for the shake dancer if he wanted to.  He didn’t play for the guitar player.  The guitar player played by himself.

That’s how great he was.  It’s as if… Someone once asked Earl Weaver about Brooks Robinson as a third baseman.  You know how great he was.

TP:    Yes.

CA:    Okay.  He asked Earl Weaver, “How great is Brooks?”  He said, “You know, he plays third base as if he came down from another league.”  That’s the way Ike was.  He played drums like… He didn’t play loud drums.  He was just so… Everybody was so awed, in awe of him, he was so great… Everyone was around him all the time, because he was just great.  You know?  He just was!  You see?  And I didn’t know what anything was about yet!  [ETC.]

You think about how you assess things when it first happens to you, and the only thing that may make it valid are the changes thirty or forty or fifty years later; you can look at it, and you seem to still feel the same way.  That was the darnedest thing I have ever seen!  I have never seen anything like this.

This man was… And they had a lot of professional people coming in and out of this club, working at different times.  You know?  But just what was going on then… Man, we used to tease our drummer in our band, our big band — because this was a big band, about 12 or 13 or 14 pieces.  We said, “Well, how long do you think you’re gonna last?” —  we teased him!  “You’ll be playing…”  Or during intermission or something, he’d come back and find a cymbal missing, somebody had taken it and hid it.  We teased him all the time.

In about two weeks, our drummer got the word that we can’t afford to have two drummers.  So Ike wound up playing with our band for a while.  Of course, the only thing our band could play were leaders'(?) arrangements and stock arrangements, Basie band, Jimmy Dorsey and stuff like that.  That was the fare in those days.  The change hadn’t been made yet, see.  That’s why I tell you that ’43-’44 is what I’m talking about now.

TP:    But you knew Ike Day over the years, though, until he passed.

CA:    Oh, yes.  I was in the hospital when he passed.  I had a broken hip.  Oh yes, I was in the hospital.  He died of tuberculosis.

TP:    And you played with him also over the years in any number of situations, small groups and larger groups and so forth?

CA:    Small groups.  I never got to play with him in large groups, no.

TP:    Well, one thing, there’s a picture I’ve seen on the back of a record jacket, a Chess compilation of Chicago tenor players.  And there’s Max Roach and Kenny Dorham all standing right over Ike Day and watching him play, and Max Roach has a look of rapt concentration on his face.  Was this the kind of impact he made on everybody?

CA:    Pretty much.  Pretty much.  Well, you see, people like Max and people who are sure enough great… And there was not only him.  People like Jo Jones, Papa Jo Jones.  When he knew he was going to retire, he tried to get…he wanted Ike to take his seat in the band.  But Ike wasn’t thinking about going out on the road.  Buddy Rich, all the drummers… All the drummers knew about him, and all the other musicians knew about him.  But they didn’t all rhapsodize over him that much, because you took him for granted.

Ike was good with people, too.  See, that’s another thing.


Vernell Fournier had a stool that belonged to Ike Day, a drum stool that belonged to Ike Day for years.  He wouldn’t let anyone touch that stool.  I don’t know if Vernell still has it.  But he revered it so much, he kept that drum stool for years, all those years, because Ike Day sat on it.

TP:    So I guess you were playing around town in these various situations in the late Forties and early Fifties.  Would you go on the road with people for brief periods of time, or were you mainly just around Chicago?

CA:    I stayed on Chicago.  Going on the road… Me being handicapped was a problem.  Besides, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do anyway.  I went on the road for very short periods, two or three weeks at the most.  And that was in the late Fifties.  In the mid to late Fifties I did it for a while, with just one person, a guy named Cozy Eccleston, who had a rhythm-and-blues band in Chicago.

TP:    Cozy Eccleston?

CA:    Yeah!  I went out with him.  In fact, for a rhythm-and-blues band, he had one of the hippest rhythm sections that the world has ever seen.  He had Wilbur Ware and a drummer named Dorel Anderson, who was part of the scene there (he   was a great drummer who died also), and me.   We went out a couple of times.

TP:    That was in the latter part of the Fifties?

CA:    Yes.

TP:    Were you able to stretch out at all in any of those situations you played in?

CA:    Well, he would love to go do his thing, and then he’d go sit at the bar drinking, listening to us! [LAUGHS]

TP:    I don’t blame him.

CA:    [LAUGHS] We didn’t get to stretch out a lot.  It was his band and his program.  He wouldn’t let things get out of hand.  The thing is, the (?) stuff, we found a way to loosen it up.  You know?  We’d take it gently by the hand and make the music a little more endurable.

TP:    There’s another story (tell me whether this is true or not) that you were in the rhythm section at the Beehive during Charlie Parker’s last appearance in Chicago.  Is that correct or not?  That was around February 1955.

CA:    That I was working?  No.  I think Norman Simmons worked that job.  Norman Simmons and Victor Sproles had that job at the Beehive.


TP:    What were the circumstances that brought you to New York?

CA:    I got a chance to come out on the road with Dinah Washington.  Joe Zawinul had just left her to go with Cannonball.  And she had this club that had been called the Roberts Show Lounge; she bought it and changed it to Dinah-Land, and she worked there for a while.  And while they were there, Joe Zawinul handed in his notice, because he’d made a commitment to Cannonball.  So she tried a couple of local pianists there, and nobody really wanted to go on the road that much, and nothing was happening for me.  So Eddie Chamblee and Leo Blevins, again, this guitarist again, told her about me.  This is what I was telling you about.  He’s a person who really helped a lot of people there.  It was really because of him I got that job.

So I came… Let’s see.  I think it was exactly six weeks.  We went to Philadelphia first for two days at Pep’s.  We went to the Howard in Washington for a week, then we went to the Apollo for a week.  Then we went to Town Hill in Brooklyn.  And she was coming back to Chicago, and I decided I wanted to stay here in New York.  Well, everything can’t be perfect, but I don’t want to deal with any negatives now.  Thanks to her, I got here, you understand, and I stayed here.

TP:    Did you have work when you first got to New York?

CA:    No.  But, let’s see, I got work… I went through a very bad period there for a couple of years.  I broke some more bones, and I was kind of out of it for a while.  I had to really get my act together.  I never did do a lot of working in New York until three or four years ago actually.  I’d get a gig now and then, but I only had a few.

TP:    You did record, though, in 1961.

CA:    Oh yes, when I first got here.  Well, see, the reason why that came about, Orrin Keepnews was connected with Riverside at that time, and he happened to be in Chicago.  Johnny Griffin had told him to come hear me.  He wanted him to record me.  And he came by to see me and said, “If you’re ever in New York, let me know, and we’ll do a date with you.”  So I happened to be here.  So I called him and told him, “Well, I’m here.”  So he gave me a date.  So that’s how that came about.  That was through the good offices of Johnny Griffin.

TP:    Another one of your old running mates in Chicago?

CA:    Yeah.

TP:    Can you pinpoint when you were first aware of Johnny Griffin, when you first heard him play?

CA:    My memory of first hearing him is kind of vague, because the music was in the midst of change, and I was hearing a lot of other people.  But he was fresh out of high school, came out of Captain Dyett’s band, like so many great people, like Jug, Gene Ammons, and like…

TP:    Well, your friend Clifford Jordan came out of DuSable.

CA:    Clifford Jordan.  And what’s this great bass player…?

TP:    Richard Davis.

CA:    Richard Davis.  Victor Sproles came out of there, too. And Gene Ammons, as I said… Anyway…

TP:    Von Freeman also went to DuSable.

CA:    Von Freeman, yes.  Von, Bruz, George — the whole family.

Anyway, you asked me about him being called Little Giant.  My memory failed me; I didn’t connect it at first.  I consider it apocryphal.  But there may been a reason for it.  I can trace it to a time… And I heard about this more.  I didn’t see it happen.  But I didn’t know… When he… The thing that brought Johnny Griffin to the attention of the world, he got a chance to go with Lionel Hampton.  And that was a time when Arnett Cobb was with him.  Arnett Cobb was big.  And that’s back in the days when you had these saxophone battles, the same way as in those days they’d have these big band battles.  Johnny Griffin happened to join Hamp during an engagement at a place called the Rialto Theatre.  The Rialto Theatre was a strip joint, but they changed it to a theatre.  And Lionel Hampton was the opener; he opened that place.  By the time Lionel Hampton and these two cats, Arnett Cobb and Johnny Griffin… They excited people so they threw people out, three fell out of the balconies… It was a riot!  They closed that place after about two or three performances — the place couldn’t stand it!  They turned it back into a strip joint!

And the clash, the battle between David and Goliath… See what I’m getting at?  And out of this, I think Johnny Griffin got the name the Little Giant.  Well, everybody wants to go for the underdog, you know.  The new music was just beginning.  But Griffin, he was into everybody else’s thing, Arnett Cobb honking and playing… But Bebop, the new music hadn’t filtered through.  They’d play a few notes, but the new music hadn’t been born.  But as far as sound was concerned, he held his own with Arnett Cobb!  Everybody goes for the underdog.  But he was the underdog only in size, so they called him the Little Giant.

TP:    You played with Johnny Griffin quite a bit, though, around Chicago — yes or no?

CA:    Not a lot.  No.

TP:    But at any rate, he of course knew you and you’d known each other a while, and that’s why he referred you for this date.

CA:    Yes.

TP:    I’d like to ask you about some of the tunes you did on the date.  I don’t know if you remember it; if not, I’ll refresh your memory.

CA:    Oh, yes, I remember.

TP:    Were these tunes that you’d been playing for many years?  Is the material on Inverted Image representative of the type of set you would play in Chicago?

CA:    No.  No, because… Well, the title of the album was decided upon pretty much before we… I don’t remember who came up with the idea for it.  I think it was Orrin Keepnews who came up with the title, and the idea of the Rorschach thing.  He said, “Okay, this should have a song for it.”  So I wrote a kind of upside-down Blues; half the changes were upside-down, or inverted — I turned them around.  So it all sounded like the Blues, but the (?) bars go in different directions, and you don’t know what it is until the last two bars.  So that’s the inverted image.

Now, I wrote that, but Bill Lee wrote most of the rest of it.  He wrote the ballad called “Only One.”  There were   a lot of standards.

TP:    There’s also a collaboration called “See You Saturday.”

CA:    No, that’s no collaboration.  That’s Bill Lee’s tune.

TP:    And everything else is a standard.

CA:    Right.

TP:    “Lullaby Of The Leaves,” which Johnny Griffin did a great version of once on a record, “My Funny Valentine”… These were tunes that you’d been playing for quite some time, that were part of your standard…

CA:    Yes.

TP:    Von Freeman, when I interviewed him, said that you had the greatest harmonic ear that he had ever heard.  Do you feel that you had any impact on other pianists who came up in Chicago during the Fifties?

CA:    There are a couple of people who I influenced in Chicago, I know for sure.  But I don’t think anybody else I influenced at all.  They were going their own way and doing their thing.  Because to really be influenced… Well, what I mean by influenced, a pianist to influence another pianist, you’ve got to spend time with him.  Or if he plays something a little bit like you, in a song he finds a change or finds a way to voice something, that’s okay, but it’s not no big thing.

But to influence somebody, what I call influence, is maybe… As far as piano is concerned, there is only one pianist in Chicago that I have influenced, and he doesn’t live there any more.  His name is Billy Wallace.  The reason being we spent a lot of time together.  We got into each other’s heads.  I know what he knows, he knows what I know.  And we know why.

TP:    Billy Wallace played with Max Roach for some time…

CA:    Yes, he did.  And there was a bass player there named Bill Lee.  He can play the piano and he arranges.  But I’m talking about influencing him not so much on piano, but  musically, in terms of every facet of it.  People like John Young, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens, the piano players that were there?  No, I didn’t influence them at all.  Muhal Richard Abrams?  No.


There was something I wanted to tell you about this album, Inverted Image.  It really didn’t sell very much.  In fact, for a while, everybody I knew had got the album, they went by Riverside and got a free copy!  I didn’t know anyone that ever bought it.  It didn’t sell well.  They didn’t promote it, of course.  And to my mind, it’s not indicative of the thing I do the best.

And lately, the last four or five years… There was a thing we went through in the Seventies where there was no pianos to play, so you had to buy an electric piano, or even worse, before that, you had the organ in the Fifties and so forth — and they had such lousy pianos.  Now they’ve got good pianos in most places, they have a grand piano.  And more than a bebopper, I’m a sort of painter, in a sense.  My friends have put me in the kinds of situations that allow me to do what I do best.  Some people say I’m trying to be a Classical pianist, and that’s a painter, you know.  Or you can call me a house painter!  I’ll accept that.  I’m still painting.  Sometimes I like to play by myself.  I like to paint around singers.


* * *

Chris Anderson (4-9-86) – (WKCR):


TP:    In the first part of the show we’ll focus on musicians Chris was involved with in Chicago, where he was an active member of the scene for about a 15-year period, wasn’t it, between 1946 and 1961 or so.

CA:    Yes, that’s about it.  Actually a few more years than that.  But professionally, yes, you could say fifteen years.  But I started playing around in the mid to late Forties.  So it’s really more like twenty years.  But yes, 1945 to 1961 professionally.

TP:    Chris, tell us about working at the Pershing Ballroom.  You played there quite frequently and different people would come in.  What was the set-up like there?

CA:    Well, the Pershing Ballroom was just that.  It was a ballroom, a dance hall.  They gave dances.  But the thing is, in dealing with Jazz, dance halls were just used as a place for people to stand.  People really began to listen more… Jazz was changing from something to dance to, to a music to listen to.  You’d have a place like this with maybe, oh, twenty-five hundred people, nothing but wall-to-wall people.  It was quite a thing.  It was a dance hall in name only, because there was no room for anybody to dance in most cases.  And even when they were, it was just… A stand-up nightclub, that’s all it was.  That’s the best way to explain it.

TP:    The Pershing also had an upstairs and a downstairs room.  They would book two different bands at one time.  Is that not right?

CA:    Yes.  Well, they had a place called Budland in the basement.  Well, they had something there every week.  That was dealing with the local musicians more than having big names come in.  Big names would only come in once in a while, you see, so it wasn’t really quite the same thing.  And there was the Pershing Lounge, so really there was three places in the same building.  And that’s where Ahmad Jamal would hold fort for a long time, and put the Pershing on the map.

TP:    Tell us about this date with Bird.  What were the circumstances of that evening?

CA:    You want to go through that again.

TP:    Well, we went through it before, but that’s all right.

CA:    Remember we were talking about the fact that I was supposed to be part of the regular house rhythm section there, and I explained to you that it didn’t happen that way at all.  The saxophone player, Claude McLin, his piano player couldn’t make it for some reason.  And I wanted to go so bad, I didn’t know what to do.  I was sitting around the house depressed.  And I got this call from Claude McLin, who asked me to come, and I got to hear Bird, and not only hear Bird, but to play with him.  Of course, I had heard him before I played with him, once before, but at least it got me in.  I had to work a little, but it was a pleasure.  That’s about all there is to that.

[MUSIC: JUG-STITT, “Saxification”; JUG, “Down The Line”]

A strange incident happened to us once when we were working in Chicago.  I teased Jug about it for years!  I have to explain to you first, Chicago is known for the Blues, and there was a time that Blues was much more alive as Jazz than it was Rock-and-Roll before Rock-and-Roll came in.  This was before Blues players made a lot of money.  They made no money.  So the Blues players were in a certain section of Chicago, called the West Side.  They stayed on the West Side, while we stayed on the South Side.

TP:    The Jazz musicians stayed on the South Side and the Blues musicians on the West Side.

CA:    Yes, and never the twain shall meet.  So a gig came along, and Jug having a name, we went over there.  A friend of ours, a guitarist I’ve told you about, was very important in my life.  His name was Leo Blevins.  Now, he came from a Blues background… What I mean as Blues, he came from that genre, he could fit in just as well with Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, anybody who played Jazz… In those days musicians did some of everything, and they did it with feeling.  Whatever was going on, they did it with feeling.

So we had this gig.  It was a Blues house.  There was not many people in the house, oh, maybe ten people.  It sounded like three, the way it was scattered around.  And we went into playing the Blues, what I mean, the Shuffle Blues.  The rhythm was like ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK.  It would be like what Memphis Slim was doing or something like that.  Back in those days, guitar players would get down on their knees, I’ve seen bass players lie down on the floor and play their bass.  They were required to be very entertaining.

So we finished this number.  And everybody said, “Hmm, so this is a Blues house, huh?  This ought to take care of them.  That ought to fix them.”  All of a sudden we heard a voice way in the back: “When you gonna play me some Blues?!”

And we stood there just dismayed, just stupidly!  We hadn’t done a thing.  And I teased Jug about this for years.  I never would let him forget it.  Sometimes people have a little antipathy toward each other anyway, and I teased him with that from now til Doomsday.  I always think of that when I hear Jug play the Blues.  But he was a wonderful Blues player; it was just a different thing.

TP:    When did you start playing with Jug?  How did you meet him?

CA:    I don’t even remember how I met Jug.  That’s something I could not tell you.  See, I was not close to Jug.  I was not close to Jug in the least.  He had a name.  He was in and out of town quite a lot.  He was not a part of the Jazz scene when I got into it — or a regular part of the Jazz scene.  He was in New York and traveling and stuff like that, so I didn’t get to know him that well.  See?  Just in the latter years that I was there I’d see him occasionally, work with him or something.  But I don’t have a memory of when I met him.  I don’t.


CA:    There is something that has always bothered me, it’s annoyed the hell out of me! — excuse the expression.  When Joe went with Count Basie…  This ties up a great deal with what I was saying about Jug and the Blues, and so forth.  When he went with Basie, all of a sudden I was hearing this reputation coming back.  I would hear it from disk jockeys, establishment disk jockeys; I presume critics wrote it up that way; “The greatest Blues singer in the world.”  So when I think about Blues singers, I think about Blues singers.  Joe Williams, as far as Jazz is concerned, singing, I guess he’d have to be the greatest Blues singer, because that’s all they knew about him from Basie.

But the thing about Joe, the reason why I’m annoyed by it… The first time I had the pleasure of having an exchange with Joe… A singer named Joe Evans called me to accompany him on a gig in a little after-hours spot in Chicago.  I had never been there before, I had never seen it — I didn’t know the place existed.  Sometimes you think you know all about your environment, you think you know where everything is, you think you’re pretty hip.  Okay, I go down to this club and go in there… Remember, I don’t know this place exists.  Who’s there?  Joe Williams, Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler, Dinah Washington was there, another famous singer in Chicago whose name was Lillian Hunter, and a few other people that I can’t think of.

Okay.  They asked Joe to sing a song with me, put me right on the spot.  He says, “Look, can you play Pagliacci for me?”  Well, the famous…the part of Pagliacci that everybody would know, the part that was written for Puccini, it was written for a tenor.  Okay, he adapted to it, because he has a bass voice.  And he gave it beautifully!  He scared me death!

And I hate the thought of anybody thinking of him as a Blues singer.  He’s just a wonderful singer.  And as a ballad singer, he has no peer.  I picked this particular track to give you an example of what he can sing like without a large orchestra.  “Young and Foolish,” I think it is.

[MUSIC: Joe Williams, “Young and Foolish.”

TP:    We’ll hear next some music by Von Freeman, another person Chris was associated with for quite some time.

CA:    Mmm-hmm.  I probably worked longer with Von than… Probably!  I know I worked longer with him than anybody I have ever worked with.  I spent five years in and out of his bands.

TP:    Tell us about the band.

CA:    Well, the band consisted of Von, his two brothers George and Bruz… George is a guitarist.  In fact, he’s the guitarist on that album with Bird you played.  Bruz Freeman was a drummer.  And we worked at different clubs around Chicago, and went on short tours to nearby states, and so forth, maybe for one-nighters.

TP:    What was the repertoire of the band?  What sorts of things did you play?

CA:    Back then we played practically all standard tunes, some things that were written, new lines to old chord progressions, things like that — but pretty standard.  All the new Bebop tunes weren’t on the scene yet.  See, we’re talking Forties.  We’re talking ’47, ’48 and ’49…’51.

TP:    Can you talk about what Von’s sound was like in the late 1940’s?

CA:    His sound was very much like Ben Webster’s.  You could always hear the air coming the side of it.  You could always hear that.  That’s one description.  It was pre-Bebop.  It fit Bebop, but… It fit then and it fit now.  It fit Bebop the same way Don Byas or Paul Gonsalves would fit Bebop, so correct and so right.  So when Bebop came in, all he had to do was alter a few lines; he’d do that, too.  The basis for it was there already.  Or he doesn’t have to do that.  Because if he’d deal with Bebop and think of it as such, he’d wind up playing certain cliches and lines, and it’s hard to get out of it sometimes.  It’s not really thinking; it’s doing what you hear, and what you hear is quite often what you’ve heard somebody else play, not something that you’ve put together.  You may think you’re putting it together; I guess you could say you are.

But Von wasn’t just a wonderful instrumentalist, he was a wonderful musician.  He knew a lot!  He could sit down at the piano and play things, so I knew he knew about harmony.

If I go on about him, it’s because we have a mutual admiration society going for sure.

TP:    I know that, because Von has said about you that you have the greatest harmonic ear he’s ever heard.

CA:    He’s one of my favorite people.  He knows it. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Von, “White Sands,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Sweet and Lovely”]

TP:    Chris says that Von has been playing “White Sands” since 1946 or 1947.

CA:    Yeah, that’s true.  As I said before, back in those days they were just really starting to write new melodies to old changes.  Well, that’s not true either, I guess, because they were already doing that to “I Got Rhythm” and writing different melodies to Blues.  But they hadn’t extended out much further than that.  They hadn’t taken too many standard songs with a lot of changes and so forth, and redoing them.  At least not in Chicago.  Chicago’s another place…

TP:    Well, how about the younger breed?  How about someone like Henry Prior, a young alto player in Chicago, who passed away too young, but…

CA:    Now, see, I was talking about Henry Prior being one of the… I remember I told you that most of the people had to wait for Bird to make the next record, because they didn’t know what to do.  And I was saying that Henry Prior was one of the few…one of the people that had the light.  But I forgot to add, he was from New York!  He brought the message from New York.  He was not born in Chicago.  He moved to Chicago.  He knew what it was all about, as far as Bebop was concerned, the technical aspect of it.  He just died too soon.  He died too soon.

TP:    That’s the case for a lot of musicians of that generation.  There were a lot of perils involved, and it was not the safest time for a lot of people.

CA:    No, it wasn’t.
TP:    But the people who survived came out very, very strong.

CA:    A friend of mine gave a birthday party for me a couple of years ago.  His toast was, “We’re celebrating Chris just because he’s still here.”

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll hear now “Two Bass Hit” by Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  I know Chris has some things to say about it.

CA:    I certainly do.  When Dizzy had his big band, it was the first time I really… For bass players… This was before I met Wilbur Ware.  But in the earlier years, the great bass players were Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton and so forth.  But this is for their solo work, keeping in mind the technique of recording back in those days was not too good, and the music was such that…the music the bass players played as a background, playing behind people, you didn’t hear very well, and there wasn’t much to be said for it, I assume.  But when music changed…

Well, the short of it (never mind the lecture), when I first heard Ray Brown, it hit me… I even remember the thought that I had.  I had this thought three times in my life — “that’s how bass should be played.”  And it just fit so well with the band.  I’m not talking about his solo work.  That’s phenomenal.  I’m talking about just the way he sounded with the band.  It just threw me completely.

And Dizzy… I never had the pleasure of playing with Dizzy, doggone it, but you know what he is to music.  I keep thinking what makes Dizzy so different than the rest of the trumpet players — the fact that he’s such a great musician, or is it his personality, or what it is.  And it hit me.  He has music down… I heard him in an interview where he was explaining about him and Bird.  The interviewer was trying to put Dizzy up as having a great personality as such, a good style.  He explained that Bird was the one that had the style.  What Dizzy, in all his humility, would not say (you don’t say this about yourself) the fact that he could arrange, he could write — he brought the music to everybody.  In his first band, he used to teach everybody what everything was about.  The trumpet players, the arrangers, so they would know what it was all about.

All the great trumpet players, coming down from Fats Navarro, Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, they have to take the music so serious, they all had something to prove, being the greatest.  It’s quite a thing when you don’t write and can’t see the whole picture.  And I had never heard any of them once… Dizzy is the only one I ever heard approach music with a sense of humor, and it’s no joke.  He can have fun with the music.  It’s so right, he can do anything with it.  He will always be the boss.

And this record here was one of the first records that I ever heard that really impressed me.  I am putting that wrong; they all impressed me.  But this is the first record that I was really impressed by.  Just his writing and Ray  Brown’s playing, it pinned it down for me.

[MUSIC: “Two Bass Hit,” Griff, W. Ware, “Woody ‘n You”]

TP:    Listening to Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware brings up a host of memories for Chris Anderson, who played with both of them pretty extensively.

CA:    Yes.  That’s asking me to tell you about a lifetime.  Listening to Wilbur… Wilbur was not only a great bass player, he was good with people.  He was good with kids, he was good… Everybody loved him.  He had a laugh that you’d never forget.  And don’t let him get to know you well, know your weak spots, he will get to you one way or another.

I remember an incident, he was working down at Pee-Wee’s, at a place on 11th Street, a club.  The owner used to be the emcee at Birdland for a long time.  Keep in mind, any family where you deal with each other all the time… I say “family” because that’s what we were.  So we were making a fuss about something.  I remember a time when I had a grievance against Wilbur, real or imagined.  It wasn’t much.  To show you how little it was, I went down to the club to hear him, which I don’t do that often.  I decided, “Okay, I’m not going to even talk to him.  I’ll ignore him.  I’ll talk to everybody else.”  He yelled at me, “Hi, Chris!  Hey, Chris!”  I wouldn’t say anything to him.

The bandstand was about three feet off the floor, so he was up there.  He said, “So you’re ignoring me.  Okay.”  And after a while he called me again; I wouldn’t say nothing to him.  He was coming at me from the other direction.  So what he did, he took the bass and put it on the floor.  And the bandstand maybe was 7 or 8 feet from the tables where I was.  And he put that bass… All that music went out of the bass down through the peg, across the floor, through my shoes, up my legs, and through my body… Maybe I could tune out my ears if I wanted to, but… That’s the wonderful thing about acoustic bass.  When it was played right, it felt right, and you could not ignore it.  I must have looked up and said, “All right, I give.”  I said, “I got it!  I got it!”

TP:    Wilbur Ware had one of the most distinctive sounds of any bass player around, I think.

CA:    Yes, indeed.

TP:    Again, this may be an impossible recollection, but do you recall the circumstances of first meeting Wilbur?

CA:    There’s something I was telling you in my interview, Leo Blevins telling me… There was this place in Chicago called the Hole, where all the Jazz musicians would meet…

TP:    Where was it?

CA:    29th and Indiana.  And Leo was telling me about this great bass player, Wilbur Ware, that was coming to town, and he wanted me to hear him.  Leo turned me on to everybody I ever met, and also was responsible in some way… I mean, he introduced me to somebody that introduced me to, at least!  He was only twice removed from me meeting them, at least — not directly responsible.

Wilbur was in Milwaukee.  He was in Milwaukee with Sonny Stitt.  And when Wilbur came back, Wilbur and Sonny Stitt came to town for the first time, too, and lived there.  I didn’t remember that before when we were talking about it.  So I got to meet Sonny Stitt at this time.  Wilbur lived in Chicago, of course; he was just out on the road.  And when they came back, Sonny resided there.  This would have to be ’47, ’46 or ’47.  Let’s say ’47.

TP:    You mentioned in the interview also a time with a Rhythm-and-Blues singer who liked to go to the bar and hear the rhythm section.

CA:    Cozy Eccleston, yes.

TP:    Would you do a lot of those type of gigs, not just Jazz, but Rhythm-and-Blues singers and Bluesmen and so forth?  Or was it never the twain shall meet?  What was the environment for you as a working pianist in Chicago?

CA:    Listen.  Remember, I was saying a while ago, musicians, they worked a weird assortment of gigs.  You’d never know what was… The same thing I was telling you about Ike Day. He had this gig playing drums, no band, no nothing.  Well, musicians, whatever there was to do or play, they did it.  And Wilbur could play drums, he was a dancer, he was a drummer.  He learned the entertainment business.  He just happened to be a great bassist, that’s all.  He played rhythm-and-blues gigs, he played Blues gigs, Blues gigs, b-l-u-u-z-s gigs.  He played for singers, he played some… Everything that could be played, he played it.  And to think someone like him graduated from a tub, a stick and a rope.  That’s what he learned on.
TP:    His foster father built him a homemade bass, I believe.  Isn’t that right.

CA:    Yes.  That’s what we’re talking about.

TP:    The Reverend Turner.

CA:    I don’t remember… Yes, wait a minute.  Yes, I do.  I only got to know about him shortly before Wilbur died.  We were talking about it, but I’d forgotten about that.

TP:    The music we’ll hear next features Wilbur Ware in company with another tenor player who spent not that much time in Chicago, but the time he spent there seems to have been quite significant for him, Sonny Rollins.

CA:    Yes, he was there a couple of years, I think.

TP:    I think it was late 1950, early ’51, and then 1954-55.

CA:    I think it was ’54 or ’55.  Because he had a gig at the Beehive in Chicago.  That was his last gig, then he left and came back to New York.

TP:    I also read that he was there in 1950-51, and he played with Ike Day and jammed with Johnny Griffin and so forth.

CA:    Oh yes.

TP:    Anyway, what do you remember about Sonny Rollins in Chicago at that time?  Anything in particular?

CA:    He was warm.  He was a wonderful musician.  And being who he was, he helped the musicians out to learn.  But he worked all the same kind of gigs that we worked.  He worked gigs that you wouldn’t believe he’d be on, for his stature.  But he was in the salt mines.  He worked the Blues gigs, rhythm-and-blues gigs… There was even a place… There was a place outside Chicago called Calumet City that had a bunch of strip joints.  We worked those even; we had to.  He worked them, too.

TP:    So Sonny really blended into the scene, and became part of the community.

CA:    Exactly.  It had to do with doing what you had to do.  That’s a fact.

[MUSIC:  S. Rollins, Wilbur Ware, Elvin Jones: “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” and “All The Things You Are”]

Incidentally, that’s the second time I had the thought that that’s how bass should be played.  Whoo!

TP:    Wilbur Ware is such a heavy figure to talk about, we forgot to discuss Johnny Griffin, whose playing we mentioned before.

CA:    I don’t know how I could forget to talk about Johnny Griffin, because he was responsible for me getting to record, too, as well as having many other jobs in Chicago, and a lot of things.  I haven’t had a chance to see him much since I’ve been in New York.  In fact, I’ve only seen him twice since I came to New York in ’61.  But he wasn’t in town a lot…

TP:    He lived in Europe, and didn’t come here for more than a decade.

CA:    Yes.  In fact, I think it was about ’79 or so, he did a concert at Carnegie Hall.  I remember Wilbur and his wife Gloria went, and Wilbur was so debilitated at the time, he had to go up in a wheelchair.  It was so difficult; I remember that.  And I think I was ill or something; I didn’t get to go to that performance.  So I didn’t get to see him then.  And he was at the Grant Park once, and we were supposed to go…

TP:    Grant Park in Chicago?

CA:    No, not Grant Park.  I mean, Grant’s Tomb in New York.  He was finished playing, and I got to see him just for a second.

TP:     I guess I keep asking you the same tired question…

CA:    That’s because I don’t answer it.

TP:    No, I’ll ask you one more time, as I have for various other musicians we’ve played, what were the circumstances by which you first met Johnny Griffin in Chicago?

CA:    I don’t remember.  It’s just like I’ve always known him.  I can’t remember my first meeting with him.  For the life of me, I’ve tried.  Because you asked me in that interview, and I haven’t been able to come up with any more. It’s like Jug.

TP:    What do you remember about playing with him?

CA:    Oh, that I enjoyed it.  It was fun.  I can’t remember any particular incident that stands out.

TP:    Did you ever hear Griff play alto sax?  He started off as an alto player.

CA:    I don’t remember… Yes, I did see him play the alto.  There was a club called Swingland; there used to be a Cotton Club in Chicago, and they changed it to Swingland.  Now, that was during the late Fifties.  Now and then he would switch to alto.


[MUSIC:  Sonny Stitt, “Casbah,” “Idaho”]

TP:    Did you play with Sonny Stitt on sessions?

CA:    Yes, I played with Stitt, I worked with him… The  first time I played with Sonny Stitt was Easter of 1947.  We were supposed to work a gig at the Pershing Ballroom with Bird, the first time I worked with Bird.  Sonny Stitt was supposed to be on that gig, but he got sick, and we worked some gigs…

Sonny Stitt by then was part of the local crowd, the same way we talked about Sonny Rollins.  Sonny Stitt was in that same situation.

TP:    In ’47, ’48, ’49?

CA:    Yes.  I worked a lot with him.  I worked as much as any other piano players with him.  I could say I worked a lot, as much as there were gigs.

TP:    What was a standard set by Stitt like?  A lot of standards, substitutions, Bop tunes?

CA:    Well, there were a few originals, like “Ray’s Idea” that was coming on the scene, some things written on Blues and some things written on “Rhythm.”  But there were not a lot of complete originals, with completely different chord changes yet.  So they played things like “Idaho.”  This is one they played back then.   I haven’t heard anyone play this tune in maybe over twenty years now.  They don’t play it any more.  Things like “Fine and Dandy” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” those were the standards that they used in those days?

TP:    Was he playing any alto at that time, or was it exclusively tenor in the late Forties?

CA:    Oh, no.  He played alto a lot.  In fact, he played alto mostly.  It would depend on which one he wanted to play, which was most convenient for him to play at the time.  He had horns in different places.  He might have used an alto last night, and it might have been too inconvenient for him, or he’d forget the tenor so he played alto — or vice-versa.  Rarely did he switch.

TP:    He was also playing baritone at the time in Gene Ammons’ band and other situations, I recall.

CA:    Yeah, for recordings.  But generally speaking, he didn’t do it too much.

TP:    Do you have a preference for his alto or tenor?  Or is that not a fair question?

CA:    It’s a fair question.  I prefer him on tenor.  This medium, Bebop, to my ears, fits the tenor better.  The only people that I ever heard fill up an alto, I mean sound-wise, were Bird and Cannonball.  And alto players, despite their technical achievements out of the horns, I get a picture of a little-bitty horn when you play alto.  But the tenor, it fits the medium a lot better with the things that they play on it.  Most people, if they get a real big sound, it sounds like the sound is bigger than the horn to me.  It seems to me like Bebop was made more for a tenor.  It takes a special person to play it easily and get a big sound on alto.  That’s just my opinion, that’s all.


CA:    I would like to put in a disclaimer here, so that I don’t get shot.  Now, I know quite a few alto players still.  Some of my best friends play alto, and they play it well and they do the job.

TP:    There’s a wonderful record you’re on by Frank Strozier, for instance.

CA:    Yes, indeed.  And there’s C. Sharpe; he really plays.  George Coleman switches from alto to tenor.

TP:    And many others, and I’m sure they all know who they are if they’re out there.  No offense intended.

CA:    But they are the exceptions.  That’s my feeling.  More tenor players are going to sound good playing Bebop than alto players.  That’s what I think I’m saying.

TP:    [ETC.] A lot of what Sun Ra was doing in Chicago in the late Forties and Fifties is obscure, but I know he had a rehearsal band in the late Forties and early Fifties, and he was doing arrangements at the Club De Lisa, I think, and in the rehearsal band were people like Von Freeman, Red Holloway, Wilbur Ware… What do you remember about Sun Ra at the time?

CA:    You see, before he got into this experimental music, doing things, Sun Ra was an arranger for the De Lisa Club band.  This was a big show club, they had dancers…

TP:    Red Saunders’ band was there.

CA:    Red Saunders’ band, exactly.  And he did his arranging with that band.  But he did not have his rehearsals and stuff over there, to my knowledge.  He rehearsed down in Budland, in the Pershing Hotel, where the Pershing Lounge was.  That’s where they had the rehearsals.

TP:    Do you happen to recall any of those rehearsals, what was happening in them?

CA:    Well, first, to show you how experimental and how out he could write, one day I was talking to him on the telephone, and he played a tape of something.  It was called “The Devil Dance.”  And it scared me over the telephone!  It really did.  I had never heard anything like this in my life.  But as far as his big band, it was quite a band; in fact, everybody would be in it at one time or another.  Wilbur Ware and Victor Sproles would be in it, for bass players — I think even Israel Crosby did it for a minute.

TP:    Von Freeman said that having played with Sun Ra made it possible for him to play any type of music anywhere.  He wouldn’t be daunted by anything!

CA:    Yes, that would do it!  That would do it.  We had the most wonderful exchanges, because we were into different kinds of music.  And he’d have these rehearsals, performance rehearsals on Sunday afternoon.  At this particular time, I was living in the Pershing Hotel.  I came in one day, and he turned around and said to me… Because he’d been asking me to come down, but  I’d never managed to get down there, because I was doing something, or not doing, or too lazy to come down.  And he turned around, and he said… Everybody was looking at me.  He said, “Well, you finally decided to come down, huh?”  I tried to think of something to say: “Yeah.  Well, I heard you were going to walk the water today; I thought I’d have to come down and see this.”

But he could really write.  And one of the wonderful things about him, he took some musicians who couldn’t read too good, and taught them how to read, and made them stand up and be men.  And he had a lot of these people in his bands for years.  So he’s contributed a lot to the music.

TP:    Some for thirty years, and the band is still going strong, except for Count Basie and Mercer Ellington, I suppose.

CA:    That got to be quite an organization.  Because even now, they… They all stay together.  They’re a very close-knit group.  He owns a big house up in Philadelphia, and most of the band members live there.  So he has a way of keeping a band together.  And that’s what you must do if you’re going to have any longevity as a bandleader.  Because things aren’t going good all the time.  Because he kept the band together, but that doesn’t mean that they worked all the time in this country.  Sometimes they go to Europe, sometimes… They’ll work anywhere.  But he still manages to keep them together.  Keeping a band together, it gives the implication that they worked all the time and they worked regularly.  This is not the case.  He had other things going for him, and he found a way to keep his band together.

TP:    And I hear that band rehearses like crazy.  They rehearse all day long, every day to keep that discipline going.

CA:    Yeah!  Not only did it keep the discipline going, it kept a lot of people out of trouble, which was very important during those early days.  That’s very important.

TP:    “Young and Foolish,” as the song goes.

CA:    Yes.  What in the world were we thinking of?

TP:    [ETC.] …Barry Harris’s record For The Moment, on Uptown Records, recorded live at the Jazz Cultural Theatre.

CA:    Let me say one thing about this album.  I didn’t know Barry  had made this album, but I knew he’d made a lot of live albums.  So I heard a cut one day on the radio, and something told me… I was listening to the cloud sounds, and something told me this was made at the Jazz Cultural  Theatre.  I don’t know whether it was wishful thinking or what it was.  But when it turned out that it was, I was shocked.  I have quite a thing about ESP and the supernatural and stuff like that.  Anyway, it really surprised me.  Maybe I think everything’s at the Cultural Theatre, because that’s been a home for me.  It’s a place where I’ve been able to hold forth, thanks to Barry and… Well, I’m not going to talk much more about this, but…

TP:    The piece we’ll hear is “To Monk With Love.”  Barry Harris spent much time with Monk in the last years of Monk’s life, and absorbed a great deal, after having absorbed the vocabulary of Bud Powell.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Barry Harris, “To Monk With Love,” C. Anderson with B. Harris & Choir, “Come Sunday.”]

CA:    Barry Harris is so wonderful.  He’s a great player, he’s a great arranger, and talking about good with people… He’s a wonderful teacher.  He had these classes that they started at the Jazz Forum.  And putting this thing together was something amazing to watch.  There were days when we didn’t think it would work, human beings being what they are.  The choir consisted of professionals, semi-professionals and so on, all the musicians were professionals.  I had done some Symphony Space concerts with Barry before, but doing something in Town Hall was something special to us.  And the feeling about the whole thing, it was amazing.

One of the reasons I wanted to play this, forgive me, this was one of the greatest nights of my life, bar none — and I have Barry Harris to thank for it.  And I want him to hear it publicly.  I’m always thanking him, but it will never be enough.

TP:    [ETC.] The next two selections will focus on two tenor players who are very important to Chris, George Coleman and Clifford Jordan.  Both LPs feature Billy Higgins on drums, and he’s a close friend of Chris.

CA:    He certainly is.  He’s one of my very closest friends.  I remember asking him one day, “How many records have you made?”  He made an attempt to answer, and he scratched his head, and he said, “This is ridiculous.  I don’t know!”  He didn’t have the faintest idea he’s made so many, because he’s recorded with so many people.  But in the 1970’s he’s been the main man in Cedar Walton’s trios and quartets and quintets and so forth, but he has recorded and played with other people.  He is just the greatest drummer… He has so much taste.  He’s the personification of taste.  There’s not enough I can tell you about Billy Higgins.  And as a person… He’s the kind of person you go up to Grant’s Tomb, and people from all over show up from different facets of his life.  He’s another one of those people that just attracts people.

George Coleman?  Now, he’s one of the greatest phenomenons I’ve ever seen in my life on the saxophone.  I met him when he came to Chicago from Memphis, him and Booker Little and Frank Strozier — two of them came together and one came later. I don’t remember how it was.  I think Booker Little and Frank might have come first, and then George (I’m not sure) shortly behind.  It was a case of saying, “You go ahead; I’ll be right behind you,” I’m sure.

But George, the first gig we had the Roosevelt College in Chicago, I remember thinking, “This man is going to go somewhere; he’s really going to go somewhere.”  And he has so much talent.  Sometimes I think one of the only things that may have slowed him up when he was getting off the ground… He has such phenomenal technique, I’ve had people tell me… You know, he practiced a lot.  Like, Sonny Stitt in his early years was a practicer.  Every time you’d see him, he had his horn in his hand.  He didn’t have a natural talent for technique; he acquired it.  But George seems to have this natural technique, and understanding of harmony and the melodic line.  He understands it all.  And he’s become a great arranger.  He’s a complete musician.  He’s just not a saxophone player.  He’s just one of the most phenomenal men I’ve ever met.  And he stands tall, he knows how to take care of business.  He’s what he is.  He’s always been the same.

And he’ll be standing tall fifty years from now.  He’s the kind of musician (which is unusual for a musician), he gets up and runs in the morning.  He gets up at five o’clock.  He’s always been like this.  So you got a health nut that’s a great artist, too!  So he can sustain himself.  He got involved in circular breathing along the way.  So he had to keep himself in good shape.

[MUSIC: Eastern Rebellion (GC), “5/4 Thing,” “Clifford Jordan, “John Coltrane.”]

TP:    Chris, you say Bill Lee is the third man who makes you think “That’s the way the bass should be played.”

CA:    Yes.  And I said a lot more, because he got to be quite a part of my life.  All the great people that you know that play, there’s somebody you identify with more than others.  It has nothing to do with greatness.  See, he got to be a part of me.  I know what he’s about and he knows what I’m about.  I have to say he’s my favorite bass player in the world.  He has some albums out on Strata-East, big band things.  He’s a great arranger.  He’s just a great musician.  Poet… He does everything.  I could be talking all night about him, so we’ll have to skip that.

TP:    Clifford Jordan you’ve played with quite a bit.

CA:    Yes, quite a bit.  Cliff Jordan lived in Chicago, too, but I didn’t get to know him really until I got to New York.  I got to know him starting in the Seventies, and played with him a lot.  I’ve used up all the superlatives on George Coleman, but they apply to Clifford Jordan just as well, just as evenly.

TP:    One of the most distinctive sounds in all of Jazz.

CA:    He doesn’t just play Bebop.  He doesn’t play cliches.  He plays.  I’m proud to know him.  I can’t say much more than that.

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll close the show with someone who comes from a similar line to Chris Anderson, but took the music in a different direction in Chicago, and was responsible for fostering a whole school of creative music, improvised music, Jazz if you will, in Chicago in the 1960’s.  I’m speaking of Muhal Richard Abrams.

CA:    He taught musicians how to write their own music, arrange, arrange their own concerts, take care of their business.  He made complete musicians out of men.  He brought about a new breed of musician.  He really did.  That’s what this generation is about.

[MUSIC: “J.G.”]


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Filed under Chicago, Chris Anderson, Interview, Piano, WKCR

A 1999 interview with Teddy Edwards

Several people have asked why I’ve kept the blog mostly inactive lately, to which I can only respond a blend of inertia and too much work. However, a Facebook post on Teddy Edwards from a friend prompts me to share this interview I did with him in 1999 for  a liner note for a two-tenor date that he did with Houston Person. He went deeply into his personal biography, but what’s interesting to me is that this recounting came about almost free-associatively, in response to questions about his relationship to each of the tunes. On the top is the liner note, followed by the verbatim interview — I had closely read an oral history that Patricia Willard conducted with Mr. Edwards for the Institute of Jazz Studies, which I had transcribed some years earlier — I’d love to share that as well, but am not at liberty to do so.

* * *
Though Teddy Edwards, sixty-two years as a professional musician under his belt, knows a thing or two about the cutting contest function, he claims that it was never a context he favored.  “I used to do it,” says the 74-year-old tenor saxophonist, “but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn than fight with it.”

Which is not to say that Edwards wouldn’t enthusiastically tie it up with the fastest company back in the day or the here-and-now, nor that circumstance mightn’t occasionally raise the Taurus bull within him.  Iconic tenor champions Edwards locked horns and matched wits with in venues ranging from lowdown after hours joints and prestigious arenas include Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Paul Gonsalves and legions of the famous and obscure.  In 1994, Houston Person, the tenorman with the mammoth sound who doubles as a producer, jumped on an opportunity to bring Professor Edwards into Rudy Van Gelder’s studios for a friendly encounter.  That was “Horn To Horn” [Muse 5540], and it came off so well, they decided to do it again.

Each tune is a memory-raiser, evoking complex webs of associations and relationships for the tenor cohorts.  Edwards’ recollections date to the early 1940’s, when he played a major part in codifying the vocabulary of post-swing tenor saxophone.

Consider the spirited version of “Twisted,” an ebullient Wardell Gray line from 1948 which inspired a still-hilarious lyric by Annie Ross (“my analyst told me that I was out of my head…”).  Edwards and Gray met as teenage alto saxophonists making their way up the ladder in Detroit.  “We first worked together in 1942 at the Congo Club in Detroit’s Norwood Hotel, ” Edwards recalls in his hotel room following at week’s engagement at New York’s Iridium.  “It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee, Bernie Peacock, Big Nick Nicholas, Matthew Gee, Al McKibbon and a lot of great players came out of that band — Sonny Stitt, Rudy Rutherford, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones and Lucky Thompson were also in Detroit during those days.  We had a chorus line and we’d get the top acts for the week after they left the Paradise, Detroit’s black theater.  Wardell and I were partners in Detroit and later in California; we studied together through the years, practicing the various saxophone books, playing duets, developing our facilities.  Wardell was very thorough at what he did.  Every morning he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  He was a light-hearted, joyful type of guy with a good sense of humor and a good spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing because he prepared himself.  If he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together!”

Edwards arrived in Detroit in 1940, a 16-year-old professional who’d already worked four years in big bands arouind his native Jackson, Mississippi.  “When I was a kid in Jackson, I learned about harmony, which gave me a lot of security.  I was 12 when I met my father, a strong reading musician who played with Silas Green’s tent show (about the strongest one out there), but he had left an Orem harmony book on our piano, and I started listening to it as well as my cousin’s piano book.  All of the bands came through to play Jackson, which had over 100,000 people — it wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  We had two good big bands in Jackson, with good arrangers, and 19 miles away was Piney Woods College, which had several bands — the Sweethearts of Rhythm came out of there.  My grandfather, Henry Carson Reed, was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.  The people who ran the dance-halls knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come hear the bands.

“Some musicians in my first band talked about how a fellow who came through Jackson had chopped everybody down playing in a chordal style, and I started looking at the chords real seriously.  I learned to transpose them verbatim as fast as the piano called them to me.  I ran up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play, not from records.  I loved Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith, Hilton Jefferson, Tab Smith and a lot of others, but I never copied them.  I learned how to improvise, turn the chords around, and make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies, which is what I call chords.  They aren’t numbers; they’re groups of sounds, and you reach in there and pick the notes you want to get the colors you’re looking for.  People have always responded to me, as far as I can remember.  When I was 12 years old I could always satisfy an audience of adults.  I was born with that.  I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man!

Gene Ammons was famous for doing precisely that; he had an early ’50s jukebox hit with “Pennies From Heaven.”  Edwards met him playing with King Kolax at the Champion Bar on Hastings Street, where Detroit’s sporting crowd held office hours.  “I was young and full of fire,” he laughs, “and I’d go there and sit in with Jug and Lank Keyes, who were just getting their thing together, and fire it up!  Gene Ammons had that big sound and wonderful feeling.”  Edwards and Person take it at the camelwalk clip that drummer Kenny Washington likes to call the grown-up’s tempo.  “I like the song,” Edwards continues.  “It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and nights I play it as a perky thing, talking about the ‘pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.'”

Edwards switched from alto to tenor when he landed in Los Angeles in 1945.  “Howard McGhee decided to stay after he finished an engagement with Coleman Hawkins at Billy Berg’s,” Edwards told Patricia Willard in an interview for the Oral History Project of the Institute of Jazz Studies.  “He was searching around, trying to find a tenor saxophone player that he liked, and he couldn’t find anybody.  So he asked me to switch and hook up with him, and I thought it was a good idea.  I was able to transfer my knowledge of how to get through the chords.  I always had my own sound on both instruments.”

Edwards’ solo on “Up In Dodo’s Room,” a 1946 Spotlite recording, was significant in the evolution of swing-to-bop tenor vocabulary.  “I didn’t realize that the solo had any significance until I met Fats Navarro in 1948,” he told Willard.  “‘Look,’ he said, ‘do you realize that you changed the course of history?  That solo was the first solo by any tenor saxophone player that didn’t come from the Lester Young or the Coleman Hawkins school.’  If I remember correctly, the solo had all the half-steps; it had the major-seventh, which was just beginning to get popular; and it had the flat nine.  I played all the hip stuff that they call hip today in 1945.”

Back at the hotel, he continues: “The main thing I learned from Bebop in terms of harmony was the use of the flat-five, which Howard McGhee pulled my coat to.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  It was a natural evolution, just going with the flow.  I moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands to where I could play fast.”

At the time Edwards switched, Chu Berry, Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young had put their stamp on “Ghost Of A Chance,” a popular vehicle ever since for tenor players of the romantic persuasion, as Edwards and Person are.  It’s primarily a feature for Edwards, who vocalizes his horn to the max, a sour-sweet, been there-done that, never-jaded tone, extracting every bit of emotion from the lovely theme.

Person puts his trademark plush tone and intense melodicism on “Little Girl Blue,” his feature.  “It’s a saxophonist’s song,” says the 64-year-old South Carolina native.  “I’m a big Hank Mobley nut, and he did one of my favorite versions of it, so this was done with him in mind — I just played it like I play it.”

Which is the spirit they bring to “Blue and Sentimental,” a song rife with tenoristic implication since Herschel Evans recorded it as a tenor feature in 1938 with the Basie band.  “I never heard Herschel play in person,” Edwards states, “but the records I remember very well.  This was one of my favorites.  Herschel was in the Coleman Hawkins school, and he had a beautiful touch.”

“I was into Lester Young, and didn’t hear Herschel Evans until later,” Person recalls.  “That was my first song ever in my college band.  They had another saxophone player who played it great, but he was a senior and was leaving, so I got the spot.”  College was South Carolina State, where Person began playing the saxophone after years of diverse listening that spanned Charlie Parker and Illinois Jacquet (his main influence) to Stan Kenton to the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  “We had a piano in the house, which my mother played, and I had experience with the youth choir in church, but that was about it for me until my father got me a saxophone for Christmas late in high school.  I just liked the sound of it.  On the tenor saxophone it just seems you can get all the different sounds that you want.”  Person enrolled in the Army in 1956 and was stationed in Germany, where he encountered Eddie Harris (“he gave me a lot of helpful help”), lifelong friend Cedar Walton, and Leo Wright.  After his discharge, he enrolled at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and began his distinguished career playing all manner of gigs on the New England circuit.

Person often heard soul tenor king Willis “Gatortail” Jackson play “The Breeze and I,” Ernesto Leuconia’s Latinate line which ends the session.  Edwards’ notey, swooping style contrasts nicely here with Person’s blues-shout-style locutions.

Both have played the familiar refrain of “Night Train” — purloined from Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local” by Jimmy Forrest — thousands of times over the years.  “I became very familiar with this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early and middle ’50s,” Edwards says.  “To eat and support a family, you had to come up with something.  But I learned a lot.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, the biggest thing I got from playing for those strippers was learning how to play the melody real well, because I had time to think.  You could build your strength, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  All those things make you strong.”

Teddy Edwards and Houston Person are self-made men, individualists who found their sounds by inner conviction and diligent work.  “There was a lot of do-it-yourself when I came up,” Edwards states, “because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records.  On the other hand, you came up through bands which trained you.  That was before television, which took away the stages where things would come along naturally.  That’s when bands would travel on the road, really practice, have section rehearsals and get things down.  Now everything is wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell didn’t have band training when I hear them play.  Something about coming through that band era gave you another thing.”

Neither got where they are by looking backward.  As Person puts it, “Cutting contests were a great ritual back then, and it was all done in advancing good musicianship and people trying to establish their turf, so to speak.  But this date isn’t a cutting contest.  We got together with an appreciation for what’s gone before and what’s happening now, trying to pay homage to guys who made contributions.  We tried to show mutual admiration for each other, and tried to have fun.  Everybody’s adding company to the legacy.”

* * *

Teddy Edwards (3-22-99):

TP:    With “Twisted” we have to think about Wardell Gray.

EDWARDS:  He was my first partner.  We first worked together in 1942, and we worked at a club called the Congo Club in Detroit.  It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee came out of that band, Matthew Gee came out of the band, Bernie Peacock, and a lot of great, great players.  George “Big Nick” Nicholas…

TP:    You mentioned also the lead alto player with Lunceford.

EDWARDS:  Ted Buckner.  He came into the band after he left Jimmy Lunceford’s band.  He inspired me to… I was 18 years old, I was playing lead alto, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to give up this alto chair, this lead chair” when he came in.  He said, “Youngblood, you’re doing fine.  You just stick to the lead, it’s okay; we’ll split the lead little,” and I sat next to him and heard him play.

TP:    And Kelly Martin was the drummer, right?

EDWARDS:  He was the original drummer, but we had two or three drummers while I was there.  Vernon Brown was another fine drummer, and Johnny Allen became a leader… During that time a lot of guys were getting drafted.  Al McKibbon was with the band during the time we were there.  We had a chorus line and we were getting the top acts when they left the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  They had a black theater chain where the bands would go to different theaters…

TP:    In Detroit they’d play the Paradise.

EDWARDS:  They’d play the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  When they’d go to Chicago…

TP:    Was the Congo Club analogous to the De Lisa in Chicago, a similar type of room?

EDWARDS:  Well, I imagine you could say that in the sense that they had a band and a chorus line and different kinds of acts.  But the Congo Club was something very-very special.  It was a beautiful room in the Norwood Hotel at 555 E. Adams in (?) Detroit.  But we were out in California when Wardell made “Twisted,” and then “Stoned” and what’s that other thing…”my analyst said”… [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s “Twisted.”  It still sounds good.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s a great line.  I remember when he made that line.  That was in ’48, when he left Los Angeles to go to New York to record for Prestige Records.  We were real partners.  We studied together through the years.

TP:    You were all playing alto at that time.

EDWARDS:  In Detroit.  But when we got to California we were all playing tenor.

TP:    I know why you switched to tenor.  It was circumstances, because Howard McGhee had been with Coleman Hawkins…

EDWARDS:  He liked the sound.

TP:    Why did Wardell Gray switch to tenor?  Because Charlie Parker was taking up too much space?

EDWARDS:  No, it wasn’t that.  I think he switched to tenor because he liked it.  I think he switched to tenor with a band called Benny Carew, one of the Midwest bands.  But he just liked the tenor, like a lot of guys.  I don’t think it’s that Charlie Parker ran you off your instrument.  He didn’t run me off mine. [LAUGHS] But I think he just picked up playing the tenor.

TP:    You said that the two of you practiced together all the time.

EDWARDS:  We practiced in the books, the saxophone books, playing duets, all the Singerland stuff, developing our facilities.

TP:    You also said that I think the contractor for the Congo Club band helped you with your sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Stack Walton.  He was a tenor player.  He inherited the band.  The band was changing pretty fast in those days, the personnel.  When I first came into the band actually some of the guys preferred Sonny Stitt and Rudy Rutherford who were a little more advanced than I was in playing the saxophone and the clarinet.  But he liked what I was doing; he said, “I like what you’re doing.”  We were playing in a shell; man, that shell was eating my little sound up, so he showed me how to develop my diaphragm.  And I practiced real hard.  I practiced before the gig and after the gig…

TP:    Were you like a big sound alto player, like Willie Smith or Johnny Hodges?

EDWARDS:  I had my own sound.  I’ve always had my own…

TP:    Can you describe your sound on the alto.

EDWARDS:  Well, it’s hard to describe your sound.  You have to hear it.  But I’ve always had my own sound on the alto and even on the tenor.  I think it’s just a matter of me doing it my way, the way I learned how to do it.  I never tried to copy Johnny Hodges or copy Willie Smith, but I loved those guys.  I loved Hilton Jefferson, I loved Tab Smith, I loved a lot of them.  But I didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to try to play like this.”  I never did.

TP:    It was all functional for you.

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    Playing a situation…

EDWARDS:  Right, and learning.  Just learning.  Fortunately I learned about harmony real early, so that gave me a lot of security.  My father had left a harmony book on the piano.  I never saw him until I was 12 years old, but that Orem harmony book stayed on the top of our piano all those years, and then I started listening to it.  Then I’d look in my cousin’s piano book and think about what was going on with the music.  Then I heard the guys in my first band talk about a fellow who came through home playing a chord style named Devarney from Milwaukee.  They were talking about how he chopped everybody down playing these chords, and I started looking the chords real seriously.  I learned to play the chords verbatim.  I could transpose them verbatim as the piano called them to me; as fast as you called them, I could transpose them.  I’d just run up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play instead of listening… I listened to the records, but I didn’t just copy off the records.

TP:    You had a very good opportunity as a kid to play with these very good, professional bands.

EDWARDS:  We had two good bands at home, with good arrangers.  We had two good bands in Jackson, big bands.  So I was very fortunate as a kid.  My grandfather was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.

TP:    It sounds like when you were a kid you needed a 36-hour day.  You were working pressing clothes, practicing, playing gigs, going to school and doing pretty well.

EDWARDS:  Right.  My aunt had a cleaners.  I used to press clothes in the morning, I’d clean clothes in the morning and go to school, come back and practice, and go do some more work at the cleaners, and then come back and rest and go to my night gig.

TP:    Say a few more words about Wardell Gray personally.

EDWARDS:  He was very thorough at what he did.  One thing that I saw him do first thing every morning, he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  That way you’d pick it up.  You see?  First thing in the morning he’d take it out of the case and put it on the bed.  That’s what he would do.  He read all the time; he read all kinds of things, you know.  Every night when we got off, he’d get the newspaper.  He loved to read.  Hampton Hawes loved to read, too.  He had his way about him.  We were good friends.  He was light-hearted and kind of a joyful type guy.  He had a good sense of humor and a good spirit.

TP:    you can hear it in his playing.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Good spirit, a lot of spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing, because he prepared himself.  He really prepared himself, much more than I did, in a sense.  Because if he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together! [LAUGHS] Get his stuff together to bring to the jam session.

TP:    Let’s move on to “Ghost of A Chance.”

EDWARDS:  During the ’40s, “Ghost of A Chance” became popular amongst the tenor players.  Illinois Jacquet had done his recording on it and Lester Young had done it.  So it was kind of a good vehicle for tenor players, popular among the tenor players.  So I was just another (?) to “Ghost of A Chance.”  And it’s a great song.  In fact, I should do it more often.

TP:    Well, for your sound it’s really custom-made.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] Yes, I should do it more often.  I’ve done it once or twice maybe since I did this record.  But it’s such a great vehicle.  It’s got good room for you to work.

TP:    Let’s get back to your being an original stylist even though you were in the middle of things.  Lester Young had such a profound impact on people, and Coleman Hawkins on a lot of the Detroit guys like Yusef Lateef and Lucky Thompson…

EDWARDS:  Well, they came off that tree.  I think Ben Webster and Don Byas later on influenced Lucky more than Coleman Hawkins.  But they came from Coleman Hawkins.  They’re off that tree.  The big tree was Coleman Hawkins and the next big tree was Lester Young.  From Lester, Stan Getz, Wardell, Dexter, Gene Ammons and all of them leaned heavily.

TP:    But for you, what was your relation to that music?  I know you admired it.

EDWARDS:  I admired it.  I listened to all the great players, altos and tenors or whatever.  But when I changed from the alto to the tenor, I just transferred my knowledge.  I knew how to get through the chords.  And that’s been a very-very valuable thing to me, even to today.  I’m so thankful that I learned as a kid about the chords, how to improvise and turn them around and try them…

TP:    Make them melodies.

EDWARDS:  Make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies.  That’s what chords are.  I call them sound bodies.  You reach in there and get what you want.  You might not want but one note out of this one, or you might want three or four of them, then you might want to alter them, learn how to alter the chords, add to them and find the common tones that will work… In fact, I wrote a song called “April Love” that I can play one note all the way through the whole song; just one note is common to every chord in this whole song.  You look for these kind of things when you’re playing.

TP:    So chords correlate to sounds and colors for you.

EDWARDS:  Oh yes.

TP:    They’re not numbers. They’re sounds.  They’re vivid.

EDWARDS:  They’re not numbers at all.  They’re sounds.  I call them sound bodies, groups of sounds.  You pick what you want out of the sound.  I can run up and down, naturally; that’s how I learned how to play.  I can go down… But then I like to alter them, you know, sharp this or flatten that, or add this to it.  It might be a VII chord and I add a IX, or maybe a XIII to it, or raise the V or inflect the IX — anything to get the colors that I want to get.

TP:    Were you into that level of harmony by the time you got to California?

EDWARDS:  I was pretty much in it.  You know, the main thing I learned from the Bebop era as far as harmony was concerned was about the use of the flat-five.  I didn’t know that one.  Then Howard McGhee pulled my coat how to alternate like the V-minor VII to the chord, the VII chord and alternate it.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  You’ve got to learn how to work it.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the really revolutionary thing in bebop was the way rhythm was approached and not so much the harmony?

EDWARDS:  Oh, the harmony was very important.  And the speed that you needed to play.  Guys were playing fast.  You needed good chops, good technique to play, and we practiced to have that.  No, the harmony was definitely strong.

TP:    Why for you was it such a big break?  Did you align yourself firmly as someone who was a Bebopper as-opposed-to, or was it just a natural line of descent?

EDWARDS:  It was just a natural line of descent.  I just moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part on you, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music, how to get the phrasing out of it.  But it was just a natural evolution, more or less.  Just going with the flow.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands up real good where I could play fast.

TP:    Did you know Lester Young well?  I know he had a house in L.A.

EDWARDS:  Not real well, no.  But I had occasion to meet him.  In fact, he played my horn one night in San Francisco at Bop City.  But I met him after he had come out of the Army, and he was kind of…oh, what I say…

TP:    Introverted.

EDWARDS:  Introverted.  He didn’t want to have too much to do with anybody, because the Army had really…


TP:    Let’s talk about “Night Train.”  We can talk about Ellington and big bands and “The Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” and we can talk about Jimmy Forrest and that way of playing the horn.

EDWARDS:  Well, I first heard “Night Train” around ’44 when it first came out.  I was in Seattle, Washington, when I was playing a dance with Ernie Fields’ Orchestra, and I heard it on a jukebox.  Everybody was putting their nickels on this song, and it was very strong, very popular.  But it wasn’t exactly in the vein that I was in.  I was closer to the Bebop vein.  He had the Bebop knowledge thing going himself, Jimmy Forrest, but he chose to make this record, “Night Train,” which later on I found was almost a direct copy of Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local.”  Some might say he’s very fortunate that Duke Ellington didn’t sue him about it, which I don’t think he ever did bring a case against him — because he had a clear case as far as the copyright issue is concerned.  Then Buddy Morrow came along and put his twist to it, and he had a big record on “Night Train.”

Now, I used to play this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs for the dancers.  “Night Train” was one of the themes; they’d make their bumps and all that stuff.  The strippers had about four or five tunes that they really took a liking to.  I used to play it, and that’s how I became very familiar with the song.

TP:    You were still in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  I played in some burlesque places in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  When you had to eat and had a family, you had to come up with something.

TP:    In the later ’40s and early ’50s.

EDWARDS:  Mostly part of the early ’50s and some of the middle ’50s.

TP:    You’d be behind the screen?

EDWARDS:  Well, you would be off to the side.  You wouldn’t be hid behind the screen, but off the scene completely.  But I learned a lot by playing in those burlesque places.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, when I played for those burlesque dancers, I studied playing the melody.  I had to play the melody real well.  That’s the biggest thing I got from that, was learning how to play the melody real good, and I’m thankful for the burlesque clubs! [LAUGHS] I had time to think about the melody we were playing.  You could build up your strength in your playing, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  You’d have drums and a piano in those places, and sometimes you’d play two of you at a time, maybe just you and the drums playing 15 minutes and you and the piano player playing 15 minutes, then you’d play 15 minutes all together.  All those things make you strong.

TP:    you’ve been working since you were 12, right?

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    In this oral history, after about 3 hours of it, you’re up to age 18.


TP:    There’s an obvious difference between the musicians of your generation and the people who are under 40, say.  Talk about that do-it-yourself quality.

EDWARDS:  During those days there was a lot of do-it-yourself, because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records to play with.  On the other hand, you had bands to come up through and train.  That was before television.  That’s when bands used to really practice and rehearse and get the things down real good.  Traveling on the road together, you’d have section rehearsals, and before they’d put the band together… You don’t have much of that any more now.  Everything is so wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell when I hear them play, like on their records…I can tell they didn’t have band training.  Something about them coming through that band era that gave them another thing.  I could tell.

TP:    It seems for a lot of the guys who came up during your time and a little before, a little after music was a religion.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s what it was.  See, television changed things a whole lot.  Television took away the stages.  Every little club had a little stage, and they’d have a tap dancer or something.  Television wiped all that out.  Television took away a lot of things that were coming along naturally.  If you were a dancer and you wasn’t dancing on television, you wouldn’t have nowhere to dance.  You see what I’m saying?  Then the music got that way.  If you weren’t sitting in one of those studio bands recording, you’re not getting too far, unless you’re a big star who can get out here and make it on your own.  But I would never aspire to be a musician, even though I played for the studio; they’d call me when they want what I have — in special situations.

TP:    They want your sound.

EDWARDS:  Right.  Like, I played on the movie, Jane Fonda…

TP:    They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.

EDWARDS:  I played on that one, too.  That was Johnny Green.  I did it for George Donen, who did Any Wednesday with Jane Fonda.  He had the contractor call me.  The contractor said, “Teddy Edwards?”  I said, “yes.”  He said, “Mr. Donen wants you on this soundtrack.  There’s a 60-piece orchestra.  Mr George Donen, who wants you on this soundtrack.”   He said, “Do you read music?”  I said, “I’ve been reading it all my life practically.”  “Well, he said he doesn’t care whether you read music or not.  He wants you on here, because he wants your sound on this movie soundtrack.”  Then he had me playing a special thing on clarinet, which I had no idea, with my name on my part, you know, to play this special clarinet part for this movie.

TP:    A customized part for you.

EDWARDS:  He liked my sound.  He had heard my playing with Gerald Wilson, and he loved the sound I got out of the horn.

TP:    Gerald Wilson’s band must have been a nice outlet for you over the years.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that was a great band.  That was one of the finest bands ever been, that’s for sure, the band of the early ’60s — the real band.  We had probably the finest reed section I played with; I liked the way we sounded.  We had Jack Nimitz on baritone, Harold Land on the other tenor, Joe Maini playing lead alto…

TP:    Did you meet Gerald Wilson in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  No, I didn’t really meet him.  He had left when I came there.  I’m trying to think of the other alto player.  He was a good alto player; in fact, I got him a contract with Contemporary Records.  [Jimmy Woods.] Anyway, we had a great blend in that reed section.  I played with Basie, with the saxophone section, but sitting in there it didn’t have that… It was a great section, but it had a lot of individual… Everything is individual in that reed section.  Even though when it comes out, it came out great.  But we were on a one-mind kind of thing with the Gerald Wilson saxophone section.  We were on the same thinking plane as far as the sound of the music.

TP:    And that seems to be a thing that you see throughout with guys from your period, who came up then, probably because of that band training.

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was a big help.

TP:    Now, in Jackson, it would seem kind of a backwater, but a lot of bands came through and you were able to keep up with a lot of music.

EDWARDS:  All of the bands came through Jackson to play Jackson.  Well, we had over 100,000 people in Jackson.  We had a 22-story building when they only had 12 in Los Angeles.  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  Then there was Piney Woods, down 19 miles at Piney Woods College where they had several band.  They had the male bands, then they had the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first all-girl band which came out of there.  The Daughters of Rhythm came out of there.  So a lot of excellent musicians were in that vicinity.  Plus the bands that came through playing the dance, and the people who ran the dance-halls, they knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come up and hear the bands.

TP:    Well, you had a story of being able to hear the Ellington band through the grace of one nice guy.

EDWARDS:  One nice guy, yeah.

TP:    Which we don’t have to repeat here.  But you did say that Johnny Hodges was your early idol.

EDWARDS:  Well, he was the first one who really got to my ears.  But the first song I learned how to play was Wayne King’s theme song, “The Waltz You Sing For Me.”  That was the first song, from the radio, where I learned how to play it.  Then Johnny Hodges came, and I loved that sound and that feeling that he had, even though I never copied him verbatim — but he influenced me.  Then I heard Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway, and that was another thing of beauty to me.  He’s not the most famous saxophone player, but he was beautiful, Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway’s band.  There were a lot of different guys who came through. Tab Smith.

TP:    You had to have heard Budd Johnson with Earl Hines’ band which came through the south.

EDWARDS:  Oh, I heard Budd with Earl Hines’ band.  That’s when he had Billy Eckstine.  This was in the ’30s.  Billy Eckstine was with the band, he had George Dixon, the baritone player, who was the guy who played jazz on a flute.  A lot of guys claimed later, but he was the first guy…

TP:    George Dixon, huh?

EDWARDS:  George Dixon.  He was the baritone player with Earl Fatha Hines.  He had the great singer Walter Fuller singing with him, and Madeleine Green singing, and Keg Johnson playing the trombone.  Earl Hines had some fantastic bands.

TP:    But also, you mentioned you heard the beginning of the Earl Hines band that had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Detroit.

EDWARDS:  Oh, right, the first gig.

TP:    Bird left McShann in Detroit and joined Earl Hines.  Do you have a memory of the band?

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was great.  In fact, that picture in the book that Francis Paudras wrote about Charlie Parker… Opening up the book, they’ve got a picture of Sarah Vaughan in that band playing piano back-to-back with Earl Fatha Hines.  They had two white grand pianos back to back on the stage.  I was sitting there when that picture was taken.  I said, “Damn, I was there when that picture was made.”  I was at the opening show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s when you first met Charlie Parker, was in Detroit at that time?

EDWARDS:  I met him the week before, when he was with McShann.  But I had listened to him on his recordings with McShann, like “Hootie Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” and “Swingmatism,” those great solos that he played.

TP:    so you knew right from the top that he was doing something special.

EDWARDS:  Oh, he was doing something special, no question about it.  He had a little tinge of Lester Young in him back then, a little tinge of Lester Young on that alto.  If you listen to him close.  Lester Young was his idol, you know.

TP:    When he did the few things on tenor, you can hear it.

EDWARDS:  The few things on tenor.  But I’ll tell you, he hadn’t played the tenor long enough for his embouchure to get right for the tenor.  It would have been brighter.  It was kind of dark because his chops hadn’t come up to that tenor thing.  It’s another kind of thing.

TP:    Talk about the difference, what the challenges are.

EDWARDS:  The big challenge is that if you play one, your ear gets set to that one.  If you’re playing a tenor, your ear gets set to the tenor, then when you pick the alto up, it’s a fifth away.  So your ear has got to make the adjustment, you see.  But now, if you play them both all the time a lot, then it’s easy.  It becomes natural.  But if you stay with one and go to the other… Then what you have to do, like in my case… You have to use your mind.  I know that this chord goes because I want to play this chord.  I can use my mind that way, see.  But it’s an ear thing, where your ear knows where the notes are.

TP:    A lot of alto players say it’s harder to play the alto than it is to play the tenor.

EDWARDS:  It’s not harder to play.  They have different demands on you.  Controlling the pitch of the alto is a little more delicate than the tenor, because it’s higher.  The soprano is really rough to control.  But the you’ve got to have more wind down on the tenor.  So they have their differences.

TP:    Let’s go to “Blue and Sentimental,” with a real Basie connotation.

EDWARDS:  I first heard Herschel play that with the Basie band on the records.  I never did hear him play in person, but the records I remember very well.  It was one of my favorites, and Lester played 8 bars on the clarinet on that recording of “Blue And Sentimental.”  Herschel was on the Coleman Hawkins school, but he had a beautiful touch. [SINGS REFRAIN]

TP:    Big and gentle.

EDWARDS:  yeah, he was something beautiful.  Died real young.

TP:    Were you as much into the Basie band of that time as you were Lunceford and Ellington?

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Man, when Basie came along, that was a revelation.  When Basie came along with that all-American rhythm section, they had Lester sitting on one hand and Herschel on the other, they had Harry Edison sitting on one corner and Buck Clayton sitting on the other one.  Goodness me.  That was power-power-power.  Papa Jo Jones sitting back there on the drums.

TP:    On the previous record with Houston Person, you were dealing with a little later repertoire, like you did “Equinox” and Richard Wyands put “Moose the Mooche” on the intro to “Lester Leaps In.”  This one puts you more in the older school.

EDWARDS:  I guess so.

TP:    So if someone’s listening to this record, they won’t necessarily know what you’re a modernist player…

EDWARDS:  I imagine they’d be surprised.  Because I had most of the leads in the “Night Train” thing.  I thought about my burlesque days.  That’s going to be a strong song on this record, too.

TP:    Again, I don’t want to put you back as someone who stopped at 1952 in a burlesque house, because I know what you did.  Talk to me about how your repertoire… Do you work all over with a touring band, or do you pick them up when you come to town?

EDWARDS:  Well, mostly I’m picking up bands, because I’m not a big commercial item.

TP:    You’re someone for the connoisseurs.

EDWARDS:  Yes, more or less, the collectors and all those people.  And I gain all the time new people.  My problem has not been with the audience.  If I have a problem, it’s been with the negotiators — the agents and the managers.  They’ve never taken a liking to me.  But people have always responded to me, as far as I can remember, when I was 12 years old.  I could always satisfy an audience.  I never lost that.  I got that.  I was born with that.  Nobody can ever take that away.

TP:    you were born with that.

EDWARDS:  I was born with that.  I can make the people feel what I’m doing.

TP:    And when you were 12 years old…

EDWARDS:  I could do the same.  To adults.  I could do it then.  That’s just a thing that was natural to me.  Well, I understood in later years why I was that way.

TP:    Why?

EDWARDS:  It’s a case of… I’d compare it to a radio set.  You’ve got a transmitter and a receiver.  The audience is the receiver.  The artist is the transmitter.  Now, in order to transmit, you have to generate, and you generate it within yourself.  You see, I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  And it’s going to get through.  You can be sitting at the bar talking, but I’m going to get through to you in your subconscious.  I’m going to get through to you most of the time.  Because that’s the way I am.  I can project the music that way, because I can build it within myself.  And I know, because these sound waves can go through this building!

TP:    What sound does to people.  And chords are sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man.  It gets real deep.

TP:    Another guy who was like that was Gene Ammons, who I associate with “Pennies From Heaven.”  He had a little hit on that, didn’t he?

EDWARDS:  Oh, yeah, Jug did.

TP:    You met him in Detroit, too, with King Kolax.

EDWARDS:  Yes, with the King Kolax band.  He was playing at the Champion Ballroom on Hastings Street, and I used to go over there and sit in with him.  Because I was young and full of fire.  Jug and Lank Keyes and them, they were just getting their thing together, and I’d go over there and sit in with them and fire it up!  Yeah, Gene Ammons had that big sound and that wonderful feeling.

TP:    But you and he also had that good-natured cutting contest type of attitude… Not cutting contest, but matching sounds or wits or whatever you want to call it.

EDWARDS:  Well, that was going on.  I used to do it, but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn rather than fighting it.

TP:    That can be a battle, too.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] But that was the thing.  We were doing it.  Okay, let’s tie it up here.  Like, Stanley Turrentine still talks about the time he heard Paul Gonsalves and me in San Francisco.  He said, “I never will forget that as long as I live, the night I heard you and Paul get together.”  But you get together sometimes and the thing will be working.  And it’s good.  I did several tenor things.  I did a tour with Buck Hill and Von Freeman in Holland, on which we had a lot of fun.  It was a friendly fight going on between us.  And Dexter… All the guys through the years, we would tie it up there, and… A tenor player, Joe…

TP:    Joe Alexander.

EDWARDS:  No.  He was a white kid.  Played real good.

TP:    These days?

EDWARDS:  We made a record with Frank Butler together on Xanadu.

TP:    Oh, Joe Farrell.

EDWARDS:  Right, Joe Farrell.

TP:    From Chicago also.

EDWARDS:  Yeah, he was an excellent player.  Now, we kind of got off on a bad leg, but we got close.  I was sitting in the studio waiting on everybody to come in.  But he didn’t know me really.  I’m sitting there when he came in, I spoke to him, and he barely spoke!  So I said, “Okay.  We’ll see about this when they turn the tape on.” [LAUGHS] He didn’t know me.  I could have just been a chair sitting there as far as the way we talked about a greeting.  It kind of raised that old Taurus bull up in me a little bit. “Okay, when they turn the machine on, we’ll straighten all of this out.”  We became real close.

TP:    I was mentioning my associating Gene Ammons to “Pennies From Heaven.”  What was your association to it?

EDWARDS:  Well, I like the song.  It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and rainy nights I was would play it as a good perky thing, talking about the “pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.”

TP:    Do you sing in performances now?

EDWARDS:  No, I never went into singing too much.  I sing on Blue Saxophone, “Hymn For the Homeless,” but anybody could sing it.  It didn’t take a great singer to sing that.

TP:    But you’re a lyrics man, obviously.

EDWARDS:  I’m a lyrics writer.  Yes, I’m a lyricist.

TP:    When you play these tunes, you know the lyrics.

EDWARDS:  I have an idea about most of them.  I might not know what all… But I know what the lyricist is talking about.  I know the subject matter, and that’s important, to help you to express the song and know what it’s talking about.

TP:    Talk a bit about playing with Houston Person.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Houston’s a joy to play with.  He’s just like a big baby boy.  In fact, when he got his job producing with Muse Records, I think he might have been the very first person he called.  I was under contract to Polygram, which killed that, but then later on when we talked again I said, “I can record as a sideman or co-leader for another label, but I can’t record as a leader under my contract.”  He said, “Good, let’s make one together; we’ll co-lead it.”  That’s how we made Horn To Horn.

TP:    Tell me about the rhythm section guys.  Kenny Washington.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Kenny’s a beauty.  He’s steady as a rock.  I always enjoy playing with him.

TP:    He knows what to play, knows what not to play.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Well, in the first place he’s a music historian.  Not just jazz, many forms of music.  He’s an historian, and he knows what goes where.  He’s very knowledgeable about the subject.

TP:    Ray Drummond plays beautifully on this record.  His solos are like Paul Chambers.

EDWARDS:  He has that sound.

TP:    And Stan Hope?

EDWARDS:  Well, that was my first time playing with him.  The reason he made the date, somebody couldn’t make it, so Houston said, “We can use my regular piano player.”  I said, “If you like him, he must be good.”  And he was wonderful, played great.


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Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Teddy Edwards

On Buddy DeFranco’s 89th Birthday, a 1999 Downbeat article, plus Interview

Clarinet maestro Buddy DeFranco turns 89 today. I had the honor of writing about him during the latter ’90s, once for a publicity bio for a Concord date with pianist Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn, and subsequently for a DownBeat Profile. I’m appending below the final draft of the article and the interview that I conducted  for it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a digital copy of our interview for the publicity bio.

Buddy DeFranco:

Named for a pope, a king and the supreme artist-scientist of the Renaissance, the clarinetist Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo “Buddy” DeFranco came to maturity during the golden age of jazz.  Now 76, he’s the supreme jazz virtuoso of his instrument, an innovator who defies category — and time.

“I had about six careers during the last 60 years,” the 20-time Downbeat Poll winner reflects.  “Periodically I’ll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite.  I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing; that is, the idea of swing and a fundamental approach, especially in stating a melody.”  Nurtured on the driving arpeggiations of Benny Goodman and the sophisticated line of Artie Shaw, DeFranco viewed them through a lens cut and polished by Charlie Parker’s liquid phrasing and harmonic extensions, forging a unique sound and approach.  Known as the first bebop clarinet player, he’s no ideologue about vocabulary.  “I had a wide range of experience in all facets of music,” DeFranco remarks, “and my playing reflects the gamut.  We brain-pick as many people as we can, and make our own voice from what we’ve heard and studied.”

DeFranco draws on resources garnered through six decades on the road in inspired dialogue with piano wizard Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn on “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us” (Concord), a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated 1997 DeFranco-McKenna duo “You Must Believe in Swing.”  On both recordings he takes chances, playing crisply executed lines with impeccable intonation, unfettered imagination and a fiery edge, never losing the arc of conversation.  In short, he conjures the kind of “unedited” improvisations that have been his goal from the very beginning.

Raised in south Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing clarinet at 8, after several years of ear instruction on mandolin from his father, a blind man who played guitar and earned his living as a piano tuner.  “Then I wanted to play saxophone,” he continues.  “My Dad knew many good musicians, who suggested I start clarinet first, and he took the advice and bought me one for $25, which was a lot of money — our family was very poor.  I attended Mastbaum School of Music, a vocational school with a great music course, where I got my basic training and developed my clarinet skills.  I once heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti play at a music store in my neighborhood, and I was overwhelmed by records like Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ and Art Tatum’s ‘Elegie’ and ‘Yesterdays.’  My Dad and uncle loved the big bands, and they bought every record they could by Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb, and took us to hear them.  That’s how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz.

“I decided to play jazz clarinet after listening to Johnny Mince with Tommy Dorsey.  My brother, Leonard, had a good ear, and he and a friend took big band arrangements from the records, like Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Marie’ and ‘Don’t Be That Way,’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’  When I was 13 we organized a big swing band, which played in a South Philadelphia ballroom every Sunday night.  We also had a kiddie band on a Sunday morning children’s hour.  South Philadelphia had an Italian section, a Jewish section and a Black section — we were all friends.  It was very common for kids of all the races to go to somebody’s basement and jam.  There were two jam clubs, one owned by Billy Kretchmer, a terrific jazz clarinet player, and the Downbeat, owned by Nat Segal.  As teenagers, we’d sneak into either club and hear Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, or guys from Benny Goodman’s band coming from the Earle Theater to sit in.  Once in a while on slow nights Billy Kretchmer allowed us to play with the rhythm section he had there.

“Hearing Benny Goodman capped the whole idea of jazz playing — the feeling, the swing idea on clarinet, plus his great technique.  Then I heard Artie Shaw, who was way ahead of his time harmonically, and had the technique and ability to express what he wanted without editing, which is what I expect from someone who handles the clarinet.  His fluency was like a fine violinist; he could navigate all the chord progressions and make them flow.  I liked Buster Bailey, who could have been a great symphony clarinetist, except that he was black, so he couldn’t get a break.  I listened to him because of the purity of his tone and his execution, whereas many other noted clarinetists then were slightly too primitive in their approach to suit me.  I had the so-called “legitimate” background, which is the only way you can play the clarinet correctly.  There’s still a prevalent notion that the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  I disagree with that.”

After graduating from Mastbaum in 1939, DeFranco embarked on a field work apprenticeship in elite dance bands, playing challenging music day-in and day-out for a decade.  While touring with Charlie Barnet’s crackerjack unit around 1943, he heard Charlie Parker’s seminal recordings with Jay McShann.  Only 20 years old, he’d already spent four years with trumpeter Johnny “Scat” Davis (“Hooray For Hollywood”) and Gene Krupa.  With Krupa he met Roy Eldridge, then Krupa’s featured soloist, who DeFranco regards as “at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.  He was a musician’s musician, a creative player with feeling and emotion.  He was a good influence, and I gleaned a lot from him.

“I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating harmonically towards a different way of playing at the same time Dizzy Gillespie was.  I was led by Artie Shaw, while Dizzy was moving to a more modern approach — it wasn’t bebop — out of the Roy Eldridge style, as you can tell from his records then.  It wasn’t until Bird came along that both Dizzy and I said, ‘He wrote the new study book; this is it.’  No horn player at that time used as many alternate chords or that kind of articulation.  I decided to play the clarinet like Bird articulated on the sax.  It wasn’t so easy to imitate Artie Shaw, and even more difficult to copy Bird, because the clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.  Bird was the first almost completely unedited modern jazz player; he had a great embouchure and perfect fingers.  I align Art Tatum with Bird in that regard.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  He and Charlie Parker were the best, on a genius level.  From that point on, we talk about all the other guys who are really good.”

DeFranco’s solo on “Opus One” during the first of three tumultuous stints with Tommy Dorsey led to a Downbeat award in 1945.  “Dorsey was a strict disciplinarian, but one of the greatest musicians ever, possibly the best trombonist I’ve heard,” DeFranco says.  “He was unequaled at playing even a simple melody and making it meaningful, which almost every musician will tell you is the most difficult thing to do.  Technique is something else.  Practice enough and you’ll get a technique.  I learned the feeling of playing a melody and playing long phrases from Tommy Dorsey.”

In 1947 he played with Boyd Raeburn’s adventurous orchestra.  “It was one of the first outside bands I ever heard,” DeFranco recalls.  “It was intellectually unbelievable, like going to a conservatory.  You could play exactly the way you wanted and the writers could write any way they wanted.  We played off-the-wall, space charts by George Handy and Johnny Richards, and a couple by Bob Graettinger; a very difficult, technically challenging library which took great skill to play.  We could empty a room in two minutes.  Announcers used to say, ‘From the Planet Mars, here’s Boyd Raeburn.'”

DeFranco settled in New York in 1948, and joined the 52nd Street mix.  “I played in sessions at the Royal Roost and the Clique Club before it was Birdland.  Once I worked at the Clique with the George Shearing Trio, where Sarah Vaughan was the headliner, opposite the Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, which included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach and Bud Powell.  George Shearing got me a New York union card and a police card, which you needed in those days.  So I got a chance to hear and work with these guys in the very beginning.  In fact, I had Bud Powell and Max Roach in my group for a while.  When Bud was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  It was dazzling.  But when he was strung out or something, he’d get evil.  You’d suffer for a whole set.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could throw you off.  You’d shift with Bud’s emotions.

“By then I was fairly well-known.  I’d started winning polls, and was picked to do Metronome All-Star dates, which is when I really got to know Bird, and we became friends.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was very gregarious and always gracious; he’d talk about philosophies and attitudes toward life.  He seemed to read people quite well, and he was knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  I remember once he told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown — things out of the blue.  Charlie Parker invented the modern concept of playing; I was there when it happened.  There’s something of his influence in all jazz music today, which cannot be said of any other jazz player.  All the guys that got well-known afterward branched off from Bird, but we all live in Bird’s shadow.”

DeFranco’s career was taking off.  After several modernist sides with big band and sextet for Capitol in 1949, he joined the Count Basie Octet in 1950-51.  “Working with them was an education in the idea of swing,” DeFranco emphasizes.  “I’d never realized how much Bill Basie influenced the sound of the band from the piano.  I became more relaxed, more cognizant of a time feeling.”  DeFranco had met Norman Granz by this time, and went out periodically on Jazz at the Philharmonic.  In 1951, a nadir for big bands, he formed his own, following the path of idols Goodman and Shaw — it dissolved in under a year.  During the rest of the ’50s he recorded prolifically for Granz, including numerous dates with Oscar Peterson and documents of a touring quartet between 1952 and 1955 comprising pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, bassists Gene Wright, and drummers Art Blakey and Bobby White.

“I learned more about the idea of rhythm and swing with Art Blakey than any other drummer in my career,” DeFranco states.  “Sometimes when I was really tired and whipped (we were on the road a lot; the band was pretty hot at that time), I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.’  And Art would say, ‘I’ll make you play.’  He meant that.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn, as the saying goes.  Sometimes we’d get static from the ‘civilians’ about having a mixed group; I was the only white guy with three black guys.  Other than that, we had a great time together; we had a terrific relationship.

“The only thing I can say about Black and White is that during those days the black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you, you felt it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions.  The white bands were maybe a little more polished; they’d try to simulate that swing, but never really got it.  Not to belittle the white bands; it’s a simple fact of life.  Tommy Dorsey was aware of that, and once in a while he’d say, ‘We don’t have a swing band; if you want one, go listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does — that’s a swing band.’  I had an affinity with the black bands, because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  That’s the feeling I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I play.”

DeFranco’s interaction with Parker, Basie and Blakey helped him come into his mature sound, a process enhanced by rigorous self-examination.  “I’m from humble circumstances,” DeFranco says, “I was riddled with insecurities; my only security was my playing.  When that was satisfactory, I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and perform and emcee on the microphone, it was painful.  I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, a trumpet player, and decided that when I was in New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.  Frankly, both therapies — Reich and Blakey — brought out in me something that was lacking in my playing and demeanor.”

As DeFranco blossomed, the bebop business withered, and he moved to California in search of work.  He led a succession of cream-of-the-crop combos and worked in studio orchestras led by Nelson Riddle.  In 1956, Norman Granz offered DeFranco the ultimate improvitorial challenge, pairing him with Art Tatum for a recording.  “Tatum made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats,” DeFranco laughs.  “Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything; even when you soloed, you accompanied Art Tatum.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was gratified.  It was fun to him.  Even the highly technical things were kind of a game, and he’d show off.  Now, showing off is part of playing jazz.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  On the stage you show what you can do.  A lot of people scoff at that.  They said, ‘Well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.’  Well, of course he was!  It was his inner voice.”

Accessing his own inner voice is the quest that’s sustained DeFranco through good times and bad.  A quixotic project with Polytones, a quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina that “focused on polychordal music which we learned from the old masters — Prokofiev, Shostakovich and the movie writers, like David Raksin,” was a creative peak and a financial disaster.  DeFranco led the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 to 1974, and even stopped playing by around 1970.  He resumed his jazz career in 1975, and he’s maintained a dual track of working steadily with small units and presenting numerous clinics, many in conjunction with Yamaha, his clarinet-maker.  He recently published “Hand In Hand With Hanon,” an acclaimed study book for woodwind players.

Our third conversation finds DeFranco off the road from a 10-day Swedish tour with clarinetist Putte Wickman, followed by four days at Hilton Head, S.C. with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, a frequent partner of the last two decades.  “Over the years people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music — or myself — too seriously,” DeFranco confesses.  “With your own group, there’s a certain tension because everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  Terry is funny and clever, and the attitude — not the music — is lighter.  The sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton connotation, and we manage to play pretty much what we want when we solo.

“All the players who contributed to the idea of jazz are analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something different, however minimal, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, ‘That’s who it is.’  That’s Bird.  That’s Art Tatum.  That’s Oscar Peterson.  That’s Buddy.”


* * * *

DEFRANCO:  Then the thing is this.  I’ll just briefly tell you that my recent history in the past couple of years has been one of the most interesting of my careers…

TP:    you said you had about six of them.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I’m starting another one.

TP:    You’ll have to tell me exactly which six they are.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I can’t really tell.  They go up and down.  I guess that’s nothing unusual with people in the music business.  Phil Woods gets discovered every three years.

TP:    Oh, when you say you’ve had six careers, you mean you keep getting rediscovered.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, rediscovered.  Fall down and go broke, and sometimes…and then back again.  That’s happened quite a bit.


DEFRANCO:  I’ve done a lot of music festivals and also music clinics, mostly for Yamaha.  They make a great clarinet.  I’ve played it for about 25 years. What I find appealing about the Yamaha is it suits my needs almost to a T, as they say.  It’s a very classical instrument.  It has a nice tone quality… Of course you have to produce that.  But built in is a good tone quality, and a very exact scale, even scale.  It also affords a flexibility that I need to play jazz.

TP:    What are the dynamics of the instrument that do this?  You went into some description of this in our interview.

DEFRANCO:  I did.  Yes, not too many clarinets are flexible enough to where you could play as close to what they used to call “legitimate”…I hate to use the term, but “legitimate,” symphonic music.  Then you use the same instrument to feel the freedom of playing jazz, the flexibility.  Yamaha does that for me.

Also, toward the mid-’50s, when Rock-and-Roll got very big and jazz was really pushed out of the picture, almost totally… The only guys who were really popular were Miles Davis, the top guys, Stan Getz… They were still making money and doing very well.  They were really the stars of the jazz world.  Everybody else kind of fell apart.  And I was bemoaning my fate to Stan Kenton one time, and Stan Kenton said, “Instead of crying, let’s get together.  I’ve started a program with Dr. Gene Hall of North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, Texas.”  He said, “Gene Hall is the first guy to let the students obtain credits for jazz in a college or university.  He said, “We’re doing clinics, and we’re doing them all over the country; in fact, all over the world.  We get the young people.”  He said that the tie-in was the band directors who remember the big bands and jazz, who have a stage band (so-called; it’s really a swing band).  He said that we go in and we impart as much knowledge as we can, and keep the idea of swing bands and jazz alive, and the band directors respond to this because they remember when.  He said, “That way we get to the youngsters, because we cannot get to the youngsters through television or radio now” [at that time he was speaking] or recording.”  So there were very few jazz recordings being made.

So he said, “Try that,” and I did.  It was the best advice I think I’d had in many years, because I found out that the youngsters in the bands respond to what you’re doing, but the band directors are the ones who kept jazz alive, underground, all these years.  Not too many people acknowledge that fact.  It’s guys like Gene Hall and Matt Benton and Stan Kenton, the band directors through all the high schools and universities and colleges who have kept jazz going, even though in the public eye it was finished.  So that’s a very important thing, and I am still doing those clinics.

TP:    This was still in the ’50s, when you started?

DEFRANCO:  Around ’54, somewhere…

TP:    So this dovetails with when you moved to California.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I actually moved to California because I thought maybe with some friends I could get some work there.  Which I did.  I got the studio work from Nelson Riddle.

TP:    Oh, just playing in the section.

DEFRANCO:  Just clarinet, but playing behind, you know, TV shows.  I did all the segments of “Route 66” and I did “Profiles In Courage” and all those things where Nelson Riddle wrote the scores…

TP:    Oh, were on the Sinatra sessions.

DEFRANCO:  “Oceans 11.”  And I was on two Sinatra sessions.

TP:    Do you remember which ones?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t remember. [LAUGHS] Also, last September Yamaha and I got together, and we did the first Buddy De Franco-Yamaha Jazz Festival in Panama City, Florida.

TP:    Is that on your web-site?

DEFRANCO:  I think so.

TP:    Did you have any input into the specifics of making this clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  No.  None whatever.

TP:    Do a lot of other jazz clarinetists use it?

DEFRANCO:  They have.  I don’t know if they still do.  I know Eddie Daniels used it for a time, but he’s now using another clarinet that he says functions the same way — Blanc(?), I believe.  But a lot of professional clarinet players have used it.

TP:    Do you keep up with the current state of the clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  I have to.  I listen to them all.

TP:    Who are some of the people you like these days?

DEFRANCO:  I like Eddie Daniels.  I like Ronnie Eldridge.  He’s a periodontist, and a fine clarinet player.  I like Putte Wickman.  I’ll be playing with Putte in Sweden.  We leave tomorrow.  We’ll do 11 concerts and a CD in Sweden.  Putte Wickman is one of the best.

TP:    Ken Peplowski?

DEFRANCO:  He’s a good player.

TP:    Alvin Batiste?

DEFRANCO:  Well… I’ll pass.

TP:    I was just wondering about your current taste.

DEFRANCO:  When I talk about clarinet players, I must include the fact that they are more than just competent players, because if you go along with the competent players, you’ve got a big list.

TP:    Did you like John Carter, by the way?

DEFRANCO:  No, I did not.  See, as a clarinetist, I’m pretty critical.  There are two aspects of playing the clarinet, as in all jazz; two diametrically opposed fields and schools of thought in jazz.  On the one hand, people say, “Don’t study too much because it will ruin your jazz playing.”  In fact, years ago it was an old story.  The band director said, “Can you read music?” and he said, “not enough to hurt my playing.”

TP:    Most of the great players I’ve talked to wouldn’t think that was much of a notion, I think.

DEFRANCO:  Well, that’s still prevalent in jazz where the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  And I disagree with that.  I’ll give you a good example in the piano world.  One of my favorites of all time, of course, has been Oscar Peterson, mainly because of what he plays and how he plays it, the dexterity he has.  He has such a great technique.  So I’ve kind of aligned myself with him because I had a technique.  I love his playing, as opposed to, say, Thelonious Monk, who had no technique… I’ll quote Oscar Levant.  “He played piano with arthritic abandon.”  That’s not to say that he doesn’t play jazz.  He was a force in jazz.

TP:    Did you like Monk?

DEFRANCO:  I liked what he was getting at and I liked his songs.  I couldn’t play with him and I did not like his playing, because it lacked the proficiency that I am used to hearing.  Then there’s for instance the later Miles Davis as opposed to Freddie Hubbard.  My bet would go with Freddie Hubbard, see.  Because he’s a trumpet player and a jazz player and a more than competent execution in his playing.

But there are two schools.  Years ago in clarinet, everybody said Benny Goodman was the greatest, Artie Shaw was the greatest; and the other school of thought, like in the Thelonious Monk camp, would be Pee Wee Russell.  There are people who swear by him.  They think he’s the greatest clarinet player who ever lived.  And I pass on that.

TP:    Well, you made the comment in our interview that you liked… I asked you if you’d listened to Jimmie Noone and Johnny Dodds and those guys, and you said no, because of your technique, but you loved Buster Bailey.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, he had an excellent technique.  He was a fine clarinetist.

TP:    I’d like you to talk more about Charlie Parker.  We can relate this to the technique question.  You said that he was the first unedited player, that his technique enabled him to be an unedited player.

DEFRANCO:  I’ll qualify that.  Modern jazz player.  Because Art Tatum was that.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his recordings and you hear different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  So I align he with Bird.

TP:    Tell me what you remember about the session you did with Art Tatum.  I know you said you were sick and that you weren’t at your best.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Norman Granz wanted to know if I wanted to cancel, and I did not cancel because I knew that would be the only time I would ever get to play with Art Tatum.  I just had to do it.  I’m not sorry I did, because a lot of it came out good.  But if I were feeling better and if it were later in my career I could have played substantially better.

TP:    You’d feel more equipped to have played with Tatum, say, 20 years later just because of general knowledge and…

DEFRANCO:  Right.  I’ll give you a good example of my thinking.  Somebody said to me, “Who’s the best?”  Well, that’s silly because, in a way… I’ll quote Eddie Daniels.  If you go into an art gallery and you see Van Gogh, and then you stop and you see Gauguin, and then you’ll see Da Vinci, who is going to say who is the best?  It depends on what you derive from that particular thing.  They’re all good.  They’re all genius.  So if somebody said to me, “Who is the best?” it’s hard to say.

However, when you talk about what I consider the best, on a genius level, I’d have to say Art Tatum and Charlie Parker.  Immediately.  That’s it.  From that point on, then we talk about all the other guys who are really good.

TP:    Do you remember anything about Tatum’s demeanor during that session or the process of putting it together?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats.  It was very difficult, very hard.  He sometimes would suggest a strange key to play the tune in.  Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything, so that when you played with Art Tatum it was his ballgame.  You were there almost accompanying him, even when you were playing your solos.  But I expected that, and I didn’t care because I just admired him so much.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was very gratified with that.

He was terrific.  It was fun to him.  His attitude was great.  Even on the highly technical things, it was kind of a game to him, and he’d show off.  But there again, that’s part of playing jazz — showing off.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  What you do on a stage is show off.  You show what you can do.  That’s part of playing jazz.  And a lot of people scoff at it.  They say, “Oh, well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.”  Well, of course he is!  Just like Oscar Peterson.

TP:    Well, I guess he just internalized it.  He didn’t get all that technique separate from his inner voice.  That was his inner voice.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  It was his inner voice, that’s for sure.

TP:    You said that you first heard “Hootie Blues.”  Can you put a date on it?  You said 1941, so you must have been with Johnny “Scat” Davis?

DEFRANCO:  Or Charlie Barnet’s band.

TP:    The encyclopedias say that you joined Charlie Barnet in ’43.

DEFRANCO:  That can’t be.

TP:    That’s not true?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t think so.  They might be right because my recall isn’t… But in ’43, it seems to me, I was in Tommy Dorsey’s band.

TP:    I’ll read you what the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz says.  “Scat Davis in late ’39.  Gene Krupa ’41-’42.  Ted Fiorito, who is a new one on me, in ’42.  Charlie Barnet ’43 and ’44.  Tommy Dorsey ’44 and ’46.  You settled in California.  Boyd Raeburn.  Return to Dorsey ’47-’48.  Then you go to New York, small combos in New York and Chicago and I guess traveling.  Count Basie Septet in ’50.  Big band in ’51. Then you start with the quartet from ’52 to ’55 or so.

DEFRANCO:  That’s pretty close to it, except that in the early years… I have a feeling that in the latter part of ’41 and part of ’42 I was with Barnet, and then in ’43 I was with Tommy Dorsey.  It seems to me that I was with Tommy Dorsey from ’43 to ’48 three times.

TP:    Three times in that period.  I’m not interested in splitting all the hairs.  But in terms of the Charlie Parker thing, when you say you heard Charlie Parker’s “Hootie Blues” when you were with Charlie Barnet, what impact did that make on you?  Did it sound like anything you had heard before?


TP:    Why?

DEFRANCO:  Well, by virtue of the fact that the articulation of what he was doing was completely different, and the chord progressions that he used, even at the very beginning…the substitute chords were different than most people were using, with the exception of Art Tatum.  But no horn player used at that time as many alternate chords, and no horn player used that kind of articulation.  It had never been done before.  So in my humble opinion, Bird wrote the book.

TP:    So you were well-schooled enough to hear what Charlie Parker was doing because of the high quality of education you’d had at Mastbaum.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, I would say that.  Not only that, I was playing… I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating towards more modern playing while I was with Charlie Barnet at the same time that Dizzy was.  Dizzy grew out of the Roy Eldridge style.  But when you listen to some of his stuff during that time, he was gravitating toward a more modern approach to playing.  It was not Bebop.  And my case was the same way.  Harmonically I was gravitating towards something else, in a way.  But it wasn’t until Bird came along that both of us said, “He wrote the book; this is it; this is the new study book.”

TP:    I guess Dizzy got that close-up proximity to Charlie Parker with Earl Hines…

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  He got hold of Bird, listened to that, and it was immediate.

TP:    Dizzy had some other qualities, particularly his assimilation of rhythm and being able to codify Latin rhythms into…

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  He was the first I can remember playing modern jazz like that…

TP:    But if Dizzy came out of Roy Eldridge doing that, was your assimilation of Benny Goodman leading you in that direction?

DEFRANCO:  It was Artie Shaw leading me.

TP:    Talk more about Artie Shaw, who obviously had a profound influence on you.

DEFRANCO:  Well, I would say the way he executed the clarinet, and harmonically he was way ahead of his time.  His approach to playing, the fluency that he had was like a fine violinist.  That impressed me.  If you listen to his early records with his bands, when he played, he played more modern than the whole band, than anyone in the band.  Also, when he started playing, he changed the color of the band just by playing, so that the concept was much more advanced.  Then when he stopped playing, the band would seem to go back to its old symmetrical and angular way of playing.  So I always admired Artie, the way he made all those chord progressions that he did and made it flow.

TP:    Then I guess you could also say that Coleman Hawkins was implying the modern style as well.

DEFRANCO:  yes, absolutely.  No question about that.

TP:    Were you influenced by saxophonists as well as clarinets?  You did say that your concept of clarinet was playing the clarinet but thinking saxophone.

DEFRANCO:  Thinking saxophone.  But no, my major influences were more than likely piano players.

TP:    Primarily Tatum or other piano players?

DEFRANCO:  All of them.  Teddy Wilson and Dodo Marmarosa.

TP:    We didn’t discuss Dodo Marmarosa in the previous interview, and I know you were very close to him.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, We lived together in California for about a year, and we played in about five different bands together.  He was a great influence in my playing.

TP:    You played together with Dorsey.

DEFRANCO:  Well, we played in Johnny Scat Davis’ band together, Gene Krupa’s band, Charlie Barnet’s band, Ted Fiorito’s band, and then Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    So you really hung together.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He was also in the same kind of state of flux that I was, playing.  We wanted a more modern approach to playing, and he played his piano in a more advanced modern way, but did not play bebop at that time.  We both heard Bird together, and we both decided this is the way it’s going to be.

TP:    So when you heard “Hootie Blues” you were with Dodo Marmarosa.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Well, more than “Hootie Blues,” but all the stuff that he played.

TP:    If it was in 1941, then “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Blues,” “Swingmatism,” the only records he was featured on.  But when did you first meet Charlie Parker?

DEFRANCO:  ’42.  End of ’42, beginning of ’43, somewhere in there.

TP:    Was he with Earl Hines?

DEFRANCO:  No, he had left Earl Hines.

TP:    Did you hear the Earl Hines band with Bird and Diz?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah.  I thought it was the forerunner, or one of the forerunners of the big swing band idea.  They were ahead of their time — at the time.  Very few bands were playing with anything that resembled the modern concept.  Earl Hines did.  Jay McShann.

TP:    Did you hear McShann live?


TP:    With the White big bands, would your paths intersect with the Black big bands?

DEFRANCO:  Well, you see, the White… I hate to talk about Black and White because they’ve been intermingled for so long that you can’t say this… But the only thing I can say about Black and White is during those days the Black bands had a feeling, a swing feeling that would…I don’t know, that would grip you.  You could feel it in your hips, the depth of your emotions — the swing.  The Black bands had the swing, and the White bands had maybe a little more polish, but they tried to simulate that swing, but never got it.  They never really got it.  And Tommy Dorsey was one who was aware of that, and he used to say once in a while, “We don’t have a swing band; if you want to have a swing band go and listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does, because that’s a swing band.”  Glenn Miller had the same thing.  He said, “I have a commercial band; I don’t have a swing band.  Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the swing bands.”

TP:    Jimmy Crawford and Jo Jones.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, boy.  Jimmy Crawford was marvelous.

TP:    So you really loved the big bands.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, of course.  Well, mainly because my Dad, who was blind, he and his brother, my uncle, loved the big bands.  When they caught on, they bought every record that they could.  They especially liked Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie and Chick Webb — those bands.  Well, there again, they had the feeling.  This is not to belittle the White bands.  It’s a simple fact of life.  Black bands had the feeling there.

TP:    Of a lot of the prominent White improvisers who came up when you came up, I can’t think of another one who worked as seamlessly with Black musicians as you did.  People have told me that Art Blakey would speak glowingly about you.  Now, he didn’t do that about everybody!


TP:    So it seems as though you were very much truly accepted by the black musicians, who didn’t necessarily open their arms to everyone who was coming along.

DEFRANCO:  That’s true.  I simply had an affinity with those swing bands.  Because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  They were swinging.  That’s the feeling that I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I played.  And playing with different people through the years, like Jimmy Jones and Sid Catlett on drums, or John Simmons, these kind of players years ago, playing with them when I was a kid…

TP:    When did you play with Sid Catlett?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I sat in with him many times.  There’s a good example of a feeling, a rhythmic feeling and concept opening the door for you.  When I played with Sid Catlett and a few other drummers during my career, and of course Art Blakey… I can quote Art Blakey.  Sometimes when I was really tired and beat (we were on the road a lot, the band was pretty hot at that time — a lot of recording), I’d say, “Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.”  And Art would say, “I’ll make you play.”  He meant that.  He did.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn as they said.

TP:    Let’s get back to Charlie Parker.  Talk about the relationship you had with him.

DEFRANCO:  Well, when I first met him, Dodo and I were just overwhelmed at what he did.  It was a very brief meeting.  But then later on, he got very popular, then I got fairly well known as a jazz clarinetist and started winning polls, and so we were both picked to do the Metronome All-Star dates (I think we did two together), and that’s the point in time when I really got to know Bird.  From that point on we were friends, and every chance I got, I went to hear him.  Sometimes if I would play somewhere and he would be in the same town at another club or even in a nearby city, I would go to hear him.  And we got friendly.  So we spent some time together.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was like Art Tatum.  He was very gregarious.  Knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  And was always-always-always gracious.

TP:    It sounds like he showed different sides of his personality to different people.  I mean, there were certain people he would not be around when he was strung out, and there were people he did that with.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that’s true.  Also, he was well aware of being victimized by that drug.

TP:    He talked about it?

DEFRANCO:  He talked about it, and he told young people to stay away from it.  “Don’t even start.”  I can remember that distinctly when Bird… He’d almost get hostile.  “Don’t even start.  Don’t think about starting it.”

TP:    And a number of the younger musicians who did get strung out said he would treat them with no mercy once that happened to them.

DEFRANCO:  Well, they got started because they thought he’s the guy who…

TP:    Well, we don’t have to talk about that aspect of Bird.  But apparently he had many interests and much knowledge of matters outside of jazz as well.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.

TP:    Do you remember what sort of things he’d talk about?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he’d talk about certain philosophies of life and attitudes of life.  He had a good perception of people.  He could seem to read people quite well.  I remember him telling me one time… I don’t know what the circumstances were.  He told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown.  Things just out of the blue.  I guess I told the story about “Skinning Rabbits.”  Those were the type of thing…

And another time, coming home from some town outside of New York on a train with Bird.  It was a Sunday morning.  We had played and then hung out all night or something.  Sunday morning we got a train back to New York.  It was a time when you could move the seat back and forth and face the other way.  We had a Sunday paper, and he read through the whole paper.  Then a guy came in, and I don’t know if he was a workman or a farmer or something, kind of a little cardboard suitcase, what we would call in those days a real square…

TP:    A hayseed.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, a hayseed.  But Bird said hello to him, and started talking with him, and “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”  Then finally Bird said, “Come on, sit with us,” and he got up and moved his seat, the other seat, so that we faced each other.  He began telling this guy about the record date that he’s planning with strings.  He was telling me as well, because I didn’t know that he was going to do a date with strings.  He told me that Mitch Miller was going to be the A&R guy.  The funny thing is that he said several times to me, “And Buddy Rich is on drums.”  I said, “yeah.”  And he repeated it like I didn’t hear him.  “Buddy Rich is on the drums, and I’m going to do it with strings.”  And he started talking about how eager he was to work with strings.  He liked the idea.

That was a strange session because it wasn’t the greatest string section, and not the greatest rhythm section really.  But Bird was like a shining star.  He just made the whole thing come together with his playing.

TP:    Did you play on the same bill with him on 52nd Street?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I had my group and he had his group.  Sometimes, even in the summertime…two times I remember that Bird liked my rhythm section a little better than he had.  Who knows why?  And he’d come down with his horn and sit in with me.

TP:    Well, that’s because you had Bud Powell, Max Roach… This was after Max Roach left him, right?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I had Max Roach and Bud Powell; I had a lot of guys.

TP:    So you had Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Max Roach as your rhythm section.  What was that like for you?  You were talking about the technical difficulties of the clarinet.  Was there a volume problem?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I could project.  I needed a microphone because these were heavy players.  But I could project most of the time.  And also, Bud Powell was interesting, because when he was feeling okay and when he was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  He was just fantastic.  There was no question about it.  It was just dazzling.  Smashing, as they say.  As opposed to when he was strung out or something, and he’d be getting nasty.  Then it was hopeless.  You really suffered for a whole set.  Because he’d get evil.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could get you off.

TP:    He’s try to mess with you.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah.  It wasn’t only me.  It was anybody.  He tried it once with Bird, and Bird almost hit him with the horn.

TP:    Tell me about your time with Count Basie.

DEFRANCO:  There again, working with Basie and that group was really an education and a lesson — a lesson in the idea of swing.  I didn’t realize before that how much feeling comes from Bill Basie at the piano.  Not only Freddie Green, but Bill Basie at the piano, the way he played — for the group, for the soloists — was just superb.  And the feeling… There again I got… It was an eye-opener.  Another door opener.

TP:    So you were playing with some of the greatest, Max Roach, who was young…

DEFRANCO:  Oh, the list of guys I played with.  I had a group in California with Victor Feldman on vibes, Carl Perkins on piano, Billy Higgins (he must have been 11 years old), and Leroy Vinnegar, and Howard Roberts I believe on guitar.  We played East Los Angeles.  Never recorded.  What a great group.


TP:    Talk about what you learned about what playing with Max Roach, Art Blakey, or Basie did for your rhythmic concept.

DEFRANCO:  That’s hard to put into words.  I always hesitate to describe at a clinic rhythm.  I don’t do it in my clinics, in fact.  When it comes to rhythm, I tell the students, “Find the most swinging or find the best player that you can in your area, play with them, and it will either come to you or it won’t.”  There’s no way you describe technically what happens.  Harmony you can, in terms of execution on your instrument you can.  But when it comes to swing feeling, two cliches: Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got it; and if you don’t know what it is, forget it.  Because if you can’t feel it, it’s not going to happen.

TP:    I’d like to see if you can pinpoint a couple of things for me from way back.  You said you got your clarinet when you were about 8, and you joined the Sympathy Youth Club, and your Dad bought records of Django Reinhardt and Art Tatum and you were overwhelmed by them, and you were about 10 years old, so it’s got to be about ’33.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Well, the things Django did were “Nuages” and those things, and Art Tatum’s “Elegie” and “Yesterdays.”

TP:    Also, you said that your brother would take big-band arrangements off of records, and you had a swing band.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly the clarinet.  We took a couple of Tommy Dorsey arrangements, like “Marie” and “Don’t Be That Way”, and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”

TP:    On your website you said you had won a contest that was a jumping off point for you or an incentive to play when you were a teenager.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that was in Philadelphia, in 1939 I believe.

TP:    You said you were wearing short pants.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  At the Earle Theater in Philadelphia there was a Tommy Dorsey swing contest, a weekly contest out of various cities every week in a theater, and it was broadcast nationally.  There were four contestants.  I was fortunate enough to win that.  I think I won $75, and a little plaque of some kind.

TP:    Good money in 1939.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, it was great.  And I was a hero in my neighborhood the next day.  But it didn’t make the papers.  I did have a youth group at the same time that played different jobs, and every Sunday night a ballroom in South Philadelphia with a big band.  We also played the Horn & Hardhardt’s children’s hour, of which Stan Lee Broza was the emcee, and his son was Elliott Lawrence.  He played tenor sax in those days with the band.  We had what was called the Band Busters. That was broadcast every Sunday morning.

Anyway, there were four contestants in this contest, and I managed to win almost by default, because I didn’t play that great.  Even for a youngster, I wasn’t that good — at that time anyway.  But I was a young kid, and my teacher advised me to wear short pants.  He said, “The audience will love it.”  He showed me how to play one note on the clarinet with one hand, and he said, “This is what you’ll do at the end of your solo.”  And it worked.  I mean, those other guys didn’t have a chance.

TP:    Showmanship.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, showmanship plus the fact that I was a little kid.

TP:    So there’s Johnny Scat Davis, you go on the road with him, and then you join Krupa for a while.  Do you have any memories of Krupa?

DEFRANCO:  All fond memories.  Because Gene Krupa was one of the nicest persons I ever worked for.  A delightful guy.  And he gave us every opportunity to play.  All the soloists.  Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge… He featured everyone who could play.

TP:    Oh, you were in the band that Roy Eldridge was in, so you got to know him a little.

DEFRANCO:  Oh my gosh, yes.  He was at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.

TP:    Even Pops.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, I’m afraid so.  Pops had done great and he was a great influence, but he concentrated I guess more on his commercial playing and singing, and Roy was a musician’s musician at that time in terms of jazz.  A real creative player.  Feeling, emotion.  He was tough.  He was number one at that time.  And the whole band used to love to hear him play a solo.

TP:    Did he influence your improvising approach?

DEFRANCO:  Yes, quite a bit.  Roy was a good influence.  I gleaned a lot of things from Roy.

TP:    So it sounds like you really developed your technique and conception in the big bands, polishing off the technical foundation you got at Mastbaum.  It was your laboratory.


TP:    here’s what I want to ask you about when you get back.  A little more detail on Charlie Barnet, a little more on Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and the big bands you were with and the personalities…

We should discuss what you think are the salient points, and come up with a happy medium.

TP:    May I ask you a little more about your father, and the way your aesthetic developed?  Was he born here or in Italy?

DEFRANCO:  He was born here.  His parents came from Italy, from an area called Foggia, which is central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea.

TP:    I read Whitney Balliett’s article on you.  Before he was blind he was a musician?

DEFRANCO:  He was a guitarist.  But he was an amateur guitar player.

TP:    But did he come from a family that had an artistic bent, or was there sort of an artistic craft tradition in his family?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Both sides had musicians.  I don’t know exactly what they played, but I know that both my parents had musicians in the background in Italy, and it’s almost an axiom that they loved the opera.  They were very musical.  That augured well for me, because they could tell whether I was playing well or out of tune or missed the beat or did something.  Unfortunately, too many youngsters who are playing today, their parents really don’t know.  So that was kind of a good thing.

My Dad had a terrible, terrible life.  It’s a long story; I don’t think I can go into it.  But it would make a book.  You just wouldn’t believe the tragic things that occurred in his life, and how he rose above most of it.  He was just incredible.  He was always in good humor and good wit, and kept us interested in music.  Never failed to play for us or have us play with him in the little band that he had which I told you about.  Once in a while, when we first started, he’d let us sit in with his group.  That’s where it started.  It was a whole musical background, experience… Everything was music in our family.

TP:    So basically there was never anything for you other than… Did you ever consider that you were going to do something else?

DEFRANCO:  No, I never did.  Mainly because that seemed to be all I was interested in.  Though I did later, on my own, read extensively, and I got interested in psychology, and read Adler, Freud and Jung, and I became a Wilhelm Reich disciple for a while, and I went into therapy for three years in New York.  Every time I came to New York I went to therapy with Dr. Pelletier, who was a Reichian therapist.  Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done.

TP:    Why was that?  How did that affect you musically, would you say?

DEFRANCO:  Being from somewhat humble circumstances, I was somewhat insecure in life.  The only security I had was my playing.  When that was good (when it was satisfactory, I can’t say good), I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and be somewhat of an actor on the stage and speak in a microphone and emcee, since I was beginning to have my own groups, it was painful.  It was painful for me to even say anything on a microphone.  I was riddled with insecurities.  So I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, who was originally a trumpet player who played in my big band and played on a lot of my recordings, and he played with a lot of different bands — Jerry Jerome and Georgie Auld and Boyd Raeburn.  He was interested in a lot of different things, like religion and philosophy and psychology.  We spent a lot of time together, and he introduced me to Reich.  I bought some books and I began avidly reading those books.  I decided when I got back to New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.

TP:    Was this around the time you started the quartet that toured?

DEFRANCO:  No, it was actually before that.  It was when I had my big band.

TP:    Which was the year before.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  But I really got into going for therapy when I had a small group.  It was easier, and I worked in New York quite a bit, so I could go for my therapy sessions.

TP:    So you were getting one type of therapy from Art Blakey and another type of therapy from the Reichians!

DEFRANCO:  That’s the idea.  And frankly, both therapies brought out in me something that I was kind of lacking in my playing and my demeanor.

TP:    Am I correct in emphasizing the impact of being with Art Blakey for a couple of years?  Because the other articles I’ve read haven’t gone into that so much, and I was concerned I was doing too much amateur psychologizing.

DEFRANCO:  The effect that Blakey had on me was obvious musically.  I think it goes hand in hand with the effect that Tommy Dorsey had, that Art Tatum had, that Bird had, and that Count Basie had.  Count Basie had a tremendous effect on me.

TP:    You went into that a little bit.  Would you say a bit more about Basie’s impact?

DEFRANCO:  Well, let me see.  It’s tantamount to the Blakey experience.  First of all, I never realized how dynamic Count Basie was at the keyboard, playing.  I never realized how much influence he had from the keyboard to manipulate the sound of the band, and it was his personality and his playing, that he could get any 15 musicians who were capable, and within a couple of hours they would sound like Basie’s band, partly because they wanted to and mostly because of Bill, because of the way he accompanied people and the little nuances in the way he played.  A dynamic force.  He and Freddie Green were just unbelievable, the feeling they could get.  And Gus Johnson had the same kind of feeling when he played.  So the rhythm section for Basie always sounded pretty much the same.  Even though there were different types of personalities and different types of players playing from time to time in Basie’s rhythm section, generally they sounded the same because of Bill Basie, his dynamic way of playing.

TP:    What did it do for your playing?  Did it make it more relaxed?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  Absolutely.  No question about it.  More relaxed and more cognizant of a time feeling.

TP:    Would you talk a little more about Dorsey for me?  He seems to have been immensely important to you, and it seems to have been a very complex relationship.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  First off, he was important to everyone who worked for him.  He influenced everyone who worked for him.  Everyone who worked for him would say the same thing.  It was incredible, the influence he had.  We were all somewhat seasoned players (we weren’t brand-new into the business) and somewhat sophisticated.  Yet, Tommy Dorsey could play just a simple melody and the band would applaud.  You could hate him at the same time, but what came out of the trombone was great — unequalled, I think.  So everybody got a feeling of playing and breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    Did he ever give you any hands-on instruction about the breathing technique, or was it just something you’d watch and pick up?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly something we watched.  Though from time to time he would give us some tips.  Most people thought that he employed that circular breathing, but that was not true.  He had a way of taking in air in the corner of his mouth, and not having his mouth or embrochure leave the mouthpiece, as opposed to circular breathing.  Circular breathing means that you take the air through your nose while you’re blowing at the same time.  Tommy didn’t do that.  He got a tremendous amount of air through the corner of his mouth, never taking the mouthpiece away from it, but also, filling up the abdomen, filling up his lungs.  He knew how to spin a note.  He used to call it “spin a note.”  He knew how to play very soft on the instrument, but you could hear it in the room.  You could hear it in the far corners of the room.  It’s a combination of physical and mental mechanism, so that you could play, or he would… He was a master at it.  He could play very soft, and everyone could hear what he was playing.  And he could play as loud as the whole band.  It was incredible.

TP:    Did you feel restrained in these big bands of the ’40s?  Were you sort of chomping at the bit to play what you really wanted, or was it a satisfactory musical experience?

DEFRANCO:  No, all the soloists felt restrained, because the big bands were dance bands.  They were not ostensibly the show bands and a showcase for soloists.  So the only chance we got to show off was in the theater.  But we were playing the one-nighters in ballrooms.  I mean, you played maybe 16 bars of a solo, then maybe you wouldn’t play a solo for two sets or a set.  Nothing extended.

TP:    So it wasn’t like the Ellington band playing a ballroom where the solo function would be integrated into the dance experience, as it were.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  This was strictly a big band… Even Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw played for dancing.  That was one of the gripes Artie had about the whole idea.  He wanted himself and his band to be more concertizing.  In fact, if he were operating now with his big band, it would be a perfect setting for him, because he could do all these concerts, he could do festivals, and play exactly the way he wanted to play, and not conform to the dance.  You’re too young to remember this, but Artie Shaw one time walked off the stage in the face of, I don’t know, a million dollars of contracts that he had.  He walked off the stage and announced that all the jitterbugs were idiots — which made the front lines of the papers.  But he also doubled his attendance.  He called them idiots and he said, “We love you.”

TP:    Prefiguring Miles Davis.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, Miles Davis, exactly.

TP:    When you left Dorsey in ’48 and came right to New York, had you been knowing all of your contemporaries who were involved in Bebop?  Is that one reason why you fit in so comfortably with them?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  We knew that New York was the hub at that time.  At the same time, there was the beginning of the Cool School, although ironically enough, most of the cool guys, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper…all those guys were from New York.  That was ironic.  But they lived in California.  They kind of generated this Cool School of playing.  But the kind of playing that I was engaged in was, as Lennie Tristano would say, “obvious swing,” which he detested. [LAUGHS] Oh, we used to argue for hours.  Lennie Tristano I think approached genius.  He was incredible.  His technique, his musical prowess and his ability to do some things that were at that time phenomenal on the piano and with his group.  He didn’t like the idea of the swing feeling projected into music.  He liked the idea of rhythm, of course.  But he used to say to me that he couldn’t understand why I played with the obvious swing.  It was ridiculous, you know.

TP:    Why did he think it was ridiculous?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he just didn’t feel that was necessary, and he didn’t feel that creative jazz needed that.  Well, I did.  I go back to the school of Basie or Blakey where if it’s not swinging, it doesn’t mean too much — or that’s only half the picture.

TP:    So no matter how intellectually challenging the thing may be, Ellington’s dictum is still the operative principle.

DEFRANCO:  Swing’s the thing.

TP:    Can you tell me a little bit about playing with Boyd Raeburn’s band.  It sounds as though that was the place where you could really expand your horizons intellectually in terms of music.

DEFRANCO:  You could.  You could play exactly the way you wanted to play, which was why he hired me and the other guys in the band.  And the writers could write any way they wanted to write.  So consequently, we got some pretty spacy music.  But it was intellectually unbelievable and very difficult.  It took great skill to play that library.  Probably one of the most difficult, technically challenging libraries in the business.  The guys were George Handy and Bob Graettinger and Johnny Richards.  Johnny Richards was a phenomenal writer, although I thought he was ponderous in many ways and overwritten — but still a great writer.

TP:    Was your own big band a cross between the Artie Shaw concept and the Raeburn concept?

DEFRANCO:  Maybe.  I didn’t try to get that outside with it.  But the concept was the big Benny Goodman-Artie Shaw… You can lump them all together and that’s what I had.  I wound up with zero.

TP:    It wasn’t entirely your fault.  I mean, it was not a great time to be starting a big band.

DEFRANCO:  No, it was the wrong time.  But I could sense when we played… I thought I mapped out everything, so to speak, so that we could play our music in a dance tempo and still make it a jazz-worthy project.  But I realized that that didn’t work.  That did work with what I had in the audience.  So you give it up and go on to other things.  Then I got the small group, and that did work.  That was hot for about a year-and-a-half or two years.

TP:    Then you had to move out to California.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Well, the jazz (?) died completely.

TP:    By the way, when did you leave Philadelphia for good?

DEFRANCO:  1939.

TP:    were you coming back to Philly after that?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, sure.  I’d come back to see my family and friends.  Once in a while I’d play in Philadelphia.

TP:    But you were basically a citizen of the road.

DEFRANCO:  That’s it.

TP:    And you’d come home and touch base with your family.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  For a while I established a home in New York, got an apartment and played out of New York, then gave that up and got a place in California.  But the same kind of thing.  I’ve been actually ostensibly on the road for sixty years.  These past few years have been more of a home base operation.  I’ve spent more time here in Florida and more time in Whitefish, Montana, than I have out playing.

TP:    I think you’re entitled.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah!  I really feel entitled.

TP:    Can you tell me about your relationship with Terry Gibbs.  That seems to be your longest standing association of this particular period anyway.

DEFRANCO:  We’ve been working together several times a year.  We link up and work with a local rhythm section or a rhythm section in Europe, or we get a rhythm section from New York or California.  We work together well and it’s a lot of fun.  I take those jobs because Terry and I enjoy each other’s playing, and it’s fun.  There’s not the kind of tension you would imagine when you go out, for instance, with your own group.  There’s a certain amount of tension where you’re being tested; your group is being tested, you are being tested, and everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  This is kind of a different aspect of playing what we want.  Terry, first of all, is great to work with because he’s funny and very clever, and the attitude is lighter.  Not the music, but the attitude is lighter.

TP:    So he lets you lighten up a little bit.

DEFRANCO:  I think so.  I would tend to get pretty grim in my music.  Sometimes people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music too seriously, or myself too seriously.  And through the years that has been true.  It took the Reichian therapy for me to realize that my music was not the center of the universe.

TP:    Even of your universe.

DEFRANCO:  Even my universe, yes.

TP:    Even with Terry Gibbs, it lets you operate in a specific instrumental tradition.  Because having the clarinet and the vibes together is going to bring up associations for people.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  And the sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton thing, because they started that particular sound.  Which is great for us, because in a way, we manage to play pretty much what we want to do when we play solos.  People hear that sound, and they identify with Benny Goodman and Lionel, so they like it.

TP:    Could I ask you a couple of specific things about your bands from the ’50s until the Glenn Miller thing?  I think I have conflicting information.  I think Balliett had some inaccuracies because he conflicts with Gitler’s note on the Mosaic box.  Was the group with Tommy Gumina only a quartet?


TP:    And that came after you played with Victor Feldman and Carl Perkins and Billy Higgins.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  That was another interesting experience for me working with Tommy.  He was a magnificent musician.  We did five albums together, which people don’t realize — one for Decca and four for Mercury.

I had Scott LaFaro and Victor Feldman in New York.

TP:    Let me ask you something philosophically about the craft and the art of making music, coming back to the question of whether art was the family craft, as it were.  Do you see yourself as analogous to artists in other traditions and other media?

DEFRANCO:  All of the jazz players who amounted to something, who contributed to the idea of jazz, I think are all analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something…however minimal, something different, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, “That’s who it is.”  That’s Bird.  That’s Art.  That’s Oscar.  That’s Buddy.  That’s what I wanted.  You can copy.  For some period of time, I copied Benny Goodman.  Now, of course, it’s too hard to copy Benny Goodman, because you can refer to your basic studies.  The Klosee method or the Behrman method, basic studies of arpeggiated forms, Benny used in his jazz.  That was the focal point of his jazz clarinet playing.  So it was kind of easy to do that, as opposed to, say, not so easy to imitate Artie Shaw who at the same time was involved in linear playing, making lines, or, even more difficult, Bird.  So it was tough enough to play sort of in the Bird tradition on any instrument, but doubly difficult on the clarinet because clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.

TP:    But you don’t seem to be a vocabulary quoter.  I don’t pretend to have heard every one of your records.  But even when you’re playing bebop things, I don’t hear you quoting Bird.  It’s very much your personal vocabulary.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, there are a few quotes I maintain.  But most of the quotes in my playing are my own quotes.  Sometimes when I’ve been criticized for being repetitive, my answer to that is, “I’m allowed to be, since it’s my stuff.”  I mixed that with some quotes from the Bebop era, but not… Also, I tried not to directly quote.  Just like there are some things I’ve gotten from, oh, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Nelson Riddle, Bill Finnegan, David Raksin, where I used it in my jazz playing.  But I didn’t quote them exactly.  It’s just an inference of what they did.

TP:    Let me take you back again for a second.  In the ’30s when you were a kid, you talked about jamming at these clubs.  There were two different clubs, right?

DEFRANCO:  Two different clubs.  Billy Kretchmer is still alive.  He lives in Margate, New Jersey, and up until just a couple of years ago he was still playing.  At that time, in the ’30s, he was neck and neck with Benny and Artie.  He was quite a jazz player.  He just played in his own group in his club, and he played in the pit theater at the Earle, next to my teacher, Willy Di Simone.


Filed under Clarinet

Lou Donaldson: Blindfold Test, 2006, Uncut

In a thread that arose last week in response to a  Facebook recounting by Russell Malone of hearing Lou Donaldson play the alto saxophone at Birdland  (I didn’t get to go, but, by several accounts, he was in magisterial form), several folks cited choice “insult humor” bon mots of the type that Donaldson is famous for  — “Jazz is not recommended for fusion and confusion musicians!”  “If you want to play outside, then play outside the club.” And so on.

Donaldson displayed a certain restraint in his remarks on the 12 selections I played for him in a Blindfold  Test in 2006, not long before his 80th birthday.  But he pulled no punches. What follows is the verbatim, uncut transcript of an interesting session.

* * *

1.  Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane, “Sweet and Lovely” (from Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Blue Note, 1957/2005) (Monk, piano; Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums)

That sounded like John Coltrane. It’s a concert somewhere. Piano player really didn’t sound like Monk, but I guess he was copying Monk. If it was Monk, he was in good shape that night. Heh-heh-heh. The drums and bass, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. Probably Frankie Dunlop or somebody. The performance was great. That’s a great rendition of “Sweet and Lovely.” Really top-shelf. This type of music was kind of advanced at that period of time, and they had been working together a long time at the Five Spot, so they had whatever they were playing really together. It sounded like an organized group; it didn’t sound like a session or anything like that. [When you recorded with Monk, had you been playing with him for any amount of time?] No, I never played with him. I just did the record. I worked a couple of weeks with him at the Famous Door in the late ‘50s. That was a great band. Max Roach, Kenny Dorham , and Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be the bass player, but he broke his leg and they brought Mingus in. Monk didn’t like to play with Mingus too well, and he didn’t really play that well that week. I met him at Blue Note, at the company. It was kind of interesting to play with him, because he never wrote anything out. He would sketch a little stuff out now and then, but you were kind of on your own for playing. It was pretty interesting. Kenny Dorham was a good friend of mine, so we had a good time. And Max. Wilbur Ware came and sat in. He played much better with Wilbur, because he liked Wilbur. [Anything to say about Monk’s playing or Coltrane’s playing?] Well, at that period of time, Coltrane was just beginning to start playing the way he eventually ended up playing. He’d been playing more swing-type saxophone up until then. But once he got with Monk, that was a different thing altogether. He would go down and rehearse during the break. You’d hear him in the basement rehearsing, getting stuff together. Because actually, the stuff with Monk was kind of hard to play. Unless you’re used to playing that way, it’s kind of difficult to play that kind of music. I was a young guy, and it was very interesting to me. I liked it. That’s a great record there. I’d give it 4 stars at least. Great record. Great performance. [AFTER] Even now it’s very interesting. At first I thought the drummer was Frankie Dunlop, but it was Shadow Wilson. Shadow was actually the most reliable drummer during that time period. I’m not going to tell you why other guys weren’t too reliable. But guys play and live like they want to live. It’s not my business; it’s their business. But he was the most reliable drummer and the steadiest drummer, especially for a guy like Monk. Or even Trane. He was great.

2.  Vincent Herring, “You Leave Me Breathless” (from Mr. Wizard, High Note, 2004) (Herring, alto saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I don’t think you got me on that one. That’s Vincent Herring. He’s great. He did his homework. He’s got his stuff together. Tremendous. That’s a nice song, too – “You Leave Me Breathless.” Bass player I’m not familiar with. Is that a recent record? He sounds a lot like Cannonball. We’ve got a lot of young saxophonists playing real good. But it seems that the only people getting recognition are Kenny G and Najee, people like that. 4 stars. That’s nice. Vincent’s a great player. I hope he continues on. Actually, somebody has to continue this type of music, or otherwise we’re in trouble, because it’s a concerted effort by the media and a lot of other people to sneak that other kind of music in. It’s what they call cool jazz. It’s all right. It’s good music, too, but it’s not what we would say authentic jazz music. Whereas this music is more like a jazz musician would play it. He’s improvising. But he’s got a lot of stuff together, too. You can add and take away, add and take away. That’s what makes the music so viable. It lasts so long, because you can add and take away. Sometimes you’ll catch a cat, he’s not playing exactly that way. Still playing the same song. He’s upholding the tradition, especially for the alto saxophone.

3.  Donald Harrison, “Third Plane” (from New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note, Half Note, 2005) (Harrison, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass, composer; Billy Cobham, drums)

That’s one of the younger players. I’m trying to listen to it and digest and see who it might be. It’s one of the younger guys who I haven’t heard that much. Maybe Donald Harrison or Kenny Garrett, somebody like that. They’re playing progressive but they’re playing with a bluesy type feeling. You know how that goes. You want to play up-to-date contemporary, but you still want to retain the essence of the jazz soul. You can play interesting and play a lot of stuff, but you still want to maintain that. It could be somebody else. But the younger players I haven’t heard that much. The older guys I would know a little better. The performance is good. Nice groove. It’s at a concert, so I guess the guys have got into a nice groove. It’s a little adventurous for public consumption. They didn’t have a defining melody, something that would actually stick to the people, make the people be humming and singing it. But it’s creative jazz. What can I tell you? The drummer sounds interesting. Pretty good concert there. 3 stars. It’s a groove tune. A tricky little melody there. [AFTER] Ron Carter’s tune? I don’t know it. Billy Cobham? Oh, that’s an old record, then. It was Donald? Good, I guessed that! I told you anybody that I’ve ever heard over a period of time, I’ll know. Some of the newer guys I don’t know. You couldn’t trick me if you played somebody old. I research all the saxophone players. That’s my business. I have to understand what they’re playing so I know what to play. You stay a little bit ahead of them! That’s a nice groove to that record, but it’s not 100% like the type of stuff we play. All the musicians play a little different style.

4.  David Sanborn, “Tin Tin Deo” (from Closer, Verve, 2005) (Sanborn, alto saxophone; Gil Goldstein, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Christian McBride, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s David Sanborn. I can tell by his sound. I’ve researched all of the older guys. Even the funk guys, I can tell some of them. Some of them sound the same. But this guy has got a wonderful feeling. Jazz, I don’t know about that, but he’s got the feeling, and he knows how to make records. There’s a trick to making records. I mean, records that will sell. A lot of people can play a lot of stuff, but when you try to make records to sell, it’s a different situation. It’s a good treatment of the song. But see, the way they have it set up, they have a good presence in the studio where they played. They sound beautiful. What they do that other more up to date jazz cats don’t do… They don’t have this kind of rhythm. They don’t play against a background like this. There’s more going on. But actually, I know why they do it this way – because they’re trying to sell the record. Which makes a lot of sense. You don’t play for nothing. You can play the greatest solo in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you’re just wasting time. The background is perfect for what he’s playing. He’s a very interesting guy. You can tell at one time he must have tried to play a lot of jazz music. He told me himself that he always liked Hank Crawford. In fact, he came to see me one time, and we talked a long time. I didn’t know he was from St. Louis, but he’s from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working out there and he came by. It’s hard to make stars for a commercial record that you’re trying to sell it. But give them 3 stars.

5.  Lee Konitz-Ted Brown, (“317 E. 32nd”) (from Dig-It, Steeplechase, 1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Brown, tenor saxophone; Ron McClure, bass; Jeff Williams, drums)

Lee Konitz, without a doubt. Sounds like two saxophones on there. Has he got an echo chamber? Lee kind of lays back on the rhythm when he plays. He made a good record called Relaxin’ With Lee. That’s not it, but that’s the way he plays – relaxing while he plays. A lot of guys force the rhythm. They’re right on the rhythm and they force it. But he doesn’t do that. I don’t know exactly who the tenor player is, but I’d say Warne Marsh? No? I know Lee and Warne used to play a lot. Oh, it’s a late record? It’s not my cup of tea. But they did some different stuff with the kind of style that originally was played during the ‘50s. Lennie Tristano and all of them had a little bit different approach. That’s what makes jazz creative, is a little different approach to what is being played. Actually, I wouldn’t play that way. I always have to have a piano to begin with. When I think of playing without a piano, it’s suspect. Piano always plays a certain sequence of chords and changes, and if you don’t play on those changes, you’re doing something else. BS’ing. Most of the time. Not this, though. This is actually the way he conceives what he wants to play. But I’ve heard many records where we have one sequence going on with the piano, but the horns are not playing the same thing. They’re not following that sequence. It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re not going to follow the sequence, there’s no need to have a piano or bass or whatever you’ve got underneath. What we call background. But he’s got his own identity, I’m telling you. You strive for that the whole time you play music, for that I.D., because that’s what determines that people know what it is and who it is. Actually now, the way they have these jazz schools and colleges, a lot of musicians come out playing just about the same way. It’s hard to determine who’s who. When I was coming up, everybody had an I.D. Two or three notes, I could tell you exactly who it is. You can’t do that today, because a lot of musicians are trained in just about the same way. It seems like they’ve got the same instructors. See, in the old days, when you came from California, you sounded a different way; if you came from Texas or came from Chicago… You could tell from the way guys played what section of the country they were from. Can’t do that any more. That’s gone. That’s “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear it. That’s what I’m saying, there’s a certain chord pattern you can hear most of the time. Lee’s got a lot of stuff he does on weird songs. But that’s his concept; that’s how he plays. We’ll give it 3 stars.

6.  Phil Woods, “I’m So Scared of Girls When They’re Good-Looking” (from The Rev and I, Blue Note, 1998) (Woods, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That must be a new record. Sounds like Phil Woods to me. I haven’t heard this record, but it sounds like Phil. A very consistent player and always a good performer. He’s got it together, what can I tell you? It’s a nice arrangement, too, whatever that is. It’s hard to maintain that consistency over a long period of time. He’s got pulmonary problems. I’m getting it now. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll probably have to stop playing a lot. I never smoked or did anything, but just working in clubs… I’m asthmatic, so it’s a little different. I was always careful. I didn’t get myself exposed to a lot of stuff, which he did. He had some other things going for a while. But it didn’t really slow him down. Bird was impossible. I’ve been asthmatic all my life, but I avoid certain things. I never thought I’d be able to play a saxophone as long as I have. [Did you start to play saxophone as a way of dealing with asthma?] That’s right. The clarinet. I started using the clarinet, and the diaphragm breathing helped me a lot. But now it’s catching up with me. It took a long time. I’m almost 80. In few months, I’ll be 80. Music is a funny thing, man. It will keep you alive. Because while you’re doing that, you don’t think about anything else, so you ignore a lot of other problems. It’s hard to tell who the rhythm section because they’re just playing background. Playing well, though. I’ll give that a 4, man. That’s nice.

7.  Charles McPherson, “Blue and Boogie” (from Manhattan Nocturne, Arabesque, 1998) (McPherson, alto sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I’ll make a guess on this one. It sounds like Charles McPherson, but I’m not sure. [Good guess.] The rhythm section, I couldn’t tell you. Piano player sounds a bit like Mulgrew. Oh, I guessed that, too? [LAUGHS]     The drummer I wouldn’t know, nor the bass player, but they’re really cooking. I’ve got to give a 5 for this one. See, I’m a bebop player myself, and that’s what this is. I like this kind of groove and I like this kind of tempo. I like Charles, too, but I couldn’t recognize him then. His phrasing made me guess it was him, though. His resolutions keep going in and out, in and out, and he’s a bebop player, and that’s the way we play. If you listen to Charles or Sonny Stitt or Cannonball, they play that way. They play right on the beat, right on the meter, don’t lay back – right on it. It’s a great record. Carrying on the tradition. Great.

8.  Kenny Garrett, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (from Bobby Hutcherson, Skyline, Verve, 2001) (Hutcherson, vibraphone; Garrett, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Al Foster, drums)

It sounds like Kenny Garrett. But he hasn’t played anything yet. I have to wait until he plays something. He kind of lays back on it when he plays. A lot of the younger guys I haven’t heard that much, but I’ve heard a little bit of them. I’ll listen to see who it is. Yeah, that’s him. I got it. The vibes I don’t know. I never saw him playing with no vibes. Bass and drums I couldn’t tell you; they’re probably some younger guys who I don’t know. The performance is interesting. He’s doing a little searching, but it’s interesting. See, the younger musicians have a tendency to do that. I guess they’re taught that they have to go a little outside when they improvise. But actually, you don’t have to do it. You can stay right in the chord structure and still improvise a lot. But a lot of the younger guys like to try to go out a little, play a little what we call different kind of changes. Not exactly the original. Substitute is all right if it’s compatible with the way the sequence is going. But the only problem with the substitute, if you don’t substitute something that’s compatible with the sequence, you’re not really playing the song any more. You’re playing something else. Which is possible to do, because you can practice and study a lot of stuff, and play almost opposite to where the chord changes are going. The vibraphonist sounds like Milt. But I don’t know. You’ve got me there. See, it went way outside there! It’s coming in the door backwards. But most of the young players have a tendency to do that. I guess when they teach them, they tell them they have to play that way – they’ll be creating something. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. 3 stars. Nice little arrangement.

9.  Ornette Coleman, “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Verve/Harmolodic, 1987) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

You can take that off right away. [LAUGHS] That’s not jazz, that’s Yazz!! [LAUGHS] Any similarity between that and jazz music is purely accidental. [Why is that?] That’s not what jazz is all about. You’ve got to play with a blues feeling on a groove, and a melodic line – none of that is there. It’s music. It’s probably great music. But it’s not jazz music. [Any idea who the drummer is?] Is this a recent record? I don’t know. It would be hard for me to tell you. Billy Higgins was the original drummer with that group. I used to see the group every night at the Five Spot. [What was that like?] It was interesting. But I have to go along with Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx came down and when he came out they asked him “What about that music?” He said, “They tell me that’s the music of tomorrow. That’s what I hear tomorrow. Tonight I want to hear some music of today!” [LAUGHS] No, it’s interesting music. I’m just joking around with you. It’s interesting music, but it’s not what we’d call real jazz music. [What anything it is interesting to you?] Well, it’s different. What can I tell you? It’s different. Everything that’s different interests me. I listen to it, to see what it is. A lot of those little things he plays, I like! But I wouldn’t consider that jazz music. See, you got to realize, I came up listening to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, people like that. There’s a certain way a saxophone is a supposed to sound. If it doesn’t sound that way, then I… [Ornette Coleman came up playing in those type of bands…] No, he never did. I went to his home in Fort Worth, and they told me they never let him play around because he was always too weird. Of course, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to play that way, good! [David Fathead Newman said that when they were teenager, Ornette played the Charlie Parker tunes, and then he veered off into other areas. As teenagers they’d learn the tunes, play them in their own sessions, and then he went in his own direction.] I don’t  want to disagree with Fathead, who’s a good friend of mine, but I talked with a lot of guys who were down there who said that wasn’t the case. They said he never could play the bebop stuff. I asked a lot of people. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he wants to play. Good for him. Stars? [LAUGHS] Stars fell on Alabama. Look, you can’t beat around the bush with music. You either play it or you don’t. You try to do too much sometimes, it ends up doing nothing. It’s like everything else. You got to be careful of what you do. Jazz had a certain tempo or certain groove that was there, and that’s what made it sound different from other music. Now, offhand, listening to that, if you want me to categorize it, I would say it’s Folk music. Which is good, too. That’s good music, too. But jazz? Unh-uh. Nada. I like Ornette. Ornette’s a good friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the way he wants to play. So be it.

10.  Jim Snidero, “Prisoner Of Love” (from Close-Up, Milestone, 2004) (Snidero, alto saxophone; David Hazeltine, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Nice. Very beautiful. Beautiful tone and everything, but I don’t know who it is. “Prisoner of Love.” At first I thought it was Vincent Herring, but you already played him for me. You’re trying to trick me, see? But you couldn’t do it, could you. [LAUGHS] That sounds like him, but what can I tell you. The only person I know who even plays that way is George Coleman. He plays sort of like that. But whoever it is is somebody I don’t know. I like it, but I don’t know who that is. 4 stars. See, that’s the way I play ballads. I can’t say it’s me, because it’s not. [Did this person listen to you?] Of course. If he’s not as old as I am, he had to: That’s the way I play them.

11.  Gary Bartz-Sphere, “Hornin’ In” (from Sphere, Verve, 1998) (Bartz, alto saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

You might think I’m crazy, but that sounds like Clifford Jordan. I used to play this tune with Monk, but I didn’t record it with him. See, that’s a Chicago-type player. Charles Davis… Who would play that way? [He’s not from Chicago and he’s not from Philadelphia?] He’s from New York? [Wasn’t born in New York, but been here a long time.] That sounds like an old record. Late ‘90s? That’s a good Monk tune. It’s a recreation of a good Monk tune. What can I tell you? They played it well, whoever it was. The saxophonist sounded all right. What can I tell you? Sounded like they were reading music to me. 2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t sound like them at all. I heard that group many times. Sorry about that, Gary.

12.   Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts” (from Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown, 2005) (Parker, alto saxophone; Gillespie, trumpet, composer; Al Haig, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums)

Syphilis Sid. That’s Joe Harris on drums. Well, let me listen a little more. Sounds like Al Haig on piano. I can tell you that. That kind of stuff you won’t hear any more. That’s gone. It’s amazing music. For that time period, that was amazing music. It’s still amazing, but that time period it was earthshaking! [Do you know this recording?] No, I don’t know it. It sounds like it was recorded at probably Carnegie Hall. Town Hall? The recording sounds very good. That’s a great record there. That’s a 5 there. No doubt about it.

The best records that Dizzy and Charlie Parker made, Sidney Catlett played the drums. The best records they ever made. Sidney Catlett, Slam Stewart on bass, and the piano player was… Oh God, I’m getting senile. But that’s the best record they ever made. This piano player, I never heard him on another record, but he played on that one. Great record. Sid Catlett was a great drummer, because he never got in the way. A lot of drummers can get in the way and disrupt what’s being played. But he never did. Listen to him. You don’t know a drum is being played; all you do is feel the rhythm. And they loved him, too. When I first came, I was all about all these musicians, and I used to study them. Everywhere they played, I would go. I would be right there. I came to New York in 1948,  but I came to stay in 1950. I used to go everywhere. I’d go down to 52nd Street, all the places, and check them out. I made a study of them, and made a study of all the guys who were kind of inhibited by some substance, and I found out that a lot of them, if they didn’t have great musical talent, it didn’t help the performance. You know what I’m saying? Actually, what happened to me, I went to see Dizzy one night… I can’t remember the club. But anyway, Charlie Parker didn’t come, so they used Don Byas. I kept going for three nights because I wanted to see Charlie Parker, and actually, when Charlie Parker came back, the band sounded better to me with Don Byas. Don Byas was a tremendous saxophonist. He never really got the credit he deserved. Same with Lucky Thompson. But as history goes, they write about who they want to write and they build up who they want to build up. Don Byas did leave early, but he came back a couple of times on special occasions. But music is a funny thing.

Like I said, that music has got the feeling, the rhythm and everything right in it, whereas in later forms of that same music, musicians kind of overdid it. They learned what they were doing, then they tried to supplement it and put other stuff in there, and kind of overdid it. Consequently, they ran a lot of people away from the music, because they were trying to overdo it a little bit. [Were you able to play bebop on gigs in New York?] Yeah. I played anything I wanted to play, because I always played something that I knew the people would understand and like at the beginning of the set. Then the last tune, if I played “Cherokee” or something, they wouldn’t mind. They’re satisfied. But a lot of cats make a bad mistake by trying to play too intricate at the beginning of the set. See, back then, people had a tendency to want to dance to the music, too, so you had to be careful, especially if you were working on a steady job. [You were working a lot uptown, not so much midtown or downtown in the early ‘50s, right?] No, wasn’t nothing in Midtown but Birdland. When I came they had other clubs, but they were closed.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’d like to thank all my fans for many years of support, and I hope I haven’t offended anybody with this interview!


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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lou Donaldson