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For Ahmad Jamal’s 85th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature from 2002

Today is the 85th birthday of  Ahmad Jamal, whose approach to orchestrating the piano trio format has had a deep impact on the development of jazz language since the middle-1950s. I’m sharing here the pre-final-edit version of a feature article that I wrote about Mr. Jamal for DownBeat in 2002 in conjunction with the release of In Search Of…Momentum. The interviews that I drew on in writing this piece — and a few that didn’t make the cut — are found in this post from four years ago today.

 

Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

“Extended form is because of extended living. I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance. I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. I’m going back to my early roots. All I want is to write my music and learn to perform it. Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just try to interpret as the best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” – Ahmad Jamal, December 2002.
________________________________________

Hearing Ahmad Jamal in the freedom of his autumnal years is one of the great jazz pleasures, as evidenced by the elite cohort of New York pianists who came out on the final night of the maestro’s week-long residence at Iridium last December. With bassist James Cammack and drummer Idris Muhammad dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s with precision and panache, Jamal enthralled the likes of Monty Alexander, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams with fresh takes on his iconic arrangements of “But Not For Me,” “Poinciana” and “Woody ‘N’ You,” which first appeared on But Not For Me: Live At The Pershing, a recording from 1958 that sold a million copies, spent two years on the top-ten charts, and brought him international fame. For good measure, Jamal brought forth a pile of daunting recent works, which included the twisting, vertiginous opus “Gyroscope,” the Chopinesque waltz “Should I,” and a dramatic Tatum-meets-bebop line called “I’ll Take The 20.”

“Every time I hear Ahmad, I leave totally inspired,” Mabern said not long after the Iridium show. “He plays a three-chord masterpiece before he even sits down on the stool, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s magic. It’s his sound, his knowledge of chords, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top. Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps returning to the bridge in a totally different way each time. And there’s his touch, which I call the Franz Liszt touch. A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but their touch and sound distinguish them. That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are. Ahmad is too deep for some people; a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.”

“Should I” and “I’ll Take The 20” are among eight new  compositions that appear on his exhilarating new trio release, In Search Of…Momentum [Dreyfus], the latest product of a fruitful decade-long collaboration with French producer Jean-Francois Deiber. On the previous albums in the series, often expanding his rhythm section with percussionist Manolo Badrena, Jamal augments the trio with strong, idiosyncratic tonal personalities, interacting with George Coleman on The Essence (Verve/Birdology) and Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus), Stanley Turrentine on Nature (Atlantic), trumpeter Donald Byrd and violinist Joe Kennedy on Big Byrd (Verve/Birdology), and a septet composed of Coleman, Kennedy and guitarist Calvin Keys on a À Paris, a 1996 radio broadcast due for fall release on Dreyfus. On each album, Jamal plays with unfettered imagination and customary authority, projecting deep emotion and a palpable sense of inner balance. He finds ingenious ways to link the repertoire thematically, imparting to each album the feeling of a connected suite.

In Search Of … Momentum is the first of the Deiber series on which Jamal explores only the sonic universe of the piano trio, the configuration he has helped define from his very first recordings in 1951. In truth, it’s hard to overstate his influence on the sound of the post-bop piano mainstream. Miles Davis, Jamal’s most famous acolyte, assigned homework on appropriate rhythm section comportment to Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones by sending them to 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of the Three Strings, Jamal’s trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and his subsequent trio with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap are among the pianists who cite Jamal as a seminal influence, and at early ’90s sessions at Bradley’s, the iconic New York piano saloon, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson enthusiastically experimented with Jamallian dynamics and orchestrative strategies.

Jamal now lives in rural upstate New York, but he remained in Manhattan after the December Iridium stand to help care for his grandson while his daughter gave birth to her second child. On the night before Christmas Eve I visited him at his  hotel, appropriately situated on 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Relaxed in blue-green plaid pajamas and slippers, wearing a patch over one eye, he stood before his window, where the streetlights on 52nd Street stretched all the way to the Hudson River. Jamal had personalized his room with an electric keyboard and headphones, books of Czerny exercises and torch songs, folios of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau De Couperin,” an anthology entitled The Ravel Reader, a supply of green tea and dates, medicine for his diabetes and a Koran.

“I hate the word ‘trio’ now,” Jamal insists. “It’s limiting as to what I do. I like to refer to my ‘small ensemble’ or my ‘large ensemble.’ I travel with my small ensemble a lot, but I’ve done other things as well. Now it’s happening in an exciting fashion because I’m writing more than I had been. I wrote for a large ensemble when I was 10, and I’ve been writing ever since. Basically, I’m a writer and an orchestrator. I like big bands. I listen to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie. I’ve always been a fan of 80 pieces, or 16 pieces; I once wrote for 22 voices. I’m not saying I can do it—I never acquired the skill—but I’ve always been a fan of orchestrations, Ravel and Johnny Mandel, all the things that speak of getting incredible sounds out of an orchestra. I’ve had an orchestra going on in my mind daily for all my life.

“I’ve been shaped by the big band era, by the Gillespie–Parker era, and by the electronic age or whatever we call it, and I project my life and musical experiences in my writing and performance,” he continues. “I’m 72, and I’ve accumulated some information. Now I’m absorbing all the feedback, and trying to channel it into my present lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll resurrect a composition that I haven’t done in years, because it fits in that spot. Then I use the same basic structure, although the approach is more musically mature than it was years ago. Why change a good minuet or a good concerto? You just interpret as best you can. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

* * *

Jamal conceptualized his inner orchestra during his formative years in Pittsburgh. A child prodigy who first made music on the piano at 3, he began formal studies at 7, performed Liszt’s Eroica Etude publicly at 11, and joined Local 471 at 14, the year he matriculated at Westinghouse High School, alma mater of pianists Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, where Fritz Reiner brought the Pittsburgh Symphony to play assembly programs. There he played piano in the school’s integrated swing band, while spending evenings on jobs at various Elks Clubs, Masonic Lodges, piano lounges, and dance halls around Pittsburgh. “I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets,” he remarks. “That’s too young. I don’t recommend that. But I sounded well enough. My aunt from North Carolina sent me huge amounts of sheet music that I could draw from. I was working with guys in their sixties, and they were astounded because I knew all these sounds. That’s how I got so much work, or enough to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.”

“Pittsburgh trained me to work in every configuration. It was a tough town, a critical place. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were going to be turned down there. We studied Bach and Tatum, Beethoven and Basie; there was no separation. I played with a lot of singers. I played with Eddie Jefferson when he was a tap dancer. I did a lot of big band work with Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray and Jerry Elliott, all good leaders. I worked duo jobs in Uniontown with saxophonist Carl Otter. Later, I worked with the Caldwells, a song-and-dance team who held the instruments, didn’t play them, so you had to be the bassist, the guitarist, the whole nine yards. This training creates the whole musician.”

Jamal devoured music. He collected 78s by Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie, by Pittsburgher Erroll Garner with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld, and early bebop anthems like “Salt Peanuts.” He heard the Fritz Reiner-conducted Pittsburgh Symphony at school assemblies, caught Basie and Gillespie at the Pittsburgh Savoy Ballroom, and attended concerts by Ellington and Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater, the latter show featuring a 20-year-old Bud Powell. Later in the ’40s, Jamal—an avid student of the trio approaches of Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Garner—would begin to incorporate Powell’s progressive harmonic conception into his vocabulary, applying his investigations at jam sessions with Pittsburgh’s finest at the union hall.

At one such session, St. Louis-based bandleader George Hudson, who had employed Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins, heard Jamal and recruited him for a summer-long engagement in Club Harlem, the major showroom in Atlantic City. Starting work at 8 p.m. and leaving when the sun came up, Jamal played for top-shelf singers like Billy Daniels and Johnny Hartman, TOBA veterans Butterbeans and Susie and a charismatic chorus line choreographed and directed by Ziggy Johnson.

Jamal had intended to study at a conservatory, but at summer’s end he rode north with Hudson for a stint at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I didn’t go to 52nd Street,” Jamal said, nodding at the window. “I was too busy playing from 9 a.m. to midnight. We were on the bill with The Ravens, who had the hottest act in the country with ‘Old Man River.’ Dinah Washington. Jimmy Smith, a xylophone player who tap-danced on the instrument. Billy Eckstine was checking me out from the wings. That was fun, because the big band was your cover. You don’t have the same responsibilities.”

Quartered behind the backstage door of the Apollo at the Braddock Hotel, Jamal met trumpeter Idris Suleiman, an early jazz convert to Islam, who approached the introverted youngster with what Jamal describes as “a philosophical presentation.” That encounter planted the seeds for Jamal’s eventual embrace of Islam. “It had everything to do with being all you can be,” he says. “There are people who don’t want to be all they can be, and when you want to be all you can be, they want to put blocks in the path. I know no other existence except my present existence. I’m very guarded about this, because I’ve been abused by ignorant people. The issue at hand is music. If a person wants to interview me about philosophy, that’s a different ballgame, because my philosophy certainly has influenced my music.”

* * *

By early 1949, Jamal, newly wed to a woman from Chicago (“I did everything young,” he comments), had settled in the Windy City. He got on the bad side of Harry Gray, the famously hardass president of the black musicians local, by working a one-nighter with guitarist Leo Blevins before receiving  transfer from Pittsburgh, and subsequently struggled, Taking a $32-a-week job as a maintenance man for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. At a  request of saxophonist Eddie Johnson, Gray finally relented.  Jamal began to make his voice felt on gigs with tenorists Claude McLin and Von Freeman, and took a long-term weekend job with Israel Crosby and tenorist Johnny Thompson at Jack’s Back Door, a lively joint on 59th and State with a long bar and a stage at the end. He also played solo at the Palm Tavern, often joined by drum legend Ike Day “whenever he felt the urge to come by and sit in.”

“I first met Ahmad at the Club De Lisa, which had been burned out a couple of times and gotten down to nothing,” Freeman recalled in a WKCR interview. “I asked him if he’d make some gigs with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not much of a band player; I’m a trio player.’ I said, ‘Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.’ He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then. He stayed with me about two years, and then told me that he was giving a two-week notice, until he gave me a two-week notice that he was going to form his own trio. Around that time, he started hanging out with Chris Anderson. After that, I  noticed a big difference in his playing.”

Joined by fellow Pittsburghers Ray Crawford and Tommy Sewell, Jamal formed the Three Strings, a collective title emblematic of his equilateral triangle approach to the trio. In the fall of 1951, with bassist Eddie Calhoun on board, Jamal came to New York for a job as intermission pianist at the Embers, a boisterous supper club on East 54th Street. John Hammond attended, was impressed, and gave Jamal a recording date on OKeh. The sessions produced “Ahmad’s Blues” and arrangements of “Poinciana,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Billy Boy,” the latter becoming a minor crossover hit. On the strength of these sides, which immediately caught the ear of Miles Davis—whose own Birth Of The Cool sessions had inspired Jamal—for the finesse and subtlety of their rhythmic momentum, Jamal began to find regular work on the supper club circuit, using a small 63rd Street room called the Kit-Kat Lounge as his Chicago base. He hired his former employer Israel Crosby, and in 1955 went in the studio with Crosby and Crawford to record Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

“I did something with repertoire,” Jamal says. “I had that vast repertoire from my aunt. The strength of a musician, whether he’s Horowitz or Rudolf Serkin or Jamal or Oscar Peterson, is the repertoire. It’s remarkable what the American classicist/jazz musician has done. They’ve interpreted these songs beyond the wildest dreams of the author, be it Cole Porter or Gershwin. That’s what Charlie Parker did with ‘April in Paris.’ Most of Art Tatum’s body of work was standards, much to the delight of the composers economically! They made a fortune. George Gershwin’s estate didn’t need ‘But Not For Me,’ but they accepted it. Or ‘Poinciana.’”

In 1955, following what he describes as “a horrible experience” at the Embers, Jamal “got in my car with Israel Crosby and drove back to Chicago. When I got back to Chicago, I went to Miller Brown, who owned the Pershing Lounge, and said, ‘I want to become an artist-in-residence; I want a steady gig.’ That gave me time to get the people I wanted. Ray Crawford stayed in New York, and I decided to hire a drummer. It was almost impossible to get Vernell Fournier, because he was busy. But I waited for the right moment, and I finally hired Vernell.”

* * * *

“When the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!” Fournier exclaimed during an interview on WKCR in 1991, reflecting on the disdain and condescension that the jazz press gave to Live At The Pershing.  Indeed, many writers continue to be deaf to Jamal’s qualities, in pointed contrast to his immense popularity among the public and his fellow musicians.

“At the time I heard Ahmad,” says Keith Jarrett, referring to Live At The Pershing, “I thought, ‘This is swinging more than anything I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less. What’s the secret here?’ With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces. The simplicity of their playing made the swing work the way it did.”

“Ahmad put together the best trio I ever heard!” said Marcus Roberts in a conversation several years ago. “He and Errol Garner exemplify a hard-swinging school of Pittsburgh piano playing that had a profound impact on me. Garner typically would use his left hand to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, while in the right hand he played what you might think of as saxophone or trumpet figures in a big band. Ahmad extended that and expanded the form.

“Most of what Miles Davis did in the ’50s came directly from Ahmad’s concept. On a straight-ahead AB tune like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Ahmad would expand the A-section until he had nothing left to play, then he’d move to the bridge and use a totally different groove. That brings the whole tune to life from a different angle. He’s a brilliant bandleader who knows how to make the piano sound like an orchestra; he could play a single line in the highest register of the piano and make it ring. Israel Crosby played all kinds of hip stuff underneath, but Ahmad’s left hand was never in the way of Israel’s harmonic direction.”

“Ahmad used difficult dynamics, and so many of them,” Fournier said. Out of New Orleans, Fournier’s extrapolation of the vernacular Crescent City streetbeat known as “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” on “Poinciana” is one of the most emulated rhythmic signatures in jazz. “He could play one tune five or six ways. He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want you to play the appropriate accent when he did it. You had to be conscious at all times that he was playing the piano.”

Jamal uses dynamics to denote a spontaneous inner narrative, and he developed techniques to spontaneously shape and arrange the flow. “Ahmad’s music has structure and form, but he directs inside the form with hand signals,” says Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer from 1982 to 1987. “One signal tells you if you’re playing the top of, say, the head section or A-section, he has another cue for the bridge, and another for the interlude. If he wants any of the cycles repeated, he’ll give the appropriate cue, and when it’s done he cues you to go to the next part. So it’s always organic and rich.”

From the beginning, Fournier noted, “Ahmad intermixed exotic feelings — rumbas and tangos — and made it sound like jazz,” Fournier continued.Indeed, Jamal’s complete command of rhythm is a major component of his mystique.  “I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident,” says Harold Mabern, who first heard Jamal at the Kit Kat Club in 1954, and religiously attended sessions at the Pershing. “He will play a run and stop on a dime. And he’s a master at playing without cliche in time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4.”

Fournier gave an example. “When Ahmad got the melody for ‘This Terrible Planet’ (Extensions, Argo, 1965), he laid down his melody line and the bass line for Jamil Nasser, and he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted,” he recalls. “I developed the drum pattern from inside the melody. It was in 6/8, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1—so it starts the sequence over and over again. Once you get used to that, the rest is easy.”

“Most New Orleans drummers grew up within street band and parade band traditions, in which the bass drum is prevalent, and so we play the drumset from the bottom up,” notes Riley, a son of the Crescent City. “Ahmad is a very percussive player, and he loves to play vamps; he’ll stand up, watch you play, and clap his hands to get inside the groove. He introduces 3/8 and 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms inside the music, and you have to react and find your place inside of that.

“He understands musicians, and can hear their voice for what it is. Either he can work with it or he can’t. If he can, he’ll let you speak your musical voice as it may be. Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions, and he’s always directing the volume and dynamics. But really, he’s just shaping whatever talent you have, and lets it grow and be better.”

Jamal himself is wary of focusing on the details of his art, preferring to accentuate the larger picture. “The little variety of time signatures that I do are absolutely natural,” he says. “I respect technique, but technique without the ability to tell a story is meaningless. Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn had incomparable technique. But they also told a story.”

* * * *

Within two years after Live From The Pershing broke, Jamal was commanding several thousand dollars a week. He purchased a 16-room, six-bath Hyde Park mansion that had once belonged to the nuclear physicist Harold Urey, and a four-story office building on South Michigan Avenue, creating his own posh, alcohol-free supper club, the Alhambra, on the ground floor. But he overextended, got divorced, lost the club, disbanded and moved to New York in 1962, taking an engagement at the Embers with bassist Wyatt Reuther and drummer Papa Jo Jones. He became artist-in-residence at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which like the Pershing had upper and lower levels and a bar area.

“When Ahmad got to New York, he really started opening up,” Mabern observes. In fact, it’s evident from a recording at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in 1961 that Jamal was already beginning to spread his wings. “Earlier, I never picked up a stick, except for ‘Poinciana,’” Fournier said. “But toward the end of the trio, Ahmad was getting more into the stick sound. He became more progressive on the piano, showing what he really could do.”

The Jamal who created such 1964–’71 albums as Naked City Theme, Extensions, At The Top: Poinciana Revisited, Tranquility, The Awakening and Manhattan Reflections had moved a distance from the elegant miniaturist of 1958–’61. Like a short story writer morphing into a novelist, Jamal’s improvisational flights took on the discursive, kaleidoscopic character that remains his trademark. He denies that this evolution reflected the intense New York quotidian, saying only, “I was in New York, but not of it.” To this he adds, “and I was in Chicago, but not of it.”

“Does that mean you’re in Pittsburgh?” I ask.

“I am in Pittsburgh, but I am also in where I live now,” Jamal responds. “Since I moved to upstate New York, I am in tune with my surroundings. By the grace of the Creator, I’ve been backing off, being very selective and taking the time that’s been granted me to sit down and get away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. I go to my little place in the country, hopefully I’m not watching TV, and sit down and do what I enjoy most — writing and practicing the things I write.

“Still, the fact is that I was shaped, first of all, by my hometown. I come from the land of giants, and there you have to practice restraint. There’s always a faster gun than yours. I still practice restraint. But sometimes I play, too!

“Some things I write require a lot of skill, so I have to learn to play all my compositions, and I practice every day. But I’m not interested in quantity. I’m interested in quality. I’ve never had the discipline to practice 6, 7 or 12 hours a day. But I live music, and now I’m interested in exploring the keyboard more. Steinway used to send me pianos to keep in the room so I wouldn’t have to run out or wait for the club to open. Now I’ve decided to take an instrument around with me again. I’m not ever going to practice without joy. And I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished.

“I practice for many reasons. One, I want to do it. Two, I want to always develop my craft. Three, I don’t ever want to take this music for granted. If you do, you’re finished. Musicians have to stay on their game. And I have to devote a certain amount of time to music. Many things can take you away from the discipline of practice. You have to be very careful of losing those good disciplines.”

Jamal points to the score of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” “Ravel wrote that about his comrades who died during the war.” The tapered finger moves to the “Lush Life” folio. “Okay? A reflection of Billy Strayhorn’s life. ‘Take The A Train.’ That’s what we are. We write according to our lives. The way I write and perform is a part of extended living. That’s what’s changed it. The more in-depth, the more in-depth.”

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Article, Chicago, DownBeat

For Harold Mabern’s 79th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2004

Pianist Harold Mabern celebrates his 79th birthday today. I had a chance to hear him last night playing bassist Gregory Ryan’s weekly gig at at a midtown steakhouse (Joe Farnsworth on drums). The piano, which is decent but was shaky in the upper register, is placed between the stairway down from street level and the bar, and to call the room noisy would be an understatement. Still, Mabern played with customary focus, power, melodic invention and soulfulness — treated the gig with complete respect and commitment, revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. A son of Memphis, Tennessee, who spent the second half of the ’50s in Chicago, Mabern has been a beacon and mentor for several generations of pianists, among them James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller and Geoff Keezer, with whom he played in a five-piano band twenty years ago. I had several opportunities to talk with HM during my WKCR years, and had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with him in 2004. Here’s the uncut version.

Harold Mabern Blindfold Test (10-1-04) – Raw Copy:

1.  Earl Hines, “Don’t You Know I Care” (from EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON, New World, 1970/1997) (Hines, piano; Duke Ellington, composer) – (5 stars)

Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care.” I can’t say that I right away recognize the pianist. I like what I’m hearing. It’s hard to tell if it’s a recent recording or something that was done a few years ago. Right now, Ted, I must say you’ve got me on this one so far, even though the sound… Right away, I know it’s not, but right now I can’t say who it is. Phineas recorded this, but I know it’s not Phineas, and Mulgrew Miller recorded this recently—I know it’s not him.  It’s not Ray Bryant, and it’s definitely not Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan or any of those people. And it’s not Art Tatum.  It’s not Teddy Wilson. So if I had to take a wild guess (I don’t know if guessing is permitted), I would have to say someone like Jay McShann, or probably someone like Earl Hines. That’s just an educated guess. Of the two, I would say Earl Hines. I like the overlapping phrases with left hand and right hand. And the touch of the right hand. His touch seems to be a little heavier than Teddy Wilson’s, whose touch was a little more velvety, like Art Tatum’s was. 5 stars. [AFTER] What I’m accustomed to do, as I tell the students: Process of elimination. Eliminate who you know it’s not, and then you feel it can only be one or two people. I possibly could have said James P. Johnson, but I didn’t, or Fats Waller. When I first came to New York City, I worked at Smalls Paradise with the MJT+3, and a couple of the old-timers were there, and they looked at me and said, “Young man, you remind me a lot of Earl Hines.” To me, that was a compliment, because I didn’t know much about Earl Hines at that point. However, we all know that was Nat Cole’s hero in Chicago. He was doing everything he could to be around Earl Hines whenever he could be. I was told that he even dressed like Earl Hines—very impeccable. As they say, Earl Hines was like the Bud Powell of his time; he just opened up everything. I had a chance to work opposite him on a Newport Jazz Festival in San Remo, Italy. George Wein produced it.  I was with Wes Montgomery. We had a chance to talk. We had some pictures taken together, if I can ever find them—little small snapshots.

Reflecting back, I don’t know if you watch the Westerns channels, but they’ve been showing a lot of the black cowboys, and they mainly talk about Herb Jeffries, who was the first one to really get some prominence. He was singing with Earl Hines’ band in Chicago. Every time I hear his name, I think about Herbie Hancock. People don’t know this, but Herbie was named after Herb Jeffries—Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A little bit of trivia.

2.  Uri Caine, “Stiletto” (from LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Caine, piano, comp.; Drew Gress, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums) (3 stars)

Right now you really got me, because he could be anybody, blanket statement. I don’t hear enough of the concept to really say. We know it’s avant-garde, or controlled or uncontrolled freedom, whatever way you want to look at it, and I’m not really into it that much, even though I can appreciate some of the things I’ve listened to by Cecil Taylor over the years. Well, I can see at least it has some kind of form to it, even though I still don’t recognize the pianist. I don’t think it’s Cecil Taylor, because the form is a bit on the traditional side…whatever that means. It’s more of what I would call, as I said before, “controlled freedom,” because it has some kind of theme to it. But as to who it is, at this point it’s hard to say. Conceptually speaking, I think it’s probably somebody on the younger side, one of the younger generation guys. To take a guess (because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by this pianist), Matthew Shipp. That’s just a guess. Or another pianist who I also don’t really know a lot about—Jason Moran. Again, that’s just a guess. It’s definitely somebody who’s been influenced by McCoy Tyner and Herbie, even though, as I said before, it’s a little bit on the free side.  But it swings. I like the sound of the drums. See, with this kind of music, at least if it swings, you can get some kind of musical enjoyment out of it. As I said, not to be redundant, I hear traces of McCoy and Herbie and them. Is it possible it could be a female? I don’t think Geri Allen, but perhaps someone like Rachel Z—even though I’m not that familiar with her playing. It’s definitely somebody younger than I am. One person comes to mind, but again I haven’t heard a lot of him—Eric Lewis. But I don’t think he’s recorded yet. Or possibly Marcus Roberts. That’s just a guess. 3 stars, because it swings. [AFTER] I know who he is, but I’m not familiar with his playing at all. Once they got into the form, I enjoyed it. It was swinging. It took on a theme of its own, so it was something I could grab onto.

3. Danilo Perez, “Overjoyed” (from …TILL THEN, Verve, 2003) (Perez, piano; Ben Street, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) (5 stars)

I like the song, Stevie Wonder, “Overjoyed.” But I have to figure out who the pianist is. So far, I like what I’m hearing. It reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite pianists, but I don’t think it’s him. I hear it in the left hand-right hand. Geoff Keezer comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s Geoff. I like the sound of the recording, too. The bass is in tune, good sound on the drums. Very interesting.  Here we go again; educated guess again. It’s not Geoff Keezer. It’s not Mulgrew Miller. Possibly somebody like Brad Mehldau.  That’s just an educated guess. I enjoyed it, so I’d say 4 stars for the performance, and another star for the genius of Stevie Wonder. So 5 stars. [AFTER] Isn’t that something. I should have known it, because I think I heard it recently on the radio. I’ve heard Danilo do some wonderful things with Roy Haynes.

4. Alice Coltrane, “Walk With Me” (from TRANSLINEAR LIGHT, Verve, 2004) (Coltrane, piano; James Genus, b; Jeff Watts, d) – (4 stars)

It’s a good sound coming out of the instrument. So far I haven’t heard enough to put my finger on anybody that I recognize. It has what you call a gospel type theme to it. Whoever the pianist is, they have a good sound out of the instrument, good technique, good chord voicings in the lower register. But right now, I don’t know who it is or who it could be. Something about the theme reminds me a little bit of Keith Jarrett, but I don’t think it’s Keith. Some parts of it remind me a little of Stanley Cowell, one of my dearest and closest friends and a true musical giant, but I don’t think it’s Stanley. 4 stars. [AFTER] I noticed the harp-like qualities in the right hand. Alice Coltrane, nice. Very, very well played.

5. Eric Reed, “La Berthe” (from E-BOP, Savant, 2003) (Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Elmo Hope, composer) (4 stars)

Nice little theme. It reminds me of something that maybe Thelonious would have written, theme-wise and the way it’s syncopated. I like the performance. I like the pianist.  Nice touch. The concept reminds me of the kind of stuff that Woody Shaw used to play. But I don’t have an idea who it could be. I like the piece. I like the concept. It’s a good touch from the pianist. It’s the kind of song I would enjoy playing. But I can only take a guess on who it might be. Like I said, I hear a lot of Monk influence in the performance and in the theme itself. Possibly someone like Jessica Williams, but that’s just a guess. I think it’s an original composition. That’s the feeling I get. What period? It sounds like something that could have been written within the last year or so, conceptually speaking. Both the piece and the performance sound very up-to-date. 4 stars. [AFTER] Sorry, Eric. But he’s one of my favorites. That just shows music is never dated. Because conceptually speaking, it sounds like it could have been written last week. Eric Reed is a tremendous young musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He understands all phases of the music. I told him he’s one of the few young pianists who understands the difference between blocked chords and locked hands, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, do I really?” and we laughed. But he’s a tremendous young man. Stride, boogie-woogie, everything. I have a lot of respect for him.

6. Don Pullen, “Warriors” (from NEW BEGINNINGS, Blue Note, 1988) (Pullen, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Tony Williams, drums) (5 stars)

Right away, it sounds like a pianist I always enjoyed, because he proved he could play on the edge of being out, but he could play inside, he could play tradition. He was also a very good organ specialist. Just listening to the theme and the pianistic things he’s doing, it reminds me a lot of Don Pullen. Bingo!  At last! He was a tremendous musician. [Who do you think the drummer is?] I get a feeling it’s someone like Ed Blackwell. I don’t know if it’s him, but… The thing I like about Don Pullen… One night at the Vanguard years ago, before they got the new piano, and the upper register was a little bit out, I asked him, “Don, how did you hear up there without… You make it sound so…” He said, “I just play it.” The upper register can be a little tricky. He did wonderful things, and it didn’t seem to detract from his performance. I had a lot of respect for Don Pullen. Great musician. You can hear his classical training in his piano playing. I guess the obvious thing to say about the drummer, since they worked together, would be Dannie Richmond, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be him. Something about him reminds me a bit of Roy Haynes. I don’t hear enough of the snare sound and the cymbal, but rhythmically it reminds me a little taste of Roy Haynes. Or possibly Tony Williams. Ah, see, that’s that Massachusetts connection with Alan Dawson, Roy, Tony. Boy, could Tony play. I’ll give it 5 stars for the overall performance. To me, that’s what you call controlled freedom. The things he was doing on the piano made sense because you can hear the skills he had developed through his classical training coming through.

7. Geoff Keezer, “Gollum’s Song” (from WALK ON, Telarc, (Keezer, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

I like that. Geoff Keezer comes to mind. The concept of the song, the touch in the right hand, the ideas in the right hand. At first, a little bit, it reminded me of Mulgrew; they have a similar kind of thing at times.  But listening, it reminds me a lot of Geoff. But I need to listen a little bit more to the right hand. If I had to guess, I’d say Geoff Keezer. Give him 10 stars, if there’s such a thing. I mean, he’s that good. He’s a tremendous musician.  The one thing I love about him is that he’s really captured the essence of Phineas Newborn, Jr., more than any pianist that I can think of. Naturally, Mulgrew and Donald Brown. But Geoff has captured the little nuances. Not just the obvious stuff, which is hard enough, but Geoff has captured those little nuances that Phineas used to do. And consider the fact that Geoff never met Phineas, and all he had to go by was what he heard on records and the one video.  But I have tremendous respect for this young man. He never ceases to amaze me. I like the interplay with the bass and drums. I heard Scott Colley once with Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note; he’s a very good bassist. Geoffrey Keezer. Eau Claire. Wisconsin. 5 stars. He’s even found a way to get into his playing a lot of those Latin montuno rhythmic things. He’s been getting into that a lot.

8. Herbie Hancock, “Blue Otani” (from THE PIANO, Columbia/Legacy, 1978/2004) (Hancock, piano, composer) (4½ stars)

I like it. Naturally, it’s the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Now I’ll try to figure out who it is! Oh, I like it. It’s a lot going on. When it first started out, the chord things reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock. Then it reminded me a little bit of Ray Bryant. But I’m sure it’s neither one. I enjoyed the performance, but I must say I’m stumped on that one. I have no idea. But 4½ stars. To play like that is very hard to do. That’s the thing that separated Art Tatum from all of us. To play fast or slow, and play it where the consistency of the time is still going on. He had some nice ideas, too. Good technique, good ideas—I liked the overall performance. But I have no idea. [AFTER] You’re kidding! See, I got half of it right! Years ago, we used to talk about solo piano and stride and stuff, and years ago he wasn’t really interested so much in the stride aspect.

9. Brad Mehldau, “Anything Goes” (from ANYTHING GOES, Warner, 2004) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums) (5 stars)

Hmm, “Anything Goes,” huh?  Nicely done. Cole Porter. Yeah, I like that. I like the concept. I like the fact it’s odd-metered; it sounds like it’s in 5/4. It’s nice to take a song like that, which is unique in its own way. At this point, I don’t know who the pianist is, but I like what I’m hearing. Good right hand, good left hand. I’d guess Brad Mehldau because of the ideas in the right hand, and the way he uses his left hand. You can tell he has a good left hand also. And the overall concept of the piece. Good harmonic concept also. I’ll tell you, with the quality of the crop of pianists coming out within the last 5 to 10 years, if I had to start now, I wouldn’t choose the piano.  There are some rough guys out there, man. And ladies, too. 5 stars.

10. Denny Zeitlin, “E.S.P.” (from SLICK ROCK, MaxJazz, 2004) (Zeitlin, p.; Buster Williams, b; Matt Wilson, d) – (5 stars)

Right away, I know I like the composition. I don’t want to give the wrong composer credit, but I know it’s either Herbie’s tune or Wayne Shorter’s. Sometimes I get them a little mixed up. But that much I know. The tune is either Herbie’s or Wayne’s when they played with Miles.  There’s some stuff there chordally that reminds me of Ahmad. Another one of these two-handed pianists. It reminds me a little bit of a gentleman that I used to hang out with in Chicago, when he was studying at Johns Hopkins. Denny Zeitlin comes to mind because of the harmonic concept and the ability to use both hands equally well. But that’s just a guess. Again, process of elimination, I know who it’s not, but he comes to mind. The cymbal beat from the drummer reminds me a little bit of Tony Williams. I just heard something from the bassist that reminded me a little of Ron Carter, but it’s not Ron Carter. Oh, that’s Buster Williams. Tremendous musician. Unsung hero. Would that possibly be Matt Wilson? So it’s Denny Zeitlin. A couple of years ago, I saw that trio working at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago 5 stars, mainly because of our Chicago connection and the love we both have for Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Wallace. He had a lot of respect and still has a lot of respect for Billy Wallace, Dr. Denny Zeitlin.

11. Anthony Wonsey, “Darn That Reality” (from BLUES FOR HIROSHI, Sharp-9, 2004) (Wonsey, p; Richie Goods, b; Tony Reedus, d) – (5 stars)

Sounds like “Darn That Dream” but rearranged. I like it. The pianist sounds very familiar, but I can’t quite call him. David Hazeltine comes to mind because of the arrangement of the song, for some reason, but I’m not sure. The drums sound like it could be Joe Farnsworth, but again I’m not totally sure. It sounds like David Hazeltine to me, even though a lot of the stuff he’s doing in the right hand is a little out of character. By that I mean it’s not normally the way he would play.  But because of the arrangement, I would have to say David Hazeltine, possibly Farnsworth, maybe Peter Washington. 5 stars. It’s not? Well, I still give it 5 stars. I hear a lot of Phineas Newborn type of influence in the right hand with the triplets and things. Swinging. [AFTER] Oh, Mulgrew Miller’s ex-student. That’s why I could hear a little of the Phineas Newborn influence. Wonsey. I’ll still give him 5.

12. Bud Powell, “Tea For Two” (from BIRDLAND ‘53, Vol.1, FRESH SOUND, 1953/1991) (Powell, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Roy Haynes, drums) (5 stars)

I know it’s an older recording. Just listening to the concept, I’d have to say Bud Powell, off the top. I’ll stand by Bud Powell, and give him all the stars you can muster up. “Tea For Two.” As an educated guess, I’d say the drummer is Max, and the bassist is either Mingus or George Duvivier. Possibly Arthur Taylor? Just an educated guess. Bud definitely opened stuff up. He and Nat Cole. Two different schools, but very influential. 5 stars.

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Filed under Alice Coltrane, Anthony Wonsey, Blindfold Test, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Chicago, Denny Zeitlin, Don Pullen, Earl Hines, Eric Reed, Geoff Keezer, Harold Mabern, Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ’em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of “Blue Bossa”].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


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Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

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?

Right.

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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In Honor of Steve Coleman’s 2014 MacArthur Award, A 2011 DownBeat Feature

Heartiest congratulations to the visionary alto saxophonist-composer-conceptualist Steve Coleman on his 2014 MacArthur Award. Here’s a  feature piece that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2011.

* * *

Around 5:30 on the final day of spring, nineteen hours before the summer solstice, Steve Coleman sat in his Prius, parked a few steps from the Jazz Gallery, where he’d soon conduct the penultimate installment of his seventh season of Monday night master classes at the venue. Dressed down in a red t-shirt with “Ancient Waves” logo across the chest, baseball cap worn backward, baggy jeans, and hightops, he was relaxed and focused after a 90-mile drive from Allentown, Pennsylvania, his home since 1992. Rather than adjourn to a restaurant for a sitdown conversation, Coleman, a road warrior par excellence (his itinerary over the past two decades includes lengthy fieldwork sabbaticals in Ghana, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, South India, and Indonesia), decided to stay put, taking advantage of the unmetered space.

Later that evening, and at the two other Coleman workshops I attended in June, attendance was decent. Still, it seemed odd that more aspirants didn’t shell out $15 for a hands-on encounter with the figure who, as Vijay Iyer says, “of all the musicians who followed Coltrane, Ornette and the AACM, has done the most work, and sustained the highest level of innovation and creativity, of output and impact.”

It is Coleman’s signal achievement to have dissected rhythmic, tuning, and harmonic systems from various non-Western and ancient Mediterranean cultures, and integrated them into a cohesive weave that refracts his own experience and cultural roots. Operating via the ritualistic practices that contextualized these sounds in their original iteration, he frames his own sere alto saxophone voice within a matrix of interlocking, layered  beat cycles, sometimes whirling, sometimes stately, sustaining continuity with a self-devised harmonic logic.

He’s been remarkably effective at communicating his principles. During the ‘80s Coleman imparted fresh ideas about working with pulse and uneven meters to such experimentally oriented, like-minded, Brooklyn-based contemporaries as Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith in the loosely grouped collective known as M-BASE, an acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations. In the latter ‘90s, Osby, who referenced Coleman in a piece called “Concepticus,”  described him as “my main motivator,” adding, “if I ever reach an impasse, he’ll say something that will transport me to another area.” A few years ago, Wilson was similarly praiseful. “Steve told me that if I could hold my own in his context, I’d have something else to bring to standards,” she said. “He was right. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, you develop an elasticity when you work with 4/4, because you’re always certain about your time.”

It would be inaccurate to describe Coleman as a “guru-Grand Poobah” figure for his M-BASE collaborators, many of them major forces on the timeline. But the term fits when assessing his impact on consequential post-Boomers like Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto, who have drawn upon Coleman’s subsequent investigations—documented over the past quarter century on close to 30 recordings and elaborated upon in numerous workshops and residencies—in constructing their own hybrid tonal identities. “This idea of conceptually dealing with stuff from a different culture and from the roots of one’s culture was an amazing template,” Mahanthappa said recently. “It seemed like the real deal. It was modern American improvised music.”

Anyone with an Internet connection can find interviews and essays in which Coleman postulates and analyzes his intellectual first principles, which are as complex and audacious as the raw materials he works with. He believes strongly that music symbolically represents universal truths and, therefore, human experience on the most fundamental level. Freedom emerges via contingent pathways—rigorously elaborated structures that he actualizes with non-traditional notation—through which creative expression manifests. Numerological I-Ching trigrams denote rhythmic values, each part cycled in thick harmonic layers among the various horns, or, as Marcus Gilmore notes, within the trapset itself, “intertwining and interweaving until they meet up at some point.” A chart representing lunar or solar phases might involve pitch values and voice leading. Another, mapping a celestial moment, can gestate an entire composition, as in “060706-2319 (Middle Of Water)” and “Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation) on the 2010 release Harvesting Semblances and Affinities [Pi] and “Jan 18” and “Noctiluca (Jan 11)” on this year’s follow-up, The Mancy of Sound. Patterns of dots on the cover of the latter document symbolize the Yoruba philosophical and divination system called Ifá; transcribed, they comprise the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic form of a four-piece suite.

With this backdrop in mind, I asked Coleman whether proximity to the solstice would impact the evening’s proceedings. “In an intangible way, it does all the time,” he responded. “I believe there’s a specific energy happening at any moment, in any place, and that we have the ability to tap that energy consciously.” He mentioned core influences—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, the Danish composer Per Nørgård—whose musical production incorporates such metaphysics. “Each person has to figure out their relationship to it. A lot of people who think about these things won’t talk about them publicly. My view is that we’re in a new kind of information age, and there’s less need to be secretive.”

Coleman reached into his bag behind him, and pulled out a book entitled The Unified Cycle Theory by Steven J. Puetz. “I spend a lot of time studying cyclical thought,” he continued. “I’m always paying attention to eclipses and equinoxes, symmetrical nodes where energy intersects. I was well aware of the event tomorrow, or any time we get near these points. Then I focus to see if I can pick up something that I ordinarily wouldn’t. Am I deluding myself or imagining things? You could say that about almost anything that you do. Definitely, if you’re tuned into it, you can feel something special that doesn’t happen in other moments. After a while, you start noticing patterns and start trying to see how you can use these things, how they can work out, what the differences are.”

On the two recent CDs, Coleman seems to be consolidating, loosening forms, transmuting cross-cultural correspondences gleaned from his travels into musical shapes and inserting them into an increasingly epic narrative. Tyshawn Sorey, who plays drumset on both recordings—by himself on Harvesting and in tandem with Gilmore on Mancy—pinpointed the interweaving quality to which Gilmore referred when describing the evolution in Coleman’s rhythmic language from his “much more sonically dense” music of the ‘90s. Sorey traced the transition to the composition “Ascending Numeration,” from the 2002 recording The Ascension To Light, on which “it takes at least a minute” for all the different meters—he calls them “time spans”—to align. “The structures are much more elaborate now,” Sorey said. “The music breathes more. Vibrationally it feels different. I remember thinking in the ‘90s that the music was cold, that it was hyper-technical but lacked emotional content. I played some of that music when I first joined the group. In the music he’s written since then, there’s a lot going on, but it hits you emotionally in some way.”

Recorded in 2006 and 2007, the Pi sessions represent an early stage of this development. But over the past year or so, Coleman said, he’s been “reshuffling,” addressing “pre-composed material ever more spontaneously, using compositions almost like cells of information and recombining them in different ways,” trying to give his musicians “greater responsibility for their part.” Towards this end, he toured Europe last fall and this spring with no drums or bass, presenting consequential challenges for trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist David Bryant, and vocalist Jen Shyu.

“The music was written with bass and drums in mind,” said Shyu, a Coleman regular since 2003. “It’s not that hard to play each single part, and it’s difficult but achievable to be able to clap one part and sing another. The hardest thing is to improvise and be free over that, and not be locked into, ‘ok, I have to keep my place with this line.’ Steve wants you to hear it as a gestalt—all the parts together, internalizing how they fit, and never lose your place. The compositions are getting more difficult. They’re based on extra-musical things, I think a cycle of Mercury, so the progressions are unusual and harder to hear.”

Coleman described the effect of this drummerless experiment as akin to a colonic. “There was stuff encrusted inside me for years, and when that layer was stripped away, things became crystal clear,” he said. The logical next step, he continued, is to “jettison” the precomposed fragments and move towards “creating spontaneous forms on the spot for the first time.” He added: “It’s not like free improvisation, where whatever sound you make and whatever sound I make, it’s cool. It’s having an intelligent conversation with somebody on the street where you don’t know what you’re going to say, but it makes linguistic sense. It has to be as sophisticated as something you might create if you composed it with pencil and paper, and you have to be able to retain it so that you can repeat it, not verbatim, but as you would a written compositional form. I never write out set lists. We come out, and I blank out my mind and feel what’s coming from the audience and what’s happening on stage. From that comes my first impulse, and I make a sound. Then I start developing and weave a thread.

“The temporal moment has a character, and it imposes on us a certain vibe which we then deal with. Place has something to do with it. The land has an energy that affects us. When I’m in central Java for three months, I create different shit than I would if I stayed here. I get different ideas in south India or Brazil. Usually the effect on you is unconscious. I study all this esoteric stuff to try to figure out what it is. Almost everything I do starts with some vague interior, intuitive, spiritual feeling, which I then try to figure out how to technically work with. In the end, I’m dealing with a craft. I’m dealing with music, and something’s got to be developed out of that music.”

Coleman traces this predisposition to investigate inchoate feelings to childhood. He grew up at 68th and Cregier on Chicago’s South Side, four blocks east of Stony Island Avenue, where the Blackstone Rangers gang dominated street life. “They were recruiting cats my age, but I didn’t want to run with that kind of element,” he says. “They preyed on people with maybe weaker minds. I was the kind of kid that if a cat called me a chicken, I’d be like, ‘well, that’s your opinion.’ I wouldn’t get mad, just indifferent. Before he died, my father told me, ‘What you’re doing musically and the way you are, I saw it in you early. You were a hard-headed baby who wanted to go your own way, and could sit in the corner by yourself and play your own game for hours.’”

Initially attracted to Charlie Parker through his father’s record collection, Coleman received subsequent hands-on mentoring from Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, and Bunky Green, all regular presences in neighborhood clubs like the Apartment Lounge and Cadillac Bob’s. He traced the origin of his rhythmic explorations to a realization that the quality he most appreciated in Bird and his teachers was “their identity, a strong vibe that told you this was their thing,” and that “the primary ingredient in that strong identity was the rhythm.”

“The main element of their rhythmic base stemmed from the dance music of the time, and I realized that I’d have to look for something different,” he said. “I started to think about Motown, James Brown, the Meters—which I heard as a folk music—and how to do something more sophisticated with it. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise. I feel soul and funk more than what Charlie Parker and Max Roach and those cats did, because it’s what I grew up on. In blues, you have the sophisticated line, the less sophisticated line, and the stuff in the middle, a breadth of feelings, everything from Ma Rainey to Coltrane and in between. I didn’t feel that breadth existed with this music. I thought it could be wide-open. I felt you could take it as far as what Trane was doing with ‘Expression’ and ‘Transition,’ and I was determined to do it.”

Once settled in New York, Coleman—who took gigs with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, with drummer Doug Hammond, and with Sam Rivers’ Winds of Manhattan ensemble, and often played on the street with cornetist Graham Haynes—heard  recordings of tribal, rural folk music from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. “I was shocked, because in the singing and drumming I heard rhythms that I heard in Charlie Parker,” he said. He absorbed their phrasing of the rhythms, “the sensibility they did it with and the looseness with which they expressed it. Graham and I were trying to work our way into feeling these things, like groping in the dark. You hear back a piece on tape and keep what works, and expand on it.” He cited a eureka moment—“Armageddon” from the 1990 recording Rhythm People, on which Reggie Washington played bass and Smitty Smith played drums. “I had a dream about how the music was going to sound, and something on the bridge of that song was the closest it got. I began to analyze that and go deeper. When I went to Ghana, I saw similarities between what they were doing and what I was doing (and differences, too), and realized that what really attracted me was the cyclic element.”

As the ‘80s  progressed (he described the decade as “complete experimentation”), Coleman needed every bit of bullheaded resolve to stay on course and withstand the slings and arrows—some were self-inflected—hurled his way. “Von Freeman warned me that if I was going to go the route of developing my own music, it would take me twice as long,” he said. “I could easily have been one of the Young Lion crowd. All I had to do was play the game and put on a  three-piece suit. Instead, I was in this underground direction, wearing overalls. Stanley Crouch called me ‘the Jim Jones of Brooklyn’—leading everybody to their musical suicide.  That was a good one; if you’re going to signify, you might as well be clever.” Nor was approbation unanimous within the M-BASE community. “I was aggressive in pursuing ideas, let’s put it that way. Some people liked that, some people didn’t. My response was always, ‘Hey, nobody’s got to follow me; I’m not starting no school.’

“Fortunately, I talked to cats like Max Roach, and played with cats like Thad, who had no idea what I was trying to do, but told me, ‘you have to find your own way, whatever it is.’ Von and Bunky told me the same thing. When things got hard, I’d remind myself that Charlie Parker hoboed on a train. Motherfuckers couldn’t come through the same door or drink from the same fountain. They were on drugs. Coltrane took a deluge of negative criticism. What am I bitching about? I was like, ‘You did what you wanted to do; you didn’t let anybody alter your thing.’”

It was now 17 hours before the Solstice, time to leave the air-conditioned Prius, enter the Gallery, order takeout Thai, and prepare for the evening’s business. “You’ve got to eat healthy, and stay in shape,” Coleman said. He recalled the classic cover of Von Freeman’s 1972 debut LP, Have No Fear, on which the tenor master, then 50, stands in a Chicago back alley in a sleeveless tee. “In ‘79, I saw Von pick up some cat and shove him through the door with one arm. I was kind of scrawny as a kid. I thought, ‘Ok, you need to take care of yourself.’ You want to be able to still move around. If you like young girls and all that, too, then you really have to do it. If anything kills me, it will be that—or an accident.”

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

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

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

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

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

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

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

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

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

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

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

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

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

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

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

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

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

That must have been exciting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you describe his sound was like?

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

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

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

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

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

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, 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…

[END OF SIDE A]

…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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