Tag Archives: Coleman Hawkins

James Carter’s Uncut Blindfold Test From 2000

James Carter, the saxophone and clarinet master, celebrated his 43rd birthday on Tuesday. Here’s an uncut Blindfold Test for Downbeat from 2000.

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1.    Roscoe Mitchell, “Dragons,” (from HEY, DONALD, Delmark, 1996) (Mitchell, soprano saxophone; Malachi Favors, bass; Jodie Christian, piano; Albert Heath, drums) – (5 stars)

I’m waiting for the rest of the cats to come in, if there are such cats. right now it sounds reminiscent of Roscoe Mitchell, particularly with the way that the saxophonist is shaping the tone and… Hmm!  Sounds a lot like Roscoe.  Definitely has some Mitchellian approach to it.  Especially by the staggered entrances that the cats have.  On a previous blindfold test I was able to pick him out on tenor, so I’d be really surprised if I’m stumped! [LAUGHS] Is this the double quartet?  No? This is just Shipp and Craig?  It’s Craig?  Oh, no!  Good glivens!  But yeah, that’s definitely Sco.  That shows you how distinctive the cat is.  Hey, that’s one of THE cats.  Particularly on soprano and alto, he definitely has a personality all his own.  I’d love to hear more of his bass saxophone playing, and perhaps we might have to get back in touch with one another and see if we can make this happen somewhere down the line.  Because the last time we talked, he was just getting into the recorder real tight, and other baroque instruments as well, and he was kind of talking about acquiring Gerald Oshita’s sarrousophone and some other instruments he had in order to augment his own arsenal.  I was looking along those lines, too, to really get a sarrousophone, but thankfully I did get one, which I premiered at our tenure last year at the Blue Note with the electric  band.  I played a James Blood Ulmer composition on it.  Everybody couldn’t get over the size of the thing, first of all, not to mention what the hell was coming out of it.  I’m into anything Roscoe does because his spirit is always at the helm of it, and dealing with other things.  Five stars all the way .  That energy in particular, and the way he concentrates his energy and eggs other people on regardless of whatever the personnel is, to get the energy going as well, whether it’s fast and furious or slow and concentrated.  It has its way of oozing out methodically.  It definitely is logical and makes you think.

2.    Lucky Thompson, “Anthropology” (from LUCKY MEETS TOMMY FLANAGAN AND FRIENDS, Fresh Sound, 1965/1992) – (Tommy Flanagan, piano; Willie Ruff, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) – (4 stars)

Sounds like Branford.  No?  Well, there’s our stumper.  I’m still going to justify that it sounded like Branford in the early part of the delivery because of the tone.  In listening to the way the solo stars as well, it definitely has some Steeptonial approaches to it and all.  But I quite sure we’ll find who this is a little later.  So it’s not Steeptone, and it’s not… I don’t know how Lacy even came into this mix.  Pardon me for even thinking that!  This is really going to help.  A piano solo!  According to the little clue, we’re looking at ’65-’66 when this was happening.  Let me scuttle on this one.  Whoever this is, I can’t really say that they are tippin’ as a rhythm section and in the solos as a whole.  I like the transition up a fourth from concert B-flat into E-flat in the solos and all, so that’s really hip, just to give it a whole other lift.  Ah, and it resolves back down to the B-flat.  Hmm!  I’m drawing a blank on mid-’60 sopranos, for some reason.  Of course, during that time, Trane’s influence was so prevalent.  I know it’s not him! 4 stars.  [AFTER] Lucky Thompson!  Man! [LAUGHS] Now, that’s somebody I’d definitely love to do an album with.  Tommy Flanagan?  I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was him.  My first reference of him playing soprano was the beginning of the ’70s.  Other than that, with things like “Tricotism” on Impulse, he’s the sort of cat I think of on tenor.  Yeah, flame on!

3.    Roland Kirk, “IX Love” (from ACES BACK TO BACK, 32 Jazz, 1969/1998) – (3-1/2 stars)

Whoo, lush strings!  Cat’s hollering in the midst of strings!  Hollering in the midst of the forest!  Yeeooow!  This sounds kind of recent, but I don’t want to say that.  The passage there with the staccato sounds kind of Newkish.  But I know it’s not Newk because he doesn’t use altissimo in that particular range.  He goes a tad higher than that.  Plus the guy’s ideas in the beginning don’t make reference to Newk. [Do you know the tune?] I have a hint of it.  It’s one that I wouldn’t mind learning.  There isn’t a whole lot that can really be done with it.  I like the string arrangement. 3-1/2 stars.  I liked it all around.  It seemed like the piano and vibes were mirroring themselves, with the vibes seeming to piggyback off the piano, and it sounds kind of heavy, especially when certain tenor statements were being made, and it seemed to get in the way.  It wasn’t a real homogenous sound, but more like here’s the piano over here and the brass over here, and the strings are situated somewhere in the center or back to give you a shiny dish over rice sort of feeling. [AFTER] Roland Kirk?  If it was Rahsaan, one of the things… Now that I think about it, that high-C he did on there would have tipped me off to him, especially when you think of “Hog-Callin’ Blues.”  This is 1969?  One thing that would have tipped me off is if he’d done the obvious two-saxophone thing where he plays octaves with himself in certain spots.  Also the use of double- and triple tonguing in certain areas. [Believe me, it was hard to find a piece by Rahsaan for you!]] You definitely did your work on this one to trip me out.  It was definitely esoteric in certain areas where I wouldn’t have thought of it as Kirk.

4.    Sam Rivers-Tony Hymas, “Twelve” (from WINTER GARDEN, NATO, 1998) – (3-1/2 stars)

Nice tenor beginning.  That’s a nice ostinato going on with the piano and bass.  Now more interactive.  Sounds like Cecil Taylor a little bit, one of his extrapolated ideas of how boogie-woogie would be dealt with in the left hand and the accents… This cat’s hittin’!  The pianist is happening.  As disjunct and dense as it is, it has a full orchestra sound to me, the way the pianist is dealing.  The saxophone is where I’m drawing some blanks!  This is getting meaty!  It isn’t Muhal either, is it.  Damn!  [What do you think about the saxophone player's sound?] The way it was miked reminded me of the way I got miked for The Real Quiet Storm on certain things.  I guess filtered is a good way to put it, as opposed to the open nasal passage sound that would normally expect when you hear it live.  It has a filtered sort of quality to it.  Stifled.  I’m stumped.  I liked the performance.  3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I always loved Sam Rivers since Winds of Manhattan and Capricorn Rising with Pullen. [Was that recognizable as him now that you know his identity?  Or was it a bad selection to give you?] It was definitely not a bad selection to give me.  Part of the reason I dig these Blindfold Tests is the way they make you think on what’s happening now as well as what’s happened in the past.  These selections make me think about what’s really being put down, what has been put down, and how one’s listening habits have changed over the years, and one’s perception as well.  And also, it helps me go out and look for some other repertoire.  Probably when I leave here, I’ll make a beeline for the Virgin Megastore over here on Broadway and see what else I can cop.  So all selections are good.

5.    Steve Coleman-Von Freeman-Greg Osby, “It’s You” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) – (4 stars) – (Coleman, alto sax; Freeman, tenor sax; Osby, alto sax; David Gilmour, guitar; Kenny Davis, bass; Marvin Smith, drums)

We’ve got some spiciness here!  “The Song Is You”.  It has a Bobby Watson fluidity to it.  This also sounds recent.  It’s not part of that M-BASE thing, is it?  Steve Coleman.  I could tell certain things.  It doesn’t sound like Osby, so this is the first logical choice.  As soon as I heard the alternate stuff that was on it.  So is it logical to say the tenor player might be Gary Thomas?  No?  Almost sounds like… I got some shades of John Stubblefield in there, but no.  Taking it up the  high area, the deliberate bending and shaking of certain notes.  So we’re stumped tenor-wise.  The second alto player is Osby, isn’t it?  I think this is too early for the tenor player to be Shim. [Does the tenor player sound like a contemporary of theirs or someone older?] In certain areas it sounds like it might be a little older.  I’ve definitely got to give mad props to the rhythm section keeping this stuff cooking at a nice intense little simmer. [on the 4's] The tenor player is trippin’ out!  There’s something about the high end that tenor player is using. Oh, aa double bass pedal!  For some reason, that definitely rules out Cindy!  I’m not saying she isn’t capable of it, but I’ve never seen it in any of our dealing.  I’m definitely stumped on the tenor player. 4 stars. It was cooking, and there were some interesting tonalities going on in the midst of a nice staple like this. [AFTER] Man!  It makes sense that it’s Von Freeman, when you think about it.  He’s always seemed ahead of the time anyway.  Definitely when you think of George Freeman and the One Night In Chicago that he did with Bird.  I definitely agree with the liner notes that spoke of him as presaging Jimi Hendrix in a lot of explorations, like the distortion in his playing and his use of space and his deliberate lower tones, like the F and E he was using in certain areas.  It was definitely ahead of the time.  Different.  So it makes a heckuva lot of sense to think of it from that standpoint.  I had a chance to play with George Freeman when I was in Julius’ group, and I think we did The Last Supper At uncle Tom’s Cabin, and went to hang out on the South Side and caught a session, and George was part of the band.  He was all the way up in the stratosphere!  I haven’t actually met Von yet.  George and Chico are the only ones I’ve played with.

6.    Coleman Hawkins-Don Byas-Harry Carney, (from “Three Little Words,”  COLEMAN HAWKINS: THE COMPLETE KEYNOTE SESSIONS, Mercury, 1944/1987) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] This is Hawkins.  And I dare say early to mid ’40s.  I own this one.  I hear Carney in the beginning of it.  One can one say about Hawkins and his playing, particularly during this time, when he got back from the five-year stint in Europe.  Carney’s playing on baritone is indispensable.  He’s the one who wrote the book on how baritone should be played and what one could look forward to in the future out of it from all the areas he’s played in.  I was listening to something last night from 1927-28.  Mostly you would think about the baritone as an immobile instrument during this time, but here’s Carney playing it with the same fluidity and agility as an alto — or a clarinet I even venture to say. This tune was up in tempo, and he was making all the changes.  For somebody you’d think of as a “Sophisticated Lady” player, holding the one note and making the one statement and anchoring the section, this definitely shows you another side.  Just one of the different facets that’s Duke’s men come out with in any situation.  And this isn’t a Duke situation.  I know this is a Hawkins date.  Cozy Cole isn’t on drums on this, is he?  No?  Okay.  Is the alto player Tab Smith?  Another one of the technical cats who could also fly up there.  He reminds me of a variation off of Benny Carter’s playing.  The attack is more exaggerated, but it still comes out of that same school.  Nice diction.  It’s more chopped-up, but it still swings.  the pendulum’s just rocking that much harder!  Yeah, give it, Bean!  The first tenor solo was… Play it back!  He was only dealing with a couple of people at that time.  It’s either Byas or Frog [Ben Webster] But I knew Hawkins was on this . That’s Byas.  It sounds like it’s during the time he was using that radio-approved saxophone, too.  One of Hawkins’ children.  Right up under there.  Five stars.  Times two.  Exponentially.

7.    Gary Smulyan-Bob Belden, “Charleston Blue”, (from BLUE SUITE, Criss-Cross, 1999) – (3 stars)

Piano and baritone.  And drums.  And a rhythm section.  And a whole band.  A bari feature!  Hot damn.  Some tonation problems there… If it’s not Pepper Adams, it sounds like someone who’s been listening to Pepper.  I think it’s Pepper!  Then I’ll go out on a limb and say Smulyan.  He’s from the Pepper school.  Which is a great thing.  When you think about the axes, Pepper was always a Selmer cat, and to get this same sound out of a Conn, which I know is Smulyan’s instrument of choice, is a great feat.  Then again, it’s also the mouthpiece.  But in that particular era, to have the extra nuts in reserve and to have something that’s not… The tune is definitely a groover and it’s got enough changes to keep you going mobile in your thinking… Coming from a player’s standpoint, not to mention a listener’s, there’s enough harmonic material and information in there to leave you wanting more.  It has a Perry Mason sort of feel, like incidental music.  It might be the EQ’ing on this system, but he goes into the background especially when it’s time for the arrangement to come back in.  Those situations are the nuts are supposed to come in.  That was the climax.  3 stars.

8.    Fred Anderson, “To Those Who Know”, (LIVE AT THE VELVET LOUNGE, Okka Disk, 1998) – (3-1/2 stars) – (Peter Kowald, bass)

Nice little tenor in the back.  Some low percussive instrument.  Is this just a duo?  Oh I did say there was something percussive in the back.  Nice esoteric interactions.  It sounds akin to Parker and Graves, Charles Gayle running up the middle!  No, it’s too tame for Charles!  It sounds familiar.  You’re enjoying this, aren’t you!  It’s starting to heat up now!  But I’m stumped as to who it is.  Now, they’re definitely doing it up.  I can hear some other things the tenor player could be doing.  I mean, the bass player is all over the place, and the tenor player is not meeting the bass player’s energy.  It’s like he’s echoing his ideas that were in the slower part of it.  He’s still in largo; my man went off in vivace on him!  Maybe if the drummer was in at the time, that would probably help.  But then, that could be another component he’d have to meet as well.  He didn’t meet him, considering what the man is doing bowing-wise.  That’s a lot of momentum in what my man is doing bow-wise to sustain everything.  Uh-oh!  3-1/2 stars for the bass player’s energy… Well, the collective energy as a whole, but the bass player really is sticking out to me.  He’s got some  [Fred] Hopkins up in there.  He knows the overtone series.  Yeah!  Okay!  Yeah!  All right, surprise me. [AFTER] The cat from Chicago?  The old Fred Anderson?  I could have used more energy from him, considering where the bass player was going.  3-1/2.  I give props to anybody who’s that age and is dealing.

9.    Chu Berry, “Shufflin’ At The Hollywood” (from LIONEL HAMPTON SMALL GROUPS, VOL.2, Music Memory, 1939/1990) – (5 stars) – (Lionel Hampton, vibes;

Uh-oh, frying the bacon!  Chu Berry.  Lionel Hampton.  This is right before his untimely death, probably late ’40 or early ’41.  But this was done along that same time when Lionel Hampton did the version of “Sweethearts On Parade” and a couple of other tunes.  What can be said about Chu Berry?  My God.  Somebody who definitely died too young.  Don Byas’ predecessor in terms of playing in between changes.  He always had that driving, rolling, authoritative tone.  Which is why, of course, he was Hawkins’ logical successor in the Fletcher Henderson band, I feel.  In talking with older individuals such as Buddy Tate, there were some other things I got to learn about him.  He also circular-breathed, and also repaired his own instruments, which I think was a real unknown phenomenon then for musician.  I mean, he actually repaired his axe.  I don’t mean put a little
piece of foil and bring a rubber band over here sort of repair.  None of that.  He actually finessed his axe, from what Buddy Tate and a couple of cats told me.  I feel akin to him in a lot of ways.  I repair my own axes, and I like that rolling, authoritative sound, like I’m here, happy to be here.  He was really coming into his own at the time that he passed.  Lionel Hampton, Chu Berry, all them cats.  5-plus stars for all classics like that.  Thank God for them.  Thank God for Chu Berry and all the cats who paved the way.

10.    Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from THE WATER IS WIDE, ECM, 1999) – (4 stars) – (Brad Mehldau, piano; John Abercrombie, guitar; Brad Mehldau, piano; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s interesting.  “Heaven.”  Is this Charles Lloyd?  I remember Forest Flower, and it had that same sort of attack.  We had a saxophonist in Detroit by thee name of Sam Sanders who had that sort of approach, where he muffles and then there are some expletives in there at the peaks.  So I’m able to align myself with that.  The rhythm-section is easy, laid-back.  The piano.  Mmm!  Yeah!  I haven’t really peeped that much of Charles Lloyd over the years, with the exception of Forest Flower and hearing other things on the radio, but without a conscious, premeditated effort, but I’ve always noticed that he’s had a very distinctive sound.  He looks distinctive in the way that I’ve seen him on albums and seen him play maybe once, while on tour.  It’s got a round, shapeable sort of tone that was almost akin to C-melody when it started out, particularly in the middle register.  And I like the meditative flow of it, so 4 stars.

11.    Hamiett Bluiett-Blood Ulmer, “The Dawn” (from IN THE NAME OF…, DIW, 1993) (5 stars)

A baritone-guitar thing, huh.  It almost sounds like Bluiett.  I’m judging by the semblance in tonal weight in what I’m hearing.  I think it would have gone somewhere else if it was, but this is still kind of early. [SOLO STARTS] It is Bluiett!  This is before 1994.  I know that..  I can judge because this is that Selmer.  He didn’t have the low-A.  This is a low-A on here.  Whooo!  That’s Bluiett.  That’s what they should have had the Velvet Lounge!  That would be interesting.  Him and that bad cat Peter Kowald.  What happened in ’94 is Bluiett sold his horn to Bob Ackerman for a Conn that he’s now playing and some money. I was so outdone when he did that, because I wanted that mug.  I mean, there’s a whole lot of history up in that horn.  This is the same horn that was at the Mingus thing, from the onset of the World Saxophone Quartet — his natural axe.  He said one of his students wound up getting it from Ackerman.  This is a bad horn!  I don’t feel bad now, because I’ve since got the one that was on all the Motown stuff.  [Do you know who Bluiett's playing with?] It sounds like Sharrock or someone like that.  Is this Blood?  And this isn’t Jamaladeen, is it?  It sounds too disjunct and too thumbish to be him.  I could see this going off into a funk groove every time that comes up, but it goes back into he free thing, and it’s like a catch-me-if-you-can sort of thing.  You want to just break that mug down, but it doesn’t go that way, and it’s like, “Oh, man, we’re back into it again.”  I like it, though.  Tonal-wise and agility-wise, Bluiett is my logical extension of what Carney did.  When you think about distinctive tones, it just stuck out in my mind even before hearing him play.  The only thing that took me off-guard was that it was a Selmer recording as opposed to listening to him in the last couple of years on this Conn, which as I mentioned before, with Smulyan’s, has a different weight to it that Selmers don’t have.  Also, a certain type of cat can transcend the characteristics of any given make of instrument and make it his own, and Bluiett is definitely indicative of that.  5 stars. [AFTER] Cornell Rochester!  We did a trio, Cornell, Jamaladeen and myself at the Groningen Festival in the Netherlands in either ’93 or ’94.  We were all over the place that year.  Then also, during that time, I was dealing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus thing, and I was in the meat of my dealings with Lester and Julius at this time as well. J.C. On The Set pretty much came out that year in Japan and was making its way back state-side the following year.

12.    Walt Weiskopf, “Anytown” (from ANYTOWN, Criss-Cross, 1998) – ( stars) – (Joe Locke, vibes; Renee Rosnes, piano; Billy Drummond, drums)

Whoever this has this Brecker-Joe Henderson thing going on.  The composition sounds like “Inner Urge” here and there.  The fluidity reminds you of a Breckerish sort of thing.  Now little splashes of Wayne going on in there, too.  I like the vibe player’s feel, too.  Stefon?  Sure it’s not, huh?  Cat’s got a nice feel.  This cat is moving!  I like this cat!  I like to hear instruments that you don’t  hear played in a conventional style, where you wind up hearing a cross pollination of influences, where you don’t think of a vibe player just playing block chords with four mallets. You actually the cat influenced by saxophone and piano players.  This isn’t Margitza, is it?  All right, that was a first stab, ladies and gents.  I like the shades of the “Inner Urge” feel it has.  Very mobile.  It’s like I can almost call off the changes just by hearing it go by.  E-flat.  F.  G-sharp.  G-flat.  Yeah!  A-minor back to B-flat.  Nice, tied-together rhythm section.  The whole thing is tight.  4 stars.

13.    David Murray-Don Pullen, “Blues For Savannah” (from SHAKILL’S WARRIOR, DIW, 1991) – (4 stars)

Ah, they’re shuffling the deck.  That organ’s another mug, man.  It almost sounds like David.  Especially when he smears at the beginning of the notes.  That’s reminiscent of what I think he got out of the Rollins bag.  Yup, that is him.  Big bruh’! [LAUGHS] One of the things with David, I noticed… Good anecdote.  When we did Kansas City, the one tune he wound up playing on, where he played Herschel Evans, which I think seemed kind of ironic, where I’m in the part of Ben Webster, and he’s looking like Ben Webster like a mug!  But when he played Coleman Hawkins’ entry line on that section there, he sounded just like Hawkins, with the embellishments and everything.  When you think of somebody who pretty much the media wants to say he doesn’t have any semblance of history… The same thing with Cecil Taylor.  I hear history in these players.  It’s what I aspire to, to always have the history at the fingertips and be able to expound upon it.  After he did the actual Hawkins passage going into the solos, and he just went from there… Of course, it was kind of far-fetched when you think of the 1934 period that we were trying to represent, and all of a sudden you have this cat going into the upper register of the horn and just playing!  It was definitely something akin to David, but at the same time he let you know within that short amount of time that “I still  know the history, but this is me nonetheless.”  I think those people who were there might have missed that.  That was an epiphany for me.  I always knew that, but it just reminded me.  The same as the first time I saw Sun Ra play.  They were space-chording for like 15 minutes or so during the first part of a 60-75 minute performance, and broke it down into “Queer Notions,” just like this.  Had three drummers playing, and John Gilmore was playing the whole Coleman Hawkins thing, note-for-note, the outgoing passage, the whole bit.  Did the same thing with “Yeah, Man.”  All the cats played all the solos.  That was a great epiphany for me.

Getting back to the meat of the matter with this, the cats are rocking.  That’s the first thing I noticed with the organ trio.  Amina?  No?  [Does it sound like someone who plays a lot of organ trio function?] Definitely, with a shuffle like that.  Oh, man!  No, that’s definitely not Amina.  I don’t know what… Sorry, Amina.  It almost sounds like a MIDI keyboard.  When you think of the Smith groove-Jack McDuff sound that has that analog, this sounds really cleaned up.  That’s what I’m really thinking.  That Leslie sort of oscillating vibe.  Sounds like a clean roller rink sound.  I’m stumped. [AFTER] I could have used a little more meat in the organ.  But they were rocking, and Cyrille was shuffling the deck as if he was one of them Jo Jones type cats.  Hmm!  He had his deck of cards with him.  And David is always the voice as far as I’m concerned.

14.    Count Basie, “Ode To Pres” (from THE GOLDEN YEARS, Pablo, 1979/1996) – (5 stars) – (Clark Terry, trumpet; Budd Johnson, bs; Harry Sweets Edison, tp; Eddie Lockjaw Davis, ts; John Heard, bass) – (5 stars)

[AFTER 8 BARS] “Ode to Pres”.  Part of the Pablo series, Basie Jam #2.  So this is probably John Heard.  Lockjaw Davis is on it.  That’s Clark Terry.  Budd Johnson, playing baritone!  It’s so hip how you can take just one idea from a great cat such as Pres.  This whole song as based on his opening line off “Jive At Five.”  Lockjaw Davis is on it, and all of a sudden turn that one phrase into a blues like this.  The Basie style, of course, just tipping, and Freddie Green behind him on guitar just tippin’.  That’s Sweets.  Okay, so it’s Clark Terry, Sweets, Budd Johnson, Lock… I know Lock’s on it.  The cats just got together!  Was Joe Pass playing?  No?  He’s on Jam #3.  That is Freddie Green.  I remember the picture.  Hit it, Lock!  Dang!  “Ode To Pres” always.  Basie… That’s just magic is always  there.  Tight.  Cats just getting their collective freak on, and just merry music-making at its best.  Ten stars.
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Blindfold Tests to me are always musical way-stations, if you will, to one’s perceptions of how he perceives other people, and also possibilities he can hear if he superimposed himself in a situation like that.  Just like when you watch a game, kind of in the sense of, “Oh, man, if I was there!”  Kind of after the fact.  It’s kind of like 360, but at the same time it isn’t, because you don’t know who it is.  But it’s always great to weigh in and see where my perceptions are and hopefully utilize them.  Definitely you can always say that there’s been some great music that’s been played and that continues to be played.  That’s what I get out of these, whether I know the individual or not.  Like, the Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry recordings has definitely inspired to take another listen to those particular albums.  Because I know I have them from the Classics series, the French issues.

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For Barry Harris’ 82nd Birthday, a Downbeat Article From 2000

For the 82nd birthday of the great pianist-teacher Barry Harris, I’m posting a feature article that DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write in 2000. I’m appending an early draft — the print copy is a thousand words shorter, much of them from long quotes. Going for info here over style.

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The pianist Barry Harris will be 71 this year, and when he talks, musicians listen.  “You know what happens with me?” he asks rhetorically.  “I can tell you, ‘Oh, if you’re doing that, you should do this, too; if you don’t do that, you ought to do this.’  I’ve been doing that for years.  I’m not the catalyst.  People are the catalyst, and I’m the agent.  I can come up with things that we need to learn.  Don’t ask me where it comes from.  It comes through me, whatever it is.”

Harris developed his sagacious, homegrown philosophy and spot-on hip persona in the take-care-of-business atmosphere of post-Depression Detroit, where his peer group included hothouse flowers who developed into some of the most notable improvisers of the ’50s and ’60s — pianists Tommy Flanagan, Terry Pollard and Roland Hanna; trumpeters Thad Jones and Donald Byrd; saxophonists Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Red and Pepper Adams; the guitarist Kenny Burrell; the harpist Dorothy Ashby; bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers; and drummers Elvin Jones and Frank Gant.

“Most of us grew up playing in church, where my mother started me,” Harris reminisces.  “I studied classical with a preacher named Neptune Holloway, who quite a few of us took lessons from, and also Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home.  Tommy Flanagan and I took lessons from Gladys Dillard; we were on a recital together one time.  My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person, and one day she asked me whether I wanted to play church music or jazz.  I said, ‘I’ll play jazz,’  and she was cool with that.

“We didn’t have any schools to go to like people do now. We started out taking things off records, and there were people around us who could play.  Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy; at Northeastern High School, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris.  We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy [Sheeley] came to town from Georgia and went to the school; he not only played better boogie-woogie, but he could improvise.  So could a cat named Will Davis.  Now, I could chord when I was a teenager, maybe 13-14-15, but I didn’t solo too well.  I lived on the East Side of Detroit, and I started going over to the West Side where the cats maybe couldn’t chord as well as me, but they could solo.  When I was 17 a blind girl named Bess Bonnier who’s a very good piano player loaned me a record player that had a device that allowed you to play the record in any key you wanted all the way through.  The first thing I learned how to play was ‘Webb City’ with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt!”

Struck by the bebop bug, Harris and his cohorts absorbed and painstakingly examined records by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker as they came out.  “We were beboppers,” he declares.  “That’s all.  Bebop was a real revelation for us, a musical revelation.  It was like a renaissance.  I was born in 1929, and I became a teenager in the ’40s.  So while someone like Jaki Byard, who became a teenager in the ’30s, learned more about the Stride, Art Tatum and Earl Hines, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell and George Shearing, who were different than the stride piano players.  So we aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way!”

According to Flanagan, “Barry always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano.  He was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, devoted more time to that style than anyone else on the scene then.  He took it another step.  He had a lot of confidence, too.  He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him.  That’s more confidence than I had.  I just didn’t have the nerve.”

“I sat in with Bird at least three or four times,” Harris reveals.  “His band was late one time for a dance one time at the Graystone Ballroom, so we played just one song with him during the first set — a blues in C.  He was beautiful to us.  The best experience that I always tell people is a time he was playing a dance with strings at a roller rink called the Forest Club.  We stood in front, and the strings started, and when he started playing chills started at your toes, and went on through your body — orgasms, everything imaginable.  It’s really a spoiler.  I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that.  Bud Powell is important to me; I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple, even more so now.” (Later, Harris performed with a virtual Bird on “April in Paris” and “Laura” in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.”)

Before attaining his majority, Harris worked high school dances and various other functions at Detroit’s numerous dance halls — the Graystone, the Mirror, the Grand.  “We played for our contemporaries.  We played for shake dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues.  All of it was part of the deal.  I would go to the dance, stand in back of the piano player and steal a couple of chords, then go home and learn how to play them.  I remember Donald Byrd one day saying, ‘I don’t want to play in a bar, I don’t want to play in the dance hall; I want to play on the concert stage.’  Well, separating the music from dancing might have been the biggest drag that ever happened to us.  We knew how to dance.”

Harris worked various venues around the Motor City, including a 1953-54 run as house pianist at a corner bar adjoining an auto repair shop and a supermarket with a good soul food kitchen and a major-league music policy in the heart of Detroit’s West Side called the Bluebird Lounge. Flanagan—who vacated the post when he entered the Army—recalls the scene:  “There were a lot of musicians on the West Side, and even the laymen were very hip; when the Bluebird started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene.  People like the pianist Philip Hill, Thad Jones, Billy Mitchell, and Frank Foster had bands in there, and they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell Gray or Sonny Stitt.  Fine musicians always worked in the club, including the best Detroit musicians, and people like Joe Gordon, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis.”

Among the highlights of Harris’ Bluebird tenure were a brief 1953 stint with Davis, who was living in Detroit (“I might have been the first to play ‘Solar’,” he notes offhandedly), and an extended engagement with Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones.  “The Bluebird was a very special place, man,” he stresses.  “You know how Marvin Gaye sang ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’?  I think there was truth to it.  The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock.  At 1:30 Sarah Vaughan or Bird would come in, and do you know what?  You didn’t see people running to the phones, but within ten minutes that joint would be packed with people.  There were a couple of bars like that.  I played in another called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, with Frank Rosolino — that might have been one of the first steady gigs I had.”

With the exception of a few months on the road with Max Roach after Clifford Brown died in 1956 (sideman recordings that year  with Thad Jones on Blue Note and Hank Mobley on Prestige), Harris spent the remainder of the 1950s in Detroit, working week-long gigs at area showcases like the River Lounge and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge with solo acts like Lester Young, Flip Phillips and Nancy Wilson, and building an almost mythical reputation as a piano guru that spread outside home turf.

“I might have known a little bit more than the rest,” he remarks.  “I don’t know if I was more schooled.  As far as playing Classical, I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me; he and Kenny Burrell were the hippest bebop players around.  I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat.  Wasn’t no sports.  I was a piano player!  ‘Down Beat’ in 1958 had a yearbook with a picture of Paul Chambers on half a page; they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, ‘Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.’  My mother had a flat where she let us play all day, and my house was like a mecca.  When piano players came to town, they’d look for me because they’d heard about me.  I don’t know what you would call me.  I’m not the catalyst.  I’m the thing that gets set off by the catalyst.”

Frequenting the Harris salon were young, information-hungry musicians like Joe Henderson, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Paul Chambers, Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson.  “I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met him when I was about 15.” McPherson recollects, “Barry had heard me sitting in at the Bluebird, where the owner would let us sit in if we brought our parents over, and he told me, ‘You need to learn your scales.’  I started coming over to his house after school.  Barry’s house was a hub of activity.  He practiced and played music all day long, when anybody might come by, then at night he’d go to work.  Traveling musicians always knew to go to Barry’s house.  One time Coltrane came over when he was in town with Miles and Cannonball.

“I owe so much to him for helping me establish a firm musical  foundation, and technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales.  But also, he instilled in me a certain kind of musical intelligence in terms of taste and musical discretion — to try always to be musically honest, to use the emotions along with analysis, that technique is wonderful but it’s just a means to facilitate your musical conception, and not the end-all and be-all.  One day he saw my report card, and noticed that it was quite average.  He said, ‘All your heroes, like Charlie Parker, are everything but average.  Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.  All those cats are brilliant, man.  You can’t be an average or stupid guy playing this kind of music.’  I had never thought of it like that.  From that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise.  I became like an honors student overnight.  I started reading books.  So Barry really instilled in me the notion of intellectual curiosity, that the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more there is to play — because you’re playing your life, your experiences.”

Harris left Detroit in 1960 to join Cannonball Adderley, who recruited him for Riverside records and brought him to New York — where, as he puts it, “a lot of cats knew about me before I knew about them” — for good.  He settled in an unheated cold-water loft on Broad Street in the Financial District, and after a shaky sort — a bout with pneumonia — hit the ground running, finding places to practice, working occasional gigs with people like Yusef Lateef, Lee Morgan, later with Wes Montgomery and Charles McPherson at the Five Spot, Minton’s and Boomer’s.  He found various duo sinecures at joints like Junior’s Bar on 52nd Street, down the block from Birdland, where big band and studio musicians would hang out to drink.

During the ’60s Harris, mentor to so many, found two of his own, forming friendships with Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, to whom he remained close until the end of their lives.  Curiously, Harris reveals, “I didn’t pay that much attention to Monk when I was getting started; Monk might have sounded very hard.  But you heard the most beautiful melodies; his songs you wanted to know, like the first recording of ‘Round Midnight’ when Bud was with Cootie Williams.  Monk showed me ‘Round Midnight’ one time, which is why I get mad when people play it — they play the changes so wrong.  Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he did it real simple — three notes sometimes.  You gradually grew into Monk if you dealt with Bud Powell; you could tell Monk had influenced him, and you would be influenced by Monk.  Monk was odder than all the rest.  He did unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff.”

The Baroness Pannonica de Konigswater, who Harris met soon after arriving in New York, was a long-standing friend to Monk and Hawkins, and helped facilitate his relationships with the avatars.  “I can remember playing at the Five Spot, and Monk coming in and walking back and forth through the joint all night with his hat and coat on,” Harris says.  “That might have been when I first met him.  Later I’d go with the Baroness by his house, and we’d pick him up and all three go someplace.  Monk was an odd fellow.  He didn’t waste any conversation.  Monk never wasted words — or notes.  That was like his music.  And that’s really true, too.  A lot of people assume that Monk didn’t have technique.  I can tell them that they’re lying on that issue, because he really did.  I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn’t. Monk danced a lot.  He would sit behind the piano, and suddenly throw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note.  That note was hit.  The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before!

“Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today.  Monk didn’t practice practicing.  Monk practiced playing — sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes.  I lived with Monk for ten years, and one day he said, ‘Come on, let’s play the piano.’  Monk started playing ‘My Ideal.’  I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one.  I wish it had been recorded.  He was a very special kind of cat.”

Monk probably learned “My Ideal” during his mid-’40s tenure with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street; Harris played with Hawkins extensively from 1965 until Hawkins died in 1969.  “I put him in the hospital when he died,” Harris recalls.  “He didn’t want to go, but I had to put him in.  I had gone to live with him on 97th Street, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around.  He was a recoverer.  He might overdo things a bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right.  It just happened this time he didn’t recover.

“I can remember the first time I sat in with Coleman Hawkins;  he was playing at the Five Spot.  He called some tune that I knew the melody to, and I figured I could figure out the chords.  So we played it, and all he said was, ‘Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player!’ [LAUGHS] I felt lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a different outlook on things.  One time he called out ‘All The Things You Are,’ and after he played I just said, ‘Oh my goodness.’  He would play a phrase, laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase.  I wasn’t chording.  I was trying to steal his phrases!  It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard.  We can’t think of anybody really as the end.  We were the bebop boys.  That was our music.  But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played.  So one had to work at trying to reach this other level.

“He had a special philosophy.  For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements.  I’m a firm believer that the key thing is how you go from one place to another.  One should know how to go to the relative minor, how to come back from the IV to the I, all these different little things that young cats don’t really know nowadays.  A lot of horn players, unfortunately, sit at the piano, hit one chord and then another, think it’s  hip, and decide to write a melody on it.  They’re missing the boat, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies, and most people don’t remember a thing you played.  Music is more than that.  Music is movement.  You have to play a chord that moves.  Once you know more about movement, then you can venture away from it.”

Harris still lives in De Konigswater’s home, facing the west bank of the Hudson River with a spectacular Manhattan skyline view, and he speaks of her with reverent reticence.  “She was beautiful towards musicians,” he says.  “All the musicians knew it, too.  She probably helped us all in some kind of way.  One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, people would walk by a jazz club and see her Bentley or Rolls-Royce parked out in front, and they’d come into the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or Bentley.  Up in Harlem, they protected that car.  She could park any place up there, in front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s.  She never locked the trunk or the glove compartment, and nobody ever touched it.  She was a jazz lover.  That’s no stuff.  She was one of our assets.”

Harris recorded four strong sessions for Riverside, including “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” which is a bible of trio playing for a number of younger pianists.  When the label folded in 1964, Harris began to do business on a handshake basis with A&R man Don Schlitten, for whom he recorded steadily, both as leader of a series of increasingly personal, poetic recitals and as the penultimate sideman, prodding the likes of Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Criss, Red Rodney and McPherson to superb performances on dates for Prestige, MPS, Muse and Xanadu until the early ’80s.

“He knew all the tunes,” Schlitten comments.  “Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  Therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  It seemed to work all the way down the line.”

Harris began teaching formally during the mid-’70s with Jazz Interactions, an non-profit organization run by the trumpeter Joe Newman and his wife Rigmor; his classes became so popular that Harris eventually started his own school, the Jazz Cultural Theater, on 28th Street and 8th Avenue.  Picking up where he’d left off on his Detroit home sessions, JCT became Harris’ New York platform for articulating his palpably unorthodox theories.  “I believe in scales,” he says.  “I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and so forth, but my thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  The question becomes to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into — and one can.  I am more of the opinion now that if you give students a little basic harmony, to go from one place to the other, and then combine that basic harmony with the scales, one will be on the right track to teach.

“I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.  They have our young now learning these funny songs that don’t have movement, so young people all over the world aren’t even getting a chance to learn to play.  Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays.  The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money.  Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music.  But because people are playing their original music, we can’t have the jam session thing too much.  I could go up and play when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins were playing, because they’re going to play something I know.  There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, like ‘How High The Moon’ or ‘Just You, Just Me.’  Young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session.  That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going every Wednesday night, even though it never was anything.

“With a lot of the young people, I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play like they play.  Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  The pianists can’t play two-handed chords; they think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  Whoever taught them that and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.”

Harris’ pessimistic prognostications belie his actions, which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.  “I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have,” he says.  “Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  Hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is right.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  They tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  You should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.

“The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.  It’s a science, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  That’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

“You learn from teaching.  I have my students trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ‘em catch up to me.”

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Dr. Billy Taylor, 90th birthday anniversary: Interview, Oct. 14, 1999

For the ninetieth birthday anniversary of Dr. Billy Taylor, who passed away last December 28th, I’m posting an interview from October 1999, for the liner notes of a CD documenting a live performance at Manhattan’s Blue Note. For various reasons, the CD was never issued, and the transcript appears here for the first time. The opening section is specific to the recording, but the conversation evolved in interesting directions.

For more, see this video by Bret Primack.

* * * * *

How do you approach a live situation, albeit knowing it’s being recorded, versus a studio situation?

TAYLOR:  I actually prefer doing things like that outside the studio anyway.  I normally record everything I do.  I didn’t have my own soundman at this particular gig for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with the gig, but unfortunately he wasn’t available to me.  So I didn’t record other nights of this particular gig, and I’m sorry I didn’t because I had better nights than the night we actually recorded.

What is it for you that constitutes it being better?

TAYLOR:  Well, a lot of different things.  Basically, I’m talking about my work, what I do, but secondary is the way the trio comes together with each guy pushing everybody else into something else that they might not normally do.  We did a lot of that during this particular engagement, because that’s why I took the gig.  It wasn’t meant to be a clean performance, and so a lot of times I’d reach for something and paint myself into a corner, and just say, “Oh, well, okay,” and go somewhere else.

I kind of like that.

TAYLOR:  Well, I don’t.  The optimum thing is to paint yourself into a corner and get out, and I’ve been able to do that on some occasions.

Tell me about the band.

TAYLOR:  Chip Jackson has been with me for about five years.  One of the reasons I hired him is because I was looking… I had two musicians who had been with me for — I guess between them — more than 20 years.  So they knew me very well and there were no surprises.  I was about to enter into a project, and I really wanted to go into some other directions.  And it wasn’t about them, they’re wonderful musicians, both of them, and I really regretted that I couldn’t do with them what I wanted to do — but I realized that I just needed to hear something else.  So I looked around, and among the… I must have listened to maybe 25 or 50 bass players and rehearsed with them and auditioned them, did all kinds of things, just to hear them play, and then came back to… I didn’t audition Chip.  I mean, I had played with him with my former drummer, Bobby Thomas, and I liked his work.  So I knew what he did and I knew the caliber of his work.  So when I couldn’t find anyone among the people that had been suggested to me that I was looking at, I thought, “hey, let me go check this guy out,” because I remembered him in a very favorable light.  I checked him out and he was perfect, just what I was looking for at that particular moment.  The thing I like about Chip is that he comes to play.  This is a guy who has had a lot of different kinds of experiences, big band, small band; he’s always looking to challenge himself, and every time we sit down to play something he’s going to try to do something that just… He’s like a cheerleader.  he’s going to make it happen.

Good time, big sound, good harmony.

TAYLOR:  Yes.  But more than that, I have a setup… We didn’t use the setup at the Blue Note, and it bothered me a little bit because I’m accustomed to it.  I’m accustomed to having him right in my ear.  So he’s usually right on my left ear.  So that’s something that I work off of.  This was a little different setup.  This was a more normal setup where the bass player is in the bowl of the piano and the drummer is down at the other end of the piano.  I don’t like that.  I’d rather be closer physically to the other two musicians.

At the Blue Note you’re about 20 feet away from the drummer.

TAYLOR:  Right.  And that’s not the way I work.  But it was two groups on a bill, and so I had to be flexible on that.  I mean, it wasn’t impossible to do, so I didn’t…

You’ve probably been in worse situations at one time or another.

TAYLOR:  Well, absolutely, with worse pianos and worse PA systems and worse everything you can think of.  But for a recording I like things pretty optimum, and so I really want everything else to be in perfect shape so that I can fall back on that if I have to.

A few words about Winard.

TAYLOR:  Winard is a guy I’ve admired for a long time.  I mean, when he had his own group with his brother, I thought he was just terrific.  When he was with Betty Carter I heard him in a different setting.  He’s really creative in the sense of being very musical.  He uses the tonal qualities of his various drums in a very imaginative way.  He is the kind of person who, even in a situation where he doesn’t have a clue as to where he is going, after a few bars will hear something and will come up with something very musical to fit the situation.

Going into the Blue Note, did you know you were doing this record during the sets that were recorded?

TAYLOR:  Oh yeah.

Tell me about setting up the repertoire, then.  I suppose I should ask you if you’ve decided what the actual CD sequence is going to be.

TAYLOR:  No, I haven’t yet.  I’ve been listening to it.  But it will be a combination of the two sets as opposed to one set or the other.  I haven’t really listened to it sufficiently.

But obviously, one set is primarily compositions, with one exception, and the other set is, with one exception, standards and tunes you have very intimate and long-term associations with.

TAYLOR:  You know, I didn’t plan it that way.  It just happened that way.  I really was torn between two things, knowing that… I deliberately didn’t rehearse for this gig.  I wanted to go in, and… I knew I was going to play some things that had particular arrangements, but I wanted to see what Winard would do when he heard it.  Maybe he’d come up with something different.  And he did on each occasion.

“Theme And Variations” was a piece that evolved out of a composition that I wrote many years ago.  I was asked to do something for the National Symphony, and I took that particular theme and wrote variations on it for the orchestra.  Then I went back to it a few years ago and said, “I’m going to play it as a tune again.”  So this was the first time we had done that.  It’s never been recorded as “Theme and Variations.”  It had another title.  But the melody and the way we approach it is evolving.  Because I want to do something different with it as a trio.  Which is why I started it off in a semi-contrapuntal fashion.  I was really just figuring what are some of the things that I might want to do with this.  So I just kind of fooled around with it to get started, then I played a little introduction, and we went into it.

“His Name Was Martin.”  I guess I know who that’s about.

TAYLOR:  Yeah, right.  That was the second movement of a long work that I did for a symphony orchestra called “Peaceful Warrior.”  Of the three movements, it’s the one that I like the best, because it really is a simple theme, and when I do it right it really works.  I wasn’t particularly happy with my performance on this one.  I’ve done better performances of it.  It had nothing to do with anything.  It’s just that, you know, I didn’t say what I wanted to say.

Was it written in the ’60s or afterwards?

TAYLOR:  No, it was written way after.  I’m terrible on dates.  I was actually commissioned to write it by the Atlanta Symphony. I was the first American composer that they asked to do something with the orchestra in a series of commissions for American composers.

At what point in your career did you begin writing for large orchestras?

TAYLOR:  I was on the National Council On The Arts back in the ’60s, and I was asked by Maurice Abravanel… He heard me play at a party, and he said, “That was delightful; could you write something like that for the symphony.”  It was a party.  So I said, “Sure.”  I didn’t think any more about it.  A few days later he was back home and he called me from Salt Lake City and said, “I was serious.  I really like what you did, and I’d like for you to write something and come out and play it with the orchestra in the Mormon Tabernacle.”  I said, “Beg your pardon?” [LAUGHS] So to make a long story short, I wrote a piece, and he sort of nursed me through it.  Because he programmed it as Mahler, Bartok and Taylor, just those three on the program.  And I don’t often get stage fright, but boy, I was a bundle of nerves that night.  But it turned out really well.  I mean, it was a wonderful audience and they received it well.  I was surprised.  I really was.  That particular piece was from “Suite For Jazz Piano and Orchestra.”  I didn’t play anything from that.

“Soul Sister” is a blues that I wrote many years ago.  I was playing at a club in Harlem, the Prelude, on upper Broadway, and I wrote it, played it there on several occasions, actually recorded it around that time, and it’s been in my repertoire ever since.  I started playing it when Chip came in the band.  I had been playing with Ramsay Lewis, so I had taken it out of my trio repertoire, but I started playing it with Chip because he has a really good feeling for the blues.  He really gets into some serious things, and he takes it somewhere else every time he plays it.  So that’s one of the things that I play with him a lot.

“Titoro,” apart from your inventions, is Winard Harper’s first set drum feature.  Does that go back to your days with Machito?

TAYLOR:  No.  Actually, I went to Haiti. This was before I went into Birdland.  I was a co-leader of a band that played at a Latin festival down there many years ago.  We were invited and we stayed in Haiti for a month.  There was a drummer there whose name was Tiroro, so I wrote this piece to be played by him and by the young man who was playing with me in those days, whose name was Charlie Smith, who like Winard was a very imaginative and very musical drummer, and I just thought that this would make a good combination.  I didn’t know what I was getting Charlie into.  Drummers take that challenge thing very seriously.  So they really kind of went at each other whenever I played it.  It’s been in my repertoire ever since.  It got the title “Titoro” because Tito Puente recorded it, and his record company thought he wrote it, so they said, “Well, let’s not call it ‘Tiroro,’ let’s call it ‘Titoro.’  Well, he sold a lot of records, so I didn’t change the title.

Can you tell me a bit about your time with Machito?  You’re one of the earliest African-American musicians to blend with Latin bands in a somewhat different way than Dizzy Gillespie did it even.

TAYLOR:  Well, I was influenced by the same man who sort of indoctrinated Dizzy — that was Mario Bauza.  Mario was the musical director of the Machito band, and he was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met.  I mean, he was just wonderful.  A fine teacher, a very inspirational mentor.  He just picked me… I was working in the relief band, and their piano player, Joe Loco, was drafted, and Mario picked me to play in the band until they could get another pianist up from Cuba.  They had a guy they wanted to bring because they knew Joe was going to be drafted, but evidently he was called up before they were ready and they couldn’t get this guy up.  So I got a chance to play with the band until he arrived.

How long was that?

TAYLOR:  Not very long.  It was at an engagement at a place on Broadway called La Conga.  In those days were several Latin clubs right on Broadway.  Noro Morales was playing around the corner from us.

Was it a dance club or a sit-down club?

TAYLOR:  It was a club.  We had to play a show.  And they had dancing.  Nearly all of those clubs had dancing.  But there was a show, and it featured people singing and dancing and doing comedy and so forth.  It was just a regular Broadway type club show.

Was playing in clave a big adjustment for you at that time?  Did it seem strange?  Was it natural?

TAYLOR:  I didn’t have a CLUE as to what that was about until I joined that band.  It was really an education.  Mario explained to me that playing out of clave was like in jazz clapping your hands on the 1 and 3 instead of the 2 and 4.  Well, that’s pretty clear. [LAUGHS] I don’t want to do that.  Mario was a wonderful jazz musician.  He’d played with Chick Webb and Calloway.  So he really knew how to give jazz phrasing without fighting the clave, and that was really amazing.

Have you continued to be absorbed in clave and Latin music through the years?  Has it been a continuing preoccupation for you?

TAYLOR:  Oh, yes.  It’s something that is an important part of my style.  I wrote a book, “How To Play The Bombo” and some little piano books back in those years.  Whenever I play there’s always something Latin in it.  It’s just something that’s part of the way I like to play.

It would be great to hear you again with an idiomatic Latin band.

TAYLOR:  But over the years they’ve gotten closer and closer to what we do, so I’m not careful with the clave as I used to be, because you don’t have to be.

The next original is “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which you did on one of your recent records on Arkadia.  It’s one of your anthems.

TAYLOR:  Mmm-hmm.  This is a totally different version of it, though.  This is more extensive, and I’m playing things in it to test different reactions that I’m getting from Winard in particular.  It was fun.  I enjoyed playing it.  That turned out very interesting.  I played many things that I don’t normally play when I play it, and then I played some things that I always play.  It felt good.

When did you wrote it?

TAYLOR:  I wrote it in the ’60s.  I wrote it for my daughter.

Then we get to this wonderful suite of standards.  “The Man I Love” is a real highlight for me. I don’t see it on any of the recent recordings.

TAYLOR:  I’ve never recorded it. I wish it had been recorded the night before, because it was a much better performance.  It’s something that I’ve been doing in concerts for a while.  I even have better tapes on it.  I’m nitpicking.  It was a good performance. It’s one of those pieces that really defines Gershwin for me.  What he does with harmony there, and what he does with that very simple melody just knocks me out.  I really like it, and I’m going to keep on working on it til I get it right!

It occurred to me for some reason that all the standards seem to be associated with things Coleman Hawkins was playing around the time when you came to New York and got onto 52nd Street.  He recorded “The Man I Love” in ’43, “Night and Day” in ’44, “Yesterdays” I think he did around that time, and also “S’Wonderful.”

TAYLOR:  Well, it might be subliminal.  Coleman Hawkins is someone I’ve admired, looked up to and been influenced by since I first heard him in 1939, when he first came back from Europe.  And to get an opportunity to play with him when I finally came to New York was just a wonderful experience.  So I’m sure that had something to do with it.  However, “Night and Day” is on the very first record I ever made; it’s always been one of my favorites.  And I recently re-recorded it.  I had forgotten all about it, and for some reason I was thinking about Earl Hines.  (I’ll be doing a project on Earl Hines in a couple of weeks.)  But back then, which was a couple of years ago, when I made the Ten Fingers, One Mind record, I was thinking about Earl Hines, and that’s what prompted me to play it.  It had nothing to do with either my first record or Coleman Hawkins.

Teddy Wilson played on his version.

TAYLOR:  Yeah, I remember the one with Teddy, but none of that had anything to do with it!  I was thinking of Earl Hines.  I was working with Eddie South, and Earl Hines played the tune on… We did a concert together in Washington, D.C., my home town.  That was the first time I had ever played opposite Earl Hines.  I did several times later, but that was the first time I’d ever played opposite him.  And he was one of those guys who I looked up to when I was a child, man.  I used to listen to him on the radio and see him when he had the great bands that he would bring to D.C., including the band that had Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.  I just couldn’t believe I was on the same bill with him.  So that night when he played “Night And Day,” I was all ears, because I had never heard him play that.  I heard him play stuff with bands, you know.  And he just wiped me out.  It was just beautiful.  After all these years, I’m sure there’s nothing on there that I played that I got from him.  But just the memory of him doing it inspired me to do it.

Within these, your Tatum reference is evident all the time because of your two-handed orchestral thing, but the Bud Powell vocabulary is so prominent in the voicings.

TAYLOR:  Well, Bud was influenced by Tatum, and so some of the things that are similar in our work, we both got from Tatum — or our take on what Tatum did.  I had a very difficult time making the changeover from some of the things that I loved in the style that I like to call Prebop.  It was beyond swing, but it was the kind of thing that Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins and Ike Quebec and Budd Johnson and Lester Young… A lot of musicians played in this style that was not yet Bebop.  They could play fast like the Beboppers, they could use very intricate harmonies and make all kinds of melodies using that harmony, but they didn’t have the rhythmmic change that came with Bebop yet.  Some of them did later, but at that time they didn’t.  So I was trying to come to grips with all these things that I loved in music, and I wanted to make the change to it.  I didn’t want to lose something just to gain something.  So it was a very difficult time for me.

When would you say that you formed the style that we associate with Billy Taylor?

TAYLOR:  I would say when I was with Don Redman, when I was in Europe, when I finally… I was away from the scene, and I really began to think about the things that I knew and the things that I wanted to say musically, and so it began to come together then.

In forming your style, you had a rather extensive musical training, and from what I know about you, always played music, had a lot of lessons, had always a facility for the piano, were talked into making it your life’s work by a teacher at Virginia State University…

TAYLOR:  I think you did your homework.

When did you start being cognizant of pianists with styles, with individual voices coming through the piano, and who were the first people you emulated?

TAYLOR:  My uncle was the first one.  He played different from anyone in my family.  Everyone in the family played European Classical Music.  And my uncle Robert played Stride piano.  I thought in those days, because I hadn’t heard a lot of pianists that he sounded like Fats Waller, because I had heard Fats Waller on the radio.  I realized later, when I began to hear the difference between Eubie Blake and Fats Waller and some of the other stride piano players, that he sounded more like Willie “The Lion” Smith.  He had kind of the lope that I associate with Willie, although he was kind of melodic in that sense.  It was a little different from Fats; it was melodic in a different sense.  But Fats Waller really was the first stylist that captured me.  I just thought that was wonderful, and that was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to play like that.  Then I heard Teddy Wilson, I heard Art Tatum.

Did your folks take you out to hear music.

TAYLOR:  No-no, oh, no…

Did you go to theaters?

TAYLOR:  I went to theaters.  Every week in Washington, D.C., there was a different band at the Howard Theater.  I got to hear all the great bands.  I heard Ellington, I heard Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson; you name them, I heard them, every week.  Jazz was the popular music of my childhood.  When I was growing up, you could turn on the radio and hear in the afternoon, “And now from the Savoy Ballroom the Chick Webb Band with Ella Fitzgerald” and all that kind of stuff.

When did you first start working?  Did you do little gigs as a teenager around Washington?

TAYLOR:  Yeah, when I was 13.

What sort of gigs?

TAYLOR:  Dance band.  That and parties were the only things around.  Every now and then somebody would ask me to play a party or something like that, which was sort of semiprofessional.  But the professional things, I’d get a chance to substitute for a real professional piano player in a real band, which was terrific!

So really for 65 years you’ve been playing in public.  A few words about your association with “The Man I Love.”

TAYLOR:  Well, Gershwin is one of my favorite composers.  I play a lot of Gershwin.  And I learned a lot about him from people like Willie The Lion Smith and some of the older piano players, who actually knew him and who hung out with him, and they talked about when he would come up to Harlem and some of the things they would do, and the tricks they’d play on him and vice-versa.  They had all these tales about him and other composers who came to Harlem to kind of listen to what was going on.  I realized that one of the reasons why jazz musicians play the musicians of the ’20s and ’30s so much is because those composers really hung out with the jazz musicians of the time, and so the things that they were writing were commingling.  I mean, everybody was influencing everybody else.

A few words about your association to “Yesterdays.”

TAYLOR:  That’s Jerome Kern, and that’s always been… The first time I saw the sheet music to that, I just loved the piece.  I fooled around with it and fooled around with it; I’ve been playing it for many years.  I always find something different in it.  It’s a wonderful composition.  That and “All The Things You Are” are two of the most interesting compositions in the American Pop-Broadway kind of repertoire for me.

Are you a lyrics man?  Do you know lyrics for all the standards that you play?

TAYLOR:  No, I’m just different from most of my friends who learn lyrics to these things.  I don’t even remember my own lyrics, the ones that I write to pieces.  I just don’t have a memory for words like that.  I don’t know why.  I guess because I don’t sing enough.  But I think lyrically.  In terms of anything I write, I sort of in the back of my mind figure, “One day I’m going to write a lyric to that.”  So I think melodically in that sense.

Who are some of the Classical composers who inflect the way you think about improvising?

TAYLOR:  Bach, Chopin, Debussy.  They’re probably the biggest influences.   But there are things there that go back to Mozart, go back to some Beethoven things that are embedded somewhere in my mind.

Have you continued to make Classical music part of your practice repertoire over the years?

TAYLOR:  No.  I really found that there was so much that I wanted to do in jazz that I’ve really focused on that, even in my writing.  All the pieces that I’ve written are jazz pieces.  Because since jazz is America’s classical music, I wanted to do what Duke Ellington did.  He wrote for everything.  I mean, he wrote for Broadway, sacred pieces, he wrote for movies, he wrote for nightclubs, he wrote for vaudeville — he did it all.  And I’m saying, well, if the music is that flexible, I’d like to try to get into as many areas as I can.  So I’ve written for dance, for television, I’ve written commercials and things for “Sesame Street.”  “Homage” is actually a string quartet with a rhythm section.  So I try to do things that are true to jazz, but in the same spirit that people like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington have done before me.  They wrote with…even though they may have used a form that was associated with Mozart or with somebody else, the form didn’t dictate the content.

Could you, as Dr. Billy Taylor, evaluate the position of Billy Taylor the pianist in American music and in jazz lineage?

TAYLOR:  Well, that’s difficult for me.  I mean, I have influenced a lot of people, but it’s not obvious, and unless they acknowledge it I don’t… Or maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I’m hearing things…

Apart from the influence, what is your contribution?

TAYLOR:  I wrote the first book on how to play Bebop.  So a lot of people got the idea of the fact that Bebop was serious music and that it could be studied and so forth, based on this book I wrote back in 1948 or 1949 entitled Basic Bebop Instruction.  So I guess one of the things that I have really focused on for most of my life is to try to develop my own…to say what I had to say musically to as broad an audience as I could, and show through my own work that jazz was serious music…that it was all the things that I think it is.

So it’s to communicate without dumbing-down.

TAYLOR:  Yeah, that’s exactly correct.  I resent the things like in the ’70s where everybody said, “Let’s do Jazz-Rock so we can win over the young people.”  We didn’t win over a soul.  That was just a terrible time in terms of people delivering misinformation.  Yet at the same time, while all this misinformation was going on, there were people who were coming from jazz and coming from R&B, and really doing things that were exceptional, that have become a part of the music.  But the record people and the music business people are too stupid to know what that is.

Let me ask you about the three Ellington tunes that comprise a kind of suite.  I think I read a story that a friend of yours called Billy White in high school turned you on to “Sentimental Mood” back in the day.  “Caravan” seems to be a thing you use as a drum feature for a while.

TAYLOR:  Mmm-hmm.

And you’ve done that arrangement, that slowed down “Take The A Train,” which forgive me, but I seem to remember Coleman Hawkins doing on that 1962 Impulse record…

TAYLOR:  Really?

Oh, maybe that was “Cherokee” he did it with.

TAYLOR:  Yes, it was “Cherokee.”

I have Coleman Hawkins on the brain.

TAYLOR:  Hey, listen, you can’t do too much better than that.  Actually, there’s a story behind that.  I actually had been playing…not always in public… I started playing it at Billy Strayhorn’s funeral.  I was asked by Reverend John Gensel to play at the funeral, and I did.  This is when he had a church up on Broadway.  So I was up in the choir loft, playing.  While I was playing, during the service, Ray Nance came up and said, “Reverend Gensel said I could play something.”  I said, “Okay, what do you want to play?”  He said, “A Train.”  Well, I thought he was going to play it fast, because that’s the way I’d always played it.  So he said, “Let me start it.”  I said, “Okay.”  So he played a little cadenza and then started it as a ballad.  And I never until that moment realized how beautiful the melody was!  So I said, “Hey!”  So I started to play it like that, and I’ve continued to play it like that ever since.

A few words about the dynamics of the “Sentimental Mood” that make it so attractive to you.

TAYLOR:  Well, Duke Ellington was a master at doing a lot with a little.  He took a very simple harmonic device (and that’s what I do in the very opening of my introduction to the melody) where he plays a minor chord and then he lowers the tonic a half-step, then another half-step.  It’s a device that’s used by many people.  It was used harmonically in the tune “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin.  It was used in “My Funny Valentine” by Rodgers & Hart.  It’s a really common device.  But he uses it so beautifully, and he’s so original.  He comes up with a melody you just wouldn’t expect from that combination of chords.

The impression I always get of you is that you’re perpetually looking forward to the next project, forward-looking,  and amazingly youthful.  A recording like this, and particularly the second set is such a beautiful dialogue with the past.  One of the things I love about jazz is that constant interplay of past and present.

TAYLOR:  Well, for me, in many cases, the past is the present.  I realize that what’s happening now, jazz is going through a period of reevaluation.  People like Wynton Marsalis and other talented young people are looking back, as I did when I was their age, and saying, “Here are some things that were done by mentors and by predecessors, and I want to really look carefully at that, because I want to build something… I don’t want to do what they did, but I want to build something on it.”  I hear so much of that now, I’m really excited by it.  It’s something that many people of my generation have done, but we do it from a different perspective.  So it’s just delightful to hear some of the young players now, trombone players and trumpet players using a mute to wah-wah kind of thing that Duke Ellington did.  They hadn’t done that in years.  And to hear some of the pianists utilizing two-handed playing, whether it’s stride or some other form of two-handed playing.  It’s really very refreshing to realize that it’s not just some of the things that one has heard other pianists do, Bill Evans or… They’re doing some different things.

One of the great things about jazz is that it seems self-regenerating within its forms.  When we talk about it as “classical music,” we’re not talking about it as a museum, but as a living entity.

TAYLOR:  Many people misunderstand what I’m saying when I say jazz is classical music.  When they think of classical music, they only think of European classical music.  But they refuse to recognize that there’s Chinese classical music and there is Indian classical music, both of which have things which are similar to jazz in terms of improvisatory aspects within the forms that they generate and things that are unique to the moment in both of those types of classical music.  So classical music doesn’t have to come to the conclusions that European classical music came to.  European classical music, unfortunately, in the ’60s or ’50s began to go into an area which excluded the audience.  It became so intellectual that the audience was excluded and the audience rejected it.  So now, many of the composers who were trained in that form are looking to other means of expression.  I was reading a review or something of Bill Bolcom the other day, an opera he’s just written, and it was a good review, so evidently he’s reaching out to the critics as well as the audience.  I hope that’s a trend which will continue.  Because there have always been people who wrote in the European tradition, like Leonard Bernstein, who was put down heavily because he was reaching audiences.  Everybody said, “How good could it be?  The audience understands it.”  And it was ridiculous, because here was a man who was a genius, and who really did wonders with the things that he learned and respected from Mahler and from all the great writers, and yet he was just as good…

[END OF SIDE OF FIRST TAPE]

Leonard Bernstein was to me one of the great musicians of the century.  He was a wonderful pianist, a wonderful composer, a wonderful conductor, and one of our great teachers.  I look at him as one of the directions that European Classical Music could go in, because he was very American in what he did, even though he was steeped in the European tradition.

One final question, which is a sort of silly one.  Do you have a most exciting bandstand moment that you can single out over the years?

TAYLOR:  Well, there are so many of them.  I’ve been playing a long time.  And every time someone asks that question I say, “Well, this was terrific, that was terrific” — any number of things.  In nightclubs, one of the great moments for me was when I played opposite the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Birdland.  It was a solo performance.  It was opening night, and Duke Ellington had just brought the house down with Louis Bellson’s drum solo, and just… I mean, the place was literally screaming; the people were just yelling and screaming and standing up.  It was bedlam in the place, you know.  Instead of taking his bow and thanking them profusely and walking off, he thanked them, and he stood there, and he thanked them again, and then he began to say, “Louis Bellson loves you madly, Johnny Hodges loves you madly,” and he began to go through the individual names of all the members of the band.  As he was saying that, the whole sound in the room lowered so that they could hear what he was saying.  And when it was sufficiently quiet, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a young man from my home town who is going to play the piano for you.  I want to hear him.  So I’d like you to join me in listening to Mr. Billy Taylor.”  Well, I’ll never forget that.

Do you see your sound as transcending style?  As Ellington might say, as being beyond category?

TAYLOR:  Well, I hope so.  Because I try to include… He was a big influence on me, Tatum was an influence, Don Redman was an influence, Don Byas was an influence.  I have so many things.  Coleman Hawkins.  When I worked with Coleman Hawkins, I knew the solo in “Body and Soul,” and he didn’t — because he never learned that solo.  It was an improvisation.

Did he always improvise “Body and Soul”?

TAYLOR:  Yeah.  He would never play that solo.  People would come in every night and ask for it.  He’d play “Body and Soul” but he’d never play that solo.

All the musicians knew it but he didn’t.

TAYLOR:  That’s right.  Everybody in the band knew it, but him.  I made several records with him, but the one that I remember was with Papa Jo Jones.

’54, right?

TAYLOR:  That’s right.

You play “Cheek To Cheek”…

TAYLOR:  That’s correct.  That’s the one.

…and “Jitterbug Waltz.”

TAYLOR:  For me, that was one of those dates that if I never made another record, I’d say, “Well, thank you.” [LAUGHS] Just to be with those guys on that occasion.

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Filed under Dr. Billy Taylor, Interview, Piano

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  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.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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