Tag Archives: DownBeat

For Roswell Rudd’s 80th birthday, An Interview from 2005 and an uncut Blindfold Test From 2001

Master trombonist, musical conceptualist and  free spirit Roswell Rudd turns 80 on November 17th. In anticipation of the occasion, I’m running an uncut interview that was boiled down for a brief piece in Jazziz in 2005, and an uncut Blindfold Test for DownBeat from 2001.


Roswell Rudd Blindfold Test (8-9-01):

1. Bill Harris, “Bijou” (from Woody Herman, Blowin’ Up A Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-47, Columbia 1945/2001) [Ralph Burns, composer] (5 stars)

That was “Bijou” with the Woody Herman Orchestra, featuring Bill Harris, the great trombonist, one of my favorite singers on the horn. Arrangement by Ralph Burns; it’s really a gem. A Latin flavor. I don’t know if at the time… I think this is late ’40s. I don’t really know how many American swing bands were doing Latin-influenced music. This may be one of the first things like this. Ellington had one called “Flaming Sword,” which was a Juan Tizol vehicle. In terms of the ’40s, there were Latin bands, but non-Latin bands getting into African-influenced rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, Latin American rhythms… This is a wonderful early example of that.

Bill Harris, when I was about 11 years old or so and started hearing this stuff on records… The quality Harris had of attacking certain notes and making them swell, like Flamenco singers… I was over in Portugal and I heard a couple of good Fado singers, and they do this with these longer notes that they sing; they start soft and then they fill out. There’s a crescendo. It’s uplifting. It just grabs you, takes you out of your seat. Then when they go into a string of embellishments after that and bring the line down, they’re with it all the way. But that swell into the first note is the launching pad to a lot of the phrasing in that music, and I’m sure it’s in a lot of other places, too.

I can’t say enough about Bill Harris and the great Woody Herman bands at that time. I’m not sure who the other people were in the band, for instance, if it might have been Dave Tough on drums, who was a very innovative man in this day, or Chubby Jackson, another innovative guy. I think it was Woody Herman playing the alto sax obbligato there. A wonderful thing. A real gem. It makes you thankful that there are ratings. 5 stars.

2. George Lewis-Bertram Turetzky, “The Ecumenical Blues” (from Conversations, Incus, 1997) (5 stars)

To me, this was a wonderful example of two people listening closely to each other and making music through the process of their interaction in the moment, a wonderful sort of crossing-over by the trombonist into the realm of bowed string colors, how he could complement those on his instrument. I loved that great nasal sound the trombonist had at the beginning, kind of matching the sound of the bowed contrabass. A little later on, if he had a mute in there for that…he took the mute out and got a different color at one point, and carried that through to the end. It was a nice changeup in his color, and it also was a way of complementing the bass. I use this technique myself with a single mute, which is a Harmon mute that I’ve loosened up with a screwdriver, so that if I turn the outer part of the mute a certain way, it’s very loose and it sounds like a giant kazoo, and if I turn it another way it tightens up and it sounds more like a bad Harmon mute. But this business of imitating each other’s sounds, like a cross-gender kind of playing, is a wonderful way of developing textures in music.

I also want to say that aside from these two performers being so beautifully attuned to each other, as far as dealing with sound, getting into the sound and letting the sound tell them what to do, the content of the trombonist’s playing was beautiful, too. There’s some good blues in there, a kind of lament. It was a bit like Bill Harris at the beginning; the kind of tone production that the trombonist was getting could relate very strongly to that. Very vocal. Somebody singing, somebody talking. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. 5 stars. But I can’t tell who it is.

3. Jimmy Knepper, “Invisible Lady” (from Charles Mingus, Tonight At Noon, Label M, 1961/2000) (5 stars)

That was a quintet — bass, piano, drums, baritone sax used very judiciously — and it just has to be Jimmy Knepper on the trombone. Because nobody else can do what he can do, the way he does it. It’s masterful continuity that I love, and the way he sequences his lines, where you have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of a phrase… It’s the tempo acceleration thing that was so prevalent in Charlie Parker’s playing. I think Jimmy was one of the first people to pick up on what the Bird was doing. It was really a heroic musical achievement to take this concept of Charlie Parker’s saxophone dexterity and apply it to the trombone. Jimmy was one of the people that really freed up the instrument and at an early time. I don’t know when this is done. But it’s the 22nd Century as far as I’m concerned! So expressive and so… Again, pushing the instrument to places where it’s never been before and keeping the emotional musical content wherever he goes with his dynamics through phases of tempo modulation. He’s just a master. Absolutely 5 stars.

The portimento is the word that should be in here. It means that the line is unbroken even though it’s going through these incredible transformations. It’s the mastery of the breathing.

4. Conrad Herwig, “Africa” (from The Latin Side of John Coltrane, Astor Place, 1996) [Eddie Palmieri, piano]. (5 stars)

Nice African rhythm section. It’s a theme that I associate with Coltrane. I like the way that the trombonist built his chorus. He opened up with this long lip trill that gradually crescendoed, then there was some linear improvisation, some shouts, and he reached a point where there was a nice kind of drumming on two notes a minor third apart, very effective, and some more shouting, and playing on either side harmonically of the drone. I think it was a great effort.

Just sticking to the piece the way it is, and without saying I wish there could have been more or less of this or more of that…checking it out the way that it stands, it holds up. Somehow…it may be the result… If it was a live recording perhaps, the profile of the trombone gets lost in there sometimes. But he’s there, he’s staying with it, and he brings it up front again. I’ll give it 5 stars, because I know what kind of energy and ears and knowledge it takes to do this kind of thing.

Who it might be? I can’t say. Steve Turre maybe? Barry Rogers? Fine, fine playing. The clarity of the recording somehow bothered me, because he was doing interesting things but they got kind of masked out. This is just the way things go sometimes. But if I listened to again or maybe a third time, I would try to go further and further inside the sound of the recording and then be able to get behind the mask a little bit in those places. But this was a tour de force.

5. Julian Priester-Sam Rivers, “Heads of The People” (from Hints On Light and Shadow, Postcards, 1996) – (5 stars)

What I notice so far between all these examples we’ve listened to is the infinite possibilities of trombone. Because every player brings a different thing to the instrument, and most of these players are composers, too, so it’s not just bringing a new voice, a new personality infused into the instrument, but also beyond that, into the other components in the performance. Here we have a beautiful tension built up between maybe a prerecorded tape and… Really nice. It sounds like an African sound system. You get some terrible sound systems over there, as you do in other places in the world; but in Africa the sound system becomes a part of the music. As beautiful as the balafon and the great stringed instruments and the tuned drums sound acoustically, it all goes into this sound system and comes out sounding another way totally! What’s going into the system is so good to begin with, that when it comes out, it still comes out good; even though the system has got it completely screwed up,. it still has a beautiful structure to it, but the original timbre has completely disappeared. I got that effect from the taped part of this.

There was a nice tension built up, because the trombonist stayed in the same mode throughout. He was just playing the blues in one place and keeping it there, changing the register from time to time, and he had his timing so that the prerecorded part shone through all the time and maintained that tension between a kind of moving, weird jumble, street-sounding, sound-effects-sounding wall that was going on behind the trombone, and he never attempted to imitate any of that. He never attempted to go across and into the taped part, for instance, the way that George Lewis did with the bassist, where they really reversed their roles and exchanged roles as far as the sounds of their instruments go. On this, the trombonist created a tension between himself (or herself) and this background that was kind of in flux all the time. It was very interesting for me.

It’s uneven, in a way, but that’s part of its beauty. The main thing is that it works, that it has moments which are unachievable any other way. It’s real, and if they performed it again it would be different. But the concept of creating a tension was fundamental to the success of the music here — the music being interesting, the music having impact. Beautiful. Beautiful execution. Again, putting yourself in a corner and coming home with the goods. I’ll give this 5 stars, too. I was going to say maybe not 5 because it was uneven in places. But I realized at the time I really need to have those other places in order to have moments of impact. So it was a fluctuating thing, with this very static quality in there, too… I think there was good interplay between those two elements. Yeah, I’m going to give it 5. I was going to take it down a notch, but I’m going to give it 5.

It might be Julian Priester, because he used to do stuff with tape — just some sound, something to create another component — and let it run and just work with that.. It reminds me of what Johnny Dyani used to do. He used to turn the water on in the sink in the bathroom just to hear the sound of the water running, and off the harmonics of that he would practice his bass and play along with it. Again, it wasn’t exactly the same as this… I’m just talking about the nature of the components here. Because Johnny would play inside and outside the sound of the water, but he wouldn’t play as if he was in a different room than the water, which is more the effect that we have here of these two different things going on simultaneously and the tension that’s created between them. But hearing this brought that situation with Johnny to my mind.

Oh, it was Julian? 5 stars for the adventure, my man. It was beautiful.

6. Ray Anderson, “Green Eyes, Fireflies” (from Bonemeal, Raybone, 2000) [Mark Helias, bass; Matt Wilson, drums] – (4 stars)

Quartet — guitar, bass, drums and trombone. I think it might be Ray Anderson; it sounds like plunger things I’ve heard him do in the past. I don’t think this is as successful as other things I’ve heard by him. But he’s a great humorist, and he has so much heart in his playing, he can bring it off. I would have loved to hear this melody played a little straighter. It was kind of a Strayhorn-influenced thing, and I was frustrated, in a way, that I couldn’t hear the actual pitches. There was so much siding off the preconceived melody, if there was one, and I missed knowing specifically what that might be. That in a way is the reverse magic of the thing, like: Damn, I wonder if he was going to score this, what the actual notes were. So the sliding around effect had a way of making you wonder what was the real melody. I enjoyed that kind of inversion. It was pretty successful, because he was consistent with his inconsistencies. But it frustrated me because I know there was a beautiful melody there, and I wish I could have heard that, too. But maybe it’s up to me to take this and factor it down to what I might conceive of as the real melody, because there’s so much playing around something there. My trip would be to see if I can average it out to something that I could just pick out on the piano as a beautiful melody. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but let’s leave it at that.

I would say 4 stars in relation to other things by Ray that I think were just clearer to me. But I’d say 4 stars for not coming up to other things that he’s done, but 5 stars for the attempt at this kind of inverse humor — if that’s okay for a rating.

7. Steve Turre-James Carter, “Eric The Great” (#6) (from TNT, Telarc, 2001) – (5 stars)

That was a beautifully conceived track. I love the very minimal horn playing with the sax and the trombone, and featuring the bass at the slow tempo, and then the change of tempo. It sounded to me even though it was measured, that it was free harmonically. And I enjoyed the continuity of the trombonist. He went to a lot of different places, but he remembered where he was. The saxophonist made just a great entrance that marked a special place in the performance, and he, as the trombonist, went to different places, but kept a continuity. The recapitulation back to the first section after the fast tempo was very effective. Was it Steve Turre? I want to give it 5 stars for the concept and something… I don’t know, some ingredient was missing there in the playing. But the experience of hearing these different trombonists…. I realize how great they are and what a great instrument it is. All these voices are so distinctive, and it’s the same old B-flat trombone. It’s amazing. But something was missing, some kind of heart-sincerity thing. It was kind of stiff. It may have been the intention of the players, but I felt it kind of stiff at times, kind of dry. I didn’t get the personality, the warmth part of it. But they were executing the concept, and I have to give them full credit for that.

8. J.J. Johnson, “How Deep Is the Ocean” (from Vivian, Concord, 1992) – (5 stars)

Hearing this melody played, “How Deep is The Ocean,” I’m trying to put my finger on the composer. He’s one of America’s greatest songwriters and he lived to be 100 years old. I can never remember his name…Irving Berlin…even though I can play 50 of his songs or whatever. And to hear it played so statuesquely on the bone made me realize what a great legacy we have in American melody. Sometimes I thought it was J.J. Johnson, sometimes I thought it was Bennie Green. I wasn’t quite sure. It was maybe somebody right in between those two people. But the phrasing was fine. It had the kind of clarity that J.J. brought to his performances. He’s so sorely missed. And Bennie Green’s kind of intonations, and the way that he would alter the density of his sound from time to time, and his phrases. It’s probably neither one of these guys, but well-done.

It’s J.J.? Was it recent? It’s a little flawed in places. But there’s only a couple of people who can really play this way. A lot of people who try to play like this, but there’s really only a few who really do it — who innovated it actually. That’s the important thing. We’re talking about somebody innovating this style which is something we think was brought about collectively, the work of many hands. But when you think about people like J.J. and Monk and Louis Armstrong and so forth, they innovated this stuff. We just take for granted that it came from many, many people. Maybe it did, but it all came through one person. This approach to performance on the instrument was the creation, was the invention of one person. 5 stars.

9. Carla Cook-Craig Harris, “Dem Bones” (from Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2000) (Fred Wesley, composer) – (5 stars)

It seems to me that Joseph Bowie does something like this. Maybe it’s him, and he could be overdubbing himself. I love the concept (I do a couple of these things myself) of songs about the trombone, and featuring the trombone. The one that I do, “Slide, Mr. Trombone.” Dinah Washington used to do one. It’s great. It’s like a novelty thing. The singer was into it. I think the novelty part of it was achieved, and the humor was great, especially when the trombone was in the foreground toward the end with the mutes and the gutbucketing and the hooting and heavy breathing… I love it. So I think it achieved its intended effect. I felt that as far as the blues part of it went, there wasn’t too much depth to that. When you’re ripping and you’re playing modal phrases, it’s difficult for me to separate the content of this kind of melodizing from…to strip the content out of it and just play the notes, kind of. I felt that it was just kind of playing the notes sometimes here, without the feeling going into it. So I missed that. You could knock off a star for that. But then, you have to say that on the whole it achieved its effect as a novelty and just getting people up off of their seats and getting them to dance and getting them to move. It had a nice invitational thing going on that way. I found it attractive that way. Even though taking the soulful phrases and just playing the notes without having the feeling in there put me off a little bit. But you can do this in music. You can lift notes off of the feelings, and you can play them dispassionately and create a certain effect that way. Put them in another context. This is all going on. It always has. It’s part of the continuity of musical progress in the human race, the way it fuses and defuses and disconnects and reconnects. It’s all part of the process. I think the recording achieved its purpose, and I’m fine with that. So I’ll give it 5 stars for achieving its purpose as I hear it.

10. Wycliffe Gordon, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues” (from The Search, Nagel-Heyer, 1999) – (4 stars)

“Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” a Thelonius Monk masterpiece. Good execution and good interplay between the sax and the trombone. I like the way they break it up with each other. I like the different voices that they change into on their instruments the different colors that they get from time to time. It makes you think there are different people who just walked in to play 8 bars and disappeared again. It’s a great effect. I had a problem because I heard the composer play this a number of times, and there are some things happening in the structure of this particular blues that I think it’s helpful to deal with when you improvise on it. Working with Monk’s variables is often very helpful as far as building a good foundation in your own playing. So not to take advantage of them, it seems to me that you miss the opportunity here to really… There are many ways to improvise. But one way that really interests me is if you know the structure that you’re coming from, and you deal with the ingredients of that structure, you get a certain kind of continuity that you don’t get any other way. .. And having done this with Monk’s compositions for some time, it’s hard for me to approach them in any other way. I would give this 4 stars, because I think it achieves the humor that they found in the piece. I just wish they had dealt with the musical variables of it a little more. But they were great players. Could that have been Bill Watrous? Curtis Fowlkes? It might be somebody I just don’t know. Wycliffe Gordon? I’ve never heard anything by him. He’s new to me and I have to check him out.

11. Quentin “Butter” Jackson, “To You” (from Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia, 1961/1999) – (5 stars)

Thad Jones-Mel Lewis? Is it Thad’s arrangement? I don’t know who the trombonist was. Let’s see, who could do this? Booty Wood? Or Britt Woodman, who recently passed. Oh, he had people who could do this. It wasn’t Lawrence Brown or Tricky Sam or any of those guys. It was I think a younger guy. [AFTER] That was Quentin Jackson? Wow, I missed that. I feel bad about that. 5 stars.

12. Vic Dickenson, “Squeeze Me” (from Art Hodes Blue Note Jazzmen, Hot Jazz On Blue Note, 1944/1996) – (5 stars) [Edmond Hall, clarinet;

[INSTANTLY] Vic Dickenson. You know it right away from the sound. Every note that he plays. He’s got so much personality. This is something you find in the older players, that every note they play is imbued with their own character. I guess it breaks down to where nowadays it’s hard to separate people by the particular personality that they have in their sound. But back in the days when there were fewer people doing this, there was more identifiable individuality. But now so many more people are doing this that it becomes harder and harder to identify the individuals. But they’re still there! I’m telling you. And especially on this instrument, which is all about imbuing the sound with your own personality so that you can be identified just from the sound of a few notes that you play. Edmond Hall on the clarinet, who I played with at one time. He’s the same way. You know who he is right away. I don’t know whether it’s because I was there or I grew up on it. But these sounds are so distinctive, these voices. Vic Dickenson liberated the trombone into linear improvisation the same way Jack Teagarden did, and this was a heroic thing. There’s some of Vic’s humor. The name of the tune is “Squeeze Me,” written by Fats Waller. This is great free counterpoint. We’ve heard some good free counterpoint today. I think this is something that trombonists know how to do. It’s in our blood. We love collective improvisation. We know how to find the part. We know how to share with other people. We know how to complement. We know how to play behind. We know how to accompany. We know how to go out front and solo. 5 stars.



Roswell Rudd (Feb. 15, 2005) – (Jazziz):
TP: When I was assigned this piece, the editor initially wanted me to talk to you for their Traditions issue, but this now will be in the World Music issue. But it seems to me that both would work, because it seems that over your 45-50 years playing professionally, everything you do is informed deeply by transmuting traditions into the present tense, whether those are the traditions of American jazz, or ethnomusicology… What I’d like to do now is start with some concrete facts and figures about your current projects, and extrapolate out. We should probably start with Malicool. How did it begin? I gather you went there in 2000?

RUDD: I would go back a little farther and say that I started collecting African recordings back when I was in college. I was fascinated with what I could understand about the sounds of these recordings. Folkways and labels in Europe, notably France, where they did a lot of recording of West Africa, and the Hugh Tracey records. Whatever I could get my hands on. Then I went to work as an archivist for Alan Lomax, and I did that on and off from 1964 until shortly before his death. I would work occasionally for him, and I got quite a bit of exposure that way to what was available in the way recordings from all over the world. But I didn’t start really playing with musicians in Africa until 2000. I want to say that the inspiration for doing it… It’s been a dream to travel there and play with some of the musicians. Toumani Diabaté is someone Verna turned me on to, and I thought it would be out of this world to try to do some stuff with him. So we went over in 2000, and jammed a little bit, and did a concert of… I mean, it was basically a spontaneous concert. The chemistry was so good that we decided we’d come back a year later and try to do a recording. That’s the Malicool recording. It was first out on Universal, and a couple of years later came out on Sunnyside here.

TP: Before going there, had this been building up in you for years? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when the opportunity arrived?

RUDD: Yes, that was the point I was trying to make. My curiosity was really piqued by this time, so that the opportunity to travel, which I really hadn’t been able to do, came along at just this time. We were able to go over there in 2000 and spend some time informally, and then go back in 2001 and take into the studio in Bamako, and record with the musicians there. We’ve been back… I took the Shout band over there to play on the desert last year. This year I just spent a couple of weeks in Benin with some brass players, with a brass band…

TP: A local band, from Benin.

RUDD: Yes. They’re all from Cortino(?). I just don’t have words for it. The young lions in Africa on these horns. Forget it. And the drumming is just… I can’t believe how young the people are who are playing this stuff. The old masters are there, and they’re touring a lot. They’ll come through the States and they’ll be in Europe and Japan and so forth. But these kids, these African kids, are playing so much great stuff.

TP: It’s an interesting phenomenon to be at the stage of life and intellectual development that you’d achieved by 2000, when you were 64-65 years old, had taught ethnomusicology, had been listening to African music for about 45 years (if you started doing it in college), and you have a certain point of view on what African music is. But you haven’t been there. And now you go there. What surprised you?

RUDD: What’s missing with recordings, wherever they’re from, is the context. I’m talking about the cultural context —the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the vibe from the people. 99% is missing. This gave me a chance to go to one of the older places in Africa where there’s still a homogeneity to the sound of the place. It’s not so barraged by Western media that there’s just a morass of all kinds of music in the air. No, it’s basically Malian music that’s in the air. I mean, traditional music. There’s a tonal system to this music which you can hear wherever you go in Mali. You can relate to it right away. You know that it’s from there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, where thousands of people are in this system, and there’s very little disrupting it. That’s the first thing that got to me. Then the more I got inside of that sound, which was in the environment all the time anyway and with the people I was playing with. Then I started to feel that way and hear that way, and I was really trying my hand at expressing myself in that system.

It’s something that is a great challenge for improvisers. Basically that’s what I am. I don’t consider myself a jazz… I only consider myself a jazz musician in the sense that I am an improviser—basically an improviser. The challenge in America always was to be able to play with different people, to be able to fit in—into the old music, into the swing music, into the now music, into the future music. The thing was just to be able to go from the sound, play from the sound of what’s happening, and develop that, make a performance out of it. Basically that’s what I’m doing when I go to Africa.

TP: But it was never quite so spontaneous as that. If you’re going to sit in one of those situations, you seem pretty prepared. You’ve had one famously documented master-apprentice relationship with Herbie Nichols, and I’m not sure what other master-apprentice relationships you’ve had… Have you had anything like that with the African musicians?

RUDD: Well, see, there we go. Context. This is one context. New York City, the boroughs. That’s kind of one context, and it’s a myriad of styles. Herbie Nichols, he had this thing going. One guy with a universe. Then the more I explored around here, I realized that there were many musical universes walking around.

TP: You got into Monk’s universe in a similar manner.

RUDD: Yes, I followed him around. That’s another universe. So it’s all in the boroughs here. But believe me, there is to me a tremendous difference between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. It’s almost the same difference as playing in Bamako with Toumani Diabeté and playing with a Dixieland band here. Worlds of difference. That’s always been the most satisfying thing to me, is to go into these different musical worlds and try to find myself in them.

TP: What do you do to ground yourself so you can function.
RUDD: [POINTS WITH BOTH FINGERS] Ears. And the acoustical experiences that are built up inside of you. That has everything to do with your ears.

TP: Do ears come before systems, or scales, or…

RUDD: It’s hard to say. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. But I think a lot of what your vocabulary is musically… [PAUSE]

TP: We’re talking about grounding yourself within the improvisational context.

RUDD: It all collects inside of you, all of your experiences with different players and different bands. It can be in your locale, where you were raised, and it can be in other other cultures, in other continents. The way that you adapt, I think, has to do with your collective experience. It’s not easy to adapt. Playing with a Mongolian band, which I’ve done recently…

TP: There will be a record out in the Fall, right?

RUDD: Yes. There will be a recording coming out of some things that we’ve collaborated on. Even though that was happening here. They came here. I was able to work with them here and record with them here. This was really an extreme adaptation for me, because this is basically a five-tone system. Africa allows for a little bit more than that. So coming out of the Malian system, that was a new parameter for me. But you see, every time that you are in a different system, you could call it the limitations of that system, but it brings out certain kinds of unlimitedness in yourself that you haven’t explored before. That’s what I love about this. So it meant that with the Pentatonics… We call ourselves the Pentatonics, because we’re basically working with a five-note system. We get the effect or the richness of a larger tonal system through the kind of embellishment we do, and the kind of bending, sliding, all of that very-very musical stuff that goes with just exploring with sound, playing with sound. Those kinds of things. The nuances. You discover nuances. It brings out your ability to nuance, the more that you limit yourself away from chromaticism and…

I can’t wait to get to India. That’s the next thing I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get to India. I’ve got to get to China. Because these people really know how to embellish. If they only had two notes to work with, they would be able to… They could keep you happy for hours exploring the sound of just two pitches, and with all that rhythm and sense of color and dynamics… Oh, man! This is what I live for. This is what improvisers dream of. Going into situations like this and just having to find in yourself the resources to blend with what’s going on. I love this. That’s basically what I’ve been doing here for 45 years, from the time that I was playing along with Spike Jones and Duke Ellington, up until now.

TP: What initially sparked your interest in African music when you were at Yale? By the way, what was your major?

RUDD: I was liberal arts. I wanted to major in music composition. But my professor in freshman year, my theory professor did me a favor. He didn’t know it, but he did me a favor. I was prevented from majoring in composition. So I put together a curriculum for myself out of what was being offered in the way of theory and history courses at Yale, which was very European. There was very little about traditional music in the curriculum. Yale was all very European. They didn’t get into the European folk music at all. It was just European composed music from the earliest notations up through the present, up through Webern and Stockhausen, the big maestros of the 20th century.

TP: So what spurred you to start listening to African music and other things?

RUDD: Curiosity. Because I knew that a lot of American music came from other places, and I was curious about these places, these other cultures. Sifting through the record bins in stores where I would go, occasionally I would find these things.

But the real breakthrough for me was working as an ethnomusicologist with Alan Lomax at a time when he was putting together an archive of field recordings. He had contacts with people who were doing their theses out in the bush somewhere, and they would be sending back very bad recordings of what was going on around them in these communities. It was my job to analyze a lot of this stuff, according to this cantametric(?) system that Victor Grauer put together for Lomax. I was just learning a great deal about what I wish I had learned in college. I was finally getting an education in traditional music, which I think is really important for people now.

It’s time. We had a lot of American music that never got into the educational system until recently. Now I think it’s important to expand from there and maybe get more of the world into the educational system. Because for a long time, if you wanted to study traditional music, you had to take anthropology, and that way you would get into comparative musicology. You would be able to get maybe an inkling of the vastness of musical tradition that was going on in the planet. Otherwise you would just be doing your Mozart and your Brahms and your Stockhausen. You would not be getting down into the roots of this stuff, where all this stuff is coming from for millions of years. I mean, hey! I used to get really bummed at these professors who’d say, “Ro-co-co” your ass off. But where are these guys getting their stuff? It’s got to be coming from a lot further around than their associates and their little tradition that they’re building up here. There’s a hugeness to this thing that we’re not looking at, that goes beyond this stuff that you’ve picked out.

TP: Now, I’d assume a traditional musician like Toumani Diabaté has some knowledge of jazz and other forms by dint of living in Paris, where so many worlds are converging.

RUDD: Toumani’s been out of Mali. He’s been over here, he’s been in Europe a lot.

TP: But how does that interaction impact the different traditional musics? Do you focus on that dynamic when you play with these musicians? Or are you trying to get to some essence within the root or pristine condition of… Do you see this music existing in some pristine way, or do you see them as evolving musics?

RUDD: I see the music in terms of the carriers of the music. That’s something that I was turned on to with American music when people were categorizing our classical music here, or when they were saying there was this era and that era, and now here comes the New Wave and the Avant Garde and so forth. I was saying, “No, really, it’s just about Charlie Mingus. It’s about him. It’s about his music. It’s about Ornette Coleman’s music. It’s about Ornette Coleman, this thing coming out of himself, and orchestrating other people into that to make the music.” It’s really about the carriers.

So going to work with Toumani Diabaté, it’s about him. It’s about what’s inside of him. Not everybody is a great improviser. It’s not only true here. It’s true anywhere in the world. But there are improvisers out there everywhere you go, to some degree or another. Toumani Diabaté, in his culture, is a great improviser. And there are not that many people in Africa who can improvise on his level, believe it or not. With all that incredible drumming and singing, the Djeli improvising new lyrics every day for what they’re doing, extemporizing their asses off… There are really supreme improvisers and there are improvisers just on a simpler level, people who are just making a few variations from day to day. But somebody like Toumani Diabaté is a formidable improviser. I can give him a theme or a form, and he’ll work with it, take it apart, and put it back together again until he’s got it inside of himself. Then he’ll really be able to speak, not only himself, but in terms of this form, in terms of himself. It’s both things.

But when we started talking about this, it’s not so much about… I think these categorizations of traditions and trying to corner them and put a label on them… I think that maybe is a way to start; it may be a way to start learning from a distance. But what it always come down to is the players. The play is the thing, the players are the thing. The guys that have the music in them. The living repositories. That’s where I think…

TP: When you were in a position of having to set up a curriculum and a pedagogy yourself for six years, what did you do? What were your first principles? Apart from faculty politics and everything else. Just in terms of trying to communicate information to six new classes of students, who were sort of blank slates, what were your first principles?

RUDD: As I said, from a distance you have to work with whatever information you have—the books, the recordings. You try to bring some players in, some living examples of it. But you’re at a disadvantage. You’re thousands of miles from the actual people who are part of the tradition or living in a different culture musically. I did enough. I think I inspired people enough, opened them up enough by bringing in American improvisers. And they got into the spirit of what it is to do something spontaneously, wherever you are, in whatever culture you are. Again, it’s a combination of what you’ve been taught, what’s in your environment all of your life, and what you can pull out of yourself. It’s a combination of those things—what’s been put in and what’s in there, what’s churning around in there. I don’t know what the process is, really, that’s going on inside of me, but I keep coming up with stuff. That’s just my thing. That’s what I was put here to do.

TP: I was at a concert you did last fall at Merkin Hall on Ornette Coleman’s music, where Wynton Marsalis played the second set. Very interesting concert, in the contrast between the first and second half. You were mentioning Mingus-Ornette-Diabaté as the carriers, and there’s something very fundamental and universe-unto-himself about Coleman’s music. I’d like to ask you two things. What was your response to Ornette’s music when you first heard it, and second, what was your approach to addressing and interpreting it.

RUDD: That’s a good question. Yeah, he opened up at the Five Spot on my birthday in 1961, so I was there. I guess I played a couple of his songs, took them off the recordings… But I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and I could sing parts of his music through all these intervening years. Then this opportunity came to do a concert of his music, and I found out that really this was the first time that I seriously went into 10 or 12 of his songs, and had to learn them from the inside. But you know something? It really helped to have been singing those things to myself, what I knew about them, just in my blood from those days. It was like a ticket. It was like a ticket into the inside of the music. It made it so much easier at that time last fall to inhale so many details that you have to do when you are really performing somebody else’s music, especially music that is as individual and as original as Ornette’s. You’ve got to learn a lot of detail. But just having a sense of his music and having heard it for so long, and just enjoying it that way as a listener, made it much easier, I think, to apprehend a lot of detail, enough to do that concert.

TP: What spoke to me most was the way you and Marsalis draw out the folkloric elements, these deep southern roots—the stomps, the deep blues tropes. Drawing out the folk forms, and extrapolating them into the narrative you were expounding.

RUDD: That’s beautiful, what you said about the tropes. Because the tropes are the things that I knew from the music. That’s what you remember as a listener. When you spend an evening listening to somebody’s music, you go out troping, you go out on the riffs that you remember. These are the things about Ornette that were kind of in my blood. I knew these stylistic features of his, the feeling of them. It was just a beautiful opportunity. I have to say that there never would have been this concert if… Greg Cohen, the bass player, knew that I was desperate to get together with somebody before this thing, and to work out some of these songs, work out some parts, make it more than a jam session. Sick as he was, he came over here the night before that thing, and we ran down a dozen songs from the inside. That is what enabled that concert to happen to the extent that it did.

TP: Did Marsalis have charts? It looked like he did.

RUDD: No. The only music we used was stuff I had taken off his recordings. I had spent a little time transcribing parts of these things. But I was desperate to get together with somebody else before this, and not have to just go on total recall to do these things. So I have to say that Greg Cohen is my hero.

TP: Herlin Riley’s uncle was Melvin Lastie, who was Ornette’s friend, and his grandfather, who raised him, grew up in the foundling home with Pops. So he comes from a very specific, deep New Orleans tradition, and Ornette is kind of family to him. And Wynton’s father was very close to Ornette and to Blackwell. What was the interaction like?

RUDD: Herlin Riley is exceptional. This guy has precognitive hearing. This is what you look for in improvisers, people who are waiting for you in an unknown situation. They’re there. They know the space. They know it ahead of time, and they’re there. I was getting a sense of that from him. That was great.

Wynton Marsalis plays the most perfect eighth notes I’ve ever heard. You just can’t carve out better eighth notes. So it was a unique experience for me to play some counterpoint with him. Because my eighth notes are… I’ve got different kinds of eighth notes. But Wynton Marsalis, boy, he’s got the eighth note to the Nth degree. I have to say, he really astounded me from that point of view. Something about his mechanical perfection as a player was very meaningful to me. And he’s a very broad musician. But when you get into a free counterpoint situation with somebody, it’s about their rhythmic orientation and how you express this. It’s the temporal thing that you’re going from. And to have a great drummer and a great bassist at the same time… Whoa! We were getting into it.

TP: During your hiatus, when you were off the scene, doing the shows in the Catskills, teaching, etc., was that to your benefit as an instrumentalist? Did you firm things? Were there certain things you could work on and get together that were to your benefit when you began to perform again on a more regular basis?

RUDD: Let me say this in regard to that. I’m one of these people since I was a kid, really, where I had to play every day. It didn’t matter what I was doing with the rest of my life. I pretty much managed to find a way to take time out every day, and blow a horn, or sing, play some piano, dance around, scat—find a way to express this thing inside me. So that regardless of whether I was teaching, or playing commercial music, or driving a truck, or working in a store, or working in a hospital… I’ve done a lot of different things. But the thing that’s been a constant line through all of this, and where I think the effect of a lot of this living experience has gone is into this… What would you call it? It’s like a musical lifeline of just playing every day. I said to someone that the reason is that it’s my therapy. He said, “No, you’re wrong. It’s your practice. It’s not your therapy. It’s your practice. So you’ve been practicing since you were a kid every day.” A lot of it has just been pure improvisation, coming home from a day’s work, and just letting the feeling that’s accumulated from the day come out in some kind of acoustic expression.

So I’m telling you that all the musical experiences I have had informed me. This is true of the Catskills show band. There was a lot of great Dixieland and sight-reading, working with comedians and fire-eaters, puppeteers and dancers… Life is about learning, and learning is essential for growth. Man, there’s nothing like growth.

TP: A lot of the older musicians with whom you played when you were a young guy came up in tent shows, where they had similar experiences. A lot of them played circuses and were on the trains and did that sort of stuff. The territory days.

RUDD: That’s true. The vaudeville, the standup… This is a great tradition. This is the old travelling carnivale outfit.

TP: We’re talking about context again.

RUDD: There’s a context here, and this is definitely a part of it. Any way that you can inform yourself about this is helpful. But I think this was missing in my experience, that vaudeville thing. I got a little bit of it through the Dixieland. But in the mountains, the whole show was there. You’ve got the tummler, the standup guy or standup lady, whoever it is. You’ve got this person sort of playing the audience, playing the musicians, and getting the whole thing into this wonderful complementary uproar. So pretty soon, the whole place is improvising. This is the great thing about that tradition, that it really is… Or there was. I don’t know much of it is left. But there was, at the heart of it, a great spontaneous and improvisational essence. The success of the show largely was dependent upon that kind of energy. Unknown things happening, coming out of the wall, coming out of people, and somebody who knew how to play off that and make that develop.

TP: Did you have anything analogous to that in the ‘60s and ‘70s in your quotidian life as a musician?

RUDD: Oh my goodness. I would have to say that the musical associations that developed from the earliest time that I came down here to live in the late ‘50s… These were improvisational hangs. The thing that I developed with Herbie Nichols was really, in large part, an improvisational thing. He would throw his compositions into it, and that would just be more fuel for me, because I would have to bring my creative thrust into his kind of format. You need those two things to create a compound, to get more. The thing with Steve Lacy… We started off with a lot of different music, and we ended up just pursuing Thelonious Monk’s compositions because they were the right… It was the right music for this instrumentation. The soprano sax and the trombone resonated with Monk’s tunes more than any other music. These were just the right tunes for the soprano saxophone and trombone. So there was a whole unknown thing flowering out of that.

Particularly with Lewis Worrell, John Tchicai and Milford Graves, that was all improvisation for quite a while, until songs, little tunes kind of congealed from all the improvising. But that was just getting together. Even if all of us couldn’t make it, we did it, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, in different configurations, and just kept a spontaneous conversation going on. We were never able to work that much, but what we were able to do…

TP: Was Milford still playing a snare drum then? [END OF SIDE A]

RUDD: …but rather than a snare drum… Although I think that was there from time to time, the snare drum effect. But he could have been inventing that. But it seems to me that the tuning of the drums was very important, the tuning of the whole set. Well, Milford Graves, we could talk for a few hours on that…

TP: What’s occurring to me is that all of the different musics you approach, whether musical carriers or systems of music, you seem to approach in some sense from an ethnological perspective. I don’t mean that in a dry sense.

RUDD: What does that mean, “ethnomusicological.”

TP: I’m simultaneously writing a piece on Nguyen Le. His parents emigrated to Paris from Hanoi in the ‘50s. He started off playing jazz, playing Hendrix, played in an African fusion band, and then in the early ‘90s, when he was in his early thirties, he hooked up with a traditional Vietnamese singer and began to bring those influences into his composing, and then he started bringing North African, particularly Gnawan influences into his music. So now, within one personality, you have Gnawan music, traditional West African music (possibly some of the Malians you know), Vietnamese music, jazz musicians like Art Lande and Paul McCandless, and he just did a record on Hendrix’s compositions with Terri Lyne Carrington. He spoke of approaching Hendrix, and all his records from an ethnomusicological point of view. But it isn’t schematic…

RUDD: Each of these people carry a certain amount of their cultural context with them, but they carry their individuality, too. But the culture rubs off.

TP: What was your cultural context that made you so open to the different musics you encountered when you arrived in New York?

RUDD: The thing I tried to tell you before is that the improvisation was the thing that was there in Spike Jones and in this old jazz that I grew up with. There was a mystery. There was an unknown variable drifting through this music that somehow flourished and kept it alive for the 3-minute 78 experience, and going beyond that, and hearing these people performing live, doing concerts and playing in clubs and stuff… It’s the energy, the spontaneous expression, the individuality, the thing that’s inside people having a chance to come out. Their individuality. That’s what you hear in that old music. You hear the individual voice. That somehow affects everything else that you hear. I was disappointed because I couldn’t find that in a lot of music. It kind of narrowed down what my alternatives were as far as enjoyment goes, because from an early age, that’s what I was listening for in the music—the voices and the individuality. I know at the same time that everything I’ve experienced ,acoustically and otherwise, in America since the time I grew up… I also know that if I jumped into another country somewhere, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s American; you can tell by this or that.” But I can’t, man.

That’s why I asked what you meant by ethnomusicological. I think I can perceive it better if I go to another world than I can in my own. Although New York is a great place, because the whole world, in a sense, is here. So people do stand out. Believe me! Herbie Nichols really stood out. Spending a day with him was like going into another galaxy. So you don’t have to go that far to find individuality or other musical universes. But ethnographically, I would have to say Herbie Nichols is New York. That’s what he represented to me. All of the West Indian, European, Hispanic…the mix of all of this place… There’s so much. It’s just hard to sort it out and say, “This is that…”

TP: It’s all coming at you at one time here.

RUDD: Yeah. Your culture is you, kind of. It’s what’s been pouring into you from the time you come out into the world. Your family and then beyond the family into the culture at large. Maybe that’s been defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I don’t know.

TP: Your father was an amateur drummer, so you heard music. Your grandmother was a choir director, I think. She liked the spirit of jubilation, you said.

RUDD: Yeah. When I was a teenager, and having kids come to my house to jam… And believe me, it was raw. It was horrible. But she was there. And to her, that was like religion. It was the same thing that she went to church for, was like the joyful noise, the exaltation, just people pouring themselves out in a very naive and joyful way with the sounds. Yeah, she really encouraged me. My parents kind of hated to see me… After going to college and everything, they were really concerned about my future when I decided on music. But not my grandmother. Man, she said, “wow, if you can just do this, it’s enough.” I think the clincher was being at one of Armstrong’s performances at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid. That really clinched it for me. I couldn’t think of anything else for months after that. That made such an impression on me.

TP: It sounds like you had a sense of music as a ritual from the very beginning, in the same way that Diabaté’s music emanates from ritual, and in the way a lot of the musicians you were performing with in the ‘60s were trying to achieve with their music. The notion of music being a spontaneous conversation, a lot of it comes from trying to reimagine the ritual that some of the black musicians got in the church when they were young. Sounds like you had that, too, in your own way.

RUDD: Ritual. Yeah, let’s just talk about ritual. Because it is. Daily ritual. That’s great. Can we leave it right there. I’d like to leave it with ritual. That just summed up our whole conversation, man. Thank you. Thank you for ritual. Is improvisation a ritual? Because if it is, that’s my ritual. That could be a very basic ritual, improvisation. That can be a personal ritual, improvisation.

TP: But of course, we’re speaking of music that emanates from social ritual. Black church. Village functions.

RUDD: But Ted! The individuals that comprise the black church. The individuals. My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was the highest voice in the church. That was her thing. Descant. Back in the day, and even in the black church, you’ve got to have somebody that can get up over everybody else and be the voice in the sky that just puts the top layer on it, that clinches it. That was her thing. This is the Protestant church, a New England kind of energy. Compared to a black church, it was pretty toned down. But that was her function in the church. This is the musical ritual that she carried in herself. Then there were a couple of other good singers there, and a good organist and so forth. But to me, if you can look at the individuals down in the heart of these great traditions that were built by the work of many hands, so to speak… If you can get down into the individuals, then I think that’s where you’ll find, like, the improvisational spirit and the people who are really carrying this thing, really shouldering this load.

Cecil Taylor! Whew! This guy can comp for 15 musicians, and lift the whole room.

TP: Do you see yourself in any way embodying these New England traditions? They are kind of at the core of a certain level of American identity. Emerson, Thoreau…

RUDD: Oh, the Transcendentalists?

TP: Is that encoded in you on any level?

RUDD: Yeah. I get a good feeling about Transcendentalism, what I pick up about these people and what I’ve read by them. Yeah, there definitely is an effort about perception Beyond. Trying to get closer to the unknown. Trying to get closer to the mystery. Trying to have a more open perception of the energy, of what’s coming, of what’s around us. Yeah, I definitely get that. So those guys have always been a lift for me. Yeah, I think that’s one of the positive things in what you could call that New England culture.

But there’s another side to that, and that is a lot of repression. That comes from… I think we’d better stop before I get into historical precedents in the roots of New England life. But there was the other side to it, thankfully, that I was exposed to through my father and my grandmother. Once people instill that in you, once they let you know that there’s another world besides this, that sets you on your way. You’re on your way. You’re a seeker. You’re a seeker from that point on. That’s always what I’ve been. I’ve just been investigating the hell out of it. As far back as I can remember, when my father got on those drums, he changed. His expression changed. He was a different person. In fact, I liked him better when he was doing that. So I knew that he went somewhere else, and it seemed like a good place to go.

Louis Armstrong lived there. Louis Armstrong had a foot very solidly in both worlds. But you see, my father had to kind of suggest it to me, and then other people made it plainer and plainer, that that was the reality.
Ritual! Ritual, man. Ritual on the one hand, and ethnology and this other stuff… Ethnology. Study of ethnos. I’m down on the individual ritual. I’m more down on the individual ritual than I am in the big stylistic contours of continents and all that stuff. Lomax did some great studies, I’d have to say. After all that analysis of all these little performances, he was able to actually make a statement about big prehistoric cultural traditions, like the great American Indian tradition. Incredible. When you think about all the individual contributions inside of that big-big-big tradition that goes all the way around the planet. Millions of individual carriers making it possible for him to make this big general statement about it. So I think the general statement may be where you have to start, from a distance, when you’re looking at this. But when you get down in the forest and into the individual trees, that’s more where I am. That’s where I’ve been.

TP: Except that there’s an element of your personality that comes out in your writing and your discourse on music that’s intensely analytic. You break everything down into its constituent components. Your improvising is not coming from nowhere.

RUDD: This is what improvisers do. This is how you get in there. This is what I do. This is my ritual.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roswell Rudd, Trombone

For Freddy Cole’s 84th Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2009

For grandmaster singer-pianist Freddy Cole’s 84th birthday, here’s a DownBeat feature I had an opportunity to write about him in 2009.


After breakfast on the second Sunday morning of this summer’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, the 78-year-old singer-pianist Freddy Cole, only a few hours removed from Saturday’s midnight show, considered a question about retirement.

“No,” Cole said. “No-no. No-NO.” He laughed, ha-Ha-HA, like a descending triplet. “A lot of people ask that. My golfing buddies say, ‘Man, when you going to stop?’ For what? To stay home and be miserable like you? Music keeps you alive.”

It was the final day of Cole’s 12-set, no-nights-off run at Hotel Brufani, a palatial hilltop villa that hosts Perugia’s high-profile acts, among them Wynton Marsalis, Roy Haynes, Cecil Taylor, and George Benson, the latter on tour with his “Unforgettable Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole” project, which incorporated a septet and a 27-piece string orchestra. All of them dropped into the Sala Raffaello, a rectangular banquet room filled with white-tableclothed round tables, to hear the maestro sing and play the Fazioli piano with his trio.

“Damn near all of Wynton’s band was there,” Cole said. “I played with them the day before Obama’s Inauguration at Kennedy Center. The kids came grabbing me, called me the old man.”

“Cecil told me he hadn’t seen me play since Bradley’s,” Cole continued, referencing the prestigious Greenwich Village piano saloon where he played nine separate week-long engagements between 1988 and 1991, and a week apiece in 1994 and 1995. “Carmen McRae, who was a very good friend, used to come there all the time. She loved one of my tunes called ‘Brandy’—she’d say, ‘Do my song.’ I’d generally do it.”

At Perugia, Cole spent consequential time performing material—Benny Carter’s rueful ballad “I Was Wrong”; the Ella Fitzgerald-Ink Spots World War Two hit “I’m Making Believe”; Cole Porter’s insouciant “You’re Sensational”; O.C. Smith’s soulful flagwaver “On The South Side of Chicago”—from his new release, The Dreamer In Me [High Note]. But no set was the same, and Cole treated the flow in a conversational, free-associative manner, imparting the impression that even the most knowledgeable connoisseur of the Great American Songbook would be hard-pressed to call a tune that he doesn’t know. His brain seemed analogous to a generously stocked i-Pod on continuous shuffle, with each sound file comprising a well-wrought arrangement complete with harmonized piano-guitar voicings, sectional call-and-response, and shout choruses, each song rendered with such authority as to give the illusion that Cole had sung it every day for the previous year.

“Once I start to play, things happen,” he said. “Unless you stop me right then and there, I don’t know what I’m thinking about. Once I see from the body language that people are into what we’re doing, I’m home free. I can call whatever I want .”

As an example, Cole noted that on the previous evening, “for the first time in quite a while,” he had performed “I’ll Never Say Never Again,” a 1935 chestnut that Nat Cole had covered in 1950. The rendition was one component of a lengthy interlude, spontaneously triggered by a medley built upon “Tenderly,” during which he conjured a suite of his big brother’s good old good ones, segueing seamlessly from one to the next, evoking the elder Cole both in the timbre of his gravelly, septugenarian voice and his exemplary diction, never stiff or exaggerated. Cole imprinted each tune with the stamp of his own personality. A master of the art of compression and release, he swung unfailingly, didn’t scat, and avoided extremes of tempo and register. Perched sideways on the piano bench, he wore an ambiguous smile, simultaneously eyeballing his sidemen and the audience. He accompanied his declamations with unfailingly supportive, hip progressions; counterstated them with precise, pithy, bop-tinged solos that blended vocabulary drawn from the lexicon of, among others, John Lewis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner; and phrased them with a bathos-free subtlety and unpredictable voice-as-instrument suppleness more akin to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn, than to his brother. The delivery, though, contained a panache and directness imbibed from such master male balladeers as Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams, both friends and mentors during his adolescence and young adulthood in Chicago. As the week progressed, the years dripped off his baritone, which grew more resonant and open.

“Their voices are exactly the same, but that’s genetic,” said singer Allan Harris, in Perugia to perform Nat Cole repertoire daily on an outdoor stage in the gardens that face the Brufani’s entrance. “That’s the way they were raised. Back in the day, the number one thing that a black entertainer needed to cross over into the white record-buying thing was that you could understand what the brother was saying. You had to speak the Queen’s language to perfection, even to the point of exacerbating it on stage. Not only does Freddy do that, but he puts his own little soulful twist on it, more than his brother did. There’s times where I prefer Freddy over Nat in that respect, because Freddy keeps the soul about him continuously through his performance.”

“With me, every song is a new song,” Cole said. “I don’t do them like everybody else does them. When I do seminars, I tell students about learning a song the right way—the way the composer wrote it. Then you do what you want.

“You’re not going to hear me scat either. A lot of people who do that are good singers, but my way of thinking is that they have great musicians with them—let THEM play. To me, BABA-BABA-DABA-DOP don’t mean nothin’. We had two great scatters, and that’s Miss Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. After that, you could say Jon Hendricks and maybe Eddie Jefferson. They did it with taste and style. But now you have these younger singers who think that scatting makes them a jazz singer. Well, actually, what is a jazz singer? I have no idea. I would say Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz singer. Sarah Vaughan could sing anything, so they put the ‘jazz singer’ title on her. Carmen McRae was a great singer. But Carmen was a stylist, like Billie Holiday, and my brother, and Billy Eckstine. Lurleen Hunter, from Chicago. Johnny Hartman, who was a dear friend. You get a label put on you, like I say.”

It has been both Cole’s blessing and curse to be labeled “Nat Cole’s younger brother,”a descriptive to which, some decades ago, he penned the riposte “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” which he sang ebulliently to transition into the final portion of his Saturday set. Indeed, as Harris pointed out, although Cole has drawn extensively on the Nat Cole songbook over the years on recordings, concerts, and special projects (he duetted with Benson on “I’m Biding My Time” on Perugia’s main stage), such an extended homage is indeed a rare thing.

Harris pinpointed an occasion in 1977 at a club in Atlanta—Cole’s residence since 1970—when Cole responded to his “mistake of asking for a Nat Cole song” with precisely the same musical answer. “Freddy did that song strongly, and with verve, and he did it demonstratively,” Harris recalled. “Not like he does it now—happy and so on. He didn’t really say he wasn’t about to do any Nat King Cole tunes, but after he finished it was put to rest that you didn’t ask Freddy for any of his brother’s songs.”

“Before I started to play at Bradley’s, I was really ‘Nat Cole’s brother,’” Cole remarked. “That’s about as blunt as I can put it. Or I was a ‘cocktail piano player,’ whatever that is. You get tied into one of these corners, and that’s all you’ll ever be. It’s been a long, hard, worthwhile, fruitful struggle—what’s the use of crying about it now? My brother was quite a man. I always say I’d rather be 10 percent of the man that he was than an entertainer. If he or my father said something, or gave you their word, that was it. I try to be that way. With all the years I’ve been out here, nobody can say that I didn’t pay anybody, that I ran out on a hotel bill. The old one of the ten commandments—do unto others as you’d have them do unto you—is a simple way to live.”


The Dreamer In Me is Cole’s fifth recording for High Note in the past five years, and his eleventh collaboration with producer Todd Barkan, who first recorded Cole in 1993 on his breakout release, Circle of Love. His emergence over the past two decades from “Nat Cole’s younger brother” to the international stature of his golden years is one of the great second acts in the annals of show business.

“Besides Tony Bennett, Freddy is one of the last vestiges of that era where front men told a story with the song through the voice,” Harris stated. “He’s an older gentleman now, and his voice may not be as clear as it was 25 years ago, but his delivery is far beyond anyone younger than him. Freddy takes you on a magical journey. You forget about vocal styling. You forget about smoothness. He’s a master at what he does, and he doesn’t have to impress anyone. Most vocalists, including myself, take a whole song to get our point across. Freddy does it in one phrase. From all the years he spent in clubs, touring the world, and studying the American songbook, he completely understands where the composer is coming from, and stays true to it.”

Cole offers insight into the formation of his aesthetic in rendering O.C. Smith’s paean to the time “when jazz was king on the South Side of Chicago” with “all those little honky tonk joints, filled with people glowing while the cats was blowing.” Early on, when the family lived at 57th and Michigan, he met the Chicago’s prime movers and shakers through his brothers—not only Nat, but also Eddie Cole, a bassist and successful bandleader who had played in Europe with Noble Sissle, and singer-pianist Ike Cole (“he could flat-out play”), whose career comprised primarily long-haul hotel gigs. He began to play with the local luminaries towards the end of the ‘40s, after graduating from Waukegan High School where his promising football career—he was an all-state halfback as a junior—abruptly ended after a tackler stepped on his hand, causing a bone infection that led to an 21-month hospital stay.

“The medical term for it was tuberculosis arthritis,” Cole said. “My brother brought in a specialist from California. I had three operations in the same hospital, but instead of stitching it all up, they drained the bone. It had to heal. Every day for so many hours, I’d sit with this concoction that they put me in. Playing piano was therapeutic—it kept the flexibility in the wrist.”

Cole entered the trenches at 17, when trumpeter King Kolax, whose bands were a rite of passage for several generations of Chicago musicians, hired him for the piano chair. “I was struggling to keep up with the other musicians,” he said. “I was young and dumb. We thought we were hip. We thought we were playing bebop.”

After a four-year apprenticeship around Chicago while attending Roosevelt College, Cole moved to New York in 1953 for a semester at Juilliard, spent 1955 and 1956 at New England Conservatory, and moved back to New York in 1957. “I was playing jazz music before I got to school, and it was difficult to try to fit into this other mold,” he said. “If somebody come through with a gig, I’m out of there! Then I’ve got to go back and catch up. But I’m competitive. I’m a fighter. I will give out before I give up. Looking back, I wish I’d applied myself more. But I did what I had to do, and got my degree.”

He remained in New York for thirteen years, moving to Atlanta in 1970. Over the years, he worked the East Side supper clubs and steakhouses, “joints with the crooked-nose guys,” corner taverns and bars in the outer boroughs. “That’s when I was learning how to do everything,” Cole stated. “I got great advice from a lot of great people.” He referenced an early gig with ex-Ellington drummer Sonny Greer. “He would hold court every day at Beefsteak Charlie’s, where you’d see all the old-timers. Sonny told me, ‘Little Cole, you’ve got to learn how to be a storyteller. You’ve got to tell this story about this song.’ When you’re a little kid listening to the teacher read, Sonny said, she’d have you believing that story if she was really good. It took a while to get to what Sonny was trying to tell me. It really hit home when I was in Brazil in 1978—Brazilian singers sing as if they’re singing directly to you.”

There were other lessons. “Without saying it, most of those clubs were run by ‘the fellas,’” Cole said with a chuckle. “Some would be set up for a late night thing when they would all meet later in the evening, so you had to learn the ‘Set ‘Em Up, Joe’ type songs. Unrequited love. You’d see the girlfriend sitting there, etc. Also, there were the barmitzvahs, and other functions. Then you played clubs where it’s nothing but swinging, and some clubs where it was dancing. It was a total learning experience about how to play, what to play, and when to play it. The people that came into those clubs at that time knew what was happening. You weren’t fooling anybody. If you were messing around, you wouldn’t have the gig long. They knew the songs, and would ask about them, so if you didn’t know it tonight, you’d better know it tomorrow. There’s the expression, ‘Yesterday made me what I am today.’ That’s really true for me.”

It was evident from Cole’s forthcoming itinerary that he is as old-school in his “make the gig at all costs” attitude to road life as in song interpretation. Perugia was the last stop of a European sojourn, which began with engagements in Switzerland and Slovenia. He would resume his travels five days hence across the pond with a rapid-fire succession of East Coast bookings, before resuming his “rolling stone gathers no moss” lifestyle with various autumn travels.

“Freddy is invincible,” said Randy Napoleon, his guitarist. “The schedule in this band is more difficult than anything else I’ve done. We’ve done tours where we were out for weeks, traveling every day, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, driving two hours to the airport, catching a flight, maybe transferring and catching another flight—and then hitting. Or you drive nine hours in a van, and then get up and work that night. Freddy loves it. His famous quote is, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m a young man, I’m in good shape, but I’ll be bleary-eyed. Four-five hours of sleep, Freddy’s gone.”

“I’m like an old penny,” Cole said. “I turn up anywhere. That’s what I’ve done throughout my years in the business. I don’t look at myself as a so-called star. I’m just plain Freddy. That’s all you can be.”

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For Sonny Rollins’ 85th Birthday, Three Downbeat Articles from 2000, 2007 and 2009 and a Jazziz Article from 2005

Sonny Rollins, who turns 85 today, hasn’t played in public for several years, and it’s unclear—though much wished for by his international cohort of admirers—that he will  be able to do so again. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to write about him on a number of occasions since 2000. I’ve posted four of these pieces below. The first, for DownBeat, was a long overview, framed around the 2000 studio recording This is What I Do (this is a “directors’ cut”). https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/its-sonny-rollins-81st-birthday-two-interviews-from-2000/ In the second, done in 2005 for Jazziz, Rollins spoke about the death of his wife, Lucille, his up-close encounter with the events of 9/11/2001, and his decision to begin to release the first of the Road Shows series, documenting his personal creme de la creme choices from concerts on his own label. The third reports on his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.  The fourth is a piece for DownBeat‘s 75th anniversary issue in 2009, in which he responded to his quotes in DB articles about him from 1956 until 2005.


Sonny Rollins (Downbeat-2000):

It’s Saturday night, and Sonny Rollins is about to emerge for his second set at B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street. The joint is jumping. A rainbow coalition of hardcore fans, package-deal customers off the tour bus, critics in various states of rapture, and renowned saxmen looking to pick up a little inspiration pack the capacious theater basement, which offers good sightlines, a competent sound system, bordello-red wallpaper, a bar as long as a city block, and an admixture of straight tables and strategically placed semi-circular banquettes. Like the theme-park-like facades that line the sidewalk above, B.B. King’s oozes the unsettling aura of virtual reality; it’s a fresh-scrubbed replica of the inner city lounges around the country where the licensor and the evening’s featured act paid their dues as aspirants in the years following World War II.

A hip filmmaker might want to dress the customers in period attire and transform B.B. King’s into Club Baron, a spot on 135th Street where gangsters and glitterati mixed during the Harlem Renaissance, but whose glory days were long behind it in 1948, when Rollins — a teenage devotee of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — led a trio there opposite Thelonious Monk. “Monk heard me then,” recalls Rollins, “and saw something in me that he liked. Then he sort of took me under his wing. I began to go to his house and rehearse with his various bands. Guys would say, ‘Man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet’ and all this stuff, and then we’d end up playing it.”

Executing the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night — is the operative trope of Rollins’ astonishing career, and although he recently turned 70, his audience expects nothing less. Some already are familiar with his latest album, This Is What I Do [Milestone], a mellow, reflective recital on which the maestro places his singular voice — gruff, burnished, passionate — at the forefront throughout, soloing with transparent vigor on three new originals and three tunes from the ’30s Songbook. He seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.

None of these effusions mean much to Rollins, who cites Armstrong as his idol, and is acutely conscious of his reputation. “If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?” he had asked rhetorically over the phone from his Tribeca pied-a-terre several weeks before. “Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can’t be, ‘well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,’ and that’s it, good-night. I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall. I don’t like to take money when I don’t earn it, and I don’t like people to be disappointed when they come to see me. In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.”

The reference is to the Williamsburg Bridge, a nondescript symbol of urban decay which connects Delancey Street in lower Manhattan to what presently is a wildly gentrified area of Brooklyn. Then a 29-year-old Loisida resident at the top of his game (several bootlegs of March 1959 performances in Europe affirm the assertion), Rollins appropriated a secret alcove there which for two-and-a-half years he used as a private rehearsal studio “to shore up some fundamental technical things on the saxophone.”

His sabbatical generated extraordinary consternation and speculation within the jazz community. Rollins already was a stylistic role model; had he never again picked up his horn, he would remain a major figure in jazz history. By his 25th birthday, the Harlem native had recorded and gigged as a peer with Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, composed still-enduring jazz originals like “Oleo,” “Airegin” and “Doxy,” and fought down a serious heroin addiction whose consequences led to incarcerations in 1950 and in 1952. In December 1955, Rollins left Chicago — where he worked as a factory janitor and lived in a room at the YMCA at 35th and Wabash while getting himself together — with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. He proceeded to record a succession of enduring masterpieces — including the aptly titled “Saxophone Colossus” — which showcased an immense, speechlike tone, elastic time sense, an unfailing penchant for melodic invention that revealed a romantic sensibility completely devoid of bathos, a sense of humor that some called sardonic, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of spontaneous composition.

“A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why I would stop playing,” says Rollins, whose imposing frame, larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belie the notion that demons of doubt could ever have gnawed at his innards. “But I know I learned something. I felt it was a necessary thing for me to do to have the kind of confidence I need in playing music like this. It was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve, because it was against the grain of public opinion. So outside of the musical benefits, it was also good for my soul.”

Between 1962 and 1964 Rollins released six divergent albums for RCA-Victor, which presented him with a $90,000 advance and unlimited studio access; in 1965-66 he cut three intermittently brilliant albums on Impulse. Picking up on procedures he’d implied on his pioneering trio recordings of the late ’50s (see Way Out West, Live At the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite), he documented his exhaustive investigations of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, and moved inexorably towards the principle of improvising from a tabula rasa. In listening to his flights of fancy from this period, it’s interesting to consider that Rollins, who like fellow saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter, was a gifted cartoonist and watercolorist in his youth, noted in a mid-’50s interview that he had only recently definitively decided that music would indeed be what did.

“I liked painting a lot,” he muses, “but of course there was no money in it. I was getting out of school, and in music I was able to play jobs and make some money; there was the promise that this might be a career. Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, I said, ‘Gee, I must be okay.'” Perhaps his roots in shaping imagery and design explain why — as guitarist Jim Hall, his 1961-62 quartet partner, once noted — Rollins began to deploy a sort of synesthetic mojo during the post-Bridge years, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos.

Rollins built his far-flung abstractions upon formidable bedrock. I convey to him alto saxophonist Gary Bartz’s description a few years back of hearing Rollins at the Village Vanguard during the mid-’60s. “What impressed and helped me,” Bartz recalled, “is that one night Sonny would play like Lester Young all night; he’d play songs like ‘Three Little Words’ that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note with Prez’ sound before going off into his own solo. The next night, he might do the same thing with Coleman Hawkins. Then the next night he would be Sonny. So I used to go every night, as you see!”

Rollins emits a hearty guffaw, and responds bemusedly: “I didn’t approach it that analytically. We were young and didn’t always get an opportunity to see our heroes in person, so we learned a lot by listening to the records and copying the solos. Well, I’d get as close to what they did as I could. I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. In trying to get the style of Prez or Coleman Hawkins, I would try to inhabit their soul, feel what they felt, interpret music the way they did.”

As band-members Stephen Scott and Bob Cranshaw note, Rollins continues to pay private homages to his idols during soundchecks, which certain obsessives in the crowd at B.B. King’s might prefer hearing him do to having sex; they might even sacrifice their left nut to hear him return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time ’50s-’60s style. But although Rollins is the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory which morph into stunning spur of the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, reenacting times past has never been on his agenda.

“Sometimes I think I would help myself if I listened to some of my old playing,” Rollins muses. “Every now and then, when I listen to something of my own, I hear things I used to do that I forgot about, and think, ‘Wow, I should do that again.’ But I shudder when I hear myself; I’m always saying, ‘Gee, I should have done that’ or ‘I don’t like my tone right there.’ I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to listen to myself objectively, and it probably would help me play better. But I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill. Certain things I don’t want to analyze too closely. I’d rather they just happen.”

That’s the procedure Rollins followed after emerging from a second lengthy hiatus during which he spent long stretches in Japan and India, explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. Following the lead of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he turned his attention to contemporary music, adopted a more pronounced vibrato, electrified his band sound and layered it with rhythmic texture, added to his arsenal tunes that featured heavy electric bass vamps and funk beats, addressed a repertoire that comprised more melodic, dance-driven content mixed with exquisite balladry. After releasing the majestic “Horn Culture” [1973] with teen chum Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and the powerful live document “The Cutting Edge” [1974], Rollins issued a frustratingly inconsistent succession of albums, proffering attenuated, self-conscious solos on attractive tunes whose authoritatively played heads barely hinted at the life force he imparted to them when performing before an audience.

“I’m often criticized about the ’70s and ’80s because I used a backbeat and guitars and all, but I don’t understand a lot of it,” Rollins says crisply. “Jazz has to be alive. This gets back to what I said about playing like somebody. If you can appreciate what someone is doing and try to get their essence, then it’s alive. If you copy them to a tee, it probably wouldn’t sound alive. In the ’70s I was trying to find different ways to make my music relevant. I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where I can’t play a calypso or a backbeat. I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid. This is the way I play. The music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics. It’s anti-industrial. But what It is, I don’t know. Every now and then, I’ll get a glimpse, but I can’t get to It as often as I would like. Until I feel satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.”

Whatever one thinks aesthetically of Rollins’ populist, vernacular-oriented path between the mid-’70s and “Falling In Love With Jazz,” the 1989 album that marked his recorded return to hardcore jazz values, it’s of a continuum with his earliest experiences. “I like dancing and I like playing for dancers,” says Rollins, who remembers going to Calypso affairs as a small boy with his Virgin Islands-born mother. “In our teens we did a solitary dance called the Applejack where you’d just do moves to the music. It’s what Monk did when he’d get up from the piano to dance. I remember going to see Dizzy’s band a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom; Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. He would dance the Lindyhop with a chick, and they would really be going to town, with the people crowding around them in a circle.

“When I was coming up with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was one and the same thing. Mostly we played either a club with a dance floor or what we called a function, where everyone was dancing. Sometimes in Harlem we had to play Caribbean-type tunes for dancing only, but a certain musical element was foremost — that’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes. I always did my own variations, tried to change things around a bit. I play a style of calypso which is different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, and it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play think that I’m not really playing calypso. I never broke rhythms down in a methodical way. Anything that I wanted came to me intuitively. I’d say, ‘I can use that’ or ‘that sounds right to me,’ and I just did it. What I do is completely natural, basically off the top of my head; I’ve never had the skill of being able to play the same thing from night to night. Not that I’d want to. I respect the skill of people who can do that, but I think I prefer to be who I am.”

Playing Harlem dances with the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey, or sessions in late ’40s Chicago with drum legend Ike Day, undoubtedly honed Rollins’ preternatural rhythmic facility, which is one aspect of his magic that even he doesn’t soft-pedal. “I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues, “I remember playing with Art Blakey once at Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way; after he came off the stand he said, ‘Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it, didn’t bother you.’ That gave me more confidence.

“Sonny likes to have the time solid, so that he can juxtapose playing across or under or through it,” says Jack DeJohnette, who first recorded with Rollins in 1972 on “Next Album.” “He is complete; he hears the drums, bass and piano in him, and he plays by himself.” That’s why Rollins has employed bassist Bob Cranshaw off and on since 1959, and why the R&B influenced drummer Perry Wilson has lasted with him for three years. “Bob is a steady player, and as abstract as I often like to get, I’ve always liked to contrast abstraction against something steady,” Rollins states.” “I play a lot of different stuff — Caribbean things, straight-ahead, a little backbeat — and I need a drummer who has a little bit of range, who isn’t locked into one style of playing. A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine. Perry has the range that’s needed to play with Sonny Rollins. I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout; I always have the song in mind regardless of what I do.”

In the manner of his role model Coleman Hawkins — and slightly lesser hero Gene Ammons, with whom he jousted on various visits to Chicago — Rollins is peerless at the operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to balladry. “I love ballads,” he says. “Growing up, I loved a lot of people singing, Of course, I like Nat Cole, the way he phrases and seems sincere and gets it over. Even when he did some things in his later years that were thought to be overly commercial, they didn’t turn me off because it was him. I liked the Ink Spots and I liked Bing Crosby, who I saw in a lot of movies, which might have reinforced my admiration for him as a performer. We had a windup victrola on which I heard some of those old RCA Victor Carusos. I remember as a kid going to the City Center in New York and hearing operettas; when I was really young, maybe 2 years old, I saw a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates Of Penzance” in Harlem, and later on in junior high school we had to go through “H.M.S Pinafore” and all this stuff. I was the youngest child, my oldest brother was a good violin player, and I’d hear him studying and playing all the time, and my sister played piano in church — so I imbibed a lot of music from them also.”

I ask Rollins to elaborate on his church background. He responds: “I was brought up in a sect called the Moravian church, where I went to Sunday School and got confirmed and so on. It was very straight-laced, with an organ playing hymns and Bach Cantatas. But my grandmother used to take me to a church run by a woman named Mother Horn right there on Lenox Avenue. It was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, and it made a big impression — I remember hearing a trumpet player who was really swinging.

“I went to Chicago for the first time in 1949 with a friend who played trumpet in a gospel group; he and his sister were in a sanctified church, and I used to go there every week, which I enjoyed because the music was so animated. Chicago was very exciting. It was earthier and more blues-oriented than New York, and they had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time there, and met and played with a lot of musicians. It was a very formative period in my life. When I lived there in 1955, trying to get straight and get my life together, an interesting thing happened. I got up early one morning to catch the bus at 35th and State Street to get to work, and I saw in the window of a little record store on the corner a record I had made with Monk, ‘Just The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I was on the cover. An interesting pull.”

“We’re here in the year 2000, so let’s forget the good old days,” says an avuncular Rollins, elegant in a black ensemble, horn-rimmed shades, and liberally salted beard, midway through the second set at B.B. King’s, reacting to exhortations from the happy throng after he executes a dramatic downward swoop with his horn to state the final note of his passionate cadenza to “Moon Of Manakora,” an Academy Award winner in 1937 written for the Dorothy Lamour movie “Hurricane” that is the final track on “This Is What I Do.” Then he kicks into “St. Thomas,” his variation on a melody that he first heard at one of the Calypso dances that he attended with his mother which has been a staple of his repertoire since he waxed it in 1956 on “Saxophone Colossus.” He then croons the theme of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Sonny Rollins + 3 (1996), before hurtling into a lengthy abstraction on which he plays endless games with the time over the surging rhythm section until there’s nothing left to say.

Rollins concludes with “Don’t Stop The Carnival” (“What’s New,” 1962), a Calypso-Highlife hybrid that he uses as a frequent concert-closer. He roars like a lion through a succession of choruses, fingers popping in a St. Vitus dance over the saxophone keys, firing out cascades of notes from the bottom of the horn. Occasionally, for emphasis, he splits the reed to jackhammer precisely calibrated low overtones that seem ready to blast through building’s substructure and onto the tracks of the subway line that runs below 42nd Street. On the final chorus, as his parting shot, Rollins quotes Denzil Best’s “Move” — parrying pianist Stephen Scott’s witty reference to the bop staple in the kickoff solo to “This Is My Lucky Day” 90 minutes before — before a final cadenza on which he states “There’s No Place Like Home.”

“Hardcore Jazz is political,” Rollins had said during our initial conversation. “It’s real art, and it’s got a lot to say about things that are really happening. Unfortunately, a lot of forces out here want to divert people, don’t want us to think about anything; everything is all right, don’t think about the environment, don’t think about any kind of social problems — just go along and consume and make money. That’s what Hardcore Jazz is up against.”

Rollins seems primed for the battle. This Is What I Do caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan has confronted his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history — the oceanic linearity of the ’50s, the expressionist timbre of the ’60s, and the groove-oriented populism of the ’70s and ’80s. Rollins lived what’s now called the tradition; he grew up immersed in it, he played no small part in creating it, his memories of it provide the narrative subtext for the vivid declamations he continues to spin. Significantly, he dedicates two originals — “Have You Seen Harold Vick?” and “Charles M” — to colleagues passed on.

“It’s good to honor and recognize fellow musicians,” Rollins declares. “Somebody needs to chronicle the guys that contributed to the whole nation’s musical history and never got heard of, who made life good for a lot of people but never get talked about. Harold Vick was a good player and was beloved by his colleagues. Why not talk about these guys? Why just let life rush on, rush on, rush on as if these things don’t matter?”

He proceeds to reminisce.

“Mingus and I were kindred spirits. We had a lot of problems dealing with the acceptance of the music and the way minorities are treated — the usual crap that people go through every day. He always wanted me to do some things with him, but they never panned out. I did play with him a couple of times. He would come by the RCA studios on 24th Street to play piano with me. And I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to the Five Spot on Eighth Street to play with Eric; in Mingus’ mind it was something like, ‘Man, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool.’ I never got around to recording any of his tunes, though I wanted to record one that Miles did called “Smooch,” which was reminiscent of a ballad called ‘Time’ that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.

“My relationship with Miles continued forever; we were always tight. Once Miles was playing with the group he had with Wayne Shorter at a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I went by and came in the club, and he didn’t see me. The guys said, ‘Sonny’s here, and Miles almost jumped out of his skin! It touched me, because I realized how much he thought of me. I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols. I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that. But he thought a lot of me.

“When I was growing up, we went to high school with a fine trumpet player whose name was Lowell Lewis, who played with Jackie McLean and all of us. When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” in 1945, he heard it and he liked the way Miles played. I liked him, too, actually; he took such a poetic solo on one of those tunes. When Miles played with Bird, he took a different tack. Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything, and at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere. He was a god. But he was only four years older than I, which is why I think my relationship with him was more like one of a peer. Dizzy was much older. Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing. Of course, we know Bird was into his own thing. It was really hard to catch the Bird. Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh. But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.”

Rollins hasn’t stopped working since 1972; as he enters his eighth decade, a Buddhist practice as homegrown as his music helps him maintain focus. “I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism,” he notes. “Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me. I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied Yoga. What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I meditate. That’s the way I seek enlightenment during this lifetime, like the Buddha. And I’ve found out that to play my instrument, to concentrate and get inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things. I’m trying to get some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, to get beyond jealousies and hatreds and envies, all of these little things in life which are so stupid and inconsequential. This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned. I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.”

“You have to stay on it, you know,” he adds, referring to a clarion Tadd Dameron line that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with his big band in 1947. “Dizzy played a beautiful solo. It was very informative, and it taught me a lot about playing. Everything about it was very logical, and I like logical playing. It had all the other elements of great jazz playing, and it made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, the way he came in and the way he left space. It was just perfect.”

Which is what a good portion of the crowd must think of Rollins as they bask in the afterglow of the performance. Reality beckons as they file up the stairs and into a wee hours drizzle on 42nd Street, a mere ten blocks from the legendary 52nd Street clubs Rollins played when breaking in, and two stops on the A-train from 125th Street and the Apollo Theater, where a post-adolescent Rollins would go with “an astute bunch of young guys on my block who knew all about Ben Webster and the Ellington band.” He emphasizes, “We were all into jazz as opposed to guys that, say, were into rhythm-and-blues at that time. I mean, rhythm-and-blues was okay, but we knew the real stuff. I thought of Jazz as something which was extremely special. Yeah, that’s the word. It was special. Everything about it was great. There’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”



Sonny Rollins (Jazziz, 2005):
Last December, not long after the death of Lucille Rollins, his companion since 1959, his wife since 1965, and his business manager since 1971, Sonny Rollins decided to conclude his current contract with Fantasy Records by releasing Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert). It documents a Rollins concert at Boston’s Berklee Performing Arts Center in Boston on September 15, 2001, four days after Rollins, whose highrise Tribeca pied a terre was a few blocks due north of the World Trade Center, found himself in the middle of a disaster.

Rollins remembers that he was in no mood to do the job. “My legs were wobbly and I was mentally disjointed,” he says over the phone from his upstate New York home. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s cancel.’ But she convinced me that we should do it. Lucille was a very straight, Middle American-values person, and she hated to renege on a contract in any form. That might have been part of why she insisted. I’m sure there were more noble reasons. Some people suggested that my playing would help other people, which I don’t know if she thought of or not.”

Perhaps no one in the house benefitted more than Rollins, who, on the fateful morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was preparing to run some errands when he heard Flight 11 pass directly above his roof. “Then I heard a big POW!!!!” he recalls. His apartment looked north, up the Hudson River, and he thought a small plane had crashed along the waterfront. He turned on his black-and-white TV, just in time to see Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.

“Then I went downstairs,” he says. “The streets were bedlam, women running around screaming. When the South Tower came down, we started to run, because we thought it would take everybody if it fell over. Since it imploded on itself, that didn’t happen, but a tremendous amount of toxic dust filled the air.”

Downtown Manhattan was already sealed off, and, for lack of a better alternative, Rollins decided to take the elevator back up to his apartment. The phones were still working and he called his wife. Then he started practicing.

“I was definitely in shock,” he says. “Even when I heard the North Tower come down over my radio, it didn’t seem so bad, but even if it was, I was going to practice anyway. I didn’t think it was anything the government couldn’t handle in some manner or form.”

By now, the power was off, and Rollins, who had just turned 71, was marooned. The next morning, a National Guardsman climbed to the 39th floor, found Rollins and three other residents, and ordered them to evacuate. Rollins gathered what he could carry, not neglecting his tenor saxophone and a flashlight, and negotiated all the steps down the dark, narrow stairwell to the street.

“It was like a scene from a World War 2 movie about the London Blitzkrieg, where the place has been bombed, everybody’s out, and the sirens are going off,” Rollins recalls. “There were so many ambulances, firefighters going into Stuyvesant High School for oxygen and new guys coming out. Everybody had to put on masks, because the air was acrid with toxicity.” A CNN cameraman caught Rollins, gear in hand, walking to a bus, which took him to Washington Irving High School, near Union Square Park. There Rollins called his driver, who came in from the Bronx, picked up his charge, and took him home.

The Boston concert was imminent. Rollins arrived there on Friday afternoon, and convened his band at soundcheck the next day. “Everyone seemed more contemplative and thoughtful than usual,” he says of his band’s comportment. “I suppose they were shaken, and the fact everybody knew I was in the middle of it might have contributed. It seemed everything was much more serious and purposeful. Although I hate to think that any other time we play is not purposeful.”

In truth, nothing much happens on Without A Song until the 25th minute, during the final third of “Global Warming,” when Rollins responds to the beats of hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, his regular percussionist since this engagement, and channels the gods on a 6½ minute statement, transforming the lower depths of his instrument into—for lack of a better analogy—a swinging, melodic drum. He spins a three-minute classic on A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, developing and resolving several themes simultaneously, breaking the bar lines, accelerating and decelerating the tempo, veritably speaking through the instrument. He uncorks another amusing, cubist, high-velocity declamation on Why Was I Born, interpolating Stephen Foster quotes into the line. Similar pyrotechnics stamp his opening inventions on “Where or When,” before Rollins begins to lose his embouchure and concludes the proceedings.

Such transcendent moments are not uncommon in Rollins’ concert performances since 1972, the year he returned from a three-year hiatus spent primarily in India and Japan, and began to record for Milestone. But on studio recitals, as observers often remark, the saxophone colossus has resembled Atlas chained more than Prometheus unbound, projecting nowhere close to the creativity and life force he emanates in live performance.

“I think there’s a lot of credence to that,” Rollins comments on the concert-studio issue. “Something about the interaction of human being to human being creates a tension, and I get more involved, which probably changes what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of it. But once I’m out there, those forces obtain.”

Rollins channeled those forces admirably on a succession of masterpieces that established his legend between 1955 and 1966, and began to reestablish studio consistency on Sonny Rollins + 3, a well-wrought 1996 combo date with old pal Tommy Flanagan, and on This Is What I Do, a melody-drenched recital from 2000 that finds the maestro in poetic voice.

“For a long period, the studio was a big inhibiting factor,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve begun to bring that thing from live performance into a studio a little more easily. During my early career, I didn’t feel so inhibited playing on the records with Miles and Max and Monk. So I think it’s just a phase. I don’t know what brought it about. Perhaps it’s because I realized that technology had reached the point where you could overdub and change things, and it was easier to reach for a more ‘perfect’ solo and all this crap.”

That being said, nowhere on the aforementioned sessions does Rollins scale the Olympian heights he accesses on Without A Song, which is one of several hundred privately recorded Rollins concerts, primarily from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, that capture Rollins navigating the high wire. Carl Smith, a Maine-based archivist of this material, has given them to Rollins in hopes that he will approve their public release and thus clarify the scope of his achievement during the second half of his astonishing career.

“Lucille would have killed this guy,” Rollins says with a chuckle. “I am not quite as adamant as she was on that issue. I would have to listen to them, which is hard for me to do, but perhaps that’s another phase I can overcome, as I think I have about recording in the studio. I don’t want to compete with myself, but I’m not averse to releasing some of those in a judicious manner if I hear something really good.

“In fact, I’ve been taping my own performances. This was a point of contention between Lucille and myself. We were at loggerheads. I did it, but she didn’t want me to. Someone else was recording it anyway. I tried to explain that someone like Pat Metheny records all his performances, but we still couldn’t quite agree. I don’t understand exactly why she felt that way. That’s one of the things that she left me here to ponder alone.”

With his wife making the decisions, Rollins was allowed “to play my horn and read my books, and sort of live the leisurely life of a baron.” He pauses for several seconds, and sighs. “It’s all over now.”

Nearing 75, Rollins, in his words, is “just getting into the business aspect,” a tricky proposition for a man who doesn’t operate his fax machine, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have a cell phone. He gets help from his nephew, trombonist and band-member Clifton Anderson. Still, Rollins says, “I’m doing a lot of things I had never had to deal with before. I’m in a whirlwind right now. There are so many disparate things that I am obligated to do, and I’m trying to get them all done. It fills up 24 hours a day.”

Asked if there’s a therapeutic aspect to immersing himself in mundane details, he responds: “It may be a good thing that I’m able to interact on some things. I grieved for a long time. I’m still grieving, because it hasn’t been that long. After she left me here, I couldn’t play for a long time, man. I took my horn out and tried to play a little bit, a few minutes at a time. Gradually, as I began to accept engagements again, I got back to practicing a little more.”

The words burst forth. “I want to go through the rest of my travails on earth,” he says. “We lived together a long time. I’m laying on the bed my wife died in, and she was right next to me, and I was trying to do things for her, and I’m still here. I don’t need to leave that. Going out and playing is enough contact with people. I feel I’ve had a successful life, and I don’t need to get involved in any other phase of life.

“As long as I am able to play, I’ll be playing. I still have my challenges to surmount. I’m still practicing, I’m still studying, and I want to synthesize what I’ve learned in a way that might affect my playing. I still have the same attitude to music.”

Rollins has chronic dental problems, and whether he will be able to actualize that attitude to his satisfaction is an open question. “Physically, you need your teeth to play,” he explains. “It’s frustrating to want to do certain technical things, to have the physical strength, but not be able to. It’s an extra impediment on top of everything else. But look, man, life is frustration.”

This summer Rollins will undergo “procedures that my dentist assures me will enable me to practice when I want.” If the dentist is wrong, Rollins is well aware that he will face another crossroads in this time of tribulation and transition.

“I never want to get to the point where I’m doing nothing,” he says. “I’m trying my best to do something which I know I should be doing better. If I feel, ‘Gee, this is five concerts in a row where I sound like shit’—no. Then I would probably forget it and stay at home and practice in my studio, and just play for myself. Things have to end. Yeah, there’s nothing like getting to some musical point where you feel satisfied—reasonably satisfied—and having people appreciate it. Although you can’t go by that. People will smile in your face and say, ‘Oh, you sounded great,’ which I know is a lot of crap, because I know how I really sound.

“Probably nothing will fulfill me as much as trying to create music on the stage, with all that entails. But should I have to stop, I can’t be, ‘Oh, my life is over.’ I would go on and do whatever else there is to do. I don’t believe in suicide. I believe we’re put here for a reason, and the reason is to go through all these things we go through. You can’t cut it off by your own choice. So whatever happens, I’ll go through it like everybody else.”




Downbeat Readers Poll Feature, 2007:

“Let’s put Roy in the middle,” said Sonny Rollins, evoking his leader’s prerogative, as he, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride convened for a photo shoot near a piano, not in use during their afternoon rehearsal at Avatar Studios for a Carnegie Hall concert on the next evening.

“Why?” Haynes responded. “Because I’m the littlest one?”

“Little in the middle,” Rollins said, and Haynes acquiesced. “That looks better!” Rollins said.

“Damn,” said McBride. “The mob!”

“Sugar Hill, man,” Haynes chimed in, referring to the Harlem enclave where Rollins, 77, spent his formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and where Haynes, now 82, settled when he moved to New York sixty years ago. “Me and Sonny Rollins, from Sugar Hill. Shit.”

“The Hill!” said Rollins. “You dig?”

“I’m not from there,” said McBride, 36, a Philadelphia native. “But I lived there for a minute. That can count, right? I lived on Edgecombe.”

“Is that right?” asked Rollins, who as a youngster lived on Edgecombe Avenue, down the block from the old Polo Grounds.

“Sonnymoon for Three,” Haynes quipped.

Photographer John Abbott machine-gunned the camera for a minute or so.

“You got the gig, John,” McBride said.

“That’s what Prez told me, man, after I played two tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom,” Haynes recalled. “He said, ‘You got the gig. But I won’t tell you the words, because they may put it in print.’”

“Are you going to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?” McBride inquired, referring to the ballad on the trio’s program.

“‘You got your slave,’ right,” Rollins replied, reciting the lyric.

“‘If you got eyes, that slave is yours,’” Haynes shot back. “You can only say that if you know what you’re saying, though.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Rollins agreed.

Rollins planned to sandwich “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song from South Pacific that he had never recorded, with two long-standing hits: Kurt Weill’s “Moritat,” known popularly as “Mack The Knife,” from his 1956 breakthrough record, “Saxophone Colossus,” and “Sonnymoon For Two,” a discursive Rollins blues signifying on his first marriage that he most famously recorded on a November 1957 gig with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones that produced Live at the Village Vanguard. Several weeks after that 1957 date, Rollins played those tunes at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert—his first appearance on the hallowed stage—with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis, sharing the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie with Austin Cromer on vocals, Ray Charles, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. Carnegie Hall recorded the proceedings, and the Library of Congress unearthed them in 2004, yielding the Blue Note’s big-seller, Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. That release coincided with the death of Rollins’ wife and manager, Lucille, and briefly preceded Concord’s purchase of Fantasy Records, the corporate owner of Milestone, his label since 1972. Concurrently, Rollins launched his own label, Doxy, under the imprimatur of Oleo Productions, both entities named after original compositions that Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954. Now an entrepreneur, Rollins decided to throw a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the event, and to release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a single CD, following Sonny, Please, his first Doxy title.

At the time of the 1957 concert, Rollins was already a stylistic role model—Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver had named him the “Greatest Ever” tenor saxophonist in a poll conducted the previous year by Leonard Feather. But although his immense, voice-like tone, elastic time sense,.penchant for melodic invention, seemingly intuitive sense of structure, and relentless swing thrilled his devotees, Rollins was looking for a [context]. Increasingly, he was finding it by eschewing the support of a chordal instrument.

“Trio playing has been a big part of my musical life for a long, long time,” Rollins had related a few days before the rehearsal  during an extended interview on WKCR. “As a matter of fact, in the late ‘40s, Miles Davis heard me playing with a trio to open for a group of all-stars at the 845 Club in the Bronx, and asked me to join his band. I always can get into myself just playing solo, and when I was a kid, just starting, I’d practice in my room for hours and hours, and I’d be in my paradise. ‘Sonny, come on, time to eat.’ I’d be in my reverie. So the idea that I needed other people to fulfill my musical ambitions came reluctantly. So playing by myself or with as few musicians as possible—with trio—was a normal and natural thing.”

Such tunnel vision perhaps explains why, over the next dozen years, Rollins played so much extraordinary music with trios and two-horn quartets (in addition to the aforementioned, personnels on albums and bootlegs during the period included Ray Brown and Shelley Manne; Max Roach with Oscar Pettiford or Jymie Merritt; Paul Chambers and Haynes; Henry Grimes and Pete LaRoca, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris, or Billy Higgins; Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; Gilbert Rovere and Arthur Taylor; even Ruud Jacobs and Han Bennink on a confrontational 1967 performance). Freed from chordal constraints, he explored motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, coloring phrases with vivid splashes of timbre even at the hottest tempos. It may also explain why it was complex for [Rollins] to retain personnel.

“I’m not like that any more,” he said on WKCR, responding to an observation that he has been famously particular about drummers, to the point of firing individuals, themselves no slouches, a day or two into a week-long gig. Indeed, Rollins now is sufficiently solicitous that, before committing to play publicly with McBride and Haynes, he asked the permission of his working band.

“Whether people appreciate it or not, I am deeply involved with my own group and in trying to get a certain thing happening,” Rollins said. “That is my primary focus.”

Rollins has worked hard to realize this aspiration since he began taking a more populist direction in 1972, after a long hiatus during which he explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. When they’re available, he works consistently with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, the versatile trapsetter Steve Jordan, hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, and— returning to the tenor-trombone front-line format he experienced frequently during his early career with J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green—trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew, who works closely with his uncle on business matters.

“Clifton’s role has evolved,” Rollins said. “He’s got a big, beautiful sound, and he knows what to play and where to play it, which I never told him how to do. He just knew how to support me, and what notes to play that would complement my saxophone lines.”

“There are times when I can hear a piano, and other times when I can relate better to a guitar, which is a little less invasive,” he continued. “Bobby is an excellent accompanist for me, because he plays together with the rhythm section and I don’t hear it. If I did hear it, he’d be doing something which would be jarring to me. When I’m soloing, I don’t want to hear anybody. I just want to hear the beat, the groove, the pocket, or whatever way they describe it these days. That’s why I’ve always used Bob Cranshaw on bass, because of his strong foundational beat. With that steady pulse, I’m free to manipulate the time or do abstract improvisations, or anything else I want to do.”


“Playing with Sonny today, I can’t describe the feeling,” Haynes said at Avatar. “We’re talking to each other musically, and I’m feeling this, feeling that, and he’s listening, I’m sure. The idea that we were together earlier in our lives, and we can do that now is precious.”

“There’s very few people from our era who know what that whole thing is about,” Rollins chimed in. “I’ve played with Roy from the beginning of my career. We speak the same language. We understand each other.”

“Mmm,” Haynes agreed. “That is really something. We’re talking, man, and even when it’s silent, there is some shit going on.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rollins said emphatically. “I’m listening CLOSELY.”

“I could feel that,” Haynes said, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s something spiritual that comes from here.”

The veterans first played together in 1948, on a Capitol recording by bop vocalist Babs Gonzalez; the following year with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro on the Blue Note date that produced “Dance of the Infidels,” “Wail” and “Bouncing With Bud”; and on a 1951 Prestige session led by Miles Davis, with John Lewis and Percy Heath.

“I was hearing a lot about Sonny Rollins up on the Hill,” Haynes said. “I didn’t realize that this was the guy who had come by my house with another friend of ours.”

“Lenny Martinez,” Rollins interjected.

“During that period I was either with Luis Russell or Lester Young,” Haynes said.

“You were with Prez when I was coming by your house,” Rollins said. “I saw Roy play at the Apollo with Luis Russell’s band. I asked him a lot about the singer.”

“Lee Richardson,” Haynes states.

“I’ll always remember he made a tremendous impression on me, because he really had a good voice, good pipes.”

“I didn’t know that Sonny was playing an instrument until one night shortly after that visit, when I saw him with an alto at a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue where we used to eat after gigs on Saturday night,” Haynes said. “I said, ‘You play saxophone?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a little gig.’ There was another guy who played tenor, who walked slew-foot, bandylegs, and didn’t make it. All the time when people said ‘Sonny Rollins,’ I thought this other guy was him.”

“Will the real Sonny Rollins stand up?” joked Rollins. “Right.”

“Right! You stood. I do remember one gig in the late ‘40s where I hired Sonny. It was the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X got finished. They used to have Sunday afternoon gigs there, two o’clock high and all that stuff.”

“People could dance in the back.”

“That’s what was so great about those days.”

“People would be doing the Applejack in there,” said Rollins, referring to the steps that Thelonious Monk, his early mentor, used to do after his own solos.

“Oh, that’s right,” Haynes said. “Especially at Minton’s sometimes, they’d come up when anybody was soloing, and sometimes when a drummer was playing a solo, people could dance to it. Today, man, they’d be crying the blues, complaining.”

Asked if he’d seen Haynes play with Monk, Rollins responded, “I don’t think so.”

“We played together with Monk for a minute at the Five Spot,” Haynes corrected. “I remember one night Monk said to me, ‘Roy Haynes. You play better when you wear that suit. You agreed with him, too. I had a black suit with stripes on.”

Rollins guffawed. “Well, that sounds like Monk. One of Monk’s pronouncements. Monk got the best people he could. But it wasn’t just getting the best. There were only a few people that could cut the gig. Just like today, there’s only a few musicians that can really do the music as it should be done, so these people are at a premium. I mean, there’s only one Roy Haynes.”

He pointed at McBride, seated quietly at the piano, taking in every word. “This gentleman here is a young chap, I’ve just met him, but he’s on his way to becoming a legend and a ‘one-of’ guy. This is the way it is. It’s not like the old days, man, when Roy and I would get on a gig at the 845 Club, and it would be Lucky Thompson and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson. Things began changing. In a sense, for the better.”


Until September 11, 2001, when he had to give up his pied a terre four blocks from Ground Zero, and decided to live full time in the house in Columbia County in upstate New York that he purchased in the early ‘70s to ensure that he would not have to climb a bridge or enter a park to practice at his leisure, Rollins rehearsed his bands incessantly.

“The type of music that I play, guys need to be able to complement where I’m going, and I do best with that kind of intimacy,” he said. “Now, I’m not Count Basie’s orchestra, who would be making precise hits and like that. We try to get inside the music in a much less industrial way. Everybody has a beat center, and I want to hear where that is for Christian and Roy.”

Towards that end, Rollins had called McBride to work through the tunes 48 hours earlier at a Chelsea rehearsal studio, and the bassist was still on cloud nine.

“I’m sure I’ll create a lot of enemies, people knowing I got to play a whole day of duets with Sonny Rollins,” McBride joked before the photo session. “He was practicing on some sheet music when I walked into the studio, and when I asked what it was, he said, ‘These are just some little patterns and scales that I worked out.’ This is the greatest living improviser, and it’s amazing that he’s never rested on his improvisational genius, that he’s practicing with the same fervor that he did forty and fifty years ago. With any giant or icon, if you jump on the end of the train, you can miss the path that got the person to that level of greatness. For example Sonny does these rhythmic things that are far beyond what seems to be happening with the bass or the drums. There’s playing free, and then there’s playing without any sense of the rhythm or the feel of the tune. A lot of tenor players do THAT. Whereas when Sonny Rollins does that, it comes from a place that’s so grounded and rooted. He sounds way different than he did on Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard or East Broadway Rundown. Imagine all those years of growth on top of that, and practicing at this still mega-level of intensity.”

As for Rollins, practice time is less a burden than a lifestyle. “I can’t practice maybe 16 hours, like I used to, but I do whatever I can,” he said. “It’s fun. If I don’t practice for more than three or four days, I begin to get physically ill. I think, ‘Gee, what’s wrong?’ If I practice, bang, I’m back in the stream. It’s my form of meditation, my form of prayer—it’s the whole thing. But playing is something else. You can learn more in two minutes on the stage than from practicing maybe five weeks; in a subliminal way, all these things happen, and you really learn.”

He was also learning that entering the brave new world of self-production carries extra-musical challenges. “I’ve played with Roy from day one, Christian has played with Roy, and we got together easily because we’re trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The challenges have been taking care of the business aspects—worrying about tickets and logistics, and also doing a lot of media. I’ll try to change that if something like this happens again, because it occupies a lot of space in your mind, and takes away from the music part.

“But I’m expecting it to be very exhilarating and rewarding. These people are of a high caliber, and I’m looking forward to hearing some things that I haven’t heard before, and being in the middle of the jazz experience, which is what it’s all about. This is the instant creation. It’s like food to me. This is why jazz is the music of today, tomorrow, and forever, because things are happening right then.”


A rainbow coalition comprising hordes of hardcore fans and more eminent musicians than you could count as the paying customers—as well as an assortment of freeloading critics—turned out for the rare opportunity to hear Rollins return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time style of the ’50s and ’60s. They got exactly what they came for.

From the very beginning of “Sonnymoon For Two,” Rollins developed and resolved several themes simultaneously, breaking the grid, accelerating and decelerating the tempo with sleek lines as long as a rambling freight train, punctuating them with multiphonic honks and long held notes, downloading deeply embedded fragments of musical memory at Pentium speed and interpolating them into the flow. Playing the room magnificently, Haynes tap danced complementary rhythms with his sticks. Facing Haynes directly, with McBride centering the action with impeccable taste and requisite force, Rollins engaged him in a series of exchanges that further developed the themes they had both stated, and provoked more dialogue for another ten minutes or so, until he concluded the journey with one last harmonic abstraction.

With Haynes now wielding mallets, Rollins addressed “Some Enchanted Spring” in the key of A, and bellowed the gorgeous melody like a tenor singer in an operetta, floating gruffly over Haynes’ [richly textured], not quite rubato beats. Upon conclusion, they launched directly into “Moritat,” immediately embarked on improvised dialogue, and sustained the postulations and responses at the highest level for 15 minutes or so; it seemed like they could have gone on all night, but Rollins, aware that [he had another set to play with his band], arbitrarily halted this exemplary demonstration of what an equilateral triangle might sound like in musical form.

That set was another story. While giving his men much rope, Rollins generated sparks on the melody statement of the set-opener, “Sonny, Please,” but blew only perfunctorily on the remaining tunes, “Nu-Nile,” “Biji,” and even “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” on which a mighty dialogue by Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu could not generate further heroics from the leader. Carnegie Hall’s notoriously indifferent jazzcoustics sound didn’t help It was a disappointing, anticlimactic conclusion.

“I was trying, in the back of my mind, to keep track of the time, but had there been no time constrictions I would like to have gone on a little bit with Christian and Roy,” Rollins said a week later, after playing concerts in Portland and Monterrey. “That wouldn’t have happened in a nightclub, which is why people prefer nightclubs to concerts. In the concert we played at Monterrey, I myself played more. We closed out with one of these festive numbers, and the people went crazy, with the girls standing up twirling their torsos around. At Carnegie Hall, with the time factor, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to play.”

Rollins’ commitment to his group might discourage him from booking further explorations with the extraordinary trio. But he’s certainly thinking about it.

“I might have to go in a different direction, which would open up some interesting musical vistas, shall we say,” he said. “Things happen with musicians of that caliber. With the drum and the bass, the primacy of the beat didn’t play as big a part. Velocity and volume level is different, and this dictates that the music go in other directions. I have a different role to play.

“When Christian and I played together on the first rehearsal without Roy. I said, ‘Wow, we should do something with just you and I,’ because we were interacting in another way. That is also a possibility sometime in the future, because I heard something with just him and I playing together where we began feeding off of each other. It was very interesting, and portended things to come.”

A fortnight before this conversation, towards the end of his three hours at WKCR, Rollins, who had earlier asked that the monitors be turned down while his music was going over the airwaves, smiled and swayed his shoulders as he and Max Roach threw melodies and rhythms at each other on “Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward song that appears on the B-Side of his classic album, The Freedom Suite, recorded within five weeks of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert.

“I liked that!” he exclaimed, before realizing he was on mike. He recovered quickly. “This is supposed to be secret. I’m not supposed to enjoy myself, and I usually don’t. I don’t want to give the false impression that I enjoy my own work. The guys that I played with are like redwood trees. I have a high standard to keep up with the people that I’ve been associated with. So I hear my shortcomings when I listen back to myself. Hopefully, too many other people don’t hear them! But I hear them. It’s okay, though. I’m still playing, so there’s still a chance for me to [reach] perfection. As long as I’m still practicing, I have a chance to get closer to my own nirvana, so that’s cool.”


Sonny Rollins DownBeat 75th Anniversary Article (#1):

Several hours into retrospecting on a half-century of Downbeat’s copious coverage of his career, Sonny Rollins paused. “I hope you understand that it’s emotionally jarring to go over your life,” he said.

That qualifier aside, Rollins treated the process with customary thoughtfulness and good-humor, offering blunt self-assessments and keen observations on the changing scene described within the seven articles in question. His comportment brought to mind Joe Goldberg’s remark (“The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins,” August 26, 1965): “It is almost impossible to talk superficially to Rollins. He examines whatever is under discussion in much the way he examines a short phrase in one of his solos: over and over, inside out and upside down, until he has explored all possibilities.”

Rollins will observe his 79th birthday in September. Even in his Old Master years, a life stage when artists of parallel stature—filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman come to mind—pare down to essences, he continues his efflorescent ways, applying his singular mojo towards imperatives of (as I wrote in Downbeat in 2000) “shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night.” In his maturity, as documented on his most recent studio CD, Sonny, Please [Doxy] and the 2006 concert performance documented on the DVD Vienne [Doxy], it seems, as I wrote in 2000, that Rollins has “reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.”

“It’s like Lionel Hampton,” Rollins joked over the phone. “You’d bring him in the wheelchair, help him up on the bandstand, and BANG, he’s a 20-year-old kid again,. To some degree, it’s like that. Once I start playing, I lose track of the time.”

Over the years, Rollins’ larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belied the notion that self-doubt could ever impede his forward motion. But much of the Downbeat narrative describes a character around whom Bergman might have framed a film—a gifted artist less than fully confident that his abundant talent suffices to satisfy his aspirations, engaging in a continual process of introspection and self-criticism, and, furthermore, possessing the courage to act upon his convictions by removing himself from the public eye during three extended sabbaticals. In short, as Downbeat’s reportage makes clear, the progression of Rollins’ musical production is inseparable from the development of his spiritual life.

How consistently Rollins hewed to his path is clear from a comment that Nat Hentoff places at the end of his 1956 cover story, “Sonny Rollins,” which appeared a mere 11 months after Rollins, already dubbed “saxophone colossus” at 26, had left Chicago, his home during his first self-imposed hiatus. “I was thrown into records without the kind of background I should have had,” he told Hentoff, expressing a concern that his career was developing too fast.. “I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to do it.”

This theme would recur in different variations over the next quarter century, as would several others expressed in Dom Cerulli’s 1958 followup. By then Rollins had already investigated the possibilities of the pianoless tenor trio on Way Out West, Live at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite, each an enduring classic. He explained this direction as a response to his difficulty in finding band personnel who could fulfill his vision, noting a particular ambivalence about playing with pianists who were not Bud Powell. He also elaborated on the pros and cons of nightclub performance vis-a-vis the concert stage, expressing concern about “setting aside enough time to keep up to his horn” and his “hang-up” with “finding time to rehearse,”

Certainly, Rollins circa 2009 connected to concerns expressed a half-century ago. “Everything here seems like I could write it today.” he stated. Not least is his remark to me in 2000 that “there’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

Nat Hentoff, Sonny Rollins – Nov. 28, 1956

“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene until I’m completely finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything…”
Dom Cerulli, Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes he Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has To Date – July 10, 1958

“Right now, I feel like I want to get away for a while… I need time to study and finish some things that I started long ago. I never seem to have time to work, practice, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night.”


“I’m vindicated. I always claimed that my motive for going on the bridge was as I stated, but people said, no, Sonny’s just going on the bridge because of the ferment in the music world, the competition from new people coming to the front, like Ornette and Coltrane. Everything I said in 1956 and 1958, I still speak about. I still practice every day. I still have a vision which I haven’t yet achieved in my improvisations. I mentioned that I always wanted formal music training, which my brother and sister had. I didn’t. I was always trying to catch up on my education.

“This shows my conscience about the clubs, as well. They were great, and I played in them until I was able to realize my ambition. But they were problematical because of the lifestyle—and also I thought that doing concerts would elevate the public perception of jazz.”

BILL COSS, The Return of Sonny Rollins – January 4, 1962:

“A few weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returned to the public jazz world from which he had voluntarily retired two years ago. On his opening night at New York’s Jazz Gallery, the large audience had an unabashed air of expectancy more familiar to a football stadium than a night club… When he…moves toward the bandstand, there is a ripple of sound and movement preceding him, shouted hellos and exhortations. It is reminiscent of a championship fight, as Sonny is reminiscent of a championship fighter… Nowadays he even sounds like ex-heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, advocating clean living, study, lots of exercise. ‘I’ve stopped smoking,’ he says, ‘and cut down on the drinking, and I lift barbells every day.’ Then he begins to play, and he wins every round.”

“In order not to disturb others, he looked long and hard for a deserted enough place to practice while he was retired. ‘Then I discovered the Williamsburg Bridge,’ he said. ‘It’s right near where I live. It’s amazing. Very few people walk along it. Probably most people don’t even know there’s a sidewalk on it. But the ones who did walk there paid very little attention to me. You’re just suspended out there. You feel as if you’re on top of everything, and you can see so far and so much, and so much of it is beautiful. I can blow as hard as I want there and be impressed. It gave me a kind of perspective about music, people, everything, really, that I never had before. Everything began to jell afer that. When I quit, I suppose I had the intention of changing myself drastically, my whole approach to the horn. I realized after awhile that that wasn’t what was needed or what was bothering me. So instead, I began to study what I had been doing, and explored all the possibilities of that. I knew I was beginning to control my horn.”


“In 1956, I moved to 400 Grand Street, between Clinton and Norfolk, a block below Delancey Street. I was walking on Delancey Street (do you remember the film Crossing Delancey?), shopping in that area, and I looked up and saw the steps leading up to the bridge, and sort of thought about it, ‘Gee, where does that go?’ I walked up there and said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ There was my place to practice.”

“I didn’t do any performances during those years, although I did go out a couple of times to clubs. I went to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery. Steve Lacy had a loft on the Bowery, and I might have gone there. I heard Ornette at the Five Spot when they first came to town. I met Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins when I went to California for the first time, in March 1957, at the time I did Way Out West. I hadn’t known them before. They all came out, and we got tight and practiced together. After I began to want to change the Bridge group, I remembered their playing and called Don and Billy.”

“Opening night was rough. There was so much hoopla, so much press buildup that I was doomed to fail. But I had to do it. Like Bill wrote, I was fighting like I always do—trying to get something happening.”

Joe Goldberg: The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins –August 26, 1965

“Rollins showed up to take me to his home. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, was smoking a cigar and driving an Impala. He negotiated the heavy traffic with the ease of the cabdriver he once was. He lives in a Brooklyn apartment near Pratt Institute with his wife, Lucille, and two German shepherds named Major and Minor. The decor consists of paintings by the Detroit painter known as Prophet and souvenirs from overseas trips. The music on the phonograph ranged from old Basie records with Lester Young through Indian and Japanese music to operatic arias.”

“‘The average Joe,’ he said, ‘knows just as much as I do—he knows more than I do. I’m the average Joe, and I think people recognize that.”


“I never actually drove a cab. That might have been a little exaggeration. A job was offered to me, but I never did consummate the act, if I can put it that way.

“I really had it together. My wife Lucille, and two German Shepherds named Major and Minor. A Chevy Impala. Nice paintings on the wall. It was a nice, big apartment. I didn’t look like I was suffering any.”

“ I think ‘average Joe’ is an exalted term. To me, it’s really Everyman. What I meant is that the audience is pretty savvy and not to be downplayed. They know what’s happening. The audience pays their money, and it’s up to me to give them what they paid for. If I have a night when I am more or less satisfied with my work at any particular concert performance, the audience is satisfied. Now, there are some nights when I am not satisfied, but the audience may still be satisfied to some degree. That’s ok, because I am always my worst critic.


“Rollins said he never particularly wanted to be a leader, that he would have been content to remain a sideman with none of the non-musical worries and responsibilities that go along with leading and stardom. ‘You’d be surprised how many very famous people told me not to become a leader, you’d be surprised if I called their names.’”


“I’d give a yes and no to that remark. In the kind of music we play, where everybody is extemporizing and has their platform, you have an advantage over the leader. A sideman can play great or not so great, without responsibility. A leader has to play great all the time. On the other hand, everybody has enough ego to want their name in lights. Furthermore, the fact that you devote your life to creating this music and want acceptance for creating something personal is also a big ego trip—hopefully in a less negative sense. I believe some of my religious teachings that we have to be very careful about the ego, so I try to be careful of THAT. See, I don’t want to be just be playing for vanity. That would be a worthless life. I’m trying to get to somewhere musically, and create some music that I think I hear every now and then. I’m trying to get to that place.”
IRA GITLER, Sonny Rollins: Music is an Open Sky – May 29, 1969

“Rollins had played a very short set, and then emphatically gestured that the curtains be closed. The audience, stunned for a moment, instigated a concerted clamor, and after a few minutes Rollins reappeared, saxophone in hand. His fans, eager to showcase affection on him and listen to more of his music, began calling out their favorite selections. Sonny, at odds with himself and his adulators, responded with halting words of explanation and then played snatches of various standards and an abortive calypso. It must be said that he made an effort, but a lot of disgruntled people left Town Hall that night.”

“…after the concert…at the Village Vanguard, he exhibited that staggering brand of gigantic tenor that makes you feel as if you are the instrument being played. The music does more than surround you with grandeur; it gets into your circulatory system and courses through your body.”

Rollins’ response:

“This is what makes Sonny Rollins’ career so…well, interesting or so different. Once I got a name, everything I did wasn’t a success. I had a lot of unsuccessful concerts, like this one, which was a big venue, Town Hall. I had to regroup and come back. Most people, once they’ve made it, then it’s all staying on that level, or going uphill. But Sonny Rollins was, ‘Oh yeah, Sonny Rollins, terrible concert; gee, how can he recover?’ Then ‘oh yeah, good concert.’ I can create a scenario of what happened on the concerts that were not successful. Technical matters probably played a big part—preparation time, interaction with certain other members. But in exceptional times, I can overcome a lot of things.”


“Constant shifts in personnel has become the expected pattern within Rollins’ groups. Players come and go like guests in a hotel for transients… ‘There are a lot of guys I can work with, and who can work with me,’ he said, ‘but until I get a steady itinerary and offer steady work…’ Why doesn’t a major figure like Rollins work more frequently? In the past, he has chosen to take sabbaticals of varying length, for reasons ranging from dissatisfaction with himself to disenchantment with the jazz scene. One factor these days is salary. Rollins has spent many years to reach his high plateau of artistry, and feels that this entitles him to a certain basic compensation…”

“The saxophonist began studying yoga on a formal basis when he went to Japan in 1963. During the next five years he maintained contact with his teacher, Master Oki, and with the Yoga Institute of Japan. When he returned at the beginning of 1968, he visited temples and shrines and spent time at his teacher’s school in Mishima, near Mt. Fuji. ‘The atmosphere creates an attitude for meditation,’ Rollins said. ‘There is a feeling of peace. Some of the students were jazz fans.’ The Japanese experience led him to India and an ashram—“a religious colony of Hindu monks and women, yoginis”—on Powaii Lake, about an hour’s travel from Bombay… He meditated and took courses in Vedanta philosophy.”

Rollins’ response:

“Business problems certainly would be part of my Sonny Rollins story. I felt always that jazz musicians not only should be appreciated more, they should be paid better. I certainly expressed that, and maybe Ira was right that I was pricing myself out—he might have been close to some of these club-owners, so they may have confided that to him. I consider myself an open sky, and I am open to all kinds of stuff; I’m not a moldy fig, so I felt a fairly substantial amount of interest in everything that was going on, especially Miles—I’d played with Miles. The business was fracturing around that time. A lot of other influences were coming in, and mainstream jazz (if I can put myself in that category) was not getting accepted. Well, it was never accepted, which meant things were even worse for jazz musicians. Everybody knows how the music business is.

“When I first came out on my own, I worked for Joe Glaser, from Associated Booking, and he had an agent handling me who had also worked for boxers in the fight game. He told me, ‘Sonny, I’ve been an agent in the fight game, I’ve been an agent in the music game. The music business is worse.’ So those were the conditions that we had to work under, and I was getting disillusioned with it. Somebody else might feel, ‘This is just the way jazz is.’ Well, I might take it a little more seriously than other people, and want to fight back. I felt that my name would give me the wherewithal to do something. Also, I was getting more and more deeply into my spiritual quests. So that was a perfect time for me to get to India. I’d been there already, because I had been studying a lot of yoga books, and I wanted to see if I could get involved with the schools of some the people I was reading about. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, really touched me (I still have an original copy in my library), but he had passed on. But there were other people. Spirituality and music are very close together, and it’s sort of looking for more of a meaning out of life.

Gordon Kopulos: Needed Now: Sonny Rollins – June 24, 1971

“With just two or three other living tenor players, Rollins shares the distinction of having an original tone. It is deep, strong and full-throated, even in the upper register. In the lower ranges, it is reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins, and occasionally in the middle octave he calls Ben Webster to mind. His tone is certainly not without its influences, but the way he twists or bends about every third note sets him apart from everyone else in the known universe. His tone is breathy at times, too, particularly on ballads… Though the full tone isn’t exactly popular, traces of the Rollins approach are discernible in some contemporary saxophonists: Archie Shepp, for instance. Pharaoh Sanders, too, has recently displayed a tone much fuller than the one he was using with Coltrane… [Rollins’] contribution consists of much more than just this, though. Rhythmic innovators in jazz can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. Rollins is one of those who must be counted… His use of space is possibly the greatest imaginable object-lesson in how to make the absence of sound create rhythmic and melodic tension… Even if Rollins decided to hereafter play only straight melody, he would still be a creative jazz musician. Because by the time a melody has undergone his singular treatment of singing tone and organismic rhythm, it is infused with a vitality that renders it a new thing… Rollins’ experiments in harmony helped to clear the trees for the present harmonic daring of the avant-garde.”
Rollins’ response:

“So far, I like this one the best. Some of the things he’s saying in there are not conventional wisdom. I think he’s very prescient and right-on.

“My sense of time is probably unique to me. The things he says about my tone could have been written any time; I’ve been working on my sound all the time. I really got into harmonics through studying Sigurd Raschèr’s book, Top Tones For Saxophone. He’d demonstrate with a saxophone that had no keys, and would play all these notes to demonstrate the way the harmonics fell in. I wasn’t working so much with multiphonics, which is a term used more by guys who created fingerings that allow them to play two tones at one time. That was a worthy technique, except you couldn’t really control the volume. But I was working on breathing and embouchure to play the natural harmonics, playing two notes at once, to increase the vocabulary of the instrument, and enhance my own expressiveness.

“There is something avant-gardish about my playing, even though people might think of me in terms of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, or more conventional playing terms like bop, hardbop, and so on. Ornette put out a record on tenor, and everyone said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Sonny Rollins.’ People look back and say, ‘Well, he played like this in 1948, and then he played like this in 1953, and he played like this in 1965.’ Well, I have to accept the fact of my history in music. It’s on record…if you’ll excuse the pun. Somebody might hear me today, and say, ‘Oh, Sonny’s gone back and he’s playing tunes again.’ Which is ok. Yes, I was playing tunes at that time. But I’m not going to play the way I did in 1948 or 1965. I don’t like to be caged. I might feel like playing tunes, but then at another moment I might not.. There’s a lot of things on my mind. I need to learn and increase my arsenal of things to do. Performance is when you get a chance to go through the attic, and I can’t perform as much as I’d require to really stretch out and do all the different things I want to do.”
Tam Fiofori, “Reentry: The New Orbit of Sonny Rollins,” October 24, 1971

Q: What were the influences responsible for your playing tunes like St. Thomas and Brownskin Girl?

SR: My mother is from the Virgin Islands, and when I was fairly small I remember going to dances with her and listening to some of this type of music—Brownskin Girl, St. Thomas and calypso things. Of course, when I got into playing jazz they were not thought of as being jazz music, and a lot of people would even try to make a big separation, and I did, too. I didn’t actually begin my jazz career playing those types of songs. I just began to really incorporate that at a later stage. But the fact that I had heard a lot of them as a child made it so that I was able to play them particularly well. Then I felt that it was good if I could play them and people liked them, and it was something I could do in a natural way and it proved to be a sort of a trademark. Then again I’ve heard some African music which is I think somewhat similar to calypso in a way…some of the music they call Highlife… I think a lot of [calypso] and [Bossa Nova] and [rock] rhythms are being used a great deal more, which is good.

Rollins’ response:

“I would say that it’s unfortunate for Sonny Rollins that I made such a searing impression when I came out on the scene, like that was me. Because that’s not me. I’m a very eclectic player. I’m open to a lot of things. Music is an open sky—back to that again. My first guy that I liked when I started playing was Louis Jordan, a real rhythm-and-blues man. I’m a little like Dizzy. I’m serious, but my music is… Dizzy did a lot of things like, “Who Stole My Wife, You Horse-Thief” and so on. I tend to go that way sometimes, and I don’t feel that it diminishes anything else I did, just like it didn’t diminish when Dizzy was playing ‘Groovin’ High.’ So in the period after that article, I might have gone that way, but that was part of me. I didn’t decide to do anything that was antithetical to what I believed in. I’m not a good enough musician to do that. My playing is too natural. If I play some kind of way, it’s got to be that I have a deep feeling about it.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s I was talking about needing to get away from music for different reasons. Well, during the ‘70s I moved out of the city. I got the place where I live now, where I could practice more or less whenever I wanted to, away from the madding crowd. So I was able to stay ‘active’ and still have the chance to meditate and do the things that I needed to do, but couldn’t do in the ‘60s because I was right in the middle of everything, and had a lot of pressures and so forth. Lucille and I made it so that we didn’t overwork. The booking agency used to call my wife ‘Mrs. No.’ We wouldn’t work that much. We’d only take things that we thought were really good in many respects. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to take sabbaticals away from the music scene.


Q: Do you think that the music has by now severed most of its ties with Western music other than environmental ones?

SR: “There’s nothing Western about the way I play in the least. The only Western thing is that I play some Western songs.”

Rollins’ response:

“Of course today these guys can probably write down what I do. But the point is well-taken. I’d say the same thing now.

“I think I’m like a diamond in the rough. That’s what George Avakian used to call me. I’m a very rough player. I’m not a polished player, although I’m trying to be—but I’m not. That’s why Fiofori probably had an affinity to what I was doing, because he’s from a Third World African country, and he heard something in my playing, besides some of these calypsos, which probably was reminiscent of that way of playing.”

Bob Blumenthal, Sonny Rollins Interview – May 1982

BB: I hear you’re producing your next album.

SR: I have been thinking about producing for a long time. I was listening to Roberta Flack talk one night, and what she described was similar to me. She was actually producing her own albums; she was selecting the material, picking the people. What I haven’t been doing is talk to the people on the date about money and various arrangements. The rest is something I think I should be doing—it just means more control over what you do. It’s a logical conclusion to end up producing your own things. It’s more responsibility that I should be handling myself.

Rollins’ Response:

“I began to trust my wife’s judgment, which helped me move more or less seamlessly into that side of the business. I was able to listen to her a little bit, and, ‘ok, I won’t get angry if you pick out what you think is the best of what you’ve heard.’ I’d listen at the end, and if it wasn’t intolerable, we’d let it go.”


BB: It has become a cliche that Rollins albums don’t capture the spark of Rollins in live performance. Does this mean anything to you as a player-producer?

SR: I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve got to concentrate more on making a studio date have a certain pizzazz, a zing to it that performances would have by virtue of the people and I interacting. That’s something I’ll deal with this time. It’s also a psychological thing on my part, about going into a studio and playing as much like I usually play as possible.

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first started recording in the ‘40s, I’d go into the studio, say, with J.J. Johnson and do two takes. There wasn’t any chance to do it over. As time progressed and the possibility of overdubbing arose, I began to think, ‘Gee, maybe it can come out better.’ That had a big influence on why it became more difficult as the years went on. I’ve gotten past that self-doubt; I don’t feel I have to overdub everything. I’m more confident that what I play is the best that I can do at that time, and I won’t feel the need to do one take after another. Of course, live, you don’t have to worry about doing take after take; hence, my live stuff always gets more acclaim.”
Bob Belden, Sonny Rollins: The Man – August 1997

“…when I found out about Coleman Hawkins, I was attracted, I think, to his sound, and then it just seemed like he knew so much music. Just his mental thing and intellectual approach really got to me. Coleman had harmony down to a high art… Hawkins is the one that gave me the sense that this is something beyond even the feel-goodness of music. Not that there’s anything wrong with the feeling-good aspect of music.”

Rollins’ Response

“Music is so fluid. I practiced today, and things came to me that didn’t come to me yesterday. But I am deeply embedded in my roots. Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Lester Young, all these people that I’ve heard. People I’ve played with. Coltrane. Bird, of course. So yeah, I think I’m close to those people. Sometimes, in soundchecks, I’ll play like Don Byas. This is rudimentary for me to get my chops up. Everything I do is involved in what I’m doing now, and I’m not trying to play like Coleman Hawkins. I don’t consciously think too much about these people unless I’m listening to something by them. But I’m sure the fact that I knew Coleman Hawkins and have tried to play like him, is involved in everything I do. I did a seminar with Gary Giddins last year, and a young guy asked me what I think about the jazz of today. I remarked that…which I thought about later; it wasn’t a complete enough answer…but it may have been… I said that as long as whoever is playing this music thinks about Lester Young in what they’re doing, I would give it my seal of approval.”

John McDonough, September 2005

“Sonny Rollins finds himself on yet another bridge these days. On September 7th he turns 75, and within the last year his wife, Lucille, died. The two had been married for about 40 years.”

“‘I’ve been suffering from an overload,” Rollins says in a husky, hoarse voice, apologizing for being late for this interview. “I lost my wife, and she did most of these things. I’ve been completely swamped with interviews, appointments, taxes. I don’t like to operate like that. When a time is set, it’s not my usual method of operation to be late.”

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve always been a guy who’s stood out, who’s pretty much been my own man. At this age, it’s better for me to keep everything more compartmentalized, and reduce the things that I have to do so I can just concentrate on my music. I can only practice about two hours a day now. I have a group of people that I feel fairly comfortable working with; it’s somewhat of a loose family, and it makes life a little bit easier. But I still have to oversee everything. I can’t not be involved, like I was when my wife was with me and I could live like a baron and just go out to the studio and play all day.

“You never want to get too accustomed to any other person. We’re born alone and we have to leave the planet alone. So it’s a matter of adjusting to life’s different knocks. I’m able to deal with things a lot easier now than four years ago. I never feel that the burden is too heavy. Obviously, I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t live like a baron now. But I’m making my own statements and doing what I want to do.”


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Filed under Christian McBride, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins

For Branford Marsalis’ 55th Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

For Branford Marsalis’ 55th birthday, here’s the final cut of a DownBeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008, and a link to an uncut Blindfold Test that we did in 2002.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

“It’s important to have cats who can push you and let you express yourself through the music, to actually play anything you want,” said Branford Marsalis, the afternoon of his quartet’s first concert gig of 2008.

The saxophonist sat on his hotel room floor in White Plains, N.Y., slicing a grapefruit and an apple. Outside, the rain came down in torrents, as it had throughout the morning. Airline delays jeopardized the arrival of bassist Eric Revis, who lives in San Antonio, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who lives in North Carolina, not far from Marsalis.

Already it had been a busy day. Having arrived the night before, Marsalis practiced for an hour or so before catching a ride through the downpour to nearby SUNY-Purchase to lead an 11 a.m. master class. Striding across an open mezzanine to the music building with neither a hat nor an umbrella, he was sanguine and philosophical. The roads had not flooded, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a Brooklynite, was driving up. “We’ll play duo if we have to,” he remarked.

This circumstance would be fascinating, but unfortunate. For one thing, the quartet plays the New York area infrequently, and the Pepsico Theater, the world-class facility on campus, was almost sold out. For another, as evidenced on Braggtown (Marsalis Music), the quartet’s most recent release, it’s a singular unit, able to generate and sustain seamless, organic dialogue through an array of emotional and structural environments—affirmative blues connotations (“Jack Baker”); lyric tone poems (“Hope”) and Euro-Classic homages (“Fate” and “O Solitude”); inflamed spirit talk (“Black Elk Speaks”); kinetic, complex Afro-diasporic rhythms (“Blackzilla”).

The master class transpired in a quasi-amphitheater with a giant pipe organ, in front of which Marsalis sat on a bench and, without ceremony, asked for questions. For the next hour, he addressed a slew of topics—practice procedures, the art of record-making, current favorites, how he filters non-jazz styles into his conception. Then he sat for an interview with a student researching a thesis on Kenny Kirkland, the pianist in the quartet’s first edition, which coalesced in 1988. Marsalis responded to a series of questions about Kirkland’s idiosyncracies, musicianship, position on the piano influence tree and self-destructive habits that eventually killed him in October 1998.

Back at the hotel, Marsalis returned to the subject. “I’d heard Kenny play with Angie Bofill when I was at Berklee, and was talking about how bad he was,” he reminisced. “My next-door neighbor knew him, and I got his number and called. He answered the phone.

“‘Hey, Kenny Kirkland, my name’s Branford Marsalis. You might have heard of my brother, Wynton Marsalis, who’s in New York. We want to come play with you,’” he continued. “He laughed. I must have sounded like the biggest hick—I mean, in terms of my diction and dialect. He said, ‘Cool. I live on 30th Street, right down from the train station.’ Me, Victor Bailey, Donald Harrison, Smitty Smith, Lance Bryant, maybe a couple of other people, got on the train, went to New York and rang his doorbell.’ We had our jam session with Kenny Kirkland.”

Around this time, Marsalis, whose Berklee roommates included drummers Marvin Smitty Smith and Gene Jackson, met Jeff Watts. “A lot of people thought Tain was unorthodox, and didn’t like to play with him,” he said. “But I gravitated toward him immediately. I was listening to Lester Young and Wayne Shorter, and he had just started listening to Elvin Jones, but his sensibility came out of fusion. He knew how to play different time signatures, played ideas through them, and you always knew where the beat was. When Wynton started his band, I thought Tain would be more effective than Smitty for the music he was playing, and I told him to hire Tain. When Tain and Wynton split, I was waiting for him.

From 1988 to 1992, when Marsalis brought his troops to Los Angeles to form the core of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” house band, the quartet was the hottest band in hardcore jazz. All members possessed formidable chops, and could swing with the best, a quality less evident on their studio recordings than on a 1989 bootleg of a tradition-centric set by the quartet at the Village Vanguard. Marsalis’ personal charisma, conceptual flair and pop culture cred from proximity to Sting and Spike Lee persuaded jazz-ignorant audiences to applaud his every move, and his superb, insouciant musicianship attracted a generation of aspirants.

Comparing the ’89 Vanguard document to Braggtown’s polymath erudition testifies to Marsalis’ personal evolution after leaving Leno in 1996. He hit the shed hard, and focused on classical repertoire to increase his scope.

“At 37, I started working on the Ibert Concertino, and within the first half-hour came face to face with virtually every weakness I had,” Marsalis said. “On the first page, there were five or six notes—low E, low D, low C, low B, low B-flat and low C-sharp—that I couldn’t even play. I spent years learning to control them. Now I’ll write songs in the lower range, and I play those notes instead of subtoning. I don’t have to rely on one thing to get the job done—i.e., my strength is playing really fast, so I’ll play really fast on every song, and only play songs that allow me to play fast. We can play fast songs or slow songs; happy songs or sad songs. My possibilities are much more expansive.”

Marsalis bedrocks experimental elaborations of modernist vocabulary—Keith Jarrett’s rubato ebb-and-flow of the ‘70s; non-western and Euro-Classical repertoire; the ways in which John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins created narrative from the outer partials; the overtones and harmonics of speculative improvising—with specific tradition tropes. He deploys tension-and-release, insists that the ride cymbal not only swing, but ring, and wants a thumping bass to drive the band, notions that he assimilated while a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during the early ’80s. Watts orchestrates and propels the flow with a global array of beats and Blakeyesque force.

“The requirement is not to sound like an old man, but to use the music of the old men to get where you’re trying to go,” Marsalis said. “Then it sounds like we’re having the same conversation. Musicians use Wynton as an example of some stodgy old codger who’s criminally narrowing the definition of jazz, but we share the exact same philosophy. My band plays a style that doesn’t allow people to say that and sound intelligent at the same time. The more I listen to the old things, the more modern my music is. It’s a wealth of information. If the word is ‘neo-traditionalist,’ then I’m a neo-trad.”

As if to signify on that remark, Marsalis’ cell phone blared the fanfare of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey.” Rob Hunter, his road manager, informed him that Revis and Calderazzo had landed and were en route. Marsalis donned his overcoat, took his saxophone case and went to the lobby to await their arrival.

Watts sauntered in, soon followed by Revis and Calderazzo. After a perfunctory exchange of ritualized insults and salutations, Marsalis hustled Calderazzo and Revis into his rented car and drove through the rain to the theater for the cover photo shoot, with Watts tailgating. After the shoot, two hours ahead of hit time, they returned to the hotel and convened in Marsalis’ quarters.

“I was new to checking out jazz when I met Branford,” Watts recalled. “I played with him on some cool recitals, and we did maybe three gigs outside of school, but mostly we hung out socially. Then he moved to New York. I was walking by a pay phone on the fifth floor of the dormitory, and somebody said, ‘Jeff just walked by,’ and connected us. Branford told me, ‘You’ve got to leave school because my brother started his band, and you’re going to be in it.’”

Marsalis interjected, “He said, ‘OK, cool. Later.’”

“I was aloof in those days,” Watts said. “I moved to New York, we got on Wynton’s group, grew up as musicians and developed a vocabulary together—and separately. Since I didn’t have much vocabulary, he’d anticipate my figures and play them along with me. Trying to dodge him set me up for a portion of how I play now—I try to take melodic stuff and other ideas out of context and move them to different places, but still have them serve the function. When we got together after Wynton, it was comfortable immediately, since so much of my conception came from playing in conjunction with him and Kenny.”

“In Wynton’s band we thought it out as it happened,” Marsalis said. “We developed our philosophy, our basic premises. One idea was to play songs the way classical musicians do, where you jumble a bunch of notes, and they don’t have to be in time if the musicians all can hear it.

“There’s a drum ensemble in Bahia called Timbalada that’s like the brass bands in New Orleans,” he continued. “I loved a certain rhythm on one of their first records, so when I was in Brazil I asked them, ‘How do you count this out?’ They said, ‘We don’t understand the question.’ I said, ‘When you start this rhythm, do you count on four or on one?’ ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ After 20 minutes, they understood. ‘That’s not how we work,’ they said. ‘We’re not limited by counting. This is the first rhythm and this is the second rhythm.’ I realized that the entire thing is one long rhythm, like a conversation. It’s not counted out, not subdivided, not parsed out in bars. That’s where ‘Lykief’ came from. It’s not in a time signature. Bar lines separate the melodies, so they can understand where the target points are.”

In 1988, Revis, 20, was one of many youngsters taking notice. “They were my idols,” he said.

Marsalis pretended to vomit, and Watts uncorked a howling laugh.

“Eric’s sound is the sound of doom—big, thick, percussive,” Marsalis said. Recruited for Marsalis’ 1996 Buckshot LeFunque tour after apprenticing with Betty Carter, Revis was, Marsalis said, “raw as hell, but he won me over with his determination and desire. He had a rough time at first. All Kenny wanted was strong, solid quarter notes, not all those hip extra beats, and he went off on him. ‘Why did you hire this cat?’ I said, ‘We’ve all been where he is, but I like where he’s going.’ Right before Kenny died, he said, ‘Yeah, Revis is getting it together; he’s going to be all right.’”

Kirkland’s legacy made life complex for Calderazzo, already an established professional for 11 years when Marsalis hired him.

“Wynton came on the scene when I was 17,” Calderazzo said. “I had never heard anybody like Kenny, so he was an instant hero. I was 14 when I met Branford and Tain, visiting my brother at Berklee.”

Marsalis interjected. “Being from Louisiana, Berklee was funny then, because the whole race issue in the South had started to develop a sophistication, and up north it was different. All these black people would have a jam session in this practice room, and all the white guys would stand outside the door and look in, but never enter, like we were going to eat them or something. Tim Williams, who ran the sessions, said, ‘Let them stay out there.’ Joey saw us, and he was jumping to see in, so we saw this head going up and down. He started knocking, opened the door and said ‘Can I come in?’ ‘Yeah, come on in. What do you want to play?’ ‘Moment’s Notice’—and he burned. It didn’t take on any racial connotations in his mind. He wasn’t scared of black people.”

“I hung out in the Mount Vernon projects,” Calderazzo added. “They weren’t too far from where I grew up in New Rochelle. I hung out with all the races.”

“Until today,” Watts shot back.

“The first few weeks were rocky,” Calderazzo recalled. “In some ways, I was probably the wrong guy. We were on the road a few months ago, and I heard Kenny on some bootlegs on the Internet,” Calderazzo said. “I remember saying to Tain, ‘I’m Chick.’ That’s how I felt when Chick replaced Herbie in Miles’ band.”

Part of the problem, Calderazzo noted, is that Kirkland’s tunes, which had specific voicings, were staples of the quartet’s repertoire, and he felt ill-equipped to play them. A burning player with an encyclopedic command of harmony, who had played with Michael Brecker since 1987, he was unaccustomed to Kirkland’s predisposition, as Watts put it, “to put his energy into the ensemble to give the music a certain resonance and vibration rather than put himself on display.” An even bigger obstacle was decoding the aesthetic that governed the quartet’s gestural procedures.

“I was playing the wrong style,” Calderazzo said. “Plus, I wasn’t swinging. I’d never played anything slow. If Michael or Bob Berg or whoever it was played a blues (I’m naming white guys, but a lot of black musicians also), it was, 1-2, 1-2-3,’ and play all your shit on it. With Branford, it was ‘de … dank, de … de … dank,’ and I either played quadruple time or sounded bad at best. We were doing it one time, and Tain was laughing.”

“You played something so bad that I looked at Tain, and Tain was looking right at me at the same time,” Marsalis interrupted. “That’s what was so funny.”

“I could have just played double time,” Calderazzo injected, “which nine out of 10 guys would have done, and it would have been …”

“You’re fired,” Marsalis retorted.

“I tried to accommodate …”

“You’re fired.”

“… my lovely boss.”

“Later Joey comes up to me and says, ‘That’s fucked up; you’re laughing at me,’” Marsalis said. “I said, ‘Learn how to play it, and then can’t nobody laugh.’ Then he went on and he got it.”

“I don’t get laughed at any more,” Calderazzo said.

“You went and got it,” Marsalis repeated. “He did the work. He got the records. He didn’t go away sulking or whining. That fire comes out in the music. Sometimes we’re playing gigs, and it’s like the last tune we’re ever going to play. More lately than before.”

“This band has little to do with personal performance,” Calderazzo said. “Until a few years ago, my career was all about, ‘How did I play?’ The band could play badly, but all that mattered is I played my ass off. During the last nine years, I’ve worked harder than in my whole career at just learning and accepting and trying to get better.”

For Revis, Calderazzo’s Miles Davis analogy was entirely apropos. “When I first got into music, everybody was checking out Wynton’s band, and nobody could figure it out,” he said. “With all the time permutations on Black Codes, it was like calculus, and I was trying to navigate ii-V-I’s in a reasonable fashion. Later, I started to understand that to call it math-based is a misnomer.”

“We didn’t play based on paradigms,” Marsalis said. “Tain is a melodic player, not a rhythmic player. It isn’t theoretical. You can’t count it. He would just hear shit, and throw it in. It was like one was his enemy. It would go on and on, and if you didn’t know where you were, you were dead. Whenever drummers sit in on our band after hearing Tain, they play loud and bash, just like an American in Europe asks a question, and when they say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ they speak louder and slower, like that’s going to make everything cool.”

Marsalis parsed the distinction between technical facility and conceptual understanding.“With the proper amount of time and patience, anybody can learn how to play a bunch of runs,” he said. “But I wanted to get certain things I hear in old records. In 1941, Duke Ellington’s band was playing with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away, and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp, no mike or nothin’, That’s the sound I want. The bass player had to think about the team.”

Revis: “I’ve had this argument with several bass players. They say, ‘Why can’t we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.’”
Marsalis: “Then get a guitar!”
Revis: “This misconception that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated from anything? Does Charlie Haden? The band allowed me to actualize my own voice. I knew the earlier records, and went through a period of thinking that was the sound. Jeff and Kenny encouraged me not to try to sound like that, but to play myself. That gave me courage to interject my personality after I adapted and served the function. I’d been checking out a lot of ‘avant-garde’ music and playing gigs outside of Branford’s band, and the first time I went into my Peter Kowald or William Parker bag, Branford was like, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Marsalis: “Ottawa. That was hilarious. Joey was out with Mike, and couldn’t make the gig, so my dad played it. When Eric started playing, I was like, ‘What in the hell?’”
Revis: “This is like bragging on family, but we do things better than any band out here. We can play sensitive or go to the wall. Every record, Branford has a concept of exactly how and where he wants it done, how he wants it to sound. He works quick, so it’s two or three takes, and you’re stuck. But even if you don’t understand it in the moment, in hindsight, it always sounds great.”
Calderazzo: “Everybody in the band has something to say. We’ve learned to play together—and on a fast level—at all times. Rhythmic, harmonic and melodic information flies across the stage all night long.”
Marsalis: “But I don’t think anybody’s listening. People come to me and say, ‘I love your stuff.’ Then they’ll mention Bloomington, Trio Jeepy, Requiem. They don’t say anything about Eternal, Braggtown or Tain’s records. And it was 10 years ago when cats started saying, ‘Man, you was killin’ on Bloomington.’ Historically, this is what happens. Given that fact, just play. I’m not going to play for accolades. I’m playing for you all.”
Calderazzo: “I spent all my years, you know, wanting it. Now I don’t care! I started playing solo piano. I’ll stay home and play.”
Revis: “I’m not saying I don’t care. But it’s kind of funny that certain things are heralded and certain things aren’t.”
Marsalis: “When I was with Wynton, people said I sounded like Wayne Shorter. ‘All the badass saxophone players out there, and that’s who you want to sound like?’ Now, what are they saying? ‘Wayne is the greatest! Wayne is the man.’ This is just how it is.”
Revis: “It’s like Keith’s band 30 years ago with Dewey and Charlie and Paul Motian. Nobody gave them any love up until damn near now.”

There was no lack of love from the sold-out house when Marsalis and crew strode onstage. With neither rehearsal nor sound-check, the quartet was in game shape, slaloming through the fiendish twists and turns of seven assorted burnouts and ballads with crisp spontaneity and formal command.

Not that they had been idle: A week before the concert, Marsalis convened them in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to record a Ned Rorem composition, “Lions (A Dream),” with the North Carolina Symphony. This came several months after a San Francisco performance of “Focus,” the 1960s Eddie Sauter–Stan Getz collaboration.

“These projects force us to think differently,” Marsalis said from North Carolina Central College in Durham three weeks later. “Those musical and emotional experiences enter the repertoire. On the Rorem piece, our job was to create a dream-like sequence—it occurs in a peaceful setting, and in the middle a lion shows up and eats the people—and to give it the looseness of a jazz band playing a tune, but keep that beautiful, serene quality. Then the orchestra surrounds you and swallows you whole. You can’t just play as loud as you want, or the way Trane would play ‘I Want To Talk About You.’ You can’t start thinking about the changes. You’re thinking, ‘What is the emotional content of what I’m trying to do?’”

He related an esthetic dispute with Delfeayo Marsalis, his younger brother and long-time producer, about the orientation of his next recording, on which the quartet will interact with an orchestra. “Delf’s idea of the record was based on Charlie Parker With Strings, Clifford Brown With Strings, Wynton’s Hot House Flowers,” Marsalis said. “I heard it differently. He said, ‘Well, it’s about you.’ I said, ‘No, it’s about the group, and now the group includes 35 strings.’ I don’t want to play solos while the strings play whole notes behind us. I want to highlight the malleability of jazz. A jazz combo is like an insurgent group, and an orchestra is like a large military. We’re small, agile and mobile. They’re not. So give them the meat, and we’ll react to them, as opposed to the orchestra reacting to the jazz band.”

Asked why the quartet performs less frequently than it once did, Marsalis responded, “I have a pile of theories. For one thing, there’s a perception of us that stems from me—arrogant, cocky, thinks he’s better than everybody, thinks he knows everything, neoclassicist. Name it. That perception, combined with promoters thinking that the challenging style of music we play does not sell a lot of tickets, combined with our refusal when we go to Europe to let them record us and own the rights in perpetuity.

“Plus, with what I have to pay these guys to keep them, it’s hard to bring them into clubs, because I won’t realize any real profit,” he continued. “It’s a good investment, though, because if we want to let people know what we’re actually doing, the clubs are where we need to do it. I don’t know what good buzz is actually worth, but on our club tour in Europe a few years ago, we got more buzz within the first three days than we’d had in years. But being in clubs too much also makes it difficult to establish a clientele, because people think, ‘I’ll catch him next time; he’ll be back next month.’”

Marsalis states that Watts, Calderazzo and Revis hold the key to the quartet’s future. “I leave them an option to quit if they don’t think it’s right,” he said. “If Tain starts getting a lot of gigs with his band, and that’s what he wants, how can I fault him?”

Should that occur, Marsalis added, “Clearly, I would do something else. Play more classical music. Play with a trio. More likely, now that I’m at Central, I’d get some youngsters and start over—these church kids have endless possibilities. But ultimately, we’ll always have to find each other, because right now there are no other musical situations.” DB

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Filed under Branford Marsalis, DownBeat, Eric Revis, Jeff Watts, Joey Calderazzo, Tenor Saxophone

For Tomasz Stanko’s 73rd Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

Polish trumpet master and first-class composer Tomasz Stanko turns 73 today. To mark the occasion, here’s a “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature  I was given the opportunity to write about him in 2008.

* * *

In 1993, four years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Poland’s most prominent jazz musician, met drummer Michal Miskiewicz, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and pianist Marcin Wasilewski, teenagers who had recently convened as Simple Acoustic Trio. Recently signed with ECM, Stanko was working the international circuit with a quartet of European all-stars—pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tony Oxley. For local gigs, though, he was looking to hire less expensive, Polish musicians.

“I didn’t have a drummer,” Stanko said in May on a raw, rainy New York afternoon that evoked springtime in Warsaw. Trim at 66, a black beret covering his shaved head, circular glasses framing his gaunt, goateed oval face, he looked like a character from the pen-and-ink illustrations the Polish writer Bruno Schultz created for his short stories of the 1930s. Stanko wore a well-tailored jacket with a brown-check, pressed blue jeans and buffed brown-leather shoes. He spoke precise, thickly accented English, with idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

“Someone told me about this young drummer, the son of Henryk Miskiewicz, a good, swinging mainstream saxophone player,” he continued. “I figured he’d have a good groove, and accepted the recommendation. Then I took a risk and brought his bass player, Slawomir, also a young guy. We had a gig in some small city in the south of Poland. I arrived just an hour or two before, we rehearsed for a few minutes, then played. They were fast, like professional people—maybe don’t know too much, but played good. Good swinging. I decided to keep them. Marcin was pushing them to recommend him to me, and a few months later I took him, too.

“Bobo and Tony are two of the best European musicians, but they were also good! Only different. Fresh. Their education is different. For example, for Michal it is completely natural to have in mind Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack DeJohnette—everybody combined together. They know this from history. Not like me, step after step.”

Fifteen years later, Stanko and his quartet, an international draw since the 2001 release of The Soul Of Things, the first of their three ECM albums, were involved in another transition. Joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper the previous evening at the Museum of Modern Art, they’d performed repertoire by Polish pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931–’69) in conjunction with a summer series that included films that Komeda scored during the ’60s for the Polish filmmakers Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski.

That evening at Birdland, the trio, now headlined by Wasilewski, launched a U.S. tour in support of January, its second ECM release, before embarking on the 2008 summer festival circuit. All on the flip side of 30, after seven years of performing at least 100 concerts a year with Stanko, they were preparing to spread their wings, leave the nest and begin their own career. Himself looking to the next step, Stanko, on several occasions, interrupted the conversation to field several calls from a broker about a prospective Manhattan apartment.
Oriented by a single 45-minute soundcheck, Harper played with flair and passion throughout the concert, showing an affinity for Komeda’s Strayhorn-esque “Ballad For Bernt.” “I like that I engaged with Billy,” Stanko said. “I wanted a sax player in Komeda’s style, with the open mind to play free, but sounds like mainstream—modal—what now is typical.”

Such ideas were anything but typical 45 years ago, when, at Michal Urbaniak’s recommendation, Komeda, like Stanko a resident of Cracow, called the 22-year-old trumpeter—then deploying the freedom principle á là Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in a combo called the Jazz Darings—to join his band.

“Komeda was the top Polish musician, and his record from Knife In The Water was absolutely fantastic,” Stanko said. “I loved this music, and it was a dream to play with him. People don’t speak too much about it, but it was modern music for this time. He liked the same things as me—simplicity, lyricism and combining two things together, like predisposition to the tradition, but also open mind for free modern things.”

For sonic evidence of how in-the-zeitgeist Komeda’s modal, polytonal compositions were, consult two Youtube clips of his 1967 quartet, or, if you can find it, his 1965 quintet album Astigmatic, which can be mentioned in the same conversation with contemporaneous Blue Note dates of similar sensibility by Cherry, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers. Stanko navigates the inside-out pathways in his improvisations, deploying the multihued, vocalized, tragicomic sonic personality that remains his trademark. In 1997, at the instigation of ECM head Manfred Eicher, he reconstructed a suite of Komeda pieces on the CD Kattorna.

“Komeda’s pieces, especially from the last period, do not get older,” Stanko said.

He referred to “Requiem,” which Komeda wrote in 1967 in response to the death of John Coltrane, and which Stanko interpreted on his 1997 Komeda celebration, Litania: The Music Of Krzysztof Komeda.

“This is not exactly jazz composition,” Stanko said. “Everything is written—order of solos, these bridges. But still, it is jazz composition. With whomever I play, it sounds different. His compositions live their own lives, perfect no matter how often evaluated. Three notes only, sometimes. One small motif, and this ballad inside. A simple bridge, but it gives you a lot of power. This is what best jazz compositions have—power inside. They have their own logic, like computer program. He cared for every detail, even a half-note higher or lower.”

In Stanko’s view, Komeda developed certain characteristic syntax and themes from fulfilling the narrative imperatives of the plays and films he scored. Indeed, although he denies any programmatic intent, Stanko’s own investigations have the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.

“Many times, this angularity that I liked in Komeda’s music comes from movies,” Stanko said. “Sometimes motifs have to be longer, sometimes shorter. Sometimes he’d have to give more bars to make longer motif. Then he finds this original composer style. To me, though, music is abstraction. This abstraction means not sad, not happy. It’s music. This is the color of this art.”

However Stanko conceptualizes musical flow, his ideas gestated after the death of Stalin in Soviet Bloc Poland, where musicians and filmmakers were granted a degree of mobility and freedom of expression unavailable to the public at large. He was born to a family whose cultural mores might serve as a paradigm of the pre-war intelligentsia—his father was a judge who doubled as a professional violinist, while his mother was a librarian in a conservatory. The teenage Stanko soaked up Italian neo-realist cinema (“all the Fellini”), existential novels and tracts (Kafka, Schultz, Sartre), and regarded painters like Modigliani, Kandinsky and Klee as gurus. He decided on trumpet after seeing Dave Brubeck play in Cracow in 1957, and listened to Miles Davis (“I liked that he don’t play too much, his control of the band, the contrast between him and sax players”), Don Ellis (“he was playing and starring in Poland”), Booker Little with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln (“he was my favorite because of legatos—I love legatos”), Cherry with Coleman, and Bill Dixon with Cecil Taylor.

“I formed through art, not only through jazz,” Stanko said. “I have always predisposition for novelty, for avant-garde, something new, and I like artist-desperadoes. Because in this life, you get illumination, like Charlie Parker. Jazz musicians have this illumination. Illumination built this modern music. For example, if I was listening to Coltrane at Village Vanguard, ‘Chasin’ The Trane,’ I didn’t know it was blues. For many months, I assumed that this was free. Then I recognized, ‘This is only the blues.’ Instinct dictated to us.

“The filmmakers were influenced by jazz—especially Polanski. Jazz musicians have a big position in Poland at this time throughout the society. Like, biggest. Because we can travel. We were often in Paris. Komeda was a couple of times in Copenhagen, because we had concerts. I had a tailor, and paid a lot of money for clothes. I want to feel fashionable, good-looking, attract the ladies. Anyway, our position was high. Probably these Communist Party people were a little bit snobby for these artists. Maybe the children was into more of these different people. Probably they don’t feel danger from music, from jazz. Jazz for them was something like the same for us, a synonym of freedom.”


“In the beginning, we were focused on America, on American playing, because the Communist time had passed away,” said Wasilewski, the day after the trio that now carries his name played a sold-out set at Birdland.

“We grabbed from ECM recordings from the ’70s, like Jack DeJohnette and Jon Christensen with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek,” Miskiewicz said. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, as well as Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes From The Underground, the Branford Marsalis Quartet.”

“When I was 5 or 6, I was competing with my cousin, because we had only one Walkman,” Wasilewski said. “I heard tapes like Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny, volumes one and two of Keith Jarrett Standards Live, some of Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions. Good ECM records. I didn’t know I was listening to great music.”

Wasilewski sat between his partners at a conference table in a meeting room in ECM’s Midtown Manhattan offices. Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz were 5 when the shipyard workers of Gdansk began the nationwide strike that would lead to the development of Solidarity, the first independent labor union to exist in the Soviet Bloc. When the Berlin Wall came down, they were 14.

“What happened in Poland in the ’60s did not influence us much,” said Miskiewicz, two years their junior.

“At the same time, our generation had to respect what was before—for older musicians,” Wasilewski said. “Then in the ’90s, it became a DJ’s world, and it’s now popular to sample and mix music from the Polish Jazz label from the ’60s. This generation realized that the ’60s were important.”

In February 1995, one year after they joined Stanko, before any of them had reached 20, the Simple Acoustic Trio recorded Komeda (Gowi), a mature recital of eight Komeda tracks. Compared to now, Wasilewski’s lines have more notes, the dialogue is more florid and the transitions are less sophisticated, but the group is recognizable. In contrast to the prevailing European-ethos of eschewing blues and swing toward the end of constructing an individual tonal identity from local vernaculars, these musicians followed Stanko’s example on Komeda’s Astigmatic, engaging and responding to the building blocks of American post-bop modern jazz—McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Jarrett—on its own terms, embracing an inclusive playing field.

“It seemed like an obvious thing to do,” Wasilewski said of the repertoire. “We were listening to Komeda’s quintet recording with Tomasz. He was in the air. An older saxophone player gave us music sheets with Komeda’s compositions in a workshop. We rehearsed it, and were totally fresh to play together.”

“It was easy to play, easy to improvise,” Miskiewicz said. “After we made the recording, we started to be more interested in Komeda as a person, what his feelings might have been.”

“He was a window to explore the Polish roots we could be influenced by,” Kurkiewicz said. “But there was a big jazz scene, opposite to the system, and jazz was a synonym of freedom. It was common for jazz to be put into the movies—it wasn’t just Komeda.”

“Komeda wasn’t a virtuoso player, but it doesn’t matter,” Wasilewski said. “Thelonious Monk as well was not so technically great. But at the same time, Thelonious Monk is one of the most important composers in jazz history. With Komeda it’s the same, but unfortunately he had accident, he died much earlier than he should.”

Born in Koszalin, a medieval city on the Baltic Sea, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz met as 14-year-olds, at a music academy in Katowice, in southern Silesia. “We were really focusing on playing jazz—jazz competitions, contests, some band contests, workshops, learning jazz every summer with Polish and also American teachers from Berklee School of Music.” At a workshop in 1993, they met Miśkiewicz, then 16, and immediately joined forces.

“We want to connect the European and American ways of playing—it doesn’t matter what either one means,” Wasilewski said.

Well, it did seem to matter.

“Rubato tempo playing,” Wasilewski elaborated. “More influence from classical music. More influenced from different folk music. With the European Union, Europe is very much the same now. But Bulgarian, Romanian, French, and Norwegian folk music. Polish folk music, though we don’t like it—it’s not so inspiring. Hungarian is more entertaining, stranger, more attractive maybe for us than for Hungarian people. Jazz for me is a kind of folk music.”

“We respect the traditional way of playing, and we respect the soul of it,” Miśkiewicz said.

“From the beginning we did a lot of jazz and blues form, and it was actually our best form,” Wasilewski said. “Next we would like to work on developing forms.” He mentioned his admiration for outcats Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Brotzmann, with whom Stanko had played back in the day in the Globe Unity Orchestra.

“They use not only playing ability,” Kurkiewicz added. “They use the soul, the ghosts, the spirits. It’s important for musicians to be aware of this.”


“It seems that always, whole history of art, people think that if you are old, art is over,” Stanko said. “In our time, everything was more rich, more intense. I try to be like Miles, a little under, a little downstairs, and see what’s really going on.”

Today’s musicians don’t face official censorship, as Stanko did during his youth in Poland. Perhaps the stakes were higher then.

“My generation don’t care about money like these young people now care,” the trumpeter said. “They only care money. But this is not important. The important thing is music. Always fresh slate. For this reason, I rely on musicians I play with to give me power. Billy Harper give me power. He was fresh in this band, playing free.”

Reflecting on the Komeda compositions that had inspired Harper the night before, Stanko reflected on the Polish cultural streams that inflect both his and Komeda’s musical production. “We have a predisposition for anarchy, but also for lyricism, and that is in my music,” he said. “Maybe our weather, the same weather like today, a melancholic mood, a little depression coming from melancholic, but also an ‘agghhh’ coming from a little drinking too much.”

Drinking perhaps, but then there are the existential realities for Poles who lived first under German and then Soviet occupation. “My father had a quarter Jewish blood, and he looked also quite much like a Jew,” Stanko said. “In wartime, he was working in the administration of a Polish city. The Resistance was active, and the S.S. was taking people from the streets, and they make a line and every tenth person they shoot. Father had fast reflexes. He spoke German, and he start to speak to the Germans that he work in the city in this administration, and he’s musician—I don’t know—and then they said, ‘Go away.’ I don’t think he thought himself Jewish. I don’t either, although I am happy that I have this blood. I also don’t feel much Polish. I feel international. I feel human.”



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Filed under DownBeat, ECM, Tomasz Stanko, trumpet, Wasilewski

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

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


Ahmad Jamal (Downbeat–2002):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Monty Alexander’s 71st Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2010 and a Separate Interview

In acknowledgment of pianist Monty Alexander’s 71st birthday today, here’s a feature I wrote for DownBeat in 2010. I’ve appended below an interview that I conducted with Monty for a Ray Brown tribute that appeared in DownBeat after the bass grandmaster passed away in 2002.

* * *

Monty Alexander Downbeat Article:

The adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” coined to convey the kindling effect of separation on romantic ardor, applies with equal measure to pianist Monty Alexander’s ongoing obsession with the music of Jamaica, his homeland, whence he migrated to Miami in 1961, at 17.

As a Kingston youngster, Alexander recalled, “I soaked up everything—the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy and Miles, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung. I was fully aware of the rhythm-and-blues, my heroes on piano were Eddie Heywood and Erroll Garner, and, above all, Louis Armstrong was my king. I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music—no one more valuable than the other.”

Once in the States, though, Alexander compartmentalized, sublimating roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1970, he was a distinguished voice, with a c.v. citing long-haul trio gigs with various New York A-listers, as well as consequential sideman work in Los Angeles with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. By the late ‘70s, when he closed the books on his 300-days-a-year-on-the-road trio with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, he was an upper-echelon stylist, referred to by Oscar Peterson, himself descended from St. Kett’s and St. Croix, as “my little West Indian counterpart.”

“You come to America, you try to blend in and do what they do,” Alexander explained. “At first, I was even trying to speak like American people”—he demonstrated several voices—“so they wouldn’t keep asking, ‘Where do you come from?’ But as the years went by, I started expressing myself by claiming my heritage more. I said, ‘Wait a minute, home is as good as it gets.’”

In Orvieto, Italy, for a five-concert engagement at Umbria Jazz Winter 2010, Alexander spoke in the high-ceilinged sitting room of his hotel, which evoked a ducal mansion. With him for the week was a band comprising an acoustic trio with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer George Fludas and a plugged-in Jamaican contingent—Wendell Ferraro on guitar, filling both soloistic and comping roles, Glen Browne on bass, and Karl Wright on drums.

Dubbed the Harlem-Kingston Express, this instrumental configuration—documented on the 2011 release, Harlem-Kingston Express (Motéma), comprising live dates at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola and in Europe—is the most recent iteration of a series of Alexander-conceptualized efforts over the past few decades to coalesce “things that reflect my heritage as an English-speaking Caribbean person” with the principles of hardcore swinging jazz. “I was bummed out after it ended with John and Jeff because I’d gotten used to that precision, that projection,” he said. “Although other people were fine and good, no one came close to that, and I’m not one to go scouting.” To recharge, he began spending quality time in Jamaica. “I’d go to the studio with Sly and Robbie, who know me from way back. It’s simple music, two chords—but life is in those two chords.”

Later in the ‘80s, Alexander—whose first Jamaica-centric dates were the still-sampled mid ‘70s MPS groove albums Ras and Demento—started to present units with which he could incorporate Caribbean flavors, including an “Ivory and Steel” ensemble with steel drummer Othello Molyneaux and hand drummer Bobby Thomas “married to whatever bass player and drummer I had at the time.” After signing with Telarc in the mid ‘90s, he embarked on a succession of recordings on which he reunited with musicians he’d known since teen years, among them several dates with guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and one with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Four other recordings—Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle reveal Alexander’s take on Bob Marley’s music, while Goin’ Yard and Playin’ Yard address a broader Jamaican spectrum—hearken to mento, Jamaica’s indigenous calypso, descended from the French quadrille music to which English colonists danced in the nineteenth century. Mento evolved into, as Alexander puts it, “a deep country Jamaican thing” with African retentions—a banjo, a rhumba box that is akin to a bass kalimba, hand drums, and often harmonica, fiddle or pennywhistle. It spread throughout the island, and, as the 20th century progressed, cross-pollinated with rhythm-and-blues and jazz, evolving into Ska.

As Alexander delved ever deeper into these rediscovered interests, he found it increasingly difficult to convene a single ensemble in which he could satisfactorily convey them. “I would have a trio of jazz masters, and when I’d want to play something that reflected Jamaica, whether calypso or Bob Marley, I couldn’t get that thing because that’s not what they do,” Alexander said. “Conversely, the Jamaican guys didn’t relate to the jazz experience. I wanted to give myself an opportunity to share my two loves, which is one love, to coin Bob’s phrase.”

This feeling had permeated the previous evening’s concert. Alexander came to the piano, positioned stage center to the left of Shakur and Fludas. He opened with Ellingtonian chords, and launched a chugging train blues, transitioned to the changes of “Blue and Boogie,” then returned to an Ellington medley that resolved into “Caravan.” After brief remarks, a brisk stomp through “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and some nachtmusik chords, the Rasta-dreaded Browne and Wright, who wears white driving gloves when playing, entered stage right, and laid down phat Reggae riddims. Playing percussively, Alexander soon segued into Ernest Gold’s “Exodus,” blew a melodica, quoted “let my people go” within his solo, returned to the piano bench, and ended with a flourish. With the trio, he played a shuffle blues, then a hard-swinging blues—midway through the latter, he stood, pointed to the Jamaicans, and orchestrated a metric modulation, quoting “Manteca” in his solo, before seguing into Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” The back-and-forth proceeded for another half-hour, before Alexander concluded with a romping “Come Fly With Me” and a melody-milking rendition of “All The Way.”

“Recently I’ve been doing this with more commitment than before,” Alexander remarked of the real-time genre-switching. “I’m fulfilled, because it’s my own life experience. It’s like Barack Obama music. We are all cut from the same cloth.”


Perhaps twenty years ago, Alexander got angry at someone, intended to hit them, thought better of it, punched the wall instead, and broke his hand. “Ever since that day, I don’t play as fast as I used to,” he said. “But instead of playing twenty notes that may or may not mean that much, I started playing six or seven that hopefully are soulful or meaningful. Sometimes I’m playing and the muscle tightens, and I look like a kid who takes one index finger and goes PLINK-PLINK-PLINK. I think, ‘Shit, that must look terrible to the audience, this so-called ‘good’ piano player playing with his index finger.’”

The chops are abundant on Uplift (JSP), a deeply swinging navigation of the American Songbook with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley that follows the 2008 trio dates, The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett and Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole [Chesky] as companion pieces to his excellent 1997 Sinatra tribute, Echoes of Jilly’s [Concord]. Rather than abstract the tunes, Alexander hews to the iconic arrangements, illuminating the music from within, deploying effervescent grooves, lovely rubatos, a killing left hand, an innate feel for stating melody, well-calibrated touch, harmonic acumen, and an ability to reference a broad timeline of piano vocabulary stretching to pre-bop. Each interpretation embodies a point of view. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into, while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”

“In our home, Nat Cole was the voice of America,” said Alexander, who experienced a transformational moment in 1956 when he saw Cole play on a package concert in Kingston with Louis Armstrong. “I grew up learning his songs, without knowing the titles, even before I knew about Sinatra. My awareness of his piano playing came later; it was just that smooth voice. At first I confused him with Gene Autry. I was always connecting one thing with another—‘Wait a minute, that sounded like that.’ That’s why for me, even now, it’s one world of music. I try to remove all the lines.”

By 1956, Alexander had already spent half his life entertaining people with music. “I’d emulate people my folks knew who played old-time stride,” he said. “I was playing boogie-woogie from the getgo, rockin’ the joint. I just had fun at the piano.” Later, he would extrapolate a conceptual framework from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic, “Poinciana.” “It was a merging of two worlds,” he said. “Sophistication on the piano, harmonic wonderment, and the nastiest jungle rhythm going on in the background. That’s Jamaica. It’s about dancin’, it’s about groovin’—it’s all one thing.”

Such formative experiences gave Alexander a certain ignorance-of-youth confidence when he started playing in “tough guy clubs” in Miami Beach, where hookers congregated and alcohol “flowed like crazy.” Within a year he was working at Le Bistro, a two-room joint where he shared the bill with a Sinatra impersonator named Duke Hazlitt. One night after a concert at the Fontainebleau, Sinatra came through with an entourage, including Sinatra’s consigliere, Jilly Rizzo, and Rizzo’s wife, Honey.

`“I’m playing, minding my own business, trying to behave, not to be too noisy,” Alexander recalled. “But I must have been kicking up a storm, because apparently Honey came in and told Jilly to come hear this kid play. In those days, I’d come in with all guns blazing. She told me, ‘We’ve got this club in New York, Jilly’s, and it would be nice to have you play in there, kid.”

About a year later, midway through 1963, Rizzo finally brought Alexander to his eponymous West 54th Street tough guy bar, which doubled as Sinatra’s late night office. Just 19 and residing a few blocks away in the Hotel Edison, Alexander joined Local 802, situated directly across the street from the club, and assumed his place among New York’s jazz elite. Within a few years, he was also working uptown at Minton’s Playhouse, “before a different crowd of tough guys; drug people and hot goods,” and at the Mad Men era Playboy Club.

“I remember sitting at Jilly’s piano bar, a few feet away from Miles Davis and Frank in deep conversation,” Alexander reminisced. “My crowning point was when Miles came to me and said, ‘Where did you learn to play that shit?’ Next thing, he writes his phone number on a little matchbook, and we’re hanging out at his house or going to the fights. Miles told me, ‘You got the right complexion.’” Alexander noted that his bloodline is an admixture of Lebanese, Spanish and African strains, and that the ambiguity as to his racial identity had a great deal with to do with his ability to comfortably navigate various circles in Jim Crow Miami as well as New York City. “At Minton’s they’d say, ‘What’s this Puerto Rican guy doing who can play jazz like that?’ When I first saw Ray Brown’s picture on an Oscar Peterson record cover, I saw the smile and the teeth and said, ‘Damn, Uncle Jim!’”

More than the familial resemblance, Alexander was drawn to Brown’s consistency, his tone, the truck-coming-down-the-road surge of his beat, and he tried to be around him whenever he could. “One night Ray was in town with Quincy Jones to make the album Walking In Space, and I asked him if he wanted to go out,” he recalled. “I took him to the Half Note to hang out with Coleman Hawkins and Major Holley. After he hung out with Bean, he said, ‘What’s going on uptown?’ ‘There’s a little bar called Docks, and Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones play duo there.’ ‘Ok, let’s go.’

“I got to know Ray better. I went to see him in L.A. at the Gaslight. When I got there, nobody’s listening, nobody cares, it’s the last set, and they had to play one obligatory tune. Frankie Capp walks to the drums, Mundell Lowe picks up the guitar, but the piano player is boozed-out at the bar. I asked Ray, ‘Can I play a tune?’ Within two choruses, he’s screaming, he’s groovin’ and I’m groovin’, and we’re as happy as kids in the candy jar. He said, ‘Where are you going to be this summer? I want you to play with me and Milt Jackson.’

“When you’re in company with people who are at a certain level, it upgrades your musicianship. I’d been smitten with the MJQ since I saw a record with these four dignified black men on the cover—they looked like funeral directors. I learned about the connections—John Lewis and Ray with Dizzy’s big band, Hank Jones telling Dizzy about Ray. I took that personal thing on the bandstand. I felt like I belonged to that crowd of people.”


In spontaneously orchestrating the Harlem-Kingston Express band in live performance, Alexander seemed to be paralleling the bandstand procedures by which both Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington deployed their units to convey their intentions in real time. The pianist concurred.

“It’s a kind of joyful, loving dictatorship,” he said. “That’s why I use musicians who are willing and easy-going, who give me their trust and confidence and won’t question what I’m doing.”

Moreso than instant composition a la Jamal and Ellington as an m.o. for following the dictates of the moment, Alexander focuses on serious play. “I don’t read music and I play by ear,” he said. “You can chalk it up to a certain amount of laziness, because if I really wanted to read, there’s no reason I can’t. I took lessons with an older white lady from England who slapped my knuckles to play the scales. I learned to love her, because she meant well and she saw my talent—that taught me respect for the instrument and to get a sound, so the music starts to fly. But when I see paper in front of me, man, I start sweating. That part of my brain doesn’t function well. I don’t know how to play music that’s not coming from my instant, make-it-up stuff.

“I get bored with a planned format. I can’t repeat the same thing twice. I’m always reaching for now, live in the now, present tense, and I look for inspiration from wherever.”

This blank slate attitude inflects the aforementioned trio projects. “I just went in the studio,” Alexander said, referencing the 2008 Nat Cole tribute. “‘Haji Baba’ is from a movie with Nat, and I used to sing walking down the street when I was nine—I listened to the bridge on that and on ‘Again’ to make sure I had it right. But for the most part, when I play music, I smell it and see colors. Every song has its own personality, its own soul, and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it with feeling.

“I don’t understand what it is that makes me different, but I feel I have very little in common with anybody else. I seem to be my own strange character. If I’m right in my motivations and attitude, amazing things happen.”


* * *

Monty Alexander on Ray Brown, 2002:

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.


TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

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